Bismarck Second Edition:
Scenarios, Stories and History
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Second World War at Sea: Bismarckwas the last game we reprinted with First Edition series rules. The reprint sold out quickly – Bismarck has always been one of our very best sellers – and in my role as publisher I then had to decide whether to print more with the old rules, or let it fall out of print and await a new Second Edition. In what was probably a business mistake, I decided not to print more of the First Edition, even though we had just about everything on hand except the box wrap and the rules set. I didn’t like the idea of printing both First and Second edition rules and the games that carried them at the same time.
Bismarck’s First Edition was a really good game for its time (2006), which made the decision difficult. I helped assemble that last print run, and handling the parts just drove home to me how it was not as good a product as the newest editions of Second World War at Sea games, chiefly Eastern Fleet that I was then in the process of re-designing. As I handled the playing pieces and the maps, I became determined to give it the same treatment as Eastern Fleet.
The second edition series rules are different enough that the old scenario books aren’t usable with the new rules. Several sections of what were special rules in the Bismarck scenario book have been moved into the core rules, and others have enormously streamlined. The game was never difficult to play, but it’s much easier now.
Bismarck’s first edition was a far better game than Eastern Fleet’s first edition. Even so, it just didn’t have enough scenarios to fully tell the story of commerce raiding in the North Atlantic. At the time, as far as I know, no one had tried to build a wargame’s scenario set as a story-telling device the way role-playing games are structured. And so Bismarck’s first edition had fourteen scenarios, with five battle scenarios followed by nine operational scenarios, none of them tied together in any fashion.
The main event is the famous breakout of the German battleship Bismarck into the North Atlantic. With the help of her consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, she sank the British battle cruiser Hood. And then things went wrong, as rather than turn back for Norway she pressed on toward occupied France to repair her battle damage. The British found her, damaged her some more with aerial torpedoes, and sank her with a tremendous volume of gunfire.
The first edition of the game had one operational scenario based on the Bismarck’s breakout, one battle scenario for the Battle of the Denmark Strait (the one where Hood was sunk) and one battle scenario that could have happened but didn’t, with the old American battleship Texas running into Bismarck during the night after the Denmark Strait battle.
That scenario selection reflected my view on historical game design at the time, a pretty common view then and now, that a historical game should reflect what happened and not what could have happened. But if you’re going to try to tell a story with a game’s scenarios, then the scenarios have to be centered on choices, because that’s what a story’s all about. What choices face the characters (in this case, the admirals) and what are the likely outcomes of those choices?
So I wanted the new edition to focus on choices, much like Eastern Fleet’s second edition. The cruise of the Bismarck is now represented by eleven scenarios rather than three. The original operational scenario is still in there, pretty much intact (I made some adjustments to the German order of battle and the British order of appearance). That one starts out with Bismarck having just left Norway and about to break out into the Atlantic; it’s up to the player to take it from there. And that’s fine, as the game needs a fairly free-form scenario like that. But the players’ choices later in the game are highly likely to be very different from those actually faced by the admirals involved, Jack Tovey for the British and Günther Lütjens for the Germans.
The Denmark Strait battle is there still, with some adjustments. And I added another battle scenario with the British player making use of all the forces potentially at Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland’s command (two heavy cruisers and four destroyers, in addition to Hood and Prince of Wales). The first edition offered that as a variant to the Denmark Strait scenario, but that approach didn’t really work for me any longer as it didn’t advance the story I wanted to tell.
And then we have a new operational scenario, picking up the action just after Hood has been sunk and both sides face a lot of choices. Will the Germans plunge ahead into the Atlantic or turn back for home with their wounded battleship? Will the British fall on Bismarck with what they have close at hand, or try to bring their material superiority to bear?
To illustrate that, we have three battle scenarios. In one, Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker takes on Bismarck and Prinz Eugen with one damaged, inefficient battleship and two heavy cruisers. Tovey, an admiral who believed his place was at sea and so was charging forward aboard King George V, was under radio silence and could only scream in frustration as Winston Churchill (via First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound) fired off message after message demanding that Wake-Walker attack Bismarck immediately and implying that he had not yet done so solely due to cowardice. Tovey was on the brink of breaking in to silence Churchill, a move that likely would have driven Bismarck back to Norway had his message been intercepted, when Wake-Walker courageously refused the Admiralty’s orders, citing the extensive damage to Prince of Wales.
Tovey instead hoped to intercept Bismarck with his flagship King George V and the battle cruiser Repulse, and we have a scenario for that. It’s a pretty ballsy move, as Bismarck at that point still could make good speed and had shown excellent gunnery in the engagement with Hood. King George V was somewhat more efficient than her sister Prince of Wales, but Repulse was little more than a floating gunnery target.
And then we have a revised version of the nighttime encounter with Texas. Texas was an old tub by this point and no match for Bismarck in a straight-up fight, but this is not a straight-up fight. The American ship is crewed by long-service battleship sailors and only has to damage the German ship to assure her destruction.
Next we have the third stage of the hunt for Bismarck, when she’s running for France and has separated from Prinz Eugen (which went on to cruise the North Atlantic and achieve absolutely nothing). Now the German player has to get the ship home, and the British player has to find her and sink her. At this point she’s still pretty fast and she’s eluded her pursuers (in game terms, her task force marker has been taken back off the map). The Home Fleet is coming down from the north, Force H from Gibraltar is approaching from the south, and various convoy escorts have broken away from their charges to join the hunt (leaving those convoys vulnerable to that missing heavy cruiser; no one sang songs about “Sink the Prinz Eugen,” but the British player can’t be so sure she’ll be operated in the same lackluster fashion her captain Helmuth Brinkmann displayed).
We flesh out this segment of the story with three new battle scenarios. In the first of them, Vice Admiral James Somerville of Force H challenges Bismarck with his flagship Renown, a light cruiser and some destroyers. Renown, a rebuilt battle cruiser of Great War vintage, hadn’t been fit to stand up to German dreadnoughts when she was new and certainly was not now. Both Tovey and the Admiralty radioed direct orders to Somerville to stay away from Bismarck. He ignored them and pressed on, laying plans to engage Bismarck from astern to force her to turn and fight and thereby delay her advance toward France. He did not expect to sink her, and neither did he apparently expect to survive the encounter.
So why did a British admiral defy his orders and press forward on such a suicidal course, along with 953 sailors? Once again, we have to turn to one figure, Winston Churchill. After the Battle of Cape Spartivento in November 1940, Somerville (and his cruiser commander, Lancelot Holland) did not pursue Inigo Campioni’s Italian fleet. Campioni’s flagship, Vittorio Veneto, was an even more formidable fighting ship than Bismarck and he had a second, less powerful battleship in company where Somerville only had Renown. Churchill demanded a court of inquiry, which cleared Somerville but the accusation remained. And so having failed to lead his command to slaughter against the Italians, Somerville would now do so against the Germans six months later, and attempt to do so against the Japanese a year after that as seen in Eastern Fleet.
Somerville embodied the best of the Royal Navy: thoughtful, insanely brave, and possessed of a deep sense of personal honor. He had spoken out against the attack on the neutral French at Mers-el-Kebir in June 1940, and Churchill had never forgiven that impertinence even though Somerville had carried out the orders he found repugnant.
Next up, we have another insanely brave British commander, Philip Vian of Fourth Destroyer Flotilla, challenging Bismarck with five destroyers. His night attack failed to slow the German battleship, even though his crews pressed it to point-blank range and his one Polish-manned destroyer stuck around to blaze away at the Germans with her 4.7-inch popguns.
And finally, there’s the end game, where Tovey’s battleships show up and shell the German battleship into oblivion. She’s still dangerous, and Tovey did well to sink her with no loss to his own forces.
The Royal Navy performed exceedingly well when presented with a strong challenge. That’s due in large part to the clear operational thinking and sound leadership of Jack Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet, and despite the constant, fumbling meddling of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
I’ve excoriated Churchill’s amateur micro-managing many times, most recently in the Jutland Battle Analysis. And yet with every subject I study that’s related to Britain in either world war, I continually encounter more deadly idiocy traceable to one man’s overweening ego.
And so that’s the core of Bismarck’s Second Edition. I’ve come to doubt that there’s much of a market for history in wargames any more, if there ever was, but still I saddle up Rosinante and persist. Later we’ll look at the stories the other 34 scenarios have to tell.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.