World War II was a war fought from 1939 to 1945 in Europe, and from at least 1937 to 1945 in Asia. It was the largest armed conflict the world has ever seen, spanning the entire world and involving more countries than any previous war - and fought with powerful new weapons, culminating in the first aggressive use of two atomic bombs, whose very existence had been a tightly-held secret.
The conflict ravaged civilians more than had any previous wars of the modern era, and served as a backdrop for genocidal killings by Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan. World War II caused a greater number of deaths, about 61 million, than any previous war.
Increasingly Detailed Overview
The origins of the war in Europe can be traced to the end of World War I. In the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was punished with the payment of reparations of war to the victorious nations. This, among other causes, led to a serious economic crisis, hyperinflation, and civil unrest that made possible the rise of the National Socialist(Nazi) Party. See also The Origins and Commencement of World War II.
Germany, under Adolf Hitler, began re-asserting itself in Europe, clandestinely remilitarising in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936 the German army reoccupied the Rhineland. Germany annexed Austria in the spring of 1938, then seized first the (largely Germanic) Sudetenland area in western Czechoslovakia, then the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Britain had guaranteed the security of Czechoslovakia and it seemed war must break out at this point when the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich, and, in an act of appeasement, signed papers acceding to the invasion.
It should be remembered that the rapidly rearming Germany had militarily stolen a march on Britain, which was completely unprepared for war at this time. Chamberlain's act of appeasement, which has been widely criticised since as a cowardly submission, was explained by Chamberlain as an effort to buy time in which to rearm. Germany finally became engaged in full-scale war on September 1, 1939 as a consequence of the invasion of Poland, with whom both Britain and France had pledged guarantees.
Shortly thereafter on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, as had been agreed to between Hitler's Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov. Under this joint attack Poland fell quickly. Germany on the one hand, and France and Britain on the other, settled into a period of quiet maneuvering while they mobilized for conflict. This relatively non-confrontational period between the major powers lasted until May, 1940, and was known as the Phony War. Several other countries, however, were drawn into the conflict at this time. The USSR conquered the Baltic, and also attacked Finland but fought it to a stalemate in the Winter War. Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, ostensibly as a defensive maneuver against potential British occupation of those countries.
Germany finally ended the Phony War when it turned west. In a sweeping invasion of the Low Countries that bypassed French fortifications along the Maginot Line, Germany conquered Belgium and the Netherlands, and then turned the might of its army on France. France fell unexpectedly quickly, leaving Britain to stand alone against Germany. Fortunately for Britain, much of its ground forces escaped capture in the final days of that campaign through a heroic naval rescue from the French harbor of Dunkirk.
Britain's resistance to the threat of German invasion was dogged. An outnumbered RAF fought a prolonged and ultimately successful airwar with the Luftwaffe during the early days of the war, a conflict known as the /Battle of Britain. /London was later heavily bombed, as were many industrial cities such as /Birmingham and /Coventry, and strategically important cities, such as the naval base at Plymouth. In reprisal for the bombing of Lubeck in 1942, Hermann Goering launched the Baedeker Blitz, a campaign of morale-destroying bombings aimed at many beautiful English cities of little military importance such as Exeter, Bath and Norwich. Britain's supply lines with America were severely impacted by the German use of U-boats to sink both military and mercantile shipping in the /Battle of the Atlantic.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans launched a surprise invasion, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, against their erstwhile Russian allies. The German Army pushed deep into Russia, overrunning the Red Army at times. However, with the capture of Moscow apparently imminent, Hitler suddenly ordered his generals to divert their main thrust southward in order to conquer the Ukraine. This diversion cost the German Army valuable time; by the time they once again set their sites on Moscow, the armored assault was slowed by the autumn mud, and then stopped cold when the Russian winter struck. The German army, which had not expected such a prolonged campaign, suffered great loss of life as the chilling winds and lack of planning took their toll.
The next spring the German army continued to push forward, and in November 1942, with the German army at the "gates of Stalingrad", Moscow only 100 miles away, and the oil fields of Grozny in reach, the Red Army held strong. Factors such as indecision by Hitler, dissent amongst the higher ranked German officers, a long distance to their supplies and a second Russian winter, combined to result in a prolonged battle in the streets of Stalingrad. Heavy losses affected both sides in the battle for Stalingrad, also known as the greatest military bloodbath in recorded history. An estimated 2 million people perished in this battle, including 500,000 civilians. It was the first significant defeat of the German army, and they never regained their momentum, allowing the Russian armies to eventually chase the Germans all the way back to Berlin.
The Germans also suffered defeat at the hands of the British in North Africa in late 1942. In the battle of El Alamein in late October and early November, the British under General Montgomery successfully pushed the Germans out of Egypt, westward towards Tunisia. After American troops landed in Algeria, the Allies completely pushed the Germans out of Africa in 1943.
Japan had invaded China in the early 1930s and had been actively engaged in military action there since 1937. In an effort to discourage Japan's war efforts in China, the United States either threatened to, or did, stop traiding oil and steel (both very necessary to wage war) with Japan. Japan percieved this as an act of aggression, and on December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy attacked the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan then invaded and conquered countries across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. At the same time Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America into a two theater war. America had until then remained out of the conflict, though providing military aid to Britain through the Lend-Lease program.
Germany's power was eventually broken by the disastrous Russian campaign, while the ultimately successful invasion of France from the Normandy beachheads by the Western allies on June 6, 1944 opened up a second front. Incessant bombing of Germany's infrastructure and cities caused great casualties and disruption. Internally, Hitler survived a number of assassination attempts, one of which was that made by the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris.
When all was lost, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker along with his lover, Eva Braun. The Russians took Berlin, and Germany was partitioned by the Allies. The final surrender documents were signed by General Alfred Jodl on May 7, 1945. May 8 was declared V-E (Victory In Europe) Day.
The Japanese expansion throughout the Pacific and Asia was halted by their devastating defeat at the Battle of Midway, where they suffered crippling losses to their carrier fleet. From then on the Japanese fought a defensive war, as the U.S. began an island hopping campaign across the Pacific. Hard-fought battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties on both sides, but the Japanese were finally driven back. Faced with the loss of most of their experienced pilots, the Japanese resorted to Kamikaze tactics in an attempt to slow the U.S. advance. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other Japanese cities suffered greatly from attacks by American bombers. Japan finally surrendered after the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both industrial and civilian targets, were destroyed by atomic bombs . The final surrender was signed September 2, 1945, on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.
Probably because of the example of World War I, compensation was not demanded of the defeated nations. On the contrary, a plan created by U. S. Secretary of State George Marshall, the Economic Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, meant billions of dollars being used by the US Congress for the reconstruction of Europe. The portion of Europe occupied by the Soviet Union did not participate in the plan.
At the same time, the United States consolidated its military presence and links in Europe as preparation against possible Soviet aggression.
The combatants after 1941 were:
Minor Allied powers
- Poland -- History of Poland -- History of Poland -- World War II 1939-1945
Minor Axis Powers
World War II ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers.
Major battles of World War Two
- /Dunkerque "Dynamo"
- /Normandy or /D Day
- /El Alamein
- /Arnhem "Market Garden"
- /Monte Cassino
- /Battle of the Bulge
- /Battle of Britain
- Battle of Peleliu
- /Iwo Jima
- /The Battle of Crete
Major naval engagements of World War Two
- The Battle of the River Plate
- /Battle of Midway
- Pearl Harbor
- /Battle of the Atlantic
- /Leyte Gulf
Major figures of World War Two
- Dwight Eisenhower
- Douglas MacArthur
- Chester Nimitz
- George Patton
- Franklin Roosevelt
- Harry Truman
- Winston Churchill
- Neville Chamberlain
- George Marshall
- Bernard Montgomery
- Benito Mussolini
- Charles DeGaulle
- Adolf Hitler
- Hermann Goering
- Heinrich Himmler
- Karl Doenitz
- Chiang Kai-Shek
- Joseph Stalin
- Viachislav Molotov
- Hideki Tojo
- Isuroku Yamamoto
- [[Alan Brooke]
- Lord Alexander
Major bombing campaigns of World War Two