SECOND WORLD WAR April 1941

SECOND WORLD WAR April 1941

(The Desert War)

When Italy entered the war in June 1940 they already had an army of 236,000 men, equipment and supplies in Libya. Their attempt to captured Egypt had been halted by the British and they were driven back into Libya. Germany intervened by sending re-enforcements under Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. By the end of March 1941 Rommel had reached and captured El Agheila. The British were in retreat and Rommel, known as the “Desert Fox”, was set to continue the desert war.

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By the 6th April 1941 Rommel’s Afrika Korps had advanced 400 miles, forcing the British to retreat to Egypt, when he assigned some of his force to begin the siege of Tobruk. The German siege of Tobruk began on the 10th April 1941, where a garrison of British troops, mostly Australian remained, to deny the German/Italian axis powers access to the town’s port. The Siege of Tobruk was to last for two hundred and forty one days. The reason the British and the Axis Powers wanted control of Tobruk was that it had a deep protected harbour, for the British so they could defend Egypt and the Suez Canal. For the Axis Powers, to bring in supplies rather than having to transport them from the distant port of Tripoli in Libya. On the 13th/14th April 1941 German tanks attacked the Australian defences but they were held off by artillery fire and the German infantry was forced back by the Australian infantry. In the meantime, Rommel had advanced eastward toward Egypt and was at the frontier by the 24th April 1941. With the failure to capture Tobruk during the march eastward, Rommel believed the only way to take Tobruk was by a deliberate attack. This attack was not possible until sufficient support units had arrived in the area. On the 27th April 1941 Major-General Friedrich Paulus a Deputy Chief of the General Staff, arrives from Berlin to enquire about Rommel’s intentions. Also to let him know there was little chance of more help being available and to concentrate on holding defensive position on the Egyptian frontier.

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 (The Battle for Greece)       

When Italy failed to win the Greco-Italian War which had begun on the 28th October 1940, Hitler decided to intervene on the 4th November 1940. The Greek Army had forced the Italians to retreat into Albanian territory and by the 24th March 1941 the Italian offensive was cancelled as it had ended in complete failure. British troops were transferred from North Africa to Greece beginning on the 4th March 1941. They were required to assist the Greeks in their battle against the advancing German troops.

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The German invasion of Greece, known as Operation Marita began on the 6th April 1941 with the Greek Army occupying the Greek border with Albania. British and Commonwealth reinforcements had arrived in anticipation of a German attack. However, the Germans invaded from Bulgaria, thereby creating a second front. By the 8th April 1941 Salonika in Greece was captured. On the 11th/12th April 1941 the Battle of Vevi was fought between Commonwealth troops and forces from Nazi Germany. The battle took place near the town of Amyntaion close to the Greek North West border. The Allies withdrew owing to adverse weather conditions in the mountains passes. Kleisoura Pass in the Greek mountains and was strategically important as it stood on the main Allied defensive line from Albania. Between the 13th and 14th April 1941 organised resistance by some elements of the Greek 20th Infantry Division were in position to halt the rapid German advance through Yugoslavia. With intense effort and artillery support the attacking Germans managed to split the line and drive some Greek forces into the higher ground, and the remainder surrendered to the Germans. The retreating element of the Greek armed forces was forced to surrender around mid-day on the 14th April 1941 as there was not sufficient transport to bring reinforcements from the Albanian border. German Blitzkrieg tactics overwhelmed the British troops who had been sent to assist Greeks. Outnumbered on the ground and in the air the Greek and Allied forces were unable to deploy sufficient troops to stop the German advance at any one position. With the Germans approaching Athens the city was placed under martial law and the Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis committed suicide by shooting himself on the 18th April 1941. The same day the British began to plan for the evacuation of Greece as it was clear the Allied forces could not halt the German advance. The Greek government agreed that the armed forces should be evacuated. On the 23rd April 1941 the Greek Army surrendered to the Germans and the Greek government including King George II of Greece escaped to Crete. Beginning on the 24th April 1941 British and Allied forces began their evacuation from Greece. Despite an acute shortage of Allied shipping more than 50,000 Allied troops were evacuated, mostly to Crete but others went to Egypt. Tanks, heavy equipment and trucks had to be abandoned. On the 27th April 1941 German troops occupied the Greek capital Athens. Jointly Germany and Italy occupied the capital while the country was divided into three separate zones occupied by the Germans, Italians and the Bulgarians.

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(Britain)

April 1941 was the month for the Blitz of British Cities. Luftwaffe raids targeted major city centres including industrial and dock areas.

Bristol and Avonmouth suffered heavy air attacks on the 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 11th April 1941. However, the attack on Bristol on the 7th April 1941 was acting as a diversionary raid as the Luftwaffe were making Liverpool their main target for the night. Although not realised at the time the Blitz on Bristol had ended on the 11th April 1941 as the Luftwaffe switched their attention to Belfast, London, Plymouth, Coventry and Birmingham.

Coventry suffered two heavy night raids by the Luftwaffe on the 8th/9th and the 10th/11th April 1941. The damage caused by the two raids included some factories, the central police station, the Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital, King Henry VIII School and St. Mary’s Hall. Christ Church was the main architectural casualty of the raids when most of the building was destroyed leaving only the spire standing. The two raids resulted in the death of 451 people and over 700 seriously injured.         

Two separate raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe against the City of Birmingham took place on the 9th & 10th April 1941. The first raid was made up of 235 bombers who dropped 280 tons of explosives and 40,000 incendiary bombs on the city centre. The Bull Ring suffered heavy damage and the Prince of Wales Theatre together with the Midland Arcade were destroyed. Outlying areas including Small Heath, Aston and Nechels also suffered heavy damage. The second raid had 245 bombers dropping 254 tons of explosive and 43,000 incendiary bombs causing major damage to Solihull, Hall Green and Erdington and the combined two raids caused 1,121 casualties.       (Continue from here again)

The Belfast Blitz comprised four separate German air raids during April/May 1941. The first raid was probably only to test the Northern Ireland City of Belfast’s defences on the 7th/8th April 1941. Two hundred Luftwaffe bombers attacked military and manufacturing targets in the city on the 16th April 1941. Aircraft carrier HMS Furious was berthed in the dockyard having a refit when she was hit by a single small bomb but only sustained light damage. The raid consisted mainly of high explosive bombs causing the death of approximately 900 people and 1,500 injured, which was the greatest loss of life in any night raid during the Blitz. Only London had a higher casualty rate on any one night. The 3rd and 4th raids were carried out during early May 1941.

The Luftwaffe returned to London in waves lasting all night on the 19th April 1941 and dropped hundreds of tons of bombs for which they lost only two aircraft. Many important landmarks and public buildings were hit. St Paul’s Cathedral had the north transept slightly damaged and the remaining stained glass windows were shattered. The Speakers House at Westminster, the Law Courts, Selfridges and Christie’s Auction House were also damaged. The total casualties were roughly 2,300 killed and another 3,000 seriously wounded. With many homes hit the raid proved to be one of heaviest of the war.

The Royal Dockyards at HMNB Devonport was the main target carried out by the Luftwaffe on the city of Plymouth. On the evening of the 24th April 1941, during a heavy bombing raid, the communal air-raid shelter at Portland Square took a direct hit. Seventy-six people who had taken refuge in the shelter were killed and just three people survived. The square was away from the dock area but in the central area of the city.

During April 1941, the Battle of the Atlantic saw the loss of forty-four ships sunk (247,758 tons) and a further four damaged (28,793 tons) giving a total loss of 276,550 tons. Convoy SC-26 was an east-bound convoy of twenty-three ships which sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool. The convoy was intercepted by eight U-boats in the Atlantic on the 2nd /3rd April 1941. Thirteen ships were either sunk or damaged that night (56%) with the loss of 72,631 tons. The only escort was Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) Worcestershire who managed to destroy one U-boat, U-76.

German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were anchored at Brest in France on the 22nd March 1941. After a successful raid on British convoy shipping in the Atlantic the two ships made for safe anchorage at Brest. One of the surviving British convoy ships radioed their position to British battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V but the German ships escaped to safety. The two ships entered dry-dock for routine maintenance but were subjected to repeated British air raids. Gneisenau was moved from the dry-dock to the harbour and on the  6th April 1941 she was struck by a torpedo from a  British Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber inflicting heavy damage. The attack killed 72 servicemen initially and wounded a further 90, of whom 16 later died of their wounds. Scharnhorst also suffered numerous attacks and although damaged she had not been struck by any torpedo.

Malta, a strategically important island in the Mediterranean and pitted the air forces and navies of Italy and Germany against the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy. The Siege of Malta had begun in June 1940 and the Axis Powers resolved to bomb or starve Malta into submission. Malta, a British colony ideally positioned to defend North Africa and to attack Axis ships transporting supplies and reinforcements from Europe. Consequently it was one of the most intensely bombed island during the war. German General Erwin Rommel stated that the Axis Powers would end up losing control of North Africa unless Malta was defeated. The Axis Powers air superiority was taking its toll on the island with their bombing raids but the Allies had some success during April 1941. The Royal Navy had intercepted the Axis 14th Destroyer Fleet on 15th/16th April 1941, carrying German Afrika Korps supplies, when they sank eight German and Italian ships for the loss of destroyer HMS Mohawk. Further success was had when the Malta convoys began to get through bringing with them much needed Hurricane fighter planes as reinforcements for the obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiators and Hurricanes already on the island.

In the Kingdom of Iraq, British forces begin to land in Basrah on the 18th April 1941. The Kingdom was an independent state which had been governed by the United Kingdom until 1932. Under the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 the U.K. had obtained permission to build two military bases to ensure control of Iraqi petroleum. The Iraqi government was responsible for internal security, but the U.K. had been allowed to retain the bases, RAF Shaibah near Basra and RAF Habbaniya between Ramadi and Fallujah. As well as protecting British petroleum interests they were an air link between Egypt and India. Nationalist and anti-British Rashid Ali became Prime Minister of Iraq in March 1940. In January 1941 Rashid Ali resigned as P.M. but on the 1st April 1941 he seized power in a coup d’état. British relations with Rashid Ali had become unsatisfactory which resulted in Britain sending troops to assist the Iraqi Army. (See Other Theatres – 1st April 1941)          

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(Germany)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was invaded by German troops advancing through Romania and Hungary on the 6th April 1941. Hitler had ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia at the end of March 1941 after Yugoslavia had rejected entry into the Tripartite Pact. The Luftwaffe had been ordered to attack Yugoslavia’s capital Belgrade and the two day assault began on the 7th April 1941. Germany ordered the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to be split into two separate territories which would be annexed to German and Italy on the 10th April 1941. The city of Belgrade surrendered on the 12th April 1941 and the German Army continuing the invasion of Yugoslavia on the 16th April 1941 until Yugoslavia finally surrendered on the 17th April 1941. Yugoslavia became a Fascist State by conquest.          

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(Italy)

Italy’s North African War effectively ended on the 6th April 1941 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Previously Abyssinia), when the Italian flag was hauled down and the Union flag was hoisted over the Italian Viceroy’s official residence. The residency had previously been the palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. The British, under the command of General Archibald Wavell, had planned and executed a three-pronged attack. Although outnumbered by the Italians Wavell had RAF air support. In January 1941 Lieutenant-General William Platt led his forces from Sudan into Eritrea and the Italians soon retreated. Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham advanced north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland while a third force crossed from Aden and took Somaliland by amphibious assault. These three forces linked up to push deep into Ethiopia. The great majority of Italy’s forces had already abandoned the city leaving it in charge of armed police who surrendered to British divisional commander Cunningham. Remnants of the Italian army in Eritrea were retreating toward the Eritrean town of Dessie in March 1941. Several thousand Italian troops continued a guerrilla war until September 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allies. Hitler’s invasion of Poland and declaration of war with Britain and France had brought Italy into the war which then exposed their weaknesses in its military. Greece and North Africa soon fell. And only German military intervention in early 1941 saved Mussolini, who went by the nickname “Il Duce” (“the Leader”), from a military coup.

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(Other Theatres)

In Iraq Rashid Ali staged a military coup d’ état on the 1st April 1941. He was nationalistic and anti-British who resented the British having air force bases at RAF Shaibah near Basra and RAF Habbaniya between Ramada and Fallujah. The government had broken off diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany but in March 1939 Rashid Ali was the new Prime Minister of Iraq. Although not a pro-Axis supporter he made some initial contacts with German representatives in Ankara and Berlin. He resigned as P.M. in January 1941 and seized power in a coup d’ état on the 1st April 1941. A Pro-Axis government was installed in Iraq on the 3rd April 1941 with Nazi support and funding. The British response was to air lift re-enforcements to Iraq on the13th April 1941 and arriving at RAF Shaibah on the 18th April 1941. The new Iraqi government moved ground forces to occupy the plateau south of RAF Habbaniya on the 30th April 1941. This was the opening moves of the Anglo-Iraqi War during May 1941. (See Britain – 18th April 1941)                  

The United States of America occupied Greenland on the 10th April 1941 to act as a protectorate for Greenland’s neutrality. Following the fall of Denmark in April 1940 Greenland was left an unoccupied territory of an occupied Denmark. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorised Secretary of State Cordell Hull to sign an agreement with the Danish envoy to the USA Henrik Kauffman. This agreement allowed the presence of American troops to guarantee Greenland’s neutrality. This action was independent to the occupied Danish Government’s wishes declaring the agreement void and Kauffman a traitor to the state. Greenland automatically entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbour, allowing Greenland to provide “stepping stones” for America’s aircraft delivery to Europe.   

American destroyer USS Niblack patrolling off Iceland on the 10th April 1941 escorted a task force which landed American troops in Iceland. Before the landings Niblack was making a preliminary patrol and picked up three boatloads of survivors from a torpedoed merchantman vessel. A German U-boat was detected and driven off after Niblack’s commander ordered the dropping of depth charges in the area. This action was believed to be the first act of war between Germany and the USA even though America was still neutral at the time.  However, on the 11th April 1941 the United States began sea patrols in the North Atlantic in order to safeguard the American servicemen based on occupied Greenland.

On the 10th April 1941 Roosevelt declared the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden should no longer be combat areas but should be open to United States shipping owing to their neutrality.        

The Independent State of Croatia was established on the 10th April 1941. It became a puppet state of Germany and Italy and was founded by utilising occupied Yugoslavia. Adolf Hitler had issued a directive for the Axis Powers to invade Yugoslavia on the 27th March 1941. Croatia was created utilising territories of Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Independent State of Croatia was governed by a one-party state run by the fascist Ustasa organisation. The regime targeted Serbs, Jews and Roma as part of a large-scale campaign of genocide, as were the anti-fascist or dissident Croats and Muslims.          

The Soviet Union/Japanese Neutrality Pact was signed in Moscow on the 13th April 1941. Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka and Ambassador Yoshitsugu Tatekawa signed on behalf of Japan and Foreign Minister Vyacheslau Molotiv for the Soviet Union. The pact was signed to ensure the neutrality between the two countries allowing the Soviet Union to safeguard its eastern border and concentrate on the European theatre of war. It also allowed Japan to continue its war with China. Japan was aware that the diplomatic relationship with the United States of America was rapidly deteriorating.         

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