It is 78 years, this weekend, since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor turned what had been a European war into a world conflict. Over the next few days we roll through the anniversary of the loss to air attack of the Prince of Wales and Repulse – two capital ships the British deployed to the Far East as the Japanese crisis grew during 1941, which arrived in Singapore just days before war actually broke out.
Nobody seems to remember the latter story these days. I still remember, back in September 2012, when Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Alan Bollard was about to head away to take up a post as executive director of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Secretariat, in Singapore, I was invited to a farewell afternoon tea. The General Financial Crisis had barely ended. ‘Well Alan,’ I said, ‘hope you don’t see the Prince of Wales and Repulse hoving into view to save everybody.’ Half the people at the table looked at me strangely. Alan knew what I was talking about.
For the story of those ships, check out some articles I wrote for the Navy General Board – the prelude: https://www.navygeneralboard.com/the-loss-of-prince-of-wales-and-repulse/
The air attack: https://www.navygeneralboard.com/loss-prince-wales-repulse-part-2/
And the mystery of how the Prince of Wales sank: https://www.navygeneralboard.com/the-loss-of-prince-of-wales-and-repulse-part-3-the-70-year-mystery/
This aside, the flurry of Second World War anniversaries over the next few days – isn’t just limited to the first successes of the ‘Samurai blitzkrieg’. At the same time as Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and (on the other side of the date line, where it was 8 December), Malaya, the German army was knocking at the gates of Moscow. Operation Taifun (Typhoon) was intended to give Hitler possession of the Soviet capital, and very nearly did.
Meanwhile, in North Africa, the Axis forces were retreating in the face of a major British assault, Operation Crusader; but they did not retreat as far as the British wanted – and had done a number on the British Eighth Army in the process. The Second New Zealand Division, which had been instrumental in relieving Tobruk as part of that campaign, was badly battered and had been withdrawn from combat a few days earlier.
Christmas 1941, in short, was a fairly bleak one for the Allies; and this despite the entry of the US into the war – bringing with it around 48 percent of the world’s total industrial capacity. This was already being swung into war production on the back of a succession of legislative changes in mid-1940 which authorised the largest military build-up in the history of the world. But that took time – and things were far from ready in late 1941. So for a while the risks seemed clear.
We can call all of this ‘history’ and enjoy knowing about it; but to me, there is an essential lesson here about the folly of humanity in general. As a species we keep falling into wars – and this despite declaring, every time, that we don’t want them, despite wrapping diplomacy in technique and structure designed to resolve issues. It keeps happening – through history, through living memory, and today in various ways. Why? Again, I keep going back to the likelihood of it being a survival mechanism in hunter-gatherer days, when humanity roved the world in bands of around 150 kin-related individuals. We were, in effect, programmed to look after and nurture those in ‘our’ kin-related group – and unleash all the psychotic hate and destruction we could muster on any who were in ‘other’ groups.
All this was, perhaps (and I say ‘perhaps’) all very well back in the old stone age. But it doesn’t scale very well to nation-states, ideologies and the other issues that began to define – and divide – large societies after the invention of agriculture. It worked even less well in the age of industrial weaponry that brought us the two World Wars of the twentieth century – swiftly followed by the Cold War. And today there is even less excuse to behave that way.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019