Friday, May 5, 2017

April 20, 1941: Hitler's Best Birthday


Sunday 20 April 1941

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com Hitler Goering Himmler Keitel
Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, General Keitel, and Heinrich Himmler with Adolf Hitler on his birthday, 20 April 1941. This apparently was taken outside Hitler's command train "Amerika."

Operation Marita: Greek troops in the north essentially drop out of the war today, 20 April 1941, with the agreement to surrender of the Greek Epirus Army. General Sepp Dietrich's 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (often abbreviated as LSSAH, and only of brigade size at this time) has been fighting the Greeks in the 5000-foot-high (1500 m) Metsovon Pass in the Pindus Mountains, but that is not the only problem facing the Greeks. Germans occupy the only route to safety south through Ioannina, and the British are no help because they are beating a retreat to the Thermopylae/ Corinth Line far to the south.

The events leading to the surrender involve feats of great daring. Sturmbannfuehrer Kurt "Panzer" Meyer leads his LSSAH men in a surprise attack on the headquarters of the 3rd Greek Army Corps, and 12,000 Greek soldiers surrender to him. Sepp Dietrich personally drives to the Greek headquarters near Ioannina and negotiates terms with the Greek General Tsolakoglu. Dietrich consents to Tsolakoglu's request that the Greek officers be allowed to retain their sidearms and return home - a mark of respect previously offered by the Germans to officers in Norway, too. Dietrich later recalls the capitulation as marking the greatest day of his life. Tsolakoglu, for his part, wants to surrender to the Germans rather than the Italians as a subtle mark of contempt for Mussolini's unsuccessful troops. The surrender is a bit suspect because it purports to apply to all Greek forces on the mainland - including those behind British lines, at least theoretically.

The Greek high command in Athens is against this surrender and orders him not to sign the papers, an act scheduled for the 21st. Somewhat surprisingly, so is Benito Mussolini, who demands that the Greeks surrender to an Italian general. Out of spite or some other emotion, Mussolini orders his troops to accelerate their attacks against the Greeks - which achieves little. Many military incidents of World War II are like this, stemming from the bent emotions of some of the leaders.

There is a major air battle over Athens that is so intense that it becomes known as the Battle of Athens. A very large formation of Bf 109s and 110s (accounts vary, estimates range up to 200) from 5,/ZG 26 and JG 27 escorting Junkers Ju 87 Stukas jumps about fifteen Hawker Hurricanes. The RAF loses five pilots and a total of 6-10 planes. The Luftwaffe losses are tremendous, some estimates place them over 20 planes. Author Roald Dahl and South African Squadron Leader ace Marmaduke "Pat" Pattle participate in this battle, with Pattle perishing. The RAF loses a dozen Blenheims on the ground at Menidi.

By some accounts, Pattle is the top-scoring British Commonwealth (and western ally) ace of the entire war, with 51 claims. He generally is acknowledged as having at least 24-40 kills and likely more, with 26 Italians and 15 achieved in Gloster Gladiators. Pattle is the top ace in victories achieved in Gladiator and Hurricane fighters (at least 35 in the Hurricane).

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com Greece map NY Times
A summary of the situation published on 20 April 1941 in The New York Times. Note that the Greek Epirus Army is shown as being completely behind German lines.

The British digging in far to the south watch this with some bemusement. The British column passing through Thermopylae is ten miles long and being strafed by the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica. The Italians have joined the pursuit, with the 4th Bersaglieri Regiment using flamethrowers to incinerate Greek bunkers - and those in them. An Italian war correspondent claims that the Greeks lose two entire regiments of Evzones (Greek soldiers), though such figures are often exaggerated in the heat of war.

General Freyberg's 2nd New Zealand Division forms up at the historic pass of Thermopylae, while General Mackay's 6th Australian Division focuses inland at the village of Brallos. Today, the British line encompasses Kalamata, Monemvasia and Nauplia.

The Regia Aeronautica bombs and sinks Greek submarine Psara off Megara.

The Luftwaffe bombs and sinks 1344 ton Greek freighter Assimina Baika north of Chalkis, near Politika. The Luftwaffe also bombs and sinks 176 ton Greek coaster Pteroti near Chalkis.

The Luftwaffe bombs and sinks 311 ton Greek coaster Moschanthi near Voslizza.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages Royal Navy minesweeper HMS Stoke south of Piraeus. The Stoke makes it to Alexandria and is repaired by early May.

The Luftwaffe bombs and sinks 379 ton Greek tanker Chryssoroi at Phleva and 675 ton Greek freighter Ithaki at Suda Bay.

British landing ship Glenroy is leaving Alexandria when it runs aground at Boghas Pass. The landing party on board is transferred to freighter Thurland Castle. The Glenroy will be floated off eventually.

The Greeks attempt to scuttle their destroyer Basileus Georgios I in a floating drydock at Salamis. However, the Luftwaffe disables the floating drydock, and the Greeks decide not to scuttle the ship where it is. The Greeks ultimately do scuttle it where it is in shallow water, but the Germans raise it, re-use it, and rename it Hermes.

Looking far ahead, Lieutenant General Kurt Student, commander of the XI. Fliegerkorps (German Airborne troops), approaches Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering with a proposition. So far, Student's Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) have had a mixed record. They successfully completed the capture of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael in May 1940, but had great difficulties near Rotterdam (where Student had been shot in the head). Student is eager to prove the worth of his airborne troops (which include glider forces), so he points to the map at an objective not yet contemplated by the Oberkommando Der Wehrmacht (OKW): the island of Crete. He proposes to take it via aerial assault.

Goering is interested because he wants to embellish his own prestige, which has slipped somewhat following the lost Battle of Britain. He brings Student in to meet Hitler, who essentially approves the concept. This idea eventually will blossom into Unternehmen Merkur - Operation Mercury.

Convoy AS 27 departs from Piraeus with 14 British and 11 Greek ships, bound for Alexandria.

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com HMS Prince of Wales
"Beam view of HMS PRINCE OF WALES." 20 April 1941. © IWM (A 3900).

Iraq War: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill memos Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden about the Iraq situation. He notes that, while the recent landings at Basra were made pursuant to treaty:
Our position at Basra... does not rest solely on the Treaty, but also on a new event arising out of the war.
He notes that the British government does not owe any "undertakings" regarding troop movements to "a Government which has in itself usurped power by a coup d'etat."

European Air Operations: In honor of Hitler's birthday, the Luftwaffe attacks London. They send 712 sorties (some planes make multiple sorties) which drop 1000 tons of bombs. The center of the attack is the London docks. Firefighters take a beating in this raid, losing 13 firefighters in London and 21 in Beckenham. The bomb that kills the firefighters hits a school at 01:53, which fortunately has no students in it at the time. Included in the deaths are two firewomen. This is the largest single loss of firefighters in British history. Council housing will be built on the spot in 1955, with each block of flats named after one of the Beckenham victims - one is called Vick House, another Beadle House, etc.

During the day, RAF Bomber Command sends 24 bombers against Rotterdam and 22 against various coastal targets. After dark, the RAF mounts a large raid of 61 bombers against Cologne.

East African Campaign: The South African 1st Infantry Brigade continue up the road to Dessie. The Indian 29th Infantry Brigade advances south toward Amba Alagi to meet them. The Italians under General Frusci group in Cambolcia Pass as a blocking point.

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com HMS Prince of Wales
"Looking down on the air defence position. The men are at their action stations." HMS Prince of Wales, 20 April 1941. © IWM (A 3901).

Battle of the Atlantic: The issue of unrestricted U-boat warfare remains a hot topic in Berlin. During World War I, the same arguments were made that the submarine fleet could strangle Great Britain if only allowed to torpedo US ships as well. Admiral Raeder presses Hitler to allow his U-boats to sink US ships. Hitler, however, demurs - he does not want to add the US to Germany's list of enemies, at least until the Japanese are in the conflict as well as a counterweight.

U-73 (Kptlt. Helmut Rosenbaum), on its second patrol out of Lorient, is operating southwest of Rockall when it spots 8570 ton British freighter Empire Endurance. The Empire Endurance is carrying two 46-ton launches on its deck, HMS ML 1003 and 1037, bound for Egypt. Rosenbaum sinks the Empire Endurance, sending all three ships to the bottom. There are 60-65 deaths, including one passenger, while 20 crew and four passengers are rescued by passing British tanker British Pride. Incidentally, the British Pride is the renamed German ship Alster that was captured in Norway in 1940.

The Luftwaffe, during its attack on London, sinks 60 ton spritsail R.S. Jackson.

The Luftwaffe also sinks barges Harry and Percy during its attack on London at Miller Moorings at Shadwell. The two barges are laters salvaged for scrap.

Battleship HMS Rodney collides with 608 ton Royal Navy anti-submarine Gem-class trawler HMT Topaze. The Topaz sinks, killing 18 men, including Chief Skipper G.R. Gale (RNR).

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Intrepid lays minefield HB in the English Channel.

The Kriegsmarine overseas supply network remains intact. Tanker Nordmark services Italian submarine Perla, raiders Atlantis and Kormoran and supply ship Alsterufer in the Atlantic.

Convoy HX 122 departs from Halifax with an escort that includes battleship HMS Ramillies.

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com HMS Prince of Wales
"One of the defences against air attack, a Bofors gun, on board HMS PRINCE OF WALES." 20 April 1941. © IWM (A 3915).

Battle of the Mediterranean: The Germans in their daily summary of operations that the British attempt to land troops at Bardia during the night failed miserably, and that they took 56 soldiers and four officers prisoner. There are a few other minor skirmishes along the Tobruk perimeter, along with heavy bombing. The Germans are preparing a "decisive attack" against the port.

Churchill, having received a pessimistic appraisal from Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell, is extremely concerned about the German advantage in tanks in Libya, so in a memo that he reads to General Ismay in person, he makes a daring proposal: send at least 250 tanks on fast transports directly through the Straits of Gibraltar to the British forces in Egypt. Many of these tanks already are loaded on ships and designated for convoy WS (Winston Special) 7 (Churchill adds another ship). This would be much quicker than using the normal route around the Cape of Good Hope - but also much more dangerous due to Axis attacks. General Ismay immediately gathers his staff together and later recalls that, while the Chiefs of Staff initially opposed the idea due to safety concerns, "opposition petered out" after "a very long meeting." The plan immediately acquires the code Operation Tiger.

At Malta, the Regia Aeronautica bombs Fort San Rocco around noontime. They lose three CR 42 fighters, maybe four, to defending Hawker Hurricane fighters, with all the Italian pilots perishing. Another raid overnight on Grand Harbour destroys several houses, killing a civilian.

Special Forces: In one of those daring epics at which the British excel, SOE Captain Peter Morland Churchill (no relation) leads a group of three other men on a secret mission to the Bay of Antibes. Landing in folboats (kayaks), they rendezvous with François d'Astier de La Vigerie (Baron d′Astier de la Vigerie), aka "Bernard," a stranded French general. Churchill and his men successfully rescue Bernard and take him aboard Royal Navy submarine HMS Unbroken.

US/Canadian Relations: President Roosevelt and Canadian leader Mackenzie King, who have been meeting together for the past four days, issue the Hyde Park Declaration. This establishes a common military construction program for the two countries. In practical terms, what this means is that the US pays Canada to make Lend Lease equipment for shipment to Great Britain. This enables the Canadians to produce equipment specifically for Great Britain that the US does not already make for its own armed forces, such as the Bren gun (.303-caliber) and the 25-pounder artillery piece. In other words, it gives the British the unique non-American equipment they prefer without the US having to retool its own factories to make it, because the Canadians - as part of the Commonwealth - already have factories set up to make it.

Anglo/Czechoslovakian Relations: Churchill memos Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden recommending that the government recognize the Czech government-in-exile in the same fashion as the British recognize the Polish government-in-exile. He pointedly cautions that "In neither case should we be committed to territorial frontiers."

German/Irish Relations: Irish Prime Minister Eamon De Valera gives a speech denouncing recent Luftwaffe raids on Belfast, stating among other things:
...they are our people. We are one and the same people, and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows.
Of course, he is not upset enough to join the Allied war effort.

Italian/German Relations: Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano meets with Hitler at the temporary Fuehrer headquarters Frühlingssturm in eastern Austria, no doubt to convey birthday greetings. Of course, they also have serious business to discuss regarding the situations in Greece and North Africa.

US Military: Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson reviews prototype 20-ton M2A1 tanks for the US Army at the army's arsenal at Rock Island, Illinois. These tanks are an interim step between the Light Tank M2, which the army is gradually realizing from events in Europe to be obsolete already, and the 28-ton M3 Grant. Chrysler engineers also attend, as chair of the National Defense Advisory Council William S. Knudsen is interested in having the company build the tanks for the army.

Aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) departs from Pearl Harbor in company with USS Warrington (DD-383), USS Somers (DD-381), and USS Jouett (DD-396). This is part of the redeployment of US naval forces forces to meet the growing German threat. The ships are heading for Bermuda via the Panama Canal. The sailors on the ships operate on a wartime footing, not knowing if the Kriegsmarine will respect their neutrality.

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com Hitler Ribbentrop
Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop giving birthday greetings to his boss Adolf Hitler on 20 April 1941 (Heinrich Hoffmann).

German Government: Today is Adolf Hitler's 52nd birthday. Looking over his long, strange life, this marks the one where he is at the peak of his success, the only real contender being 20 April 1939 when he presided over a nation still not engaged in a perpetual shooting war. As of today, Germany has conquered France, Hitler's dream since his days in the trenches during World War I, and he has the British on the run both in North Africa and Greece. There are no issues in any campaign, as there will be on subsequent birthdays, no worries about his forces being outmatched by the forces arrayed against him. Indeed, he receives a welcome birthday present with the surrender today of the main Greek army. Hitler can pick and choose his enemies and battles like a medieval warlord - and therein lies the danger.

Not everything is rosy. Two strategically vital nations on his periphery of his empire - Turkey and Spain - refuse to join in his coalition, and they present too much danger along with too little potential benefit to invade. England may be reeling on land and at sea, but in the air it remains supreme despite the nightly Luftwaffe bombardments of English cities. The RAF is starting to become annoying, too, as evidenced by the recent destruction of the Berlin Opera House. Any invasion of England is completely off the table.

However, as of 20 April 1941, Adolf Hitler is master of continental Western Europe. The decisions that Adolf Hitler makes over the course of the next year will determine his - and Germany's - fate.

China: The Japanese land at several points on the Fukien and Chekiang coast and take Ningbo in northeast Zhejiang province (just south of Shanghai).  Ningbo is a notorious city in World War II lore. In 1940, in one of the most notorious incidents of World War II, the Japanese bombed Ningbo with ceramic bombs full of fleas carrying bubonic plague. The Japanese also occupy Wenchow.

American Homefront: The George Gallup American Institute of Public Opinion releases another in its continuing series of polls gauging the US appetite for entering the war. Today's results find that 67% of the public opposes sending US-manned warships to help the British, and 79% oppose sending part of the US Army.

United Artists releases "That Uncertain Feeling." Directed and produced by Ernst Lubitsch, the comedy stars Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas in a romantic triangle with Burgess Meredith. "That Uncertain Feeling" also features Eve Arden and Lubitsch favorite Sig Ruman. It is one of several films released around this time with the general plot of marriages in trouble, another example being Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery. One can read into this trend echoes of the uncertain international situation.

Future History: Charles Patrick Ryan O'Neal is born in Los Angeles, California. His mother is an actress and his father is a novelist and screenwriter (Charles O'Neal). As Ryan O'Neal, he goes on to a very long and successful acting career that begins in television on shows such as "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" and "Leave it to Beaver." Around 1970 he is still a relatively struggling actor - okay, he is successful and works steadily - but becomes an international star in the film "Love Story" when he is chosen for the lead role after several other top actors turn it down. Ryan O'Neal continues to act as of this writing, with his roles mainly on television and the stage now. He also is renowned as the father of actress Tatum O'Neal.

20 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com NY Times
The New York Times, 20 April 1941.

2017

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