Prizes of War:
The Ships, Part Three
Dreadnought battleships built by most naval powers followed a fairly predictable layout, what naval writer Siegfried Breyer later called the “perfect battleship” arrangement: a pair of turrets fore and aft, with one of them raised on an armored pedestal to fire over the other, usually with two heavy guns mounted in each turret. With some variations – additional turrets fitted amidships, or three guns in some turrets rather than two – Japan, Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy built ships to this pattern.
And then there were the French.
French naval architects marched to their own pas de charge, adopting a different main gun caliber (13.4 inches) than any other naval power, a different machinery arrangement (an odd mixture of turbines and triple-expansion engines, in the same ship) and deploying internal subdivision and armor schemes a generation behind those of other nations’ ships. Contrary to the rest of the world, French naval thought said that future engagements would take place at relatively short ranges; as a result, French battleships had little capability for long-range fire control.
All of those features made French warships much less attractive to potential foreign owners; a number of them fell into Axis hands in November 1942, but none of the major units were put into service (while a lack of resources had something to do with this, the distinct nature of French warship design proved a serious obstacle as well).
Even so, a collapse of the French armies during the Great War could have put France’s fleet into British or German hands, either seized in their ports or shipyards, or handed over in a peace settlement. And economic distress could have led to a discount sale – the Marine Nationale attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell its incomplete Normandie-class battleships to the British (a deal that founded on those technological distinctions mentioned above).
That’s the basis of Jutland: Prizes of War, a supplement for Great War at Sea: Jutland that puts French (and Russian, Turkish and Greek) ships under the British or German flag. There are 80 new die-cut and silky-smooth playing pieces (60 “long” ship pieces and 20 square ones) and 23 scenarios so you can play with them (11 operational scenarios and 12 battle scenarios).
Let’s have a look at them in their new colors.
France came slowly to the Dreadnought Age; having just built a series of 10 semi-dreadnought battleships in two classes (the second of which was laid down after Dreadnought had appeared, making them obsolete before the first steel plate had been cut), the Marine Nationale took its time before committing to the new type of battleship.
France’s first dreadnoughts, the Courbet class, carried a dozen 12-inch guns, in six twin turrets (two of them in “wing” positions). The design lagged behind those of other naval powers, and with internal protection similar to that of the preceding semi-dreadnoughts. In Prizes of War they appear in both British and German colors. They’re not particularly good fighting ships, and would have been somewhat more valuable to the Germans than to the British. The Grand Fleet had plenty of first-generation dreadnoughts armed with 12-inch guns
With the three ships of the Bretagne class, the French made some improvements but remained well behind the curve. The new ships had the same hull as the preceding Courbet class, with ten 13.4-inch (340mm) guns in five twin turrets. The inefficient wing turrets gave way to a single turret amidships. They had somewhat more combat value than the Courbets, but shared the same inadequate protection scheme. All three are present in Prizes of War, in both German and British colors.
The outwardly radically different, the five ships of the Normandie class followed the design of Bretagne very closely, matching the preceding ship’s inadequate protection with a spectacularly inefficient mix of both turbines and triple-expansion engines in her power plant. That supposedly gave the ships both the advantages of turbines (higher power output, for greater speed) and triple-expansion engines (greater fuel efficiency). One ship, Béarn, had only turbines and not coincidentally would be the ship later chosen for conversion to an aircraft carrier.
The new ships increased their armament to a dozen 13.4-inch guns, in three quadruple turrets (actually a pair of dual mounts sharing the same turntable and armored housing). That gave the guns wide angles of fire, and intrigued the British, who inquired into purchasing the five incomplete hulls and finishing them to a modified plan.
Vickers, the massive British arms conglomerate, had sketched a triple turret for the 15-inch Mark I naval rifle that armed the newest British dreadnoughts. It’s not clear whether the British ever determined if this turret could be fitted to the quadruple 13.4-inch turret’s barbette; the extensive work needed to upgrade underwater protection and replace the propulsion system to bring the Normandie class to anything approaching British standards quickly ended the plan to buy them. It would be cheaper, and faster, to build completely new ships in British yards from the keel up.
Unlike the Royal Navy, we’re not limited to realistic appraisals, and so Prizes of War includes the Normandie class as designed, in both British and German colors with a brand-new ship drawing. It also includes the five ships re-armed with the Vickers triple turret. As such they have impressive firepower, but have been floating avatars of the “eggshells armed with hammers” aphorism.
The French destroyers of the Bisson and Bouclier classes are roughly equivalent to pre-war British or German destroyers. The British had plenty of more capable boats and might have found the French destroyers useful for convoy work in distant theaters, but would not have deployed them with the Grand Fleet. The Germans, having found their older torpedo boats small and inadequate, would have had more use for them and so they appear in Prizes of War only in German colors.
Unlike battleships, destroyers are far easier to refit with new armament and the French boats would have given up their French-made 100mm guns for German 105mm models, and swapped their French torpedo tubes for the similar German mount from the B97 class torpedo boats.
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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 dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys being vacuumed.