December 7th, 1941 holds a singular place in America’s historical memory. It is the day that changed the national identity and destiny as few others. Like many Americans, my early introduction to the Second World War began with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the war in the Pacific. It is natural for one to be drawn to the history of their own country, however it is but one piece a midst the greatest cataclysm in human history. For everything Pearl Harbor entails in American history, it is one of several major events in the war on that day. So, what kind of world did this attack draw the U.S. into? This is a global snapshot of that global conflict as it was on that quiet Sunday morning, 75 years ago today.
The U.S. Lead Into Pearl Harbor – Preparation For War
When the Empire of Japan attacked the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, the Second World War was already 27 months old. Beginning with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, the European war began. With the war guarantee to protect Polish sovereignty issued by Great Britain and France, it lead each nation to declare war on Germany two days later.
By June 1941, Nazi Germany controlled Europe from the Norwegian coast north of the Arctic Circle, stretching to Lorient on the French Atlantic coast, reaching east to the river Bug in former Poland, and down through the Balkans to the Greek Mediterranean coast. Adolf Hitler was master of continental Europe, and the only powers still fighting the Germans were Britain and its dominions.
From September 1939 until late 1941, the United States was officially neutral. Despite a comprehensive British effort to persuade and coax the US to join the war, America was deeply gripped by a generation of isolationism.
As the war progressed with Nazi Germany bringing Europe under its iron grip, the Roosevelt administration recognized the greater Nazi threat to the United States. Despite being unable to gain popular support to enter the war, the US acted as a non-belligerent ally. Under the auspices of the Lend-Lease Act, America provided war materials, supplies, and food to nations opposing the Axis.
Despite the American majority opposition to entering the war, President Roosevelt undertook quiet military preparations should America find itself at war. With the appointment of General George C. Marshall as Army Chief of Staff in 1939, the administration began to put its ducks in a row.
In 1940, the federal government instituted the Selective Service Act – a peacetime draft – for qualifying males between the age of 18 and 25. In doing so, it increased the ranks of the tiny 100,000 man army Marshall inherited in 1939.
Congress also passed the Two Oceans Navy Act that same year. This legislation increased the size of the US Navy by 75%, ensuring that the U.S. would be one of the foremost maritime powers in the world.
Despite America’s military preparation, it was still very much ill equipped to fight a global war on two fronts. It would require an immense mobilization effort following Pearl Harbor to create a war machine capable of victory. It was the beginning of a long road that concluded with having 14 million Americans in uniform, and the foremost industrial capacity in the world by 1945. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a profound shock for the ill prepared United States, as they prepared for the world they would have to face.
What was happening in the world on the morning of December 7th, 1941?
December 7th, 1941 – The Eastern Front
“You have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten edifice will come crashing down.” – Adolf Hitler
On December 7th, 1941, the German Wehrmacht was advancing on the city of Moscow. It was said that the Germans could see the shimmering onion shaped domes of the city through their binoculars. The Battle of Moscow had begun in October of that year, and included a combat front 370 miles long. The Battle for Moscow was both the largest battle of the Second World War, and perhaps for all time. At its height, it is believed to have included a collective total of up to 7 million combatant participants involved in some capacity.
Beginning with the invasion of the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa – on 22 June, 1941, nearly 4 million Axis troops crossed into the USSR from Eastern Europe. Their so-called surprise attack violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, agreed to by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August, 1939.
Concurrent with his political ideology, the invasion of the Soviet Union was Hitler’s self-proclaimed great crusade. In one major campaign to the East, he sought for Nazi Germany to eliminate Bolshevism, the “sub-human” Slavic people of Europe, and to attain German Lebensraum – living space – in Eastern Europe. It was Germany’s goal to conquer the western Soviet Union to the Ural Mountains, with a frontier running from Arkhangelsk to Astrakhan.
From June to December 1941, Germany made incredible progress deep into the Soviet Union. The Eastern Front was the apex conflict during the Second World War, where the delicate balance of victory or defeat lay.
On that December morning, three enormous German Army Group’s had their top objectives within their grasp.
Army Group North began the devastating Siege of Leningrad in September, 1941. It would last for a total of 872 days, taking an average of 1,000 Russians lives a day.
Army Group South had conquered most of the fertile farming land in the Ukraine, and the coal rich Donbass region.
Army Group Center overran Minsk and Smolensk en route to the Soviet capital. Despite both sides experiencing appalling loss of life, it was the Red Army that found itself over matched by the confident and experienced Wehrmacht. The Soviet Union and its Red Army, despite their continued resistance, appeared as if they may be on the verge of collapse.
Matters became so desperate at the front that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin issued infamous Order No. 227. Better known as, “Not One Step Back.” Among the many conditions within the directive, commanders were instructed to create blocking units. Small squads of soldiers to stand behind front line troops with orders to kill anyone who retreated. Additionally, it penalized any soldier – and their families – who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner.
The Western Allies recognized that the entire war would be won or lost on the Eastern Front. Therefore they did everything possible to encourage, bolster, and stiffen continued Soviet resistance.
On the morning of December 7th, the Red Army was in the second day of its counter-offensive to save Moscow. With the addition of rushed Siberian reinforcements, the Red Army held a reserve of 58 divisions. The counter-offensive against the Germans included 1.1 million Soviet soldiers, only slightly outnumbering their enemy.
It would be another 14 months before the Red Army defeated and captured the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. Enduring what was nothing less than the most horrific theater of war in history, the USSR would eventually gain its military footing. By 1943, the Germans would find the jackboot on the other foot, as they began their slow retreat towards Berlin.
In eventually achieving ultimate victory, the Soviet Union would pay the heaviest price of any member of the Allies. Soviet losses in the Second World War are estimated to be between 25-30 million combatant and civilian deaths.
December 7th, 1941 – North Africa
“Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! What else matters but beating him?!” – Winston Churchill to Brigadier Ian Jacob, August, 1942
After evacuating the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in May 1940, the only place the British were fighting the Germans on the ground was in colonial North Africa. Combat in North Africa began with the Italian declaration of war against the Allies on 10 June, 1940. Subsequently, the Italian 10th Army invaded Egypt from Libya.
The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sought to seize the Suez Canal in Egypt. Doing so with the intent of severing the vital British sea route accessing the Mediterranean from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
The ill equipped Italian army immediately faced military defeat at the hands of the British, resulting in the destruction of the Italian 10th Army.
Hitler came to the rescue of his ideological soulmate seeking to boost Italian resistance, whilst avoiding Axis defeat in North Africa and the Mediterranean. In Operation Sonnemblume, Hitler deployed the crack German Afrika Korps under the command of General Erwin Rommel to Libya, in February, 1941.
During Operation Sonnemblume, the Afrika Korps drove the British back into Egypt from the Libyan frontier.
On December 7th, 1941, the British were a midst Operation Crusader – attempting to relieve the Axis siege of Tobruk that began on 10 April, 1941. In Britain’s withdrawal, they left a sizable garrison in the port of Tobruk to deny its use for vital shipping to Axis forces. Operation Crusader would lift the siege on 30 December, 1941.
December 7th, 1941 – The Battle of the Atlantic
“… the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” – Winston Churchill
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest battle of the Second World War. In December 1941, the conflict had delicately stabilized. German U-Boats (submarines) had routinely interdicted British merchant vessels transporting vital materials and supplies to the British Isles.
As an island nation, the British were a traditional maritime superpower entirely dependent on merchant shipping to meet their needs. The U-Boat menace sought to defeat Britain through attrition, choking the U.K. of what it needed to survive.
The British managed the U-Boat threat in two-fold fashion. Foremost, the convoy system for merchant shipping was adopted. Civilian merchant vessels were escorted by British warships, overtime significantly improving shipping losses.
The British also had the aide of the top-secret ULTRA project; the ingenious Enigma code breaking effort at Bletchley Park. By December 1941, ULTRA was consistently decoding the majority of Kriegsmarine – German Navy – U-Boat messages with use of the code breaking Bombe machine. The Bombe was based on a earlier Polish model, the Bomba, to decrypt Enigma messages correctly and in real-time. Despite their success at that time, Bletchley Park would face the devastating challenge of decoding the newest Enigma model used by the Kriegsmarine for most of 1942.
With this priceless information, the Royal Navy would coordinate their convoy routes to evade attack by U-Boat. With the combination of the improved convoy system and invaluable enemy intelligence, the UK was keeping its head above water at that time.
December 7th, 1941 – The Air War Over Europe
“They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.” – Sir Arthur Harris
A year following the British victory in the Battle of Britain, and surviving the Blitz, the Royal Air force (RAF) pivoted from Fighter Command defense, to Bomber Command attack.
The only way the British could attack Germany on the continent of Europe in this period was through strategic bombing. Long distance four-engine heavy bombers struck German cities by night.
During the Second World War, the ability to accurately bomb specific targets from high altitudes was a point of strategic contention between the Western Allies. The British solution to this quagmire was conducting a campaign of area bombing. Without the ability to bomb with precision, the RAF targeted entire German cities. Their aim was to both curtail German military production, and crack the domestic morale of the civilian population, hoping to hasten Allied victory. To this day, the effectiveness of this British policy is still hotly debated.
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December 7th/8th, 1941 – The Pacific & Pearl Harbor
“A day that will live in infamy.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
The attack on Pearl Harbor, though major, was not the only operation undertaken by the Japanese military on December 7th, 1941. The Japanese simultaneously invaded Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Guam, Wake Island, and Thailand.
This major offensive was a coordinated effort to secure what the Japanese referred to as the, “southern resources area.” A major portion of Southeast Asia that contained the necessary raw materials to supply their military ambitions indefinitely.
Due to a lack of energy resources, specifically oil, Japan was provoked to preemptive military action. With the US and UK oil embargo’s of Japan in mid-1941, the Japanese decided to strike. What was intended to be a policy of restricting Japanese aggression by the US and UK, the oil embargo only accelerated Japanese conquest.
The Japanese conquered these territories with ruthless efficiency. Even in spite of prolonged resistance in areas such as the Philippines, all of these regions would ultimately capitulate to Japan. Japan would come to call this geographic region the, “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.“
It was the logic of the Japanese military to quickly seize these territories, and sufficiently fortify their gains. It was the Japanese goal for the Western powers to consider the military cost of retaking these areas too high, and accept the fait accompli.
December 7th, 2016 – Looking Back
The more one studies the Second World War, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the struggle. As I reflect upon the event of Pearl Harbor, I see the beginning of American ascendance to its current role in the world. Yet as I place it within the context of the greater war, it only deepens my appreciation and gratitude for what the United States and its allies accomplished. While I cannot accept that war, any war, is ever a good war – the Second World War was a necessary war. It was a conflict whose outcome directed the fate of humanity, and a war the Allies simply could not lose.
In the end, all anyone can do is be grateful for the sacrifice made by our near ancestors. We may not be able to repay the debt of our dearest blood, but we can honor it everyday.