Turning points of the Second World War
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. -- British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 10 November 1942
The nature and timing of the turning point of the Second World War has been debated and redefined numerous times since the end of the conflict in 1945.
The Russian victory at Stalingrad in January 1943 has often been seen as the key to the eventual defeat of Germany, although other historians have pointed to the failure of the Germans to capture Moscow in December 1941 as the watershed event. The Allied victory at the second battle of El Alamein in North Africa in November 1942 – a victory which inspired one of Churchill’s most memorable speeches – is a strong contender, along with the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944.
In the fight against the Japanese, some pinpoint the battle of Midway in June 1942 as the milestone; to others, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in early December 1941 that brought the United States into the war, bringing with it unbeatable military might.
But to consider just one battle or event as the decisive moment in the Allies’ campaign to beat the Axis powers is to view the conflict too narrowly, according to esteemed British author and military historian Antony Beevor.
“The Second World War was such a huge conglomeration of different conflicts that it’s almost impossible to point to a single battle as a turning point,” he said at the Australian War Memorial’s recent international history conference.
“The real turning point inevitably came when both Germany and Japan had reached their full extent of advance; they were overextended, and everything was going to turn. It happened to coincide in the case of Germany and Japan around October and November of 1942.
“The geopolitical turning point was December 1941 [when the United States entered the war] and the really perceived turning point – strategic and psychological – came in the [Northern Hemisphere] autumn of 1942.”
Australians played an important part in two of the campaigns of that period. In North Africa, the Australian 9th Division helped to end the Axis threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal and the Middle Eastern oilfields with victory in the second battle of El Alamein. In the Pacific, the Second AIF and the Militia finally ended their struggle against the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail, in Papua, stemming Japan’s southernmost advance.
The second battle of El Alamein began on 23 October and lasted 13 days. Under the command of Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, the British Eighth Army (including the Australian 9th Division) launched an offensive against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, composed of German and Italian infantry and mechanised units. Rommel, known as “The Desert Fox”, and his forces had held sway in North Africa since January 1942, when Rommel began a counter-offensive against the British at El Agheila, on the western edge of Libya. By the end of June, Rommel had forced the Allies deep back into Egypt, and the capture of Cairo and the Suez Canal seemed a very real possibility.
The fighting at El Alamein was fierce, and the 9th Division – commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead —played a major part, holding the vital northern sector of the line. The Allies eventually broke through the Axis line and drove Rommel’s forces westwards, ultimately leading to their surrender in Tunisia in May 1943. It was the first victory in a major offensive against the Germans since the start of the European war in 1939, and it revived the Allies’ morale.
The 9th Division suffered heavy casualties at the final battle of El Alamein: between October and early November, it recorded 520 dead, 1,948 wounded, and 218 men missing, about half of whom were later found to be dead.
In the Pacific, November 1942 also marked the end of the Kokoda campaign, which had begun in July. The rugged, mountainous Kokoda Trail across the Owen Stanley Range was used by the Japanese to advance on the Papuan capital of Port Moresby after an earlier attempt at a seaborne landing was disrupted by the battle of the Coral Sea. Capturing Port Moresby was part of a broader Japanese strategy to isolate Australia from the United States.
The Japanese came menacingly close to their target, as the Australians were poorly equipped and had not yet developed effective jungle warfare tactics. But in September the tactical situation swung in the Australians’ favour, as artillery came within range and their supplies could be trucked most of the way forward. Severe losses suffered by the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands following the American landing there in August also led to an order for the South Seas Force on the Kokoda Trail to withdraw to the north coast of Papua and establish a defensive position.
The Australian force went on the offensive and by mid-November they had crossed the Kumusi River at Wairopi, effectively ending the Kokoda campaign. It had been some of the most desperate and vicious fighting encountered by Australians in the Second World War: 625 Australians were killed on the Kokoda Trail, and over 1,600 were wounded. Casualties due to sickness exceeded 4,000.
The Australian 9th Division was recalled to Australia following their victory in North Africa, and then sent to fight in the Pacific. Within days of their victory on the Kokoda Trail, the AIF and the Militia encountered even fiercer fighting around the Japanese beachheads at Gona, Buna, and Sanananda. It would be another three years before the war came to an end, with the unconditional surrender of Germany on 8 May 1945, and the Japanese surrender on 15 August. Nevertheless, as early as November 1942 the Australians had played an important part in the turning points that ultimately led to victory.