Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Showdown at Guadalcanal

My good friend Frank Hodge and I sat down after work for the last scenario in our "Pacific Theatre via Midway" series - the Battle of Guadalcanal - or more correctly perhaps, the Battle Around Guadalcanal (since we didn't worry too much about how the troops in the mud on the island itself fared - with apologies to my brother Pete the Marine).  This scenario for the first time presents the U.S. player with the same problem that faces the Japanese player in almost every other scenario - having to land transports on an objective.  In this case, both the Japanese and the Americans are trying to land forces on Guadalcanal to reinforce troops already there so as to secure control of the island.

As the American, I had only one aircraft carrier - the Enterprise - but I also had two battleships - South
Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, April 1943
USN photo.  Public domain
 and Washington.  Four transports provided the landing force, and four heavy cruisers and four light cruisers rounded out the escorts for the fleet.  Frank's Japanese order of battle included two somewhat smaller carriers, four battleships, five transports, seven heavy cruisers, and four light cruisers.  My land-based bombers outnumbered Frank's over three to one, and I would make good use of that advantage.  I had a narrow advantage in fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers as well.  Moreover, I started the game with Henderson Field on Guadalcanal itself, so local air superiority was generally easy to maintain.

The game opened at daybreak on 11 November 1942.  An American submarine spotted the Japanese fleet about 40 nautical miles (nm) north of Buka Island, site of a small Japanese base at the northwestern end of the Solomon Islands chain.  I was more preoccupied, however, with the Japanese airbase closest to Guadalcanal - Buin, on the southern end of Bougainville Island.  All my B-17s, based at Henderson Field and at Port Moresby, New Guinea, converged over Buin, with a fighter escort from Gili Gili.  The bombers suffered about 20% casualties from anti-aircraft (AA) fire but inflicted much worse on the base, catching and destroying many Japanese dive bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters (those that hadn't flown Combat Air Patrol [CAP] defense) on the ground and knocking the base out of action for the rest of the day.  I was very pleased with the results of that attack.

Japanese Navy Type 96 Rikko Bomber
Japanese government newsreel.  Public domain
Japanese bombers based at Rabaul, on New Britain Island, simultaneously attacked Henderson Field that morning.  American fighters from Espiritu Santo and USS Enterprise on CAP intercepted the attack and inflicted a few casualties.  Japanese bombers damaged Henderson, but it remained in service, and no planes were on the ground at the time of the attack.  (In retrospect, I think we forgot to have the AA guns shoot at the attacking bombers.)

Meanwhile, the American fleet made its way up the west coast of Vanuatu toward Guadalcanal with the goal of beating the Japanese to the punch and landing the Marines first.  (As it happens, from a gameplay standpoint, there's no advantage to being the first to invade; the goal is only to outnumber the opponent in total transports landed.  There is, in fact, a disadvantage to conducting a daylight landing, because the transports are susceptible to air attack during the invasion.)  A Japanese submarine spotted the American fleet, and before long, search planes were able to track the progress of the U.S. fleet for most of its transit to Guadalcanal.  Two hours later, a Japanese submarine was spotted and sunk by the fleet's escorting destroyers, but by that point, there was no sense in trying to evade detection.

By 1300, the U.S. invasion fleet had arrived at Guadalcanal, and transports started unloading troops.  A Japanese airstrike arrived as well.  A fighter battle ensued, while Vals and Kates descended on the fleet, but fortunately all four American transports survived the attack and completed the invasion to reinforce the Marines on the island.

Meanwhile Enterprise, with escorting heavy cruiser Pensacola and light cruiser San Diego, had separated from the invasion fleet and took station about 80 nm south of the island with the intent to conduct an airstrike on the Japanese fleet, which had passed south of Bougainville and was making its way southeast toward Guadalcanal.  Unfortunately, my caution left my fleet too far from the actual Japanese position to coordinate a carrier airstrike with B-17s, which had completed refueling at Henderson and Port Moresby and were ready for another attack.  I sent the B-17s in with a contingent of F-4F Hellcats from Enterprise that would not be able to return to the carrier but would have to land with some of the bombers on Henderson.  This attack was something of a disaster; I lost a third of the bombers without sinking any Japanese transports.

Two hours later, Enterprise was close enough to the Japanese fleet to conduct her own airstrike, augmented
USS Enterprise
USN photo.  Public domain
by fighters and dive bombers from Gili Gili.  This second attack was just sufficient to sink one of the five Japanese transports.  That 1500 attack turned out to be the last American chance to stop the Japanese invasion.  By the time American planes were refueled, night had fallen, and the remaining four transports would conduct their landings unimpeded by the Americans.  (I was very reluctant to engage the Japanese fleet in a surface action; despite my generally superior ships, I was far outnumbered and generally outgunned.)

At this stage, prudence dictated that the American fleet leave the Coral Sea to the Japanese, on the premise that there was no more to be done for the Leathernecks on the ground, who could presumably take care of themselves (despite the Japanese reinforcements).  So after just one full day of battle and an overnight amphibious operation, the intact US fleet left the map, and it was time for Frank and me to tally the results.

Frank H., IJN
20  aircraft (one point for every three planes shot down)
  5  invasion, having tied the Americans in number of invading transports (four)
25  total

Paul O., USN
24  aircraft destroyed
  4  transport sunk
  1  submarine sunk
29  total

So the result was a narrow American victory, decided principally by destroying so many aircraft on the ground early on the morning of the 11th.  Sinking a transport and a submarine neutralized the invasion score for the IJN.

In retrospect, Frank regretted leaving so many aircraft vulnerable on Buin at the start of the game.  He realized that he could have kept them further back in reserve and then staged them forward as the fleet progressed closer to Guadalcanal.  (As it happens, Buin would have been rendered unavailable to him anyway, but he still would have had the aircraft reserve available.)  For my part, I had a considerable reserve  aircraft contingent of my own on New Caledonia that I held with the intent of replenishing aircraft losses on Enterprise, but I'd forgotten all about them until the game was nearly over.  So we each made our mistakes.

These Midway variants are always fun.  Frank and I have agreed that for our next game, we will return to the Midway original, with his variable order of battle and Japanese transports (rather than Atago), and that we will switch sides, so that I can sit in the Japanese hot seat the next time.


  1. Wow! These scenarios are really different from the original Midway. Sound like interesting operational challenges.

  2. They really are, and of the scenarios, Guadalcanal is the most interesting, because both the USN and IJN are trying to land troops on the same island.