Thursday, November 20th, 1941
[IStratford Upon Avon, England[/I]
The sun rose early upon this quiet English hamlet most commonly known as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Early risers were already up some doing morning chores while others just sat outside having an early morning breakfast. It was unseasonably warm for this time of year so most folks tried to make the most of it knowing that winter was soon approaching. At the Ramsey household things were no different. While the servants began to tidy up the house and the cook began to cook the morning breakfast Mrs. Ramsey quietly sat outside trying to get past the first chapter of a mystery novel that she has been reading on and off for three months now. Admiral Sir Cavanaugh Ramsey VC, DSO was in his study also reading not a novel however but the early morning edition of the London Times.
This particular morning’s edition seemed to carry nothing but bad news about the war, except for one bright spot and that was the commissioning of His Majesty’s latest battleship the Duke Of York. Today’s headline written in bold type across the top of the page read ROMMEL INVADES EGYPT. The article written by a reporter named Percy White covered nearly half the front-page. Admiral Ramsey began to read the article in earnest.
By Percy White, AP
Early this morning at around 0645 the ground was suddenly shaken all along the front lines with the thunderous impact of thousands of artillery shells as they began to fall in and around defensive positions manned by British and Empire troops. It appears the long anticipated fall offensive by the German Afrika Corps under the command of Field Marshall Rommel had begun with the sudden fury of nearly a thousand artillery pieces. Overhead flew several hundred German and Italian attack & fighter aircraft as they headed towards their targets deep within British controlled Egypt. While troops on the ground hugged the ground as hard as they could to get away from the artillery fire, Spitfires, Hurricanes & American fighters such as the P-40 Warhawk and P-39 Aerocobra piloted by British and Empire pilots took off to engage the approaching enemy aircraft.
High overhead reminiscent of the Battle of Britain onlookers on the ground including myself could clearly see the many individual air battles going on. You could hear the cheering when either a German or Italian aircraft was observed to fall from the sky. But when a British plane fell there seemed to be utter silence as the onlooker on the ground mourned for the pilot. As fighters from sides engaged one another there seemed to be an aerial tug of war so to speak, British fighters trying to get at the enemy bombers while enemy fighters swarmed in to protect them. In the end the air battle was short, just over an hour but it proved costly to both sides.
For the Germans & Italians they lost both men and aircraft, which could now be replaced but would take some time. For the British although losing valuable aircraft, which more than likely could not be replaced so easily except for replacements coming in from India, the small loss’s that they suffered in pilots would later prove to be important as trained aviators could not be replaced so easily. The RAF estimates that combined loses for the Germans & Italians were 70 bombers & 50 fighters with about 400 men captured by crew and pilots of the aircraft. Losses for the RAF only amounted to 33 fighters but only 8 pilots.
Despite the stiff defense of the RAF and scores of AA positions German & Italian bombers did manage to do considerable damage to several installations including destroying a key fuel storage depot, an ammunition dump, docks and warehouses along the Alexandria waterfront, two radar installations and a headquarters building. Several merchant vessels including a fuel tanker, two supply ships, 1 troop transport, 2 auxiliary vessels, 1 harbor tug and a patrol craft were sunk. Two cruisers and 3 destroyers were severely damaged during the attack.
It was the ground attack by the vaunted Afrika Corps that caused the most concern amongst General Auchinleck’s staff. During the past few months the British 8th Army had literally worked around the clock preparing hundreds of defensive positions in front of likely approaches of attack. Well-sighted anti-tank traps backed up by tanks and artillery pieces augmented a good portion of these positions. But despite all of the defenses and the slight reinforcements that had arrived the 8th Army is still considerably still unprepared for a major offensive by Axis forced. First indications of any advance by the Afrika Corps came hours earlier from forward observers riding in Land rover scout vehicles. Reports from them indicated a massive buildup of both armor and infantry about 16 kilometers east of some of the forward positions.
The first signs of any type of an attack by Axis forces came at As Sallum at around 0800 when the 10th Armored Reconn Battalion and the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division slammed into the defenses of the 21st New Zealand Battalion. Fighting was fierce as the New Zealander’s using anti-tank guns to knock out some of the German motorized transport put up a stiff resistance. German artillery and mortars returned fire, which resulted in most if not all of the AT guns being knocked out. The battle lasted about three hours before the New Zealander’s defenses were overwhelmed and before reinforcements could arrive from Buqbuq & Sidi Barrani.
The German trust did not stop at As Sallum, by 1500 the defenses at Buqbuq, Sidi Barrani, Kafret Rihama, Marsa Matruh, Ra’s al Hikmah; Fukah & Ad Dab’ah also fell before the Axis onslaught. Forward elements of this massive attack were already on the reported to be on the outskirts of Al Alemein. During the fighting around Fukah several German officers were captured and escorted to the headquarters of General Auchinleck where he personally decided to question them. It didn’t take long to get the information that he was seeking. In fact the prisoner’s willing gave it to him almost gloating while doing so. What General Auchinleck wanted to know was just how big the German force was and when he found out he turned around, walked out of the room the prisoners were in heading straight for his office.
This reporter learned from several officers was that the Germans were again reinforced with two more German Panzer Divisions and 2 Italian Infantry Divisions. British forces now faced 12 German & 8 Italian Divisions broken down into 4 corps with one in reserve. Because of security reasons I can’t give you readers the complete breakdown of Axis forces but I can tell you this. No one on the general’s staff imagined that the Axis could gather such a large force in North Africa in such a short time. Many blame it on the disastrous naval battle that happened several months ago in the Mediterranean. There is a general concern not only amongst the military but the populace as well that it will be a matter of time perhaps a week, or perhaps just several days before Axis forces are on the outskirts of Alexandria with Cairo next.
Already evacuation plans have been set in motion to move troops and equipment across the Suez into the Sinai. The Royal Navy has already left leaving just a few warships behind to protect what shipping remained. The RAF has already built several airfields on the Sinai Peninsula well within range of both Cairo and Alexandria. Along the east bank of the Suez fortifications have already constructed with the single objective of containing the Axis advance to that of the west bank. Naval engineers and minelayers are standing by to do what they can from making the Suez non-operational to Axis forces.
In Palestine & Iraq the British have began a buildup of troops and equipment mainly from parts of the British Empire not yet affected by war. Troops along with their equipment have been arriving from India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in a month long buildup. This reporter does not know just how large a buildup in forces this is, but it would have to be large enough to prevent a breakout into the Middle East by the Axis North African Army.
Army planners here in Cairo had hoped that the United States now considered an active member in this war would somehow open up a second front in North Africa by landing forces either in Algeria or Morocco. A landing in either country would relieve pressure on the Egyptian front by forcing Field Marshall Rommel to move at least two corps to this new front deal with them. Word was received however that although the United States was willing to commit its Navy it was not yet in a position to deploy overseas yet alone launch an invasion on foreign soil. Public opinion was still that of a neutral nation. There was also the unknown aspect of how the French may react to such an invasion.
One final note to this story I have been informed recently at a press conference that if recent events do not change for the good rather than risk needless civilian casualties and property damage General Auchinleck will consider both Alexandria and Cairo open cities. In essence British and Empire forces will not defend them but rather they will be surrendered in whole to the Axis North African Army and Field Marshall Rommel. Defenders will still however attempt to delay both German and Italian forces as they slowly withdraw their forces towards the Suez.
In a related story German as well as Bulgarian and Rumanian troops have pushed the Russian Army to the foothills of the Ural Mountains where they have regrouped in the fortified city of Ufa. The Russian cities of Leningrad, Stalingrad & Moscow have been cut off and are completely encircled by German forces. Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, Kharkov & Rostov have already fallen to German forces. In the North Finnish troops aided by several German Panzer Divisions & Hungarian Infantry Divisions are closing in on the city of Murmansk the only open port that the Russians have in the Artic. From undisclosed sources I have learned that German & Italian Forces have captured the Crimea Peninsula and the oil fields in the Caucasus, both losses a major setback to the Russian Military.
One further note rumors have been circulating out of Russia that Premier Joseph Stalin & most members of the politburo have been placed under arrest for treason to the people of the Soviet Union. The Russian government is now under the control of a Field Marshall Zhukov who is currently attempting to form a new government in Ufa. This has not been confirmed by any sources and should not be taken as gospel. If indeed the government has changed it will more than likely benefit the people of Russia and especially the military, as they will have someone who understands the military situation?
Likewise choosing the city of Ufa to fall back on and regroup was also fortunate as it has several oil fields as well as several oil refineries, which should provide a sufficient fuel supply to the tattered Russian Army. It also has a good portion of the relocated armaments factories, which the Russians chose to uproot and move further east out of reach of German air attacks. These factories are now producing vast quantities of tanks, artillery, planes and ammunition. Protecting these facilities against any possible air attack are hundreds of AA guns. On the ground the Russians have fortified the approaches to the city with hundreds of anti-guns, machine guns and extensive minefields.
After reading the story Admiral Ramsey’s only comment was “Bloody Rubbish”, reading on he came across another story which peaked his interest.
JAPANESE ON THE MOVE By Albert Reynolds, AP
The Imperial Japanese Army on an attempt to take advantage of the situation in Europe has mobilized nearly 650,000 men and hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces along the Manchurian border. Speculation is that Japan will begin to invade Russian territory as soon as the airfields that they have under construction have been completed and all necessary aircraft including fighters and bombers have been relocated to them. This may happen as early as November 18th. Excursions in Chinese territories continue as Japanese forces move deeper into China and now Mongolia.
The Japanese not being merely content with territory in China nor Russia have moved forces into Indo-China as well presumably to protect the territory from British forces. At least this is what they state. Reports have been filtering in from other sources that Japanese forces including troop convoys and a battle fleet have been sighted in the Celebes Sea off the coast of Borneo in the Dutch East Indies.
Japanese troop movements have not been isolated to the mainland, as indigenous natives and plantation owners on the islands of Guadalcanal, New Georgia and Choiseul in the Solomon’s & on Bougainville in Papua New Guinea have spotted additional troops. The number of troops could not be ascertained because of the high level of alertness that the troops were on as well as the secrecy as to why they were there. But several plantation owners did estimate that they numbered at least 10,000 on the islands of Bougainville, New Georgia & Guadalcanal.
It was not the number of troops that have peaked the curiosity of some of the native population it was they were doing or rather what they were building. On each of the islands natives reported that the Japanese were clearing larger portions of land building docks & piers on all of them. Military analysts have determined that the Japanese are building airfields and naval bases in both areas. The Australian and New Zealand governments clearly identified these Japanese installations as a threat and have protested as such to the Japanese Government. There has been no word of any reply as of yet.
In the meantime both Australia & New Zealand has mobilized what troops that are still in both countries as well as the Home Guard. The RAAF, RNZAF have begun to shift fighters and bombers to airfields in the north. The RAN & RNZN began to increase the number of maritime patrols to the north of each country. Both countries have requested reinforcements from British forces at Singapore and Hong Kong, which includes the British naval force in the area.
The British Government already involved in a war with Germany & Italy feels that the Japanese movements are minor. The installations that are being construction are to be used primarily for defensive purposes only and not for offensive operations. Government officials feel that the Japanese have no intent of attacking any British controlled territory and because of this have decided to send just a few fighter and bomber squadrons to Australia.
Also the Royal Navy will redeploy about a dozen warships none of them larger then a destroyer. But like the Australian and New Zealand Governments the Ambassador to Japan did protest the buildup of Japanese forces so close to British territory. The Japanese Prime Minister assured him that the Japanese government has no intention of starting a war with Britain. The troops that have been sent to the South Pacific region are only building defensive installations.
Although this seemed to pacify some of those in government there are still those who question the sincerity of the Japanese. The American military I am told long leery of a possible conflict with Japan have placed most of their installations west of Pearl Harbor on a high level of alert. Their own government has assured them that the Japanese are merely content with China and Southeast Asia and will not attack any US territory. The American military does not believe this thus the increase in alert status.
Finally the buildup of the Imperial Japanese Navy has not gone unnoticed by the western powers. Rumors have been spreading through most if not all the major naval powers of super battleships, new battle cruisers, and carriers down through extra large submarines currently under construction in Japanese shipyards. Some of these rumors can be dismissed as misleading & false information spread by the leaders of the Japanese Navy and Government. However some cannot as civilian pilots flying over Japan and others have seen several new types of ships in the inland waters of Japan & the Japanese Sea.
Whatever is happening in the Japanese Empire we are assured by Government officials that it will not affect the people of Britain nor the British Empire. To this I must add my own opinion. History has recorded just recently what others have said and assured us only to find out the truth. In our own time former Prime Minister Chamberlain has assured us that the people of Germany and in essence Adolph Hitler himself has told us that he has no intention of making war on the people of Britain, yet we are now at war with Germany.
Could it be that eventually events in the Far East will change so dramatically that we will find ourselves embroiled in another conflict with this one so far from home. Could we find someday while reading the morning newspaper that Japanese troops have invaded Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon and even India. This is a possibility and quite frankly it is this reporters opinion that future events will see this come true.
Completing this last article Admiral Ramsey was simply amazed. It seems that this reporter chap knew more then he and some of his peers knew. His only response was to throw the newspaper on the floor while yelling “Blast”.
His wife just walking through the door looked at him puzzled like. “Anything wrong dear.”
“Oh! Nothing, just some of these news articles are rather depressing lately Marge. It seems that the whole world is going to hell and there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Nonsense it can’t be all that wrong. There must be some good news in that paper of yours?”
“The only good news that I read was that the Navy just recently commissioned the battleship Anson.”
“See there I told you there must be some good news.” Just then the telephone rang. “I’ll get it dear,” responded Mrs. Ramsey.
“Yes who is it? Yes the Admiral is in. One moment I’ll get him.”
Marge Ramsey then placed the handset down and walked over to where her husband was seating, actually trying to drink his morning tea after reading the newspaper.
“Who’s on the phone Marge?”
“It’s Sir Dudley Pound dear. He wishes to speak to you. Should I bring the phone over here?”
“That’s alright Marge I’ll get it, I have to get up anyway my tea is rather cold.”
“Can I bring you another?”
“Yes dear that would be splendid.”
Picking up the handset he addressed the other man on the other end. Yes Sir Dudley what can I do for you?”
“Have you read this morning’s newspaper yet?”
“Yes I have, dreadful news.”
“Yes quite. Things do look a bit dismal right now but I do have some good news for you at least. It has not yet been formalized but it appears that you will be the new CO of Home Fleet effective immediately.”
“I say that is good news but I do believe that there are other senior admirals who may protest the posting.”
“Yes I know but Churchill & Mr. Alexander both agree that you are the right man for the job even though you may be junior to some other admirals. With their support as well as mine you should have no problem having it made official. You should be getting a formal letter from the Prime Minister within the next day or so; also you shall be getting your orders as well. I should warn you to be packed and ready to travel within 48 hours by train to Aberdeen. At Aberdeen you will have transport waiting for you to take you to Scapa Flow where you shall assume command of Home Fleet.”
“I always have a bag ready to go at all times Sir Dudley, just in case.”
“Smart man Sir Ramsey, I think that most of us do in these times. Well I’ll let you continue with your brief leave, make the most of it while you can.”
“Yes and thank you for the news Sir Dudley and I’ll be looking forward to the message and my orders.”
With that said he hung up the handset and whistled out loud. Just then his wife walked into the den with his hot cup of tea.
“Good news dear I assume.”
“Yes indeed Marge, it seems that the Prime Minister and the Admiralty have some faith in me. They have just made me the new CO of Home Fleet. Unfortunately I may have to cut my leave short, I’m expecting orders to arrive within the next two days.”
“That’s wonderful, I just knew there was some more good news coming and I must add my congratulations to your new assignment. And I know that it will keep you away from the family for awhile but after all we are at war and we must all do our small part.”
“You’re right Marge as always, which is why I love you so much. Tonight we will have a wonderful dinner so be sure to invite the kids and as many friends as possible. Tonight we have a chance to celebrate something. And I promise you Marge if given the chance I will give battle to the enemy and show him no mercy for dragging us into this war.”
“Sounds wonderful, what shall the cooks prepare?”
“Well Cornish Game Hens and roasted Leg of Lamb come to mind. Do you think we can swing that?”
“I’ll try dear but we may have to settle for roasted chicken instead.”
“That will be alright, it’s enough that we will be able to celebrate.”
Just then he remembered what was discussed in a meeting back in August. For a time it slipped his mind but the news article brought it all back. He tried to remember everything that was said but it eluded him.
(I will include that meeting here for some sort of continuity in the storyline).
August 14th, 1941
Admiralty House, London
Prime Minister – Winston Churchill
First Lord of the Admiralty – A.V. Alexander
Foreign Secretary – Sir Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon
Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet – Admiral Andrew Cunningham
CIC Singapore to 23 Dec 1941 – Air Chief Marshall R Brooke-Popham
CIC Singapore from 23 Dec 1941 – Lieutenant General H.R.Pownall
CIC Eastern Fleet – Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton
CIC Force H – Admiral Sommerville
CIC Kowloon Garrison – Brigadier General Cedric Wallis
CIC Hong Kong Garrison – Brigadier General John K. Lawson
“Gentlemen I’m glad that you could all make it to this impromptu meeting, I chose to have it instead of 10 Downing Street so as to avoid the press. We are here to like the Americans had done years ago to discuss reinforcing our overseas bases, one in particular”
“Reinforce them against what Mr. Prime Minister?”
“An incursion or invasion by the Japanese of course Admiral Sommerville, like the Americans I don’t trust them. I don’t think that they are too happy with the restrictions that we that we the British and US Government’s have imposed upon them. Sooner or later they will try something and we must be prepared for whatever eventuality. Unlike the Americans though we have to be realistic in determining which possessions could be saved and which cannot”
“What the Prime Minster means” interrupted Mr. Alexander “was that we have too many possessions and territories to protect against a possible Japanese incursion, realistically this can’t be done so we have to choose the ones we can sacrifice and the ones important enough to save”
“How are you going to determine that?” asked Vice Admiral Layton.
“I believe that this question would be easy to understand gentlemen. There are certain territories that are beyond our reach to protect no matter how hard we may want to try and then there are those that with some additional reinforcements both in men and equipment can be in fact a decision has already been made”
“And what decision has already been made”
“I think that the answer to that question would be obvious to everyone that is presently here but I guess my supposition is wrong. Very well after some consideration and numerous dialogues with the First Sea Lord I have determined which possessions and territories to sacrifice and save”
“What would they be?” asked Air Chief Marshall Brooke-Popham.
“Very well as Prime Minister the burden falls upon me and me alone for the following decision. The territories and possessions that I propose to save and reinforce are the following Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, the Fiji Islands and of course Singapore. The rest will be demilitarized to some extent and what forces can be removed will be to Australia, Singapore and Ceylon. If the Japanese do attack I wish to reduce the number of casualties that our forces will receive especially in Hong Kong”
“What do you intend to do with our forces there Mr. Prime Minister?’
“Actually it was Major General Maltby who came up with the plan, General would you care to explain your plan”
“Of course Mr. Prime Minister, gentlemen the way I see it if it comes down to a determined attack by the Japanese we won’t stand a chance. Strictly speaking we don’t have enough manpower to defend the territory. So what I propose is this we declare that Hong Kong is an open city, this is to prevent unnecessary casualties amongst the civilian populace. Next we spike our heavy guns and other ordnance making them useless to the enemy. That we withdraw our Hong Kong Garrison to Kowloon in a fighting withdrawal, our destination would be Rangoon, with luck our forces would hookup with Chinese army units who might aide us in our efforts”
“Is that all General Maltby?” asked Air Chief Marshall Brooke-Popham.
“No Air Chief Marshall it is not. If we can find transport we can then make our way to Singapore and reinforce the garrison there. Of course the withdrawal would have to be a fighting one as the Japanese more than likely will try to stop us, which is where we might have to sacrifice a few units to delay the Japanese. More than likely this will be a one way mission for those units selected but we have no choice if the majority of our garrison is to make it. If transport to Singapore is not possible then we have a longer trek into India”
Everyone present was somewhat shocked to hear this revelation by General Maltby. Surely they all thought individually that this can’t be all to the meeting. Again it was Prime Minister Churchill who spoke up.
“That’s not all gentlemen” he said. We currently have a few divisions that we can spare for the moment and I plan to reposition several of them to where they might be of use in the near future. In front of each of you is a list of those divisions and where I wish to transfer them”
The list simply read:
Divisions That Are Currently Available For Deployment
1. Dorset County Division
2. Durham and North County Riding division
3. Essex County Division
4. Hampshire County Division
5. Lincolnshire County Division
6. 2nd London Division
7. 2nd Infantry division
8. 42nd Armored Division
9. 56th London Division
10. 76th Infantry division
11. 77th Infantry Division
“I would like to replace the 6th Australian Division in Egypt with the 2nd London Division and have it sent back to Australia. The other divisions that are affected by this order would be the 42nd Armored which would also be sent to Australia, the 2nd & 76th Infantry Divisions would be sent to Singapore to augment those forces there. In addition to those divisions going to Singapore we will be sending about 80 x 3.7” AA guns along with about 160 x 75mm and 100 x 105mm guns that are from American Lend-Lease along with the ammunition. We will also be sending as much food stores and medical supplies as we can spare”
“But Mr. Prime Minister such moves will have to be planned months in advance”
“I understand Vice Admiral Layton which is why Mr. Alexander and members of his staff have already laid the ground work several weeks ago. I would like to have plans finalized by the end of the month and for the first ships to get under away a week later. Using the Suez Canal is a risky proposition right now so the convoys will have to move around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. From what I’ve been told a voyage from England to Singapore or Australia can take from anywhere from 2 to 3 months depending on the number of stops a ship has to make. It’s because of these gentlemen that I want things to be put in motion soon. Like our American cousins we don’t know when and if the Japanese will attack but we must be prepared for any eventuality. The Americans seemed to think something would happen which is why they reinforced and fortified several of the territories especially the Philippines several years ago”
“But they had the time to do it as they weren’t involved in the war Mr. Prime Minister”
“Precisely Admiral Cunningham which is why it should be done as soon as possible, however I’ve been informed by the Foreign Secretary that several American territories haven’t had their defenses completed yet. Two he named right away, they are Guam and Wake Island. Both are short in men, and both coastal and AA weapons. They are also lacking a proper air arm.”
“The equipment and men are not an issue Mr. Prime Minister; it is the shipping that we might have issues with. We may not have enough transport for the troops or freighters for the equipment”
“Again Admiral Cunningham you are correct. However the solution to this problem has been rectified. Every colony and territory are supplying what ships they can spare plus in a surprise move the US has agreed to loan us for the duration enough ships to get the job done plus a few more just in case”
“When can we expect them Mr. Prime Minister?
“A valid question General Lawson, if my timetable is right they should be arriving with the next 10 days loaded with equipment and supplies. With a 3-4 day turnaround to unload them they should be available in two weeks. By the way some of that equipment will be transferred to other ships for transport to the Middle East and the 8th Army”
“That would make General Cunningham extremely happy to know that his troops were not forgotten” offered General Wallis.
“Agreed” stated General Lawson.
“Alright a gentleman if there isn’t anything else then the meeting is concluded.
“One thing Mr. Prime Minister can we count on the Yanks to provide warships for convoy protection or will we have to rely on Empire forces to provide protection”
“Another excellent question Admiral Layton President Roosevelt has offered 12 destroyers, 2 cruisers, 2 battleships & 2 fleet oilers all that he could spare at the moment”
“Is there anything else?”
“No sir” had came the response from everyone in the room”
“Good now that the meeting is concluded I will leave you with one final thought and that it is imperative that we accomplish this if for no other reason than to prevent Singapore from falling into Japanese hands. Now if you all join me and Mr. Alexander in the garden for tea and cucumber sandwiches”
Each person at the meeting got out of their chair and followed the British Prime Minister out into the garden where a cart was waiting for them with 2 carafes of hot tea and a platter of cucumber sandwiches. One of the servants poured the tea while those who wished to have a sandwich retrieved one off the platter.