SECOND WORLD WAR (March 1942)
The British government extended the conscription laws on the 5th March 1942. For the first time unmarried women between the ages of 20 to 30 years of age were included in the new laws. Married women with children were excluded. Women were not used in combat but served in a range of non-combat activities. However, there are occasions were some women served as overseas spies or took an active role in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The upper age limit for men was extended to 45 years and the existing laws still remained in force.
When America entered the war in December 1941, a joint meeting between the U.S. and U.K. commanders agreed that defeating Germany was the first priority. Sir Arthur Harris had been appointed Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of RAF Bomber Command in February 1942. Later during the height of the Anglo-American bombing campaign he was given the name of Bomber Harris by the press. The Krupp factory in the industrial town of Essen was a prime target for Allied strategic bombings. The Krupp factory had a near monopoly in the production of steel, artillery, ammunition and other armaments. Beginning on the 8/9th March 1942 the RAF launched air raids with over 800 British bombers in total, attacking the town during the month of March 1942. Beginning on the 20th March 1942 the RAF carried out Operation Outward by attacking Germany with free-flying balloons. Nearly 100,000 surplus naval weather balloons were launched during the course of the war. In an effort to damage high voltage power lines, approximately half of them carried trailing steel wires. The intention was that the trailing wires would cause a short circuit in the power lines and subsequently causing electrical power to fail. The remaining balloons carried incendiary devices intended to start fires in fields, forests and heathland. Operation Outward was successful because of the harassment created on German air defences. German fighters were having to be deployed in an effort to shoot the balloons down thereby using additional fuel and wear and tear on their aircraft. On the night of the 28/29th March 1942 the RAF launched an attack on the medieval city of Lübeck on the Baltic coast. The city had a port and submarine yards nearby and the object was for the RAF to learn how effective an initial wave of aircraft could guide a second wave into a successful attack. The first wave dispatched 144 tons of incendiary bombs to set buildings alight and half an hour later a second wave dropped 160 tons of high explosives. At least half of the city was destroyed mainly by fire. However, the attack was costly for the RAF. Of the 234 bombers sent on the raid 13 aircraft were shot down along the route. Knowing that Adolf Hitler was outraged at the attack on Lübeck, Bomber Harris stated that the Nazis had “sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind”. He was referring to the German bombing of British strategic targets during the period known as “The Blitz”. Like Lübeck, Coventry was a medieval town with an industrial centre, and Harris had no scruples about attacking a similar target in Germany. Althou gh outraged Hitler should not have been surprised that the Allies retaliated.
Operation Chariot or the Raid on St. Nazaire was a combined attack by the Royal Navy and British Commandos on the 28th March 1942. St. Nazaire is located in Loire estuary on the French coast and was chosen because of its dry dock facility and its loss meant large German warships in need of repair would have to return to home waters. This would require the Germans to either negotiate the English Channel or the North of Scotland. Either way they would have to run the gauntlet of the Home Fleet. The obsolete destroyer HMS Campbeltown was chosen to ram the dock gates at St. Nazaire. She was packed with well-hidden delayed-action explosives that detonated later in the day. Leaving Falmouth in Cornwall on 26th March 1940 Campbeltown crossed the English Channel escorted by 18 smaller craft then made their way along the Atlantic coast of France to St. Nazaire. They formed into a three-lane convoy with the destroyers operating in the middle lane. They received a signal from Plymouth that five German torpedo boats were in the area, and a further signal to say that two additional destroyers had been dispatched at full speed to join the convoy. Just before midnight on the 27th March 1942, two squadrons of RAF bombers began to attack St. Nazaire in order to divert the Germans attention away from the naval raid. In the meantime the convoy was spotted by a German submarine who sent a message to say that British warships were heading toward the docks. When the convoy reached St. Nazaire the destroyers headed for the dock entrance. Just prior to entering the dock Campbeltown raised the German naval ensign in an attempt to deceive the dock defenders she was one of their own destroyers. The port lane of the convoy headed for the Old Mole whilst the starboard lane headed for the old entrance in order to despatch their relevant contingents of Commandos. In the confusion of the air attack and the message about warships approaching, the Germans received orders for all guns to cease firing and searchlights to be extinguished. A German lookout had reported seeing some activity at sea and the searchlights were switched on illuminating the entire convoy. Immediately a German signal light demanded the identification and the convoy replied “Ship being fired on by friendly forces” following a few bursts being fired from the shore batteries. With the convoy about one mile from the dock gates the German flag was lowered on Campbeltown and the White Ensign raised. As Campbeltown increased her speed the dock searchlights were illuminated and they began to take heavy fire from the Germans. They cut through the anti-torpedo netting and rammed the dock gates with such a force that drove her thirty three feet into the gate. Two commando assault teams and five demolition teams disembarked from Campbeltown. The demolition team’s objectives were to destroy dock pumping machinery and associated dry dock installations. Campbeltown’s explosive charges detonated at noon on the 28th March 1942 which destroyed the dry docks. On board the Campbeltown at the time of the explosion were 40 senior German officers and civilians who were killed. The explosion killed approximately 360 men in total. The raid was successful but came at a high cost. Most of the motor launches were destroyed on the run in and were burning. Of the 622 men of the Royal Navy and Commandos who took part in the raid only 228 returned to England. They were on board the attacking fleet on the return journey. Five Commandos managed to escape through Spain and Gibraltar where they took a ship to England. A total of 169 men were killed (105 were RN and 64 were Commandos). The remaining 215 men were captured and became prisoners of war. The British raid on St. Nazaire infuriated Adolf Hitler who immediately sacked the chief-of-staff Generaloberst Carl Hilpert. However, the raid refocused the German’s attention on the prevention of any repeats on the various ports of the Atlantic Wall. 15,000 bunkers were ordered to be built to defend the Atlantic coast to extend from Norway to Spain. The German battleship Tirpitz never entered the Atlantic partly due to the raid on St. Nazaire. Out of five Victoria Crosses awarded during the St. Nazaire raid, one was slightly unusual. Thomas Frank Durrant was posthumously awarded the VC partly on the recommendation of an enemy officer, who singled him out for his bravery. Durrant was a sergeant serving in the Corps of Royal Engineers attached to No 1 Commando and was in charge of a Lewis gun on board H.M. Motor Launch 306. The launch engaged with a German destroyer, at about 50-60 yards range and searchlights illuminated the launch exposing Durrant. He fired his gun into the bridge and although severely wounded he stayed at his post and when called upon to surrender he replied with a burst from his gun. The launch was boarded and those still alive were taken prisoner. Sgt Durrant died of his wounds the following day. Of the other four recipients of the VC, one was a Commando and the remaining three were naval. Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Newman was serving in the Essex Regiment attached to No 2 Commando. As overall commander of the assault force he need not have been involved in the attack but chose to lead his men from the front. He organised a defence against German reinforcements until all the demolition parties had completed their tasks. With evacuation by sea not possible they charged into the new town hoping to reach the surrounding countryside but were eventually surrounded. When their ammunition had been expended they surrendered and were taken into captivity. Newman survived the war. Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie was the commander of HMS Campbeltown who despite being blinded by searchlights and under heavy fire steamed his ship into the dockyard gates. Beattie survived the war and the VC was awarded not only for his bravery and his citation also mentioned the bravery of the ship’s company. Royal Naval Commander Robert Ryder was in command of the Naval Force aboard motor boat MGB314 who assisted in the evacuation of men from Campbeltown following the ramming of the dock gates. While exposed to heavy fire from the Germans he remained at station until he could no longer be of use and withdrew under heavy fire. Ryder survived the war Able Seaman William Savage served in the Royal Navy on board the Motor Gun Boat 314. He was totally exposed to enemy fire as the gun layer of the Lewis gun. He engaged with enemy positions on shore with accuracy and on the way out of the harbour he maintained the same accuracy against enemy ships until he was eventually killed at his post. Savage’s posthumous VC was awarded for his gallantry and his citation also mentioned the gallantry of his fellow comrades. The operation has been called “The Greatest Raid of all” within British circles as the dry dock facility at St. Nazaire was out of action until 1948.
The island of Malta, a British colony, had been under siege by the Axis Powers since the summer of 1940. Failure of the February 1942 convoy from Alexandria to reach the island left Malta in a desperate position. Acute shortages of everything, food, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and aircraft were made worse by the constant Axis bombardment. Squadron Leader Stan Turner arrived in Malta in February 1942 after being appointed to take over 249 Squadron. He quickly realised that the existing Hurricane fighters faced unacceptable odds against German and Italian bombers and fighters. He urgently requested a squadron of Spitfire fighters be despatched and the request was approved. The Spitfires for the Malta squadron were the first to be deployed outside of Britain. The only option for the delivery of the Spitfires was that they would have to be transported from Britain by aircraft carriers. Upon reaching Algiers on the 6th March 1942 fifteen Spitfires were flown from HMS Eagle the 650 miles to Malta. All fifteen Spitfires, accompanied by seven Blenheim aircraft, reached Malta safely and by the 1Oth March 1942 they were ready for action. Aircraft carrier HMS Argus had originally been assigned, along with HMS Eagle, to deliver the Spitfires. Unfortunately the lift from the lower deck on Argus was too small to accommodate the fixed-wing aircraft which left Eagle as the only feasible option. By the 21st March 1942 HMS Eagle had returned to Algiers with an additional nine Spitfires and these were flown on to the island as before.
On the 22nd March 1942 four cruisers and sixteen destroyers escorted three merchant ships plus a Navy oiler to Valletta harbour on the island. A cruiser and its covering destroyers sailed from Malta to meet them and successfully kept an Italian battleship, and its escorts away from the convoy. German bombers attacked the convoy and one merchantman and the oiler were sunk before reaching Malta. Arriving at the harbour to the cheers of the locals the remaining merchantmen were sunk in the harbour with only a fraction of their cargo unloaded.
For the most part the Pacific War for the Japanese was highly successful. Their ambition to be masters of the Far East depended on their ability to obtain the raw materials Japan did not possess. They had been at war with China for years and were an experienced military force. The Allies did not appreciate Japan’s ability to invade so much territory so quickly and therefore were totally unprepared. This was a major reason for Japans success.
On the 4th March 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched Operation “K” on a reconnaissance mission to Pearl Harbour. Two Kawanishi HK8 “Emily” flying boats flew from the Marshall Islands. Their mission was to assess the damage and the American repairs to the dock area. The flying boats had been loaded with four 500 lb (250 kg) bombs and landed at the French Frigate Shoals to refuel. In addition to their reconnaissance mission the Japanese pilots were to bomb the “Ten-Ten” dock to disrupt salvage and repair efforts. The dock was named for its 1,010 ft. (310 m) length. American radar stations picked up and tracked the two planes but thick cloud over Pearl Harbour prevented the defenders spotting the Japanese aircraft. American Curtiss P-40 fighters and Catalina flying boats were despatched to search for the assumed Japanese aircraft carriers. The same clouds confused the Japanese pilots who lost contact in the clouds and were separated. The Japanese leading pilot, Hisao Hashizume was only able to see small patches of the island. He dropped his bombs on the slopes of the extinct volcano on Tantulus Peak assuming it to be Pearl Harbour. The second Japanese aircraft was flown by Ensign Shosuke Sasao appears to have dropped his bombs into the ocean. Both Japanese aircraft returned on the long journey back to base. There were no American casualties but the raid raised the fears of a potential Japanese invasion of Hawaii. Operation “K” was only partially successful for the Japanese as they bombed Hawaii but they did not obtain the information regarding Pearl Harbour they were seeking.
By mid-March 1942 the Japanese had attacked and occupied Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Java and Malaya. American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA) or ABDACOM was formed by the four nations involved in late December 1941. This decision was agreed at the Arcadia Conference in Washington in early December 1941. The command was led by General Sir Archibald Wavell, and was devised to maintain control of the Malaya Peninsular from Singapore to the Dutch East Indies which included the Philippine Islands. Wavell’s command was thinly spread over such a large area and Japanese supremacy soon overwhelmed the region. Although part of ABDACOM the Philippines were in reality commanded by American General Douglas MacArthur. He in turn was commander of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). With the Japanese over-whelming the whole of the region and following the fall of Singapore ABDACOM was dissolved in February 1942. The Philippine Islands were being overwhelmed by the Japanese and MacArthur attempted to slow the Japanese advance. Fearing the Philippines would also be over-run American President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not want his commander of USAFFE captured and he ordered MacArthur and family to evacuate to Australia. On the 17th March 1942 MacArthur had landed in Australia and arrived in Melbourne on the 21st March 1942. From Melbourne he made his famous speech, “I came through this and I shall return”. He refused Washington’s request to amend his speech to “We shall return”.
The French New Caledonia lay east of Australia. The island was also a stop-over for the supply route from America. The Japanese had possible intentions to occupy the island because it had a harbour and an airfield, easy access to Australia and also the French and Australian defences were minimal. On the 12th March 1942 the American Task Force 6814 arrived at the harbour of Noumea. As the harbour did not have deep water facilities the Task Force was transferred to the island on a flotilla of small vessels. The Task Force dispersed inland with the 132nd Infantry Regiment assigned to defend the northern portion of the island. The 182nd Infantry Regiment was assigned to defend the southern section including Noumea.
Following the closing down of ABDACOM in February 1942, Wavell returned to India. He was Commander-in-Chief India and had been C-in-C ABDACOM as well. Field Marshal William (Bill) Slim was promoted to command the Fourteenth Army the 1st Burma Corps in March 1942. He inherited a disastrous situation. Morale was low within the British conscripts, the Burmese auxiliaries and the Indian troops. Slim turned the morale round by visiting each of his units and re-assuring them he valued them. His speeches created a pride in the units and he managed to rebuild the fighting spirit which he brought about by his military skill and his own personal charisma. Heavily outnumbered he was forced to withdraw to India. By leading a controlled military withdrawal he made sure the 900 mile (1,400 km) retreat did not turn into a rout. The Japanese rapid advance overstretched their ability to supply their army giving Slim the opportunity to organise his forces. Burma’s unforgiving terrain forced Slim into changing his transportation methods where he used mules instead of vehicles and his army was supplied by air transport. The Japanese began to pay a heavy price for their advance as the encounters were better organised by the Allies.