A recurring favorite of mine are real time strategy games. I especially enjoy setting up battles in my digital sandbox, particularly historical ones, and then either letting the computer duke it out while I watch or taking the part of one of the combatants and seeing if I can change history.
Any naval battles buff has wondered about the opening moves of the First World War at sea. The outbreak of war caught the German East Asiatic Squadron, commanded by the Graf Maximilian von Spee, far away from Germany and in the middle of hostile Asia. With the fall of German Samoa, von Spee was cut off, and he pulled his small squadron together to make a break for home, across the Pacific toward Cape Horn, to get loose in the South Atlantic. He had two modern armored cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each packing eight 210mm guns, and three light cruisers, Dresden, Nurnburg, and Leipzig. The light cruisers were also recent build, but packed 105mm guns, useless in a firefight.
Between von Spee and freedom lay the British South Pacific Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Christopher “Kit” Cradock. Kit Cradock was an old-school, dashing figure, soon to be a tragic figure. His force was built around the obsolete Good Hope, only carrying two large caliber, 9.2 inch guns. To make matters worse, he split his force into two, leaving his next-most powerful cruiser, the 7.5-inch-gunned Carnarvon, on the east coast of South America while he swept north on the west coast, toward Valparaiso, Chile. This left Cradock with HMS Monmouth, a “County” class cruiser manned by reservists and packing 6″ guns only, as his ship’s consort. They were no match for von Spee. And Cradock knew it. He’s begged the Admiralty to release the powerful HMS Defence, whose complement of four 9.2 inch and ten 7.5 inch guns would have changed history. Instead, he got a broken-down battleship, Canopus. Powerful on paper, this oldster would not have made a difference, because she would slow Cradock down and allow von Spee the ability to choose battle on his own terms. But he already had that ability, with his better guns and better crews. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were the best guns in theHochseeflotte, Gneisenau having twice won the Kaiser’s Cup, with her sister taking second place.
On November 1, 1914, off Coronel, South America, the two forces met by accident. Three hours later, Cradock would be dead, Good Hope and Monmouth sunk, the worst British naval disaster since 1812. The British response was to make its point in overwhelming fashion. They put together a force headed by Vice Admiral, Sir Frederic Charles Doveton Sturdee, who would one day be Admiral of the Grand Fleet. His force was built around the brainchildren of Sir John “Jacky” Fisher, the father of the all-big-gun battleship. These were the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible, each packing eight 12-inch guns and with more turbine-powered speed than any armored cruiser ever built. Von Spee knew all along that his days were numbered. At a dinner given him in Valparaiso, after Coronel, he was given a bouquet of flowers. The Graf’s sardonic response was that they would look good on his grave. He knew that Britain would not take Coronel lying down.
On December 8, 1914, the German squadron approached the Falkland Islands, intending to raid the British coaling station there. But in the harbor lay Canopus, grounded as a floating shore battery, and all of Sturdee’s squadron. Some historians think that if Scharnhorstand Gneisenau had pounced right then, victory was in von Spee’s grasp! The British were unwary. They had no steam up. They were at anchor. But 12-inch shells began to fall among the German fleet from grounded Canopus, and von Spee ran for the north. That sealed his doom. Given time, Sturdee’s battlecruisers rose steam, hauled in anchors, and set off in pursuit. Over 2,000 German sailors were lost in the ensuing battle.
That brings me to this interesting new morsel from Albireo Studios and Storm Eagle Studios, the makers of the wargame Jutland. This is the digital version of that old Avalon Hill classic that you needed a gymnasium floor to play right. Big maps, big guns, big distance, and big fleets. At the release, the game was missing the ingredients to re-stage the early 1914 battles. Armchair historians were aghast. The agitation began, and SES heard the cries of the masses. Hence, Map Pack 1. It provides us with the Falklands and the Coronel battlefields. And it inserts Cradock’s, Sturdee’s, and von Spee’s squadrons, in glorious detail.
Like all things war-related, Jutland Map Pack 1 is comprised of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s start with the good.