Naval Wargaming – World War Two Cruiser Actions

January 20, 2016 by crew

Welcome to Part Two of our series on Naval Wargaming, where we explore the potential for wargames fought on the high seas. In Part One, we began with a summary of the history of naval warfare and reviewed some of the game systems available. Now let’s drill down into a specific area of naval wargaming, cruiser actions in World War Two.

Cruiser actions are a great introduction for many people into naval wargaming. They are usually smaller-scale affairs than those involving battleships or aircraft carriers, and are therefore both easier to pull together in terms of the models required and the games are simpler to play due to the absence of aircraft.

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The emphasis of a cruiser action is initially on gunfire to slow and degrade fighting power of enemy ships, then to use torpedoes at close range to sink them. Sometimes these torpedoes are delivered by escorting destroyers – smaller and faster than cruisers but without their firepower or resilience against damage.

The Battle of the River Plate (December 13th, 1939) can serve as a great starting point into World War Two cruiser actions. Not only is it near the beginning of the war, but it’s a closely matched scenario with only four ships involved – one German pocket battleship against one British heavy cruiser and two light cruisers.

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Of course, River Plate is just the beginning. The Mediterranean saw many cruiser actions between the British and Italian navies during the early years of the war. There were also numerous encounters between the British and Germans on the Arctic convoy routes, and similarly remote encounters between the Americans and Japanese around the Aleutian Islands. Any one of these could make for exciting and close-fought games.

The Pacific theatre, however, has by far the greatest number of cruiser actions as the American, Australian and British navies vied with the Japanese for control of the seas around strategic Pacific islands. By way of example, we offer the following series of linked scenarios based on the naval battles off the island of Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal Linked Scenarios

Guadalcanal is one of the Solomon Islands, east of New Guinea. The Japanese occupied the island and began constructing an airfield which, if completed, would have dominated the shipping lanes between the US and Australia.

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In August 1942, US Marines landed and took the airfield, though they didn’t have the strength to eject the Japanese from the rest of this steamy, disease-ridden, and densely forested island. With the ground battle in the balance, both sides tried to win naval dominance around the island in a series of savage naval battles.

The following Guadalcanal scenarios should be fought in chronological sequence, with any undamaged ships from one scenario being available in the next (“undamaged” defined as no reduction in speed, manoeuvrability, or firepower).

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While a wide variety of gaming systems can be used, it is assumed that 1/3000th or 1/2400th scale models are being used. In our next article, a battle report will be provided showing how one of these games was played using the Micro Fleet World War II system (Tabletop Games, 1979).

Scenario One (8th/9th August, 1942)

This is the Battle of Savo Island, which historically is a disaster for the Allied forces. The Allied task force is seventeen days out of New Zealand, and has suffered almost continuous air attack since arriving off Guadalcanal. The American 1st Marine Division has landed on Guadalcanal the day before, and despite air attacks, so far the landings are going well.

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As the Allied commander, you are hosting Marine General Vandergrift and American Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner aboard your flagship that night, HMAS Australia. Over nightcaps you discuss the expedition so far, as well as the misleading and conflicting reports of Japanese destroyers sighted in nearby waters.

It is a hot and sultry night, with passing rain squalls that do nothing to chill the air. Lightning flashes on the horizon and the ominous rumble of thunder rolls around the brooding mountains of Guadalcanal. All ships except the Australia (which is at anchor) are cruising at twelve knots, when at 01:42 the peace is suddenly shattered.

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Gun flashes tear through the darkness all along the northwest horizon. The Japanese have found you.

Scenario Two (11th/12th October, 1942)

This is the Battle of Cape Esperance, in which American cruisers and destroyers would achieve a partial victory over the Japanese and claim a degree of vengeance for the disaster at Savo Island.

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Despite catching the Japanese largely by surprise, defects in US Navy communications have not improved. Each ship must therefore succeed on a roll before opening fire, as they will be confused as to which ships are enemy ships. Furthermore, Rear Admiral Scott will countermand (on the following turn) any ship which does open fire, unless he himself has successfully identified the enemy ships.

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Historically, both sides sustained heavy damage in this duel, although the Americans edged out on top. Japanese troop transports still got through, however, even if Rear-Admiral Goto was fatally wounded aboard his flagship IJN Aoba.

Scenario Three (12th/13th November, 1942)

The next three scenarios take place during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, sometimes called the Third and Fourth Battle of Savo Island, which took place November 12th-15th, 1942.

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The American vessels begin in a single column, with four destroyers in the van and three at the rear. Rear Admiral Scott, second-in-command, is following the lead destroyers with his flagship USS Atlanta. Callahan is in overall command aboard USS San Francisco (assuming she has survived previous battles in your campaign).

The Americans are still hampered by special rules for communication problems and friendly fire, with the added problem that ships must continue to test to engage the correct targets even after obtaining a successful result. Also, low cloud cover and the absence of moonlight means that visibility is poor, bringing the encounter distance down to 6,000 yards. It also means that spotter planes cannot be used.

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Historically, both American commanders were fatally wounded in this battle. In fact, the shell that killed Rear-Admiral Scott on the bridge of USS Atlanta may have been fired by Callahan’s flagship, USS San Francisco. Such were the wild brawls of gunnery and torpedoes that typified the cruiser actions around Guadalcanal.

Scenario Four (13th/14th November, 1942)

One the second day of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Japanese again tried to land significant troop reinforcements on the island, and were again opposed by American warships in a night time cruiser action.

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Historically, the Japanese bombardment force got through this time, and subjected the American troops at the all-important Henderson Field to a withering 35 minute bombardment.

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They were unable to linger, however, as the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise had finally arrived and as soon as the sun came up, began air strikes on Mikawa’s cruisers and then Tanaka’s transport ships.

Scenario Five (14th/15th November, 1942)

Historically, this engagement was a tremendous showdown, with the American battleships Washington and South Dakota pitted against the Japanese battleships Hiei and Kirishima. Whether it plays out like this in your campaign, of course, depends on how these two Japanese warships weathered Scenario Three.

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American ships do not suffer the communication problems that have beset previous US commanders. However, after each full salvo fired by the South Dakota, she must roll to see if the electrical power to the main armament has been cut. These were very new ships, and still had teething troubles and mechanical problems in their systems.

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We highly encourage interested gamers to try some of these engagements. In our next article, we will present a detailed battle report, where one of these games was fought using Micro Fleet World War II. Please comment below with thoughts or comments on these scenarios, or on cruiser battles of World War Two in general.

Simon Stokes & James Johnson

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"Cruiser actions are a great introduction for many people into naval wargaming..."

"...one of these games was played using the Micro Fleet World War II system (Tabletop Games, 1979)"