Late December 1941 was a time of unexpected changes in the Second World War. War Plan Orange, the interwar campaign plan for the Pacific was permanently discarded on the 31st – its centerpiece, the battleship squadrons, were all sunk or severely damaged. The old guard of battleship admirals in the Navy Department were thrown into chaos, but the carrier admirals led by Nimitz and Halsey were already planning to strike back at Japanese possessions in the central Pacific with their surviving ships.
However, the state of American land forces in combat was deceptive. Wake Island had fallen after an epic 13 day defense, and other American possessions in the Pacific such as Samoa, Johnston, Howland, Baker and Midway Islands, and even Hawaii and the American West Coast thought they were next. In the Philippines, MacArthur pulled most of his Far East Command back to the strong defensive lines on the Bataan peninsula, while other American and Filipino units spread throughout the archipelago were holding their own against the Japanese. But without relief from Hawaii, their fate was sealed. The Japanese knew this, and accelerated their timetables to seize the true prizes of the South Pacific: the oil fields, tin mines, and rubber plantations of Borneo and Dutch East Indies.
At the hastily planned Arcadia Conference in Washington, British and Americans created the much needed ABDA Command (American, British, Dutch, and Australian) to coordinate the fight against the Japanese. Unfortunately, the forces at its disposal were meager. In any case, larger problems loomed: The inexperienced Americans struggled against a very prepared British delegation in hammering out a common strategy for war. The British (and FDR) wanted to focus on the fight against Germany, while Adm King and Gen Marshall wanted to focus on the Japanese and avenge Pearl Harbor.
With the destruction of the Royal Air Force on the ground in Malaya, the Japanese acquired a near mythical perceived ability to appear anywhere. The air attacks and sea borne landings down the Malaya peninsula perfectly complimented the light Japanese infantry’s ability to out flank the road bound British and Commonwealth defenders through the jungle. Churchill still believed in the “fortress” of Singapore, but it was a hollow shell due to interwar spending cuts. Moreover, its defenses briefed well by staff officers in London, but were totally inadequate for coming Japanese onslaught. Entire Commonwealth brigades, desperately needed in Burma for the defense of India, would continue to arrive in Singapore: a naval base with no navy after the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse.
The Royal Navy’s fortunes were the gloomiest yet in the war. The U boats heading to the American east coast were a looming train wreck and the British could do nothing but watch, and continue to pester the obstinate Americans. In the Mediterranean, Italian frogmen sank or damaged four capital ships in Alexandria harbor in late December, and almost single handedly returned naval parity. This was confirmed when in an attempt to sink a convoy of desperately needed tanks for Rommel, Force J and K from Malta were devastated at the First “Battle” of Sirte. The opposing sides barely saw each other, but British ships wandered into an Italian minefield near Tripoli, which sunk or severely damaged six ships. It would have been a great Italian victory had they too not wandered into the same minefields. In any case, Rommel’s tanks got through.
In defiance of Hitler’s No Retreat order, Rommel fell back all the way to his supply dumps and fuel farms at El Alghelia, where he had started the spring before. But the pursuing British were strung out. Although Operation Crusader was everything Auchlinek wanted, they were now 180 miles from their own depots. Rommel just received a new shipment of tanks, which he recently used to maul the pursuing British armor. He now had the initiative and planned to use it to reestablish a line before Hitler noticed and took action on his violation.
Hitler had already fired his top commanders, and had taken direct control of operations in the East. His no retreat order saved precious equipment from being abandoned, but only the professionalism and desperation of the Wehrmacht prevented a disaster in front of Moscow. Germany would pay for Hitler’s decision for years to come. Nonetheless, the Soviets were attacking everywhere, but the Germans were containing the hastily trained and poorly led troops, if barely. Although the Germans didn’t conquer the Soviet Union in 1941, they were confident they would in 1942. Everywhere the Axis reigned supreme.
On the 26th Winston Churchill addressed the US Congress. He felt that with America in the war, it was now winnable, but it would take 18 long months for the tide to change. Congress was not prepared when Churchill told them that “many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us” in the New Year.