The Kaiser's Naval Air Force
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the world of Kaiser Wilhelm’s extended reign, despicted in our Second Great War at Sea: The Kaiser's Navy, Imperial Germany maintains a Naval Air Service – something Nazi Germany did not do. Founded in 1912, the service ended the Great War with over 16,000 personnel and 1,500 aircraft, a quarter of them land-based machines.
In that alternate world where Germany lost the First World War and plunged into a fascist future, the Navy lost its air arm in 1920 and had to depend on the Luftwaffe for air support. In the Kaiser’s world, the Marine Luftstreitkräfte remains an important branch through the 1920’s and 1930’s, receiving new aircraft as technology advances and adapting its missions to these new capabilities.
In a broad sense, the missions of 1940 are little different from those of 1916: reconnaissance, air strikes against enemy naval forces, and defense of the fleet’s ships and bases. But the aircraft of the Second Great War are far more capable than those of the First, allowing these activities to take place at much greater distances. That also means a much greater are has to be covered, and so the Naval Air Service has grown to include many squadrons. Here’s a look at the Kaiser’s aerial order of battle:
The standard attack plane of the Marine Luftstreitkräfte is the Heinkel He115 torpedo-carrying floatplane. It’s not a very good plane, as such planes go: weak defense capability and not a very high attack factor. It does have reasonably good range, and it is present in some numbers.
As in the First Great War, the Marine Luftstreitkräfte still favors large flying boats for naval reconnaissance. The Dornier 18 is overdue for retirement, but still equips a number of squadrons when the war breaks out. Its range is not all that good for a recon platform, it has limited defensive capability and no means to attack.
The follow-on plane, the Dornier 24, is a somewhat better aircraft with much better range (more than twice that of its predecessor) and a limited attack capability though it’s no more able to defend itself.
The High Seas Fleet built a carrier just after the close of the First Great War, and the converted liner Ausonia continues to train naval aircrew in the Baltic. Afterwards, the Germans showed little interest in the concept, completing their unfinished battle cruisers as gun-armed warships while other navies converted similar hulls to aircraft carriers. Finally the Imperial Navy built a pair of carriers from the keel up in the mid-1930’s.
While not in the same class as the big American and Japanese carriers, the German flattops do carry more planes than their British opponents (or, for that matter, their Nazi-timeline equivalents). They carry a relatively heavy armament of guns, in keeping with German naval thinking that considers the aircraft carrier as a cruiser with a flight deck and therefore required to defend itself in a surface engagement. But if the gunnery shows backward thinking, the ships’ designers did show great foresight in fitting heavy suite of anti-aircraft weaponry.
The carriers come with three generations of aircraft for their air groups. The first is composed of biplanes, with the Arado 197 biplane fighter, Arado 195 dive bomber and Fieseler 167 torpedo plane. The Arado fighter is terribly short-legged, but so are the later-generation German shipboard fighters. The Arado dive bomber is an extremely ugly airplane when seen up close; fortunately the counter art doesn’t convey this aspect. While its bomb load is rather light, it actually has better range than the Stukas that will replace it on German carrier decks.
The Fieseler 167 is the only torpedo plane available to German carrier aviation, and so it continues in service throughout the period covered by The Kaiser’s Navy. It sports the same attack capability as the British Swordfish, with almost twice the range. So while it is nowhere near as capable as American or Japanese torpedo planes, it’s not any worse than the decrepit birds the British put into the air.
Later the Germans will upgrade their carrier air groups with monoplanes. The Bf.109 is a fast and deadly fighter, but like its biplane predecessor its range is only suitable for Combat Air Patrol and very short-range strike escort. Accompanying it is a Stuka designed specifically for carrier service, with good range though less striking power than its land-based sisters. The Fi.167 torpedo bomber still has a slightly better range but the same capability against enemy ships. There is no improved torpedo plane, leaving the German player to either deploy the biplane Fi.167 or forgo a torpedo capability and stick with the dive bombers for his or her strike component (a choice offered the German player in several scenarios).
The third generation of German carrier aircraft introduces an improved version of the Bf.109, the Bf.155. It’s a much better fighter, more survivable and perhaps most importantly it comes with an actually useful range. There’s also an improved carrier-borne Stuka, with better attack capabilities and improved range. While there’s still an option to deploy torpedo plans on the carrier decks, the final-generation Stuka is superior in all aspects so the Fi.167 is unlikely to be chosen unless the German player just wishes to vary his or her carrier air group (and keep the Allied player guessing).
And that’s a look at the Kaiser’s air power. Players will find the Imperial German flyboys far more responsive to the fleet’s needs than their counterparts in that other timeline, who are often limited by political considerations. There are no such handicaps for the Marine Luftstreitkräfte: if they can answer the call, they will.
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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 faithful dog, Leopold.