Operation Zet #Wargame AAR – Wing Leader: Origins 1936-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020)

Courtesy GMT Games

SATURDAY AFTERNOON OF MY AT HOME GENCON 2020 TURNED UP RAINY, so it was a great opportunity to get one of my favorite wargames, Wing Leader, to the gaming table. GMT Games released the latest expansion, Wing Leader: Origins 1936-1942 in July and I wanted to explore some pre-World War II battles a bit more. The scenario I selected was O05 “Operation Zet” which takes place on 04 January 1938 over Wuhan, China. Playing the game, I was once again reminded how a different, yet very interesting perspective of air combat is delivered in Wing Leader. To say I enjoyed my play is an understatement!

Operation Zet

In the first months of war Chinese losses were so severe that the Soviets initiated Operation Zet, a secret plan to dispatch aircraft and volunteer pilots to the Guomingdang. Soviet pilots flew operations immediately on arriving in China, but were unable to prevent Nanjing from falling in December 1937. The Japanese had supposed the Chinese government would collapse, but Chiang Kai-Shek simply relocated his capital west to Wuhan–the ‘triple-city’ of Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang. The Soviet volunteers, now famous after their Nanjing exploits, focused on the defense of the new capital against Imperial Japanese Navy Raids. (Scenario O05 Background)

The scenario begins with the Japanese Raider bombers at Altitude, or Flight Level (FL) 6 and just about to enter a series of Broken and Wispy clouds. The two squadrons of G3M2 ‘Nell’ bombers are escorted by two squadrons of A5M4 ‘Claude’ fighters. The fighters set up one just above the lead bomber squadron (FL7) and one just below (FL5).

The Hawk III uses the Goshawk Air Data Card

The Chinese Defenders (actually Soviet ‘volunteers’) are climbing to intercept the bombers and start with a single squadron of I-16 Type 5 ‘Ishak’ (Donkey) at FL4, two squadrons of I-15 ‘Chaika’ (Seagull) at FL3, and one squadron of Hawk III (export BF2C Goshawk) at FL2. One of the Chinese squadrons in Green Quality; assigned the Hawk III because it is the least capable fighter type, the lowest, and the least likely to get into the battle anyway.

In Wing Leader, the map is a side-view of the battlespace. In this scenario, the Japanese bombers start about in the middle of the map and must exit the enemy side, or the left-edge of the map. Given the distances and movement rates, they can be expected to exit on Turn 8. Every squadron that exits scores 6 VP; if it is Disrupted it scores 3 VP. Per the scenario Special Rules if a G3M squadron suffers 3 or more Losses (bombers shot down) it aborts its mission and returns to base, trying to exit off the right-edge of the map.

Set up presented the first interesting decision for the Chinese side. The set up dictates the altitude of the defenders, but not their square (location on map). The defenders have to climb to reach the Nells, in some cases as many as 4 levels (Hawk III). Squadrons which are Alerted in Wing Leader, like the defenders in this scenario, have a basic 3 Movement Points (MP). In the case of each fighter type for the Chinese, Climbing cost 2 MP for each level near the bomber’s altitude. Unalerted fighters, like the Japanese escorts, as well as the bombers, have 2 MP each turn. So where to set up?

The Chinese elected to place the I-16 at FL4 below the leading bomber facing the same direction. The two I-15’s were set up ahead of, but below the bombers at FL3 facing the opposite way along with the poor Hawk III behind them and below at FL2. This set up was intended to minimize the time to intercept and (hopefully) avoid tail-chases.

Turn 1

Each turn in Wing Leader starts with a Tally Phase where squadrons attempt to sight each other. Raiders tally first, followed by Defenders. The Japanese low escort squadron attempted to tally the I-16s below and behind them but fail. The Chinese I-16 and the lead I-15 squadron both tally the lead Japanese bomber squadron successfully.

[At a range of 1 square the Japanese squadron needed to roll a 2 or higher on a single D6 to Tally. However, a roll of 1 resulted in no tally.]

Next is the Movement Phase. The Move Order saw the escorts move first (straight ahead 2 squares) followed by the bombers (straight ahead 2 squares) followed by the Alerted defenders. The I-16 climbs to FL5 and ends up behind the low escort and below the trailing bomber squadron. The I-15’s both climb to FL4 (the Hawk to FL3) with the bombers still in front of them. There is no combat this turn so play proceeds to Turn 2.

Turn 2

In the Tally Phase the Japanese high squadron fails to Tally anybody; it had a choice to try and tally the climbing I-16 but they are behind them (-2 modifier) or to try and tally an I-15 through Wispy clouds (-1 modifier). Likewise, the low escort would have trouble to tally the I-16 behind it. Instead, they try to Tally the climbing I-15 squadron in front of them. After a successful tally, the Japanese low escort squadron is now Alerted (3MP) and use their Tactical Flexibility to split the squadron into two flights of 4 aircraft each.

In the following Movement Phase, the Unalerted high escort and bombers plod on ahead 2 squares. The Alerted fighters move in Initiative Order:

  1.  Lowest Altitude – Hawk III (ahead 2 spaces because of the -1 Speed from the Climb the previous turn). Likewise the I-15’s also move straight ahead 2 squares.
  2. Same Altitude: The I-16 and low escort flights are both at FL5. Lowest Basic Speed moves first. The Claude has a Basic Speed of 3 at FL5 whereas the I-16 has a Basic Speed of 4.
    • The first of the two low escort flights moves and dives into the lead I-15 squadron.
    • The second low escort flight stays at the same altitude but moves 3 squares ahead.
    • The I-16 moves ahead 2 squares, ending up behind and below the trailing bomber flight at FL5.

In the Combat Phase, the lead I-15 and diving Japanese escort flight (now on a Sweep Mission) are in the same square. Both have a Tally on each other, making this a Mutual Attack. Per the rules, the squadron/flight that moves last is the attacker. Additionally, since the Japanese flight entered the square from ahead of the I-15, this is a Head-On Combat.

  1. The first step in combat is to determine the type of attack. A Turning Fight will use the Turn Factor (Claude=4 / I-15=4). A Hit-and-Run Attack uses the Speed Factor (Claude=3 / I-15=2). However, in the case of a Head-On attack Hit-and-Run MUST be declared.
  2. The attacking Claude starts with a Speed Factor of 3. It gets +1 for Diving but -1 for being a Flight. Final combat factor is 3. The I-15 starts with a Speed Factor of 2, but since it the defender using Rigid Doctrine they is not as flexible to respond to threats and get a -1 modifier. Final combat factor is 1, for a Combat Differential of +2 for the attacker and -2 for the defender.
    • The attacking Claude, rolling on the +2 Column, rolls 2d6 getting a 6. Attacker Die Roll Modifiers (DRM) are -2 for Head-On and -2 for fighting in Broken clouds for a final total of 2; no Losses.
    • The defending I-15 rolls on the -2 Column rolls a 12 (!). There is a DRM of -2 for Head-On and -2 for Broken skies making the final total 8; 1 hit. Each hit must be immediately confirmed against the Protection Factor of the Claude (3). Each hit is a roll of a single d6 and a roll of 6 confirms 1 Claudes is a Loss (shot down).
    • Each squadron/flight must now make a Cohesion Check to see if they hold together.
      • The attacking Claudes get a +1 DRM (attacker) but also a -1 DRM (1 Loss) and another -1 for not having a radio. Their 2d6 roll of 3 (modified to 2) means 2 levels of Disruption. This is enough make the flight Broken. A Broken flight loses all tallies changes its mission to Return to Base. The defending I-15 rolls a 9, modified to 8, and passes its Cohesion Check.
    • Both the attacking Claude and defending I-15 are given a Low Ammo -1 marker.

[Not the result the Japanese wanted. One aircraft shot down and a broken flight effectively taking 25% of their fighters out of the battle – for no enemy losses. Some gamers might scream ‘its unrealistic’ that the Claudes simply drop out of combat so quickly. But that is the real genius of the Cohesion Check. As designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood tells us:

“Fighter squadrons break apart due to high-speed maneuvers. a broken squadron is an expanding bubble of aircraft, with aircraft heading home in ones or twos due to loss of contact, damage, or a failure of nerve.”

“Put simply, a broken fighter squadron has shattered and gone home, while a broken bomber squadron has ceased to be an effective fighting formation.”]

Turn 3

In the Tally Phase, the high escort squadron once again fails to tally a threat squadron. The low sweepers keep their tally on the lead I-15 flight. The I-16 still has a tally on the trailing bomber and the lead I-15 successfully transfers its tally to the low sweeper. The trailing I-15 tries to acquire the sweeper and is successful. The Hawk III, although lower and further away, somehow successfully acquires the lead bomber squadron even though the target is ‘in the Sun’ and they are of Green quality!

Movement Phase:

  1. High escort moves 2 squares ahead.
  2. Bombers move 2 squares ahead.
  3. Unalerted fighters move; the Broken Claude flight dives to the deck and turns for home.
  4. Alerted fighters move in Initiative Order
    • Hawk III climbs ahead to FL 4. It is still two levels below the lead bomber.
    • The trailing I-15 squadron climbs to FL5 and turns to the same heading as the bombers ending up one square ahead of but still below the lead bomber. The lead I-15 does the same but ends up one square below the lead bomber.
    • The low sweeper Claude flight moves next, moving two squares ahead then turning (circling) in the square to end up with the I-15 flight it has tallied.
    • The I-16 climbs to the bombers altitude but is still one square behind the trailing bomber.

Combat Phase:

  • The sweeping Claude flight and I-15 squadron engage. The Claude is the attacker. They elect to use a Hit-and-Run attack for a Speed Factor of 3 against the I-15’s Speed Factor of 2. After modifiers the Combat Differential is Attacker +1 / Defender -1. On the Air Combat Table the Claude scores no losses, but the I-15 scores a single hit that causes a Straggler. The Claude passes its Cohesion Check but gains a Low Ammo -1 marker. The I-15 rolls a 6, modified to 4 (no radio and Low Ammo) and suffers 1 level of Disruption. Their ammo is now also Depleted (-2).
  • Next, it must be determined if a Dogfight begins. The Japanese want a Dogfight (to slow the fighters from getting to the bombers) but the Chinese don’t. Both sides roll 1d6 and add their Basic Speed Factor. The Chinese roll a modified 6, the Japanese a modified 5; no Dogfight begins.

[The Japanese low escort, having already lost half its force, desperately needs help as that single flight of 4 Claudes face off against several Chinese squadrons (8 aircraft each).] 

Turn 4

Tally Phase – The high escort tries to tally the climbing I-16 but fails. One I-15 successfully switches their tally to the trailing bomber squadron; all else is as before.

Movement Phase:

  1. High escort moves 2 squares ahead.
  2. Bombers move 2 squares ahead.
  3. Unalerted fighters (i.e. the broken flight) move; the Claude continues towards home on the deck.
  4. Alerted fighters in Initiative Order
    • Hawk III climbs vertical to FL 5. It is one level below and one square behind the trailing bomber.
    • One I-15 squadron climbs into the square of the trailing bomber it has tallied.
      • The high escorting fighters can React. They roll for a Successful Reaction which tallies the enemy and changes their mission to Sweep. Using Tactical Flexibility the squadron splits into two flights. A successful reaction also stops the enemies movement before it enters the bombers square. Both reacting flights now dive to the enemy square.
      • The second I-15 climbs into the square behind the trailing bomber. The Claude flight follows.
      • The I-16 moves ahead 2 squares, ending up in the same square as the I-15 and Claude.

Combat Phase:

  • Reacting Fighters vs Climbing I-15 – Attacking Claudes chose a Hit-and-Run attack.  Attacker rolls on the +4 Column; the defender on the -4 column. Attacker scores 1 hit, confirmed as a Loss. The defender miraculously rolls a single hit, confirmed as a Loss. In the following Cohesion Checks the Claude takes 2 levels of Disruption and is Broken! The defending I-15 passes their Cohesion Check; both combatants gain a Low Ammo -1 marker. The Japanese try to start a Dogfight but the Chinese successfully avoid a it.
  • I-15 vs ‘low’ Claudes – Attacking Claudes chose a Hit-and-Run attack. Attacker rolls on +1 column; defender on -1 column. Attacker scores 1 hit, confirmed as a Loss. Defender score nothing. In the following Cohesion Check the Claude passes but the I-15 takes another level of Disruption, making it Broken.

[Now half of the initial Japanese fighters are out of the battle, but at least one squadron of Chinese is also leaving.]

Turn 5

Tally Phase: ‘Low’ Claude now tallies the I-16. The I-16 moves its tally to the ‘low’ Claude flight. The unbroken I-15 tallies the attacking Claude flight. The Hawk remains fixated on the lead Japanese bomber….

Movement Phase:

  1. Bombers move 2 squares ahead.
  2. Unalerted fighters (i.e. the broken flight) move; all dive or move away from the battle, effectively escaping.
  3. Alerted fighters in Initiative Order
    • Hawk III climbs to FL 6 and is 3 squares behind the bombers.
    • I-15 climbs to FL6 and is 2 squares behind the bombers.
    • ‘Reacting’ Claude circles and climbs with the I-15.
    • Both the ‘low’ Claude and I-16 move into the same square as the I-15 and reacting Claude (it’s really busy there!).

Combat Phase: 

  • ‘Reacting’ Claude vs I-15 – Combat Differential is 0. No losses for either side. Cohesion Check for attacker is passed; defender is is Disrupted. The Japanese successfully begin a Dogfight.
  • ‘Low’ Claude vs I-16 – I-16 is the attacker and chooses a Hit-and-Run attack. Combat Differential is +3/-2 (Claude has the Edge* whereas the I-16 doesn’t so it shifts one column right on the Air Combat Table). I-16 scores 3 hits, confirmed as one Loss and a Straggler. The Claude fails to score any hits. In the following Cohesion Checks the I-16 passes; the Claude fails miserably and becomes Broken.

[Now 75% of the Japanese fighters are out of the battle.]

Turn 6

In the Dogfight the the I-15 gets the best of the Claudes and shoots down the two fighters of the flight; the flight then becomes Broken. However, the I-15 fails to maintain Cohesion and also becomes Broken.

The I-16 jumps the trailing bombers. In the Turning Fight the I-16 shoots down a bomber for no losses. Both the I-16 and bomber squadron maintain Cohesion.

[All the Japanese fighter flights are Broken or shot down. The Chinese fighters are free to savage the bombers.]

Turn 7

The I-16 and Hawk III attack the trailing bomber squadron. The bombers suffer another Loss against one Loss for the I-16. The I-16, with no radio, Depleted Ammo, and suffering a Loss becomes Broken and heads for home. The Hawk III, Green and with no radio, somehow holds together. The Japanese bomber squadron is Disrupted.

[The Japanese bombers are almost to the edge of the map. As it stands right now, if they exit they will get 9 VP (+6 for the lead undisrupted squadron and +3 for the Disrupted squadron. The Japanese will also get +3 VP for shooting down Chinese fighters for a total of 12 VP. The Chinese right now sit at 10 VP for shooting down six fighters and two bombers. The differential of +2 is a narrow Chinese Victory.]

Turn 8

It all comes down to one final combat between the Green Chinese Hawk III and the Disrupted trailing bomber squadron. The Hawk III scores another Loss, which forces the bomber squadron to return to base. Both squadrons pass their Cohesion Check; the Hawk III now has Depleted Ammo but the Disrupted bomber has a long way to go before they are safe.

[The remaining Japanese bomber is really in a bad place. Forced to turn back near the exit-edge of the map, safety lies at the other edge – a long way across the board. The Hawk III, although Green and with little ammo and no radio, has somehow held it together. Maybe they’re too scared to get separated. Maybe they are true heroes. Such is fate – or Cohesion Checks.]

Turn 9

The lead bomber squadron exits the board (6 VP) but the trailing bomber suffering losses and now Disrupted turns for home. The Hawk III follows and gets another chance for blood. In the combat they create a Straggler for the bombers against no losses. However, in the Cohesion Check, the Hawk III is Disrupted whereas the bomber becomes Broken.

Turn 10

The Hawk III attacks yet again but scores no hits. The defending bombers, although unorganized, cause a Straggler to fall out of the Hawk III squadron. Somehow the Hawk III holds it together and passes their Cohesion Check (they have to roll a 7 or higher, with a -4 modifier, to avoid a another level of Disruption and become Broken).

Turn 11

How lucky can the Hawk III get? Apparently very lucky since they shoot down another two bombers. In return they lose another fighter, take another level of Disruption, and are finally Broken.

Victory Check

  • Japanese: +6 (Bomber Squadron exit), +4 (Chinese fighters shot down) = 10
  • Chinese: +10 (Bombers shot down), +6 (Fighters shot down) = 16

Subtracting the Chinese from the Japanese VPs, the -6 is a decisive Chinese Victory.

After Action Comments

Wow! What a battle. I actually played this scenario twice earlier in the day ending once with a Japanese Victory and once in a Draw. Both of those games didn’t go past Turn 7. Here the Japanese fighters just seemed unable to catch a break, literally ending up Broken rather quickly. Then there was the heroic actions of the Chinese Hawk III; the Green squadron that was flying the lowest-performance fighter that ended up shooting down the most bombers. Historically both the Chinese and Japanese lost four aircraft apiece; this time it was a bloodbath for the Japanese losing almost an entire squadron’s worth of bombers and fighters!

This battle was so different, and once again I am amazed at how fickle fate – or Cohesion Checks – can be. Wing Leader, while being a somewhat coarse simulation of air combat, certainly captures the essentials and essence of situation. In Wing Leader: Origins the impact of no radios and rigid doctrine combined with slow aircraft with less firepower is easily understood.

Interesting Decisions

Most importantly, it’s also fun to play! What do I mean by fun? Wing Leader delivers, in my opinion, the right set of interesting decisions. Wing Leader scenarios are battles and the players are charged with fighting the battle, not flying the airplanes. Sure, you move them and fight them, but you don’t ‘set the flaps’ or the like.

Instead, players of Wing Leader must manage the impact of doctrine – the doctrine that went into the development of a particular aircraft or doctrine that limits how it can fight. Most importantly, the players must ‘manage the chaos.’ For instance, the Claudes in this scenario outclass the Hawk III and are a good match for the I-15. Against the I-16 the Claude’s Edge may be enough to make it the better fighter. Defenders are further handicapped because they fight using a Rigid Doctrine. With 2020 hindsight we know this was stupid but at the time it was all they had.

Most interestingly, once the fighting begins the real measure of a fighter becomes not how fast it is or what guns it mounts; instead the measure is a squadron’s ability to hold together. This means combat losses, being the attacker, not having radios, low ammo, and weather as well as experience are the difference.

The key interesting decision is not how to fight, but when to fight. Are you set up from the beginning in the best way? When is the right time and place to commit your forces? From the above it sounds like game turns are very procedural, but in play it simply flows from decision point to decision point. It also doesn’t hurt that one can easily find a narrative emerging through play.

*What is Edge? Because of the coarse combat model, some aircraft are given an edge to represent that little extra combat potential. 

Feature image from SDASM Archives – Flickr: Curtiss : Model 68 : Hawk III in Nationalist Chinese markings, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30116945


2 thoughts on “Operation Zet #Wargame AAR – Wing Leader: Origins 1936-1942 (@gmtgames, 2020)

  1. So far I only played base game of Wing Leader – like 3-4 scenarios. This is indeed very interesting system and I would love to play some bombing raids missions.

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