Confederate Air Power
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2015

A long time ago, I read a wargame magazine’s defense of its fondness for alternative-history topics. The gist of it was that gamers know the history behind the typical game based on a battle or campaign, so alternative history (the Nazis and Japanese battle for world domination in the late 1940’s, or the Nazis fight NATO in the 1980’s, or whatever) frees them from their pre-conceived notions. At the time, I scoffed at that logic as a rationalization: designing, as I saw it, frees the lazy designer from historical research.

Of course, there are a lot of “historical” games out there whose designers also freed themselves from conducting much (or any) research, so my view wasn’t all that accurate. And I have my doubts that many gamers “already know the history.”

Still, alternative history games are a lot of fun to design and to play. While the historical research may not be as rigorous, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be put in to craft a plausible background. Historical gamers want something that could have happened, or at least something that you as the designer can convince them could have happened,

Our Great War at Sea: Confederate States Navy lies on the outer limits of that pool. The Confederacy had little chance to defeat the Union, nor, in moral terms, did it deserve to continue. So we’ve had to craft a background that shows how the South could have achieved independence, and it was possible. More improbable things have happened in human history, for we are not a rational species.

In our alternate world of 1917, the Confederates are early adopters of air power. The Confederate Air Force is a major component of their defense strategy. Confederate naval planners know that they can expect little direct help from their European allies to defend the Caribbean. Their doctrine therefore calls for the island barriers to be held by aircraft and fast torpedo boats, with the Southern battle fleet waiting behind the islands to fall on the surviving Yankee battle line.

In our new game, the aircraft pieces are a lighter shade of butternut than the warships, and bear the "single star of the Bonnie Blue flag" as their roundel. They're laser-cut pieces: no die-strike damage and no dog-ears on the corners. Here's a look at them:

Like their European counterparts, the Southern air officers have a great regard for level bombing by large planes. The backbone of their strike force is the British-designed Vickers Vimy heavy bomber. It’s a long-ranged plane, capable of attacking both land and naval targets. Though designed for the Royal Air Force as a night bomber, the twin-engined biplane is actually little more capable in the dark than its “day bombing” counterparts.

The Confederate Air Force also operates the larger Handley-Page O/100, a British-made heavy bomber and one of the largest planes currently in operation anywhere. Its great range and defensive prowess make it an excellent scout as well as a land-attack plane.

The Confederacy has one aircraft carrier in service in the Caribbean, the converted passenger liner Manassas. She is not armed, but is fast enough to keep up with the battle fleet. She carries an air group of Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo planes and Sopwith Camel fighters, the same craft found on British carriers. With an out-gunned battle line, the Confederacy hopes their carrier can spot the enemy at a distance and, like the torpedo boats and land-based aircraft, help whittle down his strength before the final confrontation. The Cuckoo, designed from the start as a carrier-based torpedo bomber, is an effective weapon with good range and some ability to protect itself.

As well as equipping carrier squadrons and cartoon canines, the Sopwith Camel is also found in Confederate land-based units. Some of the pursuit squadrons have the more formidable Sopwith Snipe. Like the Camel, the Snipe is not very fast but is extremely nimble, and a very effective fighter in the hands of a skilled pilot.

In keeping with the doctrine of barrier defense, the Confederacy maintains a large fleet of seaplanes. These can be switched rapidly to new bases without the need for extensive infrastructure. Southern industry still lags behind that of the North after five decades of the Jubilee, and the Confederacy cannot afford all of the airbases and land-based aircraft it would prefer. But the seaplane allows greater flexibility, and in this era its performance is not markedly different from that of wheeled planes.

The Short 184 was the first seaplane put into widespread service by the Confederates, and it has limited range. However, it is capable of carrying a torpedo, though it’s not a particularly good platform: in the first confirmed sinking of a ship by an aircraft torpedo, a British pilot sank a Turkish tugboat by first landing on the water, taxiing into position and launching his torpedo from the surface. Even so, the Short 184 gives the Southerners the ability to strike at the Yankee fleet from a distance.

The Sopwith Baby is a much smaller craft, designed for operation from seaplane carriers (the Confederacy has none of these ships operating in the Caribbean, however). It’s primarily a scout, though it can carry a light bomb load. While it has longer legs than the Short 184, it’s still a short-range aircraft.

The pride of the Confederate seaplane fleet is the Felixstowe F5, a flying boat with better than twice the range of the Short 184 and the ability to attack targets on both land and sea. It’s a popular design, also manufactured in Japan and Canada as well as Marietta, Georgia.

And that’s our look at Confederate air power. We looked at the South’s heavy ships in Part One, and in Part Three we’ll look at their smaller warships.

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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.