June 28, 1919. The Treaty of Versailles has just been signed, following four years of the bloodiest fighting that Europe has ever seen. The mighty German Empire, which managed to destroy the Russian armies in the East and push back French and British armies to the outskirts of Paris, has been dismantled, with its colonies transferred to British or French control and large chunks of its land given to Poland, France, and Denmark. The Hapsburg-ruled Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had ruled over huge swaths of Eastern and Southern Europe, has collapsed. Similarly, the once grand Ottoman Empire has imploded in the face of Arab revolts and external pressure. The Russian Empire self-destructed in spectacular fashion, and following a five year long civil war, the Romanov dynasty had been replaced by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
On the victors side, Italy found herself intensely dissatisfied. England and France had promised Italy control of the Adriatic coast, but had not delivered. France was exhausted from the four years of bloody fighting on her soil, while England was massively overstretched, at this point controlling the largest Empire the world would ever know. America, disgusted by the huge and costly intervention into European politics, withdrew into an isolationist phase, abandoning the proposed liberal order (the League of Nations) which President Woodrow Wilson once dreamed of. Japan was hungry for more expansion, with neighboring China in chaos. This deadly brew would lead to an even more horrific war – World War II.
Benito Mussolini served as an infantryman in World War I. Originally a socialist, he supported the Italian intervention in the war (much to the disgust of his leftist brethren) and was expelled from the Italian socialist movement. Undeterred, he founded the fascist party upon his return from war, and his movement rapidly gained popularity. Fascism was the perfect movement for the time – it combined revolutionary action with traditional ideals, and it trampled on the liberal democratic state that was blamed for Italy’s weakness during the war. Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism provides the best explanation of the Fascist doctrine, but to summarize the ideology in a single quote, Fascism can be defined as “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”. The promise of a powerful, militaristic, and mighty state, ruled by one man, resonated with the Italian people. In October of 1922, his Fascist party staged the March on Rome, a successful coup that allowed Mussolini to gain power in Italy.
In the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, who successfully spearheaded the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, was dead. Lenin had explicitly attempted to warn the Communist Party about Joseph Stalin, who had gradually been accumulating power since 1917, but Stalin managed to deceive the Communist Party and spin the note in his favor. By 1927, Stalin had become the unquestioned leader of the Soviet Union. Purges of political rivals soon followed – during his long rule, Stalin had reportedly personally signed off on the executions of tens of thousands. Paranoid about a potential uprising in the Ukraine, Stalin also instigated a man-made famine, killing around five million. However, Stalin’s rule also brought rapid industrialization to the Soviet Union. Government-built industrial cities and Five-year plans resulted in Soviet industrial output skyrocketing, though this did not benefit the average Soviet citizen – heavy industry was to be prioritized over the production of consumer goods.
Germany, however, was to be the epicenter of it all. A young corporal named Adolf Hitler had just returned from the battlefields of the First World War, and he was deeply angered at the Jews and Socialists for “backstabbing” Germany in 1918, during its last-ditch offensive into France. He also blamed the social democrats for accepting the “rape of Germany” brought upon by the Versailles Treaty, which included massive war reparations that led to hyperinflation. These ideas brought him to join the German Workers Party, which would eventually evolve into the Hitler-led National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Hitler’s rhetoric struck a chord with the German people, and in 1923, Hitler attempted to stage a coup, but it ended in disaster, with his forces being arrested by the police. Hitler was imprisoned for nine months, and during his time in prison, he dictated his now infamous manifesto, “Mein Kampf”, to his secretary, Rudolf Hess. During his trial, Hitler also garnered even more press coverage, using his time at the court in order to give tirades about the Jews and Communists rather than testify towards his own defense. Nevertheless, this publicity stunt did not initially give the Nazi party success. Upon Hitler’s return in 1924, the Nazis garnered 3% of the vote, and in 1928, they garnered 2.6%. However, in 1930, the storm of the Great Depression slammed Germany, and the economy began to disintegrate. Hitler, once again, blamed Jews and Communists, and promised to give jobs to the German people. This strategy worked, and in 1932, the Nazis became the largest political party in the Reichstag. Following more political maneuvering and downright brutal tactics, the Nazis brought Germany under single-party, totalitarian rule, with Adolf Hitler as the strongman at the top.
World War II is often said to have broken out on September 1, 1939, but there was certainly conflict before this date. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, and the technological disparity was simply too great – the Italians had tanks and mustard gas, whereas some Ethiopian units still carried bows and spears. Ethiopia would fall in June of 1936. In 1936, civil war would break out in Spain, with a scattered coalition of leftists fighting against a nationalist insurgency. The nationalists, led by General Fransisco Franco, would eventually win out, in large thanks to German and Italian aid. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China, kicking off a brutal war which would last until 1945. Germany was not sitting idle, either. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, as part of the Nazi agenda to unite all Germanic peoples. Later that year, Hitler would demand the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, a German speaking region that Hitler claimed had been “oppressed” by the Czech government. Neville Chamberlain (the British Prime Minister), desperate to avoid war with Hitler, signed the Munich Pact in September of 1938, which effectively gave Hitler permission to invade the Sudetenland. Hitler annexed the Sudetenland the next day, while Chamberlain went home to England and proclaimed that he had achieved “Peace in Our Time”. Later, in March of 1939, Hitler annexed the whole of Czechoslovakia. Mussolini, not to be outdone, annexed Albania in April of 1939. In a few strokes, Hitler had already dramatically increased the size of Germany, while Mussolini had added two colonies to the Italian Empire. Japanese forces were rampaging through China, and America was still stuck in an isolationist mindset. France and England, weary of another war, were too lethargic to take on Germany.
This combination could not end well. The Pact of Steel would be formed in 1939, and Japan would later join in 1940, forming the Axis powers. France and Britain would both sign defense pacts with Poland in 1939, in order to stave off a potential German attack. Stalin, paranoid of all sides involved (but especially afraid of Hitler) signed a pact with Germany, which included a non-aggression guarantee as well as plans for the partition of Eastern Europe. This pact was an attempt to stave off German attack, and there is an ongoing debate as to whether Stalin planned on preemptively striking at Hitler while Hitler’s forces were concentrated in the West. Regardless, both the Soviets and the Germans knew that the peace could not last – Hitler’s anti-Slavic, anti-Communist beliefs made the Soviet Union his primary target. France, meanwhile, had not adopted her military tactics since World War I – which would prove to be disastrous in 1940. The evening of August 31, 1939 would mark the end of a period marked by tension, and the dawn of September 1, 1939 would mark the beginning of a six-year long explosion which would kill 60 million people.
September 1, 1939. Hitler has been demanding Danzig for several months, but the Poles have not budged. Over the past few days, Germany has been mobilizing its forces, moving them to the Polish border. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein is docked in Danzig harbor, under the pretext of a diplomatic visit. But the morning of September 1 would not bring diplomatic meetings – instead, it would bring gunfire. At around 4:30 AM local time, the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Danzig with her 8 inch guns, wreaking havoc. A squadron of marines proceeded to land at Danzig, and after a week of stiff Polish resistance, Danzig would fall. Elsewhere, tens of German divisions – the bulk of the German army – swept into Poland. The Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force) rapidly gained air superiority over the hapless Polish forces, and Polish communication lines were destroyed. The Poles, not expecting such a swift attack, failed to mobilize in time. This marked the first use of Blitzkrieg (lightning war), defined by its use of tanks as an independent spearhead and the heavy use of aerial bombardment. Blitzkrieg was marked by its speed and cooperation – it involved dense, rapidly moving formations, perfectly coordinated with the Luftwaffe – and it was a huge success.
On September 3, both the British and French declared war on Germany, and were henceforth known as the “Allied” forces, along with their various colonies. Hitler was shocked – after years of appeasement, he did not expect any significant reaction from the Allies. Hitler’s border with France had been left wide open – only 15% of the German army remained in Germany – and if France were to strike at this time, Hitler would have most likely lost the war. Instead, France launched the downright pathetic Saar Offensive, whereupon 2000 French troops ventured five miles into German territory, before retreating back to their starting positions. This would mark a colossal missed opportunity – one which would have huge consequences in the near future.
By September 8th, the Wehrmacht (German army) had reached Warsaw, and would proceed to besiege it until it finally fell on September 28th. September 17th would mark the final nail in the coffin for the Poles – the Soviets, in accordance with the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, invaded Poland from the East, causing the rapidly-collapsing Polish state to essentially disintegrate. Notably, France and Britain were silent in their response. Neither state wanted to bring the Soviet Union into the war, and it was widely acknowledged that the Germans and Soviets would end up betraying each other at some point. In late September, the Polish government fled the country, and by October 6th, the last organized Polish resistance had been defeated. For the next 50 years, Poland would exist as an occupied nation, either under the rule of the Nazis, or under the iron fist of the Soviets. While the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland would be relatively brief (during WW2), the German occupation would be brutal – Polish Jews were initially placed in filthy, overcrowded ghettos, but by 1942, would be rounded up and killed in concentration camps.
The next several months would mark a period known as the “Phoney War”. No major battles would take place between the Allies and German forces – completely contrary to World War I, where German armies were locked in brutal battle with the Allied forces from the early onset of the war. However, military action did occur. In late November, the Soviets invaded Finland in what should have been an easy victory. The Soviets outnumbered the Finnish in every possible aspect, including a roughly 3000 to 32 advantage in tanks. The Soviet rationale behind the war was reasonable – Finland was drawing too close to the West, and Finland sat only a few miles away from Leningrad, a critically important Soviet city. But the Soviets were not prepared for the ferocity of Finnish resistance – makeshift bombs, freezing temperatures, and rag-tag partisan groups all dramatically slowed the Soviet advance. The Finns were also able to outmaneuver the Soviets, often dividing Soviet divisions into small, scattered pockets before wiping them out. Nevertheless, it was not enough – the Red Army was simply too large, and the Soviets were merciless. On March 12th, 1940, after 105 days of gritty fighting, the Finns signed the Moscow Peace Treaty, conceding roughly 10% of their territory to the Soviet Union.
During this time, Allied forces sought to gain an advantage over Germany without further escalating the war. Swedish exports of iron ore were a fairly large component of the German war effort, and these exports were being shipped through Norway. Thus, the allies planned to invade Norway and parts of Sweden, in order to stop the ore shipments. However, Germany struck first, invading both Norway and Denmark on April 9, 1940, in order to secure Northern Europe and her iron supply. Denmark surrendered after a few hours in order to avoid total annihilation. In Norway, the Germans, aided by the treachery of Vidkun Quisling (whose name is now synonymous with traitor), fought a brief but bloody campaign against both Norwegian loyalists and Allied forces. The Germans managed to quickly take Oslo, but they lost 10 destroyers while securing Narvik, a bright spot for the allies in what was otherwise a disastrous campaign.
May 10, 1940, would be the next pivotal day during the course of the war. After eight months of buildup, the Wehrmacht struck at France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). The French had been preparing for this day for years, and their main defensive strategy involved holding off German forces in Belgium. To the south, along the French-German border, was the Maginot line, a massive and costly series of fortifications intended to hold back any potential German assault. Crucially, however, the French had neglected the Ardennes forest, which was presumed to be impenetrable due to its rugged terrain. But after a northwards feint into Belgium, the main German force came rushing through the Ardennes forest. Now, only a few hundred miles away from the English channel, it was entirely possible that the Germans could cut off and encircle huge numbers of allied troops. That same day, Neville Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Churchill was the polar opposite of Chamberlain, as the Germans would quickly realize.
Realizing what had happened in the Ardennes, the Allies attempted to organize a hasty defense at Sedan in order to protect their flank. Only the Meuse river stood between the German forces and the English channel – if Sedan fell, the Germans would have a clear path towards victory – and thus the need to hold Sedan was paramount to the allies. Nevertheless, Sedan fell after three days of fighting. The French forces were armed with obsolete equipment and were ill-prepared to the psychological horrors wrought by constant Luftwaffe air strikes. 70 years earlier, in 1870, the Battle of Sedan was the decisive victory won by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war, which paved the way for the unification of Germany, along with the humiliation of France. Now, in 1940, France would suffer the same fate, due to a German victory at the same location. By May 20th, 1940, the German forces had reached the English channel, trapping hundreds of thousands allied troops. In contrast to the four years of stalemate between France and Germany in World War I, Germany had secured a victory in merely ten days in World War II.
Now desperate to save the British Expeditionary Force in France, the British government decided to attempt to mount an evacuation at Dunkirk. Around 400,000 Allied troops were trapped by German forces, who had cut off any chance at a tactical retreat and were now rapidly converging on the Allied position. A flotilla of ships were organized to aid in the retreat, while French troops desperately fought the German onslaught in order to bide time for the evacuation. It was at this point where a controversial misconception arises – among many, there is an idea that Hitler ordered his armies to halt on the outskirts of Dunkirk, much to the chagrin of his commanders. However, this is false. Hitler temporarily halted his armies at the request of his generals, who had advanced hundreds of miles in a matter of weeks, and needed to give their troops rest and repair their panzers (tanks). The idea that a massive land evacuation could be staged at Dunkirk was rightfully considered absurd, and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering promised Hitler that the Luftwaffe could pound the Allied forces into submission. Nevertheless, the British attempted their unprecedented evacuation, beginning May 26. The British Air Force fought ferocious aerial duels with the Luftwaffe over the skies of Dunkirk, while British ships – both military and civilian – made several trips between Dunkirk and Britain. After a week, around 340,000 allied troops were successfully evacuated. On June 4th, Churchill proclaimed that “We [Britain] shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender” – a massive change in tone from Neville Chamberlain’s weak attempts at appeasement. Yet, on June 14th, Paris would fall, and France would surrender. Britain, along with her massive empire, stood alone. Against her would be both the German war machine, as well as Italy, who had entered the war on the side of Germany on June 10th.
Hitler was personally conflicted about continuing the war with England. Hitler’s admiration for the British is clearly on display in Mein Kampf, and as part of the Germanic family, the English were regarded highly in Hitler’s perverted racial world view. But, unlike his predecessor, Churchill would refuse to back down and sue for peace. This left Hitler no choice – England had to be beaten. The German High Command planned for an amphibious assault on England to occur in late September – but this plan, known as Operation Sea Lion, required aerial superiority over the English channel in order to succeed. On August 13th, the Battle of Britain began with Eagle Day, which was intended to be Goering’s masterstroke in order to annihilate the British air force (also known as the RAF). Eagle Day was to knock out British air fields, making it impossible for the RAF to defend their skies. Unfortunately for the Germans, an early miscommunication, combined with the British use of radar in a comprehensive aerial-defense network (known as the Dowding system) resulted in the Luftwaffe raids being largely ineffective. The Germans and the British both ended up losing around 60 aircraft that day, and the rest of the Battle of Britain would largely be no exception – the Germans and British would trade planes at a fairly even rate. Over the next few weeks, the Luftwaffe continued their attempts to pound at British airfields, but they were unsuccessful.
Realizing that it would be impossible to defeat the British Air Force, Hitler decided to change his tactics – instead of winning a decisive military victory over the British, he would break the will of the British people. On September 7, 1940, Hitler bombed London, killing hundreds. British air defenses were largely concentrated around military targets – air fields, hangars, and military factories – and thus it was relatively easy for Luftwaffe bombers to attack civilian targets. German bombers also destroyed British dockyards and communications. But, the bombings did not break British morale – they strengthened it. Resilient in the face of Nazi attacks, the British people resolved to do everything in their power to fend of the German bombers. Civil defense services saw their ranks swell, and while London took the brunt of the impact, major cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool also saw frequent raids – further uniting the British people in their struggle. German night raids, while successful in destroying industrial targets and warehouses, failed to break the British fighting spirit. By the beginning of 1941, Operation Sea Lion had been indefinitely postponed, and the British had developed sound strategies towards countering the German raids. Japan would also join the Axis on September 27, 1940, though they would not make any significant contribution to the war until December of 1941.
While battles raged in the skies over Britain, another battle was unfolding in the Atlantic Ocean. Britain, as an island nation, was extremely dependent on commercial shipping in order to feed and fuel her population. Both British-controlled India and the United States were critically important towards the British war effort – and if the Germans could cut off shipping from these areas, they could starve Britain. With the fall of France, German U-boats (submarines) had an extremely convenient base of operations, from which they could hunt in the North Atlantic. The time period from July 1940 until October 1940 was known as the “First Happy Time” by German U-boat commanders. British naval radar was insufficient in its capability to detect U-boats, and hundreds of thousands of tons of merchant shipping were sunk. Shocked by the huge losses, the British navy began to escort their ships with old cruisers and destroyers. Merchant ships were also grouped into convoys, in order to facilitate a more effective usage of naval escorts. The Germans countered this by using surface raiders – heavy cruisers and smaller battleships known as “pocket battleships” which were able to outgun the smaller and weaker convoy escorts. These pocket battleships were highly effective – for example, in November of 1940, the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer attacked convoy HX 84, destroying five merchant ships and a destroyer escort. The British would continue to suffer heavy merchant losses until around 1943, when the war began to finally turn in the favor of the Allies.
Italy did not want to sit idly while her northern neighbor fought successful wars of conquest. In early September, Italian forces invaded Egypt from their colonial bases in Libya, kicking off the North African war. But the Italian effort, hastily planned and executed, evolved into a complete disaster. The Italian offensive bogged down in Western Egypt, and the British forces launched Operation Compass. This British offensive resulted in the destruction of the Italian 10th army, and was a great morale booster – it represented an Allied victory over an Axis force. Mussolini, undeterred, requested help from Hitler – who dispatched the Afrika Korps, led by Erwin Rommel, to assist Mussolini. The Afrika Korps were led by Erwin Rommel – a brilliant tactician who would go on to earn the nickname of “the Desert Fox”. Rommel was at an advantage – he was close to his supply bases in Libya, whereas the British were hundreds of miles away from their main bases in Egypt. Rommel struck with ferocity in early 1941, pushing the British out of Libya (with the exception of Tobruk, which was held under siege).
October of 1940 saw the Italian invasion of Greece – but the mountainous terrain made offensive operations effectively impossible. The Greeks fought fiercely, and eventually pushed the Italians a few miles back into Albania. The front stabilized at this point, and Mussolini planned to simply wear the Greeks down – they were running low on ammunition and manpower, and would not be able to hold out against a continued Allied offensive. But, by April of 1941, the British began to deploy troops into Greece, and Hitler was afraid of an invasion from the south. The Germans proceeded to (along with Italy and Hungary)invade Yugoslavia in order to secure their southern flank. German bombing quickly destroyed Yugoslav communications, while many ethnic minorities within Yugoslavia did not offer much resistance – the Yugoslav government was dominated by ethnic Serbs, and Yugoslavia was viewed by many as a “Greater Serbia” rather than a united southern-slavic state. As a result, the Yugoslav government fled, and on April 18th, the remaining leadership in Yugoslavia surrendered to the Axis forces.
March of 1941 would mark the beginning of major, albeit indirect, American support for Allied forces. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized the President to ship arms to “the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States”. At first, US arms went to Britain and China, but eventually the Soviet Union would also receive American aid. In total, around 700 billion dollars (in modern currency) worth of arms would be shipped to various nations – a true demonstration of the raw industrial might of the United States.
In April, Germany began its invasion of Greece, as Bulgaria had joined the Axis a month earlier and thus could be used as a staging ground for the invasion. The Greek forces, already pushed to the breaking point trying to hold back Italy, could not stand up to the mighty German onslaught. On April 9th, the Germans won a decisive victory at the Metaxes line, a series of forts on the Greek-Bulgarian border. This resulted in a German breakthrough, and by April 27th, German forces had reached Athens. Mainland Greece had fallen, but many British and Greek soldiers had managed to evacuate to Crete. The Germans, wanting to avenge their failure over the British skies a few months earlier, launched an airborne attack on Crete, on the morning of May 20. The first day of the German assault was a disaster for the Germans – German paratroopers were shot out of the sky, and miscommunications resulted in German troops landing far off course from their intended destinations. However, the British blundered on the second day, and the Germans were able to capture the vital airfield of Maleme, enabling them to safely deploy more soldiers to Crete. After 13 days of heavy fighting, Crete fell to the Germans – but the casualties were horrendous – a sign of things to come for the German army.
During both the Balkan and North African campaigns, Hitler’s main effort had been focused on the planning of his ultimate dream – the conquest of the Soviet Union. Hitler had been building up forces along the Soviet border for months – telling the Soviets that his troops were merely preparing for Operation Sea Lion. Hitler and his generals believed that, despite the numerical advantage that the Soviets had, one “only had to kick in the door, and the whole rotting structure would come crashing down”. This is quite a reasonable assumption, given the atrocious Soviet performance in Finland just a few months earlier. Germany had also conscripted Romania as an ally, as the Romanians wished to recapture modern-day Moldova from the Soviet Union. Finland would also join the war, wishing to gain her territory back from the Soviet Union. Stalin, meanwhile, was receiving dozens of reports indicating that a German attack was imminent – German spies were being captured, and even the British were warning Stalin of an impending attack. Yet, Stalin ignored these warnings. He did not want to do anything to provoke a German attack, and dismissed the British reports as an attempt to provoke a war between Germany and the USSR (which would have been greatly beneficial to Britain). Regardless, Soviet forces were unprepared for a war with Germany – though the Soviets had thousands of tanks, many were obsolete, and Stalin’s purges had virtually destroyed competent leadership within the Red Army. Soviet divisions were badly organized, and were too cumbersome in the age of mobile warfare. Soviet defensive lines were either abandoned or incomplete. and Soviet troops were nowhere near as well trained as their German counterparts.
June 22nd, 1941, would mark a defining moment of the 20th century. On this day, three million German troops, along with hundreds of thousands of Romanians, surged into Eastern Poland (Army Group Center), the Baltic States (Army Group North) and Ukraine (Army Group South). This invasion, known as Operation Barbarossa, would mark the largest invasion in human history, and it would be fought as such. The opening shots of the invasion were fired at around 3 in the morning, as German heavy artillery pounded Soviet positions across the entirety of Eastern Europe. Amid the chaos, German paratroopers slashed communication lines, exacerbating the disaster which awaited the Red Army. Luftwaffe planes swiftly followed, and while around 60 German planes were shot down, thousands of Soviet planes were destroyed as they sat helplessly on runways and tarmacs. A few hours later, German tanks rumbled across the border, ready to meet a now dazed Soviet force.
Army Group Center’s thrust into Minsk was essentially a gigantic encirclement. The powerful and well-equipped 2nd Panzer Army smashed through the Soviet 4th army and rapidly headed across the Bug River. To the North, the 9th army and the 3rd Panzer Army were already advancing towards Minsk, and though the Soviets fought desperately, their counter-attacks were uncoordinated. A few days later, hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were encircled by the Wehrmacht, though 250,000 Soviet troops managed to flee eastwards. Minsk fell in early July, while German tanks were forced to halt their advance, in order for supply lines and infantry units to catch up. Meanwhile, Army Group South would end up fighting one of the largest tank battles in history. At Dubna, around a thousand German tanks squared off against 3500 thousand Soviet tanks. Notably, the Soviets sported hundreds of modern T34 and KV tanks, which were well armored and reasonably well armed. However, the Soviets were dealing with a logistical nightmare – the Luftwaffe had pounded Soviet supply lines, and communications had been essentially destroyed. The Soviets made a few chaotic counter-attacks, some of which were successful, but ended up losing around a thousand tanks, compared to the German loss of 250. In Moldova, Romanian forces would eventually emerge victorious after a month of heavy fighting, as the Soviets were more concerned about the main German thrusts elsewhere. In the North, the Soviets attempted a heavy counterattack on the first day, but were defeated due to the incredibly chaotic situation. Wisely, the Soviets staged a fighting retreat back to Leningrad, thus preserving the majority of their forces and avoiding an encirclement. Furthermore, the Soviets began to rapidly move their military factories eastwards, past the Ural mountains. This meant that the Soviets could lose large industrial areas – such as Leningrad or even Moscow – and still maintain their high rate of arms production.
Germany’s relentless advance continued throughout the summer and fall of 1941. The Soviet High Command (Stavka) in an attempt to halt the German push towards Moscow, ordered a counterattack to be mounted at Smolensk, a large city 400 kilometers away from Moscow. The counterattack was a disaster, as the 2nd and 3rd Panzer groups managed to catch three Soviet armies in an encirclement. 200,000 Soviet troops were killed, and another 300,000 were captured – yet despite the casualties, the Soviets still had abundant amounts of manpower. The strategic depth of Russia, along with their massive numerical advantage, made it extremely clear to the German High Command that if Russia were to be defeated, it would need to be a rapid victory, much like the French campaign of 1940. Hitler believed that this victory would be achieved by seizing Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus mountains, along with the capture of Soviet industrial and agricultural areas in Ukraine. He diverted the 2nd Panzer group southwards, detaching it from Army Group Center’s push towards Moscow, and encircled Soviet forces defending Kiev, leading to 616,000 Soviet troops being captured or killed. This was a calamity for the Soviets, but the diversion of the 2nd Panzer group diverted pressure on Moscow, and bought vital time for the Soviets to organize the defense of their capital city. In the North, German soldiers had linked up with Finnish soldiers outside of Leningrad, but the large city (along with its contingent of defenders) meant that the city would be impossible to take. Instead, the Germans besieged the city, cutting off its food supply in what would be known as the Siege of Leningrad. This siege was horrific in every possible regard, and around a million citizens would end up starving to death. But Leningrad would not fall – instead, after 872 long and grueling days, Leningrad would eventually be relieved.
October through December of 1941 would mark the most important months of the war, for a variety of reasons. In early October, Army Group Center resumed its push towards Moscow, launching Operation Typhoon. At Vyazma and Bryansk, a German offensive managed to split a massive Soviet defensive force in half, leading to a double encirclement – a textbook example of Blitzkrieg. Another 670,000 Soviet troops were captured or killed, but the Germans now had good reasons to be worried. Firstly, heavy rains had begun to fall, which made it difficult for the Germans to launch large, quick offensives due to the soggy terrain. Secondly, the Soviet T-34 tanks, with their sloped armor and 75 millimeter guns, were beginning to make a difference. An entire tank brigade was destroyed when it was ambushed by T-34s, as it was extremely difficult for the German guns to penetrate the armor of the T-34.
November marked the last chance for a German offensive – it was cold enough that the mud had frozen into permissible terrain, but the temperature had not yet reached the brutal cold of the Russian winter. The Germans attacked at Tula, attempting to rip open Moscow’s southern flank and pave the way for a huge encirclement. The Second Panzer Army – the same army responsible for the Soviet disasters at Kiev and Minsk – led the attack, but the Soviets had concentrated their anti-aircraft guns at Tula, meaning that the Luftwaffe would not enjoy the dominance that they once had. Soviet forces dug in, harassing the Germans with their T-34s, while the weather grew colder and colder. Morale plummeted among the German forces, as it was incredibly difficult for the Germans to capture the heavily-fortified city. In early December, the Germans pulled back, and the attack on Moscow was cancelled. In spite of the fact that German forces had reached the suburbs of the city – with anecdotes suggesting that German scouts were able to see the spires of the Kremlin – Moscow would not fall. It was far too cold for the Germans to resume their attack, and German forces were too exhausted to continue.
On the other side of the planet, early December would mark another massive development in the war. Japan’s offensive had bogged down in China, and the United States had ceased exports of oil to Japan. Japan faced a dilemma – either withdraw from China, or attack Allied holdings in southeast Asia. The latter option seemed better, but there was the major threat of American intervention to protect southeast Asia – America had a huge navy and gargantuan industrial capabilities. The Japanese decided that the only option would be two simultaneous attacks – first, an attack on the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya in order to capture oil reserves – and second, an attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, in order to neutralize the American threat.
On December 7, 1941, 400 Japanese aircraft took off from 6 carriers. Their target was Pearl Harbor – the home of the US Pacific fleet. American sailors were caught totally off-guard, and the resulting raid was a disaster for the United States. The United States Navy lost four battleships, 2335 sailors, and 188 aircraft. 13 other ships were damaged, in what President Roosevelt would declare to be “a date which will live in infamy”. Yet, the Japanese did not manage to obliterate American capabilities in the Pacific. America’s three aircraft carriers were elsewhere at the time of the attack, and American fuel depots and repair facilities remained intact. The Japanese had done nothing to impact America’s industrial capability – instead, they had just awakened a sleeping giant.
Almost simultaneously, thousands of miles away, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines (which were essentially an American colony), Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. The British garrison at Hong Kong was overrun in two weeks, as the 14,000 British defenders could not stand up to the 30,000 Japanese attackers. The case of Thailand was a strange one – a few hours after Japanese forces invaded, Thailand decided to align itself with the Axis, allowing Japanese forces to use Thailand as a staging ground for future operations. This included the Japanese invasion of Malaya – a grueling, month and a half long campaign which ended in total disaster for Allied forces. The Japanese had complete air superiority, and the Japanese were battle-hardened and experienced, having already fought a reasonably successful war of conquest in China. The Allies retreated to the heavily fortified city of Singapore, which was expected to hold. The Allies outnumbered the Japanese 2 to 1 (largely thanks to Indian troops stationed in Singapore), and were confident in their chances of victory. However, after a heavy artillery bombardment, the Japanese managed to exploit gaps in Allied defensive lines, while Japanese bombers managed to cripple a key airfield. After a few days, the Japanese broke through, and on February 15, 1942, Singapore fell. Japan’s invasion of the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) was also brutal. The Japanese quickly gained air superiority, and had overwhelmed local troops, who were rather unwilling to fight for their colonial overlords. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines was another allied catastrophe. The Americans were inexperienced, and by late January of 1942, they had been forced to retreat to southern Luzon – specifically, the Bataan peninsula. They held out for four more months, but were eventually forced to surrender. The Philippines had fallen.
December 11 and 12 of 1941 saw Adolf Hitler make two crucial decisions. On December 11, he declared war on the United States, for reasons that still are not clear today. He was not obliged to do so by any treaty, and had nothing to gain by linking the European and Pacific wars together. A common theory is that he expected the Japanese to reciprocate by declaring war on the Soviet Union – but this did not happen, as the Japanese were bogged down in China and would have their hands full with the United States. On December 12, Hitler authorized the “final solution” to the Jewish question. Previously, most Jews had been rounded up into ghettos, or simply shot on site. Now, the Nazis would kill on an industrial scale – rounding Jews up, packing them into trains, and shipping them to horrific concentration camps for them to be gassed or worked to death. Roma (gypsies) would also eventually end up as victims of the Nazi terror.
At the beginning of 1942, the situation was dire for the allies. Mainland Europe had been crushed under the Nazi boot. The Soviet Union had been pushed back to the gates of Moscow. Several allied holdings in Asia had fallen, and a decent chunk of the American Pacific fleet was underwater. Yet, the Axis were not unstoppable. Their advance had been halted in Russia, and Germany had failed to defeat England. Japan was over-stretched and was not able to strike a fatal blow to the American navy. The war truly hung in a balance – and the massive battles of 1942 and 1943 would determine the victor.
1942. The United States has just entered the war, but her forces are not mobilized. The Japanese have stormed through East Asia, seizing virtually all allied held areas with the exceptions of India and Australia. In Europe, only the Soviet Union and Britain are left – all other nations have succumbed to German domination. The Soviets have been beaten to the gates of Moscow, but were able to hold the line against the final German offensive of 1941, preventing Moscow from falling. British forces have largely fought the Germans and Italians in North Africa to a temporary stalemate.
Germany’s declaration of war on America resulted in a “second pearl harbor” of sorts. German U-boat commanders were able to attack American merchant ships with impunity, and long-ranged U-boats were able to sit off the American east cost and attack American ships with ease. American ships were sank in vast quantities – 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons – at the expense of only 22 U-boats. Over the next few months, however, the Americans did adopt countermeasures. They mandated blackouts along the east coast (so the silhouettes of ships could not be seen) and implemented the convoy system, which had been used by the British rather successfully.
Germany’s ethnic cleansing campaign in the east was ramping up to horrific levels. A plan known as Generalplan Ost had begun to be implemented, which called for either the killing, deportation, or “Germanization” of the Slavic peoples in Poland and the Soviet Union. The Germans used the Slavs as forced labor, and burned down their villages and homes. Throughout the course of the war, over 12 million Poles and Soviets would be used as slaves by the Nazis. Crop-producing regions in German-occupied territories were used to feed the German army – the local Slavic peoples were left to starve to death.
From January until March of 1942, military action occurred in Indochina and Southeast Asia, in the form of Japanese invasions. This was covered in part one. In North Africa, both sides were resting and rearming after a back and forth campaign during 1941. In the Soviet Union, the spring mud made offensive operations impossible, and the front was largely stagnant. In mainland Europe, the British began strategic bombing of German cities – both as respiration for the Blitz of a year prior, and as a method of annihilating German industry. British bombing tactics, which included the usage of blockbuster bombs in the first wave (to rip roofs off of buildings) followed by incendiary bombs in the second waves (to light buildings on fire) were first tested at Lubeck, a city of little strategic importance but large cultural importance. The city was heavily damaged, and the raid was deemed a success. Similar raids would follow on other German cities – such as Rostock – in the weeks to follow.
April of 1942 marked the first American “victory” of the war. On April 18th, 16 American B-25 bombers took off from an aircraft carrier around 700 miles away from the Japanese mainland. Their target was Tokyo, and their goal was to inflict “psychological and materiel damage on the Japanese”. The raid, known as the Doolittle raid, did little physical damage, but was hugely effective psychologically. The Japanese were stunned at the fact that the Americans were capable of bombing their homeland, while the Americans received a huge morale-boost at home, proud that they had taken the fight to the enemy.
In May of 1942, the terrain and weather in Russia had finally improved to the point where offensive operations were now possible. Stalin was confident after the victory at Moscow and wanted to launch counter-attacks across the whole Eastern front, but his closest advisers instead advocated for local counter-offensives, which Stalin eventually opted for. On May 12, the Red Army attempted to recapture the city of Kharkov, which was a key industrial city that was well-connected to the Russian rail network. Around 650,000 men had been assembled, along with thousands of tanks and aircraft. The Germans had around 300,000 men of their own, and they had received intelligence warning of an imminent Soviet attack, so they had fortified the city. The opening artillery and aerial barrage was massive, and by the first day, the Soviets had advanced around 10 kilometers. However, over the next few days, the Luftwaffe would eventually gain air superiority, and destroy Soviet heavy artillery positions, forcing the Red Army back on the defensive. The Germans then proceeded to outflank the Soviets, but Stalin ordered the Soviets to hold their ground. This was a blunder, and in the ensuing encirclement, the Red Army lost 250,000 men, along with the battle. Germany had been beaten at Moscow and likely would not be advancing further, but it was evident that it would be extremely difficult to beat back the German army.
Early May would also mark the first major naval battle of the Pacific war. The Japanese planned to take the island of New Guinea, isolating Australia and New Zealand from both their American and British allies. The Americans managed to learn of this plan, and they deployed a task force consisting of two aircraft carriers, along with several cruisers, to the Coral Sea, where they would destroy the Japanese landing fleet. On May 3rd, planes launched from the USS Lexington sank several Japanese support ships, alerting the Japanese to an American presence in the area. Over the next two days, both American and Japanese carriers would attempt to find each other, and on May 7th, the Japanese struck first, sinking an American destroyer and kicking off the battle of the Coral Sea. However, later that day, American planes bombed and torpedoed the Japanese light carrier Shoho. The next day, American planes crippled the Shokaku, one of the carriers involved in the Pearl Harbor raid, but the USS Lexington was hit by two bombs and two torpedoes, forcing it to be scuttled. However, the loss of two carriers forced the Japanese navy to withdraw, and the Japanese invasion of New Guinea was cancelled. Notably, the battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval engagement during which opposing ships never made visual contact – the entire battle was fought by carrier-launched planes flying hundreds of kilometers to strike at targets before landing back at their carriers.
In Western Europe, an intense war was being waged in the air, as neither side had the power or resources to mount an amphibious assault, On May 30, the British launched their first “thousand bomber raid“, targeting the industrial city of Cologne. Over three million kilograms of bombs fell on Cologne, and while the British lost 40 bombers, the damage to Cologne was staggering. 600 acres of the city were utterly annihilated, and thousands of homes were destroyed. Only a few hundred civilians were killed – likely due to the deep air-raid shelters, but the damage to German industry was very real. However, the British strategic bombing did not harm the morale of the German people – in fact, it had a very similar affect to the Blitz of two years ago, in that it strengthened the fighting spirit of the Germans. Now witnessing their countrymen being killed by the enemy, it was clear that the Germans would not go down without an intense and bloody fight.
The first true turning point against the Axis would come in early June, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. By this time, the Japanese had realized that they had failed to knock the Americans out at Pearl Harbor, and that they had only a few months before American industrial capabilities would turn the tide of the war against Japan. Isoroku Yamamoto, the highest figure in the Japanese Navy and the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor attack, designed a complicated plan which involved a feint towards the Aleutian islands in Alaska, while the main Japanese fleet would lure US carriers into a trap before annihilating them and capturing the Midway Atoll, which would then be a launching point for a Japanese invasion of Hawaii. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the Americans had cracked the Japanese naval code, and had knowledge of the Japanese plans a month before the battle. The two fleets began engagments on June 4th, in what would be known as the Battle of Midway. Early American attacks were a failure – only 6 of the 41 American torpedo bombers of the first wave made it back to the American fleet. Japanese bombers managed to attack the Midway airfield with relative success, losing only 6 of the 108 planes that they had launched. However, the Japanese were soon faced with a dilemma – either load the planes with general purpose bombs and attack the airfield, or load the planes with specialized anti-ship bombs and attack the American carriers. Admiral Nagumo, who was commanding the Japanese carrier force, initially elected to load general purpose bombs, but reversed his order after half an hour. While the Japanese were swapping bombs on their planes – leaving plenty of explosive material on the decks of their carriers in the process – American dive bombers struck. Five minutes later, and three of the four Japanese carriers were totally ablaze, and would roll beneath the waves over the next few hours. The Japanese carrier Hiryu survived the attack and launched a strike against the USS Yorktown which knocked out her engine, but the next morning, another American strike would result in the sinking of the Hiryu. The Japanese earned a small consolation prize when one of their submarines torpedoed the USS Yorktown and sunk it, but the damage had already been done. 2/3 of the Japanese carrier fleet was underwater, and hundreds of battle-hardened and well-trained Japanese crewmen were killed. From that point forward, the war in the Pacific would essentially become an American push against the Japanese, while the Chinese would continue a brutal guerrilla campaign against the Japanese invaders in their homeland.
The Germans now heavily altered their plans in the Soviet Union. Instead of trying to launch a three-pronged thrust into the largest country on Earth, they would instead focus on capturing Soviet resources – namely oil – in the Caucasus mountains. This would fuel the German war machine and starve the Soviet war machine, allowing for the Germans to potentially regain the momentum that they once had in the summer of 1941. However, they faced a huge obstacle – the city of Sevastopol, located in Crimea, was key to controlling the Black Sea, and it was one of the most heavily fortified cities on Earth. The Germans had attempted to take the city in October, but they had failed, partially due to the heavy rains. Now, in the summer, they could mount another attack – electing to besiege, and then liquidate, the defenders of Sevastopol. The bombardment of the city began on June 2nd, with both massive amounts of artillery and aircraft, as well as the largest gun ever built – the comically large Schwerer Gustav – brought to bear on the city. On June 16th, Axis forces (primarily German and Romanian troops) stormed the city, supported by the Luftwaffe. By July 4th, Sevastopol had fallen. Only a small handful of buildings within the city were undamaged, and losses were heavy on both sides – 40,000 troops for the Germans, and roughly 100,000 for the Soviets. Nevertheless, the prolonged nature of the offensive, and the fact that it took the Germans over a month to capture the city, again demonstrated the slowing of the German offensive since 1941. Hitler now had his eyes fixated on one goal – the city of Stalingrad, which was not only strategically important due to its position near vital oilfields, but was also important in terms of propaganda and morale – if Stalin’s namesake city fell, the Soviets would be humiliated, while the Germans would be energized.
Throughout the war, Stalin made his desire for a “second front” clear to Churchill and the Western Allies. The Soviets had taken the brunt of the German assault, and both the Germans and Soviets were being bled white by enormous battles and offensives. If the Allies launched an offensive to recapture France, Stalin reasoned, then German forces would be diverted away from the East, which would give the Soviets some breathing room. In 1942, the Western Allies were not yet capable of launching a second front – instead, they opted to launch raids onto the northern French coast, destroying key infrastructure facilities before retreating back to England. The first of these raids occurred on August 19, in the port city of Dieppe. The 6,000 man force was comprised of mostly Canadians, but also included a few British and American troops. The raid, however, did not go as planned. British aerial attacks were swiftly countered by the Luftwaffe, and the Germans, who had been aware of Allied interest in the area, were dug in and ready for the allied attack. In the ensuing disaster, virtually the entire Allied force was either killed or captured.
While the American military had not yet made a gargantuan impact militarily in Europe, it is difficult to overstate the impact of American aid to Europe. Wars are not only won with guns and tanks – armies need food and ammunition, and a sound logistical supply line is required to deliver vital war materiel to the frontline. Throughout the course of the war, the Americans would ship 152,000 trucks to the USSR, which were used to transport troops, food, and ammunition. The Americans also would eventually ship around 7,000 tanks, two million tons of food, 2000 locomotives, and around 250,000 jeeps to the USSR, which would prove vital to the Soviet war effort.
American forces were also making their impact felt in the Pacific. The Japanese had begun construction of an airbase on the island of Guadalcanal (located slightly northeast of Australia) which could easily be used to menace Allied supplies and communications in southeast Asia. American Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7th, and heavy fighting ensued for the next two months. The Americans managed to capture Henderson Field (the airbase being constructed by the Japanese), but the Japanese would not relent in their attempts to take the airfield back from American forces. Meanwhile, American and Japanese naval forces were also locked in battle, and the campaign culminated in a naval engagement in early November. The Japanese attempted to convoy 7,000 troops to the island, but the convoy was intercepted by a task force of American destroyers and cruisers. The initial engagement occurred at night, and visibility was incredibly low – the fleets met only a few thousand yards away from each other, and the battle rapidly degenerated into a naval “brawl”. Both sides were left with heavy losses, and the landings were postponed. Two nights later, a similar battle occurred, with a similar outcome. By this point, Guadalcanal had essentially fallen to American forces, and Japan would spend the next three months staging a fighting withdrawal from Guadalcanal.
On August 23rd, the German 6th Army reached the northern suburbs of Stalingrad, kicking off what would become the bloodiest and most destructive battle in human history. In order to understand the nature of this battle, one must understand the geography and layout of the region. Stalingrad sat on the eastern bank of the Volga river, which flowed in a north-south orientation. Being driven across the river would ensure the loss of the city. The Luftwaffe had been pounding the city for several days, rendering the Volga river impassible to maritime cargo shipments, and an initial Soviet counterattack was repelled within a few hours. However, the Soviets would not back down – literally. A few months earlier, Stalin had issued order 227, which decreed that any commander who had ordered an unauthorized retreat would be shot. The Soviets dug in, using the rubble created by the Luftwaffe bombings to their advantage. German military doctrine, which emphasized mobility over all, was useless in the tough urban terrain of the city. Quickly, the battle degenerated into brutal and bloody street to street fighting. The Soviets fought the Germans in every room of every house in the city, making sure that every inch the Germans gained was more painful than the last. Stalingrad’s central railway station changed hands fourteen times. A single, 4-story building was under attack for 60 days, until Soviet forces relieved the defenders in early November. By late September, the Germans had pushed to Stalingrad’s industrial district, where the heaviest fighting occurred. Luftwaffe bombings and artillery shelling turned the area into something resembling a lunar landscape, and it took several weeks for a single Soviet factory to finally be captured.
While the battle raged in Stalingrad, Rommel’s army in North Africa still menaced Egypt. If the Suez canal fell to German control, Britain would be essentially cut off from her allies in Australia and New Zealand, and the “crown jewel” of the British Empire – British India. Rommel’s supply lines were stretched quite thin – preventing him from capturing the Suez – but if Stalingrad fell, German forces could invade the Middle East, diverting British forces away from Egypt. Rommel’s position in North Africa was easily defensible – to his northern flank was the Mediterranean Sea, and to the south was the Qattara Depression, which was utterly impassable for any massed tank force. Rommel had also laid hundreds of thousands of mines to further anchor his position against any British offensive. The British, led by Bernard Montgomery, needed to create advantages – they mustered roughly double the troops and tanks of the German army, and attacked on October 23rd, when Rommel was on sick leave. A massive, initial artillery bombardment kicked off the attack, and in the chaos, the British infantry – rather than British tanks – were the first to cross the minefields. British engineers deactivated the mines as they crossed, and British tanks soon followed. Rommel’s replacement died of a heart attack, and Rommel was rushed back to the front on October 25th. The German-Italian force never quite recovered from the chaos of the opening days, and by early November, Axis lines had been breached. Rommel knew the battle was lost, and withdrew his forces after losing roughly 30,000 men. The next few months would see Axis forces make a chaotic retreat back to Tunisia.
Another major point of attention for the Allies was France’s colonial holdings. Germany had created a puppet state in southern France, known as Vichy France, in 1940, and all French colonies were under the control of the Vichy government. This represented a potential weakpoint – Vichy colonies were defended by French soldiers, who would likely be unwilling to fight against American and British forces whose primary goal was the liberation of France. In early November of 1942, America and Britain launched Operation Torch, where roughly 60,000 American troops and 40,000 British troops landed in French Algeria and Morocco. The campaign was an extremely rapid success for the Allies – as predicted, the French hardly put up a fight, and the allies gained control of France’s African holdings within a few days. In response, Germany and Italy swiftly occupied the remainder of Vichy France.
Back in Stalingrad, the situation was dire for the Soviet Union. Despite tremendous acts of courage and bravery, Soviet forces had lost control of 90% of the city, and were now only holding on to two, small parts of the city on the bank of the Volga. But winter was rapidly approaching, and Soviet High Command had not forgotten the massive impact which “general winter” had made just one year ago. Furthermore, the German army at Stalingrad had one key weakness – its flanks and rear were not protected by well-equipped and battle-hardened German troops, but rather by inexperienced and under-equipped Romanian, Italian, and Hungarian troops. Marshall Georgy Zhukov, who had successfully led the defense at Moscow, planned Operation Uranus, which would involve around 1.2 million Soviet troops, and around 1,000 tanks. The plan was to encircle the entire German army at Stalingrad, primarily by destroying the Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian forces who guarded the German flanks. After 12 days of delays, the Soviets struck on November 19th, and quickly overran Romanian forces in the north, who lacked modern anti-tank weaponry. The southern flank collapsed shortly afterwards, and within four days, the German sixth army was encircled. What the Germans had done to the Soviets countless times – at Kiev, at Bryansk, and at Minsk – the Soviets had now done to the Germans, trapping hundreds of thousands of German troops in the jaws of certain defeat.
Nearly simultaneously, the Soviets launched Operation Mars near Moscow, a massive offensive intended to liquidate the German-held Rzhev salient outside of Moscow. Operation Mars began on November 25th, as the Soviets hurled hundreds of thousands of troops at German lines, and both sides incurred massive casualties. Nevertheless, the front line hardly budged. The Soviets gained only a few dozen kilometers, and the area as a whole was known as the “Rzhev meat grinder” due to both the bloodshed and stagnation of the fighting. It has been debated among historians as to whether this offensive was actually intended to drive the Germans back in central Russia, or whether it was simply meant as a diversion to draw German troops away from a potential relief operation at Stalingrad. Notably, Soviet works of history published after the war do not describe Operation Mars in any significant detail, suggesting potential Soviet embarrassment at the entire ordeal.
Hitler quickly realized the gravity of the situation at Stalingrad, and launched Operation Winter Storm, dispatching Erich Von Manstein and the newly created “Army Group Don” to break the Soviet encirclement. Manstein struck on December 12th, and was initially able to make rapid progress, as the Soviets were caught off-guard. However, Manstein’s flanks were guarded by the weaker Italian Eighth army, which was quickly crushed by Soviet fores on December 13th. With the relief operation now jeopardized, Manstein urged Friedrich Paulus (who commanded the German 6th Army at Stalingrad) to attempt a breakout. Hitler, however, ordered Paulus to stay where he was. Instead of opting for a semi-viable approach to save hundreds of thousands of German troops, Hitler opted for an insane aerial resupply scheme proposed by Hermann Goering. It is simply impossible to supply hundreds of thousands of men with fuel, food, and ammunition via air – especially during war – but Hitler opted for this plan anyway. For obvious reasons, this plan failed, and by February of 1943, the last German forces in Stalingrad would surrender. Germany’s attempt at seizing Soviet oil in the Causcuses had fallen flat, and the Germans lost hundreds of thousands of troops. The Soviets, meanwhile, gained a huge boost in confidence, having orchestrated a powerful and swift encirclement. From Stalingrad onwards, the Red Army would hold the initiative in the east.
The mood, by the end of 1942, was optimistic on the side of the Allies. Rommel and the German-Italian force had been driven back to Tunisia. Germany had suffered a catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad, and Japan had been defeated at Midway and was on the brink of defeat at Guadalcanal. In early January of 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Casablanca, to discuss the future of the war. The two leaders agreed to land in Italy – the “soft underbelly of Europe” to open a second front. Most notably, however, the two leaders agreed to demand unconditional surrender from Japan and Germany. There would be no compromise – and at that time, Allied troops marching into Tokyo, Berlin, and Rome was thought to be necessary. The future would certainly bring bloodshed – totalitarian states such as Germany and Japan would certainly fight to the last man, regardless of the destruction caused.
In the Caucasus region, the Germans were in retreat. They had set up a defensive line (known as the Kuban bridgehead) east of Crimea, which was intended to serve as both an easily defensible position and a base for future attacks on Soviet oil fields. While setting up this line of defenses, the Germans were under constant attack from Soviet armies. The Luftwaffe no longer enjoyed the aerial superiority they once had over Soviet forces, with Soviet Il-2 aircraft (referred to as “flying tanks” due to their thick armor and large guns) harassing German tanks and supply lines. By September of 1943, this line would be breached, and the Germans would be forced to withdraw to Crimea.
The disaster at Stalingrad would also have consequences further north, in the Ukraine. In early February, the Soviets launched Operation Star, which resulted in the recapture of both Kharkov and Kursk from German forces. However, the Soviets had overextended themselves – and Erich von Manstein seized upon the initiative. The Soviets saw a chaotic retreat on behalf of the German army, but Manstein was instead re-positioning his forces, striking at Kharkov on February 19. Alarmed Soviet forces were quickly encircled, leaving both the southern and northern flank of Kharkov wide open. The II SS Panzer Corps managed to drive a wedge between the Soviet 69th and 40th armies (leading to a double encirclement), while the elite “Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler” division outflanked the Soviet 6th Army. After a few weeks, German forces stormed the city, and Kharkov fell back into German hands on March 15th. By the end of the battle, the Soviets would lose 90,000 men, while the Germans would only lose 11,000. This battle has been referred to as the last German victory in the East – aside from a few strategically meaningless victories during the last few months of World War II, the 3rd Battle of Kharkov can most likely be considered as the last triumph of Nazi Germany.
In April of 1943, Germany started to deal with major problems in occupied Poland – particularly in Warsaw. The Gestapo (Germany’s secret police force) had entered Warsaw on the night of April 19th, with the intention of deporting thousands of Jews to the Treblinka death camp. However, the Jews fought back, using crude homemade weaponry and room to room fighting to hold off the Nazis. In many ways, the fighting in Warsaw mimicked the fighting in Stalingrad, but on a smaller scale. After a month of failed offensives, in early May, it was decided that the ghetto would be burned to the ground, and the Jews inside it would either burn or suffocate to death. Many valuable historical buildings – such as the Great Synagogue of Warsaw – were either burnt down or demolished, and on May 16th, the Warsaw ghetto lay in ruins. Sporadic resistance would continue for the next month – but for now, the horror of Nazi occupation still hung over the Jewish people of Europe.
However, similar horrors in Allied lands cannot be overlooked – most notably, the Bengal Famine. With a large army to feed, and the loss of Burma to Japanese forces, the British began placing more demand on rice from India. But with the combination of crop failure and colonial mismanagement, Bengal would end up starving. Rice prices skyrocketed, and over 2 million Bengalis would eventually starve to death in the ensuing famine. There are a number of reasons why this event is never covered in western history – most obviously, the fact that Churchill is considered by many to be a hero of western civilization, and tarnishing his name in any way would be frowned upon.
In North Africa, disaster loomed for Axis forces. German and Italian troops had been trapped in Tunisia since 1942, and with American and British troops advancing from Algeria, and British troops advancing from the former Italian colony of Libya, there was little chance of breakout. While the Germans had won victories – such as the one at Kasserine Pass in February, these were (at best) tactical victories which did not impact the overall situation in Tunisia. By April, the British navy had begun a blockade of Tunisia – cutting the supply lines to the Axis armies in Tunisia. In contrast to the Axis forces, the allies had thousands of tanks and a huge advantage in manpower, largely thanks to the raw industrial might of the United States. On May 12 of 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered – yielding 250,000 prisoners for the Allies to deal with. Both the Germans and Italians lost huge quantities of manpower for no gain whatsoever, and the Allies now had a huge staging ground in Africa. The political impact of the North African defeat would quickly be felt in Italy – the days of Mussolini leading a unified Italian fascist state would soon be over.
The defeat in North Africa was, nevertheless, not at the forefront of Hitler’s mind. Hitler had no reason to care about North Africa, and still believed that the future of Germany lay in the vast expanses of Soviet territory. The German victory at Kharkov had left a Soviet-held salient on the eastern front, and the German High Command believed that this salient (centered around the city of Kursk) could easily be enveloped by two German armies, leading to both the capture of territory and the potential capture of hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops. This daring plan was known as Operation Citadel, and it was originally supposed to be launched in late April. However, a combination of rain, and Hitler’s wishes to have newer German tanks, such as the “Ferdinand” tank destroyer and “Panther” medium tank delivered to the front, resulted in Operation Citadel only launching on July 5th. In the meantime, the obvious German buildup of forces allowed for the Soviets to build trenches and fortify the entire salient – when Citadel launched, the Soviets were arguably better-prepared then the Germans. The Soviet plan was relatively simple – wear the Germans down as they advanced, and then annihilate the massive concentration of German armor and manpower with overwhelming numerical superiority.
The early morning of July 5th saw a massive German artillery barrage, beginning the Battle of Kursk. In the north, German forces managed to advance a few miles before stalling – the Soviet minefields made offensive operations with tanks extremely difficult. Furthermore, Soviet tanks were well positioned at local villages, with overlapping fields of fire which doomed any German armored assault. In the south, German forces were more successful – the experienced German divisions (several of which fought at Kharkov) managed to break through the first Soviet defensive line. By the evening of July 5th, the Germans had reached the outskirts of the second Soviet defensive line, but were halted by heavy thunderstorms, high temperatures, and minefields. On the morning of July 6th, the Soviets launched a hasty counterattack with hundreds of tanks, which slowed the Germans down, but did not stop the southern pincer from reaching the town of Prokhorovka on July 10. The ensuing battle was one of the largest tank battles in history, though contrary to popular belief, it was not the largest tank battle (that honor likely goes to the Battle of Brody, in the opening days of Barbarossa). Several hundred tanks were involved, with the dustclouds making German long-ranged gunnery effectively useless. While the Germans were able to destroy more Soviet tanks compared to their losses, the battle was a strategic disaster. The southern pincer would no longer be able to advance, and the northern pincer had been halted. On July 13th, Hitler cancelled operation Citadel. Over the next few weeks, the Soviets would beat the Germans back, using a 4 to 1 advantage in manpower to win key victories in the Kursk area. Hundreds of thousands of Red Army-backed partisans cut German communications and harass German supply lines, and by August, the Germans were on the retreat.
But the failing of Citadel was not the only negative development for the Axis. On July 10, 150,000 Allied troops landed in Sicily Sicily was left largely undefended, in large part thanks to British deception. The British took the dead body of a homeless man and dressed him up as an officer, handcuffed it to a briefcase containing false battle plans, and dropped it into the Mediterranean, where the Germans eventually obtained the body and the plans. The plans detailed an elaborate plan involving a feint to Sicily and a main attack in Sardinia and Greece, and thus when Allied troops landed in Sicily, Hitler was sure that this was merely a distraction and concentrated his forces elsewhere. As a result, Sicily fell by August 17, with the Italian army being too weak and under-equipped to resist in the face of heavy American bombing and artillery strikes. The biggest loser of all of this, however, was Benito Mussolini. On July 25th, with the almost-certainly lost war growing more and more unpopular with the Italian people, the Grand Fascist Council arrested Mussolini and handed over power to King Victor Emmanuel III. The news was met with much celebration in Italy, though it was announced that the war would continue. Mussolini would only be imprisoned for around a month and a half, and in September, a team of SS Commandos, under orders issued from Hitler himself, rescued Mussolini.
On September 3rd, a 189,000 man strong American-British force landed in Italy, marking the first allied incursion into “Fortress Europa”. The Italian government had, in secret, negotiated an armistice with the Allies on the same date, though this armistice would not be announced until September 8. Until then, there was moderate fighting – mostly due to the fact that the defensive positions in southern Italy were largely manned by Germans. The Germans had also been preparing for an Italian surrender (the fall of Mussolini made an Italian surrender extremely likely), and they did not want the Allies to gain a foothold near Germany’s southern border via the occupation of Italy. When the Italians surrendered to the Allies on September 8, German forces swiftly occupied much of Italy, storming Rome and forcing their former comrades to surrender. They also occupied Italian-controlled areas in the Balkans. If the Italians attempted to fight back, the Germans brutally murdered them – as seen in the Cephalonia Massacre, where around 5,000 Italian troops were executed by the Germans. After a few weeks, the Germans controlled a puppet state in Northern Italy (led by Mussolini and known as the Italian Social Republic), while Allied forces and the “free Italy” (the Kingdom of Italy, headed by Victor Emmanuel III) controlled southern Italy. By October of 1943, “free Italy” would officially declare war on Germany, and Allied troops would begin their march northwards. Italy’s geography (which made the entire country a choke point for invading armies) allowed for the Germans to build several defensive lines spanning the entire country, which would be difficult for the Allies to breach.
Back in the Eastern Front, the Soviet steamroller was steadily picking up speed in its effort to drive the Germans out of the Soviet Union. On October 2nd, the Soviets recaptured Smolensk after two months of heavy fighting. While German forces were tied up in an ultimately futile attempt to hold Smolensk, the Soviets launched a massive offensive in the Ukraine, involving 2.6 million troops. Instead of opting for a more tactically precise envelopment, the Soviets opted to simply muscle the Germans out of Ukraine, using raw manpower and overwhelming numerical superiority to their advantage. The end goal was to reach the Dnieper River, which bisects modern day Ukraine and is one of the largest rivers in Europe. After a month of ferocious fighting, the Soviets managed to cross the Dnieper, establishing several beachheads on the western bank of the river. By November, Soviet forces managed to retake Kiev, slashing communications between Army Group Center and Army Group South in the process.
1943 would end with the Tehran Conference – a meeting between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. Discussions revolved primarily around post-war plans – mainly the division of Eastern Europe – as well as plans for finishing off the Axis powers. The Allies committed to launching a naval invasion of France in May of 1944 (in reality, this invasion occurred in June), and the Soviets committed to joining the war against Japan at some point in the future. Iran’s independence was also guaranteed, and the idea of the United Nations was proposed. By the beginning of 1944, it was clear that an Allied victory was inevitable. The Germans were being pushed back on all fronts, while the Japanese had not advanced since 1939 in China and were being pushed back at sea. Italy had fallen, and the end of the war was nearing.
In early of January 1944, Allied forces in Italy had reached Monte Cassino, an abbey-turned-fortress which dominated the Allied path to Rome. Extremely heavy fighting ensued, with the Germans mounting an effective defense. A failed American attempt to cross the Gari river resulted in 1300 American casualties, compared to just 64 German deaths. A few days later, on January 24th, an American division managed to cross the Gari, but they were not able to capture the town of Monte Cassino, as the mountainous terrain made it extremely difficult to conduct offensive operations. Simultaneously, around 40,000 American troops landed 55 miles north of Monte Cassino, in Anzio. The plan was simple – breakout at Anzio, outflank the Germans at Monte Cassino and other German defensive lines, and then march into Rome. Reality, however, was not this simple. John P. Lucas, who commanded the force at Anzio, did not mount an offensive operation, and instead opted to dig in and wait. The Germans launched several massive counterattacks, at times nearly succeeding in driving the Americans off the beach, but the American control of the skies prevented total collapse. Lucas would be relieved of his command after a month, but American troops would only break out of Anzio in May.
Back in the east, another German disaster was looming in the Ukraine. Manstein’s troops had spent three years in Russia, and they had barely had time to recover since the bloody battle of Kursk. In contrast, the Soviets were recruiting fresh troops out of reconquered regions, stuffing the Red Army with new recruits who had witnessed the brutality of the German invader firsthand. The Soviets struck on January 24th, combining their vast manpower with the mobility granted by American-built trucks. The Soviets managed to encircle several German divisions, and a desperate struggle began to eradicate the several-hundred thousand trapped German troops. The Germans launched several offensives from the outside, attempting to breakthrough and secure a corridor for a German retreat. Wilhelm Stemmermann, who commanded the German forces within the pocket, attempted a strategy of “shifting the pocket” – moving his forces towards relief forces as to have a better chance of victory. However, this strategy had a significant disadvantage in that it was resource intensive and exhausting. After two attempts, the Germans finally managed to break out, but they lost almost 70,000 men and 6 divisions, along with huge amounts of heavy equipment- losses that the Germans could not afford.
In the Baltic region, the Soviets were also on the verge of success. The siege of Leningrad was lifted on January 27, concluding a nearly 900 day long, hellish ordeal. A large Soviet offensive succeeded in seizing total control of the Moscow-Leningrad railway, and Leningrad was finally reconnected with the rest of the Soviet motherland. With the success at Leningrad, Stalin seeked to break the stalemate in the North and retake the Baltic states by launching the Narva offensive. Army Group North had seen most of her experienced troops moved southwards, and Soviet offensives were able to smash through German lines, driving the Germans back nearly a hundred kilometers in two weeks. However, the Germans spun the Soviet advance to their advantage, conscripting local Estonians to resist Soviet reoccupation. The Estonians fought well, aided by their familiarity with the local terrain, and the Soviet offensive stalled in the middle of February.
On February 15, the Allies would commit a controversial act (though nothing compared to the horrors inflicted by Germany, Japan, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union) by launching a massive bombing raid against the Monte Cassino abbey. It is likely that the only casualties in this raid were the Italian civilians sheltering in the abbey, and the 1500 year old abbey itself. In fact, the Germans likely benefited from the bombing – the rubble made for a tremendous defensive position (a lesson the Germans were taught at Stalingrad). Following the bombardment, British Indian forces attempted to storm the abbey, but failed – even the Gurkhas, who were experienced in mountainous terrain due to their Himalayan homes, were completely blunted. A Maori battalion from New Zealand also participated in the fight and attempted to capture the local railway station, but they were unable to. Monte Cassino, and the path to Rome, were still in German hands. The Allies attempted another offensive on March 15 (after a heavy bombardment), but this attack also failed. Heavy rains resulted in offensives into the town stalling, and the Germans still dominated the high ground on the ruins of the monastery.
Early 1944 would see the Japanese launch several last-ditch efforts in Asia in an attempt to save their empire. On March 7, Japanese forces launched an invasion of India from the recently-captured Burma. While it was extremely unlikely that the Japanese Army would be able to overrun India, the Japanese believed that they could incite an anti-British rebellion in India, which would remove British India from the war and free up Japanese forces to participate in other regions. The Japanese initial goal was the capture of Imphal, a city in Northeast India (and the capital of the state of Manipur). While the Japanese had initial success – surrounding the Indian 17th Division and cutting the Imphal-Kohima road- the offensive quickly bogged down. Furthermore, British forces had adopted a new doctrine in southern Asia – rather than retreat when faced with an overwhelming Japanese attack, they would instead hold out and let the British Air Force provide aerial resupply and support. The Japanese were quickly worn down, facing both diminishing rations and the arrival of monsoon season. At Kohima, the Japanese were forced to retreat due to lack of supplies, and thousands of Japanese troops starved. In July, the Japanese were purged from the outskirts of Imphal after heavy counterattacks.
On April 19, the Japanese would launch Operation Ichi-Go, a thrust deep into Southern China in an attempt to destroy American air bases and finish off the Chinese. The Japanese managed to take Henan province by May, and attacked Changsha on May 27. The battle was the largest Japanese land effort of the entire war, and with superior tactics, the Japanese managed to outflank Changsha’s defenders and take the city in early June, forcing the Chinese to retreat to the city of Hengyang. The battle of Hengyang was nearly a Chinese Stalingrad – the city was besieged for 47 days, inflicting 30,000 Japanese casualties against only 10,000 Chinese casualties. The Chinese, facing large shortages of ammunitions, fought in close-quarters with hand grenades, reducing the entire city to rubble in the process. Eventually, however, the Japanese broke through, with their numerical and technological superiority forcing the Chinese to surrender
Monte Cassino would finally fall in early May. The Allies had managed to build up a force far stronger than anything the Germans had anticipated, and while American forces diverted the majority of German manpower, the abbey itself was captured by Polish troops. As the battle of Monte Cassino raged on, the Americans would finally break out of the Anzio beachhead, as German forces were diverted south in an attempt to avert the collapse of the Italian front. A culmination of these two breakouts resulted in the Allied capture of Rome on June 5th, forcing the Germans to retreat further north and granting a huge morale boost to allied forces.
This morale boost was important, for the Allies would launch Operation Overlord on June 6th. This was to be the largest amphibious assault in history – an initial force of 160,000 British, American, and Canadian troops would cross the English Channel and land in Northern France, finally opening up the “second front”. Overlord had been meticulously planned, and the invasion plan relied heavily on deception – the Allies set up entire armies of inflatable tanks to convince the Germans that the landing would occur in Calais, rather than Normandy. Overlord had already been postponed by a day due to the weather, and any more delays would force a two week delay due to the tides. On the other side of the English Channel, Hitler had his “Atlantic Wall” – a massive series of fortifications stretching from France to Norway to defend against any allied assaults.
On June 6th, 1944 (D-Day), Operation Overlord began. Early in the morning, thousands of American paratroopers descended into occupied France, with the goal of capturing supply points, securing roads, and causing general chaos among the German ranks. Along with the paratroopers came heavy bombing and naval bombardments. A few hours later, 5500 Allied landing craft, minesweepers, and escort vessels crossed the English channel, with the intention of landing at various points on the coastline of Normandy. Allied troops landed on five separate beaches – Utah, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Sword. Utah Beach was rapidly brought under control – the bombings had been extremely effective, and the Americans landed 21,000 troops with only 197 casualties. Juno Beach was the responsibility of the Canadian armed forces, and the Canadians faced difficult sea conditions and a large concentration of German defenses. 90 landing craft (out of 306) were either lost or damaged, but the Juno landings were nevertheless successful- the Canadians were able to secure a foothold quickly, using their numerical advantage and concentrated firepower, and only suffered 340 casualties. Gold Beach was the responsibility of the British, and these landings were also quite successful. 3 out of the 4 main German guns defending the beach were knocked out by naval bombardment, and the majority of British casualties (350 killed) were inflicted by the heavily mined waters. By evening, Allied forces at Gold and Juno Beach had managed to link up.
At Sword Beach, 29,000 British troops landed against disorganized and chaotic German resistance. However, the British thrust towards the town of Caen was halted by the 21st Panzer Division, an experienced and battle-hardened division which had fought in North Africa. Omaha Beach would see the bloodiest and toughest fighting of the day, as 43,000 Americans attempted to land below 150-foot tall cliffs. The initial Allied bombing raid was horrifically inaccurate – due to heavy fog cover and thick clouds, 13,000 Allied bombs would miss their intended targets. Dozens of tanks were unable to make it to shore due to the rough seas, and 90% of the American first wave was killed. However, American naval destroyers began to fiercely bombard the German-held cliffs, temporarily silencing German machine-gunners as American forces scaled the cliffs. By the end of the day, the Americans had won two small footholds, but had lost thousands of men.
The D-Day landings would go down as one of the most successful military operations in history. But only around 150,000 troops had landed, and only a few tiny beachheads in Northern France were under Allied control. This was not enough to take down Germany from the West – the initial force would need to secure ports in order to convoy millions of troops into mainland Europe. The first Allied thrust was towards the vital city of Caen, beginning with Operation Perch on June 7 – a British attempt to encircle the city. But the Germans had recognized the importance of holding Caen, and assigned their best units to the defense of Caen, and the initial British attack failed. Storms over the English channel forced the second attack (Operation Epsom) to be postponed until June 25th. Heavy fighting ensued over the next several weeks, with Anglo-Canadian forces gradually advancing in their attempt to encircle the city. Caen finally fell on August 6th, but virtually the entire city was destroyed, and the Anglo-Canadian force had lost 50,000 troops in the process. While the Germans concentrated their forces at Caen, the Americans launchedOperation Cobra – a westward push in the general direction of Britanny. Operation Cobra was a huge success, with German resistance crumbling within days. By August, Allied forces had broken out of Normandy and now had Paris in their sights.
The Soviets were about to undertake a “D-Day of the East”, with the goal of destroying Army Group Center, recapturing Belarus, and establishing a solid foothold in Poland. This operation would be known as “Operation Bagration“, and it would end up being the largest Allied operation of the war. Bagration was to be implemented via the doctrine of “deep battle” – using overwhelming numerical superiority to smash through enemy lines, drive deep into enemy logistical and command centers, and force the enemy into surrender. The Soviets amassed 1.7 million troops, and on June 22nd, 1944 (exactly 3 years after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa) struck at Army Group Center, opening with a gargantuan artillery barrage along the front.
Prior to the offensive, Soviet partisans had been harassing German logistical lines and communications, causing general chaos among German troops. The effects were clear – within days, disorganized German armies were ripped apart by rapidly advancing Soviet forces. By June 27th, the Soviets encircled 70,000 German troops in the town of Bobryusk. A few days later, the entire German 4th army was encircled – a few thousand men managed to escape, but overall, 130,000 German troops were either killed or captured. On July 3rd, Minsk was recaptured by Soviet forces – a 200 kilometer advance in 12 days. July 13 saw the recapture of Vilnius, as Soviet troops began to drive a wedge between Army Group North and the now-shattered Army Group Center. By late July, Soviet troops had recaptured Belarus in its entirety and were now pushing into Eastern Poland. Operation Bagration was a huge success – German lines had been pushed back hundreds of kilometers, and any threat to critical Soviet cities had been destroyed – the Soviet advance was not halted by German troops, but by the fact that supply lines simply could not keep up with the rate of Soviet advance. The fall of Germany was imminent.
Almost simultaneously, the Americans would dash the final hopes of Japanese victory in the Pacific. The Americans desired to retake the Mariana islands, which would allow for an attempt at retaking Guam – slowly “island hopping” to the Japanese mainland. As the American invasion flotilla steamed towards Saipan, a Japanese task force of three large aircraft carriers (along with several smaller carriers) raced to intercept the American fleet, knowing that every island captured by the Americans brought them one step closer to triumph over the Japanese Empire. The resulting battle was known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, though the battle’s true nature is better reflected by its nickname – “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. On June 19, at around 10:00AM, the Japanese launched 68 planes to strike at US carriers providing aerial support for the invasion. Only 27 planes made it back, and only one target – the USS South Dakota – had been hit, with minimal damage. At 11:07, the Japanese launched 107 planes – and lost 97, while inflicting virtually no damage on the American fleet. The aerial slaughter continued for the rest of the day, and by the end of the day, the Japanese had lost 350 planes, along with hundreds of experienced and irreplaceable pilots. The next day, the Americans attacked the virtually unguarded Japanese carriers, sinking three and damaging several others. If it hadn’t been for the long range of the engagement (80 American planes were forced to ditch in the water as they ran out of fuel) and the fact that many minor hits or near-misses were mistaken for crippling blows, the Americans could have very well done much more damage. However, the battle was still a decisive American victory, and by July 9, Saipan had been taken in a brutal and bloody campaign.
As news of the Soviet push spread, the Polish resistance movement saw an opportunity to win their freedom. Germany was greatly weakened, and it was only a matter of time until Soviet troops barreled through Poland on their way to the German fatherland. However, the Polish resistance was aware of the fact that only four years earlier, Stalin had split Poland with Germany – if Soviet troops occupied Poland, Poland would merely be transferred from German to Soviet control, rather than liberated. The Polish Underground State decided that August of 1944 would be the best time for the Poles to win their freedom – the Soviets were on the outskirts of Warsaw, but had not reached Warsaw, leading the Polish resistance to believe that the Soviets would (at the very least) provide some form of assistance, while abstaining from directly storming the city. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising began, as Polish resistance forces began to occupy large swaths of Warsaw. The Polish resistance outnumbered the German garrison, and it initially appeared as though the uprising would succeed – Soviet forces had just arrived at the west bank of the Vistula river and were in optimal position to provide aid to the Poles. But the Soviets never did help – Stalin wanted to control Poland, and he knew that if the Poles burnt themselves out fighting the Germans, the Soviets could easily swoop in and establish a puppet government. Meanwhile, the Germans sent reinforcements to Warsaw, resulting in brutal street to street fighting. The Germans bombed what they did not control, and by the end of the uprising, most of Warsaw was completely destroyed. The Poles were cut off from the outside world, and starvation and water-shortages ensued – the water mains were stuffed with corpses, making it difficult to move water throughout the city. While the western allies attempted to fly aerial support missions to aid the Poles (over Soviet territory – a significant risk), this was insufficient. After 63 days, the Poles surrendered on October 2nd, 1944.
The Axis would also loose vital allies to the Soviet advance. On August 21, Soviet forces launched a full-scale invasion of Romania, involving 1.25 million troops. German-Romanian resistance was crushed, and on August 23rd, a successful coup occurred in Romania, deposing the previous fascist government and replacing it with a pro-Allied government who promptly declared war on Germany (a few months later, pressure from occupying Soviet armies would result in the installation of a Soviet puppet government). The loss of Romania meant the loss of its oil – a huge loss for Hitler. Several reports indicate the loss of Romania was what convinced Hitler that the war was lost (though other reports say that this realization occurred earlier, and still others say it never happened at all). In September, the Soviets invaded Bulgaria, installing a communist puppet government within a day (which subsequently declared war on Germany). In Greece, as Soviet armies advanced into the Balkans, left-wing partisan forces gradually took control of the entire country by October of 1944 – the German occupation had essentially collapsed due to a number of reasons (many of which are described above in some way). This would leave Hungary as Germany’s last ally in Europe, until the Soviets captured Hungary in December of 1944 (excluding the weak puppet state held by Mussolini in the fringes of Northern Italy).
In the west and south, the Germans began to rapidly lose ground. August 4 saw Florence fall to Allied forces, after months of harsh advances through mountainous and heavily fortified terrain. On August 15, the Allies launched Operation Dragoon and landed hundreds of thousands of troops on the southern coast of France. They also inflicted huge casualties on the Wehrmacht – 159,000 German troops were either killed or captured in the aftermath of Operation Dragoon. On August 25, Paris was finally liberated as the American 3rd Army, aided by the French Resistance, stormed the city. The recapture of Paris was a relatively bloodless affair (only around 5,000 dead) in large thanks to the actions of Dietrich von Choltitz, the commander of the German garrison at Paris who ignored Hitler’s orders to burn down Paris. On September 3rd, Brussels was liberated with minimal resistance. A few days later, the port of Antwerp was captured – an important and pristine deep water port which further secured Allied supply lines. Luxembourg was liberated soon thereafter. September 11 was a critical day – the first Allied troops (a small American patrol) crossed into Germany. While this “invasion” was strategically insignificant, it is nevertheless impressive to consider that less than three years prior, Hitler appeared to be absolutely unstoppable – and now, he faced enemy troops on his territory. On October 21st, Aachen fell to advancing American forces after heavy fighting – the first major German city captured by the Allies. The end of the 3rd Reich was near.
In the Pacific, the American advance now had the Philippines in sight. 100,000 American troops landed on the island of Leyte on October 20th – General Douglas MacArthur had made good on his promise to return to the Philippines. But the fighting was extraordinarily tough – it would take 67 days and 50-80,000 dead Japanese soldiers for Leyte to finally be captured. This is a common theme in the Pacific war- the Japanese utterly refused to surrender and had an extremely militaristic society, and thus the Japanese had a ridiculously high mortality rate in battle (The Americans, comparatively, lost around 3500 men). While the land battle raged on, the largest naval battle in history took place at Leyte Gulf, as the Japanese launched a last ditch effort to divert the American fleet and halt the invasion. The disparity in naval forces was tremendous – the American fleet had 300 ships (including 16 aircraft carriers), whereas the Japanese had 67 ships (4 aircraft carriers) – a true testimony to the might of American military industry. The battle of Leyte Gulf itself is an incredibly large and complicated battle comprising four separate, smaller engagements, and thus I can only hope to provide a summary of this epic clash. On the first day, American planes attacked the IJN Mushashi, the largest battleship ever built (along with her sister ship, the Yamato), hitting the hulking giant of the seas with 19 torpedos and 17 bombs, as the Japanese could no longer provide air cover over their surface fleet. Unsurprisingly, the Mushashi sank – dragging around 1400 sailors to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with her. The next day (October 25, 1944) saw the last instance of battleship vs battleship combat in history, at the Surigao Strait – several Japanese ships were sunk due to superior American gunnery. A day afterwards, the remaining Japanese carriers were sunk. The Japanese Navy had, as an actual fighting force, been destroyed.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf would also see the first use of a new tactic employed by the Japanese – the kamikaze. With shortages of both fuel and experienced pilots, the Japanese decided that a more effective use of their planes would be to load them with bombs, and have the planes fly suicide missions into ships, literally crashing their planes into American vessels in order to sink them. Around 19% of Kamikaze attacks ended in a successful hit, and over 7000 American sailors would eventually die as a result of Kamikaze attacks (3800 Kamikaze pilots would also die).
In China, the Japanese Army was having success. In November, the Japanese captured the city of Guilin, in the far Southeastern portion of China. The Japanese Empire in Asia now stretched from Russia to Vietnam, and included virtually the entire East Asian coast. However, this Empire was not to last. The huge losses suffered while undertaking operation Ichi-Go made the Japanese victory a pyrrhic victory. The principle effect of operation Ichi-Go, when viewed over a longer time frame, was the weakening of the Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek. This may have paved the way for a Chinese Communist victory in 1949, which changed the fate of the 20th (and 21st century).
As the situation rapidly collapsed for the Axis, Hitler launched the last major offensive of the war on December 16, 1944. The German plan (code-named “Watch on the Rhine”) was an attempt to essentially repeat what the Germans had done in 1940 – rush through the Ardennes, capture the supply port of Antwerp and encircle several Allied armies, and force the Western powers to sue for peace, allowing Germany to concentrate on the advancing Soviet forces. Somehow, the Germans had managed to scrape together around 410,000 men, and caught the Allies completely by surprise, beginning the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans rapidly advanced, capturing the town of St. Vith by using local numerical superiority. However, initial American resistance, while limited in number, was tenacious. When the German army besieged the town of Bastogne and demanded the American defenders surrender, Anthony McAuliffe, who was commanding the defenders of Bastogne, replied with one word – “NUTS!”. After a week, German fuel shortages had all but halted the German advance, and General Patton had managed to swing his army almost 90 degrees to the North in an attempt to cut off the Germans. By January 23rd, 1945, most of the German units had retreated back to their starting positions (in order to avoid being encircled), but had been forced to abandon their heavy armor. Germany’s last attempted blow had resulted in utter failure.
Early January was marked by the Red Army advancing even deeper into German-occupied Poland and entering German soil. On January 13th, 1.5 million Soviet troops attacked East Prussia, rapidly overrunning German units and laying siege to the city of Konigsberg (which would fall in late April). It was here that the first trickle of Soviet vengeance against the Germans was unleashed – entire villages saw every man shot and every women raped. The Soviets would continue to rape, plunder, and loot their way across Germany for the rest of the war, in a perverted manifestation of what they considered to be “justice” after four years of brutal warfare against the Germans. The Soviets would alsoenter Warsaw on January 18th – the city at this point was a shell of its former self (only 153,000 people remained of a pre-war population of 1.5 million), but the capture of the city would pave the way for a Soviet-backed puppet government to be installed in Poland. On January 27th, Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz death camp, where 1.1 million people (mostly Jews and Roma) had died. The Soviets arrived at a truly horrific site – earlier, the Germans had ordered the killings of nearly everyone in Polish death camps, mostly via “death marches”. As both the Soviets and Western Allies pushed deeper into German-occupied territory, more of these horrific sites would be discovered.
On February 4th, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met in Yalta to further discuss postwar plans. Notably, the Yalta meeting would be the last meeting of the “Big Three”, as Roosevelt would die on April 12 due to a cerebral hemorrhage, and be succeeded by his Vice President, Harry Truman. The three leaders agreed to divide Germany up between the four main Allied states in Europe (France, America, Britain and the USSR) – and these zones of occupation would later manifest into East and West Germany. Stalin also agreed to hold democratic elections in Poland and the rest of occupied Eastern Europe – though this did not happen. While there were elections, the results were heavily altered, anti-communists were murdered, and Red Army soldiers intimidated voters outside of election booths. By the end of the war, all of Eastern Europe (with the exceptions of Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey) would be proxy states of the Soviet Union, subjected to the whims of Moscow.
February also saw the bombing of Dresden by American and British forces. This was one of the most controversial acts of the war – Dresden was a major cultural center and only had a moderate amount of industry. The bombings killed anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 people as around 1400 allied bombers reigned virtually uncontested over the German skies (only 7 planes were shot down). Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the Americans were also drawing closer and closer to the Japanese mainland. On February 19, following 10 days of heavy bombardment, 110,000 US Marines landed on Iwo Jima, which was intended to be used as a staging area for the expected invasion of Japan. The initial landings were uncontested – instead of immediately firing on the Americans, the Japanese waited for the beaches to be filled with American troops, and then proceeded to mow them down with machine guns and artillery. While the Americans eventually managed to break out of the beaches, the fighting was incredibly difficult – the Japanese concealed themselves in caves and launched suicidal banzai charges in the middle of the night, forcing the Marines to use flamethrowers in order to clear out cave complexes. The Americans would eventually win due to superior manpower and aerial support, as well as the sheer tenacity and bravery of the US Marines. On February 23rd, the Americans raised their flag over Mt. Suribachi (the highest point on Iwo Jima) and had the island mostly cleared out by the end of March.
The most destructive bombing of the war was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki – instead, it was the firebombing of Tokyo on March 10th. 300 American B-29 bombers dropped 1700 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, and the result was devastating. Japanese houses were constructed primarily of wood and paper, and strong winds helped to further spread the fire. 100,000 Japanese civilians would be dead within hours, and much of Tokyo would be annihilated. In Germany, American troops managed to secure a bridge at Remagen on March 17, giving them a foothold across the Rhine River. The last geographical obstruction to the Allied advance in Germany had been breached. Meanwhile, Soviet forces were now on the outskirts of Berlin, and were nearing the end of their epic voyage from the outskirts of Moscow.
America’s Pacific push would continue in April, with the last battle of the Pacific War occurring on April 1st at Okinawa. Around 150,000 Japanese troops defended this island, which was the gateway to the Japanese mainland. The Japanese had also launched over 1000 kamikaze attacks against the American invasion flotilla – most ending in failure, but some seriously damaging American carriers and sinking destroyers. While the initial American landings were nearly effortless, the Japanese (as they did in Iwo Jima) had dug themselves in to caves and forests, and forced the Americans to pay dearly for every inch gained. The Japanese even tried to use their last remaining naval asset (the super-battleship Yamato) as a mobile fortress by intentionally beaching it and using its massive guns to attack American forces – this plan didn’t work, as the Yamato was instead sunk by 300 American planes long before it could reach the Okinawa beaches. As the Americans pressed further into Okinawa, a truly horrible development took place – the civilians on Okinawa, who were told that an American occupation would result in mass rape and plunder, began to systematically commit suicide. They jumped off of cliffs in the thousands, and were handed hand-grenades by their supposed “defenders” and encouraged to blow themselves up. When Okinawa fell on June 22, around 150,000 civilians were reported either dead or missing.
The demise of the 3rd Reich also occurred in April. On April 13, the Soviets captured Vienna after tenacious fighting – the Soviets had a 4 to 1 numerical advantage over the Germans and were able to simply overwhelm their enemy, cutting off most of the bridges across the Danube river and forcing German units to surrender. April 16 saw the beginning of the Soviet assault on Berlin, with a truly gargantuan artillery bombardment and a million-man Soviet charge. The Soviets broke through German defensive lines 3 days later, and began an attempt to encircle the city. Hitler spent his birthday on April 20th deep within his bunker, hearing nothing but the nonstop bombardment of Soviet artillery on the city – although he emerged outside once to inspect teenage “Hitler Youth” volunteers who would join the fight against the Soviets. At this point, Hitler had lost all sense of reality, and began ordering nonexistent “armies” (which were in reality a few scattered and disorganized divisions) to launch counteroffensives against the Soviet onslaught. On April 25, Soviet and American forces would meet, for the first time, at the Elbe river, slicing Germany in half. On the same day, the encirclement of Berlin was complete, and Soviet forces began to storm the city. German volunteers of virtually every age were ordered to pick up guns and join the defense, but could not stand up to the might of the Red Army. As the Soviets advanced deeper into Berlin, rape and plunder followed – the Soviets dumped much-needed food into gutters, raped countless German women and slaughtered German civilians. Mussolini would die on April 28 – as he attempted to flee Italy for Germany, he was shot by Italian partisans and hung from a gas station. On April 29, Soviet forces raised the Soviet banner over the Reichstag, which had great symbolic significance as it was the house of the German government until 1933. The next day, Hitler, not wanting to suffer the same fate as Mussolini (or worse – be paraded through Moscow) shot himself in his bunker. One of the most monstrous humans to ever live, and the man who had led Germany’s conquest of Europe and subsequent collapse, was dead. 8 days later, Germany would surrender. The Third Reich – which had menaced Europe for six years, had murdered 11 million innocents in death camps, instigated a war which would kill 65 million people – had fallen. May 8 was proclaimed “V-E (Victory in Europe) Day”, and millions of people celebrated worldwide. In Moscow, there was a shortage of Vodka due to the celebrations. Tragically, Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to see the fruits of his work, and Harry Truman dedicated the victory to FDR.
Nevertheless, Japan still loomed in the Pacific. The Americans, keeping true to the demand of “unconditional surrender” drew up plans for Operation Downfall – the invasion of mainland Japan. The Americans (along with the British) would probably be able to amass a few million troops, the Soviets would probably be able to chip in a few million more. The Japanese, on the other hand, could potentially have tens of millions of soldiers – the Japanese people were fanatically loyal to Hirohito and would likely fight to the death in the defense of their Emperor. Undoubtedly, the invasion of Japan would be on par (in terms of casualties) with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and would likely result in Japan ceasing to exist as a nation. But all of this planning changed on July 16, 1945, when the United States tested the first atomic bomb. Detonating with a yield of 22 kilotons of TNT, the bomb lit up the desert of New Mexico and fundamentally altered American strategic calculus. The use of the atomic bomb against Japan could psychologically crush the Japanese – and the atom bomb would also send a signal to the Soviet Union, who would almost certainly be a future enemy of the United States due to the reality of great power politics.
On August 6th, a single US B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In an instant, several square miles of city were destroyed, and 80,000 people were killed – either being vaporized by the nuclear fireball, crushed by the blast wave, burning in the nuclear firestorm, or dying of radiation poisoning. While the Japanese were shocked, they did not surrender – Japanese leadership believed that the Americans only had one or two atomic bombs. On August 8th, the Soviet Union violated their neutrality pact with the Japanese and declared war on Japan, launching a massive invasion of Manchuria. A day afterwards, the US dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 50,000 people and creating the impression that they had a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Heavy infighting followed within the Japanese war cabinet – Hirohito faced an attempted coup when he attempted to order an acceptance of proposed surrender terms. Finally, on August 15th, Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender – stating that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” (most likely one of the greatest understatements in all of history) and claiming that if Japan continued to fight, it would “lead to the total extinction of human civilization”. Japan formally surrendered on September 2nd – the war was over, and the “Empire of the Rising Sun” – which once controlled half of the Pacific Ocean and spanned from Indonesia to Beijing – had been defeated.
Over the next several years, war trials and tribunals would follow. 12 senior Nazi leaders were sentenced to death at the Nuremburg trials, and several more were sentenced to life imprisonment. Six Japanese leaders were sentenced to death in the Tokyo Trials – though Hirohito, notably, was not put on trial, instead being allowed to keep his ceremonial title of Emperor. Both Japan and West Germany, as well as Italy, were developed into strong, democratic, capitalist nations with American guidance. East Germany, meanwhile, fell under the Soviet thumb, and was an economic and political hell for the next 44 years under Soviet rule.
The world, once united against the Nazis, Japanese, and Italians, was once more divided. An “Iron Curtain” fell over Europe, signifying the divide between the Soviet puppet states of the East and the democracies of the West. Over the next four decades, the Soviets and Americans would wage proxy wars against each other, in an attempt to assert ideological dominance. Mao Zedong would lead a communist victory in China, while the capitalists would win in Greece, and more wars would follow across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In 1949, the Soviets would test their first atomic bomb, making war unthinkable – global nuclear warfare would result in defeat for all and victory for none. European colonial empires, which had been intact for centuries, disintegrated under the strain of having fought two world wars. India broke away from the British Empire in 1947, and a wave of independence movements swept over Africa in the 1960s. A new world order had been established – one where two giants, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – were locked in a “cold war”.
World War II was arguably the most horrific event in all of history. It tore down an old world order, and replaced it with a fundamentally new one. It goes without saying that without World War II, the world as we know it today would be unrecognizable. World War II resulted in the death of 65 million people – 26 million Russians, 15 million Chinese (whose sacrifice in tying down the majority of the Japanese army often goes without recognition), 7 million Germans, and millions of other people from a myriad of nations. World War II resulted in the destruction of several nations and the birth of others. There are only a handful of events, throughout all of world history, that have made as great of a mark on Earth as World War II.
It is our solemn duty, not as Americans or Indians or Chinese or Europeans, but as humans, to ensure that a Third World War does not break out. It is our duty to ensure that another Holocaust does not occur. It is our duty to ensure that no Hitler or Mussolini can rise to power, and it is our duty to ensure that when a threat to global stability is detected, that threat is swiftly wiped out.