Arctic Convoy: The Royal Navy
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Second World War at Sea: Arctic Convoy, our game of naval warfare along the Murmansk Run, covers what was the Royal Navy's war. Most major British warships available at the time took part in it. Let's take a look at them.
With the German battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst lurking in the Norwegian fjords (despite rarely leaving them), convoys moving past their lairs required a heavy surface escort. That meant battleships, and most of the Royal Navy's big ships made the run to Murmansk several times.
The older, nearly useless World War One veterans of the R-class played a very minor role in the Arctic theater, and only one of them appears in the game in British colors. Their very low speed not only made them vulnerable in a surface engagement, they actually slowed the progress of the convoy. They did remain in service in the North Atlantic during the same time, where a meeting with a surface raider was much less likely.
Not that there aren't very slow ships involved. Nelson and Rodney each make an appearance, ships kept in service as the only Royal Navy ships that clearly out-gunned the Germans' Tirpitz. With nine 16-inch guns, they had the same firepower — on paper at least — as the big American fast battleships. In reality they were not quite so powerful, but still a formidable presence and re-assuring to merchant sailors despite their ponderous speed.
All four of Britain's surviving King George V class battleships put in appearances. These had been designed to meet a British proposal to limit battleship armament to 14-inch guns, with the option of replacing these weapons with 16-inch guns should the diplomatic effort fail (the American North Carolina class was designed in the same manner). But the scheme failed when 16-inch guns would not fit after all, and the five battleships were completed with much lighter weapons than their contemporaries.
Finally, the British have one battle cruiser, Renown. Renown had been totally rebuilt in the 1930s as an escort for fast carrier task forces, and has the speed and anti-aircraft capability to match. She's no match for Tirpitz (none of the British battleships really are) but is a better ship than Scharnhorst.
It seems that if it could launch an airplane, the British sent it on the Murmansk run. Participating aircraft carriers range from the world's very first, HMS Argus, through modern fleet carriers like Victorious and Formidable to the American-built escort carriers of the Ameer class.
Air cover is vitally important to the Allied player; while the German has a number of powerful surface ships available, these will not sortie to attack every convoy. Actually, they will risk surface action fairly rarely, for the Kriegsmarine lacks the fatal courage of the Regia Marina and will only fight with the odds heavily in their favor. The Allied player has to be ready for a surface attack, but the most potent German weapons are submarines and aircraft. Thus fighters to drive away the German torpedo planes, and anti-submarine aircraft (usually Swordfish) are of vital importance.
There are only two fleet carriers in the game, and they only appear in the earliest scenarios. This is a job for blue-collar vessels: escort carriers and elderly ships pressed into a similar role (and for aircraft transport). The old carriers Argus and Furious are joined by converted merchant ships like Activity, Vindex and Nairana. Later purpose-built escort carriers appear like Fencer, Striker or Nabob. None of them are very impressive warships and they carry very few planes, but they performed their role extremely well and the Allied player will find them invaluable.
The Royal Navy's maids of all work, cruisers proved vital on the Murmansk Run as they could contribute powerful anti-aircraft batteries to convoy defense and were large enough to batter their way through rough seas that troubled destroyers. All types of British cruisers took part, from ancient C-class cruisers of World War One vintage and County-class heavy cruisers of the 1920s through the brand-new anti-aircraft cruisers.
British peacetime practice used cruisers to show the flag and patrol shipping lanes around the world; the Royal Navy believed it needed 70 of them. None of them were particularly good designs, and in game terms they are usually not quite as capable as their foreign equivalents. But there are a lot of them and they are well-crewed.
There are eight "Treaty" cruisers included in the game, but rarely do more than two of them appear in the same scenario: service on the Arctic routes was hard on ships and men. Lacking armor, they at least have reasonable endurance but their anti-aircraft capability isn't what one would expect given three years of war experience. The larger light cruisers of the "City" type are good ships, but there are only a handful of them; the smaller Colony class have good "visible" qualities (speed, armament) but their "invisible" ones (endurance, protection) reveal their cost-cutting origins.
Britain's anti-aircraft cruisers, whether converted veterans of the Great War or purpose-built ships of more recent construction, are not nearly as capable as their American equivalents. They are actually only slightly better than the big Tribal-class destroyers in terms of gunnery and anti-aircraft ratings; their larger size does give them much more fuel capacity and ability to absorb damage.
Destroyers are the key to defeating the submarine menace, and the Royal Navy built large numbers of them — and most are shown in the game. In a drive to build as many as possible, British destroyers were designed to be less capable than those of other nations: three 1,100-ton destroyers would have a better chance of sinking a submarine than two 2,000-ton boats.
Except for the impressive Tribals, the British destroyers included in the game are all very similar, with weak gunnery, weak anti-aircraft capability (some have none at all in game terms) and a relatively small torpedo array. They are not a match for the big German destroyers in surface combat, but this reflects a "paper" capability that is not immediately evident in the game. German destroyers were mechanically unreliable, and in the game this simply means they aren't present at all. British destroyers were expected to go to sea almost continually, and they did so; the Allied player will always have more of them. The Royal Navy's destroyers excelled at the most important aspect of success in any endeavor: just showing up.
The Little Ones
While the big pieces are the most impressive when laying out the game, Allied success often hinges on the little ships. Britain and her allies built huge numbers of cheap escorts like the Flower class corvettes, Hunt class destroyer escorts and River class frigates. Old destroyers, nearly useless for fleet duties, were re-furbished as escorts for a new war.
These ships will not last long in combat against enemy surface ships, and most of them can't defend themselves against air attack. Some of them are dreadfully slow. But they're just as good against submarines as a "real" destroyer, and most convoys will be protected by several of them.
There are a lot of good guys in the game, heavily outnumbering the Nazis. But there's also an awful lot of ocean, two maps' worth of choppy blue-gray sea to cross before reaching Murmansk or Arkhangelsk. The Allies will need every one of their ships and then some, while the Germans will sweat whether the moment to commit their limited forces has come. It's a tense game and one of the best-playing in the series, with our usual plethora of scenarios.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.