Saturday, May 1, 2021

May 16, 1942: Sobibor Begins Operation

Saturday 16 May 1942

Field Marshal Jan Smuts inspecting sailors, 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
South African Field Marshal Jan Smuts inspecting the Royal Marine Guard of Honor on board cruiser HMS Cleopatra in Alexandria Harbor, 16 May 1942. © IWM A 9105.
Battle of the Pacific: Having accomplished Admiral Chester Nimitz's intent of allowing the Japanese to spot his Task Force 16, Admiral "Bull" Halsey on 16 May 1942 heads to Efate to refuel. Nimitz's devious strategy is to forestall the Japanese Operation RY to invade Nauru and Ocean Island by "showing his hand." This has worked, as the Japanese have been scared off by the appearance of Halsey's two carriers (USS Enterprise and Hornet) in the vicinity and canceled the operation. The Japanese invasion force now is headed back to Rabaul.

Nimitz now orders TF 16 to head back to Hawaii to prepare for future operations. Having viewed recent naval intelligence findings, Nimitz projects that the Japanese soon will make simultaneous attacks on Port Moresby, Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, and Midway Island. His plan is to concentrate Task Force 16 and other available forces at Midway to repel that invasion while allowing the other invasions to be handled by local forces. However, naval intelligence continues to be split regarding Midway as a Japanese objective, so concentrating forces there remains a gamble based on disputed interpretations and conclusions of decrypted Japanese communications. Some intelligence officials, including Admiral Richmond K. Turner in Washington, believe Hawaii may be the target, but there is still time to discern Japanese intentions with more confidence.

USAAF Fifth Air Force sends B-26 and B-17 bombers to attack Lae, with B-25s flying two sorties against the airfield there. Poor weather causes some bombers to divert from Lae to attack shipping. In the morning, the bombers attack Lae at 800 feet, then return in the afternoon and bomb from 2400 feet. Other bombers attack the Japanese seaplane base at Deboyne, which the Japanese already have evacuated. The US loses no bombers, though one B-25C must force-land at Aiyary Airstrip in the eastern highlands of New Guinea (the airfield remains in service in 2021 as Aijura Airport).

US submarine USS Tautog (SS-199), on its second patrol, torpedoes and sinks Japanese fleet tanker Goyo Maru west of Royalist Bank, Truk. Tautog is one of the submarines on the assumed route of the Japanese aircraft carriers returning to Japan after the Battle of the Coral Sea. The sinking almost turns deadly for Tautog, too, as its first torpedo circles around and heads back toward it, forcing an immediate dive.
Saturday Evening Post, 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Saturday Evening Post of 16 May 1942 urges people to "Keep 'em Flying."
Battle of the Indian Ocean: The 1st Burma Infantry Brigade, which has crossed the Chindwin River, reaches the frontier city of Tamu today. This continues a concentration of British military power along the Indian border while essentially abandoning Burma to the Japanese. More units are still on the road to Tamu but are expected to arrive shortly.

US power is growing in the theater, too. The 10th Air Force completes its move from the United States to New Delhi, India. A force of B-17s attacks the Japanese airfield at Myitkyina, Burma, today, destroying the runways.
The Arizona Daily Star, 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Arizona Daily Star of 16 May 1942 optimistically headlines that "Reds Continue Kharkov Drive, Hold at Kerch." In fact, Kerch already is in German hands.
Eastern Front: Facing growing German resistance and counterattacks in the northern prong of their offensive around Kharkov, the Red Army renews its attacks with little success. German tanks blunt these assaults and recover some ground. The attack south of Kharkov continues to succeed, but both prongs must meet west of Kharkov for the Soviet strategy to succeed. Even in the south, the Luftwaffe increases its strikes and Wehrmacht reinforcements pour in from the rear areas. The southern Soviet advance through forests and small towns loses cohesion, spreading out in all directions without accomplishing any meaningful objectives.

General Franz Halder shows increasing confidence in his war diary. After noting that the northern attack "unfortunately has had a measure of success against the Hungarians" but "Disposal of the situation now is no more than a tactical matter," he writes:

East of Kharkov, our tank attack has captured Ternovaya. As a result, the fighting in this area, too, is now reduced to mere tactical scope.

Despite this sanguine attitude, the German high command remains torn. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, commander of Army Group South, advocates the textbook approach of ringing the Soviet breakthrough with defensive troops to stop their progress. Hitler, however, brusquely rejects this approach. Instead, he coordinates a counterattack by General Ewald von Kleist's First Panzer Army at the base of the Soviet offensive, the breakthrough point. The plan is for 3rd Panzer Corps and 44th Army Corps to advance from north and south to cut the Soviet line of communications.
Baltimore News-Post 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Baltimore News-Post of 16 May 1942 is full of optimism about the Red Army attack at Kharkov. Further down on the page is a headline about Earl Browder that reads "Communist Party Leader Serves 14 Months, Freed as Step Towards "Unity.""
Von Bock privately admits he favors Hitler's approach but is "compelled by orthodoxy" to reject it because it is a huge gamble:

Now the Fuehrer will order the big solution [the counterattack at the base of the breakthrough]. The laurels will go to the Supreme Command and we will have to be content with what is left.

Hitler, of course, does order the big solution. The counterattack, which is planned to begin on the 17th, is tenuous and Kleist himself is unsure if he has the strength to accomplish the encirclement. As the entire fate of the summer offensive on which Hitler places high hopes for ending the Soviet campaign successfully hangs in the balance, the counterattack will determine the future course of the campaign.

In Crimea, General von Manstein's Operation Trappenjagd has succeeded in its major objective by capturing Kerch. The battle now evolves into a mopping-up operation to subdue Soviet holdouts from Kerch all the way to the original line along the Parpach narrows. This will take a couple of days to complete, but the outcome in the Wehrmacht's favor is assured.

Despite the German successes, some sober facts keep crossing General Franz Halder's desk at Fuhrer Headquarters. In his war diary, Halder lists Wehrmacht casualties from the start of Operation Barbarossa through 10 May 1942 as reaching 1,182,735 men, or 36.96% of the starting total Eastern Army of 3.2 million. Of these, the killed number 9,450 officers and 241,572 others. Halder lists these numbers without comment.
Adolf Galland in North Africa, May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Inspector of Fighters Adolf Galland visits JG 27 at Martuba Airfield, Libya, May 1942. Also visible are Lieutenant Colonel Woldenga and Major Neumann (Kanitz, Federal Archive Image 101I-442-1498-26A).
European Air Operations: Operations on both sides remain light today. Seven RAF Lancaster and seven Manchester bombers lay mines off Heligoland without loss.

Six Bf 109F fighters from 10/JG 2 attack Plymouth. They drop bombs near warships and strafe the dock area, killing one sailor on HMS Brocklesby. One airplane is shot down, killing the pilot, Hans-Joachim Schulz. The engine 

Battle of the Atlantic: U-751 (Kptlt. Gerhard Bigalk), on its sixth patrol out of St. Nazaire, torpedoes and sinks 1445-ton US freighter Nicarao north of the Bahama Islands. There are eight deaths and 31 survivors, who are rescued by US tanker Esso Augusta.

U-506 (Kptlt. Erich Würdemann), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and shells US 7306-ton tanker William C. McTarnahan 35 nautical miles (65 km) east of the Ship Shoal Lighthouse in Louisiana. The crew abandons the ship with 18 dead and 27 survivors (rescued by local shrimpers). Tankers are famously difficult to sink due to their compartmentalized construction, and William C. McTarnahan follows this pattern. US Navy tugs Barranca and Tuckahoe take the ship in tow, and it is repaired and returned to service as St. James.

U-506 also torpedoes and damages 9002-ton US tanker Sun in the same vicinity just before the William C. McTarnahan. All 42 men on board survive. As with William C. McTarnahan, the crew abandons the ship, but when Sun does not sink, they reboard. The tanker still has power and makes its way to New Orleans.

U-103 (Kptlt. Werner Winter), on its seventh patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 2637-ton US freighter Ruth Lykes off Cape Falso, Nicaragua. Torpedoed at 23:58, the freighter actually sinks at 00:44 on the 17th. The U-boat surfaces and uses its deck gun to finish off the ship, stopping to allow the crew to abandon the ship. There are five deaths and 27 survivors, rescued by Norwegian freighter Somerville. One crewman rescued later dies of wounds. The U-boat picks up one swimmer who has injuries, treats him, and then places him in a lifeboat.

Royal Navy 18-ton motor torpedo boat MTB 338 explodes and burns from unknown causes at Trinidad.

A Luftwaffe patrol shoots down a Catalina of RAF Squadron No. 210 200 miles west of Trondheim, Norway. All ten men aboard perish.
Freighter Ruth Lykes, torpedoed on 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
US freighter Ruth Lykes, torpedoed by U-103 on 16 May 1942.
Battle of the Mediterranean: Fierce air battles continue over Malta. The Axis bombers focus on airfields. Several Spitfires are damaged but no planes or pilots are lost.

Partisans: With the Wehrmacht in possession of the port of Kerch in Crimea, many Red Army soldiers are trapped on the Kerch peninsula with a difficult escape route across the Strait of Kerch. In the town of Adzhimushkay, Colonel Pavel Yagunov forms a pocket several thousand strong to hold out indefinitely or until sufficient transportation can be arranged. Numbers are small at first, but they swell with time to about 13,000 as escape becomes impossible. Several different garrisons are formed.

Yagunov's force evolves from a holdout force into a guerilla operation based in the Great Adzhimushkay catacombs system. As with other large partisan operations, its fatal weakness is that its location becomes known to the Germans. Its priority is forced to shift from hit-and-run attacks to self-defense, and German reactions constantly whittle down its size. The operation survives until October 1942 with occasional successes against the occupying German forces but the eventual death or imprisonment of virtually everyone. 

This is known as the Adzhimushkay Defense. A museum is established in 1966 and a memorial complex in 1982.
Oveta Cullp Hobby becomes leader of the WAAC on 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby, leader of the WAAC. Her name has been floated in the 2020s as a possible replacement for a military base.
US Military: Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby is sworn in as director of US Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Liner Queen Mary arrives in the Clyde, completing the first troop transport voyage carrying over 10,000 people (9880 troops, 875 crew). The voyage takes five days, three hours, and 45 minutes at an average speed of 25.58 knots.

The USAAF orders 25 lightweight wooded Bell XP-77 fighters.

German Military: Major Gordon "Mac" Gollob leaves JG 54 and becomes Geschwaderkommodore of JG 77, supporting General Manstein in Crimea. He gets off to a great start flying out of Kerch. During the day, he shoots down three Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 fighter aircraft to raise his victory total to 89.

US Government: In a secret memorandum to US President Franklin Roosevelt, George C. Marshall recommends reducing the allocation of aircraft to the RAF substantially. These amounts were established by the Arnold-Porter (chiefs of the US and British air forces, respectively) Agreement of 13 January 1942. Marshall writes that the "situation... has greatly altered." Among those changed circumstances is new secret information about British aircraft production which shows that it is twice as large as the British claimed at the time. 

Among Marshall's suggestions are that 50% of all aircraft types except Martin 187 light bombers be immediately reallocated to the United States, with 100% of all aircraft reallocated to the US beginning in August 1942. Naval aircraft also should be reallocated to the US, Marshall argues. Basically, Marshall claims in diplomatic phrasing that the British have been misleading the US about the state of their aircraft production by undercounting it in order to get more free lend-lease planes from the US.
Ukrainian laborers waiting to go to Germany, May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ukrainian women, many in traditional garb, reporting for registration at an employment office at Artemovsk in order to be hired for work in Germany in May 1942. They are waiting at the train station. (Knodler, Karl, Federal Archives Image 183-B19878).
Holocaust: Sobibor concentration camp is located in a bucolic setting near the village of Sobibór. This is in the easternmost area of the General Government region of German-occupied Poland. Originally opened on 15 April 1942, the Sobibor camp becomes fully operational as an extermination camp on or about 16 May 1942.

After a crude start, Sobibor now begins operating with chilling efficiency. Trains from across Europe enter the camp station off a special rail spur, and the passengers ("evacuees") are immediately relieved of their personal possessions (the very few they were permitted to carry). Of course, the arrivals don't know why they are there, as the authorities have given them some concocted story about resettlement and jobs that will keep them from causing any trouble. The Germans actually give a lot of thought to this tactic and go to great lengths to disguise their true intentions. Everything appears innocent and routine right up until the end, though with increasing degrees of degradation.

Once out of the train, the passengers are separated by gender and sometimes other factors (such as the ability to work) and compelled to disrobe completely. Camp internees come and shave the hair off the incoming females, then everyone is separated into groups and led down a 100-meter (330 foot) long pathway euphemistically called the Himmelstrasse ("Road to Heaven"). The destination down the Himmelstrasse is an ordinary-looking bunker that the prisoners are told is a communal shower. In fact, it is a disguised gas chamber. The prisoners walk in, the door is barred behind them, and then engines (usually tank engines which give off a lot of exhaust) are started up. The exhaust is fed into the crowded chamber. The deed is done within about fifteen minutes.

After this process is completed, the gas is cleared, the door is opened, and the bodies are disposed of in various fashions. At first, the bodies are buried in mass burial pits, but as time goes on this becomes impractical. Bodies then are simply burned in the open air where they lie, but this, too, cannot keep up with the supply. Finally, the bodies are incinerated in ovens which are upgraded over time. Huge mounds of ash result.

The victims come from across the breadth of Occupied Europe, with heavy concentrations from Poland and the Balkans. Many of the earliest victims arrive from Slovakia and nearby regions. Much of the work at Sobibor, as at other camps, is done by auxiliaries ("Sonderkommando") who are internees themselves. Fearing for their own lives, they are only interested in getting the job done as fast and efficiently as possible to please their captors. These auxiliaries, of course, only want to stay out of the chambers themselves (few survive the war).
Sobibor opens for operation on 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Welcome to Sobibor.
Dr. August Becker, SS Untersturmführer, sends a letter to SS-Obersturmbannführer Rauff dated 6 May 1942 in which he gives details on gassing vans. Becker says in part:

The application of gas usually is not undertaken correctly. In order to come to an end as fast as possible, the driver presses the accelerator to the fullest extent. By doing that the persons to be executed suffer death from suffocation and not death by dozing off as was planned. My directions now have proved that by correct adjustment of the levers death comes faster and the prisoners fall asleep peacefully. Distorted faces and excretions, such as could be seen before, are no longer noticed.

Becker also notes that the vans have become "well-known" and that both local authorities and the civilian population call them "death vans."
Picture Post magazine, 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Picture Post magazine of 16 May 1942 shows a British soldier completing a climb up a 60-foot hill.
British Homefront: Prime Minister Winston Churchill visits Leeds. He says in part:

In the height of the second great war, it is a great pleasure to come to Leeds and bring to the citizens a word of thanks and encouragement in all the work they are doing to promote the common cause of many nations and in many lands. That cause appeals to the hearts of all those in the human race who are not already gripped by tyranny or who have not already been seduced to its insidious voice. That cause is shared by all the millions of our cousins across the Atlantic who are preparing night and day to have their will and rights respected. It appeals to the patient millions of China, who have suffered long from cruel aggression and still fight with faithful stubbornness. It appeals to the noble manhood of Russia, now at full grips with the murderous enemy, striking blow for blow.

His most quoted phrase is, "Now we see the ridge ahead." Churchill enters town standing in the back of an open limousine to crowds lined along the roadway. Huge crowds attend his speech. Afterward, Churchill tours the Leeds industrial districts.

American Homefront: An Assistant Solicitor General in the US Office of Legal Counsel, Oscar Cox, gives a legal opinion on the "Removal of Japanese Aliens and Citizens From Hawaii to the United States" (Hawaii in 1942 not yet being a State). The specific issue is whether such persons can be placed in internment camps on the mainland under martial law. Cox asserts:

Hawaii is still within the Pacific theatre of war and subject to attack again. Continuance of martial law in Hawaii is doubtless justified. If military necessity dictates it -- as it well may -- those Japanese who were interned in Hawaii or those whose presence is dangerous can be removed. To hold otherwise would be deciding upon the impractical.

Cox cautions, however, that:

The existing case law indicates some doubt on the power to remove and intern the Japanese citizens in the United States. But the conditions of modern warfare are different from those of prior wars. Because of this the courts might well follow a different course than that indicated by the earlier decisions.

Due to the legal uncertainty, Cox concludes that "the safest legal procedure would be to hold the Japanese who are American citizens in Hawaii." The next best course would be to intern them in Hawaii and give them the option of coming to the mainland voluntarily to become members of the work corps of the War Relocation Authority. The final option, evacuating them from Hawaii to mainland internment camps may be legal under President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 and Public Law 77-503 but would require factual proofs of military necessity that should be avoided if "feasible."

"Tangerine" by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra with Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell remains at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart for the second week in a row.

Future History: Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski passes away from natural causes in Mexico. While his work is important in the history of anthropology, Malinowski's personal diaries become his real legacy. Never intended to be published, the diaries are found after his death and published in 1967. These diaries give deep insight into the true impulses motivating academics, many of which are interpreted by readers to be venal and conflicted. Malinowski's self-critiques and reproaches call into question how "unbiased" observations of other cultures can be. While their usefulness is highly debated and controversial, the Malinowski diaries become a continuing point of contention and well known in the field of anthropology for decades.
Recruiting pig King Neptune, 16 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
King Neptune (shown) is born on the Sherman Boner farm near West Franklin, Illinois, on 16 May 1942. A navy recruiter uses him to raise $19 million in war bonds for the construction of the Iowa-class battleship Illinois between 1942 and 1946. The recruiter, incidentally, saved King Neptune from his original fate of serving as the centerpiece at a fundraising pig roast. Upon his death in 1950, he is buried with military honors. A monument to King Neptune (with an incorrect birth year) later is placed at a northbound I-57 rest area. It still stands.

2021

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