Novogorod, Livadia, and the Vice Admiral Popov: Victorian Military Science Fail
Ah, those wacky Victorians, what will they think of next? All sorts of stuff actually, the late nineteenth century saw an explosion in new military hardware as modern technology and the industrial revolution got into full swing. And in the days before air power, navies were the ultimate weapon, so they got a tremendous amount of innovative thinking as nations vied for a military advantage. And the Novgorod pictured above is one of the more creative ideas put into action in this flurry of creative ship building. It was a circular warship armed with two giant (for their time) cannons. The thinking behind it was twofold. By having a circular hull, the ship’s draft would be very shallow, allowing the ship to operate close to shore. Using ships to shell shore positions was very popular in the Victorian era, and not unknown today. Secondly, it was thought that the wide flat hull would provide a very stable gun platform, making the ships that much more useful for accurately shelling forts and such. Even Tsar Alexander II was persuaded this was a great idea by Vice Admiral Popov, one of Russia’s greatest ship designers, which was why such a radical departure from traditional ship design was built. Hell, the tsar was so impressed with the idea that he had a royal yacht, the Livadia, constructed on the same principles.
The warships, there were two of them, were built in St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea and then disassembled, shipped by railroad to the Black Sea, and reassembled in Sevastopol. The Novgorod was complete in 1874, the Vice Adm. Popov in 1879. They were in fact the first ironclads on the Black Sea, and on paper at least gave the Russians an advantage over their mortal enemies, the Ottoman Turks. And soon enough they got their chance to prove their worth in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, they were assigned to the Danube flotilla and sent into action. And due to their stunning success, dozens of navies also built circular warships, and today they still dominate the seas. In other words, no, they didn’t quite live up to their promise.
For one thing, it turns out that boats need a keel to stay stable in the water. These ships rocked all over the place and were almost impossible to steer. In fact if often proved easier to tow them than to have them travel under their own power. Even veteran sailors got seasick on them, that’s how bad they were. And as for their stability as a gun platform, well, it was better in theory than in practice. In fact if only one gun was fired, the recoil would send the ship spinning in circles. Which they had a tendency to do anyhow. As one might imagine, spinning in circles isn’t conducive to aiming and firing a cannon. Their war service a fiasco, the Novgorod and the Vice Adm. Popov spent the rest of their years tied up in harbor as coastal defense forts. Even worse, they proved popular with tourists for their novelty. Instead of being intrepid warriors of the sea, they ended their days as basically circus freaks.
And the Livadia, the Royal Yacht, how did it fare? Built in Scotland, lavishly appointed, it was supposed to transport the terribly seasick-prone tsarina in style and comfort. In sea trials at least it proved to be a decent ship, handling far better than its ill-fate predecessors. On its first voyage though it took almost two months to sail from Scotland to southern Spain, that’s longer than it took Columbus the cross the Atlantic in his primitive sailing ships centuries before. The grand duke Alexis and his entourage never made it to the Crimea, their ultimate holiday destination. They staggered ashore as soon as the ship made port in northern Spain, seasick to the bones. And shortly after the Livadia made it to the Black Sea, the tsar was killed and Russia was entering its long slide into anarchy and revolution. The Livadia was looted and stripped of its engines, and spent the rest of its career a coal barge. It sure was a beautiful thing to behold in its brief and ignominious heyday though:
And that was the brief unheralded circular ship era. All three ships worth. About as successful as the mid twentieth century’s experiments with flying saucer shaped aircraft. Maybe that will be the next post.
(The above images are all claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They aren’t being used for profit, are central to illustrating the post, and are being used for educational purposes. The period photograph is public domain due to its age, the other images came from this fine site which has many more pictures and more details on the careers of these un-illustrious vessels. In any event this was just a fun post. PS: I noticed that sources differed on some of the history and details above, often a problem in doing historical research. C’est la vie.)