Underwater duels: How Soviet submarines held their own in WWII

The USSR had only two entrances to the open ocean, but both the North Pole and the Far East did not present the necessary possibilities to set up full naval infrastructures. Photo: M-98.

The USSR had only two entrances to the open ocean, but both the North Pole and the Far East did not present the necessary possibilities to set up full naval infrastructures. Photo: M-98.

Archive photo
Russia's modern submarine fleet is one of the strongest in the world, something that was demonstrated during the Syrian operation in 2015. However, behind this success are decades and decades of work that began long ago during World War II.

On the eve of WWII the Soviet submarine fleet was the largest in the world. In terms of the number of subs it was twice as big as the fleet in the U.S. and almost four times as big as the Kriegsmarine, the German navy. Nevertheless, the challenges placed before it were rather narrow. Due to its geographical position the USSR could not fight for supremacy in the oceans. It had only two entrances to the open ocean, but both the North Pole and the Far East did not present the necessary possibilities to set up full naval infrastructures.

Great Patriotic War of 1941-45.The Black Sea Fleet. Ships and submarines on a mission, 1942. Source: Alexander Sokolenko/RIA NovostiGreat Patriotic War of 1941-45.The Black Sea Fleet. Ships and submarines on a mission, 1942. Source: Alexander Sokolenko/RIA Novosti

What remained were only closed seas: the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. It was believed that after the beginning of the war the Soviet navy would be able to strike the enemy communications located in these regions. But the Soviet submarines could not compete with those from Germany, while the position of the UK (which had the biggest fleet in the world) in the event of a war was unclear. Therefore the decision to develop the submarine fleet was very logical: Relatively low production costs helped create a powerful force, capable of playing an important role in the war's naval battles.

Underwater duels

One contemporary Russian historian claims that in terms of German subs sunk, the Soviet Navy outdid all its Western allies. In his 2004 book Asy Podvodnoi Voiny (“Aces of the Underwater War”), Gennady Drozhzhin writes that out of all the active nine Kriegsmarine subs sank, four were destroyed by Soviet subs. Bona fide underwater duels were fought between the seamen. The theaters of war were the cold waters of the Baltic and Barents Seas.

In this underwater war, the Soviet Navy won a narrow points victory, destroying four subs and losing three. The day after Germany invaded the USSR, a German U-144, using its superior armaments, sank a Soviet M-98 sub, only to meet the same fate a month and a half later. Off the coast of Estonia a Soviet Schuka-class sub fired two torpedoes and obliterated the German vessel.

Two years later another duel ended with a Soviet victory: Three Soviet torpedoes struck a German U-639 sub that was laying mines on the surface in the Barents Sea.

A Shchuka submarine during WWII. The St. Petersburg Central Naval Museum. Source:  Alexander Sokolenko/RIA NovostiA Shchuka submarine during WWII. The St. Petersburg Central Naval Museum. Source: Alexander Sokolenko/RIA Novosti

The USSR's underwater weapons

Although the Soviet submarines were quick and effective in the battles of WWII, the Malyutka series subs could not really be described as a serious weapon. Although they were compact, and could therefore be transported on railways, they were not comfortable for the crew, even though the crew could adapt to this. But most importantly, they were not safe. The sub had only one firing installation, it was not sturdy enough to submerge to a depth that was required for battle and a heavy storm could break it in half.

But amazingly it was the Malyutka that became the most effective Soviet sub in WWII. They were responsible for destroying more than 60 enemy transport ships and 8 combat vessels. The crew's training compensated for the technical insufficiencies and allowed them to achieve impressive results.

The Black Sea Fleer. Malyutka submarine is pictured in the mouth of the Kopi River. Source: Alexei Mezhuyev/TASSThe Black Sea Fleer. Malyutka submarine is pictured in the mouth of the Kopi River. Source: Alexei Mezhuyev/TASS

The Soviet Srednyaya (S) series submarine was a novelty for its time. It could not employ all its combat potential on the compactly mined shoals of the Baltic Sea, but what it did, it did remarkably.

Paradoxically, the prototypes for the S-series submarines were German equivalents, but the Soviet subs greatly altered the original project, adapting it to Soviet equipment and armaments. The result was a universal submarine and we can only imagine its potential if we consider this incredible fact: One S-series submarine was attacked hundreds of times with depth charges and was not damaged once.

Read more: Soviet tanks in WWII: The fatal cost of errors>>>

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