World War II

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World War II
World War II images: Landing on Omaha Beach, Gate of Auschwitz, Soviet flag over the Reichstag, Atomic bomb detonating, Nazis marching
(clockwise from top) Landing on Omaha Beach, Gate of Auschwitz, Soviet flag over the Reichstag, Atomic bomb detonating, Nazis marching
September 1, 1939 - September 2, 1945
Europe, Pacific, Atlantic, South-East Asia, China, Middle East, Mediterranean, and Africa
OutcomeAllied victory
AftermathCreation of the United Nations; Emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as rival superpowers; Cold War; Decolonization; Israeli independence
AlliesGreat Britain, France, United States, Soviet Union, China, et al.
AxisGermany, Italy, Japan, et al.
AlliesWinston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek
AxisAdolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo
Allies16 million military, 45 million civilian
Axis8 million military, 4 million civilian

World War II (WWII), also known as the Second World War, (1939-1945), was the largest and deadliest war in history. Over one hundred million soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought in the war, resulting in twenty million killed and many more wounded. Approximately fifty million civilians died as well.

A total war, World War II blurred the distinction between the military and civilians. It was also a true world war, with battles on nearly every continent and on all the oceans. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort bringing the financial cost to about $1 trillion worldwide (1944 dollars), making it the most expensive war in capital as well as in lives.

The world split into two opposing alliances: the Allies, led by Great Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China; against the Axis, led by Germany, Italy, and Japan. After six bloody years the Allies claimed victory, and in the aftermath the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two superpowers. This set the stage for the Cold War, which lasted for the next 45 years.

World War II is most often remembered as a time of goose-stepping Nazis; totalitarian dictators Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin; and for its images of starving concentration camp victims, gas chambers, bombed-out cities, and the detonation of the atomic bomb. Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, significant because it showed that genocide was possible in modern industrialized societies. World War II stands as an example of the horrors that war, racism, and technology can inflict on civilization.


See also: Causes of World War II

Following the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the victors established the Concert of Europe, a system in which no single European country could dominate over all the others. In the latter part of the 19th century, this balance of power began to break down. Germany unified under Prussian leadership, and rapidly gained in population. Emperor Napoleon III started the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), personally leading the French to a disastrous defeat. France was forced to cede the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.

World War I (1914-1918) arose from a relatively small dispute in the Balkans that grew to involve all the major countries of Europe and their colonial empires. The late intervention of the United States resulted in an Allied win, but the deaths of millions of Europeans affected all countries and resulted in a rise in pacifism.

At the end of World War I, German society was in ruins. The economy collapsed and the Kaiser abdicated. The army, however, was retreating in good order and had not been completely driven from France. After the armistice, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, accepting war guilt. The Treaty also restricted German military and territorial growth, and required the payment of reparations to compensate for the devastation in northern France and Belgium. Some in Germany considered this to be a humiliating treaty, and propagated a "Stab in the Back" myth. They claimed that Germany had been beaten from within by left-wing agitators. The new German democratic government, the Weimar Republic, faced many challenges.

Meanwhile the Russian Revolution led to the creation of the communist Soviet Union, which soon fell under the control of Joseph Stalin after Vladimir Lenin died. Their call for world revolution led to communist movements in many countries, often inspiring vigorous counter-revolutionary opposition against the spread of Bolshevism.

Fascist dictators Benito Mussolini (left) and Adolf Hitler

In Italy, Benito Mussolini took power as a fascist dictator promising to create a "New Roman Empire". His nationalistic message and authoritarian style became popular around Europe. Fascist ideology rested heavily on Social Darwinism, a pseudoscientific theory based on a misunderstanding of evolution. It attempted to rationalize violence and racism as natural processes, necessary for the progress of civilization.

This set the model for Adolf Hitler, an Austrian-born veteran of World War I, to seize power in Germany. He joined the Nazi Party and attempted to overthrow the democratic government, the Weimar Republic, in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. This failed, he was arrested, and he spent over eight months in prison. While there he wrote Mein Kampf, an autobiographical book in which he blamed many of Germany's problems on Jews and communists. He argued that the German, or Aryan race, needed to dominate lesser races or it would face extinction.

Aided by the unrest caused by the Great Depression, the Nazis became more and more popular in the 1930's. They staged elaborate rallies, drawing thousands of Germans, and won a significant share of the Reichstag, the German parliament. Nazis used intimidating tactics to win elections, with the Nazi Stormtroopers (a.k.a. SA, or Brown Shirts), a paramilitary group, beating and murdering opponents.

In China, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek launched a unification campaign against rebellious warlords in the mid-1920s, but were soon drawn into a civil war against their communist allies. In 1931, an increasingly militaristic Japan invaded Manchuria; the two nations then fought several small conflicts until signing a truce in 1933.

In 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. When President Paul von Hindenburg died, Hitler declared himself Fuhrer of the "Third Reich", an empire that would last one thousand years. The flag of Germany was changed to include the Nazi swastika. Hitler pursued an expansionist foreign policy, seeking lebensraum in the east, and stepped up racist and antisemitic persecution within Germany. In early 1935, the Saarland was legally reunited with Germany and Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, introducing conscription and beginning a massive rearming campaign.

Before 1935, Italy had aligned itself with the Allies, hoping to contain German expansion in Austria and the Alps. In October 1935, however, Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the only country in Africa that had so far resisted European colonization. The League of Nations condemned the invasion, and Italy was soon politically isolated. Germany became the only major European nation to support its aggression.

Guernica, Spain, 1937

In March of 1936, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, an event that had been specifically forbidden as a casus belli in the Treaty of Versailles, but received little response. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July, Hitler and Mussolini supported fascist General Francisco Franco against the Soviet and Western-supported Spanish Republic. Both sides used the conflict to test new weapons and methods of warfare. The Luftwaffe introduced terror bombing when it killed over a thousand civilians in Guernica, a city in the Basque region of northern Spain, inspiring Pablo Picasso to create his famous antiwar painting, Guernica.

In October 1936, Germany and Italy formed the Rome-Berlin Axis and a month later Germany and Japan, believing the Soviet Union to be a threat, signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which Italy joined the following year. In China, the Nationalist and Communist forces agreed to a ceasefire in order to present a united front against Japan.

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Hitler used the opportunity to showcase his empire and the supposed preeminence of the German master race. The African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens won several gold medals.

In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria (the Anschluss), again provoking little response from other European powers.

Hitler then claimed the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a German-speaking majority. Czechoslovakia had a large modern army and was prepared to fight to preserve its independence. However, Great Britain and France betrayed their ally and met with Hitler. With the Munich Agreement, they appeased Hitler and granted him the Sudetenland in return for a promise of no further territorial demands. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned home in September 1938 declaring, "I believe it is peace for our time." Hitler reneged, and in March 1939 occupied Prague and the remainder of Czechoslovakia.

Hitler then demanded concessions from Poland, including the Polish Corridor and the free port of Danzig, Poland's only links to the sea. Great Britain and France pledged to defend Poland if it were attacked. At the end of August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression treaty.

Western Front[edit]


Polish soldier, 1939

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, using the pretext of a staged Polish attack on a German border post. On September 3, the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum to Germany. No reply was received, and Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany, followed later that day by France. Soon afterwards, South Africa, Canada and Nepal also declared war on Germany. Immediately, the British began seizing German ships and implementing a blockade.

Despite the French and British treaty obligations and promises to the Polish government, neither country launched a full-scale land invasion of Germany. The French mobilized slowly and then mounted a short token offensive in the Saar. The French instead relied on the protection of the Maginot Line, counting on these defensive fortifications to negate the German advantages in manpower and equipment.

By September 8, the Germans reached Warsaw, the Polish capital. The Poles continued to fight, but on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Poland was soon overwhelmed, and the last Polish units surrendered on October 6. Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union.

After Poland fell, Germany paused to regroup during the winter while the British and French stayed on the defensive. The period was referred to by journalists as "the Phony War" because of the inaction on both sides. In Eastern Europe, the Soviets occupied the Baltic states, leading to a war with Finland, a conflict which ended with land concessions to the Soviets. In early April 1940, Germany invaded Norway, securing access to Swedish iron ore. It was a two-month campaign that resulted in complete German control of Denmark and Norway, though at a heavy cost to their surface navy. The fall of Norway led to the Norway Debate in London, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was replaced by Winston Churchill.

Stuka dive bomber procedure

Fall of France[edit]

"Où est la masse de manoeuvre?" - Winston Churchill, May 16, 1940.

On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Army advanced into Belgium and planned to fight a mobile war in the north, while maintaining a defensive front along the Maginot Line further south. This was foiled by an unexpected German thrust through the Ardennes, a rugged forest in southeastern Belgium and Luxembourg, splitting the Allies in two. Hundreds of thousands of BEF and French forces, encircled in the north, were evacuated from the port of Dunkirk, across the English Channel, in Operation Dynamo. Italy entered the war, attacking southern France on June 10, 1940. France, overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg, signed an armistice with Germany on June 22, 1940, leading to the direct German occupation of Paris and two-thirds of France, and the establishment of a German puppet state headquartered in Vichy, France. During the Fall of France, general Charles de Gaulle escaped to England, and broadcast over radio calling French forces around the world to continue to fight against the Germans.

Battle of Britain[edit]

With Great Britain standing alone, Germany prepared for Operation Sealion, the invasion of England. Most of the British Army's heavy weapons and supplies had been lost at Dunkirk, but the Royal Navy still controlled the English Channel. The Germans attempted to gain air superiority by destroying the Royal Air Force (RAF) using the Luftwaffe. The ensuing air war beginning in the late summer of 1940 became known as the Battle of Britain. During this battle, the RAF was helped by an influx of new Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. These aircraft were superior to the German Messerschmidt Me 109. The Luftwaffe initially targeted RAF airfields and radar stations, but by September commander Hermann Goering and Hitler changed their strategy towards bombing British cities, an offensive which became known as The Blitz. At one point London was bombed for fifty-seven consecutive nights, resulting in many civilian casualties. This diversion of resources allowed the RAF to rebuild its airbases. Additionally, rather than terrorizing the British populace into submission, it hardened their resolve. As the Luftwaffe bomber groups took heavier and heavier losses, Hitler was forced to postpone the invasion indefinitely.

With Germany in control of the continent, Great Britain settled for strategic bombing and special operations such as the disastrous Dieppe Raid. In the relative safety of England, many of the conquered nations formed governments in exile and assembled military units. In occupied countries, resistance movements sabotaged transportation and industry, and reported German movements to the Allies. German forces, including the dreaded Gestapo and local collaborators, took reprisals against innocent civilians as well as the partisans, torturing and killing thousands. Meanwhile, Germany fortified its position by constructing the Atlantic Wall.

Battle of the Atlantic[edit]

"The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril." – Winston Churchill

The Battle of the Atlantic was a nautical campaign which lasted the duration of the war. Having conquered most of Continental Europe, Germany sought to sever the oceanic supply lines to Great Britain.

Having faced U-boats during World War I, the British quickly implemented a convoy system at the beginning of the war and enforced a blockade on Germany. They were short of escort ships though, so many merchant ships had to sail without protection.

With the German conquests of Norway and France in 1940, U-boats gained additional ports on the Atlantic coast of France to use as bases. The Royal Navy became severely stretched, having to remain stationed in the English Channel to protect against a German invasion, send forces to the Mediterranean Sea to make up for the loss of the French fleet, and provide escort for merchant vessels. This was somewhat mitigated by the Destroyers for Bases Agreement with the United States Navy in September 1940, in which the British exchanged several of their overseas bases for fifty destroyers which were then used for escort duties. The success of U-boats in this period led to an increase of their production and the development of wolf pack tactics.

German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, in Montevideo

The German surface navy had mixed results. The Graf Spee, a pocket battleship, went raiding British commerce as far as the Indian Ocean, sinking several merchant ships. She was tracked down off the coast of South America, engaged by three smaller ships, and forced to scuttle near Montevideo, Uruguay.

The Bismarck, one of the most powerful battleships in the world, broke out into the Atlantic, sinking the HMS Hood along the way. After an extensive chase it was sunk. Following this engagement Hitler forbade further breakout attempts and kept the German surface fleet close in to Norway and the Baltic Sea.

In May 1941, the British captured an intact Enigma machine, which greatly assisted in breaking German codes and allowed for plotting convoy routes which evaded U-boat positions.

In the summer of 1941, the Soviet Union entered the war on the side of the Allies, but quickly lost much of its equipment and manufacturing base in the first few weeks following the German invasion. The Western Allies sent Arctic convoys full of equipment and supplies to the Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk. These convoys faced constant harassment from German forces.

In September 1941, many of the U-boats operating in the Atlantic were ordered to the Mediterranean to block British supply routes. When the United States entered the war that December, it experienced shipping losses so great that the Germans referred to it as a "second happy time".

In February 1942, several German capital ships that were stationed in the port of Brest, France, managed to slip through the English Channel to their home bases in German waters, dealing a significant blow to the Royal Navy's reputation.

In American waters, the institution of shore blackouts and an interlocking convoy system resulted in a drop in attacks, and the U-boats shifted their operations back to the mid-Atlantic by August 1942.

In the spring of 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic began to turn in favor of the Allies with the pivotal point being Black May, a period where the Allies had fewer ships sunk and the Kriegsmarine lost 25% of their active U-boats. By this time, Germany was unable to regain the initiative; Allied production, such as the mass-produced Liberty ships, improved antisubmarine warfare tactics, sea route patrols with long range attack aircraft, and ever-improving technology led to increasing U-boat losses and more supplies getting through. This allowed for the massive buildup in England needed for the eventual invasion of Western Europe.


Yugoslavia was overwhelmed by a German invasion in the summer of 1941. Following that, partisan resistance continued mainly from two factions: the Royalists, or Chetniks, loyal to the king; and the Communists, loyal to Josip Tito.

Italy's invasion of Greece stalled, and Italian forces were pushed back into southern Albania. The Germans then invaded Greece from the northeast, routing the Greeks and forcing the British to evacuate. An attempt was made by the Allies to hold the island of Crete. This was foiled by a German airborne invasion, which despite taking heavy losses succeeded in conquering the island. The Royal Navy lost several ships to air attack while evacuating the survivors. Explaining why he risked his ships to rescue men from Crete, Admiral Cunningham said, "It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition."

Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary joined the Axis and participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Middle East[edit]

In Iraq, a coup threatened the British oil supply, causing them to have to commit troops to invade and occupy the country.

In Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon, British and Free French forces invaded because the Vichy were allowing Axis troops to pass through and use military bases.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the British and the Soviets launched a joint invasion of Iran to secure its oilfields and the Persian Corridor supply route for Soviet use.

Turkey stayed neutral until the last few months of the war, when it joined the Allies.

Palestine was a British Mandate. Pressured by the Arabs, the British refused to allow asylum there for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

North Africa[edit]

Control of North Africa was important because the British depended on shipping through the Suez Canal. If the canal fell into Axis hands, then transport between the United Kingdom, India, and Australia would have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, an increase of several thousand miles.

Almost immediately after declaring war, Italy attacked Malta, a Mediterranean island held by Great Britain. Despite repeated bombings, the British kept it for the duration of the war. The island was used as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier", disrupting Axis shipping and serving as an important Allied resupply point.

Following the French surrender in 1940, the British attacked the French Navy anchored in North Africa, out of fear that it might fall into German hands. This contributed to a souring of British-French relations for the next few years.

Italy sought to expand its empire in Africa. In June 1940 it made incursions into Egypt, starting the North Africa campaign, and into Sudan and Kenya. In August, Italy invaded British Somaliland.

The Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, fought several battles against the British, losing most of them. On November 12, 1940, the British launched the first all-aircraft naval attack against the Italian fleet at Taranto, scoring a major victory.

British Crusader tank passes burning Panzer IV during Operation Crusader

In December, British forces under General Archibald Wavell launched Operation Compass, expelling Italian forces from Egypt and pushing them all the way west across Libya. Starting in January 1941, British forces began an offensive into Italian East Africa, culminating in an Italian defeat.

Alarmed by the Italian setbacks, Hitler authorized reinforcements, and sent German forces to Africa in February. The Afrika Korps led by General Erwin Rommel launched an offensive that pushed British forces back into Egypt, and besieged the port of Tobruk.

Operation Battleaxe, intended to be a major offensive in the Western Desert, resulted in the loss of nearly half of the British tanks in the region. Frustrated by the lack of success, Churchill had Wavell replaced with Claude Auchinleck in early July.

There was then a lull in activity as Hitler focused on the invasion of the Soviet Union. On November 18, the Allies launched Operation Crusader, an offensive in the Western Desert, which pushed Rommel back to his original starting point at El Agheila in Libya.

On January 21, 1942, Rommel launched an offensive, which pushed the British forces back to Gazala, just west of Tobruk. He gained a reputation as the "Desert Fox". In late May, the Axis overran Tobruk and chased the British to within a few miles of Alexandria, Egypt. They were finally halted at El Alamein, the last defensible position before Alexandria, but left dependent on a long, tenuous supply line.

Churchill changed commanders again. Auchinleck was replaced by Harold Alexander, and Bernard Montgomery took over Allied land forces in Egypt. This allowed Montgomery to focus on North Africa without the distractions from other parts of the Middle East that previous commanders had faced.

In late October, after building up his forces, Montgomery launched the Battle of El Alamein, destroying most of Rommel's armor in a punishing frontal assault, pushing the Axis forces back and pursuing them across the desert. Several Italian divisions, unable to retreat and abandoned by the Germans, were captured following this battle.

In November, Allied forces landed in an amphibious operation in Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria with minimal resistance. In retaliation, the Germans marched into Vichy France, though they failed to capture the French fleet at Toulon because it was scuttled hours before their arrival.

With the British closing in from the east and the Americans from the west, Rommel launched a surprise counterattack at Kasserine Pass. Although he achieved a minor tactical success over inexperienced American units, his strategic situation soon became hopeless. Axis forces were hemmed into a smaller and smaller area in Tunisia. By May 1943, Rommel was recalled to Germany, and hundreds of thousands of troops surrendered.


In July, the Italian Campaign began with the Allied invasion of Sicily, an attempt to exploit the "soft underbelly" of Europe. The continued series of Italian defeats led to Mussolini being dismissed by the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, and subsequently arrested. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, then began negotiating surrender with the Allies. On September 3 the Allies invaded the Italian peninsula and shortly afterwards, an armistice was signed. This was made public on September 8. Germany had anticipated the surrender, and seized control of northern and central Italy. A few days later, Mussolini was rescued by German special forces and before the end of September created the Italian Social Republic, a German puppet state.

From October until mid-1944, the Allies fought through a series of defensive lines and fortifications designed to slow down their progress. The strongest of the German defensive lines, the Gustav line, held for several months, even following an Allied amphibious landing behind it at Anzio. It was finally breached nearly simultaneously in May at Monte Cassino and with a breakout at Anzio. Allied forces liberated Rome on June 4.

In August, Allied forces in Italy were divided, with a significant portion sent to southern France to assist in the liberation of Western Europe while the remainder pressed north to engage the remaining German forces, notably at the Gothic Line. On April 25, 1945, a little over a year and half after its creation, the Italian Social Republic was overthrown. Mussolini, his mistress, and several of his ministers were captured by partisans while attempting to flee. They were executed, and then strung up in a public square in Milan. Fighting in Italy continued until early May 1945, only a few days before the general German surrender.

Liberation of Western Europe[edit]

"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world." – Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 1944.

By the spring of 1944, the Allied preparations for the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of France were complete. They had assembled around one hundred twenty Divisions, consisting of over two million men, of whom 1.3 million were Americans, 600,000 were British and the rest Canadian, Free French and Polish. The invasion, commonly referred to as D-Day, was set for June 5 but bad weather and rough seas postponed the invasion to June 6, 1944.

Opposing this force, the Germans had constructed an elaborate series of fortifications along the coast called the Atlantic Wall, including tank obstacles, mines, pillboxes, and artillery positions. The Allied forces under supreme command of Dwight D. Eisenhower launched an elaborate deception campaign to convince the Germans that the landings would occur in the Calais area, which caused the Germans to deploy many of their forces in that sector.

Beach in Normandy, June 1944

The invasion began with 17,000 airborne troops being dropped in Normandy to serve as a screening force to prevent the Germans from attacking the beaches. Although badly scattered, they managed to sow confusion behind the German lines and achieved their missions.

During the early morning, a massive naval flotilla bombarded German defenses on the five beaches: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. This was followed by waves of landing craft and amphibious tanks. On Omaha Beach, intact German defenses manned by experienced defenders held back the attackers for several hours and caused heavy casualties. Destroyers came close in, risked grounding, and provided direct artillery support, breaking the stalemate. By the end of the first day, most of the Allied objectives were accomplished, although the British and Canadians failed to capture Caen. For several days Hitler still believed that the main landings were going to happen in Calais, and his refusal to release more units to Normandy allowed the Allies to further consolidate their beachheads.

The bocage terrain of Normandy where the Americans had landed made it ideal ground for defensive warfare. Nevertheless, the Americans made steady progress through the hedgerows and captured the deep-water port of Cherbourg on June 26, one of the primary objectives of the invasion. The British launched another attack on June 13 to capture Caen but were held back as the Germans had moved in heavy reinforcements. The city was to remain in German hands for another 6 weeks.

Allied firepower, improved tactics, and numerical superiority eventually resulted in a breakout of American mechanized forces under General Bradley at the western end of the Normandy pocket near Avranches on July 23. When Hitler learned of the American breakout, he ordered his forces in Normandy to launch an immediate counter-offensive near the town of Mortain. However the German forces moving in open countryside were now easily targeted by Allied aircraft, and Hitler's counteroffensive sent his forces west at a time when they faced annihilation unless they retreated.

The Americans placed strong formations on their flanks which blunted the attack and then began to encircle the German Seventh Army and large parts of the German Fifth Panzer Army in the Falaise pocket. Some 50,000 Germans were captured, but 100,000 managed to escape the pocket, due to Montgomery's slow advance on Falaise with Canadian units as well as Bradley's decision not to let XV corps of Patton's Third Army advance north of Argentan. However Bradley did send authorize Patton to send units east to the Seine River to cut off the path of retreat and force the Germans downstream where the crossings were more difficult. Very few Germans successfully retreated across the Seine and most of their tanks, artillery, and even machine guns were lost.[1]

Meanwhile, the British and Canadians began to break through the German lines in the east. Any hope the Germans had of containing the Allied thrust into France by forming new defensive lines was now gone. The Allies raced across France, advancing as much as 600 miles in two weeks. In August 1944, Allied forces invaded southern France, and linked up with forces from Normandy. The clandestine French Resistance in Paris rose against the Germans on August 19, and the Free French 2nd Armored Division, pressing forward from Normandy, liberated the city on August 25.

Around this time the Germans began launching V-1 rockets (known as the "buzz bomb"), the world's first cruise missile, at targets in southern England and Belgium. Later they would employ the much larger V-2 rocket, a liquid-fuelled guided ballistic missile. These weapons were inaccurate and could only target large areas such as cities; they had little military effect and were intended to demoralize Allied civilians.

Logistical problems plagued the Allies as they fanned out across France and the Low Countries, advancing towards the German border. With the supply lines still running back to Normandy, and critical shortages in fuel and other supplies all along the front, the Allies slowed the general advance and focused the available supplies on a narrow front strategy. Allied paratroopers and armor attempted a war-winning advance through the Netherlands and across the Rhine River with Operation Market Garden in September (the goal was to end the war by Christmas). The plan was to land paratroopers near bridges on the Rhine River, hold the position, and wait for the armor to cut through enemy lines to reinforce them and then cross into Germany. Although the Allies encountered mostly success, some of the bridges were blown up, and the advancing armored columns ran into delays. As a result, the British 1st Airborne Division, holding the last bridge, was nearly annihilated. The Germans were able to entrench all along the front and the war continued through the winter.

In October, the Americans captured Aachen, the first major German city to be occupied.

Hitler had been planning to launch a major counter-offensive against the Allies since mid-September. The objective of the attack was to capture Antwerp. Not only would the capture or destruction of Antwerp prevent supplies from reaching the allied armies, it would also split allied forces in two, demoralizing the alliance and forcing its leaders to negotiate. For the attack, Hitler concentrated the best of his remaining forces in the west, launching the attack through the Ardennes in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, a hilly and wooded region, and the site of his victory in 1940. Dense cloud cover denied the Americans the use of their reconnaissance and ground attack aircraft.

American 26th Infantry Regiment with antitank gun

Parts of the attack managed to break through the thinly held American lines (about 4 divisions which were either new or refitting to cover about 70 miles of the front-line), and dash headlong for the Meuse River. However, the northern section of the line held, constricting the advance to a narrow corridor. The resulting bulge in the Allied line led to the name, "Battle of the Bulge". The German advance was delayed at St. Vith, which American forces defended for several days. In the south the Germans advanced further. At the vital road junction of Bastogne, the American 101st Airborne Division held out, surrounded, for the duration of the battle. Patton's 3rd Army to the south made a rapid 90 degree turn and rammed into the German southern flank, relieving Bastogne.

The weather by this time had cleared unleashing allied air power as the German attack ground to a halt at Dinant. In an attempt to keep the offensive going, the Germans launched a massive air raid on Allied airfields in the Low Countries on January 1, 1945. The Germans destroyed 465 aircraft but lost 277 of their own planes. Whereas the Allies were able to make up their losses in days, the Luftwaffe was not capable of launching a major air attack again.

Allied forces from the north and south met up at Houffalize and by the end of January they had pushed the Germans back to their starting positions. Many German units were caught in the pocket created by the Bulge and forced to surrender or retreat without their heavy equipment. Months of the Reich's war production were lost at a time when German forces on the Eastern front were virtually starved of resources and the Red Army was preparing for its massive offensive into Germany itself.

Invasion of Germany[edit]

Ludendorff Bridge, March 1945

The final obstacle to the Allies was the Rhine River, which was crossed in late March 1945, aided by the fortuitous capture of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. Also, Operation Varsity, a parachute-assault in late March, got a foothold on the east bank of the Rhine River. Once the Allies had crossed the Rhine, the British fanned out northeast towards Hamburg, crossing the Elbe River and moving on towards Denmark and the Baltic Sea.

The Ruhr region of Germany contained most of its heavy industry, and was vital to the German war effort. Once across the Rhine, the U.S. 12th Army group, numbering over 1.3 million men, encircled the Ruhr. Under General Omar Bradley, they reduced the pocket, capturing some 300,000 German soldiers commanded by Field Marshal Walther Model. The Americans then turned east, halting their advance at the Elbe River where they met up with Soviet troops in mid-April.

Eastern Front[edit]

The Eastern Front encompassed the conflict in central and Eastern Europe from June 22, 1941 to May 8, 1945. It was the largest theater of war in history in terms of numbers of soldiers, equipment, and casualties and was notorious for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, and immense loss of life. It was here where the Red Army halted the Germans in 1941 and then inflicted major defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, and eventually fought its way into Berlin in 1945.

Operation Barbarossa[edit]

Soviet machine gunner, November 1941

"We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down." – Adolf Hitler, June 1941.

Adolf Hitler broke the nonaggression pact he had made with the Soviet Union two years before. Convinced that the Soviets would eventually attack Germany if given enough time, he planned to destroy the Red Army before it could prepare itself.

For the campaign against the Soviet Union, the Germans assembled three army groups, totaling about 3.3 million men, along with 1 million men from other Axis countries, 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery pieces, and 2,500 aircraft. It was the largest and most powerful invasion force in history. Stalin had just recently purged the Red Army, reducing morale just before the German invasion. With up to 50% of army officers executed, the result was that the Red Army officer corps in 1941 had many inexperienced senior officers.

The invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece delayed the German invasion of the Soviet Union by a critical six weeks, but on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa began.

Germany’s Army Group North attacked from East Prussia towards the Baltic States and Leningrad. Army Group Center attacked from Poland towards Moscow. Army Group South deployed from southern Poland and Romania and also included two Romanian armies and several Italian, Slovakian and Hungarian divisions. It attacked through the Ukraine and southern Russia, towards the oil fields of the Caucasus.

The Axis quickly advanced to the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow, killing or capturing millions of Soviets in the process. Large numbers of Soviet troops were cut off and captured around Kiev and Smolensk, and in numerous smaller pockets. Leningrad was besieged and the citizens began to starve. Moscow was successfully defended, with the Soviets using fresh troops under General Zhukov recently transferred from Siberia. The Russian winter set in, and the Germans were forced to dig in until the spring.

Kharkov and Stalingrad[edit]

German armored unit in southern Russia, 1942

"Our units were tired. There were many whining pessimists in the army. I threw these panicky people out of the army right away and set to work. I told our men we could not retreat beyond the Volga... I believe that nowhere else in this war was there such bloody hand-to-hand combat. Nowhere else were bayonets and hand grenades used so widely as in Stalingrad...Lieutenant General Rodimtzev's division was first to arrive there and received the fierce German blow. Rodimtzev told me: 'We will fight to the last man, but we shall not leave the city.' ...Our soldiers had only one idea. Stalin had ordered us not to retreat." - Vasily Chuikov

In May 1942, the Soviets attempted to retake the city of Kharkov, in the eastern Ukraine. They opened with simultaneous attacks on either side of Kharkov and broke through German lines. In response, German reinforcements struck at the salient from the south and encircled the entire Soviet army assaulting Kharkov. In late May, the Germans destroyed the forces inside the pocket. The Soviets lost a quarter of a million troops.

Hitler realized that his armies were too weak to carry out attacks everywhere, so he directed an offensive against southern Russia, with the oil fields of the Caucasus being the objective. 71 Axis divisions, 51 of them German, organized in two groups attacked in June 1942. Army Group A drove straight for the oil fields, while Army Group B, including the elite 6th Army, assaulted the city of Stalingrad. Located on the Volga River, Stalingrad was strategically important because it guarded the left flank of the offensive, and was one of the original objectives of Operation Barbarossa. Its capture would also sever the supply line coming from the United States through Iran.

Germans bombers killed over 40,000 people and turned much of the city into rubble. Soviet reinforcements arrived under General Zhukov, Stalin's most trusted general. On September 13, the Germans advanced through the southern suburbs and by September 23, 1942, the main factory complex was surrounded and German artillery was shelling the quays on the river, across which the Soviets evacuated wounded and brought in reinforcements.

Ferocious urban warfare, including hand-to-hand combat then ensued in the ruins of the city. Casualties were heavy on both sides. So great were Soviet losses that at times, the life expectancy of a newly arrived soldier was less than a day and the life expectancy of a Soviet officer was three days. The Soviets had a superior submachine gun in the PPSh-41, and by drawing the Germans into close combat were finally able to fight on advantageous terms.

Exhaustion and deprivation gradually drained the Germans' strength. Hitler, obsessed with the battle, refused to allow a retreat. General Paulus, the German commander, launched yet another attack in early November, overrunning 90% of the city.

The Soviets, however, built up massive forces on the flanks of Stalingrad. They launched twin counterattacks that met at the city of Kalach four days later, encircling the Germans.

Paulus requested permission to attempt a breakout. Hitler refused, ordering the 6th Army to remain in Stalingrad. He promised they would be supplied by air until rescued. Goering estimated that the Luftwaffe could deliver the needed supplies.

Meanwhile, Army Group A's advance into the Caucasus stalled in the mountain passes. The majority of the oil fields lied further south. Throughout the summer, German troops probed for a way through. By the next winter, with the fighting at Stalingrad going disastrously, and Soviet forces threatening their lines of retreat, Army Group A began to fall back.

In December, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein hastily put together a relief force. It only managed to get within thirty miles before being turned back by the Soviets. By the end of the year, the 6th Army was in desperate condition. The Luftwaffe had been able to deliver only a small fraction of the supplies needed.

Shortly before surrendering to the Red Army on February 2, 1943, Friedrich Paulus was promoted to Field Marshal. This was a message from Hitler, because no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered or been taken alive. Of the 300,000 strong 6th Army, only 91,000 survived to be taken prisoner, including 22 generals, of which only 5,000 men ever returned to Germany after the war. This was the bloodiest battle in history. Around 2 million people were killed or wounded on both sides, including civilians, with 850,000 Axis casualties and 750,000 Soviet.

Following Stalingrad, the Soviets advanced five hundred miles along a broad front. As the Soviets began to outrun their supplies, Manstein managed to stabilize the Axis front by cobbling together improvised units and by withdrawing troops from a salient near Rostov. With the arrival of new SS Panzer Divisions, he launched a strategic counteroffensive that retook the city of Kharkov.


German 2nd SS Panzer Division at Kursk

"They want a war of annihilation. We will give them a war of annihilation." – Joseph Stalin

After the German surrender at Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, the Soviet Army launched eight offensives during the winter. Many were concentrated along the Don River, west of Stalingrad. Kharkov was liberated temporarily, and then reconquered by the Germans.

A Russian salient existed around the city of Kursk. On July 4, the Germans launched their largest attack of World War II, attempting to cut off Kursk with a pincer maneuver. Their attack was anticipated by the Soviets, who prepared an enormous system of earthwork defenses. The German offensive in the northern sector was ground down as little progress was made through the Soviet defenses but in the southern sector, there was a danger of a German breakthrough. The Soviets then brought up reserves to contain the German thrust, leading to the largest tank battle in history. The Germans lacking reserves exhausted their armored forces and could not stop the Soviet counteroffensive that threw them back across their starting positions.

The Soviets recaptured Kharkov following their victory at Kursk. With the autumn rains threatening, Hitler agreed to a general withdrawal to the Dnieper line in August. As September proceeded into October, the Germans found the line impossible to hold as the Soviets established bridgeheads across the river. Important Dnieper towns started to fall, with Zaporozhye the first to go, followed by Dnepropetrovsk. Early in November, the Soviets broke out on either side of Kiev and liberated the Ukrainian capital. The Soviets attacked at Korosten on Christmas Eve, and their advance continued along the railway line until the 1939 Soviet-Polish border was reached.

Liberation of Eastern Europe[edit]

The Soviets advanced in a series of offensives beginning in January 1944. By they time they ran out of steam in mid-April, they had nearly reached the Carpathian Mountains and had pushed the Germans one hundred miles back from Leningrad in the north.

Before the Soviets could begin their summer offensive into Belarus, they had to clear the Crimean peninsula of Axis forces. German remnants along with some Romanian forces were cut off and left behind in the peninsula when the Germans retreated from the Ukraine. In early May, a botched evacuation effort across the Black Sea failed, and the remaining forces surrendered to the Soviets.

In June 1944, the long awaited Soviet summer offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration, began. It involved 2.5 million men and 6,000 tanks. The objective was to clear Axis troops from Belarus and to destroy German Army Group Center. It was an overwhelming Soviet victory. Within twelve days, twenty-five German divisions — at least three hundred thousand men — disappeared from the German order of battle.

The Soviets reached the outskirts of Warsaw on July 31, advancing more than two hundred miles. As they approached, the Poles believed that they would soon be liberated. On August 1, nearly 40,000 Polish resistance fighters seized control of the city. The Soviets, however, did not advance any further. The only assistance given to the Poles was artillery fire, as German army units moved into the city to put down the revolt. The resistance ended on October 2. German units then destroyed most of what was left of the city.

The Soviets widened their attacks, and by the end of the first week of August reached the border of East Prussia, the Vistula River below Warsaw, and the Hungarian border along the Carpathian Mountains. Later in August they advanced into Romania. The Romanians switched sides, and the Germans lost over 380,000 men in two weeks of fighting withdrawal. Over the course of the next three months, the Soviets occupied Bulgaria — which declared war on Germany as soon as the Russians arrived — and advanced northwestward from Romania across Transylvania into Hungary.

Other Axis countries attempted to pull out of the war. Hungary was occupied by German troops. Finland sought a separate peace in February 1944, but would not accept the initial terms offered. On June 9, the Soviet Union began another offensive on the Karelian Isthmus that, after three months, forced Finland to accept an armistice.

The Soviets entered Hungary in October 1944, but the Germans managed to encircle and defeat the initial Soviet drive near Debrecen. The rapid assault that the Soviets had hoped would lead to the capture of Budapest failed, and Hungary would remain Germany’s ally until the end of the war. This battle was the last German victory in the Eastern Front.

In Yugoslavia, the tide of the civil war turned in favor of the Partisans. By the end of August, Josip Tito was appointed as the Chief-of-Staff of the Yugoslavian Army, although his Royalist rival Mihajlovic and many Chetniks continued fighting their own resistance. The Germans retreated northward. Greece was evacuated on October 12. Belgrade was liberated on October 20.

Meanwhile, the Red Army drove the Germans out of most of the Baltic States and trapped the remainder on the Courland Peninsula in Latvia. The 18th and 16th German Armies, numbering over 250,000 men remained trapped there until the end of the war.

The Soviets recovered from their defeat in Debrecen and reached Budapest on December 29, 1944. They encircled the city where over 188,000 Axis troops remained entrenched including many Waffen-SS.

Fall of Berlin[edit]

With the Balkans and most of Hungary cleared by late December 1944, the Soviets began a massive redeployment of their forces to Poland. Soviet preparations were still ongoing when Churchill asked Stalin to launch his offensive as soon as possible to ease German pressure in the West. Starting on January 12, 1945, a Soviet attack broke the defenses covering East Prussia, leaving the German front in chaos, and sending millions of refugees streaming to the west.

German resistance stiffened as the Soviets approached Berlin and outran their supply lines. Army Group Vistula, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, attacked the exposed flank of the Soviet Army but was repulsed. The Soviets paused to reorganize, and then cleared Pomerania and Silesia of German troops. In the south, three German attempts to relieve the encircled Budapest garrison failed, and the city fell to the Soviets on February 13. Again, the Germans counterattacked; Hitler insisting on the impossible task of regaining the Danube River. Hitler believed that the main Soviet offensive would come in the south near Prague sent the last German reserves away from Berlin to defend Czechoslovakia.

In April, Soviet forces crossed the Oder River but bogged down under stiff German resistance in the Seelow Heights. After three days of heavy fighting, Berlin was surrounded.

As a final resistance effort, Hitler called for civilians, including teenagers and the elderly, to fight in the Volkssturm militia against the oncoming Red Army. They were augmented by some regular forces that had survived the fighting in the Seelow Heights.

Hitler, losing touch with reality, ordered the surrounded Ninth Army to break out and link up with the Twelfth Army under General Walther Wenck. After linking up, they were instructed to relieve Berlin, an impossible task. Units of the Ninth Army were instead driven into the forests near the village of Halbe where they were involved in particularly fierce fighting trying to break through the Soviet lines to escape. A few individuals and small units managed to join with the Twelfth Army and fight their way west to surrender to the Americans.

Meanwhile, urban warfare ensued in Berlin. The Germans had stockpiled a large number of panzerfausts and took a heavy toll on Soviet tanks in the rubble-filled streets. However, the Soviets employed the lessons they had learned in Stalingrad and slowly advanced to the center of the city. German forces resisted fanatically, in particular the SS Nordland which was made up of foreign SS volunteers, because they were ideologically motivated and they believed that they would not live if captured. The fighting was house-to-house. The Soviets sustained 360,000 casualties; the Germans lost 450,000 including civilians and above that 170,000 captured. Hitler and his staff moved into a concrete bunker beneath the Chancellery, where on April 30, 1945, he committed suicide, along with his bride, Eva Braun.

Victory in Europe[edit]

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin arranged for post-war Europe at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Their meeting resulted in many important resolutions such as: formation of the United Nations; democratic elections in Poland; and the borders of Poland moved westwards at the expense of Germany. Additionally, Soviet nationals were to be repatriated and the Soviet Union agreed to attack Japan within three months of Germany’s surrender.

After Hitler's death, Admiral Karl Donitz became leader of the German government, but the war effort quickly disintegrated. German forces in Berlin surrendered on May 2. German forces in Italy also surrendered on May 2, and forces in northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands surrendered on May 4. The German High Command under General Alfred Jodl surrendered unconditionally all remaining German forces on May 7 in Rheims, France. The western Allies celebrated "Victory in Europe Day" (V-E Day) on May 8, since the final German surrender was signed in Berlin on that day. The Soviet Union celebrated on May 9 due to time zone differences; the final cessation of German military activity happened at one minute past midnight by their clock. Some remnants of German Army Group Center continued resistance in Czechoslovakia until May 11.

Asia-Pacific Theater[edit]

Japanese expansion[edit]

After World War I, the victorious Western powers adopted policies that recognized Japan as a colonial power. Japanese militarists promoted the idea that Japan had a right to conquer Asia and unify it, under the rule of Emperor Hirohito. Japan had occupied Korea since 1905.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and established a puppet state. In 1937, it expanded the war deeper into China. The Japanese advanced through Shanghai, capturing the capital, Nanking, in December. As a result, the Chinese Nationalist government moved its seat to Wuhan and then to Chongqing for the remainder of the war. Conquered areas of China were subjected to harsh occupation, with many atrocities against civilians, most notably the Rape of Nanking. The Japanese also used chemical weapons.

In the spring of 1939, Soviet and Japanese forces clashed in Mongolia. The growing Japanese presence in the Far East was seen as a strategic threat by the Soviet Union. The Japanese invasion of Mongolia was repulsed by Soviet units under General Georgy Zhukov. Following this battle, the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace until 1945. Japan looked south to expand its empire, leading to conflict with the United States over the Philippines and control of shipping lanes to the Dutch East Indies.

Japanese forces invaded French Indochina in September 1940. The United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands responded in July 1941 by restricting exports of natural resources, including oil, to Japan. The United States also made loans to China and provided military assistance, including the "Flying Tigers" air squadron.

Japan was faced with the choice of negotiating a compromise, or going to war to conquer territories that contained oil, iron ore, bauxite and other natural resources. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo believed that the existing Allies were preoccupied with the war against Germany, and that the United States would be unprepared and unwilling to fight a long war.


Flying Tigers

The Chinese Nationalist Army, under Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Chinese Army, under Mao Zedong, had been fighting a civil war since 1927, but agreed to a truce to fight the invading Japanese. Mao's forces were incorporated into the Nationalist Army. Conflict between Nationalist and Communist forces continued to a limited extent during the war, and reemerged at the end.

Japan launched a major offensive in China following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The aim of the offensive was to take the strategically important city of Changsha, which the Japanese had failed to capture on two previous occasions. For the attack, the Japanese massed 120,000 soldiers under four divisions. The Chinese responded with 300,000 men, and soon the Japanese army was encircled and had to retreat.

Following the Changsha offensive, the war in China returned to the stalemate that had existed in 1940. The Chinese did not have the strength in terms of manpower or equipment to drive the Japanese out. The Japanese had taken heavy casualties as well, and were having trouble pacifying already conquered territory. The front lines changed little until the Japanese mounted a major offensive in early 1944.

In April 1944, the Japanese launched Operation Ichigo, to secure the railway route from Peking to Nanking, and to clear southern China of American airfields under the command of General Chennault. The operation was successful in that it opened a continuous corridor from Peking to Indochina, and the airfields were forced to relocate inland. However it failed to destroy the army of Chiang Kai-shek, and the Americans soon acquired the Marianas, from which they could bomb the Japanese Home Islands.

Pearl Harbor[edit]

Japanese Zero takes off from the aircraft carrier Akagi on the way to attacking Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941.

"...yesterday, December 7th, 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." - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941.

On December 7, 1941, a Japanese carrier fleet launched a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor. The raid destroyed most of the American aircraft on the island and knocked the main American battle fleet out of action (three battleships were sunk, and five more were heavily damaged, though only USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma were permanently lost). The attack united American public opinion to enter the war. The following day, December 8, the United States officially declared war on Japan. Germany, Japan's ally, declared war on the United States on December 11.

Simultaneously with the attack on Hawaii, the Japanese attacked Wake Island, an American territory in the central Pacific. The initial landing attempt was repulsed by the garrison of Marines, and fierce resistance continued until December 23. The Japanese sent heavy reinforcements, and the garrison surrendered when it became clear that no American relief force was coming.

Japan also invaded the Philippines, a U.S. Commonwealth, on December 8, 1941. American and Philippine forces, under General Douglas MacArthur, were forced to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. Dogged resistance continued until April, buying precious time for the Allies. Following their surrender, the survivors were led on the Bataan Death March. Allied resistance continued for an additional month on the island fortress of Corregidor, until it too surrendered. General MacArthur, who had been ordered to retreat to Australia, vowed, "I shall return."

Less than 24 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded Hong Kong. The British colonies of Malaya, Borneo, and Burma soon followed, with Japan intending to seize the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies. Despite fierce resistance, all these territories capitulated to the Japanese in a matter of months. Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15. 80,000 British personnel went into Japanese POW camps, representing the largest-ever surrender of British troops.

Disaster struck the British on December 10, 1941, when they lost two major capital ships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. Eighty-six Japanese bombers and torpedo planes based in Saigon had attacked both ships, and 840 British sailors perished. Churchill said of the event, "In all of the war I have never received a more direct shock."

Allied naval forces were all but destroyed in the Battle of the Java Sea — the largest surface battle since Jutland — on February 28 through March 1, 1942.

In April, the Doolittle Raid, the first Allied air raid on Tokyo, boosted morale in the United States and caused Japan to shift resources to homeland defense, but did little physical damage. The raid was unique in that 16 land-based B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from an aircraft carrier, USS Hornet.

In the six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had achieved nearly all of their naval objectives. Their fleet of eleven battleships, ten carriers, eighteen heavy and twenty light cruisers remained relatively intact. They had seriously damaged or sunk all American battleships in the Pacific. The British and Dutch Far Eastern fleets had been destroyed, and the Royal Australian Navy had been driven back to port. Their ring of conquests settled on a defensive perimeter of their choosing, extending from the Central Pacific to New Guinea to Burma. The only significant strategic force remaining to oppose them was the U.S. Pacific Fleet's four aircraft carriers.

Coral Sea and Midway[edit]

In May 1942, the Japanese attacked New Guinea, threatening to cut off shipping lanes between the United States and Australia. Allied and Japanese navies met in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This was both the first battle fought between aircraft carriers, and the first battle where the opposing fleets never made direct visual contact. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington was sunk and the USS Yorktown was severely damaged. The Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho. The large carrier Shokaku was damaged, and the Zuikaku lost half of her air complement. The battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese, as they inflicted heavier losses on the American fleet, but it was a strategic American victory, as the Japanese attack on Port Moresby was deflected, and both Zuikaku and Shokaku would not be ready to participate in the upcoming battle.

Both sides viewed a decisive battle between aircraft carriers as inevitable, and the Japanese were confident in that they held a numerical advantage in heavy carriers of 10:3. They also had an excellent carrier-based aircraft in the Zero fighter. The Japanese sent a task force towards Midway Island, an outlier of the Hawaiian Islands, with the goal of drawing the remainder of the American fleet to battle. Meanwhile, a second force went north, and captured several of the Aleutian Islands, occupying American soil.

On June 5, 1942, American carrier-based dive-bombers sank four of Japan's best aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway, at the cost of the carrier Yorktown. This was a major victory for the Allies and, as Admiral Yamamoto predicted would happen six months after the Pearl Harbor attack, it marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific. American shipbuilding and aircraft production vastly outpaced the Japanese, and the Japanese fleet would never again enjoy such numerical superiority.

New Guinea and the Solomon Islands[edit]

The United States shifted to the offensive with a two-pronged strategy. Forces in the south advanced up the Solomon island chain and New Guinea, while in the central Pacific, Marines took island after island, including Tarawa, Eniwetok, Saipan, and Guam. The two lines of attack came together at the Philippines.

In July 1942, the Japanese attempted to take Port Moresby, New Guinea, by land, along the Kokoda Track, a rugged, single-file path through the jungle and mountains. An under-strength, poorly trained and ill-equipped Australian brigade waged a fighting retreat against a 5,000-strong Japanese force.

U.S. Coast Guard at Guadalcanal, 1942

On August 7, U.S. Marines began the Battle of Guadalcanal. For the next six months, U.S. forces fought Japanese forces for control of the island. Meanwhile, naval encounters raged in the nearby waters, with the Japanese gradually losing control and being forced to resupply the island with dangerous nighttime convoys.

In late August and early September, an attack by Japanese marines at the eastern tip of New Guinea was defeated in the Battle of Milne Bay. On January 22, 1943, after a bitter battle at Gona and Buna, Australian and American forces took back the major Japanese beachheads in eastern New Guinea.

On June 30, the Allies launched Operation Cartwheel, a grand strategy for the South and South West Pacific, aimed at isolating the major Japanese base at Rabaul, before proceeding towards Japan. Three main objectives were identified: recapturing Tulagi and the Santa Cruz Islands; recapturing the north coast of New Guinea, and the central Solomon Islands and; the reduction of Rabaul and related bases.

By September, American and Australian forces in New Guinea had captured the major Japanese bases at Salamaua and Lae. Soon afterwards they launched the Huon Peninsula, Finisterre Range, Bougainville, and New Britain campaigns.

Central Pacific[edit]

"The Japanese fought to win - it was a savage, brutal, inhumane, exhausting and dirty business." - Eugene Sledge.

In November 1943, U.S. Marines won the Battle of Tarawa. This was the first heavily opposed amphibious assault in the Pacific theater. The high casualties taken by the Marines sparked off a storm of protest in the United States, where the large losses could not be understood for such a tiny and seemingly unimportant island. The Allies adopted an "island hopping" strategy of bypassing some Japanese island strongholds and letting them "wither on the vine” cut off from supplies and troop reinforcements.

The American strategic objective was to gain airbases to bring Japan within range of the new B-29 Superfortress, a long-range heavy bomber. This meant capturing the Mariana Islands. Following victories in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands in late 1943 to early 1944, the Allies pushed west. The Japanese base at Truk was neutralized by a massive air raid on February 17 and 18, 1944.

In June 1944, the Japanese committed much of their declining naval strength in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but suffered severe losses in both ships and aircraft. Saipan, Tinian, and Guam were liberated soon after. The fighting was intense, and mopping-up operations continued long after the battle was officially over. Tinian saw the first use of napalm in the war.

Return to the Philippines[edit]

General MacArthur's troops liberated the Philippines, landing on the island of Leyte on October 20, 1944. The Japanese had prepared a rigorous defense and used the last of their naval forces in a failed attempt to destroy the invasion force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, arguably the largest naval battle in history. This was the first battle in which the Japanese used kamikaze attacks. The Japanese battleship Musashi, one of the two largest battleships ever built, was sunk.

In January 1945, the U.S. Sixth Army landed on Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. Manila was recaptured by March, but mopping up operations on Luzon and other islands continued until the end of the war.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa[edit]

American flag flies over Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, 1945

The United States captured Iwo Jima in February. The island was psychologically important because it was traditional Japanese territory, administered by the Tokyo prefecture. It was heavily defended with many underground entrenchments, but was eventually taken by Marines after they captured Mount Suribachi, a keystone of the defense. Iwo Jima proved invaluable because of its two airfields that were used for emergency landings for B29's, and because it was close enough to provide fighter escort that could reach the Japanese Home Islands.

With the subsequent capture of Okinawa (April through June), the U.S. gained a staging ground for the final invasion of Japan. The Japanese defended the island with ground forces, kamikazes, and with the one-way suicide mission of the battleship Yamato, which was sunk by American dive-bombers. The fanatical defense resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, and many of the surviving Japanese committed suicide rather than surrender.

Amongst dozens of other Japanese cities, Tokyo was firebombed, and about 90,000 people died from the initial attack. The dense living conditions around production centers and the wooden residential constructions contributed to the large loss of life. In addition, the ports and major waterways of Japan were extensively mined by air in Operation Starvation, which seriously disrupted the logistics of the island nation.

India and Burma[edit]

Early in the war, the Japanese captured most of Burma, severing the Burma Road by which the Allies had been supplying the Chinese Nationalists. This loss forced the Allies to run a sustained airlift from India, known as "flying the Hump", because the airplanes had to cross the Himalaya Mountains at high altitude. Under General Joseph Stilwell, Chinese forces in India were retrained and re-equipped, while the Ledo Road was built from India to replace the Burma Road. This effort proved to be an enormous engineering task.

The Chindits, a group of Allied special forces under General Orde Wingate, infiltrated into Burma in 1943 and disrupted Japanese supply lines.

Beginning in March 1944, The Japanese, with some Indian turncoats, invaded India and besieged the British forces at Imphal, resulting in ferocious fighting. While the encircled Allied troops were reinforced and resupplied by airlift until fresh ground forces arrived to break the siege, the Japanese, hindered by torrential rains, ran out of supplies and starved. The surviving Japanese eventually retreated, losing 85,000 men.

In late 1944 and early 1945, the British pursued the Japanese to the Chindwin River in Burma, then captured the capital, Rangoon, on May 2.

Submarine warfare[edit]

After the destruction of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, one of the few resources at the American Navy's disposal was the submarine fleet. President Roosevelt ordered the boats to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare within hours of the commencement of hostilities.

Throughout 1944, Allied submarines and aircraft attacked Japanese merchant shipping and deprived Japan's industry of the raw materials it had gone to war to obtain. The main target was oil, and Japan ran almost dry by late 1944. In 1944, submarines sank over two million tons of cargo, while the Japanese were only able to replace less than one million tons.

U.S. submarines accounted for 56% of the Japanese merchantmen sunk; most of the rest were destroyed by planes at the end of the war, or were sunk by mines. U.S. submariners also claimed 28% of Japanese warships destroyed, including the carriers Taiho and Shokaku during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Furthermore, they played important reconnaissance roles, as at the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf (and, coincidentally, at Midway), when they gave accurate and timely warning of the approach of the Japanese fleet. Submarines operated from secure bases in Fremantle, Australia; Pearl Harbor; Trincomalee, Ceylon; and later Guam.

Victory over Japan[edit]

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." - Hindu scripture, quoted by Oppenheimer.

The last Allied conference of World War II was held at the suburb of Potsdam, outside Berlin, from July 17 to August 2. During the conference, an ultimatum was issued calling for the unconditional surrender of Japan.

United States president Harry S. Truman decided to use the new atomic bomb to end the war. The battle for Okinawa had shown that an invasion of the Japanese mainland (planned for November) would result in large numbers of American casualties, upwards of one million. Invasion would have also meant the death of millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians, who were being trained as militia.

On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb dubbed Little Boy on Hiroshima, destroying the city. On August 9, a B-29 named Bockscar dropped the second atomic bomb, dubbed Fat Man, on the port city of Nagasaki.

On August 8 the Soviet Union attacked in Manchuria, fulfilling its Yalta pledge to attack the Japanese within three months after the end of the war in Europe. 1.6 million Soviet soldiers made the assault. In less than two weeks, the Japanese army in Manchuria, consisting of over a million men, had been defeated by the battle-hardened Soviets.

The Japanese agreed to an armistice on August 15, 1945, or V-J day, and signed the formal Instrument of Surrender on September 2 on the Battleship Missouri. The Japanese troops in China formally surrendered to the Chinese on September 9, 1945.


The Germans occupied most of mainland Europe and plundered resources to feed the Nazi war machine. They enforced their rule with brutal, murderous tactics carried out by the Gestapo and local collaborators. They employed slave labor, deported minorities and political prisoners to death camps, and carried out vicious collective punishments and reprisals.

Opinion was divided on the best way to mitigate the harm caused by the Germans. Resistance movements used sabotage, work stoppages, propaganda, and armed attacks. This was the approach favored by the Czechoslovakian government, the Polish government, the Free French, and some Jews who resisted the Holocaust (e.g. Warsaw Ghetto uprising, partisans in eastern Europe).

Within Germany, resistance came from experienced officers within the Wehrmacht, particularly among the old Prussian aristocratic class. Conspirators planned several assassination attempts. The one that came closest to succeeding was on July 20, 1944. It was a bomb planted in Hitler's headquarters conference room by Claus von Stauffenberg, a decorated veteran who had been wounded in North Africa.

University students organized to resist the Nazis as well. There was the White Rose movement led by Sophie Scholl. Religious leaders sometimes also resisted, particularly among the Catholic Church, though the record is mixed.

The Czechoslovakian government-in-exile sent agents to Prague who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's favorite subordinate, an act which drew harsh reprisals. Germans destroyed the Czech village of Lidice and killed most of the inhabitants.

Collaborators tried to appease and negotiate with the Germans, and sometimes took the opportunity to aggrandize themselves. Examples include the Dutch government, the Danish government, the Arrow Cross in Hungary (and arguably Admiral Horthy), Quisling in Norway, and Vichy France. Holocaust collaborators included Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz ghetto, and Pierre Laval in France, who ordered deportations to the death camps.

Japanese occupation was no less destructive. Millions of civilians were killed in China, Korea, and the Philippines.


"I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains." - Anne Frank

To prevent future wars, the allies formed the United Nations in San Francisco, California in 1945. One of the first actions of the United Nations was the creation of the State of Israel, partly in response to the Holocaust.

In 1947, United States Secretary of State George Marshall devised the "European Recovery Program", better known as the Marshall Plan. Effective from 1948 to 1952, it allocated 13 billion dollars for the reconstruction of Western Europe.

The Soviet Union established hegemony over most of eastern Europe and incorporated parts of Finland and Poland into its new boundaries. They formalized this alliance as the Warsaw Pact. A souring of relations with the West and restriction of movement became known as the "Iron Curtain". Europe was informally split into Western and Soviet spheres of influence, which heightened existing tensions and established the Cold War. Western-aligned countries formed NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Poland's boundaries were redrawn to include portions of pre-war Germany, including East Prussia and Upper Silesia, while ceding most of the areas taken by the Soviet Union in the Molotov-Ribbentrop partition of 1939, effectively moving Poland to the west. Germany was split into four zones of occupation, and the three zones under the Western Allies were reunited as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Millions of Germans and Poles were expelled from their homelands as a result of the territorial annexations in Eastern Europe agreed upon at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. In the West, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France, and the Saar area was separated from Germany and put in economic union with France. Austria was divided into four zones of occupation, which were united in 1955 to become the Republic of Austria. The Soviet Union occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In all the USSR-occupied countries, with the exception of Austria, the Soviet Union installed Communist puppet regimes. It also annexed the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The Greek Civil War ended in 1949 with a communist defeat. Greece aligned itself with the West, becoming a member of NATO in 1952.

Colonialism in 1945

The end of the war hastened the independence of many British colonies (such as India) and Dutch territories (such as Indonesia) and the formation of new nations throughout Asia and Africa. The Philippines were granted their independence in 1946 as previously promised by the United States. France attempted and failed to regain control of its colonies in Indochina. Decolonization continued into the 1970's.

In Asia, Japan was occupied by the Allies until the peace treaty took effect in 1952. The Imperial government was dismantled under General Douglas MacArthur and replaced by a constitutional monarchy with the emperor as a figurehead. In accordance with the Yalta Conference agreements, the Soviet Union occupied and subsequently annexed Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Japanese occupation of Korea also ended, but the peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel. The UN-backed South Korea would fight the communist North Korea in the Korean War, with Korea remaining divided.

World War II was a pivotal point in China's history. Before the war against Japan, China had suffered nearly a century of intervention at the hands of various imperialist powers and was relegated to a semi-colonial status. However, the war greatly enhanced China's international status. The government under Chiang Kai-shek was able to abrogate most of the unequal treaties China had signed in the past century, and China became a founding member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the Security Council. China also reclaimed Manchuria and Taiwan. Nevertheless, vast war damages and hyperinflation demoralized the populace, and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists resumed. Weakened by the war against Japan, the Nationalists, along with the state apparatus of the Republic of China, retreated to Taiwan in 1949. In their place, the Communists under Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China on the mainland.

War Crimes and the Holocaust[edit]

"The things I saw beggar description. … The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where [there] were piled up 20 or 30 naked men, killed by starvation, [General] George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.'"- Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 1945.

From 1945 to 1951, Axis officials were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Germans were tried at the Nuremberg Trials, and Japanese were tried at the Tokyo War Crime Trial.

The Holocaust was the organized murder of approximately six million Jews in a deliberate campaign of genocide planned and executed by Germany. Other minority groups were also persecuted, including Gypsies, the disabled and mentally ill, homosexuals, Freemasons, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Victims were shot by roving groups of SS, called Einsatzgruppen, gassed with carbon monoxide, or were confined in ghettos then transported to concentration camps. Once in the camps they died from disease or starvation, or were put into gas chambers and killed with Zyklon B. Some were subjected to painful medical experiments directed by Dr. Josef Mengele.

About 12 million forced laborers, most of whom were Eastern Europeans, were employed in the German war economy.

In the Soviet Union, the Gulags, which were labor camps in Siberia, led to the deaths of civilians from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as German prisoners of war. Soviet citizens suspected of collaborating with the Germans were also sent to the Gulags.

Germany mistreated prisoners of war from the Eastern Front. Around sixty percent of 5.7 million Soviets captured by the Germans died before the end of the war. Japanese POW camps also had high death rates, and the Japanese enslaved millions of people in China and Indonesia.

On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned by the United States government, as well as nearly 14,000 German and Italian Americans. In 1988, the United States formally apologized and paid reparations.

Several Nazi war criminals fled after the war and assumed fake identities in Germany, the United States, South America, and other parts of the world. Among them were Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie. Nazi hunters, including Simon Wiesenthal, emerged to track these men and bring them to justice.

Chemical and biological weapons[edit]

Despite the international treaties and a resolution adopted by the League of Nations in 1938 condemning the use of toxic gas by Japan, the Imperial Japanese Army frequently used chemical weapons. Because of fears of retaliation, however, those weapons were never used against Westerners but only against other Asians judged "inferior" by the imperial propaganda. Authorization for the use of chemical weapons was given by specific orders (rinsanmei) issued by Hirohito himself. For example, the Emperor authorized the use of toxic gas on 375 separate occasions during the invasion of Wuhan, from August to October 1938.

Biological weapons were experimented with by many units incorporated in the Japanese army, such as the infamous Unit 731. Those weapons were used against Allied troops in China and, according to some Japanese veterans, against Mongolians and Soviet soldiers in 1939 during the Nomonhan incident. Cyanide gas was tested on Australian and Dutch prisoners in November 1944 in the Kai islands.

Strategic bombing[edit]

"The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind." - Arthur "Bomber" Harris, 1942.

Massive aerial bombing by both Axis and Allied air forces took the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The beginning of the war saw Germany introduce terror bombing in Rotterdam and London. As the war turned against Germany, Anglo-American bombing of German cities claimed up to 600,000 civilian lives. Area bombing, also known as carpet bombing, was introduced and led to ethical debates about its military utility and effect on civilians. These questions became more acute towards the end of the war, after incendiary bombs ignited huge firestorms in Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo.

The main bomber in Europe was the B-17 Flying Fortress, with four engines, multiple defensive machine guns, and a ball turret. In the Pacific, the United States deployed the technologically-advanced B-29 Superfortress, which could fly faster and higher, and featured a pressurized cabin, longer range, and larger payload. During the war the Soviets stole three B-29's which were forced to make emergency landings in Siberia. They disassembled them and copied the design, making their own long-range heavy bomber for use during the Cold War.

Years of research in the Manhattan Project in the United States resulted in the invention of the atomic bomb and successful testing in the New Mexico desert. For the first and only time in history, nuclear weapons were used in combat. Two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan devastated Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki. The number of total casualties in these bombings has been estimated at 200,000. Following the war there was a short period where the United States was the sole nuclear power. This ended in 1949, when the Soviets tested their first bomb.

Home Front[edit]

In 1940, the United States was an economic giant and the world's largest oil producer. It soon became the "arsenal of democracy", producing more than two thirds of Allied munitions.

Before its formal entry into the war, the government found creative ways to funnel aid to the Allies. The Lend-Lease Act (1941) helped a financially stretched Great Britain with ships and aircraft. In the Soviet Union, American trucks greatly improved the logistical situation.

By the end of the war, motorized Allied armies were much more mobile than the Germans and Japanese, who were still largely dependent on horse-drawn transport.

Due to manpower shortages, women and minorities filled jobs that they previously had been restricted from. This led to lasting social change including the feminist and civil rights movements.

See Also[edit]



  • Arthur, Max, Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press (2005) ISBN 9780091897352
  • Bauer, E. Lt-Colonel The History of World War II, Orbis (2000) General Editor: Brigadier Peter Young; Consultants: Brigadier General James L. Collins Jr., Correli Barnet. (1,024 pages) ISBN 1-85605-552-3
  • Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War. (6 volumes). (1948–1953). ISBN 978-0395416853
  • I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, eds. The Oxford Companion to World War II (1995), 1300 page encyclopedia covering all topics
  • Ellis, John. Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War (1999)
  • Gilbert, Martin Second World War (1995)
  • Mark Harrison. "Resource Mobilization for World War II: The U.S.A., UK, U.S.S.R., and Germany, 1938–1945" in The Economic History Review, Vol. 41, No. 2. (May, 1988), pp. 171–192.
  • Keegan, John. The Second World War (1989)
  • Liddell Hart, Sir Basil History of the Second World War (1970)
  • Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (2000)
  • Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won (1995)
  • Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Schuster. (1959). ISBN 0-671-62420-2.
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L.A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (2005) ISBN 0-521-44317-2

External links[edit]