World War II (WWII):


World War II Events in 1939:

Three years of mounting international tension, encompassing the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss union of Germany and Austria, Hitler's occupation of the Sudetenland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, culminated in the German invasion of Poland on the 1st September.

Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later; whilst the USA proclaimed neutrality; however, they continued to supply Britain with essential supplies and the critical Naval Battle of the Atlantic between German U-Boats and British naval convoys commenced; this long drawn out sea warfare included Aircraft, Surface Ships and Submarines.

Western Europe was eerily quiet during this 'phoney war'; preparations for war continued in earnest, but there were few signs of conflict, and civilians who had been evacuated from London in the first months drifted back into the city; due to a fear of gas bombings, Gas Masks were distributed to the nation and everybody waited for the proper war to begin.

In eastern Europe and Scandinavia, however, there was nothing phoney about the war; with the Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Germany in late August, Russia followed Germany into Poland in September; that country was carved up between the two invaders before the end of the year, and Russia continued this aggression by going on to invade Finland

World War II Events in 1940:

Rationing was introduced in Britain early in the New Year, but little happened in western Europe until the spring; the 'winter war' between Russia and Finland concluded in March and in the following month Germany invaded Denmark and Norway; Denmark surrendered immediately, but the Norwegians fought on, with British and French assistance; however, Norway was forced into surrender in June, after France signed an armistice with Germany, which meant that, apart from the local resistance, they were left fighting alone on the continent.

On the 10th May, the same day that Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of the UK, Germany invaded France, Belgium and Holland, and western Europe encountered the Blitzkrieg, or 'lightning war'.

Germany's combination of fast armoured tanks on land, and superiority in the air, made a unified attacking force that was both innovative and effective; despite greater numbers of air and army personnel and the presence of the British Expeditionary Force, the Low Countries and France proved no match for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe.

Holland and Belgium fell by the end of May and Paris was taken two weeks later; British troops retreated from the invaders in haste, and some 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops were rescued from the channel port of Dunkirk only by a ragged fleet, using craft that ranged from pleasure boats to Navy destroyers.

In France an armistice was signed with Germany on the 22nd June 1940, with the newly set up puppet French Vichy government, led by a WWI hero Marshal Philippe Pétain; Vichy France was established after France surrendered to Germany and it took its name from the government's administrative centre of Vichy, in central France; though Paris remained the official capital, to which Pétain had always intended to return the government when this became possible.

In 1940, Marshal Pétain was known mainly as the victor of Verdun and as last Prime Minister of the Third Republic, Pétain, a reactionary by inclination, blamed the Third Republic's democracy for France's quick defeat; he set up a paternalistic, semi-fascist regime that actively collaborated with Germany and cooperated with the Nazis' racial policies from July 1940 to August 1944; it officially called itself the French State 'État Français'.

The Vichy regime maintained some legal authority in the northern zone of France 'the Zone occupée', which was occupied by the German Wehrmacht, but was most powerful in the unoccupied southern 'free zone', where its administrative centre of Vichy was located; although in November 1942 the southern zone was also occupied and fully subjected to German rule.

Pétain collaborated with the German occupying forces in exchange for an agreement to not divide France between the Axis Powers; Vichy authorities aided in the rounding-up of Jews and other 'undesirables', and at times, Vichy French military forces actively opposed the Allies; much of the French public initially supported the new government despite its pro-Nazi policies, seeing it as necessary to maintain a degree of French autonomy and territorial integrity.

The legitimacy of Vichy France and Pétain's leadership was constantly challenged by the exiled General Charles de Gaulle, who claimed to represent the legitimacy and continuity of the French government; public opinion turned against the Vichy regime and the occupying German forces over time and resistance to them grew within France;following the Allied invasion of France in June 1944, de Gaulle proclaimed the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF); most of the Vichy regime's leaders were later put on trial by the GPRF and a number of them were executed; Pétain was sentenced to death for treason, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

After the signing of the Armistice, Charles de Gaull, as the leader of the Free French, fled to England, much to Churchill's chagrin, to continue the fight against Hitler, but it looked as if that fight might not last too long; having conquered France, Hitler turned his attention to Britain and began preparations for an invasion; for this to be successful, however, he needed air superiority, and he charged the Luftwaffe with destroying British air power and coastal defences.

Yorkshire became an important base for RAF Bomber Command and brought the county into the cutting edge of the war and during the summer of 1940, Britain faced extreme danger as German forces converged on the French coast in preparation for an invasion; as RAF Fighter Command fought off the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids, RAF Bomber Command repeatedly attacked the German troops’ advance and German shipping.

The Battle of Britain, lasting from July to September, was the first to be fought solely in the air; Germany lacked planes but had many pilots; in Britain, the situation was reversed, but, crucially, it also had radar; this, combined with the German decision to switch the attacks from airfields and factories to the major cities, enabled the RAF to squeak a narrow victory, maintain air superiority and ensure the, ultimately indefinite, postponement of the German invasion plans.

The 'Blitz' of Britain's cities lasted throughout the war, saw the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the near-destruction of Coventry, and claimed some 40,000 civilian lives.

World War II Events in 1941:

With continental Europe under Nazi control and Britain safe for the time being, the war took on a more global dimension; following the defeat of Mussolini's armies in Greece and Tobruk, German forces arrived in North Africa in February and invaded Greece and Yugoslavia in April.

While the bombing of British and German cities continued, and the gas chambers at Auschwitz were put to use, Hitler invaded Russia; operation Barbarossa, as the invasion was called, began on the 22nd June; the initial advance was swift, with the fall of Sebastopol at the end of October and Moscow coming under attack at the end of the year.

The bitter Russian winter, however, like the one that Napoleon had experienced a century and a half earlier, crippled the Germans; the Soviets counterattacked in December and the Eastern Front stagnated until the spring.

Winter in the Pacific, of course, presented no such problems; the Japanese, tired of American trade embargoes, mounted a surprise attack on the US Navy base of Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, on the 7th December; this ensured that global conflict commenced, with Germany declaring war on the US, a few days later; within a week of Pearl Harbor, Japan had invaded the Philippines, Burma and Hong Kong; the Pacific war was on.

World War II Events in 1942:

The first Americans arrived in England in January and became known as the 'Over paid, over sexed and over here', and in North Africa Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps began their counter-offensive, capturing Tobruk in June.

The Blitz intensified in both England and Germany, with the first thousand-bomber air raid on Cologne and German bombing of British cathedral cities.

In the Pacific, the Japanese continued their expansion into Borneo, Java and Sumatra; the 'unassailable' British fortress of Singapore fell rapidly in February, with around 25,000 prisoners taken, many of whom would die in Japanese camps in the years to follow; but June saw the peak of Japanese expansion; the Battle of Midway, in which US sea-based aircraft destroyed four Japanese carriers and a cruiser, marked the turning point in the Pacific War.

The second half of the year also saw a reversal of German fortunes; British forces under Montgomery gained the initiative in North Africa at El Alamein and Russian forces counterattacked at Stalingrad; the news of mass murders of Jewish people by the Nazis reached the Allies and the US pledged to avenge these crimes.

World War II Events in 1943:

February saw German surrender at Stalingrad: the first major defeat of Hitler's armies; battle continued to rage in the Atlantic and one four day period in March saw 27 merchant vessels sunk by German U-boats; a combination of long range aircraft and the codebreakers at Bletchley, however, were inflicting enormous losses on the U-boats; towards the end of May Admiral Dönitz withdrew the German fleet from the contended areas, the Battle of the Atlantic was now effectively over.

In mid May German and Italian forces in North Africa surrendered to the Allies, who used Tunisia as a springboard to invade Sicily in July; by the end of the month Mussolini had fallen and in September the Italians surrendered to the Allies, prompting a German invasion into northern Italy; Mussolini was audaciously rescued by a German task force, led by Otto Skorzeny and established a fascist republic in the north; German troops also engaged the Allies in the south, the fight through Italy was to prove slow and costly.

In the Pacific, US forces overcame the Japanese at Guadalcanal and British and Indian troops began their guerrilla campaign in Burma; American progress continued in the Aleutian Islands, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

As the Russian advance on the Eastern Front gathered pace, recapturing Kharkov and Kiev from Germany, Allied bombers began to attack German cities in enormous daylight air raids; the opening of the Second Front in Europe, long discussed and always postponed, was being prepared for the following year.

World War II Events in 1944:

With advances in Burma, New Guinea and Guam, Japan began its last offensive in China, capturing further territory in the south to add to the acquisitions made in central and northern areas following the invasion of 1938; however, their control was limited to the major cities; lines of communication and resistance, often led by the Communists, was widespread.

The Allied advance in Italy continued with landings at Anzio, in central Italy, in January; tt was a static campaign; the Germans counterattacked in February and the fighting saw the destruction of the medieval monastery at Monte Cassino after Allied bombing; only at the end of May did the Germans retreat from Anzio; Rome was liberated in June, the day before the Allies' 'Operation Overlord', now known as the D-Day landings.

On the 6th June, as Operation Overlord got underway, some 6,500 vessels landed over 130,000 Allied forces on five Normandy beaches: codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword; some 12,000 aircraft ensured air superiority for the Allies, bombing German defences and providing cover; the pessimistic predictions that had been made of massive Allied casualties were not borne out; on Utah beach 23,000 troops were landed, with 197 casualties, and most of the 4,649 American casualties that day occurred at Omaha beach, where the landing was significantly more difficult to achieve, meeting with fierce German resistance.

Overall, however, the landings caught the Germans by surprise and they were unable to counterattack with the necessary speed and strength; anything that was moving and German was liable to be attacked from the air; despite this, in the weeks following the landings Allied progress was slowed considerably, by the narrow lanes and thick hedgerows of the French countryside; nevertheless, Cherbourg was liberated by the end of June; Paris followed two months later.

Hitler's troubles were compounded by a Russian counterattack in June; this drove 300 miles west to Warsaw and killed, wounded or captured 350,000 German soldiers; by the end of August the Russians had taken Bucharest; Estonia was taken within months and Budapest was under siege by the end of the year.

One glimmer of light for Germany came in the Ardennes, in France, where in December a German counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge, killed 19,000 Americans and delayed the Allies' march into Germany.

World War II Events in 1945:

The New Year saw the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz and the revelation of the sickening obscenity of the Holocaust, its scale becoming clearer as more camps were liberated in the following months; the Soviet army continued its offensive from the east, while from the west the Allies established a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, in March.

While the bombing campaigns of the Blitz were over, German V1 and V2 rockets continued to drop on London; the return bombing raids on Dresden, which devastated the city in a huge firestorm, have often been considered misguided; meantime, the Western Allies raced the Russians to be the first into Berlin; the Russians won, reaching the capital on the 21st April.

Apparently, Adolf Hitler committed suicide by gunshot on the 30th April 1945 in his Führerbunker in Berlin; his wife, Eva née Braun, committed suicide with him by ingesting cyanide; that afternoon, in accordance with Hitler's prior instructions, their remains were carried up the stairs through the bunker's emergency exit, doused in petrol and set alight in the Reich Chancellery garden outside the bunker; the Soviet archives record that their burnt remains were recovered and interred in successive locations, until in 1970 when they were again exhumed and cremated with the ashes scattered.

Hitler killed himself on the 30th, two days after Mussolini had been captured and hanged by Italian partisans; Germany surrendered unconditionally on the 7th May and the following day was celebrated as Victory in Europe 'VE Day'; the war in Europe was over.

In the Pacific, however, it had continued to rage throughout this time; the British advanced further in Burma and in February the Americans had invaded Iwo Jima; the Philippines and Okinawa followed and Japanese forces began to withdraw from China; plans were being prepared for an Allied invasion of Japan, but fears of fierce resistance and massive casualties prompted Harry Truman, the new American president following Roosevelt's death in April, to sanction the use of an Atomic Bomb against Japan.

Such bombs had been in development since 1942 and on the 6th August one of them was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later another was dropped on Nagasaki; no country at that time could withstand such attacks and the Japanese surrendered on the 14th August.

The biggest conflict in history had lasted almost 6 years; some 100 million people had been militarised and around 50 million had been killed; of those who had died, 15 million were soldiers, 20 million were Russian civilians, 6 million were Jews and over 4 million were Poles.

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