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Sealing their fate : twenty-two days that decided the Second World War / David Downing.

By: Downing, David, 1946-.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: London ; New York : Simon & Schuster, 2009Description: xv, 368 pages, [16] pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 9781847371317 (hbk.).Subject(s): World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns | World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns -- Pacific Ocean | Pearl Harbour (Hawaii), Attack on, 1941DDC classification: 940.54
Includes bibliographical references (p. [334]-351) and index.
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

It took the Japanese fleet twenty-two days to sail from Japan to Pearl Harbor, the same twenty-two days that witnessed the German assault on Moscow and the Crusader battles in North Africa. The Germans failed to knock the Soviets out; the Japanese succeeded in bringing the Americans in. These twenty-two days sealed their mutual fate.

With each chapter structured around one of the twenty-two days leading up to Pearl Harbor, SEALING THEIR FATE narrates the battles, the preparations for battle, the diplomatic manoeuvres and the intelligence wars. The story shifts from snowbound Russian villages to the stormy northern Pacific, from the North African desert to Europe's warring capitals, and from Tokyo to Washington. The book features a host of ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen, and those political and military figures who played a key role in the war. Taking the momentum of the Japanese fleet, SEALING THEIR FATE works as an exciting countdown. Other countdowns -- the gradual halting of the German advance in Russia, the erosion of Rommel's resources in North Africa, the institutionalization of the Holocaust -- is worked into this basic structure. As Winston Churchill memorably remarked 'Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force.'

Includes index.

Includes bibliographical references (p. [334]-351) and index.

11 27 28 89 175

Excerpt provided by Syndetics

MONDAY 17 NOVEMBER Soon after sunrise the battleship Nagato, flagship of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, weighed anchor off Iwakuni and set sail for Saeki Bay on the eastern coast of Kyushu. The voyage across Japan's Inland Sea took around five hours, and it was past one o'clock when Nagato rounded the northern lip of the bay and the scattered ships of Kido Butai, the Japanese First Air Fleet, came into view. At around 15.00 a small boat ferried Yamamoto and his staff officers across to the carrier Akagi, flagship of the First Air Fleet's commander-in-chief, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. A hundred or so key officers from the other ships were already waiting on the Akagi flight deck to hear Yamamoto's farewell address. Unlike most of the twenty thousand men they commanded, these officers knew where Kido Butai was headed, and why. Many, like Nagumo and his chief of staff, Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka, had struggled long and hard to dissuade Yamamoto from proceeding with this operation, and, though the time for voicing them had passed, enormous doubts remained. If anyone expected a gung-ho address from Yamamoto, eager for the fight and contemptuous of the enemy, they were disappointed. Addressing the ranks of white-uniformed men on the wind-blown flight deck, the commander-in-chief eschewed heady rhetoric and seemed less interested in inspiring his subordinates than in deflating any residual overconfidence. Japan had defeated many worthy opponents in the past, he said, but the Americans would be the toughest of them all. The fleet was relying on surprise, but it was always possible that the enemy would be waiting for them, and they might well have to fight their way to the target. This should not deter them - it was, after all, the custom of bushido to select an equal or stronger opponent. Scanning the faces of Yamamoto's listeners, his chief of staff registered 'unshakable loyalty, determined resolution, even a degree of ferocity. But they were all self-composed. We cannot but expect some damage to us, yet I pray by the grace of heaven they will succeed in their objective. All adjourned to the wardroom for a sombre farewell feast. The traditional dried cuttlefish were consumed for happiness, handfuls of walnuts for victory. Glasses were raised to the glory of the Emperor. Before returning to the Nagato, Yamamoto surprised and pleased the assembled officers with an impromptu expression of confidence in the outcome. An hour or so later Nagumo and Kusaka paid the return visit courtesy required, and drank a last toast to Operation Z's success. On their way back to Akagi they could see the carriers Soryu and Hiryu already under way, heading for the mouth of the darkening bay with their four destroyer escorts. Other ships followed at regular intervals through the evening, and aboard Nagato many of the crew lined the main deck to watch and wave them goodbye. Yamamoto was one of them, watching each ship through his binoculars until her silhouette faded into the horizon. Akagi and her two-destroyer escort were the last to leave, weighing anchor just before midnight. With lights out and radios disabled to prevent the accidental transmission of signals, they slipped out into the broad Pacific, hopefully lost to the eyes and ears of the enemy. Earlier that Monday, the Japanese liner Taiyo Maru had arrived back in Yokohama from Honolulu, bearing three intelligence officers and a wealth of information about ocean conditions and American military preparedness. They were collected by launch before the liner docked and rushed by car to the Navy Ministry in Tokyo, where high-ranking members of the Naval General Staff, Operations Section and Intelligence were anxiously waiting to hear their report. Lieutenant-Commander Suguru Suzuki did most of the talking. After leaving Yokohama on 22 October, ostensibly on a purely commercial voyage, the liner had taken an unusual north-easterly route for the first couple of days, and then followed Kido Butai 's intended route across the normally empty reaches of the northern Pacific. One of the three agents had been on deck every hour of the voyage, noting down the weather and sea conditions, constantly scanning the horizon for other vessels. The only storm had been short, and the Taiyo Maru had been less than two hundred miles from Oahu when the first American plane appeared in the sky. During their five days at anchor in Honolulu, the agents had stayed aboard the liner. Nagao Kita, the Japanese consul general, had visited them on the first morning and taken ashore the Navy Ministry's list of over a hundred questions, covering everything from the American fleet's weekend routine to the precise location of each and every military installation on the islands. Over the next few days, Kita had smuggled written answers past the American security guards with what seemed indecent ease: the various police and military agencies had all been too busy checking arriving and departing passengers to concern themselves with Japanese officialdom. When the liner left on 5 November, most of the questions had been answered. The Taiyo Maru had followed Kido Butai 's intended route of return, a more southerly course this time, close to the American outpost of Midway. The sea had been just as empty, the weather and conditions even better than on the outward voyage. The mission had clearly been a success, but the more sanguine members of Suzuki's audience were not overly impressed. Many of the key questions remained unanswered. A single liner could apparently cross the northern Pacific unobserved, but a fleet of more than thirty warships? There was no definite information about American reconnaissance sweeps, no guarantee that the fleet would not be betrayed by a chance encounter with a submarine or merchantman. There was no surety that the American carriers - or any of the enemy's other capital ships, the battleships and heavy cruisers - would be in harbour when the attack was launched. It was still, as many of them had always insisted, a terrible gamble. Still, much information of use to the task force had been gathered, and Suzuki was sent home to pack for another trip. He would head north next day on the battleship Hiei, bound for Kido Butai 's final assembly point in Etorofu's Hitokappu Bay, to brief Nagumo and the flight leaders. Kido Butai 's attack on Pearl Harbor was one of three major Japanese offensives provisionally scheduled for the same twenty-four hours. It would be 7 December in Hawaii, but further west, across the International Date Line, it would be 8 December when Japanese forces attacked on the one hand Thailand and northern Malaya, and on the other the Philippines. To say that the British and American authorities in Malaya and the Philippines were expecting these attacks would be something of an overstatement. They were expecting the Japanese to try something or other at some indeterminate time in the future, but in all other respects wishful thinking was the order of the day. Neither the British nor the Americans were ready, and both managed to convince themselves that the Japanese would wait until they were. In the Philippines, the American C-in-C, Douglas MacArthur, had recently told the newly appointed head of his air force, General Lewis H. Brereton, that a Japanese attack was unlikely before April. Brereton's early impressions of his new command's readiness had been far from encouraging, but he had hardly begun setting things right when MacArthur sent him off to check the facilities for forwarding future reinforcements across the south-western Pacific. Brereton was in Australia on 17 November, a long way from the morning exercise being played out over Luzon. The 93rd Bomb Squadron's B-17s launched a mock attack on their Clark Field airbase, some sixty miles north of Manila, and the 20th Pursuit Squadron's P-40Bs rose to intercept them. The latter found the former, but their engines proved so underpowered that the B-17s just left them behind. 'Our planes,' as one interceptor pilot wrote home to his sister, 'are not good enough to fight with. A further five time zones to the west, Lieutenant Kurt Gruman of the German 87th Infantry Division was enjoying another clear sunny day in the countryside north-west of Moscow. The myriad bushes and trees draped with glittering snow and ice were 'almost like a fairy tale', only subverted by 'the bitter thunder of guns' in the distance. During the day he and his comrades were able to stand the cold, but at night it was beginning to torture them. The temperature in the Moscow region had suddenly dropped around 7 November and seemed prone to further plummeting falls every few days. Wheeled movement was now possible both off-road and on, but only for a limited period - December's heavy snow would prove as much of a handicap to mobility as the late-autumn mud. And in every other respect the arrival of winter was bad news for the Germans. Their army had not been equipped to function in such temperatures. Weapons, tanks and lorries, even trains, all struggled to cope, while the soldiers were still wearing denim tunics and trousers and steel-soled boots that conducted the cold. The winter clothing was supposedly on its way, but no one seemed to know when it would arrive. Frostbite was rapidly becoming commonplace, and stories began circulating of German night sentries found frozen solid when morning came. It was almost as cold in the gloomy East Prussian forest six hundred miles to the west, but the two purpose-built compounds occupied by the Führer, his immediate entourage and those who were supposedly running his Russian campaign were well heated, and a true appreciation of conditions in the field required either imagination or a willingness to listen. Neither quality was much in evidence in mid-November 1941, either in the Wolfsschanze or at the nearby OKH ( Oberkommando des Heeres, the Army High Command) headquarters. On their wall and table maps Moscow looked tantalizingly close, only fifty miles from the German front line, the sort of distance the panzers had been devouring in a couple of days a few months earlier. It was realized that conditions in November were more difficult than they had been in July, but Operation Typhoon 's October surge towards Moscow had been slowed by supply problems and mud, not the Russians. Now that the ground was hard again, a fifty-mile advance was surely achievable. Hitler had made his decision, and OKH had turned it into an operational plan. On 12 November Chief of the General Staff General Franz Halder had boarded his personal train at Angerburg and journeyed overnight to Orsha, where Army Group Centre's commander, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, had his headquarters. The chiefs of staff of all the German armies and army groups on the Eastern Front had been summoned to the conference which took place that day in a siding beside the town station. Many came expecting to debate the wisdom of a further offensive in 1941, but they were disappointed. Comments and questions were welcome, but the decision had already been taken. Halder's presentation was unconvincing. He emphasized the enemy's weakness and supposed lack of reserves, but he and his audience were depressingly aware that their actual intelligence of Soviet troop movements reached little further east than Moscow. Halder also ignored or glossed over his own army's supply difficulties and reserve shortfalls. When the Quartermaster Field Office Chief protested that von Bock's armies could not be supplied as far forward as Moscow, Halder accepted his calculations yet insisted that OKH did 'not like to stand in Bock's way, if he thinks he can succeed'. Von Bock, it turned out, was Halder's only powerful ally at this meeting. The chiefs of staff listened with incredulity to the maximum and minimum advances which Hitler and OKH were now demanding in the expected six-week window of opportunity which lay between mud and deep snow. The maximum line ran from Vologda to Stalingrad via Gorky, two hundred and fifty miles beyond Moscow, the minimum a less ambitious but still breathtaking hundred miles beyond the Soviet capital. The chiefs had their say. Army Groups North and South were opposed to any further offensive. Von Bock's chief of staff, General Hans von Greiffenberg, loyally refused to rule out an advance, but was keen to point out the difficulties. The chiefs of staff of the three infantry armies and three panzer groups, which made up Army Group Centre, all poured scorn on the proposed objectives. This was not May and they were not fighting in France, one exasperated chief told Halder. It made no difference. Halder handed over the written orders, and the conference broke up. On 15 November the left wing of Army Group Centre would begin its push, the infantry of General Adolf Strauss's 9th Army moving east to cover the left flank of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt's 3rd Panzer Group as it advanced towards Klin and the Volga Reservoir. Further south, General Erich Hoepner's 4th Panzer Group would attack General Konstantin Rokossovsky's 30th Army on either side of the Volokolamsk highway leading into Moscow. On the right wing the German forces needed more preparation time, but the 2nd Army and 2nd Panzer Army would be in motion by 17 November, the former guarding the right flank of the latter as it swung in behind Moscow for the intended rendezvous with Reinhardt. Almost due west of the Soviet capital, the 4th Army would hold, pinning the Soviet forces that faced it while the panzer groups wreaked havoc in their rear. It had worked before, and Halder and von Bock clung to the precedents - not, perhaps, because they really believed it would work again, but because the alternatives were too awful to contemplate. By that morning of 17 November the armoured spearheads of the 3rd and 4th Panzer Groups had punched several gaps in the defensive lines entrusted to the Soviet 30th and 16th Armies. General Georgi Zhukov, in overall command of the armies defending Moscow, had ordered his subordinates to launch probing attacks on the German infantry divisions which the German panzers had outpaced, hoping to find a vulnerable spot, anything to slow the gathering German tide. One such mission was allotted to the 44th Mongolian Cavalry Division, which had only just arrived from Tashkent in Central Asia. The spot selected for its probing attack was a section of the front around fifteen miles north of Volokolamsk. It was held by the German 116th Infantry Division, with forward units stretched out along the slight ridge that ran east of the villages of Musino and Partenkovo. Three artillery batteries were deployed among them. Dawn was a hazy affair, but the sun soon burned off the mist, and by 09.00 the German soldiers had a clear view across the mile of snow-dusted field that lay in front of them. At around 10.00 a forward observer spotted Red Army horsemen in the wood beyond, and the German infantry and artillery units were put on alert. An hour and a half later, four light tanks, T-26s, emerged from the trees and slowly advanced into the field. The Germans, guessing that this was just a probe, held their fire. Twenty minutes more, and a large cavalry force began emerging from the wood, forming up in long ranks on the far edge of the field. 'It was an indescribably beautiful sight,' one German soldier later recalled, 'as on this clear and sunny winterscape, stirrup to stirrup, bent over their horses' bodies and with brandished flashing sabres, the cavalry regiment raced in full attack across the field. It was as if the age of Mongol assaults had returned.' Other Germans were more astonished than entranced: 'we could not believe that the enemy intended to attack us across this broad field, which lay open like a parade ground before us.' But they did. The artillerymen opened up with their 105-millimetre howitzers and quickly found their range. Men and horses were blown to pieces, spraying broken flesh and blood across the white snow. Panicked horses ran wild across the smoke-covered field, their discarded riders easy prey for the German machine guns. Those who could turned tail and ran. 'It was,' the second German soldier remembered, 'impossible to imagine that after the annihilation of the first squadrons the nightmare sight would be repeated.' But it was. The Soviet cavalry re-formed for a second charge, this time supported by two horse-drawn 76.2-millimetre howitzers of their own. It made no difference. Three hundred and fifty 105-millimetre shells tore into horsemen and guns, forcing the survivors back to the shelter of the trees. Hundreds of Red Army soldiers had died, and not a single German had received as much as a scratch. Few victories, in this or any other war, had been so comprehensive. And yet. That evening, huddling for warmth in what shelter they could find, the German soldiers outside Musino might have asked each other some deeply disturbing questions. What sort of enemy charged across an open field brandishing sabres at machine guns and howitzers? A stupid one? Or one that was willing to sacrifice life upon life from a seemingly inexhaustible supply? And if the latter, how could such a foe be beaten? And what would happen if the day ever came when he was the one with the superior weapons? That night another German division found out. Earlier that morning, 185 miles to the south-east, General Heinz Guderian's 2nd Panzer Army had launched its offensive. The main attacks were south of the stubbornly held city of Tula, directed north and north-west, with the twin aims of advancing on Moscow and encircling Tula from the rear. The 112th Infantry Division advanced along the trailing right flank of the 24th Panzer Korps, and by nightfall was close to the town of Uzlovaya. The troops went into bivouac, got as warm as they could and looked forward to a similar advance on the following day. German reconnaissance had missed the presence of a newly detrained Siberian division in the area, and an accompanying armoured brigade with a full roster of the relatively new and highly manoeuvrable T-34s. The 112th Division, working on the assumption that any Red Army units in the area had been thoroughly scattered by the panzer advance, was in for a shock. Shortly before midnight, the forward sentries heard engines looming out of the night and soon made out the sloping shadows of around twenty T-34s. The alarm went up, but the division's ability to fight back was seriously limited. For one thing the German 37-millimetre anti-tank guns could take out a T-34 only at point-blank range; for another the gunners found that the packing grease on the shells had frozen solid and had to be scraped off before they would fit into the breech. And all this in darkness, fingers frozen and groggy from sleep, shells exploding amid and around them. The regular infantry fared no better, their automatic weapons refusing to fire more than single shots. As the waves of Siberian infantry loomed into view behind the tanks, insultingly snug in their quilted white uniforms and felt-lined boots, racing forward and firing guns that actually worked the way they were supposed to, the denim-clad Germans broke and ran. The panic, Guderian wrote, 'reached back as far as Bogorodisk', several miles to the rear. Earlier that evening, before hearing of the attack, the general had been writing a letter praising his 'brave troops', who were 'seizing all their advantages and are fighting with wonderful endurance despite all their handicaps'. But now perhaps they had reached their limits. The routing of the 112th Division was 'a warning that the combat ability of our infantry was at an end and that they should no longer be expected to perform difficult tasks'. Around 500 miles to the south of Tula - the German forces in the Soviet Union were now stretched along a 1,000-mile front - Army Group South's 1st Panzer Army had launched its attack across the Mius River that morning. Rostov, with its bridge across the wide River Don, was only forty miles away. Both Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who commanded Army Group South, and General Ewald von Kleist, who commanded the 1st Panzer Army, had opposed this offensive. The worsening supply situation, the winter conditions, the general tiredness of soldiers and vehicles, all suggested failure. Rostov might be taken, but holding it would probably prove beyond them. And since the city mattered only as a stepping stone on the road to the Caucasus and its precious oil, its temporary seizure would be futile. Back in East Prussia, things were seen differently. The oilfields seemed there for the taking, and stepping zones were for stepping on. Nazi Germany had only two major sources of the precious fluid that drove its tanks and planes - the Romanian fields around Ploesti and the synthetic oil plants at home - and they didn't produce enough. Like its future ally Japan, Nazi Germany was condemned to live with the permanent anxiety of running short. The oil of the Caucasus, which would dissolve this anxiety at a stroke, was worth almost any risk. The first day of the German offensive proved successful enough. Von Kleist's two panzer divisions, with the SS Leibstandarte on their right, were almost halfway to Rostov by nightfall, leaving substantial Red Army units scattered behind them. So far so familiar, it seemed, until the news arrived of a Soviet attack that same day. Marshal Timoshenko, the commander of the Soviet South-Western Front, had been gathering reserves for this moment, and that morning the 9th, 18th and 37th Armies, supported by tank brigades, had launched an attack south-westwards, diagonally across the line of the intended German advance. The Soviets advanced ten miles that day, reducing the gap through which the Germans were now supplying their attack towards Rostov. If the city was taken, the takers might find themselves cut off. At the northern end of the Eastern Front, Leningrad was into its third month of siege. The German Army Group North had cut the city's last rail link with the rest of Russia on 30 August, and its last road link on 9 September. This left the Soviets with only two ways of bringing in food and other much-needed supplies - by air, and by train via Tikhvin and Lednevo for shipping across nearby Lake Ladoga. The soldiers of Army Group North had reached a point only seven miles from the Winter Palace in the second week of September, but shorn of Hoepner's 4th Panzer Group - transferred to Army Group Centre for Typhoon's assault on Moscow - they could advance no further. Hitler was not concerned. Remorseless aerial bombing and artillery bombardment would reduce the city to rubble; starvation and cold would claim its people. Determined to close every loophole, he ordered Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb to use his remaining armour in the taking of Tikhvin, another hundred miles to the east. On 8 November that city fell, and Leningrad's final lifeline with it. Inside the city conditions rapidly deteriorated. As the temperature dropped, so fuel ran out, silencing the factories and immobilizing public transport. The bread ration had already been reduced three times, and on 13 November it was cut again, to 300 grammes a day - around 4 slices - for those still working, 150 grammes for those whose only occupation was keeping themselves warm. And even those grammes now contained twenty-five per cent of 'edible' cellulose. The city's daily consumption of flour had dropped by more than two-thirds in two months. Without a new lifeline Hitler would have his wish, and three million people would starve to death. Lake Ladoga froze over every winter, and the idea of replacing the shipping route with a road laid across the ice had been discussed in October. The fall of Tikhvin, and the loss of rail connection which this involved, added another giant task to the Soviet list: the construction, in winter, of a 220-mile road through untamed forest and swamp to reach that section of the railway still in Soviet hands. While thousands were drafted in to pursue this project, others set to work building warehouses at either end of the projected ice road, and scientists in Leningrad puzzled over the details of travel on ice. How fast and how thick did water freeze at what temperatures? How many inches of ice were needed to support a fully loaded one-ton truck? By the second full week of November the lake was beginning to freeze, and an hour before dawn on 17 November Lieutenant Leonid Sokolov led the roped-together members of the 88th Construction Battalion out across the ice from the lakeside town of Kokkorevo. Their destination was Kobona, twenty miles across the bay, at the eastern end of the intended 'road'. They were all wearing lifebelts and camouflage white, and carrying both weapons and ice tools. It was a sunny day, but the wind was piercingly cold. The men ventured out across the creaking lake, leaving stakes with flags at hundred-metre intervals, making frequent stops to check the thickness of the ice. It was four inches thick in most places, enough, or so the scientists had told them, to support a riderless horse, but as they neared the halfway point it grew thinner and finally disappeared in a large circle of open water. They sloshed their way around its rim, until one man fell through the brittle perimeter and had to be pulled out. Dry clothes had been brought for such an eventuality, and the chain was soon edging gingerly onwards, first to the island of Zelenets, and then to the further shore, which was reached several hours after dark. Sokolov radioed news of their arrival to Major Mozhayev, his superior in Kokkorevo. Mozhayev passed the good tidings on to Leningrad party headquarters and then, in a fit of glorious optimism, mounted his horse and followed the line of flags out across the frozen lake. Four hours later he, too, was in Kobona. There might not be enough room on the available eastbound trains for the fuel, ammunition and winter clothing that the German troops desperately needed, but space was always found for the regime's favourite reading matter. The fortnightly Das Reich was considered, by its authors at least, essential for the maintenance of morale. How else would the troops know what they were killing and dying for? The 16 November edition, which was now en route, featured an exhaustive explanation by Joseph Goebbels of the Jews' responsibility for the war. The Propaganda Minister began by reminding his readers of Hitler's prophecy in January 1939 - that if the Jews started another war the result would be 'the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe'. 'We are,' Goebbels added, 'seeing the fulfilment of the prophecy. The Jews are receiving a penalty that is certainly hard, but more than deserved.' Exactly what this penalty was he declined to say. The only punishment mentioned was the recent introduction of compulsory yellow stars for Jews still living in the Reich. The numerousness of these stars had, Goebbels admitted, been a bit of a surprise to Berlin's non-Jewish citizens - the Jews had been so adept at concealing their presence. 'He had concealed himself, mimicked his surroundings, adopting the colour of the background, adjusted to the environment, in order to wait for the proper moment. Who among us had any idea that the enemy was beside him, that a silent or clever auditor was attending to conversations on the street, in the subway, or in the lines outside cigarette shops? There are Jews one cannot recognize by external signs. These are the most dangerous. It always happens that when we take some measure against the Jews, English or American newspapers report it the next day. Even today the Jews still have secret connections to our enemies abroad and use these not only in their own cause, but in all military matters of the Reich as well. The enemy is in our midst.' For the moment there was little to worry about. But what would happen if Germany lost the war? These 'harmless-looking Jewish chaps would suddenly become raging wolves. They would attack our women and children to carry out revenge.' The German people needed to keep reminding themselves that this could happen. Because 'if we Germans have a fateful flaw in our national character, it is forgetfulness. This failing speaks well of our human decency and generosity, but not always for our political wisdom or intelligence. We think everyone else is as good natured as we are. The French threatened to dismember the Reich during the winter of 1939/40, saying that we and our families would have to stand in lines before their field kitchens to get something warm to eat. Our army defeated France in six weeks, after which we saw German soldiers giving bread and sausages to hungry French women and children, and gasoline to refugees from Paris to enable them to return home as soon as possible, there to spread at least some of their hatred against the Reich. That's how we Germans are. Our national virtue is our national weakness.' It was time to be hard, and not to be 'too good natured, since our enemies are not noble enough to overlook our mistakes'. Better by far 'an unforgiving, cold hardness against the destroyers of our people, against the instigators of the war'. The Jews were to blame for each and every German soldier who fell. 'They have him on their conscience, and must also pay for it.' Payment was being taken. Half a million Polish Jews had been imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto for a little over a year, and the approach of a second winter was taking its toll on sick and malnourished bodies. 'The most fearful sight is that of the freezing children,' Emmanuel Ringelblum noted in mid-November. 'Little children with bare feet, bare knees and torn clothing stand dumbly in the street weeping.' On the night of 16-17 November eight Jews - two men and six women - had been caught outside the ghetto without permission and sentenced to death. Two of the women were under eighteen, another was a mother of three. Early that morning all were dragged from their cells, the women bound and blindfolded, by Jewish policemen, one of whom 'distinguished himself with his zeal'. One of the two young women begged that her family be told she'd only been sent to a concentration camp; the other asked God to accept her in sacrifice for her people. A small group of smiling SS officers, 'calmly smoking cigarettes and behaving cynically', looked on as the firing squad of drafted Polish policemen carried out the execution. On this same day 942 of Berlin's Jews were ordered to a railway yard in the city's south-eastern suburbs and were forced aboard a train of closed goods wagons. Wearing yellow stars was inadequate punishment for such enemies of the Reich. This particular transport, one of around thirty such trains which left Germany for the east between October and January, was bound for Riga in what is now Latvia. Many of its passengers, having received written instructions to prepare for a difficult winter, were carrying little heating stoves. On the other side of the city, Generaloberst Ernst Udet was on his hotel room phone, very drunk and very distressed. 'They' were after him, he told his ex-girlfriend Inge. He announced his intention to kill himself, and almost immediately did so, holding the phone up so she would hear the shot. Someone called the police, who found scrawled messages on the wall and a suicide note. Udet had been one of Germany's favourite sons for almost thirty years. A famous fighter ace in the First World War, he had spent the 1920s as a pilot for hire, working in movies, testing new planes for manufacturers, thrilling crowds around the world with his flying circus. He made a lot of money, had a lot of fun, and thoroughly earned his playboy image. Udet joined the Nazi Party in 1933, though not out of any ideological conviction. He was patriotic, liked the idea of developing a new German air force, and found his old comrade Göring hard to say no to. Early on, he helped promote the Ju-87 dive-bomber, which so well complemented the panzer vehicles and tactics which Heinz Guderian was pushing at the same time. In 1936 he was given charge of the Reich Air Ministry's development wing, and three years later was made Chief of Armaments Procurement for the Luftwaffe. This was a crucial job, and one that was almost impossible to do well, given the feudal way in which Nazi Germany was organized, and the penchant of its barons for indulging in wishful thinking and deliberate ignorance. As long as the war went well, Udet's unsuitability for the post went unnoticed, but the moment things started going awry - as they did in the Battle of Britain - he proved the ideal scapegoat for his rival Erhard Milch and the habitually idle Hermann Göring. By the summer of 1941 the Luftwaffe's shortcomings in both quantity and quality were being laid, with only partial justification, at Udet's door. He tried to resign, but Göring, only too aware of how that would look, refused him. Udet upped his drinking, smoking and eating to compensate, and complained of sleeplessness and depression. Inge Bleyle's desertion may have been the final straw, but Udet knew who deserved the blame: 'Iron Man' Göring was bitterly reproached in both the suicide note and the slogans scrawled in red across the headboard of the dead man's bed. The 'Iron Man' heard the news around midday. He ordered the Air Ministry to issue a communiqué. 'While testing a new weapon on November 17, 1941,' it read, 'the director of air armament Colonel General Udet suffered such a grave accident that he died of his injuries.' The latest issue of the Amsterdam-published Nazi propaganda magazine Das Europa-Kabel came out with a new idea for solving the Reich's chronic shortage of funds. If those ex-Soviet enterprises now 'owned' by their conquerors were sold to German private business, then everyone would come out ahead. The buyers could hardly ask for a more business-friendly environment - both labour and resources were, after all, there for the exploitation - and the sellers could fund future conquests with the resulting windfalls. The idea's proponents had clearly neither visited the western Soviet Union in recent months nor been told of the wholesale destruction of those industries not chosen for relocation. It would be another fifty years before their policy was put into practice, albeit under slightly less punitive circumstances. Since the German invasion of their country in April 1940, many Norwegians had sought escape to Britain. The Germans set up control stations at all the ports in August 1941, and in late October the death penalty was introduced for leaving the country without permission. Boats had continued to vanish, however, and on this Monday the occupation authorities announced that henceforth all fishing craft would be confined to port between sunset and sunrise. Two days earlier, the British submarines Torbay and Talisman had tried to land fifty-three British commandos on the North African shore of Cyrenaica, some two hundred miles behind Axis lines. Storm conditions had turned the disembarkation into a nightmare, with two men drowned and another twenty-three forced back to the Talisman. The original plan had involved half the commandos in disrupting enemy communications, but this element was now dropped. Three men were left behind to cover the re-embarkation, leaving twenty-eight to fulfil the mission's primary objective: the assassination of General Erwin Rommel, commander of the German Panzergruppe Afrika. They moved inland for the planned rendezvous with Lieutenant-Colonel John Haselden, a member of the Long Range Desert Group who had been living undercover with the local Arabs. Haselden loaned them three guides and melted back into the desert like a clandestine Lawrence of Arabia. Thirty-six hours later the twenty-eight commandos were lined up on the crest of a dune overlooking Beda Littoria, peering through another storm-swept darkness at the dimly lit stone building that supposedly housed Rommel and his headquarters. The mission had been planned in the office of Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, Director of Combined Operations, and was led by his eldest son, Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes. Much intelligence had been gathered from various sources, but, as later became apparent, the gathering process had been gravely compromised by a refusal to divulge the purpose for which the information was sought. Common sense was also in short supply - after two years of fighting the energetic Rommel in France and North Africa, the British should not have been expecting to find his HQ two hundred miles behind the front line. The stone building in Beda Littoria was, in fact, the headquarters of Afrikakorps Quartermaster-General Schleusener. Both he and his deputy were currently in the Apollonia hospital, a few miles to the north, leaving Captain Weitz in command of the twenty-five-strong staff. All but two of these had taken to their camp beds in various rooms on the ground and first floors, leaving one sentry in the downstairs corridor, armed only with a bayonet. Keyes' plan was to lead ten men in through the front entrance, while another three forced their way through the back door. The rest of the commando force was entrusted with the demolition of the Germans' electricity generator. At one minute to midnight, as the thunder rumbled across the desert, they started down the dune. Erwin Rommel was asleep in Athens. He had just spent two happy weeks in Rome, staying with his wife Lucie at the Hotel Eden, taking in the sights of St Peter's. On 16 November a thunderstorm had diverted his plane to Belgrade, and then engine trouble had entailed an overnight layover in the Greek capital. Never a patient man, Rommel was more than usually irked by the delays. On 21 November his long-planned assault on the British-held enclave of Tobruk was due to begin, and he wanted time to personally check every last detail of the planned operation. Keyes and his commandos were not the only British soldiers heading into action. Two hundred miles to the east of Beda Littoria, most of the 8th Army was in motion. Ever since the failure of General Wavell's 'Battleaxe' offensive the previous June, Churchill had been urging Wavell's successor, General Auchinleck, to mount another. It was intolerable, the British Prime Minister thought, for his troops to be sitting on their hands while Russia bled, and North Africa was the only theatre in which they could get to grips with a substantial enemy army. Auchinleck had wisely refused to be rushed but, with the German tide once more surging towards Moscow, had accepted the need to launch his attack with less-than-perfect preparation. The new offensive, code-named Crusader, was scheduled to begin that night. The movement of troops and supplies behind the British lines had been under way for days, those on the coast road in daylight, those further inland - where the breakthrough was intended - under cover of darkness. 'Sunshields' of metal tubing and hessian had been fixed to the back of more than six hundred British tanks, in the hope that they would be mistaken, at least from the air, for three-ton lorries. Radio traffic was strictly limited, and those messages that needed sending were tagged with a false source. The RAF pilots' main job was to keep the skies clear of prying German eyes, but the weather did it for them. The storms that swept across Cyrenaica between 16 and 18 November were of stunning intensity. Rain fell in sheets, drastically reducing visibility. Flash floods swept away bridges and immersed every Axis airfield. The Germans were grounded. On the British side of the line the weather was better. Robert Crisp was one of the tank commanders moving up towards the front line on the evening of 17 November. It soon became 'so dark that the drivers could only dimly discern the outlines of the tank or lorry a foot or two in front of them', and someone at the front had to dismount and lead them by foot. 'So we proceeded slowly through the night, nose to tail, the desert filled with the low-geared roaring of radials and the creaking protestations of hundreds of springs and bogie wheels. To north and south of us the silence of the empty sands was shattered by similar long, deadly snakes, weaving forward for the strike.' Like Kido Butai, like the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, the British 8th Army was on the move. At the other end of Africa the British battleship Prince of Wales was anchored in Cape Town harbour. She was on her way to Singapore, there to serve as the flagship of the new Force Z. Churchill had set up a meeting between the Force commander, diminutive Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, and South African premier Jan Smuts, and the former was airborne, en route to Pretoria. Churchill's purpose in arranging this meeting was unclear, but it seems likely that he wanted Smuts' influential blessing for what many considered a highly controversial mission. Force Z had been conceived in Singapore. Worried by the constant bickering between the various political and military authorities in Singapore, Churchill had sent out a junior minister, Duff Cooper, to broker some sort of consensus. All the various parties - the commanders of the three services, the governor, the British ambassadors to Thailand and China, an Australian Special Representative - had met on 29 September and decided, among other things, that the dispatch from home of a small squadron of one or two capital ships would both encourage the locals and deter the Japanese. It would also, Churchill thought, show the United States that Britain was willing to carry her weight in Far Eastern waters. A 'flying squad' of one battleship and one aircraft carrier would be ideal. The Admiralty was appalled. It had no capital ships to spare; only two were available in home waters, for example, and there was no knowing when the powerful German battleship Tirpitz might make a break for the North Atlantic. The navy top brass also feared that Churchill's proposed 'flying squad' might fall between two stools - too small to deter, too big to lose. The Prime Minister, however, had the final say. He decreed that one of the two Home Fleet battleships, the Prince of Wales, should head east with the newly commissioned aircraft carrier Indomitable. This force would certainly have offered a greater deterrent to the Japanese than the one which eventually arrived. Unfortunately for Phillips, now chosen to command Force Z, Indomitable 's trial run across the Atlantic ended ingloriously, the carrier running aground off Jamaica. And before any thought could be given to using Ark Royal instead, she was sunk by a U-boat in the Mediterranean. The Prince of Wales would have only the battlecruiser Repulse for company. Arriving back from his meeting with Smuts, Phillips told his chief of staff that the South African premier was all for the mission and keen that it should be given the maximum publicity. Yet on the very next day Smuts would telegraph Churchill with a rather different take. He was worried, he said, about the division of naval strength in the Far East and Pacific. Force Z at Singapore and the US fleet at Pearl Harbor were far apart and 'separately inferior to the Japanese navy...If the Japanese are really nippy,' Smuts added, pun doubtless intended, there was every chance of 'a first-class disaster.' In Britain General Alan Brooke had just agreed to take over as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Churchill had offered him the post at Chequers the previous evening, and 'nobody could be nicer than he was'. After walking Brooke to his bedroom door at two in the morning the Prime Minister had taken his new chief's hand, looked into his eyes and wished him the very best of luck. Brooke felt he would need it. 'We were faced with a possible invasion across the Channel, with increasing difficulties in the Middle East, a closed Mediterranean, dark clouds growing in the Far East and a failing Russia driven back to the very gates of Moscow. The horizon was black from end to end...' Though not an 'exceptionally religious person', Brooke decided prayer was an appropriate response. Most of His Majesty's forty-eight million subjects were rather less well informed. That morning's Times carried no hint of the offensive already under way in North Africa, and little to substantiate reports emanating from Singapore that matters were 'moving to a crisis' in the Far East. Talk of a standstill on the Eastern Front was several days out of date, and the general air of complacency which pervaded coverage of the Eastern Front was exemplified by a cartoon in another paper, the Daily Mirror: a German soldier shivered in the snow above the tag line 'another frozen asset'. Better reasons for optimism were found in the Times small print - the reported German setbacks around Tikhvin and Tula, for instance - and, paradoxically, in a major article headlined RUSSIAN CITIES IN RUINS. This quoted neutral journalists whom the Germans had taken on a tour of the occupied east. One Swede had asked his hosts about the future of the Ukraine and been told that 'a certain degree of self-government' might be offered, but that an independent state was clearly not in German interests. In practice, or so it seemed to the foreign visitors, the Germans were going out of their way to antagonize all those who might have befriended them. The collective farms were not being broken up as the peasants wished, but simply handed over to highly paid German 'Commissars' who treated their new employees like plantation slaves. The cities really were mostly in ruins, but that hadn't stopped the Germans from renaming their streets after Hitler and Göring. Shops were bare, and many city dwellers could feed themselves only by making long foraging trips into the countryside. And despite all this the Soviet population appeared far from 'crushed by their fate'. They 'carried their heads high' and shot 'undaunted looks' at their foreign visitors. There was resistance in their eyes. The United States was not, as yet, officially at war, but its newspapers were dominated by coverage of the global conflict. The front-page headlines of the New York Times were split between this and a looming miners' strike, but the first seven pages were all war news. There was prominent coverage of Japanese Prime Minister Tojo's speech to Parliament earlier that day, and the 'three points' for peace which it contained. 'Third powers' - by which he meant the United States - were advised to (a) refrain from obstructing a successful conclusion of 'the China affair', (b) end the military menacing and economic blockade of Japan and (c) make the utmost effort to prevent the spread of war from Europe to Asia. Japan's international behaviour was apparently not in need of adjustment. The New York Times had no fresh news of the senior Japanese diplomat who had recently arrived from Tokyo. Saburo Kurusu had reached Washington on the previous Saturday, with instructions to help Ambassador Nomura find a peaceful way out of the growing crisis between the two countries by 25 November. Neither diplomat knew the precise reason for their superiors' haste. Neither knew that the First Air Fleet was already positioning itself for the attack their probable failure would trigger. At 10.30 that morning Secretary of State Cordell Hull received Nomura and Kurusu in his office. Hull later claimed to have taken an instant dislike to Kurusu - 'neither his appearance nor his attitude commanded confidence or respect' - and thought it inconceivable that the new arrival 'did not know the plans of his government and the role he was intended to play'. This role, in Hull's opinion, was a dual one - Kurusu had been sent to seal a one-sided deal or, failing that, to distract the US leadership from the real threat heading its way. That morning, however, the Secretary of State was much more diplomatic. He complimented Kurusu on the way in which he had handled himself since arriving, and told him how much everyone liked and admired his new colleague Nomura. After twenty minutes or so, the three men set off for their eleven o'clock appointment with President Roosevelt. This was intended as an informal welcome for Kurusu, and though the four men talked for an hour and a quarter they confined themselves to generalities. What were the two sides thinking? The most recent diplomatic initiative was Tokyo's so-called Proposal A, which had been presented to Hull on 7 November. It offered a Japanese withdrawal from China after twenty-five years, and precious little else. Japanese troops would stay in Indo-China, and Japan would remain a member of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. In the event of its rejection, Nomura was instructed to offer the marginally more moderate Proposal B, which promised some Japanese withdrawals from Indo-China. The Americans had not accepted Proposal A, but, somewhat to Nomura's surprise, they had not definitively rejected it either. It seemed increasingly likely that they were simply playing for time, and time, as Nomura's superiors in Tokyo kept telling him, was not on Japan's side. What the Japanese did not know was that the Americans had cracked their diplomatic code in August 1940, gaining full access to their diplomatic correspondence. Roosevelt and Hull already knew that Proposal B was waiting in the wings, and that it was as unacceptable as Proposal A. That diplomacy, in effect, was a dead-end street. But the Americans were also aware that their armed forces needed at least three months to prepare themselves for a Japanese onslaught, and that only diplomacy could fill the gap. Like the Japanese who faced them across the White House carpet, the American leaders harboured a faint residual hope that war between their two countries could be avoided - 'there is no last word between friends,' Roosevelt told his guests, quoting Williams Jennings Bryan. But by this time both he and Hull were convinced of Japanese perfidy, and mostly concerned with where, when and in what circumstances the coming war would start. Later would definitely be better, and that afternoon Roosevelt sketched out a possible six-month agreement for Hull to consider. The Japanese would be given 'some oil and rice now, more later', in return for a moratorium on military expansion and a de facto abandonment of the Tripartite Pact. If, at the end of six months, the two sides were still unable to reach a lasting agreement, then nothing would have been lost, and the American armed forces would be in a much better position to fight a war. (c) David Downing 2009 Excerpted from Sealing Their Fate: 22 Days That Decided the Second World War by David Downing All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.