Saturday, December 10, 2016

December 9, 1940: Operation Compass Begins

Monday 9 December 1940

9 December 1940 Great Pyramid Egypt Cameron Highlanders
Cameron Highlanders march past the Pyramids, 9 December 1940.
Battle of the Mediterranean: Mussolini's military problems expand exponentially on 9 December 1940, as the British launch Operation Compass. This is an offensive by two divisions (more or less) of the British Army Western Desert Force against ten divisions of the Italian 10th Army. Anyone familiar with the respective capabilities of the two armed forces knows that a 1:5 British disadvantage in an assault against entrenched Italian positions is a complete mismatch... in favor of the British.

The British advanced troops, after assembling in their jump-off points at 01:00, commence a diversionary artillery barrage from the east against the southernmost Nibeiwa encampment at 05:00. This plays into Italian preconceptions of where an attack must arise - the East - and their defenses all point in that direction. At 07:15, the main artillery barrage commences. Shortly afterward, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade jumps off against Nibeiwa from the northwest and swarms the Italians from the rear. The British occupy the camp by 08:30, killing 818 Italians (including commander General Pietro Maletti of the Maletti Group), wounding 1338 and taking 2,000 prisoners. Maletti personally mans a machine gun against a British tank, which cuts him down.

At 13:50, the British attack another encampment just to the north known as Tummar West. This camp holds out until 16:00, but the result is basically as same as in the morning attack: 1351 Italians killed, 840 wounded, and numerous prisoners. The surviving Italians either surrender or engage in wild flight north to the coast.

The Selby Force (1800 men under Brigadier A. R. Selby) moves forward to surround the remaining Italians at Maktila, but, in the best news of the day for Mussolini, the defenders there manage to escape. They don't get very far, however. By nightfall, the fleeing Italians are backed against the sea near Sidi Barrani with nowhere else to run. The Royal Navy controls the seas, so the Italians have no escape, though they hold out through the night. Basically, their position becomes an armed prison camp.

The RAF and Royal Navy support Operation Compass without much interference from the Italians. The RAAF chips in with dive-bomber attacks by Gloster Gauntlets (open-cockpit biplanes are perfectly satisfactory weapons against minimal opposition), and the Hurricanes of RAF No. 274 Squadron clear the way by shooting down four biplane Fiat CR 42s.

It is fair to say that, while individual Italians fight with great bravery and distinction (there are reports of piles of bodies everywhere), overall today's battle is perhaps the most cataclysmic example in history of well-supplied, numerically superior, elite troops either being unable or unwilling to resist. Leaders are on sides are dumbfounded at the ease of British success. General O'Connor's British Army troops suffer only 56 deaths during the day.

The RAF also raids the Italian airfield at Benina in East Africa, and Gallabat and Gherile in Somaliland.

9 December 1940 Operation Compass map
The British attack on 9 December 1940. The Italians have built elaborate fortifications facing East, so the British march around them and attack from the southwest. Incredibly, the British are able to march 30,000 men and hundreds of tanks 70 miles across the open desert without the Italians noticing.
European Air Operations: The Luftwaffe attacks London throughout the night of 8/9 November in one of the heaviest sustained assaults of the entire campaign. Radio Berlin makes a point of claiming that this is in retaliation for the RAF bombing of German cities. After dark, the Luftwaffe again takes a night off, and there are few flights during the day, either. The London raid thus acquires the air of a one-off stunt rather than a prolongation of the Battle of Britain.

The RAF bombs the ports of Bremen, Lorient, and Boulogne.

While the Germans are loudly proclaiming that they are retaliating against the British, the air war remains far from even. Estimates are that the Luftwaffe drops 7,455 tons of bombs on Great Britain during the month of  November, while the RAF drops 475 tons on German. Of course, the British are dropping the majority of their loads on the occupied countries nearby, but in terms of damage to the combatant nations, there is no question that Great British is suffering many times worse than Germany.

Italian/Greek Campaign: The Italian Air Force bombs the island of Levkas (Santa Maura) and Arta Bay. The Greek army continues to grind forward in horrendous weather.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-103 (Kplt. Viktor Schütze) spots 5186-ton British freighter Empire Jaguar (Master Hywel Tudor Thomas) about 300 miles due west of Ireland. At 01:32, he torpedoes and sinks it. The Empire Jaguar is alone, a straggler of Convoy OB 252, and the odds of surviving a quick sinking in the middle of the night with nobody around to rescue you are slight. All 37 aboard perish.

British 1527-ton troopship Royal Scot (formerly Royal Sovereign - it was renamed when requisitioned) hits a mine and sinks in the Bristol Channel near Barry. One crewman perishes. The Royal Scot had an active history during the first year of the war, including evacuations of children from Dagenham and Gravesend to Great Yarmouth, troop evacuations from Cherbourg, and nine trips to Dunkirk to rescue 16,000 troops.

The RAF bombs and damages German barge Usaramo at Bordeaux, causing the crew to run it on the beach and abandon it.

Armed merchant Cruiser Dunnottar Castle and auxiliary minelayer Manchester City collide, but the damage is slight.

Battleship Bismarck reaches its new anchorage at Hamburg.

A small Vichy French flotilla (a sloop and four submarines) departs from Toulon in southern France with the intention of exiting the Mediterranean to make port at Dakar. The British have been very uncertain in their treatment of Vichy French warships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, so all such passages are rife with tension. At this stage of the war, the British have not yet closed off the Strait.

Convoy FN 355 departs from Southend, Convoy OG 47 departs from Liverpool and Bristol, Convoy HG 48 (nineteen ships) departs from Gibraltar.

U-75 and U-76 are commissioned.

U-461 is laid down, while U-83 is launched.

9 December 1940 Bellanca Aircruiser
This Bellanca Aircruiser (NC-2111, CF-BLT) in Canadian service is destroyed today, 9 December 1940, by a hangar fire in Whitehorse, Canada.
US/Japanese Relations: Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke downplays the likelihood of an armed conflict between his country and the United States, stating:
. . if both of us attend to our own business I cannot think there will be any serious clash. . . . We have no difference that cannot be surmounted if we keep our heads cool and mind our business. . . . We do not pass judgment on what the United States does in the West, and we try to confine ourselves to this part of the world.
Yosuke, however, knows that neither side is "minding its business" at this point. There is rampant Japanese aggression in China, while effective US sanctions are helping to cause the Japanese to look longingly at the Dutch/Indonesian oilfields to the south.

Italian Military: Admiral Angelo Iachino, the former Italian Naval attaché in London, becomes the new Commander-in-chief of the Italian Navy (Regia Marina), replacing Inigo Campioni.

British Military: Major General Sir Giffard Le Quesne Martel, a veteran of the abortive counterattack against Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division at Arras, becomes the Commander of the Royal Armoured Corps. Perhaps due to his lengthy name, Martel is known simply as "Q." He is one of the leading British tank strategists, having written a prescient paper in November 1916 in which he envisaged entire tank armies - before a single tank had yet to see combat.

9 December 1940 sledding
On December 9, 1940, the boys on Sewall St. in Somerville, Massachusetts have a big sled race. (Boston Globe Archive).
Indochina: The Vichy French government, still engaged in a border war with Thailand, forms the French Groupe Occasionnel squadron. It has a light cruiser and four patrol boats (avisos). The battle in southern Indochina is as much a naval war as it is a ground campaign, as the area is dominated by the Mekong Delta and its tributaries.

British Homefront: The government announces official statistics showing that 705,279 workers are unemployed in Britain. This is down substantially from the start of the war. Ordinarily, a lower unemployment rate would be considered a positive for the country, but factories producing war goods and shipyards finishing warships are running flat-out. Men are being sucked out of the factories into the Army, Navy, and RAF. The specter of a labor shortage looms - or a military one.

American Homefront: John Philip Sousa Bridge opens in Washington, D.C. before a crowd of more than 12,000. Sousa's two daughters, Jane and Helen, and his sister Catherine are present. Naturally, the US Marine Band provides musical entertainment. The Sousa bridge replaces earlier bridges in the same spot, one of which the retreating US forces (from the British) burned down during the War of 1812 in 1814. It's an interesting juxtaposition to the current world situation.

9 December 1940 Ginger Rogers Life Magazine
Life Magazine, 9 December 1940. The cover girl, Ginger Rogers, is up for an Academy Award for her performance in "Kitty Foyle" (don't tell her - she wins).

December 1940

December 1, 1940: Wiking Division Forms
December 2, 1940: Convoy HX 90 Destruction
December 3, 1940: Greeks Advancing
December 4, 1940: Italian Command Shakeup
December 5, 1940: Thor Strikes Hard
December 6, 1940: Hitler's Cousin Gassed
December 7, 1940: Storms At Sea
December 8, 1940: Freighter Idarwald Seized
December 9, 1940: Operation Compass Begins
December 10, 1940: Operation Attila Planned
December 11, 1940: Rhein Wrecked
December 12, 1940: Operation Fritz
December 13, 1940: Operation Marita Planned
December 14, 1940: Plutonium Discovered
December 15, 1940: Napoleon II Returns
December 16, 1940: Operation Abigail Rachel
December 17, 1940: Garden Hoses and War
December 18, 1940: Barbarossa Directive
December 19, 1940: Risto Ryti Takes Over
December 20, 1940: Liverpool Blitz, Captain America
December 21, 1940: Moral Aggression
December 22, 1940: Manchester Blitz
December 23, 1940: Hitler at Cap Gris Nez
December 24, 1940: Hitler at Abbeville
December 25, 1940: Hipper's Great Escape
December 26, 1940: Scheer's Happy Rendezvous
December 27, 1940: Komet Shells Nauru
December 28, 1940: Sorge Spills
December 29, 1940: Arsenal of Democracy
December 30, 1940: London Devastated
December 31 1940: Roosevelt's Decent Proposal


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