Friday 23 May 1941
|HMS Hood steaming toward the Denmark Strait, on or about 23 May 1941.|
Anglo/Iraq War: Adolf Hitler issues Führer Directive No. 30 on 23 May 1941. Reflecting his complete disinterest in ongoing Operation Mercury in the Mediterranean, Directive 30 deals solely with the war in Iraq. Stating the obvious, it states "I have therefore decided to hasten developments in the Middle East by supporting Iraq" and deals mainly with organizational issues. However, it is significant because already Hitler begins hedging his bets against the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union:
Whether, and if so how, it may be possible, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, finally to break the British position between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf is a question which will be decided only after Barbarossa.In fact, the situation in Iraq will completely resolve before Operation Barbarossa begins. The only statement in Directive 30 of lasting importance is the opening sentence: "The Arab Freedom Movement is our natural ally against England in the Middle East."
The Luftwaffe already has a presence in Iraq, though it has been worn down already through combat losses. The Italians send eleven Fiat CR-42 fighters of No. 155 Squadron to Iraq from Italy. They arrive in Rhodes today, which is occupied by Italy.
The Luftwaffe based at Mosul strafes British troops advancing from Fallujah toward Baghdad. However, the Iraqi ground troops are rapidly losing ground there. The RAF loses a Gloster Gladiator, but the crew reaches British lines.
European Air Operations: During the day, RAF Bomber Command sends 20 planes on anti-shipping missions. After dark, RAF Bomber Command raids Cologne with 51 planes.
During the early morning hours, Lt Frederick Ronald Bertram Fortt, RNVR, and Lt Denis James Patrick O'Hagan RCNVR disarm a "G" type of Luftwaffe parachute mine at Nuneaton. The mines have a photoelectric boobytrap that explodes when exposed to sunlight, so work has to be done at night. After a lot of digging (the bomb is at 22 feet), the two men remove the primer, magnetic primer and finally the fuse.
Just to show the danger of this type of work, two Royal Navy Bomb & Mine Disposal officers are killed today doing similar work on Malta.
|"A spectacle that no Hollywood producer could hope to better. At the head of seven hundred men of his army of many thousands, Dejazmatch Gerressu Duki (called Ras Gerresu by his followers) rides across the Omo river on his white horse, in his green captured Italian uniform." © IWM (K 1982).|
East African Campaign: Allied colonial forces cross the Omo River.
Battle of the Atlantic: U-38 (Kptlt. Heinrich Liebe) is on its ninth patrol and shadowing Convoy OB-318 off Freetown, Sierra Leone when it attacks. At 19:51, Liebe sends one torpedo into the port side of the engine room of 6622 ton Dutch motor freighter Berhala. At 20:20, Liebe uses a second torpedo, and the ship sinks within eight minutes. There are three deaths, and the 59 survivors are picked up quickly by an escort.
In Unternehmen Rheinübung, German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen enter the Denmark Strait in order to break out into the Atlantic. The channel is only 30-40 miles (48-64 km) wide due to pack ice, and the Royal Navy maintains patrols because it is one of only two possible passages for German warship breakouts.
In the early evening, Royal Navy cruisers HMS Norfolk and Suffolk spot the German ships, and the Germans realize they have been spotted. Admiral Lütjens gives Prinz Eugen discretion to open fire, but the captain of the Prinz Eugen decides the range is too great. At 20:30, Bismarck opens fire, but scores no hits. The incident reveals a flaw in Bismarck's design, as the force of the ship's own gun blasts knocks its forward FuMO 23 radar set out of action. Admiral Lütjens thus orders Prinz Eugen into the lead. All four ships are travelling at roughly 27 knots. Thereafter, the British avoid the German ships and fall in behind them.
At 22:00, Bismarck doubles back in order to confront the shadowing British cruisers, who are 14 miles behind. However, Suffolk detects the maneuver on its radar and hides in a fog bank. The ships thereafter maintain course along the coast of Greenland.
HMS Ark Royal, Renown and Sheffield, accompanied by HMS Faulknor, Foresight, Forester, Fortune, Foxhound and Fury, are dispatched to the Atlantic to search for Bismarck. Battlecruiser Hood and battleship Prince of Wales, escorted by destroyers Electra, Anthony, Echo, Icarus, Achates and Antelope, already are closing on the scene.
The British propose that Canada and Newfoundland use St. John's, Newfoundland for joint escort services. Newfoundland Command and Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) is established, although St. John's has no naval facilities at this time and will take time to prepare for full use. Destroyer HMCS Saguenay departs from Greenock and corvettes Aggasiz, Alberni, Chambly, Cobalt, Collingwood, Orillia and Wetaskiwin depart Halifax immediately for St John's to join NEF. Within weeks, NEF will begin providing continuous close escort all the way across the Atlantic.
Royal Canadian Navy corvette HMCS Quesnel (Lt. John A. Gow) is commissioned, HMCS Woodstock is laid down in Collingwood, Ontario.
USS Grampus (Lt. Commander Edward S. Hutchinson) is commissioned.
|Spitfire MkVb, RAF 92 Squadron, Flight Officer Alan Wright, RAF Biggin Hill, May 1941.|
Battle of the Mediterranean: The battle on and around Crete continues to go catastrophically for the British. In effect, they lose any chance of holding Crete today.
Operation Mercury, the German invasion of Crete, has developed into a classic confrontation between an air force opposing a navy, and the navy is taking a vicious beating. Royal Navy Mediterranean Commander Admiral Andrew Cunningham admits:
The operations of the last four days have been nothing short of a test of strength between the Mediterranean Fleet and the German Air Force. I am afraid that, in the coastal area, we have to admit defeat and accept the fact that losses are too great to justify us in trying to prevent seaborne attacks on Crete. This is a melancholy conclusion, but it must be faced.In the evening, Cunningham signals the Admiralty that daylight operations are too hazardous, but their response is to accept the risk.
The Maleme airfield becomes usable for operation by the Luftwaffe as the Allies are pushed back, so the Germans bring in fighters to operate there. The end of the airfield is a tangled mess of dozens of transports that have wrecked immediately upon landing under fire, but the field is no longer under Allied fire.
The Germans also hold a coastal perimeter east of Heraklion. The Luftwaffe sends Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers against New Zealand troops trying to hold a line without any air cover of their own, and this opens a hole in the Allied lines. Luftwaffe General Ramcke exploits this by having his forces break through to Galatas, where the German 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Regiment under Oberst Heidrich forces that attacked Candea are trapped.
The Germans already have attempted seaborne landings, but they have all been blocked aside from less than a handful of small ships. The Wehrmacht's only means of supplying supplies and reinforcements to Crete is Junkers Ju 52 transports, and they are landing in chaotic fashion at Maleme airfield. They bring in the men of the 100th Mountain Regiment, adding to the few who managed to cross over on the 22nd in the few ships that got to Crete.
|HMS Kelly, sunk on 23 May 1941.|
Late in the day, the Royal Navy begins pulling ships from their exposed position north of Crete despite the wishes of the Admiralty. Lord Louis Mountbatten, commanding a destroyer flotilla composed of HMS Kashmir, Kelly and Kipling is ordered to round the western coast of Crete and proceed to Alexandria. It is too late, however: the Luftwaffe (24 Junkers Ju 87 Stukas) catches them and bombs and sinks destroyers HMS Kashmir and Kelly. The Kipling dodges 83 bombs and rescues 279 men from the Kashmir and Kelly (on which Mountbatten flew his flag). Mountbatten, on the bridge when the ship flips over immediately after being hit by a bomb amidships, manages to swim out from underneath the wreck and swim to shore. There are 128 survivors of Kelly and about 153 from Kashmir.
As the Kashmir sinks (broke in two), New Zealand-born ordinary seaman Ian Rhodes manns an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun and shoots down an attacking plane. Rhodes receives the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his bravery.
During its rescue mission, Kipling gets too close to the capsized Kelly. The submerged bow of Kelly punctures Kipling's fuel tanks. This slows Kipling's speed, and it departs immediately for Suez with the survivors.
Forces A-1 and C depart from the waters off Crete as well. They are very low on ammunition and fuel. They spend the night sailing to Alexandria.
Air attacks by Luftwaffe fighter-bombers (Jabos) continue on Crete, and at the key naval port of Suda Bay they sink five Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) (MTB.67, MTB.213 (Lt G. L. Cotton RNVR), MTB.214, MTB.216 (Lt C. L. Coles RNVR), and MTB.217) there. There are no casualties. The Royal Navy scuttles HMT Kos XXIII at Suda Bay, and the Germans later raise it and return it to service as UJ-2104.
Australian destroyer HMAS Waterhen makes a nightly run to Tobruk with supplies.
The Axis powers also are active at sea, but primarily at search and rescue missions. Luftwaffe floatplanes and Italian MTBs continue searching the sea for troops whose ships sank on the night of the 21st/22nd and pick up another 262 survivors off Cape Spathia.
|Winston Churchill reads a despatch from General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, during a visit to Luton, England, on 23 May 1941.|
In London, the government has a completely incorrect picture of the battle on Crete. The War Cabinet, Defence Committee minutes note that:
The situation appeared to be in hand except for the Maleme area where the Germans had formed a lodgement and airborne landings were taking place. It was unfortunate that the defenders had not been able to stamp out the parachutists in this area and it was essential that the German lodgment west of Canea should be obliterated by vigorous counter-attacks as soon as possible. The Fleet could not protect the island indefinitely from seaborne landings and if the situation could be fully restored while the power of the Fleet lasted, then the enemy would be faced with the prospect of beginning all over again.The Defence Committee minutes are a masterpiece of admitting, but minimizing, the dire condition of the situation on and around Crete. In fact, the situation is not "in hand" at all, but is deteriorating hourly.
The Defence Committee minutes also reflect Winston Churchill's continued slights of Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell. The minutes note:
The Prime Minister... was somewhat surprised to see that General Wavell referred to Crete as a "commitment," when the island was, in reality, part of this outpost position in the Eastern Mediterranean.Wavell is correct, defending Crete is a commitment to the Greek people in addition to housing British bases. This is another in a string of incidents in which Churchill interprets things in the worst possible light for Wavell's reputation.
Separately, Churchill cables Wavell and tells him, in part, "Crete battle must be won." He adds, "Hope you will reinforce Crete every night to fullest extent." He adds a personal message for Wavell to pass on to Crete commander General Freyberg: "The whole world is watching your splendid battle, on which great events turn."
|"The Prime Minister Winston Churchill talks by wireless telephone from the turret of a Churchill I during a demonstration of the tank at Vauxhall's at Luton, England, on 23 May 1941. He wears a beret of the Royal Tank Regiment." © IWM (H 11842).|
Privately, Churchill already is blaming Wavell for the loss of Crete. Churchill's private secretary John Colville notes in his diary that, following a tank inspection, Churchill, he writes:
laments very strongly that the tanks which he asked Wavell to send to Crete were not sent. They might have made the whole difference to the battle.Wavell is now faced with three separate fronts: in Crete, on the Libyan border, and now in Syria. So far, the tanks brought by the Tiger Convoy have not been allocated to any of those sectors.
French gunboat Meuliere wrecks off Ajaccio, Corsica.
The Luftwaffe lays mines in the Suez Canal.
Greek King George II arrives safely in Alexandria along with his government.
War Crimes: Survivors of the sinkings of the Kelly and Kashmir in the waters off Crete later report that Luftwaffe planes intentionally machine-gunned survivors in the water. These reports always must be taken with a grain of salt, because it is usually impossible to prove that killing survivors is the intent of such fire - but that is the testimony of witnesses who were fired upon.
Propaganda Wars: Gustav Siegfried Eins (GS1), a British "black propaganda" station which purports to be run by extremist German diehards, begins broadcasting. It uses colorful language, calling Winston Churchill "a flat-footed bastard of a drunken old Jew," part of its strategy to offend ordinary Germans and collaborators with its over-the-top militaristic and hateful rhetoric.
|"Winston Churchill in the turret of a Churchill I tank during a demonstration of the new vehicle at Vauxhall's at Luton, 23 May 1941." © IWM (H 9922).|
Special Operations: The Italian Navy sends submarine Scirè past Gibraltar into the Atlantic. It heads straight for Cadiz, where there is an interned Italian tanker (6504 ton Fulgor). The plan is to take the interned crew off the Fulgor and bring them to safety. Scire also carries midgets submarines for later attacks on Royal Navy ships anchored at Gibraltar.
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) sends a female agent, Chilean citizen Gillian Gerson, into the unoccupied zone of Vichy France.
Anglo/Vichy French Relations: Winston Churchill sends General Ismay a memo in which he states that any "arrangements" with the French Admiral at Alexandria are "suspended" due to the use by the Luftwaffe of airfields in Syria. Thus, he orders:
We should now seize the French ships by complete surprise, killing without hesitation all who withstand us. It should be possible to cut off a good man of the crews while on shore.The French ships have been interned in Alexandria without any incidents since the fall of France.
|Valentine Infantry Tank Mk. III, under construction in Montreal, 23 May 1941. (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 31925884).|
Anglo/Spanish Relations: Churchill's secretary, Alexander Cadogan, notes in his diary that he overhead the Defence Committee deciding that it was "wasn't worth the risk" to bomb a German freighter heading north within Spanish territorial waters.
German/Finnish Relations: The Finns send a military delegation led by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Erik Heinrichs to Germany. This is to coordinate activities related to Operation Barbarossa, still scheduled for 22 June 1941. It is fair to say that, at this point, German/Finnish relations are roughly comparable to Anglo/US relations in terms of military coordination.
German Government: The Economic Staff, East, Agricultural Group, part of Hermann Goering's economic apparatus, renders a top secret report in preparation for Operation Barbarossa. It contains a set of policy directives for economic exploitation of Soviet agriculture. The gist of the directives is to turn agricultural regions of the (conquered) Soviet Union into industry-free zones so that food production for the benefit of the Reich is maximized. The death of uncounted Soviet citizens from starvation due to diversion of food to the Reich is accepted as inevitable.
|USS Trippe (DD-403) at the Boston Navy Yard, 23 May 1941.|
Vichy French Homefront: Vice Premier Admiral Francois Darlan makes a radio broadcast in which he states in part that, in order to achieve:
ameliorations of the consequences of defeat and of the conditions of the armistice. . . . It is necessary for her to choose between life and death. The Marshal [Petain] and the Government have chosen life.This continues the slow drift of the Vichy French government toward outright collaboration with the occupying Germans.
Norwegian Homefront: The Norway Theater Strike continues after a vote of directors and actors in Oslo. This is despite German threats of reprisals.
British Homefront: Herbert Austin, 1st Baron Austin passes away at age 74. Known familiarly as Sir Herbert Austin, he is a former MP and, more significantly, he was one of the most famous automobile pioneers. Austin Car Works in Longbridge is one of the greatest car plants of the 1930s and 1940s, and during World War II makes aircraft; Horsa glider fuselages; specialist army vehicles; hydraulic motors for gun turrets; ammunition boxes, magazines for machine guns, tommy guns, Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns; marine engines for ships lifeboats; and pressings for jerrycans. During the late 1930s, Austin coordinated a plan by the Air Ministry to treble aircraft production by converting motor vehicle manufacturers to aircraft producers via grants and loans (a similar programme takes root in the United States). Among other things, the Northfield bypass is called "Sir Herbert Austin Way" after him.
American Homefront: World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis retains his title with a win over Buddy Baer by disqualification in the seventh round at Griffith Stadium in Washington. The referee makes the disqualification due to stalling by Baer's manager. This is the last of Louis' "Bum of the Month Club" string of title defenses against low-ranked opponents. Baer is the brother of former heavyweight champion Max Baer.
"Too Many Blondes" starring Rudy Vallee, Helen Parrish, Lon Chaney Jr, Jerome Cowan, Shemp Howard, Iris Adrian, and Eddie Quillan premieres.
|"Two ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) trainee motorcycle despatch riders and a Royal Army Service Corps instructor at York, 23 May 1941." © IWM (H 9941).|