Coral Sea to Wing Leader: Wargaming Lessons Learned

Once history hits the tabletop, how well does it match, and what can we learn?

Rocky Mountain Navy, 23 May 2020

I’m the type of wargamer that likes to explore different possibilities. When I play a wargame (er, ‘historical conflict simulation’), not only do I want to explore what happened, I often like to see what could have happened. With the release of the latest Wing Leader series module (Wing Leader: Origins) imminent, I put Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 Second Edition (GMT Games, 2019) on the gaming table.

As I perused the Scenario Book, I came across several Battle of Coral Sea scenarios. This got me looking at my bookshelf for a little reading before play. In his seminal work on US Naval Aviators in the Pacific at the beginning of World War II, John Lundstrom writes in The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Naval Institute Press, 1984, 1990) great detail about the pilots and missions flown. Buried within the book are several pages dedicated to the lessons learned from the Battle of Coral Sea. After reading those pages I got to thinking about how they could translate in Wing Leader.

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Before I start, some comments on Wing Leader are needed. The Wing Leader series focuses on large-scale air battles where the basic unit is the squadron or flight (1.0 Introduction). Further, the map in Wing Leader is a side-view of the world. This takes some getting used to but if you understand (and accept) the abstraction of the design it makes perfect sense. The side view allows one to see the panorama (literally) of the battlespace. Wing Leader also has a very ‘loose’ scale. The actual altitude and range of each square is not strictly defined. It is best to think of the game as a depiction of the relative positions of the combatants and not an absolute. Likewise, movement is abstracted with bombers and their escorts allowed 2 Movement Points (MP) while Alerted fighter squadrons have 3 MP. In the words of the designer, “Wing Leader is an impressionistic game, rather than one that measures movement precisely….” (Wing Leader ADC Creation v2.2) Most importantly, Wing Leader captures the essentials of air combat without demanding mastery of all the little details.

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

The Battle of Coral Sea offered so many “firsts” for the U.S., that it is difficult to list them all. For the purposes of this study, it was the first acid test of naval carrier doctrine, and as such proved immensely important in shaping ideas. Unfortunately, the defense of Midway loomed so soon after there was very little opportunity for commanders to study and apply the lessons learned so dearly at Coral Sea. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 300)

 

There are two Battle of Coral Sea scenarios in Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942. Both take place on 8 May 1942. The first is Scenario V12 “The Rain Upon the Sea” where the Americans are Raiders striking the Japanese fleet (Defenders). The second scenario, V13 “Hey Rube!” reverses the roles.

 

Coral Sea provided the U.S. naval fighter pilots with their introduction to the vaunted Zero fighter. The VF-2 and VF-42 pilots respected the enemy fighter, particularly its tremendous maneuverability, but the Mitsubishis did not intimidate them. On the basis of their first combat experience, the pilots felt their Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats were equal to the Zeros in speed and climbing ability and superior in firepower and protection, being inferior only in maneuverability. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 300)

 

In Wing Leader, the F4F-3 Wildcat and A6M2 Zero are very similar. True to the assessments of the day, the Zero has a better Turn Rating (effectiveness in a turning fight) although both have the same Firepower Rating. The Zero has one less Protection factor than the Wildcat, properly reflecting its lighter construction. Although this appears to fly in the face of “conventional wisdom” where the Zero is hailed as far superior to the Wildcat, not only are the ratings in line with the US perceptions of the time, they also are in keeping with the designer’s vision of Wing Leader. As designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood tells us, “The grand thesis of Wing Leader is that victory in air combat usually went to the swiftest. Maneuverability turned out to be less important than power and speed.” (Wing Leader ADC Creation v2.2)

 

Thus with the F4F-3, fighter tactics proved to be the key in beating the Zero. Well demonstrated at Coral Sea was the need for altitude advantage for hit-and-run attacks. Flatley carefully analyzed his own combats and those of the other VF-42 pilots. In his action report for 7 May, he offered “Hints for Navy VF Pilots.” He conceded far superior maneuverability to the lighter, more agile Japanese fighters, but explained how that could be overcome:
“The most effective attack against a more maneuverable fighter is to obtain altitude advantage, dive in, attack, pull up using speed gained in dive to maintain altitude advantage. The old dog-fight of chasing tails is not satisfactory and must not be employed when opposing the Jap.” (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 301)

 

When resolving combat in Wing Leader the attacker must declare the type of combat rating that will be used. The attacker must choose between a Turning Fight using the squadron’s combat turn value or a Hit-and-Run Attack using the squadron’s combat speed value. Remember the Wildcat’s Turn Rating is inferior to the Zero. Like the historical lesson learned, the choice should be obvious to the players although it was not immediately so to the pilots of the day.

 

Despite their own good fortune at Coral Sea, the TBD pilots had no illusions as to the vulnerability of their poorly armed and unarmored Devastators. The Yorktown action report stressed, “it is essential that they [the TBDs] be furnished with fighter protection.” Pederson went on to recommend that the torpedo escort (with four to eight fighters depending upon anticipated opposition) deploy themselves up sun and at least 5,000 to 6,000 feet above the torpedo planes, visibility permitting….Flatley added that if the torpedo planes were cruising well above the water (4,000 to 6,000 feet), he thought it better to put the escort fighters down sun and only 2,000 feet above the TBDs so they could cover the sun lane.Otherwise it would be too easy for Zeros to dive past the F4Fs unseen in the sun’s glare. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 302)

 

In Wing Leader, the Escort mission is defined in 9.2.2. According to the rules, Escort squadrons must set up within three squares of the escorted bomber squadron, cannot be set up ahead of the lead bomber, and no more than one level below the lowest bomber squadron. Close Escort (9.2.2.1) is a variant of escort where the escort squadron is set up in the same square as the bombers. Pederson’s recommendation is pretty well covered by the escort placement rules as written. To implement Flatley’s version one needs to place the escorts no more than two (more likely only one) level above the bombers.

 

There were two methods of approach used by torpedo squadrons, and both were employed on 8 May. Taylor took Torpedo Five in low, below 500 feet to prevent steep high-side attacks and high-astern attacks,. Brett, on the other hand, led Torpedo Two into a “high level” approach, around 6,000 feet, so the TBDs could spiral in at high speed recovering below 100 feet in order to chop speed below 115 knots for the actual torpedo release. Brett felt his style of approach would give the enemy CAP “time for only one run” while the TBDs pushed home their attack. Both VT leaders agreed that close fighter support was absolutely imperative for them to complete their mission. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 302)

 

Scenario V12 has the TBD squadron set up in G1 representing the low level approach of Taylor. It would be interesting to set this unit up at level 3 or 4 and try Brett’s VT-2 “high level” approach and see if the CAP truly gets only one shot as the planes spiral down. Either way the escort needs to be assigned the Close Escort (same square) mission.

 

Equally important, the dive bomber escorts on both 7 and 8 May failed to protect their charges. On 7 May, VF-2’s VSB escort cruised at 18,000 feet and stayed well behind the lead attack element, Scouting Two. Apparently they did not spiral in with the SBDs, but remained at high altitude looking to engage any Zeros at their height. There were, of course, no Japanese at these lofty altitudes, and the escort never did discern the interceptors far below…
Regarding VSB escort, the Yorktwon report advised that the fighters take station 2,000 to 4,000 feet above and up sun of the SDBs. They were to spiral in around their charges to support them during the actual attack and the vulnerable period of their withdrawal. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 303)

 

In Wing Leader terms, it sounds like the SDB escorts set up three levels above and three squares behind their charges in accordance with the Escort rules. It also sounds like when the SDBs pushed over, the fighters continued to circle above. In the Order of Battle for scenario V12, the bombers set up at altitude 6 so the escorts might be at altitude 7 to 9. The defending CAP is at altitudes 1 to 5. In order to spot (Tally) another squadron one must make a Tally Roll (7.2.1). A Tally Roll is the roll of 1d6 with modifiers. A successful tally is when the modified die roll is greater than the distance. Given the weather in the area (some Broken clouds -2 DM or Dense clouds -3 DM) it makes it very challenging for any high escort squadron to acquire a Tally on the interceptors far below.

 

The admirals as well as the fighter pilots were disappointed in the combat air patrol’s failure to break up the 8 May enemy strike before it attacked Task Force 17….On 8 May, Red Gill initially deployed his fighters at 10,000, 8,000, and 1,000 feet. The loudest post-battle complaint was that the Grumman’s nowhere achieved altitude advantage over enemy dive bombers before they pushed over. Indeed, both Fitch and Sherman recommended in their reports that the CAP habitually be deployed at 20,000 feet to ensure height advantage over enemy dive bombers and fighters. Sherman personally believed the CAP should comprise two elements; a high CAP at 20,000 feet and an anti-torpedo-plane patrol…cruising at 3,000 feet and situated 3,000 yards out from the screening ships. The Yorktown’s Pederson desired a more flexible distribution of the CAP. The FDO [Fighter Direction Officer] should send fighters to 20,000 feet only if the altitude of the enemy strike group was unknown and there was ample visibility. Visibility was vital, for at 20,000 feet the CAP might not spot enemy planes passing far below. Gill had previously addressed himself to the problem of CAP altitude. Drawing on his own experience as a naval aviator as well as the opinions of VF-2 pilots, he agreed with the old truism that it was often easier to see a plane from below than from above. He kept his high CAP at 10,000 feet so they could see each way more easily. The main drawback involved the relatively low climb rate of the F4F-3 Wildcat, something the FDO and others, especially on board the Lexington, did not take into account. The way Gill used his high CAP, the fighters simply could not climb quickly enough to take position over the Japanese carrier bombers. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 303-304)

 

Scenario V13 takes place on 8 May and depicts the Japanese strike on Task Force 17. The American CAP is composed of 4x Wildcat and 1x Dauntless flights. The Dauntless is the anti-torpedo-plane patrol set up at altitude 1 and 2 squares from Minneapolis. Most of the rest of the CAP is at altitude 4 (~6,500 feet) which is above the incoming torpedo bombers but below the dive bombers. It would be interesting to try a variation in set up with the high CAP at altitude 8, 9, or 10 and see what a difference it might make.

 

Most fighter pilots were critical of the FDOs decision to intercept fairly close to the task force. Gill’s scheme evidently involved a long-range interception only by Ramsey’s five F4Fs. He held Flatley’s division in abeyance for three minutes before sending his four Wildcats out low to a distance of 15 miles. Gill reinforced Ramsey with three sections climbing to 12,000 feet; they acted as a second wave to make contact only a few miles out. He fragmented the CAP into several groups intercepting in piecemeal fashion. Fitch in his report stressed it would be best to vector the CAP as quickly as possible, so the fighters could make swift contact with the enemy strike and fight all the way back to the ships. The Yorktown’s air analyst also wanted to intercept as far out as feasible, at least 30 miles distant from the task force. (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 304)

 

Scenario V13 starts with the furthest out American CAP squadron in square Y4, 14 squares from Lexington and 18 squares from Yorktown. Assuming in this scenario that one square is laterally about a mile this makes sense. By this measure, the other CAP squadrons are all either overhead or within 2 miles/squares of the Task Force. If one shifts the ships six squares to the left and has the Japanese enter from their edge, it is possible to simulate a more distant CAP configuration. No, it’s not going to be 30 squares (more like 20-24) but, in keeping with the level of abstraction in Wing Leader, it’s the relative position that we’re looking for not an absolute.

 

APPLICATION

I played both scenario V12 and V13 of Wing Leader: Victories with these lessons learned in mind.

In V12, the American strike on the Japanese, I set up the dive bomber escorts one level above and one square behind the lead bombing element. I also had the TDB start at altitude 3 with the Wildcat keeping close escort. I’m not sure the “high level” approach for the TBD was really worth it as the rules for Torpedo Attack (15.3.5) require the squadron to aim by flying two squares at altitude 0 before release. The higher approach in effect added a turn of vulnerability as the squadron had to spiral down to altitude 0. This was the opposite of what Brett believed. Generally speaking, the closer escort of the dive bombers seemed to works as the escorts quickly tangled with the Zeros. Following them down also helped to keep the interceptors at bay. The result was a Draw.

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Scenario V13 has the Americans defending the Task Force. I went ahead and shifted the carriers and escorts to the left of the map and set the CAP up about 20 squares out. The Japanese had to enter the board on their edge. This made for a much different battle as the Japanese had to fight to the target. In this case, the ammunition depletion rules (10.7.2 Ammo) worked against the Americans. Generally, fighter squadrons will get two combat chances before their ammo is depleted. Low or Depleted ammo also is a modifier to the squadron Cohesion Roll after every combat. It is important to pay attention to the comments and notes to the side of 10.7.2 in the rule book. Specifically, “The ammo rules not only represent expenditure of ammunition, but also the accelerating disintegration of squadrons in combat as pilots become separated and return to base.” Then there is Ammo Depletion; “Depleted ammo does not prevent squadrons from taking part in further air combats. However, it will make those squadrons break up faster.”

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By intercepting further out, I inadvertently stumbled into another of the Coral Sea lessons learned; the need for more fighters. As Lundstrom tells us:

“One thing everyone agreed on was the need for more fighters on board the carriers. Under the present circumstances, there were simply not enough to go around. Fletcher himself was acutely aware of the small number of F4Fs, especially as it appeared the enemy had many more Zeros available. Word had it the CinCPac was increasing the squadron complement to twenty-seven fighters, feasible because of the folding wing F4F-4s. Pederson, Yorktown’s Air Group commander, thought twenty-seven the minimum number necessary and added, “36 would be none too many if we are to engage Japanese carriers on equal terms.” He sketched an ideal carrier group with thirty-six fighters, thirty-six dive bombers, and sixteen torpedo planes. The fighting squadron would have twenty-seven fighters operational with nine spares., with thirty-three pilots on strength. This would enable the CAP to operate in groups of eight, rather than two or four as as Coral Sea. Additional fighters would also allow larger escorts for the strike planes. No doubt about it, the carriers had to have more planes.” (Lundstrom, First Team, p. 301)

With the CAP engaging further out the Japanese took more losses, This was in spite of the fact the smaller American flights were easier to break up than the Japanese. The result was an American Victory but that was only because there were not other strikes coming in. The American CAP was totally spent in the effort to defend the fleet. It would be very interesting to play Scenario V13 again but instead of smaller Flights on CAP for the Americans use larger Squadrons to reflect the more fighter-heavy air wing.

It was great fun playing the battles and applying some of the actual lessons learned. As you can see, some worked and some didn’t. Overall though, Wing Leader does an excellent job allowing one to explore both the historical battle and alternate lessons learned version of the Battle of Coral Sea. One personal lesson learned that is a sure positive – there is no doubt Wing Leader: Victories will land on the gaming table again.


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Coral Sea to Wing Leader: Wargaming Lessons Learned

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