Japanese: Markus Stumptner
Allies: Christian Auernigg
This is a replay of a game of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons we played last week. When setting up the game, we decided we'd use the free setup. However, we wanted to try a new variant of the scenario this time, keeping the length limited to two days (standard length for the free setup is three days, one day longer than with the historical setup). This would put some pressure on the Japanese (since their transports have little time to get to Henderson Field), but limit the availability of Wasp for the Allies (since she is released from fueling only well into the second day). It would also have the advantage of staying with the length of the historical scenario, the shortest in the game, since both of us had worked till late in the evening and we had little time available. We played with all the advanced rules, plus the remote CAP optional rule (the latter, however, did not play a role this time.)
August 23, 1942
The Japanese start the battle grouped into four task forces (containing, respectively, the two fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, the CVL Ryujo (to be kept a bit to the rear because it's so vulnerable), the transports, and the battleships which are to be used for bombardment. Two long range searches are planned, the H8K Emily's from Shortland search to the south and east of the Solomons, the Bettys from Rabaul launch later, at daybreak, and search the area to the north up to the vicinity of Ndeni.
At 8:00 an Emily reports enemy carriers 200 miles NW of Espiritu Santo, but is unable to regain contact on the next turn, and then has to turn back to reach Shortlands by nightfall. The Bettys do not reach that far, and the Japanese carriers are still close to Ontong Java, too far away to search the area on their own. The day passes without a further contact for the Japanese. However, the Japanese are aware of repeated visits by US patrol planes that molest first the carriers and later in the day keep shadowing the battleships further to the SW.
At 11:30 an air strike from Rabaul has arrived at Guadalcanal, but the escorts cannot keep the fighters from Henderson Field away from the bombers, which are severely mauled, although the Zeroes then take their toll from the defenders. Damage to the airfield is negligible.
Late in the afternoon, an American submarine attacks the battleship task force near Ontong Java. The other task forces, especially the transport force, are directed away from the area (which means the transports will have a long way to go on the next day). A last carrier search of the area west of the Santa Cruz islands before dark reveals no enemy ships. With oncoming darkness, the battleships slip into the coastal waters near Santa Isabel to reach Henderson Field by midnight. Meanwhile, the carriers start moving southeastwards, with the goal of passing east of the Santa Cruz islands. Ryujo and the transport force are between Ontong Java and Shortlands, out of harm's way. The Japanese submarines, originally stationed towards Noumea, have been moving northwards so that by daybreak they will be positioned across the passage between San Cristobal and Banka Island.
August 24, 1942
At 01:00, the battleships shell Henderson Field, damaging some aircraft and ensuring that the airfield will be out of action at least during part of the following day. No enemy ships appear in their path and they slip out of coastal waters unobserved by 08:00. At roughly the time of the bombardment, the Japanese search planes take off from their bases so they will be over the battle areas at first daylight.
04:30: Sunrise finds the Japanese carriers northeast of Santa Cruz. The search flights from the Japanese floatplane cruisers swarm out westwards, and while the land-based planes sweeping the same area do not report anything worthwhile, the floatplanes pinpoint the American carriers northeast of San Cristobal, just out of strike range. The Japanese start readying their aircraft and turn their bows southwestwards. At the same time, the Americans, with hosts of search planes covering the area north of Malaita, are bedeviled by the usual communications failures that result in Admiral Fletcher receiving no worthwhile reports from SOPAC HQ at Noumea.
08:00: Fletcher's reaction has been to withdraw southwestwards. The Japanese carriers, passing through the Santa Cruz islands, have sent out a wave of Kates to search instead of the refueling cruiser floatplanes, but the important reports this time come from an Emily over San Cristobal, indicating that the US carriers are inadvertently moving away from the Japanese, maintaining distance, and bypassing the Japanese submarine screen. Allied search planes, slowly getting their act together, find the battleship task force, which is again moving through submarine infested waters, but not the carriers. So far, the day is an interesting reversal of the previous one, when the Americans kept shadowin the Japanese but at very long range, utterly out of range from the carrier bombers; now the Japanese maintain contact, albeit the Americans remain tantalizingly just out of range.
11:30: The Japanese continue to race after Fletcher, but suddenly find out that Fletcher has reversed course, just when a SBD carrier patrol plane on the easternmost leg of its search path, catches sight of the Japanese carrier strike force as it moves from the Santa Cruz islands out into the Solomon Sea. (This was the result of a really interesting combination - for the two planes that could have spotted the Japanese carriers, I rolled a 1 and a 10 for search. As a result, while I could have used the 1 result to conjure up fantasy carriers in another hex, the 10 obligated me to tell that the real TF actually contained 2 carriers, thus making the 'false report' result worthless.)
With the enemy detected and within range, both sides work feverishly to get their planes into the air. Elsewhere, the Japanese transports have belatedly started to move towards Guadalcanal, while Ryujo is passing north of the Solomons, badly out of position for taking part in the battle now that it has finally started for earnest. At what is effectively point blank range, in good weather, virtually all planes of both sides can be expected to find the enemy.
The Japanese strike of 63 bombers arrives slightly earlier over the US task force, and with relatively weak escorts (27 Zeros) runs into heavy CAP (more than 50 planes), which concentrates on the torpedo planes, virtually wiping them out. The escorts also take heavy losses; CAP losses are relatively light. A third of the divebombers are lost to accurate AA fire. About 30 planes survive to attack the carriers, but when the smoke clears, only near misses have been scored. The Japanese, all too aware that their offensive power has been shredded by this unexpectedly effective defense (some excellent dierolling on the part of the gun crews and CAP pilots), can only hope the counterstrike will meet a similar fate.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. With about 100 bombers in all, the US strike suffers notable but not crippling losses from CAP (again mostly among the torpedo bombers) and ignores the AA fire which is virtually ineffective. The dive bombers plant multiple hits on Zuikaku, leaving her in a sinking condition, and severely damage Shokaku. With no operative carrier deck or base in range, the returning strike planes have to ditch, while the US pilots return triumphantly to their carriers. Before they can land, however, disaster strikes the other side. Fletcher's reversal of course has moved his task force squarely across the Japanese submarine barrier, and one of them, managing to get close, fires a torpedo salvo, one of which hits Saratoga, causing heavy damage. By now it is early afternoon. Wasp is racing northwards from Noumea to enter the battle.
15:00: With their carrier forces out of action and the game appearing lost, the Japanese follows their instincts, dispatching Shokaku northwards and sending her escorts (two cruiser, two destroyer squadrons) into pursuit of the American carriers, assuming that the Americans will consider their job finished and retreat southwards, at least for the moment. He has guessed right and the Japanese find the American carriers. Unfortunately, he should have thought further; this is not night, his own battleships are several hundred miles to the west, and the US escorts significantly outnumber his, also they include the battleship South Dakota. The Japanese charge into a hail of fire, with each unit taking a step loss, whereas the Allies take a step loss on a cruiser; there is no chance for the Japanese ships to get a shot at the carriers. The fight seems decided. However, apparently the heat of battle has preoccupied the US escorts too much, and the incredible happens - another submarine gets into a firing position (remember that counters represent multiple submarines present in a hex). A full salvo hits Enterprise before she can evade, and the carrier goes to the bottom within a couple of hours. Shouts of joy on the Japanese ships that are regrouping for the continuation of the fight as they see the smoke cloud on the horizon.
18:00: The last daylight turn, and it's a turn where 1/2 speed ships don't move. The damaged Japanese cruisers cannot gain distance from the US ships (and damaged Saratoga can only crawl away slowly), and the surface battle continues, while aircraft from Wasp make their appearance. With Shokaku out of range, they concentrate on the Japanese surface ships, sinking the Japanese floatplane cruisers Tone and Chikuma (already damaged). On the other hand, Ryujo has finally closed the range (and has been missed by the all furious Allied search activity still going on north of Ndeni) and sends in a small strike (18 bombers, 9 escort fighters) to try and finish off Saratoga. The incredible dierolling (bad on one side, good on the other) continues - US flak shoots Ryujo's torpedo bombers out of the skies, and her dive bombers miss the slow-moving target. With both sides' crews tired and ammunition stores running low, almost no hits are scored in the continuing surface battle, but an US destroyer squadron loses a step (apparently there were some long lances left). What happens though is that the Japanese sub that sank Enterprise (at least I assume it's the same - remember there are six subs in that counter) manages to shift position and put another torpedo into the slowly crawling Saratoga. The big carrier goes down.
21:30: Both sides have broken off the action and retreat into the darkness, the tired US ships, though victorious in the surface battle and more numerous, having no desire to tangle with the retreating Japanese at night. The Japanese transports reach Guadalcanal, too late to gain any victory points.
Final score: 78:77 for the Japanese.
Playing time excluding setup: 2 hours 5 minutes.
Analysis: this was a weird game, but still with lots of tension and exhilaration for both sides. The US planes were as unexpectedly deadly as the Japanese submarines (which I've never seen so effective before). Unfortunately the good positioning and deadly aim of the Japanese submarines only just counteracted the fiasco caused by inferior handling of the carriers; separating Ryujo to protect her simply meant that the large carriers became targets instead and she couldn't contribute anything when it counted, not even serve to save some of the Shokaku/Zuikaku strike planes who had to ditch. In particular, Ryujo carried a strong fighter complement (a quarter of those available to the Japanese) that was completely wasted. Playing the scenario out over three days would still have been interesting; with Wasp present and with a strong air group, the Americans would have driven the Japanese before them, but on the other hand, all US ships were busy fighting the Japanese, and were totally out of position to keep the transports from unloading at Guadalcanal in the morning hours.