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World War II Overview
Transcript of World War II Overview
An Overview of History's Greatest War
World War II was fought in three principal theaters.
Each of these theaters was large, complex, and involved
The European Theater
The North African Theater
The Pacific Theater
Leading up to WWII
In Europe, the lead up to WWII was tied in with
the rise of totalitarian regimes, namely Joseph Stalin
and Soviet Russia, Benito Mussolini in Fascist Italy,
and Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.
Stalin was able to seize full power and eliminate his rivals following the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924.
Mussolini's National Fascist Party took power in Italy and from 1926 forward he ruled as dictator.
Hitler seized power as head of the Nazi Party in 1933
and established Germany as a Fascist state.
After rising to power, Hitler placed Germany on a
course of militant expansionism. Despite the fact that they were violating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Britain and France practiced the policy of appeasement, which meant that they decided to satisfy Hitler's demands believing that by doing so they could avoid war with him. In reality, because of hesitation and appeasement, they allowed Nazi Germany ample time to consolidate power and prepare for war.
From Appeasement to War
After 1933, Hitler began covert measures toward German rearmament, expanding the armed forces and training them for war.
Britain and France guaranteed protection of Poland and warned Nazi Germany that any aggression would mean war. By this point, in 1939, they faced a German state emboldened and empowered by several years of industrial growth, military rearmament, and territorial expansion. Hitler felt ready for the war he knew was inevitable.
Soon after, Germany occupied most of the rest of Czechoslovakia, the Memel region of Lithuania and began making demands on territory in Poland.
Nazi Germany next aimed to take the portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. With the Munich Agreement of 1938, Britain caved to Hitler's demands.
In March of 1936, Germany marched troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. France, Britain and the League of Nations chose not to react.
World War II Begins
In late August of 1939, Nazi Germany's top diplomat, Ribbentrop, met with the Soviet top diplomat, Molotov. Together, they worked out the details of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, under which both nations agreed to avoid war with one another.
Secret provisions between Molotov and Ribbentrop divided Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence" for each to control. It was agreed that Germany would invade Poland and the nation would be split between the two. Germany agreed to allow the Soviets to take control of the Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia). With the stroke of a pen, the fates of millions of free people had been sealed.
On September 1st, 1939, the war officially began. Germany unleashed a massive invasion along Poland's northern, western, and southern borders. Despite putting up a brave resistance, Poland was carved up by the German armed forces in only three weeks.
France and Britain had declared war on Germany at the onset of the invasion, but had no way to protect Poland. On September 17th, Soviet forces rolled in from the East and occupied the eastern half of Poland.
The world was stunned by the fact that a nation as large and presumably well-defended as Poland could be vanquished by the Germans in such a short period of time. What they did not yet understand was how a) how much technological innovation had occurred in the two decades since WWI and b) how German strategists and tacticians had spent years developing a new style of highly mobile warfare and trained their officers and men in how to conduct it.
The German's revolutionary and highly effective new tactic was known as blitzkrieg. Meaning "lightning war", blitzkrieg involved a swiftly moving assault by tanks, mechanized infantry and planes supported by artillery and regular infantry. When carried out correctly, a large enemy army could find themselves surrounded, cut off from supplies and reinforcements, and forced to surrender in a matter of only a few days or weeks.
After the fall of Poland, Hitler turned his attention to the rest of the vulnerable continent around him. In April of 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Both quickly fell. Sweden avoided invasion by promising to supply Germany with needed strategic raw materials.
Germany, Italy and Japan sign the Tripartite Act. During the war these nations will be known as the Axis Powers.
On May 10th, 1940, Germany moved against France. In the interwar years, France had built an extremely strong chain of fortifications known as the Maginot Line along their central border with Germany. The northeastern border was left lightly defended, as the French believed the Germans could never move a major force involving hundreds of tanks through the mountainous and heavily wooded region known as the Ardennes. This is precisely where the Germans planned their breakthrough.
At a rapid pace, the Germans invaded through the Netherlands and Belgium, capturing both in quick succession. Utilizing their now well-rehearsed blitzkrieg tactics, German armored and mechanized units poured out of the Ardennes into Northern France.
The defending forces put up a staunch resistance in multiple sectors, but after being outmaneuvered and taking heavy losses they had no choice but surrender. A large pocket of troops of the British Expeditionary Force was trapped and could have been killed or captured, but Hitler hesitated for long enough for them to be evacuated at Dunkirk.
If the world had been stunned at the quick fall of Poland, it was even more astounded that France had fallen in only one month. After his recent streak of victories, Hitler was beginning to view himself as among the greatest military masterminds of history, and he now had confidence that his armed forces could not be stopped.
Hitler next turned his attention on Britain. He understood that invading Britain would mean first sweeping the English Channel of the Royal Navy, which couldn't be done without first gaining air superiority. Hitler's chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, assured him that the Royal Air Force could be decimated by the Luftwaffe in a matter of weeks.
In what became known as the Battle of Britain, the first battle fought entirely by air forces, fought between 10 July – 31 October 1940, the very sovereignty of Britain was at stake. Due to strategic mistakes made by Goering and the ferocious and desperate sacrifices made by the RAF, the Luftwaffe was unable to gain air superiority and Hitler was forced to call off any plans for an invasion of Britain.
Hitler's myth of invincibility had just received its first dent.
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." -Winston Churchill
As his plans for Britain were going down in flames over
the English channel, Hitler's mind was already elsewhere.
He had already begun having his command staff draw up
intricate plans for his next bold move. He knew now that one challenge stood in the way of German mastery of the European continent. The Nazi war machine's greatest obstacle and Hitler's most costly gamble were soon to be decided during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR.
Throughout the spring of '41, Hitler was
ordering a growing number of military units to the East close to the border of the USSR. Though he had not knocked out Britain as he hoped, and Japan's attack at Pearl Harbor in December obligated US entrance, Hitler felt there was no urgent threat of an Allied invasion in the West. He knew that a quick, knockout blow on the USSR would require as much of his military power as he could possibly devote.
On June 22nd, 1941, Operation Barbarossa on the Eastern Front commenced. Over 4 million soldiers of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along an 1,800 mile front, the largest invasion in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, Barbarossa used 600,000 motor vehicles and 750,000 horses. The German invasion of the Soviet Union suffered and caused a high rate of fatalities: 95% of all German Army casualties that occurred from 1941 to 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war.
In the opening months of the war on the
Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht advanced
deeply into Soviet territory. Utilizing blitzkrieg tactics yet again, Soviet POW's were taken in the 100's of thousands. As the Soviet Red Army quickly retreated from the front it seemed that
Germany was on the eve of yet another shocking triumph.
However, this was not to be a repeat of Poland
or France. It would soon become obvious why many
of Hitler's most brilliant generals had politely urged him not to invade Russia. They knew that Russia, with its vast size and severe weather, could swallow armies just as it had done during the Napoleon's failed campaign.
At the onset of winter in '41, the Germans were sitting
only a short distance outside of the capital, Moscow. The brutal Russian winter halted the German advance and gave the Red Army a chance to counter-attack. The Germans found themselves pinned down, enduring a brutal winter without proper uniforms while defending against sporadic Soviet attacks.
Despite their harsh winter ordeal, with the
coming of the spring of '42, the Germans were
prepared to resume the offensive. Hitler's generals pressed him to begin his final attack on Moscow. But, Hitler had other plans. He decided to focus his spring offensive on taking the southern Russian city of Stalingrad.
The Battle of Stalingrad
Considered one of the greatest turning points of the war
Stalingrad marked the height of German territorial expansion, and the point from which they never regained momentum.
Hitler ordered them not to fall back. 90,000 troops were forced into surrender.
German 6th army was trapped in the city as Soviets mounted major counteroffensive.
Soviets made efficient use of snipers. The burnt out rubble of a destroyed city was perfect for the use of snipers (many of which were women)
Intense street to street urban warfare. Extremely high death toll for both sides
Stalin ordered the city defended to the last man, civilians were not allowed to evacuate
After Stalingrad, many battles remained on the
Eastern Front, but the Germans were gradually falling back. Despite taking enormous losses, the Red Army had gained the momentum. By 1944, the Germans were fighting a lost cause on the Eastern Front, had already abandoned their campaign in North Africa, and now faced the looming threat of an invasion on the Western Front.
As you've seen, the years of 1939-1942 witnessed Nazi Germany and its allies quickly expand their power and conquer the vast majority of Europe outside of the USSR. However, the years of 1943-45 saw a reversal in fortunes for the Axis Powers culminating in the downfall of the Third Reich. Let's look a few key events that took place as Nazi Germany's hopes for dominance faded away.
By mid-1943 German troops have become trapped between British forces to their east and British & American forces to their west.
German forces in North Africa surrendered and the region became a jumping-off point for later invasions into Southern Europe.
Hitler had sacrificed North Africa for his grand visions of a victory in the USSR.
By 1943 American and British heavy bombers based out of British airfields were carrying out bombing raids of many German urban areas.
The Final Solution
In 1942 top SS officials met at the Wannsee Conference.
Bomber crews took heavy losses, but their mission lowered German productivity.
Carpet bombings killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians.
Railway depots, naval facilities, industrial plants and armament factories were all major targets.
These death camps were capable of carrying out thousands of murders on a daily basis.
Soon afterward the first death camps with gas chambers were constructed, mostly in Germany and Poland.
At the meeting, it was determined that new methods must be devised to more quickly eradicate Jews and other "undesirables" living within Nazi occupation.
American and British Landings
In 1943, Mussolini was deposed in an uprising and American troops invaded the Italian peninsula.
The Germans were now facing advancing enemy forces from three directions.
American, British and Canadian troops stormed heavily defended beaches and took heavy losses before pushing the Germans back.
On June 6th, 1944, after months of preparation, the US and British landings at the beaches of Normandy took place. D-Day, as these landings are known, was the largest amphibious operation in history.
The Germans, losing ground in the East, were forced to divert troops to Italy to defend against American divisions pushing northward.
The Final Months
By late 1944 the Germans were being threatened along three fronts.
After unconditional surrender by Germany, victory in Europe is officially declared on May 9th, 1945.
In the final days, Hitler retreats to his command bunker. With Soviet armies closing in, he takes his own life.
As British and Americans have crossed the Rhine and are driving deeper from the West, the Soviets are inching closer to Berlin.
December 16th, 1944, Germans launch Ardennes Offensive as last ditch effort to regain momentum against British and American forces. Battle of the Bulge results in another German defeat.
Aftermath in Europe
Victorious Allied Powers now had to deal the defeated Axis nations in the wake of a destructive war.
US and Soviet relations as only two superpowers turn hostile.
Marshall Plan devotes billions in US aid to help Western Europe recover.
Western Allies focused on helping repair and rebuild the German economy so that democracy and stability could be established.
Germany was split into four occupied zones (British, American, French and Soviet). Berlin itself was also divided into these zones.
United Nations was formed as a community of nations to settle disputes through diplomacy.
Nuremberg Trials tried, convicted and brought Nazi war criminals to justice.
The Pacific Theater
Rising Sun - Japanese Imperial Expansionism
The Meiji Restoration of the 19th century made Japan a strong industrial power with a modernized military.
Beginning in the early 30's, Japan invaded Manchuria and sparked a war with China. China's outdated military was no match for Japan's. As occupiers, the Japanese were extremely inhumane to the Chinese.
The emperor and his regime promoted intense Japanese nationalism and racism.
As a small island nation, Japan coveted the abundant industrial raw goods of the surrounding lands.
Tensions and War
Due to Japan's hostilities in China, the governments of Australia, Britain, the US and the Dutch placed an embargo, withholding strategic trade items of oil and iron ore.
Japanese planners knew that they could not win a protracted war with the US, so they opted for a sneak attack to destroy as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible.
With the crushing embargo in place, Japan faced two options: cease its imperial activities in China or make war with the Western powers present in the Pacific. War plans were prepared for the second option.
On December 7th, 1941 the Japanese sprung the offensive they had been preparing for months.
Four days after Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war.
This event caused a massive shift in American public opinion toward the war, from a stance of non-interventionism to a passionate rallying cry for justice and revenge.
Although a serious and shocking blow, the results at Pearl Harbor were not nearly as devastating as intended or needed for the Japanese. Our key naval vessels, our carriers, were not hit.
A carrier-based air raid on the US Pacific Fleet docked at Pearl Harbor achieved the element of surprise and managed to knock out eight American battleships and claim the lives of 2,402.
On the same day as Pearl Harbor, Japan made many other moves, overrunning British controlled Hong Kong, US controlled Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines, Thailand and Malaya.
The Japanese hoped to lure the US Pacific Fleet into a climactic naval battle. Intercepted and decrypted Japanese naval transmissions gave us key intelligence to turn the tables. In the Battle of Midway the US inflicted a crippling defeat on the Japanese Navy.
Further Japanese offensives throughout 1941-42 netted them control over a large swathe of the Pacific.
An Ugly War
The first major taste of land warfare came at the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Allied forces were learning a hard lesson about the mentality of the Japanese soldier. The Bushido Code would not allow them to surrender with honor. Nor would they treat captives with anything but absolute inhumanity.
The Japanese fought ferociously to defend the island, but US Marines held their own and secured an American victory.
As the US gained momentum, we began the process of "island hopping"--invading and conquering island after island.
June '44: Strategic bombing of Japan begins.
Island hopping was costly--Japanese troops often fought to the last man. Iconic battles at Tarawa, the Mariana Islands, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa cost many lives but proved crucial.
Our overall objective: to take islands with airfields that would put our heavy bombers within range of Japan's home islands.
The Bitter End
By 1945 the US was capturing the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa at a very heavy cost.
Japan formally surrenders on Aug. 15th, 1945
After declining demands of surrender, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6th, and Nagasaki on Aug. 9th.
Manhattan Project produced world's first atomic bombs.
Kamikaze attacks were an act of desperation.
US strategic bombings had obliterated Japan's industrial capacity. Their navy and air force had been all but neutralized.
The armed forces of Britain and France were preparing for a repeat of 1914, in which the momentum of the German army would slam into well defended positions and the stalemate would devolve into trench warfare. The Germans had been preparing to ensure that mistake would not be made again.