In the second in our three-part series Countdown to Global War, Evan Mawdsley, author of December 1941 discusses two pivotal and fateful decisions that were made on November 5 1941, seventy years ago tomorrow. Mawdsley examines Japan’s decision to make preparations for war with Britain and the US, and Hitler’s decision to let the German Army continue its offensive against Moscow rather than prepare a secure defensive line for the winter. Here the author talks us through these historic events.
Article by Evan Mawdsley
Events which took place seventy years ago marked out early December 1941 as a crossroads in world history. Fatal decisions were taken about a month beforehand, which led to war between Japan, Britain and the United States, and which determined the first major German defeat.
In Tokyo an Imperial Conference, meeting on Wednesday 5 November, formally decided to extend Japan’s four-year war with China into a global conflict, aimed to achieve control over Southeast Asia and taking on the USA and Britain. The leaders of the government and armed forces, meeting in the presence of the Emperor, agreed that war would start after 1 December, if negotiations currently being held in Washington did not yield results. To avoid war the Western powers would have to accept Japanese hegemony in East Asia and abandon the economic sanctions they had imposed.
The meeting took place two weeks after the formation of the Tōjō cabinet (18 October), and only a few days after a seventeen-hour session of another august body, the government-military ‘Liaison Conference’, which met on 1-2 November. The Liaison Conference had considered alternatives: (1) avoiding war with the Western powers, (2) making war immediately, or (3) deciding for war, but continuing diplomacy. The third – the so-called ‘twin-track’ – policy was the final choice; this was what the Imperial Conference ratified on 5 November. The military now finalised their contingency plans. Japan would begin the war with simultaneous attacks on Malaya, Thailand, the Philippines, and Hawaii – although knowledge of the last operation was kept strictly limited. On 5 November Combined Fleet Order No. 1 was circulated, and the following day a new military headquarters was activated, the Southern Area Army.
Japan was acting in its own interests; the government did not consult with its European allies. However, between the meeting of the Liaison Conference and that of the Imperial Conference, the German Naval Attaché was secretly informed by Japanese colleagues that war with the USA was probably unavoidable, and that operations in the Southeast Asia directed against American, British, and Dutch possessions would begin in the current year. The naval command in Berlin received this information on the 6th.
The Western powers had also become aware, through different channels, that big decisions had been reached. Unsuspected by the Japanese, they were able to decrypt Tokyo’s most important diplomatic messages. On the day of the Imperial Conference Foreign Minister Tōgō sent a telegram to the Ambassador in Washington, informing him that the deadline for a diplomatic solution was 25 November. (Tōgō shortened the deadline by a week; he believed the ambassador moved slowly.) This message was read the same day by US codebreakers Washington. The Americans, however, like the British and the Germans, did not yet know the extreme form that the beginning of the war would take.
Another decision, quite different but equally momentous, was taking shape on about 5 November, within Hitler’s high command. A choice had to be made about whether to continue the drive of the Ostheer – the Army in the East – into the depths of Russia. German soldiers had won a great victory in front of Moscow in October, but the need to round up prisoners, stretched supply lines, and the beginning of the autumn mud season – the rasputitsa – had prevented the anticipated fall of Stalin’s capital.
One choice was to go into winter quarters, consolidating the military position, refitting units, and putting supply lines in order. The Ostheer had virtually no reserves left, and many of the front-line commanders saw that their troops were exhausted. The men in overall command of the German forces, however, favoured a continued offensive. This was based on the assumption that the Red Army was incapable of further resistance.
Hitler himself, on 9 November, briefed Nazi leaders in Munich; he told them that if the ‘weather god’ saw fit to grant another 10-14 days of favourable conditions his forces would be able to envelop Moscow and cut off the Caucasus.
The Führer’s view – at least concerning Moscow – was based on that of his Army commanders, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch (Commander-in-Chief) and General Halder (Chief of the General Staff). Brauchitsch and Halder were eager to strike the final blow that would bring the Soviets crashing down. These were men who remembered another fateful moment – on the Marne in 1914 – when the German Army had paused for breath and allowed the French to recover and dig in. On 13 November, Halder would attend a key conference of front-line chiefs of staff, at Orsha in central Russia, where he forced through the continuation of the attack; the Moscow offensive would be resumed on 15 November.
As with Japanese aggression, the die was now cast.
Evan Mawdsley is honorary professorial research fellow, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow. His many books include World War II: A New History; Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet Struggle, 1941-1945; and The Russian Civil War. He lives in Glasgow.
His latest book, December 1941, is available now from Yale University Press.