World War II or the Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history. It lasted from 1 September 1939 (or as early as 1931 by some estimates) to 2 September 1945. It was contested between the Allied Powers, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, and the Axis Powers, most notably Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Empire of Japan.
Prelude to warEdit
During the 1920s and 1930s, each of the Axis Powers became a fascist dictatorship. Benito Mussolini became the leader of Italy in 1929, Adolf Hitler was elected Fuhrer of Germany in 1933, and Japan slowly progressed towards authoritarianism during the 1930s.
Each of these countries had been largely, in their eyes, maltreated after World War I. Germany was humiliated by the crushing terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan felt like it was not accepted among the Western powers, and Italy felt poorly compensated for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers it lost.
Additionally, each of these countries needed new land. German agriculture was inefficiently organized, and required large amounts of land to sustain itself. Japan needed raw resources, particularly after the United States began an embargo. Italy wanted to reestablish the Roman Empire.
In 1938, Germany formed a union with Austria, an event known as the Anchluss. Immediately thereafter, Germany demanded the German-majority territory of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. At the Munich Conference, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to this, but said he would not tolerate any more aggression.
The European TheaterEdit
Invasion of PolandEdit
On 1 September 1939, Germany launched a full-scale invasion of Poland. Per the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union also invaded from the east. Although they fought valiantly, Polish forces were quickly overwhelmed and by the end of the month Poland was under German control.
Offensives of 1940Edit
In the spring of 1940, Germany launched a sudden invasion of France. The most of the vulnerable French-Germany border was protected by the Maginot Line, but the German army went through the Ardennes and bypassed it entirely. The German strategy of blitzkrieg, supporting motorized infantry advances with tanks and aircraft, proved extremely effective. France was secured within a month and the British fled across the channel at Dunkirk.
Germany also took control of Norway, whose leader Vidkun Quisling defected, and assisted Italian operations in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece. By the end of the year, nearly all the continent was Axis-aligned. Only the United Kingdom stood against Germany.
Battle of Britain and the BlitzEdit
After the Battle of France, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, launched an aerial attack on the United Kingdom in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion. The Battle of Britain pitted the outnumbered Royal Air Force against superior German forces, but the RAF prevailed, partially due to the innovation of radar, and Luftwaffe ceased combat operations over Britain.
Instead, they began a campaign of civilian bombing known as the Blitz. London was bombed particularly heavily, but the British, rallying behind their charismatic Prime Minister Winston Churchill, remained firmly opposed to Germany.
Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in history. It involved more than a million German troops, and several million Soviets. The initial invasion of Soviet territory began on 22 June 1941. They were met with immediate success; the Soviet Union was wholly unprepared for the German onslaught.
North African CampaignEdit
The North Africa Campaign began with the German general Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox", and his famed Afrika Corps setting out from Italian Libya to British Egypt. His ultimate goal was control of the considerable Iraqi oil reserves.
Initially, he outgunned and outmaneuvered the British under Bernard Montgomery. However, the Royal Navy cut off his supply lines across the Mediterranean, hampering his efforts. At the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, Montgomery used the terrain to bottleneck German forces and render their tanks ineffective. His troops eventually outflanked the Germans and pushed them back.
Invasion of ItalyEdit
After taking North Africa, the Allies moved on to Italy. Sicily was invaded in 1943 in the largest amphibious invasion to date. Air support was based out of Cyprus because neutral Turkey refused to allow Allied planes to land there. The Allies then began to progress up the Italian Peninsula. By 1944, Rome had fallen and most of Italy was under Allied control. The King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, defected, and Benito Mussolini became the ruler of a puppet state in northern Italy.
The Battle of Stalingrad proved to be a turning point on the Eastern Front. Although the Germans at times controlled 90% of the city, and always maintained air superiority, they were unable to evict Soviet forces. The Soviets were able to outmaneuver the Germans, and trap the Ninth Army in the ruins of the city. They surrendered, a major blow to German morale and momentum.
The Battle of Kursk in 1943 saw the Soviets burst a large German salient in their lines. It involved thousands of tanks and aircraft on each side, and resulted in a German defeat.
In 1944, Operation Bagration cleared Germany out of most of Belarus. Additionally, the Siege of Leningrad was finally lifted. Warsaw was liberated in 1944, just days after the unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising.
On June 6, 1944, 144,000 Allied troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada landed on the beaches of Normandy. The largest amphibious invasion in history, it was a major success, and the liberation of France began.
Battle of the BulgeEdit
After France was liberated in the winter of 1944, the front line settled on the French-Germany border. In December, Germany launched a surprise offensive. Known as the Battle of the Bulge because of the bulge it created in the Allied lines, it was initially highly successful. The dense fog covered the German advance and prevented effective air attacks from the Allies.
However, the fog cleared, and the Allied counteroffensive negated German gains. This was the last major action of the war with any degree of German success.
End of the warEdit
In 1945, the Allies were advancing from all sides. The Red Army, under Georgy Zhukov, raced across Poland towards Berlin. By April, Hitler and his staff were constricted to the Führerbunker in Berlin. On April 22, Hitler and his longtime mistress Eva Braun committed suicide. On May 9, Germany surrendered unconditionally, and V-E Day was declared.
The Pacific TheaterEdit
The Pacific Theater was the theater encompassing the Pacific Ocean, as well as Southeast Asia and East Asia. This article does not cover the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred simultaneously with World War II.
During the early 1940s, the United States embargo on Japan increasingly strained the Japanese economy and military apparatus. Desperate for oil and other natural resources, the Japanese leadership decided to try to quickly disable the American fleet in the Pacific in order to negotiate a treaty with favorable terms.
To this end, the attack on Pearl Harbor, orchestrated by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, occurred on December 7, 1941. Although many American battleships were sunk, including the USS Arizona, none of the American aircraft carriers were in Pearl Harbor at the time and thus escaped damage.
Invasion of Southeast AsiaEdit
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Japan began invading European territories in Southeast Asia. Hong Kong was quickly taken, and Singapore, supposedly the strongest fortress in Asia, was attacked by land and also captured. The American Philippines and Dutch East Indies were next, falling in mid-1942. French Indochina was also taken. Japan was assisted by its ally Thailand in these conflicts.
Battle of Midway and Battle of the Coral SeaEdit
The Battle of the Coral Sea took place in early 1942 between Japan and the United States, in the Coral Sea near New Guinea and Australia. Although it ended with fairly equally losses on either side, it halted the Japanese advance towards Australia. It is notable for being the first naval battle in history where the two opposing fleets never met each other in battle; instead, aircraft launched from carriers carried out the attacks.
The Battle of Midway, in June 1942, was the real turning point of the Pacific Theater. The Japanese had switched their advance from Australia to Hawaii, and focused their attention on Midway Island, the westernmost island of the chain. American codebreakers managed to intercept Japanese messages, and a fleet was assembled near Midway.
At the battle, American bombers took out several Japanese carriers because of the navy's sluggishness to launch counterattacks, as well as sheer bad luck; the Japanese carriers were covered in fuel and bombs when the Americans arrived. The result was the end of Japanese expansion and the beginning of their retreat.
The strategy of island-hopping was put to good use in 1943. This strategy entailed capturing poorly defended islands, and then skipping over strongholds until their supply lines could be cut off. This worked well, and the United States reclaimed most of the Solomon Islands.
However, Guadalcanal was not so easy. Entrenched Japanese position were not pushed back by aerial bombardment, so Marines had to be landed and take the island back by force. Many thousands died on either side.
Battle of Leyte GulfEdit
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest battle in the American liberation of the Philippines in 1944. It ended with the destruction of much of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and paved the way for the landing of troops in the Philippines. After this battle, the Japanese began employing kamikaze to halt the Allied advance.
In 1945, the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, within several hundred miles of the Japanese Home Islands, were taken after fierce fighting. These bases were used to launch the planes that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were employed as a last-resort measure due to Japan's unwillingness to surrender.
The atomic bombings, combined with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in August, resulted in the unconditional surrender of Japan. On September 2, 1945, this was signed on the decks of the USS Missouri.