With the fall of France, Great Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Winston Churchill, the new British Prime Minister, had already declared that his nation would never give in. In a rousing speech, he proclaimed, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…we shall never surrender.”
Hitler now turned his mind to an invasion of Great Britain. His plan was first to knock out the Royal Air Force (RAF) and then to land more than 250,000 soldiers on England’s shores. In the summer of 1940, the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, began bombing Great Britain. At first, the Germans targeted British airfields and aircraft factories. Then on September 7, 1940, they began focusing on the cities, especially London, to break the British morale. Despite the destruction and loss of life, the British did not waver.
The RAF, although badly outnumbered, began to hit back hard. Two technological devices helped turn the tide in the RAF’s favor. One was an electronic tracking system known as radar. Developed in the late 1930s, radar could tell the number, speed and direction of incoming warplanes. The other device was a German code-making machine named the Enigma. A complete Enigma machine had been smuggled into Great Britain in the late 1930s. Enigma enabled the British to decode German secret messages. With information gathered by these devices, RAF fliers could quickly launch attacks on the enemy.
To avoid the RAF’s attacks the Germans gave up daylight raids in October 1940 in favor of night bombing. At sunset, the wail of sirens filled the air as Londoners flocked to the subways which served as air-raid shelters or to basements. This Battle of Britain continued until May 10, 1941. Stunned by British resistance, Hitler decided to call of his attacks and focus on the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. The Battle of Britain taught the Allies a crucial lesson; Hitler’s attacks could be blocked!
1941 – 1942
Early in the morning of June 22, 1941, the roar of German tanks and aircraft announced the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not prepared for this attack. Although it had the largest army in the world, its troops were neither well equipped nor well trained.
The invasion rolled on week after week until the Germans had pushed 500 miles inside the Soviet Union, As the Soviet troops retreated, they burned and destroyed everything in the enemy’s path. The Russians had used this “scorched earth” strategy against Napoleon as well.
On September 8, German forces put Leningrad under siege. By early November, the city was completely cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. To force surrender, Hitler was ready to starve the city’s more than 2.5 million residents. German bombs destroyed warehouses where food was stored. Nearly one million people died in Leningrad during the winter of 1941 – 1942, yet the city refused to fall.
Battle of Coral Sea
As part of Japan’s desire to conquer the Pacific, they began to move towards Australia. The Americans and Australians challenged this southward movement in the Battle of Coral Sea (just of the coast of Australia). In this battle, both sides used a new kind of naval warfare. The opposing sides did not fire a single shot. In fact, they often could not see one another. Instead, airplanes taking off from huge aircraft carriers attacked the ships. The Allies suffered more losses in ships and troops than the Japanese, however, the Battle of the Coral Sea was something of a victory for the Allies, they had stopped Japan’s southward advance.
Battle of Midway
Following the Battle of Coral Sea, Japan’s next target was Midway Island, some 1,500 miles west of Hawaii. Midway Island was the location of a key American airfield. Thanks to Allied code breakers, Admiral Nimitz, the commander and chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet, knew that a huge Japanese force was heading towards Midway.
On June 4th, with American forces hidden beyond the horizon, Nimitz allowed the Japanese to begin their assault on the island. As the first Japanese planes got into the air, American planes swooped in to attack the Japanese fleet. Many Japanese planes were still on the decks of the aircraft carriers. The strategy was a success. American pilots destroyed 332 Japanese planes, all four aircraft carriers, and one support ship. The crippled Japanese fleet was ordered to withdraw. By June 7, 1942, the battle was over. The Battle of Midway turned the tide of the war in the Pacific, by stopping Japanese territorial gains. From this point on the Japanese would be fighting a defensive war, rather than an offensive one.
Battle of Guadalcanal
Following the Battle of Midway, the Allies took the offensive. The war in the Pacific involved vast distances and the Japanese troops had dug in on hundreds of islands across the ocean. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of Allied forces in the Pacific developed a plan to handle this problem.
MacArthur believed that storming each island would be a long, costly effort. Instead, he wanted to “island-hop” past Japanese strongholds. He would then seize islands that were not well defended but were closer to Japan.
MacArthur’s first target soon presented itself. U.S. military leaders had learned that the Japanese were building a huge air base on the island of Guadalcanal. The Allies had to strike fast before the base was completed and became another Japanese stronghold. At dawn on August 7th, 1942, several thousand U.S. Marines, with Australian support, landed on Guadalcanal, and a neighboring island.
The marines had little trouble seizing Guadalcanal’s airfield. But the battle for control of the island turned into a savage toggle as both sides poured in fresh troops. After six months of fighting on land and at sea, the battle finally ended. After losing more than 24,000 of a force of 36,000 soldiers, the Japanese abandoned what they came to call “the Island of Death.”
Battle of El Alamein
1942 – 1943
By 1942, the Germans had advanced into an Egyptian village called El Alamein. They were dug in so well that British forces could not go around them. The only way to dislodge them, the British General Montgomery decided, was with a massive frontal attack. The Battle of El Alamein began on the night of October 23. The roar of about 1,000 British guns took the Axis soldiers by surprise. They fought back fiercely and held there ground for several days. By November 4, however, Rommel’s army had been beaten. He and his forces feel back.
As Rommel retreated west, the Allies launched operation Torch. On November 8, an Allied force of more than 100,000 troops – mostly Americans – landed in Morocco and Algeria. American general Dwight D. Eisenhower led this force. Caught between Montgomery’s and Eisenhower’s armies, Rommel’s forces were finally crushed in May of 1943.
Battle of Stalingrad
1942 – 1943
The German advance had stalled at Leningrad and Moscow in late 1941, and the bitter winter made the situation worse. When the summer of 1942 arrived, however, Hitler sent more German troops into the USSR to seize oil fields and capture the city of Stalingrad, a major industrial city.
The Battle of Stalingrad began on August 23, 1942. The Luftwaffe went on nightly bombing raids that set much of the city ablaze and reduced the rest to rubble. The situation looked desperate, but Stalin had ordered his commanders to defend the city to the death.
By early November 1942, the Germans controlled 90% of the ruined city. Then another Russian winter set in. On November 19, Soviet troops outside the city launched a counterattack. Surrounding the city they trapped the Germans inside and cut off supplies.
On February 2, 1943, some 90,000 frostbitten, half-starved German troops surrendered to the Soviets. These pitiful survivors were all that remained of an army of 330,000 that had invaded Stalingrad. Although the Soviets also faced devastating losses, the German’s were now on the defensive with the Soviets pushing them steadily westward, out of the USSR.
In 1943, the Allies began secretly building an invasion force in Britain. There plan was to launch an attack on German held France across the English Channel. By May 1944, the invasion force was ready. Thousands of planes, ships, tanks, and landing craft, and more than three million troops awaited the order to attack. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of this enormous force, planned to strike don the coast of Normandy, in Northwestern France. The Germans knew that an attack was coming, but they did not know where it would be launched. To keep Hitler guessing, the Allies set up a huge dummy army with its own headquarters and equipment. This make-believe army appeared to be preparing to attack the French seaport of Calais.
Code-named Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy was the largest land and se attack in history. This invasion began on June 6, 1944 – known as D-Day. At dawn on that day, British, American, French, and Canadian troops fought their way onto a 60 mile stretch of beach in Normandy. The Germans had dug-in with machine guns, rocket launchers, and cannons. They sheltered behind concrete walls three feet thick. Not surprisingly the Allies took heavy casualties. Among the American forces alone, more than 2,700 men died on the beaches in a single day of fighting.
Despite heavy losses, the Allies held the beachheads. Within a month of D-Day, more than one million additional troops had landed. Then in July, the Allies punched a hole in German defenses and the U.S. Army broke out. A month later, the Allies marched triumphantly into Paris. By September they had liberated France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Then they set their sights on Germany.
Battle of the Bulge
1944 – 1945
As Allied forces moved towards Germany from the west, the Soviet Army was advancing toward Germany from the east. Hitler now faced a war on two fronts. In a desperate gamble, he decided to counterattack from the west. Hitler hoped a victory would split American and British forces and break up Allied supply lines.
On December 16, 1944, German tanks broke through weak American defenses along a 785 mile front in the Ardennes. The push into Allied lines gave the campaign its name – the Battle of the Bulge. Although caught off guard, the Allied eventually pushed the Germans back. The Germans had little choice, but to retreat, since there were no reinforcements available.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the war in Europe quickly drew to a close. In late March 1945, the Allies rolled across the Rhine River into Germany. By May 1945, the Germans surrendered. However, the war was not over yet…
Battle of Okinawa
American troops continued to follow the “island-hopping” campaign and were able to successfully move towards Japan by winning the Battles of Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima.
On April 1, 1945 American troops moved onto the island of Okinawa, which is only about 350 miles from Southern Japan. The Japanese put up a desperate fight, using kamikaze attacks. Nevertheless, on June 21, one of the bloodiest land battles of the war ended. The Japanese lost over 100,000 soldiers, and the Americans lost 12,000. After Okinawa the next step was Japan.