Jutland: North Sea 1914
Some time back, I conceived an ambitious plan: to turn our Great War at Sea: Jutland game into a comprehensive look at the entire naval war in the North Sea and the Baltic, between 1914 and 1918. To do that, I envisioned a book or scenarios, history and analysis that would cover all the battles we left out of the game, and flesh out those we did include more fully.
We’re going to need a lot more books.
The analysis book was called Jutland Battle Analysis, because that was its project name while I wrote it, and I never came up with a better title. The better title only came into my mind for the book’s heavily re-worked second edition, called Jutland: North Sea 1914.
I actually like writing book like this one, that meld a lot of history with game scenarios and analysis of how those scenarios fit into the historical narrative. That is difficult and challenging, and it’s exactly what I seek. It’s an opportunity to slip into the flow state, as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named the experience of complete concentration on a task. The flow state is an altered state of consciousness, and I have come to crave it. Delving very deeply into the history, using primary sources, tracing the actions of individual ships and the motivations of individual leaders, turning that into a coherent story in both game and text formats. It's not something one can do (or at least, not something that I can do) in 15-minute increments while multi-tasking: once you break the flow, it doesn’t just re-start. I find it very satisfying, and a book like North Sea 1914 demands that sort of total absorption.
The model on which I eventually settled wove together background, game scenario and analysis, with the scenarios carrying a lot of the story-telling weight. It’s not for everyone, but the readers/players who like it seem to like it very much. And I find it much more satisfying to write.
I used that style for Jutland’s Second Edition, and since Jutland is a rather complicated battle, scenarios based just on the battle, alternative plans laid by both sides and the aftermath filled up the scenario book. That left seven scenarios from the 1914 time frame, set in the North Sea, and I added those (after heavy revision) to North Sea 1914. Two others, I decided weren’t interesting enough to keep.
World War One on the North Sea saw both fleets in a constant state of deployment and readiness. Most popular histories don’t have much to say about this aspect, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that the battleships swung at anchor for four and a half year, except for that one 48-hour period when they fought the Battle of Jutland. These writers will sometimes note the massive amount of maintenance the fleets needed (multiple important battleships and battle cruisers missed the Battle of Jutland); what they don’t say much about is just how the ships (and men, too) became so wore down.
And that’s because the ships were at sea, about as often as their fairly primitive machinery could stand. These were vessels that depended on human muscle power, in the form of stokers, trimmers and rakers, as an integral part of their power plants. Both man and machine broke down under heavy use. And the admirals pushed both of them to and beyond their breaking points.
When the fleets went to sea, they rarely encountered one another. The German High Seas Fleet, badly outnumbered, would only accept battle under very favorable conditions – their whole fleet against just part of the British lineup. Neither side had particularly good means of gather information on enemy fleet movements, with no satellites or long-range aircraft. Even when the technology existed, in the form of zeppelins and submarines and radio intercepts, information processing had not reached a stage where it could turn a series of disjointed reports into actionable intelligence that could be presented to a fleet commander.
But the fact that a fleet went to sea, looking for trouble, said to me that the game should include that operation, since it was usually no less likely to result in battle than the operations that really did lead to an exchange of gunfire and torpedoes.
North Sea 1914 covers the early days of the Great War, when the North Sea fleets were very active: the British Grand Fleet in conducting actual operations, the German High Seas Fleet mostly in planning them. Both sides deployed their obsolete pre-dreadnought battleships in the battle fleet, making the potential actions in the first weeks of war very different from the Battle of Jutland (and therefore something I wanted to show in the book scenarios). And the odds of such an action occurring were very good: the idea that the battleships remained hidden away from harm is simply false. The British definitely wanted to fight, and the Germans were willing to accommodate them – if they could do so on favorable terms.
Complicating the High Seas Fleet’s desire to fight the British was Kaiser Wilhelm II, using his position as Supreme Warlord to put restrictions on the use of German warships. These began as a stricture on deploying anything other than torpedo boats, submarines or minelayers outside of German waters, and eventually relaxed enough to allow the battle cruisers (and fast armored cruiser Blücher) to operate farther afield. That forced the Germans to plan operations that might lure the enemy close enough to the German naval bases for the battle fleet to sortie and attack them without breaking the Kaiser’s rules any more than they already were by moving the battleships outside the harbors to be ready to respond.
For their part, the British conducted “sweeps” of the North Sea, seeking the German fleet, individual German warships, German merchant ships and most especially outbound German commerce raiders. The fleet moved out of its wartime base at Scapa Flow and proceeded southward behind a screen of cruiser squadrons before turning back northward for home. The Germans had some awareness of this, but their submarines proved far less adept at scouting than had been assumed before the war.
All of that activity adds up to a lot of potential scenarios, based on actual operations and plans. The first three and a half weeks of war, leading up to the First Battle of Helgoland Bight, generate nineteen scenarios: seven operational ones, and twelve battle scenarios. Helgoland Bight itself, and the aftermath (as both sides conducted new operations in response) generates four operational and eight battle scenarios, including a look at Alfred von Tirpitz’s desired reaction to the raid.
Helgoland Bight is also the subject for a new kind of operational scenario, one introduced Second World War at Sea games and also found in Great War at Sea’s Russo-Japanese War and Jutland Second Edition. Since we started making naval games, I’ve written the operational scenarios to cover the action in question from start to finish. There are good reasons for that, both in terms of fun play and historical insight. But that’s not the only way to do things, so we have some operational scenarios that start up with the action already underway. In this case, there’s a Helgoland Bight scenario that picks up the story after the Brits have ravaged the German cruiser force in the Bight and the High Seas Fleet is now in hot pursuit as Navy Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz thought they should have been.
Things slowed down after Helgoland Bight, as the Kaiser tightened his control of the High Seas Fleet, treating its dreadnoughts like a set of precious bathtub toys. Even if the British appeared right off the German coast – as they did two weeks after the battle – the fleet command had to telegraph the Supreme War Lord in Berlin for his expressed permission before setting out to fight them. The Germans instead had to rely on submarines – Wilhelm apparently did not care if they were sunk – and did so with some success.
Those successes in turn frightened Sir John Jellicoe, who moved the Grand Fleet out of Scapa Flow to Northern Ireland, far from where it could influence events in the North Sea. He still led it into hostile waters, believing the greatest danger lay in submarine penetration of Scapa Flow. The British continued to react to poorly-sourced reports, like one claiming that German cruisers had slipped through the Kiel Canal into the Baltic and thence through the Skagerrak into the North Sea. So, we let Sir John play out his fears, and send out the Germans on an operation they never undertook but the British believed they had.
We covered most of the operations that follow in the first edition of Jutland; they were dropped out of the Second Edition (which is all about the Battle of Jutland). I had revised them heavily in the old Battle Analysis and gave them still more love and care for North Sea 1914. Now we have all of the scenarios for the Scarborough and Yarmouth raids together in one chapter, so we can tell the story without jumping between book and game. We pick up the action at key points, and have plenty of battle scenarios to highlight the opportunities for organized violence.
North Sea 1914 (and the similar books that will follow) gives me, the designer, the opportunity to include all the scenarios I wish, to fully tell the story and explore the ramifications of certain inflection points, without worrying about overloading the game with too many scenarios (yes, there is such a thing) and too much history and analysis (that’s also possible). That’s a license to overload the book with those things, and then more volumes like it.
You can order North Sea 1914 right here.
The Jutland Experience
Jutland Second Edition (full game)
Jutland: North Sea 1914
Jutland: Dogger Bank
Journal No. 46: Iron Dogs
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. His Iron Dog, Leopold, could swim very well.
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