Category Archives: Today in History

1940 British and Allied troops continue the evacuation of France, as Churchill reassures his countrymen

On this day in 1940, British troops evacuate France in Operation Ariel, an exodus almost on the order of Dunkirk. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill offers words of encouragement in a broadcast to the nation: “Whatever has happened in France… [w]e shall defend our island home, and with the British Empire we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted.”

With two-thirds of France now occupied by German troops, those British and Allied troops that had not participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk, were shipped home. From Cherbourg and St. Malo, from Brest and Nantes, Brits, Poles, and Canadian troops were rescued from occupied territory by boats sent from Britain. While these men were not under the immediate threat of assault, as at Dunkirk, they were by no means safe, as 5,000 soldiers and French civilians learned once on board the ocean liner Lancastria, which had picked them up at St. Nazaire. Germans bombers sunk the liner; 3,000 passengers drowned.

Churchill ordered that news of the Lancastria not be broadcast in Britain, fearing the effect it would have on public morale, since everyone was already on heightened alert, fearing an imminent invasion from the Germans now that only a channel separated them. The British public would eventually find out—but not for another six weeks—when the news finally broke in the United States. They would also enjoy a breather of another kind: Hitler had no immediate plans for an invasion of the British isle, “being well aware of the difficulties involved in such an operation,” reported the German High Command.

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1940 Germans enter Paris

On this day in 1940, Parisians awaken to the sound of a German-accented voice announcing via loudspeakers that a curfew was being imposed for 8 p.m. that evening-as German troops enter and occupy Paris.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had tried for days to convince the French government to hang on, not to sue for peace, that America would enter the war and come to its aid. French premier Paul Reynaud telegrammed President Franklin Roosevelt, asking for just such aid-a declaration of war, and if not that, any and all help possible. Roosevelt replied that the United States was prepared to send material aid—and was willing to have that promise published—but Secretary of State Cordell Hull opposed such a publication, knowing that Hitler, as well as the Allies, would take such a public declaration of help as but a prelude to a formal declaration of war. While the material aid would be forthcoming, no such commitment would be made formal and public.

By the time German tanks rolled into Paris, 2 million Parisians had already fled, with good reason. In short order, the German Gestapo went to work: arrests, interrogations, and spying were the order of the day, as a gigantic swastika flew beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

While Parisians who remained trapped in their capital despaired, French men and women in the west cheered-as Canadian troops rolled through their region, offering hope for a free France yet.

The United States did not remain completely idle, though. On this day, President Roosevelt froze the American assets of the Axis powers, Germany and Italy.

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1940 Paris on the verge of invasion

On this day in 1940, 54,000 British and French troops surrender to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at St. Valery-en-Caux, on the northern Channel border, as the Germans continue their gains in France.

Even after the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force, tens of thousands of British and Allied troops remained in France. Overwhelmed by the German invaders, over 3,000 Allied troops attempted to escape by sea but were stopped by German artillery fire. Surrender was the order of the day; among those taken prisoner were 12 Allied generals.

But all was not lost, as Britain refused to leave France to German occupation. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already ordered more British troops back into France, and British bombers were also attacking German lines of communication. British and Allied troops were still active in other parts of France-some 50 British fighters and 70 bombers were moving on German forces.

But despite the British reinforcements and encouragement (Churchill flew to France himself to encourage the French leaders), General Maxime Weygand ordered the French military governor of Paris to ensure that the French capital remained an open city-that is, there was to be no armed resistance to the Germans. In short, he was pushing for an armistice, in effect, capitulation. The enemy would be allowed to pass through unchallenged. Weygand addressed his cabinet with his assessment of the situation: “A cessation of hostilities is compulsory.” He bitterly blamed Britain for France’s defeat, unwilling to take responsibility for his own inept strategies and failed offensives. Paris was poised for occupation.

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1915 Austro-German forces attack Russians at Przemysl

On June 2, 1915, Austro-Hungarian and German troops continue their attacks on the Russian soldiers holding Przemysl (now in Poland), the citadel guarding the northeastern-most point of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Used as the Austrian army headquarters during the first months of World War I, Przemysl was ordered to hold out until the end in the face of the surprisingly effective Russian advance into Austria-Hungary in the fall of 1914. After six months under siege, facing severe food shortages and heavy casualties, the last Austro-Hungarian troops at Przemysl finally relinquished control of the citadel on March 22, 1915.

With their hard-fought victory, Russia’s troops had gained a certain measure of control in the much-contested Galician region of Austria and were poised to move into Hungary. This was not to be, however, as the powerful German army stepped in to offer more help to their faltering ally. Over the course of the next several months, Austro-German forces began moving swiftly and aggressively on the Eastern Front, recapturing the passes of the Carpathian Mountains and moving steadily forward into Galicia. On May 25, the Germans announced they had taken some 21,000 Russian prisoners east of the San River; the Russians were soon pushed back toward Przemysl, and battle began there once again.

On June 2, 1915, Austro-German forces were nearing victory against the exhausted Russians at Przemysl; the citadel fell back into the hands of the Central Powers the following day. The recapture of Przemysl effectively marked the end of Russian control in Galicia. As a British observer wrote dismissively of the Russian troops, This army is now a harmless mob.

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1916 Germans launch attack on British lines in Ypres Salient

On the first day of June 1916, as German and British naval forces clash in the North Sea during the Battle of Jutland and the French resist the persistent German siege at Verdun, German army troops launch a major attack on British lines in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.

As the nexus of an Allied salient that blocked any German advance to the English Channel, the town of Ypres, Belgium, saw nearly constant fighting during World War I. Three major battles—in October-November 1914, April-May 1915 and July-November 1917—punctuated a stream of smaller attacks, including one on June 1, 1916, by German troops. The Germans advanced 700 yards through the British trenches along a 3,000-yard front near Ypres; among the casualties were one British general killed and one taken prisoner. Within 48 hours, however, the British were able recover some of the captured ground.

On the same day, at the city of Verdun, France, where French troops had been under siege since February 21, 1916, the Germans began a fresh attack against Fort Vaux, one of two principal fortresses used to defend Verdun. The other, Fort Douaumont, had fallen on February 25, but Fort Vaux had managed to hold out for three months under a relentless German onslaught. A previous assault, on March 2, had been thrown back by French forces, though one of the prisoners taken that day was Captain Charles de Gaulle, wounded in the thigh by a German bayonet. The German attack that began June 1 proved too much for the French defenders, and on June 7 the Germans finally captured Fort Vaux and its 600 surviving soldiers.

Verdun itself, however, continued to hold out, as the French desperately urged their allies, Britain and Russia, to launch offensives of their own to divert German men and resources. Russia responded first, with the famed Brusilov Offensive—named for General Alexei Brusilov—that nearly decimated the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front. In early July, Britain struck the Germans near the Somme River in France, as grinding, bloody battles continued on all fronts of World War I.

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1940 Belgium surrenders unconditionally

On this day in 1940, after 18 days of ceaseless German bombardment, the king of Belgium, having asked for an armistice, is given only unconditional surrender as an option. He takes it.

German forces had moved into Belgium on May 10, part of Hitler’s initial western offensive. Despite some support by British forces, the Belgians were simply outnumbered and outgunned from the beginning. The first surrender of Belgium territory took place only one day after the invasion, when the defenders of Fort Eben-Emael surrendered.

Disregarding the odds, King Leopold III of Belgium had tried to rally his forces, evoking the Belgian victory during World War I. The Belgian forces fought on, courageously, but were continually overcome by the invaders.

By May 27, the king of Belgium, realizing that his army was depleted and that even retreat was no longer an option, sent an emissary through the German lines to request an armistice, a cease-fire. It was rejected. The Germans demanded unconditional surrender. Belgium’s government in exile, stationed in Paris, repudiated the surrender, but to no avail. Belgium had no army left to fight. In the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended King Leopold’s decision, despite the fact that it made the British troops’ position, attempting to evacuate Dunkirk, in northern France, more precarious.

King Leopold refused to flee the country and was taken prisoner by the Nazis during their occupation, and confined to his palace. A Belgian underground army grew up during the occupation; its work including protecting the port of Antwerp, the most important provisioning point for Allied troops on the Continent, from destruction by the Germans.

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1941 The Bismarck sinks the Hood

On this day in 1941, Germany’s largest battleship, the Bismarck, sinks the pride of the British fleet, HMS Hood.

The Bismarck was the most modern of Germany’s battleships, a prize coveted by other nation’s navies, even while still in the blueprint stage (Hitler handed over a copy of its blueprints to Joseph Stalin as a concession during the days of the Hitler-Stalin neutrality pact). The HMS Hood, originally launched in 1918, was Britain’s largest battle cruiser (41,200 tons)-but also capable of achieving the relatively fast speed of 31 knots. The two met in the North Atlantic, northeast of Iceland, where two British cruisers had tracked down the Bismarck. Commanded by Admiral Gunther Lutjens, commander in chief of the German Fleet, the Bismarck sunk the Hood, resulting in the death of 1,500 of its crew; only three Brits survived.

During the engagement, the Bismarck‘s fuel tank was damaged. Lutjens tried to make for the French coast, but was sighted again only three days later. Torpedoed to the point of incapacity, the Bismarck was finally sunk by a ring of British war ships. Admiral Lutjens was one of the 2,300 German casualties.

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