80th Anniversary of World War 2: November 1941

In November 1941, while Germans forces captured more cities in the Crimea, Soviet troops continued to hold back the German invaders from Sevastopol and Moscow and the besieging German and Finnish forces from Leningrad. British and Commonwealth forces attempted to break the German and Italian siege of the port of Tobruk in Libya with Operation Crusader, which developed into a series of pitched infantry and tank battles which exhausted both the Allied and Axis forces. The alliance between the United States the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union was now, in the words of Joseph Stalin, ‘a reality’ as the Soviet Union was officially declared eligible for lend-lease military assistance. The Japanese Navy made its final preparations for the combined attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, while diplomatic negotiations with the United States continued.

‘The devil is not so bad as he is painted’

In the Crimean Peninsula German troops occupied Simferopol, Crimea’s second-largest city, on 1 November. The port of Feodosia was captured three days later, the coastal city of Yalta was taken on 9 November, and the city of Kerch fell on 16 November. General Erich von Mannstein ordered the 50th Infantry Division to test the Soviet defences at Sevastopol on 10 November but had to call off the assault by 21 November having lost 2,000 troops. The Soviet hospital ship Armenia was bombed and sunk on 7 November in one of the worst recorded maritime disasters, with the loss of an estimated 7,000 civilians and wounded soldiers who were being evacuated from the Crimea. Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, German victories at Kursk on 3 November and Tikhvin near Leningrad on 8 November were soon overshadowed by serious military reverses. German soldiers began to experience frostbite from early November, and the renewed German attack on Moscow on 15 November was slowed by the bitterly cold conditions. The combined German-Finnish offensive against Murmansk failed to capture the port, which remained a vital Soviet supply route for Allied lend-lease food, oil and military equipment. The Battle of Rostov on the Southern Front resulted in German forces retreating in the face of a Soviet counter-offensive. While German forces took the Rostov on 21 November, tanks could not operate in the freezing weather, and the Soviet counterattack on 27 November forced the German 1st Panzer Army to withdraw in defiance of Adolf Hitler’s orders.  On 7 November, in a speech to mark the anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution, Joseph Stalin observed that ‘the German-fascist invaders are facing disaster’. Now that the vulnerabilities of the German war machine were becoming evident, Stalin assured his audience that ‘The devil is not so terrible as he is painted.’

Operation Crusader

General Claude Auchinleck planned for his combined British and Commonwealth forces to break through a series of German defensive positions close to the Libyan Coast and the Egyptian Border to relieve the besieged garrison at the port of Tobruk. Operation Crusader commenced on 18 November with a surprise attack into Libya spearheaded by British tank forces which, it was hoped, would defeat the German armoured forces. The Italian Ariete Division disrupted Auchinleck’s plan on 19 November by destroying a significant number of British tanks, and the operation soon became a series of bitter battles fought by Commonwealth infantry and artillery, while the British tanks were dispersed and destroyed. The 2nd New Zealand Division captured Fort Capuzzo on 22 November and linked up with the Tobruk garrison on 27 November. Bitter fighting on 23 November resulted in the destruction of the 5th South African Brigade, and the determined defence of Sidi Rezegh by the South African 3rd Field Regiment (Transvaal Horse Artillery).  A surprise assault towards the besieged German garrison at Bardia which was ordered by Generalleutenant Erwin Rommel on 24 November resulted in the capture of the 5th New Zealand Brigade Headquarters three days later, but the Germans had failed to locate the vital British supply base. New Zealand forces suffered further casualties in the fighting at Point 175 on 29 November, when the 21st Infantry Battalion was overrun by Italian forces, and at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November, where two New Zealand battalions were decimated. In breaking the siege of Tobruk and reducing the threat of an Axis invasion of Egypt, the British counted Operation Crusader as a victory, but it had been a brutal contest in which both sides had suffered heavy losses of men and tanks, and fought each other to a standstill.

‘Prosecute this war against aggression until final victory’

On 1 November Adolf Hitler accused the United States of attacking Germany in the North Atlantic the previous month when an American destroyer the USS Reuben James had dropped depth charges on a German U-boat near Iceland. Hitler claimed that President Franklin Roosevelt would be judged by the world, even though the Reuben James had been sunk by a German torpedo during the engagement. Joseph Stalin, speaking on 6 November, was pleased that Hitler’s ‘crazy plan’ to forge a coalition with the United States and the United Kingdom against the Soviet Union had failed, Instead, the Soviet Union’s alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom was ‘now a reality’. President Roosevelt reflected on the reality of war during his Armistice Day address at the Arlington National Cemetery on 11 November: ‘wars that save a people’s liberties are wars worth fighting and worth winning – and at any price.’ King George VI, in opening the British Parliament on 12 November, began his speech from the throne with the declaration that: ‘The developments of the past year have strengthened the resolution of my peoples and of my allies to prosecute this war against aggression until final victory’.

Top Secret Order No. 1

On 5 November, Admiral Isoroku Yamamato issued Top Secret Order No. 1, which detailed the attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Five days later the Pearl Harbour task force under the command of Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo began to move from the Kure Naval Base. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Winston Churchill perceptively announced that, while he viewed the prospect of conflict between Japan and the English-speaking world ‘with keen sorrow’, if the United States did become involved in a war with Japan then the British declaration of war would ‘follow within the hour’. Diplomatic discussions between the Japanese Ambassador, a special Japanese envoy and Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State, resumed in Washington DC on 20 November. However, on 26 November Admiral Nagumo’s task force sailed for Pearl Harbor, on the proviso that the force would return to Japan if the diplomatic talks were to reach a successful conclusion. The following day the United States naval and army commanders in Hawaii were warned that the negotiations were at a stalemate, and that hostile Japanese action could happen at any moment in Southeast Asia or the Philippines. The official Japanese news agency similarly warned that ‘there is little hope of bridging the gap between the opinions of Japan and the United States.’

The Big Action

In the final days of November 1941, mass killings of Latvian Jews in Latvia marked the last collective murder of Jewish people prior to the establishment of the death camps. The German plan to make Latvia Judenfrei (free of Jews) had resulted in the murder or confinement of the local Jewish population to ghettos. Some 20,000 Jews in the Minsk ghetto were murdered between 7 and 20 November. Heinrich Himmler then ordered the mass execution of those Latvian Jews confined to the Riga ghetto to provide space for newly deported German and Austrian Jews. German and Latvian personnel arranged for the excavation of six murder pits in the Rumbala Forest near Riga, to which 13,000 Jews were marched on 30 November, where they were forced to undress in the freezing conditions before they were shot. The remaining Riga Jews were executed on 8 December. The Rumbala Massacre is sometimes referred to as The Big Action – a euphemism for mass-murder.

Photo Credit

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.