FOW – Matanikau River

For our most recent Flames of War game we decided to take a break from our recent spate of Bagration games and do something different – and you don’t get much more different than Guadalcanal in 1942!  I decided to base a scenario loosely on the Japanese attacks against the US Marine positions along the Matanikau River in late October, 1942.  The main draw of this particular battle was that the Japanese committed their only tank force on Guadalcanal to the fight.

The historical battle featured two battalions of Japanese supported by the 1st Independent Tank Company (with ten Type 97 medium and two Type 95 light tanks) and the 2nd Division’s artillery against two battalions of Marines supported by a couple of 37mm AT guns and artillery – lots of artillery.  The Marines eventually called in some half-track mounted 75mm guns to help deal with the Japanese tanks and before the battle was over were supported by ten batteries of artillery from he 11th Marine Regiment.  The Japanese had sent an additional regiment of infantry to outflank the exposed Marine positions, but as was so often the case with the Japanese plans, these battalions got last and delayed on the trails and failed to coordinate their attack with the main body.  The result of this battle was that the Marines destroyed the Japanese piecemeal, but the attack did have the desired effect for the Japanese of drawing attention away from the main body of the 2nd (Sendai) Divsion which was marching overland to attack the southern side of the Marine perimeter around Henderson Field.

Those forces are much too large to represent in a FOW game, so I scaled all of the infantry back  (more or less proportionately and limited by my collection of minis) but since the tanks were to be the focus of the game, kept the entire Japanese tank company in the game (although Shinhoto Chi-Ha minis had to stand in for regular Type 97s).   Battlefront does not officially provide any support for the Pacific campaign, but my buddy Mike Miller and I have long had an interest in that theater and developed FOW-style organization lists and stats for the Imperial Japanese Army and US Marine Corp (available from the Flames of War Pacific Yahoo Group).   In order to make a better battle of it, I gave the Japanese the benefit of having their elaborate plans work out better, with the flanking force actually arriving to participate in the fight.  The Japanese had landing craft available for a seaward flanking maneuver as well, so I gave the Japanese that option to boot (Although my players opted not to send any troops by sea).  The final shape of the game had a couple of very understrength Marine companies (but with plenty of machine guns) against two full stength platoons of Japanese to their front across the river and three more platoons moving to their flank along the jungle trails.  The 1st Independent tank company was deployed in all it’s glory.

The Marines deployed to defend the line of the Matanikau River, with AT guns and a couple of MG’s guarding the river mouth and a few Marines curved back along the ridge to protected against Japanese attacking from across the footbridge inland from the river mouth.  The Marine player was not aware of where the Japanese reserves would come from.  The Japanese sent the tanks against the river mouth, where the sandbar offered the only crossing point and the two platoons of infantry inland to cross the river.

The first Japanese turn brought disaster along the river but surprise inland.  Two tanks moving up the beach were scorched by the 37mm guns and about a third of a platoon was destroyed along the river’s edge by heavy Marine fire.  However, Japanese troops immediately began moving onto the table from the south (inland) opposite the thin Marine line on the ridge.  In the next turn, fire from knee mortars took out the Marine machine guns on the ridge and a furious Japanese assault threw them back.  The Marine unit furthest forward in the bend of the river was now in a real pickle, with Japanese troops pouring down toward their flank.  The Marines did the only thing they could do and began falling back through the jungle in search of some space to form a new line.  Two more platoons of Japanese appeared from the south, forcing the Marine 81mm mortar unit to abandon their firing position on the ridge and flee into the jungle.  The tubes would play no part in the battle…

At the river’s mouth the battle took a bad turn for the Marines as well, with both ATGs being knocked out by the Japanese tanks.  The infantry that had been smacked around up river were now moving toward the river mouth to follow the tanks.  The Marine commander was on the horn immediately and secured release of the 75mm guns from division HQ.  The guns came sprinting up the jungle road as the Japanese tanks moved across the sandbar.  The 75mm guns zoomed forward and quickly knocked out two tanks on the beach.  The wrecks blocked movement down the beach, forcing the Japanese to make additional bog tests that would impede their progress.  With no more enemy infantry trying to force the river, the two Marine platoons on the north stretch of the river moved inland, one streaming south to try and block the tanks and the other heading into the jungle to deal with the Japanese pouring over the ridge.

In the horseshoe formed by the river and the ridge, the Marines managed to form a new defensive line expertly laid out in an ‘L’ with the machine guns at the corner.  This arrangement allowed Scott to direct fire at the Japanese approaching from across the river and from the ridge.  The Japanese were stymied for a couple of turns until the Japanese could manage to pin the Marine platoon.  Machine gun fire and artillery (the Marines had now brought some of their formidable array of artillery into the fight) did significant damage, but eventually the Japanese were able to pin the platoon and launch a series of assaults that threw them back again.

At the river’s mouth the Marine SP guns and Japanese tanks were engaged in a point-blank duel through the jungle growth.  More Japanese tanks were destroyed, but the fearless tankers refused to quit the battle and eventually began to gain the upper hand.  An assault by the Marine infantry drove back a Japanese tank, but then the Japanese infantry launched an assault of their own.  Although beaten back by the Marines, the casualties were too much for the Marine platoon which routed and fled back up the coastal road.  The Japanese finally killed on of the SP guns and the other also fled the scene.

We ran out of game time soon after, but the situation was clearly not looking good for the Marines.  We had one full strength platoon left, but the other company was more or less gutted and facing a couple of Japanese platoons still at decent strength.  We decided the understrength company could cover the withdrawal of the remaining Marines.  The Marines had been forced to call in most of their available reserves, which combained with the loss of one Marine company, was a clear Japanese victory.

It was a really fun game and a great example of how historical fights can be reshaped to provide fun scenarios even if you don’t follow the available order of battle to the letter, etc.  I created the table from various maps of the battle area I had uncovered and as is usually the case, use of realistic terrain made for a great game.  Fights in the jungle are very different fromt he usual experience you might get at a pick up game at your FLGS.  Basically the entire table is area terrain unless some other feature is present (such as the ridges or river), meaning that fighting all takes place at 6″ range and supporting assets are much less important.  The rifleman rules the day in this terrain.  The Japanese players did a great job in this game, attacking aggressively and continuously but not foolishly.  Had they made better use of their artillery, we Marine players might well have been routed all together.  For my part, I completely misused half of my infantry, indecisively moving them to and fromwithout doing anything useful at all.  Live and learn.


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6 responses to “FOW – Matanikau River”

  1. Steven MacLauchlan says :

    Awesome scenario! It’d be great to tie a Guadalcanal FOW campaign with a CY6 campaign.

  2. Brian says :

    A combined campaign would be pretty cool. I thought about it some when we were working our way through the Guadalcanal campaign book for CY6!

  3. Occy says :

    Having recently been based in Honiara with the Australian Army for several months Peacekeeping and regulary walked the ground on which this particular battle was fought I am very impressed with your terrain and layout.

  4. Brian says :

    Thanks. One of the books I used as a reference had a very nice aerial photograph of the battle area that had been overlayed with the various unit positions and such. We just set that photo out on the table and started trying to capture the nature of the terrain for the game.

  5. Scott R. Davis says :

    What kind of maker of 15mm miniature Japanese figures do you recommend? By the way, awesome scenario! I love the scenary!

    • Brian says :


      Thanks for the kind words. That was a great game and the table looked fantastic.

      As for Japanese, My own are a mix of Old Glory and Peter Pig for the most part. Both are pretty decent lines and of the two, I’d have to say I like the Peter Pig ones better. The Old Glory sculpts are on par with their other 15mm WWII lines (all of whuch I really like), but curiuously it is the line with the largest models. They are just big models for 15mm, and it’s a little off to have your Japanese (not a people of the largest stature) bigger than your US Marines! The line is also missing some key elements, especially the Type 89 Grenade Dischargers (ala knee mortars). The Peter Pig line is the same size or maybe even smaller than their regular stuff and has some great packs like guys charging wearing only loin clothes (great for tank hunters and other “suicide” troops). The size difference between the two means though that I don’t mix them much as I normally do with PP and OG, meaning less overall poses.

      I bought the Japanese and Marines years ago and there have been a few manufacturers come out with Japanese lines that are nice. The Resistant Rooster Japanese look really good. I’ve heard these are pretty big figures as well (RR supposedly fit in well with the bulky phase from Battlefront), but haven’t seen any up close.

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