Chapter 27 - World War II, 1939-1945

The Course of World War II

FOCUS QUESTION: What were the major events of World War II in Europe and in Asia, and why were the Allies ultimately victorious?

Nine days before he attacked Poland, Hitler made clear to his generals what was expected of them: “When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory. Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right. ... The wholesale destruction of Poland is the military objective. Speed is the main thing. Pursuit until complete annihilation.”4 Hitler’s remarks set the tone for what became the most destructive war in human history.

Victory and Stalemate

Unleashing an early form of blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” Hitler stunned Europe with the speed and efficiency of the German attack. Moving into Poland with about 1.5 million troops from two fronts, German forces used panzer divisions, or armored columns, supported by airplanes to break quickly through the Polish lines and encircle the outnumbered and poorly equipped Polish armies. The coordinated air and ground assaults included the use of Stuka dive bombers; as they descended from the skies, their sirens emitted a blood-curdling shriek, adding a frighteningly destructive element to the German attack. Regular infantry units, still on foot with their supplies drawn by horses, then marched in to hold the newly conquered territory. Soon afterward, Soviet military forces attacked eastern Poland. Within four weeks, Poland had surrendered. On September 28, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union officially divided Poland between them.

HITLER’S ATTACK IN THE WEST Although Hitler’s hopes of avoiding a war in the west were dashed when France and Britain declared war on September 3, he was confident that he could control the situation. Expecting another war of attrition and economic blockade, Britain and France refused to go on the offensive. Between 1930 and 1935, France had built a series of concrete and steel fortifications armed with heavy artillery-known as the Maginot (MA-zhi-noh) Line-along its border with Germany. Now France was quite happy to remain in its defensive shell.

After a winter of waiting (called the “phony war”), Hitler resumed the war on April 9, 1940, with another blitzkrieg, this time against Denmark and Norway. The invasion of Norway was dramatic; the Nazis landed troops at key positions along the coast and dropped paratroopers into airfields and major cities. The British landed a force of almost 50,000 troops but were eventually driven out. Norway surrendered on June 9, and Germany’s northern flank was now secure.

One month later, on May 10, the Germans launched their attack on the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The Netherlands fell in five days. Bombing devastated the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which quickly became a symbol of ruthless Nazi destruction of civilian life. The German forces pushed into Belgium as if to move into France as they had done in World War I, but this was only a trick. The Germans now unleashed their main assault through Luxembourg and the Ardennes, a move that was completely unexpected by the French and British forces. German panzer divisions broke through the weak French defensive positions there, outflanking the Maginot Line, raced across northern France, and reached the English Channel on May 21, splitting the Allied armies. The main Belgian army surrendered on May 28, and the other British and French forces were trapped at Dunkirk. At this point Hitler stopped the advance of the German armored units and ordered the Luftwaffe (the German air force) to destroy the Allied army on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe was ineffective in bombing the Allied forces, however, and by the time Hitler ordered his armored units to advance again, the British had rebuilt their defenses sufficiently to allow for a gigantic evacuation of 350,000 French and British troops by a fleet of small ships. The “miracle of Dunkirk” saved a well-trained army to fight another day.

On June 5, the Germans launched another offensive into southern France. Five days later, Benito Mussolini, believing that the war was over and eager to grab some of the spoils, declared war on France and invaded from the south. Dazed by the speed of the German offensive, the French were never able to mount an adequate resistance and surrendered on June 22. German armies occupied about three-fifths of France while the French hero of World War I, Marshal Henri Petain (AHN-ree pay-TANH) (1856-1951), established an authoritarian regime-known as Vichy (VISH-ee) France-over the remainder. The Allies regarded the Petain government as a Nazi puppet state, and a French government-in-exile took up residence in Britain. Germany was now in control of western and central Europe, but Britain still had not been defeated.

THE PROBLEM OF BRITAIN The German victories in Denmark and Norway had led to a change of government in Britain. Growing dissatisfaction with the apostle of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain, led a member of his own party to say to the prime minister, “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God gO!”5 Chamberlain resigned, and on May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), a longtime advocate of a hard-line policy toward Nazi Germany, became prime minister. Churchill was confident that he could guide Britain to ultimate victory. “I thought I knew a great deal about it all,” he later wrote, “and I was sure I should not fail.” Churchill proved to be an inspiring leader who rallied the British people with stirring speeches. Hitler had hoped that the British could be persuaded to make peace so that he could fulfill his long-awaited opportunity to gain living space in the east. Led by the stubbornly determined Churchill, who believed there could be no compromise with Nazism, the British refused, and Hitler was forced to prepare for an invasion of Britain, a prospect that he faced with little confidence.

As Hitler realized, an amphibious invasion of Britain would be possible only if Germany gained control of the air. By August 1940, the Luftwaffe had launched a major offensive against British air and naval bases, harbors, communication centers, and war industries. The British fought back doggedly, supported by an effective radar system that gave them early warning of German attacks. Moreover, the Ultra intelligence operation, which had broken German military codes, gave the British air force information about the specific targets of German air attacks. Nevertheless, the British air force suffered critical losses by the end of August and was probably saved by Hitler’s change of strategy. In September, in retaliation for a British attack on Berlin, Hitler ordered a shift from military targets to massive bombing of cities to break British morale. The British rebuilt their air strength quickly and were soon inflicting major losses on Luftwaffe bombers. By the end of September, Germany had lost the Battle of Britain, and the invasion of Britain had to be postponed.

At this point, Hitler pursued the possibility of a Mediterranean strategy, which would involve capturing Egypt and the Suez Canal and closing the Mediterranean to British ships, thereby shutting off Britain’s supply of oil. Hitler’s commitment to the Mediterranean was never wholehearted, however. His initial plan was to let the Italians, whose role was to secure the Balkan and Mediterranean flanks, defeat the British in North Africa, but this strategy failed when the British routed the Italian army. Although Hitler then sent German troops to the North African theater of war, his primary concern lay elsewhere: he had already decided to fulfill his lifetime obsession with the acquisition of living space in the east.

INVASION OF THE SOVIET UNION Already at the end of July 1940, Hitler had told his army leaders to begin preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Although he had no desire for a two-front war, Hitler became convinced that Britain was remaining in the war only because it expected Soviet support. If the Soviet Union were smashed, Britain’s last hope would be eliminated. Moreover, Hitler had convinced himself that the Soviet Union, with its Jewish-Bolshevik leadership and a pitiful army, could be defeated quickly and decisively. Although the invasion of the Soviet Union was scheduled for spring 1941 , problems in the Balkans delayed the attack.

Hitler had already obtained the political cooperation of Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. Mussolini, however, who liked to think of the Balkans as being within the Italian sphere of influence, became considerably upset over Germany’s gains in southeastern Europe. To ensure the extension of Italian influence in that region, Mussolini launched an attack on Greece on October 28, 1940. But the Italians were militarily unprepared, and their invasion was quickly stopped. Hitler was furious because the disastrous invasion of Greece exposed his southern flank to British air bases in Greece. To secure his Balkan flank, Hitler first invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941. After its surrender on April 17, he smashed Greece in six days. Now reassured, Hitler turned to the east and invaded the Soviet Union, believing that the Soviets could still be decisively defeated before winter set in.

On June 22, 1941 , Nazi Germany launched its attack on the Soviet Union, by far the largest invasion the Germans had yet attempted. The German force consisted of 180 divisions, including 20 panzer divisions, 8,000 tanks, and 3,200 airplanes. German troops were stretched out along an 1,800-mile front (see Map 27.2). The Soviets had 160 infantry divisions but were able to mobilize another 300 divisions out of reserves within half a year. Hitler had badly miscalculated the Soviets’ potential power.

The German troops advanced rapidly, capturing 2 million Soviet soldiers. By November, one German army group had swept through Ukraine while a second was besieging Leningrad; a third approached within 25 miles of Moscow, the Soviet capital. But despite their successes, the Germans had failed to achieve their primary objective. They did not eliminate the Soviet army, nor did the Soviet state collapse in a few months, as Hitler thought it would.

An early winter and unexpected Soviet resistance brought the German advance to a halt. Armor and transport vehicles stalled in temperatures of 30 below zero. Hitler’s commanders wished to withdraw and regroup for the following spring, but Hitler refused. Fearing the disintegration of his lines, he insisted that there would be no retreat. A Soviet counterattack in December 1941 by an army supposedly exhausted by Nazi victories came as an ominous ending to the year. Although the Germans managed to hold on and reestablish their lines, a war diary kept by a member of Panzer Group Three described their desperate situation: “ Discipline is breaking down. More and more soldiers are heading west on foot without weapons... . The road is under constant air attack. Those killed by bombs are no longer being buried. All the hangers-on (cargo troops, Luftwaffe, supply trains) are pouring to the rear in full flight.”6 By December 1941, another of Hitler’s decisions-the declaration of war on the United States-had probably made his defeat inevitable and turned another European conflict into a global war.

The War in Asia

On December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier-based aircraft attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. The same day, other units launched additional assaults on the Philippines and began advancing toward the British colony of Malaya. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Hitler declared war on the United States, although he was by no means required to do so by his loose alliance with Japan. This action enabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to overcome strong American isolationist sentiment and bring the United States into the European conflict.

Shortly after the American entry into the war, Japanese forces invaded the Dutch East Indies and occupied a number of islands in the Pacific Ocean (see Map 27.3). In some cases, as on the Bataan (buh-TAN or buh-TAHN) peninsula and the island of Corregidor (kuh-REG-ih-dor) in the Philippines, resistance was fierce, but by the spring of 1942, almost all of Southeast Asia and much of the western Pacific had fallen into Japanese hands. Tokyo declared the creation of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, encompassing the entire region under Japanese tutelage, and announced its intention to liberate the colonial areas of Southeast Asia from Western colonial rule. For the moment, however, Japan needed the resources of the region for its war machine and placed the countries under its rule on a wartime basis.

Japanese leaders had hoped that their lightning strike at American bases would destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet and persuade the Roosevelt administration to accept Japanese domination of the Pacific. In the eyes of Japanese leaders, material indulgence had made the American people soft. But Tokyo had miscalculated. The attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized American opinion and won broad support for Roosevelt’s war policy. The United States now joined with European nations and Nationalist China in a combined effort to defeat Japan and bring its hegemony in the Pacific to an end.

Next Reading: 27-3 The Turning Point of the War