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This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago

The interior of a U boat similar to the German U-559, which was sunk on Oct. 30, 1942 and yielded useful documents that allowed allies to crack the German secret signal system. Wikipedia. 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

British naval forces near Port Said, Egypt, on October 30, 1942, track, attack and force German sub U-559 to surface. The German crew abandons the sinking vessel, but one officer and two sailors (one a civilian crewman of the Naval Canteen Service) from the destroyer HMS Petard board the sub and enter it. They retrieve secret documents that will allow British cipher experts to crack the German signals system. The officer and one of the sailors drown when the sub suddenly goes down; the civilian sailor narrowly escapes. Shortly thereafter, the survivor, Thomas Brown, is found to have lied about his age (15) when he enlisted in 1941, and he is sent home, being too young to serve. (Brown joins the Royal Navy when he comes of age and serves aboard the light cruiser HMS Belfast until his death [in a fire at his home] in 1945.)

On October 31, Luftwaffe bombers hit Canterbury, England. In North Africa, fierce fighting continues between Australian and German forces near Tell el Eisa, Egypt. Confident that Stalingrad would soon fall, Adolf Hitler moves his eastern military headquarters from Werwolf (“Werewolf”), north of Vinnytsia, Ukraine, 596 miles northwestward to Wolfsschanze (“Wolf’s Lair”) near Rastenburg, East Prussia. (“Wolf” was Hitler’s self-styled nickname, which he began using in the 1930s. “Wolf” is an old German form of the name Adolf.) Wearing sweater number 15, 21-year-old Maurice “Rocket” Richard makes his National Hockey League debut with the Montreal Canadiens, playing against the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Forum. The Habs won, 3-2. In the U.S., Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” hits Number One on Billboard magazine’s singles charts.

On November 1, U.S. Marines begin a new series of attacks along the Poha River on Guadalcanal. In the Battle of El Alamein, both sides suffer damage. The British can stand the losses; the Axis cannot. Rommel sends word to Berlin that a British breakthrough is inevitable, and withdrawal is necessary. In Europe, the Germans capture Alagir, in the Caucasus. Strikes break out in southeastern Vichy France in protest of the government’s plan to force French laborers to work in Germany.

Australian troops retake Kokoda, Papua-New Guinea, from the Japanese on October 2. In Egypt, British and New Zealand forces break through the Axis defenses at El Alamein. In Russia, bitter street fighting continues in Stalingrad, with neither side making much progress. Due to increasing supply problems and the onset of winter, German Army Group A’s advance into the Caucasus comes to a halt. The American military newspaper Stars and Stripes becomes a daily publication; it had previously been a weekly.

The Second Battle of El Alamein concludes on November 3. Rejecting out of hand Field Marshal Rommel’s proposal to withdraw the Afrika Korps, now down to about 40 tanks, Hitler orders Rommel to “stand and die.” In Moscow, in an interview with American journalists, Stalin describes U.S. military aid as “of little effect.” In the U.S., Republican candidates gain considerable ground in Congressional and gubernatorial elections, indicating potential difficulties in domestic politics and dissatisfaction with the Democrats (President Roosevelt’s party). The Democrats, however, retain control of both chambers of Congress.

In North Africa, the Italian 20th Motorized Corps is destroyed on November 4. Rommel, with only 12 tanks left, disobeys der Führer and re-issues his orders for a retreat. The British take 10,724 Axis prisoners, including nine generals.

On November 5, the British attack Rommel’s rearguard, which is now almost 100 miles west of El Alamein. On Madagascar, the British sign a treaty of peace with the Vichy French government on the island. Fighting in and around Stalingrad forces the city’s power plant to shut down. Entertainer and songwriter (“Over There,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway”) George M. Cohan dies of cancer in New York City at the age of 64.

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