80th Anniversary of World War 2: July 1941

In July 1941, the invading German forces enjoyed almost complete success over the Soviet Union’s Red Army across a broad front stretching from the Baltic States to the Ukraine. The events of July 1941 also foreshadowed the bitter course of the war on the Eastern Front, from the Soviet policy of ‘scorched earth’ to German plans for a ‘total solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’, while the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin pressed Britain to attack Germany in the west and the north. Britain’s military resources remained committed to Africa and the Middle East, the North Atlantic and the air war above Western Europe. American President Franklin Roosevelt recognised that, as the war continued to expand, his country would soon be at war with the Axis powers.

The Axis Attack

On 1 July 1941, German and Finnish forces attacked Russian positions in Finland, as the southern part of a wider operation to seize control of the Russian port of Murmansk. The following day, German and Romanian forces assaulted areas of the Ukraine which were claimed by Romania. This operation, code-named München, included a number of Soviet-Romanian naval engagements in and around the Danube Delta. German Einsatzgruppen followed closely behind the advancing armies, and in Lithuania and Poland the death squads quickly commenced the systematic murder of some 5,000 Jews, and members of the intelligentsia. The German Schutzstaffel (S.S.) under the command of Heinrich Himmler, expanded the mass killing programme from 17 July.

Scorched Earth

On 3 July, Joseph Stalin advised the Soviet people to resist the German invasion with a combination of ‘scorched earth’ policy which sought to deny any food or war material to the Germans, and guerilla warfare. Entire factories in the path of German invasion were dismantled and transported eastwards by rail, where they were reassembled and put back into production. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed Britain’s admiration for ‘the bravery tenacity of the soldiers and the people’ of Russia. With the German forces only 200 miles from Moscow, Stalin required more than words from Churchill, and on 12 July a formal military alliance between the two nations was signed.

War Directive Number 32

The German leader Adolf Hitler issued his Directive Number 32 on 11 July 1941. Hitler foresaw that, with the destruction of the Red Army, a smaller German and Italian military force would be required in Europe. With the Soviet Union defeated, and the Axis powers the ‘military masters of Europe’, British military forces in North Africa would be defeated by the new Panzer Armee Afrika under the command of General Erwin Rommel. German and Italian naval forces would contain the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, while the Battle of the Atlantic would continue with new German U-boats commissioned throughout July 1941.

Allied Cooperation

On 4 July, President Roosevelt warned the American people that they could expect to fight to remain ‘a happy and fertile oasis of liberty’ as Germany, Japan and Italy together expanded the ‘cruel desert of dictatorship’. Three days later, the Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek marked the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of war with Japan by calling for ‘close co-operation’ between the Allied powers. Chiang recognised that the fighting in Europe and Asia was linked because of the global threat posed by the Axis powers – a ‘predatory group of powers’ which sought ‘to dominate the word by force’. Churchill wrote to Stalin on 20 July, ruling out a British assault on occupied Europe as his county was ‘at the utmost strain’ at home, in the Middle East and in the North Atlantic. British military planners looked ahead to a new offensive in Libya under the command of General Claude Auchinleck. On 20 July a message was broadcast from Britain to the occupied countries of Europe, calling on people to mobilise under the V for Victory campaign by chalking the letter V in public places and tapping out the Morse code for V (three dots followed by a dash).

War in the East

On 25 July, President Roosevelt froze Japanese and Chinese assets in the United States. Britain imposed economic sanctions on Japan the following day and froze any Japanese assets in British-controlled areas. The American and British sanctions deprived Japan of strategic oil supplies, and the Japanese government was therefore faced with the clear diplomatic and strategic dilemma – whether to withdraw from China, or seize the resource-rich British, French and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia. Swift and decisive military action in the Pacific had been planned since January 1941. Japan now negotiated military access to French Indochina with pro-Axis Vichy France, and by 29 July Japan and the Vichy regime had agreed to collaborate on the defence of Indochina.

German Strategy in Russia

Hitler issued his Directive Number 33 on 19 July, changing the German commanders’ priorities from the capture of Moscow to the capture of Leningrad to assure a supply route for iron ore from Sweden, securing the Ukraine’s supplies of raw materials and agricultural produce, and occupying the Crimea to help keep the Ploesti oilfields in Romania beyond the range of the Soviet Air Force. While the German High Command protested that the capture of the Soviet capital represented a crucial economic and propaganda victory, Hitler was equally aware that the Red Army had not been destroyed in the opening weeks of Operation Barbarossa, and that the Soviets were proving to be more formidable opponents than anticipated, contrary to the Nazi ideology of German racial superiority.

Photo Credit: https://www.historyonthenet.com/battle-of-the-atlantic

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.