The British, Part Three
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Second Great War alternative history postulates a different outcome of the First World War, with very different regimes in charge in most of continental Europe. Britain’s history is similar to that experienced in our own world, but shaped by the lighter impact of both thepost-war financial crisis and Great Depression.
Our own story focuses on the naval aspects of the Second Great War, and the Royal Navy enjoys far greater funding than was the case in our real history. Britain is once again a driver of naval limitations agreements, seeking financial relief, but at the same time the Admiralty is expected to maintain British dominance of the seas.
That has to be accomplished without breaking either the agreements or the budget. Britain is limited to building two battleships per year, the same as Germany, the United States and Japan. The edge provided by the huge number of dreadnoughts left over from the Great War and modernized afterwards became less significant with each passing year as the old ships became ever older.
The Vienna limitations agreements placed no restrictions on construction of aircraft carriers. British experiments with aircraft-carrying vessels had begun even as the Great War still raged, and continued afterwards. These ships promised a cost-effective means to provide the Royal Navy with additional, cost-effective striking power. The Royal Navy leads the world in development and deployment of aircraft carriers, though the planes they carry are significantly less capable than those of our own history.
Second Great War at Sea: Tropic of Capricorn included three British aircraft carriers; two converted battle cruisers and one converted light cruiser. The expansion Second Great War at Sea: Tropical Storm adds two more, both of them purpose-built sisters. Let’s have a look at them.
Design work on the carrier Hermes began in 1917, and proceeded slowly as concepts were studied and discarded. Revisions continued even after the hull had been laid down in January 1918, and after her launch in September 1919 Hermes was set aside to await trials with the converted liner Argus and converted battleship Eagle. The last design changes came in May 1921, and the ship began her sea trials in August 1923.
Hermes spent most of the 1920’s and 1930’s on the China Station, returning home in 1937 to be placed in reserve. She soon became a training carrier and was brought into service again in August 1939 as war became likely. Though plans had been made to modernize her, she had lower priority than other warships and she went to war with few modifications. By the time of her loss in April 1942 the compounded lack of maintenance and updates had begun to show and she did not operate with the Eastern Fleet.
Admiral Lord John Jellicoe undertook a world tour in 1919 and 1920, inspecting the Dominion navies and the Royal Navy’s overseas stations. Jellicoe had great hopes for Hermes, which at the time of his departure had not completed her design phase. The small aircraft carrier would be relatively inexpensive to operate, he believed, and could more easily be kept up to date by replacement of her aircraft rather than the expensive reconstruction required of conventional warships. He recommended that the Dominion fleets should be structured around a “Hermes-type carrier” rather than a battle cruiser.
In our own history, Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord in November 1916 and sacked 13 months later following a lackluster response to the submarine menace and a German cruiser raid on a convoy. In our Second Great War alternative history, the war ends in December 1916. Jellicoe retains his status as the heroic commander of the Grand Fleet at Jutland and his word holds much greater import. His advocacy of the aircraft carrier pervades the Royal Navy, and Hermes is the first of a class of six ships rather than a one-off experiment.
Second Great War at Sea: Tropical Storm includes two of these ships. They’ve been modernized along the lines planned for Hermes, with a new anti-aircraft armament and a machinery overhaul to maintain their speed. While they are not very capable ships, in an environment where Britain’s foes operate very few aircraft carriers they don’t need to be.
The Royal Navy began to lay down the big Tribal-class destroyers in 1936. Rather than an enlarged destroyer, the Tribal design began as a small fast cruiser, reduced in size for the destroyer role. Displacing 1,850 tons, they were maximized for surface combat with eight 4.7-inch guns in four twin gunhouses plus a quadruple torpedo-tube mount. They were also very fast, clocking 36 knots, and proved to be very successful boats which fought in all theaters of war; almost half of those commissioned were lost.
The Royal Navy ordered two flotillas of them (eight boats each) while the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Australian Navy ordered one flotilla apiece for a total of 32; five of the Australian units were cancelled leaving 27 units. Of those, four Canadian-built destroyers were not completed until after the end of the war.
The big destroyers were also expensive to build, and the Admiralty shifted to smaller destroyers that could perform the escort mission just as effectively as the bigger boats at lesser cost, so that more of them could be built. In our Second Great War story the situation is somewhat different; Britain is richer thanks to the better financial conditions of this world and the Royal Navy faces a powerful challenge across the North Sea. The big German “Storm Bird” type destroyers are likewise built for surface combat, as an answer to the Tribal class, and the Royal Navy believes it needs more Tribals to match them.
Two more flotillas (16 boats) are laid down in 1937 and a further two in 1938; these are in addition to the J- and L-class boats also built in those programs. We included ten of them in Tropical Storm, to a slightly improved design with eight rather than four torpedo tubes. They’re named for Indian princely states rather than “tribes” of the British Empire.
And that wraps up the Royal Navy’s contribution to Tropical Storm. Next time, we’ll move on to Argentina.
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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. Leopold has a new dog house.