Archives For Russian Shipwrecks

CC Image Courtesy of Bernard Grua on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of Bernard Grua on Flickr

French officials announced today that the Vladivostok, one of two Mistral-class amphibious warships ordered by the Russian Navy, will not be delivered to the Russians as previously planned. The announcement is quite surprising as the French had insisted for several months that the ship would be delivered as planned despite protests from Ukraine, France’s NATO allies and other international actors. The decision is also surprising given France’s infatuation with supplying military and dual-use items to authoritarian regimes – i.e. the sale of a nuclear reactor to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s. This is the same France that prohibited the Middle East’s only functioning liberal democracy, Israel, from taking delivery of missile boats it had ordered. The news comes only a days after rebels shelled and sank a Ukrainian coast guard vessel.

The Vladivostok is one of four contracted for by the Russian Navy and would be highly useful for power projection in a crisis such as that in Ukraine. As operated by the Russian Navy, the ship would most likely embark 16 attack helicopters such as the Ka-50/52 as well as 4 landing barges or 2 medium hovercraft. In short term operations, Mistral-class vessels can carry 700 troops and any combination of 60 wheeled armored vehicles, 46 vehicles plus 13 tanks or 40 T-90 tanks. A Russian task force with this kind of aerial, armored and over the horizon seaborne delivery ability would be a potent weapon deployed against an already depleted Ukrainian naval force.

Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures, by Owen Matthews, is a fascinating glimpse into a little remembered aspect of American history – the Russian colonization of what is now Alaska and California. Matthews details how, spurred on by eccentric Russian nobleman Nikolai Rezanov, the Russian-American Company established outposts throughout the American Pacific coast. Flowing between America and Russia, the book weaves a tragic tale of initial success but ultimate failure as Rezanov’s dreams are undone by his own flaws and environmental conditions. For history buffs looking to learn more about the settling of the American West or Russia’s colonial history in the western hemisphere, Glorious Misadventures is a great read.


April 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

Russian battleship

On April 13, 1904 the Russian battleships Petropavlovsk and Poltava, four cruisers and an escort of destroyers sallied forth from Port Arthur to attack the Japanese fleet that had besieged the Russian port. The Japanese forces fell back beyond the reach of Russian shore batteries and as a result the Russian admiral, Stepan Makarov, ordered the squadron to return to Port Arthur. As the squadron steamed back to port, the Petropavlovsk struck two Japanese mines in quick succession and sank almost immediately. The loss of the Petropavlovsk devastated the Russian defenses as not only did it lose one of its most capable ships, but Admiral Makarov and a total of 27 officers and 652 sailors perished in the sinking.

Commissioned in 1898, the Petropavlovsk was armed with four 12-inch guns with a secondary battery of twelve 6-inch guns. The vessel saw service in the Boxer Rebellion and by the time the Russo-Japanese war broke out had been with Russia’s Far Eastern Squadron five years. The ship was succeeded by another battleship of the same name in 1911 which served the Imperial Russian Navy in World War I as well as the Soviet Navy in World War Two before being scrapped in 1953.

Chernobyl Ghost Ships

Photo: Timm Suess

The past week has seen a slew of articles making their way around the internet about the USSR/Russian “ghost ship” Lyubov Orlova drifting toward the British coast infested with a cargo of cannibal rats. Although the vessel is most likely at the bottom of the ocean, there exists almost an entire fleet of ghost ships rusting away within the confines of the former USSR.

Nearly thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, the city of Prypiat became ground zero for the most devastating nuclear disaster to date. With the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the Soviet government was forced to evacuate the city and leave behind personal belongings, vehicles, vessels, factories and homes. In the years since the disaster, photographers and urban explorers have ventured to Prypiat and brought back incredible photos of an abandoned modern society slowly sinking into the irradiated landscape.

Chernobyl Ghost Ship

Bering Strait

Vitus Bering

Today marks the 288th anniversary of Russian Tsar Peter I ordering Danish explorer Vitus Bering to explore the eastern reaches of the Russian Empire in the area of Kamchatka (“That place you can attack Alaska from” in Risk). This expedition, along with a second, gave the world a better understanding of the far eastern regions of Russia and western reaches of North America.

Vitus Jonassen Bering was born on August 5, 1681 in Denmark and first went to sea at age 18 which was relatively late for the time period. Bering joined the Russian Navy in 1704 and after twenty years of lackluster service, Bering was tapped by Peter the Great to lead the Kamchatka expedition described above. Due to his service in the Russian Navy, Bering also came to be known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering (not to be confused with Ivan Denisovich or Ivan Drago).

Bering and a team of 34 men embarked on their voyage of discovery in February of 1725 and spent the next five years searching for a land connection between Russia and North America. During their voyage, the expedition also prepared charts of the region and Bering was promoted to the noble rank of Captain Commander for his exploits.

Thirteen years later Bering set forth on yet another expedition to the area. During this second voyage, Bering was able to sail within sight of Alaska and discover part of the Aleutian Island chain. Sadly, Bering perished before the expedition could return to St. Petersburg and his remains were interred on what is now Bering Island. Even though Bering accomplished very few “firsts,” he was widely associated with the region which he explored and thus it is unsurprising that Captain James Cook named the strait between Alaska and Russia the Bering Strait.

soviet submarine baltic sea

Wreckage of Soviet WWII Submarine S-6
Photo: Försvarsmakten

Earlier this summer civilian divers reported discovering what they believed to be a sunken submarine in 130 feet of water near Sweden’s island of Oland in the Baltic Sea. The Swedish Navy returned to the site with its submarine salvage ship HSWMS Belos to further inspect the wreck and determine its identity. Swedish news site The Local reports that the Swedish military believes the vessel is the Soviet submarine S-6 which never returned from its September 1941 patrol. Cyrillic text and a Soviet hammer and sickle are visible on the wreck providing evidence that the wreck is indeed a Soviet sub.

The Swedish military further believes that while cruising on the surface of the Baltic the sub struck a Nazi mine and was blown to pieces. This hypothesis flows from the fact that a hatch (seen above) was open on the vessel and it was found in multiple pieces on the sea floor. The large size of the debris field rules out the possibility the sub struck a mine below the surface and that the crew were able to make an attempt at escape. Thus it is most likely the sub was cruising on the surface, possibly re-charging its batteries at night, with hatches open to circulate air within the boat when it struck the mine.

submarine salvage ship

Photo: Wikimedia

operation albion

Sunset over Saaremaa Island, Estonia
CC Image Courtesy of Luke Saagi

In late 1917, the German High Command was desperate to knock Russia out of World War I and devote more resources to the Western Front. Despite upheaval at all levels of society and especially within the military, Russia had remained a belligerent after the Russian Revolution in February 1917. The Russian military had essentially ceased to be an effective fighting force and yet the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky insisted on continuing the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Thus the Germans devised a plan to invade a trio of islands in what is now Estonia. The operation would achieve two significant objectives and potentially force Russia to withdraw from the war. First, the Russian Baltic Fleet would be all but neutered by German control of the islands and, more importantly, the Russian capital of St. Petersburg would be threatened with invasion.

Dubbed Operation Albion, the plan called for a combined arms operation in which infantry and cyclist troops would land on October 12, 1917 on Saaremaa Island and isolate the garrison. Meanwhile, a naval task force would provide fire support and deal with any attempted intervention by the Russian Navy. Both land and sea forces would be supported by seaplanes which flew reconnaissance and bombing missions.

The Russians had formidable coastal batteries and garrisons on Saaremaa and nearby Muhn Island, however, a combination of poor morale and bold action by the German forces negated any Russian advantages. Russian morale was so low that some coastal batteries refused to engage the German ships in the hope that non-resistance would spare their batteries hostile fire. Russian forces were also hampered by poor communication and a lack of initiative by some commanders.

The German landings were achieved without serious opposition and cyclist troops quickly pushed to divide the Russian forces by occupying a dam which connected Saaremaa and Muhn. The cyclists reached their objectives and wreaked havoc on the Russian forces as they attempted to withdraw across the dam. Russian naval forces and 3 Royal Navy submarines attempted to intervene, however, their efforts were unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of the pre-dreadnought Slava, the destroyer Grom and a few smaller vessels. Apart from damage from mines, the Germans lost no capital ships during the operation.

battleship sinking

Pre-Dreadnought Slava Sinking
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After little more than a week, the Germans had secured the three islands – Saaremaa, Muhu and Hiiumaa and captured 20,000 Russian troops. Most significantly, though, the Germans had successfully launched a combined air-land-sea operation and were now poised to invade St. Petersburg. Less than 6 weeks after the action, the Russians sued for peace and German troops were freed from the Eastern Front to launch a last ditch effort to win on the Western Front.

The operation also had a minor World War II connection. Lieutenant Ernst Lindemann, later the captain of the ill-fated Nazi battleship Bismarck, served in the operation as a wireless officer aboard the battleship SMS Bayern. In 1944, the Soviets would launch their own Operation Albion, this time to wrest control of the islands from Nazi forces garrisoned there.

russian nuclear powered icebreaker

Icebreaker off Antarctica
CC Image Courtesy of Matt Geske on Flickr

Russia recently commissioned the building of the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker in an effort to increase traffic in the Northern Sea Route and better compete for resources in the Arctic. Global warming (anthropogenic or not) has made use of the Northern Sea Route a viable possibility in the past few years and the Barents Observer is reporting that a record amount of cargo may transit the route this year. The current record is 820,789 tons of cargo and 749,706 tons have already made their way through the shipping lane in 2012. Russia hopes to increase trade at its northern ports as the Northern Sea Route stays open longer and longer each season and through the artificial extension of the shipping season via use of its yet to be named icebreaker.

The new icebreaker will be 558 feet long and 102 feet wide, making the vessel 46 feet longer and 12 feet wider than any other icebreaker in Russia’s fleet. The ship’s enormous size will enable it to break up thicker sheets of ice than other ships. In addition to being vastly larger than anything currently in the Russian icebreaking fleet, the ship will have on-board ballast tanks allowing it to raise and lower its draft from 28 to 35 feet. Thus the ship will be able to sail up previously inaccessible Siberian rivers. Powering the icebreaker will be dual nuclear reactors producing 60 megawatts of power which make it capable of towing ships displacing up to 70,000 tons through Arctic waters. While the selection of nuclear reactors as a power source for civilian ships may seem strange, Russia’s first nuclear powered icebreaker, Lenin, first sailed in 1959 and the country currently operates around a dozen nuclear powered icebreakers. As a sidenote, the US experimented with nuclear powered civilian vessels beginning with the launch of the NS Savannah in 1959, but ceased operating her in 1972 due to cost inefficiencies.

While the icebreaker is chiefly intended for improving the commercial flow of goods in the Arctic, the ship’s strategic value can not be ignored. Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the US have all laid claim to parts of the region in order to secure access to the oil and gas believed to be located beneath the seabed. Just as China views its deep water oil rigs as “strategic weapons,” Russia’s possession of the most capable icebreaker in the world will have serious implications in who exercises control of the region.

Winter War

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In November of 1939, Soviet forces invaded Finland with the intention of bringing additional territory into the communist fold. Even though the Soviet forces vastly outnumbered the Finns, Finnish troops put up a heroic resistance and the conflict was resolved 4 months later with the loss of ~11% of Finland’s pre-war territory. Thus when Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 the Finns were quick to lend their support to the Nazis in an effort to regain their lost territory.

Flowing from this cooperation was the use of Finnish naval forces to screen against Soviet naval forces while German ground forces advanced through the Baltic states. In one such operation, Operation Nordwind, one of Finland’s two capital ships, the Ilmarinen, struck a mine and sank with 271 casualties. The loss of the Ilmarinen on September 13, 1941 was devastating to the tiny Finnish Navy. For a force consisting of only 3,800 officers and sailors, the loss represented  7% of Finnish naval forces. By comparison, less than .8% of the US Navy perished in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Ilmarinen had been built in the 1930s as a coastal defence ship for the purpose of defending the numerous islands and islets of Finland’s Baltic coastline. Video of the ship in 1938 can be seen here (the Ilmarinen is the first ship shown in the video). The ship saw service in the Winter War defending the Finnish coast against the Soviet invaders and later shelled Soviet forces after the beginning of the German invasion.

Even though the Finns initially sided with the Nazis, they fought not for ideology, but for self-preservation. In September 1944, the Finns established a separate peace with the Soviets and engaged the Nazis in open combat in the Lapland region until the Nazis withdrew to Norway in April 1945.

Russian submarine

CC Image courtesy of The Bellona Foundation on Flickr

Nine years ago today the Russian Navy lost the nuclear powered submarine K-159 when it foundered in the Barents Sea . The sub had recently been slated for scrapping and was en route to a date with the breakers yard. Commissioned in 1963, the K-159 served in the Soviet Northern Fleet (the same fleet as Tom Clancy’s Red October) and suffered a reactor accident in 1965. Reports vary on the extent of repairs to the reactor, but the ship returned to active service and was retired in 1989. The K-159 lay derelict in a Russian naval yard for fourteen years with minimal maintenance until the decision was made to scrap the ship in 2003. Due to extensive rusting of the ship’s outer hull, pontoons were secured to the K-159 to provide additional flotation.

Manned with a 10 man skeleton crew, the sub was taken under tow to a Russian scrapyard. While under tow, a storm ripped away the K-159’s pontoons and the sub began to take on water. Within a few hours the K-159 dipped below the waves of the Barents Sea and came to rest in 781 feet of water. In addition to killing 9 of her crew members, the sub took with it 1,760 pounds of radioactive spent fuel. Plans for salvage have continually been postponed, however the Scottish salvage company Adus located the sub and published sonar scan images of it resting on the sea floor in 2010. The Dutch salvage company Smit & Mammoet (the same firm which salvaged the Russian sub Kursk) submitted a salvage proposal in 2011, but salvage work has yet to begin. While the wreck generated initial concerns of radioactive contamination of the Barents Sea, to date there has been no documented increase in radiation levels in the area.