To get an idea about the locations of various countries and cities mentioned below, one may take a look at the world map on the website before moving on to the story of this devastating war. With over 50,000,000 deaths, World War II was the most devastating conflict in human history and involved almost all parts of the world, especially Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
German Invasion of PolandThe German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, signaled the beginning of the war. It was not the result of an isolated event, but the result of almost three years of increasing international tensions brought about by events, such as the Spanish Civil War, the so-called Anschluss or Union of Nazi Germany with Austria, and the occupation of Czech Sudetenland by Hitler's forces. Following the German attack on the Polish territory, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.
Earlier, in August, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the non-aggression pact popularly called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviet Union accompanied the German invasion of Poland by attacking the country from the east. By the end of 1939, Poland was occupied and divided between the two invading nations. The most catastrophic war of our times had, therefore, already begun.
Invasion of France and the BlitzkriegAfter occupying Poland, the Russians pushed toward Finland, while the Germans attacked Denmark and Norway. The stage was now set for the German invasion of France through the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands on May 10. The German attack comprised fast movements of armed tanks supported by sudden and surprise air raids by the Luftwaffe and this technique was popularly referred to as the 'Blitzkrieg' or 'lightning warfare' method. The German strategy was not only a novel military innovation but also proved quite effective against the much larger Allied forces. By the end of May 1940, Belgium and Holland were already occupied and Paris fell two weeks later.
Evacuation from DunkirkAfter the fall of France, the Germans advanced toward the military settlements of the British Expeditionary Forces in the French territory and therefore, it became imperative to evacuate the troops by the sea. After the Germans crossed the defensive line around Calais, the only port left to be evacuated was Dunkirk. Before the Germans could close on to Dunkirk, Hitler, quite surprisingly, ordered a halt of the German advance toward Dunkirk. This sudden turn of event provided a vital opportunity to the Allies to evacuate their troops through the English Channel port. The British made use of every possible vessel of any make and utility to evacuate as many troops as possible. The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk started on May 26, 1940, and the next day when the Luftwaffe bombed and damaged the inner harbor, most of the troops had ferried out to the open sea in small vessels to board larger ships waiting there. When the evacuation was finally completed by June 4, 1940, around 200,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops had been saved. This was to become a crucial factor for the Allies in the later stages of the war. World War II Europe map depicts this well.
The Battle of Britain
After the armistice with Germany was signed in France and a puppet regime under Marshal Petain installed at Vichy, Hitler set his eyes on Britain and ordered the Luftwaffe to launch a major air offensive on British air and sea defenses and bomb British cities. This was believed to be the key to destroying the superiority of British air defenses and facilitating the proposed amphibious invasion of Britain code-named 'Operation Sea-Lion'. What followed was a series of ferocious aerial combats between the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force (RAF), which came to be collectively known as the Battle of Britain, the first battle to be fought completely in the air. The aerial Battle of Britain lasted from July to September 1940 and at the end, the RAF, mainly with the help of its radars, extracted a narrow victory. Although the German air raids and bombing of the British cities were to continue throughout the war, their range and intensity diminished subsequently and Germany was forced to indefinitely postpone any plans of invading the British Isles.
Invasion of the Soviet Union
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union was code-named 'Operation Barbarossa' and comprised around 150 divisions totaling 3,000,000 men, 3,000 tanks, 7000 artillery guns, and 25,000 aircraft. Operation Barbarossa, which was launched on June 22, 1941, was, therefore, the most massive and powerful invasion force ever. The Germans took the Red Army by surprise and moved fast and deep into the Soviet territory and by mid-July, they had advanced 400 miles and were only 200 miles away from the Soviet capital. The German advance somewhat slackened owing to an indecisiveness about which direction they ought to follow thereafter and in the meanwhile, the Russian winter had set in. The Germans realized, like Napoleon had done a century and a half earlier, that they were ill-equipped to survive the harsh weather conditions and soon enough the Russian forces who were adept in fighting in such conditions launched quick and decisive counter-attacks. The Eastern Front of the war was, therefore, delayed due to inactivity and the attention was now diverted to the Pacific theater with the Japanese attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The Pearl Harbor Attack
On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a massive air attack on the U.S. Pacific naval base of Pearl Harbor. The early morning air assault by around 350 aircraft caught the Americans completely by surprise and damaged, amongst others, all the eight battleships anchored there, destroyed more than 180 aircrafts while damaging the rest and killed over 2,000 troops while wounding around a thousand more. The attack forced the United States to declare war on Japan on December 8, 1941, and subsequently on December 11, Germany declared war on the U.S.A. Within a week, Japan had also invaded the Philippines, Burma, and Hong Kong. With this sudden turn of events, the war in the Pacific had, therefore, not only begun but also spread as a global war. The Second World War, which had begun in Europe, now engulfed almost the whole world.
The Battle of Midway
The Japanese advance in the Pacific and Asian regions continued unabated into Borneo, Java, and Sumatra and resulted in the fall of Singapore, the British stronghold in Asia-Pacific in June 1942. The United States tried to check the Japanese advance but suffered a heavy defeat in the Battle of the Java Sea and achieved mixed results in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Although the Japanese failed to achieve a clear victory in the Coral Sea and had to abandon their plans of taking Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, they nevertheless launched a major naval expedition toward Midway Island. But in the ensuing Battle of Midway, the United States Air Force managed to thwart the Japanese attack and forced the Japanese forces to give up their plans of seizing the strategic Midway Island. The Battle of Midway was, therefore, a turning point in the war in the Pacific and it managed to substantially reverse Japanese fortunes in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Battle of el-AlameinThe German Panzer divisions led by Erwin Rommel formed a formidable fighting force in the North African desert and were responsible for most German advances in Libya and Egypt. After much hesitation for months, the British, under General Montgomery, finally launched their counter-offensive against the Panzer divisions of the German Afrika Korps at a place called el-Alamein on October 23, 1942. What followed in the subsequent days was one of the fiercest tank battles in World War history with both the sides achieving mixed results. However, at the end, Montgomery's forces gained upper hand and Romell's forces had to retreat, thereby not only losing one of the most crucial battles of the war but also paving the way for the Allies to launch their offensive against Mussolini's Italy.
The Battle of Stalingrad
After their losses at the North African Front and the reversals at the Pacific Front, the Axis forces had to face further counter-attacks, this time from the Soviets in the Eastern Front. The massive Soviet counter-offensive was launched on November 19, 1942, and in the ensuing battle, the Russians engaged the German forces to the north and south of Stalingrad while encircling those inside the city. Finally, on January 31, 1943, after what came to be considered as one of the greatest battles of World War II, the German forces totaling around 90,000 men surrendered to the Russians in Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad was, therefore, a turning point in the Second World War and marked the beginning of the German defeat that was to follow in the ensuing time.
The Battle of KohimaIn the later half of 1943 and early 1944, both the British and the Japanese forces fought with each other for control of Southeast Asia. The British wanted to launch a counter-offensive to halt the Japanese advance in Burma, while the Japanese wanted to cross the Chindwin River into the Imphal Valley and establish a line of defense in Assam in order to advance into India. When the Japanese finally crossed the Chindwin into Assam and approached the town of Imphal (in the present-day Manipur state of India) and encircled Kohima (the present-day capital of Nagaland state), what ensued was one of the most bitterly fought battles of the Second World War. After days of fierce fighting and the British reinforcements arriving from elsewhere in India, the Allies, by June 22, 1944, pushed the Japanese back in Kohima. The Battle of Kohima was, therefore, crucial for the British and it gave them the initiative to carry forward their offensive into Burma. But the cost of this crucial battle was more than 18,000 British and over 30,000 Japanese deaths. The defense of Kohima stopped a possible Japanese advance into India and the heroics of this great yet lesser-known battle is epitomized in the epitaph of a young soldier in the Kohima War Cemetery in the following words:
"When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today."
The Normandy Landings
After long debates and much vacillation, the Allies finally launched their invasion of France, which was believed to be crucial in winning back the territorial losses to the Germans and in sealing Hitler's fate in Europe. Code-named 'Operation Overlord', some 130,000 Allied forces landed on five beaches in Normandy code-named 'Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword'. The Allied landings in Normandy were supported by cover fire from 12,000 Allied aircraft that also bombed German defenses. The Normandy Landings caught the Germans by surprise and they failed to launch any decisive counterattack. The Allies slowly advanced into France and in two weeks' time, Paris was liberated, thereby lending a major blow to Hitler's loosening morale and prestige. The Normandy Landings were a crucial success for the Allies and were instrumental in securing the Allied's victory over Hitler's Germany in the following months.
The Battle of the Bulge
Also called the Battle of the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge was Hitler's last offensive on the Western Front and his one last-ditch effort to halt the tide of Allied victories following the Normandy Landings. The ensuing German offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944 killed around 19,000 American troops and delayed the Allied advance to an extent. But lack of resources and the stiff Allied resistance forced the Germans to withdraw by early January 1945. On April 21, 1945, the Soviets entered Berlin and on April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and the Second World War came to an end in Europe.
The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and NagasakiAlthough the war in Europe ended with Germany's surrender, it continued in Asia. The Allies, however, started exacting gains from Japan with decisive victories in Burma. In February 1945, the Americans successfully invaded Iwo Jima followed by the capture of the Philippines and Okinawa and the Japanese withdrew from China. The Allies wanted to wrap up the war with an attack on Japan, but fearing heavy casualties and Japanese resistance, American President Truman ordered the atomic bombings of Japanese cities. On August 6, 1945, atom bombs were used for the first time in human history when a U.S. bomber dropped an atom bomb on the city of Hiroshima followed by another on Nagasaki three days later. These atomic attacks left Japan devastated and it stunned the whole world. Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945. The infamous atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki thus ended the most devastating war of human history. The death, destruction and the horror of World War II will continue to haunt humanity for many more years to come.
Last updated on : August 5, 2015