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Over a three year period international tension began to mount due to the Spanish Civil War, the German and Austrian Anschluss (union), the occupation of the Sudetenland and invasion of Czechoslovakia by Hitler. All of these events culminated in the German invasion of Poland on 1st September.
This immediately prompted Britain and France to declare war on German two days later. The Battle of the Atlantic began between German U-Boats and British naval convoys. The U.S.A. declared itself neutral but continued to supply Britain with essential goods.
During this period the whole of Britain had prepared for war even though there were few signs of conflict. Children and vulnerable adults who had been evacuated from London when war was declared, began to drift back into the city. This quiet time in Western Europe was called ‘the phoney war’. Still, gas masks were issued and Britain waited expectantly for the proper war to begin.
It was not so quiet in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where the war had began in earnest. Russia and Germany had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in late August after which Russia followed Germany into Poland in September. With this joint invasion Poland was destroyed before the end of the year. Russia continued this aggressive assault by going on to invade Finland.
….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, ….
Winston Churchill 4th June 1940
Early in 1940 rationing was introduced in Britain. Not much happened in Western Europe until March when the ‘winter war’ between Russia and Finland ended with the surrender of 16,000 square miles of territory to the Soviet Union. By April, Denmark and Norway had been invaded by Germany.
Denmark surrendered to the Germans immediately. The Norwegians, assisted by Britain and France, carried on fighting, but by June they too had surrendered once events in France left them fighting alone.
Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in the United Kingdom on 10th May. Also on that day France, Belgium and Holland were invaded by Germany and Western Europe began to suffer the Blitzkrieg or ‘lightning war’. Germany had the superior air force and also fast armoured tanks on land which made them powerful, organised and effective. Even though the Holland, Belgium and France had more air and army personnel and the support of the British Expeditionary Force, they were still no match against the strength of the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. By the end of May, Holland and Belgium had fallen and Paris was captured just two weeks later.
This invasion caused a mass retreat by British and French troops. 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops had to be rescued from the channel port of Dunkirk. This was achieved by the effort of a variety of vessels from small pleasure boats to Navy destroyers.
France signed an armistice with Germany and the WW1 hero Marshall Petain became the leader of the ‘puppet’ French Vichy government. He was to control the ‘unoccupied’ part of southern and eastern France while Germany controlled the rest of the country.
The leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, fled to England and continued the fight against Hitler there. It looked as if this would be a short fight. After conquering France, Hitler set his sights on Britain and began preparations to invade. To gain air supremacy and be successful in his attempt he instructed the Luftwaffe to destroy British air power and coastal defences.
From July to September the Battle of Britain continued and was fought only in the air. Germany had many pilots but fewer planes, whereas in Britain the opposite was true. Britain also had radar in their favour. Germany also decided to change from attacking airfields and factories to the major British cities instead. This allowed the RAF a narrow victory, maintaining air supremacy and postponing indefinitely Germany’s plans to invade.
Britain’s cities continued to be ‘blitzed’ throughout the war. London was bombed and the city of Coventry was almost totally destroyed and 40,000 civilian lives were lost.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Winston Churchill 20th August 1940
While continental Europe was controlled by the Nazi’s and Britain was safe, the war became more widespread. After Mussolini’s armies were defeated in Greece and Tobruk, German forces invaded North Africa in February and Greece and Yugoslavia in April.
British and German cities continued to be bombed and the gas chambers at Auschwitz were used.
Hitler invaded Russia. The invasion began on 22nd June and was named Operation Barbrossa. Sebastopol fell at the end of October and by the end of the year Moscow was under attack.
The Germans found the bitterly cold Russian winter difficult to cope with, as had Napoleon a century before.The Soviets counterattacked in December but nothing happened on the Eastern Front until spring.
Elsewhere in the Pacific on 7th December the Japanese tired of American trade embargoes, launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The war was now worldwide after Germany declared war on the United States on America a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Within a week of this happening Japan had invaded the Philippines, Burma and Hong Kong. This marked the beginning of the Pacific War.
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.
In January the first American Troops arrived in England, which was not to everyone’s liking, ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps began a counter-attack in North Africa and captured Tobruk in June.
In England and Germany the bombing increased. Britain launched the first 1000-bomber air-raid on Cologne and Germany continued to bomb British Cathedral cities.
In the Pacific, the Japanese moved further into Borneo, Java and Sumatra. Singapore, thought to be a safe and secure fortress fell quickly in February. Around 25.000 prisoners were taken to Japanese Prisoner of War Camps, where many died in the following years.
The turning point in the Pacific War came in June at the peak of Japanese expansion. In the Battle of Midway United States sea-based aircraft destroyed four Japanese carriers and a cruiser.
German supremacy weakened in the second half of the year. Montgomery led British Forces to victory at El Alamein, in North Africa and Russian Troops fought back at Stalingrad.
After news of mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazis reached the Allies, the United States pledged to avenge these crimes.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
By February Hitler’s armies suffered their first major defeat when Germany surrendered at Stalingrad. Elsewhere in the Atlantic the battle continued and in March 27 merchant ships were sunk by German U-boats, all in the space of days.
However, by the end of May, Admiral Karl Dönitz had withdrawn the German fleet from the battleground in the Atlantic. The code-breakers of Bletchley and long-range aircraft had combined to inflict severe damage on the German U-boats.
German and Italian forces in North Africa had surrendered to the Allies by the middle of May. By July the Allies had invaded Sicily using Tunisia as a way in.
Mussolini had fallen by the end of the month and in September the Italian Army had surrendered to the Allies. This action forced a German invasion into Northern Italy. After a daring rescue by a German Task Force, led by Otto Skorzey, Mussolini set up a fascist republic in the north. German troops were also fighting the Allies in the south of Italy, making their journey through the country expensive and slow.
At Guadalcanal in the Pacific, the Japanese were overcome by the U.S. Forces. At the same time a guerrilla campaign was established by British and Indian troops in Burma. American progress continued in the Aleutian Islands, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
German cities were bombed by the Allies in huge daylight air raids. The Russian advance on the Eastern Front increased and Kharkov and Kiev were recaptured from Germany. The long discussed and often postponed opening of the Second Front in Europe was finally being prepared for the following year.
If you're going through hell, keep going.
After advancing into Burma, New Guinea and Guam, Japan began its last attack in China and captured more areas in the south to add to land already taken in the north and central areas in 1938. However, their control was limited to major cities and lines of communication, and resistance – often led by the Communists- was widespread.
In January the Allies landed at Anzio, in Central Italy. The two forces were equally matched and in February the Germans counter-attacked which resulted in the bombing of the medieval monastery at Monte Casino by the Allies. The Germans did not retreat from Anzio until the end of May. Rome was freed in June, one day before the D-Day landing by the Allies, also known as ‘Operation Overlord’.
Operation Overlord continued and on the 6th June 6,500 vessels landed over 130,000 Allied forces on five Normandy beaches, codenamed: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
12,000 Allied aircraft bombed German defences and ensured air superiority and provided cover. Massive Allied casualties had been predicted, but this did not happen. 23,000 troops landed on Utah beach with 197 casualties. On Omaha beach the Allied troops met with strong German resistance, which made landing much more difficult and resulted in 4,964 American casualties.
The Germans were caught off guard by the landings which meant they did not have the time or power to counter-attack. Anything German or moving was liable to be attacked from the air.
Allied progress was slowed in the weeks following the landings by the narrow lanes and the thick hedgerows of the French countryside. Still, by the end of June Cherbourg was liberated, followed by Paris two months later.
Things worsened for Hitler when the Russians counter-attacked in June. This stretched 300 miles west to Warsaw resulted in the killing, wounding or capture of 35,000 German soldiers. The Russians had captured Bucharest by the end of August. Within months Estonia was taken and by the end of the year Budapest was under siege.
In December Germany had some success in the Ardennes, France when they launched a counter-offensive, named the Battle of the Bulge, which killed 19,000 Americans and delaying the Allies’ march into Germany.
….everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan!
Winston Churchill June 6th 1944
The concentration camp at Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets in the New Year. This revealed the loathsome scale of the horrors of the Holocaust, which increased as more camps were liberated over the following months.
In March, coming from the west the Allies created a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen whilst the Soviet Army continued its offensive from the east.
German V1 and V2 rockets continued to drop on London even after the bombing of the Blitz ended. A misguided bombing raid on Dresden destroyed the city in a devastating firestorm.
The Russians and Western Allies each wanted to be first into Berlin. The Russians won and were in the capital by 21st April. Mussolini was captured on the 28th by Italian partisans and subsequently hanged. On the 30th Hitler committed suicide. May 7th saw the unconditional surrender of Germany and the next day was celebrated as Victory in Europe (V.E.) Day. War was now over in Europe.
All through this time the war in the Pacific continued to rage. In February Iwo Jima was invaded by American while Britain had advanced further into Burma. Invasion of Okinawa and the Philippines followed resulting in the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China.
An Allied invasion of Japan was being planned but many feared this would result in heavy casualties and strong resistance. Instead, after the death of Roosevelt in April, Harry Truman, the new American President, agreed to the use of an atomic bomb against Japan.
On 6th August one of these bombs, which had been in development since 1942, was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Another was dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th. The Japanese surrendered on 14th August.
……if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.
Winston Churchill June 18th 1940
During the six years of the war 50 million people were killed: 15 million soldiers, 20 million Russian civilians, 6 million Jews and over 4 million Poles.
“These are not dark days: these are great days - the greatest days our country has ever lived.”