In February 1941, while the fighting continued at the peripheries of the Nazi German and Fascist Italian empires, significant events throughout the month served to highlight the increasing international tensions which would expand the European war into a global conflict.
New military commanders
On 1 February 1941, Georgy Zhukov, who would ultimately command some of the most decisive Soviet victories against Nazi German forces, was appointed as the Red Army’s Chief of General Staff. Meanwhile, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet and the United States Pacific Fleet. Kimmel’s predecessor, Admiral James O. Richardson, had been relieved of his command when he voiced his concerns that the United States Pacific Fleet at Hawaii was the logical first target should war break out with Japan.
On 3 February, Erwin Rommel assumed command of what would soon become known as the Afrika Korps. In the Soviet Union, the functions of state police, intelligence and counter-intelligence were reorganised into Directorates of the People’s Commissariat for State Security (N.K.G.B.).
Problems within the Axis Pact
British successes against Italian forces in East Africa were matched by victories against Italian forces in Libya. On 6 February Benghazi was captured and the retreating Italian forces were pursued by British and Australian units to Beda Fromm. In order to counterbalance the impending defeat of the Italian 10th Army, Germany commenced Operation Sonnenblume (sunflower) to supply German troops to North Africa. Adolf Hitler wrote to Francisco Franco to urge him to bring neutral Spain into the Axis Pact together with Nazi German, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Hitler’s overtures proved no more successful than Benito Mussolini’s two day conference with Franco six days later.
American support for the allied war effort was confirmed on 8 February when the United States House of Representatives passed the Lend-Lease Bill. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed turning America into the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’, which in practice meant the promotion of the defence of the United States by providing food, oil and weaponry to allied nations such as Great Britain and Free France while remaining neutral. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously responded on 9 February to the passage of the Lend-Lease Bill with the words ‘Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing… We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire… Give us the tools and we will finish the job.’
Cause for concern
On 11 February, Kichisaburo Nomura, the new Japanese Ambassador to the United States of America, arrived in Washington D.C. When he presented his credentials to President Roosevelt on 14 February, Roosevelt warned him that ‘there are developments in the relations between the United States and Japan which cause concern’.
By 13 February, the Jewish Quarter in German-occupied Amsterdam was virtually sealed off from the rest of the city by barbed wire, and non-Jewish residents had been ordered to leave the quarter. On 14 February the first Afrika Korps troops arrived in Tripoli, and the following day German troops fought for the first time in North Africa against British forces near Sirte. The title Afrika Korps became official on 18 February.
While South African forces captured Mega in Ethiopa from the Italians on 18 February, that same day Australian troops arrived in Singapore in force. Mindful of the growing threat of a war with Japan, Australia despatched the Eighth Division, together with four Royal Australian Air Force squadrons and eight Australian warships to assist in the defence of both Singapore and Malaya. A Gallup poll of American popular opinion published on 24 February included the question of whether or not the United States should risk a war with Japan in order to keep Japan from taking the Dutch East Indies and Singapore. 46% of respondents replied no, 39% replied yes, while 15% offered no opinion.
On 19 February, Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, met with General Archibald Wavell and Admiral Andrew Cunningham to discuss British military assistance to Greece. Eden was mindful of the German military presence in Bulgaria, and Hitler’s recent attempt to secure Yugoslav membership of the Axis Pact, as well as Greece’s ongoing successes against Italian forces on the Albanian border. To Eden, the only way to prevent the Balkans falling piecemeal to Italian and German forces was to bolster the Greek war effort. At a meeting with the Greek King and Prime Minister in Athens on 22 February Eden, together with Generals Wavell and John Dill agreed to despatch a British expeditionary force to Greece.
Italy’s ‘gray days’
Mussolini admitted on 23 February that Italy’s military efforts against Greece, and against British and Commonwealth forces in Libya and East Africa had been ‘gray days’, but remained confident of an ultimate Axis victory. Hitler harboured no such uncertainty in his own speech on 24 February to mark the 21st anniversary of the foundation of the Nazi Party when he announced that the U-boat offensive would intensify in the coming months. His announcement was backed by a ship construction programme which included the commissioning of the battleship Tirpitz on 25 February, together with a number of U-boats throughout February. By contrast, the Italian navy lost the Auxiliary Cruiser Ramb I near the Maldives on 27 February to the New Zealand light cruiser Leander.
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.