Minor Navies of WW2

The rest of the world 1939-45

Belligerents of WW2 are well known: The British Empire, Nazi Germany, Italy, France and the low countries (notably Belgium and the Netherlands), the Balkans, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, USA, URSS, Japan, and China. However there were a magnitude of neutral countries as well, which possessed a substantial navy, like Spain or Portugal. For obvious reasons, out of the war, despite Franco’s gesture by sending the Azul Division in Russia. Siam, another less known example, fought Vichy French Indochina on the behalf of Japan in 1941 and so became another belligerent. The second world war was global. Some neutral countries joined the fight late, other were involved even before the war, like Czechoslovakia and Austria. Yes, both had a Navy.

So in this chapter we are about to see the entirety of these forgotten fleets of WW2: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Eire, Egypt, Estonia, Haiti, Hungary, Honduras, Iraq, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Liberia, Mandchuko, Morocco, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Persia (Iran), San Salvador, Sarawak, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Zanzibar…

Definition of a fourth rank Navy in WW2

What is meant by 4th rank are navies from countries with limited budgets around the world, generally able to keep in service light or obsolete cruisers and torpedo boats, gunboats and MTBs, as well as rare submersibles. It was, in essence, a coastal fleet or “green water” fleet, by opposition of a “blue water navy”, capable to project its power over long distances. Third rank fleets fell often also in this category, beyond the Soviet fleet. This categorization still works today.

Most of these nations stayed (wisely) neutral during the Second World War, with some declaring war on the axis towards the end of the conflict. Others were members of the axis (Like Bulgaria), direct or collateral victims of the conflict (Like Albania and the Baltic States). So here are the status of the countries considered :
Albania (neutral), Bulgaria (Axis), Estonia, Lithuania, Lettonia (neutral), Hungary (Axis), Czechoslovakia (Allies), Egypt (British protectorate), Iran/Persia (neutral), Columbia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, Uruguay (neutral).

Micro fleets: Beyond any rankings lays a small group of “micro-fleets”, poor states or landlocked ones which had some watery real estate, in the shape of large rivers and lakes. These “navies” actually included only a few ships at best, riverine boats and patrol vessels. Switzerland, for example, had some armed civilian patrol boats on Lake Geneva. They did some anti-smuggling patrols, mostly for populations that transited through the country from occupied Europe, Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, including many refugees.

The forgotten navies of Europe in detail

Some were soon involved in the war, despite their preventions, others entered it when the situation started to reverse for the axis.


Albania was invaded by Italy in April 1939. Mussolini was driven by the recent example of Germany annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia and the poorest country in Europe seemed an easy picking, with 8,000 soldiers, some Gendarmes and 5 antiquated aircraft. The country also had a Navy: Two minesweepers and four motor boats. Only the later were in service when the war broke out.

The “navy” of the small Kingdom of the Adriatic had distant roots, located north of the Epirots and ancient Molossians, and their distant ancestors were the Illyrian pirates much feared by the Romans. The latter learned to respect them and even copied their agile Lemboi and Actuarias. In 385 BC, Illyria was conquered by Philip II of Macedonia, then by the Romans from 230 BC to 9 BC. Following the fall of Rome, this province became Roman Byzantine under the name of Albanoï. These lands underwent invasions of Goths and other displaced populations until the early Middle Ages. It became part of the kingdom of “Greater Bulgaria”.

Serbia was for a time a vassal state, before the Ottoman empire conquered the whole region. The Albanians then made excellent Janissaries. At the end of the 14th century, Prince Skanderbeg helped by Christian cities reconquered the territory under Turkish domination. After his death however, the country fell again, and for a long time under Ottoman rule. This people over time became strongly Islamized while not preventing local governors from aspiring to more autonomy.

It was not until 1878 when the Pritzen League was formed, that Albania regained independence, and in 1912, following the Balkan war gained it fully. Taken into the torment of the great war, the weak and young state became the playground for successive invaders, the Greeks, Italians, Serbs of Austria-Hungary and Bulgarians. In 1918, these different neighbors had an appetite for the small territory, hoping to gain a slice of it. However the US lobbied for Albania to be independent in 1920, following the Treaty of Tirana.

Seeking Italian protection against its threatening Balkan neighbors, Albania became increasingly dependent of Mussolini’s help, especially until its conservative Muslim leader, Ahmet Zog which took power following a coup d’etat in 1928, becoming King Zog. From then, Albania entered a period of nationalist militarization, this time in defiance of Italy. The Italian reaction would came soon after the declaration of war of September 1939.

Durres 1918
Durrës in Albania (1918). Unfortunately

The Duce saw Albania as weakly defended and on April 7th, 1939, Italian troops entered from the North and progressed rapidly. King Zog fled to Britain. After a week of hopeless fighting, what was left of fighting troops fled to the mountains. The country was officially placed under the crown of Victor Emmanuel III. A pro-fascist Tirana government was established under Shefqet Verlaci, and Albanian troops loyal to the government became part of the Italian army, later taking part in the Greek and Balkan campaigns.

A pro-Communist resistance movement organized in the mountains, and soon coalesced various partisan movements, federated around Enver Hoxha. These made life hard for occupation troops until 1943. At this time as in Yugoslavia, partisan war escaped all control, defeating the Italian army. After the Italian capitulation, the Wehrmacht occupied the country. With the help of the Soviet troops the country was liberated at the end of 1944. Enver Hoxha became in 1945 the leader of Albania, but drifted to personal power and terror until his death in 1988. Albania is still today the poorest European state, barely out of half a century backward isolation, the “north Korea of Europe” which once targeted one blockhaus per inhabitant.

-Skeneberg class minesweepers:
Skeneberg and Squipnia were the ex-FM16 and 26, German ww1 minesweepers. They were 43 x 6 x 1.45 m long (141 x 20 x 5 feets) with two shafts VTE, 600 hp, for 14 knots. They were armed with a single 88 mm gun. Both were discarded in 1935 so no longer in service when the invasion started, however it is not known if they could have been reactivated if mothballed at that time at the Battle of Durrës (1939) but they are not mentioned.

Tiranë class MBs:
Tiane class MBs - cdts navypedia

The Tiranë, Saranda, Durres, Vlore were ex-SVAN Venice MS boats built in 1926. They were 46 tons, 80 feets (24.38 m) long 450 bhp boats armed with a single 76 mm (3 in) gun and two MGs. They were in service in April 1939, at Durrës. Indeed the Royal Albanian Navy stationed in Durrës consisted of these four patrol boats and a coastal battery with four 75 mm (3 in) guns, which also took part in the fighting.

Mujo Ulqinaku, the commander of the patrol boat Tiranë, machine-gunned many Italian before he was silenced by an artillery shell from an Italian warship. A large number of light tanks were eventually unloaded and crushed what was left of the remaining forces, gaining full control of the city within five hours, despite the valiant defense of Mujo Ulqinaku. Opposite this, the Regia Marine despatched no less than 2 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, 9 destroyers and 14 torpedo boats, plus auxiliary and transports.

The Danube, starting in the Alps, crossing Austria and Eastern Europe before ending in the Black sea. This wide waterway was criss-crossed by an intense traffic and served as a natural border.

Austrian Navy

The Anschluss on 12 March 1938 gave the impression it was just a German promenade, a peaceful, stress-less annexation. But Austria was a sovereign state in 1938, with an army, an air force, and a navy, as surprising it might be for a land-lock country. In addition it has a political class divided but in majority hostile to Hitler’s views and attached to the independence, as well as the population. All three armed branches were mobilized. Back in the past, with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the new Austrian state lost all access to the sea.

This did not prevent it from maintaining riverine patrols on the Danube, making a single flotilla. In 1927, three of these ships were sold to Hungary and one was sold to the Slovakians in 1929. Shortly before 1939, Austria acquired small minelayer crafts and a few modern, also small patrol boats. Before the German annexation in 1938, this only program called for also minesweeping launches. http://www.avalanchepress.com/AustrianRiver.php

River Patrol monitors Birago & Fogas (1916)

The Czuka, of the same type as the Fogas and Birago.

These Former Austro-Hungarian river armoured gunboats were initially called i and k, built at Budapest in 1915-1916. The same year they took the named of Fogas and Csuka. In 1920, the partition of Austro-Hungarian Navy in the St germain en Laye treaty atributed Fogas to Austria. Her sistership Csuka (former ‘k’) was attributed to Hungary and renamed Siofok. In July 1929 as stated above she was resold to Austria, renamed Birago, but there is nothing clear about possible modifications, other than an overhaul. By default of new infos about it, here are the Fogas and Birago specifications below. In 1927, Fogas was sold back to Hungary and renamed Gödöllö. Birago on her side was the only sizeable armored ship of Austria on the Danube. After the Anschluss she was simply captured and integrated in the German Kriegsmarine as part of the riverine force.

Birago specs

Displacement standard 60 tons
Dimensions: Length 36.0 x 4.60 x 0.90
Machinery: 2 shaft VTE, 2 Yarrow boilers, 800 hp
Max speed 12 kts
Armour: belt: 5mm deck: 4mm turret: 5mm, CT: 5mm
Armament: 66 mm/27 L/30 K.09 gun, two 8.3 mm/66 MGs
Complement: 27
See also: http://www.navypedia.org/ships/austria/austri_rb_fogas.htm – http://www.navypedia.org/ships/austria/austri_rb.htm
The only sizeable ships in the Austrian riverine fleet. 1922, the Hungarian river forces also comprised Szeged, Debrecen and Kecskemet all launched between 1915 and 1918. In 1929, the Siofok, formerly Czuka was overhauled and modernized to be traded to the Austrians in exchange for the patroller Barsch, renamed Baja in Hungarian service. The original Baja has been renamed Hegyalja. The Siofok was renamed Birago in Austrian service (see avbove).

Hungarian Navy

As a member of the Axis, Hungary was another landlocked country, like Czechoslovakia and Austria, which only waterway was the Danube.
During WW2, the small Hungarian riverine force could only be used to patrol, not really to spearhead anywhere since neighbouring Romania became an ally during the invasion of the summer of 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). However, with the decomposition of the eastern front and offensive of the Red army, Soviet forces soon found themselves invading Hungary itself. Soviet forces had their own riverine forces, and could make them enter the Danube via the black sea, first, after clearing the defenses (notably mines) set up by Romania and Hungary. The Danube could be a vital supply road for Red Army troops in any case, but also carry troops far in advance on rear lines and for diversion operations.
In October-December 1944, fighting on the Danube intensified.


Ships of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919-22)

After the 1920 partition of St Germain en Laye, Hungary inherited part of the Riverine Austro-Hungarian fleet, which made the bulk of the navy. During the interwar, the oldest ships in service were the LEITHA class river monitors (1872), scrapped in 1921 (or converted as a dredger for the first). They were rebuilt in 1893-1894 but almost did never saw service in the new state of Hungary. They were indeed briefly incorporated in the Hungarian Soviet Republic (see later). The same can be said of the SZAMOS, another armored river monitor (1892). Built in Schoenichen, Újpest, she was also part of this short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic and converted as a dredger in 1921 (or scrapped, sources are not clear about it);

Another interesting ship that never really integrated the Hungarian Navy in the interwar was the river monitor Inn (1915), a development of the Temes class with one twin turret. She served with the Austro-Hungarian navy but in September 1917 she was sunk on the lower Braila, Danube by a mine. Salvaged and towed off in November, she was repaired in Budapest but work was never completed and she remained there until the end of war. On 21 march 1919 she passed under control of Hungarian Soviet republic, and in April she was renamed Újvidek. In late July 1919 as repairs were completed she was renamed again as Marx and commissioned by the Hungarian Danube flotilla. In November 1919 she was interned by the provisional Government of Yugoslavia at Novi Sad. Under the same treaty seen above she was transferred to Romania, on 15 April 1920 and renamed Basarabia. See the Romanian Navy for details.

Yugoslav Slava, ex-Bodrog, a good example of the numerous Danube monitors various neighbouring countries used, in particular Hungary.

Ships of the Hungarian Navy (1922-45)

In July 1941 when was lanched Operation Barbarossa, in which Hungary participated with several divisions, the Danube flotilla was also mobilized. At that time the force comprised the four Compo class riverine gunboats, the two Komarom class, the three HÜSZAR class, the Siofok class Gödöllö, and the minelayers KÖRÖS and Maros. The latter was modern-built in 1928. The only wartime constructions has been modern patrol ships of the six PM class, fast shallow-draught armoured motor gunboats built at Hanz Danubius, Budapest. However only one was completed on time to see action against the Red army in the fall of 1944 (See later).

COMPO class armoured river gunboats (1916)

These ships were built at Danubius yard, Budapest, in Austria-Hungary.

(Work in Progress)

KOMAROM class armoured river gunboat (1918)

(Work in Progress)

HÜSZAR class armoured river gunboats (1916)

(Work in Progress)

SIOFOK class armoured river gunboats (1916)

(Work in Progress)

PM1 class armoured river gunboats (1940)

Hungarian PM1 patrol riverine gunboat
(Work in Progress)

KÖRÖS river minelayer (1918)

(Work in Progress)

MAROS river minelaying boat (1928)

(Work in Progress)

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Note: Conway’s volumes made no mentions of the Hungarian riverine fleet, whereas they extend on the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Estonian Navy WW2

Gunboat Lembit
The Estonian gunboat Lembit, in service until 1927.

Although her Navy was created only three years after independence, in 1922, she was balanced and strong for such a small country.
Two destroyers, two gunboats, two minelayers were reinforced by auxiliary vessels, while on Lake Peipus three other gunboats guarded from Soviet incursion.

All these ships were of Russian Imperial origin, simply seized in ports in 1918 by the British. Further acquisitions were made in 1920, like a German torpedo boat stranded in Moonsound, towed and repaired. The goal was to maintain a capable green water fleet able to threaten any invading force. In the early 1930s however, amidst economical turmoil, the destroyer Lennuk and Wambola were sold in Peru. Funds saved were used to strengthen maintenance and purchase new submersible and gunboats. The war, however, took place before the construction of additional light ships could be completed.

Soviet Union officially wishing to strengthen its maritime borders forced Estonia to sign a military assistance on September 28, 1939. Detachments of the Soviet army quickly arrived on the territory, at key defensive points. However, on June 16, the government received a missive, the same as for Latvia, complaining of “provocations” of nationals against the Soviet army and asking for the establishment of a new government to fulfill the commitments of the treaty as well as reinforcement of the troops. Five days later, with the support of the Soviet army, the Estonian government was deposed and a new pro-Soviet government installed around the Estonian Communist Party. The amalgamation with the USSR was ratified on August 6, 1940, and the navy was dismantled and assimilated to the Soviet fleet.

The crew of the submarine Lembit awarded medals for the defense of Leningrad on 6 June 1943
The crew of the submarine Lembit awarded medals for the defense of Leningrad on 6 June 1943.

Ships nomenclature:

Destroyers class Lennuk
-Lennuk and Wambola, formerly Avtoil and Spartak, class Novik, 1917. 1350 tons, fast and powerful, but sold to Peru in 1933.
Torpedo Boat Sulev
The ex-A32, converted to lay mines. Stranded in October 1917, recovered in 1923 and rebuilt. Taken over by the Soviets in 1939, she was converted into a patrol vessel of the NKVD, then auxiliary and training ship, and finally enede as a pontoon in Leningrad in 1955.
Submersibles class Kalev
Two units ordered at Vickers-Armstrong, launched in 1937. These were coastal, but excellent quality boats. These submersibles, the Kalev and Lembit weighed 620 tons/850 tons underwater, for 58 x 7.30 x 3.30m, powered by two Vickers diesel engiens and two electric motors for 1200/790 hp and 13.5/8.5 knots, for a crew of 58 men.
Captured in 1940 by the Soviets, the Kalev would be used against the Finns (sunk by mines in Hangö in Nov. 1941) while the Lembit became the U1 in 1945, then S85 in 1949, and in 1956 was transferred to a shipyard for experiments. Finally she became a memorial in Tallin, back to Estonia.
gunboat Pikkeri
This modern vessel was built locally in Tallinn, and served as a presidential yacht. In 1940 she passed under Soviet control, as a staff vessel, a sloop in 1941 renamed Kiev, and Luga in 1942, finally Rion from 1946 to 1955, turned into a supply ship. She then began a second civilian life as the research oceanographic ship of Moscow University, taking her old name and operating in the Black Sea until the late 1960s.

Other Ships
The oldest were the Lembit (1st of the name), reformed in 1925, the Wool (ex-Sputnik) sank in September 1941, Wanemune (scuttled in 1941), the minelayer Ristna (demolished in 1960) and Suurop (same class ) sunk in August 1941. More recent were the 200-ton gunboats Mardus, Taara, Uku, Tartu, Ahti, Ilmatar (three served on Lake Peipus), the 50-ton Kalev, Olev and Tahkona mine masters, 8 class stars MP (MP5, 8, 10, 14, 23, Sakala, Delta, Erilane), the three icebreakers Suur Töll, Tasuja, and Juri Vilms, two auxiliary vessels of 200 tonnes, 4 tugboats, and the old Coast Guard Kou (replaced in 1939 by the Pikkeri).
(Work in Progress)

Iceland Iceland Navy WW2

Converted merchant vessels were armed to serve as fishery protection vessels. This was setup in 1930:
-Esja (1939, 1347 GRT)
-Aegir (1929, 497 GRT,1x 57 mm gun)
-Thor (1922, 226 GRT ex-purchased German Senator Schafer, 1x 57 mm gun)
-MFV Odinn (1938, 72 tons, 1x 47 mm gun)
-Sudin (1895, 811 GRT, ex-Gotha).
(Work in Progress)


The young Republic had a small force only fitted for coast guard and fishery protection. These were the :
-Muircha: Ex-Helga 1908 323 GRT converted gunboat
-Fort Rannoch: 1936, 258 GRT gunboat.
-M1 class MTBs (Thornycroft-built 1939): Five 32 tons MTBs, with 4-shaft petrol engines, 2600 hp and 40 knots, armed with two 21-in TTs and two MGs.

The Middle East

Persia (Iran) in WW2

(Work in Progress)

Iraq in WW2

The Iraqi navy of that era was made of a microfleet made of British vessels, since the country was under influence of the Empire, because of the presence of massive petroleum resources.
-Alarm: 1919 Tug HMS St Ewe of the “Saint” class, 820 ton ship, specs same as original.
-Faisal I: Royal yacht, ex-San Pew, ex-Restless, 1923, 1025 tons. At some point she became a lighthouse tender in the 1940s.
-Four Thornycroft-built 1937 patrol boats. 67 tons, 100 x 17 x 3 feets (30.48 x 5.18 x 0.91), 2 shaft diesels 280 bhp, 12 knots, 1x 37 mm howitzer
(Work in Progress)


Belligerent Nations were: China, Japan and Siam.
The Chinese Navy was quickly destroyed by the IJN and aviation in 1937 and the following years. It was reduced to nil in WW2. Allied help mostly concerned tanks, planes and ground weaponry. The Imperial Japanese Navy needs no presentation. This formidable force attacked all local powers in the area, after the US Fleet in Hawaii, the IFN fought the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy, the Australian and New Zealand Navies, going as far as threatening convoys in the Indian Ocean from Madagascar.

An interesting case however is Siam: The Kingdom (future Thailand), independent from the French which colonized nearby Indochina, capitalized on the supposed weakness of Vichy France in 1941, with the blessing of Japan. An attack on French Indochina and a naval battle at Ko Chang however did not bring the expected results. But this is one of these forgotten episodes of WW2. Among small fleets, Mandchuko and Sarawak are worth mentioning.

Mandchuko in WW2

(Work in progress)

Sarawak in WW2

(Work in progress)

South America

Cuba in WW2

The Cuban fleet protected its important territorial waters with a fleet of pre-ww1 gunboats of variable tonnage, which are in detail:
-Cuba: 1911, 2055 tons, retired from service in 1971
-Patria: 1911, 1200 tons, retired in 1955.
-Class Diez de Octubre: Dice de Octubre and Veinte y quarto de Febrero (1911, 208 tons, reformed in 1946)
-Baire: 1906, 500 tons, reformed 1948.

Dominican Republic

The small country possessed a limited sea facade, and operated a few patrol boats on rivers but no major ships. However the great “postwar discount” allowed the South-American country to purchase an ex- British River class frigate in 1946, renamed Presidente Trujillo, as well as an ex-Flower class Corvette called Colon (Or Cristobal Colon), also acquired from Canada. She was active in 1980 whereas Trujillo was renamed Mello and served from 1962 as a presidential yacht. She was still active in 1980 but her current status is unknown.


Apart a riverine force to patrol the amazon, the small Equadorian Navy only existed thanks to the use of nearby Chilean naval infrastructure for training.
Libertudor Bolivar: The only significant sea-going warship in service was the 1896 Libertudor Bolivar, ex-Almirante Simpson, a 750 tons gunboat acquired in 1907 from Chile, still active until 1932 when she was discarded.
Cotopaxi: The only other significant warship in service during the interwar was the 300 tons Cotopaxi, dating back from 1884. She was also discarded in 1932, leaving Equador without any sea-going vessel during WW2.

Sources/Read more

Warship Wednesday Nov. 16: Estonia’s national hero, AKA the Soviet’s immortal submarine