SECOND WORLD WAR March 1941
British commandos conducted a raid on the Nazi- occupied Lofoten Islands off Narvik in Norway, known as Operation Claymore on the 4th March 1941. They achieved their objective of destroying fish oil factories and over 3,600 tons of oil and glycerine. As well as capturing German code information they took over 200 German prisoners, destroyed eleven ships and one German armed trawler surrendered to destroyer HMS Somali. The commandos suffered only one casualty in the whole operation which was an accidental self-inflicted wound by an officer who managed to shoot himself in the leg with his own pistol.
Operation Lustre began on the 4th March 1941 during the Middle East Campaign when British troops were transferred by a series of naval convoys from Alexandria in Egypt to Greece. The first British troops landed in Greece on the 7th March 1941. British troops were required to assist the Greeks in their battle against advancing German troops. The Greek army were opposing the Italian forces who had been virtually defeated. Germany sent troops to re-enforce the Italians and Britain reciprocated by re-enforcing the Greeks. It did however, leave the Allied forces weakened in North Africa leading to Rommel’s successful counter-attack in April 1941. (See Germany – 24th March 1941)
During the Blitz on Britain’s cities, a Luftwaffe bomber flew over Buckingham Palace in London on the 8th March 1941 and dropped a single high explosive bomb. The North Lodge was hit and demolished but one policeman was killed. Later the same day another wave of German aircraft dropped high explosive bombs over the Palace forecourt. No casualties were reported among the Palace staff and the Palace itself did not sustain any major damage. On the 19th March 1941 London was subjected to the worst bombing raid of the year when it was one of twelve cities having been hit by numerous Luftwaffe raids during March 1941. On the night of the 10th March 1941 Portsmouth was raided by the Luftwaffe who dropped thousands of incendiary and hundreds of high explosive bombs. Although serious damage was caused the city coped remarkably well in extinguishing the fires and securing the damaged buildings. 93 people were killed, over 200 were injured and over 1,000 were made homeless. On the nights of the 13th-14th and the 14th-15th March 1941 Luftwaffe bombers raided the Clydebank district of Glasgow. The main targets were the armaments factory at the Singer Sewing Machine works, John Brown & Co shipyard and Beardmore’s engine works. Over the two nights 528 people were killed and 617 seriously injured. 11,350 homeless people were given temporary accommodation. Plymouth Docks and neighbouring Devonport was subjected to a series of devastating raids from the 19th March 1941. The city lost its historic Guildhall and the main shopping streets were badly damaged and more than 900 people were killed and over 40,000 were made homeless.
The Battle of Keren in Eritrea was a conflict during The East Africa Campaign and was fought between a mixed Italian Army of regular and colonial troops and the British/Free French forces. The British army consisted mainly of Sudanese and Indian troops under the British flag. Keren is surrounded on most sides by a jumble of steep granite mountains and sharp ridges with road and rail access along a valley. The natural fortification was ideal for the Italians to defend against an attack along the valley road to Keren, as they occupied the high ground. The British attacked on the 27th March 1941 and forced the Italian army off the high ground. The Italian defence positions at Keren were untenable and the defenders withdrew along the road from Keren to Aasmara with the British in pursuit.
On the Mediterranean island of Crete British heavy cruiser HMS York was disabled in Souda Bay by two explosive motorboats of the Italian Regina Marina on the 25th March 1941. Six motorboats packed with explosives attacked three targets in pairs. Of the six motorboats only three were successful, two struck York which was run aground to prevent her sinking. The third damaged Norwegian tanker Pericies. Submarine HMS Rover supplied electrical power to enable York’s guns to operate as anti-aircraft defence. After Rover was damaged by German aircraft she was towed away for repair. York was further damaged beyond repair and was abandoned after having her main guns wrecked by demolition charges on the 21st May 1941.
At Cape Matapan, off southern Greece, a naval engagement took place between the 27th -29th March 1941. The Battle of Cape Matapan was fought between the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy against the Italian Regia Marina. Italian messages had been intercepted and decoded by “enigma” at Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in England. The messages informed the British that an Italian battleship, six heavy and light cruisers were about to attack merchant convoys supplying British forces in the Mediterranean. This enabled ships of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy to intercept and sink or severely damage several ships of the Italian navy. In order not to disclose “enigma” a Sunderland flying boat was dispatched and the Italian ships located. Two separate British patrols converged on the Italian fleet. The first was commanded by Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippel with cruisers HMS Ajax, HMS Gloucester, HMS Orion and HMS Perth and a number of destroyers sailed from Greek waters. Admiral Cunningham with HMS Formidable, HMS Warspite, HMS Barham and HMS Valiant left Alexandria the same day to join up with the cruisers. On the morning of the 28th March 1941 a number of Italian ships engaged with Pridham–Wippel’s group but the Italians experienced range finding problems with their guns and they changed course to join up with the remainder of the Italian ships. The British had inflicted considerable damage to the Italian Regia Marina. They had one battleship damaged, three heavy cruisers and two destroyers sunk and one destroyer badly damaged. In the battle over 2,300 Italian sailors were killed and 1,015 were taken prisoner. The British suffered four light cruisers slightly damaged, one torpedo bomber shot down and three killed. On the early morning of the 29th March 1941 Admiral Cunningham ordered a signal to be sent to the Italians that they were unable to rescue any more of the 1,015 survivors due to the risk of air attacks. He gave the location of the remaining survivors for the Italian hospital ship Gradisca to recover.
In the Battle of the Atlantic the Allies suffered huge convoy losses during March 1941. A total of forty ships were sunk (234,847 tons) and a further ten ships were damaged (98,329 tons) mainly from German U-boat attacks.
German dictator Adolf Hitler instructed Chief of German Police of the dreaded SS Heinrich Himmler to order the expansion of Auschwitz concentration camp on the 1st March 1941. The new camp was to house 100,000 prisoners of war and be located outside the village of Birkenau in Poland.
In North Africa German Panzers began to arrive in greater numbers on the 12th March 1941 following Lt-General Erwin Rommel’s appointment as head of the Afrika Korps in February1941. Rommel’s attack on El Agheila on the 24th March 1941 began a new stage in the war. It was the beginning of the German involvement in one of the war’s major fronts. Fighting against the Italians the British had extended their front from Egypt to Tobruk in Libya and the Italians were defeated and surrendered. The British were substantially weakened when some of the forces were sent to assist in the Greco-Italian War. Rommel sensed the British weakness and ordered an attack on El Agheila Fort. The British realised they could resist against a concerted German attack and retreated. There was little action apart from the British setting delaying tactics and the Germans reoccupied El Agheila. For Rommel the campaign to take El Agheila was a success and the North African Campaign had begun. Mersa Brega in Libya is the most southerly part of the Mediterranean Sea and was the opening phase of Rommel’s first offensive on the 31st March 1941. The Afrika Korps took Mersa Brega by pinning down the British with his infantry whilst despatching his Panzers across the open desert flanks. This tactic was the first example of moves that were to become his signature.
On the 27th March 1941 Hitler issued a directive to his military leaders to plan for an invasion of Yugoslavia. The new government of Yugoslavia had rejected the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany negotiated by Prince Regent Paul earlier in the month. When the pact was rejected Hitler was enraged which led him to order the invasion. (See Other Theatres – 4th March 1941)
The Italian Spring Offensive began on the 9th March 1941 during the Greco-Italian War. The Greek Army had advanced deep into Albanian territory and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini supervised the last Italian attempt of the war to defeat the Greeks. The Greek artillery had not been neutralised and the exploitation of advantageous terrain allowed the Greeks to maintain an active defence. The Italians began the attack with heavy artillery and air bombardment followed by numerous infantry assaults. On the 14th March 1941 Italian General Ugo Cavallero advised Mussolini to halt the offensive as the attacks were futile. On the 24th March 1941 the offensive was cancelled as the offensive had ended in complete failure. Italian casualties amounted to over 18,000 dead and wounded while the Greeks suffered 5,300 dead, wounded and missing.
Bulgaria officially signed the Tripartite Pact on the 1st March 1941 in Vienna. The Tripartite Pact was a defensive military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan and the agreement was signed in Berlin during September 1940. The Kingdom if Bulgaria had been an ally of Germany during the Great War but hesitated to sign the new pact due to internal differences of opinion. However, Bulgaria was finally forced to agree Germany’s wishes when Germany needed to move their troops through Bulgaria to assist in the Italo-Greek War. By signing the Tripartite Pact there was not any possibility of Bulgaria militarily resisting German access through the country side.
Following months of negotiations between Germany and Yugoslavia, Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia met with Adolf Hitler on the 4th March 1941 at his country retreat of Berghoff where Paul agreed to join Axis Pact. He set his conditions for Yugoslavia to join the Axis Powers and Hitler agreed providing all the terms were published. Following discussion with the Yugoslav government some members of the cabinet resigned on the 21st March 1941 in protest at Prince Paul’s Pact with the Nazis. On the 25th March 1941 Paul’s commitment to the Tripartite Pact was signed in Vienna. However, the regime was overthrown and a new government was proclaimed when the seventeen year old Crown Prince Peter was declared King on the 27th March 1941. The government refused to ratify the Yugoslav signing of the Tripartite Pact which enraged Hitler who issued a directive to invade Yugoslavia. (See Germany – 27th March 1941)
In America the Lease-Lend programme had been approved by Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act on the 11th March 1941. The Lease-Lend programme was devised as a means of aiding Great Britain in its war against Germany. America’s reasoning for granting the aid was that if your neighbour was successful in defending his home, the security of your home was enhanced. British morale was bolstered in the knowledge they were not alone in their struggle against Germany.
The Western Defence Command (WDC) of America was established on the 17th March 1941. The command formation of the U.S. Army was responsible for the training of soldiers prior to their deployment overseas. The coordination for the defence of the Pacific Coast region of the United States was little more than a planning agency until the 11th December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
Japanese Takeo Yoshikawa arrived in Hawaii on the 27th March 1941 under the cover of being a vice-consul named Tadashi Morimura. Yoshikawa had been discharged from the Imperial Japanese Navy after having suffered a severe stomach ailment in 1936. He began a career in Naval intelligence at the Navy Headquarters in Tokyo after studying every source he could access to become an expert on the United States Navy. In 1940 he passed Foreign Ministry English examinations to qualify as a junior diplomat. Upon arriving in Hawaii he began his spying career by observing the U.S. Fleet movements and security arrangements at Pearl Harbour. His observations were transmitted to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo.