World War II is the most extensive and costly war in the history of the world, involving most of the world's nations, being fought simultaneously in several major theaters, and costing approximately 50 million lives.
The war was fought mainly between an alliance of the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Britain (known as the Allies), and the Axis Powers, an alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan. Most of the fighting occurred in the European theater in and around Europe, and in the Asian theater in the Pacific and East Asia.
The origins of World War 2 lay in three different conflicts which merged after 1941: Germany's desire for European expansion; Japan's struggle against China; and a resulting conflict between Japanese ambitions and US interests in the Pacific.
In Germany, resentment at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) had been politically exploited by Adolf Hitler, leader of the intensely nationalistic and anti-Semitic National Socialist (Nazi) Party, to bring him control of Germany. After his occupation of Austria (Mar 1938) and invasion of Czechoslovakia (Mar 1939), Britain and France pledged support to Poland.
Hitler, having secured a surprising German--Soviet Non-aggression Pact with Joseph Stalin, was encouraged by the previous reluctance of other European powers to oppose him, particularly Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement and the USA's isolationism, and felt safe in invading Poland. This he began on 1 September. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, but could not prevent Poland being overrun in four weeks. (The commander of the Polish Nowogrodek Cavalry, Wladyslaw Anders, found himself fighting both Soviet and German forces.) Canada declared war on Germany within a week of Britain, and played a vital role in supplying Britain with raw materials, food and manufactured goods, and money. Throughout the war, Canada provided over 1 million men in armed service. Australia was also prompt to declare war on Germany, despite the huge losses suffered during World War 1 (60 000 died, and 165 000 were seriously wounded). Australian troops served most conspicuously in North Africa and the Pacific, suffering in the course of the war c.30 000 dead and c.65 000 injured.
Following a six-month period of "phoney war', when little fighting took place, the Germans occupied Norway and Denmark (Apr 1940), followed by a lightning campaign (Blitzkrieg) through The Netherlands and Belgium, and into France. The German forces, commanded by Karl von Rundstedt, comprising tanks supported by air power, largely bypassed the much vaunted defensive Maginot Line which had been relied upon so heavily by the new French premier and former minister for war, Henri P�tain. With the French collapse, P�tain immediately sought terms from the Germans. Three-fifths of France came under German occupation, while the remainder became a neutral state, L'Etat Francais, under the collaborative governments of P�tain and later Pierre Laval (1942), based in Vichy. French resistance to the occupation was thereafter directed from London by Charles de Gaulle. Another consequence of the German offensive was the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk (May--Jun). During this period, Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister (10 May 1940) and began his inspired direction of Britain's war effort.
Then followed the Battle of Britain (Aug--Sep 1940) during which the Luftwaffe, German air force, engaged the greatly outnumbered Royal Air Force, augmented as it was by Polish pilots. That the RAF had not been depleted by a costly reinforcement of France was largely due to Hugh Dowding, the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, who had insisted on the retention of his force at home. Defeat of the RAF had been a prerequisite of the planned German invasion of Britain (Operation Sealion) but the hard-won RAF victory in the Battle of Britain gave the lie to Herman Goering's boast that he would sweep the RAF from the skies in four days. The Luftwaffe had been tactically outmanoevred by the British, but victory was also due to the superior design of Reginald Mitchell's Spitfire, improvements in radar, and the work of the code-crackers, Alan Turing and others in Bletchley Park, deciphering enemy codes. The German invasion was postponed indefinitely.
The battle in the air did not stop, of course. With the introduction of Ray Chadwick's four-engined Lancaster bomber (Mar 1942), the most effective night bomber of the war, Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, was able to launch air attack upon air attack. One of the most famous is the breach of M�hne and Eder dams (16--17 May 1943), on the Ruhr and Weser river basins, by 617 squadron. They flew Lancasters, and dropped the specially built bouncing bomb, designed by Barnes Wallis.
In the pre-war period of German rearmament, the naval commander-in-chief, Erich Raeder, had built up a powerful fleet, especially of fast cruisers and submarines, or U-boats. These were put to effective use, under the direction of Karl D�nitz, from the beginning of the war, harassing shipping and forcing the extension of vital British naval convoy supply routes. The success of U-boat operations in the Battle of the Atlantic was sustained until April 1943, when improvements in both airborne radar and maritime aircraft ranges helped the RAF Coastal Command, under William Sholto Douglas, to begin reversing the odds. Nevertheless, U-boats continued to inflict significant casualties on Allied shipping throughout the remainder of the war.
Early British success by Archibald Wavell against Germany's Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, in North Africa was reversed when the British forces, weakened by the need to reinforce Greece against imminent German invasion, were driven back to the Egyptian border by the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel. In July 1941 Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell and mounted an unsuccessful desert campaign which resulted in his troops being withdrawn to El Alamein (Jun--Jul 1942). Auchinleck was replaced by Harold Alexander, with Bernard Montgomery as his 8th Army commander. Montgomery's success against Rommel in the second engagement of the Battle of Alamein (23 Oct--6 Nov 1942) marked a turning point in the war. From then on, the British 8th Army and American troops under Dwight D Eisenhower orchestrated a series of Allied victories over the following three years, eventually ejecting German and Italian forces from North Africa by mid-1943, and invading first Sicily and then Italy. Italy made a separate peace on 3 September 1943 and, under its new leader, Pietro Badoglio, declared war on Germany. This gave the Allies new bases in the S from which to invade Europe.
On 22 June 1941, the German invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) began. Hitler attacked his former Russian ally, Joseph Stalin, and made a three-pronged advance over a broad front. In the N, the siege of Leningrad began on 4 September 1941; in the C, Fedor von Bock moved towards Moscow; and in the S, von Rundstedt reached the R Volga. After spectacular early successes, the Germans met fierce resistance, and became immobilized by the heavy winter snow and Arctic temperatures, for which they were totally unprepared. They fell to a heroic Russian counter-offensive to save Moscow, led by Georgi Zhukov, and supported by generals Ivan Konev and Temyon Timoshenko. Since the Germans failed to capture either Moscow or Leningrad (though the siege of Leningrad continued), Hitler decided to concentrate on a major drive SE towards the Caucasus to seize the Russian oil fields. The Germans reached Stalingrad at the end of August 1942. The Russians, refusing to surrender, battled on against the odds for 5 bitter months, and on 2 February 1943 the German commander, Friedrich von Paulus, surrendered to Zhukov with about 100 000 men. The Russians followed up with counter-attacks, forcing the Germans to abandon the 21/2-year siege of Leningrad (Jan 1944), during which about a third of its population had died from starvation and disease. The Germans were finally driven out of Russia in August 1944.
On D-Day, 6 June 1944, Allied forces, under the supreme command of General Dwight D Eisenhower, with Arthur Tedder as his deputy and Montgomery as his field commander, launched a second front through a major amphibious landing (Operation Overlord) on von Rundstedt and Rommel in Normandy, France, from Britain. Further Allied landings were made in the S of France, and Hitler's grip on Western Europe was loosened. On 25 August, Charles de Gaulle made a triumphal entry into Paris, which had been relieved by Jacques Le Clerc, while the Allies continued their advance towards Germany, led by (among others) Montgomery, George Patton, and Omar Bradley. Having overcome a final ambitious but abortive German counter-offensive by von Rundstedt in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, Allied forces linked up with the steadily advancing Russians along the R Elbe (28 Apr 1945). On 30 April, with Berlin surrounded by Russian troops, Hitler committed suicide, leaving his successor, Karl D�nitz, to arrange for the unconditional surrender of Germany at Reims on 7 May 1945.
In the Far East, Japanese territorial ambitions led to her taking advantage of the earlier events in Europe. On 7 December 1941, Isoroku Yamamoto directed a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and other US and British bases in the Pacific, thus initiating a truly world war. Up until this point, the USA had followed a policy of non-intervention through a popular desire in the country not to go to war in Europe again. Only such an attack could have won the day for the interventionists. The US declaration of war on Japan the following day was followed by German and Italian declarations of war on the USA (11 Dec). By this, Hitler had forced the most unlikely alliance of Stalin and the US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Within four months, Japan controlled SE Asia and Burma. Not until June 1942 did Allied forces, commanded on land by Douglas MacArthur and at sea by Chester Nimitz, stem the Japanese advance. By a series of "island hops', MacArthur eventually gained control of the Philippine archipelago (Jul 1945), while at sea Nimitz won the decisive Battle of Midway (3--4 Jun 1942), paving the way for the eventual defeat of the Japanese at Leyte Gulf (Oct 1944).
The Japanese occupation of Burma lasted from April 1942--May 1945. In February 1943 Wavell, who had become commander-in-chief in SE Asia following his dismissal from the Middle East, had formed a long-range penetration group. Control of this passed to Orde Wingate. The success of this group, the Chindits, signalled the slow upturn in Allied fortunes. By July 1944, the Japanese were in retreat, being driven from Imphal and Kohima by William Slim's British forces, and from N Burma by US and Chinese troops under Frank Merril and Joe Stilwell.
With the Japanese still fighting a bitter rearguard action, the USA dropped two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima (6 Aug) and Nagasaki (9 Aug), forcing Japan's unconditional surrender on 14 August 1945.
World War 2 was one of the first major instances of total war. Total war meant that the tacticians waged war on national morale as well as armies. Erich Ludendorff wrote a book called Die Totale Krieg (1935, Total War) about his experience directing the German war effort during World War 1. It was a highly influential work, and German bombing raids by day and night devastated London, Sheffield, and other civilian centres in Britain. The Allies raided Dresden (14--15 Feb 1945), fire-bombing intensively and destroying, almost beyond repair, one of Europe's most beautiful cities for little military gain. Between 35 000--135 000 people were killed in this action.
As the war in Europe drew to a close in 1945, the advancing Allies encountered and liberated the concentration camps, in which Hitler's forces had killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, Poles, and Slavs. In his desire for racial purity, Hitler had also instructed the killing of homosexuals and mentally disabled people in specialized "hospitals'. The full death toll is not known, but it is thought that c.6 million Jews and c.5 million others were killed in German camps. (The figure may be closer to c.20 million in total if Stalin's contribution is taken into account.) The means of murder had been crude to begin with, usually entailing gassing the victims in trucks with carbon monoxide. Methods rapidly became more sophisticated through a variety of technological adaptations (eg gas chambers and huge furnaces) resulting in a highly efficient murder machine.
Under the presidency of Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, these crimes, and others of the notorious SS, were addressed in the Nurnberg Trials (1945--6). It took 216 court sessions to convict 22 of the 24 indicted, among them, Albert Speer, Alfred Jodl, and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler committed suicide before they could be brought to trial. Martin Bormann was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by hanging, along with 11 others, including von Ribbentrop, Jodl, Robert Ley, and Goering. Ley and Goering committed suicide in prison. Rudolf Hess, D�nitz, and five others were sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau Prison, Berlin. The search continues to bring the guilty to justice by people such as Simon Wiesenthal. Among his successes, he traced Adolf Eichmann, and Karl Silberbauer (who arrested Anne Frank), and trials continue - as evidenced by Israel's acquittal in 1993 of John Demjanjuk in the ongoing pursuit of him as the notorious concentration camp sadist "Ivan the Terrible'.
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