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The Cruel Sea:
The Story

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2017

Our Second Great War setting takes place in a world that never was, fighting a war that never happened. But it all could have happened, had Woodrow Wilson managed to pull together the negotiated end to the First Great War in late 1916 that most participants wanted.

After releasing three books set in that background, we decided to re-boot the background to give it a coherent story. That effort started with The Second Great War, the background book that serves as the setting’s “bible.” That’s the way they do things in Hollywood. Next step is a massive expansion set called The Cruel Sea, which provides playing pieces that can be used not only in its own scenarios but in many more books to come, so those don’t have to repeat the same pieces that have appeared elsewhere and can remain reasonably-sized. We don’t want you to have to buy six different books to play the scenarios in the next new thing.

Yet The Cruel Sea advances the story all on its own, with a set of 30 scenarios covering the first eight months of the Second Great War in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. You’ll need Bismarck and Arctic Convoy to play all of the scenarios, but really, if you’ve read this far you already have Bismarck and Arctic Convoy anyway.

The situation in The Cruel Sea opens with the first days of the Second Great War, as Imperial Russia opens an offensive against Poland, which is in turn supported by her German and Austrian allies. France, Italy, Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro join their Russian allies soon afterwards. That leads to a great deal of naval action.

Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet has a serious advantage in numbers over the combined French and Russian fleets, which face the additional handicap of not being combined. And the Germans have a central position, with bases on Spitzbergen above the Arctic Circle and on Iceland. Germany acquired the huge, frozen Svalbard Archipelago during the negotiations that forged Wilson’s Peace as a sop to Kaiser Wilhelm’s pride; not even the Germans saw much military or economic value in the islands at the time.

Denmark, a member of the Central Powers economic bloc but not the military alliance, leased bases to the Germans in 1938. By the time war began in August 1940, Reykjavik hosted a drydock, ammunition and fuel depots, fortified submarine pens and a large airship base. Spitzbergen had airship and submarine bases of its own, along with facilities to replenish and refuel surface ships but not a repair yard.

In the first months of the war, German objectives include first and foremost protection of commerce between Germany and its trading partners in the United States. Secondarily, the Germans are trying to disrupt communications between Russia’s Arctic ports and the rest of the world, and to interfere with French commerce with both the United States and her own colonial empire.

I don’t want our alternative-history titles to become simply the same as our historical games, just with different pieces. For The Cruel Sea, I made sure the craft the scenarios to take place over different stretches of the map than those of the base games (Bismarck and Arctic Convoy) or our Plan Z setting. There’s obviously some overlap, but with Spitzbergen in play (it’s a frozen wasteland in the other games; that’s also true here but it’s now a frozen wasteland with military bases) the dynamics of convoy defense on the Murmansk run are very different. British neutrality also greatly changes the battlefield, though all of the participants have to be careful not to offend the powerful neutral.

Since the French and Russian fleet commands have little ability to coordinate their operations, or wish to do so, the situation also allows a good number of three-player operational scenarios. The big German convoys coming from Boston are usually escorted by older battleships, reconditioned veterans of the First Great War (the König and Baden classes for the most part), while the French and Russians are deploying their modern fast battleships out of Brest and Murmansk in an effort to intercept and destroy them. The Germans have fast, modern battleships of their own, which they deploy to seek out these raiders. The Germans have airships to help them in this effort, but fixed-wing aircraft are not nearly as potent in this setting as they were in the 1940’s of our own world.

Yet at the same time, in a stark difference to the World War II situation, the French and to a lesser extent the Russians are also trying to move convoys over these contested seas. The Germans, in turn, wish to disrupt this traffic and have the seapower with which to do so, forcing their enemies to employ stealth and guile.

All of that’s possible in this setting, where airplanes lack the range to have much of an impact on reconnaissance functions. There is a lot of gray water on those maps, and a lot of room to hide even a slow-moving convoy. There are very few aircraft carriers present (just two for the Germans, and one of those is only suited for training duties); the French have floatplanes (shorter-ranged than those of our reality) but the Germans and Russians for the most part carry helicopters on their cruisers and battleships. Those have excellent anti-submarine capability, but are less useful for search.

I intentionally crafted the setting’s technological background that way, to set up more battleship action. Massed surface actions were exceedingly rare in the Second World War, but that’s not the case in the Second Great War. The battleship is the arbiter of naval power, and all three fleets are going to have to risk their battleships in action to achieve their objectives. And that yields what the players want, while keeping the story line intact.

By the spring of 1941, the Germans have begun to gain the upper hand in the Second Great War at Sea, at least in the North Atlantic and Arctic. They can import what they wish from the United States, including vitally-needed oil and grain, while French access to overseas suppliers has collapsed. And then in April the situation completely reverses itself, with the British entering the war on the side of the Allies. But that will be a story for another installment.

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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.