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On June 22, 1941, the world’s largest submarine fleet entered World War Two. The Soviet Union possessed a force of 218 submarines spread over four distinct fleets. It consisted primarily of modem short and medium-range submarines, with only a handful of ocean-going types. In the course of the war, the Soviets built a further 57 submarines with an almost equal mix of long-range and short-range capabilities. Soviet submarines sank 160 ships, approximately 400,000 gross rated tons (GRT) while losing 109 of their subs, a 1.5 ship to sub ration.

The dismal performance of Soviet submarines can be attributed to many factors covering nearly all aspects of naval planning and operations. Of these, two factors counted most: first, shifts in Soviet naval strategy impacted force planning and building; second, the poor state of training at the beginning of the war coupled with the training techniques used during the war. The Soviet submarine experience before 1945 illustrates the problems of introducing advanced technology into a newly industrialized country that is hampered by political dogma.

Soviet Naval Strategy and Force Planning
Soviet strategy during the inter-war period went through three distinct changes, each of which strongly affected force planning. The most important for the submarine force was the emergence of a Young School as the dominant theory of naval warfare in the late 1920s. The Old School of naval planning remained dominant in the years immediately following the Revolution and was based on the need to have a battleship fleet capable of delaying an invading force, most likely the British, long enough for the Red Army to mobilize. The harsh fiscal environment of the post-civil war years, however, prevented the Old School from building the fleet it needed to carry out its strategy.

The Young School and Early Submarines
The Young School saw the submarine, aided by light surface craft and aircraft, as the major weapon to defend the coast of the Soviet Union. In addition, relatively cheap submarines and surface craft were an appealing means of improving Soviet naval capabilities. The Young School was accepted for its economy of capital, and because no major capital ships were being built around the world in 1927. Aside from finishing the tsarist-designed Dekabrist class of submarines, the Young School developed and began construction of two classes of coastal submarines, the Shuchuka (SHCH) and Malodki (M) classes. By the beginning of the war, the Red Navy would have 78 Ms and 76 SUCH boats available for use.

These submarines entered service in the early 1930s in small numbers with distinctive limitations. The SHCH boats were originally short-range coastal subs with an endurance of 20 days, while the M boats were titted with only two torpedo tubes without reloads. A medium-range mine-laying submarine, the Leninitz (L) class was also produced. These submarines adequately reflected the strategy of the day, designed for use in local waters against an invading enemy fleet. While these initial submarines were floating out of the builders’ yards, another change in naval strategy emerged from the Kremlin.

Stalinist Strategy and Force Planning
In the ’30s the world’s navies began to build battleships and aircraft carriers. At the same time, Stalin began to push to build a balanced fleet to enhance Soviet prestige abroad. He saw that the Soviet Union was unable to participate in the neutrality patrols during the Spanish Civil War, and could not intercept Fascist aid to Franco. Stalin’s force planning included building aircraft carriers, super battleships, and a capable fleet of ocean-going submarines. This fleet was to function primarily as a defensive force to protect the flanks of the Red Army and to engage in action against the enemy’s maritime communications.

In this period, two very capable classes of submarines were constructed. The Stalinitz (S) class (also referred to as Strednaya or medium class) was based upon, and nearly as capable as, the German Type VII design of the war; the plans being procured from a Dutch front for Krupps. The Kreisemy (K) or cruiser class submarines, originally designed to carry two search planes, was the zenith of Soviet pre-war submarine development. This sub included special mine-laying tubes, two 100 mm deck guns and had the range to penetrate far into the Atlantic. These subs represented a clear commitment to Stalin’s desire for a capable blue water navy.

The war began with 17 S class and 6 K class boats primarily located with the Baltic fleet. Wartime construction would only double their numbers. At the same time, improvements were made in the early SHCH class to increase their endurance to 40 days, transforming them into medium-range boats. The M class was modified to increase the number of torpedo tubes to four and to correct a problem of broaching on firing. Machinery improvements were also made in the L class. These subs would be more than capable of venturing into the Atlantic to attack merchant shipping, and that clearly supported the Stalinist view of the role of the Red Navy.

When the war began, seven versions of the five basic submarines were under construction with 18 versions of the various modem submarine classes on active duty. In reality, the Soviets had 18 modern classes of submarines rather than six. Although some were only minor improvements over the original designs, several included changes to the operating characteristics of the subs themselves. On top of the improvements, 50,385 tons of submarines were added to the fleet from 1939 to 1941.

The Submarine Force Personnel
This rapid growth in a very technical service occurred simultaneously with a depletion of trained submariners. Having fallen out of favor with Stalin in the early ’30s, the Young School suffered tremendously under the purges of the military in the middle and end of the decade. By the end of the purges, only one flag officer, Kusnetzov, out of eight would survive. The improvements in the size and capability of the submarine force under Stalin were offset by the purge of the officer’s corps with the majority of submarines officers not available for the war.

The effect of the purges was openly apparent in the SovietFinnish War of 1940. To offset the lack of qualified commanding officers, submarine division and brigade commanders (roughly equivalent to American squadron and group commanders) would personally accompany submarines to sea to ensure the proper handling and employment of the sub. To increase the number of subs at sea they operated in pairs under the guidance of a senior officer afloat while maintaining continual radio contact with their shore commanders. By the end of their short war, the Soviets sank a single ship and damaged three others.

Another indicator of the poor state of submarine force training is the loss of the D 1 submarine in the Northern Fleet in November 1940. This sub was training in sight of land when it failed to surface. The loss resulted in the removal of the flotilla commander and a moratorium on submarines diving in water deeper than their working depth. Given the lack of shallow ice-free water in the Northern Fleet at this time of year, the Fleet Commander, Admiral Golovko, decided to continue with a training program, as, in his opinion, war was imminent. That a unit commander would be relieved, and submerged training restricted, indicates that the Red Navy may have been more of a fleet in being at this time than an effective military instrument in the view of Moscow, which placed it low in line concerning training resources.

Training of the submarine fleet was crucial to its success because of the tactics it employed to detect and engage its targets. They relied on detecting, tracking, and acquiring a fire control solution on a surface target through the use of the submarines hydrophones or passive sonar equipment. The periscope was only raised to verify the firing solution. Once verified, a single straight running torpedo would be launched. For this tactic to work effectively, each submarine would require a well-trained tracking team backing up expert sonar operators. Not exactly an easy task to perform in conjunction with the loss of trained officers and the introduction of new technologies on new submarines.

Submarine Experience in World War Two
When the war began, the Soviets found themselves facing an opponent who viewed the submarine with great respect and was very experienced in using it against merchant shipping. Rather than risk their Navy or merchant ships, the Germans closed the Baltic during the initial phase of the Barbarossa Campaign. The German Navy contributed to the offensive only by laying minefields in the central and eastern Baltic. The German invasion planned to remove the threat of the Red Navy and its 69 submarines by capturing the ports of the Red Navy. However, the lack of German sea power allowed the Red Navy to retreat into the Gulf of Finland to Leningrad and Kronstadt, conducting ineffective submarine operations as it did.

By the end of 1941, the Soviets had lost 27 submarines in the Baltic. The formation of ice in the Gulf of Finland brought submarine operations to a temporary halt, giving the Germans and the Finns time to prepare their Anti-Submarine Warfare forces for the next year and denying the Soviets the ability to train their surviving submarine crews trapped in Leningrad. During 1941, Soviet submarines suffered from broaching problems: on firing their torpedoes, and at periscope depth. The Soviet’s submarines also suffered from poor operational intelligence, not really knowing where to go to find suitable targets. During that period the Soviets did transfer three of the four K class subs from the Baltic to the Northern Fleet via the White Sea Canal system.

The early days of the war in the Northern Fleet saw a different tum of events. Here, Admiral Golovko had passed a plan to Moscow to send his SHCH and some M class submarines, which dominated his 15 boat force, to attack enemy merchant shipping between Petsamo and the coast of Norway, leaving the rest of his M boats to protect the approaches to the White Sea. A sound plan gave the range and capability of these submarines, but he was overruled by Moscow. The higher command ordered the SHCH to assume defensive patrols of the White Sea and the less capable M to conduct offensive operations in enemy waters. Aside from Moscow’s control of their operations, the Northern submarine force suffered two additional setbacks when sailors were sent ashore to defend the land approaches to Murmansk, and a lack of fuel in October 1941 temporarily ended submarine operations.

The question of where to send what type of submarines sheds some insight into the role of the navy as seen by Moscow. By holding the more capable submarines back, the view of the navy’s primary mission as defending the army’s flanks rises once again to the forefront. Using the less capable M boats as commerce raiders for relatively brief missions may be in keeping with the idea of a short war, but is more in tune with the defensive concept of the navy formulated by both the Young and Stalinist schools of naval thinking.

In 1941, the Black Sea Fleet had 44 submarines, 15 SHCH, 14 M, three each of the D and L, four S, and five obsolete Holland boats. With Moscow’s direction to the Northern Fleet to send the M boats to forward operating areas, it can be assumed the same message was sent to the Black Sea Fleet. Despite the dominance
of the M coastal submarines, by the end of the year submarines were maintaining station for an average of 10 days.

Overall, Soviet submarines sank 12 ships. approximately 27,000 GRT, in 1941. In comparison, British submarines operating from Soviet bases of the Northern Fleet sank 84 merchant ships, 270,000 GRT, damaging another 16 ships, rated at 69,000 GRT, in 1942. The British had had two years of operational experience in wartime conditions that the Soviets did not have, however, the poor state of Soviet training coupled with new technology was also a factor.

Operating Environment
The weather in the Northern and Baltic Fleet operating areas is extreme. The Northern Fleet suffered from the dual setbacks of short winter and long summer days. While the former hindered visual search, the latter endangered surfaced operations. The Baltic faced the threat of ice from as early as November to as late as May each year. The Northern Fleet turned to airplanes to aid its submarine operations. While the Baltic Fleet had to send its crews east, north, or south for training in the winter months because of the siege of Leningrad. Setbacks on the land front also impacted submarine operations in the Baltic Fleet. In 1941, 80,000 Baltic Fleet sailors went ashore to form marine rifle brigades. Although only a small fraction could have possibly come from the submarine force this was another drain on qualified manpower. To prevent excessive loss of trained personnel in the Northern Fleet, the Commander had to limit his ships to sending seven men each to fill out volunteer brigades to defend Stalingrad.

German ASW Efforts
The Germans and their Finnish allies aggressively pursued antisubmarine warfare throughout the war. Most notable of these were their efforts to close the Gulf of Finland to protect their Baltic shipping. In 1942 they laid large minefields and patrolled heavily with small craft. Despite this, the Baltic Fleet submarines were able to break out with support from minesweepers, motor torpedo boats (MTBs), and aircraft. The Finns finally managed to close the Baltic by laying a submarine net across the mouth of the Gulf of Finland in the winter of 1942-43, ending Soviet submarine operations until Finland fell late in 1944.
In the other theaters, the Germans protected their convoys using minesweepers and small craft which they pressed into service. Unable to fire their torpedoes through the escorts the Soviets would surface to destroy the escorts and then pursue the convoy. This was the major thrust behind the development of their combined assaults on the convoys later in the war.

Soviet Innovations and Missed Opportunities
As the war progressed, division and brigade commanders still went on patrol with new submarine commanders to oversee training and operations in all fleets. With their senior submariners at sea, the Soviets were never able to fully develop tactics to penetrate the Axis convoy systems, but some new convoy penetration methods were initiated late in the war in an three theaters. In the Northern Fleet, a dedicated squadron of aircraft was employed for detecting and tracking Axis convoys. This joint employment evolved to overcome the problem of the long summer Arctic days. By using aircraft as spotters the submarines could remain on the surface, keeping their batteries charged, until a convoy was located, then close for an attack. The Northern Fleet also found an ideal operating environment for the small M boats which were well suited for entering Axis-held ports and attacking small convoys within the skerries of Norway and Finland. Eventually, a new tactic was developed against convoys using combined air and subsurface units; however, this was not employed until 1944 when the naval war in the north was ending. Despite repeated attempts in joint attacks, the tactic failed.

In the Black Sea, joint attacks were made by MTB squadrons with submarines starting in 1944. Like the Northern Fleet, the war ended before the tactic could be effective. The Baltic Fleet would eventually employ a combination of air, MTB, and submarine attacks on retreating Axis shipping in 1945.

The Soviets seemed to have overlooked the possibility of using the Pacific Fleet as a training area for their submarine crews or to evaluate and practice new tactics to deal with the Axis convoys. The Pacific Fleet had 87 modern submarines at the beginning of the war. Yet, with the exception of sending six S boats to the Northern Fleet by way of the Panama Canal, it remained a fleet in being against the Japanese, adding little to the war effort. With the icing of the Gulf of Finland for four to six months each year and the loss of Black Sea ports in 1943, the Pacific was a bastion of peace that the submarine force could have used to improve their capabilities. If an adequate training rotation had been established, crews from the Pacific could have replaced western fleet crews in action while the training was conducted to maintain the pressure on the Axis convoy system.

The Soviets missed a real opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of their submarine crews which may have then had a much more significant impact on the supply line of the German armies in the Soviet Union. In 1942, the Germans moved 400,000 soldiers and 1,900 ships, 5.6 million GRT, through the Baltic virtually unopposed. If the Soviets had used the winter of ’41-42 to train in the Pacific or to switch fresh, better-trained crews the Germans may have been forced to use the longer land route to the Leningrad front or face the loss of valuable men or material. The Germans were also able to evacuate the Crimea, parts of the Ukraine, and Finland by the sea in 1944 without loss. If the tactics developed by the Black Sea and Northern Fleet had been perfected in the Pacific and brought west with trained crews these evacuations may have been prevented or performed at a higher cost to the Germans.

Aside from penetrating the convoys, the Soviets were faced with just getting to sea in the Baltic region. With the heavy minefields, and ultimately the submarine net, the Soviets had to develop anti-mine protection for their submarines in order to threaten the Axis convoys. By coating the submarines with thick paint and wooden fenders the Soviets would pass under the Axis minefields. The submarines were heavily escorted by minesweepers, MTBs, and aircraft in their attempts to break out. The support given to submarine operations is critical in evaluating the perception of the effectiveness of submarine operations by the Soviets. If the submarines were viewed as a frivolous toy the effort to get them to sea in the adverse environment of the Baltic would not have been expended.

Although the Soviet submarine effort is filled with tales of individual heroism and innovation, the heavy losses and poor showing can only be attributed to the rapid introduction of several classes of highly technical boats which were not supported by a highly trained, technically proficient officer and petty officer corps. The impact of the purges, and to the lesser extent the influence of the commissars, depleted and demoralized the submarine force personnel before the war and hindered its growth and development during the war. The stationing of senior submariners on operational submarines only added to the lack of qualified and confident submariners.

The Soviets were innovative at the operational level in combining all of the available forces to attack Axis shipping but were unable to prove themselves effective in the waning days of the war. Had these operational innovations been tested in the benign environment of the Pacific and the crews rotated into the combat areas the results may have been more advantageous to the Soviets.

Without a qualified, technically proficient manpower pool to support the introduction of new technologies one cannot expect a force to operate successfully against a determined opponent.



• May 15 thru 17, 1996
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• Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab
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• June 5-6, 1996
• Alexandria, Virginia


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