Using Google Earth imagery to document warships, the one problem is, you can never go back. Before about the year 2000, there are very few captures. This means the warship types documented in our pages overwhelming represent ship classes in service from the late 1970s (leaving service in the early 2000s) up to today.
Wouldn’t it be nice if older aerial imagery of naval ports could be incorporated into our database? Well, for our home fleet, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), we were able to do just that. In the Fall of 2022, as the World blundered out of Pandemic closures, the Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) deployed to the offices of the National Air Photo Library, at Natural Resources Canada. We have been updating our list with these unique views. We look forward to continuing the research.
Wading through photo reconnaissance flight lines and a challenging database, we called up aerials from Esquimalt, BC, and Halifax, NS, from the 1960s and early 1970s. What we found was a target-rich environment of Cold War fleet units on Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
The RCN of the early postwar era continued to be oriented to Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). The aerial mapping flights caught views of St. Laurent class and follow-on Destroyer Escorts, including some of the newer upgrades with helicopter flight decks or ASROC anti-submarine mortars replacing a Limbo ASW launcher.
Older Prestonian-class ocean escorts, based on wartime River class frigate hulls, were economical conversions. To complement these surface combatants, we also have a view of both former USN submarines HMCS Grilse, a Balao class diesel-electric attack boat and veteran of World War 2 that had served six war patrols in the Pacific War, and HMCS Rainbow, a similar Tench class. Before the acquisition of new Oberon class boats, these two old boats –Rainbow succeeding Grilse– kept the submarine service afloat. Other long-gone RCN units we added range from Cape Class fleet maintenance ships (having posted about the last of these), HMCS Provider replenishment ship, HMCS Labrador icebreaker, and the list goes on down to the little Bird Class patrol boats.
We encourage you to visit the pages to see these views of a vanished era in Canadian naval history. It all adds up to a more robust documentation of the post-Second World War Canadian Navy: 18 new views that help add 10 new classes of RCN ships. We hope to continue to expand our listings to include new sources of aerial or satellite imagery.
The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) has fully updated all ca. 380 warship lower-level pages. When we started this site, it was narrowly-focused on large USN warships, and so we went with our own way of thinking: Overall lengths of ships expressed in imperial measurements – feet! Now that there are more than fifty navies documented on here, with the site welcoming visitors from all over the World, it made sense to express all measurements in both metric and imperial – meters, rounded to .1 of a meter, and feet, rounded to the nearest foot. The site currently has 3,053 images of naval vessels that range in length from 36′-1,123′ or 11.0-342.3 m or ex-USS Enterprise CVN-65 to the Canadian sounding vessel Pogo YFL-104. Just for comparison, you could mount Pogo and 30 of her sister ships end-to-end along the flight deck of Enterprise, and still have enough room for a lawn chair to have a seat and just take it all in!
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.
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.
The Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, in his celebrated play, Dr. Faustus, wrote of a mythic age, when a thousand warships were launched to grab back Helen, the most beautiful woman. Here at Shipsearcher, the Ship Identification Section (SIS) can’t tell you if any of that happened in distant antiquity – satellite imagery of the Trojan War is poor, to say the least! We can tell you that we’ve now launched over a thousand warshipviews and loaded these in our Google Earth satellite imagery database!
With the recent pages for the Norwegian, German, Danish, and Dutch navies, we have now found more than 1,100 warships using open satellite imagery! A project that began as a quick look at active and retired United States Navy carriers has now documented 27 World navies, from the largest carriers to museum and sail training ships.
So what are some of the most interesting or odd captures we’ve located out there in the wild World? Check out below, where we’ve loaded captions with links to posts and pages to keep exploring the database. It’s a hyperlink-rich environment, folks, so click often and please share!
A powerful fleet is emerging from the mists of the South China Sea. Led by a pair of carriers, in line ahead, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious assault ships, landing ships and other units are being systematically identified and logged in the Shipsearcher Database by Ship Identification Directorate (SID) staff.
The last of the large shipsearcher pages will be the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PRC fleet was once viewed as an out-dated adjunct to the massive land forces. These days, the furious pace of naval construction is setting China on a path to become the World’s penultimate naval force, second only to the USN. In the meantime, please check out any of the other 13 navies on the site!
Two new pages explore the past and present surface warships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN). For shipsearcher staff, it was particularly challenging to locate imagery of these vessels, as they were all loaded upside down (we hope you enjoyed that truly elevated piece of imagery-related humour)!
Some of the more interesting features of these pages include the RNZN 1963 views of Devonport Naval Base, Auckland’s major naval facility. The aerial views make identification of early Cold War and long-service Second World War-built warships possible. As for the RAN, the range of ship classes depicted speaks to a diversified, potent force capable of undertaking a range of missions. As always, we have taken pains to track down long out of service or preserved warships.
Shipsearcher staff have been busy looking into the inlets around Murmansk and Vladivostok for large Russian submarines. We’ve found some nice satellite captures of boats to share in a new page on Russian submarines.
Many, like the enormous Typhoon Class of Hunt for Red October fame, are resurrected dinosaurs of the Cold War, while some are new and terrifying breeds.
Featured in the page are nuclear boats that have been the subject of media speculation, such as the World’s longest submarine, the special mission heavily modified Oscar II class Belgorod, and the Losharik deep submergence mini-sub. These are some of the biggest and scariest subs active today. We hope you enjoy these views, just remember, in Soviet Russia, submarine submerges YOU!!
The first pages of Shipsearcher have now been released. This summer, a break-away faction of Warsearcher staff began honing their ship identification skills. It started as background research for our R & D programs, but it quickly snow-balled to absorb resources from war trophies research and postcard collecting sections.
Could the new Ship Identification Directorate (SID) identify warships from various captures of satellite imagery? With the amount of contextual information and photographs proliferating online, we believe the current pages, and those to come, are an interesting, original record of warships. As of October, 2019, there are pages up for US Navy current surface units, US Navy retired/historic, Royal Canadian Navy. The imagery in this post is a sneak peak at some that will appear in pages still building. We also have a page up about sources and the ID process.