This week in the War, 23–29 November 1942: French fleet scuttled in Toulon

Panzer IV arrives at Toulon in time to see French cruiser Colbert being scuttled, 27 November 1942 [Bundesarchiv_Bild_101l-027-1451-10]

Panzer IV arrives at Toulon in time to see French cruiser Colbert being scuttled, 27 November 1942 [Bundesarchiv_Bild_101l-027-1451-10]

This week in the war, on 27 November 1942, German panzers rolled into the French port of Toulon. Admiral Jean de Laborde, commander of the French fleet, promptly gave the order that his sailors should scuttle their ships. If such a large and modern fleet had fallen into German and Italian hands, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean would have shifted away from the Allies.

Ships sunk included three battleships: Strasbourg, Dunkerque, and Provence; also several cruisers, including the Colbert, which exploded. Numerous destroyers were also sunk.

Some of the submarines ignored the command to scuttle and sailed across the Mediterranean to the North African ports of Oran and Algiers which, since Operation Torch, had been in Allied hands.

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This week in the War, 16–22 November 1942: The opening of the Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway [Public domain, author: Adrienne Elmore]

The Alaska Highway [Public domain, author: Adrienne Elmore]

This week in the war, on 21 November 1942, the completion of the Alaska Highway (also called the ALCAN Highway or the Alaska-Canadian Highway) was officially celebrated on Soldier’s Summit.

Construction of the Alaska Highway, 1942 [Public domain]

Construction of the Alaska Highway, 1942 [Public domain]

The highway was built for the most part by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Construction began in March 1942 and the highway started in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and headed north.

The highway was built for strategic purposes, following the attack on Pearl Harbour. Construction was further spurred on by the Japanese invasion of Kiska and Attu islands in the Aleutians.

When originally completed, the highway was over 1,700 miles long and was a challenging drive over rugged terrain.

The present-day Alaska Highway is now paved from end to end.

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This week in the War, 9–15 November 1942: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

The battleship USS Washington fires on Japanese battleship Kirishima during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 14-15 November 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

The battleship USS Washington fires on Japanese battleship Kirishima during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 14-15 November 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was fought around the Solomon Islands, this week in the war, on the nights of 12/13 and 14/15 November 1942. The Japanese were attempting to reinforce their troops on the island of Guadalcanal and to dislodge the Americans who had landed in August and captured the airfield that the Japanese were in the process of constructing. The Americans named it Henderson Field.

The US fleet included the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and the battleships USS Washington and USS South Dakota.

The Japanese fleet included the aircraft carriers Junyo and Hiyo, and the battleships Hiei, Kirishima, Kongo, and Haruna.

The battle was fought both on the surface and in the air. Both sides lost a number of ships. The battleships Hiei and Kirishima were sunk. The Japanese attempt to land large scale reinforcements failed and, with it, their attempt to retake Henderson Field. From that point on, Japanese land forces on Guadalcanal were fighting a losing battle.

The Japanese evacuated the island of Guadalcanal in February 1943.

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In the news: Remembrance Day/Veterans Day—11 November

In Flanders Fields---John McCrae [Public domain, wikimedia commons]

[Tijl Vercaemer, Creative Commons 2.0 G]

[Tijl Vercaemer, Creative Commons 2.0 G]

Tuesday 11 November 2014—Remembrance Day

Once again, we gather to remember that eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the guns fell silent and the Great  War ended.

It is time to honour and remember the veterans of all wars and to hear the words of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields recited beside cenotaphs and war memorials around the world.

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This week in the War, 2–8 November 1942: Operation Torch

Operation Torch [Public domain, wiki]

Operation Torch [Public domain, wiki]

On the morning of 8 November 1942, an Anglo-American expeditionary force commanded by American general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, landed in the vicinities of Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers, in Vichy-French North Africa. Operation Torch, which had first been discussed by Roosevelt and Churchill in Washington in June, had finally begun.

The government of Vichy promptly broke off diplomatic relations with Washington. Pétain remained true to his pledge to ‘defend the empire.’ In truth, he was trying to placate the Germans and he soon dispatched a secret message to the Vichy High Commissioner in Algiers, Admiral Jean-François Darlan, telling him he had a free hand in negotiating with the Allies. (Pétain stopped short of following the advice of General Maxime Weygand, which was to line up with the British and Americans.)

American troops about to land at Oran as part of Operation Torch [Public domain, wiki]

American troops about to land at Oran as part of Operation Torch [Public domain, wiki]

By the time German high command appreciated what was taking place and had responded by orderings its U-boats to head towards Morocco, it was already too late. Despite spirited resistance by Vichy forces, Algiers fell that same evening. Casablanca and Oran surrendered a day or so later.

Hitler responded by ordering his troops to occupy the whole of France. The Unoccupied Zone existed no longer. He also ordered his forces to take over the French fleet, anchored in Toulon, but the French navy scuttled every one of its ships before the Germans arrived.

Churchill, who had strongly advocated Operation Torch, was vindicated. The operation was a success. It put a strong Allied force behind the Afrika Korps’s rear, would be a bridgehead for offensive action against Italy, and threatened the possibility of opening a second front by invading German-occupied Greece.

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This week in the War, 26 Oct–1 Nov 1942: Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

USS Hornet under attack by Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes, Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

USS Hornet under attack by Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes, Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

East of the Solomon Islands, on 26 October 1942, American naval forces commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey engaged a superior Japanese force with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in overall command from Truk. The battle became known as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.

Halsey had two aircraft carriers (USS Enterprise and USS Hornet—famous because of the Doolittle Raid) and two battleships (USS South Dakota and USS Washington). The Japanese had four aircraft carriers (Shokaku, Zuikaku, Zuiho, and Junyo) and four battleships (Hiei, Kirishima, Kongo, and Haruna). Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, commanded the main carrier group.

The battle was fought solely by aircraft. The two fleets never came in range of each other’s guns.

Japanese aircraft attacked the USS Hornet and damaged her so badly that she was eventually abandoned and ordered sunk. The USS Enterprise, which was also badly damaged, became the only available American carrier in the entire Pacific theatre. None of the Japanese ships were sunk.

Although the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was a tactical victory for Japan, almost 100 carrier-based Japanese planes and their crews were lost. Such loses could not be sustained and the industrial might of the USA would eventually prevail. Nagumo was relieved of his command and sent back to Japan.

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Book review: And Some Fell on Stony Ground

And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot, A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Their country was likely doomed and within the month, or several months at most, they would almost certainly be dead. And still they volunteered. In the early days of the Second World War, the young men of Britain’s RAF Bomber Command took to the skies in obsolete aircraft and, night after night, flew out over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. The damage they inflicted was insignificant. They message they delivered was monumental: It told the enemy and the neutral countries of the world and also those countries of Europe that had succumbed to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg that Britain was still in the fight and was striking back.

In 1941, Flight Sergeant Leslie Mann was such a young man. He was a tail gunner in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engine bomber. The Whitleys were awkward-looking planes that were out-of-date before the war had even started. They had none of the caché of the later Wellingtons or the fame of the Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Stirlings that were to put in solid service nearer to the end of World War II. Leslie Mann’s plane was shot down over Dusseldorf and, after the war ended, he described his experiences in a fictional memoir that remained unpublished until 2014: And Some Fell on Stony Ground: A Day in the Life of an RAF Bomber Pilot—A Fictional Memoir by Leslie Mann (Icon Books in Association with Imperial War Museums, 2014). British historian Richard Overy has written a masterful introduction.

A series of striking photographs add value to the book and reveal that author was an eye-catchingly handsome man, even Clark-Gable handsome. His text dispels, in the first few pages, the fiction of the glamour of war. Leslie Mann’s book is about the everydayness of war, the drudgery of war, the routine, the cold, the exhaustion, the moments of terror, the fear of disfigurement. ‘The sky could kill him whenever it wanted to,’ muses Pilot Officer Mason, who is Mann’s fictional hero (or anti-hero, as Richard Overy shrewdly puts it).

The book has its touching moments: the scene at the shop where the woman behind the counter takes pity on Mason and sells him a pack of ‘under-the-counter’ cigarettes, or at the dance when Mason notices the ‘girl in green’ but sees no point in pursuing her, realizing that he does not have the luxury of a future.

Descriptions are sometimes whimsical, like that of Mason’s buddy, Simpson: ‘He had those funny shaped eyebrows that made him look perpetually worried. And enormous feet.’ When a ‘first-tripper’ asks Mason what it will be like to fly on a mission, words such as ‘sickening,’ ‘bloody awful,’ and ‘fatal’ flash through Mason’s brain. Eventually, he just says, “Oh, not so bad. A bit shaky sometimes.”

Above all, the book is marked by its realism, the fiery crash that kills Mason’s friend, Ken, the nightmarish take-off and engine trouble that caused Mason’s plane to turn back and crash-land near the Pennines, the attack on the German oil refinery ‘…the aircraft stalled and hung in mid-air, then lurched horribly…’—all authentically described by a man who was actually there.

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