World War II, the global military conflict that, in terms of lives lost and material destruction, was the most devastating war in human history. It began in 1939 as a European conflict between Germany and an Anglo-French-Polish coalition but eventually widened to include most of the nations of the world. It ended in 1945, leaving a new world order of the Superpowers dominated by the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
More than any previous war, World War II involved the commitment of nations’ entire human and economic resources, the blurring of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, and the expansion of the battlefield to include all of the enemy’s territory. It was also unique in modern times for the savagery of the military attacks unleashed against civilians, and for the adoption by Nazi Germany of genocide (of Jews, Roma [Gypsies], homosexuals, and other groups) as a specific war aim. The most important determinants of its outcome were industrial capacity and personnel. In the last stages of the war, two radically new weapons were introduced: the long-range rocket and the atomic bomb. In the main, however, the war was fought with the same or improved weapons of the types used in World War I. The greatest advances were in aircraft and tanks.
II THE WORLD AFTER WORLD WAR I
Three major powers had been dissatisfied with the outcome of World War I. Germany, the principal defeated nation, bitterly resented the territorial losses and reparations payments imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. Italy, one of the victors, found its territorial gains far from enough either to offset the cost of the war or to satisfy its ambitions. Japan, also a victor, was unhappy about its failure to gain greater holdings in East Asia.
A Causes of the War
France, Great Britain, and the United States had attained their wartime objectives. They had reduced Germany to a military cipher and had reorganized Europe and the world as they saw fit, with the French Empire and the British Empire controlling much of the globe. The French and the British frequently disagreed on policy in the post-war period, however, and were unsure of their ability to defend the peace settlement. The United States, disillusioned with the Treaty of Versailles, with the selfish nature of Allied war aims, and with the secret treaties they had signed during the war, disavowed the treaty and the League of Nations included in it and retreated into political isolationism.
A1 Failure of Peace Efforts
During the 1920s, attempts were made to achieve a stable peace. The first was the establishment (1920) of the League of Nations as a forum in which nations could settle their disputes. The League’s powers were limited to persuasion and various levels of moral and economic sanctions that the members were free to carry out as they saw fit. At the Washington Conference of 1921-1922, the principal naval powers agreed to limit their navies according to a fixed ratio. The Treaties of Locarno produced by the Locarno Conference (1925) included a treaty guarantee of the German-French boundary and an arbitration agreement between Germany and Poland. In the Paris Peace Pact (1928), 63 countries, including all the great powers except the USSR, renounced war as an instrument of national policy and pledged to resolve all disputes among them “by pacific means”. The signatories had agreed beforehand to exempt wars of “self-defence”.
A2 Rise of Fascism
One of the victors’ stated aims in World War I had been “to make the world safe for democracy”, and post-war Germany adopted a democratic constitution, as did most of the other states restored or created after the war. In the 1920s, however, the wave of the future appeared to be a form of nationalistic, militaristic totalitarianism known by its Italian name, fascism. It promised to minister to people’s wants more effectively than democracy and presented itself as the one sure defence against Communism. Benito Mussolini established the first Fascist dictatorship in Italy in 1922.
A3 Formation of the Axis Coalition
Adolf Hitler, the Führer (leader) of the German National Socialist (Nazi) party, preached a brand of fascism predicated on anti-Semitism and racism. Hitler promised to overturn the Versailles Treaty and secure additional Lebensraum (living space) for the German people who, he contended, deserved more as members of a superior race. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression hit Germany. The moderate parties could not agree on what to do about it, and large numbers of voters turned to the Nazis and Communists. In 1933 Hitler became the German chancellor, and in a series of subsequent moves established himself as a dictator.
Japan did not formally adopt fascism, but the armed forces’ powerful position in the government enabled them to impose a similar type of totalitarianism on the civilian leadership. As a dismantler of the world status quo, the Japanese military was well ahead of Hitler. It used a minor clash with Chinese troops near Mukden in 1931 as a pretext for taking over all of the Dongbei, where it proclaimed the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. In 1937-1938 it occupied the main Chinese ports.
Having denounced the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty, created a new air force, and reintroduced conscription, in March 1936 Hitler dispatched German troops into the Rhineland. Under the Versailles and Locarno treaties, the Rhineland had been permanently demilitarized, but Hitler’s breach of the treaties was greeted with only feeble protests from London and Paris. Hitler had committed his first major breach of the treaty settlement of 1919 and the Anglo-French entente failed to resist him, a pattern followed with monotonous regularity until September 1939.
Hitler tried out his new weapons on the side of right-wing military rebels in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The venture brought him into collaboration with Mussolini, who was also supporting the Spanish revolt after having seized Ethiopia in the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936. Treaties between Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1936-1937 brought into being the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. The Axis Powers thereafter became the collective term for those countries and their allies.
A4 German Aggression in Europe
Hitler launched his own expansionist drive with the annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Anschluss. The way was clear: Mussolini supported him; and the British and French, overawed by German rearmament, accepted Hitler’s claim that the status of Austria was an internal German affair. The United States had severely impaired its ability to act against aggression by passing a neutrality law that prohibited material assistance to all parties in foreign conflicts.
In September 1938 Hitler threatened war to annex the western border area of Czechoslovakia, the Sudeten region, and its 3.5 million ethnic Germans. The British prime minister Neville Chamberlain initiated talks that culminated at the end of the month in the Munich Pact, by which the Czechs, on British and French urging, relinquished the Sudeten areas in return for Hitler’s promise not to take any more Czech territory. Chamberlain believed he had achieved “peace in our time”, but the word “Munich” soon implied abject and futile appeasement.
Less than six months later, in March 1939, Hitler seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Alarmed by this new aggression and by Hitler’s threats against Poland, the British government pledged to aid that country if Germany threatened its independence. France already had a mutual defence treaty with Poland.
The turn away from appeasement brought the USSR to the fore. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, had offered military help to Czechoslovakia during the 1938 crisis but had been ignored by all the parties to the Munich Agreement. Now that war threatened, he was courted by both sides, but Hitler made the more attractive offer. Allied with Britain and France, the USSR might well have had to fight, but all Germany asked for was its neutrality. In Moscow, on the night of August 23, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed. In the part published the next day, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed not to go to war against each other. A secret protocol gave Stalin a free hand in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and eastern Romania.
III MILITARY OPERATIONS
In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, the German armies marched into Poland. On September 3, the British and French surprised Hitler by declaring war on Germany, but they had no plans for rendering active assistance to the Poles. Anglo-French military plans were based on France remaining on the defensive behind the heavily fortified Maginot Line while Britain built up its military potential for a long war. The French were not prepared to take the risk of attacking even the lightly defended German Siegfried Line while the German army was engaged in crushing Poland. Military and economic historians are divided about Hitler’s intentions in 1939. Some economic historians argue that Germany had rearmed only in width; that is, concentrating only on producing those weapons, such as tanks and aircraft, suitable for a series of lightning battles, which eventually took place in Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France. They suggest that Germany possessed neither the resources nor the desire drastically to reduce existing civilian consumption levels to fight a long war of attrition. Others argue that Hitler all along intended to prepare for a long war against his adversaries, which was to begin in about 1942. To this end he had inaugurated the Four-Year Plan in 1936, under the control of Hermann Göring, which was intended to establish a Germany self-sufficient in raw materials and foodstuffs (for which purpose, of course, Germany needed to control the resources of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the other Balkan states, a task accomplished by 1939), and thereby possessing the industrial capacity necessary for war. In the event, Hitler’s impatience in 1939 led him to miscalculate on the possibility of Anglo-French intervention when he invaded Poland in September, so that Germany was forced into a major war before it had fully built up its military strength. Whichever is the case, Hitler’s gamble paid off until 1941-1942, when the unexpected and resolute resistance of the Soviet people and armies forced him into the long war of attrition he had sought to avoid and for which Germany was not adequately equipped.
A The First Phase: Dominance of the Axis
Man for man, the German and Polish forces were an even match. Hitler committed about 1.5 million troops, and the Polish commander, Marshal Edward Smigły-Rydz, expected to muster 1.8 million. That was not the whole picture, however. The Germans had six panzer (armoured) and four motorized divisions; the Poles had one armoured and one motorized brigade and a few tank battalions. The Germans’ 1,600 aircraft were mostly of the latest types. Half of the Poles’ 935 planes were obsolete.
A1 Blitzkrieg in Poland
Polish strategic doctrine called for a rigid defence of the whole frontier and anticipated several weeks of preliminary skirmishing. It was wrong on both counts. On the morning of September 1, waves of German bombers hit the railways and hopelessly snarled the Polish mobilization. In four more days, two army groups—one on the north out of East Prussia, the other on the south out of Silesia—had broken through on relatively narrow fronts and were sending armoured spearheads on fast drives towards Warsaw and Brest. This was blitzkrieg (lightning war): the use of armour, air power, and mobile infantry in a pincer movement to encircle the enemy.
Between September 8 and 10, the Germans closed in on Warsaw from the north and south, trapping the Polish forces west of the capital. On September 17, a second, deeper encirclement closed 160 km (100 mi) east, near Brest. On that day, too, the Soviet Red Army lunged across the border. By September 20, practically the whole country was in German or Soviet hands, and only isolated pockets continued to resist. The last to surrender was the fortress at Kock, on October 15.
A2 The Phoney War
With the fall of Poland, both sides settled down to a stalemate in the west, popularly described as the “Phoney War” or “Bore War”. The British and French became preoccupied with various schemes to fight the war in Scandinavia or the Balkans; anything, it seemed, to keep the fighting at a distance and stave off a bloody replay of World War I.
Hitler made a half-hearted peace offer and at the same time ordered his generals to ready an attack on the Low Countries and France. The generals, who did not think they could do against France what they had done in Poland, asked for time and insisted they could only take Holland, Belgium, and the French channel coast. Except at sea, where German submarines operated against merchant shipping and the British Navy imposed a blockade, little was going on after the first week in October.
A3 Soviet-Finnish War
On November 30, after two months of diplomatic wrangling, the USSR declared war on Finland. Stalin was bent on having a blitzkrieg of his own, but his plan faltered. The Finns, under Marshal Carl G. Mannerheim, were expert at winter warfare. The Soviet troops, on the other hand, were often badly led, in part because political purges had claimed many of the Red Army’s senior officers. Outnumbered by at least five to one, the Finns held their own and kept fighting into the new year.
The attack on Finland aroused world opinion against the USSR and gave an opening to the British and French. They had long had their eyes on a mine at Kiruna in northern Sweden that was Germany’s main source of iron ore. In summer the ore went through the Baltic Sea, in winter to the ice-free Norwegian port of Narvik and then through neutral Norwegian waters to Germany. The Narvik-Kiruna railway also connected on the east with the Finnish railways; consequently, an Anglo-French force ostensibly sent to help the Finns would automatically be in the position to occupy Narvik and Kiruna. The problem was to get Norway and Sweden to cooperate, which both refused to do.
In Germany, the naval chief, Admiral Erich Raeder, urged Hitler to occupy Norway for the sake of its open-water ports on the Atlantic Ocean, but Hitler showed little interest until late January 1940, when the weather and the discovery of some invasion plans by Belgium forced him to delay the attack on the Low Countries and France indefinitely. The first studies he had made showed that Norway could best be taken by simultaneous landings at eight port cities from Narvik to Oslo. Because the troops would have to be transported on warships and because those would be easy prey for the British Navy, the operation would have to be executed while the nights were long. Denmark, which posed no military problems, could be usefully included because it had airfields close to Norway.
A4 Denmark and Norway
Stalin, fearing outside intervention, ended his war on March 8 on terms that cost Finland territory but left it independent. The British and French then had to find another pretext for their projected action in Narvik and Kiruna; they decided to lay mines just outside the Narvik harbour. This they thought would provoke some kind of violent German reaction, which would let them spring to Norway’s side—and into Narvik.
Hitler approved the incursions into Norway and Denmark on April 2, and the warships sailed on April 7. A British task force laid the mines the next morning and headed home, passing the German ships without seeing them and leaving them to make the landings unopposed on the morning of April 9. Denmark surrendered at once, and the landings succeeded everywhere but at Oslo. There a fort blocked the approach from the sea, and fog prevented an airborne landing. The Germans occupied Oslo by noon, but in the meantime, the Norwegian government, deciding to fight, had moved to Elverum.
Although the Norwegians, aided by 12,000 British and French, held out in the area between Oslo and Trondheim until May 3, the conclusion was never in doubt. Narvik was different. There 4,600 Germans faced 24,600 British, French, and Norwegians backed by the guns of the British Navy. The Germans had an advantage in the ruggedness of the terrain and a greater one in their opponents’ slow, methodical moves. Thus, they held Narvik until May 28. In the first week of June they were backed against the Swedish border and close to having to choose surrender or internment, but by then, military disasters in France were forcing the British and French to recall their troops from Narvik.
A5 The Low Countries
By spring, Hitler had found a new and better way of handling the campaign against France and the Low Countries. The first plan had been to have the main force go through Belgium, as it had in World War I. General Erich von Manstein and some other advisers, however, had persuaded Hitler to shift the main force south to the area of Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest. The Ardennes was hilly, wooded, and not the best country for tanks, but Manstein argued that the enemy would not expect a big attack there. The French had left the Ardennes sector inadequately fortified, while the river crossings near Sedan were guarded by poorly trained reservists. The French High Command had insisted that the Ardennes would slow down a German tank attack and allow time for troops to be sent to the threatened sector. The tanks could make a fast north-westward sweep from the Ardennes, behind the Belgians and British and part of the French. After reaching the coast and defeating the enemy in Belgium, they could make an about-face and strike to the south-east behind the French armies along the Maginot Line.
When the attack began, on May 10, 1940, the two sides were approximately equal in numbers of troops and tanks; the Germans were superior in aircraft. The decisive advantage of the Germans, however, was that they knew exactly what they were going to do. Their opponents had to improvise, in part because the Belgians and Dutch tried to stay neutral to the last. The British and French, moreover, had failed to learn from the example of Poland, having attributed that country’s defeat to its inherent weakness. Consequently, they were not prepared to deal with the German armour. Their tanks were scattered among the infantry; those of the Germans were drawn together in a panzer group, an armoured army.
On May 10, German airborne troops landed inside Belgium and Holland to seize airfields and bridges and, most notably, the great Belgian fortress at Eben-Emael. The Dutch army surrendered on May 14, several hours after bombers had destroyed the business section of Rotterdam. Also on May 14 the German main force, the panzer group in the lead, came out of the Ardennes to begin the drive to the sea behind the British and French armies supporting the Belgians.
A6 The Defeat of France
On May 20, the panzer group took Abbeville at the mouth of the River Somme and began to push north along the coast; it covered 400 km (250 mi) in 11 days. By May 26, the British and French were pushed into a narrow beachhead around Dunkirk. The Belgian king, Leopold III, surrendered his army two days later. Destroyers and smaller craft of all kinds rescued 338,226 men in the evacuation of Dunkirk, a heroic sealift that probably would not have succeeded if the German commander, General Gerd von Rundstedt, had not stopped the tanks to save them for the next phase.
The drive into France began on June 5 and picked up on June 9. Italy declared war on France and Britain on June 10. The Maginot Line, which only extended to the Belgian border, was intact, but the French commander, General Maxime Weygand, had nothing with which to screen it or Paris on the north and west. On June 17, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the World War I hero who had become premier the day before, asked for an armistice. The armistice was signed on June 22 on terms that gave Germany control of northern France and the Atlantic coast. Pétain then set up a capital at Vichy in the unoccupied southeast, and his Vichy government remained an obedient client of the Axis until the end of the war.
A7 The Battle of Britain
In the summer of 1940, Hitler dominated Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees. His one remaining active enemy—Britain, under a new prime minister, Winston Churchill—vowed to continue fighting. Whether it could was questionable. The British Army had left most of its weapons on the beaches at Dunkirk, although its trained soldiers had been saved. Stalin was in no mood to challenge Hitler. The United States, shocked by the fall of France, began the first peacetime conscription in its history and greatly increased its military budget, but public opinion, although sympathetic to Britain, was against getting into the war.
The Germans hoped to subdue the British by starving them out. In June 1940 they began the Battle of the Atlantic, using submarine warfare to cut the British overseas lifelines. The Germans now had submarine bases in Norway and France. At the outset, the Germans had only 57 submarines, but more were being built—enough to keep Britain in danger until the spring of 1943 and to carry on the battle for months thereafter.
The invasion was the expeditious way to finish off Britain, but that meant crossing the English Channel; Hitler would not risk it unless the Royal Air Force (RAF) could be neutralized first. As a result, the Battle of Britain was fought in the air, not on the beaches. In August 1940 the Germans launched daylight raids against ports and airfields and in September against inland cities. The objective was to draw out the British fighters and destroy them. The Germans failed to reckon with a new device, radar, which greatly increased the British fighters’ effectiveness. Also, a sudden change in strategy led the Germans to switch their attacks from RAF airfields to London and other cities, beginning the Blitz. Because their own losses were too high, the Germans had to switch to night bombing at the end of September. Between then and May 1941 they made 71 major raids on London and 56 on other cities, but the damage they wrought was too indiscriminate to be militarily decisive. On September 17, 1940, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely, thereby conceding defeat in the Battle of Britain.
A8 The Balkans and North Africa (1940-1941)
In fact, Hitler had told his generals in late July 1940 that the next attack would be on the USSR. There, he said, Germany would get its “living space” and defeat Britain as well. He claimed the British were only being kept in the war by the hope of a falling-out between Germany and the USSR. When the USSR had been defeated and British positions in India and the Middle East were threatened, he believed that Britain would make peace. Hitler wanted to start in the autumn of 1940, but his advisers persuaded him to avoid the risks of a winter campaign in the USSR and wait until the spring.
Meanwhile, Germany’s ally, Mussolini, had staged an unsuccessful attack (September 1940) on British-occupied Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya and an equally abortive invasion (October 1940) of Greece. In response to the latter move, the British occupied airfields on Crete and in Greece. Hitler did not want British planes within striking distance of his one major oil source, the Ploieşti fields in Romania, and in November he began to prepare an operation against Greece. Early in 1941 British forces pushed the Italians back into Libya, and in February Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel with a two-division tank corps, the Afrika Korps, to help his allies.
Because he would need to cross their territory to get to Greece (and the USSR), Hitler brought Romania and Hungary into the Axis alliance in November 1940; Bulgaria joined in March 1941. When Yugoslavia refused to follow suit, Hitler ordered an invasion of that country.
The operations against Greece and Yugoslavia began on April 6, 1941. The Germans’ primary difficulty with the attack on Yugoslavia was in pulling together an army of nine divisions from Germany and France in less than ten days. They had to limit themselves for several days to air raids and border skirmishing. On April 10 they opened drives on Belgrade from the northwest, north, and southeast. The city fell on April 13, and the Yugoslav Army surrendered the next day. Yugoslavia, however, was easier to take than it would be to hold. Guerrillas—Chetniks under Draža Mihajlović and partisans under Josip Broz Tito—fought throughout the war (see European Resistance Movements of World War II).
The Greek army of 430,000, unlike the Yugoslav army, was fully mobilized, and to some extent battle-tested, but national pride compelled it to try to defend the Metaxas Line north-east of Salonica. By one short thrust to Salonica, the Germans forced the surrender on April 9 of the line and about half of the Greek army. After the Greek First Army, pulling out of Albania was trapped at the Metsovon Pass and surrendered on April 22, the British force of some 62,000 troops retreated southward. Thereafter, fast German drives—to the Isthmus of Corinth by April 27 and through the Peloponnese by April 30—forced the British into an evacuation that cost them, 12,000 men. An airborne assault on May 20 to 27 also took Crete into German hands.
Meanwhile, Rommel had launched a successful counter-offensive against the British in Libya, expelling them from the country (except for an isolated garrison at Tobruk) by April 1941.
B The Second Phase: Expansion of the War
In the year after the fall of France, the war moved towards a new stage—world war. While conducting subsidiary campaigns in the Balkans, in North Africa, and in the air against Britain, Hitler deployed his main forces to the east and brought the countries of south-eastern Europe (as well as Finland) into a partnership against the USSR.
B1 US Aid to Britain
The United States abandoned strict neutrality in the European war and approached a confrontation with Japan in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. US and British conferences, begun in January 1941, determined a basic strategy for the event of a US entry into the war, namely, that both would centre their effort in Germany, leaving Japan, if need be, to be dealt with later.
In March 1941 the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and appropriated an initial $7 billion to lend or lease weapons and other aid to any countries the President might designate. Britain, on the verge of bankruptcy at the end of 1940, was the main recipient, followed, after the German invasion in June 1941, by the Soviet Union. By this means the United States hoped to ensure victory over the Axis without involving its own troops. By late summer of 1941, however, the United States was in a state of undeclared war with Germany. In July, US Marines were stationed in Iceland, which had been occupied by the British in May 1940, and thereafter the US Navy took over the task of escorting convoys in the waters west of Iceland. In September, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized ships on convoy duty to attack Axis war vessels.
B2 Friction Between the United States and Japan
Meanwhile, American relations with Japan continued to deteriorate. In September 1940 Japan coerced Vichy France into giving up northern Indochina. The United States retaliated by prohibiting the exportation of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel to Japan. In April 1941, the Japanese signed a neutrality treaty with the USSR as insurance against an attack from that direction if they were to come into conflict with Britain or the United States while taking a bigger bite out of South East Asia. When Germany invaded the USSR in June, Japanese leaders considered breaking the treaty and joining in from the east, but, making one of the most fateful decisions of the war, they chose instead to intensify their push to the south-east. On July 23 Japan occupied southern Indochina. Two days later, the United States and Britain froze Japanese assets. The effect was to prevent Japan from purchasing oil and strategic metals, which would, in time, cripple its army and make its navy and air force completely useless. Since Japan estimated that it had only six months’ worth of oil reserves, this hastened its decision to secure the resources of South East Asia before it was too late.
B3 The German Invasion of the USSR
The war’s most massive encounter began on the morning of June 22, 1941, when slightly more than 3 million Axis troops invaded the USSR. Although German preparations had been visible for months and had been talked about openly among the diplomats in Moscow, the Soviet forces were taken by surprise. Stalin, his confidence in the country’s military capability shaken by the Finnish war, had refused to allow any counteractivity for fear of provoking the Germans. Moreover, the Soviet military leadership had concluded that blitzkrieg, as it had been practised in Poland and France, would not be possible on the scale of a Soviet-German war; both sides would therefore confine themselves for the first several weeks at least to sparring along the frontier. The Soviet army had 4.5 million troops on the western border and outnumbered the Germans by two to one in tanks and by two or three to one in aircraft. Many of its tanks and aircraft were older types, but some of the tanks, particularly the later famous T-34s, were far superior to any the Germans had. Large numbers of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the first day, however, and the Soviet tanks, like those of the French, were scattered among the infantry, where they could not be effective against the German panzer groups. The infantry was first ordered to counter-attack, which was impossible, and then forbidden to retreat, which ensured their wholesale destruction or capture.
For the invasion, the Germans had set up three army groups, designated as North, Centre, and South, and aimed towards Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Moscow, and Kiev. Hitler and his generals had agreed that their main strategic problem was to lock the Red Army in battle and defeat it before it could escape into the depths of the country. They disagreed on how that could best be accomplished. Most of the generals believed that the Soviet regime would sacrifice everything to defend Moscow: the capital, the hub of the road and railway networks, and the country’s main industrial centre. To Hitler, the land and resources of the Ukraine and the oil of the Caucasus were more important, and he wanted to seize Leningrad as well. The result had been a compromise—the three thrusts, with the one by Army Group Centre towards Moscow the strongest—that temporarily satisfied Hitler as well as the generals. War games had indicated a victory in about ten weeks, which was significant because of the Russian summer, the ideal time for fighting in the USSR, was short, and the Balkans operations had caused a three-week delay at the outset.
Ten weeks seemed ample time. Churchill offered the USSR an alliance, and Roosevelt promised Lend-Lease aid, but after the first few days, their staffs believed everything would be over in a month or so. By the end of the first week in July, Army Group Centre had taken 290,000 prisoners in encirclements at Białystok and Minsk. On August 5, having crossed the Dnepr River, the last natural barrier west of Moscow, the army group wiped out a pocket near Smolensk and counted another 300,000 prisoners. On reaching Smolensk, it had covered more than two-thirds of the distance to Moscow.
The Russians were doing exactly what the German generals had wanted, sacrificing enormous numbers of troops and weapons to defend Moscow. Hitler, however, was not satisfied, and over the generals’ protests, he ordered Army Group Centre to divert the bulk of its armour to the north and south to help the other two army groups, thereby stopping the advance towards Moscow. On September 8 Army Group North cut Leningrad’s land connections and, together with the Finnish army on the north, isolated the city, beginning the Siege of Leningrad. On September 16 Army Group South closed a gigantic encirclement east of Kiev that brought in 665,000 prisoners. Hitler then decided to resume the advance towards Moscow and ordered that the armour is returned to Army Group Centre.
After a standstill of six weeks, Army Group Centre resumed action on October 2. Within two weeks, it completed three large encirclements and took 663,000 prisoners. Then the autumn rains set in, turning the unpaved Russian roads to mud and stopping the advance for the better part of a month.
In mid-November, the weather turned cold and the ground froze. Hitler and the commander of Army Group Centre, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, faced the choice of having the armies dig in where they were or sending them ahead, possibly to be overtaken by the winter. Wanting to finish the 1941 campaign with some sort of a victory at Moscow, they chose to move ahead.
In the second half of November Bock aimed two armoured spearheads at Moscow. Just after the turn of the month, one of those, bearing in on the city from the northwest, was less than 32 km (20 mi) away. The other, coming from the south, had about 65 km (40 mi) still to go. The panzer divisions had often covered such distances in less than a day, but the temperature was falling, snow was drifting on the roads, and neither the men nor the machines were equipped for extreme cold. On December 5 the generals commanding the spearhead armies reported that they were stopped: the tanks and trucks were freezing up, and the troops were losing their will to fight.
Stalin, who had stayed in Moscow, and his commander at the front, General Georgy Zhukov, had held back their reserves. Many of them were recent recruits, but some were hardened veterans from Siberia, where the Red Army had defeated the Japanese in clashes on the Dongbei border in 1939. All were dressed for winter. On December 6 they counter-attacked, and within a few days, the German spearheads were rolling back and abandoning large numbers of vehicles and weapons, rendered useless by the cold.
On Stalin’s orders, the Moscow counter-attack was quickly converted into a counter-offensive on the entire front. The Germans had not built any defence lines to the rear and could not dig in because the ground was frozen hard as concrete. Some of the generals recommended retreating to Poland, but on December 18, Hitler ordered the troops to stand fast wherever they were. Thereafter, the Russians chopped great chunks out of the German front, but enough of it survived the winter to maintain the Siege of Leningrad, continue the threat to Moscow, and keep the western Ukraine in German hands.
The German check before Moscow was a major setback for Hitler’s plans. For the first time since 1939 blitzkrieg had failed to achieve the total destruction of an enemy. One of Hitler’s fixed obsessions was with the need to obtain Lebensraum in Russia to allow a supposedly overpopulated Germany a huge area of western Russian land to the west of the Ural Mountains for German resettlement. He envisaged that the bulk of the Russian population would be pushed to the other side of the Urals. He had counted on the supposed rottenness of the Bolshevik regime, which he had calculated would collapse entirely after the German invasion, and on the inadequacies of the Red Army after the purges, as witnessed by its miserable performance against Finland in 1939. He had justified the invasion in 1941 on the grounds of the “window of opportunity” which presented itself before reforms of the Red Army in which Stalin was then engaged had time to become effective, and on the need to seize Russian food and oil and other raw materials quickly. He also believed that, deprived of the Soviet Union as a potential ally, the British would soon make peace. He nearly succeeded, but for the superhuman efforts of the Soviet people, Stalin’s stoicism (after an initial breakdown), and his appeal to Russian sentiment by emphasizing “The Great Patriotic War”. Of even more importance to Russia’s survival was Stalin’s decision in the late 1930s to shift Russia’s military and industrial plants to the Urals and Siberia, a process hastened by the events of 1941. Hitler’s hope of an ample supply of food and raw materials from a conquered Russia was not realized: Russian railways were destroyed by the retreating Russians, as were crops, cattle, and mines, and most of Russia’s roads were primitive. American Lend-Lease aid to Russia carried in British convoys (which suffered heavy losses) to north Russian ports contained valuable radar, radio, and other sophisticated equipment which Russia lacked. Hitler’s intelligence sources on Russia served him badly; while, during the autumn and winter of 1941, when the Russian war was supposed to have been concluded, the Russian weather was worse than it had been for many previous years, another factor contributing to the setback. Of course, the series of German victories in the West made him overconfident in engaging in a conflict in which a quick victory was essential.
B4 The Beginning of the War in the Pacific
The seeming imminence of a Soviet defeat in the summer and autumn of 1941 had created dilemmas for Japan and the United States. The Japanese thought they then had the best opportunity to seize the petroleum and other resources of South East Asia and the adjacent islands; on the other hand, they knew they could not win the war with the United States that would probably ensue. The US government wanted to stop Japanese expansion but doubted whether the American people would be willing to go to war to do so. Moreover, the United States did not want to get embroiled in a war with Japan while it faced the ghastly possibility of being alone in the world with a triumphant Germany. After the oil embargo, the Japanese, also under pressure of time, resolved to move in South East Asia and the nearby islands.
Until December 1941 the Japanese leadership pursued two courses: they tried to get the oil embargo lifted on terms that would still let them take the territory they wanted, and they prepared for war. The United States demanded that Japan withdraws from China and Indochina, but would very likely have settled for a token withdrawal and a promise not to take more territory. After he became Japan’s premier in mid-October, General Hideki Tojo set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept a settlement without war. Tojo’s deadline, which was kept secret, meant that war was practically certain.
The Japanese army and navy had, in fact, devised a war plan in which they had great confidence. They proposed to make fast sweeps into Burma, Malaya, the East Indies, and the Philippines and, at the same time, set up a defensive perimeter in the central and south-western Pacific. They expected the United States to declare war but not to be willing to fight long or hard enough to win. Their greatest concern was the US Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. If it reacted quickly, it could upset their very tight timetable. Thus, the key to the entire Japanese strategy was the plan devised by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the combined Japanese fleet, to launch a surprise attack by carrier-borne planes on Pearl Harbor and destroy the Pacific Fleet. The Japanese believed that the US response would not be significant, a calculation based on American passivity over Japanese aggression in China. Yamamoto had doubts about this—he knew the US and its strength from personal experience—but allowed his fellow officers to persuade him.
A few minutes before 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier-based aircraft struck Pearl Harbor. In a raid lasting less than two hours, they sank four battleships and damaged four more. (However, they missed three US aircraft carriers, at sea at the time.) The US authorities had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew an attack was imminent. A warning had been sent from Washington, but, owing to delays in transmission, it arrived after the raid had begun. A Japanese communiqué severing diplomatic ties with the United States, sent to the Japanese Embassy in Washington and timed to arrive shortly before the attack, was accidentally held up by the embassy staff, leaving the impression that Japan had attacked completely without warning. In one stroke, the Japanese navy scored a brilliant success—and assured the Axis defeat in World War II. The Japanese attack brought the United States into the war on December 8—and brought it in determined to fight to the finish. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11.
In the vast area of land and ocean they had marked for conquest, the Japanese seemed to be everywhere at once. Before the end of December, they took British Hong Kong and the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) and Guam and Wake Island (US possessions), and they had invaded British Burma, Malaya, Borneo, and the American-held Philippines. Britain, her naval resources stretched by the war in Europe, managed to send a naval squadron to Singapore in early December: it was caught by Japanese planes and destroyed. British Singapore, long regarded as one of the world’s strongest fortresses, fell to them in February 1942 in one of the greatest humiliations in British military history, with the British garrison surrendering to a much smaller Japanese force. In March they occupied the Netherlands Indies and landed on New Guinea. The American and Philippine forces surrendered at Bataan on April 9, and resistance in the Philippines ended with the surrender of Corregidor on May 6.
According to the Japanese plan, it would be time for them to take a defensive stance when they had captured northern New Guinea (an Australian possession), the Bismarck Archipelago, the Gilberts, and Wake Island, which they did by mid-March. However, they had done so well that they decided to expand their defensive perimeter north into the Aleutian Islands, east to Midway Island, and south through the Solomon Islands and southern New Guinea. Their first move was by sea, to take Port Moresby on the south-eastern tip of New Guinea. The Americans, using their ability to read the Japanese code, had a naval task force on the scene. In the ensuing Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8), fought entirely by aircraft carriers, the Japanese were forced to abandon their designs on Port Moresby.
A powerful Japanese force, nine battleships and four carriers under Admiral Yamamoto, steamed towards Midway in the first week of June. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who had taken command of the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor, could only muster three carriers and seven heavy cruisers, but he was reading the Japanese radio messages. Yamamoto had planned another surprise: this time, however, it was he who was surprised. In the Battle of Midway, on the morning of June 4, US dive-bombers destroyed three of the Japanese carriers in one five-minute strike. The fourth went down later in the day after its planes had battered the US carrier Yorktown, which sank two days later.
Yamamoto ordered a general retreat on June 5. On June 6 to 7, a secondary Japanese force took Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians, but those were no recompense for the defeat at Midway, from which the Japanese navy would never recover. Their battleships were intact, but the Coral Sea and Midway had shown carriers to be the true capital ships of the war, and four of those were gone. Furthermore, the US could produce them by the dozen, whereas the Japanese lacked the resources to build more.
C The Third Phase: Turn of the Tide
In late December 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill and their chief advisers met in Washington. They reaffirmed the strategy of defeating Germany first, and because it appeared that the British would have all they could do to fight in Europe, the war against Japan became almost solely a US responsibility. They also created the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), a top-level British-American military committee seated in Washington, to develop and execute a common strategy. On January 1, 1942, the United States, Great Britain, the USSR, and 23 other countries signed the United Nations Declaration in which they pledged not to make a separate peace. The United Nations (UN) became the official name for the anti-Axis coalition, but the term used more often was the Allies, taken over from World War I.
C1 Development of Allied Strategy
As a practical matter, the United States could not take much action in Europe in early 1942. It had no troops there, and it was in the midst of building forces and converting industry at home. In North Africa, the British appeared to be more than holding their own. They had relieved Tobruk on December 10, 1941, and taken Banghāzī in Libya two weeks later. Rommel counter-attacked in late January 1942 and drove them back 300 km (185 mi) to Al-Gazala and Bir Hacheim, but there, well forward of Tobruk and the Egyptian border, a lull set in.
The big question in the war was whether the USSR could survive a second German summer offensive, and the Russians were urging the United States and Britain to relieve the pressure on them by starting an offensive in the west. General George C. Marshall, the US Army chief of staff, believed the best way to help the Russians and bring an early end to the war was to stage a build-up in England and attack across the English Channel into north-western Europe. He wanted to act in the spring of 1943, or even in 1942 if the USSR appeared about to collapse. The British did not want involvement elsewhere until North Africa was settled and did not believe a force strong enough for a cross-channel attack could be assembled in England by 1943. The dispute between the British and American chiefs of staff over the cross-channel invasion versus a Mediterranean strategy reached crisis proportions in 1943. The Americans accused the British of dragging their feet over the invasion of north-western Europe, and of trying to involve American troops in a desperate effort to restore the British Empire in the Mediterranean and North Africa, a region which the American military regarded as peripheral to the war effort. The British believed that the Americans grossly underestimated the difficulties of a premature cross-channel invasion, without adequate preparation and insufficient troops, which might lead to an appalling disaster, like that which had befallen the Allied raid on Dieppe in August 1942, which would put back any prospect of an Allied return to Europe for many years. Even if a relatively weak Allied army did secure a lodgement on the French coast, they might then be faced with a grinding war of attrition along the lines of the Western Front in World War I, with the massive human sacrifices which that struggle had entailed.
Rommel settled the issue. In June he captured Tobruk and drove 380 km (235 mi) into Egypt, to El ’Alamein. After that, the Americans agreed to shelve the cross-channel attack and ready the troops en route to England for an invasion of French North Africa.
Meanwhile, despite the Germany-first strategy, the Americans were moving towards an active pursuit of the war against Japan. The US Navy saw the Pacific as an arena in which it could perform more effectively than in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean. General Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded in the Philippines and been evacuated to Australia by submarine before the surrender, was the country’s best-known military figure, and as such too valuable to be left with an inconsequential mission. The Battle of Midway had stopped the Japanese in the central Pacific, but they continued to advance in the south-western Pacific along the Solomons chain and overland on New Guinea. On July 2, 1942, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directed the naval and ground forces in the south and south-western Pacific to halt the Japanese, drive them out of the Solomons and north-eastern New Guinea, and eliminate the great base the Japanese had established at Rabaul, on New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago (now in Papua New Guinea).
C2 The Russian Front: Summer 1942
In the most immediately critical area of the war, the USSR, the initiative had passed to the Germans again by summer 1942. The Soviet successes in the winter had been followed by disasters in the spring. Setbacks south of Leningrad, near Kharkiv, and in the Crimea had cost well more than a half-million man in prisoners alone. The Germans had not sustained such massive losses, but the fighting had been expensive for them too, especially since the Soviets had three times the human resources at their disposal. Moreover, Hitler’s overconfidence had led him into a colossal error. He had been so sure of victory in 1941 that he had stopped most kinds of weapons and ammunition production for the army and shifted the industries to work for the air force and navy, with which he proposed to finish off the British. He had resumed production for the army in January 1942, but the flow would not reach the front until late summer. Soviet weapons output, on the other hand, after having dropped low in November and December 1941, had increased steadily since the turn of the year, and the Soviet industrial base also was larger than the German.
Looking ahead to the summer, Hitler knew he could not again mount an all-out, three-pronged offensive. Some of the generals talked about waiting a year until the army could be rebuilt, but Hitler was determined to have the victory in 1942. He had sufficient troops and weapons to bring the southern flank of the Eastern Front nearly to full strength, and he believed he could compel the Soviet command to sacrifice its main forces trying to defend the coal mines of the Donets Basin and the oilfields of the Caucasus.
The offensive began east of Kharkiv on June 28, and in less than four weeks the armies had taken the Donets Basin and advanced east to the River Don. The distances covered were spectacular, but the numbers of enemy killed or captured were relatively small. Stalin and his generals had made the luckiest mistake of the war. Believing the Germans were going to aim a second, more powerful, attack on Moscow, they had held their reserves back and allowed the armies in the south to retreat.
Hitler, emboldened by the ease and speed of the advance, altered his plan in the last week of July. He had originally proposed to drive due east to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), seize a firm hold on the River Volga there, and only then send a force south into the Caucasus. On July 23 he ordered two armies to continue the advance towards Stalingrad and two to strike south across the lower Don and take the oilfields at Maikop, Groznyy, and Baku.
The Russians appeared to be heading towards disaster, as the German thrust into the Caucasus covered 300 km (185 mi) to Maikop by August 9. Hitler’s strategy, however, presented a problem: two forces moving away from each other could not be sustained equally over the badly damaged railways of the occupied territory. In the second half of August, he diverted more supplies to the attack towards Stalingrad, and the march into the Caucasus slowed. Nevertheless, success seemed to be in sight when the Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army (formerly group) closed near the Stalingrad suburbs on September 3.
The USSR reached its low point in the war at the end of July 1942. The retreat was almost out of hand, and the Germans were getting into position to strike north along the Volga behind Moscow as well as into the Caucasus. On July 28 Stalin issued his most famous order of the war, “Not a step back!” While threatening Draconian punishments for slackers and defeatists, he relegated Communism to the background and called on the troops to fight a “patriotic” war for Russia. Like Hitler, he had thus far conducted the war as he saw fit. In late August he called on his two best military professionals, Zhukov, who had organized the Moscow counter-offensive in December 1941, and the army chief of the General Staff, General Aleksandr M. Vasilyevsky, to deal with the situation at Stalingrad. They proposed to wear the enemy down by locking its troops in a bloody fight for the city while they assembled the means for a counter-attack. The Battle of Stalingrad had begun.
The Axis was riding a high tide in midsummer 1942. Stalingrad and the Caucasus oil were seemingly within Hitler’s grasp, and Rommel was within striking distance of the Suez Canal. The Japanese had occupied Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomons chain and were marching on Port Moresby. Within the next six months, however, the Axis had been stopped and turned back in the USSR, North Africa, and the south-western Pacific.
US Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Against a small Japanese garrison, the landing was easy. Afterward nothing was easy. The Japanese responded swiftly and violently by sea and by air. The outcome hinged on the Japanese navy’s ability to bring in reinforcements, which was substantial, and the US Navy’s ability to keep the Marines supplied, which was at times in some doubt. While the Marines battled a determined foe in a debilitating tropical climate, between August 24 and November 30 the navy fought six major engagements in the waters surrounding the island. The losses in ships and aircraft were heavy on both sides, but the Japanese were more seriously hurt because they could not afford to accept a war of attrition with the Americans. Their warships did not come out again after the end of November, and the Americans declared the island secure on February 9, 1943.
C4 Anglo-American Offensive in North Africa
The turnabout in North Africa began on August 31, 1942, when Rommel attacked through the southern flank of the British line west of El ’Alamein, was stopped at the Alam El Halfa Ridge, and was thrown back by September 7 in the first Battle of El ’Alamein. The newly appointed British commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, hit the north flank on October 23 with a methodically prepared offensive and, by November 5, forced Rommel into a retreat. American, British, and Free French troops fighting together under General Dwight D. Eisenhower began landing in Morocco and Algeria on November 8, the Americans at Casablanca and Oran, the British at Algiers. The Germans sent reinforcements into Tunis and occupied Vichy France. They managed to get the Fifth Panzer Army under General Jürgen von Arnim on the scene in time to stop Eisenhower in western Tunisia by mid-December. Rommel went into the Mareth Line in south-eastern Tunisia in early February 1943 and launched an attack against the Americans on February 14 that drove them back 80 km (50 mi) and out of the vital Kasserine Pass. It was his last success and one he could not exploit. Hitler recalled him in March, as the Americans and British closed in from the west and south. After being cut off from their bases at Bizerte and Tunis and driven back into pockets on the Cape Bon Peninsula, 275,000 Germans and Italians surrendered by May 13.
C5 Soviet Victory at Stalingrad
On the eastern front the Germans’ advances to Stalingrad and into the Caucasus had added about 1,100 km (680 mi) to their line. No German troops were available to hold that extra distance, so Hitler had to use troops contributed by his allies. Consequently, while Sixth and Fourth Panzer armies were tied down at Stalingrad in September and October 1942, they were flanked on the left and right by Romanian armies. An Italian and a Hungarian army were deployed farther upstream on the River Don. Trial manoeuvres had exposed serious weaknesses in some of the Axis’s armies.
On the morning of November 19, in snow and fog, Soviet armoured spearheads hit the Romanians west and south of Stalingrad. Their points met three days later at Kalach on the River Don, encircling the Sixth Army, about half of the Fourth Panzer Army, and a number of Romanian units. Hitler ordered the Sixth Army commander, General Friedrich von Paulus, to hold the pocket, promised him air supply, and sent Manstein, by then a field marshal, to organize a relief. The airlift failed to provide the 300 tonnes of supplies that von Paulus needed each day, and Manstein’s relief operation was halted 55 km (34 mi) short of the pocket in late December. The Sixth Army was doomed if it did not attempt a break-out, which Hitler refused to permit.
The Russians pushed in on the pocket from three sides in January 1943, and von Paulus surrendered on January 31. The battle cost Germany about 200,000 troops. In the aftermath of Stalingrad, in part owing to the collapse of the Italian and Hungarian armies, the Germans were forced to retreat from the Caucasus and back approximately to the line from which they had started the 1942 summer offensive.
C6 The Casablanca Conference
From January 14-24, 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill and their staffs met in Casablanca to lay out a strategy for the period after the North African campaign. The American military chiefs wanted to proceed to the direct, cross-channel assault on Germany. The British, eloquently spoken for by Churchill, argued the advantages of gathering in the “great prizes” to be had in the Mediterranean, in Sicily and Italy for a start. Roosevelt supported the British, and the American military succeeded only (several months later) in getting an agreement that no more troops would be put into the Mediterranean area than were already there, all others being assembled in England for a cross-channel attack in 1944. Roosevelt gave his commanders another shock when he announced that nothing short of unconditional surrender would be accepted from any of the Axis powers. The policy was meant to reassure the Russians, who would have to wait at least another year for a full-fledged second front, but was likely also to stiffen Axis resistance.
C7 Air Raids on Germany
As a prelude to the postponed cross-channel attack, the British and Americans decided at Casablanca to open a strategic air offensive (bombing) against Germany. In this instance, they agreed on timing but not on method. The British, as a result of a discouraging experience with daylight bombing early in the war, had built their heavy bombers, the Lancasters, and Halifaxes, for night bombing, which meant area bombing. The Americans believed their B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators were armed and armoured heavily enough and were fitted with sufficiently accurate bombsights to fly by daylight and strike pinpoint targets. The difference was resolved by letting each nation conduct its own offensive in its own way and calling the result round-the-clock bombing. The British method was exemplified by four fire-bomb raids on Hamburg in late July 1943, in which much of the city was burned out and 50,000 people died. American losses of planes and crews increased sharply as the bombers penetrated deeper into Germany. After early October 1943, when strikes at ball-bearing plants in Schweinfurt incurred nearly 25 per cent losses, the daylight offensive had to be curtailed until long-range fighters became available.
C8 Battle of Kursk
Before the winter fighting on the Eastern Front ended in March 1943, Hitler knew he could not manage another summer offensive, and he talked about setting up an east wall comparable to the fortified Atlantic wall he was building along the western European coast. The long winter’s retreat, however, had shortened the front enough to give him a surplus of almost two armies. It also left a large westward bulge in the front around the city of Kursk. To Hitler, the opportunity for one more grand encirclement was too good to let pass.
After waiting three months for more new tanks to come off the assembly lines, Hitler opened the Battle of Kursk on July 5 with attacks north and south across the open eastern end of the bulge. Zhukov and Vasilyevsky had also had their eyes on Kursk, and they had heavily reinforced the front around it. In the war’s greatest tank battle, the Russians fought the Germans nearly to a standstill by July 12. Hitler then called off the operation because the Americans and British had landed on Sicily, and he needed to transfer divisions to Italy. With that, the strategic initiative in the east passed permanently to the Soviet forces.
C9 The Invasion of Italy
Three American, one Canadian, and three British divisions landed in Sicily on July 10. They pushed across the island from beachheads on the south coast in five weeks, against four Italian and two German divisions, and overcame the last Axis resistance on August 17. In the meantime, Mussolini had been stripped of power on July 25, and the Italian government had entered into negotiations that resulted in an armistice signed in secret on September 3 and made public on September 8. Allied dithering about the armistice terms gave the Germans time to occupy northern Italy, demobilize the Italian army, and force the Italian government to flee to the Allied-occupied south. They rescued Mussolini from prison and set him up as ruler of the short-lived Republic of Salo in the north.
On September 3 elements of Montgomery’s British, Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina from Sicily to the toe of the Italian boot. The US Fifth Army, under General Mark W. Clark, staged a landing near Salerno on September 9; and by October 12, the British and Americans had a fairly solid line across the peninsula from the River Volturno, north of Naples, to Termoli on the Adriatic coast. The Italian surrender brought little military benefit to the Allies, and by the end of the year, the Germans stopped them on the Gustav Line about 100 km (60 mi) south of Rome. A landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944, failed to shake the Gustav Line, which was solidly anchored on the River Liri and Monte Cassino.
C10 Allied Strategy Against Japan
Strategy in the war with Japan evolved by stages during 1943. In the first, the goal was to secure bases on the coast of China (from which Japan could be bombed and later invaded) by British and Chinese drives through Burma and eastern China and by American thrusts through the islands of the central and south-western Pacific to Formosa (Taiwan) and China. By the middle of the year, it was apparent that neither the British nor the Chinese drive was likely to materialize. Thereafter, only the two American thrusts remained. Their objectives were still Formosa and the Chinese coast.
C11 US Advances in the Pacific
In the Pacific, US troops retook Attu, in the Aleutians, in a hard-fought, three-week battle beginning on May 23. (The Japanese evacuated Kiska before Americans and Canadians landed there in August.) The main action was in the south-western Pacific. There, US and Anzac troops under Admiral William Halsey advanced through the Solomons, taking New Georgia in August and a large beachhead on Bougainville in November. Australians and Americans under MacArthur drove the Japanese back along the East Coast of New Guinea and took Lae and Salamaua in September. MacArthur’s and Halsey’s mission, as set by the JCS in 1942, had been to take Rabaul, but they discovered in the Solomons that having command of the air and sea around them was enough to neutralize the Japanese island garrisons and render them useless. Landings on Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in December, in the Admiralty Islands in February 1944, and at Emirau Island in March 1944 effectively sealed off Rabaul. Its 100,000-man garrison could not thereafter be either adequately supplied or evacuated.
The central Pacific thrust was slower in getting started. The south-western Pacific islands were relatively close together; airfields on one could furnish support for the move to the next, and the Japanese navy was wary of risking its ships within range of land-based aircraft. In the central Pacific, however, the islands were scattered over vast stretches of ocean, and powerful naval forces were needed to support the landings, particularly aircraft carriers, which were not available in sufficient numbers until late 1943.
The first central Pacific landings were in the Gilbert Islands, at Makin and Tarawa in November 1943. Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll, 117.8 hectares (291 acres) of coral sand and concrete and coconut log bunkers, cost the 2nd Marine Division 3,000 casualties in three days. More intensive preliminary bombardments and larger numbers of amphibious tractors capable of crossing the surrounding reefs made the taking of Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands in February 1944 somewhat less expensive.
D The Fourth Phase: Allied Victory
After the Battle of Kursk, the last lingering doubt about the Soviet forces was whether they could conduct a successful summer offensive. It was dispelled in the first week of August 1943, when slashing attacks hit the German line north and west of Kharkiv. On August 12 Hitler ordered work to be started on an east wall along the River Narva and lakes Pskov and Peipus, behind Army Group North, and the Desna and Dnepr rivers, behind Army Groups Centre and South. In the second half of the month, the Soviet offensive expanded south along the River Donets and north into the Army Group Centre sector.
On September 15, Hitler permitted Army Group South to retreat to the River Dnepr; otherwise, it was likely to be destroyed. He also ordered everything in the area east of the Dnepr that could be of any use to the enemy to be hauled away, burnt, or blown up. This “scorched-earth” policy, as it was called, could only be partially carried out before the army group crossed the river at the end of the month. Henceforth, that policy would be applied in all territory surrendered to the Russians.
Behind the river, the German troops found no trace of an east wall, and they had to contend from the first with five Soviet bridgeheads. The high west bank of the river was the best defensive line left in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet armies, under Zhukov and Vasilyevsky, fought furiously to prevent the Germans from gaining a foothold there. They expanded the bridgeheads, isolated a German army in the Crimea in October, took Kiev on November 6, and stayed on the offensive into the winter with hardly a pause.
D1 The Tehran Conference
At the end of November, Roosevelt and Churchill journeyed to Tehran for their first meeting with Stalin. The President and the Prime Minister had already approved, under the code-name Overlord, a plan for a cross-channel attack. Roosevelt wholeheartedly favoured executing Overlord as early in 1944 as the weather permitted. At the Tehran Conference, Churchill argued for giving priority to Italy and possible new offensives in the Balkans or southern France, but he was outvoted by Roosevelt and Stalin. Overlord was set for May 1944. After the meeting, the CCS recalled Eisenhower from the Mediterranean and gave him command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces, which was to organize and carry out Overlord.
The Tehran Conference marked the high point of the East-West wartime alliance. Stalin came to the meeting as a victorious war leader; large quantities of US Lend-Lease aid were flowing into the Soviet Union through Murmansk and the Persian Gulf, and the decision on Overlord satisfied the long-standing Soviet demand for a second front. At the same time, strains were developing as the Soviet armies approached the borders of the smaller eastern European states. In April 1943 the Germans had produced evidence linking the USSR to the deaths of thousands of Polish officers found buried in mass graves in the Katyń Forest near Smolensk (see Katyń Massacre). Stalin had severed relations with the Polish government in exile in London, and he insisted at Tehran, as he had before, that the post-war Soviet-Polish boundary would have to be the one established after the Polish defeat in 1939. He also reacted with barely concealed hostility to Churchill’s proposal of a British-American thrust into the Balkans.
D2 German Preparations for Overlord
Hitler expected an invasion of north-western Europe in the spring of 1944, and he welcomed it as a chance to win the war. If he could throw the Americans and British off the beaches, he reasoned, they would not soon try again. He could then throw all of his forces, nearly half of which were in the west, against the USSR. In November 1943 he told the commanders on the Eastern Front that they would get no more reinforcements until after the invasion had been defeated.
In January 1944 a Soviet offensive raised the siege of Leningrad and drove Army Group North back to the Narva River-Lake Peipus line. There the Germans found a tenuous refuge in the one segment of the east wall that had been to some extent fortified. On the south flank, successive offensives, the last in March and April, pushed the Germans in the broad stretch between the Polesye and the Black Sea off of all but a few shreds of Soviet territory. The greater part of 150,000 Germans and Romanians in the Crimea died or passed into Soviet captivity in May after a belated sealift failed to get them out of Sevastopol. On the other hand, enough tanks and weapons had been turned out to equip new divisions for the west and replace some of those lost in the east; the German Luftwaffe had 40 per cent more planes than at the same time a year earlier, and synthetic oil production reached its wartime peak in April 1944.
D3 The Normandy Invasion
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the day of invasion for Overlord, the US First Army, under General Omar N. Bradley, and the British Second Army, under General Miles C. Dempsey, established beachheads in Normandy, on the French channel coast, beginning the Normandy Campaign. The German resistance was strong, and the footholds for Allied armies were not nearly as good as they had expected. Nevertheless, the powerful counter-attack with which Hitler had proposed to throw the Allies off the beaches did not materialize, neither on D-Day nor later. Enormous Allied air superiority over northern France made it difficult for Rommel, who was in command on the scene, to move his limited reserves. Moreover, Hitler became convinced—thanks to Allied deception techniques—that the Normandy landings were a feint and the main assault would come north of the River Seine. Consequently, he refused to release the divisions he had there and insisted on drawing in reinforcements from more distant areas. By the end of June, Eisenhower had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles ashore in Normandy.
D4 Soviet Reconquest of Belorussia
The German Eastern Front was quiet during the first three weeks of June 1944. Hitler fully expected a Soviet summer offensive, which he and his military advisers believed would come on the southern flank. Since Stalingrad the Soviets had concentrated their main effort there, and the Germans thought Stalin would be eager to push into the Balkans, the historic object of Russian ambition. Although Army Group Centre was holding Belorussia (now Belarus)—the only large piece of Soviet territory still in German hands—and although signs of a Soviet build-up against the army group multiplied in June, they did not believe it was in real danger. On June 22-23, four Soviet army groups, two controlled by Zhukov and two by Vasilyevsky, hit Army Group Centre. Outnumbered by about ten to one at the points of attack, and under orders from Hitler not to retreat, the army group began to disintegrate almost at once. By July 3, when Soviet spearheads coming from the north-east and south-east met at Minsk, the Belorussian capital, Army Group Centre had lost two-thirds of its divisions. By the third week of the month, Zhukov and Vasilyevsky’s fronts had advanced about 300 km (200 mi). The Soviet command celebrated on July 17 with a day-long march by 57,000 German prisoners, including 19 generals, through the streets of Moscow.
D5 The Plot Against Hitler
A group of German officers and civilians concluded in July that getting rid of Hitler offered the last remaining chance to end the war before it swept on to German soil from two directions. On July 20 they tried to kill him by placing a bomb in his headquarters in east Prussia. The bomb exploded, wounding a number of officers—several fatally—but inflicting only minor injuries on Hitler. Afterward, the Gestapo hunted down and slaughtered everyone suspected of complicity in the plot. One of the suspects was Rommel, who committed suicide. Hitler emerged from the assassination attempt more secure in his power than ever before.
D6 Liberation of France
On July 24 the Americans and British were still confined in the Normandy beachhead, which they had expanded somewhat to take in Saint-Lô and Caen. Bradley began the break-out the next day with an attack south from Saint-Lô. Thereafter, the front expanded rapidly, and Eisenhower regrouped his forces. Montgomery took over the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army. Bradley assumed command of a newly activated Twelfth Army Group consisting of US First and Third armies under General Courtney H. Hodges and General George S. Patton.
After the Americans had turned east from Avranches in the first week of August, a pocket developed around the German Fifth Panzer and Seventh armies west of Falaise. The Germans held out until August 20 but then retreated across the Seine. On August 25 the Americans, in conjunction with Free French and Resistance forces under General Charles de Gaulle, liberated Paris.
Meanwhile, on August 15, American and French forces had landed on the southern coast of France east of Marseille and were pushing north along the valley of the River Rhône. They made contact with Bradley’s forces near Dijon in the second week of September.
D7 Pause in the Western Offensive
Bradley and Montgomery sent their army groups north and east across the Seine on August 25, the British going along the coast towards Belgium, the Americans towards the Franco-German border. Montgomery’s troops seized Antwerp on September 3, and the first American patrols crossed the German border on September 11. However, the pursuit was ending. The German armies shattered in the break-out were being rebuilt, and Hitler sent as commander Field Marshal Walther Model, who had earned a reputation as the so-called “lion of the defence” on the Eastern Front. Montgomery had reached formidable water barriers—the Meuse and lower Rhine—and the Americans were coming up against the west wall, which had been built in the 1930s as the German counterpart to the Maginot Line. Although most of its big guns had been removed, the west wall’s concrete bunkers and anti-tank barriers would make it tough to crack. Montgomery’s attempt to force the barrier, the Battle of Arnhem in September, was a complete failure. The Allies’ most serious problem was that they had outrun their supplies. Fuel and ammunition in particular were scarce and were being brought from French ports on the Channel coast over as much as 800 km (500 mi) of war-damaged roads and railways. Until the port of Antwerp could be cleared and put into operation, major advances like those in August and early September were out of the question.
D8 Warsaw Uprising
The Soviet offensive had spread to the flanks of Army Group Centre in July. On July 29 a spearhead reached the Baltic coast near Riga and severed Army Group North’s land contact with the German main front. Powerful thrusts past Army Group Centre’s south flank reached the line of the Wisła upstream from Warsaw by the end of the month. In Warsaw on July 31 the Polish underground Home Army commanded by General Tadeusz Komorowski (known as General Bor) staged the Warsaw Uprising. The insurgents, who were loyal to the anti-Communist exile government in London, disrupted the Germans for several days. The Soviet forces held fast on the east side of the Wisła, however, and Stalin refused to let US planes use Soviet airfields for making supply flights for the insurgents. He did, finally, allow one flight by 110 B-17s, which was made on September 18. By then it was too late; the Germans had the upper hand, and Komorowski surrendered on October 2. Stalin insisted that his forces could not have crossed into Warsaw because they were too weak, which was probably not true. On the other hand, the line of the Wisła was as far as the Soviet armies could go on a broad front without pausing to replenish their supplies.
D9 Defeat of Germany’s Allies in the East
While the Soviet Union was letting the Warsaw Uprising run its tragic course, it was gathering in a plentiful harvest of successes elsewhere. An offensive between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea, opened on August 20, resulted in Romania’s asking for an armistice three days later. Bulgaria, which had never declared war on the Soviet Union, surrendered on September 9, Finland on September 19. Soviet troops took Belgrade on October 20 and installed a Communist government under Tito in Yugoslavia. In Hungary, the Russians were at the gates of Budapest by late November.
D10 Allied Advances in Italy
The Italian campaign passed into the shadow of Overlord in the summer of 1944. Clark’s Fifth Army, comprising French and Poles as well as Americans, took Monte Cassino on May 18. A break-out from the Anzio beachhead five days later forced the Germans to abandon the whole Gustav Line, and the Fifth Army entered Rome, an open city since June 4. The advance went well for some distance north of Rome, but it was bound to lose momentum because US and French divisions would soon be withdrawn for the invasion of southern France. After taking Ancona on the east and Florence on the west coast in the second week of August, the Allies were at the German Gothic Line. An offensive late in the month demolished the Gothic Line but failed in three months to carry through to the Po valley and was stopped for the winter in the mountains.
D11 Battle of the Philippine Sea
Operations against Japan in the Pacific picked up speed in 1944. In the spring, the JCS projected advances by MacArthur through north-western New Guinea and into the Philippines and by Nimitz across the central Pacific to the Marianas and Caroline Islands. The Japanese, on their part, were getting ready for a decisive naval battle east of the Philippines.
After making leaps along the New Guinea coast to Aitape, Hollandia, and Wakde Island in April and May, MacArthur’s troops landed on Biak Island on May 27. Airfields on Biak would enable US planes to harass the Japanese fleet in the Philippines. A strike force built around the world’s two largest battleships, Yamato and Musashi, was steaming towards Biak on June 13 when the US Navy began bombing and shelling Saipan in the Marianas. The Japanese ships were then ordered to turn north and join the First Mobile Fleet of Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo, which was heading out of the Philippines towards the Marianas.
On June 19 and 20, Ozawa met US Task Force 58, under Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The outcome was decided in the air and under the sea. Ozawa had five heavy and four light carriers; Mitscher had nine heavy and six light carriers. On the first day, in what was called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”, US fighters downed 219 of the 326 Japanese planes sent against them. While the air battle was going on, US submarines sank Ozawa’s two largest carriers, one of them his flagship; and on the second day, dive-bombers sank a third big carrier. After that, Ozawa steered north towards Okinawa with just 35 planes left. It was the end for Japanese carrier aviation. Mitscher lost 26 planes, and 3 of his ships suffered minor damage.
D12 Strategic Shift in the Pacific
US forces landed on Saipan on June 15. The Americans had possession of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam by August 10, giving them the key to a strategy for ending the war. The islands could accommodate bases for the new American long-range bombers, the B-29 Superfortresses, which could reach Tokyo and the other main Japanese cities at least as well from the islands as they would have been able to from bases in China. Moreover, US naval superiority in the Pacific was rapidly becoming sufficient to sustain an invasion of Japan itself across the open ocean. That invasion, however, would have to wait for the defeat of Germany and the subsequent release of ground troops from Europe for use in the Pacific. The regular bombing of Japan began in November 1944.
Although the shift in strategy raised some doubts about the need for the operations in the Carolines and Philippines, they went ahead as planned, with landings in the western Carolines at Peleliu (September 15), Ulithi (September 23), and Ngulu (October 16), and in the central Philippines on Leyte (October 20). The invasion of the Philippines brought the Japanese navy out in force for the last time in the war. In the three-day Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-25), the outcome of which was at times more in doubt than the final result would seem to indicate, the Japanese lost 26 ships, including the giant battleship Musashi, and the Americans lost 7 ships.
D13 Air War in Europe
The main action against Germany during the autumn of 1944 was in the air. Escorted by long-range fighters, particularly P-51 Mustangs, US bombers hit industrial targets by day, while the German cities crumbled under British bombing by night. Hitler had responded by bombarding England, beginning in June, with V-1 flying bombs, and in September with V-2 rockets; but the best launching sites, those in north-western France and in Belgium, were lost in October. The effects of the Allied strategic bombing were less clear-cut than had been expected. The bombing did not destroy civilian morale, and German fighter plane and armoured vehicle production reached their wartime peaks in the second half of 1944. On the other hand, iron and steel output dropped by half between September and December and continued bombing of the synthetic oil plants, coupled with the loss of the Ploieşti oilfields in Romania, severely limited the fuel that would be available for the tanks and planes coming off the assembly lines.
The shortening of the fronts on the east and the west and the late-year lull in the ground fighting gave Hitler one more chance to create a reserve of about 25 divisions. He resolved to use them offensively against the British and Americans by cutting across Belgium to Antwerp in an action similar to the sweep through the Ardennes that had brought the British and French to disaster at Dunkirk in May 1940.
D14 Battle of the Bulge
The German Ardennes offensive, soon to be known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge, began on December 16. The Americans were taken completely by surprise. They put up a strong resistance, however, and were able to hold the critical road centres of Saint-Vith and Bastogne. The German effort was doomed after December 23, when good flying weather allowed the overwhelming Allied air superiority to make itself felt. Nevertheless, it was not until the end of January that the last of the 80-km (50-mi) deep “bulge” in the Allied lines was eliminated. The Allied advance into Germany was not resumed until February.
D15 Yalta Conference
By then the Soviet armies were on the River Oder, 60 km (35 mi) east of Berlin. They had smashed the German line on the Wisła and reached the Baltic coast east of Danzig (Gdańsk) in January 1945 and had a tight hold on the Oder by February 3. Stalin would meet Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta in the Crimea (February 4-11) with all of Poland in his pocket and with Berlin and, for all anybody then knew, most of Germany as well within his grasp. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan within three months after the German surrender in return for territorial concessions in East Asia.
The Americans and British disagreed on how to proceed against Germany. In a meeting at Malta shortly before the Yalta Conference, Montgomery and the British members of the CCS argued for a fast single thrust by Montgomery’s army group across the north German plain to Berlin. To sustain such a thrust, they wanted the bulk of Allied supplies to go to Montgomery, which meant the American armies would have to stay on the defensive. Eisenhower’s plan, which prevailed, was to give Montgomery first priority but also keep the American armies on the move.
D16 Crossing the Rhine
The first stage for all of the Allied armies was to reach the Rhine. To accomplish that, they had to break through the west wall to the south and cross the Ruhr on the north. The Germans had flooded the Ruhr Valley by opening dams. After waiting nearly two weeks for the water to subside, the US Ninth and First armies crossed the Ruhr on February 23.
In early March, the armies closed up to the Rhine. The bridges were down everywhere—everywhere, that is, except at the small city of Remagen, where units of the US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge on March 7. By March 24, when Montgomery sent elements of the British Second Army and the US Ninth Army across the river, the US First Army was occupying a sprawling bridgehead between Bonn and Koblenz. On March 22 the US Third Army had seized a bridgehead south of Mainz. Thus, the whole barrier of the river was broken, and Eisenhower ordered the armies to strike east on a broad front.
D17 Allied Objectives in Germany
Advancing at times over 80 km (50 mi) a day, the US First and Ninth armies closed an encirclement around the industrial heart of Germany, the Ruhr, on April 1. They trapped 325,000 German troops in the pocket. The British Second Army crossed the Weser, halfway between the Rhine and the Elbe, on April 5. On April 11 the Ninth Army reached the Elbe near Magdeburg and the next day took a bridgehead on the east side, thereby putting itself within striking distance (120 km/75 mi) of Berlin.
The Ninth Army’s arrival on the Elbe raised a question of a “race for Berlin”. The British, especially Churchill and Montgomery, and some Americans contended that Berlin was the most important objective in Germany because the world, and the German people especially, would regard the forces that took Berlin as the real victors in the war. Eisenhower, supported by the JCS, insisted that, militarily, Berlin was not worth the possible cost of taking it, and a junction with the Russians could be made just as well farther south in the vicinity of Leipzig and Dresden. Moreover, he believed Nazi die-hards were going to take refuge in a redoubt in the Bavarian mountains, and he wanted, therefore, to direct the main weight of his American forces into southern Germany.
The Soviet front, meanwhile, had remained stationary on the River Oder since February, which raised another question. The post-war Soviet explanation was that their flanks on the north and south were threatened and had to be cleared. The sequence of events after February 1945 indicates that Stalin did not believe the British and Americans could cross Germany as fast as they did and, consequently, assumed he would have ample time to complete his conquest of eastern Europe before heading into central Germany. Although he told Eisenhower differently, he obviously did not regard Berlin as unimportant. In the first week of April, his armies went into a whirlwind redeployment for a Berlin offensive.
D18 The Final Battles in Europe
Hitler’s last, faint hope, strengthened briefly by Roosevelt’s death on April 12, was for a falling-out between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. The East-West alliance was, in fact, strained, but the break would not come in time to benefit Nazi Germany. On April 14 and 16 the US Fifth and British Eighth armies launched attacks that brought them to the River Po in a week. The Soviet advance towards Berlin began on April 16. The US Seventh Army captured Nuremberg, the site of Nazi party rallies in the 1930s, on April 20. Four days later Soviet armies closed a ring around Berlin. The next day the Soviet Fifth Guards Army and the US First Army made contact at Torgau on the Elbe north-east of Leipzig, and Germany was split into two parts. In the last week of the month, organized resistance against the Americans and British practically ceased, but the German troops facing east battled desperately to avoid falling into Soviet captivity.
D19 The German Surrender
Hitler decided to await the end in Berlin, where he could still manipulate what was left of the command apparatus. Most of his political and military associates chose to leave the capital for places in north and south Germany likely to be out of the Soviet reach. On the afternoon of April 30, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. As his last significant official act, he named Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz to succeed him as Chief of State.
Dönitz, who had been loyal to Hitler, had no course open to him other than surrender. His representative, General Alfred Jodl, signed an unconditional surrender of all German armed forces at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims early on May 7. By then the German forces in Italy had already surrendered (on May 2), as had those in Holland, northern Germany, and Denmark (May 4). The British and United States governments declared May 8 V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. The full unconditional surrender took effect at one minute past midnight after a second signing in Berlin with Soviet participation.
D20 The Defeat of Japan
Although Japan’s position was hopeless by early 1945, an early end to the war was not in sight. The Japanese navy would not be able to come out in force again, but the bulk of the army was intact and was deployed in the home islands and China. The Japanese gave a foretaste of what was yet in store by resorting to kamikaze (Japanese, “divine wind”) suicide air attacks, during the fighting for Luzon in the Philippines. On January 4-13, 1945, quickly trained kamikaze pilots flying obsolete planes had sunk 17 US ships and damaged 50.
While the final assault on Japan awaited reinforcements from Europe, the island-hopping approach continued, first, with a landing on Iwo Jima on February 19. That small, barren island cost the lives of over 6,000 US Marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima before it was secured on March 16. Situated almost halfway between the Marianas and Tokyo, the island played an important part in the air war. Its two airfields provided landing sites for damaged B-29s and enabled fighters to give the bombers cover during their raids on Japanese cities.
On April 1, the US Tenth Army, composed of four army and four Marine divisions under General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., landed on Okinawa, 500 km (310 mi) south of the southernmost Japanese island, Kyushu. The Japanese did not defend the beaches. They proposed to make their stand on the southern tip of the island, across which they had constructed three strong lines. The northern three-fifths of the island were secured in less than two weeks, the third line in the south could not be breached until June 14, and the fighting continued to June 21, with the deaths of around a third of the island’s population.
The next attack was scheduled for Kyushu in November 1945. An easy success seemed unlikely. The Japanese had fought practically to the last man on Iwo Jima, and hundreds of soldiers and civilians had jumped off cliffs at the southern end of Okinawa rather than surrender. Kamikaze planes had sunk 15 naval vessels and damaged 200 off Okinawa. Emperor Hirohito and others in Japan’s government realized that defeat was inevitable, but could not bypass the military, which was divided and unable to admit defeat.
The Kyushu landing was never made. Throughout the war, the US government and the British had maintained a massive scientific and industrial project to develop nuclear weapons, believing Germany was doing the same. The chief ingredients, fissionable uranium, and plutonium, had not been available in sufficient quantity before the war in Europe ended. The first bomb was exploded in a test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
Two more bombs had been built, and the possibility arose of using them to convince the Japanese to surrender. President Harry S. Truman, who had succeeded Roosevelt in April, decided to allow the bombs to be dropped because, he said, he believed they might save thousands of American lives. Some historians have speculated that the decision was influenced by a desire to exhibit the new weapon to the Soviets in preparation for post-war power struggles. However, it is now generally accepted that Truman’s decision was based on the need to end the war quickly, without the loss of American lives involved in a conquest of Japan. Effects on Soviet opinion were not a paramount calculation, and indeed Stalin became more inflexible after the atomic bombs were used. For maximum psychological impact, they were used in quick succession, one over Hiroshima on August 6, the other over Nagasaki on August 9. These cities had not previously been bombed, and thus the bombs’ damage could be accurately assessed. US estimates put the number killed in Hiroshima at 66,000 to 78,000 and in Nagasaki at 39,000. Japanese estimates gave a combined total of 240,000. The USSR declared war on Japan on August 8 and invaded Dongbei the next day, breaking the last inhibitions of the Japanese High Command, which was terrified at the prospect of Communist invasion.
On August 14 Japan announced its surrender, which was not quite unconditional because the Allies had agreed to allow the country to keep its emperor. The formal signing took place on September 2 in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship Missouri. The Allied delegation was headed by General MacArthur, who became the military governor of occupied Japan.
IV COST OF THE WAR
World War II’s basic statistics qualify it as by far the greatest war in history in terms of human and material resources expended. In all, 61 countries with 1.7 billion people, three-quarters of the world’s population, took part. A total of 110 million people were mobilized for military service, more than half of those by the USSR (22-30 million), Germany (17 million), and the United States (16 million). The largest numbers of active-duty personnel at any one time were: USSR 12,500,000; the United States 12,245,000; Germany 10,938,000; British Empire 8,720,000; Japan 7,193,000; and China 5,000,000.
Most statistics on the war can only be estimates. The war’s vast and chaotic sweep made accurate record-keeping impossible. Some governments lost control of the data, and some resorted to manipulating it for political reasons. However, there is a rough consensus on the total cost of the war. In terms of money spent, it has been put at more than US$1 trillion, which makes it more expensive than all other wars combined.
The United States spent the most money on the war, an estimated $341 billion, including $50 billion of Lend-Lease supplies which were distributed as follows: Britain $31 billion; USSR $11 billion; China $5 billion; and all others $3 billion. The expenditure of other belligerents (in US dollars) was as follows: Germany $272 billion; USSR $192 billion; Britain $120 billion; Italy $94 billion; and Japan $56 billion. Except for the United States and some of the less militarily active Allies, the money spent does not come close to the war’s true costs. The former Soviet government calculated that the USSR lost 30 per cent of its national wealth, while Nazi exactions and looting in the Soviet Union and other occupied countries are incalculable. The full cost to Japan has been estimated at US$562 billion.
Clearly, the major factor in the Allied victory was the possession of vastly superior resources in comparison to those of the Axis powers. All economic indices attest to this superiority—in manpower, manufacturing output, raw materials, education, etc. The United States eventually surpassed all the belligerents economically, but the Soviet Union and Britain proved equally capable of prodigious efforts in the production of weapons of all kinds. The Axis powers could not hope to match this in the long run, despite the vast territorial gains they had made in the early stages of the war.
A The Effects of the War on Civilians
Technological and scientific developments made the war one of unparalleled ferocity. It reached a level of bestiality and horror never before seen in the history of humankind. Civilians in the vast war zones became part of the fighting fronts and suffered from the disease, malnutrition, and often actual starvation, destruction of their towns and cities, and appalling injuries and death.
The air war accounted for much of this civilian suffering. The Nazi aerial blitz on Warsaw in 1939 and Rotterdam in 1940 was followed by much larger-scale night bombing of London and other British towns and cities in 1940 and 1941. Britain’s Bomber Command retaliated after 1942 with a massive night bombing campaign against Germany’s towns and cities, the only means until 1944 by which Britain could strike directly at the heartland of Germany. By the end of the war, most large German cities and towns had been reduced to rubble, with an ever-increasing civilian death toll from direct hits, blasts, and fire-storms.
Contrary to the expectations of many pre-war air strategists, the aerial war did not undermine enemy morale to the extent that it would force its government to sue for peace. Assisted by government exhortation and efforts to ameliorate the worst effects of the bombing by provision of shelters, first aid, and other measures (and in Germany by a ferocious and ever-present police apparatus), the civilian populations in Britain and Germany, while undeniably depressed by the destruction inflicted on them, held firm, despite occasional panic in places like Southampton where shelters were inadequate and the local administration collapsed. Indeed, in Germany in 1944, despite Allied bombing by day and night, military industrial production rose sharply, a result of the innovations of Albert Speer, Hitler’s energetic and ruthless Minister of Armaments after 1942, who discovered plenty of slack and wastage in German industry.
Air historians remain divided about the effectiveness of the RAF’s aerial night bombing of Germany. Many suggest that it largely failed in its objectives, and the resources devoted to bombing might have been better invested elsewhere, such as in the Middle East or the Far East or in the Battle of the Atlantic. Others insist that in its collateral effects on German communications and industries it made a decisive impact on Germany’s war potential—that without it Germany’s military-industrial resurgence after 1943 might have been even more impressive. There is little doubt that, despite its immense losses, the US Army Air Force’s “precision” bombing of Germany’s industrial infrastructure, particularly oil and communications, and its progressive destruction of the German fighter defence forces did have a major impact on Germany’s fighting capabilities. However when the Americans began the aerial bombing of Japanese towns and cities in 1944 and 1945 this seemed to have little effect on the Japanese people’s will to continue fighting, until the dropping of the atomic bombs and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war convinced the Emperor and his closest advisers that Japan must surrender or be totally obliterated.
Civilians were also adversely affected in other ways. Many were forced into slave labour in Germany’s factories and armaments industries, while French, Belgian, Dutch, and Italian citizens were shipped to Germany to work in its factories. Many of the slave labourers were starved to death. The Germans also ruthlessly pillaged the resources of occupied countries like France and the Benelux countries until they belatedly realized that it was more profitable to the German war effort to keep the workers and resources of these countries in place to produce essential armaments and other goods. Civilians, as well as former soldiers, in the occupied countries also joined guerrilla bands—such as the Marquis in France, the underground in Singapore, and the partisans in Yugoslavia—to harry communications and sabotage Axis-controlled industries.
B The Holocaust
By far the most horrifying event was the deliberate murder of 5 million Jewish men, women, and children, deported from Germany, Poland, and other occupied countries to Nazi concentration camps. This was Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the Jewish “problem”. Before the war, the persecution of the Jews in Germany, and later in Austria and Czechoslovakia, had taken the form of banning them from their employment, the seizure of their property, and arbitrary arrest and various other humiliations, such as being forced to wear the Star of David in public. Before 1942 special German units had indiscriminately murdered Jews, Poles, and Russian Bolshevik commissars captured in Poland and Russia. In 1942 a conference of German officials drew up plans for a more “scientific” approach, the Holocaust, which involved herding these people—as well as other target groups such as Roma and homosexuals—into killing camps, where they were exterminated in gas chambers and then cremated. In some camps, 10,000 of these unfortunates could be gassed every day. It is not known how many Germans and their collaborators in occupied territories were involved or connived in this mass slaughter, but certainly it was not restricted, as was believed immediately after the war, to Heinrich Himmler and his entourage and a few German civil servants and police officials, with the bulk of the German population unaware of what was going on—the network of the guilty appears to have been much wider than that.
C Human Losses
As well as this monstrous programme of extermination, the human cost of the war was appalling for most of the belligerents. The USSR lost the most—at least 20 million civilian and military personnel killed—including large numbers of Russian prisoners deliberately starved to death in German prisoner-of-war camps. Poland lost around a fifth of its civilian population. Allied civilian losses were 44 million; Axis losses, 11 million. The military deaths on both sides in Europe numbered 19 million, and in the war against Japan, 6 million (which included a sizeable number of Allied prisoners-of-war starved or tortured to death in Japanese forced-labour camps in Burma and elsewhere). Only the United States was spared any significant civilian losses, with 292,131 military deaths in battle and 115,187 military deaths from other causes.
The highest numbers of deaths and missing among the armed forces of the combatant countries were: USSR 11 million; Germany 3.25 million; Japan 1.7 million; China 1.4 million; Poland 480,000; Romania 360,000; Italy 350,000; United States 300,000; Yugoslavia 300,000; UK 260,000; Hungary 200,000; and France 125,000.
In its early stages, the war was depicted in the West as a struggle of the democracies (France and Britain) against a fanatical and evil German National Socialist dictatorship. This perception was magnified after the entry of the USSR and the United States on the side of Britain in 1941, and Italy and Japan on the side of Germany in 1940 and 1941. From then on the Western powers proclaimed the war as a fight to the finish against the totalitarian Axis, a view reinforced by Roosevelt’s call for the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers in 1943. As the war dragged on, the distinction between the belligerent peoples and their “evil” governments became increasingly blurred in the Allied mind—though, in the case of the Japanese people, towards whom a crude racist attitude was adopted from the outset, such a distinction had often not existed anyway. This depiction of the war as a life-or-death struggle between democracy and fascism was a convenient fiction—the USSR was anything but democratic, although Stalin made some cosmetic changes, such as the abolition of the Comintern, relaxation of religious and anti-Semitic persecution, and portrayal of the war as “The Great Patriotic War” (thus downplaying Communist ideology for the duration), to appeal to the West. America’s Far Eastern ally, Nationalist China under Chiang Kai-shek was corrupt and dictatorial, however much Roosevelt pretended otherwise.
Indeed, while Britain and the United States maintained the outward semblances of democracy—Parliament and Congress respectively—both Winston Churchill after 1940 and Roosevelt after 1941 conferred on themselves immense powers which would have been unthinkable in peace time. In both states, civil liberties were restricted as never before in an effort to enforce uniformity and unity. In Britain, for instance, the Defence of the Realm Act could be utilized to justify any arbitrary State action, as in the case of Oswald Mosley and his Fascist Party, many of whose leaders were rounded up and imprisoned in 1940. The internment of German and Italian refugees in Britain and of Japanese-Americans, in the western United States could equally be justified in the name of the security of the State, despite the fact that most were either refugees from fascist persecution or, in the case of the Japanese-Americans were mostly patriotic Americans. In general, however, British and American authorities ruled with a light hand, since the overwhelming majority of their citizens supported the war. In both the USSR and Germany, Stalin and Hitler had already consolidated their power, and during the war both dictators became the supreme commanders of their armed forces, interfering both in strategic and tactical matters, often ignoring military advice. Internally, loyalty to their respective regimes was maintained by Draconian police measures, coupled with skilful propaganda that emphasized patriotism and hatred of the enemy as a means of keeping their populations in line. Democracy had long ceased to exist in Italy (Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 by an internal coup), while Japan was governed by a succession of Cabinets dominated by the Army and the Navy, who were very often at cross purposes over their objectives, presided over by an emperor who kept a discreet silence until the end of the war.
The war’s end was a total victory for the “democratic” coalition. Fascism and Japanese militarism had been crushed, and for Roosevelt a future peaceful world order could now be guaranteed by the UN, presided over by the four major victor powers, the United States, the USSR, Great Britain, and China. His vision soon faded after his death on April 12, 1945. China collapsed into civil war. Britain attempted to assert its continuing great-power status as a victor, but by 1945, having lost the bulk of its overseas assets and nearly bankrupted by its war effort, this was to be an uphill, and ultimately fruitless, task. The loss of Singapore had been a fatal blow to Britain’s already tottering prestige in Asia. The war also created serious rifts between Britain and its Commonwealth partners. At the outbreak of the war the White Dominions—Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—had rallied to the British cause, sending troops to the British Isles and, in the case of Australia and New Zealand, to the Middle East. South Africa also declared war on Germany, although rather reluctantly and not without considerable unrest among the Boer population. With the rising Japanese threat in the Far East in 1941, the Australian and New Zealand governments began to demand the repatriation of their troops from the Middle East. Churchill ignored or evaded their requests. The loss of British ships off Singapore demonstrated to the two Commonwealth governments that Britain’s pre-war promises to send a powerful fleet to the Far East in the event of Japanese aggression had been entirely bogus. The fall of Singapore, without any major British resistance, was the final blow to what little Australasian confidence remained in British military prowess. Around 14,000 Australian troops, some of whom had only recently arrived in Singapore, were captured, and half of them died in Japan’s prisoner-of-war camps. Thereafter, both countries turned to the United States for their future defence. The Singapore debacle was also the death knell for Britain’s already shaky hold on India. Indian troops—the British Viceroy had declared war on Germany on behalf of India in 1939 without any consultation with Indian nationalist leaders—formed the bulk of the British army in Malaya and Burma. Indeed, the feeble resistance to the Japanese invaders by the British, Dutch, and French colonialists in South East Asia ignited nationalist passions across Asia; although Japanese behaviour in the conquered territories hardly endeared them to the indigenous populations, despite Japan’s call for “Asia for the Asiatics”. Canadian troops remained in the British Isles until they embarked for Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
By 1945 the pre-1939 status quo had disappeared beyond recall. France, Germany, and Western Europe were in ruins, and the devastated lands of Eastern and Central Europe were under Soviet control. The United States had emerged as the predominant global power, rich in human skills, boundless energy, and natural resources, with her homeland barely touched by the ravages of war. When the United States and the USSR quarrelled after 1946 the stage was set for a new conflict—the Cold War.