When Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, Britain occupied Iceland, a nominally independent state that Denmark was in union with. As part of FDR’s Lend-Lease Act in early 1941, US Marines occupied Reykjavik in order to free British troops for operations in North Africa.
In the latter half of 1941, the US Navy in the Atlantic was taking an increasingly active role in defending convoys against U-Boats despite no declaration of war between the US and Germany. After the “Greer Incident” in early September (the first time a U Boat fired on a US ship and vice versa) FDR issued a “shoot on sight” order for all German ships in the Atlantic. By October, it was common practice for the US Navy to escort convoys as far as Iceland before turning them over to the Royal Navy.
On 16 October 1941, a German wolfpack attacked a British convoy SC-42 (from Sydney, Canada to Liverpool, England) off of Iceland and overwhelmed the Canadian escorts. After losing nine merchantmen, the convoy commander requested the assistance of the USS Kearny and three other American destroyers docked at Reykjavik. All evening the four destroyers dropped depth charges on the German U-boats, possibly sinking one, and saved the remainder of the convoy.
But the Germans weren’t finished. Just after midnight on the 17th, U-568 fired a spread of torpedoes and one hit the Kearny killing ten sailors and wounding more than twenty. The Kearny managed to control the damage and make it back to Iceland and eventually Boston. The casualties in the Kearney Incident were the first American deaths in the undeclared war against Germany, more than six weeks before Pearl Harbor.
On 16 October 1916, BB-39, the USS Arizona, named for the newest state in the Union, was commissioned at Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York City. She was the second and last of the Pennsylvania class “super dreadnoughts”.
Battleship technology was rapidly improving in the decade of the First World War, but the US Navy wanted a “standard type battleship” with similar characteristics to simplify operations. The first class of these super dreadnoughts, the Nevada, set the template for battleships as we think of them today: four turrets split by a central superstructure, moderate speed, oil fueled, long cruising range, extreme gunnery ranges, and an “All or Nothing” armor concept. From 1912-1918, five classes of thirteen ships were constructed and they formed the backbone of the US Navy for twenty years. The Arizona was the second ship of the second class, number four of thirteen.
The biggest flaw of the old ironclads and eventually the Dreadnought class of battleships was the relatively uniform armor across the ship. As the ships got larger, the armor got thinner, but heavier. Something had to give. Battle experience had shown that ships could survive being hit in non-critical areas such as berths, administration, galleys etc, but a hit to the fire control, engine, ammunition, propellant etc greatly degraded if not destroyed the ship. The All or Nothing concept put these essential, and very vulnerable, areas in a central heavily armored “citadel” (the “All”) and minimal armor on everything else (the “nothing”). This saved weight and subsequently increased the armor of the citadel. The compact citadel and turrets had the vast majority of the armor which made the Standard type battleships very survivable. The enemy armor piercing shells that didn’t hit the citadel or turrets flew through the ship’s non battle essential areas usually without exploding. The Nevada class was the first class of battleship to incorporate the All or Nothing concept and the Pennsylvania class improved on it. The concept was confirmed at the recent Battle of Jutland. When the Arizona was launched, her citadel was impervious to the 14” shells of the largest guns in that engagement.
The Arizona and her sisters didn’t see action during the First World War due to an oil crisis, but because of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, they were essential to the US foreign policy in the inter war years. The Arizona was the flagship of Battleship Division One and represented American interests in the Mediterranean and Caribbean in the 1920s. In 1928, she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and became the centerpiece of War Plan Orange, the on-the-shelf US Pacific campaign against a potentially belligerent Japan.
In mid-October 1941, almost exactly 25 years after her commission, the Arizona led the Pacific fleet to sea from its peacetime headquarters at San Diego. Due to a breakdown in the negotiations with an increasingly aggressive and militaristic Japan, the American Pacific Fleet sailed as a show of force to its new anchorage on the big island of Oahu, Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor.
Although the first snows had fallen around Leningrad in mid-September, south west of Moscow the skies were clear and sunny. On 1 October 1941, Field Marshal Fedor Von Bock’s 750,000 men and 1000 panzers of Army Group Center finally launched Operation Typhoon to capture the cultural, industrial, administrative, and communications center for the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and Stalin’s regime. But the month long respite given to Moscow by Hitler (German generals wanted to launch Typhoon in August at the expense of the drives on Leningrad and Stalingrad, Hitler overruled them) was used to great effect by the Soviets, though not initially.
In a week, Von Bock’s men made great gains and encircled and captured more than 500,000 Soviet soldiers. Moscow looked doomed, but on 8 October the weather abruptly changed, not to snow, but to rain. The rain turned the terrain to mud and the roads to a swampy morass, which were impassable to all but tracked vehicles. The Germans struggled through the Rasputitsa, the seasonal mud of Eastern Europe. On 13 October, they hit the well prepared defenses of the Mozhayek Line, still 100 miles from Moscow, which were built during the previous month and allowed the poorly trained, poorly led, and hastily formed Soviet divisions to halt the nearly immobilized Germans, albeit with drastic measures.
On 15 October, Stalin’s fireman, Georgy Zhukov, took control of the Moscow front after stabilizing Leningrad. He stationed thousands of NKVD troops behind the Mozhayek Line with orders to shoot deserters, and then more infamously, report their names back to Moscow so their families were shot also. The controversial order and impending German capture caused widespread rioting in Moscow, but the Germans made no headway for a month.
On 5 November, the temperature plummeted and the mud froze. Two days later the revitalized Germans broke through the Mozhayek Line, and surged 80 miles toward the Soviet capital. But by this point the cold weather was a double edged sword: the terrain was passable but the Wehrmacht was not prepared for it. Although the lack of winter uniforms made soldiers’ lives miserable beyond compare, it was the lack of winterized lubricants and antifreeze that slowed the offensive. German soldiers were required to light fires underneath their vehicles to warm up the frozen engines every morning.
On 4 December, 1941, the lead elements of Von Bock’s Army Group Center reached the western suburbs of Moscow, about 12 miles from the city center, and within sight of the spires of the Kremlin.
They would get no further.
On 19 September 1941, the Wehrmacht’s Army Group C captured Kiev in the Ukraine. The Germans were initially welcomed as liberators (Stalin starved 7,000,000 Ukrainians to death less than ten years earlier) but the brutal treatment of civilians by the occupiers quickly turned the Ukrainians against the Germans. On 25 September, the German military governor, the rear area police commander, and the SS Obergruppen commander for Army Group C, and the Einsatzgruppen C commander decided to execute “Action T4” in Kiev.
Action T4 was originally the nickname for the National Socialist directive of forced euthanasia of handicapped and mentally ill people, but by the program’s formal cancelation in August 1941 the term Action T4 had grown to be used to justify the death of all “undesirables”, such as Jews, Poles, Gypsies, the disabled, Communist party members, capitalists, teachers, local leaders, intelligentsia, and anyone deemed a threat to National Socialist ideology. Action T4 in Kiev would be carried out by Einsatzgruppen C.
Einsatzgruppen is German for “deployment group”, a typically innocuous term that Nazi’s like to use for the various parts of the “Final Solution”. They were charged with the forced “de-politicization” of occupied territories, or more accurately the de- politicization of everyone who disagreed with National Socialism. They acted as judge, jury, and executioner, and were answerable to no one outside of the SS chain of command. The executions would occur at Babi Yar (Old Woman’s Gully) near several cemeteries inside Kiev.
On 28 September, 1941, a trench 150 m long by 30m wide by 15m deep was dug by Soviet prisoners. Posters were placed around Kiev demanding all Jewish residents report the next day with all of their valuables, documents, and warm clothes to a street corner in Western Kiev. The next morning more than 30,000 showed up expecting to resettle.
Many arrived before dawn, hoping to get a good seat on the train. Many packed for a long journey, and one survivor noted that many women wore strings of onions about their necks. The massive group was “processed” down Melnyk Street toward Babi Yar. First they gave up their luggage, then valuables, then they progressively lost more clothes. By the time they heard the gunshots and figured out what was going on they were naked, vulnerable, and hustled between rows of German SS and Ukrainian collaborators in groups of ten to the trench. Anyone would resisted was beaten and pushed along.
At the trench, the Jews were forced to lie down in rows on top of the corpses of the previous ten, then an Einsatzgruppen officer walked by and shot each in the head. When the bodies reached near the top, they were covered over. The process lasted all day, and into the next.
33,771 Jews were murdered in the largest mass execution to date in the war in Europe. But the National Socialists were only just beginning.
With the German U-boats and Japanese submarines prowling between America and any potential future battlefield, the United States needed a cheap and easily constructed cargo ship to quickly replace the inevitable losses. On 27 September 1941, the SS Patrick Henry is launched: the first of 2700 Liberty class ships constructed during WWII. These large welded cargo ships formed the backbone of the American merchant fleet. They were the prime targets for German U Boats and surface raiders and the US Merchant Marine took the highest proportion of casualties of any service during the war. By 1943, a new Liberty ship was being launched every 8 hours.
The ships of the Italian Navy might have been neutralized during the Raid on Taranto and the Battle of Cape Matapan, but the Regina Maria itself was still in the fight. The Italians were years ahead in the use of underwater demolitions to attack shipping in port. Between June 1940 and August 1941, the Italians made nine attempts on British ports in the Mediterranean, but only one was successful. It was simply an issue of stamina.
The men of the secret Decima Flottiglia MAS, the 10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla, were the best combat divers in the world, but no human being had the strength and endurance to swim several miles underwater with enough equipment and explosives to cut through any obstacles and sink a ship, and then swim out again without being seen. Their only success was through the use of speedboats to sink the HMS York in Suda Bay in May 1941, which would never work again. But by July of 1941, the Italians perfected the use of the “human torpedo”: a self-propelled and nearly silent miniature submarine that divers could attach equipment to and ride or hold on to the outside of during the approach swim to the objective.
On 20 September 1941, eight divers on three human torpedoes departed from the Italian submarine Scire docked in Cadiz, Spain to attack British ships in the port of Gibralter. They avoided the extensive minefields, cut through the torpedo netting, and attached limpet mines to three ships, two tankers and a cargo freighter, which were all subsequently sunk. The frogmen swam to Spain, rejoined the Scire, and went back to Italy to be decorated.
The frogmen of Decima Flottiglia MAS would carry out monthly (mostly successful) attacks until Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943. The raid on Gibraltar fascinated the nascent “Observer Group” and “Navy Combat Demolition Units” that were just being formed by the US Military in 1941 to tackle the problems of amphibious assault, specifically beachhead reconnaissance and destruction of beach obstacles, and their training was altered accordingly. These groups would go on to be the Underwater Demolition Teams, and eventually the Navy SEALs we know today.
On 8 September 1941, Hitler’s Army Group North reached the southern shore of Lake Ladoga outside of Leningrad, the symbolic home of the Bolshevik Revolution, and one of the Germans’ three objectives for Operation Barbarossa. It effectively cut the city of 2.5 million off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Two days later, the German High Command requested that Finnish troops seize the city through the weakly defended northern approaches. However, Finland was at best a reluctant German ally and Marshal Mannerheim, the CinC of the Finnish Army, refused stating that Finland’s war aims only allowed for the recovery of territory lost in the Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1940. It proved to the last chance that Germany had to seize the city in the war.
Operation Typhoon, the campaign to seize Moscow, was scheduled to launch in October and the tired 4th Panzer Group, which fought its way to Leningrad, was needed. The Siege would be carried out by the foot sore remainder of Army Group North which had an extremely difficult time keeping up with the Panzers. Nevertheless, the Germans thought the city would starve in a matter of weeks.
The only route into and out of the city was over Lake Ladoga, which was under constant artillery bombardment and Luftwaffe attack. The journey over the Lake, in slow boats in the summer and over the ice road known as the Road of Life in the winter, was perilous. 500,000 non-essential personnel were evacuated in the coming months but not before rats, cats, and dogs were a feast, horse a delicacy and cannibalism appeared in the less affluent neighborhoods. Only draconian measures kept the city from surrendering.
On 16 September, Marshal Zhukov was given command of the garrison and he directed the Soviet commissars that workers and soldiers would receive 500 grams of daily bread ration, officer workers and non-laborers would receive 200, and children and old people would receive none pending evacuation. Failure to comply was punishable by death. One Soviet teenager said later, “I watched my father and mother die – I knew perfectly well they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that about me too. That’s what I remember about the blockade: that feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.”
On 17 Sep, the 4th Panzer Group began loading tanks on rail cars for the journey south, effectively beginning the siege.
It would last for 900 more days and claim the lives of 1.5 million.
On 25 August 1941, Richard “Dick” Winters, a June graduate and Magna Cum Laude of Franklin and Marshall College, walked into a recruiting office in Lancaster, PA. With the recent passage of the Selective Service Extension, he figured it was only a matter of time before he was drafted. He’d go to Camp Croft, SC for Basic Training, and then Ft Benning, GA for Officer Candidate School. In August 1942, he volunteered for the new Parachute Infantry, and was assigned to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Camp Toccoa, GA.
You can watch the rest on Band of Brothers.
The phrase, “The Great Game” usually describes the Anglo-Russian rivalry that played out across Central Asia, especially Afghanistan, in the 19th century, but has its roots in an earlier (and eventually overshadowed) rivalry between the two Great Powers in Persia, modern Iran. For hundreds of years, the Iranian people and shahs were used for both good and ill in the diplomatic, economic, and military maneuvering of the British and Russian Empires. In the late 19th century, Iran began asserting its own political independence by establishing ties to the new German Empire. In 1925, a new Shah came to power, Reza Shah Pahlavi, and began a massive modernization program funded by the nationalization of the Anglo-Iran Oil Company (Today we know them as BP), and much foreign assistance, particularly German and Italian.
Reza Shah declared neutrality at the outset of the Second World War, but both Great Britain and the Soviet Union suspected that German advisors in the economy and to the Shah had outsized influence over Iranian foreign policy. After the German Invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was desperate for Lend Lease supplies and FDR was more than willing to provide them, but the convoy routes through the Arctic Circle were especially dangerous. The old Anglo-Russian trade routes through Iran, especially the railroad from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea known as the “Persian Corridor”, were a perfect compliment.
By the summer of 1941, the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and northern Indian Ocean were no longer considered war zones, and could be freely transited by American ships. The British had just secured Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Eritrea from the Italians, cleared Iraq of Fascists, and threw out the Vichy French from Syria, which released several Indian divisions for duty elsewhere. The Soviets additionally wanted an excuse to seize Iran as the next Socialist republic, and secure the oil fields around the Caspian Sea. Britain also saw a pro German Iran as a destabilizing influence to eastern India, and neutral Turkey. When British diplomats delivered an ultimatum to the Shah on 17 August 1941 to expel all Germans from Iran, it didn’t matter what he said: Iran was going to be invaded.
On 24 August, British and Indian troops crossed into Iran from Diyala and Basra in Iraq, in a surprise attack which quickly defeated the Iranian Army that Shah Reza spent a decade and half modernizing with great difficulty. And his new roads expedited the invaders movement in the country. The next day, three Soviet armies did the same from the Transcaucasus and Turkmenistan. In just four days, Soviet and British troops met at Qazvin, just north east of Tehran, and the Shah sued for peace.
The first Americans to facilitate the Persian Corridor arrived a few days later (In 1941, British and Soviet troops were needed for fighting. By 1943, 30,000 Americans were serving in Iran maintaining the Persian Corridor). The first convoys and train loads of American supplies to the Soviet Union would commence in just a week. 30% of all Lend Lease supplies to the Soviet Union would transit through Iran.
After Denmark surrendered to Germany in 1940, Great Britain invaded Iceland, a Danish protectorate, to prevent its use by Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic. When The US approved the Lend-Lease Act, one of the leased bases was Iceland and the US 6th Marines garrisoned the island (which freed the British garrison to fight).
On 17 Aug 1941, the unescorted Longtaker, a Panamanian flagged steam merchant was enroute to Reykjavik to resupply the garrison with food and timber. Panama, though also technically neutral, was an American protectorate due to the Canal Exclusion Zone in all but name. The Longtaker was spotted by U-38, and sunk with torpedoes. The Longtaker sank in under a minute, and six of the 25 crewmen survived, but three more would die before they were picked up by a US destroyer 20 days later.
The Longtaker Incident was the first US ship sunk in the Atlantic, and the first of a series of encounters that directly led to FDR relaxing the US Navy’s ROE. Within a month, a state of undeclared war existed between the US Navy and the German Kriegsmarine around the world, months before Pearl Harbor.