Remembering Pearl Harbour: War Plan Pacific

By James Cobb 07 Dec 2016 0

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, one can ask why the Japanese initiated the “Day of Infamy”. Mainstream thought has two opinions. The first is that a devastating attack would bring the US to the peace table quickly. A more reasonable theory is Admiral Yamamoto’s concept of creating a tough defensive arc defending Japan’s conquests in the East. A third theory, compatible with the second, should also be considered.

Most of the Japanese naval high command were “black shoe” battleship men seeking a decisive Tsushima-like surface battle. Aware of the American naval expansion of the late 1930s, knocking out existing units could even the odds when their own new, powerful ships were operational. The decisiveness of carrier operations in 1942 and 1943 did not dissuade them from seeking a grand capital ship clash as witnesses by the twin battles of Surigao Strait and Samar in 1944.

Released in 2009, Shrapnel Game’s strategy wargame, War Plan Pacific, may be a good vehicle to test this theory.

Simple but Deep

War Plan Pacific’s graphics and mechanics are simple. The main map covers the Pacific from America to China. Major islands are clearly marked and labeled. Plane and ship silhouettes mark airfields and fleets while halo-like markings indicate what kind of ships are in port and what activity is aimed at the island. Clicking on a port brings up 2D, top-down icons of the capital ships in port as well as invasion fleets and supply convoys. A column on the right side allows the formation of fleets by dragging the ship icons to that box. Missions include raid, invasion, patrol and supply. Targets are selected by simply clicking on the destination.

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Japanese possessions are shown under the Rising Sun.

After missions are set, the action phase takes the view to the site screens. These screens are divided into three sections; the upper section has the defender’s ships and planes while the lower has the attacker’s. Between them is a horizontal bar representing the distance between the attacker and target, represented in a larger circular reticule. The buttons labeled surface, air and withdraw are beneath the bar. Hitting the air button keeps the attacker’s ships out of gun fire range but keeps it within air strike range. Using the surface button moves the attacker into gun range; withdraw is self-explanatory. After choosing the attack type, the AI takes over, sending fighters to get air superiority and then sending bombers after ships. With the surface choice, capital ships can open fire. The usual colored health bars indicate damage to ships while downed aircraft decreases the number of planes per group. If the defender withdraws, the land base is attacked. When the player is defending, he can order his ships into ranks with vulnerable vessels like carriers behind the heavies. Each attack uses a day of the limited time-frame.

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The Japanese Home Fleet early in the war.

Looking for Mr. Goodbattle

The overall Japanese strategy is to first gain oil supplies while setting up the defensive arc. The Allies must cut the supply lines while capturing bases for the B-29s. Yet, the Japanese can entertain another agenda. Early in the war, the IJN can use base patrols not only to expand bases but to lure the yet under-strength Allied fleets into an overwhelming surface battle. The famous Mobile Strike Force, kido butai, of six fleet carriers will have decimated the initial US battle line, leaving only three US fleet carriers, a British light carrier and several cruisers of different sizes and effectiveness. The IJN can further whittle down the Allies by raiding Australia, Ceylon or the American West coast in order to tie down 25% of their fleet for one to four turns.

Having secured oil supplies and most of the defensive arc by April 1942, the Japanese can start instigating a decisive surface battle. Timing is crucial. The IJN probably has not suffered critical casualties yet but Pearl Harbor is now functional again and the Allies are using the carriers to raid outposts. The Japanese player must get inside the head of the foe. Should the Midway gambit be used again but with more carriers or would seizing Guadalcanal early force the Allies’ hand? Midway is sticking out like a sore thumb but Guadalcanal might serve two purposes: forcing a battle at favorable odds and cutting the US supply line to Australia. Done in the Spring of 1942, both options could be attempted before the overwhelming Allied reinforcements arrive.

This strategy for finding a large Allied fleet was counterproductive. By raiding Port Darwin and Ceylon, the Allies were forced to disperse their surface vessels to various ports and confine their offensive activities to small carrier-based attacks on the Home Islands, attacks that caused them more damage than they gave. Repeated attacks by the kido butai stunted Pearl Harbor’s reconstruction as a base but did not bring about massive battles as no great Allied surface fleet could congregate. By August 1943, the tally sheet was definitely in Japan’s favor. The IJN had lost only two light carriers and six cruisers as opposed to four battleships, seven carriers and a multitude of cruisers lost by the Allies. Adding in the withdrawal of British ships, finding a large Allied fleet of any kind would be difficult.

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The Mobile Strike Force pays another visit to Pearl.

However, that same month has a portent of things to come. The Allies retook Java, one of the bases required for the Japanese oil flow. The Japanese invasion units dried up so neither Java could be retrieved nor Guadalcanal taken. The tide of battle, then, was tipping with the tremendous American build up. In 1943-1944, the defensive arc was cracked with the US taking Kwajalein, Wake, the Marianas and Iwo back. However, riposte raids by the Japanese prevented construction of the B-29 bases and Japan temporarily retook the Marianas and Iwo. Since Japan survived past November 1944, she won the game.

Yet, the Japanese won by skillful use of the kido butai, not by a massive surface action. The bombing of Pearl Harbor could thus be seen not only as a strategic blunder but also as an operational mistake for the “black shoe” admirals. Had the original American battle fleet remained intact and had been activated by a Japanese attack on Luzon or Wake, the battleship fleet would have sortied, allowing for that decisive fleet battle. Alternatively, the primary target of the air strike should have been Pearl’s shore facilities. Counterfactual historical and war-games can proceed many ways but, from where I'm sitting, the Pearl Harbor attack could be considered the most self-defeating act Japan could have done...

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