A Short History of the Second World War

By Tim Lambert


On 1 September 1939, the German army invaded Poland. So began the Second World War. At that time the USA was the most powerful country in the world but it was resolutely neutral. The USSR was the second most powerful industrial nation but Stalin, its leader, had made a nonaggression pact with Hitler. Still, on 3 September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany but they could do little to help the Poles.

In 1939 a section of Germany called East Prussia was detached from the rest of the country. It was separated from the rest of Germany by a strip of Polish territory called the Polish Corridor. A column of German forces drove south from East Prussia while 3 more columns drove east from the main part of Germany. The Poles fought valiantly but they were poorly equipped and were no match for the Germans. Worse on 17 September 1939, the Russians invaded Poland from the east. That sealed the Pole’s fate. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September and all resistance ended on 5 October 1939.

Further east despite his preparations for a war with Germany Stalin demanded that the Finns surrender some of their territories. The Finns refused so on 30 November 1939 the Russians bombed Helsinki and invaded Finland. The Finns fought back and inflicted heavy losses on the Russians. However, the Russians were bound to win because of their overwhelming numbers. By February 1940 Stalin had sent vast numbers of men to the Karelian Isthmus, which was defended by the Mannerheim Line. Finally, on 13 March 1940, the Finns were forced to surrender. Finland had lost 68,000 men.

On 9 April 1940, the Germans invaded Norway. They occupied Denmark without resistance. However, on 10 and 13 April, the British sank 10 German destroyers and on 16 April British forces landed in central and northern Norway. (By then the Germans had seized the south). However, the Germans advanced and the British withdrew from central Norway. However, further north British, French, and Norwegian troops were successful. On 28 May 1940, they captured Narvik. However, by then the battle for France was desperate, and Allied troops had to be evacuated from Norway on 7-8 June 1940. During the evacuation, the Germans sank the British aircraft carrier Glorious and 2 destroyers.

On 10 May 1940, the Germans invaded two more countries, Holland and Belgium. French and British forces rushed into Belgium to meet them. However, they were driving into a trap. German panzer tanks advanced through the forest called the Ardennes in Southeast Belgium behind the Allied forces. On 20 May 1940, the Germans reached the sea at Abbeville. On 24 May they reached Boulogne and on 26 May 1940 Calais. The allied forces in Belgium would now have to be evacuated by sea.

The German tanks could have reached Dunkirk before the British however on 26 May 1940 Hitler ordered the advance to halt for two days. It is not clear why he did that. Perhaps he was afraid the advance was going too far too fast and might be cut off. He also seems to have thought the Luftwaffe could finish off the British.

He was wrong. From 28 May to 4 June 1940 some Allied troops were evacuated by the sea in ‘Operation Dynamo’. Yet the men had to leave most of their equipment behind and not all of them got away. Some 40,000 French men were captured. Although the evacuation through Dunkirk was a great achievement it was also a great military defeat. Winston Churchill had become prime minister of Britain on 10 May 1940 and he wisely warned that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’.

Meanwhile, the Germans began the conquest of France. They began a new offensive on 5 June 1940. They captured Paris on 14 June 1940 and France capitulated on 21 June. So far the Germans had been amazingly successful. They had overrun Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France.

The Battle of Britain then began. Hitler realized he must gain air superiority in order to invade Britain. So attacks by the Luftwaffe on Channel ports and shipping began on 12 July 1940. British Fighter Command was ably led by Air Chief Marshal Dowding. He had approximately 200 spitfires and 400 hurricanes. He also had radar, which British scientists had invented in the 1930s and which gave an early warning. As well as British pilots in the RAF there were French, Czech, Polish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, Dutch, and Belgian pilots. There were also American volunteer pilots.

On 12 August German bombers, escorted by fighters bombed British airfields. However, on 24/25 August 1940 German bombers attempted to bomb Rochester. They got lost and bombed London instead. In retaliation the British bombed Berlin. Infuriated Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to concentrate on bombing London. That proved to be a mistake as it relieved the pressure on airfields. From 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed London and other British cities but the result was indecisive. On 17 September 1940 Hitler postponed his planned invasion of Britain. The Germans had lost the Battle of Britain.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, more than 40,000 British civilians were killed by German bombing. Especially hard hit were London, Coventry, and ports such as Plymouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth. However German bombing raids did not seriously affect British industry and they failed to dent morale.

Meanwhile, on 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France. By then France was defeated and Mussolini, the Italian dictator, hoped Britain soon would be. Like a vulture, Mussolini hoped for a share in Germany’s victory. However, it was not to be. Italy proved to be a burden on Germany rather than a help. Italy controlled Libya while Britain held Egypt. On 13 September 1940, Italian forces in Libya invaded Egypt. They reached Sidi Barrani before their supplies ran out.

Then on 28 October 1940, Italy invaded Greece. However, the Greek army counterattacked on 14 November and the Italian invasion failed. Meanwhile, on 11 November 1940 torpedo bombers took from the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto. They sank or disabled 3 Italian battleships.

Then on 9 December 1940, the British counterattacked the Italians in Egypt at Sidi Barrani. The British advanced with amazing speed with only slight losses. They captured Tobruk in Libya on 22 January 1941. On 5 February 1941, they captured Beda Fomm but they then had to halt as their lines of communication were very long, and supplying their army was difficult. Nevertheless, the British had captured 130,000 Italians, 400 tanks, and 130 guns.

However, Hitler decided he must send troops to North Africa to prop up the Italians. Led by General Erwin Rommel the Germans attacked on 31 March 1941. They quickly advanced and Rommel’s forces reached the border of Egypt on 14 April 1941. However British and Australian forces prevented the Germans from capturing Tobruk.

The Italians had also suffered a humiliating defeat in Greece. On 6 April 1941, Hitler launched an attack on Yugoslavia (which was pro-British) and Greece. Both countries were quickly overrun and British forces in Greece were evacuated to Crete by 28 April 1941. On 20 May 1941 German paratroopers landed on Crete. By 28 May the British began to evacuate their men on the island to Egypt. The evacuation was completed on 31 May. However, the Germans suffered heavy losses and Hitler refused to use paratroops for any similar invasions in the future.

Meanwhile, Britain faced a threat from the U-boats, which were sinking the ships on which she relied for imports of food and raw materials. However, on 9 May 1941 a British destroyer, Bulldog forced the U-boat U-110 to surface. The British boarded the U-boat and captured a Kriegsmarine Enigma cipher machine and a full set of codebooks. Now able to decipher German messages the British were able to route convoys around groups of U-boats (known as wolf packs). As a result, British losses dropped dramatically and Britain was saved from starvation.

Meanwhile, in May 1941 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder commander of the German fleet sent his largest battleship the Bismarck into the Atlantic, with a heavy cruiser the Prinz Eugen.

The British sent Hood and the Prince of Wales to intercept them. However, Hood was destroyed on 24 May 1941. Then on 25 May planes from the aircraft carrier, Ark Royal hit and destroyed the Bismarck’s steering mechanism. On 27 May 1941 Bismarck was sunk by British destroyers.

While all this was going on Hitler was planning the invasion of Russia. Hitler was determined to destroy Russia but invading her in 1941 was a foolish mistake. The Germans were still fighting the British and attacking Russia meant a war on two fronts. The invasion of Russia was called Operation Barbarossa and planning for it began in December 1940. The invasion began on 21 June 1941. The Germans had more than 3 million men and 3,600 tanks and they advanced into Russia in three thrusts, north, center, and south. The Russians were completely unprepared and their air force was mostly destroyed on the ground within hours. The Germans rapidly advanced into Russia, capturing vast numbers of prisoners.

However, the German advance in the south was slower than in the north. So Hitler made another mistake. He should have pressed on to Moscow but in August 1941 he diverted forces from the north to the south, into Ukraine. The advance on Moscow did not begin again till October.

By then it was too late in the year. The Germans were held up by rain, which turned the primitive Russian roads into mud. In November winter weather caused the mud to freeze and the Germans advanced again. By the beginning of December, they were on the outskirts of Moscow. However, on 6 December 1941 led by General Zhukov, the Russians launched a counterattack, and the Germans were forced to withdraw from Moscow. On 17 December Hitler took personal control of the war in Russia and he ruled out any further retreat.

Meanwhile, in May 1941, the British attacked the Germans at the border of Egypt. In June they attempted but failed to relieve Tobruk. However in November 1941, the British advanced again in Operation Crusader. They relieved Tobruk and advanced into Libya.

On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese planned to destroy the whole US Pacific fleet but crucially the US aircraft carriers were at sea. Aircraft took off from Japanese aircraft carriers in two waves. They sank or severely damaged 8 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 3 destroyers. It was a devastating blow but the USA eventually recovered.

Then the British sent two battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, from Singapore to fight the Japanese. Both were sunk on 10 December 1941. On 25 December 1941, Japan captured Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, on 11 December 1941 Hitler and his ally Mussolini both declared war on the USA. Why Hitler made this suicidal decision is not known. The USA was the most powerful country in the world. It was not merely more powerful than Germany it was much more powerful. True, Hitler had Japan on his side but in 1941 Japan was a small power with a limited amount of industry.

Worse still the German army was already stretched to the limit fighting both Britain and Russia. Furthermore, if Germany had stayed neutral in the war between Japan and the USA then presumably American attention would have been distracted from Europe. The USA would have inevitably become preoccupied with its war with Japan. So the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could have been useful to Hitler. However, he made the very stupid decision to declare war on the USA and in so doing signed his death warrant.

The Japanese landed in Malaya on 8 December 1941. They advanced quickly and took Penang on 16 December. By 31 January 1942, the Japanese had reached the Straits of Johor, which separated Singapore from the mainland. On 8-9 February 1942, they crossed the straits and Singapore city surrendered on 15 February. About 130,000 British soldiers became prisoners.

Another disaster occurred at the battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942 when 5 Allied destroyers and 3 cruisers were sunk. Following the battle, the Japanese captured Batavia the capital of Java on 9 March 1942. Meanwhile, the Japanese invaded British-held Burma on 12 January 1942. The British withdrew from Rangoon on 7 March and the Japanese captured Mandalay on 1 May. The British were forced to withdraw into India. On 22 December 1941, the Japanese invaded the American-held Philippines. They gradually advanced and Corregidor Island the last American stronghold was taken on 6 May 1942.

So far the Japanese had met with amazing success but the tide was already turning against them. They hoped to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea and they sent an invasion force protected by 3 aircraft carriers into the Coral Sea on 5 May 1942. On 7 May aircraft from US carriers, Yorktown and Lexington sank the Japanese carrier Shoho. On 8 May 1942, the Japanese sunk the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown. The Americans badly damaged the Japanese carrier Shokaku. As a result of the battle, the Japanese were forced to call off their invasion of Port Moresby.

In Europe, in May 1942 the Russians renewed their advance. However, the Germans managed to encircle the advancing Russians and they took over 200,000 men prisoner.

Meanwhile, on 21 January 1942, the Germans counterattacked in North Africa. On 21 June 1942, they captured Tobruk.

Meanwhile, the Japanese were crushed at the Battle of Midway Island in June 1942. They planned to invade the island and sent 4 carriers ahead. However, the Americans were aware of the Japanese plans and sent 3 carriers to Midway. On 4 June Japanese aircraft attacked the island. US torpedo bombers were sent to attack the Japanese carriers but they were all shot down. However, US dive-bombers arrived just as the Japanese aircraft were re-arming. They destroyed 3 Japanese carriers. Planes from the last Japanese carrier managed to damage the Yorktown and 2 days later it was sunk by a submarine. However, the last Japanese carrier was then sunk by dive-bombers. For Japan, it was a devastating blow and it led inexorably to her defeat.

On 7 August 1942, US troops landed on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. It turned into a long battle of attrition but Japanese forces finally withdrew on 9 February 1943.

In North Africa, the British went on the defensive. They fought a battle at El Alamein from 1-27 July 1942 and a second battle at the end of August and beginning of September. Meanwhile the British gradually built up their strength to deliver a ‘knockout’ blow to the Germans. On 23 October 1942 General Montgomery launched a major offensive at El Alamein. By 2 November it was clear the Germans must retreat before the greatly superior British forces. From 4 November the Germans retreated. In the battle, 25,000 Germans and Italians were killed as opposed to 13,000 British men. Furthermore, the British took 30,000 prisoners. It was the beginning of the end for the Germans in North Africa.

On 8 November 1942, British and American forces landed at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. The Germans rushed reinforcements to Tunisia but they were now trapped between two armies and the Allies had naval superiority in the Mediterranean.

The Germans and Italians were gradually pushed into a smaller and smaller part of Tunisia. Finally, on 13 May 1943, they surrendered. Some 275,000 Germans and Italians were taken prisoner.

Meanwhile, in September 1942 the Germans began the siege of Stalingrad. Germans and Russians fought in the streets but the Russians held on. Finally, on 19 November 1942, the Russians counterattacked in a pincer movement and the Germans in Stalingrad were cut off. Hitler refused to let them fight their way out. Instead from 12 to 23 December 1942 other Germans led by von Manstein tried to relieve them. They fought their way to within 35 miles of the Germans trapped in Stalingrad but they were then forced to withdraw.

The Luftwaffe was able to drop some supplies to the trapped Germans but not enough. Finally, on 31 January 1943 von Paulus, the German commander surrendered together with most of his men. The last German troops at Stalingrad surrendered on 2 February 1943. Some 90,000 men became prisoners. They were all that was left of an army of 300,000 men.

Stalingrad was a huge military defeat for the Germans but it was also a great psychological blow. Until then the Germans were amazingly successful but Stalingrad destroyed the myth of German invincibility. It also gave new hope to the conquered people of Europe. It was now obvious that Germany might lose the war. Meanwhile, the Russians attacked further north and they recaptured the cities of Kursk, Rostov, and Kharkiv. However, the Germans then rallied and in March they recaptured Kharkiv.

If Hitler had any sense he would have made a compromise peace with the Russians and cut his losses. However, Hitler was determined to try and regain the upper hand. On 5 July 1943, Operation Citadel was launched: German troops north and south of Kursk advanced to try and capture the city in a pincer movement. However, the Russians were well prepared and by 12 July the German advance was at a standstill. The Russians then advanced and they gradually pushed the Germans back. On 23 August 1943, the Russians took Kharkiv again. On 25 September they took Smolensk and on 6 November 1943 Kyiv. The Germans were increasingly outnumbered and their situation steadily deteriorated.

Meanwhile, on 10 July 1943, the Western Allies landed in Sicily. On 11 August the Germans began to evacuate to Italy. The last Germans left on 16 August 1943

Meanwhile, the Allies had won the battle of the Atlantic. Following the entry of the USA into the war in December 1941 German U-boats had many new targets. However American participation in the war against them tipped the balance against the U-boats by the end of 1942. In March 1943 the war at sea temporarily slipped back in favor of Germany and U-boats sank 482,000 tons of Allied shipping. However by May 1943 allied ships were destroying U-boats at such a rate that Donitz, their commander was forced to withdraw them from the Atlantic.

At the same time, the Allied bombing of Germany increased. On 22 February 1942, Air Marshal Arthur Harris was made Commander in Chief of Bomber Command. On 30 May 1942, the first 1,000-bomber raid was launched against Cologne. Then in May 1943, the Dam Busters raid destroyed 2 dams in Germany. In July-August 1943 a series of devastating raids were carried out on Hamburg and from November 1943 a long series of raids was carried out on Berlin.

In Europe, the Allies decided to invade Italy in 1943. The Italian campaign diverted German forces away from France before the D-day landings. However, the mountainous terrain in Italy made it easy for the Germans to defend. The British landed on the toe of Italy on 3 September 1943 and the Americans landed at Salerno on 7 September. The Germans were forced to retreat to a defensive line, the Gustav line but by October it was a stalemate in Italy.

In the east US forces captured New Georgia from the Japanese on 25 August 1943. Slowly US forces advanced across the Pacific.

In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Allies landed behind the German lines at Anzio on 22 January 1944. However, the bridgehead did not break the stalemate or force the Germans to retreat from the Gustav line.

Meanwhile, the Russians continued to advance. In the north, the Germans had besieged Leningrad (St Petersburg) since 1941. Finally, in January 1944 the Russians pushed back the Germans and lifted the siege. By April 1944 the Russians had reached the border of Romania.

In Italy, the Germans were forced to retreat from the Gustav Line on 25 May 1944. They withdrew to another line in North Italy called the Gothic Line but the Allies captured Rome on 4 June 1944.

Then on 6 June 1944, British, Canadian, and American men invaded Normandy. The invasion began when airborne troops parachuted onto key positions. The allies made a naval and air bombardment then men went ashore along a 50-mile-long stretch of coast. Altogether almost 150,000 men landed that day and they suffered only 10,000 casualties. Following the successful landings in Normandy, it was obvious that Germany had lost the war. However, Hitler was determined to fight on regardless.

The Americans captured Cherbourg on 27 June and the British captured Caen on 13 July 1944. Meanwhile, Britain had a taste of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffe or revenge weapons. The V1 flying bomb was first launched on 13 June 1944. The last one was fired on 27 March 1945. Although about 13,000 civilians were killed by V1s and V2s they failed to seriously dent morale in Britain and they did not affect the outcome of the war.

On 25 July 1944, American forces broke out of the Normandy Bridgehead and advanced across Northwest France. The Americans captured Le Mans on 9 August then turned north. Meanwhile, the Canadians broke out of their Normandy bridgehead and advanced south. They captured Falaise on 17 August. The two armies then linked up in a pincer movement trapping a German army in Normandy in the Falaise pocket. The Germans attempted to escape but 50,000 troops were taken prisoner when the ‘pincers’ snapped shut on 21 August 1944.

Meanwhile on 15 August 1944 in Operation Dragoon, allied troops landed in Southern France. On 19 August Paris rose in rebellion and on 25 August 1944, the American army entered the city. On 3 September 1944, the British liberated Brussels.

However, in September the British were defeated at Arnhem. Paratroopers were sent ahead of the main army to seize positions. However, Operation Market Garden was badly planned. On 17 September the parachutists went in but they met strong German resistance. On the night of 25/26 September, the survivors were evacuated but the Germans took 7,000 prisoners. The failure at Arnhem ended any hope of ending the war against Germany in 1944.

On 22 June 1944, the Russians began another offensive and they advanced rapidly. In June 1941 when Germany invaded Russia three nations Finland, Hungary, and Romania joined the attack. Fearing Hungary would leave the war the Germans occupied the country in March 1944. However, Romania surrendered to the Russians on 23 August 1944. Finland made peace with Russia in September 1944. Further north the Russian army entered Riga, the capital of Latvia on 13 October 1944. Also during October, the Germans evacuated Greece and partisans liberated Belgrade the capital of Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, on 1 September 1944, the Polish resistance rose in Warsaw. The Russians stood by and did nothing to help. Worse they refused to allow the Western allies to use Russian-controlled airfields to drop supplies to the Poles. Finally, on 3 October 1944, the Poles were forced to surrender.

In the west German resistance stiffened in the autumn of 1944. In Holland, the British fought to clear the banks of the River Scheldt of Germans. Meanwhile, in October-November 1944, the Americans fought for the Hurtgen Forest near Aachen.

In the east American troops landed on Saipan Island on 15 June 1944. On 19-20 June the Japanese navy was decisively defeated at the battle of the Philippine Sea and by 8 July 1944 all of Saipan was in American hands. On 24 July the Americans landed on nearby Tinian Island. They held all of it by 1 August 1944. The capture of these islands brought Japan within range of US heavy bombers.

From July 1944 the British advanced into Burma. They captured Mandalay on 20 March 1945 and entered Rangoon on 3 May 1945.

Meanwhile on 20 October 1944 American troops landed on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. The Japanese fleet then suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 23-25 October 1944. The Japanese lost 4 carriers, 3 battleships, 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and 1 submarine. About 500 Japanese aircraft were destroyed. The Americans lost 3 carriers, 3 destroyers, and about 200 aircraft. The Americans landed on the island of Luzon on 9 January 1945. They reached Manila on 3 February. Meanwhile, on 17 February 1945, American troops landed on Iwo Jima. All Japanese resistance was crushed by 26 March.

On 16 December 1944, the Germans launched an offensive in the Ardennes Forest on the border of Germany and Belgium. Hitler hoped to drive his forces in a column to the sea cutting off the Allied army in Belgium from that in France. However, the German plan had no chance of success. Germany no longer had the resources to do it. Crucially they failed to capture the town of Bastogne and on 20 December 1944, their attack came to a halt.

In January 1945 the Allies counterattacked and by 28 January the Germans were back where they started. The battle of the Bulge cost 80,000 American casualties but 100,000 German casualties. Proportionally the German losses were much greater. Meanwhile, on 23 January 1945, the Russians began to advance across Poland, and by the beginning of February, they were only 90 miles from Berlin.

In February 1945 the British advanced into the Rhineland (the area between the border of Germany and the River Rhine). The Americans advanced further south. On 3 March 1945, the British reached the Rhine and on 7 March the Americans captured an intact railway bridge over the Rhine and were able to establish a bridgehead on the eastern bank. Another American force led by Patton crossed the Rhine on 22 March. The British first crossed the Rhine on 23 March.

Meanwhile from July 1944 allied bombing gradually destroyed German industry and devastated German cities. Raids included a controversial one on Dresden on 13-14 February 1945, which killed tens of thousands of civilians.

On 1 April the Allies encircled a German army in the Ruhr (the industrial heart of Germany). The Germans there surrendered on 18 April 1945. Then on 25 April, the Russian army encircled Berlin.

On 2 May 1945, the German army in northern Italy surrendered. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April and by 2 May 1945, the Russians had crushed all resistance in Berlin. German forces in Holland, Denmark, and northwest Germany surrendered on 4 May. On 7 May 1945, General Jodl signed a surrender document at Eisenhower’s HQ. On 8 May Field, Marshal Keitel signed another document in Berlin. All German armed forces surrendered unconditionally at 1 minute past midnight on the night of 8-9 May 1945.

On 1 April 1945, American forces landed on Okinawa. The battle for the island ended on 22 June 1945 when the last Japanese surrendered. Meanwhile, American bombers pounded Japanese cities. American submarines sank more and more Japanese merchant ships. Then on 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 9 August another was dropped on Nagasaki. The same day the Russians declared war on Japan. So Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 bringing the Second World War to an end.

Last revised 2024

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