Sword of the Sea:
by Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Games are supposed to be fun, even wargames, and alternative history games let us explore some odd things that could have happened, but didn’t. I crafted our Second Great War to give rise to interesting naval campaigns and battles, and to involve unusual dieselpunk technologies that I found fun, things like airships and helicopters (unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to mix airships and helicopters thanks to the whole gasbag/whirling-blades-of-death interaction).
I also wanted the alternative-history games to use some of the map areas that don’t see much action in the historical games. And with that idea in mind, I expanded the map for Second World War at Sea: Horn of Africa to include the Persian Gulf and much more of the Arabian Sea. All so I could write a Second Great War story set in those waters.
The Second Great War is our alternative history based on Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to mediate an end to the Great War in late 1916. In history as we know it, this attempt failed. In the world of the Second Great War, it succeeded and the great empires of Eastern Europe survived, only to wage renewed war a generation later. That’s the Second Great War. It’s a world where fixed-wing aircraft are not well-developed, airships rule the skies and battleships rule the seas.
The outline of the Sword of the Sea campaign is already laid down in this story arc’s “bible,” The Second Great War. Ottoman Turkey faces the colonial squadrons maintained in this backwater by Italy and Britain, and also the Imperial Persian Navy. The Turks, having captured the Suez Canal, are fighting to clear the Red Sea and allow full communication between the Mediterranean and German East Africa. From bases at Aden and Dar es Salaam, the Central Powers can project power into the Indian Ocean.
Imperial Persia, however, is no pushover. Reza Shah has splurged on armaments during his two decades in power, building up a large conscript-based army and a fleet capable of both holding the Persian Gulf and projecting its own power more distantly. A single generation isn’t enough time to build the infrastructure to equip and support such forces, and so Persia – called Iran by Reza Shah and just about no one else – has purchased its arms from abroad.
Italian and Russian shipyards have supplied most of Reza Shah’s armada. Two elderly ships deployed as training vessels allow the Persians to claim to operate battleships, but the centerpiece of the fleet is a pair of oversized cruisers built in Russian yards to Italian plans. These two big ships each displace 22,000 tons and carry a main battery of nine 254mm (10-inch) guns. They’re based on plans that, in the real world, the Ansaldo yard drafted for the Soviet Union but never would be actually built. They’re very fast and heavily-armed, though their in-between status will tempt players (just like actual admirals) to use them as capital ships rather than extremely powerful cruisers.
The fleet also includes a trio of Italian-built coast-defense ships, a standard Ansaldo design operated by many fleets around the world, and a quartet of powerful Italian-built light cruisers, enlarged versions of the Italian Abruzzi class with fifteen rather than ten 6-inch guns. Two destroyer flotillas round out the fleet, one of older Russian-built boats and the other of new Italian-built vessels.
That’s enough force to discomfit the Turks and their German allies, but to mount a true challenge they’ll need help from their allies. The British get to use some of their ships from Horn of Africa, and also deploy the major units of the Royal Indian Navy. In our own history, the Royal Indian Navy operated anti-submarine escorts and some shore establishments, but in the world of the Second Great War the Raj has been more open to an expanding Indian economy and much larger Indian armed forces, including a fleet.
It's not a very good fleet; India is where the Royal Navy’s castoffs go to rust away until they’re re-constructed (on the Raj’s budget, not the Admiralty’s). The Indians operate the oldest of the rebuilt British dreadnoughts, the four ships of the Neptune class originally retained for training purposes but thoroughly reconstructed in the big new naval shipyard at Madras. It wasn’t a very wise investment.
The RIN also operates a pair or modern cruisers (the same ones the actual Indian Navy would purchase after the actual Second World War) and a pair of elderly ones fitted out as helicopter cruisers. The real striking power comes from the flotilla of Tribal-class destroyers.
Italy operates a squadron out of Massawa, just as she does in Horn of Africa, but for Sword of the Sea it’s been reinforced with coast defense ships (both large and small) and eight big, powerful destroyers of the improved-Navigatori type with 135mm guns (another real-world ship proposal that would never actually be built).
For the Central Powers, the Ottoman Navy carries the burden in these waters. Once the Suez Canal falls to overland assault, they can reinforce their Red Sea Flotilla from the Mediterranean. There are no Turks in Horn of Africa, so all the Turkish ships and planes in the scenarios are new. The Turks initially build their striking power around the “Wicked Sisters,” a pair of old, rebuilt German battle cruisers. Later they move a squadron of old, rebuilt German dreadnoughts into the Red Sea to supplement the coast-defense ships that make up the backbone of their forces.
And finally, the Turks get some help from their German allies, in the form of a cruiser squadron normally stationed at Dar es Salaam in German East Africa. The ship classes have all appeared before, mostly in The Cruel Sea; the Germans also bring a very useful airship to the party.
As in the actual Second World War, the Horn of Africa is a backwater in the Second Great War. That gives us the chance to play with plenty of strange (and often fairly weak) warships, like elderly rebuilt dreadnoughts and unusual coast-defense ships. There’s a full set of 40 scenarios, plus the stories of the Second Great War in these waters and the fleets that waged it.
It’s a fun package, crafted to draw on only one game – Horn of Africa – for pieces and its operational map. With play taking place in rarely-used map areas, between odd (and often fragile) warships, this is the sort of thing I find lots of fun. So will you.
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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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