3. Gaming the Battle of Jutland
Senior Military Analyst, War Gaming Department
Cubic Applications, Inc.
Naval War College
The Battle of Jutland was studied extensively by classes throughout the interwar year period. Deck and radio logs permitted detailed reconstruction of ship movements and actions and, between 1916 and 1924, Lieutenant Commander Holloway Halstead Frost assembled a series of overlays or plates depicting the battle in 15 minute increments.
In addition to studying the plates, NWC students used the game floor to reenact the battle. Rather than re-playing the battle with students assuming the roles of the British and German commanders, and challenging the historic outcome, the game-floor events should more properly be described as “demonstrations” with the students retracing the movements of the opposing fleets according to Frost’s script, pausing at critical junctures to discuss tactics. In many ways this was not unlike an Army War College staff-ride at Gettysburg.
Some authors have suggested these demonstrations were the limit of Jutland gaming. However, the students had ample opportunity to actively game against the Royal Navy. While strategic expectation favored war with Japan, Michael Vlahos reminds us that Britain's battle line was the force to beat; the toughest challenge, the class opponent, the match game.
The war gaming record is replete with BLUE (United States) vs. RED (Great Britain) problems. For example, the classes of 1919 and 1920 played 72 games, of which 34 dealt with American naval forces facing a British battle line; Tactics Problem 87 from the Class of 1922 was a “quick decision” problem based directly on Jutland. The senior class of 1932 devoted eight days, exclusively, to the Jutland game.
While Chester W. Nimitz, Class of 1923, then a Commander, wrote the first portion of his Tactics thesis based on his experience gaming BLUE vs. ORANGE (Japan) concluding his paper with a study of the tactics employed at Jutland.
Gamed annually at NWC, the “Battle of Sable Island” and the “Battle of the Emerald Bank,” should be seen as essentially the Battle of Jutland with the waters off Nova Scotia standing in for the North Sea. These games pitted U.S. naval forces against Great Britain and were played throughout the interwar years. Even as late as 1941, decisive naval actions against the RED battle fleet accounted for 68% of the tactical problems faced by the students. It is estimated that Jutland was replayed some 50 times on the College game floors.
More recently, questions have been raised as to whether those hours gaming Jutland – a set-piece surface engagement with capital ships – were well spent, given that no grand naval battle unfolded in like manner during the war in the Pacific. This is understandable if one takes a rather narrow and arguably misapplied view of the war games’ purpose. Gaming Jutland was more than an analysis of tactics, or a lesson in fleet maneuvering. It became a cautionary tale. Told in contrast to the Battle of Trafalgar, the games compared Nelson’s dash to Jellicoe’s reserve—and the former’s success to the latter’s perceived failure.
The interwar years at the College were about inculcating a fighting spirit in an otherwise peacetime navy, to foster a habit of mind prone to bold, decisive action. As NWC President Rear Admiral Harris Laning extolled to the students in 1933, “Let us not forget that though defensive tactics sometimes prevent defeat, only by offensive tactics can a decisive victory be gained.” Vlahos further emphasized the link:
Those epic contests, given titles like “The Battle of the Emerald Bank” and “The Battle of Sable Island,”
fought off the fog banks of Nova Scotia as if in an ersatz North Sea, served a special purpose.
[Games] taught the future commanders of the American Navy, as (RADM) Laning adjured, “to be always
invincible in battle.
“The game was,” Laning reminds us, “in the guise of battle, the oracle of Victory.”
Battle of Sable Island Manuscript, Serial No. 71, October-November 1923. Record Group 4 (College Publications), Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College.
CDR Chester W. Nimitz, Thesis on Tactics, 28 April 1923. Record Group 13 (Student Theses), Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College.
Rear Admiral Harris Laning, The Naval Battle, May 1933.
Douglas V. Smith, One Hundred Years of U.S. Navy Air Power (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010).
H. H. Frost, Jutland, June 1923. RG 4 (College Publications), Box 16, Folder 713A. Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College.
Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1980).
Philip Gaudet, Oral History Interview on the History of War Gaming, Interviewed by Francis J. McHugh, 7 September 1974. Oral History 60, Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College.