Monday, September 5, 2022

June 20, 1942: Rommel Breaks Through At Tobruk

Saturday 20 June 1942

British troops in North Africa riding a captured German Kubelwagen, 20 June 1942
British troops drive a captured German Kubelwagen in North Africa, 20 June 1942.

Eastern Front: In Moscow on 20 June 1942, Joseph Stalin is in possession of the plans for the upcoming German Operation Blau, the planned offensive to capture the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus. These papers were recovered from Major Joachim Reichel (now deceased) on 19 June 1942 after his plane was shot down by ground fire behind Soviet lines. While the plans are completely authentic and genuine, Stalin decides to disregard them because he believes they have been planted to deceive him.

In Crimea, both sides are experiencing supply shortages. Among other things, this compels a reduction in Luftwaffe flights by 40% and precise targeting of all bombs. The crews also are getting overworked, with some flying 25-30 missions per day. Fortunately for the Germans, Soviet resistance is crumbling and Luftwaffe war casualties are plummeting.

North of Severnaya Bay, the German 24th Infantry Division attacks the Lenin anti-aircraft and Northern Fort. While the Lenin position surrenders today, the Northern Fort holds out throughout the day despite the Germans using Goliath remote-controlled bombs and other techniques. In the south, the stalemate continues, with the Soviets retaining a firm grip on the critical Sapun Ridge and battering the nearby Wehrmacht forces with heavy artillery fire.

The Reichel Affair apparently has an immediate effect on German dispositions in Crimea. After many threats and indications that he would abandon the attempt to capture Sevastopol and turn it into a siege by transferring the essential Luftwaffe units to support Blau near Kharkov, Hitler suddenly tells Luftwaffe commander General von Richthofen that he can keep his air units in Crimea for the time being to finish the job. Richthofen joyfully writes in his diary, "Therefore, I feel reassured and can continue fighting in peace until we achieve final victory." This conclusion will turn out to be a bit premature but does reflect the upset and disequilibrium at Fuhrer Headquarters.

Luftwaffe attacks sink Royal Navy Landing Craft Tank HMS LCT-119 and LCT 150 off Tobruk.

Off Ak Mechet, Crimea, Romanian barge Danubius hits a mine laid by Soviet submarine L-6 and sinks.

Two women wearing the yellow Star of David badges in Paris, 20 June 1942
Women in Paris wearing the yellow Star of David badge, 20 June 1942 (Federal Archives Picture 183-B21356).

Battle of the Pacific: Japanese submarine I-26 (Yokota Minoru) shells the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Accuracy is poor and nothing significant is hit. At the same time, I-26 first 25-30 5.5-inch (140 mm) rounds, then quickly escapes to the north and evades pursuit by five Royal Canadian Navy patrol vessels and a RCAF Supermarine Stranraer flying boat.

I-25 (Akiji Tagami) is also close to the North American coast and soon similarly will shell Fort Stevens, located at Columbia River, Oregon. During the early morning hours, it torpedoes Canadian freighter SS Fort Camosun off the coast of Washington. The freighter is badly damaged but survives to be towed into Puget Sound for repairs. It returns to service and the entire crew survives after abandoning the ship.

The U.S. Navy is still occupied with reorienting operations on an offensive footing following the dramatic success at Midway. So, local operations are the order of the day. Primarily, these are in the Aleutians, the one area of success for the Japanese.  USAAF 11th Air Force sends a bombing raid over Japanese-held Kiska Island that is hampered by poor weather conditions. Only three of nine bombers complete the mission, while three others abort and the final three divert to looking for a B-24 lost at sea on the 19th.

The crew of U.S. submarine USS S-27 (SS-132), which grounded and broke up on the 19th off Amchitka Island, makes it to a deserted village and awaits rescue. Much further south, B-17s of 5th Air Force bomb Lae Airfield on New Guinea. At Mubo, New Guinea, the 17th Australian Brigade repels a Japanese attack.

Janet Blair on the cover of Pix magazine, 20 June 1942
Singer/actress Janet Blair on the cover of Pix Magazine, 20 June 1942. Her most famous role was in "My Sister Eileen" (1942), for which undoubtedly this was some indirect publicity.

European Air Operations: During an RAF raid from Bourn to Emden, NF Oblt. G. Friedrich of III/NJG 1 shoots down British Wellington III bomber X3669 about 5 km southwest of Zandvoort. All four crew die.

Battle of the Atlantic: It is an oddly quiet day at sea in the Atlantic after many months of constant activity. There are no U-boat sinkings or major disasters at sea.

British 988-ton coaster Afon Dulais hits a mine and sinks near Beachy Head, East Sussex. There are no casualties.

German patrol boat V-1916 (Weser I) sinks from unknown causes somewhere in the Norwegian Sea.

Map of Tobruk battle, 20 June 1942
The battle of Tobruk, 20-21 June 1942.

Battle of the Mediterranean: General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps launches its assault on Tobruk only two days after reaching the port's perimeter. The Luftwaffe opens the attack at 05:20 by bombing the point of attack on Tobruk's southeastern defensive positions, with a theater-high 588 sorties. The Regia Aeronautica chips in with another 177 sorties. At 07:00, Gruppe Menny, positioned between the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, attacks in conjunction with a fierce artillery barrage. This achieves a breakthrough within 15 minutes, and the German 900th Engineer Battalion quickly enables a crossing of the port's anti-tank ditch. Panzers were rolling across by 08:30, and the infantry expands the breach.

The British defenders have not yet organized their defenses and are slow to respond to the unexpected onslaught. The defending 5th Mahratta Light Infantry immediately gives ground, and expected tank reinforcements never appear. The nearby Cameron Highlanders launch a counterattack, and then the 32nd Army Tank Brigade is ordered in, but it is too late. The British defensive effort is dispersed and overrun, aided by close German ground coordination with the Luftwaffe. By noon, the Germans have 113 tanks inside the perimeter, and by 13:30 they seize the critical Kings Cross road junction on Pilastrino Ridge. The British make a last stand by using 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns as ground artillery, but this is ineffective. By 16:00, the port commander's headquarters, General Klopper, is under assault, and he has to escape hurriedly, losing contact with his command.

Having overcome the outer defenses, the panzers reach the port outskirts by 18:00. Realizing the developing catastrophe, British units begin blowing up port installations and ammunition dumps. By nightfall, the British defenses are in a chaotic state of disarray and the German 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions are poised to overcome all remaining defenses on the morrow.

USS Meade off NYC, 20 June 1942
U.S Navy destroyer USS Meade (DD-602) off New York City, 20 June 1942. This is during her delivery voyage from the Bethlehem Steel Company shipyard at Staten Island (Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives 19-N-30842).

Oddly, Fuhrer headquarters seems almost indifferent to Rommel's success. General Halder doesn't even mention it first in his list of the day's events, instead listing it fourth after "no change" on the Eastern Front, a mundane conference with the logistics chief, General Wagner, and a cursory description of the Reichel incident (which reflects poorly on OKH). When he finally does get to it, Halder writes:

Tobruk captured. Thus, the heavy battle in Cyrenaica has culminated on a victory that is of equally great value from the military and the political aspect.

This is one of the oddest entries in Halder's diary, completely distanced and remote from the actual state of affairs (Tobruk is not yet captured) and may reflect an underlying truth that seldom is brought out into the open. Halder and rest of OKH don't think highly of Rommel. He was not their first choice for command in Africa - General Paulus, now commander of Sixth Army, was. They view Rommel as a "loose cannon" whose victories are the result of insubordination and gambles. Rommel also has a reputation of not seeking approval for his operations. Finally, the OKH views the entire Mediterranean Theater as a sideshow that simply draws off forces that would be better employed on the theater of decision - the Eastern Front, which (not coincidentally) is completely under the control of the OKH and not the OKW (which controls western operations.

Thus, Rommel's successes are of far lesser import to the German High Command than to post-war Western accounts. Rommel only controls the equivalent of one corps, while OKH controls entire Army Groups. As long as Rommel stays out of trouble and doesn't require excess reinforcement, OKH really couldn't care less what he does. As to Hitler (who today, Halder notes, is back in East Prussia), he likely has a similar attitude but is simply happy that Rommel is keeping the Western Allies busy and giving him enough time to clear the table in the East.

Spy Stuff: The FBI picks up the German spies staying at a New York hotel following the surrender by leader George Dasch at FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. on the 19th. 

Allied Diplomacy: During discussions between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt at the latter's Hyde Park, New York, estate, an agreement is reached to postpone an invasion of France (the Americans' preference) and instead invade North Africa (the British plan). This becomes Operation Torch and takes place in November 1942. 

US Military: Brigadier General Dwight D. Eisenhower is ordered to replace Major General James E. Chaney as Commanding General European Theater of Operations. This is a controversial choice, as Eisenhower thus leapfrogs over many more senior officers for such a prominent command. General George C. Marshall instructs Eisenhower to integrate all U.S. air units in the UK into the 8th Air Force and gives as the mission to attain "air supremacy over Western Continental Europe" in preparation for a future invasion of the Continent.

US Ninth Army under General Krueger establishes its headquarters at Milne Bay, New Guinea.

Collier's, 20 June 1942
Collier's, 20 June 1942 (Arthur Szyk).

Holocaust: Anne Frank discloses in her diary that she writes because she is lonely - there is nobody with whom she can share her secrets. She christens her diary "Kitty." Anne writes that she has a mother, father, and sister Margot, that they used to live in Frankfurt, Germany, and that they fled to Holland because of the persecution of people like them.

Four Polish prisoners at Auschwitz steal SS officer uniforms and drive a staff car out through the front gates. These are Eugeniusz Bendera, Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, Józef Lempart, and Kazimierz Piechowski. They are never recaptured and the last survivor, Piechowski, passes away on 15 December 2017 at the age of 98.

American Homefront: Comic book villain "Two-Face" is introduced in Detective Comics (the predecessor of DC Comics) issue #66 (the cover date is August 1942).

"Sleepy Lagoon" by Harry James and His Orchestra" becomes No. 1 on The Billboard National Best Selling Retail Records chart. It tops the chart for four weeks and becomes a standard.

Saturday Evening Post, 20 June 1942
"Women at Dude Ranch," Saturday Evening Post, 20 June 1942 (Fred Lukekens).

Future History: Brian Douglas Wilson is born in Inglewood, California. After moving to Hawthorne, California, Wilson begins to exhibit a special musical ability. He and his two younger brothers (Dennis, born 1944, and Carl, 1946) begin singing harmonies together while Brian plays the accordion or piano. At nine, Brian writes (or, more accurately, adapts) his first song, and writes his first independent song for a 4th-grade school project. He obsessively plays the piano and listens to the radio. After playing sports in high school, including being the quarterback of the Hawthorne football team, Brian attends El Camino Junior College, but drops out when he is disappointed at his teachers' attitudes toward pop music. In 1961, Brian and his brothers, cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine form a musical group. With father Murry Wilson serving as manager, the group continues developing their skills. Brian's composition "Surfin," recorded by another act, becomes their first local LA hit. Their label, Candix Records, now changes the group's name to the "Beach Boys," but the label soon sells their contract to another label, but Murry decides to terminate it. They then attract the attention of Capitol Records, which begins releasing their tracks as singles, including "Surfin' Safari" and "409." When these become national hits, the future of the Beach Boys is assured and they become legendary performers, with their most famous album "Pet Sounds." Brian is recognized as a positive influence on The Beatles, whose Paul McCartney was born exactly two days before Brian on 18 June 1942. He thereafter battles mental health issues but largely overcomes them, with occasional relapses and continuing manageable stresses. As of writing, Brian Wilson continues touring and songwriting.  

The New Yorker, 20 June 1942
New Yorker, 20 June 1942 (Constantin Alajalov).


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