World War II Begins

World War II Begins

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At 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939, the pre-dawn skies lit up over the Baltic Sea as the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish fortress on the Westerplatte Peninsula as assault troops hidden aboard the vessel stormed the shoreline. The venerable ship that had seen action in World War I fired the first salvos of what would be a second global conflagration. Without a declaration of war, 1.5 million troops stormed Nazi Germany’s 1,750-mile border with Poland. They came from the north, south and west. They came by land, by air and by sea in a quest to regain territory lost by Germany in the Treaty of Versailles and colonize its neighbor.

The Nazis overwhelmed the antiquated Polish defenses with their blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” tactics. German tanks steamrolled into the country. The Luftwaffe destroyed airfields, bombed passenger trains and mowed down civilians indiscriminately with machine-gun fire. Incendiary bombs torched Katowice, Krakow and the capital city of Warsaw. By sea, German warships and U-boats attacked the Polish navy. The 1 million-man Polish military was undermanned and underequipped. So antiquated were some army units that cavalry horses trotted to the front lines to confront the enemy’s mighty armored tanks.

German chancellor Adolf Hitler had rattled his saber at Poland for months. As he had done prior to the occupation of other countries, Hitler claimed that ethnic Germans were being persecuted inside Poland. Addressing the nation hours after the firing of the first shots, Hitler said he acted strictly in justifiable self-defense in response to Polish attacks on German soil the night before. Those attacks were not launched by Poland, however, but were carefully choreographed operations stage-managed by the Nazi propaganda machine as a pretext for an invasion. In the border town of Gleiwitz, S.S. operatives donned Polish military uniforms and seized one of Germany’s own radio stations and broadcast an anti-Nazi message in Polish. Prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp were dressed in Polish uniforms, brought to the radio station and shot to make it appear as if they were casualties of the firefight.

“The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms,” Hitler wrote of the phony attacks in his proclamation to the army. “In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on.”

Throughout the summer of 1939, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union had carried on negotiations for forming a three-way alliance against Germany, but talks broke down over Poland’s refusal to grant Soviet troops the right to enter its territory, a demand the Polish military viewed as no more than a thinly veiled occupation. “With the Germans, we risk losing our freedom,” said Polish commander-in-chief Edward Rydz-Smigly, “with the Russians our soul.” The stymied Soviets instead pursued a separate peace with Germany, and the two countries signed a nonaggression pact on August 23 that contained a secret clause that divided Poland between them. With no threat of a Soviet intervention, Hitler believed he had a free hand to move against Poland. “The way is open for the soldier, now that I have made the political preparations,” he told his military commanders.

Still, Great Britain and France had guaranteed to fight in Poland’s defense, but many Nazi leaders, including foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, believed history would repeat itself and the countries would back down. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Britain and France did not respond militarily. When he annexed Austria two years later, the Western powers had no reply. When he annexed Czechoslovakia in 1939 in violation of the Munich Pact, which had already granted him the Sudetenland, Britain and France still did not respond with force.

This time, however, was different. Both Britain and France issued ultimatums for Germany to withdraw troops from Poland immediately or risk war. When Hitler learned of the British demand, he sat in stony silence before glaring at a surprised Ribbentrop and demanding to know, “What now?”

On September 3 Britain and France declared war on Germany. Less than 20 years after “the war to end all wars,” the guns once again roared over a Europe that still bore deep scars from World War I. In spite of the declarations of war, little was done to stop the rapid German advance that had reached the outskirts of Warsaw by September 8. Britain was not prepared to launch a large military action, and French efforts were half-hearted along its eastern border with Germany.

Once the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on September 17, the country was squeezed in a vice grip that would last for 50 years until the fall of communism. By the end of September, Polish government and military leaders had fled the country, and the Nazis and Soviets had partitioned the country. A month after announcing the “counterattack” to the German people, Hitler declared victory on September 30, 1939.

Swastika flags now flew from public buildings. Resistors and Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Poles died in the invasion, the first of some 50 million men, women and children who would lose their lives in World War II. It was just the beginning of the suffering for the Polish people, who were victims of some of the greatest horrors in a monstrous war. Six million Poles, half of them Jewish, died during World War II at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets. Even after the Red Army defeated Nazi forces in 1945, the brutality continued as Poland remained under the yoke of a totalitarian communist government until 1989.

World War II Begins - HISTORY

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This Web site is intended for enthusiasts of World War II, a period now far behind us. The text has been written using our own judgement and should be easily understood by everybody. The reader is taken back in time and feels that he was actually present when the events took place, a new and compelling way of experiencing the events of World War II. Every possible care has been taken to ensure that the facts are presented accurately, although new developments could of course shed new light on the matter. Every such work as The World at War, history of WW 1939-1945 is an attempt to walk the tightrope between the fullest possible and the most accessible description of the period. Our aim has been to provide a basic source of information for these vastly important and often misrepresented years, enabling students to orient themselves rapidly or the general reader to browse through the entries following a theme by use of the cross-references. The chronologies, too, have been designed for this dual purpose. However, we are very confident that this story will make a contribution to history, a contribution which will benefit mankind in the future. We hope you will like it.
The objective of our site is to provide you with a vast catalogue of interesting resources including WW II links throught the WWW, you may search the whole site using keywords or names, use these resources to recreate the atmosphere of the time 1939-1945. Once you become acquainted with the features, you will be navigating this complex and bewildering war in a clear, easy-to-understand and exciting way.

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Never has there been a war that could have been avoided more easily than the one that has just destroyed (1939 - 1945) whatever was left of the world after the previous confrontation (1914 -1918).

When World War II began in 1939, Germany was the aggressor, it was later joined in June 1940, by Italy, and Japan in December 1941. The war against Japan was fought over two-thirds of the world's surface, with America and her allies taking part in vast air, land and sea battles. It turned WW II into global conflict and ended it with the drawning of nuclear era. Together they formed the major Axis nations, each had their strenghts and weakness. From 1900 until the late 1930's the armies of the world believed that massed infantry charges, heavy artillery, and static defenses could dominate and control any battlefield. But on the morning of September 1st 1939, the world was forever changed as Germany invaded Poland and executed its first "Blitzkrieg" or "Lightning attack", quickly crushing Polish resistance. And the entry of France and Britain into the conflict on 3 September, marked not so much the beginning of a new war as opening of a more intensive phase of a war that already in progress. A possible opinion was that it had never stopped at all during the years since 1914. A more moderate view, might take the outbreak of the Spanish revolt in July 1936 as the starting point. But to any informed observer it was at least clear that the struggle had waged, bloodlessly but with growing intensity, for a considerable period before the resort to armed hostilities.

From 1939 to 1945, Germany's military machine struck out and conquered most of Western Europe, swept into deserts of North Africa and drove deep into the hinterlands of Russia. In time, however, the Allies gathered strength and eventually crushed the German Army and Axis powers with a display of brute force that has remained unmatched to this day. What started out as a war based on military technical tactics and blitzkriegs, later became a war reliant on industry and mass production.
The western offensive has learned the German much, though they will not remember all the lessons. They have seen the movement of heavy armoured vehicles, and the battlefield tactics they could employ, significantly reduced by unhelpful terrain and the most modest of road obstructions columns of such machines have also often been badly delayed by human traffic, in the form of fleeing refugees. With command of the air and relatively light resistance, however, the Blitzkrieg technique has been proven the tempo of advance has been unprecedented and, indeed, caused its own, unforeseen logistical problems. But the success of the Battle of France may have proved to be the Germans' undoing for they expect future battlefields to be equally susceptible to these techniques and when this proves not to be the case some of its finest commanders will be found wanting, their one-dimensional approach not being effective in defence or retreat. Furthermore, the rapid defeat of France has focused Allied minds. Had they been able to hold their ground for longer, old strategies might have been clung to and new equipment might not have been urgently demanded. For the French, the last weeks have been a chastening experience. Their industry has broken all manufacturing records to keep the armed forces suppilied, but political foresight and military resolve have been absent. It is indicative that their air force ends the Battle of France with more aircraft than when it started, thanks to that manufacturing spurt accompanied by the logistical failure to deploy what was available.

The deeds of the Japanese extremists and of Hitler and Mussolini, which led up to martial conflict, are the positive points of the story, but they are not more of it than the negative points, the ability of democracy to understand the nature of peace and to cope with the swelling flood of aggression. Peace itself might have been preserved if men of good will who were leading the democracies had also been men of good sense. It would make a poor understanding of the world crisis if these failures were not continually borne in mind.

Victory won over evil, we have still not found peace or safety and we are still in the grip of dangers which are even worse than the ones we have survived. I seriously hope that a careful consideration of the past may show us the way in the years to come, that it will enable the new generation to make up for the errors (against animals and wildlife too, not only people) committed in the past and that they will thus be able to rule this vast, rapidly developing world, in accordance with the needs and the dignity of mankind, with the help of all the numerous new technological developments at our disposal, such as nuclear energy and electronics, and all their benefits.

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American public opinion was hostile to the Axis, but how much aid to give the Allies was controversial. The United States returned to its typical isolationist foreign policy after the First World War and President Woodrow Wilson's failure to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally favored a more assertive foreign policy, his administration remained committed to isolationism during the 1930s to ensure congressional support for the New Deal, and allowed Congress to pass the Neutrality Acts. [6] As a result, the United States played no role in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and the Spanish Civil War. After the German invasion of Poland and the beginning of the war in September 1939, Congress allowed foreign countries to purchase war material from the United States on a "cash-and-carry" basis, but assistance to the United Kingdom was still limited by British hard currency shortages and the Johnson Act, and President Roosevelt's military advisers believed that the Allied Powers would be defeated and that US military assets should be focused on defending the Western Hemisphere.

By 1940 the US, while still neutral, was becoming the "Arsenal of Democracy" for the Allies, supplying money and war materials. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt agreed to exchange 50 US destroyers for 99-year-leases to British military bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. The sudden defeat of France in spring 1940 caused the nation to begin to expand its armed forces, including the first peacetime draft. In preparation for expected German aggression against the Soviet Union, negotiations for better diplomatic relations began between Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Konstantin Umansky. [7] After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, America began sending Lend Lease aid to the Soviet Union as well as Britain and China. [8] Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisers warned that the Soviet Union would collapse from the Nazi advance within weeks, he barred Congress from blocking aid to the Soviet Union on the advice of Harry Hopkins. [7] In August 1941, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met aboard the USS Augusta at Naval Station Argentia in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, and produced the Atlantic Charter outlining mutual aims for a postwar liberalized international system. [9]

Public opinion was even more hostile to Japan, and there was little opposition to increased support for China. After the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the United States articulated the Stimson Doctrine, named for Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, stating that no territory conquered by military force would be recognized. The United States also withdrew from the Washington Naval Treaty limiting naval tonnage in response to Japan's violations of the Nine-Power Treaty and the Kellogg–Briand Pact. [10] Public opposition to Japanese expansionism in Asia had mounted during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service attacked and sank the US Yangtze Patrol gunboat USS Panay in the Yangtze River while the ship was evacuating civilians from the Nanjing Massacre. [11] Although the US government accepted Japanese official apologies and indemnities for the incident, it resulted in increasing trade restrictions against Japan and corresponding increases US credit and aid to China. After the United States abrogated the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan, Japan ratified the Tripartite Pact and embarked on an invasion of French Indochina. The United States responded by placing a complete embargo on Japan through the Export Control Act of 1940, freezing Japanese bank accounts, halting negotiations with Japanese diplomats, and supplying China through the Burma Road. [12]

American volunteers Edit

Before America entered World War II in December 1941, individual Americans volunteered to fight against the Axis powers in other nations' armed forces. Although under American law, it was illegal for United States citizens to join the armed forces of foreign nations, and in doing so, they lost their citizenship, many American volunteers changed their nationality to Canadian. However, Congress passed a blanket pardon in 1944. [13] American mercenary Colonel Charles Sweeny began recruiting American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air Force, however France fell before this was implemented. [13] During the Battle of Britain, 11 American pilots flew in the Royal Air Force. Charles Sweeney's nephew, also named Charles, formed a Home Guard unit from American volunteers living in London. [13]

One notable example was the Eagle Squadrons, which were RAF squadrons made up of American volunteers and British personnel. The first to be formed was No. 71 Squadron on 19 September 1940, followed by No. 121 Squadron on 14 May 1941 and No. 133 Squadron on 1 August 1941. 6,700 Americans applied to join but only 244 got to serve with the three Eagle squadrons 16 Britons also served as squadron and flight commanders. The first became operational in February 1941 and the squadrons scored their first kill in July 1941. On 29 September 1942, the three squadrons were officially turned over by the RAF to the Eighth Air Force of the US Army Air Forces and became the 4th Fighter Group. In their time with the RAF the squadrons claim to have shot 73½ German planes 77 Americans and 5 Britons were killed. [14]

Another notable example was the Flying Tigers, created by Claire L. Chennault, a retired US Army Air Corps officer working in the Republic of China since August 1937, first as military aviation advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of the Sino-Japanese War. Officially known as the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) but nicknamed the "Flying Tigers", this was a group of American pilots already serving in the US Armed forces and recruited under presidential authority. As a unit they served in the Chinese Air Force against the Japanese. The group comprised three fighter squadrons of around 30 aircraft each. The AVG's first combat mission was on 20 December 1941, twelve days after the Pearl Harbor attack. On 4 July 1942 the AVG was disbanded, and was replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces, which was later absorbed into the US Fourteenth Air Force. During their time in the Chinese Air Force, they succeeded in destroying 296 enemy aircraft, [15] while losing only 14 pilots in combat. [15]

Command system Edit

In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a new command structure to provide leadership in the US Armed Forces while retaining authority as Commander-in-Chief as assisted by Secretary of War Henry Stimson with Admiral Ernest J. King as Chief of Naval Operations in complete control of the Navy and of the Marine Corps through its Commandant, then Lt. General Thomas Holcomb and his successor as Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. General Alexander Vandegrift, General George C. Marshall in charge of the Army, and in nominal control of the Air Force, which in practice was commanded by General Hap Arnold on Marshall's behalf. King was also in control for wartime being of the US Coast Guard under its Commandant, Admiral Russell R. Waesche. Roosevelt formed a new body, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which made the final decisions on American military strategy and as the chief policy-making body for the armed forces. The Joint Chiefs was a White House agency chaired by Admiral William D. Leahy, who became FDR's chief military advisor and the highest military officer of the US at that time. [16]

As the war progressed Marshall became the dominant voice in the JCS in the shaping of strategy. [17] When dealing with Europe, the Joint Chiefs met with their British counterparts and formed the Combined Chiefs of Staff. [18] Unlike the political leaders of the other major powers, Roosevelt rarely overrode his military advisors. [19] The civilians handled the draft and procurement of men and equipment, but no civilians—not even the secretaries of War or Navy, had a voice in strategy. [20] Roosevelt avoided the State Department and conducted high-level diplomacy through his aides, especially Harry Hopkins. Since Hopkins also controlled $50 billion in Lend Lease funds given to the Allies, they paid attention to him. [ citation needed ]

The year 1940 marked a change in attitude in the United States. The German victories in France, Poland and elsewhere, combined with the Battle of Britain, led many Americans to believe that some intervention would be needed. In March 1941, the Lend-Lease program began shipping money, munitions, and food to Britain, China, and (by that fall) the Soviet Union.

By 1941 the United States was taking an active part in the war, despite its nominal neutrality. In spring U-boats began their "wolf-pack" tactics which threatened to sever the trans- Atlantic supply line Roosevelt extended the Pan-American Security Zone east almost as far as Iceland. The US Navy's "neutrality patrols" were not actually neutral as, in practice, their function was to report Axis ship and submarine sightings to the British and Canadian navies, and from April the US Navy began escorting Allied convoys from Canada as far as the "Mid-Atlantic Meeting Point" (MOMP) south of Iceland, where they handed off to the RN.

On 16 June 1941, after negotiation with Churchill, Roosevelt ordered the United States occupation of Iceland to replace the British invasion forces. On 22 June 1941, the US Navy sent Task Force 19 (TF 19) from Charleston, South Carolina to assemble at Argentia, Newfoundland. TF 19 included 25 warships and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade of 194 officers and 3714 men from San Diego, California under the command of Brigadier General John Marston. [23] Task Force 19 (TF 19) sailed from Argentia on 1 July. On 7 July, Britain persuaded the Althing to approve an American occupation force under a US-Icelandic defense agreement, and TF 19 anchored off Reykjavík that evening. US Marines commenced landing on 8 July, and disembarkation was completed on 12 July. On 6 August, the US Navy established an air base at Reykjavík with the arrival of Patrol Squadron VP-73 PBY Catalinas and VP-74 PBM Mariners. US Army personnel began arriving in Iceland in August, and the Marines had been transferred to the Pacific by March 1942. [23] Up to 40,000 US military personnel were stationed on the island, outnumbering adult Icelandic men (at the time, Iceland had a population of about 120,000.) The agreement was for the US military to remain until the end of the war (although the US military presence in Iceland remained through 2006, as postwar Iceland became a member of NATO).

American warships escorting Allied convoys in the western Atlantic had several hostile encounters with U-boats. On 4 September, a German U-Boat attacked the destroyer USS Greer off Iceland. A week later Roosevelt ordered American warships to attack U-boats on sight. A U-boat shot up the USS Kearny as it escorted a British merchant convoy. The USS Reuben James was sunk by German submarine U-552 on 31 October 1941. [24]

On 11 December 1941, three days after the United States declared war on Japan, [25] Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany declared war against the United States. That same day, the United States declared war on Germany and Italy. [26]

Europe first Edit

The established grand strategy of the Allies was to defeat Germany and its allies in Europe first, and then focus could shift towards Japan in the Pacific. This was because two of the Allied capitals, London and Moscow, could be directly threatened by Germany, but none of the major Allied capitals were threatened by Japan. Germany was the United Kingdom's primary threat, especially after the Fall of France in 1940, which saw Germany overrun most of the countries of Western Europe, leaving the United Kingdom alone to combat Germany. Germany's planned invasion of the UK, Operation Sea Lion, was averted by its failure to establish air superiority in the Battle of Britain. At the same time, war with Japan in East Asia seemed increasingly likely. Although the US was not yet at war with either Germany or Japan, it met with the UK on several occasions to formulate joint strategies.

In the 29 March 1941 report of the ABC-1 conference, the Americans and British agreed that their strategic objectives were: (1) "The early defeat of Germany as the predominant member of the Axis with the principal military effort of the United States being exerted in the Atlantic and European area and (2) A strategic defensive in the Far East." Thus, the Americans concurred with the British in the grand strategy of "Europe first" (or "Germany first") in carrying out military operations in World War II. The UK feared that, if the United States was diverted from its main focus in Europe to the Pacific (Japan), Hitler might crush both the Soviet Union and Britain, and would then become an unconquerable fortress in Europe. The wound inflicted on the United States by Japan at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, did not result in a change in US policy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill hastened to Washington shortly after Pearl Harbor for the Arcadia Conference to ensure that the Americans didn't have second thoughts about Europe First. The two countries reaffirmed that, "notwithstanding the entry of Japan into the War, our view remains that Germany is still the prime enemy. And her defeat is the key to victory. Once Germany is defeated the collapse of Italy and the defeat of Japan must follow."

Battle of the Atlantic Edit

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign in World War II, running from 1939 to the defeat of Germany in 1945. At its core was the Allied naval blockade of Germany, announced the day after the declaration of war, and Germany's subsequent counter-blockade. It was at its height from mid-1940 through to the end of 1943. The Battle of the Atlantic pitted U-boats and other warships of the Kriegsmarine (German navy) and aircraft of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) against the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Navy, the United States Navy, and Allied merchant shipping. The convoys, coming mainly from North America and predominantly going to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, were protected for the most part by the British and Canadian navies and air forces. These forces were aided by ships and aircraft of the United States from 13 September 1941. The Germans were joined by submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) after their Axis ally Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940.

Operation Torch Edit

The United States entered the war in the west with Operation Torch on 8 November 1942, after their Soviet allies had pushed for a second front against the Germans. General Dwight Eisenhower commanded the assault on North Africa, and Major General George Patton struck at Casablanca.

Allied victory in North Africa Edit

The United States did not have a smooth entry into the war against Nazi Germany. Early in 1943, the United States Army suffered a near-disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in February. The senior Allied leadership was primarily to blame for the loss as internal bickering between American General Lloyd Fredendall and the British led to mistrust and little communication, causing inadequate troop placements. [27] The defeat could be considered a major turning point, however, because General Eisenhower replaced Fredendall with General Patton.

Slowly the Allies stopped the German advance in Tunisia and by March were pushing back. In mid-April, under British General Bernard Montgomery, the Allies smashed through the Mareth Line and broke the Axis defense in North Africa. On 13 May 1943, Axis troops in North Africa surrendered, leaving behind 275,000 men. Allied efforts turned towards Sicily and Italy.

Invasion of Sicily and Italy Edit

The first stepping stone for the Allied liberation of Europe was invading Europe through Italy. Launched on 9 July 1943, Operation Husky was, at the time, the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken. The American seaborne assault by the US 7th Army landed on the southern coast of Sicily between the town of Licata in the west, and Scoglitti in the east and units of the 82nd airborne division parachuted ahead of landings. Despite the elements, the operation was a success and the Allies immediately began exploiting their gains. On 11 August, seeing that the battle was lost, the German and Italian commanders began evacuating their forces from Sicily to Italy. On 17 August, the Allies were in control of the island, US 7th Army lost 8,781 men (2,237 killed or missing, 5,946 wounded, and 598 captured).

Following the Allied victory in Sicily, Italian public sentiment swung against the war and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He was dismissed from office by the Fascist Grand Council and King Victor Emmanuel III, and the Allies struck quickly, hoping resistance would be slight. The first Allied troops landed on the Italian peninsula on 3 September 1943 and Italy surrendered on 8 September, however the Italian Social Republic was established soon afterwards. The first American troops landed at Salerno on 9 September 1943, by U.S. 5th Army, however, German troops in Italy were prepared and after the Allied troops at Salerno had consolidated their beachhead, The Germans launched fierce counterattacks. However, they failed to destroy the beachhead and retreated on 16 September and in October 1943 began preparing a series of defensive lines across central Italy. The US 5th Army and other Allied armies broke through the first two lines (Volturno and the Barbara Line) in October and November 1943. As winter approached, the Allies made slow progress due to the weather and the difficult terrain against the heavily defended German Winter Line they did however manage to break through the Bernhardt Line in January 1944. By early 1944 the Allied attention had turned to the western front and the Allies were taking heavy losses trying to break through the Winter Line at Monte Cassino. The Allies landed at Anzio on 22 January 1944 to outflank the Gustav line and pull Axis forces out of it so other allied armies could breakthrough. After slow progress, the Germans counterattacked in February but failed to stamp out the Allies after months of stalemate, the Allies broke out in May 1944 and Rome fell to the Allies on 4 June 1944.

Following the Normandy invasion on 6 June 1944, the equivalent of seven US and French divisions were pulled out of Italy to participate in Operation Dragoon: the allied landings in southern France despite this, the remaining US forces in Italy with other Allied forces pushed up to the Gothic line in northern Italy, the last major defensive line. From August 1944 to March 1945 the Allies managed to breach the formidable defenses but they narrowly failed to break out into the Lombardy Plains before the winter weather closed in and made further progress impossible. In April 1945 the Allies broke through the remaining Axis positions in Operation Grapeshot ending the Italian Campaign on 2 May 1945 US forces in mainland Italy suffered between 114,000 and over 119,000 casualties.

Strategic bombing Edit

Numerous bombing runs were launched by the United States aimed at the industrial heart of Germany. Using the high altitude B-17, the raids had to be conducted in daylight for the drops to be accurate. As adequate fighter escort was rarely available, the bombers would fly in tight, box formations, allowing each bomber to provide overlapping machine-gun fire for defense. The tight formations made it impossible to evade fire from Luftwaffe fighters, however, and American bomber crew losses were high. One such example was the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission, which resulted in staggering losses of men and equipment. The introduction of the revered P-51 Mustang, which had enough fuel to make a round trip to Germany's heartland, helped to reduce losses later in the war.

In mid-1942, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) arrived in the UK and carried out a few raids across the English Channel. The USAAF Eighth Air Force's B-17 bombers were called the "Flying Fortresses" because of their heavy defensive armament of ten to twelve machine guns, and armor plating in vital locations. In part because of their heavier armament and armor, they carried smaller bomb loads than British bombers. With all of this, the USAAF's commanders in Washington, DC, and in Great Britain adopted the strategy of taking on the Luftwaffe head-on, in larger and larger air raids by mutually defending bombers, flying over Germany, Austria, and France at high altitudes during the daytime. Also, both the US Government and its Army Air Forces commanders were reluctant to bomb enemy cities and towns indiscriminately. They claimed that by using the B-17 and the Norden bombsight, the USAAF should be able to carry out "precision bombing" on locations vital to the German war machine: factories, naval bases, shipyards, railroad yards, railroad junctions, power plants, steel mills, airfields, etc.

In January 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, it was agreed RAF Bomber Command operations against Germany would be reinforced by the USAAF in a Combined Operations Offensive plan called Operation Pointblank. Chief of the British Air Staff MRAF Sir Charles Portal was put in charge of the "strategic direction" of both British and American bomber operations. The text of the Casablanca directive read: "Your primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.", At the beginning of the combined strategic bombing offensive on 4 March 1943 669 RAF and 303 USAAF heavy bombers were available.

In late 1943, 'Pointblank' attacks manifested themselves in the infamous Schweinfurt raids (first and second). Formations of unescorted bombers were no match for German fighters, which inflicted a deadly toll. In despair, the Eighth halted air operations over Germany until a long-range fighter could be found in 1944 it proved to be the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to fly to Berlin and back.

USAAF leaders firmly held to the claim of "precision bombing" of military targets for much of the war, and dismissed claims they were simply bombing cities. However, the American Eighth Air Force received the first H2X radar sets in December 1943. Within two weeks of the arrival of these first six sets, the Eighth command permitted them to area bomb a city using H2X and would continue to authorize, on average, about one such attack a week until the end of the war in Europe.

In reality, the day bombing was "precision bombing" only in the sense that most bombs fell somewhere near a specific designated target such as a railway yard. Conventionally, the air forces designated as "the target area" a circle having a radius of 1000 feet around the aiming point of attack. While accuracy improved during the war, Survey studies show that, overall, only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within this target area. In the fall of 1944, only seven percent of all bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force hit within 1,000 feet of their aim point. The only offensive ordnance possessed by the USAAF that was guidable, the VB-1 Azon, saw very limited service in Europe and in the CBI Theater late in the war.

Nevertheless, the sheer tonnage of explosives delivered by day and by night was eventually enough to cause widespread damage, and, more importantly from a military point of view, forced Germany to divert resources to counter it. This was to be the real significance of the Allied strategic bombing campaign—resource allocation.

To improve USAAF fire bombing capabilities a mock-up German village was built and repeatedly burned down. It contained full-scale replicas of German homes. Fire bombing attacks proved successful, in a single 1943 attack on Hamburg about 50,000 civilians were killed and almost the entire city destroyed.

With the arrival of the brand-new Fifteenth Air Force, based in Italy, command of the US Air Forces in Europe was consolidated into the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSAF). With the addition of the Mustang to its strength, the Combined Bomber Offensive was resumed. Planners targeted the Luftwaffe in an operation known as 'Big Week' (20–25 February 1944) and succeeded brilliantly – losses were so heavy German planners were forced into a hasty dispersal of industry and the day fighter arm never fully recovered.

The dismissal of General Ira Eaker at the end of 1943 as commander of the Eighth Air Force and his replacement by an American aviation legend, Maj. Gen Jimmy Doolittle signaled a change in how the American bombing effort went forward over Europe. Doolittle's major influence on the European air war occurred early in the year when he changed the policy requiring escorting fighters to remain with the bombers at all times. With his permission, initially performed with P-38s and P-47s with both previous types being steadily replaced with the long-ranged P-51s as the spring of 1944 wore on, American fighter pilots on bomber defense missions would primarily be flying far ahead of the bombers' combat box formations in air supremacy mode, literally "clearing the skies" of any Luftwaffe fighter opposition heading towards the target. This strategy fatally disabled the twin-engined Zerstörergeschwader heavy fighter wings and their replacement, single-engined Sturmgruppen of heavily armed Fw 190As, clearing each force of bomber destroyers in their turn from Germany's skies throughout most of 1944. As part of this game-changing strategy, especially after the bombers had hit their targets, the USAAF's fighters were then free to strafe German airfields and transport while returning to base, contributing significantly to the achievement of air superiority by Allied air forces over Europe.

On 27 March 1944, the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued orders granting control of all the Allied air forces in Europe, including strategic bombers, to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, who delegated command to his deputy in SHAEF Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder. There was resistance to this order from some senior figures, including Winston Churchill, Harris, and Carl Spaatz, but after some debate, control passed to SHAEF on 1 April 1944. When the Combined Bomber Offensive officially ended on 1 April, Allied airmen were well on the way to achieving air superiority over all of Europe. While they continued some strategic bombing, the USAAF along with the RAF turned their attention to the tactical air battle in support of the Normandy Invasion. It was not until the middle of September that the strategic bombing campaign of Germany again became the priority for the USAAF.

The twin campaigns—the USAAF by day, the RAF by night—built up into massive bombing of German industrial areas, notably the Ruhr, followed by attacks directly on cities such as Hamburg, Kassel, Pforzheim, Mainz and the often-criticized bombing of Dresden.

The Start of World War II

At 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland. Hitler sent in 1,300 planes of his Luftwaffe (German air force) as well as more than 2,000 tanks and 1.5 million well-trained, ground troops. The Polish military, on the other hand, consisted mostly of foot soldiers with old weapons (even some using lances) and cavalry. Needless to say, the odds were not in Poland’s favor.

Great Britain and France, who had treaties with Poland, both declared war on Germany two days later, on September 3, 1939. However, these countries could not gather troops and equipment fast enough to help save Poland. After Germany had waged a successful attack on Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east on September 17, per the pact they had with Germany. On September 27, 1939, Poland surrendered.

For the next six months, there was little actual fighting as the British and French built up their defenses along France’s Maginot Line and the Germans readied themselves for a major invasion. There was so little actual fighting that some journalists termed this “the Phoney War.”

World War II Begins - HISTORY

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans endured the greatest economic crisis in the nation's history--at its worst, more than a quarter of the work force was unemployed. Like the American Revolution and the Civil War, the Great Depression was one of the defining experiences of the nation. In a way that the Progressive movement was never able to achieve, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs to put Americans back to work began to reshape the public's attitudes toward government. It expanded the regulatory power of the federal government and the government's role in the economy. And it focused new attention on the plight of workers, women, racial minorities, children, and other groups.

However, only the mobilization that followed America's entry into World War II finally brought an end to the Depression. Though the Allies and the Axis Powers had been at war since 1939, the United States remained neutral until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. World War II solidified America's role as a global power. It also ushered in numerous social changes, including the movement of women into previously male-only jobs. And it established the reform agendas that would occupy the United States for the remainder of the 20th century. Yet while the United States was defending democracy against totalitarian aggression, it was denying the civil liberties of interned Japanese Americans and the civil rights of racial minorities. The country emerged from World War II a very different nation, with new enemies to confront abroad and new challenges to face at home.

Buildup to World War II: January 1931-August 1939

Nazi Germany's anti-Semitic views during World War II began to emerge when Nazi Germany adopted the swastika for its national flag and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. The World War II timeline below summarizes these events and other important events that occurred from December 1, 1934, to September 15, 1935.

World War II Timeline: December 1, 1934-September 15, 1935

December 1, 1934: Soviet Union official Serge Kirov, an associate of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, is assassinated. Joseph Stalin will use Serge Kirov's death as a pretext to purge Leningrad of 2,000 party officials.

January 7, 1935: France undercuts international efforts to censure Italy for its actions in Abyssinia when it enters into a treaty with Rome. France thinks it is buffering itself against Adolf Hitler's aggression, but it is actually giving also-dangerous Benito Mussolini carte blanche in Northeast Africa.

March 1935: Adolf Hitler publicly repudiates the Treaty of Versailles, announcing that he will not adhere to the limits on the German military imposed by the treaty.

May 2, 1935: Berlin is incensed by a mutual assistance treaty signed between Russia and France that would serve to force Nazi Germany into a two-front war. Russia will enter into a similar agreement with Czechoslovakia within the month.

July 28, 1935: Boeing's B-17 Flying Fortress, a heavy bomber that will become the workhorse of the war's signature European bombing raids, makes its maiden voyage.

August 31, 1935: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the U.S. Neutrality Act, prohibiting material support for any side in a European war. FDR famously predicts that the act "might drag us into war instead of keeping us out."

September 1935: Nazi Germany adopts the swastika, an ancient symbol representing life, power, and luck, for its national flag. The Nazi Party had already co-opted the swastika in the 1920s, radically altering its symbolism.

September 15, 1935: The Nuremberg Laws, which impose strict limits on citizenship and civil rights for German Jews, are adopted.

World War II Headlines

Below are more highlights and images that outline the events of World War II and show the details of increasing anti-Semitic propaganda by the Nazis, as well as information about the Dollfuss assassination in the early 1930s.

Anti-Semitic propaganda begins in newspapers and on radio broadcasts: At a 1934 Nuremberg rally, Joseph Goebbels advocated mass-media propaganda to influence the public to follow "superior leadership." With the Nazis in power, many newspapers and radio broadcasts turned anti-Semitic. The political newspaper Der Stürmer (The Attacker) repeated the slogan "The Jews are Our Misfortune." Edited by Nazi politician Julius Streicher, the popular sheet featured cartoons by Fips (Philip Rupprecht) that portrayed Jews as swindling, money-hoarding sexual perverts. This 1934 special edition accused Jews of ritual murders of Christian children.

Nazi Brownshirts help bring Adolf Hitler to power: Adolf Hitler leads senior officers of the Sturmabteilung (SA Storm Troopers), who were also known as the "Brownshirts." This often-brutal force of roughly two million men, headed by Ernst Röhm, helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. When his position became more secure, Adolf Hitler looked to weed out potential threats within the SA. Röhm's homosexuality -- long overlooked by Adolf Hitler in spite of strict Nazi bans against gays -- suddenly became an issue. During the June 30-July 1, 1934, purge that Adolf Hitler called the "Night of the Long Knives," hundreds of SA officers were arrested. Many, including Ernst Röhm, were executed.

Adolf Hitler orders Austrian Nazis to assassinate Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss: A wounded Nazi is removed from the Vienna Broadcasting Station on July 27, 1934. In February, in a bid to prevent a German takeover of Austria, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss abandoned parliamentary government and established a dictatorship. Engelbert Dollfuss used Austrian troops and Fascist militias to suppress the Social Democrats, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. Austrian Nazis supported by Berlin launched a sabotage and terror campaign across Austria. At Adolf Hitler's orders, on July 25, eight Austrian Nazis attacked the Federal Chancellery and murdered Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. Alarmed by these events, the Italians mobilized four divisions at the Brenner Pass, prompting the postponement of Adolf Hitler's planned Anschluss until 1938.

Triumph of the Will isGerman director Leni Riefenstahl's most famous work: "It is a documentary, not propaganda," German director Leni Riefenstahl declared after the war in defense of her most famous work, Triumph of the Will. Adolf Hitler had personally chosen Riefenstahl to film the German Nationalist Socialist Party conferences in Nuremberg in 1933 and 1934. She won numerous awards for Triumph, but had to defend her work to those who claimed it was the most insidious propaganda film ever made. Heavily choreographed, it opened with a sequence portraying Adolf Hitler as a god emerging from the clouds to address his followers.

The Thousand-Year Reich through a German Communist's perspective:The Thousand-Year Reich (1938), depicting the fundamental flaws in the Nazi state, was Hans Grundig's greatest masterpiece. The native German and his wife, Lea, were ardent Communists and critics of the Nazi regime. Lea Grundig escaped to Palestine in 1939, but in 1940 Hans Grundig was committed to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After the war, they returned to Dresden. There they were officially recognized for their art and as acclaimed political campaigners against fascism and repression.

Tensions build as German troops entered Rhineland, and Italy renounced its membership in the League of Nations. The World War II timeline on the following page details these and other important events from October 1935 to July 17, 1936.

For additional information about World War II, see:

The SA tavern was only a short distance away. The SA members often left there late and drunk and came over to our clubhouse to raise hell. But they were usually driven off with table and chair legs. My father usually led the counterattack.

I got my first impression of National Socialism as a child, when I saw SA model soldiers in a store window. There was also a tin Hitler with a moveable arm. A few days later these tin soldiers were parading through the streets in the flesh. They always carried the party flag right up front, and everyone had to greet them with a tip of the hat or a raised arm, just like that tin Hitler in the showcase.

World War II Begins - HISTORY

Pre-World War II Timeline

Apr. 6. The U.S. formally enters World War I by declaring war on Germany.

June 15. Espionage Act of 1917 was passed to prevent people from supporting enemies of the US.

June 28. Treaty of Versailles helps end World War I. US rejects the treaty and the power given to the League of Nations.

July. The Chinese Communist Party is founded after a lengthy civil war in Shanghai.

Sep. 18. Hungary becomes part of the League of Nations. Hungary would later join Germany in World War II against the Soviet Union.

Oct. 28. The Fascists of Italy take control appointing Benito Mussolini as its prime minister.

July 18. Mein Kampf is published. The book is an autobiography written by Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf reveals the political ideology of Hitler.

Apr. Persia, modern day Iran, signs the Litvinov’s Pact.

June 7. Italy and Vatican City ratify the Lateran Treaty making Vatican City a sovereign state. Under Pope Pius XII, Vatican City remained neutral during WWII.

Feb. Having been born in Austria, Hitler finally receives his German citizenship.

Apr. 10. Germany elects Paul Von Hindenburg for president. He played an important role in the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party.

Feb. 28. Hindenberg issues the Reichstag Fire Decree, it nullified many civil liberties of citizens.

Mar. 23. The Enabling Act of 1933 approved by the German government gave Hitler unlimited power. This allowed him to be dictator in Germany.

Mar. 27. Japan leaves the League of Nations. The reason Japan gave for withdrawing was because of accusations made against them regarding Manchuria by the League of Nations..

Apr. 26. The Gestapo is established in Germany to maintain “order” throughout the country and especially during the war. They represent Hitler’s group of enforcers.

May 10. The Nazi Book Burning takes place. Students from university towns marched with torches with the intent of burning “un-German books”. More than 25,000 volumes of those “un-German books” turned into ashes that night.

Oct. 17. Albert Einstein arrives in America as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before emigrating, he learned that the new regime (Nazi’s) would not allow Jews to hold any government position.

June 30-July 2. Political murders known as Operation Hummingbird, or the Night of the Long Knives, is carried throughout Germany and beyond. The action was seen as a purge against those who would politically oppose the ruling Nazi party.

Aug. 2. After a long wait, Hitler receives the Führer of Germany title, making him chancellor and head of state.

July 18. Led by Francisco Franco, the Spanish Civil War Begins. Germany gives support to Franco, who represented the Nationalist faction during the war. Germany was instrumental in many victories for the Nationalists of Spain.

Oct. 25. The Axis Powers or Axis Alliance is formed. Germany signs a treaty with Italy and Japan. The alliance would later be the main antagonists during WWII.

Nov. 25. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan come to an agreement by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against the communist movement and the Soviet Union.

Mar. 14. Nazi Germany troops enter Prague and capture Czechoslovakia in complete violation of the Munich Agreement.

Mar. 17. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain warns in a speech that Britain will fight any attempt by Germany to dominate the world.

World War II Timeline

Sep. 4. Right at the beginning of the war, the United States declares its neutrality and organizes the Neutrality Patrol. The patrol was aimed to monitor warlike movements along the coasts of the western hemisphere.

Sep. 7-16. In an attempt to assist Poland against Nazi Germany, the French organized the Saar Offensive, which was proven unsuccessful.

Oct. 2. In order to maintain a neutral zone along the coastline of American nations, the Declaration of Panama is approved. This allowed the US Navy to patrol 300 miles beyond the coastline.

May 10. Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after Chamberlain resigns.

May 10. Nazi Germany make more bold moves by invading Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

May 26. The Allies evacuate Dunkirk, this was named Operation Dynamo. The German air force continued bombarding the operation.

June 28. The British recognize General Charles de Gaulle as the leader of the Free French.

Sep. 16. The US congress approve the Selective Service Act that required men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register with their local draft board.

Nov. 5. FDR wins a third term as President of the US.

June 29. Smith Act, or Alien Registration Act is enacted to penalize those wanting to overthrow the US government. This required all non citizens to register with the Federal Government.

Apr. 6. Yugoslavia is invaded by Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Italy.

Apr. 10. The US build air and naval bases after occupying Greenland. This action was with the consent of the “free Denmark” group. The purpose was to counter the U-boat war going on.

June 22. Germany invades the Soviet Union, this was named Operation Barbarossa. The US gives the Soviet Union a $40 million credit to help battle Germany.

Aug. 9. Roosevelt meets with Churchill in Newfoundland and creates the Atlantic Charter. The charter addresses numerous concerns between Britain and the US in relation to WWII.

Aug. 28. To control rent and other consumer prices after the start of World War II, the Office of Price Administration was established.

Dec. 7. Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, a territory of the US. The United States declares war against Japan.

Aug. US Marines land on Guadalcanal that begins “island hopping” assault against Japan.

Aug 23. Recognized as the largest battle of WWII, the Battle of Stalingrad begins.

Mar. 20. Mao Zedong is named as the First Chairman of the Communist Party of China.

July. British and US troops invade Italy and land in Sicily.

Nov. 22-26. Roosevelt, Churchill, & Chiang Kai Shek meet at the Cairo Conference.

June 6. Allies invade and regain Europe on D-Day, known as the greatest military invasion in history beginning with the Normandy Landings.

June 22. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act became a law, this is best known as the G.I. Bill.

Oct. Battle of Leyte, where Douglas MacArthur’s troops land in the Philippines.

Nov. Despite the events across the Atlantic, FDR wins his fourth term as president of the US.

Dec. 16. In response to the invasion of Normandy, the German went on the offensive in what is known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Apr. 1. U.S. troops land on Okinawa, the Battle of Okinawa takes place.

Apr. 12. President Roosevelt dies after serving 4 terms as President of the US.

Apr. 28. While trying to flee from Italy to Switzerland, Benito Mussolini is killed in Giulino.

Apr. 30. Knowing that all was lost, Adolf Hitler commits suicide.

May. 1. The end of World War II in Europe when Germany start surrendering.

June 26. The United Nations Charter is signed and replaces the League of Nations.

July 16. The infamous Manhattan Project detonates the world’s first atomic bomb.

July 17. Truman, Churchill, & Stalin meet for two weeks to discuss postwar Europe at the Potsdam Conference.

Aug. 6. The first atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and two days later on Nagasaki.

Aug. 14. Japan surrenders and completes the end of World War II.

Sep. 2. Japanese representatives sign terms of surrender on the USS Missouri.

Sep. The United States divide the Korean peninsula along the 38th Parallel, creating the North and South Korea’s.

The long history of World War II

World War Two was the most devastating conflict in recorded human history. It was both global in extent and total in character. It has understandably left a long and dark shadow across the decades. Yet it is three generations since hostilities formally ended in 1945 and the conflict is now a lived memory for only a few. And this growing distance in time has allowed historians to think differently about how to describe it, how to explain its course, and what subjects to focus on when considering the wartime experience.

For instance, as World War Two recedes ever further into the past, even a question as basic as when it began and ended becomes less certain. Was it 1939 when the war in Europe began? Or the summer of 1941, with the beginning of Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union? Or did it become truly global when the Japanese brought the USA into the war at the end of 1941? And what of the long conflict in East Asia, beginning with the Japanese aggression in China in the early 1930s, ending with the triumph of the Chinese Communists in 1949?

From Japanese aggression against China in the early 1930s to the transition from World War to Cold War in the late 1940s, this timeline puts the events into their wider context and illustrates how they shaped the war.

Featured image credit: Near Algiers, “Torch” troops hit the beaches behind a large American flag “Left” hoping for the French Army not fire on it. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of more than twenty five books on the history of twentieth-century war and dictatorship, including the highly acclaimed Why the Allies Won (1995) and the prize-winning Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (2004). He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. His most recent book is The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013), shortlisted for the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in military history. He recently edited The Oxford Illustrated History of World War Two (2015).

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Pre-WWII Conquests

Italian invasion of Albania

Before WWII had officially begun, the powers that would merge to form the Axis had already launched campaigns of conquest. Shortly after Hitler came to power, he managed to seize control of Austria and part of what was then Czechoslovakia without any major combat operation. Italy had already conquered both Ethiopia and Albania, and Japan was expanding its imperial realm decades before WWII began, conquering the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and the southern half of the Far East Soviet island of Sakhalin. In 1931, Japan began its attempt to conquer China by invading Manchuria. The fact that the Axis powers were able to expand their territory with little to no resistance from rest of the international community only emboldened them to make further conquests.

World War II Major Events Timeline

Learn about the major events from 1918 to 1941 that sparked the first phase of World War II. From the acrimonious end of World War I, to the rise of the Nazi party, to the brutal opening of the new war, it was a traumatic time to be alive. Witness many of these events in World on Fire Season 1.

World War I Ends

Britain, France, the US, and other allies defeat Germany, bringing an end to World War I, billed as “the war to end all wars.”

Hitler Appointed German Leader

Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and later assumes dictatorial powers. German rearmament takes off.

World War II Begins

Germany invades Poland, inciting Poland’s allies Britain and France to declare war on Germany.

Soviet Union Invades Poland

Working in concert with Hitler, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin orders the invasion of Poland, securing a share of Polish territory.

Warsaw Captured

Warsaw surrenders to German troops. Poland holds out for another 9 days before capitulating.

UK Wins War’s First Sea Battle

British cruisers defeat a German pocket battleship at the Battle of the River Plate, the first major naval engagement of World War II.

Norway Invaded

Germany invades Norway, ending a 6-month period of limited land operations called the “Phony War.”

Churchill Becomes Prime Minister

Winston Churchill replaces Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister. The same day, Germany invades Belgium.

Miracle of Dunkirk

The trapped British army evacuates to England from Dunkirk, France, surviving to fight another day.

Paris Falls to Nazis

Paris falls to German forces. France capitulates 11 days later.

Britain Fights for Its Life

The Battle of Britain pits German bombers against British fighters in a thwarted German prelude to invasion.

U.S. Plunged into War

Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, starting war with the US. Sensing weakness, Hitler declares war on America 4 days later.


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When Did World War II Begin?

In a letter to the editor in the November 2006 Perspectives, Jonathan Reed Winkler took issue with Haberman and Shubert for asserting "World War I was not a 'world war'" in their September 2006 Perspectives article ("American Exceptionalism and the Teaching of European History"). My agreement with Winkler is not my concern here, however. Winkler's letter simply reminded me of a possible question about World War II, specifically about the tradition of dating its start from September 1, 1939. It seems to me that a debate should be initiated about the appropriateness of the 1939 date. One can argue that viewing World War II as a European war that eventually engulfed virtually the entire globe is a striking example of Eurocentricism. Dating World War II from July 7, 1937, the beginning of the war between China and Japan, seems to be a viable alternative approach. Ignoring the fact that two major participants in "World War II" had been at war for over two years before the invasion of Poland relegates the "Pacific War" to the status of a secondary event. The Soviet Union, moreover, gave some military assistance to China in these years and engaged in sporadic, but sometimes very heavy, fighting with Japan, with lesser border "incidents" occurring throughout the years 1941 to 1945. Skeptics about dating World War II from 1937 rather than 1939 might ask whether 1931 (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) or 1936 (the beginning of the Spanish Civil War) would not be other, possibly more appropriate, dates. In respect to Manchuria, it is my impression that at least some specialists have raised questions about continuity between events in 1931 and 1937. The problem with the Spanish Civil War seems to me to be that Spain was a "nonbelligerent" between 1939 and 1945, despite its support for the Axis. Although these conflicts obviously were related to World War II, they did not merge into the events from 1939 to 1945 as directly as the Sino-Japanese War. I am not the first person to raise the question of dating World War II from 1937. Some references to the matter can be found, but more attention could usefully be given to the issue.

Watch the video: WWII Begins