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World War II

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World War II was the most extensive and costly armed conflict in the history of the world, involving the great majority of the world's nations, being fought simultaneously in several major theatres, and costing tens of millions of lives and large percentages of countries'Gross_national_product" title ="Gross national product">gross national product. The lead-up to the war stretches back to build-ups and smaller regional wars of the 1930s, then slowly drawing in more countries and culminating in massive battles of millions of people in regions across the globe in the first half of the 1940s.

The war set the stage for postwar alliances with large shifts, the allied coalition split with much of Eastern Europe and the USSR become part of the Warsaw Pact. The remaining allied and axis countries, much Western Europe including West German, Italy, US, and UK allied together to form NATO against the Warsaw Pact. The United Nations intially a figurehead organization of the 'allies' shifted to become a more all encompasing organization that included both Warsaw Pact, NATO, and many other countries.

Fighting occurred in the across the Atlantic Ocean, in European theatre in and around eastern and western Europe, in North Africa and Middle east as well as across the mediterranean sea, and in the Pacific theatre in the Pacific, in Oceania and across much of East Asia and South East Asia.

The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 is the most common date in the West for the start of World War II. Others cite the Japanese invasion of China on 7 July 1937 as the war'1931" title ="1931">1931 Japanese incursion into Manchuria. The war ended in Europe with the surrender of Germany on 8 May 1945, but continued in Asia and the Pacific until the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945.

It was the first war in which air power was a significant factor and civilian suffering and terror a primary military strategy. Indeed, the first combat operation in the European Theater of World War II was a German bombing attack against Poland, while the last combat operation in the Pacific Theater was a thousand-aircraft bombing attack on Japan, on 14 August 1945.

The war also saw the re-emergence of the United States from its isolationism, the destruction and rebuilding of Germany and Japan into major industrial powers, the advent of the atomic bomb, and the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as global superpowers.

The war also directly led to the United Nations, founded by the victorious Allies in order to prevent such a large and destructive conflict from ever happening again.

German soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad
German soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad

The war caused more civilian casualties than any war in history. This was partly due to its unprecedented scale, the first uses of mass aerial bombings against civilian populations (a policy initiated by the German Luftwaffe against Poland and later used more extensively against German cities by the Allies), and the first application of industrial-age technology to enable the mass killing of unwanted civilians in extermination camps; a significant part of the German war machine was diverted towards the execution of Jews, Roma, and other unwanted citizens in the Holocaust.

In total, World War II caused the deaths of about two percent of the population of the world. (For details, see the list of World War II casualties by country.)



Main article: Participants of World War II

Traditionaly the war is described as being a fight between two groups of powers: the Axis Powers and Allies.

The Allies consisted primarily of the British Commonwealth, United States, and the Soviet Union while the Axis consisted primarily of Nazi Germany, Italy, and the Empire of Japan.

There were several complications with this scheme though, as the network of alliances changed over time, with divisions within countries, shifts in alliances, and sometimes questionable practices of declared neutral countries.

Among these disputed countries is France, one of the original allies, but split between the Free French Forces and Vichy France. Italy changed sides upon its surrender well into the war. The USSR was allied with Germany until 1941 when they were invaded. Finland fought against both the USSR and Germany at different times, and was supplied from the US and Britain and other times Germany.


Main article: Causes of World War II

The Second World War originated from a variety of causes. Some of the most commonly mentioned include the aggressive rise of totalitarian ideologies, and, from a narrower perspective, war reparations demanded of Germany after World War I, coupled with the effects of the Great Depression and the lack of raw materials in Japan.

The economic depression in the value of currency in these latter countries contributed to the rise of fascist ideals and fervent nationalism, which, in turn, led to the militarization of the economy and mobilization of forces along key borders in these nations. With the rise of fascism, the foreign policies of the Axis nations became more aggressive and strained the Allied leadership.

Prelude to War

Main article: Events preceding World War II in Europe, Events preceding World War II in Asia

Resentment of the victorious powers'Weimar_Republic" title ="Weimar Republic">Weimar Republic in the aftermath of World War I and economic difficulties caused by war reparations and the Great Depression allowed Adolf Hitler'Nationalist" title ="Nationalist">nationalist NSDAP movement to come to power in Germany. Due to the fragile political situation, Hitler was able to assume emergency powers and virtual total control of the country.

Defying post-WWI treaties, he re-developed the German military by means of the democratic constitution that was then put aside. He re-militarised the border zone next to France, enforced the re-unification with Austria in the so-called Anschluss and with Franco-British approval he annexed parts of Czechoslovakia.

In 1922 Benito Mussolini and the Fascist party had risen to power in Italy. Mussolini'National_Socialist" title ="National Socialist">National Socialists or Nazis and, although Mussolini distrusted Hitler, the two countries formed an agreement that became known as the "Rome-Berlin Axis" in 1936.

Benito Mussolini ("Il Duce") with Adolf Hitler
Benito Mussolini ("Il Duce") with Adolf Hitler

In the east, Japan had, as early as the late nineteenth century, begun to spread out across Asia, brought about by conflict between traditional Japanese practices and changing social conditions associated with rapid industrialisation and modernisation. In 1905 Japan won an astounding victory over Russia, and in 1910 it occupied Korea and made it a colony.

During the 1920s democracy seemed to be taking root in Japan, but by the 1930s, the Great Depression brought to the fore many talented military leaders, who took control of Japan, often ruling in the name of Emperor Hirohito, and playing on the traditional respect the Japanese people held for their emperors. In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied Inner Manchuria, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo, and by 1937, launched a second invasion that occupied the rest of the region. For this reason, some scholars consider 1936/37 the actual start of World War II.

European Theatre

Main article: European Theatre of World War II, The end of World War II in Europe

In 1939, Hitler laid claim to parts of Poland and concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Soviet Union in response to Britain's and France's supportive defense alliance with Poland of March 1939.

The German Wehrmacht then invaded Poland on 1 September, and on 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany (Listen to Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany (MP3, 1.32MB)), however neither French nor British troops gave any significant assistance to the Poles during the entire September Campaign.

On 17 September the Soviet Red Army joined the invasion, and, hours after that, the Polish government evacuated the country for Romania. Hostilities in Poland ended on 6 October with the final Battle of Kock. Over following months Poland managed to rebuild its armies in France and Britain and remained an important combatant throughout the entire war.

In October U-47 sank HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow and the Luftwaffe carried out bombing raids on British naval bases at Rosyth and Scapa Flow.

In December 1939, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee engaged British naval forces in the Battle of the River Plate in South America. The German warship retreated into Montevideo harbour and was scuttled shortly thereafter.

The period from the conclusion of the invasion of Poland in October 1939 until the German invasion of the Benelux countries and France in May 1940, became known as the Phoney War. The German and Soviet forces were moved from the attack on Poland. The Red Army concentrated on the Baltic countries and on Finland, where the Winter War became a focus of the world's interest in the absence of other hostilities.

Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht moved north and invaded Denmark and Norway in Operation Weser├╝bung. France mobilised and manned its heavily-defended border (Maginot) against the Rhine and the British sent a large expeditionary force to France. However, apart from a brief attack by the French across the Rhine, there were little in the way of hostilities as both sides built up their forces.

In May of 1940 German forces attacked the Low Countries (The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). The three countries were occupied quickly, all of their governments and monarchs fleeing to London, except for the Belgian king Leopold III who stayed in his country.

France was then promptly invaded. The Germans'Blitzkrieg" title ="Blitzkrieg">Blitzkrieg tactics succeeded in defeating the French and British armies in France. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) evacuated from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo, leaving their heavy equipment and their French allies behind. When German tanks overran most of France, the French State collapsed and a new government made a peace, leaving the Germans in control of the North and the Vichy government in (nominal) charge of the South.

The Luftwaffe was unable to defeat the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain and gain the air superiority needed to invade Britain. Instead, they began a strategic bombing campaign, which the British called the Blitz, and attempted to blockade Britain into submission in the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain failed to succumb to either tactic.

Italy attacked Greece on October 28 1940 and suffered the first Axis defeat. Though Hitler had no plans for Greece at that time, he was forced to send troops to occupy Greece (since Greece'Neutral_country" title ="Neutral country">neutrality was broken) on April of 1941. This resulted in the delay of Operation Barbarossa and the loss of precious troops (see the Battle of Crete).

In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, with whom they had previously signed a non-aggression pact, starting what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War (ru: Великая Отечественная Война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna). The Russians were caught largely by surprise and the Wehrmacht initially conquered vast areas of territory, capturing hundreds of thousands of troops.

The Soviets withdrew, and managed to move most of their heavy industry away from the front line and re-establish it in more remote areas. Tenacious, sacrificial defense prevented the Germans from capturing Moscow (Hero City) by the time winter set in (see Battle of Moscow). Hitler, expecting the campaign to be over in a few months, had not equipped their armies for winter fighting.

Five days after the Soviets launched their counter attack, on December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States following the Attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan - see Asian Theatre.

The "Big Three" Allied Leaders, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.
The "Big Three" Allied Leaders, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

In spring, the German army made further attacks on the Soviet Union but appeared to be unable to choose between a direct attack on Moscow and the capture of the Caucasian oilfields. Moscow was again spared and, at the end of 1942, the Soviets succeeded in smashing the Axis'Battle_of_Stalingrad" title ="Battle of Stalingrad">Battle of Stalingrad (Hero City).

In February 1943, the paltry remnant of the 6th Army surrendered. The loss could have been avoided had Hitler taken Stalingrad when it was devoid of Soviet troops; however, he mistakenly believed it was too well defended. In retrospect, Goebbels'Sportpalast_speech" title ="Sportpalast speech">Sportpalast speech marks their recognition that total war was a necessary response to the Allies' advances.

In the spring, the Wehrmacht was able to restore the front line and make a successful riposte in the Second Battle of Kharkov but their offensive at the massive Battle of Kursk (July 1943) was so unsuccessful that the Red Army were able to counterattack and regain the ground previously lost.

From that time forward, the Soviet Union had the initiative in the East. By early 1944, Red Army had reached the border of Poland and ended the Siege of Leningrad.

The German disaster at Stalingrad was promptly followed by a disaster of similar importance in Tunisia (see African theatre below), resulting in the loss of the last Axis foothold in North Africa and the capture of a quarter of a million German and Italian POWs (May 1943).

Thereafter, the Allies used North Africa as a springboard for the invasion of Sicily (July 1943) and mainland Italy (September 1943), which Winston Churchill described as "the soft underbelly of Europe".

Italy surrendered but German troops moved to disarm the Italians and set about defending the country on their own. They established a series of tough defensive lines in mountainous country that was ideally suited to defense and progress by the Allies was slow.

The Allies invaded Normandy in Operation Overlord on June 6 1944 and liberated most of France and the Low Countries by the end of the year.

On June 9, the Soviet Union began an offensive on the Karelian Isthmus, forcing German co-belligerent Finland out of the war. On June 22, the Soviets began Operation Bagration; 2.5 million men and 6,000 tanks attacked along a 1,000-kilometre front, completely destroying the 500,000-man German Army Group Centre and taking 350,000 prisoners.

Romania surrendered in August and Bulgaria on September. The Germans withdrew from Balkans and managed to hold their position in Hungary until February 1945.

Wilhelm Keitel ratifies the terms of the surrender of the Wehrmacht.
Wilhelm Keitel ratifies the terms of the surrender of the Wehrmacht.

After a desperate counteroffensive by the German army in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the Allies entered Germany in 1945. By now, the Soviets had reached the eastern borders of the German Reich and her fate was sealed.

The Red Army captured Vienna on April 14 and the final assault on Berlin began on April 16. As the Russians surrounded Berlin, Hitler and his staff moved into the bunker underneath the Chancellery. There, on 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide as Russian shells exploded in the Chancellery garden above.

It had been twelve years and three months since the time he had become dictator of Germany. He had appointed Admiral Karl D├Ânitz President of Germany prior to his suicide but, one week later, the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally on 8 May 1945 (the documents were signed on 7 May and the surrender to Soviet forces occured on 9 May).

Throughout the period of the war, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden remained officially neutral. In Ireland, the conflict is referred to as The Emergency.

Pacific Theatre

US landing in the Pacific, August 1942-August 1945
US landing in the Pacific, August 1942-August 1945

Main article: Pacific War

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

The Japanese had already invaded China before World War II started in Europe. U.S. President Roosevelt signed an executive order in May of 1940 allowing U.S. military personnel to resign from the service so that they could participate in a covert operation in China. Hence was born the All Volunteer Group, more commonly known as Chennault'Flying_Tigers" title ="Flying Tigers">Flying Tigers. With the United States and other countries cutting exports to Japan, Japan decided to bomb Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 without warning or declaration of war. Severe damage was done to the American Pacific Fleet, although the aircraft carriers escaped as they were at sea. Japanese forces simultaneously invaded the British possessions of Malaya and Borneo and the American occupied Philippines, with the intention of seizing the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies. The British island fortress of Singapore was captured in what Churchill considered one of the most humiliating British defeats of all time.

In May 1942, the Allied navies in the Battle of the Coral Sea thwarted a Japanese naval attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea which had it succeeded would have put them within striking range of Australia. This was both the first successful opposition to Japanese plans and the first naval battle fought only between aircraft carriers. A month later the U.S. Navy again prevented the invasion of Midway Island, this time destroying four Japanese carriers, which Japanese industry could not replace, and putting the Japanese navy on the defensive.

However, in July the Japanese Army attempted an overland attack on Port Moresby, along the rugged Kokoda Track. Australian reservists, many of them very young and untrained, fought a stubborn rearguard action, until they were relieved by Australian regular troops returning from action in the Middle East.

The Allied leaders had agreed even prior to the American entry to the war that priority should be given to the defeat of Germany. Nonetheless US and Australian forces under General Douglas MacArthur began to attack captured territories, beginning with, against the bitter and determined defense of Japanese troops, Guadalcanal Island. On 7 August 1942 the island was assaulted by United States Marines. In late August and early September, while battle raged on Guadalacanal, Australian forces fought off a Japanese amphibious attack on the eastern tip of New Guinea at Milne Bay, the first conclusive defeat suffered by Japanese land forces. US forces triumphed on Guadalcanal in February 1943.

Exhausted Australian and US forces then strove to retake the occupied parts of New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies, experiencing some of the toughest resistance of the Pacific Theatre. The rest of the Solomon Islands were retaken in 1943, New Britain and New Ireland in 1944. The Philippines were attacked in late 1944 following the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

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

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

Capture by the Allies of islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa close to Japan brought the homeland within range of naval and air attacks, Tokyo was firebombed and later an atomic bomb, the "Little Boy", was dropped from the B-29 "Enola Gay" and destroyed Hiroshima. On 8 August 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, as had been agreed to at Yalta, and launched a large scale invasion of Japanese occupied Manchuria (operation August Storm). On August 9, in Nagasaki, another atom bomb, "Fat Man" was dropped by the B-29 "Bock'14_August" title ="14 August">14 August 1945, signing official surrender papers on 2 September 1945 aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

African and Middle Eastern Theatre

The North African Campaign began in 1940, when small British forces in Egypt turned back an Italian advance from Libya. This advance was stopped in 1941 when German forces under Erwin Rommel landed in Libya. In addition, in June 1941 the Australian Army and allied forces invaded Syria and Lebanon, capturing Damascus on 17 June. Rommel'Afrika_Korps" title ="Afrika Korps">Afrika Korps advanced rapidly eastward, laying siege to the vital seaport of Tobruk. The Australian and British troops in the city resisted all until relieved, but a renewed Axis offensive captured the city and drove the Eighth Army back to a line at El Alamein.

The First Battle of El Alamein took place between July 1 and July 27, 1942. German forces had advanced to the last defensible point before Alexandria and the Suez Canal. However they had outrun their supplies, and a British and Commonwealth defense stopped their thrusts. The Second Battle of El Alamein occurred between October 23 and November 3, 1942 after Bernard Montgomery had replaced Claude Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army. Commonwealth forces took the offensive and destroyed the Afrika Korps. Rommel was pushed back, and this time did not stop falling back until Tunisia.

To complement this victory, on 8 November, 1942, American and British troops landed in Morocco and Algeria in Operation Torch. The local forces of Vichy France put up limited resistance before joining the Allied cause. Ultimately German and Italian forces were caught in the pincers of a twin advance from Algeria and Libya. Advancing from both the east and west, the Allies completely pushed the Wehrmacht out of Africa and on May 13, 1943, the remnants of the Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. 250,000 prisoners were taken; as many as at Stalingrad.

North Africa was used as the jumping-off point for the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy in 1943.


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

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

The future Warsaw Pact countries did not subscribe to the Marshall Plan. In the Paris Peace Treaty, the Soviet Union'Hungary" title ="Hungary">Hungary, Finland and Romania were required to pay war reparations of $300,000,000 each (in 1938 dollars) to the USSR. Italy was required to pay $360,000,000, shared chiefly between Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

In the areas occupied by Western Allied troops, capitalist governments were created, in the areas occupied by Soviet troops, communist governments were created. Germany was partitioned into four zones of occupation, with the American, British and French zones grouped as West Germany and the Soviet zone as East Germany. Austria was once again separated from Germany and it, too, was divided into four zones of occupation which eventually re-united and became the state of Austria. The Cold War had begun, and soon NATO and the Warsaw Pact would form.

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

The massive research and development involved in the Manhattan Project in order to quickly achieve a working nuclear weapon design greatly impacted the scientific community, among other things creating a network of national laboratories in the United States. In addition, the pressing for numerous calculations for various things like code breaking and ballistics tables kickstarted the development of electronic computer technology.

In the military sphere, World War II marked the coming of age of airpower, mostly at the expense of warships. While the pendulum continues to swing in this never-ending competition, air powers are now a full partner in any military action. World War II also saw the creation of guided missiles which, like airpower, are now used in virtually every conflict.

The war was the high-water mark for mass armies. While huge armies of low-quality troops would be seen again (during the Korean War and in a number of African conflicts), after this victory the major powers relied upon small highly-trained and well-equipped militaries.

After the war, many high-ranking Germans were prosecuted for war crimes, as well as the mass murder of the Holocaust committed mainly on the area of General Government, in the Nuremberg trials. Similarly Japanese leaders were prosecuted in the Tokyo War Crime Trial. Although the deliberate targeting of civilians was already defined as a war crime and it had been used extensively by both sides, most notably in Poland, Britain, Germany and Japan, those responsible were never tried for it. In other countries, notably in Finland, the Allies demanded the political leadership to be prosecuted in "war-responsibility trials" — i.e. not for crimes of war.

The defeat of Japan, and her occupation by American Forces, led to a westernization of Japan that was surely more far-reaching than would otherwise have occurred. Japan approximated more closely to a Western style democracy and, because of her defeat by the USA, set out to imitate the United States. This huge national effort led to the post-war Japanese economic miracle and Japan's rise to become the world's second largest economy.

The Destruction of Europe and the destruction, via aerial bombing, of a significant proportion of the United Kingdom'Decolonisation" title ="Decolonisation">decolonisation process that would see the empires of the United Kingdom, France and others swept away.

World War II military history by country

Military engagements

Major Campaigns



Naval engagements

Major bombing campaigns

See also

Defensive lines

Political and social aspects of the war

Production and logistics

The Axis lost, at least partly because the Allies, after the USA's and the Soviet Union's entrance into the war, had greater productive resources, and were able to turn these resources into greater numbers of soldiers and weapons than the Axis. This was further compounded by the comparitive lack of equipment standardization among the Axis forces and its failure to use its large territorial (and associated resources) gains in an economy on war footing. For instance Germany was the only war economy which largely didn't make use of the labour of women.

Common military awards

Soviet Union

In Soviet Union orders and medals were also awarded to cities and military divisions.

United States

United Kingdom

France and Belgium



Related articles



  • Churchill, Winston (1948-53), The Second World War, 6 vols.
  • Gilbert, Martin (1995) Second World War, Phoenix, ISBN 1857993462
  • Keegan, John (1989) The Second World War
  • Liddel Hart, Sir Basil (1970), History of the Second World War Cassel & Co; Pan Books,1973, London
  • Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (2000) A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War ISBN 067400163X
  • Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, Pimlico, 1995. ISBN 0712674535
  • Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994) ISBN 0521443172

External links

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