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This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago

This was the location of the original Stagg Field, famous today for its role in the nuclear experiments that ushered in the Atomic Age during World War II. As German physicists were discovering how to split a uranium atom, Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi expressed concerns to President Roosevelt that the German military might soon develop a nuclear weapon. Roosevelt responded by agreeing to gradually move forward with an ambitious research and development program that would grow to become the Manhattan Project-a top secret initiative to develop an atomic bomb. For more information, go to https://www.theclio.com/web/entry?id=21624

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 German troops enter the Mediterranean port of Toulon, Vichy France, on November 27, 1942, French naval officers scuttle 79 warships of various sizes docked there — including three battleships — to prevent the vessels from falling into Nazi hands. Four submarines manage to escape, and ultimately join the Free French Navy. In Russia, the Germans form Army Group Don, under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, to relieve the Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

Free French forces invade, capture and occupy the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean on November 28. Rommel proposes to Hitler that the campaign in North Africa be terminated because of the difficulty of supplying the troops there. Hitler will hear nothing of the plan, however, claiming that remaining in Africa is a “political necessity.” In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire at the popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people, 32 more than the building’s permitted capacity. Hundreds more are injured in what is the deadliest nightclub fire in history.

On November 29, British Prime Minister Churchill warns the Italian government that RAF bombing of Italian cities will continue until Italy overthrows Mussolini and abandons the war. In Tunisia, German forces clash with British and American troops at Tebourba and Djedeida. In the U.S., coffee rationing begins.

Australian troops take Gona, in Papua-New Guinea, on November 30. From Italy, radio broadcasts report large-scale movements of people fleeing Genoa, Turin and Milan. In North Africa, Allied advances are stopped by stiff German defenses. In Germany, a secret government directive to mental institutions orders that those patients who cannot provide meaningful service to the Fatherland shall be starved to death.

In the Pacific, at the Battle of Tassafaronga, off Guadalcanal, on December 1, five U.S. heavy cruisers and seven destroyers attack a convoy of eight Japanese destroyers headed for the island. Japanese torpedoes sink one cruiser and damage three destroyers, while the Japanese lose only one destroyer. Acting on the presumption that Marshal Philippe Pétain is virtually a prisoner of the Germans in Vichy France, Adm. Jean Darlan, in Algeria, unilaterally takes command of all French forces in North Africa. In Tunisia, German forces under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring counterattack at Tebourba and begin pushing the Allies back. Nationwide gasoline rationing begins in the U.S.

On December 2, beneath the bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, a team of Manhattan Project researchers led by Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi — winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics — initiates the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. To report the success, a coded message is sent to President Roosevelt: “The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.” From Rome, Benito Mussolini advises Italians to evacuate the cities. This causes widespread panic, as there is no plan, nor any organization established to oversee such an operation.

Several German divisions transferred from Western Europe begin arriving in the vicinity of Army Group Don, southwest of Stalingrad, on December 3 in preparation for an attempt to relieve the encircled Sixth Army. In North Africa, Hitler places all Axis forces in Tunisia into the newly created 5th Panzer Army, commanded by Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.

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