The Kaiser's Ships, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Second World War at Sea: The Kaiser’s Navy is the first book in our Second Great War story line, looking at what might have happened had the First World War ended in a negotiated peace at the end of 1916. The High Seas Fleet has not been scuttled, and some of its ships have survived into the 1940’s in reconditioned form (much like those of other navies). And like other naval powers, the Germans have added new vessels.
When a new war erupts, the High Seas Fleet faces French and Russian enemies, eventually joined by Italy and Britain. With considerably more firepower than the fleet of Nazi Germany, the Imperial Navy is able to project its power much more effectively. The result is a tense naval war in the North Atlantic.
We looked at the battleships and cruisers of the 1940 High Seas Fleet in an earlier installment, and also at the Kaiser’s naval air force and also at his elite Naval Airship Division. Today we’ll examine the rest of the Imperial Navy’s surface forces.
Though classed as “battle cruisers,” the ships of this type retained by the High Seas Fleet after the First Great War are probably better described as “fast battleships.” They are very effective warships; though not usually as heavily-armed as their British counterparts they are very rugged and reliable instruments of war.
Still in service a quarter-century after commissioning, Derfflinger remains a front-line unit despite her relatively light main armament. She marked the switch in battle cruiser design theory from a heavily-armed armored cruiser to a fast battleship. She’s received oil-fired boilers in place of her original coal-burning power plant, allowing her to maintain her good speed. Her secondary armament has been removed from its casemates and replaced with turrets, allowing a better field of fire. Like the battleships, Derfflinger lacks the deck space to fit as many anti-aircraft guns as her designers wish. Her near-sister Hindenburg also remains in service and has been modernized along the same lines, but is detached on colonial duty.
Though laid down during the course of the war, the four ships of the Mackensen class would not be completed until after it had ended. Enlarged copies of Derfflinger, with a heavier main armament (13.8-inch rather than 12-inch guns), they shared Defflinger’s fine speed and handling characteristics. All four were modernized in the 1930’s in similar fashion to Derfflinger, with their secondary batteries replaced with turrets and a heavier anti-aircraft suite installed. Their boilers were converted to all burn oil (they were built with a mixed arrangement, one-third of the boilers using oil and the rest coal), torpedo tubes were removed and armor thickened over their magazines and machinery spaces. Three of the sisters serve with the High Seas Fleet; the fourth, Prinz Eitel Friedrich, is overseas.
Pleased with the Mackensen design, the Imperial Navy ordered three more soon after the first quartet had been laid down, but soon altered the design to accommodate 15-inch guns in place of the 13.8-inch weapons. Eager to keep the shipyards fully operating after peace came, and to avoid falling too far behind the Royal Navy in the post-war balance of power, the Imperial Navy laster ordered two more of the very effective ships.
Note: When I did the first rough cut on the design, I intended BC10 and BC11 to be Imperial equivalents of the projected Nazi O-class battle cruisers, and even crafted a very nice drawing. Somehow I failed to communicate this to Jim Stear when he took over design work, and he treated them as two additional Ersatz Yorck units, and so they became. The scenarios actually work better this way.
The Imperial Navy learned the value of “high seas torpedo boats” during the First Great War, and enters the Second with a strong force of destroyers. There are a handful of reconditioned Great War veterans still in service like the big, well-armed S113 with 5.9-inch guns. And also a number of smaller destroyers from the last batches of war-ordered boats, now relegated to escort duty and also useful as minesweepers.
During the interwar period, the Imperial Navy studied both the Battle of Jutland and the submarine campaign, and saw three seemingly divergent missions for destroyers: to fight enemy destroyers on the edges of a fleet action and prevent them from making torpedo attacks on the battle line, to make torpedo attacks of their own on enemy capital ships, and to battle the submarine menace.
During the 1920’s, the Imperial Navy reverted to the 19th century German practice of naming its torpedo craft rather than issuing bland numbers. (Note: The names are also just plain cooler, and help keep the Imperial units distinct from those of the Third Reich). The Pfeil (“Arrow”) class was an attempt to produce a balanced design for both types of surface combat and for anti-submarine work. As such it was successful but not built in very large numbers.
The High Seas Fleet wanted a destroyer maximized for surface combat, and they got it with the Iltis class. Iltis and her sisters carry a heavy gun and torpedo armament and can make a good turn of speed. They’re large boats and mechanically reliable, as the Navy rejected proposals to seek ultra-high speeds with ultra-high-pressure steam turbines.
While the Navy kept its emphasis on reliable machinery, it did allow itself to be carried away by the quest for a superior destroyer to face off against the huge Russian boats in surface combat. The Crocodil class switched to a (relatively) huge 150mm main armament, turning the big destroyers into small unarmored cruisers. With larger but fewer guns, the boats’ effectiveness against other destroyers is actually less than that of the preceding type.
There are also two scout cruisers classed as “destroyers” by the Imperial Navy, though their size and armament is greater than those of many other nations’ light cruisers. They are very fast and much more heavily armed than any other destroyers, though they lack the range (and armor) of a true cruiser. Note: These ships are based on the Nazi German Spahkreuzer, a trio of which were laid down but never completed.
Throughout the First Great War, mines proved a far deadlier weapon than shells or torpedoes. Both the Imperial Navy and its enemies, particularly the Russians, developed sophisticated mines and careful procedures to remove them. The Kaiser’s Navy sports two purpose-built minelayers, Albatros and Nautilus. Neither is very fast or well-armed, but they are capable of sowing large numbers of mines. Many of its cruisers and destroyers are also capable of laying mines.
Removing them is even more important; the Germans are well aware that the Russians will open the war by laying thick fields of mines in the Baltic – probably before actually declaring war. The Imperial Navy fields a standard minesweeper design little changed from the First Great War: tough, dependable and easily built in large numbers should the war’s course require more such craft. They are also capable if slow escorts.
The Imperial Navy made great use of disguised merchant steamers during the First Great War, raiding Allied shipping lanes and smuggling supplies to German East Africa. They even deployed a sail-powered raider, which yielded a better post-war career for her author-captain than a haul of prizes.
Given that rich history, the tradition would no doubt have continued. The auxiliary cruisers of the High Seas Fleet are very capable ships, with a good turn of speed considering their mercantile appearance. They’re also very well-armed, with guns and sometimes torpedoes. Most of them also boast a floatplane.
Their mission is pretty straightforward: to voyage to the far seas and there to lay waste to the trade of the Kaiser’s enemies. They have great range to help them accomplish this, and can usually also lay mines.
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