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Eighty years ago the swansong of the Thousand Bomber Raid

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    RAF Bomber Command launched its third - and as it proved, last - one thousand bomber raid; the target was the port city of Bremen. This time Bert Harris took the precaution of pleading his case for the use of Coastal Command aircraft to Churchill beforehand and the prime minister duly bullied the First Sea Lord into diverting resources from the Batttle of the Atlantic. The first one thousand bomber raid had devastated Cologne but the second, on Essen, had been entirely thwarted by bad weather; the Bremen raid was hampered by bad visibility but the bombing was tolerably accurate because of the recently deployed Gee radio navigation aid; Harris had overcome his initial scepticism of such tools. One assembly building at the Focke-Wulf aircraft factory was wrecked although this did not disrupt output significantly. Otherwise only civilian housing was hit. The attackers suffered 5% losses, worse than either of the other raids, which was unsustainably high. Harris also found that he had

Eighty years ago the fall of Tobruk brings Churchill humiliation and the promise of better tanks

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  Churchill travelled again to Washington to talk to President Roosevelt. Unlike their other meetings no codename was given to this one as the discussions between delegations of military leaders were the principal forum and the summit conversation was treated as informal. The talks focused on helping the Soviet Union; there was no firm conclusion on coordinating military strategy. Churchill resisted US enthusiasm for an invasion of the Continent even as early as later that year. Churchill steered the Americans towards joint operations in the Mediterranean. Whilst he was in Washington Churchill had the mortification of learning that Tobruk had fallen to Rommel's advancing Axis troops after they had breached the British Gazala line leaving the fortress isolated. The South African and British garrison held out for only three days before surrendering with  33,000 men. It was the last and, possibly, the most bitter in the string of military humiliations suffered by Britain since the sta

Eighty years ago a German reprisal for the killing of Reinhard Heydrich gives the world a shorthand for Nazi evil

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  The Germans enacted an especially atrocious reprisal for the killing of Reinhard Heydrich on direct orders from Hitler. The target was a mining village with 500 inhabitants, Lidice, near Prague. All the males over 15 were shot by ordinary German policemen; most women and children were sent to concentration camps but a few children were adopted by SS families. The other children were gassed and only about half the women survived. The village was razed to the ground. The evidence that anyone from Lidice was involved in Hydrich's death was tenuous and probably inaccurate, but the Germans wanted a conspicuous deterrent to any support for the resistance. The crime was announced publicly, establishing the name Lidice as a byword for Nazi evil. The transportation of 3,000 Jews to extermination camps in trains marked "AaH" ( Attentat auf Heydrich ) in revenge for the killing was a matter almost of routine and passed largely unremarked. Under the overall codename Operation Juliu

Eighty years ago the US Navy inflicts a crippling defeat on the Japanese fleet six months after Pearl Harbour

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  The US Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) decisively at the Battle of Midway. The battle marked a number of milestones: code-breaking gave the Americans a clear advantage, cryptanalysis had truly come of age; the significant action was undertaken by carrier-based aircraft, the major surface units never saw each other; the last major thrust of the Japanese attack on the US and its possessions was utterly defeated; the IJN did not merely lose more carriers than the USN, Japan did not have the industrial capacity to replace them quickly, in an illustration of the fatal economic disparity between the two nations. The US Navy's code-breakers had revealed that the IJN planned to seize Midway Island from which it would have been able to menace Hawaii, so Admiral Nimitz could confidently concentrate his carriers to oppose it. All four Japanese carriers with 300 aircraft and 200 invaluable pilots were lost, whilst only the USS Yorktown was sunk. Only six months after Pearl Har

Eighty years ago the RAF's cherished project of winning the war by bombing comes of age

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      RAF Bomber Command launched Operation Millennium , an attack on Cologne by just over one thousand bombers, a force almost three times as large as it had deployed on a single operation before. To field this number of aircraft the head of the Command 'Bert' Harris had to use training units; to Harris's fury the Royal Navy refused to allow Coastal Command aircraft to be used. Harris failed to recognize the vital importance of the Battle of the Atlantic and was to describe Coastal Command as an "obstacle to victory." Millennium had a double propaganda purpose: to give the British public, inured to a series of military reverses, news of a massive offesnsive operation against the Germans; to demonstrate at the highest level of military command that the RAF was finally capable of accomplishing the strategic bombing mission with which the service had been obsessed for almost its entire existence. Cologne city centre was devastated but the damage to military or war i

Eighty years ago a Free French brigade frustrates Rommel's attack

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  The Axis forces in North Africa under General Rommel launched a major offensive against the British-led armies in what came to be called the Battle of Gazala. The attack was almost immediately held up by a factor that Rommel had not anticipated: strong resistance by the Free French brigade including many volunteers from France's African colonies, garrisoning an old Ottoman fort at the oasis of Bir Hakeim which anchored the allied left wing. This was the first major engagement by Free French ground forces and is widely commemorated, most notably in the name of a bridge across the Seine in Paris. The Soviet attack on Kharkov failed in a severe defeat for the Red Army. Confronted by well-led German forces and almost complete air superiority the initial move was brought to a standstill and counter-attacks encircled the Soviet 6th and 57th armies. These were anihilated with the loss of almost 300,000 men. The only consolation for the Soviets was that these casualties were smaller than

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 bomber,  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 three powered turrets would provid

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

Eighty years ago Mahatma Gandhi composes an epitath for the British Raj

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  Sir Stafford Cripps's mission to India got off to an unpromising start. Ostensibly he hoped to obtain more active participation of India in the war effort by its political leaders, but how much extra he could have got is unclear. Millions of individual Indians were volunteering to serve in the various units of the India Army fighting the Axis powers, mostly under British officers. In reality his goal was more likely to have been to establish his credentials as a progressive politician by securing autonomy for the first non-white territory in the Empire. He was willing to promise privately that the conservative Viceroy Lord Linlithgow would be replaced and publicly that India would receive Dominion status (like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) after the war. The most important Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, derided the latter offer as a " post dated cheque drawn on a failing bank." RAF Bomber Command staged its first major raid since the directive giving

Eighty years ago the government cracks down on spivs

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  Government control over the economy was given an even sharper edge. Criminal penalties for black market activities were greatly increased. People convicted in magistrates courts could be fined £500 or more and imprisoned for a year and those by higher courts to 14 years hard labour or a fine of £5,000 or even more if the profit on the deal was particularly high. Black market activities were defined simply as anything that contravened government regulations on the supply of goods. In keeping with the near-disappearance of Parliamentary government, the new penalties were introduced by government edict amending Defence Regulations 55 and 90; quoting the correct regulation number was the closest that the government got to demonstrating the legitimacy of the decision. The Home Secretary wrote to magistrates - then still deeply implanted in local life - reminding them of their duty to eradicate the evil of the black market; they were to resist the temptation to condone behaviour that was

Eighty years ago Roosevelt chooses a soft option but creates a politico-military Frankenstein

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  The US general who had commanded the failed defence of the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, reached Australia where he issued his famous declaration, "I came through and I shall return." He had refused President Roosevelt's request to say, "We shall...". FDR awarded MacArthur the Medal of Honor, but this was merely part of a strategy to draw the fangs of MacArthur's seething political ambitions. Had Macarthur been (deservedly) sidelined because of his failure in the Philippines, he would have become a dangerous political opponent. The President, though,  had lumbered US strategy with the need to fulfill MacArthur's personal crusade irrespective of its military value. This left the US Navy and the US Army fighting practically separate wars in the Pacific. The British foreign propaganda machine went through one of its periodic attempts to settle its inner contradications. The system of three-minister control was officially droppped, but this little more t

Eighty years ago a newspaper cartoon touches a raw nerve

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    Little better illustrates the strains with which Churchill and his government were having to cope under the combined assault of military defeats and discontent with his premiership, than the wild and disproportionate reaction to a cartoon in the left-wing and immensely popular tabloid  Daily Mirror : one of the most famous of the war. Philip Zec's savage image of a survivor from a torpedoed ship clinging to a raft above the line, "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny - Official", hardly deserves to be considered subversive. Zec's claim that it was an attack on waste might have been somewhat disingenuous; the sailor's suffering is the true price of petrol. But Churchill's assertion that it was an attack on profiteering by petrol companies barely stands up to examination. The Labour Home Secretary Herbert Morrison supported Churchill but, perhaps fortunately for them, the government failed to suppress or punish the Mirror . Labour