Soviet Submarine S-56

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - Scott #5085 (1982)
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – Scott #5085 (1982)

S-56 was a Stalinets-class submarine of the Voyenno-morskoy flot SSSR (Военно-морской флот СССР), ‘Military Maritime Fleet of the USSR’)  — the naval arm of the Soviet Armed Forces — known as the Soviet Navy or the Red Fleet in English. She was laid down by Shipyard #194 in Leningrad on November 24, 1936, and then shipped in sections by rail to Vladivostok where it was reassembled by Dalzavod. She was launched on December 25, 1939, and commissioned on October 20, 1941 in the Tikhookeanskiy flot (Тихоокеанский флот, Pacific Fleet). After being stricken from the rolls in 1975, the submarine was turned into a museum ship moored at Korabelnaya Embankment in Vladivostok.

The S-class or Srednyaya (Средняя, “medium”) submarines were part of the Soviet Navy’s underwater fleet during World War II. Unofficially nicknamed Stalinets (Сталинец, “follower of Stalin”; not to be confused with the submarine L-class L-2 Stalinets of 1931), boats of this class were the most successful and achieved the most significant victories among all Soviet submarines. In all, they sank 82,770 gross register tons (GRT) of merchant shipping and seven warships, which accounts for about one-third of all tonnage sunk by Soviet submarines during the war.

Силуэт подводной лодки С-56 типа «Средняя» серии IX-бис Silhouette of Soviet S-class submarine S-56 (IX-bis Serie)
Силуэт подводной лодки С-56 типа «Средняя» серии IX-бис Silhouette of Soviet S-class submarine S-56 (IX-bis Serie)

The history of the S-class represents quite an interesting turn in warship development. It was a result of international collaboration between Soviet and German engineers that resulted in two different (but nevertheless related) classes of submarines often pitted against each other during the Second World War.

In the early 1930s, the Soviet government started a massive program of general rearmament, including naval expansion. Submarines were one key point of this program, but currently available types did not completely satisfy naval authorities. The recently developed Shchuka class submarine was satisfactory, but it was designed specifically for shallow Baltic Sea service and lacked true ocean-going capabilities. The larger boats of the Soviet Navy were quickly becoming obsolete.

As a result, the government commissioned several engineers to search for a suitable design for a medium-sized ocean-going submarine, and this search soon brought success. After its defeat in World War I, the German Weimar Republic was forbidden under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles to have submarines or build them in its own yards. Germany circumvented this restriction by creating various subsidiaries of their shipbuilding and design companies in third countries. One of these proxies, the Netherlands-based NV Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw (IvS), a subsidiary of Deutsche Schiff- und Maschinenbau AG-AG Weser, was developing a submarine that matched Soviet requirements. The Spanish government, during General Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, showed interest in obtaining such a submarine for the Spanish Navy. Several German naval officers including Wilhelm Canaris visited Spain and struck a deal with a Spanish businessman, Horacio Echevarrieta. A single submarine was built in 1929–1930, and was tested at sea early in 1931, under the manufacturer’s designation of submarino E-1, since no navy had yet commissioned the ship.

Spanish submarino E-1 at the shipyard in Cádiz, circa 1930.
Spanish submarino E-1 at the shipyard in Cádiz, circa 1930.

The government of the Second Spanish Republic showed a clear preference for British submarine designs. Designers and builders then went to offer the design and the boat for sale to return their cost. Soviet engineers, among others, visited the yard in 1932 and were generally satisfied with the design, but suggested several modifications and improvements, in expectation of future local production. Another group of engineers went next year to the IvS office in The Hague, as well as the Bremen office of Deschimag, and then attended the completed boat’s trials in Cartagena. Echevarrieta’s imprisonment for his connection with the October 1934 Revolution made the Spanish Navy lose any interest in the submarine, which was finally sold to the Turkish Navy in 1935, in which it served until 1947 under the name of Gür.

Despite several problems encountered during the boat’s trials, the design was considered satisfactory and the Soviet government bought it, with the condition Deschimag make the suggested improvements and assist with the building of several prototypes, which it did. The modifications resulted in a significant reworking of the project, redesignated E-2. Blueprints were received from Germany at the end of 1933 and on August 14, 1934, the design was officially approved for production, designated IX series. Construction of the first two prototypes commenced in December 1934 at the Baltic Shipyard (Baltiysky zavod) in Leningrad, using partially German equipment. In April 1935, the third prototype was laid down as well.

By the time the third prototype was started, it became obvious building the boats with foreign equipment would be too expensive, so the design was reworked slightly to use only domestically produced equipment. The result of this modification was the IX-bis series and went to mass production in 1936. Initially the first prototypes received the official designations N-1, N-2, and N-3 (Nemetskaya, “German”) but in October 1937 they were re-designated S-x (Srednyaya, “Medium”). In the West, the class was much more widely known for its nickname, Stalinets, coined with reference to earlier boats of the Leninets type, but it was never featured in any official documents.

The E-1 boat was eventually sold to Turkey in 1935, and was a prototype for German’s own boats of Type I. This design was later improved to become the famous Type VII and Type IX U-boats of the Kriegsmarine.

Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photo of the Ordzhonikidze and Marti (No. 194) Shipyards in Leningrad taken on July 7, 1941.
Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photo of the Ordzhonikidze and Marti (No. 194) Shipyards in Leningrad taken on July 7, 1941.

Five navy yards were employed in series production of the class, three in Leningrad (#189, #194 and #196), one in Nikolayev (#198) and one in Gorky (#112). Boats for Pacific Fleet were assembled from prefabricated sections, delivered by railroad, in Vladivostok’s plant #202. The first boat was completed in the beginning of December 1935, and made her first dive on December 15. Next August both first boats entered official trials, and while several requirements were not met (for example, speed was 0.5 kt (0.9 km/h, 0.6 mph) lower than the specified 20 knots {37 km/h, 22 mph}) and there were some technical difficulties, the project was considered successful and the boats were commissioned into the Soviet Navy.

The third boat, while still using other German machinery, was powered by Soviet-made diesels, due to delays in delivery of originally intended ones. However, adaptation to significantly different domestic engines required significant redesigns that slowed construction. These modifications were later included into the official blueprints and were the foundation of the later, completely domestically build production series. These series were produced for all four fleets, with boats for Baltic, Northern, and Pacific Fleets being built in Leningrad, Black Sea Fleet boats in Nikolayev, and some boats for Baltic and North in Gorky.

During the war, the former riverboat production yard #638 in Astrakhan was employed for completion of several boats constructed in Leningrad and Gorky. Several boats were not completed: S-36, S-37 and S-38 were scuttled in the Nikolayev yard before the city was captured by Germans, and S-27 to S-30, S-45 and S-47, frozen during the war, were not completed after it, as their design was considered already obsolete. These boats were generally scrapped; S-27‘s hull was eventually utilized for a workshop ship.

There existed three series-produced variations, differing mostly in their equipment. The first series utilized German engines and batteries, while the second was produced with domestic machinery. The third series introduced further improvements aimed mostly at lowering production cost and time, and the fourth series, albeit planned, was cancelled due to the beginning of the war.

Soviet S-Class submarines, World War II
Soviet S-Class submarines, World War II

Only three ships were built in the IX Series group, S-1, S-2 and S-3, using partially German-supplied machinery. The boats were of semi-double hull type, with riveted pressure hull and welded light hull sections in the superstructure and extremities for improved seaworthiness. The sail was medium-sized and oval in plane, to reduce water drag. It housed the conning tower, the bridge, periscope fairings and a 45 mm (1.77 in) anti-aircraft gun. A net cutter was fitted atop the bow. The hull was separated into seven compartments, three of which were able to withstand 10 atm pressure. Nine main ballast tanks, separated into three groups (4 bow, 2 stern, 3 midships), together with a balancing tank and a quick dive tank were placed in the light hull. Trimming tanks were inside the pressure hull. Ballast tanks were emptied by pressurized air or engines exhaust, thus removing the need for ballast pumps.

The boats were powered by two MAN М6V49/48 four-stroke atmospheric reversive diesels (2000 hp each at 465 rev/min) that drove two fixed pitch propellers together with two Electrosila PG-72/35 electric motors (550 hp at 275 rev/min), connecting by BAMAG (Berlin-Anhaltische Maschinenbau AG) type friction clutches. Delivery of the engines for the third boat was constantly delayed and eventually it was equipped with domestically produced ones. For underwater propulsion energy was supplied by 124 APA 38-MAK-760 accumulators, equipped with K-5 hydrogen burners. The batteries lacked the traditional central walkway, instead using special service trolleys suspended from the deckhead. This design significantly decreased the height of the battery compartment, freeing space for the crew. The electrical system omitted the complicated layout common on earlier Soviet designs, and was simple and reliable. All connections were insulated and the bulkhead feedthroughs were designed to withstand the same pressure as the bulkheads themselves. It had better maneuverability than other smaller Soviet, German, British and Italian submarines (e.g. the British U-class submarines, the German Type VII submarines and the Italian Acciaio-class submarine).

S-56 at Vladivostok, Russia.
S-56 at Vladivostok, Russia.

The vessels were equipped with six torpedo tubes (four bow and two stern) of 533 mm (21 in) caliber. Six spare torpedoes could be stored in the racks of the bow torpedo compartment, so the complete load was 12 torpedoes. Usually 53-38 torpedoes were used, as the high-speed 53-39 torpedoes were available only in limited numbers, and the electric ET-80 torpedoes were unreliable and the crews did not like them. It was also possible to launch mines through the torpedo tubes. No torpedo automation was installed, and all shooting was manual. The stern tubes had an interesting feature: instead of the usual doors, they were closed by a special rotating cylinder that streamlined the contour of the stern when the tubes were not in use. A 45 mm (1.77 in) semi-automatic anti-aircraft gun was mounted on the conning tower, and a 100 mm (3.9 in) gun on the deck for surface combat.

Observation and communication equipment was somewhat less than top-level, but generally adequate. The boats were equipped with two periscopes, observation PZ-7.5 and targeting PA-7.5, mounted very close to each other and reports existed of difficulties in using them simultaneously. Several radios were installed. The Mars-12 microphone system was primary an underwater sensor, and an underwater communication system was also installed on all boats. No radars were installed on any series of the type.

Soviet submarine S-56 and guard ship Krasnyi Vympel on display at Korabelnaya Embankment in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo taken by Michael Chekalin on November 21, 2006.
Soviet submarine S-56 and guard ship Krasnyi Vympel on display at Korabelnaya Embankment in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo taken by Michael Chekalin on November 21, 2006.

The second group was designated the IX-bis Series. Instead of German engines, domestically produced 1D turbo-diesels were installed. Unlike their foreign counterparts, they had (for the same power) slightly higher speeds and were non-reversible. To accommodate turbocompressors and other additional systems, exhaust manifolds were enlarged and various subsystems completely redesigned. In addition, domestically produced batteries were used. The open bridge was redesigned after requests from the crews, returning to traditional closed type. Later in the war boats were equipped with a Burun-M radio director, and the radios received an upgrade. Some boats were also equipped with periscope aerials, allowing the use of radio at periscope depths, and an ASDIC was mounted on most of the boats, significantly increasing patrolling and fire efficiency.

S-56 was a IX-bis series boat, with the following general characteristics:

  • Displacement:
    840 long tons (853 t) surfaced
    1,050 long tons (1,067 t) submerged
  • Length:   77.8 m (255 ft 3 in)
  • Beam:   6.4 m (21 ft 0 in)
  • Draught:   4.4 m (14 ft 5 in)
  • Propulsion:
    2 × diesels 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) each
    2 × electric motors 550 hp (410 kW) each
    2 × shafts
  • Speed:
    19.5 knots (36.1 km/h; 22.4 mph) surfaced
    9 knots (17 km/h; 10 mph) submerged
  • Test depth:   100 m (330 ft)
  • Complement:   50 officers and men
  • Armament:
    6 × 21 in (530 mm) torpedo tubes (4 forward, 2 aft)
    12 × torpedoes
    1 × 100 mm (4 in) gun
    1 × 45 mm (2 in) cannon

Many minor improvements were introduced in the IX-bis-2 series, mostly to reduce cost and production time. Welding started to be implemented in building the pressure hull as well.

Designated “Project 97”, a major redesign of the series was started in the early 1940s, including new engines, increased torpedo load and an all-welded pressure hull, but war interrupted the work and all six boats of first series were scuttled soon after laying down.

S-56 joined the Soviet Pacific Fleet on October 20, 1941, under the command of Captain Grigori Shchedrin through the end of World War II. During October 1942 and March 1943 she was transferred from the Pacific to the Northern Fleet via the Panama Canal. The submarine was involved in eight military campaigns and carried out twelve torpedo attacks resulting in the sinking of ten enemy ships and damaging four more. Over three thousand depth bombs were dropped on S-56, but she remained in service.

Crew's quarters and torpedo room of S-56.
Crew’s quarters and torpedo room of S-56.

The submarine’s first recorded action occurred while operating in the Barents Sea on April 10, 1943, when she fired two torpedoes against what was identified as “a merchant of 8000 tons” off the Tanafjord in northern Norway. Both torpedoes missed their target. On April 14, S-56 fired four torpedoes against what was identified as “a merchant of 6000 tons” off the Kongsfjord. All four torpedoes missed their target. The German merchant ship Detlef (1809 GRT) reported being missed by 10 meters.

On May 17, 1945, S-56 attacked a German convoy and torpedoed and sank the German tanker Eurostadt (1118 GRT) off the Kongsfjord at the position 70°48’N, 29°34’E. During the attack against Eurostadt, another torpedo hit and damaged the German freighter Wartheland (3676 GRT, the former Soviet Arija) but the ship was saved because the torpedo was a dud.

The German minesweeper M-346 (551 tons) was torpedoed and sunk by S-56 on July 17, west of the Tanafjord in position 71°07’N, 28°22’E. During the same attack, the submarine missed the German auxiliary minelayer Ostmark. Two days later, she torpedoed and sank the German auxiliary patrol vessel NKi 09 / Alane (466 GRT, former British ASW trawler HMS Warwickshire) off the Tanafjord near Gamvik.

Aerial view of a model of Soviet submarine S-56.
Aerial view of a model of Soviet submarine S-56.

A period of inactivity followed until January 20, 1944, when S-56 attacked a German convoy off the Tanafjord but failed to hit any ships. On the 23rd, she tried to attack a German convoy while surfaced off Nordkyn but was spotted and driven off by gunfire from the German escorts NKi 10 and UJ 1206.  On January 31, the submarine torpedoed and sank the German merchant Heinrich Schulte (5056 GRT) west of the Tanafjord in position 71°08’N, 28°17’E.

A German convoy off the Tanafjord was attacked on March 4 but no hits were obtained and one torpedo failed to leave it’s tube. The attack was made at 25 meters depth on sonar. On July 15, S-56 attacked a German convoy off the Syltefjord in position 70°38’N, 30°36’E, firing four torpedoes but no hits were obtained. On August 26, 1944, while sailing on the surface off the Kola Peninsula, she was sighted by the German U-711, and fired upon by a single acoustic torpedo. Fortunately for S-56, the torpedo malfunctioned, ran on the surface, and struck a ballast tank on the double hull. The Soviet submarine suffered only slight damage, and the U-711 withdrew.

S-56 saw her last engagements of Word War II in late September 1944. On the 24th, she attacked a German convoy off Nordkyn with four torpedoes but no hits were obtained. Two days later, the submarine attacked the Germany minesweepers M-31 and M-251 off Nordkyn. No hits were obtained and S-56 was damaged during a counter-attack.\

Order of the Red Banner of the Soviet Union
Order of the Red Banner of the Soviet Union

During the war, S-56 sank four ships with a total tonnage of 7,191 GRT. For her total war activities, the submarine was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and the Guards badge. The Order of the Red Banner (Орден Крaсного Знамени) was the first Soviet military decoration, established on September 16, 1918, during the Russian Civil War by decree of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. It was the highest award of Soviet Russia, subsequently the Soviet Union, until the Order of Lenin was established in 1930. Recipients were recognized for extraordinary heroism, dedication, and courage demonstrated on the battlefield. The Order was awarded to individuals as well as to military units, cities, ships, political and social organizations, and state enterprises. In later years, it was also awarded on the twentieth and again on the thirtieth anniversary of military, police, or state security service without requiring participation in combat (the “Long Service Award” variant). The title of Soviet Guards was first introduced on September 18, 1941, as elite units and formations in the armed forces which were awarded Guards status after distinguishing themselves in service.

Following the Great Patriotic War (Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna — Великая Отечественная Война, the former Soviet Union’s term for the Eastern Front of World War II), two S-class submarines, S-52 and S-53, along with two Soviet M-class submarines, and two Shchuka-class submarines (under lease, S-121 and S-123) were handed over to People’s Liberation Army Navy in June 1954, thus becoming the foundation of the submarine force of the People’s Republic of China. Two more S-class submarines, S-24 and S-25, were sold to China a few years later. Those purchased by China received new names, but the two leased Shchuka-class submarines did not. S-52, S-53, S-24 and S-25 were renamed New China #11, 12, 13, and 14 respectively.

Soviet submarine S-56 at Vladivostok, Russia.
Soviet submarine S-56 at Vladivostok, Russia.

In mid-1950, S-56 returned to the Pacific Ocean via a Northern Sea route. She stayed in active service until she was decommissioned on March 14, 1955, to become a charging barge at Vladivostok, designated ZAS-3. Stricken on May 9, 1975, the submarine was preserved out of the water and set up as a memorial to honor the 30th anniversary of the end of World War II. She was installed on the “pedestal of eternal glory” on the beach at Zolotoy Rog Bay in Vladivostok, now known as Korabelnaya Naberezhnaya (“Ship’s Quay”). Together with patrol ship Krasny Vympel, S-56 constitutes the memorial complex called Military Glory of the Pacific Fleet.

The museum inside S-56 is dedicated not only to the vessel’s history, but to development of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine forces. Each of submarine’s seven compartments is a separate room with its own theme. Visitors start with the aft-most (seventh) section which provides facts about the museum as well at the history of the submarine fleet from its creation to 1917. The story continues in the sixth section, introducing the period of 1917-1923.

Soviet submarine S-56 museum in Vladivostok, Russia.
Soviet submarine S-56 museum in Vladivostok, Russia.

The fifth (diesel) section’s exhibits are devoted directly to the fate and deeds of the submarine S-56. The forth section (former galley) shows models of the modern submarines. The last three sections are the most interesting ones, because they are preserved unchanged from the war times. One of visitors’ favorite exhibits in the third section is the 9-meter long periscope. The second section contains a mannequin of a sonarman, listening to the sounds of the sea. Many tourists call it the “dried seaman”. The first section features various torpedoes in sectional pieces, as well as whole.

On September 22, 1982, the Ministry of Posts for the former Soviet Union released a set of five stamps portraying World War II naval vessels (Scott #5085-5089). S-56 is portrayed on the lowest denomination, 4 kopecks.  The stamps were printed by a combination of photogravure and engraving, perforated 11½ x 12.

Soviet submarine S-56
Order of the Red Banner and Soviet Guards banner on Soviet Naval Ensign, 1950

Soviet Guards badge

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