Desert War and Mediterranean

Malta was beginning to experience more severe problems on top of being besieged since June 1940. When a number of ships of the British Mediterranean “Force K” Fleet was sunk in December 1941 the navy withdrew the remaining ships from central Mediterranean on the 7th December 1941. With the loss of the British warships, together with around 20 RAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft having been shot down the success against the Axis convoys soon died up. German convoys were beginning to get through to Tripoli in Libya. The withdrawal of “Force K” coincided with the Italian bombing campaign which was proving to be successful. German Messerschmitt 110 and JU88 night fighters were flown into Sicily to assist in the bombing campaign. The RAF defensive arm was under pressure when Germany attacked airfields and civilian areas on the 1st January 1942. Eight Hurricane fighters were shot down during the battle and a further fifty destroyed on the ground. British naval and air commanders argued for more aircraft especially Spitfires to be sent to Malta. It was pointed out that the inferiority of the Hurricane against the Messerschmitt was affecting morale and Spitfires began arriving in March 1942.

Following the Allied capture of Benghazi in Libya (See Desert War Dec 1941) the Allies advanced and reached El Aghelia on the 6th January 1942.  When Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, retreated from El Aghelia on the 15th December 1941 he moved closer to his supply line in Tripoli, Libya. He had also received reinforcements which had started to arrive at Tripoli on the 5th January 1942. Rommel’s 120 mile counter-offensive began on the 21st January 1942 and the Afrika Korp captured Agedabia and began the push to Beda Fomm. On the 29th January 1942 Rommel’s Afrika Korp had recaptured Benghazi. He established his new front line east of Benghazi from Tmimi to Mechili. The two sides were able to rest and rearm until Rommel was finally ready to attack the Gazala Line in the spring of 1942.                       

Eastern Front

The Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin transferred General Georgi Zhukov from Leningrad to Moscow in October 1941. Zhukov was a master tactician and a respected leader of men, and recognised the German Operation Barbarossa had failed. By the 7th January 1941 the German Army was suffering from the lack of proper winter clothing and equipment owing to the onslaught of the Soviet winter. Combined with the lack of proper winter shelter the morale of the German Wehrmacht was badly affected. The Germans, at what was their worst hour, began to suffer an appalling loss of experienced commanders. This was mainly because of the commander’s inability to agree with Adolf Hitler who then assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army thus relieving many of the generals of their command. By the 31st January 1942 the German Army was in retreat following the Soviet offensive. The effect Zhukov had on the defender offensives of Moscow was boosted. The Soviet Army had regrouped with artillery, armour and reserve manpower and the Soviet offensive began on the 5th January 1942. The Russian Bear had awakened.

Stalin had ordered a thousand mile offensive against the Germans of which Medya was the furthest city east of Moscow. Following the German retreat from Moscow and the beginning of Zhukov’s Offensive the Soviet Army took the cities of Kirov and Medya on the13th January 1942. From intelligence received, Hitler believed the Soviet Army was ready to collapse. He ordered the remainder of the German Army in the Soviet Union to the Eastern Front. The exception being the troops at the Siege of Leningrad. His ultimate aim was the capture of the mineral resources of southern Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, in Poland, German authorities began to deport Jews from the Lodz Ghetto on the 15th January 1942.This Ghetto was established by the Germans for the internment of Polish and Roma (gypsies) following the invasion of Poland. The gates of the ghetto, which housed nearly 164,000 residents, were closed in April 1940. Lodz was the second largest ghetto in all German occupied Europe with Warsaw being the largest. The ghetto was designed to starve the people and over 20% of the population died from hard work, overcrowding and starvation. The deportation of the inmates to the Chelmno extermination camp from Lodz began with a special S.S. detachment carrying out the operation. During the course of January 1942 approximately 10,000 Jews and Roma were deported to Chelmno.

The Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania was established by the Nazis in August 1941. Abba Kovner, an inmate of the ghetto was a Jewish poet and writer who raised a Jewish resistance fighting force, in order that an organisation for a revolt needed to be assembled. On the 21st January 1942 Kovner released a manifesto titled “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter” and was the first to target the German plan to murder all Jews. Kovner had heard rumours of the killings and mass graves in nearby Ponary and his manifesto pleaded with all Jews of Vilna to join an uprising saying it “Was better to fall as free fighters” rather than be slaughtered by the Nazis.

The Pacific War

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 the invasion of the islands of the Far East was the next on their agenda. These invasions would ensure the continuation of much needed supplies of raw materials. America and the Allies were unaware that the Japanese were in a position to mount a simultaneous invasion of Southeast Asia.

Occupation of the Philippines was planned by the Japanese as of their plan for a “Greater East Asia War”. The main aim was to seize the sources of raw materials of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies while the navy neutralised the United States Pacific Fleet. On the 2nd January 1942 Japanese troops captured the city of Manila, capital of the Philippine Islands. On the same day the Japanese occupied the Naval Station Sangley Point which was a U.S. communications and hospital facility and the Cavite Naval Yard.  The facility was the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Asiatic Fleet. America had officially occupied Sangley as a coaling station when they defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. Approximately eight miles southwest of Manila the Cavite City peninsula is surrounded by the Manila Bay. Cavite Naval Yard was used by the Japanese for the same purpose after the occupation.

On the 2nd January 1942 the Japanese controlled nearly all of Southeast Asia. Opposing the invasion was American General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-Chief of all U.S. and Filipino troops. MacArthur had consolidated all his forces into the units based at Luzon in the Bataan Peninsula. As they were the only remaining Allied stronghold in the region of the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor the American and Filipino troops were besieged on the 7th December 1942. Despite the lack of supplies the defenders managed to fight the Japanese for three months before their surrender at Bataan.

Japan gradually occupied Malaya from the 8th December 1941 until the Allied surrender at Singapore on the 16th February 1942. By the 8th January 1942 the Japanese had defeated the British 11th Indian Infantry Division at the Battle of Slim River thus penetrating the defences and affording easy access to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya.  Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya, decided to withdraw all British and Commonwealth troops from Malaya and the Japanese captured Kuala Lumpur on the 11th January 1942. Fighting continued until the 18th January 1942, by which time the Japanese had taken many prisoners, when the remaining Allied troops had to retreat to the Johor Causeway as the defensive line had collapsed. By the 31st January 1942 the last organised Allied forces left Malaya, heading for Singapore, thus ending the 54 day battle. The whole of Malaya had fallen into Japanese hands.  

With the occupation of Malaya, the island of Singapore was next on the Japanese invasion agenda. Singapore was part of the British Empire and was considered to be the “Gibraltar” of the Far East, which was and remains, the gateway to the rest of Asia. By controlling Singapore a huge portion of the gateway to the Far East was controlled. Singapore was considered to be impregnable as its fortress was designed to be formidable. When the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbour on the 8th December 1941 they simultaneously bombed the Royal Air Force (RAF) bases to the north of Singapore. With the air base destroyed the RAF were unable to protect the British army and the civilian population on the island or to retaliate against an invasion. The Japanese sinking of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse on the10th December 1941 together with the air cover destroyed, Singapore was defenceless to an assault from the air and the sea. The British Army and Commonwealth troops stationed at Singapore were their only hope of defence. The expected invasion against the island was considered to be a naval attack in which the island defences would result in a victory for the British defenders. However, Singapore’s naval guns were positioned to aim out to sea and could not be turned inland. Complacency and an underestimation of the enemy by the British High Command was their downfall. With the loss of Malaya, on the 18th December 1941, Percival’s army retreated to Singapore on the 31st January 1942. By blowing bridges across the Johor Causeway the British High Command assumed the Japanese would not easily be able to negotiate a jungle attack. Adequate preparations for the defence of an assault through the jungle was thought not to be necessary, as the jungle was considered to be sufficient.

The Netherlands, together with America, Britain and New Zealand declared war on Japan on the 8th December 1941. The Netherland government in the Dutch East Indies began immediately to prepare for war against Japan. Upon receipt of the declaration the Japanese government decided to halt any hostilities in the Dutch East Indies in the hope that the Dutch would not destroy their oil installation before Japan was ready to invade. By the 11th January 1942 Japan was ready and declared war on the Netherland. The Dutch East Indies amalgamated all the American-British-Dutch East Indies troops in the region under the command of British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell. The Japanese when they did attack on the 17th January 1942 adopted the strategy whereby they always had air cover. Their aim was conquer and control of the Dutch East Indies. The advance was designed so that the Allied forces could not consolidate into a defensive position before having to retreat. Owing to the greater number of Japanese troops the combined Allied defenders were unable to halt the Japanese advance and on the 9th March 1942 the Dutch East Indies surrendered.

The Japanese invasion of Borneo was planned on the 16th December 1941. By the 23rd December 1941 the Sarawak region of the island was occupied by the Japanese whose aim was to gain access to the oilfields. The government and oil officials destroyed the oilfields and refineries before evacuating the island on the 17th December 1941. In order to attack the Sandakan seat of British North Borneo, the Japanese landed in small fishing boats on the 18th January 1942. The 650 men of the North Borneo Army Constabulary were not able to provide sufficient resistance to halt the Japanese advance. Governor Charles Robert Smith surrendered British North Borneo on the 23rd January 1942 and he and rest of the staff were interned until the end of the war. The remaining British and Dutch troops retreated into the jungle from where they finally surrendered on the 1st April 1942. In the meantime the Japanese forces had fully occupied Borneo on the 29th January 1942.

The Battle of Rabaul was fought in the Australian Territory of New Guinea on the island of New Britain. Rabaul was significant to the Japanese owing to its proximity to the Caroline Islands, the site of the Imperial Japanese Naval base at Truk. Following the capture of Guam on the 10th December 1941, Japanese Major-General Tomitaru Horii was given the task of capturing Rabaul. Japanese carrier-based aircraft began attacking Rabaul on the 4th January 1942.The Australians had despatched a small garrison to Rabaul, as tensions had increased with the Japanese, in March 1941. This garrison was formed into the Lark Force with a total maximum number of 1,400 men and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel John Scanlon. The force included personnel from a local militia group, a coastal defence battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of the Field Ambulance Service. The garrison’s main task was the protection of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airbase near Rabaul. Nearby Simpson Harbour was the RAAF anchorage for Catalina flying boats which acted as an important part of the surveillance observing Japanese movements in the region. The RAAF air defence consisted of ten lightly armed CAC Wirraway training aircraft and four Lockheed Hudson light bombers plus the flying boats. Wing Commander John Lerew had very little offensive capability. When the Japanese first attacked on the 4th January 1942 he realised the odds were stacked against him.  He sent a signal to RAAF HQ in Melbourne with the phrase used by gladiators in ancient Rome quoting the Latin motto “Nos Morituri Te Salutamus” (“we who are about to die salute you”). Part of the Japanese naval task force embarked from Truk on the 14th January 1942 heading toward Rabaul. Over one hundred Japanese aircraft attacked Rabaul on the 20th January 1942 and eight Wirraway planes engaged the oncoming Japanese assault. During the course of the battle one Japanese bomber was shot down by artillery fire, but three RAAF aircraft were shot down, two crash-landed and one was damaged. As a result six Australian airmen were killed in action with a further five wounded. The air attack destroyed the Australian coastal artillery and the Australian infantry withdrew from Rabaul. The following day the Japanese invasion fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Shigeyushi Inoue, was located off Kavieng on the island of New Ireland by a Catalina flying boat. Before being shot down the crew of the Catalina managed to send off a signal informing RAAF HQ of the approaching invasion fleet. The Australian troops took up positions where they prepared to confront the expected landings. The remaining two Wirraway and one Hudson aircraft were withdrawn from the area taking some of the wounded with them. Rabaul airfield was destroyed by the Australians once the RAAF had departed. Rabaul was still being bombed on the 22nd January 1942 and early morning of the same day the Japanese landed on New Ireland and took Kavieng without too much opposition. The same night the invasion fleet approached Rabaul and entered Simpson Harbour in the early hours of the 23rd January 1942. Approximately 5,000 Japanese troops began to land and the Australians attempted to halt the attack. Sensing the situation was hopeless Scanlon ordered his soldiers and civilians to retreat through the jungle. The cost to the Australians on the 23rd January 1942 was the loss of two officers and twenty six other ranks killed in action. Early on the morning of the 24th January 1942 Japanese troops began a mopping up operation in the jungle area where the Australian troops remained at large for many weeks. With the Australian soldier’s line of retreat severed, lacking guerrilla warfare tactics, over 1,000 Australian troops were captured or surrendered on the 9th February 1942.

The Japanese launched a five hour attack on Thailand in mid-December 1941. This led to an armistice and a military alliance treaty between Thailand and the Japanese Empire. In order to allow the Japanese troops to invade British-held Malaya and Burma, the Japanese Empire put pressure on the Thai government into agreeing to the engagement. Thailand, now allied to Japan, declared war on the United Kingdom and the United States of America on the 25th January 1942.

Other Theatres

From December 1941 to January 1942 the Arcadia Conference was held in America’s capital city of Washington. The top British and American military leaders were brought together for the conference. As leaders of their respective countries Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed a series of major decisions that shaped the war effort.  On New Year’s Day, the 1st January 1942 the “Allied Big Four” (America, Britain, the Soviet Union and China) signed a short document and it was called the “Declaration by United Nations”. On the following day, the 2nd January 1942, representatives of 22 other countries added their signature to the document which eventually became the United Nations.

The final Luftwaffe raid on Liverpool was on the 10th January 1942. A lone German bomber pilot was being harassed by British fighter aircraft. In order to escape he dropped his bomb load on Liverpool’s Stanhope Street and Upper Stanhope Street which received a direct hit. The street had an undamaged air raid shelter but the 13 people who died were sheltering in the houses. The bombing campaign on Liverpool ended, life was still hard, but at least the threat from the skies was over. After visiting Liverpool and its surrounding area in May 1942 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, “I see the damage done by the enemy attacks but I also see the spirit of an unconquered people”. The fate of the German bomber is not known.

Along the Eastern Seaboard of America, a German U-boat offensive officially began against merchant ships on 13th January 1942. Operation Drumbeat (Paukensclag) was the code name given for the attacks.  The German High Command had received a message that Japan had invaded Pearl Harbour and on the 11th December 1941 Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. Five U-boats capable of attacking America 3,000 nautical miles away were already in the vicinity. The U-boats dominated the waters of the Eastern Coast of America and were within sight of the shoreline. This enabled them to sink fuel tankers and cargo ships with impunity. British Intelligence had warned the U.S. Navy that a group of U-boats were heading for America. The U.S. Navy’s attention was searching for enemy aircraft attacks. As a consequence very few New Englanders were aware of the carnage being carried out in home waters as the details of the U-boat attacks were being withheld from the public. The navy did not wish to admit to the military incompetence by not heeding the British Intelligence and hid this information from the public.

The Wannsee Conference was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee in Germany on the 20th January 1942. Director Reinhardt Heydrich of the S.S. Reich Main Security office called for the conference which was for the implementation of the “Final Solution to the Jewish question”. The conference was to ensure the cooperation of administration leaders of all government departments for European Jews to be rounded up and sent to extermination camps in Poland. Heydrich emphasised the S.S. would ensure the fate of the Jews would be an internal affair once the process was completed. A secondary aim of the conference was to arrive at the definition of what makes a Jew. One copy of the conference minutes survived the war and it was found and seized among files at the German Foreign Office. During the subsequent Nuremburg Trials of November 1945 to October 1946, the conference minutes were used as evidence against the perpetrators. A memorial now stands on the conference site in Wannsee.

American troops began arriving in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the 26th January 1942 as the first contingent to fight in the European theatre of war. During the Arcadia Conference in Washington, American and British heads of state agreed that Europe should be the priority despite the gravity of the situation in the Pacific. When they started to arrive in large numbers the Americas were stationed from Scotland to Cornwall. Sent in advance of the planned invasion of Europe the American troops were anxious to join the fight against Hitler. The British on the most part were glad to see the American servicemen but resentment soon began to spoil the relationship. When the Americans arrived they had full stomachs and full pockets of money, whereas the British had been at war for two years and were used to fighting alone and going without. In order to defeat Hitler the U.S. War Department sent all service a pamphlet called “Instruction for American Servicemen in Britain”. As most American servicemen had not been abroad the pamphlet was designed to familiarise then with British history, culture and the local slang of the various regions. Eventually the British civilians began to portray the American servicemen as being “Over paid, Over sexed, Over here”.

Brazil agreed the U.S.A. could set up air bases in the northeast of her territory on the 28th January 1942. They also agreed to break off relations with the Axis powers. For this privilege the Americans agreed for the investment in Brazil’s iron industry. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 Brazil declared herself neutral in the event of war. That neutrality was broken when German submarines torpedoed Brazilian vessels off Brazil’s shores. Brazil was to finally declare war on the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy in August 1942.

In Germany on the 30th December 1941, Dictator Adolf Hitler made a speech at the Berlin Sportpalast and threatened all Jews of the world with total annihilation. The Berlin Sportpalast was a multi-purpose indoor arena on the outskirts of the city. It was well known for the speeches and rallies the Third Reich took advantage of. On the same day Hitler, as Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, blamed the failure of Operation Barbarossa on the weather. The Axis powers had failed to prepare for a longer campaign. This inevitably should have included winter clothing and winter lubrication for their mechanical equipment. During Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union had ground to a halt with both cities of Leningrad in the north and Sevastopol in the north ending up by being besieged. By which time Hitler’s attention was them directed at Moscow but dogged Soviet defences and heavy rain halted the German advance on the city. Hitler’s original belief that the Germans only had to “kick open the door” to defeat the Soviet Union proved to be totally wrong


Air Raid Damage Reports Brentwood Division Essex Fire Service December 1941.

Air Raid Damage Reports Brentwood Division Essex Fire Service December 1941.

Date                Time   Location         Damage

02/12/1941    08.10  Canewdon    2 – Landmines exploded in minefield bordering

Creaksea Road (near entrance to Lion Wharf).  No casualties.  Overhead telephone wires damaged.  (Thought to have been due to a fox running across the field).

13/12/1941    Found  Ingrave         1 – H.E. unexploded in a wood 600 yards to rear of

Hatch Farm, Thorndon Park.  No damage or casualties.  (date and time of falling not known).  (Discredited by BDS 6.1.42).

15/12/1941    15.00  North              A linen target kite about 100 yards of cord

Benfleet         attached found at Bonville Farm, Arterial Road.  RAF informed.

20/12/1941    17.50  Great              1 – Para mine exploded on War Department land

Wakering       near Cupid’s Corner.  No casualties.  Slight damage to 12 houses.

20/12/1941    17.55  Foulness       1 – H.E exploded 450 yards West of Hyde Corner. 

                                                            No damage or casualties.