Sword of the Sea:
The Royal Indian Navy, Part One
by Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the world of the Second Great War, the First World War ends in December 1916 in a negotiated peace mediated by Woodrow Wilson that leaves the great empires intact (he really did try to do that). War returns around the globe in 1940, starting with an attack by Russia, France and Italy against the Central Powers allies Poland, Germany, and Austria, but eventually drawing in most of the remaining nations of Earth.
In this alternative history, the Ottoman Empire, part of the Central Powers, maintains strong squadrons in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. They face the Italian Red Sea Squadron and the recently-founded Imperial Persian Navy. When Britain is drawn into the conflict in April 1941, bringing with her the remainder of the Empire including India. Second Great War at Sea: Sword of the Sea brings that war that never happened to the Arabian Sea and nearby waters. It all takes place on the map from Second World War at Sea: Horn of Africa.
The Royal Indian Navy, established in 1934, grew quickly in the years that followed. Most officers were seconded from the Royal Navy, with personnel a mixture of Indian recruits and British ratings. The fleet for the most part relied on outdated vessels handed down from the Royal Navy, but slowly the RIN began to commission newly-built ships as part of the same classes added to the Royal Navy.
Note: The real Royal Indian Navy was also founded in 1934, but in contrast grew very slowly with only a handful of small warships.
In the world of the Second Great War, there is a naval arms limitations agreement, but it differs sharply from that signed at Washington in 1922 in our actual history. The naval accords allow limited new construction of battleships, battle cruisers and heavy cruisers, and allow signatories to retain older vessels and modernize them within certain constraints. Because of the limits on new battleship construction, dreadnoughts from the Great War era that surely would have seen the cutting torches otherwise are retained and modernized at great cost. The Royal Indian Navy is built around a quartet of these ships.
The Royal Navy did not retain any of the dreadnoughts armed with 12-inch guns for its own use, but had kept the four most recent, the Neptune class and the very similar Colossus class, rotating between service as training ships and reserve status for some years pending a decision on their scrapping.
Note: The Royal Navy built three such ships, but we added the fourth in Great War at Sea: High Seas Fleet, which posits a faster building pace during an actual “dreadnought race” in the years before the First World War. These extra ships appear throughout the Second Great War at Sea.
The decision to establish a separate Royal Indian Navy gave the old dreadnoughts a new purpose. The Admiralty provided most of the funding, with all four ships towed to Mumbai in India and rebuilt there, two at Bombay Dockyard and two at the private Mazagon Dock. Work began in 1932, with the first pair of ships delivered in 1934 and the next pair in 1936.
The four dreadnoughts received a radical reconstruction. Their old armament of ten 12-inch Mark XI guns gave way to ten of the new all-steel 12-inch Mark XIV, in new-model turrets with much greater protection and allowing greater elevation to extend their gunnery range. The two amidships turrets moved to the centerline in a super-firing pair, requiring that their underlying barbettes be moved and that propping up C Turret built up to raise the gun turret above the height of D Turret. The cramped deck layout allowed for few secondary and anti-aircraft weapons, with the latter limited to four twin mounts for 4.5-inch anti-aircraft guns.
Their coal-fired boilers were removed and replaced by oil-fired versions, yielding much more power despite the smaller space available after the turret re-arrangement. Nothing could be done about their aged hull form, though the ram bow of the Neptune design was re-formed into a bulbous bow to increase efficiency. While they received thickened armor over their vital spaces and anti-torpedo bulges, they remained relics of an earlier generation and did not have the same level of protection as even the new Royal Indian coast-defense ships.
Coast Defense Ships
In late 1926, the Third Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Ernle Chatford (in charge of material procurement for the Royal Navy) asked the Director of Naval Construction for sketches of a new battleship and battle cruiser carrying just six 12-inch guns in three twin turrets, all of them placed forward like the then-new battleship Nelson (the battle cruiser version had two turrets forward and one aft). That was eventually raised to nine 12-inch guns.
The impetus for the odd request arose from the British government’s hopes to strike a new series of naval limitations treaties that capped battleship main armament at the 12-inch caliber. Not surprisingly, no other nation proved willing to even seriously discuss such a limit, but the belief that such an agreement could be reached appears to have been widespread in both Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s civilian government and the Admiralty. “Great armaments,” Sir Edward Grey said in 1925, “lead inevitably to war.”
Despite the relatively light armament, the ship would not be appreciably smaller than the battleships built under the Washington Naval Limitations Agreement. Since the new limit would not apply to older ships still in service, she would have to be proof against the fire of 15-inch guns. She would be 570 feet long (compared to 709 feet for Nelson) and displace 27,000 tons (compared to 33,000 tons for Nelson). Her top speed would be 23 knots, the same as Nelson. She would have slightly thinner belt and barbette armor than Nelson, but the same deck protection.
The small-battleship proposal went nowhere, and by 1932 Baldwin had come around to believing that Britain must arm herself once again. But the sketches remained, and in the world of the Second Great War, they’ve been taken up by the Royal Indian Navy as an appropriate design for the first large warships built in India.
Note: The ship design, and the political impetus for it, both existed in our own real world. The Second Great War alternative history is an opportunity for us to present ship designs that were never built or even approved.
One of the exceptions in this alternative history’s naval limitations treaty covers coast-defense ships, which must displace no more than 17,500 tons, carry no guns larger than 12-inch caliber, and make no more than 21 knots’ speed (this last being widely understood as essentially unenforceable). The Admiralty made use of this provision to order four ships for the Royal Indian Navy.
The 28,000-ton displacement figure seems excessive for a ship with such light armament and relatively low speed, even with her level of armor protection. As built in our alternative history, Talwar and her sisters displace the treaty-mandated 17,500 tons with a scale of armor sufficient to fight enemy battleships.
They carry six 12-inch Mark XIV rifles, an excellent weapon for its caliber with enormous range and outstanding accuracy. They’re mounted in the same turrets as those fitted to the rebuilt Vikraant- (Neptune-) class dreadnoughts. Their secondary armament consists of four six-inch guns in a pair of twin turrets, rounded out by a half-dozen 4.5-inch anti-aircraft guns in two single and two double mounts.
They can make just 21 knots, but have good protection under the skin. They have the gunnery range and armor to engage enemy battleships, but their 12-inch guns are going to be limited in how much damage they can inflict.
Two of them appear in Sword of the Sea, among the many coast-defense ship designs seen in this backwater of the wider naval war.
Those are the Royal Indian Navy’s capital ships; next time we’ll look at the cruisers and destroyers.
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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 a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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