December 1941: Twelve days that began a world war

7th December 1941: The USS Shaw exploding during the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at their base in Pearl Harbor. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
7th December 1941: The USS Shaw exploding during the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at their base in Pearl Harbor. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
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Did 12 days in December 1941 change the course of the 20th century? DAVID ROBINSON follows Evan Mawdsley through an engrossing story

Exactly 70 years ago today, Britain was broke, besieged and fighting the Nazis if not alone then at least with the kind of ally she never really wanted. And how much use would Stalin be anyway? Already, the German scouts were 11 miles away from Moscow’s city centre. Just over 100 miles to the south, General Heinz Guderian had set up the Second Panzer Army’s headquarters on Tolstoy’s country estate at Iasnaia Poliana. Der schnelle Heinz, his troops called him. Fast Heinz. He had already smashed his way through the Polish, British and French armies. Why should the Soviets slow him down?

Yet as November turned into December, the patterns of war and peace started to shift dramatically. The Soviets counter-attacked and for the first time forced the Germans back. In Libya the British army did the same. In the Far East, the sinking of the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse heralded the end of an empire. In Germany, at a meeting of Nazi leaders in the Reich Chancellery on 12 December, Hitler ordained the systematic murder of all of Europe’s Jews.

The most immediately dramatic change of all, though, began on 1 December on the other side of the world with a coded signal – “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208” – sent from a Japanese battleship to the main ships in its fleet. Mount Niitaka in Formosa (Taiwan) was the highest peak in the Japanese empire: climbing it was therefore going to be so arduous that commanders privately rated its chances of success at only 50:50. The day chosen for whatever mission this was, however, was clearly spelled out. 1208. December 8, 1941 – “the day of infamy,” as America’s President Roosevelt called it, when the world knew all about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

All of these cataclysmic events have long been pored over by historians: Pearl Harbor alone is the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of books. It would, one might have thought, be difficult for anyone to find a new way across such familiar terrain. Yet in December 1941, retired Glasgow University Professor Evan Mawdsley does just that. Drawing on a vast array of sources from all sides in the conflict, he takes us through the first 12 days of a month in which both the Second World War and the century itself hinged. Not only does he construct an engrossing day-by-day narrative, but it is one that shows quite clearly how closely all of these epochal changes were interlinked.

Like all the best kinds of history books, no hindsight is involved: Mawdsley rolls back the distance that separates the present from the past and leaves past’s future wide open. “It’s easy, for example, to say that Hitler was foolish to invade the USSR in the first place,” he points out when we meet in a break from his studies at the National Library. “We know he was defeated, but you have to think things through from his point of view. What would have happened had Germany not invaded Russia?

“Or again, why does Hitler declare war on America? Looking back from 2011, we know how things worked out, that there would be Midway and Hiroshima and America would be all-powerful. But of course Hitler didn’t know that. Depression America wasn’t a superpower. Hitler thought the Americans didn’t have the stomach for war, so it was better having them fighting the Japanese than carrying on sending supplies to the British.”

These, though, are the sort of broadbrush statements that you can only make with any confidence once you have already spent months in the archives working out precisely which side knew what and when about their opponents’ strategy. This is where a historian becomes a watch repairer, looking at the spinning cogs behind the watch face, how they interlock to push the hands forward. And while in the past historians only used to look at their own nation’s wartime archives – at some of the cogs, to persevere with the metaphor – since the 1990s they have been expected to look at all of them. So Mawdsley has had to immerse himself not just in the German, British and American archives but also use primary Russian sources and translated Japanese documents.

If that’s hard, it pales beside putting together the jigsaw puzzle of intelligence briefings. “One of the sub-themes of the book is intelligence – how much do both sides know and why they don’t always act on it. And if you are going to make a point about how much, say the British or Americans knew about the Japanese or German manoeuvres, you have to be incredibly precise, not just about when the message goes from A to B and when it is read. So you have to know all about time zones, little details like the fact that the British and Germans kept on summer time all through the war but the Americans didn’t (they made the change in 1942), although of course you don’t let any of that show in the narrative.”

When you pull all of the archival research together, the interconnectedness of events becomes clearer. One arc of this story, for example is the growing realisation among the German High Command that the Eastern Front won’t be the complete triumph they had hoped and might well turn out to be a total disaster. That is one reason that Hitler is overcome by sheer joy – for the only time in the war, according to those who knew him – when he hears about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As soon as that happened, he had probably decided to declare war on the US. That’s how, he believed, great powers behaved: they always declared war on other countries, they didn’t have war declared on them. And what happens when he has done that? Well, he no longer has to worry about American public opinion. He no longer has to moderate – a shocking verb, I know – his treatment of European Jewry. In this war, which has suddenly truly become a world war, Japanese bombers in Hawaii and T34 tanks defending Moscow have unleashed a still greater horror.

You might think, therefore, that Pearl Harbor was the second most vital element in this story. It’s not. Of course, at the time, it was every bit as much of a shock as 9/11: an unprovoked attack, out of the blue on a Sunday morning. “In its planning and execution,” Mawdsley writes, “it was perhaps the most skilful military operation of the Second World War.”

But it wasn’t, he points out, the most effective. An hour before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had done something even more strategically damaging than sinking a couple of ageing moored American battleships. They had just invaded Malaya. At the cost of 800 casualties, they had gained the airfields that would give them air superiority over the British. And we all know what that leads to: the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, British humiliation at Singapore and American defeat in the Philippines.

You see what I’ve done there: I’ve added hindsight. Now, strip that out again, and look at what actually happens when you study history hour by hour, day by day. For one thing – a simple realisation, but one that Mawdsley explains was the reason he wanted to write the book in the first place – you notice that Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invasion of Malaya and first signs of Soviet success in the battle for Moscow take place on the same weekend.

Another thing about 1941: it was difficult for diplomats to shuttle around the planet. On the very morning of 7 December, just around the time that news comes through of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Litvinoff, the new Soviet ambassador to the US, had just arrived in Washington. How does he get there? Flying from Moscow to Volga, then onwards stopping at Iran, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Guam, Pearl Harbor (of all places: he even gets to talk to its soon-to-be-disgraced commander) and San Francisco. Meanwhile, for the Brits, on that very day foreign secretary Anthony Eden is setting off from Scotland by cruiser en route to talks with Stalin in Moscow. By the time he disembarks, he can no longer offer Stalin the full range of military assistance he had “in his pocket” when he set off: the reverses in Malaya have seen to that.

When he began writing December 1941, Mawdsley says, the kind of book he had in mind was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about the first days of the First World War, which became a bestseller in 1963 after John F Kennedy was seen reading it at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Like Tuchman, he aimed to tell what is, after all, quite a complex story, day by day. But in this now global conflict, he would have to start in the middle of the Pacific each day, moving, like the sun, ever westward. Writing the book, he worried that so many changes of scene might disrupt the narrative: oddly the opposite happens, with each switch of viewpoint, you start to realise the fascinating complexity of events.

Take, for example, the Japanese invasion fleet steaming south towards (as it turns out) Malaya. The British and the Americans know, from cracking the diplomatic codes, that the Japanese have no interest in peace. But they hadn’t broken the military codes so they didn’t really know what was going to happen. It might just be sabre-rattling. It might be an invasion of neutral Thailand. The target almost certainly wouldn’t be Malaya, because any attack on the British would almost certainly lead to the Americans intervening with their Pacific fleet on Britain’s behalf.

But the Japanese had fooled their enemies. All logic suggested they would use their whole naval might for any attack on the British in Malaya. This, after all, was their real target: Pearl Harbor was a spectacular sideshow. But it was one that nobody expected – a whole 6,800 miles, nearly a quarter of the earth’s circumference, away. If war was just a bloodless game of chess, you would be compelled to admire the sheer audacity of their strike. When news of Pearl Harbor reached Europe, Hitler’s joy was mirrored by Churchill’s. “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful,” he wrote in his memoirs. The British and Americans knew, from those diplomatic cable intercepts, that Germany would want to declare war on the US, so Roosevelt could afford to wait for them to do so. In fact, that was the shrewdest thing he could have done, given that he wanted to unite the country behind him.

So those 12 decisive days before Christmas passed, and the war carried on. Within a week, Stalin would be saying that the German army’s reputation was “much exaggerated”; within six months, at the battle of Midway, all four Japanese carriers used in the attack on Pearl Harbor would be sunk, and their fleet’s dominance of the Pacific along with them.

The war was a long way from being won, but one day soon it would be. And when, in 70 years’ time, it had almost stopped being a collectively remembered experience and become one that belonged in the pages of history books, people would see that it was those 12 days in December 1941 that made all the difference, even to their own lives too.

December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War, by Evan Mawdsley is published by Yale, priced £25.