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December 1941

December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War

Evan Mawdsley
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    December 1941
    Book Description:

    In far-flung locations around the globe, an unparalleled sequence of international events took place between December 1 and December 12, 1941. In this riveting book, historian Evan Mawdsley explores how the story unfolded. He demonstrates how these dramatic events marked a turning point not only in the course of World War II but also in the direction of the entire century.

    On Monday, December 1, 1941, the Japanese government made its final decision to attack Britain and America. In the following days, the Red Army launched a counterthrust in Moscow while the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and invaded Malaya. By December 12, Hitler had declared war on the United States, the collapse of British forces in Malaya had begun, and Hitler had secretly laid out his policy of genocide. Churchill was leaving London to meet Roosevelt as Anthony Eden arrived in Russia to discuss the postwar world with Stalin. Combined, these occurrences brought about a "new war," as Churchill put it, with Japan and America deeply involved and Russia resurgent. This book, a truly international history, examines the momentous happenings of December 1941 from a variety of perspectives. It shows that their significance is clearly understood only when they are viewed together.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15446-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. vi-vii)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. List of Terms and Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    ‘This is a new war, with Russia victorious, Japan in and America in up to the neck.’¹ Winston Churchill was speaking with his personal doctor, Sir Charles Wilson. The two men stood on the open deck of a British battleship, ploughing through a heavy Atlantic swell. The date was 16 December 1941, and the Prime Minister and his party of statesmen and soldiers were three days into their voyage across the Atlantic. Their destination was Chesapeake Bay, from where they would travel on to Washington for momentous meetings.

    Some moments in history are pivotal, but very few are pivotal on...

  7. CHAPTER 1 MONDAY, 1 DECEMBER Japan, Germany and the Coming World War
    (pp. 6-24)

    The Imperial Conference of 1 December was a starting point, not a turning point. The nineteen solemn men who gathered in the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo for two hours on that Monday afternoon met to ratify decisions made weeks and months earlier – and to light a very short fuse. Their empire was already at war; the Japanese Army had been fighting a full-scale conflict in China for four years. The leaders of Japan now planned another campaign, covering a vast new territory, and taking on stronger and more fearsome enemies from Europe and America. They had made all...

  8. CHAPTER 2 MONDAY, 1 DECEMBER The Fight to the Death in Russia
    (pp. 25-47)

    When Adolf Hitler met, one by one, the representatives of his Axis ‘partners’ in Berlin on 27–29 November he repeatedly stressed that the war was as good as won. ‘The resistance that was still being offered in Russia,’ he told Count Ciano on the 29th, ‘did not come from man but from nature, that is, the weather and the character of the terrain.’ On the parts of the front where snow was falling the troops would go into winter quarters. As operations were dependent on supply lines and road and rail communications, further advance would be towards the southeast,...

  9. CHAPTER 3 MONDAY, 1 DECEMBER London, Libya and the Dangers of the Far East
    (pp. 48-63)

    The new editor ofThe Timesmet the British Prime Minister on Monday evening, 1 December. ‘Then Winston from the War Cabinet, looking (at 67) very fresh and young and spry. He is a different man altogether from the rather bloated individual whom I last saw (close to) before the war. His cheerful, challenging – not to say truculent – look is good to see just now; but it covers up a great deal of caution, even vacillation at times.’¹ Winston Churchill had turned sixty-seven on the previous Friday.

    Monday had been a long and taxing day for Churchill and...

  10. CHAPTER 4 MONDAY, 1 DECEMBER Washington, magic and the Japanese Peril
    (pp. 64-79)

    On 1 December the United States was already taking part in the global struggle against Nazi Germany. The country was perhaps not yet involved – to use Churchill’s later words – ‘up to the neck’, but the policy of its government was far from neutral. On this day convoy WS.124 was deep in the South Atlantic, approaching the Cape of Good Hope, having left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 8 November, sailing via Port of Spain, Trinidad. The US Navy called the convoy ‘William Sail’, using its phonetic alphabet, but ‘WS’ was a British abbreviation meaning ‘Winston Special’, after the Prime...

  11. CHAPTER 5 TUESDAY, 2 DECEMBER Two Doomed Battleships in Singapore
    (pp. 80-91)

    Watchers on the waterfront in Singapore could see the distant shapes of the two great ships, conspicuous against a background of blue sky and green islands, as they made their stately way past the city. It was midday on Tuesday, 2 December. HMSPrince of WalesandRepulse, with four escorting destroyers, disappeared to the east, bearing around Singapore Island. They would proceed up the Johore Strait and into the big Naval Base on the north side of the island.

    Prince of Waleshad come all the way from Scotland. She was the second ship of the ‘King George V’...

  12. CHAPTER 6 WEDNESDAY, 3 DECEMBER The President’s Secret Promise
    (pp. 92-101)

    For the Japanese, 3 December remained a day of preparation rather than action. The ships of the Imperial Navy were nearly in position. The main transport convoy for the Southern Operation was gathered at Hainan. At airfields on Formosa and in Indochina the pilots of the Navy’s twin-engined attack planes were briefed about their targets in the Philippines and Malaya. In Tokyo, Imperial General Headquarters decided on 3 December that the RAF forces were sufficiently weak that the invasion of the Kra Isthmus and Malaya could be carried out at the very beginning of the war, and without an extended...

  13. CHAPTER 7 THURSDAY, 4 DECEMBER Hitler and Japan’s War of Conquest
    (pp. 102-120)

    The outbreak of a great war in the Far East was now only three days away. Thursday, 4 December, was the day that forces began to move into position in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. It was not just the Japanese who were taking steps. At 7.00 a.m., shortly after sunrise, the American aircraft carrierEnterprise, at sea about 650 miles west of the International Date Line, turned into the wind and launched the twelve Marine fighters that she had ferried from Hawaii. Their new base was to be the remote Wake Atoll.Enterpriseflew the flag of Admiral William...

  14. CHAPTER 8 FRIDAY, 5 DECEMBER The Lull Before Two Storms
    (pp. 121-130)

    On Friday, 5 December, General Terauchi Hisaichi secretly flew into Saigon to take charge of the headquarters of Japan’s new Southern Army.

    One remarkable thing that did not happen on 5 December was a sighting of the big Japanese invasion convoy carrying the lead elements of one of Terauchi’s four armies to the Kra Isthmus and Malaya. The transport ships, loaded with troops and equipment, with escorting warships, had left the Samah anchorage on Hainan Island on the previous morning. They were now proceeding along the coast of French Indochina, making an average speed of about twelve knots. Over the...

  15. CHAPTER 9 SATURDAY, 6 DECEMBER General Zhukov Throws in his Armies
    (pp. 131-151)

    The secret British-American talks in Manila about the practicalities of joint operations began at 9.30 a.m. on Saturday. Superficially, the three main participants got on well. Tom Phillips, the visitor, was (aged fifty-three) a decade younger than the others, but he was used to the corridors of power and had diplomatic experience. Admiral Thomas Hart was C-in-C of the US Asiatic Fleet (CINCAF), and described by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison as ‘small, taught, wiry, and irascible’ with the reputation of a strict disciplinarian. Hart was, at sixty-four, beyond the usual age of retirement from active service. The astute British...

  16. CHAPTER 10 SUNDAY, 7 DECEMBER Date of Infamy: Japan’s Undeclared Wars in Malaya and Hawaii
    (pp. 152-188)

    Japan’s ‘Greater East Asia War’ claimed its first victims a couple of hours after dawn on Sunday, 7 December, over the Gulf of Siam.

    The Japanese convoys had been spotted south of Indochina early on the previous afternoon. During the evening and on Sunday morning, four of the five American-built Catalina flying boats of RAF No. 205 Squadron took off from Seletar, at the Singapore naval base.¹ Their mission was to scout out the northern part of the Gulf of Siam. Australian Flying Officer P.E. Bedell, with a crew of seven, took off two hours after midnight. His task was...

  17. CHAPTER 11 MONDAY, 8 DECEMBER The Beginning of the End of the British Empire
    (pp. 189-214)

    The sun rose on a new day, Monday, 8 December 1941, at Wake Atoll in the Central Pacific. Malaya and Thailand lay three time zones to the west; there it was still a few hours after midnight, and Japanese troops were still coming ashore at Kota Bharu and on the Kra Isthmus. Far to the east was Oahu, two time zones away and beyond the International Date Line; the day there was still Sunday, the 7th, and the second Japanese air strike was still hammering Pearl Harbor and the air fields on Oahu. The Marine garrison on Wake learned about...

  18. CHAPTER 12 TUESDAY, 9 DECEMBER FDR Begins the American Century
    (pp. 215-226)

    Sunday and Monday had been days of stunning Japanese action in the Pacific and the Far East. Tuesday, 9 December, was relatively quiet. Admiral Nagumo’s Mobile Force was speeding back towards Japan after the Oahu raid. Bad weather in the Philippines prevented further mass air attacks there. Wake and Guam came under small-scale Japanese air attack from Kwajalein and Saipan respectively. Elsewhere the Japanese spent their time consolidating their first steps, and the British and Americans tried to repair the damage.

    Hong Kong was an exception, as the distances involved were short. The Japanese commander of 38th Division, General Sano,...

  19. CHAPTER 13 WEDNESDAY, 10 DECEMBER Force ‘Z’ and the Malayan Tragedy
    (pp. 227-241)

    Tuesday had seen a lull in the Far East. Wednesday, 10 December, turned out to be another day of successive and terrible defeats there for the new allies, Britain and the United States.

    The Japanese assembled a substantial force for the invasion of the American possession of Guam.¹ The Army provided the ‘South Seas Detachment’ of 3,000 men; the covering force for the Navy was four heavy cruisers and as many destroyers. This was a hammer to crack a nut: Guam was virtually undefended, except for a detachment of US Marines and the native constabulary. The island was 4,000 miles...

  20. CHAPTER 14 THURSDAY, 11 DECEMBER Hitler’s War on America
    (pp. 242-256)

    Thursday, 11 December, began at Wake. Here occurred the one, small failure of Japan’s march of conquest. Before dawn US Marine lookouts spotted an invasion force approaching the atoll from the south.¹

    For the attack on Guam on the previous day the Japanese had assembled an Army regiment and a naval support force with four heavy cruisers – and had encountered virtually no American resistance. In comparison, remote Wake was a purely Navy affair and the invading force was dangerously under­strength. The Japanese fleet, from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshalls (two day’s steaming from the south) consisted of two destroyer-transports...

  21. CHAPTER 15 FRIDAY, 12 DECEMBER World War and the Destruction of the Jews
    (pp. 257-265)

    The flurry of attacks on America’s Pacific outposts continued on Friday, 12 December, although Wake Atoll, after the high drama of the previous day, was relatively quiet. Some 3,000 miles further west across the Pacific the Japanese Army mounted another preliminary landing in the Philippines. The first troops had come ashore in the north of Luzon on Wednesday; today’s attack was 400 miles away, in the south, at the port of Legaspi. With this, the route between Luzon and the southern Philippines was blocked. There was no improvement in the co-operation between the two American commanders. Admiral Hart recorded in...

  22. CHAPTER 16 AFTERMATH. The New War and a New World
    (pp. 266-287)

    On 16 December, asDuke of Yorksteamed steadily to the west, Churchill spoke to Charles Wilson about the ‘new war’. Russia was now winning great battles, Japan had declared war, and the United States was directly involved – ‘up to the neck.’¹

    For most observers, Japan’s astonishing run of victories was the most remarkable feature of the ‘new war’. In the weeks after 12 December, America’s garrisons in the central and western Pacific were doomed to follow the fate of Guam. The American commands in Washington and Pearl Harbor dithered about defending or evacuating Wake. In the small hours...

  23. List of Participants
    (pp. 288-290)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 291-326)
  25. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 327-336)
  26. Index
    (pp. 337-348)