Thursday, March 22, 2018

June 21, 1941: Damascus Falls

Saturday 21 June 1941

Entry of Free French into Damascus 21 June 1941
Members of the Free French forces entering Damascus after Vichy forces surrendered the town on 21 June 1941 (Australian War Memorial AWM 009747).
It is the last day of the old world, with multiple power centers. Adolf Hitler has managed the unthinkable, to amass over three million men on the Soviet border without having his plans discovered by Soviet leadership. After this day, the course is set for a world of very few superpowers who keep the peace by having complete control within their own domains.

Syrian/Lebanon Campaign: During the early morning hours of 21 June 1941, the Australian troops to the south and west of Damascus take possession of several stone forts atop hills that overlook key roads leading to Damascus. The battle rages back-and-forth through the night, with the defending Vichy French launching counterattacks that temporarily succeed in dislodging the Australians in places. Ultimately, the Australians consolidate their control over the forts that control the approaches to Damascus. Australian troops also take the Barada Gorge on the road running west to Beirut and hold it against furious French counterattacks. This completes the isolation of Damascus, which the Vichy French now can neither supply nor reinforce.

The battle outside of Damascus having been decided by daylight, the Vichy French in the city surrender to Gentforce around 11:00. The remaining Vichy French forces in the vicinity retreat west toward Beirut. This completes the first phase of Operation Exporter.

Free French 1st Infantry Brigade (General Dentz) and 2nd Infantry Brigade enter Damascus. While Free French troops are present at the surrender of Damascus and usually given credit for the victory, there is little question that Australian and Indian troops (hundreds dead in Mezzeh just west of Damascus) have done much of the fighting that made the capture possible.

Habforce arrives in Syria, having returned from Baghdad. They approach Palmyra, which is the site of a major Vichy French airbase.

A Vichy French destroyer, the Vauquelin, evades the Royal Navy ships off the coast of Lebanon and makes it to Beirut with a much-needed cargo of ammunition. The Royal Navy does capture a French hospital ship, 9684-ton Canada, and takes it to Haifa for "inspection" until the 22nd.

Panzer IV awaiting Operation Barbarossa 21 June 1941
A German Panzer IV tanks preparing for the start of Operation Barbarossa, 21 June 1941 (Federal Archive Bild 169-0861).
European Air Operations: After dark, the Luftwaffe bombs Southampton, England. The bombers drop naval mines in surrounding waters. The bombing causes a leak in the King George V Dry Dock, and demolishes the down-line platform of the Southern Railway Central Station, blocking rail traffic.

The Luftwaffe, having transferred the bulk of its units east, now has only two fighter units remaining on the "Kanal Front." These are JG 2 and JG 26. These units total about 140 Bf 109 E and F fighters, the Reich's only front-line fighter at this time. Henceforth, the Luftwaffe, for the most part, will be fighting a defensive battle against the RAF in northwest Europe.

After dark, RAF Bomber Command raids Cologne with 68 aircraft, Boulogne with 18 planes, and Dusseldorf with 55 planes. During the day, it sends 23 planes on anti-shipping missions.

The RAF conducts a Circus attack on JG 26's airfield at St. Omer around noontime. It results in wild melees in the sky, with the RAF losing six fighters and one Blenheim to the Luftwaffe's six planes (with four pilots killed and two taken as prisoners, including ace Franz Luders of JG 26). Among the deaths is ace Carl-Hans Röders, with eight victories.

It is a day of legendary accomplishments by legendary figures of the air war. Oberstleutnant and Geschwaderkommodore  Adolf Galland of JG 26 destroys two Blenheims in quick succession during the Circus attack. These are his 68th and 69th victories. After that, an RAF plane damages his fighter and Galland has to force-land at Calais-Marck airfield. After driving back to his base, Galland takes off again alone at 16:00 to defend against another attack. This time, Galland shoots down a Spitfire northeast of Boulogne, his 70th claim. However, then Galland is shot down at low altitude and badly injured. His parachute only opens at the last second before he hits the ground, and he survives only with the aid of French civilians who take him to an aid station.

The unit commander, Oberst Theo Osterkamp, drives over to the hospital and lets Galland know that he is to be awarded the newly created Schwerten Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern). Galland is the first Luftwaffe pilot to be so honored with his "1st Swords."

During the same action, RAF Ace Douglas Bader shoots down a German Bf 109E aircraft off Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais, France. This, however, is not Galland's aircraft.

Lt. Josef ‘Pips’ Priller of 1./JG 26 also downs a Spitfire from RAF No 603 Squadron during these actions. This is his 24th victory.

Dawn at the Soviet border on 21 June 1941
A first look at the Soviet Union from occupied Poland on the morning of 21 June 1941 (Federal Archive Bild 169-0867).
East African Campaign: East African 22nd Infantry Brigade captures Jimma in Galla-Sidamo, Abyssinia. Italian commander General Pietro Gazzera escapes unobserved, but 15,000 men surrender.

Battle of the Atlantic: The confused state of relations between Great Britain and Vichy France explodes in the Atlantic. French warships Air France IV and Edith Germaine intercept Royal Navy prize ship 4564-ton SS Criton (captured on 9 May) on its way to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Criton is part of Convoy SL-78 from Freetown on its way to Belfast, but has developed engine trouble and is on its way back to Freetown for repairs. Thus, it is traveling alone.

The French ships order the Criton to stop, but it radios a distress call. Air France IV then opens fire from close range (about 50 yards/meters). The crew of Criton launches its lifeboats on the side opposite the firing. Shortly after the crew abandons ship, the Criton sinks off Conakry, French Guinea. Two crew perish and the remaining crew survives the sinking, though Captain Gerald Dobeson (King's Commendation for Brave Conduct) of the Criton is injured when he falls into his lifeboat. The French take the crew prisoner, but four will perish during their extended captivity (which lasts until December 1942).

Royal Navy cruiser HMS London intercepts 4422-ton German supply ship Babitonga near St. Paul Rocks. The Babitonga's crew scuttles the ship rather than allow it to be captured. This continues the Royal Navy's successful destruction of the Kriegsmarine's Atlantic supply network for U-boats and surface raiders.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 3176-ton British freighter Dorine off Sheringham. The ship makes it to Hartlepool for repairs.

The Luftwaffe bombs and damages 1304-ton Norwegian freighter Skum near No. 57 Buoy in the Thames Estuary. The ship is towed to Great Yarmouth, then London for repairs.

British 3001-ton freighter Gasfire hits a mine and sinks about ten miles east of Southwold, Suffolk. There are no casualties, with all 26 aboard surviving.

British 1546-ton freighter Kenneth Hawksfield also hits a mine and sinks a few miles off Southwold. There is one death.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Arrow hits a mine off Flamborough Head and is badly damaged. The ship makes it to Middlesborough for repairs, which last until 28 November.

Minesweeper HMS Plover lays minefield BS.60 in the North Sea.

Troop Convoy TC-11 departs from Halifax bound for the Clyde.

Convoy OB-338 departs from Liverpool, Convoy SC 35 departs Sydney, Nova Scotia for the Clyde.

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Heythrop (Lt. Commander Robert S. Stafford) and ASW trawler Minuet (Lt. Alexander M. Sullivan) are commissioned.

Canadian corvette HMCS Oakville is launched at Port Arthur, Ontario.

Soviet submarine M-120 is launched.

U-374 (Oberleutnant zur See Unno von Fischel) and U-434 (Kapitänleutnant Wolfgang Heyda) are commissioned, U-87, U-158, U-436, U-455 and U-456 are launched, U-264 is laid down.

Filling vehicles in Lithuania 21 June 1941
Refueling trucks from barrels in the Baltic States (probably Lithuania), 21 June 1941 (Zoll, Federal Archive Bild 101I-208-0002-14A).
Battle of the Mediterranean: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill informs Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell that he is being sacked. This is due both to the failure of Operation Battleaxe and also to the fierce fighting that has developed in Syria and Lebanon during Operation Battleaxe. Wavell's replacement is General Claude Auchinleck, who has held command in a backwater (India) with only minor operational experience during the Norwegian campaign.

Wavell is to replace Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief, India and a member of the Governor General's Executive Council. Wavell's new command also encompasses Iraq, which is highly desired by all sides due to its oil supplies. He also has responsibility extending to the Southern Pacific, which also is a brewing hot zone.

Wavell's dismissal appears a bit abrupt to some but has been brewing for quite some time. Churchill long has felt that the Middle East command has required too many British resources, particularly for the minor advantages it has conferred to the British war effort. Viewed dispassionately and without Churchill's exaggerated expectations and personal animosity toward Wavell, however, most (including Auchinleck) agree that Wavell has done an outstanding job by eliminating the Italian presence in Africa, holding the Afrika Korps to a stalemate in the Western desert, and invading Syria and Iraq. The durable British presence in the eastern Mediterranean has greatly affected the course of the war, including diverting Wehrmacht troops to Yugoslavia and Greece and remains a stable launching pad for further operations against the "soft underbelly" (Italy) of the Axis.

The Luftwaffe bombs Alexandria with about 25 planes.

At Malta, there is an air raid that destroys the Della Grazia searchlight. When Hurricane fighters try to intercept the attackers, they are unable to because.... there is no searchlight.

Fixing tank tracks in Lithuania 21 June 1941
Working on tracks for a vehicle in Lithuania, 21 June 1941 (Federal Archive Bild 146-1987-024-09A).
Battle of the Pacific: The Japanese seize Portuguese vessel Guia in the neutral territory near Macau. This is the beginning of a campaign of intimidation by the Japanese against the Portuguese colony. Macau becomes a favorite haunt of local Japanese officers looking for a little fun at the gambling tables and restaurants.

Spy Stuff: Although it now is too late to affect matters, warnings of an upcoming German attack on the Soviet Union continue to flow into the Kremlin. Soviet military attaché to France Major General Ivan Sousloparov sends one such warning. Soviet sleeper agent Richard Sorge in Tokyo, who is friends there with the German ambassador, radios in another message today that he drafted on the 20th. Sir Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador to Moscow, warns Ambassador Maisky that Germany will invade the Soviet Union "this weekend." Soviet military attaché to Germany Mikhail Vorontsov sends a more definitive warning at 19:05.

Premier Joseph Stalin and Soviet State Security Lavrentiy Beria review the warnings along with Chief of Staff General Georgy Zhukov. They are meeting to plan the attack Stalin has been talking about recently against Germany (the reason for this meeting is controversial and not accepted by everyone, but it is accepted that they meet today). At first, Stalin and Beria disregard the warnings as they have all the others. Zhukov, however, is not so sure. The message from Vorontsov finally catches everyone's attention. Stalin immediately convenes the Politburo, which authorizes two new wartime fronts.

Tokyo requests information today from its consulate in Manila on comings and goings of the US Navy in Manila Bay. Specifically, they inquire about the departure of eleven US pilots who they have heard have departed for Chungking to join the Flying Tigers. The Japanese have a trained espionage agent on their staff as Vice-Consul, and he continues supplying Tokyo with detailed reports on US warships and other matters such as this. The Japanese Consulate conveniently is situated on a hill overlooking the bay.

In Panama, the Japanese Consul, Minoru Izawa, wires Tokyo that his staff there is inadequate for its duties. These "duties" include recently securing a detailed map of the Panama Canal Zone which shows US military defenses and which the Japanese military command in Tokyo wishes to see. However, Izawa is having difficulty smuggling the large maps out because airline personnel are searching through everyone's luggage.

General von Manstein and General Brandenberger 21 June 1941
General of Infantry Fritz Erich von Manstein (right center) and Generalmajor Erich Brandenberger in East Prussia as they plan their advance to the bridges over the Dubissa River at Ariogola, Lithuania, 21 June 1941 (Kriegsberichter Koch, 694th Propaganda Unit).
Applied Science: Soviet aircraft engineer A. M. Isayev comes up with a plan to use compressed air rather than a pump to force propellant into the rocket engine that he is developing for a new fighter design.

British/Yugoslavian Relations: King Peter, 17, and the Yugoslav Prime Minister, General Simovic, arrive in London to form a shadow government. Peter ruled Yugoslavia for less than a month, and now he will lead one of many governments-in-exile in London. He will never return - alive - to his country.

German/Soviet Relations: Having seen messages flooding in today from Soviet spies around the world that Germany is about to invade the Soviet Union, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov meets with German Ambassador Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg and asks him if Germany is planning to invade. Count von der Schulenburg, who officially has not been informed of the invasion (though he has his suspicions based upon his own observations in the Reich), denies that an invasion is planned.

Wrecked Junkers Ju-52 at Maleme airfield in Crete 21 June 1941
A wrecked Junkers Ju 52 transport at Maleme airport, Crete, 21 June 1941 (Federal Archive).
US/Italian Relations: Following up on its recent closure of German consulates, the United States orders Italy to close its consulates by 15 July. Italy already has ordered the closure of US consulates on its soil on 19 June. From this point, the US will retain its embassies in each country, and Italy and Germany will retain their embassies in the US, but that is it.

While this all may seem to be "just for show" and petty tit-for-tat, consulates offer valuable listening posts that can provide useful information. On balance, the "war of the consulates" tends to benefit the Axis more than the Allies, because the Americans gathered useful intelligence "behind enemy lines" on Germany and Italy for the British.

German/Italian Relations: Hitler wires Benito Mussolini about Operation Barbarossa:
I waited until this moment, Duce, to send you this information, it is because the final decision itself will not be made until 7 o'clock tonight. I earnestly beg you, therefore, to refrain, above all, from making any explanation to your Ambassador at Moscow, for there is no absolute guarantee that our coded reports cannot be decoded. I, too, shall wait until the last moment to have my own Ambassador informed of the decisions reached.
The cable appears to answer the question of whether Hitler already has informed Mussolini about the invasion. However, the part about "waiting until 7 o'clock" to decide whether to invade appears to be a pure prevarication, as Hitler long ago ordained 22 June as the invasion date.

Hitler's worry about "our coded reports" being "decoded" is justified, because the British have been reading German diplomatic messages for the past year. However, it apparently never occurs to Hitler that the British and others might also be reading the Wehrmacht's coded messages - which the British also have been doing.

Trucks prepared for Operation Barbarossa 21 June 1941
A Wehrmacht column parked and ready to go at Memel, 21 June 1941.
German/US Relations: Having thought overnight about the USS Texas incident of the 20th, in which a U-boat tried to attack the US battleship, Hitler reaches a decision. He sends instructions to Admiral Raeder (head of the Kriegsmarine) and Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering (head of the Luftwaffe):
Fuhrer orders avoidance any incident with USA during next few weeks. Orders will be rigidly obeyed in all circumstances. In addition, attacks till further orders will be restricted to cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers and then only when identified beyond doubt as hostile. Fact that warship is sailing without lights will not be regarded as proof of enemy identity.
Raeder disagrees with this decision and immediately comes to see Hitler, protesting that such incidents "warn off" the United States. However, Hitler is adamant: no attacks on the United States until Russia is defeated.

Soviet Military: Red Air Force fighter pilots intercept a Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight, but are ordered not to attack.

Soviet border guards are put on alert, but ordered to do nothing that might be "provocative."

The Red Air Force is under orders to camouflage its forward airfields, but this barely has begun.

General Semyon Timoshenko, one of the heroes of the campaign in Finland, orders troops to occupy fortifications in the Molotov Line in Soviet-occupied Poland. The local commanders, however, take their time assembling their men, and many put the task off until the 22nd.

Shortly before midnight, the Soviet Navy issues Grade 1 Alert to fleet commanders, upgrading from the previous Grade 2 Alert.

General Boris Shaposhnikov is appointed the chief of staff to the Western Special Military District. Kirill Meretskov is appointed the High Command representative in Leningrad.

Free French enter Damascus 21 June 1941
Free French troops entering Damascus, 21 June 1941.
German Military: General "Fast" Heinz Guderian, commander of Panzergruppe 2, completes an inspection of the forward units of his command. He is satisfied that the Soviets are unaware of "Operation Barbarossa," scheduled to begin in the early morning hours of 22 June. Guderian notes with satisfaction that the Soviet troops across the border are busy engaging in peacetime activities such as parade formations. Soviet strongpoints along the River Bug, the dividing line in this sector, are unoccupied. After some deliberation, Guderian decides not to cancel a planned one-hour artillery barrage just in case the Soviets have some kind of surprise in store.

The Luftwaffe moves Stab, II and III./JG 77 from airfields around Bucharest to new fields at Bacau and Roman. These forward airfields will provide good opportunities to attack Soviet airfields on the morning of the 22nd.

German commandos and saboteurs (German Brandenburg special mission units and the Polish White Guard ) set out after dark to infiltrate Soviet positions.

The Luftwaffe sends pathfinder bombers across the border very late in the day. German ships lay mines in the Baltic.

Field Marshal Bock moves his headquarters of German Army Group Center to Rembertow near Warsaw.

Finnish Military: The Finnish military lays mines in the Baltic.

US Military: US commercial aircraft under contract to USAAF depart Miami to pioneer the Trinidad - Brazil - Ascension Island - Africa southern air route across the Atlantic.

Warsaw Ghetto 21 June 1941
Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, 21 June 1941 (Albert Cusian, Federal Archive Bild 101I-134-0778-38).
German Government: Throughout the day, Hitler remains firm about the start of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June. Unlike earlier invasions, there are no postponements. However, similar to those previous invasions, there is no warning given to his victim or declaration of war prior to the invasion.

Soviet Ambassador Dekanozov asks to see Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop. With the invasion of the Soviet Union about to start, the stakes are high. Ribbentrop "disappears" and tells his staff to have Dekanozov see a junior official whenever he arrives. In fact, Ribbentrop is in the Chancellery with Hitler, who is doing routine paperwork such as drafting correspondence to other dictators and official proclamations to the German public about Operation Barbarossa.

Ribbentrop is not idle, however. He instructs Ambassador to the Soviet Union Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg in Moscow to burn his codebook, destroy his radio equipment, and request an appointment with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov to issue a declaration of war - after it has begun.

Meanwhile, Dekanozov arrives at the Foreign Ministry at 21:30 and, as on the 19th, only wishes to complain about Luftwaffe violations of Soviet airspace - which have been quite frequent recently. Molotov complains in a similar fashion to Schulenburg in Moscow, writing "A series of symptoms gives us the impression that the German government is dissatisfied with the Soviet government." Hitler and his cronies at the Chancellery have a good laugh about how he will respond to these complaints in very short order.

Hitler stays up through the night with a small staff, awaiting reports from the Eastern Front.

Liberation of Damascus 21 June 1941
A scene from the liberation of Damascus, 21 June 1941.
Holocaust: New laws in Vichy France restrict Jewish students to only 3% of university spots.

American Homefront: New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio gets a hit in today's game against the Detroit Tigers, a single against pitcher Dizzy Trout. This extends DiMaggio's club-record hitting streak to 34 games.

Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra (using the name "Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye") take over the No. 1 spot on the Billboard singles chart with "Daddy." This becomes the first of eight weeks that "Daddy" spends atop the charts.

Future History: Sammy Kaye's "Daddy" is written by Bobby Troup, a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Troup enlists in the US Marine Corps after graduating from college around the time of the song's success, but he does not receive his orders until January 1942. Troup becomes an officer supervising Montford Point, a recruit depot for the first Black Marines. After the war, Troup continues his musical career during the 1950s and 1960s but due to only middling success, he branches out into acting. He reaches his greatest success in the 1970s as the star of the television series "Emergency!" (and also in a memorable cameo in the Robert Altman film "M*A*S*H"). Bobby Troup passes away in February 1999.

Joe Flaherty is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He becomes famous in the 1970s as a star of Canadian sketch comedy show "SCTV" and on "Freaks and Geeks."

The occupied Polish and Soviet border 21 June 1941
Looking across the Soviet border from occupied Poland, 21 June 1941 (Federal Archives Bild 183-L25085).

June 1941

June 1, 1941: Farhud Pogrom
June 2, 1941: Massacres on Crete
June 3, 1941: Kandanos Massacre
June 4, 1941: Kaiser Wilhelm Passes Away
June 5, 1941: Death in Chungking
June 6, 1941: Hitler's Commissar Order
June 7, 1941: Commandos Strike at Pessac
June 8, 1941: British Invade Syria and Lebanon
June 9, 1941: Litani River Battle
June 10, 1941: British Take Assab
June 11, 1941: Hitler Thinking Beyond Russia
June 12, 1941: St. James Agreement
June 13, 1941: Lützow Damaged
June 14, 1941: Latvian June Deportations
June 15, 1941: Operation Battleaxe
June 16, 1941: The Old Lion
June 17, 1941: British Spanked in North Africa
June 18, 1941: Turkey Turns Its Back
June 19, 1941: Cheerios Introduced
June 20, 1941: Birth of US Army Air Force
June 21, 1941: Damascus Falls
June 22, 1941: Germany Invades Russia
June 23, 1941: A Soviet KV Tank Causes Havoc
June 24, 1941: Kaunas and Vilnius Fall
June 25, 1941: Finland Declares War
June 26, 1941: Bombing of Kassa
June 27, 1941: Encirclement At Minsk
June 28, 1941: Minsk Falls
June 29, 1941: Brest Fortress Falls
June 30, 1941: Mölders Becomes Top Ace


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