Royal Netherlands Navy:
The French

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2017

I think I first heard “story arc” used as a game design term around the turn of the century, yet even as we continued to publish alternative-history titles in the Great War at Sea series, it never really struck me that this standard practice should apply to our stuff. Eventually Jim Stear, developer of our naval game series, reminded me of this simple concept that I already knew. And since applying it to our Second Great War at Sea setting, I’ve had enormous fun.

The third book in the Second Great War at Sea is Royal Netherlands Navy, which takes the fighting to the maps from our Strike South and Eastern Fleet games. While I decided to call the book Royal Netherlands Navy, since it would have a lot of new Dutch ships included with it, I also wanted to expand the story of the Second Great War outside the Dutch East Indies. A major part of the story would be a much more aggressive role for the French in the Far East.

In the world of the Second Great War, France is a revisionist power along with Italy and Imperial Russia. The Great Depression, which hit France very hard in the world we know and did so relatively later than it did other nations (so that France’s economy was still lagging during the run-up to World War Two), had less of an impact in our alternative history with no Weimar hyper-inflation and reparations issues to drive the collapse. A powerful German economy and strong economies in Austria and Turkey help drive economic growth throughout Europe, even among the empires’ avowed enemies.

France has invested heavily in its naval forces, completing battleships laid down during the First Great War and building new classes in the 1930’s. The Mediterranean draws some of France’s naval force, as seen in The Habsburg Fleet, but that’s primarily an Italian theater of war. Larger French interests lie in the Far East, where Japanese aggression is seen as a threat to France’s colonies and her prestige. Russian pressure also drives the French commitment; Tsar Alexei believes that his father allowed France to fight to the last drop of Russian blood, and in this war he expects every Russian sacrifice to be matched by a French one.

From their newly-built base at Cam Ranh Bay, the French Far Eastern Fleet holds a strategic position that dominates the South China Sea. They can threaten not only the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies but also the sea lanes between Japan and India (and then on to Europe) and the coastline of Southern China and also, if necessary, the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore and the American-ruled Philippines.

The French fleet in the Far East initially is built around a pair of re-constructed older battleships of the Normandie class, laid down at the start of the First Great War and completed afterwards. They carry a dozen 13.4-inch guns in three quadruple turrets, and have given up their original secondary armament for a much lesser number of 3.9-inch guns to protect against enemy air attack.

Like other old battleships, they’ve been converted to burn oil fuel but are not very fast, lacking the hull form to make truly high speeds. They’re not much larger than the preceding Provence class battleships, and with the heavy primary armament there’s not a lot of room left for a large-scale machinery enhancement. Even so, they are useful as convoy escorts, and very impressive with their huge turrets when displaying French power on cruises around the Far East.

Note: Long-time players will also notice that Normandie's drawing has received a considerable upgrade from her Great War at Sea appearance.

For the first year of the Second Great War at Sea, the Far East is a backwater of the larger war and the two old battleships plus their supporting vessels are all the naval power France needs in the region. German raiders on occasion slip through Dutch or American waters to pounce on merchant traffic or launch annoying shore bombardments, and sometimes the French retaliate.

Things don’t change all that much when Britain enters the war in April 1941; the German East Asia Squadron is small and its bases relatively far away. Two months later, Japan’s attack on Imperial Russia brings the French another potential enemy. France chooses not to intervene, and the Japanese do not broaden their attack to include French possessions. But when the British provoke the Netherlands into joining the conflict in September, suddenly the French have a major active enemy right across the South China Sea. The Japanese finally launch their long-dreaded attack on the French in December.

By then, the French Far Eastern Fleet has received substantial reinforcements: two aircraft carriers and four modern fast battleships. The Second Great War at Sea is above all else a battleship war, and there are few battleships quite like the Alsace class. The follow-on design to the Gascoigne class, they sport a dozen 15-inch guns in three quadruple turrets and nine 6-inch guns in three triple turrets, plus a heavy anti-aircraft suite. They are very large (45,000 tons’ displacement), well-protected and very fast. These four ships are arguably the most effective battleships on the planet, though the Japanese and Americans might dispute the point.

Their deployment in the Far East is a signal to Tsar Alexei that France will honor her alliance commitment. That deployment is also the signal to the Japanese that French naval power needs to be neutralized before it can help the Russians threaten the Empire, and provokes the Japanese air attack on Cam Ranh Bay.

To accompany the new battleships, the Marine Nationale has also deployed its three newest heavy cruisers, the Saint-Louis class. Their hull form is similar to that of the preceding Algérie class, with heavier armor protection than most “Treaty” cruisers. Above the waterline they are very different than Algérie, with nine 8-inch guns mounted in three triple turrets.

Supporting all these are a dozen destroyers of the Le Hardi class; eight of the “torpedo variant” and four of the “anti-aircraft” variant. This are big, very fast boats with a heavy armament, the equal of the Japanese “Special Type Destroyers” and specifically designed to fight them.

The French also have a single example of their Surcouf class of submarine cruisers, armed with a pair of eight-inch guns and carrying a floatplane, along with a heavy torpedo armament. She’s actually not a whole lot of use against enemy warships, being far too large and slow to submerge, but is a deadly predator when unleashed against German, Dutch or Japanese merchant shipping.

And that’s the French surface fleet as depicted in Royal Netherlands Navy.

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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.