By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
For the second Second World War at Sea series game we published, we went with a lesser-known topic because it would be a smaller game, and I felt it important to have a lower-cost entry point to the series. Eastern Fleet covers the 1942 Japanese carrier raids into the Indian Ocean in March and April 1942, and the British response to them. The Japanese are at the peak of their efficiency, with the carriers and air groups that devastated Pearl Harbor and would in turn be devastated at Midway a couple of months later. The British are badly outnumbered but have a few surprises in store for the Japanese.
The Japanese raid on Ceylon is the core of the Eastern Fleet game. The Japanese have five fleet carriers, each with a powerful air group, and one light carrier, plus a quartet of supporting fast battleships with escorting cruisers and destroyers. The British counter with two fleet carriers of their own – each sporting an air group less than half that of the big Japanese carriers – one capable battleship, four floating coffins classified as battleships, and some cruisers and destroyers.
Eastern Fleet came out in 2001, and holds up reasonably well 13 years later at this writing. As the oldest Second World War at Sea game in print, it shows a few signs of its age (aircraft are allotted by playing piece rather than step as in all the later games, for example). It pre-dates our former marketing manager’s rule that boxed games not call for pieces or maps taken from other games, so it has a couple of scenarios drawing on the long out-of-print SOPAC for ships (you can find the needed pieces in Midway instead). It doesn’t have as many scenarios as I’d like, though the 11 included do make for a very fine game. And finally, the playing pieces, while very nice on the front, carry the idiotic “alternate view” reverse sides with a silhouette of the ship and full game information instead of the generic blue silhouette we adopted afterwards (making for much better game play).
Despite its age, it’s a nice-looking game, starting with the striking new cover of a Grumman Martlet on the deck of HMS Formidable during her 1942 Indian Ocean operations. Inside the box are 210 playing pieces: 70 “long” ship pieces and 140 square ones for airplanes and markers. These are the older-style die-cut pieces and came out very well; I seriously doubt any American die-cutter could match that accuracy today. The pieces have been in sealed containers since their manufacture and look as bright and shiny as the day they first arrived.
Eastern Fleet’s map covers the Bay of Bengal and points south, including the entire island of Ceylon, the southern tip of India and some of the island chains to the south of those. For its age it still holds up fairly well, but no one will mistake it for Guy Riessen’s recent work on games like Horn of Africa.
There are three battle scenarios and eight operational scenarios. The battle scenarios are all hypothetical, though the first very nearly happened (raiding Japanese just missed a British convoy evacuating troops from Java) and the third was part of British Admiral Somerville’s battle plan (engage the Japanese at close range at night with his ancient battleships).
Of the operational scenarios, the main event is the Japanese raid on Ceylon. The Japanese are out to cause damage through air raids, but the operation is actually a diversion to allow the safe movement of a large troop convoy from Singapore to Rangoon. The British are badly outnumbered but the troop transports are fantastically vulnerable if the Brits can somehow slip past the huge carrier fleet, and the Royal Navy is richly rewarded for inflicting damage on the transports or Japanese warships.
Other scenarios cover the initial Japanese moves into the Indian Ocean, with invasions of Burma and the Andaman Islands. The initial scenario, “Come in Rangoon,” bears the finest title in the entire series and is Kristin Ann High’s favorite. It’s just a small action but a very tense one, with the British and Japanese both needing to run troops convoys to Burma and needing to balance their efforts to protect their own soldiers and threaten those of the enemy. The Andaman Invasion scenario is also a small one, with the Japanese trying to take the island chain in the middle of the Bay of Bengal in the face of a superior British force.
Probably the best of the scenarios, though, is Operation Number Eleven, the Japanese invasion of Ceylon. Forces are roughly balanced: in this post-Midway time frame, the Japanese have only two fleet carriers available while the British have picked up a third carrier. The Japanese goal is pretty simple, to land troops on Ceylon, as is the British objective, to stop them.
Operation Stab allows the British to go on the offensive, with an invasion of the Andaman Islands. The Japanese are outnumbered in the air and in surface warships, but can devastate the troop convoys and their small escorts if they can evade the escort force - and the disparity of forces is not so great that they necessarily have to avoid the Brits. If they can force a night action, four Japanese heavy cruisers and their Long Lance torpedoes have a good chance against a single British battleship. Operation Pamphlet is an Allied convoy operation, taking an Australian troop convoy across the breadth of the Eastern Fleet map with the Japanese looking to intercept them with a pair of battle cruisers.
The final two scenarios are hypotheticals drawing on SOPAC for additional ships and planes added during development. I wasn’t wild about them then nor am I now. However: the game needed more scenarios than I provided, and if I didn’t like those, I should have provided better ones myself.
This many years later, I have no idea why we never tried to market Eastern Fleet as the introductory game for Second World War at Sea. It has the right mix of forces and scenarios and is just the right size to get into the series, and has some nicely-balanced and challenging scenarios.
Click here to order Eastern Fleet right now. Yes, click it now.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.