November 26, 2017

Russian Battleships Part 1

When he offered to host me, I offered Said Achmiz the opportunity for me to pick a topic to write on. He selected Russian battleships, and I found a really good deal on a copy of Stephen McLaughlin's Russian & Soviet Battleships, the standard source on the subject, so settle in for a tale, that like most tales from Russian history, began with bright hopes, and subsequently fell apart.1

Petr Velikii, the first Russian battleship

The first Russian battleship was Petr Velikii (Peter the Great). She was essentially a breastwork ironclad, with a light structure forward. Armament was 2 twin 12" turrets, 6 4-pdr guns and a bunch of spar torpedoes used in place of a ram. She was laid down in 1870 and completed in 1876 after significant design changes, which would be a recurring theme in Russian construction. Her initial Russian-built machinery was badly flawed, and she had to be sent to Britain to be re-engined in 1881. She never saw war service, and was under conversion to a training ship when the Russo-Japanese war broke out. In various auxiliary roles, she survived until 1959, when the communists finally scrapped her.

Petr Velikii was designed by Admiral A. A. Popov, who is better known for designing some of the the strangest armored warships of all time. Though not technically battleships, I would be remiss to not discuss them.

A model of the monitor Novgorod

A pair of coastal-defense monitors, Novgorod and Vitse-admiral Popov, were built for service in the Black Sea. They were circular, with 6 shafts each. In theory, this makes the most efficient possible use of armor, and gives good fields of fire for the guns. In practice, they were slow and had some controllability problems, but were apparently reasonably effective. Stories of their utter uselessness are common, but apparently untrue.

These ships were followed by the use of an elliptical hull for the Imperial yacht, Livadiia, which apparently had solved many of the seakeeping problems that plagued the monitors. However, plans for elliptical-hulled battleships were thwarted when Emperor Aleksandr II was assassinated, and Popov fell from favor under the new Emperor.

The Imperial Yacht Livadiia

At this point, we need a brief detour into Russian naval geography. The Russians had two main fleets, in the Baltic and Black Seas. The Turkish Straits were closed to Russian warships by treaty, so any ships for the Black Sea had to be built there and stay there. Ships deployed to the rest of the world, most notably the Far East, were built in the Baltic and sailed out.

Petr Velikii was not followed by another battleship for 13 years, as the Russian Navy focused its limited funds on commerce-raiding cruisers until the early 1880s.

Chesma, of the Ekaterina II class

The first class of Black Sea battleships, the three-ship Ekaterina II class, exemplify the promise and problems of Russian battleship design. The Russians placed great emphasis on ramming, and wanted maximum forward firepower. They also wanted ships capable of high-angle fire in a bombardment role,2 which meant disappearing mounts, where the guns folded back within the barbette structure. They originally planned on 3 15" guns, although they were not ready in time, and twin 12" mounts were substituted. The mounts were arranged in a triangular redoubt, two side-by-side forward, one aft.

A diagram of the Ekaterina II class

This was an interesting design, if a bit odd to modern eyes. But problems soon began. The Russians soon decided that they didn't want the disappearing mounts, although Ekaterina II was too far advanced to make the change. Sinop was the least advanced of the three, and it was decided to narrow her redoubt, as the new mountings took up less space than the original ones. However, this wasn't the end of things. Soon, the Russians developed a 12"/35 gun. It replaced the 12"/30 on the Chesma, the third unit of the class, but was never fitted to Ekaterina II or to Sinop. In the former case, the disappearing mounts wouldn't fit it, and in the later, the new redoubt was too narrow. Chesma also had problems, with her unbalanced turrets causing the ship to list when they were trained to the beam.3 It took 6 to 7 years for each to be completed (construction ran 1883-1890), and all three were approximately 10% overweight, as just about every piece of the ship came out heavier than expected.

Imperator Nikolai I

In the Baltic, there wasn't even a pretense of standardized design. Imperator Aleksandr II was essentially a central battery design (4x9", 8x6") with a single barbette (2x12") forward.4 Again, great weight was placed on ahead fire for ramming situations. Imperator Nikolai I was a close relation, but carried a proper turret forward in place of the barbette. The third, Gangut, was smaller and had only one 12" and four 6", but was otherwise similar. She was sunk after ripping her bottom out on a shoal in 1897, due to poor workmanship compromising watertightness and being well over her design weight, which made her more vulnerable to flooding as structure not designed to be watertight was immersed.

Dvenadtsat Apostolov

In the Black Sea, things were also not going well. Dvenadtsat Apostolov (Twelve Apostles), the next ship built there, was totally redesigned after construction commenced, replacing the planned battery of 8 9" guns with 4 12" and 4 6", although in roughly the same locations (2 barbettes and a casemate). An amusing quirk was that the 12" guns couldn't be loaded if the ship was heeling more than 5 degrees.

Georgii Pobedonosets

In 1887, before the next ship was ordered, the Russians decided that all future ships should have turrets instead of barbettes. In 1889, a slipway in the Black Sea became available thanks to the launch of Sinop, and a half-sister of the Ekaterina IIs was ordered, barbettes and all, to fill it. This may have been a result of the need to maintain work in the shipyard to avoid the loss of skilled workers,5 but a variant with turrets was rejected for being about 500 tons overweight. The modifications allowed the 12"/35 guns to be fitted in the narrower barbettes of Sinop. Various steps were taken to solve the overweight problems that had plagued the Ekaterina IIs, but the ship, Georgii Pobedonosets, was still 7.8% overweight. Worse, one of the weight-saving strategies was to narrow the belt. This meant that while the Ekaterian IIs had 13" of belt above the water at full load, Georgii Pobedonosets had only 6".

These ships all belonged to the era before the Royal Sovereign class redefined the battleship, although one of the proposed alterations to Georgii Pobedonosets, after she was already under construction, of course, was to rebuild her along the same lines. Russia soon adapted her building program, while continuing her tradition of building ships slightly differently. An amazing number of clever and unusual ideas came out of Russia during this period, although many of them were very difficult to implement. In fairness, the British and French had many of the same problems in this era, including ships completing overweight, and lots of good ideas that simply didn't work.

1 I'm using McLaughlin's transliterations of Russian words. These may not match those used elsewhere. I regret any confusion.

2 This requirement was driven by the possibility of having to force the Turkish Straits.

3 The American Indiana class had similar problems.

4 It was fitted with a thin hood, as were many Russian battleships of this era. I'll admit that these are properly barbettes with hoods, and not turrets, as the hoods were usually 2.5" or so, much thinner than contemporary turret armor. See here for a full discussion of this issue.

5 This was and is a common problem in naval construction.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

    • Aapje says:

      If I understand correctly, a major issue was that nations at the time were trying to figure out the best way to build battleships, but the long build times meant that they couldn’t iterate quickly. Also, they wanted/needed more battleships than optimal for a research program. So they often figured out that their designs were obsolete when they were still building.

      Furthermore, as you’ve argued in the past, obsolete battleships aren’t just a little worse, but often a lot worse. So there is a lot of incentive to change the design and/or retrofit, rather than build to the plans.

      Interestingly, these are actually very similar to the issues that have plagued programmers and have resulted in ‘agile’ methodologies. Fortunately for programmers, software is a lot easier to redesign/retrofit than steel.

      • bean says:

        Furthermore, as you’ve argued in the past, obsolete battleships aren’t just a little worse, but often a lot worse. So there is a lot of incentive to change the design and/or retrofit, rather than build to the plans.

        I think I know which conversation you’re referring to, and I’m not sure I’d put it that strongly now. In a sense, every battleship ever laid down was already obsolete, because there was a better one already on the drawing board. But that doesn’t mean it was useless when it got to sea, or even for many years thereafter, if it was properly maintained/refitted. Kirishima could have handled South Dakota very roughly at Guadalcanal if not for Washington‘s intervention.

        The other issue is that making changes to an existing design often results in a ship that’s at most only a little better, and has serious side effects. Many ships of the time were so badly overweight that their main belt was almost or entirely submerged, and at least in the Russian case it was largely because of design changes. Also, major changes slow the ship’s production down a lot. The Russian approach was basically making the ship a year more advanced at the cost of taking two more years to build.

        Interestingly, these are actually very similar to the issues that have plagued programmers and have resulted in ‘agile’ methodologies. Fortunately for programmers, software is a lot easier to redesign/retrofit than steel.

        I’m familiar with agile, but that’s an angle I’d never have thought of.

        • gbdub says:

          Many ships of the time were so badly overweight that their main belt was almost or entirely submerged, and at least in the Russian case it was largely because of design changes.

          Gives whole new meaning to the sunk cost fallacy.

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          Battleships ain’t the only real world application of Agile. There are a lot of people trying to figure out how to speed-age whiskey well (there are a lot of bad implementations of this: the trick is making it not just old-tasting, but actually good.)

          A number of people in the scene are highly opposed to this as a cost-cutting measure (no need for 12 years of rickhouse storage! Those greedy MBAs! It’ll never be as good!) I am not one of them. If we can get this working well at *all*, it will eat the whiskey world’s lunch measured purely in quality. Even if a one-month rapid aging costs as much as 12 years off Skye (it won’t, by a mile) and is only 80% as effective (who knows), it means your OODA loop is 144 times faster. The ability to actually test new ideas, blends, balances, and find out *now*, not in a decade, if the direction you went was good, will let good distillers do infinitely better than they currently do.

          • Aapje says:


            Agile is about being flexible to change, not about being fast (although being flexible can be faster). So speed-aging food products is not an example of Agile. That’s more about cutting corners without impacting the end result too much.

            Anyway, it’s not just whiskey that is speed-aged. A majority of old Dutch ‘Gouda’ cheese is speed-ripened nowadays. The classic method is to rest the cheese wheel for 10-12 months. With a more aggressive starter culture, you get somewhat similar results in 8 months. The cheese will be less dried out and sweeter, but a lot of people like that. An example is Old Amsterdam cheese, which is sold in the US. That particular cheese is not cheap for old Gouda either, so it may even be a superior product in the eyes of the average consumer.

          • bean says:

            Battleships ain’t the only real world application of Agile.

            That’s stretching it a bit. Lessons learned during construction are a minority of the reason for design changes. Most common are improved technology, followed by changes in national priorities. It was common, particularly during the 1890s, for the designers to be 2 or 3 classes beyond what had actually seen enough service to give useful feedback. For battleships, not just destroyers. There were a couple of missteps, but overall, the resulting ships were still pretty good.

          • AlphaGamma says:

            Regarding whisky, certainly in the UK it must be aged for at least 3 years before it can legally be sold as whisky (even the cheapest).

            This recently resulted in a lot of other high-end spirits being produced by new companies who actually wanted to make whisky, but needed something to sell to keep afloat in that 3-year period so would take the same neutral spirits and turn it into, for example, gin.

          • gbdub says:

            Same problem here in the States, although with the added wrinkle that startup “craft” distilleries can buy generic bourbon and rye from one of several major distilleries and repackage it under their own label.

            Basically, don’t buy craft whiskey unless you are absolutely sure they make the stuff themselves (and if they’ve been around less than a few years they almost certainly don’t) – you can probably get the same stuff for half the price at the liquor store. Unless you really like the bottle I suppose.

            (EDIT: in the US, there is no minimum aging limit for “bourbon” or “whiskey”, but “straight bourbon” must be aged at least 2 years. So you could get younger craft whiskey but it won’t taste very good unless the distillers have mastered some rapid aging concepts)

          • Standing in the Shadows says:

            In Washington State, they wised up to that dodge. To get a Washington license to produce distilled spirits, you have to use a majority of locally grown ingredients, and locally sourced water.

            So the newly created Washington spirits companies started immediately producing vodka and gin, while begging their customers to keep them afloat for enough years while the whisky was aging in the basement.

          • Deiseach says:

            I saw nominations for a local business award in the paper last week and one of them was as follows:

            Irish Whitetail Distillery has developed a revolutionary process of aging distilled spirits with fantastic taste. Making craft spirits an exciting and affordable drink for all occasions. The Whitetail Distillery system takes all the seasonal elements of nature to produce some of the finest aged spirits you will ever taste. The system enables the company to offer special seasonal flavoured spirits and traditional favourites without having to wait years for the completed product.

            They have a Facebook page and damn all information on what exactly their product or products are, and I wonder if this is some kind of “artificial whiskey/whatever flavouring slapped into a vodka-style spirit base” that they are pitching. If they have some amazing new system for making whiskey that doesn’t take X years to age, that would be revolutionary, but the dearth of information makes me wary.

          • Nornagest says:

            revolutionary process

            exciting and affordable

            special seasonal flavour

            I’d give 80% odds that it’s regular old flavored neutral grain spirit. 20% that they’re doing some jiggery-pokery with high-pressure infusion or something.

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