Germany invades Yugoslavia and Greece

Year
1941
Month Day
April 06

The German air force launches Operation Castigo, the bombing of Belgrade, on April 6, 1941, as 24 divisions and 1,200 tanks drive into Greece.

The attack on Yugoslavia was swift and brutal, an act of terror resulting in the death of 17,000 civilians—the largest number of civilian casualties in a single day since the start of the war. Making the slaughter all the worse was that nearby towns and villages had emptied out into the capital city to celebrate Palm Sunday. All of Yugoslavia’s airfields were also bombed, destroying most of its 600 aircraft while still on the ground.

As part of a comprehensive Balkan offensive, German forces also bombed the Greek port city of Piraeus as army divisions swept south and west, en route to Salonica and the eventual occupation of Greece.

Also on this day: British General Alan Cunningham’s troops enter Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, formally expelling the Italian occupiers and setting the stage for the return of Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie.

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Japan invades Hong Kong


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Year
1941
Month Day
December 18

Japanese troops land in Hong Kong on December 18, 1941, and slaughter ensues.

A week of air raids over Hong Kong, a British crown colony, was followed up on December 17 with a visit paid by Japanese envoys to Sir Mark Young, the British governor of Hong Kong. The envoys’ message was simple: The British garrison there should simply surrender to the Japanese—resistance was futile. The envoys were sent home with the following retort: “The governor and commander in chief of Hong Kong declines absolutely to enter into negotiations for the surrender of Hong Kong…”

The first wave of Japanese troops landed in Hong Kong with artillery fire for cover and the following order from their commander: “Take no prisoners.” Upon overrunning a volunteer antiaircraft battery, the Japanese invaders roped together the captured soldiers and proceeded to bayonet them to death. Even those who offered no resistance, such as the Royal Medical Corps, were led up a hill and killed.

The Japanese quickly took control of key reservoirs, threatening the British and Chinese inhabitants with a slow death by thirst. The Brits finally surrendered control of Hong Kong on Christmas Day.

The War Powers Act was passed by Congress on the same day, authorizing the president to initiate and terminate defense contracts, reconfigure government agencies for wartime priorities, and regulate the freezing of foreign assets. It also permitted him to censor all communications coming in and leaving the country.

FDR appointed the executive news director of the Associated Press, Byron Price, as director of censorship. Although invested with the awesome power to restrict and withhold news, Price took no extreme measures, allowing news outlets and radio stations to self-censor, which they did. Most top secret information, including the construction of the atom bomb, remained just that.

The most extreme use of the censorship law seems to have been the restriction of the free flow of “girlie” magazines to servicemen—including Esquire, which the Post Office considered obscene for its occasional saucy cartoons and pinups. Esquire took the Post Office to court, and after three years the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the magazine.

READ MORE: How Hong Kong Came Under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Rule

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Germany declares war on the United States


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Year
1941
Month Day
December 11

Adolf Hitler declares war on the United States, bringing America, which had been neutral, into the European conflict.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor surprised even Germany. Although Hitler had made an oral agreement with his Axis partner Japan that Germany would join a war against the United States, he was uncertain as to how the war would be engaged. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor answered that question. On December 8, Japanese Ambassador Oshima went to German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop to nail the Germans down on a formal declaration of war against America. Von Ribbentrop stalled for time; he knew that Germany was under no obligation to do this under the terms of the Tripartite Pact, which promised help if Japan was attacked, but not if Japan was the aggressor. Von Ribbentrop feared that the addition of another antagonist, the United States, would overwhelm the German war effort.

But Hitler thought otherwise. He was convinced that the United States would soon beat him to the punch and declare war on Germany. The U.S. Navy was already attacking German U-boats, and Hitler despised Roosevelt for his repeated verbal attacks against his Nazi ideology. He also believed that Japan was much stronger than it was, that once it had defeated the United States, it would turn and help Germany defeat Russia. So at 3:30 p.m. (Berlin time) on December 11, the German charge d’affaires in Washington handed American Secretary of State Cordell Hull a copy of the declaration of war.

That very same day, Hitler addressed the Reichstag to defend the declaration. The failure of the New Deal, argued Hitler, was the real cause of the war, as President Roosevelt, supported by plutocrats and Jews, attempted to cover up for the collapse of his economic agenda. “First he incites war, then falsifies the causes, then odiously wraps himself in a cloak of Christian hypocrisy and slowly but surely leads mankind to war,” declared Hitler-and the Reichstag leaped to their feet in thunderous applause.

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Bing Crosby introduces “White Christmas” to the world


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Year
1941
Month Day
December 25

“White Christmas,” written by the formidable composer and lyricist Irving Berlin receives its world premiere on December 26, 1941 on Bing Crosby’s weekly NBC radio program, The Kraft Music Hall. It went on to become one of the most commercially successful singles of all time, and the top-selling single ever until being surpassed by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.”

“White Christmas” took its first steps toward becoming a bedrock standard in the American songbook when Crosby first performed it publicly on Christmas Day, 1941. The song’s success couldn’t have surprised Berlin, who despite having already written such songs as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek To Cheek” and “God Bless America,” had raced into his Manhattan office in January 1940 and asked his musical secretary to transcribe “The best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.” It was nearly two years later, however, that Crosby finally premiered the song on live radio, and a year after that that Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” became a smash pop hit.

Crosby’s October 1942 recording of “White Christmas” received heavy airplay on Armed Forces Radio as well as on commercial radio during its first Christmas season, becoming an instant #1 pop hit. It also returned to the Hit Parade pop chart in every subsequent Christmas season for the next 20 years. Unlike other perennial holiday hits, however, “White Christmas” strikes a mood that isn’t necessarily jolly. As Jody Rosen, author of the 2002 book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, told National Public Radio, “It’s very melancholy….And I think this really makes it stand out amongst kind of chirpy seasonal standards [like] ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ or ‘Let It Snow.’….I think that’s one of the reasons why people keep responding to it, because our feelings over the holiday season are ambivalent.”

This was certainly true of the immigrant Russian Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Though he did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that held special meaning to Berlin, who had spent each Christmas Day visiting the grave of his late son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died at just 3 weeks old on December 25, 1928. As Jody Rosen has suggested about a beloved song of great emotional complexity, “The kind of deep secret of [“White Christmas”] may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son.”

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James Joyce dies


Year
1941
Month Day
January 13

James Joyce, widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest author, dies in Zurich, Switzerland, at the age of 58. One of the most brilliant and daring writers of the 20th century, Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is ranked among the greatest works in the English language.

Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce grew up in poor surroundings and was educated at Jesuit-run schools and the University College in Dublin. He wrote poetry and short prose passages that he called “epiphanies,” a term he used to describe the sudden revelation of the true nature of a person or thing. In 1902, he went to Paris but returned to Dublin in the next year when his mother fell ill. There he began writing the experimental Stephen Hero, a largely autobiographical work. For the Irish Homestead, he also wrote several Irish-themed short stories, which were characterized by tragic epiphanies and spare but precise writing.

In 1904, Joyce left Ireland with companion Nora Barnacle and lived in Poland, Austria-Hungary, Trieste, and Rome, where he fathered two children with Nora and worked. He spent his spare time writing and composing several other short stories that would join his earlier works to form Dubliners, first published in 1914. The most acclaimed of the 15 stories is “The Dead,” which tells the story of a Dublin schoolteacher and his wife, and of their lost dreams. During this time, he also drastically reworked Stephen Hero and renamed it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

With the Italian entrance into World War I, he moved to Zurich with his family. Faced with severe financial difficulties, he found patrons in Edith Rockefeller McCormick and Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of Egoist magazine. In 1916, Weaver published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which received significant critical acclaim. Soon after, the American Little Review began to publish episodes from Ulysses, a novel that Joyce began in 1915. The sexually explicit work was banned in the United States in 1920 after only a few installments. Two years later, Sylvia Beach, a bookstore owner in Paris, published it in its entirety.

Ulysses brought Joyce international fame, and the work’s groundbreaking literary forms, including stream-of-consciousness writing, were an immediate influence on novelists the world over. The action of the novel takes place in Dublin on a single day but parallels the epic 10-year journey described in Homer’s Odyssey. Although colored with numerous allusions, the strength of Ulysses rests not in its intellectual complexity but in its depth of characterization, breadth of humor, and overall celebration of life.

Joyce spent more than 17 years on his last work, published in 1939 as Finnegans Wake. His most difficult work, Joyce carried his literary experimentation to its furthest point in this novel, which uses words from different languages to embody a cyclical theory of human existence. Because many find it difficult and inaccessible, Finnegans Wake is not as highly regarded as his earlier works.

Joyce lived in Paris from 1920 to 1940, but he moved back to Zurich after France fell to the Germans. In addition to his three major works, he also published several collections of verse and a play called Exiles.

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Yugoslavia joins the Axis Powers


Year
1941
Month Day
March 25

Yugoslavia, despite an early declaration of neutrality, signs the Tripartite Pact, forming an alliance with Axis powers Germany, Italy and Japan.

A unified nation of Yugoslavia, an uneasy federation of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, was a response to the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires at the close of World War I, both of which had previously contained parts of what became Yugoslavia. A constitutional monarchy, Yugoslavia built friendships with France and Czechoslovakia during the years between the world wars. With the outbreak of World War II, and the Anschluss (“union”) between Austria and Germany, pressure was placed on Yugoslavia to more closely ally itself Germany, despite Yugoslavia’s declared neutrality. But fear of an invasion like that suffered by France pushed Yugoslavia into signing a “Friendship Treaty”—something short of a formal political alliance—on December 11, 1940.

With the war spreading to the Balkans after the invasion of Greece by Italy, it was important to Hitler that the Axis powers have an ally in the region that would act as a bulwark against Allied encroachment on Axis territory. Meeting on February 14, 1941, Adolf Hitler proved unable to persuade Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic to formally join the Axis. The next day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contacted the Yugoslav regent, Prince Paul, in an effort to encourage him to remain firm in resisting further German blandishments. It was essential to the Allies that Yugoslavia cooperate with Anglo-Greek forces in fending off an Axis conquest of Greece.

But with King Boris of Bulgaria caving into Germany, Prince Paul felt the heat of the Nazis, and on March 20 he asked the Yugoslav Cabinet for their cooperation in allowing the Germans access to Greece through Yugoslavia. The Cabinet balked, and four ministers resigned in protest at the suggestion. This gesture failed to prevent Prime Minister Cvetkovic from finally signing the Tripartite Pact in Vienna on March 25, 1941.

Within two days, the Cvetkovic government was overthrown by a unified front of peasants, the church, unions and the military—an angry response to the alliance with Germany. The new government, led by Air Force Gen. Dusan Simovic, immediately renounced the Tripartite Pact. In less than two weeks, Germany invaded the nation and occupied it by force.

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German General Erwin Rommel arrives in Africa


Year
1941
Month Day
February 12

German General Erwin Rommel arrives in Tripoli, Libya, with the newly formed Afrika Korps, to reinforce the beleaguered Italians’ position.

In January 1941, Adolf Hitler established the Afrika Korps for the explicit purpose of helping his Italian Axis partner maintain territorial gains in North Africa. “[F]or strategic, political, and psychological reasons, Germany must assist Italy in Africa,” the Fuhrer declared. The British had been delivering devastating blows to the Italians; in three months they pushed the Italians out of Egypt while wounding or killing 20,000 Italian soldiers and taking another 130,000 prisoner.

Having commanded a panzer division in Germany’s successful French and Low Countries’ campaigns, General Rommel was dispatched to Libya along with the new Afrika Korps to take control of the deteriorating situation. Until that time, Italian General Ettore Bastico was the overall commander of the Axis forces in North Africa—which included a German panzer division and the Italian armored division. Rommel was meant to command only his Afrika Korps and an Italian corps in Libya, but he wound up running the entire North African campaign.

The German soldiers of the Afrika Korps found adapting to the desert climate initially difficult; Rommel found commanding his Italian troops, who had been used to an Italian commander, difficult as well. When Hitler, preoccupied with his plans for his Soviet invasion, finally gave the go-ahead for an offensive against British positions in Egypt, Rommel’s forces were stopped dead in their tracks and then forced to retreat. In the famous battle of El Alamein, the British Eighth Army—beginning in October 23, 1942—surprised the German commander with its brute resolve, and pushed him and his Afrika Korps back across and out of North Africa. (Ironically, the Arabs celebrated Rommel, called “the Desert Fox,” as a liberator from British imperialism.) 

Retreat followed retreat, and Rommel finally withdrew from North Africa entirely and returned to Europe in March of 1943, leaving the Afrika Korps in other hands.

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Naval warfare gets new weapon

Year
1941
Month Day
March 26

Italy attacks the British fleet at Souda Bay, Crete, using detachable warheads to sink a British cruiser. This was the first time manned torpedoes had been employed in naval warfare, adding a new weapon to the world’s navies’ arsenals.

The manned torpedo, also known as the “Chariot,” was unique. Primarily used to attack enemy ships still in harbor, the Chariots needed “pilots” to “drive” them to their targets. Sitting astride the torpedo on a vehicle that would transport them both, the pilot would guide the missile as close to the target as possible, then ride the vehicle back, usually to a submarine. The Chariot was an enormous advantage; before its development, the closest weapon to the Chariot was the Japanese Kaiten–a human torpedo, or suicide bomb, which had obvious drawbacks.

The first successful use of the Chariot was by the Italian navy, although they referred to their version as Maiali, or “Pigs.” On March 26, six Italian motorboats, commanded by Italian naval commander Lt. Luigi Faggioni, entered Souda Bay in Crete and planted their Maiali along a British convoy in harbor there. The cruiser York was so severely damaged by the blast that it had to be beached.

The manned torpedo proved to be the most effective weapon in the Italian naval arsenal, used successfully against the British again in December 1941 at Alexandria, Egypt. Italian torpedoes sank the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, as well as one tanker. They were also used against merchant ships at Gibraltar and elsewhere.

The British avenged themselves against the Italians, though, by sinking the new Italian cruiser Ulpio Traiano in the port of Palermo, Sicily, in early January 1943. An 8,500-ton ocean liner was also damaged in the same attack.

After the Italian surrender, Britain, and later Germany, continued to use the manned torpedo. In fact, Germany succeeded in sinking two British minesweepers off Normandy Beach in July 1944, using their Neger torpedoes.

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Hitler to Mussolini: Fight harder!


Year
1941
Month Day
February 05

On February 5, 1941, Adolf Hitler scolds his Axis partner, Benito Mussolini, for his troops’ retreat in the face of British advances in Libya, demanding that the Duce command his forces to resist.

Since 1912, Italy had occupied Libya because of purely economic “expansion” motives. In 1935, Mussolini began sending tens of thousands of Italians to Libya, mostly farmers and other rural workers, in part to relieve overpopulation concerns in Italy. So by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, Italy had enjoyed a long-term presence in North Africa, and Mussolini began dreaming of expanding that presence–always with an eye toward the same territories that the old “Roman Empire” had counted among its conquests.

Also sitting in North Africa were British troops, which, under a 1936 treaty, were garrisoned in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal and Royal Navy bases at Alexandria and Port Said. Hitler had offered to aid Mussolini early on in his North African expansion, to send German troops to help fend off a British counterattack. But Mussolini had been rebuffed when he had offered Italian assistance during the Battle of Britain. He now insisted that as a matter of national pride, Italy would have to create a Mediterranean sphere of influence on its own–or risk becoming a “junior” partner of Germany’s.

But despite expansion into parts of East Africa and Egypt, Mussolini’s forces proved no match for the Brits in the long run. British troops pushed the Italians westward, inflicting extraordinary losses on the Axis forces in an attack at Beda Fomm. As Britain threatened to push the Italians out of Libya altogether and break through to Tunisia, Mussolini swallowed his pride and asked Hitler for assistance. Hitler reluctantly agreed (it would mean the first direct German-British encounter in the Mediterranean)–but only if Mussolini stopped the Italians’ retreat and kept the British out of Tripoli, the Libyan capital. But the Italians continued to be overwhelmed; in three months, 20,000 men were wounded or killed and 130,000 were taken prisoner. Only with the arrival of German Gen. Erwin Rommel would the Italian resistance be strengthened against further British advances. Even with Germany’s help, Italy was able to defend its North African territory only until early 1943.

READ MORE: How Did the Nazis Really Lose World War II?

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Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks of Four Freedoms


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Year
1941
Month Day
January 06

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses Congress in an effort to move the nation away from a foreign policy of neutrality. The president had watched with increasing anxiety as European nations struggled and fell to Hitler’s fascist regime and was intent on rallying public support for the United States to take a stronger interventionist role. In his address to the 77th Congress, Roosevelt stated that the need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily–almost exclusively–to meeting the foreign peril. For all our domestic problems are now a part of the great emergency.

Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations of the world shared Americans’ entitlement to four freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. After Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II, his widow Eleanor often referred to the four freedoms when advocating for passage of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt participated in the drafting of that declaration, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

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