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Graf Spee’s Cruisers
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2012

Cruiser Warfare, a Great War at Sea game, is built around the attempt by the German East Asia Cruiser Squadron to steam from its isolated base at Tsingtao in northern China around the world to Germany.

Germany had maintained cruisers in Chinese waters for some years, and in 1896 the squadron commander, Alfred von Tirptiz, had been charged with locating a suitable permanent base. He recommended Tsingtao, and a year later, two German missionaries conveniently died nearby and German marines grabbed the desired real estate.


Spee’s flagship, in China Station white.

The Chinese had established a small naval station at Tsingtao in 1891, hoping to develop the excellent deep-water port into a major base. But a year after the occupation, Germany extorted a 99-year lease on the territory, as well as major economic privileges in the rest of Shantung province.

Tsingtao became a well-ordered port, with a European-style planned city and excellent harbor facilities. The Germans even built a brewery that still produces China’s best beer. Forts sprouted on the surrounding hills, with a perimeter well out of artillery range of the harbor. The forts soon proved necessary: German punitive expeditions against surrounding peasant villages that refused to accept Christ were the direct cause of the Boxer Rebellion, which broke out in Shantung in 1898.

The Boxer Rebellion spread across China, and Kaiser Wilhelm II enthusiatically joined the Western counterattack. Thirty thousand German troops eventually served in China, gaining a reputation for brutality. A large naval squadron including the High Seas Fleet’s largest battleships supported them.

Afterward, the East Asia Squadron typically contained one large armored cruiser and several small ones. For years, the armored cruiser Fürst Bismarck served as squadron flagship. She was replaced in 1909 by the new armored cruiser Scharnhorst and returned to German for rebuilding. Scharnhorst’s sister, Gneisenau, joined her there in 1910. The two cruisers had won almost every High Seas Fleet gunnery prize, and the Germans boasted the most powerful European squadron in Chinese waters. In 1912 the squadron received a new commander, Rear Admiral Maximilian, Reichsgraf von Spee, a Dane who’d joined the German Navy as a teenager and risen through the ranks.

By the spring of 1914, Spee commanded two heavy cruisers and three light cruisers. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were 13,000-ton armored cruisers, very similar in design to previous German ships of the type but faster than most foreign armored cruisers. They each carried eight 8.2-inch guns and six 5.9-inch guns, and had four torpedo tubes.

But the British had reinforced their own presence in 1913 with a powerful armored cruiser and a weak battleship. Minotaur, the new flagship of the China Station, was the equal of the German ships on paper, but in an even fight the edge would probably have gone to the crack German crews. The second-class battleship Triumph lacked a full crew, and despite her four 10-inch guns and fourteen 7.5-inch pieces was probably not a match for either German cruiser.

Spee’s light cruisers also had extremely capable commanders and crews, but did not have the same materiel superiority over potential British opponents as his big ships. Leipzig, Emden and Nürnberg each carried ten 4.1-inch guns, a weapon favored by the Germans because of its high rate of fire: The 4.1-inch round was the largest that could be handled by a single crewman. But it was greatly outranged by the 6-inch guns of the British light cruisers on the China Station like Newcastle and Yarmouth (just two of them in Newcastle, but eight for Yarmouth).

The German light cruisers weren’t very fast, either: Leipzig had made 22 knots on trials in 1906 and never reached that again. Nürnberg could hit 23 knots, the same as the two armored cruisers, and Emden was considered slightly faster. The British light cruisers, by contrast, could make 25 knots.

The German cruisers also were much smaller than their British counterparts, coming in at 3,800 tons (4,200 for Emden) compared to 4,800 for Newcastle and 5,200 for Yarmouth.

The two opposing squadrons made for difficult game design decisions. Even though Cruiser Warfare, the game that covers Spee’s epic voyage, is a more recent release in the Great War at Sea series, the ship rating system was laid down a decade before when we did the first volume, Mediterranean (first edition).

Ships are grouped in four speed categories. Old ships making 19 knots or less get speed 1-slow. Very fast ships (30 knots or better) get 2-plus. And then there’s the bulk of the fleets. Most dreadnought navies sought a top speed of 21 knots for their battleships, with a few exceptions (a little slower for the French and Austrians, a little faster for the Italians). Ships that make around 21 knots get speed 1. Ships that make 25 or better get speed 2, an easy cut-off for game design because most navies aimed for speeds of 26 knots or better for their fast cruisers and battle cruisers.

The difficulty comes with the ships in the 23- and 24-knot range. Arbitrarily picking some number isn’t satisfying from the historian’s perspective; although there are plenty of complex naval wargames that define a ship’s speed down to the knot, this does not make them “realistic.” It only makes them complicated.


This son of Copenhagen
knew all about speed differentials.

Many factors can affect the speed of a coal-burning ship: the state of the machinery. A tired crew (that coal has to be shoveled). A foul hull. Quality of the coal (“harder” coal burners hotter and yields more energy per shovelful). And many more. For example, on paper, Nürnberg could do 23 knots and the British armored cruiser Kent hit only 22 on trials. Yet at the Battle of the Falklands, Kent ran down Nürnberg in a stern chase and sank her.

This sort of fuzziness is why I went with the four speed classes in Great War at Sea, and for the most part it works out very well. In 1904, where there are quite a few ships in the “gray zone,” we added the speed class 1-plus to cover them, and since there were no ships of speed 2-plus it was easy to adjust the tactical combat sequence accordingly.

Cruiser Warfare has, proportionately, a lot more ships in this middle ground. But only the Australian Parramatta-class destroyers receive the 2-plus speed rating. However, after some thought I decided not to use it in Cruiser Warfare, since I wanted all three 1914 games to have consistent components (Cruiser Warfare, Mediterranean and Jutland).

But wargamers like trivia, and if you want to adjust speeds, here’s what to do. For the tactical sequence (7.31) just adjust the faster ships “down” by one class: speed 2 moves in the speed 2-plus steps and speed 1-plus in the speed 2 steps. Ships with speeds 1 and 1-slow aren’t affected.

The extra speed class does show why Admiralties continued to rely on armored cruisers in 1914, even though they’d been made obsolete by battle cruisers. The change only applies in tactical combat; they get no extra movement capability on the strategic map (of course, neither does anyone else).

Treat the Parramatta-class destroyers as speed 2.

Treat the following as speed 1-plus:

German
AC13 Scharnhorst
AC14 Gneisenau
CL44 Nürnberg
CL52 Emden

Japanese
CL20 Tone

British
AC01 Defence
AC02 Black Prince
AC03 Duke of Edinburgh
AC04 Warrior
AC14 Hampshire
AC19 Minotaur
AC21 Drake
AC22 Leviathan
Ac23 Donegal
AC24 King Alfred
AC27 Kent
AC28 Carnarvon
AC29 Cornwall
AC30 Good Hope
Ac31 Monmouth
AC33 Suffolk
AC34 Berwick
AC35 Cumberland
AC36 Essex
AC37 Lancaster

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