World War II

World War II

 World War II, global military conflict that, in terms of lives lost and material destruction, was the most devastating war in human history.  It began in 1939 as a European conflict between Germany and an Anglo-French coalition but eventually widened to include most of the nations of the world. It ended in 1945, leaving a new world order dominated by the United States and the USSR.

More than any previous war, World War II involved the commitment of nations' entire human and economic resources, the blurring of the distinction between combatant and noncombatant, and the expansion of the battlefield to include all of the enemy's territory. The most important determinants of its outcome were industrial capacity and personnel. In the last stages of the war, two radically new weapons were introduced: the long-range rocket and the atomic bomb. In the main, however, the war was fought with the same or improved weapons of the types used in World War I. The greatest advances were in aircraft and tanks.

The World After World War I

Three major powers had been dissatisfied with the outcome of World War I. Germany, the principal defeated nation, bitterly resented the territorial losses and reparations payments imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. Italy, one of the victors, found its territorial gains far from enough either to offset the cost of the war or to satisfy its ambitions. Japan, also a victor, was unhappy about its failure to gain control of China.

Causes of the War

France, Great Britain, and the U.S. had attained their wartime objectives. They had reduced Germany to a military cipher and had reorganized Europe and the world as they saw fit. The French and the British frequently disagreed on policy in the postwar period, however, and were unsure of their ability to defend the peace settlement. The U.S., disillusioned by the Europeans' failure to repay their war debts, retreated into isolationism.

The Failure of Peace Efforts

During the 1920s, attempts were made to achieve a stable peace. The first was the establishment (1920) of the League of Nations as a forum in which nations could settle their disputes. The league's powers were limited to persuasion and various levels of moral and economic sanctions that the members were free to carry out as they saw fit. At theWashington Conference of 1921-22, the principal naval powers agreed to limit their navies according to a fixed ratio. The Locarno Conference (1925) produced a treaty guarantee of the German-French boundary and an arbitration agreement between Germany and Poland. In the Paris Peace Pact (1928), 63 countries, including all the great powers except the USSR, renounced war as an instrument of national policy and pledged to resolve all disputes among them "by pacific means." The signatories had agreed beforehand to exempt wars of "self-defense."

The Rise of Fascism

One of the victors' stated aims in World War I had been "to make the world safe for democracy," and postwar Germany adopted a democratic constitution, as did most of the other states restored or created after the war. In the 1920s, however, the wave of the future appeared to be a form of nationalistic, militaristic totalitarianism known by its Italian name, fascism. It promised to minister to peoples' wants more effectively than democracy and presented itself as the one sure defense against communism. Benito Mussolini established the first Fascist dictatorship in Italy in 1922.

Formation of the Axis Coalition

Adolf Hitler, the Führer ("leader") of the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party, preached a racist brand of fascism. Hitler promised to overturn the Versailles Treaty and secure additional Lebensraum ("living space") for the German people, who he contended deserved more as members of a superior race. In the early 1930s, the depression hit Germany. The moderate parties could not agree on what to do about it, and large numbers of voters turned to the Nazis and Communists. In 1933 Hitler became the German chancellor, and in a series of subsequent moves established himself as dictator.

Japan did not formally adopt fascism, but the armed forces' powerful position in the government enabled them to impose a similar type of totalitarianism. As dismantlers of the world status quo, the Japanese military were well ahead of Hitler. They used a minor clash with Chinese troops near Mukden in 1931 as a pretext for taking over all of Manchuria, where they proclaimed the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. In 1937-38 they occupied the main Chinese ports.

Having denounced the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty, created a new air force, and reintroduced conscription, Hitler tried out his new weapons on the side of right-wing military rebels in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The venture brought him into collaboration with Mussolini, who was also supporting the Spanish revolt after having seized (1935-36) Ethiopia in a small war. Treaties between Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1936-37 brought into being the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. The Axis thereafter became the collective term for those countries and their allies.

German Aggression in Europe

Hitler launched his own expansionist drive with the annexation of Austria in March 1938. The way was clear: Mussolini supported him; and the British and French, overawed by German rearmament, accepted Hitler's claim that the status of Austria was an internal German affair. The U.S. had severely impaired its ability to act against aggression by passing a neutrality law that prohibited material assistance to all parties in foreign conflicts.

In September 1938 Hitler threatened war to annex the western border area of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland and its 3.5 million ethnic Germans. The British prime minister Neville Chamberlain initiated talks that culminated at the end of the month in the Munich Pact, by which the Czechs, on British and French urging, relinquished the Sudetenland in return for Hitler's promise not to take any more Czech territory. Chamberlain believed he had achieved "peace for our time," but the word Munich soon implied abject and futile appeasement.

Less than six months later, in March 1939, Hitler seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Alarmed by this new aggression and by Hitler's threats against Poland, the British government pledged to aid that country if Germany threatened its independence. France already had a mutual defense treaty with Poland.

The turn away from appeasement brought the Soviet Union to the fore. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, had offered military help to Czechoslovakia during the 1938 crisis, but had been ignored by all the parties to the Munich Pact. Now that war threatened, he was courted by both sides, but Hitler made the more attractive offer. Allied with Britain and France, the Soviet Union might well have had to fight, but all Germany asked for was its neutrality. In Moscow, on the night of August 23, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed. In the part published the next day, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed not to go to war against each other. A secret protocol gave Stalin a free hand in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and eastern Romania.

Military Operations

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, the German armies marched into Poland. On September 3 the British and French surprised Hitler by declaring war on Germany, but they had no plans for rendering active assistance to the Poles.

The First Phase: Dominance of the Axis

Man for man, the German and Polish forces were an even match. Hitler committed about 1.5 million troops, and the Polish commander, Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz, expected to muster 1.8 million. That was not the whole picture, however. The Germans had six panzer (armored) and four motorized divisions; the Poles had one armored and one motorized brigade and a few tank battalions. The Germans' 1600 aircraft were mostly of the latest types. Half of the Poles' 935 planes were obsolete.

The Blitzkrieg in Poland

 Polish strategic doctrine called for a rigid defense of the whole frontier and anticipated several weeks of preliminary skirmishing. It was wrong on both counts. On the morning of September 1, waves of German bombers hit the railroads and hopelessly snarled the Polish mobilization. In four more days, two army groups—one on the north out of East Prussia, the other on the south out of Silesia—had broken through on relatively narrow fronts and were sending armored spearheads on fast drives toward Warsaw and Brest. This was blitzkrieg (lightning war): the use of armor, air power, and mobile infantry in a pincers movement to encircle the enemy.

Between September 8 and 10, the Germans closed in on Warsaw from the north and south, trapping the Polish forces west of the capital. On September 17, a second, deeper encirclement closed 160 km (100 mi) east, near Brest. On that day, too, the Soviet Red Army lunged across the border. By September 20, practically the whole country was in German or Soviet hands, and only isolated pockets continued to resist. The last to surrender was the fortress at Kock, on October 6.

The Phony War

A French and British offensive in the west might have enabled Poland to fight longer, but until enough British arrived, it would have had to be mounted mainly by the French; French strategy, however, was defensive, based on holding the heavily fortified Maginot line. The quick finish in Poland left both sides at loose ends. Dismayed, the British and French became preoccupied with schemes to stave off a bloody replay of World War I. Hitler made a halfhearted peace offer and at the same time ordered his generals to ready an attack on the Low Countries and France. The generals, who did not think they could do against France what they had done in Poland, asked for time and insisted they could only take Holland, Belgium, and the French channel coast. Except at sea, where German submarines operated against merchant shipping and the British navy imposed a blockade, so little was going on after the first week in October that the U.S. newspapers called it the Phony War.

The Defeat of France

  On May 20 the panzer group took Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme River and began to push north along the coast; it covered 400 km (250 mi) in 11 days. By May 26, the British and French were pushed into a narrow beachhead around Dunkerque. The Belgian king, Leopold III, surrendered his army the next day. Destroyers and smaller craft of all kinds rescued 338,226 men from Dunkerque in a heroic sealift that probably would not have succeeded if the German commander, General Gerd von Rundstedt, had not stopped the tanks to save them for the next phase.

The drive into France began on June 5 and picked up on June 9. Italy declared war on France and Britain on June 10. The Maginot line, which only extended to the Belgian border, was intact, but the French commander, General Maxime Weygand, had nothing with which to screen it or Paris on the north and west. On June 17, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, a World War I hero who had become premier the day before, asked for an armistice. The armistice was signed on June 25 on terms that gave Germany control of northern France and the Atlantic coast. Pétain then set up a capital at Vichy in the unoccupied southeast.

The Battle of Britain

 In the summer of 1940, Hitler dominated Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees. His one remaining active enemy—Britain, under a new prime minister, Winston Churchill—vowed to continue fighting. Whether it could was questionable. The British army had left most of its weapons on the beaches at Dunkerque. Stalin was in no mood to challenge Hitler. The U.S., shocked by the fall of France, began the first peacetime conscription in its history and greatly increased its military budget, but public opinion, although sympathetic to Britain, was against getting into the war.

The Germans hoped to subdue the British by starving them out. In June 1940 they undertook the Battle of the Atlantic, using submarine warfare to cut the British overseas lifelines. The Germans now had submarine bases in Norway and France. At the outset the Germans had only 28 submarines, but more were being built—enough to keep Britain in danger until the spring of 1943 and to carry on the battle for months thereafter.

Invasion was the expeditious way to finish off Britain, but that meant crossing the English Channel; Hitler would not risk it unless the British air force could be neutralized first. As a result, the Battle of Britain was fought in the air, not on the beaches. In August 1940 the Germans launched daylight raids against ports and airfields and in September against inland cities. The objective was to draw out the British fighters and destroy them. The Germans failed to reckon with a new device, radar, which greatly increased the British fighters' effectiveness. Because their own losses were too high, the Germans had to switch to night bombing at the end of September. Between then and May 1941 they made 71 major raids on London and 56 on other cities, but the damage they wrought was too indiscriminate to be militarily decisive. On September 17, 1940, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely, thereby conceding defeat in the Battle of Britain.

The Balkans and North Africa (1940-1941)

 In Fact, Hitler had told his generals in late July 1940 that the next attack would be on the USSR. There, he said, Germany would get its "living space" and defeat Britain as well. He claimed the British were only being kept in the war by the hope of a falling-out between Germany and the USSR. When the Soviets had been defeated and British positions in India and the Middle East were threatened, he believed that Britain would make peace. Hitler wanted to start in the fall of 1940, but his advisers persuaded him to avoid the risks of a winter campaign in the Soviet Union and wait until the spring.

Meanwhile, Germany's ally, Mussolini, had staged an unsuccessful attack (September 1940) on British-occupied Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya and an equally abortive invasion (October 1940) of Greece. In response to the latter move, the British occupied airfields on Crete and in Greece. Hitler did not want British planes within striking distance of his one major oil source, the Ploiesti fields in Romania, and in November he began to prepare an operation against Greece.

Early in 1941 British forces pushed the Italians back into Libya, and in February Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel with a two-division tank corps, the Afrika Korps, to help his allies.

Because he would need to cross their territory to get at Greece (and the Soviet Union), Hitler brought Romania and Hungary into the Axis alliance in November 1940; Bulgaria joined in March 1941. When Yugoslavia refused to follow suit, Hitler ordered an invasion of that country.

Yugoslavia

The operations against Greece and Yugoslavia began on April 6, 1941. The Germans' primary difficulty with the attack on Yugoslavia was in pulling together an army of nine divisions from Germany and France in less than ten days. They had to limit themselves for several days to air raids and border skirmishing. On April 10 they opened drives on Belgrade from the northwest, north, and southeast. The city fell on April 13, and the Yugoslav army surrendered the next day. Yugoslavia, however, was easier to take than it would be to hold. Guerrillas—Cetniks under Dra"a Mihajloviç and partisans under Josip Broz (Tito)—fought throughout the war.

Greece

The Greek army of 430,000, unlike the Yugoslav, was fully mobilized, and to some extent battle tested, but national pride compelled it to try to defend the Metaxas line northeast of Salonika. By one short thrust to Salonika, the Germans forced the surrender on April 9 of the line and about half of the Greek army. After the Greek First Army, pulling out of Albania, was trapped at the Metsovon Pass and surrendered on April 22, the British force of some 62,000 troops retreated southward. Thereafter, fast German drives—to the Isthmus of Corinth by April 27 and through the Pelopónnisos by April 30—forced the British into an evacuation that cost them 12,000 men. An airborne assault on May 20-27 also brought Crete into German hands.

Meanwhile, Rommel had launched a successful counteroffensive against the British in Libya, expelling them from the country (except for an isolated garrison at Tobruk) by April 1941.

The Second Phase: Expansion of the War

In the year after the fall of France, the war moved toward a new stage—world war. While conducting subsidiary campaigns in the Balkans, in North Africa, and in the air against Britain, Hitler deployed his main forces to the east and brought the countries of southeastern Europe (as well as Finland) into a partnership against the USSR.

U.S. Aid to Britain

The U.S. abandoned strict neutrality in the European war and approached a confrontation with Japan in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. U.S. and British conferences, begun in January 1941, determined a basic strategy for the event of a U.S. entry into the war, namely, that both would center their effort on Germany, leaving Japan, if need be, to be dealt with later.

In March 1941 the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and appropriated an initial $7 billion to lend or lease weapons and other aid to any countries the president might designate. By this means the U.S. hoped to ensure victory over the Axis without involving its own troops. By late summer of 1941, however, the U.S. was in a state of undeclared war with Germany. In July, U.S. Marines were stationed in Iceland, which had been occupied by the British in May 1940, and thereafter the U.S. Navy took over the task of escorting convoys in the waters west of Iceland. In September President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized ships on convoy duty to attack Axis war vessels.

Friction Between the U.S. and Japan

Meanwhile, American relations with Japan continued to deteriorate. In September 1940 Japan coerced Vichy France into giving up northern Indochina. The U.S. retaliated by prohibiting the exportation of steel, scrap iron, and aviation gasoline to Japan. In April 1941, the Japanese signed a neutrality treaty with the USSR as insurance against an attack from that direction if they were to come into conflict with Britain or the U.S. while taking a bigger bite out of Southeast Asia. When Germany invaded the USSR in June, Japanese leaders considered breaking the treaty and joining in from the east, but, making one of the most fateful decisions of the war, they chose instead to intensify their push to the southeast. On July 23 Japan occupied southern Indochina. Two days later, the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands froze Japanese assets. The effect was to prevent Japan from purchasing oil, which would, in time, cripple its army and make its navy and air force completely useless.

The German Invasion of the USSR

The war's most massive encounter began on the morning of June 22, 1941, when slightly more than 3 million German troops invaded the USSR. Although German preparations had been visible for months and had been talked about openly among the diplomats in Moscow, the Soviet forces were taken by surprise. Stalin, his confidence in the country's military capability shaken by the Finnish war, had refused to allow any counteractivity for fear of provoking the Germans. Moreover, the Soviet military leadership had concluded that blitzkrieg, as it had been practiced in Poland and France, would not be possible on the scale of a Soviet-German war; both sides would therefore confine themselves for the first several weeks at least to sparring along the frontier. The Soviet army had 2.9 million troops on the western border and outnumbered the Germans by two to one in tanks and by two or three to one in aircraft. Many of its tanks and aircraft were older types, but some of the tanks, particularly the later famous T-34s, were far superior to any the Germans had. Large numbers of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the first day, however, and their tanks, like those of the French, were scattered among the infantry, where they could not be effective against the German panzer groups. The infantry was first ordered to counterattack, which was impossible, and then forbidden to retreat, which ensured their wholesale destruction or capture.

IHitler's Change of Plan

The Russians were doing exactly what the German generals had wanted, sacrificing enormous numbers of troops and weapons to defend Moscow. Hitler, however, was not satisfied, and over the generals' protests, he ordered Army Group Center to divert the bulk of its armor to the north and south to help the other two army groups, thereby stopping the advance toward Moscow. On September 8 Army Group North cut Leningrad's land connections and, together with the Finnish army on the north, brought the city under siege. On September 16 Army Group South closed a gigantic encirclement east of Kyyiv that brought in 665,000 prisoners. Hitler then decided to resume the advance toward Moscow and ordered the armor be returned to Army Group Center.

The Attempt to Take Moscow

 After a standstill of six weeks, Army Group Center resumed action on October 2. Within two weeks, it completed three large encirclements and took 663,000 prisoners. Then the fall rains set in, turning the unpaved Russian roads to mud and stopping the advance for the better part of a month.

In mid-November, the weather turned cold and the ground froze. Hitler and the commander of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, faced the choice of having the armies dig in where they were or sending them ahead, possibly to be overtaken by the winter. Wanting to finish the 1941 campaign with some sort of a victory at Moscow, they chose to move ahead.

In the second half of November Bock aimed two armored spearheads at Moscow. Just after the turn of the month, one of those, bearing in on the city from the northwest, was less than 32 km (less than 20 mi) away. The other, coming from the south, had about 65 km (about 40 mi) still to go. The panzer divisions had often covered such distances in less than a day, but the temperature was falling, snow was drifting on the roads, and neither the men nor the machines were outfitted for extreme cold. On December 5 the generals commanding the spearhead armies reported that they were stopped: The tanks and trucks were freezing up, and the troops were losing their will to fight.

Soviet Counteroffensive

 Stalin, who had stayed in Moscow, and his commander at the front, General Georgy Zhukov, had held back their reserves. Many of them were recent recruits, but some were hardened veterans from Siberia. All were dressed for winter. On December 6 they counterattacked, and within a few days, the German spearheads were rolling back and abandoning large numbers of vehicles and weapons, rendered useless by the cold.

On Stalin's orders, the Moscow counterattack was quickly converted into a counteroffensive on the entire front. The Germans had not built any defense lines to the rear and could not dig in because the ground was frozen hard as concrete. Some of the generals recommended retreating to Poland, but on December 18 Hitler ordered the troops to stand fast wherever they were. Thereafter, the Russians chopped great chunks out of the German front, but enough of it survived the winter to maintain the siege of Leningrad, continue the threat to Moscow, and keep the western Ukraine in German hands.

The Russian Front: Summer 1942

In the most immediately critical area of the war, the USSR, the initiative had passed to the Germans again by summer 1942. The Soviet successes in the winter had been followed by disasters in the spring. Setbacks south of Leningrad, near Kharkiv, and in Crimea had cost well more than a half-million men in prisoners alone. The Germans had not sustained such massive losses, but the fighting had been expensive for them too, especially since the Soviets had three times the human resources at their disposal. Moreover, Hitler's overconfidence had led him into a colossal error. He had been so sure of victory in 1941 that he had stopped most kinds of weapons and ammunition production for the army and shifted the industries to work for the air force and navy, with which he proposed to finish off the British. He had resumed production for the army in January 1942, but the flow would not reach the front until late summer. Soviet weapons output, on the other hand, after having dropped low in November and December 1941, had increased steadily since the turn of the year, and the Soviet industrial base also was larger than the German.

Looking ahead to the summer, Hitler knew he could not again mount an all-out, three-pronged offensive. Some of the generals talked about waiting a year until the army could be rebuilt, but Hitler was determined to have the victory in 1942. He had sufficient troops and weapons to bring the southern flank of the eastern front nearly to full strength, and he believed he could compel the Soviet command to sacrifice its main forces trying to defend the coal mines of the Donets Basin and the oil fields of the Caucasus.

The German Drive Toward the Caucasus

The offensive began east of Kharkiv on June 28, and in less than four weeks the armies had taken the Donets Basin and advanced east to the Don River. The distances covered were spectacular, but the numbers of enemy killed or captured were relatively small. Stalin and his generals had made the luckiest mistake of the war. Believing the Germans were going to aim a second, more powerful, attack on Moscow, they had held their reserves back and allowed the armies in the south to retreat.

Hitler, emboldened by the ease and speed of the advance, altered his plan in the last week of July. He had originally proposed to drive due east to Stalingrad, seize a firm hold on the Volga River there, and only then send a force south into the Caucasus. On July 23 he ordered two armies to continue the advance toward Stalingrad and two to strike south across the lower Don and take the oil fields at Maikop, Groznyy, and Baku.

The Russians appeared to be heading toward disaster, as the German thrust into the Caucasus covered 300 km (185 mi) to Maikop by August 9. Hitler's strategy, however, presented a problem: Two forces moving away from each other could not be sustained equally over the badly damaged railroads of the occupied territory. In the second half of August, he diverted more supplies to the attack toward Stalingrad, and the march into the Caucasus slowed. Nevertheless, success seemed to be in sight when the Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army (formerly group) closed near the Stalingrad suburbs on September 3.

The Russian Stand at Stalingrad

 The USSR reached its low point in the war at the end of July 1942. The retreat was almost out of hand, and the Germans were getting into position to strike north along the Volga behind Moscow as well as into the Caucasus. On July 28 Stalin issued his most famous order of the war, "Not a step back!" While threatening Draconian punishments for slackers and defeatists, he relegated communism to the background and called on the troops to fight a "patriotic" war for Russia. Like Hitler, he had thus far conducted the war as he saw fit. In late August he called on his two best military professionals, Zhukov, who had organized the Moscow counteroffensive in December 1941, and the army chief of the General Staff, General Aleksandr M. Vasilyevsky, to deal with the situation at Stalingrad. They proposed to wear the enemy down by locking its troops in a bloody fight for the city while they assembled the means for a counterattack.

The Anglo-American Offensive in North Africa

The turnabout in North Africa began on August 31, 1942, when Rommel attacked through the southern flank of the British line west of Al ‘Alamayn, was stopped at the ‘Alam al Halfa' Ridge, and was thrown back by September 7. The newly appointed British commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, hit the north flank on October 23 with a methodically prepared offensive and, by November 5, forced Rommel into a retreat. American and British Troops fighting together under General Dwight D. Eisenhower began landing in Morocco and Algeria on November 8, the Americans at Casablanca and Oran, the British at Algiers. The Germans sent reinforcements into Tunis and occupied all of France. They managed to get the Fifth Panzer Army under General Jürgen von Arnim on the scene in time to stop Eisenhower in western Tunisia by mid-December. Rommel went into the Mareth Line in southeastern Tunisia in early February 1943 and launched an attack against the Americans on February 14 that drove them back 80 km (50 mi) and out of the vital Kasserine Pass. It was his last success and one he could not exploit. Hitler recalled him in March, as the Americans and British closed in from the west and south. After being cut off from their bases at Bizerte and Tunis and driven back into pockets on the Cape Bon Peninsula, 275,000 Germans and Italians surrendered by May 13.

The Soviet Victory at Stalingrad

On the eastern front the Germans' advances to Stalingrad and into the Caucasus had added about 1100 km (about 680 mi) to their line. No German troops were available to hold that extra distance, so Hitler had to use troops contributed by his allies. Consequently, while Sixth and Fourth Panzer armies were tied down at Stalingrad in September and October 1942, they were flanked on the left and right by Romanian armies. An Italian and a Hungarian army were deployed farther upstream on the Don River. Trial maneuvers had exposed serious weaknesses in some of the Axis's armies.

On the morning of November 19, in snow and fog, Soviet armored spearheads hit the Romanians west and south of Stalingrad. Their points met three days later at Kalach on the Don River, encircling the Sixth Army, about half of the Fourth Panzer Army, and a number of Romanian units. Hitler ordered the Sixth Army commander, General Friedrich Paulus, to hold the pocket, promised him air supply, and sent Manstein, by then a field marshal, to organize a relief. The airlift failed to provide the 300 tons of supplies that Paulus needed each day, and Manstein's relief operation was halted 55 km (34 mi) short of the pocket in late December. The Sixth Army was doomed if it did not attempt a breakout, which Hitler refused to permit.

The Russians pushed in on the pocket from three sides in January 1943, and Paulus surrendered on January 31. The battle cost Germany about 200,000 troops. In the aftermath of Stalingrad, in part owing to the collapse of the Italian and Hungarian armies, the Germans were forced to retreat from the Caucasus and back approximately to the line from which they had started the 1942 summer offensive.

The Casablanca Conference

From January 14 to 24, 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill and their staffs met in Casablanca to lay out a strategy for the period after the North African campaign. The American military chiefs wanted to proceed to the direct, cross-channel assault on Germany. The British, eloquently spoken for by Churchill, argued the advantages of gathering in the "great prizes" to be had in the Mediterranean, in Sicily and Italy for a start. Roosevelt supported the British, and the American military succeeded only (several months later) in getting an agreement that no more troops would be put into the Mediterranean area than were already there, all others being assembled in England for a cross-channel attack in 1944. Roosevelt gave his military another shock when he announced that nothing short of unconditional surrender would be accepted from any of the Axis powers. The policy was meant to reassure the Russians, who would have to wait at least another year for a full-fledged second front, but was likely also to stiffen Axis resistance.

Air Raids on Germany

As a prelude to the postponed cross-channel attack, the British and Americans decided at Casablanca to open a strategic air (bombing) offensive against Germany. In this instance they agreed on timing but not on method. The British, as a result of discouraging experience with daylight bombing early in the war, had built their heavy bombers, the Lancasters and Halifaxes, for night bombing, which meant area bombing. The Americans believed their B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators were armed and armored heavily enough and were fitted with sufficiently accurate bombsights to fly by daylight and strike pinpoint targets. The difference was resolved by letting each nation conduct its own offensive in its own way and calling the result round-the-clock bombing. The British method was exemplified by four firebomb raids on Hamburg in late July 1943, in which much of the city was burned out and 50,000 people died. American losses of planes and crews increased sharply as the bombers penetrated deeper into Germany. After early October 1943, when strikes at ball-bearing plants in Schweinfurt incurred nearly 25 percent losses, the daylight offensive had to be curtailed until long-range fighters became available.

The Tehran Conference

 At the end of November, Roosevelt and Churchill journeyed to Tehran for their first meeting with Stalin. The president and the prime minister had already approved, under the code name Overlord, a plan for a cross-channel attack. Roosevelt wholeheartedly favored executing Overlord as early in 1944 as the weather permitted. At Tehran, Churchill argued for giving priority to Italy and possible new offensives in the Balkans or southern France, but he was outvoted by Roosevelt and Stalin. Overlord was set for May 1944. After the meeting, the CCS recalled Eisenhower from the Mediterranean and gave him command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), which was to organize and carry out Overlord.

The Tehran conference marked the high point of the East-West wartime alliance. Stalin came to the meeting as a victorious war leader; large quantities of U.S. lend-lease aid were flowing into the Soviet Union through Murmansk and the Persian Gulf; and the decision on Overlord satisfied the long-standing Soviet demand for a second front. At the same time, strains were developing as the Soviet armies approached the borders of the smaller eastern European states. In May 1943 the Germans had produced evidence linking the USSR to the deaths of some 11,000 Polish officers found buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. Stalin had severed relations with the Polish exile government in London, and he insisted at Tehran, as he had before, that the postwar Soviet-Polish boundary would have to be the one established after the Polish defeat in 1939. He also reacted with barely concealed hostility to Churchill's proposal of a British-American thrust into the Balkans.

The Normandy Invasion

 On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the day of invasion for Overlord, the U.S. First Army, under General Omar N. Bradley, and the British Second Army, under General Miles C. Dempsey, established beachheads in Normandy, on the French channel coast. The German resistance was strong, and the footholds for Allied armies were not nearly as good as they had expected. Nevertheless, the powerful counterattack with which Hitler had proposed to throw the Allies off the beaches did not materialize, neither on D-Day nor later. Enormous Allied air superiority over northern France made it difficult for Rommel, who was in command on the scene, to move his limited reserves. Moreover, Hitler became convinced that the Normandy landings were a feint and the main assault would come north of the Seine River. Consequently, he refused to release the divisions he had there and insisted on drawing in reinforcements from more distant areas. By the end of June, Eisenhower had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles ashore in Normandy.

The Air War in Europe

 (1944). The main action against Germany during the fall of 1944 was in the air. Escorted by long-range fighters, particularly P-51 Mustangs, U.S. bombers hit industrial targets by day, while the German cities crumbled under British bombing by night. Hitler had responded by bombarding England, beginning in June, with V-1 flying bombs and in September with V-2 rockets; but the best launching sites, those in northwestern France and in Belgium, were lost in October. The effects of the Allied strategic bombing were less clear-cut than had been expected. The bombing did not destroy civilian morale, and German fighter plane and armored vehicle production reached their wartime peaks in the second half of 1944. On the other hand, iron and steel output dropped by half between September and December, and continued bombing of the synthetic oil plants, coupled with loss of the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania, severely limited the fuel that would be available for the tanks and planes coming off the assembly lines.

The shortening of the fronts on the east and the west and the late year lull in the ground fighting gave Hitler one more chance to create a reserve of about 25 divisions. He resolved to use them offensively against the British and Americans by cutting across Belgium to Antwerp in an action similar to the sweep through the Ardennes that had brought the British and French to disaster at Dunkerque in May 1940.

The Yalta Conference

By then the Soviet armies were on the Odra (Oder) River, 60 km (35 mi) east of Berlin. They had smashed the German line on the Wisla River and reached the Baltic coast east of Danzig (Gdansk) in January 1945 and had a tight hold on the Odra by February 3. Stalin would meet Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta (see Yalta Conference) in Crimea (February 4-11) with all of Poland in his pocket and with Berlin and, for all anybody then knew, most of Germany as well within his grasp. At Yalta, Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan within three months after the German surrender in return for territorial concessions in the Far East.

The Americans and British, as was their custom, disagreed on how to proceed against Germany. In a meeting at Malta shortly before the Yalta conference, Montgomery and the British members of the CCS argued for a fast single thrust by Montgomery's army group across the north German plain to Berlin. To sustain such a thrust, they wanted the bulk of Allied supplies to go to Montgomery, which meant the American armies would have to stay on the defensive. Eisenhower's plan, which prevailed, was to give Montgomery first priority but also keep the American armies on the move.

The German Surrender

Hitler decided to await the end in Berlin, where he could still manipulate what was left of the command apparatus. Most of his political and military associates chose to leave the capital for places in north and south Germany likely to be out of the Soviet reach. On the afternoon of April 30 Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. As his last significant official act, he named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz to succeed him as chief of state.

Doenitz, who had been loyal to Hitler, had no course open to him other than surrender. His representative, General Alfred Jodl, signed an unconditional surrender of all German armed forces at Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims early on May 7. By then the German forces in Italy had already surrendered (on May 2), as had those in Holland, north Germany, and Denmark (May 4). The U.S. and British governments declared May 8 V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. The full unconditional surrender took effect at one minute past midnight after a second signing in Berlin with Soviet participation.

Cost of the War

World War II's basic statistics qualify it as by far the greatest war in history in terms of human and material resources expended. In all, 61 countries with 1.7 billion people, three-fourths of the world's population, took part. A total of 110 million persons were mobilized for military service, more than half of those by three countries: the USSR (22-30 million), Germany (17 million), and the United States (16 million). For the major participants the largest numbers on duty at any one time were as follows: USSR (12,500,000); U.S. (12,245,000); Germany (10,938,000); British Empire and Commonwealth (8,720,000); Japan (7,193,000); and China (5,000,000).

Most statistics on the war are only estimates. The war's vast and chaotic sweep made uniform record keeping impossible. Some governments lost control of the data, and some resorted to manipulating it for political reasons.

A rough consensus has been reached on the total cost of the war. In terms of money spent, it has been put at more than $1 trillion, which makes it more expensive than all other wars combined. The human cost, not including more than 5 million Jews killed in the Holocaust (see Holocaust: Results of the Holocaust) who were indirect victims of the war, is estimated to have been 55 million dead—25 million of those military and 30 million civilian.

Economic Statistics

The U.S. spent the most money on the war, an estimated $341 billion, including $50 billion for lend-lease supplies, of which $31 billion went to Britain, $11 billion to the Soviet Union, $5 billion to China, and $3 billion to 35 other countries. Germany was next, with $272 billion; followed by the Soviet Union, $192 billion; and then Britain, $120 billion; Italy, $94 billion; and Japan, $56 billion. Except for the U.S., however, and some of the less militarily active Allies, the money spent does not come close to being the war's true cost. The Soviet government has calculated that the USSR lost 30 percent of its national wealth, while Nazi exactions and looting were of incalculable amounts in the occupied countries. The full cost to Japan has been estimated at $562 billion. In Germany, bombing and shelling had produced 4 billion cu m (5 billion cu yd) of rubble.

Human Losses

The human cost of the war fell heaviest on the USSR, for which the official total, military and civilian, is given as more than 20 million killed. The Allied military and civilian losses were 44 million; those of the Axis, 11 million. The military deaths on both sides in Europe numbered 19 million and in the war against Japan, 6 million. The U.S., which had no significant civilian losses, sustained 292,131 battle deaths and 115,187 deaths from other causes. The highest numbers of deaths, military and civilian, were as follows: USSR more than 13,000,000 military and 7,000,000 civilian; China 3,500,000 and 10,000,000; Germany 3,500,000 and 3,800,000; Poland 120,000 and 5,300,000; Japan 1,700,000 and 380,000; Yugoslavia 300,000 and 1,300,000; Romania 200,000 and 465,000; France 250,000 and 360,000; British Empire and Commonwealth 452,000 and 60,000; Italy 330,000 and 80,000; Hungary 120,000 and 280,000; and Czechoslovakia 10,000 and 330,000.

Perhaps the most significant casualty over the long term was the world balance of power. Britain, France, Germany, and Japan ceased to be great powers in the traditional military sense, leaving only two, the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

Contributed by:

Earl F. Ziemke