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The Battle of Helgoland, 1864


Ironclads, Prusso-Danish War, Bill’s Ironclad Rules, 1/600 scale

For a while now, Bill Gilchrist and I have been developing a set of naval rules for the “Ironclad” era. I say Bill and I, but actually I’m just there in a sort of “naval buff” supporting role – Bill is the real brains behind the project. For the moment we’ve dubbed them Uncle Bill’s Ironclad Rules, but no doubt we’ll come up with something snappier. That’s Bill in the photo above – the little guy on the right. Well, to test the rules to destruction I decided to lay on an ironclad game that didn’t involve any ironclads. This would be a real challenge! For a while I’d been building ships for the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, and this seemed a good opportunity to give them their first airing.The models are all from Thoroughbred Figures – lovely ship models, all of American Civil War vessels like the HartfordKearsage and Itasca, converted slightly to fit the similar profiles of these European warships. I moved the odd funnel around, mounted more guns, and re-jigged the mast layout a bit, but otherwise they’re the original Thoroughbred models. These were all wooden-hulled steam-powered ships – no iron plate in sight. Also they tended to carry more guns than many of the ACW ironclads we’d used in Bill’s play-testing sessions in the past. It would be interesting to see how the rules faced up to this fresh challenge.For those of you who’ve never heard of it, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864 was the first of Bismarck’s three big wars – the others being against the Austrians (1866) and the French (1870-71). On land the Prussian army pretty much steamrolled over the poor Danes defending the border, who withdrew to a fortified enclave at Dybbol. There they were assaulted and overrun again, and after making a last stand on the island of Als the Danish army threw in the towel. The Prussians were simply too good for them. At sea the Danes fared much better, blockading the North German coast, and dominating the sea lanes. The Battle of Helgoland was fought to break that blockade – at least the part on the German North Sea coast. A small Austro-Hungarian force led by Commodore Teggetthoff steamed north to break the blockade, and off Helgoland he was joined by a small force of Prussian gunboats. Together then took on the Danish squadron of Commodore Suensson, and fought an inconclusive little battle. It ended with the Germans withdrawing to the safety of the neutral (British-held) island of Helgoland, and the Danes withdrawing to repair their ships. Tactically it was a Danish victory, but the Germans claimed a strategic one, having temporarily lifted the blockade.The best jape of the evening came when my pal Gerry appeared. He’s a one trick pony, and only games the Continental European wars of this era, using 10mm figures. When he called last week I told him we’d be staging a battle from the Prusso-Danish War. He was very excited, and promised to drop by. Imagine his sense of disappointment when he found us playing with 1/600 ships, rather than 10mm soldiers! Ha!Eight ships took part in the real battle, and all of them were represented in our game. The Danish squadron consisted of two steam frigates, the flagship Nils Juel, and the Jylland (which still survives as a historic ship to this day). They were joined by the steam corvette Heimdal. There were also two steam frigates in the Austrian force, the flagship Schwarzenberg and the Radetsky. For the battle they were accompanied by a small Prussian squadron – the paddlewheel gunboat Preussischer Adler and the steam gunboats Basilisk and Blitz.The game began with both sides about three feet apart, approaching from different short ends of the 8×6 foot table. All three squadrons began in line astern, with the flagships in the lead. The Austrians and Danes passed each other to port, firing as their guns bore. The flagships suffered the most – the Nils Juel was badly beaten up, as was the Schwarzenberg. In fact the Heimdal even scored a special hit, which took out the flagship’s commander – von Teggetthoff himself. There would be no victory at Lissa for him…For their part the Prussians closed in on the starboard side of the Danish squadron, and popped away with their bow chasers, causing minimal damage. Things started to go wrong for the Danes after that. One of the Prussian gunboats was hit by a broadside from the Nils Juel and struck, but scored a lucky hit on the Danish flagship which gave her owner a morale check. That led to the result of “break off the action” – she had to steam off the table edge – a result shared the following turn by the Schwarzenberg and the sidewheeler Preussischer Adler. So, that meant all three flagships were heading for the hills!Bill’s rules for this were unclear – ships were heading in various directions, and still firing their guns, which wasn’t really what he wanted at all. Still, the Jylland, the Heimdal, the Radetsky and the Basilisk were still very much in the game. Actually it all became a bit scrappy in the end. The nice line astern formations used in the first half of the game had been abandoned, and after their initial pass the steam frigates spent a long time sailing away from each other. As they were rated “poor” for turning they could only do so in 30° increments, which meant it took ages to turn through 180°. So, they contented themselves with 90°turns, and some long range sniping at the enemy. This though, turned out to be highly effective. The Jylland reached the halfway mark in her hull boxes, forcing another morale test where she was forced to break off the action.Then, on the final turn, the same thing happened to the Heimdal – the result of good shooting from the only Prussian gunboat left in the game, although technically she too was heading at full speed towards the safety of Cuxhaven. So, the game ended with everyone disengaging and heading for a home port, with the exception of the Austrian steam frigate Radetsky, which was still free to manoeuvre as she wished. There was even a claim that the Nils Juel should have struck her colours, but her commander quite rightly refused to surrender to a Prussian gunboat a fifth of his size. In the end though, Bill called the game as a draw, with the Danes causing more damage, but the Austrians being the only ones still in the fight at the end of play. The rules worked well, particularly Bill’s idea of grouping batteries of smaller guns together. For instance, the Jylland carried 30 30-pounder smoothbores and 12 18-pounder rifles. Bill grouped everything into 90 pound batches, rounding up or down as appropriate to get an equal number of guns on each broadside. This meant the Nils Juel landed up with 1 medium rifle and 5 medium smoothbores, rated “M #” meaning they were medium guns which couldn’t penetrate armour. It worked very well, and meant we didn’t have to roll buckets of dice every turn. Bill plans to tinker with the “breaking off “rules, and we’ll try this period again – possibly refighting the Battle off Jasmund, where the Danes get a really cool steam-powered ship-of-the-line.

 

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