Year 1941

The monthly days of 1941:

The year 1941 in World War II.

Mussolini creates worries to Hitler

Italian artillery in action
Italian artillery in action on the Balkans.
Of particular concern makes Hitler in early 1941 the close distance of the British air bases in Greece to the oil fields in Romanian. Until the failed Italian attack on Greece and the following build-up of British troops on Crete at the end of October 1940 this – for Germany vital area – was beyond the reach of enemy aircraft. Now the British could bomb Ploesti at any time. That would be a disaster for Germany.

So the German government negotiated first with the Bulgarian Government for right of passage through Bulgaria in the event of a dispute with Greece or the British troops located in Greece. Bulgaria agrees and also Hungary would permit the German troops.

Meanwhile, Mussolini creates his friend Hitler increasing concern. Also in North Africa the Italian troops have come to a run, this time against the English, who venture out of Egypt into the Italian colony Libya and drive the Italians in front of them. Mussolini imploring asked Hitler for help, and the German leader can not refuse.

Could he possibly carry out Operation Barbarossa, if this dangerous situation is on the southern flank ? The risk is too big, and so ‘Barbarossa’ is initially postponed, but not for a long time.

On March 1, Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact, German troops march at the request of the government into Bulgaria in order – as stated in an official statement – to ‘counter British intentions of extension of the war in the Balkans and to protect the Bulgarian interests’.

Even Yugoslavia decided on March 20, to join the Tripartite Pact. On March 25, 1941 signed the Yugoslav Minister in Vienna the instrument of accession. It is his last official act. When he and his accompanying government officials return in their capital, Belgrade, they are arrested. In Belgrade a coup has taken place, which is clearly directed against Germany. The putschists are friendly to Britain. Mass demonstrations in Belgrade protest against the country’s accession to the Tripartite Pact and demonstrating for Britain.

Churchill, to which this coup comes right on cue, turns to the Turkish Government to engage war against Germany in view of the changed situation in the Balkans. Vain. Also, the Yugoslav coup government rejected Churchill’s request, immediately to invade Albania and to wage war against the Italians.
But Churchill’s plans are known and strengthen Hitler’s intention ‘to restore order’ in the Balkans, before turning to the most dangerous opponents. That the Soviet Union has become the enemy despite the continuously ongoing delivery of assets to Germany, of which Hitler is convinced more than ever on 5 April 1941.
On this day the Soviet Government concludes with the Yugoslav coup government a friendship and non-aggression pact, which is undoubtedly directed against Germany. Yugoslavia helps this pact nothing anymore.

Balkans Campaign

Advance of German infantry in Greece
Advance of German infantry in Greece.
Already the next day, on April 6, the joint German-Italian-Hungarian attack on the Balkans begins. In the published German Declaration states, that Germany tried everything to obtain peace in the Balkans, Britain on the other hand have this peace constantly disturbed. Greece had allowed that British troops established in the country, the Yugoslav coup government had planned the same for Yugoslavia. Germany was forced to intervene for her safety.

First Yugoslavia is overrun. After six days, the capital of Belgrade is occupied by German troops. On April 14, already the leader of Coup government resigns, and three days later his successor offers the capitulation. In less than 14 days any organized resistance in Yugoslavia has come to end.

Almost so quickly it happens in Greece. Almost, because the Greeks have an excellent fortification, the ‘Metaxas Line’. Even the feared Ju 87 Stuka can’t accomplish anything against the bunkers which are built in rocks into on Greece’s north-eastern border. In addition, the Greeks are fighting with far more determination than the by internal political disputes demoralized Yugoslavs.

The Italians have still not progressed. They plug remain firmly in Albania, where the Greeks have driven them last fall. Only when German troops already are fare inside Greece, and thus in the rear of the Greek troops fighting against the Italians, they have to go back to avoid being surrounded. Finally, Mussolini may report once Italian victories.

The British troops in Greece have – once again as almost a year before in France – the order to retreat possible without combat. And just like a year ago the Belgians and French did, so now scold the Greeks over the ‘cowards’, leaving their allies in the lurch.
But Churchill’s order is absolutely correct. It is useless for a lost cause – and this is the Balkan campaign, its outcome is clear after a few days – even to sacrifice more soldiers. Churchill thinks much further. He dreams from the day when he will take on these soldiers. Not in skirmishes in the Balkans, but in the great decisive battle !
All available British naval forces are used to evacuate the troops. From the Egyptian port city of Alexandria alone six cruisers and 19 destroyers are coming for help – more than the entire German navy possesses at this moment. Part of the troops will be transported to Egypt, while the others went to the Greek island of Crete.

Crete’s central location in the eastern Mediterranean is of great strategic importance. Therefore, the British High Command attached particular importance to the possession of the 8,300-square-kilometer island with around half a million inhabitants, because it is feared that the Germans might otherwise attack Egypt in order to help their Italian allies.
Crete is a strong bastion, the locking bolt in front of Egypt. The troop transports are attacked by German bombers. Five days it takes the Luftwaffe to fight against the British Mediterranean Fleet.
50,000 troops of the 62,000 the British could be evacuated to Crete or Egypt. Thus, the rescue operation is just as successful as the Dunkirk in the previous year. The only question is whether the troops transported to Crete are really finally rescued on the island ?

On April 27, 1941, the units of the German Wehrmacht entering the Greek capital Athens. Thus, the Balkans campaign has ended after only three weeks. Only Crete is still in the hands of the British.

t_arrow1 see also: Balkans Campaign

Battle of Crete

German paratroopers are landing on Crete
Airborne invasion of Crete: the first German paratroopers are landing.
Also the German leadership knows about the importance of Crete for securing the previously won victories in the Balkans and also the importance of the island as a springboard to Egypt and North Africa. But how to conquer this island ?
The invasion with a landing fleet is completely excluded. Yet the British fleet dominated the eastern Mediterranean, the German Navy is not in a position to act against the British, apart from the fact that a German transport fleet would not be able to pass Britain, through the channel or even long-winded about the North and then Central Atlantic, to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar and then Malta to finally arrive at the eastern Mediterranean.

The result of this situation is the plan of the Airborne invasion of Crete to capture the island from the air, by paratroopers and airborne troops. The paratroops have done excellent in the western campaign of the previous year. Now an object to them is provided, which will be their greatest victory yet the decisive defeat. The victory they will win over the Cretans, Greeks and British, the great defeat will give them by Hitler.

The victory of the German paratroopers and airborne troops is all of greater value than the German reconnaissance failed completely at Crete. Only a third of the existing opponent troops on the island troops is detected and reported. To make matters worse, most of the positions which are explored precisely are the dummy positions that the supreme commander in Crete – the New Zealand General Freyberg – had created to mislead the Germans.
The ‘real’ positions are known only to a very small extent. So, in complete ignorance of the enemies true strength, the occupation of Crete from the air is ordered.

The largest airborne operation of the war begins on May 20, 1941. And that is five days after the date that Hitler had previously set for the start of Operation Barbarossa.
First, the German air force bombarded from early morning the enemy positions on the large island – mostly the dummy positions. Whereas the strikes of the German bombers remains practically fruitless, because the correct positions are hardly recognized and therefore not attacked.

So it happens that the bombings are only beneficial to the opponent who has been warned by it. The German paratroopers drop from the sky straight to hell of the enemy defenses, of which they had believed that it was already turned off by the previous bombings. Only the British anti-aircraft positions have been correctly identified and met, which is why the transport fleet of 493 Junker aircraft – the famous Ju 52 ‘Tante Ju’ – is losing only seven machines by enemy fire during the first approach to drop the paratroopers.

The ground positions, however, are still all intact, and the German paratroopers are not able to capture their goals for the first day – the take of the two airfields of Maleme and Heraklion. But above all, the unsuccessful bombing eliminates the main advantage, the paratroopers have otherwise – the advantage of surprise for the opponent.

Like a clay pigeon shooting – no, with even less difficulty – the paratroopers, which were slowly floating to earth from the sky, came under fire from rifles, pistols and machine guns. The ready airborne troops can not intervene for the support of the previously dropped paratroopers, because their landing airfields remain in the hands of the British. General Student, commander of the XI Air Corps, which includes all German airborne troops, decides to a fundamental change of tactics. He orders to put all forces against a single target, against the airfield Maleme.

The dropped paratroopers at Heraklion airport, at the port of Rethymno and the Cretan capital Chania have to see how they can hold at least against the superior enemy forces, rather than attacking it, as it was planned before.

General Students new tactic succeeds. Transport gliders go down in the middle of the British positions at Maleme. They suffer heavy losses, but the surviving Germans capture a number of British positions. In the history of the RAF, the Royal Air Force, it is said about this fight ‘In short: at Maleme the Battle of Crete was lost …’.

A mistake by the British commander Freyberg benefits the German paratroopers. He does not recognize the crucial importance of the battle for the city and town of Maleme. He is convinced that the small force of a handful German airborne troops can not be possibly been the main force for the invasion of Crete. He therefore expects that the Germans will soon emerge with a large invasion fleet before the Cretan coast. He is still waiting on this landing fleet, as the decision has already been.
Already on the morning of May 21, German transport planes land at the airfield of Maleme – although the airfield itself is not yet in German hands. The airfield has become over the nightly battles to no man’s land, German and British firing across the no coverage open airfield on each other. Several of the landing Ju 52 are hit by British shells while rolling out and explode. Others make crash landings on the strewn craters’ airfield. The troops from the still intact machines are coming under fire of British infantry weapons.

Finally, it is possible for the day before landed German paratroopers to gain access to the planes on the runway and to recover mainly the heavy weapons from them. So then the battle is decided. The paratroopers are now well armed, and despite all the losses, from now on increasing supply of soldiers and weapons arrive at Maleme – while General Freyberg sends his soldiers no reinforcements, because he still is looking to the sea, where the German invasion fleet finally must come now in sight.
Soon not only the airport, but also the town Maleme is in German hands. Reinforcements fly in, in ever-increasing numbers. Now mainly mountain troops landed, which now together with the paratroopers penetrate eastward of Malemes to help the lonely comrades fighting at Chania, Heraklion and Rethymno. The soldiers are making across the mountains and cliffs of the island, always in battle with the enemy, the way to the trapped paratroopers.

On May 26, the breakthrough of the British positions in front of the capital Chania happens and the next day the city falls. Even more important is the success of May 28, when the area around the Suda Bay is captured, and from now on, the supply from Greece can arrive by sea.
General Freyberg has recognized his crucial mistake, and he has also recognized that the defense of Crete has become impossible. The Germans can now bring in unlimited supply, while the bulk of the troops of the British Empire in North Africa must secure the already won victories over the Italians.

t_arrow1 see also: Airborne invasion of Crete

British retreat

German military cemetery in Crete
The German military cemetery in Maleme on Crete today, with the airfield Malemes in the background.
In East Africa, the British have also defeated the Italians. Somaliland has been recaptured by the British. From their colony Eritrea, the Italians have been displaced – and on April 4, two days before the German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece, British troops are occupying the Abyssinian capital Addis Ababa. The Negus Haile Selassie, called ‘Lion of Judah’, returns to his capital.
These many victories over the Italians ought to be preserved. Crete became contrary unimportant. Therefore, Freyberg orders the retreat. The British fleet appears on the south coast of Crete, to evacuate the defeated troops and to transport them to Egypt. The British and the remaining Greeks with them still suffer substantial losses.

But the British Mediterranean Fleet loses during the evacuation operation three cruisers and six destroyers through the attacks by German bombers. An aircraft carrier, three battleships, six cruisers and five destroyers are damaged with over 2,000 British sailors are killed.
Of the 32,000 British troops located in Crete half is killed, wounded or fallen into German captivity.

But the defeat of the most modern branch of the world immediately follows this great victory: the entire Balkan campaign against Yugoslavia and Greece costs the German Wehrmacht 5,650 killed, missing and wounded. However, just the conquest of Crete calls far more victims: 6,580 soldiers, mostly paratroopers.

So Hitler decides, never to use the paratroops again in such a sacrificial action. Hence, it is that the German paratrooper – except for the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 – never again be used in the ‘jump out of the clouds’, but instead from the outset as infantrymen. The victory of Crete is also the end of the German paratroopers as the branch of service.

Troop deployment in the East

German troops deployment
Camouflaged German troops deployment in East Prussia.
Crete is in German hands. Now the troop trains are not more moving through Greece and the other Balkan States in the southern direction, but instead to the northeast. Mussolini’s unsuccessful attack on Greece and the ensuing consequences have indeed Hitler compelled to intervene and to postpone the Operation Barbarossa – but not to cancel.

On May 6, Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili who for many years already called himself just Joseph Stalin, become chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, so Soviet Prime Minister. He combined so now formalize all the power in his hands after it has previously been ‘only’ general secretary of the Communist Party. Scriabin Molotov remains Foreign Minister.

Relations between Germany and the Soviet Union became much colder since Molotov’s visit to Berlin. But so many German successes seem to induce Stalin to thaw the frozen relations again. Did he suddenly afraid of the seemingly invincible German army – or he just needs time for his own new aggression ?
The stalled deliveries to Germany again take place on time, the Soviet Union even makes additional deals beyond the scope of economic Treaties.
The new ‘Prime Minister’ Stalin is doing on foreign policy nor the rest. Just as he expelled the German diplomats from the Baltic capitals Riga, Reval and Kaunas a year ago, he can now expel the still in Moscow accredited ambassadors and ministers of Belgium, Norway, Yugoslavia and Greece.

But such measures are no longer able to stop Hitler’s preparations for the attack on the Soviet Union, because at the same time, there are increasing news of Soviet troop concentrations on the German-Soviet demarcation line in Poland.

Today the cause of Stalin’s sudden give in is known, Khrushchev spoke at the famous 20th Congress about. The Red Army is in the spring of 1941 just in a basic refurbishment and modernization. Obsolete tanks are replaced with the new T-34, which is superior to any German tank. Obsolete field guns be withdrawn from the artillery units to be equipped with the new rocket launcher Katyusha guns, which are called by the German soldiers later ‘Stalin Organs’. The Soviet air divisions will be equipped with the modern twin-engined all-purpose combat aircraft Il-2 Stormovik.

A German attack into the middle of this conversion must have catastrophic consequences. Often when the old guns of an artillery unit have already been issued, but no new ones are available. Are the new guns there, so is still lack of the new and different ammunition. Modern aircraft are provided to Red Air Force – but there are not enough pilots trained for it.
But above all: The Red Army has still not recovered from the blow that Stalin did to her by liquidate of the entire military leadership in the summer of 1937, four years ago.

Therefore, Stalin attempts at appeasement, although he now gets accurate news of the impending German attack. Just one week before the start of Operation Barbarossa, Stalin gives the official statement of the Soviet government to the news agency TASS for the world where it is, ‘the widespread rumors of an imminent war between the USSR and Germany’ are senseless and nothing but ‘a plump concocted propaganda set by hostile forces towards the Soviet Union and Germany’. Neither wanted Germany to attack the Soviet Union, nor the Soviet Union is preparing for a war against Germany. All such rumors were ‘untrue and provocative’.

As this Soviet official statement appears, the last meeting about the imminent attack takes place at Hitlers headquarters. And Hitler is thereby speaking for the first time that this in the following week beginning war, would be completely different from all previous wars. Keitel, chief of OKW has testified later at Nuremberg about: ‘It was placed at the head, that it was a question of the decisive struggle between two worldviews, and that this fact made it necessary that the leadership in this war, the methods how we soldier they knew and how we thought they were alone correctly for international law, a completely different scale must be applied.’

Operation Barbarossa

German infantry and a Panzer III in street fightings
German infantry and a Panzer III in street fighting in a Russian city at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa.
Five weeks later than originally planned – maybe five important weeks too late – the war of the ‘worldviews’ begins with Operation Barbarossa. At dawn of June 22, 1941, German troops crossed the Soviet-German border. Two giant empires have begun to fight to the death, the bloody, burning front reaches across Europe, from the North Cape to the Black Sea, soon to the Caucasus.

As in previous years in each campaign since September 1, 1939, the German army has a fantastic drive and victorious as usual. It almost seems as if Hitler was right when he said to the military at the meeting at his headquarters on 14 June: ‘What I ask of you is one thing: open the door with a hard push. The house then falls by itself together !’

Despite their numerical superiority, despite the much larger number of weapons – the German Panzer Army Kleist, for example, which has only 600 tanks, faces the Soviet Army Group Budjonny with more than 2,400 tanks – in spite of better familiarity with the rough terrain, the Red Army is forced to retreat hastily.

In eastern Poland, in Belorussia, in Ukraine and especially in the recently by the Bolsheviks occupied countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the German soldiers are jubilantly welcomed as liberators by the population. In Western European countries, numerous volunteers who want to fight against the Soviet Union, came in touch with German authorities. Even in neutral countries – for example, in Spain and in Sweden – many volunteers want to fight on the German side.

On June 22, Molotov talked in the morning in a broadcast to the Soviet people. But ‘The great Stalin’, the ‘wise father of the people’, the ‘brilliant leader of the working people of the world’ can not be listening or watched. Only on July 3 he rouses himself to speak to the people. At this time, already more than a million Red Army soldiers are in German captivity, thousands of Soviet planes and tanks are destroyed or shot down, the German troops are already deep in Stalin’s country.

One pocket battle follows another, an enemy army after another is encircled and destroyed. It seems as if the optimists are proved right, who always held the opinion that the Soviet Union was a ‘colossus with feet of clay’.
Unstoppable seems the retreat of the Red Army, which is only stopped where German tanks are even faster than the fleeing enemy armies and encircle them.

Stalin orders the ‘total war’. Each Russian village has to be set on fire before the Germans are coming. Collective farms and state farms are lighted. Electricity has to be blown up, utilities are also blown up, food storage were made unusable, railroad tracks destroyed.
It does not help, the triumph of German soldiers seems to be unable to be stopped by anything or anyone.

On 9 October 1941, Hitler spoke in Berlin for the opening of the winter relief organization and stated here that the enemy was defeated and will rise no more.
Once again it seems that would be peace very close. When the Red Army suffered such enormous losses, when the German troops are now before the Bolshevik capital, then Stalins slaves empire must collapse at any moment.
Hope is spreading. Perhaps the soldiers are back home before Christmas ? Goebbels called Hitler as the ‘greatest commander of all time’, from which the eternal mocking funny Berliner make the abbreviation ‘Gröfaz’.
But it seems to agree. When the Soviets collapse, then this is the greatest victory that was ever achieved by an army, a victory that even such famous generals as King Charles XII of Sweden or Napoleon was denied.

But now the delay is noticeable, which has occurred by Mussolini’s Greek adventure. Now are missing exactly the five weeks that the Wehrmacht lost the ‘in between-down’ Balkan campaign and to fight against the Bolshevist giant country later than planned.

Battle of Moscow

in front of Moscow
The last German tanks are used at the beginning of the winter in front of Moscow in support of the infantry.
On November 14, 1941, the American news agency United Press reported from Berlin: ‘At the front, the Germans can obviously only advance step by step, or they are even at a standstill. A competent military spokesman in Berlin said the operations would still hamper by the bad weather …’
It is like it is: The German offensive before Moscow is stuck in the autumn mud. Tanks, guns, trucks, supply columns sink into the immense filth of the vast Russian land.

But it goes on again. After a few days the cold weather arrives at Moscow. The gratuitous mud freezes and solidifies. The German tanks and vehicles roll again. But this time not long. The Soviets get the General to the aid as 131 years ago, which in 1812 the invincible translucent Emperor Napoleon forced to retreat: the ‘General Winter’.

The first as rescue against mud and mire welcomed cold is always grim. It locks of rifles, machine guns and sub machine guns jammed. The closures of the guns can not be moved. The oil in the tank engines is determined, the engine no longer starts. The radio links of the combat troops to their command headquarters are breaking – the amplifiers are frozen, the batteries burst in the cold.

On 5 December, the big change comes in the decisive battle for Moscow. The thermometer shows 37 degrees below zero. A blizzard rages, which makes everybody blind, each signpost extinguishes. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group Center, which is located in a three hundred kilometer long semi-circle around Moscow, must notify the Führer’s headquarters that a further advance is impossible.

The Chief of the Army, Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, explains to Halder that he would resign. The next day, the first time the Red Army is attacking.
Early in the morning of December 6, storm red guard divisions with loud war cries against the foremost German positions. Elite divisions – not the workers’ battalions with men, women and children previously employed in defense of Moscow ! There are the majority Siberian divisions which Stalin has fetched from the Far East.

Stalin best spy – honored only posthumously after a few decades by the Soviets – has that accomplished, thereby having helped to save Moscow and probably the Soviet Union. The divisions have been previously used to protect Siberia against Japan, but Dr Richard Sorge reported from Tokyo that Japan will remain neutral and in no case would attack the Soviet Union. So, Stalin has his back free and can throw in into the battle of Moscow his few remaining elite units without hesitation.

The Siberians are superbly equipped, they are fresh and rested, they are mainly experienced in the cold, snow and ice. The furthest advanced German troops must yield.

Hitler is appalled at his Führer’s headquarters. The front must hold ! If the soldiers come into the running once, then all is lost, then there is no stopping. Field Marshal von Bock has already been replaced by Field Marshal von Kluge, because Hitler trusts Kluge more stability.

But Marshal von Kluge, given the overall situation, wants also to retreat. Hitler evokes the Marshal, allow no retreat, and discards any other argument.
The cold ? Further back there is the same cold, no retreat helps to this.
As far has the withdrawal to go ? There are no prepared positions, in which the soldiers could save further back. In the yards deep-frozen ground no such positions can be constructed.
Superior enemy ? There you are: Then you must certainly make front to him, if you run from the enemy away and turn your back to him, then he is still superior. The superiority of the enemy can only be reduced by opposing to him trying to inflict to him so many losses as possible. On the run, you can not do that.

Hitler eventually prevails. Brauchitsch has now offered twice his resignation as Chief of the Army. On December 19, Hitler finally agrees. The last commander of the German army goes. The last – because Hitler appoints no successor, but takes the lead of the army itself directly.

Towards a World War

Picture taken from a Japanese pilot during the attack on Pearl Harbor
Picture taken from a Japanese pilot during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the center is Ford Island with the battleship ‘row’ behind.
It succeeds, after some front line reductions, which were planned and approved by Hitler, to hold the front at Moscow over the winter. Until the spring of 1942, there is no German advance more, but also no such catastrophic retreat, like the Grande Army of Napoleon had suffered.
For the first time in this war, by which so far always saw the German soldiers as the winner, German troops are encircled in Demjansk and Chelm. They defend themselves for months and are finally released by the own troops in the spring 1942.

Meanwhile, the war has become a world war. The US is now officially at war with Germany, after having long months an economic and naval war against Germany without ever openly to declare war. On December 7, Japan attacked with aircraft the American naval base Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian Islands, and Hitler, for his part, declared war to US on December 11.

At first the American participation in the war effort is not visible, nor are fighting anywhere in Europe American soldiers.

Year 1941 2
War Diary starting January 1, 1941

Oval@3x 2

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