by Miguel Lallena
First steps towards the War
The Empire of Japan's relations with the Axis and the United States
The news have stricken the world: while last year the Soviet Union and the Third German Reich signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by which Germany and Russia – irreconcilable enemies to most people, considering their completely opposite ideologies and the fact that Hitler hates Slavs with great passion – accepted not to attack each other and, in a secret clause unknown to the rest of the world at the moment, divided Poland among themselves, today, August 23rd 1940, the Soviet Union and the Empire of Japan have signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, or Tatekawa Pact after the name of the Japanese Ambassador to the Soviet Union who has drafted the Pact. The shock is that the two nations have been looking angrily at each other ever since the nineteenth century: the Russo-Japanese War only exacerbated these feelings, and the recent Japanese invasion of Manchuria (now Manchukuo) and the Battles of Lake Khasan and Khalkhin Gol are fresh in the minds of everyone.
These news are obviously stressing for the Germans, and particularly the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. The OKW knows that Hitler wishes to attack the Bolsheviks as soon as possible, before something – anything – may bring the United States into war, and as fast as possible in order to finally push the British into surrendering. They know that the Soviet Union, despite being so big, would have several problems with a two front war, and thus had started to make negotiations so that the Empire of Japan signed into a Pact of Steel-esque treaty with Germany and Italy to form an alliance that could attack all the democratic nations in the world. This treaty of neutrality between the Bolsheviks and the Japanese has thrown these plans to the ground, and thus now it will be impossible to do so, specially now that the Japanese have retired from the negotiations with Germans and Italians.
Unknown to them, this is due to the Japanese Ambassadors to both countries, who have sent word to Japan that these two countries privately look down on them, despite all of their kind words about the greatness of Emperor Sh ōwa. This clearly is a strike against those Japanese politicians that are in favour of accomplishing an alliance with them both, including General Hideki Tōjō, who has just seen his star diminish in brightness due to this setback.
Ironically, other military man has seen his influence within the government increase: Isoroku Yamamoto, Admiral of the Imperial Navy and a close supporter of Minister of the Navy Zengo Yoshida's stand against an alliance with the Nazis and Fascists and also against a war against the United States (he is even heard admonishing Tōjō that, if the Empire of Japan were to attack the United States, it wouldn't be as easy as he thought to win: in his words, "it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House," something that he knows would be practically impossible, remembering the time he spent as a naval attaché in Washington D.C.).
Emperor Sh?wa, hearing to Yamamoto's reasoning, decides on August 31st that the Empire of Japan should seek to improve relations with the United States and the United Kingdom, with whom he is particularly inclined to ally with: the recent quarrel he has held with his brother Prince Chichibu, who in the last years has supported an alliance with the Nazis despite his former pro-Allied position, has pushed him into this. Immediately, Foreign Minister Kichisaburō Nomura phones the United States Ambassador Joseph C. Grew and tells him that Japan is ready for further conversations regarding the Empire's position in East Asia. This will be a delicate moment for Japan, the Minister knows: the Army in general, and Tōjō and his supporters in particular, aren't happy that there won't be an alliance with Germany and Italy, even though the Emperor has decreed it and the word of the Tennō is the word of the Heavenly Will.
That's why he plans to take several steps in order to avoid the Army's interference in the diplomatic relations with the US. Consulting with Prime Minister Nobuyuki Abe and Minister Yoshida, he chooses to have the negotiations in an unusual place: the Akagi aircraft carrier, commanded by Yamamoto and manned by sailors totally loyal to the Admiral, while he claims that these negotiations will take place in a room in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ostensibly to keep the Army away from the US diplomats and make sure that the negotiations will take the best course. All of these plans will only be known to a few people, namely Abe, Yoshida, Yamamoto, Grew and the other one or two people needed to make sure that all comes as needed.
September 5th is the date chosen for the start of the negotiations. General Tōjō, Minister of the Army, would like to prevent the negotiations from yielding results, as he perceives that negotiating with the United States is a mistake and that it would make more sense to ally with Germany, who seemed poised to take control of all of Europe since they have managed to defeat France in hardly a few weeks. That's why he sends a military police unit to disrupt the negotiations and arrest the Ambassador and the rest of the United States diplomatic mission under trumped up charges of spying. He doesn't care about the custom of Ambassadorial diplomatic immunity: he knows that, when the United States hears about this, they'll declare war, and he thinks that, when the Imperial Navy defeats the United States Navy, they will just be able to march into Hawaii and the US will ask for a peace favourable to the Empire of Japan.
However, Nomura and Yamamoto have beaten him to the punch: upon arriving to the Ministry of theForeign Affairs, Joseph Grew, the three diplomats accompanying him, Nomura, Yamamoto and the Japanese diplomats that are to work in the negotiations have been taken to the back door and pushed into Yamamoto's personal limousine, which is being driven by his chauffeur. At first, the American diplomats are enraged and think that 'the yellow devils' are kidnapping them, but after Yamamoto personally swears on his honour that they are only taking them to other place where they will be safe and able to talk calmly and Grew's admission of knowing about these plans beforehand, the Americans apologize for their badly chosen words. They have discovered a new level of the Japanese code of conduct, the Bushido, upon which honour must be upheld until death. They also gain more respect for Admiral Yamamoto, who is well known in the United States as a great admiral.
Upon reaching the port of Tokyo, the diplomats, Yamamoto and Grew are taken to the Akagi while Nomura goes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and encounters the military policemen that have been searching through the whole ministry for the United States Ambassador. He angrily asks them what are they doing there and, upon hearing that they have been sent to arrest the Ambassador under the orders of General Tōjō, he dismisses them and soon calls Prime Minister Abe about the incident.
Several days later, as the negotiations between Japan and the United States still go on, General Hideki Tōjō is called to the presence of the Emperor. He knows that his attempt to spark a war between the Empire and the United States has been a failure, but he still holds out the hope (a hope that has been diminishing as the days pass) that he will be given a position on which he can return to negotiations with Germany and Italy.
However, the Emperor – who has been told what happened by his Prime Minister – admonishes Tōjō. He doesn't shout or show any feeling but that of disappointment at Tōjō's actions: however, the General is still profoundly ashamed and scared. While He understands that he did what he believed was the better for the Empire, the Emperor says that the General has brought unspeakable shame upon his own name for going against His will. General Tōjō knows that the Emperor is right: he has done something that will bring great shame to him and his family, and there is only one way to atone for this. Asking the Emperor to allow him to make a few calls, which He grants, he calls for his kaishakunin, to whom he asks to bring his ritual kimono and his tantō. He then asks the Emperor for one last favour: that his family will not be publicly ashamed when this incident is made public. The Emperor grants this.
General Tōjō bathes, dresses in his ritual white kimono, and eats his favourite meal. He then presents himself in front of the Emperor and, after writing a death poem, he commits seppuku and his kaishakunin performs the dakikubi. This instantly kills General Tōjō and, with him, the main support for having a better relationship with the Axis is gone. The negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom (who has joined the table upon the call of Secretary of State Cordell Hull) will manage to go all the way.
The Western Desert Campaign
After Italy declared war on the Allies, plans were started to be developed to arrange an attack against Egypt. Many thousands of English and Commonwealth soldiers were there, and the Italians knew that, if they managed to take the Suez Canal, the British war machine would suffer a strike of which they wouldn't be able to recover, and thus they would be forced to ask for a peace settlement. Mussolini very much liked these plans, as he wanted to boast to his colleague Adolf Hitler that he had been the one to bring the British Empire to its knees.
While those plans are being discussed, the Fifth Army and the Tenth Army, commanded by Maresciallo dell'Aria Italo Balbo (Marshal of the Air Forces and Commander in Chief of Italian North Africa), General Italo Gariboldi (Fifth Army Commander) and Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani (Tenth Army Commander) conduct raids on British Egypt as the British do the same on Italian Libya. Between June 11th and August 13th, many things would happen: Fort Capuzzo would exchange hands twice, Italo Balbo would die in a friendly fire incident after trying to land in Tobruk's airfield and being confused with a British bomber and minimal advances were done by the Italians into Egyptian territory when they took Sidi Azeiz.
September 9th is the start of the invasion of Egypt by Italian forces. Under the command of Graziani, they manage to take Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Sidi Barrini before stopping a week after the offensive starts due to lack of supplies. Mussolini pressures heavily onto Graziani into continue the advance, but soon the Italian troops start to dig in around Sidi Barrini in case the British will attack while the supplies arrive to them.
Their suspicions aren't incorrect: although there are only 36,000 British and Commonwealth troops in Egypt, and several tens of Cruiser and Matilda tanks, they still have the better ground, as they have much better equipment, their morale is much higher and they are far more used to the climate than the Italians: indeed, in the first raids, the Italians have lost 3,000 men while the British have only lost little more than 100. The 4th Indian division and the 7th Armoured Division (more commonly known as the Desert Rats) are ready to kick out the damned Italians out of Africa, and they know that they can always count on those that are based in Palestine, such as the British 16th Infantry Brigade, to help them.
The end of the Battle of Britain
After the defeat of France and the Benelux in the Battle of France, Hitler knows that the only obstacle in the way for Nazi dominance over Europe rests in Britain. He has already started to launch air attacks against Southern England, which, at first, he had hoped would demoralize the English into asking for peace, but he has seen that the British are not only more energized after each attack, but that they are even winning the battle against the Luftwaffe. True, many RAF planes have fallen, but many more Luftwaffe planes have been shot down. Even after the capture of the landing strips in northern France (which is under direct military control of the Reich as it is the most likely point where the British would launch an invasion), the Junkers Ju 87 Stukas and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 can hardly reach England and attack a few sites before they have to come back as their load of fuel is rapidly consumed by the planes' motors. Also, although he hasn't realised this, his orders of bombing cities and civilian buildings (aiming to produce terror among the population) instead of attacking industries and military objectives is being counterproductive, as the morale of the British population is at the highest point since the start of the war: despite the fall of France and the loss of territories in North Africa, Great Britain can still resist the Nazis, and will be able to do so for a lot of time.
Three people are to be blamed for this: the first, Sir Winston Spencer Leonard Churchill, current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was among the first that recognised the danger the Nazis posed for Europe, to no avail. He spoke against the Munich Agreement that let Czechoslovakia be pounded on by the Germans as they 'reclaimed' the Sudetenland. And, after Neville Chamberlain resigned, he was chosen to take the job of being the leader of the now biggest adversary of Nazism (the Soviet Union doesn't count, because, at this moment, they are neutral towards the Germans). Albeit he has a bit of a bad character, he makes up for this with an ability for leadership that makes him one of the most respected leaders in history. When younger, he had a speech impediment, but now he's a celebrated orator: three speeches he has given since he was appointed will pass onto history: the May 10th speech, right after the end of the Battle of France, of which the sentence "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."" stands over the rest; his May 13th speech, where he claimed that he had nothing to offer but "blood, toil, tears and sweat"; and the June 4th speech, given after the Dunkirk evacuation, in which he managed to transmit his indomitable personality to the rest of England as he claimed that the country would defend the island and themselves no matter the cost. His appraisal of the RAF pilots (not only from Britain, but also from the Commonwealth, the United States and from the occupied countries) with the sentence "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" also helps in keeping the high morale among the people.
The second, John Cecil Masterman, British, chairman of the Twenty Committee. Although very few people know about this in England (and no one in Germany), the Twenty Committee has been in charge of the counter-spying system known as the Double Cross System (named after the XX that means twenty in Roman numerals). Germany has been sending spies into Great Britain, but what the Germans don't know is that most of these spies have turned double agent and are indeed helping the British by providing false information to the Germans. Not only that, but many of the people the Abwehr is considering to use for spying in Great Britain are already planning to help the English. The misinformation the Double Cross system will produce for the Germans will help the English much in the following months as the Nazis tend to fall for the lies that are being given to them by their agents.
The third, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America. Roosevelt, who won the elections eight years ago on his "New Deal" plan to restore the economy of the nation after the Great Depression, is very busy: although he has been easily re-elected by the Democratic Party as their candidate for the November 1940 elections, he knows that he faces opposition from parts of the society. The Republican Party has yet to choose their candidate, although all or nearly all of them are against joining the war, and there are even many that would prefer not to pay any attention to the war and concentrate on home issues. There is even talk in certain circles (with famed priest Charles Coughlin and Christian Party 1936 presidential candidate William Dudley Pelley at their head) that the United States should follow the example of Germany and establish a fascist state. But Roosevelt can't have that: his New Deal plan was made precisely to save democracy, and he can't allow people like them to undermine the government's efforts: Pelley has already been sent to prison for the actions of the Silver Shirts, modelled after the Nazi SS, for example. He has already managed to push the Destroyers for Bases Agreement forward, and has been thinking on anything he and his government can do to help the British, but the Neutrality Acts of 1937 prevent him from doing more, although he managed to add a "cash and carry" policy that would allow the United States to sell things to Britain as long as it was immediately paid in cash. There is other act on the works, that would repeal the Neutrality Acts, but it's better if he doesn't mention it at all, because the US public is mostly isolationist, and, although the plight of Britain and the occupied countries in Europe awakens many sympathies, there is still much aversion to getting into "other European war", probably a reminder of World War One. But, Roosevelt believes, there is always the chance that someone (like the Germans, or perhaps the Russians) will do something wrong that will give him the chance of actually helping the British...
Although, we can't stop mentioning all those that are working non-stop as they face the Nazis: the hundreds that form the French Resistance; the people that are hardly getting a rest in Bletchley Park trying to decipher the Enigma code that the Germans use to cipher their messages; the soldiers that are going through heat and cold in the North African deserts as they prepare for a counter-attack on the Italians; the pilots that risk their lives everyday as they fly and attempt to stop the German planes from attacking England... and also the millions that live under the German heel, hoping against hope that soon someone will rescue them from the horrible life they are in.
Meeting at Hendaye: Franco keeps Spain out of war with the British
Perhaps, all of this is what propels Hitler to seek the help of the one he aided a few years ago to gain power: Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Caudillo of Spain and Generalísimo de los Ejércitos.
Hitler knows of the attack Mussolini launched against the British in North Africa. He knows that the island of Malta, which hosts a great British naval and air base, is being besieged by the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the Italian Navy. He doesn't want to spend resources there, as he hopes that the Italians will be able to kick the English out of the vital island. He also knows that the main lifeline of Malta is the supplies taken there by sea, and the most important sea lane that sends supplies there passes through Gibraltar, in the Iberian Peninsula.
That's why, on October 23rd, Adolf Hitler has talks with Francisco Franco about a possible entrance of Spain in WWII in the side of the Axis. Ramón Serrano Súñer and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Affairs ministers for Spain and Germany, are also present. If Spain enters the war, Hitler thinks, then he would be able to move his troops through Spanish territory and conquer Gibraltar, thus cutting off one of Malta's lifelines and controlling who enters and comes out of the Mediterranean Sea (after all, the south of the Strait of Gibraltar is controlled by the Spanish as well, and if they enter there is no way that the British will be able to take supplies through there).
However, Franco, despite his wish to help his fellow dictator, knows that Spain will be unable to do anything in this war unless they are helped. Three years of civil war have left the country a wrecked ruin, and in the last year many problems have arisen from this. Rationing is hardly keeping the people alive, and the estraperlo (the black market) isn't helping things, as the products acquire prizes in there that are much higher than the official ones, and thus the people have less money and can't acquire more products.
That's why, after Hitler presents his suggestion, Franco and Serrano Súñer present a list of things Spain needs before they can enter the war, as well as several colonial claims for the future. Hitler soon realises that the Spanish demands aren't worth their entrance in the war: Franco wants, apart of Gibraltar, Oran, French Morocco and Guinea, all of which are, at this moment, part of Vichy France, and Hitler can't antagonize the French at this moment. After a series of threats from Hitler, Franco accepts the possibility of entering the war against Britain at a later date, and also compromises to send soldiers if there is war against the Soviet Union – which Franco holds as the worst enemy of the civilized world: after all, the Spanish Civil War was started under the pretext that the communists were about to transform Spain into a Soviet Socialist Republic (he, like many others, didn't realise that, ironically, the communists were not a strong force until after the Civil War started).
Hitler comes out of the meeting with a small feeling of defeat: even though he has the full military might of Nazi Germany behind him, this upstart has rejected his "offer" to join the war that he and Mussolini are sure to win soon, despite the resistance the British present, and not only that, but he made many arrogant petitions. He is sure that he would be able to wipe out his paltry army, but at this moment he can't spend resources in invading the Spanish people:Unternehmen Seelöwe is currently taking over the planning of the OKW, even as the chances of winning against the RAF are lower each day. He doesn't pay attention to the Soviets, despite advice that they are doing suspicious manoeuvres: after all, they are Untermenschen, and Communist to boot. Even if they attack (which he doubts will happen), the Wehrmacht units in Poland should be able to defeat them easily. Won't they?