Golden Journal No. 28:
I enjoyed designing Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet’s Second Edition, which ended up as a new game rather than the slight revisions I’d initially envisioned. That project provided a fine excuse to catch up on some of the scholarship published over the years since the first edition’s release just after the turn of the century.
It would be way easier to play a few video games, read a Wikipedia page or two (or worse, Daily Content) and declare myself “deeply read,” but I’ll leave that to the prestigious wargame designers. I just like to read stuff, and one of the works on my list was Angus Britt’s Neglected Skies, a slim volume from Naval Institute Press that covers the British commitment of air power (both land- and carrier-based) to the Far East.
Britt has some seemingly solid interpretations and bases them on deep research (actually deep, not wargame-designer deep), and I found the book useful. But he also poses some counterfactuals that caught my eye. Some of them have flimsy reasoning behind them: the Japanese were not likely to dominate the Middle East and disrupt the flow of oil to the British war machine had they captured Ceylon, as they lacked the ships and planes and most of all the strategic need. Some fall apart on technical grounds: the Fleet Air Arm retired the Blackburn Skua because it was a failed attempt at a multi-role aircraft (like most such attempts), not because their leadership failed to appreciate dive-bombing tactics. And some overly rely on hindsight: Britt scolds the Admiralty for failing to divert ships and planes to the tense but peaceful Far East before December 1941, sending them instead to places like the Middle East and Mediterranean where actual fighting was taking place.
But his underlying question – under what circumstances could the British Eastern Fleet have stood up to the Japanese First Air Fleet on a roughly equal footing – stuck with me, and I began to ponder it myself. The easy answer is that there were none. The Royal Navy of late 1941 simply lacked the ships and planes to meet its obligations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and also establish a major presence in the Indian Ocean. Even an infusion of American aid in the Atlantic could not change this calculus.
Yet the idea stuck with me: what would it take to let the British fight the Japanese with a carrier fleet of their own? That had an obvious answer: more carriers, including some that never existed since the ones that really existed wouldn’t have been enough.
The centerpiece is the battle cruiser Hood converted to an aircraft carrier, which would have provided a far more capable ship than any of the actual Royal Navy carriers. Hood represented an enormous investment in cash, prestige and political capital, making it impossible to raze the world’s most powerful warship to the main deck and rebuild her to carry airplanes. In practical terms the carrier would have been enormously more useful than the battle cruiser.
Joining her are two more converted battle cruisers, Repulse and Renown. They’re not as big as Hood (during the inter-war years, no warship could make that claim), but they still carry bigger air groups than the purpose-built carriers of the actual Eastern Fleet and give the British three capable ships to stand up to the five fleet carriers of the Japanese.
That didn’t seem to be enough, so I decided they needed some small, weak carriers as well. Britt makes a strong point that Australian military spending remained well below British levels through the 1930’s, and that the shortfall represented enough cash to cover substantial naval construction. Several nations studied converting their oldest Treaty cruisers to light aircraft carriers, given their weak armament and utter lack of protection. The British ultimately did not do so with their County class, as the Royal Navy felt itself desperately short of cruisers. But in this case, the Royal Australian Navy fields carrier versions of Australia and Canberra, and the Brits get one as well.
And just because I felt like it (which pretty much sums up the entire run of the Golden Journal), there’s also the battleship-carrier Tasmania, a re-built version of the dreadnought Agincourt in Australian colors. We used her in one of the old-model Golden Journals, and I had a request from an actual Tasmanian to find a way to include her again, on a die-cut playing piece. As a child I watched documentaries about the Tasmanian Devil, and dared not awaken such fury. So Tasmania sails again.
A more reasonable historical counterfactual is an upgraded version of the British light carrier Hermes. In the mid-1930’s the Stanley Baldwin government had ordered an overhaul of all useful warships as war appeared likely in the next few years; that led to large-scale reconstruction of older battleships and battle cruisers. For the most part, the older aircraft carriers did not receive that treatment: Courageous, Glorious and Furious would have needed complete reconstruction of their bows in order to support a full-length flight deck (we gave that to Courageous and Glorious in Plan Z). Hermes never received that treatment, and by 1942 she could no longer easily operate aircraft as her speed had dropped precipitously and she had no catapult. Only in a very stiff wind could her planes achieve enough relative air speed to launch.
So we have her upgraded, now able to operate aircraft (with a catapult and new engines for better speed) and new, more useful armament (less surface firepower, better anti-aircraft capability). She’s still not a very effective ship, but at least she’s better than the floating bullseye she represents in Eastern Fleet. And she has a new, sharper drawing.
Those flight decks need some extra planes, so we have some of those, Blackburn Skua dive bombers and Roc escort fighters. You’ll find that the Fleet Air Arm bureaucrats who retired them got this decision right.
There are also a few upgraded pieces. You get the Kongo-class battle cruisers with their correct gunnery ratings (there’s a whole story involving Swollen Ego behind that); these are properly rated in other series games (like Midway Deluxe and South Pacific) but I decided some folks would want to include the correct ones in the Eastern Fleet box. A couple of corrected Brits are in there, and a new piece for the Greek cruiser Averoff, bringing her back in line with her crapulent fighting power.
Beyond the toys, we have the usual good stuff: background articles about all of those pieces, and scenarios so you can use them in Eastern Fleet.
I really like the new-model Journal: I get to publish weird things, without having to face financial disaster. They make a very handsome little package, with their “real” die-cut and silky-smooth playing pieces and full-color cover and all the trappings of a real magazine, without the traps of a real magazine.
The Golden Journal is only available to the Gold Club (that’s why we call it the Golden Journal). It’s free when we first offer it; afterwards it costs $9.99 because we want to encourage everyone to order right away but we still want to be able to keep them in stock for late arrivals. Numbers 25 through 27 have already had price tags stuck on them, but Number 28 is still free to Gold Club members (as of February 2019, anyway).
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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.