The Cruel Sea:
Russian Helicopter Carriers

For our Second Great War alternative-history setting, I wanted to make things a little different than the history we know, in terms of technology as well as power politics. I didn’t want to make things too weird either, to veer too much into Verne-style fantasy, but I wanted the games to play differently than the main line of historical Second World War at Sea games.

And so in the world of Wilson’s Peace, where the Great War ended at the close of 1916 and the great empires survived for another generation, lighter-than-air and rotary flight have had proportionately more development than they saw in our own reality. The airship and the helicopter are important weapons of war, and the Russian Empire has taken a decided lead in helicopter technology, doctrine and deployment.

Our massive Second Great War expansion set, The Cruel Sea, includes the fleets of Imperial Germany, Republican France and Imperial Russia as they wage war in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans in the opening months of the Second Great War. The Germans depend heavily on their airships, but also have a pair of aircraft carriers (one of them an old vessel relegated mostly to training duties) and five helicopter carriers.

The German helicopter-capable vessels would probably be better described as “helicopter support ships,” with a long open deck aft for helicopter operations and a conventional cruiser superstructure forward. Russian naval architects have provided a true helicopter carrier, a large through-deck vessel with a large island.

The Shershen (“Hornet”) class is a large vessel, about 18,000 tons’ displacement and 200 meters long. The ship’s primary purpose is to provide helicopter support for anti-submarine, minesweeping and amphibious assault operations. They’re relatively fast ships, capable of 25 knots, but not well-protected.

Imperial Russia, of course, went out of business in 1917 and designed no such ship. For Second Great War at Sea games, we’ve stuck where possible to ships that actually existed, or were designed but never actually built. In some cases it’s necessary to extrapolate what sort of ships might have been built.

Shershen is based, conceptually, on the French PH-75 design for a helicopter carrier sketched around 1970, when helicopters were finally seen as essential to blue-water power projection and began to receive their own purpose-built carriers and support vessels to replace converted World War Two-era aircraft carriers. The drawing is closer to the PH-75’s descendant, the Mistral class, since Mistral more closely resembles a ship of the World War II era: the PH-75 has a very large overhang, inspired by the supercarrier designs of the 1960’s, and obvious deck-edge elevators. Mistral has deck-edge elevators as well, but a boxy design more in keeping with an earlier age.

The current, actual Russian Navy attempted to purchase two Mistral-class ships, but the French government voided the sale back following Russian aggression in Crimea, back in the days when Russian interference in other sovereign states was held to be a bad thing. Vlad will never know it, but giving the Russians their pair of Mistrals here is a tiny secret taunt.

Like PH-75, Shershen is a “pure” helicopter carrier rather than a dual-purpose assault ship (a modern “gator freighter” in American parlance). Unlike Mistral, she has no floodable well deck to operate landing craft as well as helicopters; the Japanese landing ship Shinshu Maru pioneered the concept in the mid-1930’s. She can spot six helicopters at once (PH-75 could spot eight, thanks to the overhang) and in keeping with 1930’s carrier design practice her elevators are sited along the center line (the more efficient deck-edge elevator only appeared in the 1940’s on American and British aircraft carriers). Her flight deck is long enough to operate fixed-wing aircraft, at least in theory, but she is not fitted with arrestor wires or catapults. She would need a major refit and substantial training for her crew to become a “real” aircraft carrier.

A model of the never-built French PH75.

PH-75 would have been nuclear powered, although the earliest design studies incorporated a more conventional power plant. Shershen relies on oil-fired boilers and turbines, like other new warships of the 1930’s. Like aircraft carriers of the period (the actual period), Shershen carries her dual-purpose gunnery armament on her island and immediately aft of it rather than the 1960’s-style sponsons mounted on PH-75.

Shershen fills the same dual role intended for PH-75: anti-submarine operations in support of the fleet, and power projection through heli-borne troop landings. As an anti-submarine platform, she carries an air group of 25 Mil-1 helicopters and can keep all of them in the air, providing a formidable umbrella of protection. The helicopters are far less capable in the reconnaissance role than fixed-wing aircraft, and have no strike capability (the helicopter-launched missile remains some years in the future).

As an amphibious assault ship, like PH-75 she can accommodate 1,000 fully-armed infantry in her berthing spaces, and another 500 on the hangar deck if the helicopters are moved to the flight deck. She carries sixteen of the bigger Mil-4 transport helos in the power projection role (the helicopter numbers are those of PH-75). The Imperial Russian Navy is a leader in amphibious warfare techniques, a tradition traced back to the First Great War (the Russian Black Sea Fleet was the first to design and deploy dedicated landing craft with a bow ramp – this is a thing that really happened).

Mistral seen soon after her 2004 launch.

Our Second Great War setting brings the First World War to an end at the height of submarine successes, yet before fixed-wing aircraft have begun to have a major impact on operations. The helicopter would have been seen as an obvious counter-measure against submarines – they are, even today, more effective in this role than fixed-wing planes – yet with their relatively short legs they would have needed platforms at sea to keep them operating. Most large Russian (and German) warships carry a helicopter instead of a floatplane, but even so the need for a large, dedicated ship that could perform heavy maintenance while at sea and put many helicopters into the air at once would have been a major priority.

Shershen therefore is a “fantasy ship,” but one based on real-world analogs in both design and mission: as a pioneer in both helicopter technology and amphibious warfare, the Russian Navy would no doubt have tried to meld the two. Her flexibility makes her a very useful vessel, and she and her sister see a great deal of action in The Cruel Sea.

You can order The Cruel Sea right here, right now.

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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.