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The Cruel Sea:
German Battleships, Part Two

I designed our Second Great War at Sea expansion set The Cruel Sea and Great War at Sea expansion book Jutland 1919 side-by-side, intending to weave their stories together, at least a little.

Jutland 1919 is focused on the battleships, battle cruisers and armored cruisers (and a few cruisers too) designed in the last years of the First World War but never built, as German shipyards concentrated on building submarines and British yards on building the escorts to combat them. It’s not, strictly speaking, an alternative history; it doesn’t have a story-arc or any world-building, instead it concentrates on the ships themselves: how and why they were designed, the purposes to which their designers thought they might be put, and scenarios to illustrate those purposes.

The Cruel Sea provides the alternative history story arc, from our Second Great War setting. It takes place in a history where Woodrow Wilson’s late 1916 peace efforts actually succeeded, and the Great War came to a halt at the end of the year. Following the war, a renewed naval building race took off, and Britain and Germany both prepared for a new war and tried to put demobilized soldiers back to work. That was the most plausible background I could invent for why these ships might have been actually built.

After completing the third and fourth units of the Bayern class (Sachsen and Württemberg), Germany’s shipyards would have sought new orders by the summer of 1917. The next battleships ordered would probably have been those studied in the spring of 1916; it’s not likely that new drafts would have been ready for construction to begin when the shipyards needed the work and the funding pipeline had been re-opened.

The Fast Battleship

The Brandenburg class (as we named them – German practice withheld formal names until a ship had been launched) are built to the L1 design presented in April 1916, a lengthened version of the Bayern class dreadnoughts and also carrying eight 15-inch (380mm) guns. Like the rebuilt Bayerns, she also carries eight 5.9-inch guns in turrets and eight more 105mm heavy anti-aircraft guns in dual mounts. Her torpedo tubes have been removed, a step discussed by her designers even before she had been laid down.

German naval architects were well aware of the superior qualities of oil fuel, which delivers considerably more energy for its mass than does coal. But fuel oil offers no protection against enemy shells, while coal bunkers could be worked into a ship’s armor scheme as effective additions to its armor belt. Ship designers were loath to give up this added layer, and this had far more to do with the German Navy clinging to coal-fired boilers long after the British had switched to oil than any innate conservatism (which existed) or lack of domestic oil sources (which did not).

Even so, we’ve posited that the Germans did convert their coal-burning battleships from a mixture of coal and oil to oil alone, giving them better performance and relieving their crews of burdensome coaling operations. Brandenburg (as we’ve christened the first L1 battleship) was designed for 26 knots, and probably would make about 28 knots with her new machinery, as she retained an older hull form that could not be changed without serious additional expense (primarily to lengthen the hull).

The Triple Threat

The four battleships of the Kaiser Friedrich III class would have been built in the fiscal year after the Brandenburg class, probably funded in 1918 and laid down the following year. They followed the design known as L2, an alternative to L1 offering greater firepower in exchange for lower speed

The designers achieved that by trading a smaller engine space (though with two, smaller turbine rooms instead of the one large one in L1) for a drop in speed of three knots. They added a fifth turret for two 15-inch guns aft, stacked above the usual two twin mountings.

Even before the first ship had been laid down, some naval architects sounded warnings about stability problems from the great weight of the tall barbette under Turret C, the highest mounting in the “stack” located aft. These ships would have been reconstructed in the 1930’s just like the Brandenburg class, and would have faced calls to remove Turret C and its barbette, freeing space at the base of the mounting for enlarged engine spaces and at its top for a helicopter hangar and deck.

That would produce a ship almost identical to the Brandenburg class, and that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as the triple-stacked battleships. And I really like the drawing and wanted a modernized version of it in The Cruel Sea. So she retains all five main armament turrets.

As modernized, the ships have eight 5.9-inch (150mm) guns in four twin turrets, and four 105mm heavy anti-aircraft guns in four twin mountings. As with the other older German battleships, their casemate-mounted secondary guns have been removed and the embrasures plated over; even the later German battleships, with their secondary guns mounted a deck higher than their older counterparts, shipped a great deal of water through their secondary battery in heavy seas.

The older battleships – including those designed and built in the years immediately after the First Great War – also lacked very much deck space on which to fit light anti-aircraft weaponry. This would have presented a problem in the actual Second World War; in our Second Great War airplanes are much less of a threat to battleships.

The lack of deck space is a direct result of the poor crew accommodations aboard German capital ships of the period, which helped lead to mass mutinies in our own history. Correcting that design flaw would have been nearly impossible without removing armament or greatly lengthening the ship, either one of which would have been likely to happen. That problem would have made most of the older battleships very unpopular destinations for officers and crew, and they would have inevitably ended up with less desirable personnel.

There’s also not much room to fit a helicopter, and so like the Bayern class both of these battleship classes have a pad on the fantail for take-offs and landings with stowage for a pair of machines, but not room for a true hangar, below it.

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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.