Good day, friends - I've been thinking of writing a series of articles on tactics, and I've decided that this will be the first one. Why the stern gun? Very simple - I believe that the stern gun is the basis of all tactics, and its use must be understood thoroughly before more advanced concepts are considered. Understanding stern gun tactics is fundamental, and unless a battler understands them, and knows how to apply them in battle, he will always be bested by those who do.
So, that said, let's begin with some very basic fundamentals. The first and primary goal of all tactics is to ensure that you do more damage to the enemy than the enemy does to you. Ideally, the goal is that you allow your enemy to do absolutely no damage at all, while you do a grievous amount of damage to your enemy. With this in mind, the stern gun is the first and foremost weapon, and is the weapon which is generally most capable of winning battles. It is also the first and easiest weapon to learn to use, because in stern gun battling, it is obvious both when you are winning and when you are losing an exchange.
Why is the stern gun so important? Well, it's very simple. First, the stern is the absolutely least vulnerable part of your ship. Most warships have a solid stern block that is at least two, and up to four or even six inches wide. This is solid impenetrable area that cannot be shot through, either with stern gun or sidemount. Likewise, the stern area of a ship also usually has less penetrable area both above and below the waterline, making it more difficult to hit with sidemounts. Thus, when your stern is facing the enemy, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible for him to effectively damage you.
Likewise, in most ships, the stern is the lowest freeboard location on the ship. As a result, the stern is an exceptional area to place guns. The ideal stern gun location is in Y turret, so that the guns are as close to the waterline as possible. If a ship does not have or does not allow such a configuration (or a convenient wing turret, ala Invincible), it is essentially useless and you shouldn't waste your time on it. I include in this assessment such ships as Richelieu, Rodney, Alaska, later American cruisers, Vanguard, County class cruisers, and all other ships with high stern freeboard. If a stern gun is set up in the appropriate location, and with an appropriate amount of down angle, it can effectively hit an opponent anywhere from directly behind the ship out to the maximum range of the gun.
Speaking of which, the range of the gun is also important. The are essentially two types of stern guns - long range "cruiser" type stern guns, and short range "slugging" type stern guns. They are both mounted close to the waterline, but long range stern guns are ranged out to four, six, even ten or more feet, and their goal is to be able to plink away and hit opponents at greater ranges while they are distracted, or otherwise unable to dodge them. I refer to these as "cruiser" type guns, because they are most favorable for more vulnerable and less maneuverable ships (like cruisers) which do not desire to mingle closely with other, more powerful ships. On the other hand, short range stern guns are ranged anywhere from three feet down to a eighteen inches or a foot. These stern guns are optimal for highly maneuverable and aggressive battleships whose goal is to get in close and slug it out with the enemy. They require a far greater degree of maneuverability and captain's skill due to the fact that at such close ranges, the enemy captain is painfully aware of their presence and far less likely to make casual mistakes.
Now that I've made this distinction, let's start with some examples on how to use long range stern guns. For our example ship, I am going to use a USS Houston, which is captained by a relatively inexperienced captain. Since his ship is new, and he hasn't yet learned the ropes on how to maneuver with and pummel enemy ships; he elects to set his guns at approximately ten feet, so that he can surprise Axis ships at long range. (Ronny did this same thing with his Scharnhorst in times past...) The first thing he absolutely has to do is place himself outside the fray, in a position where he is not in danger. Secondly, he must point his bow away from the action. This serves two purposes. First, if attacked, he can easily run away, and with ten foot range, he should have a ten foot lead on any pursuers. Second, with his bow pointed away from the battle, his stern is pointed into the battle. This done, he then waits for unsuspecting Axis ships to wander by. If they happen to pass within the range of his stern guns, he fires, and pecks away at them. If they stop outside his range, he can line up and try to back in for a shot, but he must remain aware so that he does not get trapped.
Above all, he must always remain aware of where the other enemy ships are. If enemy ships are behind him, he is okay. If the enemy is on two sides, he should be moving either towards very open waters (if they exist) or towards a concentration of friendly ships. If he is surrounded on three sides, he should be running for his life. If he is totally surrounded, he's probably dead anyway. All the same, the long range stern gun ship, especially a cruiser, is very vulnerable and he mustn't allow himself to be trapped, or to come into close contact with an enemy ship. Also, remember that the shore is an enemy, and to allow yourself to be trapped between it and an enemy ship is just like being caught in a battleship sandwich, except that the shore is bigger, longer, and won't go away.
That brings up point number two - if an enemy ship is within the range of your stern guns, and moving toward you, you should be running away at top speed. The enemy ship must not be allowed to catch you, because if he does, you are likely to die a horrible death.
I will give you an example of this - in 1995, Cameron Hunt ran a French light cruiser with twin stern guns which fired accurately at ranges up to 20 feet, or even more. They were set up so that when the ship was sitting still, they would skim just above the surface of the water. On several occasions during the 1995 Nats, I would be cruising around, and "bang-smack, bang-smack, bang-smack", it would be that cruiser pecking away at me from long range, and there was nothing I could do about it with my 26 second ship, because if I approached him, he would simply run away and keep shooting. No profit there, because I couldn't catch him. So, all I could do is keep moving and hope that I would eventually get behind another ship, or he would get bored and find another target.
In essence, long range stern gun tactics come down to the classic "run and gun" tactics of old, which Stan could best explain to y'all. In a nutshell, run and gun tactics are exactly that. If your enemy attempts to close with you, you run, and attempt to gun his bow, which is the most vulnerable part of his ship. In the past, this was also considered classic cruiser tactics. I have battled Stan in a one-on-one before, and believe me, it was one of the most frustrating things I have ever done. Vast patience is required, and I had none. So, I chased. And Stan did the run and gun on me. And luckily for me, I had two things in my favor. First, my cruiser was more maneuverable than his, so that I was usually able to spoil his shots by keeping my bow pointed almost directly at his stern. Second, my hull was getting a bit on the tough side (from a long battling season) at that point, and Stan's guns weren't tweaked hard enough to do much damage to it at those high angles. The result was that I won the battle, because at one (and only one) point, I was able to chase Stan up against the shore, and use close range stern gun tactics on him and get two hits on him before he made good his escape. Yes, I won the battle by 20 to 0. However, I immediately lost my next battle to Francis Rogowski, who had a Houston which was set up similar to mine, but his guns were tweaked harder, and his stern gun had a longer range than mine so that he was able to play the long range stern gun game against me quite effectively. Anyway, that's about all I have to say on this topic.
On to the topic of short range "slugger" stern guns. These are my favorite kind of stern gun tactics, and I used them even on my cruisers in the past. Luckily for me, my cruisers have generally been maneuverable enough to allow me to get away with this. Now, however, with 24 second Nagatos, and other fast and maneuverable Axis ships, it probably wouldn't be so easy...
Our example for these tactics will be a USS North Carolina, with triple stern guns. To make this more personal, we are going to make this my ship, which is set up with stern guns shooting in approximately the 24" range. First, I'll describe the various tactics, and second, I'll describe how these various tactics are uses against varying Axis ships. Keep in mind that the same sorts of things can apply for my new Nagato vs. Iowas, or Michigans, or whatever too...
Example: At the 1997 Springfield Fall Regionals, Bart brought his spiffy little USS Atlanta. During the battling, he either waited for someone to chase him, or backed up until his stern was within range of a victim. He took a few shots, then ran. If the opponent pursued, he continued to run and shoot. If the opponent didn't bother, he either kept shooting until the target left (or another danger approached), or he went off to look for another likely target. I'm not sure if Bart managed to take any damage at all...
Example: In 1990, I decided that I would have a good time shooting up the Roma. This ship was so unmaneuverable that all I had to do was place myself in front of its bow by some means, and it could not help but cross my stern. At that point, I would chew on its bow a little. By applying this and other slugger stern gun tactics, I was able to sink it twice, once each at the NE and SE Fall Regionals. (Wanna see the video???)
Example: At the 1991 Nats, certain captains decided to unveil their new tactics to the world. As far as I could tell these tactics essentially consisted of chasing the Allies, absorbing their stern guns, if they had any, and then hoping to catch them and crush them with sidemounts, typically in a sandwich. (Keep in mind that due to their experiences with their local Allies, they had no reason to believe that Allies shot back...) Anyway, on Monday, in the first fleet battle, first sortie, I forgot to turn my pump on for a while, and when I did, the results were rather impressive, and gained the attention of a certain Axis captain, who decided to chase and sink me. I put the QE into a moderate turn, and commenced firing rapidly into his Derfflinger's bow. In this case, he chose to pursue me into a 'spiral of death', and I fired 54 rounds into his hull (I counted it on the video, and yes, I had two separate firing stern guns, so I could do that legally...).
Example #2: At the 1991 Fall SE Regionals, in Florida, another Axis captain took his Derfflinger behind the stern guns of the QE. Unlike the aforementioned, he chose to keep the pedal to the medal, take his lumps and get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. He took only about 13 hits, but those were 13 hits received to none given... (See why stern gun tactics are important?)
Example: In 1990, my USS Augusta was one of the most maneuverable Allied cruisers on the water. The Axis fleet consisted of three Romas, several Kongos, and other large warships. While the Kongos and Fluegel's Scharnhorst were generally captained by effective Captains, some of the Kongos were weak, as were two of the Romas. I got a great deal of enjoyment from getting in front of the Romas, typically by cutting a corner on them, and either crossing their bows and shooting them, or getting in front of them, and forcing them into a turn and shoot situation.
Example: Again, in 1990, this was one of my favorite tactics for the Romas and other large Axis ships. I would approach from the bow, and on a trajectory such that I would pass inside their sidemount range. When I came alongside their ship, I would kick the rudder over, and snap off a couple of quick shots before we passed beyond each other. Depending on the skill and maneuverability of my opponents, I might get as many as five shots, or none. I also took a few sidemounts, but I was having fun......... (Mostly, they went into my superstructure, because I was so close!)
Example: In the past, Jim and I used to have a yearly one-on-one battle, which would pit his USS Indiana with triple stern guns against my QE with two single sterns and a stern sidemount. We would often end up playing a stern to stern game in which I would attempt to back my stern sidemount against him and sidemount him, and he would attempt to anticipate this and turn away to triple stern me. The result was that some of the stern panels on the QE occasionally got blown out. And depending on the timing, I occasionally got some good belows on Jim's stern. Oh, and by the way, I typically won, because when we were playing at only a foot's range, it was very hard for Jim to react before I had closed the range and was shooting at him.
Example: I haven't performed this tactic often. Typically, I'll get at most one direction change in before I blow the timing, or the enemy catches on. Likewise, when people have done this to me, I've typically managed to spoil their plans relatively quickly. However, it's something to be aware of in case the opportunity should arise. Look at it this way - whenever you attempt a turn and shoot, and your enemy turns into your stern, immediately change directions, because it will take him at least a certain amount of time to compensate. You may get a shot, you may not. If your opponent is really good, he will stick with you and deny you the shot. If not, hooray for you!
Example: In 1996, I took the Sheffield to a Triple Crown battle, because my new North Carolina wasn't completed yet. During one of the battles, David's Nagato pulled up behind me to chase, and I couldn't shake him. I tried a quick turn and shoot, but he simply pulled in behind me. I then immediately changed directions to try the windshield washer maneuver, but his reactions were quick enough, and his ship was maneuverable enough to foil this maneuver too. (The Sheffield isn't terribly maneuverable...) Finally (in a bit of desperation), I let him close the range, cut across his bow, and got him to push my stern. It looked pretty ugly, as his bow pushed the stern of the Sheffield slightly under the water. Being the nice guy that David is, he backed off the throttle just as I broke free and began to shoot him, because he perceived this as being a ram. I apologized, because that wasn't a very nice thing to do to him, and I didn't realize that he'd perceive it as being a ram. Oh, well - these things happen sometimes...
Example #2: Jim Pate has mounted the stern 40mm tubs on his USS Washington to act as "bow catchers". The idea is that if an Axis ship catches his stern, one of these securely mounted tubs will provide a notch for their bow to catch in and push his stern around. In Abilene in 1997, we were goofing off after erasing the Axis from the surface yet again, and once Jim's stern guns were empty, I tried chasing him around. (I still had a sidemount...) He slowed up a touch, and I caught his stern with my bow and spun it around. If he'd had any ammo left, he could have opened my bow up like a sardine can. Lucky for me, he was out of ammo, or I would have been severely embarrassed...
Okay, now that we've discussed these different tactics, let me tell you how I would use them against various Axis ships, since they're what I've been battling against for the past several years. I'll start first with a small, highly maneuverable Viribus Unitas, progress to a lumbering Bismarck, and to a large, but formidable Yamato. As you will see, each ship requires different application of these tactics...
First, the little pig. Against my North Carolina, a little pig should have essentially all the advantages (i.e. maneuverability, acceleration, small target area, stern sidemounts), except for speed. So, my natural reaction will be to use run and gun tactics against it. My primary goal is always to ensure that the little pig doesn't close to within sidemount range. With my speed, that should be easy. However, I don't have an acceleration advantage, so I must always keep moving. In 1997's battling, I almost never aggressively engaged any of the small Axis ships. It was pointless. As a result, I don't think I fired a shot at Lief's Moltke all week. Lief was smart enough to know that I'd open his bow up if he got it near me. On the other hand, another battler forgot about what effective triple stern guns can do.
As a result, during one battle, I was lining up my stern guns on the bow of a nice, juicy Yamato, when out from behind it pops this dark splotchy thing. I think that he was thinking that one of two things would happen. Either I would continue trying to shoot the Yamato, in which case he could catch me, and get his sidemounts on me, or I would move my point of aim forward and shoot him, in which case my ammo would be wasted, because Allies can't hit him. (I'm not sure why he believed this, but...) Anyway, I saw the ploy, and adjusted my aim to his bow, and loosed several salvos into the bow of the little pig in a turn and shoot type scenario. Since my guns were mounted close to the waterline, aimed low, and tweaked very hard, I was able to blast some nasty holes in his bow, with the result that he sank later in the battle. As far as I remember, he didn't try it again, because he figured out that I would (and could) blast him.
Later in the week (this is on the video), this battler tried to do the same thing with Jim, except solo. Jim, however, allowed him to catch his stern, I think in hopes that he would hit his bow catchers and make himself a good target. However, he placed his bow directly against Jim's stern to attempt to spoil his shot. However, when Foster came along, he was stuck, as he had just committed to trying to crawl up Jim's side. As a result, this battler collected several of Foster's stern gun shots before he was able to make his escape.
Generally, when it comes to the little pigs, we must play run and gun with them, and refuse to let them get within close sidemount range of us. If one pursues me, I will try run and gun/turn and shoot tactics against it, and if I get a good shot, I will take it. If not, I will simply use my speed to get away, or attempt to drag it past another friend in hopes of double teaming it. If I get into a stern to stern confrontation with one, I will use timing. I will wait for it to start backing, and then I will kick my stern slightly to the side with full throttle, in hopes of both catching it with my stern and bouncing it to the side, and also in hopes that my prop wash will also push it to the side. At that point, I should be able to shoot it. However, if I don't have a shot, I will probably again just turn and go elsewhere. There are bigger fish to fry, after all!
Another anecdote, from 1996. In Tuesday's Cam-Pain battle, A battler with a little pig decided he wanted to play with me, in hopes of getting me to waste my stern ammunition. His strategy was to chase me and make me run around. However, I simply let him catch up to me, and kept my stern pointed at him. As he caught me, I kicked the throttle hard, and the wake from my 1-3/4" props kicked up a rooster tail that washed over his bow and kicked his ship around to the side. (It is a small ship, after all...) If I had wanted to, I would have had an excellent shot. However, I was saving my ammo for convoy ships, and so I was content with annoying him that way. He finally gave up in disgust and went away, because my prop wash was causing his ship to pump somewhat excessively. (Seems that somebody had a poor deck seal...)
Okay... From there, let's go to an opposite extreme, the big easy Bismarck. Mind you, I don't mean Fluegel's Bismarck here, it's not particularly big, and it's definitely not easy. Others, however... If you watch the 1997 video, you can see some extraordinary footage of Jim and myself abusing a certain Bismarck. Yes, we were feeling cruel... As I'm chasing him and pounding him with my sidemount, Jim sat and waited for his other side, and set up for a passing shot. When the Bismarck approached, Jim tracked the ship with his stern as it passed, and then kicked back in the other direction, and sprayed shot back down his length, and then kicked his stern around (again) and went back to the bow. The Bismarck had slowed, and this allowed me to also get ahead of him, and as he passed out of Jim's range, I crossed his bow and took up where Jim left off. Pretty gruesome...
Against such a ship, I will tend mostly toward bow attacks. Chasing an opponent is almost always fruitless, dangerous, and stupid. It's far better to get in front of him and let him catch your stern, or use the bow to bow attack. Most often, I will try to get ahead of him and intercept from an angle ahead of his bow. Usually, I will use the shore, or another ship to prevent him from turning away. Once I establish the position in front of his ship, I will either let him catch me and use the turn and shoot, or I will cross his bow. This will depend on the location of the shore, and of friendly/enemy ships. That is, if I'm using either to restrict his maneuverability, I'm not likely to cross his bow and risk placing myself in the same bad situation I had put him in. I'd rather pin him to shore, and then turn away from shore and stern gun him. Then, if he backs away, I can back down on him, and if he tries to continue or turn away from shore, I can just continue blasting him. Other than that, I can also use pretty much every one of these other tactics against him, depending on the situation.
Another word about the shore... If you manage to trap your opponent between the shore and your stern guns, try not to let him get away. Especially if his bow is pointed toward you. Try to back down on him and force him in closer to the shore. At some point, he will try to turn to one side or the other to escape. Shoot! Now is your opportunity. If he knows how bad off he is, he will take his lumps, and just keep on going, and probably get away. However, if you scare him bad enough, he'll try to line his bow back up with your stern. Again, apply pressure, because now you own him. If you have powerful guns, you can continue shooting into his bow the instant he shows you a bit of angle. This is cruel, but effective...
That leaves the big ugly. Yamatos (and Iowas) are among the most dangerous ships, and can also be quite maneuverable (somewhat oddly at that...) At the beginning of Nats 97, I was pretty much able to have my way with them stern gun wise, because they were new, and their captains didn't know their ships very well yet, and hadn't developed the reactions to use them effectively. I was able to use turn and shoot, cross the bow, and similar maneuvers on them with relative impunity. At one point, I was even able to draw one of them into a moss bank, and then pound him while he was dead in the water. I wouldn't depend on this sort of thing, though. Also, part of my success might have been due to the fact that they weren't quite sure which ship was mine yet, either.
Anyway, as the week wore on, they realized that I was beating them up with stern guns, and got more wary. When I set up a stern shot, they would place their bow in line with my stern, and attempt to get as close as possible or push. If I tried the turn and shoot, they typically could react fast enough that I didn't get a good shot. If I then tried a windshield washer, or push my stern maneuver, they typically were again able to maneuver well enough to get inside the turn, so that on one occasion, one of them was tugboating my ship, with his bow placed somewhere around the location of my stern superstructure. I could and probably should have called ram, because it was obvious, but I was still trying to figure out how to get a shot out of it. Either way, I didn't, but he finally got bored and went away, because he wasn't doing himself any good either. After that, I was more careful not to let them catch me.
Generally, when battling large, fairly maneuverable, and dangerous ships, I'll concentrate more on catching them by surprise and getting ahead of them. I'll try to use the shoreline and other ships as blockers to limit their maneuverability, and use turn and shoot, or cross the bow tactics. My goal will again be to prevent them from coming into contact with my ship and restricting my maneuverability. This is a case where to some extent a North Carolina can become more of a cruiser. At least when it comes to stern gun tactics.
So... That leaves us with only a few more critical points to discuss. One of the most critical points of stern gunnery is accuracy. Tactics aside, you must be able to hit what you are shooting it, or your tactics are useless. This means that first of all, your stern guns must be securely mounted, so that you know where they will hit, and can aim them. If you don't know where your stern guns will hit, then you're already hopeless.
Once you know where your stern guns will hit, you must aim at your enemy's bow. Many ships don't have anything to shoot at behind the bow except hard casements, which are useless to shoot at. In the case of the Baden, or other extreme casement ships, they have only about 4" of useful target area at the bow. You must practice, until you are comfortable shooting at, and hitting small targets (like Dixie cups) with your stern guns, while your ship is moving. When you can do this, you can be sure that you will be able to hit the bow of a moving ship. You can also see why stern gun battlers really like those ships like Bismarck, Rodneys, and Yamatos which offer a large amount of penetrable area and length above the waterline. They make it look easy...
Also, you must be very aware of the angles. Most people's stern guns are not powerful enough to penetrate a battle hardened hull at anything less than 45 degrees. So, if a ship is behind you and points his bow directly at your stern, don't shoot. First off, when his bow is pointed directly at you, his target area is the smallest of all, and you're most likely to miss to either side. Second, even if you do hit, your shots are most likely to bounce off and into the water. Either way, your ammo is wasted.
Discipline is critical. You must practice, and learn to tell a good shot from a bad shot. When you receive a good shot, you must take it. If you don't, you must learn to hold your fire. A better shot will come along sooner or later. And if it doesn't, maybe you end up with a little ammo at the end of a battle. This isn't necessarily bad either, because the side with ammo left at the end of a battle usually wins, because the other side has had to endure its five minutes in contested waters, while the side with ammo left can relax on their five. (Thus it is critical to carefully pursue and continue to damage ships which are on five...)
However, in some bad situations, it is sometimes acceptable to take more marginal shots, especially when there are only a couple of the enemy left to shoot at. Then, by all means blast away, because there won't be any targets left soon. With experience, you will learn to be able to judge the situation, and know when to blast away, and when to hold fire.
Anyway, those are somewhat peripheral points. The final and most critical point of stern gun tactics is this: Never let the enemy shoot at your bow. yes, I know this is difficult, but it is really the key. Just like you are trying to shoot the enemy's bow, if you let him shoot your bow, you have lost the game. So... NEVER CHASE AN ARMED SHIP. There are exceptions, like Rodneys, or the occasional cruiser or rookie battleship that doesn't shoot back. However, if you chase any ship that's worth half it's salt, it will open your bow up, and you will lose. Plain and simple. Your goal is to get the other guy to chase your stern guns so that he will lose. Keep that in mind, and you'll be the winner.
If you should wind up behind someone's stern, you have only a few options. If it's in a quick moving situation, and danger is behind you, just take your licks, keep moving, and try to get away. Don't freeze, because then you will surely die. Otherwise, try to place your bow directly in line with, and possibly against the enemy's stern. I've done this fairly often. When they try to stern gun me, I put my bow against their stern directly in line with their guns. They usually make nice dents in my bow block. If you have the room, point your bow towards their stern, and begin backing away. Most ships don't turn well in reverse, and with any luck, they will either go away, or if they try to back up with you, their ship will go off at some odd angle, and you'll be able to get enough room to kick forward, turn away and get out of Dodge before they can get back on target. Either way, if caught in this situation, don't let yourself get drawn into the circle of death, the windshield washer maneuver, or anything else silly. Likewise, don't let yourself get trapped between the enemy and shore.
Lastly, and most importantly, you must practice, until you are confident and absolutely sure of the following:
If you do all these things, practice the above maneuvers, and study the combat videos to see and understand the stern gun tactics used successfully (or unsuccessfully) by other captains, then in time, you will become a proficient stern gun battlers, and the enemy will fear you too. You will understand what it is like to be able to inflict vast damage on your enemies and get away Scot free. You probably won't win the Lotto, but you will be likely to win in both fleet battles, and in one-on-one contests. However, if you do not take the time to learn the above lessons, engrave them into your mind and habits, you will likely always be a victim to those who understand stern gun tactics better than you. And you wouldn't want that to happen, now would you?
So hey - get out there and get tweaking, and get practicing!