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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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