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This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago

Scene from the Battle of Kharkiv, World War II, were there was fierce fighting between the Germans and the Russians. Click to enlarge. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

As of February 13, 1942, the Japanese control Borneo, Sarawak and the Celebes Islands in the East Indies. In Europe, the British submarine HMS Tempest is depth-charged and sunk by the Italian torpedo boat Circe in the Gulf of Taranto, off southern Italy.

On the Eastern Front, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, falls to the Red Army on February 14. A ferocious battle breaks out between Soviet and German troops in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The Soviet Union mobilizes all able-bodied males between the ages of 16 and 65. The majority of resistance groups in Occupied Poland band together to form the “Home Army (Armia Krajowa),” that is loyal to the Polish Government-in-Exile in England. In London, RAF Bomber Command issues its controversial “Area Bombing Directive” that says civilian areas will be legitimate targets in future air raids. In Asia, the Sarawakian vessel SS Vyner Brooke, carrying 65 Australian Army nurses and several hundred wounded British and Australian soldiers — as well as civilian men, women and children — away from Singapore, is bombed and sunk by Japanese planes. Over the course of the next day, about 100 survivors, including 22 nurses, make it to Japanese-held Bangka Island in the Dutch East Indies. There, on February 16, Japanese soldiers shoot the walking wounded, machine-gun the nurses on the beach (one survives and is sent to a prison camp), and bayonet and kill the wounded on stretchers.

At Singapore, the Commonwealth defenders are running out of food and ammunition, and they cannot stop Japanese aerial attacks that are causing heavy casualties in the center of the city. In addition to the defenders, over one million civilian refugees are crammed into the three-square-mile area within the defensive perimeter. Finally, at 5:15 p.m. on February 15, after six days of fierce fighting, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, British General Officer Commanding – Malaya, surrenders, and 130,000 British and Commonwealth troops pass into captivity. British prime minister Winston Churchill categorizes the fall of Singapore as the “worst disaster” and the “largest capitulation” in British military history.

Palembang, on Sumatra, falls to Japanese forces on February 16. Japanese troops on Borneo capture the town of Sintang, West Kalimantan. Three German submarines attack oil facilities and tanker ships at Aruba in the Netherlands West Indies. The Caribbean island is home to two of the largest oil refineries in the world, as well as extensive petroleum storage and loading facilities. The attack results in a significant disruption of Allied fuel production.

The order is given on February 17 to evacuate Rangoon, Burma, as Japanese troops approach. In the Soviet Union, Hitler visits with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to review plans for the coming counteroffensive in the Caucasus. Looking to exploit a breakthrough made at the end of January, the Red Army launches an offensive at Rzhev, some 130 miles northwest of Moscow. Despite temperatures that reach –52°F, the fighting is fierce and the Germans hold. In Singapore, the British Malaya Command officially surrenders the 40,000 troops of the British Indian Army to the Japanese, who in turn, pass the authority over them to Mohan Singh, an Indian nationalist and a captain in the British Indian Army. Singh announces the formation of the Indian National Army (INA), urging the captured Indian soldiers to join the INA to fight against the British Crown Rule in India (the British Raj). Eventually, around 12,000 of the Indian POWs join the Japanese-directed INA. South of Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies, the Dutch destroyer HNLMS Van Nes is bombed and sunk by the Japanese with the loss of 68 of its 149 crewmen.

Soviet forces overwhelm the Germans defending Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 18 and the city is retaken by the Red Army. In Singapore, the Japanese occupiers begin the “Sook Ching” operation: a “purge” of the portion of the Chinese population of the city deemed to be “hostile” to the Japanese. In 14 days, thousands of Chinese are killed — the Japanese say the number is fewer than 5,000, while Singaporeans claim that between 70,000 and 100,000 Chinese are murdered. In Calcutta, India, visiting Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek meets with political activist Mahatma Gandhi.

On February 19, some 240 Japanese aircraft bomb the harbor and airfields around Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, sinking 17 docked ships. Mandalay, the capital of Burma, is bombed for the first time by Japanese airplanes. In Ottawa, the Canadian Parliament passes a conscription (draft) law. In Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 that permits the U.S. military to define “exclusionary zones” precluding people of certain nationalities from residing within them. The Executive Order affects Japanese on the West Coast, and, to a lesser extent, Germans and Italians on the East Coast. Among those forcibly displaced and moved to guarded internment camps are more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, over 60% of whom are American citizens.

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