World War II
, also known as the
, was a war fought from 1939 to 1945 in Europe and, during
much of the 1930s and 1940s, in Asia. The war was also fought in Africa,
and included a handful of incidents in the Americas along with several
naval battles in the world's various oceans. It was the largest armed conflict
in history, spanning the entire world and involving more countries than
any previous war, as well as introducing powerful new weapons, culminating
in the first use of atomic bombs, whose very existence had been a tightly-held
secret. The conflict ravaged civilians more than had any previous wars
of the modern era, and served as a backdrop for genocidal killings by Germany,
the Soviet Union, and Japan. World War II resulted in some 61 million deaths,
more than any other war.
World War I aftermath
The origins of the war in Europe can be traced to the end of World War
I. In the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was punished with the payment of
reparations of war to the victorious nations. The Treaty also placed important
restrictions on the German military.
The severe economic reparations helped bring on a serious economic crisis,
hyperinflation, and civil unrest in Germany that made possible the rise
of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party headed by Adolf Hitler. See also
The Origins and Commencement of World War II.
The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War
I. Anarchists were endemic, Communist and other socialist agitators abounded
among the trade unions, and many were gravely worried that a Bolshevik-style
Communist revolution was imminent. After a number of liberals failed to
rein in these perceived problems, Italy's king invited right wing parliament
member Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party to form a government in 1922,
following their largely symbolic Marca su Roma (March on Rome).
The Fascists maintained an armed paramilitary wing, which they employed
to combat anarchists, Communists, socialists, and other non-Fascist elements.
Within a few years, Mussolini had consolidated dictatorial power, and Italy
became a police state.
Germany's wartime adversaries were far more serious about enforcing
the economic reparations than the military restrictions on Germany. Under
Hitler, Germany began re-asserting itself in Europe, clandestinely remilitarising
in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1936 the German army reoccupied the Rhineland. Italy, facing opposition
to its wars of conquest in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from the League of Nations,
forged an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn from the League
in 1933. Germany annexed Austria in the spring of 1938; Hitler then planned
to attack and conquer Czechoslovakia, on the pretext of alleged mistreatment
of the (largely Germanic) population of the Sudetenland. In May of 1939,
Italy and Germany formed the Pact of Steel, which further deepened their
alliance and firmly established the Axis powers.
The United Kingdom had guaranteed the security of Czechoslovakia and
it seemed war must break out at this point when the British Prime Minister,
Neville Chamberlain, appealed to Hitler, and flew to Munich, where the
British and French leaders agreed in the Munich Agreement to the cession
of the Sudetenland to Germany. Czech representatives were not allowed at
the conference; their government strongly opposed giving up the Sudetenland
but were powerless in the face of German military might and British and
French unwillingness to fight for them.
Start of the war in Europe
Germany finally became engaged in full-scale war on September 1, 1939 after
the Germans invaded Poland, with whom both Britain and France had pledged
guarantees (see Polish September Campaign 1939). Prior to the invasion,
the Germans had sealed a non-agression pact with the Soviet Union, and
had begun secretly colluding with the Soviets over the fate of Eastern
On September 17, roughly two weeks after the German invasion, the Soviet
Union invaded Poland from the east, as had been agreed to between Hitler's
Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav
Molotov (see Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Under this joint attack Poland fell
quickly, with last large operational units surrendering October 5 (However,
Polish troops continued fighting Germany until the end of the war).
Germany on the one hand, and France and Britain on the other, settled
into a period of quiet maneuvering while they mobilized for conflict. This
relatively non-confrontational period between the major powers lasted until
May, 1940, and was known as the Phony War. Several other countries, however,
were drawn into the conflict at this time. The USSR conquered the Baltic
states, and also attacked Finland but was fought to a stalemate in the
Winter War. Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, ostensibly as a defensive
maneuver against potential British occupation of those countries. In October
of 1940, Italy invaded Greece, and was unable to conquer the region until
assistance from Germany arrived.
Germany finally ended the Phony War when it turned west. In a sweeping
invasion of the Low Countries that bypassed French fortifications along
the Maginot Line, Germany conquered Belgium and the Netherlands, then turned
against France. France fell unexpectedly quickly, leaving Britain to stand
alone against Germany. Fortunately for Britain, much of its ground forces
escaped capture in the final days of that campaign from the French harbor
Britain's resistance to the threat of German invasion was dogged. An
outnumbered RAF fought a long, ultimately successful air war with the Luftwaffe
during the early days of the war, a conflict known as the Battle of Britain.
London was later heavily bombed, as were many industrial cities such as
Birmingham and Coventry, and strategically important cities, such as the
naval base at Plymouth.
In reprisal for the bombing of Lubeck in 1942, Hermann Goering launched
the Baedeker Blitz, a campaign of morale-destroying bombings aimed at many
beautiful English cities of little military importance such as Exeter,
Bath and Norwich. Britain's supply lines with America were severely impacted
by the German use of U-boats to sink both military and mercantile shipping
in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The Eastern Front
On June 22, 1941, the Germans launched a surprise invasion, codenamed Operation
Barbarossa, against their erstwhile Russian allies. The German Army pushed
deep into Russia, forcing the Red Army back. The Soviets employed a scorched
earth policy, burning crops and destroying utilities as they withdrew before
the Germans. But with the capture of Moscow imminent, Hitler ordered his
generals to divert their main thrust south in order to conquer Ukraine.
This diversion cost the German Army valuable time; by the time they again
set their sights on Moscow, the armored assault was slowed by the autumn
mud, and then stopped cold when the Russian winter struck. The German army,
which had not expected such a prolonged campaign, suffered great loss of
life as the harsh weather and lack of planning took their toll.
The next spring the German army continued to push forward, and in November
1942, with the German army at the "gates of Stalingrad", Moscow only 100
miles away, and the oil fields of Grozny in reach, the Red Army held strong.
Factors such as indecision by Hitler, dissent among the higher ranked German
officers, a long distance to their supplies and a second Russian winter,
combined to result in a prolonged battle in the streets of Stalingrad.
Heavy losses affected both sides in the battle of Stalingrad, one of the
bloodiest battles in history. An estimated 2 million people perished in
this battle, including 500,000 civilians. It was the first major defeat
of the German army, and they never regained their momentum, allowing the
Russian armies to eventually push the Germans all the way back to Berlin.
The Soviets bore the brunt of World War II; the second front in Europe
did not begin until D-Day, apart from the invasion of Italy. More Soviet
citizens died during World War II than those of all other countries combined.
Approximately 21 million Soviets, among them 7 million civilians, were
killed in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Civilians were rounded
up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Since the
Nazis considered Slavs to be "sub-human", this was ethnically targeted
The Germans suffered defeat at the hands of the British in North Africa
in late 1942. In the two battles at El Alamein in June and late October
- early November, the British under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery defeated
the famed German general Erwin Rommel and pushed the Germans out of Egypt,
westward towards Tunisia. After American and British troops landed in Algeria
in Operation Torch, the Allies completely pushed the Germans out of Africa
The end of the war in Europe
Mussolini was deposed on July 25, 1943 by the Fascist Grand Council after
several crushing military setbacks, including the Anglo-American invasion
of Sicily that year. He was arrested and placed under house arrest in an
isolated mountain resort. His replacement, General Pietro Badoglio, negotiated
an armistice with the Allies on September 8, 1943. Mussolini was rescued
by the Germans and installed as the head of a Nazi puppet state in northern
Italy. He continued in this role until he was captured and executed by
crowds on April 28, 1945 while on his way to an escape plane as the Allied
forces closed in on Milan.
Germany's power was broken by the disastrous Russian campaign, while
the ultimately successful invasion of France from the Normandy beachheads
by the Western allies on June 6, 1944 opened up a third front. Incessant
bombing of Germany's infrastructure and cities caused tremendous casualties
and disruption. Internally, Hitler survived a number of assassination attempts.
The most serious was the July 20 Plot, in which Hitler was slightly injured.
In Operation Market Garden the allies attempted to capture bridges,
to open the way into Germany and liberate the northern Netherlands. However,
the failure to capture the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem delayed the
When all was lost for the Germans and the Soviets were closing in on
Berlin, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker along with his lover, Eva
Braun. Germany was partitioned by the Allies into an area of Soviet control,
which became East Germany, and an area of joint British/French/American
control, which became West Germany. The final surrender documents were
signed by General Alfred Jodl on May 7, 1945. May 8 was declared V-E (Victory
In Europe) Day.
Following the war, Allied soldiers discovered a number of concentration
camps that had been used by the Nazis to imprison and exterminate an estimated
12 million people. The largest single group represented in this number
were Jewish (roughly half the total), but Gypsies, Slavs, Catholics, homosexuals
and various minorities and disabled persons formed the remainder. The most
well-known of these camps is the death camp Auschwitz in which about two
million prisoners were killed. Although the Nazi genocide or "Holocaust"
was largely unknown to the allied soldiers fighting the war, it has become
an inseparable part of the story of World War II.
The war in Asia
Japan had invaded China in the early 1930s and had been actively engaged
in military action there (Sino-Japanese War) since 1937. In an effort to
discourage Japan's war efforts in China, the United States, Britain and
the government in exile of the Netherlands (still in control of the oil-rich
Dutch East Indies), stopped trading oil and steel (both war staples) with
Japan. Japan saw this as an act of aggression as it needed oil for its
war effort, and on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces invaded Siam, Malaya,
and the Philippines, and attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Four
days later, Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America
into a two theater war. Until then, America had remained out of the conflict,
though it was providing military aid to Britain and Soviet Union through
the Lend-Lease program.
Allied forces in Asia, drained of men and materiel by the European conflict,
were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened
Japanese. Major units of the British fleet were sunk off Malaya on 10th
December, and Hong Kong fell on the 25th. United States bases on Guam and
Wake Island were lost at around the same time. January saw the invasions
of Burma, the Solomons, the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, and the capture
of Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul. The pace of conquest was rapid: Bali
and Timor fell in February 1942, Rangoon and Java in March, and Mandalay
at the beginning of May. Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated
British and American air power in South-East Asia, made major raids on
northern Australia, and driven the British fleet out of Ceylon.
Allied resistance, at first shambolic, gradually began to stiffen. The
Doolittle Raid in April was a token but morale-boosting air attack on Japan,
and although the US Navy was narrowly defeated in tactical terms at the
Battle of the Coral Sea, it still managed to derail the Japanese plan to
invade Port Moresby. The crucial Battle of Midway followed in June: the
fortunes of war could easily have given either side the victory, but Japanese
naval aviation suffered a devastating defeat from which it never recovered.
Midway was the turning-point of the naval war in the Pacific theatre.
On land, the British/Indian retreat in Burma had slowed, Australian
forces in New Guinea successfully defended Port Morseby along the Kokada
Track and in August Japanese land forces suffered their first outright
defeat of the war at the Battle of Milne Bay. At the same time, US and
Japanese soldiers both attempted to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. Forces
converged on Guadalcanal over the following six months in an escalating
battle of attrition, with eventual victory going to the United States.
From this time on the Japanese fought a defensive war. The constant need
to reinforce Guadalcanal weakened the Japanese effort in other theatres,
leading to the recapture of Buna/Gona by Australian and US forces in early
1943, and preparing the way for both MacArthur's land-based thrust through
New Guinea and Nimitz's island hopping campaign across the Pacific.
Hard-fought battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted
in horrific casualties on both sides, but finally produced a Japanese retreat.
Faced with the loss of most of their experienced pilots, the Japanese resorted
to kamikaze tactics in an attempt to slow the U.S. advance. On February
3, 1945 Japan's longtime enemy Russia agreed to enter the Pacific Theatre
conflict against Japan and was soon making advances in Japanese-occipeied
Manchuria. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other Japanese cities suffered greatly
from attacks by American bombers. Japan finally surrendered after the cities
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both industrial and civilian targets, were destroyed
by atomic bombs. The final surrender was signed September 2, 1945, on the
battleship Missouri. Following this period, General Douglas MacArthur
established bases in Japan to oversee the postwar development of the country.
This period in Japanese history is known as the occupation. President Harry
Truman officially proclaimed an end of hostilities in on December 31, 1946.
Most likely learning from the example of World War I, the victors in the
Second World War did not demand compensation from the defeated nations.
On the contrary, a plan created by U. S. Secretary of State George Marshall,
the Economic Recovery Program
, better known as the Marshall Plan,
called for the US Congress to allocate billions of dollars for the reconstruction
of Europe. The portion of Europe occupied by the Soviet Union did not participate
in the plan.
At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union consolidated
their military presence and links in Europe as preparation against possible
As mentioned, the Soviets bore the heaviest casualties of World War
II. These war causalities can explain much of Russia's behavior after the
war. The Soviet Union continued to occupy and dominate Eastern Europe as
a "buffer zone" to protect Russia from another invasion from the West.
Russia had been invaded three times past 150 years before the Cold War
during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II, suffering tens
of millions of causalities.
World War II ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers.
Major battles of World War Two
Major naval engagements of World War Two
Major figures of World War Two
Major campaigns of World War Two
The names below are as used by the US Army, although they were Allied
European Theater of Operations
Algeria-French Morocco Campaign November 8, 1942 - November 11, 1942
Anzio Campaign January 22, 1944 - May 24, 1944
Ardennes-Alsace Campaign December 16, 1944 - January 25, 1945 ("Battle
of the Bulge")
Central Europe Campaign March 22, 1945 - May 11, 1945
Egypt-Libya Campaign June 11, 1942 - February 12, 1943
Lorraine Campaign (unofficial) September 1, 1944 - December 18, 1944
Normandy Campaign June 6, 1944 - July 24, 1944
North Apennines Campaign
Northern France Campaign July 25, 1944 - September 14, 1944
Po Valley Campaign
Southern France Campaign
Pacific Theater of Operations
Aleutian Islands Campaign
Major bombing campaigns of World War Two
Bismarck Archipelago Campaign
Burma 1942 Campaign
Central Burma Campaign
Central Pacific Campaign
China Defensive Campaign July 4, 1942 - May 4, 1945
China Offensive Campaign May 5, 1945 - September 2, 1945
East Indies Campaign
Eastern Mandates Campaign
New Guinea Campaign
Northern Solomons Campaign
Philippine Islands Campaign
Southern Philippines Campaign
Western Pacific Campaign June 15, 1944 - September 2, 1945
See also Strategic bombing survey for the overall impact of the bombing.
Common weapons of World War Two
Mauser Karabiner 98k
Mauser Gewehr 98
Parabellum (Luger) P'08