an NWS Adventure By David Manley

Learn about the NWS



Society news


On December 28th and 29th 2003 the Naval Wargames Society ran what we thought was a very successful series of public demonstration wargames on board HMS Belfast in the Pool of London, timed to coincide (as closely as possible) with the 60th anniversary of the battle of North Cape (an action in which Belfast played a key part). This article is the story of those games.

The NWS side of the story began at "Flagship 2003" in Gosport. Keith Mcintosh, Deputy Director on board HMS Belfast, paid an impromptu visit, having seen the display boards on the approaches to Fort Brockhurst. Impressed with the naval wargaming content he approached Stuart Barnes Watson and asked whether the NWS was willing and able to put on some form of display game. The answer was an emphatic "yes". Stuart lived too far away from London to effectively liase with the Belfast team, so he asked me to take on the organisation. At first this seemed fairly straightforward, as we had been told that the Imperial War Museum modelmakers would be able to build anything we needed. However, as the plot developed this assumption became less and less valid!

After an active email exchange with the Belfast team I visited the ship in the height of Summer - temperatures in the 90s, baking hot sunshine. Keith and I, along with Nick Hewitt, Keith's right hand man, assessed the various options. A two day event, taking place as close to the 60th anniversary as possible seemed the best thing to go for, with a day beforehand to set up and a day afterwards to break everything down and travel home. This meant travelling to London on the 27th , running the event on the 28th and 29th, then returning on the 30th (these were the closest dates to the actual anniversary; the battle was fought on December 26th 1943, and the ship was closed Christmas day and Boxing Day, not to mention the fact that no wargamer with any sort of family commitments would be allowed out to play on the 26th!) Two days would allow us to try 2 different styles of game. Day 1 would see us running a "guided" refight of the action, with players keeping fairly close to the actual events of the day. This would result in 3 actions; Scharnhorst's initial contact with Belfast and her cruiser consorts, the second encounter with Belfast and the cruisers, and the final action with Scharnhorst facing Duke of York and a torpedo onslaught. Day 2 would be a "free form" campaign, with ships starting in the positions they held at 0400 on the morning of the 26th, but then with the players free to manoeuvre as they saw fit. There would have to be some element of guiding to ensure that there were some actions for the visiting public to witness (as it happened no element of guiding was necessary to produce actions, but more of this later.

From the start the question of models was a problem - the IWM department was too busy. After some thought I offered to build the requisite ships in 1/600 scale using Airfix and Skytrex models. At first sight this didn't look too difficult. Duke of York was available from Airfix (based on KGV), as was Scharnhorst and Belfast. Jamaica and Sheffield could be converted easily from Belfast, whilst Norfolk was a minor "chop" from the old Suffolk kit. German destrtoyers (for the second day's game) could be based on the Airfix "Narvik", whilst British destroyers could be converted fom Airfix "Cossacks" or Skytrex J/K/Ns. I returned to Bristol on a mission to scour the country for the various models I needed. This proved to be a bit of a problem in some cases. No probs with Belfast or the Narvik, as these are currently available. The latter needed some rebuilding as Airfix chose to model the lone Z28, a ship with significant differences to the rest of the 1936A class destroyers. However, some cutting, plating and pasting combined with some new guns and turrets produced a quintet of models that would pass muster. I decided to go with the Skytrex option for the M Class and "war emergency" destroyers (and John Hammond kindly offered eight J/K/N models gratis!). In this I was aided by Francis MacNaughton, a work colleague who offered to cast the 4.7" and 4.5" gunhouses I needed for the conversions. These were exceptional castings, using masters that I carved, which made these conversions relatively easy. Mike at SDD also helped by providing six suitable aft superstructure pieces from the SDD range to use on the Skytrex hulls (the J/K/N aft superstructure was useable for the M class, but not the later ships).

At this point the supply of easily available models was exhausted. The Airfix Scharnhorst has been unavailable for a long time and is consequently (a) very difficult to find and (b) very expensive when you do manage to find one. Oh, it also has the straight bow with which the ship was fitted att build, rather than the later "Atlantic" bow. So all in all not a very promising start. However, help was at hand in the form of Revell who make a model of Scharnhorst in 1/570 - close enough for the purposes of the game.

Now all that remained were the cruisers. Belfast herself was easy - a straight build from the Airfix kit. Norfolk was a relatively easy conversion from Suffolk, replacing the hangar with a deckhouse and torpedo tubes, raising the quarterdeck and modifying the 4" gun platforms. The two remaining 6" cruisers looked easy (at first sight only really requiring the Belfast kit to be shortened) but a more detailed examination revealed that more extensive surgery was required. In the end the hull from the old "Tiger" kit was used for Jamaica, whilst Shelffield's hull was virtually scratch-built (only the extreme bow and stern from the Belfast kit was useable). In both cases the superstructures were a combination of scratch building and modifications to Belfast fittings, with the Belfast kit also providing the turrets and other fittings.

After 4 months of frantic model building which didn't end until Boxing Day (one day before the drive to London) the two fleets were complete. Now the rules. After various false starts I decided to use a variant of the old Skytrex WW2 rules. These are a bit long in the tooth but are still a decent set (and were the first commercial set I ever used). Like most wargamers I have tinkered with the basic set and so what we used varied quite a bit from the original. Changes were made to the torpedo rules (we had counters moving across the playing area representing spreads), gunnery (widening the range of hit modifiers) and damage for both above water and below water hits. There were also a host of "scenario specific" rules covering visibility, sea state and radar to cover the peculiar aspects of the North Cape battles. The freeform campaign was sorted several weeks before the re-enactment (and was described in the previous article in Miniature Wargames), but the tactical rules and changes weren't finalised until the week before. Fortunately the resulting rules were simple to pick up, so (I think) no-one had any problems assimilating them on the day.

Saturday 27th December 2003 came upon us quicker than anyone realised. At 1600 (after some minor hiccups on the travel front) I arrived on the ship to find a few stalwart volunteers had got there before me. We set to arranging the Ships Company Dining Hall to host the game, with the 14 metre playing area bounded by display boards, tables for the models and campaign control, the umpires "den" and a display screen on which we had a rolling presentation. Other participants rolle din over the next few hours, and after a few beers at a local pub we settled down to our first night in Belfast's surprisingly comfortable mess decks.

The next day was the first of the two re-enactment days. Player briefings and final setting up were completed by 0945 and the first dice thrown at 1000, as the first visitors arrived. In no time we were deep into the first cruiser vs. battlecruiser action which lasted until 1300. The highspot of this game was a visit by the former captain of Norfolk's "A" turret, who was pleased to see his ship in the thick of the action. We were also surprised to see a TV crew and interviewer from the local ITV network who made what we were to learn later was a very effective interview and piece for the local news (feedback form a few members living locally was that the piece portrayed wargaming very positively and indeed the next day we were told by a number of visitors that they had come along having seen the item on the news!) Following a quick lunch we fought out the second (brief) action before getting into the main event - Scharnhorst vs. Duke of York. True to form (this was a "guided recreation after all) Duke of York pounded the poor German battlecruiser into submission, following which she was despatched to the bottom of the Barents Sea by torpedo. At 1900 the crew departed the ship for a run ashore to another local hostelry where the obligatory debrief and post mortem was conducted. Then it was back to Belfast for a late night.

Day 2 proved that late nights, alcohol and early starts do not mix well with wargamers, and that organising wargamers to do anything under these circumstances is like trying to herd cats! This coupled with the departure of several members for various reasons meant the remaining team were a little overstretched for the free play campaign, but nonetheless it seemed to work well. This time the Germans were allowed free reign in their radar, ESM systems and their destroyers. I also moderated the sea state slightly to reduce the impact on the 1936A types (which were renowned for poor seakeeping in bad weather - or any weather come to think of it!) The result was in some ways very similar to the day before, but the changes made it a different animal.

The Alternate North Cape 26 December 1943

Early in the campaign Force 1 rendezvoused with the destroyers detached from convoy JW55B, whilst Scharnhorst and her destroyer escort (who were kept close by the battlecruiser rather than ranging far and wide) headed North in search of the convoy. These two forces ran into each other south of Bear Island and only 30 miles form the convoy. British Ships sailing in-line astern find themselves on a converging course with the German destroyer force. At 1103 Z30, the German ship closest the British found herself illuminated by star shells and under heavy fire from the three cruisers. The Germans reversed course, but it was too late for Z30. Within ten minutes she was left with one turret and one torpedo mount working and all the rest of her armament wrecked. Four 6" shells through her boiler room and another hitting the main switchboard seriously limited her speed and manoeuvrability.

At 1109 HMS Matchless (the leading destroyer) managed to get within range of the German forces and opened fire. In an inspired display of shooting she riddled the superstructure of Z33 with 4.7" shells. The most impressive of these hits landed on the aft torpedo mount, causing the torpedoes to detonate. The resulting shock wave tore the ship in half sending Z33 to the bottom of the Barents Sea.

Hampered by poor visibility, intermittent radar and the British use of flashless propellant the Germans finally managed to return fire at 1112. Z34 scored a lucky hit on Matchless that disabled A turret and Z38, firing at the target provided by Norfolk's gun flashes (she was the only British cruiser using older flash-generating propellant for her 8" guns) managed to land a lucky hit in her hanger. The Walrus was wrecked, but prompt action by the damage control teams prevented a fuel fire catching hold.

Click for page 2




















Copyright 2004 The Naval Wargames Society