For the first few years of the war, the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were rapidly expanding. The Germans successfully used their lightning war, or “blitzkrieg.” The idea was to quickly invade a place rather than waiting for all parts of your military before advancing. Using new technology like the radio, airplanes, and motorized vehicles, the German army was able to concentrate its attack on one part of the enemy’s lines. Breaking through, they would create chaos and disorganization amongst the enemies while their slower moving military elements came later and swept up what was left.
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In 1940, Hitler quickly invaded and conquered most of France. The French signed an armistice and the Nazis set up a government of French collaborators known as the Vichy government. The French resistance fled to the unoccupied territories or to other countries, but not before they did everything they could to prevent Hitler from benefiting from their culture.
Art historians boxed up the greatest treasures of the Louvre and smuggled them out of France. The Mona Lisa, for example, was boxed up and moved give times around the French countryside and in quiet abbeys. Based on this fact and the Sound of Music, it seems like the greatest adversary of the Nazis were nuns. I love it.
Similarly, The Last Supper, which was a fresco painted on a wall in Milan, was protected by sandbags and scaffolding. This likely saved it when the Allied bombs hit the city. Almost all of the church was blown apart, but the wall with The Last Supper remained standing.
Back to Paris, the French resistance also cut the lines on the elevators in the Eiffel Tower. They knew that Hitler would want to visit their most famous monument but they wanted to make sure that when he did, he would have to walk to get to the top. So great.
Also, when the Nazis conquered France, British troops were pushed to the coastline. The movie Dunkirk does a pretty fantastic job of showing the evacuation of the British forces in France. Also, turns out Harry Styles is a decent actor. Who knew?
With France conquered, Britain was the only Allied Power fighting the Nazis. Hitler ordered a bombardment of England that lasted almost a year. The Blitz bombed English industrial targets, towns and cities. This is a great example of the new-ish concept of “total war.” In traditional warfare, before the 20th century, it was generally understood that war should be fought between militaries. Civilians and non-military towns were typically safe. But in World War I, and even more so in World War II, this concept was thrown out the window. With industrialization and the importance of the home front to support the troops, both sides viewed all parts of the country as fair game.
At one point during The Blitz, London was bombed for 56 straight days and nights. More than 40,000 civilians were killed by the German bombs and a million homes were destroyed or seriously damaged in London. Typically, we associate this event with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters that are now, weirdly, everywhere. And this was a government propaganda campaign meant to raise morale in the early years of the war, but the poster was actually rarely displayed. Which makes all of those “Keep Calm and Chive On” shirts even more annoying and unnecessary.
Hitler couldn’t figure out why the British weren’t surrendering. He figured that the only reason must be that they were holding out hope that their former World War allies, the Russians, might step in and help them. So, Hitler being Hitler, he decides that he should just invade Russia. Why not?
In 1941, Hitler broke the Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The invasion began in June and, believing that his blitzkrieg forces would subdue Russia easily, Hitler did not send his troops with winter supplies. The Germans advanced quickly and got very close to Moscow, but the lightning war was more difficult in a vast empire like Russia. The front forces got far ahead of the rear and Hitler also got distracted. He split off some of his forces to conquer Stalingrad. It was an important industrial center but the reason Hitler wanted it was because it had Stalin’s name in it. Ugh.
He also split off another force to travel toward the Caucasus to shore up oil supplies. Hitler’s overconfidence ended in disaster. By the winter, his troops were stranded far in the Russian interior and disconnected from supply lines. Most famously, the Battle of Stalingrad saw the German soldiers surrounded by Russians and forced to spend the Russian winter in fox holes. This battle was the turning point in the eastern front of the war because the Russians stopped the Nazi advance. Military historians consider the Battle of Stalingrad to be the greatest battle of the war. It was also one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, with 2 million casualties.
At around the same time that the Germans were invading Russia, Japan got involved in the war by bombing the U.S. navy at Pearl Harbor. So most of us know the basics about “the date which will live in infamy.” But what we don’t know about is the historical context of this event. We typically just teach that the Japanese randomly attacked us in Hawaii and so then we went to war. That’s basically the gist of it, but there’s a little more to it.
The U.S. and Japan had been slowly inching toward conflict for decades. Both wanted to be the main imperial power in the Pacific. Remember after the Spanish-American War when the U.S. took control of places like Guam and the Philippines? That was around the same time that Japan was coming out of its Meiji Restoration industrialized and looking to expand. They started in Korea – where they clashed with Russia in 1905. After Germany lost WWI both the U.S. and Japan took control of some of their territories in the Pacific.
But the biggest sticking point between the two new powers was China. In 1937 Japan declared war on China. They invaded the mainland and committing atrocities like the Rape of Nanking (China’s capital at the time) during which they killed 150,000 war prisoners, 50,000 civilians, and raped at least 20,000 women and girls. (The Japanese government still denies that this event ever happened.)
In response to the Japanese invasion of China, which was not communist yet and still allied with the U.S., the U.S. put strict sanctions on Japan. These sanctions severely limited Japanese access to money and goods, especially oil. Both sides had been negotiating for years but neither side was willing to give in. It was in this context that the Japanese committed their surprise attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, where almost the entire American fleet was stationed. The attack was successful: they destroyed 20 ships and 300 airplanes and, most importantly, 2,000 people were killed.
The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. From that point on, we sent troops to both Europe to fight the Nazis and to the new Pacific theater of the war. In the Pacific, the fighting mostly consisted of “island-hopping.” The Marines would lead the way, storming tiny – often uninhabited – islands where Japanese soldiers had taken up defensive positions. The idea was to leap frog, capturing enough islands to set up air strips so that you could eventually get close enough to Japan to attack directly. It was brutal. If you haven’t seen The Pacific, the 10-part HBO miniseries, you need to watch it. It’s incredibly and also has a lot of really famous white male actors who you know, but can’t ever remember their name. So that’s fun.
The turning point in the war on the Pacific was the Battle of Midway. The naval fleet that had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor was camped out near the island of Midway and the Japanese wanted to destroy it. The Japanese had made a plan to attack an island near Pearl Harbor and draw the American fleet into a trap. But, the Americans were able to break the Japanese code and learn the entire plan. Pacific Fleet commander Chester W. Nimitz put his ships in a position to surprise the Japanese ships that were setting up the trap.
The Battle of Midway was incredible because it was a naval battle during which none of the ships ever actually saw the enemy’s fleet. Basically, this was a real-life game of Battleship where planes would take off from aircraft carriers. Flying over the Pacific, they would track down the enemy fleet and drop bombs, hopefully leaving them enough fuel to return to their ships. In the end, the Americans destroyed four fleet carriers with 322 airplanes and over 5,000 men on board. This was the turning point after which the U.S. forces were slowly pushing the Japanese back toward Japan.
So, looking at the global conflict: the tide has turned in the Pacific with Midway and on the eastern front with Stalingrad. Now the Allies have to figure out how to take control of western Europe. In 1943 they come up from the south through North Africa and eventually Italy. But the last major turning point is the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France, known as D-Day.
Officially, this is known as the Battle of Normandy and its code name was Operation Overlord. Fun fact: the D in D-Day just stands for Day. It was a placeholder term used by the military when talking about an operation to just mean “the day the thing will happen.” This was helpful because if a communication was intercepted they didn’t give away the day, but also it was a way to talk about an operation if a final date hadn’t been determined yet. They also used the term H-Hour for the time it would start. So D+2 meant two days after the day the operation was scheduled to start, or H-1 meant 1 hour before the start time. Anyway.
On June 6, 1944, 156,000 American, Canadian and British forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline. 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft also provided support. Other paratroopers had already parachuted into France and were behind enemy lines to gain control of important infrastructure, like roads and bridges, to allow the invading forces to march through France. Again, there’s an HBO miniseries called Band of Brothers that follows a group of paratroopers who were involved in D-Day. It’s incredible. All of this took an enormous amount of coordination and planning, all of which was overseen by American Dwight D. Eisenhower, our future president. Over 425,000 people were killed or went missing during the Battle of Normandy and the Allied victory turned the tide in the war in Europe. From this point on, the Allies are advancing toward the hearts of the Axis powers – the Americans, French, and British are closing in on Germany from the west; the Russians are coming from the east; and the Americans are getting close to bombing range of Japan.
Cool side story: Hitler didn’t know where the D-Day invasion would come from. He had been working on building a massive 2,400 foot long Atlantic Wall made up of bunkers, landmines and other obstacles but he couldn’t pinpoint where the attack would come from. Part of this was because of a misinformation campaign from the Allies called Operation Bodyguard.
This was a massive attempt to confuse Hitler and keep him guessing where the invasion was coming from. The British had discovered and flipped twelve Nazi spies who worked as double agents spreading false plans. One was that the British were going through Scotland to meet up with the Soviets and invade south through Norway. Agents even created fake radio chatter about cold weather issues like ski bindings and Hitler sent one of his fighting divisions to Scandinavia weeks before D-Day.
They also developed an entirely fake fighting force named the First U.S. Army Group to convince Hitler that they would be coming across at Calais, the shortest distance across the English Channel. They published fake wedding notices for nonexistent soldiers in the local English paper, built fake landing crafts made of painted canvas pulled across wooden frames, and they even had inflatable tanks. These tanks would be moved during the night with people using massive rollers in the dirt so look like tire tracks. All of this was so that German planes flying overhead would see what looked like a huge force amassing on the coast. The icing on the cake was that this entirely fake First U.S. Army Group was headed by the very real General George Patton, the person who the Nazis believed would logically lead the invasion.
Allied codebreakers like Benedict Cumberbatch – you’ve all seen The Imitation Game, right? – helped confirm that the Germans had fallen for the ruse. For good measure, they even hired an Australian actor who looked a lot like the English General Bernard Montgomery to impersonate him. He studied his mannerisms and then flew off to Gibraltar less than two weeks before the invasion. The Nazis believed that there was no way the attack would occur with the British General off in the Mediterranean.
The amazing thing about all of this was that it worked. Even after the invasion at Normandy, a Spanish double agent fed information to Berlin that the Normandy invasion was a “red herring.” He convinced Hitler that this was an attempt to draw his troops away from Calais, where the real invasion would occur. After all, General Patton hadn’t left the preparation site just across the English Channel. Hitler was so convinced that this was the case that he delayed releasing reinforcements from Calais for seven weeks, allowing Allied troops to make there way across the beaches and into the French countryside. So awesome.
By 1945, the Allied Powers were closing in on all sides. The Battle of the Bulge that occurred the previous winter was the last huge defense by the Nazis before they were retreating into German territory. At that point, it was a race to Berlin between the English, French and Americans from the west and the Soviets from the east. The Soviets got there first but not before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945.
Germany surrendered just one week later but the war in the Pacific continued. Weighing the general desire for the war to be over and the belief that the Japanese were going to fight to the last man, President Truman decided to drop two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 200,000 people.
Even though it’s easy to think that this ended the war, in reality, the Japanese leadership seemed more concerned about the Soviet’s unexpected entry into the war two days after the bombing of Hiroshima. Up until this point, the Soviets had honored their non-aggression pact with Japan and the Japanese believed that they could serve as intermediaries to negotiate an end to the war. But, between Hiroshima on August 6, Soviet entry on August 8, and the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, the Japanese surrendered.
After six years of fighting, World War Two was finally over. But as Allied forces swept across the former Third Reich, they were only beginning to fully understand just exactly what they were fighting for.