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The Habsburg Fleet:
The Royal Italian Navy

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2014

With Jim Stear showing a fine way to do a naval-game alternative history story arc with The Kaiser’s Navy, I wanted to make The Habsburg Fleet a suitable companion volume, yet able to stand on its own as a story (if still one needing game parts from elsewhere). The book would re-use the pieces from the old, out-of-print Imperial & Royal Navy, since we have a lot of them in storage, but to tell the story I wanted it would need More Stuff.

Since I was now crafting a world instead of a handful of standalone scenarios, some of the navies the Habsburg fleet would fight either against or alongside needed to be fleshed out a little more than in Bomb Alley, the source of all ships and planes not included with the book. With an additional major fleet in the Mediterranean basin, the other powers concerned could not be expected to stand idle. So here’s a look at the enhanced capabilities of one of the Mediterranean powers in the world of Wilson’s Peace.

Italian naval construction has been fueled by the 1927 discovery of large oil deposits in Tripolitania. A powerful fleet is thought necessary to safeguard the tanker route between Tripoli and the home country, but most importantly it serves a symbol of the power and prestige of Fascist Italy.

Note: Italian officials noted the presence of natural gas in Libyan water wells as early as 1915, correctly concluding that petroleum might be found nearby. But the Italian colonial government did not begin widespread exploration until 1940, and oil would not be discovered until 1959, when six major fields were opened. The presence of oil in Libya serves as a handy deus ex machina to lift the Italian economy, give Mussolini the funds to build a powerful Navy, and make sure they have the fuel for steady operations.

All of the Navy’s dreadnoughts have been rebuilt, including the old Dante Alighieri and Leonardo da Vinci, sunk at her moorings in 1916 and later raised from the floor of Taranto’s harbor. Dante Alighieri - named for the rabidly nationalist political movement that took the poet’s name – is less capable than the other Italian battleships thanks to the layout of her main battery, with four turrets along the center line thus splitting her machinery spaces into three compartments separated by the armored barbettes of her to central gun turrets. The huge sets of turbines fitted to the other older Italian battleships therefore won’t fit, but Dante is still relatively fast but not that well protected. She’s usually relegated to second-line duties like shore bombardment and convoy escort. We’ll meet her on the latter mission during the Night of the Battleships.

Note: Dante Alighieri was stricken and scrapped in 1928 as a cost-saving measure. In the world of Wilson’s Peace the Great Depression is much less depressing, and Italy has the ability to maintain its prestige fleet.

Leonardo da Vinci, by contrast, is a sister ship of Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare, and eventually receives the same near-total reconstruction as the other two. Salvage began on Leonardo da Vinci soon after her sinking, with five years of hard work needed just to right the capsized battleship. With her turrets removed and funnels cut off to enable the salvage, she needed thorough rebuilding to re-enter service at all. Plans for her reconstruction became the model for the other Italian battleships, though she actually re-entered service after her sisters.

Note: The Italian Navy put tremendous effort into raising and righting the capsized Leonardo da Vinci, despite a strong desire by the government and port authorities to simply blow up the wreck and scrap her in place. But eventually the money ran out, and the ship was scrapped despite the effort expended to turn her right-side-up. The plans for her rebuilding indeed formed the basis for the eventual reconstruction of her sister ships.

The four battleships of the Francesco Caracciolo class, laid down in 1914 and 1915, were built in answer to the British Queen Elizabeth class – in answer to the capabilities of the British ships as exaggerated by British propaganda. That resulted in a very fast, very powerful ship somewhat lacking in protection but still very impressive for their day. Reconstructed in the 1930’s with improved armor and underwater protection, unlike other veterans of the Great War the Caracciolo class vessels are not far behind the capabilities of the new British and French fast battleships.

Note: Construction of the Caracciolo class did not, in our branch of reality, progress very far before it was halted during the Great War. Had they been completed, they would have been among the world’s most powerful battleships at the time and still very potent in 1940. In the world of Wilson’s Peace, they have been completed in the years after the Great War and modernized in the 1930’s.

With the four new ships of the Littorio class, that gives the Royal Italian Navy 15 battleships, eight of them very much front-line units. Mussolini has a powerful fleet and is going to expect results. And the battleships have lots of support.

There are also three new small fast battleships of the Francesco Ferruccio class, usually referred to as battle cruisers, intended for commerce raiding and to support the cruiser forces. They carry six of the same 15-inch guns that arm the Littorio class, with a high speed but not a whole lot of armor. They are very capable “cruiser killers” and can stand up to the old battle cruisers still maintained by some navies, but are no match for a real battleship.

Note: The 1928 battle cruiser design almost went forward in our reality, as some Italian admirals thought it better to get two 17,500-ton ships instead of one 35,000-ton battleship under naval treaty allotments (following the example of the French Dunkerque-class battle cruisers). The Great Depression made the point moot, and eventually the Italians built the Littorio class of very fine fast battleships instead. The battle cruiser design was heavily based on the Zara-class cruiser.

Four old pre-dreadnought battleships have been rebuilt as fairly modern armored cruisers, but are not as fast as new heavy cruisers and are better suited for second-line duties. We studied them in a previous Daily Content piece.

Pleased with the Zara class heavy cruisers, a well-balanced mix of speed, firepower and armor protection, the Royal Italian Navy ordered a second set of four. They’re identical to the first set, and like them bear the names of cities in other countries that ardent nationalists wish to add to Italy. Since three of the four cities are in France, this practice has created some minor diplomatic tensions.

Notes: The Italian Navy indeed wanted four more Zaras, but the money simply was not there in our reality. That of Wilson’s Peace is a little different on the economic front (no reparations to spark German fiscal insanity, for one thing), and the admirals can get their toys.

And that’s what’s added to the Royal Italian Navy’s order of battle from Bomb Alley. Following developer Jim Stear’s practice, every new ship is used in at least one scenario.

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 noble dog, Leopold. Leopold cites bank fraud as the root cause of the Great Depression.