At first, the Second World War remained isolated on the continent of Europe, but it soon grew to involve nations from six continents. The invasion of Poland generally marks the beginning of the war, but Japan had invaded China two years earlier. As the war unfolded, the Allied Powers of Britain, France, Poland, and eventually the United States fought against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Australia, South Africa, and Canada also declared war on Germany a few days after the Polish invasion. Yugoslavia, China, and the Soviet Union eventually joined forces with the Allies, while Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Finland joined the Axis Powers. By the time the war ended, it would be the deadliest and costliest in human history.
Britain and France Finally React
Britain suspected Hitler was up to no good but could do little more than issue an ultimatum to Germany. Hoping that France would follow its lead, Britain advised Germany that Poland would receive British assistance if Hitler invaded. Nevertheless, Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and took it in just four weeks using a style of warfare known as the blitzkrieg, or lightning war. Totally different than any style of warfare used in World War I, the blitzkrieg was a quick attack using planes and tanks. Hitler could have taken Poland even more quickly, but German troops committed atrocities on their way through in an attempt to annihilate as many Poles and Jews as possible.
The British and the French officially gave Hitler two days to withdraw from Poland, but Hitler ignored them. Britain and France declared war when the two days had expired. Though the Allies declared war on September 3, the only war initially was a “confetti war” of anti-Nazi propaganda dropped over Germany. This period of cold war was called the “sitzkrieg.” The real fighting began in 1940 with the Nazi takeover of Denmark and Norway, followed by the much-anticipated invasion of Belgium and France. The British and French were ready for the Germans in Belgium, where they had dug in with obsolete World War I-style trenches. Little did they know how effective the blitzkrieg would be against the old, ineffective style of warfare.
The British found themselves squeezed between two German armies, only managing to save the army by executing the miraculous evacuation of 300,000 of their troops using every available ship and fishing boat on the Channel. Within a week, German Luftwaffe air raids flew over Paris, and 10 days later the Germans broke the French defenses and marched toward Paris. On May 22, 1940, France gave up and Hitler installed the so-called Vichy government of French collaborators. For the duration of the war, resistance forces and underground agents led by Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) fought against the Vichy regime.
Britain knew that Hitler planned to use France and Belgium as a launch pad for an invasion of the British Isles, so it took drastic measures. In Operation Catapult, Britain gave the French fleet several options to avoid falling into German hands, but the French wouldn’t cooperate. In a terribly difficult and tragic decision, the British sunk its ally’s fleet and killed over a thousand sailors.
Just a week after Operation Catapult, the first German bombers began their air war on Britain. The air attack culminated on Eagle Day in August when Germany attempted the knockout punch with 1,400 aircraft attacking England. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) inspired his people and the Royal Air Force withstood the attacks. In fact, the RAF lost one third as many planes as the Luftwaffe.
After the failure of Eagle Day, Hitler committed a major error. He ordered the Luftwaffe to move away from military and industrial targets and commence attacks on civilians in the cities, hoping to brutally crush the spirit of the British. This tactical error allowed British production to continue enough to keep it in the war; furthermore, the fearful but inspired British remained undaunted despite heavy civilian casualties, especially in London. After months of the Battle of Britain, Hitler gave up on the idea of invading Britain.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and the Empire last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'."
Would You Believe?
As Germany bombed Britain, British bombers were returning the favor by firebombing Berlin. The air war of World War II was the first of its kind in human history.
Britain found itself engaged in the Mediterranean, too, as Italy joined the war against France and Britain. After an initial success in Africa against the British, the Italians performed miserably. In Egypt and Greece, for example, Mussolini got in over his head against superior forces. In North Africa, Hitler had to step in by sending his premier tank commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944). Hitler also deployed troops to Greece. The Germans took Greece pretty easily but they got bogged down in the deserts of North Africa. Italy’s poor showing ultimately cost Hitler much-needed forces, busy cleaning up Mussolini’s mess.
Russia and the United States Get Involved
Had Hitler read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to European History, he would have known from Napoleon’s example that an invasion of Russia is an ill-advised undertaking (see Chapter 15). Nevertheless, as he had planned all along, Hitler turned on his pseudo- ally Stalin and invaded Russia in June 1941, estimating that his superior army could take Russia in six weeks. Shortly after the invasion, Stalin ordered the execution of the scorched-earth policy. As the Germans advanced, the retreating Soviet armies and civilians burned everything as they went. For an army that counted on living off the land it invaded, this was a devastating blow. The Germans pushed onward, though, and approached Moscow by October. The Russian citizens dug barbed-wire-covered trenches around the entire city, however, and stopped the German advance.
Would You Believe?
Millions and millions of Russian soldiers, civilians, and Jews died at the hands of the Germans as they marched through Russia. The Germans were working toward one of Hitler's goals for western Russia: depopulate the land as much as possible so that Germans could pour in and settle the land when the war was over.
The winter of 1941 marked a turning point for the Russians as major as the Battle of Britain had for the Brits. With winter setting in, Hitler ordered the German troops to continue their advance even though they had only summer uniforms. The winter took its toll on the Germans just as it did on Napoleon’s men. The winter of early 1942 really did them in as the Soviet air defense and the outrageous weather conditions prevented the Germans from resupplying. As German soldiers froze and starved, the German general in command defied Hitler and surrendered. The battle for Stalingrad, a major city to the south, proved costly for Germany but the Russians sustained astronomical losses, too. The siege of the city cost the two sides some two million lives. By holding out as long as they did, the Russians outlasted the Germans and scored a major victory.
No Quiet on the Eastern Front
Japan was already in a bad mood by 1941. It had hoped to conquer all of eastern Asia, including the eastern part of the Soviet Union, ideally with Germany’s help. But Germany signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin and ruined that plan; nevertheless, Japan signed the Tripartite Act with Germany and Italy in 1940. Thus began the Axis Powers. Then in 1940, the United States, in reaction to Japan’s hostile actions toward Indochina, enacted embargoes on iron, steel, and petroleum to Japan that drastically hurt the Japanese economy. The United States turned up the heat in mid-1941 when it placed an embargo on oil to Japan, too. In November 1941, the Japanese fleet set sail eastward toward the tiny Hawaiian Islands and launched a sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.
Until the December 7 attack, the United States remained officially neutral but not actually neutral. Like Europe, the United States didn’t want to fight another war. As a result of the isolationism but out of a desire to help the “good guys,” the United States sent aid to the Allies via the Lend-Lease Act; technically, the United States was loaning and leasing equipment to the Allies, who would settle up later, but everyone knew the United States would never get the supplies back. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States declared war on Japan, and Germany declared war on the United States. The war was now truly global.
The entry of the United States into the war made an impact rather quickly, at least in the Pacific Theatre. Early in 1942, the United States launched its war in the Pacific aimed at defeating Japan through naval and air battles and occupation of Pacific islands, a strategy known as island hopping. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 helped turn the tide against the Japanese in favor of the United States, and it put the Japanese on the defensive.
Would You Believe?
It was during the German westward retreat and the Soviet pursuit of the Germans through Poland that Soviet troops discovered the first proof of German concentration camps.
In late 1942, American troops made their initial contribution in North Africa with Operation Torch. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Casablanca in modern-day Morocco and discussed strategy. They planned an Allied invasion of Europe via the English Channel in 1944 and they sent word to Stalin that they would help defeat Germany. The two decided most importantly that they would accept nothing but “unconditional surrender” from Germany. Later that year in Tehran, Iran, the two leaders met with Stalin and decided to take out Germany first, then Japan; Stalin agreed to help against Japan once Germany had been defeated.
The newly strengthened Allied forces made serious headway against the Axis Powers in late 1942. After the British defeated the Germans at El-Alamein in North Africa, Allied troops invaded North Africa in Operation Torch. With Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” temporarily away from the front lines, the Allies took 1,000 miles of African coastline. The allies invaded Sicily in mid-1943 and then invaded mainland Italy and knocked Mussolini out of the war altogether. After a pivotal battle at Kursk between Soviet and German armored divisions, the Soviet armies forced Germany into a westward retreat. As the Soviets pushed westward back through Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, they discovered evidence of the atrocities that had been committed by the Germans.
After German double-agents helped convince the Germans that the Allied invasion of Europe would take place at the English Channel’s narrowest point, the Allies launched Operation Overlord under the direction of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969). On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded the beaches at Normandy—not the narrowest point at all—almost immediately after the Allies liberated Rome. Over the following weeks, two million Allied troops would enter France in the largest invasion by sea in history. After weeks of bitter and bloody fighting, the Allies finally pushed inland and reached Paris on August 25.
By late 1944, the Allies had Germany surrounded. Germans who saw the writing on the wall made several attempts on Hitler’s life, but none succeeded. German troops made one last surge toward Antwerp in the Battle of the Bulge, an attempt to salvage victory with a surprise attack in the Ardennes forests. Initially the Germans were successful, but Allied troops finally drove the Germans back in January 1945. Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met in the Crimean resort of Yalta and decided, first, to have Allied troops meet in Berlin and, second, to divide Germany into zones of occupation after the war.
As the end drew near, things fell apart quickly for the Axis Powers. The Soviets liberated eastern Europe by March and Vienna by April. In late April, U.S. and Soviet troops met in Germany and surrounded Berlin. Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, though he had ordered his troops and the newly conscripted army in Berlin to fight to the death. Only days earlier, Italians had executed Mussolini in Italy. Germany surrendered a week later, and May 8 became known as V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day.
Would You Believe?
As horrific as the effects of the atomic bombs were, the incendiary bombing attacks conducted earlier on Japan killed more people than did the atomic bombs.
In the Pacific theater, now-President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), who assumed presidential responsibilities upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) due to a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945, considered the possibility of using atomic weapons to avoid an American invasion of the Japanese mainland. After intelligence reported that perhaps a million American lives would be lost taking Japan, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, and another on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9. Less than a week later, Japan surrendered. August 15 became V-J Day. The war finally had drawn to a close. Historians estimate that as many as 50 million people died in World War II.