Chapter 27 - World War II, 1939-1945

The Course of World War II (cont.)

The Turning Point of the War (1942-1943)

The entry of the United States into the war created a coalition (the Grand Alliance) that ultimately defeated the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan). Nevertheless, the three major Allies-Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union-had to overcome mutual suspicions before they could operate as an effective alliance. Two factors aided that process. First, Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States made it easier for the Americans to accept the British and Soviet contention that the defeat of Germany should be the first priority of the United States. For that reason, the United States increased the quantity of trucks, planes, and other arms that it sent to the British and Soviets. Also important to the alliance was the tacit agreement of the three chief Allies to stress military operations while ignoring political differences and larger strategic issues concerning any postwar settlement. At the beginning of 1943, the Allies agreed to fight until the Axis powers surrendered unconditionally. Although this principle of unconditional surrender might have discouraged dissident Germans and Japanese from overthrowing their governments in order to arrange a negotiated peace, it also had the effect of cementing the Grand Alliance by making it nearly impossible for Hitler to divide his foes.

Defeat was far from Hitler’s mind at the beginning of 1942, however. As Japanese forces advanced into Southeast Asia and the Pacific after crippling the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hitler and his European allies continued the war in Europe against Britain and the Soviet Union. Until the fall of 1942, it appeared that the Germans might still prevail on the battlefield.

After the British defeat of Italian troops in North Africa, Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel (RAHM-ul), whom he described as "the most daring general of armored forces in the German army," with the German Afrika Korps to Libya in February 1941. Leading a combined force of Germans and Italians, Rommel attacked on March 30 and by the end of May had reached the Egyptian frontier, where he was finally forced to halt. Reinforcements in North Africa in 1942 enabled the Afrika Korps to break though the British defenses in Egypt, capture Tobruk in June, and begin an advance toward Alexandria.

The Germans were also continuing their success in the Battle of the North Atlantic as their submarines continued to attack Allied ships carrying supplies to Great Britain. In the spring of 1942, a renewed German offensive in the Soviet Union led to the capture of the entire Crimea, causing Hitler to boast in August 1942:

As the next step, we are going to advance south of the Caucasus and then help the rebels in Iran and Iraq against the English. Another thrust will be directed along the Caspian Sea toward Afghanistan and India. Then the English will run out of oil. In two years we'll be on the borders of India. Twenty to thirty elite German divisions will do. Then the British Empire will collapse.7

But this would be Hitler's last optimistic outburst. By the fall of 1942, the war had turned against the Germans.

In North Africa, British forces had stopped Rommel's troops at El Alamein (ell ah-lah-MAYN) in the summer of 1942 and then forced them back across the desert. In November 1942, British and American forces invaded French North Africa and forced the German and Italian troops to surrender in May 1943. By that time, new detection devices had enabled the Allies to destroy increasing numbers of German submarines in the shipping war in the Atlantic.

BATTLE OF STALINGRAD On the Eastern Front, the turning point of the war occurred at Stalingrad. After the capture of the Crimea, Hitler's generals wanted him to concentrate on the Caucasus and its oilfields, but Hitler decided that Stalingrad, a major industrial center on the Volga, should be taken first.

The German advance on Stalingrad encountered fierce resistance, but Hitler was determined to capture the city named after the Soviet dictator. Stalin had issued a war order called "Not a Step Back." Although the Germans destroyed much of the city, the Soviet troops used the bombed-out buildings and factories as well-fortified defensive positions. A deadly and brutal street-by-street conflict evolved during September, October,

and November, in which both sides took severe losses. On November 8, Hitler announced that the German Sixth Army had taken Stalingrad, but in fact, on November 19 and 20, the Soviets attacked German positions north and south of Stalingrad, and by November 23 they had surrounded the German forces. Hitler commanded General Friedrich Paulus to stand firm with his Sixth Army and forbade attempts to break out of the encirclement. Winter privations and Soviet attacks, however, forced the Germans to surrender on February 2, 1943 (see the box above). The entire German Sixth Army of 300 ,000 men was lost. By February 1943, German forces in the Soviet Union were back to their positions of June 1942. By the spring of 1943, even Hitler knew that the Germans would not defeat the Soviet Union

BATTLE OF MIDWAY The tide of battle in Asia also turned dramatically in 1942. In the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 78, 1942, American naval forces stopped the Japanese advance and temporarily relieved Australia of the threat of invasion. On June 4, at the Battle of Midway Island, American planes destroyed all four of the attacking Japanese aircraft carriers and established American naval superiority in the Pacific. The victory came at a high cost; about two-fifths of the American planes were shot down in the encounter. By the fall of 1942, Allied forces were beginning to gather for offensive operations in three areas: from bases in north Burma and India into the rest of Burma; in the Solomon Islands and on New Guinea, with forces under the direction of American general Douglas MacArthur moving toward the Philippines; and across the Pacific where combined U.S. Army, Marine, and Navy forces would mount attacks against Japanese-held islands. After a series of bitter engagements in the waters off the Solomon Islands from August to November 1942, Japanese fortunes began to fade.

The Last Years of the War

By the beginning of 1943, the tide of battle had turned against Germany, Italy, and Japan, but it would take a long time to achieve the goal of unconditional surrender of the three Axis powers. After the Axis forces had surrendered in Tunisia on May 13, 1943, the Allies crossed the Mediterranean and carried the war to Italy, an area that Winston Churchill had called the “soft underbelly” of Europe. After taking Sicily, Allied troops began the invasion of mainland Italy in September. In the meantime, after the ouster and arrest of Benito Mussolini, a new Italian government offered to surrender to Allied forces. But Mussolini was liberated by the Germans in a daring raid and then set up as the head of a puppet German state in northern Italy while German troops moved in and occupied much of Italy. The new defensive lines established by the Germans in the hills south of Rome were so effective that the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula was a painstaking affair accompanied by heavy casualties. Rome did not fall to the Allies until June 4, 1944. By that time, the Italian war had assumed a secondary role anyway as the Allies opened their long-awaited “second front” in western Europe two days later.

ALLIED ADVANCES IN THE WEST Since the autumn of 1943, the Allies had been planning a cross-channel invasion of France from Britain. A series of Allied deceptions managed to trick the Germans into believing that the invasion would come on the flat plains of northern France. Instead, the Allies, under the direction of the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), landed five assault divisions on the Normandy beaches on June 6 in history’s greatest amphibious invasion. Three airborne divisions were also sent to secure the flanks of the areas where the troops went ashore. Putting 150,000 troops ashore in one day required the support of more than 7,000 naval ships. An initially indecisive German response enabled the Allied forces to establish a beachhead. Within three months, they had landed 2 million men and a half-million vehicles that pushed inland and broke through the German defensive lines.

After the breakout, Allied troops moved south and east and liberated Paris by the end of August. Supply problems as well as a last-minute, desperate (and unsuccessful) offensive by German troops in the Battle of the Bulge slowed the Allied advance. Nevertheless, by March 1945, Allied armies had crossed the Rhine River and advanced further into Germany. At the end of April, Allied forces in northern Germany moved toward the Elbe River, where they finally linked up with the Soviets.

SOVIET OFFENSIVE IN THE EAST The Soviets had come a long way since the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. In the summer of 1943, Hitler’s generals had urged him to build an “east wall” based on river barriers to halt the Soviets. Instead, Hitler gambled on using newly developed heavy tanks to take the offensive, but the Soviets soundly defeated the German forces at the Battle of Kursk (KOORSK) July 5-12), the greatest tank battle of World War II. The Germans lost eighteen of their best panzer divisions. Soviet forces now began a relentless advance westward. The Soviets had reoccupied Ukraine by the end of 1943 and lifted the siege of Leningrad and moved into the Baltic states by the beginning of 1944. Advancing along a northern front, Soviet troops occupied Warsaw in January 1945 and entered Berlin in April. Meanwhile, Soviet troops swept along a southern front through Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.

In January 1945, Adolf Hitler had moved into a bunker 55 feet under Berlin to direct the final stages of the war. Hitler continued to arrange his armies on worn-out battle maps as if it still made a difference. In his final political testament, Hitler, consistent to the end in his rabid anti-Semitism, blamed the Jews for the war: “Above all I charge the leaders of the nation and those under them to scrupulous observance of the laws of race and to merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.”8 Hitler committed suicide on April 30, two days after Mussolini had been shot by partisan Italian forces. On May 7, German commanders surrendered. The war in Europe was over.

DEFEAT OF JAPAN The war in Asia continued. Beginning in 1943, American forces had gone on the offensive and advanced their way, slowly at times, across the Pacific. American forces took an increasing toll of enemy resources, especially at sea and in the air. When President Harry Truman (Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945) and his advisers became convinced that American troops might suffer heavy casualties in the invasion of the Japanese homeland, they made the decision to drop the newly developed atomic bomb on Hiroshima (hee-roh-SHEE-muh) and Nagasaki (nahgah-SAH-kee). The Japanese surrendered unconditionally on August 14. World War II was finally over.

Next Reading: 27-4 The New Order