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February 1942: Britain's Darkest Days

Adrian Stewart
Adrian Stewart has written several books involving various aspects of the second world war but this one covers a very specific period. The British nation, the Dominions, and the Colonies had suffered several setbacks during the early stages of the war, some due to enemy action and others closer to home, such as strikes by coal miners, but during February of 1942 disasters seemed to pile one on top of another. In fact, in Chapter 1, he describes how Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt of just how bad things had become and warned that ‘other misfortunes will come thick and fast upon us’. However, as he makes clear both in that chapter and in the final one, Churchill had no intention of giving up, having said later in that year: ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’

In Chapter 1, Adrian introduces some of the reasons as to why so many things went so badly wrong. Where the Far East was concerned, one of the failings was the belief, held by many, that the Japanese were inferior in many respects and could not be seen as a formidable enemy. The whole situation was not helped by Churchill’s insistence on deploying to the Middle East troops who were originally scheduled to go to the Far East.
Rommel’s success is considered as the first effective disaster of February although his counter-offensive actually started in January. It is interesting to see the comparison between the two sides in terms of armour and artillery and the effect on logistical supply lines. There is considerable explanation of the problems facing the British and the difficulties encountered in the chain of command where personalities clashed and questionable decisions made. This is followed by an account of what happened to Malta, its bombardment, the convoys which attempted to reach the island, and the effect of the constant attacks on what was happening in North Africa.

A move to the English Channel and the next chapter describes how the British were almost caught napping, for a variety of reasons, when the enemy set out to move the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, heavy battle cruisers, from their bases at Brest into the North Sea, and hence Germany, where they could threaten both Atlantic and Arctic convoys. Churchill and the Admiralty were determined to prevent this, partly because of recent engagements, one of which saw the sinking of HMS Hood. Here Adrian Stewart provides a précis of the efforts to stop the so-called Channel Dash.

In the Far East, things suddenly started to go wrong in February 1942. The Japanese attack at Singapore has been well documented and a complete chapter has been devoted to this one action while the next describes the Japanese advance and the attack at Port Darwin. The book includes some of the exchanges and comments between Australia and Great Britain, describing the animosity felt by some Australians.

The attention of this book now moves to Burma where concerns had been raised about the possibility of the Japanese invading India and also severing the Burma Road thus affecting Chinese resistance. There were too many erroneous assumptions concerning the quality of the invaders. Added to that there were conflicts within the higher command of the British where such problems became a partial cause of conflicts such as the action at the bridge across the Sittang river.

The final chapter concerning events in February describes the series of events and misfortunes in the Java Sea between Sumatra, Java, Celebes and Timor that resulted in the sinking of several British, Australian and Dutch warships.

Adrian Stewart does not just end the book there but provides one more chapter which looks at the ensuing effects following the disasters during the month of February. The U-boat menace, Japanese shelling of the east coast of India, the problems in Malta, and the campaign in North Africa, are all described in brief.

The Bibliography provides adequate reference for those who wish to gain further information about any aspects described and the maps illustrate the areas in which each took place in this well written book. There is a considerable amount of information to be found in this book which concerned only the one month, some of major importance and others of less. For example, it is surprising to find a description of why the Japanese fighters were known as Zeros, or why the German fighters were really Bf109s and not Me 109s. My only personal dislike in any book such as this is the use of chapter end notes rather than foot notes. A useful book to keep on the shelf even if only to use as a reference to other sources.
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