Heroic French-Built Cruiser Yacht (1896)
The Svietlana was built at Le Havre, France, as a cruiser-yacht for Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, uncle of the Tsar and long-time Naval Minister; the ship was named for his wife, a long-time sufferer from the Duke's many adulterous affairs. The Grand Duke had been the Tsar's boyhood chum and remained a court favorite; indolent and arrogant, he lived a life of "fast women and slow ships," according to Petersburg wags, in a lavish Petersburg palace stuffed with priceless art treasures. As long-time General Admiral (Navy Minister), Alexei had been responsible for the vigorous but uncoordinated buildup of Russia's navy since the 1880s, with many one-off ships copied from foreign designs already a decade old, and hence obsolete soon after completion. Although he had traveled the globe and met the Meiji Emperor in 1872, the Grand Duke was foremost among the clique pressuring the Tsar to provoke war with Japan.
Typical of Russian practice at the time, the expenses of the royal family's private luxuries were heaped upon the Russian people. The ship's design closely followed the French second-class protected cruisers of the three-ship D'Assau class of 1895. Svietlana was completed with beautiful paneling and a lavish royal suite, as suited a Romanov playboy. A well-stocked larder and wine cellar were among the ship's appointments. Smart appearance, including special dress uniforms worn when the Grand Duke was aboard, took priority over military effectiveness, which makes the ship's bravura performance in battle all the more remarkable.
A contemporary source noted: "Her engines of 8,500 horse-power ... give a speed of 20 knots. She carries two military masts, with small tops for search-lights, a signal yard, three smokestacks, and a very pronounced ram bow. Passageways, conning tower, and communication tubes, as well as deck openings, are protected by armor plates varying from 2 to 5 in. in thickness. The triple expansion four-cylindered engines drive twin screws. The armament consists of six 6-in., ten 47-mm. rapid-fire guns, four torpedo launching tubes. The first trials for coal consumption were held November 4 under a speed of ten knots. On November 24 and 25 were held the speed trials and tests of battery. The speed trial lasted 6 hours with a mean speed of 20.25 knots, the highest speed reached was 21.625 knots."
Specifications for the Svietlana (armament given as at Tsushima):
Dimensions: 330' x 42'6" x 23' Displacement: 3,862 tons std. Armament: (6) 6.4"/45, (6) 3"/50 QF, and (10) 47 mm QF guns; (2) 14" torpedo tubes. Armor: Harvey type: CT: 2", deck: 3"; engine hatch: 5"; sponsons 2"; turrets 1"; hoists & shields: ½". Propulsion: (24) coal-fired Lagrafel d'Allest water-tube boilers; (2) 4-cyl inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 8,500 hp, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 20 kts normal; 21.6 kts under forced draft/10,100 hp. Fuel capacity: 420 tons of coal standard; 800 tons maximum. Endurance: 1450 nm @ 20 kts. Crew: 422 (peacetime), 457 (wartime).
Dimensions: 101.2m x 121m x 13m Displacement: 3,862 tons std. Armament: (6) 163 mm/45, (6) 76 mm/50 QF, and (10) 47 mm QF guns; (2) 381 mm torpedo tubes. Armor: Harvey type: CT: 102 mm, deck: 63/37 mm; engine hatch: 120 mm; sponsons: 51 mm; turrets: 51 mm; hoists & shields: 50 mm. Propulsion: (24) coal-fired Lagrafel d'Allest water-tube boilers; (2) 4-cyl inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 6,338.5 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 37 km/hr normal; 40 km/hr under forced draft/7,531.6 kW. Fuel capacity: 420 tons of coal standard; 800 tons maximum. Endurance: 8,056 km @ 37 km/hr. Crew: 422 (peacetime), 457 (wartime).
Laid down February 1894; launched May 1895; completed April 1896. Destiny: Scuttled by her crew at the Battle of Tsushima, May 28, 1905.
As the Japanese siege lines crept closer to Port Arthur in 1904 and the Russian Pacific Squadron's warships rusted at their moorings in the port, the Tsar determined to send a relief fleet. The Svietlana was drafted into the motley fleet being assembled for the purpose. While the Grand Duke enjoyed the amenities of the social season at Petersburg, the luxurious fittings were removed from his yacht and a few new guns were added. The Svietlana voyaged out as part of Adm. von Felkerzam's division, which also included the Almaz and Zhemchug as well as the old battleships Sissoi Veliky and Navarin. Known as "the Yacht Squadron", this division split off from Rozhdestvensky's main force at Tangier and traveled through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal, rejoining Rozhdestvensky at Madagascar on Dec. 23, 1904.
Svietlana's shared the fortunes of the ill-starred fleet for the rest of the arduous and demoralizing voyage; she was made flagship of the Second Cruiser Squadron under Capt. Shein, but the remainder of this division consisted of three auxiliaries -- little more than merchant ships with a few guns bolted on. As their fleet approached the Tsushima Straits on May 28, 1905, Svietlana, Almaz, and the auxiliary Ural spearheaded the Russian formation, forming a triangular screen ahead of the two columns of battleships. As the fleet action began, the three minimally-protected cruisers sheered off to make a run for Vladivostok, on Rozhdestvensky's orders. The Almaz punched her way through, but the Svietlana was not so lucky.
She was soon encircled by three Japanese cruisers. Although surrounded, Svietlana fought them off with unexpected ferocity. She kept the Japanese at bay for several hours, firing her deck guns and launching torpedoes at every approach by the enemy. The Japanese cruisers Otowa and Niitaka hammered the Russian ship mercilessly when not taking evasive maneuvers to dodge her torpedoes. According to a report in the official Japanese naval archives, although there was nothing else to be done, the crew determined to die at their stations and refused to hoist the flag of surrender.
After fighting to the last shell, Capt. Shein ordered the ship scuttled and sent the remaining crew and officers off. The Svietlana gradually lost buoyancy and sank by the bow with her colours still flying; the Japanese continued to pour in shells until she was half submerged. More than half the ship's crew was saved by boats from the Japanese cruisers. With a victory-or-death culture themselves, the Japanese approved of the Svietlana's fighting spirit -- an example taken by too few in the doomed Russian armada.
All the desperate courage of the Donskois and Svietlanas could not save the day for Russia. Tsushima became synonymous with utter, crushing, humiliating defeat. Vessels which surrendered were captured and became part of the Japanese fleet. In an ironic turnaround, several of them came back to Russia 10 years later, when Japan and Russia found themselves on the same side in WWI, and the Russians were hurting for ships.
As for Grand Duke Alexei, he was severely castigated for the disastrous naval defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, when so many of his ultimate weapons went to the bottom without inflicting more than a few scratches on the enemy. Alexei was stripped of his naval post in June 1905, immediately after the Battle of Tsushima. Fleeing to his beloved Paris to avoid revolutionary assassins, the Grand Duke enjoyed a few more years of culture, caviar, and womanizing before succumbing to pneumonia in November 1908. His death was said to devastate Tsar Nicholas II, who had always regarded Alexei as his favorite uncle.
Shots of the Heroic Yacht
Svietlana in the rôle she played so well: as high-class party ship.
Postcard image of Svietlana dressed over all.
Svietlana awaiting the arrival of cocktail hour and guests.
Quarter view of Svietlana shows off her French hauteur.
Svietlana, port side.
Svietlana visiting the Norwegian coast on a prewar cruise.
The horrors of Tsushima depicted in melodramatic style by a contemporary illustrator. Of Svietlana's crew, 170 perished in the battle, or 40%.