The Twin Vipers: A Finished TL of the Berlin-Moscow Axis

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World War II has been, for nearly eighty years, characterised not by the efforts of the millions of soldiers who fought in it, or by the sweeping social changes that followed it, but by the infamous, and bizarre, alliance of the two most evil dictators to ever rule: Hitler and Stalin. Two men who had nothing in common save their desire of absolute power, and perhaps their love of death camps. Hitler at least had spent the better part of twenty years writing and screaming about how communism was the greatest enemy of the world and must be destroyed, while Stalin was well known for trusting no one and was certain that within a few years, the Germans would come for him.

The war itself had its origins in a series of increasingly aggressive moves by Germany beginning around 1936 with the reoccupation of the Rhineland, although it was not until the takeover of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that war was believed to be inevitable. Even then, the British Chamberlain Government only believed Germany, and perhaps Italy to be their future enemies. Indeed there had been talks between London and Moscow in 1938 and continuing into 1939 of a potential alliance against the Germans. Had these talks continued successfully, or even had Stalin simply remained neutral, it is considered extremely likely that Germany would have eventually collapsed under its own weight, a mess of questionable accounting and constant resource shortages, doubtless before the summer of 1941. Yet events in, of all places, Mongolia, changed the history of the world forever.

The Nomonhan Battles, July 1939

Beginning in May 1939, the Nomonhan Battles originated over a border dispute: whether it should be the Mongolian allies of Stalin or the Mongolian allies of Hirohito that should be allowed to graze their horses over a few dozen kilometres of completely empty ground in the middle of nowhere, despite both sides having more than an abundance of empty worthless ground in the region already.

For the first month of the conflict, nothing more than localised skirmishes between the local forces took place, and at worst it looked like the battle would become a repeat of the Changkufeng incident a year prior. On June 27th (now the commonly accepted date for the start of the war) however, the Japanese Kwantung Army launched an air strike on a Soviet airfield. Tokyo issued a stern warning to the Kwantung Army commanders, ordering that no more airstrikes be launched as it risked escalating the border incident (already heavily committed in China, they had no desire for a wider war). The order went ignored.

In early July, the Kwantung Army launched a major attack hoping to knock out the Red Army’s presence on the Khalka River, now commanded by General Georgy Zhukov and numbering around five divisions and over 400 tanks and armoured cars. Shortly after the Japanese force crossed the river, Zhukov counterattacked. The move proved to be foolish, as his unsupported tanks were destroyed by Japanese infantry and bombers, and shortly afterwards a major Soviet supply convoy was destroyed in another airstrike. Although their assaults had been costly, the Japanese soon forced Zhukov to retreat from the disputed area. But they had pushed the Russian Bear too far...

No Longer a Border War, August 1939

Although neither Moscow nor Tokyo made an official declaration of war, the effective destruction of two Soviet divisions could not be interpreted as a minor border skirmish, and both sides scrambled to prepare for what was certain to follow.

Tokyo’s first action was to remove Lieutenant Generals Masaomi and Komatsubara from their posts for disobeying orders, giving them command of much smaller reserve units in China. General Ueda, the overall commander of the Kwantung Army, was forced into retirement for supporting the aggressive actions. Appointed in his place was General Shizuichi Tanaka, who had been previously commanding a division in China. Tanaka was given orders to prepare the Kwantung Army for a major war with the USSR, which would likely be soon fought across the entirety of Manchukuo: a territory far too valuable to lose.

Stalin’s reaction was no less drastic: Zhukov was recalled to Moscow and sidelined for his failure to defeat the Japanese (although he managed to avoid the 7.62mm fate that many other generals had suffered), despite the significant numerical advantages he had held throughout the battle. He was replaced with General Nikolai Vatutin, a man chosen more for his political reliability than for any great competence. Stalin at this time felt that the Japanese needed to pay for their arrogance in Mongolia, and that if a localised conflict couldn’t settle the issue, then an expanded one, which would allow the USSR to use its vast manpower and massive armoured forces, would have to. But before a major war could be allowed on the eastern border, the western one needed to be secured.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, August 1939

As the Red Army prepared itself for a war with Japan, Hitler had been massing the Wehrmacht along the Polish border. Hitler had detested the Polish state since its creation in the aftermath of World War I, not just because it cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany, or that it had been given some old German territory to do this, but also because he believed the Poles to be racially inferior (a belief that would have horrific consequences for the population of the country). As the first step in the plan to achieve ‘lebensraum’ first outlined in Mein Kampf, the defeat of Poland was one of Hitler’s most important goals.

Hitler, having been a soldier in World War I, was haunted by the idea of a two front war, which had been a major obstacle for Germany between 1914 and 1917. While Poland’s army was hardly a match for the Wehrmacht, the potential entry of the USSR into a war that also involved France and Britain would very likely create a repeat of that war, something the Fuhrer was determined to avoid.

The culmination of several months of talks, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact provided a solution for both nations’ problems. Officially labelled as a non-aggression treaty, the Pact would keep Stalin from interfering in Hitler’s war with Poland, while Hitler would leave Stalin free to settle the disputes with Japan. Secret clauses in the pact also allowed for a division of Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, while the treaty was soon expanded into a substantial trade agreement, providing Germany with Soviet raw materials in exchange for industrial tools and expertise.

Poland, September 1939

On September 1st, the Wehrmacht stormed into Poland, sweeping across the country in a matter of weeks. Although brave defensive actions were fought, most notably along the Bzura River and near Warsaw, the Polish army had little hope against modern aircraft such as the Bf 109 and Ju 87, or the ‘blitzkrieg’ doctrines of fast moving armoured warfare that the Germans used to such devastating effect.

The Red Army was ordered into Eastern Poland two weeks later, to find only a skeleton defence guarding eastern cities such as Brześć Litewski and Lwow. The move prompted declarations of war by the French and British against the USSR, to follow those issued against Germany on September 3rd. These declarations had been fiercely debated within London and Paris, as some were worried that while a war with just Germany would be difficult, a war against Moscow as well would be nearly impossible, but these concerns were ignored when presented with the threat of an all-communist Asia. The Poles hoped that the second declarations would finally lead to a serious relief effort (after the abortive French offensive into the Saar). That help never came.

“The twin vipers of Nazism and Bolshevism represent the most sinister of alliances to ever confront our way of life. The road ahead will be hard, but if we are resolute in our will, the ultimate triumph of the free world is inevitable.” – Winston Churchill, 28 September 1939.

The Hailar Offensive, October 1939

Once Warsaw fell to the Germans on September 28th, Stalin was confident that the western border of the USSR would not be a cause of trouble for any time in the foreseeable future. While the western powers had declared war over his role in invading Poland, they had no way of directly threatening the USSR without going through a neutral power such as Turkey or Iran. Without a threat to the west, Stalin finally allowed Vatutin to begin the long-awaited offensive against Japan.

Initially, Vatutin’s offensive was a great success. The Kwantung Army had expected any Soviet counterattack to be once again focussed in the Nomonhan area, and had reinforced the 23rd Division with two more divisions from further inland. Soviet airstrikes had also targeted Japanese positions in Korea, as well as the city of Harbin, while efforts in the north of Manchukuo had hardly escalated since the July battle. As it turns out, these escalations in the south were due more to the fact that more equipment was already available in Vladivostock than any deception plan. Nevertheless, the Kwantung Army was not prepared for an army to invade Manchukuo from the north.

Vatutin’s force rapidly took the city of Manzhouli, a short distance across the border, with minimal casualties. Although it appears that Stalin had originally planned to use the city as a bargaining chip to finally settle the disputes in Mongolia, the apparent weakness of the IJA (and the opportunity to get revenge for the war of 1905) convinced him to allow Vatutin to push forward. Perhaps he would have been better staying put.

The terrain that followed was rough and difficult. Deserts and mountains, individually difficult to fight in, were both present in northern Manchukuo, and while the Kwantung Army did not contest the area in any significant way, the terrain took its toll on the Red Army. The Japanese instead decided to defend the city of Hailar, approximately 100 km from Manzhouli, and the next significant settlement on the major road in the area. In a fierce week-long battle, the Red Army eventually took control of Hailar, although at great cost. What had become obvious by the end of the battle was that the Soviet logistics, almost entirely based off the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the trucks sent to the Far East during the Nomonhan battles, were wholly inadequate for an operation involving a quarter of a million men.

Confusion in Asia, October 1939

The beginning of a full-scale war between the USSR and Japan greatly complicated the political situation in Asia. Since 1937, Japan had been engaged in a brutal war with the Chinese, a battle known to the West mostly for its war crimes. Public opinion had for a long time been turned against Japan, notably with incidents such as the Panay incident in late 1937 and the Tianjin blockade in the summer of 1939, and as a result several of the great powers had been considering opening up aid deals with China.

China however had been supported by Germany in earlier years and Stalin much more recently, both of which were now British enemies, while Japan was effectively an ally. Yet Stalin had also supported an invasion of Xinjiang in 1937, and he was still providing support to the Chinese Communist Party, which was destined to become Chiang’s enemy the moment an external threat to China disappeared. The Soviet invasion of Manchukuo, which China believed to rightfully belong to them, put another strain on the relationship.

Chiang’s distrust of Stalin caused him to refuse to join the Berlin-Moscow Axis (as the “sinister alliance” was becoming known), but for the moment at least, he remained effectively in that camp. The 2,000,000-strong Japanese Army was too valuable for the British to give up just to support the Chinese (who were effectively incapable of offensive action outside their own borders), and any aid to China would effectively mean aiding an enemy power. The British meanwhile hoped to forge a peace settlement between China and Japan, although talks fell apart when it became clear that Chiang was unprepared to give up any concessions beyond possibly Hainan Island, while the IJA was too proud to consider anything less than the effective capitulation of the Chinese government.

The Winter War, December 1939

One of the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact placed Finland within the USSR’s sphere of influence. Stalin was quick to seize the opportunity to redraw another Soviet border, this one merely a few kilometres from Leningrad (which he believed was threatened by the Finns, despite the fact that the Finns had made no move against the USSR since the Civil War). In November, he sent an ultimatum to the Finns demanding that they adjust the border further away from Leningrad in exchange for a much larger area of Karelia, which Mannerheim was quick to refuse.

Although the Soviet plan had been to invade on November 30th, the war with Japan continued to take the resources of the western military districts (three corps had been transferred to Siberia from the west since July), and the Red Army was unready to move until December 14th. Immediately, the offensive slowed to a crawl, as the numerically superior Red Army was held up by Finnish ski troopers using irregular tactics, and behind them, the imposing Mannerheim Line.

Hitler was quick to support his ally, declaring war on the Finns and imposing a blockade around their ports, headed by the KMS Graf Spee and KMS Deutschland, which had just returned from a major raiding campaign in the North Atlantic. Icy conditions in the Baltic meant that the blockade accomplished little, but his actions strengthened the German-Soviet relationship and eventually resulted in the renegotiation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact into the German-Soviet Treaty of Alliance, the infamous Axis Pact.

Chinese Offensives, January 1940

Japan’s failure to take Changsha in October 1939, coupled with the need to transfer forces to Manchukuo to face an ever-expanding Red Army, had weakened the IJA’s position in China considerably. Although a landing in Guangxi had cut China off from potential French or British aid (which was looking less likely than ever) and captured the city of Nanning, the Chinese had raised new forces while the Japanese were forced to move them, counting on the belief that China was incapable of offensive action to sustain their position while they fought with the Red Army.

When the first of three major Chinese offensives began in December 1939 in Mengkukuo, the IJA was caught off guard, and although a frantic scramble to patch a defence together ultimately stopped the Chinese from taking anything important, the worst had yet to come.

Shortly after the new year dawned, a much more serious offensive began in Guangdong province, aimed at crippling the Japanese position in Southern China. Here the Chinese found their greatest successes, recapturing Nanning and reversing nearly all of Japan’s recent gains, threatening Canton and nearly shattering the Japanese presence further east. Japanese losses, nearly all of them KIA, are estimated around 30-40,000, and while Chinese losses were similarly heavy, Japan was dealt an enormous blow to morale. For the first time, Tokyo was forced to confront the reality of fighting two vast powers at the same time.

Second Siege of Petropavlovsk, February 1940

One major advantage that the Japanese held over their enemies was their Navy. Comprised of ten battleships, six carriers, and many smaller ships, the IJN was almost as strong as the Royal Navy and US Navy, and far superior to any other in 1940. The Red Fleet, by contrast, had only three battleships, and was forced to divide its forces between the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as the Pacific. The results were predictable, and after a short battle outside Vladivostock in the early days of the war, the Pacific Squadron was effectively destroyed as a force, with blockades of Soviet ports quickly following.

After the losses in China and Manchukuo, the Navy hatched a plan that would, if successful, deliver to Japan a much needed victory (as well as undoubtedly rub some salt in the eyes of the Army). The target was Petropavlovsk, Stalin’s largest port on the Kamchatka peninsula. Although already under blockade and too far from the Manchurian Front to have much value in the present war, it was large enough that a capture would force Stalin to take some notice of Japan beyond Vatutin’s offensive, and it would finally secure the Kurile Islands from Soviet nuisance raids.

On February 5th, two Navy battalions landed in a nearly defenceless Petropavlovsk, while other forces secured the northern half of Sakhalin island (or Karafuto as the Japanese called it). While in Japan the move was celebrated as a tremendous victory, in the USSR it went ignored, as events in Finland caught the attention of Radio Moscow.

Petsamo, February 1940

From the moment the Red Army had marched into Finland, Mannerheim had put out calls for help to anyone who would listen. Norway and Sweden had flatly refused, determined to remain neutral, while Hungary had considered sending a volunteer force before deciding that the efforts required to get them to Finland would be too difficult to be worthwhile. Britain however, did not share a border with Germany, while France’s was heavily defended by the Maginot Line, so neither were at serious risk of Hitler’s immediate wrath. Hitler’s distant wrath, better known as the Baltic Blockade, did create a bit more of an obstacle.

Paris and London decided in January to send a 20,000 man expeditionary force to the Finnish arctic port of Petsamo (and the only port through which any aid could still pass). Escorted by a detachment of the Royal Navy including the battleships HMS Rodney and HMS Malaya, as well as four cruisers and numerous smaller ships, although as they would be operating north of the Arctic Circle during winter, no carriers were assigned.

Initially, all went to plan, and the Allied force landed in Petsamo without trouble (luckily, a few days before the main Soviet thrust aimed at the city arrived). The escort ships, undisturbed by the Red Fleet, began bombarding Murmansk to both damage the port and cause disruption to the Soviet forces headquartered there.

Problems began for the Allies when the largely ineffective General Meretskov was removed (and later shot) for his failure to quickly pierce the Mannerheim Line. His replacement, General Ivan Konev, chosen for loyalty reasons rather than skill, nonetheless proved quite capable and had begun to make progress in several sectors of the front. The arrival of the U-29 in Arctic waters also surprised the British, launching several attacks against the Royal Navy, and although no ships larger than a corvette were sunk during the month it was active (at this point, operating out of Arkhangelsk), the cruiser Norfolk suffered heavy damage and was forced to return to Britain.

On March 13th, Konev’s next offensive against the Mannerheim Line broke through near Summa and was quickly followed up by a blitzkrieg-inspired strike at Viipuri, which was occupied on the 18th. Petsamo was placed under effective siege the same day, where the Expeditionary Force awaited evacuation.

Vatutin’s Next Move, March 1940

After the fall of Hailar, both the Soviets and Japanese had spent months assembling their forces for the inevitable next offensive in Manchukuo. While Hailar had cost the Japanese little more than a loss of face, both sides were well aware that the southern, more populated areas of the territory held an abundance of resources, which were extremely important to the Japanese war effort, while a strike that reached far enough south could potentially cut the army in China off from Korea and the Home Islands. Both the Soviet Far Eastern Army and the Kwantung Army had swelled, the latter roughly doubling in size compared to early 1939.

On March 17th, guns thundered along the Amur and outside of Hailar, as Vatutin began a three-pronged assault aimed at Harbin. The fighting, as was common in China, was vicious, as neither side had ratified the Geneva Convention (or looked interested in following it). The insult of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and the well-known importance of Manchukuo to the Empire, were also reasons why neither side bothered giving quarter.

The Japanese defences on the Ussuri, opposite Vladivostock, were the site of some of the bitterest fighting in the whole war – as the most heavily fortified area of the line (and one of the most obvious launching points for an attack), Japanese soldiers were able to hold up the Red Army for more than two weeks before any serious bridgehead was created on the west bank. Even following this, banzai charges were attempted in a desperate attempt to push Vatutin’s men back into the USSR, but when BT-5 tanks were driven across the river, the Japanese were forced to retreat, but the cost had been high.

As it turned out, the forcing of the Ussuri crossing was likely unnecessary, as other units from the north and northwest began to threaten Harbin by the beginning of April, having pushed away, or more frequently, straight through the Kwantung Army defences. Unfortunately for the Red Army men, Harbin was the site of Unit 731 (or as it is more commonly known today, ‘War Crimes Unit 731’), a chemical and biological weapons testing facility famous for its experimentation on humans (often Chinese prisoners). Although the Kwantung Army remained intact, if shaken, the Japanese felt as though they had no other choice, unleashing a wave of chemical weapons on the advancing Soviet forces. Plague and cholera bombs were also dropped on Soviet cities including Vladivostock and Khabarovsk, but the high casualties did nothing but strengthen Stalin’s resolve (and give Radio Moscow some new pieces of propaganda). Most importantly however, the attacks slowed the Red Army down enough to save Harbin from capture, and gave the Kwantung Army time to prepare new defences.

The War Spreads North, April 1940

Ever since the beginning of hostilities, Hitler had been considering a potential attack on Norway as a way of ensuring that the British would have no opportunity to interdict iron ore supplies from Sweden, which were commonly transported through the Norwegian port of Narvik. The landing of a British and French force in Petsamo further alarmed him, as when Petsamo inevitably fell, those forces would have to go somewhere, and many of them would rather board a Royal Navy ship than visit a Soviet prison camp. Where else would those ships go but straight to Narvik?

By March 25th, the Germans were ready. Elements of the Kriegsmarine currently in the Atlantic were ordered back to the North Sea, while ships were loaded with troops and sent north, where they would eventually land at the various ports along the Norwegian coast. Almost as soon as it began however, the invasion plans fell apart. The move that should have resulted in a quick and easy campaign became a muddled mess.

Ironically, the first ‘disaster’ of the campaign was the collapse of Finland on March 26th, as Konev’s tanks were heading for Helsinki. While a great victory for Stalin, it stopped the Red Army from tying down the two Allied divisions, which were able to evacuate Petsamo in good order. Four days later, while sailing back to Britain, the convoy returning from Finland ran into the German squadron carrying troops that were to be used to secure Narvik. The German squadron, comprised of the Admiral Hipper and a few destroyers, was quickly obliterated by the Royal Navy’s battleships. Warning was sent to Oslo, and when the invasion truly began on April 2nd, the small and outdated Norwegian Army was at least partially ready to resist. Most importantly, their Gladiator fighters were able to intercept the Fallschirmjagers that had been sent to secure the airfields and other key locations near Oslo.

The invasion of Norway, timed to coincide with a nearly bloodless takeover of Denmark, lasted only two weeks. Although the Narvik landing was destroyed and the Oslo one intercepted, other German landings at Kristiansand, Trondheim, Bergen and Stavenger were successful and Luftwaffe support eventually allowed the scattered landings outside Oslo to capture the city. Reports of U-boats operating in the Narvik area convinced the Royal Navy commander not to risk sending the Allied Expeditionary Force, straight out of Petsamo, into the city (as it turned out, there were no U-boats within 200km of his forces by this time). Other reports, this time of Red Army men massing on Norway’s border with the new communist puppet government of Finland, then convinced the Norwegian government to surrender to Germany, who occupied the entirety of the country.

Schlieffen Once More, May 1940

In the days immediately following the fall of Norway, British Prime Minister Chamberlain resigned from the office, stating afterwards that he felt that his attempts to both prevent the war, and then once it arrived, its conduct, had failed. Chamberlain recommended that Winston Churchill be given the role, a move that King George VI approved. Churchill, known both for his intense anti-communism dating back to the days of the Russian Civil War, and his almost equal hatred for Hitler and Nazism, was seen by many as the one man who could unite the country against the two greatest enemies Britain had ever faced. But Churchill was given little time to celebrate.

On May 10th, 1940, Hitler’s Wehrmacht stormed into Belgium and the Netherlands, their ultimate goal: France's humiliation and a true reversal of Versailles. Avoiding the impassable Ardennes forest, the plan in many ways was a re-run of the nearly-successful Schlieffen Plan used in 1914. The French, expecting the attack to come from the north to avoid the Maginot Line, began moving their forces into Belgium the moment war began, aiming to meet up with the Belgians and form a defensive line, similar to what had occurred in World War I, along one of Belgium’s rivers. The hopelessly outdated Dutch army put up a brave fight, but had little hope against Guderian’s fast-moving panzer force, surrendering after five days of intense battle. The Dutch Navy fled to London where they would continue the war, while elements of the army were able to join the Allied line near Antwerp.

The Belgians looked like they were going to collapse in the same way. The fortresses in the east, most famously Eben-Emael, that were supposed to hold the Germans back were defeated by a brilliant combination of Fallschirmjager tactics, deception and plain old brute force. Liege, Namur and Antwerp were overrun by the end of the first week of the campaign, while Brussels was captured on the 19th. French units, having rushed into Belgium, were being pushed out again, and questions began to rise in the High Command and government as to whether France was about to fall in the same way Poland had half a year prior.

On the 21st, those questions vanished. Guderian’s panzers, which had so far been travelling roughly in a straight line beginning with the cities in the Ruhr and likely ending with the Channel port of Boulogne, were halted near the city of Ghent. That sector of the front was filled by a combination of Belgian, French and British forces, still reeling from the dramatic battles of the previous week. Most importantly however was the presence of the finest elements of the French Tank forces, including the fearsome Char B1. Guderian’s Panzer Is and IIs were severely outmatched while his accompanying infantry struggled to cross the Scheldt river against an entrenched enemy not unlike that faced by their fathers at the Marne in the last war. Unlike their fathers, the Wehrmacht was able to call in Luftwaffe support including Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bombers, said to be able to “land a bomb on the top of a ten pfennig piece” (while this claim was never tested, it is close enough to the truth to avoid dispute). The Allies could also call on their own air support, and eventually a flight of RAF Hurricanes were necessary to throw the Germans back across the river. But by the end of the day, the most essential wing of the advance had stalled. France would not fall in one swift stroke.

Return to Wuhan, May 1940

Under pressure from both the Chinese and the Soviets, the IJA’s position was growing worse by the day. Having determined the Chinese to be the lesser threat of the two, Tokyo had decided to prioritise the Kwantung Army for reinforcements and new equipment, and had pulled some units out of the line in China to ensure that Vatutin could not break through and overrun the vital resources and factories of Manchukuo. But in aiming to solve one problem, the Japanese had created for themselves another.

From the early months of the war with Japan, Chiang Kai-Shek had hoped to wear down the Japanese forces by acting in a mostly defensive manner, conserving manpower and attempting to offset the qualitative disadvantages that his army suffered from. As more and more Japanese first-rate units were being sent north however, and boosted by the success of the winter offensives, the opportunity to strike at the invader once again presented itself.

Chiang’s aim was to retake Wuhan, a major city in central China and the site of the largest battle of the war so far. Its capture would jeopardise the Japanese positions across the rest of Hubei province, and possibly force the IJA to abandon Nanchang, which they had taken in early 1939. Furthermore, it would force Japan to either reinforce the Chinese front (which would relieve the pressure on the Soviets) or risk the collapse of their entire position south of Peking.

Beginning in early May, the Wuhan Offensive started out similar in scope to one of the offensives that had taken place in Guangdong, but as Japanese resistance was lighter than initially expected, the offensive was slowly expanded into a much larger effort that covered most of the frontline in Hubei. Although casualties were heavy on both sides, the Chinese made enough progress that the city of Wuhan erupted into open revolt against the Japanese, effectively collapsing their position in the area. Chinese forces entered Wuhan on June 4th, while Japanese commanders fell on their swords. Within Tokyo, the reaction was more drastic than ever before, as for the first time they began to look to the Western powers in the hope that the war with China could end on favourable terms before their presence there fell apart completely.

Ghosts of the Marne, June 1940

With the failure of Guderian’s panzer group to break through at Ghent, General von Bock was forced to abandon the plan of cutting off British and Belgian forces in Flanders. Although German industry was well supplied by Soviet raw materials and could handle a long war with the Allies if the need arose, images from the Western Front in World War I cast a long shadow over the country. Hitler had made it abundantly clear that France needed to be taken down in 1940 (rumours persist to this day that Hitler was planning on backstabbing his Soviet ally in 1941 if this was successful).

Bock’s new plan, codenamed Fall Rot, hoped to use the concentration of Allied forces in Flanders to his advantage, by attacking the correspondingly weakened Allied (primarily French) positions between Lille and Sedan, encircling the French 9th Army and allowing the German forces to push on towards Paris. At the same time, Guderian’s panzers were kept facing the British on the Scheldt, to either tie down their forces or, if the British moved to reinforce the French further south, to make a resumption of the original offensive possible on short notice. Hoth’s panzers, which had been a major part of the quick success in the Netherlands, were transferred south, and would form the main striking arm of Bock’s attack.

The new offensive began on June 1st, and initially saw the same success that the first strike against France had. French intelligence and communications (which can generally be described as poor) had not noticed most of the movement of German troops away from the Scheldt, and while the French lines in the south were more than capable of keeping away the German holding forces that had been there a week earlier, they were unprepared to face the brunt of Hoth’s panzer group, which tore through the French lines at Sedan and captured Reims within four days. The other wing of the attack also quickly broke through the French lines at Douai and pushed through to Arras and St Quentin.

With German troops on the Somme and heading for the Marne, Daladier and the French generals were forced to take drastic action. First, the 9th Army was ordered to retreat towards Laon before Hoth would be able to surround them. Then Daladier asked Churchill to expand the RAF’s coverage of the front, as the French Air Force had been badly smashed up in the fighting (a move that upset many in Britain, only for Churchill to publicly ask them if they would rather lose the war completely). Then nearly 40% of the forces manning the Maginot Line (which had been a quiet sector since the end of 1939) were pulled from that front and sent to the Marne.

The last move is likely to be the reason that Hoth was stopped before Paris. Having outrun their supply lines, the panzers had been forced to steal fuel from civilian petrol stations, and while resistance had not yet been strong enough to make ammunition a serious problem, the arrival of an entire French army (and eventually the transfer of another from the Scheldt line) meant that Hoth could no longer rampage through the countryside. Bock’s forces managed to reach Laon before the French retreat, and much of 9th Army was forced to surrender, but the primary objective of the attack, the capture of Paris, had failed. The French campaign had cost the Germans a great deal of equipment, and its failure rendered the Germans incapable of any further offensive action for several months.

The Great March East, June 1940

Following the liberation of Wuhan, the Chinese military was divided. Although the Japanese positions in the southern half of the country looked to be collapsing, some generals still believed in the previous, largely successful, strategy of defence and waiting for the Russians to liberate China. Others sensed the opportunity in front of them, believing that the successful Wuhan Offensive should be continued all the way to the old capital of Nanjing. Chiang Kai-Shek had been of the belief that the defence was preferable, hoping to conserve his strength for the battle with Mao’s communists that would undoubtedly flare up again as soon as the Japanese threat had passed. As Wuhan fell, his thoughts about that future war changed: if the Red Army ever made it beyond the Great Wall, there was significant risk that Stalin would hand the recaptured territory to Mao. The thought of losing Peking, or even worse, Nanjing to the communists was enough for him to order the offensive continued.

Nanjing however, was a long way away, and likely impossible to reach in the short term without a total collapse of the IJA. In an attempt to boost morale, Chiang decided to order Nanjing as the next goal of the operation, with a subsidiary attack launched in the direction of Nanchang. Equipped with Soviet T-26 tanks and I-153 fighters, the Chinese army was in the best state it had been since the beginning of the war, and a massive advance along the Yangtze wasn’t nearly so unthinkable as it would have been a year earlier.

Japanese forces, still shaken from the fall of Wuhan and the need to deal with the ever-increasing number of partisans in their rear, still managed to put up a brave, at times fanatical, fight. Determined to please the Emperor, they inflicted heavy losses on Chiang’s forces, and managed to hold the Chinese out of Nanchang and Anqing (approximately half way between Wuhan and Nanjing), when Chiang was forced to finally call off the attack. The liberation of Hubei province had cost them a little over 100,000 men, but much more importantly it had shown to the world that China was once again a serious world power.

The Empire of the Setting Sun, July 1940

For the Japanese, Hubei was the least of their problems. The Red Army, despite its endless logistical problems (mostly stemming from the enormous distance from Moscow and the limited capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railroad), was growing increasingly powerful, while Japan had effectively reached the limit of what they could commit to the defence of Manchukuo without drastic changes at home or leaving China entirely (an option that would cause, at minimum, a military coup).

By July, Vatutin felt that he had enough forces and supplies to make the next push. With approval from Stalin, a massive offensive began across the entire front line. Leading the charge were eighty enormous KV-2 tanks, brand new and totally impervious to any weapon in the Japanese arsenal. Armed with a cannon that wouldn’t have been out of place on a destroyer, the KV-2 could serve as either a mobile artillery piece or as a tank killer with devastating effect (one Soviet gunner claims that one round shot from his tank was able to slam through one Japanese Type 95, come out the other side and obliterate a second tank behind it). Japanese infantry had it no better, as Vatutin unleashed the mighty ‘Katyusha’ multiple rocket launchers, which could flatten most of a square kilometre in seconds.

Harbin had been designated as the objective of the offensive, which was planned to take almost a month. After taking it in just three days, and taking down four Japanese divisions with it, Vatutin (under Stalin’s orders) expanded the offensive. Pushing past whatever Japanese resistance got in his way, Vatutin aimed to take Port Arthur, the site of an embarrassing Russian defeat in 1905.

Despite many Japanese tactical errors, the Soviet offensive did not go completely to plan. July 7th, 1940, saw the combat debut of the Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’ fighter, which quickly showed itself to be a significantly better aircraft than anything currently fielded by the Red Air Force. Highly trained Japanese pilots fielding the Zero were able to achieve incredible kill ratios against Soviets who were mostly using I-16s.

Even with the fearsome Zero, the Kwantung Army was unable to stop the Soviet advance, which took the Manchukuoan capital of Hsinking on July 19th and then Mukden on the 29th, effectively cutting the entire Japanese Army in China off from Korea, forcing the IJN to handle the supply requirements of more than 600,000 soldiers. Vatutin would eventually reach Port Arthur in late August, but by then the battle for Manchukuo had been long decided.

The Minsk Conference, July 1940

The failure of the Wehrmacht to deal France a fatal blow in the spring left Germany with a major problem: Romania had formed alliances with both France and Poland, while Germany was dependant on foreign oil which was mostly supplied by the Romanians. Although Romania hadn’t taken any hostile action against the Axis yet, the fact that Romania was still selling oil to the French, and the suppression of the pro-Axis Iron Guard movement caused great alarm for Hitler.

Hitler’s solution was to propose a conference with Stalin, Mussolini and representatives from Hungary and Bulgaria, meeting in Minsk on July 27th, where they spent three days creating a plan to divide Romania that would guarantee Germany access to the Ploesti oil fields. Hitler also offered Hungary and Bulgaria lands that they lost to Romania and Yugoslavia in the Treaties of Trianon and Bucharest, in exchange for their joining the Axis Pact and in Bulgaria’s case, basing rights for Red Fleet ships. All of the guarantees in the original Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were reaffirmed, giving Stalin the ‘green light’ to take his share of Eastern Europe. Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and the USSR eventually agreed to go to war with Romania and Yugoslavia some time in September 1940.

Negotiations with Mussolini proved less successful. Although Hitler had offered Mussolini a great chunk of Yugoslavia and all of Italy’s claims to French lands, Mussolini knew that the situation in France cast into doubt Hitler’s ability to make good on the promises regarding the French territories (while Italy’s military was inadequate for any protracted war against the Allies). Mussolini had also felt insulted when Hitler formed the alliance with Stalin in 1939, in open violation of the Anti-Comintern Pact, without even consulting the Italians, and was wary of the reaction in Italy to joining an alliance with the hated communists. When Mussolini left the conference, Hitler was known to be quite upset to see the man he had looked up to for fifteen years abandon him. It would be the last time the two ever met.

With Hitler’s guarantee of non-interference, Stalin felt ready to finally take control of the lands promised to him in 1939. On July 30th, Stalin sent ultimata to the three Baltic States, effectively demanding that they allow the Red Army in or face war. Although they briefly considered opposing Stalin, his determination in Manchukuo and Finland convinced them to agree to Stalin’s demands. Within days they were reorganised into new Soviet Republics.

The Wider War, August 1940

The Wehrmacht’s failure to defeat France in the spring of 1940 forced Hitler to look for other ways to convince the British to give up the fight, knowing that the French would be doomed without their closest ally supporting them. Although Goring boasted that the Luftwaffe would be able to terrorise the British into submission with an intense bombing campaign directed at London, this was well beyond the Luftwaffe’s actual capabilities, as Bf 109s could barely make it to Britain from their current bases, much less provide any sort of escort to the bombers, but it is still very uncertain as to whether this would work.

Instead, the focus went to the Kriegsmarine. Although having suffered considerable losses in the Norwegian campaign, including the KMS Admiral Hipper and three light cruisers, the small navy still had considerable power to strike at the British. Arguably its greatest strength was the U-boat arm, which like in World War I aimed to bring the British down with an intense convoy raiding campaign. The use of submarines also allowed them to largely ignore the capital ships of the Royal Navy, which drastically outnumbered the Kriegsmarine’s. In the wake of the first French campaign, Hitler gave Donitz orders to have as many U-boats as possible built.

Unfortunately for Donitz, Hitler retained his fascination for capital ships of his own, which had only been boosted by the success of the raids conducted by KMS Graf Spee and KMS Deutschland in late 1939. With the launch of the new battleship KMS Bismarck, and her sister ship Tirpitz soon to follow, Hitler believed that he had the beginnings of a Navy that could soon challenge the Royal Navy to a surface battle like Jutland, and win decisively. In giving the Kriegsmarine maximum priority for resources, the Fuhrer ordered that another two battleships (“K” and “L”) be laid down with the same design as “H” and “J” (at this time known as the H-39 design), which had been slowly worked on since the middle of 1939. The carrier KMS Graf Zeppelin was also to be completed by the middle of 1941, although scepticism about the true value of carriers caused the scrapping of her sister ship “B”.

The Allies had also been busy on the naval front. In the middle of 1940, elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy entered the Atlantic after negotiations between London and Tokyo (the Japanese, having lost most of Manchukuo to the Soviets, needed to import resources to fuel their war against Stalin, while the British were desperately short of destroyers that the Japanese did not need in the Sea of Japan). American aid to Britain and France had also increased since May, including the delivery of a thousand 75mm artillery pieces and a hundred P-40 fighters to France, which had been well received by the American public and likely contributed to Roosevelt’s re-election in November.

Case Purple/Fall Lila, September 1940

Planned after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and organised in the wake of the Minsk Conference, the dual invasion of Yugoslavia and Romania by the four Axis powers had been long seen as necessary for Germany to finally secure enough resources to be totally self-sufficient, while Stalin wanted to push the USSR’s border as far west as possible to make a German backstab and following war more difficult.

When Hungary and Bulgaria joined the Axis on July 29th, Yugoslavia and Romania were almost completely surrounded, which would make aid from the Allies impossible and a strong defence on all fronts extremely difficult. When the Axis moved on September 6th, it was little surprise to anyone that the two countries quickly fell. Within two weeks both had been divided in accordance with the plans agreed to at Minsk, with the USSR taking Bessarabia, Bukovina and Moldova, Bulgaria taking Southern Dobruja and the lands it claimed at the time of the Second Balkan War, Hungary regaining Transylvania, and Germany occupying the rest of Romania (including the Ploesti oil wells, which had survived the invasion unscathed) and much of Yugoslavia. Hitler again offered Italy the coastal regions of Yugoslavia in exchange for their entrance to the Axis, but the offer was met with silence.

Although the Allies were unable to directly help either Yugoslavia or Romania, Churchill was determined to hit back at the Axis any way he could. Numerous ideas were discussed, including a Western Front offensive, which was shelved due to French unpreparedness and the small, albeit increasing, size of the BEF. Eventually it was decided to carry out the long-planned bombing of Baku, which if successful could eliminate more than half of the entire Axis oil production for several years, and would severely impact their efforts to continue the war.

Launched from French Syria in late October, the raid was made up of 150 Bristol Blenheim bombers. Communist spies in Turkey noticed the flight (where else would Allied bombers be heading but Baku?) and warned Moscow, which allowed fighters to be scrambled before the bombers arrived. The Red Air Force gave good account of itself in the battle, shooting down more than half of the British bombers (which were operating without escort due to the distance involved), but in spite of them, the raid managed to reach the oil fields and caused considerable damage. Much of the surrounding area was set on fire due to poor Soviet handling of spillage, and the city of Baku also suffered light damage. Most estimates today suggest that Baku lost most of its production capability in the raid, and was still only operating at 60% of its pre-war capacity a year following the raid.

The Great Betrayal, October 1940

Although the civil war between Chinese Nationalists and Communists had been put on hold since the Japanese invasion in 1937, Chiang and Mao were allies in name only, and both knew that as soon as the Japanese threat had passed, old rivalries would rise to the surface once more. With Nationalist forces nearing the gates of Nanjing, and the Red Army in Port Arthur and Mengkukuo, Japan would not be a serious threat to China much longer.

But Mao knew that if he waited until Nanjing and Peking were retaken, he would be fighting a Kuomintang that controlled nearly all of China, led by a hero that liberated much of it. Public opinion of Chiang had already markedly improved since the recapture of Wuhan, while Mao was relying on public discontent with the Nationalist government to make up for what he lacked in territory or soldiers. Allowing Chiang to do all the hard work against Japan had weakened the Nationalists considerably (Hubei alone had been worth 100,000 men, and the Nanjing campaign had the potential to match that), but weighed against the cost of fighting a popular government controlling nearly all of China from the backwater Shaanxi province, five divisions wasn’t much.

Feeling he had no other option, Mao ordered his forces to attack the Nationalists, hoping to take advantage of Chiang’s distraction with Japan and secure enough of the country to provoke a China-wide communist uprising. The initial battles went well, as Chiang’s best forces were deployed against the Japanese while only second-rate troops were left to watch the CCP. Communist forces were able to secure Xi’an and Lanzhou in conventional strikes, while small columns of Communists linked up with other groups across the country, causing chaos and temporary breakdowns in Nationalist communications in their wake. Chiang was left shocked, uncertain whether the broken Japanese, the ever-present Communists or even the looming Red Army (which had been inconsistent in its support of any side in the Chinese Civil War) was his greatest threat.

The Hong Kong Talks, November 1940

Ever since Wuhan had been lost, the Japanese had been trying to find a way to end the fighting in China and allow them to concentrate their army against the USSR. Talks between the two had stalled repeatedly, as Japanese ministers (who feared assassination if they returned to the Home Islands without a satisfactory deal) were determined to secure something resembling a victory – with proposals ranging from the rights for IJN ships to base themselves in Chinese ports to the outright annexation of the Peking-Tianjin region and Hainan island. Chiang’s diplomats were convinced that they had technically won the war and were arguing for a return to, at minimum, 1930 borders (how Chiang expected to get control of Manchukuo from the Red Army was never addressed) and reparations for the three years of damage that the IJA had caused.

Mao’s betrayal of Chiang heightened the need for an immediate end to the war. While Japan was a nuisance to China, it was increasingly unlikely that they would be able to do anything more than what they had accomplished in mid-1939, even if a peace was reached with Stalin. Mao however looked to have the potential to overthrow the Nationalist government completely, and Chiang could not afford to leave a million troops committed against the IJA while the Communists tore the rear of his state apart. It was this that prompted Chiang to ask the British to mediate a peace conference.

The British minister’s approach was to remind both sides that the Communists were the greater threat, and that arguments over who owned Manchukuo would only leave it in Stalin’s hands. The conference ended in an agreement where both sides would return to the status quo ante, as it was in 1936. The question of Manchukuo was left open as it had been then, with China retaining its claim to the land, with the intention of settling the dispute after Stalin was defeated. Japanese forces were to be taken out of Chinese territory over a two month period (nearly all of them went straight into the line on the Yalu), giving Nationalist forces time to occupy Peking, Shanghai and Nanjing before the Communists got the chance to seize them. In Japan, the deal with China was unpopular, as many still believed that China was a greater enemy than the USSR, but opposition to the deal (and the likely assassinations to follow) was silenced when the Emperor made his support for the deal known.

“Friend of the Free World”, January 1941

Re-elected to a third term, President Roosevelt now felt confident to begin accelerating aid programs to the Allies. British, and soon afterwards French, reserves of gold and other precious metals were being exhausted, and most predictions suggested that by the summer of 1941, Britain would be unable to buy enough equipment to supply their troops on the Western Front. Should the Western Front collapse, Americans feared that German and Soviet submarines would have nearly free reign over the Atlantic, would starve Britain to death and be able to launch attacks on the East Coast.

This fear of Axis control of Europe led Roosevelt to declare in his third inauguration speech that “America is the friend of the free world. Their safety is our safety, and we must oppose, in every way possible, efforts to destroy them.” In the following days, the speech gave rise to the Opposition of Dictatorship Act, which allowed the “free or discounted export of arms to nations in conflict with states who seek to weaken the cause of democracy around the world”, in effect making it possible for the US to aid any nation fighting the USSR or Germany. Although polls showed that only 58% of Americans supported ‘free’ aid to the British or French (much less the Japanese, who were still incredibly unpopular at this time), the act gained the approval of Congress after Roosevelt promised to only aid the Japanese if the position in China or Korea collapsed.

On February 16th, the Pan-American Security Zone was also extended to the 33rd meridian west of Greenwich (a line that passes through Greenland and near the easternmost point of Brazil), allowing US ships to patrol the western half of the North Atlantic for U-boats (which they would then alert the British about), escorting convoys while using neutrality as the reason that Germany should not attack them.

A Familiar Problem, February 1941

Germany’s strategic situation in early 1941 resembled in many ways the situation faced by the country in the later years of the last war. The alliance with Stalin meant that Hitler was free to send all of his forces to the Western Front, which was once again controlled by an entrenched enemy. The USA was edging closer and closer to war, although it would be at least another year before any American force of scale could be deployed on the Western Front. Possibly the only thing keeping Hitler in power and Germany in the war was the relatively good standard of living enjoyed at home, where food remained plentiful in the wake of imports from the USSR. Without the Soviet alliance, a repeat of World War I and frequent British bombing raids (despite Hermann Meyer’s boasts that no bomber would ever reach Germany) would likely have ended support for the Nazis after they failed to deliver victory in 1940.

Despite the apparently strong position at home and the fact that Germany controlled a greater part of France than they had in either 1914 or at the height of the Spring Offensives, Hitler knew that he had to win the Battle of France in 1941: before Germany could be crushed under the weight of American production that had defeated it in 1918. Unfortunately for him, the Allies knew this too, and had sent every available force to the Western Front, including not just the British Expeditionary Force that had landed in 1939, but Australians, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders and others. Veterans of the Polish campaign and members of the Czechoslovak Army had also been formed into the Central European Legion, which was soon expanded to include Romanian forces as well. Any second blow against France would be much more difficult than the first one.

While giving orders to prepare a new offensive in France, Hitler took another page out of the Kaiser’s plans to win the war, beginning another series of attacks on British convoys. The most notable of these new raids was conducted by the new battleship KMS Bismarck, escorted by the cruiser KMS Admiral Scheer and ten U-boats. Taking place from February 26th until mid-March, the raid saw the sinking of nearly an entire convoy somewhere south of Iceland (after a surprise encounter), including a tanker, 31 merchant ships and two British cruisers. Most importantly however was the duel between Bismarck and the British battleship HMS Royal Oak, which heavily damaged both ships, until the arrival of Admiral Scheer caused the British captain to scuttle Royal Oak. The Kriegsmarine lost four U-boats, which were found shortly afterwards and sunk by British destroyers, but the arrival of bad weather troubled British efforts to locate either of the German capital ships before they returned to base in Norway.

Bismarck’s first raid, despite the overwhelming tactical success, could not win the war on its own. British efforts to counter the U-boat threat continued to improve, as British aircraft development achieved longer and longer flight ranges, while sonar tracking made it easier to locate and destroy the U-boats themselves. Bismarck and Admiral Scheer had evaded the enemy once, and sent nearly half a million tons of supplies to the bottom of the Atlantic, but the efforts of two ships wouldn’t ever be enough to win the Western Front on their own.

The Civil War Resumed, March 1941

Ever since the Great Betrayal, Mao’s communists had been busy infiltrating the parts of China officially under Nationalist control, attempting to gain the support of the populace with promises of reforms that would favour the peasant classes. CCP leadership knew that a quick campaign that, at the very least, established communist control over a large area of China was essential: Chiang could call on six times as many soldiers as Mao could, nearly all of them fully behind their leader who was now seen as the man who beat Japan. Not only were the Communists doomed in any set-piece battle if they couldn’t assemble a larger army, but a failure to expand communist control risked Stalin writing them off entirely, and Mao felt he needed support from Moscow if he had any chance of beating Chiang.

Stalin, however, was more interested in winning his war with Japan and the West than in supporting either side in China (he disagreed with Mao’s version of communism and had helped fight the KMT in Xinjiang in 1937). Had things progressed unchanged from the middle of 1940, it is likely that he would have ignored China entirely.

In the wake of the Hong Kong Peace Conference, Stalin changed his mind. A Soviet spy had infiltrated the conference while claiming to be a Swiss journalist, and reported back to Stalin the anti-Communist ideas that the British mediators had used to unite the Chinese and Japanese. As the conference ended, Stalin was convinced that the British and French would use China as a way of striking the USSR itself, and that if the Nationalists were allowed to win, China may enter the Allies fully, adding another three million soldiers to their ranks.

Deeming a Nationalist victory unacceptable, Stalin requested that Mao travel to Moscow in late February 1941. At their meeting, Stalin offered Mao a thousand T-26 tanks and 500 I-153 fighters, both of which were obsolete in Europe and against Japan but quite capable against anything the Nationalists were currently capable of fielding (with the exception of a few captured Japanese weapons). Stalin also ordered the puppet warlord Sheng Shicai, who controlled all of Xinjiang, to support the CCP in every way possible. Mao did ask Stalin not to declare war on the KMT directly, fearing that it would bring more Chinese into the Nationalist armies. Stalin, who wanted to use the bulk of the Red Army to conquer Korea, agreed.

The Third Front Opens, March 1941

As Mao arrived in Moscow, Stalin had just given the order to begin the Middle Eastern Strategic Operation (nicknamed in the post-war world as ‘Operation Venus’, although this was never used by the Soviet High Command), the long-awaited reaction to the Baku raid the previous year. The plan involved invading Turkey from two sides (the western force being commanded by the Germans) to secure Germany’s chromium supply, push the claims of the Georgian and Armenian SSRs and open up a route to the British and French colonies. Simultaneously, an invasion of Iran would be conducted with the hopes of capturing Iran’s oil (which would be useful in the case of Baku being destroyed), as well as pushing the British beyond bombing range of the Caucasus and opening up a threat to India. Following those two operations, Stalin hoped to provoke a series of Arab uprisings in Syria, Jordan and Palestine, which would give the Axis control of the entire Middle East and force the British to transfer forces away from the Western Front to defend the Empire.

The invasion of Turkey began on March 11th, 1941. The German Army Group D, under General von Kleist, was the first to move, sending nearly 400,000 troops into Thrace. Turkish forces in the area, armed with equipment dating back, in some cases, to the 1890s, were quickly overwhelmed and Istanbul was reached by the Panzer and motorised forces in just two days. To prevent their demolition, bridges across the Golden Horn were seized by paratroops. Turkish Prime Minister Refik Saydam, having seen his army annihilated and reinforcements cut off, declared Istanbul an open city, while Kleist rushed to the east.

Two hours after the German invasion began, General Konev’s 1st Caucasus Front invaded Turkey from the east. Comprised almost entirely of veterans from the Finnish campaign, this force was skilled in the close-quarters fighting that would be necessary in the mountainous lands of eastern Anatolia. Turkish soldiers fought bravely but managed little against the two-pronged onslaught, and the government surrendered after two weeks, as the Germans approached Ankara and Izmir.

Turkey was then divided into three zones of occupation. The first, covering Istanbul and the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas were under joint German-Soviet occupation. The second, covering much of Turkey west of the Kayseri-Adana line, was managed entirely by the Germans. East of the line was the third, Soviet zone, of which a substantial part was annexed into the USSR. All three zones saw a substantial British-supported resistance campaign, similar to that in Yugoslavia, and in practise the Axis never held much control over the south or deep interior of the country beyond where soldiers were actually stationed.

The Soviet invasion of Iran, launched on the 14th, started out with a similar level of success to the Turkish Campaign. Voroshilov’s 2nd Caucasus Front was the main arm of the attack, starting out from Baku and taking Tabriz before heading to Tehran. The 19th Army, based in Ashgabat and led by General Chuikov (who had spent a year as an advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek before Stalin decided to back Mao), provided a second prong for the attack on Tehran. The two forces seized the oil wells in the north of Iran, before taking Tehran in a costly battle and were heading south when events to the west took the USSR’s attention.

Coup d'état in Iraq, April 1941

Although Iraq had been British territory at the end of World War I and was still effectively under British domination after its official independence in 1932, the Iraqi military had relied on German officers and the country had welcomed many pro-Axis refugees from neighbouring territories. A group of officers known as the Golden Square, seeking to throw the British out of Iraq, had looked to the Axis (Germany principally) for help, and although the failure to defeat France had initially made them reconsider their plans, the Soviet invasions of Turkey and Iran boosted their confidence once more.

On April 5th, the Golden Square ordered their units, all stationed in Baghdad at the time, to seize control of the government away from the pro-British regent. The initial takeover of power was swift, but after the British declared war on Iraq in response, Golden Square leader Rashid Ali was forced to call for help from the USSR. Stalin, sensing the importance of Iraq, ordered the 2nd Caucasus Front (currently near Qom in Iran) to join the Iraqis at Baghdad.

The British were the first to act. As soon as the invasion of Turkey had begun a month earlier, Britain had rushed parts of the Indian Army to Basra and Kuwait, deciding that was favourable to pulling troops off the Western Front. When Iran was invaded, those troops were ordered into Iran to defend the southern oil wells, which were of great importance to the Allied war efforts. As the coup took place, 4th Indian Army was ordered into Iraq.

The pro-Axis faction of the Iraqi Army was quickly defeated by the 4th Indian near the city of Kut, the site of a major British defeat in 1915. French and British bombers based out of Syria bombed the oilfields in the north of Iraq, denying their use to the Axis (unlike Baku, these regions were not restored to pre-war capacity until 1948).

The real battle was to be fought in the streets of Baghdad itself, where Voroshilov’s men had arrived only two days before the Indians. Although the brand new T-34 tank was completely invincible to the British Matildas and Vickers MkVIs, and the British had nothing like the ‘Katyusha’ multiple rocket launcher at all, the close-quarters city fighting rendered most of the Red Army’s advantages in heavy equipment meaningless, while Soviet forces began to run out of supplies. By May 15th, Rashid Ali had been captured and imprisoned, 2nd Caucasus Front had been almost wiped out as a fighting force, and Baghdad had been devastated by the battle.

Crisis Averted, May 1941

The abysmal performance and then annihilation of Voroshilov’s 2nd Caucasus Front angered Stalin enough for him to recall Voroshilov to Moscow the same day that Baghdad fell. Stalin, paranoid as always, had the NKVD investigate the situation in Iraq and interrogate Voroshilov himself. Voroshilov cited a shortage of ammunition that had plagued the Front since its formation as the reason for its poor performance, while the British Indian force had appeared to have plentiful supplies.

The NKVD investigation led them to Gregory Kulik, in charge of artillery and ordnance production despite his aversion to any modern equipment (including tanks, rockets and even minefields), and as it turned out, a close friend to Voroshilov. Kulik had repeatedly given orders to produce inferior equipment and equipment in less than adequate quantities, which made Stalin believe that he, and Voroshilov by extension, were attempting to see the USSR defeated in the war. Despite the two having been close to Stalin, he ordered them shot after a show trial in early June, on the charge of counter-revolutionary activity.

While Voroshilov was receiving a 7.62mm gift from Comrade Stalin, the remnants of 2nd Caucasus Front needed a new commander. For this role, Stalin restored Zhukov to active command. Although Zhukov had been disgraced after the Nomonhan battle in 1939, he had since been placed in charge of the training facilities in and near Kiev, and good reports from NKVD agents had since restored Stalin’s confidence in the general. Arriving in Mosul on May 20th, Zhukov was quick to order the remaining Red Army forces out of Baghdad to regroup in the north of Iraq. The 4th Indian Army, already extremely far from their supply base in Basra, did not follow, while Red Air Force units based in Turkey and the Armenian SSR ensured that the Allies would not trouble them until reinforcements could be deployed to the Middle East.

All Violent On the Western Front, June 1941

“The only thing worse than the Western Front in World War II, was the Western Front in World War I. Apart from the medicine and the lack of gas, it was just the same battle fought by the sons of those who fought the Kaiser”
- Sgt. Harold Pine, WWI & II veteran and Victoria Cross recipient

By the summer of 1941, the Western Front was well and truly stalemated. Along the entire length of the front were two massive lines of trenches, beginning with the Maginot Line in the east and ending with more recently made fortifications along the Scheldt River in the west. The scene would have been quite familiar to a soldier who had been present in 1918, although the presence of tank turrets serving as mobile bunkers and incessant bombardment from the air added a new consideration for common soldiers and generals alike. But memories of the old Western Front remained, especially the ever-present machine guns, now championed by the recently introduced MG 39, or “Hitler’s saw”, which could fire more rounds per minute than any World War I gun had ever considered.

Hitler had spent the year since the failure of Fall Rot well, reinforcing Rundstedt’s Army Group B and Bock’s Army Group A. Panzer IIIs and IVs were finally introduced to the front lines in serious numbers, and while they were inferior to the heavily armoured Matildas and Chars on the Allied lines, they represented a significant step up from the Panzer I or II, which barely deserved to be called training vehicles.

As in Fall Rot, Army Group A would be the main German striking force. Closest to Paris with forces as far forward as the Marne River, Bock hoped to break through the French lines and take the City of Lights (or at present, the City of Blackouts), cutting the Allied lines in two and hopefully forcing the French out of the war. To assist in the operation, Hitler had given Bock control of the fearsome new 800mm ‘Gustav’ railroad cannon, a successor to the Paris Guns of the last war.

Despite massing his panzers into a striking column, Bock failure to secure a breakthrough along the Marne. Although the front most trench lines were smashed through in a matter of hours, tank traps and minefields quickly wore away at the best of the German tanks, while the French pulled reserves out of the city of Paris to plug the gaps. The reserve trench lines were quickly occupied by Allied troops, and after a week of battle Bock could only claim to have taken around 30km in the best sectors of the front.

Although the Allies had blunted the German attack fairly quickly, the campaign was not a complete success for them either. The Gustav cannon was installed in some of the newly-taken ground, putting much of Paris within range. When bombardment of the city began in early July, Daladier decided that French tank development inside the city was no longer practical, and urged the factories to produce trucks instead, while importing tanks from Britain and America, which did not risk having development rudely interrupted by an 800mm shell. The French government relocated to Bordeaux, and declared that France would not surrender even if Paris was taken.

Revenge for Royal Oak, June 1941

The Bismarck’s raid in March 1941 had been more successful than anyone in the Admiralty had dared imagine. The loss of a battleship and more than three quarters of the ships allocated to a convoy had shocked Churchill and angered the public, and answers were demanded. Those answers however, could not be found. In an inquiry conducted in April, none of the surviving British officers were found to have given any unsuitable orders, while difficult weather had made the interception of Bismarck in its return to base nearly impossible. Finding no-one to blame, Churchill dropped the matter.

The public was not so easily convinced, and revenge against the Germans was demanded. Unless the Kriegsmarine sent out another ship for battle however, a traditional engagement would not be possible, and with Bismarck being repaired and Tirpitz still undergoing sea trials, the Kriegsmarine looked unlikely to do just that.

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto instead proposed an alternative plan: an air strike on a major German port to sink as much of their fleet as could be found in a surprise attack. British intelligence was ordered to locate any major German ships that it could, which they eventually did in early June, finding three battleships, two cruisers, and most importantly the new German carrier KMS Graf Zeppelin in port at Wilhelmshaven. Debates continued in London for several weeks as to how the plan should be carried out, but the superior manoeuvrability of the Zero fighter and the overall superiority of the B5N torpedo bomber over the British Spitfire and Swordfish respectively won out, and the Japanese Navy was given the go ahead to launch the raid.

Launching planes from the carriers Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu, the IJN achieved a significant victory over the Kriegsmarine. The KMS Gneisenau, one of Germany’s mightiest ships, was hit in the magazine, exploding and leaving the remaining parts of the ship damaged beyond repair. The 1906 dreadnoughts Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesien were also sunk, as was the cruiser Blucher. Prinz Eugen was in port at the time, but suffered only minor damage, while the Graf Zeppelin had left Wilhelmshaven the previous night, and was found by surface elements of the Royal Navy off the coast of Denmark three hours after the raid, when it was quickly sent to the bottom (and became the focus of British newspapers for days). The Allies lost 58 aircraft, a cheap price to pay for a third of the Kriegsmarine’s major ships. Hitler was furious, ordering a raid be launched on the docks in London, although this proved much less successful.

Battle of the Yalu, July 1941

In the Far East, Stalin’s war with Japan had been stalled at the Yalu River since the autumn of 1940. General Vatutin’s efforts in the meantime had been directed towards securing Manchukuo to reduce the risk of pro-Japanese sabotage to the railroads and other essential elements of the Far Eastern Front’s logistics. By May 1941 the Red Army had a strong grip on Manchukuo, which meant that Vatutin was ready to launch the final stage of the war: evicting Japan from Korea.

The Japanese had expected the move since the fall of Harbin (when the bulk of the IJA had retreated towards Korea instead of the Red Army’s goal of Mukden), and had built a heavily fortified line on the Yalu that could rival the stronger defences on the Western Front. Now manned by nearly two million brave Japanese soldiers prepared to give their life for the Emperor, it was likely the biggest obstacle the Red Army was ever forced to fight in the whole war.

But what the Japanese had in bravery, the Soviets had in heavy equipment. Having lined up hundreds of Katyusha multiple rocket launchers along the length of the Yalu, Vatutin launched one of the greatest artillery bombardments in history to signal the beginning of the assault, which was backed up by three million Red Army soldiers, with KV-1 and T-34 tanks backing them up.

The Yalu line was breached in several places, and was abandoned as soon as it became clear that the line would not keep the Soviets out of Korea entirely. The Red Army pushed aside much of its initial opposition, and headed for Seoul. The IJA simply retreated into the mountains, hoping to make the Red Army overextend itself, while the Navy attacked any Red Army formation within range of a battleship’s guns.

The Japanese tactics caused the Red Army to suffer horrific losses as they had to dig out Japanese soldiers from every pass and cave in the mountains of northern Korea. Naval fire destroyed what were terrible roads to begin with, making resupply of the Soviet forces much more difficult than expected, and although Vatutin eventually entered Seoul, he had suffered horrific losses and had at best a Pyrrhic Victory. But in Japan, the fall of Seoul finally shook the country’s confidence in the militarists that had previously had a stranglehold on power, but now seemed to do nothing but disgrace themselves in battle every time they fought.

2nd Battle of Tianjin, August 1941

Following his return from Moscow, Mao felt that his position in China had improved considerably. Increasing numbers of Chinese peasants were supporting the Communists, in no small part due to promises of land reforms and other methods of winning over the hearts and minds of the population. Chiang had an ironclad grip over Sichuan and Chungking, and was popular in the regions once occupied by Japan, but the central region, where the fiercest battles had been waged in 1938 and 1939, was beginning to support the Communists.

Mao’s aim was to secure the north and centre of China, dividing Chiang’s support base in two while fifth columnists eroded his support in the devastated south. Although he continued to avoid open confrontation with the much larger Nationalist armies, he knew that Communist strength needed to be proven in battle. As he later justified, “A tiger must get into, and win, a fight every now and then, or people cease to fear him”.

From this plan came the Peking-Tianjin Operation. Mao chose the heavily populated northeast as it was the most distant from Chiang’s power base in Sichuan, and would thus be the least well-defended area in China. Furthermore, the Red Army controlled Manchukuo and had men less than 100km from Peking, and if the CCP’s forces could meet up with the Soviets, further aid from Moscow would have an easier time travelling through Peking than if it was to cross the inhospitable deserts of Xinjiang or Mongolia.

Unfortunately for Mao, a prominent communist major defected to the Nationalists and alerted Chiang’s subordinates to the planned move. Chiang ordered around 400,000 men north to reinforce the garrison in Peking and the surrounding area.

They would never make it to Peking. The Communists, using Soviet T-26 tanks, overpowered Chiang’s forces in the north before reinforcements could arrive. Although the garrison of the city of Peking was placed under siege, beginning a fierce month-long battle, the rest of the Communist forces avoided the city and headed for Tianjin and the coast.

Chiang’s reinforcements instead ended up pacifying the province of Shandong, which had been a target of fifth columnists since Mao decided upon the Peking Operation. Communists in the area were known to cause disruption by changing street signs, destroying railroads (the CCP had little in the way of rolling stock) and setting off bombs in pro-Nationalist cities. Lost in the confusion of the province, Chiang’s men were tasked with hunting down and killing any communist bands that they could find, and over the autumn the columns there were effectively wiped out.

A Mistake Repeated, August 1941

By August 1941, America was getting closer and closer to entering the war. Hundreds of American planes were being used by French, British and Nationalist Chinese air forces. The US Navy was escorting convoys to Britain as far east as Iceland. The Army was swelling in size, and industrial plants across the nation were gearing up for war against the Nazis and Communists. Although it looked inevitable that the USA would eventually join the Allies, isolationists still held a significant fraction of seats in Congress, and a return to the Western Front was not something that many Americans looked forward to. Roosevelt was hoping to give the Allies the benefits of American industrial power without the need for American soldiers.

But on August 24th, 1941, the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa was sunk while escorting a convoy. The American public was enraged, as angry at the Germans as they had been after merchant ships and the Lusitania went down in World War I (as it turned out, the Soviet submarine S-7 was responsible for sinking the Tuscaloosa, after the captain misidentified it as a British ship).

Congress was quick to declare war on Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and the USSR, and shortly afterwards passed the Conscription Act 1941, bringing in a draft system similar to that used in World War I. The ‘sleeping giant’ had finally risen.

On Road to India, September 1941

The capture of the southern Iranian city of Shiraz by Chuikov’s 19th Army was one of the greatest victories won by either side in the war so far. The recently raised 5th Indian Army had outnumbered Chuikov’s force nearly 3:2 at more than 270,000 men, and had been tasked with pushing Chuikov back to Tehran. Owing to the limited number of roads in central Iran, Chuikov had suspected that the 5th Indian would simply try to push him north, and ordered his forces to retreat. He had left his tank divisions (equipped with a mix of T-34s and BT-5s) behind on another road, hoping to catch the Indians in a trap. The plan worked perfectly, and the 5th Indian was encircled and surrendered.

With the main Allied force in Iran destroyed as a fighting force, Chuikov seized the oil wells on the Persian Gulf coast, although British sabotage meant that they were of no use to the USSR. Chuikov had no intention of stopping there, and looked to Zhukov’s reinforced 2nd Caucasus Front to help. 2nd Caucasus was still based in northern Iraq, facing Wavell’s 4th Indian Army, and Chuikov wanted Wavell out of the picture so that 19th Army’s flank could be secure. At Chuikov’s request (and despite Zhukov being the superior officer), Zhukov launched a probing offensive in late August against the 4th Indian to ensure they would not move against Chuikov.

His flank secure, Chuikov turned the bulk of his forces east, threatening the crown jewel of the British Empire: India. Although he knew that 19th Army was nowhere near strong enough to actually conquer India, and much too far away from the USSR to be both expanded and fully supplied (even as things were, 19th Army’s logistics were terrible), he hoped to sufficiently spook the British into pulling forces from the Western Front by forcing them to defend India against either the Red Army or a communist revolt (despite the belief of the Soviet leadership, few Indians had communist sympathies and were prepared to support the British if it would keep them out of Stalin’s orbit). 19th Army would halt in November at the port city of Bandar-e-Abbas.

Fuhrerschlacht, September 1941

Hitler had been shocked into a two day near-silence when he heard of the American declaration of war against Germany. Having spent the time since 1936 preparing to fight a war that would not bog down like World War I, he had instead ended up in a conflict disturbingly similar to the one that he had personally fought in. The American entry into World War I had been a large part of the reason Germany had lost the last conflict, and if that war was anything to go by, Germany had at best twelve to eighteen months before the weight of American production fell on them like a 3000 pound hammer falling from the sky.

Turning to World War I for inspiration, Hitler directed OKW to develop a plan for an immediate breakthrough offensive to parallel the Kaiserschlacht of Spring 1918. Ludendorff’s greatest failure had lay in a lack of defined objectives, Hitler was determined not to make the same mistake twice. OKW eventually proposed three plans: one aimed at the British and the Channel Ports, and two aimed at Paris. The first of these, codenamed ‘Thor’, called on Army Group B to advance along a broad front to break through the Scheldt line wherever it was most lightly defended, with Hoth’s Panzers in reserve to be committed wherever the breakthrough was achieved to smash through the remaining Allied positions in Belgium and knock the British out of France. The second, codenamed ‘Heimdall’, involved a frontal assault on Paris supported by the Gustav cannon, but was quickly abandoned as it was mostly a repeat of the failed June offensive and called on too much of the already overstretched Army Group A’s reserves.

Instead, Operation ‘Ragnarok’ was chosen. Developed by General Erich von Manstein, Ragnarok called for the best divisions of Army Groups B and C to be concentrated under Army Group A south of Reims in a massive striking column. Striking southeast towards Troyes, Manstein hoped to confuse the Allies, who would be expecting an offensive towards the Channel Ports, Amiens or Paris. Instead, he would make the Allies believe that he was trying to surround the Maginot Line, intending to make them overcommit to that front, before turning to the west, outflanking the French on the Marne and opening the way for Paris to be taken. Hitler approved and ordered the offensive be ready for the 27th of September.

The operation began with an artillery barrage that included the use of 40 Katyusha rocket launchers (given by Stalin in exchange for prototypes and plans to the Fw 190 fighter), immediately panicking the French troops who were only aware of this weapon from news reports about the war in Manchukuo and Korea. The German infantry assault tore through a shell-shocked enemy line, and within a day most of the French trenches in front of Troyes had been taken. Panzers swarmed into the gap left behind, while French General Conde (commander of the 3rd Army) was forced to call a retreat.

The Germans made it to Troyes without major loss, only to find that General Huntziger of the French 2nd Army had transferred forces from the Marne to protect Paris from the east. Bock ordered his forces to attempt another breakthrough, which initially showed signs of promise but fell apart near Sens, but the transfer of more French tanks and increasing Allied air superiority caused Hitler to call an end to the attack. Another substantial chunk had been torn out of France, but with Paris fortified to become a great citadel and the arrival of winter not far off, Germany’s prospects for victory looked to be growing slimmer by the day.

Allies Meet in Washington, October 1941

No less than twelve hours after the Americans entered the war, Winston Churchill was already planning on meeting with Roosevelt to discuss the future of the war. Although he had intended it as a meeting between just those two and possibly Daladier, Roosevelt believed that the Allies’ interests would be best served if all five major Allied nations were present, and invitations were extended to the leadership of Nationalist China and Japan.

From the beginning of the conference, Churchill was stressing the need to send as many men and as much equipment as possible to the Western Front, to ensure that the Allies maintained their position on the continent (a cross-Channel invasion against the entire German Army was deemed to be impossible if France was knocked out of the fight).

The Chinese, who were not actively fighting either Germany or the USSR, instead sought military advisors from the US to better train and lead Nationalist forces against Mao. Roosevelt agreed, sending Joe Stilwell, a distinguished officer who was fluent in Chinese and was known for his concern about the average soldier – a trait that would make him popular among the Chinese peasants that served Chiang Kai-Shek.

Japan’s priority at the conference was securing an agreement from the other Allies to ensure that they could recover Manchukuo at the end of the war, rather than see it returned to China. Churchill and Daladier were determined to keep the goodwill of the Japanese that they so painstakingly recovered in the last two years, but Roosevelt did not want to be seen betraying his Chinese allies, while Chiang Kai-Shek fiercely resisted any handovers to Japan.

Technology Exchange, October 1941

Towards the end of the conference, Churchill suggested that the British and American scientific research into “Tube Alloys” be combined. Although little progress had been made on either project so far, owing to scientists debating about the feasibility, much less the construction, of a possible uranium-based weapon, there was considerable concern that either the Germans (despite Hitler’s dislike of “Jewish physics”) or Soviets would create such a weapon first. Roosevelt, having already been reminded how precarious the situation in Europe remained, was quick to agree, forming the Allied Committee of Exploration into Tube Alloy Research, the British misnomer being kept as intelligence reports suggested that the Germans believed it to mean something about naval guns.

But the Allies were not the only ones sharing their technological secrets. Although Hitler had been hesitant to support his Soviet ally in the early stages of the war, by 1941 he had decided that the only way Germany could win the war was if the Soviets were also doing the maximum possible damage to the Allied cause, even if that meant exchanging technological secrets. In July 1941, he had offered Stalin plans to the Fw 190 fighter (which was just entering production) in exchange for some Katyusha rocket launchers, which had acquired a fearsome reputation from their use in Korea and the Middle East. Most of these were then used on the Western Front, although some were retained by German industry to be reverse engineered and then mass-produced by Krupp, with the German variant entering front-line use in early 1942.

A much more significant exchange occurred in November, when Germany offered Stalin plans for both the Jumo 004 jet engine and the A4 missile. Hitler had cancelled the A4 project in previous months after deciding that it was “nothing more than an expensive artillery shell” that couldn’t hit any major European targets other than those already in artillery range (the front lines being too far from London for launch sites to be established). The Jumo 004 on the other hand, was still in development and testing, but looked to be Germany’s most promising turbojet engine, which Messerschmitt was planning on incorporating into an advanced fighter design once the engineering difficulties were worked out. Stalin, who did not have any major breakthrough technologies to match the turbojet, offered Hitler plans to the best Soviet tanks currently in service and information about the planned successor to the T-34. Some of these would eventually be used in the creation of the ‘Wolf’ tank.

The Need to Fight Back, November 1941

In late 1941, the war in Europe was entering its third year. In that time, Germany had launched four major offensives against France, while the French had not undertaken any great actions against the Germans. While defensive tactics were sound militarily, especially when the French Army was smaller than the German (and roughly equal when the British were included), politically they were less attractive, and Daladier was under pressure to do something other than wait behind the Maginot Line.

The ending of Operation Ragnarok in October 1941 gave Daladier the opportunity he had been waiting for: a chance to hit back at the Germans while avoiding the best of their entrenched positions, and the heavy casualties that would inevitably follow. Manstein and von Bock had carved another bulge out of the line southeast of Paris, with approximately one third of the bulge opposed by Huntziger’s 2nd Army and the other two thirds by Conde’s 3rd Army further east. With the bulk of their local strength still engaged in battle against Huntziger, the German flank looked weak.

Daladier asked Conde if the situation on the ground was suitable for an offensive, and when Conde responded positively, the order was given to advance. German forces in the area had dug basic trenches, but these were quickly swept past by the French, who were determined to kick the invaders out of their country for good. Troyes, which had been 50km behind the frontline on November 1st, was liberated after six days of offensive action, the first major French city to tear down the swastika in the whole war.

The local collapse of the German army should have yielded the French a major victory, but disputes between the French army commanders gave Bock the time he needed to recover. Conde had wanted to use Huntziger’s 2nd Army to launch a pincer attack on the German salient (which included the majority of the Panzer divisions), but Huntziger was reluctant to move from his current lines lest the Germans make another attempt at Paris. Meanwhile Bourret, commander of the French 5th Army (covering the front from near Chalons to the Luxembourg border), wanted to use part of 3rd Army to attack the German logistics hub at Reims (the capture of which would have seriously debilitated Army Group A).

Daladier intervened with orders for both 2nd and 5th Armies to move against the Germans in a general offensive aimed at Reims and the Marne river, only to find that the Germans had begun pulling out of the salient (Bock had had a long argument with General von Kleist, one of the people closest to Hitler, about the need to pull back from Paris). The resulting French offensive was confused, achieving none of its major aims while the Germans maintained a significant presence on both sides of the Marne.

Every Map Square A Destroyer, January 1942

In the days immediately following, America’s entry into the war, Donitz had decided that the best way to defeat the British convoys would be to concentrate attacks near the US East Coast, where defensive measures such as maritime patrol flights would be less organised, in contrast to the area east of Iceland which was patrolled by an overwhelming concentration of British and Japanese forces. Although the plan could not be carried out as initially intended owing to the inability of a Type VII U-boat to travel from Kiel to the East Coast and back, a more practical version of the plan was carried out.

From September 1941 until around January 1942, Donitz’s plan proved wildly successful. With dozens of U-boats operating in an area around 1000km wide due south of Greenland, poorly escorted US merchant ships became easy prey for German wolf packs, with monthly tonnage losses briefly reaching levels equal to or worse than those seen in early 1917.

Such good fortune was not to last. By January 1942, much of the US Pacific Fleet had passed through the Panama Canal for service in Europe, while dockyards on the East Coast accelerated production of massive numbers of destroyers and merchant ships. The existing USN proved not to need the reinforcements, as their 150 destroyers proved enough to reasonably cover the ‘Greenland Gap’ once it was identified by Allied planners, and by February U-boats were being sunk once again at the rates that the British and Japanese had been achieving.

The quick closing of the ‘Greenland Gap’ caused Hitler to fly into a rage, with Donitz bearing the brunt of his anger. In early February, Hitler cancelled the U-boat operations (and effectively made Donitz’s post as head of the U-boat arm meaningless), placing his faith in the surface fleet and directing most of the Kriegsmarine’s resources to the Luftwaffe.

Behind the Battlefield, February 1942

In 1938, the Soviet espionage and intelligence services, controlled by the NKVD, had been among the greatest in the world. Thousands of spies, seeking to advance the cause of world communism, had infiltrated the Western nations and Japan, sending Moscow vital information about their future rivals. The announcement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and then the Axis Pact months later, had shaken the confidence of many communists: anti-fascism was once a core tenet of communist ideology but now abandoned by Stalin (whose propaganda machine was now declaring the need to defeat capitalism and imperialism). Many Soviet spies abandoned the USSR, finding work in the countries that they had once stolen secrets from, although few actively worked against the USSR.

Stalin and Beria were left with approximately one-eighth of their former spies by 1941. But what they lacked in numbers, they now had in fanatical commitment to the communist cause. Many of the spies that had left them were nothing more than opportunist mercenaries, but those who remained were certain to be loyal. Axis intelligence efforts were also hampered by the fierce anti-communism that had arisen in the West (the Communist Party USA had been declared illegal and its leaders interned, and similar actions had been taken in Britain), and the German Abwehr had been generally incompetent (all of its operatives in Britain had been captured by 1941).

In spite of this, the NKVD made an important discovery in February 1942: the British had managed to break the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code and were reading secret German messages on a daily basis. Stalin immediately informed Hitler, warning him that the code-breaking was a likely reason why the U-boats had been so quickly countered in the ‘Greenland Gap’. Hitler was initially unconvinced, but after the KMS Scharnhorst and Deutschland were sent on another convoy raiding operation, only to be sunk within 36 hours by British bombers, he ordered all parts of the Wehrmacht to switch to a more advanced Enigma machine. Stalin also urged Hitler to immediately resume submarine raids, but it was not until August 1942 that he allowed Donitz to send the U-boats out again. By that time, Allied ASW practises had improved to the point that it was an unsustainable effort, while the Kriegsmarine remained starved of resources.

A Change Amidst Dishonour, March 1942

In the early 1930s, Japan had been effectively taken over by the country’s military. For a long time, military rule had been popular, with their campaigns in China seen as a way of forcing the Western powers to give Japan the respect it deserved, instead of the apparent scorning it had received at Versailles.

By 1942, militarism was no longer quite so popular as it had once been. The Army had been repeatedly defeated in battle against both the Chinese and Soviets, and the Japanese Empire, once spanning from Wuhan to Hailar to Tokyo, was reduced to the Home Islands, perhaps a third of Korea, and a few isolated ports on the Siberian coast. Prime Minister Hiranuma, a determined anti-communist, had resigned from his post in disgrace, while many of his Army commanders had fallen on their swords. While the Japanese Army remained powerful (helped by shipments of American anti-tank guns which finally allowed them to counter Soviet armour), their leadership had lost face. Clearly, it was time for a change.

The Navy was quick to suggest Mitsumasa Yonai as Hiranuma’s successor. Yonai was known for having opposed the pre-war plans to build an alliance with Germany and Italy and for the Emperor’s confidence in his strong moral character. Yonai however, felt that it was improper that a Navy man lead the country while the war was dominated by the efforts of the Army. The Army was meanwhile in disgrace and no leader they offered would have the confidence of the majority of the nation.

The Emperor then called Yonai to his castle, offering him the post if he would take it. Yonai instead suggested that a move back to civilian government would be ideal for the nation, as it would reign in the Army (which had been ignoring Tokyo’s wishes as early as 1928) and would be more likely to bring about a rapprochement with the Western powers, who had been distrustful of previous Japanese governments and had allied with them only out of necessity. Yonai was convinced that Japan could win back respect from the West by continuing to support them against Germany and the USSR.

Following Yonai’s recommendation, the Emperor nominated Takao Saito to lead a new civilian government. Although the Army and Navy both maintained influential positions in the government, neither could exert anywhere near the level of dominance that they had once had. The change was well received in the West, and Churchill suggested that “the time may be right for a renewal of our old alliance” (referring to the alliance the two nations had formed before World War I).

America Can Into France, March 1942

General Bradley’s arrival in France in March 1942, backed up by ten divisions of American soldiers, represented a drastic shift in thinking on the Western Front. The Allies now had enough men on the Western Front to make offensive action possible, while the USAAF was tasked with the destruction of German industry in the Rhineland (the RAF and what was left of the French air force continued to maintain their superiority over the trenches). Bradley’s first major action in Europe was to meet with Daladier and the French High Command (the Americans were filling in largely French areas of the line), where it was decided that a major offensive should be delayed until a more certain superiority in both men and equipment could be brought to bear against the Germans, saving manpower and giving the air forces time to destroy German logistics.

In Germany, the reaction to Bradley’s arrival was much less calm, with the Fuhrer flying into a rage at an OKW meeting in Aachen after being told about it. Predictably, he demanded that an immediate offensive be launched against the entire length of front, only for all three army group commanders to tell him that it would be impossible to do so. Not only did the Germans not have enough Katyushas to cover more than one army group’s front line (Katyushas being seen as the only way to break through the formidable trench lines without suffering enormous casualties), but most of the reserves that would have backed up such an attack had been killed in Operation Ragnarok and the French counter-attack.

Jodl eventually came up with a solution that he hoped would appease Hitler: setting up the new Dora cannon (of the same make as Gustav) to add to the bombardment of Paris. Hitler quickly approved the idea, but quickly reverted to demanding soldiers be sent over the top. Bock eventually cut orders for an offensive for a small sector of front just north of Paris, and the attack went in on March 25th. No breakthrough was achieved and around 40,000 German soldiers were killed for no real reason.

Crisis in Command, April 1942

Hitler’s confidence in the war had been shaky since the failure to take Paris in 1940, and Bock’s failure to capture Compiegne (or even many of the French trenches) had only made the tensions in Germany worse. Not only were the horrors of 1918 repeating themselves, but Hitler was also fearful that Stalin was gathering forces to betray him (Stalin in fact, was doing no such thing, knowing that as soon as Germany fell, he would be next). A second failed war, and an even worse Versailles, were not acceptable. The war had to be won.

Hitler hoped to find a solution to Germany’s difficulties in his close friend Albert Speer, who convinced him of the need to reduce production of civilian goods and direct all possible industrial power towards military production. Fritz Todt, Minister of Armaments, told Hitler that nothing more could be done in the factories (despite the fact that few women were employed and factories were only running one shift a day). Uncertain what to do, Hitler did nothing at all for several months.

The Recapture of Seoul, April 1942

The Soviet logistic situation beyond the Yalu had always been terrible. The Red Army typically had very little in the way of supply lines, instead stockpiling for an offensive and then once that stockpile was large enough, attacking until it was worn down. While this method allowed the beginning of offensives to be incredibly powerful, over a longer period of time it meant that less Red Army soldiers received their full requirements of supply over a continual basis. In Korea, all it did was exaggerate problems that might have been ignored otherwise.

Most people in Korea at the beginning of the war were either pro-Japan or pro-independence. The latter group had been maintaining a resistance campaign against the Japanese ever since the Rising Sun was planted in Korean soil. When the Soviets came, many Koreans believed that if Stalin won, Korea would have no greater chance of independence under the communists (parts of Turkey, Finland, Poland and Romania had been annexed into the USSR), and a significant part of the independence movement ended up fighting the Red Army, joined by those who supported Japan’s rule. While the resistance in Korea would never achieve much on its own, it tied down a large number of Soviet forces (who had great trouble moving through the mountains and broken terrain of the peninsula), and over time the Red Army had bogged down.

Japan on the other hand, had grown stronger. Although the US public was still heavily divided on supporting Japan (resentment remained from their invasion of China), Japanese leadership had convinced Roosevelt to send them some heavy anti-tank guns. Now with the ability to actually fight the Soviet heavy tanks, the IJA hoped to push the Red Army out of Korea for good.

The resulting offensive began with the IJA using Soko Sagyo Ki flamethrower tanks to burn through the front lines, accompanied by the largest Banzai charge ever seen. The Soviets, low on supplies at the time, fought well, and in parts of the front defeated the Banzai charge before it made it to their lines. But along the western coast, gunfire by the IJN and the deployment of Type 1 Chi-He tanks made enough of a difference to see the Soviets pushed back, and Seoul was recaptured after a short but bloody battle. On the Home Islands, the people took the capture of Seoul so soon after the return to civilian rule as a good omen, and Saito’s government was finally legitimised by all but the most fanatical militarists (Saito himself had very little to do with the battle – the plans had been drawn up by the Army as early as December 1941).

The Cornered Tiger, May 1942

As early as the Long March, Chiang Kai-Shek’s single most important goal was to defeat the communists in China, and by 1942 it finally looked possible. The Kuomintang maintained control of much of the coast, including Nanjing and Shanghai, and maintained an iron grip on the southwest, while American aid flowed in through China’s many ports (including the delivery of dozens of radio sets, which would prove invaluable for Nationalist communications). Although communist bandit groups, fifth columnists and mercenaries caused trouble in Hubei and Jiangxi, Nationalist forces occupied the cities and units had been sent to clear the countryside.

Mao still had control of the north of the country, with Soviet puppet Sheng Shicai controlling Xinjiang and his own forces occupying the area from Lanzhou to Tianjin. He had been receiving considerable aid from the USSR, and communist forces had stolen so much Nationalist equipment that he had even claimed that “Chiang Kai-Shek manages our armouries”. But despite the huge numbers of tanks, planes and guns that the communists had access to, infrastructure in China was nowhere close to sufficient for supporting a fully equipped modern army: as many as 80% of Mao’s tanks were abandoned for lack of fuel before even getting the chance to face the enemy, and only those units near Red Army supply dumps in Manchuria were able to use them effectively.

The communist leadership’s power remained heavily focussed in Shaanxi province, and as Chiang gathered forces for an offensive against the communists, he decided that directly attacking their power base would be preferable to engaging Mao’s armies somewhere else, allowing Mao to continue using his land and treasure in the north to sponsor further resistance.

Slaying the Tiger, May 1942

Unlike the battlefields in Korea, France and the Middle East, there was no artillery bombardment or air offensive to herald the beginning of a new attack in China. The Nationalist air force was pitiful against the paper strength of the Communist one (although lack of fuel and airfields meant that Mao’s planes rarely got off the ground). In a land where there was never a clear front line and where land was only controlled when soldiers were physically present, an offensive could move 100km without being noticed as anything more than a routine movement of troops.

The capture of Xian, 300km to the south of Mao’s base in Yenan, was far from a routine troop movement, seeing the destruction of an entire communist corps in face of nearly quarter million Nationalists. Nor did Chiang’s generals halt there, leaving only a small force to hold the city while the rest stormed north. Most communist forces were still stationed in the northeast, and Mao was forced to decide between fleeing for Peking and staying for a final battle.

In the end, Mao and most of the communist leadership fled. Chiang’s army reached Yenan four days later, where 40,000 communists made a final stand and the Nationalists divided their efforts between killing them and looting communist possessions. But Chiang was less concerned about Yenan, and wanted Mao’s head. Luckily for him, a pro-Nationalist family in the south of the city had seen Mao and his bodyguards leave the city on horseback for the northeast. Nearly a hundred Nationalist aircraft were sent into the skies to find Mao, and he was eventually spotted on a mountain road in the west of Shanxi. The chase was on.

Chiang organised a cavalry expedition to attempt to track down Mao’s group before they made it to Peking, only to prove unable to find him. At the same time, the bulk of the Nationalist army was based in Shandong, and local generals there thought it would be wise to simply take Peking off the communists before Mao could get there. Nationalist M2 tanks clashed with Mao’s T-26s, taking huge losses, but many Chinese were proud to give their life for the man who had defeated the Japanese (many Nationalist soldiers in this part of the country had been peasants under Japanese occupation until 1940), and eventually the numerically superior Nationalist forces took control of the major roads in Hebei. Mao showed up a few days later in the middle of the night, only to be noticed by a sentry and shot in the face. That soldier was killed by Mao’s bodyguards moments later, but was posthumously promoted after word got back to Chungking.

Children of the Tiger, June 1942

Although Mao was dead, the communist cause was far from finished. Although the CCP split into at least four factions as various leaders in the party vied for Mao’s old position, Stalin wasted no time in ordering NKVD agents into China to install his chosen candidate, Wang Ming, into the position, while parts of the Red Army moved into Xinjiang to secure Sheng Shicai’s control of the province.

Wang Ming inherited a war effort that was becoming less of a war and more of an insurgency. Chiang had moved nearly two million men into Hebei, and Peking’s fall was a question of “when”, not “if”. Wang hoped to convince the Red Army to cross the border and save the CCP before it was lost forever, but when the IJA inflicted another defeat on the Soviets in Korea, Stalin became hesitant to continue backing what was becoming a lost cause. With its commitments elsewhere in Asia, the Red Army was not up to the task of fighting another four million men on an already massively overstretched front.

Stalin instead decided to try to close the Chinese Front down for good. Sending Molotov to Chungking, he offered Chiang a five-year non-aggression pact in exchange for a shutdown to aid to the CCP. Chiang, keen to rebuild his country after five years of war, accepted the offer. In practise however, the agreement was largely meaningless: the Red Army presence in Manchuria and Xinjiang continued, and Wang Ming would continue to direct the communist war effort from Urumqi, although it would mean less and less as Tianjin fell and the Nationalist Army directed its attention towards the destruction of the communist movement in the countryside. For many however, the Chungking Agreement represents the end of the Chinese Civil War, a thirteen year long battle that had seen millions of Chinese killed.

But while the fight in China was practically finished, elsewhere in the world the war raged on...

Tigers on the Prowl, July 1942

Germany’s tank production had never been truly adequate in face of the demands placed on the Panzer forces. The Polish and Belgian campaigns had been conducted with extensive use of Panzer Is and IIs, which barely deserved to be training vehicles as early as 1939. Hitler’s insistence that the Kriegsmarine have first priority for resources then led to 200,000 tons of steel being allocated to battleships and submarines, while the Western Front needed ever increasing numbers of Panzer IIIs and IVs, which after modifications to the design in 1941 were finally able to put up a good fight against the Crusaders, Churchills and Stuarts being used by the Allies.

When Germany introduced their new design, the Panzer V “Tiger”, onto the Western Front in 1942, it arguably created more problems than it solved, and they had more than enough problems to begin with. Although plans for the Tiger were being made as early as 1937, the final design was heavily inspired by the Soviet KV series. At over fifty tonnes, the Tiger was massive, although its 88mm gun was capable of destroying anything the Allies fielded. Its slow top speed was not an issue on the unmoving Western Front. But the Tiger was over-engineered. Not only was the design unfinished when production began (leading to chaotic field upgrades), but the most common German solution was to add even more components, slowing production times even more at a time when poor management was crippling the German industry.

The Tiger performed fairly well on the front, as the frequent engine breakdowns led to most Tigers being used as if they were barely-mobile bunkers (a role they were perhaps more suited to than their initial “breakthrough tank” role). Soviet engineers in Germany however remained convinced that the Tiger design was a terrible waste of resources. Soviet designs, especially the T-34, were built on the premise that a tank had a fairly short life on the battlefield, so making the perfect vehicle was a waste of time. Instead a tank should be strong enough to fight an enemy tank reasonably well, and past that all effort should be placed into simplifying construction as much as possible, so a very large amount could be made (the Soviets were producing around 700 T-34s a month by this time). Some of those engineers went as far as to suggest that the Tiger program be cancelled completely and efforts be directed towards the new Wolf design (a German-Soviet collaboration that was in many ways a simple upgrade of a T-34 built to carry German weapons), although conflicts between Hitler, the German and the Soviet engineers led to the Wolf being delayed until well into 1943.

You May Call Me Meyer, August 1942

German industry was not helped by Allied strategic bombing raids, which by the middle of 1942 were becoming very disruptive. With both American and British industry relatively untouched by the Luftwaffe’s pitiful long-range bomber force, the Allies were able to produce quantities of planes that the Germans could barely imagine, let alone produce themselves. Most of those bombers were sent to bomb the Rhineland, although flying from bases in Eastern France, it was possible for escorted bombers to reach Berlin, and it became routine for groups of over a hundred bombers to be sent against the German capital every night, with one raid even involving over a thousand bombers.

Luftwaffe performance improved throughout 1942 as Hitler ordered a suspension in U-boat construction and gave Goring the resources that had previously gone to Donitz (although he refused to consider scrapping the four battleships still under construction). The Fw 190 proved to be a very capable interceptor and also began to fill a ground attack role to replace the Ju 87. No matter how good the German fighters were though, the Allies always had more, and German losses were becoming unsustainable.

Stalin was greatly concerned by the erosion of the Luftwaffe. With the majority of active Red Army units in battle with Japan or guarding the frontier with China, he was relying on the Germans to keep the front far enough west that the Allies could not bomb the USSR. Even allowing Allied planes to reach the USSR’s border would be unacceptable, as it would put the Ploesti oilfields within range – with Baku still damaged (although the local defences there were more than enough to defeat any expected raids in the near future), Ploesti was essential for the German war machine. Although Hitler was reluctant to allow the Red Air Force to patrol inside Germany, Stalin began to consider whether parts of the Soviet Armed Forces needed to be committed to Western Europe before a collapse of the front threatened his own position in the war.

Late in 1942, the balance tipped once more, this time decisively against the Germans. While the Fw 190 was individually a better aircraft against most models used by the Allies (including the common Spitfire IV), it did not hold such an advantage over the American P-47, and pure production began to dominate once more, which the Allies had an unassailable lead in. When the Japanese introduced the Mitsubishi A7M shortly afterwards, the Allies gained a qualitative edge as well.

The Zero’s Successor, September 1942

Despite being an incredible machine, the Mitsubishi A7M should not have come into being as early as it did, or even possibly at all. Mitsubishi’s design team had been tasked with creating a successor to the Zero in 1940, hoping to improve upon the speed and armament of an already fearsome machine (many captured German pilots cited the Zero as the machine that was dreaded the most, even as late as 1943).

Very quickly it became apparent that the Navy’s design goals for the new plane were ambitious: in order to achieve the desired performance, an engine was needed that was much more powerful than anything currently available in Japan, requiring 2000 horsepower when the Zero’s engine had not managed half of that. Design work was halted in early 1941, only for America’s entry into the war to convince Mitsubishi to look abroad for engines (a decision that was controversial in Japan for a considerable time). The R-2800 Double Wasp engine delivered enough power to make the 16-Shi (as the A7M was then known) prototype feasible, and early tests using the Double Wasp were very successful, prompting the Navy to seek a license for production of the Double Wasp at home (although the earliest A7Ms continued to use imported engines).

The Navy quickly ran into another problem – the A7M was simply too powerful for use on any of Japan’s active carriers (the Taiho was the first that promised to be able to handle the plane, but would not be commissioned until late 1943). Once again the design faced cancellation, only for Prime Minister Saito to give his support for its continuation, and it was decided to use the A7M as a land-based fighter much like the Zero had been used in France.

The first A7Ms arrived in France in November 1942, although they would remain rare for months afterwards. Able to match the Fw 190 in speed and armament, and much more manoeuvrable, even the few that first arrived quickly built up a reputation as great as the Zero’s, and they quickly acquired nicknames such as “Demon Zero” and “Jerry Killer”, and an A7M pilot proved the aircraft’s worth when he shot down (and killed) the legendary Stuka ace Hans Ulrich Rudel.

Italy - Bite to Go With the Bark, October 1942

In the dark days of June 1940, as German panzers rushed towards Paris and the French Army appeared to be a small push away from complete collapse, Benito Mussolini had considered joining the Axis, saying to Marshal Badoglio that “I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought”. Mussolini had waited for the French Army to break apart, and was ready to claim his seat as a victor, but when the German victory failed to materialise, and at Minsk a month later, he decided to abandon the Axis unless a breakthrough on the Western Front occurred.

Remaining neutral turned out to be a wise move. Had Italy joined the Axis in 1940, they couldn’t have hoped to accomplish much. Even with the Germans nearing Paris, the French had built a formidable defensive line on their Italian border, while Marshal Graziani repeatedly expressed doubts about his ability to invade Egypt if it became necessary to do so. The Italian Army, while sizeable, was largely unmechanised and contained substantial amounts of outdated equipment. Furthermore, Hitler’s “betrayal” of Mussolini in allying with Stalin in 1939 had not been well received at home, and Mussolini did not believe the political cost to be worth a war that Italy had no hope of winning on its own.

Two years later, the situation had changed. Reforms, new production and two extra years of recovery after the cost of the Spanish Civil War had made the Italian Army, if not quite up to the standards of the French, British or German Armies, then it had at least become a respectable force that had the potential to make a valuable contribution to whichever side it supported. Although most of Mussolini’s territorial ambitions were in Allied (Nice, Tunisia) or formerly Allied (Dalmatia having belonged to Yugoslavia) lands, he believed that the Italian Empire could still be built while supporting what he thought would be the winning side.

In October 1942, Mussolini sent his diplomats to London to make the Allies an offer: if the French and British would remove all sanctions on Italian trade from the 1936 war with Ethiopia, would grant Italy the Dalmatian coast and his other claims to Yugoslavia after the war, and would allow Italy the greatest influence over determining the post-war fate of Austria, then he would declare war on Germany and the USSR, opening up a new front in the Balkans and divert German attention away from the Western Front.

Churchill and Daladier debated the offer for several hours, as it remained unclear whether the Italian Army would perform as poorly as it did in World War I (where troops had needed to be diverted away from the Western Front). Furthermore, the two leaders were concerned about how the deal would be received in Yugoslavia, which had also fought with the Allies and was continuing to maintain an anti-German resistance campaign. After much consideration, Churchill informed Mussolini that he was willing to agree to the terms, lifting sanctions on Italian trade on October 16th. After the war, Churchill justified the decision by explaining that “if a man’s house has burned down, and a carpenter offers to help you rebuild it provided you return his hammer that you borrowed last year, you don’t want to spend the next year wishing you had a carpenter helping you”, and that Italy’s claimed lands in Yugoslavia were both small in size and far from the Chetnik resistance strongholds in Serbia.

Opening the Southern Front, November 1942

Italy’s declaration of war on October 17th exposed Germany’s long southern flank to Allied invasion. Although Hitler had ordered the construction of defences along the Alpine border with Italy (especially the routes that led to what had once been Austria), this border was still undermanned. The German Army Group D, under Ferdinand Schorner’s command since Kleist returned to Berlin in early 1942, was overstretched in managing occupied Yugoslavia, Romania and Turkey, which involved a fierce battle with the Chetniks and other resistance groups.

The Italian offensive into Yugoslavia began an hour after the declaration of war, although word had not reached Schorner’s headquarters when Graziani’s troops crossed the border. Conducted by two forces, one based in Trieste and the other in Albania, the Italian plan was to take advantage of German confusion and occupy as much of Yugoslavia as possible before the Germans could form an adequate defence. The Italians also hoped to link up with the Chetniks in Serbia and help the resistance movements restore the Yugoslav government. In addition, Mussolini hoped to secure air bases within range of the Ploesti oilfields, which would allow the other Allies to begin bombing this vital Axis resource.

The Italian troops performed well, with a powerful motorised column seizing Ljubljana on the first day and Zagreb by the fourth, cutting the best German road and rail links between Germany and Belgrade. In the south, the naval base at Dubrovnik was taken undamaged while Bulgarian forces put up a stiff resistance in Skopje. When the city was taken, the entire southern third of Yugoslavia was open to liberation.

Hitler meanwhile wasted no time in sending reinforcements to Schorner, and the Hungarians resolved to defend their part of Yugoslavia. A combination of difficult terrain and increasing Axis resistance slowed Graziani’s offensive down, although in many parts of the front the Italians still found success, most notably the liberation of Sarajevo on November 10th. Budapest became the second Axis capital to be bombed from the air, and when heavy autumn rains finally brought the offensive to a halt, Italian soldiers occupied the western half of Yugoslavia, and the Chetniks fought viciously to reclaim the east.

Operation Mountain Lion, December 1942

Chuikov’s 19th Army, based in eastern Iran, was never going to be able to make a serious invasion attempt into India. At the end of a supply line stretching over 1000km from Baku, there was no way to keep the army both in supply and large enough to defeat the British Indian Army, which numbered more than two million. Chuikov’s priority since taking Bandar-e-Abbas in November 1941 had simply been to make the British believe he was planning to invade India, and otherwise keep control of the Iranian oilfields.
The Indians however, had no interest in being under communist rule (even if this meant delaying independence from the British), and had waited the hot summer out so that they could finally push the Soviets away from their borders. New armies had been raised and plans developed, and in late 1942 the Indians were ready for battle.

The Indian supply line would be no easier to manage than the Soviet one was. The Indian lines beginning in Karachi were almost as far from Bandar-e-Abbas as Baku, and travelled through the same arid terrain that the Soviet lines did. The new 7th Indian Army could roughly match Chuikov’s strength, but parity would not be enough to guarantee victory.

Instead, the Indians decided that an amphibious landing on the south Iranian coast (and launched from Arabia) could divert Chuikov’s attention, forcing him to pull some of his forces back, while the 7th Indian defeated what he left behind. Churchill expressed his reservations about the plan, comparing it to his failed Gallipoli campaign in 1915, but General Wavell gave his support after intelligence discovered that the Soviet defences in Ganaveh, Bushehr and other planned landing sites were much weaker than expected.

‘Operation Mountain Lion’ began on December 8th with the landing of four Indian divisions in southwestern Iran. Soviet forces in the area were quickly defeated, retreating into the interior of Iran and destroying the oilfields as they passed (some of the fields were not operational again until as late as 1951). Bandar-e-Abbas itself was stormed in another naval landing on the 11th, while the 7th Indian Army began attacking from the east, forcing Chuikov to retreat towards Kerman, and then Esfahan as the Soviet position unravelled. Stalin was angry and considered sending Chuikov to the gulag, and only his tremendous victory against the Indians a year earlier kept him out of Siberia.

Cairo Conference, January 1943

As a new year dawned, the leaders of the six major Allied powers (Britain, France, Japan, China, Italy and the United States) met in Cairo in an attempt to form a unified policy for the defeat of the Axis, and how the post-war world should be organised.

As he had in Washington, Chiang Kai-shek once again argued for the return of Manchuria to China once the Soviets were evicted from the territory, insisting that it had been unjustly taken from China in 1931. The Japanese, who had been the first nation attacked by the Axis, maintained that it was unfair that they be left in a worse position than they had been on June 27th, 1939, if they were on the winning side. While Japan had only had the support of Britain and France in Washington, now Roosevelt was inclined to return Manchukuo to them as well. The new civilian government in Japan had been well received in the West, and Japan had done much more of the fighting in the war than China – indeed China had never been at war with the USSR. Chiang argued that the defeat of the CCP was just as important as defeating the USSR and therefore deserving of credit, but as the CCP was all but vanquished and the Chinese looked to be making no move to fight the Soviets, it fell on deaf ears.

The question of what to do in Europe was no more clear. About the only thing anyone could be sure about was that Germany had to be occupied and the Nazi government overthrown, to prevent the rise of another “stab in the back” myth and another war twenty years down the track. How far to occupy was a very different question – a drive to Berlin would likely be quite costly, and Daladier worried that the French Army would not accept those losses, especially if a German state was created afterwards. Roosevelt meanwhile wanted to ensure an ‘unconditional surrender’ of the Nazis, and a complete occupation of Germany to deny them the chance of starting another war. Churchill wanted to go one step further, believing that a march to Moscow was necessary, complete with an overthrow of the Bolsheviks, denying the Soviets any of their recent conquests.

Churchill was alone in wanting to go as far as Moscow. Roosevelt, Daladier and Mussolini all knew that a full-scale invasion of Russia would be an enormous undertaking over terrible terrain and at the end of a massive logistic pipeline, against an enemy that was vast in numbers and in industrial power (during the 1930s, the USSR had more tanks than the rest of the world combined, and production had not slowed since). Roosevelt wanted to restore the independence of Poland, Finland, Turkey and Romania, but as it was not yet clear how hard Stalin would need to be pushed to make such an arrangement possible, the Allies decided to allow the situation to develop. One thing remained clear though: the Axis had not only to lose the war, but had to be convinced that they had indeed lost. A half-measure like that of 1918 would not provide the world with security and peace.

The Oil War, February 1943

Oil’s importance to the Axis war effort cannot be overstated – tanks and planes needed it to move, and without either of those a successful sustained campaign against a modern army would be impossible. Oil had been the driving factor for both the invasion of Romania in 1940 and the invasion of Iran in 1941, the former to secure Germany’s supply and the latter to improve the Soviets’. Ploesti was now providing Germany with just enough oil to manage its war machine, although production of synthetic fuels gave them extra security. Baku had been heavily damaged by an earlier air raid, and while Maikop and Grozny had taken up the slack, the Soviet margin of error had been decreased considerably, and Stalin had done everything imaginable to improve defences in the Caucasus (while oil from Iran was taken back to add to the Soviet stockpile).

Poor infrastructure in the Middle East, the short range of escort fighters and Soviet defences had deterred the Allies from attacking Baku after their first raid, but with Italy having entered the war, attacking Ploesti was now a viable option. ‘Bomber’ Harris wasted no time transferring some RAF units to Italian Albania (now the closest Allied territory to Romania), and the first raid on the oil complex was conducted on February 2nd, 1943. Although the Germans had defended Ploesti well, and more than 60 bombers were lost in the raid, it was hailed as a major success after intelligence agents found out that Ploesti’s production capabilities had been reduced by more than 50%, enough to force Germany into dependence on synthetic fuels (the production centres of which were also routine targets) and Soviet exports for good.

The raid on Ploesti finally convinced Stalin to commit the Red Air Force to help defend Germany, despite Hitler and Goring’s boasts that the Luftwaffe was capable of holding the Combined Bomber Offensive back. With tens of thousands of planes, Stalin believed that the Red Air Force would provide a multifold increase in Axis airpower over Germany and France, and when Hitler was made aware of just how vast his ally’s air force really was, he reluctantly allowed it to operate from German airfields.

Stalin’s contribution of 2,000 Yak fighters to the Western Front quickly proved troublesome, as the Luftwaffe airfields did not have the necessary infrastructure to manage so many more planes at once (despite what Goring had told Stalin), and overcrowding made it much more difficult for ground crews to handle even the previous numbers of planes. Allied bombers took the opportunity to destroy many aircraft on the ground, while those few Yak fighters that did manage to get in the air were outmatched by their Allied counterparts (Stalin, who had heard about the Ki-61’s use in Korea, was shocked by the far superior A7M and P-47 being used in Europe). After around three weeks of chaos, it was decided that while Soviet planes could replace German losses, a substantial increase in fighter cover was not possible, and many Soviet squadrons were withdrawn, instead providing cover to the interior of Germany and Romania. With this change, the Luftwaffe now had access to a far more substantial reserve, and the Allied bomber raids quickly became much more costly.

Collapse in the Middle East, March 1943

In Iran, the Soviet position had unravelled in the face of several naval landings and a general offensive by the 7th Indian Army. Chuikov had fallen back to Esfahan, where his supply line was reduced to just over half its previous length, hoping that the Indians would become overstretched and become a prime target for a counterattack.

The counterattack never materialised. In early January, the Indian forces based in central Iraq (which until now had been holding the line in case Chuikov decided to move west) launched an offensive of their own into central Iran. The divisions that Chuikov had positioned to hold the western mountains were quickly defeated, and the new offensive threatened his supply line once more, forcing yet another retreat towards Tehran, with the 19th Army dwindling as many conscripts, tired of life under Stalin, deserted.

Chuikov’s shattered army eventually made it into Tehran, only to be once again met by the Indian forces, who placed the city under siege in March. Cut off from supply, and too far from other Soviet forces to hope for relief, Chuikov committed suicide and the 19th Army surrendered. Excepting the northern border regions, Iran was free from Soviet forces.

Operation Longsword, April 1943

“Long Toms and 75s roared behind us. Our airplanes zoomed above us. Funny-lookin’ flail tanks cleared the path ahead of us, and kraut machine guns tried to shoot us. But that horrible cacophony was the sound of victory.”
- Lt. Arnold Simpson, 16th US Infantry Division, April 17th, 1943

The plan to break through the German trenches and annihilate Army Group A was the culmination of eighteen months of buildup and planning. All Allied nations that had troops on the Western Front had committed divisions to the plan, with the Americans taking the lead in the west and the French in the east. Specialised equipment had been developed specifically for the offensive, including the “Fire-Eater” flamethrower and “Ugly Joe” minesweeper variants of the M4 Sherman tank, while regular equipment was also present in incredible numbers – more than 10,000 regular Shermans were present on the front. When the guns began firing, the earth trembled. Those who had planned it called it ‘Longsword’.

The western arm of the offensive was primarily comprised of Alexander’s 2nd British Army and its attached Free Forces, and Bradley’s 1st American Army, which together covered the frontline between Lille and Amiens. Their task was to advance roughly parallel to the Franco-Belgian border, where they would meet up with the eastern arm of the attack, led by Clark’s 2nd American Army and Bourret’s 5th French. Meanwhile the French 7th, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armies would launch a smaller scale offensive hoping to pin down the bulk of Army Group A in front of Paris and on the Marne, preventing a retreat and eventually leading to the encirclement of the bulk of the German army on the Western Front, leaving the way into Belgium wide open.

When the guns opened up on the morning of April 17th, Bock knew he had been placed in a very difficult position. Army Group A occupied a huge bulge of French land, which had caused the army group to become very overextended, and Allied bombing raids had made the supply of the forward units much more difficult. Much of his reserve had been diverted to counter the Italians over the winter, while his own offensives had wasted a lot of equipment that was badly needed now. Nonetheless, the Germans fought well, and in many places held the trenches until breakthroughs in nearby sections forced them to either retreat or be surrounded in their trenches. Hitler ordered that every soldier stand his ground and never retreat, but with the situation growing ever more desperate, his commands were disregarded.

The Castle of Cards, April 1943

By the third day of ‘Longsword’, the Allies had pushed through most of the German trenches. Despite Hitler’s order, Bock knew that maintaining his current position, especially near Paris, would doom Army Group A to encirclement, and ordered his forces furthest south to retreat to the north bank of the Marne, while the Gustav and Dora guns were disassembled and sent back to Germany.

Further north, Bock had very little control over the units facing the strongest Allied assaults, where the situation had completely unravelled and local commanders were issuing contradictory orders in a bid to stop the offensive before it became a true breakthrough. Bock did manage to get orders through to his two Panzer groups, under the command of Generals Guderian and Hoth, ordering them to pull back to Soissons and form a reserve, rather than be wasted on the front line.

Hitler had quickly grown tired of Bock’s failure to stop the Allied attack and his constant retreats, and on April 26th, ordered him to Berlin for court-martial, although Bock shot himself instead. His replacement was General Erich von Manstein, best known for developing the nearly-successful Operation Ragnarok (as well as a lesser-known plan to use the Ardennes as an invasion route into France in 1940, although this was dismissed as ludicrous owing to the impassable terrain of the area). Manstein arrived at his field headquarters only to see most of the army group trapped in an Allied encirclement twelve hours later.

Manstein, like Bock, was much more concerned with keeping Army Group A reasonably intact than holding ground in France that simply could not be defended. Within hours of arriving at his headquarters, orders were sent out to strip the trenches south of Compiegne and Reims of nearly all their men, leaving only a small holding force to maintain a position on the Marne and in the old trenches, with the hope of keeping the Allies from pressing too hard on the pocket from the south. Goring promised that the Luftwaffe would keep the pocket supplied by air, utilising the Soviet Il-2s, nicknamed “Flying Panzer” because of their heavy armour, that had just arrived in Germany.

Parrying the Longsword, May 1943

Manstein, to Hitler’s great displeasure, had no interest in holding the pocket at all. Instead he directed the bulk of his forces trapped inside the pocket to attack the Allied positions north of St Quentin, which was now the northwestern corner of the pocket and the Allies’ flank. Guderian and Hoth quickly broke through (most of the Allied forces that had conducted Longsword were positioned further east, near where they met at Hirson), while the Tiger once again proved it was the best tank fielded by either side on the Western Front, leading the charge towards Cambrai. Behind them were over 400,000 German soldiers, desperate to rejoin the army further north.

The Allied High Commands were surprised by Manstein’s breakout offensive, thinking that the Germans would be so beaten down after the intense air campaign that they would not be capable of offensive action. A response to the offensive would also be difficult, as all forward elements of Longsword had advanced over terrain as thoroughly destroyed by static warfare as any battlefield in 1918, and two weeks had not been sufficient to fully restore the supply line. Nonetheless, Bradley (commanding the forces closest to Manstein’s force) wanted to do something.

Bradley sent the 1st American Army back along the Hirson-Cambrai road along which it had advanced in the opposite direction a week earlier, where it caught the middle of Manstein’s column. Forward elements of Army Group A headed for Maubeuge, where they were met by the German reserves, while the rear engaged Bradley in a desperate battle to keep from being cut off once more. These rear forces were however starved of supply (despite Goring’s best efforts, the Luftwaffe had accomplished little and lost a great many aircraft), and exhausted from a long march that began for some as far south as the Marne, and Bradley managed to re-encircle a third of Army Group A. Manstein’s breakout nonetheless was a German victory, as a new line of trenches was established by those soldiers who had escaped the pocket, and while Longsword had pushed the Germans back to the Franco-Belgian border, it had failed in its main objective when it failed to wipe out the majority of Army Group A.

For the unfortunate German soldiers who remained in the pocket after it was closed for a second time on May 14th, the only choice they were left with was either surrender or death in battle. Once the Allies were confident that Manstein would not strike again (although they did not know it, his panzer groups were badly weakened by the breakout), the French climbed over the top to push the Germans away from Paris for good. German resistance varied depending on the sector, but many soldiers quickly realised the struggle was hopeless, and many surrendered rather than give their life for a leader who had failed just as badly as the Kaiser. The immense confidence in the Fuhrer that the German people had once had was no longer.

The Bersaglieri and the Chetniks, June 1943

Belgrade was one of the most important Allied objectives on the Southern Front. As the capital of Yugoslavia, it had considerable political value, while it sat along a major German railroad line connecting Berlin to Istanbul, through which Germany transported the chromium that they obtained from western Turkey.

With pressure mounting on the Western Front, the Germans were forced to pull excess units from quieter fronts to contain the Allied offensives, and southern Europe, where the Chetnik resistance tied down hundreds of thousands of soldiers, proved to be just that sector. In the months following Longsword, Schorner’s Army Group D was stripped of nearly half its forces, leaving only the most essential areas truly occupied, while the countryside was taken over by the Chetniks.

Members of the Chetnik leadership were also in contact with the Italian Army, which now controlled approximately half of former Yugoslavia, and after Longsword’s success looked likely the two decided to work towards seizing Belgrade, retaking much of the rest of the country and liberating it from Axis control. Allied transport planes dropped in some heavy equipment to known bands of Chetniks (unfortunately, nearly 20% of this was found by German occupiers instead), while Graziani prepared his forces for another attack.

On June 1st, the people of Belgrade rose up against the Germans. Schorner rushed to put down the uprising, only to have his forces intercepted by Chetnik bands. Graziani launched an offensive along the entire length of the front, from as far north as Pecs to Sofia in the south. In the centre, his best units including nearly all of his armoured forces stormed forward to try to reach Belgrade before the Germans could crush the uprising. The Germans, disorganised and confused by the massive Chetnik assault, offered little resistance to the Italians. The lucky ones escaped to Hungary or Romania, where a new line eventually formed. The unlucky ended up in Italian prisoner of war camps, or dead at the end of a Chetnik’s knife.

Return to the Yalu, June 1943

Since their recapture of Seoul the previous year, the IJA had slowly pushed the Red Army out of Korea, where the difficult terrain on the peninsula had reduced the Red Army’s incredible advantages in heavy equipment to be virtually meaningless, while the Japanese could call on naval support at any time and had maintained a slight air superiority for much of the campaign.

In the year since the return to civilian government, much more had changed in Japan than just the liberation of Pyongyang and Hamhung. Prime Minister Saito had ensured that the entire senior leadership of both the Army and the Navy pledged loyalty, not only to the Emperor and the nation of Japan, but to its “elected leadership” as well, in a hope of reducing the likelihood of another incident caused by rogue leaders similar to Mukden or the Marco Polo Bridge. In addition, British officers had been invited to Japan to improve the Army’s logistic capabilities, the failure of which was considered by many analysts to be a significant reason for the failure to totally defeat China. The IJA’s limited motorisation continued to constrain efforts towards improving the supply networks, but even limited improvements made a difference to an army that had previously ignored them entirely.

In the summer of 1943, the reformed IJA was ready to begin reclaiming Manchukuo from the Red Army. The frontlines were now on the Yalu River, only now the Japanese were the ones who would have to cross. Without a massive artillery advantage that the Soviets had enjoyed during the First Battle of the Yalu, the Japanese commanders decided that a nighttime crossing would put them in the best position possible.

With the Red Army’s artillery spotters grounded, the Japanese managed to force their way across the river, heading for Mukden while Vatutin asked for reinforcements from Moscow. Stalin wavered, considering whether or not to send Vatutin to the gulags for his repeated poor performance against the Japanese, and it was only when Mukden fell several weeks later that Vatutin was given what he felt he needed. Forced back hundreds of kilometres, the Red Army in Manchukuo saw its position deteriorating by the day, while the Japanese sun began to rise once more.

Operation Broadsword, July 1943

The destruction of the Soissons-Reims pocket in early June 1943 left a weakened Army Group A attempting to defend the Franco-Belgian border from the combined armies of the Allies. Although trench lines had been dug along this new line, they were considerably less advanced than the massive works that had been used near Paris. But with Soviet deliveries of raw materials pouring into Germany, a follow-up operation to Longsword would be needed. Codenamed Broadsword, the new Allied plan was to smash through Manstein’s lines along the entire front west of the Maginot Line, hoping to crush the weakened Germans and push all the way to the Rhine, freeing the Low Countries and creating a starting point for an invasion of Germany.

Broadsword began in early July with an artillery bombardment only matched by Longsword’s in sheer ferocity. After two hours, the French 5th, 3rd and 7th Armies went over the top, engaging a demoralised enemy who had only just recovered from the shocks of the previous months. It rapidly became apparent that the new line would not hold, and Manstein ordered a general retreat into Belgium, with many of his forces moving into the forests in the east of the country. Hitler, upon hearing of the German retreat, telephoned Manstein’s headquarters demanding a reversal of the order. According to reporters present at the headquarters, Manstein could not hear what his commander-in-chief was saying and continued fighting the war how he believed it should be conducted.

In the early days of Broadsword, Army Group B’s commander Gerd von Rundstedt wanted to hold the line on the Scheldt River, where he had faced the British Army in trenches since the second week of the invasion of France. As the Allies crashed into Belgium, he knew that allowing the British to join the battle in full force would only add to Germany’s difficulties, and turned to Manstein’s Army Group A for support, urging the need for an immediate armoured counterattack.

“Erich, where are the panzers? Where are Guderian and Hoth? Stalin is sending every barrel of oil, every cart of metal he has to us and we can’t find four hundred panzers?”
- Rundstedt telephoning Manstein, 10th July 1943

Manstein informed Rundstedt that most of the available panzers were in dire need of a refit after the counterattack that broke Longsword, and that Army Group A was itself in hardly better shape. When French guns began bombarding Brussels, Rundstedt finally decided to pull Army Group B off the Scheldt before the Allies could capture Antwerp and cut the force off from Berlin.

For much of Army Group B, it was too late. General Giraud ordered the 7th French Army to ignore Brussels and instead swing to the west, while General Alexander led the 2nd British Army and the armies of the Free Forces in a bold crossing of the Scheldt. More than a third of Army Group B was isolated in a pocket centred on Tournai, while the rest scrambled to form a new line behind the Albert Canal.

Seven Weeks to the River Rhine, August 1943

The closing of the Tournai pocket was not the end of Operation Broadsword. Although the 1st American Army and 7th French Army were tasked with forcing the surrender of a third of a million Germans, the main objective of Broadsword, the bridges over the Rhine, remained distant, and the Germans were determined to halt the Allied advance any way they could. During Broadsword, Soviet-built Il-2 bombers had shown their value as a successor to the dated Ju 87 Stuka. Likened to a flying tank, the Il-2 was incredibly heavily armed and armoured, carrying a large amount of rockets as well as a pair of 23mm guns, similar to the main gun of the Panzer II. Delivered from the air, even a 23mm shot could cause considerable damage to the best Allied tanks, raising the stakes of the endless air battle above Germany yet again.

When the Tournai pocket was finally forced to surrender in early August, Allied attention turned towards the new German line on the Albert Canal in northern Belgium, the last major natural barrier to Germany before the Rhine. Allied bombing of the Rhineland had seriously impeded Rundstedt’s efforts to deploy reinforcements, as thousands of railcars containing everything from Soviet grain to T-34 tanks queued up waiting for a suitable area to be made available for unloading. Nonetheless, Rundstedt was able to put up a good fight along the Albert Canal, although once more Allied airpower proved decisive in forcing the Germans back into the Netherlands. Antwerp was placed under siege by the Free Belgian forces, while the British headed for Nijmegen.

The “Rush to the Rhine”, or more formally known as Broadsword II, proved to be an even greater success than the campaign to liberate Belgium had been. Army Group B, along with elements of Army Group A that had gotten lost during the retreat from France, was exhausted from the constant falling back and Allied bombings, and when faced with yet another attack, crumbled. The Allies also made sure to secure the help of the Dutch resistance, which provided them with intelligence regarding the status of key bridges that would be needed to make it to the Rhine, and although a key route through Nijmegen had been demolished, other major bridges were secured by the Dutch, allowing the Allies to reach a major bridge at Arnhem before the Germans had a chance to destroy it. O’Connor’s 1st British Army established itself on the north bank of the Rhine, while the Wehrmacht’s attention remained further south.

An Old Plan Once Ignored, September 1943

Towards the end of Broadsword, British forces fighting in the Netherlands had reported that German resistance was wearing out. Few tanks and fewer aircraft seemed to contest the battlefield, while the soldiers that remained as Arnhem Bridge was secured were shell-shocked, ready for the war to end. At the end of August, the weakness of the Wehrmacht prompted the Americans to use paratroops to secure Amsterdam and other major Dutch cities, while O’Connor sent some divisions west to clear the German reserves out. When the paradrop mission (“Broadsword III”) was a complete success in the last days of August, the perception of a completely defeated German Army gained credibility, and it was believed that a strike towards Berlin in the autumn of 1943 would be relatively unopposed, and that shortly afterward the combined Allied armies could move through Germany to engage the Red Army.

Things could not have been further from the truth. Despite the world’s largest traffic jam occurring in the Rhineland, Soviet deliveries of various war materials were still reaching the front (although efficiency remained a major problem). Manstein and Army Group A, at this time covering the front line from around Maastricht to Sedan, had secured priority for new equipment and reinforcements from Hitler in the wake of the defeats it suffered during Longsword, and by the beginning of September it was once again a fearsome force, numbering over 1,000,000 men, including the bulk of the Tiger force and able to call on the best of the Luftwaffe’s remaining planes.

Manstein and Hitler both wanted to use this force in a major offensive, breaking Broadsword the way they broke Longsword in the spring. For this operation, Manstein returned to some plans he had drawn up in late 1939 for the invasion of France, in which he had suggested a massive panzer column travel through the impassable Ardennes forest, which would take it to the rear of the enemy’s force and allow for a massive encirclement as the panzers dashed for the Channel ports.

The Ardennes now were mostly in German hands, the Allies having occupied the fringes of the great forest with some light garrison units while the interior had been under German control since 1940. Manstein had spent some time travelling through the forest, and was now convinced that they were not so impassable as previously thought. It was certainly possible to run a supply column through the forest, while Panzers could be brought in over a period of weeks. With Hitler’s approval, most of Army Group A was redeployed in the west of the forest, while the Allies didn’t believe the reconaissance reports that some of the airmen were bringing in.

Army Group A burst out of the Ardennes on the morning of September 4th, achieving nearly complete surprise in the process. Il-2s screamed overhead, pouring cannon and rocket fire onto the unsuspecting Allies, while Panzer IVs and Tigers bypassed Namur and headed for Brussels. Bradley’s 1st American Army was pulled from the frontline near Maastricht and tasked with stopping Manstein’s offensive, but Manstein had no interest in bogging down, ordering his forces to move further to the west than the original plan had called for, instead bringing them into contact with the 7th French Army, which was recovering from the attacks of the previous four months.

After nine days of intense battle, the French had been defeated and Brussels was captured, taking the Germans half way to Antwerp, where they would cut off both British Armies and the 1st American, before turning west once more to secure the Channel Ports and cripple the entire Allied supply network.

The Third Sword, September 1943

Manstein’s ultimate goals where quickly becoming obvious to the Allies, no doubt helped by Bletchley Park’s success in breaking the more complicated version of Enigma that had been used since the middle of the war. With Antwerp still under siege and Brussels now occupied, Manstein had effectively cut the British and 1st American Armies off from their supply bases along the Channel coast. The quick capture of the Dutch ports allowed some supplies to be rerouted, but these were much more vulnerable to German bombers than the Calais route had been.

With their forces located primarily at the immediate north and south of the Ardennes, it quickly fell to the Americans to launch a counterattack against Manstein, while the French continued to battle Manstein’s spearhead divisions further west. With most of the crack German divisions taking part in the offensive, the Ardennes was only lightly defended, allowing the Americans to, after a series of short fights, meet up at Houffalize, and then a day later, again near Namur, cutting off the bulk of Army Group A and finally creating the great encirclement that Longsword and Broadsword had hoped to achieve.

It would take nearly a month for the Allies to destroy the German pocket, no doubt made longer by the fact that the Germans had recently captured a huge Allied supply dump in Brussels. Manstein attempted to break back out to reach the Ardennes, only to be beaten back and retreat towards Antwerp, which lead elements of Army Group A had managed to reach. Manstein himself was pulled out of the pocket by some Luftwaffe transports, but the million men he left behind would not return to Germany until the war was over.