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Sixty Years Ago: December 1940-January 1941

On December 18, 1940, Adolf Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 21, authorizing final preparations for the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The order was also the death warrant for the Third Reich. Four years later, as Red Army tanks and artillery battered Berlin to rubble, Hitler took his own life beneath the smoldering ruins.

In repudiation of the nonaggression pact his government had signed with the Communists, Hitler initially scheduled the invasion for May 15, 1941. Delayed for five weeks, German troops crossed the Russian frontier on June 22. Only nine copies of Führer Directive No. 21 were printed, and in it Hitler declared that the Wehrmacht “must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign.”

Overconfident following their lightning victories in the West, many in the German high command were certain that Operation Barbarossa would be successfully concluded in a matter of weeks. One notable exception was the brilliant panzer commander General Heinz Guderian, who had led German armored units in their drive across France to the English Channel the previous spring. “When they spread out a map of Russia before me, I could scarcely believe my eyes,” he later said. “I made no attempt to conceal my disappointment and disgust.”

Enough winter clothing was ordered to outfit only about 20 percent of the German soldiers committed to the Eastern offensive. A year after Hitler’s order, the German army was stalled before Moscow. By the time the war ended, the Germans had tasted defeat at the turning point of Stalingrad, the epic tank battle at Kursk and the failure of the siege of Leningrad. Their bitter retreat was reminiscent of Napoleon’s, 130 years before.

Twenty million Soviet civilians and soldiers perished in the Great Patriotic War, while German losses were catastrophic as well. In the end, Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, or “living space,” in the East required him to fight a two-front war that doomed the Nazis.

Elsewhere in the conflict, the Italians suffered humiliation in North Africa, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and German Luftwaffe raided one another’s cities and the United States moved closer to overt support of Great Britain.

December 1940

6 Luftwaffe Fliegerkorps X is ordered to bases in Sicily to intensify the bombing of the island fortress of Malta.

9-10 The British take 40,000 prisoners in desert victories over the Italians at Nibeiwa and Sidi Barrani.

12-13 Luftwaffe bombers strike Sheffield, England.

13 World War I hero and premier of Vichy France Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain dismisses his deputy, the traitor Pierre Laval.

16-17 RAF planes bomb Mannheim, Germany.

20 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints a defense board headed by William S. Knudsen, a leading industrialist, to assist in U.S. defense preparations and aid to Great Britain.

23 Anthony Eden is named British foreign secretary. He succeeds Lord Halifax, who assumes the office of ambassador to the United States.

29 Roosevelt delivers his “Arsenal of Democracy” speech in support of Lend-Lease.

29-30 The Luftwaffe rains incendiary bombs on London.

January 1941

1-4 For three straight nights, British bombers attack Bremen, Germany.

6 The British capture 30,000 Italians with the fall of the Libyan city of Bardia.

10 After much political wrangling between isolationists and interventionists, the U.S. Congress begins its debate on the Lend-Lease Bill.

16 President Roosevelt requests $350 million from Congress for the building of 200 merchant ships.

22 The Italian garrison at Tobruk surrenders to the British.

29 Greek dictator Joannes Metaxas, a German sympathizer who nevertheless resisted an Italian invasion of his country, dies suddenly.

Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II