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The approach of war
     The Russian campaign
     Japan's blitzkrieg
     War in the Mediterranean
     North and East Africa
     North Africa

Hitler's Europe
After the war

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The Russian campaign: 1941-1942

As early as the autumn of 1940, when the Battle of Britain casts doubt on his invasion plans across the Channel, Hitler's thoughts turn to an attack on his eastern ally, Stalin. He orders plans to be prepared under the codename Barbarossa. In a directive dated 18 December 1940 he states: 'The German armed forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England.'

Hitler's intention is that his quick campaign should begin early in May 1941, but precious weeks are lost and it is not until June 22 that three army groups cross the Russian border on a broad front from southern Poland to the Baltic coast.


In charge of this campaign are the army commanders who together carried out such a brilliant blitzkrieg to the west a year earlier. The first signs are that they will repeat their triumph. Guderian's armoured corps advances 50 miles in the first day. Four days later, on June 27, he reaches Minsk, 200 miles inside Russia. 300,000 Russians, encircled by the German thrust, are taken prisoner.

Guderian crosses the obstacle of the Dnieper river on July 10 and reaches Smolensk on July 16. The route he is taking leads directly to Moscow. Less than four weeks have passed, and 400 miles have been travelled. The Russian capital is now only 200 miles away. There is surely time.


Guderian and other commanders urge the strategy of pushing straight on towards Moscow, but Hitler makes a priority of disabling as much as possible of the Russian army. Guderian is ordered to swing south towards Kiev, where a pincer movement succeeds in capturing another 500,000 men (bringing the total number of prisoners in the campaign so far to about a million).

The move towards Moscow is resumed in early October. At the end of the month a victory at Vyazma brings another 600,000 Russian prisoners. But Moscow is still 125 miles ahead. The weather is deteriorating. The roads are deep in mud, soon to freeze. A few advance detachments struggle to the suburbs of the capital, in early December. But now the Russian winter has started in earnest.


Further to the north another German army, pushing along the Baltic coast, has made similarly spectacular progress in the early weeks of the campaign. Russia's second city, Leningrad, is reached in August. But the Germans prove unable to capture it. They begin a siege, which they hope will be over before the winter. It turns out to last for 900 days, until January 1944.

The Germans, confident in their technique of blitzkrieg, have come unprepared for winter conditions. They now receive orders from Hitler that no one is to turn back on any front. Remembering what happened to Napoleon's army on the march to Moscow, the shivering commanders and their men know all too well the hidden strengths brought out in the Russians by depths of winter and extremes of danger.


In December the Russians begin their counteroffensive, using divisions brought from Siberia. They make progress, rolling the Germans back on some fronts as much as 150 miles. But in an astonishing feat of endurance, in appalling conditions, the German resolve holds firm. It is fifteen months before the Russians dislodge the enemy from Vyazma, just 125 miles from the capital.

So when summer returns, in 1942, the Germans are in place for a renewed offensive. This time it is directed to the south. Hitler has his eye on the oil fields of the Caucasus. Once again, even though the German divisions are much weakened by their deprivations, the assault is carried out with extraordinary verve.


The strategy is to capture three salient points which protect the Caucasus, the valuable region between the Black Sea and the Caspian. They are Sebastopol on the Black Sea coast, Rostov at the mouth of the Don and Stalingrad on the Volga.

The campaign is launched in early June. A month later the Crimea and Sebastopol are in German hands. Rostov falls on July 25, enabling a German army to press on towards the oil fields. But the third target, Stalingrad, proves elusive. With extreme tenacity, fighting from house to house, the Russians defend this city which protects routes from the north and east. So the Germans begin a second winter on Russian soil, in the blitzkrieg that went wrong.


Japan's blitzkrieg: 1941-1942

Japan enters World War II with a ruthlessness unmatched by any other combatant, and achieves in a few months a blitzkrieg to rival anything achieved by the Germans. Even Hitler is not informed of the secret strike being prepared. It comes, literally, out of a clear sky.

In the early hours of Sunday, 7 December 1941, nearly 400 Japanese planes take off from aircraft carriers in the mid-Pacific. Their target is the American fleet at anchor, and the crews asleep, in Pearl Harbor - the deep-water port stretching inland from Honolulu, in Hawaii. All eight US battleships in the harbour are hit and five are sunk. Eleven other warships sink, 188 planes are destroyed on the ground. More than 2400 Americans die in the sudden attack.


On this same day the Japanese launch air attacks on American and British airfields in the Philippines, Guam, Midway, Hong Kong and Singapore, destroying numerous planes on the tarmac. It is a dramatic beginning to a campaign which for the next few months continues at almost the same intensity, by sea and land as well as air.

Within the next three days Japanese air strikes off the coast of Malaya sink the British battleship Prince of Wales (which so recently ferried Churchill across the Atlantic) and the battle cruiser Repulse. 5000 Japanese soldiers land on the US base of Guam and rapidly overwhelm it. In Thailand, Bangkok is easily taken. All this happens in the three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even now there is little slackening in the pace.


Hong Kong surrenders on Christmas Day. By then Sarawak is already in Japanese hands. Brunei follows early in the new year. Before the end of January 1942 the Japanese hold the whole of Malaya, and February brings Singapore, Bali, Timor and the Dutch spice island of Amboina. On March 9 the Dutch surrender their prize possession in southeast Asia, the island of Java. In early May the USA loses its last foothold in the Philippines.

By this time Japanese attention is focused on Burma. The Burma road, through extremely difficult terrain, is the only route by which supplies from the west can reach Nationalist China. It is crucial to the Japanese to sever this lifeline. By the end of May all Burma is in their hands. China is in danger, and India is threatened.


The Japanese next turn their attention to Midway Island, a coral atoll some 1300 miles northwest of Honolulu which the US is developing as an air and submarine base. In early June 1942 a large Japanese fleet, including their four largest aircraft carriers, moves towards Midway. The Americans, anticipating the attack, await them with their own carriers. And for the first time, the tide begins to turn.

The assault from both sides is by planes launched at sea. On 4 June US planes succeed in sinking all four of the Japanese heavy aircraft carriers. The Americans have losses too, including one carrier. But the Japanese fleet, suffering a major reverse for the first time in this war, sails for home this same night without even coming close to the mid-Pacific atoll.


War in the Mediterranean: 1940-1941

In any major European war the Mediterranean is certain to be an important sphere of conflict. It is one in which Britain holds a strategic advantage, controlling the two ocean entrances to the sea through possession of Gibraltar at one end and the Suez Canal at the other.

During the first nine months of the war all the countries bordering the Mediterranean are allies of Britain or are non-combatant, until two events in the summer of 1940 transform the situation. France is conquered by Germany and the Italians enter the war on Germany's side. Two powerful navies in the Mediterranean are now threats to British interests - one certainly so (the Italian), and the other potentially so.


Hitler, in establishing Vichy France, has agreed to leave the French fleet under French command on condition that its active role is limited to minesweeping. The British, unwilling to trust this assurance, take what they decide to be the necessary action (described by Churchill as 'a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned').

There is no difficulty in taking control of the many French warships in British ports, or of those moored with the British navy at Alexandria. The hateful decision concerns the major part of the French fleet, including two powerful new battle cruisers, lying in the harbour at Mers el-Kébir in Algeria.


On 3 July 1940 a British force blockades the port. The French admiral is given six hours to choose whether to join the British side in the war, to accept a way of mothballing his fleet in safe waters, or to scuttle his ships. If no agreement is reached, the British will open fire.

When the deadline passes, in the early evening, the bombardment begins. Much of the French fleet is destroyed, though one of the battle cruisers escapes to the harbour of Toulon in Vichy France. More than 1250 French sailors, who just two weeks previously were Britain's allies, die in the attack - a distressing fact which causes Mers el-Kébir to be among the most widely remembered engagements of the war.


The next challenge for Britain in the Mediterranean is the threat from the Italian navy. Italy's most powerful warships are cautious about leaving port, but even there they prove insecure when aircraft from the British carrier Illustrious sink three battleships at their moorings in Taranto harbour in November 1940.

However the Italians acquire a clear purpose when the British (aided for the first time by information from Bletchley Park and Enigma) send convoys to Greece early in 1941. In a naval battle off Cape Matapan, the southern extremity of mainland Greece, the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto is severely damaged. She escapes back to port but several other Italian ships are sunk in a British victory which much diminishes any future threat from the Italian navy.


However a new danger in the Mediterranean is developing during this same year. The one variety of enemy vessel which can slip unnoticed through the Straits of Gibraltar is the U-boat. By the end of 1941 German submarine activity is having a devastating effect on the British fleet in the Mediterranean.

The aircraft carrier Ark Royal falls victim to a torpedo attack on November 13, as does the battleship Barham later in the month. In December a British cruiser is torpedoed, and two other warships fall victim to mines. But the most devastating attack is suffered by British battleships in Alexandria, in a sweet revenge for the Italians.


In an exceptionally bold stroke, Italian frogmen penetrate Alexandria harbour. They guide underwater vehicles armed with warheads. In effect they are human torpedoes. They aim well. On 19 December 1941 two British battleships, the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant, are crippled as they lie at anchor.

These cumulative losses severely reduce the power of the British navy in the Mediterranean. And they mean that Hitler can for the first time deliver adequate supplies to his commander in north Africa, Erwin Rommel, who is even now preparing for a great push east.


North and East Africa: 1940-1941

At the end of June 1940, with Italy in the war and Vichy France neutralized, the Allied position in north Africa is perilous. Britain has some 50,000 troops in Egypt and the Sudan, the region on which the defence of the Suez canal depends. To the east of the Sudan, in Eritrea and Ethiopia, there are about 200,000 Italian troops. To the west of Egypt some 300,000 Italian troops are in Libya. Beyond them the French colonies of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are out of the combat, following the lead of Vichy France.

It looks on paper easy for Mussolini to overwhelm Egypt, bringing great strategic advantage to the Axis powers. But Wavell, the British commander in Egypt, takes a boldly aggressive line against the superior forces confronting him on all sides. And he achieves astonishing results.


Wavell strikes first to attack the Italians in Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya. Moving armoured divisions fast through the desert in a series of surprise attacks from 7 December 1940, Wavell's commanders capture large numbers of Italian soldiers and tanks. On 22 January 1941 they take the coastal fortress of Tobruk. Two weeks later they reach the coast beyond Benghazi, cutting off the Italian army.

With the threat from the west eliminated, Wavell turns his attention to the Italian colonies on the east African coast. British troops move from the Sudan into Eritrea and (with Haile Selassie) into Ethiopia. Asmara is taken in April and Addis Ababa in May, clearing the Italians out of both their recently acquired colonies.


North Africa: 1941-1943

Wavell's rapid success in the Egyptian desert and Libya turns out to be merely the first in a series of see-saw reversals of fortune in this region over the next two years. The central figure is Rommel, the brilliant tank commander who has already distinguished himself in France in the summer of 1940.

In February 1941 Hitler realizes that he must extricate his incompetent ally, Mussolini, from the disaster looming in north Africa. He puts Rommel in command of a small armoured force of two divisions being shipped to Libya. From March 1941 Rommel carries out the most prolonged feat of inspired generalship by any commander in the entire war, frequently winning victories by tactical brilliance against far superior forces.


By mid-April 1941 Rommel pushes the British out of Libya and back over the Egyptian border. In doing so he bypasses and isolates the British garrison in Tobruk. Unsuccessful attempts are made to reach and relieve Tobruk (causing Churchill to deprive Wavell of his Middle East command, replacing him with Claude Auchinleck), until a much strengthened British and Commonwealth army pushes Rommel west again in November.

During the winter of 1941-2 both sides receive reinforcements. Rommel's strength remains considerably less than that of the Allies, but it is he who launches the next big campaign in May 1942. It will bring him within an ace of reaching his target, Alexandria.


On 21 June 1942 Rommel succeeds at last in taking Tobruk, capturing 33,000 British soldiers and an immensely valuable supply of equipment and stores (his chief of staff reports that during the next stage of the campaign 80% of the German supply system uses captured British vehicles). By now the British are in full retreat. On June 30 Rommel reaches El Alamein, a village on the coast 100 miles west of Alexandria. Mussolini, hearing the good news, flies to Africa to be ready for a triumphal ride into Cairo.

But now, as so often in this long north Africa campaign, the tide turns. Auchinleck takes personal command of the situation. At El Alamein he rallies the exhausted and demoralized British troops just sufficiently to achieve a limited purpose.


The first battle of El Alamein does not push Rommel back, but it halts him in his tracks. Rommel himself recognizes its significance, but Churchill is disappointed - and uses the occasion once again to change his generals. Harold Alexander is given Auchinleck's Middle East role and Bernard Montgomery becomes commander of the 8th army.

The turning point comes when Rommel launches a new offensive, on August 30, which is successfully resisted by the British at Alam al-Halfa. Eight weeks later Montgomery, by now commanding a force which has been built up to far greater strength than Rommel's, is ready to go on the offensive. On 23 October 1942 he launches the second battle of El Alamein.


After twelve days of complex tactical manoeuvres Rommel is too weak to continue. He beats a retreat so rapid and efficient (700 miles in two weeks) that he leaves few prisoners or supplies in Allied hands. Subsequently, when the 8th army catches up with him to launch new attacks, he withdraws another 550 miles until he is across the border of Libya and into Tunisia.

By now it is January 1943 and there is an entirely new element in the conflict. Two months previously British and American forces have landed at several places on the coast of northwest Africa. They are already pressing into Tunisia from the west. The final theatre of war in this long campaign is becoming clearly identified as the region round Tunis.


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