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The Allies (France and Britain) had won World War I, and consequently, they believed that if they used the same techniques in this war, they would win again. The result of this thinking was that while Germany itself was vulnerable to attack (all of the Nazi army was fighting in Poland), Britain and France simply prepared their defenses and waited for Germany to strike first. This period, lasting until April of 1940, came to be called the "Phony War" or "Sitzkrieg" (the German method of attack was called "Blitzkrieg").

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Hitler's Early Success

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Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill became Prime
Minister of Britain at the beginning of
World War II.

In May, Neville Chamberlain stepped down as Prime Minister of Britain, and Winston Churchill came into power. That same month, Hitler finally attacked France using a pincer movement that swept through the surrounding neutral countries as well, including Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Hitler's armies' aggressive methods easily defeated the old-fashioned fighting style of the French and British troops, and eventually, most of the remaining British soldiers were surrounded on a beach near a place called Dunkirk, where they were rescued by hundreds of British ships, including random fishing boats and trawlers that responded to the emergency signal sent out by the British government. The Battle of Dunkirk was later a major rallying point for the British, since the entire British army escaped from almost certain death.

WWII Airplane
Though planes were a new technology, they were by far
the most useful weapon during WWII. Weapons technology
such as the plane advanced very quickly during WWII.

By June, the war was swinging heavily in Hitler's favor. Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, decided to ally himself with the Nazis and join the war in France. On June 22, France surrendered and Marshall Petain, ironically a former French war hero, became the representative of German law in what was now called Vichy France. Once France was finished, Hitler focused on Britain. Britain was difficult to attack because it was an island and therefore had the protection of the sea. So Hitler and his generals devised a plan known as Operation Sea Lion to take over Britain using aerial warfare (planes were a new technology at the time, and had rarely been used in war).

When implemented in late July, this method was so effective that, despite the British use of radar to anticipate bombing sites, the Germans gained control of the Channel relatively soon, and the fierce battle for Britain seemed to swing in favor of the Germans.

Battle of Britain

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Battle of Britain
Much of the Battle of Britain consisted of British
and German planes trying to shoot each other out
of the sky. If a German pilot survived a crash like
the one above, he would still have to find a way
back to Germany through British territory.

At first, everything went perfectly according to Hitler's plans. Hitler had gained control of the English Channel, and now British military bases were under heavy fire. But just as it appeared that the Germans were guaranteed to win, Hitler suddenly changed his strategies, and the Luftwaffe (the German air-force) began to bomb major cities instead. This allowed the RAF (the British air-force) to rebuild its planes and bases, and, though Britain suffered many civilian deaths, the Germans were not able to take over Britain. When, by late September, Britain had still managed to hold out, Hitler lost interest in taking the island nation and instead started to devise a plan to invade Russia.

Triple Alliance

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General Rommel
General Rommel earned the
nickname "Desert Fox" in
North Africa for his cunning
and effective strategies.

While the Battle of Britain began to wind down, Japan joined the war on the side of Italy and Germany, leading to the Tripartite (or Axis) Pact in September of 1940. Meanwhile, Italian troops hit trouble in Africa, where they were fighting with British soldiers in Egypt and Libya. In the spring of 1941, Hitler sent one of his best generals Erwin Rommel to deal with the British. Rommel rapidly pushed back the Allied troops, earning the nickname Desert Fox for his cunning and effective maneuvers. When the United States saw the Allies' desperate situation, it started loaning out supplies to the British Empire (under the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941).

Operation Barbarossa

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Germany Invading Russia
The German army invading Russia
split up into three sections
—one headed North toward
Leningrad, one went South
through Ukraine, and one
traveled straight to Moscow.

In May of the same year, Churchill received secret information that Hitler was planning an attack on his former ally the Soviet Union in a mission code-named Operation Barbarossa. However, when Churchill relayed this warning to Moscow, Stalin became furious and accused Churchill of trying to turn him against Germany on purpose. However, this information brought doubts to Stalin's mind. But when he sent a message to Hitler to investigate, Hitler pretended to be innocent, expressing indignation that Stalin could have thought he would do such a thing. So, to show his faith in Hitler, Stalin sent Germany the Nazi army's food rations ahead of schedule and cut down Russia's border patrol. Because of these actions, when Hitler did invade the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, there was very little initial opposition.



Siege of Leningrad
Though the siege lasted 1,000 days, the
people of Leningrad never surrendered.
When the siege was finally lifted
in 1944, more than 650,000 men,
women, and children had died.

For a long time, Hitler had planned the invasion of the Soviet Union, a land in which many Jews had taken up settlement. He had been meaning to attack early in the year, but Mussolini's call for help in Africa had forced him to postpone his plans until the summer. When his armies finally entered the Soviet Union, they split up into three groups and swept through the country rapidly and effectively, leaving behind crammed concentration camps and brutal Jew-extermination forces called the Eisengruppen. They continued on in this fashion until the northern group reached Leningrad, one of the larger cities in the country. The people of this city boldly announced that they would rather starve than surrender, and so the miraculous siege of Leningrad began, destined to end one thousand days later in 1944, after a sizeable portion of the inhabitants had either starved to death or taken their own lives.

Problems for Hitler

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Russian Winter
Because of the harsh Russian winter,
supplies for the Nazis ran low.
Finally, the German tanks ran completely
out of fuel just outside Moscow.

While one part of Hitler's troops stayed on at Leningrad, the southern division conquered Ukraine. The people there had been oppressed by the Soviet government and considered the Germans their liberators. However, because Hitler considered the Ukrainians almost as bad as Jews, he commanded the establishment of concentration camps in the south as well. Meanwhile, the center group continued on toward Moscow, the capital city of the Soviet Union. But the campaign had been ill-timed, and the Soviet summer began to fade at first into a cool and chilly autumn, then into a harsh and frostbitten winter, making it harder to send supplies to the German armies advancing rapidly east. By the time the center division reached Moscow, it had completely run out of tank fuel, and the troops stopped dead right in front of Moscow. The German siege of Moscow was countered by a fierce attack from the Soviet army, driving the Germans back nearly 200 miles by January of 1942.

The Tide Turns

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Russian Bear, Tide Turns
This cartoon shows how the
tide turned at Stalingrad
in favor of the
Russians (the bear) against
Hitler (caught in his own trap).

While the fight had raged at Moscow, Hitler asked Japan to attack the Soviet Union from the opposite side, but instead, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, causing the United States to join the war. Four days later, Germany declared war on the U.S. as well. In response, the United States supplied the Soviet Union with tanks and other supplies. Finally, in September of 1942, Nazi troops reached Stalingrad, a city with main railroad and waterway connections, making it a valuable military target. Unfortunately for Hitler, the armies at Stalingrad ran out of supplies as well. This time, Stalin sent staggeringly large forces to defend Stalingrad, and by February 1943, the German army besieging Stalingrad had been surrounded and left with no choice but to surrender. The Battle of Stalingrad marked a significant turning point for the Soviet Union, who proceeded to gradually push the German invaders out.

General Montgomery
General Bernard
Montgomery led the
British troops to victory
in the Second Battle
of El Alamein.

In the meantime, affairs in Africa were deteriorating for the Nazis as well. At first, Rommel seemed to have the situation fully under control, pushing the British further and further back. However, in August of 1942, a new British general, Bernard Montgomery, took charge of the troops in Africa. On November 1, the Battle of El Alamein ended in a decisive win for the Allied soldiers, and Rommel's army was on the run. About a week afterward, U.S. troops landed nearby in order to help Britain recover North Africa (Operation Torch). The combined British and American army was too much for the tired Axis soldiers, and in May 1943, the German troops in North Africa surrendered. Having established control in North Africa, the Allies believed that the quickest way to get to Germany would be to negotiate with, and eventually go through, Italy.

Italy Surrenders

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Italy Surrenders
Once Italy was forced to
surrender, only Germany and
Japan, Germany's other ally,
were left to fight the Allies.

At this point, Benito Mussolini had been deposed as dictator, and his imprisonment had led to political instability throughout the country. But although there were many Italians on both sides - Allies and Axis - the country could only support one side. And in October 1943, the Italian government officially declared war against Germany. As soon as this news reached Hitler, German troops flooded Italy, and the Allies struggled to get through. Desperate, a few Americans divisions sailed around the German line in January 1944, and landed at Anzio, where they met with heavy German fire. Despite the casualties, the troops made it onto the beach and defeated the German troops. However, as soon as the Americans tried to advance further from Anzio, they met with another set of German soldiers. This time, the fighting lasted for months until, at last, in May 1944, the American troops broke the new German line and traveled east. On June 5, the Allies finally entered Rome - Italy was taken.

New Allied Operations

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Allied Radio
Operation Fortitude included radio signals,
sent out in order to be intercepted by the
Germans, that gave false info about the
"army" to land at Calais.

While the situation in North Africa was progressing, Churchill and Roosevelt, the American president, discussed Operation Overlord, a plan to liberate France. The main difficulty, they believed, was landing the vast number of soldier required for the operation without meeting with too much resistance. Once they had chosen the beaches of Normandy, Churchill and Roosevelt had an entirely new operation created to deflect suspicion. Operation Fortitude, a plan to invade France at Calais, had all the appearance of the actual invading force, but in reality, almost everything was as fake as the sets on Hollywood. False radio signals were sent out, fake trucks brought fake supplies, and cardboard tanks were moved around from time to time. This charade fooled the Germans to quite an extent, but Erwin Rommel, now out of Africa, still continued to build up the border defenses across the French coast.


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Omaha Landing on D-Day
The soldiers at the Omaha landing
("Bloody Omaha") had the most
casualties of any D-Day landing squad.

On June 6, 1944, fleets of American and British ships sailed across the Channel toward Normandy. The British vessels were intended to land at beaches codenamed Juno, Sword, and Gold; the Americans had to reach their two targets, Utah and Omaha. The soldiers landing at these two beaches had contrasting receptions. Taking the enemy by surprise, the Utah landing proceeded as successfully as planned. However, Omaha was a very different story. Rommel had applied as many protective precautions as he could to this beach, adding mines, tanks, and a trench system throughout the coastline. Later known as "Bloody Omaha", this battle produced the largest number of casualties out of any of the beaches taken in Operation Overlord.

The End

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Allied Victory
On Victory in Europe Day, cheering
throngs filled the street,
like in this picture at
Trafalgar Square, London.

Once all the beaches had been occupied by the Allies, the troops continued eastward, gradually freeing more and more of France. On August 25, 1944, the Allied soldiers liberated Paris, and France had been freed from Nazi control. As the Allies continued on their way toward Germany, the only problem came when crossing some rivers in Holland, as the Germans had destroyed most of the bridges left. Though Operation Market Garden, an attempt to secure a bridge at Arnhem, failed miserably, the Allies eventually managed to secure a bridge, and resumed their march. On the opposite side, the Russians had pushed back the Germans out of the Soviet Union, and were verging on German soil. Finally, on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler, along with several of his closest associates, committed suicide. On May 8, 1945, Germany officially surrendered, and the Allies declared VE Day (Victory in Europe Day).


Books on World War II

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  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
  • The Story of World War II by Donald L. Miller
  • The Second World War: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert
  • The Historical Encyclopedia of World War II by Marcel Baudot
  • Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Sir Max Hastings


Links to other sites on WWII

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