Thursday, July 19, 2012

Desperate measures

The War of 1812 was pretty much a wash for the United States, two years of fighting settling nothing really, but it was a successful and important period for the US Navy. It's professionalism was cemented by the successes it earned in battle against the premiere naval power of its day, the Royal Navy. In particular, a series of single-ship action in the war's first months mortified the British and boosted American morale.

But some of that success came close to never happening on this date, 200 years ago, as the USS Constitution was nearly trapped by a far superior force of British warships. It was only through exceptional seamanship that the ship escaped.

The official Website

Friday, July 13, 2012

Back to the Future -- Iraq 2002

It's an anniversary season surprisingly little remarked upon in the mass media, but this summer 10 years ago the Pentagon was drawing up plans for the invasion of Iraq. I suppose the presidential campaign season is sucking most of the air of of the room, but can anyone doubt that ,had the war turned out as the Bush administration hoped and expected, the 10th anniversary of the war would be a big deal and this summer's anniversary of the fateful decision to invade would have been noteworthy?

Of course, things didn't turn out as expected, and from the point of view of a wargamer there's an interesting point of view to be had on that.

While the vast majority of wargames depict battles and campaigns that actually happened, there has always been a significant portion based on what-could-be, not just what was. Indeed. the very first wargames were military training tools and were largely geared towards helping train officers to conduct future operations. A secondary purpose was to evaluate plans and tactics. Hobby wargames based on history were a much later development, with H.G. Wells Little Wars in the early 1900s and Roverts Gettysburg in the 1960s.

Once they went there, wargame designers found that there was a much bigger market for refighting the battles of the past than speculative or training style wargames. But wargames based on possible future wars or battles have never been  completely absent and were quite popular during the Cold War ear, especially.

In particular, just about every aspect of the Cold war turning hot was explored in a vast number of NATO vs. Warsaw Pact games. But various other potential wars have featured in sundry games over the years -- from rather likely ones such as renewed Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakisatni wars to some highly unlikely one such as fighting between Flemings and Walloons in Belgium or invasions of the United States by foeign coalitions.

But remarkably, very few of the actual major wars that have been fought since the rise of modern wargaming have been anticipated. There was no wargame predicting the Iraq-Iran war, the Falklands War or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   During the Gulf War the previously published Gulf Strike was repurposed to cover the developing situation and S&T under Jim Dunnigan did a fairly credible job of throwing together Arabian Nightmare, also reflecting imminent operations, but this was a rather different case of prognostication than the typical what-if game.

So there's very little evidence available for evaluating whether what-if games about potential wars are really worth anything at all, as far as providing any insights, aside from games at a very tactical level, which often mix actual and hypothetical scenarios.

Which brings me to the unique case of Back to Iraq, Ty Bomba's examination of a potential second war between Iraq and the United Startes which went through three editions between the end of the first Gulf War and the second Iraq War.  Historians in the future sufficiently detached from the passions and partisanship of today may, I think legitimately look at Back to Iraq as part of the groundwork that prepared the way for that war's occurance.

And I don't mean to pick on Bomba at all. When he wrote so matter-of-factly that "(Saddam) regained the freedom necessary to carry on his various chemical, biological and nuclear weapons research programs" he was expressing a sentiment shared by many, myself included, at the time.

Rather, the lesson to be drawn is how unimaginable the future is, especially the further into it you go and the more of it you include. Back to Iraq, third edition, which appeared early in 2002 (evidence in the magazine suggests that it was largely designed in Oct. 2001), does a credible job of predicting the general course of events and even some of the order of battle. It's a relatively straightforward job to adjust it to match the historical events, which I did in this "historical scenario,"

But subsequent events showed that the game fundamentally missed the point of the war, which that it was not about defeating Saddam's rickety rump conventional forces, but was about creating the conditions on the ground that would win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and give the United States the stable ally it wanted in the region. To be fair, Bomba was hardly alone in missing this point. President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Gen. Franks and viceroy Bremer were among those who also misread the fundamental nature of Iraq and led the United States down the wrong  path. But to the extent that Back to Iraq didn't attempt to ask the question of "what next?" let alone attempt an answer, it illustrates the biggest limitation of any what-if wargame that attempts to provide an insight into a potential war.

A contemporary example of this is the Clash of Arms game Persian Incursion. based on the excellent Harpoon 4 system, I don't think there's a better or more exhaustive open source examination of what an Israeli war with Iran would look like, and, frankly, I suspect there isn't a classified examination that's better, either.

The strength of Persian Incursion, however, lies in its technical and tactical evaluation of how the Israelis could target Iran's nuclear capabilities and what the Iranians can do about it. Militarily the answer ends up being clear. The biggest challenge for Israel is the logistics of mounting the raid and delivering the ordnance. And there's very little that Iran can do about it and nothing they do has a significant effect on the outcome. So does this make the whole thing a forgone conclusion?

Not really, because Larry Bond, as the game designer, is compelled to address the other ramifications of such a raid and the war by adding a subset of rules, styled "political" to deal with the larger context of the war. Now I think he does  a pretty good job and its highly entertaining.  Indeed, because of the manifest military impotence of the Iranian side it's the only thing that makes this a "game" at all. But this illustrates starkly the predictive limitation of the game as a whole. There's really no question that Israel has the physical means to destroy any target in Iran it chooses to destroy. But what that ends up meaning and whether the end result even counts as a "victory" is less clear. In the game it's possible for Iran to win a political victory regardless of the fate of its nuclear program. Where the player would be wrong is in assuming this is just an artificiality to make Persian Incursion a "game." In fact, it's the main insight of Persian Incursion as opposed to Back to Iraq and what makes PI a better tool than Back to Iraq was. Indeed, properly understood, PI is the cautionary tale that Back to Iraq never was, because PI makes it clear that the key battleground of an Israeli-Iran war is not between the two military establishments but the political context in which the war occurs. This is a truth that flew right over the head of Back to Iraq.

A commercial wargame is just one small voice in the wilderness of the mass media, but to the extent that it provides a little insight to the citizen weighing the costs of war something like PI provides a much more solid contribution than Back to Iraq by at least asking the right question -- even if it can't provide an answer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Falklands end of the road, 30 years ago

ARA 25 de Mayo

This week the Falklands War came to an official end as the British announced they had achieved their aims. Within days the last prisoners would be repatriated and within two weeks the Exclusion Zone would be lifted.

By early June the valiant Argentinian air forces had been defeated. While some damaging raids still occurred, notably the June 8 attack that damaged one landing ship and sunk another, the Argentinians had pretty much shot their wad. Losses were simply too severe to keep testing the British defenses.  With their Navy already knocked out of the fight, and the air force, too, the Argentine Army troops around Port Stanley had no real hope of holding on as an isolated island garrison without air cover.

On June 12-13 the final serious fighting occurred as the two British brigades seized the high ground near Port Stanley. And interesting incident occurred as an ad hoc shore-based Exocet managed to hit and damage the British frigate HMS Glamorganas it closed in to give fire support. This suggests that shore-based "artillery" may be becoming a threat to ships again. Truck-mounted mobile shore batteries of SSMs could be very hard to counter  in the future.

But the Argentinians didn't have multiple batteries of these weapons -- they had just one. And the British weren't fighting their way ashore. They were actually attacking from the inland side. And so the Argentinians surrendered.

Thirty years a=on the Falklands War remains a singular event. While there have been many wars since 1945 and quite of few of them have involved naval forces, there have been no other combined land-sea-air campaigns that contested all three environments with such vigor.  With the possible exception of a China-Taiwan clash there's no similar conflict on the horizon, either.

The Falklands War is an excellent example of the difference between a first world military and one that is not, especially in the huge gap in quality between the Argentinian army and the British land troops and in the ability of the British to launch such a massive logistical expedition in the first place. That said, the war was hardly a cake walk for the British. The Argentinian air units, in particular, seriously threatened the task Force. Had  a few more dud bombs gone off or had the Argentinians owned a few more Exocet missiles they may very well have kept control of the seas around the Falkland Islands.

The Argentinian Navy also remains a huge what-if. In the actual event the first carrier vs. carrier battle since 1944 was called off because the slow speed of the Argentinian carrier meant that its A-4 Skyhawks would have had to be launched with just two 500-pound bombs instead of the six desired. Frankly, this was a lame excuse. First, Argentine Skyhawks later made raids with similar small loads due to the range, but most critically, the Argentinians only needed to get lucky once. A single 500-pound bomb could easily have knocked a carrier out of action, even if it didn't sink it. With the British Harriers not having the range to retaliate, the surviving carrier might have been obliged to retreat as well, and with it, the entoire british task force.

No, the Argentinian Navy, which had been the branch most hot on the war in the first place, proved to have cold feet when the moment of truth came, however. After the sinking of the Belgrano, the major elements of the Argentinian Navy didn't venture forth again. And at the end of the day, this, too, seems to illustrate the difference between a first-class Navy and a navy for show. The Royal Navy understood that losing some ships came with the territory and stuck through it despite the hair-raising attacks in San Carlos Waters. The Argentinian Navy cowered in port, which begs the question of why they wasted all that money on a fleet in the first place if they were not willing to risk using it. Argentinian Adm. Gualter Allara may have lost his nerve, but it was an institutional failure, not a personal one.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Things wargames miss

HMS Argyll. Note the low-to-the-water midships gun and the lower gun on the aft quarter.

One of the limitations of wargames is the annoying complexity of the real world while the erstwhile wargame designer is striving to keep his game rules reasonably succinct. Actual operations are filled with examples of unforeseen complications that can have a significant effect in a given circumstance, but are very hard to take account of in a systemic way. This is one of the reasons why a certain amount of randomness doesn't bother me in wargames because the real world is fluke-filled.

What prompts this discussion is the additional handicap that the British armored cruisers at Coronel suffered due to the rough sea state during the battle -- a problem generally ignored in most wargames.

On both the HMS Good Hope and the HMS Monmouth, as well as the similar HMS Argyll shown above, some of the secondary guns are mounted one above the other in battery along the broadsides. Presumably there were some compelling engineering reasons for this arrangement -- maybe it eased ammunition handling or simplified construction somehow. But service conditions revealed that the lower gun in the set was too close to the water to be usable if the sea was too rough. This had the effect of cutting the secondary batteries of the Monmouth and Good Hope in half. The Argyl design was somewhat modified as the problem became apparent and only two of the 6-inch guns on the ship's broadsides were still subject to the problem. Eventually in the surviving ships of the Monmouth class the lower guns were actually moved up to the topside deck and the sea-level gunports plated over.

Even Larry Bond's Fear God and Dread Nought rules, which are justly considered exhaustive, only assess an accuracy penalty for gunfire in heavy seas, but don't formally include a way to account for guns rendered completely unusable by the waves. this is the sort of thing that can be handled by scenario special rules, of course, but it requires that the scnerio designer have dome the sort of in-depth research needed and is also the kind of thing that's not likely to be included in a "what-if" scenario. It's the sort of thing to keep in mind, however, when considering the "on-paper" strength of a unit.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

If the South had won ...

Professional fool Ted Nugent is in the news this week for remarking that things would have been better if the South had won the American Civil War.

Now this is not a new sentiment, of course. As pointed out here:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
William Faulkner, “Intruder in the Dust”

Left unsaid by Faulknor, of course, is that it's for every white Southern boy fourteen years of age ...

And this, of course, is the rub. Like any great dispute, undoubtedly some folks would have been better off if the losing side had won, but it's hard to see how America as a nation, the liberal democratic world, black Americans, women, labor, and countless other identifiable groups would have been better off if the South had won. It takes an extremely narrow and blinkered view of liberty and what America mea ns to think that the country would have been better off sundered by civil war.

Can  a 21st Century American truly subscribe to the idea that this would be  a better philosophy?

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.  Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the CSA, March 21, 1861

No, it's hard for me to disagree with Gen. U.S. Grant's sentiments as expressed in his Memoirs: 

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.  I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fortress America session report

Game end

Back in the day (old guy speak for a loooong time ago) I played SPI's Invasion America, the precursor and inspiration for the Milton Bradley Fortress America game, which I missed playing, mostly because I was in my snooty plastic-men-is-not-a-real-wargame phase (that also had me mostly missing out form Axis & Allies).

Having realized the error of my ways, I was looking forward to the new Fantasy Flight Games edition of the classic wargame of American paranoia. While the premise is a bit stretched, to say the least, it is an interesting strategic topic and there is a story line that is at least self-internally logical. Essentially the USA develops these "lasers" that can destroy just about anything and most especially incoming ICBMs. The world, fearing that an invulnerable USA will lord it over them (where would they get THAT worry) decides to invade and forcibly dismantle the lasers before they become fully operational.

Now, I have my doubts, as a practical matter, whether a continental-sized nation can ever be successfully invaded and subdued via conventional means in the industrial era. The cases where it's been tried (in Russia and China) have been notable failures. The continental United States is enormous, as anyone who has driven it knows, and it's also separated from the rest of the globe by wide oceans and therefore I think it would be at least as tough to crack as China or Russia. Still, it has been tried before and without the idea you don't have a game.

The basic game situation has not changed from the Cold War era version of the game. The East Coast is the target of a European-based coalition that sounds vaguely old school Commie. The Southwest is the target of an alliance of Latin American states while the West Coast is invaded by an alliance of Asian powers,  Each invading power is exactly the same in strength, with 60 units of infantry, mobile, hovertank, helicopter and bombers. Where they do differ is in the geography they face. The Europeans have to contend with a densely populated East where the bulk of the US military is based at game start. The Asians have pretty easy going on the immediate coast, but then need to fight across the sparsely settled and mountainous West. The South Americans likewise have a lot of territory to cover to get to a significant number of cities. Victory is measured in cities controlled, with the invaders winning if they end a turn controlling 18 US cities. The Americans win by holidng on for 10 turns without the invaders winning.

While heavily outnumbered, the Americans have a deck of "partisan" cards which provide numerous reinforcements which often pop up behind enemy lines. As an optional rule, and one we played with, the invaders can give up some reinforcements in order to draw from their own deck of special cards.

My opponent this week was Roy, one of the game shop regulars, who had played the original version of the game before, but was new to the FFG version. He took the invaders. I played the USA. This was my second game.

My basic strategy was to to be Fabian in the West, trying to preserve troops while drawing the Asians deep into the country in hopes of later causing trouble far behind their lines with partisans. In the East I planned to fight doggedly to keep Washington DC while conceding the southeast. Against the South Americans I planned an opportunistic, maneuver-based war that would seek to minimize terriory lost and maximize casualties.

Things pretty much played out as I expected. Roy's invaders made heavy use of the card-draw option. I think there may have been just one turn where he took the full 8 reinforcements instead of the 5+card option. Overall I think this is a mixed blessing. While some of the cards are quite powerful, I wonder if it's not more important for the invaders to press their initial advantage in numbers. Basically every turn there were 15 new invaders instead of 24 and by mid-game the Eastern and South American forces were decimated with casualty rates far exceeding replacements. Indeed, at one point the South American had just 5 pieces on the whole map!

The Eastern invaders were eventually able to fight for and hold Washington DC, as well as Atlanta and Florida, despite heavy losses. The South Americans did not carry their weight and were notably unsuccessful. Roy lost some very key battles around Houston, Dallas and San Antonio that were probably game-changing. As I said, attrition among the South American blues was very, very heavy.  Roy's Western forces were relatively unscathed, but I felt he didn't press his advantage as aggressively as he needed to and, indeed, I think if I'm going to play the Asians at some point I am tempted to skip the cards for them. They need the numbers.

The crisis for the game came late, and actually caught me a little by surprise. Roy was able to play the devastating Washington Burns card which basically wipes out the American ability to play partisan cards and get reinforcements for a turn. By Turn 8 he had gotten up to 22 cities captured! Fortunately I was able to play a bunch of bonus partisan cards from previously recaptured cities take back the five I needed to stave off defeat that turn. Meanwhile the invaders had pretty much shot their wad, especially in the East and South. Even in the West the Asians were being significantly harassed by rear-area partisan units and their hold on some areas was tenuous. For example, Las Vegas was liberated by partisans and the first Asian attempt to retake the city failed, leading to a sticky situation out West that sapped power from the front line drive. The Invaders managed to get up to 18 on turn 9, but the US took back another four cities and on turn 10 the invader high point was 17, so the final US turn was skipped.

A large part of my success was my ability to generate bonus partisan cards by retaking cities. Especially in the last three turns the US was able to rally from some significant deficits in owned cities by playing 6-8 partisan cards. I think Roy's invaders were a little too complacent about holding cities once captured and overextended themselves.

As the map above shows, the Asians did succeed in taking over about half the USA, but the Europeans were down to a foothold in the southeastern corner and the remnants of the South Americans were about done in Texas. The US had a powerful battery of lasers in operation and it's probable that Asian advnaces were about to come to an end.

If I were to write an "alternate history" timeline, I would suggest that on Turn 10 the South Americans would have sued for peace and the Europeans accepted a cease-fire. Suddenly alone, the Asians would likewise have been forced to agree to terms and the USA would emerge victorious. One wonders if the Americans would have emerged in a magnanimous mood, however, and if the foreign bid to forestall American domineering might instead provoke it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Death at Sea - Part II, Battle of the Falklands

1:1250 scale SMS Scharnhorst by Navis

In Eric Dorn Brose's "novelistic history" Death at Sea, he engages in an extensive amount of speculation over how the Battle of the Falklands could have turned out differently.

The actual course of events is pretty straightforward and most histories treat the outcome as nearly pre-ordained:

On Dec. 7, 1914, a powerful British squadron comprised of two battle-cruisers, three armored cruisers and two light cruisers arrived at Port Stanley in the Falklands, where the pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus had already been grounded to act as a guard ship.The British began coaling their ships and conducting boiler maintenance in preparation for beginning operations to find the the German East Asiatic Squadron, under the command of Graf Maximilian von Spee, victor of Coronel.

The next morning , Spee approached the island, intent on a destructive raid, but was surprised by large caliber shots from the Canopus and drew off. Shortly most of the British force sortied and chased down Spee's doomed squadron, which was heavily outmatched. Only one light cruiser and one support vessel escaped the carnage.

And yet, was Spee doomed, really? Brose argues that Spee lost a golden opportunity to win a stunning victory in the Battle of the Falkands by aggressively closing in and attacking the British fleet in the harbor. There being little chance of outrunning the battle-cruisers anyway, due to their superior speed and longer-ranged guns, Spee could have accepted that battle was inevitable and tried to do as much damage as possible.

And a lot of damage was, indeed, possible. When the Germans approached the Briitsh squadron was in an embarrassing state. Most of the ships were in the midst of coaling, boilers were not lit and in the case of the light cruiser HMS Bristol, partially dismantled. Indeed, only the HMS Kent had steam up and was mobile,

A key limitation of steam-powered ships is the need to "raise steam" in order to get underway. In the technology of 1914 it could take one to two hours to fire up the boilers and raise enough steam to achieve full speed. When sighted Spee was within half an hour of being within effective gunnery range -- and as we saw at Coronel, German gunnery was highly effective. The Germans could have fired at the virtually immobile British force trapped in the harbor. Their main opposition at first would have been the Canopus, firing indirectly guided by a spotter on a nearby hill, and the one mobile British armored cruiser the Kent, which was  sister ship to the wholly inadequate Monmouth that Spee destroyed at Coronel. There's little reason to think the Kent would have fared better. Of the other armored cruisers, the Cornwall was yet another Monmouth sister ship while the Carnavan was similar in capability, with a handful of larger 7.5 inch guns instead of the all-6-inch battery of the Monmouths. None was a match for Spee's ships.

No, the main, really the only, threat to Spee was the battle-cruisers Invincible and Inflexible. In the open ocean, where they could use their superior speed and firepower, they definitely outmatched Spee's two armored cruisers. But under fire at close range in a harbor, not so much. Because the battle-cruisers sacrificed armored protection in order to purchase that high sped and heavy firepower and, in fact, they were not any more heavily armored than the German or British armored cruisers were. They all had the same 6-inch thick armored belt, which the German 8-inch gun could penetrate at battle ranges.

The awkward arrangement of turrets on the Invincibles was a factor as well,  with just one turret for and aft and the other two arranged as "wing" turrets en echelon. The bottom line was that the battle-cruisers, at best, had a broadside of six guns, and given the confines of the harbor might often have been reduced to two turrets. Altogether then, the entire British force would have had around a dozen or so heavy guns available to fire, and about as many 6-inchers. Spee's squadron would have had broadsides of 10 8-inchers and eight 5.9-inch guns, well-served. Given the demonstrated speed and accuracy of the German gunners, a very even fight. None of the British ships in the actual battle much distinguished themselves in the gunnery department, so there's little reason to think they'd have shot better under the duress of being caught in harbor.

So why didn't Spee attack? He had already demonstrated repeatedly that he was an aggressive, fighting admiral. Unfortunately, we can;t be sure, because he didn't survive the battle. No one the flagship did. And few did aboard the other German cruiser, either.

Here Brose proffers a reason I haven't seen mentioned in other accounts, and I can't tell from his notes on his sources whether he has a witness saying this, or whether it's another fictionalization. In any case, he blames  a case of miss-identification

According to Brose, the British battle-cruisers were spotted and correctly identified by the gunnery officer on the Gneisenau, but the captain of the Gneisenau refused to believe the report, passing on the Spee the erroneous report that the ships were Queen-class pre-dreadnoughts. Believing that the British force were slow, old battleships, Spee decided to simply slip away from shipos that could not chase him. This gave the British the chance to raise steam unmoloested and give chase and by the time Spee discovered thre truth, there was little he could do.

Yet even then the battle was not completely hopeless, Brose says. He points out that the battle-cruisers were, in fact, quite vulnerable to catastrophic loss. Indeed, the HMS Invincible herself, along with two other British battle-cruisers, would blow up during the Battle of Jutland a year-and-half later. According to Brose's account there was at least one close call from a German cruiser hit at the Falklands as well. A lucky German hit that destroyed one of the battle-cruiser might have changed the complexion of the battle immediately.

So, does Brose have a point? Could Spee have won at the Falklands?

It's the nature of counterfactuals that a definitive answer is not possible, but unlike the Carhart book on Gettysburg I criticized earlier, Brose seems to stick closely to the realities of time, space, tactics and weapons effects. Nearly all his speculative forays involve human decision and choices made between plausible alternatives.

It's my hope to take a look at the Brose's what-ifs in the future. I'm busy collecting the necessary ships to refight Coronel and the Falklands , including some of Brose's what-ifs.

Just a little housekeeping

I need to publish this code QUKS58Q99AXJ to activate a SMM device.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death at Sea -- book review

Death at Sea is  a privately published "novelistic history" of the saga of the German East Asiatic Naval Squadron of World War I -- the ships of the famous Graf Maximilian von Spee. Written by Eric Dorn Brose, a professor of history at Drexel University in Philadelphia, it's an odd book in many ways, but, I think, of unusual interest to wargamers and students of "what-if" history in general.

With the centennial of the First World War approaching rapidly, I think there will be heightened interest in the topic. Most of the interesting naval action happened early in the war, especially in the summer and winter of 1914 and 1915. Perhaps the most dramatic saga was that of Von Spee's squadron, which resulted ion two bloody naval battles that resulted in several ships being lost with all hands.

Professional and academic historians generally have a strong aversion to "what-ifs" and speculative history. They often note, correctly, that once you go down the rabbit hole of speculation there's little to guide you in the maze. The worst sorts of speculative history will set out to "prove" some wild-ass pet theory about what could have happened or should have happened. A year or so ago I reviewed Tom Carhart's Lost Triumph: :Lee's Rea;l Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed which argued, unpersuasively in my view, that Lee's real plan at Gettysburg on the third day was to coordinate Pickett's Charge with an attack on the rear of the federal army by JEB Stuart's cavalry corps.  Incredibly Carhart argues that the plan would have worked had it not been for Custer and some other federal cavalry commanders who foiled the plan. As I pointed out, a look at a wargame map shows that Carhart's theory runs aground on the realities of time, space and forces present. He got carried away, which is easy to do when you are an author and have complete control over the narrative. Wargamers, on the other hand, know that the opponent has  a vote and  neat plans are unlikely to survive contact with the enemy.

Yet speculative history is the life-blood of wargaming, and all wargames are, to a certain degree, speculative histories. Death at Sea is unusual because Brose freely engages in speculation about how things may have turned out if certain key decisions had been made differently. As it turns out the Spee saga is rich in those kinds of decision points. Standard histories of the events in question tend to emphasize the foregone nature of the two major battles.  At Coronel an outclassed British squadron had no chance against Spee's powerful ships and was quickly dispatched. And a month later Spee's squadron was equally outclassed by  a powerful British battlecruiser force that leisurely annihilated the Germans.

Brose raises interesting questions about both battles, and explains how they might not have been as lopsided as they appeared, particularly if the losing commanders had made better decisions. Both Spee and the British commander at Coronel, Rear Adm. Sir Christopher Cradock, perished in battle and were martyred heroes to their respective publics, so there was long a reluctance to second-guess their performance. Likewise, the British victor at the Falklands, Adm. Frederick Sturdee and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, made questionable decisions that could easily have led to disaster. Yet things turned out OK and the rush of later events swept away most questions.

Brose also points out any number of alternative engagements that might also have occurred had deployments been just a little different.

Brose's approach to thew whole story is an unconventional one, especially for an academic historian, which probably explains why this is self-published. It bears the hallmarks of something written for the pleasure of writing it, not to burnish some academic reputation. It is, however, a serious work, for all that, and Brose explains his souring quite clearly and lays out the rationale for his fictionalizing.  Some degree of fictionalizing is almost inevitable in  a work about this battle because so many of the key witnesses died. As I alluded to above, three of the armored cruisers involved were lost with all hands and a fourth was sunk with barely a hundred survivors. Several of the light cruisers were also sunk with very heavy loss of life. Most of the senior officers of the two defeated squadrons were among those lost, so we cannot know what they thought or why they made their decisions.

He calls it a "novelized history" because it's a sort of hybrid work. It's not a full scale novelization in the mode of Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. I'm not sure Brose has the proper touch to pull off something quite like that. His fictional story line vignettes seem a bit contrived and conventional to me. He is more successful at fleshing out actual events with conversations that at least advance the narrative efficiently. I think readers expecting something as literary as The Killer Angels will be disappointed. Brose is still at heart a historian , not a novelist. On the other hand, the book is much more free-wheeling a read than most histories, especially histories that deal in depth with technical and tactical topics like naval warfare at the ship-to-ship level. While I think some readers, therefore, will find it neither fish nor fowl and be turned off, I think the book makes an excellent resource for the wargamer and the counterfactualist.

For example, Brose spends a considerable amount of time discussing the choices available to Cradock at Coronel, suggesting that the British admiral was far more aggressive than wise and made a challenging tactical situation far worse by accepting battle immediately and letting himself be outmaneuvered on top of it. In particular Brose suggests that Cradock ought to have considered avoiding a decisive commitment as evening fell on Nov. 1, 1914, and try to lead Spee's squadron south until Cradcok could rendezvous with the battleship Canopus. Brose rightly points out that Canopus was hardly the "citadel" that Churchill imagined. And indeed,  the "battleship" was hardly better armored than the armored cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth that Cradock already had. But it did have four 12-inch guns, which would have tripled the long-range firepower of Cradock's force. And Canopus' later marksmanship at the Falklands strongly suggests that it would have been a more dangerous opponent than the reservist-manned Good Hope and Monmouth, which barely managed to hit Spee's fleet at all. And this was the key point, of course, because any damage to Spee's cruisers was a critical danger to their survival. They were thousands of miles from any shipyards for repair or replenishment of ammunition. With three capital ships to shoot at, the two German cruisers would have necessarily used up more of their ammunition even in victory, and they were just one lucky hit away from disaster at all times. It's probable that Spee would still have defeated Cradock's squadron -- I've seen it happen when wargamed out -- but he may have had one or more ships crippled in the bargain.

Cradock's main reason for leaving the Canopus behind was that its slow speed meant that Spee could merely run away, and this was a valid concern. Yet Brose makes the case that Spee would have attacked in any case, whether or not Canopus was in the line.

Later I'll look at Brose's take on the Battle of the Falklands, where he also makes a case for a closer-run affair than commonly believed.