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This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago

The U.S. seized the French ocean liner SS Normandie, docked in New York, at the outset of American entry into World War II. 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

On December 12, 1941, Adolf Hitler holds a meeting with leaders of the Nazi party at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Attendee Joseph Goebbels notes in his diary: “With respect of the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. . .  the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.” Hungary and Romania declare war on the U.S.; the U.S. reciprocates. British India declares war on Japan. The Japanese occupy Legazpi, the capital of Albay Province, on Luzon, the Philippines. In Malaya, the Japanese push Indian troops out of Jitra; Japanese planes bomb Penang, killing 600. In New York City, the U.S. seizes the docked French ocean liner SS Normandie. In Germany, Jews are forbidden to use public telephones.

In Hong Kong (a British Crown Colony leased from China), British and Canadian forces, pressured by attacking Japanese, on December 13 withdraw from the mainland portion of the territory to Hong Kong Island. Elsewhere, the Japanese continue their advance through Malaya and strengthen their positions in the northern Philippines. In the Mediterranean, British and Dutch warships attack an Italian flotilla off Cape Bon, Tunisia. Two Italian cruisers are sunk, with the loss of 900 crewmen.

The British light cruiser HMS Galatea is sunk on December 14 by German sub U-557 in the Mediterranean off Alexandria, Egypt. The Japanese continue their advance through Malaya.

December 15 sees action in the North African desert. In a clash at Gazala, Libya, Rommel’s Panzergruppe Afrika is pushed back from its defensive line by British, Indian, New Zealand and Polish forces of the British Eighth Army. On the Eastern Front, Soviet troops retake Klin, 53 miles northwest of Moscow. From today through December 27, Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen (task forces) and Latvian auxiliary police and militia will massacre 2,731 Jews and 23 communists outside of Liepāja, Latvia.

On December 16, Rommel orders his forces to withdraw all the way back to El Agheila, in far western Cyrenaica, Libya, which is from where his offensive started in March. He will wait there for more men and tanks. In southeast Asia, the Japanese invade British-controlled northern Borneo (the Dutch control the southern portion of the island). Small British and Dutch military units there set fire to oil-processing and storage facilities as they withdraw. In Malaya, a second wave of Japanese invasions occurs, forcing the British garrison at Penang, on the northwest coast, to withdraw and move southward toward Singapore. In Russia, with the German attack on Moscow halted in its tracks, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock is relieved as commander of German Army Group Center because of “health problems.” Hitler orders German troops on the Eastern Front to mount “fanatical resistance,” and he forbids any retreats from around Moscow.

Field Marshal Günther von Kluge takes command of Army Group Center on December 17, replacing von Bock. On Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the Battle of Sevastopol begins. In Washington, Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz is named Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, replacing Adm. Husband Kimmel, who was removed from command in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. In the central Atlantic, the British light cruiser HMS Dunedin is torpedoed and sunk by German sub U-124. Off the coast of Libya, an Italian flotilla exchanges fire with British warships in the Gulf of Sidra, southeast of Malta. Neither side suffers more than minimal damage. Australian and Dutch troops occupy Portuguese Timor in the East Indies. Dutch planes sink the Japanese destroyer Shinonome off Sarawak, Borneo.

Japanese troops on December 18 land on Hong Kong Island, defended by the significantly outnumbered British and Canadian garrison. In the U.S., Congress passes the War Powers Act, which authorizes the president, among other things, to censor international mail, cable, radio and other means of communication. In the U.K., Parliament passes the National Service Act, which makes every male under 50 and every adult, unmarried woman under 30 liable for national service of some sort.

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