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The greatest disaster of the Soviet Navy

The role of the Black Sea Fleet in Russian history was made clear by the sinking of its flagship Moskva in April 2022.

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The greatest disaster of the Soviet Navy

The role of the Black Sea Fleet in Russian history was made clear by the sinking of its flagship Moskva in April 2022. Ever since Peter the Great, the tsars had fought for access to the “warm seas” with their ships. Their victories had wrested hegemony over the Black Sea from the Ottoman Empire and thus played their part in conquering Crimea.

At the end of October 1955, the Black Sea Fleet was the guest of honor at the celebrations in Sevastopol to commemorate the heroic defense of the fortress in the Crimean War. It is true that the large port had been conquered by British, French, Turkish and Piedmontese troops a hundred years previously after a siege of almost a year. But the courage and suffering of the garrison also wanted to be presented as a model by the Soviet leadership.

Therefore, on the evening of the 28th, the huge battleship “Novorossiysk” anchored in the roadstead to honor the celebrations with its presence. The "Noworossijk" was originally called "Giulio Cesare" and was a veteran of the Italian fleet. Built on the pattern of the British "Dreadnought", the ship was commissioned in 1914. After a few uses, it was completely modernized after the end of the war. The central turret was removed, the caliber of the ten remaining guns was increased to 32 centimeters, and the speed increased to 28 knots.

After Italy's entry into World War II, the "Cesare" took part in numerous battles. In the devastating British bomber attack on Taranto in late 1940, she was the only capital ship to escape unscathed. Used as a training ship from 1942, it ended up in the military estate after the end of the war, which the victorious powers divided among themselves. In 1949 it was handed over to the Soviet Navy, which gave the 29,000-ton ship the name "Novorossiysk".

But its deployment as the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet was delayed. Since the "Cesare" had been poorly maintained for years, fire control and communication systems were in a catastrophic state. In addition, the ship had been built for the climatic conditions of the Mediterranean and the operational doctrine of the Italian fleet. For the crew of more than a thousand men, there was therefore no adequate accommodation, the galley was too small and due to a lack of good heating, condensation dripped from the ceiling in winter.

Since the Italians had not provided any detailed information, the Soviet technicians were puzzled. This did not prevent the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Viktor Parchomenko, from ordering his new flagship to be operational within three months. The first mission almost ended in disaster, a dismayed naval officer later confided in his memoirs.

However, since Stalin saw the focus of Soviet armaments on land power and the development of nuclear weapons, the naval leadership dared to rededicate the "Novorossijk" into an artillery training ship. As a guest of honor in the port of Sevastopol, the giant also seemed to be suitable. Until at 01:31 on October 29, 1955 a heavy explosion shook the forecastle.

Without knowing the damage, an attempt was made to tow the sinking ship free, but this failed. Nevertheless, Admiral Parchomenko refused the order to evacuate. When the battleship turned on its side and sank after almost three hours, hundreds of sailors were trapped below deck. Its knocking is said to have been heard for several days, then it died away. The largest peacetime disaster in the Soviet fleet killed 617 crew and support crew members.

'The incident has been declared top secret. A high-level commission headed by former Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Vyacheslav Malyshev came to the conclusion that the accident was caused by the detonation of a German sea mine. In fact, several of these weapons were still found in the Sevastopol docks, which had been heavily contested during World War II.

But since the catastrophe became known in the 1980s, there have been more and more voices that do not want to follow this version. The explosive force of the mines was too low for the damage, their detonators were no longer functional, it is said. Others suspect a belated revenge action by the Italian secret service or an inner-Soviet power struggle.

That sounds entirely plausible. In the battles after Stalin's death in 1953, the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Nikolai Kuznetsov, called for an expansion of the navy. However, since the victor in this often bloody struggle, Nikita Khrushchev, owed his success not least to the support of the army, a spectacular failure should - so the argument went - force the naval leadership to retreat. In fact, Kuznetsov, Parkhomenko and five other admirals were demoted, transferred or fired. In 1999, the victims of the "Novorossiysk" disaster were awarded the Medal for Bravery by the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

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