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Strategy in 'U.S. Navy Plan Gold'
Scenario #1 — French Invasion: Day 1
By Doug McNair
October 2006

The Great War at Sea system goes yet again where no one has gone before with U.S. Navy Plan Gold, our game of potential conflict between the U.S. and France in the 1920s.

In the early part of the 20th century, the U.S. Department of the Navy prepared war plans to take on just about every potential opponent. While Japan, Britain and Imperial Germany rated the most comprehensive war plans, America’s traditional ally France still merited consideration. Her powerful navy could have posed a significant threat to U.S. commercial interests in the Caribbean should Franco-American relations turn sour. Of particular concern were France’s two naval bases at Port Louis and Fort de France in the eastern Caribbean, which put her in a unique position to threaten America’s vital strategic asset in the region: the Panama Canal.

French military moves toward the canal would be sure to provoke a powerful response from the U.S. Navy. And while the firepower of France’s battlefleet easily matched that of America’s, French ships were at a significant disadvantage in the area of fuel capacity. This, combined with the long distances between France’s naval bases and the canal, made for significant logistical issues when planning an invasion of the isthmus.


Artist’s view of the Lexington-class battlecruiser.

But a well-played ruse de guerre can more than make up for technical deficiencies, and the French could have easily used the Americans’ canal obsession against them. Sending forces against more than one U.S. target simultaneously would have kept the U.S. Navy off-balance, and possibly kept America in the dark about the real target of French expansionism until it was too late.

French Invasion

Operational Scenario #1, "French Invasion," lets players explore these possibilities to the full. The French player has five objectives to choose from, and achieving any three of them gives him a victory:

  1. Capture Colon (aka the Panama Canal — counts as two objectives).
  2. Score more victory points than the American player.
  3. Score at least 20 victory points on the Merchant Location Table (each ship sunk = 1 VP).
  4. Capture Ponce or St. Thomas (capturing both does not count as two objectives).
  5. Bombard at least four Florida and/or Florida Keys coastal zones with at least three battleships or battle cruisers.

Each side must deal with these main strategic issues when playing "French Invasion":

Fuel

The French ships are quite limited in fuel capacity relative to their American opponents. This is particularly true of French destroyers, which have only four fuel boxes each! These pitifully small fuel tanks will effectively strip most French fleets of their destroyer escorts unless they plan to hug the South American coast (where neutral ports offer the possibility of refueling), or unless they take the time to rendezvous with the few French colliers on the board.

But the French need to launch their canal invasion quickly to beat the bulk of the U.S. battlefleet to the target, so they’ll have to let some or all of their destroyers peel off for the Venezuelan ports to refuel. This will give American submarines a huge opportunity to shoot up French transports with little fear of retaliation, and if the Americans can send blockaders down to the Venezuelan refueling ports, the DDs may have a hard time getting back to their charges.

Even more importantly, the American Wickes- and Clemson-class destroyers carry four deck-mounted torpedoes each. So if an American fleet with lots of DDs encounters a French invasion fleet with no destroyer screen of its own, the French transports may find themselves at the bottom very fast.

Air Power

The American ports of Ponce and St. Thomas are secondary invasion objectives for the French. And while the bulk of the U.S. battlefleet starts too far away to keep an invasion there from starting, Ponce sports several squadrons of torpedo bombers.


Multiple-ship counter: A division of Wickes-class destroyers transits the Panama Canal, 1919.

But the French land-based fighter wing is even larger, with GL-22 aircraft whose range lets them just barely escort French fleets all the way from Port Louis to St. Thomas. This ready air cover should be able to shepherd a French invasion of St. Thomas to a successful conclusion if the French player commits enough transports to compensate for losses due to air attack. The Americans will be able to launch at least a few air attacks since their PW-5 fighters out of Ponce will keep some of the French fighters busy. But if the American fighter pilots give a particularly good account of themselves, then even an overwhelming number of French transports may not survive an American combined sea-and-air assault (not to mention the efforts of any stray submarines).

Raiders

The French player can give raid missions to one or two fleets. Those fleets can disappear from the board and move secretly, reappearing to search for American merchant ships. The more ships the Americans must commit to searching for raiders, the less opposition French invasion fleets will encounter.

The French should commit all three of their long-range light cruisers out of Port Louis to raid missions. If they can perform successful hit-and-run raids in the rich merchant lanes near Colon, Florida and/or the straits between Cuba and Haiti, they should be able to rack up the 20 points needed to achieve a French objective with no trouble.

The one fly in the ointment for them is American submarines, which are also deployed off-board and can wait until a raider starts sinking ships nearby. They can then reveal themselves and try to contact the raider. If successful, they can attack with no fear of anti-submarine defenses due to the severely restricted range of the French destroyers (all of which run on oil, meaning the French colliers do them no good).

Game Summary

With that, here begins a turn-by-turn replay of "French Invasion".

French Setup

The bulk of the French forces start at the major port of Fort de France. The French fast and slow transports go into two separate fleets. Five French battleships will escort the fast transports to Colon — three in an Escort fleet and another two in a bombardment fleet that must hit the Colon coast prior to any French transports unloading.

The remaining four French battleships will escort the slow transports to St. Thomas — two in an escort fleet and another two in a bombardment fleet. Each escort fleet gets a few light ships as well, but the majority of the French destroyers go into a separate fleet that will accompany the Colon invasion force as far as Willemstand and then peel off to refuel. They’ve got a two-thirds chance of gaining entry at each neutral port, so if Willemstad doesn’t let them in they can still try Maracaibo and Cartagena on the way to Colon.

The French minesweepers accompany the Colon invasion, and the long-range light cruisers out of Port Louis form a raid fleet. Finally, the French give their four colliers supply missions and deploy them offboard near the richest American merchant shipping lanes, so that raiders can travel there at maximum speed and then refuel before going a-raiding.

American Setup

American rules of engagement forbid them from attacking the French until the French attack an American warship, sink an American merchant ship on the Merchant Location Table, or bombard an invasion target in preparation for landing troops. That plus the fact that there are so many ports and shipping lanes to protect requires the Americans to spread their forces thinly so they can react to any French move quickly.

The Key West forces split into three fleets:

1. Four battleships plus destroyers that will make their slow way south to Colon.

2. A patrol squadron of battlecruisers, scout cruisers and destroyers which will seek to intercept French invasion fleets before they reach their targets.

3. Scout cruiser Shreveport and three Clemson-class DDs which will guard the shipping lanes around Florida against raiders.

The Guantanamo Bay forces divide up as follows:

4. Two battlecruisers, two light cruisers and destroyers which will make best speed for Puerto Rico to guard against French invasion.

5. Two scout cruisers and three destroyers which will guard the rich shipping lanes between Cuba and Haiti.

And the Colon forces divide up like so:

6. Battleships and armored cruisers which will lie in wait for invaders.

7. Four scout cruisers which will patrol the area north of the canal looking for raiders.

8. The minelayer Tahoe which will mine the approaches to Colon.

And the game begins with . . .

Day 1

The French fighters transfer north from Fort de France to Port Louis as the French fleets move out. The French raiders head northeast to stay outside American air reconnaissance range from Ponce, and the airship Dixmude heads southwest in hopes of doing the same.

For their part, the American air squadrons at Ponce transfer north to San Juan, thinking it a safer base than the closer invasion targets of Ponce and St. Thomas. The American planes at Key West transfer northeast to the more forward base at Miami, and all American fleets make best speed for their patrol zones.

On Turn 2, a lone French sub stationed off Colon spots U.S. Fleet #7 (the one with four scout cruisers and three DDs). It goes in for the attack. The destroyers fail to hit it, and the sub successfully torpedoes the scout cruiser Erie. It rolls a 2, scoring Critical Damage, but luckily for Erie the roll on the Critical Damage Table yields a result of only 2 Hull. Erie steams on with her cohorts and gets outside the range of the French sub, which decides to move to a different zone now that the Americans know to avoid AK16 (it can take up station in a new zone on Turn 44).

But the French submariners aren’t done yet. Also on Turn 2, the two French subs stationed in zone Q27 in the strait between Cuba and Haiti contact the fast-moving U.S. Fleet #4 out of Guantanamo, just as it is steaming out of their range. They attack, but this time things don’t go quite so well. The Clemson-class DDs spot both subs and attack them, sending one to the bottom before it can attack. The other gets off its torpedo before joining its companion at the bottom, but it misses the light cruiser Pensacola, and the Americans depart having swept the straits of all enemy subs.


No easy target. Cruiser Pensacola at sea.

Battle has been joined and the gloves are off, but the American bombers in San Juan can’t attack because they transferred there on the first turn rather than taking a strike mission. In any event, they probably wouldn’t want to attack until tomorrow since the French fleets are outside the range of the American fighter escort.

So both sides’ fleets continue toward their targets, with the French raiders disappearing from the board as they head north and well away from the American air units at San Juan. USS Tahoe lays a minefield on the Colon zone’s northeastern boundary (it can lay six more before returning to port), and by the end of Turn 6 the St. Thomas invasion fleet is just six zones southeast of its target, while the American Guantanamo battlecruiser squadron is only five zones northwest of Puerto Rico.

The St. Thomas invasion fleet clears for action as dawn approaches. It is in range of both sides’ aircraft, and the sky around it should be very lively very soon.

Will the fighters out of Port Louis splash the American torpedo planes? Will the Guantanamo battlecruisers guess right and get to St. Thomas before the French do? And if they do, can American speed and long-range gunnery sink the transports before the French battleship escort sends the battlecruisers scurrying back home (or worse)? Will Laura wake from her coma? Tune in next time and find out!

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