World War II: Soviet Naval Operations


Figure 1.--.

The Soviet Union in the inter-War era carried out a massive military expansion, building the world's largest army and airforce. Relartively little attention was given to building a substantial modern navy. This is understandable given the fact that the Soviet Union was not a major maritime power and that the principal milutary threats came from neighboring land powers. The Russian Imperial Navy was remamed the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet" (Рабоче-Крестьянский Красный флот, Raboche-Krest'yansky Krasny Flot--RKKF). The major vessels were inherited from the Imperial fleet including a few obsolescent battleships. The Soviet Navy was so weak that the Soviet Union was not even to attend the Washington Naval Confrence (1921) in which the major naval powers negotiated limits on naval construction. The Soviet Navy participated in the Winter War (1939-40) by shelling Finnish coastal forts. The pre-War fleet played a minor role in the war. Much of the Soviet fleet was deployed in the Baltic Sea. When the NAZIs invaded (June 1941), the Wehrmacht rapidly moved east and seized almost all of the Baltic ports. Soviet ships had to withdraw to Leningrad and Kronstadt where they were impobilized by Finnish and German minefields. Thus imbolized, the Soviets ships were mauled by Luftwaffe attacks. This situation did not change until the Finns withdrew from the War (July 1944) and the Red Army began to take Baltic ports. Soviet Naval forces in the Black Sea played a role in the defense of Sevastopol and in the subsequent Soviet liberation of the Crimea. The most important Soviet naval operations were conducted with destroyers and other craft provided by the United States and used for escorting convoys carrying Lend Lease supplies to the Soviet Union.

Red Navy

The Soviet Union in the inter-War era carried out a massive military expansion, building the world's largest army and airforce. Relartively little attention was given to building a substantial modern navy. This is understandable given the fact that the Soviet Union was not a major maritime power and that the principal milutary threats came from neighboring land powers. The Russian Imperial Navy was remamed the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet" (Рабоче-Крестьянский Красный флот, Raboche-Krest'yansky Krasny Flot--RKKF). The major vessels were inherited from the Imperial fleet including a few obsolescent battleships. The Soviet Navy was so weak that the Soviet Union was not even to attend the Washington Naval Confrence (1921) in which the major naval powers negotiated limits on naval construction. The Soviet Navy at the onset of war had a few battleships such as Marat and Oktyabraskaya Revolustiya. There were also a few cruisers, such as Kirov and Maksim Gorkiy. I do not have a complete inventory of the larger vessels in the Soviet fleet nor do I know much about the characteristics of these vessels. I believe that many were inherited from the Imperial Navy and by 1941 largely obsolete. The Soviet Navy also consisted of several destoyers and submarines. Again I do not have details on the quality of these vessels.

Organization

The Soviet Navy at the outbreak of World war II was organized into: the Northern (Arctic) Fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, the Pacific Ocean Fleet, the Kamchatka Flotilla, the White Sea Flotilla, the Caspian Flotilla, the Dneproptrovsk Flotilla, and the Danube Flotilla. The Navy as a result of the War created three new forces: the Volga Flotilla (to defend and supply Stalingrad), the Ladoga Flotilla (to supply Lenningrad), and the Onega Flotilla.

The Winter War (1939-40)

The Soviet Navy participated in the Winter War (1939-40) by shelling Finnish coastal forts.

The Baltic

The pre-War Soviet fleet played a minor role in the war. Much of the Soviet fleet was deployed in the Baltic Sea. When the NAZIs invaded (June 1941), the Wehrmacht rapidly moved east and seized almost all of the Baltic ports. Soviet ships had to withdraw to Leningrad and Kronstadt where they were impobilized by Finnish and German minefields. Thus imbolized, the Soviets ships were mauled by Luftwaffe attacks. The Kriegsmarine primary assignment in World War II was to disrupt the Atlantic convoys and cut off Britain from America and te Dominions. It filed in this key assignment. The Kriegsmarine operations in the Baltic, however, were enormously successful. The Germans turned the Baltic into essentially a German lake. Soviet naaval operations were limited in 1941 and 42 and in 1943 the Soviets did not succeed in getting one ship or submarine through the anti-submarine nets and mines streaching from Helsinki to Tallinn. This meant that shipments of metal ores and other products from Sacandavia could freelt flow show to support the German war effort. This situation did not change until the Finns withdrew from the War (July 1944) and the Red Army began to take Baltic ports. The role of the Kriegsmarine changed as the Red Army offenses in the east drove toward the Baltics and East Prussia. The Kriegsmarine successfully evacuated about 2.5 million Baltic and German civilians and soldiers to German ports. The Soviet Navy attempted to prevent this but largely failed. This operation still stands as the largest sea-rescue operation ever conducted.

Black Sea

At the time that Hitler and Stalin launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1939), the Soviet Red Navy dominated the Black Sea. None of the other Black Sea countries (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania) had sizable navies. The Germans forced Bulgaria and Romania which had been desmembered by the Soviets into the Axis. Turkey wavered, but was concerned with Soviet aspirations to control the Bosporus ad Dardanelles. British naval victories in the Mediterranean (1940-41) meant that the Axis was unable to introduce major fleet elemets into the Black Sea. and it meant that the Mediterranean could not be a conduit for Middle eastern oil. The Axis naval campaign in the Black Sea to support Barbarossa was an international effort with units from Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, and Romania confronting the much larger Red Navy Black Sea force. Many of the smaal boats deployed bt the Axis force were brought to the Black Sea by rail and canal. The Red Navy Black Sea fleet because of geography and priority and thus survived the initial German blow. Unfortunately for the Red Navy, the Black Sea is an enclosed sea, all of which is acceable by air bases surrounding it. And while the Black Sea was not a German prioroty in the first week of Barbarossa, the Red Air Force and its substantial and vulnerable forward deploymment was apriority. The Germans basically destroyed the Red Air Force during the first week of Barbarossa--much of it on the ground. This meant that for the first two years of the conflict in the East, the Red Navy had little or no air cover. And during the War most of the major Red Navy ships were lost--mostly the result of air attacks. The Black Sea campaign was largely fought in support of the land campaigns fought in the Ukraine, most prominently the Crimea. The Crimea is a peninsula which juts out into the Black Sea and from an early point it would dominate the Black Sea campaign. The Soviet Black Sea Flet played an important role in the defense of Sevastopol and in the subsequent Soviet liberation of the Crimea. For the Germans, the Black Sea was potentially of great importance, especially after Hitler shifted the focus of the campaign to the south (1942). Logistics were one of the most serious problems the Germans faced, With Barbarossa the battles were being fought huge distances from the war industries and supply depots in the Reich. Thus men and material had to be transported by rail requiring a major logistical effort which was vulnerable to Soviet attck. Control of the Black Sea could provide a badly needed safe, efficent supply line after the Germans smashed through the Don Bend and entered southern Russia and the Caucauses (July 1942). It also mean a safe route for transporting the oil of the Caucauses back to Axis countries where it could be shipped on to the Reich. The Soviet naval campaign was overseen primarily by Vice Admiral Filipp Oktyabrskiy. Another major factor other than the Soviet Black sea fleet units was the shipyards which built and maintaned the fleet. The major Soviet shipyards were located in the Ukraine (Nikolayev) and Crimea (Sevastopol). Both were occupied by the Germans during Barbarossa campign (1941). Fleet units including still uncompleted ships were evacuated to harbors in Georgia which would be the only port cities the Red Army was able to protect. Thesethus became the bases for the surviving fleet. These Georgian ports like Poti had very limited repair facilities. This significantly impaired the operational capability of Black Sea Fleet.

Northern Fleet

The most important Soviet naval operations were conducted with destroyers and other craft provided by the United States and used for escorting convoys carrying Lend Lease supplies to the Soviet Union. Unlike the Allies, Soviet supplies lines were land lines, primarily the rail lines. Thus supplies flowed from Soviet factories over rail lies to the front lines. Soviet war production was substantial and after recovering from the NAZI invasion actually exceeded that of Germany. The demands of warm however, were vast and American Lend Lease supplies helped meet the vast needs of the Soviet military. Thus the major contribution played by the Soviet Navy was helping to escort the Arctic convoys.

Pacific Fleet

A major route for Lend Lease supplies was the Pacific route from American West Coast ports to Vladisvostock, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Soviets had only a weak Pacific fleet. This was suplemented by American destroyers and frigates provided under Lend Lease. ome of these vessels were turned over to the Soviets at Cold Bay, Alaska. The Soviets did not have the capability of protecting convoys from the powerful Imperial Navy. Much to Hitler's consternation, however, the Japanese never moved to inderdict these shipments. At the end of the war, the Soviet Navy participated in the Soviet Far Eastrn offensive which included the seizure of Sakalin. The Soviets also plasnned to seize Hokido, but this was prevented when the Japanese surrendered and the Amercan occupied Japan.

Volga River Flotilla

Soviet naval operations were not limited to highsea operations. The Soviet Navy installed T-34 tank turrets on gunboats of its Volga River Flotilla. The gunboats engaged the 16th Panzer Division at Rynok, near Stalingrad.

Naval Comandos

The Soviet Navy had a naval scout force during World War II. The Soviet naval scouts were commando units. They operated in the widely dispersed theaters of the war, includung the Arctic and Japanese coastal waters. Operations included raids, inteligence gathering such as capturing German soldiers, and guiding air strikes. Many of these operations were launched from submarines. [Leonov and Gebhardt]

Russian Comments

A Russian Reader writes, "I have to disagree with you when you write that the "The Soviet fleet was small and possessed no capital ships." This is not accurate. Soviet fleet in the assumed theatre of naval operationss was in no way weak. Both in the Baltic sea and in the Black Sea, the Soviet fleet had sufficiently large forces. Both these forces could resist German forces in these seas and wage successful war at sea. But at the same time I am forced to say that Stalin's strategy in the sea war did not foressee that the Soviet Union would have to wage a prolonged defensive war. Therefore in the pre-War period, the USSR built only large fleet vessels (cruisers, battleships, destroyers and submarines)."

Sources

Leonov, Viktor and James F. Gebhardt. Blood on the Shores : Soviet Naval Commandos in World War II. (Naval Institute Press Place: Annapolis, Maryland, 1993).





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Created: 4:23 PM 11/22/2005
Last updated: 1:38 AM 9/15/2016