W orld War II effectively stopped the world between 1939 and 1945. To this day, it remains the most geographically widespread military conflict the world has ever seen. Although the fighting reached across many parts of the globe, most countries involved shared a united effort aimed at ending the aggression of the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. Despite the fact that Germany and Japan were technically allies, however, they had vastly different motives and objectives, and their level of cooperation was primarily one of distracting the attention of each other's enemies rather than of attaining any specific common goals. Therefore, most studies of the war cover the conflicts with Germany and Japan separately, dividing treatment of the war between the European and Pacific theaters of operation.
Three years of mounting international tension, encompassing the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss (union) of Germany and Austria, Hitler's occupation of the Sudetenland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, culminated in the German invasion of Poland on 1 September. Hitler's government envisioned a vast, new empire of "living space" (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe. The realization of German dominance in Europe, its leaders calculated, would require war. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Within a month, Poland was defeated by a combination of German and Soviet forces and was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the USA proclaimed neutrality, it continued to supply Britain with essential supplies, and the critical Battle of the Atlantic between German U-Boats and British naval convoys commenced.
Russian troops roll into Poland
Western Europe was eerily quiet during this 'phoney war'. Preparations for war continued in earnest, but there were few signs of conflict, and civilians who had been evacuated from London in the first months drifted back into the city. Everybody waited anxiously for the "real" war to begin.
In eastern Europe and Scandinavia, however, there was nothing phoney about the war. With the Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Germany in late August, Russia followed Germany into Poland in September. That country was carved up between the two invaders before the end of the year, and Russia continued this aggression by going on to invade Finland.
Rationing was introduced in Britain early in the New Year, but little happened in western Europe until the spring. The 'winter war' between Russia and Finland concluded in March, and on 9 April 1940 Germany invaded Norway and Denmark. Denmark surrendered immediately, but the Norwegians fought on with British and French assistance, surrendering in June only once events in France meant that they were fighting alone. On 10 May 1940, Germany began its assault on western Europe by invading the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), which had taken neutral positions in the war, as well as France. On 22 June 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which provided for the German occupation of the northern half of the country and permitted the establishment of a collaborationist regime in the south with its seat in the city of Vichy.
With German encouragement, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states in June 1940 and formally annexed them in August 1940. Italy, a member of the Axis (countries allied with Germany), joined the war on June 10, 1940. From July 10 to October 31, 1940, the Nazis waged, and ultimately lost, an air war over England, known as the Battle of Britain.
Germany's combination of fast armoured tanks on land, and superiority in the air, made a unified attacking force that was both innovative and effective. Despite greater numbers of air and army personnel - and the presence of the British Expeditionary Force - the Low Countries and France proved no match for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. Holland and Belgium fell by the end of May; Paris was taken two weeks later.
The evacuation of troops at Dunkirk
British troops retreated from the invaders in haste, and some 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops were rescued from the channel port of Dunkirk only by a ragged fleet, using craft that ranged from pleasure boats to Navy destroyers.
In France an armistice was signed with Germany, with the puppet French Vichy government - under a hero of World War One, Marshall Pétain - in control in the 'unoccupied' part of southern and eastern France, and Germany in control in the rest of the country.
Charles de Gaulle, as the leader of the Free French, fled to England (much to Churchill's chagrin) to continue the fight against Hitler . But it looked as if that fight might not last too long. Having conquered France, Hitler turned his attention to Britain, and began preparations for an invasion. For this to be successful, however, he needed air superiority, and he charged the Luftwaffe with destroying British air power and coastal defenses.
The Battle of Britain, lasting from July to September, was the first to be fought solely in the air. Germany lacked planes but had many pilots. In Britain, the situation was reversed, but - crucially - it also had radar. This, combined with the German decision to switch the attacks from airfields and factories to the major cities, enabled the RAF to squeak a narrow victory, maintain air superiority and ensure the - ultimately indefinite - postponement of the German invasion plans.
The 'Blitz' of Britain's cities lasted throughout the war, saw the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the near-destruction of Coventry, and claimed some 40,000 civilian lives.
With continental Europe under Nazi control, and Great Britain safe, for the time being, the war took on a more global dimension. After securing the Balkan region by invading Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6, 1941, the Germans and their allies invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, in direct violation of the German-Soviet Pact. Operation Barbarossa, as the invasion was called started with a swift, initial advance, with the fall of Sebastopol at the end of October, and Moscow coming under attack at the end of the year. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin quickly became a major wartime Allied leader, in opposition to Nazi Germany and its Axis allies. During the summer and autumn of 1941, German troops advanced deep into the Soviet Union, but stiffening Red Army resistance and the bitter Russian winter, prevented the Germans from capturing the key cities of Leningrad and Moscow. On 6 December 1941, Soviet troops launched a significant counteroffensive that drove German forces permanently from the outskirts of Moscow.In June and July 1941, the Germans also occupied the Baltic states.
Ships burning during the attack at Pearl Harbor
On 7 December 1941, Japan (one of the Axis powers) bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war on Japan. On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States as the military conflict widened. This ensured that global conflict commenced, with Germany declaring war on the US, a few days later. Within a week of Pearl Harbor, Japan had invaded the Philippines, Burma and Hong Kong. The Pacific war was on.
The first Americans arrived in England in January - 'Over paid, over sexed and over here' as the gripe went - and in North Africa Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps began their counter-offensive, capturing Tobruk in June.
The Blitz intensified in both England and Germany, while in May 1942, the British Royal Air Force carried out a raid on the German city of Cologne with a thousand bombers, for the first time bringing war home to Germany. For the next three years, Allied air forces systematically bombed industrial plants and cities all over the Reich, reducing much of urban Germany to rubble by 1945.
In the Pacific, the Japanese continued their expansion into Borneo, Java and Sumatra. The 'unassailable' British fortress of Singapore fell rapidly in February, with around 25,000 prisoners taken, many of whom would die in Japanese camps in the years to follow.
USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise dive bombers attacking Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway
But June saw the peak of Japanese expansion. The Battle of Midway, in which US sea-based aircraft destroyed four Japanese carriers and a cruiser, marked the turning point in the Pacific War.
The second half of the year also saw a reversal of German fortunes. British forces under Montgomery gained the initiative in North Africa at El Alamein. Additionally, on the eastern front, during the summer of 1942, the Germans and their Axis allies renewed their offensive in the Soviet Union, aiming to capture Stalingrad on the Volga River, as well as the city of Baku and the Caucasian oil fields. The German offensive stalled on both fronts. In November, Soviet troops launched a counteroffensive at Stalingrad and on 2 February 1943, the German Sixth Army surrendered to the Soviets.
February saw German surrender at Stalingrad: the first major defeat of Hitler's armies. It is often a conveniently forgotten fact, at least among most Americans, that credit for the Allied victory in World War II belongs at least as much to the Soviet Union as to the "free world," and perhaps, more. In the five-month-long Battle of Stalingrad well over a million people died, making it the bloodiest battle in the history of the world. The victory was cheered in the West, where the allies had been relying on a Russian victory to keep Germany from freeing up its troops to take over much of the world. But afterward, conservatives in the United States began to fret that communism, rather than fascism, threatened to take over Europe. Battle continued to rage in the Atlantic, and one four-day period in March saw 27 merchant vessels sunk by German U-boats. A combination of long-range aircraft and the codebreakers at Bletchley, however, were inflicting enormous losses on the U-boats. Towards the end of May Admiral Dönitz withdrew the German fleet from the contended areas - the Battle of the Atlantic was effectively over.
The city of Stalingrad, in 1943, after its liberation from German occupation.
In mid-May German and Italian forces in North Africa surrendered to the Allies, who used Tunisia as a springboard to invade Sicily in July and in September, went ashore on the Italian mainland. After the Italian Fascist Party's Grand Council deposed Italian premier Benito Mussolini (an ally of Hitler), the Italian military took over and negotiated a surrender to Anglo-American forces on September 8. German troops stationed in Italy seized control of the northern half of the peninsula, and continued to resist. Mussolini, who had been arrested by Italian military authorities, was rescued by German SS commandos in September and established (under German supervision) a neo-Fascist puppet regime in northern Italy. German troops continued to hold northern Italy until surrendering on May 2, 1945.
In the Pacific, US forces overcame the Japanese at Guadalcanal, and British and Indian troops began their guerrilla campaign in Burma. American progress continued in the Aleutian Islands, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
The Germans mounted one more offensive at Kursk in July 1943, the biggest tank battle in history, but Soviet troops blunted the attack and assumed a military predominance that they would not again relinquish during the course of the war. As the Russian advance on the Eastern Front gathered pace, recapturing Kharkov and Kiev from Germany, Allied bombers began to attack German cities in enormous daylight air raids. The opening of the Second Front in Europe, long discussed and always postponed, was being prepared for the following year.
With advances in Burma, New Guinea and Guam, Japan began its last offensive in China, capturing further territory in the south to add to the acquisitions made in central and northern areas following the invasion of 1938. However, their control was limited to the major cities and lines of communication, and resistance - often led by the Communists - was widespread.
The Allied advance in Italy continued with landings at Anzio, in central Italy, in January. It was a static campaign. The Germans counter-attacked in February and the fighting saw the destruction of the medieval monastery at Monte Cassino after Allied bombing. Only at the end of May did the Germans retreat from Anzio. Rome was liberated in June, the day before the Allies' 'Operation Overlord', now known as the D-Day landings.
D-Day Landing, 6 June 1944
On 6 June, as part of a massive military operation, over 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France, which was liberated by the end of August. On September 11, 1944, the first U.S. troops crossed into Germany, one month after Soviet troops crossed the eastern border. In mid-December the Germans launched an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Allied air forces attacked Nazi industrial plants, such as the one at the Auschwitz camp (though the gas chambers were never targeted).
Some 12,000 aircraft ensured air superiority for the Allies - bombing German defences, and providing cover. The pessimistic predictions that had been made of massive Allied casualties were not borne out. On Utah beach 23,000 troops were landed, with 197 casualties, and most of the 4,649 American casualties that day occurred at Omaha beach, where the landing was significantly more difficult to achieve, meeting with fierce German resistance.
Overall, however, the landings caught the Germans by surprise, and they were unable to counter-attack with the necessary speed and strength. Anything that was moving and German was liable to be attacked from the air. Despite this, in the weeks following the landings Allied progress was slowed considerably, by the narrow lanes and thick hedgerows of the French countryside. Nevertheless, Cherbourg was liberated by the end of June. Paris followed two months later.
Hitler's troubles were compounded by a Russian counterattack in June. This drove 300 miles west to Warsaw, and killed, wounded or captured 350,000 German soldiers. By the end of August the Russians had taken Bucharest. Estonia was taken within months, and Budapest was under siege by the end of the year.
One glimmer of light for Germany came in the Ardennes, in France, where in December a German counteroffensive - the Battle of the Bulge - killed 19,000 Americans and delayed the Allies' march into Germany.
The New Year saw the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, and the revelation of the sickening obscenity of the Holocaust, its scale becoming clearer as more camps were liberated in the following months. The Soviets began an offensive on January 12, 1945, liberating western Poland and forcing Hungary (an Axis ally) to surrender. In mid-February 1945, the Allies bombed the German city of Dresden, killing approximately 35,000 civilians. American troops crossed the Rhine River on March 7, 1945. A final Soviet offensive on April 16, 1945, enabled Soviet forces to encircle the German capital, Berlin. As Soviet troops fought their way towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies at Reims and on May 9 to the Soviets in Berlin. In August, the war in the Pacific ended soon after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 120,000 civilians. Japan formally surrendered on September 2.
The Soviet army continued its offensive from the east, while from the west the Allies established a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, in March.
While the bombing campaigns of the Blitz were over, German V1 and V2 rockets continued to drop on London. The return bombing raids on Dresden, which devastated the city in a huge firestorm, have often been considered misguided.
Celebrating VE Day
Meantime, the Western Allies raced the Russians to be the first into Berlin. The Russians won, reaching the capital on 21 April. Hitler killed himself on the 30th, two days after Mussolini had been captured and hanged by Italian partisans. Germany surrendered unconditionally on 7 May, and the following day was celebrated as VE (Victory in Europe) day. The war in Europe was over.
In the Pacific, however, it had continued to rage throughout this time. The British advanced further in Burma, and in February the Americans had invaded Iwo Jima. The Philippines and Okinawa followed and Japanese forces began to withdraw from China.
Plans were being prepared for an Allied invasion of Japan, but fears of fierce resistance and massive casualties prompted Harry Truman - the new American president following Roosevelt's death in April - to sanction the use of an atomic bomb against Japan.
Such bombs had been in development since 1942, and on 6 August one of them was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later another was dropped on Nagasaki. No country could withstand such attacks, and the Japanese surrendered on 14 August.
The war was over.
SparkNotes Editors. (2005). SparkNote on World War II (1939–1945).
Retrieved February 9, 2010, from http://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/ww2/
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Retrieved March 4, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II