April 17, 2024

From Pearl Harbor to Midway with Mark Stille from Osprey and Vuca Sims’ Task Force

RockyMountainNavy, 4 December 2023

As a naval wargamer, I am always on the lookout for wargames and books to further my understanding of naval warfare. In 2023 I took in a new book from Osprey Publishing, Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42: The IJN at its zenith, Pearl Harbor to Midway by Mark Stille, and a new wargame, Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific, originally designed by Ginichiro Suzuki and published by VUCA Simulations. Both book and wargame complement each other as each are concise—but not comprehensive—treatments of a common topic that together advance a readers/players understanding of the history of the Japanese Combined Fleet in the early days of World War II in the Pacific.

Combined Fleet

In 2023, Osprey Publishing released the first volume in their new Fleet Series, books designed to be “a spectacularly illustrated, concise and comprehensive account” of their topic. The first book in the series, Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42: The IJN at its zenith, Pearl Harbor to Midway is written by a former colleague of mine, Mark Stille, USN (ret.). Here is the back-of-the-book publisher’s blurb:

“In this book, Mark Stille draws on his decades of IJN research to explain what made the Combined Fleet the fighting force that it was. Packed with superb original artwork, explanatory 3D diagrams and maps, it examines the fleet’s doctrine, innovative tactics and powerful warships. It also details the qualities and importance of IJN leadership, logistics, naval infrastructure, and Japan’s shipbuilding capability, and gives an account and analysis of the IJN’s combat performance during these crucial months – not just in the famous carrier battles, but also exploring lesser-known elements such as IJN amphibious forces and land-based aviation.” (Fleet 1, Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42, Osprey Publishing)

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Fleet Series #1 from Osprey Publishing (photo by RMN)

click images to enlarge

 

As far as history books go, Osprey titles like the Fleet Series tend to be smaller affairs. Coming in at 80-pages with many illustrations, these titles are usually far more “concise” than “comprehensive” regardless of Osprey’s marketing claims. That is not a negative; Osprey titles tend to be good, broad overviews of a topic and Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42 is no exception. Recognizing that this title is a “wave-top” view is useful; many times have I read an Osprey title, seen an item of interest, and dug deeper with further reading. Other times I have played a wargame to help broaden my understanding.

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Osprey is known for their beautiful art (horrible photo by RMN)

 

Fight the war with the Navy you have

In March 2023 I reviewed a new-to-me wargame, Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific, for the Armchair Dragoons website. I described the game as, “a highly thematic fighting competition game that is well positioned to be the modern successor to that grognard-legend Ameritrash title, Flat Top (Battleline, 1976).” (Ameritrash Expressions with Task Force: Carrier Battles in the Pacific (Vuca Simulations, 2023), Armchair Dragoons 14 Mar 2023).
In another post on my own blog I wrote: “Task Force is a generally simple, somewhat abstracted war game of carrier combat in the early years of World War II in the Pacific. The abstractions, while maybe not totally “true to history,” don’t get in the way of a playable game that still delivers a rich flavor of the combat covered.”

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Flat Top look-alike (photo by RMN)

 

In many ways I see the design of Task Force as similar to the book Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42; both are concise by design rather than attempting to be comprehensive treatments of their subject.

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Task Force from VUCA Simulations (photo by RMN)

 

Time for war

Both the book Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42 and the wargame Task Force cover similar time periods though admittedly they are not identical. Stille’s book includes some pre-war history of the Imperial Japanese Navy before focusing on the time between December 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbor) and June 1942 at the Battle of Midway. In Task Force the scenarios start with the Attack on Pearl Harbor (Sc. 1) and progress through the Battle of Midway (Sc. 6) but unlike the book keep going into late 1942 with the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (Sc. 7) through Santa Cruz and Second Guadalcanal (Sc. 10).

In the chapter “Fleet Fighting Power – The Ships ” Mark provides an overview of the various ships in service with the Imperial Japanese Navy between December 1941 and May 1942. A study of the ships histories, combined with the tables from Scenario 12 of Task Force (“Creating Your Own Scenarios”) helps readers/players better understand the differences in the various factors of a ship counters in Task Force.

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Fleet numbers by Stille( photo by RMN)

 

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Fleets Tasks Force-style (photo by RMN)

 

In some cases, however, the book Combined Japanese Fleet 1941-42 provides more detail than the wargame Task Force delivers. For example, the text box on page 33 titled “Carrier-Based Aircraft Attack Tactics” provides detail of how the IJN practiced air attacks against enemy aircraft carriers. This level of detail is abstracted in Task Force and represented by several die rolls vice maneuvering of aircraft counters.

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Single die roll to determine damage (photo by RMN)

 

At other times the text of Combined Japanese Fleet 1941-42 provides the context for a rule in Task Force that may not seem obvious. Take for example reconnaissance. In Task Force, each Allied aircraft carrier can scout two hexes whereas an IJN carrier can only scout one hex. Why? Stille provides a likely explanation:

“Because of their greater range, carrier aircraft were favored for reconnaissance missions. However, by doctrine, the Japanese did not favor the use of carrier attack aircraft for reconnaissance since this diminished the striking power of the air group. Therefore, the primary responsibility for reconnaissance fell on the floatplanes of the battleships and heavy cruisers of the task force. This reluctance to use strike aircraft for search missions caused problems in the early-war period.” (Stille, 35)

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Task Force search map (photo by RMN)

 

Combat and Analysis

The book Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42 provides a great deal of context for the wargame Task Force. The area of most direct overlap between book and wargame is the later part of the book in the section titled “Combat and Analysis.” Specifically, Mark’s book provides deeper context and background for the scenarios in Task Force. When it comes to Stille’s analysis of the Imperial Japanese Navy, however, the wargame shows it limitations.

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Stille’s thoughts (photo by RMN)

 

By design, Task Force is a wargame that focuses on carrier battles with a few surface actions thrown in. Through playing Task Force, players can gain some insight into Stille’s conclusions that, “Operationally, the IJN did not perform flawlessly” or that, “Tactically, the IJN performed better than the Allies, but there were still causes for concern” (Stille, 75). A reasonably competent Japanese player in Task Force will likely discover that, as Stille points out, “The Kido Butai had better aircraft, better torpedoes, and displayed better deck-handling abilities than the USN’s carrier force” (Stille, 75).

The battle-level focus of Task Force also means it misses exploring the larger conclusion of Stille in Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42:

“In the final analysis, despite its success against weak opponents, the IJN was not ready for modern war in December 1941. While it possessed excellent ships and weapons, and well-trained crews capable of employing excellent tactics, it ignored other aspects of war. These included intelligence, logistics, and the application of strategy. All these weaknesses were already apparent in the first six months of the war.” (Stille, 78)

While Mark points out “All these weaknesses were apparent in the first six months of the war” in his book the wargame Task Force does not. That is exactly why these two different media complement each other. After reading the book Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42 by Mark Stille I don’t see a reason to change my mind about the reasonable abstractions made in the wargame Task Force from VUCA Simulations; if anything, the book helps me to see the abstractions more clearly.

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Swarming Task Force Z (photo by RMN)

 

The book Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42 and the wargame Task Force are highly complementary of each other. Both book and wargame are concise but neither is a comprehensive treatment of naval warfare at the start of the Pacific War. Taken together, however, readers and players will undoubtable discover more about the early days of carrier battles in the Pacific in both an easy to read and fun to play manner.

 


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