Sunday, March 4, 2018

June 7, 1941: Commandos Strike at Pessac

Saturday 7 June 1941

Chungking Chongqing China fire from Japanese air raid 7 June 1941
Firemen battle blazes in Chungking (Chongqing), China resulting from the devastating Japanese air raid of the previous night. 7 June 1941.

Syrian Campaign: Operation Exporter, the invasion the Vichy French possessions of Syria and Lebanon from Palestine, unofficially begins when Australian troops infiltrate behind French positions beginning around 21:30. They are led by Jewish locals, including a young man named Moshe Dayan. The infiltrations are from the Hanita Kibbutz, and the sappers cut wires and clear mines.

In anticipation of the invasion, planned to begin in earnest on 8 June, Royal Navy units depart from Port Said (Force C of troopship Glengyle escorted by anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry and destroyers Hotspur, Ilex and ISIS) and Alexandria (Force B of light cruisers Ajax and Phoebe, with destroyers Janus, Jackal, Kandahar and Kimberley). The Glengyle carries men of No. 11 Commando to seize a bridge at the mouth of the Litani River in Lebanon.

The main invasion will not start until the early hours of 8 June. It is divided into three columns or prongs - west, center, and east. The three prongs are isolated and not mutually supporting.

The main prize is the coast road. It is the most direct route into Syria and can be easily protected by the Royal Navy and RAF. British commandos from ‘C’ Battalion British Special Service Brigade are assigned to land at key points just behind the border in order to disrupt the French response, but seas are heavy and look like they may interfere with that. The Australian 21st Brigade advances to capture a key bridge over the Litani River.

Further inland in the center, the Australian 25th Brigade is to take the French picket line along the border and then proceed inland. Poor French morale is expected to prevent a major response.

On the eastern sector, the Indian 5th Brigade has the objective of advancing to seize Deraa and reach Kuneitra.

None of these objectives are considered especially difficult to achieve by commanding General Henry Maitland Wilson. This is one of the least-known major operations of World War II, perhaps because it is an unprovoked act of aggression by Allied forces against a neutral power which tends to undermine their moral authority - though, let's be clear, the Allies have loads of surplus moral authority relative to the Axis.

European Air Operations: RAF Fighter Command conducts a sweep over France, and RAF Bomber Command sends 22 planes to lay mines. After dark, RAF Bomber Command sends 33 planes to attack Prinz Eugen, recently arrived at Brest. It is in dry-dock for engine repairs and an easy target, but the bombers score no hits.

Christening of battleship USS South Dakota 7 June 1941
Vera Bushfield, wife of Governor Harlan Bushfield of South Dakota, christens the ship at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey (South Dakota State Historical Society Archives).

Battle of the Atlantic: The British remain extremely jittery about a possible German invasion despite all the military intelligence they have been receiving about Hitler's plans in the East. In fact, a cross-Channel invasion would make great sense from a military standpoint - but Hitler apparently is not operating at this time from a standpoint of pure military logic. The weather is perfect, the entire summer lies ahead, London, Liverpool and other cities lie largely in ruins, the U-boats are operating at peak efficiency - execution of Operation Sea Lion at this time would have ideal prospects. But, the Germans have no interest in England and are barely even pretending at this point to retain an interest in a Channel crossing.

U-38 (Kptlt. Heinrich Liebe), on its 9th patrol out of Lorient and operating off of the west coast of Africa, torpedoes and sinks 7628 ton British freighter Kingston Hill southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. There are 14 deaths. Some sources place this sinking on 8 June.

The Royal Navy shares the lingering concern about an invasion, and at 20:00 it receives erroneous reports of major German naval units at sea. The Home Fleet goes on one-hour's notice, which is peak readiness one step short of actually going to sea, and remains on this alert through the night.

British 281 ton examination vessel No. 10 hits a mine and sinks at Milford Haven.

Newly commissioned destroyer HMCS Saguenay arrives at St. John's to join the new Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF).

Canadian corvettes HMCS Ville de Quebec (Quebec City) and HMCS Charlottetown (Kingston) are laid down, minesweeper Melville is launched at Levis, Quebec.

Battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57) is launched at Camden, New Jersey by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation. It is the lead ship of its class, with three more to follow, and is designed to fit within the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty.

U-85, U-207 and U-332 are commissioned.

Soviet submarine Shchuka Class Serie X Bis Sub SHCH-405 is commissioned.

USS South Dakota is launched 7 June 1941
USS South Dakota is launched, 7 June 1941.

Battle of the Mediterranean: During the night, the Luftwaffe makes a major raid on the Royal Navy port of Alexandria, and also Suez. Flying from the Italian-held Rhodes, 31 Junkers Ju 88 bombers cause 230 deaths. Following the raid, the British authorities commence an evacuation from Alexandria that will include about 40,000 people. This aerial attack likely is a by-product of the massive shift of the Luftwaffe from west to east in contemplation of Operation Barbarossa. The Germans are accumulating about 2770 planes in Eastern Europe, and an occasional raid on British bases in the Mediterranean is good operational practice.

Italian bombers attack Tobruk.

The RAF, for its part, bombs Benghazi and Derna. RAF No. 830 Squadron, serving with the Fleet Air Arm on Malta, sends 7 Fulmar Swordfish against Tripoli Harbor to drop magnetic mines ("cucumbers").

An Italian convoy of three freighters escorted by destroyers Frescia, Strale, Marco Polo and Victoria depart from Naples bound for Tripoli. There also is distant support of two cruisers and three destroyers. While the Italian Navy has the resources to make an impact across the Mediterranean, it prefers to use its ships in these low-risk operations and retain its "fleet in being."

The ships of Operation Rocket - the ferry mission of Hawker Hurricanes to Malta - arrive back at Gibraltar without incident.

Operation Battleaxe, originally scheduled to begin today, has been pushed back to 15 June. The reason is delays in bringing tanks forward from Alexandria to General O'Moore Creagh's troops. The attack is to be a larger-scale version of Operation Brevity on 15 May.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill sends a message to Malta Governor Dobbie in reply to a pessimistic cable sent by the latter on the 5th:
I am entirely in agreement with your general outlook. It does not seem that an attack on Malta is likely within the next two or three weeks.  Meanwhile other events of importance will be decided, enabling or compelling a new view to be taken. You may be sure we regard Malta as one of the master-keys of the British Empire. We are sure you are the man to hold it and we will do everything in human power to give you the means.
The War Office also responds today to General Dobbie's request for more troops. It requests "further details" for defensive armaments. Dobbie responds immediately, listing a need for Bofors guns and anti-tank artillery.

There is an air raid on Malta during the early morning hours by Italian BR-20 bombers. The Italians bomb the Luqa, Manoel Island, Marsa and Wardia areas, and in the process lose a bomber and perhaps two more at sea.

1941 National High School Drama Conference 7 June 1941
Students participating in a live national radio broadcast at the 1941 National High School Drama Conference of the National Thespian Dramatic Honor Society for High Schools. June 7, 1941. (Courtesy of the Educational Theatre Association).

Special Operations: Having arrived by parachute in France on the night of 11/12 May, the Commando team members of Operation Josephine B have spent most of the past month in Paris. There, they made contact with a Commando who had gone to ground there, Joël Letac, a member of the Commando team from failed Operation Savanna. Joining the team, Letac and the others have travelled to the site of their original objective: the transformer station at Pessac.

After dark, Sergeant J. Forman climbs the perimeter wall that had stymied their first attempt to blow up the station in May. He manages to get across without hitting any of the high voltage cables, then opens a door for his comrades. The team sets up plastic explosives within half an hour on each of the eight main transformers. Then, the team gets back on their bicycles and leaves. The mission turns from a failure into a success: six of the eight transformers blow up, and work on the Bordeaux submarine base is delayed by weeks. Electrified trains in the region have to be replaced with coal-burning locomotives. It will take an entire year to repair all the damage.

The team is well-funded - they have a quarter of a million francs for their mission, which converts to about a year's wages of £1,400 - and set out for Spain and thence Lisbon. They are in no hurry.

The Germans in the commune of Pessac take reprisals. They shoot twelve German guards, fine the commune one million francs, imprison 250 people, and impose a strict curfew (21:30 to 05:00).

For the British, it is a massive success and enhances the prestige of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) after some failures.

The US Asiatic Fleet in Manila Harbor, 1930s. The Japanese began keeping close tabs on this fleet in early 1941.

Spy Stuff: Japanese Consul in the Philippine Islands Katsumi Nibro cables Tokyo that the US Navy has eight destroyers, fourteen submarines and two target towing ships in Manila Harbor.

Jockey Eddie Arcaro aboard Whirlaway at the Belmont Stakes 7 June 1941
Jockey Eddie Arcaro aboard Whirlaway at the Belmont Stakes, 7 June 1941. Whirlaway becomes the fifth horse to win the Triple Crown. According to a report in the Pittsburgh Press, Arcaro took an early lead and then turned back and yelled, "Go to Hell! We're off to the races!"

Japanese/Italian Relations: Japan recognizes the Independent State of Croatia, now led nominally by the Duke of Savoy. In actual fact, the Duke takes virtually no part in governance and leaves it to local leaders.

German/Bulgarian Relations: Hitler meets with King Boris of Bulgaria in Berlin.

German Military: In preparation for Operation Barbarossa, long columns of Wehrmacht troops are heading east in Poland. This is very noticeable to locals, because the military vehicles clog the roads and all civilian vehicles are prohibited for hours at a time. Full vehicles are travelling east, empty ones back to the west. Of course, civilians see the military traffic on the roads, and it is fairly obvious to them what is in store. A local, Polish physician Zygmunt Klukowski, writes in his diary that it "is the same as during a war."

USS South Dakota Christening
USS South Dakota at its Christening, 7 June 1941.

Soviet Military: The NKVD arrest General Boris Lvovich Vannikov for "failing to carry out his duties." Vannikov is the People's Commissar for Armament. It is unclear what he is really accused of, and it may in fact be nothing more than having unintentionally crossed Premier Joseph Stalin in some way (Stalin has a habit of arresting and torturing underlings, then at some point reinstating them). Vannikov will be released on 25 July 1941 and reinstated fully to essentially the same position in February 1942.

Despite increasing evidence of German troop buildups along the border, Stalin prohibits any "provocative" defensive precautions. Everything is to remain as is, with the Soviet Union continuing to fulfill its trade agreements with Germany and sending supply trains west across the border.

Herbert Hoover 7 June 1941
Former President Herbert Hoover, giving the Commencement address to the graduating class at Haverford College, 7 June 1941.

US Military: President Roosevelt reviews the two plans for the defense of the Pacific, ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, that have been worked up during the spring. The plans envisage cooperation with the British Commonwealth and the Dutch forces in the East Indies, with a heavy emphasis on defensive activities in the Pacific Theater while the main effort is against the Reich and Italy in Europe. Roosevelt neither approves nor disapproves the plans, but familiarizes himself with them and suggests they be returned to him should war actually break out.

The US Maritime Commission is implementing the new ship-seizure law signed by President Roosevelt on 5 June. The inventory includes 39 Danish, 28 Italian and 2 German ships, along with random ships from Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and other nations. The fast (Blue-Riband holder) 83,423 ton French liner Normandie remains docked at its berth in midtown New York and also is subject to seizure, but there are no plans at this time to use it.

US Government: President Roosevelt departs the White House at 11:30 for Annapolis and embarks on a weekend cruise on the USS Potomac. He is accompanied by Crown Princess Martha of Norway, Princess Ragnhild, Harry L. Hopkins, Robert Hopkins, Diana Hopkins, Capt. John R. Beardall.

Joe DiMaggio 7 June 1941
Joe DiMaggio at the plate in Sportsman Park, St Louis, MO, June 7, 1941. Also visible is Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell and umpire Bill Grieve, with Yankee Charlie Keller on deck to the left.

Iraq: The reinstated Monarchist Iraqi government under Regent Abdul Ilah (Abdullah) sets up a Committee of Enquiry to investigate the Farhud riots of 1-2 June.

Holocaust: There is an outbreak of typhoid at Zamość Prison in southeastern Poland. Unfortunately, the local doctors are inmates in the prison, too.

Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King 7 June 1941
Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King places a wreath during an event in Kingston, Ontario, on June 7, 1941. This is to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (Queens University Archives).

American Homefront: Former President Herbert Hoover gives the Commencement address at Haverford College. The CBS radio network broadcasts it. Hoover notes:
We have been told with monotonous repetition by the collectivists and left-wingers that our frontiers are gone. They say our industrial plant is built. They claim there is no safety valve for human energies. They assure us that we have come to an age of humdrum problems of underconsumption, overproduction, and the division of the existing pot. They say that new opportunity for youth has shrunken. That is not so. There was never in history a more glorious frontier for youth than today. Adventure and opportunity beckon in every avenue of science. They beckon from the great profession of men trained to research. They beckon from its thousands of applications. From it spring tens of thousands of new services and industries. In them human courage, character, and ability have an outlet that never came even with the two-gun frontiers.
Meanwhile, 24,000 people pack Chicago Stadium to hear speeches against the America First movement. Abraham Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg calls Charles Lindbergh President Roosevelt's new "Copperhead," a Civil War term for Democrats in the North who choose to oppose the war and advocate a negotiated settlement with the South.

Whirlaway wins the Belmont Stakes by three lengths and completes the U.S. Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. It is the fifth horse to accomplish that rare feat.

Golfer Craig Wood wins the U.S. Open.

Joe DiMaggio hits in his 22nd straight game in Sportsman Park, St. Louis, Missouri. He gets three singles in a 11-7 win over the Browns.

"My Sister and I" by Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra reach No. 1 on the new Billboard singles chart.

The UAW strike at the North American plant in Los Angeles that began on 5 June continues. President Roosevelt is considering exercising emergency powers by taking over the plant unless the strike ends.

The New Yorker  7 June 1941
The New Yorker - Saturday, June 7, 1941 - Issue # 851 - Vol. 17 - N° 17 - Cover by Ilonka Karasz.


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