St Petersburg Artillery Museum
By Fred Lane
(This article was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September, 2010.)
“May you live in interesting times,” is a curse attributed by many to the ancient Chinese. Regardless of the curse’s origin, St Petersburg has experienced more than its fair share of “interesting times” in its short life. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, as Leningrad it experienced one of the longest and most destructive sieges of all time, an 872-day siege by no less than 26 German Divisions of their Army Group North.
It was also in St Petersburg that the cruiser Aurora fired the blank shot that was the signal for a decisive October 1917 attack on the Winter Palace, the seat of the then Provisional Government. It is in St Petersburg, despite these “interesting times”, or perhaps because of them, that we also find priceless art, architecture, theatre and museums. One of those remarkable museums is the Museum of Artillery, Engineers and Signals.
Many of the weapons preserved there have a history of their own. They include personal arms, medals and gifts received by Russian royalty and include trophy arms captured from Swedish, Turkish and French forces. Some other weapons have almost miraculously survived that white hot crucible of war, defending St Petersburg itself. We are reminded of naval guns and gunners, disembarked and fighting ashore with distinction during the WW II siege.
The collection dates back to 1703 and the the Kronverk Arsenal started housing the Artillery Museum in 1869. The museum is just down the road from the pre-Dreadnought Aurora, afloat in the Neva River, and adjacent to the island that is distinguished by the skinny spire of the Sts Peter and Paul cathedral/fortress.
Row upon row
Just inside the Kronverk Arsenal’s gates, the Artillery Museum greets you with row upon row of medieval and modern light and heavy artillery. Exhibits range from big muzzle-loaders and mortars to nasty-looking vehicle-mounted radar-directed multiple cannon and Surface to Air missiles (SAMs).
The Artillery Museum, from just inside the main gates
One of the largest seige artillery pieces in the world, Andrei Chokhov’s colossal 7134 kg Unicorn, cast in 1577, is there in the museum. Another of Chokhov’s monsters, the 39,312 kg 35-inch (890 mm) calibre Tsar cannon, cast in 1586, may be seen in the Kremlin, Moscow.
One of the museum’s exhibits is the comparatively inexpensive Katyusha rocket system that was developed in Leningrad (St Petersburg) from about 1938. The early 132 mm version was mounted on a number of light truck chassis, including the 1933-vintage ZiS-5. With a 22 kg (49 lbs) warhead, the rocket had a maximum range of about 5.4 km (3.4 miles).
Not accurate, but…
It was not as accurate as artillery and took much longer to reload, but a battery of four trucks could deliver a lethal rain of air-burst shrapnel over a four hectares (10 acres) area, all within a few seconds. Then the trucks could scuttle clear before the enemy responded with effective counter-battery fire.
The rocket collection is worth a day’s investigation alone. Unfortunately, all the signs are in Russian, but there is no disguising, for instance, the two or three deadly SA-2 Guideline versions or the heavyweight mobile ICBMs.
The Lavochkin OKB S-75 (SA-2 Guideline, SAM-2) was a nasty shock when one shot down a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers, 1 May 1960, over a SAM-2 testing range near Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). Powers was on an intelligence-gathering mission at 70,000 feet when one of eight SAM-2s hit his aircraft. (The U-2 wreckage is displayed in the Moscow Central Army Museum; Newsletter No.75 December 2008 p. 20 refers.)
One important result of this shoot-down was the accelerated development of the big Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and counter-measures that in turn generated an interesting counter-counter- measures race.
The USN chose the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile that homed on SAM site radar emissions. The USAF chose powerful jamming systems that, theoretically, blinded enemy early warning radar. Later developments included specialist jamming pods and Shrike missiles fitted to, for instance, the USN’s EA-6B Prowler, A-6B SEAD and the USAF’s F-III Wild Weasel.
..and in the super-heavyweight division is this mobile nuclear-capable SS-25 RT2PM Topol ICBM
Not to be outdone, enemy forces in Vietnam and other areas quickly adapted to these threats by upgrading the SAM’s radar to make it harder to detect and lock on. They also developed a missile that homed onto a jammer’s emissions. Another tactic, after detecting a Shrike launch, was to drift the contact radar to one side, then turn it off. The Shrike would follow this beam, then go harmlessly ballistic. Finally, Shrike-equipped aircraft might be detected by employing one radar site in a “false launch” mode. If there was no Shrike response, all nearby SAM sites might then use their radar with relative impunity.
The outside gunpark displays a variety of weapons
The museum is open Wednesdays to Sundays, 1100 to 1800, and there is no entry charge. It is strongly recommended as a highly rewarding visit.