29 February 2024

Tin Omen - March 1942

Tankettes as fragile as granny’s tea set. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I agree. Bear with me. We’re off to Java where you can grab a cup of java instead. And where you’ll encounter an eclectic mix of vechtwagen. That’s Dutch for vehicles spoiling for a fight. Property of The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger—KNIL for short), these (lightly armoured) fighting vehicles spearheaded an attack in 1942, almost two years after the Netherlands had surrendered to the Third Reich. The Japanese, in pursuit of their own regional empire, were not amused. 

This is my second post featuring a scenario currently in playtest for a pack I announced last year. Let me set the stage.    

On the first day of March 1942, the Japanese invaded Java, the heart of the Netherlands East Indies. They came ashore at three points on the island. The smallest contingent, a regimental-sized group of the 38th Infantry Division under Colonel Toshishige Shoji, landed at Eretan Wetan, 200 kilometres east of the closest friendly forces. The Shoji Detachment’s immediate objective was the capture of the airfield at Kalidjati. In a bold move, Shoji put tanks ashore first, followed closely by truck-borne infantry. By 1230 Kalidjati was in Japanese hands. Major-General J.J. Pesman, commander of Java’s Bandoeng Group, was certain that the airfield was lightly held. The next day, he ordered Captain G. J. Wulfhorst’s Mobiele Eenheid (Mobile Unit)—a lightly-armoured combined-arms force recently transferred to Pesman’s command—to recapture the Kalidjati airbase. The first Dutch tank attack in history began at 0810 Java Time.

KNIL Marmon-Herrington Combat Tank Light Series CTLS-4

The road to Kalidjati wound through Soebang. Unknown to the Dutch, Colonel Shoji was headquartered in the town, having arrived only a few hours earlier, together with a reinforced company of infantry. Motorcycle scouts of the Mobile Unit’s Reconnaissance Platoon were the first to discover this uncomfortable fact. The Japanese had strung a steel cable across the road, anchored on each side to farmers’ carts. A Marmon-Herrington armoured car was able to push the barrier aside, but was dragged into the ditch in the process. The tank platoon behind the vanguard then took the lead. In single file, First Lieutenant Christan’s seven CTLS-4 light tanks drove north through town, spraying Japanese positions with machinegun fire as they went. Infantry following behind in their open-topped armoured personnel carriers had no such recourse and dismounted. They would first have to rout the enemy from Soebang if they were to gain Kalidjati. Only the Japanese are not in the business of routing.


Soebang is borderline tropical. Although the Japanese attacked during the monsoon season, the weather didn’t impede their initial progress. At first, I tried to replicate the area around the roadblock, as well as the town itself. However, these required two extra half boards that saw little actual combat. In the end I settled on board 15a from ASL Action Pack 16. It feels like a sprawling settlement in the tropics, and when transformed on VASL, it looks the part. My only quibble was the central plateau. Soebang was bounded by a ridge with rubber plantations to the west and swampy ground to the east. The town was also bigger than the inhabitated area of board 15a portrays.

I tried the scenario with and without the hill. One advantage of the plateau is that it slowed the pace of vehicle movement. Without the hill, it’s possible to traverse the entire town in a single Movement Phase (MPh). No doubt the Japanese will have something to say on the matter. But it’s nonetheless possible. More worrisome was that the hill provided superior Lines of Sight (LOS) for the defenders. The hill would have to go.

And it did. It was then a simple matter to transform the remaining terrain into Light Jungle (G2.1), while retaining the road network. 

ASL Action Pack 16 - board 15a - Soebang villa

Shoji’s samurai  

Officially Colonel Toshishige Shoji was given command of the 3rd Mixed Regiment, a battlegroup—commonly referred to in the historical literature as the Shoji Detachment, largely based on his own 230th Infantry Regiment of the 38th Division. His command included a host of attachments from armour to airfield construction engineers. The 38th Division had been bloodied during the Battle of Hong Kong three months earlier. However, it wasn’t an especially battle-hardened formation. Therefore, I used First Line squads with an Experience Level Rating (ELR) of 4 to represent the men of the 4th Infantry Company. Fairly or unfairly, I chose an 8+1 leader and a Second Line squad to represent Colonel Shoji and his headquarters staff.

According to Japanese sources, the 4th Infantry Company was supported by two machine guns (MG), an anti-tank (AT) gun, and a “mountain” gun. 

Japanese landings on Java and Shoji's positions at Soebang

Selecting the anti-tank gun was relatively straightforward. Issue of the Type 1 (1941) Machine-Moved Gun (Japanese Ordnance Note 8) didn’t begin until late 1942. Its predecessor, the Type 1 (1941) 37mm AT Gun was adopted only in very limited numbers beginning in 1941. This first dedicated AT gun was an upgraded version of the Type 94 (1934) Rapid-Fire Gun (Japanese Ordnance Note 7). The barrel of the improved model was about 15cm (6-in) longer, but only increased armour penetration by 4mm at 500m. This marginal difference has no measurable effect in game terms, hence the lack of a separate counter in ASL. 

Adopted in 1936, the Type 94 Rapid-Fire Gun was designed to target enemy MG posts at range, but was invariably pressed into service as an AT gun in 1939 when faced with Soviet tanks. The Type 94 was in turn an improvement on the Year-11 (1922) Type Flat-Trajectory Infantry Gun (Japanese Ordnance Note 9), which also served as a crude AT weapon against lightly-armoured armoured fighting vehicles (AFV). Because Japanese documents are clear in describing an “anti-tank” rather than an “infantry gun” at Soebang, the case for the presence of the Type 94 is strongest. Furthermore, by this point in the war, the Year-11 Gun had been largely relegated to second-line use, whereas the AT company of a Japanese infantry regiment was assigned six Type 94 guns. Even when supplied with an Armour-Piercing High-Explosive round, however, the Type 94 “anti-tank” gun struggled to penetrate the armour of American light tanks. It would have more success against the more lightly armoured tanks of the KNIL.

Japanese Type 94 Rapid Fire AT Gun

I wanted to use the 70mm Type 92 Infantry or “battalion” gun (Japanese Ordnance Note 10), rather than the Year-41 Type 75mm Mountain or “regimental” gun (Japanese Ordnance Note 11). I reasoned that a “battalion” asset was more likely to be deployed forward, not least because, at half the weight, the lighter weapon could be loaded faster onto a truck and off loaded at its destination in a fraction of the time. But after finding Japanese source material that appears to confirm what every published account has said, namely that a “mountain” gun was present in Soebang, I have relented. A big upside from the defender’s point of view is that, unlike the Type 92, Armour-Piercing (AP) ammunition of the Year-41 Type is not subject to Depletion (C8.9). What’s more, the Basic To Kill Number of the “regimental” gun is “10,” two greater than that of the “battalion” gun. Bad news for Dutch trucks. 

Japanese Year-41 Type 75mm Mountain Gun

Dutch trucks?

Ignoring the Marmon-Herrington armoured cars, which are technically trucks, there are no soft-skinned vehicles, no Dutch trucks, in “Tin Omen.” Vehicles with slightly thicker skin nevertheless abound. I have already alluded to the armoured cars and light tanks built by the US firm Marmon-Herrington, which specialized in the manufacture of all-wheel-drive trucks. The armoured cars don’t appear until late in the game, while the CTLS-4 play piggy in the middle from the get-go. However, the most numerous “tin cans” in “Tin Omen” are the pigglet-sized (according to your Chapter H notes) vechtwagen built by Vickers Armstrong. 

Contrary to what your Chapter H notes suggest, the KNIL operated more than one model of the Vickers-Carden-Loyd light tank. For instance, the ASL counter listed under Allied Minor Vehicle Note 25 is amphibious, as indicated by Movement Point (MP) subscript on the counter. The counter’s closest amphibious match in the KNIL motor pool is the earlier 1931 model, as shown in the slide below. Only two M1931 had been purchased for trials and no additional order was ever placed. It is also worth noting that the closest ASL counter match for the Dutch M1931 is the Chinese M1931 VCL M1931(b)! In any case, it doesn’t appear that any were operational in the Mobile Unit at the time of the Japanese invasion. One had been sent to Borneo, along with a pair of M1936, while the other likely rusted, due to lack of spare parts, at the depot in Bandoeng, Java. 

KNIL - Vickers-Carden-Loyd Models 1931 and 1936

The twin Colt Brownings of the M1936 next to the M1931 have no equivalent in the ASL counter mix. These MG were probably fitted during the testing stage, shortly after their arrival in the Dutch East Indies in December 1937. However, by August 1941, it appears that all operational M1936 were armed with a single shrouded Vickers as seen in the largest photograph in the preceding slide. Of all the VCL depicted, it comes closest in game terms to the vehicle described in Chapter H. 

Ignoring the dodgy artwork, the values on the three counters included with Doomed Battalions are unquestionably suspect. Take target size. The two white dots behind the Armor Factors tell us that this vehicle qualifies for as a “very small” target. This makes sense for the low-profile VCL M1931, but not the 1936 model, which the counter purports to represent. Less obvious are the Armor Factors (AF) themselves, which might warrant a slight increase, in keeping with most other VCL AFV in the current countermix. (Maximum armour on the VCL M1936 was 9mm.) Overall the values of the published counter make the VCL M1936 a little harder to hit and a little easier to effect once hit, an acceptable tradeoff that alleviates any perceived need for a Scenario Special Rule (SSR).

Aside from these minor points, the only real hiccup is that “Tin Omen” calls for six VCL M1936. The Mobile Unit had 17: fourteen split evenly between two platoons and three in company headquarters. I went with six because three AFV doesn’t convey the amount of fire support the second tank platoon would have brought to bear when they joined the fray. Don’t despair, if you happen to own ASL Starter Kit Expansion Pack 2, it comes with three VCL M1936. In a pinch, you could use Chinese M1931 counters to make up the difference. 

KNIL - CTLS-4TAC Starboard Turret

Speaking of counter shortfalls, the first tank platoon to enter Soebang had seven CTLS-4TAC, as the Dutch referred to the newly arrived Marmon-Harrington tanks. Doomed Battalions supplies us with four and the aforementioned Starter Kit pack another three. But I decided to go with four, treating the other three as early casualties of the platoon’s brash sortie into town. These casualties are mirrored in the Japanese order of battle (OB) with the inclusion of three “striped” Japanese squads. 

Historically, the third tank platoon was also committed to the battle with an additional seven VCL M1936. But I can test player patience only so much. 

The bulk of the remaining “armour” in the Mobile Unit consisted of 16 armoured trucks of Captain Brendgen’s mechanized infantry company. As I mentioned in my post last year, I have kept these vehicles offboard. There are no “official” ASL counters for these vehicles. More important, there is no indication that infantry road into town on them. Admittedly, one personnel carrier was lost on the outskirts of Soebang, but that hardly warrants inclusion in the scenario.

Battalion headquarters, the nerve centre of the Mobile Unit, had a lone M3A1 Scout Car (Allied Minor Vehicle Note 34). And the reconnaissance platoon had three Marmon-Harrington III armoured cars (Allied Minor Vehicle Note 29) on strength, one of which came to an ignominious end in a roadside ditch shortly after it made contact with the enemy. Fun fact: this armoured car expends Movement Points (MP) as a truck in ASL (D1.15). It also packs a wallop with its 8 Firepower (FP) Coaxial Machine Gun (CMG).

Marmon-Herrington III

Early versions of “Tin Omen” featured the scout car, but I dropped it due to the SSR overhead required to deal with its Inherent crew and half-squad (HS) Passenger (D6.1). This will make more sense after you read the next section.

Meals rejected by Ethiopians 

During my tour in Somalia, we were supplied with American MRE, or Meals Ready to Eat. My first experience with these rationsparts of which are freeze-dried and require water for rehydrationwas on exercise in southern California a decade earlier. Equatorial Africa didn’t increase their appeal and they quickly earned the epithet “Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.” Although we occasionally operated along the Ethiopian border, MRE were (to my knowledge) never put to the ultimate test. My scenario, however, aims to put our new-fangled Ethiopian counters to the test. 

Included with the latest edition of Hollow Legions (2021) are new counters for Ethiopians (and Eritreans). Except for the fact that it is elite (A25.931), which grants it a number of special capabilities, the Ethiopian 3-4-7 is not immediately dissimilar to a First Line Romanian (or an Italian) 3-4-7 squad. But while an Italian 3-4-7 cannot Deploy, an Ethiopian 3-4-7 may. Moreover, should an Ethiopian 3-4-7 suffer ELR failure it is Replaced by a First Line 3‑3‑7. Contrast this with any Axis Minor or Italian 3-4-7, which is Replaced by a Conscipt 3-3-6. Ethiopians don’t have it all their way. Non-elite Ethiopians, for example, may not participate in a multi-Location Fire Group (FG), nor can they use light mortars, medium- or heavy machine guns (MMG/HMG) without penalty. The characteristic that intrigued me the most though was the Ethiopian ability to resolve Close Combat (CC) as if Japanese (A25.934). Ethiopian counters have the added advantage of being the same colour as Allied Minors, under which the Dutch fall.

Hollow Legions 3rd edition Ethiopian counters

I concluded that many of these attributes are transferable to other colonial forces such as the KNIL, especially in units where indigenous men predominated. This is in contrast to most published scenarios that use Allied Minor 4-5-7/4-3-7 squads to model infantry of the KNIL. (See, for example, “Wet Sahwahs” in ASL Journal 1.) A handful of trail-blazing designers have used Axis Minor 3-4-7 squads instead, reserving squads with a greater FP Factor for units composed exclusively of Europeans. I prefer the latter approach in so far as it allows for Replacement with lower-quality units more befitting a colonial force. In my view, this works better than using a 4-3-7 which cannot be Replaced by a lesser class of squad, becoming Disrupted (A19.12) instead. 

But the Axis Minor solution comes with its own problems. The most obvious is the colour discrepancy, mixing dark-green Axis Minor Infantry with light-green Dutch ordnance and vehicles. With the release of the 2021 edition of Hollow Legions, the colour mismatch can be resolved by substituting an elite Ethiopian squad for an Axis Minor 3-4-7. Another advantage of my approach is that it allows for more granularity. Traditional Dutch squad classes remain available, as required, to represent better trained/armed units. There is nothing to prevent a Dutch 4-5-8, for instance, from operating alongside an “Ethiopian” 3-4-7, with each squad retaining its unique Replacement hierarchy. 

Seven potential squad classes for KNIL forces

Colour matching and inoperability are not the only benefits to be had by repurposing Ethiopian counters. When it comes to modelling poorly trained or motivated indigenous soldiers, the Ethiopian counter mix provides more nuanced layers of competence and reliability. In the Dutch East Indies, accounts speak to observable differences in the combat effectiveness of various indigenous groups. For example, Ambonese and Manadonese soldiers were said to perform better than “mainlanders” from Sumatra and Java. Whatever the case, there are four squad classes of Ethiopians—including a First Line 2-3-7 squad—that one can use to distinguish between colonial soldiers of varying martial spirit. 

KNIL indigenous soldiers with Klewang (sabre)

I’d like to think that the Ethiopian 3-4-7 brings a unique combination of flavours to “Tin Omen.” Fire Groups will be essential in order to bring enough FP to bear on the enemy, but can only be undertaken by elite units. Contrary to A25.934, an SSR ties the ability of a squad or HS to initiate Hand-to-Hand (J2.31) CC to its elite status. These are but two characteristics that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of these native troops.

Tin Can Alley

Outnumbered almost two to one, the Japanese must take care to avoid a battle of attrition. For its part, the Mobile Unit faces a brutal, close-quarter battle. Its armour is at a marked disadvantage in the tight confines of Soebang. Yet the armour cannot afford to play it safe. KNIL infantry need to capture at least half of the villas in town, villas being buildings that aren’t huts (G5.1). They cannot do this without the close support of the tank company. 

VCL M1936 vs CTLS-4

Will the Japanese rebuff the Mobile Unit’s brazen attack? Or can Wulfhorst’s men surprise naysayers and carry the day? Find out when the pack is released. Or sign up today to playtest “Tin Omen!