Eastern Fleet:
Designer Preview, Part One

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2018

When we decided to re-issue Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet, I intended to update its scenarios to bring them in line with the second edition series rules. I recalled that I’d never been satisfied with the game, and figured that it probably needed a few additional scenarios to meet our current standards.

To meet those standards, Eastern Fleet turned out to need far greater revisions than I had imagined. The result, Eastern Fleet Second Edition, is a completely new game: all of the scenarios are new, the map has been revised, the play aids have been replaced with full-color versions, and it has additional playing pieces (thirty “long” ship pieces and forty standard sized ones, making for a set of 280 pieces total).

Over the eighteen years since I designed the original Eastern Fleet, I assembled far better, and more detailed, sources than what I used the first time around – at least one of those old sources appears to be thoroughly riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Eastern Fleet now reflects the history of the campaign very well, and I’m very pleased with it as a historical simulation. It now has 30 scenarios, giving much more play value.

The first edition had eleven scenarios: three battle scenarios and eight operational scenarios. Of the battle scenarios, one was based on inaccurate information (a convoy that didn’t actually go where the game says it did), so I threw that one out. The other two just existed to get the ships on the Tactical Map (one for cruisers, one for battleships). So I threw those out, too.

Of the eight operational scenarios, two were hypotheticals involving pieces from the long out-of-print SOPAC, added by the developer who believed (probably rightly) that the game needed more than nine scenarios. I threw those out. Of the remaining six, one covered a 1943 convoy operation that the Japanese had no intention of intercepting, with an order of battle filled with ship substitutions (and still not accurate). So I threw that one out, too.

That left five, all of them based on operations that actually happened. I just wasn’t pleased with how they re-created them – they didn’t properly reflect how they happened with key errors in the orders of battle and orders of appearance. Four of them I re-wrote, altering the orders of battle and starting locations, and by necessity the victory conditions and special rules as well (since everything else had changed, these no longer applied). Those covered the initial Japanese foray into the Indian Ocean, the Japanese invasion of the Andaman Islands, the proposed Japanese invasion of Ceylon, and the Allied feint operation against the Andaman Islands to provide a distraction during the American landings on Guadalcanal.

The fifth concerned the main event, the Japanese carrier raid into the Indian Ocean in early April 1942. While it had a better order of battle than the others (this being the best-known operation in the theater), it still had room for a great deal of improvement. Even then, I was not satisfied.

Sir James Somerville’s attempt to engage the five Japanese fleet carriers with his two smaller ones was, both in hindsight and in the view of most of his staff at the time, utterly insane. The Japanese flight decks bore the world’s best carrier planes and best carrier aviators; the British carriers had biplane torpedo bombers and ungainly two-seat fighters, all with a range a fraction of that of the Japanese aircraft. Their only advantage was their night-attack training, which Somerville incorrectly believed that the Japanese lacked.

With that slender chance, Somerville took his fleet to sea in search of the Japanese. Fortunately the Japanese search planes missed his main body; they found a task force of two cruisers and later one with the ancient carrier Hermes, efficiently dispatching all of them to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. They likely would have done the same to the Eastern Fleet.

Somerville was trying to re-create the victories over the Germans in the chase of the Bismarck or the Italians at Cape Matapan, where British torpedo planes scored decisive hits that slowed enemy ships and allowed the slower British battleships to lumber into position and pound them into scrap metal. That wasn’t going to happen against an enemy with aircraft carriers of any sort, much less an elite force like Japan’s First Air Fleet.

And yet it almost did: Somerville got his fleet into position for a strike against the enemy’s projected track, but following Royal Navy doctrine (the same as everyone else’s) sought final confirmation of the enemy fleet’s position before launch. And that confirmation never came, which may have been fortunate for Somerville – his small strike force would not have put all five enemy flattops out of action, and the counter-strike would have been devastating.

In the first edition, we had a scenario in which the Japanese entered the south edge of the map and the British started at sea as well (this is not accurate; at the time the Eastern Fleet was scattered between three bases and only reached those positions later).

I replaced that with three scenarios, each picking up the action at a different point. One starts when Somerville first received word of the Japanese incursion (with his ships still in port), one with the Eastern Fleet at sea and nearing the Japanese, and one with the two fleets within striking distance of one another. The orders of battle and appearance are far more accurate now, and the players are faced with some tense choices.

Separate from those is a scenario creating the battle Somerville thought he was fighting, against two Japanese carriers. These British are still pretty heavily outnumbered in the air (24 Japanese carrier air steps against 15 for the British), and the Japanese planes are still much better. In this context, Somerville’s decision to seek battle makes somewhat more sense: a lucky strike turns those odds to 15:12 in his favor, and at least on paper he holds a significant edge in heavy guns (50 primary gunnery factors on his five battleships against 32 on the four Japanese battleships). You can try it out yourself, a case of showing instead of just telling.

The Japanese Operation C (the attack on Ceylon) had two distinct elements, with the second often overlooked in accounts of the campaign (though to be fair, there aren’t a whole lot of accounts of the campaign). While First Air Fleet attacked Ceylon, Southern Expeditionary Fleet attacked shipping in the Bay of Bengal with a single light carrier and five heavy cruisers. We test out one writer’s proposition that Eastern Fleet would have been suited to repelling this raid had it taken place on its own. The Japanese would have been unlikely to undertake the operation on its own, but you can fight this out all the same as it does make for a good cat-and-cat situation.

After completing Operation C, the Japanese withdrew their carrier forces (both of them) to prepare for what became the Midway operation while the Eastern Fleet pulled back to the coast of East Africa. Into that vacuum the Japanese sent their largest convoy of the war, which safely landed in Rangoon. The convoy was fantastically vulnerable with a very weak escort, but the British had left very little behind that could have intercepted it. We let you play it out.

The British get to run their own convoy, a troop transport effort bringing two Australian brigades home from Ceylon. The Japanese have returned two heavy cruisers and some destroyers to the theater, which did not attempt an interception. You can try it and see if they made the right call.

And we wrap up with an operation that did not take place, but the British considered likely: a single fast battleship running amok in the Indian Ocean, shooting up merchant shipping. In hindsight it’s clear that the British naval staffers had in mind a Far Eastern version of the hunt for the Bismarck. It’s also clear that the Germans sent Bismarck into the North Atlantic without carrier air cover because they had no aircraft carriers; why the Japanese would do so when they did have carriers is less clear. But you can play this one out, too.

Next time, we’ll look at the 18 battle scenarios in the package, all of them new to the second edition.

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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.