80th Anniversary of World War 2: October 1941

In October 1941, the immediate and future war-aims of the Axis and Allied powers were focused on Moscow. Adolf Hitler described the Battle of Moscow as ‘the last great, decisive battle of this year’, while the joint Soviet, American and British conference in Moscow confirmed the supply of American weaponry and equipment to Russia. Japanese diplomatic negotiations with the United States of America failed to resolve either the threat of Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia or the American blockade of oil supplies to Japan. British and Commonwealth forces prepared to attack German and Italian forces in Libya and relieve the besieged Allied forces who defended the port of Tobruk.  Winston Churchill, reflecting upon the previous ten months, concluded that the lesson for Britain was ‘never give in, never give in, never, never, never’.

Moscow  – The Last Great, Decisive Battle

On 2 October, some two million German troops moved towards Moscow in order to encircle and destroy the Soviet defenders as part of Operation Typhoon – the Battle of Moscow. Hitler advised his troops that the Battle for Moscow was ‘the last great, decisive battle of this year’, designed to deal ‘a last mighty blow that shall crush this opponent before Winter sets in.’ The German assault was slowed by determined Soviet resistance, and the first snowfall on 7 October turned the Russian roads to mud. German units reached the vital Mozhaisk defensive position to the west of the city on 13 October, just as the available Soviet forces concentrated at Mozhaisk on the orders of General Georgy Zhukov. In Moscow trenches and anti-tank ditches were hurriedly constructed by civilian labour, and factories quickly converted to producing armaments and military supplies. Joseph Stalin ordered the evacuation from Moscow of the Soviet government, as well as all women and children not involved in war work. Stalin himself remained in the capital, declaring on 19 October that the city would be ‘defended to the last’. The renewed German offensive first bypassed the Mozhaisk position before assaulting it in force. The Soviet defenders withdrew towards Moscow, first holding German forces in sight of the city and then launching a counterattack. German commanders halted the operation on 31 October, due to the combination of the onset of winter, the appalling road conditions, problems with the supply of winter clothing and equipment and the large number of vehicles which were now non-operational. Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Brauchitsch was dismissed by Hitler from the role of Commander-in-Chief of the German Army due to the failure of Operation Typhoon.

The First Moscow Conference – Time is Precious

Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Averell Harriman, the American Special Envoy to Europe, and Lord Beaverbrook, the British Minister of War Supply met on 29 September to discuss the supply of vital munitions to the Soviet Union under the lend-lease system. Molotov observed that ‘Time is precious. Let us get to work’. The First Protocol between the Soviet Union, the United States of America and Great Britain was signed in Moscow on 1 October, confirming the supply of 400 aircraft, 500 tanks and 10,000 trucks and other vital material per month through to June 1942. The final communique from the conference also reinforced the aspirations of the Atlantic Charter agreed to by Roosevelt and Churchill two months earlier, to the effect that ‘after the final annihilation of Nazi tyranny, a peace will be established which will enable the world to live in security in its own territory in conditions free from fear or need.’

Japan’s New Prime Minister

On 1 October, Fumimaro Konoe the Japanese Prime Minister summoned Koshirō Oikawa the Navy Minister to discuss the Japanese Navy’s response to American demands that Japan withdraw from Indochina and China. The American oil embargo and freeze on Japanese assets in the United States representing, in the words of Dean Acheson of the United States Department, ‘full-blooded financial warfare’. The navy was unwilling to voice concerns that a war with America could not be won, while the army remained intransigent about retaining its forces in China and Indochina. Konoe was thus unable to reach a compromise either with his military commanders or with the United States. General Hideki Tojo, the Minister of War, advised the Japanese Cabinet on 14 October that the army was already moving hundreds of thousand of troops south, since diplomatic measures had no guarantee of success. Konoe stood down as Prime Minister on 16 October, and he was replaced two days later, by General Tojo.

Surprise Offensive in Libya

British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa were now reorganised as the British Eight Army under the command of General Claude Auchinleck. Equipped with new British and American tanks, and supported by the Royal Air Force, the Eight Army prepared for a surprise offensive in Libya to relieve the British and Commonwealth Garrison which had been besieged in the port of Tobruk since April 1941.

Severity Order

German forces continued to capture cities in the Ukraine, including the capture of Odessa on 16 October, and Kharhov and Belgorod a week later. By 27 October, General Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army had crossed into the Crimea, while the siege of Sevastopol commenced on 30 October. Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau, the commander of the Sixth Army, issued what became known as the Severity Order to his troops on 10 October in which he declared that ‘The most essential aim of war against the Jewish-Bolshevistic system is the complete destruction of their means of power and the elimination of Asiatic influence from the European culture’, which he claimed justified ‘a severe but just revenge on subhuman Jewry’. Reichenau’s order formalised the German Army’s role in the mass murder of Jews, especially in German-occupied Ukraine. On 12 October an estimated 12,000 Jews were executed at Stanislavov, while between 24,000 and 25,000 Jews were murdered by Romanian and German forces at Odessa between 22 and 24 October.

Never Give In

On 29 October Winston Churchill visited Harrow School, near London, which he had first attended fifty-three years earlier. In his speech to the assembled students Churchill reflected on the previous ten months which had seen ‘very terrible catastrophic events in the world’. The lesson which he drew from the experience of 1941 was: ‘never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’ Churchill therefore assured his young audience that ‘we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.’

Superheroes and Villains

A number of famous fictional characters made their debuts in October 1941. The film The Maltese Falcon premiered in New York on 3 October, featuring Humphry Bogart as the American private detective Sam Spade. On 21 October Wonder Woman first appeared in All Star Comics, while Batman’s nemesis The Penguin first appeared in Detective Comics. The Walt Disney animated film Dumbo premiered in New York on 23 October

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.