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How it All Played Out


Wooden Men and Iron Ships


Peter Hunt


In early April the Entente fleet under Admirals Hunt and Hall sailed out confidently to meet the Triple Alliance under Admirals Herbert and Bishop.  Given that both sides were equal in points and numbers it was likely that we were heading for an enjoyable, but inconclusive day’s play in the biggest naval battle we had, yet, staged.  The Mediterranean ambiance was enhanced by Jeff laying on one of his exquisite seafood stews and, with the admirals suitably replete, battle commenced. 


The Scouts Meet


The British had a cunning plan for the cruiser action which entailed the British armoured cruisers taking on the Italian fast battleships at long range.  At this range the stronger British armour but weaker firepower would balance the Italian weaker armour but stronger firepower resulting in an equal battle, whereas at extreme or normal range the Italians would have the advantage.  Whilst this was going on the French and British armoured and protected cruisers were to pick off their weaker Austrian.  German and Italian counterparts, burst through them and locate the Triple Alliance battle fleet.  So much for the plan …


From the flag bridge of HMS Triumph Admiral Hall surveyed the enemy line.  His main target, the Italian fast battleships, was well to the rear of the Triple Alliance formation but the Italian protected cruisers were bearing towards him offering a tempting target ~ too tempting.  After a brief exchange of signals with his French colleague the original battle plan went out of the window and Hall altered course to starboard to bring his line to bear on the Italian light ships.


At first Hall’s initiative seemed to pay dividends as his much stronger ships pummelled the Italian lights and the Entente crews rejoiced at the sight of three enemy ships sinking and crippled in short order.  However the course change had two effects which were to spell doom for the Entente.  Firstly the British armoured cruiser were now heading between two Triple Alliance columns, one consisting of the Italian, Austrian and German protected cruisers and the other of the much further away Italian battleships.  This was bad enough but when the Italian battleships turned into line of battle towards the other column Hall found his “T” almost crossed and under fire simultaneously from the battleships ahead and the Triple Alliance cruisers on his port beam.  The French squadron, which had been to starboard of Hall’s squadron, was largely masked by the British armoured cruisers and to clear its arcs was pushed further to starboard taking it away from its natural targets, the Triple Alliance lights, and bringing it into the fire of the Italian battleships.  Insult was added to the Entente’s injury when the Italian battleships stopped dead in the water in order to maintain their superior firing position!


The Entente quickly paid the price for their tactical imprudence.  The British armoured cruisers could not go forward without bringing themselves into short range of the Italian battleships and the French could not give them decisive support.  Both squadrons were quickly devastated by the Triple Alliance fire and the British armoured cruisers were done for before the French could close the stopped Italians and bring them under torpedo fire.  A long-range torpedo hit on an Italian battleship gave some consolation to the Entente but it didn’t alter the outcome.  With the writing on the wall the relatively untouched British protected cruisers attempted to get away and pick off some Alliance cripples in the process.  But once the Entente heavier cruisers were sunk or crippled the British lights soon followed them, going down in a confused torpedo and short range gunnery melee.


As they dispatched the Entente cripples the Alliance admirals counted their own cost ~ the Austro-German squadron was largely untouched whereas the Italians had lost several ships with more crippled, but recoverable.  Still this was a small price to pay for destroying all the British cruisers and fulfilling their main duty.  For the plumes of smoke on the western horizon showed them the location of the Entente battle fleet, and their own battleships would be able to use this decisive scouting advantage to deploy to meet it as they saw fit.


The Juggernauts Collide


The two main battlefleets had adopted very different cruising formations.  As events were to show both formations left much to be desired.


The Triple Alliance disposed their squadrons in two columns of line ahead.  To port the squadron of German Brandenburgs led the squadron of Kaisers.  Away to starboard the Austrian squadron led the Italian battleships.  The destroyers and torpedo boats were tucked away from harm behind the battleships.  The two columns were over a mile apart and there was also about half a mile’s separation between the two squadrons in each column.  Thus the Alliance formation was spread out.  Individual squadrons were not well placed to support each other but each squadron had plenty of sea room to manoeuvre.


In complete contrast the Entente formation was very compact, being composed of two lines of squadrons in line abreast.  The first line consisted of the 1st BS to port, closest to the Alliance, 2nd BS to starboard.  Behind them came the 3rd BS and French squadron respectively.  The British destroyers were deployed in line ahead to the port of this box and the French destroyers to starboard.  Admiral Hunt was confident that he could manoeuvre this compact formation easily and it could be deployed to line ahead on either flank to make a single battle line by turning the line abreast squadrons to line ahead.  As it turned out Admiral Hunt proved to be too confident in his manoeuvring ability by half.


Taking full advantage of their scouting superiority the Alliance deployed off the port bow of the Entente formation.  Admiral Bishop realized that with their fleet’s dispersed cruising formation his lead squadron of Brandenburgs could find themselves engaged by several Entente squadrons before the other Alliance squadrons could come to their assistance.  To prevent this the Brandenburgs turned about to parallel the Entente course whilst the Kaisers turned 90 degrees to port to bring them across the Entente track.  Eventually this would bring the Brandenburgs in behind the Kaisers reversing the order of the port column.  Whilst this was going on Admiral Herbert was trying to bring the starboard column across and into the action.


It was the seeming vulnerability of the Brandenburgs that led to the Entente’s defeat.  Hunt’s cruising formation had been designed to allow for deployment on either flank by turning the first line of ships into line ahead and then making a turn to deploy.  After the first line deployed the second line would carry out the same manoeuvre and tag on behind the leading two squadrons.  Thus, with the Alliance deploying ahead and to port of him Admiral Hunt was in a similar situation to that of Jellicoe at Jutland . Should he deploy to port, and bring his line closest to the Alliance, or to starboard, further away but allowing more time to complete the manoeuvre?  At Jutland Jellicoe considered the information he had in the light of his experience and deployed the Grant Fleet to the best advantage.  Now however Admiral Hunt showed that he was not of Jellicoe’s calibre.  Instead of sticking to his plan, instead of ordering a deployment to port or starboard, Hunt threw all of this away in the hope of destroying the Brandenburgs quickly.  He ordered the first line to deploy to starboard and the second line to port!  To make matters worse instead of deploying by line he deployed by squadron in order to bring as many ships as possible to bear on the Brandenburgs Thus, instead of one single continuous line of four squadrons the Entente ended up with four separate squadron lines. By contrast the Germans fought in one line whilst the Austrian and Italian squadrons came up as fast as they could whilst keeping their firing arcs clear.


The battle opened with the Alliance picking off the British destroyers at extreme range.  The British 1st and 3rd BSs engaged the Brandenburgs whilst the 2nd BS and French squadrons, masked by the first two squadrons, got shots in when they could.  This weight of fire soon told on the Brandenburgs, sinking one and damaging the others.  This promising start was illusory however.  Soon the Kaisers came into play, then the Austrians and finally the Italians.  By this time, in effect two British squadrons were facing four Triple Alliance squadrons whilst the remaining masked Entente squadrons frantically manoeuvred to bring their guns to bear.  These odds couldn’t be sustained and soon the newest and the oldest battleships in the Entente fleet were crippled or sinking.  Although all of the Kaisers were heavily damaged none of them were crippled and only one Brandenburg was sunk ~ the result was a decisive victory for the Triple alliance.  As the last British squadron and their French allies attempted to break off, covered by an attack from the French torpedo boats, the German, Austrian and Italian crews celebrated their own “New Trafalgar”.  Admirals Hunt and Hall had proven that they were no Jellicoes or Nelsons.  One hundred years of naval supremacy had been brought to an end.


In Retrospect


This game was set up because we wanted something a bit more interesting than the normal set piece battle.  Even so the game was based on equal points and equal numbers to give both sides an equal chance.  The abject failure of the Entente was nothing to do with the quality or number of their ships, and with so many ships involved luck of the dice balanced out too.  They lost because their tactics were bad and in both the cruiser action and the fleet action the Triple Alliance got all their squadrons into action whilst the Entente masked many of theirs.


All of this is a tribute to Phil Barker’s rules.  There can be few sets of naval rules where you can use nine squadrons a side, with a total of over 80 ships, in two games over less than seven hours play where the deciding factor is the skill of the player admirals.  As with any set of rules play reveals anomalies and after this game we tweaked the rules to deter stopping functional ships, to make smaller ships harder targets at longer ranges, to prevent cripples being ignored by their own side, and to tinker with points values.  These were only minor points which did not really affect the final outcome.  The Entente lost because they made mistakes.  The rules allowed the Triple Alliance to chastise these mistakes ~ good rules and good play by the Alliance determined the outcome.


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