The Cruel Sea:
German Cruisers, Part Two

In our Second Great War alternative-history story arc, Imperial Germany has not only survived the First World War intact but also retained and slightly expanded her colonial empire. For the High Seas Fleet, that means a series of world-wide commitments, to not only show the flag but to play an active role in defending these holdings. Everywhere the German flag flies, there is Germany, and it must be defended as such.

Those commitments require a large number of cruisers, both for service with the battle fleet and on distant stations. The bulk of that work is performed by light cruisers, vessels smaller than the big armored and heavy cruisers we looked at in a previous installment. This time, let’s look at Imperial Germany’s light cruisers, as found in The Cruel Sea:

Great War Veterans

Most of the High Seas Fleet’s oldest cruisers – those built during the course of the First Great War – serve on overseas stations. The fleet remaining at home has just one example of the oldest class still in service, Frauenlob of the Cöln class, laid down in 1915 as part of the War Emergency Program. She’s been modernized since her completion, with her eight 150mm (5.9-inch) guns reduced to six, but re-sited with all of them along the center line where all can fire to either broadside, as opposed to the five-gun broadside she had before rebuilding. She retains her four torpedo tubes, and the capacity to lay up to 200 mines.

As with other older warships, Frauenlob also saw her power plant modernized. As built, she had 14 boilers, eight burning coal and six burning oil, powering turbines which produced 49,000 horsepower. She emerged from her reconstruction with a dozen oil-fired boilers now making 60,000 horsepower, but her top speed only increased slightly from 27 to 29 knots.

Note: Frauenlob was never actually completed; she was about 13 months from completion when the First World War (as opposed to the First Great War) ended and she went to the breakers in 1921. She appears in our Jutland game, along with most of her class (two of the ten laid down were actually completed).

Analysis of the Battle of Jutland – where Frauenlob’s namesake had been sunk – led the German Admiralty to seek heavier armament for its scouting forces. One proposal led to the large, fast armored cruiser proposed by Vice Admiral Georg Hebbinghaus. Other proposals called for a “fleet cruiser” tasked with supporting the destroyers of the battle fleet and scouting for enemy forces while larger, longer-ranged cruisers served overseas. These were not mutually exclusive options: Germany had depended on multi-role cruisers before the Great War, and now most naval leaders agreed that separate types of ships would be desirable.

Most of the proposals for a fleet cruiser derived from the Cöln class. Several cut down the cruiser’s size (since she no longer needed the range to operate as a colonial cruiser or high seas raider) and increased her speed to 32 knots, while one enlarged the ship to accommodate a much larger power plant and give her 32 knots while retaining the main armament of eight 150mm guns.

A variant retained the hull of the large fleet cruiser (FK 4) but swapped her main armament for four of the 210mm SK L/45 rifles that armed the fast armored cruiser and had been carried by the doomed Blücher. Unlike the big armored cruisers, the fleet cruiser carried her guns in open, shielded mounts that lacked the protection and the gunnery direction of the bigger ships, but they did greatly out-range the weapons of British light cruisers.

Note: The Great War version of the fleet cruiser appears in Jutland 1919.

None of the fleet cruisers had even been laid down before the Great War ended, but the post-war building program included six of them. During the 1930’s they were modernized along the same lines as the Cöln class, with new oil-fired boilers while their big guns were modified so they could fire at higher angles, thus increasing their already-impressive range.

The New Cruisers

In the late 1920’s Germany began retiring her older classes of war-built cruisers, and returned to the concept of a multi-purpose ship to fill the light cruiser role. The eight ships of the Arcona class each carried eight 150mm guns, in four dual gunhouses, along with eight torpedo tubes.

Very similar to light cruisers of other nations, the Arcona class could make 34 knots, but carried very little armor protection. They displaced 8,000 tons, little more than Frauenlob and less than the former fleet cruisers, but their relatively low cost recommended them to the German Admiralty in the tight budgetary years of the economic recession known as the Great Depression. Of limited military value, they performed their peacetime duties admirably and inexpensively.

Note: The Arcona class is a rationalized version of Nazi Germany’s M class, with the insane speed demands dialed back. Britain, France and Italy all built similar cruisers during the same period.

For the next class of light cruisers, the German Admiralty chose a larger ship modeled on the Blücher class heavy cruisers, enlarged to 10,000 tons’ displacement to accommodate an updated version of the quadruple 150mm turret fitted to the big Ariadne-class armored cruisers.

The Breslau class maintained the high speed of the previous class, but their larger size allowed them to operate helicopters, though they did not have a true hangar, only stowage under the landing pad. They proved much more suitable for multiple roles than the preceding class.

For the last class built before the outbreak of the Second Great War, the High Seas Fleet went with a much smaller ship, capable of much higher speeds. The Danzig class only displaced just under 6,000 tons, less than the Great War-era light cruisers, and carried no meaningful armor protection. But they had new-model turbines and could make 38 knots.

Maximized for surface combat, they carried six 150mm guns and a dozen torpedo tubes. They were intended to counter the large, ultra-fast French destroyers of the Mogador class and serve with the battle fleet rather than on foreign stations.

Note: Several nations built small, fast cruisers of this type, and others designed them but left them on the drawing board. Nazi Germany did not have a design like this, filling the role with a bloated destroyer instead, but it does match a common theme in naval construction during the late 1930’s.

And those are the German light cruisers of The Cruel Sea.

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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.