Book Excerpt

The thirty days of November 1942 were the watershed of World War II.    The countries that seemed to be winning were knocked from their perch by actions in that month, and they became the war’s losers.  Countries which had been losing started winning.

During this month campaigns were initiated and other ongoing campaigns had pivotal battles.   These took place with backdrops of each country’s long developing home front plans and preparations for war.   Some of these measures were at last coming to fruition and helping the war effort.   Some countries had made early decisions which went sour.  Those decisions ended up hindering, not helping the war effort.  Physical, logistical and manpower preparations were starting to have their effects.    Some countries made preparations and measures but cut them short or abandoned them as ineffective, too expensive, or not important enough to pursue.

Early war plans, tactics and materials developed by the Axis nations worked well for them early on.   But early in the war, the Allied nations had learned much at the hard school of defeat and retreat.   These skills and tactics were hard come by and bought by many valiant dead soldiers and sailors.   Their use was starting to counter the early Axis successes.

There were five broad theaters where the pivotal campaigns reached balance in the summer and fall of 1942.  The term “balance” means that both sides were fighting as hard as they could but neither could deliver a knockout punch.  In fact neither could really budge the other side.  To use a playground analogy, both were on a seesaw but both ends were in the air.  Neither side could get their side down to get their feet on the ground. 

But this period, November 1942, saw movement in the balance.   One side, the Allies, was able to start moving the seesaw, start gaining small wins and start gaining momentum.   Then they began to gain real advantages, some big and some in smaller less evident ways.   The Allies also gained the initiative, the ability to make the opponent react rather than act independently.   There was of course action all over the globe in 1942, not just the areas this work will focus on.  

This work will focus on five arenas.    The first two were in Africa, in Egypt on the east end to the west end countries of Morocco and Algeria. This was two distinct theaters, Egypt and Northwest Africa.   The third was Southern Russia centered on the struggle for the city of Stalingrad and the resources of the Caucasus region.   The fourth and fifth were in the southwest and south Pacific.   There were two distinct theaters: the Papuan peninsula of eastern New Guinea and the southern Solomon Islands some 500 miles east.    A daily breakdown of operations in these theaters shows ongoing battles with results about evenly matched.  Then one side gains a breakthrough victory.  

Throughout history, each war follows a pattern of action, a formula.   Wherever the battles are fought, the pattern holds.    One side takes actions or steps and their goals are furthered.  Then the other side acts, whether reacting or seeking to take the initiative.   It takes its own steps and actions to counter the first’s gains and to further its own aims.   Action and reaction are played out over time and space.   At some point each side has extended itself as far as it can, and the struggle is about evenly balanced, almost stalemated.   This can occur fairly quickly, in weeks, or it can take months or even a few years to develop.    

There are many cases where one side seemed to be near victory but the other side fought back to stalemate.   Then that side goes on to prevail.  One example is the Napoleonic Wars:  they went on around the world, armies marching, fleets sailing, first the French ascendant, then the rest of Europe allying to ultimately prevail.   In the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis’ Confederacy ran rings around the Union for about three years.   It took that long for President Lincoln to identify, assemble and organize a team able to capitalize on Union strengths while hammering at Confederate weaknesses.  The Union won the war only thirteen months after Lincoln assembled his team.  In World War I: Germany came close to scoring a knockout in summer and autumn 1914 with its march through Belgium to northern France and its victories in Russia.   But the Russians, French and English held on that fall and fought slowly back.   Ultimately the western allies, with American help pushed them back.  

At the point of stalemate, the outcome becomes a matter of grit, persistence and luck.   The question revolves on who can hold on, who can slug a little harder, who can innovate and out-think the other, in order to win and impose their will.   The sides perform a ballet fraught with death, violence, comebacks, determination, and ultimately victory and defeat.    Of course it is not as clear cut as two men in a ring hitting each other.    In war there are multiple nations pursuing their own national interests over time, with battles, raids, political offensives, economic efforts, and other actions taking place on the battlefield and round the world. 

It is easy enough to start a war but not so easy to end one.  Once a war starts no one knows who will win, how the peace will look, who will be the big winners and big losers.   Every war is an attempt to create the future.   At some identifiable time, in this case November 1942, the struggle is in balance and could go in favor of either side.    But in order to recognize how the scales were balanced then, it is necessary to look back.

Consider how the world looked in November 1941: 

Hitler had conquered and looted western and central Europe.   His men were at the gates of Moscow.  Nazis had occupied and were plundering the Ukraine and much of European Russia.  His tanks were running free in North Africa.  With Italy he controlled an empire larger than the Roman Empire of old.  The Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, his army and air force, seemed unstoppable. Nazi Uboats were running amok in the Atlantic.  German surface raiders, warships and armed freighters, were sailing the seven seas looking for Allied freighters and tankers to sink.   As they sank or disrupted freighters, they forced Allied warships and planes to divert resources.   Ships and planes had to be used to search for and protect from Germans, not attack them.  The British relied on imported food and materials.   The Nazis were killing so many freighters that starvation was becoming a real concern for the Englishmen.  German influence was growing in Syria and the Mideast.   The Nazis enjoyed a friendly reception in Argentina, a foothold in the western hemisphere.

The Axis controlled the Mediterranean Sea, closing the Suez Canal.   This meant Britain’s chokehold on east-west trade, its very lifeblood, was endangered.  Shipping had to be routed around Africa, an expensive and time consuming detour.  And that detour increased the freighters’ exposure to being torpedoed and sunk by a Uboat.   Italy was fighting Britain in North Africa, diverting attention and tying up resources. 

Japan was on the march in China.  They already occupied Korea and part of Manchuria.  Nipponese forces were consolidating their hold on French Indochina.    It was apparent to all that Japan was readying for a Pacific War.  Just how big and ambitious their plans were no one knew.   The US was unprepared for global combat.   Even so, it seemed almost certain she would be dragged into the war despite the public’s strong opposition.   American isolationist sentiment was so strong that even the President couldn’t openly advocate helping Britain or Russia.  

The USSR and Britain were reeling.   They were only able to react, not attack, as they were pummeled by Germany.   Their armies and navies repeatedly tried ineffectually to counter punch.  The Russians were losing whole armies, surrounded and taken prisoner.  “Governments in exile” were strung together by refugee politicians and monarchs from all over Europe.   In London and Moscow they helplessly watched their homelands being raped and their people enslaved. 

Now let’s fast forward and look at the world in November 1943:  

Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill were the leaders of the US, the Soviet Union, and Britain.   Already they saw the end of the war, victory of some shape, and they were ready to start shaping that postwar world. They met in summit in Teheran, Iran.  Already they were negotiating on future borders, governments, and economies, and the fate of the millions of refugees.  

In the year just finished, the Soviet Union’s forces had captured and destroyed entire German, Italian, and other Axis Armies.   The Red Army had cleared German invaders from much of Russia.  But they were not content with throwing out the Nazi invaders.   They were on the march west towards Hitler’s Reich.   

The German surface raiders, the surface ships looking to sink freighters were gone.   Most were sunk, the survivors hiding in fjords and harbors.   The Uboat menace was not eliminated but it was greatly diminished.  The losses they inflicted were manageable.   American and allied troops, supplies and food were reaching England and the Mediterranean with very little shrinkage. 

Italy was altogether out of the war.  The southern part of that country was in use by the Allies as a base to attack Germany.   The rest of Italy, an ever shrinking part of it, was under German occupation.     The two sides were fighting slowly and desperately up the Italian peninsula.   The Wehrmacht was stubbornly contesting every yard of ground.  The Allies were pushing with their British Eighth and US Fifth Armies.  Both of these were coalition armies made up of troops from 15 or 20 countries from six of the seven continents.  Hitler no doubt considered them a mongrel lot, but they were doing the job against the Germans.

Japan’s  fleet and naval air force were emasculated.  The carriers left to its navy had only skeleton air forces manned by green pilots.  The land based air forces faced a similar quandary, fewer planes and a dearth of experienced fliers.    Its armies were pretty much whole and intact where stationed China.  But this was not true elsewhere in the Emperor’s new conquests.   The army’s troops were strewn across hundreds of islands and bases from the Indian Ocean to mid Pacific   The owners of the Rising Sun flag had been tossed out of their toehold in Alaska and they struggled to hold on to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.   America was poised to start taking islands in big strides across the Pacific, towards Tokyo.   The Nipponese forces were on the defensive on almost every front they chose to take earlier.  From China, Burma, India, western New Guinea, the northern Solomon Islands, and the Central Pacific, the Japanese fought on but were no longer on the attack. 

Now, take a look at the year in between these two, at November 1942.

As that month started, the Axis advances were at high tide, with conquests and occupied lands as big as they ever got.    As the month wore on, the conquerors met the slowly unrolling but inexorable Allied response.   For a short time, about three weeks, the War could have taken different directions and ended differently than it did.  Each side desperately fought for advantage.   To go back to the playground analogy, think of two children on a seesaw.   Each is trying to exert enough weight and momentum to bring his or her feet down to touch the ground, leaving the other high in the air, helpless.  In the eleventh month of 1942, the seesaw was level.  None of the combatants were able yet to bring it down to their benefit.    This was true whether looking at various campaigns or theaters, or looking at the global picture.    This balance, obvious now, was not apparent at the time.  

November 41 to 43, what a difference: from Axis ascendant to Allies on the move.   This book will look at the global backdrop with an overview of the various countries’ military and domestic situations.  It will examine the strategic situation and how it came to be in fall of 1942.     Events will be viewed through the prism of November 1942, especially how and why the outcome was in balance during the twenty one days from November 8 – 29.  Lastly it will look at the dramatic results of early 1943 and beyond that resulted from those days.

 copyright Stan Moore 2012