The first major raising operation was carried out in Russia in the early 1880s, when divers strapped the ironclad gunboat Rusalka (Mermaid) to powerful pontoons and hoisted it to the surface.
In February 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), Russian sailors and engineers at Port Arthur had to bring two battleships, the Retvizan and the Tsesarevich, and a cruiser, Pallada, on an even keel and lift them for repairs. The Pallada had been stranded in the shallows after a successful attack by enemy destroyers. Despite the absence of heavy-duty lifting equipment, the ships were re-commissioned four months later.
In 1910, Russian divers performed the world’s first submarine lifting operation, raising the Kambala (Flatfish) after it had sunk because of an accident in the Black Sea the year before.
Russians scored their first success in lifting a big ship during World War I. They raised the Turkish cruiser Mecidie, which had hit a mine and been scuttled off Odessa in June 1915. The ship, displacing 3000 tons of water, was retrieved from a depth of 20 meters and soon joined the Black Sea Fleet.
Divers had to do a lot of work in the Black Sea. The withdrawal of the White Navy's Black Sea Fleet to Turkey in November 1920 didn't leave a single large ship afloat (several of the Black Sea Fleet's battleships and cruisers had either been scuttled by the crews or blown up in the Sevastopol docks). The first to be raised were the cruiser Pamyat Merkuriya (Memory of Mercury, later renamed Komintern), the destroyer Nezamozhnik, and two submarines, AG-23 and AG-24. All of them lay fairly close to the surface.
The Expedition for Special Underwater Work (EPRON), specializing in the recovery of both ships and their separate parts, was created in 1923. For example, it hoisted two multi-ton armored turrets from the major caliber guns from the battleship Imperatritsa Maria (Empress Mary), which had sunk in Sevastopol Bay in 1916. They were later installed on shore. It also recovered several smaller ships. An outstanding contemporary operation was the lifting of a British submarine, L-55, which had sunk after being hit by depth charges at 30 meters in the Gulf of Finland in 1919. Although it had been under water a long time and might have decayed, it was lifted in 1928 by the rescue ship Kommuna and became part of the Baltic Fleet, keeping its British name.
In 1929, EPRON was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.
In 1933, Kommuna lifted Rabochiy (Worker), a submarine sunk to 25 meters in the Gulf of Finland in 1931 as a result of a collision. The sub could not be re-commissioned, however, and had to be taken apart. On August 2, 1935, the rescue crews had to do a horrific job, lifting the B-3 submarine that had sunk a week earlier from 50 meters. The sub sunk with 55 crew members on board, all of them naval cadets in training.
EPRON and fleet rescue units recovered numerous ships during World War II. Some cases include the destroyer Minsk that sunk in the Kronstadt Harbor because of bomb hits, several other destroyers, submarines, and the battleship Marat, which was hit in the Sea Channel of the Neva River.
Fleet rescue teams had to do a vast amount of work lifting ships and submarines in the post-war period. A case in point is the operation to recover the Baltic Fleet’s M-200 submarine and crew, which went down in the Surop Strait in November 1956. As the fleet chiefs were in conference for about a day and a half, there were no survivors left on board when the sub was brought to the surface. There had been 28 survivors immediately following the accident.
In July, 1969, the specially-built rescue ship, the Karpaty, lifted a diesel-powered submarine of the Northern Fleet, S-80, which had sunk to almost 200 meters in the Barents Sea in January 1961.
A major rescue operation took place in October 1978 after a collision between the S-178, a Pacific Fleet diesel-powered submarine, and the trawler RFS-13. It involved two rescue ships and a rescue submarine, the BS-480 (Komsomolets Uzbekistana). Despite all efforts, however, the sub went down. It was hoisted from 50 meters in November 1981 and towed to Dalzavod (Far Eastern Factory). At the factory, it was decided that sub would not be restored.
In August 1983, a nuclear-powered submarine, the K-429, was recovered from a shallow depth in a bay off Kamchatka.
In April 1989, rescuers saved several dozen officers and men from the Komsomolets, a nuclear-powered submarine that had sunk at a considerable depth in the North Sea.
Finally, the Kamchatka Flotilla Rescuers performed a veritable feat of valor in the fall of 1997, lifting a nuclear-powered B-313 submarine with just a few small pontoons and low-power cranes.