Stolen Fleets:
New German Ships

In our Second World War at Sea: Plan Z expansion set, we included the six battleships of the German H class, the core of the proposed fleet expansion program. We also included a pair of large aircraft carriers, converted from the huge passenger liners Europa and Bremen.

Plan Z: Stolen Fleets is a further expansion, mostly focused on former French, Soviet and Dutch ships that the Germans could have captured and added to their fleet. But it also includes some additional ships that the Germans contemplated building, or at least could have built in the context of a massive fleet expansion and a full-scale naval war in the North Atlantic.

So let’s have a look at the new Germans.

Giant Battleships

Autocratic rulers, as a rule, become obsessed with size. There are many examples, running from the pyramid of Khufu to some more recent individuals. Germany’s Adolf Hitler, like the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin, displayed this trend in an ultimately unrequited yearning for gigantic battleships.

Under Plan Z, six of the H-class battleships were to be built, and with such urgency that building basins were to be scraped out of the earth where slipways were not available. Two of them had been laid down when Germany launched its sneak attack on Poland in September 1939, with construction suspended at the end of the month and finally cancelled in November 1941.

With the project halted, the team of naval architects led by Rear Admiral Werner Fuchs continued their work, drafting an enlarged version known as the H-1941. On Hitler’s direct order, the new design would incorporate the lessons learned from the first two years of war, to take into account the vulnerability of current German ships like Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to air attack and the torpedo hit that doomed Bismarck.

The initial H class design had been a terrible fighting ship, and the new ship fixed at least some of its flaws. Where the old design had but one bottom, the new one had three, and would have been the first German warship with this feature. Torpedo protection received special attention, which led to a wider beam for the new ship, and deck armor became much thicker, going from 120mm to 200mm. Watertight subdivision increased slightly, and the rudders received additional protective hull extensions to guard against an unfortunate torpedo hit. The rudders received explosive charges so they could be jettisoned if they became jammed by battle damage like those of Bismarck.

The ship would retain the same main armament turrets, but the heavy, thick-barreled 406mm (16-inch) gun barrels would be re-bored to a new 420mm (16.5-inch) caliber. No guns were ever re-bored, let alone tested, but the new weapons would have thrown a larger shell a somewhat greater distance, possibly enough to out-range the British 16-inch guns of the Lion class but probably not enough of an improvement to out-class the excellent American 16-inch 50-caliber guns of the Iowa class. She kept the same secondary armament of mixed 150mm guns for surface targets and 105mm guns as heavy anti-aircraft, but added many more light anti-aircraft guns.

Some of the problems remained. The new design retained the six submerged torpedo tubes, weapons that had been proved completely useless for decades by this point - when launched at any speed, the fish had a tendency to “hang” and be damaged or even broken in half by the onrushing water. The diesel-only propulsion, which would have been extremely heavy and possibly led to structural problems, also remained; the new ships would deploy an identical power plant despite the increase in size. That would drop her speed from 30 to 28.8 knots. She would retain her enormous cruising range.

All of that resulted in an enormous ship, displacing 64,000 tons standard compared to 53,400 tons for the original H class design. That still came in slightly smaller than the Japanese Yamato class at 70,000 tons, but the German ship would have been longer with a deeper draft. Her draft would be so deep that she would have to operate out of the French North Atlantic ports, as she would be in danger of running aground in the North Sea.

While the 1941 design was an improvement on the original and intended to be built in its place, not in addition, we know that gamers want all the ships so you get to use both of them (and as the British player, you get to sink them both). In our Plan Z story, these ships would have been laid down as the original H class were launched, and therefore would enter service a little less than two years after their predecessors. Like the H class, these ships could not possibly have been built by Nazi Germany, and even the Navy admitted that construction would not begin until after the current war had ended and demobilized workers returned to the shipyards.

Carrier Conversions

During the years before World War II, many navies studied conversions of large passenger liners into aircraft carriers. These were fast ships, as large as battleships or fleet carriers, and the idea seemed to make good sense. In practice the work turned out to be far more extensive than imagined, and the results far less effective.

Only the Imperial Japanese Navy had extensive experience with converting liners into carriers, rebuilding two of them into substandard fleet carriers and several more into escort carriers. The Royal Italian Navy rebuilt an older liner into a fleet carrier, but never completed the project. None of these ships proved very satisfactory in action, though the Japanese had never intended theirs as first-line units and only pressed them into that role after the disaster at Midway.

The Italian project suffered from the choice of ship for conversion; shipping companies with ties to the Fascist regime protected their newest ships from requisition. In Germany, the four liners actually taken for conversion had belonged to the Nazi-owned Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping line. Before selling the line to a cigarette maker, the Nazis stripped its best assets, selling off its five “crown jewel” liners to become aircraft carriers (a fifth ship, trapped in Japan by the outbreak of war, was sold to the Imperial Japanese Navy).

A number of other liners had made it back to Germany, but remained in the hands of their private owners. The Hamburg-America Line’s quartet of big ships, Hansa (originally named Albert Ballin for the line’s Jewish founder) New York, Deutschland and Hamburg, all made it safely home at the war’s opening. The four sisters displaced 21,000 tons and could make 21 knots; with an overall length of 207 meters they were slightly shorter than the Japanese Kashiwara Maru that became the carrier Junyo.

The liners became rather well-appointed barracks ships during wartime, not seeing any action until the war’s last weeks when they helped evacuate refugees and served as hospital ships. New York and Deutschland were sunk in air attacks in April and May 1945, respectively, while the other two survived the war.

In Stolen Fleets we included two of the four sisters in aircraft carrier guise, as Trave and Neckar (following the German practice of naming converted carriers after rivers). They’ve received a conversion similar to that we gave the much larger Europa in Plan Z, with complete replacement of everything inside the hull including in their case a new, more powerful power plant. They can operate up to 42 planes; Junyo could operate 48 to 54 and these ships would have been slightly smaller.

In our story line, they began conversion after completion of Europa and Bremen. Though not as capable as the bigger ex-liners or the purpose-built carriers, the Germans are badly out-matched by the Fleet Air Arm and the new carriers are welcome reinforcements despite their flaws - they have no protection whatsoever, and only a weak anti-aircraft armament.

The German Navy made a start on converting the incomplete heavy cruiser Seydlitz into the light carrier Weser; Weser appears in Arctic Convoy and Seydlitz in Plan Z. Her sister Lützow was sold to the Soviet Union while incomplete, but in our Plan Z story that never happens and she serves the German Navy instead. So we included a piece for her as a light carrier, named Wisla. Like Weser, she’s not a very useful carrier thanks to her small air group, but she does give the Germans one more flight deck.

And those are the new German ships of Stolen Fleets. Next time we’ll look at captured French battleships.

You can order Plan Z: Stolen Fleets right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, 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.