Germany's Fantasy Fleet, Part One
Nazi Germany may have lacked the resources, political stability and culture of Imperial Germany (not to mention its semblance of sanity), but it exceeded the old regime in terms of grandiose and impractical visions. Plan Z to construct a powerful surface fleet had little chance of achieving reality, but at least some in the German Navy and government appear to have been serious about attempting to make it a reality.
We’ve provided the ships of the Z fleet in our expansion set, Second World War at Sea: Plan Z. The German Navy’s Plan Z pretty much consisted of taking the wish list of every constituency within the Navy and throwing them together. Thus, there were a few different versions as wishes were changed or, more often, added to the mix. For our Plan Z expansion we went with the larger version whenever a difference cropped up, because players like more ships. And Plan Z definitely has more ships.
Plan Z is an expansion set for Second World War at Sea: Bismarck, so some of the ships used in its scenarios come from that game, like the battleship Bismarck and aircraft carrier Peter Strasser. But the actual German Navy (Kriegsmarine) was relatively small, so the bulk of the German fleet comes with the expansion set.
Most noticeable when looking at the sheets of pieces (three of them!) are the six battleships of the H class. Naval architects draw a distinction between a ship’s visible qualities (armament, speed, size) and her invisible qualities (protection, endurance), and I drew on this distinction when I first designed these game series. The playing pieces show the visible qualities, and the ship data sheets the invisible ones.
And the H class ships have impressive visible qualities. Their invisible ones, for the most part, not so much. With eight 16-inch guns, they have enormous firepower, and even wield torpedo tubes. And they are very fast. But even among the visible properties some weaknesses are evident. They do not have a very powerful anti-aircraft battery: Nazi Germany did not developed a true dual-purpose secondary weapon until very late in World War II and mounted separate anti-surface and anti-aircraft secondary batteries on their major warships, greatly reducing their heavy anti-aircraft firepower. That lack of attention to protection extends to their armor scheme as well; in game terms, they are among the very few modern battleships without extra deck protection.
All six projected battleships are present in the set. German practice dating back to Imperial days did not assign names to ships when ordered or even laid down; that officially came when the ship was launched. So the names carried by the ships in our set are not official – those names were the prosaic letter codes H through N - but are probably pretty good guesses.
Similarly, the three battle cruisers of the O class look good on cardboard, less good on paper. They are huge ships, very fast, with six 15-inch guns, torpedo tubes and that mixed secondary armament. So like the battleships, they have a pretty weak anti-aircraft array for their size. They have enormous range but their protection was at a cruiser’s scale, and they would have been terribly vulnerable to mines or torpedoes. They make fearsome commerce raiders, but one of these ships attacking a convoy of hapless merchants is enormous overkill when a small cruiser or converted merchant raider could wreak just as much damage. A pair of heavy cruisers, well-handled, might well be able to defeat one of these battle cruisers; you’ll get to test that proposition for yourself.
There are also two rebuilt battle cruisers of the Scharnhorst class; while we listed them as “battle cruisers” the Kriegsmarine classed them as battleships and that may be a more accurate designation. They carry the same armament as the O class (six 15-inch guns plus a mixed secondary battery) but are not quite as fast and have enormously better, battleship-scale protection. Initially built with 11-inch guns, plans called for their re-armament with 15-inch weapons, and that’s the version included in Plan Z.
Like the Scharnhorst class, the O class was derived from a design for a commerce-raiding armored cruiser, known as a “pocket battleship” in the Western press. Plan Z includes the full dozen projected examples of the P class cruiser. Cruiser P is a monstrosity: a relatively huge ship with just six 11-inch guns, torpedo tubes (of course), next to no anti-aircraft protection, high speed and paper-thin armor. She carries such an enormous store of fuel that we might as well delete that from the ship data sheet and just place the infinity sign there instead. In terms of range, she might as well be nuclear-powered. At least Cruiser P has the speed to run away from any British capital ship, which is good, because she’s going to need to do that.
At 235 meters long (the same as Scharnhorst) those huge Cruiser P hulls would have been far more useful if converted to aircraft carriers. None were ever laid down, so that option was never considered. But other ships were earmarked for conversion, and more carriers planned for construction from the keel up. And we’ve included those in Plan Z.
Many nations considered converting great liners into aircraft carriers, usually finding the different structural priorities of a liner and a carrier difficult to reconcile. Germany planned to rebuild the great liner Europa as a carrier, as well as the smaller liners Gneisenau and Potsdam. We’ve included Europa and her sister Bremen as flawed (as in, unarmored) fleet carriers, and the two smaller liners as the escort/training carriers the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe would have desperately needed if they hoped to found a carrier arm.
Bismarck, the game, includes two German aircraft carriers: Graf Zeppelin and her projected sister, Peter Strasser. Graf Zeppelin came close to completion; Peter Strasser (the widely-accepted name for the ship, though it was never formally applied to her) was laid down in 1938 and fairly well along when she was scrapped in 1940. Two more improved sister ships were projected for Plan Z, and we’ve included them as well. Though better fighting ships than the first two examples, they still bear a number of flaws.
Many of the problems with Plan Z (the plan, not the expansion set – the set is great) lay in its origins as a catchall of many different fleet building proposals. The commerce-raiding faction got their long-range raiders, the surface warriors got their huge battleships, the airpower enthusiasts got their carriers, and even the mine warfare proponents got fast cruiser-sized minelayers. While the carrier supporters pushed to include flattops, they made no effort to provide for ships to escort their precious carriers – that was the surface faction’s problem. But Germany’s version of the Gun Club had no interest in tagging along on carrier strike missions – they wanted big, powerful neo-dreadnoughts to slug it out with the British.
And so Plan Z included many types of warship, but none of them suited to escort aircraft carriers. German surface ships had weak anti-aircraft batteries, and were hard-pressed to defend themselves from ancient British biplanes, let alone help protect the carriers. By default that task would likely have fallen to Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the Hipper-class heavy cruisers.
Two of these appear in the game Bismarck (Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen); Plan Z adds the other three of the class. The brand-new Blücher encountered Norwegian shore-based torpedoes on her very first mission and sank. She’s never appeared in a Second World War at Sea game (though that will change soon).
And we have the fourth and fifth units of the Hipper class, Seydlitz and Lützow. Originally conceived as light cruisers with a dozen 5.9-inch guns on the same hull as Admiral Hipper, they were up-gunned during construction but would never see service. Seydlitz was ordered converted to the light carrier Weser, and appears in that guise in Arctic Convoy. Lützow was sold to the Soviet Union and towed to Leningrad for completion, but never saw service under the red banner, either. Even so, she appears in Sea of Iron as the Red Navy’s never-completed Petropavlovsk.
And that’s about enough for Part One. Next time, we’ll look at the rest of the Plan Z ships (and there are a lot of them).
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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.