Chapter 25 Growing Aggression and 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]

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]  

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

            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] 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]  

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]  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] 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]

            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.