The Second World War was the most deadly, destructive and consequential war in history. Seventeen million military personnel died in the war. Civilian deaths in the Soviet Union and China alone totaled 30 million.
Causes of the war can be traced back to the end of World War I. Germany, Italy, and Japan suffered deep economic problems. Inflation was rampant. However, by the late 1920s, economic order was being restored. This trend reversed when the United States entered the Great Depression. The citizens of what would be the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) supported nationalistic organizations which offered hope in the face of these problems. These organizations soon gave birth to tyranny, however. Totalitarian dictatorships arose in the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, and Germany; these were led by Josef Stalin, Emperor Hirohito, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, respectively. These leaders seized power by promising reform through unity. Under the dictatorships, however, terror reigned. Dictators used secret police, threats, imprisonment and even executions to eliminate their opposition.
Some consider the start of World War II to be Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, a region in eastern China. Japan continued to demonstrate aggression, effectively conquering eastern China by 1938. Italy, meanwhile, conquered Ethiopia in 1936. Germany, in 1938, united Austria with itself. There was essentially no stopping this aggression, since the League of Nations lacked the power to enforce its treaties. (The League had been formed after World War I as an international forum for disputes.) In 1936, German and Italy allied. Japan joined in 1940, forming the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
During this time, Spain was in civil war. General Francisco Franco led the rebellious army Nationalists against Spain’s government. Hitler and Mussolini supported the revolution. The Spanish Civil War divided the world into those who supported Nazism and Fascism, and those who were against it.
Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain held several meetings to restore peace. They agreed that if Hitler took Czechoslovakia, he would not try to acquire more territory. Hitler defiantly broke his promise by invading Poland 11 months later, on September 1, 1939. Germany’s blitzkrieg (lightning war) quickly overcame the large, but poorly equipped Polish Army. The blitzkrieg relied on speed and surprise. It was carried out flawlessly. Britain and France pledged their support for the Allied cause, but stood by while Hitler swallowed Poland. Journalists dubbed this the Phony War.
German forces then conquered Denmark and Norway, seizing vital ports. Following these invasions, Chamberlain resigned. He was replaced by Winston Churchill on May 10, 1940. Germany, on the same day, created another blitzkrieg, immediately taking Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The French hoped to hold off the aggressive Germans by use of the Maginot Line, a strip of defense along the French-German border. It proved futile, however, as the Germans simply proceeded around it and into France. The blitzkrieg once again made its appearance, this time beginning on June 5. It proved effective once more. The French signed an armistice on June 22. France had fallen.
In a massive air war, the Luftwaffe, the German air force, began to mount assaults on British RAF (Royal Air Force) stations. By September 1940, Germany thought it had destroyed the RAF, so it proceeded to bomb London. This series of attacks on Britain’s capital was known as the Blitz. Great Britain remained great, however, and survived Germany’s most destructive efforts. Germany halted its air efforts in May 1941.
Meanwhile, British forces in North Africa were fighting to repel the invading Italians. Britain managed to keep Italy out of Egypt and pushed them back to Libya. In the beginning of 1941, the Afrika Korps, led by General Erwin Rommel, was sent to help the Italian forces. Rommel’s crafty methods eventually earned him the famed moniker, “The Desert Fox.” Britain held on. In May of 1941, Britain had regained control of northern Africa.
In March and April of 1941, the Germans quickly captured Yugoslavia and Greece. When British soldiers retreated to the island of Crete, Germany orchestrated the first ever airborne invasion, dropping thousands of paratroopers who quickly took the island. These conquests were an error on Hitler’s part, however. Hitler had been planning to invade the Soviet Union for some time. But, with the delays, he would now have to fight an extended, bitter winter war.
Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941. The Soviets soon suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. The invasion went well for the Germans. This lasted briefly however. Instead of taking Moscow, Hitler opted for a dual-flank approach, sending some forces north to Leningrad, and some south towards the Black Sea. Meanwhile, the harsh weather began. October rains caught the Germans in mud. In early December, as German troops began to march into Moscow, winter began. Temperatures fell to -40º. The German advance stopped as abruptly as it began.
Germany’s battleships struggled to cut off Allied sea supply routes. But British task forces managed to destroy the bulk of Germany’s battleship fleet. The largest such attack was against the German Navy’s pride and joy, the Bismarck. A fleet of British warships surrounded and sank the Bismarck in May of 1941. However, the Germans still had a trick up their collective sleeve: the U-Boat. For two years, U-Boats sank every Allied supply ship they could find. But long-range torpedo bombers, warship escorts of supply ships, and the new Allied technology of sonar curbed the threat of the dreaded Unterseeboote.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped to win the war by supplying Allied nations with the weapons they needed, rather than sending the United States into war. The Lend-Lease Act gave 38 nations about $50 billion in U.S. aid.
Japan, stuck in China, decided to cut off vital Chinese supply lines from Southeast Asia. Japan entered and controlled northern Indochina. The U.S. responded by cutting Japan’s supply of American goods. Japan wanted to return to its expansion plans, so it turned on the one force that could stop it: the United States Navy. On December 7, 1941, a Japanese task force attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. They sank four battleships, and destroyed nearly 20 aircraft. The next day, the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain declared war on Japan.
The Soviets, in December 1941, recovered and pushed the Germans back 100 miles outside of Moscow. In Spring 1942, the Germans marched towards oil reserves in the Caucasus. Hitler ordered the capture of Stalingrad. A five-month battle ensued. The Soviets, in a counter-attack, captured and killed 300,000 German soldiers, stopping Germany’s eastward march.
In 1941, Allied defeats stopped in Europe. In eastern Europe the Soviets prevented the German advance in eastern Europe. Soviets defeated the Germans in a battle at Stalingrad in 1943. The allies were soon on a roll. They won battles in Africa and forced Italy to surrender in 1943. In 1944, the Allies prepared for an invasion in northern France.
Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met together in 1943 in Teheran, Iran to discuss the strategy and plans behind the invasion. They talked to each other about a British and American large-scale attack, called Operation Overlord, on the beach of Normandy along the northern coast of France. This attack was to be known as the D-Day Invasion. It will have been the largest seaborne invasion in history. Hitler laughed and said his forces could resist any attack on the coast. The invasion would deploy Allied soldiers ashore on five beaches under the code names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The Germans were not sure what beach the Allies were going to attack so they built a chain of fortifications along the coast called the Atlantic wall. Hitler left General Rommel in charge to strengthen there defenses. Rommel put up barbed wire, he mined the water, and concentrated his troops near the Calais, the narrowest part of the English Channel. On June 6th, 2,700 Allied ships carrying 176,00 soldiers led by General Dwight Eisenhower crossed the English channel. Paratroops were dropped off behind enemy lines to capture bridges and railroad tracks. D-Day caught the Germans by surprise. Germans fought fiercely, but did not win the battle. The Allies built a temporary harbor, to receive supplies, and a pipeline across the British Channel for oil. Near the end of June, about a million troops had accumulated in France.
The Allies advanced slowly in the beginning. The Americans fought and capture Cherbourg on June 27, and the British and Canadian forces fought and captured Caen on July 18. The Allied forces had finally reached open country.
On July 25, 1944 bombers blasted a hole in the German front near St-Lo. Lieutenant General George Patton plowed through the gap and exterminated the Germans from northwest France. Patton ordered his army toward Paris. On August 19, 1944, Parisians heard the news and rose up against the German troops occupying Paris. The German troops in Paris were ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris, but they delayed and the Allies reached Paris on August 25th to liberate France. Slowly, the Allied forces moved toward Germany. The German Generals knew they were beat and tried to tell Hitler, but he brought together his remaining forces for one last attack at the Ardennes Forest (Belgium & Luxembourg). He won this Battle of the Bulge, however, in two weeks, the Americans stopped the German advance near the Meuse River (Belgium).
Meanwhile, the Soviets had slowly pushed back the Germans after the Battle at Stalingrad. The Soviets were producing and importing war supplies from Britain and America, preparing for another offensive by the Germans at Kursk. The Soviet forces waited for them with tanks, mines, anti-tank guns and aircraft; completely obliterating the oncoming German troops and tanks. The rest of the 3,000 German tanks were ordered to retreat during the battle. The Soviet forces, then, moved toward Leningrad. They defeated the Germans there and move onward to Poland. When they reach the outskirts of Warsaw, Stalin refused to come to Polish aid resulting in a German onslaught of 200,000 Polish soldiers. Afterwards, the Soviets entered in and destroyed the Germans in 1945. Another series of Soviet troops began to move towards Hungary crushing all German forces in their path. Soviet troops reached Budapest and drove the German forces out in February of 1945. After their strong advance, the Soviets had occupied almost all of eastern Europe.
The Allies began their final assault in 1945. Soviet forces were advancing from the East to Berlin, British and Canadian forces came from the North, and American and French forces neared central Germany. In all, the Allies had almost surrounded the Germans. Prior to closing in on the Germans, those Allies passing through previously occupied areas were terrified at the sights at the concentration camps.
Hitler committed suicide before the Allied forces took Berlin. On May 7, 1945, Colonel General Alfred Doenitz, Hitler’s replacement, signed a declaration of unconditional surrender, ending the war in Europe.
In the Pacific
The war with the Japanese was a personal vendetta for the U.S., after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Japan won several early victories including: taking over Hong Kong, Guam, and Wake Island, defeating the British in Singapore, the Battle of the Java Sea, and the conquest of the Philippines. MacArthur’s troops were ordered to Australia after leaving the Philippines in March 1942. On April 9, about 75,000 exhausted troops on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. Most of them were forced to march 65 miles to prison camps, and there were many casualities along the way. This march was called the Bataan Death March. After the Philippines were captured, Japan moved toward India and Australia.
In 1942, there were 3 events that helped turn the tide on the Japanese. One of them was the Doolittle raid in which 16 B-52 bombers surprised Tokyo with minor bombing. The 2nd event was the Battle of the Coral Sea which halted the Japanese attack on Port Moresby. The 3rd event was the Battle of Midway, in which Japan sent a large fleet to capture one of the Hawaiian islands, but the Americans intercepted the plan and prepared for a surprise attack. The battle began on June 4, 1942 when the Japanese bombed the island of Midway. Old U.S. bombers launched bombers on Japanese warships, but most of them were shot down. Next, American dive bombers dropped down on Japanese aircraft carriers while they were refueling. The Japanese had lost 4 aircraft carriers and at least 200 planes along with many skilled pilots. Japan had only sunk 1 U.S. aircraft carrier and shot down 150 planes. The Battle of Midway was a clear victory for the Allies.
Meanwhile, the Allies battled to regain most of the islands in the Pacific. In 1942, MacArthur attacked New Guinea with a series of brilliant operations, but fighting continued until 1944. On August 7, 1942, marines invaded Guadalcanal. This attack caught the Japanese by surprise, but they fought strong. This battle proved to be one of the most vicious campaigns in WWII. By February 1943, Japan left Guadalcanal. In 1943, Allied military leaders canceled the invasion of Rabaul; instead, they bombed it. After beating back the Japanese, the Allies finally liberated the Philippines in 1944. Superiority in air and sea combat enabled the Allies to move onto Japan itself.
Allied forces first attack Iwo Jima. The marines landed on February 19, 1945. The marines successfully won the battle, but with a struggle. Okinawa was the next stop. Japan sent kamikazes to attack the marine landing force, but they still defeated Japan at Okinawa.
On August 6, 1945 due their refusal to give into the US’s ultimatum, the B-29 American bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, America dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, after Japanese leaders failed to respond to the first bombing. On September 2, 1945, Japan finally gave in and signed a statement of surrender ending WWII.
(reprint courtesy of ThinkQuest)
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