Hitler declares war on the USA
11 December 1941: Suddenly everything changes - while on the other side of the world the US Marines fight a desperate battle and score a number of firsts
One of Germany's war aims had been to avoid the much feared 'two front war'. Hitler had aimed to knock France and Britain out of the war so that he could concentrate on his principal objective "Jewish Bolshevik Russia". Awkwardly Britain had remained defiant and, even worse, had been able to increasingly rely on the support of the industrial might of the United States. Now the United States was providing material support to Soviet Russia as well.
For a few days, after Pearl Harbour, the United States' principal enemy appeared to be Japan. But now Hitler changed the whole situation by declaring war on the United States. It was an enormous gamble that, with unrestricted U-Boat warfare, he could restrict the supplies coming across the Atlantic to Britain and Russia.
As usual the declaration1 came with perverse distortions and boasts:
Since the beginning of the war the American President, Roosevelt, has been guilty of a series of the worst crimes against international law; illegal seizure of ships and other property of German and Italian nationals were coupled with the threat to, and looting of, those who were deprived of their liberty by being interned.
‘Today I am at the head of the strongest Army in the world, the most gigantic Air Force and of a proud Navy.’
Today I am at the head of the strongest Army in the world, the most gigantic Air Force and of a proud Navy. Behind and around me stands the Party with which I became great and which has become great through me.
The enemies I see before me are the same enemies as 20 years ago, but the path along which I look forward cannot be compared with that on which I look back.
The German people recognizes the decisive hour of its existence millions of soldiers do their duty, millions of German peasants and workers, women and girls, produce bread for the home country and arms for the Front. We are allied with strong peoples, who in the same need are faced with the same enemies.
For those looking at the economic balance of power this was a grim moment for Germany. Economic planners within Germany despaired - for the full fascinating story see Adam Tooze: The Wages of Destruction - The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy .
On the very same day Winston Churchill was telling Parliament2 in London:
‘Not only the British Empire now but the United States are fighting for life; Russia is fighting for life, and China is fighting for life.’
Not only the British Empire now but the United States are fighting for life; Russia is fighting for life, and China is fighting for life. Behind these four great combatant communities are ranged all the spirit and hopes of all the conquered countries in Europe, prostrate under the cruel domination of the foe.
I said the other day that four-fifths of the human race were on our side. It may well be an under-statement. Just these gangs and cliques of wicked men and their military or party organisations have been able to bring these hideous evils upon mankind. It would indeed bring shame upon our generation if we did not teach them a lesson which will not be forgotten in the records of a thousand years.
US Marines repel Japanese invasion of Wake Island
Also on the 11th December 1941 a small force of US Marines were making history in one of the most remote corners of the world. A Japanese invasion force arrived off Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific, a coral atoll 1000 nautical miles from Midway and 2000 mile from Hawaii. The strategically important airfield had been bombed on the 8th - when eight out of twelve defending fighters from Marine Fighter Squadron VMF 211 were destroyed on the ground.
When the initial bombardment by the Japanese ships received no reply the Japanese force came in close, believing that the shore batteries had been silenced by the earlier bombing. But the US Marine artillery were waiting until the ships were well within range.
The Hayate was hit by the third salvo. The shell hit either the torpedoes or the depth charges at the rear of the ship resulting in a massive explosion breaking the ship in two. There was only one survivor out of the 169 crew. It was the first Japanese surface warship sunk in the war.
The shore batteries continued their fire causing damage to several ships in the invasion force - which decided to disengage. It was the only occasion when an amphibious invasion force was repelled by shore batteries.
As the Japanese destroyer Kisagari retreated she was bombed by Captain Elrod from VMF-211, flying one of the few serviceable remaining aircraft . One of his 100 lb bombs found either a depth charge or a magazine - and the Kisagari suffered a catastrophic explosion. She sank with the loss of all 157 crew.
This was but one action amongst several acts of gallantry that saw captain Elrod awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to Marine Fighting Squadron TWO HUNDRED ELEVEN, during action against enemy Japanese land, surface and aerial units at Wake Island, from 8 to 23 December 1941.
Engaging vastly superior forces of enemy bombers and warships on 9 and 12 December, Captain Elrod shot down two of a flight of twenty-two hostile planes and, executing repeated bombing and strafing runs at extremely low altitude and close range, succeeded in inflicting deadly damage upon a large Japanese vessel, thereby sinking the first major warship to be destroyed by small caliber bombs delivered from a fighter-type aircraft.
When his plane was disabled by hostile fire and no other ships were operative, Captain Elrod assumed command of one flank of the line set up in defiance of the enemy landing and conducting a brilliant defense, enabled his men to hold their positions and repulse determined Japanese attacks, repeatedly proceeding through intense hostile fusillades to provide covering fire for unarmed ammunition carriers.
Capturing an automatic weapon during one enemy rush in force, he gave his own firearm to one of his men and fought on vigorously against the Japanese. Responsible in a large measure of the strength of his sector's gallant resistance, on 23 December, Captain Elrod led his men with bold aggressiveness until he fell, mortally wounded. His superb skill as a pilot, daring leadership and unswerving devotion to duty distinguished him among the defenders of Wake Island, and his valiant conduct reflects the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Follow the full course of the war, right the way through, on the eightieth anniversary. All the key events and much, much more.
Follow the war with a new story every day…
Try World War II Today for free for thirty days if you sign up now. Offer valid for both annual or monthly subscriptions made during December 2021. Unsubscribe at any time.