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World War II (1939–1945) is regarded as the most widespread and deadliest conflict in human history. The war involved many nations and was fought on battlefronts in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Led by Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, the Allies emerged victorious over the major Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan.
- The Build-Up to War
- Hostilities Begin
- World War II in the Pacific
- Russia Fights Back
- In Air and at Sea
- The Ground War
- Victory in Europe
- Japan Surrenders
- Aftermath of World War II
World War II developed, in part, from the resolution of World War I. The peace conferences ending World War I resulted in a victor’s peace, and the vanquished harbored a sense of unfair treatment. The worldwide economic depression that began in the 1920s and continued into the 1930s helped bring about totalitarian regimes in Italy, Japan, and Germany. When democracies could not agree on a forceful, common program to halt aggression in the late 1930s, war began; it expanded with the inclusion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the United States in December 1941. When the fighting finally stopped in September 1945, tens of millions of people had died worldwide; the great European colonial empires in Asia and Africa soon would end; and two great powers, the USSR and the United States, found themselves unable to bridge the divide between them and plunged much of the world into a Cold War that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
The Build-Up to War
On 18 September 1931, the Japanese Kwantung Army claimed that Chinese bandits had blown up the main track of the South Manchurian Railway, and, within a year, Japan seized control of Manchuria and created a puppet regime, Manchukuo. Japan then moved into Inner Mongolia and the Chinese provinces outside the Great Wall. In July 1937, minor hostilities expanded into war. Within several years, the conflict settled into a strange, three-sided affair, as Chinese Nationalist forces, Chinese Communist guerrillas, and the Japanese army faced one another, with Japan largely controlling populated eastern China and the Yangzi (Chang) River valley, the Communists in their base area at Yanan, and the Nationalists at Qongqing in Sichuan Province.
Japanese aggression in Manchuria may have encouraged other dictators to disregard the League of Nations and to challenge the entire Versailles Peace Treaty structure. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) became chancellor of Germany, and he expanded the army and navy, established an air force, and reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland without serious protest from France or Great Britain. In March 1938, Hitler forced a unification of Germany and Austria—the Anschluss—and in September 1938 signed a peace accord with France and Great Britain that handed him the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939, German forces seized Memel in Lithuania and took control of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. During the summer of 1939, France and Great Britain approached the Soviet Union to assure Poland’s territorial integrity, but the USSR shocked the world when it signed a treaty with Nazi Germany in late August.
Hitler turned to war. On 1 September 1939, the Germany army unleashed a blitzkrieg against Poland, crushing the Polish army in three weeks. After a winter pause, Germany attacked Norway and Denmark on 9 April 1940, securing Norwegian ports and Swedish iron ore shipments. On 10 May 1940, Germany threatened a wheeling movement through the Low Countries and then struck through the supposedly impassable Ardennes forest, unleashing its panzer forces behind the advancing army, driving to the English Channel in several weeks. Only the valiant effort of British seamen lifting more than 300,000 British and Allied soldiers from Dunkirk prevented a complete German victory. Germany turned south against France and forced the French surrender. Hitler apparently wanted to invade Great Britain, in Operation Sea Lion, and the Luftwaffe fought for control over the skies of Britain. Germany’s air force was designed for tactical support of advancing ground forces and not for a strategic air campaign, and it changed objectives too often—from coastal radar stations to fighter air bases to industrial factories, to terrorizing cities. By late summer 1940 the air offensive had failed. Strangely, from late summer 1940 until spring 1941, the German army launched no new offensives; this perhaps represented a major opportunity lost.
Germany next turned east. On 7 April 1941, Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece, and quickly conquered both countries. On 22 June 1941, Hitler sent more than 3 million German troops; 3,300 tanks; 7,700 artillery pieces; 2,500 planes; and forces from satellite countries into the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Germany lacked accurate information on its enemy and greatly underestimated the challenge. But, in early summer, it appeared Germany would land the knockout blow: as its Army Group North drove on Leningrad, Army Group Center pulled off several huge encirclements of Soviet troops on the way to Moscow, and Army Group South neared Kiev. In late summer, the troops rested, and Hitler ordered the panzer forces of Army Group Center to turn north and south to help these peripheral drives. Turning south, tank forces of Heinz Guderian helped surround 665,000 Soviet troops near Kiev, the largest prisoner-of-war capture in history. When Germany resumed the advance on Moscow, the Soviet Union was ready. Operation Typhoon failed within sight of the Kremlin, and the Soviets counterattacked, catching the German army desperately unprepared. When the Soviet attack petered out in late winter, Germany had suffered grievous losses, and it seemed the Soviet Union could survive.
World War II in the Pacific
The Japanese defeat by the Soviets at the Battle of Nomonhan (Khalkin Gol) on the Mongolian border in August 1939 caused Japan to look south for raw materials; Japanese military leaders settled on a centrifugal offensive centered on the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked, and thereafter gained a series of striking victories, including capturing Hong Kong, the Malay Peninsula, and the British stronghold of Singapore, the Mariana and Gilbert Islands, the Philippines, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and other island groups to secure a vast resource area and territory behind which to defend these gains.
Japanese leaders, however, suffered from “victory disease,” and instead of building up their defenses in depth to withstand the American counterattack, they continued their offensive. They tried to isolate Australia and threaten India. The result was the flawed Japanese attack against Midway in early June 1942, which led to the destruction of four fleet carriers, fatally weakening the Japanese navy.
Russia Fights Back
Hitler returned to the offensive on the eastern front in summer 1942, but only had strength to attack to the south, aiming for Stalingrad and Soviet oil facilities by the Caspian coast. The distances exceeded German logistical capacity, and General Friedrich Paulus made a fateful decision to commit the German Sixth Army to a fight for Stalingrad. Under General Vasili Chuikov, the Soviet Sixty-second Army engaged in a valiant, desperate defense featuring house-to-house and even floor-to-floor resistance.
As the battle for Stalingrad raged from summer into the fall of 1942, General (later Marshal) Georgi Zhukov planned for a riposte, positioning vast Soviet forces on the vulnerable flanks of the German position at Stalingrad; the Soviets intended to crash through Romanian and Hungarian positions, race around the German Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army, and effect a double envelopment. The Soviets struck on 12 November, and several days later the spearheads met at Kalach and cut off the Germans; in early February 1943, the last survivors surrendered. The Soviets followed this victory with an offensive that pushed the Germans out of Caucasia.
When the spring thaw halted operations, there was a bulge into German defenses around Kursk, and Hitler planned for a double envelopment to destroy Soviet positions after which, presumably, he would go on the defensive. But Hitler delayed the start of Operation Citadel many times, waiting for the new, heavy German tanks, and this delay allowed Zhukov to plan for the expected German advance. The greatest tank battle in history began on 5 July 1943, and the German pincer effort from the north quickly stalled; however, the attack from the south, featuring the cream of the German ground forces, made some headway before Hitler suspended offensive operations owing to the Allied invasion of Sicily. Thereafter, the Soviets seized the initiative and by early fall 1943 freed the eastern Ukraine of German forces; they continued advancing into winter 1943 into the western Ukraine, creating a huge bulge on the southern flank of German Army Group Center.
The force and space ratios on the eastern front clearly favored the Soviet Union. Had Germany not attacked at Kursk and had it dedicated its limited productive capacity to defense, German tactical superiority might have withstood Soviet logistical superiority. But Hitler threw away precious panzers and artillery at Kursk, and the Soviets halted operations only when their supply lines ran out.
On 20 June 1944, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration. The Soviet military achieved a great surprise, fooling German commanders in the east into believing that the attack would go south; the Germans concentrated their limited panzer resources there, largely leaving Army Group Center without tanks. The Soviets attacked, and surged past German positions before the infantry could react or retreat. The advance carried from pre-1939 Russia all the way to the Vistula River and Warsaw in August, when Soviet forces outran their supply lines and halted.
In Air and at Sea
Meanwhile, on other fronts, the Axis powers retreated. To respond to Soviet calls for a “second front,” the United States and Great Britain opened a strategic bombing campaign. Before the development of long-range fighters, the U.S. Eighth Air Force, bombing in daylight, suffered heavy losses, while the nighttime Royal Air Force did little damage against German industrial targets. But Hitler wanted to maintain home front support and gradually withdrew fighter squadrons from the eastern front, and later from France and Italy, to defend Germany. After mid-1943 and the appearance of long-range American fighter planes, the outcome began to favor the Allies.
Similarly, the United States won the Battle of the Atlantic. At first, German U-boats enjoyed great success against the vulnerable American East Coast, and later in Caribbean and South Atlantic waters. Soon the United States constructed more cargo ships than the Germans could sink, and they built escort aircraft carriers, which accommodated only twenty airplanes. The U.S. Tenth Fleet, organized around these carriers and their support ships, hounded German submarines, denying them open areas in which to operate and to surface for battery recharging. The Allies sank more than 80 percent of German submarines.
The Ground War
Finally, the Western Allies began to contest the German army. In November 1942, they launched Operation Torch against French northwest Africa to complement the British Eighth Army’s attack on Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps positions near El Alamein in the Western Desert of Egypt. By early May 1943 they forced the Axis surrender in Africa. On July 10, they launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and after a six-week campaign crossed into Italy. The Italian government surrendered in September, and most Italian army divisions melted away. The Germans under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring defended well, and progress up the Italian peninsula was slow and costly, but the drain on German resources meant that German commanders could not count on reinforcements from other theaters. On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, commanded by U.S. army general Dwight Eisenhower. Three airborne divisions landed during the night, and five infantry divisions assaulted five beaches: Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha, and Utah. Despite the difficulty of the hedgerows in Normandy, the Allies brought men and equipment ashore in the expanding beachhead. In late July 1944, the U.S. army launched Operation Cobra; as American forces moved down the Cotentin Peninsula to Avranches and broke out and around the German defense, the U.S. Third Army under General George Patton became operational, and it quickly spread west into the Brittany peninsula and east toward the Seine above Paris. German troops were surrounded near Falaise, and an invasion in southern France, Operation Dragoon, sent American and Free French troops up the Rhone River Valley to meet Patton’s forces near Dijon, cutting off German forces in France.
After Midway, the United States seized the initiative against Japan. At first, it was the desperate fighting on Guadalcanal from August 1942 to February 1943, and then the U.S. advanced on two axes. Admiral Chester Nimitz led the navy advance to the Gilbert Islands and Tarawa in November 1943, to the Marshall Islands and Kwajalein in February 1944, and then to the Marianas in June 1944, and the invasions of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian along with the Battle of the Philippine Sea (also called the Marianas Turkey Shoot). Army general Douglas MacArthur commanded a mixed force that moved up the Solomon Islands chain and leapfrogged Japanese strongpoints on the New Guinea coast, while isolating the 100,000-man Japanese Army in Rabaul in New Britain. In October 1944, MacArthur invaded the Philippines, although fighting would continue there until war’s end. Meanwhile, the Central Pacific offensive moved to Iwo Jima in the Bonin Islands in January 1945 and Okinawa in the Ryukyus in April 1945.
The attack on the Philippines cut off Japanese forces in Southeast Asia, and an Anglo-Indian offensive pushed the Japanese through Burma, though progress, owing to the difficult terrain, was slow. Meanwhile, Chinese government forces managed to occupy a great many Japanese divisions while conserving strength for the expected renewal of the civil war with the Communists.
Victory in Europe
In fall 1944, the pressure on Germany continued. Strategic bombing of Germany caused many casualties, although Albert Speer achieved a production miracle for war goods. The Red Army paused in the center, sweeping into the Balkans and trapping the Germans along the Baltic. By December 1944, the Soviets were at the 1939 German-Polish border and near Budapest in Hungary waiting to resume the offensive. In the west, Eisenhower ordered a halt in operations for winter, owing to supply difficulties. In late December 1944, Hitler launched a desperate gamble, an attack against weak American forces in the Ardennes, hoping to drive toward Antwerp, cut off the British, and force the Americans to surrender. But the German attack lacked sufficient fuel reserves; the Americans, especially around Bastogne, defended fiercely, and when skies cleared Allied airpower battered German formations. As the Soviets launched a winter offensive, the Allies drove to the Rhine and in March 1945 crossed, first at Remagen, and then along the upper Rhine and finally to the north. Meanwhile, the Red Army drove on Berlin, and Soviet forces under Zhukov and Marshal Ivan Koniev engaged in a race to Berlin, which was won by Zhukov’s men at terrible cost. In late April elements of the U.S. and Red armies met at Torgau on the Elbe, and Germany was divided. Hitler committed suicide in his underground bunker in Germany, and on 7 May, German commanders surrendered to Eisenhower in Rheims, France, followed on 8 May 1945, with a surrender to Soviet commanders in Berlin.
The Japanese continued to resist, and American experts predicted a bloody and costly attack on the Japanese home islands. However, in July 1945, at Alamagordo, New Mexico, scientists exploded the first atomic bomb, and several weeks later the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima (6 August) and one on Nagasaki (9 August), compelling Japan’s surrender on 2 September 1945 in Tokyo Bay. World War II ended.
Aftermath of World War II
The end of World War II brought with it a wide range of significant consequences, many of which were aimed at preventing similar conflicts in the future. War crimes committed by the Axis powers, including the Holocaust, were addressed at the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. The United Nations was established with the explicit aim of maintaining international peace and security. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was instituted as a guarantee of the rights for all human beings. The international economic and financial architecture was overhauled and increasingly managed and regulated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization (formerly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). The state of Israel was established. Many former colonies won their independence, while other states such as Germany and Korea were divided ideologically and politically. Women began to find new and expanding roles in society on the back of their important contribution to the war effort. War-time technologies, innovations, and management systems were put to good peacetime uses, few more important than the jet engine and the now indispensible computer. Particularly important, learning from the mistakes of the interwar period, Europe (including Germany) was rebuilt under the Marshall Plan, as was Japan, which would soon modernize and rise to major economic power status.
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