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World War II Essay, Research Paper
In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, the German armies marched into Poland. On September 3 the British and French surprised Hitler by declaring war on Germany, but they had no plans for rendering active assistance to the Poles.
The Battle of Britain
In the summer of 1940, Hitler dominated Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees. His one remaining active enemy?Britain, under a new prime minister, Winston Churchill?vowed to continue fighting. Whether it could was questionable. The British army had left most of its weapons on the beaches at Dunkirk. Stalin was in no mood to challenge Hitler. The U.S., shocked by the fall of France, began the first peacetime conscription in its history and greatly increased its military budget, but public opinion, although sympathetic to Britain, was against getting into the war.
The Germans hoped to subdue the British by starving them out. In June 1940 they undertook the Battle of the Atlantic, using submarine warfare to cut the British overseas lifelines. The Germans now had submarine bases in Norway and France. At the outset the Germans had only 28 submarines, but more were being built?enough to keep Britain in danger until the spring of 1943 and to carry on the battle for months thereafter.
Invasion was the expeditious way to finish off Britain, but that meant crossing the English Channel; Hitler would not risk it unless the British air force could be neutralized first. As a result, the Battle of Britain was fought in the air, not on the beaches. In August 1940 the Germans launched daylight raids against ports and airfields and in September against inland cities. The objective was to draw out the British fighters and destroy them. The Germans failed to reckon with a new device, radar, which greatly increased the British fighters’ effectiveness. Because their own losses were too high, the Germans had to switch to night bombing at the end of September. Between then and May 1941 they made 71 major raids on London and 56 on other cities, but the damage they wrought was too indiscriminate to be militarily decisive. On September 17, 1940, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely, thereby conceding defeat in the Battle of Britain.
U.S. Aid to Britain
The U.S. abandoned strict neutrality in the European war and approached a confrontation with Japan in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. U.S. and British conferences, begun in January 1941, determined a basic strategy for the event of a U.S. entry into the war, namely, that both would center their effort on Germany, leaving Japan, if need be, to be dealt with later.
In March 1941 the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and appropriated an initial $7 billion to lend or lease weapons and other aid to any countries the president might designate. By this means the U.S. hoped to ensure victory over the Axis without involving its own troops. By late summer of 1941, however, the U.S. was in a state of undeclared war with Germany. In July, U.S. Marines were stationed in Iceland, which had been occupied by the British in May 1940, and thereafter the U.S. Navy took over the task of escorting convoys in the waters west of Iceland. In September President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized ships on convoy duty to attack Axis war vessels.
The German Invasion of the USSR
The war’s most massive encounter began on the morning of June 22, 1941, when slightly more than 3 million German troops invaded the USSR. Although German preparations had been visible for months and had been talked about openly among the diplomats in Moscow, the Soviet forces were taken by surprise. Stalin, his confidence in the country’s military capability shaken by the Finnish war, had refused to allow any counteractivity for fear of provoking the Germans. Moreover, the Soviet military leadership had concluded that blitzkrieg, as it had been practiced in Poland and France, would not be possible on the scale of a Soviet-German war; both sides would therefore confine themselves for the first several weeks at least to sparring along the frontier. The Soviet army had 2.9 million troops on the western border and outnumbered the Germans by two to one in tanks and by two or three to one in aircraft. Many of its tanks and aircraft were older types, but some of the tanks, particularly the later famous T-34s, were far superior to any the Germans had. Large numbers of the aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the first day, however, and their tanks, like those of the French, were scattered among the infantry, where they could not be effective against the German panzer groups. The infantry was first ordered to counterattack, which was impossible, and then forbidden to retreat, which ensured their wholesale destruction or capture.
The Beginning of the War in the Pacific
The seeming imminence of a Soviet defeat in the summer and fall of 1941 had created dilemmas for Japan and the U.S. The Japanese thought they then had the best opportunity to seize the petroleum and other resources of Southeast Asia and the adjacent islands; on the other hand, they knew they could not win the war with the U.S. that would probably ensue. The U.S. government wanted to stop Japanese expansion but doubted whether the American people would be willing to go to war to do so. Moreover, the U.S. did not want to get embroiled in a war with Japan while it faced the ghastly possibility of being alone in the world with a triumphant Germany. After the oil embargo, the Japanese, also under the pressure of time, resolved to move in Southeast Asia and the nearby islands.
Until December 1941 the Japanese leadership pursued two courses: They tried to get the oil embargo lifted on terms that would still let them take the territory they wanted, and they prepared for war. The U.S. demanded that Japan withdraw from China and Indochina, but would very likely have settled for a token withdrawal and a promise not to take more territory. After he became Japan’s premier in mid-October, General Tojo Hideki set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept a settlement without war. Tojo’s deadline, which was kept secret, meant that war was practically certain.
The Japanese army and navy had, in fact, devised a war plan in which they had great confidence. They proposed to make fast sweeps into Burma, Malaya, the East Indies, and the Philippines and, at the same time, set up a defensive perimeter in the central and southwest Pacific. They expected the United States to declare war but not to be willing to fight long or hard enough to win. Their greatest concern was the U.S. Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. If it reacted quickly, it could scramble their very tight timetable. As insurance, the Japanese navy undertook to cripple the Pacific Fleet by a surprise air attack.
A few minutes before 8 AM on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier-based airplanes struck Pearl Harbor. In a raid lasting less than two hours, they sank four battleships and damaged four more. The U.S. authorities had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew an attack was imminent. A warning had been sent from Washington, but, owing to delays in transmission, it arrived after the raid had begun. In one stroke, the Japanese navy scored a brilliant success?and assured the Axis defeat in World War II. The Japanese attack brought the U.S. into the war on December 8?and brought it in determined to fight to the finish. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11.
Air Raids on Germany
As a prelude to the postponed cross-channel attack, the British and Americans decided at Casablanca to open a strategic air (bombing) offensive against Germany. In this instance they agreed on timing but not on method. The British, as a result of discouraging experience with daylight bombing early in the war, had built their heavy bombers, the Lancasters and Halifaxes, for night bombing, which meant area bombing. The Americans believed their B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators were armed and armored heavily enough and were fitted with sufficiently accurate bombsights to fly by daylight and strike pinpoint targets. The difference was resolved by letting each nation conduct its own offensive in its own way and calling the result round-the-clock bombing. The British method was exemplified by four firebomb raids on Hamburg in late July 1943, in which much of the city was burned out and 50,000 people died. American losses of planes and crews increased sharply as the bombers penetrated deeper into Germany. After early October 1943, when strikes at ball-bearing plants in Schweinfurt incurred nearly 25 percent losses, the daylight offensive had to be curtailed until long-range fighters became available.
The Invasion of Italy
Three American, one Canadian, and three British divisions landed on Sicily on July 10. They pushed across the island from beachheads on the south coast in five weeks, against four Italian and two German divisions, and overcame the last Axis resistance on August 17. In the meantime, Mussolini had been stripped of power on July 25, and the Italian government had entered into negotiations that resulted in an armistice signed in secret on September 3 and made public on September 8.
On September 3 elements of Montgomery’s British Eighth Army crossed the Strait of Messina from Sicily to the toe of the Italian boot. The U.S. Fifth Army, under General Mark W. Clark, staged a landing near Salerno on September 9; and by October 12, the British and Americans had a fairly solid line across the peninsula from the Volturno River, north of Naples, to Termoli on the Adriatic coast. The Italian surrender brought little military benefit to the Allies, and by the end of the year, the Germans stopped them on the Gustav line about 100 km (about 60 mi) south of Rome. A landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944, failed to shake the Gustav line, which was solidly anchored on the Liri River and Monte Cassino.
The Plot Against Hitler
A group of German officers and civilians concluded in July that getting rid of Hitler offered the last remaining chance to end the war before it swept onto German soil from two directions. On July 20 they tried to kill him by placing a bomb in his headquarters in East Prussia. The bomb exploded, wounding a number of officers?several fatally?but inflicting only minor injuries on Hitler. Afterward, the Gestapo hunted down everyone suspected of complicity in the plot. One of the suspects was Rommel, who committed suicide. Hitler emerged from the assassination attempt more secure in his power than ever before.
The Liberation of France
As of July 24 the Americans and British were still confined in the Normandy beachhead, which they had expanded somewhat to take in Saint-L? and Caen. Bradley began the breakout the next day with an attack south from St-L?. Thereafter, the front expanded rapidly, and Eisenhower regrouped his forces. Montgomery took over the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army. Bradley assumed command of a newly activated Twelfth Army Group consisting of U.S. First and Third armies under General Courtney H. Hodges and General George S. Patton.
After the Americans had turned east from Avranches in the first week of August, a pocket developed around the German Fifth Panzer and Seventh armies west of Falaise. The Germans held out until August 20 but then retreated across the Seine. On August 25 the Americans, in conjunction with General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French and Resistance forces, liberated Paris.
Meanwhile, on August 15, American and French forces had landed on the southern coast of France east of Marseille and were pushing north along the valley of the Rh?ne River. They made contact with Bradley’s forces near Dijon in the second week of September.
Allied Advances in Italy
(1944). The Italian campaign passed into the shadow of Overlord in the summer of 1944. Clark’s Fifth Army, comprising French and Poles as well as Americans, took Monte Cassino on May 18. A breakout from the Anzio beachhead five days later forced the Germans to abandon the whole Gustav line, and the Fifth Army entered Rome, an open city since June 4. The advance went well for some distance north of Rome, but it was bound to lose momentum because U.S. and French divisions would soon be withdrawn for the invasion of southern France. After taking Ancona on the east and Florence on the west coast in the second week of August, the Allies were at the German Gothic line. An offensive late in the month demolished the Gothic line but failed in three months to carry through to the Po River valley and was stopped for the winter in the mountains.
The Air War in Europe
(1944). The main action against Germany during the fall of 1944 was in the air. Escorted by long- range fighters, particularly P-51 Mustangs, U.S. bombers hit industrial targets by day, while the German cities crumbled under British bombing by night. Hitler had responded by bombarding England, beginning in June, with V-1 flying bombs and in September with V-2 rockets; but the best launching sites, those in northwestern France and in Belgium, were lost in October. The effects of the Allied strategic bombing were less clear-cut than had been expected. The bombing did not destroy civilian morale, and German fighter plane and armored vehicle production reached their wartime peaks in the second half of 1944. On the other hand, iron and steel output dropped by half between September and December, and continued bombing of the synthetic oil plants, coupled with loss of the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania, severely limited the fuel that would be available for the tanks and planes coming off the assembly lines.
The shortening of the fronts on the east and the west and the late year lull in the ground fighting gave Hitler one more chance to create a reserve of about 25 divisions. He resolved to use them offensively against the British and Americans by cutting across Belgium to Antwerp in an action similar to the sweep through the Ardennes that had brought the British and French to disaster at Dunkirk in May 1940.
The Final Battles in Europe
Hitler’s last, faint hope, strengthened briefly by Roosevelt’s death on April 12, was for a falling out between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. The East-West alliance was, in fact, strained, but the break would not come in time to benefit Nazi Germany. On April 14 and 16 the U.S. Fifth and British Eighth armies launched attacks that brought them to the Po River in a week. The Soviet advance toward Berlin began on April 16. The U.S. Seventh Army captured Nuremberg, the site of Nazi party rallies in the 1930s, on April 20. Four days later Soviet armies closed a ring around Berlin. The next day the Soviet Fifth Guards Army and the U.S. First Army made contact at Torgau on the Elbe River northeast of Leipzig, and Germany was split into two parts. In the last week of the month, organized resistance against the Americans and British practically ceased, but the German troops facing east battled desperately to avoid falling into Soviet captivity.
The German Surrender
Hitler decided to await the end in Berlin, where he could still manipulate what was left of the command apparatus. Most of his political and military associates chose to leave the capital for places in north and south Germany likely to be out of the Soviet reach. On the afternoon of April 30 Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. As his last significant official act, he named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz to succeed him as chief of state.
Doenitz, who had been loyal to Hitler, had no course open to him other than surrender. His representative, General Alfred Jodl, signed an unconditional surrender of all German armed forces at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims early on May 7. By then the German forces in Italy had already surrendered (on May 2), as had those in Holland, north Germany, and Denmark (May 4). The U.S. and British governments declared May 8 V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. The full unconditional surrender took effect at one minute past midnight after a second signing in Berlin with Soviet participation.
The Defeat of Japan
Although Japan’s position was hopeless by early 1945, an early end to the war was not in sight. The Japanese navy would not be able to come out in force again, but the bulk of the army was intact and was deployed in the home islands and China. The Japanese gave a foretaste of what was yet in store by resorting to kamikaze (Japanese, “divine wind”) attacks, or suicide air attacks, during the fighting for Luzon in the Philippines. On January 4-13, 1945, quickly trained kamikaze pilots flying obsolete planes had sunk 17 U.S. ships and damaged 50.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The next attack was scheduled for Kyushu in November 1945. An easy success seemed unlikely. The Japanese had fought practically to the last man on Iwo Jima, and hundreds of soldiers and civilians had jumped off cliffs at the southern end of Okinawa rather than surrender. Kamikaze planes had sunk 15 naval vessels and damaged 200 off Okinawa.
The Kyushu landing was never made. Throughout the war, the U.S. government and the British, believing Germany was doing the same, had maintained a massive scientific and industrial project to develop an atomic bomb. The chief ingredients, fissionable uranium and plutonium, had not been available in sufficient quantity before the war in Europe ended. The first bomb was exploded in a test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
Two more bombs had been built, and the possibility arose of using them to convince the Japanese to surrender. President Harry S. Truman decided to allow the bombs to be dropped because, he said, he believed they might save thousands of American lives. For maximum psychological impact, they were used in quick succession, one over Hiroshima on August 6, the other over Nagasaki on August 9. These cities had not previously been bombed, and thus the bombs’ damage could be accurately assessed. U.S. estimates put the number killed in Hiroshima at 66,000 to 78,000 and in Nagasaki at 39,000. Japanese estimates gave a combined total of 240,000. The USSR declared war on Japan on August 8 and invaded Manchuria the next day.
The Japanese Surrender
On August 14 Japan announced its surrender, which was not quite unconditional because the Allies had agreed to allow the country to keep its emperor. The formal signing took place on September 2 in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship Missouri. The Allied delegation was headed by General MacArthur, who became the military governor of occupied Japan.
Cost of the War
World War II’s basic statistics qualify it as by far the greatest war in history in terms of human and material resources expended. In all, 61 countries with 1.7 billion people, three-fourths of the world’s population, took part. A total of 110 million persons were mobilized for military service, more than half of those by three countries: the USSR (22-30 million), Germany (17 million), and the United States (16 million). For the major participants the largest numbers on duty at any one time were as follows: USSR (12,500,000); U.S. (12,245,000); Germany (10,938,000); British Empire and Commonwealth (8,720,000); Japan (7,193,000); and China (5,000,000).
Most statistics on the war are only estimates. The war’s vast and chaotic sweep made uniform record keeping impossible. Some governments lost control of the data, and some resorted to manipulating it for political reasons.
A rough consensus has been reached on the total cost of the war. In terms of money spent, it has been put at more than $1 trillion, which makes it more expensive than all other wars combined. The human cost, not including more than 5 million Jews killed in the Holocaust (see Holocaust: Results of the Holocaust) who were indirect victims of the war, is estimated to have been 55 million dead?25 million of those military and 30 million civilian.
The U.S. spent the most money on the war, an estimated $341 billion, including $50 billion for lend-lease supplies, of which $31 billion went to Britain, $11 billion to the Soviet Union, $5 billion to China, and $3 billion to 35 other countries. Germany was next, with $272 billion; followed by the Soviet Union, $192 billion; and then Britain, $120 billion; Italy, $94 billion; and Japan, $56 billion. Except for the U.S., however, and some of the less militarily active Allies, the money spent does not come close to being the war’s true cost. The Soviet government has calculated that the USSR lost 30 percent of its national wealth, while Nazi exactions and looting were of incalculable amounts in the occupied countries. The full cost to Japan has been estimated at $562 billion. In Germany, bombing and shelling had produced 4 billion cu m (5 billion cu yd) of rubble.
The human cost of the war fell heaviest on the USSR, for which the official total, military and civilian, is given as more than 20 million killed. The Allied military and civilian losses were 44 million; those of the Axis, 11 million. The military deaths on both sides in Europe numbered 19 million and in the war against Japan, 6 million. The U.S., which had no significant civilian losses, sustained 292,131 battle deaths and 115,187 deaths from other causes. The highest numbers of deaths, military and civilian, were as follows: USSR more than 13,000,000 military and 7,000,000 civilian; China 3,500,000 and 10,000,000; Germany 3,500,000 and 3,800,000; Poland 120,000 and 5,300,000; Japan 1,700,000 and 380,000; Yugoslavia 300,000 and 1,300,000; Romania 200,000 and 465,000; France 250,000 and 360,000; British Empire and Commonwealth 452,000 and 60,000; Italy 330,000 and 80,000; Hungary 120,000 and 280,000; and Czechoslovakia 10,000 and 330,000.
Perhaps the most significant casualty over the long term was the world balance of power. Britain, France, Germany, and Japan ceased to be great powers in the traditional military sense, leaving only two, the United States and the Soviet Union.
“World War II,” Microsoft? Encarta? 96 Encyclopedia. ? 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. ? Funk & Wagnalls Corporation. All rights reserved.
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