The Cruel Sea:
There’s a creative process in the world of role-playing game design known as “world building,” that’s probably the most fun of all (well, for me anyway; I do miss RPG design and often dream of chucking wargames and returning to it full-time). It’s pretty much what it sounds like: creating the world within which your adventures take place, through text, illustrations, maps and charts.
The Second Great War alternative-history story arc is my attempt to indulge in some world-building while still making wargames. So far, the players seem to like having a coherent background story for their new battleships to fight in. And I’ve definitely enjoyed crafting the world of the Second Great War, which is pretty much like our own world, except there are zeppelins and no Nazis. I hate those guys.
Even imaginary fleets need more than battleships and aircraft carriers to operate successfully. The Imperial Russian Navy of the Second Great War is no exception, with a full array of un-glamorous vessels to support its wide variety of missions. The Cruel Sea has lots of battleships and cruisers for the Imperial Arctic Fleet, but also the all-important support craft. Let’s have a look at them.
The Russo-Japanese War taught the Imperial Navy the vital importance of mine warfare, both offensively (laying mines in enemy waters) and defensively (laying them to protect one’s own bases), and the need to detect and remove them safely and efficiently. Yet at the beginning of the Great War, the Baltic Fleet lacked specialized minelayers and had to hurriedly fit minelaying rails on its armored cruisers to make up for the shortfall. Meanwhile thousands of men trained in mine-related specialties idly waited in mine warfare schools and depots to serve aboard ships that did not yet exist, becoming restless and eventually a central point for Bolshevik agitation.
Our Second Great War Russian Navy hasn’t repeated these mistakes. The Baltic Fleet faces thick minefields laid by the Central Powers across the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, and the fleet’s most important early task is to break through this barrier. The requires huge flotillas of lowly minesweepers manned by brave men, as they are sure to be a target of enemy airships, surface ships, submarines and coastal defense artillery, and they have little chance of surviving enemy fire. The Russians also need to be able to lay minefields of their own to protect the channels cleared at the cost of ships and lives.
Russian cruisers and destroyers are fitted to lay mines, but the Imperial Navy has also built a large class of specialized, purpose-built minelayers. The Ilmen class are single-purpose ships, built to lay mines and little else. They displace just under 6,000 tons and have an enormous capacity for mines (800 of them). They carry no armor, there being little point to it when they have eight hundred mines aboard, with a defensive armament of a half-dozen 120mm guns and some light anti-aircraft weapons.
The Ilmen class are part of the fleet’s defensive strategy; they can make at best 21 knots, and are not suited for penetration of enemy waters. Instead their role is to toss hundreds of mines overboard in a very short time, and at this they excel. Unless someone shoots at them. Offensive minelaying is a job for submarines, cruisers or destroyers.
Ugly, but competent, the Iskra-class minesweeper.
Even more important in Russian mine warfare strategy is the Iskra (“Spark”) class minesweeper, a rugged little boat coming in at just over 800 tons. She’s slow, making just 18 knots, and lightly armed, with just a handful of light automatic weapons to scare away enemy planes. Her job is to hunt and destroy mines, not to act as an escort or multi-purpose warships, though she can also lay mines with minimal modifications. And Iskra is very good at her job, requiring a relatively small crew making her cheap to operate and simple construction making her cheap to build. And so the Imperial Navy built her in huge numbers, with over 100 boats in service at the outbreak of war in August 1940 and 200 more immediately ordered in the War Emergency Program.
Russian mine-hunting is also supplemented by the large number of helicopters embarked aboard Russian warships, on purpose-built helicopter carriers and assault ships, and in the large shore establishment. Helicopter crews are trained to spot minefields, and their craft are equipped with sleds to help explode them.
Like their French allies and German rivals, the Russian Navy balked at the soaring costs of new fleet destroyers and sought a cheaper alternative suitable for low-intensity missions. A small class of “coastal destroyers” laid down for the Arctic Fleet in 1932 turned out to be ill-suited to Northern conditions, unable to operate in some of the severe weather conditions to be expected in the region. They turned out to be only slightly less expensive than full-sized destroyers, and considerably less capable. But they had been authorized as “torpedo boats” at a time when the Duma and Tsar both balked at the expense of replacing the aging Novik-type destroyers, and so they were seen as, just barely, better than nothing.
The Russian coastal destroyers displaced 800 tons, and carried a main armament of two 102mm guns plus four 21-inch torpedo tubes. They could make 32 knots, and in practice labored to do that. During wartime they proved of little use even in escorting coastal convoys, and after the war’s first winter they would all be transferred to the Baltic Fleet by way of the White Sea-Baltic Canal.
Russia’s Arctic Fleet would be expected to conduct operations deep in enemy waters, to threaten German commerce and possibly the German bases in the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Unlike the French or Germans, the Russians failed to build a class of fast replenishment ships, and this would hamper Russian operations south of Iceland. The Arctic Fleet does have two purpose-built oilers; both are rather slow ships unsuited to accompany a fast task force. The Baltic Fleet, operating very close to its bases, includes no oilers at all.
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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.