Rising Sun 1940:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I just wanted to play with the biplanes.
Second World War at Sea: Bismarck includes
an earlier generation of American carrier aircraft than those seen in games like Coral Sea and Midway: Deluxe Edition. They don’t get a
whole lot of action, as Bismarck is a battleship-centered game, not one with a whole lot of carrier action (the Germans have no carriers in the historical scenarios). The Americans were
officially at peace, so they only get to use their aircraft carriers in the alternative scenarios, too. And not very often at that.
That’s the premise of Midway: Rising Sun 1940, a Second World War at Sea Campaign Study
that uses pieces from Bismarck and pieces and the map from Midway Deluxe Edition (and that lovely Pearl Harbor Display, too). The campaign here is premised on a Japanese attack soon after the move of the American Battle Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in May 1940, with a dozen scenarios including, of course, a very different sort of attack on Pearl Harbor.
Our Campaign Studies are small books, with a set of scenarios drawing from two or three games to present the battles and campaigns that one game alone can’t provide. The first of them, Coral Sea: Defending Australia, looked at the (unfulfilled) British commitment to defend Australia with the Eastern Fleet. So you get to fight for the Coral Sea, except with Brits instead of Americans, and with Port Moresby already in Japanese hands (giving them a very useful airbase right on top of the action).
Rising Sun 1940 takes a similar approach, drawing on Midway Deluxe and Bismarck to look at the 1940 situation in the Central Pacific. There are no new pieces with this little book; instead, it draws what it needs from Bismarck. The American carrier air groups of Bismarck include F3F biplane fighters, BT-1 dive bombers (monoplanes, but not very good ones) and the TBD torpedo bombers still in service during the Battle of Midway. While working on Midway Deluxe Edition, I kept thinking about the biplanes. The timing matched up pretty well: the United States Pacific Fleet moved from San Diego to Hawaii in the summer of 1940. At that point, the carriers still operated the older aircraft; the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter and SBD Dauntless dive-bomber would not join the fleet until late 1941.
That’s not balanced on the Japanese side, though someday I’d like to venture back to 1939 or so and send up biplanes on both sides. The Japanese were already flying the A6M2 Zero fighter, D3A1 dive bomber and B5N2 torpedo plane in the summer of 1940, the same planes that would devastate Pearl Harbor a year later and fight in all the early carrier battles (and pretty much all of the later ones, too, as the Japanese aircraft industry proved unable to bring their very fine next generation of aircraft into mass production).
Pearl Harbor’s air defenses – weak as they proved in December 1941 – are weaker still in the summer of 1940. There are far fewer anti-aircraft guns, there’s no air-defense radar to ignore, and the front-line fighter is the Curtiss P36 Hawk.
While America’s supposed unpreparedness in December 1941 has been a political talking point ever since (usually invoked to justify the latest shiny new toy in a defense spending bill), taking the Pearl Harbor campaign back in time by 18 months shows very clearly just how much the Roosevelt administration and the War Department achieved in preparing the United States for a world war.
It’s not completely out of hand for the American side. The Japanese have not yet commissioned their two most capable heavy carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, which joined the fleet in August and September 1941, respectively. The carriers had not yet been formed into the First Air Fleet, which was not formed until April 1941.
That reduces the ability of the Japanese to form up massive air strikes and send waves of planes at a single target all at once. The four heavy carriers instead operate in divisions of two carriers, and they can combine their flights within the division (something the Americans can’t yet do, so they’re still limited to only flying planes from the same carrier together). On the positive side for the Imperial Navy, Chuichi Nagumo is still commanding a cruiser division, but they still have weak defensive doctrine that pretty much leaves the carriers on their own if American planes attack – the escorts are there to fight off surface attacks, not air strikes.
The Americans, for their part, have all three of their Pacific Fleet carriers – Lexington, Saratoga and Enterprise. At this point Yorktown was still with the Atlantic Fleet (as she was at the time of Pearl Harbor) and Hornet not yet complete. The Battle Force is about the same as on 7 December 1941, built around older battleships with none of the new fast battleships yet commissioned. The Pacific Fleet of 1940 is little different from the Pacific Fleet of 1941, except for the airplanes.
In our story, the Japanese also attack the fleet based at Pearl Harbor, following the pattern laid down by Saratoga during Fleet Problem XIX, an exercise held in March 1938. They don’t have as many planes, but the Americans are, somehow, even more vulnerable. And then the Japanese try to invade Hawaii, which may not be the best plan. Oahu has a strong garrison even in 1940, though they lack the extensive fortifications added during 1941.
The battleship-centered Pacific Fleet – in its last exercises, the battleships operated directly alongside the aircraft carriers – will of course strike back, and we’re going to have more battleship-on-battleship action. The relatively weak air component of the American carriers will make the American admirals’ reliance on the battleship far more understandable than hindsight views of the Pearl Harbor attack usually take into account. Until shortly before the actual outbreak of war, carrier air power really was limited in its effectiveness, at least the sort that flew from American decks.
I like the small-book format; it focuses concentration on just one topic, and I find this a fascinating little topic. When you do it right, wargame design can shed a little light on history. A game is in no way a replacement for actual scholarship. But here we get a look at why the U.S. Navy might have taken a while to view the aircraft carrier as a decisive weapons system.
You can order Midway: Rising Sun 1940 right here.
You can order the Rising Sun Package (Midway Deluxe, Bismarck, Rising Sun 1940) here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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