World War II

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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview; Event overview
Pages: 16
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Page 2766


The maintenance of peace in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was both strengthened and weakened by the memory of the costs of World War I. On the one hand, that memory led many to have such a horror of military conflict that they shrank from the very idea. This horror, on the other hand, could favor a country determined on war by restraining those who in their revulsion at war had disarmed, were reluctant to rearm, and believed that almost any sacrifices these actions entailed were likely to be less than those a new conflict would exact.


This situation especially affected the nominal victors, France and Great Britain. Both had been terribly damaged by the war and found themselves abandoned by the United States, which had helped save them from defeat in 1918, had participated in the writing of the peace treaties, but had then turned its back on the settlement. The country most strengthened by the war had shoved the burden of keeping the peace on the countries most weakened by it. Furthermore, Russia, which had played a major role in the war in spite of military defeats, had collapsed internally, been taken over by the Bolsheviks, and was more interested in upsetting than maintaining the peace.

The country that took the initiative for another world war was Germany, but because the regime that did so for novel reasons acted in a world in which others had started wars of their own, something has to be said about the latter. Japan had begun imperial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century with war against China. There followed war with Russia, the annexation of Korea, and entrance into World War I on the Allied side in order to take parts of Germany's empire in the Pacific. In 1931 Japan seized Manchuria from China and continued its advance on the mainland. In July 1937 this led to open hostilities with China, but however awful for the Chinese, these actions were a continuation of prior Japanese expansionist policies.

Similarly, Italy under Benito Mussolini continued an expansionist policy that in prior decades had garnered colonial territories in Africa, the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea, and territory from Austria-Hungary. Mussolini's first major further step was the conquest of Ethiopia in 1936. In this case also, military aggression was the resumption of a prior policy. The aims of Germany were entirely different.

Unwilling to accept the defeat of 1918, increasing numbers of Germans rallied to the National Socialists (Nazis) led by Adolf Hitler. In his speeches and writings, he asserted that the Germans deserved to control the globe and could do so if they adopted a one-party state, redoubled their racial superiority by racial awareness and the removal of Jews, and went to war for proper aims. The latter he defined not as the snippets of land Germany had lost by the peace of 1919 but as many hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land for settlement by Germans displacing the local population. The large families raised by the settlers would replace the casualties incurred in the conquest of the land and provide soldiers for the next conquests. Members of the old elite talked President Paul von Hindenburg into Page 2767  |  Top of Article appointing Hitler as chancellor in January 1933. Thereafter, Hitler rapidly established the one-party state, initiated measures in the racial field, and ordered a massive program of rearmament.

Rearmament was geared to the wars Hitler expected to fight. A short war against Czechoslovakia requiring no special preparation would precede the main one against the Western Powers. The last war demonstrated that this was the one for which Germany must prepare most effectively. Victory in the west would enable Germany to crush the Soviet Union in a quick war. In German eyes incompetents now ruled over inferior races whom Germany had defeated the last time in spite of their largely Germanic ruling elite that had—fortunately for Germany—been replaced by the Bolsheviks. Victory over the Soviet Union, for which no special preparations were needed, would provide vast lands for settlement and also raw materials, especially oil, needed for the next war against the United States. Though easy to defeat, the United States was far away and had a substantial navy. When production of the weapons systems for war against France and Britain was under way in 1937, design and development of the intercontinental bombers and super-battleships for war with the United States were ordered.

At the last moment, Hitler called off the first war against Czechoslovakia and settled at Munich for his ostensible rather than his real aims; that is, he agreed to annex the areas inhabited primarily by Germans rather than occupy the whole country. What others imagined was a German triumph, he considered the worst mistake of his career. German diplomacy toward war in 1939 was accordingly dominated by a determination not to be trapped into negotiations once again. War against France and Britain was next, but that required a quiet eastern front. At the time that meant Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary. While Lithuania and Hungary became sufficiently subservient to Germany, the leaders of the revived Poland were unwilling to subordinate the country to anyone without a fight. Hitler therefore decided to fight Poland either by itself first or in conjunction with France and Britain if they decided to support Poland. To discourage the Western Powers temporarily or to fight them right away if they so chose, Germany looked for allies. Because further expansion of Italy and Japan was possible only at the expense of their World War I allies, these were the countries to which Hitler turned.

The Italian government was willing to ally itself with Germany in 1939, though on the understanding that war would come in three years. Japan, however, was at this time agreeable to an alliance against the Soviet Union but not against the Western Powers. Under these circumstances Hitler was prepared to entertain soundings from Moscow that he had previously rejected. The Soviet Union had a long border with Poland and could provide supplies to Germany if there were a renewed Allied blockade. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, saw an opportunity to expand his country's territory and to encourage capitalist countries to fight one another. Rather than remain neutral or side with the Western Powers as they and the United States urged, he preferred to align his country with Germany. Germany and the Soviet Union divided eastern Europe between themselves with the Germans willing to sign over more than Stalin asked on the assumption that after victory in the west they would seize it all.

After carefully arranged incidents in which murdered concentration camp victims dressed in Polish uniforms were strewn around a German radio station to prove that Poland had attacked Germany, the German armed forces attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. To preclude a peaceful settlement, the German demands on Poland were kept secret until after the attack. Thus the German public could be rallied to a new war by a regime that believed collapse at home, not defeat at the front, had led to the loss of the last war. Combined with heavy air attacks on Polish cities and forces, the German thrusts broke Polish efforts to defend the country. There was sporadic heavy fighting, but the poorly equipped Polish forces were defeated quickly. The hope of the Polish staff to continue fighting through the winter in the forests and swamps of eastern Poland was destroyed by the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland on 17 September. The German and Soviet military quickly and most courteously sorted out their units to accord with the agreed upon partition of Poland. That partition was altered by an agreement exchanging the central portion of Poland to Page 2768  |  Top of Article
German soldiers cross the Cologne bridge during Germany's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, in direct violation of the treaty of Versailles. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS

German soldiers cross the Cologne bridge during Germany's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, in direct violation of the treaty of Versailles. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS
German control for most of Lithuania to join Estonia and Latvia under Soviet domination.

Britain and France honored their promise to defend Polish independence by declaring war on 3 September, an action followed by the British dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, after some delay, the Union of South Africa. Ireland elected to remain neutral, while the British government of India entered the conflict and would create the largest volunteer army of the war. Both the British and French governments had hoped to avoid another war, and had made concessions to Germany in the endeavor of reconciling that country to living at peace with its neighbors. The negative reaction of Berlin to the concessions made at Munich convinced the two governments in the winter of 1938–1939 that if Germany struck again at any country that defended itself, they would have to go to war. Their effort to make this clear to Hitler in 1939 fell on deaf ears. Neither France nor Britain had rearmed sufficiently, though both had begun to do so in response to Germany's massive rearmament program. Afraid of a repetition of the massive casualties of the prior war, the French refused to carry out the offensive operation they had promised Poland earlier in 1939.

Hitler wanted to launch an offensive through the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg in the late fall of 1939. The German air force, however, needed good weather for its supporting role, and that weather did not come. While postponing that offensive until 1940, the Germans prepared an invasion of Norway, with Denmark to be occupied as well, to have better access to the North Atlantic for their navy. With help from a base in the Soviet Union and treason from within Norway by Vidkun Quisling who gave his name to such action, the Germans seized Denmark and landed in Norway on 9 April 1940. The Western Allies sent forces to Page 2769  |  Top of Article help the Norwegians defend themselves. The Germans won in southern Norway, were defeated in the northern part, but recovered there when the Allied forces were withdrawn because of the German offensive in the west. Of major importance were the heavy losses incurred by the German navy in the Norwegian operation. Many of its destroyers and cruisers were sunk, and the big warships damaged and hence out of service during the critical months of 1940 when they were unavailable to provide cover for an invasion of England.

On 10 May German forces invaded the three Low Countries. Unwilling to coordinate their own operations with France and Britain, these fell quickly. A breakthrough of the French defenses at Sedan enabled the Germans to cut through to the English Channel because the French commander in chief, General Maurice Gamelin, sent his reserve army into the Netherlands rather than keeping it in reserve. Because the effort to cut the German thrust failed, the British and French forces it had isolated were evacuated—without their equipment—through Dunkirk in early June. In those same days, the Germans pierced the new French line and struck into the interior. Unlike World War I when the French government had held fast, on this occasion a cabinet headed by the defeatist Marshal Philippe Pétain replaced it. Pétain asked for an armistice, signed one, and wanted to replace the French Third Republic with an authoritarian regime that he imagined could have a place in a German-dominated Europe.

The collapse of French resistance after a few weeks of fighting in the theater of war where opposing armies had struggled inconclusively for years in World War I had massive repercussions for all participants and major neutrals. For Hitler, victory over France consolidated his support at home even more fully. Construction of warships for war against the United States, temporarily interrupted for more urgent needs, was ordered resumed. Plans for the next war, that against the Soviet Union, could now be developed; the army general staff was already preparing them. Hitler and the army's chief of staff preferred to attack that fall, but it became apparent that preparations would take too long for a campaign in 1940. By 31 July Hitler decided that the invasion of the Soviet Union had to be postponed until the early summer of 1941. Preparations moved forward and were not confined to the military. Because Finland and Romania were to be allies, Germany would occupy Romania and reverse its policy toward Finland. That country had been assigned to the Soviet Union in the 1939 German-Soviet agreement but had fought for its independence when attacked by the Soviets in the winter of 1939–1940. The loss of territory to the Soviets in the peace of March 1940 made Finland amenable to siding with Germany. Similarly, Soviet annexation of parts of Romania in the summer of 1940 (with German support) encouraged that country to fight alongside Germany.

For a short time the Germans believed that victory in the west was complete. England would make peace or be bombed or invaded until it surrendered. But under the leadership of Winston Churchill, the prime minister, the British refused to make peace. They did not succumb to a German bombing campaign. They retained control of the air in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 and thereby forced the Germans to postpone the projected invasion. As the British rebuilt their army, began to receive aid from the United States, and hit back at the Germans as best they could, they looked to a long war in which the peoples of Europe would so resent their conquerors as to rise up against them. A new British army would assist them to free themselves from a Germany weakened by blockade and an increasing bombing campaign.

Believing that the war was essentially over, Mussolini took Italy into it in order to share in the spoils of a war Germany had started before Italy was ready. The inadequately prepared Italian forces quickly ran into trouble in Africa and needed German help to hold onto Libya even as the British conquered their colonial empire in northeast Africa. Because the Germans had not informed him of their reason for occupying Romania, Mussolini decided in October 1940 to invade Greece from Albania (which Italy had occupied in 1939). Here also Italian forces met defeat and asked for German assistance. In April 1941 the Germans conquered Yugoslavia and Greece in short campaigns and continued with the conquest of the island of Crete in May. Mussolini, however, insisted in 1941 on sending troops to participate in the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Page 2770  |  Top of Article

Londoners sleep in a subway station used as an air raid shelter during bombing by German planes, October 1940. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

Londoners sleep in a subway station used as an air raid shelter during bombing by German planes, October 1940. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

The dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, also wanted to join Germany in order to expand Spain's colonial empire. And he also sympathized with the Germans, who had helped him in the Spanish civil war (1936–1939). When he learned, however, that Germany insisted on acquiring bases on and off the coast of northwest Africa under full ownership—for their planned war against the United States—he decided not to enter the conflict directly. He assisted the Germans' submarine campaign and their intelligence operations, and sent a unit to fight the Soviets, but Franco was not about to cede one square centimeter of Spanish territory to anyone.

The Soviet Union was surprised by the rapidity of Germany's victory and, anticipating the possibility of a peace settlement, moved to annex the Baltic states and parts of Romania. Brushing aside all proposals and warnings from London, the U.S. government, and his intelligence services, Stalin was determined to maintain excellent relations with Germany. This meant not only providing the Germans with economic and other assistance but also hoping to join the Tripartite Pact that Germany, Italy, and Japan had signed in September 1940. The fact that this involved the possibility of the Soviet Union being obliged to fight the United States illuminates Stalin's enthusiasm for adhering to it. The Germans, who intended to invade the Soviet Union, ignored Soviet offers. They preferred receiving supplies until the hour of the invasion to negotiations that Page 2771  |  Top of Article might entail Soviet withholding of economic aid as a lever.

The Japanese were delighted to see the colonial masters of South and Southeast Asia defeated by Germany because this appeared to open the road to further imperial expansion. When the Germans urged them to seize the French, British, and Dutch possessions, the Japanese explained that it would be risky with the United States still in control of the Philippines. The Germans replied that if the Tokyo government believed it could strike south only if it also went to war with the United States, then Germany would immediately join in. From the perspective of Berlin, the alternative to building a large navy was to find an ally who already had one because it made no difference whether American warships were sunk in the Pacific or Atlantic. Under these circumstances the Japanese government began preparations for a war far wider than the continuing hostilities with China. There the Japanese forces had conquered the ports and main industrial areas, but having rejected the possibility of a peace mediated by Germany in January 1938, were embroiled in an ongoing conflict marked by Japanese atrocities.

The dramatic German victories shocked the government and people of the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the equivalent of a coalition government for the first time in the country's history and decided to run for an equally unprecedented third term. Facing danger in both the Atlantic and Pacific, Congress voted to create a two-ocean navy. For the first time it established a peacetime draft to create a real army. Hoping to keep the country out of open hostilities, the president labored to increase aid to Britain. An exchange of old destroyers for bases on British possessions simultaneously reinforced the British navy in the battle of the Atlantic and strengthened American defenses.

Britain could continue in the war only if the supply routes across the oceans remained open, a point recognized by both sides. From September 1939 on there was a ceaseless battle by the Germans to break and the British, increasingly aided by the Americans and Canadians, to maintain control of the oceans. Until the fall of 1943 German submarines, long-distance planes, and surface warships sank more ships than the Allies could build. In May 1943 the Allies sank German submarines at such a rate that the Germans temporarily withdrew from the North Atlantic, and in the fall Allied ship construction exceeded losses. Thereafter German efforts to return to the fray with new types of torpedoes and submarines were unable to reverse a tide turned in favor of the Allies by a combination of technological developments, code-breaking successes, the construction of escort warships and escort aircraft carriers, and the dedication of crews.


In June 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union; from that time the overwhelming majority of World War II fighting took place on the eastern front. The German armies won early major tactical victories, but unlike the government of Nicholas II and the subsequent Russian provisional government (during World War I), Stalin was able to retain firm control of the unoccupied parts of the country. In August Red Army counterattacks drove back the Germans at one point on the central front. In late November the Germans were forced to retreat in the south; in December they were defeated before Moscow; and soon after they were obliged to retreat in the north. The Soviet winter offensive pushed the Germans back and inflicted great losses, but could not collapse their front. The Germans planned to renew their offensive in 1942, but lacking the strength to strike on more than one sector, decided on the southern one.

By the end of 1941, the war had changed in two other important respects. The Germans had initiated the demographic revolution that was the purpose of the war in their thinking. In October 1939 Hitler had directed the initiation of the first systematic killing program: the murder of handicapped people first in Germany and then in occupied Poland and elsewhere. In anticipation of the invasion of the Soviet Union, the second such program was ordered: the killing of all Jews in newly occupied Soviet territory. As this program was beginning to be implemented in the summer of 1941 and it became clear that the German military was agreeable if not enthusiastic, the killing was to be extended to all areas that Germany could reach in Europe and throughout the world. What Page 2772  |  Top of Article
A Soviet navy officer aboard a submarine looks through a periscope, 1942. Soviet submarines, developed with help from Germany during the 1930s, were later used to interrupt German supply shipments in the North Sea. © YEVGENY KHALDEI/CORBIS

A Soviet navy officer aboard a submarine looks through a periscope, 1942. Soviet submarines, developed with help from Germany during the 1930s, were later used to interrupt German supply shipments in the North Sea. © YEVGENY KHALDEI/CORBIS
came to be known as the Holocaust was a central feature of the war from then on.

The other major change in the war resulted from the initiative of Japan. In the summer of 1941 the authorities in Tokyo decided to strike in the south rather than attack the Soviet Union. They occupied southern French Indochina as a springboard for offensives pointing away from their war with China. The U.S. government attempted to delay and deter them, hoping that eventually the Japanese would see that Germany was likely to lose the war, a policy that came within two weeks of working. The Japanese, however, would not wait longer and struck the United States, Britain, and the Dutch on 7/8 December 1941. Germany and Italy, having reassured the Japanese that they would go to war with the United States, promptly did so. The countries of the Tripartite Pact had forced Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States into an alliance. The prior conquests of the Germans and the early conquests of the Japanese for a while brought them control of larger resources than those of the Allies, but the latter used theirs more effectively and were therefore able to continue in the war.

The Japanese, by adopting Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku's plan to attack the American fleet on a Sunday in peacetime, had crippled the American navy temporarily but simultaneously galvanized the American public into full support of a war to the finish. The Japanese hope that after early conquests they could make a new settlement with the United States was aborted by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese forces defeated the poorly prepared American and Filipino forces in the Philippines, crushed the Dutch, seized Malaya with its base at Singapore in short order, and drove the British-Indian army out of Burma, but none of these victories produced a peace settlement. Australian forces halted the Japanese on New Page 2773  |  Top of Article Guinea, and the American navy first blunted the Japanese naval advance in May and then defeated the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The Americans and British had agreed that Germany would be defeated first: It was the more dangerous enemy, and neither Britain nor the Soviet Union had any choice. The rapid advances of the Japanese in the first months of 1942 forced a temporary deviation from the "Europe First" strategy. Concerned about the Japanese seizure of the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific and the construction of an airfield on one of the islands, Guadalcanal, the Americans landed there to seize the airfield and protect the route to Australia. There followed the longest battle in American history—from August 1942 to February 1943. American forces hung on and eventually achieved victory. The naval and land battles around Guadalcanal also prevented the Japanese from striking farther into the Indian Ocean than their brief incursion earlier, thereby eliminating the opportunity the Axis Powers might have had of joining forces in the Middle East. The Germans had advanced into Egypt in the summer of 1942 but were halted at El Alamein around the same time as the first American landing in the Solomons.


On the eastern front, Germany launched a summer offensive to seize the Caucasus oil fields and block the Volga River at Stalingrad. Local victories enabled them to advance, but unlike 1941 when the Germans had captured millions of prisoners—the majority of whom they killed or let die—this time the Red Army retreated and continued to fight. Both wings of the offensive were halted, one inside Stalingrad, the other in the Caucasus passes. A Soviet counteroffensive in November 1942 cut off the German army fighting in Stalingrad along with substantial Romanian forces. The German relief effort failed, and the attempt at air supply foundered on Soviet countermeasures and the diversion of German air transport to the fighting in Tunisia. Under spectacular circumstances a whole German army was destroyed; soon after, other portions of the front saw major Soviet offensives, while the German units sent into the Caucasus were withdrawn to avoid being cut off. The victories of the Red Army in 1942 had been assisted by the success of the British in May and June of 1941 in crushing a pro-German revolt in Iraq and occupying the French mandate of Syria, thereby eliminating the possibility of a German foothold south of the Caucasus.

In early November 1942 American and British troops landed in French northwest Africa to meet the British army driving back Axis forces from Egypt. The Germans built up an army in Tunisia and denied the Allies the critical Tunisian ports, but their counteroffensive stalled after a victory over the Americans at Kasserine Pass. The success of the Germans in holding Tunisia in the winter of 1942–1943, in part because of their use of air supply, meant that there could be no Allied invasion of western Europe in 1943. When Roosevelt and Churchill met to plan future moves in Casablanca in January 1943 they assigned the highest priority to the struggle against German submarines. The air offensives of the two would be coordinated to attack German industry and morale as well as to divert German resources from the eastern front. To reassure the home fronts and the Soviets, but even more to make certain that the Germans would not initiate another world war, the Allied leaders announced in public their previously adopted demand for unconditional surrender. As a follow-up to the campaign in Tunisia, they authorized a 1943 invasion of Sicily, perhaps to be followed by landings on the Italian mainland so that German forces could be kept busy in the Mediterranean theater while a 1944 invasion of western Europe was under preparation and implemented.

The Germans expected to launch another summer offensive in the east and worked to protect their own cities and develop weapons to destroy English cities in 1943. Unable to rescue their soldiers in Tunisia or those in Stalingrad, they hoped to reverse the tide in the east and to hold on to Italy and southeast Europe in the face of any Allied landings. The offensive in the east was postponed so that new tanks they had started to build could be employed, but when launched in the Kursk area, the largest armored battle of the war ended in a decisive German defeat. It was followed by the first Soviet summer offensive that drove the Germans Page 2774  |  Top of Article
German troops arrest a group of men in Croatia, July 1943. The caption accompanying this German photo describes the suspects as "a band of Bolshevists who were terrorizing the mountain dwellers of Croatia." © BETTMANN/CORBIS

German troops arrest a group of men in Croatia, July 1943. The caption accompanying this German photo describes the suspects as "a band of Bolshevists who were terrorizing the mountain dwellers of Croatia." © BETTMANN/CORBIS
out of much of the area they had conquered on the central and southern portions of the front. In spite of occasional local German counterattacks, the initiative had passed definitively to the Red Army, which was assisted, especially in regard to transportation, by massive quantities of supplies and equipment provided by the United States and to a lesser extent by Britain. By the end of the year, the Germans had been forced back considerably, a process that continued in the winter of 1943–1944 as the Red Army recovered important industrial and agricultural areas of Ukraine and relieved the German siege of Leningrad.

In the Pacific the struggle for the Solomon Islands and New Guinea continued with the Americans and Australians advancing against determined Japanese resistance. The American thrust northward from the Southwest Pacific under General Douglas MacArthur was supplemented by a second route of advance across the Pacific under Admiral Chester Nimitz. Initiated in late 1943 by landings in the Gilbert Islands, success there was followed by landings in the Marshall Islands early in 1944. The U.S. Navy was receiving both the repaired warships damaged at Pearl Harbor and large numbers of new ships ordered earlier. The Japanese were incapable of replacing their losses—to say nothing of increasing their navy. Having failed to realize before December 1941 that the conquest of oil wells, tin mines, and rubber plantations did not enable them to move these to the Japanese home islands but merely required the shipment of their products in Japanese merchant ships, the Japanese saw their shipping increasingly Page 2775  |  Top of Article sunk by Allied submarines (especially once the Americans replaced their defective torpedoes).

In March 1943 the Allies began a new offensive in Tunisia that ended Axis resistance by early May. In July they landed on Sicily, which they wrested from the German and Italian defenders in a bitter two-month fight. The success of the initial landing following upon the loss of Italy's colonial empire and the destruction of an Italian army on the eastern front galvanized the internal opposition to Mussolini who was deposed and arrested in July. The Germans freed him and installed him in a puppet regime in northern Italy, but fascism had discredited itself and collapsed as a political system. The successor government surrendered to the Allies. It did this with such incompetence that the Germans were able to take control of most of Italy and all of the Italian-occupied portions of France, Yugoslavia, and Greece, as well as seize and deport to slave labor in Germany those Italian soldiers whom they had not murdered in an orgy of revenge. In September the Allies landed at the toe of Italy and at Salerno near Naples. The latter landing proved most difficult because of strong German resistance, a situation that would characterize the campaign in Italy thereafter. The American and British troops, joined by French, Polish, and Brazilian units, slowly fought their way up the peninsula. They seized airfields important for extending the range of Allied air forces, but were halted below Rome in spite of an amphibious landing at Anzio and repeated assaults elsewhere.

While the war had turned in favor of the Allies by the end of 1943, neither Germany nor Japan would give up. The Germans placed their hopes for victory on several factors. They believed it possible that the Allied coalition would break up. They expected that a new type of submarine would turn the tide in the battle of the Atlantic. That would either render an invasion in the west impossible or isolate it from reinforcement and supplies. They were working hard on several types of special weapons to employ in 1944 to destroy English cities, especially London, and thus drive the presumably war-weary English out of the conflict. Above all, they were confident that they could crush the expected Allied landing in the west. No new landing would be possible in the same year, and therefore the German army could shift forces east to defeat the Red Army that had suffered enormous casualties in prior fighting.

The Japanese were not hoping for victory but believed that stubborn resistance would so tire their enemies that a compromise peace could be attained. It seemed inconceivable to them that the Americans would be willing to expend the blood and treasure required to retake all the territories Japan still held so that they could return them to former colonial masters. And once the Americans grew tired of fighting, Japan's other enemies would also have to quit. Furthermore, Japan would recruit soldiers in the colonies of the Western Powers with fake promises of independence and use them to reinforce its own army. Two offensives were to be launched in 1944 to strengthen Japan's situation while making the operations of the Allies more difficult and costly.

One offensive was to cut the supply route to British-American bases in Assam, a province in northeast India, from which the Americans had established an air supply route to China called "The Hump" because it involved flying over the Himalayas. The Japanese also hoped that the offensive would produce a revolt by Indian nationalists and enable them to establish a puppet regime in Delhi under the Indian collaborator Subhas Chandra Bose. This operation ended in total defeat and led to the retaking of Burma by the British-Indian army by May 1945. The other offensive was in China and had two purposes. It was to secure a Japanese-controlled railway connecting forces in northern and southern China and simultaneously seize air bases built for American long-range bombers to attack the Japanese home islands. This offensive was entirely successful. Chinese resistance was crushed after some heavy fighting, most of the air bases were captured, and the Chinese Nationalist regime was so weakened as to play no further part in the war and, subsequently, to be defeated by the Communists. The victory over Chiang Kai-shek's forces, however, could not save Tojo Hideki, the Japanese prime minister, from losing his position because of a simultaneous Japanese defeat in the Marianas.


While continuing their advance by landings along the northern shore of New Guinea and on small Page 2776  |  Top of Article islands off its coast, especially Biak, the Americans were also striking across the central Pacific. The key target was the island of Saipan in the Marianas. Seizure of the island would provide a base for long-range bombers to attack the Japanese home islands, would make it easier to cut Japanese supply lines to their conquests farther south, and would provide a stepping-stone to other islands in the chain, primarily Tinian and Guam. The invasion in June 1944 proved very difficult because of fierce resistance; but not only was it eventually successful, it also precipitated the defeat of the Japanese naval force originally sent to help the Japanese garrison on Biak but instead diverted to Saipan. These American land and naval victories led to the fall of Tojo. Together with further American advances in the southwest Pacific, success in the Marianas prepared the way for the return of American forces to the Philippines.

In Europe the Allies planned to attack Germany from the south, west, and east while continuing to attack its industry and cities from the air. This last was assisted by the use of long-range fighter planes to escort American daylight bombers and, in the process, effectively crushed German fighter defenses in February and March 1944. In May Allied forces in Italy pierced the German lines below Rome, and, although failing to cut off the retreating German units, liberated Rome on 4 June. They pushed north from there and seized important airfields. They were unable to end German resistance in Italy, but that also implied a continued substantial diversion of German resources to that theater.

Both the invasion in the west on 6 June and the Red Army offensive soon after were greatly assisted by the deception of German intelligence about the direction of attack. The landings in Normandy by British and American units established five small beachheads that were joined in bitter fighting. During June and July the Allies pushed the Germans back, held against small counterattacks, captured the port of Cherbourg, but were unable to break into the open. A breakthrough was achieved on the American segment at the end of July. As American units poured into the French interior, the Germans mounted their main counteroffensive to cut off the penetration, but this was defeated. Large portions of the German army that had defended Normandy were destroyed, but substantial numbers of staff and soldiers escaped. As Allied forces pushed into the French interior, they were supported by the French Resistance and by an additional landing on the Mediterranean coast where ports critical for supplying the advancing armies were captured.

By early September most of France had been liberated and the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle had made a triumphal entry into Paris. From French colonies that had rallied to him in the summer of 1940 he had become both the symbol and the leader of a new France with an army that participated in the landing in the south of France and was now headed into Germany. In that country, the last remnants of opposition to the Nazi regime had been crushed after a series of efforts to kill Hitler, culminating in one on 20 July 1944, had failed in the face of overwhelming support for Hitler by the German military.

To delay the Allies, the Germans either held the French harbors as long as possible—some until May 1945—or destroyed them thoroughly. They rebuilt their forces in the west and were able to hold the Allies near the German-French border although the Americans crossed it at some points in October 1944. An attempt to seize the bridges over branches of the lower Rhine River and drive into the Netherlands and Germany on that route failed in September. As the Allies pushed against the German defenses, the latter prepared for a major counteroffensive.

The Soviet summer offensive of 22 June had been preceded by a major attack against Finland. The Red Army crushed Finnish resistance until the Finnish government sued for peace. The armistice signed in September led to fighting between the Finns and their former German allies. The latter withdrew into Norway, which they controlled until the end of the war. The preliminary Red Army operation was followed by the greatest Soviet military victory and German defeat of the war. In a series of surprise blows, carefully prepared and coordinated as well as supported by massive guerrilla strikes against German communications, the Red Army completely destroyed the German army group on the central part of the front. Soon after further major offensives in the south drove the Germans out of the rest of Ukraine. As Soviet forces advanced into prewar Poland and toward Page 2777  |  Top of Article
Ruins of Johannesstrasse, Dresden, Germany, following bombing by Allied planes, 1945. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Ruins of Johannesstrasse, Dresden, Germany, following bombing by Allied planes, 1945. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Romania, dramatic developments inside those territories affected the future course of events.

When the Red Army drove into central Poland and crossed the Vistula River above and below Warsaw, Polish underground forces inside the city rose in revolt. This underground was loyal to the government-in-exile in London and hoped to seize the city from the retreating Germans before the arrival of Soviet soldiers. Planning to establish a Communist regime in Poland loyal to Moscow, the Soviet government had broken relations with the government-in-exile, using as an excuse that government's interest in an independent investigation of the discovery at Katyń forest, not far from Smolensk, of the graves of thousands of Polish officers who had been captured by the Red Army in 1939 and shot by the Soviets in the spring of 1940. As the Germans fought the uprising and the Western Allies tried to help the insurgents by dropping supplies from planes, the Red Army halted and watched the Germans crush the Polish underground and level the Polish capital. These very conspicuous developments from August through October 1944 assured the Germans of additional months of control of the area but destroyed the great fund of public goodwill that the valiant fighting of the Red Army had created in Great Britain and the United States. Here was the clear sign of divergence in the alliance that initiated what came to be called the Cold War.

Page 2778  |  Top of Article

In Romania, a Red Army offensive in August 1944 was met by a coup against the regime of General Ion Antonescu that made it possible to destroy German forces in that country. Soviet forces units occupied Romania and were joined by Romanian troops in the fight against the Germans and their Hungarian allies. The Soviet Union thereupon declared war on Bulgaria and occupied that country. These advances of the Red Army facilitated direct contact with the Communist partisans of the Yugoslav resistance leader Tito and obliged the Germans to initiate a general withdrawal from Crete, the Aegean islands, Greece, Albania, and southern Yugoslavia. British troops landed in Greece and became involved in a civil war there. The major fighting in the winter of 1944–1945, however, took place in Hungary as the Red Army drove into that country and surrounded its capital, Budapest.

The Germans, having lost the oil fields of Romania, fought fiercely to retain those of Hungary. Their main effort, however, went into an offensive in the west. Mobilizing all possible reserves, they struck in December at the Americans in the Ardennes, hoping that a major victory would drive the Americans out of the war because of the collapse of their home front. That would force England out as well and enable Germany to concentrate on the eastern front. It was also their expectation that they would reach the major port of Antwerp and by depriving the Western Allies of supplies oblige them to withdraw even if not totally defeated. What Americans call the Battle of the Bulge entailed a German advance on the southern portion of the sector they assaulted, but the Germans were slowed down there and practically halted on the northern sector. With American reinforcements sent to critical points, the farthest German penetration halted, and the road junction of Bastogne held, the German offensive was exhausted. While some of the German units were then redirected to Hungary, the Western Allies pushed the Germans back to their starting positions, inflicting heavy losses in men and equipment Germany could not afford.

The depletion of Germany's strength contributed to the rapid advance of the Soviet January 1945 offensive. The Red Army rapidly overran the rest of Poland, cut off German forces in East Prussia by driving to the Baltic Sea, drove to the Oder River and even crossed it, and conquered the industrial area of Silesia too quickly for the Germans to destroy the factories and mines. After a temporary halt, the Red Army resumed the offensive. There was stiff resistance as the Soviets struck for Berlin, but in April they surrounded the city and fought their way into it. The Western Allies resumed their offensive in February, breaking German resistance on the left bank of the Rhine, crossing that river, and driving into Germany to meet the Red Army on the Elbe River at Torgau in April. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, having designated his navy commander, Karl Dönitz, as his successor. The latter ordered the remaining German forces to surrender unconditionally on 8 May.

Even before the end of fighting in Europe, the Americans and Soviets had begun the redeployment of forces to East Asia. There the Americans landed in October 1944 on Leyte in the Philippines. The bitter struggle over the island—which the Americans won—was accompanied by the largest naval battle of the war (the Battle of Leyte Gulf). Although the American position was severely threatened because Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. abandoned the landing force to chase a Japanese decoy fleet, a small force of American destroyers and escort carriers fought the main Japanese fleet so fiercely that the latter turned away imagining that they were facing the fleet carriers and battleships that were actually far distant. The length of the fighting on Leyte slowed but did not disrupt the American advance. In January 1945 there followed landings on the northern Philippine island of Luzon; in February, Marines landed on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands; and on 1 April a new American army began the slow and difficult fight for Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands. Even as this bloodiest battle of the Pacific War was accompanied by Japanese suicide attacks, the British-Indian army completed the conquest of Burma and planned an invasion of Malaya, while Australian and American forces initiated operations against Borneo in the Dutch East Indies.

The Americans planned an invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese home islands. Because they expected a very difficult fight, an invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Union was Page 2779  |  Top of Article
TABLE 1 Approximate war-related deaths of major combatant nations in the Second World War Source: Dear, I.C.B., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Second World War. Oxford, U.K., 1995, p.290.

Approximate war-related deaths of major combatant nations in the Second World War
Source: Dear, I.C.B., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Second World War. Oxford, U.K., 1995, p.290.

expected to assist by tying down Japanese forces on the mainland. As decoded Japanese messages showed dramatic increases in the garrison on Kyushu, American leaders considered their options. Roosevelt had died in April, and Vice President Harry S Truman had succeeded him and authorized the Kyushu invasion in June. By the summer of 1945, the program Roosevelt had initiated for the development of atomic bombs, in which the British had been cooperating, was beginning to produce such bombs. Although the Allies originally feared that Germany might develop such a weapon, they had learned that the Germans had failed; subsequently they discovered that Japanese scientists were actually further along. The decision now was between using them on cities in the hope of shocking Japan into surrender or saving them up for support of the Kyushu landing scheduled for November. The decision of Truman, the army chief of staff General George Marshall, and the secretary of war Henry Stimson was to drop one on a city, and if that did not shift Japanese policy to drop a second one to give the impression that there was an indefinite supply, but then to save those subsequently available for the Kyushu invasion.

The defeat of Japanese forces on Okinawa appears to have brought Emperor Hirohito to recognize that Japan had to give in. The Allied leaders had called on Japan to surrender from their meeting in Potsdam after Germany's surrender. When this call was rejected, a first bomb destroyed Hiroshima (6 August), and when that did not produce the desired political effect, a second one was dropped on Nagasaki (9 August). In between these events, the Red Army broke into Manchuria and advanced rapidly. Japan's military leaders wanted to continue the war, hoping that the massive casualties they anticipated could be inflicted on the American landing would lead to a compromise. With the government leaders split evenly between advocates of surrender and continued fighting, the emperor intervened, insisting on surrender and personally making the announcement of unconditional surrender on 14 August 1945. An attempted coup in Tokyo by opponents of surrender failed narrowly, and Japanese forces followed the emperor's orders to lay down their arms.


The Germans lost because they acted on their own racial lunacies; the Japanese because they insisted on attacking a country they had no chance of defeating. The Allies won because they organized their defenses and coordinated their efforts far more effectively than their enemies. The Allies were aided by their enormously superior intelligence and substantially better political and military leadership. What collaboration the Axis found in occupied areas was offset by resistance their policies evoked.

The most costly and destructive war in history ended with approximately sixty million dead and Page 2780  |  Top of Article
German delegates listen as British field marshall Bernard Montgomery reads the terms for their surrender, May 1945. Left to right around the table: Major Friedal, Kontur Admiral Wagener, Commanding Admiral Hans Georg Friedeburg, Field Marshall Montgomery, General of the Infantry Eberhard Kinzel, Colonel Fritz Poleck. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

German delegates listen as British field marshall Bernard Montgomery reads the terms for their surrender, May 1945. Left to right around the table: Major Friedal, Kontur Admiral Wagener, Commanding Admiral Hans Georg Friedeburg, Field Marshall Montgomery, General of the Infantry Eberhard Kinzel, Colonel Fritz Poleck. © BETTMANN/CORBIS
innumerable others wounded, taken prisoner, and displaced. The Soviet Union had risen to world power status and controlled all of eastern Europe. Germany was completely occupied by its enemies. Some eleven million Germans fled or were driven from their homes into a Germany greatly reduced by cessions to the Soviet Union and Poland, the latter moved westward at Soviet insistence. Italy lost its colonial empire and a piece of territory in the northeast. Japan lost its empire, but unlike Germany, was not divided into occupation zones, retaining its unity under American supervision. The war accelerated the decolonization process started in World War I. A new international organization, the United Nations, was organized during hostilities and could try to cope with the problems of the postwar world. These were accentuated by new weapons, especially that combining the German ballistic missile (the V-2) with the American atomic bomb into the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Inside almost all participants the war had brought great changes. In the United States, there was a major shift of industry and population to the South, Southwest, and West. Furthermore, major changes in the status of African Americans and women were clearly starting. In Great Britain, a swing to the left brought the Labour Party to power in July 1945 and led to the development of a welfare state even as the colonial empire dissolved. The Soviet Union had gained both territory and power, but the failure to make domestic change would erode the legitimacy that victory over a terrible invader had provided its government. France could recover and pretend to great power status again. The smaller countries of western Europe resumed their development of prior Page 2781  |  Top of Article years, while those of eastern Europe had lost their independence to the Soviet Union.

The countries of Central and South America had not been as affected by the war as most others. The peoples of the Near East and North Africa could pressure for independence from Britain and France while refusing to accept the establishment of a tiny Jewish state in their midst. The colonial peoples of South and Southeast Asia were unlikely to remain under European control for long. The victorious Nationalist regime in China had been so weakened by the war with Japan and its internal problems that it soon fell to the communists. The major defeated states, Germany, Italy, and Japan, began the arduous but eventually successful evolution toward prosperous democracies.


Allen, Lewis. Burma: The Longest War, 1941–45. 1984. Reprint, London, 2000.

Drea, Edward J. In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army. Lincoln, Nebr., 1998.

Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence, Kans., 1995.

McNeill, William H. America, Britain, and Russia: Their Co-operation and Conflict, 1941–1946. 1953. Reprint, New York, 1970.

Snell, John L. Illusion and Necessity: The Diplomacy of Global War, 1939–1945. Boston, 1963.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York, 1985.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War, 1939–1945. New York, 1968.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447000918