Tuesday, September 14, 2021

May 26, 1942: Rommel Pounces in North Africa

Tuesday 26 May 1942

USS Hornet 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
USS Hornet at Pearl Harbor, 26 May 1942 (Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-66129).

Battle of the Pacific: After a hard sail from the Southwest Pacific, USS Enterprise arrives at Pearl Harbor on 26 May 1942. USS Yorktown, damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea, is roughly 24 hours behind. Vice Admiral William Halsey has been in command of the task force (TF 16), but he has suffered a case of dermatitis and now it is under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. Repair crews are standing by to undertake repairs to Yorktown once it arrives, with the plan being for Enterprise, Yorktown, and USS Hornet to quickly depart for Midway Island.

US Navy aircraft ferry USS Kitty Hawk (AKV-1) arrives at Midway with reinforcements. These include 3-inch (76.2 mm) antiaircraft guns of the 3rd Defense Battalion, a light tank platoon, and reinforcements for Marine Air Group Twenty Two (MAG-22). None of these men, of course, realize how close the battle is.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are finally ready to begin their operation to take Midway and islands in the Aleutians. The Japanese Northern Force (two light carriers) departs from Japan toward the Aleutians. The main force (Kido Butai) allocated to Midway remains in the Inland Sea for another day. The Japanese have no idea that the US Navy has broken their codes and knows with precision the date and places of their planned invasions. A Japanese "Glen" seaplane reconnoiters Kiska Island in the Aleutians and has no issues.

The US Navy has no intention of interfering with the Aleutians Island invasion and instead will concentrate all of its forces at Midway. However, the 11th Air Force based at Elmendorf Field near Anchorage has been sending some air reinforcements to the Aleutian Islands. Today, it sends the P-40s of the 11th Fighter Squadron, 28th Composite Group to Umnak, Aleutians.

USS Salmon torpedoes and sinks Japanese 11,441-ton repair ship Asahi 100 miles southwest of Cape Paderas (south of Phan Thiet, Vietnam). There are sixteen deaths, but 582 crewmen and Captain Tamura survive.

Battle of the Indian Ocean: Today, 26 May 1942, is considered the end of the Burma campaign as the last of the Allied forces slip out of Burma. General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell has gotten out with his command by walking through jungles with 114 people, including nurses, a Chinese general with his personal bodyguards, mechanics, some civilians, a news reporter, and British commandos. The Japanese have complete control of Burma, part of which is now garrisoned by Thai troops. While the Chinese fear an invasion across the Himalayas, the Japanese are not looking in that direction but instead have their eyes set on eventually invading India.

NY Daily Mirror 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The 26 May 1942 New York Daily Mirror is full of stirring news about the successful Soviet offensive south of Kharkov - where the Red Army actually is staring a massive defeat in the face.

Eastern Front: After the failure of one breakout attempt from their pocket southeast of Kharkov, Red Army soldiers try again this morning a little to the north. This attack is not quite as forceful as the one on the 25th toward Petrovskoye and only comes within four miles of succeeding. German Army Group South commander Field Marshal Fedor von Bock watches the proceedings from a hill south of Lozovenka. He sees the Luftwaffe's best ground-attack aircraft (Ju 87 Stukas, Ju 88 medium bombers, and He 111 medium bombers) pound the masses of Soviet troops clogging the roads. He remarks that it is "an overpowering picture."

Back at Fuhrer Headquarters, General Franz Halder writes:

In the Izyum pocket, desperate break-out attempts to the east continue. Our attack has divided the pocket into two smaller pocket. More feeble attempts from the outside.

Halder further notes that the other prong of the Soviet pincer movement also is ending: ""On the front east of Kharkov, the attacks are dying down. The enemy concentrations are thinning."

Three Soviet generals, including Major General I.V. Bobkin, die in the fighting. By the afternoon, hordes of Red Army soldiers are trapped in a 10x2 mile pocket in the Bereka Valley. The 23rd Panzer Division and the 1st Mountain Division drive in past streams of surrendering Soviet soldiers. Red Army General Timoshenko continues trying to direct offensive operations within the pocket, but it would take a miracle for a breakout to succeed now. The Germans still remain astonished that the Red Army hasn't tried a major relief operation from the east.

Soviet 12-ton river minesweeping launch No. 916 is sunk today, perhaps by scuttling.

European Air Operations: Poor weather continues to hamper operations on the Channel Front. The Royal Canadian Air Force reports "Weather, unsettled with occasional showers."

A Bristol Beaufighter Mk 11F of RAF No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron crashes ear Eastern Breakwater, Swansea Harbour, Swansea, Glamorgan. The crew survives.

U-333 arrives in port on 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
U-333 (Kptlt Peter-Erich Cremer) arrives back at its base at Saint-Nazaire on 26 May 1942. Note damage to the conning tower. Böttger, Gerd, Federal Archive Fig. 101II MW-4457-08.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-103 (Kptlt. Werner Winter), on its seventh patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 5588-ton US freighter 125 miles (232 km) northwest of Montego Bay, Jamaica. All 35 men take to the lifeboats, where Winter questions them and gives them some cigarettes. A Cuban gunboat rescues 33 of the men, while two are picked up by a US Navy seaplane.

U-106 (Kptlt. Hermann Rasch), on its sixth patrol out of Lorient, stops 5030-ton US freighter Carrabulle in the Gulf of Mexico with a siren and a shot across the bow. The Carrabulle's radio operator sends a distress call, then the entire crew of eight officers and 32 men take to two lifeboats. Rasch waits until the instant the second lifeboat hits the water before torpedoing the freighter, which sinks the ship and also destroys that lifeboat. The entire incident is unusual, with a report that Rasch asks the first lifeboat if everyone is clear, is told no, and then laughs and fires anyway. There are 22 dead, all from the second lifeboat, and 18 survivors who are picked up by US freighter Thompson Lykes.

U-703 (Kptlt. Heinz Bielfeld), on its second patrol out of Skjomenfjord, torpedoes and sinks 6191-ton US freighter Syros 200 miles southwest of Bear Island. Syros is traveling as part of Convoy PQ-16 toward Murmansk. The attack is made at 02:59, which is daylight at this latitude at this time. The crew is unable to use the lifeboats and use three rafts. Fortunately, help is nearby, but still a dozen men die and there are 28 survivors. The survivors have an eventful ride back to Iceland on US freighter Hybert when it blunders into a British minefield northwest of Iceland and sinks, but they all survive that sinking, too.

Luftwaffe planes based in Norway find US freighter Carlton, which was part of PQ-16 but had engine trouble and now is under tow by British trawler HMS Northern Spray. The planes somewhat surprisingly make no hits on this easy target. 

German artillery near Murmansk makes a rare hit on a ship when it sinks 860-ton Norwegian tanker Vardø near Murmansk. The tanker, loaded with oil and gasoline, sinks quickly. Casualties are unknown.

French 4578-ton freighter Enseigne Maurice Préchac springs a leak and sinks east of the Azores.

Map of Battle of Gazala 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A general overview map of the Battle of Gazala that began on 26 May 1942. Indicated in red are the Italian feints and then General Rommel's cartwheel to the southeast.

Battle of the Mediterranean: German General Erwin Rommel breaks a long stalemate in the Western Desert. At 14:00, the Italian X and XXI Corps attack the center of the British Gazala line.  This is Operation Venice (Unternehmen Venezia). Only a few German units are involved in this attack, while other units drive north to support the attack. Rommel's ground forces are aided significantly by the Luftwaffe's JG 27 and III./JG 53 fighter forces.

However, the Italian assault is only a feint. It is designed to draw Allied attention and reserves north and away from Rommel's main target. After dark, Rommel with the 15th Panzer Division personally leads Panzerarmee Afrika, the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK), Italian XX Motorised Corps, and the German 90th Light Afrika Division in a sweeping arc through the desert to the southeast. His intention is to launch a powerful thrust into what Rommel considers to be the most vulnerable sector of the British Gazala defensive line, a fort at Bir Hacheim largely occupied by Free French forces. If everything works perfectly, Rommel may be able to make a thrust to the coast and cut off large Allied formations and maybe even capture the port of Tobruk.

Royal Navy 195-ton minesweeper HMS Eddy hits a mine and sinks near Grand Harbour, Malta.

Partisans: The German anti-partisan attack near Bryansk, Operation Hannover, remains stalled by heavy rains. General Halder notes in his war diary, "the attack against Cav. Corps Belov is still hampered by adverse weather, and is making only slow progress."

Signing of Anglo-Soviet Agreement of 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
"A general scene showing delegates enjoying a walk in the gardens of 10 Downing Street, following the signing of the Anglo-Soviet Alliance. Left to right, they are Mr. Sabolev, Mr. Papov, Ivan Maisky (Soviet Ambassador to London), Anthony Eden (British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), Molotov (Soviet Foreign Secretary), Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and an unidentified naval officer." © IWM CH 5701.

Spy Stuff: Four German saboteurs depart from Lorient, France, on board a submarine. This is part of Operation Pastorius. They are bound for a landing at Amagansett, Long Island, New York, which they will reach early on 13 June 1942. This group is led by George John Dash, a former private in the US Army Air Corps stationed in Honolulu before being honorably discharged, then re-enlisting and serving at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. Another group led by Edward Kerling and bound for Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, also departs by U-boat around this time (one group departs on 26 May, the other on 28 May, the sources conflict on which left first and the U-boats are not identified in the sources).

The other saboteurs in Dasch's group are Ernest Peter Burger, Heinrich Harm Heink, and Richard Quirin. They have been trained at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the German High Command, on an estate at Quenz Lake, near Brandenburg and Berlin. Their mission is to find stuff and blow it up. Dasch ultimately betrays the entire operation and alerts the FBI..

Allied Relations: Lieutenant General Henry H "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General USAAF; Rear Admiral John H Towers, USN, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics; and RAF Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles F Portal have a meeting in London. Prime Minister Winston Churchill opens the meeting at 10 Downing Street. The main topic of these discussions is the basing of US bombers and fighters in the United Kingdom for offensive operations against the Reich.

Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Reinhard Heydrich attends 'Prague Music Week" with his wife, Lina Heydrich, at the Waldstein Palace, Prague, Czechoslovakia, on 26 May 1942. Federal Archives Image 146-1972-039-24.

Anglo/Soviet Relations: In London, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden n and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov sign the Twenty-Year Mutual Assistance Agreement Between the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of 1942. The agreement codifies a de facto wartime alliance between the two powers, with a political part of the agreement to continue for twenty years regardless of the duration of hostilities.

The treaty is bilateral, which is somewhat unusual given the cozy relationship between Great Britain and the United States and the other Allies. However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at this stage of the war is in constant communication with US President Franklin Roosevelt and would not do anything to threaten that relationship. The core of the agreement is that neither party will seek a separate peace, which all of the Allies agree with but hitherto have had difficulty securing Stalin's formal commitment. In this way, the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of 1942 is a key step in building a united front among all of the Allies. Otherwise, the agreement basically just recognizes the current state of affairs between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

P-61 Black Widow first flight is on 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Northrop Corporation XP-61 "Black Widow" prototype 41-19509 at Northrop Field, 1942. (U.S. Air Force).

US Military: Test pilot Vance Breese makes the first flight of the Northrop XP-61 Black Widow night fighter. The flight takes place at Northrop Field in Hawthorne, California. The Army Air Force places great hopes in this plane because it is the first purpose-designed night fighter, and the US is desperately short of such planes. However, the Black Widow gets bogged down in development issues and is largely superseded by the time it can become operational.

Jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) is demonstrated with a Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo at NAS Anacostia, D.C. The plane uses five British antiaircraft solid propellant rocket motors and its takeoff distance is reduced by 49%.

Japanese Homefront: Radio Tokyo reports that "America and Britain... have now been exterminated.. the British and American fleets cannot appear on the oceans." This apparently is based on supposed naval losses in the Battle of the Coral Sea. However, US losses there were much smaller than the Japanese think.

American Homefront: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits Muhlenberg College to celebrate Women's Day.

Congress passes the National Housing Act Amendments of 1942 (May 26, 1942, ch. 319, § 15, 56 Stat. 305). These deal with providing rental housing for war workers in areas determined critical for defense work by the War Production Board, which estimates that housing will be needed for 1.3 million workers, including 100,000 in dormitories and 285,000 family dwelling units. The plan is for many low-income workers to be able to buy their dwellings, though many will rent. A lot of these homes will be mobile homes, a new concept at this time, because defense production needs may change and the homes may need to be moved. You ever wonder where mobile homes originated? Look no further.

Eleanor Roosevelt 26 May 1942 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Eleanor Roosevelt arrives at Muhlenberg College; photographer unknown, “Women's Day: Tuesday, May 26, 1942.,” Muhlenberg College Historical Photograph Collections, accessed September 15, 2021.

May 1942


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