by Miguel Lallena
The Unexpected Consequences Of War: December 1940-January 1941
The Desert Rats
For the last two months, since the capture of the town of Sidi Barrini by the Tenth Army, the Italian forces have been digging in their positions in western Egypt and Libya. Many supplies are being brought into the region, particularly to the three positions taken in the earlier attack, namely Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Sidi Barrini itself. They have been preparing to defend their gains, and also for a future offensive into the rest of Egypt, as ordered by il Duce, that is to take place in a couple of weeks. Their Fiat tanks have been arriving by droves, as well as several reinforcements – not as many as Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Commander-in-Chief of the Italian forces in North Africa, would like – but still, the Italian army is bigger than the British army.
However, there is one thing that it's impossible to receive for his men: morale. For the last months, the morale of the Italian soldiers has been decaying heavily due to many facts, among them the lack of quality food, the surrounding lands – being surrounded by, and going through sand, sand and more sand tends to sap your morale – and the fact that they know that the British are almost superior to them, evidenced by the battles from last summer.
They aren't on the wrong track. The British troops know that they can count on having much better equipment than what the Italians have. What the Italians don't know is that the number of British troops is very much smaller than the number of Italian troops: indeed, the ratio is approximately of 1 British soldier per 5 Italian soldiers. However, all these troops, although not very experimented in fighting, can perfectly hold their own: the 4th Indian Infantry Division, “the Red Eagles”, commanded by Major-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, is the first Indian formation to fight out of their homeland, and has had already fought the Italians during their invasion of Egypt; and Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh's 7th Armoured Division, colloquially called “the Desert Rats” for their ability to fight in the desert, was also there in the containment of the Italians.
Meanwhile, in the UK military command for the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell and his staff have been drafting a plan that calls for an operation to push the Italians back, intending it to be a five day raid on the Italians' positions in order to disrupt the enemy army's supplies and generally give the Allies a respite. This plan, called Operation Compass, calls for the Desert Rats' Support Group to observe the Italian camps at the town of Sofafi to prevent them from intervening in the British military actions while the rest of the division and the 4th Indian Division, with support from the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, attacked Nibeiwa and Tummars and the Matruh Garrison Force contained the enemy camp at Matkila. Further plans would be implemented if the first attack was successful. It'll be successful. What Archibald Wavell and the rest of the officers in Egypt and Palestine don't know is how successful it is going to be.
Between the 7th and the 8th December, the Western Desert Force, under the command of Major-General Richard O'Connor and comprising the Desert Rats and the Red Eagles reinforced by British 16th Infantry Brigade, advance 110 kilometres under the cover of the night. Selby Force, comprising 1800 soldiers, has advanced from their positions in Matruh to a new position a few miles from Matkila. The town has been under constant bombardment from the coast by the boats HMS Terror and HMS Aphis, while Sidi Barrani has been attacked by HMS Ladybird. Operation Compass will, however, not start officially until 5 AM on the 9th December, when diversionary artillery attacks start to hit the fortified Nibeiwa camp, where the Maletti Group – the only mechanized unit of the Italian North African Army – is staying. In a fierce fight that ends three hours and a half later, General Maletti dies and the first 2000 Italian prisoners are taken, as well as large quantities of supplies which will now be used by the British, who have only lost 56 men. The Italians have been caught off-guard, despite their digging in, and now they start a total retreat of all their troops towards the west. This allows the British troops to capture several thousands of Italian and Libyan soldiers (among them the two Libyan Divisions deployed there and the 4th Blackshirt Division), plus the capture and destruction of numerous equipment. By the 12th December, the Italians only hold several positions near Sollum and one force in the region of Sidi Omar.
Despite several losses, the British and Indian forces continue the offensive and manage to do their first coup in the war in the desert: Fort Capuzzo, which had been briefly held during the month of June, has been taken again. This comes as a complete surprise to Middle East Military Command: the Italians' retreat and the capture of a number of soldiers superior to what the British have been able to deploy there was something no one expected. The rotund success of Operation Compass will convince Wavell to extend the operation itself.
However, a decision taken then by General Wavell doesn't sit well with O'Connor: the 4th Indian Division is to be re-deployed to Sudan in order to support an attack against Italian East Africa. As O'Connor said, “This came as a complete and very unpleasant surprise.” They will be replaced by the 6th Australian Division, a force comprised mostly of recently trained soldiers without an armoured regiment nor an updated artillery.
Nevertheless, the Allies advance is inexorable: on 15th December, Sollum and Halfaya Pass have fallen, totally driving the Italians out of Egypt, and the British are already preparing for an assault on Bardia. By this time, the result of the battle is this:
On the 3rd January 1941, the Western Desert Force is renamed XIII Corps, and O'Connor resumes the offensive against the Italians. Two days later, the 6th Australian Division proves its worth when, aided by the Desert Rats, they manage to capture the city of Bardia, taking 45000 prisoners in what will be one of the biggest disasters of the Italian Army. On the 22nd January, Tobruk falls: 25000 more prisoners engross the lists of Italin POWs in British hands. On the 26th, Derna falls. The Italian Tenth Army is fleeing Cyrenaica towards Benghazi. February will see two battles, the Battle of Beda Fomm and the Battle of Kufra, which result in the total eviction of Italian troops from Cyrenaica.
This defeat is terrible for the Italians: in three months they have lost the Italian Tenth Army, which had even been reinforced last year with elements from the Fifth Army in the wake of France's armistice. The Italians have lost 3000 soldiers to death, 400 tanks, 1292 artillery pieces and 1249 aircraft, but the most disturbing and embarrassing thing is that the British, accounting only 36000 soldiers approximately, have managed to capture 115000 Italian soldiers with ridiculous losses (500 KIA, 55 MIA, 1373 WIA and 15 aircraft). This victory will prompt Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, to paraphrase Winston Churchill's quote about the Battle of Britain: “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”
The position of the Axis in North Africa is frankly desperate: although they still have the disorganized remains of the Tenth Army and the Fifth Army, plus several additional troops coming from Italy – bringing the total of troops to 150000, the same quantity of troops that had faced the British in Cyrenaica – they are mostly infantry, which can't do much against the British armoured divisions, although the Italians aren't without tanks. Since it was obvious that Cyrenaica would be lost, they would reinforce their Tripolitanian holdings.
Now, here comes one of the major changes of war: had the Soviets not attacked, Germany would have been free to help the Italians in Greece, thus distracting the Allies into stopping Operation Compass and send troops to Greece, which would have a double detrimental outcome as Germany and Italy would probably have been able to conquer Greece, and then send troops to North Africa and help the Italians – documents that would, in the future, be rescued from OKW offices, stated that plans had been drafted to send hundreds of Panzer units to do so, under command of a yet undecided general. However, Operation Nevsky, having invaded Poland and part of East Prussia, has drastically changed OKW plans: they can't send troops abroad when the Vaterland itself is in danger of being invaded by the godless Soviets. In fact, troops are being constantly pulled out of France, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in order to push forward Operation Barbarossa's main objective of driving the Soviets out of Poland while the divisions in Denmark and Norway are aided by the Finnish and Norwegian armies in their attempt to take the port of Murmansk.
The consequences of this war are clearly unintended. The Germans would never know how much this would be true.
The Pacific War: Diplomacy may do what War couldn't
Last time we saw the North Americans and the Japanese, the two countries were in the middle of conversations regarding a change in the diplomatic scene. With the United Kingdom and the Free French in the table next to the USA and Japan, soon things come to a blow in regards to China. The Japanese diplomats have been instructed to provide as much things as possible for the Empire of the Rising Sun as long as they don't interfere in keeping peace with the three countries. However, there are several things that the Allies aren't willing to let the Japanese keep, namely the Vietnam – which the Free French claiming it back – and China – which America and Britain support, at least the Nationalists.
It takes several weeks. Japan realizes that it cannot hold to so many of their original claims, but also knows that if they go too much back the Army may host a coup and force the Emperor to declare war on the Allies. After some time, the diplomats have already reached an accord to have the Japanese army evacuate Indochina and China proper. They still refuse to leave Manchuria and Korea, though, and the US diplomats are fighting tooth and nail against the Japanese refusal to abandon Manchuria. Robert Craigie, the British Ambassador to Japan, while also wishing that the Japanese would give Manchuria back to China, manages to convince the other parts of the negotiation that Japan should keep the zone for now, and that further decision should be taken later. At this moment, what should take precedence would be to stop the Japanese-Chinese War and prevent a bigger war from exploding in the Pacific.
In the end, Japan accepts to leave Indochina and all of Japanese-held China, save for Manchuria, where all the Japanese Army will be called to. It'll be a very hard thing to do, because the Imperial Japanese Army has been getting out of hand since 1937, with the Rape of Nanking holding the first position in the measure of the horrors of war as the Chinese people know it. However, with Tōjō's suicide, it is hoped that the Army will ply to the Emperor's wishes.
In China, the leaders of the two factions of the United Front are not exactly happy campers. Although they are glad that Japan has abandoned China, they still want Manchuria to be returned to China. The British manage to convince Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist party leader, to drop the claims on Manchuria for the moment in exchange of quiet support against the Communists and Mao Zedong, as long as they actually finish with the democratization of China, as per Sun Yat-sen's plans. Chiang favours this, as his attempts to implement Sun's plans have always been disrupted by Mao's supporters. He also asks that Japan pays reparations for the destruction caused to many cities since the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Negotiations for the reparations will start in January of the following year.
Mao, on the other side, isn't willing to accept peace until Japan evacuates Manchuria and Taiwan. He will continue his guerilla war against the few generals that haven't evacuated into Manchuria, a decision which will be somewhat good for the Nationalists, that feel that with this the Communists will be kept tied there while the Nationalists manage to raise their strength in the parts of the country they control, as well as those places the Communists might leave in order to continue the war with the rebel Japanese generals.
Most generals do not want to leave China: they were beating them quite easily, they held control over a large part of the enemy country and now they are ordered to get out! It is a hard internal battle the one held into each Japanese general, but in the end their loyalty to the Emperor wins out against their wish to continue the fight. By the end of 1940, nearly eighty percent of the Japanese troops that were still there at the moment of the cease fire instituted when negotiations with the USA started are back into Manchuria. Only the more hawkish generals will continue fighting, although as their supplies dwindle, they will realise that when the Imperial High Command was saying that they would be left alone, they were serious. It'll take several more months until all Japanese soldiers have left China.
The diplomatic victory in China will be the boost Franklin Delano Roosevelt needs to be voted in for an unprecedented third term to the position of President of the United States of America. Winning over 65% of the popular vote, Roosevelt carries over the East Coast (minus Vermont), the Great Lakes, the Deep South and the West Coast, totalling 41 states and 487 Electoral Votes, while the Republican nominee Wendell Wilkie only manages to gain in the Midwest, totalling 7 states and 44 votes. Michigan, Indiana and Maine were three states where the Republicans nearly won, but in the end the Democrats won by margins smaller than 5%.
This enormous victory will allow Roosevelt to finally implement his program without much opposition from the Republicans after the last four years with a Republican Senate. His famed fireside chat of 29th December, “The Arsenal of Democracy”, outlines his aims regarding the war in Europe, and criticizes the isolationists – among them the America First Committee – who believe that America will be safe thanks to the Atlantic and the Pacific, and that the United States shouldn't involve itself into the war in Europe; he argues that current technology would allow the enemy to, for example, fly from the British Islands to New England, and back again without refuelling. He also describes the situation in Europe, remarking that people are suffering much under Nazi control and that it'll fall to the free and democratic nations of the world to free them. This is seen by conservative elements of society as a veiled mention that the country might go to war against the Soviet Union if they continue on their way. This doesn't sit well with those that sympathize with the Soviets, such as Henry Wallace or the American Communist Party.
In his Inaugural Speech on 20th January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt appears in front of the thousands of people and tells them, in a 10-minute speech, a summary of what the US Government plans to do in the following years. His speech is very much appreciated, as most people regard this man as one of the saviours of American democracy, and the rest either don't like him or don't like the fact that he is against fascism or (apparently) communism.
By February, the mostly Democratic Congress and Senate will pass the most important law in the last years: the Lend-Lease Act, with which the United States Government will be able to send war material to the Allies in exchange of things such as bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda and several other points in the world. This is regarded to be the act that finally finishes with 23 years of American political isolation from the European matters. Some think that the reason why this Act wasn't extended to the Soviet Union is the main reason why it passed through the House and the Senate so easily, not that the USSR has asked for help from the United States. They aren't that desperate for material, when they are winning the war against the Nazis.
Charlemagne once said “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees - and the birds in the sky.”
Upon the German-Finnish counter-attack against the Red Army, Stalin is furious. While the land attack on Poland was expected, the destruction of the Aurora cruiser and the Lubyanka building has deeply affected him, as the first was one of the most important symbols of the Red Revolution and the second was the headquarters of the NKVD, which, with the death of Beria and the rest of the higher echelons of it, has been practically destroyed as an efficient weapon to stop dissension and to ferret out any 'enemy of the people' – as any who is even believed of being against Stalinism in any way is euphemistically called.
While Zhukov – recently ascended to Marshal thanks to the success of Operation Nevsky – and Timoshenko strive to work out an strategy with which to push the Germans back, Stalin orders the Soviet Air Force to launch a 1000 plane raid of their own against Berlin. His memo to the commander of the air forces only contains one sentence, which historians later would state it was probably written in anger at the death of Soviet people, and maybe at the fact that the German people weren't doing anything to overthrow such an obvious enemy of the people as Hitler is: “Kill every German you see.”
Berlin has been bombed by the British several times since August 1940, but those raids have mostly caused little damage due to the inexperience of the British pilots with navigating at night. That's why the AA operators have been mostly relaxed on day, as no one would risk to attack a city that is protected by several of the Luftwaffe's best units in the middle of the day.
December 16th will be the date the Soviets have chosen to teach them that, in war, one can never relax. Flying from airfields near Leningrad, the Soviet planes go over the Baltic to avoid being detected from land, and through mostly luck they also manage to avoid any ship with anti-air weaponry.
The first warning the Germans receive of the Soviet answer to Barbarossa is when the planes go over the town of Peenemünde. Although the Soviets don't know it, Wernher von Braun is the director of the Army Research Center in the town, charged with the development of guided missiles, and there is also a Luftwaffe Test Center near the town. They send word to the nearest Luftwaffe's base, convinced that the attack will be launched against one of those airbases and the surrounding towns.
However, the Luftwaffe departs too late as the Soviets have been going towards their true objective in Germany's capital. When they reach the city, they start a bombardment of many historical landmarks of the city, as well as politically important buildings. By the end of the day, the centre of Berlin has been converted into a ruin, with the Reichstag building – whose only value nowadays is as a symbol, as the building itself hasn't been used as such since being burned down in 1933 - being the worst hit of all, followed also by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church – whose spire and ground floor will survive through the war – and the Charlottenburg Palace, the Zoo, several ministries, the Waffen SS Administrative College and the Imperial Guard barracks in the Spandau borough, among others, as well as several civilian housing buildings. The result of this attack is the death of 20000 German civilians, 500 German soldiers dead – most of them in the SS College and the Guard barracks –, the loss of 100 planes – between bombers and fighters – from the Soviet side and 20 German fighters. While the numbers, air-wise, have clearly favoured the Germans, this is considered a Soviet victory, for they have managed to reach their objective: to instil as much fear as possible among the German civilians and to strike hard at Germany's heart.
The Emperor should be wary of the River
Hitler is infuriated by this attack, and orders the army to go onward and press on against the Soviet forces so that they are expelled from East Prussia and Poland. The distraction this provides for those who had managed to escape from Warsaw is invaluable, as both armies are too distracted with the enemy army to pay attention to several groups of people travelling north. However, from those that were going south, a part has been found by the Soviets and kept imprisoned on Gulag camps that have been built in Poland, as well as several country homes deemed big enough to hold prisoners temporarily before more camps are built. These will be the cornerstone of the Soviet Union's attempts to get rid of the “class enemies”, as any that is against the Communist regime or even that doesn't show the correct level of appreciation for it is called.
Meanwhile, STAVKA has been calling for the reservist units from Siberia to come to the west and join the Red Army's efforts in pushing back the Germans and the Finnish. Zhukov has been drawing up a plan that will be able to deal with both fronts at the same time, using multiple armoured thrusts from different directions to stop the enemy advance and destroy as many units as possible. When adding strafing planes, artillery and airborne and land infantry, it would sure become a success. Named Operation Volga, it calls for an attack on all fronts by using massed armoured divisions as they collaborate with infantry divisions and fighter and bomber squadrons in order to push the Germans back towards their land, and then push into there as well.
Two weeks after the start of Operation Barbarossa, Operation Volga is launched. It soon finds itself having mixed results: while the attack on Finland manages to totally catch the German-Finnish attack unaware and sends them reeling back towards the border, the attack on Poland finds great resistance in the fortifications the Germans had built before the Soviets attacked. However, the biggest resistance to the Soviets' advance doesn't come from the German soldiers, but from the Spanish, whose anti-communist zeal is far greater than the Germans', and who have far more experience in this kind of battlefield than the Germans (the Wehrmacht has failed to give this to its soldiers because the victories over Poland and France were too fast and too heavily supported by their armoured divisions to achieve something similar to the Spanish Civil War battles). This fact is very much admired by Hitler, who is secretly a bit ashamed at the fact that pure Aryans are being less successful at the defence of Germany's lands than a bunch of Hispanic people, but he nonetheless believes that soon the German soldiers will be able to overcome this problem and defeat the Communists forever.
However, for all his wishes that Germany should prevail over all, the Soviets are winning in this war. The Finnish Front is practically lost to them, as the German Force in Norway retires towards the west and Finland is once more bombarded by the Soviet Air Force, much like during the Winter War, only that this is being done at a larger scale. And, in a few days, the situation in Poland will worsen, as reinforcements coming from Siberia thanks to the Trans-Siberian Railway start to press on the German Army, who is suddenly finding that their slight superiority in weaponry and experience isn't doing much against the greater manpower the Russians have, especially when the latter have tanks that do their job very well, nearly on par to the German Panzers. And, with the resources Germany has at its disposition dwindling as factories use them for the construction of tanks and weaponry, the Army is running thin on the resources they need to survive. The only way oil and other war materials can reach them now is through a long lifeline that crosses Portugal, Spain and France, a travel which in its last stage is very complicated since the French Resistance is at an all-time high recruitment as boys and girls join it to avoid being sent to German labour camps and factories.
This isn't the worst thing Germany has to face, though. On January 25th, grave news reach Berlin: Russian troops have entered East Prussia and defeated the few soldiers that were still there, but has also taken control of nearly all of former Poland, save for the western regions surrounding Poznan and Lodz, but has also surrounded Warsaw completely.
Operation Dagger: The Fall of Warsaw
As Warsaw seems poised to fall, and the superiority of Soviet forces in the area is indisputable, the assault on the city seems to have gained the category of sideshow when compared to the main Soviet attack on western Poland. However, Warsaw is still an important city, and one with which the Russians have a pending account that is 20 years old, as it was in the Battle of Warsaw that their hopes to expand the revolution through the rest of Europe were nipped in the bud. That is why Zhukov, at Stalin's insistence, draws up the plans for what will be known as Operation Dagger, which will consist on the takeover of Warsaw.
Meanwhile, within the city, the Nazis are still doing their best to power up the defences of the city, as they have been doing for the last months. It's also at this time that they receive notice that a great part of the Jewish Ghetto has been totally emptied, and that hardly a tenth of the former population in the quarters still remains there. The distraction the Soviet advance provided, plus Operation Barbarossa taking over the minds of the soldiers for the last month, and now the siege of the city, has allowed the Armia Krajowa to evacuate them through the sewer system.
In a conference between the higher officers of the Wehrmacht and the SS, the latter are all in favour of killing the Jewish that still remain in there. The Wehrmacht is against this: they'll need every bullet they have still in the city if they are to survive the assault for enough time, and even searching for all of the Jewish would be counter-producing, as it would tie up needed resources for the defence of the city. In the end, the SS officers accept this fact reluctantly, but point out that once Warsaw is freed by the German Army again, the recapture of the escaping Jews will be a priority.
However, they won't have the chance to do this. On January 31st, Operation Dagger, the code-name for the takeover of Warsaw, starts with a massive bombardment of German positions in the outskirts of the city and the use of bombers to destroy the city buildings and several of the defences placed in there. The German Army resists the best it can, and at first it seems as if the defensive measures taken will keep the Russians out. However, nothing lasts forever, and after four days of nearly 24-hour fighting, the Germans realise this as they are about to spend all of their ammunition for their weapons, and the artillery and tanks are mostly destroyed or out of shells as well. Some still hold the hope that the main German Army will manage to counter-attack and lift the siege, or that they will be able to air-drop supplies, but most of them are realistic, and know that they won't be able to do much more unless a miracle happens.
happen: after 5 days of long and hard battle, the German garrison runs out of
ammunition, and most decide to leave this world on a blaze of glory, alongside
with the SS troopers, and thus they arm themselves with blades and assault the
Soviet ground troops as they enter the city. Although suffering some casualties
from this eleventh-hour attack, the Red Army units cut down all of these troops
down to the last man, and it is several hours later that they can send a message
to Marshal Zhukov that Warsaw is now on Russian hands. A great parade will be
held in the Red Square in Moscow, while Joachim von Ribbentrop, the former Nazi
Foreign Affairs Minister, will commit suicide with a drug overdose due to the
great depression he was in since the start of Operation Nevsky.
While Elders where before the chiefs, now they aren't fit
Marechal Philippe Pétain had been a great war hero during the Great War. It was his planning, among other things, what allowed France to survive the Battle of Verdun and to survive several attacks launched by the Germans near the end of the battle. Once it was obvious that France was going to fall, he refused to leave Metropolitan France instead of going over to North Africa, where the fight against the Italians and the Germans could be carried over. And, after Paul Reynaud resigned, President of the French Republic Albert Lebrun invited Petain to form a government, the government which would sign an armistice, giving Germany control over the north and the west of the country. However much he thinks he has saved France by surrendering to the Germans, the only thing that move has done has been to cast him, in the eyes of many French and others, as a willing collaborationist of the Nazi dictatorship. At the moment of the Armistice, Pétain was 84 years old, making him the oldest ever French head of state.
It is during this time that Pétain goes to Madrid to visit fellow dictator Francisco Franco. After the fall of Warsaw and the invasion of Germany proper by the Russian Army have prompted Franco to finally declare war on the Soviet Union on February 7th under the pressure of the most fanatic Falangists in his Cabinet, although even himself knows that it is time to start it up, and perhaps this will allow Spain to pull out of the economic depression brought by the Civil War. Franco wishes to talk with Philippe Pétain in order to make sure that Spain will be able to send supplies to its soldiers in Germany, among other things.
On February 16th, in the middle of the night, a light is started in the guest wing of the Palacio del Pardo, the Caudillo's official residence. A few minutes later, other light is started in the room where Franco sleeps with his wife. If someone were watching through the windows, they would see Franco getting out of bed and running towards the guest wing, where a man with a stethoscope is performing cardiac massage on someone else. When Franco arrives, the only thing the man can do is to shake his head and cover the man with a sheet.
The following day, the BBC news report starts with a surprising piece of news. The newsreader's words, with an attempt to keep the emotion from his voice, is heard: According to our correspondent in the city of Madrid, Spain, the RNE has reported that Marshal Philippe Pétain, Chief of the French State, has died of a heart attack while sleeping at Generalissimo Francisco Franco's house... That simple sentence, while in other moment might have been only a discomfort, or perhaps a reason to cry, has completely changed the world geopolitical situation. And soon, it will change even further.