'Gaming/simulating' the Kokoda Track campaign

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'Gaming/simulating' the Kokoda Track campaign

I've just returned from a two week research trip in Canberra where I explored aspects of the Kokoda Track campaign (primarily 1942). It was a shocking, brutal campaign fought in what many soldiers have described as the worst environment on the world to fight a war in (these include veterans of trench warfare from WWI, plus recent veterans from North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria/Lebanon). It was also a major campaign for Australians. New Guinea was 'mandated' Australian territory, and the Australians who fought there felt they were defending their 'homeland', and felt they were preventing the Japanese from pressing further where they may have posed a greater risk to cutting off the mainland of Australian from external supply.

After a tiring day of research, the ‘gamer’ in me got to thinking about whether anyone had attempted to 'game' or 'simulate' the campaign (I've been playing OCS Burma lately, and it is a similar environment with similar logistical concerns). From what I could find, there's only one Panzer Grenadier 'supplement' that deals with this. Given the significance of the campaign (primarily for Australians), I was a little surprised to find that more hadn't been done to 'game/simulate' the campaign. Then I got to thinking about the difficulties of doing so, and thought I’d share some thoughts as to what factors may have deterred previous designers:

Logistics/Supply Focused
* The course of the campaign was dictated by the difficult nature of logistics. This was not simply a case of 'send the trucks up to the front and let the troops do the fighting'; it was a case of each man carrying supplies on a 7+ day trek across rugged mountain ranges (too steep even for donkeys and mules to access) where it rained EVERY DAY, at about 1pm without fail. The Japanese (who typically outnumbered the Australians from 3:1 to 10:1) ultimately got within 25km of their objective, Port Moresby, but were forced to withdraw, not because they were 'defeated in battle', but because their supplies were no longer making it to them in time and they were beginning to starve [some resorted to cannibalism, and the Australians, knowing the poor supply situation amongst the Japanese, would set ambushes using tins of food as 'bait']. As a result, anyone attempting to simulate this would need to have 'logistics' as a key (decisive) factor in their game development. The Australians enlisted (and sometimes forced) the support of thousands of Papuan porters (nick-named ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ due to the ‘heavenly’ assistance they provided) to ferry their supplies forward [including often carrying packs and rifles for soldiers], and carry their wounded back, whilst the Japanese ‘enslaved’ some labourers from Rabaul to assist in ferrying their supplies. The assistance of the Papuan porters was critical in the Australian success in the campaign, so, to truly ‘simulate’ the campaign, should a game feature these porters? Historians generally accept that the Australians turned the tide because they managed, through their defensive actions, to delay the Japanese advance long enough to force the Japanese to exhaust their supplies. In sum, the turning tides of ‘supply’ was a critical factor in turning the tide of the campaign. The Japanese were initially well supplied (the Australians less-so), but, through supply attrition [forced by the defensive actions of Australians] they ran out of supplies and their advance halted right as the Australian’s grew in strength and grew in ‘supply’. Any ‘simulation’ of the campaign must reconsider the previous ‘wargaming’ focus upon ‘combat strength’ and consider ‘supply strength’ as a priority [having said this, I recognize ‘combat strengths’ are often calculated to reflect supply]. For me, OCS Burma is the closest I can think of to ‘simulating’ these supply difficulties.


Papuan porters carrying wounded Australians and supplies along the track

Balance of forces and supply
* Japanese offensive tactics focused upon 'outflanking' the enemy by utilising the dense and difficult terrain. Australian troops focused their defences along the tracks leading across the mountains, but the Japanese simply moved around these tracks and cut them off. As such, large numbers of Australians (typically in small groups from 5-50) found themselves cut off from supplies and surrounded by the Japanese. Australian platoon and company commanders would regularly pick a position to defend, dig-in, fight off the central body of Japanese attackers (often used as a decoy), and once they found they were being flanked they would withdraw to a new position where they would repeat the process. However, throughout the Japanese advance the Australians found it consistently difficult to defend against these tactics. Australian defensive lines spread out into the mountain ranges either side of the track, Japanese patrols would probe to see where the lines/positions were, then the Japanese would simply flank around the defenders, cut them off, and either continue advancing or attack from the rear (a key factor here was that the Australians were outnumbered throughout the Japanese offensive/advance). As such, any simulation of this would present one player with a very large and originally well-supplied advancing force (Japanese), and the other with a very small and poorly supplied defending force (Australians). Then there is the other factor…


The Australian 'supply line'


Zero intelligence – both sides blind to opponents positions and strength
* The Owen Stanley mountain ranges are typically covered by thick jungle covering. Soldiers repeatedly comment on how they fought the Japanese for hours, but never saw a single person (this is often typical of combat in general, but it was exacerbated in this dense, dark [thick canopy] jungle environment). Historians have commented how this type of fighting saw the ‘closest proximity of killing’ in the Second World War. There was little scope for artillery [though a few guns and mortars did eventually play a role]. Instead, there was a great deal of hand-to-hand fighting, of men being bayoneted without even knowing the enemy was near, and of men being shot by enemies just a few yards away (again, without knowing the enemy was near). ‘Tactically’, knowledge of the enemy’s presence was very poor. ‘Operationally’ it was even worse. In short, ‘intelligence’ throughout the campaign was virtually ‘nil’. When a small group of about 100 Australians defended Kokoda against about 1500 Japanese early in the campaign, the Japanese thought they were facing a force of about 1200. Such poor intelligence continued throughout the campaign. Wargames typically present a ‘god’s eye’ view of the battlefield [where players typically have complete information on the strength and position of both theirs and enemy forces]. However, during the Kokoda campaign, at any given time, platoon, company, and brigade commanders could only ‘hope’ and often just ‘guess’ as to where the units under their command may be (yep, ‘platoon’ commanders often lost track of their sections - it wasn't hard, as sections were often reduced to just two or three men). How then to simulate a situation where one doesn’t even know where one’s own troops are, let alone where the enemy is, how strong the enemy is or, as explored in my next point, where they are moving.


Zero intelligence – both sides blind to enemy movement
* As noted above, the Australians defended the main tracks, and the Japanese simply outflanked them. Once the Japanese had outflanked the enemy, they would either continue down along the track, or turn back and attack the surrounded Australians. Again, intelligence was nil, and the first news many units had of being outflanked and surrounded was when they were attacked from the rear, or when they heard gunfire off ‘hundreds of yards’ behind them. On ‘Brigade Hill’ on 8 September, 1942, several Australian infantry battalions suddenly heard gunfire coming from their HQ about 500-1000 metres down the track behind them. Overnight, a Japanese battalion had undertaken a 2km trek to outflank the Australian positions entirely (outflanking not just a few platoons or companies, but three infantry battalions consisting of the entire Australian ‘front, support and reserve’ lines). The Japanese battalion (2/144) came out of the bush close to the Australian HQ based about 1km behind the front lines and fired on the men based in the area (this fire alerted those in the ‘front’ that something was wrong). The entire Australian front was forced to go off the track into the dense jungle and each small section or platoon had to make their own way back to the track and back to their ‘supply lines’ (some took weeks to get back). The point here is that the success of the Japanese advance here, and throughout most of the campaign, rested upon the element of a surprise outflanking manoeuvres that would cut the Australians off from their ‘supply line’. Most wargames are non-blind games, where units and their movements are visible. How then to ‘simulate’ a surprise move such as this if a 'gamer' can see each and every move their opponent makes?


Map showing Australian positions north of 'Brigade Hill', and the position where the Japanese struck

The impact of disease/illness
* Disease and illness took a toll on combat forces as high as, if not much higher than, combat itself. Again, this is common in many battles (particularly in wars before the twentieth century). Dysentery, malaria and 'scrub typhus' weakened soldiers of both sides and could damage the ‘fighting effectiveness’ of a force. Men of both sides were often forced to ‘fight through’ their illnesses simply due to a lack of medical provisions (these also typically had to be carried across the mountain ranges). The longer the period of time these units were ‘based’ on the track (regardless of their role in combat), the higher these casualties due to illness and disease.

Varied strengths by similar units
* The ‘unknown’ effectiveness of the Australian militia was a key fear amongst Australian leaders early in the campaign. In early 1942 the relatively poorly-trained Australian militia [compared to the more ‘elite’ units of the Australian Imperial Force] were, in effect, the only available fighting force ‘on hand’ to defend against the Japanese. A small company of men of the 39th Battalion (militia consisting largely of ‘conscripts’ who could only be sent to serve/fight within Australian territory) were the first sent across the ranges to defend against the Japanese advance. After crossing the ranges, the now-weakened company fought for several days against a Japanese force that outnumbered them, at times, by a range from 10:1 to 15:1. The men of the 39th Battalion continued to fight their way back in a withdrawal across the ranges over the coming weeks, and they played a vital role in ‘delaying’ the Japanese advance. In contrast, another militia battalion, the 53rd, have had their combat performance extensively criticized by historians (they are reported to have performed ‘very poorly’). Both were unknown factors, both were in a similar position and received similar training, and yet one unit ‘excelled’, and the other didn’t. In terms of ‘simulating’ this, we now know that the 39th fought strongly, and that the 53rd did not [relatively speaking]. But how can these unknown factors be ‘simulated’? How can the commanders’ ‘fear’ in the perceived unreliability of these units be recreated?


Men of the 39th Bn [militia] - it was feared they would run from battle - instead, they helped hold up the Japanese advance for several weeks

Nb. American forces were involved in the latter stages of the campaign which was fought around the Japanese beachheads. They also provided vital services throughout the campaign via the USAAF; one of their key roles was to drop key supplies mid-way along the track at 'Myola' which alleviated the logistical pressures (particularly on the individual soldier who often carried his own food and supplies).

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