By the end of December 1942, the Japanese had lost the battle of attrition against the US on Guadalcanal. The Japanese navy could no longer keep the Army supplied and they were losing many men each day to malnutrition and disease, and many more to relentless US Army 25th Infantry and Americal Division attacks.
But there was still 12,000 much needed troops on the island. The Japanese troops from Guadalcanal were needed to reinforce another series of fortified islands further up the Solomon Island chain. In the beginning of the New Year, the Imperial Japanese Headquarters decided to withdraw from Guadalcanal. Operation Ke commenced at the end of January 1943 and Admiral Mikawa’s Tokyo Express brought out all of Gen Hyakutake’s troops on the final runs from the island over the nights of February 1st, 5th and the 7th.
On the morning of 8 February 1942, the bloody six month Battle for Guadalcanal was over. Although 2 ½ more years of bloody fighting lay ahead, most of the post war Japanese leaders and virtually all Japanese historians consider the Battle of Guadalcanal as the point from which the war was essentially unwinnable for Japan. (On the contrary, most Americans consider the Battle of Midway the turning point in the Pacific.) The best Imperial Japan could muster met the best America could muster in arguably the most even sided contest of the War in the Pacific. Japan would not recover. The Jaanese would be on the strategic defensive for the rest of the war.
On the Eastern Front during World War II, the German Army had reached its high water mark in Oct 1942 with the Sixth Army assault to seize the Soviet city of Stalingrad. However, a tenacious and heroic defense by General Chuikov’s 62nd Army, and Marshall Zhukov’s counterattacks during Operations Saturn and Uranus, surrounded and cut off 290,000 Germans in Stalingrad. Hitler was consumed by the idea of capturing the city named after his nemesis and would allow no breakout. To accomplish this, he ordered General Paulus, the 6th Army commander, to stand his ground. He ordered Field Marshall Goering’s Luftwaffe to supply Paulus from the air. And finally he told Field Marshal Von Manstein to break through to the beleaguered German defenders. All of them failed in their tasks. Paulus lost 2/3s of his army trying to hold the ever shrinking “cauldron”, Goring could only supply 15% of what Paulus needed, and Manstein fought to within 35 miles of Stalingrad but could get no closer. On 31 January 1943, Paulus surrendered the remaining 90,000 skeletal and starving members of the 6th Army in Stalingrad to the Soviets. Most would die in the prison camps and only 5,000 would ever see Germany again. The surrender was a devastating and irreplaceable loss of men and material for Germany. For the rest of the war, the Germans would be on the strategic defensive in the East.
More than anything the British did, the monsoon season of 1942 prevented the victorious Japanese from continuing their drive from Burma into Eastern India (today’s Bangladesh). The victories in Ethiopia and the Western Desert, and the stalled German advance at Stalingrad which precluded any German attack across the Caucuses Mountains, allowed formations to be transferred to India to fight the Japanese. The British and Indian Army in Bengal began to rebuild, and Field Marshal Wavell, the new Commander in Chief – India (He didn’t get along with Churchill and was fired from CinC – Middle East) knew the reorganized, but demoralized and unexperienced troops, needed a victory if they were expected to stop a renewed Japanese offensive into India, or advance into Central Burma. The capture of the Arakan Peninsula in Western Burma fit the bill: it was lightly defended, geographically isolated, and Akyab Island at its southernmost tip was perfect for extending air power over the Bay of Bengal and south central Burma. The task fell to Lt-Gen William Slim’s VVV Corps in southern Bengal. The attack would commence as soon as the monsoon ended.
The Indians struck first. In 1942, the Indian National Congress (INC), who wanted to cut all ties with Britain, was decidedly pro-Japanese (The decision was just pragmatic politics: For the first eight months of 1942, the Japanese were victorious everywhere, the British nowhere). The INC assumed that India was too large and too populated to be fully conquered by Japan and the Japanese would just oust the British, and put the INC in charge, leaving them be. (The Japanese trend of not doing so in Taiwan, the Philippines, Manchuria, China, Malaya, Indochina, Korea, and the Dutch East Indies notwithstanding.) In August, Mahatma Gandhi called for mass peaceful civil disobedience to disrupt the British in preparation for the expected Japanese advance into India after the monsoon. Gandhi might have called for peaceful disobedience, but INC did not respond peacefully. Gandhi’s message of “Do or Die” was taken in its most aggressive interpretation. Massive protests occurred across India but those in Eastern Bengal were decidedly violent and specific in their choice of targets. (Today, the “Quit India Movement” is considered “mostly peaceful”…) Indians attacked British and Indian Army and government facilities, including factories, roadways, and railways that supported the war effort. For the months of August and September, the mostly untried troops of Wavell’s India Command did battle with INC formations, guerillas, and their supporters, mostly in Eastern Bengal. The British and Indian troops slowly gained control and when the Japanese didn’t attack, the uprising lost steam. (The Japanese pulled troops from Burma to reinforce New Guinea and Guadalcanal.) The Quit India Movement delayed preparations for the Arakan Offensive by several months.
But training troops, defending coastlines, and fighting guerillas was tedious stuff, and the Arakan Offensive looked to be a sure victory. The peninsula was defended by only a single Japanese regiment, and Slim’s VVV Corps could put the entire 14th Indian Division plus supporting troops into the attack. Slim was an excellent trainer of troops, had literally created his own hundred ship “navy” to patrol the long coastline in case of Japanese amphibious attack, and did exceedingly well in the chaos of the uprising. So the commander of the British Eastern Army, Lt-Gen Noel Irwin, a toxic martinet who hated anyone more competent than he, decided to “let” Slim continue with the static duties and train new formations in Bengal. Irwin took command of the Arakan Offensive directly.
On 17 December 1942, the 14th Indian Division launched its attack. The Arakan Peninsula is actually two peninsulas: the Arakan in the east and the separate Mayu peninsula in the west. The Mayu peninsula is separated from the coast of western Arakan by the wide Mayu River and is itself split in two by the Mayu Range which runs along its length. The 14th’s plan was to conduct a frontal assault in two prongs: one down the Arakan Peninsula proper, and the other down the Mayu Peninsula to the west of the Mayu Range. A separate supporting advance well inland to the east by a long range penetration group, Orde Wingate’s Chindits, and another separate amphibious assault at the tip of the peninsula, were cancelled. The attack was initially very successful and the surprised Japanese fell back. Japanese intelligence in Burma was so bad that they didn’t know about the Quit India uprising, much less the preparations for the Arakan offensive.
Nevertheless the Japanese stopped the 14th’s advance just before the New Year. The 14th Indian Division was a new formation that was raised and trained in the flat deserts of Baluchistan. They were sent east when the Russian counterattack at Stalingrad made their presence in the Middle East superfluous. The steep and jungle covered spurs and draws of the Mayu Range took its toll on the troops that had never completed, or in some cases, started their jungle training. The delay gave the Japanese a chance to dig in.
By December 1942, Japanese advocates of the banzai charge-at-all-costs were mostly dead for obvious reasons. On Guadalcanal and New Guinea, they figured out that although banzai charges were glorious, they were also wasteful, especially on the defensive. The Allies on the Arakan Peninsula had an overwhelming numerical superiority. To stop Irwin’s four brigades, Col Kosuke Miyawaki had just a reinforced battalion on the peninsula, the rest were defending Akyab Island. The 14th’s pause allowed them to dig in.
When Irwin resumed the advance, his men ran straight into one of the soon-to-be iconic features of the Second World War: the Japanese log and earth bunker. Each bunker was dug deep, had a four or five foot thick roof, and was manned by 5 to 20 men with 3-4 machineguns and anti-tank guns. Each was impervious to artillery fire and mutually supported by two or three other bunkers. Between 7 and 13 January 1943, a single Japanese battalion stopped a two brigade attack east of the range and river at Rathedaung. West of the range, a lone company at Donbaik, defending a tidal stream between the mountains and the beach, massacred a two brigade assault. At high tide, the stream was impassable, at low tide, its banks rose seven feet. Moreover, whenever the Indians and British managed to penetrate the stream-line, the Japanese company commander just called artillery on his own position, which murdered the attackers in the open, while the defenders sat impervious in their bunkers. The offensive stalled with heavy casualties.
Far to the north in what might as well have been his chateau, Irwin threw thousands of barely trained reinforcements into the battle, with the same result. By March, the Japanese themselves were reinforced. Despite growing evidence of Japanese buildup on the west coast of Burma given by Slim’s homegrown Burmese intelligence network, Irwin demanded another assault. Irwin sent Slim down to the 14th Indian Division, not to take command, but just to make sure the division commander was doing as he was told. He returned with bad news.
Slim reported the division commander was overwhelmed. The 14th’s commander had to control nine disparate and geographically separate brigades instead of the usual three. Slim offered to take his HQs down to help but was refused. Even worse, the Japanese were ready to attack. Slim had learned the hard way in Central Burma that mountainous jungle is not impassable by properly trained troops. The Japanese could isolate the eastern prong whenever they were ready. Then they could easily cross the mountains and smash the flank of the western prong. Irwin disagreed and fired the division commander. Then on 29 March, he headed south and Inwin, the Eastern Army commander, took command of the division.
The Japanese struck less than a week later, and in just the manner Slim predicted. A British brigade was overrun and destroyed, three were cut off, and the front collapsed. Irwin summoned Slim and his other division headquarters, the 26th Indian, to take control of the battle, but by then the situation was unsalvageable. The 14th Indian Division was subsumed under the 26th’s headquarters, and everybody fell back to India with the cut off brigades abandoning their equipment. And again, the monsoon saved India from Japanese invasion, just as it had the year before.
Irwin blamed Slim and attempted to relieve him and the 26th’s Division commander for the lost battle. However, Wavell could see through his bullshit and relieved him instead. The failure to properly train killed many good British and Indian soldiers on the Arakan Peninsula, the Allied troops in Burma and India wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
The Soviet encirclement of Paulus’ German Sixth Army Stalingrad doomed the German troops in the city and its outskirts. However, Hitler ordered the city held and the Luftwaffe supply it by air, as had happened for similar, albeit smaller pockets the year before. Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein’s Army Group Don was tasked to break through to Stalingrad.
Manstein knew that his men could not reach Stalingrad. Hitler’s refused to release most of his armored reserve, and much of what was released was sent to Tunisia. Although theoretically Manstein had the entirety of Army Group Don for the attack, only one Panzer corps was readily available to participate. The only hope of saving the Sixth Army was for Paulus to attempt a breakout at the same time. Paulus however would not do so without Hitler’s permission. At best, all Manstein knew he could do was get close enough, and then appeal to Hitler to give Paulus permission.
Army Group Don launched Operation Winter Storm/Tempest/Thunderstorm (whatever the hell historians want to call it these days) on 12 December 1942. The attack made excellent initial gains but the Soviets were massing troops for Operation Saturn, the encirclement of Army Groups B and Don, and shifted forces to the Stalingrad perimeter opposite Manstein. The Soviets then launched Operation Little Saturn to just cut off Manstein. With much shifting of troops Manstein stabilized the front but could not get any closer to Stalingrad.
Manstein was just 30 miles from Paulus, but might as well have been 300. The Sixth Army only had enough fuel to advance 20 miles, and its infantry was starving and frozen. The Luftwaffe’s ability to deliver more fuel and food took a body blow when Soviet troops in the Little Saturn offensive overran the two primary airfields from which the transports flew to Stalingrad. Moreover, an actual winter storm hit the area and the blizzards grounded all aircraft. Even if Paulus was allowed to break out, by the third week of December, it was no longer possible.
Manstein ceased offensive operations on 23 December 1942, sealing the Sixth Army’s fate in Stalingrad.
British Col John Hackett was a light cavalryman born a hundred and fifty years too late. The open spaces of the Western Desert were prime territory for the raiding, reconnaissance and derring-do of the hussar of old. While at the Middle East GHQ recovering from wounds suffered at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, Hackett was instrumental in forming the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service to operate deep behind German and Italian lines in Egypt and Libya.
Hackett knew talent when he saw it, and approached Major Vladimir Peniakoff to form his own group. Peniakoff was a Russian Jew who was also a Belgian citizen that enlisted in the British Army, after being turned down by the RAF and Royal Navy as too old. He was assigned to the recently disbanded Libyan Arab Desert Force. The Libyan ADF was a polyglot organization of native Arabs and Bedouins with British officers, who fought the Italians. However, the LADF was disbanded because the LRDG refused to work with them anymore as they were to ill-disciplined. Hackett found Peniakoff drunk in Cairo after coming back from a difficult LRDG mission, only to find his unit disbanded, his pay stopped, and himself unemployed. He gladly accepted Hackett’s request to start his own group.
Taking the best of the former members of the LADF and scouring the replacement depots, barracks, brothels, and bars of Cairo for men of “special qualifications”; Peniakoff formed the No. 1 Demolition Squadron and trained them to conduct reconnaissance, espionage, and raiding behind German lines. The No. 1 Demolition Squadron consisted of Englishmen, Scots, Arabs, Bedouins, Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, and Turks. His Arab signalmen couldn’t pronounce “Peniakoff” but they could pronounce “Popski” which was a buffoonish cartoon character in the army’s daily paper. “Popski” soon became Peniakoff’s nom de guerre.
To keep his motley crew in line, Popski had only one punishment for a disciplinary infraction or not performing a duty to standard: dismissal from the unit. This gave the unit an uncommonly high level of competence and espirit d’ corps, attributes that were much needed when operating alone in the unforgiving Libyan desert. Popski’s squadron used heavily armed but reliable jeeps and trucks which they treated like “ships on the sea” i.e. they carried everything they would need with them and required no support from anyone. The unit was self-contained and self-supporting: if a truck broke down and couldn’t be fixed or towed, it was left, along with the crew if there was no room on the other trucks.
On 9 December 1942, Col Hackett approached Popski and demanded he change his call sign because No1 Demolition Squadron was causing too many problems on the radio. Popski couldn’t think of anything. Hackett, exasperated, told him if he didn’t come up with a suitable name right away, he was going to call his unit “Popski’s Private Army”. “I’ll take it” and the PPA was born. For the next two years, Popski’s Private Army consistently raised havoc behind German and Italian lines, appearing where they were least expected and dashing off before the Germans could do anything about it. They were arguably one of the most effective (and daring) small units in the Mediterranean theater and their exploits read like a dime store adventure serial.
On 23 November, 1942, Vice Adm William, “Bull” Halsey was promoted to rank of admiral, with four stars on his collar. However, there was a shortage of four star rank in the South Pacific, so Halsey borrowed a pair of two star ranks from Marine Maj Gen Alexander Vandegrift, and had them welded together. The 1st Marine Division was recently replaced by MG Alexander Patch’s 23rd “Americal” Division on Guadalcanal, and Vandegrift was on Noumea for Halsey’s promotion ceremony. In a fitting tribute to the men who got him that fourth star, Halsey sent his three star ranks to the wives of Dan Callaghan and Norman Scott, both of whom were killed in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the week before.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal delayed but didn’t end, RearAdm Raizo Tanaka’s Tokyo Express runs down the Slot. And Halsey still needed to put together another surface task force to stop him. A task force centered on Willis Lee and his battleship, the USS Washington, was the obvious choice. But when a battleship does break, it breaks big, and the Washington was still tied up for repairs. And sending a battleship admiral out without a battleship was akin to a demotion. The other choice was Thomas Kinkaid, but he was a carrier admiral, and on his way back to Pearl Harbor. Halsey had to find someone else.
Halsey reached deep into his bench and promoted his senior cruiser captain, Carleton Wright, to command the newly formed Task Force 67. However, Wright had never fought a night surface action before and nor had any of the captains of the ships that constituted the ad hoc Task Force 67, except the captain of the destroyer USS Fletcher. With the deaths of Scott and Callaghan, and the unjust sacrifice of Gil Hoover on the Helena, (Hoover was relieved of command for not stopping for survivors after the USS Juneau exploded. He felt the threat to the remaining battered and limping ships was too great. A decision even Halsey, who fired him, admitted later was the right call.) the hard won experience of the previous four months was lost. Kinkaid began rewriting American surface doctrine, but left before he was finished. Wright’s Task Force 67 might have had an impressive four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, but they were mostly brand new to the fighting off Guadalcanal. Raizo Tanaka was a grizzled veteran of Ironbottom Sound, and the American newcomers would pay a heavy price for their ignorance.
On 29 November 1942, the Cactus Air Force spotted Tanaka’s Tokyo Express run and Wright moved to intercept. Just before midnight on 30 November, the Fletcher made radar contact with the oblivious Japanese. However, Wright still wanted visual confirmation, and told his destroyer captains to hold fire on their torpedoes. For four critical minutes, the Japanese steamed forward unknowingly under observation from unseen American eyes. But the Americans didn’t do anything with that information. When Wright finally gave permission, Tanaka’s destroyers were already outside the optimum firing angle. Even worse, thirty seconds after “the tin cans launched their fish”, the cruiser Minneapolis opened fire alerting Tanaka to the nearby American presence.
The American cruisers hammered Tanaka’s lead destroyer, sinking it, but didn’t fire on any of the others. Tanaka quickly took advantage of the poor American fire control. He ordered a smoke screen from his flagship, and signaled to the rest “All Ship’s Attack”. His simple order not only caused every American torpedo to miss but brought his destroyers in line for a perfect torpedo run based on the American gun flashes. Tanaka’s heavily over matched destroyers put forty Long Lance torpedoes into the water in probably the most devastating torpedo spread in history.
The Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton were hit by at least two torpedoes a piece and put out of action. Only the lighter Honolulu remained unscathed of Wright’s cruisers due to radical maneuvers made possible by her higher agility. The Minneapolis’ bow was nearly cracked off and hung low at a 70 degree angle. The New Orleans lost her bow forward of the No 2 turret, and the shock of the explosion killed everyone forward of the superstructure. The Pensacola was struck amidships and aviation fuel for her floatplane started a fire that raged throughout the ship. The Pensacola’s crew eventually contained the fires; the same couldn’t be said for the Northampton, whose fires eventually caused her to sink.
Japanese superiority in surface torpedo warfare was well known to Americans by late 1942. Thousands of Allied sailors had died finding that information out the hard way. Hundreds of pages of reports were filed on that very subject. In fact, Adm Togo won the Battle of Tsuchima using the same tactics nearly forty years before. Americans would claim later that Wright was successful because he prevented Tanaka from delivering supplies to the starving Japanese on Guadalcanal. But even with the addition of a single lost destroyer, Tanaka sank one cruiser, put three out of commission for at least a year, killed 400 America sailors and wounded nearly thousand more. That’s a high price to pay for a couple of days’ supply of food and ammunition.
Fortunately, the Battle of Tassafaronga was the last major surface action in the waters off Guadalcanal. The US Navy’s sacrifice over the previous four months convinced Yamamoto that Ironbottom Sound could no longer be contested and consequently that Henderson Field could not be neutralized. There would be no Kantai Kessen in the South Pacific in 1942. The Tokyo Express would continue to run but would eventually be turned back by America’s “Hooligan Navy”, the unruly PT Boats operating from bases on Tulagi. Their incessant attacks on the Tokyo Express would eventually bring down the previously indefatigable Tanaka.
On 14 December Hyakutake reported that he was losing at least 50 men a day from starvation, and could not conduct offensive operations. A week later, Yamamoto decided to abandon the Guadalcanal and evacuate as many troops as possible.
Here’s lookin’ at you, kid – 75 years young. On 26 November, 1942, the masterpiece “Casablanca” premiered in New York ahead of its scheduled general release in January. MG Patton’s capture of the actual town of Casablanca in French Morocco a few weeks before during Operation Torch had recently hit the news, and Warner Bros wanted to capitalize on the increased interest in the dusty North African town.
Based on the play, “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”, Casablanca followed the cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart at the top of his game, who had a fateful encounter with a stupid hot ex-girlfriend, played by the timeless Ingrid Bergman, who, of all the gin joints in all the world, walked into his. Filled with the usual suspects of early 40s Hollywood, Casablanca was perfectly cast: Peter Lorre as the conniving but surprising Ugarte, 30s sex symbol Paul Heinreid as the stiff and vaguely uncomfortable (doing the right thing tends to do that to people) resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sydney Greenstreet as the unscrupulous powerbroker Signor Ferrari, and Claude Raines as the opportunistic corrupt bureaucrat Captain Renault.
Now I may stick my neck out for no man, but I’ll do it for Casablanca: It is the greatest movie script in history. Many movies try, but Casablanca succeeds. There isn’t a single wasted frame. To have gorgeous cinematography without any wide angle scenery shots is unknown today. I was shocked, Shocked! to learn that the script was rejected out of hand by several hundred Hollywood executives and writers when it was circulated in 2010 with the names changed. I may have been misinformed, but Casablanca’s themes of honor, duty, and redemption are considered trite in Hollywood today (probably not: it’s the Romantic in me). I don’t mind too much though: we’ll always have Casablanca.
Casablanca is a story of Redemption. Many Hollywood movies have Redemption as a theme, Casablanca only more so. Just four characters in its splendid cast weren’t redeemed for their past transgressions, but only because there was no reason to: Sam played by the always delightful Dooley Wilson was Rick’s moral compass. (Yes, where do you think Tolkein got the idea from?) The waiter Carl, played by the screen stealing SK Sakall, was Casablanca’s moral compass. And Lazlo was the world’s moral compass. The fourth was Maj Strasser, who as the un-redeemable Nazi villain, had no moral compass.
The obvious tale of redemption was Rick, who by the end of the movie realized America wasn’t a place, but an idea worth fighting for. But never underestimate a blundering American screenwriter: there are many others who found their redemption by the end of the movie. There’s also Renault, a true democrat, who realized the folly of taking the easy path by accommodating the Germans. Or Ugarte, who redeemed himself in Rick’s eyes by killing Nazis. Ilsa redeemed herself to Victor for her earlier infidelity with Rick, or Berger, or Sascha, or Ferrari, or the German couple. The list goes on. You may disagree with me, but you’ll sound like someone who is trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe in your heart. One look at Yvoone singing La Marseilles should dispel any doubts.
Yvonne’s tears were real. The autumn of 1942, when Casablanca was filmed, was a dark time for the world. The Allied victories at Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad hadn’t happened yet. The papers were filled with Axis advances across the globe. German panzers ran roughshod over the Soviet Union. Rommel seized Tobruk, and was poised to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal. Marines fought for their lives on a tiny South Pacific Island; Japan sank several American carriers and were threatening to cut off Australia. Hitler’s National Socialists had Europe under the iron boot heel of collectivism, and the stories of their brutality reached America through the tens of thousands of refugees that escaped. All across the country, Americans were asleep; their arrival woke America up. Yvonne, and most of the cast of Casablanca, was part of that wave of refugees.
Their stories did get out because, though they tried, even the Nazis couldn’t kill that fast. The refugee’s roles gave Casablanca an authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The vast majority of the cast either fled Europe before the war, or fled their countries when Hitler overran them. Only three credited cast members were actually born in the United States: Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Paige (the Latina singer with The Voice). Madeline LaBeau who played Yvonne was French, Leonid Kinsky as Sacha was Russian, Lazlo was a German Jew, Berger was Norwegian, Renault was English, Ugarte was Austrian, Carl was Czech, and Strasser German. Conrad Veidt, who played the evil Nazi Maj Strasser, had actually experienced Nazi persecution and demanded the role because he wanted to show the world the true face of National Socialism. (He was also the highest paid actor in the film.) On that set, the cast made a beautiful friendship, and it showed on screen.
My heart may be my least vulnerable spot, but there’s a soft spot there for Casablanca. Every time I watch it, I watch it as if it’s the last time. It may be a little game I play, but Casablanca is the “Black and White” movie that I show someone who has never seen a black and white movie before. And though I always fight on the side of the underdog, I am not a cut rate reviewer. A review of Casablanca would not be complete without a few words on the song that ties the whole movie together, “As Time Goes By”. It may be poor salesmanship, but I’ll leave that to Sam,
“You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh…
The fundamental things apply / As time goes by…
And when two lovers woo, / They still say, “I love you’ / On that you can rely…
No matter what the future brings / As time goes by…”
I think I’ll play it again.