SECOND WORLD WAR November 1941

SECOND WORLD WAR November 1941

(Britain)

In the Mediterranean the Royal Navy’s Force “K” was based in Malta after re-establishing a flotilla of surface ships for the first time since April 1941. Force “K” consisted of two light cruisers, HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope alongside two destroyers HMS Long and HMS Lively. British intelligence knew the Italian cypher code so when The Duisburg Convoy departed from Naples the British were ready and waiting. The Duisburg Convoy consisted of two German vessels, three Italian vessels and two fuel tankers carrying supplies to the Italian Army, civilian colonialists and the Afrika Korp in Libya. The convoy was escorted by six Axis destroyers. On the night of 8th/ 9th November 1941 the Battle of Duisburg Convoy commenced when Force “K” located the convoy east of Syracuse where they opened fire on the convoy. All the merchant ships were sunk also one destroyer. Whilst picking up survivors another Axis destroyer was sunk by submarine HMS Upholder. Force “K” suffered almost no damage while completely surprising the escorting Axis destroyers. After the attack Force “K” headed at high speed back to their base in Malta completely out-pacing the pursing Axis escorts.

British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal delivered a squadron of Hurricane fighters to Malta on the 12th November 1941. This enabled the continued defence of the island against the Axis Powers. Whilst returning to Gibraltar Ark Royal had received a message to the effect that German U-boats were active off the coast of Spain. On the 13th November 1941 a torpedo struck Ark Royal amidships between the fuel bunker and bomb store. The explosion caused Ark Royal to shudder after creating a gigantic hole below the water line on the starboard side. With engines still running Ark Royal continued taking in water and by the time she stopped she was listing heavily to starboard. With the exception of a damage control party the crew was ordered to abandon ship. The tug Thames arrived from Gibraltar and attached a tow line to Ark Royal and began to tow her away. She continued to list further until the early hours of the 14th November 1941 the remaining crew were ordered to abandon ship. At about 06.19 on the 14th November1941 Ark Royal finally capsized and sank 25 miles (41 km) east of Europa Point, the southernmost tip of Gibraltar. With the exception of one seaman killed at the time of the explosion, the remaining 1,487 officers and crew were transported safely to Gibraltar.          

 HMS Barham was a Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth class battleship and flagship to the Battle Squadron in the Mediterranean. The Battle Squadron consisting of HMS Barham, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant with an eight destroyer escort, sailed from Alexandria in Egypt on the 25th November 1941 to hunt for Italian convoys. Off the Egyptian coast German U-boat U-331 commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen detected the faint engine noise of the British ships and proceeded to position herself in readiness to attack. With extraordinary luck U-331 passed through the British sonar screen undetected but was too late to attack Queen Elizabeth as she was the leading ship but Barham was closing rapidly. Tiesenhausen ordered all four bow torpedoes to be fired at a range of 375 m. (410 yds). Three of the four torpedoes struck amidships and Barham quickly capsized lying on her side and sank a few minutes later when a massive explosion tore the ship apart. 862 officers and ratings were killed including Captain Geoffrey Cook. Destroyer HMS Hotspur rescued 327 survivors including Vice-Admiral Henry Pridham –Wippel and Australian N-class destroyer HMAS Nizam rescued a further 150 men. Upon discharging the four torpedoes U-331’s conning tower appeared above the surface. The order to crash dive was given immediately and she plummeted out of control until she stabilised undamaged at 150 m. (490 ft.). Although far exceeding her design depth she managed to escape undetected and eventually reached the port of Salamis in Cyprus on the 3rd December 1941. For this action Tiesenhausen was subsequently promoted to Kapitläieutnant and awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross after the announcement of the sinking of HMS Barham had been released.

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(Germany)

By the outbreak of the war in 1939 German Colonel-General Ernst Udet had risen to the post of Director-General of Equipment for the Luftwaffe. Udet became an alcoholic because of the stress of the position and on the 17th November 1941he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. His suicide was concealed from the public and he was reported having died on a flight testing a new weapon. He was buried alongside the Red Baron in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin. Udet had been a notable flying ace of the Great War and was the highest scoring fighter pilot to survive the war. He became squadron commander under the administration of Manfred von Richtohofen (The Red Baron) and later under Herman Göring. In 1933 he joined the Nazi Party and was involved in the development of the Luftwaffe. Following the failure to win the Battle of Britain, Udet was blamed by Herman Göring, Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe, for the defeat. When Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union on the 22nd June 1941 was launched, Udet realised the Soviet air force was strong and technically very advanced and the coming war with the Soviet Union might destroy Germany. German Dictator Adolf Hitler was not informed of Soviet’s air force strength and torn between the truth and loyalty Udet suffered a mental breakdown. Göring controlled him by giving him drugs and his drinking enabled Göring to manipulate him which led to him taking his own life.

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 (Eastern Front)

Germany invaded the Soviet Union under the code name Operation Barbarossa on the 22nd June 1941.  At the beginning of November1941 and during the Battle for Moscow the attacking German forces were worn out with only one third of their motor vehicles still functioning. Serious logistical issues prevented the delivery of warm clothing and other winter equipment being delivered to the front. Whilst the battle was raging the Soviet Union’s “1941 October Revolution Parade” took place on the 7th November 1941.  The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin delivered a speech in Red Square to the soldiers who would go straight out to defend Moscow immediately after the parade The gist of the speech was that the German invader was facing disaster and that the Soviet Army would liberate the Russian people with complete destruction of the German Army on the Eastern Front. He maintained morale on the German troops was beginning to decline. Despite the attacking German forces being worn down the Germans still manged to continue their drive toward Moscow. By the 15th November 1941 the muddy ground was frozen and the Germans very slowly continued their advance toward Moscow. Winter clothing still had not arrived by the 28th November 1941 but the German Panzer tanks were on the outskirts of Moscow and awaiting the inevitable counter-attack.     

The Battle of Rostov was fought on the Eastern Front around Rostov-on-Don in the Soviet Union during November 1941. The participants being the Nazi German Army Group South and the Soviet Union Southern Front. The Germans had advanced across the Mius River by the 17th November 1941. The Germans captured Rostov on the 21st November 1941 taking over 10,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war. The Soviet Union’s Southern Front counter-attacked from the north six days later and threatened to surround the overstretched German Motorised Army Corps. The German Commander Gerd von Rundstedt ordered a retreat to the Mius River to prevent encirclement. Adolf Hitler immediately fired him for disobeying the order of “No Retreat”. Hitler relented after Rundstedt’s successor Walther von Reichenau confirmed the retreat order. When the Soviet army retook Rostov on the 28th November 1941 the counter-attack was the first successful Soviet victory of the war.

Operation Arctic Fox ended on the 17th November 1941 when the joint German/Finnish and the opposing Soviet armies dug-in east of Kestenga in the Soviet Union. Operation Arctic Fox was launched on the 1st July 1941 and was part of the ultimate aim of capturing the town Salla in Finland and then advancing to block the railway to Murmansk. Salla was captured and the more experienced Arctic Finnish Army approached to within 30km (19 miles) of the Murmansk railway. Facing strong Soviet reinforcements both sides dug-in on the 17th November 1941.

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(Desert War)

In the Western Desert the Allied Army had advanced 560 mile from Egypt and occupied the Libyan port of Tobruk in early December 1940. German General Erwin Rommel had been summoned to take command of the Afrika Korps and landed at the Libyan port of Tripoli on the 12th February 1941. The orders were for him to lead his army to total victory and to capture the port of Alexandria in Egypt. The 241 day Siege of Tobruk began on the 12thApril 1941. The 9th Australian Division had been left to defend Tobruk in order to deny the Axis Powers its port facilities. The remaining Allied army were withdrawn in order to organise and prepare a counter attack against the expected Axis invasion.

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Erwin Rommel nicknamed the “Desert Fox“, was the commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, began to plan for a new offensive in November 1941 to capture the Port of Tobruk. Following the June 1941 offensive known as 0peration Battleaxe the defeated British appointed General Claude Auchinlech a Commander of the newly formed Eighth Army. Auchinlech’s position had been swapped with General Sir Archibald Wavell who became Commander-in-Chief, India. Operation Battleaxe was the British Army offensive designed to relieve the Siege of Tobruk and was the first time the Axis Powers fought on the defensive. However, the British suffered heavily with the loss of a great number of tanks and withdrawing just ahead of a German encircling movement. Auchinlech reorganised his forces and on the 18th November 1941 he launched Operation Crusader, a major offensive to relieve Tobruk. The British Eighth Army advanced west from their base at Mersa Matruth. They crossed the Libyan border near Fort Maddalena approximately 50miles (80km) south of Sidi Omar. The Eighth Army was relying on the Desert Air Force to heavily reduce enemy air opposition. The air offensive, planned to attack Axis airfields and destroy aircraft on the ground, was cancelled the night before it was due owing to torrential rain and storms.  On the first day (18th November 1941) the Eighth Army did not encounter any resistance as they approached the enemy positions. On the 19th November 1941 the Eighth Army’s 22nd Armoured Brigade advance was halted when they engaged the Italian Ariete Division who knocked out many British tanks. The 7th Armoured Brigade in the centre of the attack had advanced within sight of Tobruk and captured Sidi Rezegh airfield. Also on the 19th November 1941 the right flank of the 4th Armoured Brigade became heavily engaged with the 21st Panzer Division. Rommel revised his plans on the 20th November 1941 in which he called off his attack on Tobruk. Rommel’s counter offensive against the Eighth Army began on the 22nd November 1941 with the recapture of the airfield at Sidi Rezegh. By the 24th November 1941 Rommel had inflicted heavy losses on the Allies and the Afrika Korps advanced fifteen miles into Egypt before he outran his supply train. Meeting stiffening resistance from the British Rommel retreated to Bardia in Libya.  On The 27th November 1941 the New Zealanders reached Tobruk and thereby relieved the siege.

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Other Fronts)

The United States reached an agreement with the exiled Dutch government on the 23rd November 1941 whereby the Americans occupied Suriname. This occupation guaranteed the protection of the Bauxite mines which Germany needed for the production of arms. Suriname now a Dutch coastal colony in South America with the Atlantic Ocean on its northern coastline. Guyana is on its western border, French Guiana on the eastern border and Brazil to the south. The economy of Suriname during the Second World War was primarily dependant on the export of bauxite, gold, petroleum and agricultural products rather than the original slave orientated production of cocoa, sugar-cane and cotton.  

On the 24th November 1941 the United States granted $3.2 billion Lend-Lease aid to the Free French government. This figure coupled with a further Lend-Lease agreement of $46.9 billion to the British, the Soviet Union and the Republic of China made a total $50.1 billion. In general the aid was free and in return the U.S.A. had access to leases on land and naval bases in Allied territory during the course of the war. This effectively ended any pretence of neutrality by the United States.

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HMAS Sydney was a Leander light-cruiser operated by the Royal Australian Navy. She was active during the Abyssinian crisis at the start of the war, she then joined the British Mediterranean Fleet and provided support for the Malta convoys. She returned to Australian waters in February 1941.  On the afternoon of the 19th November 1941 Sydney was off the coast of Western Australia near Carnarvon heading south toward Freemantle. Sydney spotted an unidentified merchant ship in the distance on a north bound course. She immediately turned away and Sydney increased speed to intercept whilst requesting identification details. Further requests from Sydney established she was a Dutch Merchant Ship Straat Malakka but she was not on Sydney’s list of ships meant to be in the area. Straat Malakka had not identified herself because she was the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran In disguise. As Kormoran did not know the call sign the two ships engaged. Both ships were sunk by the other during the action. Of the 399 personnel on Kormoran 318 survived and served as prisoners-of-war who were repatriated to Germany in early 1947.  Mystery surrounds the loss of Sydney, as apart from the discovery of a Carly float and lifebelt, nothing from Sydney or the 645 aboard was discovered.

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In the East Africa Campaign the Italian army made a last stand around the town of Gondar in Ethiopia and surrendered to the British on the 28th November1941. When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on Britain and France in June 1940 he had already proclaimed the formation of the Italian East Africa. This territory included Ethiopia, Italian Eritrea and Somalia from which the Italians initiated operations in preparation for an assault on Egypt. The Italian forces consisted of 250,000 Italian soldiers and native troops who outnumbered their British opponents. However, Italian East Africa was isolated and far from supplies from the mainland thereby limiting the operations they could undertake. In June 1940 the Italians attacked the British in the Sudan, Kenya and British Somalia whereby the British evacuated Somalia to Aden. This was one of the few successful Italian campaigns which was accomplished without German assistance. The Regia Marina (Italian Navy) maintained a naval fleet based at Massawa in Eritrea which posed a threat to British convoys traversing the Red Sea. In doing this they lost a lot of vessels. The British counter-attacked in June 1941 which gradually led to their defeat of the East Africa Campaign and the final surrender on the 28th November 1941 in the town of Gondar.

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