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Overview - World War II

1939 - 1945

World War II was caused by the aggression of Japan, Italy, and Germany during the 1930s. This aggression was possible because of the failure of the League of Nations and because of the unwillingness of England, France, or the United States to resort to force to check it. When Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact in August of 1939; the outbreak of war was inevitable.

The war began 1 September, 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Germany. The Germans had demanded from Poland the city of Danzig and a strip of land through Polish territory that would unite East and West Prussia. When Poland refused this demand with the support of England and France, Germany began the invasion. The active fighting ended within two weeks, as the Russians moved in from the east, thus crushing Poland in a pincers movement.

Now came a six-month period of inactivity known as the "phoney-war" or 'Sitzkrieg". During this period, Russia occupied the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and engaged in a war with Finland to improve its boundaries. Active war resumed in April, 1940, when Germany invaded and crushed in rapid succession Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. An English expeditionary force, which had been serving in France, was evacuated from Dunkirk in one of the most memorable operations of the war. France was partly occupied by the Germans, the remainder of the country was ruled from Vichy.

On 8 August, 1940, began the "Battle of Britain". During the fall and winter of 1940 and the spring of 1941 the Luftwaffe (Nazi airforce) tried to bring about the surrender of Britain through repeated aerial bombings. Co-ordinated with the air attack was a vicious submarine attack on ships that carried goods to the British Isles. The air attack became more intense in the spring as the days became longer and the skies clearer. On 10 May, 1941, there was one final huge assault upon London during which the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum were damaged. After this great assault, the air attacks, which had resulted in enormous losses of German aeroplanes, tapered off as the Germans prepared for their attack upon Russia.

Italy declared war against France and Great Britain on 10 June, 1940. Italy launched two offensives: one against Greece and one against Egypt. Since neither attack succeeded, Germany was forced to come to Italy's assistance in both areas. Thus, Germany overran Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941 and launched General Rommel and his Afrika Korps on their spectacular career in North Africa.

On 22 June, 1941, the Germans invaded Russia. Although the blitzkrieg rolled into Russia in high gear and large areas of the country fell into Nazi hands, the campaign did not come to an end during this year as the Germans had hoped.

On 7 December, 1941, the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour. Thus the United States entered the war against the Axis.

But mid-1942, the fortune of the Axis reached their peak. The Germans had overrun most of southern Russia in Europe and invaded the oil fields of the Caucasus. In North Africa the Germans were in Egypt only 70 miles from the Suez Canal. Japan had captured all of Southeast Asia, the Philippine Islands, and the Dutch East Indies and was poised for the invasion of India and Australia. Then the tide of battle swung against the Axis. The British under General Montgomery turned back the Germans in Africa at El Alamein (23 October, 1942). On 7 November, 1942, an Anglo American expedition landed in North Africa. Thus the Germans were caught in a giant pincers and crushed in Tunis (8-12 May, 1943). In July, 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily and Italy. Mussolini's government fell and the new Italian government joined the Allies as a "co-belligerent".

Meanwhile at Stalingrad (22 August, 1942 to 2 February 1943) the attacking German army was encircled and forced to surrender. From that point on, the Nazis fought a defensive action on the Eastern Front.

On 6 June, 1944 (D-Day), the Allied troops under General Eisenhower established a bridgehead in Normandy. From there they fought on until the Germans surrendered, on 7 May, 1945. As Eisenhower's troops attacked and invaded Germany from the west, the Russians invaded from the east. Thus Germany was crushed between the forces of the United Nations.

Starting with a landing on Guadalcanal in August of 1942, the Americans began the long "road-back" in the Pacific. War in the Pacific was largely a naval action with "island-hopping" from one strategic group of islands to another as the major feature of the plan of attack. In the final action of the war, the vital islands of Iwo Jima and Okinanwa, both close to Japan, were captured. Atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to an end. Japan surrendered in Tokyo Bay on 2 September, 1945.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
27 June 2002


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