Saturday 7 July 2012

July during the Second World War

As we 'enjoy' our current wet summer, perhaps now is a good time to look back in history to see what was happening during the corresponding weeks during the Second World War. The month of July has always been one when the British civilian population at least, even in wartime, looked forward to some warmer weather and perhaps even a few precious days off. For those in the fighting services, wartime whether in July or December presented the same fears, trials and tribulations.

July 1940
Field Marshal Alanbrooke (courtesy IWM)
The first July of the War saw Britain at bay; her army, defeated in France had withdrawn across the Channel, culminating in the evacuation from Dunkirk which completed in early June and with further withdrawals from the Channel and Atlantic ports up until the middle of that month when France capitulated on the 18th June. The British Army, licking it's wounds was beginning the process of rebuilding and re-equipping following defeat in France. At this time, a then little known Lieutenant General by the name of Alan Brooke was the recently appointed Commander in Chief of Southern Command, the area likely to bear the brunt of the expected German invasion. Brooke was somewhat daunted by what he found; his diary entry for 2nd July, following a visit to the 50th Division in the West Country read "The more I see the nakedness of our defences, the more appalled I am! Untrained men, no arms, no transport and no equipment........The ghastly part of it is that I feel certain that we only have a few more weeks before the Boche attacks!"

Brooke, supported by his subordinate commanders including a certain Major General Bernard Montgomery was a superb trainer of men and as the weeks and months passed, he was to prove instrumental in rebuilding the Army and can indeed be justly described as one of the founders of the recovery of the British Army which was to return to Europe in triumph a little under four years later.

At sea, the Royal Navy continued with it's routine tasks around the globe. North Atlantic convoys to be marshalled and escorted across the 'pond', the Mediterranean to police and an as yet peaceful Far East to patrol. Often employed on unglamorous duties, the Royal Navy was solid and dependable.

In the air, this week saw the opening of what we now describe as The Battle of Britain, a conflict that was to last until the end of October 1940 and which saw the beginning of the Blitz against London and other British towns and cities but which was to ultimately represent the first meaningful of the Third Reich in battle and which was to ultimately avert any threat of invasion to this country due to the inability of the Luftwaffe to wrest command of the skies from the RAF. Without such air supremacy, any invasion fleet would have been blown out of the water by the Royal Navy. 

July 10th 1940 saw the opening skirmishes in the Battle; Channel convoys were attacked and seventy German bombers attacked Swansea and Falmouth, killing thirty people and causing damage to shipping, railways and a power station. A train was also strafed near Newhaven in Sussex, killing the driver and severely injuring the Guard. The losses on each side reflected what was to become the pattern of the Battle; thirteen German bombers were lost for the loss of six British fighters. We shall return to this epic battle in the weeks ahead.

July 1941
One year later saw Britain in a much stronger position, although still standing alone. Brooke was still GOC Southern Command. Although the threat of invasion had largely passed, Brooke was still determined to get the Army trained to the peak of it's abilities. He was also beginning to have his first encounters with Winston Churchill, something which was to become all too familiar for him in the coming years following his promotion to Chief of the Imperial General Staff or CIGS - the professional head of the British Army. In North Africa, the Army had enjoyed it's only true successes against the Axis but had already fallen back following the dilution of it's forces into the Greek and Crete campaigns and had fallen back to Sollum leaving Tobruk beseiged and beginning the British association with those place names from the North African desert which were to become so familiar with both public and military alike over the next couple of years - Sollum, Tobruk, Sidi Barani, Bardia and of course, El Alamein amongst others. 

HMS Hood
The Royal Navy had fought another major action in May of 1941 when the German battleship Bismarck had made it's brief foray into the North Atlantic, sinking the pride of the Navy, HMS Hood but herself being overwhelmed by the Home Fleet a few days later. In the North Atlantic, the convoy battles continued unabated, although July 1941 saw the British enjoying the fruits of the 'Ultra' decrypts of the German 'Enigma' code traffic and at this time were able to successfully re-route convoys around Donitz's Wolf Packs and keep merchant ship losses to a minimum.

The RAF, with the Battle of Britain safely won and with the commanders of that battle, Dowding and Park scandalously dismissed, were embarking on the disastrous policy of 'leaning towards the enemy' with huge fighter sweeps over occupied France, resulting in heavy losses and proving that the new commanders Sholto-Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had learned nothing from the experiences of the Luftwaffe only a year previously. Fighters flying over enemy territory which were lost meant almost certainly losing the highly trained aircrew as well as the aircraft. Aircraft could easily be replaced but replacing the men was a different matter. RAF Bomber Command was not yet really able to truly go onto the offensive; in July 1941, it's main operations were still mining German ports and attacking German shipping, usually with unimpressive results. It's day was still to come.

July 1942
Britain was no longer fighting alone and the Second World War had become a truly global conflict. Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 had brought the USA into the war. The subsequent loss of Singapore and Hong Kong as well as Britain's other possessions in the Far East had brought Great Britain into conflict with a new and even more unpleasant enemy than Nazi Germany. Somewhat bizarrely, Hitler declared war on the United States, thus ensuring ultimate Allied victory in the longer term. As with the beginning of the German war, this conflict also began disastrously for the Allies. When Singapore fell on 15th February 1942, the British and Commonwealth Armies lost 130,000 men as prisoners to the Japanese - the biggest disaster in British military history. The Americans had also suffered similar humiliating reverses in the Philippines, losing some 75,000 prisoners to Japanese captivity and with all the privations and brutality that went with it. 

The ruins of Cologne in 1945 (US Dept of Defense)
Russia had also been attacked by the Germans. Operation Barbarossa had commenced on 22nd June 1941 with the intention of invading Russia and taking them out of the war. Had this succeeded, the brief respite enjoyed by the British would have quickly ended, with the entire might and fury of the Nazis once again turned towards the west. It was therefore vital to keep the Soviet Union in the war and this meant keeping the Russians supplied. The Russian Convoys became a millstone around the necks of the Royal Navy as well as the merchant navies of the Free World. Convoy PQ17 was to become an infamous bloodbath, when the British Admiralty under the nit-picking direction of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, ordered the convoy to scatter on 4th July 1942 due to faulty intelligence that German heavy units were at sea. This information was nonsense and the scattering of this convoy merely served up the vast majority of the convoy into the arms of the Luftwaffe and waiting U-Boats. Of the thirty six merchant ships that sailed from Reykjavik, Iceland on 27th June 1942, twenty three were sunk by U-Boat and air attack. Two more returned to Iceland, which meant that a mere eleven made it through to Russia. It was difficult enough to operate convoys through this part of the World when the daylight was permanent as it was at this time of the year but Pound's interference and faulty dispositions made this a shameful event in Allied naval history. As a result of this fiasco, the Russian convoys were to be suspended until the onset of darkness and it was not until September 1942 that the next Artic convoy was to set out. Future convoys were to be much more heavily escorted and the advent of the Escort Aircraft Carrier was also to help tip the scales in favour of the Allies.

By July 1942, RAF Bomber Command had a new chief. Sir Arthur Travers Harris, known to his aircrew as 'Butch' (short for Butcher) and to the public as 'Bomber' had assumed command in February 1942. He immediately changed the mindset of the Command by going onto the offensive and targetting German cities with the express aim of undermining the morale of the German civilian population. Lubeck had been the first German city to feel the Harris touch, when on 28th March 1942, the historic city centre perished in a firestorm. By 30th/31st May 1942, Harris had upped the stakes by unleashing the first 1,000 bomber raid on the city of Cologne. Germany was indeed beginning to reap the whirlwind and much worse was to follow for the German public in the months and years to come.

July 1943
By now, the Allies were firmly on the front foot in Europe at least. By the summer of 1943, the Axis forces had been cleared from North Africa and were looking forward to the invasion of Sicily. To try and throw the Germans off their guard, an ingenious if somewhat macabre scheme was hatched, which was called Operation Mincemeat, or perhaps better known as immortalised in the film 'The Man Who Never Was' in which the corpse of a fictitious 'Major Martin' was floated ashore in Spain from a British submarine. The body was loaded with fake documents which all pointed towards an Allied invasion of Sardinia, rather than the obvious choice of Sicily. It was a huge gamble but knowing that the Spanish regime was basically friendly towards the Nazis, it was a gamble worth taking. The Germans swallowed 'Mincemeat' and diverted vital Army units to face a non-existent invasion of Sardinia and whilst the invasion of Sicily was no picnic, many Allied lives were saved and the Allies had their foothold on mainland Europe.

The RAF's bombing offensive continued. The famous Dambusters raid had occurred in May 1943 but for the rest of Bomber Command, German cities remained the main target. In July 1943, 115,021 tons of bombs were dropped by the RAF alone on German cities. The USAAF added to the weight of bombs by daylight.

On the Eastern Front, the Battle of Kursk started on 5th July 1943 and was to ebb and flow until 23rd August by which stage both sides had fought themselves to a standstill. Kursk was to see the largest tank battle in history, with each side employing in the region of 3,000 tanks.

July 1944
The Normandy landings had taken place on 6th June 1944. Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious invasion in history. By July 1944, the Allied armies were still building up their strength and were in danger in becoming bogged down in the bocage country around Caen. Whilst ultimate Allied victory was probably never in doubt, the fear of the warfare becoming a static affair was always at the back of Allied minds. The ground commander, General Montgomery was coming under pressure for his perceived over-cautious approach. This pressure was not only forthcoming from some of his American colleagues but also from those on the British side who should have known better, some of whom like the airmen Tedder and Coningham were driven by an intense personal dislike of Montgomery. The British General was never an easy person to understand or to get along with and was by this stage of his career a hugely conceited character, although undoubtedly 'a winner'. It is to the immense credit of the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower that he allowed Monty to continue in command, although his relationship with the British General was never an easy one. 

On the Home Front, the first V-1 Flying Bomb had fallen on the Capital on 13th June 1944. By July, despite improved countermeasures, they were still falling regularly on London. On 18th June, the Guards Chapel had fallen victim with the loss of 121 lives in the worst single incident involving these weapons. On 30th June another of these weapons had fallen in the Aldwych between Adastral House, home of the Air Ministry and Bush House with the loss of some 46 lives. It was clear that whilst the conventional Blitz was long over, London was being subjected to a new terror of 'robots' as these bombs became known. The capture of the Pas de Calais launch sites put paid to this threat in September 1944 but it had been extremely unpleasant while it lasted, with some 6,000 becoming victims to these weapons. Worse was to follow later in the year when the first of the V-2 rockets was to fall on London and this particular weapon was to blight London almost until the end of the war in Europe. On the Eastern Front, the Russian advance continued relentlessly, with the German Army Groups Centre and South being destroyed in the Lvov and Belorussian offensives.

At sea, the focus of the war in Europe remained the convoys across the Atlantic and to Russia and the U-Boats, although on the back foot, were far from defeated. The fleet facing the Japanese started to build and on 17th July, the submarine HMS Telemachus destroyed the Japanese submarine I-166 in the Malacca Straits. The submarine war in this theatre was the prelude to much wider ranging operations both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

July 1945
The European War was over; Germany had unconditionally surrendered in May 1945 and the Allies were now faced with administering a ruined country and with the first murmurings of distrust within the great alliance with the Russians which was to culminate in the distrust and the eventual start of the Cold War.

On July 5th 1945, the first General Election was held in Great Britain for almost ten years. Winston Churchill, who had led the country to victory in the wartime coalition government was widely expected to be returned to power. The counting of the votes was an unusually protracted affair since the hundreds of thousands of servicemen's votes had to be returned to the UK for counting. However, when the count was complete and the result was announced on 26th July, Churchill had been voted out and the Labour Party under Clement Attlee had been voted into power in a landslide victory. The British people wanted change and no return to the social injustices of the 1930's and they saw Attlee rather than Churchill as the man most likely to introduce these changes and to bring Britain into the modern age.

Churchill had been attending the Potsdam Conference, the final meeting of the so called "Big Three" and had returned home for the result, no doubt expecting to return to the conference shortly afterwards. It was not to be and Mr Attlee was to take his place as Prime Minister alongside Harry Truman, himself newly installed as American President following the passing of Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. This Conference was to shape postwar Europe and the administration of Germany for the next 45 years.

In the Far East, the war against the Japanese continued and was expected to continue for possibly another two years, culminating in a conventional land invasion of mainland Japan, which had it occurred, would have cost the lives of many hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen. The Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to dramatically shorten the war by avoiding the need for an invasion. The 240,000 civilian casualties as a direct result of the bombs as well as the many thousands of subsequent deaths from radiation burns and other related illnesses are the subject of another debate.

Rangoon had fallen to the British Fourteenth Army in May and the remainder of Burma was liberated by the end of July. The final campaign in the Tenasserim Province cost the Japanese ten thousand troops at minimal cost for the British. The next stage of the campaign was to have been an amphibious assault to re-take Malaya but once again, the Atomic Bombs forestalled this, although the operation, codenamed 'Zipper' was still undertaken post-war as the quickest method of occupying Malaya.

At sea, the East Indies and British Pacific Fleets were in the thick of the action and although the latter fleet tended to be overshadowed by the vast American effort in this theatre, it was nevertheless the largest fleet ever put together by the Royal Navy and acquitted itself was great distinction. On 17th July, the British Pacific Fleet, aka Task Force 37 was operating as part of the US Third Fleet, attacking airfields and shipping north of Tokyo and would be at the forefront of the action right up until the Japanese surrender on August 15th and beyond.

So, as we can see the month of July throughout the Second World War was often the backdrop for momentous events in history. Obviously a blog such as this can merely scratch the surface in describing the events mentioned above. To study them in more detail, the following source reading is recommended.

Printed Sources:

The Black Bull: From Normandy to The Baltic with 11th Armoured Division - Patrick Delaforce, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins, 1997
Decision in Normandy - Carlo D'Este, Penguin,  2001
The Forgotten Fleet - John Winton, Douglas-Boyd, 1989
Hitler's U-Boat War - Clay Blair, Cassell, 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press, 1990
War Diaries 1939-45 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman (ed.), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001
The War at Sea - John Winton (ed.) - Hutchinson, 1967

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