Battle of the Eastern Solomons

On February 7, 2004 I played the two-day Eastern Solomons scenario (as the Japanese) against a local friend who made his first foray back into wargaming after about 15 years of non-activity. (We had played a few old SF games in the last year, Orion, Dune,and Starforce, but this was his first foray into historical gaming since the 1980s.)

We decided to use the abstract victory rules rather than count victory points. In this case, the fact that the Japanese still possess most of their 7-rated Zero fighter pilots and start out with three carriers means they are under slight pressure to do better than the US, having to sink two US CVs to gain a clean win, whereas the US will be happy to sink more than they lose. Unloading at least half the transports on Guadalcanal will count equal to one US CV.

0100: As usual both sides launch their long range search planes before dawn. I had never really noticed how constrained the Japanese are in this scenario - with only three G4M "Betty" units on the ground, their strike capability will be almost nil if they use all search assets. I decide to still launch a strong search to bolster the H8K "Emily" unit flying out of Shortlands.

We were playing with the new version Solomon Sea rules which arose out of the Bay of Bengal playtesting and will be used in future releases. One change is that, more in keeping with the equatorial setting, there are now four daylight and three night turns per day, so that the long range planes really need to plan their missions carefully. The carriers will act aggressively on the first day, trying to sweep aside all opposition so that the transports near Rabaul will have a clear path to the objective.

The IJN submarines start east of Ontong Java and San Cristobal, in case the US carriers try a flank run between the Solomons and the Santa Cruz Islands.

0430: The Betties radio in some noncommittal reports. Nothing is heard from the Emily. The transports (initially in G6) slowly crawl eastwards. The carriers started relatively far north and are moving in, together with the Vanguard Force and the Ryujo force. The latter I'm keeping a bit more to the northeast, away from Guadalcanal.

The Support Force runs into an enemy submarine at I4, west of Ontong Java, but its torpedoes miss Mutsu. I decide to move the battleship out of harm's way towards the north. The attack reveals that the position of the enemy submarine screen is dangerously close to the path the transports will have to take but given the time restrictions I have no choice but to barge ahead.

0800: Not very eventful so far. I decide to prepare things with a land-based strike on Henderson Field.

Status after movement, before search (except for carrier-based searches).

Since our floatplanes have so far been ineffective I also decide to supplement the searches with carrier based planes. One group each from Shokaku and Zuikaku is sent off to make sure that if there is something close by, we do not miss it. In the end one of the searching Betties reports carriers north of Guadalcanal.

Hedging my bets with regard to the strike on Henderson Field, I sent the remaining Betty unit at Rabaul with 18 Zero escorts, keeping most Zeroes in reserve. This turns out to have been a bad idea. 3 F4F units (27 planes) on CAP manage to get the jump on the Zeroes and damage or destroy most of them while also dispatching the Betties. Of 9 bombers and 27 escorts virtually all crashland or perish. 5 F4Fs are out of operation after the combat.

My carriers start moving south, to be possibly within strike range the next turn. All strike planes are readied.

1130: The impunity of the Americans on Henderson Field angers the Japanese commanders in Rabaul and they will teach the Americans a lesson by sending in three more Zeroes on a fighter sweep.

Status after movement, before search.

However, after they have taken off, their fate is suddenly relegated to the sidelines as multiple search reports from Tone's and Chitose's floatplanes, as well as an Emily that is on its return leg to Shortlands, and troops on Santa Isabel indicate the presence of both expected enemy carriers quite close to our own carriers (Shokaku and Zuikaku are in K3, one US carrier task force is in L4 and another in L5). I decide to go for the knock-out blow and launch all-out strikes against both of the carriers. Sadly, both strike groups will not be full strength since the search planes sent out previously will not be ready in time to join. Also, Ryujo is out of position in K1. Rather than send her Kates in at extreme range for level bombing I decide to keep them for a later follow up attack.

Status at time of airstrikes ("Second Fleet" is the Ryujo TF, "Third Fleet" is the Vanguard Force)

Shokaku's planes will go for the nearby carrier TF in L4, while those of Zuikaku will take the longer route to L5. As I can expect a strong return strike, no less than 36 CAP Zeroes are in the air above the Japanese Carrier Force; 9 Zeroes accompany each of the strike groups.

The Shokaku strike has no problem finding the target and identifies the Enterprise. Unfortunately the CAP is heavy, outnumbering the escorts three to one. They also gain the initiative, shooting down the escorting Zeroes and then savaging the bombers, of which 27 do not get to attack or return. Another 9 bombers are downed by heavy AA fire. About a dozen planes (3 steps) manage to press the attack but Enterprise escapes unscathed.

The second strike group also reaches the target, and the situation is similar. The Zeroes actually get the first shot at the CAP, downing a few F4Fs, but the number of CAP planes is too large. While the Zeroes survive, half of the 45 bombers either do not return or will be out of action until repaired, which could take days. AA fire, thankfully, proved ineffective. The bombers swoop in, and a Val manages to place a bomb on the deck of what the pilot identifies as Saratoga. As it departs, the reduced strike group observes the carrier to start belching smoke.

The US counterstrike turned out to be far weaker than anticipated. (The US side may have suffered from the classic Eastern Solomons problem: have I found the main carrier force or just Ryujo, something that even without specific intent on the Japanese side is hard to avoid.) One carrier deckload, a mere 36 bombers with 9 F4Fs escorting, go in for the attack. The CAP actually gains the advantage of surprise but cannot replicate the impressive results of the US side. Instead the F4Fs which are supposed to be surprised manage to shoot down 9 CAP Zeroes. Still, about half the enemy planes are aborted or shot down. AA fire is successful in damaging a few planes, of the 14 planes that press the attack, none achieve a hit. There is an audible sigh of relief among the command team on the bridge of Shokaku.

The fighter sweep over Rabaul turns out to be anticlimactic; the 27 Zeroes are (again) surprised by the F4Fs and most are shot down without much ado. Five Zeroes return in operable condition; best estimates are that a mere five F4Fs were lost to the Americans. Japanese fighter power at Rabaul has been thoroughly gutted. The same can be said with regard to our carrier bomber strength which has been effectively halved in a single attack, whereas US plane losses will be very light - all Saratoga planes were in range for a return to Henderson Field, so we can assume none had to ditch. Some aides urge for a retreat right then and there. On the other hand the enemy is short one flight deck until Wasp shows up from Noumea tomorrow. Only Ryujo will be able to launch a strike on the remaining daylight turn, and she will still be out of position. So the decision will have to wait for the second day. (Actually, that's what the Japanese thought - but they overlooked the weakness of the US airstrike - quite likely Enterprise still would have had aircraft available. However, in the event, no strike occurred.)

The transports, steaming along north of Bougainville, report contact with a submarine (possibly part of the same group that attacked Mutsu) but the American torpedoes turn out to be duds or badly aimed.

1500: Ryujo holds position; the Carrier Force, currently separated from the Vanguard Force and realising that their escorts are fairly weak in case of an accidental encounter with Allied surface forces, retreat a hundred miles eastward after recovering strike planes. A carrier contact is reported in L4, but the Advance Force, pushing in that direction after nightfall, will find nothing.

1800: The transports are told to steer south towards Shortlands after nightfall; in the dark the coastwatchers will be less effective and the move may shortchange the submarines lurking along their path. (It worked; there were no more submarine contacts from this force.) Throughout the night, the Advance Force and Vanguard Force keep east of Ontong Java, joined later by the Carrier Force, but no contacts are reported. At 2100 signals intelligence indicates that Allied spies must have seen our transports in Solomons coastal waters.

Second Day

0100: Since our floatplane strength is actually quite formidable, with Tone, Chikuma, and Chitose as part of our fleet, we decide to rely more on them today and keep our remaining Betties at Rabaul in case a carrier turns up within range. Only the Emilies from Shortlands will engage in long range recon.

Troops on New Georgia report a task force in the area, presumably the damaged carrier trying to escape southwards?

0430:The dawn searches are more effective than on the previous day. Although some floatplanes report enemy flying boats or heavy bombers in the distance, no planes are detected near our carriers. Apparently our position far in the north has confused the enemy. To our surprise, we receive multiple reports from our Solomons bases indicating carrier forces on the horizon, and Chitose floatplanes indicate multiple carriers within a 100 mile range from Guadalcanal. Could it be that they are trying to gain added protection from Guadalcanal CAP? Unfortunately there is again radio traffic that indicates that perhaps our transports were spotted by spies north of Santa Isabel. At least we are reasonably sure they are safe from submarines.

One carrier is reported only a few miles east of New Georgia. The position indicates that it may well be the damaged Saratoga. It's not quite clear why it did not flee towards Noumea, but perhaps fear of submarines was an issue, unfortunately our scouting lines are 300 miles northwest. However this seems to be just the task that we saved our land attack aircraft at Rabaul for, and we send 18 Betties on a strike mission into the vicinity. Although we do not expect CAP except for a few long range F4F escorts from Henderson Field (which must be packed with planes) we send our five remaining long range Zeroes with them as an escort.

Status at 0430

(The photo was actually taken after the strike returned - it's under the Long Flight marker at Rabaul - but I placed a Betty on the strike hex to mark it.)

To their great surprise, instead of a slowly moving wreck the Betties sight the undamaged Wasp, and with even greater dismay spot its CAP above them in the morning sun. The CAP turns out to be surprisingly weak though (only 9 F4Fs) and above the CAP are our faithful 5 Zero escorts which promptly turn on the CAP, reporting shooting down half of them. Unfortunately they cannot keep the CAP planes from claiming, on average, one Betty apiece, and another four are shot down by AA fire. The remaining nine Betty crews do press the attack with the courage expected from Japanese airmen and manage to put a torpedo into Wasp's side. (Normally I wouldn't know what happened to Wasp after that, but in our case, as I was still explaining the game as we "went along", I rolled the die to see whether Wasp, being one of the "1 1/2 step" carriers, was sunk and she survived.)

Unfortunately the explanation why Wasp's CAP was so weak follows immediately, they are all accompanying her full strength strike against our transport convoy. About 40 planes from Henderson Field also attack the convoy. In fact, the convoy, only 200 miles from Guadalcanal, is too far from Rabaul for Long Range CAP, and none of our carriers would have been close enough. As it stands, about 5 planes are crippled or lost under AA fire. As the strike planes attack, initially they score no hits and our spirits soar. Then a squadron of dive bombers turn two of the transports into burning wrecks and the last squadron of torpedo planes plants torpedoes in the others. The convoy has failed. Given the abstract victory conditions that means that now two US carriers have to sink at no Japanese loss to secure victory.

0800: Our carriers turn around and start moving westwards, intent on closing to attack range. Likewise, the escorts of the transport convoy increase speed and start hunting for the Wasp in the waters around New Georgia. The US carriers have disappeared off our coastwatchers' binoculars for the time being but our floatplanes find a carrier east of Malaita. It managed to sleekly evade all of our submarines, but if it is the Enterprise this gives us a great opportunity to clearly decide the battle in our favor. Indeed, even Ryujo is within range and her Kates can support the attack.

As our planes arrive it turns out our expectations have been confounded again, although not necessarily to our detriment. It is actually the damaged Saratoga which we had expected further south by now. But for a careful search plane crew she might have escaped but now all of our remaining strike planes descend on her. Ironically, Ryujo's group fails to find the target and ends the battle without ever sighting an enemy, but the other two groups strike and send the big carrier to the bottom without great effort or losses. 18 SBD's, still in her hangars, go to the bottom with her.

1130: Our carriers turn to the north, to reduce the risk of a counterattack from fully-stocked Enterprise still lurking south of us. Near New Georgia, the smoking cruisers are left behind as the rest of the task force continues southeast in an attempt to reestablish contact with the Wasp. However, as post-battle analysis shows, the Americans have sought safety in numbers and Wasp moved north to join Enterprise, lurking in the channel between Malaita and Santa Isabel. Floatplanes report the escorts of Saratoga moving southwestwards at full speed, beyond the grasp of our submarines. While our search pilots cause relief by describing Allied search planes that obviously keep turning back before getting far enough north to detect our carriers, none of our planes manage to pick up Enterprise. We move northwards.

The high number of carrier planes that have found a home on Henderson Field after the crippling of Saratoga and Wasp begins to show effects as another, major, strike turns up. It damages two cruisers in the former transport escort force off New Georgia, which actually lets us off easily; given the size of the raid it would not have been impossible for half the force ending up damaged.

1500: The move north turned out to be our last error as we continue to hunt uselessly for the Wasp task force. Troops on Santa Isabel report a carrier force on the horizon (as we later find out, Enterprise and the crippled Wasp), but we are too far to launch a strike. The notion of sending a battleship task force in the dark to hunt for US carriers is rejected for the same reason. A last strike from some of Enterprise's planes sinks the two damaged cruisers in the Slot. As darkness falls, the battle is effectively over.


Since the Japanese sank one carrier and did not land any transports the overall outcome was a draw. US practice of keeping their carriers in the Solomons coastwatcher areas might have backfired but the Japanese kept their major surface forces close to the carriers for protection and could not exploit the opening in time. (Also, let's not forget that with attacks working out differently, the Japanese could have ended up with a crippled or sunk carrier early on and then would have been in real trouble.) When counting victory points, the 30 points for hits on carriers count strongly in the Japanese favor as expected, but the outcome is still almost indistinguishable from the draw produced by the abstract victory conditions:
CV hits30
Ship hits12
Air losses2612

Last modified: Thu Feb 12 00:08:20 Cen. Australia Daylight Time 2004