The Cruel Sea:
German Battleships, Part Three
One of my goals in designing our alternative-history expansion set, Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea, was to keep the ship designs in line with those proposed or actually designed as much as possible. Among those who like warships and naval games – the Ship Guys, we’ve always called them – is a large segment with a deep interest in ship designs that were proposed, but never actually completed.
Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919 caters directly to the Ship Guy audience, and they’re the reason that book has been enormously popular. The Cruel Sea picks up on that, showing a number of the Great War-era designs refitted and reconstructed for a new conflict, and different versions of ships designed or built for the Second World War.
Then as now, navies commission new designs for warships with the knowledge that these projects are unlikely to actually be authorized and constructed. In the case of German ships designed during the First and Second World Wars, this “vital war work” kept young draftsmen out of the draft pool and their older colleagues sought to protect them. They can also serve as political bargaining chips – the British delegation at the Washington arms talks in 1922 skillfully abandoned vaporware projects while inducing the Japanese and Americans to scrap new, nearly-complete battleships that actually existed in a paper-for-steel trade.
In our reality, none of the German drawing-board battleships had a chance of actually starting, let alone completing, construction. The Second Great War alternative history is built around an inflection point that actually happened: in late 1916, Woodrow Wilson attempted to broker a negotiated end to the war then raging around the globe. Britain stood at the verge of financial collapse, with the American financiers who had funded their war likely to follow. The effort collapsed when Germany refused to present a list of her demands for such a peace. Our history posits a more rational response that opened the door to peace talks. The war ends comes to a formal end in early 1917.
The sudden end to hostilities returns millions of men to the workforce in their respective countries, and in our story a naval arms race ensues as the manpower and money formerly consumed in trench warfare is diverted at least temporarily into the shipyards. That’s an outcome of high probability – all of that excess labor needed to be absorbed, and absorbed quickly, lest social unrest follow – and it also serves as a handy deus ex machina to bring more battleships to the game board.
Second Great War at Sea is a battleship game, giving players the massive fleet actions settled by gunnery that the real Second World War never saw thanks to all those annoying airplanes. The Cruel Sea delivers the battleships: 35 German ones alone (and that doesn’t include battle cruisers). We’ve looked at the older German battleships in earlier installments. Let’s take a look at the rest of them.
The Ultimate Dreadnought
The massive Barbarossa-class battleships are the L20e design of August 1917, and appeared in Jutland 1919 in their original form. Had they been built they would have been massive ships, displacing half again as much as Imperial Germany’s last dreadnoughts, the Baden class, and carrying eight huge 420mm (16.5-inch) rifles as their main armament. They would be faster than previous dreadnoughts, with a designed speed of 23.5 knots expected from their 100,000 horsepower power plant.
Their architects, and the admirals who wrote the design brief, expected the ships to fight at very long ranges with their huge guns. Therefore they received much thicker deck protection than previous German battleships, along with a thick belt and the usual intricate “honeycomb” sub-division afforded to most German warship designs.
None of these ships would be laid down, but in our Second Great War story line four of them are built in the early 1920’s, the last ships constructed in the naval arms race that preceded our false reality’s naval arms limitations agreements. Despite their huge size (42,000 tons) they would still weigh in at less than the largest British, Japanese or American super-dreadnoughts.
By the late 1930’s their age had begun to show, and all are reconstructed along the same lines as the older, smaller German dreadnoughts. The deck armor is made even thicker, and more protection placed around their machinery spaces and lower hull. But the greatest change would be replacing their 22 coal-and-oil-fired boilers with a new set burning only oil, yielding greater power for the turbines and an improved turn of speed; we’ve credited them with 26 knots in their rebuilt form, good for a Second World War at Sea movement rating of 2+.
The ships’ layout had been maximized for speed, with a long hull and a wide space between the two after turrets to accommodate the huge turbine rooms and a single, massive funnel amidships. Those features left no suitable space for a helicopter pad, so unlike most other German battleships the Barbarossa class has no aircraft capability.
The secondary armament has been altered, going from a dozen 150mm (5.9-inch) L/45 guns in an armored casemate to a dozen of the more effective L/55 model in six twin turrets. The eight single mounts for 105mm anti-aircraft guns have also given way to four twin mounts with more modern L/65 model guns. The lack of an effective dual-purpose gun forced the Germans to fit their battleships with two separate secondary gun suites, one meant to engage surface targets and the other intended to battle enemy aircraft.
As with other older ships, the class has lost its torpedo tubes. In theory, the torpedo made a useful weapon for the battleship, as the tubes could not easily be knocked out by enemy fire. In practice they proved almost impossible to use with the ship under way, as the torpedo would become “hung” by the mass of water moving along the hull and damaged or even snapped in half.
Given their age, the four huge ships are impressive weapons systems. They’re not fast enough to easily operate alongside the newest fast battleships, and their underwater protection can’t be updated to incorporate the latest concepts. They’re better fighting ships than the British Queen Elizabeths, about the equal of the Japanese Mutsu or American Colorado, but not as powerful as Britain’s huge N3-type battleship and the American South Dakota class.
In The Cruel Sea’s story-based scenario set, the quartet usually appears with the main battle fleet. They’re not fast enough for independent operations, but not so slow as to be consigned to escort duty and the battle line has need of their heavy guns.
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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.