The Black Sea city of Sevastopol was enduring a bitter cold on the evening of 29 October 1955. Seemingly since its founding in 1783, the port city had been touched by war and plague, prosperity and famine. Exactly a century before, the city was under siege for three months by the British Army during the Crimean War. From 1941 to 1942, the city was bombarded by German shells as Nazi forces marched into the Soviet Union.
On that cold October night, death again came to Sevastopol, but this time it was not from an enemy army, or even a navy. It was from one of the Soviet Union’s own warships: the mighty 25,000-ton battleship Novorossiysk.
At 0131, a massive explosion shook the harbor and rocked the huge warship. The Black Sea Fleet’s flagship had exploded, a tragedy that led directly to the modern Soviet Navy.
After viewing images of the vast armada off the coast of Normandy in June 1944, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin began plans to build and unleash a mighty new navy to challenge those of Great Britain, France, and the United States. The Soviet Union had never had much of a navy, since its coastlines had few warm-water ports from which to command the seas. The Baltic port of Leningrad and the Pacific harbors of Port Arthur and Vladivostok were icebound much of the year. Furthermore, the Baltic and Black Seas were confined waters, accessible only past Denmark and Turkey. Farther north, the huge ports of Murmansk and Archangel were frozen over except for a few months during summer. The post-1918 Soviet Navy was little more than three small fleets based in Vladivostok, Leningrad, and Sevastopol.
Stalin wanted a huge surface fleet—including several powerful 16,500-ton Sverdlov cruisers and 41,600-ton Stalingrad battle cruisers, as well as aircraft carriers—to extend communism around the world. In 1948, Stalin told the Supreme Soviet that the Soviet Union could not assist fellow socialist nations because “we have no navy.” It was crucial that the postwar Soviet Union have a navy that could prove the growing domination of communism to allies and foes alike.
When the Allies defeated the Axis powers in 1945, an agreement was hammered out that the German, Japanese, and Italian surface and submarine fleets would be divided among the Soviet Union, France, and other Allied nations. Stalin then ordered all German ports and shipyards in the Soviet Occupation Zone and in Soviet-occupied Poland to be dismantled and shipped by rail to Leningrad and Sevastopol. It was looting on a grand scale.
To Stalin’s Navy Ministry, a big surface fleet was a liability rather than a benefit; submarines had proved that during the war. They believed the obvious solution for the postwar Soviet Union was a submarine force. Several of the unfinished, late-war German U-boats were studied and copied. They were the most advanced and technically superior subs in the world and became a bonus to the naval designers building Stalin’s new navy. Not only would these submarines be put into service, but their innovative propulsion and weapon technology were a leap ahead of the best U.S. and British designs. The Soviet subs were constructed in covered shipways and hidden from Western eyes. Between 1948 and 1950, the Soviets built more than 50 submarines per year, finally reaching a number greater than Admiral Karl Döenitz had ever commanded during the height of Germany’s U-boat campaign.
The addition of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, as well as Poland, extended the USSR’s Baltic coastline from 75 miles to more than a thousand, greatly increasing the number of available shipyards and harbors. In the Pacific, having declared war on Japan just before the surrender, the Soviets were deeded the Kurile Islands, the Sakhalin Islands, and the northern half of Korea. With satellite ports in Bulgaria and Romania providing more access to the Black Sea, Stalin’s grand dream was about to come true.
But despite the addition of year-round ports, the Baltic and Black Seas still had limited access to the open ocean. The Baltic’s only outlet was between Denmark and Norway and into the North Sea, dominated by Great Britain. As for the Black Sea, the only way out was through the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean, a virtual British and Allied lake, and the Strait of Gibraltar.
It is easy to understand Stalin’s inferiority complex regarding the Allies’ total freedom of the seas and his own landlocked navy. An aggressive naval shipbuilding program, making full use of the equipment, industry, and money provided by the Allies during the war, would revitalize Soviet heavy industry.
The first years of this huge building program went largely unnoticed by Western powers, who were still riding high on their victory over the Axis. Focusing on atomic weapons, bombers, and the large fleet of aircraft carriers, the United States early on saw little threat from the mysterious nation that was, presumably, an ally. Added to this was Stalin’s fanatical insistence on secrecy. Little solid information came from behind the Iron Curtain.
During the six years between 1945 and 1951, the Soviet Union built more ships than every other navy in the world combined. That was when the West—realizing the growing threat from communism, sparked by the USSR’s first atom bomb detonation in 1949—began to show interest in the new Soviet Navy.
Behind the scenes in the Kremlin, Stalin was under siege by his own people. He had gone too far in the years prior to World War II. In his fanatical zeal to eliminate anyone he thought a threat to his power, he had ordered massive purges of men at every level of government and the military. At least 30 percent of the Soviet Army and Navy officer corps was decimated, including three of the four fleet commanders. Hundreds of high officers in the Red Army, Air Force, and Navy were arrested and put into the gulag, or even executed.
The purges had a detrimental effect on the Soviet military. When the German Army began its march into Ukraine in 1941, the Red Army was unable to consolidate what remained of its officer corps to organize a counterattack. The same was true for the navy, even though it played a lesser role in World War II, or, as it was known in the Soviet Union, the Great Patriotic War. As a result, many of the men who would have been able to help rebuild the navy were gone by the late 1940s.
The senior officer of the Soviet Navy was Admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov, one of the few high-ranking men who managed to evade the bloody purges. He and the others who had escaped were nevertheless under suspicion. They followed Stalin’s orders without question. In 1951, Kuznetsov was appointed Minister of the Navy, and two years later he became Deputy Secretary of Defense, a post usually held by a Red Army officer.
When Stalin died in 1953, the entire country was thrust into a state of political and national weightlessness. A collective sigh swept through every government office as they realized the evil Stalin, who had gone to great lengths to portray himself a loving and benevolent father figure, had died at last. In the three-year-long vacuum left in the Soviet power structure, its navy’s frenzied building program stalled, since no one could predict what the next General Secretary would want to do. As of 1955, this is where matters stood.
The Italian battleship Giulio Cesare had been launched at the Genoa shipyards in 1915. While not seeing action in the Great War, the ship went through the 1920s as a gunnery training ship. In 1930 she was brought into drydock for a major overhaul, during which additional armor was added and new turbines installed. At 26,000 tons, the Giulio Cesare could reach a respectable 22 knots, but she was slow for the time. Her main armament was a strange arrangement of 13 12-inch guns in three triple and two twin-gun turrets. This was considerable firepower in 1915 but was hardly impressive in 1941.
During World War II, her main duty was escorting troop transports across the Mediterranean to Italy’s North African possessions. But by 1942, she was again relegated to spending the war as a training ship. The Giulio Cesare’s late emergence into the war kept her from being bombed at Taranto by the Royal Navy in 1940. When fascist Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the battleship was sent to a quiet harbor to await her fate. An agreement among the Allied powers divided up the former Italian Navy, with France, Great Britain, Greece, the Soviet Union, and the United States being given battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The battleships were classed as B and C, the latter being older and obsolete.
On 9 December 1948, the old Giulio Cesare—along with a light cruiser, two destroyers, and two submarines—left Taranto and headed east to the Albanian port of Vlera, where they were handed over to Rear Admiral Gordey Levchenko. On 6 February 1949, the Soviet naval banner was raised over the weathered teak decks and rusted steel of the Novorossiysk—the former Giulio Cesare—which then steamed with a Soviet crew through the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, arriving on 26 February. Her condition was poor, with machinery in dire need of repair and overhaul. The electrical system and hydraulics to power the turrets frequently broke down. Her boilers leaked, and piping throughout the hull needed replacement. The only parts of the ship that seemed to be in good order were the hull and frames.
The Soviet Navy high command, pressured by Stalin, ordered the old battleship to be put into working order as soon as possible. But it was learned that some of her original blueprints and technical paperwork were missing, which meant the navy would have to thoroughly survey the ship before she could be restored to fighting order. In the postwar Soviet Union, patience was a virtue—but practically unheard of.
So by August of that year, the newest capital ship of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, the flagship Novorossiysk, was participating in naval maneuvers. But the three months of hasty repairs had not restored the old ship to anywhere near what Moscow wanted. She was pure window dressing, a façade to make the world see how Soviet Navy sailors and officers had mastered the best of the prewar Italian battleship. From 1949 to 1955, the big ship was in drydock and the repair yard eight times for upgrades to the antiaircraft batteries, installation of new fire-control and communication systems, and replacement of her Italian-built turbines for ones built in the Kharkov factory.
The Novorossiysk was in a state of flux after Stalin died, but she was the highly visible centerpiece of Black Sea naval combat maneuvers three times in 1955, from May to October. With cold weather closing in, the ship was moored at the Northern Base. At a depth of 51 feet, it was ample for the big ship and less than 200 yards from shore. The bottom was mostly soft black muck, with centuries of old junk and wreckage from previous wars.
On the evening of 28 October, Captain Second Rank Khurshudov was on duty on board the Novorossiysk. Captain First Rank Kukhta was on leave, as were about half the crew. Her normal complement was 70 officers, 240 petty officers, and 1,200 sailors. The day after the Novorossiysk was moored, cadets from the naval academy came on board for training. The night passed quietly while the officers went through their watches. At exactly 0131 a thunderous explosion tore through the night. A hole with an area of 150 square yards was torn open in the starboard bow below the waterline, and an icy torrent rushed into the hull. A large portion of the port side was badly dented outward from a blast estimated at about a thousand pounds of high explosive. Immediately, the battleship listed hard to port and down by the bow.
Phone calls immediately went out to Moscow and the fleet commander. The most senior officer at the base was Chief of Operations Captain First Rank Ovcharov. He ordered tugs to tow the ship to shallow water. By 0200, the Novorossiysk’s stern was almost aground, but the rapidly filling bow was still sinking.
Commander in Chief of the Black Sea Fleet Vice Admiral V. A. Pakhomenko ordered every senior officer in the area to report to him. Before 0300, 28 men of captain first rank and above had reached the chaotic scene as searchlights and yard boats swept the black waters around the behemoth. Every other warship lowered their boats to head for the battleship. True to the Soviet way, fingers were pointed and accusations made. Every officer tried to deflect blame for the crisis.
Rescue boats moved close in as more than 800 of the Novorossiysk’s crew reached the main deck. Below decks, the phone system had shorted out, making it impossible to determine how many men were trapped. At first they were ordered to climb down into the boats by Acting Squadron Commander Rear Admiral N. I. Nikolskiy, but Pakhomenko told the crew to remain on board. At 0350, when the list was approaching the dangerous angle of 20 degrees, Nikolskiy again requested the crew be taken off, but Pakhomenko still refused.
Then, the once-proud battleship capsized, the main deck at an angle that forced the crew to jump into the black waters. Pakhomenko later defended his refusal let the crew off the Novorossiysk sooner, explaining to the Navy Ministry that he did not want the crew to abandon the ship if there was the slightest chance she would not roll over. But this became a forlorn hope even as the tugs managed to drive the huge ship onto the muddy shore of the Black Sea. Most of the men who were forced to jump drowned as the behemoth rolled over on top of them. Hundreds more were trapped inside the hull without lights or power.
By 0414, the battleship, with 7,000 tons of water in the hull, rested on her port side. For several hours, as a cold gray dawn rose to the east, rescue and damage control teams tried to reach the men trapped inside. By midmorning, the flagship of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was almost completely submerged.
Because of the chaos resulting from senior officers’ inability to agree, no coordinated rescue was organized. Many men were trapped in compartments where air remained, but their once-familiar lighted world had become a freezing, black, upside-down hell.
On 1 November, the tapping from inside the Novorossiysk’s hull ceased forever. More than 600 men died both inside the ship and in the waters around the hull.
Not until the following summer did salvage experts begin the massive task of raising the ship by pumping air into flooded compartments. By May 1957, the huge Novorossiysk, now covered in slime and muck and showing the huge rents in the hull, was refloated. The Soviet naval banner no longer flew at her mast. Teams went into the dead ship and removed the remains of the men who had died when the pride of the navy sank.
For the next year, the battleship was scrapped, the steel being sent to tractor and tank factories.
In 1956, the political vacuum following Stalin’s death was filled by Nikita Khrushchev, who quickly began to erase his predecessor’s memory from the land. Khrushchev in many ways was as ruthless as Stalin, but he was more progressive and less paranoid. He had big ideas for the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev ordered a special committee of engineers to ascertain the cause of the Novorossiysk explosion. They were given exactly three weeks. Rumors swept through the navy that sabotage by Western powers was responsible for sinking the ship, but the committee, which delivered its report on 17 November 1957, determined than an old German limpet mine left over from World War II had exploded either from contact or pressure from the heavy hull above. That was when heads rolled. Admirals Pakhomenko and Nikolskiy and several others were either fired or reduced in rank. It was typical of Soviet justice that virtually every senior ranking officer was blamed for the disaster.
The disaster proved the age of the battleship was over, as if World War II had not already proved that to traditionalist naval officers. Kuznetsov was still in command during the early part of Khrushchev’s rise to power, but the Novorossiysk explosion changed how a modern navy would be organized.
The Soviet Navy came under severe criticism for lack of solid leadership, poor maintenance, and the brutal cover-up of the details of the Novorossiysk disaster. The Soviet people were not even told of the explosion for more than 30 years. Kuznetsov was forced to retire on 8 December 1955.
The U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus (SSN-571), went into service in 1956, heralding the dawn of a new naval age.
Behind the Iron Curtain the new player in the drama was a man who had become an admiral at the age of 31 and was twice a hero of the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War: Admiral of the Fleet Sergey Gorshkov. Now known as the father of the modern Soviet Navy, Gorshkov was a rabid proponent of smaller, faster, missile-carrying surface ships and nuclear-powered submarines to counter the Nautilus.
In a reversal of what Stalin had been pushing for, Khrushchev called for a halt to building big surface warships. He ordered all prewar battleships, heavy cruisers, and nearly every German and Italian ship brought into the navy since 1946 to be scrapped. As far as Khrushchev was concerned, navy ships were only good for ferrying heads of state on official visits and had outlived their time. In this, he was in total agreement with Admiral Gorshkov. But his policies favored the Red Army, which were the province of his new Defense Minister, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov. By scrapping hundreds of ships, the navy budget could be reduced and the surplus used for the Red Army and emerging atomic rocket forces.
The navy was cut from a high of more than a million men to less than half that number by 1957. More than 300 ships were mothballed. But as for submarines, the USSR had built more than 80 new diesel-electric subs and might have doubled that number had Khrushchev not cut the building program. Two years after the Nautilus began service in the United States, the Soviets launched their first nuclear sub, Project 627, known as K-3, NATO codenamed November. Far inferior to the U.S. nuclear subs, the class had been rushed into service with little of the painstaking attention to safety and technical perfection that characterized the work of Admiral Hyman Rickover in the United States.
The rash decision to scrap the surface navy returned to haunt the General Secretary in October 1962. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Gorshkov was in a bind with a shortage of surface warships to provide protection for the merchant ships carrying the medium-range rockets to Cuba. Khrushchev called Gorshkov in Leningrad to berate the admiral for not having enough ships for the job.
“We need armed ships with long range as escorts to Cuba,” the angry General Secretary bellowed at Gorshkov over the phone. “How could you do without any?”
Gorshkov protested, “But Comrade General Secretary, you ordered them all destroyed!”
“I gave no such order!” Khrushchev bellowed, slamming down the phone.
During the rest of that turbulent decade and into the 1970s, the United States fell deeper into the quagmire of the Vietnam War. That was when Gorshkov, knowing that the Soviet Union could not compete with the U.S. Navy in carriers, realized a large submarine force was the real projector of power at sea. As any modern sub driver would say, “There are only two types of ships: submarines and targets.” Nuclear submarines could interdict and cut off all sea trade between the United States and Europe. The broad Atlantic was the one weak link in supporting Europe, as Admirals Alfred von Tirpitz and Karl Döenitz learned in two world wars.
While the Red Army was fighting a determined guerrilla enemy in Afghanistan, Gorshkov was feverishly working to make the navy into the major overseas force of the Soviet Union. Several new classes of nuclear-powered subs, ending with the fast new Victor-class attack boats and the unique Soviet cruise-missile boats, had entered worldwide service by the late 1980s. Most of the world’s attention was focused on the long-range nuclear-armed strategic rocket forces, but the real threat was under the surface of the sea.
The Soviet Navy submarine fleet was numerically, if not technically, superior to Western navies, and every missile sub that deployed was watched by satellite and prowling British and U.S. attack subs.
It is not a leap to suggest the massive buildup of the advanced U.S. nuclear-powered submarine force from the 1970s to the end of the century was because of the need to prevent any Soviet missile boats from approaching U.S. territorial waters. The Department of Defense’s real fear was the short time between the launch of submarine ballistic missiles and when their warheads would detonate over U.S. cities. Gorshkov had used his huge submarine force to do what his predecessors and Stalin had failed to do. He had forced a change in U.S. naval policy.
Deploying more than 50 advanced Los Angeles–class hunter-killer boats and the hugely expensive Ohio-class Trident missile submarines was meant to provide a physical deterrent to Soviet missile-boat deployments. It was Admiral of the Fleet Sergey Gorshkov, following Stalin’s desire to make the Soviet Navy the terror of the world, who finally called “Check.”
Peter Huchthausen, K-19 The Widow Maker: The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine (Washington, DC: National Geographic Press, 2002).
John Keegan, Intelligence in War: the Value—and Limitations—of What the Military Can Learn about the Enemy (New York: Vintage, 2004).
John A. Butler, Strike Able Peter: The Stranding and Salvage of the USS Missouri (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1995).
Andrew Cockburn, The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military (New York: Random House, 1984).