President Franklin Roosevelt Suddenly Dies, April 12, 1945

franklin roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt – Wikipedia

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unexpected death from a stroke in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, was a huge shock to many people. He had been the president since 1933 and re-elected three times – the most of any president. During this long tenure he had led the nation through the Great Depression and into Word War Two.

Many Americans considered Roosevelt a father figure because he’d been the president for much of their lives. This was especially true for the young men fighting overseas against fascism in the Western European and Pacific theaters of WWII. There were many reports of American soldiers and sailors crying upon receiving word of his death.

American forces in the Pacific theater were fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa at the time of Roosevelt’s death. They U.S. had invaded that southern Japanese island on April 1st and the troops had made good progress until they had encountered a strong Japanese defensive line along Kakazu Ridge. The initial American assaults against it failed and the Japanese took advantage of this by distributing propaganda leaflets trying to discourage further attacks. They began with, “We must express our deep regret over the death of President Roosevelt.”

The Germans also took note of Roosevelt’s death in the European theater. The Western Allies had launched attacks across the Rhine River on Germany’s western border in March of 1945 which had destroyed Nazi Germany’s defenses on that front. The allied troops, under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, were approaching Berlin from the west. On Germany’s eastern border, the Soviets were poised along the Oder River preparing to attack Berlin, which was only about 50 miles away.

Hitler knew there was little chance that his depleted forces could stop the Allies. But when he learned of Roosevelt’s death he became elated. He had always been inspired by Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia who had held out against overwhelming odds in the Seven Years’ War until the alliance against him unexpectedly dissolved after the Russian Empress Elizabeth died. Hitler thought Roosevelt’s death was a sign that the alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviets would now disintegrate. But Hitler soon found that Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, had no intention of betraying the Soviets by making a separate peace with the Nazis. On May 8, 1945, when Truman announced Germany’s unconditional surrender he said, “I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day.”

Roosevelt’s death also prompted responses from America’s allies in WWII.  When the American ambassador to the Soviet Union informed Stalin about it the Soviet leader said “President Roosevelt has died but his cause must live on. We shall support President Truman with all our forces and all our will.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who reportedly sobbed like a baby upon hearing of Roosevelt’s passing, gave a long eulogy for Roosevelt in the House of Commons a few days after his death. It concluded with, “For us. it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.”

Churchill later wrote of Roosevelt:

“He altered decisively and permanently the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the Old. His life must therefore be regarded as one of the most commanding events in human destiny.”

Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Imperial Japanese Navy Flag
Imperial Japanese Navy Flag

On this date in 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against U.S. military bases on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This Attack on Pearl Harbor, as it came to be known, was a major turning point in WWII.

The following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and called for a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” Roosevelt famously proclaimed. In less than an hour Congress had declared war on Japan.

Four days later, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany unilaterally declared war on the U.S., ensuring that America would enter the war in Europe too. Many of the German dictator Adolf Hitler’s military leaders, along with a large portion of the German population, thought it was a fatal error. Hitler wasn’t obligated to help Japan because the Tripartite Pact he’d signed with Japan in 1940 said Germany only had to help the Japanese if they were attacked, not if they were the attackers. But Hitler hated Roosevelt and his eloquent anti-fascist rhetoric and was convinced that Japan would defeat the U.S.

Years later, in his diary, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote about how he felt when he heard the news that the U.S. had finally joined the war.

“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not fortell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! … Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.”

World War II in Iraq – May 1941

Iraqi aircraft insignia
Iraqi aircraft insignia

In 1991 a U.S.-led coalition launched Operation Desert storm against Iraq, the combat phase of the Persian Gulf War, because Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait the previous year. The troops the United Kingdom contributed to the coalition were outnumbered only by those from the U.S.

This wasn’t the first time the British had attacked Iraq. Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The Ottoman Turks were one of the Central Powers, allied with Germany, and the British were one of the opposing Allies and they sent troops to Iraq to fight the Ottomans.

After the Central Powers lost WWI the Ottoman Empire collapsed and many of its territories became “mandates” of the winning Allies. Iraq became a British mandate until 1932, when Iraq was given its independence. The Iraqis weren’t truly independent, however, because the British retained the right to transport their troops across the country and to operate two Royal Air Force (RAF) airbases there.

Iraqi nationalists, as you might imagine, were unhappy with this arrangement. They were encouraged by the military successes of Hitler in the early years of WWII because German agents were promising to help kick the British out of the Middle East and to prevent the Jews from establishing a nation in Palestine. Subsequently, at the beginning of April, 1941, a military coup in Baghdad put an Iraqi nationalist named Rashid Ali in power and he appealed to the Axis for help. (One of the conspirators was Khairallah Talfah, the uncle that raised Saddam Hussein.) Ali promised the Germans and Italians unrestricted use of all airfields in Iraq for any forces they were willing to send to help fight the British.

Britain’s military was already fully engaged in Greece and Africa, but the British knew they could not afford to lose control of Iraq’s oil, or to have hostile forces gain a foothold east of Egypt. In mid-April they responded to the coup by landing troops at Iraq’s Persian Gulf port of Basra to supposedly assert their right to move troops across Iraq. Some of these troops were airlifted to reinforce the British airfield located at Habbaniya, along the Euphrates River west of Baghdad.

Ali warned the British that no additional troops could enter Iraq until the first batch had moved on. But the British ignored his threat and began landing a large contingent of Indian troops at Basra. Ali responded by sending thousands of Iraqi troops to surround Habbaniya on the night of April 29.

While Iraq had several airfields of its own, the British one at Habbaniya had modern maintenance and repair facilities and plenty of high-octane fuel. If the Iraqis captured it and turned it over to the Germans, Hitler would be firmly established in the region. This was a real possibility, as Habbaniya was isolated by hundreds of miles of desert and had insufficient troops, despite the reinforcements, to protect it from a ground attack. They had 64 operational aircraft but they could only put 39 planes in the air at a time due to a pilot shortage. And most of their aircraft were obsolete warplanes because Habbaniya was a pilot training facility, not a combat base. The surrounding Iraqi troops occupied high ground and had artillery and tanks, while the outnumbered British defenders had none. And the Iraqi air force, which numbered about 70 aircraft, included some modern warplanes.

Despite the unfavorable odds, the RAF launched a surprise air attack against the Iraqi ground forces surrounding Habbaniya on the morning of May 2. It included all of the planes the flying school could put in the air, plus a few Vickers Wellington bombers flying from the other British airfield in Iraq, located near Basra, 300 miles away. The RAF’s motley collection of planes and pilots from Habbaniya recorded 193 sorties on the first day of their bombing campaign.

The Iraqi ground forces responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire and began shelling the airfield. And the Iraqi air force responded by strafing and bombing Habbaniya and harassing the RAF flights. By the end of the day, 22 RAF planes had been destroyed or damaged beyond use. The non-stop bombing, however, had inflicted heavy losses upon the Iraqi troops and significantly reduced their volume of fire.

Subsequently, on the second day the RAF shifted the focus of its air campaign to the Iraqi airfields. They succeeded in destroying numerous Iraqi planes on the ground and effectiveness of the Iraqi air force quickly declined. On May 6 the Iraqi troops on the escarpment by Habbaniya could not take any more of the RAF’s continual bombing and they fled in disorder.

The British at Habbaniya assumed that the worst of their troubles were over, as they knew relief was on the way. But on May 16 several Messerscmitt Bf 110 fighter bombers and Heinkel He 111 bombers from Germany’s Luftwaffe, painted with Iraqi markings, successfully attacked them. The Germans had flown from occupied Greece, refueled in neighboring Vichy French Syria, and then flown to the Iraqi city of Mosul, where they made their base.

Hitler, however, was preoccupied with planning his upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union and the few warplanes he sent to Iraq were too little and too late. Despite being attacked by the German planes, a British relief force from Palestine was able to relieve Habbaniya. British troops from Habbaniya and Basra then converged on Baghdad. Mussolini sent a few Fiat C.R. 42 fighters to help, but Iraqi resistance crumbled in the face of the British advance. Rashid Ali and his supporters gave up and fled the country at the end of May and Iraq surrendered. The German and Italian air units fled Iraq by way of Vichy Syria again.

The 1941 Battle of Habbaniya Was A Turning Point in WWII

It may be that in those dark days of early 1941, when Britain stood alone against the Axis, that the RAF’s #4 Flying Training School at Habbaniya stopped the war from being lost before the United States joined the fight. If Hitler had succeeded in gaining a military foothold in Iraq, the British would probably have been driven out of the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea would have been an Axis lake. The Germans would have gained control of the region’s oil, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. They could have joined with Muslim nationalists to drive British forces out of Africa and India. And the country of Israel would certainly not exist.

In fact, these things would probably have happened anyway if Hitler had sent most of his Wermacht, especially the Luftwaffe, into the Middle East and North Africa in 1941, instead of invading the Soviet Union. He “cast away the opportunity of taking a great prize for little cost in the Middle East,” said Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But Hitler was obsessed with the destruction of communism and so the Battle of Habbaniya was an important turning point of the war. We should consider it the original Operation Desert Storm.

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