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After Action Reports

Gunboat Unit Capabilities

The Gunboat game unit with its abilities to bombard and transport troops give the British a massive operational advantage in the most excellent wargame, Maori Wars – The New Zealand Land Wars. Published by Legion Wargames, Maori Wars allows players to simulate several scenarios and campaigns over the course of the conflict between the Crown and indigenous Maori, spanning the years 1845-1872. 

Setting aside the morality of the conflict for a moment (which reads brutally and even more brutally to write) as this was a land grab by white European settlers, the conflict itself gives history a fascinating look at counterinsurgency, engineering and fortifications development, coastal and riverine operations, Victorian era technology, civilian/military relations and insight into a colonizing mindset.

For our purposes (I mean we do cover navy stuff) we are going to take a look at the coastal and riverine operational advantages the British have in the game via the Gunboat unit. I’ll attempt to do this in light of what we know about strategic maneuver and control of the seas, amphibious operations and operations in brown water or riverine operations. 

Let us start with strategic maneuver. French military theorist Vice Admiral Raoul Castex summarized strategic maneuver as, “…to move intelligently in order to create a favorable situation.”1 For Castex, strategic maneuver is the method used by one side to conduct operations and improve conditions against an adversary for the best results possible for themselves. “Well that sounds easy”, said no serious wargamer. It isn’t easy because the enemy also believes in strategic maneuver and they are also trying to put their combat teams into the best possible position to succeed as well. Based on the campaign’s principal objectives and secondary objectives, strategic maneuver can also be malleable for each side as the conflict progresses. The goal is to incur a ‘superiority of orientation’ through strategic maneuver. This favors one side over the other resulting in wins or gains for that side against their adversary.2 

Map and unit pieces from Maori Wars. Gunboats can carry 2 units along with Leaders and Artillery and enjoy incredible movement capability within the game as they also did historically.

In Maori Wars the British enjoy a fairly pronounced strategic maneuver advantage over the Maori warriors due in some part to their fleet of gunboats. The gunboat can traverse navigable rivers and the open ocean freely (more on that in a minute) while transporting troops, artillery and leaders to most any coastal landing or open navigable river spot. Gunboats also have the ability to bombard enemy coastal/river fortresses (a Maori stronghold was called a Pa) or enemy troops along coasts and rivers. While the Maori enjoy a devastating ability to ambush and raid British troops in the field, the ability for the British to stretch the operational theater with a flotilla gives them tremendous sway on where the action will take place. They can choose through maneuver when and where battle will take place. This greatly increases Britain’s ability to make battle including having free rein on embarking and disembarking troops along any coast or navigable river while also providing fire support to those units. The Maori can counteract this ability to a degree with their ability to ambush and move through terrain more quickly. But New Zealand is a massive island and the majority of settlements and fortifications are within 20-30 miles of river and coast. This is not to say that every battle conducted by troops delivered via the British flotilla was successful for the British. We have some examples in another writing where this was the case (our simulations of the Invasion of the Waikato and Hutt Valley Uprisings will highlight this). What is true however is that the British can maneuver freely to most actions because of their naval capabilities.    

The British have full control of the sea zones in Maori Wars and did in the historic conflict as well. This point cannot be overlooked and gives the British player maximum control on the ocean and coasts. While the Maori do have canoe units that can traverse even non navigable rivers, due to their intimate knowledge of their own lands, these canoes cannot offer firepower comparable to the British. Many canoes often start inland as well and tactically it can be difficult to navigate to open ocean and conduct operations. Canoes can also be destroyed while gunboats simply retreat. The Maori forces thus cannot prevent Britain from controlling or traversing any coastal or navigable area in the theater of operations. Britain has full control over her naval capabilities and can, through strategic maneuver, apply sizable force to the enemy through her navy. Even if the Maori were able to deploy their warriors via canoe to a coastal or river hex with the intent of attacking British units, Britain can respond in kind fully and may even have naval resources to prevent such an attack. It would be a tactical gamble on the part of the Maori to launch these types of attacks and only as a last resort would such an attack be even viable (say for last round Victory points). Britain, channeling Sir Julian Corbett’s theories and as the invader nation with superior technology, has control of all sea lines of communications.3

While both belligerents have the ability to conduct amphibious operations only Britain can do so with fire support and full control of ocean and coastal zones via fire power. These joint excursions, between the British Army/Militia and the British controlled New Zealand Navy, give the British player another superior battle option against the Maori. The flexibility Corbett discussed in his theories, namely the flexibility and mobility an expeditionary force creates to ‘baffle’ and ‘bewilder’ opponents who are forced to ‘split up their force’4 gives Britain a monumental edge in choosing where and how to apply force in the game. The Maori cannot prevent amphibious operations from occurring and the only aspect hampering British operations is geography via unnavigable river ways. Rivers that are too shallow or narrow for gunboats to traverse are an obstacle for operations. Historically this was the case as well as Avon and Pioneer, two British gunboats which operated in the Maori Wars conflict, both ran aground and became incapable of movement for a time.5 However, the ability to deliver troops to any point on the coast as well as river mouths, the ability to bombard Pa’s and destroy defenses, and the ability to fire at Maori forces before the army engages in battle is a huge advantage to the British player. This was also true historically specifically in the Invasion of Waikato.6 While Maori defenses are set up and static, the British player can choose where to deploy their resources on land while also deploying more military resources via the sea. This joint effort, when fully realized, allows the British player to place British troops into the majority of conflicts and supports the strategic maneuver advantage held by the Crown. 

Through joint amphibious operations there is also no point at which the British cannot reinforce their position. Even if combat is miles away from the coast, landings and then movement to those pressure points are options open to the British player in almost every case. Coastal towns like Gisborne, Auckland and Wellington can be consistently reinforced for defensive purposes if need be. Maori forces that advance on British positions within these coastal areas can also be reinforced quickly thus shoring up defensive positions. Not only can these forces be reinforced through these joint operations, attacks and counter-attacks can be levied against the Maori as well, alleviating pressure for the British in the operational theater.

As we have seen, strategic maneuver is heavily tilted towards the British in their campaign objectives to seize land for settlers while neutralizing indigenous forces. They also have command of the seas allowing them the ability to freely conduct amphibious operations and to gain access to anywhere on the battlefield. The colonial power still has at its disposal capabilities to conduct riverine operations against the Maori warriors as well.

Pioneer was a gunboat used by the British in the Maori Wars theater. Launched in 1863 she was wrecked in 1867 after a storm dragged her to sea. She was rendered unmanageable after attempts to bring her back into harbor were unsuccessful.

During the almost three decade long conflict the battles at Maori strongholds of Mermere and Rangiri along the Waikato River proved that while having superiority in almost all aspects of combat, the British would have to be more cautious in their approaches to these redoubts along the rivers. Their own technology, referenced earlier with beam width, draughts and sails, led to gunboats grounding ashore at times. These gunboat iterations were simply too wide, long and heavy for deeper river combat. This limitation is also set up in the game only allowing the British access to those rivers wide enough and deep enough (just like the Waikato River) to penetrate deep into Maori lands. Most only allow boats to head inland a hex or two, or 10-20 miles. However, at these conflicts the ability to disembark troops and bombard the Pa’s was too much for the Maori and both battles ended in British victories. These victories were key to the campaign.7 So, in the game, not only do the gunboats operate in coastal zones but they can also operate in river basins deep enough to hold them. This gives the British player even more options when laying out the battlefield of their choosing and especially when conducting operations against Maori positions along a river hex.

Maori Wars – The New Zealand Land Wars is incredibly well made and a fun play. With an incredibly detailed and gorgeous game map setting the stage, Maori Wars introduces to the gaming community a rich history of a powerful and proud people in the defense of their homeland against a colonizing power. The asymmetrical combat capability of the Maori does not take away from the gameplay in fact it only enhances it. Several campaigns and battles were on a knife edge, eeked out by the Maori via ambushes or counterattacks. The British gunboats, however, made many of these battles only possible because of their ability to maneuver against the Maori forces, maximize amphibious operational capability, and operate on rivers bringing the fight closer to inland Pa’s and villages. Without their mastery of the seas, Britain’s deployment and operational opportunities would have been cut down considerably in their war against the Maori and this is true in gameplay as well.   

Coming soon – Maori Wars – The New Zealand Land Wars examples of conflict simulation gameplay with a look at gunboat operations during the Invasion of Waikato and Hutt Valley Uprising campaigns        

References

1 Castex, Raoul, and Eugenia C. Kiesling. Strategic Theories. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1994. pg. 102

2 Castex, pg. 116

3 McCranie, K. D. (2021). Mahan, Corbett, and the foundations of naval strategic thought. pg. 107

4 McCranie, Pg. 195

5 Branfill-Cook, R. (2018). River gunboats: An illustrated encyclopedia. pg. 179

6 Ritchie, Neville. “The Waikato War of 1863-64.” (2007). pgs 12-13

7 Simons, C.R. (2012) Military Intelligence in the New Zealand Wars [Doctoral dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand] http://hdl.handle.net/10179/4098

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After Action Reports

Using Wargame Analysis to Make Reforms

“A defeat, when correctly analyzed, is always productive of reform.”

Rear Admiral Paul Auphan, French Navy (Ret.)

Taking the ‘L’ in a defeat in a competitive situation is rarely a great feeling for competitive people. I myself am one of those people. I am also one of those who subscribe to loss aversion theory that states that losses actually hurt more than wins or gains. A double whammy of loss if you will. In everything I do as a husband, dad, sales professional, below average low post basketball player, podcaster and naval history enthusiast, I always try to learn from my mistakes or more specifically look back on losses and wonder what I could have done differently. Even in a ‘fun’ environment of wargaming solo or with friends, I always rue the L (which happens more often than not) and analyze what I could or should have done to better position myself for the W. 

Which brings me to wargaming. Wargaming (or really any game where choices are made to facilitate an outcome) gives one the opportunity to simulate decision making in a semi-stressful environment. Making sequential choices that create consequences over time to reveal a final outcome, in this case a win or loss for your side, gives one an opportunity to pull from their arsenal of skills without the real world consequences of bodily harm, revenue loss, or career setback. 

Now to be clear, any type of wargaming should never be compared to real-time warfare nor should analysis (more on that in a minute) in the wargame setting reflect real-world war fighting capabilities. Comparing abilities in the sports world, sales environment, or in the sphere of wargaming, to real life combat should never be done due to the nature of warfare and the impact of war and destruction on humanity.

But what we can glean from wargaming (or for my fellow sales professionals, replace wargaming with the ever dreaded ‘role playing’) is to take a look at what actions took place, why those actions were chosen, and how those choices affected the outcome of the game. More specifically, after the game we can analyze our performance in how we allocated resources, directed those resources, and then engaged those resources to meet our end goal. And with historical gaming, not only can we learn history but we can also analyze how we react or would react to those instances of historical events playing themselves out. No matter the type of wargame, one can apply this analysis with basic questions to produce reform in the case of a loss or underperformance or to teach and elevate others with excellent use of tactics and strategy in the case of a win. 

Some example questions supervisors or directors may ask in the analysis phase of a war-game that has just finished would be:

Where did you see the turning point in the action start to work against you?

When you allocated resources at this certain point in the game, what was your thought process in doing so?

Give me one or two ways in which you would have campaigned differently?

Did you feel like you prepared early on for scenarios that would crop up later in the game? (especially relevant if the game is historic in nature with real historical outcomes sprinkled throughout gameplay)

Were you aggressive enough or too aggressive at points in the game and if so, explain where and how? 

Was each action purposeful to meet your end goals and if not, when were they not?

These are just a few of the questions one can ask in a mini-debrief or, if so inclined, a written after action report of the game itself from each combatant. These reports can be useful in evaluating the decisions made in the game and can be extrapolated in making decisions in real life scenarios. In turn, these decisions can reveal much about your team’s skill sets, emotional intelligence in some cases (knowing ahead of time information like their DiSC profile or EQ levels would be coveted information for a deeper emotional conversation), attention to detail, process planning, leadership command, and basic teamwork in general. 

The beauty of analysis is that you can get right to work making reforms in tactics/strategy or at the very least give life to what the choices were that led to the playing out of successful game decisions. Wargaming is not life or death by any means, but it can illuminate what choices you would make and better prepare you for the tactical and strategic decisions that are necessary elements of everyday life. 

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After Action Reports

Battle of Dominica Part II – AAR

This is our AAR, using the exceptional war-game Flying Colors, for the Battle of Dominica (Saintes) Part II between the British Royal Navy and French Navy.  

For info on the historical battle click here: https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-the-Saintes

The ramifications of the shocking death of French Admiral Louis-Philippe Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil and the destruction of his flagship Triomphante, carried over to the second battle of the naval engagement at the Saintes located between Guadeloupe and Dominica. The first skirmish, between Vaudreuil and the Royal Navy’s Admiral Samuel Hood, gave the French a tactical victory but a strategic loss with his and his ship’s untimely explosion. His squadron was forced to re-outfit and promote Captain Charles Charritte to Chef d’Escadre with his flagship being the Duc de Bourgogne (Charritte was Captain of the Bourgogne but to lead his new command he chose a new vessel).

A new battle commenced as the French were still looking to (along with their Spanish allies) launch an invasion into British held Jamaica. Only by defeating the Royal Navy West Indies Fleet and its Admiral George Rodney, would this invasion attempt be secure. Thus the French fleet, under command of François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, set out to launch an attack against the British at the Saintes. 

For the French, their strategy at the outset was straightforward. With the wind, they could bear more ships to the battle more quickly and engage directly with more firepower. The hope was to decimate enough of the British van, led by Admiral Francis Samuel Drake, at which point they could then use the wind gauge to siphon off enough ships to capture or sink the British ‘Blue Squadron’. Rodney, leading the main force, would not be able to bring enough firepower to support or reinforce this line and thus would be forced to retreat. The main French line could also reinforce this attack by leading the 2nd half of the main squadron under de Grasse and the 3rd squadron under Charritte to also engage Drake’s Squadron.    

For Rodney, his plan was to have Drake hold up and engage as many French ships as possible and for his and Hood’s squadrons to reinforce his position with more firepower and ships. This would take longer to bear but he believed that his side had better ships and sailors and thus the ability to maximize firepower.  

De Grasse’s isolation strategy matched against the brute power and strength of the British Navy initially won out. 

The French tore into British masts one after the other. They dismasted two ships, the 4th rate Nonsuch and 3rd rate Torbay after a hellish broadside exchange between the two van squadrons. While the French suffered as well, (the 3rd rate Palmier fell out of line) the French fleet was able to bring more ships to the fight early on and keep a constant barrage, sometimes leveraging two on one fire. British shot was also not as effective and Drake quickly found himself in a bind. His squadron, just as de Grasse had planned, became isolated from the rest of the British fleet. 

In an impressive act of leadership Drake, like Hood during the last battle between these two navies, would maneuver his squadron into a floating battery. He did this to protect the Nonsuch and Torbay and for the time being, provide cover for his injured ships. It worked and the French had to make the decision to either break off their full fleet to attack Drake or to break off part of the main and 3rd squadron to attack Drake and Rodney. This would essentially split up their fleet into two main parts.

 Rodney continued to come hard but was beating into the wind and his options were thus limited. Would he decide to do everything he could to reinforce Drake and his position by sailing the same line, hoping his superior firepower would break the French into not engaging further? Or, would he continue to beat against the wind, thus delaying support for Drake, but by doing so, would position his fleet to a potentially more advantageous attacking position against lesser French ships further upwind?   

He decided to go further into the wind to give him more options to potentially cut off the French, attack them from a better position and bring more ships to bear further up the line. Drake would have to show his mettle and continue to defend and maneuver against the enemy.

The French had more options at their disposal and de Grasse strategized that now was the time to drop the hammer. With Rodney opting  to move further into the wind, de Grasse signaled to his ships to break the line at the van of the engagement and encircle said line. He then signaled for the main squadron to follow his lead into the direction of Drake’s floundering squadron. Like Vaudreuil before him, this action would surely put the British into a bind and would decimate their van.     

And at that very moment, the moment the French knew they were on the front foot and the moment Rodney saw his fleet’s chances of coming out ahead slimmer with each passing minute, the battle was over.

The wind had changed direction. 

Everything that de Grasse had  set into motion unraveled and every movement and command Rodney had given became key to victory.

The wind change now had the French fleet in irons. Every sail fluffed momentarily and then died bringing the entire fleet to a halt. 

The British sails became full and the French lead squadron at once became vulnerable to overrun. De Grasse’s strategy of cutting off the Royal Navy’s van from the main fleet now found his own lead squadron cut off from his main force with no hope of rescue. Rodney changed direction and  began running to the stricken and isolated squadron while de Grasses’s main force turned away. 

The French had no choice but to turn and run leaving the Souverain, Palmier, Ardent and Brave captured. The French lost 5 ships (the Hercule was awash and sunk) and the battle for the Caribbean seemed over.

But the Spanish, with a force at Jamaica, would send their own squadron to join what was left of the French fleet for one more battle off the coast of Guadeloupe in what would be the final battle between De Grasse and Rodney.   

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After Action Reports

Battle of Dominica Part I – AAR

This is our AAR, using the exceptional war-game Flying Colors, for the Battle of Dominica (Saintes) Part I between the British Royal Navy and French Navy.  

For info on the historical battle click here: https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-the-Saintes 

In surveying both squadrons from the outset, it became abundantly clear that British Admiral Samuel Hood would turn south to engage the oncoming French squadron led by French Admiral Louis-Philippe Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil who fell quickly onto his rear. What Hood had to decide is how arcing the turn would be to face Vaudreuil’s oncoming line. Hood decided to turn to port (leeward) and made a wider turn south to make Vaudreuil commit more forces into the potential conflict. Hood’s reasoning to make this move was twofold. He wishes to eliminate as much space as possible for the French to operate in and give his reinforcements from the south (specifically 4 ships sent to aid Hood’s squadron) more targets that Vaudreuil would have to take into consideration. Would the French Admiral split his squadron up, thus eliminating command range, (i.e the ability to see his signal flags/orders given)? Does he make one pass and then attempt another whilst the smaller British force falls upon his rear? In Hood’s mind he chose the better ‘ground’ for battle. 

Vaudreuil committed and the battle ensued. Earlier than expected, even for Hood, the British reinforcements arrive giving the French rear targets to fire upon. 

The initial volleys were effective for both sides with the British concentrating on hull damage and the French on rigging damage. The French squadron turned north to meet the Royal Navy and soon after the French 4th rate Jason was awash and slowly sinking. Positioned in the lead on Hood’s line, the Warrior and Monarch took brutal rigging damage. With both reaching into the wind, the damage left them drifting out of line. The awash Jason and drifting British 3rd rates create some obstacles for both squadrons as they maneuvered for the best positioning to continue battering the enemy.   

With the opening moves set, the main focus of this AAR ended up honing in on the next few decisions Vaudreuil made at the juncture of this engagement. The first question for the Admiral, was would he turn his squadron north, essentially limiting the scope of the battle, or south to resolutely engage the British. Due to the several drifting RN ships mentioned above, Hood was  having to reposition his forces to maximize firepower, lessen his more severely damaged ships’ and take into account the oncoming reinforcements who are just starting to come into his command range. This maneuvering takes time. The Marquis, in looking to take advantage of this point in time, could further choose to engage the fight running his line with the weather gauge and turn south. Or by staying in formation and following his lead ships the Destin, Citoyen, and Daupin-Royal north, the Admiral could leave his more favorable wind conditions and probably the battle for another day.

Of course Vaudreuil committed to the fight! (It’s my game.) But at the time, in looking at the damage inflicted so far and the positioning of the enemy squadron under Hood, Vaudreuil sensed a real opportunity to inflict more damage and potentially take Hood’s command out of the Caribbean. He allowed the van of his line to keep moving north with orders to clear the sinking Jason and turn back to meet the main group asap.

The next decision became when to make the turn. On this, for reasons that will become clearer in just a few moments, I fear the Marquis made an error. An opening was created in the RN line behind Hood’s flagship Barfleur and between the 4th rate Yarmouth. It’s enough of a gap to put the 4th rate Ardent and his own flagship Triomphante directly into Hood’s line, thus exposing the British to broadsides bow and stern. The exposure for the French would be lessened as the British pass-through because they are hampered by beating into the wind and as a result the main squadron would be slowed down.

Vaudreuil does not take advantage of this gap and instead turns only after the last RN ship in the line, the Royal Oak, passed by. Raking the Royal Oak’s stern and setting her on fire, the Triomphante passed to stern and immediately the French admiral ordered the squadron to turn due south with the British flotilla now to windward.   

The engagement was continued with the flagship at the head of the French squadron. The fighting was fierce and in total 8 British ships became dismasted with 4 French vessels severely damaged including the aforementioned awash Jason. Hood was able to re-position his squadron as best as possible to inflict maximum damage to the French fleet as they passed but the wall of fire from the French directed at his rigging wrecked his squadron. By further engaging the RN in this battle, the French correctly took advantage of several out of position ships to inflict serious pain into the British. The Hood squadron was in a bad spot as several of their ships drifted towards the French onslaught. 

By happenstance the HMS Monarch found itself directly in the middle of the French line, separating the Triomphante from the rest of the squadron. The French flagship had caught fire and now Vaudreuil was forced into making a final call. With Hood having re-positioned his squadron (with so many dismasted ships this was really a drifting flotilla battery) it was time to land the final blow and lay claim as victors.  

The order went out to immediately grapple and board any dismasted ship within range and to take those vessels as prizes. The British would not go quietly. The Bien Aime’s attempts to grapple Hood’s new flagship the Belliquex, (Hood having earlier transferred from the Barfleur over to an-at-that-time moving vessel) went in vain. The Prince William became grappled with the Brave but fought off the French Marines. However, the Bourgogne and Pluton both grappled and boarded the HMS Magnificent taking her as prize. 

And with that captured vessel, the engagement most likely would have ended in a strategic and morale boosting victory for the French. Even with the Jason lost and the Caton having struck her colors, a prize like the Magnificent, as well as the amount of damage inflicted onto the Royal Navy, was enough to send a clear message that the French Caribbean presence was something England would be forced to reckon with.  

However another chapter was to be written in this engagement. The Triomphante exploded taking her and her crew, as well as the French Chef d’ Escadre, Admiral Louis-Philippe Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil with her. 

What had been a smallish fire on deck quickly spread and with the magazine being set off, the flagship blew to pieces with all hands lost. The damage taken since Vaudreuil’s decision to follow aft of the British squadron had been brutal and the fire not so easily put out. On top of that, without more of an escort, the majority of British cannon/carronade fire had been directed at her and she took more punishment from more broadsides than she would have if she had turned earlier. That momentarily lapse led the Triomphante down a path that she and her crew and her Admiral would never come back from.

The French fleet, in horror, turned and fled the scene. The British could do nothing but watch as the 1st rate, 80 gun flagship burned. 

Hood had rallied his ships as best he could and ended up withstanding a barrage that could have been worse. The loss of a prize to France was stinging however the ability to sustain fire while consolidating his command earned Hood some deserved accolades. The loss of the French flagship took a major piece off the board for command of the Caribbean and that victory alone should give Hood more credit for his efforts here. 

The French, had the Triomphante survived, would have scored a major victory over the Royal Navy. But alas, she did not and while statistically a victory for France (cumulative Victory Point score 30.5 to 24) the loss of such a ship and Admiral is a blow. The invasion for Jamaica, still planned by France, would call for a final battle between French and British forces and not having either the Triomphante or Vaudreuil on the board should be a loss for France before the first shot is fired. 

We’ll soon find out. (The Battle of Dominica Part II coming soon)