What Wargames Can Tell Us About History

Source: Image: Paul Wand-Marittime

We analyze Seth Owen's book Fatal Choices and the battle of Coronel to determine what can war games teach us about strategy, tactics, and modern history.

In 2014, Seth Owen published a book named Fatal Choices which explored the two battles of Coronel and the Falklands Islands, both of which occurred early in World War I. In writing the book Owen tried to answer the big questions. First, he wondered why did the British do so poorly in the opening battles of World War I.

For over a decade before 1914, the Royal Navy had been preparing exclusively for war with Germany. Yet, when war came in 1914 it caught the British completely by surprise. So too did it catch Rear Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee (who fought for Germany, if the name didn’t give that away) and his Far East Squadron, based in the Pacific, by surprise. But unlike the British, Spee capitalized on the moment ad aggressively led his squadron on a tour of the Pacific Ocean, raiding ports and shipping as he went. This gave him a tremendous advantage and head start over the British who would inevitably chase him. How then did Spee capitalize on these advantages to win his first battle at Coronel? And what could the British have done differently to stop Spee?

This led Owen to his second question, what role could wargames play in exploring these possibilities? Using a number of overlapping games, most importantly Fear God and Dread Nought (FG&DN), Owen models the historical encounters with an eye towards reproducing the historical results. The game's systems can help highlight what exactly went wrong, and right, to produce these results.

Owen then proposes different what-if scenarios, each based on a different strategic choice. These simulations help shed light on historical controversies and help to suggest what variables really determined a battle's outcome. Was it firepower and technology? Or superior tactics and leadership? What was the role of faulty support from higher-ups? As Helmuth von Moltke the elder once quipped, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." Likewise, no wargame can completely model the many various, sometimes arbitrary, factors which decide a battle. However, I think that these games shine an interesting light on what was possible and realistic given the problems that faced the actual commanders.

Choices, Mistakes, and the Battle of Coronel

Back to Spee. After the declaration of war in 1914, Spee managed to get the jump on the British in the Pacific. But the scale of his opportunity was matched by the magnitude of his challenges. As long as Spee stayed out in the open ocean, he was invisible to the British. But Spee was also desperate for resources, namely coal and ammunition. With no friendly ports in the Pacific, especially after Japan entered the war and attacked the German Chinese port at Tsingtao, ammunition would be impossible to get. Coal, on the other hand, could be obtained easily from the numerous bunkers located on any number of British ships and bases around the Pacific.

Spee's Forces, days after the battle. Source: Wikipedia
Spee's Forces, days after the battle. Source: Wikipedia

This conundrum presented Spee with his first major choice. If he chose to raid British shipping, obtaining supplies by destroying British convoys, he would do best by spreading out his ships and decreasing the footprint of his fleet. This way, each ship would take more cargo while spending fewer resources. But the experience of the SMS Emden, which detached itself from Spee immediately after the start of hostilities, suggested that while the raiding strategy was romantic, any ship which left the protection of the larger fleet was doomed to be chased down, cornered, and eventually destroyed in detail. By keeping his fleet together, Spee protected himself from all but the biggest British threats. But it also limited his freedom of movement and increased the supply footprint of his concentrated fleet. He was continually running short of coal, and the only places which had enough to fill his bunkers were the British coaling stations. And while raiding British islands may have sounded attractive, there were only a few possible targets which the Royal Navy could concentrate to defend. Spee chose the latter option, keeping his fleet concentrated and strong. But he also decided to abandon the raiding strategy and make a dash for the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.

Battle Of Coronel Map. Source: Wikipedia
Battle Of Coronel Map. Source: Wikipedia

The Battle of Coronel occurred as a result of this choice. Spee had been sighted near Coronel, city along the Chilean coast, on October 14th when he raided a nearby British base in search of coal. His goal was to keep heading south with his flotilla and pass through the Strait of Magellan into the Atlantic. His fleet consisted of the heavy, armored cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst as well as the three light cruisers Nuremberg, Dresden, and Leipzig.

Upon hearing these reports, the British admiral Christopher Cradock set sail with his own small fleet, the two armored cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope, along with the light cruiser Glasgow and the merchant ship Otranto which had been hastily converted into a warship. His plan was simple, to meet Spee head on and destroy him. Had Spee known about Cradock's plan he may have avoided battle, sidestepping the risk to his fleet entirely. But as it was, by October 30th both fleets were in the area around Coronel. Spee was operating on faulty information that only one British cruiser was in the area. Cradock as well expected to be meeting only the Leipzig, which he thought was detached from Spee's flotilla. As a result, he deployed his ships in a wide arc, with the Otranto exposed as a part of the battle line. When the Leipzig spotted the Glasgow and the Otranto, both side's predictions were validated, and they rushed into a battle that neither side had quite expected.

At this early stage, Cradock was at a significant disadvantage. The Leipzig was in the van of the German fleet, while the Glasgow and Otranto formed the wing of his fleet. Further, the slow, lightly armed, and poorly armored Otranto was no match for the German ships. This tied the Glasgow to the slower merchant ship and distracted the main force during a critical period of the battle. Spee himself turned and pulled away from the concentrating British fleet, feigning retreat. By the time the Otranto was clear of danger, Cradock found himself at the maximum range of his guns. In terms of the FG&DN system, this meant that the British had less than a 1 in 10 chance of hitting the Germans, and even less of a chance to do any damage. Afraid to lose Spee, Cradock thus chose to turn his battle line in and chase down the Germans. This turn gave Spee the opportunity to strike.

At 7 pm exactly he sprung his trap. The timing of this move was critical as the sun had set just minutes before Spee's turn. Cradock, south and west of the Germans, was silhouetted against the last glows of twilight, while Spee and his ships were disguised by the gloom of night. In game terms, this imposed a serious penalty to the attacking Brits, while the Germans gained a bonus which was compounded by Spee's already crack gunners. What followed was a slaughter. In the exchange, the British cruisers landed only six hits on spee's two armored cruisers. According to the rules of FG&DN, these hits did 10 points of damage to the Scharnhorst and another 20 points to the Gneisenau. That would be 4 and 8% of their maximum hit points respectively, or in other words only superficial damage. The Monmouth and Good Hope, on the other hand, were savaged, the former taking 60% of its hit points in damage and the latter 75%. At those levels, the game system begins to issue severe penalties and critical damage to the effected targets including fire, flooding, and system damage. If the crew becomes overwhelmed, there is a chance for sinking, capsizing, or a catastrophic magazine explosion.

In real life, Good Hope exploded under the weight of the German fire. Monmouth capsized.

In Defense of Defence

Historically, the Battle of Coronel was an unmitigated disaster for the British. At the price of approximately 50% of his ammunition reserves and some superficial damage, Spee eliminated all his nearby threats and opened the way into the Atlantic. But did the battle have to happen this way, and were there any alternatives open to the British to save Cradock and his fleet? The answer is HMS Defence. Defence was ordered to join Craddok's command, but the order was only issued on October 30th, the day before the battle. By that point, the die had been cast. This was the result of a combination of factors, including the pursuit of the German battlecruiser Goben in the Pacific and the stubborn intransigence of First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, who wanted to keep the ship close to the home islands. But what difference would one ship have made in such a one-sided affair?

Quite a lot actually. The Defence had been built as an armored cruiser, like the other German and British ships at Coronel. But unlike the others, Defence was virtually brand new. But even by the time, the Defence had been laid down, her overall design was made obsolete by bigger, heavier battlecruisers. Thus, while the Defence was perhaps the most advanced armored cruiser afloat in 1914, that was slim comfort against a bigger, scarier battlecruiser. In the Mediterranean, she would have done little to aid in a drag-out battle against the Goben. But in the Pacific, where Spee's main fleet were armored cruisers of a much older design, the Defence would have excelled. Defence may have been obsolete in the grand sweep of naval design, but it was the most capable obsolete ship afloat in 1914 and her presence would have significantly contributed to Cradock's success.

The HMS Defence. Source: Treasure Bunker
The HMS Defence. Source: Treasure Bunker

When Defence is added to the FG&DN scenario, the British side changes significantly. While the Defence doesn’t add much in terms of the number of guns, her four main battery guns make the total for the British and German sides equal, she adds another target for the Germans to shoot at, and a tough one at that. Playing out the same scenario, the Defence and the British fleet still found themselves out of place when the Leipzig and Glasgow met. But when Spee made his fateful 7 pm turn, he turned right into the teeth of a battle line led by the newer cruiser. The engagement which follows was less like a massacre than a vicious brawl. The British and German armored cruisers exchanged a number of long-range shots, but the amount of damage done was approximately equal. The Defence, who took the brunt of the German fire, shrugged it off much better than the other more lightly armored cruisers. But once the fleets closed and the suns light finally faded, the battle tipped in the other direction. The British ships inflicted critical damage on the Germans and knocked out first the Gneisenau and then the Scharnhorst before finishing off the light cruisers. While the British fleet was itself heavily damaged, it had completely destroyed Spee's flotilla with no losses of their own.

Ultimately, then, what the game shows us is that Cradock's strategy was not as bad as it first seems. Cradock's mistake was in misreading Spee's movements and accepting battle when he was at a disadvantage. This was the first fatal choice. The second was in Churchill's choice to delay the Defence through the critical month of October. Had it been at Coronel the outcome surely would have been different. Had the outcome not gone as far in the British favor as it did during the simulation, Spee could ill afford to waste ammunition or risk damage. In 1941, that damage would be lethal to the battleship Bismarck. Losing at Coronel would have risked Spee's entire plan, and threatened to destroy his force completely. Owen's book explores this as one of a number of possible alternatives to Coronel, as well as to Spee's subsequent defeat at the Falkland Islands. Combined these scenarios suggest the utility that wargames provide in exploring alternative scenarios as well as in better understanding how and why commanders made the decisions they did and why battles evolved the way they did.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.