Blue Vs Purple: The Soviet Invasion of Alaska

Source: Credit: Wikipedia

A hypothetical battle between the US Navy and the Soviet Red Fleet over the Bearing Sea.

Rewind to September 1946. The War in the Pacific has been over barely a year when another conflict began to brew up. This time, the grey and frigid waters of the Bearing Sea would be the arena for the world's next climactic clash. From the cockpit of an F4U Corsair flying just below a thick canopy of clouds, nothing broke the monotony of slate colored ocean and white-tipped waves. Nothing, save for a series of long white streaks breaking up the uniform waves, the telltale sign of a fleet in motion. From this altitude, it was impossible to see the red star emblazoned on a white ensign, but that was just a small detail. The only fleet sailing west at this high latitude would no doubt be hostile. Banking to the left, the pilot spotted the silver sparkle of enemy fighters, probably a combat air patrol returning to its carrier. Switching on his radio, he thought to himself, "let the hunt begin."

War Games

A Naval exercise held in 1946. Credit: Center for International Maritime Security.
A naval exercise held in 1946. Credit: Center for International Maritime Security.

This isn’t the setup for the next hit video game or a long-lost Tom Clancy novel. This was the very real scenario presented to officers hoping to make admiral at the US Naval War College. Every semester, each class would organize a detailed series of wargames to test the officer's strategic thought, planning ability, and how to issue proper orders. But these games weren’t primitive versions of Command and Conquer. Each was carried out over the course of weeks, involved hundreds of pages of written responses, and culminated in a battle simulation carried out across the War College's gymnasium floor, where each class was divided into two teams, attacker and defender.

In 1945 the wargames pitted the Blue Team (representing the United States) against the Orange Team (the Japanese). But in 1946 the teams changed, and scenarios started to focus on fighting Purple, the Soviet Union. You see, long before most Americans saw the USSR as an enemy, the Navy was conducting exercises exploring the possibility of World War 3 in the Pacific.

The Fall 1946 wargame simulated a theoretical clash between the US Navy and the Soviet Red Fleet over the Bearing Sea. The hypothetical war started with a fierce air battle between ground-based planes in Russia, Alaska, and Japan. For the purposes of the exercise, it was assumed that both air forces were devastated. This opened the door to a Soviet offensive designed to roll up the Aleutian Islands. That said, Purple team's objective was to screen the landings around Attu and maintain open lines back to bases in the Kurils. Blue team, on the other hand, planned to launch a bold assault against the landings, combining both carrier aviation and battleships to close with the Red Fleet and completely destroy it.

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The similarities between this scenario and the 1943 Aleutian Islands campaign would certainly not have been lost on the officers of the War College. To give both teams a fighting chance, their forces were roughly mirrored, with each side possessing two fleet carriers (even though the Soviet Union, in 1946, did not actually field any) four battleships, and an assortment of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The Blue team was given a superiority in Battleships, possessing the four Iowa-class fast battleships, while the Purple team had a superiority in heavy cruisers.

A Modern Day Wargame. Credit: US Naval War College
A Modern Day Wargame. The space is virtually unchanged from the 1940s. Credit: US Naval War College.

According to plan, both fleets encountered each other just north of Attu Island. Radar equipped search planes made the process of acquisition and tracking relatively simple, and both fleets launched their air strikes nearly simultaneously. Over 500 planes raced together over open ocean, each seeking to sink the other team's carriers. Blue teams' strikes were organized into five waves and hit in a succession of blows. The first waves were mauled by Soviet fighters, but the following waves found the combat air patrol out of position and inflicted heavy damage on the Soviet Carriers. Unfortunately for the Blue team, the Soviet strikes all arrived simultaneously, overwhelming American defenses and inflicting heavy damage on the carriers. As a result of the air exchange, both sides lost the use of their carriers and over 150 aircrafts each. But, critically, the Soviet strikes also damaged a squadron of American heavy cruisers, which Blue Team pulled back to conduct repairs at Dutch Harbor. This gave the Soviets a clear superiority in this area.

Finishing the Fight

With the neutralization of the carriers, both teams decided to advance their battleships and invite a surface engagement. Once again radar played a key role, with spotter planes from both surface groups detecting the other at long range and providing plenty of early warning. Sensing an opportunity, Blue team's battleship commander pushed his fast battleships forward aggressively. He hoped to use the Iowa's superior speed and gun range to engage and destroy the Soviet battleships before they could do damage to his own fleet. However, the Purple commander chose to withdraw his surface fleet. Thus, the American ships became strung out and isolated, while the Soviet fleet concentrated its strength.

At this point, the Soviet ships turned and launched a general attack. They were able to capitalize on the strength of their cruisers, using them to close with the American battleships, busy engaging their Soviet counterparts, and inflict heavy damage. In the sharp action that followed, the American battleship BB-63, the USS Missouri, was sunk and BB-61 and 62 were damaged. In addition, the Americans lost a cruiser and several destroyers, making an ultimately hopeless torpedo attack against the Soviet battle line. These losses forced Blue team to withdraw back to Dutch Harbor to await repairs and reinforcements, conceding Attu Island to the Soviets and Purple team.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.