By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I crafted our Long War alternative-history setting - the background for our Second World War at Sea: Plan Z - just for one reason: to provide a background for the German Plan Z warships that we knew players wanted very badly (because they told us this very often). The setting is based on the premise that Germany allied with Poland in the fall of 1939 and turned on the Soviet Union in the following spring. Hostilities with the Western Allies did not commence until two and a half years later, when France and the Low Countries were conquered in a lightning campaign. You can see the timeline of events right here.
As in the actual events of the Second World War, Britain is not easily cowed by Nazi battlefield successes. The British Empire’s resources are immense, and even without the American intervention desperately desired by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill there remain vast reserves of manpower and materiel to be tapped. The German Navy and Air Force are tasked with preventing these resources from reaching the British Isles.
The Royal Navy has spent the past several years building its forces toward this day. While the threat of Italian or Japanese intervention requires that some forces be deployed to the Mediterranean and Far East, the bulk of the fleet is concentrated in home waters. Following the policy laid down by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s government in the mid-1930’s, all useful warships have been refitted and in some cases reconstructed, while new ones have been laid down and built.
The Home Fleet is built around its battleships: four of the new Lion class with 16-inch guns, plus the smaller but still modern King George V class armed with 14-inch guns. The venerable training ship Iron Duke and the five old ships of the R-class have been modernized as has the massive battle cruiser Hood but it’s a new fast battleship named Vanguard, planned for years to make use of the guns and turrets left over from the conversion of the “light battle cruisers” Glorious and Courageous to aircraft carriers, that leads the Battle Cruiser Squadron.
The Royal Navy supports the battle line with a fair number of flight decks, too. There are older, modernized carriers like Courageous and Glorious, but also new large “fleet carriers” of the Audacious and Implacable classes. Flocks of new cruisers and destroyers – including the large cruisers of the Shannon class armed with new-model 9.2-inch guns – escort the heavy ships.
It’s a powerful fleet, but it faces a mighty challenge. From their bases in the U.K., the Royal Navy’s surface action and carrier battle groups will have to protect sea lanes heading across the North Atlantic to ports in Canada and the United States, and also southward to Gibraltar. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the northern sea route no longer bears much importance, but the Germans hold bases in Norway from which they can enter the North Atlantic and have their eyes on Iceland as a springboard into the open sea. The British will have to protect the big island from invasion and try to seal the choke points to its east and west.
That task would be difficult, but achievable given the Home Fleet’s strength and it’s very useful base at Scapa Flow at the far northern tip of the British Isles. But that’s not the only axis available to the Axis. With the fall of France, the Germans have gained access to ports on the French Atlantic coast including the naval bases at Brest, Bordeaux and St. Nazaire. Any ships based there will have to first pass through a British gauntlet, either through the Davis or Denmark Strait to the north or in a rapid dash down the English Channel. Once in the French ports, assuming that the Luftwaffe will protect them from the Royal Air Force (not a sure thing – service rivalries are just as intense in this alternative history as in the real thing), German surface raiders can immediately threaten convoys heading into the Western Approaches to Britain or steam further out into the Atlantic to seek shipping outside the protective umbrella of British air power.
While the Royal Navy has been constructed to meet a variety of potential threats, the ships of the German Plan Z have been built specifically for this war. They are outnumbered by the British, but that’s of little concern since they hold the strategic initiative. Many of the new German ships feature diesel propulsion, giving them extremely long range and allowing for extended anti-shipping cruises out in the Atlantic. To support the battleships and battle cruisers at sea, the Germans have built a series of huge long-range destroyers known as “scout cruisers.” And to prey on weakly-guarded convoys and merchants foolishly steaming without such protection there are a dozen new armored cruisers, an updated version of the “pocket battleship” design of the late 1920’s. And supporting the surface fleet are throngs of submarines.
The British will attempt to extend their air coverage with their fairly large number of aircraft carriers, to both seek out German surface raiders and look out for submarines. The Germans have carriers of their own that they can use the challenge the British: four fleet carriers of the Graf Zeppelin class (two of them much-improved versions) and two gigantic carriers converted from 56,000-ton ocean liners. These carrier battles will play out much differently from those seen in the Pacific theater: unlike American and Japanese carrier planes, the British and German aircraft are comparatively very short-legged. That means that the carriers will have to maneuver much closer to the enemy to launch a strike than their Far Eastern counterparts, which means in turn that the surface fleets will have a much better chance to get into the action.
The scenario/campaign set is crafted to maximize battle actions: while we’re careful not to use “alternative history” as a catchall excuse for sloppy logic in the background story, as the author you do get to decide which way the tiny shifts of fortune fall. And in Plan Z, they almost always fall on the side of “bigger and more intense battles.”
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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.