After their loss in the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe generally stopped large daylight bombing raids. However, they still continued “The Blitz” on London and other British cities at night. Ostensibly to destroy industry, but like the Royal Air Force nighttime bombing raids, doing damage to residential and commercial areas much more often than not. On the night of 14 November 1940, the largest Luftwaffe raid to date hit the British city of Coventry.
Just after supper, fifteen modified He-111 bombers, using special radio navigation equipment, dropped marker flares for the follow on bombers. Coventry was thought to be a poor nighttime target for bombers due to the surrounding terrain so it lacked adequate barrage balloons and anti aircraft guns. But the pathfinding bombers mitigated this. Soon after, the first wave of Luftwaffe bombers dropped high explosive bombs and naval mines with parachutes (the shock of landing would simulate the strike of a ship, and because they didn’t make a crater their explosions went generally outward instead of generally upward). These were intended to destroy the water mains, the telephone exchanges, and overwhelm and slow down the first responders, particularly firefighters. The next wave dropped phosphorus and magnesium incendiaries to start large fires which were intended to spread. The next wave dropped antipersonnel bombs to kill any fire fighters that made through the rubble caused by the first wave. In all, 515 German bombers made several sorties through the night against Coventry.
About 2 am on the morning of 15 November, a firestorm developed in the city center. Most of the civilian deaths from the raid came about because this conflagration consumed the oxygen out of the air raid shelters. When the all clear sounded the next morning, 1/3 of Coventry was leveled, and 1/3 more of its buildings were damaged. Civilian casualties were considered “light” as most citizens left the city at night after earlier raids.
The Luftwaffe Raid on Coventry had a number of firsts: it was the first bombing raid to use pathfinder aircraft, the first to use incendiaries, and the first to use “block busting” bombs. The Luftwaffe would continue to bomb British cities for the next two years but would never be able to mass on one like they did on Coventry for various reasons. But Raid on Coventry did set several precedents, precedents that the RAF, and eventually the US Eighth Air Force, would mimic hundreds of times against German cities.
The Italian build up at Sidi Barranni was proceeding slowly but steadily, and by early December the Italians would be prepared for a final push into Egypt. The British needed to slow the supplies that were ferried from Italy to North Africa, but the Italian Navy, the Regina Marina, had a significant firepower superiority in the Mediterranean. On the heel of the Italian boot at the naval base of Taranto, the Regina Maria had a fleet of six battleships, sixteen cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The Italian naval threat forced the British Mediterranean Fleet to inefficiently operate en masse against the Italian supply lines linking North Africa and Italy.
On the afternoon of 11 November, 1940, a naval task force under Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, Britain’s foremost carrier tactician, quietly approached Taranto. Lumley had just one aircraft carrier, and four cruisers and five destroyers. At dusk, Lumley launched his obsolete Swordfish torpedo bombers from the HMS Illustrious. Two hours later around about 10 pm, 21 Swordfish biplanes screamed out of the flare lit darkness, and struck the Italian battleship row. They sunk one battleship, severely damaged two others and damaged two heavy cruisers for the loss of just a single plane. The Raid on Taranto shocked the Italians. In the space of one hour, the Regina Marina went from a dangerous threat to the British Navy in the Mediterranean to a fleet-in-being which would rarely leave port for the rest of the war.
The Japanese naval attaché in Berlin, Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, flew down to Taranto and documented the raid. Naito passed on the information to his friend, carrier pilot Commander Mitsuo Fushida. Fushida went on to plan and lead the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year later
On 13 October, 1940, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, until the spring of 1941. By October it became obvious that the Luftwaffe grossly underestimated the Royal Air Force’s fighter capacity, and capability to contest the air over Southern England, control of which was necessary for any German invasion to take place. The Luftwaffe pilots’ morale was almost bottomed out after being repeatedly told that RAF Fighter Command was on its last legs, only to find them waiting over London or some other city. However, the terror bombings, or what the British people referred to as “The Blitz”, continued for another year, mostly at night.
Hitler’s postponement of Operation Sea Lion until the spring of 1941 was only a ruse though: he wanted to convince Communist spies that his focus was still on Britain. In actuality, Hitler postponed Sea Lion indefinitely, and began moving the troops east. The planning for his next big operation was well under way, and the battle in the west was indecisive in his eyes.
Two weeks before on 27 September, Hitler signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan and Italy which formed the Axis against Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The next day, the Pact was extended to Germany’s de facto ally, the Soviet Union. Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (of Molotov Cocktail fame) took the offer back to Moscow to work on the economic details of the alliance. Stalin welcomed the alliance, but felt that more economic concessions could be wrung from the Germans, who were in desperate need of the Soviet Union’s raw materials.
But neither Hitler nor Stalin had any intention of honoring a “Quadpartite Pact”. Stalin knew that any form of Socialism requires an enemy and when Hitler was done with Britain, he was the only remaining option in Europe. Stalin needed time to rebuild the Red Army after the purges of 1937/38, and the disastrous, if victorious, Winter War with Finland. A formal alliance with Germany could buy him that time.
Hitler had no intention of even that much, despite accepting Molotov’s economic counterproposals in November. He was just stallin’ (Ha!). Hitler would string the talks out about formal military alliance with Stalin until the spring, when he planned to launch, not Operation Sea Lion, but Operation Barbarossa — the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Though Churchill and the British people didn’t know it, the Battle of Britain was over. Hitler had moved on.
In December 1939, the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Ajax became famous as part of the small squadron that took on the German pocket battleship and commerce raider, Admiral Graf Spee, in the Battle of the River Platte, and forced her crew to scuttle her (Britain’s first real victory of the Second World War). In October 1940 the Ajax was screening a convoy in the Mediterranean to resupply Malta.
On the night of 11-12 October, 1940, the Ajax was just southeast of Sicily on the last leg of the journey to the small fortress island. Around 0030, an Italian patrol boat spotted the lone light cruiser, and the ships of the Regina Marina (Italian Royal Navy) were alerted for what they thought would be an easy kill before descending upon the convoy. An hour later, the Ajax made contact with an Italian destroyer squadron of three torpedo boats and four destroyers, supported by a slow moving heavy cruiser. The battle should have been no contest: the Ajax was out maneuvered, out gunned, and outnumbered by her nimbler, more modern, and heavier hitting Italian foes.
30 minutes after first contact, the Italians broke off the engagement, thoroughly humiliated. Two torpedo boats and two destroyers were sunk, and the rest of the Italian flotilla was damaged in some way. The heavy cruiser turned around without firing a shot. The Italians fought valiantly but only landed two hits on their lone adversary, whereas every shell fired from the Ajax seemed to hit its mark. The mighty Ajax was waiting seemingly in ambush at every instance she was spotted, when she was seen at all, usually only by her gun flashes.
The Italians attributed the lopsided British victory to excellent gunnery skills and superb use of star-shells. They were only partly correct. The Ajax had an asymmetric advantage unknown to the Italians. The Ajax was retrofitted with radar after the Battle of the River Platte, and the Battle of Cape Passero was the first use of radar in a naval engagement in history.
The German and Soviet occupation of Poland in the summer of 1940 was a brutal affair, and thousands joined the growing resistance. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of political prisoners were rounded up, some for the simple offense of not seeing a German walk past and bowing quickly enough. Most, if not outright killed, were sent to a growing series of concentration camps that sprung up across the country. The largest and fastest growing camp was outside of the Polish town of Oswiecim.
On 19 September, 1940, resistance member and former cavalry troop commander, Witold Pilecki volunteered to be captured and get sent to the camp where he would conduct a detailed reconnaissance, and set up a resistance movement inside if possible. The next day he was picked up in a random sweep and nearly beaten to death. A few days later he was transferred to the camp outside of Oswiecim, more commonly known to the Germans as Auschwitz.
Pilecki stayed in Auschwitz for the next three years and sent weekly reports to the Polish Underground which eventually made their way to British Intelligence. Additionally, he led and coordinated the resistance movements inside the camp, synchronized escapes, planned a camp uprising, and set up services and amenities for the prisoners including a news service and a secret hospital (the Germans killed sick prisoners). But it was his documentation of the Holocaust that would be the most benefit to Mankind.
Pilecki documented the abuses of the guards, the conditions of the prisoners, and later the daily arrival of Jews and other “undesirables”. His organization meticulously detailed the extermination of hundreds of thousands of people by the National Socialists. His reports were the first evidence of genocide on an industrial scale to reach the outside world. He escaped the prison in 1943, after the guards made known that the Polish prisoner camp “staff” (Pilecki was a baker) was going to be liquidated and replaced with new arrivals.
Pilecki fought in the Home Army against the Germans for the rest of the war. After the German surrender, the Soviets rounded up any Poles with connections to the British backed Polish Government-in-Exile. Witold Pilecki, a man who survived the absolute worst the National Socialists could devise, was arrested, given a show trial, and executed by Soviet socialists for “Crimes against the People.”
The night before he was executed, he told his wife, “”I cannot live. They killed me because Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was just a trifle compared with them (the Soviets).”
On 16 September 1940, US President Franklin D Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act into law. It required all males from the age of 21 to 35 to register for the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1940 was the first peacetime draft in American history. With Japan overrunning large portions of China, Germany possessing most of Europe and poised to invade Britain, and the Soviets, an ally of Germany, controlling most of Eastern Europe, FDR thought it prudent to prepare the US for war. The law also mobilized the National Guard and called up the officer reserves.
“America stands at the crossroads of its destiny. Time and distance have been shortened. A few weeks have seen great nations fall. We cannot remain indifferent to the philosophy of force now rampant in the world. We must and will marshal our great potential strength to fend off war from our shores. We must and will prevent our land from becoming a victim of aggression.” — FDR 16 September 1940
In just eight days thousands of British civilians were killed and wounded, and large areas of London, particularly East London, were in ruins. But with the Luftwaffe’s focus on London, Dowding’s early warning system returned to peak efficiency, and RAF Fighter Command’s airfields were repaired, its pilots rested, and its planes fixed and properly maintained.
On 14 September 1940, Hitler postponed the invasion one last time, and decreed that if the RAF wasn’t destroyed within the week, the invasion of Britain would be postponed indefinitely. The next morning Herman Goering, convinced the RAF was on its last legs, called for a maximum effort. British radar picked up a formation of German planes over France that was so large it was taking longer than normal to form up. This gave Air Marshal Dowding time to organize the set piece battle he craved since July.
At 0700 as the Germans were enroute, Winston Churchill departed London to the relative safety of the 11 Group airfield at Uxbridge where he would observe the coming battle. 11 Group put up all of its fighters to meet the attack and Churchill asked “What other reserves have we?” 11 Groups commander, Keith Park replied tersely, ‘We have none, sir.”
That wasn’t entirely accurate. When the Germans took so long to form up this gave 12 Group to the north time to form their vaunted “Big Wings”. All told the RAF put up 625 fighters to meet 1120 Luftwaffe fighters and bombers over London and southern England. It was an apocalyptic air battle that lasted all day, with fighters on both sides fighting, landing, immediately rearming and refueling, and then heading back into the battle. Some British pilots did this four and five times. When evening came and the wreckages were counted, the RAF lost 43 fighters and the Luftwaffe lost 136 planes of all types.
But it wasn’t the losses that shocked the Germans, they were completely astonished by the RAF’s response. Like all totalitarian regimes, the Germans had problems with math and routinely made overly positive assessments of their operations to show progress. Just that morning the pilots were briefed that the RAF had only 250 fighters left in the country with just 150 covering London: the Luftwaffe pilots went into battle assuming they had an 8 to 1 advantage.
Luftwaffe planners and commanders tried to excuse away the large numbers of RAF fighters, but the pilots’ eyes did not deceive them and they talked: the British had no less than 500 up at any time. Goering was lying to them. Particularly demoralizing was a five squadron 12 Group Big Wing that descended upon a bomber formation and nearly wiped it out, leaving only a few stragglers…almost as if they were deliberately left alive to tell the tale.
The Battle of Britain continued for another three weeks, but it was anti-climactic after 15 September and the Luftwaffe switched increasingly to safer night raids. On 17 September, Hitler postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely, and switched his attention to the planning for next spring’s offensive: Operation Barbarossa, the Invasion of the Soviet Union.
On 13 September 1940, the Italian X Army advanced out of Libya and into Egypt to seize Cairo and the Suez Canal, in the first scene of the first act of what would become known over the next three years as the Western Desert Campaign. The Western Desert, known so by the British because it was west of the Middle East, was a 150 mile wide and 1000 mile long strip of rocky desert in North Africa between Tripoli in Libya and Mersa Matruh in Egypt. It was bordered by the Mediterranean Coast to the north, and impassable terrain to the south: the salt flats of the Qattara Depression and giant dunes of the Sahara. The Western Desert had but a single coastal road, the Via Balbia, although there were some Bedouin tracks that connected the oases further south.
With the French threat from Tunisia neutralized by her surrender, the Italian X Army attacked east along the Via Balbia into Egypt. They were met by units of the British Armoured Division (soon to be renamed the 7th Armoured Division, aka The Desert Rats), the New Zealand Division led by the indestructible MajGen Bernard Freyberg, and the “Red Eagles” of the 4th Indian Division. But before those units became famous later in the war, in September 1940, they were underequipped, undermanned, and under trained composite formations only thrown together when the Italians declared war in June. They were overwhelmed by the Italians while defending the frontier. Yet the British and Commonwealth troops conducted a skillful delaying action and scorched earth policy, principally by destroying the coastal road, which exacerbated the Italian supply problems.
The Italian supplies had to be shipped from Italy to Benghazi or Tobruk, or even worse farther west to Tripoli, and then driven to the frontier hundreds of miles east. It didn’t help that Italy was not even remotely prepared for Mussolini’s declaration of war. The Italian merchant marine was completely surprised, and a full 1/3 of all Italian shipping was captured within two days of the declaration, because they were caught in neutral or hostile ports. Furthermore, the rough terrain was hell on the vehicles, and the hot desert wind, called the Sirocco, coated everything in a fine machinery destroying dust. Soon spare parts were fighting with food, fuel, water and ammunition for the limited space in the ships and trucks. Italian trucks were using 60% of the fuel they carried just to get to the forward units. Upon learning that the Duke of Aosta in the Sudan was stopped by the same logistics problems, Field Marshal Graziani decided to halt the Italian offensive on 16 September when he reached Sidi Barrani, just 65 miles inside Egypt. There the Italians dug in to buildup supplies for the next push.
However, the Italians only learned the first half of the First Rule of the Western Desert: “Every step forward for the attacker was one step further away from their supplies”. They didn’t yet understand the second half, “Every step back for the defender was one step closer to theirs”.
The British did.
By early September 1940, the RAF’s Fighter Command was a hot mess and barely functioning as a fighting organization. In southern England, 11 Group was not only losing planes faster than industry could replace them, they were losing pilots faster than they could be trained. Pilot losses were extremely heavy among the experienced squadron and flight leaders, and training was curtailed to the point that new pilots had less than ten hours in their Spitfires or Hurricanes before being thrown into the fray. There were numerous examples of flight leaders, and even a squadron leader, with less than fifty hours in the cockpit of their fighter. Furthermore, all of 11 Group’s airfields were cratered and smoking disaster areas, to include the sector control centers which were offline almost as much as they were online. Air Marshal Dowding seriously considered abandoning 11 Group’s airfields (which would cede the Channel to the Germans, and subsequently lead to the invasion of the British Isles), and even scheduled a meeting with Churchill to discuss moving 11Group’s airfields out of range of the Germans.
Despite Dowding’s pessimism, assistance for the RAF would come from an unlikely source, Adolf Hitler. Totalitarian rulers, and those who make decisions based on emotion or rule primarily through manipulation of emotion, are they themselves more susceptible to having their own emotions and decisions manipulated. Adolf Hitler was no different. On the night of 25 August, a Luftwaffe bomber flew off course and accidentally bombed the East End of London. In retaliation, Churchill ordered RAF Bomber Command to strike targets around Berlin. On 5 September 1940, they did so, thus belying Herman Goering’s claim that enemy bombs would never touch the German capital. Hitler was infuriated and ordered the Luftwaffe to cease attacking British airfields and “flatten London”.
On the morning of 7 September 1940, British radar picked up the largest concentration of German fighters and bombers to date. Dowding scrambled everything that had wings to protect 11 Group’s airfields. The stage was set for the largest air engagement in history.
But it didn’t happen: the Spitfires and Hurricanes were greeted by clear skies. The RAF was in the wrong spot.
600 Luftwaffe bombers and fighter bombers had an uninterrupted flight directly to London where they set it ablaze, particularly the East End. It would be the first of 57 consecutive daily raids against the city, and the next months were dubbed “The Blitz” by Londoners. But London’s loss was the RAF’s gain. With the Luftwaffe’s focus shifted to the city, and not the airfields, Dowding had the time to reorganize the early warning system and repair the airfields. The shift also allowed the pilots to get some uninterrupted rest and training, and mechanics uninterrupted time to repair and maintain the aircraft. Finally, with the obvious target being London, 12 Group had time to form up its “Big Wings” and actually get into the fight en masse.
Hitler gave the RAF, and Britain, a second chance.
When Mussolini declared war on France and Great Britain in June of 1940, he had grandiose dreams of a New Roman Empire, particularly in Africa centered on his two colonies, Libya and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The Italians in Africa had an enormous material and troop advantage over the Allies, 415,000 to 36,000, and Mussolini planned to use it to seize Egypt, Sudan, Somaliland, Kenya, and the rest of East Africa. The entrance of Italy into the Second World War shifted the entire center of gravity for Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The Middle East was Great Britain’s Achilles’s Heel, because all of its oil and shipping passed through the Red Sea and Suez Canal or down the African coast. And despite the furious air battles fought over southern England and the spectre of invasion, Churchill sent all available troops from India and the Commonwealth, not to the British Isles, but to East Africa and the Middle East. But before the British could build up, the Duke of Aosta, Mussolini’s competent and level headed Viceroy of Ethiopia, struck first.
The Allied plan in East Africa always depended on the British massing in Egypt while holding in the Sudan, Kenya, and Somaliland. The plan relied on the French in Djibouti, the lion’s share of the Allied strength in the theatre, to counterattack any Italian advance. But the fall of France in mid-July made the French a non-factor when a pro-German Vichy French commander took over in Djibouti. In early August 1940, Italian units in Ethiopia attacked into Sudan, Kenya, and Somaliland. In the Sudan and Kenya, the Italians stalled because they overestimated the enormous logistic difficulties of operating in the wildernesses that existed on Ethiopia’s borders: the open desert of Sudan, and the 400 miles of scrub desert separating the habitable areas of Kenya and Ethiopia.
British Somaliland was a different story. The terrain was hilly, rugged, and rough, but passable, and the British had too few troops to defend it. The initial surge of Churchill’s reinforcements went to General Wavell in the Egypt where he had to deal with pro-German governments of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and Italians massing in Libya. But Churchill wanted to avoid an Italian victory in the news (not to mention an Italian/German naval base next to the Red Sea) so he ordered some units to Somaliland once it became obvious Aosta was going to invade. It was too little too late.
The eclectic British led force in Somaliland consisted of Punjabis, Rhodesians, Free French, British regulars of the Black Watch, West Africans, East Africans, Singaporeans, part of the Hong Kong garrison, and native Somalis of the Camel Corps. Their defense was planned, supplied, and coordinated on the fly along a series of ridges south of the port of Berbera. The defenses focused on the “tugs” or wadis (dry streambeds) along the hills through which vehicles could travel. However, the Italians grossly overestimated the British forces due a simple deception plan (driving around to stir up dust to give impression of more movement) and a lack of reconnaissance due to bad maps, bad aircraft maintenance, good British camouflage discipline, and the counter reconnaissance efforts of the Somali Camel Corps.
Nevertheless, imagined troops are still in the end, imagined. Italians were just too many. Additionally, many units of the Italian Royal Corps of Colonial Troops were tough and experienced after years of fighting Ethiopian guerillas, and the best struck at the Tug Argan. Tough Eritrean and Somali askaris (native soldiers), backed by motorized regular Italian troops, Fascist Blackshirt battalions, and medium and light tanks and armored cars. The defenders of Tug Argan made a fight of it but the lack of anti-tank guns, long defense line, and the piecemeal deployment of the defenders (their deployment was determined by when they offloaded the ships) made the battle a foregone conclusion. However, they were saved from complete encirclement and destruction by a desperate fighting withdrawal by the Somali Camel Corps. The British re-embarked the ships they just disembarked a week before, the Camel Corps disbanded and melted back into the population (we shall hear of them again later), and the British departed Berbera which fell to the Italians on 21 August 1940.
While the Duke of Aosta focused on the coast, Mussolini toasted his new empire, and the world assumed the war was being won by the Axis, three very different men, with three very different views on warfare, arrived in the Sudan: the unpretentious but supremely competent Brigadier William Slim, the brilliant but eccentric Major Orde Wingate, and a certain “Mr. Strong”, who departed London in a flying boat a week before the fall of Berbera. “Mr. Strong” was the Lion of Judah, the Ras Tafari, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, come to liberate his people.
The Fall of British Somaliland meant that Red Sea was considered a “war zone” and neutral American ships carrying vital supplies purchased by the British could not enter. Supplies for Wavell’s forces in Egypt had to come via the Persian Gulf and Basra Iraq, and then trucked to Cairo and Alexandria, an unsatisfactory situation to say the least. The loss at Tug Argan unleashed a flurry of activity to plan, prepare and execute the mind numbingly complex and perilously ad hoc liberation of the Horn of Africa from the Italians before the fall of the Suez Canal and the oil rich Middle East to Germans, Italians, and Soviets.