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World War II

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World War II was the most extensive and costly armed conflict in the history of the world, involving the great majority of the world's nations, being fought simultaneously in several major theaters, and costing approximately 50 million lives. The war was fought chiefly between an alliance of the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Britain (known as the Allies), and the Axis Powers, an alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan. Most of the fighting occurred in the European theater in and around Europe, and in the Asian theater in the Pacific and East Asia.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Preliminaries
3 European Theater
4 Asian Theater
5 African and Middle Eastern Theater
6 Historical significance
7 Military engagements
8 Defensive lines
9 Political and Social Aspects of the War
10 Production and logistics
11 Related articles
12 Lists
13 External links
14 References


The war in Europe began on September 1st, 1939, when German troops invaded Poland. However, Japan had invaded China in 1937, and this is sometimes considered to be the real start of the world war.

The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Germany on May 8 1945, but continued in Asia and the Pacific until September 2, 1945, when Japan surrendered.

The war caused more civilian casualties than any war in history, partly due to the use of mass aerial bombings of cities (a policy initiated by the German Luftwaffe, but later used even more extensively by the Allies), and partly due to Adolf Hitler's determination to exterminate the Jews of Europe and reduce other European peoples (particularly the Russians and Poles) to serfdom. There were also massacres of millions of Chinese and Korean nationals by Japan. In total, World War II produced about 50 million deaths (about 2% of the population of the world). (For details, see the list of World War II casualties by country.)


See: Preceding events of the European Theater of World War II

Resentment of the victorious powers' treatment of the Weimar Republic in the aftermath of World War I, and economic difficulties caused by war reparations and the Great Depression, allowed Adolf Hitler's extreme nationalist NSDAP movement to come to power in Germany. Due to the fragile political situation, Hitler could assume emergency power and virtually total control of the country. Defying post-World War I treaties he redeveloped the German military by means of the democratic constitution that then was put aside. He remilitarized the border zone next to France, enforced the re-unification with Austria, and with Franco-British approval he annexed parts of Czechoslovakia.

In 1922 Benito Mussolini and the Fascist party had risen to power in Italy. Mussolini's Italian fascists shared some ideological goals with the German National socialists, and although Mussolini distrusted Hitler, the two countries formed an agreement that became known as the "Axis" in 1936.

Mussolini with Hitler.

The Japanese Empire invaded China in September of 1931, using staged railroad sabotage near Mukden (see the Mukden Incident) as a pretext for the invasion of Manchuria. Though the Japanese government opposed the action, the army was able to act independently of the government and installed a quisling government, creating a separate state named Manchukuo.

In 1939, Hitler laid claim to parts of Poland and concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Soviet Union in response to Britain's and France's supportive defense alliance with Poland, of March 1939. The German Wehrmacht then invaded Poland on September 1, and on 3rd September, 1939, Britain and France declared war on the Germany. Within weeks also the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland, and hostilities ended before French or British troops were prepared for attack.

European Theater

See: European Theater of World War II
and The end of World War II in Europe

The period from the conclusion of the invasion of Poland in October 1939, till the German invasion of Benelux and France in May 1940, became known as the Phoney War. The German and Soviet forces were moved from the attack on Poland. The Red Army concentrated on the Baltic Countries and on Finland, where the Winter War came in focus of the world's interest in absence of other hostilities. The Wehrmacht moved to the west, and invaded meanwhile Denmark and Norway. France mobilized and manned its heavy defended border against the Rhine; and the British sent a large expeditionary force to France. Apart from a brief attack by the French across the Rhine there were little hostilities as both sides built up their forces.

In May of 1940 German forces attacked the Low Countries and then France. Their Blitzkrieg tactics succeeded in defeating the French and British armies in France. The British army evacuated from Dunkirk leaving their heavy equipment behind, and the French government made a peace, which left the Germans in control of the North and the Vichy government in charge of the South.

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

In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, with whom they had a non-aggression pact, in Operation Barbarossa. The Russians were caught largely by surprise and the Wehrmacht initially conquered vast areas of territory, and captured hundreds of thousands of troops. The Soviets withdrew, and managed to move most of their heavy industry away from the front line and re-establish it in more remote areas. Tenacious, sacrificial defense prevented the Germans from capturing Moscow (Hero City) by the time winter set in (see Battle of Moscow). Hitler, expecting the campaign to be over in a few months, had not equipped their armies for winter fighting.

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

In spring the German army made further attacks, but appeared to be unable to choose between a direct attack on Moscow and the capture of the Caucasian oilfields. Moscow was again spared, and at the end of 1942 the Soviets succeeded in smashing the Axis' front lines in the south, and surrounding the German 6th Army in the Battle of Stalingrad (Hero City). In February 1943 the paltry remnant of the 300,000 man army surrendered. In the spring the Wehrmacht was able to restore the front line and make a successful riposte in the Second Battle of Kharkov, but their offensive at the massive Battle of Kursk (July 1943) was so unsuccessful that the Red Army were able to counterattack and regain the ground previously lost. From that time forward the Soviet Union had the initiative in the East.

The German disaster at Stalingrad was promptly followed by a disaster of similar scale in Tunisia, resulting in the loss of the last Axis foothold in North Africa and the capture of a quarter of a million German and Italian POWs (May 1943). Thereafter the Allies used North Africa as a springboard for the invasion of Sicily (July 1943) and mainland Italy (September 1943), which Winston Churchill described as "the soft underbelly of Europe". Italy surrendered, but German troops moved to disarm the Italians and set about defending the country on their own. They established a series of tough defensive lines in mountainous country that was ideally suited to defense, and progress by the Allies was slow.

The Allies invaded Normandy in Operation Overlord in June 1944 and liberated most of France and the Low Countries by the end of the year. After a desperate counteroffensive by the German army in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the Allies entered Germany in 1945. By now the Soviets had reached the Eastern borders of the German Reich, and her fate was sealed. Following Hitler's suicide as the Russians entered Berlin, The German armed forces surrendered unconditionally on 7 May 1945.

Asian Theater

Main Article: Asian theater of World War II

The Japanese had already invaded China before World War II started in Europe. With the United States and other countries cutting exports to Japan, Japan decided to bomb Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 without warning or declaration of war. Severe damage was done to the American Pacific Fleet, although the aircraft carriers escaped as they were at sea. Japanese forces simultaneously invaded the British possessions of Malaya and Borneo and the American occupied Philippines, with the intention of seizing the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies. The British island fortress of Singapore was captured in what Churchill considered one of the most humiliating British defeats of all time.

In May 1942 a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, which had it succeeded would have put them within striking range of Australia, was thwarted by US naval forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea, becoming both the first successful opposition to Japanese plans and the first naval battle fought mainly between aircraft carriers. A month later the US Navy again prevented the invasion of Midway island, this time destroying four Japanese carriers, which Japanese industry could not replace, and putting the Japanese on the defensive.

The Allied leaders had agreed even prior to the American entry to the war that priority should be given to the defeat of Germany. Nonetheless US and other forces, including Australian, began in mid 1942 to retake the territories captured, beginning with, against the bitter and determined defense of Japanese troops, Guadalcanal. The island was assaulted by sea by the United States Marines, while US Army forces under General Douglas MacArthur strove to retake the occupied parts of New Guinea. The Solomon Islands were retaken in 1943, New Britain and New Ireland in 1944. The Philippines were attacked in late 1944 following the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

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

The Nationalist Kuomintang Army under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Chinese Army under Mao Zedong managed to put aside their differences and in opposition to the Japanese in the occupied areas of China, but never cooperated.

Capture by the Allies of islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa close to Japan brought the homeland within range of naval and air attacks, and in early 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, attacking her possessions in Manchuria in August. After Tokyo was firebombed and nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered.

African and Middle Eastern Theater

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

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

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

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

Historical significance

In contrast to World War I, the Western victors in the Second World War did not demand compensation from the defeated nations. On the contrary, a plan created by U. S. Secretary of State George Marshall, the "Economic Recovery Program", better known as the Marshall Plan, called for the U.S. Congress to allocate billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Europe.

Since the League of Nations had obviously failed to prevent the war, a new international order was constructed. In 1945 the United Nations was founded.

The portion of Europe occupied or dominated by the Soviet Union did not benefit from the Marshall Plan. In the Paris Peace Treaty, the Soviet Union's enemies Hungary, Finland and Romania were required to pay war reparations of $300,000,000 each (in 1938 dollars) to USSR and her satellites. Italy was required to pay $360,000,000, shared chiefly between Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

In the areas occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the war, puppet Communist regimes were installed, over the objections of the other Allies and the governments in exile. Germany was partitioned into four zones of occupation, with the American, British and French zones grouped as West Germany and the Soviet zone becoming a Communist Soviet satellite state, called East Germany. Austria was once again separated from Germany and it, too, was divided into four zones of occupation, but the Soviet zone was eventually submerged into a re-united state of Austria. In Churchill's words, "an Iron Curtain has descended across Europe". In due course this would lead to a commitment from America to help protect Western Europe, the formation of NATO and the Cold War.

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

The massive research and development involved in the Manhattan Project in order to quickly achieve a working nuclear weapon design greatly impacted the scientific community, among other things creating a network of national laboratories in the United States.

In the military sphere, World War II marked the coming of age of airpower, mostly at the expense of warships. While the pendulum continues to swing in this never-ending competition, air powers are now a full partner in any military action.

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

After the war, many high-ranking Germans were prosecuted for war crimes, as well as the mass murder of the Holocaust committed mainly on the area of General Government, in the Nuremberg trials. Similarly Japanese leaders were prosecuted in the Tokyo War Crime Trial. In other countries, notably in Finland, the Allies demanded the political leadership to be prosecuted in "war-responsibility trials" - i.e. not for crimes of war.

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

Military engagements



Naval engagements

Major bombing campaigns

See also Strategic bombing survey for the overall impact of the bombing.

Defensive lines

Political and Social Aspects of the War

Production and logistics

The Axis lost, at least partly because the Allies, after the USA's and the Soviet Union's entrance into the war, had greater productive resources, and were able to turn these resources into greater numbers of soldiers and weapons than the Axis.

Related articles


External links