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The Battle of Britain

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  • Category: War

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Europe & Africa The Battle of Britain was a struggle between the German Luftwaffe (commanded by Herman Goring) and the British Royal Air force (headed by Sir Hugh Dowding’s Fighter Command) which raged over Britain between July and October 1940. The battle, which was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, was the result of a German plan to win air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel by destroying the British air force and aircraft industry. Hitler saw victory in the battle as a prelude to the invasion of Britain (codenamed Operation Sealion).In May 1940; German forces had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France using Blitzkrieg (‘Lightening War’) tactics. With the USA and the Soviet Union both still mired in hesitant isolationism, and the French ally toppled, Britain now stood alone against Nazi Germany.

Yet as Hitler turned his attention to the British Isles in the summer of 1940, directing a force of over 1,350 bombers and 1,200 fighters first against shipping, airfields, and finally against towns, it became apparent that the Luftwaffe had the odds stacked against it. The Luftwaffe’s first disadvantage was that it was neither trained nor equipped for the long range operations which became part of the battle. Its tactics were based upon the concept of close air support for ground forces; they were therefore ill-suited to the circumstances of the new campaign. The technical differences between the fighter aircraft employed by two sides were negligible: the RAF’s main fighter planes were the Spitfire and the Hurricane, whilst the Germans relied primarily on Messcherschmitt fighters and Junkers dive bombers.

Yet to swing the odds in Britain’s favour, the tactical advantage that German fighters had developed in earlier conflicts was negated once fighter aircraft were ordered to provide close escort to the German bomber formations. These formations had discovered to their own extreme cost that they were unable to defend themselves. During the battle, the RAF enjoyed the advantage of defending against attacks launched from widely separated airfields, thus profiting from what strategists call ‘interior lines’. This advantage was optimised by Britain’s system of radar tracking and guidance. Furthermore, the added comfort of fighting over friendly territory meant that pilots who crash-landed or parachuted out of their aircrafts could return to battle. British fortunes were also helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe had never subscribed to a concept of strategic bombing.

British anti-aircraft and civil-defence preparations were inadequate in the summer of 1940, yet the Luftwaffe was unable to wreak the devastating effects feared by many. The climax of the battle came on 15 September, a day in which the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes and the RAF 28. During the twelve-week battle, 1,733 German aircraft had been destroyed, compared with 915 British fighters. On 17 September, Hitler recognised the growing futility of the campaign and postponed indefinitely the invasion of Britain. Yet this did not mean an end to the bombing terror. German tactics were changed again and the Luftwaffe resorted to indiscriminate bombing of larger cities, including London, Plymouth and Coventry. When Italy entered World War II in June 1940, the war quickly spread to North Africa, where her colony of Libya bordered the vital British protectorate of Egypt.

On 7 September 1940, Marshall Graziani’s troops began a land offensive. Their numerical supremacy won them initial success. They captured the port of Sidi el-Barrini and established a chain of fortified camps. The British counterattack, launched in December 1940 and led by General Wavell, quickly flattened the Italians. As British armaments grew daily, Italian supplies dwindled. Italian forces retreated in chaos, and the human tide of surrendering soldiers impeded the Allied advance, making movement of tanks difficult. With Italian positions crumbling, Hitler, shocked by the Italian failure, dispatched the German Africa Corps – commanded by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel. The ‘Desert Fox’ rapidly adapted his formations and tactics to a Desert War fought in the open, with few natural obstacles and a small civilian population.

Rommel launched his first blow against the Allies in February 1941, taking the British by surprise and carrying out an audacious triple attack on the Sollum-Halfaya line on the Egyptian border. The Germans captured the key port of Benghazi, moving on to besiege the other major port of Cyrenaica, Turku. In June 1941, Operation Battleaxe, the British attempt to liberate Turku, was stopped in its tracks by well-prepared defences. In November, with General Auchinleck having replaced Wavell, the Allies launched Operation Crusader, catching Rommel’s forces by surprise. Although German 88mm guns wreaked havoc among the British ranks, Axis forces – under the pressure of huge losses and dwindling supplies – were forced to retreat to El Agheila – their starting-point in March. At the end of 1941, Turku was liberated and Benghazi returned to British hands.

Supplies were a crucial element of the war in North Africa. While the British received material from depots in nearby Alexandria, German supplies had to arrive from Tripoli. Furthermore the island of Malta, Britain’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, allowed attacks to be made on Axis convoys crossing the Mediterranean. At the beginning of 1942, British supply lines were now overextended, and Rommel counter attacked, forcing the British to retreat to the defensive positions known as the Gazala Line. The Battle of Gazala – one of the fiercest of the Desert War – resulted in the retreat of Auchinleck’s men to Alam Halfa. Turku, cut-off once again, this time fell rapidly to Axis forces. A disconsolate Churchill reshuffled the military command, placing Montgomery at the head of the Eighth Army.

The battle-hardened general, conscious that the mobile tank battle was Rommel’s forte, unleashed the Battle of El Alamein as a battle of attrition, using his huge advantages in artillery, infantry and supplies. After two weeks of intense fighting, Commonwealth forces had reduced the German tank force to 35, pressuring the remnants of Axis forces into retreat. For the Axis, the nail in the coffin came in November 1942 with Operation Torch – the American-led landings in Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. After sporadic fighting against Vichy French forces, the Allies took possession of the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. The beleaguered Axis forces were now encircled, and in May 1943, more than 230,000 troops surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia, marking the end of the campaign. Asia

When Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926, Japan was enveloped in a struggle between liberals and leftists on one side, and ultraconservatives on the other. In 1925, universal male suffrage was introduced, increasing the electorate from 3.3 to 12.5 million. Yet as the left pushed for further democratic reforms, right-wing politicians pushed for legislation to ban organisations that threatened the state by advocating wealth distribution or political change. This resulted in 1925’s ‘Peace Preservation Law’, which massively curtailed political freedom. As the left disintegrated, ultra-nationalism began to loom large. Japanese nationalism was born at the end of the nineteenth century.

During the Meiji period, industrialisation, centralisation, mass education and military conscription produced a shift in popular allegiances. Feudal loyalties were replaced by loyalty to the state, personified by the Emperor. Although early ultra-nationalists called for a tempering of Japan’s ‘westernisation’, through limits on industrialisation, their focus changed after the First World War. Western politicians criticised Japan’s imperial ambitions and limited Japanese military expansion (in 1922’s Five Power Naval Limitation Agreement). The 1924 Japanese Exclusion Act prohibited Japanese immigration into the US. Ultra-nationalists saw these actions as provocative; they moved towards xenophobic, emperor-centred and Asia-centric positions, portraying the ‘ABCD Powers’ (America-British-Chinese-Dutch) as threatening the Japanese Empire.

Between 1928 and 1932, Japan faced domestic crisis. Economic collapse associated with the Great Depression provoked spiralling prices, unemployment, falling exports and social unrest. In November 1930, the Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi was shot by an ultra-nationalist. In summer 1931, as control slipped away from the civilian government, the army acted independently to invade Manchuria. Troops quickly conquered the entire border region, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. Though the League of Nations condemned the action, it was powerless to intervene, and Japan promptly withdrew its membership. International isolation fed ultra-nationalism. Mayors, teachers and Shinto priests were recruited by ultra-nationalist movements to indoctrinate citizens.

In May 1932, an attempt by army officers to assassinate Hamaguchi’s successor stopped short of becoming a full-blown coup, but ended rule by political parties. Between 1932 and 1936, admirals ruled Japan. Within government, the idea of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ emerged. This plan called for Asian unification against western imperialism under Japanese leadership, leading to Asian self-sufficiency and prosperity. In reality, it meant an agenda of Japanese imperial domination in the Far East. In July 1937, Japanese soldiers at the Marco Polo Bridge on the Manchuria border used explosions heard on the Chinese side as a pretext to invade China. The offensive developed into a full scale war, blessed by Hirohito. Japan enjoyed military superiority over China.

The army advanced quickly and occupied Peking. By December, the Japanese had defeated Chinese forces at Shanghai and seized Nanking. There Japanese troops committed the greatest atrocity of an incredibly brutal war: the ‘Rape of Nanking’, in which an estimated 300,000 civilians were slaughtered. By 1939, the war was in stalemate; Chinese Communist and Nationalist forces continued to resist. Yet Japanese imperial ambitions were undimmed. In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, creating the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis, building on the alliance created in 1936 by the Anti-Commenter Pact. Japan now looked hungrily towards the oil-rich Dutch East Indies to fuel its Co-Prosperity Sphere. In 1941, when Imperial General Headquarters rejected Roosevelt’s ultimatum regarding the removal of troops from China and French Indochina, the US President announced an oil embargo on Japan. For Japan, the move was the perfect pretext for war, unleashed in December 1941 with the Pearl Harbour attack.

North America Germany’s U-boat fleet operated out of their north German bases before the fall of France. After June 1940, they primarily used bases on the west coast of France to get to the Atlantic. U-boats operated as far afield as the east coast of South America, the west and southern coasts of Africa, north of Iceland and throughout the mid-Atlantic. In World War One the use of submarines against unarmed merchant ships had occurred. From 1939 on the German Navy realised that merchant fleets sailing from America to Britain were highly vulnerable to attack. The Royal Navy had yet to provide full protective cover and no plane was capable of giving the convoy’s full support across the whole of the Atlantic.

The Germans concluded that at some point across the Atlantic, the merchant ships would be at their most vulnerable with no aerial cover and little naval support. That point, they decided, would be about mid-Atlantic. The Royal Navy found itself stretched at the start of the war. It had assumed that Italy would join Germany in the war. Therefore, the Royal Navy found that it had major commitments in various theatres of war: The Atlantic in all areas, The Mediterranean, The East. With such a commitment, naval commanders had to carefully balance their resources, especially as the navy was at the forefront of the blockade against Germany as well. The Home Fleet provided a strong force around the coast of Britain. The Royal Navy was assisted by the French Navy that would hold the western part of the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy would hold the eastern part of the same sea.

When the war started in September 1939, Germany had 56 U-boats, with 46 of them operational. The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany to have any submarines; therefore, in theory, she should have had no submarine crews. Germany got around this by training her crews abroad. At home, Versailles was got around by Germany training her crews in anti-submarine warfare – which was not banned. To know about anti-submarine warfare, crews had to know how submarines worked. Hence by September 1939, Germany had many well-trained submarine crews waiting to put to sea. Initially, U-boats commanders were told to operate against merchant ships in the Atlantic in an attempt to strangle Britain’s trade.

Battle instructions to submarine commanders issued in May 1939 contained the phrase: This would later develop into unrestricted submarine warfare. Between August 19th and August 29th, seventeen ocean-going U-boats made their way to the Atlantic. Thirteen smaller U-boats left their base to lay mines in British waters and to patrol the North Sea. Within hours of the war being declared, U-30 attacked the liner “Athenian” and sunk it with the loss of 112 lives. The captain of U-30 exceeded his orders but the Royal Navy took this as an example that unrestricted submarine warfare had already started. It decided that merchant fleets should adopt a full convoy system as soon as it could be introduced. However, the Navy did not have the ships that could give merchant ships full support during an Atlantic crossing. To start with, a 300-mile limit to the west of Britain was introduced for British naval ships – leaving a gap of some 1,700 miles. After this, merchant ships were expected to cross independently.

Those merchant ships coming from America were escorted by armed merchant cruisers and then picked up by destroyers at the 300-mile limit and escorted to port. It was not until mid-1941 that the Royal Navy could provide an escort across the whole of the Atlantic. However, to start with, shipping losses against the U-boats were encouraging. To the end of 1939, U-boats had sunk 114 merchant ships (421,000 tons) but nine U-boats had been sunk. The Navy was reasonably encouraged as nine U-boats represented about 20% of Germany’s operational U-boat fleet. However, Germany was engaged in a very aggressive submarine building programme, and it was only a matter of time before her losses were recovered – though not the experienced crews lost at sea.

The potential of the U-boats had been seen as early as September 14th, 1939, when U39 narrowly missed sinking the aircraft carrier “Ark Royal”. U-39 was sunk and the crew was captured – but all concerned realised that it had been a close call. Just three days later on September 17th, the aircraft carrier “Courageous” was sunk by U-29 with the loss of 519 men. The Admiralty decided that aircraft carriers were too vulnerable to submarine attack and withdrew them from the submarine-hunting groups they had developed. On October 14th, the battleship “Royal Oak” was sunk by U-47 while in Scapa Flow. The aura created by such an attack was that no ship was safe, and if a mighty battleship was such a victim, merchant ships would be far easier for the U-boats.

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