Causes of World War II
When World War I came to a close and the Versailles Peace Treaty was signed, a spirit of hope and opportunity settled over the European continent. Peace was at hand and the nations of Europe could turn to the tasks of economic and political recovery. Germany elected a liberal democracy a whole slew of democracies developed in Eastern Europe. Liberalism seemed to be the order of the day.
However, economic instability in the United States led too the crash of the New York Stock Exchange, setting in motion a domino effect that left the entire international economic and financial system in shambles. American loans dried up, reparations payments stopped, German industry collapsed, and unemployment increased tenfold throughout the world. The Great Depression had arrived.
Where the Depression brought a change of governing party in the United States and Britain, the economic downturn undermined fledgling democracies throughout Europe. In Italy, Benito Mussolini led a fascist coup d’etat; in Geermany, Adolf Hitler assumed emergency dictatorial powers; in France, parliamentary democracy was gone. Inspired by a demented notion of German racial superiority, Hitler embarked on an expansionist program that would take him into Eastern Europe and Russia for Lebensraum, or
Events of 1939
Three years of mounting international tension – encompassing the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss (union) of Germany and Austria, Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia – culminated in the German invasion of Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. While the USA proclaimed neutrality, it continued to supply Britain with essential supplies, and the critical Battle of the Atlantic between German U--Boats and British naval convoys commenced.
Western Europe was eerily quiet during this ‘phoney war’. Preparations for war continued in earnest, but there were few signs of conflict, and civilians who had been evacuated from London in the first months drifted back into the city. Gas masks were distributed, and everybody waited for the proper war to begin.
In eastern Europe and Scandinavia, however, there was nothing phoney about the war. With the Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Germany in
Events of 1940
Rationing was introduced in Britain early in the New Year, but little happened in western Europe until the spring. The ‘winter war’ between Russia and Finland concluded in March, and in the following month Germany invaded Denmark and Norway.
Denmark surrendered immediately, but the Norwegians fought on – with British and French assistance – surrendering in June only once events in France meant that they were fighting alone.
On 10 May – the same day that Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of the UK – Germany invaded France, Belgium and Holland, and western Europe encountered the Blitzkrieg – or ‘lightning war’.
Germany’s combination of fast armoured tanks on land, and superiority in the air, made a unified attacking force that was both innovative and effective. Despite greater numbers of air and army personnel – and the presence of the British Expeditionary Force – the Low Countries and France proved no match for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. Holland and Belgium fell by the end of May; Paris was taken tw
British troops retreated from the invaders in haste, and some 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops were rescued from the channel port of Dunkirk only by a ragged fleet, using craft that ranged from pleasure boats to Navy destroyers.
In France an armistice was signed with Germany, with the puppet French Vichy government – under a hero of World War One, Marshall Pétain – in control in the ‘unoccupied’ part of southern and eastern France, and Germany in control in the rest of the country.
Charles de Gaulle, as the leader of the Free French, fled to England (much to Churchill’s chagrin) to continue the fight against Hitler . But it looked as if that fight might not last too long. Having conquered France, Hitler turned his attention to Britain, and began preparations for an invasion. For this to be successful, however, he needed air superiority, and he charged the Luftwaffe with destroying British air power and coastal defences.
The Battle of Britain, lasting from July to September, was the first to be fought solely in the air. Germany lacked planes but had many pilots. In Britain, the situation was reversed, but – crucially – it also had radar. This, combined with the German decision to sw
The ‘Blitz’ of Britain’s cities lasted throughout the war, saw the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the near-destruction of Coventry, and claimed some 40,000 civilian lives.
Events of 1941
With continental Europe under Nazi control, and Britain safe – for the time being – the war took on a more global dimension. Following the defeat of Mussolini’s armies in Greece and Tobruk, German forces arrived in North Africa in February, and invaded Greece and Yugoslavia in April.
While the bombing of British and German cities continued, and the gas chambers at Auschwitz were put to use, Hitler invaded Russia . Operation Barbarossa, as the invasion was called, began on 22 June. The initial advance was swift, with the fall of Sebastopol at the end of October, and Moscow coming under attack at the end of the year.
The bitter Russian winter, however, like the one that Napoleon had experienced a century and a half earlier, crippled the Germans. The Soviets counterattacked in December and the Eastern Front stagnated until the spring.
Winter in the Pacific, of course, presented no such problems. The Japanese, tired of American trade embargoes, mounted a surprise attack on the US Navy base of Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, on 7 December.
This ensured that global conflict commenced, with Germany declaring war on the US, a few days later. Within a week of Pearl Harbor, Japan had invaded the Philippines, Burma and Hong Kong. The Pacific war was on.
Events of 1942
The first Americans arrived in England in January – ‘Over paid, over sexed and over here’ as the gripe went – and in North Africa Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps began their counter-offensive, capturing Tobruk in June.
The Blitz intensified in both England and Germany, with the first thousand-bomber air raid on Cologne, and German bombing of British cathedral cities.
In the Pacific, the Japanese continued their expansion into Borneo, Java and Sumatra. The ‘unassailable’ British fortress of Singapore fell rapidly in February, with around 25,000 prisoners taken, many of whom would die in Japanese camps in the years to follow.
But June saw the peak of Japanese expansion. The Battle of Midway, in which US sea-based aircraft destroyed four Japanese carriers and a cruiser, marked the turning point in the Pacific War.
The second half of the year also saw a reversal of German fortunes. British forces under Montgomery gained the initiative in North Africa at El Alamein, and Russian forces counterattacked at Stalingrad. The news of mass murders of Jewish people by the Nazis reached the Allies, and the US pledged to avenge these crimes.
Events of 1943
February saw German surrender at Stalingrad: the first major defeat of Hitler’s armies. Battle continued to rage in the Atlantic, and one four-day period in March saw 27 merchant vessels sunk by German U-boats.
A combination of long-range aircraft and the codebreakers at Bletchley, however, were inflicting enormous losses on the U-boats. Towards the end of May Admiral Dönitz withdrew the German fleet from the contended areas – the Battle of the Atlantic was effectively over.
In mid-May German and Italian forces in North Africa surrendered to the Allies, who used Tunisia as a springboard to invade Sicily in July. By the end of the month Mussolini had fallen, and in September the Italians surrendered to the Allies, prompting a German invasion into northern Italy.
Mussolini was audaciously rescued by a German task force, led by Otto Skorzeny, and established a fascist republic in the north. German troops also engaged the Allies in the south – the fight through Italy was to prove slow and costly.
In the Pacific, US forces overcame the Japanese at Guadalcanal, and British and Indian troops began their guerrilla campaign in Burma. American progress continued in the Aleutian Islands, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
As the Russian advance on the Eastern Front gathered pace, recapturing Kharkov and Kiev from Germany, Allied bombers began to attack German cities in enormous daylight air raids. The opening of the Second Front in Europe, long discussed and always postponed, was being prepared for the following year.
Events of 1944
With advances in Burma, New Guinea and Guam, Japan began its last offensive in China, capturing further territory in the south to add to the acquisitions made in central and northern areas following the invasion of 1938. However, their control was limited to the major cities and lines of communication, and resistance – often led by the Communists – was widespread.
The Allied advance in Italy continued with landings at Anzio, in central Italy, in January. It was a static campaign. The Germans counter-attacked in February and the fighting saw the destruction of the medieval monastery at Monte Cassino after Allied bombing. Only at the end of May did the Germans retreat from Anzio. Rome was liberated in June, the day before the Allies’ ‘Operation Overlord’, now known as the D-Day landings.
On 6 June – as Operation Overlord got underway – some 6,500 vessels landed over 130,000 Allied forces on five Normandy beaches: codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Some 12,000 aircraft ensured air superiority for the Allies – bombing German defences, and providing cover. The pessimistic predictions that had been made of massive Allied casualties were not borne out. On Utah beach 23,000 troops were landed, with 197 casualties, and most of the 4,649 American casualties that day occurred at Omaha beach, where the landing was significantly more difficult to achieve, meeting with fierce German resistance.
Overall, however, the landings caught the Germans by surprise, and they were unable to counter-attack with the necessary speed and strength. Anything that was moving and German was liable to be attacked from the air.
Despite this, in the weeks following the landings Allied progress was slowed considerably, by the narrow lanes and thick hedgerows of the French countryside. Nevertheless, Cherbourg was liberated by the end of June. Paris followed two months later.
Hitler’s troubles were compounded by a Russian counterattack in June. This drove 300 miles west to Warsaw, and killed, wounded or captured 350,000 German soldiers. By the end of August the Russians had taken Bucharest. Estonia was taken within months, and Budapest was under siege by the end of the year.
One glimmer of light for Germany came in the Ardennes, in France, where in December a German counteroffensive – the Battle of the Bulge – killed 19,000 Americans and delayed the Allies’ march into Germany.
Events of 1945
The New Year saw the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, and the revelation of the sickening obscenity of the Holocaust, its scale becoming clearer as more camps were liberated in the following months.
The Soviet army continued its offensive from the east, while from the west the Allies established a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, in March.
While the bombing campaigns of the Blitz were over, German V1 and V2 rockets continued to drop on London. The return bombing raids on Dresden, which devastated the city in a huge firestorm, have often been considered misguided.
Meantime, the Western Allies raced the Russians to be the first into Berlin. The Russians won, reaching the capital on 21 April. Hitler killed himself on the 30th, two days after Mussolini had been captured and hanged by Italian partisans. Germany surrendered unconditionally on 7 May, and the following day was celebrated as VE (Victory in Europe) day. The war in Europe was over.
In the Pacific, however, it had continued to rage throughout this time. The British advanced further in Burma, and in February the Americans had invaded Iwo Jima. The Philippines and Okinawa followed and Japanese forces began to withdraw from China.
Plans were being prepared for an Allied invasion of Japan, but fears of fierce resistance and massive casualties prompted Harry Truman – the new American president following Roosevelt’s death in April – to sanction the use of an atomic bomb against Japan.
Such bombs had been in development since 1942, and on 6 August one of them was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later another was dropped on Nagasaki. No country could withstand such attacks, and the Japanese surrendered on 14 August. The biggest conflict in history had lasted almost six years. Some 100 million people had been militarised, and 50 million had been killed. Of those who had died, 15 million were soldiers, 20 million were Russian civilians, six million were Jews and over four million were Poles.
The end of the World War II and the peace in the World
In July and August 1945, the Big Three powers, represented by Clement Atlee of Britain (his Labour government replaced Winston Churchill’s government in the recent parliamentary elections), Harry S. Truman, and Josef Stalin, gathered for their final meeting: the Potsdam Conference. Here, the three leaders coordinated plans for the future of Europe, the world, and their alliance.
Germany was divided into four occupation zones, one British, one American, one French, one Soviet. Berlin, deep within the Soviet zone, was further divided into four occupation zones. The leaders hoped to punish the German leadership for their wartime atrocities as they planned the upcoming Nuremberg Trials for “crimes against humanity”. The future of world peace was entrusted to an American creation–namely, the United Nations Organization. In September 1945, leaders from over forty different countries met in San Francisco, California to sign the United Nations Charter. This latter-day League of Nations was given the political, economic, and military power to address grievances of member states and enforce peace throughout the world. Power was concentrated in the Security Council, originally constituted by five permanent nations–the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union–with veto power and six elected members. Every nation held membership and voting rights in the General Assembly. The world hoped that this organization could provide what the League of Nations could not and what Neville Chamberlain had dreamed: “peace in our time”.