Second World War (1939-1945)

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The War in the West

The Buildup to War
Poland
Denmark & Norway
The Fall of France
The Battle of Britain
The Balkans and Greece
The War in the Desert
The War at Sea
The Russian Front
Invasion of Italy
D Day and the Liberation of Western Europe

The War in the East

The Buildup to War
The Japanese Onrush
The Turning of the Tide
Towards Victory

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The War in the West

The Buildup to War

Unlike many wars, blame for outbreak of the Second World War can be firmly placed on the hands of a single individual, Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany from 1933. His program for power was set down in Mein Kampf, 'My Struggle', written in part while he was in jail after a failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic in 1923. In it, Hitler outlined his vision of a future in which all Germans would be united in a single Reich which would thus include Austria, the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia, and those areas of Poland lost by Germany after 1918, in which France would have been humbled by Germany and reduced to the status of a small nation, and finally, in which Germany would control a large empire in eastern Europe, carved largely out of Russia and Poland. Once he came to power, he immediately began a program of rearmament, at first hidden, but eventually openly, and started to organize the Germany economy on a war footing. He soon started to achieve his aims. First was the reoccupation of the Rhineland, forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. In 7 March 1936 German troops marched across the Rhine bridges, under orders to retreat if the French, who at that point massively outnumbered the German army, took any action. Hitler was well aware that his regime would not survive such a humiliation, but the French did not act. Once in the Rhineland, Hitler was able to built the West Wall, a system of fortifications that severely limited any French ability to attack Germany if her eastern allies were threatened. Hitler next moved to Austria, where after a campaign of terror inside Austria he was able to launch a bloodless invasion (March 1938). Hitler quickly moved on to Czechoslovakia, where the presence of three million Germans, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, gave him his excuse. Under intense pressure from their apparent allies, Britain and France, the Czechs were forced to give in (29 September 1938), and hand over the Sudentenland, which contained the well built Czech fortifications. Once again, any French attack against the badly weakened German border would have resulted in an easy victory while the bulk of the German army would have been held up in the Czech defences, where they were faced by an army equal in size to their own. In 1939, Hitler moved on to Poland. This time Danzig and the Polish Corridor were his excuse, but his first attempt, in March, was rebuffed by strong Polish resistance, and joint English and French support of the Poles. Hitler had a deadline of September for military action, and he spent the summer building up to his invasion. During August, Hitler started to built up his forces on the Polish border. On 23 August, Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact, secretly agreeing to partition Poland between them. Finally, after a manufactured incident on 31 August, on 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. On 3 September, both France and Britain declared war on Germany. The Second World War had begun.

Poland

Hitler's attack on Poland met with rapid success. On the first day of the attack, massive air raids disrupted the Polish Air force, while fast moving Panzer units cut through the thin Polish border defences. Bombing of the railways and airbases cut all lines of communication, while the rapidly advancing armies left clusters of isolated Polish armies to be picked off later. Within a few days of the start of the attack, the Poles were powerless to act, and their defence lost any coordination. Despite this, the Poles fought valiantly, and despite suffering the Russian invasion on 17 September, the Poles held on for just over a month, with fighting only ending on 5 October. The invasion of Poland saw the first of many successful uses of Blitzkrieg, later to have such startling success in France. The leaders of both sides misunderstood the German successes in Poland. Hitler though that his own military genius had won the day, while the Western leaders though that Polish mistakes had resulted in their rapid defeat. In reality, it was the highly professional German soldiers whose skills and superior equipment had overwhelmed the Poles, helped by the near total inaction of the French and British on the relatively undefended western German frontier.

Denmark & Norway

The next German attacks were aimed at Denmark and Norway, rather than, as had been expected by the Allies, France and the Low Countries. Germanys main Steel supply came from Sweden, and while during the summer it could be shipped down the Baltic, during the winter it had to be shipped down the Norwegian coast. The British, in particular Churchill, then at the Admiralty, wanted to occupy northern Norway around Narvik, and occupy the Swedish steel areas, as part of a plan to go to the aid of Finland, then under attack by Russia. Hitler decided to preempt this by attacking Norway himself, taking Denmark on the way. The Danes offered no resistance to the Germans, and Denmark fell in a single day, 9 April 1940, after only token fighting. Norway was different. From 8-10 April 1940, the German navy moved their troops into position against the six main Norwegian ports, against some British opposition, at first from escorts engaged in mine laying, but soon from more serious Naval forces. Although the Germans suffered some losses, by 10 April they had captured their main objectives from Oslo to Narvik, although failed to capture the Norwegian government, who eventually escaped to exile in Britain. Between 14-19 April 1940, Allied troops landed at Trondheim and Narvik. The Trondheim landing soon turned to disaster under severe bombing, while the Germans at Narvik held on until the end of May. For a moment, it looked as if the Allies would be able to hold on to Narvik, distant from any threat of bombing, and disrupt the German steel supply. However, events in France were heading towards disaster, and the allied troops at Narvik were evacuated on 8-9 June 1940, leaving Norway to the Germans.

The Fall of France

The long awaited German attack in the west finally began on 10 May 1940. Hitler was hoping for a major victory over the French and British armies which would force them to sue for peace on German terms. The German plan was to advance rapidly into Holland, and more slowly into Belgium, in the hope that the Allies would rush their troops into Belgium, intent on preventing a repeat of 1914. With the Allied armies now out of place, the Germans would then drive through the Ardennes Forest of southern Belgium and drive across the Meuse, splitting the Allied forces, and negating the Maginot line of French defences, which stopped between Sedan and Verdun. This plan worked better than even Hitler could have expected. The first day of the attack saw an intense bombardment, combined with heavy bombing and parachute landings, which spread chaos across Holland and Belgium. It also saw Winston Churchill replace Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister. As expected, the French moved troops north, while the B.E.F. concentrated in Belgium. Only on 12 May, two days into the fighting, did the strongest German army reach the Meuse. The French quickly realised the danger they were in, but their reaction was too late. The Germans found themselves facing the weakest part of the French line, and by 15 May the Germans had established themselves across the Meuse. With incredible rapidity, the German drive brushed aside the French armies placed against them, reaching the channel coast on 21 May, only six days after the initial breakthrough, leaving the B.E.F, large numbers of French troops, and the Belgium army trapped, and facing apparent destruction. A large proportion of them were able to escape after Hitler gave his Stop Order, halting the attack from 26-28 May, possibly in the belief that the British might pull out of the war. Whatever his intention, the pause gave the trapped Allied troops time to organise a defence and evacuation, and between 28 May and 8 June, 338,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers were evacuated to Britain from Dunkirk.

Meanwhile, the Germans turned on the in effect already defeated French. Their assault started on 5 June. The French army fought stubbornly, but was quickly broken. The French government fled to Bordeaux on 10 June, the same day Italy entered the war, and Paris fell on 14 June. By the time the French government capitulated on 21 June the Germans had advanced as far south as a line from Bordeaux east to Switzerland. Only against Italy did the French have any success. A 32 division strong Italian invasion on 21 June was defeated by six French divisions, proving Mussolini correct in his frequent claims that Italy was not ready for war. The collapse of France left Great Britain alone against German. Hitler now ruled an empire that included three fifths of France, with the remaining two fifths controlled by the pro-German Vichy government of Marshal Petain, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The Battle of Britain

An immediate effect of the British isolation was that the Luftwaffe now had airbases in France, the Low Countries and Norway from which almost every part of the Britain could be attacked. However, any German invasion depended on the elimination of the Royal Navy. With no navy capable of such a feat, that was left to the Luftwaffe, whose mission was to first destroy the RAF and then the Navy, thus allowing the German invasion (Operation 'Sea Lion'). The Battle of Britain passed through four main phases. The first, from 8-18 August 1940, saw the Germans attempt to destroy Fighter Command through a series of raids on seaports and airbases, intended to draw the fighter fleet into dogfights where the greater German numbers would take their toll. This was foiled by the British Radar network, which allowed a far more efficient use of limited resources than the Germans planed for, allowing the RAF to maintain control of the air of Britain. The second phase, from 24 August-5 September, came clossest to victory. The Luftwaffe launched a series of large bombing raids against the main British airbases, putting many of them out of action. More importantly, the essential control centres from where the RAF ran the battle, had also rather foolishly been located at these airbases, and the damage to these control centres came close to knocking Fighter Command out of the battle. The tide was turned almost by chance. A stray German bomber had released its bombs over London. In retaliation, Bomber Command launched a series of attacks on Berlin and other German cities (24-29 August). Georing had previously boasted that not a single bomb would fall on Berlin, and he and Hitler were furious at the British bombing. They now redirected the Luftwaffe, and from 7-30 September the third phase of the Battle of Britain saw concentrated daylight attacks on London. This allowed Fighter Command to rebuilt its shattered infrastructure and also made the German aircraft much more vulnerable, with a single known target, and very limited fighter time over London. The last daylight attack on London occurred on 30 September, while Hitler suspended Operation Sea LIon. The final phase of the battle (1-30 October) saw a series of minor hit and run raids, and on 12 October Operation Sea Lion was canceled. The Battle of Britain was over, but the Blitz now began (November 1940-May 1941), a series of nighttime raids against most British cities, with Coventry suffering the worst single night of attack (although on a much smaller scale than Allied bombing of Germany later in the war). Very little could be done to stop the night bombers at this point in the war, and the only redeeming feature of the Blitz was that the Germans never developed a true heavy bomber, with which they could have done much more damage.

The Balkans and Greece

Fighting in Greece started late in 1940. On 28 October 10 Italian divisions based in Albania launched an attack on the Greeks. Mussolini had acted without informing Hitler, who was furious, and was soon made to look foolish by a slightly smaller Greek army, which first held of the Italian attacks, and then from 22 November launched a counterattack that rolled up the Italian armies. This had an impact on events in Yugoslavia, where early in 1941 Prince Regent Paul had agreed to join the Axis. On 27 March anti-German elements of the Yugoslav army, encouraged by Allied victories in Greece, took over the country, and changed sides. This prompted Hitler to order an invasion of Yugoslavia, which took a mere twelve days (6-17 April 1941) to conquer the country. At the same time other German armies, based in Bulgaria, launched an invasion of Greece, where British troops had been placed to stop them. The fighting here last a little longer, but the Greek army surrendered on 23 April, and the last British troops were evacuated on 27 April. The British now attempted to hold on to Crete, but a determined German airborne attack, launched on 20 May, slowly gained control of the island, and once again the British were forced to evacuate, and Crete was conquered by 31 May. However, in the process the German Paratroopers suffered such heavy casualties that Hitler never used them as Paratroops again. Greece remained in German hands until the end of 1944, when the occupying armies retreating into Yugoslavia in a vain attempt to slow the Russian advances.

The War in the Desert

The war in the desert began as a struggle between the Italians and the British. Egypt, because of the Suez Canal, was key to the security of the British Empire, while Italy had armies in Libya to the west and Ethiopia to the south east. Mussolini intended to capture the Canal through a two pronged attack. On 13 September one part of the plan was put in place, and an Italian army invaded Egypt, coming to a halt around Sidi Barrani, where they spread out over fifty miles. On 9 December General Wavell launched a counterattack, with only 31,000 men against the Italian 120,000. However, the Italians were spread too thin, and the British were able to take them on camp by camp. By mid December the Italians had been forced out of Egypt, and the British had captured 38,000 men and great quantities of Italian equipment. In the first month of 1941 the British attack continued into Wave, cutting off a huge Italian army. On 7 February the Italian armies surrendered. The British had taken 130,000 prisoners for only 500 dead, a crushing victory over Italian arms. A second campaign was targeted against the 110,000 Italians in Ethiopia. A total of 70,000 troops were to attack from Egypt, the Sudan and Kenya. The invasion was launched at the end of January 1941, and after a series of defeats, the Italians surrendered on 18 May. Faced with the defeat of his ally, Hitler send Rommel with the Afrika Korps to north Africa to retrieve the situation. At the same time, Wavell had been forced to send many of his troops to Greece, and Rommel's first offensive, launched on 24 March 1941 forced the British back to Tobruk, which was besieged from April to December 1941. After a failed counterattack in June, Wavell was replaced by Auchinleck, who launched a more serious attack, which between 18 November and 20 December forced Rommel back to his original starting point. At the start of 1942 the front was 800 miles west of Cairo, but on 21 January 1942 the reinforced Rommel launched his second offensive, which over the next six months pushed the British back into Egypt, capturing Tobruk on 21 June, before grinding to a halt at the end of June when the British fortified a line at El Alamein. On 13 August Churchill once again replaced his commanders, this time putting General Alexander in charge of the overall campaign, and General Bernard Montgomery in charge of the Eighth Army. Now the balance of power changed again, as the British were able to reinforce the Eighth Army, and by October Rommel was outnumbered. Having carefully planned his attack, Montgomery launched his great attack. The Battle of El Alamein (23 October-4 November) was one of the great turning points of the war. The battle wore down Rommel's reserves of fuel and ammo until he was unable to fight, and despite orders from Hitler to hold at all costs Rommel withdrew, pursued by Montgomery along the coast. Meanwhile, American forces made their presence felt for the first time. On 8 November, Operation Torch, the allied invasion of North Africa was launched. One task force landed in Morocco, two more in Algeria, where Vichy French troops put up some opposition, but Morocco and Algeria were soon in Allied hands. Tunisia was a different story. German reinforcements were rushed into the area, and the year ended with the two sides facing each other in stalemate in Tunisia. The first action in 1943 was initiated by Rommel, who attacked the US Army in the Kasserine Pass (14-22 February), brushing it aside in a classic blitzkrieg, before returning to his original position, having made sure the allies could not split the German pocket. The allies reorganised, and attacked in March (Battle of Mareth, 20-26 March 1943), where Montgomery, with a much stronger force, forced the Italians and Germans to withdraw. Finally, General Alexander launched the final attack (22 April), which by early May started to split the Axis forces, who started to surrender in large numbers. Fighting ended on 13 May 1943. The Axis had been permanently removed from Africa.

The War at Sea

Surface Warfare

The German surface fleet was in no way capable of any fleet actions against the Royal Navy of the sort that had been at least expected during the First World War, and that happened in the Pacific war against Japan. Instead, the Germans intended to use their fleet for commerce raiding, and in preparation for that, the Graf Spee and Deutschland, two pocket battleships, had moved into the Atlantic before the outbreak of war. The presence of such powerful ships hidden on the worlds shipping lanes posed a serious threat to the Royal Navy, which although much larger than the German fleet had worldwide concerns. After initial successes, the Graf Spee was cornered, and badly damaged at the Battle of the River Plate (13 December 1939), and was scuttled by her captain three days later, while the Deutschland was forced back to Germany by engine trouble. The Admiral Scheer, another pocket battleship, slipped past the British blockade in October 1940 and managed to remain undefeated for four months before returning to port, while in November the heavy cruiser Hipper also managed to escape, but was soon forced back, again by engine failure. 1941 saw two great surface raids. In January-March 1941 the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, two battle cruisers, entered the north Atlantic, and managed to find a convoy separated from it's battleship escort in March, sinking 16 ships over two days before escaping the rapidly closing British battleships. The Royal Navy finally gained a success, although at heavy cost, in May. The Bismark, newly launched, and then the biggest battleship in the world, left Gdynia for Bergenfjord on its way to the North Atlantic on 18 May. On 21 May, it was spotted by the British, who started to concentrate all of their naval forces on stopping the Bismark. On the same day the Germans sailed under cover of fog. On 24 May (battle of Denmark Strait), the Royal Navy attempted to stop her, but a single shot caused an explosion that destroyed H.M.S. Hood, one of the newest British ships, and damaged the Prince of Wales, and the Bismark escaped into the Atlantic. After a tense chase, during which contact was lost for over a day, aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal managed to do enough damage to slow down the Bismark, and the pursuing British ships were able to catch, and then sink, the great German battleship. In 1942 the emphasis of the German surface fleet altered, and the Tirpitz, Scheer and Hipper concentrated on the supply convoys to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel, which suffered very heavy casualties. However, after March 1943 supplies to Russia were able to use a safer southern route through the Mediterranean and Iran, and the Arctic convoys were no longer needed. The last major surface success of the German fleet was an attack on Spitsbergen led by the Tirpitz and the Scharnhorst (6-9 September 1943). On 21-22 September British midget submarines managed to damage the Tirpitz, while on 24-26 December the Scharnhorst, in an attempt to attack a British convoy was intercepted by the Royal Navy and sunk, in part by radar guided gunnery. For most of 1944, the British made repeated attempts to sink the Tirpitz before she could be repaired, and although many raids were required, eventually (12 November), she was hit by 6-ton 'Blockbuster' bombs, and sunk.

Submarine Warfare

The main German naval threat came from the U-Boats. After an initial flurry of sinkings at the outbreak of war, the submarines remained quiet for the rest of 1939, in the hope that Britain's declaration of war was more for show than anything else, but was stepped up in 1940, when it first started to bite. The Royal Navy was very short of destroyers for escort duty, and on 3 September 1940 a deal was struck with the United States in which Britain gained fifty, admittedly older, destroyers, in return for allowing the U.S. to build bases in British colonies. 1941 saw the introduction of the Wolf Packs, groups of up to fifteen U-boats operating together against convoys, and causing a serious rise in sinkings, in combination with long range German bombers based in France and Norway. The British response was introduce escort carriers, which extended air support across the entire Atlantic, and managed to reduce somewhat the toll from the Wolf Packs. 1942 saw the U-Boats at their most dangerous. The U.S., now in the war, was unprepared for submarine warfare, and from January to April 1942 the U-Boats were able to cause great damage on ships close to the American coast, where defences were at their weakest. As the American countermeasures improved, the U-Boats moved north to the shortest trans-Atlantic routes, and south into the Caribbean. By the end of the year, the U-Boat was still a serious danger, but over 80 had been sunk, and American ship production was coming close to making up for the sinkings. Regardless, January-March 1943 saw the U-Boat campaign come clossest to victory, and at one point Britain had only three months of food supplies. The tide turned in May. The British, aided by new microwave radar, concentrated on the Bay of Biscay area, an area all U-Boats from French bases had to cross, and bombers based on the south coast inflicted heavy losses on the U-Boat fleet. From June, the US Tenth Fleet put in place 'killer groups', each composed of an escort carrier with 24 fighter-bombers and a destroyer escort, and with orders to hunt and kill any U-Boat they came across. This inflicted very heavy casualties on the U-Boats, and in particular on the essential supply subs that allowed them to keep at sea for longer. Despite some individual successes, the U-Boat menace had been seen off. Despite some technical improvements to the U-Boat in early 1944, the improved Allied detection techniques held the field. Only after November 1944, when Doenitz limited his U-Boats to attacks in shallow coastal waters, where the new detection methods were ineffective, did losses rise again, but never to the heights of 1941 or 1942, and with the liberation of France he was forced to use Scandinavian and Baltic bases. Despite this, losses rose during the first months of 1945, and it was only after a double screen of escort carriers and destroyers was put in place north of the Azores that the U-Boats were finally knocked out of the war. By the end of the war, 781 U-Boats had been sunk, with the loss of 32,000 sailors, having sunk 2,575 ships, with 50,000 casualties.

The Russian Front


1941 The timing of Hitler's attack on Russia came as a total surprise to the Russian forces on the ground, despite obvious signs of a military buildup against them. The attack, on 22 June, started with an intense air attack, which virtually wiped out the Soviet air forces along the front, followed by a rapid, and devastating armoured attack, which by mid July had advanced over three hundred miles into Russia, and taken nearly 400,000 prisoners. The central German armies were only two hundred miles from Moscow, and despite increasing problems of supply as the advance created longer and longer supply lines, looked likely to take Moscow before winter, until Hitler, worried that the northern and southern armies were moving too slowly, weakened the attack towards Moscow. At first, this looked to have been a successful move. In the south, Kiev was captured, along 665,000 prisoners (September), and by the end of the year the Crimea had been captured, while in the north Leningrad came under attack from October, although an attack from Norway aimed at cutting the supply lines from Murmansk to Leningrad failed to achieve it's objective. From late September another attack on Moscow was ordered, but the time gained had allowed the defences of the city to be greatly strengthened, and the German attack ground to a halt, although only after taking another 600,000 prisoners. The year ended with a Russian counterattack, launched on 6 December with largely fresh, if untried troops, and troops from Siberia, better able to deal with the Russian winter than the Germans, and despite fierce German resistance, for the first time they were forced to give ground. However, a bigger setback for the Germans was that once it was clear Moscow would not fall, he removed many of the senior generals commanding in the east, and took personal control of the campaign, initially from Berlin.

1942 Stiff German defence finally stopped the Russian counterattack by the end of February. Nothing was possible between March and May during the Russian thaw. An initial German attack in May-June took back most of the ground lost to the Russian counterattack. The initial German plans for the main summer offensive were to first take Stalingrad, and then move on to attack the oil-rich Caucasus. However, Hitler intervened, and decided to launch both attacks at the same time, weakening them both. Both attacks started well, and the attack on the Caucasus reached within 70 miles of the Caspian Sea, which if reached would have cut off the Soviet oil supply from the Caucasus. However, Hitler intervened again, to weaken this attack in favour of the attack on Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad (24 August 1942-2 February 1943) was one of the turning points of the war in Russia. The Germans were far too stretched, with a very weak flank protecting the supply lines to the army attacking Stalingrad. While the Germans did capture the city, on 19 November a Russian counterattack shredded the front all around them, isolating the German troops, who were now under siege in the same city they had themselves attacked. Hitler, against all advice from his generals, ordered von Paulus to stand his ground, and despite attempts to relieve the siege, Paulus surrendered on 2 February 1943.

1943 The Russians kept up the pressure at the start of 1943, and only a quite amazing display of skill by Manstein, outnumbered seven to one, in February and March, prevented the collapse of the German line and saw the recapture of Kharkov. By now, the Russians outnumbered the Germans by four to one, and had received 3,000 planes and 2,400 tanks from the Americans alone. Even Hitler realised that no more great offensives would be possible, and instead planed for a more limited attack at Kursk. The Battle of Kursk (5-16 July) was the largest tank battle ever, and a combination of German delays and good Russian preparation made it a disaster for Germany. From now on, the Russians launched all of the offensives, pushing the Germans back through out the rest of the year. On 2 August, Hitler ordered his troops to Hold in the East, forbidding any organised retreats. This doomed the German forces in the east, as even when a pause in the Russian attack would have given them time to pull back to new defensive lines, Hitler would not allow it, and salient after salient was cut off by the Russian advance.

1944 The year started with the liberation of Leningrad (15-19 January), and continued with a series of successful Russian attacks. By the end of April, Odessa had been recaptured, and Romania threatened. The Russian summer campaign, timed to coincide with operation Overlord in the west, liberated White Russian during June-July, liberating Minsk on 3 July. Once again, Hitler's refusal to retreat had left his armies thinly spread, with no reserve, over a 1,400 mile long front, which was impossible to defend. July-August saw the Russians enter Poland, and reach close to Warsaw. At this point Stalin showed his own evil side. On 1 August, the Warsaw Revolt broke out, led by the anti-Communist Polish underground, in an attempt to gain control of Warsaw, and expecting the Russians, who were within easy striking distance, to come to their aid, but instead, Stalin ordered his troops to wait until the revolt had been crushed, and no more progress was made until after 30 September, when the revolt was finally over, Hitler having done Stalin's work for him. Meanwhile, other Russian offensives pushed the Germans out of Eastern Europe. Romania was conquered between 20 August and 14 September, while Bulgaria changed sides on 8 September. From November, Russian forces pushed towards the Baltic, finally reaching it, and cutting off an entire German army group in Latvia, while in the south the Germans pulled out of Greece, and were forced out of Yugoslavia. The only German victory was the defeat of the first Russian attack on East Prussia. As the year ended, Hitler had lost almost all of his conquests, but German soil, at least in the east, had not yet seen the fighting.

1945 The end finally came in 1945. By the end of January, the Russians had reached the Oder, Vienna fell on 15 April, and by the end of April East Prussia had been evacuated, in the last operation of the German Navy. Finally, the attack on Berlin was launched. Berlin was reached on 22 April, and surrounded on 25 April, the same day the Russian and American troops met at Torgau on the Elbe. Five days later (30 April), Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, and on 2 May all fighting in Berlin ended. Hitler's successors rapidly moved to surrender, and the war on the west officially ended at midnight on the night on 8-9 May 1945. Russia suffered more than any other country during the war. Between ten and fifteen million Russian civilians died, as did seven and a half million Russian soldiers, over half of all deaths during the war.

Invasion of Italy

With Africa now freed, the Allies turned their attention to Italy. After a month of air raids, two allied armies, under Patton and Montgomery, landed on Sicily on 9 July 1943. Despite determined fighting by Italian and German troops, the conquest of Sicily was complete by 17 August. By this point, Mussolini had been toppled. On 24 July he was replaced by Marshal Badoglio, who while promising to continue fighting, immediately started negotiating with the allies. An armistice was secretly signed on 3 September, to be announced on 8 September. On the same day, British troops landed at the southern tip of Italy. The armistice was announced on 8 September, and allied troops landed at Salerno on 9 September. Kesselring, in charge of the German defences concentrated on the Salerno beachhead, which by the end of the 9th was still limited to four unconnected beaches. The beachhead remained vulnerable until 14 September, when reinforcements, and Montgomery moving from the south made it secure. Kesselring withdrew to a line across the Italian peninsular, one hundred miles south of Rome. Fighting was fierce, and the German defence made every advance costly. On 22 January 1944 an attempt was made to break the stalemate by landing at Anzio, just south of Rome, but again Kesselring was up to the challenge, and the Anzio beachhead was soon under siege, in a way reminiscent of the First World War. It was only at the end of May that a renewed allied attack relieved the Anzio beachhead, and on 4 June Rome was captured. The Germans continued their skilled defensive battle, and at the end of the year the two sides faced each other across the 'Gothic' line, running across the peninsular just south of Bologna. Only in April 1945 did German resistance finally collapse, and when the war ended the Allies were chasing the remnants of the German armies in Italy across the alps, meeting other allied troops coming from the north in the Brenner Pass on 4 May 1945.

D Day and the Liberation of Western Europe

The long awaited second front in Europe was launched on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Operation 'Overlord' saw the greatest amphibious assault in history hit the Normandy beaches, with American forces landing on Utah and Omaha, and British and Empire troops on Gold, Juno and Sword. On the first day all the landings but Omaha were expanded to a comfortable depth, and two artificial harbours set up (reduced to one by a storm on 19 June). Hitler was convinced that the real attack would be around the Pas de Calais, and refused to let Rommel use the panzer reserves located there, while the allies slowly expanded their beachhead. By 12 June, the beachheads had been united, and while the British concentrated on Caen, the Americans cut off the Cotentin Peninsula and laid siege to Cherbourg. The British advance on Caen was slow, only taking it on 13 July, but the German armour was sucked into the defence of the town, and when the Americans broke through the German lines on the right they were able to make rapid progress, with Patton's Third Army freeing Brittany, before turning east to Le Mans, and most German resistance in France collapsed.

One German army corp in the south actually had trouble finding an allied army to surrender to, and by 14 September 1944 the front line had reached the German borders, liberating most of France and Belgium, and giving the allies new ports to shorten their now stretched supply lines. The Germans were now defending the Siegfried Line, understandably not well maintained after years where it seemed unnecessary. The first allies attempt to break the line was a total disaster. Operation 'Market Garden' was meant to capture the bridges over a series of rivers, including the Rhine, using airborne troops, and a rapid relief column. While the airborne troops landed successfully, they found the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem defended by much stronger forces than expected, and while the minor objectives were achieved, the battle of Arnhem (17-26 September) saw the outnumbered British 1st Airborne Division defeated. The emphasis now turned to the American attacks on the Siegfried line, which were initially unsuccessful. At this point, Hitler launched his last major attack in the west, the battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). Having managed to gather together one last offensive panzer army, and a bare minimum of fuel, the attack was launched through the Ardennes on 16 December. The aim was to repeat the success of 1940, and isolate the Allied armies in Belgium, but this time the balance of power was against him, and despite initial successes the attack was doomed. The attacking forces soon ran out of fuel, and failed to capture the allied fuel dumps, which were their first objective, and the weather cleared allowing the allied air forces to play their part, and by 16 January 1945 the bulge gained as so much expense had been removed. The allies could now go back onto the offensive. By the middle of March, allied armies lined the Rhine, the last natural barrier baring their way into Germany. The main planed attack was to be launched at Wesel by Montgomery on 23 March. One day before that, Patton launched his own surprise attack over the Rhine, and managed to cross with only 34 casualties. Within six days he had advance over 100 miles east of the Rhine. Montgomery's attack was also a success, and within days he controlled twelve bridges over the Rhine. The end was now close for the German armies. The western allies advanced to the Elbe (26 April), where they made contact with the Russians (2 May). Meanwhile, Hitler had committed suicide (30 April) during the Battle for Berlin, and his successors engaged in peace negotiations. The last main American campaign was directed south, against what turned out to be a fictional stronghold in the German alps. On 7 May the Germans surrendered. The armistice that ended the Second World War in Europe came into force at Midnight on the night of 8-9 May 1945.

The War in the East

The Buildup to War

Pacific Theatre: Pre War
Pacific Theatre: Pre War
The war clouds had been building in the far east since 1937. On 7 July 1937, the Japanese had contrived a border incident with China, and launched a brutal invasion of China, which met with initial rapid success. On 13 December 1937, they captured Nanking, then capitol of China, and embarked on an orgy of destruction so extreme it even shocked the Nazis. After the outbreak of the war in Europe it was clear that Japan had her eyes on French Indochina, and on 22 September 1940 they entered northern Indochina, provoking a US Steel embargo (26 September). However, the tension did not erupt into fighting for another year. On 17 October, Tojo became Premier of Japan at the head of a militaristic government. Soon after that, negotiations with the United States collapsed, partly because America made demands that they knew Japan would find unacceptable, and on 26 November the decision to attack was made.

The Japanese Onrush

The Japanese plan was to start the war with a knockout blow against the US Pacific fleet, while at the same time conquering the Southern Resource Zone (the Philippines, Malaya, modern Indonesia and Burma), where the mineral wealth Japan lacks could be taken, and also taking a wide defensive zone around the Zone, where they would build strong jungle fortresses, from where they could destroy any allied attempt to counter attack.

The first blow of the Japanese war was the famous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, on 7 December 1941 (8 December west of the International Date Line). A Japanese carrier fleet managed to reach position north of the Hawaii without being detected, and the air attack came as a total surprise to the Americans at Pearl Harbor, despite their having enough intelligence reports to expect a surprise attack somewhere. The US Pacific fleet suffered heavy losses - of 8 battleships in port, three sank, one capsized, and the rest were seriously damaged, as were three light cruisers and three destroyers and 250 aircraft. Luckily, all three American Aircraft Carriers were at sea, and escaped, reducing the impact of the attack. Within days, Hitler declared war on the United States, removing any last difficulties Roosevelt might have had getting a U.S. declaration of war on Germany, while the public revulsion at the surprise attack did more than anything to unit the American public behind the war effort.

The most outstanding feature of the Japanese attack was the speed with which it opened. One of the first places to come under attack was Wake Island, a U.S. base roughly half way between the Philippines and Hawaii, which was also attacked on 8 December, and fell after an heroic defence on 23 December. An attack of Guam, also in American hands, on 10 December was immediately successful. Also on 8 December were the first attacks on Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma

The first British possession to come under attack in the east was Hong Kong. Once again, the attack started on 8 December, with a quickly victorious attack on Kowloon that forced the British back onto Hong Kong Island, where after a stubborn defence they were forced to surrender on 25 December.

The most important British base in the far east was Singapore, said to be invincible. However, the heavy defences of Singapore were all facing out to sea, and the Japanese decided to attack overland. Once again, the attack began on 8 December, with a landing in Northern Malaya, which rapidly pushed down the Malaya peninsular, reaching the Strait of Johore facing Singapore itself on 31 January 1942. The landward side of Singapore was without heavy defences, and British morale had already collapsed. The Japanese, who were themselves close to running out of supplies and retreated, launched their attack on 8 February, and to their surprise the city surrendered on 15 February 1942, the single largest surrender of British troops in history. The fall of Singapore was a crushing blow to the British Empire in the far east, from which it never truly recovered, even after the final defeat of Japan.

The Japanese war plan included a plan to conquer Burma, with the intention of using the mountainous Burma-Indian border as part of the defensive ring around the Southern Resource Zone. Accordingly, on 12 January 1942 two strong divisions with air support crossed from Thailand, occupied in December 1941. Facing them were two weakened British divisions, poorly equipped and under supported, which were unable to stand up to the Japanese attack. During March and April, both sides were reinforced, with two Chinese armies joining the British, and planned offensives. The Japanese attacked first, and during the course of April the British position in Burma became untenable. Finally, in May, the British fell back to the Indian border, marked by the Chindwin River, and rough hilly country, where the front stabilised.

The Philippines

Pacific Theatre: Japanese Conquests
Pacific Theatre: Japanese Conquests
The main U.S. possession in the far east were the Philippines, then an American protectorate. The bulk of American forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, were on Luzon Island. On 8 December, the same day as Pearl Harbor, but some time after news of the attack had reached the Philippines, a Japanese air raid managed to catch the main US Airbase at Clark Field totally unaware, doing serious damage to the aircraft bases there. Two days later the Japanese landed on Luzon Island, in both the north and south, trapping the American forces there. MacArthur withdrew into the Bataan peninsular, abandoning Manila, but saving his army and tying down a large Japanese army. For most of early 1942 a war of attrition slowly forced the American troops down the peninsular. On 11 March MacArthur left under orders to assume command of all allied forces in the southern Pacific. Finally, the Japanese made a breakthrough on 3 April 1942, and within a week the American forces had surrendered. However, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines was never as secure as they had expected, and throughout the war the Filipino people fought a guerrilla war against them.

The Turning of the Tide

Emboldened by their quick success, by the middle of 1942 the Japanese expanded their aims to include Midway and the Solomon Islands, thinking that they would make their defensive zone much stronger. However, this led them into a series of defeats that mark the turning point in the Pacific.

Coral Sea and Midway

The turning point in the Pacific came with two naval battles, both of which saw Japanese attacks foiled. First was the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May 1942), the first naval battle at which no surface ships came into contact, fought entirely by carrier based aircraft. Two Japanese fleets, one heading to the southern Solomons, the other to Port Moresby on the south coast of Papua New Guinea, facing Australia, left port on 1 May. American intelligence was aware of these plans, and two carriers were sent to oppose them. The battle itself was a draw, with both sides losing one carrier, but the Japanese were forced to abandon their advance, a major Allied victory. The second, and more clear cut victory was the Battle of Midway (4-6 June 1942). The Japanese assembled the largest fleet yet seen in the war, containing 165 warships, and including all four of Japans fleet carriers, supported by 51,000 troops, with the intention of capturing Midway Island, from where they would be able to attack Hawaii. Once again, American intelligence was aware of the Japanese movement, and had managed to get three carriers into place to defend Midway, while the Japanese were convinced the carriers were elsewhere. The battle was a total American victory. All four Japanese carriers were sunk, for the loss of one American carrier, forever changing the balance of power in the Pacific, away from the Japanese and decisively towards the Americans.

Guadalcanal Some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific, both on land and at sea, was centred on the Island of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. In the summer of 1942 the Americans had been planning to attack the Japanese in the southern Solomons. News reached them of Japanese plans to build an airbase on Guadalcanal, and in reaction the American landings were pushed forward. The Marines landed on the island on 7 August 1942, and easily overwhelmed the small Japanese garrison, capturing the as yet unfinished airbase. However, Japanese air cover forced the U.S. Navy to withdraw for some days, leaving the Marines unsupported for ten days. However, the airbase was completed on 20 August, and supplies were able to reach both sides. On 23-25 October, the Japanese launched their attack (Land battle of Guadalcanal), but their attacks were piecemeal, and never really threatened the American positions. An attempt by the Japanese to land 13,000 reinforcements on the Island was, if not stopped, at least greatly hampered (Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 12-15 November 1942), and the Japanese naval losses during the battle gave control of the seas around Guadalcanal firmly to the Americans. Finally, the Americans launched their own offensive on 10 January 1943, and despite a determined defence the Japanese were eventually forced to evacuate the island. The last Japanese soldiers left on 7 February. This was the first large scale Allied victory over the Japanese, and the first major setback suffered by the Japanese.

Towards Victory

Despite their setbacks in 1942, the Japanese were still confident. Their original war plan had, after all, predicted a change from the offensive to the defensive once the Southern Resource Zone was captured, based on a series of jungle fortresses that would cost the allies massive casualties to take. They thus began 1943 still confident that their plans were intact. The allies spent most of the year reducing the threat to Australia, and then preparing to return to the Philippines in the next year. By now, it was starting to become clear that the United States had much more military potential that anyone had expected, and the allied plan to simply hold the Japanese until after the defeat of Germany was modified to allow increasing pressure on Japan. Still, it was only towards the end of 1944 that the decisive battles began. The U.S. plan was to begin with an attack on Leyte (Philippines), after which MacArthur would take Luzon, while Nimitz moved against Iwo Jima and Okinawa, in preparation for the invasion of Japan itself. The Japanese had a plan to deal with any attempt on the Philippines, using part of their fleet to draw of the American carriers, and the rest to destroy and landings. However, the Japanese were now sadly lacking in carrier pilots, and when battle was joined (battle of Leyte Gulf, 17-25 October 1944), the American fleet was able to in effect destroy the Japanese fleet. The Japanese lost nearly half of their fleet, and it was never again able to play a major part in the fighting. By 25 December, Leyte was secured, after fighting which cost 70,000 Japanese and 15,584 American casualties.

The two campaigns for 1945 now began. On 9 January U.S. troops landed on Luzon, freeing Manila by 4 March. However, the Japanese retreated into the mountains, and fighting went on right until the end of the war, with the last 50,000 Japanese troops only surrendering on 15 August. Despite this, US casualties were relatively light compared to the Japanese - 7,933 U.S. dead compared to 192,000 Japanese dead, a tribute to MacArthur's skill.

The attack on Iwo Jima was more expensive, although quicker. The US landed on 19 February, and had conquered the tiny island by 24 March, losing 6,891 dead. The Japanese had put in place one of the strongest systems of defence seen in the war, including a maze of tunnels that reduced the impact of the American bombardment. However, by the end of the war the lives of close to 25,000 U.S. airmen had been saved by using Iwo Jima to make emergency landing.

Okinawa was the only part of Japan proper to be assaulted during the war. As on Iwo Jima, the Japanese had constructed a massive system of defences, garrisoned by 130,000 men. The American landings began on 1 April, against very light initial opposition, but any relief was short lived, and on 4 April the US troops came up against the Machinato Line of defences, part of an interlocking series of mountain fortresses. The Japanese were able to resist the American assault for two months, with the fighting only ending on 22 June. The U.S. lost 12,500 killed to Japans 107,500.

It was the fanatical resistance on Okinawa that convinced the allied command to use the Atomic Bomb. After Japan gave no response to the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July demanding their surrender, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August, and the second of Nagasaki on 9 August. Japan offered to surrender the following day. The cease fire came into effect on 15 August, and the surrender was officially signed on 2 September 1945. There has been much debate over the use of the Atomic bombs, which killed 110,000 people directly, and many more since, but there is little doubt that any invasion of the Japanese home islands would have cost far more lives, both Japanese and Allied.

Reading

cover Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris , takes the life of Hitler from birth and childhood, through Vienna, the Trenches of the First World War, and into politics, stopping with his gaining of power in Germany. cover cover cover
cover Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis , Ian Kershaw: Takes the story of Hitlers life from his gaining of power in Germany, through the buildup to war, and on to the last days in the Berlin bunker cover cover cover
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich , William Shirer. One of the most outstanding histories of Nazi Germany, written by an American journalist who was present in Berlin through many of the events described, allowing him to give eyewitness reports of some of Hitlers great speeches. On top of that, Shirer added a well researched and detailed history of the war, based on the documents of all sides, but especially the German. cover cover cover
Fortress Europe: European Fortifications of World War II , J.E.Kaufmann & R.M.Jurga, a detailed study of the huge number of fortifications erected across Europe during the Second World War. cover cover cover
cover The World at War , A new edition of an excellent book based on the massive British TV series of the same name this book covers all theatres and aspects of the war with good maps and photographs. A must for students studying this period for an excellent overview. cover cover cover

Videos

World At War - Complete Series Boxset , The complete 11 tape set of the ground breaking British documentary series which covers the whole of the Second World War from the pre war build up and Hitlers rise to power to the final bitter struggle. Using eye witness accounts from survivors from both sides it is largely unbiased and an excellent resource for schools. cover cover cover

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How to cite this article:Rickard, J. (2001), Second World War (1939-1945), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_wwII.html

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