Ireland’s Wars: The Second World War In 1942

1942 is often seen as the year of the turning point in the Second World War. At the start of that twelve months the Axis powers seemed in a position so ascendant as to arguably be unbeatable: knocking on the gates of Moscow in the east, grinding the Allies into a position of dusty stalemate in North Africa, enacting terrible losses in the Atlantic, holding their own in the air war and embarking on a whirlwind of conquest in the Pacific. But by the end of 1942 this position of apparent strength would be shown for the house of cards it really was. In theatres ranging from the deserts of North Africa to the jungles of Burma, Irish regiments would be involved, sometimes in the thick of the fighting.

In the North African desert, the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars began the year undergoing what would have been an enormous change if it had stayed implemented, their tanks swapped out for armoured cars that some thought, perhaps, would be of more use in the environment, but by the time they got back into combat again they had reverted back to the heavier, slower but more more deadly devices. Its next contact with the enemy came as part of the 4th Armoured Division’s effort to absorb an attack by Rommel near Tobruk in May and June of 1942, and then surround and annihilate the Desert Fox’s forces. The effort, in what is known today as the Battle of Gazala, was a terrible failure: Rommel’s forces not only survived, but inflicted a punishing amount of losses on the attacking British tanks, whose coordination was lacking and who too often find themselves hopelessly isolated and easy prey for their opponents. Gazala was one of the greatest victories of Rommel’s career, and allowed the Axis forces to finally take Tobruk. The Hussars suffered heavy losses, losing their commander to capture and other officers to burns as they manoeuvred in the desert and just about managed to avoid their own encirclement and destruction. So reduced was their number of tanks and men that the regiment was forced to amalgamate with other units in order to maintain some form of useful cohesion.

Rommel’s hopes to advance into Allied Egypt were scuppered by his inability to break through the defensive lines at El Alamein in July. Aware that his own supply lines were dangerously thin and that the Allies were soon to receive an enormous amount of reinforcements and supplies, he pressed on and attacked again in August, in the Battle of Alam Halfa. By then the 8th Army, that the Hussars was a part of, had come under the command of Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery had once spent time in Cork during the War of Independence when he was a Major (he had advocated a more ruthless prosecution of the war, but admitted that any military victory would be temporary without self-government being granted). Now he was a Lieutenant General, and would soon become the key British ground commander of the entire war, renowned for his organisational skill, the ruthlessness with which he dispatched officers he deemed unsatisfactory and the love he engendered from those under his command. At Alam Halfa, pre-warned by intelligence of Rommel’s intentions to attack , he declared “If we cannot stay here alive, then we will stay here dead”.

Rommel attacked the ridge at Alam Halfa in force, but ran into a well organised and steadfast British defence, with Montgomery deploying many of his tanks more as sedentary artillery than as mobile units. The Hussars, now known as the 4th/8th Hussars owing to their amalgamation with the 4th Queens Own Hussars, were among the units employed in such a manner. Unable to make the needed advances quickly and under near-constant air attack, Rommel was obliged to order a withdrawal. On the 2nd September armoured cars belonging to the amalgamated regiment were able to attack the German and Italian supply train, destroying a large part of it, exacerbating Rommel’s problems.

It was a crucial moment in North Africa, with the Axis never to again really gain the strategic initiative. Montgomery was conservative in the aftermath, choosing to build up his forces bit-by-bit instead of flinging what he had in pursuit and it would not be until late October that he would launch his own offensive, in what would be known later as the Second Battle of El Alamein. It was a large-scale effort to breach Axis lines, and it took the better part of two weeks of fighting, marked by Allied attack and German counter-attack, for the needed breakthrough to be achieved. The 4th/8th was particularly critical to the task of clearing a path through German minefields, which widened the scope of the offensive and limited Axis defensive options. The Axis, now thoroughly outclassed in terms of the number of men, tanks, air support and artillery that could be deployed, would have been better served retreating, but Hitler ordered Rommel to stand fast far longer than was prudent. Eventually the Axis were obliged to flee west, losing Tobruk and then Benghazi, along with a huge amount of tanks and men, though the bulk of Rommel’s army survived. With El Alamein, the time of back-and-forth in the North African desert had come to an end, and the Allies would only continue their advance.

They were aided in that by the opening of additional fronts in North Africa, with the successful prosecution of Operation Torch in November 1942. These seaborne landings on multiple positions of French North Africa is primarily remembered as an American operation, the first example of American troops becoming engaged with their German counterparts (albeit the initial adversaries were Vichy French), a military plan carried out as the first step in the “Germany First” strategic direction. But there was a substantial British contingent to Torch as well, and among those that drove into Tunisia after the initial landings was the British First Army which contained the 38th (Irish) Brigade, a unit that had been created earlier in the year to contain four battalions of the named Irish regiments: the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 2nd London Irish and the 2nd and 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The one time 8th battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles, recently converted into an anti-aircraft unit, was also involved in Torch. The Irish Brigade was in Tunisia on the 22nd November and before the end of the year would have a number of small-scale engagements as part of the “Run on Tunis” an Allied effort to take advantage of the French collapse in the region and capture the vital city of Tunis quickly. The effort would fail after the Allies got tantalising close to the objective, but stretched supply lines and successful German counter-attacks meant that the Tunisian campaign would stretch on into 1943. That year would be the Irish Brigade’s real introduction to the war.

While all of that was going on, the 1st battalion of the London Irish had been stationed in the Middle-East. That portion of the globe had flared into violence the previous year, when pro-German elements had instigated a coup in Iraq, but a swift Allied response had re-instituted British control, before sweeping Vichy French forces out of Syria and Lebanon. A combined force of British and Soviet troops also occupied Iran in this time, opening up a new supply avenue to the Soviet Union. The London Irish were part of a bulked up force designed to maintain order in the region and protect the vital oilfields. They would be deployed to more active combat zones the following year.

The involvement of Irish named regiments in the Far East also became manifest during 1942. The first half of that year was marked by a rapid advance of Japanese forces, which took Thailand, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies and numerous Pacific islands within a matter of months. Allied colonial administrations were poorly placed to enact any significant resistance, and isolated military units, in some cases poorly led but in many just under-supplied and little match for the Japanese, were unable to do much better. The surrender of Thailand allowed the Japanese an avenue to advance into Burma, then ruled by Britain, in a campaign that would threaten the British position in India and become one of the most difficult for any side in the course of the entire conflict. Among the British defenders of Burma was the 1st battalion of the Royal Innsikilling Fusiliers.

The Japanese conquest of Burma was rapid. Imperial troops swept into the country in early 1942, and Rangoon fell in March as an enormous migration of British officials, Anglo-Burmese, Indians and Anglo-Indians commenced, with over 80’000 of these dying as they fled west through the jungles. The immediate Allied forces in the area mainly consisted of less capable Burmese and Indian units backed up by British regulars, and these were overwhelmed quickly. The 1st Inniskillings were flown into the area in mid-March, one of the few units sent to try and rescue the situation. The resulting fight was chaotic and failing: at the Battle of Yenangyaung in April, some of the Inniskillings were among 7’000 Allied troops encircled, with many captured though others were able to breakout. Allied forces, including the Inniskillings, were obliged to join the general move west, which was largely undertaken through jungle tracks. The attacks of Nationalist Chinese troops coming from the north was critical to insuring Allied survival, and the majority of the army, battered, bruised, most of their equipment left behind and now left largely at the mercy of the monsoon rains, made it to India intact.

Efforts to rectify the situation in 1942 were frustrated by British emphasis on campaigns elsewhere, most especially in North Africa, political and social unrest in India where British troops were used to supress protests against British rule and a devastating famine in nearby Bengal which may have left as many as three million people dead. The Allies based on the Burma frontier slowly built up their strength and trained, with the Inniskillings, as part of the 14th Indian Division, ear-marked as one of those units that would be part of attacks back into the jungle.

They would get their chance late in the year, as part of the Arakan campaign. This was an attack into the coastal province of Arakan, with the overall objective being the capture of the strategically vital Akyab Island, whose airfields would allow the Allies to bomb any position in Burma. In Mid-December, the 14th Indian Division went forward, and immediately ran into stiff Japanese resistance from prepared positions. The Inniskillings and the others were in for a long and difficult fight through the jungle.

Part of the reason the Arakan offensive would run into trouble were changes made to it shortly before it began on account of changing troop availability. Some of the units earmarked for the campaign were no longer coming, partly because they had been redeployed on their way to the theatre. Among these was the 5th Infantry Division, which contained the 2nd battalion of the Riyal Innsikilling Fusiliers. On the 6th May 1942, these men went ashore on the island of Madagascar, then in the control of Vichy France, as part of Operation Ironclad. Part of the third wave of the invasion, they helped to effect the capture of the port of Diego-Suarez from surprisingly fierce resistance. They were removed from Madagascar within two weeks of arriving and resumed their journey to India, but would stay there only a short time before being moved to the Middle-East: the 5th Infantry Division would garner the nickname “the Globe Trotters” owing to its lengthy series of deployments throughout the war.

Speaking in a more general sense, 1942 is commonly perceived as the turning point of the war, primarily for Allied victories, or at least the beginning of victories, in three crucial theatres. El Alamein we have already discussed, but there was also the Pacific and the Eastern Front. In the Pacific Japanese strategy had become dependent on neutralising American naval power, which had been battered and bruised at Pearl Harbour but had not been destroyed. To this end, they attempted to lure the American fleet into an ambush by attacking the small atoll of Midway, unaware that American cryptographers had broken Japanese codes and were well aware of what was planned. A counter-ambush resulted in a four day battle that saw four Japanese aircraft carriers sunk at the cost of one American, along with the loss of vital crew and pilots that Japan would never be able to adequately replace. In combination with attritional losses in ground campaigns and the beginning of an Allied aerial bombings campaign of the Japanese home islands that would prove utterly devastating, it was the moment when the balance of power in the Pacific War swung decisively towards the Allies, and would remain that way until the end of the war.

The bigger conflict, the biggest conflict, remained deep in the Soviet Union. In the first part of the year Soviet counter-offensives had driven the Germans back to an extent, relieving the pressure on Moscow. Later in the year the Germans took the offensive again, only this time prioritising a thrust to the south, in the hope of breaking through into the Caucuses and the rich oilfields of Azerbaijan. The Germans made enormous gains throughout the Summer and Autumn, before running into stiff resistance on the banks of the Volga River, around the city of Stalingrad. As the Germans began the bloody process of clearing the city street-by-street, the Soviets prepared their own counter-offensive, and in November 1942 were able to encircle over 300’000 enemy troops in the city while pushing German forces back elsewhere. Stalingrad became a charnel house, with every inch of the city taken and re-taken with a steep price in lives. German efforts to relieve their troops trapped in the city came to nothing, and at the end of the year their resistance, while still dogged, was increasingly unlikely to be maintained in the face of heavy losses and a dwindling amount of supplies. Stalingrad was already among the bloodiest battles in the history, with well over a million casualties: the following year would bring its crushing conclusion, and set the tone for the remainder of the war on the Eastern Front.

The war was now approaching its half-way point, but by the end of 1942 the likelihood of an Axis victory was looking increasingly small. Germany had done as much as it was capable of doing against the Soviet Union and now stood on the cusp of a major setback; the Allies were squeezing the Axis from both directions in North Africa; Japan’s ability to maintain its offensives had been stopped in the Pacific. We will return to this larger-scale view of the war in a few entries, but for now we must move back to Ireland, and back to the IRA. The organisation was in a serious state of upheaval for a variety of reasons, and throughout 1942 and beyond would attempt to solve that issue through a succession of new leaders.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Second World War In 1942

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Second World War In 1943 | Never Felt Better

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