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This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago


Personnel aboard the USS Kearny were the first American casualties of World War II. The ship was attacked on October 17, 1941. Click to enlarge.

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

In the North Atlantic on October 17, 1941, four U.S. destroyers from Iceland come to the aid of a British convoy under attack by a German submarine wolfpack. One of the destroyers, USS Kearny, is torpedoed and damaged by German submarine U-568, killing 11 sailors and injuring 22. These are the first U.S. military casualties of the war.

On October 18, the first Red Army troops from Siberia arrive to reinforce the defenses of Moscow. Stalin has been assured by the Japanese that they will honor the treaty between the two countries and not attack from the East. In Tokyo, Soviet spy Richard Sorge, working undercover as a German journalist, is arrested on charges of espionage. (In May, Sorge had alerted Moscow of Germany’s impending attack on the Soviet Union, but Stalin had disbelieved him.) Under torture, Sorge confesses to his activities and is hung by the Japanese in 1944.

The Soviet government on October 19 officially declares Moscow “in a state of siege;” martial law is declared throughout the city. In Luxembourg, German occupation authorities announce that the capital city — also Luxembourg — is “Judenrein” (cleansed of Jews).

German forces capture Borodino, 60 miles from Moscow, on October 20. At Nantes, in western France, Lt. Col. Fritz Hotz, the German commander of the area, is killed by French Resistance fighters. The Germans randomly take 50 hostages and shoot them in reprisal. Beginning this evening and into the next day, German soldiers and local collaborationist Serbian auxiliaries massacre over 2,750 civilian male Serbs between the ages of 16 and 60 at Kragujevac, in Nazi-occupied Serbia.

On October 21, New Zealand troops land in Egypt and head toward Ft. Capuzzo in Italian Libya near the Egyptian border. In the Soviet Union, Stalin appoints Gen. Georgy Zhukov commander of all military forces in the Moscow area.

In Odessa, Ukraine, a delayed bomb — planted by the Soviets a week earlier — explodes on October 22 at Romanian Army headquarters, killing 67, including the Romanian commanding general. Blaming the local Jewish population for the bombing, the Romanian Army begins reprisals. Over the next two days, between 25,000 and 34,000 Jews are executed.

In Africa, on October 23, there is heavy fighting in the Libyan desert near Tobruk. In the Soviet Union, Stalin reorganizes the Red Army, making Gen. Zhukov responsible for the northern part of the Eastern Front and Gen. Semyon Timoshenko responsible for the southern portion. In Berlin, the government bans the emigration of Jews from Germany.

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