The Habsburg Fleet:
The Imperial German Navy

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2015

Imperial Germany collapsed in November 1918, with Kaiser Wilhelm II fleeing to the Netherlands where he lived in exile for the next 24 years. This is the history that we (well, some of us) know.

In our Second Great War alternative history, this did not happen: Germany reluctantly agreed to a negotiated peace at the end of 1916, brokered by American President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s Peace spared the lives of millions but set the stage for a new war a generation later as France, Russia and Italy sought to overturn the results of the First Great War. The three allies launched an unprovoked attack on Germany and Austria-Hungary, a war that soon drew Britain and Ottoman Turkey into the struggle as well as a host of smaller nations.

As in the First Great War, the High Seas Fleet begins the Second with most of its warships concentrated in Germany’s North Sea naval bases, and cruiser squadrons scattered around the globe protecting German colonies and commerce while showing the flag.

And then there’s the German Mediterranean Squadron, found in our book The Habsburg Fleet. Without a true home port, its presence is a political statement re-affirming German interests in the region. Usually comprising two cruisers, the squadron steamed across the Mediterranean during peacetime, making courtesy visits to various ports and exercising with the Austrian and Ottoman Turkish fleets.

The two ships are the most modern of their type in the German order of battle, chosen more for their symbolic names than their fighting power. Goeben is a heavy cruiser of the Lützow class, laid down in the mid-1930’s as “super cruisers” designed to overpower enemy heavy cruisers. They are half again as large as the standard British heavy cruiser, about 15,000 tons’ displacement, and carry a dozen 8.2-inch (210mm) guns as compared to the eight 8-inch guns of a Royal Navy ship. They do not have torpedoes, but in keeping with German design practice, they are very tough to sink.

There are naval limitations treaties in the world of Wilson’s Peace, negotiated in the wake of the Anglo-American Naval War of the early 1920’s, but they have some differences compared to the Washington Naval Limitations Treaty of our own history. The Lützow class is said to be within these restrictions, but the Germans have pushed the design parameters to and past the strict limits, knowing that their potential Russian enemies have done the same and that the British are unlikely to raise complaint given their desire to prevent the treaty system’s collapse. Goeben is easily the most powerful cruiser in the Mediterranean theater.

Note: Goeben also appears in the counter mix for The Kaiser’s Navy, though not in any scenarios (the sheet of pieces had been laid down before we decided not to include any Mediterranean scenarios). The class design is based on the actual Hipper class cruisers built by Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, which were very large and could easily have taken larger barbettes and turrets for a more powerful main armament.

Her consort, the light cruiser Breslau, by contrast is slightly smaller than many foreign light cruisers. The lead ship of her class, she’s fast but only armed with eight 5.9-inch (150mm) guns as her main battery though she does carry torpedoes as well. Intended as a long-range battle fleet scout, that role had already been taken over by aircraft-carrying zeppelins before Breslau was laid down.

Note: Breslau is based on the Nazi German M-class design for a long-range commerce raider and scout, with light armor protection and high speed. Like other German warship designs in both the Imperial and Nazi periods, she carried a weaker armament than her size might indicate. She probably could have carried triple rather than twin turrets for her 5.9-inch guns, and if I had it to do over again I would have designed her that way to mark a distinction between the ships of the Second Great War story arc and similar vessels of our upcoming The Long War story line.

Two airships round out the German contingent, and they are extremely valuable to the Central Powers cause. The Austrians and Turks lack many forward bases from which to conduct air searches, and the German airships can help bridge this gap. On the other hand, the Mediterranean is essentially a bathtub, and enemy fighters are in range of a good bit of sea. Despite their modern design, the big airships remain painfully vulnerable to fighter planes.

LZ141 Heinrich Mathy, named for the most successful zeppelin commander of the First Great War (successful up to a point, since he did not survive his last raid over London), is a large airship capable of carrying and servicing a half-dozen aircraft. These are usually modified Ju87 dive-bombers, with much greater range than their land- or carrier-based counterparts since they’re spared the weight of conventional landing gear.

LZ143 Johann Schütte, named for Ferdinand Graf Zeppelin’s great rival among early airship designers, is an even larger, more modern ship of the latest class of zeppelin aircraft carriers, capable of operating a dozen planes. She has enormous range, but like all airships is terrifically vulnerable to even the weakest enemy fighters.

Note: Aircraft-carrying zeppelins appeared in The Kaiser’s Navy, and they’re just too cool to leave out of The Habsburg Fleet. The U.S. Navy famously developed flying aircraft carriers and other nations conducted experiments, but these two big airships do represent some creative speculation on how technology might have developed in a world where airships remained viable military and commercial craft after the First Great War.

And that’s the smallest, but possibly the most active, contingent in The Habsburg Fleet, finishing up our look at the supplement’s ships and planes.

Click here to sail with The Habsburg Fleet.

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 enjoys barking.