Italian battleship Giulio Cesare

Italian battleship Giulio Cesare

"Giulio Cesare" was an Italian "Conte di Cavour"-class battleship that served in the Regia Marina in both World Wars before joining the Soviet Navy as the "Novorossiysk". Her keel was laid down on 24 June 1910 at Cantieri Ansaldo, Genoa. She was launched 15 October 1911, and construction was completed 14 May 1914.

"Giulio Cesare" (Italian for Julius Caesar, motto "Caesar Adest") had no active missions during World War I. In 1926 she attacked the Greek island of Corfu, as a reaction against the killing of Italian representatives in Ioannina. She was later renovated. From 1928 to 1933 she was used as an artillery training ship, then went into the yards for extensive modernization.

Between 1933 and 1937 she was completely rebuilt, changing her silhouette and increasing her combat capabilities. Length was increased by 10.3 meters, and she was given new armored decks and new propulsion machinery that uprated her to 93,000 horsepower (69 MW), and allowed a speed of 28 knots (52 km/h).

World War II

During the Battle of Punta Stilo on 9 July 1940, "Giulio Cesare" was hit by a 15 inch (381 mm) shell as HMS "Warspite" set the record for naval gunnery against a moving target at well over 24,000 meters (26,000 yards).

Shortly before, a "Cesare"'s 320 mm salvo aimed at HMS "Warspite" had actually straddled two British destroyers, HMS "Hereward" and HMS "Decoy", causing some splinter damage on both of them.

"Blue Smoke" controversy

Some debate is ongoing in Italy about the possibility of a hit by the "Cesare" on "Warspite" around the same time; this controversy, called "the blue smoke affair" is about a blue smoke seen rising from the "Warspite" by officers and lookouts aboard the "Cesare". There was also an article by the Italian naval historian Enrico Cernuschi, who is considered a maverick in Italian naval and naval history circles, about the actual performance of Italian naval artillery. As of 2006 no definite conclusion on this is achieved.

Activity after Punta Stilo

"Giulio Cesare" was assigned to covering convoys, participating in the First Battle of Sirte, until 1942, when she was sidelined because of fuel shortages. After World War II, "Giulio Cesare" was ceded to the Soviet Union as compensation for war damages.


The Soviet Navy recommissioned the battleship as the "Novorossiysk" (Новороссийск). "Novorossiysk" was based at Sevastopol from July 1949, serving as a flagship of the Black Sea Fleet and later as a gunnery training vessel. On 29 October 1955, the "Novorossiysk" was moored in Sevastopol Bay, 300 meters (1000 feet) from shore and opposite a hospital. At 1:30am, an explosion estimated to be the equivalent of 1,200 kilograms of TNT under the bow of the ship pierced all decks from the bottom plating to the forecastle deck. In the forecastle deck there was one hole which measured 14×4 meters in size. The damage extended aft from the bow 22 meters.

The ship sank slowly from the bow, capsizing at 4:15am, 2 hours 45 minutes after the explosion, and 18 hours later became fully submerged. The capsizing resulted in the death of 608 sailors, most of whom were staying in the ship's compartments. It became the worst disaster in Soviet naval history. Because of the politics of the Cold War, the fate of the "Novorossiysk" remained clouded in mystery until the late 1980s.

The cause of the explosion is still unclear. The official cause of the sinking, regarded as most probable, is a magnetic RMH naval mine, laid by the Germans during World War II. During the next two years after the disaster, divers found 19 German mines on the bottom of Sevastopol Bay. Eleven of the mines were as powerful as the estimated blast under "Novorossiysk". There is, however, some doubt that the blast was caused by a mine. The area where "Novorossiysk" sank was considered swept of mines, and other ships had used the area without triggering the mine. Some experts place the maximum battery life of the magnetic mines at 9 years, and thus contend that such a mine would be unlikely to trigger by the time of the explosion. Another problem some experts claim is that the size of the crater (1 - 2.1 m deep) was too small for such a big mine. On the other hand, according to some research, damage to the ship corresponded to an explosion equivalent to 5,000 kilograms of TNT.

A more theatrical conspiracy explanation was that Italian frogmen were avenging the transfer of the formerly-Italian battleship to the USSR. Covert action by the Italian special operations unit "Decima Flottiglia MAS" has often been surmised, and there were rumors that not long thereafter a group of Italian Navy frogmen received high military awards. However, no firm evidence for this hypothesis exists or ever surfaced. Another theory states that explosives were hidden in the ship before she was given to the Russians. No evidence of sabotage has been found, though Soviet enquiries did not rule out the possibility because of the poor safeguarding of the fleet base on the night of the explosion. The goal of covertly destroying the battleship would be a small prize compared to the risk of provoking war if discovered, so the motive of such an Italian operation is questionable and does not support these theories. There is also a conspiracy theory that "Novorossiysk" was sunk by Soviet secret service divers in order to blame Turkey for the sabotage as justification to take control of Bosporus and Dardanelles, and that the plan was eventually abandoned. There is no strong evidence to support this hypothesis.

The enormous loss of life was directly blamed on the incompetent actions of her captain, Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Victor Parkhomenko. Among other underestimates of the danger to his ship, he did not know the conditions of the sea bottom, believing that the ratio between the sea depth (17 meters) and the ship's beam (28 meters) would prevent capsizing. However, the bottom was soft ooze, 15 meters deep, which offered no resistance. It was also reported that the commander displayed conceit and groundless calmness during this critical situation, and had even expressed the wish to "go have some tea".

Because of the loss of "Novorossiysk", the First Deputy Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov was fired from his post in November 1955, and in February 1956 was demoted to the rank of vice admiral and sent to retirement without the right to return to active service in the Navy. Kuznetsov was later reinstated.

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