In ‘1942: Britain at the Brink,’ historian Taylor Downing looks at bitter defeats for the UK that nearly threatened the empire, including Jews who took haven in Mandatory Palestine
By Rich Tenorio
By leaving Europe for Mandatory Palestine, pre-World War II Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime hoped to put a safe distance between themselves and Hitler. Yet in 1942, the menace of the Reich crept uncomfortably close to the biblical Jewish homeland when German Gen. Erwin Rommel captured the Libyan port of Tobruk and advanced into Egypt.
It was one of many disasters suffered that year by the government of British prime minister Winston Churchill, making 1942 an annus horribilis for the premier, worse than many people realize today. Eighty years later, a new book spotlights this forgotten wartime chapter — “1942: Britain at the Brink,” by celebrated historian Taylor Downing.
“Certainly that Gary Oldman movie [‘Darkest Hour‘] depicted 1940 as the real crisis year for Churchill — the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz,” Downing told The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview. “And of course, it was a wretched year for Britain.”
However, he added, “my argument is that the real crisis for Britain was not in that year, but two years later, in 1942. There was a long series of military defeats that nearly pushed Britain out of the war.”
For Churchill, the worst catastrophe of 1942 was the fall of Singapore to Japan in February, with nearly 100,000 captured.
“Churchill called it the greatest disaster to British arms,” Downing said, adding, “It was not only a military humiliation but an imperial humiliation. Britain never really quite recovered from this unparalleled disaster.”
A smaller-scale but closer-to-home disgrace also in February was the escape of a trio of German warships through the Strait of Dover in the Channel Dash. A few months later, in a battle that lasted from June 17 to 21, 1942, Tobruk fell to Rommel’s German and Italian forces.
It was the second Axis victory there, after the epic eight-month siege the previous year. This time, the British lost 33,000 prisoners and Rommel continued eastward.
“It looked as though he would drive right across Egypt — Alexandria, Cairo, the Suez Canal,” Downing said. “He wanted to continue sort of north, northwest, into Palestine… The possibility of acquiring Palestine was mind-boggling, the sort of horror and atrocities that would have been unleashed there. He might drive into Syria and Iraq, capturing many of the crucial Middle Eastern oil fields.”
An illustration in Downing’s book shows the larger-scale predicament. On a map, two arrows converge in northern Iraq, each representing a planned German thrust. One arrow is Rommel’s forces, advancing northeast through the Middle East. The other is the German push south through the Soviet-held Caucasus.
Downing said that according to British intelligence at the time, the Soviets did not have very good defenses in the Caucasus and it would not take much pressure to push them out. They believed, therefore, the Germans would overwhelm Stalingrad and capture all the oil fields in the Caucasus.
“Rommel’s forces might continue to go east. The Axis forces might end up controlling much of the oil reserves and mineral deposits in the Middle East and completely destroy the British presence not only in Egypt but all across the Middle East. I think that was a genuine fear, a genuine possibility,” Downing said.
This nightmare scenario didn’t happen due to a complex series of circumstances. After the loss of Tobruk, Churchill selected a new commander-in-chief for the British Eighth Army in North Africa — Gen. William Gott.
Yet the unarmed military transport plane bringing Gott to headquarters in Cairo never arrived. German Me-109s shot the plane down on August 7, 1942. Gott was one of the 15 dead, with just three survivors.
Once again, Churchill had to pick a replacement commander. It took time for Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to persuade the premier to appoint Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery.
“I don’t think there was a lot suggesting he was going to be an outstanding military leader,” Downing said. “Brooke spoke strongly of Montgomery. Others did not yet realize he had the charisma to inspire.”
Monty proved his worth, saving Egypt and the Middle East from the Axis.
“He had the je ne sais quoi, the mystery ingredient,” Downing said. “In October and November, he led the troops in what proved to be the turning point… the Battle of El Alamein.”
A study of pivotal moments
Downing has frequently chronicled moments of crisis in history, including the 1983 nuclear staredown between the United States and the USSR, when the world was arguably as close to Armageddon as it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis a generation earlier.
“I was working with the National Security Archives based in Washington, at George Washington University,” Downing recalled. “They gave me access to documents out of the American federal archives. I was in my study, and coming up on my laptop were documents saying at the top, ‘For the eyes of the president only.’”
“I like telling powerful stories about how people respond at moments of crisis. I should probably be studying what’s happening in Ukraine more carefully,” he quipped.
Downing’s latest book shows the personal impact of the crisis on Churchill.
“The irony there is Churchill and all his love of British history — his book about his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough who had to save Europe from domination by Louis XIV — Churchill thrived on great imperial stories of British achievement, and he found himself prime minister at a time of unmitigated military failure and disaster,” the author said. “It had a really intense effect on Churchill himself. He was not leading the war effort he wanted to lead.”
He also had to overcome domestic dissent. In 1942, the premier endured both a vote of no confidence and a vote of censure in the House of Commons, in January and June, respectively. Although both failed, he also faced a potential political rival: Sir Stafford Cripps, who for much of that year was the leader of the House of Commons.
“The two votes… were sort of symbolic opposition to him, not likely to be much more,” Downing said. “I argue in the book that a more threatening opponent was the emergence of Sir Stafford Cripps as a political leader.” The author added that while Cripps is forgotten today, “in the 1940s he was a very significant figure,” including in his “diametric opposition” to Churchill in personality and politics.
“Churchill… enjoyed his food, enjoyed his drink, was constantly smoking cigars,” Downing said, “very ebullient, very much an imperialist, born and brought up in the Victorian era. Sir Stafford Cripps was lean, did not drink at all, was a teetotaler, a very austere figure who dallied with Marxism for part of his career, very much a man of the left… who captured the spirit of Britain in 1942.”
The political and military winds were soon moving in Churchill’s favor once again. The alliances with the US and the USSR reaped dividends: The Americans would pressure Rommel in North Africa with Operation Torch landings, while the Soviet resistance stiffened at Stalingrad. Longer-term, the industrial might of both nations turned the tide of the war irrevocably.
However, while waiting for this to happen, Churchill and Britain endured some nail-biting moments, as shown in the book.
“Certainly the idea of Rommel meeting up with German forces pushing across the Soviet Union,” Downing said, “there were relatively few numbers of Allied troops in India and the Caucasus to prevent this from happening. I think it would have been very difficult for the Allies to recover from.”
Times of Israel