Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

President Barack Obama called it a privilege to commemorate Memorial Day with thousands who came to pay their respects during the annual remembrance ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 2011. “To those of you who mourn the loss of a loved one today, my heart goes out to you,” he said. “This day is about you, and the fallen heroes that you loved."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review copies and what I think about them

Prompted by this blog at BoardGame Geek, I thought I'd share my thoughts on review copies.

I have. on occasion, gotten review copies. Back when I reviewed some games for Fire & Movement magazine I was sent copies of the games. Since I've become a game blogger I've received one review copy, although that game hasn't been reviewed because I've been unable to get anyone to play it.

The vast majority of games that I've written reviews of here and on Boardgame Geek were purchased by me. While I wouldn't turn down a review copy if I were sent one, unlike the blogger referenced above I wouldn't write to publishers asking for a copy, either.

In journalism there's a long-standing low-level debate about free stuff and to what extent it could be considered a problem. Some publications prohibit staff from accepting freebies. Most accept it for purposes of reviews. Some take the stuff without worrying about it at all. You send them free stuff and they take it with no obligation at all -- they didn't ask for it.

For me the limiting factor is rounding up enough playing opportunities to do a good job for a review, not the cost of the games. Getting more free games wouldn't help.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Awful Green Things From Outer Space -- 8th edition

So there's a new, eighth edition of the classic Tom Wham game The Awful Green Things From Outer Space, first published in 1980. So the question is, if you already have a copy, should you get this one. (Obviously if you don't have a copy, you should buy it now It's a great fun little game that's demonstrated its staying power many time over.)

In a word, yes. This is, by far the nicest edition of the game ever published. It's important to note that functionally, for play purposes, this edition is exactly like the Seventh Edition. Indeed, TAGTFOS is a remarkably stable game design. The only significant change its undergone is that the last few editions have included the "Outside the Znutar" optional rules that first appeared as a separate supplement long ago.

I won't spend much time on game play, as the game as been extensively discussed over the years. The brief version is that a multiracial crew of aliens is defending their ship against an infestation of the game's namesake Awful Green Things, whose most salient characteristic is an exceptionally fast growth rate. The crew embarks on a desperate search for weapons that can kill the creatures before they overrun the ship, but the effects of the weapons are unknown until tried on the Green Things. There are no changes in game play between the Seventh Edition and the new Eighth Edition. The changes are purely cosmetic.

But saying the changes are cosmetic is not to slight the significance of the changes. This is a very fine version of the game. Steve Jackson Games is often criticized for its -- to put it kindly -- economical production standards. The Seventh Edition, published in 200, had a retail price of $19.95, which would translate to about $26.06 in 2011 dollars, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the 8th edition's retail price is $24.99, so it's actually less expensive in comparable dollars!

The changes are evident right from the top. The new box is deeper and sturdier than the old version. While not quite up to the standards of the GMT "armored" box, this is a good quality tough box that should stand up to a lot of Geek carry.

When you open up the new box you'll find three sheets of thick double-sided die-cut counters, much thicker than the thin card stock counters of Edition Seven.

The new edition includes a high quality mounted board, compared to the thin paper playing sheet included in the Seventh Edition. The space ship depiction is the same size, but the Weapons Display area is bigger and the overall layout more attractive. And did I say that the board was mounted?

The Eighth Edition rule book is 12 pages, just as the Seventh Edition was, but now it's in full color on glossy pages -- and yes, the "Voyages of the Znutar" comic is now in full color as well.

Both editions come with five green dice. The Seventh Edition dice are smaller, but glow in the dark. How, exactly, you're supposed to play in the dark escapes me. The new edition's green dice are larger, but the "1" face is the "Munchkin" symbol from the Munchkin game. Some people have interpreted this as using dice from Munchkin, but I think it may simply be a branding issue, ast Munchkin is what SJG is best known for now.

Finally the new edition includes a cardboard insert.

Overall, if you're a Green Things fan, this is the edition to have.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Bismarck saga -- sunk

The Bismarck is seen sinking from the HMS Dorsetshire after being torpedoed.

At 10:15 a.m. the order to abandon ship was given on the Bismarck.

At 10:30 a.m. the HMS Dorsetshire torpedoes the Bismarck.

At 10:40 p.m. the Bismarck sinks. An estimated 800 men are in the water.

Bismarck survivors being pulled aboard the Dorsetshire.

The HMS Dorsetshire rescues 86 survivors and the destroyer HMS Maori rescues another 25. A lookout reports seeing a periscope so the British break off rescue operations for fear if U-boat attack.

Later the U-Boat U-74 arrives at the scene and rescues three survivors and the German weather ship Sachsenwald finds two more.

Bismarck saga -- blasted

HMS Rodney (right) blasts the Bismarck (shrouded in smoke at left)

At 9:02 a.m. the forward turrets on the Bismarck are knocked out and over the next 25 minutes the Bismarck is hit repeatedly large shells from the Rodney and the KGV and 8-inch shells from the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk..

At 9:15 a.m. the Rodney closes to just 6 miles from the Bismarck, an indication of how ineffective the Bismarck's reurn fire was becoming.

At 9:27 a.m. the Bismarck's "Dora" turret is knocked out.

At 9:30 the Bismarck's guns are silenced and the ship is blazing.

At 9:40 a.m. the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire joins in the pummeling of the Bismarck.

At 10:15 a.m. Adm. Tovey orders the Rodney and KGV to break off. The battleships are critically low on fuel and have just enough to make it back to port. It's evident that gunfire alone will not be enough to sink the Bismarck, so the Dorsetshire is orderd to use torpedos to finish it off.

Bismarck saga -- caught

At 8:45 a.m. on May 27, 1941 the Bismarck was sighted from the HMS Rodney and the HMS King George V. The KGV was a sister ship to the Prince of Wales with 10 14-inch guns, although it had been in service longer and had worked through some of its teething issues. The Rodney was an example of an older battleship design philosophy that emphasized firepower and protection over speed. If it hadn't been for the crippling rudder hit on the Bismarck the 23-knot Rodney would have been too slow to force an engagement on the Bismarck. With none 16-inch guns the Rodney was a mortal threat to the Bismarck.

At 8:47 a.m. the Rodney opened fire.

At 8:48 a.m. the KGV opened fire.

At 8:49 a.m. the Bismarck opened fire.

At 8:59 a.m. the Bismarck receives its first 16-inch hit from the Rodney, destroying the main fire control director and largely deciding the action at that point.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bismarck saga --a sleepless night

At 10:30 p.m. on May 26, 1941 a destroyer flotilla led by the already legendary Capt. Philip Vian appraoched the Bismarck. Comprised of four British Tribal-class DDs (Cossack, Sikh, Zulu and Maori) and the Polish-manned Piorun (British-made N-class DD), the flotilla would spend the night harassing the Bismarck with torpedo runs. About 20 torpedoes were fired altogether, but none hit. On the other hand, the Bismarck wasn't able to hit any of the attacking destroyers either.

This is probably due to Adm. Leutjens ill-advised order to keep the crew constantly at battle stations even when not under attack. Indeed, after the Battle of Denmark Strait, which was notable for very accurate German gunnery, the entire rest of the campaign was marked by very poor German shooting. None of the 24 Swordfish that attacked the Bismarck in two strikes was shot down. None of Vian's destroyers were hit. Neither the Prince of Wales nor the Sheffield were hit directly when the Bismarck fired at them. During the final battle on May 27 the Bismark one again scored no hits at all.

Bismarck saga -- Luck runs out

Fairy Swordfish are shown flying over the Ark Royal

At 8:47 p.m. the British Swordfish flight catches up to the Bismarck. While the flight leader had planned to launch a coordinated attack, the worsening weather conditions and heavy AA fire from the Bismarck conspired to break up the attack into disjointed runs in small groups.

Only one of the first 14 torpedoes fired hits the Bismarck, square amidships -- just like the Victorious strike -- and as in the previous case the German torpedo protection system and armor belt was enough to keep the damage from the small 18-inch aerial torpedo carried by the Swordfish to a minimum.

Just as it appeared that the Bismarck might escape, the 15th Swordfish made its run. Fatefully, the Bismarck attempted to turn away from the torpedo, a maneuver that proved to be a mistake as instead of hitting the well-armored middle of the ship, the torpedo struck at the very stern of the ship. It would be decades later before the true nature of the damage suffered by this hit was discovered when Dr. Robert Ballard located the wreck. It appears that the blat jammed her starboard rudder right into the propeller shaft. It's also possible that the blast blew off the port rudder. The Germans didn't know what they were dealing with, but this was a scale of damage unrepairable at sea. The Bismarck was doomed. It was 9:05 p.m.

At 9:30 p.m. the Sheffield runs up on the slowed Bismarck, which opens fire at 15,000 yards. No direct hits are scored on the cruiser, but splinters from near misses kill several crewmen and knock out the ship's radar set. The Sheffield is able to determine that the Bismarck is steering an erratic course, the first indication that the British have that their quarry may not escape after all. Just a few minutes alter, at 9:40 p.m. the Bismarck notifies Berlin of its plight.

Bismarck saga -- shadowed again

At 3 p.m. The HMS Ark Royal, from Force H out of Gibraltar, launched a strike of 15 Swordfish torpedo bombers armed with torpedoes equipped with magnetic fuses.

The slow Swordfish take a long time to reach the vicinity of the Bismarck and at 4:10 p.m. they line up for torpedo runs -- at the wrong ship! The pilots hadn't been briefed that the HMS Sheffield, also from Force H, had been dispatched ahead to locate the Bismarck and was between the Ark Royal and the German battleship. The HMS Sheffield withheld fire and dodged some torpedoes, while some other torpedoes exploded on contact with the water because of faults with the magnetic fuses. The Swordfish returned to the Ark Royal, where the faulty fuses were replaced with standard contact fuses.

At 5:40 p.m. the British light cruiser HMS Sheffield, makes contact with the Bismarck and begins shadowing it at maximum radar range. Ark Royal moves closer to the Bismarck to cut down on the flying time while the third ship in Force H, the battlcruiser Renown, maintains its distance from the Bismarck. The British are unwilling to risk another battlecruiser, especially one older and weaker than the Hood, in a confrontation with the Bismarck.

At 7:10 p.m. the Ark Royal launches another strike, again with 15 Swordfish.

There's the Bismarck!

The RAF-manned Catalina that spotted the Bismarck on May 26, 1941

More than 24 hours had passed since the British last had a fix on the Bismarck's position when a an RAF PBY Catalina sea plane co-piloted by an American Ensign named Leonard Smith spotted a ship in the middle of the Atlatic at 10:30 a.m.

In a later interview Smith described what happened:
“[A]t 1010 I sighted what was first believed to be Bismarck. . . . I immediately took control from ‘George’ [the automatic pilot]; started slow climbing turn to starboard, keeping ship sited to port, while the British officer went aft to prepare [the] contact report. My plan was to take cover in the clouds, get close to the ship as possible; making definite recognition and then shadow the ship from best point of vantage. Upon reaching 2,000 feet we broke out of a cloud formation and were met by a terrific anti-aircraft barrage from our starboard quarter.”

The intense AA fire confirmed that the ship was, indeed, the Bismarck. The last 24 hours of the Bismarck's existence had begun.

Eventually the Catalina lost contact with the Bismarck, but by afternoon the British regained contact with the light cruiser HMS Sheffield and the Bismarck would never shake off its pursuers again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bismarck Saga -- Where's the Bismarck?

The 25th of May was probably the most nerve-wracking period of the entire Bismarck escapade for the British. After the Bismarck eluded its pursers early that morning the British frantically searched for the .German battleship. Their only clue was an intercepted radio report from Luetjens that described the Battle oft he Denmark Straits. One wonders why the German admiral took the chance of being triangulated when he had just so clverly outfoxed the British. It's possible he though he was still being shadowed, although there's no direct evidence of that. It was a reckless move, but in keeping with the peculiarly lax German attitude toward operational security which had characterized their operations so far.

On the other hand, the intercepted message and the triangulated position, while better than nothing, were not enough to actually find the German battleship. The best they could do was cut down the area being searched, but the open ocean is immense and even a 41,000-ton, 823-foot-long battleship is quite tiny in the middle of the ocean.

Heraklion -- sides switch, results don't

So a few days after the first game the same opponent and I sat down for a refight of the Herkalion scenario from the Axis & Allies Expanded rules book. The last battle saw a handy British victory, despite the fact we made a set up error that favored the Germans.

Given that history I viewed my chances with some skepticism and events proved it to be warranted.

The error we made before involved overlooking the requirement that no German units be set up adjacent to each other. This was a heavy burden, as it essentially forced the Germans into a broad front attack. I thought I'd try to make lemonade from that lemon by planning on an enveloping attack on the village while the Veteran Fallschirmjaeger took advantage of his special ability to move while disrupted to head for the board edge victory hexes, which I though was the most promising route to victory.

That plan didn't survive the British setup however, as BOTH British heavy firepower units -- the Vickers and the Bofors, set up in the woods south of the pond to cover the entire open southern approach route. While this risked a quick elimination, it also seemed to make a rush across the open ground suicidal so long as they survived. The British set up the Bren gunner, the Aussie soldier and an SMLE rifleman on the ridge north of the village. Inside the village were the rest of the SMLE and the three Greeks.

I set up the light mortar in the small patch of woods in the north, the expert sniper int he bluffs and the MG-34 in the southern woods. The other troops set up on open ground ready to dash to cover -- two regular FJ and the hero in the north and the other FJ and the veteran FJ in the south.

Unfortunately for the Germans the British won the first few initiative rolls, which meant the Bren gunner was very useful suppressing the mortar until it could be killed. The sniper and the MG 34 took out the Bofors and Vickers, but it took until the end of Turn 2, which meant that there wasn't enough time for any Germans to reach to board edge victory area. Forced by lack of time to attack the town the German paratroopers made a valiant effort, but there were too many British targets and they found a lot of cover as well. Meanwhile the Germans continued to drop and by Turn 6 all that remained was one FJ, the sniper and the MG 34 team and no mathematical chance of controlling the village.

Overall this appears to be a tough scenario for the Germans. The point differential is misleading, because the Germans don't get to use their paratrooper SA. I'd add a couple more FJ to the OB or perhaps another MG team. Another possibility would be to give the Germans am Early War Stuka in support. This would be in keeping with the theme.

Bismarck saga -- air attack

The HMS Victorious was still in the process of working up its air group when it was deployed along with the Home Fleet to counter the Bismarck breakout. It was understrength and inexperienced -- but it was also all that was available early on the morning of May 25.

Nine Swordfish torpedo planes took off from the Victorious to launch an attack on the Bismarck, reaching the battleship about 12:15 a.m. t first the inexperienced Swordfish pilots lined up on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Modoc, which happened to be near the Bismarck. That the plots could mistake the much smaller US ship for the battleship is telling and suggest how had it would have been for them to single out the Bismarck if the Prinz Eugen was still accompanying it.

In any case the Swordfish sorted out their error and made runs at the Bismarck. Interestingly the Bismarck's anti-aircraft fire was not able to shoot down any planes. It's been suggested that the ancient biplanes were too slow for the Bismarck's modern AA fire control to track! In any case, none were shot down and the British even managed to score a torpedo hit amidships. The 18-inch weapon wasn't able to penetrate the Bismarck's armored belt, however, and damage was slight.

At 1:31 a.m. the Bismarck exchange fire with the Prince of Wales again, but no hits were scored. A few hours later, around 3:15 a.m. the Bismarck, through some cleverly timed maneuvering, gave the British shadows the slip as they zigged after a zag. After pulling out of radar range the Bismarck circled back behind the British pursuers and then set out towards France. It was quite some time before the British realized the Bismarck had given them the slip.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Some thoughts on Denmark Strait

The Battle of the Denmark Strait was one of the most dramatic episodes in World War II, which had no shortage of drama. As such it's one of the most popular topics for wargames, dating all the way back to Avalon Hill's original Bismarck game in 1961.

As an operational game the Bismarck campaign has a lot of potential and has successfully been made into games several times. The Battle of Denmark Strait, however, presents somewhat of a problem. It's really hard to fit it into a wargame format.

Today, for example, I played out the Denmark Strait matchup three times with two different players using Axis & Allies War at Sea. Now, WAS is admittedly not the first word in simulation. But the four ships involved in the historical battle are explicitly represented int he game, and most of them have special abilities that are explicitly modeled on what happened at this battle. And still there was really no context, as the Bismark and Prinz Eugen were handily defeated thrice. In game terms this isn't surprising, because the two German ships add up to 70 points while the British pair top out at 102 points. Yet one has to wonder whether this is a problem with the game or actually a reflection of the historical improbability of the actual result.

In the Avalanche Press Second World War at Sea series game Bismarck the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen add up to 151 points while the Prince of Wales and Hood are 165 points -- closer, but still showing an edge for the British. (And also not including the two shadowing British cruisers). Considering that all the British need do is achieve significant damage to the Bismarck and they win and the straight point value seems to understate the British edge.

Mongoose Publishing's Victory at Sea rules have Fleet Allocation Points. If we consider the Denmark Strait to be a "Raid" level scenario than the German fleet is worth 5 FAP and the British squadron is worth 8 FAP. Another way to look at the matcup is to note that the two German ships will be rolling a total of 12 dice with a potential maximum of 28 damage dice (24 of which are 'AP') contrasted with the British battle line salvo of 18 dice with 44 potential damage dice (all AP).

At the high end of the realism scale with the Command at Sea system there's no point system at all, but the design notes for the Denmark Strait point out that the chance of the hit that blew up the Hood happening under the CaS rules comes out to .00016! That's a 1 in 6,250 chance. They say" This is small comfort for the crew of the Hood, but it demonstrates the difficulty in duplicating a historical result."

So the bottom line is that by any reasonable measure of likelihood the Bismarck's sortie should have come to an abrupt and aborted end that early morning inf May, 1941. The British strategy for dealing with a potential raid would had worked perfectly. The raiders were spotted before they even left Norway. Appropriate and effective deployments were made. The cruiser pickets successfully detected the German breakout attempt and shadowed it superbly. A more than adequate countering force intercepted just as the British planned and was literally a few minutes away from closing the range enough that the Hood's weak deck armor would no longer be an issue. Most wargame refights of Denmark strait -- whether using the super detailed Command at Sea or the highly abstracted War at Sea -- will reflect this reality. The Bismarck should lose.

Had it played out that way in reality, the Bismarck affair would have played a much smaller role in the lore of World War II, probably ranking somewhere below the exploits of the Graf Spee and Scharnhorst.

But one shell hit changed all that. The dramatic destruction of the Hood instantly changed the odds in the battle and combined with the Prince of Wales teething troubles and the mental shock of the Hood's loss allowed the Bismarck to break out and created the high drama that captured the public imagination.

Bismarck saga -- Prinz Eugen escapes

sat 6:15 p.m. the Bismarck confronts its pursuers, the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk and shots are exchanged -- although no hits. This skirmish provides cover for the Prinz Eugen which speeds up and pulls out of radar range and escapes.

The Prinz Eugen later meets up with a tanker and refuels, but is unable to locate any convoys because the British have diverted them away from the PE's likely hunting grounds. On the 29th the cruiser developed a problem with its engines and headed for France uneventfully. On June 1 the cruiser reached Brest.

One decision I haven't seen examined much was this detachment of the Prinz Eugen. The ship didn't accomplish much and wasn't well suited for the raider role anyway. I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have the PE continue to accompany the Bismarck. A the very least it added some AA capability. Also worth considering is the possible benefit of having another ship present to confuse attacking aircraft. As it we will see, the aircraft attacking the Bismarck were prone to mistaken identity attacks anyway -- in one case lining up to hit a small American coast guard cutter and in the second case actually attacking a British light cruiser. How much more likely would be a mistaken attack if there were two ships in the same vicinity as similar-appearing as the Prinz Eugen and the Bismarck? As it was, it was just a lucky shot that finally doomed the German battleship. Perhaps if it had been present the Prinz Eugen could have been the unlucky one. In any case, it would have been useful to force the British to divide up their meager air assets -- a total of 24 Swordfish were available between the two British carriers.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Battle of Denmark Strait -- May 24, 1941

Bismarck firing during the Battle of the Denmark Strait

At 5:37 a.m. the German task force detects the approaching British battleships at a range 0f 17 miles. At first the Germans believe that the approaching ships are more cruisers, sent to relieve the pair that have been shadowing the Bismarck since late the day before.

At 5:50 a.m. the Germans identify the approaching ships as the HMS Hood and a King George V class battleship (They don't realize the Prince of Wales is operational.)
5:52 a.m. the Hood and Prince of Wales open fire. Adm. Tovey orders both ships to fire on the lead German ship, which he believes is the Bismarck., based on earlier reports from the Norfolk and Suffolk and the similarity in profile between the two German ships. The gunnery officer on the Prince of Wales, however, realizes the mistake and that ship opens fire on the Bismarck.

5:54 a.m. Prinz Eugen opens fire on the Hood and scores a hit on the first salvo. starting a fire amidships.
Bismarck fires on the Hood

5:55 a.m. Bismarck opens fire on the Hood.

5:57 a.m. Prinz Eugen
shifts fire to the Prince of Wales on its sixth salvo.

The Prince of Wales' firepower has been reduced to 4 guns because of a malfunction of the "B" turret (which has 2 guns) after the first salvo. The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen can fire full broadsides at the approaching British ships, which can only fire their forward guns in turn.

5:59 a.m. The Bismarck has now straddled the Hood and fires three salvos at maximum rate of fire.
The Hood explodes, as seen from the Prinz Eugen

6:00 a.m. A shell from the Bismarck its the Hood near the stern, apparently penetrating the thin deck armor and exploding in a magazine servicing the Hood's 4-inch guns. The ensuing blast sets off the main battery magazine under the X turret and then the Y turret a split second later, blowing the ship in two. An enormous billowing cloud of smoke marks the spot and the two ends of the Hood form a huge V and the ship quickly sinks. There would be only three survivors.

6:02 a.m. Bismarck switches fire to the Prince of Wales, scoring hits. The Prince of Wales also finds the range and starts hitting the Bismarck.Prince of Wales, right, makes smoke to escape while a pall of smoke, left, marks the sinking of the Hood

6:05 a.m. The Prince of Wales is getting the worst of the exchange of fire, being hit multiple times by both Germans ships. It makes smoke and pulls away. The fire of the Prinz Eugen is interrupted as the Bismarck pulls ahead of the cruiser.

6:03-6:14 a.m. The Germans ships maneuver to avoid reported torpedo wakes, although there's no indication that either British ship fired any.

6:09 a.m. Bismarck ceases fire. At first it appears that one of the three hits scored by the Prince of Wales was significant, but soon damage control reports an oil slick and a shot that passed though the bow of the German battleship is letting in a considerable amount of water, causing it to be down at the bow and labor a bit in the heavy seas.

Bismarck saga -- discovered

At 7:22 p.m. the British heavy cruiser HMS Suffolk spots the Bismarck as the German task forcve tries to run the Denmarck Strait between the ice pack off Greenland the the minefields off Iceland. The Suffolk is not spotted right away and ducks into some fog, getting off a contact report. The Suffolk notes that the Bismarck is in the lead, followed by the Prinz Eugen.

Soon the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk joins the Suffolk and the two cruisers shadow the Germans.

At 8:30 p.m. a break in visibility allows the Bismarck to spot the Norfolk and it sends a few rounds at the British ship, which ducks into the mist. No hits are scored, but the blast from the guns damages the Bismarck's forward radar, so the battleship switches positions with the Prinz Eugen, which now leads. The British don't spot the change. This will have an impact a few hours later.

The two British cruisers will continue to shadow the German task force through the night using the radar on the Suffolk track their course while remaining outside of visibility range.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bismarck Saga -- Tovey sails

Vice Adm. Sir John Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet, leaves Scapa Flow at 11 p.m. in his flagship the King George V with the aircraft carrier Victorious.

Although the KGV is a powerful ship, it's still suffering from some teething problems, especially with its main battery mounts. The Victorious is a new carrier, but its effectiveness is much less than one would expect because its air group was inexperienced and understrength -- but the emergency was too great to leave it behind.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bismarck Saga - close call

Around 8 p.m. the Bismarck task force left the Korsfjord and headed out to sea. Controversially, Admiral Guenther Luetjens decided to leave before the Bismarck's fuel tanks had been topped off.

Just a few hours later, at 12:15 a.m. on May 22, Vice Adm. Lancelot Holland (great name) left Scapa Flow with the HMS Hood and the HMS Prince of Wales. This was a much quicker reaction than German planning had assumed.

At 2 a.m. British aircraft attacked Grimstadfjord, but the Bismarck group had departed six hours earlier.

And early the next morning, at 4:20 a.m. the German destroyers escorting the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen dropped away, returning to Norway.

Bismarck saga -- elsewhere the war goes on

Maleme Airfield map detail from Hunters From the Sky

It's expedient for the purposes of narrative coherence in historical accounts to carry a story through from beginning to end, so naturally the story of the Bismarck normally doesn't discuss concurrent events elsewhere nor do histories dealing with topics such as the invasion of Crete normally mention the high drama in the Atlantic that was going on at roughly the same time.

But for Churchill, the Admiralty and other decision makers it was hard to give undivided attention to anything, a fact that armchair strategists and critics would do well to remember.

Even as the Bismarck lay in a Norwegian fjord, making final preparations for its sortie and the British admiralty began making its preparations to cope with that potential threat, the battle for Crete was raging. At almost the same moment that the British became aware that the Bismarck was at sea German glider troops and paratroopers were landing on Crete. While the Germans landed at several points, the key battle turned out to be at Maleme. The Capture of that airfield on May 21, 1941, was the turning point, as the Germans were able to start landing additional troops and heavy weapons.

Bismarck saga -- spotted again

Aerial photo of the Bismarck

At 1:15 p.m. on May 21, 1941, the Bismarck was spotted by a reconnaissance Spitfire in Grimstadfjord, Norway.

Bismarck saga -- Norway

The Bismarck task force entered Korsfjord, near Bergen around 8 a.m. on May 21, 1941.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Last World War I combat veteran dies

News comes that the last veteran of World War I who served in action has died , 93 years after the end of the war.

The is a woman still alive in England who served as a uniformed waitress in England who is believed to be the last surviving "service member" from the Great War.

Shortly the war will have passed out of living memory for good.

World War II is just a couple decades behind -- if it's similar to the WWI story we will lose the last veteran of World War II somewhere around 2038-2040. God willing I may see that day, should I live to be 85.

Bismarck saga -- spotted

The Swedish warship Gotland as depicted in the Axis & Allies War at Sea naval miniatures game

Around 1 p.m. the Bismarck was spotted by the Swedish warship Gotland in the Kattegat, the sea region between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. As Sweden was a neutral power there was nothing the Bismarck could do about it and the Germans assumed that the British would learn about the Bismarck sortie from the Swedes. And, in fact, they did, although it's easy to overstate the impact of the Gotland's sighting report because it was just one of three, independent, sources that reported that the Bismarck was at sea. The British also learned about the sailing from an agent in Gotenhafen and from a spotting report from the Norwegian resistance.

The Gotland was an interesting and unique ship. Since the invention of flight there have been various attempts to combine the advantages of an aviation ship with the conventional capabilities of a surface warship. Some famous examples include the Japanese scout cruiser Chikuma, the Japanese hybrid battleship Hyuga, the French helicopter cruiser Jean Bart and the Russian ships Moskva and Kiev. Generally these experiments have come up short, with a vessel that's not robust enough for it surface role and yet inadequate in the aviation role compared to a dedicated ship.

The Gotland was on the small end for such hybrids at 4,600 tons, and was never tested in actual combat in its role of providing spotting aircraft for the nation's fleet of coastal battleships. It carried an air group of six recon float planes and a main battery of 6 6-inch guns. Yet in spotting the Bismarck the odd little cruiser arguable played a bigger wartime role than most other hybrids. While the British had reports from several sources that the Bismarck sailed, a spotting by a regular professional naval unit had to be considered definitive.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bismarck saga -- Danish waters

A satellite view shows the Great Belt, in the center, through Denmark

About 2 a.m. on May 20 the Bismarck task force transited the Great Belt in Danish waters, taking about 4 hours.

Bismarck saga -- German destroyers

Narvik-class German destroyer

Around 11:30 p.m. on May 19 a third German destroyer joined the Bismarck's task force as it got ready to pass through the narrow waters between Denmark and Sweden.

It may be wondered why no destroyers accompanied the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen on their foray. Surely a flotilla of escorts would have been useful.

In fact, however, destroyers were inherently limited in ways that precluded using them on long-range commerce-raiding missions. They were small ships which limited the amount of fuel they could carry -- but being tactically useful required them to move fast, which burned prodigious amounts of fuel. In addition the very rough sea conditions common in the North Atlantic often meant they had to slow down in order to avoid serious damage. In many cases a battleship or cruiser could move through stormy seas faster than a destroyer. Being slowed by rough weather was tolerable when acting as an escort vessel -- the merchant ships were slower anyway and the rough seas affected them as well. Likewise the destroyer's main foe, submarines, was also a small vessel that was slow under water and above water was affected just as badly by rough weather.

Every navy found keeping destroyers fueled up a major challenge, but German destroyers, in particular, were short-legged, being designed for use close to home in the North Sea and Baltic. The Narvik class destroyers such as Z-23 were typical, having a range of just 2,180 nautical miles at a speed of 19 knots. In comparison, standard British destroyers like the J, K & L class or the Tribal class destroyers that harried the Bismarck in its final hours had a range of more than 5,000 nautical miles at a sped of 15 knots. Even so, there were several instances during the Bismarck operation where British destroyer operations were affected by fuel considerations.

This is illustrated in the Avalanche Press Second World War at Sea series game Bismarck where the destroyer Z-23 has just 5 fuel boxes while the tribal-class destroyer Zulu has 6 and the JKL-class DD Javelin has 7 fuel boxes. In SWWAS a box provides enough fuel to travel 24 squares on the operational map -- at 1 square per turn! A square represents 36 nautical miles. If, on the other hand, a destroyer goes at its top speed of 3 it will use half of a box in that one turn and the entire box on the next. The Bismarck has 13 fuel boxes -- enough to travel up to 312 zones at slow speed. The purpose-built commerce raiding pocket battleships such as the Admiral Scheer have 22 fuel boxes, enough for 528 zones and transoceanic range.

As we will see, even larger ships such as cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, often had fuel problems.

No, the Bismarck, which had a range of more than 8,000 miles at 19 knots and the Prinz Eugen, 7,000 nautical miles at 20 knots, were on their own once they left waters close to Germany. Even their much longer cruising ranges were insufficient for a war cruise and they relied on access to hidden German tankers to refuel at sea and remain on station long enough to be a threat.

Courtesy GROGnads from BoardgameGeek

Bismarck Saga -- The Prinz Eugen

Prinz Eugen

Accompanying the Bismarck on her ill-fated sortie was the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, named after Prince Eugene who collaborated so effectively with the British general Marlborough in the 1700s.

The Prinz Eugen was a very large heavy cruiser, displacing over 16,000 tons, making it over half again as large as the British "treaty' heavy cruisers it was likely to face. It was also much more modern than British counterparts such as the Norfolk and Suffolk, being 10 years newer.

The Prinz Eugen was well-armored, with a 3-inch belt, 1.25-inch deck and over 6 inches on the turret faces and conning tower. It's firepower wasn't especially powerful considering the great size of the ship, with just 8 8-inch guns like the British heavies -- considerably fewer than the main batteries of many Japanese and American heavy cruisers. It did have the advantage of the excellent German optics however. The secondary armament comprised a dozen 4.1-inch guns.

One interesting aspect of the design was that it was deliberately made to resemble the German capital ships and it especially resembled the Bismarck at a distance. This seemingly minor point would play a significant role in the upcoming operation. Compare the appearance of the Prinz Eugen, above, with the silhouette view of the Bismarck, below, taken from Prinz Eugen.

Unlike the Bismarck, which had a remarkably short active career, the Prinz Eugen was a fortunate ship and survived World War II. It was finally expended as a target during atomic testing after the war. Much of what we know from the German perspective comes from the Prinz Eugen, including several dramatic photographs from the Battle of the Denmark Straits.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen rendevous with escorts

Around noon on May 19, the Bismarck the the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen rendezvous with two destroyers off the island of Ruegen in the Baltic.

Bismarck Saga

2 a.m., May 19, the Bismarck departs Gdyania on its way to Norway.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

70th anniversary of the Bismarck saga

Bismarck seen from the cruiser Prinz Eugen

70 years ago today, around noon, the Battleship Bismarck left dockside at Gotenhafen (Gdynia, now Gdanysk, Poland) in the Baltic Sea, marking the beginning of Operation Rheinubung. It would actually leave the next day, spending the balance of this day at anchor in the harbor taking on stores.

The Bismarck story is one of the best-known of World War II, being one of the few batles to reallt permeate the public conciousness. Ther ehave ben best-selling books, a movie and the famous undersea explorer Dr. Robert Ballard's discobery of the ship's wreck to keep the ship's story in the public eye for decades. It is, indeed, a story of high drama and I'll be following along the next 10 days as we mark various 70th anniversary events assocaited with the ship's sinking.

The Bismarck, itself, was one of the most powerful battleships to see action in World War II. A handsome-looking ship, it does have some critics. The main battery of eight 15-inch guns was powerful, but the four-turret, 2-mount each layout was a bit old-fashioned compared to the triple-turrets favored by fast battleship designers in America, Japan and Italy. The single-pupose secondary armament (5.9-inch anti-ship weapons) and tertiary armament (4.1-inch AA guns) was also less efficient than the dual-purpose weapons in the latest foreign designs.

Where the Bismarck excelled was in overall toughness. It was heavily armored, with 12-inch belt armor and 14-inch turret and conning tower armor. The deck was 3.5 inches, which is not exceptional, but the ship was very efficiently subdivided and in the event it proved very hard to sink her.

Its maximum speed of 30 knots was matched by only a handful of Royal Navy warships, none as powerful as the Bismarck.

Overall the Bismarck overmatched any single British capital ship, so the British planned on double-teaming the Bismarck to even the odds.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

AAM Heraklion session report

As official support for the Axis & Allies Miniatures game fades away one thing that's become less common is new official scenarios, although the online fan community has kept up its output. While there were quite a few official scenarios published before the scale change, the only new scenarios have appeared in the Expanded Rule Book and the Eastern Front and Desert Map Packs. There haven't been any published since Early War and Counter Offensive came out.

One consequence of this is that a lot of early scenarios used various proxies for units that later became available in the system, so as I've revisited those old scenarios I've adjusted the orders of battles to reflect the availability of new units.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Invasion of Crete, and it just so happens there's an official scenario from the Expanded Rules that covers a portion of the fighting -- Heraklion on page 44. So we played the first game of a match set, with me taking the Allies.

The scenario uses Maps 5 and 7 from the Expanded Rules. The battlefield features a small, 3-hex village near the center of the 2-map arrangement, with a 1-hex pond next to it and surrounded by several patches of woods and some hills.

The Axis forces are from the German 1st Battalion, 1st Fallschirmjaeger (Parachute) Regiment. The published order of battle includes an MG 42 machine gun team, but that weapon wasn't actually fielded until 1942. The new Counteroffensive set, however, now gives the Germans the MG 34 that they started the war with, so I substituted that. Being slightly less powerful than the MG 42 this MG team is only valued at 8 points, so I boosted one of the FJ units in the original OB to a Veteran FJ to keep the Germans even in points. As the Invasion of Crete was probably the high point for the German parachutists this seemed appropriate. That gave the German player three regular Fallschirmjaegers and the one Veteran FJ unit. Rounding out the German force was a light mortar, a Wehrmacht Expert Sniper and a Grizzled Veteran German hero.

The German units were set up at start instead of using the Paratrooper special ability.

The Allies, however, set up first. The Allied force, representing elements of the 14th Infantry Brigade, comprised the following: Four SMLE No. 4 Rifle units, one Vickers Machine-Gun Team, one Veteran (Australian) SMLE Rifleman, one Bren Machine Gunner, one 40mm Bofors L60 and three Greek Soldiers. The Greek soldiers, which became available with the North Africa set, replaced the three Communist Partisans in the original OB, which the scenario notes "represent the Greek soldiers who fought heroically with substandard equipment." In this case the point values were the same, so no further adjustment was required.

The German victory conditions were to either control all three hexes of the village OR have a unit in cover on the east edge of Map 7, which essentially meant in the hill or woods hex on that edge.

My biggest concern during the set up was to keep the Germans from getting an early shot at the Bofors, which was very vulnerable to the sniper and the MG 34. By scenario special rule the Bofors was also "Dug In," so I'd be unable to move it after the initial placement. I decided to place it on the small knoll east of the town where it could fire on all three town hexes and also cover the approaches to the East Edge victory hexes, while being out of sight from any German set-up hex. In the village itself I placed the four SMLE rifles and the Bren gunner while the Vickers went into the patch of woods south of the pond where it could cover the front of the town with grazing fire. The Veteran Aussie garrisoned the East edge victory hexes and formed my reserve while I set up the Greeks divided between the two patches of woods north and south of the Bofors knoll., ready to either reinforce the town or block any German dash for the East edge. The Greek Fury 2 special ability would give then 2 extra attack dice for the rest of the game once a German unit bit the dust, so it seemed best to keep them out of the initial firefight if possible.

Here we made a mistake, although I think it helped my opponent. By scenario rules the German units were to deploy second within five hexes of the West edge of map 5 -- but not adjacent to each other. I overlooked that, however, so the Germans set up in a tight group just West of the patch of woods west of the village -- except for the Sniper, who started in the woods in the southwest corner of the map. This part of the German deployment was a bit flawed because the sniper didn't start with a line of sight to the Vickers team.

My German opponent's apparent plan was to rely on the defensive strength of his FJ and Hero infantry (five units with defense of 5!) to carry though a frontal attack on the village via the West woods.

The first turn was spent moving the strike force into position while the sniper took a shot that managed to disrupt one SMLE rifle in town. The three regular FJ occupied the northernmost woods hex facing the ton while the hero, veteran FJ and MG 34 team took the south hex. The mortar stayed back for now due to stacking limits. The British reaction was to move the Bren gunner to the ridge north of town, joined by one Greek soldier while the SMLE and other Greek units stayed in the village.

The next four turns were basically a slugging match between the two forces across the narrow gap between the woods and the village. The Bren gunner gave the Allies an early break by suppressing the MG34 long enough for Vickers and riflemen to take it out. Frustratingly for the Germans the Vickers team proved to be especially adept at making its cover rolls and despite several potential kill shots, the Germans never could do more than disrupt it.

Meanwhile, it turned out that the knoll where the Bofors set up had a line of fire to the woods hex with the FJ squads and the withering fire (9 dice) from that weapon started to pay off and soon a FJ was down, giving the Greek soldiers their bonus. By turn 5 the Germans had lost two FJ and the MG 34 while the Allies were down two SMLE and the Bren. As it was becoming apparent that the Germans weren't going to try for the East edge victory hexes the Aussie SMLE moved forward.

With time running out the Germans made a dash into the town on Turn 6, losing the hero. The Germans conceded at that point as it was clear there were simply too many surviving Allied soldiers for the Germans to kill in the time remaining -- four perfect kill shots with 100% failed cover rolls would still leave at least one Allied unit alive in town.

Next session we will switch sides. I think the Allied set up was pretty effective and I expect to see my opponent adopt something similar, although perhaps a little more forward deployed because he tends to play aggressively and my set up may have left some units underemployed.

Even though the German force is rated at 65 points to the Allied 48 points, this does look like a challenge for the Germans -- especially because on my turn playing I'll have to follow the actual rules and set up with the Germans spread out!

Based on this session, I think that I'll have to try a more maneuver-oriented strategy when it's my turn as the Germans. Stay tuned.

Dungeons & Dragons meets Axis & Allies?

One wonders after seeing the promotional pictures just released by WOTC.

It looks like an A&A-style global conquest game simply set in a fantasy universe.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Projects upcoming

Daily posts have been sparse lately, I'm afraid. Besides coping with the fallout from the layoff I have been working on some game-rated projects which I hope to have up and running soon which will goose the post frequency a bit.

In the meantime I thought I'd mention a little side trip I took off into Ameritrash land with recent acquisitions of Last Night on Earth, A Touch of Evil and Invasion From Outer Space. These are all full of thematic flavor of the most campy sort, but that's what makes them fun. The production values are top-notch and the game systems are straightforward, fast-playing and fun. I'm hoping to post a session report shortly.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

More hints from Baker about the upcoming War at Sea set

His latest blog contain a big hint that the Montana will be among the ships in the new set. It's already been figured out by sharp-eyed bloggers that an O-class German battlecruiser will be in the set, so we have at least two hypothetical ships in the set already. This will bring complaints from the usual quarters, of course, but I don't have any problem with hypothetical ships myself. One of the nice things about naval wagrames is the ability to test out interesting what-ifs in any case.

There simply aren't that many naval battles in history to be restricted to historical match-ups. Naval battles are much more rare than land battles for a host of reasons, so hypothetical s have always been part of the landscape for naval gamers. I don't see an awful lot of difference between a game that allows a duel between the Bismark and the Iowa and one that allows a duel between the Friedrich der Grosse and the Montana. Both were impossible unless history played out quite differently.

I do agree that RB's plans need to make sure that the key historical pieces make it to collectors before the line ends, but we're in pretty good shape on that score. I think the only gaping hole in the line at this point is the Hiryu, which is a mandatory ship given its participation in Pearl Harbor and Midway.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Battle of the Starter Sea -- analysis and strategy for the Axis & Allies War at Sea 2010 Starter -- Part II: The Allies

Continuing the discussion of strategy and tactics for the 2010 Starter Set, we now turn to the Allied Task Force.

Like the Japanese squadron, the centerpiece of the Allied force is a high-quality cruiser, the Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Montpelier. In the context of World War II there's little operational difference between "light" cruisers and "heavy" cruisers built under the terms of the interwar naval treaties, as the 6-inch gun "lights" made up in rate of fire and number of guns any deficiency in firepower they might have had compared to their 8-inch gun "heavy" sisters. War at Sea reflects this as well, with Montepelier's point value, armor and attack dice comparable to many heavies. The Montpelier is just one point less than Haguro. While its close-range main battery gunnery is a little lower than the Japanese ship's, it has higher secondary factors and a longer range main battery and its armor value is higher as well. Indeed, the only major hole in its capabilities is a lack of torpedoes.

On the other hand, the Montpelier really doesn't want to get close enough to use torpedoes anyway, as its biggest advantage over the Haguro is range. The Extended Range 4 special ability allows it to fire at the Haguro without being shot at in return if teh Montpelier is undamaged and the Haguro is four squares away. Montpelier's Flagship 1 SA makes that happy state of affairs slightly more likely than not because the Allies will tend to win the initiative more often. It is a slight edge, however, and it's hard to guarantee the Haguro won't get within range on occasion. The Montpelier's 5 Armor value gives it a reasonable chance of avoiding damage from a long-range Haguro shot, which is important for retaining that range advantage and the Radar Fire Control SA which gives the US cruiser an extra die when attacking. The Montpelier's Heavy Antiair SA allows it to provide an AA umbrella over the entire task force if they stay close, which is very useful in thwarting the Betty's attempts to pick off a destroyer.

The Montpelier in the larger game: A useful unit at a reasonable cost that should figure in US fleet builds.

The second-most powerful Allied unit is the TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bomber. While its attacks are not execptionally strong, they are enough to provide a real threat to the Japanese ships and sub. But the more frustrating value from the Japanse standpoint is the Avenger's more value of 5 and Vital armor of 8, which mean that it's hard to abort the plane and even harder to shoot it down. The Haguro's AA value is just 7 and the Terutsuki is a 6, so it will take a better than average rill to abort the TBF and a very good roll to shoot it down. But wait, there's more. The Aenger is also "Rugged," so an attack that rolls exactly 8 successes only succeeds in shooting the Avenger down half the time, otherwise it's aborted. Once per game the Avenger can make a 6-die bomb attack instead of its torpedo attack, which is a good way to crippled the Terutsuki.

The TBF-1 Avenger in the larger game: This version of the Avenger is slightly less capable than the one in the Task Force set, but it's also cheaper, so it a useful addition to the US order of battle.

The two Allied destroyers are very similar in combat value and points. The USS Taylor's special ability of Sub Hunter, its 3 armor value and 6 AA value mark it as the unit that might risk an indepedent foray to hunt the I-25 or claim the objective. Besides being slightly more vulnerable, the HMAS Nizam's smoke screen ability can come in handy if the Allied side loses an inititiative roll.

The USS Taylor and HMAS NIzam in the larger game. Both ships have multiple sister ships in the game with a varying assortment of special abilities, so which one gets used will depend on the build strategy in play and nationality/year restrictions. Compared to the HMS Javelin the Nizam is more surface battle oriented while the Hr. Ms. Van Galen is not quite as good -- but it's Dutch. The US has a bunch of Fletcher-class destroyers to choose from, with the Taylor in the middle on points.

Overall strategy for the Allies involves trying to keep the range long so the Montpelier can gain an early edge over the Haguro. Meanwhile the Avenger and the Taylor try to suppress the I-25.