The War to End All Wars

On 14 January 1946, two German bombers soared through the night sky over the Atlantic. One was headed for Manhattan, the other for Washington D.C.

As President Thomas Dewey gave his State of the Union Address, a nation seeking reassurance listened intently on their radios across the country. And then the broadcast ended abruptly in static. Across the Potomac, bystanders saw a pillar of fire bloom into the sky. The same sight was to be seen in New Jersey as individuals watched a great fire consume New York City and hundreds of thousands of lives.

Norfolk Naval Base would see the surprise attack by a German naval force consisting of the six carriers Peter Strasser, Adolf Hitler, Seydlitz, Venerable, Aquila, and Sparviero accompanied by a sizable detachment of U-boats. 90 minutes later, well over 25 American ships would be sunk with further damage committed to the naval facilities.

Meanwhile, German forces led by Otto Skorzeny infiltrated the Panama Canal and used explosives to damage the three locks of the canal before slipping away. The damage will take a year to repair.

Ribbentrop Speaks with Ernest Bevin

On the eve of battle, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop called a meeting with British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin concerning the movement of men through Canada for a forthcoming invasion of the United States. The conversation surprised Bevin and when he declared the United Kingdom could not allow such a brash maneuver, Ribbentrop declared that, “Either His Majesty will allow German soldiers in her Canadian Dominion or London can expect to suffer the same fate as the American capital.” With that, the meeting broke up.

The Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor

15 January 1946, as the first wave of Japanese fighters approached Oahu, an Army SCR-270 radar at Opana Point, near the island’s northern tip, detected them and called in a warning.

Several U.S. aircraft were shot down as the first wave approached land; one at least radioed a somewhat incoherent warning. Other warnings from ships off the harbor entrance were still being processed, or awaiting confirmation, when the planes began bombing and strafing. The air portion of the attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time with the attack on Kaneohe. A total of 353 Japanese planes in two waves reached Oahu. Slow, vulnerable torpedo bombers led the first wave, exploiting the first moments of surprise to attack the most important ships present (the battleships and carriers), while dive bombers attacked U.S. air bases across Oahu, starting with Hickam Field, the largest, and Wheeler Field, the main U.S. Army Air Corps fighter base. The 171 planes in the second wave attacked the Air Corps’ Bellows Field near Kaneohe on the windward side of the island, and Ford Island. The only air opposition came from a handful of American aircraft.

Men aboard U.S. ships awoke to the sounds of alarms, bombs exploding, and gunfire prompting bleary eyed men into dressing as they ran to General Quarters stations. The defenders were very unprepared. Ammunition lockers were locked, aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip in the open to deter sabotage, guns unmanned.

The second wave was divided into three groups. One was tasked to attack Kaneohe, the rest Pearl Harbor proper. The separate sections arrived at the attack point almost simultaneously, from several directions.

Ninety minutes after it began, the attack was over. 2,786 Americans died (55 were civilians, most killed by unexploded American anti-aircraft shells landing in civilian areas), a further 1,839 wounded. Twenty-one ships were sunk, including five battleships.

Of the American fatalities, nearly half of the total were due to the explosion of USS Arizona’s forward magazine after it was hit by a modified 40 cm (16in) shell.

Already damaged by a torpedo and on fire forward, Nevada attempted to exit the harbor. She was targeted by many Japanese bombers as she got under way, sustaining more hits from 250 lb (113 kg) bombs as she was deliberately beached to avoid blocking the harbor entrance. USS California was hit by two bombs and two torpedoes. The crew might have kept her afloat, but were ordered to abandon ship just as they were raising power for the pumps. Burning oil from Arizona and West Virginia drifted down on her, and probably made the situation look worse than it was. The disarmed target ship USS Utah was holed twice by torpedoes. USS West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes, the seventh tearing away her rudder. USS Oklahoma was hit by four torpedoes, the last two above her belt armor, which caused her to capsize. USS Maryland was hit by two of the converted 40 cm shells, but neither caused serious damage.

Although the Japanese concentrated on battleships and aircraft carriers (the largest vessels present), they did not ignore other targets. The light cruiser USS Helena was torpedoed, and the concussion from the blast capsized the neighboring minelayer USS Oglala. Two destroyers in dry dock were destroyed when bombs penetrated their fuel bunkers. The leaking fuel caught fire; flooding the dry dock in an effort to fight fire made the burning oil rise, and so the ships were burned out. The light cruiser USS Raleigh was holed by a torpedo. The light cruiser USS Honolulu was damaged but remained in service. The destroyer USS Cassin capsized, and destroyer USS Downes was heavily damaged. The repair vessel USS Vestal, moored alongside Arizona, was heavily damaged and beached. The seaplane tender USS Curtiss was also damaged. USS Shaw was badly damaged when two bombs penetrated her forward magazine.

Of the 402 American aircraft in Hawaii, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged, 155 of them on the ground. Almost none were actually ready to take off to defend the base. Of 33 PBYs in Hawaii, 24 were destroyed, and six others damaged beyond repair. (The three on patrol returned undamaged.) Friendly fire brought down several U.S. planes on top of that, including some from an inbound flight from USS Enterprise. Japanese attacks on barracks killed additional personnel.

Fifty-five Japanese airmen and nine submariners were killed in the action. Of Japan’s 414 available planes, 29 were lost during the battle (nine in the first attack wave, 20 in the second), with another 74 damaged by antiaircraft fire from the ground.

The Wehrmacht Lands in Canada

The night of 14 January 1946 saw the Kriegsmarine, augmented by ships from the Soviet, French, and Italian fleets, engage the Royal Canadian Navy off Halifax, preceded by a surprise U-boat attack in Halifax Harbor that witnessed the sinking of two Canadian destroyers, as German forces invaded. The German aircraft carriers Graf Zeppelin and Hindenberg provided air support for the invasion as German paratroopers landed throughout the area, seizing the port and neutralizing resistance prior to soldiers landing. The city would fall after a brief struggle.

Elsewhere, German paratroopers landed at Goose Bay and Sept-Iles, seizing the Goose Bay Airforce Base as well as docking facilities at Terrington Basin and Sept-Iles. The Luftwaffe would begin landing aircraft the following morning.

Now in control of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, U-boats pushed upriver to wreak havoc on military and merchant craft sinking both indiscriminately followed by cruisers and destroyers escorting troop transports destined for Quebec, Ottawa, and Montreal. The capital would be the last to fall on 20 January.

Meanwhile, America was in chaos, mass panic reigning after its national government was virtually wiped out and its financial center was destroyed. It would take a full week before some semblance of national authority was restored and even then it took over a month to calm the nation following Nazi demands for immediate surrender or else other cities would be atomized, a bluff since Germany had only the two atomic bombs. Tens of thousands fled the East Coast while others bought great amounts of food and other supplies to stockpile creating shortages. Riots, snarled traffic, and despair permeated the Northeast.

Further complicating America’s defensive posture was the state of the US military. Under the previous administration of President Garner, defense spending had been largely cut leading to a stagnation of the military situation. Only after Dewey’s inaugaration in 1941 had any action been taken to increase the size and capabilities of the military undertaken, and even these did not start to show any real achievements until 1944.

American naval forces did not immediately move to threaten Germany’s supply line, the Joint Chiefs paralyzed as they tried to discern who was in charge of the country as well as struggling to mobilize to meet the enemy and restore order. Naval commanders debated the best course of action. With the grievous losses at Pearl Harbor and Norfolk, great debate centered on where ships were needed most. Some supported the idea of sending ships north to confront the Kriegsmarine near Halifax and attempting to trap those German ships left in the St. Lawrence, but others vehemently rejected that notion following the grievous losses already suffered.

On 18 January, unwilling to simply stand by any longer, US Admiral Ernest J. King ordered the fleet to actively probe the Nazi Atlantic supply line. These initial probes by American destroyers were met with prowling packs of U-boats and fire from German battleships and carriers. These groups of U-boats, called “Wolf Packs,” would begin to hunt American ships along the East Coast. Further damage, both physical and psychological, was showered upon American cities by long range German bombers out of Greenland.

On 22 January, after being hastily sworn in, President John Foster Dulles asked what America’s options were. Most supported a revised version of War Plan Crimson, which had planned for an American invasion of Canada. Admiral King disagreed with this proposal saying it did not go far enough. He briefed Dulles on Operation Viking which called for a sizable portion of the Atlantic Fleet to converge and engage the Kriegsmarine in the North Atlantic, defeat and scatter their ships, and, conditions permitting, send in an invasion force of Marines to seize Narsarsuaq on Greenland where they would then move along the coast to capture or kill all remaining German forces severing their main supply artery. German forces would wither and die in the snows of Canada as America would use Greenland as a jump off point to push east to Iceland and then an eventual invasion of Europe.

This plan came into quick opposition. Parts of the Joint Chiefs cited choppy waters, poor visibility, ice bergs, and a dug in enemy waiting for them as reasons to forgo Operation Viking’s latter stages.  There was also the damage caused at Pearl Harbor and Norfolk. Could America afford to gamble with its Atlantic Fleet with the losses already taken?

The argument came to an abrupt end when Operation Viking was outright scuttled following U-48’s encounter and sinking of USS Reuben James in a chance meeting in the early morning mists roughly 50 miles south of Qaanaaq. Dulles found the risks of exposing the bulk of the Atlantic Fleet too great with America still mobilizing, the Japanese threatening the West Coast and the Panama Canal’s destruction increasing the amount of time necessary to move ships east or west. Better they stay close to home where they could count on air coverage and ground support. King grumpily conceded and called the fleet back to the coast while the Joint Chiefs began to plot troop movements to meet the German advance.

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