On October 28, 1955, the “Novorossiysk” battleship reached the shores of Crimea for the last time, just a few hours before it sunk after being blown up by a major explosion of unknown origin. Nearly the entire crew of over 600 marines was killed in the disaster, yet till today, the cause for the violent explosion hasn’t been identified and is unlikely to ever be.
Originally Italian-born, the 44-year-old battleship was first named “Giulio Cesare.” It joined the Soviet Fleet after World War II in 1948, and was made operational as part of the Black Sea Fleet. On October 28, 1955, it was coming back to the port of Sevastopol to celebrate the centennial of the Sevastopol battle. Only a few hours later, a major explosion, yielding approximately 1800 tons, shattered the snout of the ship, leaving a gap over 1600 square feet wide. The amount of explosives was enough to blow up eight decks.
As one of the survivors recalled, “The epicenter of the explosion fell right next to our bunkroom, three meters away from my berth… When I came to senses – there was inky darkness, the sound of the water roaring, and screaming. The first thing I saw was the moonlight coming through the huge hole, coming up like a coal mine. I pulled the last of my energy together and yelled out to the survivors, “Leave the bunkroom at once!”
Immediately following the explosion, attempts were made to tow the ship to shore, a decision which seriously aggravated the scale of the tragedy. One of the rescuers, Ivan Prokhorov, later recalled: “The ship was drifting perpendicular to the shore, while Viktor Parkhomenko (commander of the Black Sea Fleet), having no account as to how big the hole was, ordered the ship towed to the docks, and that was the end.”
The moment the ship, already listing to starboard, started moving, the ship lurched even more. It quickly reached the critical point, and the huge vessel -- over 550 feet long and weighing 24,600 tons -- keeled over. All those on the deck just fell into the water. The oil burst out of the fuel tanks and showered on the people who were afloat around the sinking ship.
Already upturned, the ship stayed on the surface, but as the armor-clad masts finally hit the water, the ship swiftly went down, creating a major whirlpool.
“I jumped into the water when the ship was slowly listing to starboard,” said one of the rescued, a young recruit. “Once I dived out, I saw I was about to be buried under collapsing parts of the deck structure, then I was dragged deep down by the terribly whirling water, and I fainted. I came to senses, while still in the water, inside a big air bubble, where I could take a couple breaths…This bubble pushed me out into the surface, where I was picked up by a rescue boat.”
The number of victims could have been a lot less, reduced to only to those who died from the explosion, had it not been for the faulty decision-making of the command. A number of rescue ships were standing right next to the sinking “Novorossiysk,” and all the surviving crew could have been evacuated, but Parkhomenko was against it.
As he explained his decision later, he “found it unnecessary to order the crew leave the ship in advance, since till the last moment he was hoping to rescue the ship, and there was no doubt the ship would survive.” As a result of his procrastination, hundreds of people were stranded on the sinking ship.
As Prokhorov recalled, “What I saw underwater was very scary… In my nightmares, I saw people underwater in the illuminators. I was signing to them that we were going to rescue them, and people nodded in understanding… As I dived deeper, I heard them drumming the Morse code, saying ‘Save us faster, we are suffocating…’ I answered back, ‘Just hang in there, everyone will be rescued.’ That caused a real storm! People in every part of the ship started knocking to let those above know that they were alive. As I moved closer to the snout of the ship I couldn’t believe my ears – they were singing “Varyag” [the marine revolutionary song]!”
The total number of victim was an estimated 600 people, with 50 to 100 people drowned inside the ship and the rest killed in the water. The proper evacuation was not organized, and many of the marines just tried to survive in the air bubbles, but only nine were rescued: seven crawled out of a hole sawed in the stern of the ship five hours after the tragedy, while two were rescued from the bottom by divers 50 hours after. The divers stopped hearing knocks from the locked ship on November 1.
There were several versions as to what caused the explosion. The official version stated the explosion was caused by a mine accidentally preserved since World War II, but no mine could ever produce a blow of such proportions. There was also speculation about the explosion being the result of a subversive act from the Italians, who wanted revenge and had been known for their strong underwater forces during World War II, but again, the amount of explosives required for such a powerful blow was too hard to transport to the site, let alone remain discreet.
The same argument undercut the version that it was a British subversive operation; the British were said to be afraid of the Soviets using the battleship to install nuclear weapons and make Great Britain their first target. The tragedy could have been deliberately organized by the Soviet authorities to discredit the naval establishment and justify significant staff reduction in the naval forces.