A while back we posted about reaching the milestone of a thousand shipsearcher warship views, and pointed to some of the most interesting captures and ship stories. We have now found more than 3,000 warships using open satellite imagery, and added these to the Shipsearcher database of pages! We continued our mission to travel the World and the Seven Seas to document 24 more navies, and added a special consolidated page of large or notable naval units from all smaller navies.* During 2021, we welcomed more than 20,000 visitors to our pages, with about 50,000 views.
We created a release history page, so that visitors can see when pages/navies were added to the project, with all pages hyperlinked. We hope to do updates when/if we can. We know for some navies, such as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the pace of new additions to the fleet has rendered the information dated as soon as it came out! The images below link to the relevant page. It’s a hyperlink-rich environment, folks, so click often and please share!
A project that began as a quick look at active and retired United States Navy carriers has now documented more than 50 World navies, from the largest carriers to museum and sail training ships, down to large patrol boats. We also went back and retrospectively added in pages for submarines into the arrangement of every navy that operates these nefarious boats!
Using the search box can trawl up some interesting results across pages. For example searches for unique ship types such as hydrofoils, museum ships or wrecks will guide you to the relevant pages. Just do a “control F” search in the page to get to the ship. So what are some of the most interesting or odd captures we’ve located since our last round-up post? Check out below, with links to posts and pages, and keep exploring the database!
*As a general – sometimes disregarded -convention, navies with 3 or more frigates, or a mix of a destroyer or submarines, or a powerful force of corvettes or ocean patrol vessels, have their own pages, while notable ships from other navies get added to the “Small Navies – Great Ships” pages.
20 years after her sinking, we feature unique views of HMCS Cape Breton, the Royal Canadian Navy’s Cape class maintenance ship, and the second last of the whole group of 320 wartime Park/Fort class merchant ships built in Canada.
For a history of Park/Fort ships, which are Canadian-built ships designed along the similar lines as the famous US Liberty ships, please see part 1, which profiled the last of these wartime ships in existence, HMS Rame Head, scrapped in 2009. The Shipsearcher staff historian was excited to tell the story of HMS Rame Head, but he was thrilled when Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) staff stumbled across views of the 2nd last ship, the former HMCS Cape Breton (ARE-100), before it was sunk as an artificial reef.
HMCS Cape Breton was a sister-ship to HMS Rame Head, and 19 other similar Depot, Repair and Maintenance ships built for the Royal Navy. This batch of ships were a variation on the basic Fort or Park merchant ship design, that had been built in many yards in Canada as a vital wartime emergency program. HMS Flamborough Head was completed at North Vancouver’s Burrard shipyards and commissioned on 2 May 1945, a few days before Victory in Europe. The ship was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1952, along with HMS Beachy Head, another Burrard-built sister, that had served a stint in the Dutch Navy.
HMCS Cape Breton, and the ship that would later be commissioned as HMCS Cape Scott, were both used alongside at the RCN dockyard, Halifax, providing classroom and repair facilities.
In 1959, Cape Breton was transferred to the West Coast, home-ported at Esquimalt, BC, and was reconfigured to an escort maintenance ship. Both ships by this time had a large flight deck on the stern, which could accommodate a Sikorsky helicopter.
Decommissioned in 1963, to reduce RCN expenditures, from 1964-1993, she served as an alongside maintenance facility. By the early 2000s the ship was being prepared for sinking, docked on the site of Burrard shipyards in North Vancouver, back where she had been built 65 years before. Thirty feet of the stern of the ship was removed. This section, along with one of the ship’s reciprocating engines, was intended to have become part of a maritime museum. A truncated transom was fastened to the now 410′ long hulk, which also had many access holes cut into the hull for divers to use. The old ship was towed out to Snake Island near Nanaimo, BC, and sunk on 20 Oct. 2001. The wreck remains a popular dive site, close to the resting place of HMCS Saskatchewan. The monument, meanwhile, was first moved near an old shipbuilding shed slightly North of the Burrard pier.
The maritime center never materialized, and eventually the unsightly and exposed stern was dismantled in early 2014, when the cradle it was resting on was judged to be reaching the end of its design life. So went the last of the remaining Fort or Park ships located in Canada.
*The title of both posts was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks
Enjoy our favourite warship google earth splice errors!
Wunderschiff! We’ve seen enough views of ships, 3,000 and counting, in our many pages, to know when we have encountered a truly excellent google splice error, or other oddity in the space/time continuum! This quick post shares a few of our favourite multi-phasic, time-shifting, perspective-smashing, supership-creating views.
Continuing our theme of strange Soviet subs, we feature the Project 633RV / a modified variant of the NATO-designated Romeo class Diesel-Electric attack submarines. S-49/PZS-50 (Commissioned in 1961) is still in existence, up a bay in Sevastopol.
The major modifications of 1970-1972 to two Romeo boats were the addition of (conspicuous) 650mm tubes above the bows for a test Anti-Submarine Warfare missile system the RPK-7 “Veter”, while 2 of the 533mm torpedo tubes were also modified for RPK-6 “Vodopad” ASW missiles. Both these are NATO-designated SS-N-16 “Stallion.” These could be armed with an Anti-Submarine Warfare torpedo or a nuclear depth charge. The Veter had a range of roughly 100km. S-49 was reportedly decommissioned late 2019, and may become a museum boat.
On the 76th anniversary of her commissioning, we profile the career and end of HMS Rame Head, the last of any version of the vital wartime built Canadian Park and Fort class merchant ships known to exist.
The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) go to great lengths trying to locate views of the “last” member of whole classes of ships, because it helps us add a broad range of ship types to our listings, and because the staff naval historian feels that locating views of these last ships is a worthwhile “history exercise” HISTEX. Recently, we stumbled across views of what looked like a US Liberty ship being scrapped near Ghent, Belgium. It took some digging, but we eventually traced the story to the last of the Canadian built Park/Fort wartime merchant ships. Today marks the 76th anniversary of her commissioning into the Royal Navy.
During the Second World War’s longest battle, the Battle of the Atlantic, Canada built more than 320 large merchant ships, as one contribution to the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. Every cargo that got through the U-boat-infested waters mattered, and replacing lost merchant ships with Canadian-built hulls helped get new equipment, munitions, and other war supplies to Europe. For a small country with few shipyards, the wartime expansion of naval and merchant shipbuilding capacity, on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, was spectacular.
Many of these ships originated out of the same basic British “North Sands” design (basically a standard Tramp steamer). The British government, desperately in need of merchant ships, had contracted American yards to build sixty “Ocean ships” in 1940. They were simple to build, with a large amount of cargo space.
The Canadian government quickly agreed to build similar ships, and set to the task in 1941. Some were built with rivetted hulls (North Sands ships), many were welded (Canadian and Victory ships). At 442’ overall and about 14,400 tons displacement, these vessels were not built for grace or speed.** The ships retained for Canada’s merchant fleet were given names of famous Canadian parks, while the ships destined for the British were named after forts.
HMS Rame Head was a member of the 21 ship “Beachey Head” class, which was a naval modification of the basic Fort/Park merchant ships. They were built as depot, maintenance and repair ships for the Royal Navy. The hull was launched in late November 1944 from North Vancouver Shipyards, Vancouver, BC, and Rame Head was commissioned 18 August, 1945, days after the War ended in the Pacific.
During the postwar era, she was updated several times. Starting out as an escort maintenance ship, she then served as an accommodation ship from 1972. She is most remembered for her time attached to the the naval establishment HMS Excellent, at Whale Island, near Portsmouth, berthed in the same location later occupied by HMS Bristol. She then spent many years laid up near Fareham, and was occasionally used by the Special Boat Service for assault training. With the 2001 sinking of the former HMCS Cape Breton (a very similar ex-RN repair ship originally named HMS Flamborough Head) to make a reef, Rame Head became the last Fort/Park class merchant ship in existence. By contrast, there are still three of the more numerous US-built Liberty ships (2 of which are museums), and one slightly larger Victory ship.
In early 2009, following a whole program of scrapping of retired Royal Navy ships, Rame Head was sold off to the Galloo shipbreaking group (Van Heyghen Recycling). The old hull was towed to Ghent, Belgium. A report by the Ministry of Defence outlines the major steps and challenges encountered during the dismantling of this old ship – more asbestos and more concrete ballast had to be carefully removed than was originally estimated. The report notes that only one group had put forward a proposal to save the ship. Dismantling proceeded swiftly. So went the last of the great and vital fleet of wartime Park and Fort ships.
*The title of this post was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks
**The same British J.L. Thompson & Sons design would later be used for the Liberty ships.
We located new views of the Soviet naval ekranoplan MD-160, the only completed Lun-class Ekranoplan, on the beach South of Derbent, Republic of Dagestan, and have added these to our listing of these very unusual craft!
Towed down the coast from its long-term outside storage at Kaspiysk in late July, 2020, this 242-foot long “Caspian Sea Monster” is intended to join the collection of the giant Patriot Park museum/reanactment center.* It grounded accidentally and became stuck on the beach in the surf, and was feared to have been significantly damaged. However, recent efforts in December succeeded in moving it inland, out of harm’s way. MD-160 is a Lun-class “ground-effect” or “wing-in-ground” vehicle. It was a development of the 302-foot long KM, the largest aerial vehicle of its time (new entry for this beastly craft in the listing). Soviet Ekranoplans were designed at the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau, and mostly the product of visionary designs by hydrofoil expert Rostislav Alexeyev.
MD-160 entered service in 1987 and was retired sometime during the late 1990s. Unlike the KM, and smaller ekranoplans, it was armed with six enormous p-270 Moskit anti-ship cruise missiles, mounted in pairs of tubes staggered along the dorsal surfaces of the fuselage. Guidance systems for these were found in bulges in the nose and just at the leading edge of the massive tail section. It had stubby wings with a wingspan of 144-feet. Eight Kuznetsov NK-87 turbojet engines, mounted in pods of four jets on each side of the cockpit, powered this strange craft.
While researching MD-160, we heard for the first time about a “sister-plan.” There exists a second, unfinished variant named Spasatel (Russian for “Rescuer”), whose design was modified, removing the anti-ship missile tubes. It was intended to serve as an ambulance transport or Search and Rescue craft…maybe a hospital ekranoplan!
Left unfinished upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, It was stored in a shed near the shipyards at Nizhny Novgorod, until moved outside around 2014. there is some interest in resuming the project! The view above shows all the major pieces are stacked on the fuselage. For more views of ekranoplans, please check out our Russian Navy – Ekranoplans listing page.
* The original KM was called the “Caspian Sea Monster” by Western observers, so these Lun class ekranoplans may more accurately be the daughters of the Caspian Sea Monster.
Where have all the three-decker line-of-battleships gone? A visual history of these massive floating fortresses, and views of all remaining first rate ships of the line!
During the age of fighting sail in Europe (ca. 1550-1860), naval architects competed to design larger ships, that could carry many more cannon that could fire heavier shot. The ultimate expression of this became the warship with three complete decks of large cannon: the “three-decker.”* These were the behemoths of any fleet, and the largest of the line of battle ships (those warships with heavy enough armament to lie in the main battle-line that fleets conventionally arrayed themselves to prepare for a battle). Only a few wealthy nations could afford to build, arm, and equip such ships. Objects of national prestige, lavishly decorated in fashionable artistic styles, their principal role was as a gun platform, whose firepower would be a useful addition to any battle line.
They had flagship accommodations for an admiral and their staff, and were floating headquarters to direct a squadron, a large fleet, the forces in a given area, a campaign, or an entire theatre of operations . During routine operations, or in the thick of battle, the officers of other ships would keep a weather eye out for signal flags from the flagship, and the massive size and height of their masts helped other ships see important signal flag hoists in the thick of battle, where cannon-smoke frequently could obscure whole sections of the engaged fleets.
These ships could bombard shore positions and fortresses, or serve for lengthy periods on blockade duty either close to enemy ports, or in a more distant, reserve position. As part of their enormous complement of up to 1,000, they usually had a contingent of marines or soldiers, who could conduct amphibious landings ashore. These soldiers-at-sea also formed a disciplined group during sea battles, with sharp shooters assigned to sweep the enemy decks with musket fire. When enemy ships came alongside, soldiers or marines helped resist enemy boarding parties, and carry the fight to the enemy’s decks.
The first of such ships is usually attributed to the English Navy.** Prince Royal (1610) began her career as a large ship with about 50-60 cannon, dispersed mostly over 2 decks. In those early days, she had a waist deck that was free of cannon. A later refit, in the 1620s connected the forecastle and quarterdeck batteries of guns. Through her lengthy career she was radically rebuilt several times, eventually being upgraded to a 92-gun three-decker. The structural changes of the rigging, gundecks, ornamentation, and gunports suggest she was virtually a new vessel.
For the remainder of the age of fighting sail, the size and firepower of the ships increased. The next English three-decker, and the first built as such, was the enormous and astronomically expensive Sovereign of the Seas of 1637. This ship boasted 102 brass cannon, and a ludicrously ostentatious decorative program that covered most of the vessel’s upper works with lavishly carved statuary and crests, the whole dripping with gold leaf paint. The absurd cost of this vessel, and the revenue required in “ship money” taxes to the government of King Charles I to complete it, were contributing factors to the outbreak of the English Civil War.
The Northern states also built three-deckers for service in their interminable wars. Both Sweden and the joint kingdom of Denmark and Norway produced some of the largest warships in the World in the late 17th Century. One Dano-Norwegian ship, the Sophia Amalia, was built during the 1640s to be larger, with more cannon, that the Sovereign of the Seas. The Swedish Kronan of 1672, with at least 110 guns, is also notable. After only a few years of service, it exploded at the Battle of Öland, 1 June 1676.
The French commenced building three-deckers in 1668, ranked according to their wonderfully descriptive title of “Vaisseaux de Premier Rang Extraordinaire.” Naval architects during the reign of Bourbon King Louis XIV quickly moved to larger ships, with 110 or more cannon, and French ships were noted for their beautiful lines and ornamentation.
Spain’s path to building the type started with the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción y de las Ánimas of 1687, a 94-gun three-decker. A contemporary plan of this ship can be seen at modelships.de site. Beginning in earnest around 1750, the Spanish began launching some massive designs, of which the largest, the Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad of 1769, will be discussed below.
In the very first years of the 19th Century, the Russians and the Ottoman Empire (which included Egypt) also began building large examples. In North America, the War of 1812 initiated a naval race on the Great Lakes that produced the huge HMS St. Lawrence, an unusual 112-gun ship, built in the naval yard at Kingston, Ontario.** The Americans abandoned construction on their equivalent ship, at Sackets Harbor, New York, which would have been named New Orleans (this hulk sat on the stocks at from 1815-1883). The United States later commissioned USS Pennsylvania in 1837.
The last of these ships were the largest, and most well-armed. They were built with strengthened interior bracing, that enabled ships to be built longer, with more guns. Some were fitted with newly-developed shell-firing cannon. They also had different styles of sterns and bows, which allowed for stronger hulls in these traditionally weak areas, with more cannon able to fire forward and aft.
The sheer became remarkably flat (so the decks, ship’s sides, and planking were almost without any curvature up towards the stern and bow), and even the tumblehome shape of the hulls were modified, with some designs having strait vertical sides. Ornamentation was kept to a minimum, and a stark chequerboard paint scheme of white strakes broken by black gun-ports became the norm. During the 1850s several ships were fitted with steam engines and screw propellers, and could sail or steam, depending on the conditions.
The age of the three-decker, like that of all wooden fighting ships, ended during the 1860s when ocean-going iron-clad warships, firing shells from rifled guns, quickly made large wooden ships obsolete. Ships that had consumed vast amounts of raw materials (including by deforesting several regions), and required enormous investments to outfit with provisions, large crews, and so many cannon, now had little military value. A few three-deckers survived as accommodation hulks, specialized training ships, hospital ships, prison hulks, and cadet and school ships.
Now that we have said our piece about the development of three-deckers, the remainder of the post will briefly explore four spectacular fighting ships: One original line of battle ship from the 18th Century, and three replicas of similar ships. According to the Royal Navy’s rating system, as it evolved over the course of the 18th Century, these would have mostly been considered “first rate” three-decker line of battle ships, which usually were defined as having 100 or more cannon.*** Though some ships in the period 1640-1760 were fitted with the massive and unwieldy 42-pounder cannons on their gundeck, the first 3 ships in the below listing all appear to have been armed with the 32 or 36-pounders, then 24-pounders on the middle gundeck, and 12-pounders on the upper gundeck.
HMS Victory (1765) LOA 315′ taffrail to jibboom tip. Gundeck length: 186′. The real deal! This 104-gun ship was a queen of the battle. She was built 1756-1765. Royal Navy first-rate ships often had very long careers, with major rebuilds. She is most famous for service, 40 years after her launching, as Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 Oct. 1805, where she led a fleet of British ships to a decisive victory over a larger, combined fleet of French and Spanish warships. Her design, by naval architect and Surveyor of the Navy Sir Thomas Slade, was based on the earlier HMS Royal George. Slade’s designs helped rectify earlier problems, where three-deckers were found to be over-gunned for their size, with dangerously shallow hulls. A slight lengthening of the gundeck gave Victory space for one more cannon on the broadside on both lower and upper gundecks. Slade produced a balanced fighting platform with good sea-keeping qualities, that was widely emulated. Her lengthy service, included participating in battles during the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolutionary Wars. In the late 1790s she was found to be worn out, and was converted to a hospital ship. This type of laying-up and conversion would have spelled the end of most warships’ active service. Not so for Victory! The grounding and loss of HMS Impregnable (98 guns) in 1798 meant that the Royal Navy required another three-decker to join the fleet. A lengthy refit from 1800-1803 remedied all deficiencies, and upgraded Victory to 104 guns. The ship’s survival, particularly during long periods of neglect in the 115 years after Trafalgar, is nothing short of miraculous. She is currently undergoing a lengthy restoration, where her topmasts and jibboom have been stored away.
Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad replica (ca. 2005). LOA 260′ taffrail to bowsprit cap (jibboom appears to be missing now). Original ship gundeck length: 201′. This replica, located at Alicante, Spain, is of the 1769 ship, the largest of its time, which fought at several battles, and was eventually captured at Trafalgar on 21 Oct. 1805, only to be scuttled the next day in the storm that wrecked many prizes of war. The ship was originally commissioned as a 112 gun three-decker, but after several refits wound up with as many as 140 cannon, and was often described as a 4-decker, which the red paint scheme emphasized.
Santísima Trinidad, which some nicknamed “Ponderosa” due to her immense size, was technically a spar-deck three-decker, because the fourth deck was not a heavily built, continuous gundeck. Instead, a light spar-deck (or boat deck) linked the quarterdeck to the forecastle. Guns over the waist did create a continuous battery of cannon. The replica was built using the hull of a commercial vessel in around 2004, with metal girders creating a structure to hang the wooden timbers and decks off of. Reportedly, the restaurant/ship is now closed and in a state of disrepair, and images suggest the elaborate ship-rig and masts are collapsing. The replica, like the original, may be headed for destruction.
Blagodat (ca. 1990s?) LOA 325′ taffrail to jibboom tip. Original gundeck length: 198′. Another huge restaurant ship/replica of a three-decker. This is most likely a replica of the Blagodat of 1800, which served about 14 years and was Admiral Peter Khanykov’s flagship during the Anglo-Russian War. This ship was armed with as many as 130 cannon. Many features of this replica are nicely done, including the whole prospect from the bow and the tumblehome on the hull. The stern is a disappointment, and all the straight, simple lines do not appear credible for a ship launched in that era. Also, the general shape of the stern has meant the last few gunports of the lower deck near the stern quarter galleries have been omitted. Interestingly enough, the original Blagodat was reportedly based closely on the lines of a certain Spanish ship, the Santísima Trinidad!
Neptune “Galleon” replica 17th Century Spanish Galleon (1986), LOA 215′ TDISP 1,500 tons. Located at the marina in Genoa, Italy, this ship was originally built in Tunisia at Port El Kantaoui, for the 1986 Franco-Tunisian adventure-comedy film Pirates. She cost 7–8 million to build, and is steel-hulled below the waterline and powered by an auxiliary engine. The hull is pierced for more than 70 gunports over three decks. While, by later standards, this is a “small” three decker, the upper deck appears to be a structural deck, and there are additional quarterdeck guns above this. It seems to us this is not an exact replica of any specific ship, and appears a good deal larger than most galleons. As noted above, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción y de las Ánimas was the first Spanish three-decker. The Neptune’s general layout has some similarities to this ship. However, the different stern galleries, the more pronounced sheer, and the general appearance of a vessel from the first half of the 17th Century, make it unlikely that this is a replica. The design seems instead to have been inspired by the great Spanish treasure galleons, but with a massively enhanced armament.
*For our purposes, we have defined the three-decker as a warship whose principal armament of heavy batteries of cannon are arrayed on three structural decks, in a more-or-less continuous row. These ships often have additional partial batteries of cannon on the quarterdeck and forecastle deck and can also have a continuous deck of lighter cannon on a spar-deck which joins quarterdeck and forecastle batteries, but is not a structural deck over the waist of the ship. We have had many disagreements about what constitutes a three-decker, or what counts towards the total number of gundecks. There were very large ships before this period, and some had a hundred or more various cannon of various types, but none that meet the criteria of a three-decker. There were also merchant ships and other warships with three decks before and during this period, but these were not armed in the way we define above. Our definition is based on scholarly works, including Dr. Frank Howard’s detailed account of the evolution of fighting ships, Sailing Ships of War; 1400-1860 (Greenwich: Conway Maritime Press, 1979). Out of interest, we would note that there was at least one design for a true four decker first rate line of battle ship: the 170-gun juggernaut that would have been named HMS Duke of Kent. A model at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and, reportedly, a draft plan, are all that remains of this.
** Some reconstructions show the Scottish royal ship Great Michael (1512), an enormous carrack, as a three decker, with a mix of cannon on three gundecks, one of which was an open waist, and enormous fore and after castle structures.
***HMS St. Lawrence was a vessel adapted to service on the Great Lakes. It was longer and heavier than HMS Victory, with a few more cannon. It had three long structural gundecks, but nothing above those, and a simplified stern with a single level of stern and quarter lights (windows). This massive vessel’s commissioning during 1814 effectively ended the naval war on Lake Ontario.
****In the British classification system, which evolved over the 18th Century, warships were categorized by the number of cannon they were armed with. First-rate battleships would eventually be armed with 100 or more cannon; Second-rates, 90-98 cannon. Some smaller Third-rates, which were the usual ships of the battle fleet, also, up to about the mid-18th Century, could be three-deckers. Other states in Europe employed similar systems. Also, the rating system had kept pace with the increased size of warships. A hundred years before this, in 1650, ships with more than 50 cannon were considered some of the largest.
52 years after the record smashing flight of HMCS Bras d’Or FHE-400, we explore Canadian milestones in the development of naval hydrofoil technology with great images!
Have the naval hydrofoils had their day? It’s hard not to think that the best flying is behind us, when we look at the glory days when HMCS Bras d’Or (FHE-400) wowed observers near Halifax, Nova Scotia, flying up on her foils at 62 knots, or 114.8 km/h. This wondrous burst of speed occurred 52 years ago today. For this post, the Shipsearcher staff historian takes a look at Canadian naval hydrofoils. A future post will provide a brief survey of other navies’ remaining hydrofoils.
Hydrofoils are a unique mix of aircraft and boat: “Foils” fitted to the lower hull of a vessel act in the water like wings do in the air. With speed and adjustment of the foils, lift is achieved, which raises the watercraft up, and allows it to become “foilborne” with the hull or main body of the craft flying over the surface of the water. When flying, there is very little water resistance to slow the craft down, and so hydrofoils can attain remarkable speeds, and can also be very stable during their flight.
The development of hydrofoil technology was an international effort. Canada played an important role in both the origins of the technology, and some of its milestones. Scottish/American inventor Alexander Graham Bell may be regarded as the founding father of naval hydrofoil technology. Hydrofoil experiments came out of his interest in aviation, where he and a small group were designing pioneering aircraft or “aerodrome” (Bell’s term) designs at the very beginnings of powered flight.
Experiments in designing floats for aircraft to become airborne from a water-start led to a passionate interest in achieving lift using wing-like foils in the water. Bell worked out of his estate and laboratory “Beinn Bhreagh” on the Bras d’Or Lakes of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in the first years of the 20th Century. He had been inspired by Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini’s earlier work building hydrofoil boats on Lake Maggiore, in Italy, and had travelled there in 1910 to see these craft. He and his associates, especially F.W. “Casey” Baldwin, collaborated on a whole series of experimental designs.
Each iteration of hydrodome overcame faults which had often destroyed the previous craft. During 1913, Bell and Baldwin got to work on a new design, “Hydrodome number 4” – HD-4 – that they hoped would correct previous design flaws, and lead to possible naval contracts. The First World War interrupted further work, as Bell’s Cape Breton boat-works were given over to wartime construction.
Work on HD-4 resumed at the conclusion of hostilities. The US Navy supplied the Liberty V-12 aircraft engines, and evaluated her in September, 1919. The HD-4 was a triumph for Bell and Baldwin, flying at 61.5 knots, or 114 km/h – a record-breaking speed. Two years later the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) evaluated HD-4 for different purposes. No naval construction followed these projects. Casey Baldwin continued development of several more HD craft after Alexander Graham Bell’s death in August, 1922.
Development of a military hydrofoil project became a focus of Canadian government defence research after the Second World War. The RCN partnered with the Defence Research Board (DRB) to work on the Canadian Hydrofoil Project. A cadre of experts forming around the Naval Research Establishment in Halifax, NS. The team looked again at the designs of Bell and Baldwin, subsequent developments, and contemporary programs, such as US Navy hydrofoil designs. Canadian designs would focus on surface-piercing hydrofoil technology. A 45-foot boat, the Massawippi (R-100), was initially acquired in 1951. It helped develop the ladder style of foils used in subsequent designs.
Next came the Bras d’Or (R-103), built by British Saunders-Roe as a unique design. The hull tapered along its length, to a distinctive narrow transom, to give the rear foils room. The V-shaped ladder foils had not benefited from the same rigorous design experimentation as other aspects, and the craft struggled to become foil-borne on trials. Bras d’Or was shipped across the Atlantic in 1957 on the new RCN carrier, HMCS Bonaventure. In testing she eventually reached speeds of 30 knots, or 55 km/h.
Defence researchers also used a small experimental craft, Rx, to try and overcome issues that were encountered with Bras d’Or, and the “cavitation barrier” which was impeding the development of faster hydrofoils. The hydrofoil system could be easily modified to test different concepts.
Challenges encountered during the testing of R-103, and solutions for optimizing the foil configuration tested on the Rx, would continue to inform the design of the ultimate Canadian project: HMCS Bras d’Or (FHE-400). The new craft was a 160-foot long, 240 ton space-aged wonder. De Havilland Canada was selected as the prime contractor and the craft was built at Marine Industries Ltd., at Sorel Quebec, between 1963-1968.
Just about everything about the construction of this craft was innovative, from the aluminum hull-form (built upside-down in the shed at Sorel) and Pratt & Whitney gas turbine engines used in construction, to the advanced diamond shaped foils, forged from special maraging steel. The ship needed to be controlled by a qualified pilot, and the small wheelhouse looked more like the cockpit of a jetliner. Instead of rudders, the vessel’s steering was controlled by the unique rotating forward foil. Designers worried about the crew tasked with serving in this revolutionary craft, and effort was spent trying to develop comfortable quarters and sleeping arrangements, and, since a galley was out of the question, the ship was even fitted with the newly-developed microwave oven!
Unusual as it might sound today, Bras d’Or was intended to have been used in an open-ocean or Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) role, with the navy also experimenting with a special light and compact Variable Depth Sonar outfit: the SQS-507. The armament would have featured two sets of triple torpedo tubes. It was hoped that a small fleet of hydrofoils would replace the aging, wartime-built fleet of frigates then leaving service, and be significantly less expensive than the RCN’s “Cadillac” destroyer-escorts. The concept of the ASW hydrofoil was that it would patrol in hull-borne mode up to a respectable speed of 23 knots, using regular marine diesels. Bras d’Or was fitted with Paxman diesel engines. Upon establishing a sonar contact, the ship would dash to close proximity using the extraordinary foil-borne speed, before reacquiring the contact and attacking. After lengthy development and a fire that set back construction, Bras d’Or was ready for commissioning in July 1968 (the smaller R-103 was renamed Baddeck to leave the name free for its bigger successor).
Testing in the waters near Halifax showed her exceptional stability when flying, even in heavy seas. On 9 July 1969, Bras d’Or flew at speeds of up to 62 knots (114 km/h). As far as we know, this still makes her the fastest commissioned warship.* Unfortunately, changing government defence priorities resulted in the hydrofoil project being set aside. HMCS Bras d’Or was decommissioning in November 1971, and this coincided with an end to further Canadian military hydrofoil development. The costs of the program no longer looked likely to provide the RCN with a fleet of “cheap” ASW hydrofoils, and many of the technologies, such as the special sonar and the armament for the ship, had yet to be fully developed, and may have led to more costly programs. As a concept, the ASW hydrofoil was an evolutionary dead-end. Internationally, the development of military hydrofoils continued to focus on high-speed coastal patrol, torpedo boats, and fast-attack craft (gun and missile-armed).
Today, we are fortunate to have relics of the era when Canada was at the cutting edge of hydrofoil development. HMCS Bras d’Or survives out of the water at the Musée Maritime du Québec, at Islet, QC.
Baddeck (the former Bras d’Or) is in storage at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario. After a long period of outside storage, the partially-disassembled boat rests inside a new state-of-the-art preservation facility, and, we hope, will be reunited with its preserved foils.
Massawippi (R-100) appears to have survived, after her 1959 decommissioning, at either at the Nova Scotia Museum or the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (possibly at a storage facility in Mount Uniacke, NS). Canadian Aviation Historical Society member Kyle Huth let us know about the survival of this boat, while we also located some information about historian Thomas Lynch’s attempts to locate R-100, which can be found at the International Hydrofoil Society’s website. Alexander Graham Bell’s HD-4 Hydrodome also partially survives in Baddeck, NS, at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, near a full-scale replica. A future post will pick up the story by examining international naval hydrofoil development and other surviving craft.
For a detailed account of both Alexander Graham Bell and Casey Baldwin’s work, as well as the subsequent RCN projects, see John Boileau’s Fastest in the World; the Saga of Canada’s Revolutionary Hydrofoils (Halifax: Formac Publishing Co. 2004).
There have been many unusual Soviet submarine modifications, and the modified Yankee class “Big Nose” Project 09780 Akson-2 was one of them!
K-403 began life as a Project 667A “boomer” SSBN Nuclear-powered Ballistic Missile Submarine, which received the NATO designation “Yankee class”. These were the first Russian missile boats with a conventional layout of missile tubes behind the sail – 16 SS-N-6 SLBMs. They were roughly contemporary to the USN “Forty-one for Freedom” classes, and, as Russian boats go, they looked downright normal – very similar to their Polaris-armed adversaries serving in the USN and Royal Navy.
K-403 Kazan was commissioned in 1971, and would be modified several times. The website RussianShips.Info gives a summary of these modifications. During the early 1980s, K-403 was modified to a Project 667AK Akson or NATO “Yankee Pod” configuration, with the missile compartment removed and a towed sonar housing atop the rudder, which looked like what wound up installed on Oscar II class SSGNs. A decade later came the Project 09780 Akson-2 “Big Nose” conversion – a distinctive swollen bow section to house the large Irtysh spherical sonar prototype. At some point, K-403 was fully disarmed, with the bow torpedo tubes also removed.
The Kazan then served as the test-bed for the Irtysh/Amfora sonar system. THe trials must have been successful, as the system is fitted to current Project 885M (NATO Yasen-M) Nuclear Cruise Missile/Attack boats. K-403 was reportedly decommissioned around 2004 and scrapped at Severodvinsk in 2010. K-403 and K-411 (another oddity-a heavily modified, stretched mothership) were the last of the Yankees known to exist.
If you like World War 2 US Navy ships (and EVERYONE does!) then the new Republic of the Philippines Navy (PN) pages we just loaded are essential reading. The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) have documented many navies that had long-service ships in their active fleets, but this one is exceptional. Up until very recently, a large number of the PN’s fleet were composed of wartime hulls! Notable amongst these veterans are Landing Ship Tanks, a Cannon Class destroyer escort, and a nice flotilla of patrol corvettes.
To put this active service in perspective, very few of the plankowners (first crewmembers) of these ships are still with us today. These simple designs were churned out in an assembly-line process in shipyards on both coasts to meet vital wartime needs and replace early losses. Newly commissioned, these ships were present at some of the epic amphibious landings of the Second World War, patrolled in both Pacific and Atlantic theatres, escorted vital convoys, were attacked by enemy forces, and were credited with the destruction of enemy units. Many went on to rack up more battle stars for service in Korea and Vietnam.
Paths to Philippine Navy service took two routes: After USN service and periods in reserve, many units were transferred during the 1960s; Other elderly ships had first been transferred as military aid to the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Their crews and war refugees had fled to Subic Bay after the Fall of Saigon in early 1975.** These soon joined sister-ships already in PN service.
By the annals of their wartime records alone, every one of these ships would have been a good candidate for preservation. Sadly, their exploits, so many years ago, are probably little known stateside. Most of these relics wound up at the ship breakers in the last 20 years. A few more were retired, with great fanfare, in March, 2021. Reports suggest the very last of the WW2 wartime fleet will be out of service by the end of this year. That really will be the end of an era.
It isn’t surprising, since this is one of the last navies we intend to document in this project, that we took our time with these pages and sought out as many interesting views as possible. Good imagery loaded into Google Earth for the naval areas around Cavite City/Manila and some of the other far-flung naval stations along the Philippines’ immense coastlines allowed us to document more of the fleet than usual.
In recent years, the navy has been modernizing and expanding to meet new threats, in an unstable region, by acquiring more capable ships. Two ex-US Coast Guard Hamilton Class High Endurance Cutters have been refitted to become patrol frigates and to train crews in the operation of (sort-of) modern warships. The navy is no longer making-do with ships transferred after long service elsewere, either. Two Rizal class frigates, heavily modified version of the Korean-built Incheon class, and two large Tarlac Class Amphibious Warfare Ships have recently entered service. This is our 48th navy documented through satellite imagery. Please check out the pages for more interesting ship histories and an almost encyclopedic series of satellite views of this remarkable navy, and enjoy!
The Vietnamese navy, officially the People’s Army of Vietnam Navy (PAVN), is the 45th navy documented by the Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS). The variety of ships, as well as the extraordinary breadth of service of some of the units, makes the PAVN page a must-see, and adds 21 ship types and 35 Google Earth captures to the project!
One constant of the PAVN fleet, from its origins as a tiny force of patrol and torpedo boats of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), has been the wide range of Russian designs that have served. Many of the same types of ubiquitous Soviet warships that were traded or sold to client states and other navies not aligned to the West found a home here: Soviet Osa missile boats, Tarantul corvettes, minesweepers, and Petya class light frigates.
An unusual feature of the navy is that it also includes ships from the other side of the old Cold War divide. There are a number of former US Navy ships now leaving PAVN service after very long careers. These are relics of the lost Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVNN-South Vietnam). During the lengthy US engagement in Vietnam, the US loaned or transferred older ships to the the Republic as part of the massive amount of military assistance.
Jane’s Fighting Ships editions from the early 1970s reveal the extent of the former USN units in the RVNN: Two Destroyer escorts, seven seaplane tenders armed as frigates, Admirable and Adjutant class minesweepers, patrol craft, and a wide range of landing ships, including six Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) that had seen service in both European and Pacific theatres of World War Two. Some sources even mention that the RVNN fleet of the early 1970s was the 10th largest navy in the World.
In April 1975, as the military situation in South Vietnam collapsed, and the North broke through all Southern defences to encircle the capital, Saigon, elements of the RVNN, with as many as 30,000 refugees, fled to Subic Bay, Philippines.* What could not be evacuated or scuttled was captured, and many of these units were incorporated into the PAVN, leading to a unique influx of RVNN, ex-USN “Prizes of War.”
Four years later, the Soviet Union traded the PAVN more modern ships for a 25-year lease to make use of the port at Cam Ranh Bay (The Russian Pacific Fleet presence would last until 2002). The 1980s were not kind to this disparate fleet, with speculation on widespread decay “rust-out” and inoperability of much of the PAVN.
In recent years, the decline has been reversed, as antique ships were disposed of, old ships were refitted, and more capable units were acquired. A 1997 purchase of two odd little North Korean “Yugo” mini-submarines helped train crews for bigger, better boats: a force of six Russian built improved-Kilo attack boats came into service starting in 2013. This regionally-powerful submarine service mostly patrols out of Cam Ranh Bay. The Russian influence continues with modern, capable types, such as Molniya upgraded missile corvettes and new Gepard class frigates.
When you add in the new classes of indigenous-built patrol vessels, auxiliaries and landing ships (with designs mostly from the Dutch firm Damen), to replace the worn-out Soviet and American-built hulls, you have one pretty special navy! We hope you enjoy our pages, where, as always, we try to track down as many different PAVN ship types as possible.
*The RVNN ships that arrived at Subic Bay (with US military assistance) hauled down their flags, became American ships again, and then were promptly handed over, mostly to the Philippines, where some were incorporated into the navy, and will be featured in an upcoming page.
After more than a 50 years of service, is this the end for the Royal Navy and Indian Navy’s longtime flagship, and veteran aircraft carrier HMS Hermes / INS Viraat?
The list of decommissioned aircraft carriers preserved as museum ships or other attractions around the World is not an inspiring one. As of 2021, the only two nations which have successfully preserved carriers are the United States, and China (which has a knack for preserving Russian carriers). India operated the INS Vikrant R-11 as a museum ship at Mumbai from 2001-2012. For a time it looked like the larger INS Viraat R-22, with important service in two navies, could be preserved. Read on for the interesting history, and current status, of the INS Viraat / HMS Hermes.
The Centaur Class was a Second World War design meant to improve upon the earlier British Light Fleet Carriers (what became the Colossus and Majestic classes). As originally conceived, the planned class of eight ships would have had axial (or straight) flight decks. They were to be 45 feet longer and 10,000 tons heavier than their predecessors, with a length just under 740 feet and a total displacement of 28,000 tons.
None of the ships were in service by the end of the War. Throughout the 1950s, four ships were gradually completed. HMS Hermes, which was intended originally to have been named “Elephant,” was the last finished, to the most modern upgrades, with a well-angled 743′ flight deck and powerful steam catapults to operate heavier, modern jet aircraft. These design changes gave her enhancements over her three sisters, and would result in her having a much, much longer service life.
“Happy H,” as she was affectionately known by her crew, served in the Royal Navy from 1959 to 1984. She had a lengthy, varied career, operating in several roles. Completed as a strike carrier, in early 1970s her catapults were removed and her fixed-wing aircraft landed. First she was converted to a “Commando Carrier” with helicopters and LCVP Mk.2 landing craft to embark Royal Marine assault forces. Soon after she became an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) carrier, with an air complement oriented around ASW helicopters. This new connversion was intended to counter the threat of Soviet submarines.
Her most significant modernization occurred in 1981, when in order to operate Sea Harrier STOVL (Short Take-off and Vertical Landing) jets, she was refitted with a prominent “ski jump” at the leading edge of the flight deck. She emerged from refit as a multi-role carrier, able to carry a flexible, well-rounded air complement of strike and ASW aircraft, while still being able to carry assault/landing forces.
Her service as flagship during the Falklands War stands out. Hermes left for the South Atlantic from HM Naval Dockyard Portsmouth 5 April, 1982, only 3 days after the Argentine landings on the Falklands. Hermes led a powerful task force which included the new carrier, HMS Invincible R-05, the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, destroyers and frigates and other ships. This force eventually expanded to include more than 120 ships. During the conflict, she embarked an air complement of Sea Harriers, RAF GR.3 Harriers, and Westland Sea King Anti-Submarine Warfare helicopters, and also carried a troop of Special Air Service (SAS) and Royal Marines, who were forward-deployed to other ships for assault operations. The Harriers flew combat air patrols. Intended to operate nine Sea King and 5 Harriers, while in the South Atlantic, the ship carried as many as 37 aircraft! After the end of hostilities in mid-June, Hermes went back to the usual exercises, a refit, but then wound up in reserve status by late 1983. “Happy H” was decommissioned from the Royal Navy on 12 April 1984.*
Two years later the Indian government purchased the ship, which was reconditioned at Devonport Dockyard before her departure from British waters. INS Viraat commissioned into the Indian Navy during May 1987. The acquisition of the carrier was a major development for Indian naval aviation, being significantly larger than the first carrier, INS Vikrant. Viraat was the Indian Navy’s pride and joy, serving for 26 years as the navy’s flagship, mostly homeported at Mumbai. Numerous refits at the Cochin Shipyards, Kochi kept the ship operating well into the 21st Century.
As happens to all active ships in modern navies, the vessel was eventually determined to have reached the end of its service, being uneconomical to continue to safely operate. The deactivation process gained momentum during 2014-2015 and culminated in drydock work at Kochi from Aug-Sep. 2016. INS Viraat was formally decommissioned 6 March, 2017, and remained outwardly intact at her usual berth at Mumbai.
A vigorous public campaign to save the ship from scrapping gained media attention during 2018-2019. There are several reasons for preserving this unique warship. She is the last non-US aircraft carrier of any pre-1975 Cold War design…anywhere. Her incredibly long period of service with two navies adds up to about the same time as the only comparable record: USS Enterprise CVN-65’s 55+ years of service. Hermes/Viraat is a substantially older ship, with portions of the lower hull dating from before the end of the Second World War; An important flagship for both British and Indian navies, she is also one of the last remaining combatants of either side from the Falklands War, and could usefully interpret events of that time to the public; Carriers are designed to be upgraded with new technologies to combat obsolescence, but the range of technological transformations of Hermes / Viraat is unique – A ship design intended to operate piston-engined aircraft instead wound up embarking generations of jets and helicopters.
Several British and Indian efforts to preserve Viraat as a museum ship or convert her to some other use, such as an entertainment complex or hotel, failed to secure the needed funds to purchase this ship. She was sold to shipbreakers at Alang during July, 2020, and moved there in late September. Satellite imagery shows the early stages of the end of the Viraat. This veteran warship was moved inshore in early October, amidst many large merchant ships, to be taken apart by the usual army of torch wielding labourers.
The breaking began in earnest in mid-December, with the dismantling of the flight deck over the bows. By late January 2021, the flight deck was removed back almost to the island superstructure, and the hull and forward compartments had been cut down.
And that might have been the usual ending of any number of warships we have listed or found in scrapyards or shipbreakers in our many shipsearcher naval pages, but then things went haywire! In a very unusual development, India’s Supreme Court halted the dismantling of Viraat in early February, to consider a late proposal to save the carrier. Unfortunately, this “12th hour reprieve” seems to have come too late. It is unlikely that the hulk could be used for any purpose without very costly reconstruction (though at this point we would suggest cosmetic restoration using modern materials could be an option). The following tweet, by Vishnu Som, news anchor and journalist involved in the effort to save the carrier, shows the extent of the scrapping effort:
This is tragic -the Supreme Court stays the dismantling of Viraat.. Despite several alerts – many from me personally – on the case moving to the SC – the shipbreaker went ahead and cut up the ship. Yes, there was no legal bar, but why do this when there was a legit legal appeal? pic.twitter.com/prFeCEm70F
*There would not be a larger aircraft carrier in RN service until the December 2017 commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
**Normally we calculate service based on first date of commissioning, and last date of decommissioning, not focusing on periods out of service for major refits or modernizations. However, for Hermes / Viraat, it makes sense to consider the period fully out of service between RN decommissioning and entry into the Indian Navy as time out of the total. Some sources claim Viraat had the longest service of any warship, but, since we have listed many, many smaller warships that continue to serve in other navies from the Second World War, and even earlier, this is not accurate.
Our effort to reconstruct a plan of the mysterious North Korean Soho class catamaran-frigate.
In our last post, Unknown Warships of the Hermit Kingdom, we noted the almost complete lack of accessible photos of North Korea’s oddball fleet of ships. For one of the most mysterious of Korea People’s Navy (KPN) warships, we decided to fire up the creative department and work on a draft profile and deck plan. We are particularly thrilled with the result, which we think helps restore elements of the design of a unique warship that no longer exists.
The basic plans the Shipsearcher Identification Section’s (SIS) team of amateurs worked up may look whacky, but read on, and you will see that the Soho, pennant number 823, was no ordinary warship!
The Soho represented a radical departure for the North Korean regime’s naval construction. The ship that was completed at the Najin shipyards late in 1982 was a helicopter-carrying, missile-armed catamaran (twin hull). For its time, it was an ambitious concept, designed to perform multiple roles in an era when multiple hulls were not being used in the design of surface combatants. At 240 feet long and about 1,600 tons displacement, the Soho corresponded to what we might think of nowadays as a corvette, though it has usually been called a frigate by analysts. With a broad beam of over 50 feet, the ship also bears a resemblance to modern littoral combat ships, though her role did not seem to include landing assault forces. For a modern naval comparison, it is about the size of the 2005-activated Sea Fighter:
Soho had a flush (single level) deck that spanned the two hulls. This was dominated by a helicopter flight deck, which took up almost half the space. Many questions remain about what was intended for the air complement – the helicopters the vessel was meant to operate. They would likely have extended the ship’s anti-submarine capabilities. One of the very few photos (Shared on Twitter from original Korean blog entry: https://astronut.tistory.com/m/188) shows a single Russian Mil Mi-4 helo (or possibly the Chinese Harbin Z-5 copy) on this large flight deck:
The remaining midships and forward sections held a multi-level deck structure, with navigation and command facilities, sensors, and communications gear. The crew were estimated to consist of about 200 officers and men. The primary armament consisted of four enormous STYX anti-ship missiles, contained in “dust-bin” style launchers.* These were likely reused from KPN Osa or Soju class missile boats.
The main gun, located on a raised area forward of the bridge, was a Russian 100mm 56 caliber variety, similar to that fitted on the earlier Najin class frigates. The Soho bristled with lighter weapons, such as 57 and 30 mm cannon, and included anti-submarine RBU-1200 5-barrelled mortars. Some sources also note depth charges held on rails on the stern deck.
Little information is available about Soho’s career. She rarely ventured far from the protected waters off North Korea’s Eastern coastline. Reportedly, the ship was unstable, and may not have been safe in exposed waters further from the coast. Around 2009, Soho is believed to have been decommissioned and dismantled where she was originally built.
Though this single unit’s design resulted in no similar naval construction, Soho does seem to have encouraged the North Korean regime to, in the early 2000s, embark on the construction of a series of smaller, faster catamarans: the Nongo class. This is all we have been able to find out about this strange ship. We would welcome any comments or help locating additional views of the Soho, giving us the opportunity to update our design based on new information. Read on for a section on the how we came up with our design, and some useful sources.
Soho design context and details:
Our interpretation of the design incorporates elements from the existing general arrangement profile view (or simplified rigging plan) of the Soho class (found in Jane’s Fighting Ships editions). The JFS drawing was not significantly updated from the 1990s until 2007. While the Soho remained an active warship, the JFS profile remained one of the most vague plans in their vast catalog of drawings.
Without much to go on, we created the only general arrangement-type deck plan (overhead view) we are aware of for the Soho. This view accurately sites major deck features, with distances and orientation measured from the satellite views. This then also helped inform the design of the profile view (side view), as we matched locations of major features visible from the satellite views. We also took into account any photographs we could find. Since, as we mentioned, we could find no overall views, these included the online image of the Soho class helicopter deck with helicopter, and another of a Najin class frigate, that happens to show then “dear leader” Kim Jong-il on the aft deck of what is clearly the Soho. This last view shows some of the rear deckhouse, and was detailed enough to make out some of the features of this deck structure, including the mast and some of the Soviet/Chinese derived radar sets.
One area of the design we struggled with was the twin bows. We knew from the satellite image that the forward deck tapers conventionally to a broad, rounded point. Many other catamaran designs, such as Dergach missile boats, the Sea Fighter and USN Spearhead Expeditionary Fast Transport have a squared off foredeck that doesn’t project much beyond the stems of the twin-hulls. Other designs, such as the new Iranian catamaran, actually have a cut-back foredeck that sweeps back towards the deck house.
The North Koreans had another large catamaran, also built at Najin shipyards during the 1980s. If possible, even less is known about the submarine rescue ship Kowan, which we do believe we located in views of the submarine base at Chaho. Jane’s Fighting Ships editions feature no views of this larger, 275-foot long vessel, but, fortunately, there is at least one online photo (taken from a collection of ship photos and used on the Korean blog Morning Fog) that seems to show this vessel. We can speculate that the Soho would have had some similarities, including the raked stems.
Casting a wider net, one other vessel inspired our design: the Russian submarine salvage ship Kommuna, a very early naval catamaran which we explored in an earlier post, had a similar broad, rounded bow structure that projected forward of the twin stems.
A 1982 CIA report on the original construction, which included photo interpretation of (still redacted) imagery, released 2011. Naj-A was the original western intelligence designator of the Soho. Since it can be assumed that the redactions contained good aerial or satellite imagery, supporting the description of dimensions and major armament, it should be considered generally accurate.
Another CIA report, about the activity of Soho, Najin, and Soju missile-equipped ships. This also makes use of National Photographic Interpretation Center imagery, which is also all still classified and redacted. This report has additional information about the armament of Soho.
* The four STYX missiles (NATO codename) could have been the original Russian P-15 termit units, Chinese developments of these, that had different capabilities, or North Korean-built derivative KN-1 or 01.
Come see satellite views of warships that make you go “huh?” in North Korea!
North Korea has one of the most unusual – and least known – fleets. From antiquated ex-Soviet submarines and patrol boats to advanced-looking catamarans, the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) is the 39th fleet documented in a series of new pages on our project. We are certainly not the only ones gazing at satellite views of North Korea and wondering…what the hell?!
The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) faced more than the usual challenges locating naval units in the scattered East and West Sea naval ports. The extreme lack of photographs of North Korean ships has made interpreting the satellite views a trial.
Some of the earliest units transferred to the North, in late 1953, after the active fighting of the Korean War ceased, were elderly Russian minesweepers. These 1930s Fugas/Tral class sweepers/patrol ships inspired the design of the domestically-constructed Sariwon class corvettes. All these years later, 3 Sariwons and 1 of those Stalinist-era Russian ships remain in active service!
The larger Najin class frigates are sometimes described as a near copy of the Russian Kola class. They have formed the mainstay of the surface combatant fleet since four units were built in North Korea starting in the early 1970s. In their lengthy career they were armed with torpedoes, then, in the early 1980s, with cannibalized STYX anti-ship missiles and tubes off missile boats. The two that remain in service are even now being updated – at least one has been seen armed with some version or copy of the modern Russian Kh-35 anti-ship missile.
For a period in the early 2000s, it looked like the Najins would be joined by a mystery frigate! Around 2004 the unmistakable hull of a comparatively massive Russian Krivak class ship appeared out of nowhere in Nampo shipyards. According to various observers it was an uncompleted Krivak III class ship on the stocks at Mykolaiv, Ukraine. It would have joined sister-ships in the Black Sea fleet in first the Russian, and then the Ukrainian Navy. Somehow, with the likely intercession of a Russian firm, this “dead hulk” got sold to North Korea. Had the ship been completed, it would have become the largest surface unit of the KPN. However, it vanished from Nampo before 2008, and has not reappeared.
After the Najin class, large domestically-designed KPN warships became increasingly odd. The most unusual ship was the futuristic Soho helicopter-carrying missile-equipped catamaran of the early 1980s. There are virtually no photos of most spaces on this ship. Its design did seem to inspire a host of follow-on smaller catamarans and surface-effect-vessels. The Nongo class ships started to appear in the early 2000s. There are at least 3 varieties with some major differences – the earliest appears to have a “stealthy” radar reduced cross-section, some are armed with Kh-35 or derivative anti-ship missiles, and they come in a few sizes.
The Nongo class may also be the only craft fast enough to accompany and support another strange feature of the fleet: the numerous Kongbang class assault hovercraft. Should widespread hostilities break out again on the Korean peninsula, the main task of as many as 140 Kongbangs would be to quickly land several thousand special operations troops in South Korean territory – an incursion around the Demilitarized Zone which would be intended to disrupt the South Korean military response.
We hope visitors are interested in our new pages, where we try to arrive at a detailed satellite imagery exploration of the mysterious North Korean fleet!
To see views of the technologically-advanced, highly capable South Korean fleet, which would oppose North Korean naval operations in a future conflict, check out our pages for the Republic of Korea Navy.
The variations in types within the Nongo class fast attack craft are analyzed by HI Sutton, on his site,Covert Shores.
A National Post Apr. 2014 article “Graphic: North Korea’s Conventional Arms” by Richard Johnson, Andrew Barr, and Jonathon Rivait has a summary of naval units and silhouette views of KPN ships/boats and submarines: https://nationalpost.com/news/graphics/graphic-north-koreas-conventional-arms . There appear to be a few inaccuracies, such as the Kowan class ASR sub rescue vessel (which looks like a much older trawler or tug-based sub rescue vessel), but it is an interesting attempt to visualize the fleet, and helps highlight the distinctive differences in these very similar types.
In several ways, the unusual warships we located reminded us of the Iranian Navy, which we explored earlier in pages and posts. There has been some technology transfer between these two, and the mix of fast attack craft, midget submarines, light frigates and corvettes is similar.
Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post where we explore features and attempt to reconstruct views of the mysterious and highly unusual Soho missile-equipped, helicopter-carrying catamaran frigate!
Shipsearcher staff have now loaded pages for ships of the Mexican Navy, serving on both Pacific and Gulf Coasts. A fascinating and historic collection of ships have served the Armada de México!
If you have fond memories of the mighty US Navy in any period of the Cold War, there’s a lot to like here: Fletcher and Gearing class destroyers, “FRAM cans” serving into the 21st Century; an Edsall class destroyer escort that kept at it; Knox class frigates that still comprise the major surface combatants; Newport class landing ships; a collection of very old patrol boats; Auk Class US minesweepers from World War 2, upgraded with flight decks, which are still gradually being replaced!
It isn’t all USN cast-offs though: The ARM Reformador POLA-101, a frigate-sized SIGMA design and some of the new corvette-sized vessels, including the Durango and Sierra class patrol ships or “gun boats” have reduced-radar cross-section design, a flight deck and hangar, and a variety of stern and side hatches that deploy the ship’s interceptor boats.
As always, we round the pages off with some interesting auxiliaries and historic ships, including the lovely sail training vessel ARM Cuauhtémoc, tied up at its usual spot in sunny Acapulco! We hope you enjoy our pages for the Mexican Navy – our 37th navy documented in this project.