WWI – Russian Navy versus German Navy

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Gangut at anchor in Helsingfors, 1915. Note the deployed torpedo net.

WORLD WAR I-BALTIC

After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War reforms were initiated, and under the able Admiral von Essen the reconstruction of the Russian Navy was taken in hand. In the Baltic, the aim was to reach sixty percent of the strength of the German High Seas Fleet. At first, help from the outside was utilized to a considerable extent. The armored cruiser Rurik (15,400 tons, 4 254-mm. guns, 8 203-mm. guns) was built in England by Vickers, turbines for large destroyers in Germany. At the same time, the creation of an efficient armaments industry was begun; large shipyards were built. In June 1909 the keels of four fast battleships (23,400 tons, 12 305-mm. guns) were laid in shipyards in St. Petersburg. The ships were commissioned in 1914-1915. Three similar battleships, slightly slower, but better protected, were finished in Black Sea shipyards between 1915 and 1917, but four very large battle cruisers (32,400 tons, 12 356-mm. guns) for the Baltic were never completed. A high-quality product of the new Russian shipyards was a series of 36 large destroyers, excellently suited for minelaying.

When war broke out, both sides considered the Baltic a secondary theater of operations. The Germans had to be more active because they were more vulnerable to Russian naval operations. They generally used their old ships in the Baltic but had the advantage of being able to send ships from the High Seas Fleet as reinforcements on short notice. This possibility made the Russians very cautious. They were well prepared for minelaying, and in the first winter of the war undertook a number of cleverly planned operations of this kind in the eastern and central Baltic. Several German warships and merchant steamers were sunk or damaged by Russian mines; operations were considerably hampered. On the other hand, German submarines, as well as mines, proved dangerous to the Russians. After the death of Admiral von Essen in the spring of 1915 Russian naval activity decreased noticeably.

In the spring and summer of 1915 a massive German-Austrian land offensive forced back the Russian armies several hundred kilometers. When German land forces approached the large naval base of Libau (Liepaja) a squadron of Russian armored cruisers tried to interfere but retreated after a short fight with German light cruisers, in which no ship was seriously damaged. The only other encounter between surface forces in the open Baltic happened on 2 July 1915. A squadron of five Russian armored cruisers intercepted the minelayer Albatross (2,200 tons, 8 88-mm. guns), which was protected by the light cruiser Augsburg (4,300 tons, 12 105-mm. guns). The Albatross was soon damaged and beached herself at Östergarne on the Swedish island of Gotland. Then the German armored cruiser Roon (9,500 tons, 4 210-mm. guns) and the light cruiser Lubeck joined in the fight. With 4 254-mm. and 20 203-mm. guns the Russians were still far superior but they did not succeed in seriously damaging the German cruisers. They received some hits, too, and finally retreated although no other German forces were near.

In August 1915, a German squadron, reinforced from the North Sea, made two attempts to break into the Gulf of Riga. In the first, the mine barriers proved impenetrable. The second succeeded, in spite of considerable losses to mines, but had no lasting consequences because the German Army did not participate, although its flank on the Gulf of Riga was being continuously harrassed by bombardments from the sea and even raids by parties landed from the sea.

In the summer of 1915, the number of British submarines in the Baltic was increased. The larger E-boats again passed the Sound (between Denmark and Sweden) as in the fall of 1914; the smaller C-class arrived via canals from the White Sea. They proved distinctly more effective than the Russian submarines. For two years neither side undertook any large naval operations. The Germans suffered losses to mines and submarines, but their domination of the Baltic was never challenged. Sea power worked unobtrusively.

For Germany it was vital to have absolute control of the central and western Baltic: she received most of her iron ore from Sweden, most of the grain from her eastern provinces and coal from the Ruhr district was carried by ship, the supplies for the northern wing of the army fighting Russia went by sea, and-last but not least-sea power relieved the army from the necessity of defending the long coasts in the Baltic. Lord Fisher, for many years the British First Sea Lord, strongly advocated large-scale operations in the Baltic. He was of the opinion that this would compel the Germans to station one million men along their coasts. His estimate was probably too high, but it indicates the size of the potential problem for the German armed forces. Early in 1915 the Royal Navy ordered the Courageous class (19,000 tons, 4 381-mm. guns, 32 knots, draft only 6.8 m.) for Baltic operations. However, the outcome of the Battle of Jutland (31 May/l June 1916) clearly showed that such an undertaking would be too risky even for the Grand Fleet. The battle did not change the over-all strategic situation and therefore in some quarters is considered of little importance. True, the blockade of Germany continued but so did that of Russia, since the British had to abandon their plans for directly supporting her through the Baltic.

As early as January 1915 the Russian government had asked the Western allies to open the sea routes to European Russia again. This request led to the well-conceived, but clumsily executed attack on the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915. In the land campaign of that year the Russian armies suffered disproportionately heavy losses in men as a result of lack of ammunition. According to Minister of War Suchomlinov, field batteries received no more than four rounds per gun for a whole day of fighting. When the Black Sea and the Baltic remained closed the situation in Russia deteriorated steadily. Construction of the Murmansk railway had only just begun; from Arkhangelsk 900 kilometers of narrow-gauge rail led to the main railway system. Nine thousand kilometers of single-track railway crossed Siberia to the Far East. In the winter of 1916-17 food in the larger towns was in such short supply that four meatless days per week had to be instituted. The revolution in February 1917 was the consequence of starvation at home and decimation and defeat in the field. When the Kerensky government tried to continue the fight, the Central Powers put pressure on with three limited offensives. The last was an amphibious operation to take the Baltic Islands of Ösel, Moon (Muhu), and Dago. Russian ships still fought well but without luck. The old battleship Slava was damaged by German battleships and had to be blown up by her own crew. The destroyer Grom was taken. The Germans lost a number of smaller vessels to mines.

In this context it is amusing to read another fairytale [1] of Gorshkov’s: “The Moon Sound operation (12 to 20 October 1917) … had the far-reaching goal of uniting the Central Powers, Britain, the U. S. A., and France in the struggle against the Russian Revolution.” When he quotes Lenin to support this strange idea he only shows that this paragon of political wisdom knew very little of sea power and its consequences. He should have been grateful to the Central Powers, for the loss of the Baltic Islands further weakened the Kerensky government and helped make the Bolshevist October Revolution possible. Figures and facts are distorted in Gorshkov’s short description of the operation, which practically ended the naval war in the Baltic.

[1] In a series of articles written in 1972 (published by the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1974) Admiral Gorshkov.

WORLD WAR I-BLACK SEA

In the Black Sea the Russian naval forces were more active than in the Baltic. After the German battle cruiser Goeben joined the Turkish fleet in August 1914 neither side had a marked superiority until the new Russian battleships appeared. There were quite a number of engagements, but no conclusive results. When their allies attacked the Dardanelles the Russians repeatedly bombarded the fortifications at the entrance to the Bosporus but did not attempt any landing operations. By this abstention they may have missed the best opportunity for radically improving their supply situation.

The Turkish army in East Anatolia depended on sea transport for a great part of its supplies. When the first new Russian battleship was commissioned· in the winter of 1915-16, Admiral Kolchak, formerly chief-of-staff to Admiral von Essen, made good use of her, and soon the Russians had the upper hand. Well-supported from the sea, their army advanced deep into Turkish territory. At the same time naval forces attacked and nearly stopped the vital transport of coal from Zunguldak on the Black Sea to the Bosporus. With a British army advancing on Palestine, Turkey’s situation soon became critical, but then the October Revolution put an end to Russian operations in Anatolia. The Germans occupied the Ukraine and the Black Sea ports. After the German capitulation, French forces entered Sevastopol temporarily. The best ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet left with them and rusted for many years at the French base of Bizerta in Algeria.

After foreign war, two revolutions, and a long civil war, the remnants of the Russian Navy were in bad shape. Its reconstruction had to take second place behind that of the Army. The experts disagreed on the type of navy needed by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party decided for a kind of “jeune ecole” fleet, a navy for coastal defense with torpedo craft and submarines. Then Stalin assumed command. With his acute sense for politics and power he saw the possibilities of a strong navy for furthering his plans. He also saw the technical difficulties and therefore did not precipitate matters. The second Five-Year Plan (1933-1937) provided for construction of six heavy cruisers, a number of large destroyers and a minimum of 50 submarines. Then, in the Party Congress of 1934, Stalin launched his campaign for capital ships-through a prominent submarine officer. For the construction of battleships and carriers, begun in the third Five-Year Plan, he tried to get help from the USA, but his request was turned down. After the treaty with Hitler in 1939 .he received a half-finished heavy cruiser (the Seydlitz), fire-control gear, and other equipment. In the Supreme Soviet, Premier Molotov declared that in the third Five-Year Plan the Navy had first priority. Pravda declared: “Only the biggest High Seas Fleet will meet Soviet demands.” When the Germans attacked in 1941, the big ships were not yet ready, but 291 submarines of the target number of 325 were in service or nearing completion.

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