What sank the Soviet destroyer Moscow?

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What sank the Soviet destroyer Moscow?

Fri, 25/12/2020 - 12:47

Nearly 80 years ago, on the night of 22 June 1941, German troops crossed the Soviet border, and opened up the East Front. It is a common belief that the Soviets were taken by surprise and the command was passive and slow to respond during the first days of fighting. This may be the case in other places but not in the Black Sea. Already the same morning the city of Sebastopol was blacked out, and the Black Sea Fleet put on the highest alert. And by 3:15 the same morning anti-aircraft batteries shot down the first German aircraft.

WW2 Soviet Destroyer 'Moscow'

About 13 hours later, at 4:40 pm, three submarines—Щ-205, Щ-206 and Щ-209 (Щ is short for Щука or shuka, which means pike in Russian)—received approval from the Kremlin to move towards the eastern shores of the Black Sea, while the M-33 and M-34 left for long-range patrol near the main base. It was the first day of the war in the Black Sea.

On the night of June 26, Soviet warships attacked the Romanian port of Constanta. The artillery fire from the Soviet vessels, which were led by the Kiev and Moscow, completely destroyed the port’s oil reserves and also took out several trains with arms and ammunition destined for Romanian troops and the invasion of Ukraine.

These events were reported to the Soviet government, but it was through the Soviet Information Bureau that the whole world learned about the successful raid. But, as often happens, the full story was not told. It was left out that the otherwise successful operation had cost the Soviet Navy one of its finest ships—the destroyer, Moscow.

Even after so many years, it is quite difficult to determine the course of events and what actually caused the loss of the ship. According to the testimonies on both sides, the explosion was so monstrous that a column of white flame and smoke shot more than 30 meters into the air. The ship broke midships, and the bow almost immediately sank while the stern, with the still rotating propellers now sticking up in the air, remained afloat for several minutes. Until it too slipped under the waves, the aft bridge was continuously strafing enemy aircraft with anti-aircraft fire.

Surprisingly, during all these years the story of the ship and its sailors has been shrouded in an information vacuum. Perhaps in the depths of the (Russian – ed.) Central Naval Archives answers to all these questions can be found, but researchers have never been able to reconcile any of the official versions with where the wreck was actually located.

The prevailing official theories as to what sank the Moscow come in four varieties: she was hit by a large-caliber grenade from coastal artillery; fire from enemy ships hit her; she hit a mine; or she was attacked by a submarine. As regards to the location of the sinking, scans were made of the sea floor at the alleged position, which was marked on sea charts but no remains of the ship were detected.

Dive team

On 1 May 2011, a Romanian-Russian-Ukrainian team of divers arrived in the city of Constanta, following an invitation by the leader of the Respiro Diving Society, Mircea Popa, who has been searching the Moscow for more than two years.

The first day, the team scanned the seabed in a sector that archival Romanian sketches showed was the battlefield, but it produced no results. During the debriefing the same evening, the team once more went over the various information discarding the scenarios that they considered improbable.

First, the team discarded the theory that artillery from enemy ships sunk the Moscow. The armament of the Romanian Royal Navy’s destroyers, Regina Maria and Marasti, were probably too light for such a devastating hit, and combined with the fact that the Soviet vessels were taking evasive manoeuvres and were hidden under a smoke screen and already at the maximum range of their 120mm Bofors cannons, this scenario struck the team as quite unlikely.

Also the team considered it unlikely that the Moscow were hit by heavy artillery from the Tirpiz coastal artillery battery. According to German sources, as well as the report of the flotilla’s flagship, Kharkov, the battery’s first salvo only came quite late in the battle. It landed dangerously close to the Kharkov, but only after the Moscow had already exploded. The team was then left with the options of hitting a mine or being struck by a torpedo.

The team did not really believe in the latter option either. According to available archival documents the only Romanian submarine, the Delfinul, was much further north at that time. The only submarine in any meaningful proximity was the Soviet U-206 under command of Lieutenant-SA Karakaya. However, this vessel was not involved in the raid, and in fact, he most likely knew nothing about it. It should be noted, however, that the northern position of the boat was only seven to eight miles from the alleged location of these events, and only a small error in navigation could have put this submarine within the battlefield. However, the Kharkov made an observation of wakes from two torpedoes just a few seconds before the explosion. Nonetheless, the team felt that this scenario was the least likely of the two and turned their attention to the minefield theory.

After analyzing all available information, the team pinpointed what was the most likely position for the sinking—the first quadrant (south-western part) of the S-10 mine barrier. Unfortunately, all sources differ in regards to the accounting of the movement of the Soviet vessels before the explosion, but by comparing the information, the team estimated the most logical course of the ship, taking all circumstances into account.

The next day produced some interesting moments. Firstly, the team managed to meet with the historian, Prof. John Damaschin, who has spent more than a decade trying to understand the events of 26 June 1941. The meeting took place in the offices of the Marea Noastra magazine and was attended by Rear Admiral Petre I. Zamfir, who served on the destroyer, Regina Maria, remembered the battle. This meeting opened with an interesting piece of information, which was not mentioned in any of the Soviet sources.

According to this information, the Soviet vessels which were beyond the range of the German heavy (280mm) Tirpiz coastal batteries attracted the fire from the Romanian (105mm) battery, Elisabeth, which, unlike the German batteries, opened fire three minutes after the Sovient vessels entered the battle at 5:05. At that time the Soviet ships were moving at 26-28 knots, heading 221°, which took them, directly towards the Elisabeth battery. The light calibre of the battery was insufficient to defeat the ships at the beginning of the operation, but it’s probable that the fire from the Elisabeth battery made the Soviet ships change their course and withdraw along a bearing of 123°.


Diving Soviet Destroyer Moscow

Diving the site

While part of the team was at the meeting, the other part of the team was busy searching the area that was selected the previous evening. The first part of the day was devoted to the complete search of the area north of the S-10 mine field in order to exclude this region from further search. During the second part, after about ten hours of searching with sonar at a depth of 45 meters, they first located an indefinable object with the dimensions of eight by six meters, later affectionately nicknamed the “box”, and a few seconds later, the sonar pictured the hull of a vessel about 90 feet long.

On May 5, divers went down to examine the wreck, and they were able to confirm beyond a doubt that the Moscow was finally found! The ship had rolled onto its left side and was resting at a degree of 35º rising about ten meters above the seabed. The divers inspected the intact rudder and propeller. The whole aft part appeared to be in a good state of preservation up to the first boiler compartment—aft gun turrets, anti-aircraft cannons, stern fire post and filled torpedo tubes. But further ahead, it was just a tangle of collapsed metal, and it is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the destruction. The team did two dives with a bottom time of 40 minutes, which allowed for a preliminary inspection of the ship, but obviously was not enough for detailed study.

From the condition of the “box”—which in size was very similar to the main superstructure, which was located at the edge of the S-10 minefield—the team concluded that the ship exploded as a result of striking a mine. But it is difficult to understand how a 200-kilo mine could cause such severe destruction of the bow by itself. This could be explained by accounts that during the beginning of the war, spare torpedoes were kept directly on the deck near the explosion. Perhaps then, it was a detonation of the torpedoes on the port side that caused the terrible explosion.

Indirectly, this theory is substantiated by the fact that after the operation in Constanta, such torpedos were removed across the entire fleet. Furthermore, upon examining of the wreck, the divers did not find any spare torpedoes except one detached from the main part of the crew compartment, which was on the right side of the ship.

Unfortunately, neither the weather nor the time allowed the team to dive to the cherished “box”, and it will await exploration by future researchers.

On 26 June 2011, on the 70th anniversary of the loss of the Moscow, the Respiro Diving Society is planning to drop a memorial plate on the deck of the Moscow and a wreath in memory of the dead sailors and the first Soviet warship, which perished during the Great Patriotic War.

As a result of the expedition, all the data and project materials, as well as information about the location of the wreck will be sent to the archives of Romania and Russia, and various web-resources. Everyone in any way interested in further information on the project, should contact


The members of the expedition would like to thank Colonel Banshatsu Boris Shoylovichu and Lubyanovu Kolmogorov for the great job they have done compiling a large number of documents and versions in the book, The leader of the destroyers—Moscow. Thanks goes also to Professor John Damascene who assisted and provided valuable information not previously studied. The team is also grateful to all those who directly or indirectly helped in the search and believed in the success of the expedition.

Note: Submarine U-206 did not return to base and is considered “missing in action”. It is difficult to say how credible the reports are about the torpedo track at the Battle of Konstanz before the sinking of the Moscow, and several hours later, the sinking of the Kharkov. There are documents about the successful attack of the destroyer, Soobrazitelnyi (the quick-witted)—the vessel, that protected Kharkov—directed towards an unknown submarine in the square 3953. On the other hand, there is no confirmation of the sinking of a U-boat from Kharkov, which, in fact, hailed the Soobrazitelnui to protect and attack submarines. This is another dark page in history to be investigated further. ■