Golden Journal No. 35:
It surprises me to realize that only with the 11th issue of our new-model, magazine-like Golden Journal do we finally have an issue centered on the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy. Golden Journal No. 35: Viribus Unitis comes with 20 new die-cut and silky-smooth playing pieces, just like the ones in the games. All of them feature Austrian battleships.
Like every other military service in any time and any nation, the Imperial and Royal Navy always considered itself under-funded. But its budget had exploded in the half-decade before the First World War, starting with the April 1909 decision to build a pair of dreadnoughts, each of them costing as much as the entire naval budget for the previous year (a budget itself artificially enlarged by completion costs for the Radetzky-class semi-dreadnoughts).
In London, some within the Admiralty viewed the program as “a concealed addition to the German fleet,” but First Lord Winston Churchill never accepted this view. Austria-Hungary built her wildly over-priced battleships for her own reasons; overseas trade and Austrian-owned shipping had expanded astronomically in the first decade of the new century, and a fleet seemed a necessary symbol of the Dual Monarchy’s expanding international role.
While the fleet had its uses, particularly for the politically-connected firms who gouged the Navy in its construction, there’s no way to argue that Austria-Hungary needed battleships more than it required reserve formations for the Army, a greater intake of eligible conscripts, or modern artillery. All of those were deferred to pay for the dreadnoughts. They probably would have made little difference in the campaigns of 1914 - given more divisions, commander in chief Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff would have found a way to destroy them just as he did those actually fielded - but that wasn’t known in 1910 when the first dreadnoughts were funded.
A few within the Army argued that the battleships should be sold off, and the funds applied to the needs of the land forces. The Navy successfully blocked that idea, but we have the variant pieces showing the ships in the colors of their new owners: the dreadnoughts in German livery, and the semi-dreadnoughts in the colors of Ottoman Turkey. And of course we have scenarios so you can play with them.
The rest of the set is given over to alternative designs for the three classes of modern Austrian battleships (the Radetzky-class semi-dreadnoughts, Viribus Unitis-class dreadnoughts and the never-completed Ersatz Monarch class super-dreadnoughts). Some of these appeared in the old Triple Alliance book, but on not-very-pleasing laser-cut pieces. Perhaps worse, they didn’t really fit the story I wanted to tell in that book.
We’re replacing Triple Alliance with a new book, called Secret Treaties, that uses only one design for each class. The Radetzky class is replaced by the “small dreadnought” design advocated by chief constructor Siegfried Popper. The Viribus Unitis and Ersatz Monarch classes carry on with their final designs as built and as approved, respectively. The new ships included in Secret Treaties are all used in the scenarios of the alternative-history story arc, reflecting a Mediterranean naval race involving Italy and France as well as Austria-Hungary.
Instead, we’ve put the alternative designs in the Journal. You get the Radetzky class re-designed as almost-dreadnoughts, with six 12-inch guns in four turrets (twin turrets fore and aft, with a single mount on either side). It’s not a very good fighting ship (which is why it wasn’t chosen) but it does count as a “dreadnought” for prestige purposes, and really, what else matters in the worlds of naval construction and wargame design?
You also get the projected fourth unit of the Radetzky class, in both configurations (semi-dreadnought and almost-dreadnought). Austro-Hungarian practice was to build battleship classes of three ships, with the fourth ship an armored cruiser equivalent. The Radetzky-equivalent armored cruiser was designed but never built; she shows up in the Wine-Dark Sea game, with a couple of sisters in Secret Treaties. Instead the funding went to the scout cruiser Admiral Spaun, built as a rather unsuccessful test-bed for turbine propulsion.
Viribus Unitis and her sisters carried a dozen 12-inch guns in four triple turrets. Popper, her designer, came to regret that arrangement and later decided that she carried too many guns. The weight of the towering barbettes for the two super-firing turrets affected the ship’s speed and stability, and Popper believed she would have been better off with a double turret (the mount used in the Radetzky class) in place of those two mounts. That would have reduced her armament to ten 12-inch guns, but produced a better fighting ship.
Great War at Sea was designed to be a rather simple game system, and so those factors don’t show up in game terms. Viribus Unitis suffers no game penalties for her heavy armament; she probably should, but I don’t like writing special rules for just one ship or class. We included replacement pieces for Popper’s revision in the Journal.
Popper did not design the Ersatz Monarch class, but his thinking influenced the layout which matched his revised Viribus Unitis: two turrets with three guns each, and two with two guns each. The new weapons would be the larger and much more powerful Skoda 350mm (13.8-inch) gun. The Navy’s technical committee did not like reducing the number of guns in their new battleship, and asked the designers whether she couldn’t be made faster in compensation.
She could, but only if the main armament reverted to the 12-inch rifles of Viribus Unitus. A new ship with lesser firepower than the old one was unacceptable, even if she was much faster (something the Austrians intended to keep classified). The approved design would feature bigger guns and the standard fleet speed (said to be 21 knots, actually 20.5).
We’re not limited by such considerations in the Golden Journal, and so you get the fast-battleship version. We included her in the old Triple Alliance, but I didn’t like where it took the story line (the Mediterranean Allies have no answer for a ship with dreadnought-scale armor and guns, with the speed of a battle cruiser). In Secret Treaties, the Austrians have to make do with their slower but more powerful battleships, and their proposed battle cruiser.
And of course we have scenarios where you can play with all of these ships, in The Wine-Dark Sea.
And that’s what we’ve got in our Golden Journal No. 35. It’s going to be fun.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published zillions of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his dog Leopold, who is a good dog.
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