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Bismarck Second Edition:
Scenarios, Stories and History, Part 2
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2019

The very first game I ever bought for myself was an old Avalon Hill title about the last cruise of the battleship Bismarck. I think I was 15, and I know I got it from Homewood Toy&Hobby (which still exists) with the very first check I ever wrote. That makes our own Second World War at Sea: Bismarck a very special project for me, so I probably poured way too much time and energy into it.

That old Avalon Hill game had Bismarck’s final journey as a scenario, and some variations on it adding (among others) apparently randomly-chosen American and French ships to the game. The Irondale Public Library in those days occupied a back room of City Hall, right next to the Water Department, with a one-shelf history section. Two of those dusty tomes were the two-volume Chronology of the War at Sea by Jurgen Rohwer and Gerhard Hümmelchen (later editions took away poor Hümmelchen’s byline). It wasn’t exactly enlightening reading, just a timeline of dates listing the movement of ships on those dates. It appeared in the 1960’s in German and in 1974 in an English translation.

Newer scholarship left Rohwer and Hümmelchen behind long ago, and while I own a copy now I don’t crack it open very often. But it showed me that my new game didn’t accurately reflect the history of the North Atlantic campaign. There were American ships operating in the North Atlantic, but not the ones included in the game. There were French ships operating in the North Atlantic, but not at the time of the Bismarck adventure.

And so I got out my narrow-point  felt-tip markers and my official Avalon Hill blank counters (just as badly die-cut as the game pieces), and I made my own pieces. They didn’t look very good, but that wasn’t really the point. I had made the game resemble history at least a little more than it already did.

Years later, when I owned a wargame publishing company of my own and designed a Bismarck game of my own, I made sure that those American showed up in the game, and did so when they actually appeared (or might have). And with Bismarck’s Second Edition, I wanted to be sure that the French fleet’s brief operations in the North Atlantic would be represented.

The Second Edition has 45 scenarios. We promised 40, and I could have gone well beyond 45 but finally had to just stop somewhere. The game now opens with the start of World War II, with the armored cruiser Deutschland’s rather inept cruise into the North Atlantic. Restrictive rules of engagement made it pretty much impossible for the raider to do much raiding, while the British expended little energy in hunting her down.

Much of that lack of energy can be attributed to the bumbling, meddling First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill. Immediately upon taking office Churchill directed the Home Fleet’s aircraft carriers to patrol off the British Isles in search of German u-boats, one of which promptly torpedoed and sank the carrier Courageous along with 519 of her crew. Meanwhile, the Home Fleet “swept” the North Sea in a repetition of the tactics of 1914, and deployed many of its assets to the Danish coast to rescue a damaged British submarine.

The North Sea scenarios (we have two operational scenarios based on these missions) take place on a very restrictive battlefield. The Royal Navy has the firepower to crush the Germans should they come out to play, but repeating some of the errors of the First World War, that force isn’t always fully applied. In common with other Churchill-influenced operations of both world wars, the British often send just enough ships and planes to match the expected German response and perhaps a little more. But what happens if the Germans don’t cooperate, and do more than is expected of them?

In the actual campaign, that didn’t happen. While Churchill was a fool in naval matters, deluded by his own overweening sense of adequacy, he knew no better (contempt for expertise may currently be popular among politicians, but it’s not a new attitude). The Germans lacked that excuse; the German Air Force did little to inform their Navy counterparts of vulnerable British deployments when they detected them, at best attacking the British themselves with a handful of planes.

The scenarios show that the Germans, if aggressively led, had the opportunity to score some early successes against the Royal Navy. With only three heavy ships in their order of battle (two lightly-armed battle cruisers and a single heavy cruiser), the Kriegsmarine would be rendered impotent if the operation went badly. But the players don’t have to answer for failure.

Not until November did the Germans make an aggressive move with their major ships. The British had deployed a line of cruisers, mostly converted liners or elderly veterans of the Great War, between the Orkneys and Iceland. Another cruiser patrol, this time of more modern ships, covered the gap between Iceland and Greenland. These ships maintained the distant blockade of Germany, chasing down and capturing German merchant ships trying to run the blockade and return home. The Northern Patrol represented a leaky net, with about a third of the ships that tried to make it to Germany arriving safely.

Interviews with those merchant captains revealed the existence of the patrol and the rough outline of its deployment. The German battle fleet commander, Wilhelm Marschall, was ordered to take the two battle cruisers and “roll up” the line of cruisers. Marschall encountered the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi and sank her, then attempted to pick up crewmen from the water.

While pulling freezing sailors out of the rough sea, Marschall’s ships were spotted by the approaching light cruiser Newcastle. The light cruiser Delhi also responded to Rawalpindi’s signals. Despite his orders to engage and destroy the picket cruisers, Marschall instead laid a smokescreen and slipped away.

Rawalpindi initially reported that she had been attacked by Deutschland (which at that point, unknown to the British, had already returned home), but even after survivors had accurately identified the two German battle cruisers the Admiralty continued to tell the Northern Patrol that they faced only the smaller armored cruiser. That led the patrol’s commander, Max Horton, to gather his light cruisers to attack the Germans – suicidal bravado in the face of two thickly-armored battle cruisers, an aggressive but reasonable response to the appearance of a single thin-skinned raider.

The first edition of Bismarck had an operational scenario based on this sortie. I framed it as a commerce-raiding mission first and foremost and did not make clear that Marschall’s ordered focused on the British Northern Patrol. The commerce raiding needs to be in there, else the British player will know too much about German goals and the German player won’t have much operational flexibility.

The second edition’s somewhat different; I clarified some of the deployments that needed tweaking and rewarded the German for carrying out Marschall’s actual mission as well as for breaking into the Atlantic. And as we’ve done with our recent Second World War at Sea titles, there are new battle scenarios for the cruiser attacks planned by Horton and also the operations of the German light cruisers that escorted Marschall across the North Sea and almost ran into a British cruiser force on their way back home.

As with some of the other operations, I added another operational scenario picking up the action at a later point. In this case Marschall and his battle cruisers are in the Norwegian Sea north-east of the Faroe Islands, while Sir Charles Forbes has placed the Home Fleet across his projected route back to Germany and an Anglo-French battle cruiser force is charging northward from the English Channel.

The German player has to slip past, while the Allied player is, of course, trying to stop him. We have new battle scenarios for both of the potential confrontations Forbes hoped to initiate: his Home Fleet against Marschall, with a single battleship (Nelson), one light cruiser and seven destroyers. The other battle pits Hood and Dunkerque with three British destroyers against the German ships.

A wargame is no substitute for a real work of history. But as in the previous installment of this little series, there are a few things we can learn from the Bismarck scenarios. Churchillian micro-management crippled Forbes’ ability to react to German moves almost as badly as it did Tovey’s a year and a half later. On the other side of the North Sea, the Nazi German feudal system assured that aggressive, competent leaders would not easily rise to fleet command. The Navy’s senior officers knew that the Greatest Leader of All Times feared the loss of a major warship, and they shied away from operations that might lead to such an outcome.

So those are the 1939 scenarios: five operational (four of them new) and nine battle (all of them new). To the best of my knowledge, no other wargame has ever gone here, and I think it’s a pretty safe bet that none ever will.

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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.