Tropic of Capricorn:
The Royal Navy, Part Two

While I designed Second Great War at Sea as a battleship game (or a series of add-ons making Second World War at Sea games more battleship-centered), it’s also an exercise in world-building. I wanted all of the fleets to reflect possible developments during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and did not want to ignore the aircraft carrier – just to minimize its role.

With Germany, Japan and the United States all aligned against her, Britain needed an edge. In the real world, the Royal Navy led the way in placing aircraft aboard ships, and so it is in the world of the Second Great War as well. The early carriers Argus and Hermes are constructed as occurred in our reality, though somewhat later (the war having already ended and taken away the sense of urgency). And the cruiser Vindictive is converted into an aircraft carrier.

Most of the hulls converted into aircraft carriers in our time either don’t exist or are retained in their original configuration. The carrier Eagle, converted from the Chilean battleship Almirante Cochrane between 1918 and 1924, is completed as a battleship and delivered to her original owners; she appears in Tropic of Capricorn as a modernized battleship. The “large light cruisers” Courageous, Glorious and Furious, converted into aircraft carriers in our actual history, are never built as the Royal Navy lays down three conventional, and much more useful, battleships instead.

As the 1920’s opened in the world of the Second Great War, Britain had one aircraft carrier in service, the converted liner Argus. Work continued on re-building the cruiser Vindictive with a full-length flight deck, and proceeded slowly on Hermes to incorporate lessons from operating Argus. The newly-anointed Viscount Jellicoe, excited by the potential of the Hermes design, advocated constructing several sisters and structuring the Australian and Canadian fleets around a Hermes-class carrier as well.

Note: Admiral Viscount John Jellicoe really did show great enthusiasm for the project and in his advisory report on the future fleets of the Dominions pressed for aircraft carriers to take a central role.

Three sisters of Hermes would be laid down, but the Royal Navy studied further conversions as well. The naval limitations treaties agreed at Vienna in the early 1920’s put strict limits on battleship construction but gave little thought to aircraft carriers, merely putting maximums on their displacement and gunnery armament but none on the number that could be constructed. With Britain unable to build more battleships than Germany, Russia or the United States, the aircraft carrier seemed a potential means to maintain what was considered a necessary advantage in seapower.

Hermes at Honolulu in 1924, soon after completion.

The fleet’s newer dreadnoughts and battle cruisers – those armed with 13.5-inch and 15-inch guns – would all be retained and eventually modernized. That left four battle cruisers of the Invincible and Indefatigable classes, and seven battleships of the single-ship Dreadnought class and the two nearly-identical classes that followed. Three other battleships armed with 12-inch guns would be retained as training ships.

Dreadnought herself proved too worn out for further use – in the real world, the hastily-built battleship would be retired even before the war ended and scrapped immediately afterward, well before any naval limitations talks. That left ten hulls available for potential conversion.

The four battle cruisers would be stripped down to their main deck and receive new oil-fired boilers to replace their coal-burning original equipment – coal smoke and air operations did not mix. That would improve their performance slightly, making them capable of about 26 knots. Some of the already-thin armor would be removed, and the armament initially set at ten six-inch guns just like Hermes though by 1941 these would be removed and the ships would carry only a quartet of 4-inch anti-aircraft guns.

The former battle cruisers received a new flight deck and starboard-side island modelled on those of Hermes, though wider since they had a broader beam. Unlike Hermes, they had two hangar decks, allowing them to carry and operate a much larger air group (about double that of Hermes). Even as she completed, it became obvious that Hermes would eventually be unable to operate the newer, larger aircraft already proposed for the future. The converted battle cruisers therefore had two large lifts to move aircraft out of those hangars, and in the mid-1930’s each of them added a pair of hydraulic catapults to assist in launching aircraft.

A Blackburn Ripon torpedo bomber lands on HMS Inflexible.

Note: Eagle and Hermes only had one hangar deck, but the converted battle cruisers of the Courageous class had two. With their deeper draft, the Invincible-class battle cruisers probably could have carried two such decks like the bigger Courageous; Eagle probably could have as well but was constructed before much experience had been gained. The huge Japanese conversions Kaga and Akagi each sported three hangar decks, but the third was very small and by 1941 used to store dis-assembled aircraft. A second hangar would have been needed to give the Invincibles a useful air group.

By 1941, the Royal Navy had had over a decade to work out tactics and procedures. Fixed-wing aircraft development proceeded at a fairly slow pace, and the carriers operated air groups built around the planes that made up British carrier air groups in the early 1930’s of our reality: Blackburn Ripon biplane torpedo bomber (retired in 1935 in the real world) and the Fairey Flycatcher biplane fighter (actually retired in 1932). They are flimsy, short-ranged aircraft, but with few other navies operating true aircraft carriers they don’t need high performance to act as force multipliers.

A quarter-century after they were laid down, the four converted battle cruiser would have been badly worn. All four had seen hard service during the First Great War, chasing Maximilian Graf von Spee’s cruisers across the Pacific (Australia) or around the Falklands (Inflexible) and leading the Grand Fleet in the North Sea. That condition, and the availability of newer ships for the vital North Atlantic theater, would get them assigned to South America during the Second Great War.

Tropic of Capricorn includes the two slightly smaller converted battle cruisers, Inflexible and Indomitable. Their small air groups of flimsy bi-planes (even flimsier than the Swordfish seen in Second World War at Sea games) would be shredded in moments by the Hellcats, Reppus and Folgori of late-war carrier groups in Second World War at Sea. But there are no opposing aircraft carriers, and what few planes defend land targets are biplanes as well. It makes for a very different sort of game than Second World War at Sea.

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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 a whole passel of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.


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