World War II

World War 2 was the largest conflict in the whole of world history. It killed some sixty million people – far more than any other war. It also affected a far larger proportion of the world than any previous conflict, with major theaters of war located in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, South East Asia, China and Japan. No other war comes near to this geographical spread. And its direct and indirect impact on every nation of the world – economic, technological, cultural, social and political – was massive.

This article deals with the course of the war. For more on the lead up to it, see Between the Wars and Nazi Germany; for more on the last days of World War 2 and what happened next, see The Cold War.

The Outbreak of War

On 1st September 1939 Adolf Hitler ordered Germany’s forces to invade Poland. Britain and France immediately demanded that these forces be withdrawn. The demands were ignored, and on the 3rd of September, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

The following day the British began moving their British Expeditionary Force to France, to take its place on the French frontier.

The British government immediately started evacuating children from the cities, and the Blackout – the darkening of all streets at night to “hide” towns and built-up areas – was also imposed without delay – as it was throughout Europe. Rationing was introduced in phases. Parliament passed the Emergency Powers Act, which gave the government a large measure of control over people and property.

The mood of the British people was one of sombre determination.

The British Commonwealth countries of Australia, New Zealand and Canada all declared war on Germany within a few days within a few days of Britain doing so.

The start of the war at sea

At sea, the British started organizing a convoy system immediately, but it took several months before it covered the bulk of British shipping. Two German pocket battleships, already at sea by the beginning of September, cruised in the Atlantic, preying on allied shipping. U-boat attacks also began immediately, mostly on ships sailing alone.

The Polish campaign

The German attack opened with surprise air attacks on Polish airfields, destroying much of the Polish air force on the ground. All Polish cities were bombed incessantly throughout the campaign. A German naval bombardment sunk most of the Polish navy where it was moored at Gdynia, on the first morning of the invasion.

German troops marched into the country from different directions, meeting desperate resistance from the Polish army.


Adolf Hitler watches German troops march into Poland (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The Poles were outnumbered and outclassed by the Germans, however. The Germans had been preparing for lightening campaigns in which mechanized units, supported by dive bombers, thrust forward to cut through and encircle enemy forces. Infantry units then mopped up isolated and demoralized troops in their wake. Paratroops were often used to seize bridges, command posts and other strategic positions.

In Poland the speed and mobility of this form of warfare took the out-of-date and out-numbered Polish army completely by surprise. The world witnessed this new form of warfare – blitzkrieg – for the first time, and was dismayed.

The fate of Poland was sealed when Soviet Union forces crossed the eastern border on the side of the Germans. This turn of events astonished the world: up to now Communist Russia and Nazi Germany had been deeply hostile to one another.

By the 6th October the fighting was over. Germany and The Soviet Union divided Poland between them. Throughout the world there was shock and dismay at the speed of the German victory, and at the treachery of the Soviet Union.

The Polish people were to suffer more than any other in the war – a quarter of the population perished. The occupying Germans committed many acts of cruelty against Polish civilians throughout the war, often wiping out entire communities. The Jews suffered the worst – very few were alive at the war’s end.

100,000 Poles escaped to surrounding countries, and were to form some of the most effective and courageous fighters against the Third Reich.

The Phoney War

The period known as the “Phoney War” then began, in which no fighting took place in Western Europe. The French and British did not want to provoke the Germans into attacking them, and the German government hoped that, if they did not attack Britain and France, these countries would soon start negotiating a peace, seeing that they could not be of any possible help to Poland.

Indeed Hitler offered peace terms. France and Britain refused to negotiate, and Hitler ordered his military leaders to plan for an attack on the west.

For the populations of Britain and France it was a time of frustration. Blackouts, evacuation and rationing had all been imposed, but no war seemed to be taking place (at least on land: at sea merchants ships were already being sunk with monotonous regularity). For the German people, war measures such as rationing had been more limited, and morale remained high after the victory in Poland.

Finland: the Winter War

At the end of November, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The Finns resisted the Soviet invasion effectively until February 1940, when their defenses at last began to crack under overwhelming Soviet pressure. By the end of the month the Finns were in retreat, and they sued for peace in March. The Finns were forced to cede a considerable amount of territory to the Soviet Union.

In December 1939 the Royal Navy scored a morale-boosting victory over the Germans when some of its warships caused the crew of the pocket battleship, the Graf Spee, to scuttle it after an action off the coast of South America at the River Plate. Since the start of the war the Graf Spee had been at large, sinking British merchant ships in the South Atlantic.

The invasion of Western Europe


The Phoney War came to an abrupt end in April, 1940, when the Germans occupied Denmark and invaded Norway simultaneously in a brilliantly planned operation. Denmark fell within one day. Norwegian forces, though taken by surprise, withdrew northwards and organized a stout defense. British and French troops landed in Norway to aide them, but the German forces drove the Allies north. The Norwegian government was evacuated to Britain and on 1st May Norway surrendered. The Allies evacuated the country, taking serious losses on the way.

The Low Countries

Immediately the long-awaited German attack began in western Europe. The German army rapidly overcame Holland and Belgium. The British and French forces were driven swiftly back to the coast, where they were surrounded by German forces.

The Allied forces in and around Dunkirk are no match for the German Panzers. At this point, however, the Panzers paused. Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, had promised Hitler that his planes could bomb the British and French troops into submission. This they tried to do, but failed.


The pause in the German Panzers’ advance, however, allowed the Royal Navy to organize an evacuation of British and French troops from the French coast at Dunkirk.


Soldiers from the British Expeditionary force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk Evacuation (Australian War Memorial, 101171)

Warships of the Royal Navy were assisted by an assorted collection of fishing boats, motor cruisers and other small craft, and they succeeded in evacuating most of the Allied troops from Dunkirk in May and June 1940. The evacuation seemed like a miraculous deliverance, and came as a huge boost to the morale of the British people.

In fact, of course, the past couple of months of fighting had been a disaster for the French and British Allies. In Britain, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister.

Winston Churchill

Churchill had spent the years before the war warning the British people of the dangers of Nazism. The British people now turned to him to lead them through the war he  had predicted. He headed a coalition government made up of ministers from all the main political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal.

One of Churchill’s most valuable contributions would be to inspire the people with his fighting spirit, so eloquently expressed in his stirring radio speeches. This was badly needed in the face of the unfolding catastrophes of the war.

One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to extend the Emergency Powers Act, to give the government complete control over the economy and working population of the country. The government of no other country – certainly not Nazi Germany – had such a high degree of control except the Soviet Union.

The Fall of France

The Germans now drove on into France, pushing the demoralized French army quickly back and entering Paris on the 14th June. On the 22nd the French government sued for peace.

France was divided between the northern part of the country, which was occupied by the Germans, and the southern part, which was not. A French government was based in Vichy, and in theory governed the whole of the country. The occupied part of France, however, was very much under the strict control of the Germans. Indeed the Vichy government, though nominally independent, was in reality submissive to the Germans.

Charles de Gaulle, a French general, escaped to Britain, where he became the head of the Free French movement.

Britain’s position at the end of June 1940

The fall of France and the other German conquests of the previous months had put Britain in an extremely dangerous position.

German naval and air bases were now dotted along the coasts facing Britain from Northern Norway to the Pyrenees. German aircraft were just across the English Channel within minutes’ flying time of Southern England. German U-boats were now based in Atlantic ports, able to strike directly at Britain’s shipping lanes. The big ships of the German navy could shelter under Norwegian-based German air power as they cruised up into the North Atlantic before swooping down on British merchantmen, and then find shelter in the naval bases on the French coast.

The fall of France also had repercussions around the world. The French Empire included vast territories in Africa, as well as possessions in the Middle East, the West Indies, the Far East and the Pacific. Most of this empire remained loyal to the Vichy government in France, and therefore a potential threat to Britain and her allies.

Britain under Attack

Operation Sea lion

Germany now dominated Europe. The huge territories occupied by the Third Reich began to be organized to serve the German war effort; at the same time Jews throughout the conquered countries began to feel the wrath of the Nazi state.

Meanwhile Hitler turned his attention to Britain, the only European country holding out against him. She was able, however, to draw on the assistance of her Canadian, Australian and New Zealand allies, many of whose young men served in the British forces. Exiled Poles also formed a significant contingent.

The German high command planned an invasion, codenamed Operation Sea Lion. They knew that, once they landed their army on British soil they would encounter an army which had just left most of its weaponry in Dunkirk. However, they must first destroy Britain’s air force. This would enable them to neutralize Britain’s powerful navy in the narrow seas between France and England by subjecting them to overwhelming air attack. They would then be able to ferry their army across unmolested.

The Germans now had powerful air forces based in Northern France, just minutes’ flying time from the English coast. The German air-force, the Luftwaffe, launched its attacks and began the Battle of Britain in July 1940.

The Battle of Britain

In the air battles over southern Britain and the Channel the Luftwaffe tried strenuously to destroy the British fighter arm. The British fighter command was greatly assisted by the excellent British communications network – with radar at its heart – but the fighter squadrons were badly overstretched. The battles reached their climax in August 1940, with the numerically superior Luftwaffe on the point of overwhelming the RAF fighters.

Pattern of condensation trails left by British and German aircraft

The battle of Britain 1940,Pattern of condensation trails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight, (Puttnam (Mr), War Office official photographer)

In defiance, British bombers conducted their first raid on the German capital, Berlin. From now on the British carry out regular raids on German industrial targets. These are always at night, to limit the danger to the bombers and their crews.

The Blitz

Largely as a result of this operation, but also because the the Luftwaffe had been expecting that by now they would have destroyed the British fighters, which had not happened, it switched its objective from the destruction of the RAF to the destruction of Britain’s cities and industries. The Germans believed that by this means they would bring Britain to her knees. The Blitz had begun.


View along the River Thames in London towards smoke rising from the London docks after an air raid during the Blitz.(National Archives and Records Administration 541917)

In October 1940 Hitler called off his plans to invade Britain for the immediate future, but the Blitz continued with massive bomber raids on London and other British cities. From the start, several thousand civilians were killed each month. The bombing continued for eight months, even intensifying after March 1941. Then, after some very heavy raids in May, the Blitz suddenly stopped. The German bombers had been withdrawn for service in the East of Europe.

The Luftwaffe had failed to break British morale or to destroy the British economy from the air.

The Battle of the Atlantic I: Wolf Pack

Meanwhile the Germans had begun a systematic campaign to starve Britain into surrender by attacking her merchant shipping with her U-boats. The German acquisition of valuable naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France presented a serious threat to the British. Now, the U-boats could sail directly into the British shipping lanes. German aircraft based on the French coast were also used to deadly effect against shipping.

In the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic the Germans had only had a handful of U-boats available, but even these were highly successful. The Royal Navy was caught off guard by their innovative tactics. They believed that once in the wide stretches of the open Atlantic U-boats would have difficulty locating ships to sink. It therefore concentrate its convoy protection in the coastal waters.


However, Doenitz, the U-boats commander, sent his U-boats out to form patrol lines across the convoy routes, and, under radio control from shore, they could cover a wide area of ocean. Once a convoy had been sighted the U-boats assembled in “wolf-packs” before any attack was made. Once the attack came it was often devastating, with U-boat captains firing their torpedoes at will before escaping, unmolested by the feeble escorts.

The winter months of 1940-41 saw a highly effective U-boat campaign against British shipping, but the wear and tear of long patrols (plus losses to Royal Navy escorts and patrolling aircraft) meant that by the spring of 1941 the U-boat force was down to only about 8 on patrol at any one time. From then on, however, the U-boat fleet began to be very greatly increased with hundreds of new boats from the German dockyards.

British vulnerability

By this time, British convoys were provided with escort warships right across the ocean, not just near the coasts. However, the lack of effective radar and lack of experience of this type of warfare amongst crews means that U-boats were not troubled greatly by the escorts. Merchant shipping losses were very heavy.

What the experience of the previous months had shown was how important aircraft escort was to the protection of convoys. The British therefore built naval air bases in Iceland to extend air cover for convoys further into the Atlantic.

The Bismarck

Of more drama but less actual effect, the German battleship Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic in May 1941, causing great alarm in Britain. She sank the British battle-cruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the British Navy, but was then herself caught and sunk. The Germans send no more large ships to raid Allied shipping.


Bismark on Trials, 1940, (Urbahns, Gerd)

Also in May 1941, the Germans withdrew large numbers of aircraft from the French coast, which have been so dangerous to British merchantmen in the Atlantic, for service in Eastern Europe.  The U-boats are left to carry burden of the war against shipping.

In June, the Royal Canadian Navy started escorting convoys between the Canadian coast and Iceland, with both ships and aircraft. In the same month British Intelligence cracked the U-boat cipher system, which would greatly aid the fight agains them. Nevertheless,  there still remained the large gap in the air escort of convoys in mid-ocean, and by now, however, many more U-boats had joined the fight. British shipping losses continued at very high levels.

The Mediterranean I: Rommel makes his mark

On 10th June, Mussolini, the dictator of Italy, had declared war on Britain. This act was largely motivated by his ambition to create an Italian empire in the Mediterranean region. Shortly after declaring war, therefore, he ordered the Italian army based in Libya (which then belonged to Italy) to invade Egypt (then under British rule).

The British-controlled island of Malta lay very near all the sea routes between Italy and North Africa, and the Italian air force began bombing Malta, at that time defended by three obsolete biplanes called “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity”. It was essential for the success of the Italian cause that the island should be neutralized as a base for British aircraft, ships and submarines.

In October 1940 the Italians invaded Greece. Within a month, however, the Greeks had pushed them back into Albania. At the same time aircraft of the British Navy crippled the Italian fleet while it is in its base at Taranto.

The Germans arrive

In December 1940 and January 1941, a small British and Australian force pushed the Italians out of Egypt back into Libya. The Allied troops continued sweeping the Italians before them, taking the towns of Bardia and Tobruk. However, at the end of February large numbers of British and Australian forces were withdrawn from North Africa to aid the Greeks, and German troops arrived in Tripoli to come to the Italians’ aide. They were commanded by general Rommel.

At the same time German air forces were sent to Sicily, from which they mounted a fierce bombing campaign against Malta.

The German and Italian forces immediately began pushing the British and Australians back through Libya.

That same month, April 1941, the Germans swept into Greece and Yugoslavia. The governments of both countries surrendered within the month, and the British and Australian troops sent to support the two countries’ forces were evacuated. Germans airborne troops then captured Crete, driving the British from the Island.

Meanwhile, the war in North Africa had been swinging backwards and forwards. The problem for both sides was, once their armies had advanced far from their bases (at Tripoli on the Libyan coast for the Germans, and in Alexandria, in Egypt, for the British), it was hard to keep them supplied across hundreds of miles of desert.

In June 1941, the Germans pushed the British and Australians back into Egypt. They were unable to hold this position and were then themselves pushed back, and by the end of the year were back in Libya.


Meanwhile the German bombers had continued their air attack on Malta. During March 1942 they dropped the same tonnage of bombs on Malta as they had dropped on London during the entire Blitz. They did the same the following month. By this time the Maltese were leading an almost underground existence. Health was deteriorating badly and starvation loomed.

These operations effectively neutralization Malta as a base for British naval operations, and the Axis were able to re-supply and build up their forces in North Africa. Rommel prepared for a new offensive to capture the Suez canal and drive on to the oil-fields of the Middle East.

Gazala and Tobruk

In early 1942, the German commander Rommel had suddenly gone onto the attack and, catching the British by surprise, quickly regained lost ground. His forces advanced rapidly to the Gazala line, where they had paused. The Allied forces had retired behind these lines, where they had constructed a long minefield backed by dug-in defensive positions.

The Eastern Front I: The German invasion of Russia

Operation Barbarossa

Back in October 1940, Hungary and Slovakia had joined the Axis nations, Bulgaria had joined in March 1941 and, from April 1941 Yugoslavia and Greece had come under occupation by German and Italian troops. The Axis powers had thus secured their position in Eastern Europe.

German-troops-crossing-the Soviet

German troops crossing the Soviet border, 22 June 1941 (Waralbum.ru, Johannes Hähle)

This, it turned out, was in preparation for the greatest move of all – Operation Barbarossa.

On the 22nd June the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The Russian front-line armies were taken completely by surprise and overrun.  Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops were taken prisoner while the Germans advanced deep into the enormous country.

The Germans made astonishing progress: so much so that their main problem was keeping their forces at the front supplied along rapidly extending lines.

By the end of the August they had reached Leningrad (the encirclement of the city would be completed by November, and starvation amongst the population would set in shortly after that). One army group began the siege of Leningrad, while another advanced on Moscow. A third, which had advanced into the Ukraine, broke through into the Crimea. Vast numbers of Russians continued to be taken prisoner.

Why did Hitler invade Russia?

Hitler had several powerful reasons for attacking Russia.

Firstly, he believed that, if Germany was to be a truly great power, it needed more territory. For years he had been dreaming of a German occupation of western Russia, with the German “Master Race” ruling over the native Slavs.

Secondly, Hitler hated communism and all that it stood for. The Soviet Union was the center of world communism, and while it remained powerful it represented a threat to Nazism.

Thirdly, in 1941 a powerful Russia represented a potential threat to Germany’s position. Hitler thought (rightly) that Britain regarded Russia as a potential ally, and could still hope for success against Germany while Russia remained undefeated.

Fourthly, Hitler and his generals had complete confidence that they would succeed in defeating Russia. Stalin, Russia’s dictator, had recently purged the army of most of its generals and of a large number of its officers, so that it was now commanded by inexperienced men. The massive Russian army had had difficulty in defeating little Finland; what chance had they against the most formidable army in the world?

Hitler thought that many Russians would not fight for Bolshevism. In this he was almost correct – many Russians did indeed welcome the invaders at first, but the Germans acted in such a barbarous manner towards local Russian populations that they drove those who would have been their friends into supporting the communist regime.

The German High Command also completely underestimated Soviet manpower. Again and again in the coming campaign they thought that the Russians had no more reserves left, when in fact they were massing hundreds of thousands of new troops.

Finally, Hitler and his generals regarded Russians as racial inferior to Germans. It was inconceivable that they could not defeat them.

German difficulties

The very speed of the Panzers’ advance put a severe strain on the German supply system, which was greatly hampered by the poor state of Russian roads and rails; and an increasingly large proportion of German troops had to be devoted to mopping up pockets of Russian resistance. Panzer Groups had increasingly to wait for the infantry to catch up.

The Soviet forces, though initially taken completely by surprise, did not completely collapse, as the Germans had expected them to do. Despite the staggering losses, the Red army actually expanded its manpower in the months after July 1941.

As the Germans pushed forward, Soviet resistance stiffened. Stalin called for a “scorched earth” policy to deprive the on-coming Germans of valuable food, shelter and other supplies.

The Arctic Convoys

On the German invasion of Russia, the British government had immediately declared its support for Russia. Soon after that, in August 1941, the first Arctic convoys, with British equipment bound for Russia aboard, sailed from Scapa Flow in Scotland for Archangel. Thus the Russians began to receive supplies from their British allies.

In mid-October the autumn rains turned the roads to mud and halted the German advance. In November, the winter temperatures froze the mud and allowed the advance to resume. They reached the outskirts of Moscow in early December.

The Freeze

At that point the temperatures sank to –30 degrees and below. The German troops were completely unprepared for such cold. The Russians, far better prepared, drove them back from Moscow. In January 1942 the Soviet army launched a huge counter-offensive all along the Eastern Front.  After falling back the Germans were able to check the advance, and in places to regain lost territory.

In February 1942 the fighting on the Eastern Front reached a stalemate, and the terrible weather conditions halted the fighting.

The relocation of Russian industry

After the German invasion, Russian industry had swiftly been put on a war footing. During the next few months, one of the most remarkable episodes of the war had been taking place. This was the relocation of Russian factories and machinery to regions east of the Ural mountains, beyond the reach of the Germans. This was an astonishing achievement, carried out under conditions of great hardship.

Once relocated, these factories were soon churning out weapons and supplies for the war effort, in huge quantities – including the T34 tank, better than any tank that the Germans had.

The Pacific War I: Pearl Harbor to Coral Sea

Pearl Harbor

On the 7th December 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, the base of the US Pacific Fleet. The US Navy in the Pacific was neutralized as an effective fighting force, for the time being. However, all the carriers of the US Navy escaped the destruction.

Attack on Pearl Harbour

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack 7 Dec 1941
(Imperial Japanese Navy)

The Japanese declared war on the USA. The next day Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Japan.

Japanese conquests

Simultaneously (but dated one day later, due to the International Date Line) Japanese forces invaded the Philippines (which then belonged to the US), Thailand (neutral) and Malaya (British).  British and American forces surrendered or fell back before the onslaught. By the end of the month the Japanese had also conquered Hong Kong (British), Sarawak (British), Guam and Wake Island (US).

On the 10th December, two of the most famous warships of the British Navy, HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales, were sunk by Japanese aircraft near Singapore.

In January 1942 the Japanese conquered Malaya and British North Borneo, and invaded Burma (British). They continued the conquest of the Philippines, driving the US forces into the Bataan Peninsula, and invaded the Dutch East Indies. Their planes attacked New Guinea (Dutch and British), and the Solomon Islands (British Commonwealth).

February saw the fall of Singapore, the most important British base in the Far East and key to its military power in the region. The Japanese invaded Sumatra, Bali and Java (Dutch), and Timor (Portuguese). They completely destroyed an Allied naval squadron in the Java Sea.

That month Japanese planes also bombed Darwin, on the northern coast of Australia.

The Japanese continued their advance in March 1942 by capturing Rangoon in Burma and continuing their conquest of The Philippines. The Dutch East Indies capitulated to them. In April the Japanese advanced further into northern Burma, and occupied northern New Guinea. Japanese carriers raided the coast of India and Ceylon, sinking several major British warships. In the Philippines they captured the Bataan peninsula.

As a gesture of defiance the Americans mounted a surprise air raid on Japan – the ‘Doolittle’ raid. This caused little damage but raised the badly damaged morale of the Allies.

In May the Japanese completed their conquest of Burma. The same month all US forces on the Philippines surrendered.

The Battle of the Coral Sea

A naval battle between Japanese and US carriers in the Coral Sea ended with both sides losing one carrier each. This represented a strategic setback for the Japanese as they were less able to replace military assets than the Americans.

The Eastern Front II: The Battle of Stalingrad

On the Eastern Front, the spring thaw created such muddy conditions that large-scale fighting was impossible until May 1942. In that month the Germans went on the attack again, prior to the main summer offensive. In June they took Sevastopol, in the Crimea, after heavy fighting.


German soldiers clearing the streets in Stalingrad, Oktober 1942, (Rothkopf)

By this time, Nazi-occupied Europe was thoroughly geared up to the German war effort. Slave labor was being used on a massive scale by German industry, and even the concentration camps were contributing to production.

However, some natural resources were becoming constrained – in particular the Third Reich was experiencing critical shortages in oil; grain was also in limited supply. The objective in 1942 was therefore to conquer Southern Russia, which was rich in both commodities.

The Southern Campaign

At the end ofMay the German army launched the campaign. Army Group South was split into two parts, each with separate objectives. One sub-group advanced on the great industrial and transport center of Stalingrad, the key to holding a vast area of southern Russia, and the other headed for the Caucasus and its oil fields.

The Battle of Stalingrad

German troops reached Stalingrad in September, 1942. The city bore Stalin’s name, designated in his honor after he had successfully defended it in the Civil War after the Russian Revolution. He was determined to keep it from being captured; Hitler was equally determined to take it.

The Germans attempted to take the city amid ferocious street fighting. This continued throughout October with increasing desperation, exhausting the attackers. The steady bombardment of the city by the Germans had, far from helping in its capture, created mounds of rubble ideal for defensive fighting. By November they were bogged down, with individual streets and even buildings being taken and retaken repeatedly by attackers and defenders. Stalingrad station changed hands four times in one day.

Then, to the north and south of Stalingrad, the Russians launched huge attacks on the German front and, breaking through, encircle the German forces in Stalingrad.

In December the Germans attempted to relieve their forces in Stalingrad, but failed. The German force within the city, whilst putting up a determined fight, dwindled rapidly through disease, battle losses, and frostbite. By January 1943 their situation was desperate, and at the end of the month they surrendered.

The German Army had suffered a huge defeat – a harsh blow to the morale of the German people and an enormous boost to that of their enemies. The Soviet Army then advanced on a broad front in southern Russia.

Meanwhile the German advance to the Caucuses, at first conducted with great speed but slowing as the mountainous terrain made progress more and more difficult. From 30 miles per day their average speed falls to one or two miles per day. With the Russian advance, the German armies in the region were now threatened with being trapped, and were forced to carry out a speedy withdrawal.

The Soviet advance continued into March, 1943, when the Germans were able to check, and even push back, the over-extended Russian forces. This brought to an end the winter campaigns of 1942/3 in Russia. An estimated one and a half million soldiers had died on each side.

The Pacific War II: Midway and Guadalcanal

The Battle of Midway

In June 1942 the US Navy inflicted a heavy defeat on the Japanese at the Battle of Midway, sinking four of their carriers for the loss of one of their own. This was a severe check to the Japanese advance, and halted their plan of cutting supply lines across the central Pacific between the USA and Australia (now a key base for the Allied fight-back).

USS Yorktown-in the battle of midway

USS Yorktown (CV-5) is hit on the port side, in the Battle of Midway, 4 June 1942, (Official U.S. Navy Photograph 80-G-414423)

The Battle for Guadalcanal

The threat to these lines of communication are not completely removed, however, as the Japanese still occupy the Solomon Islands, jutting out towards the south-central Pacific. In August 1942, therefore, US Marines landed on Guadalcanal, the easternmost of these islands, and established a foothold there. This naturally led to a determined Japanese effort to dislodge them, and heavy fighting, both at sea and on land, raged on Guadalcanal throughout September, October, November 1942 and into January 1943. The Japanese were unable to recapture the airfield, the key to the US military position on the island, and nor were they able to reinforce their troops there in the face of US naval forces.


US Marines debark from LCP(L)s onto Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, ( Official U.S. Navy photo NH 97778)

In early 1942 the Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal. US troops promptly occupied nearby Russell Island.

New Guinea

In July 1942, the Japanese landed on the north coast of Eastern New Guinea, and began marching along the Kokoda Trail which crossed the island, to capture Port Moresby on the south coast. Securing this town, with its harbor and airfield, would put the Japanese within striking distance of northern Australia.

The Japanese advanced along the trail throughout August and into September, when it was halted by desperate Allied (mainly Australian) resistance.

The Australians then drove the Japanese slowly back throughout October, and recaptured Kokoda in November. In December the Allies pushed the Japanese back to the coast and by the end of January 1943 they had recaptured the whole of the eastern end of New Guinea. Further west, however, the Japanese advanced of Wau, but were forced to retreat from here in February.

In March 1943 a large Japanese troop convoy reinforcing their garrison on New Guinea was destroyed by US air attack in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.


Late 1942 and early 1943 saw British and Indian harbor troops test out Japanese defenses in northern Burma by invading the province of Arrakan. The invasion was repulsed.

The Mediterranean II: El Alamein, TORCH and Tunis

By May 1942, with Malta out of action and the Axis supply lines across the Mediterranean back in action, Rommel had been able to resupply and build up his forces at the Gazala lines. In that month he went on the attack again, swiftly outflanking the British in a brilliant operation and resuming his advance.  The following month Rommel’s forces drove the British back deep into Egypt, and in the process captured Tobruk.

This was a major symbolic defeat for the British, and when news of it reached Britain it led to the most severe crisis of confidence that Churchill was to face in Parliament during the whole of the war.

Rommel now threatened Alexandria, the base of the British fleet in the Mediterranean and the key to the Middle East.

Meanwhile the Germans had paused their air attack on Malta and diverted aircraft from Sicily to other theaters. This enabled the British to bring the harbor back into use again as a submarine base. They also sent a large force of fighters to help defend the island. In July, when the Luftwaffe returned to their offensive, they met effective opposition.

Axis convoys to North Africa were once again put under heavy attack, and Rommel’s supply situation, already weakened by the necessity of hauling fuel and equipment over hundreds of miles of desert, soon became critical again.

Towards the end of 1942 the Germans launched another intensive bombing campaign against Malta, but the British were able to keep their base their operational by sailing conveys with food and supplies from Gibraltar. The convoys came under heavy attack; many merchant ships and valuable warships were sunk. However, Malta was re-supplied and enabled to survive.

The Battle of El Alamein

In July 1942, the British and Australians had checked Rommel’s advance on Alexandria, and in August beat off a second attempt on Alexandria.

Erwin Rommel-command-halftrack

Erwin Rommel (left) in his command halftrack, June 1942, (Zwilling, Ernst A.)

Rommel was by this time very short of fuel and can no longer go on the attack. He therefore dug in and prepared to defend his positions at El Alamein. The British, under General Montgomery, built up their strength, waiting until they have massive superiority before attacking. Both sides knew that the coming battle would decide the fate of the war in the Middle East.

The battle of El Alamein began in September and continued into October, 1942. It ended in a clear Allied victory. Rommel had lost nearly all his tanks and the Italian forces under his command had been destroyed, and had no choice but to fall back into Libya, with the British and Australians in pursuit. In November the Allies retook Tobruk, Cyrene and Benghazi.

Operation TORCH

That same month, hundreds of miles to the west, American and British forces landed in Morocco and Algeria (Operation TORCH). Resistance from French forces loyal to the Vichy government ended within a few days in a cease-fire, and the Allies moved swiftly eastwards towards Tunis.

In France, the Germans, furious at the cease-fire arranged between French and Allied troops in North Africa, moved south and occupied the whole country, and rushed re-enforcements to Tunisia.

The Battle of Tunis

December 1942 and January 1943 saw the British and Australians in the east pursuing Rommel’s forces westward through Libya and into Tunisia, and the American and British forces advancing towards Tunis. Rommel’s forces joined up with the German concentration in Tunisia, and Rommel took command of Tunis’ defense. In February 1943 he launched a major attack against the inexperienced American troops at the Kaserine Pass, which was only beaten back with difficulty. The Germans then pulled back towards Tunis.

In April the Allies (who had also joined up into a single army group under the command of the British general Alexander) closed in on Tunis, meeting stout resistance from the Germans, and in May 1943 they launched their operation to capture the city itself. This fell on the 7th. The Axis armies in Tunisia surrendered, with 125,000 Germans and 115,000 Italians taken prisoner.

One of the important results of this North African campaign was that large numbers of American troops – and their commanders – gained invaluable battle experience that would stand them in good stead in the coming months and years.

The end of the Axis in North Africa brought final relief to the little island of Malta, which now received cover from the strong Allied air forces based in Tunisia. The Luftwaffe units in Sicily were transferred to the Eastern Front. By this time the Allied air forces based in North Africa were bombing towns in Sicily and Italy. Italian cities had almost no defenses against air raids, and the bombing caused great panic and heavy casualties amongst the civilian populations.

The Battle of the Atlantic II: Defeat of the U-boats

The U-boat campaign against Allied shipping had been continuing without pause since the late summer of 1940. As the Germans put more U-boats into operation, so the Allied losses had mounted. The breaking of the German U-boat cipher had aided the British in steering fast convoys away from U-boats, but in February 1942 the cipher was changed, and Allied intelligence was unable to break it for some months.

The Arctic Convoys

With the coming of Russia into the war in June 1941, the British navy took on the additional responsibility of organizing convoys taking much-needed supplies for the Russian war effort. The convoys sailed up the North Sea, around the North Cape of Norway to the Russia port of Archangel, on the White Sea. These Arctic convoys came under heavy attack from U-boats and German aircraft based in Norway, and were under constant threat from German surface raiders based in Norwegian fjords. one in particular, PQ17, met catastrophe north of Norway (July 1942).

U-boats attack American shipping

Throughout 1941 the objective had been to starve Britain into surrender. With the USA joining the war on the Allied side, in December 1941, the scope of the campaign was broadened to attack US shipping as well. In the early months of 1942, in fact, the U-boats had a field day against Allied shipping in American coastal waters: with no convoy system in place, U-boat captains were able to pick off individual ships at their leisure, often at night when their silhouettes were outlined against the lights of coastal towns and cities! By May, however, the Americans had a well-organized convoy system in place, and losses to U-boats were drastically reduced.

Allied attempts to destroy the heavily protected naval bases on the west coast of France, at St Nazaire.in March 1942 (by a few hundred British commandos) and Dieppe in August 1942 (by a 6000-strong Canadian force) met with bloody failure. However, the lessons learnt for the later D-Day landings were invaluable: mainly, don’t attack a port directly from the sea; come in across open beaches.

The crisis of the U-boat campaign

The German U-boat campaign stepped up a gear from September 1942, in order to disrupt the Allied build up of military forces in Britain.

By this time multiple improvements in the Allied convoy systems – including improved radar, more air cover, and sheer hard experience resulting in better leadership and more effective tactics – had still left a large gap in mid-ocean where air patrols cannot reach. It is here that the U-boats concentrated in larger numbers than ever before. Slow convoys were particularly vulnerable to attack; the sheer number of U-boats in operation – now over 100 on patrol at any one time – overwhelmed their defenses.

Over many months the U-boats inflicted increasingly serious losses on Allied shipping. These reached a crescendo in March 1943 when the Battle of the Atlantic reached a critical point, with massive losses for the Allies’ shipping. Nearly a quarter of all Atlantic shipping was sunk that month, a cause for great alarm.

They took determined steps to counter this threat: more escort warships were allocated to convoy protection, and above all, escort carriers, which could provide air cover for convoys in mid-ocean, at last began to be brought into service. Finally, the U-boat cipher was cracked again.

The following month, these measures began to pay off. The increased convoy protection led to heavy U-boat losses. In May, Very Long Range Aircraft were introduced, shortly joined by many more escort carriers. These proved of enormous value in the war against the U-boats, whose losses continued to mount. These were made worse for the U-boats as the Allies adopted a new tactic: instead of trying to avoid U-boats, the convoys actually sailed deliberately into known U-boat areas. The resulting convoy battles, with the improved Allied anti-U-boat measures, took a terrible toll on the German crews.

Allied shipping losses dropped to less than a half experienced a month previously, and continued to decline thereafter. Towards the end of the month Admiral Doenitz temporarily suspended U-boat operations.

June 1943 saw the U-boats make a determined attempt to regain the initiative with mass attacks on Allied shipping, but the improved convoy protection system is more than a match for them and the U-boat fleet sustains huge losses. In July, for the first time in the war, new Allied shipping tonnage overtook losses.

In September the Germans tried another response by putting U-boats equipped with schnorkels into service. These vessels had much longer underwater range than previous U-boats, and were thus more effective. For a time, Allied shipping losses rose again, but not to anything like the levels seen earlier in the year; and in any case, Allied tactics soon adjusted to deal with the new threat, and in October Allied shipping losses were dramatically down.

The end of the U-boat threat

In November 1943 the U-boats abandoned operations in the Atlantic. Although U-boat attacks persisted until the very end of the war, they were not on anything like the same level as before, and never again came anywhere near to defeating the Allies at sea.

The Eastern Front III: Kursk and after

Meanwhile, in Russia, the usual muddy conditions had led to a pause in the fighting in the spring of 1943.

The Battle of Kursk

In May and June, however, both sides prepared for the coming confrontation, around the city of Kursk. Superior numbers of aircraft led to the Russians securing air superiority in the Kursk region, and in July 1943 the Battle of Kursk raged in earnest as the Germans attempted to drive the Russian front back. The battle included the largest tank battle in history, and ended with the Germans themselves being pushed back, having lost a huge number of troops, aircraft and tanks.

German-Panzer IV

German Panzer IV and Sdkfz 251 halftrack, June 1943, (Dieck)

In the aftermath of the Battle of Kursk the Russians advanced across the Ukraine to the River Dneiper (August and September) and fought their way across in the teeth of cross it fierce German opposition (late September, October). In November the Russians captured the historic city of Kiev. In this four month period they liberated no less than 160 towns and cities.

The cost to the Russians was huge. The Germans fought with grim determination, and their generals commanded them with great skill, keeping their forces intact in the teeth of fearsome odds, sometimes as much as 8 to 1.

The Winter Offensive

In December 1943 the Russians began their winter offensive, with the object of clearing the Germans from the Ukraine. They advanced on a wide front in this region.

To the north, the beginning of 1944 saw Soviet forces tat last drive the Germans from Leningrad, ending a siege which had lasted almost 900 days and in which at least two thirds of a million people had died

In the following months the Soviets pushed the Germans back a long way in both north and south. By May 1944 they had regained much of the Ukraine and recaptured Sevastopol, in the Crimea.

The Pacific War III: to Leyte Gulf

In June 1943, the US began its submarine war against Japanese merchant shipping. Japanese losses were very high, as no arrangements had been made for a convoy system at that time. It was not until September 1943 that a general convoy system was introduced.

New Guinea

In the south-western Pacific, Allied forces made steady advances in New Guinea in the later months of 1943. as well as capturing some islands in the seas to the north of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In the early months of 1944 American troops landed at various points along the north coast of New Guinea, driving the Japanese inland.

The Solomon Islands

These operations went hand-in-hand with campaigns in the South-Central Pacific, where the US naval forces (including marines) fought there way along the Solomon Islands, taking New Georgia by August 1943, and invading Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands, in November (which was not fully occupied until the end of the war).


The Allies were now closing in on the main Japanese naval base in the south Pacific, at Rabaul. This was located on the large island of New Britain, which lies between New Guinea and the Solomons.  In February 1944 US marines landed on New Britain, but they never attempted to occupy Rabaul itself. Instead the Allies neutralized the base by occupying positions (including islands) nearby and attacking it in force from the air.

The Central Pacific

In this way the Allies protected the south-western flank of a major island-hopping campaign across the central Pacific. US naval forces occupied the key islands of Makin and Tarawa Atolls (where the marines suffered heavy casualties) in the Gilbert Islands, in November 1943; and Majuro, (January 1944), and Kwajalein and Eniwetok (February), in the Marshall Islands.

In June 1944 the Americans landed on Saipan, in the Marianas. This was getting within bombing range of the Japanese homeland, and could not be allowed without a fight; A Japanese force sent to counter the landings, however, was badly mauled in the Battle of the Philippines Sea.

In July the Americans completed the occupation of Saipan. Immediately, the US air force began large-scale bombing raids on Japanese merchant shipping and cities from the Marianas.

That same month the marines invaded Tinian and Guam. These islands were secured in August.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

In October 1944, the Americans began their campaign to retake the Philippines by landing on the southern island of Leyte.

The Japanese sent their Combined Fleet to destroy the landings. The Battle of Leyte Gulf ensued, the largest naval action in history. It ended with the comprehensive defeat of Japanese naval power, from which it can never recover.

The US Navy light-burning

The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on 24 October 1944 (U.S. Navy photo 80-G-287970)


In November 1943 a Chinese-American army invaded northern Burma from southwest China. A month later a British and Indian force invades Arrakan for a second time. By February 1944 the Chinese-American army had become bogged down, and the British and Indian forces in Arrakan had been encircled by the Japanese.

To inject some movement into the situation, British and American airborne troops (the Chindits and Merrill’s Marauders) were sent behind Japanese lines to support the Chinese-American force, and the Allies began to make good progress.

At that moment, however, the Japanese launched a major invasion of India (at that time under British rule). In April, they encircled the strategic cities of Imphal and Kohima. In desperate fighting British and Indian troops relieved Kohima but the siege of Imphal continued until June. The Japanese were then pushed back into Burma. In August the strategic town of Myitkyina fell to the Allies.

The Mediterranean III: the Italian campaign


In the Mediterranean, meanwhile, in July 1943, the Allies had landed in Sicily. The Germans conducted a  masterly fighting retreat and evacuated 100,000 troops from the island in August.

In Italy the fall of Sicily led to a coup against Mussolini, who was deposed. The new Italian government opened peace talks with the Allies, but the Germans responded quickly and decisively. Their troops occupied Rome, rescued Mussolini and re-establish him as the puppet ruler., and disarmed the Italian army, They were now effectively in charge in Italy.

The Italian campaign

In September the Allies invaded Southern Italy, and started their progress up the peninsula. The Germans withdrew slowly, retreating in good order towards the Gustav line, a series of heavily defended positions that they had constructed across Italy, north of Naples.

The Germans were heavily re-enforced with troops from the other parts of their empire, particularly from France and the Eastern Front, and opposed the Allies with more troops than the Allies had in this theatre.

The Allies captured Naples in October and drove on towards the Gustav Line. Meanwhile the Germans had been completing this system of defenses, now over ten miles deep in places. It was particularly strong in the west.

Monte Cassino

In December 1943 the Allies came up to the Line and attacked Monte Cassino, the key to penetrating the Gustav Line in the west.

Ruins of the town of Cassino

Ruins of the town of Cassino after the battle, 1944, (Copied from the Italian Wikipedia)

They achieved very little success at great cost before the bitterly cold winter weather added to their difficulties. A second attack on Mt Cassino, in January 1944,, failed. again with heavy losses. An attempt to land a force behind the German lines, up the coast at Anzio, also achieved very little. The Germans rushed troops from points on the Gustav Line and succeeded in holding the Allied forces on the coast, and in February a strong German counter-attack against the Allied forces at Anzio was only narrowly beaten off.

From now onwards, the Allied fighting strength in Italy was starting to be depleted as large numbers of troops were siphoned off for a planned invasions of France. On the other hand, Allied air superiority and the bombing of supply lines meant that Axis forces were beginning to run short of essential fuel and equipment.

In February 1944 a third Allied attack on Mt Cassino was thrown back with heavy loss, and in March a further attack failed. Finally, in May 1944, the Allies at last captured Mt Cassino, and drove the Germans back from the Gustav line and from Anzio. They could at last resume their progress north.

The taking of Rome

On 4th June 1944 American troops entered Rome. This was a great propaganda coup for the Allies, but of little strategic value: if they had swung east of Rome the troops may well have trapped large numbers of German troops as they withdrew north.

The Allies continued their push north, with the Germans retreating in good order to new defensive positions called the Gothic Line. During this time Allied strength was being further reduced by withdrawals of men, tanks and planes to other theaters, whilst the Germans in Italy were receiving reinforcements from the Balkans and from Germany itself.

In Italy, Florence fell to the Allies, and by the end of the month the Allies had reached the Gothic Line. Further Allied troops were withdrawn to support the campaign in Southern France, but after a temporary halt the Allies started their attack on the German defenses.

The Gothic Line

In the event, the Gothic Line, which the Allies had been expecting to be as formidable as the Gustav Line, proved quite easy to break through. In September they succeed in penetrating the defenses and, after some of the heaviest fighting seen in Italy, capturing Rimini. Further advance was halted by fierce German resistance. Allied troops in Italy were by now outnumbered by German troops, although the Allies had complete air superiority.

The onset of winter then brought fighting to a halt in this theatre.

The Allied bomber offensive

Bombing had been a major element of warfare since the start of the war. First practiced on a large scale by the Germans in Poland, in 1939, the Allies had since inflicted far more damage in their enemies.

The Blitz on London and other British cities had ended in May 1941. In April 1942, German bombers began a campaign on Britain’s cathedral cities (known as the Baedeker Raids, after the Baedeker tourist handbook) in a bid to undermine British morale. These lasted for only two months and inflicted little damage.

The early British bomber offensive

Meanwhile the British had been carrying out regular night bombing raids on German industrial cities since summer 1940. During 1941 the RAF dropped half again more bombs on Germany than the Luftwaffe had on Britain.

Evidence showed, however, that night bombing was not nearly accurate enough to bomb particular targets like factories and railways. By the end of 1941, therefore, the RAF had switched to “area bombing”, the bombing of entire towns.

In May 1942 the RAF carried out its first “Thousand Bomber” raid, on Cologne. This caused serious damage to that city, and the RAF carried out two more “Thousand Bomber” raids, on Essen and Bremen, in July. The British bombers took high losses, however, and these huge raids were discontinued, with the RAF returning to regular, smaller raids.

The Americans start operations

With the Americans coming into the war, the US Air Force stationed large numbers of bombers in Britain. These began operations in August 1942.

Whereas the RAF Bomber Command flew night-time “area bombing” raids against whole German towns, the US Air Force adopted a different approach. It flew daylight precision raids against specific targets in France, which were less heavily defended than those in Germany and lay largely within range of their fighter escorts. Their targets included aircraft factories, oil installations and U-boat bases on the Atlantic coast (in these, the towns around the bases were badly damaged, but the bases themselves remained almost entirely untouched).

In January 1943 the US Air Force started daylight bombing raids on German targets. These raids took them well beyond the range of fighter protection, and they sustained heavy losses.

The Combined Bomber Offensive

In June 1943 the British and US air forces opened the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany in a systematic attempt to destroy Germany’s capacity to defend itself. This marked the beginning of the major Allied bombing offensive against Germany, which was to last until the very end of the war.

The British conducted bombing raids by night, and the Americans by day. High priority was given to destroying German fighters and the factories where they were built. Allied commanders were agreed that no invasion of Europe could be mounted until the Luftwaffe’s fighter power has been eliminated. The raids were directed in particular at Berlin, Hamburg, the Ruhr.

Despite the fact that the Combined Bomber Offensive was aimed above all at the destruction of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force, German fighter production actually increased at this time. However, the bombing of German cities meant that the Luftwaffe was forced to concentrate the bulk of its fighter force in or near Germany, so starving their armies at the Fronts of fighter protection. This was a huge help in enabling the Russians on the Eastern Front and the Allies in Italy to gain air superiority, and all the advantages that that brought. Also, the steady loss of trained fighter pilots gradually sapped the effectiveness of the German fighter force.


In July 1943 Hamburg experienced one of the most terrible bombing raids of the war. About 70% of the city was destroyed and 30,000 people killed as, in the aftermath of an RAF raid, a huge firestorm took hold. This had a very demoralizing effect on the German people.

Typical bomb-damage

Typical bomb damage in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, 1944 or 1945, (Dowd J (Fg Off), Royal Air Force official photographer)

The coming of long range fighters

In October 1943 the high bomber losses experienced by the US Air Force (almost 20% had been either shot down or seriously damaged in this month alone) put a stop to daylight raids deep within Germany.

Between November 1943 and March 1944 the RAF conducted a systematic bombing campaign against Berlin. This caused great damage to the city but was not able to stop the city from functioning as the capital of the Third Reich. The RAF eventually could not sustain the enormous losses, and the campaign was called off.

In February 1944, however, the arrival of long-range fighters to protect Allied bombers led to the resumption of long range raids by the US Air Force, and later by the RAF. Losses of Allied bombers and aircrew continued at a high level, but the presence of fighter cover for the bombers also caused heavy losses for the German fighters and their pilots.

In May 1944 the Allies switched their focus from Germany to northern France, carrying out heavy bombing of railways and other strategic targets. This was in preparation for their forthcoming invasion (see below, Northern France).

The final phase of the bombing campaign

The switch of Allied bombers away from Germany gave German industry a breathing space, in which they repaired much of the damage done in the previous months’ bombing. The reprieve lasted until September, when the Allied bombing against Germany resumed. It now came in overwhelming force, meeting with little opposition from the depleted German fighter force.

The very heavy bombing that Germany now experienced led, over the following months, to the sharp decline of its oil industry, the virtual collapse of its transport system and the fearful destruction of its cities. From this time lack of fuel posed a grave handicap to the German army and air-force. The ceaseless Allied bombing raids were also now having a severe impact on civilian morale.

In February 1945 a huge Allied bombing raid on Dresden virtually destroyed the city and wiped out perhaps half its inhabitants, including thousands of refugees.


The later phases of the war did not see the Allies having it all their own way in the air. By June 1944 the Germans had developed the V-1 Flying Bomb, a small pilotless aircraft crammed with explosive. They were launched from sites in France and Germany (a few were air-launched), mostly aimed at London.

Over the next few months, together with the more advanced V-2 rocket which came into service in October, they killed nearly 9,000 civilians in Britain, and were an added strain to an already war-weary people. But there were far too few of them to decide the course of the war.

Northern France: D-Day, Normandy and France


On the 6th June 1944, D-Day, the Western Allies began their invasion of  Normandy, in northwestern France.

On that day some 4,000 ships carried 176,000 troops and equipment across from ports on the south coast of England. In the early hours airborne troops seized strategic targets along the Normandy coast, and a few hours later the main Allied forces stormed ashore, supported by heavy naval gunfire.

Omaha beach-American Liberty ships-13 Liberty ships

This scene shows 13 Liberty ships formed into a protecting screen for the vessels unloading on the beach, 31 Oct 1994, (US National Archives, US Army)

Five beaches were assaulted, codenamed Utah and Omaha (US) and Gold, Juno and Sword (British and Canadian). On Omaha beach the rough seas deprived the assault troops of proper tank support, and they were pinned down under a murderous hail of fire throughout the day, taking heavy casualties. Only the coming of dark allowed them to take the whole beach. The other landings quickly established beachheads and were able to start moving inland by the end of the day.


Once the beachheads have been consolidated the Allies began pouring more and more troops and equipment in, rapidly building up their forces. To help them do this they put together two artificial (Mulberry) harbors on the beachheads.

German responses to the landings were hampered by complete Allied air superiority  (the Allies were supported by12,000 aircraft against the Germans’ 450), and by the large-scale destruction of their railway system and other lines of communication that Allied air power and the Resistance movement have achieved. Also, the Germans did not at once rush all their armies in France to Normandy to oppose the Allied invasion as they believed that the main invasion was yet to take place, across the straits of Dover. They continue to believe this for nearly two months, leaving an entire army inactive in north east France.

German forces in the Normandy area were still able to mount heavy opposition, and the Allies had to fight hard to move outwards from their beachheads. They were also badly affected by a heavy storm in late June that destroyed one of the Mulberry harbors and seriously limited the amount of troops and equipment that could be brought ashore.

By the end of the month the Cherbourg Peninsula to the west of the landings, including the port of Cherbourg itself, had been captured. However, the harbor had been sabotaged by the Germans and could not be used for another month.

To the south-east, repeated attempts by the British to reach or by-pass Caen were costly failures.

By the end of July the Allies had nearly 1 million men on French soil and were in firm control of Normandy.

Across France and into Belgium

In August the Allies broke out of Normandy and their forces fanned out into Brittany in the west, towards the Loire in the south, but mostly towards Paris in the east. They liberated Paris on the 25th August 1944.

In the same month, an Allied army landed in southern France. It quickly overcame the weakened enemy forces in the area, taking Toulon and Marseilles and heading north up the Rhone valley. The Germans fell back before them. In September they met up with the main body of Allied armies at Dijon, in northern France.

In October the Allies cleared the whole of Belgium and Luxembourg of German forces. An Allied airborne attack of the Rhine bridges at Arnhem, however, was too far behind the German lines, and ended in complete failure.

The Scheldt

By that time, the Allies’ supply problems were becoming critical. Although the major port of Antwerp was now in their hands they could not use it to ferry supplies in because the Germans still controlled the Scheldt estuary. They therefore had to bring all their men and supplies into Northern France through the Normandy beaches and transport them over ever longer distances to the front. The Channel ports, with the exception of Dunkirk, had fallen into Allied hands by the end of the month, but as yet were far from useable yet.

In late October and November the Allies were able to clear the Scheldt of Germans. They could now start putting the port of Antwerp into use – a process that took about 20 days.

Once Antwerp had become the main port for Allied supplies in Europe, after December, it became a major target for both V-1 and V-2 weapons.

To the south the Allies continued their slow advance through Alsace and Lorraine. In November they came up against the German border and the defensive Siegfried Line, or West Wall (as the Germans called it).

The Battle of the Bulge

Then, in December, the Allies were taken completely by surprise by a strong German offensive in the Ardennes. The Allies fell back in confusion before recovering and checking the German attack. In January 1945 they drove the Germans back from the territory they had won.

This action became known as the Battle of the Bulge – referring to the Bulge in the front line which the two sides fought over.

The Rhine

The following month the Allies drove the Germans back to the Rhine – the last great natural barrier in the west to the German heartland. In March the Allies crossed the Rhine in several places and by the end of the month Cologne and Frankfurt were in their hands.

The Eastern Front IV: Advance on Germany

In June 1944, the Soviet armies opened their northern offensive and overwhelmed the German forces in the region. This started an advance which pushed the Germans out of northern and central Russia and the Baltic States, and into Poland. By August, the Soviet army was advancing on Warsaw, and there they paused.

The Balkans

To the south, the Russian armies drove into Romania. On the 23rd August the Romanian government surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. The Germans were taken completely by surprise. More bad news followed for the Germans as the Slovaks rise in revolt against them. By the end of the month the Russians had reached the Danube and have entered Bucharest.

In September 1944 the Germans, deserted by their allies, were in full retreat from the Balkans, falling back into Hungary and western Czechoslovakia. The next month the German forces in Yugoslavia and Greece, in grave danger of being cut off from the bulk of the German armies, conducted a hasty retreat north-west to join up with the main German front.

Closing in on Germany

In December 1944, the Russians laid siege to Budapest, which fell in February 1945. March 1945 saw the Germans mount a determined counter attack around Lake Balaton in western Hungary, which the Russians beat off; by the end of the month the Germans were in full retreat again.

Meanwhile, the Russians had resumed the offensive in Poland, in January 1945 capturing Warsaw – or what was left of it. While the Soviet army had paused its advance, the inhabitants of Warsaw had risen against the German occupation troops, who had only with difficulty overcome it after a two months’ struggle. The Germans had then expelled the population and razed the city to the ground.

East Germany

The Soviet army then moved on into Germany itself. For this campaign they have over 2 million men, 7000 tanks and 5000 aircraft. The Germans opposed them with a little over one million men, just under 2000 tanks and under 1000 aircraft.

The Germans have placed much faith in their series of prepared defense positions. The region of eastern Germany called East Prussia was ringed by a powerful defensive system containing concrete pill-boxes, dragon’s teeth, and other constructions. However, the speed of the Russian advance – kept up by the use of tank armies racing 50 miles ahead of the main body – constantly kept the defenders off-balance and they were unable to hold their positions.

The Great Evacuation

The Russians, who had suffered so much at the hands of the Germans, now found themselves in German territory. The results were predictable. Massacres and rape took place on a massive scale. If they could, the German inhabitants fled to the coastal ports and beaches, where the largest seaborne evacuation in history began. This was organized by the German navy and carried out by a whole host of craft, small and large, in the teeth of ferocious Russian air and sea attack.

During this evacuation the worst ship sinking in history occurred, with over 7,000 people drowned. The German fleet, utterly devoid of air cover, suffered grievous loss. However, over 99% of the refugees – more than 2 million – completed the journey to what would shortly become West Germany.

The End of the War in Europe

In Italy the Allies resumed their offensive in April 1945. By the end of the month Mussolini had been murdered and the Germans had asked for an armistice.

The occupation of Germany and Austria

In West Germany the Allies pushed the German forces back from the entire length of the Rhine and completed the liberation of Holland. They encountered only sporadic resistance; for the most part the Germans were glad to be surrendering to the Western Allies rather than the Russians.

The Russians meanwhile occupied all northern Germany up to the Elbe, and to the south up to and including Vienna, in Austria.

The Battle of Berlin

Meanwhile, on the 16th April, the Red Army opened its attack on Berlin. It had 2,500,000 men. The Germans had 1,000,000 men (plus Hitler Youth and old men), situated in strong defensive positions.

Berlin-1945-Weinrother, Carl

Berlin 1945, (Weinrother, Carl)

The rubble from countless bombing raids and from the Russian artillery bombardment favored the defenders, as did the numerous canals and rivers that flowed through the city. One of the fiercest battles of the war followed, the Germans fighting with bitter desperation. Every street, every building was hotly contested. On the 30th April only a few streets around the Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker were left. On that day Hitler committed suicide, leaving Admiral Doenitz as his successor.

All German resistance in Berlin ceased on the 2nd May.

The end of the war in Europe

After the fall of Berlin the Russians turned on the last major remaining body of German troops (nearly one million strong) still at large, in the Prague area.

A general surrender of all remaining German forces was negotiated with Admiral Doenitz on the 7th May, to came into effect on the 8th. The German forces around Prague refused to surrender until the 11th. The Second World War in Europe had come to an end.

The Pacific War IV: the final phase and the dropping of the Atom Bombs on Japan

The Battle of Okinawa

In February 1945, US marines landed on Iwo Jima, an island considered as a part of their homeland. A costly campaign to take it followed. The following month US forces began the attack on the Okinawa island group. US marines landed in April, secure the northern parts of the main island. The Americans had to fight hard to overcome resistance in the southern part of the island, but Okinawa had at last been secured by June 1945.

The Burma campaign

In November 1944 British-led forces invaded Burma and advanced to the Chindwin river.

A major Allied offensive developed here, continuing into the new year. The Burma Road, the strategic road between India and China, was reopened in January 1945, and the northern part the country secured.

In February the Allies moved down into central Burma and advance on Meiktila, the key to this region. They took Meiktila, and then Mandalay, in March, but a Japanese counter-attack encircled the British forces in Meiktila. The siege was lifted the following month, and Allied forces secured the central region of the country before continuing their advance into the south.

In May 1945 the Allies took Rangoon, the capital, and the main campaign came to an end with only mopping up operations still to be undertaken.

Atom bombs on Japan

In March 1945 the US bombing offensive against Japan reached its climax, with tremendous damage being inflicted on Japanese cities.


Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945, (George R Caron, Charles Levy)

In August, the Americans drop two atomic bombs, on the cities of Hiroshima (on the 6th) and Nagasaki (9th). On the 9th, also, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria, the territory in northern China which Japan had ruled since the early 20th century. This invasion was in accordance with plans long agreed between the Allies.

The end of World War II

Japan surrendered on the 15th of August, 1945.

Due to misunderstandings or willful disobedience, the Japanese troops in Manchuria did not lay down their arms until the 20th August. By then the Soviets had occupied almost the whole of the province.

World War II had finally come to an end. And the Cold War was already on its way.