While the Second Great War alternative-history setting is based on the survival of the great empires of Eastern Europe (Austria, Germany, Russia and Turkey) into the next generation, there are some smaller powers with naval forces, too. Some of these are very small naval powers, and they appear in Second Great War at Sea: Swedish Steel.
Woodrow Wilson’s negotiated peace included provisions for popular votes to determine the futures of certain regions (and only those areas, as agreed by negotiation – colonial rule outside Europe was not to be challenged). These included the Russian Baltic provinces of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Thanks to a deliberately confusing split ballot, the lack of a runoff and some outright voter fraud, the Baltic German community in Lithuania eked out a narrow win for unification with German over the options for independence, unification with Poland and continued Russian rule. The other three voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Latvia and Estonia became full members of the Central Powers military alliance, and part of the German-led Central European economic bloc. Their economies prospered, and they developed strong national consciousness as media shifted to their native languages. Much of the Baltic German population moved to Lithuania, while ethnic Russians returned to the Empire. With a great deal of German military aid, they established their own national armies trained and equipped on German lines, with each of the small republics establishing three infantry divisions plus supporting units.
German military aid also helped each of them set up small naval services, initially equipped with discarded German coastal torpedo boats employed as coast guard and fisheries enforcement vessels. Estonia also refurbished an abandoned Russian armored cruiser for use as a stationary training ship. Estonian and Latvian officers and cadets regularly attended naval colleges and training courses in Germany.
In the early 1930’s, the Estonian Navy, known as the Merevägi, moved first to establish greater capability at sea. With a heavy German subsidy, they purchased one of the “export” versions of the High Seas Fleet’s small Cherusker-class coast-defense ships. The Estonian ship, delivered in 1932 and christened Saaremaa, displaces 10,000 tons and carries four 280mm (11-inch) guns originally mounted in a German Nassau-class dreadnought and refurbished for further use.
Unlike the slightly larger Cherusker, Saaremaa has no helicopter facilities. In addition to her main armament, she has a pair of 150mm (5.9-inch) guns in a turret mounted amidships and six torpedo tubes in two triple banks, one on either side of the ship. Finally, she carries eight 105mm (4.1-inch) heavy anti-aircraft guns and an array of lighter weapons.
Her armor is more than adequate against the fire of enemy cruisers, and she has a very good underwater protection scheme. She’s extremely vulnerable to the fire of enemy battleships, and lacks to speed to escape them. In the shallow waters of the Baltic her light draft is her best means of escape from heavy Russian warships.
In peace-time, Saaremaa is a very cost-effective flagship for the Estonian fleet, training seamen and cadets and showing the blue- black-and-white banner around the Baltic. During wartime, her mission is to support ground troops with her heavy guns, usually in concert with Estonia’s powerful coast-defense artillery batteries and with allied German, Swedish and Finnish ships, and to escort convoys. She’s no replacement for a true battleship, but at night and in crowded coastal waters she is a dangerous opponent all the same.
To escort their coastal battleship, the Merevägi also acquired a pair of aging German fleet destroyers of the V170 class. They remain fast boats, with a reduced torpedo armament and negligible anti-aircraft defense. But they’re still well-suited to escort missions, whether of merchant convoys or Saaremaa. Rounding out the Estonian fleet is a small flotilla of four German-built coastal submarines and some small patrol craft.
Note: The actual Estonian Navy acquired two Russian-built destroyers in 1918, selling them to Peru in 1933 and using the proceeds to build a pair of mine-laying submarines in Britain. The Soviet Navy seized the submarines in 1940.
Latvia, less exposed to Russian naval action than her northern neighbor, came later to naval development. Like the Estonians, the Latvians at first purchased a pair of reconditioned German coastal torpedo boats for patrol work. At German prodding, the Latvian Navy expanded in the mid-1930’s. Latvian officers and specialists trained alongside the Imperial German Navy, as Latvia did not establish as extensive a naval educational system as the Estonians. As a result, nearly all Latvian naval officers speak German, and ties between the two services are very close.
Declining to match the Estonian purchase of a coast-defense ship, the Latvians ordered a pair of modern fleet destroyers to be built in Riga to a German design with German technical assistance. The two Löwe-class boats, completed in 1939, are large (1,800 tons’ displacement) multi-role fleet destroyers suitable for surface combat, anti-submarine warfare or minelaying. They carry six 127mm (5-inch) guns in three twin gunhouses and six torpedo tubes in a pair of triple mounts on the centerline. They’re fast and well-suited to rough seas, and they have a much greater range than really needed in the narrow waters of the Baltic Sea. As two of the most capable boats in the Baltic, they’re often in demand by the Germans for missions with their forces, leading to tensions between the allies.
To supplement their destroyers, the Latvians also built a quartet of German-designed coastal submarines. Like the Estonian boats, these are slightly modified versions of the German Type II, a 250-ton boat with three torpedo tubes.
Given the limited nature of the Latvian fleet’s mission, they might have been better off buying four older used destroyers rather than the pair of very modern boats they constructed. While the Latvians have vessels equal to anything the Russians can throw at them, their ancient enemies are unlikely to strike with just two destroyers and the Latvians will be dependent on German and Swedish assistance.
Note: In our own reality, Latvia’s navy built two small submarines in French yards in the 1920’s, and added a pair of minesweepers later. All were taken over by the Soviets in 1940.
The entire Estonian and Latvian fleets (all five ships, combined) appear in Second Great War at Sea: Swedish Steel. The Second Great War begins with an unprovoked Russian attack on Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Poland. The tiny Baltic fleets are no match for the powerful Russians, but they won’t have to face the Tsar’s battleships alone, as both Sweden and Imperial Germany come to their aid in the war’s first days.
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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.