January 21, 2020

1941. World War II: America Enters It

"The Most Tremendous Undertaking of Our American History"
December 14, 1941
On December 14, 1941, The New York Times wrote about the events following the attack on Pearl Harbor in its "News of the Week in Review" section, calling it "the most dramatic week in the country's history."

From The New York Times, December 14, 1941:
WORLD WAR II
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America Enters It
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We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.

The President of the United States spoke these solemn words last Tuesday evening to his 132,000,000 countrymen. On the gleaming windows of the White House the blinds were drawn. The floodlamps that customarily shine on the dome of the Capitol were extinguished. It was symbolic of the lights that were going out all over America. After twenty-three years of peace the nation had entered its second World War.

The chronicle of events from Dec. 7—the most dramatic week in the country's history—was thus recorded by the headlines of The New York Times:
JAPAN WARS ON U. S. AND BRITAIN

U. S. DECLARES WAR, PACIFIC BATTLE WIDENS

ROOSEVELT SEES A LONG, WORLD-WIDE WAR

LUZON INVASION 'IN HAND' OUT FORCES SAY

U. S. NOW AT WAR WITH GERMANY AND ITALY

JAPANESE POUNDED IN LUZON, WARSHIPS CHASED
The issue, as expressed by the Chief Executive, was simple but of awesomely fundamental import: "Together with other free peoples, we are now fighting to maintain our right to live among our world neighbors in freedom and in common decency, without fear of assault." At stake were the life of democracy, the national survival, the continuation of a history written on Lexington Green and in the snow of Valley Forge, on Gettysburg slopes and in the forest of the Argonne, by Conestoga wagons and the melting pot, by all the good and ill of more than a century and a half of a people's saga.

The Hard Grim Fact

The scales, as it were, were hacked from the eyes of America. Isolationism and interventionism became academic. The niceties of "all aid short of war," the precise line that marked a "shooting war," were swallowed by the hard grim fact of war itself. Twenty-seven months of clashing opinion as to where the best interest of the country lay as conflict flamed abroad were dissolved by the common peril, the common urge to repulse and crush the first major invasion of United States territory since the adolescent year of 1812. The Congressional declarations of war, dramatic yet anticlimactic, demonstrated the swiftly forged national unity.

With a clarifying shock America realized that the aggressions of a decade had been, in a sense, aggressions against peaceful peoples everywhere. The invasion of Manchuria, the skirmishes in the Ethiopian desert and at Peiping's Marco Polo Bridge, the march begun on the plains of Poland and spread over Europe and North Africa—all were suddenly seen as truly assaults on the United States as the surprise raid on Oahu. The jigsaw puzzle of scattered conquest was joined into an orderly unit. The pattern of rampant world forces took clear outline.

The whole globe was the battleground, on a scale surpassing that of 1914-18. The chief powers pitted against the aggressors were the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, the Netherlands Indies. Their population totaled more than 1,100,000,000, their armies numbered between 8,700,000 and 15,000,000 men, their naval armadas included the two most powerful fleets in the world. Germany, Japan and their satellites had a population of 251,000,000, dominated another 250,000,000 of subjugated peoples, disposed armies of 10,500,000 to 13,500,000 men, naval forces including the world's third largest fleet. The manpower, material resources and war potential of the anti-aggressor faction were the greater. The totalitarians had definite military advantages; the headstart in war machine building, tighter organization, shorter lines of communication, and, apparently, a plan whose scope, many thought, had been drawn on the drafting board of Adolf Hitler.

Totalitarian Goals

The totalitarian objectives were to create new orders in Europe, Asia, Africa. The Herrenvolk and the Samurai were to be the masters, their satellites were to share in the spoils, subjugated peoples were to be the hewers of wood and drawers of water. The scorned democratic way of life was to be beaten out of the human consciousness.

To create the new orders it was necessary to dominate the Atlantic and the Pacific, the ocean barriers of which many Americans had trusted as the French had trusted the Maginot Line. Control of the great waters would open dazzling highways for conquerors—to the raw-material treasure houses, the unexploited spaces, the markets of South America, Oceania, East Asia. It would gird them for the developing conflict of attrition. It would isolate the United States arsenal, cut up the British Empire. The strategists in Berlin and Tokyo undoubtedly calculated that the opening of the new theatre in the Pacific would disperse Anglo-American strength, turn the tables of the two-front war, as Nazi spokesmen put it, on the democratic enemy.

The assault in the Pacific—long planned, as it appeared—did not swerve Washington and London from their realization that the Atlantic was still a crucial arena. A reminder came from the Fuehrer himself as he pronounced war against America from the stage of Berlin's Kroll Opera House, where he had first promised to wear his old soldier's coat until the battle begun in Poland was won. To some it seemed that the Wehrmacht's retreat on the frost-bound Russian line and in the Libyan wasteland might be prelude to a direct blow in the Atlantic—perhaps a greater U-boat campaign from the bases in West African France as well as European France. The zone of hostilities now embraced not only the bridge from the arsenal but also the shores of the arsenal itself. For America it was the first war in which she faced foes on both coasts.
December 8, 1941 (click to enlarge)
Asiatic Theater
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A New Front Opens
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Suppose the land surface of the globe could be pushed together into a contiguous mass, picked up and dropped into the watery expanse known as the Pacific Ocean. Terra firma would vanish beneath those waters, for they cover an area larger than all of the earth's continents and islands. The Pacific is the oldest, biggest and deepest of the oceans. It is twice the size of the Atlantic, plumbing a depth of almost seven miles. It's 70,000,000 square miles stretch from the Bering Strait to the Antarctic, from the Philippines to Panama. They wash North and South America, Asia, Australia, and the tremendous island cluster called Oceania.

Conquistador Balboa first viewed the swells of the vast ocean from the jungle-clad peak in Panama's Darien. He claimed for his sovereign in Spain whatever soil the "Great South Sea" touched. That was in 1513. For nearly four centuries the story of the Pacific was a tale of occidental rivalry for control of the water bridge to the fabled spice islands of the East and the golden cities of Cathay that Columbus had sought.

Spaniard, Portuguese, Dutchman, Russian, Briton, Frenchman, Yankee and German were entered, at various periods, in the competition. Magellan, bursting into the placid ocean from the rough icy straits above Cape Horn, gave it its misleading name. Tasman, greatest of Dutch navigators, discovered New Zealand and the Fijis. Bering, the Dane, explored the North Pacific for Czar Peter the Great.


Pacific Adventurers

The Englishmen: Drake, the circumnavigator. Bligh of the Bounty. Captain Cook, physician and sailor, whose three voyages to the South Sea ended in his death on a Hawaiian beach. The Yankees: The legion of Down East whalers, like Melville's Captain Ahab, and the clipper masters who left their stamp from Honolulu to Canton. Commodore Perry, who unlocked the citadel of Japan to the world.


The Samurai March

About forty years after Commodore Perry dropped anchor in Yedo Bay the Nipponese were ready for the first step in a program of expansion. A military state by tradition, they had recognized the superiority of Western armament, had launched the miraculous transformation of their self-sufficient, isolated feudalism into a modern industrial and commercial economy that could serve as the base for steel ships and guns. The new system needed overseas markets, overseas sources of raw materials. The Japanese trader with his bag of cheap goods and the Japanese immigrant were at the forefront of a tide that poured from the fatherland into the Pacific lands, from Korea to Luzon to California.

The samurai were not far behind, equipped with the new ironclads and cannon in place of swords. In 1894 the island empire eliminated the Chinese as a naval factor; it took hold of Formosa and Korea. In 1904-05 the conflict with the Czar's army and navy, ushered in by the surprise blow at Mukden, eliminated the Russians; from Kamchatka to the China Sea the western Pacific became a Japanese lake. Between 1914 and 1918 the German foothold in China and the South Seas was largely transferred to the Japanese, providing new bases for further advance. In 1931 came the invasion of Manchuria, securing the Japanese rear, flanking the Siberian Maritime Provinces and North China.

Then ten years since have been marked by the conquest of the China coast and river valleys, by the barring of the occidental trader from the rich Orient markets, by the absorption and elimination of France as a power in the Pacific, by Anglo-American economic reprisals to stay Japanese expansion. The culmination was reached last week.
December 14, 1941
The Forces

In the showdown fight for control of the greatest ocean—the most ambitious step in her half-century wave of expansion—Japan faces the ABCD coalition. Forged hurriedly a few months ago as a counter to the occupation of Indo-China, the new alliance consists of America, Britain, China and the Dutch. It is behind the Japanese in military preparation; it suffers the disadvantage of long lines of communication. But it has mighty naval power, a war potential that may prove decisive in a long-drawn struggle. Russia, while not actively involved at the moment, plays a part. Her Siberian forces immobilize considerable Japanese strength in the north. The line-up of powers:
Japanese Empire. 2,601 years old. Deficient in raw materials. Dependent on the outside world for oil, copper, iron, cotton and other stuff of life and war. Strong industrial nation, on a war footing for more than a decade. Owner of Pacific island fortresses stretching far from the homeland. Owner of the world's third largest navy—its exact strength and building program shrouded in secrecy—a powerful air force, a battle-seasoned army.

United States. 165 years old. Largely self-sufficient. Among its few deficiencies, vital tin and rubber from the Far East. Producer of 63 per cent of the world's petroleum, one-third of the world's coal, copper, iron, phosphates, zinc. Greatest industrial nation on earth, turning slowly toward total war economy since 1940. Owner of Pacific island fortresses stretching far from the homeland. Owner of the world's greatest naval striking force—1,000 warships—a powerful air force, a growing army.

Britain. Holder of immense stakes—Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, great islands of Oceania, Malaya and, close to these, Burma and India, chief arsenal of her fighting forces in the East. Her defense pivoted on Singapore, her troops drawn from near-by segments of her empire, her naval strength recently augmented by ships from the Atlantic.

China. Home of the oldest contemporary civilization. A seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of man power. Her most populous areas and greatest cities conquered by Japan in four bitter years of struggle, she still fights on from the remote interior. Her continued resistance, her army of 4,000,000 dependent chiefly on supplies from the United States via the Burma Road.

Netherlands East Indies. Since the seventeenth century under Dutch control. Now the stronghold of the people whose homeland was overrun by the Germans. A chest of natural wealth which industrial nations covet: rubber, coal, oil, tin, quinine, foodstuffs. Possessor of a compact navy, topped by three cruisers; a small but powerful bomber force; a fairly well-equipped native army.

U.S.S.R. Inheritor of the empire carved by the Czars across Siberian steppe and tundra to the North Pacific shore. Supporter of Free China. Traditional foe of the Nipponese. Recipient of Anglo-American aid in the fight against Hitler. Her crack army, air force and submarine fleet in the Maritime Provinces—within striking distance of vulnerable Japanese industrial centers—have long been a worry to Tokyo's militarists.
December 14, 1941
ABCD Defense Line

The main defense line of the ABCD powers runs across the Pacific from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Singapore on the tip of the Malay Peninsula. The two powerful bases, each termed a Gibraltar, plus secondary outposts between, screen most of Oceania and the South Pacific. They guard: (1) the Indies archipelago; (2) the communications of Australia and New Zealand with the rest of Britain's Empire; (3) the communications from the American mainland to the Philippines; (4) the supply route over which Malayan tin, Indies rubber and quinine, Chinese tungsten flowed to the United States; (5) the supply route over which equipment from the American arsenal flowed to the Burma Road link with Free China.

Into this line Nippon's expansion had thrust salients long before the outbreak of the present war. The Japanese mandated islands, former German possessions, lie between Hawaii and the American outposts to the west. Occupied Indo-China points toward the Indies, flanks the Philippines and Malaya. Chiefly from bases in these salients the Japanese moved last week. Their immediate objectives were to destroy Anglo-American naval strength and thus give themselves preponderance, to reduce the Philippine and Malayan barriers to the Indies.

The Netherland islands and their oil—oil which now fuels the ABCD naval and aerial fleets—were viewed by many as the chief objective of the Nipponese blitz. In this opinion, the Japanese militarists had plunged into a life-and-death gamble to secure a supply of the commodity without which their war machine would stall. The ABCD counter strategy was to hold the bastions to the Indies, to keep the Nipponese blockaded, and to strike back by sea, air and land from the mid-Pacific to the jungles of Southeastern Asia.
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The Action

The glow of the volcano Kilauea, with its "pit of eternal fire," paled as night yielded to a cloudy dawn. The gray light fell on the islands of Hawaii, twenty summits of a gigantic submarine mountain chain up 2,400 miles from the American mainland. On the fortress island of Oahu the city of Honolulu was still asleep. Seven miles away the great warships of the United States Navy floated at anchor in their chief Pacific base, ten square miles of blue water called Pearl Harbor. Nearby, at the Army's Hickam Field, warplanes were parked in hangars. The guns that bristle everywhere on the island were silent. It was quiet, last Sunday morning, in Oahu.

Suddenly planes with the red ball of the Rising Sun of Japan painted on their wings were over the island. They came flying high, in waves, dived, bombed, torpedoed, machine-gunned. Like a tropical typhoon war had swept over the Pacific. The Japanese, their assaults heralded only by the roar of approaching bombers, lashed out at American and British strongholds from Hawaii to China.

The men from Nippon won the first engagement of the Battle of the Pacific. Their surprise assault wreaked much damage at the $1,000,000,000 Hawaiian bastion. Few details of the action were released by Washington. It was known that the Fleet steamed out of Pearl Harbor's narrow channel in search of plane carriers that may have been the airfields of the attacking bombers. Not all the American ships could move. Official preliminary reports from Washington revealed the loss of one old battleship, one destroyer, "serious" damage to heavy and light warships, 3,000 casualties. Some capital sources feared that the final report on what happened in Pearl Harbor might tell of an even graver blow to the fleet's strength.


Scenes of Combat

As Japanese warplanes renewed attacks on Pearl Harbor, following the initial assault, major blows and counter-blows of the new war centered on the following theatres: (1) the mid-Pacific island bases of the United States; (2) the Philippines; (3) British Malaya; (4) China.

Island bases. Three links in the chain of communications from Hawaii to the Philippines are the islands of Midway, Wake and Guam, all naval stations. The Midways are specks of land surrounded by coral reef, home of crabs, turtles and albatrosses. The islands' human population, before the Navy began to build, was confined to men and women working for a commercial cable company and a relay station for the trans-Pacific Clippers. Wake Island is a tiny, horseshoe-shaped coral reef, covered with tangled brush, umbrella and hardwood trees. The volcanic island of Guam, where graceful coconut palms sway, is larger, with a population of 22,000.

Last week all three bases—they are close, as Pacific distances go, to the Japanese mandated islands of the South Seas—rocked under the enemy bombs and shells. Tokyo quickly claimed the capture of Guam. At the week's close Midway was still reported in American hands. On Wake, the Marine garrison, fighting against heavy odds, held off repeated air and sea attacks. American bombers knew victory, sinking a Japanese light cruiser and a destroyer.
December 14, 1941
On a Rugged Isle

The Philippines. The 7,083 islands named after Philip II of Spain lie in a half moon hugging the east coast of Asia. Biggest and most important is Luzon. The terrain of this island, about Ohio's size, is rugged. Explorers in the interior have found cataracts twice as high as Niagara. In high mountain fastnesses oak and pine grow among the tree ferns. In Northern Luzon giant rice terraces climb the sides of mountains soaring to a height of 5,000 feet. The lichen-covered terrace walls are made of stones which natives carried up the steep slopes centuries ago.

On Luzon's west coast, at the mouth of the muddy Pasig River, lies Manila, largest city, capital and principal port of the Philippines. The mansion-lined, tree-shaded Dewey Boulevard overlooks Manila Bay, the Orient's best harbor. The city is ringed with strong defenses. Near by is Nichols Field, Army air base. A few miles away on Manila Bay is the naval base at Cavite, where Moro pirates, Chinese, Dutch, British and French fought long before Dewey.

Last week Luzon was the object of a full-fledged invasion. By day and moonlit night Japanese bombers loosed their cargoes on the Manila region. Japanese troops landed in force on the northern coast. Other Nipponese soldiers went ashore in Southern Luzon. A pincers operation against Manila seemed to be Tokyo's strategy.


The Bombers Score

The landings, made under the cover of aircraft and warships, were costly. Transports were sunk. United States Army bombers won a major victory, sending to the Pacific floor a 29,000-ton Japanese battleship. Navy patrol bombers scored damaging hits on another capital vessel. Regular Army and native Filipino troops grappled with the Japanese landing parties, attempted to beat the invaders back to the sea. Elsewhere in the island the defenders fought parachutists dropped to seize airfields.

British Malaya. Off the steaming eastern coast of the long Malay Peninsula, southernmost part of Asia, Britain last week suffered her worst naval defeat of the war. The new 35,000-ton battleship Prince of Wales, flagship of the British Far Eastern Fleet, and the 32,000-ton battle cruiser Repulse sank beneath the waves. Air power had triumphed over sea power. Japanese land-based planes had swarmed over the British battlewagons for hours, bombing, bombing. Other aircraft had swooped low over the water and sent torpedoes crashing into the warships' hulls. Most members of the crews survived to fight another day. About 2,300 sailors and officers of the probable 2,700 who manned the ships, swimming in the oil-coated water, were picked up by escorting vessels.


Britain's Citadel

Only a few days before the H. M. S. Prince of Wales had led a squadron of capital ships into Singapore. The hot and humid island on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula is the focus of Britain's Far Eastern defenses. There is located the great $80,000,000 naval base begun in 1928 to guard the empire against a war which Japan might be hostile. Northward 400 miles from Singapore, to the border of Thailand, stretches British Malaya. Magnificent wooded mountain ranges rise in the interior. From enormous open pits along the mountain slopes the country's treasure of tin is mined. Forests blanket three-fourths of the country.

Last week both ends of British Malaya were under Japanese attack. The Nipponese planes repeated the familiar pattern of Blitzkrieg bombings: on Singapore and against the British troops on the Thailand border in the north. The principal Japanese offensive against British Malaya was an invasion of the northeastern coast near the entrance to the Gulf of Siam. Tokyo's troops landed on sandy beaches, then drove inland through jungle-fringed swamps and rice fields. They succeeded in capturing the important Kota Bharu airdrome, near the northern terminus of a railroad leading to Singapore. Elsewhere on the long peninsula the British claimed to be beating back the invaders, but looked toward a long struggle for control of Northern Malaya.

China. It was just 100 years ago that Britain acquired from China an eleven-mile-long island, inhabited only by a few fishermen, at the mouth of the Canton River. Now the island and 359 square miles of mainland form the British Crown colony of Hong Kong, important naval and military station, home of 1,050,000, haven for 750,000 Chinese refugees from the Japanese. Hong Kong is a dagger thrust into the Nipponese lines controlling the Chinese coast. Last week, by land, sea and air, the Japanese sought to blunt the dagger. The British claimed they were holding as firm as the granite hills which covered much of Hong Kong island. In an effort to relieve the pressure on the British colony, the Chinese legions of Chiang Kai-shek opened an offensive against the Japanese in the Canton area.
December 14, 1941 (click to enlarge)
European Theater
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A New Phase Looms
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The clash in the Pacific, in the strategy of the world combat, was an extension of the two-year-old Battle of the Atlantic. The Axis apparently looked upon it as an effort to spread thin Anglo-American naval power over two oceans, to disrupt the stream of supply from the United States arsenal to the British and Russian fronts in Europe and the Middle East. It seemed an attempt to shift the tide of the Atlantic struggle, which has been running against the totalitarian cause.

It was nine months ago that the tide flowed strongly against Britain. Not since the height of the World War's unrestricted U-boat campaign had the sea arteries of the British Isles been so imperiled. "Everything turns on the Battle of the Atlantic," said Prime Minister Churchill in April, 1941, as he summoned his nation to a supreme drive on Nazi undersea, surface and air raiders.

In the critical period America's weight was thrown into the balance. The United States Atlantic patrol scoured the seas for Axis marauders. The action was the logical consequence of a realization that aid to Britain was cardinal in United States defense. The realization could be traced through changes in the Neutrality Law, acquisition of new Atlantic bases, passage of the Lease-Lend Law and finally by the "shoot-on-sight" order to the Atlantic patrol.


In Atlantic Waters

The aid of the powerful democracy across the seas helped Britain gain the edge in the Battle of the Atlantic. By Autumn of 1941 the Nazi counter-blockade seemed frustrated. The number of British ships sunk dropped to one-fifth of the Spring and Summer total, and new bottoms sliding down American ways tipped the scales further against the Axis.

The ocean struggle was linked with the invasion of Russia. Hitler, it was thought, hoped to eliminate the menace of the Red Army before staging the "final" assault on the British Isles. He hoped to harness the resources of the U.S.S.R. to his war machine. But the Nazi drive bogged down in the immense land of the Soviets. Halted in Russia and in the Atlantic, Germany pressed her oriental Axis partner to strike.

There were signs that a new phase of the Atlantic struggle might open now that Anglo-American attention was being drawn to the Far East. Berlin's negotiations with Vichy, some thought, might be a prelude to Nazi acquisition of the still powerful French fleet and bases on the French West African shore. Thus the Germans would have potential bases extending from Norway's Arctic zone to the tropics. Rumor had it that Nazi U-boats were being massed along this front for a renewed smash at the Atlantic "bridge" of ships.
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Russia Hits Hard

Russia last week lay squarely between the two fronts of America's war. Her western border was a battlefield against the Nazis; her eastern shore a silent threat to Japan. From Vladivostok it is 670 miles to Tokyo, three hours for a modern bombing plane. The rear of Nippon's far-flung front lay wide open to the Soviets, who for nearly six months have been fighting for the life of Russia against the Axis partners of Japan.

Would the U.S.S.R. take part in the Pacific struggle, if indeed she could spare the effort? From Moscow came word that the Soviet government would make no separate peace with Germany; that it sympathized with the United States and Britain, and denounced the Japanese attack. No one could yet tell whether Stalin would break his non-aggression treaty with the Nipponese to aid the democratic coalition.


In Six Months of Carnage

Nearly six months have passed since that June Sunday when Hitler ordered his troops eastward against the vast space of Russia. The sprawling Soviet Republics seemed at that time an invitation to the Blitzkrieg which so swiftly conquered Europe. Their vulnerable communications, scattered cities and rolling plains and woodlands seemed ideal for the lightning war of penetration, envelopment and destruction—the Red Army, Germans held, was clumsy, slow of movement; the Communist regime of Stalin weak. German leaders, it was believed, considered three months adequate to bring about defeat and internal collapse of their opponent.

Initial successes of the Wehrmacht seemed to confirm these expectations. A far-flung offensive was developed by the Luftwaffe. Tank divisions thrust their long fingers deep into the Soviet lines, enveloping whole armies at Bialystok and Minsk. The Stalin Line was overrun by bloody fighting, and the front pushed gradually to Leningrad, Smolensk, Kiev and Odessa. From there it moved more slowly down the road to Moscow, into the Donets Basin of the rich Ukraine, along the Black Sea Coast to the Crimea and the Caucasus. At times all forward movement stopped; and to observers of the struggle it seemed as though the penetrating talons of the Blitzkrieg were becoming dulled, that space and the "inexplicable resistance" of the Russians were baffling the Germans.


Nazi Setback

Last week that supposition seemed confirmed. A spokesman for the German Army admitted a halt in the Wehrmacht's drive. He said that Moscow would not be captured this year, that during the Winter German troops would have to abandon the war of movement, that all up and down the 2,000-mile front from the Arctic to the Sea of Azov they were digging in. "The cold is so terrific that even the oil freezes in the motorized vehicles," the spokesman said. "Soldiers trying to take cover simply freeze to the ground. Fighting under these conditions is practically impossible."

Moscow had a different version of the turn of the fighting. It was not cold alone that caused the Nazi halt, the Soviet claimed, but fighting Russian soldiers. The Red Army was reported to be advancing everywhere. The Germans were said to be driven from positions dearly won south of Leningrad, north, west and south of Moscow, and on the southern front along the Sea of Azov and in Crimea. Where the German High Command spoke briefly of "local actions," Moscow claimed the Wehrmacht's retreat had become a rout.

Observers thought the Nazi withdrawal might indicate a change of strategy. Some believed the Germans were retiring westward for invasion of the British Isles; some saw a coming drive through Turkey. Still others thought it likely that the Germans were "appeasing" Russia to keep her out of the Pacific war. The most obvious reason—that the Wehrmacht was retiring "to lick its wounds"—seemed difficult to believe. Yet Russia gave no sign that she could be "appeased," and the Red Army, immune to the growing cold, continued everywhere to press its advantage.
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Retreat in the Desert

On the sands of Libya, as in the snow of Russia, the Germans last week were in retreat. On Nov. 18 the British armies deployed along the Libyan-Egyptian frontier had begun their long-awaited drive to oust the Axis from the Cyrenaica. In the first shock of battle, they drove deep through the desert toward Tobruk, dividing the tank divisions of German General Erwin Rommel, creating pockets in a great battle across the Libyan sand like ships at sea. Definitive victory seemed near, yet as the smoke of battle cleared it found the Axis forces still maneuvering, the issue undecided.

Last week, after a lull of ten days in which reserves were brought up from the rear and damaged tanks repaired, the British struck again. Fresh forces drove the tired and depleted Axis armies westward with increasing speed. Besieged Tobruk was definitely freed. Yesterday the British were reported chasing Rommel fifty miles beyond that town, approaching the farthest point of their advance a year ago.

With these developments the apparent immediate objectives of the British drive on Libya seemed near accomplishment. These had been: (1) destruction of Axis matériel; (2) elimination of the threat to Suez which might have started from Cyrenaica; (3) diversion of German troops from the hard-pressed Russian front to the North African theatre. More distant objectives were also seen. It was thought that a British victory in Libya might counteract a possible surrender by Vichy of French North and West African bases to the Axis. From a conquered Libya, some believed, the British might eventually strike at Italy, the weak side of the Axis house.
Front page of The New York Times on December 9, 1941
M-Day Comes
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The Nation Mobilizes
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M-Day has been the symbol for the day on which the United States would leave the ways of peace and embark upon the path of war. Army, Navy and Government officials have long been drafting blueprints for that day, blueprints which have been revised and broadened many times since martial theories first met their test in total war overseas. Last week M-Day came to America. Its repercussions penetrated through the length and breadth of the republic. At home, in the school, in the factory, the nation girded for conflict and what its President called "the inevitable triumph."

To most Americans war came first in cryptic radio bulletins. For some the first news brought mild hysteria, for others the calm feeling that what had long been expected had come at last. For all, there was the firm conviction that the nation must lash out with all its strength against its enemies. "Unity clicked into place," one observer said. Isolationist and interventionist abruptly terminated their feud. Bitter-end opponents of the Roosevelt foreign policy, men like Burton K. Wheeler, Charles A. Lindbergh and John L. Lewis, announced their unqualified support of Administration war measures.


Youth Volunteers

Nowhere was the nation's determination more apparent than in the recruiting offices of the armed forces. A scant twenty-four hours after the first Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, almost 2,000 young men gathered in long queues outside the massive Federal Building on New York's Church Street to offer their services to the Army, the Navy and the Marine Corps. Similar scenes were enacted in other cities.

Upon the military establishment itself the war burst with full impact. All branches of service were placed on emergency footing. Detachments of soldiers were quickly moved to the West Coast to guard against invasion; units of the Navy took battle stations. Morale was high. The War Department outlined plans for an army of 2,000,000 men. The Navy began a campaign to lift its personnel to 369,000 men by June 30, 1942.

Congress swiftly swung into action. Wartime legislation was rushed. Bills were passed or under way: (1) decreeing the service of all military branches for the duration; (2) removing Selective Service Act restrictions on sending men outside continental United States; (3) requiring men from 18 to 64 to register for defense tasks, those from 19 to 44 in the armed forces.

Upon America's industrial arsenal, roaring into high gear after months of tooling up, the war was expected to lay demands that would dwarf those in the past. The needs of American forces engaged on the far-flung Pacific front and of Allies grappling with the Axis in Europe, Africa and Asia presented an unprecedented challenge to the nation's productive capacity. The immensity of that challenge was emphasized in Washington defense councils. The Supply, Priorities and Allocations Board called upon all manufacturers to double their output. President Roosevelt asked a seven-day week in defense work and immediate extension of plant facilities.

The acceleration of industrial production forecast great sacrifices. Authorities estimated that the so-called "victory program" would cost Americans $150,000,000,000. Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau warned of mounting taxes to cover mounting expenses. The "victory program" was also expected to strain the nation's stocks of necessary materials.


Pledges of Unity

Among the nation's union leaders, from Philip Murray and William Green down to the heads of small locals, there was quick recognition that production for victory depended on the cooperation of organized labor. In resolutions and in telegrams to the President, that cooperation was pledged by union after union. The sentiment of both capital and labor seemed favorable to a cessation of disputes during the emergency. President Roosevelt called together eight labor leaders, eight industrialists and four representatives of the public to formulate a binding, though voluntary, agreement on basic wartime labor procedure.

For the protection of civilians against raiders from the sky, military and non-military authorities acted in close cooperation. At Army airports pilots stood ready to fly fast interceptor planes against enemy bomber formations. The Office of Civilian Defense executed emergency air-raid-precaution plans in preparation since last May.

The nation experienced its first air-raid alarms. Enemy bombers were reported flying up the coast of California toward the shipyards and plants clustered around San Francisco Bay. In the "city of missions" sirens sounded, lights were dimmed, radio stations ceased broadcasting. Other cities felt the threat of air attack. New York City and other points on the Atlantic seaboard heard the long wail of the alert and the short, sharp blasts of the all-clear.

To the average citizen the realization of danger came slowly. Calm prevailed. Officials had trouble enforcing blackout regulations. But there were indications of growing concern. House owners purchased black cloth to cover windows. Hotels, hospitals and schools organized for all emergencies.

December 19, 2019

1944. "The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge" by Bill Downs

The Battle of Nijmegen
"Cromwell tanks of 2nd Welsh Guards crossing the bridge at Nijmegen, 21 September 1944" (source)
This report by Bill Downs from September 24, 1944 was published in the BBC's The Listener magazine on September 28, 1944. As an eyewitness, Downs described the Nijmegen bridge assault as "a single, isolated battle that ranks in magnificence and courage with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach."

From The Listener, September 28, 1944:
The Battle of Nijmegen Bridge

By BILL DOWNS

The story of the battle of Nijmegen bridge should be told to the blowing of bugles and the beating of drums for the men whose bravery made the capture of this crossing over the Waal River possible. You know about the Nijmegen bridge. It's been called the gateway into northern Germany. It stretches half-a-mile over the wide tidal river and its flood land. And without the bridge intact the Allied airborne and ground operation northward through Holland could only be fifty per cent successful.

The Nijmegen bridge was built so it could be blown, and blown quickly. Its huge arching span is constructed in one piece. Only two strong charges of explosives would drop the whole thing into the river. Special cavities for these dynamite charges were built into the brick by the engineers that designed it. The bridge was the biggest single objective of the airborne invasion and its capture intact is a credit to all the American and British fighting men.

American airborne patrols reached the area at the southern end of the bridge on Sunday night, September 17th, shortly after they landed, but at that time they were not in enough strength to do anything about it. On Monday the paratroops and glider forces were too busy beating off the German counter-attacks to co-ordinate an assault on the bridge. By this time the armour of the British Second Army was on its way northwards from the Escaut Canal. Then on Tuesday the British tanks arrived on the outskirts of Nijmegen and an attack was commenced, but still the Germans held on strongly in the fortification and houses on the south end of the bridge. American airborne infantry and British tanks were only 300 yards from the bridge in the streets of Nijmegen, but they couldn't get to it.

Tuesday night was the strangest. The American troops took machine guns to the top of the houses and sprayed the approaches and the entrance to the bridges with bullets. All night they shot at anything that moved. Perhaps it was this constant fire that kept the Germans from blowing the bridge then. But still the shuddering blast that would signal the end of the bridge did not come. And when morning arrived a new plan was devised. It was dangerous and daring and risky. The commanders who laid it out knew this; and the men who were to carry it out knew it too. Thinking a frontal assault on the bridge from the south was impossible, American infantry were to fight their way westwards down the west bank of the Waal River and cross in broad daylight to fight their way back up the river bank, and attack the bridge from the north.

On Wednesday morning the infantry made their way westward through the town and got to the industrial outskirts along the river bank near the mouth of a big canal. Some British tanks went with them to give them protection in the street fighting and to act as artillery when the crossings were to be made. Accompanying this task force were trucks carrying twenty-six assault boats brought along by the British armoured units in case of such an emergency. Most of the men who were there to make the crossing had never handled an assault boat before. There was a lot of argument as to who would handle the paddles and preference was given to the men who had at least rowed a boat. Everything was going well. The Germans were supposed to be completely surprised by the audacity of the move.

But late in the morning the impossible happened. Two men showed themselves on a river bank and were fired at by the enemy. No Americans were supposed to be in that part of the town. The 88 mm. shells began plastering the area. The gaff was blown. Reconnaissance spotted batches of German troops being transferred to the opposite bank. A few hours later, machine guns were dug into the marshes on the far side—the plan had been discovered. The task force was under shell-fire, and several hundred Germans with machine guns were sitting on the opposite bank waiting for the crossing. This was about noon.

There was a quick conference. It was decided that the original plan would proceed, but this time the men crossing the river would have the help of heavy bombers: Lancasters and Stirlings flying in daylight a few miles from the German border to drop their bombs on the opposite bank in tactical support of the men from the assault boats.

Working under enemy shell-fire, the assault boats were assembled. When they were put into the water, another difficulty arose. The tide was moving out with a downstream current of eight miles an hour. Some of the boats drifted 300 yards down river before they were retrieved and brought back. Meanwhile machine guns spluttered on the opposite bank and German artillery kept smashing the embarkation area regularly.

At last everything was ready. The bombers went in but didn't drop their bombs close enough to knock out the machine guns. Twenty-six assault boats were in the water. They would carry ten men each: 260 men would make the first assault. Waiting for them on the other bank were some 400 to 600 Germans. The shelling continued. Every man took a deep breath and climbed in. Someone made a wisecrack about the airborne navy and someone else said they preferred airborne submarines to this job. And off across the river they started. At the same time behind them, the British tanks fired their heavy guns, and our own heavy machine guns fired into the opposite bank giving the little fleet as much cover as possible.

And over on the other side of the river the enemy tracers shrieked at the boats. The fire at first was erratic, but as the boats approached the northern bank the tracers began to spread on to the boats. Men slumped in their seats—other men could be seen shifting a body to take over the paddling. One man rose up in his seat and fell overboard. There was no thought of turning back. The paddling continued clumsily and erratically, but it continued. One of the boats had so many holes in it that the men were baling out with their tin helmets—it was almost splintered when it reached the other side.

The fighting, though, had only just begun. The hundred or so men who had arrived on the opposite side fought their way forward with bayonet and grenade, going from one machine gun nest to the other until they had established a bridgehead only a few yards deep and several hundred feet wide. The thirteen boats had hardly left for the return trip for the reinforcements, when the men on the north bank saw specks in the water. The men on the opposite bank, seeing the casualties suffered in the landing under fire, were not waiting for the boats. Some of them had stripped off their equipment, and taking a bandolier of ammunition, were swimming the river with their rifles on their backs. And thus it went—the thirteen little boats going time after time across the river under fire; the men on the bridgehead digging in and firing as rapidly as possible, routing out the German machine gun nests by hand while British tanks fired for all they were worth. After an hour and a half of concentrated hell, the infantry were over. They held a bridgehead several hundred yards wide and one hundred yards deep. At that time, one officer counted 138 Germans dead in a space of sixty yards of that bloody beachhead.

There was a welcome pause as the men consolidated and rested in their foxholes. Some had thrown the German bodies out of the Nazi machine gun nests and were using these to stiffen their defences. The plan was to turn eastwards and assault the northern end of the bridge. But on the left flank of that minute bridgehead was another menace—for there on the high ground overlooking the bridge and firing at us with some 88 mm. guns, was an ancient fort. It is called Hatz van Holland and was supposed to have been used centuries ago by Charlemagne as a fortress. The Germans had been using the fort as an anti-aircraft gun position to defend Nijmegen, and now they turned the ack-ack guns downward to bear on the bridge and the airborne bridgehead across the Waal. While these guns were firing at the back, the troops could not fight their way to the northern end of the bridge. A detail was formed to attack the Hatz van Holland and put its guns out of action.

That, as warriors centuries ago found out, was extremely difficult because the Hatz van Holland was surrounded by a moat. This moat had a few feet of water in it—black dirty water, covered with a layer of bright green slime. Also, the attacking party would have to advance under point blank 88 mm. fire. But anyhow the party set out. They crawled towards the high ground and the 88s banged away at them. And then they came to a zone where there were no 88 shells. It was found out that the other 88 guns were so installed that the guns could not reach downward that far. The German gun-crews discovered this too late and rushed to put up a rifle and machine gun defence along the moat.

But the Americans by this time had faced so much that a few machine guns were nothing. They made a stand-up attack, shouting like Indians, and, with tommy-guns blazing, knocked out the historic Hatz van Holland. A few Americans with blood in their eyes left seventy-five Germans dead in that moat. The remaining troops fought their way up the river all right. They captured the northern end of the railroad bridge and worked their way to the junction of the railroad highway from the main bridge. The entire German position on the northern side of the river was cut off. There was bitter bayonet fighting and Americans died, but more Germans died. And finally, British tanks made their way across the bridge and it was ours.

British tanks and airborne American infantry had begun their frontal assault on the southern end of the bridge at the same time as the river crossing was started. They had to make their way down streets alive with Germans. And this is how it was done. The tanks went down the streets firing at targets of opportunity, which means any German or German tank or vehicles that appeared. And the Americans went through the houses on either side of the street. Yes, literally through the houses—for instead of going along the outside of the houses and risking cross-fire from the Germans within, the American troops blew holes through the sides of the houses with bazookas. That was how they made their way through the strong defence area built to protect the bridge—blowing a hole with a bazooka into a house, clearing it of Germans and going on.

Meanwhile, the tanks had discovered that sitting on one street corner was a German Tiger tank waiting for them to make their appearance. It was out of sight and protected by the houses, but one of the Sherman tanks mounting a big 17-pounder gun decided to have a shot anyway. It aimed its armour-piercing shell in the general direction of the tank. There was a great boom: the shell plunged through twelve houses and came out with a great crash, taking a large section of the last house with it. The Tiger, seeing this destruction, decided he did not like the neighbourhood so well and retreated.

At the southern end of the bridge were stationed four self-propelled German guns guarding the streets leading to the bridge area. There was nothing to do but rush them. So the tanks lined up four abreast around the corner of the wide main street leading to the bridge and, at a signal, all roared into the street firing their mortars, their heavy guns and even machine guns. The assault was so sudden and heavy that three of the self-propelled guns were knocked out before they could bring fire to bear. The fourth gun ran to safety. Between the two—the American airborne troops and the British tankmen—the south end of the bridge was seized. At first only tanks could get across the bridge because a half-dozen fanatical Germans remained high in the girders of the bridge sniping. These were soon cleaned up. Today the Nijmegen bridge is in our hands intact—a monument to the gallantry of the Americans who crossed the river and the British and airborne troops who stormed it from the south.

December 16, 2019

1944. War Correspondents on the Battle of Arnhem

Eyewitness Accounts of Operation Market Garden
Canadians of the British Second Army during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 (source)
From the BBC's The Listener magazine, September 28, 1944:
The Battle for the Rhine Bridges

Despatches broadcast by eye-witnesses

THE ARNHEM BATTLE FROM THE AIR: Through binoculars you could see the ferocity of what was going on down below. Smoke curled up all along both sides of the main avenue of advance, you could see flashes of gunfire everywhere. At one time you could see our guns spitting angrily like alley cats, firing at an incredible speed. Away in the distance in front of us huge clouds of smoke seep lazily up to the sky. Today I was looking at one hour of what our airborne troops have been going through for nearly six days. You felt as though you wanted to swoop down and push our ground troops along the fire-raked corridor but, believe me, the men of the Second Army are not the sort that need any pushing.

Back at our airfield my pilot and I were discussing the battle, and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said, 'When you think of what those airborne types are going through, and are still holding on, you and I are awfully lucky citizens'. Think of those men, encouraged even with a slight increase in the signal of a wireless set, surrounded and pounded on all sides and still they go on. How right he was! These airborne lads in the Arnhem area are in a class by themselves.

Stewart Macpherson, September 22

IN THE 'POCKET' WITH THE AIRBORNE: On this sixth day in this mortar and shell riven pocket the airborne troops are hourly becoming more amazing to me. This morning enemy loud speakers again blared out in clumsy English asking them to surrender. It was a silly thing to do. It made these chaps hopping mad. You should have heard their language. Then the whole area was intensively shelled and mortared for the rest of the morning. Our commander walked around among his men as coolly as though it were their regimental sports day, enquiring and and encouraging. The guts of these airborne chaps is wonderful. . . . The hate has started again. As I write it seems that there is no point of the compass from which we cannot get mortared or shelled or machine-gunned or sniped. One part of the perimeter is held by sergeants—the glider pilots, every one of whom is a sergeant or a staff sergeant. The medical corps are on the job right round the clock. Theirs is a particular sort of courage. Some 943 prisoners have come in today, just Germans who have had enough and are stunned by the cold ferocity of men who don't know what quit means. The artillery of the Second Army has come into range and engaged enemy targets today. It was sheet music. We hope the orchestra swells. We are pretty sure it will.

Stanley Maxted, September 23

GETTING IN SUPPLIES: We knew the boys down there would be hard up for news, so before we set out we collected all the newspapers we could from the mess and dropped 'em for the chaps below. I'd like to say one thing about the glider pilots. We were towing a glider and as we set off the pilot reported he had difficulty in keeping his left wing down. Both he and his second pilot had to hang on to the stick together to keep the craft steady. We asked him if he'd like to be cast off at base. He said no . . . they'd carry on. And they did. . . . Jerry had light flak close up and heavy flak from a good way off. It was not like bombing a large town where you can weave in and out of it. Jerry knew we had to go that place . . . they had it taped. Tuesday was the first night I saw any real anxiety in the mess. The boys who got back went straight to the mess for a drink. Then they were ringing up control tower . . . asking 'Is so-and-so back?' . . . It was the first day we'd any real losses. On Wednesday I saw five kites go down in two minutes. There were others burning on the ground that we hadn't seen go down. Visibility was zero that day. . . As kites were being shot down you'd hear your bomb-aimer say 'There goes "Q Queenie"', and so on. . . .

Pilot-Officer R. W. Passingham, September 23

ALONG THE ROAD TO ARNHEM—JOTTINGS FROM A DIARY:

3 p.m. More reinforcements and supplies coming in by a few hundred more gliders over us. I am going out to a landing zone to watch them arrive, although a pretty sticky fight is going on at one of their zones.

3.30 p.m. It was a highly successful supply mission in that the gliders reached the right zone, but flak took a pretty heavy toll of the tug planes, two of which crashed within 500 yards of us. There is no sense in trying to describe that spectacle—no one would believe you. Two parachutes blossomed out early on. Out of the second glider a body hurtled as the plane screamed earthward, but the parachute apparently was shot up by flak and failed to open.

4 p.m. I decided to move up towards the fighting a mile or so away, but suddenly Jerry brought our woods under heavy artillery fire and I spend the last half-hour in a not nearly deep enough drainage ditch. Shells are still popping in here, within a few dozen yards, but we are going to try to make a run for it in a jeep and get to hell out of here.

4.30 p.m. Our driver really put the jeep through its paces down a path through the woods as shells continued to crack. We couldn't tell exactly where they were hitting.

5 p.m. Decided to go back to Eindhoven and check communications facilities.

6 p.m. We took nearly an hour to make the six miles south to Eindhoven, over the canal ferry and past a solid convoy of British armour and supply trucks. In Eindhoven the tidy city streets were stacked from kerb to buildings with cheering throngs. Flags and pictures of the Queen hung in front of every house.

7 p.m. Found Press headquarters of the Second Army. Just as we are about to turn into the headquarters a lone twin-engined German bomber, flying high, drops flares immediately overhead.

8 p.m. The last hour has been the worst of my life. We tried to get away from the centre of the city, but only managed to get a short way off the main street when the bombers came. We were alongside the city park so we pulled our jeep under the trees when the first of a stick of bombs dropped and crunched right up on us. We stuck there and the rest of the stick walked towards us, until the last burst across the street just 50 feet away. Then a few ammunition trucks began going up in terrific explosions, and there was the high whine of screeching shells.

Walter Cronkite, September 23

MESSAGE FROM ARNHEM: The area in which we are dug in can be best called a garden city, pleasant straight streets with modern houses in their gardens. Now the trees are stripped, the houses smashed, the well-paved roads fitted and littered with equipment, jeeps and improvised German transport, smashed Bren carriers and torn tramlines. Our troops hold position in some of these gardens and houses and I wandered among them during a lull at dusk last night. In the uncanny silence I could hear two paratroops joking and laughing, while a garden wall away a German soldier was asking his companion to fetch some water for cooking. This formation has got its teeth into the German defence position on the northern Rhine and, like the proverbial British bulldog, it won't let go.

Guy Byam, September 24