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Eighty years ago Stalin confronts Eden with his war aims

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  Despite attrocious weather Soviet forces landed and established secure lodgements on the Kerch Peninsula, the eastern extremity of Crimea that divides the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov. The operation was intended to break the siege of Sebastopol by threatening the flank of German forces in Crimea. It was the Red Army's first major amphibious operation and was largely extemporised. Coming soon after the counter-offensive on the Moscow front it proved that the German invaders no longer held complete initiative. Stalin claimed personal credit for the attack. The landings failed, though, in their larger military purpose. The Germans rapidly contained the bridgeheads and Sebastopol remained tightly invested. Antony Eden the British Foreign Secretary visited Moscow to discuss how Britain and the Soviet Union might collaborate. He was speedily confronted with Stalin's underlying war aims. As a preliminary to any substantial conversation, he was invited to accept the Soviet Union

Eighty years ago the BBC passes a milestone on the path to being a bogeyman for conservatives

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    The BBC passed a significant milepost on its way to becoming the bugbear of traditionalist conservatives. It broadcast the first in a cycle of plays about the life of Jesus entitled the "The Man Born To Be King." There was nothing particularly objectionable in the narrative, but the timing just before Christmas was felt to be provocative, especially as the plays were broadcast in the Children's Hour slot. The mere fact that Jesus would be played by a human actor and the dialogue would be in modern English was held to be blasphemous. The title emphasised the humanity of Christ and not his divinity. Britain's then small atheist community were also annoyed at what could be seen as Christian propaganda. The author was Dorothy L. Sayers, now best known for the Peter Wimsey detective stories, but also a considerable literary scholar, highly successful adverstising copywriter and a sincere Christian, albeit uncomfortable with the sanctimony of the established church. She

Eighty years ago the war becomes global one and, for Hitler, one of extermination

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  The British naval Force Z consisting of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which had set out to hamper the Japanese seaborne invasion of Malaya, was caught at sea by Japanese bombers and sunk. Their commander Admiral Sir Tom Phillips died. It was a shattering blow to British prestige as well as marking the final end of the belief that navies could operate without air support. These were the first major warships lost on the open sea soleley to air attack. The Royal Navy had done almost nothing to make use of land-based aircraft to provide cover. Germany declared war on the US even though it was not formally bound to join its Japanese partner in its war. It is an idle question as to whether Hitler could ever have held back from this open and move on his own initiative, but it made life much easier for Roosevelt who had long considered that fighting Germany was the higher priority. The America First committee which had been a thorn in the President's

Eighty years ago the war with Japan begins amidst lessons unlearned and ample material for conspiracy theory

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  The British government proposed to extend liability for national service to almost all adults except for married women. In exchange the Labour Party began to agitate for the "conscription of capital", in other words the nationalization of industry. As privately-owned businesses were already operating under almost full government control, this would have had practically no effect on the management of the war economy. It was purely a political demand. The Royal Navy force despatched from the UK to the Far East to deter possible Japanese aggression under a Cabinet decision reached  Singapore. It was poorly balanced and consisted of the new battleship Prince of Wales and the First World War vintage battle-cruiser Repulse, together with four destroyers. When war broke out with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour it was rebaptized as "Force Z". The legend became firmly entrenched that the aircraft carrier Indomitable should have joined the force but was unable to do

Eighty years ago the days of easy German victories in the western desert and the eastern front come to an end

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  t The battleship HMS Barham was torpedoed by U-331 near Alexandria. She keeled over  and her magazines exploded; more than two-thirds of her complement were lost. The images were captured in hideous clarity by a British Pathe film crew aboard her sister HMS Valiant . The loss severely depleted the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean and it was concealed from the public in the hope that that the Axis might not fully realise this. Next-of-kin were only notified some weeks afterwards and were instructed not to mention the loss outside the family. The spiritualist medium, Helen Duncan, later claimed to be in touch with dead sailors from Barham in a seance which led to her being the last person convicted (and imprisoned) under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had found his way to Germany via Italy after fleeing successively Palestine, Iraq and Iran. He was received by Hitler and their conversation touched on the establishment of a homeland for Jews in Palesti

Eighty years ago Churchill is given cause to regret having given a job to an unsuitable hero and the musical chairs of command in the western desert enters another round

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  Operation Crusader, the British attack in the western desert  was unsettled by a deep thrust into the British rear by Rommel. The Eighth Army commander Alan Cunningham over-estimated the threat and sought to call off his offensive. General Auchinleck, in command of the theatre, disagreed and sacked Cunningham, replacing him with his own chief of staff, Neil Ritchie, who had longer experience of the fluid conditions of desert warfare although relatively junior.  The Germans made one of their rare direct interventions in the personnel of the Vichy regime when it lobbied for the dismissal of General Maxime Weygand, who was in charge  of the colonies in North Africa. He had collaborated with the Germans but had opposed the "Paris Protocols" under which they were to be given bases in the French colonies. He and Vichy's prime minister Admiral Darlan detested each other. Weygand was duly sacked. Admiral-of-the-Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, who had been sacked as chief of combined ope

Eighty years ago Britain struggles to keep an even keel whilst strategic over-reach begins to bite for the Germans

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  U-81 torpedoed the HMS Ark Royal and sent her to the bottom almost within sight of Gibraltar. She had had a short but distinguished career, covering the Malta convoys and, most famously, launching the Swordfish aircraft which crippled the Bismarck . Only one of her crew was lost but the Royal Navy could ill-afford to lose another aircrfat carrier. Her loss left only four large fleet carriers in service including Illustrious , only just repaired after pounding at Malta, which was little enough for Britain's needs in the West, but a catastrophe with war looming in the East. The recently created British Eighth Army under Alan Cunningham launched Operation Crusader designed to lift the siege of Tobruk which had been surrounded by Axis forces since the summer. The British had a small advantage in numbers but their training and tactics were behind those of the Germans and good Italian formations like the Ariete Division. Cunningham had only recently arrived in the theatre and was unde

Eighty years ago Malta proves its worth as an offensive base and the British pay Rommel the compliment of a commando raid intended to eliminate him

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    President Roosevelt won Congress approval for two major changes to the Neutrality Act; one largely symbolic; the other of practical importance. US merchant ships would now be able to carry defensive armament and to enter recognised combat zones. The majorities in favour were, though, slim. The 50 to 37 vote in the Senate was the narrowest on any foreign policy issue and the 212 to 194 margin in the House was uncomfortably small. More Democrats opposed the measure in the House than had over Lease-Lend. By some reckoning the combination of the President's rhetoric depicting the US as under threat and the attacks on US Navy vessels in the Atlantic - in practice the result of Roosevelt's forward policy - served to harden isolationist opposition. The administration did not rush to implement a new policy. The Soviet liner Armenia was sunk by German bombers as she attempted to evacuate civilians and wounded soldiers from the now-besieged Sevastopol, the last stronghold in the Cri

Eighty years ago Lindbergh's call for the US to stay out of Europe's war is undercut by the German navy and Detroit isolationists

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    Colonel Lindbergh spoke at a huge America First rally in Madison Square Gardens to call for the US to abstain from involvement in the European war. His speech was practically a direct attack on the President. He called for "integrity" in national leadership and claimed that the US was being taken towards war by "dictatorship and subterfuge." Without specifically blaming Jews, his comment "there is no danger to this nation from without...our only danger lies from within" left little doubt that his views were unchanged from his infamous speech at Des Moines two months before. Lindbergh gave a further clue to his sympathies with a Nazi salute that belied his claim not to support the Hitler regime. It was also noticeable that the audience included many overt Nazi supporters. The day afterwards the German navy did its bit to undermine Lindbergh's call. A U boat sank the USN destroyer Reuben James in the Atlantic as it was dropping depth charges in dfenc