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This Week in World War II 75 Years Ago

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Siege of Malta, World War II

By: Phil Kohn. Dedicated to the memory of his father, GM3 Walter Kohn, U.S. Navy Armed Guard, USNR, and all men and women who have answered the country’s call in time of need. Phil can be contacted at ww2remembered@yahoo.com.

The Lend-Lease Bill championed by President Roosevelt — whereby the U.S. would provide food, oil and other needed war materiel to nations fighting the Axis in return for leases on naval and military bases — is introduced to Congress on January 10, 1941, amid much opposition. Among prominent and outspoken opponents are former ambassador to England Joseph P. Kennedy and renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh.

On January 11, in the Mediterranean, the British Royal Navy light cruisers HMS Southampton and HMS Gloucester depart Malta for Gibraltar. An attack by the Luftwaffe sinks Southampton with a loss of 81 sailors, and damages Gloucester. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler issues “Directive 22,” which outlines his plans for limiting British gains in the Mediterranean. It includes an order establishing the Afrika Korps.

Malta-based British aircraft attack airfields in Catania, Italy, on the east coast of Sicily, on January 12 to prevent German and Italian planes from attacking Malta while temporary repairs are being made to the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, damaged in an air attack on January 7th while the vessel was at sea off Malta, sailing for Greece.

On January 13, planes of the German Luftwaffe drop incendiary bombs on Plymouth, England. Later that night, RAF bombers attack the German U-boat (submarine) base at Lorient, in Occupied France.

In Athens, Greece, on January 14 British Middle East Commander Gen. Archibald Wavell and Air Marshal Arthur Longmore meet with the Greek prime minister, Ioannis Metaxas, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Armed Forces, Gen. Alexandros Papagos. The Greeks ask for nine divisions and a substantial air component to be sent to support their forces. The Greeks have the equivalent of 13 divisions facing a larger Italian force in Albania and four facing the Bulgarians. Metaxas and Papagos point out that the Germans, as well, have 12 divisions in Romania and still more in Bulgaria. To meet such a force, Wavell is able to offer only a small contribution now, but promises more later.

With Allied Commonwealth forces pushing the Italians in East Africa, Emperor Haile Selassie returns to Ethiopia from exile in England, crossing from Sudan on January 15. That evening, in Europe, a force of 76 British bombers attacks Wilhelmshaven, Germany.

On January 16, despite British efforts to curtail attacks on Malta, a force of about 80 German Stuka dive-bombers attacks the under-repair aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious at Valletta. Although 10 of the German planes are shot down, the remainder get through and score many hits. The cruiser HMS Perth is also damaged, and the harbor facilities are left in a shambles.

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