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World War II was probably the last great conflict the world will ever see. It was the largest war of the twentieth century and involved all the major countries of the world -- the United States, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, China, Japan, and Italy -- as well as numerous other smaller nations such as Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Norway, and Austria. It lasted six years and heralded the beginning of a new era. It led to the formation of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Cold War, and eventually, to the existence of the world as we know it today. Without this great conflict in our history, the events of the past fifty years would have been much different.

On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht ( "war machine," or German army) invaded Poland. Because Britain and France had promised to support Poland should it be invaded by Germany, they were forced into a war for which they were not ready. France was quickly invaded and occupied by June of 1940, and the small British Expeditionary Force in France was defeated and evacuated. Meanwhile, all through late 1940 and early 1941, German General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps took almost all of the British holdings in North Africa.

In the early summer of 1941, Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with the Russians and invaded the Ukraine. Because his troops were supposed to take Moscow in a lightning campaign across Russia, they were not equipped to handle the harsh Russian winters. However, by that winter they had not taken Moscow and were forced to entrench. Soviet counteroffensives brought their "quick" campaign came to a halt. The Germans now looked to the oil fields of the Caucasus to provide them with the fuel they needed. Through the summer and early fall of 1942 the Germans approached Stalingrad in their push south. The Russians threw every available resource into pushing the Germans out of Stalingrad. The battle lasted for the better part of November; finally, the fight ended with the encirclement and capture of 200,000 Germans within the city.

The Americans, far from being among the first to enter, came into the war more than two years after it began. On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked the American port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in hopes of crippling the naval force in that area. This attack sunk the battleships Arizona, California, West Virginia and Oklahoma, along with several other lighter ships. Fortunately, the American aircraft carriers the Japanese had hoped to sink were not in the harbor at that time. This attempt to cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific was a means of establishing the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." However, the U.S. did not back down; war was declared on Japan. Subsequently, Hitler declared war on the U.S. and America entered the war on the side of the allies.

It was not until the summer of 1942 that the Allies really began to push Rommel back. The British defeated him at El Alamein and in November, the first American troops landed as part of Operation Torch. The Americans under General George Patton and the British under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery had forced the Germans out of Africa by May of 1943. The island of Sicily fell soon after, when General Patton took Messina in August. The Allies then made their way up through Italy, and the Italians signed a formal surrender that September. However, the Germans had taken control of the government after the assassination of Mussolini, and their forces soon halted the Allies at the Gustav line.

The majority of the battles fought in the Pacific during 1942 and 1943 were naval conflicts. The Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942 was an air victory for the Americans, and at the Battle of Midway in June, the Americans soundly defeated a Japanese force, sinking four aircraft carriers, two cruisers, and three destroyers while losing only one carrier and one destroyer. Guadalcanal, like El Alamein in Africa and Stalingrad in Europe, was fought in November and was, like the other two battles, a turning point in that period. The Japanese lost a total of 400 planes along with an aircraft carrier, a destroyer and several smaller ships. This battle also began the invasion of the Pacific islands with the occupation of "the Canal" by U.S. Marines, who took it in February 1943.

During the summer of 1943, the American Eighth Air Force under General Ira Eaker and the British Bomber Command carried out Operation Pointblank, a strategic bombing campaign designed to destroy German industry, specifically its aircraft industry. It was due to the efforts of the RAF and the USAAF/USAAC that the Luftwaffe (German air force) posed no viable threat by the summer of 1944. This not only decreased bomber casualties during daylight raids; the lack of German fighters and bombers added largely to the success of D-Day, the invasion of German-occupied Europe. On June 6, 1944, combined elements of British and American troops under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower landed on the Normandy coast. The Germans, expecting an assault farther up the coast near Bologne, were taken off guard and, after fierce fighting, the Allies secured a beachhead. In the east, the Russians began a summer offensive to push the Germans out of Poland. In the south, the Allies had already broken out of the Gustav line and were moving northward through Italy. The Germans were now hemmed in on all sides.

All through the summer and fall, the Allies pushed the Germans out of their conquered territories. France, Belgium, and Luxembourg were liberated by the Allies; at the same time, the Russians were driving the Germans out of their holdings in eastern Europe. The last German offensive came in December 1944, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Named the Battle of the Bulge, it lasted about ten days before relief units managed to drive them back. The war lasted another five months as the Americans and British took Germany from the west and the Russians invaded it from the east. Finally, in the first week of May, as all three Allied nations pushed inexorably towards Berlin, the German forces still left in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany surrendered to the Allies. On May 8, 1945, General Alfred Jodl and Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, the remaining heads of state, surrendered unconditionally. The war in Europe was over.

The war in the Pacific lasted some time longer. From late 1944 through mid-1945, combined forces of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines took back all of the island chains that had been invaded by the Japanese immediately following Pearl Harbor. By "island-hopping" through the Pacific, the U.S. liberated the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and other numerous atolls. As the island chains got closer the Japanese home islands, bomber bases were built on islands such as Tinian and a bombing campaign was started on Japanese industry. With the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in February and April, respectively, the Japanese home islands became even closer in range. However, only eleven days after the attack on Iwo Jima began, President Franklin Roosevelt, now in his fourth term of office, died suddenly of a stroke. However, Vice President Harry Truman assumed command, and, realizing he had a chance to save thousands of Allied lives, gave the order to drop the atomic bomb. On August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the first bomb ("Little Boy") on Hiroshima. It killed or injured approximately 130,000 people and destroyed nearly ninety percent of Hiroshima . President Truman gave the Japanese government the option of surrendering or suffering a similar attack. They refused to surrender. On August 9, 1945, a second B-29, Bock's Car, dropped the second bomb ("Fat Man") on Nagasaki, destroying about one-third of the city and causing close to 150,000 casualties. The Japanese government communicated their intention to surrender to Washington on August 14, and on August 15, the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies. After almost six years of bitter fighting, World War II was over.

The war took a great toll on American life; over 1.2 million casualties were reported. However, the aftereffects did great things for America, socially and politically. The GI bill was started after the war, and allowed many former servicemen to get college educations. The "Baby Boom" was another effect of the war; with the economy at a high and the men finally home and back at work, the birth rate soared. During World War II, the plans for the formation of the U.N. had been laid; now they were set in motion, with the five main Allied countries (the U.S., Britain, Russia, France, and China) at the head of this international organization. NATO was formed as a result of this as well, with the onset of the Cold War.

The other side of the war did not involve actual fighting. During World War II, a horrible event took place. As part of Hitler's "Final Solution", six millions Jews and millions of Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals and other "inferior" people were rounded up and forced into death camps. Called the Holocaust, this despicable and vile act wiped out whole regions of Jewish communities. In such places as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz, these people were worked to death or shot and buried in mass graves or gassed and burned in giant ovens. This mass displacement of the Semitic population in Europe eventually led to the creation of a separate Jewish State by the U.N.; it was formed out of the Palestinian Mandate in 1948 and became known as Israel.

After World War II, the United States really became the superpower of the world. Although it was not known at the time, Russia had no strength and always suffered a weak economy. Thus, World War II saw the end of imperialism as it had been defined throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The modern world as we know it today began.

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"Right in the Thick of It"
Last Updated December 24th, 2002
Web Page by Will May
All images and text are ©2006 by Will May unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.