Tag Archives: Second World War

The Second Great Fire of London

Balham. October 1940

During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.

The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.

Air raid shelter in Aldwych underground station © IWM HU 44272
1kg incendiary bomb © IWM (MUN 3291)

Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.

Ludgate

As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.

Firemen at work on Ave Maria Lane on the night of 29th December 1940.

Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.

Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.

While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.

The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.

Bomb damage viewed from St Pauls 1940

It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’

The cover of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung

But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.

Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.

The black Polish resistance fighter – August Browne

Buried in an unremarkable grave in Hampstead Cemetery is a remarkable man. Few people know of August Agboola Browne who, although born in Nigeria, became a hero of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War. It seems fitting that this courageous man should be remembered during black history month.

August Browne was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on 22nd July 1895; his father was a longshoreman who brought his family to England in search of work. When the family arrived in England August, who was a musician, joined a touring theatre troupe and travelled with them to Germany and then Poland. The young Nigerian arrived in Warsaw in 1922 and by the 1930’s was well known as a jazz percussionist who played in many of Warsaw’s music clubs and restaurants. August was polite and well-liked, his affinity with languages (he spoke six) meant that he was soon conversant in Polish, married and had two sons. Although the marriage failed August took care of his family and at the outbreak of war sent them to England (this was not too difficult for him to do as he was a citizen of the then British Empire). Although he could have travelled with his family August chose to stay in Poland to fight the Nazis.

August was in his mid-forties when Germany invaded Poland, and after having lived there for 17 years he felt an affinity for the country and its people. He helped to defend Warsaw when it was besieged, then later went on to distribute underground newspapers as well as shelter refugees from the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto was a section of the city which had been sealed off by the German’s as living space for the Jewish population. Conditions inside the ghetto were terrible with 91,000 people dying from starvation and disease; a further 300,000 Jews were transported from there to their deaths in German concentration camps.

In 1944 there was an Uprising against the German occupiers of Warsaw in which August is believed to have been the only black person to fight. Code-named ‘Ali’, he served as part of the Iwo Battalion of the Polish Underground known as the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The Uprising began when the Armia Krajowa attacked the occupying forces on 1st August 1944 and swiftly gained control of much of the city. Germany sent in reinforcements to crush the resistance whilst nearby Soviet troops, who were supposed to be allies of the Poles, sat back and did nothing to help. The Warsaw Uprising was the largest resistance action to take place during the Second World War; the Poles held out for two months without proper equipment or help but the outcome was inevitable and they were forced surrendered on 2nd October. During the 63 days of the Uprising 16,000 Polish fighters and 200,000 civilians were killed, and the city almost totally destroyed. During those heroic days Polish deaths exceeded those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

As the only black member of the resistance in Warsaw August must have been conspicuous which put him at greater risk than his companions, yet he managed to survive in a city where 94% of the population were either killed or displaced. After the war Auguste continued to live in Warsaw, where he remarried and continued his music career as well as working in the Department of Culture and Art, before emigrating to Britain in the late 1950’s. Living in London he continued to work as a jazz percussionist and gave piano lessons.

August died in 1976 and is buried in Hampstead cemetery, in what is an unremarkable grave for a very remarkable man.

On August 2nd 2019 a stone was unveiled in his memory in Warsaw: “In honor of Augustine Agboola Browne, nom de guerre “Ali”, a jazz musician and a participant in the Warsaw Uprising of Africa origin. Poland was the country he chose to live in”.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko – The most successful female sniper in history

“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Lyudmila Belova was born 12th July 1916 in Bila Tserkva in the Ukraine (near Kiev). Her mother was a school teacher and her father a factory worker who worked his way up to a position of responsibility. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to move to a new town every year which in turn meant that Lyudmila had to start again each year at a new school with new friends.

Lyudmila was a tomboy – preferring to play rough and tumble games with the boys rather than with girls. When she was 14 the family moved to Kiev where one boy kept bragging that he could shoot better than anyone else, this annoyed Lyudmila who thought she could do anything that a boy could do so she joined a local shooting club. She had a natural talent and was soon winning medals at competitions.

As a teenager Lyudmila worked at the Kiev arms factory as well as working so hard at her studies that she graduated from college a year earlier than other students of her age. Lyudmila married a doctor, Alexei Pavlichenko, when she was 16 and they had a son called Rostislav. Russian women were expected to marry young and start a family so this was not unusual; it was also a matter of pride for women to work full-time and also look after their young family, not like the ‘stay-at-home-mums’ of other European countries. The Russian idea was that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so everyone helped to look after the children of the community which enabled the women to work.

Lyudmila was not satisfied with working in the armament’s factory – she wanted an education and a career, unfortunately her insistence on this led to her and Alexei getting a divorce. Lyudmila studied for a Bachelor’s degree in history at Kiev University with the aim of becoming a teacher. The young Russian was planning to do a Master’s, but then the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and her plans were put on hold after the death and destruction she witnessed during the battle of Kiev made her put aside her dreams of becoming a teacher in favour of killing Nazis.

Lyudmila was 24 when she enlisted in the Russian Army, this was a year before women were conscripted but she didn’t want to wait. The authorities felt that as a woman she should become a nurse but Lyudmila had other ideas and when she showed them her shooting medals she was allowed to join an all-male sniper school (a women’s sniper school was not set up until 1942). When she was sent to the front after her training Lyudmila was initially set to digging trenches, it wasn’t until a colleague was too wounded to continue and he handed her his gun that she had a weapon at last. The young woman had been bullied at sniper school and the other snipers still did not accept her fully so they set her a test – to shoot two of the enemy standing in a field, if she couldnd’t do it she would be sent home. Lyudmila surprised everyone by killing both Germans with two very quick headshots and she was accepted in the ranks of the snipers.

On her first day on the battlefield Lyudmila was frozen with fear and couldn’t bring herself to lift her gun and fire on the enemy. Then a young Russian soldier moved beside her but before he could settle in a shot rang out and he was killed. The shock spurred Lyudmila to action as she had liked the ‘nice, happy boy’, and from that moment on there was no stopping her.

During the Siege of Odessa which lasted from 8th August until 16th October 1941, Lyudmila killed 187 of the enemy saying that she was so successful because she hated the enemy too much to fear him. On one occasion Germans had marked her position in a tree and were firing at it. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before they killed her Lyudmila deliberately fell out of the tree and played dead until nightfall when she slipped quietly away. It was at that point that her comrades began to call her ‘Lady Death’.

Lyudmila later took part in the battle of Sevastopol where she killed 70 more Germans (taking her total to 257) and she was assigned to become a counter-sniper – in other words to target and kill enemy snipers. This took great skill and perseverance as she had to sit still and wait until the enemy sniper revealed himself before taking her shot; on average this took 15 – 20 hours. On one occasion Lyudmila had to lay still in her hiding place for 3 days without food or water waiting for the enemy sniper to reveal himself. In all she was sent against 36 enemy snipers and killed them all.

By the time she had killed 309 Germans Lyudmila had become a Lieutenant and fallen in love with Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko who was also a sniper; the couple were married but Leonid was killed soon after.

The Germans knew who Lyudmila was and were so afraid of her skill that they tried to persuade her to defect by offering her chocolate and the promise of an officer rank in the German army. Lyudmila was never going to agree so the Germans said that when they caught her they would tear her into 309 pieces. This pleased Lyudmila because it meant that everyone knew her tally!

Lyudmila was shot four times whilst on active service and also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds although these did not stop her and she continued to fight. After being hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar shell the ace sniper was withdrawn from the battlefield (by submarine from Sevastopol) to spend a month in hospital. Rather than sending her back to the front the Soviet High Command posted Lyudmila to train snipers, she was also given the role of propagandist.

Stalin had been trying to encourage Roosevelt to open a Second Front in Europe without success so in 1942 Stalin sent Lyudmila to America to tell her story. The young Russian woman arrived in Washington where she became the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt asked Lyudmila to accompany her on a tour of the country so that she could tell Americans about her experiences as a woman in combat. Rather than being impressed with Lyudmila reporters on the tour asked why she didn’t wear make-up or style her hair, and what she thought of the military uniform which made her look fat. She replied that “I wear my uniform with honour. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was very impressed with the young Russian and gave her advice on public speaking. As they travelled through 43 states Lyudmila’s confidence grew and she and the First Lady became very good friends. This boost in confidence became obvious when they reached Chicago and Lyudmila confronted the men in the audience by saying “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” She also addressed the subject of equality by saying “Now [in the U.S.] I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”

Lyudmila also visited Canada before traveling to Coventry in England where she accepted donations of £4,516 from local workers to pay for three X-ray units for the Red Army. She also visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral before returning to Russia and continuing to train snipers until the end of the war.

Lyudmila was a national symbol of women in the USSR, she was even featured on a ration postage stamp. After the war Lyudmila returned to Kiev University and finished her Master’s Degree in History, but instead of becoming a teacher she was given a position as a research specialist for the Soviet navy.

In 1957 Eleanor Roosevelt visited Russia and the two women were re-united for an afternoon reminiscing about their tour of America.

Lyudmila died in 1974 aged 58. Her life was commemorated with a second postage stamp.

Awards and honours

  • Hero of the Soviet Union (25 October 1943)
  • Two Order of Lenin (16 July 1942 and 25 October 1943)
  • Two Medals “For Military Merit” (26 April 1942 and 13 June 1952)
  • Campaign medals

Malta – the brave island which was awarded the George Cross

At the beginning of the Second World War Malta was a part of the British Commonwealth and had been at the centre of Britain’s strategic naval planning in the Mediterranean since the early 19th century. In early 1940, it was thought that the island could no longer be the main base for the Mediterranean Fleet because of the threat created by the close proximity of the Italian Air Force. Britain therefore moved their focus to Alexandria in  Egypt and left the defence of the western Mediterranean to the French. This worked well until France surrendered to the Germans at which point Britain set up Force H in Gibraltar to maintain a presence there, and to help with the defence of the island of Malta. With the French out of the war Malta was now the only British held harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria and as such was needed to play a vital role as a base for air and submarine attacks on convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa as well as protecting supply convoys to the British forces in Egypt.

THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946
THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946

Germany recognised the strategic importance of Malta and subjected the island to relentless bombing attacks beginning in earnest in January 1941 with great success. The German plan was to starve the island’s military and civilian populations into submission. By early summer more than 1,500 civilians had been killed and the situation was critical with supply ships regularly being sunk and stocks of food, fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition diminishing rapidly. The situation was becoming critical when the Luftwaffe was re-deployed to Russia in the summer and Malta had a brief respite. British aircraft and submarines based on the island were able to go on the offensive against the Axis supply lines with Malta’s submarines sinking 300,000 tons of Axis shipping in less than three months. In November of 1941 63% of all Axis cargo destined for North Africa was lost which had a huge impact on Rommel’s plans for pushing the British out of North Africa.

Italian_bombing_of_the_Grand_Harbor,_Malta
Italian bombing of the Grand Harbor, Malta

In support of the forces based in Malta Churchill set up Force K with a number of cruisers and destroyers which arrived in Valetta on 21st October 1941. Force K had a huge impact in November when they sank an entire convoy of 7 German merchant ships and one of the escorting destroyers as well as damaging 3 others, in that one action Force K cut the Axis supply line by 50% and Tripoli was virtually blockaded. Things were difficult for the German troops in North Africa as Operation Crusader pushed their troops back, regular supply was essential and so replacement merchant ships were sent but these, too, fell prey to Force K with Germany losing over 60% of it’s shipping in the Mediterranean in November. The Axis forces in North Africa were in danger of running out of fuel and their planes could only fly one sortie a day as Rommel was forced to retreat in order to shorten his supply lines.

Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701
Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701

With_a_strong_anti-aircraft_defence,_RAF_fighters_and_rock-hewn_shelters,_the_islanders_of_Malta_do_not_fear_air_raidsThe British success was, however, short lived as the German aircraft returned to Sicily in December and a second siege of Malta began. As 1941 turned to 1942 the convoys carrying supplies to Malta suffered huge losses of ships and crews – between February and June less than 8% of British ships reached port and unloaded their cargo. The bombing of the island was so intense that civilians were forced to seek shelter in caves and tunnels which they dug into the limestone rock despite the lack of suitable equipment or any skilled miners. The demand for shelters was huge and those that were available were frequently overcrowded.  The insanitary conditions inside the shelters led to epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis among an already malnourished population.

In March 1942 a convoy of supply ships made the perilous journey from Alexandria to Malta to try to help the island but only 7,500 tons of the 26,000 tons of supplies which set out actually arrived. During this time Allied air forces were constantly in combat with the Germans losing most of their aircraft – many of them whilst still on the ground. The Germans flew bombing raids against Malta almost every day from 1st January to 24th July (there was only one 24 hour period during that time in which bombs did not fall).

Hoisting_the_red_flag_which,_with_a_siren,_warns_everyone_in_Malta_that_an_air_raid_is_imminent
Hoisting the red flag which, with a siren, warns everyone in Malta that an air raid is imminent

Things were looking bleak for the embattled island until the Luftwaffe was diverted to support Rommel which allowed Malta some breathing space. From a peak of 8,788 sorties flown against the island in April the attacks dropped to 956 in June – in March and April 1942 Axis forces dropped 6,728 tons of bombs on Malta (more than had been dropped on London during the whole of the Blitz), killing 1,493 and wounding 3,764. In recognition of the incredible fight and stoicism of the Maltese people King George VI wrote to the Governor of the island on 15th April 1942 to inform him that he was awarding the George Cross to the island and its people ‘To bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’

 

© IWM (GM 1480)
© IWM (GM 1480)

Things began to look up in early 1942 with the arrival of Air Vice Marshall Sir Keith Park who ordered fighter planes to fly out and intercept incoming raids rather than defending over the island and then chasing the raiders away, but supply convoys continued to be at risk. With the supply situation on Malta becoming critical in August the Royal Navy put together one of the major convoys of the war – Pedestal. The convoy left Gibraltar on the night of 9th August and was under almost constant attack for most of the journey – only 5 of the 14 ships which set out arrived in Valletta, the last being an oil tanker, the SS Ohio which although badly damaged limped into port on 15th August. Although the losses were heavy 55,000 tons of supplies were landed. Thanks to Allied victories, including El Alamein, the enemy threat to shipping was reduced and convoys were also able to sail from Alexandria to Malta, this was a turning point with the Allies regaining control of the sea and air, with the arrival of more convoys in November and December the island had enough supplies to last into the new year and the siege was broken. Yet no one knew if convoys could continue, and an island of more than a quarter of a million people needed constant re-supply so starvation rationing continued into the new year.

With the siege lifted the Allies were able to use Malta as a base to launch landings in North Africa in November 1942, Sicily in July 1943 and mainland Italy in September 1943.

King George VI greets Malta servicemen.
King George VI greets Malta servicemen.

The people of Malta had suffered incredibly during the siege which is why George VI awarded the George Cross* to the island in April 1942 and visited the island himself on 20th June 1943. For security reasons no one was informed that he was coming until 5am on the 20th but that was enough time for crowds to gather to meet his ship. Three hours later the King was standing on a specially built platform so that everyone could see him as the church bells rang out to welcome him.

Guardig the cross one year after it was awarded
Maltese ratings of the Royal Navy mounting guard over the George Cross as it is ceremoniously displayed in Palace Square, Valletta, on the first anniversary of the award

255px-George_Cross_Malta_P1440218

 

 

*The George Cross, which is the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, was instituted by King George VI, on 24 September 1940 to replace the Empire Gallantry Medal. It is intended mainly for civilians but is also awarded to certain fighting services for which purely military honours are not normally given.

 

The day that Churchill sank the French Fleet

On July 3rd 1940 the British Fleet fired on the French Fleet which was at anchor in the North African port of Mers el Kebir, near Oran in Algeria. The attack lasted for only 10 minutes but in that time hundreds of French sailors were killed and their ships crippled. Yet only days before France and Britain had been Allies fighting against Hitler’s Germany, so what went wrong?

The German Blitzkrieg was unexpected and totally devastating in its speed and France fell to the Germans which left the British in a difficult position. Many of the ships in the French Fleet were still at sea or in port and Churchill realised that it was vital to keep these resources out of enemy hands by any means possible.

Many French ships were already in British ports but there was also a large squadron of battleships in the port of Mers el Kebir. The Admiralty were worried that if these ships were to join with the Italian navy in the Mediterranean it would give the Axis powers naval superiority there and possibly make Britain’s position in North Africa untenable. On 23rd June 1940 an armistice was signed between France and Germany, and when the details were announced they confirmed the worst fears of the Admiralty. The agreement said that ‘The French war fleet is to collect in ports…under German and/or Italian control to demobilize.’ The declaration went on to say that ‘The German Government solemnly declares to the French Government that it does not intend to use the French War Fleet which is in harbours under German control for the purposes of the war.’

Germany and France sign an armisgtice © IWM HU 75914

However, the British government did not trust Hitler as he had broken many promises before, which left Churchill afraid that the French Fleet might be used to help an invasion of Britain. He had to make a decision about what to do next and so announced that ‘At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another we must make sure that the navy of France does not fall into the wrong hands.’

Churchill ordered the immediate setting up of Operation Grasp whose aim was to simultaneously seize

  1. all French ships in the UK ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth
  2. all French ships in the port of Alexandria in Egypt

Admiral Somerville. © IWM A 20772

At the same time Operation Catapult under Rear Admiral Somerville was to give an ultimatum to the ships in Mers el Kebir. Somerville had command of a force consisting of Ark Royal, Hood, Valiant, Resolution, 2 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. At Gibraltar Somerville met with Admiral North who was Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, and Captain Holland who spoke fluent French. The three officers had been ordered to present French Admiral Gensoul with 3 options

  1. Join the Royal Navy to fight the Germans
  2. Sail to a British Port where the ships would be taken over and the crews repatriated
  3. Sail to an island in the French Caribbean, disarm, and stay there for the remainder of the war

Churchill had ordered that if Gensoul refused to make a decision he would be told to scuttle his ships. If he refused to do that the last resort would be for the British to fire on the French Fleet and sink it.

Somerville and North both felt that these orders went against what was honourable as the French had so recently been an ally; the Prime Minister understood this but explained his decision by saying that ‘you are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with.’ But, despite that, he was still convinced that this confrontation with Admiral Gensoul was the only way forward.

On the morning of 3rd July the British Fleet arrived off Mers el Kebir and Holland was ferried in by the destroyer HMS Foxhound to conduct negotiations. Gensoul initially refused to allow Holland on board his flagship because he felt insulted that the British had sent a mere Captain to speak with him, as he was an admiral he insisted that talks had to be conducted by an intermediary. Gensoul eventually rejected the British proposals saying that he would scuttle his ships if the Germans tried to take them but would not do so on the orders of the British.

French Fleet at Mersel Kebir

Somerville recalled Holland and gave Gensoul until 3pm to reconsider his decision. Whilst waiting Swordfish aircraft were sent in and dropped magnetic mines across the harbour entrance to prevent the French leaving. At 2.15pm, probably in an attempt to buy more time, Gensoul said that he would finally speak directly to Holland. In acknowledgment of this Somerville extended the deadline to 5.30pm because he did not want to fire and hoped that further talks would lead to a resolution of the situation. However, Gensoul continued to insist that he was not prepared to relocate to the Caribbean or scuttle his ships unless they faced a direct threat from the Germans.

The Admiralty notified Somerville that French re-inforcements were on the way and so his time was up. Holland left the French admiral at 5.25pm whilst Gensoul still thought that the British would not open fire and that they were simply bluffing to put pressure on him to scuttle.

French Cruiser the Strasbourg

At 5.54pm the British battleships Resolution and Valient opened fire on the French Fleet, closely followed by Hood. The French tried to leave anchor to escape but it was too late and the Dunkerque, Gensoul’s flagship, was hit four times killing 181 men and causing a great deal of damage. When the Bretagne was also hit one of her main magazines exploded and the ship capsized, taking 1,079 of her crew with her.

Admiral Gensoul

At this point Somerville ordered a halt to attack to give the French time to abandon their ships so that the British could scuttle them, but the French had no intention of letting the British sink their ships so two destroyers and a battleship broke out of the harbour and returned fire on the British. Gensoul hoped to gain some time to allow these ships to escape so he sent a signal to Somerville to say that he now agreed to the British terms. Somerville, however, knew what was happening and told Gensoul that ‘Unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again.’

The French ships which had broken out managed to escape their British pursuers, but there was no hope for those left in Mers el Kebir. A final bombing run was made on the ships a few days later to make sure that none were seaworthy but the battle had, in effect, ended late in the afternoon of the 3rd July.

During the Battle of Mers el Kebir the French lost 1,297 sailors with over 350 wounded. They saw the British attack as an act of treachery, and at the funerals of those who died Gensoul told the remaining French sailors that ‘If there is a stain on a flag today it is certainly not on yours.’

Somerville himself felt that the action he had been ordered to lead was dishonourable and called himself ‘the unskilled butcher of Oran’. He wrote home to his wife and said ‘I just felt so damned angry being called on to do such a lousy job. We all feel dirty and ashamed that the first time we have been in action was an affair like this.’

Churchill however was unrepentant. He had felt that he could not give more time for the negotiators to seek a peaceful solution and believed that ‘Mers el Kebir showed that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.’

There are a number of theories as to why Churchill ordered his fleet to fire on the French. Some argue that the British Prime Minister was simply ruthless and took this action to show the world, particularly the Americans, that Britain was not beaten and that under his leadership there would be no surrender to the Germans.

Others argue that keeping the peace between Britain and a France which had already been defeated by the Germans was not as important to Churchill as ensuring that the French ships could not be used against the British.

For Churchill making a public statement of British resolve was a major factor in ordering the operation against the French.

So, was the sinking of the French Fleet at Mers el Kabir an unpleasant necessity (Churchill’s view), a dishonourable act (Somerville’s view) or a murderous atrocity (Gensoul’s view)? Or does the answer, as is so often the case during a time of war, lie somewhere in between?

Accident or murder? The mysterious death of Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard was a superstar actor of his day. The son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary he was born in London in 1893 and served during the First World War, he was mustered out of the army a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme began in 1916 as he was suffering from shell shock. It was actually his doctor who suggested acting as a therapy little knowing that Howard would go on to international fame, particularly for his roles in Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind. When the Second World War broke out the English actor gave up his lucrative Hollywood contract (including his share of the box-office takings for Gone With The Wind) and returned home to see what he could do to further the war effort.

Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind

Howard was not the only Hollywood actor to join up at the first opportunity, Americans Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Charles Bronson also served whilst Clark Gable and James Stewart were awarded medals for their bravery; on the other side of the Atlantic British actors Richard Todd, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde all served in the armed forces.

Leslie Howard, however, decided that rather than fighting he would put his acting skills to use and so offered to do whatever he could for the British government. One of the first things he was asked to do was to make broadcasts to the United States which still remained a neutral country with Churchill doing everything he could to get the Americans to join the war as Britain’s allies. Many women in America were isolationists and strongly against the war, it was recognised that their views had a not insubstantial effect on the views of American men so it was thought that a matinee idol such as Howard might go a long way towards making them change their minds. But America was only a part of his focus as Leslie Howard also made programmes for the domestic audience appearing on ‘Britain Speaks’ and making National Savings documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Many of his broadcasts focused on British values which the soldiers at the front were fighting to protect – freedom, tolerance and decency. The propaganda programmes which Howard was involved in were so successful that William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw) singled out Howard as a target in his radio broadcasts from Europe (‘Germany Calling’) saying that he should ‘stick to acting’.

Howard’s work for the government also included directing, co-producing and starring in several war films including 49th Parallel, The First Of The Few (the story of RJ Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire) and Pimpernel Smith (based on the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel who rescued aristocrats from Paris during the French Revolution, only this time the plot revolved around an English professor rescuing refugees from the Germans). The work that Howard did was obviously propaganda but he felt that it was justified whilst the country was at war with Hitler, in one broadcast Howard even used what was considered strong language for the 1940’s when he said “To hell with whether what I say is propaganda or not, I’ve never stopped to figure it out and I don’t think it matters anymore.”

On the set of The First of the Few

Howard had met Winston Churchill in 1937 when they had several informal talks where Howard made his anti-Nazi views known. Churchill remembered this and when he became Prime Minister he used Howard and other actors, including Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, to get access to famous or important people who might be able to help with the war effort. To this end Howard went to Spain and Portugal in May 1943 purportedly to open links between Spanish and British film-makers and present a series of lectures on his films and the role of Hamlet, but it is believed that his real purpose was to try to prevent General Franco from joining the Axis powers. The Iberian peninsula was neutral during the war and so became a magnet for spies from both sides which meant that the actor was closely watched by German agents during his visit.

Pimpernel Smith

Howard left Portugal in June 1943 on a civilian Douglas DC-3 which flew regularly across the Bay of Biscay as there was an informal agreement for both sides to respect the neutrality of civilian planes. On this day, however, the agreement was ignored and six Junkers JU88 fighters shot it down killing all seventeen passengers and crew. The news of the death of incredibly popular Leslie Howard shocked the British people, and the reason for the German action raised many questions which have not been fully answered to this day.

Why was the plane shot down? Was it an accident or deliberate? If deliberate, who was the target?

One thing we do know is that this same plane making its daily Lisbon to London run had been attacked for the first time two weeks earlier, but it was assumed that the aircraft had been hit by mistake and so the flights continued. Now the plane had been fired on again, and this time shot down with a number of people on board who could have been a possible target. There was Arthur Chenhall, Howard’s manager who was travelling with him and who looked a lot like Churchill. There was also Kenneth Stonehouse who was a reporter for Reuters, Wilfred Israel who was a Jew from Berlin whose work with the Kindertransport had been, in part, the inspiration for Pimpernel Smith, Tyrrel Shervington who was the Lisbon manager for the Shell Oil Company, and Ivan Sharp who had been negotiating tungsten and wolfram imports which were important for the British war effort and deals which the Germans would obviously like to prevent. Any one of these men could have been targeted by the Germans although many thought that the clear target was Howard as when Goebbels (the German Propaganda Minister) had seen the film Pimpernel Smith he had taken it as a personal parody of himself and wanted to kill the director and star.

Pimpernel Smith

There is, however, another possibility. On the same day that Howard’s ill-fated plane set off from Portugal Winston Churchill also took off from Gibraltar to return to Britain after a visit to North Africa. The British Prime Minister was to have flown in a similar flying boat and on a similar flight path to the plane which was shot down but, due to bad weather, he decided to take a bomber instead. The German pilots who brought down the plane took photographs of the wreckage before flying back to their base in France. So, was Leslie Howard the target of the German Junkers, or did they mistake the civilian plane for the one carrying the British Prime Minister? What a coup it would have been if they had been able to shoot down and kill the man who was the inspiration for so many of the Allies.

Three days after the plane was shot down the New York Times reported that “It was believed in London that the Nazi raiders had attacked on the outside chance that Prime Minister Winston Churchill might be among the passengers.” When secret files about Ultra (the Allies’ secret Nazi code-breaking capabilities) were finally made public decades after the Second World War it was learned that the British had known in advance that the Germans assumed Churchill was on Flight 777 and so might target the plane. It was obviously vital for the war effort that Ultra could not be compromised and so the intelligence was not passed on to the Portuguese authorities or the airline. When Churchill wrote his history of the war he fed the flames of the mistaken-identity thesis when he referred to Leslie Howard’s death as one of “the inscrutable workings of fate.”

We will never know for certain the true circumstances of the death of Leslie Howard, but JB Priestley spoke for many when he made a broadcast after the actor’s death was announced on the BBC – “The war has claimed another casualty, the stage and screen have lost an unselfish artist, and millions of us have lost a friend.

 

VE DAY – The end of the Second World War in Europe

The long weekend of 8th – 11th May 2020 was supposed to see massive celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day (the ending of the Second World War in Europe) with the British May Bank Holiday being moved for only the second time in history to accommodate this. We are, however, living in unusual times with many countries in lockdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic so ceremonies and celebrations will not go ahead as planned. I believe it is hoped that these can be postponed until August to coincide with VJ Day (Victory against Japan), but until then we can remember and celebrate online…

(Please read this article for some ideas on how to celebrate VE Day during lockdown).

VE Day in London

VE Day marked the end of six long years of war against Germany which had caused so much suffering and death for many countries. April 1945 saw many of the Allied forces beginning to overrun Germany from the west whilst Russian troops were advancing on the eastern front. The two armies met at the River Elbe on 25th April and it was obvious to everyone that Germany could not win the war.

The inevitable defeat of the Nazi forces had long been anticipated, and with Berlin surrounded by Allied armies Hitler took what many saw as the cowards way out by naming Grand Admiral Donitz as his successor then killing his dog and his new wife, Eva, before committing suicide himself on 30th April 1945.

© IWM (EA 65715) Jodl signs the instrument of surrender at Rheims.

On 4th May Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in northwest Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark at Lunehurg Heath near Hamburg. Three days later The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at Reims with General Jodl signing the document on behalf of the German people. The agreement was for the war to officially end the following day on 8th May 1945.

 

The long-awaited end of the war in Europe was announced in a radio broadcast on 7th May and the following day declared a national holiday.

 

 

Building a bonfire to celebrate

 

 

As soon as the news of victory was announced flags and bunting were strung across streets and house fronts, bonfires were built and lit, and the pubs were full as many people did not want to wait one more night to begin their celebrations!

 

 

 

After years of rationing people were told on the morning of the 8th that they could buy bunting without ration coupons, many restaurants quickly put together a ‘victory menu’, there were parades, street parties, and services of thanksgiving – St Paul’s Cathedral in London accommodated 10,000 people in ten services which ran one after the other.

Throughout the war years the British people had been led by Winston Churchill who spoke on the radio in the afternoon of the 8th reminding people that ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’ He was, of course, referring to the fact that the war in the Far East was still on-going with British soldiers, sailors and airmen still fighting and dying for freedom. Later in the day the Prime Minister stood on the balcony of the Ministry of Health and thousands listened to his speech declaring that ‘This is your victory’ to which the crowd replied ‘No, it’s yours!’

© IWM (H 41849)

As the victory celebrations unfolded huge crowds collected in the Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace to see the royal family. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth went out onto the balcony no less than eight times, once accompanied by the Prime Minister. During their last appearance two young women standing looking up at them were no less than the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret who had been allowed to go out incognito to join the celebrating crowds. Queen Elizabeth later said ‘We stood outside and shouted, “We want the King”… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.’ (see The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II).

© IWM (MH 21835)

It is thought that around 50,000 people were crowded around Piccadilly Circus as the first VE Day came to an end with people dancing and singing in the streets. The joy of victory broke down the famous British reserve as people spoke and danced with complete strangers as pubs and dance halls stayed open until midnight to allow the celebrations to continue.

VE Day in London

Celebrations took place around the world, although there was sadness in America that President Roosevelt who had led the country throughout the war did not live to see the final victory (he died on 12th April 1945). Even so the celebrations were so great that large numbers of police officers were detailed to control the crowds in Times Square. In Paris huge numbers flocked to the Champs Elysees and Place de la Concorde. There were also celebrations in Australia although the war so close to them in the Far East was still ongoing. In Canada where the liquor stores had been closed for the celebrations military personnel in Halifax rioted and led the looting of liquor stores which led to a number of deaths.

Amidst the celebrations for the ending of the war in Europe there was also sadness at the thoughts of those who had died and would never return home to a country at peace, and people were aware that the hard times were not yet over – the war against Japan still had to be won, rationing would no doubt continue and there was a great deal of re-building to be done. But for now, for one day, they celebrated the ending of an era of destruction and a new beginning…

The war-gaming Raspberries who helped to win the Battle of the Atlantic

After the fall of France in the early days of the Second World War Britain stood alone in her opposition to Germany in Europe. As an island nation she was vulnerable because food and materials for the war had to be brought across the Atlantic from America, running the gauntlet of German U-boats hunting in ‘Wolfpacks’. Britain needed more than 1 million tons of imports a week to survive so it was imperative to find ways to combat the U-boat threat in what was known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain had prepared her sea defences based on the belief that Germany would fight a similar sea war to the one fought during World War I. No one had anticipated that France would fall so quickly thereby placing its ports on the western coast of Europe in the hands of Germany and enabling the Nazis to have a stranglehold on the Atlantic crossing. A new approach to the war at sea was needed.

‘War games’ have always been an important feature of military tactical planning and so the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) was set up in Liverpool led by Captain Gilbert Roberts under Sir Percy Noble who was made responsible for protecting convoys from the threat of German U-boats. Roberts brought together a group of officers and ratings from the Women’s Royal Navy Service (the Wrens) to ‘explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass these on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) course’. Churchill’s instructions to the new unit were clear – “Find out what is happening in the Atlantic, find ways of getting the convoys through and sink the U-Boats!” The small staff under Roberts consisted of Chief Petty Officer Raynor, four Wren officers, and four Wren ratings, two of whom were only seventeen.

Captain Roberts consults with Commander J M Rowlands, DSO, RN, an Escort Group Commander. One of the most important phases of the Tactical Unit is the consultation with Escort Group Commanders and Commanding Officers of Escort Vessels when they come in from sea. © IWM (A 27825)

Roberts first analysed reports of attacks on convoys and came to the conclusion that only one Commander, F Walker, had any sort of tactic against the U-boats – he had set up a system whereby when the signal ‘Buttercup’ was given all escort ships under his command turned outwards and fired starburst shells to illuminate any German submarines on the surface. Robert’s analysis also led him to believe that rather than U-boats moving in to attack the perimeter of a convoy at night they were already amongst the supply ships and using their targets as cover!

The facility which housed WATU was very simple – a pattern of squares painted on the floor, some basic ships models, and a number of tactical tables. The first thing that the new team needed to do was to learn current ASW techniques and get an understanding of their technology before they began to create a set of rules so that they could play ‘real-time’ games where they responded to simulated naval attacks, developed tactics to combat them and analysed communications problems. The first problem they approached was the perceived tactic of U-boats hiding withing the convoys. By playing their war games they came to the conclusion that a U-boat would fire on the stern of a ship, dive and fall back behind the convoy, then surface again. To counter this they moved the escort back after an initial attack to sweep the area where the U-boats were expected to re-surface. This seemed to be a successful defence.

Measuring up and preparing contact chits. © IWM (A 27823)

Sir Percy Noble thought that the plan for wargaming was unlikely to work, but after visiting WATU and watching the team at work he changed his mind. He observed a series of attacks on a convoy where the logic behind the assumptions made about U-boat movements were explained as were the tactics to combat these. Immensely impressed he gave his full support to ‘Operation Raspberry’ and ordered that all escort officers should attend the course.

Sir Max Horton (Western Approaches Command) attended one of the courses where he played the role of a U-boat captain. During the course he initiated five attacks on a convoy and each time his submarine was tracked and destroyed using the tactics derived from the war games. He was astonished that an eighteen year old Wren was able to outperform him so well and made sure that the new tactics were included in the next set of orders sent to the Fleet. King George VI was also impressed by the work coming out of Liverpool and visited WATU in November 1942.

© IWM (A 27821)

After a time the unit adapted the training room so that the players who represented the commanders of the Allied convoy escort ships could only have a limited view of what was happening as would be the case in real life situations; only the umpires of the game were able to see the U-boat’s position. As each German tactic was countered and new ones introduced the war gamers of WATU came up with new counter-measures and Germany’s losses in the Atlantic grew. During the remainder of the war 5,000 officers attended the course, one of the very few military courses at the time which were run by women. By the end of the war WWATU had a complement of eight male officers as well as thirty six Wren officers and ratings.

The models used on the Tactical Table. © IWM (A 27824)

At the end of 1943 Roberts was invested as a ‘Commanded of the British Empire’ for his work at WATU. He took a Wren Officer and a Wren Rating with him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture in recognition of the remarkable team of young women who played the war games which saved British shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The battleship which failed to deliver – the German warship Tirpitz

In my previous article about the North Atlantic Convoys I mentioned the German battleship Tirpitz. This ship was over 250 metres long and weighed over 50,000 tons with a hull made of 30cm thick steel. Tirpitz also had not one but eight of the biggest naval guns ever built – 38cm. With a crew of over 2,600 men and a speed of 30 knots it was bigger and faster than any of the opposing Allied ships, a formidable weapon which instilled fear in all those who faced her. Yet this behemoth which could have played such a significant role in the war at sea was rarely out of coastal waters and contributed little to the German war effort.

Tirpitz

One would have thought that Germany’s biggest warship should be deployed in the Atlantic but instead it was sent to a remote area in Northern Norway for one simple reason – the Arctic convoys which set out from Britain to supply the beleaguered Soviet Union. With the Tirpitz in northern waters Hitler hoped that he would be able to attack the convoys whilst at the same time preventing any Allied attack against Nazi-occupied Norway.

When the Tirpitz originally arrived in Norway in January1942 she was anchored in Trondheimsfjord from where she made an attack on the mining communities of Spitsbergen, the only major attack that the ship ever carried out. Then, in March 1943, her mooring was moved to Kåfjorden; with an approach to the fjord which was easy to defend and a greater distance by air from Britain the Tirpitz was well protected and able to continue to menace the convoys.

X-craft midgit submarine © IWM (A 22900)

Winston Churchill saw the Tirpitz as a direct threat to the success of the supply convoys to Russia and was determined to sink her. Kåfjorden was out of reach for the British bombers so the Allies decided to try an underwater attack using X-craft – 51ft long submarines with a diameter of just 5ft and with a four-man crew. The plan was for each submarine to drop two 1.5 ton charges of Amatex high explosive beneath the Tirpitz. This was not going to be an easy attack as anti-torpedo nets protected the ship but it was hoped that the midgit submarines would be able to get around these. Moonlit nights between the 20th and 25th September provided ideal conditions for an attack so six normal sized submarines towed the smaller X-craft close to the target where the operational crews then took over ready for the attack – two submarines targeting a small battleship called the Scharnhorst,  one targeting a heavy cruiser called the Lutzow, and the final three making for the Tirpitz, although two of the attacking X-craft were lost en-route.

The Fleet Air Arm preparing for the attack on the TIRPITZ, April 1944 © IWM (TR 1812)

Although the raiders were able to plant explosives which tore an 18 meter long gash in the hull of the Tirpitz they were unable to sink the ship which was fully repaired by April 1944. Over the next seven months the Allies carried out six bombing aids on the Tirpitz which although unable to sink the ship did enough damage for her to be kept in port undergoing constant repairs. The Germans eventually moved the ship to Håkøybotn near Tromsø in October 1944 in the hope of getting better protection, but things went badly wrong for them on 12th November that year when thirty-two Lancaster bombers attacked with Tallboy bombs weighing five-tons each and capable of piercing the thick armour of the Tirpitz. Following three direct hits the pride of the German fleet sank in only eleven minutes with the loss of between 1,000 and 1,200 men.

The Tirpitz was arguably the finest battleship of the Second World War yet she made very little contribution to the conflict. It is true that her presence in the Norwegian fjords was a constant threat to the Arctic Convoys but she did very little actual damage there. The Germans were not able to utilize the Tirpitz as much as they had hoped in Norwegian waters as there was a constant shortage of fuel. Neither was the ship deployed into the Atlantic where she could have created havoc amongst the convoys bringing food and supplies from America to the hungry and beleaguered United Kingdom. It is possible that the Tirpitz tied up men and resources which could have been used to better advantage elsewhere, indeed it could be argued that when all actions are taken into consideration the huge battleship which saw so little action was more of a hindrance than a help to the German war effort; it seems likely that the journalist Ludovic Kennedy was right when he wrote that the Tirpitz had “lived an invalid’s life and died a cripple’s death”.

The end of the Tirpitz © IWM (CL 2830)

Pearl Harbor 7th December 1941 – a date which will live in infamy

According to President Franklin D Roosevelt 7th December 1941 was a “a date which will live in infamy”. On that day the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii, was attacked by Japanese forces. Many people think that this attack came completely out of the blue but it was, in fact, culmination of more than a decade of steadily worsening relations between the United States and Japan.

American foreign policy in the Pacific in the late 1930’s was to support China against an increasingly aggressive Japan which had taken control of the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, although open warfare did not break out between Japan and China until July 1937. America continued to support China by giving the country a loan in 1938, and terminating their 1911 treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan in July 1939. By 1940 America was restricting exports to Japan which could be used in the war, and tensions between the two countries continued to mount. Matters were not helped when the Japanese allied themselves with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy). This caused America to sever all relations with Japan, freeze her assets and place an embargo on Japanese shipments carrying materials of war.

Admiral Yamamoto

Many of the hierarchy in the Japanese military resented the fact that America was supporting China and wanted to end their interference. They also saw the German invasion of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for Japan to extend her reach in the Far East without the intervention of Russia. Even so, there were attempts by some to smooth things over between America and Japan right through the autumn of 1941, although the Japanese Prime Minister had already privately decided that war was the only way forwards – his theory was that if the Japanese could destroy the American Pacific Fleet it would leave them able to conquer all of South East Asia unopposed. The attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet of Japan, Admiral Yamamoto, with the fleet coming together in the Kuril Islands on 16th November, although Yamamoto was prepared to be recalled if negotiations with the Americans proved successful. Admiral Nagano, the Chief of the Naval General Staff did not want to risk the fleet so far from home, particularly as that would limit the forces they could use for other actions in the Far East, but Yamamoto threatened to resign if his plan was axed so all opposition was ignored.

On 26th November 1941 the American Secretary of State wrote to the Japanese to try to smooth things over, however his requirement that Japanese troops should be withdrawn from China and Indochina did not go down well. The note was seen as irrelevant by the Japanese anyway as their forces had already set sail to attack Pearl Harbor on the same day.

Admiral Kimmel

The US Pacific Fleet along with military and naval forces were stationed at Pearl Harbor as the tensions between the two nations steadily mounted. Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short were warned three times (16th October, 24th November, and 27th November) that war was possible and they should take appropriate defensive measures. Short ordered his forces to be on the alert for sabotage, and moved all of his planes to Wheeler Airfield to protect them, as well as ordering that radar should be monitored from 4 – 7am (the most likely time of day for an attack). Kimmel was equally relaxed in his preparations – although he was not able to locate the main parts of the Japanese Fleet he did not send his reconnaissance north-west (which would  have been the logical direction for an attack to come from); he also allowed personnel on shore leave after mooring the entire fleet in the harbour.

On the US mainland the Japanese Ambassador had asked for a meeting with the American Secretary of State in Washington at 1pm on 7th December (7.30am Pearl Harbor). General Marshall, the American Army Chief-of -Staff sent a telegram to Kimmel to say that war was imminent, but it did not arrive in Pearl Harbor until after the attack began. There were other signs, however, that Kimmel should have realised could be fore-runners of an attack. The first happened four hours before the attack when a Japanese submarine was sighted near the Harbor, it was later fired upon by the USS Ward. Then at 7am, when the radar should have been switched off, Private George Elliott decided to get in some more practise; he noticed a large group of planes on the screen but was told to ignore them as a flight of bombers was expected to arrive that morning. Kimmell was still awaiting confirmation of the submarine encroachment when the air attack began. (Kimmel and Short were later blamed for mistakes and errors of judgement at Pearl Harbor and were dismissed.)

The Japanese had already landed forces in Malaya and Thailand a couple of hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor began (for them, Pearl Harbor was seen as a supporting operation). The attack against America was, however, incredibly well planned with an entire fleet including six air craft carriers, two battleships and three cruisers travelling 3,700 miles across the North Pacific undetected. It was necessary to refuel on the way which could not be done in rough weather and so the Americans did not think an attack could come from that direction. However, they were wrong, and at 7.55am on the morning of 7th December 1941 the attack began with 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attempting to damage or destroy as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible.

Kanohoe naval air station, strewn with damaged aircraft and wreckage, 7 December 1941. © IWM (OEM 21469)

In the first attack the planes and hangers on the island’s airfields were targeted by bombers as torpedo planes attacked the warships at anchor. Four battleships were hit in the first five minutes, followed minutes later by the sinking of the USS Arizona when her gunpowder supplies took a direct hit, killing 1,177 of her crew. The attack was devastating, but it was not the end as less than two hours later a second wave of 170 aircraft arrived. The Americans fought back but were completely unprepared (only 6 planes managed to get into the air) and in just two hours 18 American warships had been either damaged or sunk, almost 200 aircraft destroyed and over 2,400 American service men and women killed. The Americans were lucky that the three aircraft carriers, seven heavy cruisers and a division of destroyers attached to the Pacific Fleet were not in harbour and so escaped without damage. The Japanese in contrast lost less than 60 planes, 5 midget submarines, possibly 2 fleet submarines, and less than 100 men; the main fleet returned to Japan without being attacked.

USS Arizona. © US National Archives and Records Administration

The attack on Pearl Harbor had an immediate impact on the course of the Second World War. Up until that time the Americans had been supporting the Allies through the Lend-Lease Agreement by supplying war supplies, but most Americans did not want to get actively involved in the fighting. However, they were outraged by the Japanese attack and the next day the US declared war on Japan, finally entering the conflict on the side of the Allies.

The Tripartite Pact signed by Japan, Italy and Germany in September 1940 meant that Germany was obliged to go to war if America attacked Japan but not if Japan attacked America. Roosevelt did not want to be seen as the one to declare war on Hitler but knew that such a conflict would be inevitable if the US declared war on Japan. As he had foreseen, Hitler declared war on  American in support of Japan on 11th December and the President was able to get the full support of Congress to declare war on Germany.

Roosevelt signs declaration of war. © IWM (HU 56120)

The Japanesse attack was devastating, but six of America’s eight battleships (excluding the Arizona and Oklahoma) were repaired and returned to service whilst the strategically important oil storage facilities on the island remained intact. The most important result of the attack, however, was it’s impact on the American public – the deaths of thousands of Americans in a surprise attack early on a Sunday morning without any formal declaration of war could only have one outcome – a uniting of public opinion behind the war effort, and the beginning of the end for Germany.

Courtesy USA Government @ IWM (OEM 3605)

Arizona Memorial © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, Mainz