By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In April 1940, the German Navy launched a daring operation to seize Norway’s key ports, leading to the full occupation of the neutral nation. The Nazi regime had made no threats against Norway, no claims to the land of the midnight sun. The attack was born out of strategy, to outflank the British bases that had kept the High Seas Fleet bottled up in the North Sea in the First World War. The British were taken by surprise; “daring” was not a word one attached readily to the German Navy of 1940, and it would be their last operation of the war that could truly be called daring.
Second World War at Sea: Norway 1940 finally takes our premier game series to this famous operation. It’s one we’ve intended for the series ever since it started, and now we have a lot of experience to apply to the game.
There’s just one map, and it’s a very long one, because Norway is very long and very skinny. The Germans have a lot to accomplish, and not a lot with which to accomplish it. The actual operation, code-named Weser Exercise, deployed every operational German ship and still was very much a shoestring effort.
Second World War at Sea is centered on surface naval combat, but aircraft play a major role (and submarines a lesser one). The Germans are out-gunned at sea, with only two true capital ships. Those, the small battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, are reasonably adept at running away from British battleships but are in no way capable of standing toe-to-toe with the big British ships. Beyond that the Germans field one armored cruiser (otherwise known as a “pocket battleship”), two oversized heavy cruisers, four small light cruisers and some destroyers, torpedo boats and minesweepers (the Germans were so out-matched by this operation, they deployed minesweepers as front-line units and somehow got away with it).
Against that the British have four real battleships, two battle cruisers, three aircraft carriers, five heavy cruisers (one of which is not very heavy) and sixteen light cruisers of various sizes and capabilities, ranging from big and powerful Town-class ships down to veterans of the Grand Fleet refurbished as fairly useless anti-aircraft cruisers. Plus 14 destroyers. Plus a strong French cruiser-destroyer squadron. Plus three Polish destroyers, whose crews fought very bravely, but maybe the Poles should have built tanks or planes or something to fight the German invasion of Poland instead.
That Allied armada is strong enough to absolutely crush the Germans, who have another problem. The German Air Force is very powerful, though often uninterested in cooperating with the Navy, which does not have its own airplanes. In operations in southern Norway, the German Air Force’s power is overwhelming. But Norway is very long, which puts many of the prime targets - objectives the Germans had to take in the first hours of the invasion - well out of aircraft range. That situation improves in the campaign’s later scenarios, as the German ground forces capture airfields and put them into operation, but in those crucial first hours the German surface ships are on their own.
That didn’t go very well for them; the Royal Navy pretty much wiped out the German destroyer force in the naval Battles of Narvik. The Germans did enjoy extraordinary luck during Operation Juno, their June 1940 attempt to interfere with the Allied forces supporting the ground troops fighting at Narvik in far northern Norway. Their two battleships avoided the vastly superior British surface forces but managing to catch the British carrier Glorious with no aircraft aloft, none ready for launch and an escort of two destroyers. They sank all three ships, but one of the destroyers torpedoed Scharnhorst and put her out of action for six months.
The Germans are going to have to be very sneaky to pull off this operation; the British have the necessary brute force but once again, Norway is very long and there’s a long of open water to search.
Our history-rich story-arc format is very well-suited to model all of that in game form. The initial invasion is in one sense one huge scenario, and we’ve shown it that way, but it’s going to quickly deviate from the historical outcome which means events that happened late in the operation become unlikely in the game, even though they actually happened. So we also have shorter scenarios covering just part of the operation, so you can play out the attacks on Oslo and Stavanger and Narvik by themselves, or the whole thing. And of course every operational scenario is matched by multiple battle scenarios, both those engagements that happened and those that likely could have but for whatever reason did not.
That lets us tell the story through the scenarios, as all of the action unfolds in game form. You could even break out the pieces and move them and read along; it would be pretty nerdy, but you could do it. More likely, you’ll want to pick up the action at some crucial moment and play from there. You can do that, and it’s not nerdy at all.
All of that action plays out on a new operational map that stretches from the German bases in the south-east corner of the North Sea all the way up the Norwegian coast. We’ve covered parts of this region before, in Bismarck and Arctic Convoy, but neither of those showed the whole of Norway (and they’re oriented differently so they don’t overlap) and besides, you want and need a new map, not one recycled from some other game. And you get to play out the campaign on a single map, which is just easier and more fun.
Like other Second World War at Sea games, Norway 1940 has the series’ standard Tactical Map, but we’ve also crafted a special Tactical Map for the Battles of Narvik, so you can feel that pucker as a British battleship steams up the two-hex-wide fjord right at your destroyers and you’ve got nowhere to run. Or better yet, play the British side in that scenario. Much like the Ironbottom Sound map from South Pacific, it shows the actual terrain of the fjord. The scenarios would work just fine on that plain blue standard map with a bunch of hexes marked off as land, but this approach is way more fun.
The pieces are, as you’ve come to expect, our unique silky-smooth die cut type: without that horrid mangling on the flip side, just smooth all over with incredibly sharp print. That high print quality allows us to use really nice artwork on them (like you see on this page). Again, it’s not necessary for play, but it makes them more fun to play with. There are 420 of them: 140 “long” ship pieces and 280 square ones; most of those latter ones are airplanes.
This is a really fine game: all the latest production methods, the Second Edition series rules, the history-rich story-arc format and a cool Tactical Map, and all of it devoted to a topic we’ve never touched before.
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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 countless books, games and articles on historical subjects; some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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