Japan strikes


At five minutes before eight o’clock on the morning of Sunday, 7 December 1941, Hawaii time, 366 Japanese bombers and fighters struck at the American warships lying at their moorings at Pearl Harbour. Four of the American battleships were blown up, or sank where they lay at anchor. Four further battleships were damaged and eleven other warships sunk or disabled.

As well as striking at the American warships, the Japanese attackers struck at Pearl Harbour’s airfields; 188 American aircraft were destroyed on the ground. As the Japanese planes flew back to the aircraft carriers of their First Air fleet, 2,330 Americans were dead or dying, 1,177 of them killed on the battleship Arizona. When Roosevelt informed Churchill, in secret, of the full extent of the casualties, explaining that these were ‘considerably more than that given to the Press’, Churchill’s comment was: ‘What a holocaust!’

The Japanese had lost twenty-nine aircraft and five midget submarines in the attack; sixty-four of their men were dead, and one, Ensign Kazua Sakamaki, whose midget submarine had run aground on the island, was taken prisoner; the first Japanese prisoner of the Second World War. As the scale of the American losses became known, the shock in the United States was considerable; of the nine American battleships capable of offensive or defensive action in the Pacific earlier that morning, only two remained able to enter combat. Japan’s ten battleships were masters of the Pacific.

There had been many acts of heroism, however, among the surprised American defenders; at Kaneohe naval base, Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn had been lying in bed when the Japanese attack began. Hurrying to the airbase, he managed to set up a machine gun near one of the hangars and, under heavy Japanese fire, began to fire back. ‘Although painfully wounded many times’, his Medal of Honour citation records, ‘he continued to man his gun and to return the enemy’s fire vigorously, and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety.’

The attack on Pearl Harbour coincided with the planned attacks on three other American Pacific islands, Guam, Wake and Midway, each of which was bombed or shelled that day, and its airfields damaged. That same morning, across the South China Sea, the Japanese Second Fleet escorted a convoy of troop transports bringing 24,000 troops from Indo-China to the Malayan Peninsula. At the same time, at Singapore, Japanese air attacks led to the death of sixty-one civilians, while at Hong Kong, Japanese war planes destroyed all but one of the eight British aircraft lined up on the tarmac of Kai Tak airport.

The Japanese Empire and the coming of war, December 1941

It was towards midnight on December 7, Central European time, that Hitler, at his headquarters at Rastenburg, in East Prussia, learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. ‘Now it is impossible for us to lose the war,’ he told Walther Hewel, and he went on to explain: ‘We now have an ally who has never been vanquished in three thousand years’. Earlier that day, Hitler had accepted the need to pull back from his now untenable front line positions in Russia. On the Leningrad front, the Russians had launched a massive assault on Tikhvin, while, in front of Moscow, German forces began their slow withdrawal to a line Kursk—Orel—Medyn—Rzhev, hoping to hold it by a series of defended strongpoints. The battle for Moscow was over.

The first death camp, murder sites, and the Eastern Front, December 1941

At the very moment Hitler was rejoicing at Japan’s entry into the war, and accepting that Moscow could not, for the time being at least, be his, another area of the Nazi plan was being put into effect. On that same European night of December 7, Pearl Harbour’s disastrous morning, the long planned gassings of the Final Solution began to be put into effect, when seven hundred Jews from the small Polish town of Kolo, situated two hundred miles south-west of Rastenburg, were taken in trucks to the nearby village of Chelmno. There, on the following morning, eighty of the Jews were transferred to a special van, which set off towards a small clearing inside the nearby woods. By the time the journey was over, the eighty Jews were dead, gassed by exhaust fumes which had been channelled back into the van. The bodies were then thrown out into a specially dug pit, and the van returned to the village. After eight or nine journeys, all seven hundred Jews had been killed.

Henceforth, day after day, Jews from all the surrounding towns and villages were to be brought to Chelmno and killed. Told that they were being taken to ‘the East’ for agricultural labour, or to work in factories, up to a thousand Jews a day were taken to their deaths. When sick or old Jews were put into the van, the Germans in charge of the operation would advise the driver ‘to drive carefully and slowly’. No one ever survived that journey; in all, it was to consume 360,000 lives, and to eliminate Jewish life altogether from more than two hundred communities. The whole plan was carried out by deception; without the need for publicly visible mass killings, at a place which was located in a remote woodland in German-occupied Poland, far from prying eyes and protests. A new method of mass murder had been devised; Chelmno had become its first, but was not to be its last, location.


On the morning of December 8, the scale of Japan’s aggression became clear. The American fleet at Pearl Harbour had been all but eliminated. Japanese troops were ashore in Malaya. In the Philippines, a Japanese air attack on the island of Luzon had resulted in 86 of the 160 American aircraft on the island being destroyed, at a cost of only seven Japanese fighters shot down. There was also a successful Japanese landing on the small northern island of Batan. On the China coast, Japanese troops seized the American garrisons at Shanghai and Tientsin; at Shanghai the American gunboat Wake, after an attempted scuttling, surrendered. ‘Yesterday’, Roosevelt declared in a war message to Congress, ‘December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.’ Roosevelt added: ‘No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.’

From Rastenburg, on December 8, Hitler issued his Directive No. 39: the German forces in Russia were ‘to abandon immediately all major offensive operations and to go over to the defensive’. The same day, it was made clear at the highest level that wherever German troops had to withdraw, all villages and all buildings in the area to be evacuated were to be destroyed. ‘In the interests of the military operations,’ Field Marshal Keitel informed Army Group North by telephone on December 8, ‘there is to be no respect whatever for the population’s situation.’ This, he explained, was an instruction from Hitler himself.

For the Russians, December 8 saw two successes: the wresting of Tikhvin from German control, easing, if only slightly, the supply situation for Leningrad, and the production of the first twenty-five T-34 tanks from the Kharkov Tanks Works, now relocated in the Urals. It was less than ten weeks since the last group of factory engineers had left Kharkov for the East.

Behind the German lines in Russia, Soviet partisans maintained their pressure on German supply lines, forcing the Germans to take troops out of the front line in order to launch special military operations against them. In German-occupied France, the British continued to send in agents, both Englishmen and Frenchmen, to help organize resistance, and to maintain the escape lines into Spain for Allied pilots and prisoners-of-war. On December 8, however, a deserter from the British Army at the time of Dunkirk, Sergeant Harold Cole, helped the Germans to break one of the principal Allied escape lines. As a result of Cole’s treachery, fifty of those who had helped maintain the line were arrested and shot.

On December 8, with Japanese troops already ashore in northern Malaya, Winston Churchill informed the Japanese Government ‘that a state of war exists between our two countries’. The only two confronting nations not now at war were Germany and the United States. Amid the turmoil of the new Pacific war, the bitter confrontation in Russia, and the continuing war in North Africa, these two nations still maintained diplomatic relations. Roosevelt, so Hitler was told on his return to Berlin on December 9, would do all he could to avoid war with Germany, to avoid exposing the United States to a war in two oceans. That same day, however, the German Navy was told that it could begin operations against American ships, even within the Pan-American Security Zone.

For the United States, every avenue of activity against Japan had to be explored as a matter of urgency. During December 8, a United States Army Air Force captain, Claire L. Chennault, who had been an adviser to the Chinese Government since July 1937, flew his three squadrons, then based near Mandalay in Burma, across the mountains to the Chinese city of Kunming. Promoted that day to the rank of colonel, Chennault was to provide a visible and highly able United States presence in the defence of China against further Japanese inroads.

The Japanese conquests were formidable; during December 9 Japanese troops occupied Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and made two further landings on the Malay Peninsula, at the Thai coastal towns of Singora and Patani. In mid-Pacific, their troops landed at Tarawa and Makin islands, in the Gilbert Islands group.

In the Warsaw ghetto, news of the war between the United States and Japan had brought considerable excitement. ‘Most people believe that the war will not last long,’ Mary Berg noted in her diary on December 9, ‘and that the Allies’ victory is certain.’ America’s entry into the war, she added, ‘has inspired the hundreds of thousands of dejected Jews in the ghetto with a new breath of hope’.

For the Allies, that ‘hope’ was in fact still remote. On December 10, eighty-four Japanese torpedo-carrying aircraft spotted by chance and then sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and her sister ship, the Repulse. In all, 840 officers and men were drowned; 1,285 survivors were picked up from the sea. The two warships, Malaya’s only serious naval defence, had been on their way to Kuantan, as decided upon by their commander at the last moment, following a false report that a Japanese naval force had begun to put troops ashore.

After three days of war, the Japanese were effective masters of both the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. In their attack on the two British warships, only four of the eighty-four Japanese aircraft had been shot down. That same day, fifteen hundred miles away, in the Philippines, two thousand Japanese troops landed at Aparri and Gonzaga, on the northern tip of Luzon, while a further two thousand landed at Vigan, on the western coast.


In Germany, yet another step in the spread of mass murder took place on December 10, a mere three days after Pearl Harbour. It was an order, issued by Himmler, that medical boards should visit all concentration camps to ‘sort out’ those who were unfit for work, ill, ‘or psychopaths’. All those selected by this order—the sick did not have to be examined, their documents would suffice to identify them—were to be taken to the nearest centre at which there was a carbon-monoxide gas chamber, and killed. Eleven German doctors, headed by two professors of medicine, Heyde and Nitsche, supervised the carrying out of this order; in all, several tens of thousands of concentration-camp inmates were murdered as a result of it.

The South China Sea, December 1941


On December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. It was perhaps the greatest error, and certainly the single most decisive act, of the Second World War. The United States, still neutral in Europe, had just been drawn into a struggle in the Pacific against enormous odds. The Atlantic, and the struggle on the continent of Europe, was half a globe away. Hitler, by his declaration of war, brought the United States back to Europe as a belligerent; first America’s warships, then her warplanes, and finally her armies, would, whatever their Pacific duties, ensure the overthrow of Hitler and his system. ‘The accession of the United States’, Churchill telegraphed on the following day to Anthony Eden—then on his way to Russia—‘makes amends for all, and with time and patience will give certain victory’.

In the Pacific, the Americans were showing that they had the resources and the willpower to strike back. On Wake Island, where twenty-three men had been killed on December 7 and a further twenty-one on December 8 by Japanese bombers, the Japanese fleet that arrived to seize the island on December 11 was met with such an effective initial defence that two Japanese destroyers, the Hayate and the Kisaragi, were sunk, with the loss of 5,350 soldiers and sailors on board. Three Japanese bombers were also shot down during the attack.

Resistance on Wake continued for sixteen days, the small force of 524 American servicemen and 1,216 civilian construction workers, offering the Japanese a tenacious defence.


By December 11, Soviet forces had recaptured four hundred towns and villages in a period of less than six days, including Istra, on the Moscow—Volokolamsk highway; and driven the Germans back from the Moscow—Volga canal; it was the Red Army’s most successful day thus far in the counter-offensive. ‘In Hitler’s launching of the Nazi campaign on Russia’, Churchill told the House of Commons that day, ‘we can already see, after less than six months of fighting, that he has made one of the outstanding blunders of history.’

In the Far East, the Japanese, at the moment of their triumph, had come up against a first foretaste of the American ability to resist, not only on Wake Island, but also on Guam, where 5,400 Japanese troops attacked the 430 American Marines and sailors on the island. Although outnumbered by more than ten to one, the Americans on Guam held off the attackers for nine hours, before being forced to surrender; seventeen Americans and one Japanese had been killed.

In the battle for Malaya, six hundred civilians were killed on December 12 in a Japanese air raid at Penang, on the western side of the Peninsula. Further up the Peninsula, the British evacuated Victoria Point, the Burmese town nearest to the Thai border. On the following day, Japanese forces entered the northern Malayan town of Alor Star; there, in a conversation with Major Iwaichi Fujiwara of the Japanese Imperial General Staff, a Sikh prisoner-of-war, Major Mohan Singh, agreed to set up a special unit for Indians, Burmese and Thais who did not want the British or the French to return. The slogan which the Japanese suggested for the unit was ‘Asia for the Asiatics’. Within a few weeks, Major Singh had agreed to lead an Indian National Army to fight against the British.

On December 14, as Japanese troops advanced southward in the Philippines, capturing Tuguegarao, American bombers attacked the troop transports. One such bomber, piloted by Captain Hewitt T. Wheless, was forced by partial engine failure to fall behind his flight. He decided, nevertheless, to continue on the mission. Reaching the target, and already left far behind by the other bombers, Wheless’s plane was attacked by eighteen Japanese fighters. He managed to drop his bombs, then turned back to his base; but on the return flight he was pursued by the eighteen fighters for seventy-five miles. In the running battle, in which his radio operator was killed and one of his two gunners crippled, eleven of the Japanese fighters were shot down. Wheless was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was, said Roosevelt later, ‘a modest young man proud of his crew for one of the toughest fights a bomber has yet experienced’.


In German occupied Poland, the sealed van at Chelmno had made its short journeys to the woods each day since December 7. On December 10 more than a thousand Jews, from six small villages just to the west of the death camp, had been taken to Chelmno from a collection point in the village of Kowale Panskie, held overnight in the church at Chelmno, and then gassed. Four days later, it was the 975 Jews from the village of Dabie who were taken on that short but final journey. In Warsaw, on December 14, Emanuel Ringelblum recorded how, at a Jewish funeral, a German policeman ‘suddenly, without warning, began shooting at the funeral procession’. Two of the mourners fell dead on the spot. ‘Jews have no peace,’ Ringelblum wrote, ‘even when accompanying their dead to eternal rest’. On the following day, in Paris, forty Polish Jews were shot by the Gestapo for acts of resistance. Among those killed were four Jews who had been born in Warsaw.

With the gassings at Chelmno having been proved effective, swift and secret, Heydrich called a conference in Berlin to discuss the ‘future’ of Europe’s Jews. The date set for the conference was early January. ‘Do you imagine they’re going to be housed in neat estates in the Baltic Provinces!’, Hans Frank, ruler of the General Government, asked his senior officials on December 16, and he added: ‘We were told in Berlin: why all this bother? We’ve got no use for them either in the Ostland or in the Eastern Territories. Liquidate them yourselves!’

Frank himself had no objection at all to this particular ‘future’ for the Jews of Poland. ‘I ask nothing of the Jews,’ he told his officials, ‘except that they should disappear.’ What was needed, he said, were ‘steps which, one way or another, will lead to extermination, in conjunction with the large-scale measures under discussion in the Reich’.

What those ‘large-scale measures’ might be, the January conference would reveal.


On December 15 the Red Army drove the German forces out of Klin. On the Leningrad front, Field Marshal von Leeb asked permission for Army Group North to make a general withdrawal. Hitler refused to agree; that evening, as he left Berlin for Rastenburg on board his special train, Amerika, he drafted his first ‘halt’ order for the Russian front. ‘Any large-scale retreat by major sections of the Army in midwinter,’ he warned, ‘given only limited mobility, insufficient winter equipment, and no prepared positions in the rear, must inevitably have the gravest consequences.’

On December 16, the Russians recaptured Kalinin. In North Africa, Rommel began his withdrawal west of Tobruk; during a week of fighting, he had lost 38,000 soldiers killed, as against 18,000 British dead. In the Far East, Japanese forces landed at Miri in Sarawak, and at Seria in Brunei: not only territory, but oil, was within their grasp.

At Hong Kong, after a week of air bombardment, Japanese envoys crossed the harbour under safe passage with a message to the British Governor, Sir Mark Young, that, as resistance was futile, the only choice for the garrison was surrender. The envoys were sent back. ‘The Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Hong Kong’, Sir Mark himself replied, ‘declines absolutely to enter into negotiations for the surrender of Hong Kong, and takes this opportunity of notifying Lieutenant-General Sakai and Vice-Admiral Masaichi Nimi that he is not prepared to receive any further communications from them on the subject.’

On the following day, December 18, under cover of a heavy artillery barrage, Japanese troops landed on Hong Kong island. ‘The Japanese are occupying all the islands, one after the other,’ Hitler told Himmler that evening at Rastenburg, and he added: ‘They will get hold of Australia too. The white race will disappear from those regions.’

In preparing to land on Hong Kong, the Japanese commander of the first wave of troops, Colonel Tanaka, had told his regiment that they were to take no prisoners. His order was obeyed. Having overrun a volunteer anti-aircraft battery in the first phase of the landing, the Japanese soldiers roped together all twenty survivors of the action and then bayoneted them to death. At a Royal Army Medical Corps dressing station, the staff and wounded soldiers offered no resistance when the Japanese arrived. They were led up a hillside, where Japanese soldiers shot and bayoneted to death eight Canadians, four Royal Army Medical Corps soldiers and three St John Ambulance Brigade men.

Some Canadian troops taken prisoner in Hong Kong were among a group whose lives had been saved by the action of Company Sergeant-Major J. R. Osborn, a veteran of the First World War. Seeing a Japanese grenade falling in the midst of his colleagues, and not having enough time to toss it away, Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself on it as it exploded. By his self-sacrifice, at least six other soldiers were saved. After the war, when returning prisoners-of-war told of Osborn’s action, he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

On December 19, over China, Colonel Chennault sent his aircraft to intercept ten Japanese warplanes which were on a bombing raid from Hanoi and Kunming. It was the first combat mission of Chennault’s ‘Flying Tigers’, as they were known. Nine out of the ten Japanese aircraft were shot down.

In the Mediterranean, the British suffered a setback that day, when Italian manned-torpedoes, known to the British as ‘Chariots’, penetrated Alexandria harbour and badly damaged two battleships, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. This one attack gave the Italians temporary naval precedence in heavy warships.

Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States had, as yet, led to no direct military confrontation between the two powers. But following the German declaration of war, Roumania and Bulgaria also declared war on the United States.


Behind the German lines in Russia, the Special Task Forces had continued their mass executions. Operational Situation Report USSR No. 148, sent from Berlin on December 19, recorded among several dozen separate mass executions 5,281 Jews shot in Bobruisk; 1,013 Jews and Jewesses in Parichi who had ‘shown a hostile attitude to the Germans and had close connections with the partisans’; and 835 Jews ‘of both sexes’ in Rudnya ‘because they lent extensive help to the partisans, spread disruptive propaganda, partly refused to work, and did not wear their Jewish badges’. In Vitebsk, the Germans had decided upon the ‘evacuation’ of the ghetto which they had earlier set up there. ‘During this process,’ Report No. 148 noted, ‘a total of 4,090 Jews of both sexes were shot.’ This Report also gave details of the shooting of sixteen ‘mentally ill Jewish and Russian children’ in Shumyachi. ‘In fact’, the report explained, ‘the children were lying for weeks in their own excrement. All had severe eczema. The German chief military physician from the hospital in Shumyachi, who was called in for consultation, declared that the children’s home and its inmates were an epidemic centre of the first degree, sufficient reason for their shooting.’


On December 20 the Japanese landed on the Philippine island of Mindanao, which they at once began to turn into a vast fortified base. On the Russian front, on December 20, Volokolamsk was wrested from the Germans; at the roadside the Russian troops found a gallows from which were still hanging the frozen corpses of eight members of the Moscow Young Communist League. They had been caught and executed six weeks earlier while on a mission behind the lines to establish contact with the partisans. All were posthumously awarded the Order of Lenin.

As his troops continued to retreat, Hitler told General Halder: ‘The will to hold out must be brought home to every unit!’ This was easier to say than to achieve; according to Soviet figures, 55,000 German soldiers had been killed in the battle for Moscow, now so decisively ended. But the cruelty of the campaign continued to be in evidence everywhere. On December 21, near Minsk, several thousand Soviet prisoners-of-war were frozen to death during a march across open fields. In Vilna, several hundred Soviet prisoners-of-war, most of them half naked, many of them without even boots, were forced to clear snow from the railway lines. A Jewish woman, taking pity on their plight, offered one of the Russians a piece of bread. This was noticed by one of the German guards, who at once shot dead both the Russian and the Jewess.


In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, it was the naval war which saw the main action in mid-December. In the Atlantic, in the course of a six-day and six-night battle, during which nine German submarines attacked convoy HG 76, on its way from Gibraltar to Britain, four of the attackers had been sunk or forced to scuttle, including the reigning German ace commander, Captain Endrass, in command of U-567, which was lost without trace.

Only one of the thirty-two Allied merchant ships had been sunk. ‘After this failure,’ Admiral Dönitz later wrote, ‘and in view of the unsatisfactory results of the preceding two months, my Staff was inclined to voice the opinion that we were no longer in a position successfully to combat the convoy system.’

It was not only the convoy system with which the Germans were now confronted in their Western war. On December 22, in Washington, at the first of a series of meetings which were to continue into January, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to set up a combined Anglo-American General Staff, to co-ordinate their strategies against both Germany and Japan, and to prepare for an eventual joint Anglo-American invasion of German-held Europe. Even with the immediate military situation against them, this unity of command and desire to take offensive action was to be a decisive factor in the evolution of a joint war policy. Meanwhile, setbacks had to be borne; on December 23 the Japanese returned to Wake Island with a force of two thousand marines, supported by aircraft from two aircraft carriers. In a fierce battle, 820 of the Japanese were killed. The Americans lost 120 men, before being overwhelmed. An American naval relief force, sent from battered Pearl Harbour, was still 425 miles from Wake Island when the Japanese landed. That same day, a further 10,000 Japanese troops landed on Luzon.

In Hong Kong, the defenders were still holding out on Christmas Eve; that day a further fifty-three British and Canadian soldiers were roped together after being captured, and then shot or bayoneted to death. On Christmas Day, the wounded Canadians of a platoon which had surrendered were also murdered, as were two doctors and seven nurses—four of them Chinese—who had been attending wounded soldiers at the St Stephen’s College Emergency Hospital. The wounded, more than fifty in all, were then killed in their beds.

On the evening of December 24, General MacArthur had left Manila for the fortified island of Corregidor. Manila, in an attempt to save its inhabitants from being caught in a battlefield, was declared an open city. The Japanese continued, however, to bomb it. That night, fifty-four Japanese bombers and twenty-four fighters raided air installations in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, destroying many Allied aircraft on the ground. Even while the bombing and strafing was in progress, Chennault’s ‘Flying Tigers’, which were also at the airfield, managed to take off safely, and to shoot down six of the Japanese planes for the loss of two of their own.

In the German-occupied Baltic States, December 24 marked the day of a new order, issued by the German civilian governor, Hinrich Lohse, that gypsies were ‘a double danger’. They were carriers of disease, ‘especially typhus’, and they were ‘unreliable elements who cannot be put to useful work’. They also harmed the German cause by passing on ‘hostile’ news reports. ‘I therefore determine’, Lohse added, ‘that they should be treated in the same way as Jews.’

Soviet prisoners-of-war were also being murdered that winter on an horrific scale. At a prisoner-of-war camp set up by the Germans at Hola, in Poland, 100,000 Soviet soldiers were herded together in an open field and given no food. Desperately, they dug holes in which to try to get shelter from the wind and snow, and ate grass and roots to keep alive. Any nearby villagers who were caught by the Germans throwing food into the field were shot. By the end of December, the prisoners-of-war were dead. A further 7,000 were murdered in nearby Biala Podlaska.


On December 25, Hong Kong surrendered, the first British possession to fall under the emblem of the Rising Sun; 11,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner.

On Christmas Day in Leningrad, 3,700 people died of starvation. The recapture of Tikhvin had meant, however, that more supplies would now get through, by rail to the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga, and then across the ice to the city. On the following day, on the Moscow front, the Germans evacuated Kaluga, while in the south, three thousand Russian troops were put ashore during the night of December 25 on the Kerch Peninsula, to establish a new Crimean front, and to relieve the pressure on Sevastopol, which was still holding out against a German siege. Six days later, in a further series of landings in the Crimea, forty thousand Russian soldiers were put ashore at Feodosiya.

Crossing the North Sea on December 27, the British launched Operation Archery, a commando raid on the German naval base at Malöy, in western Norway. Five German merchantmen, with a total displacement of 16,000 tons, were sunk. Hitler, angered by the range and unexpectedness of the attack, began to talk of turning the whole North Sea, Channel and Atlantic coastlines under his control into an impregnable fortress: ‘Fortress Europe’. Not knowing where an Allied attack might come, and faced now with the inevitability of eventual American participation in it, Hitler ordered the construction of coastal fortification from the border of Norway and Finland, above the Arctic Circle, to the border between France and Spain in the Bay of Biscay.

There was another change of German plans on December 27; Dr Todt, in conversation that day with Albert Speer, insisted that communication and transportation conditions in Russia, from which he had just returned, were so difficult, and the ‘discouragement and despair’ among the German soldiers so great, that grandiose architectural building plans would have to be suspended, in terms of priority use of skilled manpower, until the roads of the Ukraine could be put in order. Staff and workmen who were still ‘frivolously engaged’, as Speer later wrote, in working on road construction in Germany would have to be sent to Russia to repair and build the roads there, without which neither supplies nor men could move forward. Todt told Speer he had seen ‘stalled hospital trains in which the wounded had frozen to death, and had witnessed the misery of the troops in villages and hamlets cut off by snow and cold’.

Speer would do his best to help Todt in the task of Eastern road-building. But he noted that Todt was convinced ‘that we were both physically incapable of enduring such hardships, and psychologically doomed to destruction in Russia’. Hitler, however, when Todt saw him at Rastenburg two days later, was speaking confidently of his estimate of ‘the employable Russian labour’ at two and a half million people. With such a force, Hitler told Todt, ‘we’ll succeed in producing the machine tools we need’.

Throughout German occupied Europe, the faith of the captive peoples in Germany’s eventual defeat was bolstered up by British radio messages of encouragement, by the news that Hitler was now at war with the United States, and by the continual despatch of men to join resistance groups behind the lines. On December 28, the British carried out Operation Anthropoid, parachuting two Czechs, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, near Pilsen. Their task was to get in touch with the Czech underground movement, and to plan whatever acts of resistance might be possible.

In the Far East, on December 30, Japanese aircraft attacked the fortified island of Corregidor, to which MacArthur and the United States Philippines headquarters had been transferred four days earlier. On the following day, the last day of the year, American and Filipino troops completed the evacuation of Manila. In northern and central Malaya, despite a brave effort by Indian troops to hold up the Japanese at Kampar, on the western side of the Peninsula, and at Kuantan, on the eastern side, the British had already abandoned to the overwhelming force of Japan the most part of a vast territory which produced thirty-eight per cent of the world’s rubber, and fifty-eight per cent of the world’s tin.


As 1941 came to an end, Hitler told his circle of friends and confidants at Rastenburg: ‘Let’s hope 1942 brings me as much good fortune as 1941,’ and in his New Year message to the German people, he declared: ‘He who fights for the life of a nation, for her daily bread and her future, will win; but he who, in this war, with his Jewish hate, seeks to destroy whole nations, will fail.’

Churchill was in Ottawa on December 31, during a break in his Washington talks. Asked at a press conference about Yugoslavia, he said: ‘They are fighting with the greatest vigour and on quite a large scale, and we don’t hear very much of what is going on there. It is all very terrible. Guerrilla warfare and the most frightful atrocities by the Germans and Italians, and every kind of torture.’ Churchill added, of the fighting behind the German lines in Yugoslavia: ‘The people manage to keep the flag of freedom flying.’

In the Soviet Union, the struggle for survival had reached a crucial stage; December 31 saw the recapture of yet another town in the Moscow sector, Kozelsk, which lay to the west of the Medyn-Orel defensive line established by the Germans three and a half weeks earlier. On the Kerch Peninsula, the Russian landings of two days earlier at Feodosiya had secured a strong foothold, in temperatures so cold—minus twenty degrees centigrade—that, as one historian has written, ‘the immobile wounded inexorably died as stiffened blocks of ice’. But the Feodosiya landings were a blow to the Germans, who were forced to break off their operations against Sevastopol to halt the new Russian thrust.

In just over seven months of fighting in Russia, as many as 200,000 German soldiers had been killed in action, or had died of their wounds; in the extreme cold, even a relatively minor wound and bleeding could lead to severe shock, and death. In one day alone, at the end of December, as a result of frostbite, more than fourteen thousand German soldiers had been forced to submit to amputation. Not all of them survived the operation. A further sixty-two thousand frostbite cases were classified as ‘moderate’: not involving amputation, but resulting in a total incapacity to return to action.

Through Arctic waters, British supplies for Russia had continued to arrive at Archangel where, after their hazardous journey, they were hurried southward by rail to Moscow, the railway line itself remaining well behind the German front line. In all, 750 tanks, 800 fighter aircraft, 1,400 vehicles and 100,000 tons of stores reached Archangel from Britain by the end of the year. Small in terms of what was needed, these supplies were not only useful in themselves, but an earnest of what was to come, and a pledge of continuing support.

The reality of war was of daily and desperate suffering. In Leningrad, where three to four thousand people were dying each day of starvation, despite an increase in a worker’s daily bread ration from eight to ten-and-a-half ounces, the scenes reflected the true face of what was now a global war.

‘Death would overtake people in all kinds of circumstances,’ a city official later recalled. ‘While they were on the streets, they would fall down and never rise again; or in their houses, where they would fall asleep and never awake; in factories, where they would collapse while doing a job of work. There was no transport, and the dead body would usually be put on a hand-sleigh drawn by two or three members of the dead man’s family; often, wholly exhausted during the long trek to the cemetery, they would abandon the body halfway, leaving the authorities to deal with it’. In Leningrad, however, as everywhere in war torn Europe and Asia, these ‘authorities’ were themselves powerless to control suffering, disease, or even the burial of the dead. That winter, a Leningrader on his way by car to the Piskarevsky cemetery, on the north-eastern outskirts of the city, noted down his impressions of the journey. ‘Coming out of town,’ he wrote, ‘where there were small one-storey houses, I saw gardens and orchards, and then an extraordinary formless heap. I came nearer. There were on both sides of the road such enormous piles of bodies that two cars could not pass. A car could go only on one side, and was unable to turn around.’

Hundreds of people, pulling the corpse of a loved one or a neighbour on a sledge, had hardly the strength to dump it on the ground. ‘Not infrequently,’ one historian has recorded, ‘those who pulled the sledge fell beside the corpse, themselves dead—without a sound, without a groan, without a cry.’ ‘To take someone who has died to the cemetery’, a Leningrad writer, Luknitsky, noted in his diary on December 29, ‘is an affair so laborious that it exhausts the last vestiges of strength in the survivors; and the living, fulfilling their duty to the dead, are brought to the brink of death themselves.’

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