Tagged: WWII

Operation Crusader Prelude: Rommel and Tobruk

On 8 November, 1941, the British cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope slipped out of Valetta Harbor in Malta with two destroyers and savaged an Italian fuel and ammunition convoy enroute to Rommel in Africa. Despite a heavy Italian escort of 2 cruisers and 7 destroyers, the British escaped unscathed: the use of radar and Ultra intelligence meant the Royal Navy was in position and firing before the Italians could react. All five freighters were sunk.

For Rommel, logistics was by far his biggest problem. 1 in 4 merchantmen sailing from Sicily or Naples to Libya sat at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Rommel did not seize Malta, the base from which the convoy attacks originated, because he used the supplies allocated for the invasion of Malta for his last offensive under the misguided impression that the British were about to withdrawal from Egypt. And after the disastrous, if successful, airborne landings on Crete, Hitler forbade any more such airborne operations, so he was more than willing to approve Rommel’s misuse of the invasion’s supplies, an invasion the Italians knew needed to happen. Moreover, any supplies that made the Mediterranean crossing had a 600 km drive from Libya to the front during which the trucks carrying much needed fuel for his panzers consumed 70% of what they carried just to get there. Along the way, the convoys were subject to RAF raids, Long Range Desert Group ambushes, and Australian, and increasingly Polish, fighting patrols from the porous siege of Tobruk. If he couldn’t seize Malta, then he needed to grab Tobruk.

Tobruk had been under siege since April 1941, and the Australian garrison, and their Polish and British replacements, had no inclination of giving up the vital Libyan port. Rommel couldn’t advance further into Egypt with the 20,000 man garrison behind him: his logistics lifeline, the coast road Via Bardia, ran near the town, and every truck that passed by was subject to Allied attack. Rommel devised a plan to seize the port with his Afrika Corps in mid November. He just needed to be sure the Allies wouldn’t attack him before it was captured.

On 25 September 1941, the Afrika Korps of Gen Erwin Rommel’s PanzerArmee Afrika launched reconnaissance in force around the British defenses toward Mersa Matruh, Egypt. Their objectives were threefold: 1. Identify Allied dispositions. 2. Destroy or capture British armor in assembly areas identified by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft and Italian spies. And 3. Capture as much fuel, equipment and provisions as possible for resource starved German and Italian troops at the far end of a 300 mile supply line across North Africa.

The division sized recce/raid encountered not a single Allied tank. They id’d defensive belts, but zero offensive capability. Rommel assumed the Allies were still not capable of launching an offensive, and decided to go ahead with his plan to seize Tobruk. The best units of his in Africa: the 15th Panzer Division, 90th Light Div, and the capable Italian Ariete and Trieste Armoured Divisions, were pulled from the front line in Egypt to prepare to assault Tobruk in mid-November.

Rommel was mistaken.

Crisis in the Pacific

Japan’s war with China, in particular the “Three All’s Policy” (Kill All, Loot All, Burn All) officially known in Japan as the “Burn to Ash Strategy”, and Japan’s occupation of French Indochina led to America’s scrap metal and oil embargo of Japan in July of 1941. Japan relied on America for 90% of its tin, steel and oil. Emperor Hirohito directed negotiators to find a compromise with the US by 1 November or he would order the Japanese military to make preparations to seize the oil fields, rubber plantations, and tin mines of the Dutch East Indies. Before this could be done, Malaya, a British possession had to be cleared, as did the Philippines, a US Commonwealth. In order to protect these offensives from counterattack by the US Pacific Fleet, Adm Yamamoto envisioned a surprise attack on its anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

On 1 Nov, the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC reported no progress in the negotiations, and Hirohito gave his approval for preparations for war with the Netherlands, Great Britain and America, with the caveat that if a breakthrough at the table was made, the preparation would be called off. Aware that the Americans and British were tracking their carriers via radio transmissions, the Japanese immediately implemented a long prepared “deception and denial” plan that included a massive increase in fake radio transmissions. It threw the US Navy intelligence sections across the Pacific into chaos. That day, CMDR Joseph Rochefort, lead cryptanalyst of the US Navy’s Hawaii station, reported that the Japanese changed the call signs of every ship in their fleet, and his section was trying to sort everything out. That afternoon, the US Pacific Fleet went on the first of many alerts over the next month. The next day the Japanese increased the encryption of Rochefort’s “baby”, the Japanese “Flag Officer’s Code”, in addition to the Main Fleet Cipher JN-25. At the morning briefing the unorthodox but brilliant Rochefort had the unenvious job of telling Admiral Kimmel that he had “lost” four Japanese aircraft carriers. (He had actually lost six: he had mistakenly placed two in the Marshall Islands. All six were enroute to the Kurile Islands for a “fleet exercise”, actually to conduct rehearsals and prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but they wouldn’t know that for another two weeks.)

In response, Kimmel ordered another alert. Additionally, he assumed the Philippines would most likely be a target of any initial Japanese attack (He was not wrong, just not right, ask an intelligence officer to explain the difference), so he also ordered the formation of the Pacific Escort Force to convoy merchantmen and freighters from Pearl Harbor to the Far East, as his brethren were doing in the Atlantic. That evening, the last non-convoyed ship reached its destination when Wake Island was reinforced by a detachment from the 1st Marine Defense Battalion led by Major James Devereux, bringing the garrison of the tiny atoll to just under 400 men.

The USS Reuben James

On October 31st, 1941, the USS Reuben James was escorting an eastbound convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia and was sunk by a torpedo from a German Type IX U Boat U-552 off the coast of Iceland. Although the German declaration of war and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were still more than a month away, she was the first American ship sunk by enemy fire during World War II. The Reuben James was part of the “Undeclared War” fought against the German Navy while protecting convoys supplying Lend Lease material to Great Britain in 1941.

The Kearny Incident

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.

The USS Arizona

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.

Operation Typhoon: The Battle for Moscow

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.

The Massacre at Babi Yar

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.

The Liberty Ship

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.

The Siege of Leningrad

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.