Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The other side of Atlantic Chase (@gmtgames, 2020) – Grand Admiral: The Personal Memoir of the Commander in Chief of the German Navy from 1935 Until His Final Break with Hitler in 1943 (@USNIBooks, 1960)

In the Design Notes of Atlantic Chase : The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 (GMT Games, 2020), designer Jeremy (Jerry) White goes out of his way to say this wargame is NOT another U-Boat game. Indeed, he calls Atlantic Chase a Sink the Bismarckgame. That’s because Atlantic Chase is actually a solo game (optionally 2-player) centered on German surface raiders. Much historical literature focuses on the British side of the story, often in a very dramatic fashion like C.S. Forester’s book Sink the Bismarck! which was made into a classic movie.

While much has been written from the British (and Allied) side of the Battle of the Atlantic, German writings are a bit more scarce. There are some great narratives, like the movie Das Boot, but when looking for stories about the German surface fleet there is much less.

When I went searching for a companion book to read for Atlantic Chase, I ended up pulling Erich Raeder’s Grand Admiral: The Personal Memoirs of the Commander in Chief of the German Navy from 1935 Until His Final Break With Hitler in 1943 (Naval Institute Press, 1960, First De Capo Edition 2001) off the bookshelf. Here is the description from the back of the book:

Erich Raeder joined the German navy in 1894 and rose through its ranks to become commander in chief in 1935. In Grand Admiral he describes his forty-nine years in the navy, including the battle strategy that won him international fame during World War I and the tactical disagreements with Hitler that led to his final break with the Führer in early 1943. Though not a Nazi party member, Raeder was part of Hitler’s war planning group, and Grand Admiral paints a vivid picture of what took place at Hitler’s secret staff meetings before the invasions of Poland, Norway, and Russia. It also supplies previously undisclosed information about Operation Sea Lion, the proposed invasion of England.

If there is one thing I have learned during my previous study of literature around the Battle of Kursk (here and here) it is that German memoirs of World War II need to be treated with some suspicion. Given an original publication date of 1960, Grand Admiral almost certainly has self-serving motives. That said, it still provides valuable insight into the background and setting of Atlantic Chase.

Plan Z

In the time leading up to World War II, Erich Raeder and the German Navy had a plan. Here is how Raeder describes the naval strategy behind Plan Z in 1939 just before start of World War II:

Britain’s overseas trade would be attacked by groups of battle and light cruisers as well as by U-boats and auxiliary raiders. To guard their convoys against more powerful ships, the British Navy would have to send out units much stronger than the usual light naval forces which would have been sufficient protection against U-boats and auxiliary cruisers. To get this heavy striking power, the British would have to split up their heavy naval forces and scatter some of these out over all the high seas, thus weakening and wearing down their main fleet. But these lumbering British battleships would not be able to catch the German battle cruisers and fast light cruisers, while the German battle cruisers would be able to fight off any lighter British forces that attacked. The powerful German super-battleships however, with their speed and wide range of action, could support the pocket battleships, and could even overwhelm the enemy battleships that might be acting as guard for the enemy convoys. The heavy German units developed under this construction plan, therefore, would present the British with an entirely new strategical problem.

Erich Raeder, Grand Admiral, p. 273

Raeder states that the naval construction program behind Plan Z would not be completed until 1945. Thus, when the war started in 1939, six years ahead of Plan Z’s completion date, Raeder was stuck with a “come as you are” navy. He casted about for a new naval strategy which he describes thusly:

With ten-to-one numerical superiority of the enemy forces, augmented still more by his numerous, well-located bases, our only hope of hurting him was by concentrating all our efforts against his overseas supply lines. Seaborne imports were England’s one vulnerable spot, and that was where we had to strike. Submarines, cruisers, pocket battleships, and battleships, as well as auxiliary cruisers, destroyers, and motor torpedo boats had to be employed in well-planned, coordinated assault. And while direct successes against the enemy were, of course, our first goal, also to be considered were the indirect results against the enemy’s war effort from our attacks on his commerce in the Atlantic and from raids by our individual surface raiders on enemy shipping everywhere on the globe. We had to seize the initiative, and, by rapid movement and unexpected strikes against the enemy in as many different places as possible, force him to break up his consolidated efforts against our submarines and pocket battleships.

….

Outnumbered as we were, there was no question of trying to meet the great British Navy in open combat; it was our business to avoid such encounters, and, by scattering our forces all over the globe, try to strike at holes in the enemy defenses at sea. There we might hope to hit damaging surprise blows before the enemy would bring up superior forces to meet us.

Erich Raeder, Grand Admiral, p. 281-282, 286

Strategy to Wargame

Long before GMT Game published Atlantic Chase for the commercial wargame market, the German Navy was “wargaming” Plan Z. In the Autumn 2012 edition of the Naval War College Review, Dr. Milan Vego wrote about German war games [sigh, the US Navy seems stuck on two words] before World War II.1

For example, in a Navy High Command (Oberkommando der Marine, or OKM) strategic game in the winter of 1937-38, “Kriegsspiel-A,” the aim was to explore possibilities and prospects of a sudden opening of hostilities by Germany, testing operational questions and overall naval warfare, questions of high command and organization, and the operational possibilities of ship types not yet in service. Among other things, Kriegsspiel-A elaborated the combat employment of the German battle fleet north of the Shetlands; employment of the “pocket” battleships in the Caribbean (Deutschland) and in the eastern part of the Atlantic (Graf Spee, Admiral Sheer), and of a heavy cruiser (Hipper) in the western part of the Indian Ocean (see Map 2)….

….

The Fleet Command (Flottenkommando)…conducted four distinctive but related operational war games….Kriegsspiel-E was designed to test unified command for cruiser warfare in the Atlantic, rehearse cooperation between surface forces and U-boats, explore the supply and organization of the “Staging Service” (Etappendienst—resupply ships) for warfare in the Atlantic, and study the value of a base in Duala, Cameroon, for operations in the Atlantic.

Milan Vego, “German War Gaming,” NWCR, Autumn 2012
Kriegsspiel-A Operating Areas (Courtesy NWCR, Autumn 2012)

With the exception of the Indian Ocean and the possible base in Duala, Cameroon, one can for the most part replay Kriegsspiel-A and Kriegsspiel-E in Atlantic Chase. Of course, Atlantic Chase players won’t have the full Plan Z force at their disposal (or in opposition)….

Memoir to Wargame

Raeder’s comments on Plan Z and the start of World War II are, in a nutshell, the essence of Atlantic Chase—the outnumbered German Navy must try to strike where it can and avoid being caught by the numerically superior Royal Navy. As a matter of fact, in many ways Jerry White in Atlantic Chase has captured the real essence of the German naval strategy and the “come as you are” war years ahead of Plan Z. Self-serving memoir or not, Erich Raeder, Plan Z, war games, and the wargame Atlantic Chase are intimately connected.


1 Vego, Milan, “German War Gaming,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, Vol. 65, No. 4.

Feature image “Erich Raeder” courtesy thefamousepeople.com

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