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June 1944: The wider war


EIGHTY years ago today, on June 6, 1944, the eyes of the world were fixed on the beaches of Normandy as the D-Day invasion was launched by the Allies, ensuring the final downfall of Hitler’s Germany.

Operation Overlord was so massive, so ambitious, and ultimately so successful, that it became imprinted indelibly on Britain’s perceptions of the Second World War. As today’s official commemorations show, it remains a significant focus of remembrance.

But, for all the valour and sacrifice of D-Day, it should not be forgotten that the Normandy landings were just one epic event in a conflict that was raging around the globe in June 1944. In other places far and wide, men were also fighting and dying for the Allied cause . . .

Italy: On June 4, Rome was liberated after a long, costly northwards slog up the Italian peninsula by British, American and other Allied troops, which had started with landings at Salerno in September 1943.

Despite their achievements, British soldiers in Italy became semi-satirically known as ‘the D-Day Dodgers’, supposedly because they were avoiding the hard fighting that an invasion of France would entail.

The expression was allegedly used by Lady Nancy Astor MP, although she denied it. In light of the bitterly-fought Italian campaign, in which 20 Victoria Crosses were won, it was a cruelly ironic term. In November 1944, a song sung to the tune of Lili Marlene brilliantly rebutted the baseless slur. By VE Day in May 1945, the British had suffered 150,000 casualties in Italy, including 45,000 dead or missing. The American casualty toll was 150,000, with more than 60,000 killed or missing. German casualties were around 360,000.

Soviet Union: On June 22 on the Eastern Front, the Red Army launched Operation Bagration in Byelorussia (known today as Belarus) to synchronise with the Normandy invasion. 

The gigantic offensive by 1.5million troops – which was named after Prince Pyotr Bagration, a Russian general during the Napoleonic Wars – inflicted the biggest defeat in German military history, destroying 28 of 34 enemy divisions and opening the way to Poland and Lithuania. An estimated 350,000 to 670,000 German soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, while Soviet casualties were as high as 750,000. 

China: While the Allies were making progress on most fronts in June, in China the Japanese were on the offensive. In April, they had launched Operation Ichi-Go, sending 500,000 troops southwards against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. The aim was to link railways in Peking and Hankou to the southern coast at Canton and on into Japanese-occupied French Indo-China. Airfields in Sichuan and Guangxi were also targeted to preclude US bombing of Taiwan and the Japanese mainland. By June 18, Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, had been taken and the offensive continued until November.

The Japanese objectives were mostly achieved, thanks to the poor performance of the Nationalist forces, but too late to have any significant impact. The Japanese suffered 100,000 dead by the end of 1944, while Nationalist casualties were put as high as 750,000.

The Pacific: June 15 saw an American fleet of 500 ships launch an amphibious assault to capture the strategically vital island of Saipan in the Marianas Islands. A force of some 71,000 US Marines secured the island by July 9 at a cost of 16,500 casualties. The entire Japanese garrison of 30,000 was wiped out.

The Saipan invasion led to the Battle of the Philippine Sea, history’s largest aircraft carrier action, which began on June 19. In what became known as the ‘Marianas Turkey Shoot’, up to 645 Japanese planes were shot down by American fliers and anti-aircraft guns, while two fleet carriers were sunk by US submarines – a shattering blow to Japanese naval power.

The fall of Saipan was a pivotal moment in the Pacific war, putting Japanese cities within range of B-29 Superfortress bombers. The capture of the neighbouring island of Tinian in July enabled the construction of a huge airbase. It was from Tinian in August 1945 that planes took off to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The 2005 TV documentary series D-Days in the Pacific tells how there were more than 100 D-Days – amphibious landings – by American forces during the Pacific campaign. It controversially contends that the US invasion of Okinawa in April 1945 was larger than Operation Overlord in Normandy.

New Guinea: By June 1944, American and Australian forces had inflicted a series of defeats on the Japanese as US General Douglas MacArthur sought to clear the enemy from the north coast in preparation for his invasion of the Philippines.

The capture of the western port of Hollandia, between April 22 and June 6 – carried out by US amphibious landings – made the Japanese grasp on New Guinea increasingly untenable. In early June, fierce fighting was under way further west, on the island of Biak, which fell to the Americans on August 17 at a cost of 438 killed and 2,361 wounded. The Japanese fought almost to the point of annihilation, with some 4,800 killed. Biak became an important air base for supporting further operations in the Philippines and Borneo.

During the whole New Guinea campaign, 7,000 Australians and 7,000 Americans were killed. The Japanese dead totalled around 200,000.

Burma: June 1944 saw the tide finally turn for General Bill Slim’s 14th Army after its soldiers repelled the Japanese at the battles of Imphal and Kohima in north-east India and began the reconquest of Burma.

Aiming to invade India and topple the British Raj, the Japanese had launched an assault in early April through the jungle-covered hill country of north-west Burma, crossing the border into India. By mid-April, 15,000 troops had cut the road to Imphal and surrounded Kohima. But a scratch force of 2,500 British and Indian soldiers held on doggedly to the town, fighting courageously at close quarters. At one stage, only the width of a tennis court separated the combatants.

Slim airlifted reinforcements and arms into the battle zone and the Japanese were gradually pushed back. By late June, they were in retreat, disorganised and starving, as the 14th Army set out to retake Burma. The Battle of Imphal-Kohima cost the British and Indian forces 17,587 casualties, while the Japanese toll was 30,500 dead and 30,000 wounded.

The 14th Army’s victory helped erase the bitter memory of its earlier setbacks against the Japanese. Despite this, its soldiers became ruefully known as ‘The Forgotten Army’ and Burma was in many respects a forgotten war. But never to be forgotten is the epitaph engraved on the memorial of the 2nd British Division in the cemetery at Kohima. It reads:

When You Go Home
Tell Them Of Us And Say
For Your Tomorrow
We Gave Our Today

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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