80th Anniversary of World War 2: January 1941

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2021 will mark eighty years since the Second World War became a truly global conflict, ultimately extending across North Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Pacific. In January 1941, conflict was largely confined to Italian colonial possessions in Africa, the borders of Greece and Albania, and French Indo-China, while the German occupation of much of Europe was still being consolidated. By December 1941, a new Allied coalition saw the economic might of the United States of America matched with the vast resources of the Soviet Union and the British Commonwealth in a new Allied coalition pitted against the combined Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy.

The Four Freedoms

The origins of the global conflict can be traced to 6 January 1941, when the American President Franklin Roosevelt proposed four fundamental freedoms for all of the peoples of the world: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Four Freedoms were adopted a year later by the ‘United Nations’ of countries allied against German, Italian and Japanese aggression.

Formation of Battleplans

On 7 January, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto presented his plan for a war against the United States of America to the Minister of the Navy. Yamamoto proposed a devastating air assault against the U.S. Navy fleet based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which would serve to cripple American military forces in the first hours of the Pacific War. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would take place exactly eleven months later.

Adolf Hitler met with his generals on 9 January to consider his plans to attack the Soviet Union, in order to realise the German nationalist goal of eliminating the Slavic nations of Eastern Europe and resettling these territories with German colonists. Hitler argued that German success against the Soviet Union would not only encourage Imperial Japan to attack the United States, but would also ensure that America would be too involved with a Pacific War against Japan to consider joining in any European campaigns.

On 14 January, the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, met with the Greek Prime Minister and the Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army to discuss British military assistance in the Greco-Italian War then being waged along the Albanian border. While the British offer of two or three divisions was declined, British and Commonwealth forces later arrived in April 1941 in an ill-fated attempt to help defend Greece against a German invasion.

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini met with Hitler on 19 January, with the German leader agreeing to support the Italians fighting British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa, but not to bolster the Italian campaign against the Greeks. The German Afrika Korps had already been formed on 11 January, and the first elements of this new force were dispatched to Libya the following month under the command of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel.

On 30 January, during a speech to mark the eighth anniversary of the Nazi Party coming to power in Germany, Hitler warned that any attempt by America to interfere in Europe would encourage Nazi-occupied Europe to defend herself. Furthermore, any ship which came within range of German submarines while attempting to bring supplies to England would be torpedoed. Most ominously of all, Hitler foreshadowed that ‘the role of Jewry would be finished in Europe’. One year later, high-ranking Nazi officials would meet in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to consider the final solution of the Jewish problem.

Military Musical Comedies

January 1941 ended on a lighter note with the release of the musical comedy Buck Privates starring the American comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and the singing trio the Andrews Sisters. This was the first of three military service-themed comedies starring Abbott and Costello which were completed prior to America’s entry into the Second World War in December. Buck Privates brought in more than $4 million at the box office, and was one of Universal Picture’s most successful films of 1941. The song ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ became a wartime hit for the Andrews Sisters, and was nominated for an Academy Award, losing out to the song ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’, which itself was inspired by the German occupation of France the previous year.

Author’s Profile:

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.