In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt confirmed American support for the war effort of Britain and her allies against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan ‘until total victory has been won.’ Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, vowed that England would be defeated as the aerial Blitz on England and Scotland intensified, while German U-Boat packs faced permanent Royal Navy surface escort groups designed to protect the vital Atlantic convoys of essential supplies from North America to the United Kingdom. Hitler also balanced ongoing Italian military reverses in Somaliland, Libya and Albania by strengthening the Axis Pact with the addition of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, while encouraging Japan’s war aims in the Far East as he prepared to attack the Soviet Union.
To Win A War
On 1 March 1941, Free French forces commanded by Colonel Philippe Leclerc captured Kufra in south-eastern Cyrenaica from Italian troops. The French had been assisted by a British reconnaissance and raiding unit, the Long Range Desert Group. The following day Leclerc and his men swore not to lay down their arms until their colours flew once again over Strasbourg Cathedral. In the United States, a special bipartisan Senate Committee chaired by Harry S. Truman was established to oversee military contracts and thereby avoid waste and inefficiency in war production.
Bulgaria and Poland
Bulgaria joined the Axis war effort on 1 March by signing the Tripartite Pact which established German and Italian leadership in Europe and Japanese leadership in Greater East Asia. That same day, Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfϋhrer-SS visited the concentration camp which had been established by SS personnel at Auschwitz, some 50 kilometers west of Krakow. Auschwitz I already housed almost 11,000 mainly Polish prisoners, and Himmler ordered that the camp be expanded to hold 30,000 prisoners.
Japan and the Far East
In central China, the National Revolutionary Army outmaneuvered and finally defeated Imperial Japanese Forces on 1 March. Four days later, Adolf Hitler’s Directive No. 24 urged Japan to take action in the Far East, while Germany concentrated on the defeat of England, primarily by means of the U-Boat war against allied shipping in the North Atlantic. Hitler hoped that swift and decisive military action would serve to keep America out of the war. He also recognised that Japan should nevertheless secure sources of strategic raw materials necessary for the prosecution of a war against America. Hitler was confident that the Japanese seizure of England’s ‘key position in the Far East, the naval base at Singapore, ‘would represent a decisive success’ for the three major Axis powers.
British Military Adventures
On 4 March, a combined British and Free Norwegian raid on the German-occupied Norwegian Lofoten Islands destroyed fish products destined to be refined into glycerine for the production of German high explosives. The raiders also captured vital coding equipment which enabled British codebreakers to read encrypted German naval messages and thus draw Allied convoys away from U-Boats operating in the North Atlantic. On 7 March, the first troops of Operation Lustre arrived in Greece, as part of Britain’s military support for the Greek Army’s efforts to repulse an Italian invasion from Albania. German troops had already reached the Greek border on 2 March, in anticipation of the renewal of the Italian Offensive against Greece on 9 March.
America Joins the War Effort
On 10 March, troops from the Belgian Congo invaded western Ethiopia, taking an Italian garrison by surprise, and German aircraft bombed Portsmouth, England. Meanwhile Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was provided with a draft plan of the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The following day President Roosevelt enacted the Lend-Lease Act, by which American food, oil and war material would be supplied to Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, Free France and the Republic of China. On 12 March Roosevelt asked Congress for $7 billion to fund the lend-lease programme, promising on 15 March that American aid would continue to be supplied ‘until total victory has been won.’
Trouble in the Balkans
The Italian Spring Offensive against Greece ended in abject failure on 16 March, while Hitler confidently declared that England would be defeated. His words proved somewhat hollow, when two U-Boats were destroyed by the Royal Navy the following day. On 19 March, General Erwin Rommel was advised not to expect any further German reinforcements to Libya until May, while Hitler delivered an ultimatum to Yugoslavia to either join with the Axis powers or suffer invasion. The Yugoslav government accepted Hitler’s demands on 20 March, and signed the Tripartite Pact five days later. The decision was quickly overturned by a coup d’état on 27 March, and Hitler readied his commanders to prepare to invade Yugoslavia.
Italy suffered its greatest naval defeat at the Battle of Matapan between 27 and 29 March when five warships were sunk by British and Australian naval vessels. In Hawaii, a Japanese spy astutely observed that US battleships were berthed in pairs, thereby protecting the in-shore ship from torpedo attack.
On 30 March, Hitler advised his generals that the forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union would be a war of race and ideology, with the Jewish and Slavic peoples to be enslaved or exterminated in the pursuit of living space (Lebensraum) for the German people. Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union presented little threat – Hitler foresaw that his troops had only ‘to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down’. Across the Atlantic, a team of physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, led by Glenn T. Seaborg, created the new element plutonium, which was capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction – a vital step in the creation of the first atomic weapon.
Cover picture photo credit: https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/from-the-archives-the-battle-of-cape-matapan-20190325-p517ay.html
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.