The Battleship USS West Virginia was struck with seven torpedoes and two bombs on 7 December, and sank into the mud. After the Japanese departed, survivors reported hearing a strange rhythmic bang from the ship. At first they thought it was just a bulkhead breaking, and with the harbor in chaos, no one paid any attention to it. That night however, the banging traveled far in the water. Men were still trapped in the West Virginia.
The next morning, an attempt was made to reach the survivors. But fuel oil covered everything and the cutting torches would cause an explosion. In any case, cutting through the pressurized hull would cause a blow out, flood the inside, and kill them. There was nothing left to do: they had to be left to die.
During the day it wasn’t noticeable, but at night, Pearl Harbor rang with the faint rhythmic banging from the forward hull of the sunken wreck. On those nights sailors refused to stand watch on the ships close to the West Virginia, knowing there was nothing they could do for the doomed souls trapped inside the hull. The banging continued until Christmas Eve. Then stopped.
In May 1942, the West Virginia was raised and the bodies of the sailors recovered. In Pump Room A-109, they discovered the bodies of Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21. They had flashlights, and batteries, food and water for weeks, but no fresh air. They had a clock that was still working and on the wall was a calendar. On the calendar were red X’s and the last one was over the twenty third – nineteen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Army Group North’s push through the Baltic countries on their way to Leningrad, Einsatzgruppe A (EG A) was tasked with ridding the newly occupied territories of “undesirables”, including Jews, Roma, intelligentsia, teachers, capitalists, commisars, homosexuals, and the mentally ill. On 1 December 1941, Einsatzkommando 3, a subordinate of EG A tasked with actually conducting the killings, finished operations in Lithuania. Their commander, SS Colonel Karl Jaeger, issued a very detailed report of his command’s activities, “Complete tabulation of executions carried out in the Einsatzkommando 3 zone up to December 1, 1941”. The cold and clinical “Jaeger Report” is one of the most complete and most horrifying documents of the Holocaust. The last page:
“Total carried forward 99,804
12.9.41 City of Wilna 993 Jews, 1,670 Jewesses, 771 Jewish children 3,334
17.9.41 City of Wilna 337 Jews, 687 Jewesses, 247 Jewish children and 4 Lith. Comm. 1,271
20.9.41 Nemencing 128 Jews, 176 Jewesses, 99 Jewish children 403
22.9.41 Novo-Wilejka 468 Jews, 495 Jewesses, 196 Jewish children 1,159
24.9.41 Riess 512 Jews, 744 Jewesses, 511 Jewish children 1,767
25.9.41 Jahiuna 215 Jews, 229 Jewesses, 131 Jewish children 575
27.9.41 Eysisky 989 Jews, 1,636 Jewesses, 821 Jewish children 3,446
30.9.41 Trakai 366 Jews, 483 Jewesses, 597 Jewish children 1,446
4.10.41 City of Wilna 432 Jews, 1,115 Jewesses, 436 Jewish children 1,983
6.10.41 Semiliski 213 Jews, 359 Jewesses, 390 Jewish children 962
9.10.41 Svenciany 1,169 Jews, 1,840 Jewesses, 717 Jewish children 3,726
16.10.41 City of Wilna 382 Jews, 507 Jewesses, 257 Jewish children 1,146
21.10.41 City of Wilna 718 Jews, 1,063 Jewesses, 586 Jewish children 2,367
25.10.41 City of Wilna 1,776 Jewesses, 812 Jewish children 2,578
27.10.41 City of Wilna 946 Jews, 184 Jewesses, 73 Jewish children 1,203
30.10.41 City of Wilna 382 Jews, 789 Jewesses, 362 Jewish children 1,553
6.11.41 City of Wilna 340 Jews, 749 Jewesses, 252 Jewish children 1,341
19.11.41 City of Wilna 76 Jews, 77 Jewesses, 18 Jewish children 171
19.11.41 City of Wilna 6 POW’s, 8 Poles 14
20.11.41 City of Wilna 3 POW’s 3
25.11.41 City of Wilna 9 Jews, 46 Jewesses, 8 Jewish children, 1 Pole for possession of arms and other military equipment 64
EK 3 detachment in Minsk from 28.9-17.10.41:
Pleschnitza Bischolin Scak Bober Uzda 620 Jews, 1,285 Jewesses, 1,126 Jewish children and 19 Comm. 3,050
Prior to EK 3 taking over security police duties, Jews liquidated by pogroms and executions (including partisans) 4,000
Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK 3. In Lithuania there are no more Jews, apart from Jewish workers and their families. . . .
The distance between from the assembly point to the graves was on average 4 to 5 Km. . . .
I consider the Jewish action more or less terminated as far as Einsatzkommando 3 is concerned.
Those working Jews and Jewesses still available are needed urgently and I can envisage that after the winter this workforce will be required even more urgently.
I am of the view that the sterilization program of the male worker Jews should be started immediately so that reproduction is prevented. If despite sterilization a Jewess becomes pregnant she will be liquidated. . . .
On 28 November 1941, Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey departed Pearl Harbor on the USS Enterprise to ferry Marine fighter squadron VMF-211 to Wake Island. Sitting in the office with the Commander Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Adm Husband E Kimmel that morning, he asked about the Rules of Engagement if he should encounter Japanese forces.
Halsey: If I run into a Jap ship, how far can I go?
Kimmel: Use your common sense…
Halsey: That’s the best damn order I’ve ever received.
For nearly 18 months, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet fought the Japanese Army and the Imperial Naval General Staff on the need to strike Pearl Harbor at the outset of war with America. The General staff wanted the fleet carriers for operations in the south, but Yamamoto knew everything depended on the Pacific Fleet being neutralized. At one point the Pearl Harbor operation was only approved when Yamamoto, his staff, and all of his senior commanders threatened to resign. The entire time was spent planning, politicking, and solving the numerous technical problems involved in striking the American Pacific Fleet in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor in far off Hawaii. But on 26 November 1941, the hard work passed into the hands of the operation’s commander, Japan’s premier carrier admiral Vice Admiral Chiuchi Nagumo, when the Kido Butai secretly departed Hittokapu Bay in the Kurile Islands for the long journey east.
The Kido Butai, the “mobile strike force” of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was the most powerful naval fleet ever seen in history up to that point. It consisted of three of the five Japanese carrier divisions, and all of Japan’s big fleet carriers. These carriers: the Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, could together put the 414 modern fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo/level bombers of the 1st Air Fleet into a devastating first strike. Additionally every plane was superior to anything comparable flown by the Americans. This massive strike force was further escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, eight tankers, and 23 submarines. Finally, the Kido Butai carried four midget submarines for penetrating the tight defense of the harbor entrance.
The trip would take ten days. They were scheduled to arrive at the launch point just north of the Hawaiian Islands on the morning of 7 December, 1941.
“The Auch”, the Commander Middle East Gen Claude Auchinleck, was having none of it – the Eighth Army would attack until the last British soldier physically couldn’t, despite what its commander thought. When he appointed Cunningham to lead the Eighth Army, he thought he was solid, if unimaginative. He didn’t think he would crack after one bad day. Auchinleck didn’t trust the Operation Crusader reports reaching him in Cairo, so decided to see for himself. Fortunately he did because when he arrived, Cunningham was about to withdraw the Eighth Army back to Egypt.
Over his dead body: Auchinleck spent months preparing for this offensive. He hoarded supplies and practically beggared himself kissing American ass for weapons and tanks. And he took a huge political gamble with Churchill waiting until November. He wasn’t going to waste all that effort, not to mention the lives of his men who died in the last week, just because their commander lost his nerve.
Cunningham had to go, but he would wait until after the offensive was over out of respect for Cunningham’s elder brother, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet. Despite the loss of three brigades and 300 tanks the day before, the British still outnumbered Rommel two to one in tanks, three to one in infantry, five to one in artillery, and most importantly the supplies and fuel to continue fighting for at least another month.
Auchinleck knew Rommel’s weak point was fuel. Math didn’t lie: at the tail end of a 500 mile supply line, the Germans and Italians couldn’t have more than ten days of petrol for offensive operations. This was even confirmed, via Ultra, when it was found that Rommel was so desperate for fuel that German U boats were screening fast Italian cruisers from Italy to Benghazi, filled not with fuel oil for naval operations but with petrol for the Afrika Korps. Every minute the Eighth Army continued to fight, was one minute closer to Rommel’s inevitable retreat.
This unfortunate fact was not lost on Rommel. He planned to have enough fuel in mid November to capture Tobruk, no more. He wasn’t expecting to throw back a major offensive, much less advance into Egypt. But now that opportunity had shown itself.
After the Afrika Korps’ victory on Totensonntag, Cruell wanted to advance just far enough to consolidate the battlefield and secure all the “wonderful loot” abandoned by the Eighth Army – tanks, trucks, food, water, ammunition etc. But Rommel knew he needed to keep pounding on the British weak point: it’s leadership. He needed to break Cunningham before his own fuel situation broke. (He did, but wasn’t counting on the Auch personally taking over command from Cunningham) The only way he could do that was to attack: one last big push before logistics forced him to withdraw closer to his depots near Benghazi on the far side of Cyrenaica.
On 25 November 1941, Rommel ordered the entire Panzerarmee Afrika on the offensive. The plan was essentially Operation Crusader in reverse: Their objectives were relieving the cut off Italian garrison at Bardia, destruction or capture of any British armor they found, and the capture of any Eighth Army supply dumps. The dumps had to be near the Egyptian frontier, which was marked by enormous amounts of barbed wire. (With any deliberate offensive preparation, the attacking unit always pre-positions supplies as far forward as possible. This mitigates the increasing distance the convoys travel to the forward elements as they advanced. For Crusader that meant near the frontier with Libya, which is exactly where they were.)
When Auchinleck woke that day in the Eighth Army HQ at Magdalena, effectively if not officially taking command of the Eighth Army himself, he received the first reports of panzers slashing through the seam between the XIII and XXX Corps.
Rommel’s “Dash to the Wire” was on.
Totensonntag, the Sunday of Death, is a Lutheran holiday to remember those who went before, akin to All Soul’s Day in Catholicism. In Germany in 1941, it was also the day that the country remembered its dead from the First World War. The night before Totensonntag outside Sidi Rezeg, a decorated veteran of that war, Erwin Rommel sensed an opportunity.
Rommel sent detailed instructions over the wireless to the Afrika Korps HQ. Then he drove there to direct the next day’s operations, certain that they would win the battle. However, he never made it: he drove straight into the 6th NZ Brigade’s assault positions, and only a quick three point turn by his driver saved them from being captured. He found refuge at Point 175, a small escarpment notable only for an Islamic tomb and a mosque that served as the Regt HQ of the German 361st Infantry Regt. When the Kiwi’s attacked, Rommel was cut off and spent the day playing regimental commander.
GenLt Ludwig Cruell, commander of the Afrika Korps, received Rommel’s instructions and promptly disregarded them as “out of touch”. The only thing Rommel had right was there was an opportunity. After two confused days of fighting Cruell personally managed to consolidate the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and convinced the Italian tankers of the Ariete Division to coordinate an attack. One of his reconnaissance bns identified a gap at the weakened and disorganized British 7th Armoured Division which he had mauled the day before. They were intermingled between the New Zealanders of the XIII Corps, and the 1st South African Division of the XXX Corps.
Despite the threat the New Zealanders posed, Cruell planned to drive east and south into the gap, then boldly strike west and north into the rear of the 5th SA Brigade and the Brit 22 Arm Bde. The loss of these two Bdes would hopefully break the British, and the captured supplies, especially fuel, would sustain the Korps another few days.
At 0430 on Totensonntag 23 Novemeber, 1941, Cruell and his chief of staff (Col Fritz Bayerlain, we will hear his name again) took off in his command vehicle, a captured British Mammoth Armoured Car, to accompany the 15th Panzer into battle. Half an hour after Cruell left, the Kiwis that chased Rommel away overran the Afrika Korps headquarters and captured the entire staff. Nevertheless, the Korps marched to their assault positions relatively unmolested, linked up with the Italians and launched their attack.
Initially it was field day for the panzers: they surprised the transport and supply columns of both brigades, and the 7th Armoured Div logistics (7 Spt Grp) columns. Supply trucks, fuel tankers, maintenance sheds, recovery vehicles – it was target rich environment. They were in “Happy Land” – every tanker’s dream. The columns scattered. But the South Africans were tough and well disciplined, and soon they were fighting back. In particular the South African artillery (of all types cannon, AT, and AA) made quite an impression on the Germans, as they leveled guns and fired over open sights. Though many South Africans fled, enough stood and fought that the attack became fixed. A lost column of 4th Brigade crusader tanks marched to the sound of the guns, and caused more problems. Then the 22nd Brigade counterattacked and the fight soon devolved into a brawl.
Cruell, like his superior, was always close to the fighting. About 1100, he heard an urgent banging on the rear of his command car. Bayerlain, in the back at the map board, leaned over and unlocked the door. When it opened he was horrified to find that he was face to face with a very surprised British sergeant. Both fumbled to shoot each other, but a random burst of 20mm flak from an unknown source sent the Brit scurrying back to his tank. Cruell stuck his head through the cupola and was equally horrified to see six British Matilda tanks surrounding the command car. They were part of the 22nd Bde’s hasty counterattack into the Cruell’s flank, and they thought the Mammoth command car, which Bayerlain captured months before at Mechili, was South African. They had no idea the prize in their midst. Cruell yelled, and his driver sped away. Only the lack of ready ammunition in the Matildas saved them.
But in the confusion, leadership matters most, especially at the lowest levels, and here the Germans decisively defeated the Allied troops. The unexpected South African resistance and British counterattacks slowed but did not stop the German advance. 88’s systematically picked off British tanks, and with the transports in chaos, the South African artillery eventually ran out of ammunition. By the time the 5th SA Bde HQ was overrun about 1600, the battle was over. Three Allied brigades were effectively destroyed (5 SA, 22 Arm, 7th Arm), and one was “temporarily useless as a fighting entity” (4th Arm). Furthermore, a giant hole was torn in the Allied line. At dusk, the Afrika Korps consolidated on the Sidi Rezegh airfield, right where they started 15 hours before.
That night, thirty miles away at the Eighth Army Headquarters at Maddalena, LieutGen Cunningham was distraught and broken upon the news of the of the Afrika Korps’ attack. There was a lot of fight left in the Eighth Army, but not so much left in its commander.
After several delays, the British Eighth Army launched Operation Crusader on 18 November 1941. The objective of Crusader was to destroy Rommel’s panzers. Everything else: the relief of Tobruk, the fall of Cyrenaica etc, would eventually come to pass if Rommel had no tanks. The British plan was to defeat the German and Italian tanks in Rommel’s inevitable, and frankly needed, counterattack with British armor and a breakout from Tobruk. The plan hinged on Rommel counterattacking immediately and broke down almost immediately. In fact, the day of the attack, the British, Australian, Kiwi and South African troops couldn’t find a single German or Italian soldier. The day started off with a thunderstorm which grounded the RAF, and the only Axis troops facing them were two reconnaissance bns and a company of tanks, who wisely withdrew in the face of the Allied assault. After Rommel’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in September, he was convinced that the Allies couldn’t attack until December. So he concentrated his best divisions for an assault on Tobruk while the Afrika Korps, led by GenLt Cruell, reduced to just a screening force of a weak Panzer Div, and a few Italian infantry divisions held the frontier.
As the old saying goes, “No plan survives contact”, Operation Crusader’s plan didn’t even survive NOT making contact. The realities of fighting in that portion of the Western Desert saw to that. The area of operations was about 100 miles long east to west and 60 miles wide north to south. It was so flat that it was like fighting on a chess board. It was an attackers dream: the only terrain were low isolated hills less than 200m high, and minefields. Outflanking the opposition was always an option. However target identification was a problem. The dust covered everything, sand storms were common, and both sides used captured equipment.
It took Rommel a few days to be convinced that major offensive was underway, but when he did he launched the 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer and Italian Ariete and Trieste armored divisions at the British from around Tobruk. Between 20- and 27 November, a wild melee broke out around Sidi Rezeg. Attackers, counter attackers and counter counter attackers seemed to appear from any direction. Confusion reigned on both sides as commanders struggled to envision the battlefield. (Tobruk was actually relieved twice, only for them to be cut off again) Although the British outnumbered Rommel 2-1 in tanks, it seemed the Germans had tanks everywhere, and more importantly, were doing more damage.
The Germans had the upper hand around Sidi Rezeg for three reasons. First, the British thought of their tanks as Wellington thought of cavalry: for the elan of the charge. The Germans thought of their tanks as bait for the deadly 88mm anti-tank guns. Time and again the British would spot an enemy column and charge into an engagement area. In the confusion of being systematically destroyed by an enemy they couldn’t fire back against (if they could even see them), they would be attacked in the flank by the original target. Next, any German and Italian tanks that were knocked out were recovered by maintenance teams, who then repaired very close to the front. The British had no equivalent. Their knocked out tanks sat for weeks before being recovered, and then had to be sent back to Egypt to be repaired. German maintenance teams sent nearly 100 “destroyed” tanks back to Rommel’s divisions that week. Rommel’s maintenance sent more recovered British tanks to Rommel than the British did to their own troops. Finally, the Eighth Army Commander, Sir Alan Cunningham who did so well in East Africa, was not nearly as energetic and imaginative as Rommel, who simply out commanded him in the initial clashes.
Sensing the British were about to break, on 25 Nov, Rommel launched a massive counterattack to split XIII Corps, cut off XXX Corps and destroy the corps and army rear areas. Despite months of preparation by the British, and advantages in nearly every category, Operation Crusader was still very much in doubt.
In preparation for Operation Crusader, No 11 (Scottish) Commando landed on the Libyan coast from two British submarines on the night 14/15 Nov 1941. Due to heavy seas only 37 of the 59 actually made it to shore. Led by Brig Robert Laycock (the eccentric and colourful former commander of Layforce, the British rearguard on Crete) and LieutCol Geoffrey Keyes, the 37 men made a grueling 18 mile infiltration to their objectives – Rommel’s supposed headquarters at Beda Littoria, and an Italian Communications Retrans site at Cyrene. Laycock sent six men off with a LT to Cyrene where they successfully destroyed the site. The men sent to assassinate Rommel at the headquarters did not fare so well.
Keyes managed to infiltrate his entire team into Beda Littoria but they were stymied at the headquarters building. The windows and doors were locked. One of his soldiers spoke good German so Keyes banged on the front door, and they called out to open up. The sleepy sentry opened the door and the team pounced on him. But in the scuffle in the doorway they ended up shooting the guard which alerted the garrison. More immediately the Germans in the next room burst out and shot Keyes, killing him. In the confusion, Keyes’ second was shot by his own men, and the senior NCO took command. With the surprise lost, the commandos retreated.
But Rommel wasn’t there, in fact Rommel was actually in Rome arguing with his Italian superiors about resending critical parts and supplies that were on freighters sunk by Force K the week before. Also, it wasn’t even his headquarters, it was his rear logistics coordination center. When he heard about the raid, Rommel was indignant and furious that the British thought so little of him – he would never have his HQ 150 miles behind the front.
As for the Laycock and his commandos, they couldn’t reembark on the submarines, so they dispersed to made their way back to British lines in small teams. They were all eventually killed or captured except Laycock and the senior NCO who both spent 37 days wandering the desert, and one other who spent forty days surviving in the desert before being picked up. The six retrains attackers also survived and hitched a ride with a passing LRDG patrol.
Rommel had Keyes buried with full military honors in a Catholic cemetery outside of Beda Littori
Malta was the key to the Central Mediterranean. As long as it was in British hands, Rommel’s supply lines from Sicily and Italy were under threat. But Malta was only 60 miles south of Sicily, well within Italian and Luftwaffe bomber ranges and 100 miles from the main Italian naval base at Taranto. The island was surrounded by Italian minefields and small surface raiders, and prowled by German E-boats and U-boats. The island was under siege since the day Mussolini declared war on the British.
Keeping the island supplied under such a threat required massive operations for the simplest of items. Critical parts, code books ext were run in on fast minelayer or submarines, but everything required for the 35,000 man garrison to attack the Axis and for daily life for the 200,000 Maltese had to be convoyed in with large numbers of escorts, demonstrations and feints by fleet units, and intricate deception operations. Until Sicily was invaded in 1943, the Royal Navy (and eventually the US Navy) conducted 35 named operations involving Force H from the Atlantic Fleet at Gibraltar, Force K, the raiders in Malta, and the RAF and Mediterranean Fleet in Egypt, to keep Malta in the fight and from starving into surrender.
On 13 November 1941, the British launched Operation Perpetual, and it involved every Royal Navy sailor and RAF airman in the Mediterranean basin, and even included raids by the Long Range Desert Group on Rommel’s airfields in Libya lest they be used to attack the convoy. The operation went off perfectly despite the heavy German and Italian response. A month of painstaking planning and preparation between commands separated by thousands of miles (in the era before telecommunications) and a dogged enemy between them paid off. The only hiccup was the loss of the carrier Ark Royal (whose aircraft were instrumental in the sinking of the Bismarck) on the return trip when she was torpedoed by U-81 just outside the harbor at Gibraltar. But the cargo was delivered:
Just 35 Hawker Hurricane fighters.
After the failure of Operation Battleaxe to relieve Tobruk and the sound thrashing the British received from the Vichy French in Syria in June 1941, the CinC Middle East Archibald Wavell was replaced by Gen Claude Auchinleck (They essentially switched jobs). Unlike Wavell, the no nonsense Auchinleck was not intimidated by Churchill’s constant demands for action, specifically to attack Rommel. Auchinleck’s first action as CinC MidEast was to fly to London and explain to Churchill the realities on the ground. To defeat Rommel, he needed two, preferably three armoured divisions, control of the air, enough training time for arriving troops, and enough supplies to push across Cyrenaica and into Libya without culminating. Furthermore, he needed enough troops to secure the Caucasus’ passes against German penetrations from the north in Russia. (It seems silly in hindsight, but it was a very real concern in the summer and autumn of 1941). Auchinleck expertly and calmly laid out his case, and Churchill reluctantly agreed on a November offensive. Auchinleck later told his staff, Churchill “couldn’t browbeat facts”.
In August and September, Auchinleck reorganized his command into two armies, the Ninth Army in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, and the Eighth Army in Egypt. He successfully courted American officials to ensure that he wouldn’t be forgotten in the scramble for Lend Lease supplies. When those supplies began arriving in bulk in September, Auchinleck, behind an elaborate deception operation and secure in the knowledge that Rommel wouldn’t attack before he took Tobruk, he pulled his mobile units out of the line for refit and rearming (That’s why the Afrika Korps found nothing during the recce/raid of Mersa Matruh in late September). The British tankers loved the mechanical reliability and speed of the US Stuart light tanks (if not the gas mileage and tiny gun), dubbing them “Honeys”. However, they needed more. What the Americans couldn’t provide, Home Defense would have to and Churchill delivered.
Churchill wasn’t happy, but he recognized that an invasion of the Home Islands was unlikely while Hitler was fighting in the Soviet Union. Rommel had to be defeated before Russia fell and the Wehrmacht turned its attention back to Great Britain. To the howling protests of the Home Guard and the Imperial General Staff, Churchill sent a sizable portion of the all-important RAF Fighter Command in England to North Africa, and more importantly, virtually the entire mobile reserve of Great Britain, the 1st UK Armoured Division, whose primary task up til then was to counterattack any German landings in England.
On 9 November, 1941, the division’s long trip around Africa finally ended when the last convoy from Great Britain containing the Valentine and Matilda tanks of the 1st UK Tank Brigade passed through the Suez Canal and arrived in Port Said, Egypt. By 16 November, the entire Eighth Army was in its assault positions for the long awaited operation to relieve Tobruk and push Rommel out of Africa: