World War II Day by Day: May 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.

1-17 May

Middle East, Iraq

Iraqi forces, totaling four divisions, commence attacks on British troops, which intensify in the following days. British forces are soon bolstered by reinforcements. Germany supports the Iraqis by launching air attacks.

3-19 May

Africa, Ethiopia

At the Battle of Amba Alagi in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, the Italians make their last major stand against the Allies in defense of their East African empire. The surrender of the Duke of Aosta and 7000 troops heralds an Allied victory in East Africa. Some 230, 000 Italians have been killed or captured. The Allied victory safeguards the Suez Canal from any potential threat from East Africa and also secures control of the Red Sea for Allied shipping.

5 May

Politics, Ethiopia

Emperor Haile Selassie returns to Ethiopia after being exiled for five years by the Italians.

6-12 May

Sea War, Mediterranean

Operation Tiger, the first Gibraltar-to-Egypt convoy for many months, transports supplies intended for a British desert offensive. Two convoys also sail from Egypt to Gibraltar. The entire Mediterranean Fleet supports the convoy of five transports. They suffer attacks from Italian aircraft on the 8th. One transport, carrying 57 tanks, sinks after striking a mine. The convoy, however, delivers 238 tanks and 43 Hurricane fighters.

10 May

Politics, Britain

Rudolf Hess, deputy leader of Germany, flies to Scotland on a strange mission to ask Britain to allow Germany a ‘free hand’ in Europe in return for the Nazis leaving the British Empire intact. Hess flies to Scotland to see the Duke of Hamilton, whom he believes to be the leader of the antiwar party in Britain. Germany does not authorize his actions and the British imprison him. Martin Bormann, national party organizer, replaces Hess and becomes a key confidant of Adolf Hitler.

10-11 May

Air War, Britain

In the climax to the ‘Blitz,’ London is attacked by 507 bombers. This will be the last major German air raid for three years. The aerial bombing of Britain now affects Liverpool, Bristol, Belfast, and several other cities. Since September 1940, 39,678 people have been killed and 46,119 injured by Luftwaffe raids. Civil defense, fire, police, and medical organizations help the population to cope with the attacks. Infrastructure is quickly repaired and shelters provide some protection for people. The population in general remains resilient in the face of the onslaught, despite the dislocation and the strains caused by the bombing.

15-16 May

Africa, Egypt

Operation Brevity, the first British operation against the Afrika Korps, attempts to throw the Axis forces back from the Egyptian Frontier. Halfaya Pass and Sollum are recaptured in the operation.

20-22 May

Mediterranean, Crete

German mountain troops en route to Crete
German mountain troops en route to Crete

A German force of 23,000 men, supported by 600 aircraft, attacks Crete. The German plan is to launch an airborne assault that can then be reinforced by a seaborne force. After preparatory air attacks, the Germans launch the first major airborne operation in history.

Paratroops come under attack while landing and meet determined resistance from the 42,000 British, New Zealand, Australian, and Greek troops stationed on the island. After an Allied battalion commander holding Máleme airfield mistakenly withdraws, the Germans gain a footing for reinforcements to be landed. While the Germans are able to land some troops by glider and parachute, around 5000 men are lost on vessels sailing from Greece that are intercepted by British ships. The British Mediterranean Fleet in Cretan waters is subjected to massive German air attacks on the 22nd, forcing it to withdraw its ships off northern Crete.

23-27 May

Sea War, Atlantic

Two British cruisers, Norfolk and Suffolk, assisted by radar, find the German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland.

However, the two Germans ships sink the battlecruiser Hood and damage the battleship Prince of Wales, which have been sent to engage them. Bismarck’s oil tanks, however, are hit and begin leaking. That night, a torpedo-bomber hits the ship but does little damage.

The German vessels make for Brest and the British lose radar contact for several hours. Aircraft from the carrier Ark Royal disable Bismarck’s steering with a torpedo on the 26th and other ships encircle her. Shelling from the battleships Rodney and King George V leave the Bismarck a shattered and burning wreck.

27 May

Politics, United States

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares that ‘an unlimited national emergency now exists.’ The government assumes wide-ranging powers over the economy and pledges to resist any act of aggression from Germany.

28-31 May

Mediterranean, Crete

British and Commonwealth soldiers just off the coast of Crete
British and Commonwealth soldiers just off the coast of Crete

Major General Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand commander responsible for defending Crete, decides the island cannot be saved as the German offensive intensifies. His forces are already retreating toward Sfakia on the south coast. British losses are 1742 men, plus 2011 dead and wounded at sea, while Germany has 3985 men killed or missing. The Royal Navy’s hazardous naval evacuation saves over 15,000 Allied troops but it loses nine ships in the process. Hitler suspends airborne operations on this scale in future after being informed of the devastating losses suffered by the paratroopers on Crete.

30 May

Politics, Iraq

Iraq signs an armistice with Britain whereby the country agrees not to assist the Axis nations. It also agrees not to obstruct the stationing of British forces in Iraq. A pro-Allied government is subsequently installed.

31 May

Air War, Eire

The Luftwaffe mistakenly bombs the capital, Dublin, killing 28 people.