The British, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the world of the Second Great War, Britain has retained her naval dominance, straining her resources and those of her Empire to maintain a navy second to none. The two-power standard has eroded under financial pressure and naval limitations agreements, and the Royal Navy has maintained its numbers in part by re-constructing older battleships that probably should have been scrapped long ago.
Britain had also built as many cruisers as allowed by the naval limitations agreements, and taken advantage of the provisions allowing signatories to build any number of coast-defense ships. Some of these new types appear in Second Great War at Sea: Tropical Storm. Let’s take a look at them.
The Small Battleship
Financial duress following the First World War turned the thinking of Britain’s Admiralty toward smaller battleships. If the naval limitations treaties could be modified to reduce the size and main armament of battleships - something the Admiralty’s planners considered likely - then Britain could afford to maintain her naval dominance. Surely the Americans and Japanese would agree to uphold that goal.
Amazingly, neither of the rivals agreed to hamstring their own plans to retain Britain’s status. That left Britain with the choice of building small battleships armed with 12-inch guns that would be quickly destroyed in action with larger enemy ships with 16-inch guns, or bankrupting the Exchequer trying to keep building full-sized battleships with big guns.
Noted naval architect Sir George Thurston offered a compromise solution: a small battleship armed with big guns. Such a ship would not have the staying power of a true large battleship, but it would be able to strike back at the enemy even at long range. And perhaps most importantly, it would be less expensive than a full-sized battleship, though since it would have to be proof against 16-inch shellfire, it’s questionable how much cheaper it might have been.
Thurston, the chief naval architect at Vickers where he drafted the revolutionary battle cruiser Kongo, published his proposal in 1926. It drew heavily from the Nelson design, but reduced the main armament from three turrets to just two, eliminating C turret (sometimes referred to as X turret), the third, non-superfiring mount with a limited field of fire.
Vickers Design 892, as it was labelled, drew no interest from the Admiralty, which wanted its small battleships armed with small guns, nor from potential foreign customers as the battleship market dried up between the wars. But she does have a place in our Second Great War alternative history.
In our story, a naval limitations agreement is hammered out in Vienna, with some outward resemblances to that signed in Washington in our own history. It limits the number, size and armament of battleships, and like the Washington agreement it also leaves a few loopholes. One allows signatories to build coast defense ships of no more than 12,000 tons, armed with weapons no larger than 12-inch guns and making no better than 21 knots, somewhat less restrictive but otherwise similar to the limits placed on German warship construction in the Versailles Treaty of our own reality.
Later, the limits are raised and that opens the door for the Thurston small battleship, Vickers Design 892. As drafted she’s still too large to count as a coast-defense ship, and so the Scorpion class is further reduced to 17,500 tons and four 16-inch guns in a pair of twin turrets located forward. She has eight six-inch guns in four twin turrets as her secondary battery, plus four four-inch high-altitude anti-aircraft guns. They’re armored against 16-inch shellfire, but they’re quite slow, designed for just 21 knots.
The Royal Navy of the Second Great War has built eight of them, with another eight serving the Dominion navies. Four of them appear in Tropical Storm.
The Improved Cruiser
The Royal Navy hewed to the standards imposed by the Washington accords, resulting in the County-class heavy cruiser with an armament of eight 8-inch guns, 32 knots’ speed and next to no armor on a displacement of 10,000 tons. Eleven of them in three sub-classes were laid down between 1924 and 1927, plus two more for the Royal Australian Navy.
In 1927 the Admiralty began to plan to build another pair of heavy cruisers to an improved design. One alternative offered better protection, at the cost of lowering her speed to 30 knots. This design was approved and two ships ordered in 1929 to be named Surrey and Northumberland, but both were cancelled under the financial pressures of the Great Depression and neither was ever laid down before the London Treaty spelled an end to heavy cruiser construction until the eve of the Second World War.
Another alternative had the same speed, but rather than additional armor added a fifth twin turret for two more eight-inch guns; some variants placed this extra turret forward, and others amidships. We’ve chosen the latter for Tropical Storm. Monmouth, as we’ve named her, carries ten 8-inch/50 Mark VIII rifles, the same weapon as her County-class near-sisters, in the Mark II turret fitted to the “B-type” heavy cruiser Exeter. She also has eight four-inch anti-aircraft guns, eight torpedo tubes in a pair of quadruple mounts and an array of light anti-aircraft guns. Plus a seaplane on a athwartships catapult.
The Admiralty wished for all those capabilities on the same 10,000 tons as the first Counties, plus a 3.5-inch armor belt that those ships initially did not possess. Th Mark II turret alone weighed 220 tons without its armored barbette, magazine or shell room; adding more firepower even at the expense of a smaller machinery set was unlikely to have worked out. And so, like everyone else in the world of the Second Great War (and most in our own world as well), the British have cheated a little and Monmouth weighs in at about 10,500 tons. She’s still lighter than the Italian Zara class.
We included the full class of four in Tropical Storm. None were actually built, of course, or even approved. In our alternative history, they’re laid down in 1930 and completed in 1932, with refits in the late 1930’s but no large-scale modernization.
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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 has a new dog house.