David Porter looks at one of military history’s doomed inventions
The second half of the 19th century was the era of bizarre warships – the combination of steam power, iron armour, and rifled artillery ‘broke the mould’ of warship design and opened the way for decades of experimentation.
The Novgorod’s design originated in 1868, when the Scottish shipbuilder John Elder proposed widening the beam of a warship to reduce the area to be protected. This would allow it to carry thicker armour and heavier guns than a conventional ship, and to have a shallower draught.
Sir Edward Reed, who was the Royal Navy’s Director of Naval Construction, supported Elder’s ideas, and this encouraged Rear-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov of the Imperial Russian Navy to develop the concept in response to an 1869 requirement to defend the Dnieper–Bug Estuary and the Kerch Strait.
Popov altered the design to a circular, flat-bottomed vessel, in order to minimise its draught, and this concept was approved by General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich in December 1869. A model was built, which performed well in tests off St Petersburg in April 1870 – Tsar Alexander II was impressed by reports of the trials and dubbed the type ‘popovka’ after the designer.
First deployed: 1874
Strengths: Shallow draft, stable platform, thick armour, heavy guns
Weaknesses: Slow rate of fire, weak turntable locks, poor speed in bad weather, very slow to turn, constant engine trouble
As finally completed in 1874, Novgorod had a diameter of 30.8 metres (101ft), displaced 2,530 tons, and was armed with two 280mm (11-inch) rifled muzzle-loading guns firing 222kg (489lb) shells in a central, open barbette.
Although superficially impressive, the guns had a very slow rate of fire of about one round every 10 minutes. They were mounted on separate revolving turntables, which could be rotated independently or locked together. Each turntable took two or three minutes to rotate through 180º. Gunnery trials showed that the turntable locks were so weak that the guns’ recoil caused them to rotate, with the potential for disaster if they swung into line with the wheelhouse or funnels.
This issue was solved by hastily strengthening the turntable locks, but the ship was blighted with constant problems. Although Novgorod proved to be a stable gun platform and had a smooth roll that rarely exceeded 7º or 8º, her circular hull caused her to lose speed in rough weather – in 1877, for example, she lost all headway during a force 8 storm.
Her hull shape also reduced the rudder’s effectiveness, by masking much of the flow of water, so that it took up to 45 minutes to make a full circle. The ship was almost impossible to steer in bad weather.
As each of her six engines drove a single propeller, the solution finally adopted was to use the engines for steering and leave the rudder fixed. Unfortunately, this imposed considerable strain on her already unreliable machinery, and she suffered engine trouble throughout her career.
Amazingly, Novgorod remained in service as a coastal-defence vessel with the Black Sea Fleet until 1903, when she became a storeship. She was finally scrapped in 1911.
This article appeared in the August 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.