May 13, 1943: The North African Campaign ends.
The North African Campaign of World War II began on June 10, 1940, when Italy officially declared war on Great Britain and France, after which forces of the British Army stationed in Egypt (which had been occupied by the British since 1882 and would remain occupied until the 1950s) captured an Italian fort in Libya (an Italian colony), initiating the conflict. Of the nations fighting on both the Allied and Axis sides, many had colonial interests in North Africa and in the territories surrounding, some dating back to the period of imperialist frenzy known as the Scramble for Africa, and the strategic Suez Canal zone, not to mention vast oil resources, was located in this area. Fighting in North Africa primarily took place in the Libyan Desert, in French North Africa, and in Tunisia. Three of the war’s most iconic military leaders commanded forces in North Africa - Bernard Montgomery, Erwin Rommel, and George S. Patton.
Although initially outnumbering the British by a wide margin, Italian military leaders were extremely aware of the fact that they were engaging a modern European enemy using tanks and guns that had been used to subjugate local populations (in addition, Allied codebreaking played a major role in destroying Axis supply lines). After their utter defeat by Allied forces in Operation Compass, which also ended in the destruction of the eastern half of Italy’s African armies, Rommel and the Afrika Korps entered the conflict in February of 1941. Allied and Axis forces pushed each other back and forth across North Africa until a decisive Allied victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein stopped the Axis advance into Egypt, marking a major turning point in the war in North Africa. The North Africa Campaign came to an end when the remainder of Axis forces, surrounded by the British Army and trapped on the coast in Tunisia, surrendered on May 13, 1943.
Their defeat in North Africa led to the Invasion of Sicily - the penetration of Europe by the Allies through its “soft underbelly”.
May 7, 1915: A German U-boat sinks the RMS Lusitania.
The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania was one of the most infamous events of World War I, carried out by the SM U-20 as part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain and its allies. The event, which took the lives of nearly 1,200 people (including 128 American citizens), enraged the British and Americans, provided the basis for effective war and recruitment propaganda in the future, and turned public opinion in the United States against Germany so quickly that the country’s carefully preserved neutrality threatened to collapse. It did not, at least not until 1917, when Germany declared its intention to resume its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, which reignited Americans’ lingering anger over the Lusitania.
At the time of its sinking, the Lusitania had officially been carrying as cargo war materials (ammunition, fuses, artillery shells), making it, in the eyes of the Germans, a legitimate military target, despite the fact that the ship was also at the time carrying 1,959 people. Of that number, 1,198 died when the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. The ship sank in 18 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours 40 minutes it took for Lusitania’s White Star Line Rival, RMS Titanic, to sink, but like with Titanic, most of the deaths probably resulted from hypothermia, as survivors of the initial torpedoing awaited rescue floating for hours in the waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, the manner in which the Lusitania sank rendered most of its lifeboats unusable. The commander of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was labeled by some a war criminal, although despite sparking outrage in the United States, the attack was not on its own enough to bring the country into the war. Three days later President Wilson made this comment in a speech:
There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.
Russian soldiers and a civilian attempt to move a bronze eagle that had previously been installed above a doorway of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, 1945.
May 2, 1945: Berlin falls to Soviet forces.
The next day, General Wilding, the commander of the German troops in Berlin, finally surrendered the entire city to the Soviet army. There was no radio or newspaper, so vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering us to cease all resistance. Suddenly, the shooting and bombing stopped and the unreal silence meant that one ordeal was over for us and another was about to begin. Our nightmare had become a reality. The entire three hundred square miles of what was left of Berlin were now completely under control of the Red Army. The last days of savage house to house fighting and street battles had been a human slaughter, with no prisoners being taken on either side. These final days were hell. Our last remaining and exhausted troops, primarily children and old men, stumbled into imprisonment. We were a city in ruins; almost no house remained intact.
Eyewitness account of the end of the Battle of Berlin
May 1, 1960: The U-2 incident takes place.
By 1955, both the United States and Soviet Union had developed and successfully detonated thermonuclear weapons; the next year, the first Lockheed U-2, an icon of Cold War-era espionage, flew a mission over the Soviet Union in order to gather and deliver intelligence regarding its technological progress. Covert reconnaissance missions conducted throughout the era provided the government detailed photographs that would, hopefully, enable the U.S. to stay ahead of its communist foe.
Meanwhile, Soviet Union-United States relations seemed to be, to some extent, thawing - in late 1959, Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States for the first time with his family (and a strong desire to see Disneyland) and left the country in the hope that some kind of détente might be achieved between the nations. This brief period of good feelings was disrupted by the U-2 incident, in which CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane were shot down while flying in Soviet airspace. Unaware that both the pilot and his equipment had been recovered by Soviet officials, the U.S. government released a cover story claiming that Powers had been conducting weather tests. The cover story was contradicted by the concrete evidence provided by the Soviet government of American espionage activity, and by Powers’ own confession; Powers, upon returning home (having been traded for a KGB agent), was criticized for failing to self-destruct his aircraft and for failing to commit suicide, although he was ultimately determined to have not divulged any important information to the Soviets and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star in 2012.
Although Eisenhower accepted responsibility for the incident, including the failed cover-up, the U-2 incident caused the collapse of the planned Paris Four Power summit, and any tentative easing of tensions achieved in the previous decade was undone. And in 1962, a U-2 plane captured images in Cuba and initiated a confrontation that would send the two nations closer to nuclear war than ever before.
April 27, 1945: Benito Mussolini is captured.
On this day in 1945, Italy’s former father of fascism, who had adopted the title Il Duce and a dictatorship over his country from the late 1920s until 1943, was captured by Italian communist partisans, along with his mistress Clara Petacci.
In mid-1943, Mussolini was ousted by the Grand Council of Fascism during the eventually successful Allied invasion of Sicily, but he remained in power through the intervention of his German allies, who rescued him and set up under his name a new puppet regime headquartered in Salò, in northern Italy. By this time, Mussolini, his health in a poor state and his characteristic confidence blighted by constant failure, was no longer the bombastic leader who had once marched on Rome, by his own admittance - in an early 1945 interview, he said most uncharacteristically:
I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.
Allied forces liberated Rome in July 1944, while partisan resistance fought Axis forces from within the country. Amidst this fighting and German retreat, Mussolini, his mistress, and officials of his puppet government made an escape attempt to Switzerland, and then to Spain, but were stopped by communist partisans and then executed the next day in a village in northern Italy. Their bodies were brought to Milan and dumped in the Piazzale Loreto, where civilians hung them upside down on meathooks - and stoned them, shot at them, and spat on them.
Other links: mutilated corpses of Mussolini and Petacci (graphic)