Chapter 5: The Situation after the Entry of Japan into the War
THE Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East had always intended to follow up CRUSADER by driving the enemy out of the whole of Libya. When, in the previous winter, the Italians had been defeated and Cyrenaica overrun, the British Government had felt obliged to send a force to oppose the Germans in Greece and discard the possibility of advancing to Tripoli. But by the early autumn of 1941 General Auchinleck was beginning to consider plans for a pursuit through Tripolitania—operation ACROBAT—which was to follow a successful CRUSADER.
The advantages of occupying Tripoli would be considerable. There would be an immense gain in prestige; convoys to Malta from the east would be far less vulnerable; bases for launching expeditions against Sicily or Italy would be gained; and the French in North Africa might perhaps be encouraged to join the British. The last point was important because it would be extremely difficult for the Axis forces, once they had lost Tripoli, to stage a return to Africa provided they were not allowed to set foot in Tunisia. It would be one thing for the British to maintain a small garrison at Tripoli to prevent the Axis regaining a footing in Libya, but quite another for them to be opposed by a force properly established in Tunisia.
General Auchinleck informed the Minister of State on 9th September that he attached great importance to capturing Tripoli. So long as enemy forces remained in Libya the back door to Egypt would be only partially closed. This would handicap any future offensive plans, and be a real danger if a German attack from the north should throw the British on the defensive. The Chiefs of Staff were asked to say what further action was contemplated in the event of Tripoli being captured. They, too, were determined to gain every possible advantage from a successful CRUSADER and ACROBAT, and suggested, among other plans, one to capture Sicily by an expedition which would sail from the United Kingdom. The Defence Committee approved this suggestion and passed it to the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East, who received it with no enthusiasm.1 They felt that the best
action for new forces from the United Kingdom would be to occupy Bizerta, and suggested that there might be ways of eliciting an invitation from the French. They felt that this was more important than capturing Sicily, which would create a very difficult maintenance problem. Their view was accepted in London and it was decided, instead, to make ready to respond to any request for help that might come from General Weygand in North Africa. To this end an expedition—GYMNAST—was to be prepared which would land at various ports, the most easterly being Algiers.
After the Armistice in June 1940 General Weygand had become Minister of National Defence in Marshal Pétain’s Government. Early in October of that year he was appointed to the new post of Delegate General of the Government in North Africa. In this capacity he was charged with co-ordinating political and economic action, but he was also to be Commander-in-Chief of the land and air forces in North Africa and of the naval forces allotted to the defence of its coasts. For a year General Weygand strove to achieve French unity, to build up confidence, to prepare the armed forces for any emergency, and to balk the Axis Armistice Commissions in every possible way. As the Delegate of the French Government and a loyal supporter of Marshal Main he could hardly be expected to have any sympathy with the Free French Movement, but as an implacable enemy of the Germans he naturally came into conflict with those who saw collaboration with Germany as the best prospect for France. While there was no positive reason for expecting him to call upon the British for help, it was hoped that he might do so if ACROBAT were successful or if the Germans made demands upon him for military facilities in North Africa—at Bizerta, for example. Even then it was not at all certain that he would be satisfied with the help that the British could offer. The project went ahead, nevertheless; the Prime Minister had been impressed by information from the British Ambassador in Washington that President Roosevelt was interested in the idea of sending a large American force to Casablanca, if General Weygand should make a request to the United States for assistance.
The Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East had expressed their liking for some such project, but pointed out that they would be unable to make any contribution to it except possibly by naval action. The Prime Minister then explained operation GYMNAST and said that, regardless of whether the Germans made demands upon the French, the moment success in CRUSADER became apparent he would appeal to President Roosevelt to put pressure on General Weygand and he himself would offer the aid prepared. This was on 18th November. The next day came word of General Weygand’s dismissal from his post and of his recall to France.
The only effect of this mishap upon the Prime Minister’s resolve
was to make him decide to address his offer, when the time came, to the Vichy Government instead of to General Weygand. On 23rd November he reminded General Auchinleck that he was waiting for the moment to appeal to President Roosevelt and to tell the Vichy Government that it was now or never. He ended: ‘I hope the moment may come within the next week’. As has been seen, however, CRUSADER was having a hard passage and was not going as quickly as had been hoped.
Having had time to examine the GYMNAST plan the Commanders-in-Chief commented upon it on 28th November. The objective, they thought, should be Tunisia, in order to keep open the Sicilian Channel. The occupation of Morocco or Algeria would be of little value. The port of disembarkation should not be too far to the west; it should be Philippeville, Bone, Bizerta, or Tunis. They admitted that this would expose GYMNAST to air attack, but they suggested that the support of our air forces from Malta and the enemy’s other preoccupations would lessen it. The Chiefs of Staff did not answer this proposal; their next step was to appoint General Sir Harold Alexander to the command of GYMNAST. If the French invited us the initial force would consist of three fighter squadrons flown in from Malta and Gibraltar, for which the ground crews and two anti-aircraft regiments would go by sea. (These troops did in fact sail on 8th December, but their destination was changed a few days later and they went round the Cape with convoy WS14, of which more will be heard presently.) The main force of GYMNAST was to be roughly two divisions and one armoured division, which could leave the United Kingdom from twenty-three to thirty-two days after the decision to collect the shipping had been taken.
On the night of 7th/8th December 1941 the Japanese landed on the coast of Malaya. A little more than an hour later they attacked the American base at Pearl Harbour. On 8th December the United Kingdom and the United States of America declared war on Japan, and on 11th December Germany and Italy followed suit with declarations of war upon the United States.
Thus the Japanese action had the tremendous result of forcing the United States into war with Germany and Italy. But this did not alter the fact that the attack on Pearl Harbour and the landing in Malaya caused the British and Americans to become directly committed to fighting in a vast maritime theatre of war thousands of miles from the Mediterranean. Many vital problems arose from this inescapable fact. In the middle of December Mr. Churchill went to Washington with a strong staff of advisers to discuss them.2 It did not take the British
and American Chiefs of Staff long to agree upon a broad policy for the conduct of the war in which their countries were now Allies: this was, to defeat Germany first.
As far as Mediterranean planning was concerned the Americans at once began to study the problem of landing an expedition in North Africa under the code-name of ‘Super Gymnast’. The basic assumption was that there would be enough French co-operation to ensure that no more than slight uncoordinated opposition would be met, and that the ports and railways would be worked by the French for the benefit of the Allies. The primary object would be to secure French Morocco as a base from which control might be extended over all North Africa and later into Europe. The operation would be under American command and the planning would be done at Washington. The provisional date would be 25th May 1942.
By the end of January the British Chiefs of Staff were feeling doubtful about their own share of the plan. All the available shipping was fully occupied in movements to the Middle East and Far East. The British forces were stretched to the limit. GYMNAST had been conceived in the hope that we should be invited into North Africa, which now seemed most unlikely. Yet without French help the operation would be quite impracticable. On 1st February the Prime Minister agreed that preparations should cease, and on 12th March the Chiefs of Staff informed Washington that in their view no operations of the GYMNAST type could take place before the autumn. A few days later the United States Chiefs of Staff agreed, and the matter was dropped. But not for good, for the Allied landings on the coasts of Morocco and Algeria, which took place in the following November, were, in effect, ‘Super Gymnast’ brought up to date.
Before Mr. Churchill and his advisers had gone to Washington in December a decision had been reached on the immediate British policy. Everything possible was to be sent to the Far East, but no units or equipment already in the Middle East or Iraq were to be withdrawn. A number of units on the way, however, were to be diverted, either to Bombay or to Singapore. Thus, in convoy WS12Z, due at Durban on Christmas Eve, the following units intended for Iraq were diverted: one complete anti-tank regiment and the men of a second; one heavy and one light anti-aircraft regiment; Headquarters No. 267 Wing and four fighter squadrons, with fifty-one Hurricane IIs and twenty-four pilots. Eighty pilots en route for Takoradi and five Hurricanes for Basra were also to be diverted, and eight more Hurricanes were to be sent out from the United Kingdom to bring the Wing up to strength. From convoy WS 14, due at Durban on 9th January, the following were to be diverted: the heavy and light anti-aircraft
regiments that had been originally intended for the first flight of GYMNAST, and ground staffs and limited equipment of Headquarters No. 266 Wing with three fighter squadrons, but no aircraft. Forty Hurricanes were to be lifted from Takoradi and taken by sea to Bombay to provide the first instalment of aircraft for this Wing. As an exception to the general policy of no removals from the Middle East, General Auchinleck was ordered to despatch fifty light tanks to India—no great loss.
Much more unwelcome was the decision to divert the 18th Division, then rounding the Cape. The Prime Minister explained this to General Auchinleck by pointing to the improved prospects of the CRUSADER battle and the pronounced Russian successes which had relieved the immediate anxieties about the Caucasus and the south Caspian area. The Chiefs of Staff supplemented this by saying that General Auchinleck could use the 50th Division, now in Iraq, in any way he wished. On the other hand, the z 7th Indian Division, in India, could no longer be regarded as earmarked for Iraq, and the Commander-in-Chief, India, was free to use it as he wished. As a further exception to the ‘no withdrawals’ policy came an order to despatch immediately the four anti-aircraft batteries of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organization.
Orders for the withdrawal of Royal Air Force units soon followed. As soon as CRUSADER was finished the Middle East was to prepare six bomber squadrons, one Air Stores Park and one Repair and Salvage Unit for despatch to Bombay. Meanwhile, in response to a request from the Chief of the Air Staff on 9th December, six Blenheim IVs had left for Singapore on the 12th and six more on the 14th. On 18th December the Chiefs of Staff told the Commanders-in-Chief of their anxiety about Burma and asked that one of the Blenheim squadrons should be sent immediately provided that neither CRUSADER nor ACROBAT would be affected. The first six aircraft of No. 113 Squadron left on 30th December; three other squadrons, Nos. 45, 84, and 211, left during January and February.
On 10th December, only a few hours before the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya, the First Sea Lord, weighing the redispositions necessary as the result of Japan’s entry into the war, had asked Admiral Cunningham and Admiral Somerville what would be the result of withdrawing all capital ships and carriers from either or both of their commands. The main points of their replies were as follows. The removal of the battleship from Force H would tend to encourage the Italian Fleet to concentrate eastwards. There would be little effect at the Western end of the Mediterranean, except that preparations for special operations, such as escorting convoys, would be difficult to conceal, and the enemy would have time to take counter measures. In the Eastern Mediterranean the removal of all the capital
ships would be equivalent to depriving ourselves of the ultimate means of cutting off the enemy’s supplies to Africa and of running convoys to Malta from the east. But if the army gained a firm hold on Cyrenaica and its airfields, and if ample air forces could be based there and at Malta—under Admiral Cunningham’s control—it should be possible to supply the army and maintain Malta. The ability to keep up the pressure on the enemy’s supply lines would, however, be seriously affected. Apart from this, the Italians would gain in morale and might venture into the Eastern Mediterranean, especially by sorties from the Aegean. The political effect on Turkey and Egypt must be expected to be very bad. Nevertheless, if the air forces were very considerably increased, the withdrawal of all the capital ships could be accepted as a gamble.
The gamble was, however, forced upon Admiral Cunningham and the Admiralty in a very unwelcome form. Disaster befell Force K and was quickly followed by the Italian attack at Alexandria in which the two remaining British battleships were badly damaged. On 24th December the Admiralty informed Admiral Cunningham that he could expect no replacements; all available carriers and battleships would almost certainly be wanted in the Far East. There were hopes of providing some of the air reinforcements for which he had pressed, but, in many instances, not for a long time.
Withdrawals of smaller ships from the Middle East were briefly referred to in the previous chapter. Besides the cruiser Hobart the sloop Yarra was to return to Australia; the sloops Sutlej and Jumna and the minesweepers Lismore and Bathurst, from the Red Sea to the East Indies; the sloops Indus, Hindustan and Falmouth, from the Persian Gulf to the East Indies. Two submarines were to leave the Mediterranean about the New Year.
The Commanders-in-Chief and the Minister of State—in other words, the Middle East Defence Committee—naturally gave much thought to the probable effects of all these changes, and cabled their views on 18th December to the Prime Minister. Their main preoccupation was with the northern flank. They regarded the defence of Persia, Iraq, Syria and Egypt as one problem, and for the northern flank they had counted upon having seven divisions by the next spring. It looked as if they would have only three. The diversion of so many anti-aircraft batteries further aggravated a situation about which they were already anxious. The contemplated diversion of expected air reinforcements was also serious, and might make it impossible to meet the commitment to send twenty-four squadrons to Turkey;3 moreover, it might seriously affect the security of our sea communications in the
Mediterranean and the task of interrupting the enemy’s. The Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, emphasized this aspect when he suggested that the criterion in deciding on the moves of air forces should be to leave enough of them to control the Central Mediterranean despite the absence of British battleships. He thought that if success were not gained against the enemy’s heavy ships within the next three months the enemy would obtain control of the Mediterranean and would be able to attack Malta and to reinforce Tripoli at will.
On 24th December the Chiefs of Staff asked each Commander-in-Chief to send home a representative, well versed in ACROBAT, to explain the implications of the diversions and withdrawals. Two days later the Prime Minister addressed ‘a hard request’ to General Auchinleck; he was to part at once with a force of at least a hundred American tanks. In addition, a consignment of Hurricanes for No. 266 Wing was to be picked up and ferried away to the Far East by HMS Indomitable. It was still the intention not to remove anything that would prevent ACROBAT, and it was hoped to reinforce the Middle East with some Fulmars. General Auchinleck replied that he could spare 110 American Stuart tanks manned by 7th Armoured Brigade; it would be complete with headquarters, signals, workshop and recovery unit and would contain two armoured regiments, one 25-pdr battery, and one anti-tank battery—all just back from the Libyan frontier. He also offered to send an Australian infantry brigade group, provided that it could be replaced before April, and a quantity of small arms and anti-tank rifles.
To reach London ahead of their representatives, the Commanders-in-Chief cabled their hopes and fears about the war. They assumed that the ultimate object was to defeat Germany by a land offensive against her territory, and that the attitude towards Japan would be defensive. Bases in the Middle East, including Malta, must be securely held. They reminded the Chiefs of Staff that the Mediterranean theatre offered good opportunities for offensive action, but it would be essential to occupy Tunisia first. It was already possible to deploy American air forces in the Middle East, and they could be used there to great advantage.
The Chiefs of Staff sent a telegram on the Government’s reinforcement policy on 1st January 1942, by which date it had been agreed by the British and American Governments that their primary object was the defeat of Germany. The British policy was to divert to the Far East no more resources than would be necessary for holding the Japanese. Subject to this, CRUSADER was to be exploited to the greatest extent possible. The army reinforcements were given in detail. Six divisions, one light tank squadron and one armoured brigade were considered necessary for the Far East. These would come from the
Middle East or from reinforcements intended for the Middle East. In addition to the two divisions already mentioned—the 18th (British) and the 17th Indian—the following were to go: the Australian Corps of two divisions (6th and 7th) and two divisions from Iraq or India.
This drew from the Commanders-in-Chief the comment that none of these moves would affect CRUSADER, and the Middle East representatives confirmed in London that they would not affect ACROBAT either. But the situation on the Turkish or northern front would be greatly altered. Hitherto the Middle East had been aiming at being ready to meet an attack from the north by April 1942, a date which was perhaps unnecessarily early in view of the German reverses in Russia. The Commanders-in-Chief now requested a decision on the date by which they ought to be ready, and further asked that the resources diverted to the Far East should be replaced at least one month before this date. One of the most serious shortages was of antiaircraft artillery; Iraq and Persia had virtually no anti-aircraft protection at all and the rest of the Middle East was a long way short of its requirements. In spite of this, the Australian Corps was to take with it one heavy and two light anti-aircraft regiments; forty guns held as a pool for use in Turkey were to go; and one heavy and one light anti-aircraft regiment in convoy WS 15, due at Durban in the middle of February, were to be diverted.
On 17th January General Auchinleck began to suspect that he might lose his one remaining Australian division, the 9th, and expressed to the CIGS his hope that its withdrawal would be strongly resisted, because the situation would be precarious if the enemy were to attack from the north before all the divisions withdrawn had been replaced by divisions complete with their equipment and transport. The British estimate of German capabilities by this time had become more definite. It was calculated that Germany’s most probable course in 1942 would be to resume a full-scale offensive against Russia, which might bring her into contact with British forces in Persia not earlier than mid-August. This action would not preclude the reinforcement of General Rommel on a sufficient scale and in time to oppose ACROBAT effectively. (It will be seen in the next chapter that important reinforcements were in fact arriving.) If the Germans decided not to resume their offensive in Russia, but to attack Turkey instead, they might be in a position to reach the northern frontier of Syria by the end of May at the earliest. It was this possibility that caused General Auchinleck anxiety, because there was no prospect of his forces in Syria and Iraq being made up to the strength he considered necessary. Indeed, a month later he was told that the 70th Division was to go to Ceylon and Burma—it went in March—and that he was also to part with the 9th Australian Division, and possibly another division from Iraq.
This news, together with the parallel reduction in air forces, and following a reverse in Cyrenaica—to be described in the next chapter—seemed to General Auchinleck to be extremely serious. The Commanders-in-Chief and the Minister of State sent their considered views three days later. They recalled their requirements, which had been accepted by the Chiefs of Staff, and pointed out that the forces remaining after these withdrawals had taken place would be insufficient to maintain the Middle East position in face of an attack from the north. ‘We are, in fact, relying on this attack not taking place.’ The effect on Turkey of these withdrawals could not fail to be grave. None of the countries in the Middle East could be regarded as stable, and any signs of weakening by further withdrawals would encourage disaffection. The forces remaining might therefore be required to preserve order, and, at the same time, defend the western approaches to Egypt. The whole situation might change for the worse unless we could interfere effectively with enemy reinforcement to Libya. The Commanders-in-Chief concluded that it was vital to reinforce the Middle East, for although they hoped to be able to hold the present positions in Libya for some months, and possibly even to gain ground, they could do no more than cause some delay to an enemy advancing through Iraq and Syria towards the Persian Gulf and Suez Canal.
In the event, General Auchinleck’s worst anxieties were relieved by the action of President Roosevelt. One United States division was sailing for Australia early in March. Just as it was leaving the Prime Minister asked President Roosevelt if he would offer to send two more United States divisions, one to New Zealand and one to Australia. This would make it possible to leave the New Zealand Division and the 9th Australian Division in the Middle East and economize shipping. The President readily consented, and New Zealand gladly accepted the offer. The Australian Government took longer to reach a decision, and not until a month later did they express themselves prepared to agree, in view of the shipping difficulties, to postpone the return of their 9th Division to Australia. The President further agreed to a request by Mr. Churchill for American shipping to carry two British divisions from the United Kingdom to the Middle East or India as the situation might require. Three British divisions, interspersed with drafts and details, were already scheduled to sail from the United Kingdom in British ships in the next five convoys. This meant that five British divisions in all would leave the United Kingdom in the period March to July. This was most welcome news to General Auchinleck, who telegraphed to say that it should help to ease his situation considerably.
HMS Indomitable returned to Port Sudan on 23rd February after ferrying the forty-eight Hurricanes to the Far East. The Prime Minister had decided that she should make another trip with Hurricanes and
on the 27th she left Port Sudan with sixty. Fifty of these were to make up the equipment of the squadrons in convoy WS14 already on their way to Singapore. The remaining ten, together with twenty-six other Hurricanes which left the Middle East to fly to India, were for Nos. 30 and 261 Fighter Squadrons, and it was in this way that these two units also came to be withdrawn from the Middle East. In all, the Middle East parted with four complete Blenheim squadrons, two complete Hurricane squadrons and, in addition, twelve Blenheim IV aircraft. Besides these, seven complete fighter squadrons, which were originally intended for the Middle East, were diverted en route.
During the rebellion in Iraq in May 1941 the command of the land forces in Iraq had passed to the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, mainly because effective support for northern Iraq could be sent only from Palestine and because air operations in Iraq were controlled by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East. The command of the land forces had reverted to India at the end of June, though the Chiefs of Staff intended that the whole area should come under the Middle East again if the Germans looked like moving through southern Caucasia into Persia and northern Iraq. The Chiefs of Staff recognized the advantages of leaving India responsible for the troops in Iraq, the bulk of whom were Indian, but they naturally wished to avoid making a change of command at the last minute. As the threat did not seem to be imminent, they had decided to await the outcome of CRUSADER before saddling General Auchinleck with this additional burden.
On 12th December they came to the conclusion that the change ought to be made. The threat from the north was still not imminent; in fact the Russian winter had begun, the German attack had everywhere exhausted itself, and the Russians had been able to gain local successes north and south of Moscow and in the Ukraine. CRUSADER was well on the way to driving the enemy out of Cyrenaica. But the Japanese attack on Thailand and Malaya, and the consequent threat to Burma (which had been placed under General Wavell’s command), was a new factor in the problem; in a message to General Wavell the Prime Minister expressed the opinion that he ‘must now look East’. Even so, Wavell opposed the transfer of command in Iraq and Persia to Auchinleck, reiterating the arguments which had caused its previous deferment. General Auchinleck, on the other hand, was strongly in favour of it, because it would make, he thought, for speedier planning and would enable the operational and administrative aspects to be more closely related. The Minister of State supported the suggestion, adding that the problem of concerting supplies, and later perhaps even operations, with the Americans, would be greatly lightened if they
had only one Command to deal with. On hearing these views the Defence Committee agreed with the Chiefs of Staff that the transfer of command should take place as soon as possible. On 12th January 1942 General Auchinleck took over. The title of Lieut.-General E. P. Quinan’s force, hitherto known as ‘British Troops in Iraq’, was changed to the Tenth Army.
A Treaty of Alliance was signed at Teheran on 29th January between the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and Persia, by which the Allies undertook to defend Persia from aggression by Germany or any other power. Persia, in return, undertook to co-operate in every way possible, especially by facilitating the use of the railways, roads, rivers, airfields, ports, pipelines and signal installations. The assistance of Persian armed forces was to be limited to the maintenance of internal security in Persia.
In the latter half of February 1942 there were some changes in His Majesty’s Government. Mr. Oliver Lyttelton, the Minister of State in the Middle East, left to become Minister of Production. There had been no mention of a successor, and the Commanders-in-Chief thought it right to put forward their views on the importance of the post, based on their experience of the seven months during which it had existed.
They regarded the Minister of State as a link with His Majesty’s Government which was indispensable to the successful prosecution of the war in the Middle East. His guidance and advice on military policy from the political and governmental point of view had been invaluable. He had been able to relieve the Commanders-in-Chief of innumerable political and economic problems connected with Persia, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the Sudan, North and East Africa, and the Arab world generally—apart from helping them in their dealings with the Americans and with numerous Allies. They could not cope with all this work and at the same time exercise their primary functions as Commanders-in-Chief. Moreover, the office of the Minister of State had become a focus for the co-ordination of the views of the Services and of the other authorities in the Middle East; this made it easy to concert action and was to the general advantage.
In short, they were convinced of the need to have in the Middle East a member of the War Cabinet who possessed the confidence of the Government at home. He should be served by an adequate staff, qualified to deal with the many and varied political, financial, economic, and propaganda problems which were constantly arising.
Mr. Lyttelton left the Middle East at the end of February 1942. Three weeks later Mr. R. G. Casey, Australian Minister in
Washington, was appointed to succeed him and was made a member of the British War Cabinet. He did not arrive until 5th May, and in the meanwhile Sir Walter Monckton acted as Minister of State.
The internal situation in Egypt had been calm for so long that it is easy to forget how important it was for the British that conditions in the main base area should be stable. Towards the end of 1941 there was a political crisis. The war had undoubtedly brought many difficulties for the Egyptian Government. There had been some bombing, but not much; the cost of living was rising; and there were many Egyptians who disliked the military occupation of their country. As against this, the occupation could hardly be called oppressive; for one thing, vast sums were passing into the pockets of the people in wages and by the spending of the pay of the British troops. The big problem of what to do with the cotton crop, on the sale of which Egypt largely relied for her prosperity, was solved by the British Government, who undertook to buy it all—as they had done in 1940. The stipulation that less land was to be planted with cotton and more with food crops had been only partially observed, and the shortage of food was one of the Egyptian Government’s major anxieties.
Towards the end of 1941 the prestige and authority of Hussein Sirry’s Cabinet had greatly declined. The Wafd party, who were not represented in the Government, were busy proclaiming that the British had infringed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and were destroying the independence and economy of the country. Late in December the Minister of Finance was forced to resign on charges of corruption and nepotism: this produced a bitter squabble between the Liberals and Saadists as to which party should provide his successor. The Wafd now began to make the Egyptian Prime Minister the target of their attacks rather than the British, and, as he was also being subjected to a Palace offensive directed by Aly Maher Pasha, his position went from bad to worse. On 1st February, after a dispute with the King on a technicality, he was forced to resign. It was quite clear to the British Ambassador that the only acceptable solution would be the return of the Wafdists to power. Strong pressure was put upon the King to agree. Finally he did so, and Nahas Pasha became Prime Minister. He at once adopted an attitude of co-operation with Great Britain, and maintained it loyally and courageously through the dark days that followed. His openly declared sympathy with the British cause put a stop to most of the overt anti-British agitation. A general election took place in March and was boycotted by the opposition, leaving the Wafd in undisputed power.
The Tripartite Pact of 27th September 1940 between Germany, Italy and Japan was ostensibly a defensive treaty by which the parties agreed to give support if any of them should be attacked by a Power not at present engaged in the war in Europe or in China. It was directed primarily against America, but also against possible British activities in the Far East. It did not oblige Japan or Italy to declare war on Russia when Germany attacked her.
When the German plans for BARBAROSSA were almost complete Hitler decided to encourage the Japanese to act in the Far East in such a way as to focus American interest on the Pacific and tie down strong British forces. It was expected that favourable conditions would be created by BARBAROSSA but the Japanese were not to be told about it.
For their part the Japanese were not anxious to be involved in war with the United States—certainly not until they had reached some form of agreement with Russia. The Japanese Foreign Minister, Matsuoka, visited Moscow and Berlin in the spring of 1941 and Ribbentrop did all he could, short of disclosing the German intentions, to prevent the Japanese reaching a private agreement with Moscow. In this he failed, for on 13th April Matsuoka concluded a Pact of Neutrality, thus securing the Japanese rear without German assistance.
No sooner had the Germans attacked Russia than Hitler began to press Japan to declare war on Russia also. The Japanese Government however decided to adhere to its programme of gradual expansion and military preparation, as it had not given up all hope of reaching a peaceful settlement with America. The stages in the deterioration of the situation in the Pacific area are described in another volume of these histories.4 It is enough here to mention that the Japanese showed no intention of attacking Russia; on the contrary, their attention was being focused increasingly on the Pacific and South China Sea.
The terms of the Tripartite Pact did not oblige Germany or Italy to support Japan if she were the aggressor. Accordingly, while negotiations were still going on in Washington, the Japanese tried to find out what help they might expect if, after all, America entered the war. The Far East and Middle East were too widely separated to allow of direct co-operation, and the Japanese suggested that the best form of mutual support would be to undertake not to make a separate armistice or peace. To this Ribbentrop replied that this would be taken for granted in Berlin.
On 3rd December the Japanese Ambassadors in Berlin and Rome informed the two Governments that the negotiations in Washington had broken down, and requested that Germany and Italy should undertake to declare war on the United States. To this they received cautious replies.
The early Japanese successes came at a time when the fortunes of the Axis powers had taken a turn for the worse. Rommel had been driven out of Cyrenaica, and the Russians had recaptured Rostov. Farther north, fighting was halted by the unexpectedly early onslaught of cold weather; the advance on Moscow came to a standstill, and the final offensive, planned for early December, never took place. The Russians, who were better able to cope with the winter conditions, now exerted their full strength and the Germans were soon retreating at several points. Moscow was saved and the self-confidence of the German Army badly shaken. Differences of opinion in the High Command, which had been simmering for some time, came to a head on 19th December with the dismissal of Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, and Hitler assumed the additional responsibility of commanding the Army.
Against this darkening background it is not surprising that the attack on Pearl Harbour was hailed with admiration and delight. On 14th December OKW issued a memorandum reviewing the whole situation in the light of the entry of Japan and the United States into the war. Emphasis was laid on the disruptive effect that Japan’s action would have on Allied planning. Japanese naval strength and the attacks by land on British and American bases would probably force a change of policy. Would the Allies concentrate first upon defeating Germany and Italy, and abandon for the time being the objectives under Japanese attack? Or would they deplete their forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and concentrate upon defeating Japan? Or would they try to hold everywhere and wait for American armaments production to get into its stride?
To these questions the memorandum could find no answer; it therefore examined at length the most unfavourable course for the Axis, namely the first, and came to the conclusion that neither side could contemplate a decisive attack for at least a year. The first consideration for the Germans must be to bring the Russian campaign to a successful conclusion. The Allied aim would probably be to set up assembly-bases in West Africa and Morocco, in the Middle East, and in the United Kingdom, with the idea of subsequently operating in areas within reach of these bases. These areas could not be divined yet, and might be anywhere from the Caucasus to Norway. However, the assembly of forces would take so long and would require so much shipping that wherever the Allies intended to use them their preparations would become known to the Germans in time for effective counter-measures to be taken. This comforting conclusion earned the marginal comment on one copy ‘It is to be hoped so’.
To sum up: the entry of Japan into the war found the British in the Middle East in firm possession of their vital bases, in no immediate danger of being attacked from the north, and well on the way to regaining the whole of Cyrenaica; indeed, they had high hopes of pressing on as far as Tripoli. During the next few weeks many Army and Air Force units were removed from the Middle East to go to India or the Far East, and others, on the way out, were diverted there; and a number of ships of the Royal Australian and Royal Indian Navies were sent back to their home waters. Yet the Commanders-in-Chief were satisfied that none of these transfers would affect CRUSADER, nor were they likely to affect ACROBAT. Far more serious were the naval losses that had been sustained in December which left the Mediterranean Fleet without a battleship or carrier, and reduced Force H to one battleship and one small carrier.
This was the situation when history repeated itself and General Rommel regained the initiative on land.