#History to #Wargame – Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean Campaign through The Darkest Hour (@Helionbooks) and Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet (Avalanche Press, 2001)

Exploring history through reading and wargames….

I love my Osprey Books, but these days the titles from Helion Books seem to capture my attention more. Like Osprey Books the Helion titles are illustrated with many photographs and color artwork along with extensive tables of information. For a wargame player, The Darkest Hour series of books from Helion provides in-depth background into the Imperial Japanese Navy offensive into the Indian Ocean in 1942 which in turn makes playing a wargame like The Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet that much more enjoyable since the “why” of certain rules or victory conditions becomes much easier to understand.

History Reading

Piegzik, Michal A., The Darkest Hour – Volume 1: The Japanese Naval Offensive in the Indian Ocean 1942 – The Opening Moves (Asia@War No. 31), Warwick: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2022 (84 pages) / Piegzik, Michal A., The Darkest Hour – Volume 2: The Japanese Naval Offensive in the Indian Ocean 1942 – The Attack against Ceylon and the Eastern Fleet (Asia@War No. 33), Warwick: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2022 (72 pages)

The Darkest Hours from Helion Books

From the book backs:

The Darkest Hour presents the Imperial Japanese Navy offensive in the Indian Ocean area in March-April 1942, the main goal of which was to destroy the Royal Navy in the Far East and achieve domination on the western flank of the Pacific War on the eve of the Battle of Midway. The bold operation by two Japanese task forces (Kido Butai and Malay Force) in the Indian Ocean would only be possible with the fall of Singapore in February and the Dutch East Indies in early March 1942.

The first volume examines events up to the capture of the Andaman Islands and Christmas Island…

The second volume examines the Japanese aerial assault upon the British bases on Ceylon, and the attacks on the carrier HMS Hermes, cruisers HMS Cornwall and Devonshire, and the destroyer HMS Vampire.

The Darkest Hour Vol 1/Vol 2 book back

The Darkest Hour series is basically broken out into a strategic/operational volume and a tactical volume. The strategic/operational aspects of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Indian Ocean campaign are covered in Volume 1. The first volume sets the strategic situation and follows the operations up to the morning of 5 April 1942. This is where Volume 2 starts. The second volume dives into tactical details of the battles fought between 5 April and 9 April after which Kido Butai retired. To be fair, the later half of the second volume steps back up to the operational/strategic levels following the early April battles but that is not the focus of the volume.

Both volumes of The Darkest Hour are well illustrated. I don’t consider myself well-read on the Indian Ocean campaign, but I do think I have more than passing knowledge and some familiarity with the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to see photographs in these books that I do not recognize from elsewhere. The color plates are as one should expect but what really caught my attention was the other illustrations that in hindsight present information I have obviously seen before but never paid attention to. For instance, color plate ix in Volume 1 presents “Japanese Aircraft Carrier Deck Markings in Indian Ocean Offensive.” I have looked at countless pictures of Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers but never before did the different flight deck markings stand out to me.

In terms of written content, The Darkest Hour is a fairly-comprehensive overview of the political and military situation surrounding the April 1942 campaign. The split-volume format works quite well with the background situation covered in the first volume and a zoomed-in focus on key battles in the second volume. I hate to always be making comparisons between Osprey and Helion but The Darkest Hour is a great example of why I enjoy Helion books; The Darkest Hour provides a high-level overview but with more-specific depth when needed. For the wargamer in me, The Darkest Hour gives me a deeper understanding of the “why” behind a wargame scenario or campaign without it becoming a doctoral-depth deep dive.

The wargamer in me also enjoyed a little wargame-ish call out in The Darkest Hour. Buried in the middle of Volume 2 is a section titled, “Simulation of the battle of Aircraft Carriers in the Indian Ocean” (Volume 2, p. 47). This small entry discusses the article “The Brave Operation in the Indian Ocean” published in the Japanese magazine Gakken as part of their Military History Pacific War Series in 1992 (though the bibliography credits it as 1993.). The source article is in Japanese, but from the summation presented in this volume it certainly appears the (uncredited) author/researcher conducted either a wargame or some form of operations analysis. Alas, the scenario presented is more a flight-of-fancy than any real serious analysis, with Kido Butai being surprised by a combined air strike from HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable just as the five Imperial Japanese carriers are set to launch a strike. Fortunately for us, there is a wargame title available that can be used to explore Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean campaign.

Wargame Pairing

Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet, designer Michael Benninghof, Avalanche Press (my copy is boxed first edition 2001).

Here is how Avalanche Press describes Eastern Fleet::

Following their victory at Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Air Fleet moved through the American, Dutch and British colonies of South and East Asia. Having taken the mighty British naval base at Singapore, the next move was to enter the Indian Ocean and challenge the Royal Navy there. 

Eastern Fleet is a complete game in the Second World War at Sea series covering these campaigns. Scenarios range from the Japanese invasions of Burma and the Andaman Islands through the massive carrier raids to the planned but never executed invasion of Ceylon. The Japanese often have overwhelming superiority in the air, which the British must counter with guile while trying to lure the enemy into range of his slow but powerful battleships.

Pieces represent the ships and aircraft that took part in the campaign. The Japanese fleet is built around its five powerful fleet carriers with their deckloads of Zero fighters, Val dive bombers and Kate torpedo bombers, all wielded by expert pilots and crews. They are supported by four fast battle cruisers, fast but lightly protected heavy cruisers and big destroyers armed with the awesome Long Lance torpedo.

Eastern Fleet ad copy
First edition box cover (courtesy BGG)

The SWWAS series of wargames are operational-scale campaign systems; players represent fleet commanders fighting a campaign. The situation in Eastern Fleet lends itself to an easily manageable campaign due to the number of ships and aircraft involved. Though the map may not be as crowded as some other titles, the situation is no-less tense.

As I reviewed my copy of Eastern Fleet for this posting, I was surprised by what the game actually covers. My first edition has three Battle Scenarios, only one of which is from the April 1942 campaign (and one of these scenarios is purely hypothetical). Looking at the eight Operational Scenarios, only three are from the March-April 1942 period; the other five range from July 1942 out to February 1943; several of those Operational Scenarios are outright hypotheticals! The actual depth provided in the background is also “thin” to say the least. Looking at SWWAS: Eastern Fleet after reading The Darkest Hour I now see the game’s focus more on “widgets” and less on the situation:

The Royal Navy is outnumbered and outgunned in the air, with three fleet carriers — all of them smaller than their Japanese counterparts — and one nearly useless light carrier. The British do have four old and painfully slow R-class battleships and the much more useful Warspite, newly rebuilt in an American shipyard. British cruisers are vastly inferior to those of the Japanese in both numbers and capability, as is the case with the British, Australian and Dutch destroyers.

Eastern Fleet ad copy

In a further example, here is the background for Operational Scenario 3 ” Raid on Ceylon – 26 March – 11 April 1942,” arguably the main focus of The Darkest Hour (especially Volume 2):

Having stunned the British with the rapid conquest of Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies, The Japanese next turned their attention to the hapless British Eastern Fleet operating in the Indian Ocean. The crack First Air Fleet targeted British bases on Ceylon and Allied merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, a large troop convoy used this diversion to move the 18th Infantry Division from Singapore to Rangoon.

Operational Scenario 3

Compare that “backgrounder” to the introduction of The Darkest Hour Volume 2:

At the beginning of April, the expected Japanese carrier-borne strike on Ceylon could severely influence the strategic situation in the Pacific War and lead to more threatening Axis’ combined operations against the British Empire in the following months. The Royal Navy’s command correctly interpreted the Combined Fleet’s plans. However, the British lacked more detailed intelligence information about the enemy’s movements in the Indian Ocean to prepare for a night counter-attack. With only two modern aircraft carriers and dozens of bombers with fighter escorts at his disposal, Admiral Somerville could rely only on Japanese mistakes and his instinct to hit the stronger task force, literally described as “invincible,” without taking the risk of being destroyed in return….Once set sail for the Indian Ocean, Kido Butai had only one chance to destroy Eastern Fleet and could not afford to make any mistakes.

The Darkest Hour, Volume 2, Introduction

I have to hand it to Avalanche Press; they do a great job setting the game up as the “invincible” Imperial Japanese Navy versus the underdog Royal Navy. For the longest time the (simple) Avalanche Press version of the history has dominated my conceptions of the campaign. The Darkest Hour goes a long way towards reeducating me by providing a deeper understanding and a greater level of appreciation for the challenges both sides faced.

There is one other aspect of Eastern Fleet that I feel fails to delivers—the “secret” British base at Addu Atoll. Again, we go to the ad copy:

But this is the Royal Navy, with a tradition of victory and a secret base on which it can fall back in the middle of the supposedly empty Indian Ocean. The British cannot be counted out until their last warship is sunk.

Eastern Fleet ad copy

What are the Eastern Fleet rules for that secret base?” Avalanche Press first tells us, “The Japanese were not aware of the base’s existence during the April 1942 carrier raids in the Indian Ocean, and Somerville’s fleet used it extensively. So we should expect some secret base rules, right? Well, not so fast…

In our game Eastern Fleetwe gave Addu Atoll no special secret abilities: The Japanese player knows the British have a base there. The game system doesn’t lend itself to “secret” bases, since the opposing player is going to figure out that a task force probably isn’t going to halt in mid-ocean for several turns. Optional rules make it harder to detect, but unlike Chuichi Nagumo the Axis player already knows it’s there and therefore knows to look for it.

Eastern Fleet: Britain’s Secret Base (Nov 2011)
Courtesy Avalanche Press

I don’t know what “optional rules” the Avalanche Press is talking about as I don’t find any such rule in my first edition rule book. Maybe it was added in a later edition?


Feature image “Aircraft carrier HMS Hermes sinking, 9 April 1942by Unknown Japanese photographer – http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/302403 courtesy Australian War Memorial.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

One thought on “#History to #Wargame – Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean Campaign through The Darkest Hour (@Helionbooks) and Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet (Avalanche Press, 2001)

  1. Excellent review and compare and contrast. Thank you. I particularly like the pairing of good books and a wargame, like wine and a meal.

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