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.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When discretion is not the better part

Started a fascinating read -- Robert K. Massie's monumental work Castles of Steel, about World War I at sea as I bone up in advance of the First World War centennial coming up in less than two years.

SMS Goeben by Navis
Unlike World War II, which saw viscous worldwide naval fighting for almost its entire duration, most of the action in the Great War happened within the first couple of years and the very first few months, in particular. There were a number of dramatic episodes. While my main interest is in the battles of Coronel and the Falklands, another exciting story was the adventures of the German battlecruiser Goeben as it escaped British pursuit on its way to Turkey. There are a number of interesting what-if confrontations involved that would make interesting yet small-scale naval battles.

HMS Defence by Navis
Perhaps the most controversial episode of the entire affair was the decision by British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge to call off his planned interception of the Goeben by his squadron of four armored cruisers of the Defence class on the grounds that he had been ordered to avoid action against a superior force. Leaving aside the question of whether he interpreted the orders improperly, was the Goeben a  superior force to four armored cruisers?

Troubridge and his flag captain, Capt. Fawcett Wray of the HMS Defense, were convinced that the Goeben was superior. It was faster, more heavily armed and armored and out-ranged the British ships vastly.  On the other hand, there were four armored cruisers and it can be questioned whether the Goeben had enough ammunition to dispatch all four. Further, there's the reality that, like all isolated German surface raiders in both World Wars, the Goeben had the handicap of having to avoid any significant damage at all in any battle it fought, or otherwise it would be left helpless to any followup British effort.

While Troubridge was acquitted by the court martial that judged his effort, the judgement of history and his colleagues in the Royal Navy was not kind. As Massie notes, The First Sea Lord in 1939 praised the commander who risked his cruiser force to run down the pocket battleship Graf Spee with these words: "Even if all your ships had been sunk you would have doen the right thing .... Your action has reversed the finding of the Troubridge court martial and shows how wrong it was."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Antietam -- 150 years later

Battle of Antietam, as depicted in Battle Cry -- 150th Anniversary Edition

It's hard to believe, really, given the traumas of the 20th Century, not to mention 9/11, but the bloody field of Antietam, 150 years ago today, remains the day with the worst loss of American life due to violence in our history.

Battles are messy affairs by nature, and the Nineteenth Century was lacking in the comprehensive sort of accounting that we got used to in the 20th Century, so we can't be certain of the precise total losses. My 1984 Time-Life book on the battle lists at least 22,726 total casualties with at least 2,108 slain federals and 1,546 Confederates. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Antietam lists slightly different figures taken from the Official Records of 2,010 Union and 1,567 Rebel dead. Perhaps 2,000 of the wounded later died and it's probable that many of those listed as missing from both sides were also killed.

While not the crushing victory promised by McClellan ("Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home." he said, after getting a copy of Lee's campaign orders) or expected, given the nearly 2 to 1 edge in manpower, it was close enough for government work -- in this case the government work of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Lincoln had been planning on the move for some time, but was waiting for a Union victory in the field to provide the proper backdrop. Antietam sufficed. While not destroyed, Lee was forced to retreat and his invasion of the North repulsed.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a monumental turning point in the war, even though it didn't actually free very many slaves. But it did represent a turning point, a fork in the road, on the subject of slavery. In the wake of the EP there was no turning back. Only a Southern victory would preserve the peculiar institution anywhere and even if the Union were defeated, it would be eliminated somewhere. There was no going back to the antebellum status quo.

In that sense, Antietam was a far more consequential battle than might be expected, purely on its battlefield results, which was basically a bloody stalemate.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Borodino threatened by cottages!?

Re-enactors take part in the annual observance of Borodino in 2012

This news item is rather disturbing. Apparently Russian corruption has allowed portions of the battlefield at Borodino to be developed into lots for "cottages" purchased by the well-to-do despite a law aimed at protecting the iconic battlefield.

This is unfortunate, and Russia, with its weak rule of law, seems especially vulnerable to this sort of thing. Apparently Putin has taken notice of the problem and I think he'll probably be able to put a stop to i for now, despite the pessimism expressed in the article. Over the long haul, however, such pessimism is warranted because the weak state of the rule of law in Russia means that protecting the site relies on the personal interest and intervention of Putin or his successors. This is hardly a sustainable plan for preservation!

Evidently the annual re-enactment at Borodino is a very big deal, involving thousands of participants every year, so there's a lot of public support for preservation -- not the indifference that plagues American battlefield preservationists in many places.

But, as someone noted in the article, money talks and in Putin's Russia ,money talks very loudly.

Let's hope that the attention to the problem keeps the battlefield safe for now and that the rule of law grows enough in Russia over time so there will still be a battlefield for the 250th anniversary!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Anniversary remembrances ASL 50 evolves to Memoir' 70

During the 50th anniversary years of World War II I made an attempt to play as many games of Advanced Squad Leader on or about the 50th anniversary date as I could. Most of my games were with my regular gaming partner, Carl N., but I got in quite a few with other folks as well.

In order to keep the number of games within a manageable number, I only played "official" Avalon Hill scenarios and made the rule that there would be no "going back," so if  a scenario was published after the date that it would otherwise have been played we didn't go back to do it.

Overall this was reasonably successful as a plan. We made it into the summer of 1944 by late 1995 when personal circumstances cause me to have to more or less abandon regular playing for  a while. We limped on with a few more games in the series over the next few years but eventually I stopped playing much ASL at all. Eventually I even sold off my collection. The only remnant of my ASL days is a copy of the ASL Starter Kit No. 1.

It was an entertaining project, but pulling it off was a product of a certain stage of my life where I had some stability in my schedule that allowed playing a fairly involved game like ASL on a regular basis. This was in my pre-Eurogame heavy duty wargamer phase when I turned down games of Axis & Allies because I wanted to spend my time playing real wargames.

Times change, and so do we, although sometimes in unexpected ways. I've never lost my love of playing "anniversary" games, although I've broadened the scope a bit. This year  is an especially fecund year for such anniversaries -- with the bicentennials of Napoleon's Russian and Spanish campaigns and the War of 1812, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War as well as the 70th anniversary of the World War II campaigns.

A 70th anniversary isn't quite as iconic as 25th, 50th, 75, 100th, 150th or 200th, but that extra five years between a 70th and a 75th anniversary is poignant because so many veterans who are around for the first are gone by the second, so there's an extra level of attention being paid to our vanishing Greatest Generation.

Memoir '44, as it turns out, first appeared almost 10 years ago as part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Normandy. The 60th was notable because it was the last major anniversary when a large number of the veterans would still be with us and in good enough health to travel. An 18-year-old rifleman hitting the beach in June of 1944 was a 78-year-old man by 2004. By 2014 those young men will be 88 years old and by the 75th anniversary  in 2019 they will be in their 90s. If the experience of the World War I vets is any guide, there's some chance a single individual or two might make it all the way to the centennial, but odds are the Normandy invasion will have receded from living memory by that point.

But i have been trying to do commemorative games of Memoir '44, just as I did with ASL before it. I can't play as regularly as I did 20 years ago, and my focus is not so relentlessly devoted to wargames that I'll forego playing anything else. So I haven't tired to religiously play every single Memoir '44 scenario in order or on its anniversary. All that said, I have managed to be pretty close and are just a season behind, although I will probably not make an effort to go back and fill in any gaps.

My tastes have evolved over the years. As I noted, I actually sold off my ASL collection to raise some money and clear out storage space devoted to  a game that I simply wasn't going to play much any more. Memoir '44 was much more in tune with my current realities and interests.  They are, of course, very different games in many ways. Advanced Squad Leader is the byword for a highly complex and realistic simulation wargame -- while there are vociferous debates in places like Boardgame Geek over whether Memoir '44 deserves to be dignified with the title "wargame" at all!

My personal opinion has long been that any "simulation" claims for ASL were overstated. While highly detailed and exhaustively researched, the game system virtually ignores the two most pervasive aspects of tactical combat -- the fog of war and limited command control. Players in ASL have vastly more knowledge of the facts on the ground than any actual tactical commander did (not even excepting today's electronically enhanced 'Net-centric' warrior) and exact micro-managed control over their units. It was, however, and is an extremely engrossing game to play and does provide a tremendous amount of insight into small unit tactics and weapons of World War II.

Similarly, I think the simulation-based critics of Memoir '44 overstate the case against this wargame. The card-based game system does a lot to counteract both the player's God's eye view and a God-like control over combatants so that one can make a legitimate argument it's more like an actual command experience than ASL is.

Both games are very ambitious in scope, however, and both cover nearly every major facet of World War II combat, every theater and most major and quite a few very obscure parts of the war. As such, both are very effective educational tools and appropriate commemoratives for that conflict. The vast scope of World war II seems very unlikely to ever re-occur. Global world-wide war involving mass conventional armies and navies seems no more likely than seeing a a re-occurrence of Roman legions or fleets of sailing ships with brass cannon. There may be another global war, but its form will be utterly unlike World War II., for good or ill.

I'm two decades older than the young man who played ASL so assiduously  I'm just as interetsed in playing a good and enjoyable wargame as I was then, although admittedly more amendable to one that I can set up play and finish in an hour or two and doesn't require referencing a thick rule book every five minutes. Memoir '44 is more my style these days. But it is still a wargame.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Borodino 200th anniversary today

Battle for the Great Redoubt at Borodino

Two centuries ago today Napoleon's fortunes changed for good when he defeated the Russians at Borodino -- but at a heavy cost. He managed to make it to Moscow, but ended up losing nearly his entire army when he was forced to retreat.

Borodino was an extraordinarily bloody battle, but not really a battle of generalship or finesse and wargames depicting it reflect that characteristic.

Game Store Tony and I got in a commemorative anniversary game of the battle using Napoleon's War II -- The Gates of Moscow.

It ended up being an interesting battle because I was able to use a little psychology to salvage a narrow victory from what was shaping up to be a pretty decisive defeat.

My initial plan was to make an early push on each flank and then hit the center hard, but this soon came afoul of bad dice and Tony's astute counter moves which negated every effort I made to advance. By Turn 7 I was facing a 7-2 deficit in victory points (The game to 8 VP)!

Well, a popular definition of insanity is  doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. I clearly needed to take a different approach. I decided to pull pout of range of most of his guns and redeploy my cavalry to the left for a long sweeping flanking move. Not so much because I expected much out of it, but to provoke Tony into making his own attack into my guns. He's a good player, but does tend to be aggressive and impatient. While I couldn't just goad him into attacking me by doing nothing at all -- he was well aware that the onus for victory was on the French -- I figured he'd be unwilling to just sit there and watch my wide sweeping move unfold unmolested over the dozen turns he would have to watch.

And indeed, he marched to the attack. His cavalry that attempted counter my cavalry was pushed aside with loss and he then tried to counter attack my center and right. Before long he lost another five units and suddenly the game was tied at 7 VP each. There were several more turns of cat-and-mouse sparring before I was able to knock off the 8th unit for the win.

Like Napoleon, though, I paid a very heavy cost in casualties, so it did feel very Borodino-like in the end.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wargaming a US-China War

This post looks at the possibility, via Larry Bond on FaceBook.

From a wargamer's perspective, this sort of speculation has some interest, if only because China is about the only power that could, theoretically, be considered anything like a "peer competitor." That is, it's about the only potential foe that would pose any sort of challenge involving conventional warfare. A war with Iran, in contrast, while more likely, would mostly pose unconventional warfare challenges for the US, much less fertile ground for wargamers, especially those interested in naval affairs.

On the other hand, from a political standpoint a war between China and the United States seems highly unlikely, but also would probably be an unmitigated disaster should it occur.

As Edward Carr noted here:

"The tripwire for outright conflict might be trivial: a scrap between China and one of its neighbours over some islands, or a miscalculation as American warships sail up to the 12-mile limit that defines Chinese territorial waters. But when the dominant male and the pretender square up, everything about them is at stake. Just as two conflagrations burnt the heart out of the 20th century, so a war between the leading powers of the 21st could set off an orgy of destruction.
The shadow of nuclear devastation is one reason to be fearful. But even if we avoided that last, hideous step, the cost would be immense. That is partly
because today’s conventional weapons are so potent, but also because China and America depend on each other in ways that Russia and America never did. The flow of goods to our shops would dry up, as globalisation failed. The financial system might collapse, because America could not borrow from China, and China would have nowhere to put its savings. Cyber-warriors might wreck communications and infrastructure. Collaboration on trade, science and action on climate change would be swept aside. Global economic depression would drag billions back into poverty."

Now, clearly the fact that a war would be a colossal bad idea is no guarantee that it won't happen after all. One only needs to remember the summer of 1914 to know that it can happen anyway.  But neither country seems very interested in stoking tensions at this point and I'd rate the chances as being rather low at this point. What the situation would look like in 20 years, or even 10 years, is hard to say. A lot can happen in that amount of time in politics. In 1923 Hitler was in jail for the Beer Hall Putsch, a decade later he was chancellor of Germany and a decade after that was embroiled in a global war. Clearly few prophets in 1923 would have foreseen 1943. So caution is warranted. Still, wars between global powers usually turn on identifiable clashes of interests and its hard to discern what those might be in the case of China and the US. Much of the great power rivalry of the 20th Century turned on ideology -- one sees no great ideological rivalry between the US and China. There are always possible geopolitical clashes of interest, as seen in the first half of the 20th Century, but it's hard to see much of that in the US-China relationship. China' disputes and concerns are very local. Even the Taiwan situation doesn't really represent a clash of interests, really. In large part it's a dispute left over from the Cold War. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan now would not have the same implications that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have had in 1980.

Looking at Operation Torch

I've started a topic-specific blog on Operation Torch

Sunday, September 2, 2012