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Bismarck: The Designer Speaks
By Mike Bennighof
February 2014

Many years ago, though it seems like it was last week, I wrote my very first check. It was to Homewood Toy and Hobby Shop, for a game called “Bismarck” by Avalon Hill. I took it home and punched out the pieces and had a great time, at first at least. I grew interested in the game’s history and began to do some reading. And my teenage eyes revealed that a lot more went on in the Atlantic in 1941 than the game let on.

The game included optional extra ships, but these had little bearing on the actual operations. There were other German raiding ships, and other Allied ships in the area especially many American warships. None of this was revealed in the game; though it had American vessels, it did not include the ones that were actually around.

I crafted hand-made counters and hit record sheets for these and played with them with my friends. And some years later I began working on actual games for Jack Greene, the game’s designer. Jack taught me a lot about game design, and many of my later works have come out of those early experiences, in particular our Bomb Alley game.

Since then more years have gone by and I’ve written a lot more checks, though not nearly as many as my creditors would like. Along the way we unveiled our own take on the battleship Bismarck’s famous foray into the North Atlantic. The years also changed my outlook on game design quite a lot; our game shares little with that old one beyond its subject.

The Second World War at Sea game series started in the South Pacific, but I’ve always seen the North Atlantic game as its keystone. This is the game for which the series was designed.

14 Scenarios

Bismarck: Commerce Raiding in the North Atlantic is a lot more than just the German battleship’s cruise, though that is definitely the main event. It has 14 separate scenarios: nine operational scenarios and five battle scenarios (these last just use the tactical map, for those not familiar with other games in the series). Two of the operational scenarios are based on smaller-scale destroyer operations in the English Channel, so players new to the series can get the hang of things quickly. The others cover the major German surface raiding expeditions between November 1939 and September 1941.

The centerpiece scenario opens with Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen somewhere at sea near Norway. The British have the battlecruiser Hood and the new battleship Prince of Wales near Iceland ready to intercept her, a line of cruisers in front of them to find the enemy, and another battleship (King George V) and some cruisers and destroyers at Scapa Flow. An aircraft carrier, a battlecruiser and several old and slow battleships can be detached from convoy escort to help out. Two American task forces each with an old battleship and three destroyers might blunder into Bismarck’s path as well. Coming up from the south, Force H brings another aircraft carrier, a battlecruiser and some light ships. Convoys are represented on the map rather than with the “merchant routes” we used in several games in the related Great War at Sea series.

Air power is generated in a semi-random fashion derived from Bomb Alley. Each player has a rough idea of what aircraft the enemy has and in what quantity. Exactly how many of each type, and where they’re stationed, is not known. The convoys at sea start in their actual locations; that more will enter play is known but not exactly when or where, or of what composition. Once again, the design idea is to avoid giving players information their historical counterparts lacked wherever possible. Convoys follow a number of special rules: They can be dispersed under some circumstances, they can be delayed at the cost of making victory more difficult for the Allied player, they can cast off stragglers that the Axis player might find easier to sink, and their escorts are under some range and mission restrictions.

Axis task forces have new “raid” and “supply” missions, which let them move while not present on the board (thus out of sight of the Allied player). The Allied player can look for them by air searches and through radio direction-finding. Weather is much trickier than in other games in the series, and the winds can calm or blow furiously with little advance warning. There’s also pack ice to worry about.

Finally, the British were operating ships far too long without refit while the Germans had installed sophisticated high-pressure boilers that overstretched the tolerance of their materials. Both sides run the risk of machinery failure if they run at high speed for too long.

'Rhine Exercise' and Beyond

The “Rhine Exercise” scenario (the Bismarck chase) will probably be the most-played scenario in the series, so it’s received plenty of extras. There are six possible options for each player. For the Axis, the battleship Tirpitz might be made ready in time to sail with her sister ship. The battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might sortie from Brest while Bismarck is at sea. The armored cruiser Lützow, built for long-range commerce raiding, might be added to the Bismarck’s task force. The aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin might join them (complete with either her early or mid-life air group) or maybe it will be the light cruisers Köln and Leipzig or perhaps the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper.

The Allied player might get serious American assistance: The pair of aircraft carriers then either stationed at or on their way to Bermuda. Or the extra aircraft the Americans were contemplating stationing in Iceland. Force H might get the battleship Malaya, which it had detached to the Mediterranean Fleet a week before Bismarck’s break out. Less emphasis on re-supplying Malta and better shipyard efficiency bring British aircraft carriers and battleships to a better state of readiness, and finally, a pair of Free French battleships might become available.

Here are the introductions and conclusions of the other “major” operational scenarios:

First Sortie
21 November-10 December 1939

With much of the Royal Navy deployed in the South Atlantic hunting the armored cruiser Admiral Graf Spee, the German high command sent Vice Admiral Wilhelm Marschall and the fleet’s only two heavy ships out to sea to take the pressure off the raider. Marschall decided to attack the British cruiser patrol line and threaten the North Atlantic convoy routes. The diversion would also help the 51,000-ton liner Bremen, trapped at the Soviet port of Murmansk, slip back home through the North Sea. The British had temporarily abandoned Scapa Flow after the shocking sinking of the battleship Royal Oak at her mooring by a German submarine. Several of their heavy ships were docked for refitting and not available, and all available aircraft carriers were hunting Admiral Graf Spee.

Aftermath

The Germans detached their smaller ships in the North Sea and took the two battle cruisers into the passage south of Iceland. Once there Scharnhorst spotted and destroyed the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi, but Marschall did not follow up by hunting down the light cruisers of the patrol line. Even when Newcastle hove in sight, the Germans did not turn on her, as Marschall feared taking any damage. The weather grew fearsome and many ships suffered storm damage, but Bremen delayed her return until December. The British manufactured some heroes from Rawalpindi’s sacrifice, but the true story was that Marschall had been overly cautious. His counterpart, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, suffered continual interference by the Admiralty with even the smallest ship movements (what a later age would label “micromanagement”) and could not react in time to intercept the German battle cruisers with his slower but much more powerful battleships.

Scheer Destruction
30 October-18 November 1940

While the Nazis had built fairly conventional, if well-protected, warships, their predecessors of the Weimar Republic built radical long-range armored cruisers designed to wreak havoc on enemy commerce during wartime. These remained the Germans’ best hope to conduct cruiser warfare, and in late October 1940 the armored cruiser Admiral Scheer finally completed a lengthy refit and set out into the Atlantic.

Aftermath

Admiral Scheer caught convoy HX.84 and sank the auxiliary cruiser Jervis Bay, its only escort, after desperate resistance by the converted liner. She sank five of the 37 ships then with the convoy, while the rest scattered. Convoy traffic in the North Atlantic was utterly disrupted and the Home Fleet sortied to hunt for the raider, which slipped off to the south to pursue more lightly-guarded targets in the southern hemisphere.

Admiral Hipper’s Cruise
5-29 December 1940

The long-range armored cruisers known as “pocket battleships” in the British press had been designed for commerce raiding, but in late 1940 the German Kriegsmarine decided to employ other warships as well. With the armored cruiser Admiral Scheer preying on trade in the South Atlantic, the German command believed another warship could take advantage of the distraction to attack the North Atlantic convoy routes.

Aftermath

After cruising unsuccessfully for several weeks, Admiral Hipper finally contacted the troop convoy WS.5A. But in the best tradition of the Royal Navy, the escorts went right at her. After a sharp exchange of fire, Hipper took damage and was driven off. The damaged cruiser went to Brest, the first German major warship to enter a French port and one sporting a record of failure. The converted merchant ship Kormoran which followed in her wake racked up a much better war record, sinking 11 enemy ships in a year-long cruise before facing off with the Australian light cruiser Sydney in an epic fight resulting in their mutual destruction.

Berlin Exercise, First Phase
22 January-27 February 1941

The cruiser Admiral Hipper’s convoy raids had been stymied by her relatively short range, unreliable engines and inability to overcome enemy cruisers. The new German fleet commander, Adm. Gunther Lutjens, prepared Germany’s two battlecruisers to raid the convoy lanes. The hope was that one battle cruiser could distract the escort while the other destroyed the helpless merchant ships. But that became much more difficult when Lutjens received strict orders to avoid placing his ships in dangerous combat situations.

Aftermath

Lutjens attempted to break out into the Atlantic through the Iceland-Faeroes passage but spotted two British cruisers in his way and doubled back eastward. Refueling from a tanker, he then successfully broke out through the Denmark Strait north of Iceland. Deciding to hit the North Atlantic convoy lanes first, the Germans soon spotted Convoy HX.106 but ran from its escort, the battleship Ramillies. After heading northwest to avoid British pursuit and refuel from another tanker, they made another foray south into the convoy lanes and sank five unescorted, empty transports in an OB convoy heading west to America. They then headed into the South Atlantic in search of more prey.

Berlin Exercise, Second Phase
15 March-7 April 1941

After raiding the British convoy traffic off the West African coast, the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returned to the North Atlantic for further depredations. Meanwhile, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper would use the confusion to return to Germany for major repairs and the armored cruiser Admiral Scheer would slip back home after causing havoc in the Indian Ocean.

Aftermath

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau immediately found more helpless pickings upon returning to the North Atlantic, sinking or capturing ten unescorted merchant ships in a convoy on March 15th, and another six in a second convoy on the 16th. An oddly-named merchant ship in the second convoy, Chilean Reefer, fired on Gneisenau with her little gun and radioed for help. Her call was answered by the battleship HMS Rodney, who arrived in time to scare off the Germans and pick up Chilean Reefer's survivors. The battlecruisers then headed north to divert Allied attention away from Admiral Scheer and Admiral Hipper trying to make their way home. Both cruisers did so, without further incident.

White Patrol
23 September-14 October 1941

Germany’s sneak attack on the Soviet Union in June, 1941, brought new responsibilities to the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet. Now convoys would have to be escorted through the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk, greatly stretching British resources. To guard against German commerce raiders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered major U.S. surface units to Iceland. They were to defend the passages into the Atlantic against German raiders, duty the sailors called the “White Patrol.” With Iceland in the American protective zone, the presence of German ships would be considered an act of war and the American commanders had orders to attack and sink German surface warships. When ULTRA code intercepts indicated that two German warships might soon try to break out, the Americans dispatched reinforcements to the area and prepared to enter World War II.

Aftermath

Tirpitz did not actually sortie, relieving the Americans of an early entry into World War II. With the British mounting a major convoy operation in the Mediterranean (“Halberd”) and about to send two capital ships to the Far East, the Home Fleet had little means to stop Tirpitz. Instead, the two German warships thought to be on their way into the Atlantic went into the Baltic to intercept any attempt of the Soviet fleet trapped in Leningrad to break out and seek internment in Sweden.

Finishing this game gave great satisfaction, finally completing a decades-old idea that still feels completely fresh in my mind. This is a fun game to play, and one that makes the historical points I was after: The British had a huge stretch of ocean to protect with very limited resources, while the Germans did a very poor job taking advantage of that.

Click here to order Bismarck: Commerce Raiding in the North Atlantic!