Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur “Bomber” Harris wanted to make sure the German people understood that elections had consequences.
Harris was Douhet’s most dedicated acolyte. Giulio Douhet was an influential interwar Italian airpower theorist that coined the term “the bomber will always get through.” Douhet felt that breaking the enemy’s civilian’s will to fight through strategic bombing was the key to future military victory. Harris was determined to shape the RAF into Douhet’s ideal. If it would have been up to him, Britain would have produced nothing but heavy bombers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Harris launched the RAF bombers at Germany… and they were promptly shot down by the German 88s. And the ones that got through were wildly inaccurate. British Bomber Command was forced to switch to ineffective night time bombing. By any objective measure, Douhet’s concept of strategic bombing was a complete failure between 1939 and 1942. Directly attacking civilian targets just hardened civilian resolve. But Harris didn’t care, even when confronted with the negligible morale effects of the Luftwaffe terror bombing of the British Isles. He just blamed “distractions” such as the British Army or short range fighters for pulling resources from building bombers. He believed he could break the German people if he just had more. In 1944 and 45, Harris would have his planes, and he would turn the destruction inflicted by the Germans on London and Coventry at the height of the Battle of Britain into a random Tuesday over Germany by the end of the war. But he didn’t have enough bombers in 1943, and even worse, most of those bombers were American.
Fortunately for German cities in 1942, the British bomber industry was still not producing enough for Harris. But the American Eighth Air Force was finally engaged in Harris’ bombing campaign in force. However, the Americans believed that attacking German industry was the key. With the Norden bombsight (which “could drop a bomb in a pickle barrel”), they believed they had the accuracy to do so. After all, the Eighth Air Force was bombing by day, while the British Bomber Command was still mostly flailing about at night.
By early 1943, the Americans were slowly becoming the senior partner in the war and were steadily gaining influence in strategic decisions. Marshall agreed to the British insistence on invading North Africa and Southern Europe instead of an immediate cross channel invasion, but as a compromise, Bomber Command had to switch to an American lead attacking industrial targets in Germany. Albert Speer had finally convinced Hitler that Germany needed to ramp up war production in late 1942. The Americans wanted to stop it. Harris would have to wait a bit.
For a decade, Hitler’s National Socialists had protected the German people from the effects of their policies. Hitler felt that Germany lost the First World War because the blockade forced a collapse of the civilian will to fight, not from military defeat. He vowed not let it happen again. Even the effects of the war on the economy weren’t felt in the early years. The losses of civilian workers to the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were offset by imported slave labor. And any dip in consumer goods was made up by the outright looting of occupied countries. Many a German child received a slightly used pair of shoes for Christmas; don’t mind the smell of piss and Zyklon-B. Life was much better in Germany in 1941 than in Britain with its severe rationing. But the German economy couldn’t keep with the losses on the Eastern Front. By late 1942, Speer ramped up production of war material significantly – the German economy literally doubled in 1942. And no more so than in Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr.
The Ruhr was Germany’s industrial center because it sat on top of Germany’s industrial center of gravity: the vast coal fields that powered the country and the economy. Up to this point Allied bombers were terror bombing civilian targets, striking synthetic oil factories, or military targets such as u-boat pens and aircraft factories. The intelligence officials wouldn’t figure out the importance of the Ruhr’s coal for several months and the Combined Bomber Offensive didn’t directly target coal (and more importantly: the railroad stations critical to transporting it) until November. So in March 1943 the Combined Bomber Offensive initial objectives for the Ruhr campaign were ammunition factories, synthetic oil plants, iron works, hydroelectric dams, and steel mills, and because Bomber Harris was still in charge of the RAF, the workers who manned them.
Harris believed, correctly as it turned out, that if workers were worried about where to live, they wouldn’t be very effective in the factories (he never really gave up on trying to break German civilian will). He made sure part of the Ruhr campaign was to “dehouse” its German workers, preferably with them still inside. One of the quickest ways to “dehouse” German workers wasn’t to bomb their houses, but flood them. And the Ruhr was packed with dams.
Dams were difficult targets. And in the early war, damn near impossible to damage (hehe). The accuracy wasn’t there and the bombs weren’t big enough. The logical solution was a torpedo but the Germans emplaned heavy torpedo nets. And to actually hit a dam with a bomb dropped from a level bomber such as Lancaster or B-17 required a stroke of luck equivalent to hitting the lottery. And if it did, a 500 lb bomb would just take a small chuck out of the reinforced concrete, and then most certainly above the waterline. The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The British pioneered a concept of “skipping” bombs like a rock into the dams and over the torpedo nets. It didn’t work: the bombs either bounced off before they exploded, or if they did explode on the dam, the untamped explosion did little damage, and again, the damage was always above the waterline. There had to be a better way.
There was. After extensive testing, British scientist Barnes Wallis found that they could skip bombs in to a target with a “backspin”. When the skipped and backspun bombs hit the target they bounced off and sank directly to the base of the dam (a concept not unfamiliar to basketball players). There the specially produced bombs would explode like a depth charge, and smash the structural integrity of the dam. The problem was that to backspin the bombs the bombers had to drop the specially designed bombs at a specific angle, a specific height, a specific speed, at a specific distance from the dam and at a specific, very low altitude. Any deviation resulted in a failure to backspin, a premature detonation, or even a bomb that bounced back up into the bomber. Moreover, this had to be done at night, without fighter interference, and down the narrow winding trench-like valleys. But if everything happened perfectly, the dams could be destroyed. If.
The mission to destroy the Ruhr Valley dams was given to No 5 Group of Bomber Command who handpicked a squadron from their best bomber crews. The elite crews were comprised of men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, led by 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Gibson and 617 Squadron practiced for weeks at night with inert bombs on British dams. (Imagine that risk assessment.) On the night of 16-17 May, 1943, Gibson and 617 Squadron flew Operation Chastise against the Moehne, Scorpe and Eder Dams.
617 Squadron attacked in three waves. Unfortunately the first wave successfully infiltrated but alerted the anti-aircraft crews around the numerous German airfields near the Dutch coast. The second and third waves suffered several planes shot down or damaged so badly they had to return before they even reached their targets. The first wave successfully breached the Moehne Dam but only after one bomber was destroyed by its own bomb and several missed attempts whom then drew flak away from the three successes. The Eder Dam was undefended by flak batteries, but only because the winding and narrow “trench run” (where do you think George Lucas got the idea?) lured the Germans into a false sense of security. Moreover, the valley was filled with thick fog and there was a hitherto unknown church steeple just before the release point, which required even more difficult split second precision maneuvering in order release the bomb properly. But since the valley was undefended the planes just kept doing practice runs until they felt confident enough to release their bombs. One aircraft made six practice attempts. The bomb of the last run by the last aircraft breached the Eder Dam. The aircraft that attacked the Scorpe Dam failed to breach its massive earthen ramparts. One aircraft diverted to Scorpe’s secondary target, the Ennepe Dam but due to the fog ended up attacking the Bever Dam. In any case both dams were structurally sound in the morning.
Not so for the Moehne or Eder Dams. Their destruction unleashed Biblical floods on their respective valleys. And the rising water was felt far downstream. The bomb damage assessment aircraft that flew the next morning reported only the tops of trees and steeples peaking above the water. Most German civilians reached safety before their towns were destroyed, but 1600 were killed, mostly Soviet prisoners of war used as slave labor who were locked up and couldn’t escape. The devastation to the towns and farms was complete though. The “Dambusters Raid” knocked out hydroelectric power to the Ruhr Valley for two weeks, and Speer estimated that coal production dropped by 400,000 tons because of the raid. It would have been more had the RAF followed up with additional conventional attacks on the repair parties. Speer’s “Operation Todt”, a Reich-wide quick reaction repair and construction system, gave the German infrastructure a resilience that American and British planners didn’t expect. The Raid’s greatest effect was on local food production, British civilian morale, and the thinning of the limited German manpower and resources which could be dedicated elsewhere. Every German anti-aircraft crewmember, fireman, or Todt member was one less fighting on the Eastern Front. Every 88 aimed skyward was one less aimed at a Russian tank and ditto for the fighters prowling the Dutch, Belgian, French and German airspace.
The three month Battle of the Ruhr was a “catastrophe” (in the German Armaments Inspectorate’s own words) for the German economy, nearly a million tons of lost production, and more importantly, halted Speer’s upward surge of German economy. By the end of 1943, nearly 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, 10,000 defensive fighters, and almost a million men were dedicated to defeating the Allied bombing campaign. This came at a price though: 50% of all Allied bomber crews were killed in action, and 25% wounded or captured, a 75% casualty rate.
On 7 April 1943, the Americans and British of Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force, advancing from the west met Montgomery’s Eighth Army advancing east, forcing the Germans and Italians into a pocket ringed by mountains around Tunis. A month of hard fighting pushing the passes commenced. However, with both the American capture of Bizerte and the British capture of Tunis on 6 May, the Axis forces in North Africa were doomed. Allied air and sea superiority, mainly operating from Malta, cut off all paths of escape for the Rommel’s Panzer Armee Afrika. (Though Rommel was recalled before that could happen and he turned over command to GenLt Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.) On 13 May 1943, 270,000 of the best and most experienced, not to mention irreplaceable, German and Italians troops surrendered to Allied forces in Tunisia. This was the largest surrender of German troops so far in the war (Only 90,000 surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad, although the German casualties there were much higher).
The Allies were not prepared for the large amount of prisoners. General Eisenhower would remark, “Why didn’t some staff college ever tell us what to do with a quarter million prisoners so located at the end of a rickety railroad that it’s impossible to move them and where guarding and feeding them are so difficult?” In spite of the difficulties, they were cared for and transported, and most would end up in prison camps in the continental US.
In the two and half months since the American rout at Kasserine Pass, the U.S. Army came of age in the mountains and passes of Tunisia. The hard lessons of basic discipline, warfighting, and soldiering dearly paid for by their fathers and grandfathers in the Philippines, Mexico, and on the Western Front in the Great War were relearned at the cost of much blood, treasure, and time in North Africa. The US Army that made the Run for Tunis was a very different animal than the peacetime army that landed in Morocco and Algiers six months before during Operation Torch. Moreover, the Tunisian campaign solidified the military senior leadership that, for the next two long years, would lead the Allied armies on the difficult road to Germany. They would become household names by the end of the war: Eisenhower, Alexander, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Patton, Bradley, Horrocks, Harmon and Juin, among many others.
The War for North Africa was over and the War for Sicily and Italy began.
On 11 May 1943, the 17th Infantry Regiment of the US 7th Infantry Division invaded the Aleutian island of Attu which had been occupied by the Japanese a year earlier. The rocky terrain, fanatical resistance, and arctic weather conditions caused thousands of casualties on both sides. On 29 May 1943, the 1200 remaining Japanese defenders banzai charged their attackers and broke through the American lines. The Japanese attack was only stopped after vicious hand to hand combat with the regiment’s rear echelon troops. The Japanese secretly withdrew from the nearby island of Kiska shortly thereafter. The Battle of Attu was the only battle fought on US territory in North America during the Second World War.
When the Germans conquered Poland in late 1939, they rounded up everyone “with Jewish blood” and forcibly moved them into walled off ghettos. In the Polish city of Warsaw, 400,000 Polish Jews and other National Socialist undesirables were packed into an area of only 1.3 square miles. In the autumn of 1942, Nazi Germany began “liquidating” these ghettos by rounding up a set daily quota of the inhabitants and sending them to the gas chambers. In Warsaw that number was as high as 5,000 a day to the Death Camp at Treblinka.
At first, the Jewish leaders thought that those collected were just being transferred to labor camps and didn’t fight the arbitrary detentions. But eventually the truth became known. By 1943, less than 100,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto, many of whom were in hiding. In response, Jewish resistance groups formed with support from the Polish Home Army and eventually fought back against the quota detentions in January. The surprisingly fierce and widespread resistance caused the Germans to stop the deportations until sufficient strength could be gathered to crush them.
On 19 April 1943, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resumed. 2,000 SS troops backed up by tanks and 5,000 policemen arrogantly marched into the seemingly quiet and deserted streets. On a pre-arranged signal Jewish ambushes were sprung on the unsuspecting Nazi’s. The initial German assaults were repulsed by the fierce Jewish defenders. They were armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades, small arms, and the fanatical resistance of people who have nothing left to lose. Defeat meant immediate execution, and for their families, hiding in homemade bunkers around the Ghetto, a cattle car to Treblinka. That afternoon, the resistance raised the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white flag of the ZZW (the largest Jewish group in the Ghetto) over Muranowski Square. Embolden by this show of defiance, other Polish resistance groups came to the aid of the Jews by attacking the Germans in other areas of Warsaw and smuggling supplies into the Ghetto. However, the approximately 1,000 Jewish defenders were under no illusions that they could save themselves. Their only hope was that the news of the uprising would make its way to the outside world, and expose the National Socialists for what they really were.
The Germans continued to attack and the battle in Warsaw raged for the next 11 days. The uprising was a great embarrassment to National Socialism: for the Germans to be stymied by “untermensch” or “sub-humans” was contrary to all of their racial propaganda. Hitler authorized the subjugation of the Ghetto his highest priority and flooded Warsaw with additional troops and supplies. With practically unlimited support, it was only a matter of time before the Germans overcame the resistance. Nevertheless, the Germans had to resort to using poison gas and burning down the entire Ghetto before they declared victory in May. The German commander, Juergen Stroop, marked the end of the operation with a small twisted ceremony in which the highlight was his personal pressing the detonator button demolishing the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
Stroop reported killing “about 13,000” and capturing 56,065 Jews at the end of the operation to “cleanse” the Ghetto. 7,000 were immediately sent to Treblinka and gassed over the next few days. Because Treblinka could not “process” so many prisoners so fast, the remainder were sent to other camps in the General Government (Germany’s official name for Poland, since the word “Poland” was outlawed.), primarily the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp inside the city of Lublin. Those not immediately gassed were eventually murdered when the Nazi’s liquidated that camp in November.
The outside world ignored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, despite a frustrated Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile committing suicide over the British unwillingness to do anything concrete to help the defenders. However, the Uprising was a great inspiration to the Polish Home Army and led directly to the general Warsaw Uprising a year later. The Polish Home Army managed to rescue about 400 Jews from the Ghetto, and several hundred more continued to hide in the rubble, sometimes for weeks, until they could escape.
After the war the survivors would form the Lohamei HaGeta’ot kibbutz (literally “Ghetto Fighters” in Yiddish) in northern Israel.
Japan needed to regain the initiative after the losses of Guadalcanal and eastern New Guinea and the defeat in the Bismarck Sea. It was painfully obvious to the Imperial General Staff that the Allies were attempting to neutralize the critical Japanese base at Rabaul by island hopping up the Solomon chain to New Georgia.
Throughout early April 1943, Japanese Army and Navy conducted Operation I-Go from bases in the northern Solomon Islands to counter the Allied build up. The plan was developed over the month of March by Japan’s master strategist and architect of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I-Go was a massive joint aerial offensive against Allied shipping and airfields that was to prevent further Allied landings in the Solomon Islands. It was exceptionally successful in severely damaging Allied logistics infrastructure and much needed shipping, which significantly delayed Allied preparations. However, without any amphibious operations to retake Guadalcanal and the southern Solomons, I-Go would ultimately not stop any operations.
On 14 April, Adm Yamamoto’s staff began preparations for him to visit outlying fighter squadrons in order to congratulate them on a job well done. However the Americans knew the exact times and routes of Yamamoto’s movements because American code breakers deciphered the radio transmissions. Japanese army intelligence suspected the navy’s code was compromised, but the “Divide and Conquer” method of governance by Japan’s totalitarian and militaristic system precluded them from warning the Japanese Navy. Moreover, Japanese commanders in the area were worried about these visits but they didn’t want to lose face caused by any perceptions that they couldn’t protect Yamamoto. Yamamoto himself knew the mission was too dangerous, but refused to lose face in the eyes of the pilots who were already told to expect him.
Over the next two days (!?!?!), a miraculous and singular, never-to-be-repeated episode of US government operational security and efficiency happened when the entire American chain of command up to FDR was briefed, and approved Operation Vengeance to assassinate Yamamoto. On the morning of 18 April 1943, 18 US Army P-38 “Lightning” fighters, with drop tanks for extended range, took off from the new Kukum Field on Guadalcanal and intercepted Yamamoto over the island of Bougainville. That the P-38s intercepted Yamamoto’s aircraft is a testament to the Lightning pilots’ skills in navigation (helped by Yamamoto’s legendary punctuality). Adm Marc Mitscher, (We will hear his name again) the air commander in the South Pacific, commented that, “It’s a thousand-to-one that they even see him.”
Yamamoto was in a G4M2 “Betty” bomber and had six “Zero” fighters for an escort. Another Betty carried the rest of his staff. In the ensuing dogfight, both of the bombers were shot down, killing everyone on board both aircraft. Adm Yamamoto was Japan’s best naval strategist, but more importantly he was the only officer in the Japanese military with sufficient respect to force coordination between the near violently rivaled Japanese Army and Japanese Navy. The Japanese would not be able to successfully coordinate a joint Army/Navy operation for the rest of the war.
The flip flopping Japanese focus between New Guinea at the expense of Guadalcanal and then Guadalcanal at the expense of New Guinea was the single greatest air/land factor in the eventual Allied victory at Guadalcanal. With the Americans firmly established at the bottom of the Slot, the increased threat to their main base in the South Pacific at Rabaul convinced the Japanese that they needed to win New Guinea so they could focus back on the Americans in the Solomons.
The Japanese brought two divisions from China and Korea to reinforce the area. They established the next chain of island fortresses up the Solomon’s from Guadalcanal. They were to buy the time necessary so Imperial Japanese Headquarters could focus on stopping, and eventually rolling back, the American and Australian advances up the Kokoda Track in New Guinea.
On 2 March 1943, 7000 Japanese soldiers loaded onto nine transports, which would be escorted by eight destroyers. They were reinforce the troops facing MacArthur on New Guinea, and to land behind Allied lines near Kona, which would cut off the Allied advance. That area was chosen because it was the site of the first Japanese land defeat to the Australians the year before and they needed to erase that stigma of defeat.
Unfortunately for the Japanese, American and Australian code breakers knew of the plan and US BG Ennis Whitehead’s 5th Air Force was waiting. The heavy and medium bombers of the 5th Air Force had not been particularly effective against naval targets up to this point in the war. However,in the past six months, they made widespread organizational, tactical, and mechanical changes to their tactics and doctrine. Among many other changes, they put multiple heavy machine guns in the noses of the bombers, and perfected the tactic of “skipping” bombs into their targets like you would skip a stone across a pond. The changes proved very effective. On 3 and 4 March 1943, Whitehead’s air crews sank all of the transports and all but two of the destroyers in the Bismarck Sea between the islands of New Britain and New Guinea.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was the last time the Japanese would attempt to move large amounts of troops via sea transport without complete air superiority. Regrettably, the aftermath of the battle was ugly for both sides: Japanese machine gunned surviving American and Australian bomber crews and the Allies did the same to Japanese seaman and soldiers awaiting rescue in the sea. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea’s legacy became the arch-example of the dehumanizing ferocity that could characterize the War in the Pacific during WW II.
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.