By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Since we launched Second World War at Sea back at the turn of the century, gamers have asked for one title more than any other: Plan Z. For whatever reason, they’ve wanted to pit a Nazi German fleet of more or less equal strength against the Royal Navy.
Now that they’re getting their chance to sink this National Socialist armada, I’m glad we waited a while before addressing the topic. We’ve developed what I consider a good model for alternative history, with either a comprehensive story arc (like the Second Great War) or a thesis-based historical inquiry (like High Seas Fleet or Triple Alliance). And we have much nicer playing pieces than we ever did before: silky-smooth, and die-cut with a new process that doesn’t mangle one side with the force of a thousand elephants.
Plan Z will kick off a new story arc, one we’re calling The Long War. I didn’t want to just replay The Kaiser’s Navy with different-colored ship pieces, so the strategic situation needed to be different than that of the Second Great War and closer to that of our actual World War II (since that’s what the Bismarck maps, which are used for Plan Z, were designed to model).
In our story, Poland reaches accommodation with the Germans in 1939 (in Third Reich terms, the “Why Die For Danzig?” chit has been drawn). But this more-or-less peaceful settlement doesn’t satisfy Germany’s need for resources, and in March 1940 the European Axis strikes the Soviet Union with Polish, Hungarian, Romanian and Finnish armies marching alongside those of the Germans. Japanese attacks on the Soviet Union begin soon afterwards. With the Axis starting much closer to Moscow than in the Operation Barbarossa known in our world, and reinforced by three very good Polish armies, they eventually manage to subdue the Soviet Union. By the end of 1942, the Eastern Front is quiet.
Next up are the Low Countries and France, overrun in a lightning campaign that brings France’s Atlantic ports under German control by the Autumn of 1942. Norway and Denmark fall as well, giving Germany the ports and airbases she needs to wage a naval war against Britain. In the spring of 1943, Britain stands alone against a German fleet centered on powerful battleships supported by new aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers.
And that’s the context for the scenarios of Plan Z, which then detail the naval war between this expanded German fleet and a much-expanded Royal Navy. The situation’s similar to that in Bismarck, with the Germans trying to intercept merchant ships and convoys heading to and from the British Isles, and the British trying to protect them and hunt down the raiders. But these raiders are far more powerful than those of Bismarck, and can strike back.
The strategic situation is one crafted to give some semblance of probability to the large fleet conjured by Plan Z, the totally unrealistic dream of German naval planners endorsed by Adolf Hitler but eventually cancelled. The outline of events is definitely possible; the Polish leadership was indeed willing to join the Axis cause and Polish participation would have greatly strengthened German chances against the Soviets. Striking the Soviets a year earlier might have made success somewhat more probable; the really big stretch here is granting the Nazi leadership enough foresight to continue their naval building program to be ready for the next phase of the conflict.
That naval building program yields six more battleships, a pair of aircraft carriers (plus some liner conversions), a trio of battle cruisers and a number of armored cruisers, scout cruisers and destroyers. It’s still not a match for the Royal Navy, but it does allow the Kriegsmarine to practice the type of commerce warfare advocated by Adm. Wolfgang Wegener after the First World War, with powerful squadrons of surface ships supporting the sorties of commerce raiders, preventing the British from concentrating their forces to seek and destroy them.
Britain stands alone, but does so with some considerable force: four big and powerful new battleships of the Lion class, the fast battleship Vanguard, big fleet aircraft carriers of the Audacious class, modernized old battleships and carriers, and new cruisers and destroyers to support them. The Royal Navy is no pushover.
Both sides also wield more modern aircraft than in the original Bismarck game, including jet fighters and long-range bombers. The Germans still suffer from the same problems of their historical counterparts – the Luftwaffe has a lot of powerful squadrons, but they have little interest in the Navy’s missions. And the Navy, unlike that of the British, has no air arm of its own and is dependent on the fickle will of the Air Force’s commanders.
And there are some more extensive rules for submarines, to account for the much greater capabilities of the new German Type XXI fast u-boats. They’ll need these advantages, because the British have much better defenses against them with flocks of escort carriers, aircraft and escort vessels.
In terms of scenarios, the mission is similar to that of the core Bismarck scenarios. For the Germans: break out into the Atlantic, ravage British shipping, and engage the Royal Navy only when force is on your side. For the British, protect the helpless merchants at any cost, and seek out and destroy the predators whenever and wherever possible. The scenarios vary from the Bismarck model because of the forces involved; this time, the mice in this cat-and-mouse game have teeth and an unwary British player can find his or her surface action groups in big trouble. At times the hunters will find themselves hunted.
With the addition of Plan Z (with more pieces than the original game!) Bismarck becomes a monster of a game. This is fun stuff.
Click here to order Second World War at Sea: Plan Z right now.
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.