World War II Day by Day: December 1941

The Allies continued fighting in North Africa, where they now faced General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and the war in the Balkans intensified with Germany conquering Yugoslavia and Greece. In the Mediterranean and Atlantic, the Allies fought a bitter campaign to defend their vital sea-lanes. The Axis powers’ declarations of war on the Soviet Union and the United States proved a critical turning point. Germany undertook a bitter campaign on the Eastern Front, while Japan had to safeguard its conquests in the Pacific. The Axis powers had to face the might of the Soviet Union and the United States.

6 December

Politics, Britain

Britain declares war on Finland, Hungary, and Romania.

7 December

Air War, Pacific

Japanese Zero fighters take off from the carrier Akagi to escort bombers bound for Pearl Habor
Japanese Zero fighters take off from the carrier Akagi to escort bombers bound for Pearl Habor

US Navy warships ablaze at Pearl Habor
US Navy warships ablaze at Pearl Habor

A Japanese force of six carriers launches two strikes on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii. Over 183 Japanese aircraft destroy six battleships and 188 aircraft, damage or sink 10 other vessels, and kill 2000 servicemen. The Japanese lose 29 aircraft. Five midget submarines are lost during a failed underwater attack. A planned third strike, intended to destroy totally the harbor and oil reserves, is not launched for fear that the valuable Japanese aircraft carriers might be attacked by the remainder of the US Pacific Fleet. Japan then declares war on the United States and the British Commonwealth. Despite information from Allied codebreaking operations, diplomatic sources, and other warnings, the raid is a tactical surprise. The failure to take appropriate precautions at the base, exacerbated by failures in interservice cooperation, is severely criticized. Despite the attack’s success, the US Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers are at sea and thus survive, while the fleet itself is quickly repaired. In the United States there is outrage over the attack and popular support for declaring war.

8 December

Eastern Front, Soviet Union

Adolf Hitler reluctantly agrees to issue Directive No. 39, which suspends the advance on Moscow for the duration of the winter. Army Group Center begins withdrawing to less exposed positions farther west, much to Hitler’s anger.

Politics, Allies

The United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, the Free French, several South American states, and Yugoslavia declare war on Japan in response to Pearl Harbor. China declares war on the Axis states.

Africa, Libya

General Erwin Rommel finally decides to withdraw his greatly-weakened units from around Tobruk. He falls back to Gazala by the 11th and then withdraws toward El Agheila on the 16th. The naval operation to sustain Tobruk, finally ended on the 10th, has evacuated 34,000 troops, 7000 casualties, and 7000 prisoners. Around 34,000 tons (34,544 metric tonnes) of supplies have been brought in. Some 27 Allied vessels have been sunk.

Pacific, Philippines

US troops in the Philippines prepare to meeting the Japanese invaders who landed on the islands in December 1941
US troops in the Philippines prepare to meeting the Japanese invaders who landed on the islands in December 1941

Japanese air attacks destroy 100 US aircraft at Clark Field, while a small force lands on Luzon Island to build an airfield. General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the 130,000-strong US and Filipino force in the Philippines, had intended that US aircraft would strike the invading Japanese force as his troops are not capable of stopping any landing. On the 10th, Luzon is invaded and Guam Island quickly falls. The Japanese forces also attack Wake Island and capture it on the 24th - after two invasion attempts.

Far East, Hong Kong

The Japanese 38th Division attacks the 12,000-strong Hong Kong garrison. After the garrison refuses the Japanese surrender demand on the 13th, it faces an intense attack followed by amphibious assaults. Hong Kong finally surrenders on the 25th.

Far East, Malaya/thailand

A Japanese force of 100,000 troops (the 5th and 18th Divisions), under General Tomoyuki Yamashita, begins landing on the northeast coast of Malaya and in Thailand after initial air attacks. Japanese units quickly move southward down both sides of the Malayan Peninsula. British forces are mainly stationed in the south, having anticipated an attack nearer Singapore. Japanese aircraft soon destroy most of the British aircraft. British reluctance to move into neutral Thailand before a Japanese attack enables General Yamashita to complete his landings. British forces finally advance into Thailand on the 10th but cannot halt the Japanese invasion. Well-equipped and experienced Japanese troops continue pushing southward, many by bicycle.

10 December

Sea War, Far East

About 90 Japanese aircraft sink the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse while they are attempting to intercept Japanese warships off Malaya. The attack claims 730 lives and leaves the Allies without a single battleship in the theater.

11 December

Politics, Axis

Germany and Italy declare war on the United States. The United States then declares war on the two Axis states. Romania declares war on the United States on the 12th. Germany’s declaration now confirms US participation in the European war.

13 December

Sea War, Mediterranean

Three British and one Dutch destroyer sink the Italian fast cruisers Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto di Giussano off Sicily. The Italian warships are carrying fuel to North Africa, and the attack claims 900 lives. Off Messina, the British submarine Urge sinks two Italian transports and damages the battleship Vittorio Veneto, which is carrying supplies to Libya.

14 December

Sea War, Atlantic

A British convoy of 32 ships, including the aircraft carrier Audacity, leaves Gibraltar for Britain. Audacity is the first British escort carrier introduced to provide Allied convoys with constant air cover by intercepting enemy bombers or U-boat ‘Wolf Packs’ when they are beyond the operational range of land-based aircraft. During the voyage, the convoy suffers attacks from 12 U-boats, but destroys five of them. The convoy loses Audacity, a destroyer, and two merchant ships, before it reaches Britain on the 23rd.

16 December

Far East, Borneo

The Japanese 19th Division makes three landings along the coast of Borneo. The British and Dutch forces defending the island set oil installations ablaze before retreating.

17 December

Politics, United States

Admiral Chester Nimitz replaces Admiral Husband Kimmel as commander of the Pacific Fleet following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7.

18-19 December

Sea War, Mediterranean

The Royal Navy’s Force K, operating from Malta, runs into a minefield off Tripoli. The cruiser Neptune and destroyer Kandahar are both sunk, while the remaining two cruisers are damaged. An Italian ‘human torpedo’ attack upon the British Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria, Egypt, sinks the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. However, both vessels sink upright in shallow waters and are eventually repaired. Nevertheless, these losses severely reduce British naval power in the Mediterranean.

The ‘human torpedo,’ a midget submarine driven by two operators, is designed to enter defended harbors and clamp its warhead onto a ship’s hull. The British soon develop their own version called ‘Chariot.’

19 December

Politics, Germany

Adolf Hitler appoints himself as commander-in-chief of the army following Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch’s resignation on the 7th. Brauchitsch resigned following a heart attack brought on by the strain of Soviet counterattacks. He was already under pressure to resign. His authority had been increasingly undermined by Hitler dominating strategic planning.

Hitler successfully keeps the Eastern Front armies in defensive positions during the winter. He develops an increasing skepticism toward the competence of his army commanders. Parallel to this is the expansion of the Waffen SS, seen by Hitler as being politically-reliable troops.

Politics, United States

An amendment to the Selective Service Act requires all men aged 18-64 to register, and for men aged 20-44 to be liable for conscription.

20-26 December

Politics, United States

Admiral Ernest King becomes chief of naval operations.

Pacific, Philippines

Japanese forces invade Mindanao, the most southerly island, and Jolo. The islands offer Japan the chance to gain naval and air bases. The main invasion of Luzon commences on the 22nd. General Douglas MacArthur decides not to defend Manila, the capital, but declares it an open city in order to withdraw his forces westward to the Bataan Peninsula.

22 December

Politics, Allies

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet at the Arcadia Conference, Washington. Talks between the respective political and military delegations reaffirm the ‘Germany First’ strategic priority and establish the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff to direct Allied military action. They also agree to build up US forces in Britain in preparation for future military action against Nazi Germany and in order to continue the aerial bombing of Nazi-occupied Europe.

26-28 December

Sea War, North Sea

Britain launches Operation Archery, a commando attack against Lofoten Island, off Norway. The first force of 260 troops succeeds in destroying a fish-oil plant. On December 27, a second landing by a further 600 troops successfully attacks fish-oil plants and radio facilities. The raids reinforce Hitler’s fears that Britain is planning to invade the whole of Norway.

27 December

Politics, Britain

A German supply column smashed by the Soviets
A German supply column smashed by the Soviets

General Sir Henry Pownall replaces Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke- Popham as Commander-in-Chief Far East.