This week: 1942

General Neil Ritchie (at the centre, with a pipe), Commander in Chief of the British Eighth Army, studies a map with his Corps Commanders during the Battle of Gazala, which saw the disastrous fall of Tobruk, Libya.

It was an unprecedented moment in the House of Commons, as MPs and peers packed tight into the chamber on 8 March to hear a video address from Volodymyr Zelensky – the first ever given by a foreign leader.

Dressed in army fatigues, the Ukrainian president cut a heroic figure as he gave a stirring update on Russia’s invasion of his homeland – earning not one but two standing ovations, and invoking Britain’s own proud wartime spirit when he said:

‘We will not surrender, we will not lose, we will go to the end. We will fight at sea, we will fight in the air, we will protect our land. We will fight everywhere… and we will not surrender.’

Zelensky was, of course, echoing a famously defiant speech made by Winston Churchill to the same chamber in 1940 – the year that saw the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, and the beginning of the Blitz, and which is popularly portrayed as Churchill’s ‘darkest hour’.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, 1940 was not quite the nadir it is often made out to be – for worse was to come two years later, both for Britain’s morale and for the reputation of its prime minister.

In the new issue of Military History Matters, Taylor Downing explains how a humiliating series of battlefield defeats in 1942 – including the Fall of Singapore (described by Churchill as the ‘greatest disaster’ in British military history) and a devastating string of setbacks in North Africa – would push Britain to the brink, and prove a far greater threat to the PM’s own political survival.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve also been delving into the archives to discover more about the tumultuous events of 1942: we looked in detail at the Fall of Singapore to see how Japan seized a jewel of the British Empire; we studied the career of Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885-1946) to find out whether the captor of Singapore really was Japan’s greatest Second World War general; we analysed the Battle of Midway, the crucial US naval triumph which changed the course of the war in the Pacific; and we revisited the Battle of Stalingrad to understand the central significance of that epic Soviet victory to the outcome of the conflict on the Eastern Front.

And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on 1942. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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