Wednesday, September 8, 2021

May 25, 1942: Soviet Breakout at Kharkov Fails

Monday 25 May 1942

Panamanian tanker Persephone sinking, 25 May 1942
Panamanian tanker Persephone, torpedoed by U-593 off New Jersey on 25 May 1942, splits in half and sinks while watched by a US Navy blimp. Notice the large oil slick.

Battle of the Pacific: Aboard the Japanese flagship Yamato in the Hashirajima Anchoring Area located 30-40 km (16-22 nautical miles, 19-25 miles) south of the Kure Naval Base, Admiral Yamamoto's staff conducts wargames aboard a tabletop on 25 May 1942. Both the Aleutians and Midway campaigns are checked and rechecked for flaws, but none are found. Submarine I-9 launches its "Glen" reconnaissance seaplane to fly over Kiska and Amchitka Islands in the Aleutian Islands without incident.

On the Allied side, there also is growing confidence. Commander Joseph Rochefort, head of the US Navy intelligence branch Hypo in Hawaii, has a staff meeting with Admiral Chester Nimitz to discuss the latest decoding of Japanese radio transmissions. While the Japanese changed their codebook on the 24th and the US has not yet cracked the new code, Rochefort's team has been decoding hundreds of messages a day from a pile that has stacked up.

Rochefort informs Nimitz that the attack on Midway Island is scheduled for 4 June 1942. Furthermore, he reveals the date and actual launch time of the attack and the Japanese aircraft carriers that will be used. This data comes directly from the lengthy Operational Order 14 sent to his commanders by Admiral Yamamoto on 20 May and just decoded by Rochefort's codebreakers.

Largely due to this intelligence information, Nimitz orders US submarines from Hawaii to patrol the seas around Midway Island. Light cruiser USS St. Louis arrives at Midway and disembarks Companies C and D of the Second Marine Raider Battalion along with a 37mm gun battery of the Third Defense Battalion. The 11th Air Force transfers its P-40s of the 11th Fighter Squadron, 28th Composite Group, from Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, Alaska, to Cold Bay. 

This Yamamoto intercept is controversial because somehow it never makes it into the National Archives. However, several of the people involved later remember it vividly, such as Rochefort and one of his subordinates, Jasper Holmes, who writes about it in his memoir "Double-Edged Secrets." This may be the best military intelligence coup of the entire war, for it enables Nimitz to plan out his entire battle strategy with certainty for what will turn out to be the decisive battle of the war in the Pacific.
USS Salmon
USS Salmon at sea.

US Navy submarine USS Salmon (SS-182), on its third war patrol out of Fremantle, torpedoes and sinks Japanese 11,441-ton submarine tender Asahi in the South China Sea. Some sources date this sinking as 3 May 1942. I place it here out of an abundance of caution and because this seems like the more likely attack date. There are 16 dead and 583 survivors.

US Navy submarine USS Drum (SS-228) torpedoes and sinks 2379-ton Japanese freighter Kitakata Marueast of Nojimazaki, Honshu, Japan.

US Navy submarine USS Tautog (SS-199) torpedoes and sinks 4467-ton Japanese freighter Shokwa (sometimes spelled Shoka) Maru 385 miles southwest of Ulithi Atoll (190 miles south of Woleai), Carolines. There are two dead and 63 survivors (though only 62 survive until landfall as they sail to Faraulep Island).

US Navy submarine USS Pompano (SS-181) torpedoes and sinks 902-ton Japanese tanker Tokyo Maru 70 miles west of Naha (East China Sea), Okinawa.

US Navy submarine USS Permit (SS-178) torpedoes and damages Japanese freighter Senko Maru in the Makassar Strait east of Bontang.

B-17 Bombers of the 5th Air Force bomb Vunakanau Airfield, while B-25 bombers of the 3rd Bomber Group return to Lae. Four B-25s are lost in action and one is forced to crash-land near Port Moresby. The sole remaining A-24 at Aiyary Airfield, meanwhile, is lost when it crashes on takeoff.
Panamanian tanker Persephone sinking off the coast of New Jersey, 25 May 1942
Panamanian tanker Persephone, sunk off the coast of New Jersey on 25 May 1942.

Battle of the Indian Ocean: Blocked from returning to China by Japanese control of the Burma Road, the Chinese 38th Infantry Division begins to cross the border from Burma into India. Four B-17 bombers based in India bomb Rangoon, Burma, in the early morning hours.

Eastern Front: Soviet forces within the pocket south of Kharkov make their first and most ferocious attempt to break through the thin German line (roughly ten miles deep) on the Donets River. The attack is a classic attack à la russe, a frontal assault made by waves of Soviet soldiers charging across fields directly at Wehrmacht machine guns. According to German sources, the Soviets have their arms linked (similar to Sassanid Empire soldiers of the 7th Century who chained themselves together as a sign of determination) and shout "Urray" as they run and fall. The desperate Red Army soldiers, facing elite panzer units, almost make it to the key road junction of Petrovskoye before being turned back with massive losses. 

The Luftwaffe uses its complete air superiority to drop SD2 anti-personnel cluster bombs among the masses of Soviet men advancing in the open, dissipating the attacks. Ultimately, the breakout attempt achieves nothing beyond decimating the Soviet attackers. It leaves the Red Army pocket even more confined than ever. However, the trapped Soviet soldiers have not given up yet.

At Fuhrer Headquarters in East Prussia, everything appears to be going perfectly. General Franz Halder cannot contain his delight with the situation south of Kharkov as he writes in his understated way:
The battle around the pocked west of Izyum continues to evolve satisfactorily. The enemy's desperate and resolutely directed attempts to break out eastward were repelled, as were the feeble attacks with tanks from the east through Savintai.
Halder also is sanguine about the attacks from the failed northern Soviet pincer, noting that the Soviets there have made only "some negligible local gains." German operations further north in the Moscow sector (apparently Halder is referring to Operation Hannover, see below) are making "only slow progress" due to "bad weather," but that is a minor point beside the unbelievable success at Kharkov.
Soviet troops at Kharkov 25 May 1942
Soviet troops attempting to break out from the Kharkov pocket ca. 25 May 1942. Western news agencies are full of positive reports about Red Army successes in this area even as its position disintegrates.

However, there is bad news in Halder's daily summary that he does not comment on, perhaps because it conflicts with his jubilant mood over the brewing victory at Kharkov. A casualty summary from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa through 20 May 1942 shows 1,214,827 total army losses, 37.96% of the average army strength. Of these, 9610 officers and 247,410 others of all ranks are killed and 879 officers and 56,687 others are missing and can be presumed dead or captured. These are staggering losses, particularly in light of the relatively light losses suffered in previous campaigns. The German army is being bled white and replacements are not coming anywhere near to making up all the casualties. Interestingly, Halder does not report on the total army manpower strength, which is steadily declining.

There is also another disquieting note in Halder's diary entry. He summarizes a meeting with a Colonel Abberger who has visited the Headquarters of the Second Army. Abberger reports that the command there "has not yet grasped the importance of making preparations for speedy construction of fortifications on the northern wing of "Blau."" Since Operation Blau is the make-or-break summer offensive as repeatedly stated by Adolf Hitler, the failure of some commands to adequately prepare is ominous, and Halder seems genuinely concerned. Perhaps it is an indication that the troops are tired after a long, hard winter of constant fighting and cannot be pushed harder.

Oblt. Anton "Toni" Hackl of 5./JG 77 is awarded the Ritterkreuz for his 51 victories, while Lt. Gerhard Krems of 2./KG 27 receives the same award, making him the first KG 27 pilot so honored. Hackl winds up with 192 official victories, but this is a very shaky number with many different estimates of his actual victory total. He passes away in 1984.

European Air Operations: During a morning RAF fighter patrol off Dunkirk (Operation Ramrod 51) by No. 222 (Natal) Squadron, an RAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb is shot down near Gravelines by Focke Wulf Fw 190As of JG 26. The pilot, Squadron Leader Jerzy Jankiewicz, is killed.
Panamanian tanker Persephone sinking, 25 May 1942
Panamanian tanker Persephone sinking off the coast of New Jersey, 25 May 1942.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-593 (Kptlt. Gerd Kelbling), on its second patrol out of St. Nazaire, torpedoes and sinks 8426-ton Panamanian tanker Persephone off Barnegat Light, New Jersey. Because the tanker splits in half and sinks in very shallow water, the bow half is refloated and towed to New York. Unusually, 21,000 of the 80,000 barrels of oil it is carrying are saved via this maneuver. The US Coast Guard later blows up the stern half of the ship due to it being a hazard to navigation. There are nine dead and 28 survivors.

U-558 (Kptlt. Günther Krech), on its seventh patrol out of Brest, sinks 3451-ton US sugar freighter Beatrice at 01:34 southeast of Kingston, Jamaica. The sinking is unusual because a torpedo hits the freighter but fails to explode. The U-boat then must surface and sink the freighter with gunfire. Krech barely escapes when a PBY Catalina appears at 03:05 and drops depth charges. 21 of the survivors sail their lifeboat to Pigeon Island, Jamaica, while others are picked up by British patrol boat HMS Hauken. There are one dead and 30 survivors.

U-156 (Kptlt. Werner Hartenstein), on its third patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and damages the 1190-ton US destroyer USS Blakeley (DD 150) off Martinique, West Indies. The destroyer loses 60 feet of its bow but makes it to Port de France, Martinique. Later repaired with a bow taken from sister ship USS Taylor (DD 94), Blakeley returns to service in the Caribbean in September 1942. There are six dead and 116 survivors, including 21 wounded.

U-103 (Kptlt. Werner Winter), on its seventh patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 5588-ton US freighter Alcoa Carrier about 125 miles northwest of Montego Bay, Jamaica. Winter surfaces and shells the ship when it takes its time sinking, fires another torpedo into it, and then gives the survivors in two lifeboats some cigarettes. The ship doesn't actually sink until the 26th - there are conflicting dates about when the attack actually takes place, the 25th or 26th. All 35 crewmen survive after being picked up by a Cuban gunboat (33 men) and a US Navy seaplane (2 men).

Greek 3895-ton freighter Emmy runs aground at Morien Bay, Cape Breton Island, and is wrecked. Salvage companies eventually cut up the wreck for scrap. Pieces of the wreck can still be seen when diving. There are no casualties.

Mexican freighter Oaxaca rescues three survivors of US tanker Halo, sunk by U-506 on 20 May. Two of the men later perish from exposure and their wounds.

Luftwaffe planes attack Convoy PQ 16 as it sails from Reykjavik, Iceland, toward Murmansk, USSR. They damage US freighter Carlton, which is towed back to Reykjavik by British trawler HMS Northern Spray. Carlton is attacked again on the 26th.
German General Erwin Rommel 25 May 1942
Colonel-General Erwin Rommel, leader of the Afrika Korps, photographed with the 15th Panzer Division near Bir Hakeim, 25 May 1942 (Zwilling, Ernst A., Federal Archive Image 101I-443-1551-10A).

Battle of the Mediterranean: The Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica resume their attacks on Malta airfields with a vengeance today. The planes bomb all three military airfields at dusk. The attack appears to target RAF bombers that have been attacking Axis convoys to reinforce Colonel-General Erwin Rommel's forces in North Africa and Sicilian airfields.

Things finally are heating up in North Africa after a long winter break. Rommel spends the day with the 15th Panzer Division, which today makes a wide arc to the southeast of Bir Hakeim to position itself for an attack on the 26th. Rommel has roughly 90,000 German and Italian troops and 560 tanks facing 110,000 British imperial and allied troops with 840 tanks along the Gazala Line in Libya south and west of Tobruk. Free French General Koenig, under the overall command of British General Neil Ritchie, commands 40,000 men of the 1st Free French Brigade at the southern end of the line at the old fort of Bir Hakeim. 

Rommel is planning to attack Koenig's force after a feint further north. It is a common tactic of both sides to attack allied forces and avoid frontal confrontations with the opposing major power forces (German or British). While the French force sounds imposing due to its numbers, it is in fact a mixture of French Marines, Legionnaires, and soldiers of French African colonies including Senegal, Madagascar, and central Africa. This brave force lacks cohesion and modern weapons.

Italian torpedo boat Groppo is lost in the Strait of Messina due to unknown causes. No casualties are known.
British LRDG trucks, 25 May 1942
Chevrolet 30-cwt trucks of the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) in the western desert, 25 May 1942. Lt. Graham, © IWM E 12385.

Partisans: A major German anti-partisan operation comes to an abrupt halt in the Bryansk sector due to heavy rain. The Ugra River is so full that it spawns a second channel twenty meters wide, preventing panzers from advancing to close a projected encirclement. This situation continues for two days.

German Army Group Center commander Field Marshal Kluge asks Fourth Army commander General Heinrici to head further west than originally intended on the assumption that the partisans under Soviet General Belov would be able to cross the river anyway to evade capture. However, the German troops are not going anywhere at this time and plans have to be constantly revised. Operation Hannover now is in disarray not because of enemy action, but solely due to the weather and partisan demolitions of vital bridges. This is a massive operation, though, involving multiple Wehrmacht divisions to eliminate a lingering threat and the Germans refuse to abandon it.

American Homefront: The Warner Bros./Michael Curtiz film "Casablanca," starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, begins filming in Hollywood. Producer Hal Wallis is so enthusiastic about the project, based on an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, that he has spent the most ever paid in Hollywood for those kinds of rights, $20,000. The entire picture is shot in the studio aside from brief stock footage of Paris and of a plane landing. Many of the minor roles and extras are played by European refugees, lending poignancy to the main plot about people exiled due to German conquests. The city of Casablanca, of course, is currently governed by the Vichy French who are grudgingly collaborating with the Reich. It will be liberated by the Allies shortly before the film's release on 26 November 1942. One of the film's more subtle achievements is its understated but consistent delivery of anti-Axis propaganda. "Casablanca" goes on to win numerous awards, turns a healthy profit, and is often acclaimed as one of the best films ever made.
Life magazine 25 May 1942
Life magazine features "Spring Planting" on the cover of its 25 May 1942 issue. The lad driving the tractor suggests a growing manpower crisis on farms as older men enlist or are drafted.

May 1942


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