Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Tide Turns

In late December 1941 Roosevelt and Churchill and their chief advisers met in Washington. They reaffirmed the strategy of defeating Germany first, and because it appeared that the British would have all they could do fighting in Europe, the war against Japan became almost solely a U.S. responsibility.
They also created the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), a top-level British-American military committee seated in Washington, to develop and execute a common strategy. On Jan. 1, 1942, the U.S., Great Britain, the USSR, and 23 other countries signed the United Nations Declaration in which they pledged not to make a separate peace. The United Nations became the official name for the anti-Axis coalition, but the term used more often was the Allies, taken over from World War I. Development of Allied StrategyAs a practical matter, the U.S. could not take much action in Europe in early 1942. It had no troops there, and it was in the midst of building forces and converting industry at home. In North Africa, the British appeared to be more than holding their own. They had relieved Tobruk on Dec. 10, 1941, and taken Benghazi in Libya two weeks later. Rommel counterattacked in late January 1942 and drove them back 300 km (185 mi) to al-Gazala and Bir Hacheim, but there, well forward of Tobruk and the Egyptian border, a lull set in.
EuropeThe big question in the war was whether the USSR could survive a second German summer offensive, and the Russians were urging the U.S. and Britain to relieve the pressure on them by starting an offensive in the west. Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, believed the best way to help the Russians and bring an early end to the war was to stage a buildup in England and attack across the English Channel into northwestern Europe. He wanted to act in the spring of 1943, or even in 1942 if the USSR appeared about to collapse. The British did not want involvement elsewhere until North Africa was settled and did not believe a force strong enough for a cross-channel attack could be assembled in England by 1943. Rommel settled the issue. In June he captured Tobruk and drove 380 km (235 mi) into Egypt, to al-Alamayn (el Alamein). After that, the Americans agreed to shelve the cross-channel attack and ready the troops en route to England for an invasion of French North Africa. The PacificMeanwhile, despite the Germany-first strategy, the Americans were moving toward an active pursuit of the war against Japan. The U.S. Navy saw the Pacific as an arena in which it could perform more effectively than in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded in the Philippines and been evacuated to Australia by submarine before the surrender, was the country’s best-known military figure and as such too valuable to be left with an inconsequential mission. The Battle of Midway had stopped the Japanese in the central Pacific, but they continued to advance in the southwest Pacific along the Solomons chain and overland on New Guinea. On July 2, 1942, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directed the naval and ground forces in the south and southwest Pacific to halt the Japanese, drive them out of the Solomons and northeastern New Guinea, and eliminate the great base the Japanese had established at Rabaul, on New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago (now in Papua New Guinea). The Russian Front: Summer 1942In the most immediately critical area of the war, the USSR, the initiative had passed to the Germans again by summer 1942. The Soviet successes in the winter had been followed by disasters in the spring. Setbacks south of Leningrad, near Kharkov, and in the Crimea had cost well more than a half-million men in prisoners alone. The Germans had not sustained such massive losses, but the fighting had been expensive for them too, especially since the Soviets had three times the human resources at their disposal. Moreover, Hitler’s overconfidence had led him into a colossal error. He had been so sure of victory in 1941 that he had stopped most kinds of weapons and ammunition production for the army and shifted the industries to work for the air force and navy, with which he proposed to finish off the British. He had resumed production for the army in January 1942, but the flow would not reach the front until late summer. Soviet weapons output, on the other hand, after having dropped low in November and December 1941, had increased steadily since the turn of the year, and the Soviet industrial base also was larger than the German. Looking ahead to the summer, Hitler knew he could not again mount an all-out, three-pronged offensive. Some of the generals talked about waiting a year until the army could be rebuilt, but Hitler was determined to have the victory in 1942. He had sufficient troops and weapons to bring the southern flank of the eastern front nearly to full strength, and he believed he could compel the Soviet command to sacrifice its main forces trying to defend the coal mines of the Donets Basin and the oil fields of the Caucasus. The German drive toward the CaucasusThe offensive began east of Kharkov on June 28, and in less than four weeks the armies had taken the Donets Basin and advanced east to the Don River. The distances covered were spectacular, but the numbers of enemy killed or captured were relatively small. Stalin and his generals had made the luckiest mistake of the war. Believing the Germans were going to aim a second, more powerful, attack on Moscow, they had held their reserves back and allowed the armies in the south to retreat. Hitler, emboldened by the ease and speed of the advance, altered his plan in the last week of July. He had originally proposed to drive due east to Stalingrad, seize a firm hold on the Volga River there, and only then send a force south into the Caucasus. On July 23 he ordered two armies to continue the advance toward Stalingrad and two to strike south across the lower Don and take the oil fields at Maykop, Groznyy, and Baku. The Russians appeared to be heading toward disaster, as the German thrust into the Caucasus covered 300 km (185 mi) to Maykop by August 9. Hitler’s strategy, however, presented a problem: Two forces moving away from each other could not be sustained equally over the badly damaged railroads of the occupied territory. In the second half of August, he diverted more supplies to the attack toward Stalingrad, and the march into the Caucasus slowed. Nevertheless, success seemed to be in sight when the Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army (formerly group) closed near the Stalingrad suburbs on September 3.


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