A. Early Stages
a. On 31 August 1939 twelve German convicts dressed up in Polish Army uniforms were shot by the SS about ten miles West of the German-Polish border. Pointing to the bodies, Hitler announced that Poland was invading Germany, and he declared war on 1 Sept.
b. The Germans struck using their Blitzkrieg strategy. Combined arms: bombers and dive-bombers (including the infamous Ju-87 Stuka, plus tanks (Panzers) plus mechanized infantry. In practice Blitzkrieg was the antithesis of the trench warfare of World War I, in that it was highly mobile. The German Luftwaffe (air force) and ground artillery blew a hole in the enemies lines, and then the armor and armored infantry poured through the hole, moving as quickly as possible to capture key targets (esp. the enemy capital). Defending units should be by-passed where possible so as not to delay the assault – they can be mopped up subsequently. Note that the strategy is the same one that was the heart of the von Schlieffen plan in 1914 – the major difference is that technology had improved enough to make this tactic more feasible. The defenders had less time to react and organize counter-attacks.
c. The German forces committed to the invasion of Poland numbered 1,516,000 infantry, 810 bombers, 340 Stuka dive bombers, 240 fighter aircraft, and 2,000 Panzer tanks. The Poles had in place for defense about 800,000 men - roughly half their potential force, all that they were able to mobilize before German bombing destroyed rail lines and communications. The Polish Air Force numbered about 935 aircraft of all types, generally inferior in quality to the more modern German planes. The Poles had virtually no tanks.
d. The Germans successfully blew a hole in the Polish defensive line and charged toward Warsaw. Contrary to popular belief, the Polish Air Force was not destroyed on the first day of the war, although it did suffer heavy casualties. The Polish Air Force was wiped out by the 4th of September, although it did inflict some casualties on the German Luftwaffe.
e. France and Britain declared war on the 3rd. France was fully mobilized before the Germans finished in Poland. French recon patrols pushed some 14 miles into Germany without meeting resistance, then they were recalled. The French had between 72 to 85 full-strength divisions on the German border, facing 8 German Divisions, with c. 20 German reservist divisions. The French declined to attack. The British RAF sent some planes to support the Poles, but they were too little too late.
f. Russia invaded Poland from the East on the 17th.
g. Warsaw fell on 27 September 1939. Poland surrendered on 1 October. The last organized Polish military resistance collapsed on 6 October.
h. The Poles managed to steal a copy of the Wehrmacht’s (German Army’s) code machine. When the Polish government fled in exile to Britain, they took the machine with them. For the rest of the war, Britain will be deciphering coded Wehrmacht messages. The British will codename the machine Enigma, and the intelligence it produces will be given the classification Ultra.2
2. With the collapse of Poland, there begins a period known as the “Sitzkrieg”, (a pun on “Blitzkrieg” – a “sitting around” war; get it?); also called the “phony war”. This lull will last for a few months; then in April 1940 Denmark and Norway were over-run by German Forces. It is at this point that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, and Winston Churchill (1874-1965) formed a coalition cabinet.
3. On 10 May German forces crossed into France by way of Belgium (moving through the Ardennes Forest, flanking the Maginot Line). The French and allied forces were numerically superior and as well-equipped as the German invaders:
4. The flanking attack through the Ardennes caught the Allies off guard, and French morale quickly collapsed. The French were caught off guard by the move – they hadn’t thought the German tanks could move through the forest, and were certain that German artillery couldn’t; they were wrong about the former, but right about the latter – however, the Germans simply used Stuka dive bombers in the role the missing artillery would have fulfilled.
5. The French had as many tanks as the Germans, and some of their tanks were better, but they weren’t equipped with radios, and they were utilized in an infantry-support role, rather than collected into armor divisions in the German style. The German style proved much more affective. The German military historian Karl-Heinz Frieser argues that the Blitzkrieg of France wasn’t actually planned – the Germans were surprised at the initial French collapse and how fluid the battle became, but they reacted more swiftly to the rapidly changing situation and never let the French have a moment to catch their breath; subsequently, for propaganda purposes the Germans pretended that Bliztkrieg had all been planned out and everything has gone as planned.
6. French air support was uncoordinated and ineffective, and the French air force soon became inconsequential. The French government begged Britain for increasing numbers of Hurricane fighter squadrons, but without any system of coordinating the squadrons and without protected air bases in France, the British fighters were vulnerable when on the ground, and unable to intercept German aircraft with any consistency. Churchill, a Francophile, was inclined to keep sending more squadrons to aid the French, but Sir Hugh Dowding, the chief of Fighter Command, finally convinced the Prime Minister that he was vainly sacrificing squadrons Britain would shortly be desperately needing (and in a position to use much more effectively – see below).
7. As the Allied line collapsed, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) found itself isolated and surrounded. Refusing to surrender, the British pulled out much of their expeditionary force from the Port of Dunkirk, in Belgium.
a. Hundreds of thousands of allied troops, including the majority of Britain’s professional army, were caught in a trap. The Wehrmacht wanted to close in an destroy the allied force, but Herman Göring (1893-1946), commander of the Luftwaffe, convinced Hitler to let his bombers bomb the trapped soldiers until they surrendered. The bombs fell, but the trapped troops did not surrender.
b. On the night of 3-4 June, British and French ships and small boats crossed the English channel, rescuing 338,000 men - 215,000 British troops and 125,000 French – in what became known as “the Miracle of Dunkirk”. The BEF left all of its heavy equipment behind.
6. On 10 June, the French asked for an armistice; it was signed on the 22nd, in the same railway car where Germany had signed the armistice in 1918. Much of France, including the coast, was occupied. Some French troops escaped, and would eventually be formed into Free French units - Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970) emerged as their leader (President of France after the war, 1945-46; 1958-1969).
C. The Battle of Britain
1. Pre-War developments
a. During World War I, aircraft had been primarily used for reconnaissance purposes, since they were too primitive to carry a significant payload. Late in the war Germany did bomb British cities using Gotha bombers and dirigibles, but the results were negligible. Nonetheless, everyone was obsessed with the idea of bombers after WWI. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was summarizing accepted military gospel when he told Parliament in 1932 that “The bomber will always get though”. The quickest way to win a war was to bomb the enemy into submission, and the only way to prevent your country from being bombed out of the war was to have such a big bomber force yourself that no one would dare attack you. (In the popular 1936 film of H.G. Wells’s Things to Come there is a scene where massive waves of enemy bombers fly over the city and destroy it).
b. Part of the initial thinking with the emphasis on bombers is that countries were developing multi-engine bombers that were faster than anyone’s fighters. Through the 1920s and mid 1930s, new fighters were improvements over their WWI predecessors, but still closely resembled them in design (for example, the British Gloster Gladiator first went into production in 1934, only five years before the outbreak of WWII in Europe). However, both Britain and Germany did strive to build better fighters.
c. One angle of development was heavy fighter aircraft, intended to be fast enough to catch a bomber and carry enough weapons to shoot one down if it caught one. The British produced the Boulton Paul Defiant, a heavy single-engine design with a rear-firing turret. The Germans produced the Messerschmitt bf 110, a two-engine design. The early stages of the war would prove that these heavy fighter designs were fatally flawed….
d. At the same time Britain and Germany (and other nations) were designing bombers and heavy fighters, they were also developing single-engine, all (or mostly metal), single wing fighters designed for speed. The main German design was the Messerschmitt bf 109; Britain developed two separate and equally effective fast fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Both aircraft were heavily armed, carrying eight heavy machine guns in their wings (the bf 109 carried four wing machine guns and had a cannon that fired through the nose of the plane).
e. In the last years before the war, the British government will begin building up squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires – and equally critically, will begin building an infrastructure to control, direct, and repair the squadrons. From the military perspective Sir Hugh Dowding was the critical figure who made Fighter Command, a highly developed, innovative, and technologically cutting-edge system designed to spot incoming enemy aircraft and efficiently direct Britain’s fighter squadrons to intercept them. While Dowding was the brains and the drive behind Fighter Command, it is important to note that Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain – both generally criticized as foolish appeasers – who through the government (and fast amounts of money) behind Dowding’s efforts.
f. Dowding’s Fighter Command included:
i. Radar stations to spot incoming enemy aircraft. Since these early radar stations had trouble determining altitude, they were supported by thousands of civilian and military spotters on the ground (with simple trigonometry, you can determine the approximate altitude of an aircraft).
ii. A central control room to track “the big picture” and coordinate the British fighter squadrons as they moved on interceptions, backed by sector control rooms. All telephone wires to these control rooms were buried deep and protected by reinforced concrete (even some military figures complained about the cost of this precaution, but Dowding convinced the government). Note that most of the staff at these control rooms were young women, members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs). Dowding (working with Churchill’s friend, the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who Churchill placed in charge of aircraft production) also worked out an efficient system to replace lost aircraft).
g. During the period of the Battle for France, once it was clear that the French were losing, Dowding fought hard to convince Churchill not to send additional Hurricane squadrons to aid the desperate French. Backed by radar and centralized these squadrons would be terribly effective defending Britain, but in France, with no radar and no efficient system of control, they would be squandered. Churchill sent far more than Dowding wanted, but he did eventually convince Churchill to “turn off the tap”.
h. It is indicative of how carefully Dowding planned the defense of Britain that during the Battle of France and subsequent skirmishes over the English Channel, he pulled some pilots from all the squadrons and had them attend Fighter Command’s control stations during battles, so they could see how the system worked and gain confidence in it – and take that confidence back to their squadrons. Pilots’ ability to intercept German aircraft (not to mention sometimes saving their own lives) depended on instantly obeying orders issued to them by young women – Dowding knew it was critical that they have faith in the system.
2. The Battle
1. All of Western Europe has been over-run; Britain stood alone. Churchill said, in a speech to the nation, “The battle of France has ended. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin”. Hitler believed that Britain would soon surrender, but Churchill kept making rude noises every time the Germans make peace overtures.
2. Hitler decided he had to invade - Operation Seelöwe(Sea Lion). But to cross the English channel with the transports necessary to ferry the German army across required air superiority; so starting in early August,Herman Göring's Luftwaffe tried to destroy the Royal Air Force (the RAF). The engagement, which lasted until mid-September, was known as the Battle of Britain.
3. Initially the Germans concentrated on the RAF installations, doing great damage to Britain’s ability to fight back. With the use of radar, the RAF could generally intercept the Luftwaffe, but some of the bombers always made it through, hitting the bases and radar installations hard. One night a German plane, lost, dumped its bombs in the heart of London. Churchill retaliated by pulling a sneak raid on Berlin (remind me to tell you the Molotov/Ribbentrop story); Hitler was so angry he changed the primary target from the RAF installations to Britain's cities - an attempt to break the will of the British people. A critical error - The RAF was on its last legs, and the shift to the cities gave the RAF time it needed to recover. The RAF began deploying allied (refuge) pilots. Polish pilots in particular proved very effective in their modern British planes (although when shot down they were often arrested by locals, since most of the Poles had little or no English).
4. Germany targeted most of Britain’s major cities and ports – Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, Southampton, etc. – but especially London – in what the British call “the Blitz”. British morale held up (see John Boorman's film "Hope and Glory", a child’s-eye view of the Blitz). Americans heard nightly broadcasts made by American correspondent Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965). The RAF developed the tactic of hitting the bombers on the way home, when they had no fighter escorts for protection (the fighters had shorter ranges); this tactic meant more damage to the targeted cities, but German bomber casualties skyrocketed. On 15 September the Luftwaffe lost 60 planes; 2 days later Hitler called off his invasion plans.
II. The Shift in Momentum
A. Barbarossa: The Invasion of Russia
1. If Hitler couldn't invade Britain, at least there didn't seem much that Britain could do to bother Germany. So Hitler turned his attention to the invasion of the Soviet Union - his #1 goal for the war.
2. The Germans invaded on 22 June, 1941 - a month later than planned. Hitler committed 4 million men, 3,300 tanks and 5,000 planes. But they were not equipped for winter fighting - summer uniforms, summer equipment, and light-weight oil. Hitler, ignoring his generals again, was convinced that Russia would quickly fall; Hitler estimated that the Soviet Union would collapse 8 - 12 weeks after the invasion began.
3. Despite repeated warnings from just about everybody, including U.S. and British intelligence, Stalin was caught completely off guard by the invasion, and the Soviet army and air force took a terrific beating. Initially, German units ran ahead of schedule in reaching their objectives. Within three months, Russia had lost 2.5 million men, and the Germans had made impressive advances; but the Russians wouldn’t surrender, and fought for every inch of ground. At first Stalin appealed for a defense of Communism; but he soon changed tactics and began appealing for Russians to save Mother Russia.
4. As noted in an earlier lecture, the territory the Germans over-ran included Russia’s old industrial base, but not the newer industrial regions Stalin had developed.
5. Winter came early in 1941 - the German offensive ground to a halt 20 miles short of Moscow. On 6 December the Russians launched a counter-attack, just for fun. The longer the Russians held on, the more equal the battle became. Russia shifted into war-time production, and also received supplies from Great Britain (and later the U.S. after we entered the war). As early as November 1941 the Germans had been surprised by an encounter with a Russian armored Brigade that had British tanks. (During a speech before Parliament, Churchill – a rabid anti-communist before the War – was asked how he, of all people, could justify sending so many supplies to the Soviets; he replied “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find occasion to make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons”).
6. When Spring arrived, the Germans concentrated on Stalingrad, a critical industrial city on the Volga river (a major rail center for the Russians, too). The German central drive was going so well that Hitler sent some of the Panzers south toward the Caucasus, leaving the 6th Army and the 4th Panzer Army to continue the drive on Stalingrad. Tens of thousands of Russians who should have been surrounded and cut off managed to escape, and they regrouped with other Russian forces dug in at Stalingrad. The Caucasus drive died out - a combination of Russian resistance in the passes, and German inability to rush supplies to the front swiftly enough.
7. Meanwhile the drive on Stalingrad had also been stopped by fierce Russian resistance, and the rapid replacement of Russian armor losses (tanks drove off the assembly line and were in combat the same day). The Germans fought bravely, but Russian resistance held firm. Street fighting - very nasty. The Germans were under-equipped. In November 1942, the Russians counterattacked - and successfully surrounded the 6th Army (the 4th Panzer Army hadn’t waited to see what Hitler instructed - it scampered to safety in time). On 2 February 1943, the German 6th Army surrendered - Stalingrad cost Germany 260,000 dead and 110,000 captured. From this point on, the Germans were retreating before the Russian advance.
8. Stalingrad greatly undermined the Nazi’s popularity in Germany – despite Hitler’s efforts, it was too big a disaster to cover up.
B. The War in the Pacific
1. 7 December 1941 - Pearl Harbor. Some 190 Japanese carrier-based fighters, bombers, dive-bombers and torpedo bombers hit the major U.S. Pacific naval and air base early on a Sunday morning. They sank 17 U.S. ships, including 7 of the 8 battleships present. 150 US planes were destroyed, and some 4,500 men were lost (the Arizona took more than a thousand with her when her forward magazine blew up and she sank). The Japanese lost about 30 aircraft. Despite these figures, the Japanese plan was a poor one, and in reality the Pearl Harbor attack was more of a disaster for the Japanese than for the U.S.:
a. By attacking on a Sunday, the Japanese maximized their chance of achieving surprise, but minimized damage - most of the crews were on leave, and thus survived. It is easier to build new ships than it is to train a crew for the ship.
b. Most of the ships were sunk with torpedoes - which did little damage to the ships, which sank quietly to the bottom (the West Virginia’s crew through counter-flooding kept the ship on such an even keel that she kept firing the entire time she was sinking). Result: after the attack, repair crews patched the torpedo holes, pumped the ships out, and put them right back in service. Of the 7 battleships sunk at Pearl, 6 were back in service by the end of the War (the exception was the Arizona, which was sunk when a bomb from a high-level bomber blew one of her magazines).
c. Most important is what the Japanese missed: they failed to destroy the repair facilities, they didn’t hit the fuel depots, and, most importantly, they didn’t get any of the aircraft carriers (because the carriers weren’t there).
2. The Japanese hit the Philippines and Singapore at the same time - both soon fell (British defenses at Singapore aimed outward; the Japanese came overland, and hit the Brits from behind). French Indo-China was overrun. The island chain nearest Australia was invaded. Everywhere the Japanese were advancing.
3. In early May 1942 an advancing Japanese task force was surprised by an American carrier group, the battle of the Coral Sea. This engagement, which lasted from 4 to 8 May, was the first engagement in history where the surface ships never saw each other – it was strictly a carrier duel. In theory the Japanese won - they lost one of three carriers, while the Americans lost one of their two (Lexington) and had the other heavily damaged (Yorktown). However, the battle convinced the Japanese they had, at least for the time, over-extended themselves, so the Battle of the Coral Sea bought time for Australia.
4. Then in June 1942 - the War in the Pacific was abruptly transformed. A Japanese task force was heading toward Midway - a dinky little island that had an important U.S. airbase. The Americans had broken Japanese codes, and knew the attack was coming. The U.S. Navy ambushed the Japanese with three carriers (including the Yorktown, repaired in record time) Three of four Japanese carriers were sunk, and the survivor was crippled (and hunted down before it made it back to a base for repairs). The Japanese lost the bulk of their most experienced pilots. Midway was the turning point in the Pacific. Churchill argued in his memoirs that this was the most important battle of the War (mind you, he didn’t want to give much credit to the Soviets, so he elevated Midway over Stalingrad).
III. . The End of the War
1. With the Soviets standing firm against the Russians, Britain and the Empire ready to move, and the U.S. in the war, the Axis powers were in deep poop.
2. The U.S. agreed to concentrate first on Europe - finish Germany off, then everyone would gang up on the Japanese.
B. The Invasion Issue
1. Stalin demanded a "Second Front" – he wanted an invasion of France to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union. The U.S. and Britain kept putting him off, arguing that we weren’t yet ready for an undertaking of that scale - and if we invaded and lost, casualties would be so horrific that we wouldn’t be able to try again for years.
2. Instead, on 8 Nov. 1942 an Anglo-American-Free French invasion force landed in French North Africa, and after a brief fight, the collaborationist Vichy government’s commander in North Africa surrendered. Germany occupied the rest of France. Note the allied invading force was carried by 850 ships - the largest amphibious operation in history.
3. Next we invaded Sicily (10 July 1943) - 2,000 ships landed 160,000 men. Then from Sicily we crossed to the Italian mainland. The Italians dumped Mussolini (25 July), and signed an armistice on 3 September. In October, they declared war on Germany. The Germans in Italy kept fighting - German resistance lasted until the end of the war. In January 1944, Allied forces landed on the beaches at Anzio, in an attempt to cut off the retreat of German forces. The Germans kept the Allies bottled up on the beaches until May - a warning of what might happen if we screwed up the invasion of France (initial landings at Anzio had been unopposed...).
4. D-Day: 6 June 1944 - 5,000 ships dumped 2 million allied troops on the coast of Normandy. The Germans were caught by surprise, but their positions were well-defended and we made little progress inland at first. But on 27 June Allied forces captured Cherbourg, a major port that allowed the allies to dramatically increase the flow of men and supplies into France. By 9 July Allied forces had pierced the German defensive line and were heading inland. From this point onward, the Western Allies’ main trouble was supplying advanced units with the fuel they needed to keep pushing forward. Paris was liberated on 25 August, 1944 (see Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins, Is Paris Burning).
C. Closing for the Kill – Germany’s Collapse
1. The Western allies continued heavy bombing of Germany, with the British largely responsible for night-time bombing and the U.S. taking care of day-time bombing. Germany cities were hard hit – Nuremberg (which you saw parts of in Triumph of the Will) received a lot of attention. Hamburg and Dresden were both fire-bombed, with each city losing between 60,000 to 100,000 people killed outright, and millions left homeless.
2. In September 1944 the allies launched Operation Market-Garden, planned and led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The plan called for a massive drop of paratroopers to secure a series of bridges, culminating with the bridge across the Rhine r=River at Arnhem. The paratroopers would hold the bridges while British armored forces would charge across them for the invasion of Germany. Unfortunately, while the German army was in general retreat, two SS Panzer Divisions had been moved to the Rhine area to refit, and they were in decent shape when Market-Garden began. Out of four target bridges, the first was captured intact by the U.S. 82nd Airborn division; the second was destroyed by the Germans but quickly replaced by a British bailey bridge; the 101st Airborn managed to capture the third in an assault which required some troops to cross the river in daylight under heavy fire); the 4th and final bridge was not captured. The British 1st Airborn was dropped too far from the bridge, and they had to contend with German tanks – not a good thing for lightly-armed paratroopers. The 1st was equipped to hold for two days until they were supposed to be relieved; after 10 days, the survivors, completely out of ammunition, surrendered to the Germans.
3. After the failure of this elaborate plan to cross the Rhine, the allies captured a bridge across the Rhine almost by accident: advanced units of the American 1st Army came across an undestroyed railroad bridge at Remagen and pelted across it, establishing a perimeter on the German side of the river before the bridge, badly damaged by German demolition charges, collapsed.
4. With U.S., British, French, and Polish troops were closing from the West, and Russia coming from the East, Germany was clearly doomed. On 30 April, 1945, with Russian troops only blocks away, Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker. Germany surrendered on 7 May.
C. Finishing the Japanese
1. The Japanese had lost control of the oceans, and they had lost control of the air; they were losing their war even before the Allies finished off Hitler. But the price of taking each island away from the Japanese was high, and projected losses for the invasion of the Japanese home islands were grim.
2 On 6 August 1945 an American bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima
3. On the 8th, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
4. On 9 August Nagasaki was bombed with a nuclear device. On the 10th the Japanese government asked for terms of surrender, and accepted those terms on the 14th. The surrender papers were formally signed on 2 September 1945.
A. Note that this time the Allies insisted on utterly defeating the Axis powers - and both Germany and Japan were be occupied after the War - a much more severe treatment of the defeated powers than after World War I – these terms were a reaction to Versailles and its aftermath.
B. Despite the general view most Americans have of the War, the bulk of the fighting - and dying - in Europe occurred in the Eastern theater . . . in the Soviet Union.
Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy The Encyclopedia of Military History (1970)
Frieser, Karl-Heinz The Blitzkrieg Myth: The 1940 Campaign in the West (2005)
Gilbert, Felix and David Clay Large The End of the European Era, 1890 to the Present (1991)
Korda, Michael With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain (2009)
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War II (1980)
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994).
1 Written 17 Oct. 2001; revised 22 March 2006 and 18 January 2010.
2 The existence of this machine and its influence on the war was not de-Classified until the late 1970s, at which point much of the history of WWII, esp. in regard to the Western front, had to be re-written.