This week in the War, 20–26 July 1942: The fall of Rostov

German advance on Rostov (shown in blue), July 1942 [Public domain, author: Graf zu Pappenheim]

German advance on Rostov (shown in blue), July 1942 [Public domain, author: Graf zu Pappenheim]

This week in the war, on 24 July 1942, Army Group A captured Rostov. Large numbers of Soviet troop formations were encircled or destroyed.

The Germans attacked the city not only from the north but also from the east, where the Russians had little or no defenses.

The fall of Rostov shocked the country and there were bitter recriminations and much talk of Red Army units panicking and fleeing—despite no orders being given to abandon the city. Many Russian officers and ordinary Russian soldiers were subsequently shot.

After the loss of Rostov, the mood of the country changed and became more defiant. As the Germans approached Stalingrad, the public expected more from the defending troops.

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This week in the War, 13–19 July 1942: La rafle du Vel d’Hiv—The roundup of the Velodrome d’Hiver

Memorial to the round-up of the Velodrome d'Hiver, Paris [Author: Leonieke Aalders, Creative commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]

Memorial to the round-up of the Velodrome d’Hiver, Paris [Author: Leonieke Aalders, Creative commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]

This week in the war, 16-17 July 1942, German troops aided by French police arrested 13,000 Parisian Jews that were without French citizenship and imprisoned them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the famous Paris cycling stadium near the Eiffel Tower. ['Bicycle' translates to 'vélo' in French.]

The event became known as la rafle du Vel d’Hiv, i.e. the round-up of the Vélodrome d’Hiver, and was one of the most striking events to occur during the German occupation of Paris.

The detainees, including 4,000 children, were confined without adequate sanitation or sufficient food or water. Appeals to Pierre Laval fell on deaf ears. ‘They all must go,’ he declared.

The Vélodrome d’Hiver served as a staging area. The majority of the prisoners were sent on to the concentration camp at Drancy and then to Auschwitz and other extermination camps in Poland.

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This week in the War, 6–12 July 1942: Summer offensive against Stalingrad

German summer offensive towards Stalingrad, 7 May---23 July 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

German summer offensive towards Stalingrad, 7 May—23 July 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

The German army had taken Sevastopol, thereby eliminating any threat to its right flank, and was continuing its summer offensive deep into southern Russia. (Kharkov had already fallen in May.)

This week in the war, the Germans had broken through the Russian defenses around Kursk  and, on 8 July 1942, were approaching Voronezh.

Panzer III and crew during the German offensive against Stalingrad, 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Panzer III and crew during the German offensive against Stalingrad, 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Hitler’s intention was to eliminate the Russian armies in the bend of the River Don and then proceed eastward towards Stalingrad on the river Volga. By 10 July 1942, the German 4th Armoured Army had joined up with the 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus and was heading along the Don towards Stalingrad.

On 12 July, Stalin reacted to the German advance by appointing Marshal Semyon Timoshenko to command the Stalingrad sector.

If he could dispose of Stalingrad either by capturing the city or utterly destroying it by bombing, Hitler’s plan was to head south towards the Caucasus Mountains and to capture the oil-rich regions of Grozny and Baku.

In the end, the Russian defenses around Voronezh held—thereby eliminating the threat of Moscow being attacked from the south and subsequently encircled. But the Russians failed to hold Rostov. The fall of Rostov opened the way for the German army to advance south towards the Caucasus—exactly as Hitler had planned.

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Vignette: US troops land in Iceland

The US Army's Camp Pershing, Iceland, WWII [Public domain, wiki]

The US Army’s Camp Pershing, Iceland, WWII [Public domain, wiki]

Today is the anniversary of the arrival of a brigade of US marines in Iceland: 8 July 1941.

The American task force was assembled in Charleston, South Carolina, and sailed for Newfoundland and then on to Iceland.

The Icelanders welcomed the US troops, who were taking over from the British force that had invaded the island in May of that year to preempt a perceived attack by Germany. The Americans remained in Iceland for the duration of World War II.

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This week in the War, 29 June–5 July 1942: Mussolini eyes Egypt

Equestrian statue of Benito Mussolini stands behind Italian medium tank, Tripoli [Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B11231]

Equestrian statue of Benito Mussolini stands behind Italian medium tank, Tripoli [Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B11231]

This week in the war, 29 June 1942, Benito Mussolini flew from Italy to North Africa. The Duce piloted his own plane.

Given Rommel’s spectacular advance and the fall of Tobruk, Mussolini was convinced that Axis forces would arrive in Egypt within days. (15 days was his personal estimate.)

Rumour has it that Mussolini’s white horse was aboard the plane, ready to be ridden by the Duce on his triumphant entry into Cairo. (He was an avid horseman and rode daily for many years.)

A few days later, on 2 July, the failure of the British Eighth Army to hold Rommel in check triggered a motion of censure against Churchill in the British House of Commons. Churchill’s supporters rallied and the motion was defeated 476 votes to 25. Churchill remained at the helm of the British war effort.

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This week in the War, 15–21 June 1942: The Fall of Tobruk

Erwin Rommel inspects British PoWs in Tobruk, June 1942 [Moosmuller, Bundesarchiv, Bild 101l-785-0299-24A, wiki]

Erwin Rommel inspects British PoWs in Tobruk, June 1942 [Moosmuller, Bundesarchiv, Bild 101l-785-0299-24A, wiki]

So far, 1942 had gone badly for the British, the most notable disaster being the fall of Singapore. But Churchill had resupplied the Eighth Army in North Africa and was hoping that Ritchie would achieve the kind of victory against Rommel that O’Connor had achieved against the Italians in 1940/1. Ritchie’s forces were well dug in along the front line south of Gazala and, further back to the east, South African major-general, Bernard Klopper, had fortified the coastal town of Tobruk. But instead of the British launching an offensive, the initiative passed to Rommel.

By the second week of June, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was advancing and had penetrated the British front line at Bir Hacheim, despite the spirited defense mounted by de Gaulle’s Free French. By 14 June, Churchill was told that the Eighth Army might have to withdraw to Egypt but that Tobruk could be safely held and supplied by sea.

This week in the war, on 15 June 1942, Rommel informed his superiors that he had won the battle against the Eighth Army and that he would soon capture Tobruk. After a series of massive air bombardments, German tanks entered the town on 20 June.

This week in the war, 0n 21 June 1942, Tobruk surrendered. Rommel captured not only Major-General Klopper, but also five other generals and over 30,000 troops: South African, Indian, and British.

Churchill was in Washington at the time of the surrender and records his shock in his memoirs: “This is one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war.” [Winston S. Churchill: The Second World War (Cassell, London, 1959).] Tobruk’s garrison of 30,000 experienced troops had surrendered to a force of half their size.

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This week in the War, 8–14 June 1942: Japanese mini-subs attack Sydney harbour

Japanese midget submarine M-21 being raised from Sydney Harbour, 10 June 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

Japanese midget submarine M-21 being raised from Sydney Harbour, 10 June 1942 [Public domain, wiki]

In the latter part of May and the early weeks of June 1942, Japanese midget submarines attacked shipping in Sydney harbour. Although originally designed for harassing enemy surface vessels during large-scale fleet actions, the Japanese mini-subs were used almost exclusively in WWII for attacking shipping in Allied harbours. (The Italians had used ‘manned torpedoes‘ for attacking British battleships in Alexandria harbour in December 1941.)

All three midget submarines involved in the attack were eventually lost, but not before one of them had shelled Sydney Harbour bridge, this week in the war, on the morning of 8 June 1942. Another shelled the coastal town of Newcastle on that same morning.

Damage inflicted by the shelling was minimal but the presence in Australian waters of the parent submarines (that had transported the midget submarines) prompted the Australian Navy to introduce a convoy system to protect Allied merchant vessels.

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