The Imperial Russian Navy Submarine Program

The DELFIN was a product of the Bubnov committee at the tum of the century and was considered by many as the first true combat submarine in the Russian Navy. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 the DELFIN was employed as a training ship in the St. Petersburg area for officers and men assigned to new construction submarines.

Russian submarine Kasatka.

British journalist Fred T. Jane, writing in 1899 after an extensive tour of naval installations in Russia, observed, “I may, however, mention that the Russians believe very much in underwater craft, and do not regard the submarine battleship as an idle dream.”

This statement, although an exaggeration of the situation in Russia at the time, was indicative of the high degree of interest in submarines among Russian naval authorities at the beginning of the 20th century. The modern Russian submarine fleet in many respects dates from the establishment, on 19 December 1900, of a special submarine committee of the Naval Technical Committee (MTK-Morskoy Technicheskiy Komitet). Its purpose was to evaluate foreign submarine designs and prepare proposals for one that could be constructed for the Russian Navy. The chairman of the submarine committee was the noted engineer Ivan Grigor’evich Bubnov, who would be responsible for most Russian submarine designs until the collapse of the tsarist government in 1917. The other committee members were Lieutenant Mikhail Nikolaevich Beklemishev, a graduate of the Naval Academy in the constructor branch, and mechanical engineer Ivan Semenovich Goryunov. The committee studied projects submitted to the 1898 competition held in Paris, and proposals by the Russian submarine pioneer Dzhevetskiy and the Frenchman Maxime Laubeuf. In 1901 Beklemishev visited the United States, where he became acquainted with the submarine designs of John P. Holland and Simon Lake. He also visited Great Britain, France, and Italy to look at contemporary submarine efforts in those countries.

While the Bubnov committee did its work, Russia’s first submarine of the 20th century was constructed in 1901 at Kronshtadt to the design of engineer Nikolai Nikolaevich Kuteinikov and Lieutenant (later Captain) Evgeniy Viktorovich Kolbas’yev. Their submarine was intended to be carried on deck of surface warships and to be launched when within attack range of enemy ships.

This submersible displaced 20 tons, was 50 feet (15.25 m) long, and had a beam of about 4 feet (1.2 m). Propulsion was provided by electric motors driving six propulsors (screws) with power supplied by six Bary accumulators, which were evenly divided be- tween three forward and three after compartments, as were the ballast tanks. (The hull was divided into nine watertight compartments, a precursor to the arrangement of later undersea craft) The interior of the boat was accessible through a hatch in the conning tower. Both a bow and a stern rudder were fitted. The armament for this craft consisted of two torpedoes mounted in external Dzhevetskiy drop collars. These could be trained and fired from within the boat.

Kuteinikov was responsible for the submarine’s hull and Kolbas’yev for the electrical installations. Upon completion in 1902 this craft was baptized PETR KOSHKA, after a Russian sailor who had distinguished himself during the defense of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. The craft was to be transferred to Sevastopol for trials.

Although it was apparent that the Russian Navy was proceeding with caution with regard to submarine construction and clearly did not intend to invest large sums of money, a number of projects were under some form of official consideration at the beginning of the century. One of these was designed by Dzhevetskiy, who had lived in Paris since 1893. The design had been reviewed at the New Admiralty yard in St. Petersburg for its practicability in 1901, but had been discarded.

In May 1901 the Bubnov committee completed its work and proposed to the Naval Technical Committee the development of a submarine based on the Holland design, with some major design changes coming from Bubnov. These changes principally consisted of situating the main ballast tanks aft and incorporating the Dzhevetskiy drop-collar launching system rather than internally (tube) launched torpedoes. These features would be standard on most submarine designs pre- pared in Russia up to 1915.

Detail design work on the undersea craft recommended by the Bubnov committee began forthwith, and on 5 July 1901 the prototype boat, ultimately named DELFIN, was ordered from the Baltic Works in St. Petersburg. Construction proceeded under great secrecy under the direction of Bubnov and now-Captain Beklernishev. The installation of the DELFIN’S machinery and other equipment was completed by the spring of 1903, and sea trials began on 20 June 1903. They were evidently quite successful.

The DELFIN was considered by the Russians to have been the first true combat submarine in their Navy. After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 the DELFIN was employed as a training ship in the St. Petersburg area for officers and men assigned to new construction submarines.

By mid-1903 a Dzhevetskiy submarine design of some 800 tons appears to have been under consideration or possibly under construction, also at the Baltic Works in St. Petersburg. There is no record that the 800-ton Dzhevetskiy boat was completed, if indeed she was actually begun. This particular unit was stilI listed in the 1909 edition of the German yearbook Nauticus, although by that time it had certainly ceased to exist.

In commenting on the Russian Navy’s attitude toward submarines at this time, the German naval attaché in St. Petersburg noted, “Although perhaps at the moment there are only limited funds available, I would like to bring to your attention that perhaps with the exception of some problems still to be resolved there will be no further delays in ordering submarines. There is a highly favorable attitude towards this new weapon in the officer corps as well as among the engineers, reinforced by the belief that both types are truly Russian inventions.

In this vein, encouraged by the success of the DELFIN, the Naval Ministry on 13 August 1903 ordered the development of a design for a larger submarine. On 20 December 1903, the Naval Technical Committee approved the design of the KASATKA class of 140 tons prepared by the team of Bubnov and Beklemishev. It was at the same time also agreed to construct ten sub- marines of this design through 1914. The lead unit, named KASATKA (swallow), was ordered from the Baltic Works on 2 January 1904, further establishing that shipyard as the premier Russian submarine builder.

The next four units were ordered from the Baltic Works on 24 February 1904, with a sixth, funded by public subscription, ordered on 26 March 1904. These submarines were:

SKAT (ray)

NALIM (burbot)

MAKREL (mackerel)

OKUN’ (perch)


Thus, the first five submarines of the class were named for fish, while the sixth remembered a Commander in Chief of Peter the Great’s forces in victories in the Baltic area. The construction of these six submarines was accelerated with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904, and all six units were launched between July and August 1904. Under the pressure of war, the KASATKA was the only unit to be assembled for trials in the Baltic. The other were prepared for transfer in sections by railroad to the Far East.

The initial trials of the KASATKA were not very successful and steering difficulty was noted during the first dive. This was caused by a design fault that had placed the conning tower-and hence the center of buoyancy-too far forward. This stability problem was temporarily solved by adding a second conning tower aft. (Permanent new conning towers were not installed until 1906-1907.) Another defect was that the paraffin engines ordered from Germany had not been ready in time to be installed (and in fact were never delivered). The trouble was that these engines were to have been capable of burning either lamp paraffin or heavy oil. The German Koerting firm was to have provided these engines for the KASATKA as well as the subsequent KARP class. These engines were supposed to be safer than petrol or gasoline engines. However, Koerting had only built small, eight-horsepower engines of this type and had encountered delays in producing the larger engines. A makeshift solution was found for the Russian submarines by instead mounting a small dynamo for charging the storage batteries. Another problem occurred with the KASATKA on 2 October 1904, when it was found that a hatch was not watertight.

In general, however, the trials were sufficiently successful that the KASATKA, SKAT, NALIM. and FELDMARSHAL GRAF SHEREMETEV were loaded for transport by train to Vladivostok on 17 November 1904. Completion of the two remaining submarines was delayed until 1907.

During 1905 the small experimental submarine KETA was constructed by the engineering works of G. A. Lessner in St. Petersburg. This was a modified and lengthened Dzhevetskiy Type III craft, designed by a Lieutenant S. Yanovich. The craft was propelled by a gasoline engine driving one propeller shaft, and could be armed with two torpedoes. The KETA was also transferred to the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War. She was apparently not successful and was stricken from the Navy list on 19 June 1908.

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