Our Darkest Hour
It is 6.00pm on Saturday, 18 April, 1942; in her entire history, things have never looked much blacker for Britain and all that she stood for. Four months of continuous air attacks by the Luftwaffe on Malta (just awarded the George Cross for the bravery of its people) and on its supply convoys, during which barely an eighth of the vitally necessary ammunition and supplies have got through, with countless sailors and thousands of tons of shipping lost. With Hitler ordering air raids on all the British towns in the Baedeker Guide and undefended Bath, York, Norwich and Exeter almost decimated. With the pro-German French traitor Laval having just been appointed premier of Vichy France by Marshall Petain. Added to all that, Mandalay in the Far East is about to fall and the Burma oil fields, upon which we have hitherto relied for our Far Eastern fuel supplies, have just been destroyed by our retreating troops.
London has now just about run out of money, having last month already surpassed the entire spending on the 1914-1918 Great War (£9.05 billion). In the North Africa theatre, Rommel's Panzer divisions are rapidly driving our hard-pressed and under-armed troops back in Lybia. And so the sorry tale could go on, with scarcely a gleam of light on the horizon.
With Britain's back to the wall, the scene is now set in the War Office bunker, a hundred or so feet beneath Whitehall, London. The top brass is seated round a table, having been assembled down there at very short notice, at the instigation of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, who has only this day been appointed to take overall charge of Allied Operations, Southeast Asia. No secretaries or other juniors are present, so no running notes of the proceedings will be taken. The meeting is chaired by Sir Ronald Ponsonby, Permanent Under-Secretary to the War Office. None of those present are particularly pleased at having their weekend spoiled or at being ordered to attend by their new OC.
Sir Ronald stands to open the meeting and proceeds to make a few preliminary remarks before reading his brief aloud:
'Those present will, I am sure, permit me to dispense with titles, particularly as we have much to discuss this evening and decisions to make that will be vital to the progress of the war for the Allies, and for this country in particular. Unless any of you object, therefore, I propose using the terms 'Sir' and 'Gentlemen' to cover all of those present.
'Next, you may be wondering why it is that I, whom you have not elected, am chairing this meeting. Well, Lord Louis himself expressed the wish that I should, in order that the facts as presented to you should not be biased toward any of the three services here represented. Although tradition has it that there is an order of seniority among you, in practice, of course, all your views are of equal importance in regard to the matters that we are here to discuss. The drawback to this arrangement, obviously, is that I do not hold the rank to be in a position of authority over you, that is, if the unfortunate position should arise where discipline needs to be asserted; for example, if the ruling of the chair were to be ignored. I must therefore rely on you all, as gentlemen, to respect my limitations in that respect.
'Well, Gentlemen, I have been instructed first of all to present a résumé of the recent events in the Far East that have led up to the vulnerable position in which we find ourselves today. To coin a phrase, to trace the 'critical path' of events over the last few months and to try to project from that the most likely course they will follow in the near future. From that projection, our task now is to map out the best way for us to utilise our depleted resources to the Allies best advantage. It is appreciated that the following facts are well-known to you all, but it is our new chief's wish that I relate them in chronological progression, in order that they may remain fresh in your minds as we make our decisions. I propose to start off with the Far Eastern theatre.
'We could begin a long way back, at the time, for instance, when we withdrew most of our Far Eastern fleet, after the Japanese aggression in Manchuria way back in 1930; at the fall of Shanghai and Peking, and so on through the whole sorry tale of Japanese expansion. However, for the purposes of this discussion, let us assume that the Far East war began in earnest, in relation to our possessions, last year, on 7 December, 1941, when, without declaring war, the Imperial Japanese Emperor launched a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbour, decimating the American Pacific Fleet, leaving over 3,000 servicemen dead and injuring many more. This, by the way, was the first time in history that an entire fleet had been virtually destroyed entirely from the air, and it has changed the whole future tactics of naval warfare; unfortunately, it is taking us a little time to learn fully the lessons from it. Indeed, Lord Louis told me he is not completely satisfied that even now we have fully appreciated that lesson.
'To continue: nominally in support of our US allies, we declared war on Japan the day following the Pearl Harbour catastrophe. In fact, of course we knew the Japs proposed to attack our Far East possessions whether or not we declared war on them — if for no other reason, than because we had the Pearl Harbour experience right under our noses. Anyway, since we knew they had recently overrun French possessions in Indochina, it was unlikely they would regard ours as sacrosanct.
'In any event, the Japs wasted no time and immediately attacked us on all fronts. Three days later they penetrated Thailand and Malaya on 10 December. On this same day, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse, which formed the nucleus of our eastern sea defence, were sunk off the coast of Malaya; again, their destruction was achieved entirely by carrier-based Japanese aircraft. Their forces proceeded to capture Hong Kong on 25 December. We were not alone in our losses, because the Americans lost Manila on 2 January.
'3 January saw General Sir Archibald Wavell, regarded at the time as one of our best tacticians, appointed Head of Allied Forces Southwest Pacific, in an attempt to stem the flood of Japanese successes. Since the Malayan theatre, Borneo, New Guinea, the Solomons and other Indonesian islands were to fall almost unopposed shortly afterwards, bringing the Japanese forces to within 800 miles (three hours' flying time) of Australia, the General's assumption of power had clearly proved ineffective, at least in the short term.
'And so the apparently unstoppable Japanese army moved on. In our theatre of operations, they came down through Malaya at an incredible speed. Every time any real opposition was encountered, they simply leapfrogged it, eventually to besiege the supposedly impregnable island of Singapore on 29 January. I say 'supposedly', because in fact virtually no preparations had been taken to defend it against attack from the mainland, the direction whence it had been clear for many months that any attack was likely to come. Believe it or not, gentlemen, on this whole strategic island there was not a single pillbox, defensive position or gun emplacement, other than a few fixed-position 15-inch naval guns on the south coast, which, although they could be turned to face the mainland, were supplied only with high explosive shells for use in naval warfare and were virtually useless against fast-moving infantry or mechanised troops. There were indeed several airfields, but by the time Singapore came under attack, the airforce had removed all its planes and staff, leaving vehicles, equipment and stores there mostly undamaged.'
The Royal Airforce representative present cleared his throat noisily, but Sir Ronald carried on regardless. 'I am only relating the indisputable facts in this résumé. any explanations you care to make as to how these events came about can be heard later. To continue: in an attempt to retain that island, regarded as vital for our communications with Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the rest of the hemisphere, we dispatched a precious 18th Infantry division there to land the day before it was besieged, that is on 28 January. Some of the troopships were unfortunately sunk by enemy planes before they could land their troops. Incidentally, those that did get through were disembarking at the same time as the last Royal Airforce Hurricanes were being flown out.
'These fresh soldiers had been trained for and were destined for desert warfare; they were badly needed in North Africa at the time and were actually on their way there, equipped with solar topees and clothing suitable for the desert, when their convoy was diverted to the Far East. Not only had these officers and men been at sea for three months by then, but on landing they were sent straight from the holds of ships immediately into battle, having received no training or experience in jungle warfare, the tactics for which are the complete opposite of those for desert operations. They were to oppose seasoned troops that had been carrying out this kind of warfare against the Chinese for five years and more. Neither officers nor men knew where they were going until the day they disembarked. These troops, together with their scarce equipment, were literally thrown away, because the island surrendered on 15 February. As our words are not being recorded, gentlemen, I have no hesitation in expressing the opinion that the decision to waste them was taken by one man alone, and that man Churchill himself. Posterity will no doubt record that decision as having been our greatest mistake of the entire war.
'In the meantime, the Japs had also been penetrating Burma, and by 22 February they were within 80 miles of Rangoon, which has now had to be evacuated and is likely to fall any time in the near future1. By the 28th, while Java and Sumatra were being overrun, we had lost another indispensable thirteen warships in The Java Sea. Neither was it only the British that were being pushed back, because on 12 March General MacArthur admitted defeat in the heavily defended Philippines.
'Since when their lines of communication become too long Japanese tactics are simply to live off the country, allowing the natives to starve, it is now rapidly becoming theoretically possible for India itself to be invaded by them in the course of the next few months, or, Heaven forbid, even within weeks. The position is now that Indians, both troops and civilians, are being pounded with misleading propaganda about 'The Greater Southeast Asia Prosperity Sphere', which, with the aid of Indian quislings, the Japanese government launched in the hope of subverting the sub-continent. Gandhi, their pacifist moral leader, is now recommending his millions of followers to offer no opposition to the Japs 'when' they arrive.
'On the 29th of March, Sir Stafford Cripps on behalf of the War Cabinet offered these Indians' leaders full independence after the war is over. That was refused, with the comment 'We want it now!' So it seems we could be called upon to defend that huge sub-continent solely with our own forces, which you will all appreciate would be an impossible task for us, having already lost over 75,000 of our troops in Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, either killed or captured.
'On the fifth of this month, 75 enemy planes bombed Ceylon and two of their aircraft carriers, together with their support ships, are believed now to be cruising in the Indian Ocean. On the 9th, 36,000 Allied servicemen, mostly Americans, were captured when Bataan (an island to the north of the Philippines), fell. We had to issue orders only recently to destroy our oil wells in Burma.
'One might well ask why can we not obtain help in defending this territory from our powerful American allies. The answer is that public opinion in the States has never favoured helping us maintain an empire to which they are opposed in principle — some might say they are jealous of it. The actual reason they give is that they have their work cut out progressing their own phase of the war in the Pacific, thus ultimately helping in the defence of our Antipodean Commonwealth, which is undeniable. Australia and New Zealand must now retain the few troops they have left at home to defend their own territory, with the enemy daily getting closer. So we can hope for no further help from that direction.
'The remit of the meeting as far as this theatre is concerned, gentlemen, as I have already intimated, is to form a plan of action to put into effect if the unthinkable takes place and India should be lost to us, so that, unlike the situation in Singapore at its capitulation, we can be prepared for the worst. What fallback preparations must we make now? Since there are three of you and each one may well wish to speak more than once, may I suggest that if we hope to complete this meeting before daybreak, you confine the duration of your opening remarks to ten minutes each.' He conspicuously withdrew a gold half-hunter from his waistcoat pocket, released it from its chain and lay it on the desk in front of him. 'I call upon our representative of the senior service, Admiral Sir Andrew Gulliver, to speak first. As we are all probably tired after a day's work, I suggest there is no need to stand when we speak.' With that, Sir Ronald Ponsonby sat down himself and took a sip from the glass of water on the table before him.