The mystery of Novorossiysk explained?

Autor: František Novotný 🕔︎︎ 👁︎ 40.278

František Novotný is the author of Mrozoviny on The Invisible Dog

In 1947, the USSR took over the battleship Giulio Cesare from the spoils of the Italian fleet and assigned it to the Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol under the name Novorossiysk. The ship also docked there on the evening of 28 October 1955 after a one-day gunnery exercise. As Captain Kuchta was on leave, the anchoring manoeuvre was directed by his second-in-command Lieutenant Commander Khurshudov. He did not have the ship in his hand and misjudged its length and the time of anchor dropping. As a result, the Novorossiysk, whose bow was held by the anchor, lay stern much closer to the aft mooring buoy than usual. However, Khurshudov arranged with the base's technical staff that the battleship's position would be corrected in the morning.


Battleship Novorossiysk in Sevastopol, early 1950s.

After dinner, some of the crew were given a walking tour and the officers also went ashore. The course of duty ran according to order, and at midnight Lieutenant Laptev, the political second-in-command of the turbine section, took command of the anchor watch. On his watch, a few seconds after half-past one, a tremendous explosion shook the ship. All the lights went out, but the neighbours' searchlights revealed a huge hole in the deck forward of the port forward tower. Around the crater, lined with twisted metal plates sticking up and billowing flames and smoke, lay the ejected bodies of the dead, and a layer of mud covered the entire forward deck.

Because of the cumbersomeness of the Soviet military machinery, the salvage work was slow; in fact, the commander-in-chief of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Parchomenko, had it suspended for a crucial half-hour, and the ship was lost. At 05.45 she capsized keel up and disappeared beneath the surface on the evening of 29 October 1955. 608 sailors perished with her, a hundred of them killed directly by the explosion.

Memorial plaque to the sailors killed on board the Novorossiysk.

The findings of the investigative commission, which was set up by the then Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev under the leadership of the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, admittedly noted the failure of the officials who directed the rescue work (which led to the downfall of the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, Admiral Kuznetsov, who was replaced by Khrushchev's "horse" Admiral Gorshkov), they did not reveal the cause of the explosion. Rather, they obscured it.

The damaged right side of Novorossiysk. This photo was taken after the wreckage was freed, but it was still capsized.

Another photo taken at the same time as above; it shows the port side of the capsized Novorossiysk, which was opposite the explosion. The hull is collapsed both as a result of the initial explosion on the starboard side and as a result of the failure of the internal bulkheads.

First of all, divers confirmed that the epicenter of the explosion was outside the hull, thus ruling out spontaneous ignition of the munitions - a relatively common occurrence in battleships (Imperatrica Marija in World War I and the Japanese Mucu in World War II). Also, the presence of ejected mud that covered the entire bow of the ill-fated ship testified to the magnitude of the explosion at the bottom of the ray below the bow of the ship.


The report of the Commission of Inquiry, of course, also rubbed shoulders with the imperialist Italian designers who had impaired the stability of the vessel during the 1933-37 refit, but it nevertheless cited as the cause of the explosion German magnetic mines of either the RMH (770 kg TNT) or LMB (705 kg TNT) type with which the Germans had mined the Sevastopol anchorage during World War II. It is true that the mine clearance work was carried out sloppily after the war, and while divers found 28 more mines during the 1952 replenishment, none of them were operational - all had dead batteries after 8 years. It was therefore impossible that any abandoned mine could still be initiated three years later by the unusual anchorage of "Novorossiysk". This may have been the reason why one member of the commission refused to sign the protocol. Fittingly, it was KGB General Shilin.

In the climate of a totalitarian state, the mystery of the Novorossiysk explosion was preserved until its fall. It was only in the second half of the 1990s that opportunities arose to search the archives for other explanations of what really happened on the Sevastopol ray on the night of 28-29 October 1955. Two Belarusian naval researchers, Anatoly Taras and Sergei Yelagin, came up with a well-developed hypothesis.

First of all, they analyzed the course of the explosion. According to the Malyshev Commission's protocol, it must have had a force of at least 1,000 kg of TNT when it tore the entire hull with seven decks apart and caused a 150-square-metre hole in the bottom. According to these signs and the records of the Crimean seismological station, the explosion must have been 2 to 2.5 times more powerful than the explosion of the German magnetic mine. The divers' report in turn showed that they found two explosion craters in the mud at the bottom. One was located directly under the hull, the other 30 metres off the starboard side. Furthermore, Belarusian researchers state (other sources do not mention this) that Novorossiysk was not guided to her usual berth at Buoy 12 on that critical day, but to Buoy 3, where the battleship Sevastopol usually anchored. This, too, is significant in their theory, as the pair of researchers concluded that Novorossiysk was the victim of a diversion, a premeditated attack on the base that was flawlessly executed by a British commando with a miniature X-51 submarine.

Taras and Yelagin's theory is consistent with the article by Eng. Sergiyev's article, which was published in the Russian naval magazine "Morskoi sbornik" 10/1996. According to him, the battleship Novorossiysk was blown up by two charges with a total tonnage of 2 to 2.5 tons of TNT. The charges were placed a short distance apart on the bottom approximately on the longitudinal axis of the moored vessel. Their explosions were timed at close intervals to allow the effect to be cumulative. The error in positioning (minimum 10 m) did not result in an immediate chain explosion of the main calibre ammunition in the forward turret magazine which would have obliterated the diversion marks without residue. On this last point, Taras and Yelagin add that the misplacement of the charges may not have been so much a positional error as a mistake in target identification, since in the case of Sevastopol, whose anchorage Novorossiysk had only borrowed, the location would have been accurate.


According to Belarusian scholars, the USSR concealed the real cause of the explosion for ideological reasons. Propaganda claimed that the border was impenetrable, and revealing how easily foreign saboteurs had entered the main Black Sea naval base and accomplished their mission there would shatter that legend. Moreover, as both Belarusians report, Novorossiysk was armed with special munitions, meaning 320 mm nuclear shells, which had just been stored in the forward turret's warehouse, so that the port of Sevastopol narrowly escaped a nuclear explosion - with all the consequences that would have resulted for the population. At least Deputy Commander Khurshudov was firmly convinced of this, but he had no choice but to remain silent.


In any detective story, the investigator must ask himself the question for possibilities and opportunities to perform. This is also true of Taras and Yelagin's version of the demise of Novorossiisk. According to the authors, the Royal Navy had adequate special resources in its 12th Fleet. These were miniature submarines of the X-51 type, a weapon whose roots go back to the X mini-submarines which, towed off the Norwegian coast by large submarines in the autumn of 1943, entered the Ka Fjord and damaged the German battleship Tirpitz with bottom-mounted charges. British submarine diversionary attacks on other targets in Norwegian waters and on the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in Singapore on 31 July 1945 bore the same signature of later action against Novorossiysk.

The British also had an opportunity - from 22 October 1955, NATO's "Bospor 55" manoeuvres took place in the Aegean and Sea of Marmara, during which, it is verified, several large British submarines also entered the Black Sea. And as ing. Sergiyev to the magazine "Morskoi sbornik", from 05.50 on 28 October until 00.17 on 29 October 1955, the entrance to the Sevastopol base was not hydroacoustically guarded, so that an attacker would have more than 18 hours to penetrate the base, lay charges and return to the open sea.

Belarusian scholars then analyze that the British had compelling reasons to make the diversion. In the 1950s, Soviet submarines began to penetrate the Mediterranean in greater numbers, using the Albanian ports of Vlore and Durres as auxiliary bases, threatening the Royal Navy's hegemony in the Mediterranean. Blowing up obsolete battleships, but with nuclear munitions on board, would lead to nuclear explosions that would completely destroy the Black Sea Fleet and their main base. Not much would be left of the civilian port and city. However, due to a misidentification of the target, (or was it a bad anchoring maneuver by Commander Khurshudov that led to Novorossiysk's position being shifted to the rear?!) and the winds that pushed the battleship's hull somewhat sideways, the nuclear munitions did not explode, and had it not been for the mismanaged salvage work, the forty-year-old veteran might not even have sunk.

In their study, Taras and Yelagin also mention other theories that have emerged recently. One of them posits that Novorossiysk was the victim of Italian revenge when the divers, former members of the famous MAS-10 fleet, who had made the divers during the 2. During World War II, under the command of Prince Borghese, they attacked British warships in Gibraltar several times and in February 1941 severely damaged the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in Alexandria. However, the Italian Navy did not have a suitable mini-submarine until the autumn of 1955. Moreover, it could only carry charges with a limited force of 300 kg TNT. And it must be taken into account that MAS members were among the fascists who were also closely monitored by the Italian special services - and also by the KSI - after the war. The latter then informed Soviet officials that MAS was off the hook in the case of Novorossiysk.


Ukrainian historian V. V. Kostrichenko, a native of Sevastopol, then authored another version. According to him, the Novorossiysk explosion was a major provocation orchestrated by the KGB. However, this hypothesis is sharply contested by Taras and Yelagin and derisively discussed by them - it can only be spread by people who, like children, believe in "fairy tales" about the omnipotence of the security organs that are out of Party control, believe in various "plots" being planned in these organs, and other such nonsense.

And here is the crux of the dispute and at the same time the weakness of the two Belorussians' theory. Although they are so upset about the Ukrainian historian's version, they themselves behave in much the same way, when their hypothesis is all too chargeable to the same view, only instead of the "fairy tale" about the KGB, the spy legend and obsession with subversion that Stalin's empire so enjoyed is used!

Unless the British archives speak up and eventually confirm the hypothesis of the two Belorussians, we will not see the truth about the destruction of the battleship Novorossiysk again.

Written in Prague on July 14, 2003, based on the article "The Disaster of the Battleship Novorossiysk" by Anatoly Taras and Sergei Yelagin in the magazine "Okrety vojenne" 2/2003.
Photo: The Novorossiysk mystery

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