The following essay was written by Mr. Seth Owen, a good friend and MBS forum member (user Wargamer55). He recently had the opportunity to play in a large wargame played at the Naval War College in Newport, RI that was a re-playing of the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He provides both an overview of the historical battle, and an excellent report on the game itself. Without further ado, lets turn it over to Seth!
On May 10th, 2016, I had the opportunity to take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Jutland at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to commemorate the centenary of the famous engagement, fought on May 31st to June 1st, 1916.
The Importance of Wargaming
Most Wargamers and historians are aware that wargaming at the college goes back nearly to its founding just before the dawn of the 20th Century. While today most of the professional wargaming at the college is done using computers, during the first half of the 20th Century it was typically conducted on the floor of Pringle Hall using model ships and rulers, just as we used for the commemorative game. Those games, especially the hundreds conducted during the interwar years, played a major role in honing war plans and training the minds of the senior leadership that would fight in World War II. Admiral Chester Nimitz famously observed that nearly every aspect of the Pacific War had been explored beforehand so that, with one exception, there were no surprises. That one exception was the Japanese kamikaze tactic — that had not been foreseen.
Kamikazes aside, wargaming, along with fleet exercises and debate in professional journals such as Proceedings, interacted to provide a fecund environment for testing tactics during the 1920s and 1930s. Floor wargames, especially, were a cost-effective way to explore fleet maneuvers during the lean Depression years. As the only fleet action involving Dreadnoughts, the Battle of Jutland was extensively dissected by professionals and amateurs alike. Compared to air and land fighting, naval battles are exceedingly rare, so war games provide the only available laboratory for tactics.
Warships represent a significant investment of national treasure, making governments and admirals alike cautious about hazarding them in battle. Relative naval power is comparatively easy to gauge compared to land power, so inferior forces are less likely to challenge superior navies, relying on the value of a fleet “in being” as they await better opportunities. Naval battles only occur, therefore, on the rare occasions when there is relative naval parity coincident with clashing interests significant enough to risk expensive warships.
Prelude to the Battle
The Anglo-German naval race of the early 20th Century is a fascinating example of the interaction of those factors. Kaiser Wilhelm sought to increase the stature of his newcomer empire by engaging in a massive naval buildup despite the reality of Germany being primarily a continental power. This policy was opposed by Bismarck, the architect of the German state, as being an unnecessary provocation to England, and eventually led to the Iron Chancellor being fired. In contrast to Germany, the British Empire was a maritime one, and no challenge to its naval supremacy could be tolerated. So the German challenge was met by an even greater buildup by Britain’s Royal Navy. As Bismarck feared, the German challenge antagonized Britain. In fact, it aggravated the British so much that they formed an alliance with France, which nation Britain had been battling on and off for most of the preceding five or six centuries. As late as the 1880s the French navy was considered the primary opponent of the Royal Navy and the standard it measured itself against.
The end result of the German naval challenge was that Britain was allied to France when long-expected general war broke out in 1914. German naval strategists found themselves outmaneuvered by Britain when it implemented a distant blockade from Scapa Flow in Scotland instead of the expected close blockade off Heligoland off the German coast. After a flurry of inconclusive naval actions in the first few months of the war, the situation evolved into a stalemate. The British distant blockade was effective, while the Germans found they had no way to force a battle that might break it. A counter blockade by submarines had some effect in turn, but risked drawing the United States into the war and was suspended in 1916.
The Battle of Jutland
With the submarine campaign suspended, the Germans appointed an aggressive new commander for the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, and he attempted anew to force a fleet action that might change the strategic balance of forces. While somewhat inferior in numbers, the Germans hoped to exploit superior ship quality and tactics to achieve a victory. Their chance came at the end of May 1916 as the High Seas Fleet sortied in an attempt to catch a portion of the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea off the coast of Jutland, Denmark. Unknown to the Germans, however, British code breaking had compromised the essential element of surprise that their plan relied upon and the entire Grand Fleet under Admiral John Jellicoe was at sea. The British hoped to overwhelm the Germans in a new ‘Trafalgar.’
Jellicoe’s failure to crush the German fleet in the subsequent battle led to public disappointment and years of recriminations after the war. This increased the amount of attention the battle received as partisans of Jellicoe and the commander of the battlecruiser force, Admiral David Beatty, argued over the conduct of the battle and assessed blame or sought credit. Recent scholarship has tended to be more sympathetic to Jellicoe, who, as Winston Churchill noted, could have “lost the war in an afternoon.” For many years after the war, however, professional opinion, especially in the Royal Navy, tended to follow the aggressive Beatty’s line of criticism. For their part, German commentators, including Scheer, himself, tended to praise Jellicoe’s handling of his fleet. The bottom line was that the Germans failed to break the blockade. This failure caused them to re-implement the submarine campaign. This, in turn, prompted America to enter the war and led to Germany’s defeat.
Playing the Game
Before the game players were provided with a 10-page extract of the 1922 edition of the Naval War Colleges “Chart Maneuver Rules,” which despite the title, actually dealt with gaming on a floor, with an 8-inch square representing 1,000 yards. It was indicated before the game that players would be commanding battleships or battlecruisers, and it appeared from the pre-battle email list that there were not quite enough players to command all the BB/BC present. In the actual event the roster was short by two and a pair of captains were recruited from the onlookers. It was unclear before the game whether smaller ships such as pre-dreadnought battleships, armored cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers would be ignored entirely, represented abstractly or controlled by the umpires. Players controlling battleships/battlecruisers were informed that they would cover 2/3 their speed in knots in inches across the playing surface, so a speed of 18 knots translated into 12 inches. Battleships and battlecruisers had a turning radius of 1,0000 yards and could turn up to 180 degrees in one turn, in 15-degree increments.
Perhaps most notable, from a hobby player’s point of view, was how gunnery and damage were handled. Instead of damage points or a similar mechanic, each ship was rated for how many 14-inch shell hit equivalents it could take before sinking. All Dreadnought battleships were rated as being able to take 20, while battlecruisers took 10-17 depending upon their armor. There was no provision for critical hits, which seems reasonable for a professional wargame aimed at teaching proper tactics. While entertaining in a hobby game, and undoubtedly a feature of actual battles, it clearly wouldn’t do to have poor tactics either rescued or validated by a lucky hit, so the combat system was deterministic. The same characteristic applied to the official Royal Navy wargame of the same era, which used a different, but equally deterministic system for gunnery and damage, so there was evidently a professional consensus on this point.
The two fleets historically encountered each other about 1430 on May 31st. The Naval War College re-enactment picked up the action as it was around 1835 hours, with the fleets in the approximate configuration they were in after Scheer’s first battle turn away but before his second. None of the battle damage that had been historically inflicted until that point was reflected except for the absence of the two British battlecruisers lost by Beatty on the run south. Otherwise everybody’s ship was still in pristine condition. Also, the Fifth Battle Squadron was represented by two R-class battleships instead of its historical three (at that point) Queen Elizabeth class ships because the war college didn’t have the proper models. Those adjustments aside, the set up was historically accurate and provided the maximum opportunity for players to shoot and maneuver meaningfully.
Each ship had a player captain controlling it. In addition there were players representing Admiral Jellicoe, Vice Adm. Beatty and Rear Adm. H.L.A. Hood, commander of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron. On the German side players represented Scheer and Vice Adm. Franz Hipper, commander of the German battlecruisers. While the admirals and ship captains could converse freely within their fleets and squadrons, the admirals could only communicate with each other using written messages, representing signal flags and wireless. These messages were subject to a one-turn delay. If an admiral’s flagship was sunk there was a two-turn procedure for shifting flags. During this time they could neither send nor receive messages. While three flagships (all battlecruisers) were sunk, it happened so late in the action that I don’t think any of the admirals completed shifting their flagships before the event ended. Each group of 3-5 players was assisted by an umpire, supervised by an overall event umpire. Two other game officials handled all the gunfire calculations.
This truncated version of the fight was apparently chosen because of the logistics of trying to run such an ambitious project in a limited amount of time and without a cadre of experienced players. It was clearly a commemorative demonstration game and not a competitive analytical exercise. That noted, the game made good progress, finishing five moves (representing 2 and a half minutes each) in a little over two and a half hours actual playing time with 50 capital ships.
The models were exquisite. They appeared to be German-made Navis 1:1250 scale ships, which run from about $40 to $60 each, so the 50 ships represented about $2,500-$3,000 worth of product, at least. In order to protect the models they were mounted on very large bases with the name of the ship displayed. One interesting aspect of the game was the use of the actual ship maneuvering templates manufactured in 1919 for the Naval War College to use in its wargame. There were two types in use, a small one marked in degrees that was used for plotting torpedo fire and a very large one used to maneuver the ships and control their turning radius. While the ships were 1:1250 scale, or approximately 1 inch equals one hundred feet, the floor scale was 1-inch equals 125 yards, or eight inches equals 1,000 yards. This created a very pleasing visual effect. Few modern Wargamers have the privilege of that much space to stage a similar game, but it would be nice to see it done at a large convention, perhaps.
As players we didn’t get to handle the actual models. There simply would not have been room. All movement was handled by the umpires, based on written orders from the players. My ship was HMS Ajax, a King George V class dreadnought displacing 26,100 tons and carrying ten 13.5-inch guns for its main battery. It had a maximum speed of 21 knots, which translated to about 14-inches per turn on the floor. Ajax was the second ship in the main British battleship line.
My earlier speculation about how the light ships would be represented was answered in the “mostly ignored” fashion. The chief umpire noted that with 250 ships present in the battle it would probably take all day to conduct one move if all the ships were shown individually. Each admiral was allowed to deploy one 2,400-yard smoke screen within 3,000 yards of his ships once per game to abstractly reflect the presence of the lighter ships. The British admiral unwisely, in my opinion, (but what do I know? The man is a real-life admiral) deployed his screen early, near the British battle cruisers, where it mostly obscured the fire of the leading British battleship division while not really protecting Beatty’s battlecruisers. The German admiral deployed his on the last turn played, also to little effect.
As to the battle itself, unsurprisingly, tactics were rudimentary, although both sides showed admirable aggression. Most of the German battle line and the first division of the British main line, of which I was a part, maintained good order and an intact line. The leading division of the German battle line rather wilted under the concentrated fire of the British, however. The leading two German Dreadnoughts sheared out of line and temporarily retreated, although they later reversed course and advanced again. This left Markgraf in the lead of the German line. Historically, Scheer conducted his second battle turn away at this point, but our game’s German admiral gamely pressed on. The majority of the British battleship line fell into some disarray as the battle progressed, but aside from reducing firepower somewhat by masking rear and midship turrets, it seemed to have little immediate effect. The game rules properly took into account the significantly greater throw-weight of the British fleet. The largest guns on the German side were 12-inches, with some ships mounting 11-inch guns. In contrast the smallest guns in the British fleet were 12-inch, with more than half the ships, such as HMS Ajax, having 13.5-inch guns. A few British ships even had 15-inch guns.
Damage was measured in 14-inch gun hit equivalents, with it taking about two 12-inch or 11-inch hits to equal one game hit, while the 13.5-inch guns were essentially equal to a 14-incher. All Dreadnoughts were assessed at being able to take 20 hits, while the battle cruisers were rated from 10 to 17 hits. As an aside, I disagreed with rating the German BCs on the same level as the British battlecruisers. I would have made them 20s, same as Dreadnoughts, based both on their actual armor and on the enormous amount of damage they absorbed in the real battle.
In our refight the BCs also took it hard. Both sides were very aggressive with their battlecruisers and closed the range rather recklessly and without much of a formation. Besides exposing the BCs this also risked masking the fire of the battleships. The losses reflected this exposure, as all but one of the ships sunk in the five turns played was a battlecruiser. That one exception was the German dreadnought Markgraf, which was leading the German battle line after Koenig and Grosser Kurfuerst shied away. This happened to be my target with HMS Ajax through most of the action, although given the extreme range ( it appeared to be about 16,000-20,000 yards) I doubt I inflicted more than 10-20% of the damage it took. Other ships must have contributed the majority of the damage, but we players were not given the feedback needed to judge the relative effectiveness of our fire. All that was announced was who was hit, not who did the hitting. As far as I can tell, no return fire was directed at Ajax or the other ships in its division.
There being no torpedo craft present in the game, the capital ships had to launch their own pitiful loads. Most battleships had just a single torpedo tube pointing in any given direction. In the game all torpedoes were credited with a range of 10,000 yards at a speed of 30 knots, which was very generous compared to their real capabilities. This may also have been a fudge factor to make up for all those missing destroyers. As far I know, no hits were scored, but there were quite a few fish in the water at game end and a notable lack of evasive maneuvers by potential targets so it is possible that one or two hits might have occurred had the game continued. On the other hand, those potential targets were also getting buried under a blizzard of fire and may not have survived long enough to get torpedoed.
Results of the Battle
Overall, and unsurprisingly, due to the deterministic gunnery system, the damage inflicted on both sides was relatively even. In 14-inch equivalents the Germans suffered 106 hits. Three German ships — Lutzow (Hipper’s flag), Seydlitz and Markgraf — were sunk, and 9 were damaged to varying degrees, out of the total of 21 present. The British took 98 hits in return, losing Invincible (Hood’s flag), Lion (Beatty’s flag), New Zealand and Tiger, with 11 ships damaged. They had 29 ships present. The rest of the battlecruisers on both sides were quite battered and would not have lasted much longer. On the other hand, damage to the British main battle line was minimal. As I said, this mostly reflected the firepower advantage of the heavier British guns, although it also reflected the tactical situation. Based on overheard comments it appears some of the German battleships were out of range of any targets for most or all of the five turns. I don’t think any British ship was. This was due to the historical Jellicoe’s success in deploying his battle line to cross the T of Scheer. In the actual battle Invincible and Lutzow were sunk and Seydlitz was so heavily damaged that its survival was miraculous, so the re-enactment was surprisingly accurate.
If the battle had continued there is little doubt the Germans would have either been annihilated or would have had to use Scheer’s historical tactic of turning away, although unlike the actual German captains, the Naval War College re-enactors were unpracticed in the maneuver and may have had difficulty pulling it off. Other artificialities, which were, to be fair, noted by the NWC staff, included better visibility (perfect as opposed to being obscured by darkness and smoke), better communication (perfect and instantaneous within squadrons as opposed to uncertain and delayed flag hoists) and better control (perfect without the vagaries of critical hits or mechanical breakdowns which afflicted the historical captains).
Even with all its limitations, the exercise did illustrate some truths about the battle, such as the difficulty of maneuvering long lines of battleships, the British advantage of firepower and the inadvisability of committing battlecruisers to a main force action. Considering that no more than a handful of the players had ever taken part in anything similar, I think the whole event went remarkably well. The umpires were efficient, fair and fast. The game rules were sufficiently accurate and player-friendly and the choice of starting positions was well-considered to maximize player engagement given the extremely limited time available.
For the edification of the participants there was a continuously running PowerPoint describing the battle and its context, as well as various hallway displays. Among the artifacts on display was an original copy of Fred Jane’s Naval War Game from 1906 and Chester Nimitz’s student thesis on the battle from 1923. During a brief ceremony the families of Admiral William Sims and Commodore Dudley Knox announced gifts of papers from their estates to the NWC Museum collection. Sims was twice president of the war college and led the US Navy in Europe in World War I. Knox supervised the first Jutland re-enactment at the war college in September 1916 and was later the Navy’s first Director of Naval History. Obviously the papers of both men are of great interest to students of naval history and of the war college.
Overall, it was an extreme pleasure to take part in this commemoration, in such a historic site — Pringle Hall, where many wargames were held — and under the auspices of the premier war gaming organization in the world, the United States Naval War College. I’d like to thank my friend, Craig Knudsen, who was able to secure for me a place on the roster of ship captains.
Personal observations from the Jutland Re-enactment, May 10th, 2016, at the Naval War College, Newport, RI.
“Chart Maneuver Rules,” reprint of Government Printing Office publication from 1922, Washington, DC.
“Jutland! The War Game,” commemorative booklet published by The Naval War College and Naval History and Heritage Command, May 10, 2016.
John Campbell, Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986.
John Curry, ed., The Fred Jane Naval War Game (1906) Including the Royal Navy’s Wargaming Rules (1921), History of Wargaming Project, lulu.com, 2008.
Charles London, Jutland 1916: Clash of the Dreadnoughts, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000.
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel, New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
William Schleihauf, ed., Jutland: The Naval Staff Appreciation, Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2016.