Friday, March 15, 2019

December 15, 1941: The Liepaja Massacre

Monday 15 December 1941

Dr. Seuss cartoon 15 December 1941
A Dr.Seuss (Theodore Geisel) cartoon published on 15 December 1941. Geisel contributed cartoons throughout the war in support of buying war bonds for the war effort while in the U.S. Army. 
Battle of the Pacific: There are several small Japanese naval gestures toward the United States on 15 December 1941 that don't amount to anything militarily, but reflect the contempt the Japanese feel for the lack of an effective response to their attacks. The US Navy is still reeling from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and is not mounting much in the way of retaliation. Instead, it is taking stock of the situation and begins planning for the initial defensive posture in the Pacific outlined in strategic military plan RAINBOW 5.

An unidentified Japanese submarine of the Second Marine Squadron surfaces just before dusk north of Maui and lobs shells in a fairly random manner. The mysterious submarine then departs without being spotted. The ten shells fall in the harbor area of Kahului on Maui, three of which hit a pineapple cannery and cause about $700 worth of damage (which is a fairly significant sum of money in 1941).

Dutch submarine 016, sunk by a mine on 15 December 1941
Dutch submarine 016, shown, hits a Japanese mine while exiting the Gulf of Siam on 15 December 1941. The submarine, based in Singapore, breaks in half and 41 men lose their lives. The wreck is discovered in October 1995 off Pulau Tioman in Malaysia.
At Wake Island, Japanese "Mavis" flying boats bomb the military installation early in the morning. The battle for Wake Island has captured the public imagination, so the US Navy decides to try and reinforce it and save the hundreds of US Marines and civilian contractors on the isolated atoll. While a large-scale relief is still just in the planning stages, Admiral Husband Kimmel, CINCUS and CINCPACFLT, gets the ball rolling by dispatching USN seaplane tender USS and oiler USS Neches, escorted by four destroyers, toward the island. It likely will take another week or longer to get the entire fleet in motion for the first naval confrontation of the conflict between large forces. However, at this point, trying to save the island is more a public relations matter than a military one.

Admiral Kimmel on the cover of Time magazine, 15 December 1941
As suggested by his unflattering portrait on the cover of the 15 December 1941 Time magazine, Admiral Husband Kimmel, naval commander in Hawaii (CINCUS and CINCPACFLT) and witness to the Japanese attack, is widely blamed for lack of effective security measures prior to the Pearl Harbor attack.
At Johnston Atoll, another Japanese submarine (HIJMS I-122) also surfaces and lobs a few shells at the military installations there. The shells appear to be sent at random and only slightly damage a few buildings, but two almost hit USN transport USS William Ward Burrows (AP-6). Like Wake Island, Johnston Atoll is far from Hawaii (712 nautical miles, 1319 km) and not of much use militarily to anyone, but the Japanese navy evidently is trying to make some kind of jingoistic point with these militarily pointless incidents.

Joe Dimaggio, 15 December 1941
Joe DiMaggio, named AL Player of the year, kissing his signature bat on December 15, 1941 (Sporting News (via Library of Congress)).
In the Philippines, the US Army Air Force's massive bomber force based at Clark Field has taken a beating so far in the war without accomplishing much. Major General Lewis H Brereton, Commanding General Far East Air Force, is ordered to withdraw his remaining bombers (not many) to Bachelor Field, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Australia is not threatened at this point but certainly could be in the near future. The USAAF does keep a few fighters on hand at Manila to help the large US and Philippine Army ground forces fend off the approaching Japanese forces from northern Luzon and also the southeast. General MacArthur, commander of all Allied forces in the Philippines, is furious with the lack of any naval support and accuses Admiral Hart of being ineffectual.

On the Malay Peninsula, the Commonwealth troops continue pulling back. The RAAF pulls both No. 21 Squadron and No. 453 Squadron back from advanced bases to Kuala Lumpur, where they are reinforced with planes from Singapore. The Japanese, now able to use bases in Thailand and those given up by the Allies, are quickly establishing air superiority. In Hong Kong, the Japanese in Kowloon begin systematic bombardment of the north shore of Hong Kong Island in order to soften it up for an invasion.

Newsweek magazine, 15 December 1941
Newsweek magazine of 15 December 1941 highlights the new state of war. However, the magazine's cover "War! The U.S. Fleet's Guns Blaze" suggests naval actions are taking place when there have not been any in the Pacific.
Battle of the Mediterranean: The fighting on the Gazala line intensifies on 15 December 1941. The Polish Independent Brigade joins the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and attacks into a small wedge the New Zealanders have driven into the line. The defending Italian Brescia and Pavia division, along with the Trento Division nearby, repel the attack. At the center of the line, the Italian Trieste Division also stands firm. The Italian divisions recover Point 204, taken by the New Zealand brigade on the 14th, and plan a further attack toward Alem Hamza. While the Axis has held the line, it also has taken huge losses. The German 15th Panzer Division, which is down to 8 tanks, moves to the rear after line stabilizes for the first time. After dark, the Afrika Korps commander General Crüwell reviews the attrition in his units and a dangerous advance by British 4th Armored Brigade to Bir Haleigh el Eleba about 30 miles (48 km) from Alem Hamza and realizes he cannot hold the line for long despite the day's successes. Crüwell reluctantly orders a retreat from the Gazala line over the bitter objections of the victorious Italian units. The move west by 15th Panzer Division is just in time to block the British tanks hoping to encircle the Gazala line and give the troops there time to escape.

Life magazine, 15 December 1941
Life magazine, 15 December 1941.
Eastern Front: After a brief period of moderate weather, a cold front moves in along the Moscow sector and the temperature during the night bottoms at -33 °F. At Army Group North, Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb calls Hitler in the morning - an unusual act even for commanders of army groups - and explains that it is impossible to attempt to hold a line anywhere near Tikhvin. Hitler is opposed but does not explicitly forbid a withdrawal, so after the phone call at about noon, von Leeb tells all remaining outposts east of the Volkhov River (most already have withdrawn) to pull back. Field Marshal Keitel calls at 19:00 and tells von Leeb to stop the withdrawals, at which point von Leeb tells him that he will personally visit the Wolfsschanze Fuehrer headquarters to discuss the issue - an even more unusual act.

Liepaja massacre, 15 December 1941
German Gestapo troops assemble political prisoners in Lijepaja (Liepaja) prior to execution. This picture was taken on 15 December 1941 by Hauptscharführer Karl Strott, head of the local Gestapo field office (Federal Archive B 162 Picture-02624).
The German retreats continue everywhere in the Army Group Center area. Northwest of Moscow, German Ninth Army sets demolition charges in Kalinin, including the Volga River Bridge, and evacuates Klin. Nearby, Third and Fourth Panzer Groups also retreat despite Field Marshal Fedor von Bock's admonition to "consider every step back a hundred times." South of Moscow, General Guderian's Second Panzer Army's retreat opens a ten-mile-wide hole in the German line while adjoining Second Army also withdraws. Retreating is no fun in the bitter cold, but it is better than fighting and dying or being captured Around noon, Colonel Heusinger, OKH operations branch chief, informs the forward army commands that Hitler will authorize withdrawals of thirty to forty miles to Staritsa and the line of the Lama and Ruza Rivers. Heusinger also hints that a more general withdrawal will be permitted to the line preferred by von Bock, anchored at Rzhev-Ghatsk-Orel-Kursk, but Heusinger cautions that the order is not finalized yet.

Liepaja massacre,15 December 1941
Victims of the Liepaja massacre, covered by a submachine gun visible at the right, are forced to undress on the edge of a killing pit on 15 December 1941. The picture was taken by the local Gestapo chief, Karl Strott (Federal Archive Bild B 162 Image-03236).
Holocaust: The Liepāja massacres begin in Latvia. These executions last until 17 December 1941 and result in 2731 Jewish civilians and 23 alleged communists were killed.

Chinese US citizen flying the Chinese flag at the beach, 15 December 1941
On December 15, 1941, Ruth Lee, a hostess at a Chinese restaurant, flies a Chinese flag so she isn’t mistaken for Japanese when she sunbathes on her day off in Miami, Florida.
American Home Front: Widespread hysteria about Japanese Fifth Columnists continues throughout the United States, particularly along the west coast. The Rose Bowl is shifted from its usual home in Pasadena, California to Durham, North Carolina due to fears of attacks. US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, returning from a hurried trip to Hawaii, tells the press:
I think the most effective Fifth Column work of the entire war was done in Hawaii with the possible exception of Norway.
Norway, of course, is where the term "Fifth Columnist" originated. There is no question that there were Japanese spies in Hawaii operating out of the consulate on Oahu, but there is no proof of purely civilian spies of Japanese extraction.

The four major radio networks - CBS, Mutual, NBC Red (which ultimately becomes the basis for the NBC TV network, and NBC Blue (which ultimately becomes ABC) - interrupt regular prime-time scheduling for an hour to air patriotic broadcast. It is Norman Corwin's production of "We Hold These Truths," commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and starring Orson Welles. It commemorates the United States Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the US Constitution) ratified on 15 December 1991. This breaks all the records for radio broadcasts with an audience estimated at 63 million. For comparison, the famous Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 reaches about 73 million in a larger national population.

Liepaja massacre,15 December 1941
Victims of the Liepaja massacre posing after having taken off their outer garments prior to execution. This picture was taken on 15 December 1941 by local Gestapo chief Hauptscharführer Karl Strott (Federal Archive B 162 Picture-02615).

December 1941

December 1, 1941: Hitler Fires von Rundstedt
December 2, 1941: Climb Mount Niitaka
December 3, 1941: Hints of Trouble in the Pacific
December 4, 1941: Soviets Plan Counteroffensive
December 5, 1941: Soviets Counterattack at Kalinin
December 6, 1941: Soviet Counterattack at Moscow Broadens
December 7, 1941: Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor
December 8, 1941: US Enters World War II
December 9, 1941: German Retreat At Moscow
December 10, 1941: HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse Sunk
December 11, 1941: Hitler Declares War on US
December 12, 1941: Japanese in Burma
December 13, 1941: Battle of Cape Bon
December 14, 1941: Hitler Forbids Withdrawals
December 15, 1941: The Liepaja Massacre
December 16, 1941: Japan Invades Borneo
December 17, 1941: US Military Shakeup
December 18, 1941: Hitler Lays Down the Law
December 19, 1941: Brauchitsch Goes Home
December 20, 1941: Flying Tigers in Action
December 21, 1941: The Bogdanovka Massacre
December 22, 1941: Major Japanese Landings North of Manila
December 23, 1941: Wake Island Falls to Japan
December 24, 1941: Atrocities in Hong Kong
December 25, 1941: Japan Takes Hong Kong
December 26, 1941: Soviets Land in the Crimea
December 27, 1941: Commandos Raid Norway
December 28, 1941: Operation Anthropoid Begins
December 29, 1941: Soviet Landings at Feodosia
December 30, 1941: Race for Bataan
December 31, 1941: Nimitz in Charge


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