World War II Day by Day: February 1942

Japan’s territorial conquests appeared to signal its triumph over Europe’s colonial powers in the Far East. The United States, however, was now on the offensive and won crucial strategic victories at sea over the Japanese. These had serious repercussions for Japan’s ability to sustain both its domestic and overseas power. In North Africa and on the Eastern Front, Axis offensives, although initially successful, were halted and then defeated by a series of Allied counterattacks. Control of the sea-lanes continued to be a crucial factor in the war.

1 February

Politics, Norway

Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling becomes prime minister, although he will be controlled by Berlin.

Sea War, Atlantic

Germany adopts a new radio code for U-boat communications in the Atlantic. Although the British are unable to crack the code until the end of the year, the detection of U-boats is made easier by photoreconnaissance and radio direction-finding technology.

Sea War, Pacific

The US Navy carriers Enterprise and Yorktown, together with the cruisers Northampton and Salt Lake City, attack the Marshall and Gilbert Islands.

4 February

Africa, Libya

Axis forces have overextended their lines of communication and a stalemate is developing in the desert. Allied forces are establishing a fortified line from Gazala on the coast to Bir Hacheim farther inland. Both sides are building up their forces for a new offensive.

Far East, Singapore

Japanese troops cautiously scale a hill during their advance to Singapore
Japanese troops cautiously scale a hill during their advance to Singapore

Britain rejects Japanese demands for Singapore to surrender. Reinforcements are being sent to help defend the base, which is believed to be impregnable.

5 February

Politics, United States

The US government declares war on Thailand.

8 February

Politics, Philippines

President Manuel Quezon proposes to the United States that his country should become independent, that both Japanese and US forces should withdraw, and Filipino units be disbanded. The United States rejects the proposal.

8-14 February

Far East, Singapore

Two Japanese divisions, supported by artillery and air bombardment, land on the northwest of the island, quickly followed by a third. Repairs to the Johore causeway enable tanks and 30,000 troops to advance, while in the air the Japanese achieve supremacy. Confused orders often result in the defenders making unnecessary withdrawals and much equipment is lost. Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the Singapore commander, is forced to surrender on February 14 as the water supply for Singapore’s residents and the 85,000-strong garrison is cut. Japan has fewer than 10,000 casualties in Malaya. British and Commonwealth forces have lost 138,000 men, and thousands more will die in captivity. The campaign is one of Britain’s greatest defeats.

10 February

Sea War, Atlantic

Britain offers the United States 34 antisubmarine vessels with crews to battle the U-boats.

11-12 February

Sea War, North Sea

The German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen
The German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen

The German battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, supported by destroyers and air cover, leave Brest and sail through the English Channel. RAF and Royal Navy strikes against the German ships are total failures, and 42 aircraft are downed. During the ‘Channel Dash’ to the North Sea, both battlecruisers hit mines and need repairs. British operations to contain the threat of these commerce-raiders are easier while the vessels are in port. Gneisenau subsequently has to be rebuilt after being hit during an air raid against Kiel on February 26, but the project is never completed before the war’s end.

13 February

Politics, Germany

Adolf Hitler finally abandons the invasion of Britain, Operation Sealion.

14 February

Air War, Germany

Britain issues the ‘Area Bombing Directive,’ which outlines the strategic objectives of RAF Bomber Command. Bombing will now aim to destroy the psychological will of the German people as well as the country’s war industry. Air raids will now aim to destroy residential areas to erode civilian morale.

18-23 February

Far East, Burma

Japanese forces are in constant pursuit of British forces. At the Battle of the Sittang River, the British are withdrawing across a single bridge over the river when Japanese troops make a sudden crossing elsewhere. The British quickly blow up the bridge, losing much of their equipment with their forces only partially across; those left behind have to use boats. The Sittang River is the only major physical obstacle in the path of the Japanese forces moving toward Rangoon, the capital.

19 February

Politics, United States

The virtually unknown General Dwight D. Eisenhower becomes head of the US Army General Staff War Plans Division. In this capacity he will advocate the intensification of Operation Bolero, the buildup of US forces in Britain, and press for the development of Operation Sledgehammer, a cross-Channel invasion of Europe from Britain.

Sea War, Far East

At the Battle of Lombok Strait, east of Bali, Dutch and US vessels fight several actions with the Japanese. A Dutch cruiser and a destroyer are sunk, while one Japanese destroyer is damaged.

Air War, Australia

Scenes of devastation in Darwin after a Japanese air attack on the port
Scenes of devastation in Darwin after a Japanese air attack on the port

Japanese carrier aircraft and land-based bombers attack Darwin, northern Australia. The raid sinks or damages 16 vessels, claims 172 lives, and causes widespread panic.

Home Front, United States

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 giving the secretary of war powers to exclude persons from military areas. This legislation is directed at the nation’s Japanese-American population, which has faced growing public hostility since Pearl Harbor. The US Army subsequently removes 11,000 Japanese-Americans from the Pacific coast to camps in Arkansas and Texas for the war’s duration (there are fears that they may aid a Japanese attack on the West Coast, which is regarded by many as a real possibility). Not a single Japanese-American, however, is convicted of spying for Tokyo during the war. Others go on to serve with distinction in the US armed forces, winning many awards for gallantry.

20 February

Politics, Vichy France

Political leaders of the Third Republic are tried by the Vichy Supreme Court, charged with being responsible for France’s humiliating 1940 defeat. Former premiers Léon Blum, Paul Reynaud, and Edouard Daladier all defend their records with great skill. The trial, which quickly becomes a public joke, is never completed.

22 February

Politics, Britain

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris takes over Bomber Command.

23 February

Politics, Allies

Britain, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand ratify the Mutual Aid Agreement.

24 February

Sea War, Pacific

The US aircraft carrier Enterprise leads a task force to attack the Japanese on Wake Island.

25 February

Politics, Allies

ABDA is disbanded and its commander, British General Sir Archibald Wavell, becomes commander-in-chief in India.

Home Front, United States

An air raid scare in Los Angeles results in a heavy antiaircraft barrage being fired.

27-29 February

Sea War, Far East

Under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, five cruisers and nine destroyers from four Allied nations engage a Japanese force of four cruisers and 13 destroyers in the Java Sea. Following an inconclusive opening engagement, the Japanese inflict severe losses using their faster ‘Long Lance’ torpedoes. Five Allied cruisers and five destroyers are sunk. Doorman is killed. Japan loses two transports, one cruiser is sunk, and six destroyers are damaged.

28 February

Western Front, France

A British parachute assault destroys a German radar station at Bruneval near Le Havre. The force then escapes by sea with captured equipment.