The Kaiser's World,
By Jim Stear
Second World War at Sea: The Kaiser’s Navy starts a series of alternative-history games and supplements based on the premise that the First World War ended in late 1916 with a negotiated peace. Developer Jim Stear continues the premise of this Second Great War. You can read Part One here.
So it is Fall 1940, and once again, the lamps are going out all over Europe. Germany and Austria, supporting Poland and the Baltic States, are locked in combat with Russia, France and Italy. In late September, Peter II of Serbia (son of the ambitious Alexander) senses victory, and launches his troops into the Hungarian plain. Unfortunately, lacking armor and modern aircraft, they are checked at the Drave River by mid-October. Both sides settle in for a stalemate, as the Austrians have their attention elsewhere. Serbian attempts to move against the ports of Dalmatia are likewise held in check. Courage is found insufficient to overcome determined defenders backed by well-placed machine guns and artillery. In the west, the Austrian Littoral is soon invested by Italian troops, and the once-proud city of Trieste is surrounded and slowly battered to ruins. Pola continues to hold out at the southern end of Istria.
Along the Polish front, the Germans and Austrians continue to give ground as far as the Vistula, while a Russian spearhead north cleanly separates Lithuania from Prussia, and ends with Köngisberg surrounded and under siege. Only the Kaiserliche Marine, threatening Tsar Alexei’s Baltic Fleet, is able to keep the lines of communication open to the beleaguered city.
In the West, towards the end of October 1940 the French Army stands astride much of the Niederrhein and Oberrhein portions of Germany, and are across the Rhine near the Ruhr and Lippe rivers. The Imperial Army has suffered defeat after defeat, but nevertheless manages a fighting withdrawal in the face of French attacks. The first major repulse for the Armée de Terre occurs at Wiesbaden, where German artillery plus the aircraft of the Luftstreitkräfte deliver a massive poison gas attack against the French, using the nerve agent Tabun. Collateral damage against the surrounding civilian population is quite high, as both the Germans and French discover the poison is not quick to dissipate. Across the North Sea and across the Atlantic, both the U.S. and British governments are horrified by the images flashed around the world depicting the return of gas warfare, and stern warnings are issued to both sides regarding their use. Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain for a few more weeks before his death in November, delivers a somber rebuke in the House of Commons, while Winston Churchill and old David Lloyd George rage against Hun atrocities. Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States, delivers a dire radio address echoing the concerns of his distant cousin Theodore regarding German motives, signifying a cooling in the previously cordial relationship between the United States and Imperial Germany. Old Wilhelm, beset once again by war and now confronted by veiled threats of intervention by powerful neutrals, orders his generals to set aside weapons of mass destruction for now. The Reich has enough enemies at the moment. And besides, the French will be quick to return the favor.
Unfortunately, British concerns run deeper than thousands of dead or maimed civilians due to the use Tabun outside Wiesbaden and in surrounding communities. Since the first weeks of the war, German ships have been running down the Channel to strike at France, and the use of mines by both sides in areas frequented by British merchants is growing well past the annoying. Warnings sent from London to both Paris and Berlin make clear the British will not tolerate irresponsible behavior in the sea lanes.
In the North Atlantic, French battle cruisers make forays to interdict German shipping, while the submarines of the Marine Nationale keep a watchful eye out for the warships of the Kaiserliche Marine. A very different Battle of the Atlantic is shaping up by November, as the Imperial Navy attempts to hunt down French raiders and sous-marine, while the naval forces of the Third Republic seek to disrupt enemy commerce. The French initially enjoy success, hunting down groups of merchants with powerful ships such as Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and intercepting lone merchants with the submarine-cruisers of the Surcouf-class, however the ships of the Kaiser’s Navy, aided by the long-range Zeppelinträger of the Marine Luftschiff Abteilung, prove capable of chasing down these raiders and either taking them to task or forcing them back to safe havens. The occasional encounter with an aging Great War-vintage dreadnought on escort duty is often enough to give pause to any French ship attempting to engage in guerre de course. Through firm persuasion (backed up by close proximity), the German government is able to secure limited basing rights in Iceland from Denmark, and an occasional visit by one of His Imperial German Majesty’s warships to a Spanish port is not an uncommon occurrence.
December 1940 finds the onset of poor weather across the continent, and a pause in the rapid maneuvers of the fall. The Russian advance has subsumed much of Poland, cut into East Prussia and isolated Konigsberg, and driven the Austrians back into Slovakia. French forces stand astride the west bank of the Rhine, controlling the key areas of the Ruhr and Saar in Germany. Aircraft from both sides continue harassing attacks across the front lines, honing their skills in this new and deadly form of warfare.
At sea, Darlan makes a notable effort to disrupt the flow of German trade, by sending the modern battleship Richelieu to make war in the Atlantic Initially successful, she is eventually driven back badly damaged to the Biscay ports, hounded by the ships, submarines and aircraft of the Imperial German Navy. Mindful of the eyes of the United States being turned upon this conflict, that scrupulous defender of neutrals’ rights (or at least, of unbridled commerce), the French are extremely cautious when it comes to commerce warfare, and with rare exception attend to the letter of the prize rules that date back to the last century. Britain continues to keep a close eye on the continental situation, with war on her doorstep. With the death of Neville Chamberlain, Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, Viscount Halifax, is after some maneuvering named Prime Minister, his peerage but a small obstacle given the support of many in the government including King George VI.
With the coming of Spring 1941, the land forces of the grappling powers gear up for new offensives. Both Germany and the Dual Monarchy have weathered a severe trial at the hands of the Entente, however the Russians, French and Italians have not fought without loss. While Tsar Alexei has come quite close to achieving Imperial Russian dominance over territories shorn from his father’s empire some 25 years prior, disappointment reigns in the government circles of the Third Republic and in the regime of Il Duce. Both regimes promised a short victorious war, with spoils collected from the traditional enemies. Gains have been made, yes, but the Central Powers show no signs of throwing in the towel. And while the armies of the Central Powers may lack in terms of current equipment and methods, they are not slow learners, and given time, may yet be able to expel the invaders. Military thinkers like Rauss, Guderian and Maczek are now being taken more seriously, and the lessons of the previous fall are digested while reinforcements are brought to the fronts.
At sea, the Mediterranean remains a contested body, with the Austrians largely on the defensive against the French and Italians. The Baltic Squadron of Tsar Alexei’s fleet receives some rough handling from his elder cousin’s navy, although night engagements by small craft off the coast of Prussia are not uncommon. On the high seas of the Atlantic and other oceans, the Kaiser’s Navy is making its presence felt against Entente forces, slowly but surely clearing the commerce lanes.
While the young Tsar’s forces gear up for further operations in Germany, the age-old problem of clear lines of communication to her continental allies once again comes to the fore. With troops to spare, the Russian general staff believes the time has come to open the Bosporus and gain access to the Inland Sea. King Carol II, fascinated by the possibilities of building the Greater Romania envisioned by his grandfather at the expense of Austria-Hungary, readily throws in with the Russians and agrees to support a combined naval and overland strike towards Constantinople. However unlike the initial successes of the previous campaign against Poland, the operation quickly bogs down in the face of stiff opposition. Bulgaria and Turkey resist stoutly, together with allied contingents from Germany and the Dual Monarchy. Several sharp engagements take place in and over the Black Sea, as the Russian fleet and air force support the move south in the face of opposition from the Ottoman navy and air force together with an Imperial and Royal Navy squadron and the cruisers Goeben and Breslau. By the end of April, it is clear that the Golden Horn will not become the property of the Tsar any time soon, although fierce fighting will continue to dominate this front through the rest of 1941. The war has widened further, adding the Turks and Bulgarians to the Central Powers and Romania to the Entente.
French breakout attempts during February likewise do not yield large territorial gains into the heart of Germany. Defensive strategies put in place by leaders such as Erwin Rommel foil French attempts to make further inroads across the Rhine. However the close proximity of so many communities to the front and the long reach of air power ensure that devastation is visited throughout the Rhine valley on a scale equaling and in some cases surpassing that of the Great War.
Italian pre-war plans called for seizure of the far side of the Strait of Otranto, in an effort to bottle up the Adriatic and hopefully trap or eliminate the Austrian fleet. Without being able to decisively defeat Kaiser Karl’s navy, amphibious operations remain doubtful, and even the reckless Il Duce is not willing to drop his precious paratroops across the sea with no hope of conventional reinforcement. Still, losses mount on both sides, as close proximity of the two hostile camps to each other make life for the capital ships difficult, especially as proficiency with aerial operations grows.
Far more serious events for the Central Powers are taking place across the North Sea. Through the winter, leaders such as Winston Churchill and Roger Keyes have harangued the government over German “atrocities,” German naval movements off the coast, German interference with commerce on the high seas, and now the latest, violations of neutral Holland’s airspace by aircraft of the Luftstreitkräfte as they seek to strike at French supply points in Belgium. The fact that in this new conflict the Entente is the aggressor is a quiet fact in the background and 20 years of pent-up hostility among many members of the British government helps keep it there. Viscount Halifax has no desire to bring Britain into the war, but he is too weak to stop the drumbeat being sounded by Churchill and Lloyd George.
Goaded by the more militant members of the cabinet, with the King’s approval the British government issues ultimatums to both France and Germany, calling for demilitarization of the Channel and respect for neutrals’ territory. This is quickly accepted by the government of de La Rocque and Doriot, as it essentially means nothing to France, and will in fact secure her northern coastline against the battering it has been taking from the Germans. It also will secure the French armies in the Rhineland against any outflanking moves by the enemy through Holland. Old Wilhelm vacillates, as on the one hand Britain appears poised to enter the conflict, yet on the other, to accept it hobbles the Imperial forces greatly while doing little to the Entente. Time runs out as the Reich government argues internally over an answer, and as of midnight April 4 1941, Germany and Great Britain are once again at war.
The entry of Britain into the conflict immediately alters the situation in the Atlantic. Whereas the Kaiser’s Navy had much success in checking the French raids against commerce, the Royal Navy will prove a much deadlier foe. Over the next few months, furious actions take place within the North Sea, while repeated games of cat and mouse are played out across the Atlantic. And in the Mediterranean, the entry of the British into the conflict will provide welcome support to the Marine Nationale and Regia Marina, both battered after continuous conflict with the Austrians and their German allies.
So ends our second chapter of the Second Great War at Sea, with two great alliances once more fully engaged. The Entente, consisting of Russia, France, Italy and now Great Britain, along with the smaller allies of Belgium, Serbia and Romania, continues to drive against the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, along with the smaller states of Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia and Estonia. The United States still stands aside and eyes the Far East, where another nation is beginning to proceed down the path of aggressive nationalism. Over the next few months, two of the mightiest naval powers on the planet will struggle for control of the North Sea and Atlantic.
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