Second WORLD WAR February 1941
In the Western Desert Campaign on the 7th Feb 1941 the Italian Special Armoured Brigade (10th Army) saw initial success in a dawn attempt to break out of the encirclement of the Benghazi-Tripoli Road in Libya. After several days of desperate fighting the retreating Italians were cut off by the British Combe Force during the Battle of Beda Fomm. The Combe Force was a mobile flying column commanded by Major-General John Frederick Boyce Combe, CB. DSO & Bar. The 25,000 strong Italian 10th Army formally surrendered before the end of the day. On the 9th February 1941 British troops captured El Agheila from the Italians. During this campaign, known as Operation Compass, the British took 138,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners, hundreds of tanks and more than one thousand guns and aircraft. British losses were approximately 1,900 men killed or wounded. On the same day British Prime Minister Winston Churchill halted the advance at El Agheila and began to withdraw troops to assist in the defence of Greece. By the 14th February 1941 the withdrawal of the British troops in North Africa had weakened their defences. In the meantime Germany’s Afrika Korps was heading toward El Agheila. When the British halted and having weakened their forces at El Agheila they had underestimated the German’s ability to wage war in the desert. German Lt-General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps took the opportunity to successfully attack and capture El Agheila on the 20th February 1941. Rommel was able to use this time to prepare for an offensive in which they retook El Agheila. (See Germany – 14th February 1941)
When American Mr. Wendell Willkie visited Britain at the end of January 1941 he carried with him a letter of introduction from American President Roosevelt. Churchill’s response to this letter was to make an international radio address on the 9th February 1941 in which he gave his speech “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job”. Concluding the speech he quoted Roosevelt’s hand written verse from Longfellow, which said “Applies to you people as it does to us”. Here is the verse:
… Sail on, O Ship of State! Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears, With all the hope of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate.
“What is the answer that I shall give, in your name, to this great man, the thrice-chosen head of a nation of a hundred and thirty million? Here is the answer I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter, we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilism and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job”.
Operation Grog was the name given to the attacking of Genoa Harbour in Italy by British battleships on the 9th February 1941. The British fleet comprised of HMS Malaya, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Renown and HMS Sheffield was accompanied by ten destroyers. While four destroyers carried out anti-submarine sweeps, the heavy ships attempted to deceive Italian and German observers into thinking they were supporting a convoy as a feint movement. The harbour was bombarded and four cargo ships were sunk and a further eighteen were damaged. Italian battleship Caio Duilo was being repaired in dry dock but a salvo from HMS Malaya failed to hit the target. An error by a gunnery officer on HMS Sheffield caused an armour-piercing shell to hit Genoa Cathedral but it failed to explode. The shelling of Genoa caused 144 civilians to lose their lives and a further 272 were wounded. After the Italian fleet failed to intercept the British fleet returned to Gibraltar on the 11th February 1941.
In East Africa, British forces entered Italian held Somaliland on the 11th February 1941. With the Italians demoralised over their losses in the North African campaign Italian Viceroy Aosta withdrew his advanced position and consolidated his forces in Italian East Africa. The British had broken the Italian communication codes which enabled them to advance and capture Italian Somaliland capital Mogadishu on the 25thFebruary 1941.
In the Mediterranean, during the North African Campaign, British Royal Navy Submarine HMS Upright attacked an Italian convoy on the 25th February 1941. The convoy was sailing from Naples in Italy to Tripoli in Libya and Upright sank Italian cruiser Armando Diaz 45 miles off Sfax in Tunisia. On board Armando Diaz, 464 members of the crew were killed and 147 survived.
The “Three Nights Blitz” of Swansea occurred during the 19th, 20th and 21st February 1941. The German Luftwaffe selected Swansea, on the south coast of Wales, as a legitimate target due to its importance as a port, docks and oil refinery. Swansea’s destruction was seen as being a major boost to Germany’s war effort by crippling coal exports and demoralising the civilian population and emergency services. A sustained total of fourteen hours of bombing activity over the three nights saw the city unprotected by Allied fighters allowing German bombers unrestricted access. The centre of Swansea was devastated with 857 properties destroyed and 11,000 damaged. At the end of the three days 230 people had died, another 409 injured and a total of 7,000 people had lost their homes. Following the Swansea blitz the King, Queen and Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Swansea to help boost morale.
During the course of February 1941, daily heavy attacks saw British controlled Malta entering into their critical period. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy continued to oppose both German and Italian air and sea forces. The Axis powers resolved to bomb or starve Malta into submission, by attacking ports, towns, cities and Allied shipping supplying the island. German “Afrika Korps” commander General Erwin Rommel (see Germany- 3rd February 1941) recognised that without the defeat of Malta they would not be able to control and supply their North Africa campaign.
On the 3rd February 1941 Lt-General Erwin Rommel was appointed as head of “Afrika Korps” to command the small blocking force to shore up Germany’s failing Italian ally in Libya. Hitler had selected Rommel to lead the German forces in North Africa in January 1941. Elements of the Afrika Korps began to arrive in Tripoli in Libya on the 11th February 1941. Rommel arrived in Tripoli on the 14th February 1941 and his Afrika Korps began moving east towards the British held positions in El Agheila on the Mediterranean coast of Libya. (See Britain – 20th February 1941)
On the 20th February 1941 Greece rejected a German offer to mediate in the Greco-Italian War. On the 21st February 1941 German troops moved through Bulgaria toward the Greek front to give assistance to the struggling Italian army.
In February 1941 the German U-boat offensive in the Atlantic was increasingly successful. However, on the 24th February 1941 the “Happy Time” peaked when Britain’s Western Approaches Command (WAC) was transferred from London to Liverpool and given the responsibility for defending the trade in the North Atlantic. During February 1941 a total of 44 Allied ships were sunk (211,885 tons) and a further 3 ships damaged (28,340 tons).
In German controlled Vichy France Admiral Francois Darlan was appointed head of the Vichy Government on the 24th February 1941. When France surrendered to Germany in 1940, Philippe Pétain formed a new Vichy government with a view to entering into an armistice with Germany. Darlan served as the Minister of Marine in the Pétain administration and replaced Pierre Étienne Flandin as “Vice President of the Council”. He was became de facto head of the Vichy government by becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Interior and National Defence answerable only to Pétain. On the 11th February 1941 he was named as Pétain’s eventual successor.
In the Battle for North Africa German Dictator Adolf Hitler realised he would have to support Italy in the war against Britain in the desert. He informed Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini on the 9th February 1941 that reinforcements were on the way to North Africa. (See Germany – 3rd February 1941)
In America Admiral Husband E. Kimmel took over the position of Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet on the 1st February 1941 from Admiral James Richardson. The previous year the fleet’s base had been transferred from San Diego in California to Pearl Harbour on Hawaii. This move was designed to be more responsive to any aggression by the Japanese. In early 1941 Kimmel wrote an account stating he believed a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was a possibility and he took all practical steps to minimise the damage should an attack take place. Kimmel’s instinct proved to be correct as the Japanese did invade Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
The United States House of Representatives voted 265-165 in favour of the Lend-Lease bill on the 8th February 1941. American President Franklin Roosevelt had presented the bill to the Senate on the 10th January 1941 in order to aid Britain in her war against Germany.
The Nazi officials of Vienna in Austria began to deport Austrian Jews to ghettos in Poland on the 15th February 1941. A total of 5,000 Jewish men, women and children were transported in order to make Vienna “free from Jews”. When the officials were satisfied the task was complete the transportations ended in the autumn of 1941. The Jewish people were rounded up and put onto “transport” trains each carrying approximately 1,000 people who were totally unprepared for what faced them when they reached their destination.
In Spain on the 26th February 1941, Dictator Francisco Franco belatedly replied to Adolf Hitler’s three week old letter. He stated that the price for Spain’s entry into the war supporting the Axis Powers would come with demands of his own. To repay Germany for their assistance in the Spanish Civil War, he would permit volunteers to join Germany on the Eastern Front to fight against communism. Hitler approved the use of Spanish volunteers on the 24th June 1941. In order to claim neutrality, Franco had not committed Spain to the Second World War on the Axis side, as he did not wish to fight against Britain and her allies.