World War II (1939–1945)

Citation metadata

Date: 2008
Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

World War II (1939–1945)

Major Figures

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was chancellor of Germany and headed the Nazi Party during World War II. Under Hitler, the German government attempted to enact the “final solution” to the “Jewish question,” resulting in the mass murder of six million Jews and three million others also deemd “undesirable” by the Nazi government.

Early Life and Career

Hitler was born in Braunau, Austria, on April 20, 1889, the son of an Austrian customs agent. He moved to Vienna in 1907, where he failed as a landscape artist. He became virulently anti-Semitic while in Vienna.

In 1913, he moved to Germany. He served in the Bavarian army in World War I, winning an Iron Cross for valor. The honor gave him German citizenship. In the 1920s, he entered German politics, advocating a nationalistic form of socialism. His talent for speaking took him to leadership of the National Socialist (or Nazi) party. In 1923, he attempted to take over Bavaria, a coup attempt called the Beer Hall Putsch (putsch is another word for coup). Jailed for the attempt, he wrote Mein Kampf, outlining his political philosophy.

After release from prison, he resumed leadership of the Nazis. He was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933 and soon assumed absolute power.

Opening of World War II

Hitler remilitarized Germany in defiance of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. He rebuilt the German Navy, including a prohibited submarine fleet, created an air force, the Luftwaffe, and expanded the army well beyond the 100,000-man limit set by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler reintroduced conscription in 1935, also in violation of the treaty.

In 1936, Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, demilitarized after World War I. Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938, annexed the German-speaking Sudetenland districts of Czechoslovakia in September 1938, and occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939.

In September 1939, Hitler demanded Danzig, an ethnically German city-state and important port. He also wanted to give East Prussia land access to Germany. The Polish Corridor, which gave otherwise land-locked Poland access to the Baltic Sea, separated the two parts of Germany.

The reaction of England and France to Hitler’s previous violations of the Versailles Treaty ranged from passive to supine. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) negotiated away part of its ally, Czechoslovakia, giving Germany the Sudetenland in exchange for a promise that Hitler would seek no more territorial gains. Chamberlain called the agreement “peace in our time.” Hitler expected the Western allies to behave as passively with Poland as they had previously.

Hitler signed an alliance with the Soviet Union. It split Poland between the two nations and gave the Soviets the Baltic States and parts of Romania and Finland. In exchange, Hitler got a guarantee of neutrality from the Soviets. Britain and France, meanwhile, finally decided to try to set some limits and refused to allow Hitler to take control of the Polish Corridor.

When Germany moved into Poland in September 1939, France and Britain declared war. As Hitler conquered Poland, France and Britain sat passively on the western German border. In the spring of 1940, Germany moved north, gaining control of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and, soon thereafter, France.

Hitler next tried to subdue Britain through air power, using the Luftwaffe. The Royal Air Force defended Britain from the Luftwaffe. Hitler then attempted to starve Britain out using a submarine blockade, but the British stood fast and were never subdued by the Nazis.

Adolf Hitler Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler standing with their dogs outside their home at Berchtesgaden, Germany. (c) Bettmann/Corbis

Invasion of Russia

Stymied in the west, Hitler turned east. Hitler sent German reinforcements to help his Italian ally in North Africa. In May 1941, he invaded the Balkans, occupying Yugoslavia and Greece. The invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa, was launched in June 1941. The Russians counterattacked in winter 1941–1942. Hitler’s generals wanted to fall back and fight a mobile defense. Hitler overruled them, demanding they stand fast. The tactic worked that winter. Afterwards, Hitler refused to allow mobile defenses, insisting that Germany hold every inch of ground it took. This led to military disasters in 1943 and 1944.


In December 1941, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States. Initially, things went well for Germany in 1942, but by year’s end, the momentum passed to the Allies. The Allies advanced throughout 1943 and early 1944, aided by Hitler’s blunders. The Western allies captured Sicily, landed in Italy, and captured Rome on June 4, 1944. Two days later they landed in Normandy, France. The Soviets pushed across the steppes, reoccupying most of their former territory, by spring 1944. Allied air power devastated German cities.

Hitler refused to acknowledge what was happening. He insisted on impossible military offensives. He became increasingly paranoid. The paranoia increased after an assassination attempt on July 20, 1944, organized by army officers. On April 29, 1945, after the Soviets entered Berlin, he committed suicide in his Berlin command bunker.

Benito Mussolini

Early Life and Career

Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), Italy’s fascist wartime leader, was born on July 29, 1883. His father was a blacksmith and his mother was a teacher. Both favored socialism. Mussolini became a socialist politician as a young man. He wrote and edited socialist newspapers prior to World War I, moving between Italy, Switzerland, and Austria-Hungary.

Mussolini served in the Italian army from 1915 through 1917, fighting in World War I. After the war, he created a new political movement blending socialism, Italian nationalism, and centralized government control. The movement was called fascism.

With assistance from Italian industrialists and the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini was named head of the Italian government. Once in charge, Mussolini consolidated power and made himself the supreme leader of Italy. He was a model imitated by Hitler in Germany and Francisco Franco (1892–1975) in Spain.

As head of Italy, he centralized the economy and started Italy on a series of foreign adventures with the lofty aim of reconstituting the Roman Empire. By 1939, he had conquered Albania and Ethiopia and had assisted the Nationalists in Spain.

World War II

Mussolini led Italy when World War II started. Initially, he remained neutral, but he brought Italy into the war in 1940, allied to Germany. The decision was taken against the counsel of his military advisors. Mussolini’s motivations were complex. He did not think Germany would succeed. The Italian military was in poor shape. Mussolini was also a little jealous of Adolf Hitler. Mussolini entered the 1930s as Europe’s leading fascist dictator. By 1939, Italy had slipped. It was the junior member of the German-Italian Axis. By remaining neutral, Mussolini asserted his independence from Hitler.

The situation changed radically when France collapsed after the German invasion in May 1940. Italy had expansionist designs on southeastern France. These could only be realized if Italy were at war with France. Against the advice of the Italian army’s general staff, Mussolini declared war on June 10, 1940. France had already begun negotiating an armistice with Hitler.

Mussolini gained little by declaring war. The Italian army advanced only a thousand or so yards into France before being stopped by the French. The subsequent peace granted Italy only such lands as it had taken prior to the cease-fire. In exchange for a few thousand square yards of mountainside along the Franco-Italian border, Mussolini involved an unprepared Italy in a war against Britain. He also put Italy’s extensive Africa holdings at risk.

By spring 1941, Mussolini’s military misadventures required German assistance. In December 1940, the British invaded Libya and invaded Italian East Africa in early 1940. By February 1940, the British had cleared the Italians out of the eastern half of Libya. In May 1941, Italian East Africa fell.

German intervention saved Italy. Germany sent an armored corps to Africa to reinforce the Italians. Despite initial Axis successes, the British, who were joined by the United States in December 1941, pushed the Axis powers out of Libya at the end of 1942, and out of Africa entirely in early 1943.

Benito Mussolini Benito Mussolini in uniform, standing atop a tank addressing troops. (c) Bettmann/Corbis

Fall from Power

By 1943, the Italian economy was collapsing, the armed forces were demoralized, and the alliance with Germany was intensely unpopular. Since Mussolini still controlled the army and the national police, he ignored the unrest.

In July 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily. Most of Mussolini’s political allies within Italy were abandoning him. Mussolini called a meeting of the Italian Grand Council on July 24. The council passed a no-confidence resolution against Mussolini, which he ignored.

King Victor Emmanuel III soon demanded and received Mussolini’s resignation. When Mussolini left the palace, he was arrested. The Italian government moved Mussolini from one prison to another for the next two months. Finally, he was placed in a hotel atop Gran Sasso, a mountaintop ski resort in peacetime. On September 12, 1943, a German rescue freed Mussolini. The Germans landed gliders in front of the hotel to get troops to Mussolini.

Italy negotiated an armistice on September 3, 1943, and declared war on Germany on October 13. The Nazis organized the German-controlled portion of Italy as the Italian Social Republic, with Mussolini as the head. From September 1943 until April 1945 Mussolini “ruled” the Italian Social Republic. In actuality, he ran northern Italy for Hitler.

The Germans left northern Italy in April 1945. Mussolini attempted to flee to Switzerland but was caught by antifascist guerrillas and shot, along with his mistress. He died on April 28, 1945.

Emperor Hirohito

Hirohito (1901–1989) was Emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. He is now known in Japan through his posthumous title, Emperor Showa.

Early Life

Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901. He was the oldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito (later Emperor Taisho, 1879–1926). He became heir apparent in 1912 with the death of his grandfather (Emperor Meiji, 1852–1912) and the ascension of his father to the imperial throne.

When his father became ill in 1921, Hirohito was made prince regent. As prince regent, he toured Europe, the first Japanese emperor to leave Japan. Hirohito became emperor upon the death of his father on December 25, 1926.

Although until 1945 the emperor’s word theoretically was law, Hirohito seldom used his absolute powers. Japan entered World War II against his desires. Once at war, Hirohito supported it until Japan’s position was hopeless. He then intervened, ordering Japan’s surrender.

Hirohito in the 1930s

Throughout the 1930s, Japan’s government grew increasingly belligerent and militaristic. Nationalistic junior officers saw war as an opportunity for glory and fame. Any moves away from expansion were stopped by these officers, who resorted to physical intimidation and assassination to further their goals.

Many officers were willing to die for their nationalistic beliefs. A minority of senior Japanese leadership supported the militants, but they provided the militants with official cover. Moderates and those opposing Japanese expansion found themselves increasingly isolated.

As emperor, Hirohito was held to be a divine being, a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The emperor was theoretically an absolute ruler and commanded the Japanese military. He was, however, constrained by the Meiji Constitution (established in 1890) to be guided by parliamentary authorities, who spoke for the emperor.

Raised to defer to tradition and naturally reticent, Hirohito rarely used his absolute powers against the wishes of his cabinet. In 1928 and 1936, he acted against army officers attempting to seize power. In 1928, military plotters assassinated a Chinese leader to provoke a war with China. When the Japanese prime minister did nothing, Hirohito forced his resignation. In 1936, army officers initiated a coup, killing several civilian leaders and claiming to be acting in the emperor’s name. Hirohito ordered the coup suppressed.

Emperor Hirohito Emperor Hirohito of Japan wearing his ceremonial robes. Public Domain

The Road to World War II

Hirohito did little to directly halt Japan’s drift toward war. He probably supported the invasion of China in 1937. Hirohito blocked an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1939. He removed his objection to the alliance a year later, in September 1940, due to the insistence of his advisors and German successes in 1940.

America embargoed oil and steel shipments to Japan after it occupied French Indochina in July 1941. At that time, Japan was heavily dependent on American petroleum. Hirohito’s military advisors insisted that if the embargo was not ended by October 1941, Japan would have to go to war to secure oil from the Dutch East Indies. Hirohito insisted that Japan seek a political solution to the crisis and saw that negotiators were sent to Washington, D.C.

When those negotiations failed, Prince Fumimaro Konoe (1891–1945), then the prime minister, resigned. In October, Hirohito named War Minister Hideki Tojo (1884–1948) as the new prime minister but charged Tojo with finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Hirohito directed that the negotiations begin anew.

Mistrust on both sides was too high for this effort to secure an agreement. Faced with exhaustion of their fuel reserves, the Imperial Government decided in November that Japan must go to war in December. Hirohito was reluctant but went along with the decision.

World War II

Once Japan was at war, Hirohito fully supported it. He became an active participant in Japan’s war planning. Once Hirohito realized that Japan was losing, he began looking for ways to make peace. By July 1944, with the capture of Saipan by the United States, Japan’s defeat appeared inevitable. Hirohito fired Tojo. Determined to share the danger faced by his people, he remained in the Imperial Palace at Tokyo after the American bombing campaign began in late 1944.

As Japanese losses continued, Hirohito’s advisors advocated fighting literally to the last man. Only Prince Konoe opposed this, calling on Hirohito to make peace. Hirohito instead acquiesced to the “last man” strategy, a position that cost Japan an additional 1.5 million lives.

In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Hirohito insisted that Japan surrender unconditionally. He recorded a surrender message to be broadcast to the Japanese people. Hirohito’s action sparked a revolt by militant junior officers. The coup attempt was put down, and the broadcast made.

Postwar Career

A month after Japan’s surrender, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the occupation of Japan. Hirohito met with MacArthur, accepted responsibility for Japan’s entry into World War II, and offered to abdicate. Feeling that Hirohito was the only individual who could keep the occupation peaceful, MacArthur refused his offer. Hirohito became the only major Axis leader to keep his prewar position.

Japan’s new constitution recast the emperor in a largely ceremonial role. Hirohito renounced claims of divinity after the war. He remained as Japan’s emperor until his death on January 7, 1989. He watched Japan rebuild itself from ruins in 1945 to a major economic power in the 1970s.

He spent much of his time after the war researching marine biology, becoming one of the field’s leaders. Following his death, he was renamed “Showa,” or “period of enlightened peace.” The term commemorates the last forty-four years of his reign, when Japan was at peace.

Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel (1891–1944) was a leading Nazi general who battled the British, French, and Americans in France, Africa, and Italy.

Early Life

Rommel was born on November 15, 1891, the son of a professor. At his father’s insistence he entered the German army and was sent to Officers’ Cadet School. He received a commission in January 1912.

Rommel fought in the German army in World War I seeing action in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he was part of the elite Alpen Korps. He gained a reputation for tactical brilliance, especially in his command of a battalion during the Battle of Caporetto (1917).

Between the wars, he remained in the German army. He served as an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School and the Potsdam War Academy. He also wrote books on infantry and armor tactics that became widely used textbooks.

He attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler. After Hitler gained power in 1933, Hitler made Rommel a liason from the Wehrmacht (the name of Nazi Germany’s armed forces from 1935 to 1945) to the Hitler Youth (a Nazi organization designed to indoctrinate German boys). Rommel’s performance in that role gained him command of the Führerbegleitbataillon (Hitler’s personal protection battalion), a position he held from 1938 until after the start of World War II.

Erwin Rommel General Erwin Rommel, the German’s “Desert Fox.” National Archives and Records Administration

World War II

In February 1940, Rommel was given command of the Seventh Panzer Division (a division of armored fighting vehicles). He commanded the Seventh Panzer during the invasion of France in May, proving able and aggressive. He led the crossing of the Meuse River that proved critical to German success.

During the French Campaign, he had his first encounter with the British, at the Battle of Arras. A battle that pitted British armored units against the Seventh Panzer, Arras was a precursor of later battles between the British and Germans in Africa. Rommel failed to cut off the British retreat to the English Channel coast because he was ordered to hold his position. After the evacuation of British and allied troops at Dunkirk in late May and early July 1940, Rommel drove his division to Cherbourg and was heading towards Bordeaux, France, when France surrendered.

Rommel was then transferred to command of the Fifth Light Division, a motorized unit. It was sent to Libya in February 1941 to help Germany’s Italian allies. The Fifth Light Division formed the core of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, which Rommel commanded. (The Fifth Light was later reorganized and redesignated the Twenty-first Panzer Division.)

In the spring of 1941, Rommel counterattacked British forces occupying Libya and chased the British out of the eastern coastal region of Libya. It was the beginning of a two-year struggle in Africa. Neither side had enough forces to push the war in Africa to a conclusion.

Small forces and the open desert terrain made Africa a war of maneuver, with both sides making long advances and retreats, depending upon supplies, reinforcements, and outside circumstances. The African campaign gave Rommel high visibility in both Germany and Britain. Hitler promoted Rommel to field marshal after one prominent victory, the capture of Tobruk. Rommel became the face of the German army to soldiers of the Western Allies.

The tide turned in Britain’s favor after the United States entered the war. The British built up a decisive advantage against the Afrika Korps at El Alamein. Rommel’s army was at its furthest advance. A British army under British General Bernard Montgomery overwhelmed the German lines, then chased the Afrika Korps out of Egypt and deep into Libya.

The Americans then invaded Western Africa in November 1942. Trapped between the two Allied armies, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was pushed into Tunisia and ultimately crushed. While in Tunis, Rommel counterattacked the American army at Kasserine Pass. The inexperienced Americans suffered a significant check. The American Second Corps, beaten at Kasserine Pass, was given to General George Patton, who succeeded in chasing the Germans out of Africa.

Following Africa, Rommel was sent to Greece to protect against an Allied invasion that never happened. Then, after the Allied invasion of Sicily and the fall of Mussolini, Rommel was transferred to command of Northern Italy.

In Italy, Rommel became involved in a controversy with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, his nominal superior. Rommel wanted to abandon southern Italy. Kesselring wanted to force the Allies to fight for every inch of Italian soil. Rommel was transferred to France in November 1943 to prepare to repel an Allied invasion.

In France commanding Army Group B, Rommel became involved in another dispute over strategy. Rommel believed Allied air superiority would prevent mobile warfare by the German armies. He felt that the place to stop the invasion was on the beaches, and he wanted German armor broken into small, battalion-sized units scattered immediately behind the beaches.

Field Marshal von Rundstedt, in overall command in France, opposed Rommel’s strategy. Hitler settled the dispute with a compromise between the two strategies. It put German armor reserves too far forward to permit concentration but too far back to support the beach defenses.

Rommel also felt that the Allies were as likely to invade at Normandy as at the Pas-de-Calais region. The rest of the German high command viewed Calais as the Allied objective. Rommel spent the months before the June 1944 invasion strengthening defenses along the French coast, especially in Normandy.

Rommel proved correct in both his predictions. The Allies landed at Normandy, and Allied air superiority prevented swift movement of German reinforcements. On July 17, 1944, while supervising the defense in Normandy, Rommel was wounded by an Allied fighter that strafed his staff car, and he was hospitalized.

In spring 1944, Rommel had become disillusioned with Hitler and the Nazis. He became affiliated with a German officer’s plot to kill Hitler. An assassination attempt on July 20, 1944, failed. Rommel’s complicity was discovered. Because Rommel was closely tied with Hitler, he was allowed to commit suicide. His alternative would have been to allow himself to be tried and executed as a traitor—with his family executed along with him. Rommel died by his own hand on October 14, 1944.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) led the Soviet Union during World War II and into the Cold War that followed. He was one of the most powerful and ruthless dictators in the world. The war fought between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was one of the most brutal conflicts of the twentieth century.

Joseph Stalin Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference. The Library of Congress

Early Life and Career

Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia, on December 21, 1879. As a young man, he became involved in revolutionary politics and adopted the name Joseph Stalin (“Stalin” means “steel” in Russian). By World War I, he was deeply involved in Marxist political activities.

He attracted the attention of Communist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin before World War I and was part of the Bolshevik faction that took control over Russia during the Russian Revolution (1917). Stalin was elected to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party in 1917. In 1922, he became General Secretary. He was able to use this position to gain control of the Soviet government after Lenin’s death in 1924 (although it took him a few years to solidify his position). From 1929 until his own death in 1953, he was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union.

In the years leading up to World War II, he ruled the Soviet Union with unparalleled ferocity. He created a famine in the Ukraine in order to starve out opponents and ruthlessly industrialized Russia. He crushed any opposition. In the late 1930s, he purged the Soviet army of over one-quarter of its officers because of a feared coup.

World War II

In 1938 Stalin was absolute ruler of the Soviet Union. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Publicly it was a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Secret clauses gave territorial rights in other nations to Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets ceded to Germany the western parts of Poland. Germany gave the Soviet Union eastern Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, parts of Finland and Bessarabia, an oil-rich eastern province of Romania.

When Hitler invaded Poland, a European war broke out. Germany was opposed by France, Britain, and Poland. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allowed Hitler to take Germany into a European war without fear of fighting on two fronts. As Poland collapsed, Stalin occupied Eastern Poland in mid-August.

In November 1939, Stalin exercised the rest of the treaty. The Soviet Union got the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and Bessarabia without a fight. Finland chose to defend itself. Despite the unequal struggle, Finland repelled the initial Soviet invasion. Stalin purged the Soviet army officer corps in the late 1930s, executing anyone suspected of being less than completely loyal to Stalin. The Soviets lost many of their best military leaders to Stalin’s paranoia. Finland negotiated peace with the Soviets in 1940, conceding land but maintaining its independence. The Soviet army’s poor performance against Finland was one factor that encouraged the Germans to attack Russia in 1941.

Soviet intelligence warned Stalin that Germany was preparing to attack the Soviet Union. Stalin did not believe Hitler would attack the Soviet Union before ending the war against Britain and discounted the warnings. Stalin’s generals ignored or disregarded warning signs for fear of angering Stalin. When Germany invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union was unprepared.

Initially, Stalin disastrously micromanaged the Soviet military. He ordered the army to stand fast. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were surrounded by German armor columns, cut off, and forced to surrender. Stalin’s brutality in the 1920s and 1930s also led many so-called White Russians (anti-Communists) and Ukrainians to hail the Nazis as liberators.

When Stalin realized that the Russian people felt little loyalty to the Soviet government, he rallied them by telling them they fought for “Mother Russia.” He restored the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been suppressed by the atheistic Communists. He used nationalistic symbols like Alexander Nevsky (who repelled the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century) and Tsar Alexander I (who fought Napoleon’s invasion in the early nineteenth century), despite their non-Marxist backgrounds.

The Nazis actually helped by behaving with even more brutality than the Communists. Stalin changed the war from a fight over Communism to a crusade to save Russia. Stalin also instituted a “scorched earth” policy. When the Soviet army was forced to retreat, anything that could be of use to the Germans was to be destroyed.

The Soviets stabilized the situation by November 1941. Stalin continued micromanaging the war in early 1942. Demanding an early counteroffensive, he gave the Germans an opportunity to destroy the reserves the Soviets had accumulated during the winter of 1941–1942 and regain the initiative. After that, Stalin returned control of military operations to his generals.

Stalin issued an order in July 1942 declaring Soviet soldiers who surrendered as traitors. He also had political officers, or commissars, assigned to each military unit to ensure its political stability. With the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Hitler, Stalin’s image in the West changed. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, Stalin was seen as affable “Uncle Joe.” As the war ended, Stalin proved a tough negotiator. At a series of international conferences with Churchill and Roosevelt, he gained major territorial concessions for the Soviet Union. Half of what was once East Prussia is still part of today’s Russia. Stalin was also allowed to exert influence in the liberated nations of Eastern Europe.

Postwar Career

After World War II, Stalin occupied Eastern Europe. Existing governments were replaced with Communist puppets. Stalin attempted to expand Communism, both in Europe and Asia. He acquired nuclear weapons and established the Soviet Union as a world power. The Cold War Stalin started lasted nearly fifty years.

Stalin ruled the Soviet Union until his death on March 5, 1953. The cause of death was reported to be a stroke, but rumored to have been a poisoning.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), an officer in the French army in 1940, helped organize Free French forces in World War II. Fighting on against Germany after France surrendered, he helped organize the French resistance movement. Eventually, he led French forces in the Allied armies after the Allied invasion at Normandy and during the liberation of France in 1944.

Charles De Gaulle American troops pass the Arc de Triomphe after the liberation of Paris, August 20, 1944. National Archives and Records Administration

Early Life

De Gaulle was born on November 22, 1890. His family came from minor French aristocracy. De Gaulle attended the French military academy at St. Cyr, graduating in 1912.

He served as a French infantry officer in World War I and was badly wounded at Verdun in 1916. He was captured by the Germans and remained a prisoner of war for the rest of the conflict. He unsuccessfully attempted to escape five times.

After release, he remained in the French army. He volunteered for the French mission to Poland in 1919 and participated in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919–1921. Based on his experiences, he wrote The Army of the Future. In that book he predicted the future belonged to mobile warfare using tanks rather than static defenses behind fortifications. While his views were respected outside of France, especially by the German and Soviet armies, he was ignored by his own army.

France 1940

De Gaulle was a colonel in the French army in 1939. He antagonized the French military establishment with his writings about tactics. He claimed static defenses such as the French Maginot Line (a system of concrete tank obstacles and other defenses along the French-German and French-Italian border) had been rendered obsolete by tanks and mobile warfare.

On May 15, 1940, five days after the Germans invaded France, de Gaulle gained command of the French Fourth Armored Division. The Germans had already broken through French lines and were driving into the French rear areas. De Gaulle had minor successes against the Germans, including forcing German infantry to retreat at Caumont, on May 28. He was promoted to brigadier general after this victory.

On June 6, he was made France’s undersecretary of state for national defense and war by Paul Reynaud, who had sponsored de Gaulle during the interwar years. De Gaulle opposed French surrender, arguing that France could continue fighting from Algeria (which was then controlled by France) and its overseas colonies.

The Free French Movement

After France fell to the invading Nazis, Philippe Pétain (1856–1961) became head of the French government, called the Vichy Government. He negotiated an armistice. On June 17, de Gaulle rejected the French surrender and fled Bordeaux, where the French provisional government was seated, for London.

On June 18, with Winston Churhill’s approval and assistance, de Gaulle spoke on the British Broadcasting System radio and appealed to the French to continue fighting. “The Appeal of June 18” rejected the decision of the legal French government to sue for peace. It also called on French people everywhere to rally to de Gaulle and continue the fight against Germany. The speech was not widely heard on its day of broadcast. It was rebroadcast and widely reprinted. It marked the beginning of the Free French movement.

The governments of conquered nations such as Poland or Norway established themselves in exile. By defying the legal government of France, de Gaulle and others fighting in the Free French armies could be treated as illegal combatants. The Vichy government later convicted de Gaulle of treason in absentia for continuing to fight.

Despite the dangers, more than half a million French officers and men eventually rallied to the call. De Gaulle remained in an ambiguous position for much of the early part of the war. Both the United States and Britain initially recognized the Vichy government as the legitimate government of France. In 1943, the United States finally recognized the Free French as the legitimate government. Even then, de Gaulle was not yet recognized as the head of the Free French Government. This was partly due to de Gaulle’s prickly personality and his determination to treat Free French armed forces as independent of the Allies. He depended upon the United States and Great Britain for everything from weapons to the uniforms his men wore and the food they ate, so his allies found de Gaulle’s attitude annoying. In the end, no alternative to de Gaulle emerged. By 1944, he was acknowledged as the head of the French government-in-exile.

Initially, only a few patriots joined de Gaulle. A few minor French African colonies declared themselves to be Free French. After the United States joined the war, more support swung to de Gaulle and the Free French. The pace accelerated after the capture of French North Africa. Those colonies all then flipped from Vichy control to Free French. De Gaulle set up a government in Algiers.

By the time of the Allied invasion of France in June 1944, Free French forces had grown to over 400,000 men. Additionally, de Gaulle was coordinating the French Resistance within occupied France. In August, de Gaulle moved the Free French government back to French soil, operating at first in Northern France. After Free French soldiers liberated Paris, de Gaulle moved the government back to the traditional capital.

In addition to commanding the Free French Army, de Gaulle became president of the Provisional French Government in September 1944. He continued as president until January 1946. De Gaulle was part of the successful fight to secure a French occupation zone in Germany after World War II and to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Postwar Career

After the formation of the French Fourth Republic in January 1946, de Gaulle stayed outside of the political sphere for many years, disapproving of the new French constitution. He returned to public power in 1958 during the Algerian Crisis that destroyed the Fourth Republic. He then organized the Fifth Republic, which he headed from 1958 until 1968.

While head of France, he steered an independent course. He made France the fourth nuclear power, withdrew France from NATO, and opposed what he viewed as Anglo-American hegemony in the West. He died in his home on November 9, 1970.

Winston Churchill

Winston Spencer Churchill (1874–1963) guided Great Britain to victory in World War II as prime minister of Britain. He rallied his nation from its darkest hour, after the fall of France and the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk, and led Britain in a lonely fight against the Axis powers until America entered the war in December 1941.

Winston Churchill Winston Churchill. Public Domain

Early Life

Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, on November 30, 1874. He was a descendant of John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722). His father was a younger son of the seventh duke and a prominent nineteenth-century politician.

Churchill attended Sandhurst, the British military academy, and was commissioned as a cavalry officer in 1895. After serving briefly in India, he became a war correspondent, both while in the British army and as a civilian. He entered politics following the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

He served as first lord of the admiralty in World War I, served briefly with the British army in World War I, and became chancellor of the exchequer after that war. During that period he changed political parties twice, going from the Conservatives to Labour, and back to the Conservatives. By the 1930s, he had marginalized himself politically and held no prominent leadership roles.

Early World War II

Churchill spent much of the late 1930s as a Conservative Party back-bench member with no leadership positions. In part this was due to his taking unpopular positions, including support for the Duke of Windsor prior to then-King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936. It was also due to his opposition to the Conservative Party’s policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler and advocacy of rearming Britain.

When World War II began, Churchill was invited into Neville Chamberlain’s wartime government. Churchill was named first lord of the admiralty—the British equivalent of secretary of the navy.

During the first eight months of World War II, Britain primarily fought a naval war. As a result, Churchill had a very visible public role. In May 1940, Germany invaded France, going through Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg. In a six-week campaign, the German army, spearheaded by panzer divisions and new blitzkrieg or lightning warfare tactics, defeated France and forced the British army in France to evacuate through ports along the French side of the English Channel. The British left most of their equipment in France.

In the wake of that disaster, the Chamberlain government fell. Because of the war crisis, no elections were held to elect a new government. Instead, Churchill was asked to organize a coalition wartime government.

Prime Minister Churchill

Churchill took over the government when Britain was at its darkest point. All of Britain’s other allies had been defeated by Nazi Germany. Italy joined Germany and declared war on England, forcing Britain to defend its Mediterranean holdings as well as Britain. The British army was virtually unarmed, and only the Royal Navy and especially the Royal Air Force (RAF) prevented a German invasion.

Churchill remained resolute, rallying the British people to continue the fight by delivering a set of inspiring speeches. He described the crisis of 1940 as Britain’s “finest hour.” He proclaimed RAF fighter pilots as “the few,” protecting England in the Battle of Britain, stating, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Churchill skillfully used the political and military resources Britain still had to oppose Hitler. He fostered a “special relationship” with the United States, as the other great English-speaking republic, to gain support from the United States while it was still neutral. During that period he worked closely with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to get Britain critically needed munitions and credit.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill sent aid to the Russians despite his lifelong antipathy towards Communism. He explained his support stating, “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find occasion to make a favourable reference to the Devil.”

When the United States entered the war in December 1941 following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Churchill was relieved. Notwithstanding the losses suffered by the Americans and British in the Pacific, he viewed the war as won the day the United States joined Britain as a combatant.

After the United States entered the war and—as he had foreseen—began leading the Allied coalition to victory, Churchill began planning the shape of postwar Europe through a series of international conferences. At a total of nearly twenty such conferences, he helped redraw the map of Europe to the boundaries it generally still has today.

His primary focus was to remove Germany as a future threat to world peace. Churchill succeeded, but planted the seeds of the Cold War in the process.

Postwar Career

After the end of the war in Europe, elections in Britain voted Churchill’s Conservatives out, replacing him with a Labour Party prime minister. Churchill remained active in British politics following World War II, warning against the new Communist menace much as he had warned against the Nazis in the 1930s. In 1948, he coined the term “iron curtain” to describe the divide between Western and Eastern Europe.

Churchill returned as prime minister in 1955 and held office for two years. He retired from public life afterwards, devoting himself to writing. He died on January 24, 1965, and was buried in a state funeral.

Sidebar: HideShow

Churchill the Communicator

More than any other leader of World War II, Churchill’s strength lay in his ability to communicate. Roosevelt and Hitler were both skilled orators, but both were clumsy with the written word. Churchill could not only write and give a speech; he was one of the great authors of the twentieth century.

Churchill’s books included not just political work, but also military commentaries, serious works of history and biography, and even a novel or two. He came to prominence in the late nineteenth century as a war correspondent, writing first-person accounts of British military campaigns in Africa and Asia. Later, he wrote major biographies of his father, Randolph Churchill (1849–1895), and his famous ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough.

Shortly before World War II, he wrote much of the magisterial four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which was released in the 1950s and is still in print today. After the war he wrote a six-volume history of World War II. Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953 on the strength of his collected works.

Isoroku Yamamoto

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943) led the Imperial Japanese Navy from the beginning of World War II until his death in combat in 1943. He believed that Japan would lose a war against the United States. Regardless, he planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Early Life

Yamamoto was born as Isoroku Takano in Nagaoka, Niigata, on April 4, 1884. He belonged to a clan of minor samurai (a caste of military nobility in Japan). In 1916 he was adopted into the Yamamoto family, which lacked an heir to carry on the family name, and changed his name to Isoroku Yamamoto.

He attended the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, graduating in 1904. He was subsequently assigned to the cruiser Nisshin during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). He fought at the Battle of Tsushima, where he was injured, losing two fingers, and later attended the Japanese Naval Staff College in 1914.

Yamamoto spent nearly five years in the United States after World War I, attending the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard. After graduating, he spent two terms as a naval attaché in Washington, D.C. Following his return to Japan at age forty, he transferred to naval aviation and became commander of the aircraft carrier Akagi in 1929. He served on the delegation to the London Naval Conferences in 1930 and 1934.

Yamamoto opposed the Japanese annexation of Manchuria (part of China) in 1931, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and Japan’s signing the Tripartite Pact in 1940 (the pact allying Germany, Italy, and Japan against U.S. attack). The time he had spent living in the United States had given him an appreciation of the strengths of America that most of his colleagues lacked. He was opposed to a war with the United States; he felt Japan would lose. In November 1940, Yamamoto predicted the course of a Pacific war to Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe. “If I am told to fight … I shall run wild for the first six months … but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.”

Prewar Planning

Superiors transferred him from an assignment with the Ministry of the Navy to a seagoing command in 1939, and soon thereafter made him commander in chief of the Japanese fleet. Yamamoto made significant improvements to the fleet. A strong believer in air power, he reorganized the fleet around the aircraft carriers. He put the six largest carriers into one force, presaging the carrier fleets that fought during World War II. He downgraded the role of battleships, opposing the construction of super-battleships Yamato and Musashi as a waste of resources.

At the Naval Ministry in the 1930s, Yamamoto pushed development of the G3M (Nell) and G4M (Betty) twin engine bombers. Combining extremely long range with the ability to carry a torpedo, they gave Japan the ability to strike an enemy at long range. To escort them he fostered development of the A6M “Zero” fighter.

Once it became clear that Japan was going to fight, Yamamoto led efforts to develop the best plan to attack America. In January 1941, he recast the Japanese Navy’s traditional war plan. The traditional plan envisioned weakening the American fleet as it fought its way across the Pacific by attacking with submarines and aircraft attacks. Once American losses were large enough, the Japanese fleet would fight a decisive surface battle with the Americans. But when the Japanese practiced the strategy in war games, the Japanese usually lost.

Pearl Harbor

Yamamoto modified the war plan. He would start any war with a surprise strike at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Yamamoto’s plan involved a strike at the battleships that anchored there, the airfields around it, and the fuel and support facilities at the base. He intended to cripple the American fleet, destroy any aircraft present, and wreck the fuel and repair facilities.

The attack was launched on December 7, 1941. The Japanese successfully sank five American battleships and knocked out most of the military aircraft in Hawaii. However, the attack had three shortcomings.

The American aircraft carriers were not in port when the Japanese struck. The Japanese launched only two strikes, concentrating on the warships and airfields. The tank farm, submarine base, and repair facilities were all undamaged. Finally, the attack came before war was declared. This roused the American people against Japan and ensured that the United States would not seek a negotiated peace. President Roosevelt swiftly asked Congress for a declaration of war.

Midway and Afterwards

In the six months that followed, Japan and Yamamoto’s navy “ran wild.” They captured the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, and Burma. They also captured a wide swath of islands in the Central Pacific, giving Japan a wide belt of outposts for protection.

The Japanese offensive sputtered to a halt almost exactly six months after Pearl Harbor. The daring Doolittle Raid of 1942 (led by U.S. Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle) against Tokyo caused American morale to soar and motivated the Japanese Navy to extend their defensive perimeter. Yamamoto planned an offensive that would capture Midway Island in the Central Pacific, as well as several islands in the Aleutians.

The plan was overly complicated. Four independent naval forces had to converge on Midway. As a diversion, two additional task forces were sent to the North Pacific, to strike Alaska. Unknown to the Japanese, the Americans had broken the Japanese codes. They knew when the Japanese were coming and with roughly what ships. On June 4, 1942, the U.S. Navy ambushed the Japanese carrier strike force. All four Japanese fleet carriers sent to Midway were sunk before Yamamoto and the Japanese main body arrived on the scene. After Midway, the Japanese lost the initiative and never regained it. The Americans counterattacked in the Solomon Islands, recapturing Guadalcanal. Yamamoto became locked in a naval war of attrition around the Solomons.

Yamamoto commanded the Japanese fleet at the Battles of the Eastern Solomons and the Santa Cruz Islands in August, September, and October of 1942. From the Japanese perspective, both battles were bloody draws. By February 1943, the Japanese lost Guadalcanal and were retreating up the Solomon Chain.

In April 1943, Yamamoto was planning a new offensive in the Solomons. To boost morale, he planned an inspection tour. The plans were broadcast in code. The Americans intercepted the message, decoded it, and had Yamamoto’s itinerary.

A fighter ambush was arranged for a part of the tour where Yamamoto would be traveling by air in a G4M bomber. On April 14, 1943, American P-38 fighters successfully intercepted the Japanese and shot down the two Japanese bombers carrying Yamamoto and his entourage. There were no survivors on Yamamoto’s airplane.

Bernard Montgomery

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, First Viscount of Alamein (1887–1976) was the leading British general of World War II. He led the British army to some of its greatest triumphs. At the same time, he was accused of battlefield slowness, which lost opportunities and may have prolonged the war. He irritated many counterparts, including both American and British generals.

Early Life

Montgomery was born on November 17, 1887, in London, the son of a clergyman. Montgomery attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and received a lieutenant’s commission in 1908.

At the outset of World War I, he fought with his battalion in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the opening days of August 1914. He was injured in battle. After recovering, he served in staff positions in France through the rest of World War I, rising to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel.

Between the wars he remained in the British army, serving in the German Occupation and in the Irish Rebellion of 1920. In the 1930s he was posted to positions in Palestine, Egypt, and India. In 1938, he organized an amphibious landing exercise that succeeded well enough to gain him command of a division—the Eighth Infantry Division—in Palestine. In July 1939 he was transferred to command of the Third Infantry Division in Britain.

World War II

Montgomery began World War II as a major general. His Third Infantry was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939. Expecting a situation similar to that of the opening days of World War I, with a British retreat, Montgomery trained his division in retreat tactics.

In May 1940, the Germans invaded France, broke through the Allied lines at Sedan, and split the British and French Armies, surrounding both. Montgomery fell back to the English Channel with his division intact. He took command of the British Second Corps during Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk.

From June 1940 through August 1942, Montgomery, promoted to lieutenant general, commanded forces defending England from a possible German invasion. Initially he commanded the Fifth Corps, then the Twelfth Corps, and finally the South-East Army, in the invasion zone.

War in Africa

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had chased the British to a defensive line deep in Egypt, near the town of El Alamein. Churchill relieved General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the British commander in Africa, with General William Gott. Gott was killed in an airplane crash, and Montgomery replaced Gott in August 1942.

Montgomery arrived August 13, coordinating the defense of Alam Halfa. Rommel attempted to encircle the strategic heights, but was repulsed in a battle fought starting August 31. Thereafter, Montgomery strengthened the British position and began planning for a counteroffensive.

Montgomery attacked October 23, 1942. He had spent nearly two months planning the attack while receiving massive reinforcements. Meticulously planned and deliberately executed, Alamein was characteristic of all of Montgomery’s battles. In a twelve-day struggle, he cut through the German lines and sent them retreating back to Tripoli, in Libya.

While criticized for a slow pursuit, Montgomery took the British Eighth Army to victory. He started the Germans on a retreat that ended with the expulsion of Axis forces at Tunisia, in May 1943.

War in Europe

Montgomery next led the British Eighth Army in Sicily, in July 1943. Prior to the invasion he changed the plans in a more conservative direction. The plan used had the American Seventh Army to shield the main thrust, provided by the British Eighth Army.

American commanders George Patton and Omar Bradley felt the U.S. Army could be doing more. Montgomery’s advance bogged down, and army boundaries were redefined, reducing the Americans to the role of spectators. Patton used this as an opportunity to capture Palermo. Patton then swept east to the campaign’s objective, Syracuse, along Sicily’s northern coast.

Montgomery next led the Eighth Army into Italy, invading at the toe and heel of the Italian peninsula. Soon afterwards he was transferred to Britain to take charge of the Twenty-first Army Group. This unit was to lead the invasion of France in spring 1944. Montgomery was glad to leave Italy, as he felt that Allied efforts were untidy and disorganized.

Montgomery commanded the ground forces during the Allied invasion of France in June 1944. Montgomery’s offensive after the landings was meticulous and deliberate. Montgomery’s caution irritated his American counterparts, but the British army was near the end of its strength. Montgomery wanted to minimize casualties.

Patton felt the best way to minimize casualties was to move quickly and end the war sooner. When the American Third Army raced across France, the British forces in the Twenty-first Army Group followed at a more deliberate pace.

Problems between Montgomery and the American generals worsened after the Allied offensive stalled at the German border in fall 1944. Montgomery conceived an airborne thrust through Holland, Operation Market Garden. It used airborne troops to grab a corridor for British armor to move into and hold. Montgomery’s land forces moved too slowly. The furthest airborne division, the British Sixth Airborne, was cut off and destroyed by the Germans.

Following the German offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944, Montgomery was given command of the northern flank of the battlefield. He chose to spend time “tidying up the battlefield” before counterattacking. He then gave a press conference that implied the American commanders, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, were not up to their jobs and had depended upon Montgomery to save the situation. Eisenhower almost relieved Montgomery of his command, and was only dissuaded by the politics of such a move. Montgomery, who had not realized the impact of his words, later apologized to Eisenhower.

Postwar Career

In April 1945, Montgomery accepted the surrender of German forces in Northern Germany, Denmark, and Norway. After the war, Montgomery was made the First Viscount of Alamein. He served, with mixed success, as chief of the imperial general staff from 1946 to 1948. He also helped organize NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of Western nations) in 1950 and served as NATO’s deputy director from 1950 until his retirement in 1958. He served in ceremonial roles in the British Parliament until 1968 and thereafter retired to private life. He died on March 24, 1976.

Hideki Tojo

Hideki Tojo (1884–1948) served as prime minister of Japan from October 1940 to July 1944. A Japanese general, he was an ardent hawk who pushed Japan towards war with the United States. He was hanged as a war criminal after World War II.

Hideki Tojo Former Premier Tojo testifying at the War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo, Japan, December 26, 1947. (c) Bettmann/Corbis

Early Life

Hideki Tojo was born in Tokyo on December 30, 1884. He came from a samurai family (samurais were a caste of military nobility) and pursued a professional military career. Tojo graduated from the Imperial Military Academy in 1905, and as a junior officer, saw service in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905).

In 1915, he graduated from the Imperial War College. Between 1919 and 1922, he was sent abroad to Europe to further his studies. Upon his return, he served as an instructor at the War College. In 1935, he went to Manchuko—the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria. He served as head of the Japanese secret police in Manchuko. In 1937, he was promoted to chief of staff of the Kwantung Army.

Tojo in the Pacific War

Japan’s invasion of China led to diplomatic difficulties with the United States. Japan’s military hard-liners, including Tojo, wanted Japan to seek military solutions. The United States increased diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions in response to Japanese militancy. The Imperial Army then influenced the Japanese government to respond with increased belligerency.

Tojo also helped Japan to join a military alliance with Germany and Italy—the Tripartite Pact. One clause stated that if a nation not currently involved in the European war or Japan’s war in China attacked Germany, Italy, or Japan, the other two nations would enter the war against the attacker. The major neutral powers in 1940 were the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, the Tripartite Pact was a warning to these two nations that starting a war would create a conflict in both Europe and the Pacific.

The Tripartite Pact further increased American hostility against Japan. Japan had stationed military units in Indochina in September 1940 but left the French civil government in place. In July 1941, Japan occupied French Indochina. The United States responded with a total embargo of metal and petroleum products to Japan.

Rise to Prime Minister

Japan’s economy depended on American oil. The prime minister of Japan, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, wanted a diplomatic solution and entered negotiations to end the embargo. Tojo supported the army’s position that it would not give up gains in China.

Peace negotiations broke down in September 1941. The army insisted that if the oil embargo was not lifted by October, Japan had to fight to secure the oil needed to run Japan. Konoe was unwilling to go to war and his government collapsed in October. Tojo became prime minister and Emperor Hirohito called upon him to make one last appeal for peace. Tojo sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., to negotiate an end to the embargo. At the same time, he set the Japanese army and navy in motion to prepare an offensive that would secure the strategic goods Japan needed.

War with the United States

Six weeks later, when these negotiations failed to get terms acceptable to the Imperial Army, Tojo started the war. On December 7, 1941, he ordered the Japanese fleet to attack the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Simultaneously, Japan launched strikes against other American Pacific possessions. The war initially went well for the Japanese. Within six months they captured all of their initial objectives, secured the economic resources they had sought, and established the defensive perimeter they desired. Tojo expected that either the United States would seek a negotiated settlement or find it impossible to break through Japan’s defenses.

The United States stopped the Japanese thrusts, refused to negotiate, and struck back militarily. When the Americans captured the Marianas Islands in July 1944, Japan was within striking range of American bombers.

The loss of these islands capped two years of Japanese military reversals. Tojo was forced to resign from office on July 18, 1944. He retired from the military and spent the rest of the war in seclusion.

Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the United States occupied Japan. In September, Tojo attempted suicide to forestall arrest for war crimes. He shot himself in the chest but survived. He was arrested and tried for waging aggressive war in violation of international law and for inhumane treatment of prisoners of war. In a trial that lasted two years, Tojo accepted responsibility for starting the war. He was found guilty in November 1948 and hanged on December 28, 1948.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) was president of the United States through most of World War II. He led the United States for all but four months of its active involvement in the war. He was the architect of the grand strategy that led the Allied coalition to victory in World War II.

Franklin Roosevelt Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Courtesy of the FDR Library

Early Life

Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. After graduating from Harvard University, he attended Columbia Law School but left in 1907 after passing the New York State bar examination.

He entered politics in 1910. Between 1913 and 1920, he served as the assistant secretary of the navy under President Woodrow Wilson. In 1920, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket that lost to Warren G. Harding. He served as governor of New York from 1928 to 1932.

In 1932, he beat Herbert Hoover in the presidential election. Roosevelt ran on a platform of ending the Great Depression, which had started in 1929. He instituted radical economic legislation in his first hundred days in office, a package known as the “New Deal.” He was reelected in a landslide in 1936. Thereafter, foreign affairs increasingly dominated his presidency.

Buildup to War

Roosevelt was in his second term as president when the growing threat of fascism led him to rearm the United States. As early as 1937, Italian aggression against Ethiopia and Japanese intervention in China caused Roosevelt to regard a second world war as virtually inevitable.

Once war started in Europe, Roosevelt threw his support towards the nations fighting Germany and Italy. In 1939, Roosevelt helped modify the Neutrality Acts passed by Congress in the 1930s so that he could offer aid to European allies. The Neutrality Acts were a response to America’s costly involvement in World War I, and were designed to keep the U.S. out of foreign wars. Under the 1939 Neutrality Act, belligerent nations were permitted to purchase military equipment in the United States if they paid cash and transported the goods themselves. This system was called “cash and carry” and favored the Western Allies, like Britain and France.

After Germany conquered Scandinavia, then the Low Countries and France in 1940, Roosevelt expanded the U.S. Army. A conscription act was passed in September 1940, and the draft started in October. The nation’s first peacetime draft, the act was renewed in 1941, passing by one vote.

Roosevelt chose to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, in large part due to his desire to fight Germany. He won reelection by a wide margin. Roosevelt became more aggressive about providing aid. He brought important Republicans into his cabinet, creating an essentially coalition government. He made America “the Arsenal of Democracy,” giving China, Britain, France, and later Russia access to American industry for their military needs.

Roosevelt gave Britain fifty World War I–era destroyers in exchange for long-term leases on British islands in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic. In March 1941, when Britain was running out of money, Roosevelt sponsored a “Lend-Lease” act that gave nations fighting the Axis powers munitions and other military equipment and supplies.

By mid-1941, Roosevelt committed the United States to provide the Allies with “all aid short of war.” He met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941 in Newfoundland to declare the Atlantic Charter, stating Allied objectives for World War II.

Roosevelt baited the Germans, allowing American warships to escort British convoys halfway across the Atlantic, with orders to attack German submarines if they encountered them. On several occasions in the fall of 1941, U.S. Navy destroyers and Nazi U-boats exchanged fire.

After Pearl Harbor

Roosevelt had embargoed petroleum shipments to Japan several months earlier. Japan responded by attacking the United States in December 1941 and launching a general offensive in the Pacific and Far East to seize the strategic resources they needed.

The centerpiece of the Japanese plan was an attack on the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor and on Army Air Corps bases in Hawaii. For maximum effect, the Japanese intended to surprise the Americans, attacking on a Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, immediately after issuing a declaration of war. Decoding problems delayed the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., from delivering the declaration until several hours after the attack had ended.

The next day, Monday, Roosevelt declared to a joint session of Congress that December 7, 1941, was “a date which will live in infamy” and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. Congress declared war that day, with only one dissenting vote. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

Despite the Japanese attack, Roosevelt gave priority to beating Germany first. He committed the majority of American resources to the European theater, starting with an invasion of North Africa in November 1942. By June 1942, and despite the emphasis on Europe and a disastrous first six months, the situation in the Pacific began to favor the Allies.

In January 1943, a conference was held in Casablanca, Morocco, attended by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Free French leader Charles de Gaulle. The leaders set terms for victory in World War II—the Allies would demand unconditional surrender by the Axis powers.

By 1943, the Allies were harvesting the fruits of Roosevelt’s prewar preparations. A “two-ocean” U.S. Navy existed, and U.S. Army and Marine Corps divisions were numerous enough to support simultaneous offensives in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. By the start of 1944, it was clear the Allies were going to win.

The Fourth Term

In order to influence the end of the war and the peace to follow, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term as president, although he was very ill. He was reelected with 53 percent of the popular vote.

Roosevelt participated in or fostered a series of conferences to shape the postwar world. At Bretton Woods, with forty-four nations participating, the International Monetary Fund was created. Conferences at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco created the United Nations. The postwar fate of Germany was discussed at the Second Quebec Conference in September 1944. Finally, in 1945, conferences at Malta and Yalta set plans for postwar Europe and for Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific.

Roosevelt died in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on April 12, 1945. The presidency passed to Vice President Harry Truman. Although Truman proved a fast learner, he was unprepared for the office. Roosevelt—despite being gravely ill—had kept Truman out of the decision loop. Truman was not informed about Roosevelt’s plans or intentions.

Douglas MacArthur

Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) commanded Allied forces in the Philippines at the start of World War II. Chased out of the Philippines, he went to Australia. There he was put in charge of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. He led the counteroffensive that resulted in the liberation of the Philippines and the eventual defeat of the Japanese Empire.

Early Life and Career

MacArthur was born on an army post near Little Rock, Arkansas, on January 26, 1880. He was the son of Captain Arthur MacArthur, who won a Medal of Honor during the Civil War.

Douglas Macarthur General Douglas Macarthur getting ready to accept the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

MacArthur attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1903, and receiving a commission in the Army Corps of Engineers. Between graduation and the start of World War I, he served in a variety of jobs. He conducted a survey of the Philippines, worked as a military instructor, and served as aide to President Theodore Roosevelt.

When World War I began, MacArthur organized the Forty-Second Infantry Division. A unit made up of National Guard regiments from around the United States, the division was given the nickname “Rainbow Division” by MacArthur. He went overseas and fought with the unit in 1918, and commanded it in November 1918.

MacArthur was superintendent of West Point from 1919 to 1922. In June 1922, he was again transferred to the Philippines, where he served through the rest of the 1920s. In 1930 he returned to the United States, where he served as Army chief of staff through 1935. Following that, he went to the Philippines to organize their army.

The Philippines

When World War II started, Douglas MacArthur was in the Philippines, an American colony scheduled for independence in 1946. He was there to create a Philippine army. In 1937 he had resigned his U.S. Army commission, having accepted the rank of field marshal in the Philippine army in 1936.

Because of increased tensions in the Far East, the Philippine army was merged into the U.S. Army in July 1941. MacArthur, still in the Philippines, was recalled to active duty in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant general and given command of U.S. Army forces in the Far East. This included the Philippines.

On December 8, 1941, in conjunction with the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Luzon, the northern and major island of the Philippine archipelago.

The traditional defense plan for the Philippines hinged on retiring to the Bataan Peninsula and maintaining an army there until the U.S. Army and Navy fought their way across the Pacific to relieve Bataan. This plan hinged on supplies stored in Bataan. Prior to the war, MacArthur abandoned this plan in favor of an aggressive defense. He positioned most of his supplies and ammunition behind probable invasion beaches on Luzon.

MacArthur successfully forecast where the Japanese invasion would occur, but in 1941, the Philippine army was years away from being able to conduct the mobile defense that MacArthur’s strategy demanded. The Imperial Japanese Army was able to establish beachheads and to advance around the defenders. MacArthur was forced to declare Philippine’s capital, Manila, an open city and to retreat to Bataan.

Pre-positioned supplies were lost, and tens of thousands of American and Philippine soldiers were trapped in Bataan with little ammunition and less food. The troops were put on half-rations. Disease and hunger soon took their toll. The Japanese starved out the defenders by April 1942, and captured Corregidor Island soon after.

MacArthur intended to stay, but President Franklin Roosevelt ordered him out of the Philippines in March 1942. MacArthur arrived in Australia on March 20. After landing, he pledged to return to the Philippines.

Counteroffensive and Victory

MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor and given command of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. In addition to United States military forces, MacArthur commanded a coalition that included Australian, New Zealand, and some British forces. MacArthur organized the defense of Australia, but switched to the offensive after the Battle of Midway gave the Allies the initiative. He cleared the Japanese out of much of the northern side of New Guinea in 1942 and 1943.

MacArthur relied on air power and Allied naval superiority, developing an offensive technique called “island-hopping.” The technique involved bypassing a strong Japanese garrison and instead having Allied forces attack a weaker one within the range of Allied fighter aircraft. An airbase was to be built on the captured island and bypassed garrisons allowed to wither away.

With the assistance from naval forces commanded by Admiral Chester Nimitz, MacArthur fulfilled his pledge to return to the Philippines by late 1944. In October, American forces landed on Leyte Island in the Philippines. On October 20, 1944, MacArthur waded ashore from a landing craft onto the beach at Leyte and proclaimed that the liberation of the Philippines had begun.

A long battle still lay ahead for the Allies before the Philippines were completely freed. Luzon was invaded in December 1944. Although Manila was quickly recaptured, Luzon was not secured until July 1945. Some Japanese forces did not surrender until the end of the war.

MacArthur was promoted to general of the army in December 1945. In April 1945, MacArthur was given command of all army forces in the Pacific. MacArthur oversaw the invasion of Okinawa, and was planning the invasion of Japan in August 1945, when Japan surrendered. MacArthur was part of the United States delegation that accepted the formal surrender of Japan on the quarterdeck of the battleship Missouri.

Following the Japanese surrender, MacArthur was appointed commander of Allied occupation forces in Japan. He allowed the Japanese emperor to remain as titular head of state. He also oversaw the development of a democratic republic in Japan.

Postwar Career

In 1947, MacArthur was named commander of the army’s Far East Command. He was in that post when North Korea attacked South Korea, an American ally. MacArthur led a United Nations force against North Korea and its Communist allies until April 1951. President Harry S. Truman relieved him of command for insubordination. Following his dismissal, he retired into private life. He died in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 1964.

George S. Patton

George S. Patton Jr. (1885–1945) was the leading American general during World War II. He is best known for his race across France in the late summer of 1944 when he led the Third Army from Normandy to the German border in a matter of weeks.

George S. Patton General George S. Patton was known as “Old Blood and Guts.” His expert tank maneuvers prove decisive in the Battle of the Bulge. The Library of Congress

Prewar Career

Patton was born on November 11, 1885, into a family of military tradition. Although he was a California native, Patton, the grandson of a Confederate Army officer, attended the Virginia Military Institute before transferring to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1909.

Following graduation he entered the cavalry. He became the Army’s youngest “Master of the Sword,” both writing an army manual on use of the saber, and designing the last cavalry saber used by the U.S. Army, the 1913 model “Patton” saber. He was also part of the 1912 U.S. Olympic team, competing in the modern pentathlon.

In 1916, he participated in General John Pershing’s expedition into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa (a Mexican Revolutionary general who had led a raid into U.S. territory). He accompanied Pershing to France in 1917 after America entered World War I. There, he organized and commanded the first American tank brigade. He fought at both Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensives. He was injured during the latter.

Patton was assigned to the Second Armored Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, in July 1940. An early proponent of the aggressive use of armor, Patton was given command of the division in April 1941. He was promoted to commander of what became the U.S. Seventh Army in January 1942.


Efficiency in training led Patton to a combat command. He took charge of Operation Torch, the United States force invading Casablanca in Morocco. He quickly captured his objectives, overcoming Vichy French resistance. (The Vichy government took control in France after the Germans conquered France; the U.S. considered the Free French government in exile the legitimate government of France.)

Following the defeat of the U.S. II Corps in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in March 1943, Patton was given command of the unit. He restored morale to the dispirited unit with an emphasis on strict discipline and hard training. Within a few weeks, the unit was battle-ready and participated in the final offensive that pushed the German Afrika Korps out of Tunisia.


Patton then took the U.S. Seventh Army to Sicily. The Seventh Army landed on the southern shore of Sicily on July 10, 1943, to the left (west) of the British Eighth Army, which landed south of Syracuse.

The Seventh Army only had a supporting role, covering the British advance up the eastern shore of Sicily to Messina. General Sir Harold Alexander, in command of Allied ground forces, then shifted the boundary between the Seventh and Eighth armies westward, to give General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army more maneuvering room. The move squeezed most of Patton’s command out of action.

Patton received permission to conduct a “reconnaissance” toward Palermo. Against orders, he then captured the town. (Patton later claimed the order stopping his reconnaissance was garbled in transmission.) His army then raced along the northern coast of Sicily, using three amphibious landings to leapfrog the Germans. The Seventh Army captured Messina on August 17.

Mussolini’s government fell after Patton captured Palermo, but the Sicilian campaign had few other results. Axis forces were permitted to evacuate to Italy, where Allied forces fought them again.

Despite his success, the campaign almost ended Patton’s career. He slapped two privates suffering from combat fatigue, a misjudgment that was widely publicized. General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, relieved Patton from command of the Seventh Army. Only Patton’s undeniable skill spared him from being sent home in disgrace.

Eisenhower used Patton as a decoy, a position the battle-hungry Patton found humiliating. The Germans believed that Patton would command the next invasion. Eisenhower sent Patton to Corsica, and then to Egypt, giving the impression that the Allies would next invade Southern France or the Balkans.

Patton was brought to England and given the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), a dummy command that was part of the Operation Overlord deception plans (Operation Overlord was the planned Allied invasion at Normandy). German spies were permitted to learn that the unit’s objective was to reach Pas-de-Calais—the Strait of Dover—where they concentrated their forces. The actual Operation Overlord invasion landed at Normandy.


Patton was sent to France following the Normandy invasion and was finally allowed back in the action. On August 1, he took over the Third Army, which he led on a stunning offensive. He broke through the German lines at Saint-Lô in Normandy, then sent his army in three different directions. One column was sent to clear the Brittany Peninsula. A second went down the Loire. A third went east, helping General Courtney Hodges envelop German forces in the Argentan pocket.

Patton and the Third Army then raced across France. Since the Allies had air superiority, Patton let airpower guard his flanks, making his enemies worry about their own flanks. By August 21, the Third Army was on the Seine River. Patton’s offensive charge finally died on August 31, when his army ran out of gas on the Moselle River outside Metz.

Patton resumed the offensive in early October, but the Germans had reinforced and resupplied the fortifications guarding Metz. Nevertheless, the seemingly unstoppable Third Army captured Metz on November, 23, 1944. Patton began planning an offensive into the Saar region of Germany.

On December 16, 1944, Germany attacked north of the Third Army, in the Ardennes. At a conference held on December 19, Patton pledge to counterattack the Germans within forty-eight hours. It proved to be his finest hour. Anticipating the seriousness of the German attack, Patton had his staff draw up plans for redeploying his forces prior to the meeting. On December 21, 1944, the Third Army began a thrust toward Bastogne, where an American force that included the 101st Airborne Division was besieged by the German Army.

A battalion of the Fourth Armored Division commanded by then Lieutenant-Colonel Creighton Abrams reached Bastogne on December 26. Patton’s quick action probably saved the Airborne Division from capture and broke the back of the German offensive.

In January 1945, the Third Army resumed its march into Germany. Patton occupied southern Germany, and was headed toward Prague, Czechoslovakia, when the war in Europe ended.

After the war Patton was made military governor of Bavaria. He was relieved of that command, as well as command of the Third Army in October 1945 due to his vocal resistance to the Allies’ denazification program.

He was given the Fifteenth Army, a force that existed largely on paper. Patton died on December 21, 1945, after being injured in a car accident in Heidelberg, Germany.

Benito Mussolini Admiral Chester Nimitz was US Commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890—1969), who led the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, was elected president of the United States in 1952 and was reelected in 1956. He was president during significant portions of the Cold War, which continued for three decades after he left office.

Born October 14, 1890, in Denison, Texas, Eisenhower was the son of David J. Eisenhower and his wife, Ida Stover. The family was impoverished and moved to Abilene, Kansas, within a year of his birth. From an early age, he helped support his family by selling vegetables and holding a job at a creamery, where his father also worked.

A better athlete than student despite his obvious intelligence and ambition, Eisenhower graduated from Abilene High School in 1909 and then worked for two years to help cover the costs of an older brother’s college education. Eisenhower then got his chance for further schooling, entering West Point Military Academy in 1911. Again, his athletic pursuits, especially football, took precedence over studying, but he managed to graduate in 1915.

Launched Military Career

Entering the army as a second lieutenant after leaving West Point, Eisenhower began in the infantry at Texas’s Fort Sam Houston. During World War I, he led the tank training camps in the United States. Encouraged to learn military science, his ascent in the military began in earnest after he graduated from the Command and General Staff School and later the Army War College.

Eisenhower became aide to General Douglas MacArthur in 1933 and accompanied the general to his post in the Philippines. Eisenhower then became the chief of staff of the Third Army in 1939. After overseeing training for thousands of soldiers shortly before the United States entered World War II in 1941, Eisenhower joined the U.S. Army General Staff as chief of the War Plans Division.

World War II Hero

Eisenhower became the commander of U.S. military forces in Great Britain in 1941. A respected and skilled commander, he was able to work well with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and British generals. Eisenhower was also skilled on the battlefield, leading the 1942 invasion of North Africa that led to the Allies controlling the area by May 1943.

Now a four-star general, Eisenhower led amphibious invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943. By the end of the year, he was named supreme commander of Allied forces. He then prepared for and led troops at the 1944 invasion of Normandy, a key Allied victory over Germany. Eisenhower oversaw the liberation of France and was involved in the Battle of the Bulge (winter 1944–1945). It was Eisenhower’s decision to allow the Soviets to capture Berlin, a city that featured prominently in the Cold War that commenced between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-war years.

Postwar Popularity

After the war in Europe ended in 1945, Eisenhower returned to the United States as a popular war hero. He then returned to Europe to head the American-controlled zone in Germany for a time before serving a two-year stint as the Army’s chief of staff in the United States. Eisenhower retired from the military in 1948 and became the president of Columbia University. A two-year term there ended when Eisenhower agreed to become the commander of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the alliance of Western European nations and the United States against possible invasion of Europe by the USSR.

Though he had previously stated that he had no interest in politics, Eisenhower decided to run for president as a Republican in 1952. With a large margin of victory, he won the presidency that year as well as reelection in 1956. Working with both Democrats and Republicans, Eisenhower carved a middle path as president, supporting business and limited government interference in economic matters. He also oversaw the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the United States, including the desegregation of public schools.

Cold War President

As soon as he took office, Eisenhower had to deal with the ongoing Korean War. He presided over the end of the Korean War in 1953, negotiating a truce with Communist North Korea that divided the Korean peninsula.

Again choosing a moderate course, Eisenhower supported the building up of NATO in the face of potential Soviet aggression. At the same time, he wanted to improve the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union, offering several plans to open up the relationship between the two countries. Relations became severely strained, however, after the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane flying over the Soviet Union in 1959.

Eisenhower had to deal with other conflicts involving Communists worldwide. After Vietnam was divided into Communist North Vietnam and non-Communist South Vietnam in 1954, the United States supported South Vietnam. He oversaw the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which sought to contain the spread of Communism in the region. U.S. support for South Vietnam eventually escalated into the Vietnam War.

Closer to home, Eisenhower originally supported the Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista, but withdrew his backing in 1958. After Batista’s government collapsed and Communist Fidel Castro took over, Eisenhower cut off relations with the new ally of the Soviet Union before he left office in 1961. Eisenhower also approved the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of covert operations to limit Communist revolutions in Latin America.

Eisenhower had also allowed the CIA to execute a covert operation to prevent a possible Communist takeover of Iran in 1954. He later announced the Eisenhower Doctrine, which declared the United States would assist all Middle Eastern countries in the face of any Communist threat of expansion.

By the end of his presidency, Eisenhower was seeking peace worldwide and traveled to twenty-seven countries to that end. He even tried to meet with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to discuss a nuclear test-ban treaty. Though this summit did not happen because of the spy plane incident, Eisenhower retired a popular, well-respected president. He became an advisor to the U.S. Army and enjoyed his hobbies in retirement. Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, in Washington, D.C.

Sidebar: HideShow

The “Failure” Message

Eisenhower’s success as a general was due to his willingness to take necessary risks and to accept personal responsibility for those decisions, win or lose. One example of both was his decision to press on with the Normandy invasion, despite predictions of unsatisfactory weather.

Before every invasion Eisenhower prepared an announcement of failure, kept in his wallet against the need for it. Although he tore the others up, he showed the message he penned for D-Day to his naval aide, Harry C. Butcher. Butcher persuaded Eisenhower to save the message, which is presented below.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

The note is preserved at the Eisenhower Library.

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as president of the United States in April 1945. The decisions Truman made between then and August, when World War II ended, shaped the peace and the Cold War that subsequently followed. His two most important decisions were that of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan and of allowing the Russians a postwar sphere in Eastern Europe.

Early Life

Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884, to a farm family. He attended public school in Independence, Missouri, graduating from high school in 1901. Following graduation he worked as a railroad timekeeper and a bank clerk before returning to work on the family farm in 1906.

He served in the Missouri National Guard between 1905 and 1911. When the United States entered World War I, Truman helped organize the Second Regiment of Missouri Field Artillery. It was called into federal service as the 129th Field Artillery and sent to France. Truman was promoted to captain and commanded Battery D. He saw combat at Vosges, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. He remained in the reserves after the war, eventually gaining the rank of Colonel.

After World War I he returned to Independence, married Bess Wallace (1885–1982), and ran a haberdashery store. The business failed in 1922.

In 1922 he entered politics, running for county judge. Defeated in 1924, he was reelected to judge’s positions between 1926 and 1932. In 1934, he ran for United States Senate and won. He would hold that seat until he became vice president in 1944.

Harry Truman Great Britain’s King George VI and U.S. President Harry Truman on board the HMS Renown at Plymouth. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

World War II

When World War II started, Harry Truman was a senator from Missouri. He had been sponsored by the Kansas City political machine run by Tom Pendergast (1873–1945) in his first Senate term. Truman barely won reelection in 1940 due to prior connections with Pendergast.

Following reelection, Truman became concerned about waste and corruption associated with American military buildup. He helped establish, and chaired, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program in 1941. The committee, soon known as the Truman Committee, became the bane of war profiteers. By 1944 it was estimated to have saved the federal government as much as $15 billion. It gave Truman a reputation for integrity and honesty that transcended his earlier reputation as “the Senator from Pendergast.”

Truman was picked to replace Henry Wallace (1888–1965) as Roosevelt’s vice president in the 1944 presidential campaign. As vice president, Truman was outside Roosevelt’s circle of advisors. Truman was not informed about Roosevelt’s postwar intentions or even briefed about significant military projects. He did not learn about the existence of the Manhattan Project—the effort to develop an atomic bomb—until after he became president.

On April 12, 1945, Truman was called to the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) informed him that President Roosevelt had died, and Truman was then sworn in as president. He had been vice president just eighty-two days.

Truman faced enormous challenges. Roosevelt made several critical foreign policy commitments immediately prior to his death. At Yalta in February, Roosevelt had agreed to allow the Soviet Union to control much of Eastern Europe at war’s end and gave the Soviets greater influence in Asia. At Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945, Truman essentially ratified Roosevelt’s concessions in exchange for a Soviet pledge to enter the war in the Pacific against the Japanese.

These decisions shaped much of the history of the rest of the century. It created the conditions for the creation of a Soviet Bloc in opposition to the Western powers, leading to both the Korean and Cold Wars.

The Potsdam Conference also resulted in the Potsdam Declaration. It called upon the Japanese government to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” This was a veiled reference to the atomic bomb.

Truman had to decide whether to use the atomic bomb on Japan. One atomic bomb could destroy most of a city. The first bomb had been tested in July 1945, and by August, the United States had three more.

At the Battle of Okinawa, with 500,000 American troops engaged, the United States suffered 50,000 casualties, including over 12,000 dead. Conservative estimates set Allied casualties for an invasion of Japan in the hundreds of thousands. Fatality estimates ranged between 100,000 and 400,000 dead. (Japanese deaths would have ranged in the millions, but that was not a factor to the United States.)

Truman was a combat veteran who knew what ground combat was like. He had an alternative that offered a way to end the war without a bloody invasion. Truman took it. He ordered that the bomb be used. American B-29s dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. When the Japanese refused to surrender, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. On the same day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Japan surrendered on August 15.

Postwar Years

Truman remained president until 1953. He ran for reelection in 1948 and won, but did not run again in 1952 after getting mired in the Korean War.

In the immediate postwar years, he was responsible for a number of important initiatives. The fascist threat to freedom was almost immediately supplanted by a Communist threat. The Soviet Union fostered a communist takeover in China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe, preventing free elections in all of those areas.

In response, Truman established the Marshall Plan to help restore Western Europe to economic health and the Truman Doctrine—which stated American willingness to support nations faced with communist incursion. This included military and economic aid to Greece from 1946 to 1948 and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1950.

In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman sent American military assistance to Korea and enlisted the aid of the United Nations to assist the South. The war degenerated into a stalemate after China became involved.

Domestically, Truman instituted a set of economic policies known as the Fair Deal as a successor to the New Deal. Truman also desegregated the American armed forces.

After leaving the presidency, Truman retired to private life in Independence, Missouri. Truman died on December 26, 1972.

Invasion of Poland The gate to Auschwitz concentration camp, with the infamous words “Arbeit macht frei” (work will make you free). (c) Michael St. Maur Sheil/Corbis

Major Battles

The Invasion of Poland

The origins of Germany’s involvement in World War II, beginning with its invasion of Poland in 1939, lie mostly in the political fallout after the end of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles imposed stiff economic and military sanctions on Germany, wounding national pride and crippling the economy. Versailles also mandated Poland’s independence—the country had been subjugated for 123 years. Poland was thus reassembled with territories carved out of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. The new country was also granted Baltic Sea access by means of the “Polish Corridor,” the former German territory of West Prussia. The German city of Danzig (modern-day Gdansk, Poland), sitting at the outlet of the corridor, was declared a “free city.” German leader Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party would come to power by trading on the frustrations and difficulties that these concessions had stirred up.

Two of Hitler’s chief aims upon assuming power were incorporating all German-speaking peoples into a Grossdeustchland, or “Greater Germany,” and regaining German territories lost after the Treaty of Versailles. With the annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Hitler accomplished the first goal—but at the price of alerting the world to his imperial ambitions. Thus, when Hitler turned his gaze to Poland in 1939 and demanded Danzig and the Polish Corridor be ceded to Germany, the Western powers of France and England were ready to fight.

The invasion of Poland came as no surprise. England and France, seeking to end their policy of appeasement, had each guaranteed Poland’s safety months before. What did come as a surprise was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Signed on August 23, 1939, it was a non-aggression treaty between the two ideologically opposed countries that freed Germany from the worry of fighting a two-front war, as it had in World War I. The announcement of the pact shocked the Western Allies, who had not thought that two countries that had openly agitated for the other’s destruction could reach such an agreement. The reasons for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s complicity would become all too clear in time.

The German Invasion

Hitler, who felt that he had been talked out of war at the Munich Conference in 1938, was determined to flex his military might in Poland. With the Soviet Union out of the picture, there was now nothing to stop Germany from attacking Poland. So, in the late hours of August 31, 1939, German operatives disguised as Polish saboteurs staged an attack on a German radio station near the Polish border. Armed with this flimsy excuse to begin hostilities, Hitler ordered his armies across the Polish border at 8:00 on the morning of September 1.

The first shots of World War II had actually been fired a few hours earlier by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which opened fire on Polish positions near Danzig at 4:45 a.m. At around the same time, German planes began bombing Polish border towns.

As the German armies crossed the Polish border, England and France issued ultimatums demanding an immediate withdrawal. As expected, these requests were ignored, and the Western Allies declared war on Germany on September 3.

By that point, Polish forces were engaged all along the country’s long border, facing invasion from the north, west, and southwest. The defense plan was doomed to failure—there was just too much territory to protect. To make matters worse, the Poles were facing an entirely new kind of fight: blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.”

Lightning War

The philosophy behind blitzkrieg was to use tanks, airplanes, and infantry in close cooperation. The planes, primarily the infamous “Stuka” dive-bomber, would act as highly mobile artillery, blasting holes in enemy lines that would then be exploited by tanks and mobile infantry. Regular infantry units, which would occupy the new positions and eliminate enemy strong points, would then follow up these exploitations.

The new tactics proved a major success, although for all the attention received by the mechanized elements of blitzkrieg, it is important to realize that the vast majority of the German army was still made up of old-fashioned foot-soldiers and that the majority of casualties sustained by the Polish forces in battle were caused by artillery.

Polish forces put up a spirited resistance on land and in the air, but by the second week of hostilities they were falling back toward the interior. Despite promises of opening a second front, France had made only small advances into German territory and was reluctant to move beyond the range of its great fortress guns on the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications in France near the German border. The British, likewise, were unable to offer much help and were reduced to dropping propaganda leaflets over German towns.

The Polish rallying point was the “Romanian Bridgehead,” a mountainous area with its back to neutral Romania from which the Poles hoped to set up a defensive perimeter and wait out the winter, confident their Western allies would launch a major offensive in the spring and relieve the pressure.

Battle of Britain The Enigma machine helped the Allied forces decipher Nazi communications. Archive Photos, Inc./Getty Images

The Soviet Invasion

Such dreams were quickly put to rest, however, when the Soviet Union, acting on a secret protocol in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invaded Poland from the east on September 17. Realizing the situation had become untenable, orders were sent out to units still in the field to go to neutral Romania—and then to France and England—and live to fight another day. In the end, 120,000 Polish soldiers and airmen escaped capture and would go on to fight under French and British command for the remainder of the war.

As the majority of the Polish army was retreating south and escaping the country, the Germans surrounded the capital city of Warsaw. In a brief siege that came to characterize the brutality of the new war, Warsaw was pounded into rubble by relentless bombing raids and near-constant bombardment from artillery ranging from mortars to massive railway guns.

Warsaw capitulated on September 28, just four weeks after the first German troops had crossed the border. Although the Polish government never officially surrendered, the invasion of Poland was declared over by October 6. The speed of the victory shocked the world. Poland once again ceased to exist and was divided up between the victorious German and Soviet states.

The Battle of Flanders

In the spring of 1940, Hitler gave the warning order to his generals—an attack on the West was imminent. The first war plan for the invasion of the “Low Countries”—Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—was compromised on January 10 when a German airplane crashed in Belgium with the documents of the plan on board. The Belgians were able to send intelligence from that plan to the French and British.

A new war plan, named “Sickle Stroke” took form. The plan called for a German flanking maneuver through the Ardennes Forest that would bypass the vaunted French Maginot Line, cross the Meuse River between Sedan and Dinant, and then drive quickly to the coast of the English Channel, dividing the British expeditionary force from the French army.

Hitler could not have asked for more ideal opponents for his conquest in the West. The Allied forces were not ready to fight modern warfare. Although the French had 101 divisions, many were not in fighting form. These second-class French divisions contained older reservists and out-of-shape soldiers with low morale. The French still used horse cavalry and light armored cars that were no match for the German Mark III Panzers. They were also a defensive army, not a maneuver army. Many French troops were tied down at the Maginot Line—eighty-seven miles of fortifications that cost the French government more than seven billion francs after World War I. However, despite the Maginot fortress, there were 250 miles of undefended border between France and Belgium. The Belgians, led by General Robert van Overstraeten, the chief military advisor to the Belgian King Leopold III, did not coordinate their defenses very well with the French and British, even though it was assumed most of the initial fight against the Germans would take place in Belgium. The Belgians had 600,000 troops in twenty-two divisions, but no joint defensive plans with the other Allies.

The French had more tanks than the Germans (3,000 versus 2,400), but the French assigned most of their tanks to their slow-moving infantry, and the Germans put seven of their Panzer divisions in General Gerd von Rundstedt’s fast-moving Army Group A. There was no mass of Allied tanks to stop the Germans. The French had only five pure armored divisions—three active and one still forming. Rundstedt was to take the seven Panzer divisions through the Ardennes and then slice toward the coast. These divisions could cover thirty-five to forty miles a day and, unlike the infantry, did not have to travel on roads. The German tanks had air support from the Luftwaffe (German air force) at all times. The British had five infantry divisions in the fight and only one newly organized armored division in 1940.

Holland was strictly neutral in 1940. The Dutch had not fought a war since 1830; they sat out World War I. Their entire army consisted of ten divisions and only 125 aircraft. Upon attack, they planned to fall back into “Fortress Holland”—Amsterdam and Rotterdam—and hope the canals and dykes of the low country would delay the enemy. The tactics worked during the Eighty Years War against Spain three hundred years earlier, but this was 1940, and air power was at its height.

Germany’s Luftwaffe flew over the canals and simply bombed and strafed all Dutch airfields, nearly eliminating the Dutch air force on the ground. On May 10, 1940, 2,500 German aircraft attacked airfields of Belgium, Holland, France, and Luxembourg and destroyed fleets of aircraft on the ground.

At dawn on that day, 16,000 German paratroopers, in a classic airborne operation, landed deep in Dutch territory and seized key bridges. The paratroopers held the bridges until German Panzers linked up with them for the drive westward. The main attack began. Two and a half million German troops—104 infantry divisions, nine motorized divisions, and nine armored divisions in three army groups began the invasion into Belgium, Holland, France, and Luxembourg.

First the German planes struck deep into the Netherlands. The Luftwaffe bombing of Rotterdam killed 814 civilians and forced Dutch Queen Wilhelmina to escape with the Royal Navy to Britain. As the Dutch army retreated to Fortress Holland, it left the flank open on the Belgians’ left. The Belgians were also soon flanked by the Third and Fourth Panzer divisions on the right. By May 13, the rest of the German Army B entered Holland. Hitler demanded complete surrender by the Dutch and they surrendered after the bombing of Rotterdam.

Dunkirk British and French troops awaiting evacuation at Dunkirk, France, 1940. (c) Corbis

The Allies, expecting to see the Germans repeat their 1914 attack into Flanders, were surprised by the German advance through the Ardennes. Both Belgian and French infantry retreated at the sight or even the rumor of German tanks. Some even ran from friendly tanks. On May 17, German General Heinz Guderian’s tanks had reached the River Oise. General Walther von Reichenau’s army reached Brussels, and British General Bernard Montgomery’s Third Division fell back toward the coast. The only bright spot for the Allies was Colonel Charles de Gaulle’s Fourth Division, which counterattacked and was able to delay the Germans—but only briefly. De Gaulle was later promoted to brigadier general and given command of an armored division. However, the Allies had to fall back to the Dyle Line, to the east of Brussels. General Montgomery had his Third Armored Division dig in on the Dyle Line.

On May 20, Guderian’s divisions reached Abbeville, and that divided the Allies in two. Since the French had no strategic reserves, panic went up and down the retreating French forces. French General Alphonse Georges wept openly in the French headquarters. The Allies struggled to hold Somme-Aisne lines while the Germans sent three prongs of attacking armor columns to the northwest. Guderian’s tanks captured Boulogne on the French coast and trapped the British at Calais on May 22–23. King Leopold surrendered to the Germans the next day at nearly the same area Belgium had taken up defensive positions against the Germans in World War I. The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were backed up to Dunkirk, on the north coast of France, and trapped.


The evacuation of more than 300,000 British and allied troops from Dunkirk, on the north coast of France, in late May and early June of 1940 was viewed as a near miraculous feat. The troops were rescued in the nick of time, just ahead of the Germans, by British naval vessels along with all manner of private boats, yachts, and fishing vessels whose owners were eager to help. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the courageous rescue “our finest hour.”

The troops at Dunkirk had been cut off from the rest of allied forces by a successful German advance across France in late May. It seemed Germany was poised to crush the British and French forces outright. But on May 24, German leader Adolf Hitler inexplicably ordered all German tanks to stop for two whole days. He wanted to be sure he had enough tanks to take Paris. He did not want his tanks to be stuck in the mud of the canals around Dunkirk. He also may have wanted to have the Luftwaffe get the credit for destroying the Allies on the beaches. Hilter did not know that most of the remaining French and British army was stranded at Dunkirk. If he had, he might have had his tanks finish the job in May. Whatever the reason for stopping the German tank advance, it gave the Allies precious time to escape.

Two major breaks came the Allies’ way. The British had an immediate plan to evacuate Allied troops from Dunkirk—Operation Dynamo. Meanwhile, the British were able to crack the Enigma code. Enigma was the code used by the Luftwaffe to communicate with the Wehrmacht. Essentially, the British knew German operational plans for the rest of the war. This is how Churchill kept up his confidence. He knew Hitler’s eyes were on Paris and not on an immediate airborne, naval, and amphibious attack into Great Britain.

Hitler, however, immediately realized that the Allies were evacuating Dunkirk and sent his forces to finish them of. With a brave rear guard of French troops providing security and Allied pilots holding off the Luftwaffe, Operation Dynamo was able to commence on May 27. Fifty German aircraft were shot down that day while 850 British ships of all makes and sizes began the evacuation. The armada was made up of warships, private yachts, and fishing boats—basically anything that could float and haul troops. The group of ships picked up thousands of British and French soldiers from the beaches. In eight days, these vessels, later joined by French and Belgian ships, rescued 226,000 British soldiers and 112,000 French soldiers. Although the Germans sunk some of the ships from the air, more than 338,000 men were rescued in seven days. It took 222 naval vessels and 665 civilian boats to complete the evacuation. The British Army lost most of its equipment and began importing arms from the United States. Hitler figured that Britain would sue for peace and his attention turned first to Paris and later to the Soviet Union. He underestimated the resolve of Churchill and the British and the industrial and fighting capacity of the United States. At this point, the conquest of France was his next objective.

Battle of France The Bristol Blenheim, a light bomber and night fighter, had limitations when it encountered German fighters during the Battle of France. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

Battle of France

On June 3, 1940, German planes bombed Paris, killing 254 people. This only foreshadowed the violence that was to come. The Nazi plan for France was to decimate the land and its people so that they would never revolt under Nazi rule. German leader Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich would make France pay for German humiliation after World War I. By the end of June, Nazis were marching into Paris.

First Moves on France

Although they were on the other side of the English Channel, the British were as nervous as the Parisians about German aggression in the late spring of 1940. The British Isles would have been an easy target for the Germans at that time. Only five hundred heavy guns existed in England. The head of the Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, estimated that the British could last only forty-eight hours in the skies battling the Germans. The skeleton force of ground troops in England was armed only with rifles. Fortunately, the British High Command, due to the breaking of the Enigma code (the code the Germans used to encrypt their military messages), knew that Hitler was targeting Paris and had no immediate plans for Great Britain. However, the British populace did not know that, and they braced for the worst.

It was time for Winston Churchill to shine. He chastised, cajoled, enthused, and inspired his countrymen to fight. After all, there were still 136,000 British troops in western France. In addition to that force, 200,000 Polish soldiers carried on the fight as well. These were the Poles who escaped the invasion of their country by retreating through Romania, and they made it to France in time to defend Paris. Hitler reorganized and redirected his massive army toward the French capital. A total of 143 German divisions along a 140-mile front stared down at the Allies from the north.

Sidebar: HideShow

Churchill’s Speech to the House of Commons

Shortly after the bombing of Paris by the Nazis on June 3, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered one of his many famous addresses, this one to the British House of Commons. In it, he vowed: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ….”

On June 5, the Germans started the battle for France with a massive artillery and air attack. French General Maxime Weygand devised a plan to organize his defenses in echelons along the Somme and the Aisne Rivers while tying in to the existing Maginot Line (a system of fortifications along the French-German border). He had only sixty-five divisions and only a few bruised and battered armored regiments. Several of his divisions were filled with older reserve soldiers. His other troops manned the Maginot Line and could not maneuver. The Weygand Line still looked like a good plan on paper, but the French, British, and Poles were no match for the mass and tempo of the attacking Germans. The Weygand Line broke in many places, although it actually held in some areas where the Allies did damage to the Germans. But there were no reserves available in order to counterattack and take advantage of any favorable situation.

The Allies suffered too many casualties, ran out of ammunition, or simply melted away as the Germans advanced. The British and the French Ninth Corps had the left flank near the coast of Abbeville, but were quickly rolled up by Rommel’s forces, and their backs were soon to the sea. The Royal Navy tried another Dunkirk-type of evacuation, but heavy fog stymied those plans. The Germans had barely even started the main attack and Allied forces were already in disarray. This was just the beginning of the rout.

The main effort came from the center as Rundstedt’s A Group started in Sedan on June 9, with German General Heinz Guderian’s Panzers leading the way. The Germans broke out of the French defenses at Chalons and were able to strike east of Paris. The French government escaped to Bordeaux on June 10. On June 11, the French had completely lost thirty-five divisions. The French, seeing that the situation was dire, told the remaining British troops to evacuate, and a second “Dunkirk” was ordered for the British troops at Cherbourg and other ports in the area. More than 130,000 British troops escaped—and this time, they were able to keep their equipment. The advancing Germans were in close pursuit, only miles away, on June 18, the last day of the evacuation.

The French knew it was time to sue for peace. They instead deemed Paris a free city and told the Germans that no resistance would take place in Paris upon their arrival. Churchill tried to get the Americans to come to the aid of the French. He asked the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, to send a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt pleading for American intervention—to declare war if possible. Hitler publicly claimed in a radio interview that he had no plans of violence for North or South America. Roosevelt said the United States would do everything to help the French—support them with arms and materiel—but the United States would not declare war. By the time Roosevelt’s return telegraph was delivered to the French, German troops were entering Paris.

Two million people had already fled the city. The 700,000 who remained faced German martial law and nightly curfews. The Germans hung a huge swastika flag under the Arc de Triomphe, and a military band soon led the Fourth German Army as it marched down the Champs Elysées.

The Germans forced the French to sign the armistice in the same railcar in which the Germans were forced to sign their armistice following World War I. Most of France would become a zone of occupation for German troops, and all French troops became prisoners of war. The defeated French were allowed a consolation—a puppet government in the city of Vichy. Churchill told the British Parliament that the Battle of France was over and the Battle for Britain was next.

The Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was the struggle between German and British air forces from July through October 1940. Germany bombed England repeatedly in the hopes of neutralizing the Royal Air Force (RAF) in advance of a planned German invasion.

Battle of Britain Two days before the Battle of Britain, British Lancaster bombers practiced maneuvers over Eyebrook Resrvoir, in Rutland. (c) John Robertson/Alamy

The Battle of Britain marked the first time a military campaign was to be decided in the air without armies and navies. In World War I, aircraft were used as tools for reconnaissance or bombers, but not as the main means of attack. Later military planners identified bombing as a strategic asset during the Spanish Civil War. They found bombing from the air could scare and demoralize the civilian population—even breaking a whole country’s will to fight. An early air-war proponent, Giulio Douhet (1869–1930), wrote that aircraft could bomb the enemy’s supply and industrial base. He believed that air power could attack the factories and kill the people who made the guns and munitions. This theory formed the foundation of air power in World War II.

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940, with German attacks on British ships in the English Channel. On August 13, when 1,485 Luftwaffe (German air force) planes crossed the English Channel, the British lost only fifteen airplanes, while Germany lost thirty-nine. The British were showing surprising skill in the air, and this was not what the Luftwaffe expected. By day three, the Germans had already lost 190 aircraft. This was the first phase of the German attack and it amounted to the classic force-on-force aerial dogfight.

Hitler’s plan, Operation Sea Lion, was designed to first destroy the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and then invade the British Isles. The German army and navy prepared for an amphibious landing across the English Channel. Weapons President Frankin D. Roosevelt had promised Britain during the fall of France began arriving. The British army planned for the defense of their homeland. They were arrayed in depth and were ready to counterattack the Germans if they established a beachhead. British intercepts of coded German messages would later discover that the Germans had no plan for invasion until after they decisively won the battle in the air. This was good news for the British because it bought them time to prepare the ground defense.

But first the Royal Air Force would fight the Germans in the air. Hermann Göering’s Luftwaffe was formidable. It consisted of at least 2,800 planes—900 fighters and 1,900 bombers in three fleets. But the British were not without their strengths. In addition to cracking the Enigma code (the German military’s encryption code), the British had an early warning system called “Chain Home.” Chain Home consisted of fifty radar warning systems that covered the southern shores of England. Radar was a British invention that sent out a pulsing radio beam to a target. The transmission was then reflected and received at the radar station. This beam was timed, and the delay of the pulse was measured. This sequence gave a reading of distance, bearing, height, and speed. Another advantage was the British industrial output. Aircraft were now being produced at a more rapid pace than they were in Germany—500 Spitfires and Hurricanes per month to the Germans 140 ME 109s and 90 ME 110s. However, the British had only around 1,500 trained pilots compared to Germany’s 10,000. The Germans had a tremendous edge in bombers—nearly 1,300 heavy bomb-laden aircraft. These bombers were enough to defeat Britain, but Goering’s Luftwaffe had devised no overall air plan. They improvised daily, and the British were able to buy time and hang on.

The Germans kept changing tactics and objectives. They switched to attacking the British airfields from late August until early September. Then the Luftwaffe began bombing London day and night, but this only worked to harden British resolve. The German bombing switched again to nightly raids on London—the “blitz”—until October 30. Some 40,000 British civilians were killed. This period of the war was made famous by the roof-top radio broadcasts of American reporter Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965). Murrow painted a picture of the aerial war over Britain each night for millions of Americans listening to their radios at home. The blitz resulted in an aerial stalemate as the Royal Air Force and some 2,000 antiaircraft guns confounded the Luftwaffe.

However, the Luftwaffe began to inflict more and more damage to Britain. The Germans appeared to be winning. Morale was sinking as more and more civilian areas were attacked. The bombing was so bad that some British air crewmen, mechanics, and refuelers refused to service the planes on some airfields.

During much of August, the Germans were shooting down RAF planes faster than Britain could make them. If the Germans had intensified bombing in the cities and on the airfields, the battle’s outcome might have been different. Instead, German leader Adolf Hitler diverted much of the Luftwaffe to the Eastern Front in preparation for the attack on Russia. The Germans almost became the first air force to decisively win an air campaign in the history of war. The cracking of the Enigma code, the invention and implementation of radar, and heroic RAF flying saved the day for England.

Pearl Harbor

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was hit by a surprise attack by Japanese aircraft. While the raid was successful, it was not a decisive or lasting victory. After the attack, the U.S. entered World War II immediately against both Japan and its ally, Germany.

The Pacific Fleet was usually headquartered in San Diego, but after the German invasion of France in 1940, the Department of the Navy decided to extend the fleet’s stay in Pearl Harbor. A week earlier, the Japanese had sent a massive battle group to the South Pacific that included the Imperial Navy’s best fighting ships: six new carriers and an armada of battleships, light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.

At dawn on December 7, 230 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the sky was dense with Japanese fighters and bombers. Three hundred sixty-six Japanese aircraft were streaking toward Pearl Harbor. Two U.S. Army privates at an experimental radar station reported the enemy planes. However, their superior officers thought these were part of a B-17 squadron flying in the area. The destroyer Ward had attacked a two-man Japanese submarine a few minutes earlier. The destroyer had fired some of the first American shots of World War II.

The Japanese had planned to surprise the Americans, and they kept the Pearl Harbor attack completely secret, even from the highest echelons of their command. Only a few operational planners knew about it. The 366 Japanese planes achieved total surprise on that Sunday. Four American battleships were destroyed and sunk in the harbor. Four other battleships were badly damaged, and eleven other American warships were sunk. The Japanese destroyed 188 U.S. planes and killed 2,330 U.S. personnel: 1,177 on the battleship Arizona. Fortunately, the American carriers were at sea and were spared. The Japanese lost only twenty-nine aircraft and five mini-submarines in the attack. Only sixty-four Japanese were killed, and one was taken prisoner.

The American ships were poorly defended. Few sailors were topside on Sunday mornings. Army personnel on land thought the Japanese planes were part of an exercise. Three-quarters of the 780 antiaircraft guns on the ships at Pearl Harbor were idle, with no one manning them. The army had only four of the thirty-one antiaircraft guns on shore engaging the enemy. A second wave of 168 Japanese fighters and bombers arrived at 9:00 a.m. and finished off the West Virginia and the badly damaged Nevada, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

Strikes in Southeast Asia

The Pearl Harbor attack, although it seemed isolated, was really part of a larger plan. The Japanese were simultaneously attacking the Southern Resource Area of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, and the Philippines.

In Malaya, the Japanese destroyed most of the British Air Force on the ground. The Japanese made amphibious landings at Kota Bharu along the Malaya-Thai border. The British garrison stationed on the Malay Peninsula was not accustomed to jungle fighting, and they were soon overrun. A Japanese naval force landed near Bangkok, and Thailand surrendered. The British commander in Malaya attempted to put his remaining ships to sea, but they had no air cover and were easy targets for the Japanese. The British were pushed back to Singapore and surrendered again.

In the Philippines, the Japanese planned an aerial attack on the American air forces in Manila and an amphibious attack on Luzon. The American planes were inexplicably parked outside their hangars on December 8, 1941, even though the Department of the Navy told General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in the Far East, to keep his forces under high alert after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese destroyed most of the U.S. force in the Philippines with that single attack.

In Burma, British, Indian, and Burmese troops were no match for the Japanese. They were ill-equipped and undersized. The whole force amounted to only two small divisions. The Japanese army attacked across the Burma-Thai border on January 12, 1942. The British retreated to Rangoon and lost most of their heavy equipment. Rangoon later fell, despite the efforts of the Chinese “Flying Tigers,” an all-volunteer force of pilots from countries who had just declared war on Japan, such as the United States, Australia, and Canada.

Strikes in the Pacific

This was the first stage of the plan—to attack and seize countries that would become supply points for Japan’s defense industrial base. The second part of the plan was for the Japanese to construct an island chain for resupply and logistics that would run from the Kurile Islands off the coast of Siberia through Wake Island, the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands, the Bismarck Islands, northern New Guinea, Malaya, and then to the Dutch East Indies. After Japan attacked and secured this logistical trail of islands, it would consolidate the territory and occupy it. Each group of islands would serve as a station to resupply Japan. The difficult part would be for Japan to hold this territory. Chief Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned against the Pearl Harbor attack. He compared the sneak attack on the United States to awakening a sleeping giant. Yamamoto also thought the island strategy was too fragmented and spread-out to be effective, but he resigned himself to implementing the plan.

Some Japanese officers wanted to modify the plan and steer the Japanese naval forces toward the remaining American carriers to finish off the U.S. fleet. But the Pearl Harbor attack had gone well—past anyone’s expectations—that Yamamoto determined it was best to get his force out of harm’s way and execute the rest of the island plan. The Japanese also attacked Guam, Wake, and Midway islands, protected by the United States. Yamamoto felt that it was time to turn his attention to the middle of the Pacific and begin the island strategy. He also felt he was on borrowed time; the American giant would soon be awake, and Japan would be forced to defend its newly won territories.

Battle of the Coral Sea and Midway

The battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June of 1942 marked the turning point in the U.S. war with Japan. After suffering multiple defeats in the first six months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, U.S. forces saw the momentum shift in their favor.

Midway The Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga participated in the Pearl Harbour assault and was sunk at the Battle of Midway in 1942. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

After Pearl Harbor

If there was anything positive to come out of the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, it was not readily apparent. However, the U.S. Navy got one break. Its fleet of carriers was out at sea during the attack, and the ships were able to escape, although the Japanese carrier fleet still outnumbered the American fleet by ten to three. The shock of Pearl Harbor would eventually awaken the American nascent defense industrial base. American shipbuilders would be able to exceed Japanese production and increase the Navy’s ship count across the board. The shipbuilding would come later. But first, the U.S. Navy needed a victory.

Victory would come in the sky—World War II in the Pacific would hinge on the maneuvering of aircraft carriers and the skill of the naval aviators. The Japanese carrier fleet, called the First Air Fleet, had five hundred aircraft with six large carriers and four light carriers. The Japanese had numerical superiority in carriers, and they had better aircraft. They considered the sailors serving on carriers as the elite of their navy. In 1941 and 1942, the Japanese Zero was the better fighter plane. Their Kate and Val torpedo and dive-bombers had longer ranges and greater payload capacities, although they were somewhat slower than the U.S. bombers. The Americans, on the other hand, had better pilots. The Americans spent the interwar period successfully training naval aviators.

Battle of the Coral Sea

The U.S. navy had three carriers in the Pacific: the Lexington, the Saratoga, and the Enterprise. The Yorktown and the Hornet would later transfer from the Atlantic fleet. Carrier warfare in 1942 was risky. It was difficult to land on carriers; there was no airborne or ship-borne guidance system. There was also no radar on the American ships at that time. The U.S. dive-bomber, called the Dauntless, was also used for reconnaissance. These planes were the eyes and ears of the fleet. Pilots and copilots had to find their way to the target with good vision, manual navigation, and luck. Naval aviators who were unable to link up with the carrier often ran their planes out of fuel and were forced to bail out. It was an exceedingly dangerous business. If the carrier changed course, the aircraft would have a difficult task in locating it again. And safely landing on the carrier was not an automatic exercise.

The Americans were fortunate to have cracked the Japanese diplomatic code. The Japanese were overconfident after their victory at Pearl Harbor, and they flashed and telegraphed their naval strategy, plans, and tactics with carelessness. This helped the U.S. Navy to get back in the fight. The first battle happened close to Port Moresby, near Australia in the Coral Sea. The Lexington and Yorktown were sent to block the Japanese invasion force. The Japanese had three carriers in the attacking group. It was the first carrier-on-carrier battle in modern warfare. The U.S. and Japanese were separated by 175 miles of ocean, but dive-bombers and torpedo bombers from both sides found the enemy’s carriers.

The fighting was fierce. The Japanese carrier Shokaku was badly damaged, and the Americans had already sunk the light carrier Shoho in a previous encounter. The Yorktown was slightly damaged, but the Lexington caught fire when its fuel line burst on the flight deck. The ship was abandoned before it sank. The Battle of the Coral Sea was important for the U.S. Navy. It stopped the Japanese navy in that part of the Pacific and gave the American sailors and aviators much valuable battle experience and confidence. The Yorktown sailed back to Pearl Harbor, and her damage was repaired in forty-five hours. She then steamed back to link up with the Enterprise and the Hornet.

Battle of Midway

In 1942, U.S. code-breakers had intercepted a new Japanese plan. The Imperial navy wanted to invade Midway, and the Japanese First Air Fleet was sent to do the job. The First Air Fleet had four carriers steaming to Midway with a total of 272 Japanese bombers and fighters. The Americans had three carriers with only 180 fighters and bombers. The U.S. navy also had aircraft on Midway Island itself—a group of Catalina amphibious flying boats and B-17 Flying Fortresses. The flying boats did an important job of reconnaissance, and one spotted the Japanese invasion fleet on June 3. This confirmed earlier intelligence, and the U.S. Navy would be in a good position to eventually defend Midway. However, the Americans garrisoned on Midway who were to defend against the Japanese attacking force were not as lucky. The Flying Fortresses and Catalinas tried to bomb the attacking Japanese vessels, but they were no match.

Aircraft from the American carriers attacked the Japanese four times, but they were unsuccessful. The Americans had luck on their side during the fifth attack. Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had planned to make a torpedo bomber attack of his own against the American carriers. However, the invading Midway force called for another bombing run against the Americans on Midway. Thus, Nagumo had his aircraft change from torpedoes to bombs. This took precious time. But he was still able—initially, at least—to repel the attacks from American torpedo bombers and dive-bombers.

There was one American bomber group that was able to get a clear shot at the Japanese carriers. One of the dive-bomber groups from the Enterprise had actually gotten lost. Thirty-seven Dauntless dive-bombers had flown 175 miles in the wrong direction. Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky was able to make corrections in their course, and by happenstance, the Americans stumbled upon the Japanese carrier group. The Americans had fat targets. All of the Japanese planes were refueling; bombs and torpedoes were on the flight deck. The Akagi caught fire and was abandoned. The Kaga was next. It was hit by four American dive-bombers. The Soryu suffered three hits, and it lost propulsion—this made it an easy target for an American submarine, which hit it later. The Hiryu got away temporarily, but dive-bombers from the Enterprise caught up with her. The bombs set her on fire, and the Japanese crew scuttled the ship.

The Japanese navy was put on the defensive. Their shipbuilders would add only six more carriers during the rest of the war. The Americans would build fourteen new heavy carriers, nine light carriers, and sixty-six escort carriers. It would be a defensive war now for the Japanese in the Pacific—one that would be costly for the Americans.


The Battle of Guadalcanal lasted for more than six months between August of 1942 and February of 1943. It involved land, air, and sea forces of the United States and Japan in a heated fight for control of the island of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. It was the first major victory of the Allied offensive in the Pacific during World War II.

Shift in Strategy

The Battle of Midway had allowed U.S. military planners to change their way of thinking. No longer were they licking their wounds. The Americans took a new posture—they intended to go on the offensive and attack the Japanese. Still, geography favored the Japanese. The Imperial navy and army stretched for thousands of miles of ocean and islands in the Pacific. The Americans would have a lengthy and costly campaign on their hands. They would need to win back territory island by island, capture or rebuild an airfield, and then use the new airfield to launch a new attack on the next island. The main objective would be Tokyo and the home islands of Japan, but these targets were 2,000 miles from the American fleet.

Admiral Ernest King, the chief of naval operations, and General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, decided to divide the responsibilities in the Pacific between two flag officers. The Pacific fleet would be led by Admiral Chester Nimitz and the army would be led by General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific area, with his headquarters in Australia. The Navy would devise the planning and logistics for the amphibious landings that were necessary for the island hopping strategy’s success.

That left the marines to fight on the ground and perform the most difficult part of the campaign. This would be particularly challenging because the marines were the smallest branch of service and had the smallest budget. To make matters more difficult, MacArthur was not popular with the navy admirals or marine generals. They saw him as a prima donna and glory-chaser. These personality conflicts made teamwork difficult in the Pacific.

Commanders of the Pacific forces finally reached a compromise. The Americans would take the southern route to attack Japan. The navy and marines would be commanded by Nimitz, although MacArthur would have some command of naval ships, naval and marine aircraft, naval logistics, and marines for certain missions in his sector. This arrangement, of course, was not popular with the navy and marines. MacArthur had inexplicably allowed his air force to be destroyed on the ground in the Philippines during the initial attacks by the Japanese in December 1941. He was warned that an attack was coming, but his planes stayed on the ground. Now he would be demanding navy and marine air support after he lost his own aircraft.

But the commanders from all the services agreed on the order of battle in the Pacific on July 2, 1942. The first task would be for Nimitz and the navy to attack and hold Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. The second task would go to MacArthur, who would lead his army into New Guinea and its offshore island of New Britain. After holding New Guinea, MacArthur would advance on the Japanese air base at Rabaul on New Britain and link up with Nimitz. The third task would then be a combined attack.

Taking Guadalcanal

The navy and marine corps drew a difficult mission with Guadalcanal. The difficulty again lay in the geography. Guadalcanal was surrounded by three other islands of the Solomons group held by the Japanese. Approach from New Zealand was the only avenue of advance to the island. This approach (“the Slot”) made getting ashore very risky and resupplying the beachhead would be difficult as well, because successfully dodging Japanese mines, submarines, and attacking aircraft while navigating the Slot would be necessary.

The amphibious landing on August 7, 1942, was not a problem. The First Marine Division established a beachhead on Guadalcanal, and it also made successful landings on the offshore islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo. The Japanese had only 2,200 troops on Guadalcanal, and they were quickly swept away by the marines. The Japanese high command reacted with alarm. They saw Guadalcanal as an important part of their key defenses and decided the island needed to be retaken at once. A large Japanese force descended on the Americans. The Japanese surprised the American fleet on August 8 and 9. They sunk four U.S. cruisers and damaged one cruiser and two destroyers.

Holding Guadalcanal

On August 18, the Japanese sent a marauding force back to Guadalcanal, and the reinforcements kept coming. The attackers were supported by naval gunfire and countless air attacks from Japanese fighters and bombers. The Americans had rebuilt and lengthened the original Japanese airfield and renamed it Henderson Field. The Japanese would not leave it alone, and waves of air attacks harassed the defenders on Henderson Field.

More naval battles would follow at Guadalcanal. The battle of the Eastern Solomons was a costly victory for the Americans, because the Enterprise was damaged. The Americans destroyed a Japanese carrier, cruiser, and destroyer as well as about sixty aircraft, while the Americans lost twenty aircraft. The land battles on Guadalcanal were especially fierce. The Americans were learning what it was like to engage an enemy that was willing to fight to the death without surrender. American marines and soldiers suffered from the extreme conditions of relentless heat and humidity. Malaria and dysentery were common. The fight in defense of Henderson Field occurred at what was soon called “Bloody Ridge.” Japanese destroyers, nicknamed the “Tokyo Express,” ran the Slot to resupply their own troops and nightly navy battles took place.

One of the major battles during this time period was the Battle of Cape Esperance, in which the Americans surprised and sank a small force of Japanese carriers. The Japanese repaid the Americans with their own victory at the Battle of Santa Cruz, southeast of Guadalcanal, on October 26. They sank the carrier Hornet and damaged the Enterprise. The Americans shot down one hundred Japanese planes and lost only fifty of their own, but the loss of the Hornet hurt the most.

The marines fought a lonely fight at Guadalcanal. Heavy rains in October grounded U.S. planes, and this prevented air support. Japanese Zeroes were able to fly and harass the Marines with endless strafing runs. The fight switched to a significant naval battle in November called the Battle of Guadalcanal—a duel between battleships. The newer American battleships were able to take hits from the Japanese and dish out their own punishment. The Japanese lost their flagship Hiei on November 12, and the Kirishima two nights later.

By the end of 1942, both sides were sick and weary. The Americans had built up their number of ships in the region and cut off Japanese supplies, which quickly sapped the strength of the remaining soldiers on the islands. The U.S. XIV Corps took control of operations on Guadalcanal, and by February had pushed the Japanese off the island.

Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942–February 1943) was, by some measures, the bloodiest battle in history. It pitted Germany against the Soviet Union in a fight for control of the Soviet city of Stalingrad. An estimated 1.5 million people died in the battle. Both sides fought ferociously, but the Soviets were finally able to claim victory.

Battle of Stalingrad The devastating battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the war, but it cost both the Germans and the Russians dearly. Here, the ground is covered in the Russian dead. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

Germany Looks East

German leader Adolf Hitler’s plan to occupy France and thus force Britain to sue for peace did not work out the way he envisioned. The Battle of Britain kept Hitler’s forces occupied too long. He was itching to get on with the main part of his master plan, which involved an invasion of Russia. Germany and Russia had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939, but this self-serving document did little to change the fact that the Fascists in Germany and the Communists in Russia despised each other ideologically. Each side actively sought to destabilize the other, and the Fascists and Communists even used the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s as a battleground for their conflict. However, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allowed Hitler to secure his eastern front from attack while fighting to the west. For Stalin, the pact gave him security from a two-front war (against Japan in the east and Germany to the west), and there was always the possibility that Russia would get to stay out of the conflict while Western and Central Europe destroyed one another.

While he signed the treaty, Hitler never really planned to adhere to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbnetrop pact. “Lebensraum,” Hitler’s belief in more “living space” for the German people, focused on the Soviet Union and the Slavic people. He wished to conquer the Soviet Union and turn it into an agrarian colony for Germany. The Nazis would then control all the natural and agricultural resources of Russia. The Slav resistance would be eliminated, and the Nazis would have the living space they needed to occupy that part of Europe and Asia.

Hitler first needed to conquer the Soviet Union, and this required opening up another front of the war. In the summer of 1942, the German attack began to the north, near Kursk, with the Thirteenth, Fortieth, and Twenty-First armies attacking into Voronezh. The main avenue of approach was the so-called “Don-Donetz Corridor.” This pocket was formed in the valley between the Donetz River to the west and the Don River to the east. On July 23, the Führer’s Directive Number 45 (also called Operation Brunswick) instructed Army Group A to destroy the Soviets beyond Rostov on the coast of the Sea of Azov. This would deny Soviet resupply and escape lines through the Black Sea.

The Sixth Army was assigned the main effort; it would then be augmented by the Fourth Panzer Army and would speed down the Don-Donetz Corridor and seize Stalingrad. Hitler saw Stalingrad as the decisive point. If he could quickly attack and hold Stalingrad, the Germans could break the Soviet will to fight. Army Group A would then be able to rush south toward the Caucasian oil fields. The Germans enjoyed early success with this plan. The Soviet defenders seemed to melt away. The summer weather was fair, and the Germans even stopped to bathe in the Don River.

By August 1942, the Stalingrad front around the western part of the city had formed. Kletskaya and Kachalinskaya, suburbs of Stalingrad, were surrounded. Soviet defenders of Kalach, located to the west of Stalingrad, had to fall back to the city. Stalingrad sat in the valley of the Don and Volga Rivers. If the Germans could hold Stalingrad, they effectively broke the Soviet lines of communication from the Caspian Sea in the south to the Bryansk front in the north. The main fighting moved into the center of the city during the last weeks of August. There was a strip of wooden buildings surrounded by factories that ran for nearly twenty miles along the west bank of the Volga River. Most of the heavy fighting was taking place there. That part of the central city was reduced to rubble during the coming weeks. The battle lines were drawn clearly around Stalingrad by the fall of 1942. Hitler looked for a quick way to end the siege of Stalingrad, but Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had other plans.

Battle of Stalingrad The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest in history. Here is a mass grave of Russian soldiers who died during the six-month battle. (c) The Print Collector/Alamy

Stalin Digs In

The Soviets wanted to attempt a daring counterattack. The plan was for the Soviet Sixty-second Army to destroy the Germans in the city while other Soviet troops attempted a flanking maneuver to envelop the Germans on the southern part of the Volga. However, the Soviets decided they needed every soldier to defend the city. Stalin had already rushed reinforcements and personally supervised the defense plans.

He ordered his troops to take “not a step backward.” Stalin monitored his generals closely to watch for any signs of morale loss or plans of retreat. The city was getting close to falling. The Germans had torched the wooden buildings in the city’s central business district. The Soviets were backing up against the Volga River—some lines were between four and ten miles away from the river. This line of defense was held by three divisions of the Sixty-second Army. The unit had sixty tanks, and its troops were skilled street fighters. However, the Germans moved three infantry divisions in one thrust—and four infantry and Panzer divisions in another—toward the street fighting from the north of the city along the Volga. It looked like the Soviets were doomed. The Germans aimed their artillery, and shells were soon falling close to the Soviet defenders.

The fight in Stalingrad was dirty and man-to-man. It was a platoon- and squad-level fight. The Germans and Soviets pounced on each other with rifle and pistol fire along with plenty of hand grenades. They used sewers as tunnels and crept along rooftops using chimneys and fire escapes to travel from building to building.

The Germans attempted one last breakthrough in mid-October. Five German infantry divisions and two tank divisions supported by some two thousand Luftwaffe sorties pushed the Soviets to the limit. They finally broke through at the Stalingrad Tractor Plant. But the advance slowed, and the front stabilized. The Soviets still held on to part of the tractor plant and part of the barricades factory. They lost the Red October Factory. The Soviets had reinforcements and hospitals to treat the wounded on the other side of the Volga, and they were able to ferry supplies, ammunition, and fresh troops to help relieve the defenders.

Perseverance Pays

Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian troops—German allies—were on the outskirts of the siege. The Soviets worked to break this fragile outer shell. Marshal G. K. Zhukov’s plan had two movements—one from the southwest and the city, and one from the Don River area, that consisted of three tank and eight infantry armies in total. By November 23, the pincers came together at Kalach on the Don River west of Stalingrad. The plan immediately started working. The Third and Fourth Romanian Armies were routed. The Fourth German Panzer Army was in retreat, and the Sixth Army was stuck inside Stalingrad. Stalin’s counterattack had come after all.

Now the weather and the elements were on the Soviet’s side. Winter was coming soon, and the Germans were not ready for it. They tried a change of commanders and brought in new reinforcements for a winter breakthrough attack, but this failed. The German allies from Italy, Hungary, and Romania lost their will to fight during the cruel winter of 1942–1943. The German forces finally surrendered on February 2, 1943. The Soviets took control of more than 100,000 German prisoners. The Germans had lost the entire Sixth Army—twenty-two divisions. It was the first Soviet victory of the war—its story would go down in history as an epic example of Soviet solidarity and bravery.

Battle of Normandy

The Battle of Normandy was the massive Allied invasion of France, popularly known as D-Day. It took months of planning and preparation, as the Allies knew that the Germans occupying France were fully expecting an attempted invasion, and they would have to fight hard to land troops successfully. On June 6, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower gave the command for the invasion to commence.

German Preparations

The Germans thought they were prepared for an Allied invasion of France. Their top two commanders, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, disagreed about what to expect. Rundstedt believed that coastal defenses were only effective to slow the enemy and that it was essential for troops to remain in reserve and wait to strike the enemy at the most opportune moment. Rommel believed less in reserves and more in massing maneuver elements at critical areas. Rommel, upon arrival from a post in northern Italy, immediately ordered more mines to be laid on the avenues of approach of an amphibious invasion and on obvious landing zones to defend against raids from airborne troops.

Rommel also found that his defending force was not mobile and was mainly made up of infantry and airborne infantry tied to their positions. There were forty-six of these divisions, which would total sixty when the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions were added—around 500,000 German troops. Rommel did not think that he had enough tanks. If he was forced to keep his few Panzers in reserve, he knew the Allies, with their multitudes of Sherman tanks, would eventually overwhelm his defenses. Air support would also be a problem for the Germans. The vaunted Luftwaffe was down to 300 aircraft in France. The Allies would have over 12,000 aircraft on D-Day. However, the Germans were very proud of their Atlantic Wall—the miles of entanglements and obstacles skirting the Normandy beaches. The material was taken from the old French Maginot Line (a system of fortifications along the French-German border). But this defensive fortification was not complete; Rundstedt was not much of a taskmaster, and the soldiers assigned to build the Atlantic Wall took their time.

D-Day French women greet Allied troops after the invasion of Northern France. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

Allied Groundwork

Operation Overlord was the code name for the cross-channel invasion of Normandy. The Allies had a plan that aimed to confuse the Germans as to where the landing would take place. The Allies hoped to make the Germans think the assault would take place in the Pas-de-Calais through the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel. German leader Adolf Hitler, strangely enough, thought part of the Allied attack could come from Norway, and he even had eleven divisions stationed there from 1944 until the end of the war. The Allied ruse was called Operation Fortitude, and it relied on broadcasting misinformation about the plans for Pas-de-Calais. Operation Fortitude cast U.S. General George Patton as the leader, since the Germans were more likely to believe that the fiery general would be in charge of an operation of this magnitude. Some of the German intelligence apparatus fell for the trick, but Hitler was not fooled. He knew that Normandy would be a good location for the landing, and in the spring of 1944, he told his subordinates to focus defense efforts in that area.

Rommel was still concerned about German armor. He thought it better to pick one beach and place at least one armored division there instead of keeping the whole force in reserve. If the gamble paid off, the Panzers could do a lot of damage to an amphibious landing. If the Panzers were placed badly, they could always recover and maneuver to get back into the fight. In contrast, Field Marshal von Rundstedt wanted to keep the tanks in reserve. Hitler settled the argument between the two generals and gave each three armored divisions with the instructions that Rundstedt would get Hitler’s personal approval before deploying the tanks. British General Bernard Montgomery, who had fought against Rommel frequently, thought Rommel would have total control of those tanks and would deploy them forward at Normandy. Fortunately for the Allies, Rommel did not get his way.

The Allies also had air superiority in France. This was not only important for the invasion itself, but also in the weeks and months leading up to that day. The Germans did not have the planes to do a very good reconnaissance across the English Channel. If they had, they would have known that the objective was Normandy because that was the only part of the channel deep enough for all those ships.

Operation Overlord code named the beaches of Normandy from west to east: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The naval part of Overlord was awesome—6,483 ships, including 4,000 landing craft, were to take part in the attack. Seven battleships, twenty-three cruisers, and 104 destroyers would provide naval gunfire to prep the landing zone. One thousand Dakota transport planes would deposit three airborne divisions in France—hundreds of other aircraft would haul the gliders filled with infantry, artillery men, and engineers. Thousands of Allied bombers would be escorted by 5,000 fighters while the bombers dropped 5,000 pounds of bombs on the German defenses near the beaches.

The Fight Begins

On June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord, or “D-Day” as it became known, began. More than 176,000 troops came ashore on five separate beaches on a sixty-mile stretch from Varreville to Caen. The invading troops faced mines, barbed wire, and pill boxes with machine guns and artillery. The battle on Omaha Beach was the bloodiest. There were only four paths from the beach, consisting of long and steep valleys. The Germans occupied fortified defensive positions along the entire beach. The weather was also the worst at Omaha. The troops were supposed to be supported by “floating” tanks upheld by floating canvas aprons known as “bloomers.” Twenty-seven of the thirty-two tanks did not float but sank to the bottom, killing their crews. The advancing infantry troops were cut to pieces by the Germans.

The three infantry divisions were scattered by the winds of the terrible weather on D-Day. The 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions had the most casualties, and it was difficult for them to succeed in their assigned tasks—to block the escape routes of retreating Germans.

There were difficulties throughout Normandy. The weather was terrible. The bombers and naval gunfire missed their targets. The underwater obstacles stopped or slowed the landing craft. Many soldiers were shot before they even got to the beach, and those who did make it ashore barely moved. But the leaders on the beach took over, grabbing their men and leading them up the beaches. Small groups started advancing as more troops landed on the sand. The destroyers crept close to the beaches and supplied naval gunfire to support the ground troops. The American Fifth Corps barely hung on at Omaha, but they carved out a small beachhead by that night.

The three British beaches—Gold, Juno, and Sword—were naturally protected by reefs. The British faced the same problems as the Americans and losses were heavy, but they repulsed a counterattack by the Twenty-first Panzer Division and were able to establish small beachheads. The Germans were not ready. Some of the officers, including Rommel, were not even in the area of operations during the attack. Rundstedt’s plan was to slow the Allies up at the beaches and then use the tanks to finish them off. But the German tanks were needed immediately and the defenders needed quick decisions from their command—neither need was met.

The transformation of the Normandy beaches from a killing zone to a modern harbor was an amazing feat of maritime engineering. Tugboats brought in what Churchill called “floating ports.” The British leader designed great concrete boxes that would be supported by a complex network of girders, beams, and plates to build a port in a matter of weeks. “Mulberry A,” the American port, was destroyed by a storm, but “Mulberry B,” the British port, survived. After ten days of prep work, all manner of Allied ships were transporting supplies and reinforcements to France. It was now up to the Allied ground troops to begin taking France back from the Germans.

Sidebar: HideShow

Teheran Conference

The “Big Three” Allied leaders—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin—realized that there would be a new world order after the war, and they knew it was time to make plans for postwar reconstruction and alignment. There would have to be some balance of power among the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. Stalin saw a chance for Communism to spread into areas where developing countries could throw off the yoke of British rule and then choose Communism as their form of government. The “Big Three” met in Teheran from November 28 to December 1, 1943, to begin planning the peace now in their sights.

The immediate issue was to achieve the peace. The Allies agreed to a massive, coordinated invasion of German-occupied Europe, which would begin in the spring of 1944. The plan was codenamed “Operation Overlord,” but it is more widely remembered as D-Day. They agreed that the invasion of France would need a supreme allied commander and that General Dwight Eisenhower should take that role.

The conference participants were also interested in protecting themselves, their allies, and their spheres of influence for the duration of the war and beyond. They agreed to support Turkey and Iran should they need it, but the issue of Poland’s fate was more complicated. There was a Polish government in exile in London. There were also thousands of Poles now hoping for a free, independent, and democratic country after the war. But Russia had been invaded via Poland many times throughout history. Stalin was not going to let the Western democracies encroach on Poland—he demanded that about the eastern one-third of the prewar Poland be annexed to the Soviet Union. Churchill and Roosevelt reluctantly agreed. The East-West divide that characterized the Cold War had thus begun.

Battle of the Bulge

The horribly bloody Battle of the Bulge pitted American and British forces against the Germans in the snow-covered Ardennes Forest starting in December 1944. The Germans “bulged” westward into Allied lines, with the aim of dividing then encircling the Allied armies. Although the Germans were ultimately unsuccessful, the battle cost the Allies dearly. The Americans suffered more than 80,000 casualties.

D-Day Statue of armed Greek orthodox monk at Crete war memorial. The people of Crete fought the Germans fiercely. (c) David Crossland/Alamy

Progress through Europe

After the breakthrough at Normandy on D-Day, the Allies gained momentum. The British were able to take Brussels on September 3, 1944, and the Allies captured Antwerp the next day. The rest of Belgium and Luxembourg was soon in Allied hands. However, there was a problem behind these triumphs: How to keep the advancing Allied armies supplied? The Allied air force had been so good at destroying the Nazi’s system of logistics, especially rail roads, that the fast-moving generals like Bernard Montgomery and George Patton had to depend on trucks and roads. This was a problem as winter approached. The taking of Antwerp was good news since it was the largest port in Europe. However, neither Patton nor Montgomery was pleased. They each thought the Allied advance should be on a narrower front and, of course, each general thought he alone should be getting all the food, fuel, and ammunition he requested.

Operation Autumn Mist

The Germans faced many problems after their failure at Normandy. German leader Adolf Hitler thought that the Allied advance was only temporary and that it was overextended. His answer was to counterattack, a folly that had been the undoing of German armies in the Soviet Union and North Africa. Hitler first wanted reinforcements and had his generals comb through the ranks to take any person from the rear to serve in newly formed divisions. Most of these new soldiers were young and inexperienced or old, sickly, and wounded. The plan was to recreate the blitzkrieg successes of 1940 with a winter attack through the Ardennes Forest to retake Antwerp. This surprise attack would be called Wacht am Rhein or “watch on the Rhine.” When the operation actually began, it was named Operation Autumn Mist. The operation included twenty-five fresh German divisions of 150,000 additional soldiers. They hoped that retaking Antwerp would allow V-2 rockets to be fired into London continually and it would allow the Germans to cut-off, encircle, and destroy the British Second and Canadian First Armies. Further attacks on the Americans would follow.

Winter in northern Europe was the worst time of year to fight; snow and ice made much of the forest impassable. The Ardennes Forest offered the Germans cover from the Allied Air Force; however, it was difficult to traverse the terrain. Most passages through the forest only allowed four tanks abreast to travel. It would be slow going. Although the Germans were able to refill old elite divisions such as the First, Second, Ninth, and Twelfth SS Panzer Divisions and the Second, Ninth, 116th, and Lehr Panzer Divisions, the new troops were far from elite. These were often rear-echelon soldiers with no combat experience; some had even been taken from Poland and Czechoslovakia. These troops did not speak German, and many actually wanted to be fighting for the Allies instead.

Autumn Mist was a good plan to achieve tactical surprise. The Americans certainly did not expect a winter attack through the Ardennes. They had only four divisions defending that area of operations—the Fourth, Twenty-eighth, and 106th Infantry Divisions plus the Ninth Armored Division. The Fourth and the Twenty-eighth were attempting to rest and refit after the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, where they had lost 9,000 troops. The 106th had never seen action, and the Ninth Armored was relatively inexperienced.

On the morning of December 16, 1944, Operation Autumn Mist began with the American Twenty-eighth Division caught on its heels. These soldiers did some damage to the attacking German Sixth and Fifth Panzer Armies, but the Americans quickly fell back. The 106th Division was surrounded.

The Germans managed to execute a plan called “Operation Greif,” that wreaked havoc behind Allied lines. The 150th Brigade was a German special operations unit whose 150 members spoke flawless English and wore American uniforms. They were sent to cause confusion behind American lines through sabotage and terrorism. As a result, the Germans were able to achieve tactical and strategic surprise, push through and widen a salient toward Antwerp, and reach American fuel dumps to resupply their own tanks. It was very close to an Allied disaster. German troops commanded by First Panzer Division Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper executed more than eighty American prisoners at Malmedy Road. The pocket of Germans in Allied territory created a “bulge” on the map, leading to the American name for the Ardennes operation: “Battle of the Bulge.”

“Nuts!” to Surrender

The American troops were able to hold their ground after the initial surprise. The Ninety-ninth and Second Divisions blocked the Sixth SS Panzer Army at the Monschau Forest and Eisenborn Ridge. The American Fourth Infantry held valiantly against the Fifth Panzer and German Seventh Army’s repeated attacks. The inexperienced Ninth Armored actually did a good job at holding St. Vith. The 101st Airborne Assault Division was surrounded in Bastogne, but the “Screaming Eagles” division (as the 101st is known) held out bravely. This siege of Bastogne is remembered for the famous words from the 101st’s commander in Bastogne, Brigadier General Tony McAuliffe: when handed a demand for surrender from the German commander, his reply was, “Nuts!”

Now it was the Germans who were overextended. Their wide axis of attack was divided at St. Vith and Bastogne. Montgomery brought two of his British divisions in support, but it was Patton who saved the day. Somehow, with only twenty-four hours of planning, Patton’s Third Army halted its current attack going from west to east in the southern part of France near Metz. Patton then turned his army to the north and raced up to Bastogne to relieve the beleaguered 101st Airborne.

The weather finally broke on December 23 and the clear skies enabled the Allied air force to cause extensive damage to the remaining German tanks. The next day, Patton’s Fourth Armored Division linked up with the 101st in Bastogne and made short work of the Germans there.

Despite its successful outcome, the Battle of the Bulge was a painful reminder to the Americans about the danger of being caught unprepared. Many of the Americans were still in their summer uniforms in December. The Germans were better prepared to fight in the cold and they were also able to hurt the Americans with the infiltrations of Operation Greif and its coordinated terrorist attacks behind friendly lines. The Americans were fortunate they had the personnel, spare parts, fuel, and equipment to prolong the fighting in December 1944. Without inspiring performances by many American units, the Battle of the Bulge could have been a disaster for the Allies.

Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought between October 23 and October 26, 1944, marked the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) as an effective fighting force and the beginning of U.S. naval superiority in the Pacific. A confused, running battle marked by missed opportunities on both sides, Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle of the war. It also marked the debut of the dreaded kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese fighter pilots.

Japanese Invasion of French Indochina A WWII Japanese tank is on display in the town of Kolonia, Pohnpei, in Micronesia. (c) Greg Vaughn/Alamy

Competing Strategies

By mid-1944, U.S. strategy in the Pacific was split along two possible routes of advance towards the Japanese home islands. General Douglas MacArthur, representing the army, lobbied hard for a return to the Japan-held Philippines, which he had been forced to abandon in 1942, and then an invasion of the island of Formosa (Taiwan). Ultimately, the navy plan under Admiral Chester Nimitz would win out, but in October 1944, the go-ahead was given to invade the Philippines.

The Japanese had meanwhile identified four axes along which the U.S. might advance and had prepared contingency plans for each one. Those “victory” plans called for committing nearly all available resources to a big push against the Americans in an effort to halt or reverse their advance.

When it became apparent that the Americans were targeting the Philippines, three Japanese task forces set sail. Their objective was to drive off the American navy and shell the landing beaches. A total of sixty-four warships, including the 64,000-ton super battleships Musashi and Yamato, made their way east towards the Philippine island of Leyte.

Opposing Fleets

The invasion of Leyte took place under the auspices of Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet, which boasted more than 700 vessels and 500 aircraft. Screening the landings was Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet, a carrier-heavy task force of 100 warships and more than 1,000 planes.

The Japanese fleet, in contrast, was forced to place its hopes entirely on its battleships and heavy cruisers. The “Marianas Turkey Shoot” of the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, as well as battles around Formosa, had severely depleted the carrier-based air power of the IJN. In fact, the only role the fleet’s carriers were to play in the upcoming battle was to serve as a decoy force meant to lure away Halsey’s Third Fleet.

Opening Battles

As the decoy carrier force steamed north, the main bulk of the Japanese fleet split into two groups for its approach to the Philippines. The objective was to circle around the island of Leyte from two directions, rendezvous, and attack the beaches, but it was not to be.

The larger of the two Japanese groups headed for the San Bernardino Strait on October 23 under the leadership of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita. Before passing through the strait, however, the fleet was spotted by two American submarines, which quickly managed to torpedo and sink two heavy cruisers and badly damage a third. Carrier planes from Halsey’s Third Fleet, alerted to the fleet’s approach, also swept in, and in five assaults managed to sink the Musashi and cripple another heavy cruiser.

Japanese land-based aircraft in turn sank the U.S. carrier Princeton, but the losses at sea were too much for Kurita, who turned back, thoroughly shaken. Taking his withdrawal for a retreat, the American forces disengaged. However, after regaining his composure later in the day, Kurita once again reversed course and headed back towards the San Bernardino Strait, now behind schedule for the rendezvous with the southern fleet.

The southern task force, under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura, consisted of the balance of the war fleet—two battleships, a heavy cruiser, and four destroyers—and would have an even worse time of it than Kurita’s fleet. Nishimura, along with a smaller following force under Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima, headed for the Surigao Strait on the southern end of Leyte, and Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet was waiting.

Kinkaid had set up a blocking force of battleships and cruisers stretching across the narrow strait and had deployed destroyers out ahead of his blockade along the flanks of the anticipated Japanese advance.

The two sides contacted each other around midnight on October 24. In the ensuing battle, Nishimura’s fleet was almost annihilated: Only a single badly damaged cruiser and a lone destroyer escaped the trap. The only American loss was a destroyer damaged by American shelling.

Shortly after Nishimura’s retreat, Shima’s task force also ran into the trap but managed to extricate itself with fewer losses. Nevertheless, pursuing forces sank a cruiser and destroyer. The southern strike had been stopped cold.

Final Clashes

Despite learning of the destruction of Nishimura’s fleet, Kurita, having reached the San Bernardino Strait, decided to press ahead on the morning of October 25. Halsey’s Third Fleet should have been waiting to stop him, but instead the American force was steaming north to intercept the dummy carrier fleet—Halsey had fallen for the Japanese deception. Despite the earlier losses, a real chance now existed for Kurita to break through to the landing beaches at Leyte Gulf.

All that stood in his way was a small screening force of Seventh Fleet escort carriers and light destroyers under Admiral Clifton Sprague. Over a fearsome two-hour battle, the tiny, unarmored American destroyers fought a desperate rear-guard action against the massive Japanese warships, covering the retreat of Sprague’s light escort carriers. The Japanese fleet’s attack was broken up by relentless torpedo attacks and raids from the carrier planes, many of which were not equipped to fight heavy cruisers and battleships.

Despite these valiant actions, things were looking bad for the Americans: one carrier and three destroyers had fallen victim to the massive Japanese guns. But it was at this point that Kurita suddenly called off the attack. The vice admiral was increasingly worried about the return of Halsey’s Third Fleet and felt that he had lost tactical control of the battle.

As Kurita retreated, Japanese airfields on Leyte launched the first-ever kamikaze attacks. These attacks, in which a pilot would sacrifice his own life by crashing his plane into an enemy ship, caught the Americans completely off guard, and another escort carrier was then sunk. After suffering such a mauling, pursuit of Kurita’s retreating fleet was not possible. Meanwhile, far to the north, Halsey’s Third Fleet had found and engaged the decoy carrier force and hurt it badly, sinking four carriers, a cruiser, and four destroyers.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the last major naval engagement of the war. The Imperial Japanese Navy, although not completely neutralized, had lost its effectiveness—never again would it attempt to oppose an American landing.

Iwo Jima American Marines raise the U.S. flag on the island of Iwo Jima. National Archives and Records Administration

The Battle of Okinawa

Although it was not expected to be, the Battle of Okinawa was the last major engagement of World War II. The fierce fighting that took place on that island over the course of nearly three months would raise fears of the tremendous costs that would be required in the anticipated assault on Japan and would inform the subsequent decision to employ atomic weapons in an effort to break Japanese resistance without a bloody invasion.

Okinawa Island was targeted for attack due to its strategic importance. Situated in Japan’s Ryukyu Island chain, an archipelago that stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan, the island, little more than 300 miles from Kyushu, was seen as an ideal staging point for an invasion of the home islands.

Opposing Forces

The commander of the invading Tenth Army, Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., was the son of a Confederate general and had distinguished himself as commander of the Alaska Defense Command earlier in the war. Bolivar’s command, code-named Operation Iceberg, consisted of two marine divisions and four army divisions and would be backed up by powerful American and British naval support.

The Japanese were commanded by General Mitsuru Ushijima, who could call upon one of the best-prepared and abundantly equipped Japanese defense forces of the war. Although the Japanese navy had been effectively neutralized, Ushijima could count on air support, including the dreaded kamikaze suicide corps. With 100,000 troops under his command, Ushijima adopted the strategy developed during the defense of Iwo Jima and ordered his men to construct underground fortresses connected by an extensive tunnel network.

Unlike Iwo Jima, Okinawa held a large civilian population that, as in most cases, would end up suffering the greatest losses, both in life and property. To make matters worse, the Okinawans had been convinced by wartime propaganda of the brutality of the invading Americans and were prepared to sacrifice their lives rather than surrender.

In the largest amphibious operation of the Pacific campaign, the Tenth Army came ashore on April 1, 1945. Ushijima’s strategy was to not try to fight the invasion on the beaches, so the occupation of the north side of the island was relatively easy, with all resistance ceasing in that sector by April 20.

The Battle on Land

It was as the marines and soldiers pushed south that they ran up against the first determined resistance—the “Shuri line,” named for the defensive lines anchored at the ancient Shuri Castle.

The fighting that ensued was slow and hellish. Every bunker became a strongpoint that could only be rooted out by using what General Buckner called “blowtorch and corkscrew” tactics. The brutal fighting quickly leveled buildings and reduced forests to fields of shattered tree stumps.

Holed up in their tunnels, the Japanese were not above sending Okinawan civilians out at gunpoint to collect water and provisions. Many of these civilians died in the “steel typhoon” that raged on the surface.

As April turned into May, and May came to a close, the seasonal monsoon rains arrived, turning the churned-up countryside into a muddy morass. In conditions reminiscent of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I, marines and soldiers pressed grimly forward. Shuri Castle was eventually taken in an assault by elements of the First Marine Division.

The Battle at Sea

Meanwhile, out at sea, Japanese air attacks had been wreaking havoc on Allied vessels. Over the course of the battle, 4,000 sorties, many of them kamikaze, were launched, sinking thirty-eight U.S. ships (and damaging another 368) and killing 4,900 personnel—the worst single-battle U.S. naval losses of the war.

Elsewhere at sea, the super battleship Yamato put to sea on a sort of kamikaze mission of its own: Its objective was to shell American positions on Okinawa until destroyed, but it had barely made its way out of Japanese home waters before it was caught by torpedo-bombers and sunk. It took eight bombs and thirteen torpedoes to bring down the world’s largest battleship; 3,000 of its crew went down with the ship. The sinking of the Yamato marked the final Japanese naval action of the war.

Casualties and Aftermath

After the fall of Shuri Castle, it took another month’s hard fighting to take Okinawa. By June 21, the island was declared secure. Three days earlier, General Buckner, the American commander, was killed by one of the last artillery shells fired in the battle. The Japanese commander, General Ushijima, committed ritual suicide (seppuku) as the last Japanese resistance crumbled.

Only 7,000 Japanese voluntarily surrendered out of the initial 100,000 defenders. The vast majority, 66,000, chose death over the “dishonor” of surrender. American casualties were more than twice those suffered at Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal—7,900 dead and 72,000 total casualties, including a record number due to combat stress.

The Okinawan civilians suffered the most: A full third of the island’s population, at least 140,000, were dead by the end of the battle, either caught in the crossfire or by their own hands. At least another third were wounded. It was a civilian loss rate comparable only to Stalingrad.

Surrender at Rheims

Between the beginning and the end of the Battle of Okinawa, the war’s global scale had shrunk considerably. The German surrender at Rheims on May 7, 1945, marked the cessation of hostilities between Germany and the Western Allies. The following day, known as V-E (“Victory in Europe”) Day, would see the capitulation of German forces in the east and the end to war in Europe.

Unconditional Surrender

The road to Rheims began two years earlier at the Casablanca Conference in Morocco, when President Franklin Roosevelt announced a new policy of accepting nothing less than unconditional surrender from the Axis powers. In other words, there could be no negotiated peace. The Axis nations had no choice but to allow the Allies to dictate terms. The rationale was that the fascist governments of Italy and Germany were in effect criminal administrations that had come to power illegally. The Allies, in refusing to deal with a “criminal” government, would delegitimize the fascist governments. This move, which demanded the complete surrender and dismantling of not only the military but also the sovereign government, was unprecedented in international law.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was meeting with Roosevelt at Casablanca to discuss war strategy, was caught off-guard with the announcement, but he quickly pledged his support despite his reservations—demanding unconditional surrender would in all likelihood stiffen Axis resistance, which is exactly what happened. Members of the German Underground, who had previously been working with the Allies to topple German leader Adolf Hitler’s regime, found themselves backed against a wall. Many chose to support their country, disregarding their reservations about who was leading it.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was likewise upset by the call for unconditional surrender. After all, the Germans hardly needed yet another incentive to devote every last ounce of blood and sweat to the defense of their homeland against the Soviets. In typical Stalinist fashion, however, the Soviets’ leader was able to turn the new policy to his own political advantage and soon threw his support behind it.

Although Italy did surrender unconditionally in 1943, the negotiations that preceded the surrender slowed the Allied advance and allowed German troops to move into the peninsula, turning Italy into a battleground.

Germany’s Collapse

By May of 1945, Germany was facing a similar fate. After the Allied invasion of France in 1944, the German army had been forced back across the Rhine by a slow and steady advance along a broad front in accordance with the strategy dictated by General Dwight Eisenhower. Allied and German attempts at delivering a “knockout blow,” during Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, respectively, had failed. As unglamorous as it was, Eisenhower’s strategy was winning the war.

With the crossing of the Rhine in early 1945, the Allies were able to trap 450,000 German troops in the “Ruhr Pocket.” During April, the Allies tightened the noose until, as the month came to a close, more than 300,000 of the surviving German troops surrendered together.

Elsewhere, the drive into Germany had continued. Americans liberated Bavaria, which they had feared would prove a stronghold of fanatical Nazi defense. Allied units pressed further into Germany, eventually meeting advancing Soviet units at the Elbe River. Germany had been cut in half.

Meanwhile, in a bunker in Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. In one of his last official communiqués, he named Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor, urging the architect of the U-boat campaigns to carry on the struggle. Dönitz instead wisely decided that the time had come to end the war—but not before saving as many Germans as possible from the vengeful Soviet hordes currently overrunning eastern Germany.

Dönitz’s Plan

Dönitz came up with a plan to arrange for the surrender of selected units in a staggered progression, keeping up a line of resistance in the east as long as possible while units further west surrendered, thus enabling troops and civilians to flee into the unoccupied territory of Schleswig-Holstein or across Western Allied lines. This ran contrary to Allied policy, which, under the auspices of unconditional surrender, demanded a simultaneous end to hostilities across the whole of the European theater.

Nevertheless, local units were able to arrange surrender terms with Allied commanders in Italy on May 2 and with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and the U.S. Sixth Army on May 5. It was only when General Eisenhower was approached by local commanders that Allied policy was put into practice and terms for total, unconditional surrender of all German forces were drawn up. Dönitz had not managed to buy as much time as he would have liked, but nonetheless about two million soldiers and civilians were able to find safety behind Western lines.

Surrender Terms

The terms signed at Rheims were straightforward. They called for a cessation of hostilities to take effect at 11:01 p.m. on May 8. They also forbade the scuttling of ships or sabotage of equipment. These provisos were put in place in response to calls from the Nazi propaganda machine encouraging Germans to resist the occupying armies and to form so-called Werewolf units, whose mission was to cause as much damage and mayhem as possible.

Although the surrender at Rheims only addressed military surrender, and included a provision that allowed for later peace treaties to supersede it, it is generally held to be the official end of the war, in part because what little political structure remained in Germany would soon cease to exist entirely.

Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki The B29 bomber codenamed Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 immediately. AP Images

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

After the German surrender in May, Japan was left with the Allies’ undivided attention. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place on August 6 and August 9, 1945, forced a Japanese surrender without costing the Allies a bloody invasion of the home islands. The two bombings, which remain the only nuclear attacks in history, ushered in a new age and permanently changed the nature of warfare, politics, and international diplomacy.

The roots of the atomic attacks stretched back to 1939, when a group of scientists, including the famed physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955), concerned that Germany was developing a program to build atomic weapons, approached President Franklin Roosevelt. Such weapons, the scientists argued, were a theoretical possibility, and the United States would do well to form an exploratory committee with an eye towards developing such technology before the Nazis did.

The Manhattan Project

Roosevelt took their advice, and the exploratory committee developed into the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government effort that funneled $2 billion into building an atomic weapon. Under the guidance of a brain trust of top physicists, the theoretical possibility was on the verge of becoming an atomic reality when President Roosevelt died in April 1945.

Newly sworn-in President Harry Truman was then told of the bomb and its destructive potential. He was further informed that the bomb would be ready in four months. As it turned out, Germany did not last that long, surrendering on May 8. With the intended target of the bomb now out of the war, the question of whether to use the weapon on Japan quickly arose.

The Potsdam Declaration

At the victorious Allies’ German Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Truman warned Japan to surrender immediately or face “utter devastation,” although he did not provide any further details. Meanwhile, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16.

August 1945 was the decisive month of the war in the Pacific. The Soviet Union, in accordance with agreements reached at Yalta, was gearing up to enter the war against Japan. Whether this factored into the American decision to use the atomic bomb is unknown.

What is certain is that the main reason for using the bomb was the goal of a quick surrender of Japan, which would eliminate the need for an invasion of the home islands. Such an invasion was set to begin in November. After the bloodbath on Okinawa, the prospect of fighting two million determined Japanese defending their homeland, backed by 5,000 or more kamikaze fighters, motivated the Americans to avoid an action that would likely result in millions of deaths and total Japanese casualties in the tens of millions.

Several options for demonstrating the bomb’s capabilities in a non-lethal way—detonating it in front of a panel of international observers or dropping it into Tokyo Bay—were dismissed because a detonation failure would only strengthen Japanese resolve.

Truman authorized the use of the bomb in early August. A target committee had selected several cities that were both military and psychological targets, and from this list the city of Hiroshima, an important military-industrial center, emerged as the primary target, in part because it was the only city on the list without a POW camp.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In the early morning hours of August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay took off from its base on Tinian with an escort of two other bombers carrying instrumentation and photography equipment. By 08:15 a.m., the bombers were over Hiroshima and the bomb was released. The blast, equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT, created a fireball that reached 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit and killed around 70,000 people instantly. Outside the one-mile blast radius, fires quickly began to spread, eventually burning down four square miles of the city.

On August 8, as authorities in Tokyo began to slowly appreciate what had just happened, the Soviet Union entered the war, invading Manchuria and scything through the Japanese Kwangtung Army stationed there. The following day, ahead of a predicted weeklong period of bad weather, a second bomb was hurriedly dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The second blast was somewhat contained by the hills around the epicenter; at least 40,000 people were killed outright, including some survivors of the Hiroshima blast who had fled that city three days before.

Japanese Surrender

The Japanese government, which had been making conditional peace overtures through Moscow, agreed to a near-unconditional surrender at the behest of Emperor Hirohito. The only condition the Japanese now insisted on was the preservation of the Imperial line. This was agreed to and Hirohito made a radio address on August 14—after a militarist coup attempted to stop the broadcast—announcing Japan’s capitulation and asking his disbelieving subjects to “endure the unendurable.”

The relative roles that the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion played in the Japanese decision to surrender have been a source of endless debate. Even Japanese officials, in postwar interviews, seemed to give conflicting assessments. Regardless of the effectiveness of the atomic attacks, the suffering they unleashed cannot be denied.

In the confused hours after the attack on Hiroshima, Radio Tokyo supplied some of the first accounts of the aftermath of the bombing:

With the gradual restoration of order following the disastrous ruin that struck the city of Hiroshima in the wake of the enemy’s new-type bomb on Monday morning, the authorities are still unable to obtain a definite checkup on the extent of the casualties sustained by the civilian population. Medical relief agencies that were rushed from neighboring districts were unable to distinguish, much less identify, the dead from the injured. The impact of the bomb was so terrific that practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure engendered by the blast. All the dead and injured were burned beyond recognition. With houses and buildings crushed, including the emergency medical facilities, the authorities are having their hands full in giving every available relief under the circumstances. The effect of the bomb was widespread. Those outdoors burned to death while those indoors were killed by the indescribable pressure and heat.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Aircraft Carriers

Ever since the launch of the HMS Dreadnought in the first decade of the twentieth century, conventional naval military thinking had given the heavily-armed and -armored battleship pride of place in fleet operations. The battles of the Pacific theater during World War II would bring an end to this line of thinking, along with the age of battleships. The age of the aircraft carrier had arrived.

Aircraft Carriers The US Navy carrier Yorktown landing her planes. (c) Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Carrier Development

The aircraft carrier had not been expected to revolutionize warfare. The first carrier was developed in 1910 and was further refined during World War I, but it was seen as a supplemental vessel whose role was to protect the battleships and cruisers of the fleet in the air, much like the destroyer did on the sea. The carrier’s true potential could not be fully realized until the advent of sufficiently powerful carrier-based airplanes in the late 1930s allowed an increase in range and striking power, just in time for the Second World War.

The new vessels were relatively light and maneuverable, their main defense lying in the airplanes they carried onboard. The basic carrier design was immediately distinctive: a large, raised, flat deck from which the airplanes could take off and land, and an assembly of flight control towers off to one side. The interior of the carriers was devoted to hangars for the planes, which accessed the flight deck via an elevator, and storage for munitions, fuel, and maintenance for the aircraft. In effect, every carrier was a floating bomb, loaded down with a great deal of potentially explosive material while being lightly armored.

Three countries—the United States, Great Britain, and Japan—were primarily responsible for carrier research and development during the interwar years. In 1921, the Washington Naval Conference limited the construction of capital ships among the three nations. The United States converted its two ongoing ship-building projects to carriers: the Yorktown and Lexington. Both ships would go on to serve in the Pacific during World War II.

The Carrier in World War II

Once that conflict got under way, the offensive capabilities of the aircraft carrier quickly became apparent. Carrier-launched British torpedo planes seriously damaged three Italian battleships during a raid on the Taranto naval base in the Mediterranean. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the sinking of the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse that same month saw Japan unleash its carrier-based aircraft upon the United States and Britain, respectively.

Aircraft carriers quickly became the capital ships of the United States fleet, particularly after the 1942 victories of Coral Sea (during which the Lexington was lost) and Midway, which saw the sinking of four Japanese carriers by American carrier-launched dive bombers. These were the first naval engagements in history in which the opposing ships never sighted each other; the aircraft carrier vastly expanded the range over which a fleet could project its influence.

World War II Carriers and Their Planes

Tactics changed accordingly as new carrier types were developed. In addition to the U.S. fleet carriers, the Essex-class carrier introduced fast carriers to the fleet while the escort class carriers, adapted from merchant hulls, provided vital anti-submarine protection, particularly in the Atlantic. Although small, slow, and outfitted with only just under thirty planes, escort carriers sunk thirty-three U-boats and contributed to the sinking of twelve more, putting an effective end to the scourge of German submarine attacks.

The aircraft that served aboard every class of carrier were a developing technology in their own right. Carrier aircraft, which had only relatively recently undergone a transformation from old-fashioned fabric-skinned biplanes to more modern monoplanes, fell into three broad categories: fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. At the outset of World War II, the American carrier air fleet was hopelessly outclassed by their Japanese counterparts. This deficiency was quickly made up, however, as engine horsepower doubled and speeds rose commensurately. With the introduction of the F6F Grumman Hellcat, kill ratios rose from 7:1 to 19:1. By war’s end, the Hellcat would be responsible for 75 percent of all naval aircraft kills.

The Carrier’s Legacy

The largest clash of carriers in history took place in June 1944 during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which Japan lost three carriers and almost all of its remaining carrier-based pilots. By that point in the war, the United States had gained a decisive lead in carrier manufacture and deployment. Admirals with histories in advocating the use of carriers in offensive operations, such as Chester Nimitz, had replaced the more battleship-oriented admirals and were instrumental in the ultimate victory of the Pacific “island hopping” campaign.

By the end of the war, there were ninety-nine carriers in the U.S. Navy. For over two decades following World War II, the carrier remained the premiere capital ship of the major powers’ navies, allowing force projection across the globe, particularly after the development of nuclear-powered vessels.

Kamikaze Pilots Japanese Kamikaze pilot tying on the honorary ribbons worn on a suicide misson. The Gamma Liaison Network/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The kamikaze, or “divine wind,” attacks of the Second World War stand as some of the most well-known facets of the war in the Pacific Theater. Turning their airplanes into flying missiles, desperate Japanese pilots flew straight into Allied ships, intending to sell their lives dearly by damaging or sinking the targeted ship. The kamikaze attacks of the last year of the war did indeed manage to damage or destroy many vessels, but the affect they had on Allied morale was perhaps even greater. Of the many indications of the fanatical level of Japanese resistance, kamikaze attacks were the most visible and most discouraging, truly a sign of a military and a country ready to sacrifice anything in its defense.

The advent of kamikaze tactics was not met with universal approval within the Japanese military, however. Many high ranking officers thought it a terrible waste of trained men and resources, but early successes overrode such objections. The pilots who would fly these new suicide missions were an all-volunteer force. They were likened to falling cherry blossoms, dying in the emperor’s name, and were promised eternal glory and a posthumous promotion.

The First Attacks

The tokkotai (“Special Attack Force”), the proper name for kamikaze pilots, first struck on October 26, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The objective was nothing less than the sinking of the Allied carrier fleet, thus enabling conventional attacks on the ships conducting a seaborne invasion of the Philippines. Although these first attacks fell short of that lofty goal, they did inflict considerable damage, hitting over forty ships and sinking five, including the carrier USS St. Lo.

Even during these earliest attacks, which came as a complete surprise to Allied sailors, the chances of a successful strike were low. The Japanese air fleet had been severely reduced by late 1944, and its planes were hopelessly outclassed by the latest generation of American carrier planes. Coupled with the fact that many kamikaze pilots were inexperienced, these suicide runs would often fall victim to Allied air patrols well before reaching their target fleets. Even when a plane managed to make it past the fighter screen, it still had to deal with the virtual wall of flak (anti-aircraft artillery) that the fleet’s ships were capable of sending up in defense. Nevertheless, enough planes were getting through to cause concern among Allied fleet commanders as the plans for the invasion of Okinawa got under way. Their concerns would prove well-founded.

Operation Heaven

The most intense phase of kamikaze warfare would come during the Battle of Okinawa. As American forces slugged it out on land against implacable foes, the supporting fleet offshore had to contend with a relentless series of Japanese raids, both conventional and suicidal.

On April 6, 1945, “Operation Heaven Number 1” opened up with a mass wave attack against American combat air patrols over Okinawa. As the fighters engaged in a dogfight over the island, a squadron of seventy-eight kamikaze planes hurtled towards the Allied fleet. Only four made it through the dense screen of flak, but later in the afternoon the main wave of 210 suicide planes struck. Over half made it through, including a detachment of over two dozen Ohka rocket planes piloted by the “Thunder Gods” squadron. These specially-built planes, perhaps inspired by the German V-1 missile, were purpose built, human-guided anti-ship missiles carried and launched from mounts underneath conventional bombers. Although these “baka bombs” (the American nickname for the weapons, baka meaning “idiotic” in Japanese) had been used before, April 6 was to be their most successful day in terms of the number of ships struck.

Over the next three days, hundreds more kamikaze and Ohka attacks were launched against the Allied fleet. Within a week, the Allied fleet had lost nine ships destroyed and seventy-eight damaged. Even worse was the effect on the morale of the ships’ crews, who were beginning to feel the strain of standing at Alert status for twenty-four hours a day against a suicidal enemy. In addition to the ship losses, the carrier-based aircraft had suffered notable losses with the result that increasing numbers of attacks were getting through.

Nevertheless, effective countermeasures were being developed. Anti-aircraft gun crews learned to fire at the water ahead of the low-flying kamikaze planes, kicking up enough spray to swamp the planes’ engines. The planes themselves, under pressure from fighter escorts, often attacked the first ships they saw with the result that only a minority of the attacking planes penetrated the perimeter of destroyers that ringed the carrier fleet. As the battle on Okinawa gradually turned in favor of the Americans, the attacks began to slacken.

The last major strikes of the Okinawa kamikaze offensive were on the carriers USS Bunker Hill, which was struck and severely damaged on May 11, and the USS Enterprise, which had taken the Bunker Hill’s flag on board and was struck the next day by the lone survivor of a twenty-eight–plane raid.


The kamikaze and Thunder Gods units were gradually withdrawn to the Japanese home islands in preparation for the expected Allied invasion. The invasion never came, however, and the kamikaze was never again used in the mass numbers seen during the Okinawa campaign.

By war’s end, over 2,800 planes and pilots had been sacrificed in the name of the Emperor in exchange for (according to official U.S. Air Force sources) thirty-four ships sunk, 368 damaged, and nearly 10,000 casualties, including 4,900 dead. The success rate of kamikaze attacks was estimated at 14 percent of attacking planes hitting their targets, with 8.5 percent of those ships struck actually sinking.

Atom Bomb The “Fat Man” atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. (c) Popperfoto/Alamy

The Atomic Bomb

On August 6, 1945, at 8:45 a.m. (local time), the first atomic bomb used in warfare exploded over the city of Hiroshima, Japan, instantly incinerating about seventy thousand people. A second bomb would be dropped three days later over Nagasaki, killing a further forty thousand. Untold thousands more would die in the days, weeks, and months following. Within a week of the Nagasaki attack, Japan had offered its surrender, and the United States found itself in sole possession of a weapon unlike any seen before.

Europe’s “Brain Drain”

The development of the atomic bomb began before the United States had even entered the Second World War. Beginning with the discovery of the neutron in 1932 and throughout the remainder of the decade, a significant amount of research had been conducted into the possibility of splitting a uranium nucleus, thereby releasing large amounts of energy. Most of the researchers did their work in countries that were quickly falling under Fascist influence (Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Austria), and a large number of these researchers decided to flee their homelands for friendlier havens. Enrico Fermi, for example, left his native Italy for the United States by way of a journey to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Prize.

These scientists, fueled by fears that the Nazis would develop the latest advances in atom splitting into an atomic bomb, found a worryingly complacent scientific community abroad. Leo Szilard, a recent arrival from Nazi-dominated Hungary, organized an effort to convince none other than Albert Einstein to write a letter addressed directly to President Franklin Roosevelt. Einstein consented, and the letter, which warned of Germany’s head start on atomic research and the need for the United States to build such a weapon first, was delivered in October 1939.

American Research Efforts

Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed by the letter to set aside six thousand dollars for initial research into the feasibility of such a project, resulting in the creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium. The committee accomplished little, however, and as the war in Europe turned increasingly in Germany’s favor, the urgency of atomic research became increasingly apparent to many in the scientific community.

With the creation of the National Defense Research Council in June 1940, and the Office of Scientific Research and Development in June 1941, government funding and the pace of research both increased. By 1941, leading scientists working on the project were convinced an atomic bomb could be built. One study estimated that, at a cost of 100 million dollars, a fission bomb could be built in three to four years. The time estimate would prove accurate, the cost projection would not—in the end, the total cost of development of the first atomic bombs was well in excess of two billion dollars.

The theory underlying the atomic bomb was fairly simple: experiments had shown that a neutron, when fired into the nucleus of a uranium atom, could split the nucleus into two isotopes, releasing a relatively large amount of energy in the process. It was soon realized that, if the neutrons released in the process of this nuclear fragmentation were to strike other uranium nuclei, a chain reaction could be set off wherein each fragmenting nucleus in turn fragments still more nuclei, releasing ever increasing amounts of energy. The potential energy release was calculated to promise a weapon “of superlatively destructive powers” in the words of one report.

The first controlled nuclear fission reaction was carried out in Chicago on December 2, 1942 by Enrico Fermi and his team. Their “atomic pile,” a massive construct of graphite and uranium weighing nearly five hundred tons, would allow scientists to study the process of nuclear fission and would also produce the isotope plutonium-239, a second, more easily fissionable isotope. The race to build the atomic bomb was well under way.

The Development of the Atomic Bomb

The final phase of the atomic bomb project is known popularly as the “Manhattan Project,” thanks to the code name of the super-secret research project: the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers. The goal of the project, under the guidance of General Leslie Groves, was to produce workable atomic weapons as soon as possible. To further this end, three “secret cities” were constructed. The first, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was devoted to the construction of the world’s first nuclear reactor and uranium enrichment facilities. The second, at Hanford, Washington, was devoted to plutonium enrichment. The third and most famous, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, became the home base for the design and development of the first atomic bomb under the guidance of scientist Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer’s team worked tirelessly, eventually producing two bomb designs. The six-foot-long, five-ton “Little Boy” bomb was a uranium-235 bomb that fired a uranium bullet into three uranium rings, setting off a chain reaction in the process, which would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima. The spheroid, three-ton “Fat Man” utilized a plutonium core about the size of an orange to achieve its fission reaction and was ultimately destined for Nagasaki. As these bombs were being constructed in the summer of 1945, preparations were made to test the technology in the desert south of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The “Trinity” test site saw the first-ever atomic bomb detonation, which occurred on Friday, July 13, at 5:30 a.m. The small device produced a massive fireball that quickly developed into the soon-to-be-infamous mushroom cloud, which proceeded to rise nearly ten miles over the surrounding countryside. The power unleashed was the equivalent of nineteen thousand tons of TNT, nearly four times the expected amount. The technology was judged ready to make its debut in war.

Impact of World War II

World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a worldwide military action that split the majority of the globe’s countries into opposing Allied or Axis powers. During the war, German leader Adolf Hitler exterminated between nine and eleven million political, social, and racial minorities in concentration camps. Six million were European Jews. Throughout the course of the war, sixty million people died, half of which were Soviet citizens. World War II also saw the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as ordered by United States President Harry S. Truman. These were the only two incidents of nuclear attack in the history of warfare, but their use in World War II would go on to influence world foreign policy from that point forward.

Jet Fighters With so many men serving in the military during World War II, many women took war effort jobs on the homefront in industries previously considered inappropriate for women. National Archives and Records Administration

After the Allied powers emerged victorious, the United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers, which eventually led to a decades-long Cold War between them. The fear of the spread of communism resulted in a worldwide Red Scare and the legitimacy of anti-communist thought, while the rise of independence movements in Asia and Africa made decolonization an important postwar consideration. The destruction of Europe would finally lead to the end of European imperialism. On the other hand, the United States and the Soviet Union became occupiers of South and North Korea respectively. The division of Korea as a result of World War II led to the Korean War and the ongoing tension between the two sides.

Beyond the obvious political, geographic, and economic repercussions, World War II’s vast devastation impacted a generation of victims. Countless books, films, and works of art came about as a result of the conflict. Books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Slaughterhouse-Five, for instance, continue to influence readers. World War II landmarks and memorials exist all around the world to honor those who fought and died in the conflict.

The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as rival superpowers after World War II has significantly impacted world history. The detonation of two nuclear bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the war contributed to the importance of the rivalry. The bombing proved that the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons until the Soviet Union developed their own in 1949. The resulting Cold War—a 45-year-long rivalry that involved espionage, military coalitions, the space race, the nuclear arms race, and several proxy wars—influenced foreign policy around the globe. By the end of 1947, the majority of democratic governments in Eastern Europe had been replaced by communist “people’s democracies,” which led to the fear of international Soviet expansion and the spread of its ideology. Soon, the democratic nations of the world were in the throes of the anti-communist crusade known as the Red Scare. In the United States, the Red Scare led to anti-communist legislation, the large-scale deportation of immigrants suspected of being communists, and the active involvement of the attorney general’s office and the FBI in locating subversives. On a much larger scale, the Cold War led to the Korean War, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Another significant historical event following World War II was the rise of independence movements in Asia and Africa. The common goal of decolonization was realized in a relatively short amount of time after British, French, and other European nations were devastated by the war. World War II drained them of the energy and resources needed to continue fighting to keep Indian and African colonial nations subservient. In the case of India, whose independence movement was led by Mahatma Ghandi and the Indian National Congress (INC), Britain relinquished control on August 15, 1947. Buoyed by the success of the INC, Africans began dreaming of a society free of European control. African decolonization began in earnest after 1945, but gained momentum between 1954 and 1970. By the mid-1970s, only scattered vestiges of colonial territories remained on the continent.

Sidebar: HideShow

Independence Movements in Africa

In Cold War parlance, the “third world” referred to Asia, Africa, and Latin America—countries that were thought to lack the literacy, national cohesiveness, and economic power necessary to make liberal democracies work. “First world” countries, commonly referred to as the West, were capitalist, industrialized nations, while “second world” countries, commonly referred to as the East, were Communist industrialized nations. Because the world after 1945 was dominated by the first and second worlds—the liberal-democratic, capitalist world led by the United States, and the Communist-socialist world led by the Soviet Union—third world countries struggling for liberal independence had to ally themselves with one or the other.

Decolonization in Africa was one of the most significant turning developments of the postwar world. The success of the independence movement in India in 1948 gave Africans a reason to dream of a society free of European control. At that time, only Egypt, Liberia, and Ethiopia were independent nations. African decolonization began in earnest after 1945, but gained momentum between 1954 and 1970. By the mid-1970s, only scattered vestiges of colonial territories remained.

Although every occupied African country shared the common goal of decolonization, each country went about achieving that goal in very different ways. One way, the way India found to be so successful, was to find a peaceful way to shake off colonial rule, and then allow the West to assist in setting up new states based on the Western model. African countries that chose this way were assured the West’s economic, military, and bureaucratic support. Another way was to decolonize by carrying out wars of national liberation. These wars were usually funded by Communists, which meant that the new state that emerged would be directed by Soviet or Chinese allies.

The Decolonization of Africa

By the end of World War II, Britain had lost the resources and the will to run an empire. At the same time, African nationalists were growing increasingly adamant in their demands for self-rule. The problem was that neither group knew how or when to dismantle the colonial machine. Beginning in West Africa, African nationalists took charge of events by putting their weight behind the independence movement. The leaders of these movements formed organizations, held elections, and negotiated new constitutions. Britain had largely relinquished its holdings on the continent between the late 1950s and late 1960s, and France withdrew from most of its holdings around 1960. By the mid-1970s, most of today’s African nations were free from colonial governments, although they were hardly at peace. Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union distorted politics in Africa for much of the late twentieth century.

European settlers in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) wanted to cut ties with Britain and Portugal, but still maintain white minority rule, which excluded the African population. For their support of capitalism, a Western ideal, the white governments of South Africa and Rhodesia found their human rights violations tolerated by the international community. Angola and Mozambique, on the other hand, found financial and military support from the Soviet Union for their campaigns for independence from European interference. At different times in the 1960s and 1970s, Guinea-Bissau, Congo, Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Benin received some form of support from the Soviet Union, but none remained under communist influence.



Buell, Hal, ed. World War II: A Complete Photographic History. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.

Dupuy, Ernest. World War II: A Compact History. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969.

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Katz, Solomon H., ed. “Rationing.” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York.: Penguin Books, 1989.

Kimball, Warren. The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Kutler, Stanley I., ed. “Manhattan Project.” Dictionary of American History, vol. 5, 3rd ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

———. “Office of Price Administration.” Dictionary of American History. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

———. “Truman Doctrine.” Dictionary of American History. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

McNeill, William, Jerry Bentley, and David Christian, eds. “Revolution, China.” Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, vol. 4. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire, 2005.

———. “Revolutions, Communist.” Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, vol. 4. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire, 2005.

Merriman, John, and Jay Winter, eds. “Eastern Bloc.” Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.

———. “Soviet Union.” Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, vol. 4. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.

Miller, Donald. The Story of World War II. New York.: Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995.

Purdue, A.W. The Second World War.. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Resch, John, ed. “Manhattan Project.” Americans at War, vol. 3: 1901–1945. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

———. “Marshall Plan.” Americans at War, vol. 4. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

———. “Truman Doctrine.” Americans at War, vol. 4. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

———. “Manhattan Project.” Americans at War, vol. 3: 1901–1945. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

Rommel, Erwin. Attacks. Provo, UT: Athena Press, 1979. Originally published in 1935.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3048700057