The Cruel Sea:
It’s the battleships that get the attention in the alternative-history High Seas Fleet of our Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea. We keep calling it a “battleship war,” and that indeed is the emphasis of game play: we give the people what they want. But the merchant shipping that fuels the war machines can’t cross hostile seas without escorts.
Imperial Germany receives 83 fleet destroyers in The Cruel Sea. Some of these boats are deployed on convoy duty, but most of them are needed with the battle fleet based in Wilhelmshaven and the powerful North Atlantic and Arctic Squadrons, based at Reykjavik and Spitzbergen respectively. The hard work of protecting the convoys and patrolling the sea lanes falls to the veterans of the First Great War.
The submarine menace in our own reality, as in that of the Second Great War, forced most navies to keep at least some of their older destroyers in service as potential convoy escorts. A few saw action as fleet destroyers, but most were modified for anti-submarine duty, often losing some of their boilers to accommodate more crew to serve their new undersea detection and weapons systems.
Yes, they were small. SMS V44 looses a torpedo during the Battle of Jutland.
The German Type 1913 Torpedo Boat formed the bulk of High Seas Fleet’s torpedo flotillas during the latter part of the Great War (including the Battle of Jutland). Though larger than previous German boats, it still lagged behind contemporary British destroyers in size, displacing about 800 tons (varying depending on sub-class) against about 1,000 tons (again, varying depending on sub-class) for the British Admiralty standard design.
The first boat, named V25, commissioned in the summer of 1914. V25 carried three 88mm guns, the standard weapon for German torpedo boats, and six torpedo tubes in two dual mounts on the centerline, and one single mount on either side of the bridge. The S49 group, which started commissioning a year later, had three 105mm guns instead of the 88mm pieces and a greater capacity for fuel oil. The 23 survivors (V25 herself had been lost to a mine) soon received matching upgrades.
Both types appear in Great War at Sea: Jutland with their own pieces; the V25-class boats represent the first two dozen without the upgrades, while the S-49 class pieces represent both the 46 boats built to the new standard and upgraded units of the V25 class. Most of those that survived the war were scuttled by their crews afterwards. One served the French Navy until 1933 and one under Italian colors until 1939.
Overhead view of torpedo boat V47.
In the alternative history of The Cruel Sea, most of these boats would have been scrapped by the outbreak of the Second Great War in 1940. Unlike the class that followed, the Type 1913 saw heavy use during the Great War and many boats needed major repairs for both storm and battle damage during the course of the conflict as well as experiencing heavy wear. About one third of them still survive, re-conditioned, re-equipped and modernized to serve as anti-submarine escorts. They’ve lost some of their speed due to age and the loss of one of their three boilers, and four of their torpedo tubes have given way to a quartet of depth-charge racks. They retain their main armament and their ability to lay mines, and can drop additional depth charges off the same rails.
Far more useful are the larger Type 1918Mob (“Mobilization”) Torpedo Boats, known as the V170 class. The new boat displaced 1,500 tons, similar to the newest British fleet destroyers. The Type 1918Mob would carry four 105mm guns and six torpedo tubes in the same arrangement as the Type 1913 boat. She was also to be fitted to carry and lay forty mines, a substantial increase over the earlier models.
The bigger hull gave the Type 1918Mob a steadier gun platform for the heavier artillery, and much better seakeeping in the rough waters of the North Sea. German torpedo boats had improved as high-seas warships since the earliest classes, but even the more recent versions still wallowed in heavier seas to a much greater extent than their British counterparts. The Type 1918Mob was intended to give the High Seas Fleet a destroyer that could match British performance, allowing the battle fleet to remain at sea in the same conditions as the enemy.
The new torpedo boat was the first German warship with geared turbines; she had half again the power output of the previous types – 38,000 horsepower compared to 26,000 - and therefore considerably more speed (35 knots, compared to 32 knots for earlier torpedo boats). By comparison the new light cruisers Brummer and Bremse, also equipped with geared turbines, developed 42,000 horsepower on a displacement four times that of the new torpedo boat, but only made 28 knots. The geared turbines gave the new torpedo boats much greater range than the earlier vessels, allowing them to steam much more economically at cruising speed.
Torpedo boat V82, after scuttling at Scapa Flow in June 1919.
The new, larger boats would likely have been less maneuverable than the smaller types the Germans had favored; battle experience showed that this feature did not matter so much in fleet actions. The new torpedo boat also had a much larger crew than the old, 117 men for the Type 1918Mob compared to 85 for the Type 1913.
The Imperial Navy ordered 32 of the torpedo boats in 1918, intending them to replace the Type 1913 as the standard fleet destroyer. Another 21 were subsequently authorized, but only 30 of the 53 began construction and none were completed as warships (four would be finished as merchant ships, an unsuccessful conversion).
The Cruel Sea includes 23 of the boats (on the square pieces shown) – in the world of the Second Great War, these would have been laid down and completed after the end of the First Great War as part of the same jobs/stimulus spending that saw the completion of the huge planned battleships and battle cruisers. Unlike the older torpedo boats, these remain capable surface combatants. Their torpedo armament has been reduced, and they have little anti-aircraft capability, so they’re no replacement for the first-line destroyers of the High Seas Fleet. But they still have excellent speed and can perform escort missions and operate with the fleet’s coast-defense squadron in the Baltic 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. Leopold fears ocean waves.