The Cruel Sea:
German Battleships, Part Four
As an exercise in world-building, the Second Great War alternative-history story arc has been an excuse to delve into every aspect of human societies: political, economic and social. Mostly, though, you get to build first a history of naval armament, and then a history of the war in which those ships fought.
The Cruel Sea is a massive expansion set for two Second World War at Sea games, Bismarck and Arctic Convoy. You’ll need the operational maps and series rules sets from those games and, well, not much else. We have brand-new fleets (that never existed) waging a brand-new war (that never happened), so it’s actually more of a brand-new game that uses maps from other games.
I wanted to be sure that the Second Great War’s history would be extrapolated from actual events that really happened, and those that could have happened (including some, like the lynchpin event of Woodrow Wilson brokering a negotiated peace at the end of 1916, that were probably more likely to occur than those that really did take place). And that goes for the ships involved as well.
For the older ships in the Imperial German High Seas Fleet, that was pretty easy – they’re either refurbished veterans of the First Great War, or based on ship designs prepared for the Imperial Navy but never actually built. But the real Imperial Germany ceased to exist in November 1918, along with its navy. In our alternative history it not only continued but thrived, and built many more warships.
To concoct those more modern ships, I kept several concepts in mind. Mostly the ships follow Weimar and Nazi German practice, at least the practice seen in those ships drafted before the crapulent proposals of the famous Plan Z in the late 1930’s. They follow, for the most part, the design principles of the old Imperial Navy with an emphasis on protection over armament and a distrust of new propulsion technologies. The pursuit of high-pressure steam technology, which kept many German ships in months- or even years-long maintenance periods during the actual Second World War, is avoided by these Germans who in keeping with the old navy’s ways sacrifice extreme performance for steady reliability.
Like that of Nazi Germany, this German fleet lacks a true dual-purposes secondary weapon and the battleships have two such batteries: one to engage surface targets, and another for anti-aircraft defense. The armament is similar to that fielded by the Nazis, with the exception of better heavy guns without the long layoff inflicted on the Krupp arms combine in our reality by the Treaty of Versailles.
Imperial Germany, enjoying a steady growth pattern following the economic slump after Wilson’s Peace, is a much wealthier society than Nazi Germany. That allows Germany to build the full number of heavy ships allowed by international limitation treaties, and even to cheat somewhat, but the shipyards don’t receive the full number of allowed orders until the mid-1930’s, when it becomes obvious that France and Russia will not be deterred from war. Given the number of Germany’s potential enemies, they’re going to need them.
The first class of modern fast battleships, with the lead ship named Königin Luise, is based on the Bismarck design of our own reality, itself a re-warmed version of the Imperial Navy’s L20 type that was designed but not built (except in the Second Great War’s reality, where it does participate). Königin Luise is similar to Bismarck as proposed rather than as built, carrying a heavier armament (16-inch rather than 15-inch main guns). Like Bismarck, she features extensive internal sub-division and underwater protection, and can make 29 knots at full speed.
Also like Bismarck, her designers have cheated on the stated displacement of 35,000 tons and she weighs in at almost 40,000 tons. While her main guns are listed at caliber of 16 inches (406mm), they are actually 16.5-inch (420mm) weapons. Note: Krupp actually designed such a weapon, which is the one we’ve posited being used here.
Unlike Bismarck, Königin Luise gives over her fantail to extensive helicopter facilities, with a hangar topped by a flight deck able to spot two aircraft at once. In the somewhat dieselpunk world of the Second Great War story arc, rotary and lighter-than-air flight are significantly more developed than fixed-wing airplanes and Germany is a world leader in both fields. Most German heavy ships carry one or more helicopters, chiefly for anti-submarine work (submarine development is somewhat more advanced than our own 1940) as well as scouting and liaison work.
Note: Many ship designers of the 1930’s sought to marry big guns and aircraft facilities in the same ship, only later coming to the realization that a ship with heavy guns would also eventually to be shot at with heavy guns. As our fake history opens, the Germans are just starting to shift their helicopters from battleships to destroyers and special-purpose helicopter carriers.
The next battleship class, with a lead ship named Deutschland, is an enlarged and improved Bismarck rather than an analog to the terrible H class design of Plan Z fame. Like the earlier class she is larger than claimed, displacing close to 50,000 tons rather than the allowed 45,000. She follows the same pattern of extensive subdivision and thick belt and deck protection. While her layout is similar to that of Königin Luise, Deutschland carries ten rather than eight heavy guns, in two triple and two twin turrets. Her aircraft-handling capabilities have been greatly reduced, but otherwise she is very similar to the early design, well-protected and also capable of 29 knots.
Both classes have larger and substantially heavier power plants than Bismarck, as they use older, well-tried boiler technology rather than Bismarck’s cutting edge (and difficult to maintain) high-pressure steam. They have four drive shafts like late-Imperial battleships, rather than the three of Bismarck. The added weight makes these ships less efficient than their real-world analog, but in exchange they achieve far greater reliability and therefore mission availability.
The ten fast battleships are the core of the High Seas Fleet, often operating together to seek out French and Russian raiders while the older battleships protect the vital convoys of food, fuel and raw materials flowing from the United States to Germany (and anyone else able to pay in hard currency). Imperial Germany enjoys secure access to fuel supplies (coming from Turkish fields in Iraq and Arabia), allowing the fleet to operate as often as necessary.
The Second Great War setting is meant to be a battleship game, with its historical background purposefully crafted to promote battleship-on-battleship action – the sort of battlefield environment in which the ships themselves (both those constructed and those that never left the drawing board) were designed to fight. The German fast battleships are the ones that will battle the huge French Alsace class armed with a dozen 15-inch guns, or the big Russian ships with nine 16-inch 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.