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Author(s) of the publication: Yulia BELCHICH

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by Yulia BELCHICH, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), chief expert of the Russian State Economics Archives

The NORMANDIE ocean liner, the biggest in the world at that time, was launched on October 29, 1932 at the Saint-Nazaire shipyards in France. The ceremony was attended by the French President Albert Lebrun, members of the government, members of the international press and representatives of European and American shipyards, transatlantic and other shipping companies.

The size of the liner was really impressive: it was 313m long, 44 m high and 36 m wide. By its standards of luxury, safety, comfort and speed the liner surpassed all of its predecessors. It was not accidental that the newspapers hailed her as a "floating city", "museum-palace" and "masterpiece of naval architecture".

She sailed on her maiden voyage to New York in the spring of 1935. Travelling at the speed of up to 60 km/h, the liner covered the distance of 3,192 nautical miles in only 4 days, 3 h and 5 min. This was almost 11 hours better than the then world record of crossing the Atlantic. The Normandie won the "blue ribbon"-the emblem of the largest, most comfortable and fastest transatlantic liner and that was a national triumph for France.

In specialists' view the liner was able to attain its unusual speed thanks to its exceptionally streamlined hull. And the author of this design was a Russian emigre and talented engineer, Vladimir Yurkevich (1885 - 1964). In recalling this outstanding personality, one should give its due to the truly brilliant school of naval engineering to which he owed his achievements.

The end of the 19th century for Russia was a time of rapid progress of naval and merchant shipbuilding. And the country was in need of skilled specialists in this field. In 1902 a new department was opened at the St. Petersburg Polytechnics * for training engineers for building hulls and mechanisms for ships of all kinds. The organizational side of the project was entrusted to Prof. Konstantin Boklevsky whose works on designs of merchant and naval vessels made him famous far beyond the confines of his own country. He, in his turn, invited for teaching duties such leading figures in this field as Ivan Bubnov, Alexei Krylov (later academician), Georgi Pio- Ulsky, Alexander Van-der-Flit et al. This made the level of student training exceptionally high. And it was this college which was chosen by V. Yurkevich in 1903. As he recalled his tutors years later, he said: "They taught us exceptionally well." His own subsequent practical experience of work in Germany, France, England and the United States proved that many of the theoretical ideas of the professors and graduates of that St. Petersburg col-


* See: Yu. Vasilyev et al., "Center of Science, Education and Culture", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2003. - Ed.

Pages. 85


lege laid the foundations of the world progress in shipbuilding.

Noted among his fellow students for his enthusiastic zeal and dedication, Yurkevich started search for new ways of designing the architecture of marine hulls. His studies caught the eye of K. Boklevsky under whose guidance the gifted youth continued to develop his ideas. He pointed out, for example, that "at great velocities it is necessary for the bow of a ship to cut water so that it would flow easily and smoothly around the hull, and not the usual way when the bow is pushing back in front of it a whole wall of water, which has no time to move off, but kind of 'sticks' to it. The crux of the matter is that the length of the prow which splits up water, is increased in proportion with the ship's speed".

Getting the diploma of a marine engineer in 1909, Yurkevich said he would continue serving in the navy.

He continued his studies at the last course of the Kronstadt Naval School and was appointed a year later to the Baltiysky Shipbuilding and Mechanical Works. After the defeat in the war with Japan (1904 - 1905) where Russia lost much of its fleet, a "Program of Development of Russia's Naval Forces for 1909 - 1919" was developed which provided for using vessels of various types. The foremost task was to set up a fleet consisting of 6 battleships, 4 armored and 9 light cruisers and 36 destroyers. And the Baltiysky Plant was assigned a special role in implementing this program.

The work started with the construction of the Sevastopol battleship, the biggest and the fastest in the world by the standards of that time. Young marine engineer Yurkevich was actively involved on that project and won recognition. When the construction was over in the spring of 1911, he was charged with a responsible task of planning preparations for the launching of the new battleship. It was necessary to calculate exactly the braking forces which would prevent the new giant from ramming the opposite bank of the Neva. And the young graduate of the Polytechnics coped with his task with flying colors. "The Neva was covered with flags and garlands. There were festive crowds on the banks and festively decorated naval vessels and yachts across the river. People sang hymns, shouted 'hurray'. The new majestic warship, with its colors flying and the St. Andrew's flags on top, splashed into the river with breath-taking speed, pouring cold river water on the thousands of spectators. And then the ship stopped dead, as if rooted to the ground." That scene was later remembered by one of its witnesses, Captain Alexander Lukin.

The architecture of the new man-of-war was based on some advanced

Pages. 86


ideas which received general recognition only years later. Yurkevich later recalled that "ships like the Sevastopol, Poltava and Gangut represented a completely new era in naval architecture by their daring designs, dimensions and speed not only for Russia, but were far ahead of all foreign projects of that time... This was recognized by all experts."

Adopted shortly after was a "Program of Accelerated Construction of the Baltic Fleet for 1911 - 1915" which provided for launching four new armored cruisers. The Ministry of the Navy announced a contest for the best design and the participants included 6 Russian and 17 foreign firms. Having examined the submitted projects, the Technical Board of the State Administration of Shipbuilding turned down the foreign offers as "falling short of the requirements of Russian shipbuilding concerning the hull and mechanical parts".

Charged with the final preparation of a conceptual design were the Admiralteysky and Baltiysky shipbuilding plants and this led to their acute competition. At the Baltiysky Plant the post of consultant for mechanical engineering was given to Moscow Marine Academy Professor G. Bubnoy, and Yurkevich had to prepare the design of the battleship. This gave him an opportunity to try and translate his innovative ideas into practice.

Within the allowed time limits both plants submitted their models which were sharply different by the shape of the hulls. The model of the Admiralteisky Plant was in line with common and internationally accepted standards. And the Yurkevich's version looked pot-bellied in the middle with a sharp bow and stern. The two models were tested at test-tanks in Petersburg and Bremerhaven (Germany). And Yurkevich's version won the day. His original contour lines of the hull, forming a bulb-shaped profile in the cross-section, promised an economy of 10 thous. H.P. This "silhouette" was later patented as Formes Yourkevitch (F.Y).

After his business trip to Germany the young engineer presented a detailed report to Emperor Nicholas II in which he also outlined his ideas on improving the flow of water around the ship's hull while in motion. And, according to the author of these suggestions, the Emperor turned out to be very well informed about foreign and domestic shipbuilding problems. In order to launch the construction of the armored cruisers without delay the Technical Council charged the Admiralteisky and Baltiysky plants with the preparation of detailed blueprints. This work was started in August 1912 and a month later the plants received orders for building two battleships each. The plans were, unfortunately, interrupted by World War I and the October Revolution of 1917. But preparations of the designs of the armored cruisers, involving the efforts and talents of the leading Russian engineers and Yurkevich himself, provided a significant contribution to the theory and practice of Russian shipbuilding.

During World War I Yurkevich was associated with our submarine fleet. In March 1918 he was appointed deputy director of the Nikolaev Branch (Black Sea) of the Baltiysky Zavod, where he built and tested submarines of the AG-type. Later on, grabbed with the whirlwinds of the Civil War, Yurkevich landed in Constantinople. There he experienced all kinds of problems of survival in an alien environment where he simply could not find professional employment. And things

Pages. 87


were no better in Paris where he moved in 1922. An experienced naval engineer earned his living as a turner at the Renault car plant and later as a draughtsman at a shipbuilding factory.

In the meantime a bitter, although peaceful, contest had sprang up between England, Germany and France for building giant liners and winning the passenger market across the Atlantic. The rivalry was accentuated by the US intentions to enter the race. In 1928 Yurkevich got a job with the biggest French shipbuilding company Penouette which had a monopoly for building ocean passenger liners. And he resumed his studies on ways of reducing the drag of a ship on the move. He was worried by the fact that during his years of involuntary absence from the scene European technology had moved so far ahead that his ideas would look outdated. But having studied some of the best designs of that time, he was happy to note that "Europe has not even approached the problems which our teachers had been putting before us in Russia... before the war Russian shipbuilding knew more than the European one today."

A year later the Penouette management decided to build what they called the super- transatlantic liner, called the Normandie which had to be bigger, faster and more comfortable than all its rivals. Yurkevich said he could design the contours of the hull of the new giant. And it took him two years to "sell" his concepts to the company. He prepared new blueprints again and again, made new calculations and tried to prove his engineering conclusions. Finally, the Penouette management decided to test the ideas of the Russian engineer on a model tests.

Deciding on the shape of Normandie's hull was a key factor for the shipbuilding company and over a period of two years they tested 15 different models at colossal costs in test-tanks in France and Germany. Finally the choice fell upon Yurkevich's design which proved to be the fastest and most technically advanced.

Thus the honor of building the hull of the new liner-the decisive factor of ship's maximum speed at minimum expenses-belonged to our compatriot. The subsequent triumph of Normandie is common knowledge, and it was not accidental. Yurkevich said later that he was able to use concepts he had suggested back in 1911 - 1912 for hulls of battleships.

The contours of Normandie's hull were being discussed in French, German, Dutch, Swedish and Italian engineering journals and the engineering talent of Yurkevich received broad recognition. And he opened his private design bureau in France whose clients included some of Europe's leading firms. Later on, having received four

Pages. 88


American orders, he decided to move to the United States.

By 1938 a total of 42 steamers were built and rebuilt according to his designs and he was hailed as an unrivalled marine engineering savant. As for Yurkevich himself, he combined his main work with teaching and lectured at the Michigan University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and published articles on improving marine hulls' designs, increasing the speed and stability of ships and on ocean liners' designs of the future.

And the tragedy came all of a sudden: on February 9, 1942 his "brainchild" the Normandie was destroyed by fire in the New York harbor. The fire was put out, but the firemen poured too much water on the liner. From his position on the bank Yurkevich saw the liner floating on its side in Hudson Bay. The cause of the fire could not be established, and Yurkevich was confident that the liner could be rebuilt. This work started, but was abandoned due to various reasons. And the liner was scrapped.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Yurkevich designed an aircraft carrier of 11,000 tons, freighters, tankers and passenger vessels. But his coveted dream was a superliner, bigger and faster than the Normandie but less expensive for its passengers.

In 1954 - 1957 he designed two superliners (marine hotels) for 6,000 passengers each with the cost of fair in a two-berth cabin being not more than 50 dollars per passenger. The project was discussed at a Congress session and in the press over several years. But it was finally dropped because of endless formalities, financial problems of shipbuilding companies and opposition on the part of rival companies which risked loosing their clients and profits.

The same fate lay in store for yet another giant project of Yurkevich - a passenger liner of over 100,000 tons for 5,000 passengers of the tourist class only. These projects marked an important stage in world marine engineering.

Deserving of profound respect have been the activities of Yurkevich and his wife Olga (the daughter of the popular writer V. Krestovsky) in relief collection for the USSR during the Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany. Yurkevich was convinced that when his Motherland faced a mortal threat it was the duty of each and every Russian to come to its assistance in every possible way.

During his years abroad Yurkevich remained a dedicated son of his Motherland who honored Russian traditions, culture, history and spirituality. He took a keen interest in developments in the Soviet Union, took pride in our achievements in space and lost no opportunity welcoming guests from Russia, while being a frequent visitor to the Soviet Embassy. He ended one of his interviews by saying: "I am happy to be a Russian."


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Yulia BELCHICH, RUSSIAN MAKER OF FRENCH MIRACLE // London: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 10.09.2018. URL: https://libmonster.com/m/articles/view/RUSSIAN-MAKER-OF-FRENCH-MIRACLE (date of access: 23.04.2021).

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