80th Anniversary of World War 2: September 1941

In September 1941, German military forces were successful in the Ukraine and Crimea, while to the north the city of Leningrad was besieged, and preparations were made to attack Moscow. The Japanese Government began its final preparations for war against both the United States of America, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the Pacific. Within German-occupied Europe, increasing repressive measures against Jewish people, the construction concentration camps in occupied Poland, and the mass-shootings of Russian Jews by German death squads (Einsatzgruppen) heralded a new phase in the Nazi plan for a Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.

‘This most brutal, most terrible of all wars’

On 1 September 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt marked Labor Day in the United States by declaring that American workers now bore ‘a tremendous responsibility in winning of this most brutal, most terrible of all wars.’ The production of weapons ‘on a great scale’, matched with the development of ‘new weapons unprecedented power’, was necessary to maintain democracy and oppose ‘Hitler’s violent attempt to rule the world.’  An opinion poll published the following weekend showed that seventy percent of Americans also supported official measures to counter Japanese militarism, even if this risked war with Japan. On 15 September Adolf Hitler directed that the German military rocket programme recommence at the Peenemünde Army Research Centre on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea.  


The destroyer USS Greer became the first United States Navy ship in the Second World War to fire at a German naval  vessel. On 4 September, while sailing for Iceland, the USS Greer was alerted to the presence of a German U-Boat – the U-652. While searching for the submarine a torpedo track was observed astern of the warship, which promptly responded with depth charges. Neither vessel was damaged in the encounter, but President Roosevelt condemned Germany’s ‘act of piracy’ and ordered that German or Italian ‘vessels of war’ would henceforth enter American waters ‘at their own peril’. American aircraft and warships would now ‘strike their deadly blow – first’. The German and Italian response was equally resolute – Germany would take ‘appropriate measures’, while Italy would ‘attack United States naval ships on sight’. On 14 September United States Navy warships took an active part in the Battle of the Atlantic for the first time, providing escorts for a British convoy.

The Eastern Front

On 1 September 1941 German forces advanced within artillery range of the Leningrad. Heavy German guns began to bombard the city two days later, and what would become the 872-day Siege of Leningrad commenced on 8 September. Hitler issued his directive number 35 on 6 September, which instructed the German Army Group Centre to prepare to assault Moscow by the end of the month. In the meantime, at Yelnya, a vital staging post for the German drive towards Moscow, a Soviet offensive led to the withdrawal of German forces by 8 September. The morale of the Soviet people was boosted by the victory, but in blunting the German drive on Moscow the Soviet defensive forces had also been significantly weakened.  In the Ukraine, German forces captured Kiev on 19 September, while the wider battle around the city ended on 26 September with the Southwestern Front of the Red Army encircled by German forces. The surrender of several Soviet armies represented the greatest number of troops ever encircled and defeated in warfare.

The Jewish Problem

All Jewish people over the age of six who were living in the German Reich were advised on 1 September that from 19 September they would be required to wear a yellow Star of David cloth badge on their clothing. The decree was signed by the leading SS official Reinhard Heydrich, an architect of what became known as the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. German Einsatzgruppen, supported by  German policy and army units and locally-raised auxiliary forces continued to operate across German-occupied Russia: for example, 3,700 Jews were killed in Ponary, Lithuania on 2 September, three days later 1,500 Jews were executed in Pavoloch, Ukraine, and 3,400 Jews were shot at Eišiškės, Lithuania on 27 September. On 29 and 30 September an estimated 33,000 Ukrainian Jews were massacred at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev by a combination of SS, Wehrmacht and German and Ukrainian police units. The successful trial on 3 September of the cynanide-based pesticide Zykolon B to kill 850 Polish and Russian prisoners at the concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland suggested a more efficient method of concentrating and exterminating populations within German-occupied Europe.

‘Self-Existence and Self-Preservation’

On 6 September Japanese troops engaged a greater Chinese Nationalist force when they attempted for a second time to seize Changsa, the capital of the Hunan Province. The defending Nationalist Chinese forces refused to meet the Japanese on open ground, while the Japanese were reluctant to be drawn into bitter street fighting in the city. Japanese troops finally entered the city on 27 September, but soon withdrew when the Chinese defenders proved resolute. Meanwhile, in Japan the Sixth Imperial Japanese Conference held on 6 September resolved to make war with the United States and Great Britain in the interests of ‘self-existence and self-preservation’. While Japan would continue to negotiate with the United States, war preparations were to be completed by the end of October. Thus, if Japan’s demands were not met, hostilities with the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands could commence immediately. On 24 September the Japanese Consul in Hawaii was instructed to calculate the number of United States Navy battleships in each of five zones in Pearl Harbor and report his findings.

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.