FROM THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA’S PACIFIC FLEET

THE   DAYS   BEFORE

M.V.Viktorov
      Looking retrospectivelyatthe history of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, one can definitely say thattheperiod from 1932 to 1941 was a time of intense war preparations. FromApril21, 1932, when the Soviet government resolved to organize its NavalForcesin the Far East till June 22, 1941, the leitmotif of naval life wasessentiallypreoccupied with preparing warships and units for future battles.In fact,everything in both the navy and the entire country, for that matter,wassubordinated to that.
       Already in December1931, a preemptive decision was taken to built for the Russian fleet inthe FarEast twelve “Щ”-type (5th Series) submarines. They were builtatLeningrad works and finalized in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, where theywere delivered in sections by rail. The main “Losos” submarinewas turnedover to the fleet on September 22, 1933. Seven more submarinesof thisseries were assembled in the Russian Far East till the end of1933.In subsequentpre-war five-year periods more advanced submarines, projects“K”, “Л”,“Щ” and “M”, werebuilt for the navy.
    On March 30, 1932, the Staff of Soviet Naval Forces in the Far East was formed, and First-Rank Fleet Flagman M.V. Viktorov was appointed Commander-in-Chief.  He participated inWorldWar One. During the Russian Civil War, he first commanded a destroyerandthen a battleship on the side of the Reds. Before arriving on the Pacific,M. V. Viktorov was commander of Naval Forces in the Baltic and Black Seas.In 1937, he was appointed Head of all Soviet Naval Forces. In the sameyear,he was arrested by the NKVD, and in 1938 innocently shot as “enemyofthe people”, which in those days was quite common in the USSR.
       And before thattragedy, for five years First-Rank Fleet Flagman Viktorov was responsiblefor all the main concerns involved in organization of the Soviet Navy.In those years, warships of various classes constituting the Navy’s nucleuswere delivered via the Northern Sea Route from the Baltic and Black Seasto Vladivostok,then Russia’s main naval base. At the same time, submarine,torpedoboat and surface battleship crews, pilots and coastal defense servicemencameto Vladivostok by the Trans-Siberian railroad. They arrived in largenumbers.Whereas in summer 1932 Russia’s Far Eastern Naval forces numbered5,875men, by the end of the year they had already increased to 8,300.By that time,in addition to coastal defense vessels and units, and variousnewly-organizednaval institutions (naval training center, naval hospital,observation andcommunication service), Russian naval forces in the FarEast already includedtwelve stationary and railroad artillery batteries,six antiaircraft batteries,five air squadrons and one air detachment witha total of 53 aircraft.
      In 1933, naval construction went at a considerably faster rate. In that year alone, the number of warships in the Russian Far East had increased ten times! The fleet also receivedseveral new heavy artillery batteries, dozens of new-type combat aircraft,and a number of auxiliary ships. By the beginning of 1935, the naval forcesin the Russian Far East had grown to such an extent as to actually representquite an organizationally formed naval fleet. So, on January 11, 1935 theSoviet government decreedto rename the nation’s naval forces in the FarEast into the PacificFleet.
    Whereas in the thirties, the fleet’s armament was the paramount task, for all personnel assimilation of newcombat equipment was equally important. In late 1935, Commander of theFifth Naval Brigade G. N. Kholostiakov suggested to test submarines formaximum-long performance at sea. Submarine “Щ” was the first to pass thetest. It carried four fore and two stern torpedo tubes and two 45-mm guns.
     On January 11, 1936, the “Щ-117” took to sea along a fairway made in ice to take up position on remote approaches to the coasts of Primorye for further combat operation there. Generallyspeaking, this task was not novel for Pacific submariners. But the submarinewas tostay there not for ten-fifteen days, as would be normal, but forthe timeof its full rated autonomous operation and longer. The naval commandhad notdetermined the date when the submarine was to return to its base.
       The “Щ-117”’s commanderwas N. P. Egipko, an experienced submariner. He and other crew commanders undertook all measures, as they used to say then, to “squeeze out of theequipment everything it can offer”. That year the winter was unusually severe. Strong frosts made navigation in open sea difficult for the submarine. Its body and antennas froze intensely, visibility was very poor, and thesubmarine was strongly rocked. One night, a storm tore off a superstructuresheet and damaged the hole of the stern tank. There was urgent need toopen the manhole throat. Boatswain P. N. Sharonov and helmsman A. I. Pekarskyvolunteered to do that when “the stormy sea was roaring and moaning”. Thewaves crashed roaring on the superstructure and bridge. The ice-coveredlight panes shone bleakly….
      The two men descendedfromthe bridge to the superstructure, and when the next wave subsidedthey felttheir way to the tank. New and new waves of icy water rolledover the U-boat,and at such moments Sharonov and Pekarsky, having inhaledas much air as theycould, would “lie low” till the water ran off to thencontinueworking. Their clothes were frozen and turned into a completeice shell. Butby morning, they had nonetheless eliminated the defect.
      During the same expedition, the crew also tested the U-boat for maximum stay underwater without regenerating fresh air. It went off successfully. For the first time in the historyofunderwater navigation by a submarine the entire crew took a bath. Fortunately,during the expedition the seamen had earned to substitute each other attheircombat stations. Eventually, the “Щ-117” crew brilliantly fulfilledall their tasks to beat by 100% all the norms of autonomous navigationestablished at the time for such types of submarines.
      After “Щ-117”, severalmore Pacific submarines performed similar autonomous navigations.In August-September1936, five submarines and floating base “Saratov” completed a big jointvoyage under the command of Captain G. N. Kholostiakov. The submarinessailed for thousands of miles, practicing torpedo attacks,artillery firingand other tasks. They visited Okhotsk, Magadan, Okha andBaikal Bay. Basingon the experience of those submarines and that of “Щ-117”, and after completingsome technical improvements, the Soviet Navy then established a new normfor autonomous navigation for “Щ”-type submarines.  It amounted toforty days, a record at the time
      In the same year of 1936,the first expedition of surface warships from the Pacific fleet took placealong the Northern sea route. Having sailed from Kronstadt along the Belomor-Baltic Canal to Archangelsk, the destroyers “Stalin” and “Voikov” (commanders:Lieutenant-Captain V. N. Obukhov and Captain M. G. Sukhorukov) accompaniedby ice breaker “F. Litke” arrived at Novaya Zemlia on August 1, 1936. Fromthere, together with steamship “Anadyr” and tankers “Lokbatan” and “Maikop”the two destroyers continued their voyage along the Northern Sea Rloute.The expedition, ledby Academician O. Yu. Schmidt, completed their safepassage to the RussianFar East, and on October 17, 1936 arrived in Vladivostok.
      By the end of the 1930s,the Russian Pacific Fleet had two brigades of warships, four brigades ofsubmarines, one brigade of torpedo boats, several divisions of surfaceships, launches and submarines. The fleet’s air force had several brigades,regiments and squadrons of bombers, fighters and reconnaissance warplanes.Artillery batteries were installed in various points along the coastline.
      In June 1937, Flagman-Captain G. P. Kireev became commander-in-chief of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Heserved in World War One, and in Soviet time as commissar on the Baltic,member of Military Revolutionary Council, Naval Forces on the Black andAzov Seas, and deputy commander of Russia’s naval forces in the Far East.In the same year of 1937, the NKVD arrested him, and in 1938 shot him.In 1937-1939m Second Rank Flagman-Captain N. G. Kuznetsov commanded Russia’sPacific Fleet (during World War Two, he was People’s Commissar for theUSSR Navy,and after the war Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, PacificFleet Commander, USSR Navy Minister, and Commander-in-Chief of the SovietNavy).
      In March, 1939, SecondRank Flagman-Captain I. S. Yumashev (later promoted to Admiral) was appointedPacific Fleet Commander, and stayed in that capacity till 1947.
       Such rapid changeoffleet commanders, like also the repressions against them, were characteristicof the second half of the nineteen-thirties. But against that quite gloomybackground, too, the fleet continued its preparations for war. Significantin this respect were the joint exercises of the Special Far Eastern RedArmyand the Pacific Fleet. At that time, Russian navymen demonstrateda high levelof combat readiness and naval skill. Their actions were assessedhighly byYa. B. Gamarnik, Deputy Soviet Defense Commissar, and V. K. Blukher,Commander-in-Chief,Separate Red-Banner Far Eastern Army, both presentat the exercises (and botharrested and shot later by NKVD).
      Again, in July-August1938the Pacific Fleet’s readiness for war, this time real, not practice,was sounded. At that time, the USSR was waging fierce land battles at LakeKhasan against the Japanese, who had invaded Soviet territory. When actionbegan, Pacific Fleet warships were put into enhanced combat readiness.Submarines guarded Russia’s sea communications, and surface craft ensuredsupplies of ammunition, armaments and food for armies active in the field,and evacuated the wounded. On the seacoast, Russian naval personnel organizedseveral stations for unloading transports, chiefly at Possiet. Warshipsof the Seventh SeaBrigade under Captain S. G. Gorshkov (future Commander-in-Chief,USSR Navy)convoyed transports that carried from Vladivostok to NovgorodskayaInlet troopsand materiel, and wounded men back to Vladivostok, and patrolledthe watersoff Furugelm Island and the estuary of Tiumen-Uly River.
      In those very days, Pacific Fleet airmen delivered crushing blows on concentrations of Japanese troops on Zaoziornaya and Bezymiannaya Hills. Seventy-four Pacific navymen wereconferred orders and medals for valor in battles at Lake Khasan.
      This “rehearsal” on theeve of upcoming battles of World War Two showed that Russia’s Pacific Fleethad both quantitatively and qualitatively turned into a naval unit fullycapable of defending the nation on its Far Eastern sea borders.
 

Photographs: Commanders-in-Chief, Russia’s Pacific Fleet,in the 1930s: M. V. VIKTOROV , G. P. KIREEV, N. G. KUZNETSOV and I. S. YUMASHEV.

A.V. BORODIN. Leading Editor, Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, Far East Division, Russian Academy of Sciences, Colonel (Retired), Pacific Fleet Veteran.

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