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The Cruel Sea:
German Battle Cruisers, Part Two

The Imperial German Navy built a relatively large number of battle cruisers, as much for political as for military reasons. During the so-called “Dreadnought Race,” the German Reichstag funded battleships and armored cruisers separately. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Navy’s State Secretary (the head of its administration), insisted on the distinct funding paths even as battleships grew faster and battle cruisers more heavily armored, merging the types.

The High Seas Fleet’s first battle cruisers appeared much like earlier armored cruisers, with one or two ships funded alongside a full class of battleships. As battleship construction slowed in the years just before the First World War, the German Navy continued to build a battle cruiser in every fiscal year.

That changed with the Mackensen class. Tirpitz had secured funding for the lead ship as the “large cruiser” for the 1914 fiscal year, and successfully added three sisters under the War Emergency Program. The design followed that of the preceding Derfflinger class, suitably enlarged so the armament could be increased from eight 305mm (12-inch) guns in Derfflinger to eight 350mm (13.8-inch) guns in Mackensen. Length increased from 210 meters for Derfflinger to 223 meters for the new ship, and full-load displacement from 31,200 tons to 34,800 tons. After building repeated classes of unsatisfactory ships, German naval architects had finally hit on first-rate designs with Derfflinger and her battleship equivalent, König, and Mackensen would have been an excellent fighting ship with a good balance of speed, firepower and protection.

All four ships were laid down over the course of 1915, though none were completed (two progressed far enough to be launched). Though some sources give a number of months remaining until completion, given German shipyards’ severe wartime labor shortage the true projected delivery date should have been “never.” Their hulks would all be broken up at their shipyards in the early 1920’s.

Mackensen and her sisters appear in Great War at Sea: Jutland, and see a little action in that game and our High Seas Fleet expansion book. They get a great deal more play in the Jutland 1919 scenarios.

They’re also part of Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea, our massive expansion set positing a counter-factual history in which Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 peace initiative succeeded in bringing the Great War to an end two years before the historical event, with the great empires of Eastern Europe still intact.


The incomplete Mackensen and Graf Spee.

In our Second Great War alternative history story arc, the Mackensen-class battle cruisers would instead be completed after the Great War’s end in December 1916. Millions of soldiers returning home needed jobs, and the shipyards, mills and mines provided them. The four battle cruisers would join the High Seas Fleet in 1920, but by the early 1930’s they had fallen behind newer ships and badly needed modernization.

They would have entered dockyard hands in the early 1930’s alongside the doughty Great War veteran Derfflinger and her sister Hindenburg. Like the older ships, Mackensen and her sisters had mixed fuel arrangements, with 24 boilers burning coal and eight more burning oil to power four turbines producing 90,000 horsepower (Derfflinger had 14 coal- and eight oil-fired boilers putting out 63,000 horsepower from two turbines).

That power plant would be replaced with one fueled solely by oil, increasing their output enough to bring their speed to about 29 knots, enough for speed “3” in Second World War at Sea terms. The ships would lose the protection afforded by their coal bunkers, and so they’d have to acquire more belt armor to compensate. Like Derfflinger, their deck armor was much too thin for the modern combat environment and would need thickening as well.

As with all other older ships (all just about all nationalities), the elevation on their main armament would have been improved to give the bug guns greater range. Mackensen had the same secondary armament as Derfflinger, fourteen 150mm guns mounted in an upper-deck casemate battery. Derfflinger’s battery proved very wet in service, and Mackensen no doubt would have shared this flaw. The slightly longer hull of Mackensen would have allowed a larger secondary battery, and so as rebuilt she carries eight 150mm guns in four twin turrets (compared to four guns in Derfflinger) plus eight high-angle 105mm guns for anti-aircraft defense. Mackensen’s design actually increased the number of useless submerged torpedo tubes from four to five; all would have been removed during modernization.

Like the other big German ships, they operate helicopters for recon and anti-submarine work. A small pad on the fantail suffices to launch and recover the aircraft, but the ships have no hangars or workshops for extensive support.

All four would take part in the Second Great War; two of them (Mackensen herself and Fürst Bismarck) appear in The Cruel Sea with the others assigned to overseas squadrons. Like Derfflinger, they have the speed and firepower to counter enemy commerce raiders but their main battery is lighter than that of many of their opponents.

That’s not the case with their three near-sisters. In April 1915 the Imperial Navy ordered three ships to the same design as Mackensen, as replacements for the sunken armored cruisers Blücher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Before construction began the main armament was altered to eight 380mm (15-inch) guns to match that of the newest British battle cruisers; the German Admiralty later tried to alter the design again to increase their size, protection and speed and add a fourth ship as a replacement for the lost armored cruiser Friedrich Karl.

They appeared in Jutland in their original guise, and in Jutland 1919 as re-designed. The Cruel Sea includes one of the first three as she would have been completed in the early 1920’s to the first re-design, and three more built to the new design. Two of the original design and one of the improved design have been assigned to foreign stations, and we’ll add them to the series later.

They’ve been modernized along the same lines as Mackensen, with the same changes to their secondary and torpedo armament, addition of helicopter pads and upgrades to their power plants. Unlike their slightly older near-sisters, these ships are first-line units, with speed and firepower sufficient to stand up against all but the newest enemy fast battleships (which represent a massive increase in size and fighting power). As such, they see a great deal of action in The Cruel Sea.

You can order The Cruel Sea right here, right now.

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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. Leopold approves of the Iron Dog.