Wednesday 21 May 1941
|Battleship Bismarck in the Norwegian fjord of Grimstadfjord, 21 May 1941 (photo taken from Prinz Eugen).|
Anglo/Iraq War: In order to prevent more German reinforcements from getting through to Iraq by using Vichy French airfields, British Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell on 21 May 1941 orders General Maitland Wilson to prepare plans for an invasion of Syria. Wilson, who was in command on mainland Greece, selects the 7th Australian Division (less one brigade) of 18,000 men, the 5th Indian Brigade (2000 men), and 9,000 British soldiers to invade along with about 5000 Free French soldiers under the command of General Catroux.
These 34,000 British troops will fact 35,000 French troops under the command of General Dentz. The main French force is the 6th French Foreign Legion Regiment, which has 3000 soldiers of mixed nationalities including Germans, French, Russians, Spanish and Irish.
The Vichy air force numbers 100 planes and the RAF about 70. While the RAF has many capable Hawker Hurricanes and Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks, the French Dewoitine S520 surprises many with its capabilities. At sea, there is no contest, as the French only have a few destroyers while the Royal Navy can call upon the entire Mediterranean Fleet with aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and numerous other classes of ships.
The British have ray of hope when a defecting Vichy French soldier, Colonel Collet, reports that morale in Syria is poor. He claims that the Vichy troops, already ordered to defensive positions along the southern Syrian border, will not resist an invasion.
Fighting continues in Fallujah, where the Iraqis make a stand against the advancing British troops of Kingcol.
|Battleship Bismarck as seen from cruiser Prinz Eugen in the Norwegian fjord of Grimstadfjord, 21 May 1941.|
European Air Operations: RAF Bomber Command raids Grimstadfjord, which reconnaissance planes report is the location of battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen. However, by the time the bombers get there, the German ships have sailed.
RAF Fighter Command conducts a Circus operation against the Gosnay Power Station. Bomber Command also sends 45 bombers on various anti-shipping operations.
East African Campaign: The East African 22nd Infantry Brigade captures Colito in Galla-Sidamo.
|Battleship Bismarck on her way up the Norwegian coast after her crew has removed her Baltic camouflage but left her false bow wave.|
Battle of the Atlantic: After sinking US freighter Robin Moore (discussed below), U-69 (Kptlt. Jost Metzler) spots another ship, 4601 ton British freighter Tewkesbury (Master Captain Pryse), about 1000 km (620 miles) south of the Cape Verde Islands. It takes Metzler four hours to maneuver into firing position, but finally pumps a torpedo into the Tewkesbury. After permitting the crew to take to lifeboats, Metzler uses its deck gun to shell the ship. However, it still does not sink, Metzler fires a second torpedo into it, causing the Tewkesbury to break in half and sink within 7 minutes. Tewkesbury gets off a wireless signal of its position, and Metzler knows this, so he informs Admiral Doenitz in Berlin by wireless that he has sunk the Robin Moore. Everyone on the ship is rescued, but the Tewkesbury's chief engineer receives injuries that lead to his death some months later.
U-93 (Kptlt. Claus Korth), part of Wolfpack West south of Greenland, launches an attack on Convoy HX-126, which already has lost seven ships on the 20th. At 05:29, Korth torpedoes and badly damages 6235 ton Dutch tanker Elusa. The Elusa is carrying gasoline and catches fire, and the crew abandons ship. The ship remains afloat until the 22nd, but is a flaming wreck, so the ship is left to its fate (it ultimately sinks). There are 49 survivors, taken aboard quickly by a convoy escort destroyer.
U-98 (Kptlt. Robert Gysae), also part of Wolfpack West southeast of Cape Farewell, sank the Rothermere on the 20th, and today it sinks 7402 ton British freighter Marconi. There are 22 deaths and 56 survivors who are picked up by US Coast Guard Cutter General Greene. This sinking by U-98 is unconfirmed, but the Marconi definitely sinks on the 21st.
Royal Navy 16.5 ton armed yacht HMY Hanyards is lost due to unknown reasons, perhaps a mine.
|Battleship Bismarck enters Grimstadfjord near Bergen, 21 May 1941 (picture taken from cruiser Prinz Eugen).|
German Battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen, participating in Unternehmen Rheinübung, are spotted by RAF reconnaissance aircraft and then arrive near Bergen at 12:00. There, they take on supplies and paint over their Baltic camouflage with standard "outboard grey." They are anchored in a fjord south of Bergen when more RAF reconnaissance spots them during the evening. The two ships and their destroyer escorts slip anchor shortly after, at 19:00, and head northwest along the coast.
The Admiralty details two capital ships, battlecruiser HMS Hood and unfinished battleship Prince of Wales, to sail from Scapa Flow, Scotland to reinforce the standing patrol in the Denmark Strait on two hour's notice. Prince of Wales still has engineers working on its faulty guns. The many reconnaissance photos and missions by the British is the start of their "German battleship obsession" that the Germans will put to good use in coming years with their handling of the Tirpitz.
Convoy OB 325 departs from Liverpool.
Canadian minesweeper HMCS Drummondville is launched at Montreal.
U-129 (Kapitänleutnant Nicolai Clausen) and U-402 (Kapitänleutnant Freiherr S. von Forstner) are commissioned, U-156 and U-208 are launched, and U-170 is laid down.
|Bismarck as seen from Prinz Eugen, 21 May 1941.|
Battle of the Mediterranean: As the day opens, the invasion of Crete - Operation Mercury - is not going well for the Germans. They have not secured a single airfield, and without an airfield the Luftwaffe has no way to effectively reinforce the paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) who have been dropped at widely separated points on the island. Thus, the pattern is following that of previous paratrooper landings in Norway and Belgium - an initial lodgement that cannot be supported and thus faces annihilation unless a supply route can be opened.
In the King George Hotel in Athens, the commanding general of the XI. Fliegerkorps, Major General Kurt Student, has a difficult strategic decision to make. On it, the fate of his fledgling Fallschirmjäger creation rests, along with the fate of Wehrmacht interests in the Mediterranean. If he fails, the heretofore unstoppable success of German troops will be ended in truly humiliating fashion, and his entire command virtually wiped out.
With few and fragmentary reports coming from the island, Student has little to go on. However, he knows that he has to act fast, because the airborne troops already are running out of ammunition. However, a reconnaissance flight over Maleme airfield reports no antiaircraft fire, and during a desperate supply flight of Junkers Ju 52s, one carrying boxes of needed ammunition manages to put down under fire on the nearby beach and come to a stop just short of some rocks. Student makes his decision: send reinforcements of the 5th Mountain Division to land at Maleme and forget about the other landing sites on the island.
|Fallschirmjäger arriving at Maleme airport, 21 May 1941.|
On the British side, the New Zealand 22nd Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew has pulled back from a vital hill, Hill 107, overlooking Maleme airfield. The men feel they can retake the hill, which virtually controls the airfield, but Brigadier James Hargest does not issue the order to attack because he is confused as to where the main German effort will be. The New Zealanders watch helplessly as Junkers Ju 52 transports carrying reinforcements and supplies begin landing on Maleme airfield at about 16:00. The field is still being shelled by Allied artillery fire, but enough men of the 100th Regiment of the Mountain Division put down to secure that section of the airstrip.
The German planes continue landing throughout the evening and night, with new arrivals crashing into planes already there, creating a mass of wrecked and intermingled planes. Gradually and painfully, the Fallschirmjäger consolidate their hold on the airfield. At 16:00, Luftwaffe Colonel Bernhard Hermann Ramcke, accompanied by 500 reinforcements, drops in by parachute east of the airfield to take command.
As the day ends, the Germans have a tenuous hold on Maleme airfield. British commander General Bernard Freyberg finally realizes that the Germans' attack spearhead - schwerpunkt - is Maleme. He orders a counterattack by the New Zealand 20th Battalion, but it needs to hand off its own position to attack, so the 2/7th Battalion - which has no transport - is ordered to march 18 miles (29 km) north. The counterattack must wait for them arrive at 23:30, and then the 20th Battalion prepares to counterattack as soon as it can get into position on the 22nd.
|Fallschirmjäger on Crete, 21 May 1941.|
The Germans also attempt a sea landing near Maleme. They send about 20 caïques, escorted by Italian torpedo boat Lupo, toward Crete after dark. Royal Navy Force D, under the command of Rear Admiral Irvine Glennie, spots the convoy and forces it to turn back. Under heavy fire from cruisers HMS Aja, Dido and Orion, the Germans lose over half their ships, and 297 Germans and two Italians perish in the catastrophe. Ajax damages its bow in ramming a caique, and Orion takes some friendly fire from Dido (two dead, nine wounded).
Only heroic action by the captain of the Lupo, who stops to pick up swimming Germans in the night, saves hundreds of men. Lupo is badly damaged but makes it back to port with survivors. Another Italian torpedo boat, Lira, also picks up survivors. One caique from the supply convoy reaches Maleme at Cape Spatha, not nearly enough to be decisive, while a cutter struggles into the harbor at Akrotiri and takes heavy fire from a British patrol and provides no help at all.
Another German convey departs Piraeus, escorted by Italian torpedo boat Sagittario. It also ultimately turns back. In the confusion of ships around Piraeus, a Luftwaffe bomber damages Italian destroyer Sela.
In the morning, the Luftwaffe spots cruiser HMS Ajax and destroyer Juno withdrawing to the southwest of Crete. The German planes sink the Juno, leaving 97 survivors, 28 dead and 21 wounded. Ajax is only slightly damaged by a near miss and remains on patrol with no casualties.
A large force of Royal Navy destroyers departs Malta at twilight for operations north of Crete. These are HMS Jackal, Kashmire, Kelly and Kelvin.
|The NY Times announces the invasion of Crete, 21 May 1941.|
Elsewhere on Crete, the Germans are in trouble. the 10th Infantry Brigade uses its light tanks to launch a successful assault on Cemetery Hill near Canea (Chania), but the Germans manage to break out to the village of Galatas. The Germans at Galatas are not far from the developing German bridgehead at nearby Maleme, so their efforts contribute to the dispersal of British forces and confusion with the British command.
Italian 248 ton freighter Gladiator hits a mine and sinks off Sebenico.
Italian naval trawler Pelegrino Matteucci hits a mine and sinks northwest of Lefkos.
Italian destroyer Carlo Mirabello hits a mine and sinks in the Ionian Sea off Cephalonia. German freighters Kybfels and Marburg also sink from mines in the same area. The loss of the Marburg is particularly damaging, as it carries 60 tanks and 683 men of Panzer Division 2.
In London, Winston Churchill professes to be optimistic about Crete. The War Cabinet Defence Committee minutes show that he:
saw no reason why we should not retain our hold on the Island provided that General Wavell was able to land reinforcements on the southern side and that the Navy could prevent anything in the way of a German seaborne landing.In this, Churchill appears to be subtly planting the idea of Middle East Commander Wavell as a future scapegoat. There are no plans to land anyone on the rough southern coast of Crete, and there is plenty of British manpower - but also lots of muddle and poorly equipped soldiers.
In a cable to Wavell, Churchill is a bit more honest about the true state of affairs on Crete. He notes that General Freyberg "declares he is hard pressed." He adds somewhat gratuitously, "Presume you are already reinforcing him to the utmost to master enemy airborne attack," when in fact there is no way for Wavell to "reinforce" Freyberg. If the airfields on Crete and surrounding seas cannot be held, sending more troops to buttress the large numbers already there would be merely sacrificial.
Over the Libyan Front, planes from the 3rd Staffel of I./JG 27 shoots down five RAF Blenheims.
Royal Navy aircraft carriers, during Operation Splice, launch 48 Hawker Hurricanes and four Fulmars (as guide planes) to Malta. All but two Hurricanes reach the island, and the carriers and accompanying ships return to Gibraltar. Seventeen of the Hurricanes refuel and fly on immediately to Cairo. In addition to these planes, Some Bristol Blenheim Mk IV bombers of RAF No. 82 Squadron also fly into Malta directly from Cornwall, England (one lost at sea).
While the planes are arriving on Malta from Operation Splice, a major Luftwaffe attack occurs. They raid Luqa airfield, destroying two Wellingtons and damaging one Blenheim, one Hurricane and one Beaufighter.
Royal Navy cruiser minelayer HMS Abdiel lays mines off the west coast of Greece.
|Reconnaissance photo of battleship Bismarck, taken by an RAF plane as she approaches Norway on 21 May 1941.|
Battle of the Indian Ocean: German raider Komet makes rendezvous with a whaler previously captured by raider Pinguin, now renamed Adjutant. The two ships head east toward the Pacific.
US/German Relations: U-69 (Kptlt. Jost Metzler), on its third patrol and operating about 750 miles west of Freetown, Sierra Leone, spots 4999 ton US freighter Robin Moore travelling independently. The Robin Moore flies the flag of a neutral country, and normal U-boat practice is to leave US vessels alone. However, the Robin Moore is carrying cargo from New York City to Mozambique via South Africa which includes items that can be interpreted as military cargo, including shotgun shells and .22 caliber rifles. However the bulk of its crew is 450 autos and trucks - which also can be characterized as war equipment under some interpretations.
Metzler stops the Robin Moore and orders the passengers and crew to disembark, so they take to lifeboats. Someone on the U-boat tells the mate of the Robin Moore that Metzler simply decided to "let us have it." U-69 then sinks the Robin Moore using a torpedo and the deck gun. Metzler then gives the survivors some tins of black bread and butter, states that the ship was sunk for carrying war contraband, and leaves the scene and the 37 survivors are left adrift, but all eventually are saved by two different freighters. Their survival somewhat mitigates the impact on public opinion.
According to a later investigation, it will be determined that Duquesne Spy Ring member Leo Waalen had sent a radio signal to Germany with the ship's expected sailing date. Thus, the interception of the Robin Moore by U-69 may not have been accidental, though Adolf Hitler is on record as opposing any action that could bring the United States into the war. It must be noted that the Royal Navy routinely stops and confiscates neutral ships found to be in the service of the Reich, so this is not in violation of international law. However, this will become a major international incident once news of the sinking reaches Washington, D.C.
Separately, but perhaps related in a larger sense, the German occupation authorities tell US diplomats to leave the country. They are given until 10 June to return to the United States.
|"The BISMARCK in Grimstadfjord" Evening of 21 May 1941. © IWM (CS 159)|
Anglo/US Relations: Prime Minister Winston Churchill sends a cable to President Roosevelt in which he states that "We are at a climacteric of the war, when enormous crystallizations are in suspense but imminent." He says somewhat optimistically that "Battle for Crete has opened well," but concludes in grim fashion:
Whatever happens, you may be sure that we shall fight on, and I am sure we can at least save ourselves. But what is the good of that?The somewhat brief (for Churchill) message is one of the most downbeat that Churchill sends throughout the war.
President Roosevelt allocates six small aircraft carriers to the Royal Navy pursuant to Lend Lease. However, these are not ready yet, and will be delivered over the course of the year. The ships will become British Aircraft Escort Vessels, or BAVGs.
Soviet Government: At a Central Committee War Section meeting in the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin dismisses spy reports from Richard Sorge that a German attack is imminent. Air force General Proskurov, head of Soviet military intelligence, tells Stalin he is wrong and that the Germans are about to attack. Proskurov is immediately arrested and replaced by General Filipp I. Golikov. Proskurov will be shot in October 1941.
|Wolfgang Graf von Blücher (31 January 1917 – 21 May 1941), one of three brothers killed within hours during the Battle of Crete,|
British Government: Churchill makes a statement to the House of Commons on events in Crete. He clarifies his statement of the 20th that 1500 Germans landed on Crete, now noting that 3000 German Fallschirmjäger had descended on Crete, and adds, "Fighting continues, and the situation was reported to be in hand a 9 p.m." In response to a question asking for confirmation of his odd statement of the 20th that the German paratroopers were wearing New Zealand battle-dress, Churchill replies:
Yes, and another report said that those who landed at Retimo were wearing English battle-dress. I see that the Germans have denied this.History shows that the German paratroopers were wearing proper German uniforms.
At most, Wehrmacht Fallschirmjäger uniforms bear only a slight resemblance to Allied uniforms.Any claim that the Germans are violating the rules of war is false, and it is unclear why Churchill makes a contrary claim at this time. Any soldier wearing an opponent's uniform is considered a spy by well-established international law and is subject to immediate execution. Churchill speaks darkly of allowing "discretion to those on the spot."
German Government: Adolf Hitler spends a day alone at his old apartment in Munich.
|US freighter Robin Moore, taken shortly before its sinking on 21 May 1941.|
South Africa: Prime Minister Jan Smuts celebrates his 71st birthday, and King George cables him that he has been promoted to Field Marshal. The telegram states:
Your promotion to the highest military rank will be warmly welcomed, not only for your great and devoted services, but as a leader of a people whose fighting men have been playing a most brilliant part in the victorious campaign in East Africa.South African troops and aircraft have been playing a key role in the conquest of East Africa.
Philippines: US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson receives a call from a Manila telephone official, Joseph Stevenot, that Philippines defenses need to be improved. He proposes that General Douglas MacArthur be recalled to duty. MacArthur is a field marshal in the Philippine Army since 24 August 1936, but has retired from the US Army, but remains an informal advisor to Philippines President Manuel Quezon. He is considered the top US expert on Asian affairs. Stimson decides to pass the suggestion along to Chief of Staff George Marshall, but notes in his diary that Marshall already has decided to restore General MacArthur to command of the Philippines Department should there be an emergency. Whether or not MacArthur had something to do with Stevenot's phone call is unclear.
US Major General George Grunert, commander of the Philippine Department, indepently requests that a conference be held with a view of improving Philippine defenses. He proposes that this be accomplished with $52 million derived from sugar excise taxes and currency devaluations.
China: Chinese Polikarpov I-153 fighters shoot down one Japanese Mitsubishi bomber and damage another over Lanzhou, Gansu Province. The bombers are based in Taiwan. This is the first victory by the Chinese Polikarpov fighters over Japanese planes.
Holocaust: The Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp opens near Strasbourg, France. It is the only German-run camp on (future) French territory.
French Homefront: Military tribunals continue for those suspected of disloyalty. Today, a court sentences 56 enlisted men to death or hard labor for supporting the Free French movement of Charles De Gaulle - who also has a death sentence. Along with imprisoning or killing them, the Vichy government seizes the property of all known Free French troops and supporters.
Norwegian Homefront: Norwegian actors and theater production workers go on strike. This is due to occupation authorities withdrawing working permits for six actors who refuse to perform on the official occupation radio station.
|'German mountain troops board aircraft', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/german-mountain-troops-aircraft, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2013.|
American Homefront: The Bureau of Indian Affairs arrests Pia Machita (O'odham: Pi ’Am Maccuḍḍam, meaning He Has no Metate). Machita is a leader in the Native American community in Pima County, Arizona. He has been using his influence to tell his people to refuse to report for the draft, and some violent incidents have resulted. Machita is arrested at his town of Stoa Pitk and will be sentenced to jail time. This ends the Machita Incident.
Future History: Giuseppe Giacomo Gambino is born in Palermo, Sicily. He grows up to become a member of the Mafia and head of the San Lorenzo mandamento. Gambino is part of a reputed "death squad" of the Corleonesi. Several high profile deaths are tied to Gambino, including anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, as well as the politician Salvo Lima in 1992, and businessman Libero Grassi, who opposed extortion by the Mafia. After arrest, Gambino commits suicide in San Vittore prison in Milan on 30 November 1996.
Robert Joseph Cox is born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He becomes a talented baseball player and spends two years playing third base for the New York Yankees in 1968-69. After that, Bobby Cox becomes a noted Major League Baseball manager, compiling a record of 2504-2001, a .556 winning percentage, between 1978-2010 for the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays.