The Strange Life and Death of the Imperial Russian Battleship Perseviet


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As the 19th Century drew to a close, Imperial Russia embarked on a naval building program in a desperate attempt to match the growing naval might of her European neighbors.   Regional rivalries with Britain (Afghanistan and Persia) and Austria-Hungary (Balkans), both of whom were embarking on significant naval expansion, spurred a flurry of shipbuilding for the Tsarist Navy.  Among the pre-Dreadnought battleships to join the Imperial Navy was Perseviet.  Displacing 13,300 tons, with a speed of 18 knots, she was built in St. Petersburg, launched in 1898, and commissioned in June, 1901.  Armed with four 10-inch/45 caliber M1891 naval rifles, she had a cruising radius of 3,100 nautical miles at ten knots.

Despite the attributes of speed and range, Perseviet quickly became obsolescent, as late German (of the Braunschweig-class ) and British pre-Dreadnoughts (Canopus, Duncan, and Formidable-classes) rapidly outclassed her in armament and matched her in speed and protection.  Nascent fire direction developments in those navies also extended main gun range well beyond the 10,000 yards of Perseviet’s capability.

When the Russo-Japanese War broke out in February of 1904, Perseviet was at Port Arthur.  Undamaged in the initial fight, Perseviet remained anchored at Port Arthur through the summer of 1904.   A number of her secondary and tertiary batteries were landed in a vain attempt to augment the defenses for the port and surrounding forts and positions.

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In August, the Pacific Squadron sortied to make a run for Vladivostok, but was met and roughly handled by the Japanese Battle Fleet at the Battle of the Yellow Sea.  The squadron returned to Port Arthur.  In the brief engagement, Perseviet was hit nearly 40 times and suffered 82 casualties, including 13 dead.    Throughout the autumn, Japanese and Russian ground forces fought for control of the key terrain around the port.  On 5 December 1904, Japanese forces took Hill 203, allowing them to site several 280mm siege guns in positions overlooking the anchorage.  The guns scored numerous hits on most of the major units, including Perseviet.  On 7 December 1904 her crew scuttled the damaged battleship in shallow water.

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Just after the new year, Port Arthur fell to the Japanese.  The Japanese eventually raised a number of Russian ships that had been sunk or scuttled in the port, including eight pre-dreadnought battleships, Perseviet among them.   Renamed Sagami in IJN service, the ship was extensively rebuilt at Yokosuka between 1905 and 1908.  Her main and secondary batteries were replaced, with Armstrong-Whitworth 12”/40 cal Mk 41 rifles, and 6”/45 cal QF guns, her boilers were replaced, and her fighting tops eliminated.

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With the outbreak of the First World War, erstwhile adversaries Japan and Russia found themselves as allies against the Central Powers.  With the Imperial Russian Navy desperate for ships to meet any threat to their western ports from the High Seas Fleet, Japan sold Sagami, now classified as a Coast Defense Ship, back to Russia in early 1916.  Re-named once again Perseviet, she was assigned to the Arctic Fleet in Murmansk/Archangelsk, but promptly ran aground.  Floated and repaired, Perseviet transited the Suez Canal in early January 1917.

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As Perseviet passed 10 nautical miles north of Port Said on 4 January, she struck at least two mines, and sank with the loss of 167 lives.  The mines had been laid by the German submarine U-73, a UE-1 minelaying type, which was operating in the Adriatic and Mediterranean from Pola.

Built by the Tsarist Navy to challenge the maritime power of Russia’s regional foes, Perseviet was damaged and scuttled following the disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (not to a European naval rival but an Asian one), which led to the Revolution of 1905, an event that nearly toppled Romanov Russia.   Captured by Japan, serving nearly a decade in a foreign navy, Perseviet’s return to the service of Nicholas II was brief, before she was sunk in the disastrous defeat of the First World War, which brought about the final collapse of the rule of the Romanovs and the advent of the Bolsheviks and their Soviet Russia.

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5 responses to “The Strange Life and Death of the Imperial Russian Battleship Perseviet

  1. scottthebadger

    The Imperial Japanese Navy liked to do things on December 7, didn’t they?

  2. ultimaratioregis

    An interesting contemporary description of the beginning of the war on 9 Feb 04 was that Japanese torpedoes being fired at Russian ships was the “Japanese style of a Declaration of War”.

  3. Wasn’t there a Sino-Japanese incident circa 1900, that started when a Japanese ship open up on a Chinese one?

  4. There was a Japanese TV series about that period, “Saka no Ue no Kumo”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saka_no_Ue_no_Kumo_(TV_series)

    It’s hard to find, you might have to look on the torrent sites, but I found it interesting, not least for its unabashed nationalism – the kind of shows we *don’t* make anymore. The Chinese ship incident is portrayed in one episode.

  5. Having read the story behind the Potemkin Mutiny, studied the devastation the Japanese laid upon the Russians at Tsushima in 1905, and now learned about the Perseviet, it’s apparent that the life a Russian sailor around the turn of the 20th century wasn’t all sunshine and smiles.