Tuesday, May 4, 2021

May 17, 1942: Germans Counterattack at Kharkov

Sunday 17 May 1942

Vought-Sikorsky XR-4 arrives at Wright Field, 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The US military's first helicopter, a Vought-Sikorsky XR-4, arrives at Wright Field, Riverside, Ohio, on 17 May 1942. Among those to greet the arrival is Orville Wright (Sikorsky Historical  Archives).
Battle of the Pacific: Badly damaged Japanese aircraft carrier Shōkaku reaches Kure, Japan, on 17 May 1942. Shōkaku is lucky to have made it after the damage sustained at the Battle of the Coral Sea, having almost capsized during a storm along the way. Its fellow carrier, Zuikaku, is still several days away from Kure. Both carriers are in bad shape and will take at least a month to repair and return to service. This means they will miss the next major Japanese operation in June.

US naval intelligence continues to struggle with the location of the upcoming Japanese offensive that they know from decrypted communications is in the works. Commander John Redman, commander OP-20-G in Washington, D.C., continues to believe the next objective is Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. His boss, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, has a great influence on policy and believes him. The Japanese refer to the target as "AF," but nobody knows with certainty where that is. While opinion within the US high command increasingly suspects that AF is Midway Island, that remains unproven.

The USAAF takes precautions by placing the 7th Air Force on alert for a possible Japanese attack at Midway or elsewhere. It adds obsolete Douglas B-18 bombers to reconnaissance missions to supplement existing patrols by B-17 bombers. Around this time, the 72nd Bombardment Squadron is converting its B-18 Bolo bombers to B-17s, but that is a gradual process.

US Navy submarine USS Tautog, on its second patrol out of Pearl Harbor, torpedoes and sinks 2589-ton Japanese submarine I-28 two miles (3.2 km) west of Royalist Reef, Truk. Tautog is one of the submarines assigned to patrol the expected route of the Japanese carriers returning to Japan from the Battle of the Coral Sea. All 88 men on the I-28 perish.
I-164, sunk on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Japanese submarine I-164, sunk on 17 May 1942, during its trials in Kure.
US Navy submarine USS Triton (SS-201, Lt. Cdr. Charles C. Kirkpatrick) torpedoes and sinks 1635-ton Japanese submarine I-164 (formerly I-64) southeast of Cape Ashizuri, Kyūshū, Japan. Kirkpatrick (who eventually becomes a Rear Admiral) uses his last Mark-14 bow torpedo, and the Japanese submarine sinks within two minutes. All 81 men on I-164 are thought to have perished, though Kirkpatrick spots about 30 swimmers after the sinking.

US Navy submarine USS Skipjack torpedoes and sinks 5477-ton Japanese transport ship Tajan Maru in the South China Sea near the mouth of the Gulf of Siam off Indochina.

US Navy submarine USS Silversides, on its first patrol out of Pearl Harbor, torpedoes and sinks 5871-ton Japanese freighter Thames Maru. In addition to Thames Maru, Silverfish torpedoes a second freighter, 5973-ton transport ship Tottori Maru, which also sinks (though the crew of Silversides is unable to verify this). The attack is hazardous for Silversides because it blunders into a Japanese fishnet marked by Japanese flags held aloft on bamboo poles above the surface. The submarine shrugs off the fishnet, which it drags along with it. The scene is somewhat unusual in that this means Silversides drags along the Japanese flag atop the bamboo poles, making this the only time a US submarine attacks enemy shipping while (inadvertently) flying the Japanese flag. Silversides, incidentally, is preserved as a National Historic Landmark at a museum in Muskegon, Michigan.

US Navy submarine USS Grampus, on its third patrol out of Fremantle and one of the eight submarines lurking off Truk Lagoon looking for Japanese carriers, is damaged by gunfire by Japanese patrol vessels. However, the submarine remains operational.

USS Gar, on its second patrol, attacks a Japanese ship during a daylight raid west of Truk. The crew believes it is a Q-ship, but, in fact, it is just an ordinary freighter. The identity and fate of the ship is unclear and any sinking is unconfirmed.

Eighteen Japanese A6M2 Zero fighters of the Tainan Kokutai based at Lae Airfield raid Port Moresby. The strafing mission accomplishes little because the Allies receive warnings and disperse their aircraft ahead of the raid. The Japanese lose two fighters that are damaged and crash into the Owen Stanley Mountains. Another fighter force-lands with the pilot surviving the war. Thirteen fighters make it back to base, some after landing at other airfields. Sixteen P-39 Aircobras of the 8th Fighter Group's 36th Fighter Squadron and 35th, 39th, and 40th Fighter Squadrons intercept the Japanese fighters. They get no victories and lose one plane. However, the US fighter pilots claim numerous victories that ultimately prove erroneous.

B-17s attack shipping at Koepang Bay, Timor.
Orville Wright greets Sikorsky and his helicopter at Wright Field on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Sikorsky XR-4 41-18874 at Wright Field, 17 May 1942. From left to right are E. Walsh, A. Planefisch, Igor Sikorsky, Orville Wright, R. Alex, Les Morris, B. Labensky. (Sikorsky Archives).
Battle of the Indian Ocean: British units continue straggling into the border town of Tamu to set up a center of resistance on the Indian border. Today, the 17th Indian Infantry Division arrives after a difficult withdrawal up the Kabaw valley. Its strength is down to 9,908 men. It will be sent north to Imphal, another border city and center of British resistance to the victorious Japanese in Burma. The Japanese units, meanwhile, are not pursuing the fleeing Allied units but instead are content to solidify their control of Burma.

Japanese Detachment A, a naval force composed of seven submarines and three auxiliary cruisers/supply ships,, encounters heavy seas en route to Madagascar. Several of the submarines take on water in heavy seas as they try to charge their batteries. I-18's port diesel is flooded and four cylinders seize and it falls behind the other submarines. I-20 also sustains damage but it is quickly repaired.
Reynolds News of 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
London, England's Reynolds News of 17 May 1942 is full of reporting of overpowering Red Army tank strength near Kharkov.
Eastern Front: It is an unusually hot day in southern Russia, with temperatures hitting 90° Fahrenheit (32°C). The skies are clear and visibility is perfect. The two sides spend the day attacking in completely different directions, with each facing the possibility of a massive defeat if they are wrong.

German 3rd Panzer Corps in General Ewald von Kleist's First Panzer Army counterattacks at Kharkov. More Luftwaffe units have been transferred north from Crimea to Fliegerkorps IV and VIII, and the planes clear a path for the panzers. The attack is not against the bulging Soviet expansion in all directions south of Kharkov, but instead directed at the breakout point. There is outstanding coordination between ground units calling in airstrikes and the arrival of the planes, which do not have far to travel from their bases. The aim is to advance from north and south to cut off the Soviet supply corridor and create a pocket west of Barvenkovo. This is an altered version of a plan the Germans were working on before the Soviet attacks, Operation Fridericus, so the Germans have been able to react with uncommon speed.

The German counterattack takes the Soviets completely by surprise, and they are slow to react. In the morning, before he realizes what the Germans are up to, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko commits his second-stage forces, XXI and XXIII Tank Corps, to the expanding perimeter of the breakthrough instead of to the area of the German counterattack. These are his most powerful reserves and they are in completely the wrong place. During the day, these forces advance five miles north toward Kharkov, the Soviets' ultimate objective.
German armored personnel carrier in the Kharkov area, May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A German medium armored personnel carrier (perhaps a Sd.Kfz. 251/10 with 3.7 cm anti-tank gun) on a temporary ferry in the Kharkov area, May 1942 (Federal Archive Image 169-0422).
The problem for the Soviets is that, no matter how far their tanks advance toward Kharkov, their offensive to take the city is doomed to failure if the German panzers far to the east cut them off. The German counterattack gets off to a very successful start. In the north, the panzers advance fifteen miles to the south to reach the first objective of Barvenkovo. In the south, the Seventeenth Army does even further, advancing 16/17 miles, about 2/3 of the way to their first objective of Izyum. At Fuhrer Headquarters, General Franz Halder writes in his war diary that First Panzer Army "has got off to a good start."

The Soviet units in the area of the southern German attack are commanded by General Malinovskiy of Ninth Army. Malinovskiy loses contact with his front-line units and reinforcements. He also has made a mistake of overconfidence, putting some of his reserves into the front line. His defensive line is thin and brittle and not a typical Red Army defense in depth.

Throughout the day, the Soviet command shrugs off the German counterattack. Timoshenko orders his XXIII Tank Corps (General Gorodnyanskov) out of reserve to help the Soviet 57th Army stop the German attack that reaches Barvenkovo. The Stavka releases two rifle divisions and two tank brigades from its theater reserve. These forces cannot get to the crisis areas in fewer than 24 hours, however, and in some cases much longer.
Beatrice Times, 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The 17 May 1942 Beatrice Times of Beatrice, Nebraska, headlines reports of declining German morale.
The acting chief of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal Vasilevskiy, is the only top Red Army commander who seems to appreciate the threat of the German counterattack today. He asks Stalin for permission to turn the entire offensive around and direct it at the German counterattack rather than continuing north and west. Stalin consults with the Military Council of the Southwestern Theater, which is led by Timoshenko, Political Commissar Nikita Khrushchev, and Timoshenko's Southwestern Front military chief of staff, Ivan Bagramyan. The situation is much different than in other armies because Commissars such as Khrushchev, with no or inadequate military training, have an equal voice in military decisions.

While Bagramyan basically agrees with Vasilevsky, Timoshenko and Khrushchev tell Stalin they can master the counterattack and continue their own offensive. Bagramyan, a very capable general, was one of the key planners of the original Soviet attack. However, he also is considered somewhat of a black sheep in the Red Army, having been court-martialed in 1941 for the losses at Kiev and Rostov, so he has less influence with the Stavka than he otherwise might. Based on the Military Council's recommendation, Stalin refuses Vasilevskiy's request to turn the offensive around to meet the new threat. It is a decisive moment on the Eastern Front with consequences that extend throughout the summer of 1942.

The new Geschwaderkommodore (wing commander) of Jagdgeschwader 77, Gordon "Mac" Gollob, continues his fast start. Flying from Kerch in Crimea, he claims three Soviet R-5s and one LaGG-3 for a total of seven victories in his first two days. This brings his total score to 93. The Luftwaffe continues to commit a major portion of its strength to the Crimean campaign. Today, German bombers sink 1200-ton Soviet auxiliary guard ship SKR-21 off Iokanga, with four deaths.

Basically, the ground fighting in Crimea is decided. However, in his war diary, General Franz Halder notes that "On the Kerch peninsula, the remnants of the enemy are still putting up fanatical resistance northeast of the town."
German searchlight in France, May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German searchlights in France, May 1942 (Genzler, Federal Archive Image 101I-616-2514-36).
European Air Operations: RAF Fighter Command has a bad day over the French coast. During a 27-plane bombing mission to the Boulogne docks (one Wellington lost), bombers drop forty 500-lb bombs. This stirs up JG 53 at Le Touquet, which puts over 25 Fw 190s in the air. RAF No. 602 initiates an attack on ten of them over Güines (south of Calais), but then is bounced itself by another 15 German fighters lurking above them. Ferocious dogfights result in the loss of eight RAF fighters at the cost of one Luftwaffe plane, claimed by Squadron Leader Finucane. This is one instance where the British tactic of using bombers to draw up the enemy fighters to battle backfires.

The only other mission of the day is a raid by 32 Stirling and 28 Wellington Bombers of Group 3 after dark to the Frisian Island and Heligoland area. Losses are heavy, with five Stirlings and two Wellingtons lost to Luftwaffe night fighters. Today continues a Spring bombing lull by both sides, although, as seen, fighter activity remains heavy.
HMS King George V in drydock, 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
HMS King George V in the Gladstone Dock at Liverpool, May 17, 1942, following the collision sank destroyer HMS Punjabi in the North Atlantic on 1 May. © IWM A 9949.
Battle of the Atlantic: It is a particularly bad day at sea for the Allied merchant fleet. Operation Neuland, the German U-boat offensive in the Caribbean, increasingly is the Kriegsmarine's most fertile hunting ground in the Atlantic. The Allied shipping losses there, particularly of tankers, are mounting at an alarming rate. Already these losses have led to gasoline rationing in the eastern United States as Texas oil must be shipped there around Florida. While the US Navy and Coast Guard have organized convoys from Boston to Florida, ship transits remain unorganized in the Caribbean and mostly independent. These easy successes mask improved Allied anti-submarine measures further north, but U-boats remain a threat everywhere and there are several losses today in the North Atlantic, too.

U-156 (Kptlt. Werner Hartenstein), on its third patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 5072-ton British freighter Barrdale northeast of Barbados. There are one death and 52 survivors, who are rescued by Argentine freighter Rio Iguazu.

U-162 (FrgKpt. Jürgen Wattenberg), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 6852-ton Norwegian tanker Beth 135 nautical miles (250 km) southeast of Barbados. There are one death and 30 survivors.

U-155 (Kptlt. Erich Würdemann), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 7667-ton US freighter Challenger east of Grenada. Challenger is en route to Trinidad for repairs when it is sunk. There are eight deaths and 56 survivors, who are rescued by the patrol yacht USS Turquoise (PY-19).

U-155 also torpedoes and sinks 8136-ton British tanker San Victorio on its maiden voyage southwest of Grenada. There are 52 deaths and one survivor, who is rescued by USS Turquoise.

U-506 (Kptlt. Erich Würdemann), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 5189 US tanker Gulfoil 75 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River. There are 21 deaths and 19 survivors, who are rescued by US freighter Benjamin Brewster.
MV Peisander, sunk on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
M.V. Peisander, sunk by U-653 off Nantucket, Massachusetts, on 17 May 1942.
U-653 (Kptlt. Gerhard Feiler), on its third patrol out of Brest, torpedoes and sinks 6225-ton British freighter Peisander 350 nautical miles (650 km) off Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. All 65 crewmen survive, rescued by USCGC General Greene.

U-432 (Kptlt. Heinz-Otto Schultze), on its fifth patrol out of La Pallice, shells, and sinks 324-ton US fishing trawler Foam about 85 nautical miles (157 km) south of Halifax, Nova Scotia. There are one death and 20 survivors, who are rescued by HMCS Halifax or reach the Sambro Lightship in their lifeboats.

U-588 (Kptlt. Victor Vogel), on its third patrol out of St. Nazaire, torpedoes and sinks 2117-ton Norwegian freighter Skottland midway between Boston and Halifax. There are one death and 23 survivors, who are rescued by Canadian fishing trawler O.K. Service IV.

U-135 (Kptlt. Friedrich-Hermann Praetorius), on its third patrol out of Brest, torpedoes and sinks 7127-ton British Fort ship Fort Qu'Appelle off the northern coast of Canada. There are 14 deaths. Survivors are picked up by HMCS Melville.

US 2612-ton freighter Ruth Lykes, torpedoed by U-103 late on 16 May, sinks shortly after midnight on 17 May in the Caribbean. There are six deaths and 30 survivors, who are rescued by Norwegian freighter Somerville. This is included here because some accounts place the sinking on the 16th, others on the 17th.

US Navy destroyer USS Hambleton (DD-455) collides with destroyer Ellyson (DD-454) while en route to the United States from the Gold Coast of Africa. Both ships make it to port.
Panzer General Ludwig Cruwell on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Panzer General Ludwig Crüwell showing his (34th) Oak Leaves for the Knight's Cross, 17 May 1942. Crüwell is commander of the Afrika Korps (on infantry and two panzer divisions) under General Erwin Rommel, who commands Panzer Army Afrika (Federal Archives Picture 146-1991-039-17).
Battle of the Mediterranean: German E-boats have been operating with relative impunity just off the shores of Malta, planting mines and occasionally engaging in firefights with Royal Navy vessels. Today, British radio direction picks up some of these ships at 01:05 north of St. Elmo. At 02:35, coastal artillery near Valletta badly damages 79-ton S 34. While it remains afloat, the Luftwaffe scuttles it with four Bf 109s to keep it from falling into British hands. Other E-boats are damaged after dawn by Hurricane fighters of RAF No. 229 Squadron but at least two escape.
The Sikorsky XR-4, delivered to the US military on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The US military receives its first helicopter on 17 May 1942. It is the Sikorsky XR-4, shown.
US Military: Battleship USS West Virginia, sunk during the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, is refloated today. The repair process has been arduous, requiring huge wooden cofferdams around the ship and tnemic cement used to seal them. About 40,000 gallons of fuel oil are recovered from the ship. The ship will be towed to Drydock No. 1 and remain there for almost a year.

Igor I. Sikorsky and Charles Lester "Les" Morris fly Sikorsky's XR-4 helicopter from Stratford, Connecticut, to Wright Field in Riverside, Ohio. This completes the delivery of the first USAAF helicopter. The two pilots spend over 16 hours in the air, and the flight requires 17 refueling stops.

British Homefront: MP Sir Stafford Cripps, back from failed negotiations with Mahatma Gandhi in India, makes a speech to his constituents in Bristol about a second front in Europe. He says:

The only difference between [politicians and the public] is that the public can talk freely about [a new second front in Western Europe], whereas we cannot, because we have two responsibilities - to organize it at the proper time and place, and secondly not to give the enemy any information of our intentions. Already the Germans are getting uneasy at the militant offensive spirit of the British and Americans in this matter.

Cripps knows that the public is eager for a second front and is hinting at things that he knows the public wants to hear. However, at this time, there are no plans for an invasion of Western Europe anywhere. The only operation that is contemplated is a possible invasion of western Africa late in 1942, but even that is tenuous.
Jimmy Stewart on the cover of This Week on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Jimmy Stewart, USAAF, portrayed on the cover of This Week magazine, 17 May 1942.
American Homefront: On 17 May 1942, all remaining Japanese-Americans in Orange County, California, are evacuated. This is "moving day." They are told to report to various Civil Control Stations or designated transit sites by today. These notifications generally are only made by notices attached to telephone poles, buildings, and the like. The departure sites are often public transit hubs, such as the Pacific Electric Railway state near Huntington Beach pier.

Future History: Henry Saint Claire Fredericks is born in Harlem, New York. Adopting the stage name Taj Mahal, he becomes a noted blues musician and occasional actor. Taj Mahal remains active in the business as of 2021.
Fenn College graduation on 17 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Fenn College commencement, Cleveland, Ohio, 17 May 1942. A lot of these graduates will wind up in the military (Cleveland State University Archives).

May 1942


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