The Russian monitor Novgorod, completed in 1874, was a revolutionary naval vessel characterized by its distinctive circular design intended to minimize its target profile.

Boasting two powerful 11-inch rifled guns housed in a revolving turret, the ship was designed for maximum firepower and a 360-degree field of attack.

However, despite its innovative design, the Novgorod faced significant operational challenges, particularly concerning stability and speed, which limited its effectiveness in combat scenarios.

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Origins Of The Novgorod

The 19th century witnessed rapid changes in naval warfare. The wooden walls of traditional warships were increasingly being replaced by iron and steel. The steam engine’s advent altered naval strategies, making sail power secondary.

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The Novgorod pictures in 1873.

Amidst this tumultuous background, Russia faced a unique challenge. With its primary naval theatres being the confined waters of the Black Sea and the Baltic, the country sought a vessel that could deliver potent firepower, remain relatively invulnerable to enemy fire, and navigate the shallow and restricted waters.

Enter the circular ship concept. The rationale was twofold: a circular design would minimize the ship’s target profile, making it harder to hit, while also maximizing the potential space for heavy guns. This round design would not only provide a stable gun platform but would also theoretically have reduced draught, ideal for the shallow waters.

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The Novgorod

The Novgorod, laid down in 1871 and completed in 1874, was a true product of this unconventional thinking. With a diameter of about 30 meters and displacing around 2,500 tons, she was nothing like the elongated battleships of her time. The hull’s round shape was supplemented with a shallow draft, which was about 4 meters.

At the heart of the Novgorod’s firepower were two massive 11-inch rifled guns, housed in a revolving turret. These guns could unleash substantial damage, and the turret’s design allowed for a 360-degree field of fire. The vessel was also powered by steam engines driving six paddle wheels, three on each side. Theoretically, this would provide her with good manoeuvrability.

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The deck plan of the Novgorod.

The armor on the Novgorod was formidable, with a belt armor of 9 inches at its thickest. The intention was for her to get close to coastal fortifications or enemy vessels, absorb any incoming fire, and retaliate with her powerful guns.

Operational History

The operational history of the Novgorod was, to put it kindly, underwhelming. While the theory behind the ship’s design had its merits, the practical application left much to be desired.

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One significant issue was the vessel’s stability. Contrary to the expectations, the Novgorod’s round shape made her prone to instability in rough waters. Her rotational movement on her axis often caused the massive guns to face away from the target, requiring time-consuming adjustments.

The ship before her launching.

Additionally, the very shape that was designed to make her harder to hit turned out to be a challenge in terms of propulsion. The Novgorod was slow, with a top speed of about 6 knots. Maneuvering the ship proved challenging due to her tendency to drift sideways. This made her vulnerable in the face of faster, more agile enemy vessels.

Despite these challenges, the Novgorod served in the Black Sea Fleet and participated in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). However, she did not see any significant combat action. Over the years, she played more of a defensive role, acting as a floating fortress rather than a dynamic warship.

What is Novgorod called today?

Novgorod is now called Veliky Novgorod. Veliky means ‘great’ while Novgorod means ‘new town’. Despite the name, Veliky Novgorod is actually a very old Russian city. In fact, Veliky Novgorod has a rich history that can be traced back to 859 AD.

Legacy

The Novgorod was decommissioned in the early 1900s, and her legacy is one of mixed reviews. To her detractors, she stands as a symbol of flawed naval architecture and a testament to the dangers of over-relying on theoretical design without adequate practical testing. They argue that she was more of a hindrance than an asset to the Russian navy.

A model of the Novgorod in Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg. Image by Zandcee CC BY-SA 4.0

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However, it’s essential to view the Novgorod in the broader context of naval experimentation during the 19th century. Every major naval power was grappling with the challenges posed by new technologies and the shifting paradigms of naval warfare. The Novgorod represents Russia’s audacity and willingness to think outside the box.