The Cruel Sea:
German Cruisers, Part One

Our Second Great War alternative history setting posits a world where the Great War ended at the end of 1916, sparing millions who otherwise would have died and setting the stage for a new generation of imperial warfare. The fleets of this alternative 1940 are centered around the battleship, and governed by the strictures laid down by a series of naval armaments agreements detailed in our Second Great War background book.

In The Cruel Sea, a massive expansion set featuring the fleets of Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia and Fascist France, the battleships are accompanied by cruisers. As in our reality, the cruisers are divided into two types, heavy cruisers with 203mm (8-inch) guns and light cruisers with 155mm (6.1-inch) guns.

A few nations, including Germany, operate armored cruisers as well – older ships laid down before the treaties took effect and since modernized to participate in a new round of war. The naval agreements limit improvements to their armament (they cannot be given larger guns) but do not limit their size, making their retention very attractive to their owners despite the age of the ships.

The High Seas Fleet of The Cruel Sea numbers 34 cruisers from nine classes (others are deployed around the world, so they’re not present in this set). Let’s take a look at some of them.

The Heavy Armored Cruiser

The Gefion class armored cruisers are the 210mm-armed variant of the Hebbinghaus fast armored cruiser design included in Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919. This cruiser would have displaced about 14,000 tons and carried ten of the excellent 210mm SK L/45 rifles, one of the best naval guns of the Great War period.

As modernized for a new war, the cruisers displace somewhat more – about 15,500 tons – and their speed has dropped to about 30 knots as they have aged. Their mixed coal- and-oil-fired power plants have been replaced with new oil-fired boilers and refurbished turbines; in engine rooms of that size they probably could have produced about 100,000 to 110,000 horsepower (the slightly larger Hipper class heavy cruisers of Nazi Germany made about 130,000 horsepower, but did so using highly unreliable high-pressure steam).

The elimination of the cruiser’s coal bunkers also would eliminate some measure of protection, but would also provide space for more protection, and added power to offset the increased displacement. While still not capable of fending off the heavy shells fired by battleships, they would be well-protected against enemy cruisers.

The ships retained all ten of their heavy guns, but lost their secondary battery of a dozen 120mm guns mounted in armored casemates. In their place they received eight 105mm heavy anti-aircraft guns in dual high-angle mounts, the standard tertiary weapon of German capital ships. The main battery had its elevation increased, thereby adding to its already-impressive range.

The Cruel Sea includes four of the six ships in the class; the other two are on the East African station, operating out of Dar es Salaam.

The Light Armored Cruiser

Alongside the Gefion class, the High Seas Fleet had also built six units of the very similar Ariadne class. These ships shared the same hull, armor protection and machinery as their Gefion-class near-sisters, and received the same modernization and upgrades during the early 1930’s.

The difference between the two classes lay in their main armament, with the Ariadne class sporting five quadruple turrets for 150mm (5.9-inch) guns in place of the 210mm weapons of the Gefions. They likewise have been given increased elevation, but their real purpose comes in their enormous rate of fire. They had been designed and constructed to accompany the battle fleet and deter enemy torpedo attacks, a role that no longer existed in 1940. They still had a useful part to play in the new role, as they would make formidable opponents in close-range night actions.

The Cruel Sea includes four examples of the Ariadne class, with the other two on the West African station.

The First Heavy Cruiser

With a dozen fairly new, large and very capable fast armored cruisers completing in the years after the Great War ended, the High Seas Fleet did not immediately begin construction of the new heavy cruiser type allowed by the naval limitations treaties. When they did, the orders came during the economic downturn of the late 1920’s and the Imperial Navy selected a low-cost option to remain within strict budgetary limits. With world-wide responsibilities, the fleet needed more cruisers in the water rather than a lesser number of more capable ships.

The Blücher class displaced just 8,500 tons of the allowable 10,000; keeping with Imperial practice, the architects placed the design’s emphasis on protection over speed and firepower. That resulted in a handsome, well-balanced ship with a main armament of six 210mm guns in three dual turrets, a new SK L/50 model derived from the L/45 model of the Gefion class.

Protection was more than adequate against enemy cruisers, but like the armored cruisers would do little against a battleship. The ships had a relatively heavy torpedo armament, but only made about 31 knots. Like the armored cruisers, each had a helicopter pad on the stern with stowage for three of the machines, but not a true hangar with maintenance capabilities.

The High Seas Fleet built eight of the Blücher class. Four are present in The Cruel Sea; two others are stationed in West Africa and two more at Rabaul in German New Guinea.

The Ultimate Heavy Cruiser

By the mid-1930’s, naval budgets had increased to the point where the German Admiralty could propose a new heavy cruiser with firepower to overwhelm similar enemy ships and hope to build it in sufficient numbers to meet the Navy’s deployment needs.

The Ostfriesland class was a huge ship; at 16,000 tons, it outweighed even the Gefion class armored cruisers. Germany had long cheated on the naval limitations agreements, fitting heavy cruisers with210mm rather than 203mm guns, for just one example, but the excess had always been a matter of stretching rather than shattering the limits. News of new Russian cruisers armed with 254mm (10-inch) guns and 15,000 tons’ displacement gave the Germans the incentive to ignore the treaties as well.

In public, the Navy described the new ships as falling within the limits, displacing but 10,000 tons. The obvious increase in armament was described as the result of weight-saving through new welding technologies and the use of a fictional steel-aluminum alloy.

As with earlier ships, the new class sacrificed speed for protection. But they did carry a full dozen of the excellent 210mm SK L/50 rifles, plus the usual secondary armament of 105mm high-angle guns. The Germans correctly estimated that their 210mm gun had better long-range performance than the Russian 254mm weapon, and believed that given equal circumstances an Ostfriesland would defeat a Russian Bogatyr-class cruiser with the heavier guns.

The High Seas Fleet built fifteen of the big cruisers, stationing eight of them at home, two at Rabaul and five at Dar es Salaam.

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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.