World War II (commonly abbreviated WWII or WW2) was a globe-spanning miltary conflict fought between the Allies (United States, Great Britain, Russia, Canada, France) and the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany, Italy, Japan) that lasted six years, from the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 to the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.
Concerns over the massive German military buildup that had begun in the Rhineland in 1936 deeply disturbed both Great Britain and France, but neither wanted to disturb, and instead decided to appease Hitler after he annexed Austria and pressed claims on a predominantly German area of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) in 1938. Britain's Neville Chamberlain, France's Édouard Daladier and other European leaders falsely believed Hitler's promise of no further territorial demands after claiming Czechoslovakia, and agreed to let the Germans claim the Sudetenland in September 1938 at the Munich Conference. The remainder of Czechoslovakia was invaded and occupied by German troops, with the Czechs offering little resistance, and turned the country into a puppet/client state by March 1939. At this point, events began to rapidly accelerate, with France and Britain pledging assistance to Poland on March 31, the extension of that plan to Greece and Romania on April 13 after Italy's occupation of Albania, and the signings of the Pact of Steel on May 22, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23.
The War Begins; Axis' Advance on all Fronts (1939-1942)
The 'Phoney War' (1939-1940)
On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland, followed by an official declaration of war by Britain and France two days later, as well as by nations of the British Commonwealth, but this failed to send any appreciable forces to combat the relentless Nazi advance, labeled by Hitler as a Blitzkreig (German for lightning war), other than a French incursion into the German 1st Army's Defense Sector in the Saarland from September 7 to 16. Soviet troops soon followed the Germans by invading Poland on September 17, but, despite their country being split by the occupying forces, the Poles continued to fight through the Polish Underground, the Polish Armed Forces in the West, and the Polish Government in Exile in Britain. Events over the next several months rapidly grew more chaotic, with Soviet forces invading and occupying the Baltic states and invading Finland in November 1939, in a brief conflict known as the Winter War. British troops deployed to France during the so-called 'Phoney War' or sitzkreig (sitting war) in early 1940, while Daladier resigned as French prime minister on March 20, and German troops, as part of Operation Weserübung invaded Norway and Denmark on April 9, with Allied troops beginning to land in Norway five days later. The Phoney War had few notable events besides this, though the British carrier Courageous and battleship Oak Royal were sunk by German U-boats in the fall of 1939, along with the first Luftwaffe raids on England over Rosyth on October 16 and Scapa Flow the next day. The last major action of the Phoney War was when the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was engaged by three British heavy cruisers off South America on December 13, and was forced to retire to Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs, where her captain decided to scuttle her four days later, misbelieving that the superior British force was advancing. Finally, when Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Luxembourg on May 10, 1940, the Phoney War ended, eight months after Britain and France had declared war.
The Fall of France (1940)
The day the 'Phoney War' finally ended was the day Germany began one of its greatest offensives of the war in which they invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg on May 10, 1940. The same day, King George VI appointed Winston Churchill prime minister after Chamberlain's resignation, and British forces occupied Iceland to prevent the Germans from controlling the Atlantic seaways. Within days blitzkrieg tactics had overrun the Netherlands, German troops in France had bypassed the heavily fortified Maginot Line through the Ardennes Forest and penetrated deep into France, her defenses rapidly crumbling under the relentless German onslaught, and Luxembourg had been quickly occupied by German troops on May 9. By May 16, the Germans had advanced to Hirson through their Ardennes Offensive and southern Belgium. In the early morning hours of May 17, however, the Germans suffered their first setback when Belgium declared itself neutral under the Treaty of London of 1839, effectively denying passage, forcing the Germans to respect their neutrality as with Switzerland, and to squeeze their divisions past the still French-manned Maginot Line, and by amphibious landings midway between Boulogne and the Somme River on May 20. It is suspected by some that Hitler decided to pull the German Army out of Belgium and avoid it for reasons as yet unknown, though this remains not much more than a theory. These landings were heavily bombarded by a British and French battlegroup of considerable size, resulting in nearly 2000 German casualties, but still, they were unable to prevent the bulk of the Nazi troops from coming ashore, and forced the British and French battlegroup away after the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign was hit by four torpedoes from the German submarine U-103, detonating both fore and aft magazines within ten minutes, killing 560 of her complement. U-103 was hunted down, depth-charged, and sunk by the destroyer HMS Kingston two hours later, fifty-six miles northeast of Norwich, near Well Bank. The German landings continued, with over 12,000 troops ashore within the first day alone, nearly 30,000 by May 23, which initiated the planning of the Dunkirk evacuation (Operation Dynamo) that began on May 26, and ended June 4, resulting in the evacuation of 338,226 Allied soldiers (mainly British) and allowing the Germans to seize Dunkirk from the French rearguard forces whose only real goal was to buy time for the evacuation. Six days later, Italy declared war on France and Britain, and on June 15, the Germans launched an operation named Tiger that eventually collapsed the Maginot Line and was part of the trigger for the British Operations Cycle and Ariel that evacuated 190,000 to 200,000 more Allied troops from the ports of Le Havre, Cherbourg, and St. Nazaire by the 25th. Over 5800 of that count was lost aboard the liner Lancastria when she was sunk off St. Nazaire on June 17 after bombing by 'Junkers' Ju-88 dive bombers. On the 16th, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned and was replaced by Philippe Pétain, who immediately asked for an armistice with Germany, which was signed in the Compiègne Forest on June 22, the exact place where Germany had surrendered in 1918, while the Free French government continued on in Britain under General Charles de Gaulle.
Invading Italian troops also accepted the armistice after it went into effect on the 25th, which divided the country into three zones: German occupied France in the northern half of the country and the entire north and western coastlines, Vichy France in the south, and the small Italian occupied zone to the east of Vichy, with Philippe Pétain heading up the new Vichy government. On July 3, British battlegroups destroyed and disabled a large part of the French Fleet in the Attack on Mers-el-Kébir in coastal Algeria, sinking multiple French battleships and cruisers, and killing nearly 1300 French navy personnel, in fear that the fleet would ally itself with Germany and the Vichy government. The British suffered only minor attacks in return, with a bomber attack from the Vichy carrier Painlevé slightly damaging the battleship HMS Leeds. Also of note was, in a short skirmish just outside Mers-el-Kébir, the battleship Gascogne was engaged by the battlecruisers HMS Howe and Saint Paul, leaving the British ships moderately damaged, but also sinking Gascogne, effectively denying the German-allied Vichy government yet another capital warship.
Battle of Britain; The Blitz (1940-1941)
Shortly before the French surrender in June, the USSR had annexed the Baltic States through a series of staged elections, much to German chagrin and sparking the first embers of dissent between the two powers. But even with tensions between Germany and the USSR secretly and slowly building, the Luftwaffe began the Battle of Britain on July 10 when German bombers attacked British convoys in the English Channel. Attrition rates among the convoys were extremely high, the the British Admiralty cancelled any further convoys to conserve badly needed fighter craft for the upcoming battles. Not until a month later did the first real attacks begin when Luftwaffe fighter-bomber units attacked four British 'Chain Home' radar towers at Dowding, and though three were taken offline by this first attack, they were online again within six hours, proving British resourcefulness and their durability against German attacks. The Luftwaffe made one critical error during this phase of the battle: they failed to take out the infrastructure supporting the radar towers, which very well may have doomed the German attack from this point on. With attacks on coastal airfields believed to have been somewhat successful, bombing raids began on larger and far more critical airfields further inland, but British resourcefulness again outmatched the German ruthlessness as RAF crews repaired bomb-damaged and cratered runways with gravel and other various items, allowing RAF fighters to continue their fight against the Nazi assaults. By August 24, Goring had ordered attacks against the Home Chain radar stations halted, not seeing their critical role to British defense was and how difficult they were to destroy; this was also around when inland airfield attacks began and marked the most critical phase of the battle for both sides. RAF losses were soon offset by Polish AF and Czech squadrons, which were highly trained and motivated, their home countries having been brutally occupied by Nazi forces in 1939, with one of the Czech pilots, Josef František, becoming the highest-scoring ace of the Battle of Britain. In the next two months, the Luftwaffe ended their bombings of RAF airfields and began concentrating on bombing civilian and critical infrastructure targets as well as and especially major English cities, such as London and Portsmouth, (nicknamed 'The Blitz') which continued into May 1941, devastating major British cities and leaving many in near-ruins, but Britain and her people's resourcefulness and bravery yet again were proven against the seemingly unstoppable Nazi juggernaut as citizens continually attempted to rebuild between attacks, firefighters valiantly fought immense blazes begun by incendiary bombs, and even the royal family remained though Buckingham Palace itself was hit by bombs on September 10 and 13. By this time, RAF fighters had begun to repulse Luftwaffe bombers with increasing frequency, forcing them to nighttime-only bombing, and though The Blitz was devastating the cities below, the RAF was slowly beginning to regain supremacy in the skies, and on October 13, Hitler put off the invasion of Britain, 'Operation Sea Lion', until the spring of 1941. With the RAF slowly gaining superiority over the Luftwaffe, Britain had effectively won the battle and handed Hitler his first of many defeats, though The Blitz continued until May 10, 1941, seeming to wreck much of Britain's industry and morale (though failing utterly at the latter).
Axis Powers Grow
As the Battle of Britain was raging and slowly waning, on September 27, the Axis Powers were established with the signing of the Triparte Pact by Germany, Japan, and Italy, which also stated that a declaration of war on any member would be akin to declaring war on all three.
Italy's Advances Stall; Nazis Reinforce (1940-1941)
Italy began its first major incursion of the war on October 28, 1940, when they invaded Greece through Albania, and up through November 13, advanced into northern Greece, but against stiff resistance from Greek Army units in Macedonia and advancing to the Kalamas River by October 31 as well as capturing the town of Konitsa and reaching the main front on November 1. But, within two weeks, over 250,000 Greek troops had arrived at the front, stalled, and were slowly pushing back the 150,000 Italian troops through mountain terrain in which the Greeks were used to fighting and were trained for, while the Italian troops had only half the strength of the Greeks and weren't accustomed to such terrain, giving the Greeks a fortunate and obvious advantage against the seemingly superior Italians. By November 14, the Greeks had reversed the Italians far enough to invade Albania and occupy the region known to the Greeks as Northern Epirus by January 1941. In December 1940, Italy had invaded North African countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Algeria, and British and Commonwealth forces soon arrived to repulse the Italian advances, which succeeded in pushing the Italians as far back as Libya by early 1941. This soon allowed British troops to reinforce their Greek allies in the Albanian invasion, leaving troops in Egypt stretched thin. But, by March 1941, German Army units had begun to reinforce their beseiged Italian allies in both Greece and North Africa, and by early April, Commonwealth forces had been pushed back into Egypt in North Africa and had completely occupied the Greek mainland and invaded Crete by May.
Middle East Uprisings (1941)
In May, just as Nazi troops were beginning the occupation of Crete, a coup began against the British-allied Iraqi government, led and aided by Vichy aircraft from Syria, but was quickly put down and led to a British and Free French counterattack into Syria and Lebanon lasting from June 8 to July 12 and costing the Vichy and Axis forces over 9000 troops compared to the Allied losses of just over 4000. Free French forces occupied Lebanon and Syria, both of which became independent in 1943 and 1944 respectively, and declared war on Germany and Japan in February 1945.
Battleship Bismarck (1941)
The new German battleship, Bismarck, built in the late 1930s and commissioned in early 1941, was primarily intended to ravage Allied shipping in the Atlantic and starve Britain into surrender in combination with U-boat attacks. But, the battleship's career took a sudden turn on May 24, when she, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sank the flagship and symbol of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, in the Battle of the Denmark Strait, killing 1,428 of her crew and leaving only three survivors. The British sought revenge for the Hood's sinking and dispatched multiple battleships, destroyers, and carrier aircraft to intercept Bismarck. Carrier aircraft, antiquated biplane torpedo bombers from the carrier Ark Royal struck and crippled Bismarck's rudders, allowing the British battlegroup, under command of British Admiral John Tovey and consisting of battleships Rodney and King George V to finally catch up with and cripple Bismarck on May 27, though many believe torpedoes launched by the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire were ineffective and that Bismarck's remaining senior staff ordered the ship to be scuttled. Over 2200 of the German battleship's crew drowned in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when she sank. Only 111 of her crew were saved by Dorsetshire before a U-boat was sighted and forced them to vacate the area. The sinking was a major morale boost for England at a critical moment of the war, especially after the destruction of the Hood and the recent end of The Blitz, both of which had dealt major blows to British spirit.