Tag Archives: World War II

Learning War and The Evolution of U.S. Navy Fighting Doctrine with Author Trent Hone

By Christopher Nelson

Author Trent Hone joins us today to talk about his new book Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. This is a great book. And as others have noted, it’s a fine compliment to John Kuehn’s work on the Navy General Staff, Scott Mobley’s book Progressives in Navy Blue, and I would add, Albert Nofi’s To Train The Fleet For War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

We talk about everything from Admiral Frank “Friday” Fletcher to “safe-to-fail” systems vs. “fail-safe” systems. And stick around to the end. Trent Hone offers some advice to the CNO on how we can build a better learning organization.

Nelson: For the readers, could you tell us briefly what your book is about?

Hone: My book investigates how the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century learned to innovate. I explore how the Navy invented new technologies, created new tactics, and found ways to rapidly evolve its combat doctrine based on peacetime exercises and wartime experience. Today, we would describe the Navy of that era as a “learning organization.” I explain what that means and describe the mechanisms the Navy used to effectively learn and innovate. I believe there are lessons from that time that are very relevant for today’s organizations, both military and civilian.

Nelson: Why did you want to write this book?

Hone: I’ve been interested in naval tactics for a long time. I remember reading Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics when it first came out in the 1980s and being fascinated (It’s a great book now on its third edition). In the 1990s, I decided to explore the Navy’s surface warfare tactics before and during World War II. I wanted to know what Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have done if Pearl Harbor hadn’t been attacked. That research led to a series of articles on the development of Navy tactics—including a prize-winning one in the Naval War College Reviewand, ultimately, began to overlap with other work I was doing. 

I started my career as a software engineer. As I assumed positions of greater responsibility, what became most interesting to me was not the development of the software, but how teams organized to create software and do innovative work. I studied various techniques and methods to improve the teams I supervised and eventually transitioned into advising and coaching organizations to help them get better at learning and innovating. 

As I continued looking at the evolution of the Navy’s tactical doctrine in the early twentieth century, I saw patterns that resonated with today’s most-effective learning techniques. The language was quite different, and the specific processes were different, but some of the underlying principles were remarkably similar. I realized it was a story that had to be told. I describe an arc of innovative creativity that stretches back decades by charting the evolution of surface warfare tactics.

Nelson: Early in the book you talk about “fail-safe” systems and “safe to fail” systems. The latter, you say, are best for a culture that encourages innovation. With this in mind, what would you say Rickover’s submarine culture consisted of? Is he a rare exception in the case of a system that is “fail-safe” yet innovative?

Hone: I’m glad you brought this up. Alicia Juarrero’s term “safe to fail” gives us a new way to think about failure modes and how to account for them. The key difference between the two is that with “fail-safe” we attempt to anticipate possible failure modes and design ways to mitigate them. With “safe to fail,” we recognize unanticipated failure modes will occur and organize to ensure survival when they do. This has relevance to organizations because when we want to learn and innovate, we are going to fail. A “safe to fail” organization finds ways to explore new ideas and experiment with them without endangering its long-term survival. The Navy was good at that in the early twentieth century. 

I’m less familiar with Rickover’s time, but from what I understand, it would be inaccurate to describe the culture he developed as primarily “fail-safe.” Certainly, it used procedures with rigidly prescribed steps in order to prevent known failures, so in that sense it was “fail-safe.” However, he recognized that unanticipated failure modes can and will occur. Defined procedures are inadequate to account for these circumstances. Instead, it’s essential to rely on the collective skill and experience of people, so the culture integrated crewmembers together. Layers of human observation and experience became the means to identify, anticipate, and address unforeseen circumstances. In that sense, the culture has a “safe to fail” component. Things will go wrong; people will make mistakes. But trust and experience become the means to identify and resolve them. 

As it turns out, that’s the most effective way to deal with problems in complex environments. Standard procedures and automated routines free our mental capacity so that when unforeseen circumstances arise, we can quickly identify and address them. That’s what made the Combat Information Center (CIC) and its successors effective: the artful integration of standard processes, technology, and human judgment. I worry that with the increasing emphasis on automated systems, we might be taking the talents of our people too far out of the loop. There’s no substitute for human experience and skill when the unanticipated occurs. 

Nelson: What is the “edge of chaos” and why does it matter to any organization that is trying to be innovative?

Hone: The concept of the “edge of chaos” is easily misunderstood, so I’ll try to explain it succinctly. In any complex system—like a corporation or a military service—there are processes, procedures, and rules. In the language of complexity, these are called “constraints.” They channel and limit behavior. When constraints are restrictive, they inhibit the ability of people to experiment and try something new. Obviously, that’s a problem if you want to innovate. But the other end of the spectrum is problematic also. If constraints are too loose, there’s no coherence; it becomes difficult to assign cause and effect or make sense of an experiment. The “edge of chaos” is located between these two extremes. It is a space where constraints are sufficiently loose to allow room to explore new ideas and concepts but also rigid enough to focus that exploration and provide feedback on its effectiveness. 

Many of us intuitively understand this from our own experience. Software teams, for example, are most innovative (and generally most effective) when they’re given a clear objective and the creative freedom to determine how best to accomplish it. The objective serves as a constraint and focuses their energy. They use their initiative to explore several potential solutions, often arriving at the best combination of technologies that addresses the need. That’s why there’s been such an emphasis on moving away from rigidly detailed requirements documents; they overly constrain teams and limit their creativity. The parallels to military command, and the importance of well-written orders that foster the initiative of subordinates, are obvious. 

Nelson: What was the importance of the 1921 Destroyer Instructions?

Hone: The Atlantic Fleet’s 1921 Destroyer Instructions were important for two reasons. It was the first Navy doctrinal manual produced by a deliberately created system of learning. Immediately after World War I, the Navy was transitioning back to peacetime. Many valuable lessons had been learned during the war and officers set out to capture them. Two “colleges” were established, one in the Atlantic Fleet and another in the Pacific Fleet. They combined exercises at sea, wargames ashore, and experience from the recent war to devise new approaches. A regular correspondence was maintained between these two fleet colleges and the Naval War College. The result of their collective learning was incorporated into the Destroyer Instructions. 

The Destroyer Instructions were also important because they assumed individual commands—each destroyer squadron—would develop their own specific doctrines that reflected the strength of their ships and men. The Instructions were deliberately written to foster creativity within subordinate commands and avoid being overly prescriptive. The War Instructions of 1923 took the same approach, so Navy officers spent the interwar period exploring a variety of options for how to coordinate and employ their forces, leading to new and innovative techniques.

Nelson: Who was Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher? What were his battle instructions? And why are they an important milestone in naval history?

Hone: Frank Friday Fletcher led the intervention at Veracruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct. In September 1914, he became commander of the Atlantic Fleet, which contained the Navy’s most modern ships. The Atlantic Fleet had been regularly conducting exercises to work out how best to operate in battle, and Fletcher continued that practice. By May 1916, he and his staff had gained enough experience to issue a set of Battle Instructions. 

Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.

Fletcher’s Instructions marked a departure from previous approaches. He assumed battle was fundamentally uncertain and that centralized control would likely be impossible; this led him to emphasize two things. The first was the use of a plan that would outline objectives for subordinates. Fletcher wanted to encourage their individual initiative and creativity without overly constraining them. Second, Fletcher stressed the coordinated use of all weapons. Previous battle plans had emphasized battleship gunnery. Fletcher recognized that other weapons were coming into their own, particularly destroyer torpedoes. He planned to use his destroyer squadrons very aggressively. These two concepts—the use of a plan and coordinated employment of all arms—remained central to Navy tactical doctrine through World War II.  

Nelson: I enjoyed your comment about “type commanders.” You note in your book that during World War II that minor actions were neglected.  This mattered. And type commanders were born in light of these shortcomings. What were these “minor actions” and how did the type commanders address them?

Hone: The Navy’s primary focus in the interwar period (1919-1939) was a trans-Pacific campaign. It was expected to culminate in a “major action”—a large fleet battle—somewhere in the central Pacific. Accordingly, most of the fleet-level tactical doctrine focused on “major action.” Tactics for “minor actions”—engagements between smaller task forces—were left to subordinate commanders. It was assumed that these lower-level commanders would have time to develop doctrines for their forces, and, during peacetime, this assumption was largely correct. 

However, there were shortcomings. This led to the introduction of the type commands in 1930.

Type commands became responsible for identifying and capturing new tactical approaches for each various type—destroyers, cruisers, battleships, etc.—and there is evidence that new approaches were more rapidly developed after that date. The real problem, though, was the assumption that subordinate commands would be able to develop specific doctrines for their forces. 

In 1942, that process fell apart during the battles off Guadalcanal. Ships and commanders moved about too rapidly to develop cohesion. “Scratch teams” were formed and they often performed poorly, as you might expect. The Pacific Fleet addressed the problem by applying some of the same techniques used for “major tactics” to “minor tactics” and leveraging the type commands to rapidly share and disseminate lessons. 

Nelson: During World War II, how did the Fleet quickly inform commanders with updated doctrine? This is a problem throughout history, is it not? We make some assessments on what will or will not work in war, and inevitably we will be surprised. What would you recommend to a staff today on how to prepare for such things?

Hone: I love this question because when I first started my research decades ago, I thought that manuals—published doctrinal materials—would be the key to understanding tactical doctrine. I learned very quickly that’s not the case. Doctrine is a set of assumptions and mental models. The documentation provides a backdrop, but what really matters is how individuals think about problems and work together. During World War II, the Navy effectively used personal connections, like in-person conversations and conferences, to rapidly share and disseminate new ideas. There were formal means to do this (like Joseph C. Wylie being brought back from the South Pacific to help develop the CIC) but informal mechanisms were at least as important. Published doctrine tended to lag behind the information shared through these informal networks.

USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) At the Mare Island Navy Yard, 20 May 1942. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

If I were making recommendations, I’d stress the importance of informal mechanisms. Staffs can easily create mountains of briefings and other documentation. What’s more difficult is creating an environment where subordinates can readily exchange information, learn together, and build on the knowledge of their colleagues. I think a staff should actively work on enabling that. It’s not just about creating space and time; it’s about introducing the appropriate constraints to enable creativity to flourish. Then, once that is in place, the staff needs to keep tabs on what’s happening. New, more effective ideas will arise. When they do, the staff needs to act quickly to exploit them and make them available to the entire command. 

Nelson: How does the size of a navy – the number of ships and sailors – affect innovation? Quick growth, during World War II, for example, and steep reductions – ship numbers from the 80s to today for instance, do these affect innovation in different ways? How?

Hone: I think both offer serious challenges. The rapid growth in World War II made it very difficult to maintain the effective culture the Navy had nurtured during the early twentieth century. Rapid “scaling” (as we call it in the software world) tends to increase centralization, reduce flexibility, and inhibit innovation. That happened to the Navy as it grew during the war. 

The challenge I see with steep reductions is overburdening. Organizations often reduce their size without an equivalent reduction in their commitments. This leads to overwork: people become spread too thin; maintenance gets delayed; and equipment is overutilized. Individuals may still be able to sustain the pace of operations, but they frequently lose the ability to experiment with new ideas. Innovation slows as a result. When commitments are reduced along with reductions in size—as with the Navy after World War I—this can be avoided. 

Nelson: Trent, to close, if you had ten minutes with the Chief of Naval Operations and he asked you what he needed to do to create a learning organization – what would you say?

Hone: I had about thirty seconds with Admiral Richardson last year when he presented me with the second-place award for his Naval History Essay Contest, and in those thirty seconds, I encouraged him to read my book. If I had ten minutes, I’d urge him to introduce a set of integrated feedback loops that couple regular experimentation regarding the nature of future war (tactics, technology, etc.) and OPNAV’s programming process. The goals would be twofold. First, officers need to be encouraged to regularly experiment to vary their tactical approaches to discover new, more effective techniques. They need to become accustomed to adjusting to unanticipated circumstances and leveraging the creativity of their commands. Second, the lessons from their experimentation need to revise and guide the Navy’s program so that force structure and procurement reflect—and ultimately anticipate—the new learning. 

We’re all familiar with the interwar Fleet Problems. What made them really powerful—what allowed them to transform the Navy—was the way they were integrated into the Navy’s planning and procurement processes. The second CNO, Admiral Robert E. Coontz, was primarily responsible for that. He created the feedback loops that allowed the Navy to not just experiment with new tactical doctrines, but to evolve force structure and war plans in light of emerging lessons. If Admiral Richardson wants “high-velocity learning,” if he wants to fully leverage the skills of the Navy’s officers, he needs to devise a set of similar mechanisms. Given the organizational changes since Coontz left office in 1923, a new set of structures and interfaces would have to be introduced. I have faith Admiral Richardson could do that, if he sets his mind to it. 

Trent Hone is an award-winning naval historian and a Managing Consultant with Excella in Arlington, VA. He is an expert on U.S. Navy tactics and doctrine. His article, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific” was awarded the U.S. Naval War College’s Edward S. Miller Prize and the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Ernest M. Eller Prize. His essay, “Guadalcanal Proved Experimentation Works” earned second place in the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest. He regularly writes and speaks about organizational learning, doctrine, strategy, and how the three interrelate. His latest book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945, was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in June 2018.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: USS Indiana (BB-58) fires a salvo from her forward 16″/45 guns at the Kamaishi Plant of the Japan Iron Company, 250 miles north of Tokyo. 

The Geometry of War at Sea: The Leyte Gulf Example

LCDR Daniel T. Murphy, U.S. Navy

Introduction 

General MacArthur’s operational idea, eventually embraced by Admiral Nimitz, President Roosevelt, and the Joint Chiefs, was to retake the Philippines as an intermediate base of operations from which to launch air strikes against Formosa, and eventually the Japanese home islands. Leyte was selected as the initial entry point to the Philippines because it had an “excellent anchorage” and was a location from which land-based bombers could reach all parts of the Philippines, the coast of China, and Formosa.1

The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had a strong feeling that the two prongs of the American offensive would converge on the Philippines in what Milan Vego would describe as a penetration maneuver, where the attacker seeks to break up or penetrate a selected sector of the defender’s main line of position and move into his rear area.2  Japan’s most critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) to the southern resource area ran through the Philippines. The Luzon Strait was an especially important SLOC. According to Donald Chisolm, the southern resource area provided 75 percent of the world’s rubber, 66 percent of the world’s tin, and had initially given Japan self-sufficiency in petroleum.  U.S. anti-shipping activities through 1944 had already reduced Japan’s oil supply to a trickle. Losing the Philippines would run the well dry.3

When U.S. forces landed in Leyte, Japan had prepared a quick counterattack in the hope of forcing the Mahanian battle they had sought since Midway. To destroy the U.S. fleet and retain the Philippines, Japan’s SHO-1 plan involved a double envelopment maneuver that required careful synchronization between diversionary and attacking forces.

Lines of Operation

For the invasion of Leyte, U.S. forces had one principal line of operation and two ancillary lines. The principal line was the landing on the western shore of Leyte, under the operational control of MacArthur. This principal line included land, sea and air components. The Seventh Fleet naval component, under Admiral Kinkaid, included a Northern TF 78 under Rear Admiral Barbey which landed at Tacloban and a Southern TF 89 under Vice Admiral Wilkinson which landed at Dulag.

Prior to the initiation of the principal line of operation, the first ancillary line was initiated by Vice Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38. TF 38, which included carrier groups TG 38.1, 38.2, 38.3 and 38.4, attacked Japanese air bases in Okinawa, Luzon, and Formosa. By destroying more than 500 aircraft and reducing Japan’s cadre of newly trained pilots, this initial ancillary line of operation reduced Japan’s air capacity to challenge the U.S. movement into Leyte.

A second ancillary line was the protection of the landing operation. This ancillary line had two operational commanders. Admiral Kinkaid had tactical control of multiple Seventh Fleet components, including the Fire Support Group TG 77.2, the Close Covering Group TG 77.3, the Escort Carrier Group TG 77.4 under Rear Admiral Sprague (which included the carriers assigned to Taffy 1, 2, 3 and 4), and the PT boat squadrons assigned to TG 70.1. Also providing protection to the landing operation was Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38, over which MacArthur did not have operational control. TF38 transitioned from the first ancillary line to this second ancillary line after the initial landings were completed. Halsey reported directly to Nimitz at CINCPAC and had a supporting relationship with MacArthur and Kinkaid.  Arguably, the lack of unified command over this secondary but critical line is one of the reasons that the Leyte operation was put at risk when Halsey uncovered the San Bernardino Strait to pursue the Japanese Northern force.

Approach of Naval Forces in the lead up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Via history.army.mil)

The deployment of the U.S. submarines DARTER and DACE to intercept and reduce Kurita’s Center Force as it approached the operating area may be considered a third ancillary line, especially since the subs were strategic assets that remained under CINCPAC control. 

To counterattack against the U.S. invasion, Japan had one principal and one ancillary line of operation.  According to Vego, Japan’s principal line of operation was the Center Force under Vice Admiral Kurita that intended to penetrate the San Bernardino Strait and attack U.S. landing forces at Tacloban. Vego said the Southern Force under Vice Admirals Shima and Nishimura that intended to transit Surigao and attack the U.S. landing force from the south was an ancillary line.4  One could argue that the Center and Southern forces were either: (a) two pincer components of one principal line of operation; or (b) two separate principal lines. The diversionary Northern force under Vice Admiral Ozawa was the ancillary line intended to divert the U.S. fast carrier task forces to the north, so that they could not threaten the Center and Southern Forces.

As the battle evolved, Japanese lines of operation remained static. However, U.S. lines shifted between 24-25 October. Halsey created a new line of operation when he transitioned TF 38 from a covering force to an offensive force focused on Ozawa’s Northern force.  Admiral Kinkaid created two new lines of operation when he detached Rear Admiral Oldendorf to guard Surigao Strait with his battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and PT boats against the Southern Force, and Rear Admiral Sprague to defend against Center Force which came through San Bernardino.

Basing Structure and Impact on Operations

Per Vego’s definition, a base of operations should provide multiple short lines of operations.5 Before Leyte, Japan occupied what Vego called a “central position with respect to the adjacent Asian landmass and any hostile force approaching from across the Pacific.”6 Compared to the U.S., Japan had multiple relatively short interior lines of communication. The Japanese home islands were the main base, and Luzon was an intermediate base.

However, as explained by Chisolm, Japan’s combined interior lines totaled more than 18,000 nautical miles and the Luzon Strait was a significant choke point in that network. The Japanese had not built sufficient submarines or destroyers to protect those lines and they had not built sufficient shipping capacity to make up for losses due to U.S. anti-shipping efforts.7 So, although Japan had a base of operations with multiple short interior lines, the U.S. found the weak points in that base early in the war and attacked it with the submarine force. Then, in the campaigns leading up to the Leyte operation, U.S. forces eliminated several of Japan’s fleet oilers. As a result, after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Japanese carriers returned to home waters where they could be protected by land-based aircraft and continue to train pilots. Japan’s other large combatants moved to Lingga Roads (Singapore), where they had access to oil, but less access to ammunition and less ability to operate with the carriers.

Thus, in the summer of 1944, the Japanese basing structure was already significantly weakened. If the U.S. was able to dislodge Japan from their intermediate base in Luzon, they would essentially turn Japan’s network of interior lines into a network of exterior lines, vulnerable not only to continued submarine attack, but also to land-based air attack.

Japanese shipping routes destroyed during the Leyte Operation. (Via history.army.mil)

In comparison, the U.S. occupied what Vego calls an exterior position in the theater. The U.S. mainland was the main base of operations, and Hawaii was an intermediate base. As explained by Chisolm, the U.S.’s exterior lines into the South Pacific were extremely long – more than six thousand miles from the U.S. mainland, and more than two thousand miles from Australia.8 However, the U.S. exterior lines were not as vulnerable as the Japanese interior lines. While the Japanese fleet was suffering from attrition, the U.S. fleet was expanding, and each month was able to increase the number of escort resources dedicated to the protection of shipping. And while Japan’s link to their southern resource area was becoming increasingly tenuous, CONUS-based war production was hardly resource-constrained.

Decisive Points in the Operation

Vego defines a decisive point as a geographic location or source of military or non-military power to be targeted for destruction or neutralization.9 As Vego suggests, the San Bernardino and Surigao Straits were decisive points for the Japanese heavy surface forces in their intended advance to Leyte Gulf.10 However, for Japan, the most decisive point in the operation was in the Leyte Gulf itself, where the U.S. landing force would be vulnerable and where the Seventh and Third fleets would be protecting the landings. It was there that Admiral Toyoda planned for his pincers to join in a combined action against the U.S. fleet, ideally with a Mahanian ending.

In contrast, prior to Japan’s counter attack, U.S. forces focused on two decisive points: the northern and southern landing zones on the west coast of Leyte. When Japanese forces counter-attacked, the U.S. changed focus and saw the two straits, San Bernardino and Surigao, as the most decisive points. As a result, Admiral Kinkaid massed the firepower of his surface fleet in the Surigao Strait and expected the airpower of Halsey’s TF 38 to cover San Bernardino. 

Conclusion

MacArthur’s operational idea of capturing the Philippines to create an intermediate base of operations for air strikes against Formosa and the Japanese home islands worked. Seven years after Leyte, Nimitz said “from hindsight . . . I think that decision was correct.”11  In summary, U.S. lines of operation were more flexible and less interdependent than the Japanese lines of operation. Ironically, the external U.S. basing structure, when looked at holistically, had greater durability than the internal Japanese basing structure. Also, the U.S. more effectively concentrated kinetic effects on specific decisive points in the geography, and specifically in the Surigao Strait. U.S. forces ultimately won at Leyte because they better exploited the geometry of the operating area.  

Daniel T. Murphy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, currently serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. In his civilian career, he is a full-time professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. Lieutenant Commander Murphy earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and master’s degrees from Georgetown University and from the National Intelligence University. 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines, Washington: Center for Military History, 1993), 3.

[2] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), VII-54.

[3] Donald Chisolm, Leyte Gulf: The Strategic Background (NWC lecture), U.S. Naval War College, 2009.

[4] Vego, IV-64.

[5] Vego, IV-56.

[6] Vego, IV-53.

[7] Chisolm (NWC lecture).

[8] Chisolm.

[9] Vego, IV-60.

[10] Vego, IV-61.

[11] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1958) 10.

Featured Image: The crew of the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku salute as the flag is lowered during the battle off Cape Engaño, October 25, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945

By LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN

Silent VictoryConsim Press has published a fantastic solo player wargame in Silent Victory: U.S. Submarines in the Pacific, 1941-1945.  With game design by Gregory M. Smith, Silent Victory offers a little bit of everything for someone looking for an immersive, historical naval wargame that is easy to play yet detailed enough to be fulfilling for an advanced gamer.


“EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE.”

– Chief of Naval Operations


It’s 1941 and you are a U.S. sub skipper in WWII; tasked to sink Japanese ships — tankers, freighters, personnel carriers, escorts, and capital warships — wherever you find them in the Pacific. You can play as a historical WWII sub skipper or, rather, you can simply play as yourself and choose the class of submarine you’d like to command.  You can even name the boat. When you crack open the box you’ll be impressed with how well Consim has done here.  The patrol maps, captain cards, combat mats, and submarine display mats are all printed on a heavy card-stock and the print quality is excellent.  Also included in the box are the required dice and plenty of copies of the Silent Victory patrol log sheet — important, as it is used to record the total number of tons you sink on your combat missions.

Captain Cards
Silent Victory “Captain Cards” — Play any number of historical U.S. submarine skippers. The cards are well made and display the captain’s awards, patrols, and ships/tonnage sunk.

Game Setup 

The game’s “footprint” is moderate — you’ll need a dinning room table or some floor space to lay out most of the game’s playing mats.  However, if you are space constrained, you can simply stack some of the player mats on top of one another and then retrieve them when it is time to reference a mat during a roll.  Below you’ll see my setup, and even though I had ample table space, I still stacked some of the mats (namely, the target mats which list all Japanese ships), until I needed them.  This is what it looks like:

Silent Victory Setup
Silent Victory setup takes, in my case, up to 2x3ft of a kitchen table. I decided to stack some of the mats underneath others, and I would pull them out when I needed them.

Game setup is tedious for folks playing the game for the first time.  The only reason for this, really, is that you’ll have to punch out all of the game pieces that come with the game. These include everything from Japanese ships to markers that show awards and ranks.  Future game setup is much easier if you take the time to organize the game pieces into plastic bags — grouping munitions in one, for example, and then Japanese ships in others, awards in one, torpedoes in another, and so on.

Now, before you start sinking Japanese ships, the basic setup goes like this:

1.) You decide if you want to play a historical skipper, which includes a specific submarine and starting period (you don’t have to start in 1941), to include patrols (e.g,. The Marianas, The Philippines, The Marshalls, and more). Many of these skippers already come with roll bonuses due to experience. The other option is you simply pick a submarine class and starting point (often dictated by when the submarine class enters service) and then roll dice for patrol areas, next;

2.) You’ll load out your submarine with the good stuff — torpedoes in forward and aft tubes, and ammo for the deck mounted guns on your specific submarine type. The game makers made this easy as each submarine combat mat states on the top of the mat exactly the type of torpedoes available for that submarine. For most, this was a mix of MK14 (steam) and MK18 (electric) torpedoes. Finally;

3.) Fill out your Silent Victory submarine log with the name of the sub, your captain’s name, your rank, and place your boat marker at your home port — now you’re ready to begin.

Gameplay

Once you’ve identified your patrol area, you move your submarine marker through the transit points and into the boxes located in your patrol areas. At each point, to include transit points, you’ll roll dice to see if you encounter enemy units.

North Pacific
Transiting to the Marshall Islands for patrol. Notice on the right hand side that I’ve loaded my torpedo tubes with a mixture of MK18 and MK14 torpedoes.

While transiting, you might come across an aircraft or maybe a lone ship, but this is rare as roll of the dice go. Once you enter your patrol areas, however, the possibilities of rolling an encounter increase. For encounters, you can run into warships, convoys with escorts, or unescorted ships.To the game designer’s credit, they’ve assigned different probabilities per year as to what ships a submarine skipper might encounter. For example, it was tough to find a large Japanese freighter or Japanese capital warship still afloat by 1945. 

Small Freighter
One of the game’s Japanese target mats. You’ll roll two d10s to determine which target you’ve encountered.

Next, when you encounter a Japanese merchant vessel or Japanese warship, you can attack it (you can also choose to not attack). You will roll for day or night. Are you surfaced or submerged? You then assign the type and number of torpedoes and/or deck gun shots against your target(s). Then you will roll to see how effective each shot is. If not already obvious, dice will determine a lot of what occurs in this game — damage to your ship, damage to Japanese ships, being detected, dud torpedoes, and more.  Oh, did I say “dud torpedoes?” Yes. This was a problem in WWII. It is also one of the things that make this a challenging game.

Torps
I encountered two Japanese ships during one patrol. I assigned three torpedoes for each on my combat mat. Excessive? Not really. I quickly learned that for each torpedo launched in 1943 there was a 33% chance that it would not explode or hit its target.

For every torpedo you fire, you’ll roll a 1d6 dice for a dud. Roll a 1 or 2, well, you are out of luck. It might have hit, but it didn’t explode. Dud. This happened to me at least three times in two patrols. It was a fact — the U.S. Navy had a torpedo problem. Clay Blair Jr.’s magisterial book Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan made this clear:

“…[T}he submarine force was hobbled by defective torpedoes.  Developed in peacetime but never realistically tested against targets, the U.S. submarine torpedo was believed to be one of the most lethal weapons in the history of naval warfare.  It had two exploders, a regular one that detonated it on contact with the side of an enemy ship and a very secret “magnetic exploder” that would detonate it beneath the keel of a ship without contact.  After the war began, submariners discovered the hard way that the torpedo did not run steadily at the depth set into its controls and often went much deeper than designed, too deep for the magnetic exploder to work.”

Blair notes that not until late 1943 would the U.S. Navy fix the numerous torpedo problems.

For my recent game play, I decided to play as Lieutenant Commander Slade Cutter, USN. Cutter, who originally intended to be a professional flutist, ended the war with four Navy Crosses, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star with combat “V,” and a Presidential Unit Citation. He sank over 140,000 tons of Japanese shipping. In two hours of gameplay I couldn’t come close to that number. But we had a good run. I played the first two patrol areas listed on Cutter’s captain card: The Marianas and The Marshall Islands.

SLUG: ME/Cutter-ob DATE SHOT: 07/27/1944 (Downloaded 06/12/2005 by EEL) CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Navy CAPTION:Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Lt. Cmdr. Slade Cutter, right, for his exploits as a submarine skipper in raids against Japanese shipping on July 27, 1944 at a ceremony in San Francisco. Lt. Cmdr. Cutter of Vallejo and Hollywood, sank 18 Japanese ships, during three successive patrols in enemy-controlled waters. Cutter was also awarded two gold stars in lieu of second and third Navy Crosses.
U.S. Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Lt. Cmdr. Slade Cutter, right. AP Photo.

To summarize two patrols and two hours of play, these were the highlights:

  • I encountered an escorted ship in The Marianas.  I rolled a dud for one MK 18 but assigned enough torpedoes to sink the freighter and its escort on subsequent rolls.
  • I encountered an aircraft.  I rolled a successful crash dive and staved off any damage.
  • I was rebased to Australia following a “random event” roll.  (These may occur once in a patrol.)
  • I refit my submarine when I rebased in Australia.
  • On my Marshall Islands patrol I encountered a three ship convoy with an escort.  I sunk all three merchant vessels, but had to finish the last merchant vessel off with the deck gun (5”) — which I assigned at the last moment.
  • I encountered a warship which I decided not to engage.
  • And I returned to base after two successful patrols and earned two battle stars, a navy cross, and rolled for promotion to Commander — which was successful.
tons
After two patrols I sunk 8 ships that totaled 28,200 tons. A few got away…

I was fortunate. During my two patrols, when I encountered escorts and rolled for detection, I always rolled “no detection.” If I had been detected, I would have had to roll for depth charge destruction. This includes flooding, damage to systems, hull damage, and sailors injured or killed. Not good. But I managed to get everyone back home after two patrols with all fingers and toes. Still, the risk was there every time I decided to engage a convoy with escorts. So, why is this game so much fun?

Conclusion

There are three reasons why this game succeeds.  

First, historical accuracy. From the problems with torpedoes, to the detailed lists of Japanese merchant and capital ships, or to the specific weapons load out of each U.S. submarine in WWII, it is all there. The makers of this game did not cut any corners. They did their homework and tried, I think successfully, to incorporate significant historical facts into the gameplay.

Second, a risk/reward based gameplay experience. Every decision you make — from the torpedoes you use to deciding if you want to attack submerged and at close or long distance — incurs risk.  There are numerous tradeoffs. For instance, you can attack from long distance submerged, but you suffer a roll modifier and risk not hitting your target. Or, you can be aggressive, and attack at close range, surfaced at night, which may increase your chance of hit but also increase your chance of detection. It just depends.  

Finally, simple game rules.  Complicated games are no fun to play. As a player, I don’t want to spend 10 minutes looking up rule after rule in a rulebook the size of a encyclopedia. In Silent Victory,  the designers have done us a favor. The rules are clearly written and extensive, and after a single read through I referred to them occasionally. But more important, the combat mat has the dice roll encounter procedures printed on it, all within easy view. Also, the other mats all have reference numbers and clearly identify which dice should be rolled for what effects. It is all right there on the mats. This makes for a fun, smooth playing experience. And finally, if I were add another reason why this game is worth your money, it is the game’s replay value. You can conduct numerous patrols and no two patrols will ever be the same.

Silent Victory is a fun naval wargame that will appeal to the novice or expert gamer – and maybe you’ll learn something along the way.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a staff officer at the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The opinions here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Return of the Clandestine Merchant Raider?

By Chuck Hill

Since before recorded history, merchant vessels have been adapted for offensive purposes by navies, pirates, and privateers to destroy enemy commerce or to launch attacks ashore. Frequently they employed disguise and deception. The UK employed Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) during the 1982 Falklands War, the Malaysian Navy has converted two container ships into pirate hunters, and the US Navy has leased ships to support special operations, but I think the last time they were used to attack commerce was WWII. By the end 1943, it appeared that technology, primarily in the form of reliable radios, plus robust challenge-and-reply procedures, a comprehensive naval control of shipping organization, and a seemingly impervious blockade of the German coast, had made this type of  warfare very dangerous, but new technology may now be working in favor of using converted merchant ships as clandestine warships.

The German Experience

During World Wars I and II, the German Navy achieved considerable success using armed merchant ships as clandestine merchant raiders. At small cost they sank or captured a large number of allied merchant vessels, tied down a number of warships searching for the raiders, and even managed to sink allied warships.

In World War I, three raiders, Wolf, Moewe, and Seeadler (a full rigged sailing ship), sank or captured 78 ships totaling 323,644 tons. In addition to the merchant ships they captured or sank directly, merchant raiders proved effective mine layers. One victim of a mine laid by the raider Moewe was the pre-dreadnought battleship EdwardVII, sunk on 6 January, 1915.

In World War II nine German Merchant raiders, Atlantis, Komet, Kormoran, Michel, Orion, Pinguin, Stier, Thor, and Widder, sank or captured 129 ships, totaling 800,661 tons. While this pales in comparison to the sinkings by U-boats, they were far more effective than the regular navy surface raiders, including the vaunted pocket battleships, heavy cruisers, and battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, that managed to sink or captured only 59, totaling 232,633 tons. The merchant raider Kormoran even managed to torpedo and sink the light cruiser HMAS Sidney, before the Kormoran herself was also sunk.

Typically, the raiders of WWII were equipped with six obsolescent 5.9″ guns and large numbers of torpedoes to allow ships to be sunk rapidly. Most were also equipped with aircraft and some with torpedo boats.  They were also equipped to change their appearance while underway.

Several of their voyages were extraordinarily long. Michel’s first voyage was 346 days. Orion’s was 510 days. Thor was away 329 days and managed to sink HMS Voltaire, an armed merchant cruiser. Pinguin for 357 days. Komet for 512 days. Kormoran for 350 days before her fatal encounter with HMAS Sydney. The ships were refueled and rearmed by supporting vessels that also took their prisoners. Raiders were also used to resupply submarines.

Perhaps surprisingly, none of these WWII raiders were underway when the war began, when they might have been most effective. They were sortied in two waves in 1940 and 1942.

End of the Merchant Raider

Despite their successes, by the time the last German raider at sea was sunk on 7 September, 1943, by a US submarine shortly after it had sortied from Japan, it had become impossible for ships to sortie from Germany and make it to open sea. Komet and a tenth raider were both sunk attempting to do so.  Three of the nine, Atlantis, Pinguin, and Kormoran, were sunk in distant seas by British cruisers. One, Stier, was sunk by the Naval Armed Guard on the Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins. One was destroyed by a nearby explosion while moored in Yokohama. Two, Orion and Widder,  survived their career as raiders long enough to return to Germany and be repurposed.

Rebirth–Weapons and Sensors, Old and New

Technological changes in the form of containerized cruise missiles, satellites and UAVs and other Unmanned Vehicles may have made the merchant cruiser once again a viable option.

Cruise missiles mean that the raider no longer needs to come with visible range of the their victim. With sufficient range and use of way points, the shooter can be over 100 miles from its victim and the missile can come from any direction, not necessarily from the direction of the raider. Plus they can now attack land targets as well as ships. The US has begun to think seriously about the threat of a cruise missile attack on the US and innocent looking container ships are a possible source.

UAVs can provide over the horizon targeting and are likely to be undetected by the target.

Satellites may help or hurt potential raiders. If they have the support of satellites, it may help them find their pray. If the defenders are sufficiently sophisticated (and they are looking in the right place) they may be able to recognize a missile launch as the first step in finding, fixing and destroying the raider.

Similarly the Automatic Identification System may help the raider or the defender. It may help the raider find targets, but it may also help the defender react more swiftly to an attack or help him identify the raider from among all the other ships in the area. There is always the possibility the information may be bogus. Unmanned Surface Vessels might be used to create false targets. We might want to plan for a system of encrypted information for contingencies. Limiting use of the systems is an option that may require careful consideration.

Mines are still potentially effective. The large carrying capacity of cargo ships means they could potentially lay large mine fields. A raider could knowing a war will start soon might lay a large field to be activated when hostilities begin. If hostilities have already begun, the raider is unlikely approach a port closely enough to lay the mines itself, but mobile mines already exist, and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles or even simple semi-submersible unmanned vessels that can lay an minefield should be relatively easy technology.

China, Perpetrator or Target

From an American point of view, China with its huge merchant fleet and large inventory of cruise missile may appear a possible user of Merchant Raiders, but their large merchant fleet and need to import may also make them vulnerable to this this type of warfare if employed by weaker nations.

We know China has a Naval Militia. that will allow them to rapidly increase the size of their naval force. China has recently said it would require its ship builders to incorporate features that would make them usable for military purposes in wartime. These requirements are to be applied to five categories of vessels – container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier and break bulk.  What these additional features are to be, is not clear. This could mean upgraded communications, either external or internal. It could mean improved survivability, greater speed, or foundations for weapons upgrades. They may only be thinking of using these ships to support amphibious operations, but these improvements may also make a large number of ships potential merchant raiders.

China’s large merchant fleet and need to import raw materials may make her vulnerable to Guerre d’Course. In the kind of low intensity conflict we have seen between China and her neighbors, it has seemed China has had all the advantages, but if they are pushed too far, China’s neighbors might see this form of warfare as a way to push back.

Non-State Actors

There is also the possibility of terrorist organizations attempting something similar, but they are more likely to attack highly visible targets of a symbolic nature, such as port facilities or major warships. Cruise missile could of course be used to attack major landmarks. They may also be less interested in living to fight another day.

Conclusion: I don’t think we have seen the end of offensive use of Merchant vessels.

Sources:

Addendum:

Some photos of vessels that are being used for military purposes:

MSC has chartered the MV Craigside to support SOCOM requirements. It is undergoing conversion in Mobile.

SD Victoria lifts boats and supports crews for UK Special Forces (SBS and SAS).

Malaysian auxiliary warship Bunga Mas Lima

Chuck retired from the Coast Guard after 22 years service. Assignments included four ships, Rescue Coordination Center New Orleans, CG HQ, Fleet Training Group San Diego, Naval War College, and Maritime Defense Zone Pacific/Pacific Area Ops/Readiness/Plans. Along the way he became the first Coast Guard officer to complete the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) course and also completed the Naval Control of Shipping course. He has had a life-long interest in naval ships and history.