Monday, December 31, 2012

End of the Year! Monitor lost 150 years ago

USS Monitor loss
The last day of 1862 saw the loss of the USS Monitor and 16 crewmen as the ship sank in rough weather. Seaworthiness was always an issue with the type. The same design characteristics which made it a tough target also meant that it couldn't deal with rough seas very well.

Amazingly most of the crew was saved.

More images here:

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ancient Kings -- review and comment

The newest expansion set for Wizard Kings is Ancient Kings, historically themed armies fully compatible with Wizard Kings 2d Edition. Some may wonder what, if anything, this expansion brings to the game.

The answer is both less -- and more -- than it seems.

The "less" is that there's literally nothing actually new as far as game mechanics go in this expansion. There are no new rules or abilities. The only point of departure, aside from naming the units after various historical forces, is a set of cards with Army-specific "Divine Rituals" that their associated clerics can invoke, much the same as the wizard spells in standard Wizard Kings.

It's also "less" in that there's nothing to prevent a player from mixing in the new units with his existing Wizard Kings armies or spicing up his Ancient Kings armies with Chaos creatures, were-beasts, artifacts, heroes or treasures from WK. In many ways WK is a game kit, more than just a game, and the exact nature of the game YOU play will depend not just on the scenarios selected, but the armies you own, the expansions you have bought, your choice of maps and even the specific units you build during the course of a game.

If you do mix, some of the combos might seem a bit unsettling. The block color matches are Chinese = Orcs; Japanese = Dwarves; Persians = Elves; Romans = Amazons; Greeks = Barbarians; Huns = Undead and Egyptians = Feudals/Ferkins.

It can be "more" however, in my opinion, if you exercise some restraint and play Ancient Kings more on its own terms, than just as more blocks for Wizard Kings. Played that way, the game will feel a little different.

One of the fascinating things about block games is how subtle changes can have a big impact in the way the game plays, despite relatively minor changes in game mechanics. Games such as Hammer of the Scots, Crusader Rex and Richard III: The Wars of the Roses share very similar game systems, but play quite uniquely.

Ancient Kings provides a much more military game than the more fantastic Wizard Kings. For one thing, the Chaos and Were-creatures do not figure in the game, unless of course you add some in from WK. This is not to say that the Ancient Kings armies are historical -- they are not. Aside from many anachronisms in the unit mix, there are also some fantasy elements in some of the armies. The Chinese have dragons, for example, and the Greeks have cyclops. And the there are the Gods, of course.

So Ancient Kings is clearly a history-themed game, not a historical wargame. This is not Julius Caesar.

The game will play out in a more military way because of the mix of unit capabilities that are present and what appears to be a deliberate attempt to accentuate the differences between the armies.

While every army has the same basic core units you'd expect -- such as cheap spearmen, some horse, forts and ships, there are also units unique to each and the mix provide by the semi-collectible nature of the expansion boxes mean that unless you spend a fortune, your armies are going to have different mixes of options when its time to build.

This is true of Wizard Kings as well, of course, although the Chaos units do a lot to blur those distinctions to the point that many scenarios put restrictions on how many Chaos units a player can have.

One very notable difference in AK compared to WK is in mobility. With the sole exception of the Chinese dragons, there are no flyers in Ancient Kings. The only Aquatics are ships and there are few Amphibians. Campaigns will play out along more conventional lines as far as approaches go. Whether this is a good thing or a drawback is a matter of taste. Things are likely to be a bit less free-wheeling than WK as a rule.

The role of clerics may at first seem to be a mere substitution for that of wizards, but that's misleading. There are some significant, if subtle, differences.

For one thing, clerics are not Flyers. They are more rare, on the whole, than wizards, on the counter sheets and you'll need to buy quite a few sets before you have more than a few.

Their Divine Rituals are generally similar to Wizard Spells. For example, The Chinese God Jurong Level 1 Ritual Spirit of Fire allows a 4 die attack at F2 with targeting allowed, whereas the Level 1 Orc Wizard Spell Fireball casts a 4 die attack at F2 with no targeting.

But Clerics don't have anything like a Henge for cheap rebuilding, so their spells are a little more costly. They are also a little harder to get off as well. While wizards in Wk come in two speeds. A+ and B+, all clerics are B# units. This means they can fight in a battle without casting spells, which is good, but it also means that an enemy army with a lot of A-speed units is going to get to act before the opportunity to invoke a ritual arises. So, while a defending Wizard in WK caught by a superior force gets a chance to do something to whittle down his foes, a Cleric in Ancient Kings will be ridden down and slaughtered instead.

The main thing lacking in Ancient Kings right now are scenarios suited to its nature. A handful of Wizard Kings scenarios from the scenario book downloadable from the Columbia Games Web site seem like they would work well for AK armies. Exxxtreme Conquest, Gold Train, Neutral Buffer Zone, Lost Relics, Sleeping Wyvern and Two Front War all seem playable with no changes. Many other scenarios can probably be adapted as well, but a few Ancient Kings specific scenarios would be a positive development.

So is Ancient Kings worth getting? Probably not if you're just looking for something to add to your Wizard Kings games. It doesn't really add anything you don't already have. Probably yes if you'd like to play a Wizard Kings style game that's a little less chaotic and random and more strategic. In most block games strategic play involves the execution of a plan over several turns and it is very hard to recover from being outwitted. Wizard Kings, because of the proliferation of flying units and the powers and ubiquity of magic users and chaos units can be more chaotic in play and less strategic. If you are out maneuvered in Ancient Kings, you won't be able to fly over a wizard leading a corps of pixies, dragons and hippogrifs to save the day.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The ships of 1914 -- Spee's armored cruisers

Scharnhorst -- model by Navis

The central players in the drama of the 1914 affair were the sister ships KMS Scharnhorst and KMS Gneisenau. These two warships represented the heart of the military threat posed by Von Spee’s squadron.  The accompanying light cruisers had a role to play, but they were minor warships and could be countered by similarly minor combatants that would have negligible affects on the naval balance.

                The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in contrast, were capital ships, albeit of an obsolescent type in 1914.  They were armored cruisers – a type of capital ship that had a relatively short heyday as such major warships go. The first “armored cruiser” were in the 1870s and the very last armored cruiser was the HMS Defense, completed in 1908, so the total length of time this type was in first-line service was barely four decades.
                Still, while they didn’t serve very long as first-line units, they did play prominent roles in the several of the battles that occurred during the pre-dreadnaught era, notably the Battle of Santiago in the Spanish-American War and the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. 

                The main reason why armored cruisers enjoyed their brief time in the sun was the undeveloped state of naval gunnery during the closing decades of the Nineteenth Century. Cannon technology grew by leaps and bounds during that era, resulting in naval artillery that could fire at unheard-of ranges with great accuracy. During the naval battles of the American Civil War and the Battle of Lissa, gunnery duels between ships were often still  measurable in hundreds of yards and it was practicable for ships to get close enough to use ramming tactics. This was despite the fact that the guns, themselves, could easily hurl projectiles for many miles.  The ranges the guns could fire increased even more over the ensuing decades but the problem of actually hitting the target remained. Long-range gunnery was inherently challenging, but naval gunnery added additional complexities as both the target and the firing ship were constantly changing position. At the Battle of Manila, Dewey’ fleet managed to achieve only 2-3% hits on the nearly immobile Spanish squadron. The destructive power of modern artillery was sufficient, however, that this was enough to annihilate the Spanish squadron. 

                Under the gunnery conditions of the late nineteenth century there seemed to be a lot to be said for volume of fire. The very largest naval guns, like those carried on battleships, were very destructive, but had such a slow rate of fire that there was little opportunity a gunner to successfully use the information from a miss to adjust  his fire to get closer on the next shot. Too much time would pass between shots and the relative positions of the ships would likely be so different that each shot was basically starting anew.  The higher rate of fire of smaller guns would not only throw a lot more metal in the vicinity of the target, but provided some chance for adjusting fire from misses.  Because of this, battleships of the ear commonly carried a mixed armament of some very heavy ship-smashing main guns, some medium caliber secondary guns and a tertiary battery of quick-firing guns for defense against light craft. 

                Armored cruisers essentially traded the large main battery guns for additional endurance and speed compared to battleship, but were often armored at similar levels and carried as their main battery guns equal in size to the secondary batteries of battleships.  As such they were generally able to stand in the line of battle alongside the battleships, as they did at Tsushima.

                By 1914, however, the situation had dramatically changed, and the armored cruiser was no longer able to stand in the line of battle. The Dreadnought concept of an all-big gun battleship and the similar Invincible class battle cruiser had changed the equation. Improvements in the large guns had increased their rate of fire and improvements in gunnery techniques were promising improvements in accuracy that suggested that having a uniform battery of large guns would be more effective than the mixed armament of earlier ships and that armored cruisers could no longer safely operate in the main battle line. 

                Still, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were still powerful ships, especially on detached stations such as the Far East, where dreadnought-type warships were still uncommon. 

                The two German ships were conservative designs, very well-built as was usual for German naval construction and well-armed. They were identical sister ships, and therefore worked well together as unit. Their main battery was a total of eight 8.1-inch guns,. Four of the guns were mounted in twin turrets fore and aft, but the other four were mounted in casements on the side, which meant that the total broadside was only six heavy guns.  Also in casements were the secondary battery guns, eight 5.9-inch guns, for total broadside of four. 

                They were well-protected with belt armor of 6 inches and a 2-inch armored deck and, like most German warships, well compartmented. 

                They were not especially speedy for armored cruisers, with maximum rated speeds of around 22 knots. This was enough to outrun any pre-dreadnought battleship but markedly slower than many British armored cruisers and hopelessly insufficient to outrun one of the new battle cruisers. This speed deficiency would play a major role in the outcome of the campaign and was a major consideration a Spee weighted his options.

                A bare recital of stats is not the sum total of a warship’s effectiveness in any era, but its especially important to note the more intangible aspects when evaluating the ship in this campaign. 

                The nature of the German East Asia Squadron’s mission, as  a detached squadron on a distant foreign station, had a major impact on its efficiency. All the crew members were long-service regular navy men, without any of the conscripts that filled out the rosters of homeland-based vessels. It was an elite posting and the two ships were widely regarded as efficient and well-led.

                This manifested itself in at least two ways. First, both ships were noted for their proficiency in gunnery, being recent and multiple-year winners of the German Navy’s gunnery competition. This had obvious implications in the coming engagements, as the tow German ships could be counted on to be very dangerous adversaries.

                Less visibly, but also vital, is that the two ships were evidently very well-served by their engineering crews. In an era when large ship engineering plants were still relatively new and often temperamental, the exceptional reliability of the two ships played a key, if little noted roles in the campaign. Von Spee confidently set forth on a journey of extraordinary length and with little available support if something should go wrong with his systems. In the event both ships performed exceptional feats of steaming right up until their final moments.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Great admirals and Jackie Fisher

I've been doing a lot of research recently about the Dreadnought era for a project I'm working on, and if there's an unavoidable figure when you are talking about dreadnoughts, it's John Arbuthnot Fisher, known as "Jacky," twice First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and the father of the modern Royal Navy.

From midshipman ...
Fisher is a fascinating character study, of course, but there are a lot of fascinating characters who are disastrous leaders. Leaving aside his indelible personality, I'd like to consider the prejudice against non-"fighting" commanders among many when they consider the "greatness" of  a leader.

Now, undoubtedly, combat is the final arbiter, when it comes to a clash of arms. In the end, the man in the trench has to be given due consideration on the day of battle. But, especially in modern war, events at the trench level are usually the culmination of a long progression of events and forces that begin long before the trench was dug -- and sometimes even before the trench digger was born.

Because of this, its not uncommon for a leader to play an enormous role in the eventual victory of his side, while never being close enough to hear the sound of the guns, From World War II we have the example of George C. Marshall, who was sorely disappointed when Eisenhower was picked to be Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. FDR was convinced that Marshall did much more for the war effort as Chief of Staff -- and few doubt that FDR was entirely correct. Marshall, himself, probably realized it.

... to First Sea Lord -- twice
 Admiral Chester Nimitz is another well-known example. Many accounts consider Yamamoto's opponents at Midway to be Fletcher and Spruance, the admirals in tactical command. But in many ways his real opposite number was Nimitz -- and in a real sense, the fact that Yamamoto was at sea and Nimitz was not is an irrelevant detail.

Likewise, Jackie Fisher was not at sea in 1916 when the Battle of Jutland was fought. Indeed, he wasn't even First Sea Lord any more, having been retired from the job for the second time the year before. But the British Grand Fleet at Jutland was Jackie Fisher's fleet -- as sure as it would have been if he had been on the bridge of the HMS Iron Duke himself. Admiral John Jellicoe, who was on that bridge, was Fisher's hand-picked man to lead the fleet. There was hardly a ship in the entire fleet that was more than a decade old. With the exception of a handful of older types, nearly all the ships were directly or indirectly his brainchild. The dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers were his conception. The fleets of destroyers, too. He coined the term "torpedo boat destroyer" for the new class of ships.

Circumstances prevented Fisher from ever leading a fleet into battle, but I'd rank him right along with Nelson, myself. 

Adm. Chester Nimitz is another  was a

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Firepower in Connecticut

Let me start with a disclaimer that Friday's tragic events in Newtown, CT, hit very close to home and it's not my intention to reopen this blog for political debates. I decided a few years ago to separate my US politics comments from the game blog.

But I do think its instructive to point out that the norms of political debate in the US surrounding guns is fraught with language designed to obscure the issue rather than illuminate it.

It appears that the main weapon, if not the sole weapon, used by the shooter in the school massacre was something known as a Bushmaster .223. This is the sort of weapon that the media likes to call an "assault weapon," which gets all sorts of juices flying -- for all sorts of wrong reasons, really.

Strictly and technically speaking, it is not an "assault rifle." It's not capable of fully-automatic fire and I wouldn't be surprised if it falls short of military grade requirements for robustness and accuracy as well. It's not a military weapon.

But, once we understand that the requirements of media reporting require the use of various shorthand terms that are quickly grasped by a non-technical public, the use of the term "assault weapon" becomes more understandable. Nearly everybody who has ever seen a general media story about a topic they happen to know well sees all sorts of errors, over-simplifications and instances of misplaced emphasis. It really seems to be an inherent part of the beast. There are very few topics or species of human endeavor that could be adequately explained in the 500 to 1,000 words that a print reporter has. Broadcast media, naturally, has just a fraction of that.

So calling something like the Bushmaster an "assault weapon" does clue the general, non-technical reader in that this weapon has features that distinguish it from older semi-automatic weapons. The weapon bears an obvious relationship to the M-16 family of weapons.

The shooter made the distinction. Aside from the two pistols, which had obvious advantages in handiness and ease of transport, the shooter evidently had four long-arms to choose from in his mother's collection. Aside from the Bushmaster, which is a magazine rifle, there was a Henry Repeating Rifle and two blot-action weapons.

There are still conflicting reports on exactly which weapons were used. Many reports still say that he used the pistols and the Bushmaster was still in his car. Today's report indicates that the children were all killed by the rifle and that all of the kids had between 3-11 wounds! I was always dubious that a shooter would choose to NOT use the rifle and use pistols but there is, frankly, no way that you could shoot that many people that many times using a couple of pistols. Even using the rifle would seem to require changing the magazine several times during the rampage.

I think few members of the general public have a real appreciation for the effects of modern firepower. Sometimes I think that many gun owners don't. The effects are not always really apparent  from the firing end of the weapon, which is all most people who are not hunters will ever see. TV and movies don't help. For every Saving Private Ryan there are a dozen Rambos. Video games also obscure as much as they reveal. Sure, there's a lot of dramatic gore, but after their heads blow off the zombies/commies/aliens etc. usually disappear.

Even paper wargames typically don't clutter up the map board with the debris of battle. The dead simply disappear, with a few notable exceptions. While I understand why designers don't want to clutter up the map -- and also probably don't want to make their games too gruesome, I think there's something to be said for keeping a little reality check in place.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Guns of Gettysburg heads for a Kickstart

Evidently the long-awaited Guns of Gettysburg is going to be published by an outfit by the name of Mercury Games instead of under Bowen Simmons' own Simmons Games imprint and it's going to be financed via Kickstarter, probably in January or February.

This is good news for those of us waiting for the game, of course, although on a personal note, it implies that the health problems that have delayed Bowen Simmons from getting the game published (it's apparently been basically finished for more than a year) are not expected to get better any time soon.

Some people don't like the new cover, shown above, preferring the old one, at right. I don't have a strong opinion. I think the old one is a little more period evoking and classy, but it was really geared towards the existing fan base. Kickstarter means exposing the project to a larger audience that is unfamiliar with Simmons' groundbreaking earlier work with Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph and therefore the cover will have to "sell" the game more than it did before.

On the other hand, I think this means that the initial print run for the game will be much larger than what we saw for BaM and NT.

The game, itself, is the sort of groundbreaking, paradigm shattering work we've come to expect from Simmons. The basic fact about Simmons is that unlike nearly every other wargame designer out there, he doesn't work off one of the existing wargame models, whether hex-based or area-based, whether CRT or bucket of dice, whether counters or figures, etc. He starts from first principles of terrain, order of battle and combat effects and designs a system from the ground up, as it were. So far this has resulted in a couple of elegant and outstanding games that are often pretty hard for the traditional hex-and-CRT-familiar wargamer to wrap his head around. Once you do, however, you're well rewarded. Both games really make you think as a player, intensely and deeply. Guns of Gettysburg looks to be much the same. Can't wait.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Big E lives on!!

USS Enterprise CVN-65 inactivation ceremony

The big news at the inactivation ceremony was the announcement that the next Ford class carrier, CVN-80, will be called the USS Enterprise!

USS Enterprise CV-6 in 1939
There have been eight ships named USS Enterprise (and a few historic British ons of that name as well) but the last couple were clearly the most famous of the lot.

The first "Big E" was CV-6, the USS Enterprise of World War II fame. Planes from that Enterprise sunk two Japanese aircraft carriers at the decisive battle of Midway and the Big E served to the end of the war -- the only one of her class to survive. The battle honors of the USS Enterprise CV-6 were extensive -- 20 Battle Stars -- including taking part in three of the four big carrier-to-carrier battles of 1942.
With the USS Bainbridge and USS Long Beach in 1964

The Enterprise also took part in the two big carrier battles of 1944, the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, so basically the ship only missed one of ALL the carrier battles ever fought.

Attempts to preserve her as a memorial did not pan out and the ship was scrapped in 1958. This may have been for the better, in a way, because it freed up the name for use in the innovative ship to follow.

USS Enterprise CVN-65 reprises the famous photo while home-bound in 2012
The USS Enterprise CVN-65 had a big act to follow, and the ship managed to do it, as proven today when it was finally inactivated after an astonishing 51 years of service. A few warships of the past have served similarly long periods, but I don't think any, since the Age of Sail, have served as first-line battle fleet units for more than 50 years. It's a tribute to the flexibility of the modern CVN that it's so adaptable that it can still be a main force battle unit even as weapons evolve over 50 years.

Because of the nuclear reactors, there was never any serious consideration of preserving this edition of the USS Enterprise. Decommissioning the reactors literally requires dismantling most of the ship, so that was that for that idea.

The next USS Enterprise CVN-80, will be a Ford-class carrier. This class is similar in appearance to the Nimitz class CVNs but will have many improvements. It's scheduled to enter service in 2025, so there will, sadly, be a pretty long gap without an active USS Enterprise, but at least an end is in sight.

Artists depiction of the USS Gerald R. Ford. The next USS Enterprise will be similar

Friday, November 30, 2012

Lincoln movie -- see it!

I'll be honest. My interest in military history tends to be of the old-school variety -- battles, weapons and such. I know that Von Clausewitz said, "War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace."

That said, it's vast subject and one has to focus ones gaze at least a bit, even when as eclectic as me, so I do tend to study the "how" of war more so than the "why." Despite that, there's still room to remember that there always IS a "why" and in that vein I'd like to recommend Steven Spielberg's new movie Lincoln for illuminating the "why" better than nearly any other film i can think of.

I've always been convinced that the U.S. Civil War was about slavery, fundamentally, despite arguments floated about "States' Rights" and "Tariffs" and other distractions. Everything I've read from contemporary sources seems to dispel any notion that the people involved were confused about what was at stake. Lincoln's Second Inaugural sums it up best: "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war."

I'm not a movie reviewer, so I won't attempt to judge Spielberg or Daniel Day-Lewis as craftsmen. Go to Rotten Tomatoes for that. But as a wargamer, and one with a particular interest in the Civil War, it was valuable to be reminded of the greater context of the war and what was at stake in a way that paid an extraordinary fidelity to history for a Hollywood product. This is not to imply that Lincoln was flawless, it is a movie after all. Even 2.5 hours is far too little time to depict the complexities thoroughly. But that's always true of any piece of art. No painting -- or wargame -- can capture 100% of the truth of any incident, but we still recognize the skill of someone like Don Troiani when he paints a battle scene or Mark Herman when he designs a game like For the People because they focus our eyes on the essence of the event.

So, likewise, does this movie. In a conversation with the local city historian I remarked the other day that this movie depicted the reality of political deal-making better than anything I have ever scene on film. As Americans we claim to love Democracy -- and yet we tend to take a rather moralistic and purist take on political issues. Many will speak with derision about "playing politics" and being a "politician" is rarely ,meant as a compliment.  And yet, no one who has any experience with actual political activities, whether as a participant or a close observer, can escape noticing how messy it is -- and how morally compromising it can be. Lincoln, I think, performs a valuable lesson by illustrating how things really work. To modern eyes, there can be no doubt as to the worthiness of the goal -- and yet the movie lays out in explicit terms the sort of compromises necessary to make that worthy goal a reality.

Many reviews have noted the activities of the three lobbyists working for Secretary of State William Seward and their efforts to woo the handful of Democratic votes needed to get the measure passed. Those efforts involved a lot of tactics that were of doubtful legality even in that more free-wheeling age, let alone by today's sensibilities.

But I think the bigger lesson revolves around Thaddeus Stevens, the firebrand Radical Republican abolitionist leader. There was no doubt he favored the goal, but he questioned whether it went far enough. To the modern ear he's the closest thing to a real, principled hero in the entire story. He comes off as much more principled  than the "saintly" Lincoln. Of Stevens' commitment to racial equality there can be no doubt. It's Lincoln who equivocates about the relationship between blacks and whites, when asked. 

And yet, as the movie makes clear, Stevens had to compromise his principles, publicly, in order to reach the goal. That is a valuable lesson for the Internet purity troll and the backyard BBQ blowhard who rails about "politics" and "politicians" and opines that "compromise" is a dirty word. What Lincoln and Stevens understood was that principles and compromise are not opposing concepts. Lincoln and Stevens clearly had their principles. Hundreds of thousands died for those principles. But they had the wisdom to understand that compromise on inessential points could be in service of those principles -- not a violation of them.

See the movie. More than once if you can.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Interesting graphic on global Cvs

There's been a lot of attention recently about the strength of the Navy, most recently in the third presidential debate as the Republican candidate has made increasing the size of the Navy one of his key campaigning points. Similarly there's been a thread on BoardgameGeek about the USN vs. The Rest of the World., as well, which is where this graphic was lifted from.. I don't know the original source, but it does display rather starkly the differences in capability that we are talking about.

Especially noteworthy is the inclusion of the US navy's amphibious assault ships in the list. Often commenters compare the 11 CVNs to the 11 carriers owned by the ROTW, but this is misleading because many of those 11 other carriers are really much more like the amphibious ships than they're like US carriers. Indeed, NO ONE has a carrier that's truly comparable to an American CVN. The seven British, Thai, Spanish and Italian vessels are basically the same as the nine amphibious ships, although generally smaller.

This leaves just five ships that could possibly be called some sort of "fleet" carrier, one each for Brazil, Russia, China, India and France. Again, all of them are notably smaller than an American CVN.

Hyuga, right, with a US Nimitz-class CVN
Of the 11 foreign carriers of all flavors, seven belong to NATO allies and the US has friendly relations with most of the rest. Only the Russian and Chinese carriers might plausibly be considered in opposition to the USN.

One might give the ROTW a little more than 11 "carriers," though because I think you could fairly consider the Japanese "destroyers Hyuga and Ise as really being light aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships at least comparable to the smaller Spanish and Italian ships shown in the graphic. They're only called "destroyers" for political reasons having to do with the Japanese constitution and relations with neighboring countries.

Still, even adding those two doesn't change the odds in any meaningful way.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Operation Torch convoys depart for North Africa

On this date 70 years ago the American forces taking part in the invasion of North Africa, called Operation Torch, left their various anchorages, including Maine and Virginia.

Operation Torch was a remarkable endeavor. It was the first major offensive taken by the United States since the beginning of the war, almost a year earlier. It involved an amphibious invasion across the entire Atlantic Ocean, making it among the longest direct invasion voyages ever undertaken. And it did this while most of the amphibious techniques and equipment that would later make over-water operations almost routine for US forces were still being developed. The lessons from Operation Torch would pay dividends for the rest of the war.

By a few days, the USS Massachusetts beat out her sister ship the USS South Dakota and near sister USS Washington for the first shots fired by the 16-inch gun in action and the first battleship duel in US Naval history.

The entire force was organized as Task Force 34, otherwise known as the Western Task Force.

The sub groups were:

Task Group 34.1 Covering Group with the new battleship USS Massachusetts, heavy cruisers Wichita and Tuscaloosa, four destroyers and an oiler,
TG 34.8 Northern Attack Group with the old battleship USS Texas, the light cruiser Savannah, two escort carriers, nine DD, eight transports, five support ships and a submarine.
TG 34.9 Center Attack Group with the heavy cruiser Augusta and light cruiser Brooklyn, 10 DD, 15 transports and six minecraft.
TG 34.2 Air Group with the fleet carrier USS Ranger and the escort carrier Suwannee, the light cruiser Cleveland, five DD, an oiler and two submarines,
TG 34.10 Southern Attack Group with the old battleship USS New York, light cruiser Philadelphia, escort carrier Santee, eight DD, six transports, three minecraft, two oilers, a tug and a submarine.

Monday, October 22, 2012

When time stood still -- Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

Destroyer USS JOSEPH P KENNEDY JR sends a boarding party over to freighter Marucla during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962. NHHC photo USN 711187.

You don't go through life without a close call or two. I think most of us can think of at least one occasion where, if things had gone a little differently, we might not be here. But for anyone over the age of 50, there was a collective moment when it could all of come to an end -- late October 1962.

The Kennedy today at Battleship Cove
I was too young at the time to understand what was going on. I was seven years old in 1962, and I can't even recall from this distance any particular feeling of dread during the crisis. I remember knowing that something bad was going on -- and like most members of that duck-and-cover generation, there was a certain low-level terror that never really went away. I remember being under covers and hearing the engines of passing aircraft overhead and wondering if that plane, THAT noise, was the ONE.

I, for one, felt an enormous sense of relief after 1989, that I hadn't even really understood was there until it was no longer there. Notwithstanding 9/11, which brought its own kind of terror, things have been different since 1989. There's still danger in the world, and dangers in life, but instant  annihilation is not one of them.

But in October, 1962 it was  a very real possibility. We know now that the danger was even greater than we knew at the time. And I'm no great fan of John F. Kennedy, as his poorly conducted foreign policy played a not inconsiderable role in causing the crisis in the first place.

Scene from the movie Thirteen Days
The military reality was that the Soviets were not well placed to come out on top of a 1962 nuclear exchange -- even by the horrific metrics that the concept of coming out on top would entail. Evidently well aware of the unfavorable "correlation of forces" (to use the Soviet term), Khrushchev found away out of the crisis that preserved the Soviet state -- if not his job. 

Still, there's no way that "winning" a nuclear war is still not an enormous tragedy for any country, let alone a democratic one. The scarring of the national psyche by 9/11 provides a hint of what a nuclear exchange might have meant for America. It's not a world any of us would want to live in. And, of course, many of us wouldn't have lived in it. How many might have died is impossible to say. A figure of 100 million Americans and 100 million Soviets has been bandied about. I'm very skeptical that it would have been THAT high (that represents more than half of all the people in the country -- 179 million -- in 1962) but even a tenth of that amount would have been an unthinkable loss -- dwarfing the toll of all American wars.

In 1962 the Soviets had about 3,000 warheads, the United States maybe 10 times that number. The Soviets only had a couple dozen ICBMs in 1962 (which is why the MRBMs in Cuba were so attractive) and therefore would have had to rely on bombers to get through. There can be little doubt that some would have made it, but it's fruitless to even guess how many and which ones. Would even one bomb going off in just one major city have not been a disaster?

Fortunately it didn't come to that, but for the next quarter century there was a pretty complacent view in many quarters about the possibility of "surviving" or even "winning" a nuclear exchange. In my opinion, it wasn't until the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 that I think it dawned on even the most hard-headed and cold-hearted that the consequences of a nuclear exchange made concepts of winning and losing laughable. Chernobyl, as massive of a disaster as it was, was merely a fraction of the fallout of a nuclear exchange.

From the IAEA FAQ on Chernobyl:
12. How does Chernobyl’s effect measure up to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The accident at Chernobyl was approximately 400 times more potent than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. However, the atomic bomb testing conducted by several countries around the world during the 1960s and 1970s contributed 100 to 1,000 times more radioactive material to the environment than Chernobyl.

Note that the Hiroshima bomb was  about 16 kilotons yield, making it a tactical weapon by later Cold War standards.

From a gaming standpoint, there haven't been too many that looked expressly at the Cuban Missile Crisis alone, although it does figure as an important event card in the very popular Twilight Struggle game about the Cold war.  Maybe the most on-topic game legacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the darkly comic card game Nuclear War, which first appeared in 1965 -- less than two years later.

From the larger standpoint of the human race, it's worth noting that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just a little over 17 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe the scare was worth it, after all, because we've already gone half a century more without another nuke being used. That's a better track record than I think anyone could have hoped in 1962.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Remembering the reality of time -- Bunker hIll, Yorktown and the Founders

My wall calendar informs me that the Revolutionary War ended 231 years ago today. My wall calendar is, of course, wrong technically. The war didn't actually end until the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Oct. 19, 1781 is when the Siege of Yorktown ended. This was the de facto end of the fighting, but not the war. While nothing of military significance happened after Yorktown, this could not have been known at the time.

Which helps us keep in perspective that the great movements and events of history are only identifiable as such after the fact. The people living through them have a different perspective.

For example, I think for most contemporary Americans, the era of the "founders " is kind of a big blur. There's a "Tea Party," Lexington & Concord, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown and then a Constitution. Bang, America is born.

In fact, of course, an entire generation passed while all these events transpired. Let's consider a hypothetical Concord yeoman, 21 years old in  late December, 1773 and the proud father of a newborn son when he receives word of the Boston Tea Party.

He's 22 or 23 years old when he fights as a Concord minuteman during t he Siege of Boston and his boy is not quite 2 years old. By the time of Yorktown our yeoman farmer is 30 or so and his son is 8. The boy marks his 10th birthday around the time the peace treaty is signed and his dad is 32.

The Constitutional Convention occurs while the father is 35 and his son is 14 years old. They are about a year older when the Constitution is ratified and the pair are 37 and 16 respectively when Washington takes the oath of office as the first president. The babe that was swaddling clothes when the Tea Party start the ball rolling is ready to enter his own adult life.

A lot can happen in 16 years, and I think it's safe to say that no one who tossed tea into Boston Harbor could foresee the result 16 years later.

Something to remember, today, as we get ready to vote on Nov. 6. We can't really know what the world of 2028 will look like. A lot can happen in 16 years.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Strategy Page describes wargaming by Mexican Navy

An interesting, if general, article in Strategy Page describes some recent interest in naval wargaming by the Mexican Navy, inspired by exposure to USN naval wargaming, presumably at the Naval War College.

While US wargames rely heavily on computers, the article indicates a larger role for manual wargaming in the Mexican case. Given the kinds of threats the Mexicans have to cope with -- mostly drug cartels -- this seems appropriate. It's not like the Mexicans ned to track the activity of large fleets of ships, armed with clouds of missiles and backed by squadrons of aircraft like some NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation might  involve.

A more hands-on, creative and intimate approach by manual wargames would seem much more useful, I think.

The article doesn't mention any specific, but it does make me wonder if some version of the commercial Harpoon4 rules has found its way into the Mexican Navy's toolkit.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Part 2 of the Cape Esperance games

The Kirishima goes down from a  vital hit at close range by the USS West Virginia

Here's the second part of the Cape Esperance commemorative games I recently played.

As always, Andy did an excellent job of writing up the session.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A little commemoration of the Battle of Cape Esperance -- War at Sea style

The USS West Virginia advances under the steady hand of Admiral Owen in War at Sea

Andy R. and I played a doubleheader of War at Sea Thursday in commemoration of the Battle of Cape Esperance from the naval campaign around Guadalcanal. He reports on the event with one of his fantastic write ups as always.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A little more Benedict Arnold

The gunboat Philadelphia from Arnold's fleet

A year before Benedict Arnold saved his country by winning the Battle of Saratoga he saved his country by losing the Battle of Valcour Island.

Valcour Island was an unusual "b\naval" battle as it was fought on Lake Champlain, which is a large, but not enormous lake. The strategic significance of Lake Champlain is that, while not especially large, it is very long, making it an excellent "highway" for a supply line for an Eighteenth Century army in an otherwise nearly road-less wilderness.

In 1776 the British intended to advance from Canada using the long and narrow Lake Champlain as their main supply route.

The Americans built a fleet and Arnold, who had experience at sea from his pre-war business career, took command. The British were forced to also build a fleet to protect their supply line. On Oct. 11, 1776 those two fleets, about 15 vessels for the Americans and two dozen for the British met in battle at Valcour Island, about halfway down the lake. While Arnold's fleet was destroyed, the mere fact it existed and the British had been forced to deal with it delayed the campaign that year so late into the season that the British invasion had to be suspended.

Almost exactly a year later a second British effort down that path led to the decisive Saratoga campaign.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Benedict Arnold -- most foolish man in American history?

Today marks the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Bemis Heights, the second of the two battles of Saratoga that led directly to the capture of Burgoyne's army and the entry of the French into the war, thereby indirectly leading to overall victory.

The battle was the high point of the already illustrious career of one of the most remarkable military talents America ever produced -- and it also set in motion the chain of events that led to that man's name becoming as much a synonym for betrayal as the name Judas Iscariot achieved.

Yes, Benedict Arnold was the hero of the day for his conduct that day. While Gen. Horatio Gates took the credit, fair-minded opinion of the day and since has given Arnold the lion's share of the honor for the victory. But Arnold was very badly hurt that day, and he never again held an active field command for the American cause. Arnold was personally fearless in action and the Saratoga wound was not his first -- not even his first in that same leg.

While a talented battlefield commander, Arnold had some unfortunate character traits which led him to be jealous of fellow officers and feel slighted when his clear contribution to the cause of Independence were not recognized to the degree he felt was warranted. Some even go so far as to blame his new wife for his base betrayal of the Patriot cause.

Arnold's boot monument
Arnold has a particular interest here, locally, as he is probably the best-known native of Norwich, Conn. His reputation is, of course, irretrievable, but the distance of time has allowed some small remembrance of his vital contribution to the birth of America to occur. A small plaque sits by the side of a street in Norwich, marking the approximate site of the Arnold homestead. Nothing remains of the original structure, of course. Arnold was so despised that in the wake of his betrayal angry residents descended on the cemetery and tore up the headstones of most of his relatives, including that of an infant son's. Only his mother Hannah Arnold's stone was overlooked and remain there to this day.

At the Saratoga battlefield itself there's a monument to Arnold's boot, which doesn't even mention Arnold by name!

Arnold's attack on Groton
When he appears in wargames, Arnold invariably rates highly as a commander, although in a strategic level games such as Washington's War he presents a bit of a design problem. Naturally the benefit of hindsight clues the player that this highly capable general isn't entirely reliable, but if a game doesn't make Arnold a traitor he's likely to rival the "indispensable man" himself, George Washington as the main figure in the game. This isn't something most Americans are going to be able to stomach.

And it is, in truth, hard to gin up much of defense for Arnold. There's no evidence his change of heart was driven by some high principle. And infamously, he turned around and led British forces against his native region and was in field command during one of the war's major atrocities, the Battle of Fort Griswold, where a massacre occurred after the fall of the fort.

Given how many monuments and communities there are in America named after Washington, Lafayette, Greene, Wayne, KoĹ›ciuszko, v. Steuben, etc. there can't be any doubt that Arnold would have grown old showered with honors had he remained loyal. As honor and public acclamation appear to be what he desired most in life, surely he proved to be one of the biggest fools of American history. It's not unimaginable that  his hometown might have been renamed in his honor and I'd b writing this post from Arnoldton Conn. in the very shadow of some tall obelisk erected in his honor.  Instead he's got plaque.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Trains, snipers and defeat, oh my!

Position at the end of the game

Game Store Tony and I got in a game of Memoir '44 after a long break. This was an Eastern Front game but not part of our official grand campaign.

Instead we played the Kiev scenario from the Campaign Book Vol. 1, primarily because it includes an armored train and snipers. Armored trains are an interesting and unusual unit and the snipers gave me a chance to use the Equipment Pack Miniatures for the first time.

The battle, itself, was one of our closer run affairs, with Tony's Soviets pulling off a 5-4 victory at the end when the armored train finished off the fifth German unit for the win. My Germans had managed to kill off three Russian units and capture Kiev as well, but it wasn't enough.

Often the snipers have proven to be a marginally useful unit in past games but in this one they did a good job picking off pieces, including being the finishing blow for at least one victory medal. But the definite star for the Soviet side was the armored train, which is much more mobile and tougher than a regular artillery unit. In theory it's not as flexible as a regular gun because it's restricted to the train tracks, but in my experience you don't normally see a lot of movement by artillery units in Memoir '44, so overall I'd say an armored train is much better i tn eh game than a regular artillery unit.

The Equipment Pack  pieces are, for the most part, purely eye candy, although a few new units and rule are introduced. Still, the appeal of eye candy in Memoir '44 should not be underestimated, as that's an importamt part of the game's popularity. So the Equipment Pack sniper was an improvement over the perfectly serviceable standard game solution of an ordinary solider marked with a badge.  I went ahead and used the badge, too, but it would only be necessary in case both sides in a scenario had snipers -- a case that I don't think has occurred so far.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Coronel aftermath -- a solitaire session

The victorious German East Asia Squadron in Chile after the battle of Coronel

As the Battle of Coronel was being fought in the early evening of Nov. 1, the old battleship HMS Canopus was struggling against heavy seas and a balky engineering plant to catch up to Cradock's out-gunned squadron.  Cradock had left the Canopus behind, believing it to be too slow to be useful. Churchill had expected the Canopus to be  a"citadel" that would protect Cradock's weaker armored cruisers should they run into Spee's entire fleet. Spee, for his part, indicated after the battle that he thought he might have lost had the battleship been present.

In the actual event, the British light cruiser Glasgow escaped the massacre and warned the Canopus of the disaster. The battleship promptly turned around and fled -- slowly -- back to the Falkland Islands, eventually being joined by the Glasgow on the way. 

There were innumerable ways that the Glasgow could have failed to get word to the Canopus about the battle's outcome, however, so it's not too much of  stretch to wonder what might have happened if the Canopus had continued north and run into Spee's squadron before he turned around to go to Valparaiso to recoal and reorganize. 

So it's dawn on Nov. 2, and lookouts on the HMS Canopus see smoke on the horizon to the north which soon reveals itself to be coming from the two German armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruiser Nurnberg. (The Dresden and Liepzig had been detached to scout for the British survivors of the night battle.)

The tactical problem facing the captain of the Canopus is simple. He can't run away, the Germans ships are almost twice as fast. While his 12-inch guns slightly outrange the German 8-inch guns, his slow speed means he can't control the range as well. 

Spee's decision is much more complex. While he won the battle against the British cruisers at a trifling cost in damage and casualties, the battle did expend about half his ammunition. This alone was a very strong argument for avoiding combat worth any new force encountered. He probably only had enough ammunition for one more fight. Prudence would have dictated that Spee use his superior speed to steam away from the Canopus, possibly detaching the light cruiser to keep an eye on the battleship until the British decided whether to press on or withdraw. This is the most likely outcome. 

On the other hand, Spee was a very aggressive commander and it would have been tempting to run up the score, so long as he avoided taking serious damage or using too many of his remaining shells. 

So let's examine how it might have played out. This makes a good solitaire scenario. The Canopus has few decisions to make. It can't run, so it will turn broadside to the approaching Germans and fire as long as it is able.  I'm using the 1970 Victory at Sea rules for this fight. 

Spee, on the other hand, needs to execute his approach with care. The safest thing to do would be to stay at long range, allowing him to safely break off the battle at any point. But long-range gunnery uses up a lot of ammunition for relatively fewer hits. Closing the range will allow the Germans ships to bury the battleship in a deluge of damaging fire -- but risks disaster if a German ship gets badly hit. 

We will assume Spee decides to boldly close the range on the theory that he night as well decline to fight at all if he was to engage in an inconclusive long-range gunnery duel. 

The range is 15,000 yards as the two forces sight each other. The German column is comprised of the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the Nurnburg in that order.

The action commences with HMS Canopus hauling hard to port to bring her broadside to bear, while the German squadron pours on the goal to close the range at 20 knots, angling to port so as to unmask batteries and heading in the opposite direction of the British ship in case it makes sense to disengage later. . The light cruiser turns so as to remain on the unengaged side of the battle line.

At 14,500 yards it's a tough shot for each side. The base "to-hit" chance at that range is "16 out of 36" which is halved to "8 out of 36" for World War I fire control. This translates to a 22.2% chance to hit, or a 3 or a 7 on two dice. All secondary guns are out of range. 

The Canopus rolls a 3 and a 6 for a hit! The 12-inch shell lands on the deck of the Scharnhorst, doing 900 points of damage. The shell does not do critical damage, but it definitely gives Spee pause. 

The return fire from the Scharnhorst is also effective, with one of the twin turrets landing a hit on the deck of the Canopus, doing 1,225 points of damage on the old battleship. While styled a "battleship," the Canopus belt and deck armor is no thicker than the armor on the armored cruisers. The Gneisenau is yet out of range.
At 12,500 yards the broadsides continue at "9 per 36" or a 4 or 7 to hit.  The Canopus lands again on Scharnhorst, this time hitting and penetrating the belt armor for 1,020 more points of damage for a total of  1,920.  More critically, this hit slows the Scharnhorst's speed by 10 knots.  This is the last straw for Spee and he decides it's time to call it a day, especially because none of his return shots from either armored cruiser scores that turn. 

The German armored cruisers start to turn away while the Nurnburg starts to lay down a smoke screen to cover the withdrawal.  A parting shot from the Canopus hits the Scharnhorst again for another 900 points of damage, total 2,820.  The draw for a critical hit, however, provides  a very dramatic end as the Scharnhorst's magazine explodes! 

The Scharnhorst finds the range on the Canopus in return, but the 8.2-inch shell bounces off the belt armor.

The surviving Germans ships withdraw out of range under cover of smoke  and the Canopus is far to slow to chase them.

Well, that little play-through suggests that there was little to be gained by messing with a battleship -- even an indifferent one such as the Canopus! Maybe Churchill was right after all ... 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Is China making the Kaiser's blunder?

Reading a  good book like Castles of Steel is a good way to get the intellectual juices flowing.

It's shallow reading of history to find "lessons" in it. Cases differ and fact sets are never precisely the same, so you can't simply transfer directly from one case to another. But experience is valuable, and it's certainly profit from the experience of others after making allowance for what is different and what is similar.

Former Varyag
There's certainly reason to think that Germany's naval expansion at the turn of the Twentieth Century played a role in bringing World War I and even led Germany;s defeat. Castles of Steel repeatedly points out that German naval officers were shocked that Britain joined the war. And it's clear that Britain's entry into the war was hardly a forgone conclusion. It broke with long-standing British practice of playing balance of power politics and avoiding the commitment of major land forces on the continent. It brought the British and French into an alliance -- pretty amazing considering those two nations had spent the bulk of the last five or six centuries as rivals.

Germany was -- and is -- the dominant nation in continental Europe. As a continental  power it necessarily had to give primacy of place to the army.  Resources are always finite and a navy could never get more than the leftovers after the army was taken care of.

Britain, of course, was a naval power. Its army would necessarily take second place in the defense of the island nation. Indeed, it's a truism that an island can only be defended off shore. There are very few cases of a successful island defense if an enemy manages to land on it.

So when the Germans started their naval buildup in the early 1900s it ended up being worse than a waste of resources. Not only did all the treasure sunk into the navy come at the expense of land forces, but it antagonized Britain and drove it into alliance against Germany.

Geography made any attempt at naval superiority for Germany impossible. Britain controlled access to the sea approaches of Germany. British national interests precluded allowing Germany to ever achieve parity in naval power.

If the Germans had restricted themselves to a naval force sufficient to guard their coasts against French and Russian naval forces there's every reason to think the British would have stayed out of the war. With no naval blockade or just the limited blockade the French could have mounted, the widespread suffering inflicted on the German economy. No British entry in the war means no BEF and probably victory for the Germans in 1914 or 1915 at the latest.. And, of course, with no unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain, there would have been no reason for an American entry into the war,.

It seems to me that China's situation a century later resembles Germany's in some ways. Its a rising economic power that is also tempted to expand its clout in international affairs and boost its military. Like Germany, however, China is a continental power with rival major powers that share borders with it. The army always will come first.

Like Germany, as well, the naval geography works against China. All the sea approaches to China are controlled by other countries -- who all have historical beefs with China. And like Germany, a hundred years ago, China's main rival is the world's biggest Navy. Except, of course, China's situation is even more dire. While the British were forced to be satisfied with a Navy as large as the next two combined, the U.S. Navy is nearly larger than all the other navies in the world, combined.

Germany, at least in theory, could over strain the British by building a large enough navy that some other navy would be able to take advantage and strike. The British negated this strategy through diplomacy. It made allies of the other significant navies, including  some it had fought against like France and the United States. By the time war came, the Germans stood almost alone at sea.

In China's case the ground is even harder to make up. The US Navy is far stronger than the Royal Navy ever was --and nearly every other significant navy in the world is already an ally. Among the few that are not formal allies, namely India and Russia, there's little reason to think they'd be inclined to side against the US on China's behalf and every reason to expect the opposite.

The bottom line is that any money spent on a blue-water navy is a complete waste as far as China is concerned. The geography, politics and military technology are hopelessly against them. They can't possibly spend enough money to make their naval forces militarily relevant -- but they can easily spend enough to annoy, alarm and drive into alliance their neighbors. There's been a lot of talk in the news lately about China's new aircraft carrier, submarine construction and other naval improvements. While obviously bearing watching, anything China does in this sphere seems like a trip down the road of folly.