Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Truth is Stranger than Dreams

I've been playing a bit of Leviathan: Warships, and while I enjoy the game some design choices seem a little strange to me. Namely, energy shields, cloaking devices and a number of other high tech objects which feel out of place given the setting. In case you didn't already know I'm a big fan of naval history. I even talked about a dream game of mine awhile back which was basically World War 2 (from here on written as "WW2") style naval engagements in a fictional setting. To some this might sound too limiting. After all, I'm sure the main reason Leviathan: Warships has all those futuristic gizmos is to create a greater variety of designs and tactics than a more grounded real world setting could offer. Here's the thing though, a lot of real life warships were more radical than than you might think.

Monitors were a class of fighting vessel associated with ironclad ships of the late 19th century. What few people know is the design actually persisted well into the 20th century, albeit in a wildly different state. One of the vessels of the British Royal Navy, HMS Lord Clive, was essentially a ship hull dedicated to supporting one huge gun. Fans of anime tropes will find this kind of warship ideally suited as an arch villain's doomsday weapon. Not strange enough? How about if it was submersible like the HMS M1.

While we're on the topic of submarines how about the Japanese I-400 super subs? Longer than most cruisers of the time, these monsters of the deep were a kind of submersible aircraft carrier capable of launching and retrieving a squadron of seaplanes. They had an incredible range and storage capacity, not to mention an impressive armament of torpedoes. They also served as the inspiration for the first nuclear submarines.

Despite the high price tag, battleships have a surprising amount of variety. On one extreme there are the un-built (but fully designed) giants such as the American Montana-class and A-150 "Super Yamato." On the opposite end of the spectrum are pocket battleships such as the Admiral Graf Spee. This German commerce raider had incredible range and the ability to outgun anything it couldn't outrun....or outrun anything it couldn't outgun.

Some battleships seem ordinary on paper, but actually had distinctly unusual weapon layouts. French WW2 battleships were unique in that they sported quadruple (four barreled) turrets instead of the usual one to three. What's more these main batteries were concentrated into a forward firing arc. Then there is the Nelson-class which featured a similarly aggressive looking layout with all its turrets mounted in front of the superstructure. Oddly enough the superfire arrangement in the middle turret meant that it could not fire a complete salvo at targets dead ahead. Perpendicular to this design is the Italian battleships of the Littorio-class which had their single aft turrets on a superfire arrangement. The reason for this was to avoid damaging the seaplanes parked on the poop deck. Basically, the designers had to raise the turret placement to compensate for the real world equivalent of poor hit detection.

By far though, the craziest battleships ever designed were those mated to an aircraft carrier. These hybrid vessels were only used by the Japanese in WW2, but before you dismiss them as something only Japan would attempt, take note that British naval architects also seriously considered building a similar kind of hybrid warship.

As for aircraft carriers, let me mention that a large number of these types of vessels were actually converted from hulls intended to be cruisers or even battleships. The Italian auxiliary aircraft carrier Sparviero was rare exception in that it originally was a luxury passenger liner, complete with a rounded stern balcony. One wonder if the officers on board enjoyed more sumptuous than average  accommodations due to the vessels previous role.

Certain types of battleships and cruisers also saw a rather extreme degree of specialization. The USS Atlanta was essentially a mobile floating collection of flack cannons and anti-aircraft guns. Japan tried to capitalize on its superior "long lance" torpedo technology with vessels like IJN Takao's unprecedented sixteen torpedo tubes. Similarly, Fuso-class battleships had a staggering twelve main guns mounted in six turrets (some of which had embarrassingly limited firing arcs). Needless to say, if you ever wanted to beam spam your enemies using WW2 weaponry these types of vessels were custom built for the task.

Min/max munchkins might get a kick out of Novogrod or her near-sister (brother?) ship Rear Admiral Popov. Unlike the underwater part of most ship hulls which vaguely resemble fish in shape, these odd looking craft had more in common with sea turtles. Personally I think whoever approved the design must have been far more concerned with statistics than aesthetics

If floating gun platforms don't sound static enough for you how about the Norwegian fortress of Oscarsborg? Set on a pair of island in the middle of an inlet, this fortification not only consisted of two of eleven inch naval guns, but also water level torpedo tubes. Despite being antiquated by the outbreak of WW2, the garrison of draftees managed sink the new heavy cruiser Bl├╝cher and repulse it's escorts. This unexpectedly fierce resistance not only killed an important portion of the Nazi occupation force, but also bought the royal family of Norway enough time grab their treasury of gold and escape to England.

The last thing I want to cover in this blog entry is the configuration of aircraft. While tractor type prop planes are by far the most common design seen in the world, there is a viable alternative. Pusher configuration aircraft are distinct in that they have their propellers mounted to the rear. Obviously this changes the handling characteristics considerably, but it isn't inferior. Rather, pusher planes have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. For one the cockpit visibility is generally better. Forward gun placement is also less of a headache, although rear angled weapons can be a bit more tricky. The same goes for pilot protection in that the engine acts like a kind of shield. Hence, tractor planes fare better when it comes to surviving frontal attacks while pusher type aircraft are more resistant to bullets in the backside. A variety of pusher planes were designed and built during WW2, but the concept never saw mass production. This probably had to do with the unwanted hassle of having to retrain aircrews, mechanics and carrier personnel. Still, if pusher planes had been more common before WW2 we might have seen them used in larger numbers.

Video games didn't exist during the second world war, but based on some of the designs I mentioned above I think it's clear that the gamer mindset had already been adopted by designers and architects. It's really too bad they couldn't play games like Leviathan: Warships. If they did, I have a feeling they would have mulled some of their more outlandish concepts and ideas before they became reality.

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