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Friday, March 31, 2017

March 27, 1941: Belgrade Coup

Thursday 27 March 1941

27 March 1941 Battle of Cape Matapan
"Lt (A) Clifford's torpedo being released, as seen by Mid (A) Wallington, Observer in second aircraft." Battle of Cape Matapan, 27 March 1941. © IWM (A 9801).

Italian/Greek Campaign: In events that directly impact the course of the campaign Albania, army generals in Belgrade stage a coup d'état on 27 March 1941. At 02:15, a group of Royal Yugoslav Air Force (VVKJ) officers in Zemun, and Royal Guard officers in nearby Belgrade, strike. VVKJ deputy commander Borivoje Mirković oversees occupation of key installations in Belgrade such as the Zemun air force base, Belgrade bridges, government buildings and army barracks. Exactly who initiated the coup is somewhat murky.

Regent Prince Paul is in Zagreb. He immediately returns by train to Belgrade. Upon arrival, he immediately is forced to sign papers abolishing his regency and is sent into exile in Greece. The British want him out of the way, so they send him first to Kenya, then to South Africa to sit out the war.

The rebels surround the royal palace and issue statements over the radio. Public demonstrations break out in Belgrade and elsewhere. Crown Prince Peter II Karađorđević, 17 years old at the time of coup, is declared to be of age and crowned king. The new government does not outright renounce Prince Paul's signing of the Tripartite Pact, but it refuses to ratify it. Prince Peter - now King Peter - appoints the chief of the air staff, General Dušan Simović, as Prime Minister. Crowds in the street cheer him and demonstrate in favor of the Soviet Union and against Germany.

All of this turmoil and the alien-sounding names leads to some black humor abroad. As recorded by Australian Prime Minister Menzies in his diary, one common joke is "Ah! Robbing Paul to pay Peter!" Another is, "It's hard to tell vitch vitch is vitch."

International reaction is swift and deadly. In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill piously announces that "Yugoslavia has found its soul" - which reinforces the feeling the England was behind the whole thing all along. Menzies notes that "War Cabinet [meeting] more cheerful as a result." He further writes, "we are all wishfully thinking that the tide has turned." It hasn't, at least not yet.

Adolf Hitler sees it somewhat differently. His transient diplomatic coup that he has been working on literally for months disappears overnight, and he is furious. Hitler issues Fuhrer Directive No. 25, the gist of which is obvious from its title: "Plan of Attack on Yugoslavia." It states "my general intention to break into Yugoslavia ... to deal an annihilating blow to the Yugoslav forces." He also obviously has been thinking about gain to be had from taking the country, because he specifically mentions that "seizure of the Bor copper mines [is] important for economic reasons." Operation Marita, the invasion of Greece, is to begin "if possible simultaneously - but in no event earlier." In a preview of coming attractions elsewhere, Hitler vows a "ohne Gnade," or merciless invasion.

27 March 1941 Belgrade uprising
Belgrade demonstrators, 27 March 1941.

East African Campaign: The Italians realize that their defenses at Keren have become untenable with the British capture and clearing of the Dongolaas Gorge. During the night, the Italians withdraw from Keren to Asmara, but large formations on the Sanchil Ridge (the Savoia Grenadiers and Bersaglieri) are left in the lurch and must surrender. British units advance after an artillery barrage at 04:30, and the Italians on Sanchil surrender by 05:40. They are in Keren itself by 10:30. The advance British units don't wait around, at 07:30 they immediately begin pursuing the Italians down the Nacfa/Asmara road (Asmara being the capital of Eritrea). By 12:30, the 5th Indian Division is a mile west of Habi Mantel.

At Enghiat to the north, the Italians also withdraw during the night, so the Foreign Legion Battalion advances there as well. By the end of the day, it hooks up with the Indian troops advancing past Keren, and they thereby swell their bag of Italian prisoners.

Total casualties at Keren are unclear, but estimates are in the vicinity of 3000 Italian deaths, 4500 other Italian casualties, along with 9000 Eritrean Askari killed and 12,000 wounded. The British, who lose 536 killed and 3229 wounded, have Massawa next on their list, after Asmara. However, the Italians had staked everything on holding Keren and, as elsewhere, once the main blocking position was overcome, there was virtually nothing behind it.

British Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell has need of the troops which have been tied up at Keren for seven weeks. He orders the 4th Indian Division to move to Port Sudan for transport back to Egypt. Italian defenses in Abyssinia now are irreparably broken.

27 March 1941 Belgrade uprising
Demonstrations in Belgrade, 27 March 1941.

European Air Operations: The Luftwaffe's transfers of units to Romania and Bulgaria switches into high gear. Hundreds of aircraft make the journey during the day. This necessarily dilutes Luftwaffe strength in North Africa, France and elsewhere.

The Luftwaffe continues its recent pattern of fighter sweeps during the day, with occasional bombs falling in the south and southeast.

After dark, RAF Bomber Command sends 38 bombers against Cologne and 39 bombers against Dusseldorf. Another 13 aircraft attack the usual Channel ports of Brest, Calais and Dunkirk.

The British in Greenland spot Luftwaffe bombers overhead.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-98 (Kptlt. Robert Gysae) is operating along the convoy routes south of Iceland when it spots 6695 ton British freighter Koranton. The Koranton is a straggler from Convoy SC 25. A torpedo sends the ship down quickly, because it is loaded with 8769 tons of pig iron. All 41 on board perish.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 642 ton freighter Meg Merrilies south of St. Govan's Light Vessel (now known as St. Gowan's) in the Bristol Channel off the Pembrokeshire coast, Wales. While the ship is taken in tow, it eventually sinks. Everyone survives.

The Luftwaffe also bombs and damages 430 ton British salvage vessel Palmstone southeast of St. Govan's Light Vessel. The captain beaches the ship at Milford Haven. It later is taken to Pembroke.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 396 ton Dutch freighter Oud Beijerland just south of St. Govan's Light Vessel. The ship makes it back to Milford Dock.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages British depot ship Alecto at the mouth of the English Channel.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 212 ton British trawler Fort Dee east of the Faroes Islands.

British 178 ton trawler Kinclaven sinks off the Faroes from unknown causes. There are many mines in the vicinity, and also Luftwaffe attacks near there today.

Dutch 5483 ton freighter Alioth hits a mine and is damaged off the mouth of the Humber. The ship makes it back to Hull.

British cable layer CS Faraday, bombed on the 26th, sinks off Dale, Wales. There are eight deaths.

On U-46 (Kapitänleutnant Engelbert Endrass), Oberleutnant zur See (Lieutenant) Helmut Pöttgen falls overboard and is lost. He likely would have gotten his own command someday, and perhaps become a famous commander. However, because of this incident, Pöttgen never gets a chance to show it.

Convoy OG 57 departs from Liverpool, Convoy HX 117 departs from Halifax.

Royal Navy corvette HMS Burdock (K 126,  Lt. Harold G. Chesterman) is commissioned.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Petard is launched today.

U-563 (Oberleutnant zur See Klaus Bargsten) is commissioned.

27 March 1941 LRDG
"New Zealand members of the LRDG pause for tea in the Western Desert, 27 March 1941." © IWM (E 2307).

Battle of the Mediterranean: The Royal Navy under Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell is heading toward an epic clash with the Italian Fleet under Admiral Iachino. Pridham-Wippell has four cruisers and numerous destroyers. In addition, Admiral Cunningham is bringing battleships HMS Warspite, Barham and Valiant and aircraft carrier Formidable from Alexandria. The British aerial reconnaissance spots the Italians by noon, but the British already know from spies and Ultra decrypts what is going on. Despite misgivings, the Italians proceed with their somewhat pointless advance toward the convoy routes between Alexandria and Piraeus, Greece.

The Afrika Korps already is feeling the pinch from the movement of Luftwaffe units out of the North African theater. A proposed attack to take the Gialo Oasis to the south is shelved for the time being because it is considered accessible only by air - and no planes are available. In fact, to perform reconnaissance in that direct, the Germans must ask Italian air units to do it.

With Keren finally taken, General Wavell flies back to Cairo from East Africa.

At Malta, the British observe that the Luftwaffe now is maintaining a continuous fighter patrol off the east coast. The RAF scrambles occasionally to confront them, but no interceptions are made. The purpose of this screen is unclear, but it may be to prevent reconnaissance missions over the convoy route from Naples to Tripoli.

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and CIGS Sir John Dill continue their unexpected stay in Mala. Dill passes the day by touring military units.

27 March 1941 Belgrade uprising
Demonstrators in Belgrade, 27 March 1941.

Battle of the Pacific: Thanks largely to pressure from visiting Australian Prime Minister Menzies, the British establish the Australian Shipbuilding Board. The Board's objective is to build 1420-ton frigates for the Royal Navy.

Captain Ellis S. Stone's US Navy Task Group 9.2 completes its visit to Tahiti and proceeds to Pearl Harbor.

German/Italian Relations: Hitler sends Mussolini a letter stating:
I consider it necessary, Duce, that you should reinforce your forces on the Italian/Yugoslav front with all available means and with the utmost speed.
German/Hungarian Relations: Hungary suddenly has become much more important in the German order of battle now that Yugoslavia is an enemy. Hitler and Ribbentrop meet with the Hungarian ambassador and remonstrate with him to cooperate in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. As usual, Hitler offers his "partners" little chunks of the conquests should they help.

German/Bulgarian Relations: Hitler also meets with the Bulgarian ambassador. Bulgaria also has an expanded role to play now that German troops can use it to invade Yugoslavia as well as Greece.

German/Japanese Relations: German Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop finally makes time to meet with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka. Matsuoka later meets with Hitler.

27 March 1941 Belgrade uprising King Peter Dusan Simovic
Peter II and Air Force General Dusan Simovic after the 27 March 1941 coup.

Anglo/US Relations: The British formally lease their naval base at Chaguaramas, Trinidad (off the coast of Venezuela) to the United States for a term of 99 years pursuant to the September 1940 destroyer-for-bases deal. Trinidad takes the base back in 1963.

The Anglo/US "ABC-1" talks that began in January conclude today. There is broad agreement on strategic cooperation should the United States enter the war. Plan ABC-1 posits placing the priority on the defeat of Germany over that of Japan, with a pronounced emphasis on securing the North Atlantic. There will be a combined Chiefs of Staff and US naval protection of convoys. These conclusions are summarized in "United States British Staff Conversation, Report," 27 March 1941. American participants include Rear Admiral Ghormley and Major General S.D. Embick, while British participants include Rear Admirals Bellairs and Danckwerts and Major General Morris.

Congress approves President Roosevelt's request for $7 billion in Lend Lease aid. Still fishing  off Florida on Presidential yacht USS Potomac, Roosevelt quickly signs it.

Applied Science: The US Army Air Corps sends a B-18 Bolo over the ocean near Cape Cod to test the new centimetric radar system. The plane manages to make the first air-to-air contact by a USAAC plane (the RAF already has done it). It also shows promise for detecting contacts on the ocean, too.

27 March 1941 Belgrade uprising Caproni 133
South African pilots and crew taking a captured Italian Caproni 133 bomber from Mogadishu to South Africa. This is at Broken Hill (Kabwe), Zambian Central Province. South African ace Cornelius Arthur van Vliet, flying the plane down, is the man at the left. 27 March 1941.

Spy Stuff: Japanese liner Nitta Maru makes port in Hawaii, bringing with it Japanese spy Takeo Yoshikawa. Yoshikawa poses as a diplomat. Knowing what to look for from earlier reports out of the Honolulu Consulate, Yoshikawa quickly observes that the battleships are parked next to each other, and with no anti-torpedo netting.

German Military: Hitler indicates that Operation Barbarossa, tentatively scheduled for 15 May 1941, will have to be postponed until mid-June due to the need to invade Yugoslavia and Greece first.

POWs: Up until now, Oflag IV-C camp Colditz Castle has been a POW camp for Polish prisoners. Today, the Germans begin moving the Poles out, sending them to Oflag VII-B in Eichstatt, Germany.

China: The Chinese continue attempting to surround the advance elements of the Japanese Army at the Battle of Shanggkao. However, the Japanese are alert to their peril and stay one step ahead of the Chinese as they retreat back to their bases. This will be a steady retreat that takes some time, but the Japanese have no need to occupy the territory in the area because it serves no strategic purpose if attacks further west are not going to be made.

American Homefront: US General Secretary of the Communist Party Earl Browder begins a four-year prison sentence at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He has been convicted of passport fraud.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March 26, 1941: Barchini Esplosivi

Wednesday 26 March 1941

26 March 1941 HMS York
HMS York after the attack of 26 March 1941.

Italian/Greek Campaign: The campaign in Albania has hit a lull on 26 March 1941. Both sides are recuperating from the recent Italian Primavera Offensive. While the attacks accomplished no changes in territory, they did leave a lot of dead bodies, many of which remain to be buried.

East African Campaign: With British troops controlling the rim of the Dongolaas Gorge which controls access to Keren, British sappers spend all day clearing the gorge of obstructions placed their by the Italians. By midnight on the 26th, the road is clear and the British start pushing armored vehicles through it. From here on out, the Italian position becomes increasingly untenable.

Elsewhere, the Italians at Harrar, Abyssinia surrender to Major Orde Wingate's Nigerian 23rd Infantry Brigade.

European Air Operations: On Hitler's orders, the Luftwaffe begins transferring hundreds of planes east to stock General Alois Löhr’s Luftflotte IV airfields in Rumania and Bulgaria. These will be used in upcoming Operation Marita. This will impinge on air operations all across the Axis periphery, including North Africa. Some top fighter squadrons make the trip, including JG 27 and JG 51. Even units left behind have to consolidate their operations to take over some that had been handled by other units previously, so the pace of Luftwaffe operations all across the Western Front slows drastically.

The Luftwaffe sends a few scattered raiders over southern and western England during the day, but nothing major after dark. The RAF focuses on shipping off the Dutch coast.

26 March 1941 USS Grampus
USS Grampus, running trials off Groton, Connecticut, 26 March 1941. The Electric Boat Company of Groton built many of the US Navy's submarines, and they still do, though it is now known as General Dynamics Electric Boat. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

Battle of the Atlantic: Visiting Australian Prime Minister Menzies attends a "Battle of the Atlantic" conference. He notes that Winston Churchill looks "pale, unpleasant and strained." His conclusion:

The battle of the Atlantic looks lousy, & privately I wish I had more real faith in the navy (emphasis in original).

German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer has managed to slip past the British patrols and convoys as it heads back to Germany. It makes it through the Denmark Strait after dark and heads to Norway.

The Luftwaffe bombs and badly damaged 6809 ton British freighter Somali off Blyth. There is one death. Efforts are made to save the ship, but it eventually sinks off Snoop Head, Sutherland.

The Luftwaffe bombs 6381 ton British freighter Empire Mermaid in the Northwest Approaches. The ship eventually sinks. There are 22 deaths.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 1151 ton Norwegian freighter Noll west of Lundy Island. The captain manages to beach the ship before it sinks. It later is refloated and makes it to Swansea.

The Luftwaffe bombs and badly damages 3645 ton Finnish freighter Carolina Thorden at the entrance to Tórshavn Bay in the Faroes. The captain beaches the ship, and it is later towed to Kirkwall and thence to the Tyne for repairs. However, it never returns to service and instead eventually will be used as a blockship. There is one death, a passenger.

The Luftwaffe bombs and sinks 85 ton Faroes fishing boat Beinisvor east of the Faroes. Everyone survives.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 331 ton British freighter The Lady Belle south of Grassholm Island (off the southwestern Pembrokeshire coast in Wales).

British 503 ton freighter Brier Rose sinks in the Irish Sea, perhaps due to a mine.

Canadian armed yacht HMCY Otter catches fire off Halifax Lighthouse. There are 19 deaths, while 4 men are picked up by a passing submarine (HMS Talisman) and 18 others are found alive by Polish freighter Wisla.

The Royal Navy's 1st Minelaying Squadron departs from Loch Alsh to lay minefield SN 4. The Luftwaffe spots the force and bombs minelayer HMS Menestheus, requiring it to return to the Clyde for repairs.

26 March 1941 HMCY Otter
Former luxury yacht HMCY Otter, lost to a fire off Halifax Lighthouse on 26 March 1941.

Battle of the Mediterranean: Six Italian one-man explosive speedboats (Barchini esplosivi) were deposited by destroyers Crispi and Sella about 10 miles off the coast of Crete late on the 25th. These are nothing special, basically just tourist speedboats modified to hold torpedoes in the bows, but they are quite effective when handled properly. In the early morning hours, three manage to make their way into the harbor and make attacks. Suda Bay is full of British ships and supposedly is one of the most well-defended spots in the world.

The Italian motorboats have no difficulty entering the harbor around 05:00, and the boat pilots head straight for prime targets. After aiming the boats at their targets, the men jump off about 100 yards (meters) away. They seriously damage Royal Navy cruiser HMS York (two dead) and badly damages Norwegian tanker Pericles (it later sinks on its way to Alexandria). The York's captain runs it toward shore, but it actually sinks before he makes it. Fortunately for the British, the water in the bay is very shallow and so the effect is essentially the same. The damage to York is particularly bad because the main damage is to her engine room area. There are simply no facilities or equipment at this bare-bones outpost to undertake the major operation required to restore the ship sufficiently to get it to a dry dock somewhere safe.

The Royal Navy makes the best of the situation, stiff upper lip and all that. On the bright side, many of the ship's guns are still usable and can be worked with the assistance of power lines strung from submarine HMS Rover. What cannot be avoided is the ship's vulnerability, stuck in the mud in an exposed position, making it a beacon for aerial attacks. This attack begins a chain of events which leads to its total destruction and abandonment, though that won't happen for a while. The six Italian pilots are picked up by the British in the harbor and made POWs.

Vice Admiral Angelo Iachino screws up his courage amidst German pressure to do something with his big ships and takes the Italian fleet in the general direction of Greece. The objective is to attack supposedly vulnerable British convoys from Alexandria and Suda Bay bound for Piraeus. Iachino is aboard battleship Vittorio Veneto, which is protected by heavy cruisers Bolzano, Fiume, Pola, Trento, Trieste and Zara. In addition, there is light cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi and 17 destroyers of the 9th, 13th and 16th Destroyer Divisions. This is the opening stage of the Battle of Cape Matapan.

Royal Navy submarine HMS Rorqual has been busy laying mines along the convoy routes from Palermo to Tripoli, and today they pay dividends.

In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill takes time out from his obsession with Greece to notice that the British have lost El Agheila to General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. He writes:
We are naturally concerned at rapid German advances to Agheila. It is their habit to push on whenever they are not resisted. I presume you are only waiting for the tortoise to stick his head out far enough before chopping it off. It seems extremely important to give them an early taste of our quality.
Of course, "our quality" in the vicinity has been drastically undercut by Churchill's decision to take out his best troops and sent them on a futile quest in Greece. The message rather clearly conveys Churchill's lingering dislike of Wavell and hints that he is "not resisting" sufficiently - not something that military men like to be told. Wavell knows that he is better off staying in a defensive crouch, though, given all the dotty transfers north to Athens.

General Rommel, meanwhile, has the initiative, though no orders to advance. The OKH (army high command) notes in a situation report that its intelligence arm has been monitoring British radio traffic, giving a fairly clear picture of British dispositions around Agedabia, Soluch and Magrum. A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka unit is withdrawn to Sicily, making reconnaissance of Free French forces to the south sketchy. Greece is attracting forces from both sides like a magnet.

Royal Navy submarine HMS Rorqual, finished laying its mines, torpedoes and sinks Italian freighter Ticino north of Trapani.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 1006 ton British freighter Adige off Malta. The captain beaches it at Malzara Creek, and it is later repaired.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 6992 ton British freighter Baluchistan in the eastern Mediterranean.

Italian coaster Helena hits a mine and sinks off Palermo. This is one of the mines laid recently by HMS Rorqual.

Italian freighter Verde hits a mine and sinks west of Sicily. This mine also was laid by HMS Rorqual.

The opening stages of Operation Pedestal take place with departures of oiler HMS Cairndale from Gibraltar.

It is a fairly quiet day on Malta, with some Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights but no attacks. This is due at least in part to the transfer of Luftwaffe units east to support the invasion of Greece.

Convoy AG 9, with six ships, departs from Alexandria bound for Piraeus.

Battle of the Indian Ocean: German raider Pinguin and consort Adjutant are heading north for a rendezvous with German ships in the vicinity of the Seychelles.

26 March 1941 Brisbane parade US Navy troops
US sailors being fêted in Brisbane, 26 March 1941. Rear Admiral John Newton's visit to Australia is going very well. Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 2982.

Battle of the Pacific: British 287 ton fishing trawler  Millimumul (Captain Rixon) hits a mine and and sinks near Newcastle, New South Wales. There are seven deaths. The mine had been laid months ago by German raider Pinguin.

Minelayer Kung Wo lays mines off Singapore.

German/ Japanese Relations: Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka is in Berlin, but he is not getting much done. Adolf Hitler and Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop are busy with plans a little bit closer to Germany in the East than Japan.

26 March 1941 Millimumul
 The Millimumul, lost off Sydney on 26 March 1941. Unfortunately, elaborate camouflage doesn't protect you against mines.

British Military: The British Army is planned to increase to 59 "equivalent divisions. " This excludes colonial forces. There will be 12 armoured divisions and 9 army tank brigades. Visiting Australian Prime Minister Menzies notes in his diary that the plan is to increase the army by about 60,000 more men, which he calls a "stiff proposition." Germany, of course, already has many more panzer divisions and is rapidly increasing this number, and each panzer division is of overpowering force - when fully equipped.

Reflecting the tight state of Great Britain's manpower reserves, Parliament is working on a bill that will give drafted men a chance to state a preference for the armed forces or civil defense. Of course, there are no guarantees such preferences would be honored. Conscientious Objectors will be subject to compulsory civil defense.

26 March 1941 Greek troops
Greek troops, March 1941.

Holocaust: The OKH authorizes the establishment by the Reich Main Security Office (German: Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA) of Einsatzgruppen. These will be special squads that operate largely (but not always) independently of ordinary army (Heer) troops. The Einsatzgruppen are known to history as death squads that follow the German troops west and exterminate "undesirables" such as Jewish Russians.

Yugoslavian Homefront: Large demonstrations break out in Yugoslavia, especially Belgrade. However, they are largely confined to Serbia, whose population is partial to the Allies. The minority Croats, on the other hand, sympathize with Germany. The Yugoslav military is largely Serbian and pro-England. The military also does not like the proposed demobilization of the army. All of this bodes ill for the future of the Dragiša Cvetković government. Two Serbian generals, Bora Mirkovic and Dusan Simovic, are planning a coup with British assistance.

Syria: There are food riots in Damascus and Aleppo. Twelve people perish. The Vichy French authorities impose martial law.

American Homefront: The New York Times prints an exposé on graft at the construction (rebuilding) of Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. Total cost overruns are estimated at over $4 million ($23 million costs billed versus an original estimate of $18.9 million). Much of the money goes for overtime.

"Wild Bill" Donovan, recently returned from his extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East, delivers a national radio broadcast. He states that, in East Africa, "The British have done a superb job, a better job than they have let the world discover."

Future History: Maria Grazia Lombardi is born in Frugarolo, Piedmont, Italy. She develops an early knack for driving while operating a delivery van for the family butcher shop. In 1965, Maria - who know is known by nickname "Lella" - buys a car and drives professionally. She goes on to drive in Formula Monza, then Italian Formula Three, and then the Italian Formula 850 series. In 1974, Lella Lombardi debuted in Formula One with a privately entered Brabham. After failing to qualify, in 1975 she joins Vittorio Brambilla and Hans-Joachim Stuck and races the full schedule. She finishes 7th at the German Grand Prix, her best finish. In 1977, Lella competes briefly in NASCAR in the US, finishing 31st at the Firecracker 400. She later races sports cars and retires from racing in 1988. Lella Lombardi passes away from cancer in 1992 at the age of 50.

26 March 1941 Shostakovich
A. Ivanov acquaints Dmitri Shostakovich with the Emiriton electronic keyboard. Leningrad. 26 March 1941.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

March 25, 1941: Yugoslavia Joins The Party

Tuesday 25 March 1941

25 March 1941 Prince Paul Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler and Prince Paul of Yugoslavia.

Italian/Greek Campaign: Things have quieted down on land in Albania on 25 March 1941. The Italians finally have given up on their Primavera Offensive, which accomplished nothing but rack up casualties. Overall, Italian casualties for the Primavera Offensive number 11,800 dead and wounded, while the Greeks suffer 1243 dead, 4016 wounded and 42 missing.

Operation Lustre, the British reinforcement of mainland Greece, continues. Convoy AG 8 departs Alexandria bound for Piraeus carrying troops and supplies, while Convoy AS 22 departs Piraeus bound for Alexandria. Norwegian 5062 ton freighter Hav departs from Piraeus bound for Alexandria.

25 March 1941 Brisbane US cruisers goodwill visit
"Goodwill visit to Brisbane by the American fleet in March, 1941. This was the first visit to Brisbane during World War Two of an American Naval Squadron. At this time, the United States of America had not entered the war. Entry was a few months away after Pearl Harbour in December, 1941." 25 March 1941. State Library of Queensland

East African Campaign: The latest British 5th Indian Infantry Division attack on Keren continues today. Started late on the 24th, the attack quickly yields tactical successes. One objective of British General Heath is to capture the areas overlooking the Dongolaas Gorge that controls access to Keren. Another is to neutralize Italian positions at the head of the gorge from which Italian troops can fire down on British sappers trying to clear the gorge of the obstacles placed there by Italian engineers.

As the day beings, the West Yorkshire and 3/5th Mahrattas advancing down the hill from Fort Dologorodoc to the right of the gorge seize some lower hills overlooking the gorge. The Italians resist fiercely, but the British occupy the entire southeastern side of the gorge by 07:30.

At 03:00, another attack is launched by the 2nd Highland Light Infantry and the 4/10th Baluch Regiment. They emerge from a railway tunnel that is to the left of the gorge in order to attack Italian troops at the head of the gorge. The British maintain heavy artillery fire on the Italian positions from the area around the Sanchil heights. Other troops (3/2nd Punjab Regiment) then enter the gorge itself to clear it. By 05:30, the entire gorge is cleared of Italian troops and the Italians can no longer fire down directly into it.

The Italians counterattack in the afternoon. Italian troops continue to hold out on Mount Sanchil on the left side of the gorge. The Indian troops use artillery to break up the Italian attempts to counterattack.

British engineers quickly begin clearing the Dongolaas Gorge of the obstacles placed there to prevent British vehicular traffic. On the surrounding rim, the Italians and British continue struggling for dominance. The British take 500 prisoners in the early morning hours.

European Air Operations: The RAF switches strategic targets. Rather than attack factories in and around cities, for the time being RAF Bomber Command will attack Axis convoys. These include the iron ore shipments flowing down the Norwegian coast from Narvik to Hamburg, convoys from Hamburg to occupation forces along the North Sea and Channel coast, and oil shipments coming up from Spain. Initiating this strategy, the British bombers attack shipping off of Ameland in the north of Holland.

The Luftwaffe sends small raids against towns on the south coast. A fighter sweep over southern England with fighter-bombers (Jabos) produces few results.

25 March 1941 C.S. Faraday cable ship
Cable ship C.S. Faraday, lost on 25 March 1941 to Luftwaffe attack.

Battle of the Atlantic: While German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau have made port at Brest, there remain many German raiders at sea. Today, they make their mark.

German raider Kormoran captures 11,309 ton Canadian tanker Canadolite midway between Africa and Brazil. The Germans put a prize crew on board and sent it to Brest.

German raider Thor remains a thorn in the Admiralty's side. Today, it torpedoes and sinks 8799 ton British liner Britannia in the mid-Atlantic about 750 miles west of Freetown, Sierra Leone, British West Africa. The Thor's captain hears British radio transmissions and assumes they mean that the Royal Navy is nearby. He departs the scene after rescuing only one man from the 203 crew and 281 passengers on board. The Britannia is carrying a large number of Royal Navy officers heading to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations.

While almost everyone on board the Britannia survives the initial sinking, many perish after the Thor leaves. The weather may be warming up a bit, but the seas remain cold. A Spanish freighter, the Bachi, rescues 51 men, another, the Cabo De Hornos, rescues 77, and British freighter Raranga rescues 67 men. Another 33 men reach Brazil in their lifeboat, but it takes them 23 days. Two men on the Britannia, Lieutenant I. S. McIntosh and Frank L. West RNVR (who writes a book), receive MBEs for their service on the ship, while four others receive commendations. The Thor's captain, Otto Kähler, acts correctly in terms of his legal wartime obligations; however, this is not the best moment of the Kriegsmarine.

Thor later comes across 5047 ton Swedish freighter Trolleholm. This time, Thor takes all 31 on board prisoner after scuttling the ship.

The Luftwaffe bombs and sinks 627 ton British freighter Rossmore about a dozen miles from Godrevy Island in Bristol Channel. There are six deaths.

The Luftwaffe at 19:45 bombs and damages 5533 ton cable ship CS Faraday in the Bristol Channel. The Heinkel He 111 bombs and strafes the Faraday, causing a fire that forces the crew to abandon ship - after it shoots down the Heinkel. There are 8 deaths and 25 wounded. The blazing Faraday later grounds at St. Anne's Head, and the cable on board is mostly recovered. However, the remains of the ship, such as they are, remain there and in fact have become a favored diving location in shallow water at Hooper's Point, Pembrokeshire.

The Luftwaffe (I,/KG 40 Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condors) bombs and sinks 9956 ton British tanker Beaverbrae in the Northwest Approaches. All 86 men on board survive. One of the destroyers picking up the men, HMS Gurkha, collides with a small wooden ship while returning to Pentland Firth outside Scapa Flow, but everyone is fine and the destroyer makes it back to base. However, the drifter sinks and nobody on it survives. The Gurkha has to go to Roslyn for repairs to its bow.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 347 ton Dutch freighter Escaut southwest of Hartland Point. After the crew abandons it, the ship drifts ashore near Bude, but is later refloated and repaired at Appledore.

British 21 ton fishing boat Alaskan hits a mine and sinks  northeast of Hartlepool. All five on board survive.

US 8013 ton tanker Cities Service Denver is under tow off the coast of North Carolina when an unexplained explosion occurs beneath the crew quarters. There are 19 deaths.

The Admiralty sends a troopship, HMS Circassia, from the Clyde to Iceland. It carries more personnel for the growing British presence there.

Convoy HG 57 departs from Gibraltar.

Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Hermione (Captain Geoffrey N. Oliver) is commissioned.

25 March 1941 British liner Britannia
British liner Britannia, sunk on 25 March 1941 by German raider Thor.

Battle of the Mediterranean: It is fair to say that, at this stage of the war, the Italian military has not covered itself with glory. They have been forced back in Albania, East Africa and North Africa, while the Italian fleet largely has stayed in port. However, there is one area of the military at which the Italians are ahead of everyone: small-scale attacks at sea which can produce big results. However, so far these operations have been cancelled for various technical reasons.

That changes today. Italian destroyers Crispi and Sella each carry three 2-ton motor assault boats from Leros in the Dodecanese Islands. They head for the vicinity of the major British naval base at Suda Bay, Crete. The destroyers release the boats from about 10 miles (18 km) offshore at 23:30. The small boats proceed toward the large Royal Navy ships at anchor in the bay for an attack on the 26th. The prime target is heavy cruiser HMS York.

On land, the German Afrika Korps continues consolidating its recent acquisition of El Agheila. The British have withdrawn to Mersa Brega, which occupies a narrow point between the coast and the rocky interior where larger operations are impossible. The Germans also note that the British have abandoned Maaten Bescer, too, with British patrols in the area west of Mersa Brega vastly reduced.

Having completed their mission in Athens and Cairo, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and CIGS John Dill begin their journey back to London. Today, they stop over at Malta around midnight of the 24th from Athens. The original plan was for them to continue on to Lisbon immediately, but the weather forces a layover, so they spend the day playing billiards and visiting various highly placed individuals on the island.

British submarine HMS Rorqual lays mines off Palermo west of Sicily.

Battle of the Indian Ocean: German raider Pinguin completes its refit at the uninhabited Kerguelen Islands and departs, along with supply ship Adjutant, for further operations. The crew has disguised Pinguin as Norwegian freighter Tamerlane.

British 11,092 ton transport Waimarama runs aground after departing Port Said bound for Alexandria. The ship is pulled off by two tugs, but the ship requires 2-3 months of repairs.

The Admiralty transfers aircraft carrier HMS Eagle's two squadrons of Swordfish bombers to Port Sudan.

Spy Stuff: The British learn through their decoding operations and spy network, along with "hard" intelligence such as observed Luftwaffe reconnaissance missions, that the Italians are planning a major operation at sea.

25 March 1941 USS Chicago Brisbane Australia
U.S. Navy cruiser Chicago makes port at Brisbane, Australia, 25 March 1941. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 77816.

German/Yugoslavian Relations: Despite fierce opposition even within his own cabinet, regent Prince Paul authorizes signing of the Tripartite Pact. In Vienna's Belvedere Palace, Yugoslavia Prime Minister Dragiša Cvetković signs the Pact, adding his name to those from Japan, Romania, Italy and other nations. Hitler and German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop are in attendance, signifying the importance they place on this event.

By joining the Axis, Yugoslavia allows German troops to cross its territory but does not have to fight - at least according to the secret terms promised by Hitler. There is immediate disagreement with Prince Paul's decision throughout the country, but particularly within certain sections of the military. There also is division along ethnic lines that foreshadow events decades later, with Serbs favoring the British and Croats favoring the Germans.

The Germans are ecstatic with the signing. The Propaganda Ministry orders its outlets to describe this as another step toward a New World Order.

German/Soviet Relations: One of the remaining sticking points between Germany and the USSR is removed today. Ethnic Germans from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia complete their resettlement to Germany, while ethnic Lithuanians, Russians and White Russians are resettled in the USSR. That many of these people, such as the White Russians, may not particularly want to make the move is irrelevant. These mass dislocations of people (an estimated 60,000 people head west while 20,000 head east) is a common and continuing feature of World War II. Of course, the people heading east will see the Germans again before too long, but nobody outside of top German government and military circles is supposed to know that. The people brought in from the east are housed for the most part in camps to await properties the Germans plan on seizing or otherwise acquiring soon from others.

German/Japanese Relations: Japanese Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka is visiting Berlin and says:
The Japanese nation is with you in joy or arrange the world on the basis of the new order.
Matsuoka is visiting both Berlin and Moscow, and his trip will have repercussions that reverberate for years. He is a proponent of Japan attacking the USSR in concert with Germany, but that view is not shared within the higher levels of the Japanese government and military.

German/Greenland Relations: Greenland long ago declared its independence from mother country Denmark due to German domination there. However, Greenland never declared war on Germany. Today, Germany declares that it will observe only a three-mile territorial limit around Greenland.

25 March 1941 Brisbane US cruiser visit
Australians greet visiting American sailors, Brisbane, Queensland, 25 March 1941. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 104176.

US/Australian Relations: Rear Admiral John Newton takes his cruiser squadron (USS Chicago and Portland, along with five destroyers) to Brisbane for a three-day visit. This follows an extremely successful visit to Sydney.

In the same vein, Captain Ellis S. Stone brings his light cruiser squadron (USS Brooklyn and Savannah, along with three destroyers) to Tahiti.

Italian Military: Following the disaster of the British Operation Compass, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani is formally replaced by General Italo Gariboldi as Commander-in-chief of Italian North Africa and as Governor General of Libya. Despite his lack of success on the battlefield, Graziani remains good friends with Benito Mussolini, travelling with him and acting as a military confidante. This is not the end of his military career, either, but Graziani will remain inactive for the time being.

Japanese Military: Captain Kiichi Hasegawa takes command of aircraft carrier Akagi.

Romanian Military: Petre Dumitrescu takes command of Romanian Third Army. This formation is oriented toward northern Bukovina, which the Soviets occupied in June 1940.

British Government: The Admiralty holds a conference on shipping and shipbuilding. Visiting Australian Prime Minister Menzies, who has been visiting ports around the country, shares his thoughts. He decries the control being exercised by the Admiralty over shipyards. In Menzies' view, private industry would be much more efficient. Somewhat unusually, since he views many in the Churchill government as "Yes men," Menzies notes with satisfaction in his diary that he gains support from others at the meeting.

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding is in the United States inspecting aircraft factories. He has made some public statements with which British Ambassador Lord Halifax disagrees. Halifax requests Dowding's recall.

China: At the Battle of Shonggao, the Japanese 11th Army has given the Chinese 19th Army Group of the Chinese 9th War Area its best shot - and come up short. Having used all of its resources to try to punch through the Chinese lines, the army gives up the fight as pointless given the high cost. The lines remain where they are for the time being, but the Japanese launch no more attacks. The city of Shangkao, though, is destroyed. This has been a very important Chinese defensive victory. The Chinese try to take advantage of this victory by moving to encircle the advanced Japanese positions, but the Japanese begin edging back toward their base.

Author Ernest Hemingway is in the Far East on a "tourist" visit which may be a little more than that. Today, he and wife Martha Gellhorn depart from the British base at Hong Kong for China.

British Homefront: Lord Woolton cuts the jam and marmalade ration, as previously announced. Everyone gets 8 ounces per month. He also cuts the meat ration to 6 ounces per month.

25 March 1941 occupation currency Guernsey
Occupation currency issued on Guernsey in the Channel Islands, dated 25 March 1941.


Monday, March 27, 2017

March 24, 1941: Afrika Korps Strikes!

Monday 24 March 1941

24 March 1941 Italian Fiat M13/40 tanks Afrika Korps
Fiat-Ansaldo M13/40 tanks of the VII Battaglione, 32 Reggimento Carri, Ariete Armored Division on or about 24 March 1941, just before the Axis advance on El-Agheila. Italian troops, particularly infantry, formed a huge component of General Rommel's successful Afrika Korps operations.

Italian/Greek Campaign: The Italian Primavera Offensive continues on 24 March 1941, with heavy artillery bombardments followed by mass attacks. As on all the other other days, the effort is futile and no gains of any significance are made. But, as on the other days, there is one tangible and lasting result: lots of bodies left in the crevices and crags and barren rocks.

24 March 1941 Indian troops Keren
Indian artillery troops at Keren, 1941.

East African Campaign: Major-General Lewis Heath, in command of the 5th Indian Infantry Division, launches the latest British attacks at Keren just before midnight on the 24th. The objective is to neutralize Italian positions that overlook the Dongolaas Gorge and whose fire prevents British engineers from clearing the obstructions that the Italians have dropped to block its passage. In essence, the entire attack is a diversion, designed to draw Italian fire and allow the sappers to clear the gorge. However, there are diversions within diversions, making this a complex attack.

The diversion for the main attacks begins with an advance on Sanchil to the left of the gorge. After this progresses a bit, the main attack on the right of the gorge begins. This main attack is made by the West Yorkshires and the 3/5th Mahrattas, advancing from Fort Dologorodoc. They advance down the hill from the fort to take a lower features that actually overlooks the gorge, Hillock A, as the day ends.

Much further south, the British complete the reoccupation of British Somaliland - whose conquest in August 1940 was the one real Italian military achievement of the war.

European Air Operations: RAF No. 82 Squadron of Bomber Command attacks shipping off the Norwegian and Dutch coasts during the day. They lose a Blenheim, but sink a fishing trawler. Coastal Command raids Cherbourg right when a German military parade is in progress, somewhat spoiling the festivities as everyone has to scatter. The Luftwaffe remains quiet, with a few random attacks by lone raiders in Kent and South Wales.

RAF ace James Lacey, flying a Supermarine Spitfire Mk II fighter, damages a German fighter.

24 March 1941 yacht Wilna launching
The launching of the Wilna at Cochrane shipyard, Selby, on 30 May 1941. Later requisitioned by the Royal Navy. Attacked on 24 March 1941 by the Luftwaffe and written off. The owner, a Mr. W. H. Collins of Portsmouth, never got much use out of her.

Battle of the Atlantic: Prime Minister Winston Churchill asks if damaged battleship HMS Malaya can be repaired in the United States. He adds, somewhat hopefully, "She is steaming thither at 14 knots." As a supposedly neutral nation, technically the United States should be interning British warships that make port there - but that legal nicety has been completely ignored throughout the war.

The Royal Navy remains obsessed with German cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, which the Admiralty now realizes have made port in Brest. The British detail aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and battlecruiser Renown from Gibraltar to sit outside the port waiting for them to depart. A rotating cast of destroyers support them.

The Commander-in-chief Fleet Home Fleet Admiral Sir John Tovey transfers his flag from HMS Nelson to Queen Elizabeth.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 461 ton Royal Navy anti-submarine yacht HMT Wilna at Portsmouth. The ship is abandoned and written off. There are no casualties.

Italian submarine Veniero torpedoes and sinks British 2104 ton freighter Agnete Maersk in the mid-Atlantic southwest of Ireland. The Agnete Maersk is part of Convoy OG-56. Everybody perishes.

U-97 (Kptlt. Udo Heilmann) also attacks Convoy OG-56. It sinks 4301 ton Norwegian freighter Hørda. There are no survivors from this ship, either, all 30 aboard perish.

U-106 (Kptlt. Jürgen Oesten) torpedoes and sinks 4267 ton British freighter Eastlea. The ship's back is broken by the torpedo and it sinks within ten minutes.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Mansfield loses all engine power and has to be towed to port. It is out of service for ten days.

Royal Navy armed boarding vessel St. Day collides with 3276 ton Spanish freighter Gayarre in the Straits of Gibraltar. The St. Day has to return to Gibraltar.

Norwegian tanker Polykarb, captured by the Gneisenau, arrives in the Gironde. The other captured ships haven't made it, intercepted by the Royal Navy and scuttled by their crews.

Minelayer HMS Abdiel, escorted by destroyers Kashmir and Kipling, lays minefield GV in the English Channel.

Convoy WS (Winston Special) 7 departs from the Clyde with 21 transports each of 20,000-30,000 tons. However, two of the transports, 22,281 ton HMT Strathaird and 25,550 ton Stirling Castle, collide and must return to the Clyde.

Convoy OB 302 departs from Liverpool, Convoy HG 57 departs from Gibraltar.

24 March 1941 Avro Anson Brantford Ontario
Avro Anson in front of Air Traffic Control, Brantford, Ontario, 24 March 1941.  Used during the war as RCAF's No. 5 Service Flying Training School, the airport is still there, though greatly reduced in size and primarily used by a flying club. Courtesy Canadian Forces Digital Image Centre.

Battle of the Mediterranean: Today is the first military success for the Afrika Korps.

Adolf Hitler has ordered Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel not to attack - so he does anyway. At 06:00, the advance begins. By 07:30, the 3rd Reconnaissance detachment of the 5th Light Division of the Afrika Korps occupies El Agheila at the extreme west of the British conquests against light opposition. The British destroy the lead German armored car, then withdraw. The Germans do lose two tanks damaged to mines. Rommel uses one of his typical ruses, sending dummy tanks out on Volkswagen chassis to raise up a lot of dust and make it look like an entire panzer army is on the way.

Rommel comments:
The garrison, which consisted only of a weak force, had strongly mined the whole place and withdrew skilfully in face of our attack.
The green 2nd Armoured Division, which has replaced the veteran 4th Armoured Division due to the latter's transfer to Greece, gives ground rapidly. To be fair, the British in El Agheila are under orders to retreat if attacked. Nobody thinks that a British armored division, no matter how green, is full of cowards: many such incidents on both sides are due to blind caution at the higher levels ("REMFs," for those who understand military slang).

The British retreat to Marsa Brega 30 miles behind El Agheila. The Luftwaffe attacks it there, losing a Bf 110 to antiaircraft fire.

The Afrika Korps command squadron advances east of Nofaliya (Nawfaliya).

After dark, the RAF bombs Sirte. The attack kills 15, with 32 wounded, including 2 German soldiers.

Italian 633 ton freighter Nuraghe founders off Capo Pali, Valona, Albania. The cause of sinking is described as a "marine accident."

Axis convoys have been getting through from Naples to Tripoli without many incidents. Royal Navy submarines know the route well, but so far they have had few successes. Today, the streak continues, as Royal Navy submarine HMS Ursula attacks a convoy off Cape Bon - but misses. As Rommel well knows, his success in the desert depends upon the successes or failures of the Royal Navy off Tripoli, so advances in coming days can be partially attributed to this failure.

At Malta, the convoy that arrived on the 23rd remains in port. This requires constant patrols at full strength above the island. Coupled with the heavy recent RAF losses, this is imposing a strain on both the equipment and the pilots. The situation also is affecting the local population, who are cautioned to cease looting downed Luftwaffe aircraft - of which there have been many recently. Over the past two days, the Luftwaffe has lost 14 planes (almost all Junkers Ju 87 Stukas) while the RAF has lost only 6 or 7 - but the RAF has far fewer planes at its disposal than the Germans.

The Luftwaffe bombs the dockyards at dawn, causing some damage. There is one fatality and three wounded among the antiaircraft gunners, no losses by the Luftwaffe. In the afternoon at 18:25, the Luftwaffe returns with a bombing run by 10 Junkers Ju 87 Stukas on Grand Harbour. The Germans lose a Stuka this time, with three reportedly damaged.

Royal Navy submarine HMS Rorqual lays mines west of Sicily.

24 March 1941 Hawker Tornado
Hawker Tornado P5224, March 1941.

Battle of the Indian Ocean: Royal Navy sloop HMS Shoreham stops German freighter Oder, which escaped from Massawa yesterday, in the Strait of Perim. The Oder's crew scuttles the ship. Italian freighter India, which fled along with the Oder, is spotted by Royal Navy spotter aircraft. The India's crew knows it has been detected, and rather than scuttle the ship or be captured, the captain makes port in Assab.

Convoy BN 21 departs from Aden, Convoy BS 21 departs from Suez.

Turkish/Soviet Relations: Both the USSR and Turkey pledge to remain neutral if the other is attacked. The superficial fear by both is that the other will take advantage of German aggression to settle long-standing scores. The real underlying concern is by Turkey, which fears being attacked by Germany, but the treaty will come in very handy for the USSR.

Anglo/Yugoslav Relations: The diplomatic center of the world has shifted to Belgrade. Both sides are trying to alternately cajole and threaten the Yugoslavs to side with them - or else. Today, London gives a warning.

24 March 1941 Life Magazine Spring Veils
Life Magazine 24 March 1941, "Spring Veils," Designer Sally Victor .

British Government: Visiting Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies describes the day as "routine," but also comments:
War Cabinet [meeting] chiefly about Ireland, but also rendered gloomy by reports from Jugo-Slavia, Turkey and Spain. The Irish position grows intolerable. Winston summed up - "700 years of hatred, and six months of pure funk."
US Government: The US Senate passes President Roosevelt's $7 billion appropriations request for Lend Lease.

China: The Battle of Shanggao heats up again after a very brief lull. The Japanese make an all-out assault on the Japanese lines, while the Chinese throw everything they have to stop them. There are tremendous casualties on both sides, with nobody really sure how many died or whose side suffered more. Last-minute Chinese reinforcements, brought in by Chinese General Zhu Xiang, turn the tide. As on the other side of the world in Albania, the lines remain the same at the end of the day, but the rivers of blood on the ground tell the tale.

American Homefront: "Native Son," written by Paul Green and Richard Wright, premieres at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. Orson Welles and John Houseman produce the play, which stars among many others Welles protege Ray Collins (of "Citizen Kane") and Francis Bavier. You may recognize that latter name but not be sure where you know it from. Aunt Bee. Mayberry. Enough said.

24 March 1941 General Wilhelm List Time Magazine cover
March 24, 1941 | Vol. XXXVII No. 12. Field Marshal List is the commander of German forces in Bulgaria. His forces are poised to invade Greece (Cover credit: AP).


Sunday, March 26, 2017

March 23, 1941: Malta Under Siege

Sunday 23 March 1941

23 March 1941 Vittorio Veneto
Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto at Naples, 23 March 1941.

Italian/Greek Campaign: The Italian Primavera Offensive has been a giant dud as of 23 March 1941. It has accomplished only local gains at the expense of massive casualties. However, the silver lining for the Italians is that at least they have stopped the Greek progress toward the key port of Valona. Given that the Germans are preparing to invade Greece within the next few weeks, that is sufficient to preserve an Italian presence in the country.

The Italians, despite their failures, continue to believe they can make progress. After dark, the Italians attack around Bubesi in the north and have some success. In fact, they manage to break into the Greek lines. However, the Greeks quickly counterattack and restore their front. It is just another continuation of the long-standing pattern, with a lot of Italian soldiers dead and nothing to show for it.

The RAF raids Berat in south-central Albania.

The Italians continue to reinforce their army in Albania. Four Italian transports/freighters depart from Bari bound for Durazzo in Albania. Greek submarine Triton (Lt.Cdr. D. Zepos, HN) is lying in wait. It torpedoes and damages 5154 ton Italian transport Carnia about 30 nautical miles east of Cape Galo, Brindisi. The Carnia is towed to Brindisi, but ultimately the ship is written off and scrapped. The Triton also attacks 1216 ton freighter Anna Capano, but misses.

East African Campaign: Major-General Lewis Heath, in command of 5th Indian Infantry Division, prepares his troops for the next British attack on Keren. Specifically, Dongolaas Gorge is the keyhole that must be entered in order to take the strategic city, but it is heavily defended by Italian troops placed behind the entrance. While the British have made some progress on the flanks, most importantly taking Fort Dologorodoc to the right of the gorge, the gorge itself is as well-defended as ever. After dark, Heath sends reconnaissance patrols to the areas of East Gate Spur and Hillocks "A" and "B," which are major objectives of the coming attack.

The Italians have blocked the gorge itself with boulders and other debris which the British must clear simply to enter it. Given this situation, Heath has decided to attack the Italian defenders of the gorge with a flank attack, which he hopes will give the sappers time to clear the boulders blocking the gorge. This will enable a thrust "up the gut" of the gorge which the Italians cannot stop. The attack is planned for the 24th.

The South African 2nd Division arrives by sea at Berbera, British Somaliland.

23 March 1941 Berlin raid
An RAF reconnaissance photo showing the damage to Berlin from the attack of 23 March 1941. Damage is light and scattered... now. If the damage seems hard to see, you're not alone: the RAF personnel who study these films use special lenses to spot the damage.

European Air Operations: RAF Bomber Command sends 48 aircraft against Berlin, 31 against Kiel (18 tons of high explosives dropped) and 26 against Hanover (large fires and three large green explosions seen by the bombers returning from Berlin). Coastal Command attacks Quiberon in Brittany just south of Lorient and destroys some barracks. The Berlin attack targets the inland port in the vicinity of Putlitzstrasse Station. The bombers drop 10,000+ incendiaries which start several fires. The RAF crews report heavy antiaircraft fire and thick haze over the target. The British lose one medium bomber.

The Luftwaffe apparently takes a rest after their major raids on London, Plymouth and other cities recently. It launches only scattered lone-raider attacks both during the day and after dark.

Visiting Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies visits recently bombed Plymouth, which he was barred from re-entering on the 22nd due to the catastrophic night attacks. He tours Admiral Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, which Menzies notes has been hit by a bomb. He also witnesses a delayed-fuse bomb being dug up "and try to look as if I feel safe." He then travels to Winston Churchill's estate at Chequers for dinner.

23 March 1941 freighter Tabarka
British freighter Tabarka, sunk on 23 March 1941 as a blockship at Scapa Flow.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-110 (Kptlt. Fritz-Julius Lemp), on its first patrol out of Kiel, has a very bad day. It attacks 2468 ton Norwegian freighter Siremalm with three torpedoes - a lot for a relatively small ship. Two of the torpedoes miss, and the third hits but proves to be a dud (a common occurrence in northern waters at this stage of the war). Frustrated and unwilling to use any more torpedoes, Captain Lemp surfaces and has his men use the 105 mm deck gun. However, the crew is green, and this is their first time using the gun in action. They forget to remove the gun's tampion (plug) from the barrel, which causes it to explode with the first round. Three men are wounded. Lemp then has his crew use the 37 and 20 mm antiaircraft guns against the ship, but these are like flea bites on an elephant. The Siremalm escapes, and U-110 has to head to its new port of Lorient due to the gun incident.

U-551 (Kptlt. Karl Schrott), on its first patrol, is attacked by anti-submarine warfare trawler HMT Visenda about 93 miles south of Iceland. The depth charge attack succeeds, sinking the U-boat, and all 45 men on board perish.

U-97 (Kptlt. Udo Heilmann), on its second patrol operating out of Lorient, is between Cape Farewell, Greenland and southern Ireland (600 miles west of Land's End) when it spots 8077 ton British tanker Chama. Some accounts place this incident on the 24th because it happens right around midnight, and technically the ship may sink on the 24th - but the attack is launched at 23:26 on the 23rd. This is one of those grey areas where different dates are equally valid. All 59 men on board perish.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Richmond runs aground off Benbane Head at Holyhead, Ireland. After it refloats, it requires repairs at Holyhead and then Southampton that take until 28 May.

The Luftwaffe bombs and sinks 197 ton British trawler Elmira between the Scottish mainland and the Faroe Islands. There are ten deaths and one survivor. To the southwest, the Luftwaffe also damages 221 ton British trawler Samurai.

The Royal Navy scuttles 2624 ton British freighter Tabarka (requisitioned French ship Pollux) in Kirk Sound, Scapa Flow. It later will be temporarily refloated and moved elsewhere.

Minelayer HMS Teviotbank lays minefield BS 52 off the English east coast.

Convoy OB 301 departs from Liverpool, Convoy SL 69 departs from Freetown.

23 March 1941 SS Perthshire
SS Perthshire, set on fire at Malta today immediately after arriving with Convoy MW 6.

Battle of the Mediterranean: Four freighters of Convoy MW 6 arrive at Malta's Grand Harbour as part of Royal Navy Operation MC 9. They make port in the mid-morning and quickly unload.

The Germans notice the arrival (apparently) and within an hour the Luftwaffe arrives overhead with another major raid. A large formation of 15 Junkers Ju 88 Stukas attacks, prompting a large RAF response. As usual in these attacks, the Luftwaffe suffers heavily - the RAF and antiaircraft crews claim 13 planes - but the defensive forces on Malta are slight. The British observe that the Luftwaffe Stuka pilots do not attack as aggressively as they have in the past, releasing their bombs before completing a standard dive. There is another raid in the afternoon around 16:00 which damages freighters City of Lincoln and Perthshire, which is set on fire. There apparently is only one death, a sergeant manning an antiaircraft Bofors gun.

After losing 5 planes on the 22nd, the RAF loses another two today. It is becoming clear that the Germans can eliminate the British air defense if they are willing to continue sustaining such large losses. Based on today's raid and the preceding ones, along with invasion fears, the British reach a decision to withdraw all bombers and flying boats from the island. This will vastly reduce reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to bomb Naples and other Italian targets, but the large planes are proving extremely vulnerable to the Luftwaffe attacks, with several recently destroyed and damaged.

The British now are moving troops to Gozo - the island northwest of the main Malta island - due to invasion fears. This is Operation Picnic, and it is disguised from the Italian spies on the island as simply normal troop exercises.

Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, having received the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross at the hand of Adolf Hitler, returns to North Africa. While under orders not to do anything major until he receives his full complement of troops, Rommel orders a small attack on the most advanced British positions west of El Agheila. His Afrika Korps troops in the vicinity of Marada run into British artillery, so they call in the Luftwaffe. Three Bf 110s (known as a Kette) shoot up an English armored car patrol, without much effect, while others attack Solluch.

The recently arrived Brescia Division takes up defensive positions west of El Agheila. Rommel's convoys have been getting through, and the Afrika Corps is stocked with fuel and ready to rumble. The British, meanwhile, have been replacing experienced troops with well-armed but green troops which can charitably be described as garrison units. For instance, the battle-tested 4th Armoured Division has been pulled from the front and sent to Greece. In its place is the 2nd Armoured Division, which is new to the front line and manning a key stretch of the line near El Agheila.

23 March 1941 Marilyn Monroe
Norma Jeane Baker (Marilyn Monroe) acting "fresh" outside her home at 11348 Nebraska Avenue in West Los Angeles. This is some time in March 1941. Norma Jeane is imitating Claudette Colbert's famous scene in "It Happened One Night" (1934). The film also happens to be a favorite of both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (according to William L. Shirer in "Berlin Diary").

Battle of the Indian Ocean: New Zealand light cruiser Leander is operating between Madagascar and Mauritius when it spots 5267 ton Vichy French freighter Charles L.D. The Leander takes the freighter to Mauritius to be interned.

German 8516 ton freighter Oder and Italian 6366 ton freighter India make a run for it from Massawa, Eritrea. The British are patrolling the seas nearby, and escaping will not be easy.

US/Australian Relations: Rear Admiral Newton takes his cruiser squadron (USS Chicago and Portland, along with five destroyers) out of Sydney Harbour after a highly successful visit. He heads to Brisbane for another three-day visit. There have been astonishing street demonstrations in Sydney, with residents acting as if the American ships are their own ships returning from some great, winning battle. Acting Prime Minister Arthur Fadden cables President Roosevelt:
It is my privilege and pleasure to inform you personally that the visit of the squadron has been in every way an outstanding success and has, I am sure, done even more than we here had hoped to strengthen ties of friendship between australia and the United States of America.
The government and population remains highly apprehensive about Japanese aggression to the south, which no doubt contributes to all the warm feelings.

German/Hungarian Relations: Hitler meets with Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs László Bárdossy de Bárdos. Bardossy believes that Germany will win the war and works well with Hitler. In general, within the Hungarian government there is less a sense of kinship with the Germans and more a sense of fatalism that there is no sustainable path other than falling into the German orbit. However, Bardossy is viewed within the Hungarian government as more in line with Hitler than most others and a true fascist.

Yugoslavia: News of regent Prince Paul's decision to sign the Tripartite Pact has seeped out to the population, and demonstrations erupt. Hitler, meanwhile, has imposed a deadline on Yugoslavia to sign the pact on the agreed terms, which include no demands placed upon the Yugoslavian Army to assist the Wehrmacht. If the Yugoslavs do not sign the Pact by the deadline, then these special dispensations (similar to those granted to Bulgaria) will be withdrawn. In essence, Hitler simply wants the Yugoslavian government to permit right of transit of the Wehrmacht to attack Greece. Of course, once Greece is subdued, Yugoslavia will be surrounded by German-occupied countries, so any hope of retaining an independent foreign policy after that would be forlorn.

23 March 1941 Vancouver Coast Brigade Marching Band
The Band of the 15th (Vancouver) Coast Brigade marches down Georgia Street past the Vancouver Hotel. 23 March 1941 (Vancouver Gunners).

Brazil: Brazil has large coffee surpluses as a result of the closing of the European markets to imports. Typically, Europe purchases 805 million pounds per year, but due to the war it is purchasing essentially nothing. The US is the only remaining large customer. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the 1941 coffee crop is predicted to be the best in years. Coffee prices have collapsed.

Today, the government announces that new uses have been found for the 198,000,000-pound coffee bean surplus left over from 1940 and an additional 1,436,160,000 pounds purchased by the government. Specifically, it states that plastics created by US scientist Herbert Spencer Polin on the 71st floor of the Chrysler Building called "cafelite" can be created from coffee beans. It is heat-resistant and noise-proof, has good insulating properties, and also is resistant to termites and other pests. The discovery gives hope to Brazilians that the warehouses full of aging coffee beans will prove useful and profitable.

Holocaust: Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler sends a memorandum to Adolf Hitler entitled, "Some thoughts about the treatment of foreign peoples in the eastern Territories." This topic has been under study by the German government recently as the plans for Operation Barbarossa are finalized. The memo states:
I hope to see the very concept of Jewry completely obliterated.
Hitler tells Himmler to keep this top secret.

Polish automobile designer Tadeusz Tański, who among other things designed the first Polish armored car and the first Polish serially-built car, perishes in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

China: The Battle of Shanggao continues, with both sides regrouping after the latest Japanese attack. The Japanese are preparing for another surge on the 24th, and today put in minor attacks around Shangkao.

British Homefront: Britain holds a National Day of Prayer at the request of the King.

23 March 1941 New Yorker
The New Yorker - 23 March 1946 - Issue # 1101 - Vol. 22 - N° 6 - Cover by Helen E. Hokinson.