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Eighty years ago, before the Wagatha sting there were the code-breakers of OP-20-G

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    In a stroke worthy of Coleen Rooney, the US Navy's code-breakers resolved a furious debate over where the next Japanese stroke would be directed. The JN-25 cypher had been broken and revealed that "AF" was the next target, but the USN high command was convinced this meant the Aleutian Islands in the north Pacific, but the code-breakers of OP-20-G believed it was Midway Island in the central Pacific. Code-breaker Jasper Holmes had the inspiration of instructing the Midway garrison to send an emergency plain language message saying that the island's desalination plant had been wrecked. The Japanese duly signalled in JN-25 that "AF" was short of water, putting it beyond doubt where they were going to attack. The Soviet forces that had landed on the Kerch Peninsula in Stalin's scheme to relieve the siege of Sevastopol were in increasingly dire straits, entirely cut off and dependent on sea supply for everything. They were doomed when the Germans launched

Eighty years ago the British risk compromising Ultra intelligence to ward off gas warfare on the Eastern Front

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Rumours that the Germans might use poison gas on the Eastern Front had been common for some months. The Soviets expressed their concern to the British; it was a topic on which they were unusually forthcoming. Churchill privately informed Stalin that he would treat the use of gas against the Soviets as though it were being used against Britain. GCHQ decycphered an ambiguous and non-urgent messsage suggesting that a gas attack might be under preparation. This was enough for Churchill to give the same commitment in a public speech that he had given confidentially. In practice he was warning Hitler that the RAF would drop gas bombs on German cities in retaliation. The British were worried enough at the possibility that either side might use gas on the Eastern Front to risk compromising the secrecy of Ultra intelligence. The US Navy concentrated its aircraft carriers to blunt a Japanese thrust into the Coral Sea that threatened  the vital port of Port Morseby on New Guinea, which could have

Eighty years ago Polish fliers and airborne radar blunt the Luftwaffe assault on Exeter

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  The Luftwaffe launched what proved to be the last sizeable air raid of the Baedeker Blitz on historical towns. Forty or so bombers attacked Exeter killing 136 people and inflicting considerable damage, notably to the cathedral. This would have been worse but for presence of four Beaufighter radar-equipped night-fighters of 307 (Polish) Squadron, City of Lvov, which shot down four of the raiders before they could drop their bombs. It was a daunting loss rate for the attackers (and an impressive success rate for the defenders) and showed that the attrition cost of these chiefly vandalistic operations far outweighed any military value when the Luftwaffe was already hugely over-stretched. It was also an illustration of what radar-equipped fighters could achieve against night bombers and would soon be be inflicting on RAF bombers over Germany. Hitler and Mussolini met at the luxuriously appointed Schloss Klessheim in Austria. The conference consisted mainly of monologues by the Fuehrer, b

Eighty years ago 'Bert' Harris turns Huns into Vandals

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    Hitler was enraged at the success of RAF Bomber Command under the new forceful leadership of 'Bert' Harris as demonstrated in the  raids on the mediaeval Hansa ports of L ├╝beck and Rostock, which had been devastatingly destructive albeit of little military benefit. He ordered a resumption of air raids on Britain that had been almost discontinued as the Russian campaign absorbed German air strength. The British cities targeted were of historical and cultural, but trivial industrial or military, value. The campaign was known as the Baedecker raids from the tourist guide of the day, but propaganda minister Goebbels was annoyed at the indiscretion which revealed the nature of the plan and insisted they be known as 'reprisal raids': hardly an elevating mission. Exeter, the historic county town of Devon was the first target. Perhaps unconsciously, Harris had realised the RAF's mission as enunciated by its founding spirit Lord Trenchard of a tit-for-tat bombing campaig

Eighty years ago touching the limits of strategic air power

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  RAF Bomber Command sent a force of twelve of its new Avro Lancaster bombers to attack the MAN factory at Augsburg deep in southern Germany, which supplied most U Boot engines. Air Marshal Harris saw this as a major contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic, which would ensure that his aircraft were not "diverted" to direct use in the sea war. This was the first significant operation by Lancasters which married the airframe of the Manchester which had been a failure because of the unreliability of its Vulture engines with four of the proven Merlin engines; in time it was to become the RAF's best heavy bomber, but the Augsburg raid was beyond the capacities of any contemporary heavy bomber. The key to the plan was to bomb accurately in daylight, which involved flying 500 miles across German held territory during the day. It was hoped that a dog-leg course over France, flying beneath radar height and the Lancaster's eight machine guns in four powered turrets would pro

Eighty years ago the Germans regain a potential ally but have to weather an embarassment.

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  In one of the most tortuous and obscure episodes of the Vichy regime, Pierre Laval returned as prime minister, replacing Admiral Darlan. Darlan was generally counted to have been a failure and had enjoyed a pompous and luxurious lifestyle, which Petain found offensive. Petain had hoped to replace Darlan's government with traditionalists and technocrats, but his choices inspired no enthusiasm either amongst the Germans or the Americans, still tenuously at peace with Vichy. Laval displaced Petain in all the main functions of head of government leaving the Marshal as titular head of state. Darlan retained his position head of the armed forces.  The Germans might have gained a government more inclined to whole-hearted collaboration, but their refusal to make anything but token concessions to Vichy meant they could make little of this. Vichy was something of an embarassment to the Germans; its attempt to stage a show-trial of the generals and ministers of the Third Republic at Riom ha

Eighty years ago the Japanese assault on British Empire reaches across the Indian Ocean

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  The Japanese attack on the British Empire reached across the Indian Ocean in the form of task force based around three aircraft carriers sent to mount  a strike on the Royal Navy base on Sri Lanka. The British had advance warning and were able to sail their major units - three aircraft carriers and five battleships - out of harbour before the Japanese aircraft struck on the morning of Easter Sunday so the damage achieved by the first phase of the operation was limited. Heavy casulaties were, though, inflicted on the defending aircraft. The Japanese located and their aircraft sank two British heavy cruisers, Cornwall and Dorsetshire , in a small scale version of the sinking of Force Z. The Japanese did not intend to invade Sri Lanka but their success provoked a major panic.  The British set out to outdo the spectactular acheivements against St Nazaire of Operation Chariot with another major commando operation further south in the Gironde estuary. The original plan for Operation Myrmi