World War II

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World War II (WWII or WW2), also known as the Second World War, was a global war that was underway by 1939 and ended in 1945. It involved the vast majority of the world’s nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million people serving in military units. In a state of “total war”, the major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by mass deaths of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it resulted in 50 million to over 73 million fatalities. These deaths make World War II by far the deadliest conflict in human history.[1]

The Empire of Japan aimed to dominate East Asia and was already at war with the Republic of China in 1937,[2] but the world war is generally said to have begun on 1 September, 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany and subsequent declarations of war on Germany by France and Britain. From late 1939 to early 1941, in a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany formed the Axis alliance with Italy, conquering or subduing much of continental Europe. Following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned and annexed territories between themselves of their European neighbours, including Poland. The United Kingdom and the other members of the British Commonwealth were the only major Allied forces continuing the fight against the Axis, with battles taking place in North Africa as well as the long-running Battle of the Atlantic. In June 1941, the European Axis launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, giving a start to the largest land theatre of war in history, which tied down the major part of the Axis’ military forces for the rest of the war. In December 1941, Japan joined the Axis, attacked the United States and European territories in the Pacific Ocean, and quickly conquered much of the Western Pacific.

The Axis advance was stopped in 1942, after Japan lost a series of naval battles and European Axis troops were defeated in North Africa and, decisively, at Stalingrad. In 1943, with a series of German defeats in Eastern Europe, the Allied invasion of Italy, and American victories in the Pacific, the Axis lost the initiative and undertook strategic retreat on all fronts. In 1944, the Western Allies invaded France, while the Soviet Union regained all of its territorial losses and invaded Germany and its allies. During 1944 and 1945 the United States defeated the Japanese Navy and captured key Western Pacific islands.

The war in Europe ended with the capture of Berlin by Soviet and Polish troops and the subsequent German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. Following the Potsdam Declaration by the Allies on 26 July 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on 6 August, and Nagasaki on 9 August. With an invasion of the Japanese archipelago imminent, and the Soviet Union having declared war on Japan by invading Manchuria, Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, ending the war in Asia and cementing the total victory of the Allies over the Axis.

World War II altered the political alignment and social structure of the world. The United Nations (UN) was established to foster international cooperation and prevent future conflicts. The great powers that were the victors of the war—the United States, the Soviet Union, China, the United Kingdom, and France—became the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.[3] The Soviet Union and the United States emerged as rival superpowers, setting the stage for the Cold War, which lasted for the next 46 years. Meanwhile, the influence of European great powers started to decline, while the decolonisation of Asia and Africa began. Most countries whose industries had been damaged moved towards economic recovery. Political integration, especially in Europe, emerged as an effort to stabilise postwar relations and fight more effectively in the Cold War.

War breaks out in Europe (1939-40)


German Nazi officers parading in the deserted Foch avenue, Paris, France (1940). Screenhot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.

On 1 September 1939, Germany and Slovakia (which was a German client state at the time) attacked Poland.[47] On 3 September France and Britain, followed by the fully independent Dominions [48] of the British Commonwealth,[49] – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – declared war on Germany, but provided little support to Poland other than a small French attack into the Saarland.[50] Britain and France also began a naval blockade of Germany on 3 September which aimed to damage the country’s economy and war effort.[51][52]

On 17 September, after signing a cease-fire with Japan, the Soviets also invaded Poland.[53] Poland’s territory was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, with Lithuania and Slovakia also receiving small shares. The Poles did not surrender; they established a Polish Underground State and an underground Home Army, and continued to fight with the Allies on all fronts outside Poland.[54]

About 100,000 Polish military personnel were evacuated to Romania and the Baltic countries; many of these soldiers later fought against the Germans in other theatres of the war.[55] Poland’s Enigma codebreakers were also evacuated to France.[56] During this time, Japan launched its first attack against Changsha, a strategically important Chinese city, but was repulsed by late September.[57]

Following the invasion of Poland and a German-Soviet treaty governing Lithuania, the Soviet Union forced the Baltic countries to allow it to station Soviet troops in their countries under pacts of “mutual assistance.”[58][59][60] Finland rejected territorial demands and was invaded by the Soviet Union in November 1939.[61] The resulting conflict ended in March 1940 with Finnish concessions.[62] France and the United Kingdom, treating the Soviet attack on Finland as tantamount to entering the war on the side of the Germans, responded to the Soviet invasion by supporting the USSR’s expulsion from the League of Nations.[60]

In Western Europe, British troops deployed to the Continent, but in a phase nicknamed the Phoney War by the British and “Sitzkrieg” (sitting war) by the Germans, neither side launched major operations against the other until April 1940.[63] The Soviet Union and Germany entered a trade pact in February 1940, pursuant to which the Soviets received German military and industrial equipment in exchange for supplying raw materials to Germany to help circumvent the Allied blockade.[64]

In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway to secure shipments of iron ore from Sweden, which the Allies were about to disrupt.[65] Denmark immediately capitulated, and despite Allied support, Norway was conquered within two months.[66] In May 1940 Britain invaded Iceland to preempt a possible German invasion of the island.[67] British discontent over the Norwegian campaign led to the replacement of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill on 10 May 1940.[68]

War becomes global (1941-42)


Surrendering troops of Suffolk Regiment held at gunpoint by Japanese infantry. All details of the ground on this photograph (including shadows) seem to be removed.

On 22 June 1941, Germany, along with other European Axis members and Finland, invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The primary targets of this surprise offensive[113] were the Baltic region, Moscow and Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of ending the 1941 campaign near the Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan line, connecting the Caspian and White Seas. Hitler’s objectives were to eliminate the Soviet Union as a military power, exterminate Communism, generate Lebensraum (“living space”)[114] by dispossessing the native population[115] and guarantee access to the strategic resources needed to defeat Germany’s remainin dispossessing the native population[115] and guarantee access to the strategic resourg rivals.[116]

Although the Red Army was preparing for strategic counter-offensives before the war,[117] Barbarossa forced the Soviet supreme command to adopt a strategic defence. During the summer, the Axis made significant gains into Soviet territory, inflicting immense losses in both personnel and materiel. By the middle of August, however, the German Army High Command decided to suspend the offensive of a considerably depleted Army Group Centre, and to divert the 2nd Panzer Group to reinforce troops advancing towards central Ukraine and Leningrad.[118] The Kiev offensive was overwhelmingly successful, resulting in encirclement and elimination of four Soviet armies, and made further advance into Crimea and industrially developed Eastern Ukraine (the First Battle of Kharkov) possible.[119]

The diversion of three quarters of the Axis troops and the majority of their air forces from France and the central Mediterranean to the Eastern Front[120] prompted Britain to reconsider its grand strategy.[121] In July, the UK and the Soviet Union formed a military alliance against Germany[122] The British and Soviets invaded Iran to secure the Persian Corridor and Iran’s oil fields.[123] In August, the United Kingdom and the United States jointly issued the Atlantic Charter.[124]

By October, when Axis operational objectives in Ukraine and the Baltic region were achieved, with only the sieges of Leningrad[125] and Sevastopol continuing,[126] a major offensive against Moscow had been renewed. After two months of fierce battles, the German army almost reached the outer suburbs of Moscow, where the exhausted troops[127] were forced to suspend their offensive.[128] Large territorial gains were made by Axis forces, but their campaign had failed to achieve its main objectives: two key cities remained in Soviet hands, the Soviet capability to resist was not broken, and the Soviet Union retained a considerable part of its military potential. The blitzkrieg phase of the war in Europe had ended.[129]

By early December, freshly mobilised reserves[130] allowed the Soviets to achieve numerical parity with Axis troops.[131] This, as well as intelligence data that established a minimal number of Soviet troops in the East sufficient to prevent any attack by the Japanese Kwantung Army,[132] allowed the Soviets to begin a massive counter-offensive that started on 5 December along a 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) front and pushed German troops 100–250 kilometres (62–160 mi) west.[133]

German successes in Europe encouraged Japan to increase pressure on European governments in south-east Asia. The Dutch government agreed to provide Japan oil supplies from the Dutch East Indies, while refusing to hand over political control of the colonies. Vichy France, by contrast, agreed to a Japanese occupation of French Indochina.[134] In July 1941, the United States, United Kingdom and other Western governments reacted to the seizure of Indochina with a freeze on Japanese assets, while the United States (which supplied 80 percent of Japan’s oil[135]) responded by placing a complete oil embargo.[136] That meant Japan was essentially forced to choose between abandoning its ambitions in Asia and the prosecution of the war against China, or seizing the natural resources it needed by force; the Japanese military did not consider the former an option, and many officers considered the oil embargo an unspoken declaration of war.[137]

Japan planned to rapidly seize European colonies in Asia to create a large defensive perimeter stretching into the Central Pacific; the Japanese would then be free to exploit the resources of Southeast Asia while exhausting the over-stretched Allies by fighting a defensive war.[138] To prevent American intervention while securing the perimeter it was further planned to neutralise the United States Pacific Fleet from the outset.[139] On 7 December (8 December in Asian time zones), 1941, Japan attacked British and American holdings with near-simultaneous offensives against Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific.[140] These included an attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, landings in Thailand and Malaya[140] and the battle of Hong Kong.

These attacks led the U.S., Britain, China, Australia and several other states to formally declare war on Japan, whereas the Soviet Union, being heavily involved in large-scale hostilities with European Axis countries, preferred to maintain a neutrality agreement with Japan.[141][142] Germany and the Axis states responded by declaring war on the United States. In January, the United States, Britain, Soviet Union, China, and 22 smaller or exiled governments issued the Declaration by United Nations, thereby affirming the Atlantic Charter,[143] and taking an obligation not to sign separate peace with the Axis powers. From 1941, Stalin persistently asked Churchill, and then Roosevelt, to open a ‘second front’ in France.[144] The Eastern front became the major theatre of war in Europe and the many millions of Soviet casualties dwarfed the few hundred thousand of the Western Allies; Churchill and Roosevelt said they needed more preparation time, leading to claims they stalled to save Western lives at the expense of Soviet lives.[145]

Meanwhile, by the end of April 1942, Japan and its ally Thailand had almost fully conquered Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore,[146] and Rabaul, inflicting severe losses on Allied troops and taking a large number of prisoners. Despite stubborn resistance in Corregidor, the Philippines was eventually captured in May 1942, forcing the government of the Philippine Commonwealth into exile.[147] Japanese forces also achieved naval victories in the South China Sea, Java Sea and Indian Ocean,[148] and bombed the Allied naval base at Darwin, Australia. The only real Allied success against Japan was a Chinese victory at Changsha in early January 1942.[149] These easy victories over unprepared opponents left Japan overconfident, as well as overextended.[150]

Germany retained the initiative as well. Exploiting dubious American naval command decisions, the German navy ravaged Allied shipping off the American Atlantic coast.[151] Despite considerable losses, European Axis members stopped a major Soviet offensive in Central and Southern Russia, keeping most territorial gains they had achieved during the previous year.[152] In North Africa, the Germans launched an offensive in January, pushing the British back to positions at the Gazala Line by early February,[153] followed by a temporary lull in combat which Germany used to prepare for their upcoming offensives.[154]

Allies close in (1944)

File:IND 004723.jpg

The Battle of Imphal-Kohima March – July 1944: British 3-inch mortar detachments support the 19th Indian Division’s advance along the Mawchi Road, east of Toungoo, Burma. The mortar proved the most effective weapon in jungle warfare.

On 6 June 1944 (known as D-Day), after three years of Soviet pressure,[145] the Western Allies invaded northern France. After reassigning several Allied divisions from Italy, they also attacked southern France.[212] These landings were successful, and led to the defeat of the German Army units in France. Paris was liberated by the local resistance assisted by the Free French Forces on 25 August[213] and the Western Allies continued to push back German forces in Western Europe during the latter part of the year. An attempt to advance into northern Germany spearheaded by a major airborne operation in the Netherlands ended with a failure.[214] After that, the Western Allies slowly pushed into Germany, unsuccessfully trying to cross the Rur river in a large offensive. In Italy the Allied advance also slowed down, when they ran into the last major German defensive line.

On 22 June, the Soviets launched a strategic offensive in Belarus (known as “Operation Bagration”) that resulted in the almost complete destruction of the German Army Group Centre.[215] Soon after that, another Soviet strategic offensive forced German troops from Western Ukraine and Eastern Poland. The successful advance of Soviet troops prompted resistance forces in Poland to initiate several uprisings, though the largest of these, in Warsaw, as well as a Slovak Uprising in the south, were not assisted by the Soviets and were put down by German forces.[216] The Red Army’s strategic offensive in eastern Romania cut off and destroyed the considerable German troops there and triggered a successful coup d’état in Romania and in Bulgaria, followed by those countries’ shift to the Allied side.[217]

In September 1944, Soviet Red Army troops advanced into Yugoslavia and forced the rapid withdrawal of the German Army Groups E and F in Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia to rescue them from being cut off.[218] By this point, the Communist-led Partisans under Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who had led an increasingly successful guerrilla campaign against the occupation since 1941, controlled much of the territory of Yugoslavia and were engaged in delaying efforts against the German forces further south. In northern Serbia, the Red Army, with limited support from Bulgarian forces, assisted the Partisans in a joint liberation of the capital city of Belgrade on 20 October. A few days later, the Soviets launched a massive assault against German-occupied Hungary that lasted until the fall of Budapest in February 1945.[219] In contrast with impressive Soviet victories in the Balkans, the bitter Finnish resistance to the Soviet offensive in the Karelian Isthmus denied the Soviets occupation of Finland and led to the signing of Soviet-Finnish armistice on relatively mild conditions,[220][221] with a subsequent shift to the Allied side by Finland.

By the start of July, Commonwealth forces in Southeast Asia had repelled the Japanese sieges in Assam, pushing the Japanese back to the Chindwin River[222] while the Chinese captured Myitkyina. In China, the Japanese were having greater successes, having finally captured Changsha in mid-June and the city of Hengyang by early August.[223] Soon after, they further invaded the province of Guangxi, winning major engagements against Chinese forces at Guilin and Liuzhou by the end of November[224] and successfully linking up their forces in China and Indochina by the middle of December.[225]

In the Pacific, American forces continued to press back the Japanese perimeter. In mid-June 1944 they began their offensive against the Mariana and Palau islands, and decisively defeated Japanese forces in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. These defeats led to the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Tōjō and provided the United States with air bases to launch intensive heavy bomber attacks on the Japanese home islands. In late October, American forces invaded the Filipino island of Leyte; soon after, Allied naval forces scored another large victory during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history.[226]

Axis collapse, Allied victory (1944-45)


American and Soviet troops meet east of the Elbe River.

On 16 December 1944, Germany attempted its last desperate measure for success on the Western Front by using most of its remaining reserves to launch a massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes to attempt to split the Western Allies, encircle large portions of Western Allied troops and capture their primary supply port at Antwerp in order to prompt a political settlement.[227] By January, the offensive had been repulsed with no strategic objectives fulfilled.[227] In Italy, the Western Allies remained stalemated at the German defensive line. In mid-January 1945, the Soviets attacked in Poland, pushing from the Vistula to the Oder river in Germany, and overran East Prussia.[228] On 4 February, U.S., British, and Soviet leaders met for the Yalta Conference. They agreed on the occupation of post-war Germany,[229] and on when the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan.[230]

In February, the Soviets invaded Silesia and Pomerania, while Western Allies entered Western Germany and closed to the Rhine river. By March, the Western Allies crossed the Rhine north and south of the Ruhr, encircling the German Army Group B,[231] while the Soviets advanced to Vienna. In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across Western Germany, while Soviet forces stormed Berlin in late April; the two forces linked up on Elbe river on 25 April. On 30 April 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signalling the military defeat of the Third Reich.[232]

Several changes in leadership occurred during this period. On 12 April, U.S. President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by Harry Truman. Benito Mussolini was killed by Italian partisans on 28 April.[233] Two days later, Hitler committed suicide, and was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz.[234]

German forces surrendered in Italy on 29 April. The German instrument of surrender was signed on 7 May in Reims,[235] and ratified on 8 May in Berlin.[236] German Army Group Centre resisted in Prague until 11 May.[237]

In the Pacific theatre, American forces accompanied by the forces of the Philippine Commonwealth advanced in the Philippines, clearing Leyte by the end of April 1945. They landed on Luzon in January 1945 and captured Manila in March following a battle which reduced the city to ruins. Fighting continued on Luzon, Mindanao and other islands of the Philippines until the end of the war.[238]

In May 1945, Australian troops landed in Borneo, overrunning the oilfields there. British, American and Chinese forces defeated the Japanese in northern Burma in March, and the British pushed on to reach Rangoon by 3 May.[239] Chinese forces started to counterattack in Battle of West Hunan that occurred between 6 April and 7 June 1945. American forces also moved towards Japan, taking Iwo Jima by March, and Okinawa by the end of June.[240] American bombers destroyed Japanese cities, and American submarines cut off Japanese imports.[241]

On 11 July, the Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany. They confirmed earlier agreements about Germany,[242] and reiterated the demand for unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces by Japan, specifically stating that “the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction”.[243] During this conference the United Kingdom held its general election, and Clement Attlee replaced Churchill as Prime Minister.[244]

As Japan continued to ignore the Potsdam terms, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. Between the two bombings, the Soviets, pursuant to the Yalta agreement, invaded Japanese-held Manchuria, and quickly defeated the Kwantung Army, which was the largest Japanese fighting force.[245][246] The Red Army also captured Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. On 15 August 1945 Japan surrendered, with the surrender documents finally signed aboard the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri on 2 September 1945, ending the war.[235]

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