BATTLE OF BRITAIN In the summer and fall of 1940, German and British air forces clashed in the skies over the United Kingdom, locked in the largest sustained bombing campaign to that date. A significant turning point of World War II, the Battle of Britain ended when Germany’s Luftwaffe failed to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force despite months of targeting Britain’s air bases, military posts and, ultimately, its civilian population. Britain’s decisive victory saved the country from a ground invasion and possible occupation by German forces while proving that air power alone could be used to win a major battle.
On June 17, 1940, the defeated French signed an armistice and quit World War II. Britain now stood alone against the power of Germany’s military forces, which had conquered most of Western Europe in less than two months. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill rallied his stubborn people and outmaneuvered those politicians who wanted to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. But Britain’s success in continuing the war would very much depend on the RAF Fighter Command’s ability to thwart the Luftwaffe’s efforts to gain air superiority. This then would be the first all-air battle in history.
Did You Know?
The battle received its name from a speech Winston Churchill delivered to the British House of Commons on June 18, 1940, in which he stated "The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin."
In fact, Britain’s situation was more favorable than most of the world recognized at the time. Britain possessed an effective air defense system, first-rate fighter pilots, and a great military leader in Air Marshal Hugh Dowding. On the other hand, the Germans had major problems: they had no navy left after the costly conquest of Norway, their army was unprepared for any form of amphibious operations, and the Luftwaffe had suffered heavy losses in the west (the first two factors made a seaborne attack on the British Isles impossible from the first).
Even more serious, the Germans had poor intelligence and little idea of British vulnerabilities. They wasted most of July in waiting for a British surrender and attacked only in August. Although air strikes did substantial damage to radar sites, on August 13–15 the Luftwaffe soon abandoned that avenue and turned to attacks on RAF air bases. A battle of attrition ensued in which both sides suffered heavy losses (an average loss of 21 percent of the RAF’s fighter pilots and 16 percent of the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots each month during July, August, and September).
For a time the advantage seemed to swing slightly in favor of the Germans, but a combination of bad intelligence and British attacks on Berlin led the Luftwaffe to change its operational approach to massive attacks on London. The first attack on London on September 7 was quite successful; the second, on September 15, failed not only with heavy losses, but also with a collapse of morale among German bomber crews when British fighters appeared in large numbers and shot down many of the Germans. As a result, Hitler permanently postponed a landing on the British Isles and suspended the Battle of Britain.
In December 1944, Adolph Hitler attempted to split the Allied armies in northwest Europe by means of a surprise blitzkrieg thrust through the Ardennes to Antwerp. Caught off-guard, American units fought desperate battles to stem the German advance at St.-Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and Bastogne. As the Germans drove deeper into the Ardennes in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads, the Allied line took on the appearance of a large bulge, giving rise to the battle’s name. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s successful maneuvering of the Third Army to Bastogne proved vital to the Allied defense, leading to the neutralization of the German counteroffensive despite heavy casualties.
Its objective was to split the Allied armies by means of a surprise blitzkrieg thrust through the Ardennes to Antwerp, marking a repeat of what the Germans had done three times previously–in September 1870, August 1914, and May 1940. Despite Germany’s historical penchant for mounting counteroffensives when things looked darkest, the Allies’ leadership miscalculated and left the Ardennes lightly defended by only two inexperienced and two battered American divisions.
On December 16, three German armies (more than a quarter-million troops) launched the deadliest and most desperate battle of the war in the west in the poorly roaded, rugged, heavily forested Ardennes. The once-quiet region became bedlam as American units were caught flat-footed and fought desperate battles to stem the German advance at St.-Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and, later, Bastogne, which was defended by the 101st Airborne Division. The inexperienced U.S. 106th Division was nearly annihilated, but even in defeat helped buy time for Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke’s brilliant defense of St.-Vith. As the German armies drove deeper into the Ardennes in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads west of the River Meuse quickly, the line defining the Allied front took on the appearance of a large protrusion or bulge, the name by which the battle would forever be known.
A crucial German shortage of fuel and the gallantry of American troops fighting in the frozen forests of the Ardennes proved fatal to Hitler’s ambition to snatch, if not victory, at least a draw with the Allies in the west. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s remarkable feat of turning the Third Army ninety degrees from Lorraine to relieve the besieged town of Bastogne was the key to thwarting the German counteroffensive. The Battle of the Bulge was the costliest action ever fought by the U.S. Army, which suffered over 100,000 casualties.
BATTLE OF STALINGRAD
The Battle of Stalingrad (July 17, 1942-Feb. 2, 1943), was the successful Soviet defense of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the U.S.S.R. during World War II. Russians consider it to be the greatest battle of their Great Patriotic War, and most historians consider it to be the greatest battle of the entire conflict. It stopped the German advance into the Soviet Union and marked the turning of the tide of war in favor of the Allies. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history, with combined military and civilian casualties of nearly 2 million.
The Russians hailed it a “contemporary Cannae,” and the Germans condemned it as a Rattenkrieg (Rat War). Both descriptions were fitting. In the Battle of Stalingrad, Soviet forces surrounded and crushed an entire German army under General Friedrich Paulus, emulating Hannibal’s encirclement and destruction of a Roman army under Aemilius Paulus in 216 B.C. For both sides, Stalingrad became a desperate ordeal of rodentlike scurrying from hole to hole.
This monumental battle is justly considered a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front and one of the most crucial engagements of World War II. The invading Germans saw the conquest of Stalingrad as essential to their campaign in southern Russia, since from this strategic point on the Volga River they could launch further assaults in the Caucasus. The Russians were determined to defend the city as a vital industrial and transportation center. Both Joseph Stalin andAdolf Hitler understood the symbolic importance of the only city to bear the Soviet dictator’s name.
On September 3, 1942, the German Sixth Army under Paulus reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, expecting to take the city in short order. But the Russians had built up their defenses and continued to bring in reinforcements. A very able general, V. I. Chuikov, took command of the main defending force, the Sixty-second Army, while Marshal Georgii K. Zhukov, Soviet Russia’s greatest general, planned a counteroffensive. In subsequent days the invaders fought their way into Stalingrad against fierce resistance. This was urban street fighting of the most bitter sort, occasioning tremendous losses on both sides. The blasted ruins of houses and factories began to stink as hot winds carried the smell of decaying corpses into every nook and cranny. By late September the Germans could raise the swastika flag over the Univermag department store in the center of town, but they could not dislodge the Russians from the sprawling industrial quarters along the Volga.
In mid-November, as the stalled invaders were running short of men and munitions, Zhukov launched his counteroffensive to encircle the enemy. At this point the Germans probably could have fought their way out, but Hitler would not allow them to: they were ordered to hold their ground at all costs. Air Marshal Hermann Goring promised to resupply the Sixth Army from the air but proved unable to do so. As winter set in, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein mounted a rescue mission, but it was halted short of its goal, and the freezing and starving Germans in Stalingrad were forbidden to try to reach their would-be rescuers. On February 2, 1943, General Paulus surrendered what remained of his army-some 91,000 men. About 150,000 Germans had died in the fighting.
The Soviet victory at Stalingrad was a great humiliation for Hitler, who had elevated the battle’s importance in German opinion. He now became more distrustful than ever of his generals. Stalin, on the other hand, gained confidence in his military, which followed up Stalingrad with a westward drive and remained largely on the offensive for the rest of the war.
BATTLE FOR BERLIN
On 2 May 1945, after one of the most intense battles in human history, the guns at last stopped firing amongst the ruins of Berlin. According to Soviet veterans, the silence that followed the fighting was literally deafening. Less than four years after his attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler's self-proclaimed thousand-year Reich had ceased to exist. The German Führer himself was dead.
Europe would never be the same again. Despite years of Cold War tension, the continent would remain free of war for decades to come, unprecedented in European history. Crucially, by the time that Germany re-emerged as a single and united nation in 1990, the megalomania that had brought death and destruction to the continent in the first half of the century had been well and truly purged.
But the human cost of the battle for Berlin had been enormous. Millions of shells were fired into a city that was already devastated after two years of relentless bombing raids by British and American warplanes. Nearly a quarter of a million people died during the last three weeks of World War Two, almost as many as the United States lost during the entire war.
Stalin and his allies
But Stalin was in a hurry. The Americans had recently crossed the Rhine and the Soviet leader was concerned that they might capture Berlin before him. To speed up his campaign, he split the command of the Berlin operation between Marshall Zukhov in the centre and Marshall Konev in the south. Stalin thus effectively triggered a race between his two most senior commanders, as both of them were eager to be credited with the conquest of the German capital.
On 15 of April, Soviet forces launched one of the most powerful artillery barrages in history. Over a million shells were fired against German positions west of the Oder. But when Zukhov's troops advanced from their bridgeheads, they found that the Germans had withdrawn to fortified positions on the Seelow heights further inland, having learned of the imminent Soviet attack from a captured Russian soldier.
Zukhov's attack clearly wasn't going according to plan. He decided to send in wave after wave against the German defences. 'We started to fire at the masses,' says one former German machine gunner. 'They weren't human beings for us. It was a wall of attacking beasts who were trying to kill us. You yourself were no longer human.' There was confusion all around. According to one Russian veteran, Soviet artillery was fired without proper guidance, killing scores of Red Army soldiers.
They weren't human beings for us. It was a wall of attacking beasts who were trying to kill us ...
It took Zukhov three days to break the German resistance, far longer than planned. Huge numbers of Soviet tanks were lost because they were used as battering rams against the German positions. Over 30,000 Soviet soldiers died compared to the 10,000 soldiers lost by the Germans. In the end, the high Soviet casualty rate was largely a result of Stalin's hurry to reach Berlin.
Russians in Berlin
Meanwhile, Zukhov's and Konev's troops were punching their way into the German capital, sometimes accidentally firing at each other in their bid to win the race for Berlin. Ironically, the Soviets' use of tanks in the street fighting was not dissimilar to the tactics used so disastrously by the Germans in Stalingrad. Soviet T-34s were highly vulnerable to the Panzerfaust, the German bazooka, fired by soldiers hiding in destroyed buildings. It meant further unnecessary losses for the Red Army. But the 90,000 German defenders - mainly old people or members of the Hitler Youth - stood little chance against more than a million Red Army troops.
Already, the civilian population was bearing the brunt of the Red Army's revenge. Though the first wave of Soviet troops was generally considered to be disciplined, it was the second that indulged in orgies of rape and violence, fuelled by large stocks of alcohol found in the city.
Based on contemporary hospital reports and on surging abortion rates in the following months, it is estimated that up to two million German women were raped during the last six months of World War Two, around 100,000 of them in Berlin. One woman remembered hiding in the loft of her apartment block, ready to jump out of the window if she was detected, whilst her best friend was being gang raped by Soviet soldiers in the apartment below.
The authorities in Moscow traditionally deny German allegations of mass rape at the end of the war. But during his research, Beevor discovered internal Red Army documents that prove that the Soviet High Command was well aware that some of their soldiers were running out of control. Even more shocking is Beevor's discovery in the Red Army files that Red Army troops also raped Russian women after their release from Nazi slave labour camps in Germany.
Fall of the capital
Back in April 1945, the battle was coming to a close. On 30 April, Hitler committed suicide - together with his mistress Eva Braun, only hours after they were married. Hitler had given strict orders for his body to be burned, so that his enemies wouldn't do what they had done to Mussolini, who was publicly displayed hanging upside down. 'And Hitler,' one former SS guard told us, 'could rely on the fact that the people he gave these orders to would carry them out.'
By 2 May, the Reichstag, the old German parliament, had fallen. Berlin surrendered to Marshall Zukhov, who received the honour of being the conqueror of Berlin. The battle for Berlin had cost the Soviets over 70,000 dead. Many of them had died because of the haste with which the campaign was conducted. 'Of our unit's 360 handsome young men who gathered at the Dnieper River, only 6 made it to Berlin,' says one Soviet veteran.
So what are the reasons for Stalin's hurry to reach Berlin? After all, he was happy to share the city with his western allies after the city's surrender. The traditional explanation is that it was a question of Soviet prestige and mistrust of the west. However, during his research, Beevor discovered a startling new document: 'It struck me so powerfully that the moment I started to read it I knew I had to look at a totally different aspect of Stalin's interest in Berlin.'
Use an index card to create a postcard from one of the battles in the European theater. You should draw a picture representing an aspect of the battle or a map showing where it was on the front and a short letter home describing your experience on the back.