SECOND WORLD WAR February 1942

SECOND WORLD WAR February 1942


The “Channel Dash” was a German naval operation which saw battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and their escorts leave the French port of Brest on the 11th February 1942. The ships left their harbour in Brest just after 9.00 pm and approached the Straits of Dover undetected 12 hours later. The British belated response by the RAF, Fleet Air Arm, Navy and coastal artillery was due to bad winter weather with reduced visibility and airfields blocked with snow. This limited the number of aircraft and naval vessels available to stop the “Channel Dash”. Adolf Hitler ordered the Olerkommand der Marine (OKM German Navy high-command) to return the ships to German bases as protection against a British invasion of Norway. For surprise the short dash up the English Channel, from Cornwall to Dover, rather than the longer detour around the British Isles was the preferred option. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines in the North Sea and they reached German ports on the 13th February 1942. Scharnhorst was out of action for nearly a year. Gneisenau went into dry dock on the 26/27th February 1942 and was bombed, never to sail again. Prinz Eugen together with escorts steamed to Norway arriving on the 21st February 1942. Whilst patrolling off the Trondheimfjord Prinz Eugen was torpedoed by British submarine HMS Trident. The torpedo caused serious damage to the stern, making steering almost impossible, in addition to killing 50 members of the crew. However, she was able to reach Trondheim where emergency repairs were carried out over the next few months.

On the 20th February 1942 American General Ira Eaker arrived in Britain together with six Staff Officers. Eaker was placed in charge of the 8th Bomber Command (VIII BC). On the 23rd February 1942 the newly formed (VIII BC) was established at RAF Bomber Command headquarters at RAF Daws Hill in High Wycombe. Potential sites for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) installations had been surveyed in May 1941 even though America was still a ‘neutral’ country.

Under the Ministry of Labour’s Youth Registration Scheme 16 year old Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, registered for war service on the 25th February 1942. Elizabeth was the first female member of the Royal Family to register and serve in the military. Her family refused to leave the country during the war and chose to remain in London in solidarity with the British public. Elizabeth’s mother explained in a letter “The children will not leave unless I do. I will not leave unless their father does, and the king will not leave the country in any circumstances whatsoever”. The decision of the Royal Family to remain in England was greeted with major support from the public.


The United States automotive industry switched over to war production on the 1st February 1942. The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 had drastically reduced the number of vehicle manufacturers from the boom years of the 1920s. The industry was dominated by three large companies: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. When the Second World War began in 1939 the American economy rapidly expanded and when the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 all vehicle manufacturers were converted to war production. On the 1st February 1942 all passenger vehicle production ceased as the emphasis was on the production of jeeps, tanks and aircraft engines. The industry employed thousands more production workers and was a major factor in the victory of the allies in 1945.


On the 2nd February 1942 Joseph Warren Stilwell (known as Vinegar Joe) was promoted to Lieutenant-General and assigned as the Commander-in-Chief of all allied forces in the China-Burma-India theatre of war. He arrived in India later in the month where he had three major roles.

1) Commander of all U.S. forces in China, Burma and India.

2) Deputy Commander of the Burma-India Theatre under Admiral Louis Mountbatten.

3) Military advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the commander of All Nationalist Chinese forces.

He had been selected for these positions because between the two world wars he had served three tours in China, where he mastered spoken and written Chinese.


Dwight D. Eisenhower, newly assigned to the General Staff in Washington, along with other top U.S. and U.K. military leaders met on the 9th February 1942 to discuss the military strategy of the war. The Atlantic Charter was confirmed by the United Nations that the Allies were obligated not to sign a separate peace deal with the Axis powers. The defeat of Germany was the primary objective as they were considered to be the more powerful of the Axis powers. A heavy bombing campaign should be the primary target against Germany. The consensus of opinion was that an offensive against Germany by the Allies forces should be employed at the earliest possible time. The British persuaded the Americans that a landing in France was not a viable proposition in 1942 but focus should be on driving the Axis powers out of North Africa. The war in the Pacific was considered to secondary.

In New York on the 10th February 1942, the French cruise Liner SS Normandie was being converted to a troopship when she caught fire from welding torch sparks. She had sailed into New York harbour at the outbreak of the war and was seized by the U.S. Authorities. On the 20th December 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved Normandy’s transfer to the U.S. Navy. In honour of the Marquis de la Fayette the navy renamed her USS Lafayette. The Marquis de la Fayette was the French general who fought alongside the colonialists during the American War of Independence. The sparks from the torch ignited a stack of life jackets and the fire spread rapidly along the varnished woodwork which had not been removed. The ships fire protection system had been disconnected and the New York fire hoses were not compatible with ships water inlets. A fifteen minute delay in the arrival of the Fire Department coupled with a strong wind allowed the blaze to spread to the upper decks. As firefighters on the dockside and fire boats poured water on to the blaze the ship began to list to the port side. This was due mainly because more water was being pumped in from the fireboats. By early evening the fire was considered to be under control and the authorities began to close down the operation. However, water was pouring into the lower decks, further increasing the list to port. By midnight the authorities abandoned Lafayette and she finally capsized at approximately 02.45 am the following morning. Enemy sabotage was suspected but a later investigation concluded the fire was accidental. USS Lafayette never sailed under the U.S. flag she was finally broken up for scrap on the 31st December 1948.

In mid-February 1942 the American government discussed possible espionage on American shores by Japanese-American citizens. On the 19th February 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order committing the internment and relocation of Americans of Japanese ancestry. The order affected the lives of about 117,000 people, the majority of whom were American citizens. The relocation and internment began on the 25th February 1942. Canada followed suit and relocated 21,000 Japanese residents from its West Coast. Over 2,000 people of Japanese descent were also relocated to the U.S. from Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina but Mexico dealt with their own Japanese population.


Pacific War

There were tactical raids by the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier fleet together with other warships against the Imperial Japanese Navy on the Marshalls-Gilbert Islands on the 1st February 1942. The object was to attack the Japanese naval garrisons in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. The raids were carried out by two separate U.S. carrier task forces, under the overall command of Vice Admiral William Halsey Jr. The raid on the Gilbert Island was assigned to Task Force 17 carrier USS Yorktown command by Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. The aircraft inflicted moderate damage to the Japanese naval installations and destroyed three Japanese aircraft. Task Force 17 lost two aircraft in the raid. The second raid, carried out by Task Force 8, on the Marshall Island was assigned to USS Enterprise commanded by Halsey himself. The strikes inflicted light to moderate damage to the three naval garrisons. Three small Japanese warships were sunk and fifteen Japanese aircraft destroyed. Six U.S. aircraft were lost plus a float plane, which was damaged during recovery, and it was abandoned and sank. During a Japanese aerial counter attack the heavy cruiser USS Chester was hit and slightly damaged by a Japanese bomb. Immediately upon completion of the raids the two task forces retired from the area. The raids had very little strategic impact other than boosting the morale of the U.S. Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbour and the loss of the Wake Islands. The raids convinced the Japanese Naval Combined Fleet commander Isoroku Yamamoto that he needed to engage the U.S. carrier fleet in battle in order to destroy them, which resulted in the Battle of Midway later in the year.


The first Japanese air strike on Surabaya, Java occurred on the 3rd February 1942.  Shore facilities were hit and a number of Dutch flying boats were strafed and sunk whilst moored in the harbour. The port and airfield on the island received almost daily air attacks and many aircraft were destroyed. The attacks continued until the Japanese assault began.

On the 27th February 1942 the Allied navies of the combined American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) was defeated at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Battle of Java Sea began when ships carrying the Japanese amphibious forces gathered to strike at Java and the main Allied naval forces under the command of the Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman sailed to intercept them. The Japanese troop transport ships were escorted by two heavy and two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers. The ABDACOM force consisted of two heavy and three light cruisers and nine destroyers. Upon engaging with the Japanese in the Java Sea the ABDA forces attempted to reach the transport ships but were repulsed by superior firepower. The Japanese heavy cruisers were far more powerful being armed with ten 200mm guns compared to ABDA’s heavy cruisers being armed with nine and six 200mm guns respectively. The battle raged intermittently from mid-afternoon until midnight. Of the ten Japanese transport ships four were sunk by ABDA forces who also damaged one Japanese destroyer. However, ABDACOM lost two cruisers, three destroyers and 2,300 sailors killed. One of the cruisers sunk was the flagship HNLMS De Ruyter whereby Admiral Karel Doorman was killed. The remaining ABDA fleet dispersed in different direction and another five ships were lost. The ABDA naval force had been almost totally destroyed allowing the Japanese access to Java, one of the most important food producing regions in the Far East. With the conquest of the Dutch East Indies Japan gained control of the 4th largest oil producers in the world.

Java was part of the Dutch East Indies. +

The Japanese invasion of Java (Operation “J”) began on the 28th February 1942 when Japanese troops landed on the island. The invading army consisted of 35,000 troops under the command of General Hitoshi Imamuba. The defenders of the island were the combined troops of ABDA. Dutch Lt-General Hein Ter Poorten was the overall commander of ABDACOM, in Java, who had a total force of 34,500 Men. The Battle for Java would last until March 1942 when the ABDACOM surrendered.


The Battle of Reboul was conducted on the 9th February 1942 when the Japanese overran the Australian Territory of New Guinea on New Britain Island and captured the city and harbour of Reboul. The Japanese were eager to capture Port Moresby on the south coast of Papua New Guinea which would give them a springboard for a possible invasion of Australia. By capturing Port Moresby the Japanese would neutralise the Allies principal forward base in the Pacific. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander Allied Forces South West Pacific Area was determined to hold Port Moresby. From the 19th February 1942 the first of at least 111 attacks from Reboul were carried out on the Australian mainland. The first and deadliest was when Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin on the 19th February 1942 causing a great deal of damage and killing 235 people. The result was that Darwin’s use in the Northern Territories, as a major naval base, was abandoned by the Australians.

The island of Singapore was next on the Japanese invasion agenda following the occupation of Malaya. The British High Command had all the defensive guns positioned on the East Coast pointing out to sea. They were guilty of racial arrogance who didn’t take the Japanese threat seriously. Singapore had been previously bombed for the first time by Japanese long-range bombers on the 8th December 1941. Allied troops had fully retreated from Malaya to the island by the 9th February 1942. The defensive planning strategy was poor and although the garrison commander Lieutenant General Arthur Percival had 85,000 Allied soldiers at his disposal they were of mixed quality with regard to battle experience. When the senior officers of the individual British, Australian and Indian forces began to have disruptive disagreements, Percival’s overall defence strategy was compromised. The Japanese began the invasion with a fifteen hour bombardment of heavy naval guns on the 8th February 1942. On the same day the first wave of Japanese troops crossed the Johore Strait from Malaya to begin the land assault. However, two days prior to the Japanese attack (6th February 1942) a patrol from the Australian 22nd Brigade was sent over to Malaya at night to gather intelligence reports on the Japanese positions. After a large number of Japanese troops were located, the request to shell the Japanese was ignored by Malaya Command as insignificant. They believed any invasion would be from the sea on the North East coast and not through the jungles of the North West coast. On the 14th February 1942 the rapid advance of the Japanese troops through the jungle on bicycle brought them to the Alexandra Barracks Hospital. Upon entering the hospital the Japanese forces were approached by a British Lieutenant, acting as an envoy with a white flag, He was killed immediately by the Japanese with a bayonet. Doctors and nurses were also killed along with fifty Allied hospitalised soldiers, some who were undergoing surgery. The following day approximately 200 male staff and patients were marched away and killed by the bayonet. On the 15th February 1942, with the water system badly damaged and both rations and ammunition almost exhausted  Lieutenant General Percival surrendered to the Japanese HQ. Approximately 80,000 Allied troops were captured and became prisoners-of-war. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the surrender the “worst disaster in British Military History”.

The Sarawak royal yacht Vyner Brook, prior to the surrender of Singapore, evacuated the island on the 12th February 1942. On board the ship were many injured service personnel, civilian men, women and children and 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service. En-route to an unknown destination, the ship was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft on the 16th February 1942. Two nurses were killed during the bombing and the rest were washed up on various beaches of Bangka Island in the Dutch East Indies. 22 of the 65 nurses were among approximately 100 survivors who reunited on Bangka Island’s Radji Beach. An officer of the Vyner Brook went to Muntok to surrender the group to the authorities once they became aware the island were occupied by the Japanese. In the meantime army matron Irene Melville Drummond suggested the civilian women and children should leave for Muntok. After they left the nurses stayed to care for the wounded and set up a shelter with a large Red Cross sign plainly visible. The ship’s officer returned with approximately 20 Japanese soldiers who ordered all the walking wounded to travel around a headland. The Japanese soldiers returned after the nurses heard a quick succession of shots. A Japanese officer ordered the remaining 22 nurses and a civilian woman to wade into the surf. When the women were waist deep a machine gun, which had been set up on the beach, shot the women killing all but Sister Lt. Vivian Bullwinkel. The wounded soldiers who were left on stretchers were killed by being bayonetted. By lying motionless in the water, although shot in her diaphragm, Sister Bullwinkel reached the shore once the troops had gone. When on the beach she crawled into the bush where she lay unconscious for several days. When she awoke she encountered the only other survivor Private Patrick Kingsley. He was a British soldier who had survived being bayonetted by the Japanese. She dressed his wounds and her own, then on the 25th February 1942 they surrendered to the Japanese. Sister Bullwinkel spent three years in a Japanese POW camp but Private Kingsley died before reaching one. At the Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1947 Sister Bullwinkel, who survived the war. Gave evidence of the massacre. According to the Australian government the perpetrators of the massacre remain unknown and therefore unpunished for this crime. Evidence, later discovered, appears to have been suppressed by the Australian government that most of the nurses had been raped before being massacred.

Burma prior to the Second World War was part of the British Empire but the British regarded Burma as a military “backwater” unlikely to be subjected to a Japanese threat. However, Japan was looking to extend it’s territory in the far east to obtain the raw materials Japan needed to conduct the war. Burma had oil, food production and rubber. The need to have control of rubber production was that the Japanese were aware that rubber was the only commodity that America was not self-sufficent in. Japanese were able to begin their invasion of Burma through the newly allied Thailand. In December 1941 they began bombing the capital Rangoon and caused considerable damage to the dock area. The commander of the Burma Army was Lieutenant General Thomas Hutton had only the 17th Indian Infantry Division and the 1st Burma Division to defend the country. They were also expecting assistance from Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist forces.  By the 17th February 1942, Hutton considered the capital city of Rangoon could not be defended and attempted to divert reinforcements to ports further north. However, General Sir Archibald Wavell, as Commander-in- Chief of ABDACOM, ordered Rangoon to be held. Japan had declared war on the U.K. and America in December 1941 and Wavell held the position of Commander-in-Chief India. In addition he was made C-in-C of ABDACOM. When the Japanese troops crossed the Salween River on the 20th February 1942 via Thailand and the Burma Army withdrawing they were gradually being overwhelmed. Major-General “Jackie” Smythe VC blew the bridge over the Sittang River on the 23rd february1942 to prevent the Japanese crossing. The problem was that most of his division was on the wrong side of the river. They Burma Army did manage to cross the river to safety. The blowing of the bridge only delayed the Japanese by a few days. On the same day British Prime Minster Winston Churclhill ordered a complete withdrawal of of the Burma Army to India. Both Hutton and Smythe were sacked by Wavell and General Harold Alexander took over temporary command of the Burma Army. With Malaya lost and the British position in Java precarious ABDACOM was closed down. Wavell returned to India, as C-in-C India, and his resonsibilities now included the defence of Burma. Hutton later served as Secretary of War Resources. Smythe returned to the U.K. to retire, through ill health, with the rank of Colonel and the honoury rank of Brigadier.

With the Japanese rapid advance in the Philippines the forces of the Philippine and American armies retired to the south of the islands. Retired General Douglas MacArthur had been appointed a defence advisor to the Philippine government prior to the war. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour MacArthur was recalled to service in the U.S. army to become commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). This appointment united the Philippine and U.S. armies under one command. On the 21st February 1942, fearful that  MacArthur, as America’s most experienced general, would be captured and taken prisoner  President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered him  to evacuate the Philippines.     


Other Theatres

In the Desert Campaign, Commander of the Afrika Korps Erwin Rommel’s second offensive began on the 20th January 1942 with an unexpected counter attack from Benghazi. The attack forced the British to retreat 350 miles to the Gazala Line. By the 5th February 1942 Rommel ended his offensive by reaching El Gazala, Libya which became the new front line until Rommel was finally ready to attack the Gazala Line in May 1942.

In Norway on the1st February 1942, Vidkun Quisling was elected to the post of Minister-President. Quisling was a Norwegian politician and Nazi collaborator. In the 1920s he was posted as a diplomat to the Soviet Union. He returned to Norway in 1929 and served as Minister of Defence in the Norwegian government until 1933 when he founded the fascist Nasjonal Samlink (National Union) party. In 1939 Quisling turned his attention towards Norway’s preparations for the European War, which seemed inevitable, and wished to increase the county’s defence spending to guarantee neutrality. He was also a supporter of Adolf Hitler with the “Jewish problem in Norway”.  He had met with Adolf Hitler in December 1939 and urged a German occupation of Norway. The intention of the occupation would be to enable the Germans to break the British naval blockade in the North Sea and Norway would provide ideal U-boat bases. When the Second World War began Norway was a neutral country and was not allied to Britain or Germany. Fearful that any Anglo-Russian alliance would make neutrality impossible, Quisling’s fascist beliefs reasoned that Norway would have to become an ally of Germany. By 1940 the NS party was still only peripheral, but on the 9th April 1940 when the Germans invaded Norway he attempted to seize power in the world’s first radio broadcast Coup d’état. He proclaimed himself head of government as leader of the NS party and the occupying Germans supported Quisling. Because he was unpopular with Norwegian population he had to be accompanied by German bodyguards.  By the end of January 1942 the Germans announced the German administration would stand down and on the 1st February 1942 they duly elected Quisling to the post of Minister-President of the national government even though he was aware of his unpopularity in Norway.

William Mackenzie King was a Canadian statesman and politician who was serving as Prime Minster of Canada in 1942. The government had promised not to introduce military conscription in 1940. In response to the Conservative Party lobbying Mackenzie King to introduce compulsory military conscription he passed a law on the 19th February 1942 to allow a plebiscite on conscription. The plebiscite was asking the people of Canada whether they were in favour of conscription therefore releasing the government of any obligations they had previously promised. The plebiscite result was 66% in favour but Quebec province had a strong majority who voted against conscription. This action prompted Mackenzie King not to pursue the issue.


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