Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The German-American Naval War of 1903

By Mark Costin


The German-American Naval War of 1903—never heard of it? Well, of course, because it never happened in real life. But it was fought as a war game.  At the turn of the 20th century, war-gaming was used for training exercises.  One tabletop game in the early 20th century was the Jane Naval War Game. Jane’s tabletop training exercise came with scoring grids, ship-identification cards, target cards, wooden pieces, maps, and even wooden paddles to move the pieces around. (The game and its rules were discussed in the June  2013 issue of Naval History.)

Fred Jane at His Game Board

In 1902 and 1903, Scientific American published a series of articles in its weekly Supplement that presented a simulated a naval war between Germany and United States, played by the Portsmouth naval war-gaming society using the Jane Naval War Game.  The war game accounts make fascinating reading, presenting a series of battles taking place worldwide—mid-Atlantic, South America, Philippines, China, and Havana—with friendly fire incidents, night actions, and U.S. submarines playing a key element.

The game was played with fleets assigned to admirals and individual ships maneuvered by different players. Admirals were allowed to give any orders to their captains until firing commenced. After that, orders were transmitted through umpires. Shell hits on ships were recorded using a device called a striker, somewhat analogous to throws at a dart board. Maneuvers during night actions were carried out in the dark to simulate nighttime combat conditions.

Since the intent of the games was to teach naval strategy and tactics, the articles do not give any background to the diplomatic sources of the war except to state that relations become strained between the U.S. and Germany over German actions in the Philippines and Central America—a legitimate U.S. concern at the time. Each fleet consisted of over 40 battleships, cruisers, and  monitors.

Battleship USS Kearsage Was Portrayed in the Game

For Detailed Information Download a supplemental Word Document  by clicking HERE.

The entire series of articles can be found by accessing the links in Table 1 which detail the entire game as it was played out. Included in the articles are detailed diagrams of the major engagements. Table 2 lists many of the significant individual ships in the rival fleets.

Summary of the Combat

The initial engagement of the war was a mid-Atlantic cruiser action.  The action was considered a German victory with the loss of two German vessels compared to five U.S. ships sunk and one struck.  The second encounter was an indecisive battle off Cape Bojeador in the Philippines, with heavy damage to both sides but only one German ship sunk. The remaining German vessels continued to their port of Kiautschou  (present day Jiaozhou, China) with the U.S. fleet going to Manila to refit.  In the meantime the two countries’ small South American fleets battled off Camarones Bay, Argentina, resulting in a U.S. victory.

The war then proceeded with a German attempt to secure Manila. A German fleet was sent to the Philippines and troops landed near Manila.  This fleet was then met by the over-matched U.S. Far East division, which was essentially destroyed. However, the U.S. North Atlantic and Mediterranean squadrons were on route to Manila.  On arrival of this U.S. fleet, the German land force was re-embarked and most of the German fleet retired to Kiautschou, leaving a few cruisers and destroyers. This German cruiser squadron was attacked during a night engagement by a similarly sized U.S. cruiser force. The result was each side was annihilated by destroyer attack with only one vessel surviving the encounter.

German Battleship SMS Wittelsbach Was Portrayed in the Game

In the meantime, a separate German fleet had crossed the Atlantic and captured Havana. The status of the war at this point was the U.S. home fleet preparing to engage the Germans in Cuba and the U.S. Far East fleet maintaining a loose blockade of Kiaochow. This set the stage for the final battles of the conflict.

The first attempt by the Germans to break the blockade of Kiautschou resulted in the Germans returning to port after some inconclusive maneuvering between the fleets. The second sortie started with some inconclusive engagements and concluded with a severe defeat of the German fleet, losing five of six battleships, with one badly damaged to two sunk and one badly damaged out of five for the U.S.

The remaining two U.S. Far East battleships were then summoned to return to the U.S. to help deal with the German Atlantic fleet, which was raiding the East Coast. This prompted the Germans to engage the U.S. home fleet off of Key West. The German fleet was conventional in composition, battleships and cruisers, while the U.S. fleet was a heterogeneous collection of battleships, monitors, and submarines.  The battle resulted in the almost complete loss of both fleets, with the U.S. able to obtain victory only by the last-minute intervention of the U.S. submarines, which were able to sink the badly damaged Germans.

At this point, the war was considered to have been concluded as a draw, with the U.S. in a more favorable position of being left with the only two remaining effective battleships. Germany remained in possession of one U.S. base—Havana.

Postcard of German Ships at Kiautschou Bay in 1899


We will never know what would have happened in an actual war in 1903, but navies around the world made changes given the experience of the Battle of Tsushima in 1904 and, in particular, the all big gun battleship revolution resulting from the production of HMS Dreadnought. The HMS Dreadnought immediately made all the battleships in the war game obsolescent, and, as pre-dreadnoughts, they played limited or no roles in World War I. Other pre-dreadnoughts did play a role in World War I, such as at Gallipoli, where they were expected to force the Straits, ultimately unsuccessfully, and in the Black Sea for the Russian Navy.


The author became aware of the Scientific American articles from a letter to the editor from Richard Paul Smyers that appeared in the August 2013 issue of Naval History.


  1. the link in the article - gives a list but not the URLs needed to make connection Scientific American for the articles

    For Detailed Information Download a supplemental Word Document by clicking HERE.

    1. From the author: The URLs are links to PDFs of the individual pages from the scans of the original issues of Scientific American that I found on-line (thank you Google). Unfortunately I no longer have the links to original material on-line. Let me know if you wish to see the original content (it took me quite some time to find since the scans of the journals are not well indexed) and I will try to help.

  2. An exciting page of history is described in this article. These historical events deserve more description and coverage. I think that you can even dedicate a computer game to these events and then more young people would be familiar with them. As a computer game developer in a company Argentics, I think it would be an exciting project.