Paper Fleet: Russia’s Torpedo Battleship

The Japanese cruiser Kitakami is still one of the most infamous ships in the game, even though she hasn’t been available to play since the closed beta test – this is all because of her torpedoes, forty of them in ten tubes. She was able to launch a massive spread of torpedoes, and few people could control her properly. More often than not, matches with a Kitakami on your side ended with at least one teamkill due to the sheer volume of torpedoes in the water.

In 1913, the Imperial Russian Navy had a similar idea: a 23,000 ton battleship with 400mm of belt armour and a total of eighty-four torpedoes: forty-two to a broadside.

She was to have twelve seven-inch guns, but these were intentionally smaller than usual for a battleship, just to make room for the sheer weight of the armour and torpedoes; despite this, she was expected to move through the water at a speed of 28 knots. As incredible as Kitakami may be, back in the era of WW1, the Russians had something even more absurd in mind.

The Russians knew how to think big.

In the early 20th century, after the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, Russian naval architects and officers were looking for some decisive tool that would give them an edge in combat. The British had already done this with the launching of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906, and by 1911 Russia had her own dreadnought fleet. However, this wasn’t quite enough, and so they turned to the torpedo.

Over the years leading up to 1913, torpedoes had only been getting more advanced, and more deadly. Torpedo speeds had doubled in a decade, and their range had quadrupled in the same time. From any perspective, it seemed like torpedoes could soon by the primary instrument of naval warfare, as their effective range was getting near that of traditional gunfire.

Enter Pavel Viktorovich Iankov. A recent graduate of the Naval Engineering School in Kronshtadt, he was one of a new generation of Russian naval engineers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if many had high hopes for him and his colleagues; navies across the world were in a time of change, and the next four years alone would see some of the most striking advancements in warship capabilities. Iankov was stationed in Reval (Tallinn, modern Estonia) he came up with the design for this torpedo battleship.

One of the first decisions made was to make the primary armament much smaller than typical for a modern battleship: 178mm guns, along with a set of 28 twin-mounted 130mm secondary cannons, presumably meant to destroy approaching torpedo boats, which would have been the primary enemy of a ship like this.

The purpose of mounting smaller guns was to allow vastly more weight for armour: the vitals of the ship were to protected by 16 inches of metal, and the deck was to have 4 inches of protection alone, more than any other ship afloat. In comparison, the belt armour of the Japanese battleship Yamato was only a few millimetres thicker than what would have armoured this Russian beast.

With engines providing 78,000 shaft horsepower, the torpedo battleship would have made a speed of 28 knots, which was more than respectable for any battleship back in 1913, and actually one of the most reasonable parts of this design overall.

The torpedo tubes are right there in the hull, submerged under the water, as was typical for battleship torpedoes.

The idea was that this battleship would break off from the main battle line of big-gun dreadnoughts, then close in to around 2000-3000 yards to engage the enemy’s battle line, launch its huge salvo of torpedoes, and then bugger off. It was hoped that with superior speed and armour it would be able to survive this close encounter, and then the main fleet would take over. The disruption and possible damage to the enemy battle line would then lead to the more organized Russian warships steaming in formation and destroying the rest of the enemy fleet with concentrated main battery fire.

You can see the echoes of the battle of Tsushima in this idea: it was because of the Japanese ability to control the engagement that day that the Russians were soundly defeated; with this torpedo battleship, it was believed that no enemy fleet could have the initiative in the same way again thanks to the disorganization caused by so many torpedoes launched at such a close range.

Now, this battleship wasn’t simply one designer’s pie in the sky concept that went nowhere. Russia’s Naval Ministry actually favoured the concept of a torpedo battleship, though not necessarily Iankov’s exact proposal

War games run to test the concept found that the torpedo battleship, in open engagements, caused the enemy fleet to turn away before the battleship could enter its effective range. While this prevented the ship from having the devastating effect it was intended to have, by staving off an attack from a greater force – in this case usually theorized to be the German High Sea Fleet – it proved to be perhaps the exact tool the Russian fleet needed.

Everything looked fine for Iankov’s strange design, except for one factor: the battleship, meant to deploy with a larger fleet, had no actual battle line to reinforce it. With only the Gangut-class dreadnoughts completed, there was currently no strategic need for Iankov’s ship. This was by no means a complete rejection, however: it was more or less put off for the future, when Russia had a sizable dreadnought fleet. This, naturally, fell apart with the onset of World War 1, though later battleship projects drawn up by the Russian Naval Ministry would show a clear influence, as they could see the impact torpedoes would presumably have on modern naval warfare.

Ultimately, the massive torpedo boat that Iankov had envisioned never came to be, except a similar concept reflected in the construction of the Kitakami and other torpedo cruisers of the Japanese navy. The Americans and Germans, too, studied their own versions of this kind of ship, but none were quite as vast and incredible as the ship Iankov designed in the naval base at Reval.

It’s likely that, after the battle of Jutland, even the Russians wouldn’t consider a torpedo battleship to be viable anymore; the idea of two grand battle fleets engaging each other in open combat was a thing of the past after 1916, and so the torpedo battleship no longer had a place in the realm of modern naval strategy.

Source: Russian and Soviet Battleships, Stephen McLaughlin


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