Chapter 25 Growing Aggression and World War II

Section 2 The Early Years of the War

In the three years between 1939 and 1942, a war that had begun over Poland rapidly expanded. By 1942, all the world’s major power had entered, forming two great blocs. On one side, Italy and Japan joined with Germany, becoming known as the “Axis” powers. On the other side, the Soviet Union, United States, and China joined with Britain and France, becoming known as the “Allied” powers.[xxiv][xxiv]

From “Phony War” to the Fall of France

Hitler unleashed his attack on Poland without warning and with remarkable ferocity. Adopting the newly developed tactics of General Hans Guderian, in what became known as “Blitzkrieg,” or “Lightning War,” German dive bombers screamed down on the Poles from the skies and German panzer units—tanks and armored trucks—rolled rapidly over the countryside, destroying all resistance in their path. Unprepared for modern mechanized warfare, the desperate Poles sometimes found themselves trying to battle German tanks with mounted cavalry. In mid-September, the Soviet army, in accord with the secret agreement of August, also invaded Poland. On September 27, the Polish government surrendered to the Germans and by October 6 all Polish resistance had ended. Divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland once again disappeared from the map of Europe.

            While Hitler began to plan for a campaign in the west to knock out France and isolate Britain, Stalin ordered his troops to seize Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. In November, the Soviets also launched an attack on Finland. Although the Finns resisted vigorously, by March they had been defeated. Confronted with such blatant aggression, a helpless League of Nations could only expel the Soviet Union from membership in the organization.

The “phony war.” Meanwhile, despite the declarations of war, things remained so calm in western Europe that newspapers began to write of the “phony war.” The calm was deceptive, however. Hitler had already begun planning for an offensive in the west, where his basic objectives were the rapid destruction of France and the isolation of Britain. The coming of winter forced him to delay his move until the spring of 1940. In the meantime, both France and Britain began preparing for the German attack. The French massed their troops along the Maginot Line while Britain sent an expeditionary force across the Channel to take up defensive positions in northern France. At sea, the Royal Navy began a blockade of German ports.

Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Hitler’s plan finally began to unfold in stages in April 1940. On April 9 he struck once again, this time against Denmark and Norway. German workers sent into both countries to spread Nazi racial propaganda and to find potential collaborators willing to join in the Nazis’ great Aryan crusade had prepared the way. Both countries quickly fell under German control—Denmark without a struggle, and Norway after a spirited resistance, aided by Britain. Norway was especially important in Hitler’s strategy for it provided bases from which German forces could hit Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. The long Norwegian coastline also provided splendid bases for German submarines.

            Hitler next turned to the destruction of France. He paved the way on May 10, 1940 by invading the Low Countries—Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. By the end of May all three had fallen. Having effectively outflanked the Maginot Line, on June 5 German troops invaded France. German panzers drove west toward the English Channel in a successful move that cut off British, Belgian, and French troops in northern France from French forces in the south.

Dunkirk. Reeling from the ferocity of the blitzkrieg, the Allied forces were forced to retreat to Dunkirk, a small village on the Channel coast. Surrounded, the desperate Allied forces, numbering nearly 400,000 men, had only one alternative to surrender—retreat by sea. As the Royal Air Force struggled to keep the skies free of German planes, the British government ordered every available ship and boat in southern England to the French coast to rescue as many of the trapped soldiers as possible.

            In what seemed at the time little short of a miracle, between May 27 and June 4, some 335,000 men were safely transported across the Channel to safety in England. Ironically, Hitler himself seems to have been largely responsible for the miracle. Although the German panzers might easily have finished off the Allied forces, for three critical days they were prevented from doing so by “the Fuhrer’s personal order.” Hitler’s reasons for this decision remain unclear.

The fall of France. After Dunkirk, the struggle for France lasted less than a month. On June 10, Mussolini declared war on the Allies and invaded southern France. On June 14, the German army entered Paris. Rather than surrender, the entire French Cabinet resigned and an old World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Pétain, formed a new government. On June 22, in the same railway car in which the Germans had signed the armistice in 1918, Pétain signed an armistice dictated by Hitler.

            The terms of the new armistice were even more severe than those of 1918. Germany occupied about three-fifths of France including Paris. The French Army was interned in Prisoner of War camps, and the French Navy was to disarm and return immediately to sit out the war in French ports. Only the south was left under Pétain’s control, with its capital in the town of Vichy. Thus the Germans divided the country into occupied France under their own rule, and Vichy France, which collaborated with them through Pétain’s regime.

            Many French, however, wanted to continue the fight against Germany. In France itself, secret armed groups of many different political persuasions (including French Communists) began to form to harass the German occupiers. They were known collectively as the “Resistance.” The French resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, conducting rescue and sabotage operations. Similar resistance movements appeared in most of the other countries occupied by the Nazis, including Germany itself. In London, General Charles DeGaulle formed a government in exile and called on French forces worldwide to continue fighting Germany. He successfully organized a substantial army under the control of his “Free French” government.

Britain Alone

The fall of France left Britain and her Empire standing alone against Germany and Italy. On the same day that the Germans attacked Norway, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been forced to resign. Winston Churchill, who had repeatedly warned of the German danger throughout the 1930s, replaced him as Prime Minister. In a speech shortly before the fall of France Churchill declared Britain’s resolve to resist the Nazis:

“Even though . . . many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into . . . the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”[xxv][xxv]

Soon after the fall of France, Hitler began to make preparations to invade Britain. In early July 1940, the German Luftwaffe, or air force, began a concerted series of raids on British airfields. Their object was to destroy Britain’s Royal Air Force and gain control of the skies over Britain. For nearly a year, between June 1940 and June 1941, the British alone prevented a Nazi victory. 

The Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe, took a heavy toll in its attacks on Britain. Yet British resistance proved so effective that Hitler soon grew impatient. In part this was due to a British technological breakthrough. Through the use of broadcast radio waves—a technology called radar—they could detect German airplanes at long ranges. Radar gave the British early warning of German raids, allowing British fighters to “scramble” and intercept the German bombers. In September, Hitler decided he would have to postpone his plans to invade Britain indefinitely. The Battle of Britain had ended in a British victory. Churchill gave credit for the victory to Britain’s fighter pilots: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”[xxvi][xxvi]

            Frustrated in his attempt to destroy the Royal Air Force, however, Hitler decided to try to force Britain’s submission by bombing its cities. Between September 1940 and May 1941, Britain’s urban population endured the German “Blitz”—regular nighttime air raids. Britain retaliated with air raids on German cities. The “Blitz” claimed thousands of civilian lives, especially in London, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. In November 1940 the cathedral town of Coventry was burned almost to the ground, and the famous cathedral itself totally destroyed. Nevertheless, the British held firm. In May 1941 Hitler finally gave up his efforts to pound them into submission from the air.

Britain’s lifelines. While the war was raging in the skies over Britain, Britain also faced major Axis challenges to its ability to maintain the vital overseas communications with its empire. The entry of Italy into the war on Germany’s side, for example, seriously threatened Britain’s position in the Mediterranean, especially its control of Egypt and the vital Suez Canal. In mid-September 1940, Italian forces invaded Egypt from Libya. The British quickly counter-attacked, and repelled the Italian invaders. It was Britain’s first major land victory in the war.

            In early 1941, British forces took the offensive, invading Italian-occupied Ethiopia. In May, the exiled emperor Haile Selassie returned. By the end of the year, Britain had restored Ethiopia’s independence. In the meantime, however, the situation in Egypt had worsened for Britain. Hitler had decided to send German troops to bolster Italy’s army in North Africa. Led by an inventive officer named Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s Afrika Korps began arriving in Libya in February 1941. Rommel’s orders were to attack Egypt and capture the Suez Canal. Hitler’s ultimate aim was the strategic oil fields of the Middle East. In April, Rommel advanced across the Egyptian frontier, once again putting the British on the defensive.

            While the Italians thus tried to sever British communications through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, in the Atlantic Hitler had also launched a major U-boat offensive in the Atlantic. As during World War I, German submarines did their best to halt the flow of supplies and men into Britain across the Atlantic. Maintaining this overseas lifeline to its empire and the United States was critical if the British were to continue the fight. As Britain faced these new challenges, Churchill realized that an Allied victory would only be possible if the United States joined the Allied side.

Growing American involvement. There were major obstacles in the way of American participation, however. Worried by the growing violence in Europe, between 1935 and 1937, under the influence of isolationists, those who wanted the United States to keep out of other peoples’ wars, Congress had enacted a series of laws known collectively as the Neutrality Acts. These tried to limit American interest in a European conflict by forbidding loans and arms sales to belligerent powers. On the other hand, when the war in Europe began, many Americans, including President Roosevelt, sympathized with Britain and the Allies. They saw the Nazis as a threat not only to Europe, but to civilization itself.

            Anxious to prevent a Nazi victory, Roosevelt looked for ways around the Neutrality Acts to aid Britain. In 1939, he managed to get Congress to revise the Acts to allow weapons to be sold to belligerent nations, though only on a cash and carry basis. Since the Royal Navy still controlled the Atlantic this effectively meant that American arms would only go to Britain. Such measures, however, only made the vital Atlantic sea-lanes, which were now Britain’s most important lifeline, even more crucial.

            Roosevelt recognized the urgency of strengthening Britain’s position in the Atlantic, where Nazi submarines were waging a ruthless and effective campaign against Allied shipping. In September 1940, the president used his executive power to trade aging American destroyers, which Britain needed to escort its convoys, for six British bases in the Atlantic. The same year, Congress authorized the first peacetime draft. In early 1941, Roosevelt convinced Congress to authorize Lend-Lease, which allowed the United States to supply war materials to Britain on credit. Roosevelt intended to provide “all aid short of war.”[xxvii][xxvii] By the fall, the United States Navy was helping the Royal Navy to escort convoys and to detect U-Boats.

            The growing cooperation between Britain and the United States led to a meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Together they issued a statement of democratic aims in the war. It became known as the Atlantic Charter. The charter stated that neither power sought territorial gains and that each believed in the principle of national self-determination. By implication, the charter also called for the ultimate formation of an international body capable of preserving a future peace. The United States, however, had not yet actually entered the war.

Operation Barbarossa

Although he had been unable to defeat Britain, by 1941 Hitler nevertheless felt sufficiently confident of his own strength to turn back to the east, toward the ultimate objective of his foreign policy—the conquest of the Soviet Union. In late 1940 he had already begun to make diplomatic preparations for such a move by securing the alliance of Hungary and Romania.  In March 1941, he compelled Bulgaria to align with the Axis.  Then, on April 6, Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Shortly after, Hitler sent German troops to support Italian forces that had invaded Greece in October 1940. By June of 1941, Hitler controlled most of the European continent and was confident that those countries still beyond his grasp would remain neutral.

            In the early morning of June 22, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union. The German army and air force used the same blitzkrieg tactics that had worked so well in western Europe. The German air force caught the Soviet air force on the ground, claiming to have destroyed some 800 aircraft on the first day alone.[xxviii][xxviii] By the end of the summer, the German army, spearheaded by its tanks, had advanced deep into Soviet territory along three main lines: northeast toward Leningrad, east toward Moscow, and southeast through the Ukraine and toward the Caucasus.

            The defense of the Soviet Union involved a “scorched earth” policy, as retreating Soviet troops and civilians carried away what they could and destroyed what remained—buildings, crops, and equipment. They left behind nothing of use to the Germans. The vast distances of the Soviet Union also contributed significantly to German problems of supply. By autumn, the German army had advanced very far, very fast, but not far enough. In late September, the first rains came. They turned the ground to mud, bogging down Germany’s mechanized forces. The German army did not near Moscow until December. By then, bitter cold had begun to afflict their operations. Tank engines often would not start in the sub-zero temperatures of the Russian countryside. Only nineteen miles from Moscow, the German advance came to a halt.

            Despite Stalin’s earlier cooperation with Hitler, Allied leaders recognized the importance of supporting the Soviet Union as a means of keeping Hitler occupied on the eastern front. In July, Britain and the Soviet Union agreed to assist each other against Germany. To re-supply the Soviet Union, British convoys began to make dangerous runs, skirting German air and submarine bases in Norway, to ports in the Soviet north. In September 1941, British and Soviet forces jointly occupied Iran, deposing Reza Shah, the ruler, who had shown pro-Nazi sympathies. The Allies wanted to use Iran to establish a secure overland supply route to the Soviet Union. The United States also tried to help by offering Lend-Lease aid to the Soviets. Three months later, in December 1941, events in the Pacific allowed the United States to do even more, as they at last joined the Allies as full belligerents.

Japan and American Entry into the War

Although we tend to think of World War II as having begun in Europe, in fact fighting had actually begun in east Asia as early as 1937, when Japanese forces mounted a full-scale invasion of China. Japan’s attempt to conquer China had led to a steady deterioration in its relations with Britain and the United States, both of which tried to help the Chinese. The United States, for example, tried to pressure the Japanese by restricting the flow of critical resources such as metals and oil to Japan.

            Japanese leaders had long realized their vulnerability in relying on the United States to meet Japan’s requirements for strategic materials, especially oil. Some, particularly in the navy, argued that Japan needed to find a substitute source of oil over which it would have direct control. They pointed to the rich oil fields of the Netherlands East Indies, present-day Indonesia. Seizure of the area, however, would mean war not only with the Netherlands, but probably also with Britain and the United States. In view of this, Prince Konoye, Japan’s Prime Minister, remained hesitant. On October 16, 1941, however, the situation changed drastically when Konoye resigned under pressure from the military. Hideki Tojo, Japan’s bellicose War Minister, took charge instead and quickly set his country on a course for war.  

Plan “Z”. The Japanese realized that their most dangerous potential enemy was the United States, with its large Pacific fleet. Earlier in 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese fleet, had already begun preparing for war with both Britain and the United States. Yamamoto, who had spent considerable time in the United States, feared that the vast resources of the United States would enable it to overwhelm Japan in war. He believed Japan’s only real chance for victory was to knock out the American Pacific fleet quickly, allowing Japan time to erect a strong barrier in the central Pacific against an American counter-attack. Thus he devised Plan “Z”, which involved using aircraft carriers to launch a surprise air raid on the American Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Still, he remained convinced that war with the United States would be a grave mistake.

            Prime Minister Tojo and the army did not share Yamamoto’s misgivings. By late fall of 1941, the Japanese Government had resolved on war with the United States although they sent out a last minute delegation ostensibly to negotiate a resolution of the crisis. In late November Tojo obtained the consent of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to execute Plan “Z.” Yamamoto’s carrier strike force departed Japan on November 26. On December 6, as the strike force neared the Hawaiian islands, the Japanese Government sent a coded message to its delegation in Washington, instructing them to deliver a declaration of war to the United States Government. Due to delays in decoding the instructions, however, the Japanese envoys did not deliver the message as scheduled.

Pearl Harbor and the invasion of southeast Asia. On the morning of December 7, planes from four Japanese carriers attacked Pearl Harbor, sinking five out of the ten American battleships and damaging the others. American dead totaled more than 2300, most on the battleship Arizona. In spite of the attack’s apparent success, Yamamoto cautioned his returning officers against over confidence:

“The real fighting has yet to come. The success of one surprise attack must not lead to any slackening-off....You are far from having conquered. You have come home only temporarily, to prepare for the next battle; from now on, you must be even more on your mettle.”[xxix][xxix]

In fact, the attack was not a clear success. It had failed to hit either the American fleet’s carriers or its submarines, both of which would prove to be vital in the coming Pacific naval war.

            The same day their fleet attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes also bombed American positions on Guam and Wake Island and British positions in Malaya and Singapore. On December 22, the Japanese began to land troops in the American-held Philippines. Within six months the islands had fallen. On Christmas Day 1941, the British colony of Hong Kong also surrendered to Japan. In January 1942, Japan began the invasion of its primary target—the Netherlands East Indies. On March 7, the Dutch colonial government fled to Australia—by the 9th Japan controlled the oil rich islands.

            Meanwhile, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States finally to enter World War II. On December 8, President Roosevelt addressed Congress. Calling December 7 “a day which will live in infamy”, he asked for a declaration of war on Japan. On December 11, both Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Hitler hoped his show of support for Japan would entice its leaders to support him by declaring war on the Soviet Union. Worried about the vulnerability of their troops in China to a Soviet attack, Japan decided against such a move. By the end of 1941, however, all the world’s major powers were engaged in a conflict that was now truly global.


Section 3

The Holocaust and Other Atrocities

World War II witnessed acts of extraordinary brutality. The war provided totalitarian regimes with the opportunity to eliminate people whom they regarded as enemies of the state. Hitler decided on the extermination of a whole people—the Jews. The dictatorial regimes of Japan and the Soviet Union also committed acts of unspeakable inhumanity during World War II.

Hitler’s Racial Imperialism

To a considerable extent, the brutality of World War II in Europe owed much to the Nazi racial policies that underlay Hitler’s expansionist aims. Hitler’s primary goal in launching World War II was the conquest of the Soviet Union and its transformation into a fertile ground for extensive German colonization. As part of this plan, Hitler anticipated the destruction or enslavement of the Slavic population of eastern Europe and Russia.

            In addition, in order to ensure the “purity” of the new German Empire he planned to build, Hitler determined to eradicate the Jews from Europe once and for all in what he called the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”. Persecution of the Jews had been a central feature of Nazi policy from the beginning. Hitler had declared his intentions in Mein Kampf, and throughout the 1930s the Nazis had increasingly persecuted Germany’s nearly quarter million Jews. During the war, these policies extended to Jews living in countries occupied by Germany. In 1941, Hitler decided to carry out their final destruction. To the rest of the world, this act of genocide has become known as the Holocaust.

            The man responsible for carrying Hitler’s vision of racial imperialism into effect was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, the Nazi Party military arm. In 1941, just before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler announced to his subordinates that one aim of the upcoming campaign was to “decimate the Slav population by thirty million” to make way for German settlers.[xxx][xxx] Special units of the SS were detailed for the task. Himmler also accepted responsibility for dealing with the Jews. As he wrote to a subordinate officer, “The occupied Eastern territories are to become free of Jews. The execution of this very grave order has been placed on my shoulders by the Fuhrer.”[xxxi][xxxi]

The “Final Solution.” Initially, the SS used the crude tactic of simply rounding up Jews and shooting them on the spot. They soon developed a more efficient method—the use of poison gas. In January 1942, senior Nazi officials headed by Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, met in Wansee, a suburb of Berlin. At the Wansee Conference, the Nazis finalized their plans for the systematic extermination of the Jews. Over the next three years the SS transported Jews from across Europe to concentration camps mainly in eastern Germany and Poland.

            Jews arrived in the camps by the hundreds of thousands. Once there, SS officers sorted them by age, health and sex, instantly separating families. The officers “selected” many for immediate execution, and took them off in large groups to gas chambers on the pretext that they were going to take “showers.” Those considered healthy enough went to work in camp factories, where regular beatings and slow starvation awaited them. Some found themselves the subjects of cruel medical experiments—including operations carried out without anesthesia. Those not immediately executed had numbers tattooed into the skin of their forearms for permanent identification.

            Perhaps the most notorious of the camps was Auschwitz in Poland. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, later described his arrival in the camp at the age of 14:

“Every two yards or so an SS man held his tommy gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the crowd. An SS noncommissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order: ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’

      Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had the time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand: we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held my mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand.

      Behind me, an old man fell to the ground. Near him was an SS man, putting his revolver back in its holster.”[xxxii][xxxii]

Most people sent to the camps were killed. The largest number were Jews, but significant numbers of Gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents were also sent—anyone the Nazis deemed liabilities in their efforts to achieve racial strength and purity.

            The greatest obstacle to the program of genocide was disposal of the bodies. Many were buried in mass graves. Eventually, the Nazis resorted to huge ovens in which the remains of the dead were cremated. Before the bodies were disposed of, however, the Nazis forced work gangs made up of camp prisoners to extract gold fillings from the teeth of the dead, and to collect all hair for recycling in the war effort.

            The exact number of people who died as a result of the Holocaust will probably never be known, but Nazi records suggest that roughly six million Jews were killed. Half came from Poland alone and represented 90 percent of Poland’s Jews. The Jews of Germany, Austria, and the Baltic states went to the camps in similar proportions. Though the number of Jews from Soviet territories was proportionally smaller, they numbered around 1,500,000.

Resistance to the Holocaust. As the real dimensions of the Holocaust became clear, some Jews began to resist. The fiercest resistance occurred in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. With few weapons, however, the Jewish fighters were no match for German forces, and eventually the ghetto was reduced to rubble. Conditioned by centuries of relatively low-intensity anti-Semitic persecution, the Jewish populations of Europe were simply unprepared for Nazi ruthlessness.

            Although most other people in Europe quietly ignored what was happening to the Jews, some did not. In Denmark, for example, the German occupying authorities ordered all Jews to wear the Star of David on their clothing for identification purposes, presumably to make rounding them up easier. The day after the order went out, however, King Christian X himself appeared wearing the Star of David. Moreover, in a concerted effort the Danes also managed to help some 3,000 Danish Jews escape into neutral Sweden to keep them out of Nazi hands.

            One remarkable case of heroism occurred in Warsaw, where Raoul Wallenberg, a neutral Swedish diplomat, used his diplomatic position and the sheer force of his personality to save as many Jews as possible, declaring them under the protection of the Swedish Embassy. Wallenberg disappeared after the war, probably imprisoned by Soviet authorities fearful that he would report on their own wartime atrocities. A similar case occurred in Germany itself. Alfred Schindler, a German industrialist under contract to the German government, secretly saved as many Jews as possible from the death camps by employing them in his factories. Eventually, he bankrupted himself in the process. Such acts were few and far between, however.

Other atrocities. Hitler’s SS was also responsible for a number of atrocities other than the Holocaust. The SS often employed particularly brutal measures to suppress resistance in German-occupied countries. In Yugoslavia, for example, the SS carried out reprisals, executing specified numbers of the local populations in revenge for attacks carried out by resistance fighters hiding in the hills. In some cases, they wiped out whole villages in reprisal for resistance attacks.[xxxiii][xxxiii] Similar measures were taken in other occupied countries.

            The Nazi SS were also associated with incidents of mistreatment of Allied POWs, or prisoners of war. During the last major German offensive of the war in the Ardennes forest, for example, in the so-called Battle of the Bulge, SS units under orders to take no prisoners massacred Allied soldiers who had surrendered near the French town of Malmédy. Such cases were rare on the western front, but the eastern front was a different story. Treatment of Soviet prisoners was more brutal, perhaps due to Nazi racial propaganda that branded Slavs as “sub-human.” However, Soviet treatment of German prisoners was probably no better.

Japanese Atrocities

The Nazis were not alone in their cruel treatment of both civilians and enemy soldiers. The Japanese army also treated civilian populations in areas it occupied with sometimes extraordinary brutality. One of the worst cases occurred in December 1937 when Japanese troops occupied the Chinese city of Nanking. For two weeks, they looted and burned stores and homes. They orchestrated mass rapes and mass executions. After the war, one Chinese officer testified to Japanese atrocities he had witnessed in Nanking:

“I estimate there were above 5,000 who were marched four abreast, and the line was 3/4 of a mile long. When we arrived [on the bank of the Yangtze River] we were placed in a line near the River.... Men were tied five in a group with their wrists tied below their backs, and I saw the first men who were shot by rifles and who were then thrown in the river by the Japanese.... We had...arrived at the bank of the River about seven o’clock, and the binding of the prisoners and shooting kept up until two o’clock in the morning.”[xxxiv][xxxiv]

During their two-week rampage, Japanese troops murdered an estimated 250,000 people[xxxv][xxxv] in what became known as the “Rape of Nanking”. The Chinese, suffered many other atrocities during another eight years of Japanese occupation, as did people in other occupied countries like Korea.

             The Japanese army also proved particularly brutal in its treatment of prisoners of war. According to the militaristic code of bushido, to which most Japanese officers adhered, a soldier who surrendered had disgraced himself utterly and forfeited all rights. Consequently, Allied prisoners were regularly used as slave labor, and were often subjected to torture or even execution in violation of the Geneva Convention.

            In the Philippines, for example, Japanese soldiers subjected American and Filipino prisoners to a sixty-five mile forced march up the Bataan Peninsula. Along the way, Japanese guards beat, bayoneted, beheaded, and shot many of the prisoners. They killed over 600 Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos. After arriving in the prison camp, another 16,000 died within weeks. The incident became known as the “Bataan Death March”.[xxxvi][xxxvi] In other cases, the Japanese army used prisoners for research in chemical and biological warfare. Like Hitler’s SS, a special unit of the Japanese army conducted cruel medical experiments on thousands of human subjects in Japanese-occupied areas.[xxxvii][xxxvii]

Soviet Atrocities

The Axis powers were not the only totalitarian regimes practicing large-scale acts of brutality during the war, however. For nearly two years, between September 1939 and June 1941, the Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Poland. Soviet policy in Poland bore a striking resemblance to that of the Nazis, but reflected communist ideology rather than racial theory. The Soviets did not single out Jews for elimination. Instead they went after specific classes of the population—landowners, local officials, clergy, teachers, and intellectuals. They urged peasants to murder their landlords. One Soviet pamphlet read:  “For Poles, masters and dogs—a dog’s death”.[xxxviii][xxxviii] Soviet officers talked of three types of Poles: “Those who were in prison; those who are in prison; and those who will be in prison.”[xxxix][xxxix]

            The NKVD, the Soviet equivalent of Hitler’s SS, arrived in Poland with the Soviet army. Over the course of Soviet occupation the NKVD subjected thousands of Poles to imprisonment, torture, and execution. They deported an estimated 1.5 million Poles to labor camps in the Soviet Union. Up to half of those deported may have died.[xl][xl] Sometime in 1940, Soviet forces murdered 15,000 officers of the Polish army, burying them in mass graves in a forest near Smolensk.[xli][xli] Before retreating in the face of the German invasion of 1941, the NKVD simply began shooting many of the Poles it had imprisoned, probably executing close to 100,000.[xlii][xlii] All in all, more than 400,000 Poles died at the hands of the Soviets in World War II.


Section 4

Allied Victories

In January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. There, they agreed to seek “unconditional surrender” from each of the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. Allied troops had landed in Morocco only two months before the meeting, taking control of the country from Vichy France. With that operation, events had begun to turn against the Axis.

Turning Points in Europe

The turning of the tide against Hitler began in North Africa. By mid-1942, Rommel and his Afrika Korps had advanced nearly 200 miles into Egypt. Short of supplies and overextended, however, in late October the Germans were forced to retreat by counterattacking British and Australian forces under General Bernard Montgomery. Soon Rommel also found himself under attack from the west, where a joint Allied force of American, British, and Free French troops under American General George S. Patton had taken control of Morocco and Algeria from Vichy forces and begun to move east. The trapped Afrika Korps put up a tough defense in Tunisia, but by May 1943 the Allies had full control of North Africa.

Stalingrad and Kursk. The Soviets also began to make headway against the Germans in early 1943. A year earlier, Hitler had ordered some German forces southward to capture the Soviet oil fields of the Caucasus. One group took the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River. In the fall of 1942, however, the Soviets counter-attacked and surrounded Stalingrad. A German officer described the intense fighting that raged in the city for three months:

“eighty-eight days and eighty-eight nights of hand-to-hand struggle....Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day its is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest storms cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”[xliii][xliii]

            Despite Hitler’s orders to fight to the last man, with his supplies cut off and under intense artillery bombardment, in early February 1943 the German commander surrendered. He had lost some 100,000 men during the January siege. Stalingrad marked the turning point against Germany in the Soviet Union. Pushing forward through the spring of 1943, in July the Soviets defeated the Germans in history’s largest tank battle around the city of Kursk in southern Russia—their victory signaled the failure of Hitler’s attempt to conquer the Soviet Union.

Italy. Also in July 1943, British and American forces from North Africa landed on Sicily. By the end of August they controlled the island and in September they began landing troops on the Italian mainland. Thoroughly demoralized by their losses in North Africa, the same month as the Allied landings in Sicily the Grand Fascist Council deposed Mussolini and placed him under arrest. When the Italian Government announced Italy’s surrender, however, German forces rescued Mussolini and disarmed the Italian army.

            Taking control of the defense of Italy, the Germans put up stiff resistance as Allied forces advanced north up the Italian peninsula. In January 1944, Allied troops tried to outflank the resistance by landing behind the Axis lines at Anzio. After months of bloody fighting, on June 5 Allied troops entered Rome. Nazi resistance remained strong, however. Germans continued to hold positions in northern Italy until the spring of 1945, when members of the Italian resistance finally recaptured and executed Mussolini.

The Cross-Channel Invasion

With German forces retreating in the south and east, and with the Atlantic sea routes finally secure against the German Navy, in the spring of 1944 British and American leaders decided the time had come to invade France from Britain. As part of their preparations, they stepped up their use of strategic bombing, the use of air power to attack the economic ability of an enemy to wage war. Strategic bombing proved particularly effective against German oil facilities, causing Hitler himself to complain early in 1944:

“The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points. If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning. Our one hope is that the other side has an Air Force General Staff as scatterbrained as ours!”[xliv][xliv]

Eventually, Allied bombers cut German production of aviation fuel dramatically, helping to cripple the Luftwaffe .[xlv][xlv]

D-Day. The ultimate success of the cross-Channel invasion also owed much to the leadership of General Dwight Eisenhower, the American general in overall command of the multinational effort. To increase the advantage of surprise, he chose not to cross the Channel at its narrowest point (between Dover and Calais) but farther west. On the night of June 5-6, 1944, he launched Operation “Overlord,” the invasion of Europe, and a massive fleet of 700 warships and 2,700 support ships left British ports bound for the coast of Normandy.

            On the morning of June 6, 1944—D-Day—more than 2,500 landing craft carrying thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops swarmed the French beaches. Heavy seas made the landings difficult and the Allies faced fierce resistance from the German defenders. One landing craft operator described a typical scene:

“We hit two mines going in.... They didn’t stop us, although our ramp was damaged and an officer standing on it was killed. We grounded on a sandbank. The first man off was a commando sergeant in full kit [carrying all his gear]. He disappeared like a stone in six feet of water.... The beach was strewn with wreckage, a blazing tank, bundles of blankets and kit, bodies and bits of bodies.”[xlvi][xlvi]

            Despite suffering thousands of casualties, the Allies continued their assault. By the end of the day some 155,000 Allied troops—including Poles and Free French—were ashore.[xlvii][xlvii] Tens of thousands would soon follow. The Germans proved unable to push them back, particularly because Hitler overruled his own generals and refused to allow reinforcements from Calais to be shifted to the main battle in Normandy. Hitler was convinced that the Normandy landings were merely a feint, and that the real invasion would come in Calais. His miscalculation gave the Allies the time they needed to establish a beachhead.

            It took the Allies until August finally to secure Normandy. In mid-August, however, they broke through the German lines and began the liberation of France. Allied troops also landed in southern France and began to advance north. On August 25, Allied troops entered Paris. Other Allied forces began to advance into the Low Countries. In early September, the first American troops crossed into Germany from Luxembourg.

Allied victory in Europe. In December 1944, however, as the main Allied force approached the German frontier from Belgium, the German army struck back. The Germans had managed secretly to mass a large force of tanks in the Ardennes forest. In mid-December, under cover of bad weather, they attacked, catching the Allies by surprise. The ensuing “Battle of the Bulge” cost each side about 800,000 casualties before the Allies were able to throw the Germans back. Nevertheless, the attack only delayed the Allied advance by about six weeks. By mid-March 1945, the Allies were across the Rhine and advancing steadily into the heart of Germany.

            In the meantime, the Soviet army had swept across Poland and entered Germany from the east. In April, they began their final drive on the German capital. By April 25, they had encircled Berlin and begun to advance toward its center. During intense street-to-street fighting Hitler remained in his bunker under the Reichstag building in the center of the city. On April 29, the he committed suicide rather than face defeat. By May 2, the Soviet army had control of Berlin. The next day, American and Soviet forces finally met near Wittenberg in northern Germany. On May 7, German authorities accepted Allied terms for unconditional surrender. Hostilities in Europe formally ended on May 8, 1945.

The War in the Pacific and Asia

While the war in Europe was fought largely on land, in Asia and the Pacific the war was fought both on land and at sea. As in Europe, it began with a string of Japanese victories and a fairly steady Japanese advance. Once the United States had declared war, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that they would prosecute the war in Europe first, while simply trying to defend their positions in the Pacific. Despite the political decision to tackle Germany first, however, early in 1942 Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a Texan with a long and distinguished record in the United States Navy, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet.

            From the very beginning, Nimitz planned a complex, three part naval strategy designed to carry the war to the Japanese home islands and achieve an allied victory. First, American submarines would attack Japanese shipping in an effort to cut off Japan from its oil supply in the East Indies. Second, the United States had to establish supremacy on the surface in order to secure its primary bases of operation in the Pacific—Hawaii and Australia. Third, American naval and land forces would take the offensive, seizing one Pacific island after another, advancing ever closer to Japan itself. The object of Nimitz’s island hopping was to provide bases close enough to Japan’s home islands to subject them to aerial bombardment and ultimately to invasion.

The Coral Sea and Midway. The United States Navy began submarine operations against Japanese shipping immediately after Pearl Harbor. Throughout 1942, Nimitz worked to achieve the second part of his strategy. At the Battle of the Coral Sea, in May, American and Australian forces held off a Japanese fleet advancing against Australia. Although tactically the battle proved a draw, the Japanese navy had failed to control of the waters around Australia and was forced to retreat. In early June, the United States Navy achieved a decisive victory against Yamamoto’s carrier force off Midway Island northwest of Hawaii.

            The battle of Midway removed the Japanese threat to U.S. forces in the eastern Pacific but Japanese aircraft based in the Solomon Islands still threatened the sea routes to Australia. In July, American and Australian forces landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomons. After months of heavy fighting, they finally took control of the island in February 1943. With Hawaii and Australia now secure, in late 1943 Nimitz began “island-hopping” toward Japan.

            On November 20, the United States Navy and Marines assaulted the Gilbert Islands, landing on Tarawa. The Japanese had heavily fortified the tiny atoll. The assault cost some 3,500 American dead and wounded plus some 5,000 Japanese casualties. The slow island-to-island advance toward Japan had just begun. Beyond the Gilberts lay the Marshall, Mariana, Volcano, and Bonin Islands. Tarawa and the battle for the Gilberts, however, provided American naval planners with invaluable lessons for those future operations.

The War in East Asia. While the war raged at sea in the Pacific, on the Asian mainland the struggle also continued. In their efforts to conquer China the Japanese had encountered enormous difficulties. Although Japan controlled most of the coastal areas, China’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek, in loose cooperation with the Communists of Mao Zhe Dong, continued to resist from the interior. Japanese leaders also had to worry about the possibility of Soviet intervention from the north. Some two million Japanese troops thus remained pinned down in China throughout the war.

India, Burma, and Malaya. Supplies to China’s Nationalist government came primarily from Allied bases located in India and Burma. In addition to halting this flow of supplies, Japan saw a chance to enhance its own prestige in Asia, and to gain access for themselves to new sources of manpower and strategic resources, by overthrowing British rule in India. Indeed, throughout Asia the Japanese called on all the peoples of the European colonial empires to rise up against the imperialists and join Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

            In January 1942, the Japanese army invaded Burma on its way toward India, beginning three years of difficult jungle and mountain fighting against stubborn British and Indian forces. Further south, other Japanese forces invaded Malaya, aiming for the strategic port city of Singapore. By February 1942, they had pushed all the way down the Malay Peninsula. On February 15 the British garrison in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese.

            As the Japanese advanced during 1942, the Chinese nationalist government of General Chiang Kai-Shek began to call for more Allied assistance in their own war effort. At a time when the Soviet Union in particular was trying to drum up enthusiasm among the American people for its own war effort, Chinese leaders also determined to make their case for assistance. One of their most eloquent advocates was Madame Chiang, General Chiang’s wife.

[BIO] Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Born Soong Meiling, Madame Chiang was the daughter of a prominent backer of China’s revolutionary Nationalist leader, Sun Yat-sen. She spent her teenage years in the United States, graduating from Wellesley College in 1917. Returning to China, she became active in the local politics of Shanghai, serving on a child labor committee. In 1927, she married Chiang Kai-Shek, who had sought the arrangement largely to establish a link with the influential Soong family and to enhance his standing in Chinese politics. When war broke out with Japan, Madame Chiang’s American experience also proved a valuable tool of diplomacy.

            In late 1942, Madame Chiang traveled to the United States to make a speaking tour in order to raise public awareness of the war in China and its importance to an Allied victory. In February 1943, she was invited to address the Senate. Speaking in perfect English, she delivered a speech stressing the convergence of Chinese an d American interests:  

“I feel that if the Chinese people could speak to you in your own tongue, or if you could understand our tongue, they would tell you that basically and fundamentally we are fighting for the same cause; that we have identity of ideals; that the ‘four freedoms’ your President proclaimed to the world, resound throughout our vast land as the gong of freedom...and the death knell of the aggressors.”[xlviii][xlviii]

Madame Chiang received a standing ovation. She had clearly impressed her audience. “I never saw anything like it,” said one member of Congress. “Madame Chiang had me on the verge of bursting into tears.”[xlix][xlix]  Already committed to helping China against the Japanese, Allied leaders could do little more than they already had. Madame Chiang’s visit, however, led to increased public support for the Chinese Nationalist Government among the American people.

The Final Push Against Japan

After securing the Gilberts during the winter of 1943-1944, Nimitz had continued his push up through the central Pacific toward Japan. In June 1944, American naval forces liberated the Marshall Islands from Japan and landed on Saipan in the Marianas. They secured the rest of the Marianas during July, retaking Guam and capturing Tinian. In combination with America’s new long-range bomber, the B-29, taking the Marianas finally provided air bases within range of Japan itself. Late in 1944, American B-29s began flying missions against targets in the Japanese home islands.

Leyte Gulf. Farther south, forces under General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of allied forces in the southwest Pacific, began the liberation of the Philippines. Some strategists argued Allied forces should by-pass the Philippines. However, Macarthur argued that taking the islands would allow the Allies to dominate the South China Sea and choke off Japan’s supply line to the East Indies. Macarthur also stressed the moral importance of freeing the thousands of American and Filipino prisoners held by the Japanese in the Philippines.

            MacArthur’s arguments prevailed. He planned to land first in Leyte Gulf in the southern Philippines. In October 1944, in preparation for the assault, American naval forces engaged the Japanese in the Philippine Sea. The “Battle of Leyte Gulf” proved to be history’s largest naval engagement. In January 1945, Allied forces began landing on Luzon, the main island in the Philippines. On March 3, they captured Manila.

Imphal and Kohima. Meanwhile, on the Asian mainland the British had by this time reversed the Japanese advance on India. In early 1944, Japanese forces took up positions inside India around Imphal and Kohima in the mountainous jungle province of Assam. Quickly surrounding the invaders, however, by June 1944 British and Indian troops had repulsed the Japanese and were steadily advancing back into Burma supported by American forces. The battle for Imphal and Kohima marked the failure of Japan’s attempt to conquer India. Henceforth, they remained permanently on the defensive.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In early 1945, Admiral Nimitz continued his advance up through the central Pacific, seeking bases ever closer to Japan. In February 1945, American marines assaulted Iwo Jima, one of the Volcano Islands. They encountered fierce resistance from the Japanese. After several days of fighting the Japanese commander recorded his determination to continue even in the face of defeat: “We have not eaten nor drank for five days but our fighting spirit is still running high. We are going to fight bravely until the end.”[l][l] Taking Iwo Jima cost almost 7,000 American lives. Nearly all 21,000 of the Japanese on the island died. It was America’s most costly battle of the war.

            The tenacity encountered on Iwo Jima was typical of Japan’s final defense. On April 1, 1945, American forces assaulted Okinawa, in the Riyuku Islands immediately south of Japan’s home islands. In the battle for Okinawa, American ships faced wave after wave of kamikaze attacks, suicide runs in which Japanese pilots flew their aircraft directly into American ships. Some 110,000 Japanese troops and between 70,000 and 160,000 of Okinawa’s 450,000 civilians died in the course of the battle. As the end neared, all senior Japanese officers on Okinawa committed ritual suicide, as did many subordinates and civilians.[li][li]

            Having taken Okinawa, American commanders began to plan an invasion of Japan. The resistance encountered on Iwo Jima and Okinawa convinced them that such an operation would prove extremely costly in both American and Japanese lives. Fortunately for the Allies, however, a powerful new weapon made invasion of the Japanese home islands unnecessary.

The Atomic Bomb. In July 1945, Allied scientists and engineers working secretly in the United States produced an alternative to the invasion of Japan. They had developed a bomb of extraordinary power—a bomb whose blast could destroy an entire city. Its power derived from atomic fission, the splitting of an atom. The atomic bomb represented the culmination of a secret program called the “Manhattan Project”, authorized by Roosevelt early in the war.

            On July 16, 1945 the first atomic bomb was successfully test detonated in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Shortly afterward, President Harry Truman, who had taken office after Roosevelt’s death earlier in the year, ordered the use of atomic bombs against Japan. He hoped to convince Japanese leaders of the futility of resistance and to force their immediate surrender.

            On August 6, 1945, a lone B-29, nicknamed the Enola Gay by its crew, took off from the island of Tinian in the Marianas bound for Hiroshima, an important industrial and military center in southern Japan. Reaching the target, the Enola Gay released the single atomic weapon it carried. The bomb detonated 2,000 feet above the city, flattening 42 square miles and killing 80,000 people outright. Others died later from the radiation released by the atomic bomb.

            Although the people killed at Hiroshima actually numbered fewer than those killed in conventional air raids on other Japanese and German cities, the psychological impact of a single bomb doing such enormous damage was much greater. Japanese authorities, however, did not agree to surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima. Consequently, on August 9, another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, a secondary target since the plane’s crew could not locate their primary target. The same day, the Soviet Union finally declared war on Japan and promptly invaded Manchuria.

            The next day, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito decided that surrender was inevitable. On August 14th he ordered acceptance of the Allied terms of unconditional surrender. The next day, for the first time, the Japanese people heard the voice of the emperor they revered as a living god as he explained his decision to the nation in a radio broadcast:  

“Should we continue fighting in the war, it would cause not only the complete Annihilation of our nation, but also the destruction of the human civilization. With this in mind, how should I save billions of our subjects and their posterity, and atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? accordance to the dictates of fate, I am willing to endure the unendurable, tolerate the intolerable, for peace to last thousands of generations.” 

In late August, an Allied fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay. There, aboard the American battleship USS Missouri, on September 2, 1945 Japanese representatives signed the formal document of surrender, witnessed by the representatives of the major Allied Powers. World War II had ended.