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War at Sea: Guadalcanal Campaign Pt. 1
Battle of Savo Island
by Patrick Graham

Background

The wake of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the war with Japan saw a string of continued Allied defeats as Japan successfully expanded her influence in South East Asia and in the South Pacific towards Australia. However, the initiative in the war swung into the Allies favor after the inconclusive Battle of the Coral Sea and the resounding victory at Midway. The need to reduce the Axis perimeter in the Pacific was already apparent at the outset of hostilities, but a plan was needed to go about this. The Joint Chiefs and in particular Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet Ernest King, saw the need to curtail the Japanese capacity to interdict Allied shipping, and further to isolate Japan through successive island offensives.

The decision was made to strike first at the Solomon Islands. The islands served as a crossroads in the South Pacific and before the war witness the movement of a great volume of goods between the Pacific nations. Japan was quite intent in continuing their consolidation of the South Pacific. In April of 1942, they launched strikes against Port Moresby and Tulagi in order to place themselves in complete control of the area. Though the invasion of Port Moresby was averted, Tulagi was effortlessly occupied by the Japanese, though Allies would continuously harass supply and construction efforts there. A small airport for Sea Planes was built on Tulagi, but a much larger one was under construction on Guadalcanal. The Solomons were in a central position, and the presence of a large Japanese airbase on one or several of these islands would have an even greater effect on the already problematic Allied shipping and supply effort in the region.

The first targets in the Solomons would be the islands of Tulagi, Florida and Guadalcanal at the southernmost point in the island chain. A joint naval and land invasion would establish Allied control of the region. Major General Alexander Vandergrift was commanded to lead the 1st Marine Division in the invasion of Guadalcanal. After they had completed training in the spring of 1942, the invasion was set for August 7th. The size and scope of the original American landings was something the islands initial defenders were simply unprepared for. Garrison and outlying forces fought fiercely, but were quickly removed from the unfinished airfield. The Marines quickly set to finishing the airfield for their own uses, and to unloading all the necessary supplies from their numerous transports. The taskforce covering this operation was dubbed ‘Watchtower’ under command of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, while the transporting force was under the command of Rear Admiral Richard K Turner.

While the Japanese were caught off guard, they didn’t waste any time in harassing the landing forces and their naval escorts. Aerial attacks from planes based in nearby Rabaul damaged or sunk a small number of transports, but more importantly, depleted Fletcher’s carrier aircraft. The decision was made to withdraw carrier cover from the island in order to refuel and replenish needed fighters. Without carrier support the transports would have to leave quickly as well or be destroyed from continued air attacks. Turner, now overseeing the remaining forces, concluded that he would have to unload what he could and vacate the area. The surface ships at his disposal were divided into three groups and assigned to protect either side of the Sealark Channel between Guadalcanal and Florida Island.

The Japanese quickly scrambled to retake the islands as soon as word of their capture reached home. A task force was assembled under Admiral Gunichi Mikawa at Rabaul to retake the islands and remove any Allied naval presence from the area. However, it quickly became clear to Mikawa what the scope of Allied plans were. Any hopes of an immediate invasion of Guadalcanal were scuttled, but his surface force heavy cruisers went underway to Guadalcanal on August 7th, just as Marines were forming a perimeter on the island. The plan was to engage the Allied fleet at night when Japanese training would prove to be advantageous. Mikawa’s force was spotted by an American sub and an Australian scout plane in between Bouganville and New Guinea. However, at this point the allies were unsure of the exact composition of the force or its intentions for that matter. His ships made a run down what became known as ‘The Slot’, an aquatic beltway that was shouldered by the islands of the Solomons, unseen by the Allied screening force or its outlying pickets. The opportunity was ripe for a sneak attack, one that could either cripple the fleet or even better, destroy the transports currently unloading their supplies onshore.

Aftermath

Mikawa chose to strike just south of Savo Island and got the jump on the patrolling force there. A series of running battles with first the South group and then the north group stationed near Savo Island proved fatal for the Allies. The attack had been a major tactical success as the Japanese task force sunk four cruisers and crippled three other ships. Three of the own cruisers received minor damage as well. As the battle closed at 0200 hours, Mikawa lay at a crossroads. He could either pull back comfortable in the knowledge that serious damage had been done to the American screening force or press the attack against the transports and landing areas themselves. Admiral Mikawa and the majority of his staff believed that there was a carrier presence in the area that could attack their force, something they were ill-prepared for, during daylight hours if they lingered. In addition there were other surface ships unaccounted for during the fighting, and Mikawa worried that another surface engagement might not go his way. The decision was made to return to base, and Japanese left Guadalcanal for now, having done serious, but not decisive damage.

Mikawa was of course, unaware that the American carrier support had departed, or that the remaining screening force and transport were due to leave as well. Concerned about continuing attacks, the transports hastened to unload their supplies onto the beaches and withdrew in the afternoon, leaving the Marines onshore to their own devices for the foreseeable future. They would lack crucial provisions, food and heavy equipment in the coming battles. This battle would be the first of many in what was to be dubbed ‘Iron Bottom Sound’. This first victory robbed the American forces of much needed momentum in the South Pacific, momentum that they would work very hard to regain and press against the Japanese in the coming months.

Scenario Description: On the morning of August 9th, 1942 the Japanese Task Force under Admiral Mikawa must seize the Allied landing area at Guadalcanal or cause significant damage to the Allied surface force protecting the landing. The Allied screening force must divide their force judiciously between possible angles of attack and thwart the Japanese assault.

Maps: Use Battle Map #6 for this scenario. Place an objective marker on coordinates 1F. Coordinates are calculated from the bottom of the map, letters horizontal and numbers vertical.

Task Force Under Admiral Turner
USS Salt Lake City x 1
USS Boise x 3
HMAS Canberra x 1
USS Samuel B. Roberts x 5

Task Force Under Admiral Mikawa:
Tone x 1
Myoko x 1
Jintsu x 2

Deployment:

American forces must deploy first. Divide the American forces between sectors (D6, D7,D2, D3,J4, J5)

Japanese forces deploy second. Their forces must deploy in their entirety in one of the following sectors (A6,A7), (A2,A3) or (K6,K7).

Victory Conditions: Victory is determined after play ends under the following two conditions:

  1. After three turns of play, Japanese ships may move of the edge of the map and ‘retreat’. Ships moving this way are considered out of but not destroyed for the purposes of tallying points. If all Japanese ships are removed from play, the game ends with a bonus 10 victory points for the Americans.
  2. If any Japanese ships occupy the objective at the end of a turn, the game is ended with a bonus 75 victory points for Japan

At the end of play, each side tallies victory points equal to the point value of all opposing units destroyed. The player with the highest number of points is the victor.

Campaign Instructions: If playing this scenario as part of the Guadalcanal Campaign. In the instance of a Japanese win, play scenario Guadalcanal 2-A next. In the instance of an American win, play scenario Guadalcanal 2-B next.

Special Rules:

  • All ships may waive round restrictions for the use of their ‘Night-Fighting’ SA.
  • During the first turn, the Axis player automatically wins initiative, attacks during all phases are resolved immediately and American ships may only move one square.

Look forward to more Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures scenarios and the continuation of the Guadacanal campaign. For now, talk about this scenario on our message boards.










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