One of the deadliest chemicals ever invented, Zyklon B is a derivative of Prussic acid. It was invented in 1922 by a small team of German chemists led by Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber, whose previous creations included mustard gas and other chemicals of warfare used in World War One.
In 1941, the gas was first deployed in three death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek, and Sachsenhausen. Its first large scale use was one September 3, when 600 Russian POWs, 250 Polish POWs and 10 criminals were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of the victims survived more than 24 hours of exposure to the gas – when this was discovered, additional quantities of it were pumped into the killing chambers. By the time the war ended, an estimated 1.2 million people were killed with Zyklon B, most of whom (960,000) were Jews.
In early 1941, the Allied forces in North Africa, comprised mostly of British and Commonwealth units (the Australians being the largest of the Commonwealth contingents), were making very good progress in driving the Italian forces out of Libya (which the Italians had conquered in 1911). The port of Tobruk was captured by Australian forces from the 6th Division on January 22 along with 27,000 Italian troops.
But in March, Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to bolster the Italian forces. On March 24, Operation Sonnenblume commenced, an opportunistic effort to push back the Allies. Rommel’s advance was very successful, as the British had sent many of the forces previously stationed in North Africa to fight in Greece, and much of what remained, especially the armour, had fallen back for maintenance and recovery. On April 4, the Axis forces recaptured Benghazi, and by April 10, had encircled Tobruk. An assault on April 11 proved inconclusive for both sides, and the siege commenced in earnest.
The 14,000 men who remained in Tobruk were primarily Australians, with some British and Polish soldiers among them. Collectively, they became known as ‘the Rats of Tobruk’, when the Australians adopted the name they had been given in German propaganda as a badge of honour. (They even made their own service medal in the likeness of a rat, using metal from a German Bomber that they had shot down.) Nearly 4000 of them would give their lives while the siege lasted. The first attempt to break the siege, Operation Battleaxe, was launched by the Allies on June 15, but failed in its goals. The siege was lifted on November 27, and Tobruk would eventually be relieved on December 7, 1941, the same day that the Pearl Harbor attacks brought the US into the war. The siege had lasted a total of 283 days.
Of all things, it was the entry of the United States into the war that prompted Hitler to move the Holocaust into high gear. Now that the Americans were in it, the usefulness of the remaining Jews as hostages was at an end, and Hitler saw no reason to delay the complete destruction of the Jewish race – all the ones he could get his hands on, at least – a moment longer.
This announcement was made to a group of fifty or so of the highest ranking Nazis, chiefly the politicians and bureaucrats who formed the Third Reich’s top echelon, whom Hitler had summoned to a meeting in the Reich Chancellory. Himmler, Goebbels and Bormann are all known to have attended the meeting. Moreover, documents related to this meeting – including Goebbels’ diaries – make it clear that the plan to exterminate the Jews was not carried out without Hitler’s knowledge or responsibility, but that he was an enthusiastic proponent and participant of it. The following year, 1942, would account for almost half the total Jewish deaths in the Holocaust all by itself.
Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio was one of the all time greats of baseball, and no greater proof exists than his hitting streak record. From May 15 to July 16, 1941, he hit an unbroken streak of 56 games, a record that still stands. (The next highest hitting streak is 44 games in a single season, acheived by both Pete Rose and Willie Keeler – Keller also hit in the last game of his prior season too, giving him a 45 game streak overall.) Even after the end of the streak, DiMaggio hit another 17 game streak (and his record of hitting in 73 out of 74 games also remains unbroken).
DiMaggio’s team was the New York Yankees – who won the pennant in ten of the thirteen years that DiMaggio played for them. DiMaggio’s 1941 season was his last for some years – in 1942, he enlisted in the US Army, although he saw no combat, being assigned safely to a behind-the-lines role. His parents spent the war interned as supposed ‘enemy aliens’. DiMaggio would return to pro baseball in 1946, and played until 1951.
To this day, there is no clear explanation of his motives, but the facts in the case are these: on May 10, 1941, Rudolf Hess – the third most powerful man in Nazi Germany behind Hitler and Goring, flew a plane to Scotland, where he crash landed and was taken into custody. He had come on a mission of peace, trying to secure an end to hostilities between Germany and the United Kingdom.
However, his offer was quickly disavowed by the German government, and Hess stripped of al authority. He spent the rest of the war as a p.o.w., and stood trial alongside the other surviving Nazis at Nuremberg.
It seems that he had experienced some sort of guilt-motivated nervous breakdown, causing him to undertake his quixotic mission. It remains an open question whether his guilt was about the war by itself, or also about the Holocaust.
Elizabeth Taylor was only 8 years old when she was first signed with a Hollywood studio. The studio in question, Universal, agreed to pay her $100 a week for six months. (Another studio, MGM, had already auditioned her, but passed her up when they discovered that she could not sing.)
Her first film, made when Taylor was 9, was “There’s One Born Every Minute”. A dissatisfied Universal did not renew her contract, but the following year, MGM reconsidered, and contracted her for three months. She appeared in “Lassie Come Home” alongside fellow child star Roddy McDowall, and the film did sufficiently well that she was signed for a seven year contract by MGM thereafter.
She would go on to become one of the most famous and respected actresses in cinema history, winning three Oscars and three Golden Globes.