The Habsburg Fleet:
The Royal Hellenic Navy
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
There are few innocent victims in the world of Wilson’s Peace, as seen in our Second Great War series of alternative history supplements for Second World War at Sea like The Habsburg Fleet and The Kaiser’s Navy. Most of the smaller powers that become involved in the war – Belgium, Serbia, Romania, Montenegro – do so through their eagerness to despoil their larger neighbors of resources and territory.
Not so with Greece. Caught between two rival armed blocs, the Greeks bumble haplessly into the war when Winston Churchill orders an unprovoked air attack on the small Greek fleet in response to unfounded rumors that the Greeks might soon join the Central Powers. That only comes after the Austrians seize Corfu and the Turks land on Crete, provoking large-scale clashes in Greek waters as well as the fighting on the supposedly neutral islands.
The centerpiece of the Greek fleet is the dreadnought Salamis. Ordered from the German shipyard as an armored coast-defense ship, the Greeks steadily recast her design to increase her size and firepower until she became a full-fledged dreadnought by the time she was laid down at AG Vulkan in Hamburg in the summer of 1913.
Vulkan launched Salamis on 11 November 1914, but work on the ship stopped on the last day of that year as Germany finally began to mobilize her industrial resources for the Great War. The British purchased her 14-inch American-made main armament before it could be delivered to Vulkan and used the guns in their own monitors. The High Seas Fleet considered completing her with the 13.8-inch guns intended for their own Mackensen-class battle cruisers, but ultimately decided that she would not be worth the required effort.
After the war, Salamis lay incomplete at Vulkan while the shipbuilder insisted that the Greeks fulfill their contract and either pay to complete the battleship or pay off the penalty clauses and let the incomplete hull be scrapped. After over a decade of legal conflict, the Greeks agreed to complete the work and also pay to have the ship substantially modernized.
Note: The Greeks did refuse to accept Salamis after the war, and not until April 1932 did an arbitrator finally award Vulkan its penalty fees, along with possession of the hull. The shipbuilder eventually scrapped the incomplete battleship.
As finally delivered to the Royal Hellenic Navy in 1936, Salamis carries eight British-made 14-inch guns as her main armament. Her secondary weaponry follows typical German practice: separate batteries to engage surface targets (eight 150mm/5.9-inch guns in four dual turrets) and aircraft (eight 105mm high-angle guns in dual mounts, plus a smattering of light weapons). She has been completed with oil-fired machinery, her coal-burning plant never having been fitted.
Despite her recent completion date, Salamis shows the age of her original design and is not nearly as capable as most other battleships found in the Mediterranean. But she serves as the fleet’s proud flagship, showing the flag throughout the Greek archipelago and in foreign ports. And as Greece’s lone battleship, she also draws inordinate attention from potential enemies.
Greece’s other major warship is the Italian-built armored cruiser Averoff. Originally laid down for the Royal Italian Navy but cancelled during a round of budget cuts, she was purchased through the legacy of a Greek millionaire who wanted his fortune to go to strengthening the nation’s navy. Rebuilt in a French shipyard during the 1920’s, she is no match for modern heavy cruisers but also helps add to Greek prestige.
Note: Averoff is found in Bomb Alley.
Greece also has a trio of cruisers, one old and two new. Helle, purchased in 1914 from an American yard after her original Chinese owners defaulted on their payments, is a small and very slow ship rebuilt in a French yard as a cruiser-minelayer. Two modern cruisers, Ambrakia and Aktion, are near-sisters of the British Arethusa class, purchased from a British shipyard. The British design team attempted to create the “smallest possible useful cruiser,” and only really succeeded in the “smallest” part. In Greek practice they serve to lead the fleet’s two destroyer flotillas.
Note: Helle appears in Bomb Alley. The two modern cruisers are the ships the Greeks hoped to buy during the 1930’s, but the deal ran afoul of a quixotic British campaign to place limits on worldwide cruiser construction (Turkey also failed to complete a competing cruiser purchase for the same reason).
Greece screens her small battle fleet with an octet of modern destroyers. Four of them, near-sisters of the Freccia class, were purchased in Italy during the early 1930’s. The other four, modified versions of the British G class, were built at Yarrow in the late 1930’s. All are very capable, modern vessels. Rounding out the Greek naval order of battle are eight much older destroyers pre-dating the First Great War but still in service on escort duties.
Note: Six of the modern destroyers appear in Bomb Alley; The Habsburg Fleet adds the final pair of G-class boats the Greeks hoped to buy.
During the Second Great War, the Greek fleet found itself first humiliated by the Austrians when it did not challenge their occupation of Corfu, and then simply ignored during the Turkish invasion of Crete and the subsequent British, French and Italian counter-invasions. Greece did not formally enter the war until Winston Churchill ordered an unprovoked air strike on the major Greek ships them sheltering at Salonika. As the events of The Habsburg Fleet come to an end, the Greeks have joined the Central Powers and new operations appear imminent.
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.