by Vladimir Yakubov

Fifth battleship of the 1881 shipbuilding program Sisoy Veliky can be considered a success and a failure at the same time.  It is a success because it has set the pattern for all of the future Russian pre-dreadnoughts, and a failure because it personified all of the bad that was present in the Russian shipbuilding establishment.  By the end of the 1870s Russian navy fell far behind the premiere navies in the world in the battleship race.  In fact at the time they only had one full size battleship - Petr Veliky and a number of smaller coast defense vessels.  The overseas presence of the navy relied on several armored cruisers and a large number of unarmored (and in many cases wooden) corvettes.  At the same time newly unified Germany was building up a respectable navy and Japan was starting to show signs of expansionism, so Russia was risking not only the power projection capability against the Royal Navy but also safety and security of its shores against regional opponents.  The final push came in 1878 when Russia was forced to give up most of the gains that it made from the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 at the Berlin Congress.  The government decided that a large investment in the navy needs to be made. 

The person put in charge of formulating the 1881 Naval Program was then naval minister admiral Shestakov.  Intended for 20 years the program called 16 battleships, 13 cruisers, 11 gunboats and over 100 torpedo boats in the Baltic alone.  The requirements for the first battleships to be built under this program were put out in October 1882 and called for a powerfully armed ship that was deployable to anywhere in Europe of the type similar to the German Sachsen class battleships.  The main requirement for the new ships however was that they had to be as cheap as possible.  That would be the main theme and main problem in the Russian battleship program until the end of the century.  The first five ships of the program built in the 1880s were all built to the individual projects and were very different from each other.  Laid down in August 1884, first ship of the program - Imperator Alexandr II - was a 9200ton barbette battleship armed with two 12"/30, four 9"/35 and eight 6"/35 guns.  The second ship was supposed to be cheaper and smaller than the first and be based on the Brazilian battleship Riachuello built in Britain in 1883.  Several iterations of the project were done and on 25 Oct 1885 the final design was approved, but suddenly on 31 October the decision was taken to build the second ship to the same design as Imperator Alexandr II.  Laid down in March 1886 Imperator Nikolai I was the same as the previous ship except that it carried its 12" guns in a turret instead of the barbette.  In 1885 the news came that Germany was building up to 150 torpedo boats so the shipbuilding program was edited and the number of battleships was cut to 9 while increasing the number of torpedo boats.  In 1887 the design of the third ship started and once again it was supposed to be cheaper than the previous two, only this time there was no sudden change of heart and the ship named Gangut came out a truly awful design.  Displacing 7142 tons it was armed with one 12"/30 gun in a lightly protected barbette, four 9"/35 and four 6"/35 guns, it earned a joke among sailors that went something like this - "only one stack, only one mast, only one gun - complete misunderstanding".  Fortunately for it's crew it hit an uncharted rock only 3 years after the commissioning and sunk without any loses, leading its captain to comment that it's a ".. a vile ship, it's good that she sank, and it is pointless to raise her".  Even before Gangut was laid down the design of the fourth ship started and the theme once again was - you guessed it - smaller and cheaper.  The ship was supposed to carry the armament of the Imperator Alexandr II but be much smaller - to do that speed and range were to be sacrificed.  The project displacing just over 6000 tons was ready in February 1889, but this time Russian Navy was saved from another awful ship by the Germans.  News came that they laid down ships of the Wörth class displacing 10000 tons and armed with six 11" guns, which made it individually much more powerful than the new ship, so the size and armament of the design were drastically increased.  Construction of  Navarin, as the ship was called, started in June 1889.  The ship was very similar in layout to the British Nile class battleships and displaced 10206 tons and was armed with four 12"/35 guns in two turrets and eight 6"/35 secondary guns.

The design of the fifth ship started in 1890 and the process was a once again a mess.  Rather being based on the Navarin, it was once again based in the Imperator Alexandr II - an 8 year old design in a era when technology changed every several years.  The navy requirement called for 8500 ton ship armed with three 12" guns in two barbettes, four 6"/35 secondary guns and four Armstrong 120mm QF guns.  The range was to be 3000nm at 10 knots and top speed 16 knots.  Main armor belt was to be 16" in the middle thinning to 12" toward the end.  The wrangling about the armament started almost immediately - some called for addition of another 12" gun, while others called for replacement of the aft gun with two 9" guns, another admiral called for replacement of all 6" guns with two 9" ones, while the weirdest request came from Admiral Kopytov, who proposed scrapping the entire project and building a ramming cruiser that he proposed back in 1869!  In the end the armament was changed to four 12"/35 guns in barbettes and six 6"/35, while the engine power was increased from from 7320hp to 8500hp.  This lead to the increase in the size of the ship but was thought acceptable.  The ship was laid down in 25 July 1891 and officially added to the navy rolls as Sisoy Veliky on 21 Dec 1891.  Throughout construction the delays abounded, some due to the fact that Russian factories were overloaded by the naval expansion and others were the disorder in the shipbuilding ministry.  For example someone forgot to order the shafts for the ship and the mistake was only realized then the construction had to be halted because of their absence.  Numerous delays in the delivery of the parts and design changes contributed to the delays in construction.  One major change came in the beginning of 1893 when the construction of the ship was well underway - it was decided to change the barbette mounts for the turrets and 12"/35 guns for the new 12"/40 guns, while the 6"/35 guns were replaced with modern 6"/45 Canet QF guns.  While this improved the combat potential of the ship it increased the overload of the design and further slowed down construction.  The ship was finally launched on 20 May 1894, almost 3 years after the beginning of construction.  Construction continued at the slow pace and the ship was sent out for trials in August 1896.  During trials the speed was determined to be 15.5 knots which was 0.5 knots despite the fact that the engines produced 450 hp more that designed.  This was due to the overloading of the ship during construction, the problem was was omnipresent in the Russian shipbuilding - on average Sisoy and the four preceding ships were overloaded by10% of the displacement.

Even before the ship was formally accepted into service the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean heated up between Russia and Ottoman Empire, so the ship was fitted out in the hurry and sent over to the Mediterranean.  The hurry was so great that many spare parts were forgotten in Kronshtadt and numerous construction problems revealed during testing were not fixed.  The ship arrived in Algiers on 14 December 1896 with leaking hull and deck.  Some of the leaks were fixed with the efforts of the crew, but the general condition of the ship was pretty bad.  Despite the problems the ship was added to the Russian Mediterranean squadron.  During the firing exercises near Crete on 3 March 1897 there was an explosion in the turret which killed 19 people and wounded 18 more.  The 7.5ton turret roof was thorn off and thrown onto the forward bridge, but the fire was put out very fast.  As was later determined the explosion happened due to the fact that the breech of one of the 12" guns was not fully closed.  The ship was pretty heavily damaged and had to pull into Toulon for immediate repairs.  The commission of Russian naval officers was sent to Toulon to investigate the incident and determine the necessary repairs that needed to be done.  The commission was horrified by the state of the ship - the list of the repairs was extensive - leaking decks, hull, portholes and casemate covers were bad, but the worst was 0.5 to 1.5" wide crack between armor and hull plating running most of the length of the ship.  Numerous problems were found with watertight doors and bulkheads, one of the inspectors fell through the rotten floor in the forward casemate.  One of the officers wrote all of the defects in the memo and sent it to the headquarters, which launched the investigation, but the shipbuilding ministry was able to quash it and nothing was done.  The future ships build in Russia however were of higher quality, so Sisoy can be considered the low point of the Russian shipbuilding of the time.

Repairs lasted 9 months and in Dec 1897 painted into while color the ship was finally ready for service.  By that time events in the Far East heated up due to the Russian takeover of Port Arthur and the Russian Mediterranean squadron was sent there.  Sisoy, together with Navarin and armored cruisers Rossiya and Vladimir Monomakh traveled to Port Arthur arriving on 16 March 1898.  The situation cooled down and two rather uneventful years followed until the Boxer rebellion in 1900, when Sisoy together with the ships of the international coalition took part in combat against Chinese forces.  The ship itself was not involved in action, but the sailors from it were instrumental in taking of the Taku forts and defense of the internationals quarters in Peking. More quiet days followed and in December of 1901 the ship was sent back to the Baltic for major refit and modernization, because the Russian Far East didn't have the capacity to do such work (ironically enough, despite constant tensions, Russian ships went in for repairs to Nagasaki in Japan until the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War).  Arriving in April 1902 the ship went in for refit, where the artillery and boilers was replaced, new higher mast added and engines repaired.  But because all of the efforts were being directed to finishing new battleships of the Borodino class, the refit progressed slowly.  The start of the Russo-Japanese war didn't really speed up the work, and only after the sinking of the Petropavlovsk when the final decision to send the 2nd Pacific Squadron to the Far East was taken did the repairs go into high gear.  In order to speed up the refit the work went from two sides - the repairs were done at a higher rate and items were taken off the repair list.  As such the rusted watertight bulkheads were not repaired, which may have doomed the ship a year later... 

The ship was declared ready on 29 August 1904 and after a visit from the Emperor Nikolas II, painted in the black and yellow colors of the 2nd Pacific Squadron it departed Libava with the rest of the squadron on 2 October 1904.  The epic journey of the squadron has been described numerous times so I won't go into too much too much details.  While most of the squadron went around the horn of Africa, Sisoy, Navarin and several cruisers were sent through the Suez Canal.  This was mainly due to the fears for the machinery of the battleships, which illustrates the quality of the just completed refit pretty well.  For example during the 28 days the trip from Madagaskar to Cam Ranh Sisoy was the main culprit slowing down the squadron with 12 breakdowns in machinery.  The squadron reached the fateful Tsushima straight on 14 May 1905.  Sisoy Veliky was the second ship in the second division with battleships Oslyabya (flagship), Navarin and armored cruiser Admiral Nakhimov.  Sisoy opened fire together with other Russian ships at around 1350 and was initially firing at Japanese armored cruisers Nissin and Kasuga, later switching to Iwate and hitting it with a 12" round causing a fire.  The ship was hit back for the first time at 1440 when a 12" and a 6" shells hit near the waterline at the bow casing flooding up to frame 20.  In the next 45 minutes the ship was hit by one 12", three 8" and three 6" rounds which damaged the forward turret turning mechanism, started a fire on the bridge and the casemate, as well as damaging the water mains.  Sisoy fell out of line fighting the fires with buckets, by hand.  It took an hour and a half but the fire was put out and at 1700 the ship fell back into the line behind Navarin.  During the second phase of combat the ship was hit four more times, and by dark the 2nd Pacific Squadron was destroyed as a cohesive force.  After dark admiral Nebogatov on board Imperator Nikolai I took command and increased the speed to 12-13 knots, which the captain of Sisoy fearing for his substandard watertight bulkheads, couldn't sustain and the ship started falling behind.  First destroyer attacks started at 2230 but Sisoy was able to fight them off.  The second time the ship wasn't so lucky and it was hit near the steering gear disabling it.  The situation was becoming untenable, the forward bulkheads were failing one after another and by 0315 the bow was only third of the meter above water.  To save the crew the captain decided to beach the ship on Tsushima island moving in reverse to try to save the bulkheads.  In the morning as the land was visible the ship met armored cruiser Vladimir Monomakh which was moving towards the shore for the same reason.  Sisoy's captain asked the cruiser to save his crew but the cruiser replied that they are about to sink themselves and offered the help of destroyer Gromkij.  Realizing that destroyer won't be able to help him captain Ozerov sent it way.  At 0720 three Japanese auxiliary cruisers and a destroyer spotted sinking battleship.  Captain Ozerov requested their help in removing the crew, to which the Japanese asked if he surrendered the ship.  Captain Ozerov agreed and Japanese boats came aboard, by that time the bow was down so much that they had to tie the boats to the gun barrels of the forward gun turret.  The Japanese tried to tow the ship but were unable to save it and 2 hours later it capsized and sunk.  Russian loses were 20 killed and 46 wounded in the day action and further 39 drowned after the ship sank...

   “Ehskaderennyj Bronenosets Sisoy Velikiy” (Battleship Sisoy Veliky), M.A. Bogdanov, Stapel' #1, 2004

The Model

Sisoy Veliky was the first Combrig model that I ever bought - about 10 years ago.  At the time I didn't think my skills were good enough to do it justice, but ever since then I had a soft spot for this ship.  Recently I took out the model and decided to build it.  Unfortunately I was disappointed because in the 10 years since the model was produced several new books were published on this ship, which included the scale drawings of the ship copied off the original plans.  A quick comparison with them showed that the kit made from the older plans (to which it conforms well) was pretty inaccurate.  Since the inaccuracies were pretty much everywhere I decided that it would be easier to scratchbuild it than to try to correct them.

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The Hull

Since the plans in the book included the deck by deck layout of the ship and I like to open the casemates on my models whenever possible I decided to go one step further and actually make the casemates hollow.  In order to accomplish that I went with my usual sandwich method for making the hulls and made the lower part of the hull based on the drawing of the casemate deck and then made one more layer for the areas between the casemates.  I roughly sanded down the sides to give them the correct shape and then made the hull plating from the 0.01" thick styrene sheet.  Before gluing the plating to the sides I cut out the gun ports in it in the correct locations.  Then I detailed the casemate with the bare minimum of the items that are supposed to be there, since not too much will be visible in the final product anyway.  I didn't go all crazy with detailing but did add the major structures that were there like the smoke stack casings and so on.  I then painted the interior of the casemates with while walls and tan decks, added a wash and drybrushed.  At this time the mounts for the 6" guns were added without the barrels since the barrels would have interfered with the sanding of the sides of the ship and would be added later. 

Once the casemate was complete I've made the deck by laminating the ship plans onto the 0.01" styrene and scribing the deck planking.  I then glued it to the hull.  Once it was attached I sanded the sides of the hull to give them correct shape and filled the problem spots with putty.  After smoothing down the sides of the hull it was time to build up the upper casemate.  Its sides were made from sheet styrene and the its construction repeated all of the steps that were done on the lower casemate.  In retrospect it was probably way too much work to do for negligible results since the gun ports are tiny and not too much is visible through them, but I like it anyway.

After the hull was finished, I started adding the details to it.  The smokestacks were made from various thicknesses of the brass tubing.  I cut them to the correct length and used the Dremel tool as a mini lathe to make various corner cuts and grooves in the stacks.  Ventilator heads were taken from the spares box.  To further give the appearance of depth to the ship I made the light wells above the machinery rooms open.  To do that I made up their sides from the thin styrene.  Since I though about it after I closed down the hull I couldn't make them go all the way down to the engine deck so I decided to paint the interior horizontal surfaces black and to give them some 3D feeling I added tome photoetch mesh that I painted white.  The round turret barbettes were cut out roughly and turned on the Dremel, since I didn't have an easy way to cut them out straight right away.  At this stage various small details like hatches, conning tower, bollards and others were added.

The ship was then primed and after fixing minor scratches and pits, the final detailing was done.  I've added the photoetch doors, booms for the torpedo nets, anchors and so on.  Next came the painting.  During it's career the ship carried three different paint schemes - classical Victorian scheme with black hull, white superstructure and yellow stacks from 1896 to 1897, overall white with yellow stacks from 1897 to 1903 and overall black with yellow stacks during the Russo-Japanese War.  Each of the periods was preceded by a refit which altered the look of the ship, so you need to choose which one you want to do before you start.  Despite my usual preference for the combat schemes I chose the early Victorian one because I really like the way the ship looks with short masts.  The painting process went as usual - I painted the deck first, then after masking it off painted the yellow stacks, then white superstructure and finally the black hull.  Once the painting and the touchups were done I made the bridge windows using pieces of decals.  I did the wash using the stuff called "Black-It-Out".  It's a water soluble ink-like stuff that once dry I remove with a Q-tip and a stiff brush.  The final step was drybrushing with a lighter shade of the black for the hull and tan for the deck.


With the painting finished, it was time to add various finishing details to the ship.  During the construction of the hull I decided to do another feature that would interest only me - the hollow and detailed conning tower.  I've made from a plastic tube that accurately portrayed its thick armor.  Inside I placed the crew figures.  Of course none of it is visible in the finished product but if you look at it just right, you will see all the way through it.

The main feature of the ship was the large flying bridge in the forward part of the upper casemate.  The main difficulty with it was that aside from the front, where it was supported by the roof of the conning tower, it was supported only by the support poles.  It was very difficult to align it so that it was straight from every angle and then to add over 30 supports under it.  The engine light well covers were made from superglue impregnated paper.  I've dripped a very thin superglue on the paper, wiping off the excess and sanding when dry to smooth out any bumps.  I then made the holes for the illuminators and cut out the covers to the correct size.

The anchor support system was added and the anchor chain was made by cutting the links of the photoetch chain and linking them together.  Stern balcony railing was done from the sideways ladder.  Railings were added to the necessary places.  The railings were taken from various places - WEM, Lion Roar, Tom's Modelworks.  The flying bridge had the three bar railings, and the forward part of them was covered with canvas.  To simulate that, I took a regular white paper glue, thinned it down with water and using the capillary action filled in the holes between the railings.  After that I painted them, washed and drybrushed them to blend them in with the rest of the ship.  Small details like searchlights, cable reels and compasses were added from the spares box. 



Like most of the contemporary pre-dreadnought battleships Sisoy Veliky carried a varied assortment of armament that didn't change throughout its career.  It was armed with four 12"/40 guns in two turrets, six 6"/45 Canet QF guns in casemates, twelve 47mm Hotchkiss guns (four in the open mounts and the rest in casemates), ten single barrel and four five barrel 37mm Hotchkiss guns and two 63mm Baranovski landing guns.

The 12" turrets were simple round turrets that were taken from the Combrig's kit of the ship, modified to make the more accurate (changed the shape of the roof, added the new sighting hoods) and the barrels were made from hypodermic tubing.  As was mentioned before the mounts for the 6" guns were added to the casemate before the upper deck was closed off, so once the ship was painted I've added the gun port covers and made the barrels from hypodermic tubing as well and then glued them through the gun ports onto the mounts.  The 47mm casemated guns were done the same way, except I used stretched sprue for the barrels.  The open 47mm mounts came from OKB Grigorov PE set.

The most complex guns were 37mm five barrel revolver cannons.  To make them I took five pieces of stretched sprue, glued them to each other to form 5 barrels of the gun and once dry cut them to the necessary length.  On the back I glued the round rod of the necessary diameter to make the breech.  The stand was taken from the WEM's 20mm Oerlicon stand set and the shoulder brace was taken from the 37mm single barrel guns in the WEM's Askold set.  To make the single barrel 37mm guns I used the 20mm Oerlicons that I cut down to correct shape.  Finally the 63mm guns were done from pieces of stretched sprue.


Masts and Boats

Like many of it's contemporaries Sisoy had large diameter masts with fighting tops and projector platforms.  The body of the forward mast was done by turning the plastic tube with a brass rod inside for stiffness on the Dremel to give it a cone shape.  The fighting top was made by heat forming it around an aluminum tube - a very hard project because in addition to being round it also had to have gun ports for the 37mm guns in it and it was very hard to make.  It took 8 or 9 attempts before I made the part that I was satisfied with.  The upper platform was done using the punch tool.  The supports were made from the pieced of photoetch,

Aft mast seems to have had some weird smoke stack built into it, so to simulate it, I took a thin walled brass tube, and made the holes in the where the holes in the smokestack were.  The yardarms and cranes on both masts were made from thin brass wire.  The ship was rigged using pantyhose nylon string.

As many ships of its time Sisoy carried a lot of boats.  The middle of the ship carried an extensive boat launching system, which I created.  The davits on the bow and stern were taken from the WEM's Askold set, while the amidships ones were done from pieces of the photoetch from the spares box and brass rod.  The ship carried up to 15 boats, but the photos show varied numbers so I added only 12 of them.


The ship was weathered using pastels.  I've added the soot from the stacks to them and to the masts.  I dodn't want to make the ship too dirty since it was brand new at the time and Victorian era ships were pretty well kept up, so I've added only light amounts of salt and rust were added to the sides of the ship.  Once that was done and the crew figures were added I sprayed it with Model Master DullCote to hide any glue spots and give the model uniform flat appearance,  After that it was time to create a water.  It was done using Acrylic Gel Medium, which was painted blue once dry and then drybrushed.



The end result of this build is an interesting and accurate model of the obscure ship.  And while it was a lot more complex than it had to be, the interesting part of it's creation was the was the process of the building itself and my  knowledge of what is there.  Building the ship I came up with several interesting technologies and further improved my scratchbuilding skills.  This will allow me to do several other interesting projects in the future.

The Ships of Vladimir Yakubov