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A brief guide to the Second World War 1941

Updated on November 5, 2012
The Battle for Tobruk
The Battle for Tobruk | Source

The second world war was one of the most momentous periods in modern (history) yet most of us struggle to know all those countries involved and where the war started.

This series attempts to highlight the major incidents and battles of the war- it is not a comprehensive guide covering everything- hoepfully it is enough to give the reader a flavour of what happenned in those momentous years.

Hitler assists the Italians -1941

The Italians had invaded Greece in October 1940 but were losing the battle and were to be reinforced in both Greece and Africa by German troops. Control of the central part of the Mediterranean was secured from the Allies by German aircraft and Rommel and what was the fore runner of the Afrika Corps was sent to Tripoli. He attacked the British on 30th March 1941 catching the British by surprise and by mid April all Allied gains In Cyrenaica with the exception of Tobruk were lost- The garrison at Tobruk remained an isolated embarrassment.

The situation in Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia was neutral but a benevolent towards the German army especially after the agreement of 25th March 1941 when Hitler agreed not to use Yugoslav railways if he moved troops through the country. Two days later a coup in Yugoslavia placed the young King Peter on the throne and the German armies were turned from their invasion of Greece to invade Yugoslavia which they did and gained power within a week. The country was cut up (perhaps into portions that we currently recognise) Macedonia went to Bulgaria; Croatia was under Italian protection and Serbia under German rule. The Germans also took Slovenia and obtained control of the railway to Trieste and now had full permission to use the Yugoslav railways

The German attack on Greece

The German forces broke through the Monastir gap between the Greek army in Albania and Salonika and advanced with only limited resistance. By the time the British arrived Yugoslavia had collapsed and Greece was near defeat. It was another heavy loss for the allies who lost men and heavy machinery.

Success in Abyssinia

The Italian forces in Abyssinia were heavily defeated and the Emperor Haile Selassie returned home on 5th May 1941 with the last Italian troops surrendering on 19th May, thus freeing up a large amount of Allied forces.

Rudolph Hess on trial at Nurembourg
Rudolph Hess on trial at Nurembourg | Source

Rudolph Hess lands in Scotland

On 10th May 1941 Rudolph Hess parachuted into Scotland confident that peace could be made with anti Churchill supporters- his confidence was misplaced and it was a bit of a nine day wonder, in the news and then secreted as a prisoner

The Battle for Crete

Despite large amounts of allied forces and domination of the sea by the Royal Navy the Germans took Crete because of superior air power. The British had few fighters in Crete and then withdrew then the day of the attack, launching defence from bases in Egypt- pilots covering 300 miles each way to defend Crete. The German navy did not get through with one convoy suffering heavy losses and the second one turning back. However the dominant air power meant that there were heavy losses to the allied forces and Crete was lost with only 18,000 of the 31,000 troops evacuated. Naval losses were high in ships and control of the Aegean.

Control of Iraq

During May Iraqi troops again attacked British air bases but by early June the British recovered control and overthrew the rebel government

Control of Syria

Syria was a target because the Vichy government had given the Germans permission to use its air bases on its attacks on Greece and Crete. The Free French under General De Gaulle expected the French troops to give up quickly, they did not and heavy fighting went on until the end of June 1941. The British promised Syria independence after the war even thought it was a French held territory.

Battle Axe

This was a battle designed to relieve Tobruk and to drive Rommel out, beginning on 15th June 1941 and ending only three days later with high British losses.

Germans inspecting Russian planes. The plane in the front is Yakovlev UT-1 and the one in the back is Polikarpov I-16
Germans inspecting Russian planes. The plane in the front is Yakovlev UT-1 and the one in the back is Polikarpov I-16 | Source

German invasion of Soviet Russia- operation Barbarossa

This took place on 22nd June 1941 whether as a result of a long term or improvised plan has never been clearly understood. It is believed that the Germans believed the war would be over in weeks owing to their superior army and a country where the economy was in chaos and ruled by a communist dictator whom the people hated. The Russians had more men and more tanks and aircraft although many were of an obsolete design- what they had was space- the country was much larger than any area that the Germans had attacked previously and did not have well maintained roads to follow. The attack took place before the declaration of war had been given to the Russian government. Initial successes in driving the soviet troops back hid the fact that the soviet troops were growing stronger and becoming more organised, Stalin had been shocked into action and was taking command. The Germans needed to make decisions to centre the attack in one area but these decisions were not made; tanks were in short supply and valuable summer time was lost

Churchill announced in parliament that the allies supported Soviet Russia and that their joint desire was to get rid of the Nazi forces. In November Lend Lease was extended to the Soviets as it became clear to the Americans that they were becoming unable to finance the attack against Germany.

The Atlantic Charter

Chamberlain and Roosevelt had the first of their nine meetings in a warship at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland.. This was not really a treaty or charter, more of a press release but it made sure that the world knew that Britain and in the future America was fighting for the rights of others to be left alone in peace.

Aid for Russia September 1941

In September 1941 Lord Beaverbrook went to Russia with the ambassador Harriman from the USA; who had little to offer the Russians. Beaverbrook agreed that some supplies that were to be sent to Britain should go to Russia fulfilling some of Stalin’s demands.

Soviet troops parade in Red Square before being sent to the front line
Soviet troops parade in Red Square before being sent to the front line | Source

The battle For Russia

The German attack was running out of steam and out of supplies, they had not prepared for a long war. By November the city of Leningrad was surrounded and was under siege. The Germans took over a million Russian prisoners (although this figure may be exaggerated) and affected industry so much that by the end of 1941 Soviet production was less than 50% of the previous year. The German power in Russia was illusory; the Russians had followed a scorched earth policy during their retreat destroying property, bridges and even burning supplies of food. The Soviets managed to remove the industry from the Ukraine east, before the area was overrun by the Germans who treated the Russian inhabitants cruelly. Early in November 1941 the snow started to fall and motorised vehicles became stuck in frozen mud and the German soldiers kitted out for a summer battle suffered in the cold with some freezing to death at their posts, whilst supplies were delayed or destroyed by Russian Partisans who sabotaged the railways. By the end of November German victories ceased as they got to the end of their supplies and resources. From 5th December 1941 the elite Russian troops who had been saved for the defence of Moscow set out against the Germans and the tide turned away from Russian defeat to victory.

The British offensive in North Africa

The offensive which was started to relieve the garrison at Tobruk began on 18th November 1941. The offensive was a series of tank and anti-tank manoeuvres with the Allies losing large amounts of tanks. Rommel himself, whilst fighting deep into the allies lines was nearly kidnapped. The Germans retreated in order to preserve forces and Tobruk was relieved. The victory had cost a large amount of equipment and at least 2,500 men killed, just to retake land that had been held the previous year.

H.M.S. Ark Royal
H.M.S. Ark Royal | Source

Increased German U Boat activity in the Mediterranean

The Ark Royal was torpedoed by a German U Boat in November 1941 as was H.M.S. Barham and two more battleships were destroyed by Italian frogmen whilst moored in Alexandria harbour. The Mediterranean fleet was left with two light cruisers and one anti-aircraft cruiser. Supplies could not be got through to the Island of Malta which was blockaded.

Japanese in French Indo-China

The Japanese extended their control of French Indo China and were on the borders of Siam (Thailand) nearly reaching the Island of Singapore. Rather than concentrating on the European situation Roosevelt took action against this aggression in Asia by freezing Japanese assets in America and by refusing to supply them with oil. They were followed by the British and the Dutch colonies. As a result of this action nearly 75 %of foreign trade with Japan was cut and 90% of her oil supply was now not available. How could Japan remain neutral? The country would need to take steps to regain these supplies in order to be viable again. Negotiations were taking place with Japan offering concessions in Indo China but the Americans demanded that Japan severe her treaty with Germany. However at this point the Germans realised that they stood a chance of defeating the Allies if the Americans were fighting the Japanese in the Far East. As a result the Germans declared that should the Japanese be at war with the Americans then they would follow it with a declaration of war . It was an offer that the Japanese did not want to refuse- as they saw potential of success against a weakened American force.

Pearl Harbour marine barracks during the attack
Pearl Harbour marine barracks during the attack | Source

Pearl Harbour

The American fleet was stationed at Pearl Harbour, which was by all modern calculations beyond the reach of the Japanese forces. On 7th December 1941, the Japanese using planes from aircraft carriers from the fleet commanded by Admiral Yamamoto, attacked Pearl Harbour. There were a number of clues that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbour but they were either ignored or mis -read. The result was an attack that took place on a Sunday morning at 8am and lasted for under two hours. Japanese losses amounted to 29 aircraft, American losses were four battleships sunk, though only 1 was a total loss, four battle ships severely damaged ; 10 other warships were sunk or put out of action, 349 American aircraft were destroyed or damaged and 3581 American servicemen and 103 civilians were killed or injured.

Of this battle an English Historian Guy Wint wrote

“One day the Japanese triumph at Pearl Harbour will be regarded in a different light from that in which it was inevitably seen by the opposite side at the time; the memory of treachery will fade: it will stand out as a most memorable feat of arms!”.

I wonder if that time has yet come?

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour the Americans declared war on Japan as did the rest of the Allies and also China. The Japanese declaration was followed by the declaration of war on the United States by Germany and Italy. By the end of 1941 it was no longer a European war; the whole world was at war.

From the film of Pearl Harbour


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      JKenny- thanks for the visit- ave heard the argument about the postponement costing victory in the Russian war- but even if the Germans had beaten Russia- the country is so vast that they could never have held it. ( I think)

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Great hub. I remember reading about Mussolini's failed invasion of Greece. He basically held ambitions of forging a new Roman Empire and desired to attack the old enemy, Greece. But he forgot that he had one of the weakest armies in Europe. Apparently Hitler's assistance caused him to postpone Operation Barbarossa by a month, with some saying that it ultimately cost him the war in the East. Although, personally I think that's going a bit too far.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      joanveronica- your comment is exactly why I wrote this hub- I had a vague idea of what happenned and when but not really that clear- I cant cover everything but I think it gives the bones of the main events

      Thanks for the visit and the vote

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Another wonderful Hub! I had read about most of this, but in a disjointed way, now it makes more sense! Please continue to write these overviews! Voted Up, etc. (I wrote another comment, but the computer did something strange, and it seems to have been erased).