Sunday, October 3, 2010

Return to Ironbottom Sound:
The Solomons Campaign Turn 1

Ken Kissling got us started on the idea of playing the Solomons naval campaign using Nathan Forney's campaign rules from Old Dominion Game Works (ODGW) and we played out the first campaign turn over the last two weekends. The system is well laid out and I played a  similar campaign in one D.A.N.G. day using an earlier version of the campaign rules, Guadalcanal Nights, by the same author.

For the campaign, Mark Serafin is Ghormley/Halsey and I am Yamamoto. Other players take command of part of the forces of one side or the other when surface actions are played out. So far, other players have been Steve Puffenberger (IJN), Chris Craft (USN), Marky Ernhardt (USN), and John Kennedy (USN). Ken is running the campaign.

The campaign is divided into six monthly turns that run from August, 1942 to January 1943. In every campaign turn, the Japanese and American commanders make four command decisions, which could be modified up or down based on chance. The specific options vary each turn, but generally fall into the following:
  • Send out a carrier group
  • Send a bombardment force
  • Send a patrol force
  • Send an escorted or unescorted supply mission
  • Reinforce
  • Transfer (Japanese only, transferring ships from Truk to Rabaul)
Other options could be an assault on Henderson Field (now Honiara International Airport) by whichever side doesn't control it at the start of the campaign turn. A strategic index keeps track of the ups and downs of the campaign. Whoever holds Henderson by the end of the January '43 turn wins and an estimate of their naval losses determines the scope of the victory.

The campaign has tables where the command decisions are compared and any actions are determined. In some cases, and action may proceed without interruption. Otherwise, a naval action is played out using the General Quarters 3 (GQ3) rules (also from ODGW).

The first turn, August '42, resulted in three actions.

Action 1: Attack! - Repeat - (nevermind)
The first battle we played out for the campaign was the clash of carriers. Mark sent out a force based on the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, while I sent out a force based on Shokoaku and Zuikaku. The action was fierce and in the first strike, I inflicted grievous damage to both his carriers, effectively putting them out of the campaign. In return, Mark's SBDs and TBFs sank Shokaku, lightly damaged Zuikaku, and disabled the battleship Kongo.

Then Ken determined that we had misplayed Mark's CAP defense (i.e., Mark didn't shoot down enough incoming Japanese), so we had to redo the Japanese attack. Then, having done that, he determined that we misplayed the whole carrier action. As it turned out, the Japanese had the strike advantage in the first of three rounds, meaning that my strike went in before Mark could get a strike off—but I failed to actually find Mark's ships with the strike. The next round resulted in no one finding the other and the action ended.

We went from complete carnage inflicted on both carrier forces to a quiet holiday at sea with nary a shot fired in anger. It was an eye-opener, however, because a lot of the campaign is weighted against the Nihon Kaigun and as we understand better how the rules work, I fear the Japanese will be hard-pressed to make a strike work. The USN has better ships, more effective fighters (i.e., they DOUBLE their effective numbers in air-to-air combat because the Americans used the finger four formation, which the rules consider to be vastly superior to the Japanese three-plane "vic" formation), heavier bomb loads, and score better with women. I also learned that American AA fire is very heavy and that Japanese AA is anemic.

Still, the chance that a large strike will be entirely wiped out, is remote. At least a few flights will get through and have some chance of making an attack.

Action 2: Smoke on the Water
The second action we played was a surface fight at night. My bombardment force from Truk ran into Mark's supply mission. Both sides were equal. I had three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and two squadrons of destroyers. Mark had three heavy cruisers and a force of destroyers equal in number to my own.

I did have one of my battle divisions, consisting of two Kongo-class battleships, but it was pointed out that I exceeded the five-sortie limit for my battleships/carriers, since I already had two CVs and two BBs in my carrier group and I had to withdraw them from my OOB.

The two forces were on set courses until contact was made. For the Americans, contact could be radar detection; for the Japanese, who didn't have such technological wonders, it was visual sighting, which is also the point where target acquisition occurs.

On detecting us by radar, The American force started bugging out with its transports, which were not at anchor and could therefore flee the scene without having to wait. We made visual contact and acquisition just after that. I got one shot off against Mark's cruisers, resulting in a single hit. Thereafter, the Americans made smoke and kept the screen going all game. The only valid targets were the lead ship making smoke; everything else was screened or obscured within the smoke cloud.

I did manage to get one hit against a DD, the USS Wilson, when it was the only viable target. I pasted it with 8" shells from the cruisers while Steve hit it with 5" shells from his DD squadron. The ship survived 18 hits and kept on going. It took more damage later on, but never went under during the game. It's one of those anomalies about naval rules where you roll to determine where a shot struck. It's possible to keep getting hit in the same innocuous location; for example, you could take five hits on your depth charges, which does nothing at all to diminish your fighting ability for a surface action. It doesn't even start a fire.

The Japanese pressed in taking the most of every opportunity to get a hit, but we couldn't hit anything that was screened by smoke or target it with torpedoes. Mark was showing a pronounced reverence for the Type 93 Long Lance. The best success in the game—for both sides—came from the Long Lance. Steve managed to get a chance with several torpedoes resulting in, I think, three American ships sunk. Steve also managed to steam his light cruiser straight into one of my torpedo spreads resulting in one fewer IJN light cruiser for Mark to have to worry about. American gunfire sank another two Japanese DDs.

We failed get a single hit on the American transports before we broke off the action, so the American supply mission was deemed a success. Otherwise, our ship losses were roughly equal. Besides the ships sunk, the Americans had a few more damaged enough to be out for the remainder of the campaign.

Action 3: Fly, you fools!
The third action was my supply mission that was intercepted by a HUGE allied force at night. I had a force of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and 10 DDs escorting a supply squadron of four APDs (destroyers in a supply role).

Opposing me, Mark had a force with one squadron of four American heavy cruisers, one  squadron of an American light cruiser (the USS San Juan, which is festooned with 5" DP guns) and five DDs, one squadron of two RAN heavy cruisers and a light cruiser, and a fourth squadron with four DDs.

I figured I would be heavily outnumbered, but my supply ships started the game at anchor. Once I made contact, I would have to relay the contact to the supply ships—which takes two turns—and then get underway—which takes another five turns. The challenge was whether I could hold off a much-superior force for seven turns after first contact without losing everything.

As fate always has it, the Allied force detected us with radar before we even knew we were at sea. That enables them to begin manouvering around into position, while we had to steam ahead at a preplanned course and speed. The rules give Japanese an advantage for making visual acquisition at night, but it didn't benefit me at all during the game. I didn't spot Mark's cruisers and DDs until we were nearly touching, by which time they saw me as well. I also spotted Marky's RAN squadron from further away.

On contact, I started firing at Marky's ships and also sent off a salvo of torpedoes his way from my DDs, while reserving my cruiser torpedoes for engaging Mark's American heavies. Meanwhile, Steve engaged Marky's squadron and Mark's DDs with his two DD squadrons.

Japanese gunfire was desultory throughout the game. We used the revised GQ3 rules that take away rapid-firing from all Japanese guns except for specifically-designed AA guns. For the game, we had no batteries that could rapid fire, while the Allied ships all had rapid fire capability for every gun 5" and smaller. That's a daunting thing when facing the USS San Juan and all its 5" batteries. I exchanged shots with HMAS Canberra, but got the worst of it. Marky hit the Aoba several times and I wound up minus one battery and had two fires on board.

Torpedo fire was just a bit better for the Japanese. Steve managed to hit the HMAS Hobart with three torpedo spreads, resulting in four hits. This was the only catastrophic sinking in the game.

After first contact, I turned to present my broadsides to Mark's approaching squadrons with the intent that I would fire torpedoes from my heavy cruisers and then make speed away under smoke. The resulting turn of gunfire nearly did in the Aoba. She lost her second TT mount (the loss of the first was the cause of one of the onboard fires). My other heavy cruiser, the Kinugasa, got off a spread as did the light cruiser Jintsu. Jintsu's spread caused one torpedo hit on Mark's rear heavy cruiser, although it apparently didn't do enough damage to cripple her.

My smoke protected me for a few more turns. Mark had target fixation on the burning Aoba, but most of the remaining damage was caused by the fires that I couldn't extinguish. Soon the Aoba was slowing badly as her fires caused hull losses and I had to turn her out of the battle line and let her sink, while I went on with the remaining ships in my squadron towards the supply ships.

I also turned away my two DDs to put them in position for a torpedo attack with their remaining four-tube mounts. This made them prime targets and they got badly shot up, but managed to get their fish in the water—to no avail. Mark was adept at combing the wakes, but the two DDs did buy time since Mark had to turn away to comb the wakes and it bought  a turn or two of respite.

I tried at several times to acquire new targets with Kinugasa, but my die-rolling was pathetic and I couldn't contact. It was a few turns later when I got within 2000 yds of the Canberra with Kinugasa and Jintsu that I peppered her with four hits and took none in return. That was about my only success in the game with gunfire.

The supply ships finally got under way by turn 12 and, because they were DDs, could accelerate and move at high speed. I got one torpedo shot off with the outboard DD before I turned toward the board egde making smoke. All through the game, the supply ships, three Shiryatsuyu-class DDs, were represented by a hidden counter. It was only just before they got away that Mark made visual contact, but intervening ships prevented him from firing on them. After 16 game turns, we called it off and declared it a successful Japanese supply mission.

Losses were almost equal. Mark lost the Hobart and two DDs, I lost the Aoba and two DDs. However, one of his heavy cruisers suffered a torpedo hit, which will take it out of the campaign for a while. I also suspect that HMAS Canberra may be out of action for a few campaign turns.

The game also saw a repeat of Steve getting hit with one of my torpedoes. We also had a couple collisions. One of Mark's DD losses came as a result of colliding with the Canberra and Steve and I had a collision between two of our DDs. Steve's DD in this collision being particularly unlucky since it was the one that ran into my torpedo next turn.

My bad luck with torpedoes and gunfire was balanced by my luck in managing to hold off a superior force and get my supply DDs away unscathed. The Kinugasa also had a lot of luck in the game. Targeted several times, she was never hit once. Jintsu, took only a couple hits, but was not disabled by the action.

Further thoughts and whimseys
So far, I like the campaign and we've already made our command decisions for the September '42 campaign turn. The campaign creates interesting surface actions and situations. It also causes one to use his ships judiciously. Wargamers being as they are, in a one-off game we would play out the action to the last ship. Now we consider the strategic implications of our losses and act accordingly. In all the naval gaming I've done with GQ3, I never seen more smoke employed than in the last two games. Preservation of a force in being is more important that shooting at the other guy.

The campaign is also causing us to re-read (or read) the rules. After each game, we discover something we've been doing wrong. For example, in the last game we used the "initial salvo" rule that halves the number of dice you throw for the initial salvo on a target. However, the rule only applies to daytime actions, and our games are night actions.

Among Mark, Ken and me, we have most of the ships we need for the campaign. Nevertheless, the Lynnwood Naval Shipyards are in full swing with all my hitherto unpainted ship models getting assembled and painted. We're still shy a large number of Japanese DDs, but we can always substitute. The Fubuki-, Yugumo-, and Kagero-class DDs were very similar and at 1:2400th scale, the visible difference is hard to spot.


  1. I am the developer of TSC, and read with interest you playing of the campaign. It definitely has a strong aerial aspect. But that is historical, and in our games the Nihon Kaigun has held its own against the Allies in the carrier duels ehich tend to be less important as the campaign wears on. Good luck, I am sure you will still have opportunity for surface engagements.

  2. I have just found the blog and the report and having considered to buy the campaign supplement for long time I finally decided against it. I know that it is only a single report but it does not bode well.

    My main exception are:

    1) in 1942 Japanese visual sightings were much more effective than allied radar. Except in the case of Cape esperance Japanese had the advantage of the first sighting. Interestingly enough at Surigao the first contact was simultaneous.

    2) air power sopunds non historical. Effectiveness of airpower in the guadalcanal campaing was not so heavy as portrayed in the rules, plus the American fighter were not so effective until Santa Cruz (or after) and even with fighter protection with effective direction and VT fuze ammunition a determined japanese attack was always passing through (look at the action off Rennel Islands and the sinking of the USS Chicago). Also the damage inflicted to battleship seems out of proportion. I respectuffully point out that Japanese battleships required several waves to be sunk. To be quite honest with the esception of a damaged Hiei no japanese BBs was sunk at sea by air until the Jumbo Attack on the Musashi.

    3) Until after Santa Cruz Japanese fighter were superior to USN ones. There are several AAR from USN squadorn and group commander complaining about this fact. Until the squandering of trained pilots at Santa Cruz and on the later actions the quality edge was still on the Japanese side. Plus the Japanese were not using Vic formation. Lack of radios and the training and doctrine pushed them to use a more independent way of fighting. Attack planes usually opted for strict Vic to maximise defensive firepower.

    Have to say I will probably pass this one over. Sadly it was promising.