World War II: Chronology--The Turning Point (December 1941)


Figure 1.--This is the carange at Wheeler Field during the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor. A primary target was the air bases defending the naval base. The explosion we think is a fuel tank. The Pearl attack and subsequent attacks on Clark Field destroyed much of American military aviation in the Pacific. The Imperial Navy carried one of the most brilliantly executed military attacks of the War. The Japanese premised their entire wartrategy on the success of the Whermacht which they believed would force the United States to concentrate its at the time very-limited forces in Europe. Yet even as the bombs were falling on Pearl in of all places the the howling snowstotms of Russia, the strategic underpinnings of Japan's war policy were becoming unglued by the Red Army counter-offensive before Moscow.

The whole course of World history changed dramatically in December 1941. Few months in world history have been crammed with so many momentous events. Historians argue about the turning point of the War. Most look to the decisive Allied victories in the second half of 1942 as the turning point. First the British smashed the Afrika Korps at El Alamein . Than the Red Army unleashed their winter counter-offensive at Stalingrad. It was in 1942 that the course of the War changed [Groom] It was the Axis' last real chance to win the War. They would have to win the War in 1942 or the superior resources and industrial capacity of the Allies would inevitably prevail. Major campaigns, however, were not settled until later. The Battle of the Atlantic was not decided until mid-1943 and the air war over Europe what not decided until early-1944. As important as 1942 was, it was the period from June to December 1941 that in fact the decisive period of the War. Hitler until this point had exercised considerable caution. He attempted to pick off his enemies and vulnerable neutrals one by one, taking care to placate the Soviet Union and avoiding conflict with the United States. This changed when he decided to invade the Soviet Union (June 1941) and incredibly when that attack was beaten back before Moscow, declared war on the United States (December 1941). [Dowing] Hitler is often faulted for invading the Soviet Union before defeating Britain. This is a valid criticism, although a military case can be made for the invasion. The decision to declare war on the United States, while still fighting the Soviet Union, however, was strategic madness and is in sharp contrast to his deft handling of strategic planning in the first phase of the War. One wonders if the shock of failure in front of Moscow combined with the drugs provided by Dr. Theodor Morell may not have addled his mind. Hitler made his decisions unilaterally so it is difficult to tell just what what drove him to do this. Here historians can only speculate. In the same week that the Red army launched its counter-offensive before Moscow, the Japanese struck the United States at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack was in sharp contrast to the German invasions in Europe which were designed to destroy the ability of adversaries to make war and defeat them in a short campaign. Until the invasion of the Soviet Union, each of the German campaigns had lasted only a matter of weeks. Only the British escaped destruction. The Japanese war plan was very different. They never conceived of invading the United States. Rather they believed that the United States would not have the moral fortitude to wage war once the Pacific fleet was destroyed. As a result, the Japanese for the cost of sinking eight aging battleships (most of which were refloated) brought the United States with its enormous resources into the War and with its war making capability untouched.

December 1941

Historians argue about the turning point of the War. The whole course of World history changed dramatically in December 1941, actually within the space of ine week. Few months in world history have been crammed with so many momentous events. For Americans, Pearl Harbor dominates the events that took place in December. But Pear Harbor was only one of many major events and perhaps not even the most important. As important as 1942 was, it was the period from June to December 1941 that in fact the decisive period of the War. Hitler until this point had exercised considerable caution. He attempted to pick off his enemies and vulnerable neutrals one by one, taking care to placate the Soviet Union and avoiding conflict with the United States. This changed when he decided to invade the Soviet Union (June 1941) while Britain was still undefeated. Hitler in the first two years of the War controlled the conduct of the War and seem like he could not be defeated. This all changed dramar=tically and suddenly during two days (December 6-7, 1941). The fact that the Red Army not only survived the NAZI onslaught, but launched an offensive combined with the American entry into the War created what Churchill described as a New War. [Mawdsley] Now only was America now in the War, but the entry of Japan into the War mean that what until now had largely been a European war, was now a world war. And Germany who or a time faced only Britain now faced three workd powers with enormous resources.

Japanese Final Decision for War (December 1)

With the victory of the Strike South Faction, planning for war could commence. The Japanese made their final decision to go to war against America, Britain and the Netherlands (December 1, 1941). Trouble had been brewing for some time. The Americans insisted that the Japanese end the war in China. The conquest of China had become a central tenant in Japanese foreign policy since the Government issued the 21 Demands during World War I. The increasing military influence in the Government eventually led to the Japanese invasion (1937). After investing 4 years and enormous expenses, the Japanese on what the saw as the verge of victory were not about to relent. And the impasse intensified when they occupied northern Indo-China (September 1940). This almost completed their isolation of the Nationalist Chinese. Diplomatic contacts continued and the Japanese in public statements professed a desire for a peaceful resolution. The Americans were, however, aware of their true intentions because U.S. Army code breakers had cracked the Japanese diplomatic Purple Code (1940). The resulting decrypts were called Magic. The American and Japanese positions were irreconcilable. The Imperial Army and Navy signed the Central Agreement (November 10). Detailed operational orders were issued (mid-November). The final decision was taken (November 29). It was confirmed at an Imperial Conference (December 1). [Wood, p.11.] The date for the attack on Pearl Harbor was fixed for December 8 (December 7 Pearl Harbor time) (December 2). Emperor Hirohito was fully involved in this process. .

Red Army Offensive before Moscow (December 6)

After Hitler launched Barbarossa and the Wehrmacht achieved incredible early victories, most military experts concluded that the Soviet Union would suffer the same fate as Poland, France, and other NAZI victims. Then incredibly days after Pearl Harbor, the Red Army launched a counter-offensive totally unexpected by the Germans, beating back the attack before Moscow. [Dowing] The Red Army offensive was not just launched before Moscow. It was part of a vast offensive that overran German positions. Large numbers of German soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Vast quantities of German military equipment was destroyed or captured. Important units were cut off and had to be supplied by air. For a time it looked like the Wehrmacht might crack. OKW was planning a general retreat. Hitler ordered the Heer to stand and fight. In the end the Eastern Front held, but a 100 miles or more west of the the December positions. And the losses were so vast that they simply could not be made up. As a result, the Germans would not be able to launch a942 summer offensive along the same dimensions of Barbarossa and they would be facing a much more formidable Red Army.

Japanese Carrier Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7)

The Japanese struck the United States at Pearl Harbor. Every America except infants and toddlers alive at the time remenbers just here they were when they heard the news. The Japanese attack was skillfuly executed and devestating. It was, howver, in sharp contrast to the German invasions in Europe which were designed to destroy the ability of adversaries to make war and defeat them in a short campaign. Until the invasion of the Soviet Union, each of the German campaigns had lasted only a matter of weeks. Only the British escaped destruction. The Japanese war plan was very different. They never conceived of invading the United States. Rather they believed that the United States would not have the moral fortitude to wage war once the Pacific fleet was destroyed. As a result, the Japanese for the cost of sinking eight aging battleships (most of which were refloated) brought the United States with its enormous resources into the War and with its war making capability untouched. A reader points out that not fully understood at the time, the Pearl Hrbor attack was more notable for what the Japanese did not hit than what they actually hit--most notably the all-important carriers of the Pacific fleet. In the perverse course of history, however, in just 3 hours the Japanese succeeded in transforming a divided American Republic whose people had no taste for War into a united people intent on waging war on an unprecedented scale. The Japanese earned the emnity of the American people who woud wreke unimanginable vengence on the Japanese Empire.

Hitler Declares War on America (December 11)

Hitler is often faulted for invading the Soviet Union before defeating Britain. This is a valid criticism, although a military case can be made for the invasion. The secession to declare war on the United States, while still fighting the Soviet Union, however, was strategic madness and is in sharp contrast to his deft handling of strategic planning in the first phase of the War. One wonders if the shock of failure in front of Moscow combined with the drugs provided by Doctor Theodor Morell may not have addled his mind. Hitler made his decisions unilaterally so it is difficult to tell just what what drove him to do this. Here historians can only speculate.

Genocide: Announcing the Holocaust (December 12)

Hitler announced the final decision to destroy the Jewish population of occupied Europe. Mass killing had begun with the Einsatzgruppen when the Wehrmacht entered the Soviet Union (June 1941). The Germans began killing Soviet Jews while millions of Jews were in their custody and while harshly treated, still alive. The Polish Jews had been ghettoized, but the Western European Jews were still not interned. Killing had begun at Chelmo in what was to be a dry run for the murder of Polish Jews (September 1941). Hitler finally ordered that killing be begun on a vast scale to eliminate Jews throughout NAZI occupied Europe, regardless of their potential value to the war effort. We are not sure just when Hitler decided this in his mind. We do know when he announced what we now know as the Holocaust to the NAZI hierarchy. Hitler called his Gaultiers and important NAZI Party officials to the Reich Chancellery the day after declaring war on America [Mawdsley] The Gauletiers had heard the declaration of war in America on the radio the day before. They were less aware, however, of the extent of the Red Army counter-offensive in the East. Virtually all the ranking NAZI Party officials attended the meeting. Hitler announced at the meeting that the Jewish people would be destroyed. In fact killing had begun on a vast scale months before. This was in fact that a 'warning' he had delivered before the War would now be realized. Hitler had told the Reichstag, "If the world of international financial Jewry, both in and outside of Europe, should succeed in plunging the Nations into another world war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the world and thus a victory for Judaism. The result will be the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe." (January 30, 1939). Of course it was Hitler not world Jewry that launched the War, but this was Hitler's way of justifying one of the greatest crimes of history. The meeting in the Reich Chancellery took place in the afternoon and was held in the private rooms. This meant that there was no official record. Both Goebbels and Frank noted the meeting. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels noted what Hitler told the NAZI leaders, "Regarding the Jewish question, the Führer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. This question is to be regarded without sentimentalism. We are not here to have sympathy with the Jews, but rather with our German people. If the German people have sacrificed 160,000 dead in the eastern campaign, so the authors of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives." Some authors argue that the Holocaust had not begin earlier because Hitler saw the Jews in occupied Europe as useful hostages to keep America out of the war. To what extent he really believed this we are not sure. About 50 top NAZIs attended the meeting. Attendance was apparently obligatory for ranking NAZI officials. There is no attendance list, but in addition to the Gauletiers and Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, and Hans Frank attended. Two of the key figures in the Holocaust, Hermann Göring and Reinhard Heydrich, were absent.

Japanese Offensive

Pearl Harbor was the most dramatic Japanese action, but only one part of a vast Japanese offensive to carve out a vast empire in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia--the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). The Japanese took Guam, Hong Kong, and Wake Island. They landed in Malaya and the Philippines, and began the invasion of Burma. All this was in preparation for the major goal, the seizure of the Dutch East Indies and Borneo with their vital oil fields. While the Japanese would conquer an area with enormous resources. Not of their conquests would materially affect affect the war-making capacity of either America or Britain. The Japanese assessment was that America and Britain would be occupied by the European war and not have capability or stomach to fight a Pacific war.

1942

Most look to the decisive Allied victories in the second half of 1942 as the turning point of World War II. First the British smashed the Afrika Korps at El Alamein (October 1942). Than the Red Army unleashed the their winter counter-offensive at Stalingrad (November 1942). And the Americans and British launched their first offensive operation--The Tirch landings in North Africa (November 1942). Thus most histirians see 1942 as the turning pont of the war. It was in 1942 that the course of the War changed [Groom] It was the Axis' last real chance to win the War. They would have to win the War in 1942 or the superior resources and industrial capacity of the Allies would inevitably prevail. We tend to see the actual turning pont as December 1942. Once the Red Army survived and America entered the War, the Axis no konger had the abilkity to win the War. Major campaigns, however, were not settled until later. The Battle of the Atlantic was not decided until mid-1943 and the air war over Europe what not decided until early-1944.

Sources

Downing, David. Sealing Their Fate: The 22 Days That Decided World War II.

Groom, Winston. 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls (Atlantic Monthly, 2005).

Mawdsley, Evan. December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War (2011).

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War.







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Created: 11:27 PM 12/25/2011
Spell checked: 9:32 PM 7/21/2012
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