By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When dealing with alternative histories, it's sometimes easy to forget that the actual outcome of events was sometimes not the most likely result. Humans are chaotic creatures, and they don't always follow the course that makes the most sense — even for their own self-interest. Anyone running a small business sees this in practice just about every day.
And so it is with the dispersal of the German High Seas Fleet following the November 1918 Armistice. Humiliating an enemy may feel good and play well to the crowds at home — a particular danger in a democratic system — but it helps prepare the grounds for future wars. Nazi Germany did not arise because of the fleet's surrender, its scuttling in June 1919 or the subsequent seizure of the rest of Germany's modern warships. But certainly none of these events ultimately helped the cause of peace.
The project that became Great War at Sea: Reichsmarine grew out of our out-of-print Sea of Troubles supplement, in which we included several scenarios featuring Germany's Weimar Republic and its navy, the Reichsmarine. But I've always wanted to portray forces in their own national colors in our games, and those scenarios used Imperial German pieces from Jutland with special rules for the ships' reduced speed and armament. And in crafting the scenarios for that book, reading over the early American ideas for their War Plan Red (for a conflict with Britain) showed a deep-seated paranoia over Britain's custody of the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow. The Americans feared that these ships might be incorporated into the Royal Navy or, worse, passed on to the Japanese.
Reichsmarine takes the mass scuttling of the High Seas Fleet as its starting point, exploring the implications of British control of the ships lost there and continued Weimar German control of those battleships and cruisers not sent to Scapa Flow. The British could have reduced tensions by sharing the spoils with their allies, but peaceful resolutions don't make for good wargame scenarios. Reichsmarine's "Plan Red" scenarios are based on Britain's assertion of 9/10 of the law.
We know why gamers like the Great War at Sea series — it's all about the toys. So here's a look at the ships of Reichsmarine, and the flags they now fly.
The Allies demanded that the Germans send their two most modern battle squadrons to Scapa Flow, plus the fleet flagship. Those ten battleships were later joined by one more, sent to replace the incomplete battle cruiser Mackensen.
The two battleships of the Baden class, with their eight 15-inch guns, were the equivalent of the British R-class battleships but unlike them burned a mixture of coal and oil, mostly relying on coal. These were powerful and well-protected ships and would have been a major addition to British strength.
The five ships of the Kaiser class, completed between December 1912 and December 1913, were slightly smaller than the British King George V class completed at the same time, but had a heavier displacement thanks to their thicker armor protection. They carried a weaker main armament, with 12-inch guns compared to 13.5-inch in their British contemporaries, and burned coal exclusively compared to a coal-oil mixture in the British ships. With their inefficient turret layout, they likely would not have been retained by the Royal Navy (or the Imperial Navy, for that matter) unless war was felt to be imminent.
With the four-ship König class, German designers did much better, re-arranging the turrets to put all five of them on the center line. The equivalent of the British Iron Duke class, they similarly had better protection but weaker main armament. The Germans had gone to mixed coal and oil with this class, with very good results — two of the four claimed to reach 24 knots at the Battle of Jutland, which almost qualifies them for a speed rating of 2 in this game system (but not quite).
In British colors, all 11 re-flagged battleships bear the names of British/English naval victories. The Royal Navy had a long history of incorporating foreign warships into its ranks, and during the Napoleonic Wars French-built ships represented much of its front-line strength. Naming conventions were therefore well-established, and most of these names had been used in the past or would be in the future.
Britain's Battle Cruisers
The German First Scouting Group's battle cruisers proved themselves much better-protected than their British counterparts, but like the battleships carried a lighter main armament. The Allies demanded that all of them be turned over, including the incomplete Mackensen (listed as already commissioned by the Germans in Royal Navy intelligence reports).
The battle cruisers were the most expensive ships of the High Seas Fleet and the ships most feared by their opponents, and thus would have been a priority for re-commissioning under the White Ensign in the event of war with the United States. However, like other German capital ships they were not designed for overseas deployments and did not have the same crew facilities as British warships. Sailors lived ashore for the most part, and slung hammocks at their action stations when at sea. That would have kept these ships close to home if under British colors.
The oldest of the battle cruisers, Von der Tann, represented an evolution from German armored cruiser design practice but proved herself superior to the contemporary British Invincible and Indefatigable classes. Britain jumped to 13.5-inch guns with the "Splendid Cats" of 1912, while Germany retained the 11-inch gun with Moltke and Seydlitz. Both were better protected than the British ships but kept an efficient turret layout.
The two surviving ships of the Derfflinger class, the first to adopt a 12-inch main battery, were well-designed fast battleships rather than heavily-armed armored cruisers. Either navy would likely have retained them well after the Great War and they might have seen service in the Second had they survived. With Mackensen, the Germans kept the same basic design but enlarged her to carry 13.8-inch guns. She was not complete when the war ended.
Britain's New Cruisers
The Royal Navy deployed large numbers of cruisers to patrol Britain's world-wide empire, and to lead the battle fleet's destroyer flotillas. Admiralty officials often cited a requirement for 70 cruisers, and probably could have found a use for more. Seizure of the German fleet would not have been popular in some influential corners; the High Seas Fleet steamed into Scapa Flow on 21 November 1918 and five days later the Admiralty cancelled the contracts for four light cruisers to be built at private British shipyards. To British industrialists, every warship taken from the Germans was a profitable sale stricken from their ledgers.
All of the German cruisers featured mixed coal- and oil-firing boilers, where the British had gone over to exclusively oil fuel for their cruisers before the war. Their main armament of 5.9-inch guns would likely have been replaced by the British 6-inch Mark XII that armed their light cruisers (and had replaced the 4-inch guns in those with mixed armament), and their German 23.6-inch torpedoes with British 21-inch weapons.
The British greatly admired the fast minelaying cruisers Brummer and Bremse, after they wiped out a convoy in the far reaches of the North Sea. These would have been snapped up for Royal Navy service in any event; due to the large number of British cruisers already on hand the others probably only would have seen action in case of war with the United States. Other navies found the German cruisers to be well-built and they served until the 1930s in the French and Italian navies, with one seeing actual operational use in the Second World War under Italian colors.
Under British colors, Brummer and Bremse carry direct translations of their German names (a sometime British practice during the Napoleonic Wars) while the others bear a G-series of traditional cruiser/frigate names.
The Allies impounded 50 modern German destroyers ("high seas torpedo boats") and the experience of the just-concluded Great War would have made these highly desired in case of war with the United States. American submarines could be expected to repeat the German strategy of commerce destruction, and destroyers were the best answer to the undersea menace.
German destroyers were usually smaller than their British counterparts, and until late in the war they really were seen as torpedo carriers. The big, heavily-armed destroyers that appeared at the very end of the war were not demanded by the Allies, who did not know they existed. The destroyer leaders appearing in Reichsmarine are the British-built leaders supplied in Jutland (for the most part; a couple that were never completed appear here for the first time) on "small" playing pieces.
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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.