In April 1941, while allied forces enjoyed military successes against Italian forces in Abyssinia, Somalia and East Africa and against Imperial Japanese troops in China, Germany remained the dominant military power in Western Europe, and now tilted the balance of power in North Africa in favour of the Axis powers. The Battle of the Atlantic remained a desperate contest between German U-Boats and the Royal Navy while American supplies – described in colourful terms by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the ‘sword of retributive justice’- continued to bolster the British war effort.
Wins and Losses
On 1 April 1941, the British hold on Libya began to loosen as British forces withdrew from the port of Brega as the German Afrika Korps commenced its move towards Tobruk and the Egyptian border. In Iraq, a pro-British government was overthrown by Iraqi nationalist generals who looked to Germany and Italy for assistance. The following day German and Italian forces captured the Libyan town of Ajdabiya, and reached Benghazi on 4 April. Meanwhile in Eritrea, British forces captured the capital city of Asmara. In the mid-Atlantic, an epic battle between the British auxiliary cruiser HMS Voltaire and the German naval auxiliary cruiser Thor resulted in the loss of the British ship.
On 4 April Adolf Hitler issued war directive number 27 for the German attack on Greece, where a mixed British and Commonwealth force was now assisting the Greek army. German forces moved into Greece on 6 April, coordinated with an assault on Yugoslavia. In response, Britain severed diplomatic links with Hungary, claiming that the country was now ‘a base of operations against the Allies’. German troops quickly overwhelmed the Greek defences at the Metaxas Line on 9 April, reaching Mount Olympus on 18 April and Athens on 27 April, with the King of Greece and his government escaping to Crete on 23 April. Allied resistance on mainland Greece ended on the 29th, and a pro-German government was installed the following day. Hitler issued the directive on 25 April for the invasion of Crete, while Italian forces began to occupy Greek islands from the 28th.
The German occupation of Yugoslavia was equally rapid, despite promises from the US President Franklin Roosevelt on 8 April that America would furnish the Yugoslavs with ‘all material assistance possible’. German forces captured Zagreb on 10 April, and Belgrade two days later as Hungary joined with German invasion. Sarajevo surrendered on 15 April, quickly followed by Yugoslavia’s surrender on the 17th.
On 10 April what would become a 241 day siege of the of Tobruk began, as the mainly Australian garrison force held off repeated German and Italian attempts to capture the vital Libyan port. Two days later German and Italian forces captured Fort Capuzzo and Bardia, as their advance to the Egyptian border continued apace. The German General Friedrich von Paulus was sent from Berlin to North Africa on 27 April in an attempt by the German High Command to exert more control over General Rommel whose lightning campaign in Libya had exceeded his orders.
Battle of the Atlantic
Winston Churchill well understood, by 27 April, that the Battle of the Atlantic would be ‘long and hard’, even as the battle ‘entered upon a more grim but at the same time a far more favourable phase’. The commissioning of German U-Boats continued to exceed the number of U-Boat losses in the North Atlantic, while the Narissa, the only Canadian troopship to be lost at sea during the war, was torpedoed on 30 April.
While an uneasy alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union endured, Russia had maintained a position of friendliness and non-aggression towards Yugoslavia even as the German invasion commenced. On 26 April, General Georgy Zhukov ordered the stage mobilisation of the Army, while four days later Hitler set the date for the German invasion of the Soviet Union as 22 June 1941. The stage was now set for the greatest clash of arms of the Second World War – the war on the Eastern Front.
Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.