On August 12, 2000, the Russian nuclear-powered Project 949A Antey submarine K-141 Kursk sank in an accident during a Russian naval exercise, killing all 118 personnel on board. It ranks among the worst submarine disasters in history, and it occurred almost a century after Russia’s first submarine accident, which also killed the entire crew.
This accident involved the Delfin (Russian for Dolphin), the first combat-capable Russian submarine. Ordered in July 1901, the boat was laid down by the Baltic Works at St. Petersburg, and the vessel launched a year later.
The design was a single-hull type with saddle tanks. The submarine displaced 113 tons surfaced, and 126 tons submerged. Powered by one gasoline/electric motor that created 300 bhp and 120 hp respectively, the Delfin had a top speed of 9 knots surfaced and 4.5 knots submerged. The main armament consisted of two external 15-inch (380 mm) torpedoes, which could be launched from Drzewiecki drop collars. The Delfin was also armed with one machine gun.
The sub was designed for a crew of 22 men, including sailors.
Bad Sea Trials
Commissioned on Oct. 14, 1903 — the date that is now considered the birth of the Russian submarine forces — the Delfin would become the first Russian submarine ever to sink. Problems were immediately apparent. While undergoing its first sea trial, the Delfin’s ballast tanks proved faulty, and it took 12 minutes for the boat to complete its dive. That was an ominous portent for the vessel but was apparently ignored by officials within the Russian Imperial Navy.
On June 29, 1904, the Delfin sank in the Neva River near the wall of the Baltic Shipyard during another test dive. The boat had foundered in the heavy wash and was unable to surface. The plan had been for the sub to remain at a depth of 22 feet for three hours, but a half-open hatch allowed water to rush in.
The commanding officer and 24 crewmen, including those that were present specifically for the test dive, were killed. An additional 12 men were rescued, reportedly managing to escape out of the open hatch and swim to the surface.
It was the deadliest single submarine accident to that point — although a total of 30 individuals were killed aboard the Confederate submarine Hunley, including its inventor, as it sank three times in its eight-month career.
Much like the Hunley, the Delfin was raised and returned to service. Its career could best be described as problematic.
In November 1904, the boat was transferred to Vladivostok and entered into service with the Imperial Russian Navy in February 1905 to take part in the Russo-Japanese War. While the Delfin went to sea several times, she did not meet any Japanese ships.
In May 1905, following an explosion due to petrol vapors, the Delfin sank again. Russian sources do not confirm the number of casualties, yet once again the vessel returned to service later that year.
The Delfin was transferred to Murmansk in October 1916 and served in the Imperial Russian Navy’s Northern Flotilla, but the vessel was found to be unsuitable for combat operations. She was struck from the naval roles in August 1917, and while awaiting disposal in port, the Delfin collided with a Holland-type midget submarine on April 26, 1917. Though still seaworthy, the Delfin was sunk in port on Sept. 5, 1917.
Just a month later, the Russian October Revolution began, and it wasn’t until 1920 that the vessel was raised and scrapped.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.