Category Archives: Today in History

1876 Erich Raeder, commander in chief of the German navy, is born on this day


On this day in 1876, Erich Raeder, proponent of an aggressive naval strategy and the man who convinced Adolf Hitler to invade Norway, is born.

Raeder began his career by violating the terms of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles, advocating the construction of submarines in 1928 to strengthen the German navy. He was made grand admiral during World War II and executed the invasion of Norway and Denmark. He fell out with Hitler over strategy and was ultimately removed from his command. He would end his career before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Sentenced to life imprisonment for “instigation of the navy to violate the rules of war,” he was released because of ill health in 1955.

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1942 Germans begin “Baedeker Raids” on England

On this day in 1942, in retaliation for the British raid on Lubeck, German bombers strike Exeter and later Bath, Norwick, York, and other “medieval-city centres.” Almost 1,000 English civilians are killed in the bombing attacks nicknamed “Baedeker Raids.”

On March 28 of the same year, 234 British bombers struck the German port of Lubeck, an industrial town of only “moderate importance.” The attack was ordered (according to Sir Arthur Harris, head of British Bomber Command) as more of a morale booster for British flyers than anything else, but the destruction wreaked on Lubeck was significant: Two thousand buildings were totaled, 312 German civilians were killed, and 15,000 Germans were left homeless.

As an act of reprisal, the Germans attacked cathedral cities of great historical significance. The 15th-century Guildhall, in York, as an example, was destroyed. The Germans called their air attacks “Baedeker Raids,” named for the German publishing company famous for guidebooks popular with tourists. The Luftwaffe vowed to bomb every building in Britain that the Baedeker guide had awarded “three stars.”

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1945 Hitler admits defeat

On this day in 1945, Adolf Hitler, learning from one of his generals that no German defense was offered to the Russian assault at Eberswalde, admits to all in his underground bunker that the war is lost and that suicide is his only recourse. Almost as confirmation of Hitler’s assessment, a Soviet mechanized corps reaches Treuenbrietzen, 40 miles southwest of Berlin, liberates a POW camp and releases, among others, Norwegian Commander in Chief Otto Ruge.

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1941 “The Desert Fox” recaptures Libya

 

On this day in 1941, German Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox,” resumes his advance into Cyrenaica, modern-day Libya, signaling the beginning of what nine days later will become the recapture of Libya by the Axis forces.

Early Italian successes in East Africa, which included occupying parts of Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland, were soon reversed after British offensives, led by British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, resulted in heavy Italian casualties and forced the Italians to retreat into Libya. But Axis control of the area was salvaged by the appearance of Rommel and the Afrika Korps, sent to East Africa by the German High Command to bail their Italian ally out.

On the verge of capturing Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Britain’s forces were suddenly depleted when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill transferred British troops to Greece. Seizing the opportunity of a weakened British force, Rommel struck quickly, despite orders to remain still for two months. With 50 tanks and two fresh Italian divisions, Rommel forced the British to begin a retreat into Egypt.

Operation Battleaxe, the counteroffensive by British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, resulted in little more than the loss of large numbers of British tanks to German 88mm anti-tank guns, as well as Wavell’s ultimately being transferred from North Africa to India.

Rommel, known for his trademark goggles, which he pilfered from a British general’s command vehicle, may have had some help in defeating his British counterpart. He was known to carry with him a book called Generals and Generalship, written by Archibald Wavell.

Rommel was portrayed by James Mason in the 1953 film The Desert Rats and by Christopher Plummer in 1967’s Night of the Generals. Wavell was portrayed by Patrick Magee in the 1981 TV movie Churchill and the Generals.

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1940 Germany’s Atlantis launches

On this day, the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis sets off on a mission to catch and sink Allied merchant ships.

By the time the Atlantis set sail from Germany, the Allies had already lost more than 750,000 tons worth of shipping, the direct result of German submarine attacks. They had also lost another 281,000 tons because of mines, and 36,000 tons as the result of German air raids. The Germans had lost just eighteen submarines.

The Atlantis had been a merchant ship itself, but was converted to a commerce raider with six 5.9-inch guns, 93 mines ready to plant, and two aircraft fit for spying out Allied ships to sink. The Atlantis donned various disguises in order to integrate itself into any shipping milieu inconspicuously.

Commanded by Capt. Bernhard Rogge, the Atlantis roamed the Atlantic and Indian oceans. She sank a total of 22 merchant ships (146,000 tons in all) and proved a terror to the British Royal Navy. The Atlantis‘s career finally came to an end on November 22, 1941, when it was sunk by the British cruiser Devonshire as the German marauder was refueling a U-boat.

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1945 Germans launch last of their V-2s

On this day, in a last-ditch effort to deploy their remaining V-2 missiles against the Allies, the Germans launch their long-range rockets from their only remaining launch site, in the Netherlands. Almost 200 civilians in England and Belgium were added to the V-2 casualty toll.

German scientists had been working on the development of a long-range missile since the 1930s. In October 3, 1942, victory was achieved with the successful trial launch of the V-2, a 12-ton rocket capable of carrying a one-ton warhead. The missile, fired from Peenemunde, an island off Germany’s Baltic coast, traveled 118 miles in that first test.

The brainchild of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the V-2 was unique in several ways. First, it was virtually impossible to intercept. Upon launching, the missile rises six miles vertically; it then proceeds on an arced course, cutting off its own fuel according to the range desired. The missile then tips over and falls on its target at a speed of almost 4,000 mph. It hits with such force that the missile burrows itself into the ground several feet before exploding. The V-2 had the potential of flying a distance of 200 miles, and the launch pads were portable, making them impossible to detect before firing.

The first launches as part of an offensive occurred on September 6, 1944, when two missiles were fired at Paris. On September 8, two more were fired at England, which would be followed by over 1,100 more during the next six months. On March 27, 1945, taking advantage of their one remaining V-2 launch site, near The Hague, the Germans fired their V-2s for the last time. At 7 a.m., London awoke to a blast-one of the bombs had landed on a block of flats at Valance Road, killing 134 people. Twenty-seven Belgian civilians were killed in Antwerp when another of the rockets landed there. And that afternoon, one more V-2 landed in Kent, England, causing the very last British civilian casualty of the war.

By the end of the war, more than 2,700 Brits had died because of the rocket attacks, as well as another 4,483 deaths in Belgium. After the war, both the United States and the Soviet Union captured samples of the rockets for reproduction. Having proved so extraordinarily deadly during the war, the V-2 became the precursor of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) of the postwar era.

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1941 Yugoslavia joins the Axis

On this day, Yugoslavia, despite an early declaration of neutrality, signs the Tripartite Pact, forming an alliance with Axis powers Germany, Italy, and Japan.

A unified nation of Yugoslavia, an uneasy federation of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, was a response to the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires at the close of World War I, both of which had previously contained parts of what became Yugoslavia. A constitutional monarchy, Yugoslavia built friendships with France and Czechoslovakia during the years between the world wars. With the outbreak of World War II, and the Anschluss (“union”) between Austria and Germany, pressure was placed on Yugoslavia to more closely ally itself Germany, despite Yugoslavia’s declared neutrality. But fear of an invasion like that suffered by France pushed Yugoslavia into signing a “Friendship Treaty”—something short of a formal political alliance—on December 11, 1940.

With the war spreading to the Balkans after the invasion of Greece by Italy, it was important to Hitler that the Axis powers have an ally in the region that would act as a bulwark against Allied encroachment on Axis territory. Meeting on February 14, 1941, Adolf Hitler proved unable to persuade Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic to formally join the Axis. The next day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contacted the Yugoslav regent, Prince Paul, in an effort to encourage him to remain firm in resisting further German blandishments. It was essential to the Allies that Yugoslavia cooperate with Anglo-Greek forces in fending off an Axis conquest of Greece.

But with King Boris of Bulgaria caving into Germany, Prince Paul felt the heat of the Nazis, and on March 20 he asked the Yugoslav Cabinet for their cooperation in allowing the Germans access to Greece through Yugoslavia. The Cabinet balked, and four ministers resigned in protest at the suggestion. This gesture failed to prevent Prime Minister Cvetkovic from finally signing the Tripartite Pact in Vienna on March 25, 1941.

Within two days, the Cvetkovic government was overthrown by a unified front of peasants, the church, unions, and the military—an angry response to the alliance with Germany. Prince Paul was thrown from his throne in favor of his son, King Peter, only 17 years old. The new government, led by Air Force Gen. Dusan Simovic, immediately renounced the Tripartite Pact. In less than two weeks, Germany invaded the nation and occupied it by force.

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