Mar 16, 2015

THE SOVIET SUBMARINE FORCE IN WORLD WAR II




The early Soviet Navy had to build from a very shattered base, for after the revolution and the bitter civil war that followed, the once powerful Imperial Navy had been reduced to a fraction of its former size. Further, while the proficiency of the Russian Navy had not been great for decades, it was so diminished now that former Tsarist officers were drafted into service as “naval technicians,” and one can only guess what their relations were with the very crews that had not only mutinied, but led the revolution that destroyed their world.

Yet mutiny was still in the air, and, angry with the terrible food and living conditions, the Baltic Fleet at Kronstadt revolted against their new Bolshevik masters on February 28, 1921. No one knew better than the still tiny Bolshevik party the danger implicit in a naval revolt, and a decision was made to crush it with whatever violence and bloodshed was necessary. The uneven battle lasted for twenty-eight days of bitter fighting. More than 6,000 of the dissidents were killed immediately, and many more were subsequently executed. 32 When the Red troops finally conquered the “counterrevolutionaries,” a decision was made to disestablish the navy as an independent force. It became instead the "Naval Force of the Red Army,” and would not be independent again until December 30, 1937. 

The “counterrevolution” had a profound effect upon the future Soviet Navy, because for many years the principal efforts at reconstructing it were political rather than technical. The Komsomol-the Young Communist League-became the major source for officer personnel to en- sure that a future Red Navy would be politically sound.  The Japanese were the last of the foreign countries to pull their troops out of the Soviet Union, leaving in August 1922. From that point on, there were several efforts to rebuild the Soviet Navy, each with emphasis on the importance of the submarine fleet. Things moved slowly, however, and by 1930 there were still only fourteen Soviet submarines in commission. 

In the following years, successive Five Year Plans and, more importantly, Dictator Joseph Stalin's direct interest established a sizeable submarine building program. By 1939, the Soviet Union had the largest submarine fleet in the world, with one hundred fifty submarines in com- mission. Of these, as many as seventy-five percent were smaller, coastal boats, but they were suitable for the defensive purposes intended.  Unfortunately for the morale and the training of the force, however, the Soviet Navy had been devastated by the Stalinist purge of officers that had begun on June 11, 1937. Among the first to be executed was Stalin’s finest soldier, Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail N.   Tukachevsky, along with the naval commissar, T. M. Orlov. Among the many bogus charges levelled at them was their opposition to a powerful Soviet surface fleet. All eight admirals (known, in Soviet parlance, as “flagmen”) of the navy were executed in the purge.  On June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, there were 218 submarines in the Red Navy, spread out among the Baltic, Black Sea, Arctic, and Pacific Fleets. The submarines were for the most part modern, but the crews lacked training and the initiative of the commanders was still stunted by the ferocity of Stalin’s purges. While a submarine commander could be executed for any reason, including not doing anything, he was far more likely to be executed for doing something that was unsuccessful or that resulted in damage to his boat. 

The Germans, working in concert with the Finns, executed 103 mine laying operations to bottle up the Baltic Fleet in the Leningrad/Kronstadt area. (Both sides made impressive and effective use of minefields.) German airpower was also very effective in the Baltic, in both offensive operations and anti-submarine warfare. Soviet submarines would occasionally break out of the minefields and elude the German anti-submarine flotillas, but with minimum effect. German naval vessels had escorted some 1,900 merchant ships, of an aggregate 5.6 million tons during 1942, and lost only 20 ships totalling 40,000 tons-less than one percent of the total. 

The Soviet Union regained a presence in the Baltic in the late summer of 1944. The Red Army reached Riga in August, and the Finns surrendered on September 4. Hitler insisted that the remaining German bridgeheads in the Baltic be held as long as possible, but by the end of 1944 it was obvious that some 2,000,000 troops and refugees had to be evacuated. 

The German Navy began a massive evacuation attempt that, despite all the difficulties, was tremendously successful, with ninety-nine percent of those slated for evacuation reaching Germany. Those who did not make it included the victims of the greatest sea disasters in history-disasters that also represented the greatest successes of Soviet submarines.

On January 30, 1945, the 25,484-ton Wilhelm Gustloff sailed from Pillau, near Danzig, with some 6,100 people on board, including soldiers, sailors, technicians, and civilian refugees. Captain Third RankA. I. Marinesko, commanding the Soviet S-13, fired a spread of four torpedoes, three of which struck the Gustloff. It sank in a little over one hour, taking some 4,000 people with it.
On February 10, Marinesko would score again, this time against the 14,600-ton General Steuben, carrying 3,000 wounded soldiers and its crew. Of these, only 300 were saved. 

Both ships were legitimate targets, and Marinesko was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. But the very fact that these two sinkings were the most noteworthy of all the Soviet submarine activity in the Baltic during World War II is an indication of the relative ineffectiveness of their very large submarine fleet. 

Soviet submarines in other areas did not have any more success. The submarines of the Northern Fleet were perhaps the most helpful of all, since they supported the defense of the land areas around Murmansk.  The Black Sea Fleet was rendered ineffective early on by German air- power and the swift advance of enemy ground forces. The Pacific Fleet made its greatest contribution by sending some of its submarines all the way around the world to reinforce the Northern Fleet. (One of these was lost off the northwest coast of the United States, sunk by the I-25, a Japanese submarine. Besides sinking some merchant shipping, the I-25 conducted the only bombing raids on U.S. soil, launching a Yokosuka E14Yin two attacks on the wooded Oregon coast, where it dropped a total of four 76-kg incendiary bombs. 

Thus the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Union, with justifiable pride, termed the Second World War, ended for the Soviet Navy on an unimpressive note. While the Red Army had distinguished itself in the most titanic battles in history, and the Red Air Force had provided close air support for the Army, the Navy had not distinguished itself. The surface navy (even where numerically superior, as it was in the Baltic) had not engaged the enemy in any fleet actions, and the level of effort of the submarines was, as noted, unremarkable. The Red Navy had done well in coastal defense efforts, in riverine warfare, and in amphibious landings. Rear Admiral Gorshkov, a future four star admiral, architect of the Cold War Soviet Navy, and its commander in chief, had distinguished himself in all three of these efforts, and had also proved himself to be politically adept.

Enter Gorshkov

Born in 1910, Sergei Gorshkov emerged from the Frunze Higher Naval School in 1931. He spent much of his early career in the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets accumulating experience in navigation and ship operations, mostly in destroyers. By 1939 Stalin’s purges had taken their toll on the naval officer corps and the potential German threat created fast-track opportunities for junior officers. In that year Gorshkov returned to the Black Sea Fleet and successfully completed the senior officer’s course at the Viroshilov Naval Academy. He had command of a cruiser squadron in the Black Sea when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Active in combined operations designed to protect Odessa early in the war; Gorshkov became a rear admiral and received command of the Azov Flotilla in October of 1941, only ten years after receiving his commission in the Soviet Navy. As the Germans penetrated his homeland he played a pivotal role in the amphibious landings at Kerch in December 1941, designed to relieve Sevastopol, and as the deputy naval commander in operations designed to protect Novorossisk, the latter bringing him to the attention of the future minister of defence General A. A. Grechko. Gorshkov ended the war directing the naval operations of the Danube Flotilla in support of the Army’s effort against the Germans in the Ukraine and in the Balkans. By 1951, now Vice Admiral Gorshkov became commander in chief of the Black Sea Fleet. He took up residence in Moscow in 1955 as first deputy commander in chief of the Soviet Navy under Admiral N. G. Kuznetsov, and with the assistance of a rising political star, Nikita “Khrushchev, he re- placed Kuznetsov as commander in chief in 1956. He held that post un- til his retirement in 1985.

The Soviet Navy Gorshkov knew was in a very difficult way in 1945, despite a profession by Joseph Stalin that the Soviet people “wanted to see their Navy still stronger and more powerful.” Stalin envisioned Hitler’s dream-a titanic struggle between the Soviet Union against the Western powers-as taking place by 1960 at the latest, and he planned to have the most powerful army, air force, and navy in the world, able to take on Great Britain and the United States in combination.

One of the great ironies of Stalin’s vision was the fact that as he flogged Soviet industry mercilessly to rearm at the expense of civilian consumption, his putative enemies were disarming at a frantic rate and jump-starting their consumer industries to provide basic items that were always luxuries in the Soviet Union, and luxury items that would never be available. It was the ultimate triumph of Rockefeller and Ford over Marx and Lenin that the build-up of consumer industries continually strengthened the economies of the Western powers, while the efforts of Stalin and his successors in establishing a huge military economy ultimately brought about the demise of the Soviet Union.

The decade that followed saw the Soviet Union in Stalin’s iron grip for eight years, during which he followed through by establishing a ship-building program of colossal proportions. Had it been fulfilled to the letter, the Soviet Navy would have possessed four aircraft carriers, ten battle cruisers, twenty-four cruisers, and an incredible 1,244 submarines, along with all of the other ship classes pertinent to a first -class navy.

The time had passed for such a formidable navy, but no one was going to inform Stalin of that fact. Ironically, the paranoia that drove him to the many purges of leadership caused political shake-ups that damaged the operation of the Soviet Navy. He abolished the Navy Commissariat, and placed the navy under the People's Commissariat of Defense, later designated the Ministry of the Armed Forces in March 1946. Then, he turned on Admiral Kuznetsov, as he had earlier turned on Marshal Tukachevsky, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, and many others. Kuznetsov was court-martialled and dismissed as commander in chief of the navy on the customary charge of treason. In February 1950, he was recalled as Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet Navy. The new commander in chief of the navy as a whole was Admiral I. S. Yumashev, but his tenure would be short, for Kuznetsov would once more resume that role in 1951.

Given the damage done to the Soviet Union by Germany, and the immense amount of resources that had been poured into the war, it was impossible to provide the industrial resources necessary for the creation of such a gargantuan fleet. Instead, the Soviet Navy leadership tried to complete the twenty-four big cruisers of the Sverdlov class. The main concern of the top admirals was not so much to have dominating firepower at sea as to create vessels in which crews would learn the trade of being sailors before being trained to fight.

Much of the momentum to acquire a large surface fleet died with Stalin in 1953. His death was followed by the usual Kremlin infighting, and when First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin. and the “cult of the person of Stalin” in his February 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, it was evident that there was a new power source, one to which Admiral Gorshkov immediately gravitated. (It would not be until 1958 that Khrushchev assumed the post of premier, and became head of both state and party.)

Thus it was in 1956, eleven years after the Great Patriotic War ended, that Gorshkov was given command of the Red Navy. He immediately paid lip service to Khrushchev's policy that large surface ships were obsolete and that missiles and submarines were the weapons of the future. He also supported Khrushchev’s view that the Red Navy was an important element of foreign policy and supervised the provision of surface ships, submarines, personnel, and materials for mine warfare to countries the Soviet Union wished to influence.

Gorshkov sanctioned the huge Soviet submarine construction program that was bringing new boats into service at the rate of eighty per year. Their purpose was to defeat the enemy by disrupting naval and sea communications. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations were seen as the principal enemy, and if a conventional war were fought, the Soviet Union believed that between eighty and one hundred large transports would be arriving at European ports daily, with as many as 2,000 vessels en route simultaneously. Such a massive effort could only be defeated by a massive submarine force.

Yet both the United States and the Soviet Union had moved forward with nuclear weapons and missiles. If the war turned out not to be conventional, but rather nuclear, submarines would be needed to launch nuclear missiles against enemy carrier groups, and against the enemy coast.

Gorshkov was thus faced with enormous opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, under his guidance, the Soviet Navy had to be swiftly elevated in quality and capability to undertake the missions that Khrushchev envisioned. On the other, he did not have a large share of the military budget nor, more importantly, a broad base of personnel upon whom to draw to command and man his ships.

It would be his most important task to see that the best possible candidates were selected to command submarines and be responsible for nuclear weapons. (Nuclear-powered submarines were just visible on the horizon.) To achieve this Gorshkov had to create the doctrine and supervise the training of the Soviet Navy, which lacked all the components of naval experience and confidence that are so vital in wartime. At the same time, he had to elevate the stature of the navy within the military complex of the USSR, so that it would receive a fair and adequate share of the military budget. Finally, he had to attend to the myriad other details of building and running a huge navy, while still nourishing his private dream of creating a large and balanced surface fleet.

There are many ways to evaluate Gorshkov's relative success or failure.


The Haupt book mentioned above cites 5100 lost on the Wilhelm Gustloff (25,484 GRT) [which was, as someone pointed out, a KdF ship], 2700 lost on the Gen. von Steuben (14,660 GRT), and 6500 on the Goya (5,230 GRT). Note that, according to these figures, the Goya was about five times more overloaded than the Gustloff. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Goya was sunk 2 ½ months after the Gustloff, both by Soviet submarines, indicating that the KM should have known better by that time.

Activity  of Soviet Navy was greatly limited by Red Army’s failure to defend  fleet’s strategic bases - all such bases as Sevastopol (main base of Black Sea Fleet), Odessa, Feodosia, Novorosisk, Tallin, Liepaia, Leningrad and Kronshtat was in German hands or cut off from main territory until ay least 1943-44. Great losses in 1941 also minimised fleet’s  ability  to operate in the same style as British or American do.  But those losses was mainly caused by German aviation, not in ship-to-ship battles.
Roman Alumov, Moscow, Russia

To further elaborate on Roman’s comments, the loss of base facilities for major naval units furthered the emphasis on “mosquito fleet” tactics by small units such as fast motor gunboats, submarines, etc, and also on amphibious warfare.  The latter, which was indeed a direct support of the land forces, somewhat in the manner of the Soviet Air Force, was employed on a huge scale.  The Soviets conducted something like 140+ amphibious landings, primarily in the Black Sea and Baltic, but also on the Arctic coast and later in the Pacific theatre.  During these ops over 300,000 troops were put ashore.  The Soviet Navy also conducted extensive riverine operations, from a crucial role in the defense of Stalingrad to the use of Soviet Marines on the Danube around Budapest.

PS  The fact that one of the two largest Soviet fleets, the Baltic, was virtually shut up in its last usable harbor around Leningrad, also contributed to the preference for small-unit tactics.  The big ships, including two old battleships (MARAT and OKTOBRISKIYA REVOLUTSIYA) and a partly-completed heavy cruiser, did lend their guns, at least, to the defense of the city, firing from their berths.  The relative burst of Soviet submarine activity in late 1944-1945 was directly related to the fact that prior to this period access to the Baltic was barred by a huge anti-submarine net which had been constructed across the entrance to that sea (from the Gulf of Finland) between Finnish soil and Estonia.  Only when the German retreat along the Baltic coast allowed the Soviets to dismantle this obstacle did large-scale submarine penetration of the inner Baltic become possible.  The heavy units of the Black Sea Fleet suffered, as Roman mentioned, from the loss (or untenability) of their main bases in that sea relatively early in the campaign, forcing these big ships to dock at harbors on the west Caucasian coast where facilities for repair and maintenance were lacking.  This and German air superiority kept them from all but the most occasional sorties, and as a result many of the specialist crewmen were mobilized for ground combat in the marines as time passed, further reducing the combat-readiness of the major units (like the old battleship PARISKAYA KOMUNA) which remained.


Not what you asked, but the Russian Subs were very active in the Baltic from day 1.  But when the Germans got to the gates of Leningrad, they and the Finns constructed an extensive series of mine barrages across the mouth of the end of the Baltic.  This was steadily built up and maintained, effectively ending successful sub forays until the retreat of Armee Gruppe Nord in 1944.  Most of the heavy surface ships in (DD and above) in the Baltic were used strictly as gunfire/AA support after 8/41 because of:
1.      the mine barrage
2.      fuel needed to keep the city going
3.      most of crews (excepting gunners and enough engineers to keep power
to the guns) used as infantry
4.      bomb damage that was not repairable given the siege
5.      poor maintenance (again, due to a lack of spares and resources)

The Arctic fleet was extremely active in support of the forces on the Lista river, as were the riverine forces.  Black sea fleet was used extensively to move troops and supplies to Sevastopol, at times in the face of very heavy air opposition.