Beyond Normandy: the global war

In June 1944, even as Allied troops landed in France, conflict continued 
to rage far beyond European soil. Ashley Jackson surveys the scene

Troubled waters: American soldiers rest on a decorative bridge during the crucial, bloody battle for Saipan in the Pacific Ocean. Victory put Japan in range of the US heavy bombers. (Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

As eyes around the world fixed upon the Normandy beachheads in June 1944, millions of Allied service personnel had other things on their minds. These were the men and women facing the enemy in theatres beyond Europe, or operating the mammoth logistics chains upon which a global war depended. The ‘D-Day dodgers’ of Allied Armies Italy, for example, entered Rome two days before the troops hit the French beaches. Serving with a British tank brigade, Trooper Tom Canning was among them. A Catholic, he jumped at the chance to attend the pope’s mass at St Peter’s just after the city’s liberation.

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“He offered me his papal ring, and as I knelt down to kiss it he asked me: ‘Are you English or American?’” Canning later recalled. “After kissing the ring I drew myself up to my full height and replied: ‘Your Holiness, I am Scottish!’ He gave me a very wan smile as if to say, here I am teaching humility to the whole world, but Scotland is not listening.”

Canning and hundreds of thousands of other Allied troops still faced heavy opposition as they pushed north towards Germany’s Gothic Line, which ran through the Apennines in northern Italy. This tied down German divisions that could otherwise have been used to man Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

Also closing the ring on the Reich, the Soviets continued their push towards Berlin from the east. A few days after D-Day, Stalin’s forces invaded Finland, which had been fighting alongside Nazi Germany and, timed to coincide with the opening of the new front in France, launched Operation Bagration, a major offensive to expel the German Army Group Centre from Belorussia.
Supporting Soviet efforts, the ‘FBI’, or ‘forgotten bastards of Iran’ – as US troops in the Middle East called themselves – cont­in­ued transporting prodigious quantities of Lend-Lease via Gulf ports and the commandeered Iranian transport network.

In Poland, partisan fighters repelled German soldiers trying to eradicate local resistance

Further east still, the fires of war burned bright. On 5 June, American troopships left Pearl Harbor bound for Saipan (a Pacific island that had been under Japanese control since the First World War) and their own D-Day-style landings. These were preceded by air and battleship attacks “too terrible for words”, as one Japanese soldier described it in his diary, discovered and translated by the US army after the 30,000-strong garrison had been almost entirely wiped out. “I have at last come to the place where I will die,” he wrote. “I am pleased to think that I will die calmly in true samurai style. I feel now like a full-fledged warrior.” A bloody US victory here brought the Japanese home islands within range of long-range bombers.

A holy battle

In India, across the border from Burma, the city of Imphal remained under Japanese siege. However, the tide had begun to turn at the battle of Kohima, fought in Nagaland, north-east India. By the first week of June the Japanese were retreating, driven from India by General William Slim’s multinational and multiethnic 14th Army. Aziz Brimah of the Gold Coast Regiment, 81st West African Division, recalls: “This fight we took like a jihad, a holy battle. So it was allowed to Muslims. If you don’t fight, they will come to your home – and kill you!”

In the enemy’s rear, the Chindits, special operations units composed of African, British and Indian troops, suffered high casualties through combat and disease.

Fighters operating behind enemy lines were active elsewhere too. In Poland, the battle of Porytowe Wzgórze on 14 June saw Polish and Russian partisans repel German soldiers attempting to eradicate local resistance. Two days later, the exiled Yugoslav government and Tito’s communist partisans reached an agreement to unite against the occupiers. In Greece and northern Italy, the Germans were struggling to suppress resistance. In south-east Asia, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army harried the enemy, and liaised with operatives deployed by Britain’s Force 136, a branch of the Special Operations Executive, and the US’s Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In what was a truly global conflict, there were still many active battlefronts, and ceaseless activity at sea and in the air. Air support was vital to ground forces in Burma, and Allied air power was taking the war to enemy garrisons and strongholds all over the world. On 2 and 6 June, US bombers flying from Britain, Italy and the Soviet Union attacked targets in Hungary and Romania. On 5 June, 98 B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers left India for strikes on Bangkok, a reflection of Thailand’s status as Japan’s ally, ‘the Italy of Asia’.

Protecting sea lanes was still a major task, as was hunting down enemy warships and merchantmen. Routine patrols remained the lot of aircrew and ships’ companies all round the world – hazardous undertakings, doubly so for an enemy flailing under the weight of Allied air and seapower. In June, German U-boats were sunk in the English Channel and off the Azores, the Faroe Islands and Ireland, while US submarines efficiently dispatched Japanese warships in places such as the Sibutu Passage off Borneo.

Nevertheless, though palpably weakened, German power remained massed and 
potent in Europe, while Tokyo’s final defeat lay in an unknown future, its dispersed armies stubbornly entrenched across an area it dubbed the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. British military power was already swinging east to supplement the astonishing American build-up in the Pacific, in preparation for the final assault on the Japanese home islands.

Allied sea power

Uncelebrated though some operations were, taking place in regions distant from Europe, they were the war as experienced by hundreds of thousands of people. Operation Councillor, a Royal Navy attack on Sabang off the tip of Sumatra on 13 June, and Operation Pedal, a strike against Port Blair in the Andamans a few days later, were typical of these missions. During the course of Pedal, the carrier HMS Illustrious had more than 50 aircraft in the air simultaneously, a major achievement for British maritime air power as it prepared for its role in the Pacific.

These attacks served as diversions for much larger operations further east, timed to coincide with the battle of the Philippine Sea, which followed the invasion of Saipan. This colossal and decisive battle (19–20 June) involved two dozen aircraft carriers, and around 200 other American and Japanese surface vessels and submarines. “The fate of the empire rests on this one battle,” all Japanese crews were told. “Every man is expected to do his utmost.”

Despite their efforts, the ensuing engagement witnessed the virtual elimination of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier capability, and the destruction of hundreds of Japanese aircraft in an engagement the Americans dubbed “the great Marianas turkey shoot”. So, in the Pacific as well as Europe, June 1944 witnessed decisive Allied advances. ­Although there was plenty of fighting to come, it was, to invert Churchill’s famous observation on the second battle of El Alamein, the beginning of the end.

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Ashley Jackson is professor of imperial and military history at King’s College London. His books include The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013)