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Sixty Years Ago: January-February 1941

For the British in North Africa, victory followed victory during the winter of 1940-41. In roughly eight weeks of fighting, Commonwealth forces had thrown the Italians out of Egypt and chased them across Libya.

In the process, the British had captured 130,000 prisoners and more than 1,400 guns and tanks. They had swept over 500 miles of arid desert. But even as they savored their victories, the fortunes of war were about to change for Great Britain.

On February 7, 1941, the Italians were defeated at Beda Fomm by the British, who took 20,000 prisoners and seized control of the entire province of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya. Just five days later, Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel arrived in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Not far behind were two German divisions, the vanguard of the Afrika Korps.

Although young, Rommel had gained a reputation as a first-rate field commander years before. He had already distinguished himself in combat during World War I, but his fame began to grow in the spring of 1940 when Adolf Hitler granted his request for a panzer division to command in the upcoming campaign against France. Nicknamed the “Ghost Division,” Rommel’s 7th Panzer epitomized the success of the German blitzkrieg as his armored column crossed the Meuse River and dashed to the English Channel.

Soon after arriving in Africa, Rommel disregarded orders to maintain a defensive posture and launched a bold attack on March 31. In two weeks, he sent the British reeling back to the Egyptian frontier. Although continually plagued by shortages of men and equipment, Rommel kept the British off balance for more than a year and a half. Eventually, his Afrika Korps was defeated at El Alamein in October 1942, but Rommel conducted a skillful fighting withdrawal to Tunisia.

Recalled to Germany before the final Allied victory in North Africa, Rommel was given command of Army Group B, which would oppose the Allied landings on D-Day. On July 17, 1944, his car was strafed by a British fighter, and he was critically injured. While Rommel was in the hospital, the July 20 attempt to assassinate Hitler failed. The hero of North Africa was implicated and offered the choice of suicide or public trial and execution. On October 14, he ended his life with poison. He was buried with full military honors.

Elsewhere, the United States was fortifying its Pacific outposts, while the German navy tried to achieve victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

January 1941

2 President Franklin D. Roosevelt announces his plan to build a “bridge of ships” to Europe. The specially designed vessels are dubbed Liberty ships.

9 The U.S. transport ship William A. Burrows arrives at Wake Island with workmen to construct a naval air station.

10 Advancing Greek soldiers capture Klisura in Italian-held Albania.

19 British troops invade the Italian colony of Eritrea.

22 The British capture the fortified city of Tobruk, Libya.

30 Germany declares that the ships of any nation bringing aid to a beleaguered Great Britain are subject to U-boat attack.

February 1941

1 Admiral Husband E. Kimmel assumes command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet after Admiral James O. Richardson is relieved of duty by Roosevelt.

6 Australian forces capture the Libyan city of Benghazi.

9 The Royal Navy bombards the Italian city of Genoa.

14 President Roosevelt greets new Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura at the White House.

18 South African forces capture the Kenyan town of Mega from the Italians.

19 German U-boat ace Gunther Prien departs Lorient, France, on his final voyage. Prien dies when his U-47 is sunk by the British destroyer Wolverine on March 6.

20 British and German forces encounter each other for the first time in North Africa.

23 German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau return safely to the French port of Brest after sailing 17,800 miles in 60 days, sinking 21 Allied merchant ships and taking another as a prize.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II