Deep sea divers: Russia’s pioneering submarines

The vital role of submarine fleets for 20th-century politicians and strategists was cemented a century earlier by Russian engineers and submariners, who first ventured into the depths in the forerunners of today’s underwater leviathans.

While life may have emerged from the seas, for thousands of years they also represented a constant source of both great peril and fascination for their mystery.

Yet bodies of water always had a useful military function, offering an opportunity for sudden attack and concealed withdrawal.

Even Alexander the Great’s armies used domes full of air to move underwater for scouting purposes, while the warriors of ancient Rus would breathe through reeds as they lay in ambush by the river bank.

Like the parachute or aircraft, the notion of a self-propelled underwater apparatus was advanced by gifted dreamers centuries ago. During the early 18th century, an era of technical innovation and the creation of the Imperial fleet under Peter the Great, a carpenter called Efim Nikonov worked on such a ‘secret vessel’.

In 1834 the Russian military engineer Karl Schilder developed another groundbreaking project of global significance, the first iron-hulled underwater vessel, propelled manually by its crew.

The concept of underwater warfare gained wide popularity in the 19th century. Primitive submarines were used during the American Civil War and were followed by more modern incarnations, starting in 1884 with France’s Le Neptune, which incorporated a steam engine designed by the engineer Toseli, then Spain’s electric-powered submarine Peral in 1887 and the British vessel Nautilus in the same year. 

On the Russian Empire’s drawing board

Russian engineers not only kept up with this race but also shed some light on the still shadowy future of submarine warfare. In the second half of the 19th century Schilder’s mantle was passed to inventor Stepan Dzhevetsky, a friend of the famous French engineer Gustave Eiffel.

Dzhevetsky developed various submarine types and modifications, including an electric-powered design in 1884, as well as a tubeless torpedo that was ahead of its time.

Meanwhile, Russia was busy buying up technical innovations in this field from around the globe. At the start of the 20th century, naval engineer Ivan Bubnov combined the sum of the world’s submarine achievements to create the “Delfin” (Dolphin), the first vessel to be formally commissioned by the Russian Navy.

With a displacement of 113-123 tons and a diving depth of 50 meters, the Delfin was one of the largest in existence. It was fitted with two petrol-electric motors that enabled a speed of 10 knots.

Bubnov later perfected his maiden design with the “Kasatka” (Orca), which was faster and carried improved armament.  

The historical necessity of using the submarine in combat also fell first to Russia. The war with Japan began in 1904 and naval warfare was to play a decisive role in the conflict.

The scientific community managed with some difficulty to convince the national leadership of the value of these ‘newfangled’ underwater vessels used for reconnaissance and patrolling. But due to design flaws, diving remained a dangerous operation.

Initial skepticism

Submarines did not score any major successes in the war but were still a source of great fear among Japanese sailors and complicated their access to Vladivostok.

But official opinions in naval circles about the value of submarines remained extremely reserved, and they were deemed only a moderately useful defensive weapon.

The naval command’s scant familiarity with these new-style warships was amply demonstrated when the head of the submarine force submitted a request to Admiral Birilev for 24 French-made engine spark plugs. Heeding only the root word ‘candle’ in the Russian phrase for ‘spark plug’, the Admiral replied: “Two pounds of government-issue stearin candles will suffice.”

It was because of such attitudes towards the submarine fleet that Russia commissioned only one modern vessel capable of military operation before the outbreak of the First World War, the “Akula” (Shark). The rest were built according to the specifications of models in service in 1904-05, and were already outdated by the time of their completion.

Bubnov, however, continued working on the latest ideas in submarine construction. Most notably, and in view of the unreliability and dangerous flammability of petrol engines used during the Russo-Japanese war, he designed the diesel submarine “Minoga” (Lamprey) and an even larger version of the Akula.

Shortly before the war he designed the “Bars“ (Snow leopard) and “Morzh” (Walrus) class submarines, which differed in their displacement and engine capacity. These vessels carried supplies for ten days and could spend up to a day below the surface.  During the war Russia built 24 Bars submarines but only three of the more modern Morzh.

Bubnov’s brainchild proved its worth in wartime, though. The Akula completed 16 operational missions, participated in laying down minefields, and was the first Russian submarine to initiate a search and locate mission rather than just lying in wait for targets.

Despite their small numbers, the Morzh vessels deployed in the Black Sea were the most productive. Over the course of World War I this class of submarine sank or captured 13 steamships and more than 50 motorized and sail-powered coastal vessels.

Overall, submarines proved themselves to be a menace to both transport and auxiliary ships, and no one harbored further doubts as to their future importance, or that Russia had witnessed the successful birth of its own submarine fleet.

The modern submarine fleet

Today, submarines have been transformed into underwater domiciles with comfortable crew facilities, with games and common rooms and even saunas.

They operate far from their home shores, can launch missiles to destroy entire cities from any point of the globe, and as such act as a deterrent to war.

There are 13 nuclear-powered submarines in the Russian Navy armed with ballistic missiles and 27 that carry torpedoes, alongside 19 diesel-powered submarines, eight special-purpose nuclear subs and one diesel-powered special-purpose sub.

And it all began with one “Dolphin”, the crew of which had one key task – to survive the process of diving beneath the surface.

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