80th Anniversary of World War 2: May 1941

In May 1941 the German leader Adolf Hitler and his military commanders prepared for the invasion of the Soviet Union. In the west, the German airforce’s sustained blitz against the United Kingdom came to an end with a major bombing assault on London. In the North Atlantic, the battle between allied surface escort groups for merchant convoys and concentrations of German U-Boats (dubbed ’Rudel’ or ‘wolf packs’) remained in the balance. Elsewhere, the British General Office in Command of the Middle East, Archibald Wavell, responded to various threats posed by German forces in Libya, an anti-British coup d’état by senior Iraqi military officers, and the defence of the island of Crete from a German airborne and seaborne invasion. From 20 May 1941, the world watched as German forces attempted to seize Crete by force, while in the North Atlantic the Royal Navy and Royal Airforce pursued the German battleship Bismarck.

The end of the Blitz

On 1 May 1941, the German Luftwaffe launched a week-long bombing assault on Liverpool, as part of the wider German strategy to coordinate naval and air assaults against North Atlantic convoys and port facilities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Belfast, Greenock and Hull were next to experience blitzes, but the bombing of port facilities instead of mining harbor approaches meant that the ports remained open to shipping. The final German blitz was on London on 10 and 11 May, resulting in the deaths of 1,436 people, with a further 1,792 seriously injured. German airforce units were thereafter redeployed to assist with the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Revolt in the Desert

A coup in April 1941 saw a National Defence Government established in Iraq under Rashad Ali al Gaylani. Rhasad Ali sought to end the British control of Iraqi oilfields, which were protected by Royal Air Force (RAF) stations at Habbaniya and Shaibah. The Anglo-Iraqi War began on 2 May when RAF aircraft bombed and strafed Iraqi troops who were besieging the RAF station at Habbaniya. Rashad Ali looked to Germany for military assistance, in particular German airborne troops. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, meanwhile, ordered Wavell to despatch British troops then garrisoned in Palestine. A column which was formed from the 4th Cavalry Brigade proved to be the last-ever British all-horse military operation. German and Italian militarysupport via Vichy French-controlled Syria came in the form of aircraft and weaponry, but the promised ground troops never materialised. While British ground and air units advanced on Fallujah, the Iraqi army was unable to coordinate with the Luftwaffe, and Italian aircraft arrived too late to influence the war. On 29 May, as British forces advanced on Baghdad, Rashad Ali and his government left for Germany by way of Persia.

Italian Defeat in East Africa

The combined British and South African victory at Battle of Amba Alagi in Abyssinia, which was waged from 4 to 16 May, marked the end of Italy’s colony in East Africa. Emperor Haile Selassie returned to the capital city Addis Ababa on 5 May, exactly five years after Italian troops had entered the city while Selassie and his family sought refuge in British-controlled Palestine.

The Secret War

On 7 May, a British warship captured a German weather ship – an unarmed trawler used to send weather reports from the northeast of Iceland – and seized the German Enigma codebooks and code machine settings. Two days later, the Royal Navy escort for Convoy OB 318 forced the German U-Boat U-110 to the surface and retrieved the code books and the Enigma coding machine. Armed with this vital information, British codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England were able to decode and read German naval messages, resulting in a significant reduction in Allied merchant shipping losses to U-Boats in the North Atlantic from June 1941.

Operation Mercury

On 20 May, a combined force of British, Commonwealth and Greek forces fought together to repulse the German invasion of the Island of Crete. General Kurt Student, who commanded Germany’s elite paratroop forces, had obtained Hitler’s agreement to a lightening airborne assault on the island, followed by a seaborne invasion. The overconfident German paratroop and glider troops proved easy targets for the defenders on the first day of battle. However, that night exhaustion and confusion amongst the New Zealand commanders led to the withdrawal of troops from crucial positions on Hill 107 overlooking the main RAF airfield at Maleme. Once the airfield was in German hands, transport aircraft ferried in fresh mountain troops, who helped turn the battle in the Germans’ favour. When New Zealand counter-attacks at Maleme failed, the defenders began a slow and tortuous retreat over the White Mountains to the southern port of Sfakia. Some 18,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt by the Royal Navy, which dominated the seas by night and thus prevented any seaborne invasion, while the Luftwaffe controlled the skies by day. The casualty figures were equally heavy between the invaders and the defenders, while more than 12,000 British and Commonwealth troops became prisoners of war. German paratroopers were never again committed to a massed airborne operation.

Sink the Bismark

On 22 May, the formidable German battleship Bismarck, together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, headed for the North Atlantic to attack Allied convoys. A British fleet was despatched to hunt the Bismarck down, but on 24 May in the Denmark Strait the Bismarck instead destroyed the British battleship HMS Hood in only four minutes, when a salvo pierced through to the Hood’s ammunition magazine. Only three of the Hood’s compliment survived, while 1,415 officers and men died. Two days later, RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft attacked the Bismarck with torpedoes, and disabled the ship’s steering gear. On 27 May the Royal Navy fleet intercepted the crippled battleship, and two battleships and two heavy cruisers battered it with shellfire, before sinking it with torpedoes.

War and Peace

On 10 May, Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland on a one-man mission to negotiate a peace with Great Britain. Hitler quickly disowned his deputy as insane, and Hess was held in equal suspicion and disregard by his British captors. Hitler was now fully preoccupied with the impending invasion of the Soviet Union. While the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dismissed reports that the German attack was now imminent, on 13 May the head of the German high command, General Wilhelm Keitel, signed the Barbarossa Decree which instructed that, in the coming war with the Soviet Union, ‘any person suspected of having a hostile attitude towards the Germans’ would face summary execution without trial.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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.