Wednesday, August 11, 2021

May 23, 1942: German Forces Surround Soviet Armies at Kharkov

Saturday 23 May 1942

Jewish deportees in Stropkov, Slovakia, 23 May 1942
Jewish residents of Stropkov, Slovakia, being deported to concentration camps (Majdanek and Auschwitz) on 23 May 1942. Yad Vashem Photo Archives 3132/1.

Battle of the Pacific: Following US Naval Intelligence descriptions of Japanese communications, both sides on 23 May 1942 know that a major confrontation soon will occur at Midway Island. The key difference is that the Japanese don't know that the Allies know about their invasion plans. In fact, the Japanese believe that they sunk two US Navy carriers, USS Lexington and Yorktown, at the Battle of the Coral Sea and that the Midway operation will be fairly routine. In fact, only the Lexington sank and the Yorktown has joined up with USS Enterprise to return to Pearl Harbor at high speed in preparation for the battle.

There is still some Allied resistance in the occupied Philippines, though it is gradually dying out. During one of these incidents, Lt. Comdr. Ryland Dillard Tisdale, 47 (who had retired in the 1930s but returned to service in July 1940 due to the contingency of war) perishes at Tamparan. He dies in an action against the Moros, who are collaborating with the Japanese. He receives the Silver Star posthumously. The citation notes that Tisdale was offered passage out of Corregidor on the last plane out but offered up his seat to another. Tisdale escaped from the island along with a few others shortly before the surrender. Tisdale falls today in a "last stand" near Dansalan (Marawi, Lanao del Sur, Philippines, since 1956) along with a small group of officers and enlisted men, including civilians, that includes Lieutenant Colonel Vesy of the Philippine Army.

Five B-25 bombers of the 3rd Bomber Group attack Lae, New Guinea. They damage the airfield and buildings there. Two bombers fail to return.

US Navy patrol boat USS YP-277 hits a mine and sinks at the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The US Navy is keeping a close eye on this area due to Japanese attempts to use them to bomb Hawaii.

Japanese submarine I-29 launches its Yokosuka "Glen" seaplane for an uneventful reconnaissance mission over Sydney, Australia. This is one of a continuing series of Japanese reconnaissance flights over Allied areas in the southwest Pacific that are rarely noticed.

P-40 of the Flying Tigers in Kunming, China, 23 May 1942
Curtiss Hawk P-40 Tomahawk with pilot Robert T. Smith at the controls in Kunming, China, 23 May 1942. Photo: akg-images / Robert T. Smith.

Battle of the Indian Ocean: Japanese and Chinese troops clash in inconclusive fighting along the Hsipaw-Mogok road in northern Burma. The Japanese have no intention of invading China from this direction, though the Chinese do not know this. The Japanese in Burma already have achieved their main objectives of closing the Burma Road and establishing a defensive front along the Indian border.

Eastern Front: A carefully laid German trap south of Kharkov springs shut as the Soviet 6th and 57th Armies desperately try to avoid being surrounded near Izyum. Early in the morning, the 16th Panzer Division (Hube) and the 23rd Panzer Division meet ten miles west of Balakleya. This forms a ten-mile wide German corridor from north to south to the east of the Soviet offensive forces. This is generally considered to be the activity that surrounds the Soviets and traps them, though technically the 14th Panzer Division already has formed a thin line to the east.

Soviet Marshal Timoshenko has staked everything on a breakout attempt by these two armies today south of Kharkov, but it fails. At Fuhrer Headquarters, General Franz Halder writes confidently in his diary that "The Izyum pocket is firmly closed." However, things are still a bit more tentative than that.

The Soviets outnumber the Wehrmacht troops at the key points, but the Red Army breakout effort is dissipated today in multiple counterattacks to relieve surrounded formations to consolidate their overall defensive position. In addition, the German forces may be relatively small, but they include elite panzer units hemming the Soviets in on a narrow corridor to the east. The Soviets have by no means given up and are preparing more breakout attempts during the coming days. Halder notes that "Pressure from within [the Izyum] pocket seems to be preparing and will be felt from 24 May onwards." 

German soldiers on the scene remain puzzled that the Red Army forces to the east haven't tried a strong relief effort. Stalin does not like to retreat, especially from such a massive offensive operation. Plus, he tacitly is putting the onus on Timoshenko to prove his worth and regain the initiative - or suffer the consequences personally.

Meanwhile, the other prong of the Soviet offensive north of Kharkov has ground to a complete halt. Halder notes that "the enemy has withdrawn his tanks behind the Donets, but is still holding the western bank with its strong forces." The Soviets are only mounting local thrusts in this area that the Wehrmacht easily parries. Halder concludes this diary entry with a rare dash of emotion, writing, "The bulges shrink!" 

The overriding Wehrmacht concern remains the preparation for the upcoming "decisive" summer offensive on the southern third of the front, Operation Blau. Halder confers with Luftwaffe Colonel Meister about air preparations for this today and with others (including Colonel Balck, a top field commander) about training and personnel issues. All is calm and serene in East Prussia.

Soviet flak on the southern front downs three Henschel Hs 129B-1 ground attack planes belonging to II./SchG 1. The Hs 129B-1 have only arrived in Crimea within the past two weeks and each is equipped with a 30 mm (1.2 inch) MK 101 cannon.

Following a dramatic run of victories during the Crimea campaign, Major Gordon "Mac" Gollob, Geschwaderkommodore of JG 77, receives his reward. He is awarded the Knights Cross (no. 17). Gollob continues to shoot down Red Army planes seemingly at will from his base near Kerch and now has 107 victories.

European Air Operations: Luftwaffe experimental unit Erg.u.Lehr. Kdo 17 (formerly Erg.u.Lehr. Kdo 100) mounts an afternoon daylight raid on the Avonmouth docks using 7 He 111s. The weather is poor, providing some cover, and the real purpose of the missions is to test out planes guided by both X- and Y-Verfahren direction-finding equipment. The raid is not very successful, as one plane is lost and the bombers drop their loads six miles from the target at Severn Tunnel Junction. From the British perspective, the Luftwaffe raid is very meaningful. For the first time, RAF technicians detect the Luftwaffe's X-signals. The RAF immediately begins developing countermeasures.

Saturday Evening Post 23 May 1942
The Saturday Evening Post for 23 May 1942 features the beginning of a new serial featuring Perry Mason by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-588 (Kptlt. Victor Vogel), on its third patrol out of St. Nazaire, torpedoes and sinks 4545-ton British freighter Margot southeast of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There are one death and 44 survivors. Swedish freighter Sagoland picks up the survivors. After this sinking, U-588 returns to port after a successful cruise during which it has sunk or damaged 27,106 tons of Allied shipping. As things turn out, this is U-588's final victory because it is sunk early on its next patrol.

U-558 (Kptlt. Günther Krech), on its seventh patrol out of Brest, torpedoes and damages 7061-ton US tanker William Boyce Thompson (en route from New York to Curaçao in ballast) at 00:53 about 120 miles south of Kington, Jamaica. While the torpedo opens a hole of 20 feet on the starboard side, tankers are famous for survivability due to their compartmentalized construction. The fact that the tanker is carrying no cargo further helps it. The tanker escapes northward zigzagging at full speed with a smokescreen. There are no injuries, and the tanker makes it to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

U-432 (Kptlt. Heinz-Otto Schultze), on its fifth patrol out of La Pallice, torpedoes and sinks 4455-ton British freighter Zurichmoor 400 nautical miles (740 km) east of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. All 45 men on board perish.

U-155 (Kptlt. Adolf Cornelius Piening), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 2220-ton Panamanian Design 1049 freighter Watsonville in Saint Vincent Passage (in the Caribbean between Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent). Everyone survives.

U-103 (Kptlt. Werner Winter) torpedoes and badly damages 6625-ton US tanker Samuel Q. Brown about 100 nautical miles (190 km) south of Cape Corrientes, Cuba (extreme western tip of Cuba). There are two deaths when the torpedoes hit and 53 survivors. The crew gathers in two lifeboats and the U-boat surfaces to question them. A US Navy seaplane based at Upham, Canal Zone, locates the damaged ship and quickly and lands to pick up five injured crew. The rest have to wait a couple of days to be rescued by USS Goff, which scuttles the flaming tanker.

German 4626-ton freighter Asuncion hits a mine and sinks off the coast in the extreme north of Norway in the general vicinity of Sandland.

German 254-ton trawler/Vorpostenboot V 1808 Dortmund hits a mine and sinks in the southern North Sea. It sinks in an area south of the Dogger Bank off the coast of The Netherlands known as the "Broad Fourteens" due to its consistent 14-fathom (84 feet, 26 m) depth.

Midland Michigan Theater 23 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.cmo
A new movie palace, The Midland Theater, opens on 23 May 1942 in Midland, Michigan. The first film is "Captain of the Clouds" starring James Cagney.

Battle of the Mediterranean: Activity is stirring along the North African front as the temperature rises. Gruppenkommandure of  I./JG 27 Oblt. Gustav Rodel downs two planes to bring his total to 41 kills. His unit downs a total of a dozen RAF Tomahawks and Kittyhawks.

Oberlieutenant Hans-Joachim Marseille also downs two bombers today southeast of Tobruk. This brings his own victory total to 64 planes. His victims are a pair of No. 223 Sqdn Martin "Baltimore" bombers on their first flights with their unit. While unit commands in the Luftwaffe generally go to the most successful pilots, Marseille is considered "trouble" by his superiors despite his obvious talent. Thus, Marseille remains an ordinary pilot who simply continues racking up victories without having to worry about administrative duties.

On Malta, things have quieted down considerably since the arrival of numerous defensive RAF Spitfires recently. There is a raid at 07:16 by five Cant 1007 Italian bombers with a large escort of Italian RE2001s, Macchi 200s, and Luftwaffe Bf 109s. The planes come in from the north and are met by a dozen Spitfires of Nos. 126 and 601 Squadrons based at Luqa. The RAF planes down two Re 2001s, two Bf 109s, one Cant bomber (probable). Two other Cant 1007s are damaged along with a Re 2001 and a Bf 109. The only RAF damage is to a Spitfire that returns safely to base. The Italian bombers do get through, however. They drop ten 100kg bombs apiece on Ta Qali airfield, causing craters.

Liberty magazine 23 May 1942
Abbott and Costello grace the cover of Liberty magazine, 23 May 1942. This apparently is to promote their film "Rio Rita," released on 11 March 1942, about wartime spies on the Mexican border.

Battle of the Black Sea: Soviet submarine ShCh-205 torpedoes and sinks Turkish 330-ton freighter Safak off Burgas, Bulgaria. This obviously is a military mistake, as the USSR is not at war with Turkey and has no wish to antagonize it at this time. Then again, there are historical enmities between the two powers that date back centuries and continue after this war.

US Military: The 7th Air Force transfers the 31 Bombardment Squadron's B-17s and B-18s from Hickam Field to Kipapa.

German Government: Adolf Hitler gives a speech to the Reichsleiters and Gauleiters in Berlin in which he justifies the concentration camps. According to Hitler, these are necessary to prevent an uprising. This is part of a very gradual and almost indiscernible trend in Hitler's 1942 speeches toward a defensive, paranoid, and almost fearful tone. British Intelligence has a pioneer social scientist, Mark Abrams, watching Hitler's speeches closely and he notes this tendency in a report marked "Secret." The aim is ""to reconstruct, if possible, what was in Hitler's mind when he composed and delivered the speech."

Abrams asks a fellow academic, Joseph McCurdy, to write up a report on these findings. McCurdy concludes that Hitler's speeches now have a "dull flatness of the delivery" and show "a man who is seriously contemplating the possibility of utter defeat." Hitler also is developing a "Jew phobia" and increasingly sees them as a "universal diabolical agency" versus himself, who represents "the incarnation of the spirit of good."

US Government: Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg meets with President Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. before returning to her wartime home in Montreal.
The New Yorker 23 May 1942
The New Yorker, 23 May 1942. Painting by Ilonka Karasz.

American Homefront: Japanese are not the only enemy aliens being imprisoned at internment camps in the United States. Today, Lt. Colonel Horace Rogers writes a letter to the Provost Marshal General in Washington, D.C., confirming the arrival of 13 new internees, mostly German, at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. The internees will be at Camp McCoy for the duration of the war.

"Grand Central Murder" opens today, starring Van Heflin and Virginia Grey.

Future History: Peter Frederick Wedlock is born in Bristol, England. He gets some singing experience in the church choir at St. Mary Redcliffe. After becoming a teacher, Fred Wedlock becomes a regular performer on the folk circuit. This leads him to record albums beginning with "The Folker" (1971), "Frollicks" (1973), and, most notably, "The Oldest Swinger in Town" (1981) (the title track becomes a hit single). Fred Wedlock passes away on 4 March 2010 in Bath, Somerset, with his funeral held at St. Mary Redcliffe where he had begun singing.

Colliers 23 May 1942
Collier's magazine, 23 May 1942.

May 1942