Eighty years ago, in June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, igniting the greatest slaughter in the history of warfare. On this anniversary, the deeds of the Soviet Red Army will be honored, and properly so. But in the midst of these celebrations, the Red Navy’s role in the eventual triumph of Soviet arms should not be forgotten. Too often, its contributions have been downplayed by former enemies, allies, and historians.
Vice Admiral Hellmuth Heye, who commanded German naval forces in the Black Sea in 1942, stated that “the initiative of the Russian fleet and its ability were estimated as slight.”1 A British officer who served with the liaison mission to the Red Northern Fleet wrote that its officers and men “seemed to be happier in harbour than at sea.”2 Naval historian H. P. Willmott asserted, “In terms of Soviet survival and victory in the Second World War the Soviet Navy was largely irrelevant.”3
Of slight ability. Happier in harbor. Irrelevant. These are harsh judgments by seemingly authoritative writers—but do they accurately represent the significance and activities of a force that in June 1941 comprised 344,000 men, 772 warships from battleships to motor torpedo boats, and 3,838 aircraft? A force that lost in combat 916 vessels of all sizes and had 44,632 men killed in action?4
Context and Constraints
In 1941, the Soviet Navy was a relatively new service in the midst of great transition. It had been founded on the ruins of the tsarist navy, and for a decade after the revolutions of 1917, it struggled to compensate for the loss of technical expertise and a fleet made up of increasingly obsolete hand-me-downs. Given the regime’s dire economic condition, and its status as an international pariah surrounded by potential enemies, the navy had little choice but to adopt a defensive policy. As the economy recovered from the chaos of revolution, however, the Red Navy’s options began to expand.
The Soviets started to establish relations with other states dissatisfied with the established world order, such as Italy and Germany, and sought naval technology from them. At the end of the 1920s, after he gained unchallenged leadership of the Soviet government, Joseph Stalin purged the navy of many of the former tsarist-trained officers. He seemingly supported the “Young School,” made up of officers who favored a “mosquito” fleet of torpedo boats, submarines, and aircraft. But Stalin’s backing had more to do with his distrust of the old regime’s men than any adherence to such theories; ultimately, he wanted a conventional battleship fleet. So, starting in 1937, he purged the mosquito fleet proponents.
In fact, between August 1937 and March 1939, four successive navy chiefs and the commanders of all four fleets were executed. This bloodletting affected all ranks with about 3,000 officers killed, imprisoned, or dismissed. Even as this slaughter was under way, Stalin ordered construction programs that, if completed, would have made the Soviet Union a major naval power. His 1939 ten-year shipbuilding program envisioned the construction of no fewer than 15 giant battleships, 16 battlecruisers, 32 light cruisers, 180 destroyers, and 492 submarines—but only two small aircraft carriers. However, these plans proved wildly overambitious, and when war descended on the nation, many of its surface warships were still World War I antiques.
The great purges of the 1930s, which also consumed much of the Red Army and Communist Party leadership, ended the steady improvements in the navy’s technical and operational skills, leaving it without enough qualified personnel to fill its command positions. Promotion was necessarily rapid: N. G. Kuznetsov, appointed head of the navy in April 1939, was 39 years old when war broke out; the oldest of the fleet commanders was 46, the youngest 35. A 27-year-old skipper of an escort vessel, a lieutenant’s billet, four years later was a rear admiral in command of a cruiser squadron. Noncommissioned officers who lacked the necessary education and training were promoted to fill vacant command positions; suicide rates climbed.
Such a severe pruning did allow for some talent to emerge—Kuznetsov being an example—but in most cases officers “were passive and avoided responsibility” and were “overshadowed” by their commissars, who ensured their political reliability. “Decisions of even minor importance were referred back to Moscow.”5
Another factor undermining the navy’s skills was the transfer of 390,000 men to the army; especially in the desperate early days of the war, many of these were experienced seamen. In addition, during the war 230,000 sailors served ashore as “naval infantry,” fighting as an integral part of the Red Army.
Geography played a major role in determining the navy’s operational performance in World War II. It is ironic that the largest country on earth should have such constricted access to the high seas. The Soviet Union had just four narrow windows on the world ocean: the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, and its own Arctic coast. The first three all passed through choke points that were controlled by hostile powers, while the Arctic coast had only one ice-free port that was a thousand kilometers from Leningrad by railroad.
This geography forced the Soviet Navy to maintain four independent fleets, each operating under unique conditions, with different missions, and facing potential foes of wildly disparate characteristics and strengths. In addition, the Soviet Union’s great rivers, lakes, and inland seas presented the navy with unique demands that evolved rapidly during the German advances in the 1941 and 1942 summer campaigns.
So in June 1941, the Soviet Navy was fragmented into four separate fleets and various flotillas, equipped with many outdated ships, led by a corps of young and newly minted commanders who had strong motives for keeping their political leadership happy and who were teamed with commissars to help them do exactly that. They lacked much of the technology of modern naval warfare, such as radar, influence mines, and sonar. However, they did have an enemy that did not seem interested in challenging them at sea.
Victory by Default?
Ironically, in view of the Soviet Navy’s many handicaps, its most dangerous enemy, the German Kriegsmarine, never posed a serious naval threat to the motherland. True, it was focused on Great Britain, a leading naval power, but this hardly explains the Kriegsmarine’s relative passivity. In the Baltic it was content to blockade the Soviet fleet in its harbors with mines and, in 1943, huge antisubmarine nets. But it could have supported the German Army’s coastal flank more energetically; had Tallinn become a major German supply head before winter’s onset in 1941, it is hard to imagine that Leningrad could have held out as it did.
In the north, the Germans devoted major resources in ships, submarines, and aircraft to attacking Lend-Lease supply routes to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, but even when terrible losses and the endless Arctic days caused the Allies to suspend this traffic, the major arteries for Western aid remained beyond German reach; during the war 4 million tons of cargo were delivered to North Russia, but 4.2 million came through the Persian Gulf and 8 million tons through Vladivostok. In the Black Sea, German options were limited; so long as Britain controlled the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey remained neutral, Germany could count only on the weak navies of Romania and Bulgaria, plus torpedo boats and small submarines delivered by rail to contest superior Soviet forces.
So, did the Red Navy win victory by default? In fact, in every theater the Soviet Navy energetically carried out three major tasks: protecting its lines of communications and its own vital traffic, supporting the land forces, and interfering with enemy traffic. Thus, the answer must be a definite no.
Evacuations, Landings, and Supply
The Soviet Navy excelled in moving troops and keeping them supplied, even in difficult conditions and against heavy opposition. In the Baltic Sea after Axis forces encircled Leningrad, there were few opportunities for the Baltic Fleet’s surface ships and submarines to operate in open waters; nonetheless, the Soviet Navy played a vital role. From September 1941, the Red Army maintained a narrow bridgehead at Oranienbaum, a dozen miles west of Leningrad. Although cut off from the city, which was itself cut off, the defenders held out for 28 months, supplied by sea and supported by the fleet’s guns. By early January 1944, the navy had secretly transported 44,000 men of the 2nd Shock Army into the bridgehead, and on the 14th they formed the first element of a multipronged offensive that finally shattered the siege of Leningrad.
The 1941–42 campaigns in the Black Sea provide more examples of the Soviet Navy’s positive impact. The fleet there was vastly superior to the Romanian Navy’s four destroyers and a submarine. The Germans supplemented this small squadron with an S-boat flotilla and three small submarines, and the Italians added motor-torpedo boats and midget submarines, but the most effective antiship weapons in the Axis arsenal were aircraft and mines. Nevertheless, Red Fleet operations were intense and effective.
By late July 1941, the headlong advance of Germany’s Army Group South had isolated Odessa, the major Ukrainian port in the western Black Sea. Nonetheless, the Soviets supplied an army corps there by sea until mid-October, denying this important harbor to the invaders and tying down an entire Romanian army. On 22 September, after Romanian troops finally advanced into artillery range of the harbor, the Red Fleet landed 2,000 men behind their lines and drove them away, preserving the bridgehead for another three weeks. Then, in the first half of October, the Soviets evacuated 86,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians from Odessa; in the span of a single night they managed to remove 32,000 troops, 20,000 tons of ammunition, and 1,000 trucks.6 A popular German history conceded that it was “a bold operation which few people would have expected the Soviet Union to pull off, inexperienced as it was in naval warfare.”7
The troops evacuated from the Odessa pocket went straight to Sevastopol, main base of the Black Sea Fleet. A glance at the map shows its importance. Axis forces entered the Crimea in October 1941, but the troops from Odessa and others delivered by sea from ports on the Black Sea’s eastern coast defeated Germany’s first attacks against Sevastopol. Conquering the entire peninsula, save the besieged port, the Germans launched what was intended to be the final assault on 17 December.
Beginning on 25 December, however, the Soviet Navy carried out the largest amphibious operation on the Allied side in the war to date, landing 42,000 men on Crimea’s eastern Kerch Peninsula over a period of a week using 14 major warships, 64 minor warships, 17 transports, and 162 other craft. They did this without specialist training or equipment, in atrocious weather, accepting losses that would have defeated any Western navy. This was the application of sea power when and where it was most needed and forced the Germans to abandon their attack on Sevastopol just as the fortress seemed about to fall.
Over the next six months the Soviet Navy sustained the besieged port. One expert has noted, “The Axis failure to sever the Soviet waterborne supply line into isolated Sevastopol . . . was a major impediment in the capture of the fortress in June . By that time the approximately 50,000 Russian troops who had defended the naval base in November 1941 had been reinforced to more than 100,000.”8 Even after the Germans amassed the greatest concentration of artillery used in any of their World War II operations and launched another major attack in June 1942, the Soviet Navy landed supplies daily, running a gauntlet of German S-Boats, Italian MAS boats, and Luftwaffe bombers until the very end. Soviet sea power could not save Sevastopol, but it delayed its capture by nine months, effectively shielding the Caucasus oilfields in the process.
Throughout the war, the Red Fleet made a specialty of improvised amphibious operations, conducting dozens of small-scale landings and raids and eight brigade-to-corps-sized operations involving hundreds of vessels.
The Soviets were not shy about conducting risky operations and suffered several failures. Still, every major landing succeeded in the short term, even if the 1941 Crimea and 1942 Cape Pikshuev operations fell short of their ultimate goals. And in 1944–45, as the Soviets went over to the offensive in every theater, the navy conducted major and minor landing operations to outflank the enemy’s defenses, capture important objectives, or disguise the real purpose of a land attack.
Gunfire support was another important mission of the Red Navy. This role was a major part of its prewar doctrine, and the design requirements for nearly all surface warships included a specification for bombarding enemy positions to assist the army. This emphasis paid high dividends during the war, particularly throughout the siege of Leningrad. Even after German aircraft sank the battleship Marat in shallow water, her guns remained in action. According to a prominent German historian, “she was a mainstay of the Soviet defense all through the war . . . [and] greatly helped the Red Army to defend Leningrad and to hold a beachhead around Oranienbaum.”9 Nor was she an isolated example; in every theater cruisers, destroyers, gunboats, even submarines routinely used their firepower to support army operations.
The Inland Navy and ‘Internal’ Convoys
Like Oranienbaum, Odessa, and Sevastopol, Leningrad is an example of a besieged Soviet city supported by the navy. In the summer of 1942, Leningrad’s fate hung in the balance. German forces held a section of Lake Ladoga’s southern shoreline, and as many as a million civilians had died during the horrible winter of 1941–42. However, despite opposition by Finnish, German, and Italian light forces and by the German and Finnish air forces, the Red Navy organized a shuttle service of small steamers, boats, and barges that delivered 790,000 tons of supplies over the lake to Leningrad from 20 May 1942 through 8 January 1943.10 By way of comparison, this is more tonnage than the Italian Navy delivered to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s forces in North Africa in any eight-month period of the war.
Soviet success on Lake Ladoga highlights the role of geography in the Red Fleet’s operations. The large rivers of western Russia and the Ukraine, such as the Dnieper, Don, and Volga, were barriers to land movements, but they also were lines of communications and supply corridors. Control of these waterways and of the great lakes of the north played a major role in the conflict and in several instances were critical to the Red Army’s victories.
In June 1941, the Soviet Navy included the Caspian, Amur, Danube, and Pinsk Flotillas, but during the war the riverine and inland forces expanded to include an Azov Sea Flotilla and units on the Dnieper, Northern and Western Dvina, and Volga rivers. Lake flotillas included Ladoga, Onega, Peipus, and Limen. Their overall impact is indicated by the fact that, during the war, they “moved 10 percent of the supplies and equipment of the ground forces, transporting approximately 200 million tons of cargo.”11 They also carried out dozens of small landing operations, sometimes in the face of Axis naval forces.
The siege of Stalingrad provides a good example of the importance of these inland naval operations. The Soviets created a Volga Flotilla in October 1941, in part because the river was a critical transportation corridor. After the Germans advanced to the Volga in July 1942, the Red Army maintained a bridgehead in Stalingrad for five months, due in large measure to the flotilla’s ability to transport men and supplies along and across the river in the face of German air power and artillery. From 17 July to 18 November, the flotilla brought in 62,225 troops, 15,000 tons of ammunition and other supplies, and evacuated 44,790 wounded and civilians.12 In addition, it provided fire support from its floating batteries of 76-mm, 100-mm, and 152-mm guns. The flotilla also swept air-dropped mines from Saratov to Astrakhan. Such activities highlight another strength of the Soviet Navy: It was able to improvise and undertake critical tasks as needed. The importance of the Volga route to the Red Army’s success is difficult to overstate. During the war more than 8 million tons of supplies moved north along the river, including Lend-Lease supplies shipped via Iran and the Caspian Sea.13
To the Western reader, the word “convoys” conjures up a picture of dense columns of merchant ships being shepherded by escort vessels across vast oceans. The Soviet Northern Fleet and merchant marine did indeed participate in the convoying of Allied merchant ships across the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, but also critical was the Northern Fleet’s role in protecting coastal convoys along the nation’s long Arctic coastlines in the White and Kara Seas. In a region almost devoid of railways and roads, these convoys were often the only way to move men and equipment; during the war more than 1 million men and 1.6 million tons of matériel were transported along these shores, usually escorted by minesweepers, sub chasers, and other minor warships.14 In the autumn of 1941, after a Finnish offensive cut rail and canal connections to Murmansk, these “internal” convoys were the main route for supplying the Soviet 14th Army as it struggled to halt the German drive on Murmansk. In 1944, such convoys delivered the equivalent of several divisions and large quantities of supplies and ammunition to Murmansk during the final push to eject the Germans from northern Russia.15
The Greatest Failure
After describing the Soviet Navy’s successes, it is only fair to acknowledge its biggest failure. In 1939, the Soviet Union had the world’s largest submarine fleet, but this force was deeply flawed; many of its boats were too small to possess significant military potential, while the bigger boats were plagued by material defects, including faulty batteries, poor-quality periscopes, and unreliable torpedoes. Even worse, crews were inexperienced and poorly trained, and they operated within a system that at best discouraged and at worst punished initiative and daring—the very qualities that make for a good submarine skipper.16 Throughout the war, Soviet submariners grossly exaggerated their achievements, often reporting sinking transports and escorts when the Germans did not even realize they had been attacked. The Soviets’ submarine loss rate was appalling, especially in the Baltic, where the Germans and Finns created massive mine and net barrages to block access to open waters. That crews continued to put to sea is a testament to their raw courage.
Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that in campaigns in the Arctic, Black Sea, and Baltic, those numerous Soviet submarines managed to sink only 91 Axis and neutral merchant vessels totaling 231,058 gross register tonnage at a cost of 90 boats lost at sea. Moreover, 20 percent of that tonnage was from the sinking of just three ships during the German evacuation of Courland in January–May 1945: the Wilhelm Gustloff on 30 January, the General Steuben on 10 February, and the Goya on 17 April. But these late-war successes, although inflicting a tremendous loss of lives, had no military significance.
The Soviet submarine force’s greatest contribution was forcing the Germans, Romanians, and Finns to convoy traffic; although the underwater fleet was largely ineffective, it never could be ignored. Submarines also carried out useful subsidiary tasks. They conducted dozens of “diversionary-reconnaissance” landings, inserting small parties behind German lines to gather intelligence, carry out sabotage, sow confusion, and force the enemy to patrol otherwise undefended shorelines.17
The Soviet Navy in World War II was a study in contrasts. In terms of capabilities, training, and technology, it was clearly inferior to the Western navies. But in terms of its persistence and ability to improvise complex operations, it was at least their equal, and in its singleness of purpose and ability to absorb casualties, it was unequaled. It did not fight in the way its German enemies and its British allies thought it should, but it did make every effort to carry out its assigned tasks, and in most cases it succeeded. Its activities unquestionably preserved Leningrad and Murmansk, and perhaps even the Caucasus. Such successes were critical to the Soviet Union’s final victories.
1. G. H. Bennett and R. Bennett, Hitler’s Admirals (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004), 127.
2. Albert Seaton, The Russo-German War, 1941–1945 (New York: Praeger, 1971), 505.
3. H. P. Willmott, The Last Century of Sea Power (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 2:224.
4. Stephen McLaughlin, “The Soviet Union: Voenno-morskoi Flot SSSR,” in Vincent P. O’Hara, W. David Dickson, and Richard Worth, eds., On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 253–88, tables 7.2, 7.3, 7.5, 7.12.
5. Seaton, Russo-German War, 509.
6. I. C. B. Dear and M. R. D. Foot, The Oxford Companion to World War II (New York: Oxford, 1995), 135.
7. Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East, 1941–1943 (New York: Bantam, 1967), 304.
8. Edward J. Marolda, “The Failure of German World War II Strategy in the Black Sea,” Naval War College Review 28, no. 1 (Summer 1975): 39–54, 47.
9. Friedrich Ruge, The Soviets as Naval Opponents, 1941–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), 21
10. V. D. Dotsenko, Flot—Voina—Pobeda (St. Petersburg: Sudostroenie, 1995), 182.
11. Lester W. Grau, “River Flotillas in Support of Defensive Ground Operations: The Soviet Experience,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 29, no. 1 (February 2016): 73–98, 78.
12. Grau, “River Flotillas,” 89.
13. Grau, “River Flotillas,” 83.
14. Dotsenko, Flot—Voina—Pobeda, 31.
15. A. G. Golovko, With the Fleet (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988), 171.
16. See Rolf Erikson, “Soviet Submarine Operations in World War II,” in James J. Sadkovich, ed., Reevaluating Major Naval Combatants of World War II (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 155–79, 157–58.
17. For more information see Erikson, “Soviet Submarine Operations.”