Has there ever been a month in the long history of Man’s wars that was as decisive as that of the thirty days of November, 1942? It was during this month that, in every theater in the Second World War, the tide turned decisively against the Axis.
The collection of “turning points” that are commonly offered when examining the Second World War in Europe, the Pacific, and on the Eastern Front, have the most familiar of rings to them. The Battle of Britain and the failure of the Luftwaffe in 1940 to subdue Fighter Command and set the conditions for SEELOWE. The failure of Army Group Center on the Eastern Front to take Moscow in the autumn of 1941. The carrier clash at Midway in June of 1942 which wrested the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific. Without doubt, all these events were momentous. But it is only with hindsight certainty of all that followed that we might point to them and call them “turning points”.
The British, for example, would lose their Far East strongholds of Hong Kong and Singapore in the early months of 1942, and see her crude oil reserves drop to only 60 days’ supply during that summer as German U-Boats slowly strangled her Atlantic lifelines. The abortive Dieppe raid in August of that year did not portend well for regaining a foothold on the Continent of what would become Festung Europa.
In the East, the Wehrmacht shook off the disappointment of its failures before Moscow, and the effects of the brutal winter of 1941-42, to drive their forces ever more deeply into the Soviet Union, albeit against a Red Army that had saved its critical heavy industry with a miraculous evacuation from the so-called “Moscow-Gorky Space” into the safety of the Ural Mountains.
In the Pacific, the surrender of almost 13,000 US troops at Corregidor just a month before Midway, and the uncertain success of the Solomons offensive, meant that the initiative was not in firm possession of either the US or Japanese forces, instead up for grabs like a spinning football. Any significant setback for the thinly-stretched US Navy and Marine Corps might have had disastrous consequences.
In context, the Battle of Britain, Moscow, and Midway, represent not decision, but entry of each respective theater of war into a period of indecision. The course of the war to that point had gone almost entirely in the favor of the Axis, except for temporary and somewhat trifling Allied successes. With the above events, the war reached a juncture in which the needle of the compass stopped pointing toward the Axis, and was wandering. The great happenings around the world in the month of November 1942 would ensure that the needle settled in the Allies’ direction, never to spin back to its original heading. The war, which had to this point gone almost universally badly, turned decisively for the Allies.
By November of 1942, The United States had been at war with the Axis for eleven months; the Soviet Union, for sixteen months; Britain, for more than three years during which she had stood alone (and suffered alone) for an entire year. What occurred during those thirty days of November in 1942 constitutes one of the most remarkable months in all of Western military history.
During the last week of October, 1942, in the Western Desert of North Africa, the savage Second Battle of Alamein raged between the German and Italian forces of Deutsches-Italienische Panzerarmee and Montgomery’s 8th Army. On 2 November, Montgomery’s armor slashed its way through the German-Italian defenses (at heavy cost to both sides) and turned Alamein into a rout and a decisive Allied victory. Though Rommel made good his escape (returning from illness to re-assume command on 25 October), the forces at his disposal were no longer combat effective.
Also during that last week of October 1942, an Allied invasion force gathered for the purposes of putting 65,000 American and British troops ashore on the northwest coast of Africa. The purpose of Operation TORCH was to engage the Germans wherever practical and theoretically relieve the hard-pressed Soviets in the East. On 8 November, 1942, those forces landed and overcame Vichy resistance. This would be the first instance in which US industrial and manpower would be brought to bear directly against the Germans. While the green Americans learned a great many costly and difficult tactical lessons against the veteran German formations, the invasion was there to stay, and the clock was ticking on the remaining life of Rommel’s once-magnificent Panzerarmee Afrika.
In the Solomons, the US effort to seize the initiative from the Japanese, to decide whether Midway was a temporary or permanent halt to Imperial momentum, hung in the balance through the summer and autumn of 1942. When at last the Japanese made their most serious effort to eject the Marines from Guadalcanal and the US Navy from the adjacent waters, a number of savage naval engagements sometimes collectively known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, were fought over the days and nights of 12-15 November. These battles were bloody and costly affairs for both sides, but they resulted in the destruction of the relief force from the 17th Army and the blunting of the IJN, and ultimately, the Japanese decision to evacuate Guadalcanal.
In the titanic struggle in the East, throughout August, September, and October of 1942 the exhausted and gaunt survivors of Chuikov’s 62nd Army clung desperately to the remaining acres of rubble inside the city of Stalingrad. Their story is one of the great tales of heroism in any theater of that war. The consequence of their fanatical defense was the necessity to weaken the flanks of the German 6th Army by pouring additional formations into the city, leaving the northern and southern lines largely in the hands of poorly-led and ill-equipped Hungarian and Rumanian units. When Operation URANUS was launched by the Soviet Don Army Front on 19 November, the 5th Tank Army and 21st Army blasted into the Hungarians and Rumanians north of Stalingrad, shattering those units, and driving deep into the rear of the German 6th Army. A day later, the southern flank was smashed by 64th, 51st, and 57th Armies, and when the Soviet forces met at Kalach on 22 November, Stalingrad was encircled and the fate of more than 300,000 Axis troops was sealed. It was a blow from which the Wehrmacht would never quite recover.
In the waters of the Atlantic, November 1942 would seem to be an exception to the above events. Indeed, Allied shipping losses in vessels and tonnage reached a wartime high. But the factors that had caused those losses, the CVEs and escort vessels pulled from convoy duty for Operation TORCH in North Africa, and the changing of the U-Boat code machines, were rectified during November 1942. The CVEs and escorts, in ever-increasing numbers, closed the air gaps, and the capture of a cipher book in late-October 1942 allowed for Allied deciphering of U-Boat signal traffic to begin again in the last days of November. Newer SONAR and air-search radar technology began to be felt, as well. As a result, Allied losses dropped sharply, and soon U-Boat sinkings rose to unsustainable levels, the fuel oil and supply crisis in Britain came to an end.
As much as anything on the battlefields and oceans of the theaters of war, it was the industrial and manpower might of the Allies that came increasingly to bear in November of 1942. Merchant shipping construction would enter full swing during that month, as would aircraft, tank, and warship production. The crushing weight of Allied industry would increasingly dwarf German and Japanese efforts, and carry the war to the heart of the Axis.
The war had gone on for not yet half its ultimate duration. It would last for thirty more months in Europe, and thirty-three more in the Pacific. And the bloodiest campaigns were yet to come. The Soviet Union would call the year 1943 their “year of deep war”. In Occupied Europe, too, the long nightmare betrayed no end. Other than the abject failure at Dieppe, not a single Allied force had set foot in Western Europe since the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940. Across in the Pacific, the savage fight for the Pacific islands had barely begun, and the Kamikaze was as yet unknown to the US Navy. Yet, the victories across the globe in November 1942 began the inexorable Allied march to victory against Germany and Japan.
For the Allies everywhere, Churchill’s words after El Alamein are descriptive of the significance of those decisive thirty days that were November of 1942.
“Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”