Posts Tagged ‘1941’

Ususally, when we’re faced with a crisis, our first reaction is some degree of shock.  In a figurative (or maybe even literal) sense, we stand there, staring blankly and not really focusing on anything, with our arms hanging at our sides, not really knowing what to do.  Eventually, our wits return, and we can begin assessing our situation and reacting to it.

That’s kind of how things work.

At the time of the Japanese attacks in December of 1941, many in the U.S. military did much the same.  There was the initial surprise.  It was followed by the “thousand-yard stare”, as the Japanese rolled over objective after objective all over the South Pacific.  And then came the chance to respond, which really didn’t get underway until Doolittle and Midway several months later.

But during that time, there were many instances where soldiers in harm’s way put forth a super-human effort.  Over the years, we’ve discussed Bataan and Corregidor as places where our military men, facing terrible odds and no real hope of rescue, gave an incredible accounting for themselves.

The garrison at Wake Island is another example.

For the men stationed there, it must have been a pretty lonely existence.  The island measured a couple of square miles, so there wasn’t much to see.  It was situated in the middle of nowhere, about 1,500 miles from anything, so there wasn’t anywhere to go.

And as for defenses, well, they were pretty pathetic as well.  Some 5-inch guns from a deceased battleship comprised the big iron.  There were a couple of ancient 3-inch guns that didn’t fully function, some heavy machine guns, a handful of anti-aircraft weapons, and whatever small arms the 450 men (a Marine Defense Battalion and a smattering of others) carried on their hips.  Oh, and there was a Marine fighter squadron with a dozen F4F Wildcats.

Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by Japanese bombers.  They concentrated on the air defenses, destroying eight of the twelve aircraft (the other four were flying defense).  There were some subsequent attacks, but all of this was the prelude to the main action.

On December 11, 1941, a Japanese landing force arrived to take over.  It included three cruisers, a half-dozen destroyers, and a pair of troop transports carrying the invasion sortie of 450 soldiers.  The expectation was one of a fairly easy landing and occupation.

Wake’s defenders, however, had different ideas.  They met their unwelcome visitors with all the firepower they could muster.  The men manning the five-inchers succeeded in sinking a destroyer and heavily damaging a cruiser.  In the air, the remaining Wildcats dropped bombs and successfully blew the tail off another Japanese destroyer, sending her to the bottom with all hands.

All of a sudden, this little skirmish had turned into a crisis for the Japanese, and they were the ones staring in shock.  Hopelessly out-gunned, this little garrison was putting a pasting on a much larger invasion force.  And for the first time in the war, the Japanese withdrew from an objective to regroup.

For the men at Wake, it was an awesome sight to see a Japanese force falling below the horizon in retreat.  Commander Winfield Cunningham, when ordering a long list of supplies, humorously included more enemy soldiers to fight.  But as we know, the small atoll was under siege, and no supplies or reinforcements would arrive.  The Pacific belonged to the Japanese, so Wake was on its own.

But Wake would manage to hold out for another two weeks against overwhelming pressure…a pretty remarkable feat considering the circumstances.

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We ate dinner last night with our son Andrew and his three boys.  It was his birthday last week, but he was out of town, so we celebrated it late.  He picked Uncle Buck’s as his restaurant, where the food is always good.  As we sat at the table, 5-year-old Teagan informed us that another word for delicious is “scrumptious.”  So my Cajun Catfish sandwich, which I always get and comes with about a pound of fish, was scrumptious.

Let’s tackle some history.

Saburo Sakai (who is no stranger to us) was a nervous pilot.  It’s not that piloting an airplane made him nervous, but rather the circumstances surrounding this particular flight.  He was part of the attack force heading for Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  It was December 8, 1941, and his was just one of many forces heading for targets all over the vast Pacific.

His buddies had struck a few hours before (and on the other side of the International Date Line) against the U.S. Navy parked at Pearl Harbor.  The 5th and 18th army divisions were landing along the coasts of Thailand and Malaya.  Three regiments were causing havoc in Hong Kong.  Wake Island was being bombarded, and Burma was being invaded by the Japanese 15th army.

Attacks were happening everywhere, but the timing of this particular mission, against General Douglas MacArthur’s center of command, was what caused Sakai’s concerns.  His squadrons had been scheduled to attack Clark at roughly the same time as the attacks on Pearl.  But some incredibly dense fog that settled on their base in Formosa had caused their flights to be delayed by hours, ruining any chance of surprise.

However, as Sakai approached Clark with the other pilots, it was they who were surprised.  Below were dozens of bombers and fighters parked neatly in rows, just waiting to be blown up.  They couldn’t believe their fortune.  Their timing had actually been perfect.  When word reached Clark of the attacks at Pearl Harbor, many of the planes had been sent aloft.  When the attacks didn’t come, the planes were brought back and parked so they could be refueled and the crews could eat.

And it was then that the Japanese arrived, and proceeded to demolish the place.

Like Hawaii, war had come to the islands of the Philippines.

Recommended Reading:  Tears in the Darkness – A must read.

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As May of 1941 rolled into June, the situation for the British in the Mediterranean was bleak.  North Africa was under siege from Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps, Greece had been occupied by the Germans, and Crete has just fallen to a daring (and costly) German paratroop assault.  British General Archibald Wavell faced a daunting task:  keep the Suez Canal and the Middle East’s vast oil supplies from falling under the “crooked cross” of the Axis flag.

But manpower was scarce.  In fact, there was really none to be had.  So Wavell turned to Colonel Dudley Clarke, and tasked him with figuring out a solution to the problem.  In his recently-published book Deathly Deception (which focuses on Operation Mincemeat), Denis Smyth writes, “In such straitened military circumstances deception could act as a force multiplier, dissuading the enemy from assaulting a particularly weak point in British defences.”

In the closing days of May 1941, that weak point was Cypus.  Located just 300 miles straight east from newly-acquired Crete, the British believed it presented a juicy target to the Germans, offering a chance to dominate the Mediterranean, ease supply to Rommel in North Africa, and look straight down the chute of the Suez Canal.  And Cyprus was defended by a less-than-adequate 4,000 British soldiers of, shall we say, not front-line caliber.

So Clarke and his men decided to convince the Germans that Cyprus had more men than it really did.  He created the 7th Division and “placed” it on Cyprus.  And on June 13, 1941, the deception began.  There were dummy headquarters and dummy tanks (like the one shown above) placed around the island.  There were phony divisional signs and directions placed on the roads and intersections.  Since a divisional HQ generates quite a bit of radio traffic, that was contrived as well.  In fact, the British went so far as to leak some information about the island’s defenses to a known Axis collaborator.

As it turns out, the Germans didn’t really have plans for Cyprus at all.  But the deception was valuable anyway.  The German High Command completely fell for the ruse.  The 7th Division didn’t go away.  In fact, over time, more fictional forces were created, and they wreaked havoc on the German planning. Field Marshal Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein brought with it the capture of German documents, which overestimated British tank counts by 40% and infantry strength by a staggering 45%, thanks in part to phony forces.

When preparing for the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943, and ultimately, the Normandy coast in 1944, these ficticious units served to dilute the German defenses, forcing them to keep busy in lots of places for no good reason.  And the 7th Division, created out of thin air in June 1941?  In German minds, it never went away.  That division (along with others) figured into German planning all the way to the end of the war, almost 4 years later.

Recommended Reading:  Deathly Deception – A mostly fascinating look at one of the most famous deception campaigns of the Second World War.

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I’ve been away from the keyboard for a few days again.  Well, that’s not strictly true, as my “day job” has me sitting behind one 8 (or more) hours a day.  But I’ve been away from here, partly due to work and partly to some aggravating back trouble that makes it somewhat difficult to stay comfortable sitting and typing.  Normally a trip to the chiropractor fixes things right up, but she’s on maternity leave right now, so that’s off the table.  But I finally went to the doctor this afternoon, who took one look my back and sent me straight to the pharmacy.  So things should start improving…or not, but at least the muscle relaxants should make me think they are.

I would love to know a lot more about the North African theater of the Second World War than I do, but I don’t.  I’ve got several good books on the subject, but I’ve only read a couple and the ones that I really want to read (that deal with activity from 1940-42) keep getting pushed back.  I’ve got the Founding Fathers to thank for that.  But along with finishing Madison’s biography and Chernow’s new book on Washington this year, my other goal is to get at least one of my North Africa books read, too.

And I imagine when I read it, I will get a lot of information about Tobruk.  This port city in eastern Libya was the scene of some memorable engagements, and warring parties fought for its control on several occasions.  As 1940 ended, Britain was up to its neck in trouble.  As we all know, she stood alone against the burgeoning Axis onslaught in western Europe.  And in Africa, Britain was doing everything possible to protect the Suez Canal.  But the time for action had come, and it arrived in the form of Operation Compass.  Launched in December, it met with spectacular success for the British, despite being significantly outnumbered in all respects.

The British headed west and, together with Australian forces, attacked Tobruk and captured it on January 22, 1941.  It was a remarkable victory…like I said, the Italian forces had more than a 4-to-1 advantage in troops and a 12-to-1 advantage in artillery.

Of course, the following month (February 1941) would see the arrival of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and its leader, a German General named Erwin Rommel.  And he had plans for North Africa, and Tobruk, as well.  We’ll be back here again.

Recommended Reading:  Triumphant Fox – I have an earlier edition of Mitcham’s book.

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The Nazi-Soviet Pact (signed in August of 1939) is easily the most recognizable agreement between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.  I suppose that’s something of a surprise, since Adolf Hitler despised Russia’s Bolshevism and Joseph Stalin despised Germany’s National Socialism (and was paranoid of nearly everything and everyone else).  And it was that distrust that really made the Pact possible, as it was a way to create something of a buffer zone between the two (albeit at Poland’s expense).

But this certainly wasn’t the only agreement between the two countries.  Just days before the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, Russia and Germany signed an economic agreement.  The Russians would send food, raw materials, and oil to Germany in exchange for money and equipment.  In February of 1940, the economic agreement was expanded and became more militaristic in nature, as Germany promised to send blueprints for some of its military assets to Russia, receiving more raw materials (particularly oil) in return.

There were also secret agreements.  There was the secret addendum to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which Germany gave Russia a free hand to do what it wanted with Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.  And then there was the secret protocol of January 10, 1941.  Signed by Vyacheslav Molotov (the Russian Foreign Minister) and Count von der Schulenburg (the German ambassador), this had nothing to do with economics, but returned once again to territory.

The “Sulwalki Strip” was a 25-mile by 50-mile strip of Lithuanian territory that was controlled by Germany.   The German government agreed to relinquish control of the area.  In return, the Russians agreed to give Germany 31.5 million Reichsmarks…sort of.  One-eighth of the money (3,937,500 Reichsmarks) would be delivered as raw materials, to be paid within 3 months.  The remaining seven-eighths (~27,500,000 Reichsmarks) were actually reductions in the payments that Germany was making to Russia as part of the expanded 1940 Economic Agreement.

So Germany gave up a little piece of land and, in return, got  more raw materials from Russia.  It also kept a sizeable chunk of change in its own coffers, money which would come in handy when they invaded Russia just six months down the road.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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Well, winter has come to Iowa with a gale.  Yesterday, it was 53°F and gorgeous.  Today, it’s about 15 with 45mph wind gusts, blowing snow, and super-icy streets.  I’m glad I got a good bike ride in yesterday…it’ll be a few days before I get another opportunity.

It’s a quickie this evening.

On December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States.  But Germany didn’t necessarily have to do so.  The U.S. hadn’t declared war on Germany, nor had either country attacked the other.  And what’s more, though Germany and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact the previous year, Germany was only obligated to come to Japan’s defense, not back her aggression against Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Rim.

Members of the German High Command also believed a declared war with America was dangerous ground.  It’s true that the U.S. was openly assisting Germany’s enemies through the Lend-Lease program, and German U-boats were clashing with the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic.  But this was a far cry from open war, where the full weight of America’s military potential would be brought to bear.

But Adolf Hitler made the declaration anyways.  With his successes to date, he believed in the might of his military and the ability of his country’s industries to fuel it.  He also believed in Japan’s ability to defeat America, even though some in Japan’s own leadership, particularly Isoroku Yamamoto, pretty much knew the score.  And he thought that America lacked the will to fight and that it would take some time for her to put her economy on a war footing…by which time Japan would have already knocked her from the conflict.

Adolf Hitler ended up being wrong on every point…

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I’ve been away from the keyboard for a couple of days…not lost in the Bermuda Triangle or anything, but just busy with “life” kind of things.  I feel like the last couple months have been rather scatter-shot around here, but the good news is the calendar has lots of stuff coming up.  In fact, between now and the end of the year, only 3 days are blank in the spreadsheet.  We’ll see how I do…in the meantime…

As the bitter cold of 1941’s December descended, the picture was pretty bleak for Russian citizens.  Leningrad was basically surrounded while the German armies pounded the city and waited for its inhabitants to starve.  The spires of Moscow were in the sights of the Wehrmacht, and the encirclement of the capital was halted only by exhaustion, the need for fresh troops and supplies, and the afore-mentioned bitter cold.

And on the 5th, the Soviets struck hard, launching a massive counterattack aimed at relieving pressure on Moscow.  Simultaneously, Red Army forces struck around Leningrad, hoping the stop the strangulation of that city as well.  It was there that the Germans were trying to finish cutting off the eastern approaches to the city.  If that could be done, then even a frozen Lake Ladoga would be of no use to the Russians.

Russian troops made for Tikhvin, which was located little more than one hundred miles southeast of Leningrad and had been taken by the Germans in mid-November.  Two days later, Tikhvin was largely surrounded.  Hitler had promised to deliver 100 tanks and more than 20,000 troops, but what the Russians actually encountered were a half-dozen tanks and exhausted men that were freezing.  In the face of impossible odds and with 7,000 casualties already lost, German Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb was left with little choice but to abandon Tikhvin to the home country.  On December 9, 1941, Red Army forces recaptured the town.

If light of how precarious the overall situation was for Russia, it seems a rather insignificant victory…it’s one town.  But it also reopened a major railhead and reduced the road route to Lake Ladoga from nearly 200 miles to just 60.  Trucking supplies over the frozen lake had now moved from the realm of “near suicidal” to “feasible”.

For the time being, the victory saved Leningrad.  Dmitry Pavlov, Leningrad’s food chief, later wrote, “Without exaggeration, the defeat of the German Fascist forces at Tikhvin and the recapture of the northern railway line up to Mga station saved thousands of people from starvation.”

In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes, “More than that, the counteroffensive which retook the vital junction at Tikhvin on 9 December 1941 was the first major successful counteroffensive against the Wehrmacht by any combatant in the Second World War.”

The fight for Tikhvin displayed the first chink in the armor of German superiority, and that made the battle a big deal.

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Niitakayama Nobore.

I don’t really know how to pronounce it properly, but the English translation is one of the more famous coded messages in American history…and the subject of this evening’s very brief lesson.

When Admiral Nagumo left Kyushu in late November of 1941, he did so with what was, at that time, the largest fleet (named the Kido Butai) in the world.  He also left with a bit of unfinished business.  The fleet was headed for a spot a couple of hundred miles northwest of Hawai’i, from where it would launch attacks against Pearl Harbor.  The actual attack orders comprised the unfinished business.

The Japanese government pretty much knew that it was going to war, but still held out a bit of hope that diplomacy would win the day.  The problem was that Japan wasn’t really interested in making any serious concessions, so “diplomacy” basically came down to the United States giving Japan whatever she wanted in the Pacific.  And that wasn’t going to happen.

So on December 2, 1941, the coded message, Niitakayama Nobore (“Climb Mount Niitaka“), arrived on Nagumo’s flagship.  The Admiral then opened a set of top secret documents which confirmed that Japan would be going to war with the United States, Britain, and Holland.  It also gave a date for the opening of hostilities…December 8th (the 7th on the Pearl Harbor side of the International Date Line).

The stage was set…unless the U.S. discovered Kido Butai, Pearl Harbor was squarely centered in the Japanese bullseye.

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This “every third day” thing is getting to be something of a rut.  It’s not a goal to do that, but it’s the way things have gone for a bit here.  But I’ve got a couple things that might interest you history buffs on today’s list, so we’ll see if I can get both in.  First for this morning…

Today’s History Lesson has made no secret of the fact that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was a most capable tactician, one of Germany’s finest.  And rightly so…history has pretty well established it.  It’s no surprise that he was revered by the German people.  He had his detractors in the circle that was the German military, but most military authorities knew he was a gifted leader.  And it’s no shock that Allied leaders, all the way up the chain, respected both his conduct of war and his conduct in war.  He was tough but chivalrous…a brutal opponent on the battlefield and one who detested brutality when the battle was done.

But of course, in war, the opponent you respect the most is the guy on which you place the biggest target.

A year ago, we talked about Operation Crusader.  This British-led offensive had as its goal the relief of Tobruk.  Located in Libya (just west of the Egyptian border), it had been under siege by Rommel’s forces since April of 1941.  It was hoped that General Claude Auckinleck’s forces would come in and break the siege…just before Rommel could strike (what he thought would be) the victory blow.

So, if you’re going to attack Rommel’s forces, wouldn’t it be great if the head guy could be taken out of the picture?  The British thought so, and launched Operation Flipper.  It sounds all nice like that friendly dolphin that was on TV years ago with Annette Funicello or Gidget or whoever, but don’t kid yourself.  Operation Flipper had as its main objective the death or capture of Erwin Rommel.

The mission began on the evening of November 14th.  A pair of British subs arrived to drop off the assualt team, but  horrible weather conditions and strong surf meant that only about half of them made it to shore, the others remaining on-ship.  The target was Beda Littoria, roughly 20 miles from the drop-zone and more than 100 miles further west of Torbruk.  It was there that Rommel was reportedly headquartered and had a villa.  Over the next couple days, the commandos, led by Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, made their way to Beda Littoria, fighting rains, cold, and lots of mud.  And if things were bad leading up to the raid, they only got worse when the bullets started flying.

The raid began just before midnight on November 17, 1941.  Keyes was shot and killed almost immediately, and things just went downhill.  Rommel wasn’t in the villa, and he wasn’t in the HQ.  In fact, he wasn’t anywhere on the African continent.  He was in Rome, and not due back until the following day.  The British had missed their opportunity by 24 hours.

It gets worse.  The surviving commandos were forced to make their way back to the beach.  When they arrived, the weather was still so bad that they couldn’t get to the subs.  And then they were discovered by the enemy and forced to scatter.  In the end, only 2 men reached safety of the 37 that made it to shore on the 14th.  The rest were killed or captured.

Operation Flipper was a major Flopper.

And Field Marshal Rommel, even as the main target, responded with the class and dignity many of his German peers sorely lacked.  He ordered that Lt. Col. Keyes be buried in a Catholic cemetery…with full military honors.

Recommended Reading:  The Story of the No. 11 Commandos – All of their exploits, with a detailed look at Operation Flipper.

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Colonel-General Franz Halder had a pretty stormy relationship with his boss.  Of course, if the guy who signed your checks was Adolf Hitler, you’d expect a few bumps between your yearly job reviews.  But Halder was a pretty capable battlefield tactician regardless of his boss’ assessments.  As he sat high above the bloodied plains of Russia watching his German armies slug it out with the Red Army, he voiced  his concerns with mounting losses in men and equipment despite the incredible victories.  The casualties needed to be reduced, he noted, “if we do not intend to win ourselves to death.”

But so far, the wins just kept on coming.  Last week, I touched on the German victories at Bryansk and Vyaz’ma, but I didn’t really talk about just how massive those wins were.  Three Soviet Fronts had been brought to ruination by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre.  Of the 1,250,000 men that began the battles, and estimated 250,000 made their escapes from the two encirclements.  Which means a million Red Army soldiers were either killed or wounded.  To try to offer even a bit of perspective, the U.S. lost a little more than 415,000 soldiers…in the entire war…every theater.  Sixty-four Soviet divisions were destroyed.  In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes that “the Soviet loss of 64 divisions at Vyaz’ma-Bryansk and in the surrounding operations would have taken a population of 32 million – one-sixth of the pre-war Soviet population – to replenish.  It was a cataclysm.”

The situation would not immediately improve.

The Mozhaysk Defence Line was the Soviet Union’s “line in the sand”.  Situated just 125 kilometers (80 miles) west of Moscow, it was defended by three complete Soviet Armies plus 10 additional divisions of the People’s Militia.  If the Germans broke through, orders to begin the evacuation of Moscow would go into effect.  The Germans covered the distance between Vyaz’ma and Mozhaysk Defence Line in a matter of days, breaching it on the October 15th and triggering the evacuations in the capital.  On October 18, 1941,  Mozhaysk itself (located 25 kms further east of the Defence Line) would fall to the Germans.

It should be emphasized that these victories were not coming easily for Halder, his fellow generals, and their men.  German losses were extremely heavy, the lines of supply were now incredibly long (and prone to partisan attack), the soldiers and equipment were exhausted, and the weather was starting to turn.

But cooler weather didn’t cool down the Germans much.  Despite their difficulties, the collapse of Moscow appeared to be right on schedule.  Conditions would have to change, and soon, if Moscow was not destined to be overrun.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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The day after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa (their invasion of Russia), Russian dictator Joseph Stalin launched something of his own.


It didn’t involve a massive counterattack or armies or artillery or aircraft, which is pretty obvious because those things were busy being smashed to bits by the Wehrmacht’s three massive army groups, assisted by the Luftwaffe’s plethora of planes.  Stavka was a political-military war command that was designed “to effect the most centralised and flexible command of the Armed Forces in the conditions of the war which had just begun.”  It was peopled by the most capable Soviet military minds of the time (and the best available men still above ground after Stalin’s late-1930s purges).

And as June of 1941 rolled into October, that organization of “centralised command” had been reorganized twice and had witnessed the Germans roll over the western steppes of its homeland much like room-temperature butter is spread over hot toast.  The one constant was Joseph Stalin’s presence at the top.

This brutal no-holds-barred war, which halted for a bit after the Germans captured Smolensk in early August,  had fired up again as Hitler’s minions launched Operation Typhoon (the final push to Moscow, which we’ll discuss sometime), on October 2nd.

Little more than 100 miles west of the capital, the Germans were working their encirclement magic on the city of Vyaz’ma.  Lt. Gen. Konstantin Rokossovskiy was ordered to drop everything, turn over his command, pack up his staff, and make straight for Vyaz’ma, where five infantry divisions would be waiting for his counterattack orders.  When he arrived, not only were there not five divisions, there weren’t any…except the Third and Fourth German Panzer divisions, which proceeded to complete the encirclement the next day.  Rokossovskiy barely escaped.

Straight south (and further from Moscow), Bryansk was having a similar experience.

And now, on October 8, 1941, there was much to report to Stavka.  Much of the report was bad news.

Of course, there were the Vyaz’ma and Bryansk pockets.  Rokossivskiy’s Sixteenth Army?…the one he was ordered to leave behind?…it was in the process of being encircled as well.  And further south, Mariupol, a large port on the Sea of Azov, had fallen to the Germans.  As Marshal Georgiy Zhukov called the meeting of Stavka that morning gave the news, he said “almost all routes to Moscow are open.”  Stalin, Stavka, the capital, and the Soviet Union were in serious trouble.

If there was any good news for the day, it was the weather forecast.  The autumn rains had arrived, which would hopefully serve to slow the rapid German advance.  But that was pretty much it.  The Germans were once again looking unassailable…and the Russians pretty vulnerable.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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Our trip to Phoenix was good, though it ended quickly.  While I don’t much like to fly (and I’ve made no secret of that), the flights were quite smooth.  Our son is doing well…we got to see his apartment for the first time, and it’s pretty nice.  I really like the stark beauty of the Arizona desert, but the city is so large and busy that it’s hard to really do anything on our own (much less really enjoy the area) until we’ve spent a little more time there.  We’ll go back again, but for now, it was good to see him.

Let’s touch on a bit of history to get back into the swing of things.

As August of 1941 prepared to roll into September, it was hard to characterize Operation Barbarossa as anything other than a smashing success for the Germans.  One by one, the cities of western Russia fell to the forces of the Wehrmacht.  We’ve dedicated time to the capture of VitebskMinsk, and Smolensk in the course of all our discussions, and made mention of a couple others, like Kiev and Kharkov.  So those of you that are regular readers are well aware that the early months of this massive German “gamble in the east” were heady ones for the invaders.

In the north, Army Group North was bearing down on Leningrad.  Situated on the Gulf of Finland, this city of 4 million people was much more than a large Russian seaport.  As the place where the Revolution of 1905 began, it was also considered the cradle of the Communist movement.  And those two things made it a doubly important target for Adolf Hitler’s legions.

And even as the German Panzers approached the outskirts of the city, there was some doubt as to the next steps.  In his book The Siege of Leningrad (now approaching 40 years since publication), Leon Goure writes, “The stage was thus set for the final assault on the city.  But at that time it was by no means certain that such an assault would be made, because Hitler was unable to decide what to do with Leningrad once it was captured.”

Some of Hitler’s generals agreed, desiring that Moscow be the primary target and that Leningrad be left to wither in an encirclement.  Goure goes on to write that Hitler really wanted to avoid a direct attack on the city for a couple of reasons.  First, he believed the Soviet propoganda promising a bloody house-to-house defense.  He had already seen a teaser of that kind of warfare in places like Kiev, Smolensk, and Tallin, and it was costly in both men and equipment.  But second, the German dictator wasn’t really sure what to do with the city’s 4 million people.  He suggested forcing them from the city and allowing them to travel further east, but the Generals knew that was impractical.

As the Generals debated, the Army successes continued.  On August 30, 1941, the Germans cut the Leningrad-Ovinichi rail line and had advanced as far as the Neva River at Ivanovskoe.  The railroad was the last one out of Leningrad.  If people were going to get out of the city, it would likely be on foot.

For all intents and purposes, Leningrad was now surrounded.  The only open area was directly east of the city, towards Lake Ladoga, and the Germans were trying (thus far unsuccessfully) to get Mannerheim and his Finnish troops to take that area.  The Siege of Leningrad was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: The Siege of Leningrad – There are numerous worthy books on the Siege.  This happens to be the “grandfather” in my collection, so it gets the nod today.

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On June 29, 1941, Minsk was taken by the Germans.  The capital of Belarus was a major victory for the Wehrmacht, made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its capture.

Operation Barbarossa had begun just eight days before, and Army Group Centre had set off with Moscow as its ultimate goal.  Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had at his disposal nearly 50 divisions, including 9 Panzer armored divisions.  And when the starting gun sounded, they got right to work against Red Army General Dmitry Pavlov’s 45 divisions comprising the Western Front.

Ripping to the east, tank master General Heinz Guderian’s forces and General Hermann Hoth’s forces had, by the 27th,  linked up east of Minsk and cut off any Russian escape.  In five days, the Panzers had covered an astounding 200 miles and encircled Minsk.  Meanwhile, back west, the 4th and 9th German armies linked up east of Bialystok on the 28th.  If you go to a map and find the cities of Bialystok and Minsk (like maybe here) and draw a circle around each, you’ll see what the Germans accomplished in six days…pretty incredible.

The Russian Western Front was, in the space of a week, reduced to almost nothing.  What had begun as a force of 675,000 men had been chopped by nearly two-thirds…more than 60%.  More than 285,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, with the remaining 135,000 or so killed in action.  It was a humiliating loss for the Russians, but for General Pavlov, it was worse.  As Bialystok was encircled, he was stripped of his command.  The day after Minsk fell, Pavlov (along with his staff) was stripped of his life.

Despite the rapid movement, there were already concerns high in the German ranks, whispers that the advance was not quick enough, and the forward elements were being bogged down.  But to anyone looking on from the outside, it appeared that a Russian defeat was not only inevitable, it was imminent.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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June 22, 1941 is a day that needs no major introduction to students of World War II.  Operation Barbarossa was (and still is) the largest offensive in military history.  With most of Western Europe now under the shadow of the swastika, Adolf Hitler turned his legions east in a titanic blitzkrieg of men, tanks, guns, and planes.  The gamble he took, unparalleled in history, was that the Russian military was a house of cards that he could overrun it before it could get fully organized.

For Hitler, the gamble had worked on a smaller scale in France and the Low Countries a year before, so he was confident of its success again.  And the reality of Stalin’s paranoia-and-power-induced purges of the preceding years had not been lost in the planning.  Germany’s military leadership knew they’d be facing not only officers with little experience, but officers that would be more tentative, terrified of making a wrong move that would cost them their lives.  Hitler wasn’t being totally unreasonable when he said that “we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

But what might need a bit of an introduction is Operation Reindeer.  Initiated along with Barbarossa, the offensive was much smaller in scale, involving a couple of divisions stationed in northern Norway.  Their objective was to cross the border into northern Finland, specifically the Petsamo region.  The area was known for its nickel mines, and the Germans desired to grab them before the Russians.  Reindeer was launched on June 22, 1941 with the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions entering Finland.

And like the 4 million men setting off to the south and east, Reindeer got going without a hitch.  In fact, there was no fighting to speak of in Petsamo until they reached the Red Army defenses on the Litsa River.  Operation Silver Fox, the follow-up to Reindeer, had as its goal the capture of Murmansk.  But strong Russian defenses and political pressures – the U.S. notified Finland that cutting off Lend-Lease’s main supply port with Russia would have very negative consequences – meant that Murmansk would remain in Soviet hands throughout the war.

So in the end, Operation Reindeer was a very minor operation that had little bearing on the war.  It was a rather isolated outpost that would, with the turn of fortunes against Germany, eventually be abandoned.

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Joseph Stalin really didn’t want to believe that his country was about to be invaded.  It’s somewhat strange that he thought this way, since he was just about the only one in Russia who did.  He had been warned by the Americans.  He had been warned by the British.  And he had been warned (repeatedly) by members of his own staff and his heads of intelligence.

As 1941 was just getting underway, the Soviet Defence Commissariat was raising flags about the increase in German troop strength near the Russian borders and the menace it raised.  On April 15th, General Zhukov’s intelligence chief reported that “A major transfer of troops…by railway, roads, motor columns and organised marches between 1 and 15 April, from the heart of Germany…towards the Soviet borders.”  By early May, the NKVD (a group we’ve discussed before) was warning of open military preparations in occupied Poland.  As May turned to June, there were more incidents of German agents dropping into Soviet territory.  If anything smacked of “impending attack”, these signs certainly did.

And still Stalin did not believe what he was seeing.  The British ambassador was called home from Moscow and took his wife with him.  When Zhukov met with Stalin, Chris Bellamy writes (in his book Absolute War) that “Stalin was by now in his most paranoid, unbending and unreceptive mood, convinced of British and German attempts to trap him into a war he was not ready to fight, and seeing ‘disinformers’, ‘traitors’, and ‘wreckers’ in every shadow.”  His fear of provoking the Germans reached the point that he ordered  his news agency, TASS, to send a message to Germany, reasurring them that the Soviets were still on friendly terms.

All the while, the Hitler’s Field Marshals and Generals were putting the final pieces in places for one of the greatest invasions ever attempted.  More than 150 divisions, with thousands of tanks, artillery pieces too numerous to count, and planes that blotted the noon-day sun were poised for action.

And on June 14, 1941 (just one day after TASS’s communique), more information arrived.  This time it came not from reconnaissance, nor from border patrols, nor from captured agents.  It came from the Red Orchestra, and that source packed a punch.  The Red Orchestra was, without question, one of the most successful spy organizations of the entire war.  Three different spy rings made up the Red Orchestra and each had a center.  There was one in charge of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Another ring was centered in Berlin.  The third (and most successful), the Lucy Ring, was run from Switzerland.  Its contacts reached into some of the highest echelons of the German government, including the Wehrmacht’s communications department and a communications officer in Army Group Centre, currently sitting on the Soviet border.  The information these spies transmitted back home was of impeccably high quality.

And on the 14th, they sent word of a confirmed invasion date…June 22nd.  This was not data to be casually tossed aside.  And yet that’s precisely what Stalin did, with a brutally coarse manner typical of the Soviet leader.  His generals had a grave concern bordering on panic, and did whatever was possible to make Stalin see beyond his own thinking, but nothing worked.

If the Red Orchestra’s information, which in numerous cases came straight from the German High Command, was tossed aside by Joseph Stalin, then no other information save the bombs and bullets and artillery shells would suffice, either.  It wouldn’t be the first time he ignored information dropped in his lap.

Recommended Reading:  The Red Orchestra – I read this in college as an assignment for a military history class, and found it fascinating.  If you can locate a copy, check it out.

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There’s still been no resolution to replacing the dead laptop.  I went to the store this afternoon with the intention of picking up a cheap one, but it was at one of those places where the sales people are paid on commission.  We were dealing with one person (who happened to be busy helping someone else), and were then set upon by another salesman who wouldn’t let us be.  We left in frustration.  I think that sale ends tonight, so maybe there will be another one in the near future…we’ll see.


The Italian invasion of Greece in October of 1940 was a pretty poorly run thing.  Advances made into the country were quickly checked and reversed.  Within weeks, not only had Italy been largely removed from Greece, but their opponents had also taken southern Albania, which the Italian military had conquered (and I use that term somewhat loosely) back in 1939.

But it was Germany who bailed out Mussolini’s forces in early April, when they rolled into the Balkans.  Yugoslavia (just to the north) was first, invaded on the 6th and quickly overrun.  Simultaneously, Greece was invaded and, in less than three weeks, had lost nearly all of its territory and any substantial reason to keep fighting. On April 24, 1941, Greece threw in the towel and the government surrendered.

This left the British with a nasty mess, as they had nearly 60,000 soldiers in Greece, and all would need to be evacuated to avoid capture and imprisonment.  And that’s a topic we may look at sometime.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941

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Tonight, it’s a quick one.

Adolf Hitler, secure in the Wolf’s Lair, his East Prussian fortress outside of Rastenburg, was an unhappy dictator.  Just two weeks before, his forces had been forced from the outskirts of Moscow by a massive Soviet counteroffensive.  Hitler had ordered his men to hold their positions, but against the Red Army’s 60-division onslaught, there was little to do but retreat

It’s not as though they were terribly outnumbered, but the Soviets were warm, refreshed, and operating with a supply chain measured in the 10’s of miles.  The Wehrmacht, on the other hand, had equipment that wasn’t prepared to run in the cold, and the soldiers, exhausted after 6 months of constant war and 600+ miles, didn’t even have the winter clothes necessary to face temperatures that were 30 degrees below zero.

Hitler’s response?…start firing his commanders.  General Bock was shown the door in early December.  Walther von Brauchitsch, a Field Marshal, was sacked for the events around Moscow.  Gerd von Rundstedt, a very capable leader, was fired for suggesting that his armies in the southern Russia be allowed to withdraw from Rostov.

One might, at first, wonder who was left to actually run the army.  Each of these men (and numerous others) were replaced.  But on December 19, 1941, Hitler took matters into his own hands, naming himself Commander-in-Chief of the army and, for all intents and purposes, taking over day-to-day operations.

Those in the army could hardly believe it.  The Bohemian corporal, with but minimal experience in tactics or command, was now controlling their men at the most critical juncture of the war.  Those who had just been fired could only shake their heads in frustration.  And Allied leaders all over the world probably took a moment to celebrate the one single decision that most weakened their enemy.

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I hope you all have had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Ours was very good.  Our son, his wife, and their children came over, entertained us, and helped us eat enchiladas and all the trimmings.  I drank too much soda and ate too much, but all in all, a great day.

As the food settles, I’m going to do something most of you have never done…

I’m mentioning Pearl Harbor and Mount Yushan in the same sentence.

Prett daring, eh?

Actually, it’s not as provocative as it seems, as we’ll see.

On November 26, 1941, the Kido Butai left Kyushu in northern Japan.  It’s destination?…Pearl Harbor.  Better known as the Japanese 1st Air Fleet, Kido Butai was led by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.  Comprised of six aircraft carriers with more than 400 aircraft, two battleships, numerous escorts, and 23 submarines, it was the largest naval fleet in the world at that time.  It’s job was to attack the U.S. fleet stationed at Pearl and do enough damage to knock the U.S. out of the war before it could get started.

But before the fleet could commence its attacks, it needed to get the green light from higher up.  It would come in the form of a coded message, and that’s where Mount Yushan comes in.

Mount Yushan is the tallest mountain…on the island of Taiwan.  But in 1941, Taiwan was not a sovereign nation (and some still believe that to be true).  Having been annexed in 1900, Taiwan was under Japanese control, and Yushan had been named Niitaka by the new owners.

So as the 1st Air Fleet pulled out of port, Admiral Nagumo awaited the coded message that would come from his superiors.  Its contents, “Niitakayama Nobore” (“Climb Mount Niitaka”), would give the fleet permission to complete its mission.  But against the day that the final order came, the trick would be to keep this massive fleet a secret as it moved south as east.  That would prove to be a most delicate task.

Recommended Reading:  At Dawn We Slept

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Field Marshal Erwin Rommel knew what full-scale assaults looked like, and this didn’t look like one.  Having just returned to North Africa from Italy (where he had celebrated his 50th birthday), he was greeted with the news that a large contingent of tanks…British tanks…were gathering to the east.  But Rommel had plans, and he didn’t want them interrupted by a British “sortie”.  And in Rommel’s mind, a “sortie” is what it was.

Field Marshal Rommel was wrong.

That large contingent of British tanks was actually a force numbering almost 750, nearly twice the number of tanks Rommel possessed.  Their destination?…Tobruk.  Coincidentally, those plans of Rommel’s that I mentioned?…they involved Tobruk as well.

Several months back, we mentioned the tremendous initial success Rommel had when he arrived in North Africa in early 1941.  Rather than sit around, he immediately took the offensive and began pushing the British out of Libya.  Tobruk was a British-held port city just west of the Egyptian border.  After the Desert Fox’s initial push, it became the last British bastion in Libya, and had been under seige since early April.

The Afrika Korps was preparing its final assault on Tobruk, scheduled for November 20th, when it was interrupted by British General Claude Auchinleck’s forces from the west.  Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June had taken immense pressure off the British, and they were able to move more arms and equipment to Egypt, assembling a considerable force with one objective:  relieving Tobruk.

On November 18, 1941, the relief of Tobruk (Operation Crusader) began as the British, with help from New Zealand, Indian, and Polish forces, crossed from Egypt into Libya.  They had desperately hoped their numerically superior air forces would be able to preface the operation with successful air strikes of their own, but massive storms with torrential rains put paid to that.  Those storms would also affect some pre-operation clandestine missions that we’ll discuss in the future.

Anyways, Operation Crusader got off to a pretty good start for the British.  And as we’ll probably see, it would continue to go well, eventually pushing the Afrika Korps back some distance westward and relieving Tobruk.

Recommended Reading:  The Battle of Alamein – I’ve got a couple good sources dealing with North Africa, but haven’t mananged more than a cursory browse through any of them.  That will change next year.

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The early days of Operation Barbarossa were heady ones for the German Wehrmacht, and hapless ones for their Red Army opponents.  The Soviet military had been caught in a pretty bad state of preparation by the well-oiled machine that was their enemy, and they could do little but fall back, die, or surrender.

The small city of Vitebsk fell rather quietly on July 11th, less than 3 weeks after hostilities had begun.  Situated about 250 miles straight west of Moscow, Vitebsk was (at the time of the Second World War) a modest-sized town or small city.  But it played host to a significant Jewish population.  Those unable to escape the German nets were rounded up and placed in a “ghetto district” inside the town, and there they lived for several months…in pretty lousy conditions.

It doesn’t take a doctor’s skills to realize that, once the weather turned, bad things would start to happen.  All these people, in overcrowded conditions, with a poor diet, suspect hygiene, and a dearth of medical supplies, would serve to become a breeding ground for disease.

The Germans recognized this, although they somehow overlooked the fact that it was they who were the creators of the ghetto and its conditions.  And while they did nothing to prevent this from happening, they were the first to take action after the fact.

Keep in mind that while there was some sickness and malnutrition in the Vitebsk Ghetto, it certainly hadn’t reached epidemic proportions or even become a serious problem…at least not in the sources I consulted.

So the Germans responded to the potential problem by increasing the food supplies to the Ghetto, by sending in medical teams to treat disease, and providing additional clothing to the Jews living there.

That’s what you’d like me to write…but I can’t.

On October 8, 1941, the Germans (using the pretext of squalid living conditions and rampant disease) began the systematic liquidation of the Vitebsk Ghetto.  Over the next three days, at least 16,000 Jews would be removed and taken to the Vibte River outside of town, where they were shot and dumped.

When we consider the Holocaust, we often think of the concentration camps and the prisoners clad in stripes, their hollow faces peering from behind barbed wire.  Or we think of the death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, with their grisly “hospitals”, gas chambers, and ovens.  But there were dozens of these “smaller” atrocities carried during of the Third Reich.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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