The spring of 1942 was a dark and cloudy season for the British Empire. Driven by the Japanese from Malaya, Singapore and Burma, assailed by the fear of external invasion and internal revolt in India, and forced into ignominious retreat in North Africa, the Empire gritted its teeth and waited for the whirlwind to descend. Remarkably, it passed by.
The coming of the monsoon in Burma ended the immediate threat of a land invasion of India and American carrier action in the Coral Sea seriously blunted Japanese offensive capacity. In North Africa, Rommel was forced to delay his planned final offensive against the British Eighth Army.
Such reprieves however, brought little comfort to Winston Churchill. The American view was that only a direct attack on the continent of Europe, could bring the war to a decisive end and that even if this was not practicable in 1942, Allied resources should be conserved for an attack no later than 1943.
Anxious to secure a military victory as soon as possible, Churchill urged the Americans to invade French North Africa, believing that if the Vichy forces decided to fight, they would offer only token resistance . There was also a powerful strategic case to be made for an Allied seizure of North Africa. Mastery of the Mediterranean would bring obvious advantages and any diversion of German forces to help the Italians would relieve pressure on the Russian Front.
Churchill could hardly give a detailed account in public of the Allies’ lack of resources. It was tough enough for him in private to convince the Americans that a landing in France was as yet beyond their joint capabilities. The crunch came when Churchill returned to Washington again in July. The American Chiefs of Staff disagreed with the British view and proposed to switch operations to the Pacific if an invasion of Europe was ruled out. President Roosevelt however, sided with Churchill. On July 25, 1942, he opted firmly in favour of a landing in North Africa - Operation Torch as it became known. The operation was not favoured by good luck. As the months passed, the original intention of confusing the enemy was obscured by the actual confusions - of objectives and execution - which were affecting the planners. Was the intention to inflict the maximum casualties on the enemy? Was it to gain valuable experience of an opposed landing with Allied casualties counting only as a secondary factor? Or was it to establish a toehold on the mainland of Europe?
Since the Canadian government refused to allow their forces to be used in the Middle East, it was decided to allocate the Canadian division based in England for the European assault. As the planning developed, it became plain that very heavy sacrifices would be asked from those who actually went in on the ground. For tactical reasons, the planners decided to stage a head-on attack on a defended port and selected Dieppe as their objective. It was also decided that the port would not be subjected to a saturation bombing attack, but that supporting fire-power should be provide by the 15 inch guns of British battleships lying out in the Channel. The Admiralty however, refused to put its battleships at risk and the deficiency was never made up.
In its final stages therefore, the land element in the Dieppe Raid was forsaken by the planners and the inevitable result was disaster.; over 60% of the Canadian Division was killed or captured in one day and none of its soldiers penetrated beyond the foreshore or the seawall. One of the finest units of the Imperial Army had been crippled in a single stroke and it was to carry the scars for many months.
The failure of the Dieppe raid convinced senior British Military Staff in particular General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of Imperial Staff, that an ill considered frontal assault on the German - held coastline would be an act of pointless butchery.
Most of them had been young subalterns in the First World War. Now the echoes of those terrible mass attacks across no-mans-land returned t haunt them.
The Americans had no such memories and, therefore, no such inhibitions. Their military leaders treated every British diversion to the Mediterranean with suspicion and continued, even after the bloody lesson of Dieppe, to press for a frontal assault across the Channel or a complete switch of American resources to the pacific. This fundamental disagreement between the two allies marked their strategic discussions throughout 1942 and 1943.
To begin with the British got their way, largely because of Churchill's prestige, backed by longer experience and more skilled arguments and the fact that, in the late summer of ‘42, the British and imperial military strength still gave the appearance of superiority over that of the United States.
On October 23, 1942, Montgomery took the offensive against Rommel at El Alamein and by November 4, the Germans were in retreat, providing Churchill with the triumph of British arms that he had so long desired. Three days later, the Americans landed in French North Africa. Though strong in places, French resistance did not last for more than a few days and by the middle of the month, all of French north Africa, except Tunisia which the Axis forces were rapidly occupying, was in Allied hands.
But the fumbling inexperience of the Americans had offered a spectacular contrast to the Eighth Arm’s rapid advance along the Southern Mediterranean coastline and Churchill felt the time had come to pronounce against the critics of British Imperialism, in America as well as at home. “I have not become the King’s First Minister”, he declared, “ in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”.
In terms of military hardware, Britain’s dependence on the United States was becoming even more critical. It was all very well for British Chiefs of Staff to advocate a specific strategic deployment, but ultimately every variant of strategy depended on shipping capacity and, in particular, on the availability of landing craft. As from 1943 onwards, supplies of tanks, transport and fuel were all predominantly American. Only in design and production of military aircraft did Britain remain totally independent (and superior) until the end of the war.
By 1943 it had become clear therefore, that the end of British strategic independence was near. Britain had run through her currency reserves and the Americans, armed by the Lend-Lease Agreement, were refusing to allow fresh accumulation. By March the Battle of the Atlantic was at its height, with 477,000 tons of shipping sunk in that month alone.
In 1943 Britain also faced trouble on the industrial front. The labour force declined by 150,000 as the population aged and the declining birthrate between the wars - itself a product of the casualty rate of the First World War - took effect. The passing of immediate danger and humiliation still left “total” victory depressingly remote and a mood of disenchantment among the civilian population was apparent.
In the perilous months of 1940, the number of working days lost in strikes and lockouts had been the lowest ever recorded. But the number in 1943 was the highest for eight years - and continued to worsen.
The time had now come for the Allies to resolve their plans for the Second Front. Many on the British side still doubted the wisdom of gambling everything on a frontal assault against the daily increasing strength of the German Atlantic Wall. But against this anew, unspoken, but widely shared feeling began to make itself felt. The Russians had smashed the Germans at Stalingrad in February ‘43 and again in the summer at Kursk. It was only a matter of time before the Red Army moved towards western Europe. Only an inter-Allied agreement backed up by an Anglo-American army moving from an opposite direction could possible stop them.
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met together for the first time at the Tehran Conference in December ‘43. The essential strategic question was answered: Operation Overlord - the invasion of Northern France - would definitely take place in the spring of 1944.
The landing on June 6 came not a moment too soon.For Germany, though hard-pressed by the Russians, was by no means finished. Her war production was increasing and a whole range of sophisticated weapons - “Shnorkel U-boats, jet aircraft and two different types of ballistic missile - were on the point of becoming operational. If the D-Day landings had been as ill-prepared as the Dieppe raid, there can be little doubt that the anti-German alliance would have collapsed and the British Empire would have been exposed to perils even greater than those of 1942.
The D-Day assault went in with tremendous force and sustained by a great variety of specialized weapons. Amphibious tanks and flame-throwers, artificial harbours , cross-channel fuel pipelines and sheer weight of metal, 13,000 aircraft and 4000 assault vessels - were backed by over 1,000 British and American fighting ships.
Eisenhower did not possess a single-minded military intellect. He considered not only the military situation , but the susceptibilities of British public opinion and the private ambitions of his individual army commanders.His conclusion was that the Allies should advance on a “broad” front and the easiest way to achieve this was by restricting the allocation of supplies to the various armies on a strictly equal basis. Patton’s tanks simply ground to a halt when their fuel ran out. Montgomery now came forward with another plan. He proposed that Allied airborne forces should seize a bridgehead over the lower Rhine at Arnhem and Nijmegan in the Netherlands, and that an armoured thrust should follow on to the German plain. Patton had been the real key to an instant Allied victory in the summer of 1944 and the new plan was very much second-best. But there was a chance of it succeeding and that chance had to be taken because, for Britain, an end to the war was now even more crucial.
Exactly one week after the D-Day landings, the first of the German flying-bombs or V.1.’S fell on the south-east of England. Soon, a hundred a day were raining down mainly on London. Effective defensive measures were not found until August, by which time more than 6,000 people had been killed and over a million evacuated from the capital.
It was against this background that Montgomery’s Rhine plan was considered - and approved. But luck, which had been running against the Germans, suddenly turned in their favour. Bad weather, traitors in the Dutch resistance, last-minute changes of command, muddled radio frequencies, all played their part in frustrating the heroic but desperate operation carried out in the second week of September. An American airborne division seized Nijmegan bridge without difficulty. But the British , who had the most perilous task - that of holding the Arnhem crossing, deep in enemy territory - at once found themselves in difficulty. Probably no British unit including the Commandos, fought as long and as fiercely as the First Airborne Division at Arnhem. Trained for four years, inculcated with a proud sense of elitism these men held off the the whole of an S.S. Panzer army for ten days. Hammered by close-in artillery and mortar-fire and with food and ammunition exhausted, 2,20 survivors were evacuated across the River Lek in assault boats on September 25. They left behind 7,000 of their comrades, killed, wounded or captured.
In August 1943, a major Allied offensive had started and was entering its final phase in March 1944, when the Japanese supported by the so-called Indian National Army, had suddenly invaded Assam to begin the long-heralded “March on Delhi.” In June they had been defeated at Imphal, inside the Indian border, at a cost of nearly 40,000 men and 16,000 Empire troops, and Britain now looked forward to recovering Burma and all her other lost imperial territories in Asia. The Americans, however were more interested in pursuing their own successful campaign against the Japanese in the Central Pacific and this raised two difficult problems for Churchill.
Churchill warned senior colleagues that if the Americans alone were responsible for driving the Japanese from Malaya and the East Indies, the United States might demand “a dominating say in their future,” and gain control of their oil. Above all, the Prime Minister was concerned that if the Americans pursued an independent campaign against the Japanese, they might end the Lend-Lease arrangements without which Britain would be incapable of sustaining , not only her operations in the Far East, but the whole British economy in its transition from war to peace. Churchill therefore considered it vital to secure a major Pacific role for the Royal Navy, and immediately on arrival in Quebec announced to Roosevelt that “the British Empire is ardent to play the greatest possible part” in defeating Japan.
As a token of this ardour, Churchill offered the British main fleet for “major operations against Japan under United states Supreme Command.” Despite advice from his admirals, Roosevelt, anxious to strengthen Anglo-American relations for the joint enterprise in Europe, accepted the offer. Britain was also promised American support for the campaign in Burma and secured further Lend-Lease worth $3,500 million for the war against Japan and a credit of $3,000 million for non-military purposes.
In February 945, the two men met again, this time at Yalta, in the Crimea, in the presence of Stalin. The atmosphere was very different to the one which had prevailed at Quebec. Then Allied victory had seemed near but now the German Ardennes Offensive had put a different complexion on things. It was Stalin with 300 divisions poised on the Eastern front who now promised the road to Berlin and Roosevelt was determined to secure the Soviet dictator’s collaboration and aid.
Stalin promised further military action against the Germans, undertook to enter the war against Japan within three months of a German surrender and supported most of Roosevelt’s proposals for the United Nations Organisation. In return, he was promised large slices of Japanese territory and the lion’s share of German war reparations together with political concessions regarding future governing of Poland . Churchill had many reservations about the deal, but could do little other than accept it., he was powerless in the face of his two giant allies.
By 1945, then, Britain’s status (as distinct from her prestige) as a world power rested on bluff. She had no economic assets, her armed forces were overstretched, and what leverage she could exert depended on the diplomatic skill of her political leaders. These changed dramatically in the middle of the European peace conference in Potsdam in July when the British General Election results were declared bringing in a Labour government and ousting Churchill from Downing Street.
THE END OF THE EMPIRE!
A major question of imperial policy remained to be settled. Were the economic wealth and trading potential of Britain’s enormous possessions in the Far East worth the strain of the major military effort that was (it seemed) necessary to wrest them from the Japanese? On May 2 British troop had reoccupied Rangoon and Churchill had approved draft plans for an invasion of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s command later in the year. Whether Attlee would have proceeded with these is very doubtful.
Churchill had also wanted imperial forces to take part in the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, provisionally set for March 1946. The American Pacific Commander, General Douglas Macarthur grudgingly agreed to the inclusion in the assault force of one British, one Canadian and one Australian division, which were to be trained in American methods of warfare and were to use American equipment and supplies
In th event all was decided at Hiroshima: the British returned to their Far East Empire by courtesy of American power, though Macarthur did at least give Mountbatten permission to receive the Japanese surrender in South East Asia in Singapore on September 12. The business as-usual sign flickered on again at the Colonial Office, but there were few who were any longer interested in buying the goods.
General Orde Wingate was once described by Churchill as “a man of genius who might have become a man of destiny.” He was also a visionary and a man of action. When he went to Palestine in 1936 as a young Army officer he became a passionate Zionist and the special Jewish squads he formed to combat Arab marauders became he nucleus of the Israeli Army. In 1940 he united the warring tribes of Abyssinia against the Italian invaders. But his supreme achievement as a guerrilla leader was in Burma. There in the teeth of much orthodox military opposition , he launched his “Chindits” - named after the Burmese word for “lion” - deep behind enemy lines. Wingate died in a jungle air crash in 1944, but by then his force of lions was already a legend.
THE LIONS PREPARE
In mid 1942, after the Japanese had surged across Burma, Orde Wingate, then a colonel,was given charge of guerrilla operations behind enemy lines. Wingate’s brigade, trained in India for its secret mission, found him a hard taskmaster. Officers and men alike - British Burmese and Ghurkas - were made to work for hours at the double. They were learning to overcome two enemies ; the Japanese and the jungle. Leeches which gorge on human blood, mosquitoes and flies which cause painful sores, the gloom and humidity which together lower men’s spirits and their will to fight - all these Wingate taught his men to endure
He firmly discourage sick parades, arguing that they were admissions of weakness which could lead on the capture and even death.
Wingate’s objective was to disrupt the Japanese army by creating havoc behind its lines. This would restore the shattered morale of Empire forces, who had come to regard the Japanese as invincible jungle fighters, and prepare the way for an eventual major offensive. “Granted the power to maintain forces by air and direct them by wireless,” he wrote, “it is possible to operate regular ground forces for indefinite periods in the heart of enemy occupied territory to the peril of his war machine.” This theory was soon put to the test.
THE LIONS POUNCE
Wingate launched his first expedition into Burma in February 1943. It was to have been coordinated with an assault from the north by Chaing Kai-shek’s forces, but this was cancelled and Wingate was allowed to go ahead on his own. So on the night of February 18, 3,000 men crossed the Chindwin River into enemy territory.
Sunrise, wrote one of their officers, “revealed naked men fighting madly with plunging mules in tiny boats rocking precariously as Ghurkas loaded them with precious Bren guns, mortars and rifles.” In April, having lost a third of his men, Wingate withdrew the survivors to India. The military value of the operation is still disputed. But it did prove beyond question that Empire troops could raid effectively behind enemy lines and that the Japanese were as mortal in the jungle as any other fighting men.
MADMAN OR GENIUS
After Wingate’s death early in 1944. His second and bigger Chindit expedition fought on, first under General Lentaigne and later under the American General Stilwell, who had led a Sino-American force into northern Burma. On August 3, these Allied units succeeded in taking the Japanese stronghold of Myitkynia. But by now the Chindits were exhausted and Lentaigne resented Stilwell’s assertion that they could have fought more vigorously. Later that month they were withdrawn.
Opinion has been divided ever since about their value. The military establishment have cast Wingate in the image of a brave but irresponsible lunatic who made no serious impact on the enemy. According to the Japanese commander in Central Burma, the Chindits tied down his men when only one regiment would have turned the scales in his favour at the decisive Battle of Kohima.
The struggle for territory in the Far East was reflected in a propaganda struggle for men’s minds. The posters below exemplify Japanese efforts to win over Indians and Australian appeals to New Guinea natives. When the war began, many Indian nationalists saw their chance of wringing independence from the hard pressed British. After seizing Malaya, the Japanese tried to exploit this national sentiment I propaganda leaflets.
Printed in Hindi and Bengali, they were smuggled into the country from Burma by pro-Japanese Indians and passed from hand to hand in villages and bazaars. The campaign was not a success. All nationalists wished to be rid of the British Raj, but few were willing to swap one form of imperialist domination for another.
The Raj faces revolt. “All British Colonies are awake. Why must Indians stay slaves? Seize this chance - rise!”
A devilish Churchill holds two quarrelling Indians in his talons. “Unite for Freedom!” they are exhorted. “Division is a British policy.”
This poster displayed outside public buildings of villages recaptured from the Japanese, shows loyal villagers and police gathered round the patriotic symbols of Australia’s King and Flag. The caption declares in pigin English : “The Government has come back again.”
While India, Australia and New Zealand concentrated their resources against the Japanese, Britain, Canada and America planned the time of reckoning in Europe. By May 1944, 800,000 men were poised in southern England for history’s biggest amphibious assault. They knew that final victory in the unrelenting struggle against Nazi Germany could come only from an invasion of the massively fortified Channel coast of France - what Hitler called the Atlantic Wall. General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme Allied Commander , and General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the initial landings , misled the Germans about the location of the attack - code named “Operation Overlord.” Landings on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, the Allies smashed through German defences in a day,establishing bridgeheads from which to thrust forward into the rest of France. This section highlight the role of Canadian troops in the grim but gallant saga.
INTO THE ASSAULT
Operation Overlord was an unparalleled military achievement. More than 160,000 men with vast quantities of equipment crossed the Channel in rough weather, landed on a 50-mil front against desperate opposition and won substantial footholds in less than 24 hours at the cost of only 11,000 casualties.
But the units of the U.S. 1st and 3rd Canadian, 1st British 2nd Armies, which comprised the invading force, all endured moments of possible defeat.For two Canadian brigades these occurred at 0800 hours as they flung themselves ashore at Courselle-sur-Mer. Rough seas sank amphibious tanks and swamped landing-craft so that the assault was below strength. From surviving strong-points the Germans fought back fiercely, pinning down the Canadians on the beaches until Naval artillery came to their aid. The, against still bitter opposition , the Canadians advanced and took their objectives. Alan Morehead, the New Zealand war correspondent and writer,described in his book Eclipse the shambles after the attack. This was no normal French beach, but a wasteland pitted with thousands of craters and shell-holes. The villas were only hells, their insides blown out.
TRIUMPH IN NORMANDY
Three phases marked the Normandy battles: first, the landings and consolidation of bridgeheads; second, constant attacks against the enemy while Allied reinforcements and supplies came ashore; third, the break-out from the bridgeheads and the destruction of forces under Field-Marshal Gunther von Kluge, the German Commander-in-Chief. Thanks to a fatal error on the part of the Germans , all three phases were successfully achieved. Instead of marshalling his forces for an immediate counter-offensive, von Kluge threw them piecemeal against the invaders.
Finally, on August 7, Hitler personally ordered five Panzer divisions towards the Normandy town of Avranches in an attempt to cut U.S. General Patton’s communications. They were stopped mainly by rocket-firing R.A.F. Typhoons, which knocked-out nearly 100 tanks in a day. Grabbing his chance Montgomery ordered Canadian British and American forces to encircle the Germans and by August 13 the German 7th ~Army was trapped in the Falaise-Argentan region south of Caen. In the battle that followed, the enemy lost 10,000 dead and 50,000 prisoners. Von Kluge committed suicide and the remainder of his men who escaped capture retreated pell-mell across France.
BATTLE FOR THE RHINELAND
From February 8 until March 21, 1945, the Canadian 1st, British 2nd and U.S. 9th Armies fought under Montgomery’s command for possession of the Rhineland. The first major battle to occur inside Germany itself was waged not only in bitter cold, but in mud and floodwaters, for Field-Marshal Von Runstedt the German Commander-in-Chief, had destroyed the Roer River dams, inundating the countryside and delaying the American advance for two weeks.
The British and Canadians pushed on and met stubborn resistance from the German 1st Parachute Army, which threw in al of its reserves. “The volume of fire,” noted Montgomery, “was the heaviest which had so far been met by British troops.” Eventually, after sustaining 90,000 casualties, the Germans were driven from the west bank of the Rhine. On the night of March 23-24 the Allies crossed the river, joining up with the Soviets at Torgau on April 25. Twelve days later the Germans surrendered
At home the British people who for the most part had supposed the British Empire to be founded firmly upon the loyalty of the inhabitants, were in no mood for gunboats and glory when they found it was not! With all American aid cut off from the time of the Japanese collapse, they had problems enough of their own to face in Britain. The self-governing Dominions had also acquired new international status and assertiveness. They had stood as free and equal nations with Britain, for a year alone, and from first to last,against the Axis powers. If the days of colonialism were seemingly numbered, the idea of Commonwealth had acquired new significance. It remained to be seen how far the idea could by trade, tariff, or defence survive the turbulent aftermath of the war.
But for the sake of Empire prestige, Churchill was determined that the Eighth army should score its own success against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and throughout April and May ‘42, he badgered General Sir Claude Auchinleck to take the offensive. Auchinleck however, preferred to wait and at the end of May Rommel struck first, fighting the Eighth Army to a standstill . While Churchill was in Washington in June, the fortress of Tobruk fell and 38,000 men, the majority South Africans, surrendered.
With the Eighth Army slogging in retreat across 300 miles of desert, to El Alamein, the last position before the Nile, Churchill returned home to face a house of commons censure debate and a vocal and public support for a “Second Front”, The call for a Second Front was hard to deal with, the fighting of the Red Army single-handedly, against the Germans, had aroused universal admiration in Britain now made the ‘press barons’ including Beaverbrook, to declare that the “War can be settled in 1942”.