Project “161” (large sea-going armored boats/ferry monitors, 20 were built in 1942-1944) – 160.8 t; 36.2×5.5×1.28 m; 2x1200hp engines; 13.6 knots; 450 miles; 12-52 mm armor; 39 crew members; 2 T-34 turrets, 1 37mm AA gun, 2-3×12.7mm MGs DShK, sometimes 2x45mm guns or 1-2x82mm mortars.
Project “186” (large sea-going armored boats/ferry monitors, 8 were built in 1944-1945 + 30 in 1945-1947) – 156.5 t; 36.2×5.2×1.5 m; 2×500 hp engines; 14 knots; 750 miles; 42 crew members; 8-20mm armor; 2 T-34-85 turrets, 1x37mm AA gun; 2x2x12.7mm DShK, 2x82mm mortars.
The Soviet BK1125 boat was used between 1939 and 1945 in all European fronts, from Austria in 1945 to Stalingrad…in all rivers. This armoured ship was used like a tank in a river, in fact Bronekater (BK) means armoured ship. The ship was specially designed to carry different turrets, specially T34, T28 turrets and Dushka turrets. The normal tank factories produced the same turrets for tanks and ships.
Often referred to as the “riverine tanks” or “Bronekater” in Russian, the gun boats of the project 1124 and 1125 series played an important role in securing the large system of waterways of the Soviet Union. Well protected and fielding a variety of heavy armament, the boats fight offensively in almost any battle along rivers and seas during World War 2. Bronekaters also were deployed on the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. 310 of these effective boats have been build between 1934 and 1945.
The Soviets used these ships in frontal attacks against land-based tanks and enemy infantry. These ships were armed with Katiusha rockets and T34 turrets – the effect was terrifying. The BK ships were also used for carpet bombing fortifications or cities (Vienna in Austria was bombed by these ships).
The BK had 10 crew, all of them naval personnel.
The BK ships were transported by train to move the units from a river to other, it was therefore specifically designed to enter tunnels and cross bridges aboard wagon trains.
UNIVERSAL SHIPS FOR RIVERINE WARFARE [translation]
On those days, whatever we were doing, my thoughts were with Pinsk – this is how Rear-Admiral Vissarion Grigoryev, then commander of the Dnieper River Flotilla, remembered the events of July 1944. Advancing Soviet troops could storm that town, surrounded by rivers and impassable marshes, only from the east and north-east. But there was also the way from the south, which could enable a surprise attack into the enemy rear. The command of the Dnieper flotilla suggested to the command of the 61st Army, which was about to commence the assault, a bold plan: to engage flotilla’s ships, incur into the enemy rear some 18-20 km, boldly storm into the city limits and disembark an infantry regiment right in the middle of the town. Byelorussian partisans had to remove beforehand all the German outposts and emplacements along the ships’ route. The action had to be carried out without an artillery barrage.
At the night to 12 July seven armoured boats and five AA boats with the first landing party set off and in three hours they appeared right in front of the piers of the river port. The Nazis had literally overslept the landing and opened a chaotic shooting after 10-12 minutes, while the Russians had already stormed into the town. In 40 minutes the whole regiment was already disembarked and the armoured boats, having assumed positions on the river, rendered an artillery support. However, in the morning hitlerites counter-attacked with two reinforced motorized infantry regiments and pushed the Russians back to the embankment. Heavy fights flared up in the adjacent park. The landing party needed urgent aid and so the flotilla command decided to organize a daylight break-through.
Three armoured boats – BKA-2, BKA-43 and BKA-92 – each carrying 90-95 soldiers set off to Pinsk. The commander of the armoured boats’ squadron, Senior Lieutenant I. M. Plekhov, who took part in the action later noted: Behind the last turn we saw the town and at the same time we got under the fire of gun-carriers, which came out to the embankment completely unexpected. The boats could neither turn nor speed up. We could clearly see “ferdinands” turning their “trunks” to us, but our guns were helpless against their 200mm armour.
BKA-92 received the main blow. Enemy shells had literally honeycombed the ship, but she fulfilled her task: reached the waterfronts in the city centre and went aground; the soldiers jumped into the water. Also the BKA-2 went aground and only the BKA-43 remained untouched and disembarked her landing party on a pier. The aid came just in time: having the flotilla’s artillery support, infantry could hold its positions in the bridgehead until the arrival of the troops storming Pinsk by land. Ten days later, during a meeting of the flotilla’s crews, Admiral Grigoryev said that there, on the banks of the Pina River, would surely be erected a monument to the sailors and soldiers fallen during the liberation of the town. And such a monument was erected indeed – it is the heroic BKA-92 raised from the bottom to the pedestal. This ship is a representative of an interesting family of riverine boats, which had no analogical constructions in foreign navies. Their role in the Great Patriotic War of the USSR brought them sympathetic nicknames derived from the Russian abbreviation of the name of their class – bronyashki (“armouries”), bychki (“calves”), bukashki (“bugs”), etc.
The necessity to have such “riverine tanks” became apparent yet in 1929 during the armed conflict on the China East Railway. But it was not until 1934 that the project specifications were presented to one of the construction bureaus. The navy wanted to have an armoured boat with two artillery turrets. Since those ships had to enter the service on the Dnieper and its tributaries, their draught was limited to 0.5m. Other dimensions had to be calculated to enable their railway transportation. Already during the works on this project the chief engineer Yuliy Benoit soon came to the conclusion, that it was impossible to build a boat with two turrets and 0.5m draught. Therefore he proposed two options of the same model of the armoured boat – big and small. In both projects turret shafts, engine room, fuel tanks and the bridge were placed inside an armoured citadel. Living space and other cabins were placed in the bow and stern. Originally it was planned to arm the boats with 45mm guns fitted in standard T-26 tank turrets. Later they were replaced by 76mm short-barrelled mountain guns in the turrets from T-28 and T-35 tanks, which at that time were produced for the Red Army. Such a solution enabled supplying boats with the ammunition from the army storages, which was a tremendous advantage in view of the fact, that in case of war they had to report to the army command and co-operate with land troops. Since the tank turrets’ elevation angle was only 26°, shooting at air targets was out of question; for the anti-air defence there were installed machine-guns.
At the end of 1936 first two armoured boats (bronirovannyie katera) were submitted for tests: a big double-turret (Project 1124) and a small single-turret (Project 1125). Also based on those projects was another small one-turret project made, according to an urgent order from the Chief Executive of the Border Guards, in 1937 – S-40 for Amudaria and Syrdaria, the rivers with fast stream and big amount of sand and silt. After successful tests, started serial building of both big and small boats, which were designated to operate in narrow riverine farwaters and closely to the enemy-occupied banks. Before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War the Dnieper, Pinsk and Danube riverine flotillas received 85 boats, and further 68 were being built.
The wartime people’s commissar of the navy, Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov, remembers armoured boats in his memoirs: We experienced the need in armoured boats already in the first months of the war. Several factories switched to their production, but they had troubles with turrets and armour. The extreme need in tanks did not allow to yield to the navy any part of the armour produced by out steel works. In order not to delay the building of the boats so badly demanded by the front, sailors started fitting completed hulls with old, decommissioned from the navy, 76mm anti-aircraft Lender guns. This way on the basis of the Project 1124 and Project 1125 they made quite good AA boats. Meanwhile Kuznetsov again and again nagged the people’s commissar for the tank industry, Vyacheslav Malyshev, with the needs of the navy. I can help only in case of overproduction, argued Malyshev. I am responsible for the tanks with my head. Nevertheless, in spite of that less than optimistic answer, the navy soon started receiving excellent turrets from the famous tanks T-34 with 76mm guns. They were installed on both big and small boats. The turrets were not the only wartime novelty. The shipbuilders had also replaced the hardened steel with the homogenic steel, which enabled welding; in place of the domestic engines they installed American Hall-Scotts and Packards received through the lend-lease program; they fitted the decks with rails, which enabled laying mines; they strengthened the boats’ anti-air defence with additional machine-guns and 37mm AA canons; they even fitted boats with the autonomous heating system so the crews would not freeze while going in pack-ice with engines shut off.
In 1944 there was designed a new model of the boat with 85mm guns in the turrets with 85°; elevation angle. In the new model the 12.7mm-thick armour protected not only the central citadel, but also the whole waterline, which substantially increased boats’ resistance to shells and ice. In 1945 the prototype had successfully past all the tests, but it did not take part in the war. Wrote Kuznetsov:
In all the riverine flotillas, closely co-operating with the land troops, armoured boats proved the most convenient in all the cases. Those small but heavily armoured ships served with distinction, while supporting armies along the inland water routes and passages across rivers. The monitors’ heavy artillery was in practice used more seldom than the 76mm guns and machine-guns designated for operations against the riverbanks. Those “riverine tanks” proved very handy in the battles on rivers; they were small and agile, and were capable to fight tanks on the land and stand their fire. Their agility allowed them to evade the fire of heavy artillery and approach to the target to fire at blank point. For short those were universal ships for riverine warfare.
The experiences of the combat operations prove the Admiral’s observations. Those were the armoured boats of the Danube River Flotilla that carried out the first amphibious operation of the Germano-Soviet war. On 24 June 1941 at 2:30 the guns of the Soviet monitors and land artillery opened fire at the Romanian side of the Danube. Simultaneously four BKA’s with landing parties went to the action. At 2:45 the heavy artillery shifted its fire farther inward the enemy territory. The boats opened artillery and machine-gun fire at the targets within the landing zones and simultaneously soldiers jumped into the water and unfolded the attack against the riverbank. In half an hour the fight was over; the Russians took first POW’s and trophies. But the most important of all was that the direct artillery fire at Izmail was terminated. Two days after in another sector of the Germano-Soviet front fought with distinction three boats of the Pinsk River Flotilla. By night 26 June 1941 monitor Smolensk, and armoured boats BKA-202,BKA-205 and BKA-205 secretly ventured as far as 12km into the enemy-occupied territory, established an artillery range-reckoning outpost and shelled a German passage across the Berezina where the Nazi command was moving reinforcements against the counter-attacking Soviet 21st Army.
On 23 June 1942 fifteen boats of the Volga River Flotilla, armed with the old 76mm Lender AA-guns, assumed their convoy duties. Within one month they repelled 190 air attacks and escorted 128 convoys without losses. This way was frustrated the Nazi command’s idea to hamper by the means of the air forces the most important inland communication route – the Volga River – where was going up to 60% of all the supplies for Stalingrad. Later those ships conducted reconnaissance, shelling targets on the occupied banks, disembarking landing parties and evacuating the casualties. But the hardest service was on the passages across the Volga. The hitlerites, who seized the hills dominating over the city, conducted intense artillery fire on the farwaters, and the whole burden of supplying the Soviet forces fighting in the streets of the city lied on the BKA’s, whose small dimensions, high speed and heavy armour made them irreplaceable in those circumstances. Every night, under the light of German projectors and flares, and the shower of their shells and bombs, small ships were making 8 to 10 sorties across the river, bringing Stalingrad soldiers, weapons, ammunition and food. At rare nights, when the enemy for some reason remained idle, big boats would take up to 200 soldiers, and small boats – up to 100. Years later the commander of the famous 62nd Army, Vasiliy Chuikov, in his wartime reminiscences evaluated the role of the Volga flotilla’s boaters very high: About the role of the sailors of the fleet and their exploits, I would say briefly that had it not been for them the 62nd Army might have perished without ammunition and rations, and could not have carried out its task.
The history of the Second World War has also noted a unique expedition of 24 single-turret boats from the Dnieper River Flotilla to the Bug in September-October 1944. The voyage, which in normal conditions would take 5 to 6 hours, took almost three weeks. There is nothing strange in it. The ships with the draught of 0.6m had to surmount 92 fords of the depth of 0.35 to 0.4 metres. All kinds of methods, all kinds of fantastic ideas were proposed and applied. The makeshift dams had been built. The farwater had been deepened by explosives. Hydro-monitors were brought from Kiev to wash the silt out. A local fisherman was hired, who with interleaved wicker shields regulated the current in such a way, that the water would wash the silt itself. At certain point it was needed to tow the boats on the ground. First with hand-operated cranes, than with artillery tugs the Dnieper sailors dragged their boats, and on 19 October they took part in fights for Serock – an important Nazi stronghold blocking the road to Warsaw.
And in the spring 1945 the forces of the Dnieper River Flotilla already conducted its operations in Germany. On 12 April 1945 “riverine tanks”, together with other boats, assumed positions off the Kustrin bridgehead, established observation posts, reckoned the targets and said their word in the battle for the Oder. They were also supporting the troops in the grandiose battle for Berlin. And after the war in many cities of the Soviet Union “riverine tanks” were put on pedestals as the monuments to men and ships to take part in the war from the first to the last day.