"As with the Red Army’s armored trains, the Red Navy’s river flotillas fell into disrepair in the late 1920s and early 1930s as older vessels were scrapped and requisitioned civilian boats returned to their designed uses. In 1934 the Navy issued a request for a new river monitor suitable for mass production, using as many common components as possible with the tanks of the 1931 program. The new vessels should have two turrets, armor protection for their vitals (engine, magazines, fuel) and a very shallow draft — only 0.5 meters.
BK-241, a type 1125.The chief engineer assigned to the task, Yuliy Benoit, said it was impossible to create a two-turret armored boat only drawing a half-meter. But, he believed, a smaller vessel could be built with only one turret that would meet the shallow-draft requirement. The Navy approved his suggestion, and two designs emerged from Benoit’s bureau. The bigger boat, known as BKA (bronirovannyie katera, or armored cutter) 1124, had two turrets initially taken from T-26 tanks and mounting 45mm guns. The boat displaced 42 tons, was 25 meters long and had 12mm of armor on its “citadel” protecting the engines and other vitals. While drawing more water than a half-meter, it still could operate in very shallow waters as it only drew 0.80 meters.
The smaller version, known as BKA 1125, only drew 0.5 meters and displaced 29 tons. These were only slightly shorter (22.6 meters) but had less armor protection.
When series production began in 1935 at small shipyards along the Soviet Union’s inland rivers, the T-26 turret was replaced by the 76.2mm short-barrelled gun and turret used in the T-28 medium and T-35 heavy tanks. Since this gun had no anti-aircraft capability, each boat received two machine guns in anti-aircraft mounts (12.7mm in the 1124, 7.62mm for the 1125). A slightly modified version of the 1125 was also produced for the NKVD’s border guard units.
By the time of the Hitlerite invasion, 85 boats had been delivered with 68 more under construction. They went into action very early, with boats of the Danube flotilla inflitrating Romanian defenses to land troops on 24 June and routing Romanian marines defending the Danube delta. On the 26th, boats of the Pinsk flotilla took part in the Soviet 21st Army’s counter-attacks against the German bridgehead over the Berezina River.
Though the navy’s river crews fought very hard, they often could not retreat as easily as their comrades on land and had to destroy their boats. Replacements at first proved hard to come by, despite the large number of uncompleted hulls in Soviet shipyards and a design prepared specifically for rapid construction. Tank turrets could not be diverted from the new T-34/76 program, and the older turrets were out of production. During much of 1941, new boats could only be fitted with alternative weaponry — usually 76mm anti-aircraft guns taken from Soviet “blue water” warships and installed in open mounts.
Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov pressed hard for greater allocations of turrets and guns from the tank factories, but at first found little success. “I can help only in case of overproduction,” answered Vyacheslav Malyshev, people’s commissar for tank production. “I am responsible for the tanks with my head.” Yet despite threats from Stalin, Malyshev appears to have consciously rigged production goals to result in a turret surplus, and soon the Navy was getting its guns. Malyshev also diverted powerful American-made Packard engines to the gunboat program, preferring to use native-made engines in his tanks.
As the war progressed, the gunboats gave up their shallow draft for greater armament, as official upgrades added more machine guns and 37mm anti-aircraft guns, and crews unofficially added more of their own and sometimes 82mm rocket-launching rails as well. The crews often installed electric heaters and strengthened the boat’s prows for ice-breaking, but neither of these was an official upgrade until the 1944 model was designed, a version that did not enter service until after the war’s end.
The Volga Flotilla made the Red Army’s greatest victory possible, keeping open supply lines to the troops fighting for their lives in the ruins of Stalingrad. Gunboats armed with 76mm anti-aircraft guns fought off German Stuka attacks throughout the siege, and those with tank turrets hove close to the riverbanks to provide fire support for the troops ashore. Every night, they ferried reinforcements and ammunition across the river, and brought back the wounded to safety.
“About the role of the sailors of the fleet and their exploits,” wrote Vasiliy Chiukov, the Soviet commander in Stalingrad, “I would say briefly that had it not been for them the 62nd Army might have perished without ammunition and rations, and could not have carried out its task.”
When the Red Army began its great counter-offensives to free the Soviet Union of the invaders, the river gunboats went along. They played a key role at the battles along the Vistula and Oder, helping force the way across to the Kustrin bridgehead in the last battle for Berlin."
~ Avalanche Press