Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A 'quick' battle off Ulsan (14 August 1904)

At dawn on the 14 August 1904, returning from a patrol, Vice Admiral Hikonojo Kamimura of the 2nd Squadron of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) sighted the three heavy cruisers of the Imperial Russian Navy's Vladivostok Squadron off Ulsan (on the Korean peninsular) in the Sea of Japan, just north of the Tsushima Strait.

Rear Admiral Karl Iessen, commanding the armoured cruisers Rossia, Gromoboi and Rurik, had sortied out of Vladivostok to try and meet up with the Port Arthur Squadron which the Russian High Command believed would be able to break out of the Japanese blockade of Port Arthur into the Sea of Japan.

The Port Arthur Squadron had failed to break out of Port Arthur after an unsuccessful engagement with Admiral Togo in the Yellow Sea just 4 days prior. Admiral Iessen had ordered his squadron back to Vladivostok but found himself cut off from his base by Admiral Kamimura who commanded the more modern armored cruisers: Izumo, Azuma, Tokiwa, Iwate, and two protected cruisers Naniwa and Takachiho.
The lightening day clarified the two columns of warships, whose converging tracks gradually closed the range. At 0520 hrs the range was down to 8,500 yards, and both Admirals checked with opening salvos. Soon the 8-inch batteries were ablaze and, as the range shrank further, the 6-inch rifles joined in. 
(Source: http://www.russojapanesewar.com/ulsan.html)

In the engagement that followed, Admiral Iessen lost the Rurik and the Rossia, Gromoboi were heavily damaged. Admiral Kamimura's squadron, despite having a full summer's day ahead of them to pursue Iessen, broke off from the engagement after three hours. He retuned to Busan to a hero's welcome despite having let two of the Russian heavy cruisers escape.

Wargaming the Battle off Ulsan

Having assembled the two squadrons for this scenario using 1:2400 Panzerschiffe models, I have been trying a few rule sets. I've not got the time to play more detailed naval wargaming rules so have been trying our some simple rulesets. I've had an initial trial of Rob Heath's Coaling Stations which I quite enjoyed - particularly the no record keeping and interesting command rules - but this time, I'm using an even simpler set by Konstantinos Travlos – FAST RULES FOR SMALL SHIPS AND BIG MINDS.

I started the scenario with the Russians and Japanese steaming in parallel, but with converging headings, at about 05:20 when the first ranging shots were fired by both commanders. For simplicity (and because of the table size) I left the protected cruisers Naniwa and Takachiho out of the scenario.

These rules allow for three ship types – battleship, armoured cruiser or torpedo boat. All the ships for this scenario were classified as armoured cruisers. These had a maximum movement rate of 6 inches and they used four D6 for 'to hit' dice. Armoured cruisers will sink if they take four 'hull points' of damage (battleship = 6 hull points; torpedo boat = 2 hull points).

Unfortunately, I got my bearings mixed up and reversed the historical positions of the Russians and Japanese on deployment - oh well! For the purposes of testing these rule it makes no difference at all.

During the first movement phase both squadrons steamed strait ahead for their full movement rate of 6 inches (battleship = 4 inches; torpedo boat = 8 inches). The movement system allows ships to do anything from remain stationary to move their entire movement range in a turn. A ship may pivot up to 45 degrees only at the end of its move – even if it remained stationary.

Both squadrons opened fire at maximum range. In these rules there are no modifiers for range – my understanding is that for 1:2400 scale all guns have a 24 inch range for this ruleset. However, I did find the rules are slightly ambiguous about this. They state:
All guns have a 24 inch range if the largest ship is 3 inches and above and 12 inches if the largest ship is 2 inches and below. 
The Panzerschiffe models I used saw the largest ship measure 2.5 inches! Falling right in that no-man's land between 2 and 3 inches. So I leant towards 24 inch maximum range.

A ship may use its 'hit dice' on one target or divide it between a number of ships that are within range – although may only fire within one arc in a turn. The arcs of fire are not defined by the rules so I just used a line from the centre of the model to each corner of the base to define forward, aft and port/starboard arcs. Armoured cruisers shoot with 4 'to hit' D6 - hitting another armoured cruiser on a 5 or above.

The first salvo by Iessen's cruisers was deadly in its accuracy with the Izumo, Azuma and Tokiwa each receiving a single hit and the Iwate, two hits. Kamimura's gunnery failed to find its mark with only one hit on the Rossia from the salvos of 4 cruisers! It was only 05:30 and already the decks of the Japanese squadron were awash with blood and the fire crews were busy!

The Russians sensed that victory could be within their grasp and Iessen ordered his squadron to close on the Japanese line. Unfortunately, by this stage the Japanese rangefinders had found their mark and the next salvo saw a hit on each of the Russian cruisers. The Russian gunnery was inaccurate with only a single hit on the Tokiwa (now with 2 hits).
Kamimura ordered his squadron to port to execute the classic 'crossing the T' manoeuvre. The superior Japanese range-finders (although, differences in gunnery abilities are not represented in these rules) saw a deadly salvo smash into the Rossia with three hits brining her total to 5, leaving Admiral Issen's smashed flagship burning, and dead in the water. The Gromoboi also received a hit. Despite the fury of the Japanese salvo, Russian gunnery was not without impact – with one hit each to the Tokiwa (now with 2 hits) and Iwate (now with 3 hits).

The Russian flag was transferred to the Gromoboi and an order given to turn to starboard to ensure a full broadside could be directed towards the Japanese line that was now almost dead ahead. It is hard to know if the Russian sailors had a moment to ponder the fate of the Rossia as the manoeuvred around its smoking wreckage as at that moment the full force of the Japanese gunnery smashed into the Gromoboi – three hits sending it to the bottom. Gromoboi's broadside was ineffective as was the salvo from Rurik, using only 3 to hit dice as she was firing out of her forward arc.
Now alone, Rurik swung to starboard seeking cover from the smoke of its burning comrades. While no line of sight rules are suggested by these rules, it was decided that the smoke blocked the line of sight for the three rear Japanese cruisers leaving the Izumo and Rurik to exchange fire. Izumo's guns scored a single hit on the Rurik (now 2 points) while the Rurik's gunners found their mark with two hits on Kamimura's flagship (now 2 hits).
But the fate of sole remaining Vladivostok cruiser was sealed, as the Rurik cleared the smoke she lay in range of the full broadside of the Japanese squadron. A massive salvo hit with full force with five hits causing the cruiser to erupt in a sheet of flame and quickly sink into the icy depths. But the Rurik fought to the bitter end with her gunners, still valiantly manning their stations amidst the destruction, sent a final salvo in return that smashed into the Tokiwa and left her a mangled wreck. Perhaps some Russian pride was maintained – cold comfort for the few lucky Russian sailors who shivered in life-rafts in the early morning light.

Final results:

Imperial Japanese Navy
  • Izumo (Flag) – 3 hits
  • Azuma – undamaged
  • Tokiwa – 4 hits, sunk
  • Iwate – 3 hits
Imperial Russian Navy
  • Rossia (Flag) – 5 hits, sunk
  • Gromoboi – 5 hits, sunk
  • Rurik – 7 hits, sunk

In conclusion

At the outset its appropriate to note that some poor decisions by the Russian commander aided the Japanese victory in this re-fight of the Battle off Ulsan. If the initial Russian salvo was followed up with some accurate shooting, and the Russian commander had of manoeuvred to keep as many guns as possible trained on the Japanese, there was sufficient damage on either side that the end result could have gone either way.

Overall, the rules performed well. Although, they did require some interpretation (gunnery range, arcs of fire) and at times the situation invited the player to interpret the situation and make some 'sensible' interventions (eg. like limiting line of sight in some circumstances).

My main concern is the number of hit points a ship can sustain are small so the encounters are very deadly. I wonder if there is a case for expanding on these a bit and allowing two stages in receiving damage – maybe for an armoured cruiser it could be 6 points of damage with the first three being taken with no effect on movement or gunnery and the second three reducing gunnery by 1 hit dice and speed to a suitable fraction of the maximum.

It would also be interesting to trial a scenario with the other ship types and test the torpedo rules. 

It's important to remember that the author notes that this is a set of rules that is 'not intended as a simulation of naval tactics but just as a very simple system of rules for fun fast games.' To my mind they do that quite well. I make no claim to being an experienced rule reviewer or naval wargamer (as some of my actions above will indicate!). 

The author notes on his blog that these rules may receive a 'tweaking' in the future – I look forward to that and hope these few comments are of some assistance. Thanks for making these rules freely available.

Next, I plan to refight this engagement having a second go with Rob Heath's Coaling Stations ruleset.


  1. Can we get close-ups of the ships?

  2. Good idea Firemonkeyboy! Not that they are anything special. But, have included some close-ups in the next post where I play Ulsan with Coaling Stations rules. Thanks for reading.