RogerBW's Blog

Seventh Harpoon PBEM AAR: Hurrying Home 30 March 2015

This scenario is set in 1975; it deals with a British carrier group, heading home across the Atlantic at the outbreak of war, attacked by Soviet submarine and air forces. Total play time has been nearly two months, my goodness.

The core of the group is Ark Royal, the Audacious-class launched in 1950; she carries Phantoms, Buccaneers, and Gannet radar planes. She is escorted by Bristol, the historically unique Type 82 destroyer, and three Type 21 frigates, Alacrity, Amazon and Ambuscade, with a variety of Sea King and other helicopters.

Going up against this force are two Foxtrot-class and two Romeo-class attack submarines, one Echo missile boat, and four Bear and four Backfire bombers. (The Backfires are on call at Murmansk, and take time to arrive.)

Because this is a mid-oceanic scenario, my usual TPC plots weren't available – the charts don't cover areas far from land, or over such wide areas at a time. The engine can plot on a plain blue field, but that seemed uninteresting; I was able to get an OpenStreetMap plotting engine up and running just in time.

The British chose to conduct extensive single-aircraft patrols: three of the four Gannets were aloft, and many of the Phantoms and Buccaneers too – the latter scanning the sea surface with their search radars.

The Soviets laid out their submarines in a patrol line, the Echo to the south.

The game was intended to start at 0700 when the British first picked up the approaching Bears, but aggressive patrolling meant this happened earlier than planned, with first contact around 0630. The Bears' ESM picked up a welter of aircraft and surface radars.

The British soon had positive tracks on two of the three Bear groups, and ESM on the third; fighters moved in to engage with Sky Flash.

With two of the Bears knocked down easily, Blue decided to try to take the third with guns.

And rather to everyone's surprise (particularly his own), the Bear's tail-gunner managed to dispatch the attacking fighter.

Inevitably, though, more fighters were moving in.

They engaged with missiles, and killed the last of the Bears.

The submarines had arranged intermittent surfacing for communications coordination, and the Bears had reported the approximate position of the British fleet.

The Backfires took off from Murmansk. (The original scenario notes had a fixed delay between takeoff and arrival, but since I was using OpenStreetMap I could plot them all the way through their flight.)

The British got their patrols back in order, and carried on looking for aircraft and submarines, as the Backfires slowly closed in.

At 8.30am, a remarkable thing happened. One of the Foxtrots was on the surface for communications, and its masts were spotted by one of the Buccaneers.

It immediately dived, but the British anti-submarine assets were sent to quarter the area. They had no success, and the possible area began to expand.

At 9.30, the Echo boat surfaced and began missile launch preparations, planning to coordinate with the Backfire strike expected around 10am. This was fortuitous timing, as most of the Buccaneers were low on fuel from extensive low-altitude searching, and headed back to Ark.

And the Backfires flew on…

But the British ASW helos were further north, proscuting the contact they'd made rather than the one they didn't know about.

At 09:54, things started happening fast. The incoming Backfires activated their Down Beat radars, picking up Ark – and of course alerting the British, who swung their fighter patrols to the north.

Just as they were responding to that, a new threat appeared, the SS-N-3Bs launched from the Echo. (Which promptly dived as soon as the last missile was away, of course.)

The Backfires picked up a second target (Bristol); for reasons I'm not entirely clear on, they thought this was Ark (which had been the British player's plan). They launched some of their AS-6 missile load in that direction, but retained most of it for a follow-up strike.

The Shaddocks bore in, out of range for any fighters to do anything about them. Bristol launched Sea Dart, but couldn't put enough in the air to deal with eight incoming missiles, and other ships were out of range. The Shaddocks picked up a target position update from the Backfires, and made a mid-course correction to put ARK squarely in their first-generation seeker cones.

Five of the Shaddocks got through the defences. Two of them missed, but three hit, ripping through the hangar and starting a conflagration.

Ark was clearly lost, and the game was called at this point before the AS-6 strike from the Backfires had been spotted.

Now that it's over, I can explain the pseudo-historical context for this scenario, which links to my One for the Brow alternate history. It's posited as a wargame taking place in the mid-1960s, based on rumours (which just happen to be very accurate) of the latest Soviet submarine, aircraft and missile designs. Can a British carrier group stand up against a concerted attack? The answer, very clearly, is no.

But not for the reasons one might have expected. It's not that the ASW helicopters are too slow, or the Gannet doesn't have a good enough radar; both of those worked perfectly well (though a faster Gannet might have helped pin down the attacking aircraft a little sooner). It's the horribly short range of the passive search sonar on both the ships and the helicopters (nothing more than half a mile in default conditions, and none of it capable of convergence zone detection), which meant that even after all my calculations the only actual contact the British managed with a Soviet submarine was that one radar paint of a periscope. Should they have gone active, since the active sets have rather better range? There were a couple of points where it might have made a difference, but mostly the helos and the subs were just too far apart.

One could argue that the Type 21s, with their short-ranged missiles, should have been kept further in; but they are meant to be sub-hunters as well as air-defence ships. Easy to be wise after the fact.

Thanks to Team Soviet: Luiz (air units), Tom and Craig (Foxtrots and Romeos, ending up with nothing to do), and Facundo (Echo, dropped out of communication). Particular thanks to Todd who handled the British forces, having to give orders for 20+ units and put up with an endless string of "no contact… no contact" in return.

On a technical note, the OSM map engine seems to work all right, and can plot a map very much faster because it's not dealing with ultra-high-resolution images, though I still prefer the fiddly detail of the TPCs where they're available.


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 01:22pm on 30 March 2015

    Could Shaddocks of that generation really get course updates directly from aircraft? I had the impression the launching boat had to stay surfaced to pass updates to its missiles.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:29pm on 30 March 2015

    The technical answer is probably not, but this gets below the rules' resolution.

    The initial flight of four AS-6s would have done about as much damage anyway.

  3. Posted by Luiz Cláudio Duarte at 02:30pm on 30 March 2015

    Thanks to my Soviet colleagues, and to my worthy adversaries. This was one fine game.

    As for the confusion between Ark Royal and Bristol: I first got an ESM contact from a 992 air search radar from the Bears, and I called it Ghost-1 (GH1). A short time later, I got another ESM contact (ZED), this time from a 965 radar.

    At 0654, a short time before the last Bear was splashed, ZED started radiating with a type 965 radar, and it reversed course to 250°.

    My reasoning was that ZED was Ark Royal, and that it was avoiding the combat area, while GH1 was Bristol, sailing in harm's way. A few hours later, when the Backfires again located GH1 before any other contact, I decided to wait one tactical turn before opening fire. No contacts were found, but I still thought that GH1 was probably Bristol, and on the next turn I order a four-missile salvo against it, leaving eight missiles still in reserve.

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