Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Eastern Front — Part II

In Russia in 1941 the Germans profited, as they had in Poland in 1939 and France and the Low Countries in 1940, from very effective air support. This shot shows a camouflaged Russian airfield under what the original caption terms “a hail of bombs.”

The reality of the advance through Russia, September 1941. Most German soldiers, like their fathers and grandfathers, went into battle on foot, with horse-drawn transport.

The German armoured thrusts into Russia linked to create vast pockets whose occupant defenders were captured: the Germans claimed over 400,000 prisoners by July 11, 1941.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Eastern Front

Despite his 1939 rapprochement with Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler never abandoned plans for an attack on Russia, which he planned to reduce to “a German India.” In December 1940 he issued a directive for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. His army was not ready for a long war: many units had French or Czech equipment and were below strength, and operations in the Balkans delayed the attack. Stalin had some warning of invasion, and the disposition of Russian forces, concentrated on the frontier, induces some historians to suggest that he planned an offensive of his own. The attack, on June 22, proved brilliantly successful, but ran out of steam in December, when the Russians launched serious counteroffensives. German tanks (above) form up for the attack on the open terrain that characterized much of the Eastern Front, July 1941.

The cameraman's location and lack of uniformity amongst the gun detachment suggests that this shot of a German anti-tank gun taking on Soviet armour in July is authentic.

The German army remained two-tier, with its panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions representing the tip of a spear whose shaft comprised units which would not have looked out of place a generation earlier. German cavalry crosses a bridge in Russia, summer 1941.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Sinking of the Bismarck

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the German navy, planned a two-pronged sortie into the North Atlantic by the battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugenfrom the north and the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenaufrom the French port of Brest. Damage to several vessels reduced this to a single thrust by the Bismarck group under Admiral Günther Lütyens. Although Bismarck and Prinz Eugen broke out into the Atlantic — sinking HMS HoodBismarck was caught making for France, damaged by air attack, battered into a hulk by superior British forces and either sunk by Dorsetshire's torpedoes or scuttled by her crew.

Bismarck triumphant: the German battleship (above) engaging the old battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait on May 24. A hit from one of the German warships caused a massive explosion which sank Hood: only three of her complement of 1,421 survived.

Bismarck, on fire in the distance, engaged by the battleship HMS Rodney on May 27. Damage incurred in the Denmark Strait action had forced Bismarck to turn back, and an air-dropped torpedo had damaged her rudder. Although she shot well at the start of her final action, her inability to manoeuvre was a fatal disadvantage.

Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire. There were only 117 survivors from her company of 2,200: Admiral Lütyens was among those lost.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Though President Roosevelt was firmly convinced that an Axis victory would be disastrous, isolationism in Congress and the electorate compelled him to proceed with caution. In December 1940 Churchill told him of the damage done by German submarines, and warned that the time was approaching when Britain would not be able to pay for munitions. The Lend-Lease bill, introduced into Congress in January 1941, empowered the president to transfer any defense material to any nation whose defense he believed vital to United States’ interests. Although isolationists fought hard, the bill became law in March, and proved a key turning-point in US foreign policy.

Although the Thompson sub-machine gun was not an ideal military weapon (above), its American symbolism, arising from prewar gangster films, made it another propaganda coup. The British soon replaced it by the cheaper and lighter Sten, though it remained in limited service.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hess Attempts Peace

Rudolf Hess (above) drifted into politics after the First World War and quickly fell under the spell of Hitler, who he regarded as “the incarnation of pure reason.” He became Hitler's deputy in 1933, but thereafter slipped out of the inner circle. On May 10, 1941, he flew to Scotland in an effort, he claimed, to negotiate peace between Britain and Germany, “two related northern states.” Hitler, who almost certainly had no knowledge of the attempt, at once disclaimed him. At Nuremberg he received a life sentence for crimes against peace, and was incarcerated in Berlin's Spandau prison, where he committed suicide in 1987. This image (below) shows RAF personnel posing with the wreckage of Hess's crashed Messerschmitt Bf 110.

Friday, May 15, 2009

More Middle East

The British maintained a horsed cavalry brigade of one regular and two yeomanry regiments in Palestine. These yeomen (above) ride along the coast road on their way into Syria on the last occasion that British
cavalry went on campaign mounted.

Armistice terms allowed French soldiers to choose between repatriation or service with the Free French. Much to de Gaulle's annoyance, only about 6,000 of Dentz's troops opted for Free France, while over 20,000 were repatriated. This photograph (below) shows French soldiers waiting to register their preferences in Beirut.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Middle East

A treaty permitted the stationing of British troops in Iraq, but in May the Iraqis, emboldened by Britain's misfortunes elsewhere, besieged the air base at Habbaniya. Churchill, concerned about the threat of oil supplies and the danger of German build-up, ordered Wavell to send troops from Palestine to relieve it, but when they arrived the siege had been lifted. In Syria and the Lebanon substantial French forces under General Dentz remained loyal to the Vichy regime. When they gave aid to the Iraqis and allowed German aircraft to land, the British decided to take action. Although Free French, as well as Australian, British and Indian units participated in the invasion, which began in June, Vichy troops fought with unexpected determination, and an armistice was not signed till July 14, 1941.

Above, an RAF armoured car from the Habbaniya base enters Fort Rutbah, Iraq, on May 16. There were few Germans and Italians in Iraq, and the pro-Axis elements in Iraq lacked both troops and a cohesive
plan: Baghdad itself fell on May 31.

After the German invasion of Russia, British and Russian troops jointly invaded Iran, where German influence was strong, in August 1941 to secure an overland route to Russia. A captured Iranian officer (below) talks to a British officer, through an interpreter, near an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery at the head of the Gulf.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Atlantic Charter

In July 1941, presidential envoy Harry Hopkins told British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that President Roosevelt would like a personal meeting. Churchill grasped the opportunity to draw the U.S. closer to the beleaguered Britain. The meeting took place in early August off Newfoundland. Churchill arrived in the HMS Prince of Wales and Roosevelt in the USS Augusta. Roosevelt suggested a joint declaration of principles, and the Atlantic Charter, agreed on August 12, bound both states to forswear territorial aggrandisement, support self-determination and establish a peace bringing "freedom from want."

Despite its bland tone, the Charter aligned the U.S. — though still technically neutral — firmly against Germany. One of the least-posed of a series of photographs of the meeting (above) shows Roosevelt and Churchill with General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff (over Churchill's left shoulder) and, on Marshall's right, Admiral Ernest J.King, later Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. fleet. The balding civilian in profile is U.S. Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who helped his British opposite number, Sir Alexander Cadogan, to prepare the Charter.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Balkans and Greece

The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940, and although the Greeks repelled the attack, the Germans concentrated in Romania for an assault of their own. Churchill, insistent that "the cradle of democracy" should be defended, ordered Wavell, Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, to send troops from North Africa to Greece. More than 50,000 British, Australian, New Zealand and Polish troops were sent, gravely weakening Britain's grip on the Western Desert at just the time that Rommel was making his presence felt. On April 6, the Germans attacked Yugoslavia and Greece: the Yugoslavs surrendered on April 17 and the Greeks on April 24.

On March 1, Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy and Japan. The caption to this German photograph of the march through Bulgaria (above) recalls “the armed brotherhood of the First World War,” when Bulgaria was a German ally.

Below, German tanks advancing through Greece in April circumvent a destroyed road by using railway tracks.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stukas Over North Africa

Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers on their way to attack British tanks at Ghobi, November 23, 1941, during the hard fought but ultimately successful British offensive, codenamed Operation Crusader.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Port installations burning (above) at Tobruk on January 24, 1941.

The Siege of Tobruk was a lengthy confrontation between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The siege started on April 10, 1941, when Tobruk was attacked by an Italian-German force under Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel and continued for 240 days, when it was relieved by the Eighth Army during Operation Crusader.

For much of the siege, Tobruk was defended by the reinforced Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of British Middle East Command, instructed Morshead to hold the fortress for eight weeks, but the 9th Australian Division held it for over five months, before being gradually withdrawn during September and replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division, the Polish Carpathian Brigade and Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion (East) under the overall command of Major-General Ronald Scobie. The fresh defenders continued to hold Tobruk until they were able to link with the advancing Eighth Army at the end of November during Operation Crusader.

The Royal Navy played an important role in Tobruk's defence, providing gunfire support, supplies, fresh troops and ferrying out the wounded.

Maintaining control of Tobruk was crucial to the Allied war effort. Other than Benghazi, Tobruk was home to the only other major port on the African coast between Tripoli and Alexandria. Had the Allies lost it, the German and Italian supply lines would have been drastically shortened. Furthermore, Rommel was in no position to attack across the Egyptian border towards Cairo and Alexandria while the Tobruk garrison threatened the lines of supply to his front-line units.

Tobruk marked the first time that the Blitzkrieg of the German Panzers had been successfully brought to a halt. Following Operation Crusader the siege of Tobruk was lifted in December 1941. However in 1942, after defeating allied forces in the Battle of Gazala, Axis forces captured the fortress.

A British 5-inch gun, little changed since the First World War, bombarding German positions from besieged Tobruk, May 1941 (below).