Novik – Russian Destroyer Class

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Imperial Russian destroyer Novik at anchor in one of the Baltic Fleet ports during peacetime.

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The four sub-classes and some variants of these 52 Novik class destroyers are depicted on the following chart.

The Russo-Japanese War taught the Russians some very hard lessons which they took to heart. The first was that naval mines were both an offensive and a defensive weapon. The Japanese had successfully used them to aid in the offensive blockade of Port Arthur and the Russians had used them defensively to keep the Japanese fleet from closing in and shelling the ships in the port. Both sides lost ships and men to mines. The second lesson was the effectiveness of destroyers and torpedo boats as force multipliers to a fleet, especially at night. In the Battle of Tsushima Strait the Japanese employed 21 destroyers and 37 smaller torpedo boats in a night attack that cost the Russians two battleships and two armored cruisers while costing the Japanese merely 3 torpedo boats sunk and a destroyer damaged in a collision with one of the sunk Russian cruisers.

Russian national pride had been badly stung and while nobody sided with discredited Rear Admiral Nikolai Ivanovich Nebogatov, his words to the fleet at their surrender on May 28, 1905 rang true. “You are young, and it is you who will one day retrieve the honor and glory of the Russian Navy.”

One of the first orders of business in rebuilding the Imperial Russian Navy’s honor was to see that they had the means to build their own ships. With the help of the German company AG Vulcan – Stettin they built the Putilovsky shipyard in St. Petersburg. Next the Russian Navy, hampered in their rebuilding efforts by a depleted Imperial Treasury raised funds from the public to help restore the devastated fleet. The navy needed all sorts of ships to replace what they had lost to the Japanese. The easiest class of ships to build for a fledgling shipyard are the smallest ships, fleet torpedo boats, or as they became more popularly known as “destroyers.”

Up to this time “destroyers” were divided into two sub-classes, British style gunboat-type destroyers and German style torpedo boat type destroyers. The first were better armed with one or two 4″ (102 mm) guns plus 3″ (or 12 pounder, 76 mm) secondaries and were designed to protect the fleet from the second type of destroyer, torpedo boats. In fact the first sub-class were sometimes termed “anti-torpedo boat” destroyers and still carried torpedoes, usually in one double or two single launchers. The true torpedo boat destroyers sacrificed artillery armament to merely two 3.5″ (88 mm) guns to instead carry more of their deadly “fish,” but usually no more than four torpedo tubes (four singles or two double tubes) to such a destroyer. Destroyers averaged from 500-600 tons (normal) displacement on the smaller classes such as the German G136 class to 900-1000 tons (normal) displacement on the larger classes such as the first British Royal Navy Tribal class. Despite the attempts to design fuel oil only ships, such as the Tribals, most destroyers were still coal fueled limiting endurance. And while the British tried to reach 38-39 knots with the large Swift class Destroyer Leaders in reality they barely managed to best 35 knots briefly during two years of experimentation and sea trials. Most destroyers were merely 30-32 knot ships.

The Russian Navy called for something radically different from any of the destroyers then being built in the world. First they decided they would actually achieve the Royal Navy’s goal of a 38-39 knot destroyer with a ship that was more seaworthy, had both more guns and torpedoes than either of the two sub-classes of destroyers and would be capable of laying large number of naval mines from the stern at high speed. The specific parameters were a 1200 ton (normal), 1500 tons (maximum) displacement meaning a larger destroyer than contemporary designs, what other navies would call a destroyer leader but what the Russians termed a “universal destroyer” type. A design contest was held and teams reached out to the best shipbuilders in the world. The top design would be built not in a foreign yard but in Russia using equipment from the company that designed it. The resulting prototype would be the basis for all future Imperial Russian destroyers for a generation.

World War One

Following sea trials and commissioning in the Imperial Russian Navy the Novik was assigned to the Baltic Fleet first as a member of the Cruiser Brigade and based alternately out of Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland or Kronstadt, Russia. When World War I broke out the Russian Imperial Navy executed war plans to stop the commerce of vital war materials from Sweden to Germany, in particular Swedish steel and iron ore. The most effective way they saw to blockade the Germans and to sink merchant ships was through naval mine warfare, a specialty of the Novik.

The plan was simple, Novik and other destroyers would slip out of port at early evening reaching the target area after dusk. Navigating carefully in the dark they sail parallel planting naval mines across a grid and exit the area before the Germans were the wiser. When there were opportunities to attack enemy shipping the Russians would take it. By morning the tired crews would be safe back in port. The Germans had the same idea only to mine Russian ports. This inevitably led to encounters between the two forces.

Novik’s first combat sortie was as an escort to the armored cruiser Rurik, flagship of the Cruiser Brigade. On September 1, 1914. A large flotilla of German destroyers of the IV Battle Group led by a the SMS Augsburg, a Kolberg-class (Tier III in WoWs) light cruiser was laying mines in the Eastern Baltic. The Germans spotted the Russians and immediately began to withdraw as they were outgunned. For forty minutes Novik pursued Augsburg, but the sea state was too high to allow the Russians to overtake the Germans.

Later that same month it was Novik’s turn to lay mines in enemy waters. Leading four other destroyers they repeatedly headed into the south-western and southern parts of the Baltic Sea. This was the Kaiserliche Marine’s training grounds as well as having sea lanes for transports between Germany and Sweden. The minelaying was successful as several German ships were damaged or sunk by mines during the ensuing months including the old armored cruiser SMS Friedrich Carl which was sunk on November 17, 1914 and light cruisers SMS Augsburg and SMS Gazelle which were damaged on the night of January 24-25, 1915.

The mine-laying was not without its’ hazards and losses, even from the Russians’ own mines. On December 12, 1914 the Russian destroyers Isopolnitelni and Letuchi were both lost. The two old Lovki class torpedo destroyers (1906, 400 tons, two 21″/457mm tubes) are lost during a snow storm off Odensholm Island during a planned minelaying operation southwest of the Russian port of Liepāja, (Libau in German) Latvia (Courland to the Germans, see map above). Ispolnitelni sinks after one of her own mines explodes upon hitting the water. Letuchi flounders and then rolls in the heavy seas trying to turn to rescue the freezing crew from the water. Few if any men survive from the two ships.

In Spring, 1915 Kaiserliche Marine had been attacking the Russian held port city of Libau while the German Army pushed to take the city by land. By this time Novik had been transferred to become the flagship of the Baltic Fleet’s Destroyer Division based in the Gulf of Riga, Latvia. Novik on the night of May 6-7, 1915 led ten destroyers to mine the approaches to Libau so the Germans would get a rude surprise when they moved in after capturing the port. The Russian cruiser covering force engaged the Germans and did minor damage to the Bremen class light cruiser SMS München but the real damage was to the Dutch built torpedo boat destroyer V-107 which had its bow blown off as it attempted to enter the harbor. V-107 becomes a total loss. After capture by the German Army Libau becomes an important base for the German Baltic Fleet.

On July 1, 1915 Novik was back escorting the Rurik on a sortie. They were to rendezvous with the Cruiser Brigade but missed them in a fog. Meeting the rest of the force on July 2nd, Novik and Rurik intercepted a German convoy escorted by cruisers and destroyers. Due to a false submarine sighting reported to the flagship the Russians turned away and the German vessels were able to escape. Remember, these early Russian ships didn’t have hydrophones or depth charge racks, the latter would’ve been in the way of the mine-laying tracks.

On August 8, 1915 the German High Seas Fleet attempted to put an end to the Russian Baltic Fleet. After transferring several major combat units they assembled 4 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 6 cruisers, 4 light cruisers and 56 destroyers plus 31 minesweepers and torpedo boats to the fleet of ships attempted to break through the Russian minefields into Riga Bay, sink the major Russian capital ships, especially the battleship Slava and mine Moon Sound (Muhu Sound) to trap the rest of the Russians. The Germans failed to accomplish their objects in the Battle of the Gulf of Riga except to slightly damage the Slava and for the Imperial Russian Navy it was a great victory against a superior force. Novik was there in nearly every major action of the campaign.

As part of the campaign, on the night of August 17-18th, 1915 the Germans attempted to put a stop to mine-laying by Novik’s flotilla and if possible, torpedo the damaged Slava. Two of Germany’s newest destroyers were dispatched into the Riga Bay to find and sink the Russian destroyers. These were the V-99 and V-100, built with Blohm und Voss equipment that was made for four new Novik class destroyers already laid down in the Putilovsky shipyard but the boilers and engines were seized by the Germans at the start of the war. The V-99 class Torpedo Zerstroyers were a nearly a match for the Novik class in size and speed reaching 36.5 knots and are similarly armed with four main guns and two twin torpedo tubes plus two single torpedo tubes for six in all.

In the dark the two German destroyers encounter two Russian destroyers laying mines. Immediately both sides opened fire but in the pitch black missed each other and so they broke contact.

At 2300 hours one of the destroyers radios a warning to be on the lookout for the German ships. Novik on patrol in Irben Strait, the Western exit from the Bay of Riga, acknowledges the warning along with the rest of the flotilla on their stations.

At 0010 hours the alerted Russians in two more of Novik’s flotilla spot the V-99 and V-100, lighting them up with their spotlights. At a range of 600 meters both sides open up on each other but again the gunnery is ineffective. The Russians even fire torpedoes but in their haste they didn’t correctly set the depth and so the fish run under the keels of the enemy. After three minutes the Germans run out of the range of the searchlights and are gone.

The Germans couldn’t negotiate the Russian minefields in the dark so they play cat and mouse with the pursing Russian destroyers till morning when they can escape. At one point they are challenged in the predawn darkness by the Mikhailovsky lighthouse keepers but when they failed to give the proper recognition signals their route is known and sent out. As luck would have it the pair found their nemesis, Novik in the morning light barring their escape. At a range of 8.8 km Novik opens fire. The bigger 4″/60 caliber (102 mm) guns of Novik outrange the German 88’s (3.5″) guns. Soon V-99 is damaged from the volleys fired by Novik’s gunners with hits that punch holes in the center funnel collapsing it and starts a fire on the quarterdeck. V-100 comes to its stricken sister-ship’s aid by trying to lay a smokescreen but Novik’s gunners shift their fire to V-100 soon setting blazes on her deck and superstructure. All three ships are maneuvering wildly and the firing rate diminishes as both sides’ vision is obscured by the smoke and their gun crews tire. Just when it looks like the Germans may escape to their allies the pair veer into the Russian minefields and V-99 strikes a mine sinking quickly. The V-100, heavily damaged, limps home miraculously avoiding the mines that claimed her comrade. Novik has won without a single sailor lost and only minimal damage to the ship.

The next day the German fleet, licking their wounds, withdrew from the Gulf of Riga. The campaign was over. The minor damage to the battleship Slava and slight damage to destroyer Novik were the only accomplishments the Germans had besides breaching the Russian minefields themselves. It cost them the battlecruiser SMS Moltke damaged by a British submarine HMS E-1, destroyer V-99 sunk plus V-100 badly damaged by Novik and the T-46, T-52 and T-58 minesweepers sunk.

Following this action Novik continued his stellar combat career. During the night of November 20, 1915 Novik led seven Russian destroyers to attack German patrols off Windau. Novik sank the auxiliary patrol boat Norburg by first disabling it with gunfire and then torpedoing it. The flotilla escaped before German reinforcements could arrive.

On November 25, 1915 the Germans lose another cruiser to Russian mines, this time the SMS Danzig, a Bremen class light cruiser that is knocked out of action south of the Island of Gotland, Sweden by a newly laid minefield. On December 17, 2015 the SMS Bremen and the destroyer V-191 are both lost to mines off German-occupied Courland between Windau and Lyserort. A few days later on December 23rd the destroyer S-177 also hits one of the Novik flotilla’s mines and sinks.

On January 13, 1916 it a third of the Bremen class light cruisers’ turn, the SMS Lubeck, to be severely damaged on one of Novik flotilla’s mines. Finally the Baltic freezes enough to give the Germans a brief two month reprieve until the sea ice breaks up enough for naval operations to resume.

On the night of May 13, 1916, Novik led two of his flotilla in search of German iron ore convoys sailing along the Swedish coast. They found a convoy of ten freighters escorted by four auxiliary patrol boats near Häfringe Island. The freighters fled for Swedish waters while the escorts turned to engage the Russians. The Russians sank the auxiliary cruiser Hermann but believing the rest of the convoy escorts to be far stronger than they actually were they allowed the freighters to escape.

On May 27, 1916 the Germans lose another ship, this time a U-boat, U-10, believed to have struck a Russian mine off of the Island of Dago in the Gulf of Finland.

On August 15, 1916 the dense Russian minefields in the Irben Strait guarding the southern passage into the Gulf of Riga continue to take a toll of German warships. Screening minesweeping operations, V-162 hits a Russian mine and goes down off Lyserort on the Courland coast.

The First Russian Revolution of 1917

In Spring 1917 after the St. Petersburg March Revolution the Duma forces Czar Nikolas II to abdicate. The Provisional Government continues the war against the Central Powers but morale is sinking faster than ships on mines. The Germans see this as an opportunity and plan to exploit it. The begin planning Operation Albion to finally knock the Baltic Fleet out of the Bay of Riga. It will involve a naval invasion of the West Estonian Archipelago (Moonsund Archipelago) by 20,000 army soldiers supported by the fleet. It is set for October, 1917.

During the Battle of Moon Sound (Muhu Sound) the German fleet attempted to destroy the forces trapped in the Riga Bay following the German’s successful capture of the islands at the mouth of Riga Bay on October 16, 1917. There was a running naval battle for the next three days in which Novik helped cover the retreat of the fleet. While many other ships were lost Novik escaped unharmed.

The Second Russian Revolution of 1917

On October 26, 1917 the crew of the Novik joined the October Revolution on the Bolshevik side. Novik spent the last few days of 1917 under the command of the revolutionary Bolshevik Baltic Fleet participating in the defense of the Strait of Muhu. During the winter of 1917-1918, Novik took part in the Ice Cruise of the Baltic Fleet, Novik left Helsinki for the port of Kronstadt. Novik was laid up from September 9, 1918 until the end of the Russian Civil War.

When the Soviet Navy was organized in January 1923 the Novik was still on the Navy List. Novik was extensively rebuilt between September 26, 1925 and August 30, 1929 in preparations to turn the ship in a Flotilla Leader and recommissioned as the Yakov Sverdlov (Яков Свердлов).

Yakov Sverdlov’s rearmost set of twin torpedo tubes was removed, the three 4″/60 caliber (102 mm) guns on the quarterdeck were moved forward and a 3″ (76 mm) “Lender” anti-aircraft gun was mounted at the very rear of the quarterdeck, which seriously obscured the arc of fire of the rear 4″ gun. The three remaining twin sets of torpedo tubes were exchanged for triple launchers and repositioned, increasing the total number of torpedo tubes from eight to nine. The bridge structure was enlarged and the deckhouse immediately aft of the fourth funnel was removed and a new, larger deckhouse was added about 30 ft (9 meters) aft of the fourth funnel. The masts were repositioned and reinforced with supporting legs while the forward funnel was heightened by 6.6 ft (2 meters) to further protect the bridge crew from heat and fumes.

During the interwar years Yakov Sverdlov served in the Baltic Fleet as a second class destroyer. Yakov Sverdlov was overhauled again at the end of the 1930’s receiving two to four 45 mm (1.8″) model 21-K AA guns. This again increased her tonnage. On 23 April 1940 the Yakov Sverdlov was redesignated as a training ship and assigned to the training squadron of the M.V. Frunze Higher Naval School in Leningrad.

World War Two

When the Germans invaded in 1941 the destroyer reactivated and was assigned to the Baltic Fleet’s 3rd Destroyer Division.

In late August, 1941, while under the command of Captain 2nd class A.M. Spiridonov, the Yakov Sverdlov took part in the evacuation of the Baltic Fleet from Tallinn to Kronstadt (112 ships, 23 support vessels). During the 15 evacuation ships were sunk (5 destroyers, two submarines, two patrol boats, 3 minesweepers, one gunboat, destroyer leader and a cruiser,) also 51 transport ships and support vessels were lost. During the escape the destroyer was assigned to the protection of the flagship, the cruiser Kirov. While providing escort on August 28, 1941, the Yakov Sverdlov struck a German mine near Mohni Islands in the Gulf of Finland and was sunk.

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