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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Clash on the Coral Sea

My friend and colleague Frank H. and I met again over the game table.  Over the last few months we've played three rounds of Midway (designerLarry Pinsky and Lindsley Schutz, publisher Avalon Hillwith a number of optional rules attached.  This time, Frank broke out his copy of the "Coral Sea" expansion, and we set our clocks back to May 1942 to determine the fate of Port Moresby, New Guinea.

The Coral Sea variant to Midway first appeared in The General magazine in an article by Alan R. Moon entitled, "Pacific Theatre via Midway."  It involves new search boards depicting the Coral Sea, Solomon Islands, and surrounding area, as well as new ships and the addition of land-based bombers in a considerably more involved format than the optional B-17s of the original Midway.  The components are available from the third-party vendor Camelot Games.  Variant rules include
  • Bombers, which have longer range than carrier planes but which can only land on certain bases.  They can attack bases or ships using somewhat different rules from conventional Midway Battle Board style attacks.  
  • Bases, which can accommodate aircraft, have anti-aircraft (AA) defenses against bombers, provide a search radius, and which if knocked out can repair themselves overnight to resume air operations.  Some bases (Truk, Australia, and New Caledonia) are off-board and can not be attacked but are more distant and require additional movement points to reach after exiting the map.
  • Replacements, by which 25% of all lost aircraft can be repaired and returned to action the subsequent morning
  • Mountains, which are an obstacle to fighters
  • Destroyers, which are abstracted by adding two AA factors to Japanese defenses once per turn (a rule that Frank and I forgot during our game this evening)
  • Coastwatchers, which require divulging to the opponent at the end of the turn when any ships enter, transit, or depart coastal squares of large islands
The "Pacific Theatre via Midway" actually provides four scenarios for use with the Coral Sea variant map.  We played the Battle of Coral Sea, with Frank as the Japanese and myself as the Americans.  In addition to getting points for the usual sinking of ships, one victory point is awarded for every three planes shot down.  The Japanese player also get 20 points for invading Port Moresby and five for invading Guadalcanal with a transport (AP).  The American player gets five points if the Japanese do not take Port Moresby and ten points if all five APs are destroyed prior to any landings.

U.S.S. Yorktown at Battle of Coral Sea
USN photograph.  Public domain
The order of battle is somewhat smaller for Coral Sea than for conventional Midway.  Each side gets only two large carriers - Lexington and Yorktown for the USN and Shokaku and Zuikaku for the IJN.  The Japanese also have two light carriers - Shoho and Kamikawa.  The Japanese also have five APs.  All other ships are cruisers; there are no battleships in this scenario.  The Japanese ships are generally inferior to the Americans, but more interesting is the difference in air order of battle:

Type         Americans     Japanese
Bombers         24            12
Dive bombers    28            15
Fighters        28            44
Torpedo bombers 13            33
Total           93           104

The Americans have considerable advantage in land-based bombers and dive bombers, but the Japanese have a greater advantage in torpedo bombers and - more significantly - fighters.  This fighter advantage figures heavily in the tactics of the game.  Having fighter superiority provides more flexibility in allocating Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and escorts for strike missions.  

The Japanese start the scenario in Rabaul, New Britain.  The transports are not able to move out of Rabaul until nightfall.  The Japanese also have airbases of various sizes in Lae, New Guinea; Kavieng, New Ireland; and Shortland and Tulagi Islands in the Solomons.  The Americans enter from the southeast.

Monday 4 May 1942
B-17 at 7 Mile Airstrip, Port Moresby
USAAF photograph.  Public domain
In our battle, the first morning saw the fleets approach each other - the Japanese directly, the Americans warily.  Kamikawa stayed behind in Rabaul harbor with the AP flotilla until they were ready to get underway that evening.  But the American B-17s in Port Moresby wasted no time in attacking the stationary transport fleet.  A few Zeroes came up on CAP to meet them and inflict casualties, but the bombers made short work of one of the APs.  They would repeat the feat later that afternoon to claim a second transport.  

Meanwhile the two carrier groups searched for each other as the range between them closed to striking distance.  The American fleet got a little cagy, back-tracking and dodging the Japanese search patterns.  I managed to get two unanswered strikes in on the Japanese fleet to sink the light carrier Shoho and the heavy cruiser Furutaka, but the defense around the big carriers was too formidable, and my strike wing not quite big enough, to take a stab at the Shokaku or Zuikaku.  At one point the carrier groups must have passed right by each other as the Americans bolted northwest to get within range of Rabaul and attack the transport flotilla in the harbor before nightfall.  This strike was able to sink two transports in a single sortie.  Now the Japanese were down to one transport ship before the invasion fleet even got underway.

The Americans were not to go unscathed the first day, however.   A Japanese submarine scored hits on the carrier Lexington and the heavy cruisers New Orleans and Minneapolis.  An American submarine was not so fortunate; she was sunk trying to make an observation on the Japanese fleet.

That night, coastal watchers reported the departure of all Japanese ships from Rabaul harbor.

Tuesday 5 May 1942
Before dawn, an American submarine spotted the combined transport and carrier fleet somewhere southwest of the Shortland Islands.  Repairs were completed on a number of aircraft at Port Moresby, which were returned to service and fueled up by 0700.  Meanwhile, the American carrier fleet had moved east of New Guinea in an effort to intercept the anticipated invasion.  Search patterns south of New Britain failed to locate the combined fleet reported by the submarine hours earlier.  

The Japanese had located the American carriers, however, which had remained within striking distance of Rabaul.  The ensuing Japanese air attack damaged the carrier Yorktown and the heavy cruiser Astoria but sunk no ships.  Coastal watchers then reported that the Japanese fleet had been spotted sailing northeast past Buka, around the north end of Bougainville Island.  American searches confirmed this unexpected Japanese movement two hours later and tracked the combined fleet around the north side of the Solomon Island chain in preparation for its obvious target - an invasion of Guadalcanal from the north after nightfall.  

Since it was clear that the Japanese fleet would be out of range of the Port Moresby B-17s for the remainder of the day, the bombers turned their attention to the base at Rabaul, where they destroyed a number of aircraft on the ground but made no significant impact on the base operations.  

Aircraft prepared to launch from Shokaku
Government of Japan photo.  Public domain
The American fleet steered south of the Solomon Islands to get out of range of the Japanese airbases and strike the IJN fleet as it approached Guadalcanal.  This time there was no evading the Japanese searches, and the fleets exchanged airstrikes.  Having sunk the Astoria earlier in the day, the Japanese now sunk the heavily damaged cruiser Minneapolis.  

In its final attack on the Japanese invasion fleet approaching Guadalcanal, the Americans had only dive bombers and escorting fighters; all torpedo bombers had been lost in previous action over the last two days (except for those repaired at Port Moresby that had arrived on deck too late to participate in the final attack).  The dive bombers did their work, however, and sunk the last remaining Japanese transport.  

At this point, having lost all transports, the Japanese only hope to gain any more victory points was by sinking American ships.  Realizing this, we calculated the score at the time and determined that I was winning by more than ten points.  I declared my intent to sail my fleet south off the map during the ensuing night turns so that no more points would be scored by either side, so that the game was to all intents and purposes over.

When we added up the score at the time, we didn't take into account the bonuses for preventing the invasion of Port Moresby and eliminating all transports.  So the final score tallied up as follows:

Frank H., IJN
       3          Minneapolis
        3          Astoria
29 1/3          aircraft shot down
        1          submarine sunk
36 1/3          total

Paul O., USN
        6          Shoho
        3          Furutaka
      20          five APs
26 1/3          aircraft shot down
        5          Port Moresby not invaded
      10          all transports sunk prior to any invasions
70 1/3          total

For my part, I got rather lucky at avoiding Frank's search patterns and being able to get two unanswered air strikes on his carrier fleet the first day.  But the real difference in the battle was being able to pick off the transports one by one, long before they could get to their target.  Frank and I both agreed afterward that the Rabaul transports need some kind of protection from the Port Moresby bombers on the first day.  The fighter CAP that he provided was not sufficient, so he thought in retrospect that it might have made more sense to simply leave the entire fleet in Rabaul harbor to protect the transports until they were ready to get underway.  

We've decided to run all four of the "Pacific Theatre" scenarios plus another game of Midway proper as a big "campaign game," though not necessarily sticking to the same side for all five scenarios.  For our next session, since we've played Midway three times, we thought we'd skip that one chronologically and jump to the next historical scenario, "Eastern Solomons."  We will switch sides, so that I will play as the Japanese attempting to take Gili Gili (New Guinea) and Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands).  The orders of battle look a little meatier for that scenario:  The Americans get a third carrier plus the battleship North Carolina, while the Japanese get three battleships and a host of cruisers.

Great fun.


  1. Wow! This sounds like a really interesting -- and different -- game.

  2. It really is different from the original. There are so many more factors to take into account. It was refreshing to play these new scenarios and bring new life to an old classic.