Wednesday 4 January 2012

1942; The end of the beginning

The aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour
Seventy years ago, the dawning of 1942 saw British fortunes during the Second World War at their lowest ebb but it was also a year when the tide began to turn, at first almost imperceptibly but by the year’s end, a tide which was flowing inexorably in the Allies’ favour.

Sunday 7th December 1941 had seen the Japanese attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, which was quickly followed by attacks on British and Dutch possessions in the Far East. The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong had surrendered on Christmas Day 1941 and the Japanese were moving steadily through Malaya towards Singapore, which was to surrender ignominiously on 15th February 1942.

The attack on Pearl Harbour (pictured) did however, ensure the ultimate entry of the United States into the war, thus ending Britain’s lone stance against the Nazis. President Roosevelt initially held back from declaring war on Germany as well as Japan but Hitler and Mussolini pre-empted him by declaring war on the USA on 11th December, which was reciprocated immediately; so Britain was no longer alone but in almost every theatre of war, the British had their backs to the wall.

At sea, the Battle of the Atlantic was raging fiercely. The German U-Boats were enjoying their second ‘Happy Time’ attacking Allied shipping in the Caribbean and off America’s east coast, as well as taking a heavy toll of the convoys bringing much needed supplies to Great Britain. In the Far East, as we have seen above, the Japanese had begun their attacks on Allied possessions and in addition to Pearl Harbour had also sunk the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse which had been sailing without air cover to intercept a Japanese invasion force but which themselves had become the hunted when they were destroyed by Japanese aircraft. In the Mediterranean, Malta was besieged and could only be re-supplied at heavy cost by battling through naval convoys. The Royal Navy had lost the modern carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham to torpedo attacks and had all of its heavy units in that theatre put out of action by the end of the year. For a moment, it looked as if the Royal Navy might lose their superiority in one of their traditional strongholds for the first time in the proud history of the Senior Service. It was not to happen but it was a close run thing.

On land, the Nazis were masters of Europe, whilst in the Mediterranean and North African campaign, Crete had fallen earlier in 1941 and although Rommel had been temporarily repulsed in the Western Desert, worse was to follow in 1942. The British Eighth Army was to be depleted by the need to send urgent reinforcements to fight the Japanese in the Far East and despite the warnings of the Commanding Officer, General Claude Auchinleck that his command was dangerously weakened, these warnings were not heeded and in May 1942, Rommel was to attack again, which was to ultimately lead to another British military disaster; the fall of Tobruk with the capture of 33,000 British and South African troops. A headlong retreat was to follow, with the British falling back to El Alamein, a then little known railway halt only 66 miles west of Alexandria, by July 1942.

In the air, the Royal Air Force, shared with it’s sister services the problem of having too few resources to share around too many theatres of war. Fighter Command, following the successes of the Battle of Britain had followed a disastrous policy of ‘leaning towards the enemy’ during 1941 and had seemingly learned nothing from the experiences of the Germans in 1940. The tried and tested defensive team of Sir Hugh Dowding and Keith Park had been replaced after the Battle of Britain; victims as much as anything of in-service petty jealousies and in-fighting, they had been replaced as Head of Fighter Command and in command of the all-important No. 11 Group by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas and Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory respectively. The fighter sweeps favoured by these two had frittered away much of Fighter Command’s strength and although it was still a formidable defensive unit, many good men and fine aircraft had been lost needlessly. Within Bomber Command, the first steps had been taken to form a winning team; Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was appointed in February 1942. At first, his command too was constrained by having too few aircraft and those that there were being outdated. He immediately set about re-evaluating Bomber Command’s tactics and energetically ensured the procurement of suitable modern aircraft, most notably the four engine Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers as well as the superbly versatile Mosquito light bomber. Armed with these new weapons, Harris began to put his theories into practice; on 28th March 1942, the historic city of Lubeck was laid waste by a fire-storm started by the massed incendiary bombs dropped by Bomber Command and by 30th May 1942, the city of Cologne was overwhelmed, becoming the victim of the first thousand-bomber raid in history.

At home in Britain, the civilian population had seen no serious bombing since the bombing of Hull and Southampton in July 1941; London and Liverpool, though gravely damaged, had not been ‘Blitzed’ since May 1941 and although there had been ‘tip and run’ raids by lone raiders since this time, the feeling was that perhaps the worst really was over, although the news filtering back from overseas of what was seemingly one British setback after another could only give cause for concern.

However, the bombing of Lubeck was to ensure a resumption of the Blitz; although not on the same scale as what had gone before, this phase was to bring death and destruction to British towns and cities not hitherto affected by the German bombing. Lubeck, although it had some submarine building yards located reasonably close to it, was not a target of real industrial significance. It had been chosen as part of Harris’s new policy of affected the morale of the civil population and as he said himself – “it seemed better to me to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city.”

Lubeck was a historic Hanseatic city and in retaliation for it’s destruction, Hitler ordered the resumption of large-scale bombing against Great Britain. Because of Lubeck’s historic significance, the British targets were reputedly selected using the Baedecker’s Tourist Guide. Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, an official at Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry was heard to remark “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedecker Guide."

Thus the Baedecker Raids came to pass; Exeter (pictured), Bath, Norwich and York were all bombed by Luftflotte 3 between the 23rd and 28th April 1942 and following the thousand bomber raid on Cologne, the City of Canterbury was bombed three times on 31st May, 2nd and 6th June. Deal, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and Ipswich were also bombed in this period but on a much smaller scale to the Cathedral cities mentioned previously. Some 1,637 civilians were killed, with a similar number injured; some 50,000 houses were destroyed as were some historic buildings, notably the Guildhall in York and the Assembly Rooms in Bath, but the Cathedrals in all of these cities remained unharmed. The Baedecker Raids were smaller in scale than the First Blitz; the Luftwaffe’s squadrons had been dissipated by their needs on the Russian and North African theatres of war, thus proving that it was not only the British who were suffering from thinly spread resources. The Baedecker Raids petered out after the final raid on Canterbury and the Luftwaffe returned to the tip and run tactics of smaller raids by individual or small groups of aircraft. They were not to return to British shores in significant numbers until the ill-fated Operation Steinbock or as it was known to the British public, Little Blitz or Baby Blitz in late 1943.

For the remainder of 1942, the tide was turning; the British, together with their American allies, set about building a team to win the war. The first American troops arrived in Britain in early 1942, the vanguard of what was to become a vast army based on what was to become the ‘Springboard for invasion’ as these islands were to become known. The first elements of what was to become known as the U.S. Eighth Air Force – “The Mighty Eighth” – which along with RAF Bomber Command would ensure that Germany would be bombed around the clock arrived in England. In the Far East, the Americans began to fight back; first the Doolittle Raid, where a small force of B-25 Bombers were launched from the carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo, a target thought by the Japanese to be hitherto unreachable by the Americans. Then at Midway, when the Japanese carriers that had bombed Pearl Harbour were themselves destroyed. In the Atlantic, the U-Boats were relentlessly hunted down by the Royal, Royal Canadian and US Navies and although they were to remain a threat for the remainder of the war, never again threatened to cut the supply lines.

The biggest victory of 1942 was one that has remained in the British annals of victory ever since. As related earlier, the British Eighth Army had fallen back onto an unknown railway halt in the Western Desert called El Alamein. In August 1942, Winston Churchill, on a visit to the North African theatre had dismissed the Eighth Army commander, Auchinleck and had replaced him with a figure little known outside the British Army, one Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. In three short months, ‘Monty’ as he was to become known, transformed the morale of the Eighth Army to such a point where they believed themselves invincible and won an ultimately crushing victory against an Afrika Korps, which had been weakened by lack of supplies and over extended supply lines. The battle had started on 23rd October 1942 and by 11th November, victory was certain; the Germans were in full retreat and by May 1943, the Eighth Army advancing westwards had linked up with an Anglo-American force advancing eastwards from the ‘Torch’ Landings under an equally then little known American general, a certain Dwight D Eisenhower and had swept the Axis out of North Africa for good.

At home, Churchill ordered that the church bells be rung; until then they had been reserved as an alarm call for an impending German invasion but now they were rung in celebration of a great victory. Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Churchill was to say “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

With American help in the form of manpower and their vast industrial strength and vitally with the Russians now sweeping in from the east to squeeze the life out of the Axis, he knew that victory, although not to be gained without more pain, was ultimately assured.

Published Sources:

Alamein - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2002

Alamein: War without hate - John Bierman & Colin Smith, Viking 2002

Bomber Harris: His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977

The Storm of War - Andrew Roberts, Allen Lane 2009

War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - eds. Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2001

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