Atlantic Air War

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The Atlantic Air War was the fight over supplies coming overseas from the Americas to the embattled Allied Powers. It began in earnest in 1943 and continued more-or-less without letup until 1946. At heart it became a struggle between two types of airship:

  • The Luftwaffe Air Cruiser, which was designed to be a battleship for the air.
  • The Solemn League Navy's Air Carrier, which launched actual airplanes from airships for attack and defense.

Contents

Background

The Achilles' heel of the Allied Powers in Europe during the Second Great War was the same as in the First Great War--namely, supplies from America. All three Federated Kingdomes were dependant upon foreign trade for food and materials. Less dependent, but still in dire trouble without such, were France (about half of which was under control by the HRE) and the Italies.

But Hessler's Empire's greatest Achilles heel was his lack of the SR's navy with which to interfere with that supply line. Even tricker, from a Prussian pov, was the prolonged but informal cease fire between the HRE and the FK. The Kriegsmarine did in fact include a fair number of U-boats, which were to be utilized against such such transatlantic trade. Yet the NAL and other American states were not technically at war with the Empire. So Imperial policy was to fire only upon ships bearing the flag of any nation currently at war with the Holy Roman Empire.

In practice, this meant very few ships were attacked. But it also meant that both the NAL and the HRE had time to develop the weapons with which the upcoming air battles would be fought.

The change of government in late 1942 in the FK spelled the end of the cease-fire. The Commonwealth nations as a group soon began to openly side with the Allied Powers, declaring war on the Holy Roman Empire. Hessler ordered unrestricted submarine warfare against commerce headed for Europe, and in the summer of 1943 the Luftwaffe revealed what was intended as the ultimate air weapon--the KLS Ludendorff, first in a series of air cruisers (or air battleships).

Yet the NAL had (reluctantly) agreed to design and build an experimental type of capital air ship, the TMS Thomas Jefferson. This was an air carrier, intended to serve as a launching platform for fighter/bomber aircraft. Most members of Parliament were deeply skeptical about the concept, but agreed to fund its construction partially as a result of some politicking but also to test several new airship technologies. She also was launched in the summer of 1943.

Ships

The Luftwaffe had begun the war with a large fleet of what it termed Air Frigates. They followed a standard design being approximately 400 feet in length, carrying a crew of twenty, and armed with two types of bombs:

  • Drop Bombs weighed approximately ten pounds each and were designed to be dropped from relatively high altitudes towards specific targets on the ground. Towards this end, Air Frigates were built with a bomb-sight as good as could be managed. Yet due to their relative size this class of airship could only carry ten such each trip. This was somewhat mollified by the doctrine of using such in flotillas of five to nine ships each.
  • Cluster Bombs were smaller, weighing barely a pound, and were correspondingly less powerful. Yet typically an Air Frigate would carry as many as a hundred or more. Rather than being dropped, cluster bombs were flung to the sides of the ship using a mechanism that would arm them during release. From a staggered formation the flotilla could then blanket in given area with explosions in advance of panzer and infantry movements.
Air Cruiser Ludendorff

But the Air Cruiser--sometimes called the Air Dreadnought--was different. In length it reached 900 feet, with a crew of 120. It carried nothing but drop bombs, sometimes as many as a hundred. The bomb-sights were improved, mostly via the addition of a head-rest to hold the bombadier's position steady. It was given great range, over a thousand miles before refueling (which was often accomplished via custom-built u-boats), and had the most advanced form of camoflage the Luftwaffe could devise. Light meters carefully measured the ambient glow of the surrounding sky and an array of lamps copies that level. It proved very effective against anti-airship fire from convoy ships. Against its sister ships, the Air Cruiser had no less than eight gunner's nests, each armed with incendiary ammunition. The gas bags were also laced with pockets of flame-retardent foam, to splash in the midst of battle and smother flames before they could spread. Its engines were augmented by secondary perpellers built into side wings, giving the aerial warship more lift as well as manuverability and speed (the top speed confirmed was 43.2 knots).

The Luftwaffe air cruisers built and deployed during the war were:

  • Ludendorff
  • Richtofen
  • Clausewitz
  • Schleiffen
  • Frederich the Great
  • Frederich Wilhelm
  • Barbarossa
  • (more to follow)

The SLN's answer to all this, the Air Carrier, took an entire different approach. For one thing, the Thomas Jefferson and her sister ships did not have one gas bag but four, with ship's operations built between them. The engine had only its own brute force to push the ship, which meant the very fastest any of these vessels reached was 35 knots. But then, they were not intended to approach their targets too closely. Their real weaponry consisted of the fifteen Sparrowhawk fighters designed to launch from specially-built catapults along the side and top of the huge airship (855 feet in length). Nose-hooks could capture the same airplanes coming back, swinging in an arc to disperse momentum then locking the small, fast craft into a cradle. But the greatest innovation (in terms of its funding, anyway) was the gas bag system, which consisted of three layers of helium-filled bags around larger ones of hydrogen, all coated inside and out with a self-sealant. The theory was that even incendiary bullets would have to pass through self-sealing inert gas bags before reaching the hydrogen, which would then probably not ignite because those bags were also self-sealing as well as surrounded by helium. No oxygen, no fire.

The Thomas Jefferson class did not have the range of the Luftwaffe ships, barely 600 miles without refueling, but they were expected to escort ships that would provide fuel.

The air carriers built by the NAL's Solemn League Navy (and which became the core of the new Continental Air Force) during the war were:

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • John Thompson
  • Sam Quincey Adams
  • Patrick Henry
  • White Eyes
  • Bjorn Honstadt
  • (more to follow)

Ludendorff versus Thomas Jefferson

In July, 1943 the first major engagement between the two airships took place. This was in the skies above Convoy Number 47, comprising seventeen freighters escorted by five destroyers. When the Ludendorff approached, the Luftwaffe vessel was much too high for effective anti-airship fire from the destroyers or freighters. Her bombs began to drop, and although only one out of five hit a target, the ships hit were very badly damaged to say the least. Two sank within forty minutes of being hit.

At this point the TMS Thomas Jefferson, which had been doing a scouting patrol on the orders of the convoy commander, came round and launched her Sparrowhawks.

Sparrowhawks were designed to be extremely lightweight, which made them very vulnerable. But they were also the fastest, most maneuverable aircraft in the world at the time. Their guns raked the Prussian airship time and again, so many times that it is certain had their ammunition been incendiary the Ludendorff would have fallen at this stage of the battle. As it was, her wings and thrust helped maintain altitude while repairs were undertaken. And the Prussian gunners did manage to hit two of the fifteen Sparrowhawks flying against them.

This stage of the battle was something of a stalemate, because the NAL aircraft had not yet damaged the Prussian airship enough to cease operations, yet did interfere with dropping any bombs on the merchantmen which were the object of the battle. This cost a great deal in terms of effort, because pilots from the Thomas Jefferson could not continue flying without letup nor was their supply of aviation fuel unlimited. What decided matters was the fact that the Luftwaffe commanding officer did not realize how stretched his opponent was. Prussian air experts had had the same objections as the NAL Parliament regarding the whole idea of the air carrier. Doctrine against same had simply never been considered.

So the Luftwaffe commander decided to close with the Thomas Jefferson in an effort to finish her off. The gunnery nests opened fire the moment the other airship was in range. Here the superior design of the SLN bags came into play, because even after numerous hits there was no ignition.

More, this brought Ludendorff so close that it was deemed prudent to launch all nine remaining Sparrowhawks at once. Most pilots were weary after close to ten hours of continuous sorties. But tired as they were, they were now all attacking as one, and the guns of their prey were concentrated on the carrier.

Eventually, the Ludendorff's hydrogen ignited from the multiple hits which resulted in sparks and an overworked safety system. The mighty air cruiser began to fall, and her commander ordered his men to abandon ship. The crews of the remaining freighters and their escorts cheered as its flaming wreckage descended into the waves.

Aftermath

Following this engagement, doubts about the effectiveness of the air carrier were essentially banished. However, over the course of the next few years doctrine regarding the use of such were worked out the hard way, along with tactics for their destruction. Luftwaffe crews learned to begin their attacks on fuel ships in the covoys, which by 1946 necessitated the construction of air tankers--huge airships designed to hover very high indeed and hide during battle, but refuel the SLN's ships. They were, of course, prime targets for the Luftwaffe, which is why they were designed to fly so much higher than most.

Air carriers, it was eventually worked out, are offensively at their best in squadrons of no less than three and preferably five or more. Sparrowhawks and their successors increasingly were armed with incendiary ammo while the Prussian Air Cruisers had their safety systems upgraded again and again, with artillery of greater and greater range.

Ultimately, what decided that aspect of the war was that the NAL industrial infrastructure remained outside the effective range of any HRE attack, while able to maintain safer gas bags due to their near-monopoly on helium.

The actual air battle later became a favorite subject of movies, and at least two major-budget films have told the story of the destruction of the Ludendorff.

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