1942: Britain at the Brink

Taylor Downing

1942 was perhaps the darkest year for Britain during the Second World War.
The British surrender to Japan in Singapore, February 1942.
Home » Articles » 1942: Britain at the Brink

When asked by a young Reginald Bosanquet from ITN what he feared most, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously replied, ‘Events dear boy, events.’ We have all become aware in the last 18 months of the broad range of events which can cause political crises, as a pandemic and national health alarms have led governments to take extraordinary measures. But in wartime it is simpler. In a democracy, military failures lead to political crisis. What happens on the battlefield determines the success or failure of political leaders. And never was this more evident than in 1942, when a series of military debacles nearly overwhelmed Winston Churchill and his government.

When Japan invaded Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941, Churchill immediately felt that the war was won. With America and the Soviet Union as allies, the Prime Minister knew that victory, one day, was certain. On the evening in which he heard of the attack by the Japanese on the US Pacific Fleet he was at Chequers. As his aides and secretaries rushed about frantically sending messages to the Foreign Office, to the Speaker of the House of Commons, to members of the government and other heads of state, a much relieved Churchill simply retired to bed. He later said that on that night he ‘slept the sleep of the saved and thankful’.

Japanese aerial image of the attack on Prince of Wales and Repulse.

At that point he had no idea of the disasters that would follow thick and fast over the next nine months. Only three days later, he received the devastating news of the sinking of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse by Japanese bombers flying out of what had been French Indo-China. He took it particularly badly because he had ordered the ships to press ahead without their air escort to provide a sign of British naval might as a deterrent to the Japanese. ‘In all the war I never received a more direct shock’ he later wrote.

British, Indian and Australian forces in Malaya were soon completely outmanoeuvred by Japanese troops advancing rapidly down the peninsula. The Imperial forces were untrained for jungle warfare and ‘milked’ of their best NCOs and officers to fight in the Middle East. They would build a defensive barrier across a main road, but the Japanese would move into the jungle, outflank the defenders, who would then be forced into a hasty and disorganised retreat before being totally cut off. Thousands surrendered and vast depots of supplies including dozens of vehicles, along with hundreds of tons of rations and ammunition were abandoned.

Before the impending disaster in Malaya could play out, there was further humiliation when three German warships, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen cheekily raced from Brest up the Channel to return to their Baltic base. In broad daylight they sailed right through the Straits of Dover. Due to a series of blunders and appalling failures in communications, naval destroyers, MTBs and the shore batteries at Dover along with the fleet air arm and RAF bombers failed to score a single hit. The press was up in arms. The Manchester Guardian asked why the Japanese were able to sink the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya, but the RAF and the navy could not hit the German warships as they passed so close to the white cliffs. The normally loyal Daily Mail led the attack with a leader that was both anti-government and anti-Churchill.

Churchill was thrown into despair by the fiasco. Sir Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office wrote in his diary, ‘The blackest day of the war yet…We are nothing but failure and inefficiency everywhere.’ Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, not a supporter of Churchill, wrote in his diary of the attack by the Mail, ‘It is the first that has ever appeared’. But the public too were outraged by the humiliation. ‘Everyone is in a rage against the Prime Minister’ wrote Channon. ‘Rage; frustration. This is not the post-Dunkirk feeling, but ANGER…The capital seethes with indignation.’

Two days later there was worse news when the garrison of about 85,000 Imperial troops surrendered to a Japanese force of about 23,000. Photographs of the commander-in-chief Lieutenant-General Percival walking out with a white flag to surrender went around the world. Nothing symbolised British imperial collapse more vividly. Churchill saw the capitulation of the fortress at the heart of Britain’s defence of the Far East as another terrible humiliation. In a speech to the Conservative Party Central Council he said, ‘Singapore has been the scene of the greatest disaster to British arms which our history records.’

When his daughter Mary visited Downing Street for a lunch alone with her parents, she found her father in a state of depression. ‘Papa is at a very low ebb’ she wrote in her diary. ‘He is not too well physically and he is worn down by the continuous crushing pressure of events. He is saddened – appalled by events’.

More humiliations followed. British and imperial troops were once again routed in Burma. Another imperial capital, Rangoon, fell to the Japanese in March. The vital route to China was cut, leaving China isolated from overland supplies from the outside world. British and imperial troops withdrew first across the Irrawaddy river and then the Chindwin. Mandalay was captured on 1 May and later that month the remaining British, Indian and Gurkha troops withdrew across the mountains to the frontier of India. It had been a disastrous campaign and having covered 900 miles became known as ‘the longest retreat in British history’. And the Japanese were now at the gates of India.

In April, on reviewing the general situation, General Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, confided to his diary, ‘I do not like the look of things.’ He wrote, ‘I suppose this Empire has never been in such a precarious position throughout its history…I wish I could see more daylight as to how we are to keep going through 1942!’

In the North Africa, the much reinforced Eighth Army under Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie was resoundingly defeated by the ever-resourceful Erwin Rommel at the Battle of Gazala in early June. With his main force retreating at speed towards the Egyptian border, Ritchie relied upon the garrison at Tobruk to hold up and delay Rommel’s advance. But after a fearsome air raid on the morning of Saturday 20 June, German panzers penetrated the outer defences of the Libyan port. On the following afternoon, the South African commander raised the white flag of surrender. Around 33,000 Allied troops surrendered to an Axis force of about half that number. Fortress Tobruk had survived eight months of siege in 1941 but had fallen to Rommel in June 1942 in a weekend.

Churchill was in a meeting with President Roosevelt in the White House when news came through of Tobruk. Churchill was overcome. He later wrote, ‘This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were its military effects grievous, but it had affected the reputation of the British armies.’ Churchill recalled, ‘I did not attempt to hide from the President the shock I had received. It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing. Disgrace is another.’

Churchill in 1942

In some ways, Churchill had only himself to blame. When he became Prime Minister in May 1940 he had taken on the role of Minister of Defence as well. There was no precedent for this leaving him in total control not only of the strategic direction of the war but also for almost every aspect of British and Imperial military operations around the world. Blame for strategic failures and military disasters would always ultimately come back to him.

During the first six months of 1942 there were two hostile motions in the Commons. In January he easily defeated a motion of no confidence. In late June he faced a vote of censure. This was more serious attack upon his leadership which largely collapsed because the opposition failed to provide a credible alternative military leader for the national war effort. However, in the spring a serious political rival emerged in Sir Stafford Cripps. He was everything that Churchill was not. He was a teetotaller and an austere left winger who had dallied with Marxism. But in 1942, he captured the mood of the nation. He had a powerful group of what today would be called special advisers around him known as ‘the Crippery’, who were adept at getting their boss into the newspapers. He was seen as being forward looking, progressive, clear minded and super-efficient. Having been ambassador in Moscow until his return to Britain in January 1942, he became associated in the public eye with heroic Soviet resistance to invasion, rather than the run of British military disasters. Mass-Observation identified growing public support for him and reported he was ‘the first alternative leader-figure since the fall of Chamberlain.’

The summer and early autumn of 1942 was a perilous time for Churchill. In North Africa General Bernard Montgomery was appointed to command the Eighth Army and began the slow process of restoring its morale and preparing his men for a new offensive. Meanwhile, Churchill was regularly rounded on by the press. Mass-Observation picked up a number of reports of public support falling off a cliff. People said he had taken on too much responsibility, that he was past it, he was no longer the man to win the war. On the evening of 1 October, Churchill told Eden that if the upcoming operations failed ‘then I’m done for and must go and hand over to one of you.’ A few days later, Beaverbrook told Eden that Churchill was ‘bowed’ and ‘not the man he was’. Churchill later said that for him September and October 1942 were the two ‘most anxious months of the war’.

But, as everyone knows, Montgomery and his Eighth Army delivered a great victory at Alamein. That transformed the political situation. When followed five days later by the Anglo-American landings in French North-West Africa, Operation Torch, the pendulum finally began to swing. The PM ordered the church bells to be rung. In 1940 this would have signified a German invasion, now it celebrated a great victory. By mid-December, Churchill’s political fortunes had been restored. He had survived the gravest crisis of his premiership. This had not been in 1940 when the Battle of Britain had brought victory and the Blitz generated a determined fighting spirit among many. It was in 1942 when the run of military debacles took Britain and its war leader to the brink. Then at last, military ‘events’ turned in his favour. Politically secure again, he would fight on until final victory.

Taylor Downing is a historian, writer and broadcaster. He is the author of 1983: The World at the Brink and 1942: Britain at the Brink.