This week in the War, 13–19 April 1942: Thirty Seconds over Tokyo—The Doolittle Raid

B-25B Mitchell medium bombers on the flight deck of USS Hornet heading towards Japan, April 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

B-25B Mitchell medium bombers on the flight deck of USS Hornet heading towards Japan, April 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Thirty Seconds over Tokyo was the title of a 1944 movie starring Spencer Tracy in the role of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (and also the title of the book on which the film was based).

This week in the war, the Japanese had seemed unstoppable. Most of the US Pacific battle fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbour. The Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, had fallen or were in the process of being overrun. Both India and Australia were threatened.

For the United States or Britain and her Commonwealth (or the Netherlands) to strike back seemed inconceivable. Yet on 18 April 1942, Lt Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led sixteen twin-engine B-25B Mitchell bombers from the flight deck of the carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo and other cities in Japan. The idea had first been raised by Roosevelt, was fleshed out in US Navy headquarters, and planned and commanded by Doolittle himself. It was the first time that medium bombers had been launched on a mission from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The USS Hornet and her escort made good their escape while, following their raid over Japan, the American bombers flew on towards China. Most made it, crashing landing in China (or in one case in Russia). The crew members of two planes were captured by the Japanese and some were executed or died from maltreatment.

B-25 bomber, part of the Doolittle Raid exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio [Public domain, wiki]

B-25 bomber, part of the Doolittle Raid exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio [Public domain, wiki]

The material damage to Japan was negligible but the psychological damage was enormous, and morale on the Allied side received a much needed boost.

Anyone visiting Dayton, Ohio, can visit the Doolittle display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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This week in the War, 6–12 April 1942: Bataan—The march of death

American prisoners carry comrades unable to walk; picture taken by a Japanese photographer during the march from Bataan, Philippines 1942 [Public domain , wiki]

American prisoners carry comrades unable to walk; picture taken by a Japanese photographer during the march from Bataan, Philippines 1942 [Public domain , wiki]

This week in the war, on 9 April 1942, forces in the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines commanded by Major General Edward P. King Jr. surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese. A terrible ‘march of death’ began that day. Over 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners-of-war were forced to march from Bataan to prison camps in the north.

For three days, prisoners were give no food. Many hundreds of Americans and many thousands of Filipinos were to die through sickness, exhaustion, and the heat. Many, too weak to continue, were simply bayoneted.

King’s surrender was contrary to the orders of MacArthur, although it was later approved by Roosevelt.

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This week in the War, 30 March–5 April 1942: Preserving the Eastern Fleet

A Grumman Martlet fighter about to be catapulted from the flight deck of HMS Formidable, Indian Ocean, April 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

A Grumman Martlet fighter about to be catapulted from the flight deck of HMS Formidable, Indian Ocean, April 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

This week in the war, 31 March 1942, having been warned of an imminent Japanese attack, Admiral James Somerville sailed his fleet—the British Eastern Fleet—out of Colombo, Ceylon, to a secret base at Addu Atoll in the Maldives. His intent was to preserve the Eastern Fleet and to avoid battle with a vastly superior foe.

On paper his fleet appeared impressive: five battleships, three carriers, plus cruisers and destroyers.

But the battleships included his flagship, Warspite, and four of the old Revenge-class battleships, Resolution, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign and Revenge—all dating from the First World War. They were slow and their fifteen-inch guns were no match against their Japanese opponents.

The carriers were Formidable, Indomitable and the older and smaller Hermes. Almost all of their aircraft were obsolete—no match for the Japanese carrier-borne planes.

Heading for Colombo was Japanese admiral Chuichi Nagumo, intent on repeating his triumph at Pearl Harbour. His fleet comprised the battleships Kongo, Haruna, Hiei and Kirishima, and aircraft carriers Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku, with attendant cruisers and destroyers. He attacked Colombo on 5 April but found that his prey had gone.

Nagumo had command of the sea while Somerville lay low. In the end, cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire and the aircraft carrier Hermes were sunk, but the rest of the fleet was saved. Nagumo eventually withdrew. His ships were needed elsewhere.

The Eastern Fleet survived and continued to fulfil its role of protecting the eastern coast of Africa and communications with the Middle East.

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This week in the War, 23–29 March 1942: The Saint-Nazaire raid

HMS Campbeltown after ramming the dock gates at Saint-Nazaire, 28 March 1942 [Bundesarchiv Bild 101ll-MW-3722-03 /Kramer/ CC-BY-SA]

HMS Campbeltown after ramming the dock gates at Saint-Nazaire, 28 March 1942 [Bundesarchiv Bild 101ll-MW-3722-03 /Kramer/ CC-BY-SA]

This week in the war, on 26 March 1942, a force of British commandos left Falmouth in Cornwall on board a flotilla of destroyers and motor-torpedo boats heading for the German naval base at Saint-Nazaire on the Loire estuary on the western coast of German-occupied France.

The British ships included the destroyer HMS Campbeltown, an old American destroyer that had been one of fifty transferred to the Royal Navy in 1940 as part of the ‘destroyers for bases deal.’ Several tons of explosives had been packed into her bows. The object of the mission, coded named Operation Chariot, was to destroy the dock gates at Saint-Nazaire.

As of January 1942, the Bismarck‘s sister ship, Tirpitz, was fully operational and the British admiralty feared a repeat of the Bismarck’s foray into the Atlantic. If the Tirpitz headed into the Atlantic and returned to port in Western Europe for repairs, the only dry dock large enough to take her was the one at Saint-Nazaire—hence the importance of its destruction.

In the early hours of the morning of 28 March 1942, HMS Campeltown—flying a German naval ensign as a ruse de guerre—smashed through the harbour boom defences and, while under heavy fire, rammed the dock gates at full speed. Commandos landed from the Campeltown and from launches and began blowing up harbour installations, including the pumping station and machinery for operating the gates.

Because of the (possibly faulty) timing mechanism on the fuse, the explosives aboard HMS Campeldown did not detonate till noon. When they did so, the dry dock was utterly destroyed and over three hundred men were killed. They included a party of senior German officers who were on board for an inspection tour.

Of the approximately 600 British commandos and naval personnel who took part in the Saint-Nazaire raid, slightly over on third returned to England, slightly over one third were captured, and somewhat under one third were killed.

The lock gates were never rebuilt and the German battleship Tirpitz never risked venturing into the Atlantic. She was sunk by the RAF in late 1944.

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This week in the War, 16–22 March 1942: Alexander and Slim

General Harold Alexander [Public domain, wiki]

General Harold Alexander [Public domain, wiki]

In the spring of 1942, with the Japanese invasion of Burma well under way, Harold Alexander—who was to acquire something of a reputation as Churchill’s ‘fire brigade chief’ was sent to Burma with the rank of full general and orders to hold back the Japanese advance. (Among German generals, Walter Model enjoyed a reputation as Hitler’s ‘fire brigade chief’, brought in to retrieve similarly desperate situations.)

After flying from Southampton, across enemy-occupied France and the Mediterranean to Egypt, then on to India, Alexander arrived in Burma on 5 March—too late to prevent the fall of Rangoon a few days later.

It soon became clear to Alexander that, with the forces available, he could only slow the Japanese advance. He could not stop it. British forces began their slow withdrawal, defeated by an enemy that was not superior in numbers but was was well-trained and well-equipped in jungle warfare.

Lieutenant-General William Slim, Commander of the British Fourteenth Army, Burma [Public domain, wiki]

Lieutenant-General William Slim, Commander of the British Fourteenth Army, Burma [Public domain, wiki]

It was also clear to Alexander that he could not be both Commander-in-Chief Burma and command the front line forces that were directly opposing the Japanese. He summoned Major-General William Slim from India to fulfil the latter role. Slim arrived in Burma this week in the war, on 19 March 1942. The two divisions available to the British, namely the 17th Indian Infantry Division and the Burma 1st Division, were combined into a corps—the Burma Corps—and Slim was put in command. He was promoted to Lieutenant-General two months later.

Slim would command his corps during its withdrawal to India and would be appointed commander of a newly formed Fourteenth Army that was charged with reconquering Burma. The campaign would last until May 1945.

Slim’s tactics of using jungle trails (as the Japanese were trained to do) instead of roads and of supplying front line and surrounded troops by air would prove decisive.

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This week in the War, 9–15 March 1942: “I shall return!”

General Douglas MacArthur (left) with his Chief of Staff, in the headquarters tunnel in Corregidor, Philippines, 1 March 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

General Douglas MacArthur (left) with his Chief of Staff, in the headquarters tunnel in Corregidor, Philippines, 1 March 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Following President Roosevelt’s orders, General Douglas MacArthur left the island of Corregidor in the Philippines on 12 March 1942. He was bound for Australia to assume command of Allied forces in the Pacific. His phrase “I shall return!” subsequently became immortal.

MacArthur left Corregidor with his wife, son, and personal and military staff on board four motor torpedo boats that headed south for the island of Mindanao, also in the Philippines. There, MacArthur’s party boarded B-17s and flew to Australia.

He first uttered his famous “I shall return [to the Philippines]!” phrase as part of a speech he made about ten days later while changing trains in the small South Australian town of Terowie. He used the phrase again in later speeches.

On 20 October 1944, MacArthur returned to the Philippines at the head of a massive invading army.

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This week in the War, 2–8 March 1942: The Fall of Rangoon

Victorious Japanese soldiers in front of Government House, Rangoon, March 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Victorious Japanese soldiers in front of Government House, Rangoon, March 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Burma: This week in the war, 7 March 1942, British forces evacuated Rangoon, the Burmese capital. Before leaving, they destroyed the dockyard installations and the oil refineries. Japanese troops had landed in the Irrawaddy delta. Next day, 8 March, the Japanese occupied Rangoon.

Japanese invasion of Burma and India [Public domain; author: Mike Young]

Japanese invasion of Burma and India [Public domain; author: Mike Young]

Despite their losses, the British managed to disengage and withdraw into central Burma with a view to joining up with Chinese forces in the north.

The Japanese campaign in Burma would last well into 1945 and take them into India. Weather (monsoons) affected operations and diseases such as malaria took a heavy toll.

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