“The Other World War 2”: Wargaming in the Pacific (Part Four)

August 25, 2014 by crew

The Invasion of Warrenai

Thus far in this article series on Wargaming in the Pacific, we’ve discussed some of the key arenas of the Pacific War and sketched out an example wargame reflecting jungle campaigns like those fought in Burma, New Guinea, and Guadalcanal. Now, in the final article of this series, we switch focus back to the Central Pacific, and once again set up an example campaign to show how designers and wargamers can approach this unusual setting.

Setting the Scene

When the American novelist Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead (based on his experience in the Pacific War), he created the fictional island of Anopopei so he could tell his story unrestricted by military history. We’ll follow the same approach, and set our Central Pacific campaign at the fictitious “Warrenai Archipelago.”

Warrenai Archipelago

The Central Pacific was a unique campaign in World War II, ranging across thousands of miles of empty ocean only to focus incredible violence and bloodshed over tiny atolls sometimes no bigger than a large shopping mall. In order to make our example as applicable as possible, we’ll make the Warrenai Archipelago typical of the island battlegrounds of the Central Pacific, a secluded tropical paradise largely unheard of before the war. They are arranged in a general ring shape, the result of coral building up along the caldera ring of an undersea volcano. The islands are formed around Lloyd’s Lagoon, which in some places is a perfect harbour, in other places is a treacherous maze of jagged coral reefs. The main island is Warrenai, only four kilometres long, just big enough for an airfield where the Americans want to base B-25 medium bombers for operations against the Philippines and Formosa.

The Islands In Detail

Other islands in the archipelago include Justin Isle, Gianna Island, and Dawn Atoll, some of which house small Japanese airfields and a seaplane base. Formerly an undefended British possession, the Warrenai Archipelago was quickly taken by the Japanese when war broke out in December 1941, and for over two years have been fortified by a Japanese garrison of about 3,500 men of the Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF). Made largely of coral, these islands are natural fortresses, and any caves, bunkers, or pillboxes the Japanese have drilled into this rock are sure to be extremely resilient.

Our first decision, as always, is to determine the best scope or gaming system to use. For a Central Pacific campaign this is especially important because some scales of wargaming just don’t work (large tactical games like Panzer Leader or even Flames of War will probably devolve into brutal and hyper-dense shoving matches). Also, Central Pacific games were much more intricate examples of joint sea-air-land operations, making multiple game systems almost a given.

Command At Sea

Design thinking for a Central Pacific game should always start at sea. If the invaders don’t control the air, they don’t control the sea and thus can’t approach the island with a fleet of slow, unarmed troop transports. Games like Clash of Arms’ “Command at Sea” offer an in-depth look at tactical World War II naval and carrier combat. Meanwhile, if you want to go old school, Seekrieg is an excellent game with rich detail, not to mention a great site for support. Another choice is Axis & Allies: War at Sea by Wizards of the Coast. This game is quick, fun, and customizable, and the pre-paint miniatures are relatively inexpensive. This makes it a great start for Pacific wargames.

War At Sea

A typical Central Pacific campaign usually started when the Americans began bombing and shelling the target island. But only when the invasion fleet arrived at the island could the Japanese Navy be sure of the target and react accordingly. This would spark a naval battle 4-10 days after first landings (Savo Island, Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf are good examples). Meanwhile, furious land combat on the actual island was already in full swing.

To accommodate this, let’s envision our Warrenai Archipelago game based on one-day operational turns, with tactical combat resolved via Axis & Allies: War at Sea for naval combat, and Bolt Action or Axis & Allies Miniatures for ground combat.

The Conflict Begins

American Battleships

Days 1-5: The American Third Fleet (Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey) enters the operational map and begins carrier airstrikes against Japanese positions on Warrenai, Justin’s Isle, and Gianna Island. They can also use part of their battleship, cruiser, and destroyer screen to commence shore bombardment. These islands are so small that every inch should be in range of these guns, but everything is also fortified, well-hidden or underground. The Japanese also get a submarine attack roll each day, as well as a ground-based airstrike roll. These can either attack the Third Fleet or the actual invasion force still held off the board. This roll should be pretty easy, but be adversely modified by the amount of escorting vessels and carrier air power the American player has set aside for defence (thus reducing available firepower against Japanese ground targets).

Japanese Air Support

More ominously, the American player should also allocate warships to protect his landing ships against the Japanese carrier fleet, which also gets to make a roll each day to arrive on the operational map. This roll should become steadily easier with each successive day, and should come after the American decision whether to land his troops that day. Thus, the American is forced to make this decision with incomplete information. If the Japanese fleet makes its entry check before the invasion force is landed, it should have the option to go after the invasion fleet, hence the importance of escorting American warships.

Once the Japanese fleet makes its entry roll, the Americans should get a spotting check to see how close they get before detection. This roll should be difficult, but made easier depending on how much airpower, picket ships, and scout submarines the Americans have allocated to a long-range screen. Again, this all comes out of Third Fleet’s force pool, forcing the Americans to make tough decisions in resource management.

Battle of Warrenai

So isn’t it safer for the Americans to land their invasion force right away? This is essentially what they did at Tarawa, which nearly ended in disaster when landing craft were hung up on uncharted reefs. After that, elite Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) were deployed beforehand to find or blast open gaps in reefs, Japanese minefields, and other obstacles. Perhaps the Americans make a roll each day for UDTs, and for each roll that succeeds, the invasion force gets a +1 on whatever navigation checks they have to make on D-Day. The longer the Americans wait, the more thorough this preparation and the easier the assault will be (they’re also softening Japanese defences with bombers and naval gunfire, remember). But they also run the risk of that Japanese carrier strike group finding their invasion force still out at sea. Again, it’s all about decisions.

Green Beach Assault

Day 6: The Japanese Navy shows up and begins what history will record as the Battle of Dawn’s Atoll. Even while this battle is still in progress via A&A War at Sea, the Americans finally send their invasion fleet into Lloyd’s Lagoon and start the invasion of Warrenai. Two Marine regiments (about 5,000 men) are sent in with the first wave at Warrenai, while one battalion (600 men) is detailed to clear the Japanese seaplane base at Gianna Island and two battalions (1200-1500 men) is sent to occupy the small airstrip on Justin’s Isle.

Pointe Romain

Day 7: The Americans win the Battle of Dawn’s Atoll, although heavy damage to several key ships will force them to stretch naval resources more thinly, slowing ground bombardment and resupply operations. Meanwhile, things on the ground are equally hard. Although Bolt Action games have resolved the action on Justin Isle and Gianna Island, the fighting on Warrenai itself is horrendous.

Landing Craft

Elite Japanese marines of the SNLF are honeycombed into the coral rock, compelling the American player to hammer his way through a series of bloody, close-range infantry fights. Flamethrowing Shermans are brought in, while Marine engineers attack bunkers and pillboxes with Bangalore torpedoes, flamethrowers, and satchel charges. Point-blank shelling by American battleships is sometimes the only way to soften Japanese defences.

Dug in Japanese

Some of the toughest fighting is on the commanding mountain on the far eastern end of Warrenai, known as Pointe Romain (named for a famous French painter who used to find inspiration here, particularly well-known for his very small . . . almost miniature . . . work). Possession of such high ground is vital (Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi is a great example), since the Japanese will need it to direct artillery batteries from all over the island. If the Americans can take it, the heaviest Japanese weapons are effectively blinded.

US Bunker Assault

Come what may, the Americans will almost certainly win the battle. It’s all a question of time and casualties, and it’s in these victory conditions that a balanced GAME can be leveraged out of an imbalanced BATTLE. Although they eventually ended in American victory, historical battles like Peleliu, Luzon, and Tarawa are often criticized because incomplete planning, reconnaissance, and command preparation resulted in excessive losses or protracted time-frames that impacted subsequent operations of the grand strategy. In gaming terms, the Japanese player would have “won” those games.

Japanese Bombing Run

So who wins at Warrenai? That’s up to the gamers, of course! Meanwhile, I hope we’ve sparked some ideas for Pacific gaming, or at least some discussion in the comments below.

James Johnson

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"A typical Central Pacific campaign usually started when the Americans began bombing and shelling the target island..."

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"So who wins at Warrenai? That’s up to the gamers, of course!"

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