Sunday, April 12, 2020

March 21, 1942: Germans Attack Toward Demyansk

Saturday 21 March 1942

German troops attacking toward Demyansk, 21 March 1942
The German relief force attacking toward the Demyansk pocket, 21 March 1942.
Eastern Front: Having made a rapid shift of forces, primarily Luftwaffe planes, from the successful Volkhov operation, the Wehrmacht opens a vital relief attack toward the encircled garrison at Demyansk. Operation Brueckenschlag ("Bridge-building") begins at daylight through a wilderness of trees and snow. The Soviet defenders are taken by surprise and in some spots fall back in confusion. The Germans have four divisions to cover the 25 miles to the pocket and must cross the Lovat River five miles from it. The trapped men in the pocket are barely holding off the Soviet attacks and cannot hold out much longer.

The Red Army fights desperately to open a supply corridor to the 130,000 troops now trapped on the west side of the Volkhov River due to the Germans' Operation Raubtier. The Soviets manage to open a small corridor for a short time, through which General Kirill A. Meretskov (undoubtedly under orders) personally enters the pocket to take command of the 2nd Shock Army. The Red Army troops in the pocket end their offensive toward Lyuban and Chudovo and prepare to defend the ground where they stand. The Soviets know better than to break out to the East without orders, as troops that did that during the Winter War were disciplined and sometimes executed. Stalin has not issued orders to retreat.

In Crimea, operations have ceased again as both sides have failed in recent attempts to end the stalemate on the Parpach Narrows. General Kozlov, commander of the Soviet forces, is building up his forces for a third attempt on the strong German base at Koi-Asan. General Manstein, meanwhile, is helped by a continuing Luftwaffe building as units return from the Reich after badly needed refits.

German troops using a captured Soviet T-60 tank at the Kholm pocket 1942
Germans using a captured Soviet T-60 light tank in defense of the Kholm pocket (Kampfgruppe Scherer) during spring 1942 (Muck, Richard, Federal Archive Figure 183-J19893). 
Battle of the Pacific: General MacArthur and his party, including his wife and young son, arrive at Adelaide on 21 March 1942. Among those greeting MacArthur are the Australian Minister for the Army, Frank Forde, and senior US officers including Brigadier-General Patrick Hurley of the US Army. MacArthur now has supreme command of all Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. MacArthur's escape has attracted worldwide attention by both sides. Incidentally, MacArthur already has made his famous "I Shall Return" speech while changing trains on the 20th, and he has nothing remotely as consequential to add today. MacArthur now changes to a special carriage on the Adelaide Express for the final run into Melbourne, where he will arrive on the 22nd.

MacArthur quickly sets to work establishing his General Headquarters (GHQ) Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA). He staffs it with his fellow escapees from Corregidor, and they become known as the "Bataan Gang." This headquarters becomes known for its fanatical loyalty to MacArthur and its insularity. Lieutenant (junior grade) John D. Bulkeley, who led the PT boats that brought MacArthur out of the Philippines, goes on to a brilliant US Navy career and becomes MacArthur's biggest cheerleader, calling him "the greatest general as well as statesman since George Washington."

Brooklyn Eagle 21 March 1942
The Brooklyn Eagle, 21 March 1942. General MacArthur's escape receives worldwide attention.
MacArthur learns officially (he already has been told this unofficially at Batchelor Airfield) that he has little to work with. There is not a single tank in Australia and only 32,000 Allied troops - and most of these service troops. The only combat-ready unit is one brigade of the Australian 6th Division. Official Australian strategy in the event of a Japanese invasion is to withdraw immediately to the "Brisbane Line" in order to hold the populated areas along the eastern and southern coasts. In other words, Darwin is ripe for the taking. MacArthur calls this his greatest shock and surprise of the entire war.

At Taungoo, Burma, about 60 Sikh sowars of the Burma Frontier Force make a desperate and futile cavalry charge against advancing Japanese infantry. This is the last British cavalry charge in history. The Japanese 112th Regiment is still assembling its forces for a major attack on the Oktwin position. The Chinese 200th Division today complete their defenses at Oktwin and Toungoo, helped by the time gained by the sacrificial cavalry charges. The Japanese, having finally overcome these delaying tactics, today close up on the 200th Division outposts at Oktwin and prepares for a set-piece attack. In a formality, the Chinese Expeditionary Force under Lt. General Joseph Stilwell and Chinese Lt. General Lin Wie officially becomes operational today.

Japanese aircraft raid the Magwe Airdrome at 14:30 and destroy nine RAF Blenheim Mk IV bombers and three American Volunteer Group P-40s on the ground, and three Hawker Hurricane Mk. II fighters in the air. Magwe now is the home base of the AVG "Flying Tigers." The defending AVG shoots down two "Nate" bombers.

Opening Ceremony of Warship Week, 21 March 1942
"The Lord Mayor of London (back to camera) inspecting the Naval Guard of Honour at the opening ceremony." Warship Week Opening Ceremony in Trafalgar Square, 21 March 1942 (© IWM A 7981). 
The Japanese have been raiding northern Australia repeatedly recently. Today, they send a Mitsubishi Ki-15 Army Type 97 Command Reconnaissance aircraft from Koepang, Timor, over Darwin to scout out new targets. A US Army Air Force P-40 of the 9th Pursuit Squadron shoots it down after an alert from a coast watcher on Bathurst Island. Later in the day, the Japanese bomb Katherine, Australia, about 200 miles (322 km) south of Darwin, with little result.

Before invading Australia, the Japanese want to completely secure New Guinea. The RAAF today sends four Curtiss Kittyhawks Mk. IAs of RAAF No. 75 Squadron to help defend Port Moresby there. However, nervous antiaircraft gunners there mistake the planes for Japanese attackers and open fire. Three of the four planes are damaged, one irreparably, but manage to land at Seven Mile Aerodrome.

In the Philippines, the Allied forces on the Bataan Peninsula continue to hold out against the Japanese following MacArthur's escape. Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, commander of U.S. Forces in the Philippines (USFIP), organizes his command on Corregidor Island. He appoints Major General Lewis Beebe his chief of staff. Major General Edward P. King, Jr., is named commander of Luzon Force. Today, General Yamashita sends a surrender demand to General Wainwright that is ignored. The US forces make a small raid on Mindanao to keep the Japanese busy.

Opening Ceremony of Warship Week, 21 March 1942
The Warship Week opening ceremony in Trafalgar Square, 21 March 1942. Note that nobody seems particularly concerned about air attack. © IWM A 7980.
European Air Operations: An extended lull in operations on the Channel Front continues today. RAF Bomber Command sends one Wellington bomber to attack Essen, but it returns early due to weather conditions.

Battle of the Atlantic:  U-124 (Kptlt. Johann Mohr), on its eighth patrol out of Lorient, continues a very successful patrol off of the East coast of the United States by torpedoing two ships:
  • 7934-ton US tanker Esso Nashville
  • 11,355-ton US tanker Atlantic Sun
These add to the Allies' miseries of losing many tankers recently. However, neither tanker sinks completely. Esso Nashville, hit at 06:08 by one torpedo about 16 miles northeast of Frying Pan Lightship Buoy, breaks in two, with the bow section sinking but the stern section towed into Morehead City (it ultimately is repaired and returned to service). Atlantic Sun, carrying a full load of crude oil, suffers only minor damage from one torpedo fired under non-ideal circumstances and makes it to Beaufort, North Carolina, under its own power.

The weather in the Atlantic is rough today, causing 598-ton Panamanian Lumberboat Vamar to capsize off Port Saint Joseph, Florida, in 25 feet of water. The ship was carrying building materials for the Naval Base to be built at Guantanamo Bay. This wreck becomes a favorite spot for sport divers known as the "Lumberboat" or "Lumbership wreck." Previously named Eleanor Boling, the Vamar had served as Admiral Byrd's research vessel and supply ship during his quest to circumnavigate the South Pole in 1928. During this service, the ship brought the first mechanized vehicles (converted Model T Fords) to Antarctica.

German Kriegsmarine submarine commissionings continue to outpace the occasional losses. Today, U-442 (F.Kapt. Hans-Joachim Hesse) and U-517 (Kptlt. Paul Hartwig) are commissioned. The new boats have longer range and capabilities than most of the submarines the Reich began the war with. The new submarines are sent to training flotilla to work up.

Adolf Hitler and General Erwin Rommel at Rastenburg, 21 March 1942
Adolf Hitler personally gives General Erwin Rommel the Oak Leaves with Swords to the Cross of the Iron Cross at Rastenburg on 21 March 1942 (they were awarded on 20 January 1942, but Rommel was busy in North Africa). Rommel is the 10th recipient of this award.
Battle of the Mediterranean: The Italians have become aware of the Royal Navy supply convoys heading for Malta from both east and west. To stop them, Italian Vice Admiral Angelo Iachino sails from Taranto, Italy, aboard battleship Littorio accompanied by four destroyers. In addition, Rear-Admiral Angelo Parona sets sail from Messina with the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the light cruiser Bande Nere, and four destroyers. The plan is to intercept the British ships sailing west from Alexandria near the Gulf of Sirte. The British Force H, meanwhile, launches 16 Spitfires for Malta from the convoy heading east from Gibraltar.

In a continuing effort to distract the Germans from events at sea, the British Eighth Army launches more harassing attacks against Axis forces near Benghazi. This keeps the Axis reconnaissance aircraft occupied over the land rather than scouting out at sea where they might spot the numerous British ships. However, Italian submarines Onice and Platino both spot British convoy MW 10 and report its position. The Axis command in Rome orders Italian submarines Perla, Acciaio, and Galatea and German submarines U.73, U-205, and U-403 to the area. Commando Supremo also readies the Italian 4th Air Fleet and German II Air Corps for attacks. The Axis air forces get their first victim when 6 Italian Fiat CR-42 bombers sink British motor launch boat ML-129 between Gibraltar and Malta. There are seven deaths.

Axis air attacks on Malta continue today without let-up. The main German target, the RAF field at Ta Qali, suffers repeated attacks, as do the communities near it. Dozens of people are killed.

Battle of the Black Sea: German aircraft sink 2482-ton Soviet transport ship SS Georgi Dimitrov (Георгий Димитров) in Sevastopol Harbor. There are no casualties.

A Bristol Bombay being transported in Northern Ireland, 21 March 1942
"Bristol Bombay in a street in Hollywood, Northern Ireland, after a forced landing at Clandeboye." 21 March 1942 (© IWM HU 110308).
Partisans: Václav Morávek, a Czech officer, has been a member of the "Three Kings" partisan movement. He has had a reputation for daring, even foolhardy, exploits against the occupying Germans. Today, that comes to an end when the Gestapo arrests his colleague Václav Řehák. Morávek tries to intervene and the Gestapo guns him down. He is not forgotten, however, as he is posthumously promoted to Brigadier General and becomes famous in a Czech television series about the Three Kings. The death of Václav Morávek basically ends the Three Kings.

Despite the loss of the Three Kings, the Czechs have real trouble brewing for the Germans. The British SOE has had agents embedded in the Prague vicinity since late December looking for an opportunity to assassinate Gauleiter Reinhard Heydrich. This is Operation Anthropoid.

US/Chinese Relations: The United States agrees to provide US$500 million in aid to China. This is a very strategic move as Chinese troops now are carrying most of the burden of fighting in Burma as the battered British forces there try to regroup.

The New Yorker, 21 March 1942
The New Yorker, 21 March 1942.
US Military: The Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command is activated. It commands 25 Pan-American World Airways DC-3 transports. Their main mission is to take supplies to China over the Himalayas (the "Hump") but first they must supply the Allied troops under pressure in Burma.

Japanese Military: In a curious incident, Rear Admiral Sosa Tanetsuga writes an article in the Japan Times warning of the vulnerability of the Japanese homeland to air attack from the Aleutian Island chain. The Aleutians have been watched closely by both sides for the same reason - their possible use for air attack - but why a Japanese officer chooses a newspaper to broadcast this is a mystery.

German Government: Fritz Sauckel, one of Hitler's old "street fighter" comrades, is appointed Reich Plenipotentiary General for Labor Mobilization. Sauckel's portfolio includes the power, in Hitler's name, to ship laborers from all across occupied Europe to Reich labor squads by any means necessary. This includes "shanghaiing" men off the streets. However, Sauckel cannot (under current practices) use the thousands of Jews now being deported from Eastern Galicia to the new death camp at Belzec (this will change in the near future). Sauckel, whose appointment is a sign of German recognition that the war in the Soviet Union is going to be harder and longer than anticipated, will receive the death penalty at Nuremberg for his treatment of laborers.

Winnipeg Tribune, 21 March 1942
The Winnipeg Tribune reports in its 21 March 1942 edition that the "Women's Land Army Has 21,000 Workers Throughout The Counties of England."
American Homefront: "Secret Agent of Japan" from 20th Century Fox premieres at the Globe Theater in New York City. It is the first motion picture to depict the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor - which, for most Americans, is still shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. "Secret Agent of Japan," directed by Irving Pichel, is a typical wartime espionage thriller starring Preston Foster and Lynn Bari.

Future History: Ali Abdullah Saleh is born in Al-Ahmar, Yemen He will serve as the 1st President of Yemen from 22 May 1990 to 25 February 2012. Notable for developing deeper ties with Western powers, particularly in the war on terror, Saleh passes away on 4 December 2017.

Françoise Dorléac is born in Paris, France. The sister of famous actress Catherine Deneuve, Françoise also becomes an actress primarily in Europe. Françoise Dorléac dies tragically on the cusp of stardom on 26 June 1967 in a car accident.

The Australian Women's Weekly, 21 March 1942
The Australian Women's Weekly, 21 March 1942.

March 1942

March 1, 1942: Second Battle of Java Sea
March 2, 1942: Huge Allied Shipping Losses at Java
March 3, 1942: Japan Raids Western Australia
March 4, 1942: Second Raid On Hawaii
March 5, 1942: Japan Takes Batavia
March 6, 1942: Churchill Assaults Free Speech
March 7, 1942: British Defeat in Burma
March 8, 1942: Rangoon Falls to Japan
March 9, 1942: Japanese Conquest of Dutch East Indies
March 10, 1942:US Navy attacks Japanese Landings at Lae
March 11, 1942: Warren Buffett's First Stock Trade
March 12, 1942: Japan Takes Java
March 13, 1942: Soviets Attack In Crimea Again 
March 14, 1942: The US Leans Toward Europe
March 15, 1942: Operation Raubtier Begins
March 16, 1942: General MacArthur Gets His Ride
March 17, 1942: MacArthur Arrives in Australia
March 18, 1942: Japan Attacks In Burma
March 19, 1942: Soviets Encircled on the Volkhov
March 20, 1942: "I Shall Return," Says MacArthur
March 21, 1942: Germans Attack Toward Demyansk
March 22, 1942: Second Battle of Sirte
March 23, 1942: Hitler's Insecurity Builds
March 24, 1942: Bataan Bombarded
March 25, 1942: Chinese Under Pressure in Burma
March 26, 1942: Win Or Die, Vows MacArthur
March 27, 1942: The Battle of Suusari
March 28, 1942: The St. Nazaire Commando Raid
March 29, 1942: The Free Republic of Nias
March 30, 1942: Japanese-Americans Off Bainbridge Island
March 31, 1942: Japanese Seize Christmas Island


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