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World War II Detailed


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World War II or the Second World War was a global conflict that began on 7 July 1937 in Asia, and on 1 September 1939 in Europe. It lasted until 1945, and involved the majority of the world’s countries and every inhabited continent. Virtually all countries that participated in World War I were involved in World War II. It was the most extensive, expensive and bloodiest armed conflict in the history of the world.

Attributed in varying degrees to the Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, nationalism, and militarism, the causes of the war are a matter of debate. On which date the war began is also debated, cited as either the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, the entry of Hitler´s armies to Prague in March 1939, the Japanese invasion of China on 7 July 1937 (the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War), or earlier yet the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Still others argue that the two world wars are one conflict separated only by a “ceasefire”.

Fighting occurred across the Atlantic Ocean, in Western and Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean Sea, Africa, the Middle East, in the Pacific and South East Asia, and it continued in China. In Europe, the war ended with the surrender of Germany on 8 May 1945 (V-E and Victory Days), but continued in Asia until Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 (V-J Day).

Approximately 55-57 million people died as a result of the war, including acts of genocide such as the Holocaust and General Ishii Shiro’s Unit 731 experiments in Pingfan. As a case of total war, it involved the “home front” and bombing of civilians to a new degree. Atomic weapons, jet aircraft, and radar are only a few of many wartime inventions.

Post-World War II Europe was partitioned into Western and Soviet spheres of influence, the former undergoing economic reconstruction under the Marshall Plan and the latter becoming satellite states of the Soviet Union. Western Europe largely aligned as NATO, and Eastern Europe largely as the Warsaw pact, alliances which were fundamental to the ensuing Cold War. In Asia, the United States’ military occupation of Japan led to its democratization. China’s civil war continued through and after the war, resulting eventually in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The war sparked a wave of independence for colonies of European powers. There was a fundamental shift in power from Western Europe to the new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.


1 Participants
2 Europe, 1939–45
2.1 1939: Poland, Tripartite Pact, Winter War
2.2 1940: Denmark and Norway, France and Low Countries, Baltic Republics, Britain and Atlantic, Greece
2.3 1941: Yugoslavia, Greece, Soviet Union, Continuation War, United States enters
2.4 1942: Turning of the war in Russia
2.4.1 1942: Caucasus offensive, Stalingrad
2.5 1943: Kursk
2.6 1944: France invaded, Soviet-Finland armistice, surrender of minor Axis, Ardennes offensive
2.7 1945: Yalta Conference, push into Germany, Berlin falls, occupation
3 Pacific and East Asia, 1937–45
3.1 1937: Sino-Japanese War
3.2 1940: Vichy France colonies
3.3 1941: Pearl Harbor, the United States enters the war, Japanese invasions in SE Asia
3.4 1942: Coral Sea, Port Moresby, Midway, Guadalcanal
3.5 1943–45: Allied offensives in Asia and the Pacific
3.6 1945: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, atomic bombings, Japan surrenders
4 Mediterranean, 1940–45
4.1 1940: Egypt and Libya
4.2 1941: Syria, Lebanon, Afrika Korps to Tobruk
4.3 1942: First and Second Battles of El Alamein
4.4 1942: Operation Torch, French North Africa
4.5 1943: Yugoslavia and Italy
5 Home front
6 Genocide, atrocities, war crimes, and internment
6.1 Internment and genocide
6.2 Atrocity and war crimes
7 Technology in World War II
8 Consequences
8.1 United Nations and the Cold War
8.2 Casualties


The belligerents of the Second World War are usually considered to belong to either of the two blocs: the Axis and the Allies. A number of smaller countries participated in the war, more or less voluntarily, on the side of the power that in their neighbourhood was the most influential.

The Axis Powers consisted primarily of Germany, Italy, and Japan, which split the Earth into three spheres of influence under the Tripartite Pact of 1940, and vowed to defend one another against aggression. This replaced the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 that Italy had joined in 1937. Spain’s fascist government lead by Francisco Franco was a great asset in trade to the Axis powers during the war. A number of smaller countries were counted among the Axis powers, but these countries did not have a profound impact on the war, nor did they supply the Axis powers with any great abundance of troops or supplies.

Until attacked by it in June 1941, the Soviet Union was effectively allied with Nazi Germany through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invading and occupying parts or the whole of Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania.

Among the Allied powers, the “Big Three” were the United Kingdom, from 3 September 1939, the Soviet Union, from June 1941, and the United States, from December 1941. China had been fighting Japan since 1937. The independent dominions and colonies of the British Empire, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Greece, and Denmark were also counted among the Allies, though many would ultimately be conquered and occupied by Axis forces. For the details of each ally, like the dates of joining, click participants in World War II.

Countries that attempted to remain neutral in the conflict were often viewed with suspicion by the participants, and often pressured to make contributions to the most influential power in their neighborhood. Sovereignty was often difficult to maintain as many countries that did not directly participate in the conflict nevertheless held vested interests in seeing a particular side prevail. For example, neutral Switzerland was generally considered to be “Allied-friendly” while neutral Spain was considered “Axis-friendly,” despite the fact that neither country openly proclaimed any alliances. Such situations allowed neutral countries to become hotbeds of espionage.

Europe, 1939–45

1939: Poland, Tripartite Pact, Winter War

War began in Europe on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. France and the United Kingdom honored their defensive alliance of March 1939 by declaring war two days later on 3 September.1 Only partly mobilized, Poland fared poorly against the Wehrmacht’s superior numbers and strategy of “blitzkrieg”. In accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland from the east on 17 September. Hours later, the Polish government escaped to Romania. The last Polish Army unit was defeated on 6 October.

As Poland fell, the British and French remained largely inactive in what would be termed “the Phony War,” lasting until May 1940. There were isolated engagements during this period, including the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in the British port of Scapa Flow and Luftwaffe bombings of the naval bases at Rosyth and Scapa Flow. The Kriegsmarine pocket battleship “Admiral Graf Spee” was sunk in South America after the battle of the River Plate.

The Tripartite Pact was signed between Germany, Italy, and Japan on 27 September 1940, formalizing their alignment as the “Axis Powers.”

The Soviet Union invaded Finland on 30 November 1939, beginning the Winter War, which lasted until March of 1940 with Finland ceding territory to the Soviet Union.

1940: Denmark and Norway, France and Low Countries, Baltic Republics, Britain and Atlantic, Greece

Suddenly, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940, in Operation Weserübung, ostensibly to counter the threat of an Allied invasion from the region. Heavy fighting ensued on land and at sea in Norway. British, French and Polish forces landed to support the Norwegians at Namsos, Åndalsnes and Narvik, with most success at the last. By early June, all Allied forces were evacuated and the Norwegian Army surrendered.

France and the Low Countries were invaded on 10 May, ending the Phony War and beginning the Battle of France. The Allies had expected a WWI style of conflict, with the French and German soldiers firing at each other from the entrenchments, and were not prepared for this sudden invasion. In the first phase of the invasion, Operation Yellow, the Wehrmacht’s Panzergruppe von Kleist bypassed the Maginot Line and split the Allies in two by driving to the English Channel. Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands fell quickly against the attack of Army Group B, and the British Expeditionary Force, trapped in the north, was evacuated at Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo. German forces then invaded France itself, in Operation Red, advancing behind the Maginot Line and near the coast. Defeated, an armistice was declared on 22 June and the Vichy France puppet government created.

In June of 1940 the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and annexed Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina from Romania.

Not having secured a rapid peace with the United Kingdom, Germany began preparations to invade with the Battle of Britain. Fighter aircraft fought overhead for months as the Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force fought for control of Britain’s skies. The Luftwaffe initially targeted RAF Fighter Command, but turned to terror bombing London. Germany was defeated and Operation Sealion, the proposed invasion of the British Isles, was abandoned. Similar efforts were made, though at sea, in the Battle of the Atlantic. In a long-running campaign, German U-Boats attempted to deprive the British Isles of necessary Lend Lease cargo from the United States. Shipments were reduced considerably by the U-Boats; however, the United Kingdom refused to seek peace, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill stating that “We shall never surrender.”

Italy invaded Greece on 28 October 1940, from bases in Albania. Although outnumbered, Greek forces successfully repelled the Italian attacks and launched a full-scale counterattack deep into Albania. By mid-December they had liberated one-fourth of Albania. Claimed to be the first Allied victory of the war, that battle was actually The Battle of Narvik, in which Norwegian, British and French forces reconquered Narvik from the Germans. Winston Churchill declared “We are used to saying that the Greeks fight like heroes, from now on we shall say that the heroes fight like Greeks.”

President Roosevelt announced a shift in the American stance from neutrality to “non-belligerency”.

1941: Yugoslavia, Greece, Soviet Union, Continuation War, United States enters

Yugoslavia’s government succumbed to the pressure of Italy and Germany and signed the Tripartite Treaty on March 25, 1941. This was followed by anti-axis demonstrations in the country and a coup which overthrew the government and replaced it with a pro-allied one on March 27, 1941. Hitler’s forces then invaded Greece and Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941. Hitler reluctantly sent forces to assist Mussolini’s bogged-down forces in Greece, principally to prevent a British buildup on Germany’s strategic southern flank. A month later on May 20, 1941, the Battle of Crete began when tens of thousands of elite German paratroopers and some 1,300 aeroplanes launched a massive airborne invasion of the Greek island of Crete. Crete was defended by an ill-equipped group of about 43,000 Greek, New Zealand, Australian and British troops. The Germans attacked the island simultaneously on the three airfields. Their invasion on two of the airfields failed miserably, but they successfully captured one, which allowed them to reinforce their position by landing reinforcements (about three transport planes every five minutes). After a week it was decided that so many German troops had been flown in that there was no way to defeat them. The Allied soldiers had grown exhausted and were by now numerically inferior. An evacuation took place and about 17,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were evacuated. About 12,000 Commonwealth and 5,500 Greek troops were made prisoners; however, over 10,000 Greek and 500 Commonwealth troops remained at large and caused serious problems for the German occupiers over the next four years. The Germans suffered over 17,000 casualties in Crete. So heavy were the losses that Hitler never launched another airborne assault. General Kurt Student, who commanded the invasion of Crete, would later say “Crete was the grave of the German parachutists.” As a result, planned airborne operations against Malta, Cyprus, and the Suez Canal never took place.

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on 22 June 1941. The “Great Patriotic War” (Russian: Великая Отечественная Война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna) had begun with surprise attacks by German panzer armies, which encircled and destroyed much of the Soviet’s western military, capturing or killing hundreds of thousands of men. Soviet forces came to fight a war of scorched earth, withdrawing into the steppe of Russia to acquire time and stretch the German army. Industries were dismantled and withdrawn to the Ural mountains for reassembly. German armies pursued a three-pronged advance against Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), Moscow, and the Caucasus. Having pushed to occupy Moscow before winter, German forces were delayed into the Soviet Winter. Soviet counterattacks defeated them within sight of Moscow’s spires, and a rout was only narrowly avoided. Some historians identify this as the “turning point” in the Allies’ war against Germany; others identify the capitulation of the German Sixth Army outside Stalingrad (modern-day Volgograd) in 1943.

The Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union began with Soviet air attacks shortly after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, on 25 June, and ended with an armistice in 1944. The Soviet Union was joined in the war by the United Kingdom but not by the United States.

Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was not obligated to do so under the Tripartite Pact of 1940. Hitler made the declaration in the hopes that Japan would support him by attacking the Soviet Union. Japan did not oblige him, and this diplomatic move proved a catastrophic blunder which gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt the pretext needed for the United States joining the fight in Europe with full commitment and with no meaningful opposition from Congress. Some historians mark this moment as another major turning point of the war with Hitler provoking a grand alliance of powerful nations who could wage powerful attacks on both East and West simultaneously.

1942: Turning of the war in Russia

1942: Caucasus offensive, Stalingrad

In 1942, an aborted German offensive was launched towards the Caucasus to secure oil fields and German armies reached Stalingrad. The siege of Stalingrad continued for many months, with vicious urban warfare leading to high casualties on both sides. At night, the Soviet forces were resupplied from the east bank of the Volga, and the Wehrmacht forces were eventually ground down; especially after Hitler diverted the armor of the Sixth Army to the Caucasus. By early February 1943, it was clear that the Sixth Army would have to surrender. The Fuhrer made General Friedrich Paulus, who was in charge of the German forces, a Field Marshal in the vain hope it would deter him from surrendering. It didn’t, and he surrendered completely on February 2. The results were the destruction of the city, millions of casualties, and the collapse of Germany’s Sixth Army as a viable fighting force. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels responded with his Sportpalast speech to the German people. Some historians cite this as the European war’s “turning point.”

1943: Kursk

German forces repulsed Red Army offensives along the Don basin near Stalingrad in January 1943. In July, the Wehrmacht launched a much-delayed offensive against the Soviet Union at Kursk. Their intentions were known by the Soviets, and the Battle of Kursk ended in a Soviet counteroffensive that threw the German Army back.

1944: France invaded, Soviet-Finland armistice, surrender of minor Axis, Ardennes offensive

On “D-Day”, 6 June 1944, the western Allies invaded German-held Normandy in a pre-dawn amphibious assault spearheaded by American (82nd and 101st), British (6th) and Canadian paratroops, opening the “second front” against Germany.2 Hedgerows aided the defending German units, and for months the Allies measured progress in hundreds of yards and bloody rifle fights. An Allied breakout was effected at St.-Lô, and the most powerful German force in France, the Seventh Army, was destroyed in the Falaise pocket while counterattacking. Allied forces stationed in Italy invaded the French Riviera on 15 August and linked up with forces from Normandy. The Allies captured Paris on 25 August.

By early 1944, the Red Army had reached the border of Poland and lifted the Siege of Leningrad. Shortly after Allied landings at Normandy, on 9 June, the Soviet Union began an offensive on the Karelian Isthmus that after three months would force Nazi Germany’s co-belligerent Finland to an armistice. Operation Bagration, a Soviet offensive involving 2.5 million men and 6,000 tanks, was launched on 22 June, destroying the German Army Group Center and taking 350,000 prisoners. Finland’s defense had been dependent on active, or in periods passive, support from the German Wehrmacht that also provided defense for the chiefly uninhabited northern half of Finland. After the Wehrmacht retreated from the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, Finland’s defense was untenable. The Allies’ armistice conditions included further territorial losses and the internment or expulsion of German troops on Finnish soil executed in the Lapland War, now as co-belligerents of the Allies, who also demanded the political leadership to be prosecuted in “war-responsibility trials” that by the Finnish public were perceived as a mockery of the rule of law.

British forces attempted a fast advance into Germany with Operation Market Garden in September, but were repulsed. Logistical problems were starting to plague the Allies advance west as the supply lines still ran back to the beaches of Normandy. A decisive victory by the Cdn. 1st Army in the Battle of the Scheldt secured the entrance to the port of Antwerp, freeing it to receive supplies by late November 1944. Romania surrendered in August of 1944 and Bulgaria in September. The Warsaw Uprising was fought between 1 August and 2 October. Germany withdrew from the Balkans and held Hungary until February 1945.

In December of 1944, the German Army made its last major offensive in the West, attempting to capture the vital port of Antwerp and cripple the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge. At first, Germans scored successes against the Americans stationed in the Ardennes. However, with the German failure to capture Bastogne and the arrival of Gen. Patton’s Third Army, the Germans were forced to retreat back into Germany. The offensive was defeated. By now, the Soviets had reached the eastern borders of pre-war Germany.

1945: Yalta Conference, push into Germany, Berlin falls, occupation

Churchill, Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt made arrangements for post-war Europe at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. It resulted in an April meeting to form the United Nations: nation-states were created in Eastern Europe; it was agreed Poland would have free elections (in fact elections were heavily rigged by Soviets); Soviet nationals were to be repatriated, and the Soviet Union was to attack Japan within three months of Germany’s surrender.

The Red Army (including 78,556 soldiers of the 1st Polish Army) began its final assault on Berlin on 16 April. Hitler and his staff moved into the Führerbunker, a concrete bunker beneath the Chancellery, where on 30 April 1945, he committed suicide. The Soviets took a massive toll of 100,000 men killed. Karl Dönitz became leader of the German government and quickly dispatched the German High Command to travel to Reims, France, to sign an unconditional surrender with the Allies. Field Marschal Jodl surrended unconditionally on 7 May. The Western Allies celebrated “V-E Day” on 8 May and the Soviet Union “Victory Day” on 9 May. The Soviet Union forcefully occupied the Baltic states as part of Stalin’s campaign to subjugate the nations of Eastern Europe.

Pacific and East Asia, 1937–45

1937: Sino-Japanese War

War conflict began in Asia years before fighting started in Europe. Japan had already invaded China in 1931, long before World War II started in Europe. On March 1st, the Japanese appointed Henry Pu Yi king in Manchukuo, the puppet state in Manchuria. By 1937, war had broken out as the Japanese sought control of China.

Roosevelt signed an unpublished (secret) executive order in May of 1940 allowing U.S. military personnel to resign from the service so that they could participate in a covert operation in China: the American Volunteer Group, also known as Chennault’s Flying Tigers. Over a seven-month period, Chennault’s Flying Tigers destroyed an estimated 600 Japanese aircraft, sunk numerous Japanese ships, and stalled the Japanese invasion of Burma. With the United States and other countries cutting exports, particularly fuel oil, to Japan, Japan planned a strike on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941 to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet while consolidating oil fields in Southeast Asia. It is hard to determine whether the Japanese intended to release an advance declaration of war, however, as means of coordinating secret directives with public communication, particularly during a weekend in the U.S., were limited. Despite what warning signs remained, the attack on Pearl Harbor achieved military surprise and dealt severe damage to the American Fleet’s Battleships, though the primary targets–Fleet Carriers–remained safely at sea. The next day, Japanese forces arrived at Hong Kong, which later led to the surrender of the British colony on Christmas Day, as well as launching numerous attacks on British and American outposts across the Pacific.

1940: Vichy France colonies

In 1940, Japan occupied French Indochina (Vietnam) upon agreement with the Vichy Government despite local Free French, and joined Axis powers Germany and Italy. These actions intensified Japan’s conflict with the United States and the United Kingdom, which reacted with an oil boycott.

1941: Pearl Harbor, the United States enters the war, Japanese invasions in SE Asia

On December 7, 1941, Japanese warplanes commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo carried out a surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor, the largest U.S. naval base in the Pacific. The Japanese forces met little resistance and devastated the harbor. This attack resulted in eight battleships either sunk or damaged, damage to three light cruisers and damage to four destroyers in addition to damage to some auxilaries and approximately 300 aircraft either damaged or destroyed. No U.S. Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were at the harbor at the time of Japanese attack. The following day, the United States declared war on Japan.

Simultaneously to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan also attacked U.S air bases in the Philippines. Immediately following these attacks, Japan invaded the Philippines and also the British Colonies of Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo and Burma with the intention of seizing the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies. In a matter of months, all these territories, and more, fell to the Japanese onslaught. The British island fortress of Singapore was captured in what Churchill considered one of the most humiliating British defeats of all time.

1942: Coral Sea, Port Moresby, Midway, Guadalcanal

In May 1942, a naval attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea, was thwarted by Allied navies in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Had the capture of Port Moresby succeeded, the Japanese Navy would have been within striking range of Australia. This was both the first successful opposition to Japanese plans and the first naval battle fought only between aircraft carriers. The two sides suffered roughly equal losses. A month later the invasion of Midway Island was prevented by decoding secret Japanese messages, and hence alerted U.S. naval leaders that the target of the Japanese was Midway. American pilots sunk four Japanese carriers which the Japanese industry could not replace swiftly. The loss of many planes and skilled pilots (many of them took part in Pearl Harbor) was also difficult to redress. The Americans lost one carrier and fewer planes. It was a complete victory for the Americans and the Japanese Navy was now on the defensive.

However, in July an overland attack on Port Moresby was led along the rugged Kokoda Track. This was met with Australian reservists, many of them very young and untrained, fighting a stubborn rearguard action until the arrival of Australian regulars returning from action in North Africa, Greece and the Middle East. But amazingly, the outnumbered and untrained Australian 39th battalion, defeated the 5,000-strong Japanese army. This was one of the most significant victories in Australian military history.

Even prior to the American entry to the war, the Allied leaders had agreed that priority should be given to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, U.S. forces began to attack captured territories, beginning with Guadalcanal Island, against a bitter and determined Japanese defense. On 7 August 1942, the United States assaulted the island. In late August and early September, while battle raged on Guadalcanal, an amphibious Japanese attack on the eastern tip of New Guinea was met by Australian forces at Milne Bay, and the Japanese land forces suffered their first conclusive defeat. On Guadalcanal, the Japanese resistance failed in February 1943.

1943–45: Allied offensives in Asia and the Pacific

Australian and U.S. forces then undertook the prolonged campaign to retake the occupied parts of the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies, experiencing some of the toughest resistance of the war. The rest of the Solomon Islands were retaken in 1943, New Britain and New Ireland in 1944. As the Philippines were being re-taken in late 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf raged, arguably the largest naval battle in history. The last major offensive in the South West Pacific Area was the Borneo campaign of mid-1945, which was aimed at further isolating the remaining Japanese forces in South East Asia, and securing the release of Allied POWs.

Allied submarines and aircraft also attacked Japanese merchant shipping, depriving Japan’s industry of the raw materials it had gone to war to obtain. The effectiveness of this stranglehold increased as U.S. Marines captured islands closer to the Japanese mainland.

The Nationalist Kuomintang Army, under Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Chinese Army, under Mao Zedong, both opposed the Japanese occupation of China, but never truly allied against the Japanese. Conflict between Nationalist and Communist forces emerged long before the war; it continued after and, to an extent, even during the war, though more implicitly.

The Japanese had captured most of Burma, severing the Burma Road by which the Western Allies had been supplying the Chinese Nationalists. This forced the Allies to create a large sustained airlift, known as “flying the Hump”. U.S. led and trained Chinese divisions, a British division and a few thousand U.S. ground troops, cleared the Japanese forces from northern Burma so that the Ledo Road could be built to replace the Burma Road. Further south the main Japanese army in the theatre were fought to a standstill on the Burma-India frontier by the British Fourteenth Army (the “Forgotten Army”), which then counter-attacked, and having recaptured all of Burma was planning attacks towards Malaya when the war ended.

1945: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, atomic bombings, Japan surrenders

U.S. capture of islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa brought the Japanese homeland within range of naval and air attack. Amongst dozens of other cities, Tokyo was firebombed and on the inital attack alone upwards of 90,000 people died as the fire raced unchecked through the city. The high loss of life was attributed to the dense living conditions around production centers and the wood and paper residential construction common to that period. Later on 6 August 1945, the B-29 “Enola Gay”, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, dropped an atomic bomb (Little Boy) on Hiroshima, effectively destroying it. On 8 August 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, as had been agreed to at Yalta, and launched a large scale invasion of Japanese occupied Manchuria (Operation August Storm). On August 9, the B-29 “Bock’s Car”, piloted by Maj. Charles Sweeney, dropped an atomic bomb (Fat Man) on Nagasaki.

The combination of the use of atomic weapons and the new inclusion of the Soviet Union in the war were both highly responsible for the surrender of Japan, although the USSR did not declare war until August 8, 1945, after first atomic bombing had taken place.

The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945, signing official surrender papers on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Japan’s surrender to the United States did not fully end the war, however, because Japan and the Soviet Union never signed a peace agreement. In the last days of the armed conflict, the Soviet Union occupied the Southern Kurile Islands, an area previously held by Japan and claimed by the Soviets. Multiple efforts [1] to bring to a peace agreement, and officially end the war, have as yet not succeeded.

Mediterranean, 1940–45

1940: Egypt and Libya

The North African Campaign began in 1940, Italian forces in Libya attacked British forces in Egypt. The aim was to make Egypt an Italian possession, especially the vital Suez Canal. British, Indian and Australian forces counterattacked (see Operation Compass), but this offensive stopped in 1941 when much of the Commonwealth forces were transferred to Greece to defend it from German attack. However, German forces (known later as the Afrika Korps) under General Erwin Rommel landed in Libya, and renewed the assault on Egypt.

1941: Syria, Lebanon, Afrika Korps to Tobruk

In June 1941, Allied forces invaded Syria and Lebanon, capturing Damascus on 17 June (see Syria-Lebanon campaign). Meanwhile Rommel’s forces advanced rapidly eastward, laying siege to the vital seaport of Tobruk. Australian and other Alllied troops in the city resisted all until relieved, but a renewed Axis offensive captured the city and drove the Eighth Army back to a line at El Alamein.

1942: First and Second Battles of El Alamein

The First Battle of El Alamein took place between July 1 and July 27, 1942. German forces had advanced to the last defensible point before Alexandria and the Suez Canal. However, they had outrun their supplies, and a Commonwealth defense stopped their thrusts. The Second Battle of El Alamein occurred between October 23 and November 3, 1942, after Bernard Montgomery had replaced Claude Auchinleck as commander of the Commonwealth forces, now known as the Eighth Army. Rommel, the brilliant German commander of the Afrika Corps, known as the “Desert Fox”, was absent for this epic battle, because he was recovering from jaundice back in Europe. Commonwealth forces took the offensive, and although they lost more tanks than the Germans began the battle with, Montgomery was ultimately triumphant.

The western Allies had the advantage of being close to their supplies during the battle. In addition, Rommel was getting little or no help by this time from the struggling Luftwaffe, which was now more tasked with defending Western European air space, and fighting the Soviet Union, than providing Rommel with support in North Africa. After the German defeat at El Alamein, Rommel made a brilliant strategic withdrawal to Tunisia. Many historians feel Rommel’s successful strategic withdrawal of the Afrika Corps from Egypt was more impressive than his earlier victories, including Tobruk, because he managed to get his whole force back intact against the overwhelming air superiority and numbers of the Commonwealth now reinforced by the Americans.

1942: Operation Torch, French North Africa

During the Arcadia Conference from December 1941 to January 1942, the Allied leaders concluded that it was essential to keep Russia in the war. This consideration led to the overall strategy “Germany First”; i.e. giving priority of knocking out Germany before Japan. This decision resulted in a long debate as to where and when to open a Second Front against Germany. The American Chiefs of Staff favoured a cross-channel (France) amphibious operation in the summer. The British opposed this because of insufficient landing craft and logistical problems. It was also thought that American forces were in a process of expansion, organisation and exercise, not capable yet of fighting an experienced German army. Only if Russia collapsed would they approve a main landing in France. Churchill put forward the idea of a small invasion in Norway or landings in French North Africa. The plan for landings in Africa were approved in July 1942.

Operation Torch was headed by General Dwight Eisenhower. The aim of Torch was to gain control of Morocco and Algiers through simultaneous landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, followed a few days later with a landing at Bône, the gateway to Tunisia.

The operation was launched on 8 November 1942. The first wave was almost entirely American troops, because it was thought that the French would react more favourably to Americans than British. It was hoped that the local forces of Vichy France would put up no resistance, and submit to the authority of Free French General Henri Giraud. In fact resistance was stronger than expected, but still sporadic. In Algiers, 400 French resistance captured much of the city, though it was retaken before Allied forces could arrive. The Vichy commander, Admiral Darlan, negotiated an end to hostilities, against orders from the Vichy government. He was allowed to retain local control by the Allies, to the annoyance of Free French leaders. Hitler invaded and occupied Vichy France in response.

Rommel’s Afrika Corps was not being supplied adequately because of the loss of transport shipments caused by Allied—mostly British—navies and air forces in the Mediterranean. This lack of supplies and air support destroyed any chance of a large offensive for the Germans in Africa. Ultimately, German and Italian forces were caught in the pincers of a twin advance from Algeria and Libya. The withdrawing Germans continued to put up stiff defense, and Rommel defeated the American forces decisively at the Battle of Kasserine Pass before finishing his strategic withdrawal back to the meager German supply chain. Inevitably, advancing from both the east and west, the Allies finally defeated the German Afrika Corps on May 13, 1943. 250,000 Axis soldiers were taken prisoner.

1943: Yugoslavia and Italy

Mid-1943 brought the fifth and final German Sutjeska offensive against the Yugoslav Partisans before the invasion and subsequent capitulation of Italy, the other major occupying force in Yugoslavia.

Newly captured North Africa was used as a springboard for the invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943. On July 25 Mussolini was fired from office by the King of Italy, allowing a new government to take power. Having captured Sicily, the Allies invaded mainland Italy on 3 September 1943. Italy surrendered on 8 September, but German forces continued to fight. Allied forces advanced north, but were stalled for the winter at the Gustav Line, until they broke through in the Battle of Monte Cassino. Rome was captured on 5 June 1944.

Home front

Home front is the name given to the activities of the civilians in a state of total war (sometimes referred to by the United States as the American Theater of Operations).

In Britain women joined the work force in jobs that the men overseas used to occupy. Food, clothing, petrol and other items were rationed. Access to luxuries was severely restricted, though there was also a significant black market. Families also grew victory gardens, small home vegetable gardens, to supply themselves with food. Civilians also served as Air Raid Wardens, volunteer emergency services and other critical functions. Schools and organizations held scrap drives and money collections to help the war effort. Many things were conserved to turn into weapons later, such as fat to turn into nitroglycerin. A notable case was the collection of street railings as scrap iron, which changed the ‘feel’ of many older urban streets. This metal, however, was unsuitable for re-use and subsequently dumped.

In the United States and Canada women also joined the workforce to replace men who had joined the forces, though in lesser numbers. Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that the efforts of civilians at home to support the war through personal sacrifice was as critical to winning the war as the efforts of the soldiers themselves.

In Germany, at least for the first part of the war, there were surprisingly few restrictions on civilian activities. Most goods were freely available. This was due in large part to the reduced access to certain luxuries already experienced by German civilians prior to the beginning of hostilities; the war made some less available but many were in short supply to begin with. For example, the famous Volkswagen “People’s Cars” that Hitler had promised the German people were not actually produced until after the war. The factories meant for the cars were instead used to manufacture war materials. It was not until comparatively late in the war that the civilian German population was effectively organised to support the war effort. For example, women’s labour was not mobilised as thoroughly as in Britain or the US. Foreign slave labour was more significant as a substitute for the males enlisted into the armed forces.

Civilian populations were heavily involved in war production and subject to propaganda from both sides.

Genocide, atrocities, war crimes, and internment

Acts of genocide against or mass internment of civilian populations occurred in the territories and/or occupied territories of most great powers of the war, including Germany, Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Some of these were so unimaginably immense and horrific that they changed the psyche of Western civilization; bringing to an end the optimistic beliefs in continual improvement in human nature which had supported western civilization in its education and imperialism up to that point.

Internment and genocide

The worst conditions were imposed in Nazi concentration camps. Most camps were specialized into variously forced labour camps, starvation camps (Buchenwald) or later extermination camps (Treblinka, Sobibor); though Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous, had a separate camp devoted to each purpose. In the Holocaust “Death-camps” large numbers of people were killed using gas, usually immediately after they disembarked from trains under the pretense of being given a shower to prevent disease. Grounds for this mass murder were variously racist (Jews, Roma [Gypsies]) “eugenic” (mental patients, homosexuals), and military/political opposition: initially anarchist and communist militant opponents, then ideological opponents (pacifists, Jehovah’s Witnesses), then citizens of occupied countries (like Poles), later Soviet POWs and then military and underground opposition. Jews were the largest group of people killed, approximately 6 million. Next in reducing order were Poles, other Slavs, Soviet POWs and then other groups.

Conditions as horrific as, or even worse than, Nazi concentration camps were in the USSR’s gulags. Japanese POW camps also had high death rates. Many citizens of occupied countries like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia as well as German POW’s and even Soviet citizens themselves died in the Soviet Gulags or Labor camps, along with many opponents of Stalin’s regime and large proportions of some ethnic groups (particularly Chechens). Many Japanese POW camps were used as labour camps and starvation conditions among the mainly U.S. and Commonwealth prisoners were little better than many German concentration camps.

Thousands of Japanese Americans were interned by the U.S. (under Executive Order 9066) as well as Canadian governments causing postwar outrage and compensation claims.

Atrocity and war crimes

Few forms of atrocity were excluded from the Eastern European theatre, including the killing of millions of Poles, Ukrainians and Belarusians in the name of Lebensraum, of over a million Yugoslavs in disproportionate reprisal killings for Partisan activity, plus medical experimentation on concentration camp inmates. The population of Kiev dropped by 90% between the early 1930s and 1945, partly from starvation under Stalin, mostly under the Nazis.

Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention until after the war, and millions of Asian civilians and Allied POWs were killed by its military and/or used as forced labour. The most notorious atrocities occurred in China, including the Nanjing Massacre and Unit 731’s experiments with biological warfare in Manchuria, with a view to killing a large part of the Chinese population. Japanese war crimes also included rape, pillage, murder, cannibalism and forcing female civilians to become sex slaves, known as “comfort women” .

In 1940, the Soviet Union murdered over 22,000 citizens of Poland, mainly Polish officers, but also scientists, politicians, doctors, lawyers, priests and others. This genocide is known as the Katyn Massacre. Soviet occupation of Poland between 1939 and 1941 resulted in the death or deportation of least 1.8 million former Polish citizens.

Though Article XXII of the draft Hague Rules of Air Warfare (1923) stated “aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants” was to be prohibited, these rules were not ratified by the Powers. Germany has been bombing civilian targets from the first days of the war. In the first months of the war the British Government ordered the RAF to adhere strictly to the draft rules, but this restriction was progressively relaxed and abandoned altogether in 1942. By 1945 the strategic bombing of cities had been employed extensively by all sides. German bombing of Poland, Britain and the USSR initially caused shock but was soon exceeded by allied bombing. The deliberate firestorm bombing of Japanese and German cities, including Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden by Anglo-American forces and the American atomic bombing of 2 Japanese civilian populations Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have been subject to criticism during the post-war era as possible war crimes; no action was taken against those responsible.

From 1945 to 1951, German and Japanese officials and personnel, but no Allied personnel, were prosecuted by Allied tribunals for war crimes. Accused of genocide and atrocities, many German officials were tried at the Nuremburg Trials, and many Japanese officials at the Tokyo War Crime Trial and other war crimes trials in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a trial for Allied war crimes, especially Soviet war crimes, has not taken place.

Technology in World War II

The massive research and development demands of the war, including the Manhattan Project’s efforts to quickly achieve a working nuclear weapon design, greatly impacted the scientific community, among other things creating a network of national laboratories in the United States. In addition, the pressing need for numerous time-critical calculations for various projects like code breaking and ballistics tables accentuated the need for the development of electronic computer technology. While the war stimulated many technologies, such as radio and radar development, it retarded related yet non-critical fields such as television in the major powers.

The Jet aircraft age began during the war with the development of the Heinkel He 178, the first true turbojet, the Messerschmitt 262—the first jet in combat, and the Gloster Meteor, the first Allied jet fighter. The Nazi terror weapon, the V-2 rocket, was the first step into the space age as its trajectory took it through the stratosphere, higher and faster than any aircraft. It led directly to the development of the ICBM. Wernher Von Braun led the V-2 development team and later immigrated to the United States where he contributed to the development of the Saturn V rocket, which took men to the moon in 1969.

All military technology progressed at a faster pace even than modern computers, and over six years there was a disorientating rate of change in combat in everything from aircraft to small arms. The best jet fighters at the end of the war easily outflew any of the leading aircraft on 1939, such as the Spitfire Mark I. However, despite their technological edge, German jets were overwhelmed by Allied air superiority, frequently being destroyed on or near the airstrip. Other nations’ jet aircraft, such as the British Gloster Meteor, did not significantly distinguish themselves from top-line piston-driven aircraft. The best late-war tanks, such as the Soviet JS-3 heavy tank or the German Panther medium tank, handily outclassed the best tanks of 1939 such as Panzer IVs. The early war bombers that caused such carnage would almost all have been shot down in 1945, many with one shot, by radar aimed, proximity fuse detonated anti-aircraft fire, just as the 1941 “invincible fighter”, the Zero, had by 1944 become the “turkey” of the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”. This future shock was capped by the atomic bomb.

The chaotic impotence of opposed amphibious landings typical of WWI disasters was overcome; the Higgins boat, primary troop landing craft, the DUKW, a six-wheel-drive amphibious truck, and amphibious tanks were developed by the Western Allies to enable beach landing attacks, and the organization and coordination of amphibious assaults coupled with the resources necessary to sustain them became a science.


In contrast to World War I, the Western victors in the Second World War did not demand compensation from the defeated nations. On the contrary, a plan created by U. S. Secretary of State George Marshall, the “European Recovery Program”, better known as the Marshall Plan, called for the U.S. Congress to allocate billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Europe. Also as part of the effort to rebuild global capitalism and spur post-war reconstruction, the Bretton Woods system was put into effect after the war.

The end of the war is also seen by many as the end of Britain’s position as a global superpower and the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the dominant powers in the world. Friction had been building up between the two before the end of the war, and with the collapse of Nazi Germany relations spiraled downward. The Cold War had begun.

At the end of the second world war, the European economy had collapsed, and 70% of the European industrial infrastructure was destroyed. There was also a moral crisis, because people could not understand how Western civilisation could produce death camps and atom bombs.

Millions of refugees were homeless. After the war, some German and Japanese leaders were tried for crimes against humanity. On the political side, the war increased the strength of independence movements in the European powers’ African, Asian, and American colonies, and most of them became independent in the following twenty years.

United Nations and the Cold War

Since the League of Nations had obviously failed to prevent the war, a new international order was constructed. In 1945 the United Nations was founded. Also, in order to prevent such devastating war from occurring again and to establish a lasting peace in Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community was born in 1951 (Treaty of Paris (1951)), the predecessor of the European Union.

In the Paris Peace Treaty, the Soviet Union’s enemies, Hungary, Finland and Romania, were required to pay war reparations of $300,000,000 each (in 1938 dollars) to the Soviet Union. Italy was required to pay $360,000,000, shared chiefly between Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

In the areas occupied by Western Allied troops, democratic governments were created; in the areas occupied by Soviet troops, including the territories of former Allies like Poland, communist puppet governments were created, giving rise to the western betrayal sentiment in many of those countries. Soviet pressure further delayed their economic development, forcing them to ignore the Marshall Plan. Germany was partitioned into four zones of occupation, with the American, British and French zones grouped as West Germany and the Soviet zone as East Germany. Austria was once again separated from Germany and it, too, was divided into four zones of occupation, which eventually re-united and became the state of Austria. The Cold War had begun, and soon NATO and the Warsaw Pact would form.

The repatriation, pursuant to the terms of the Yalta Conference, of two million Russian soldiers serving under Germany, who had surrendered to advancing American and British forces, resulted for the most part in their deaths.


Estimates on the precise number vary widely, although most experts calculate the full civilian and combatant losses at 55 million, including the estimated 11 million lives lost due to the Holocaust, consisting of 5.6–5.9 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews made up of Poles, Roma, homosexuals, communists, dissidents, Afro-Germans, the disabled, Soviet prisoners as well as others.

Specifically, Allied forces suffered approximately 14.2 million deaths, and Axis forces suffered approximately 6.8 million deaths, Germany specifically had 5 million. The Soviet Union had the largest death toll, suffering an estimated 20 million civilian casualties along with 8 million Soviet soldiers killed.

In total, about 12 million soldiers lost their lives in the Second World War along with about 45 million civilians.

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