II (1939-1945) killed more people, destroyed more property, disrupted more lives,
and probably had more far-reaching consequences than any other war in history. It brought
about the downfall of Western Europe as the center of world power and led to the rise of
the Soviet Union. The development of the atomic bomb during the war opened the nuclear
The exact number of people killed because of World War II
will never be known. Military deaths probably totaled about 17 million. Civilian deaths
were even greater as a result of starvation, bombing raids, massacres, epidemics, and
other war-related causes. The battlegrounds spread to nearly every part of the world.
Troops fought in the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia, in the deserts of northern
Africa, and on islands in the Pacific Ocean. Battles were waged on frozen fields in the
Soviet Union, below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the streets of many European
World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Germany's dictator,
Adolf Hitler, had built Germany into a powerful war machine. That machine rapidly crushed
Poland, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France. By June 1940,
Great Britain stood alone against Hitler. That same month, Italy joined the war on
Germany's side. The fighting soon spread to Greece and northern Africa. In June 1941,
Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Japan attacked United States military bases at Pearl
Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into the war. By mid-1942,
Japanese forces had conquered much of Southeast Asia and had swept across many islands in
Germany, Italy, and Japan formed an alliance known as the
Axis. Six other nations eventually joined the Axis. The United States, Great Britain,
China, and the Soviet Union were the major powers fighting the Axis. They were called the
Allies. The Allies totaled 50 nations by the end of the war.
During 1942, the Allies stopped the Axis advance in northern Africa, the Soviet Union, and
the Pacific. Allied forces landed in Italy in 1943 and in France in 1944. In 1945, the
Allies drove into Germany from the east and the west. A series of bloody battles in the
Pacific brought the Allies to Japan's doorstep by the summer of 1945. Germany surrendered
on May 7, 1945, and Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.
An uneasy peace took effect as a war-weary
world began to rebuild after World War II. Much of Europe and parts of Asia lay in ruins.
Millions of people were starving and homeless. Europe's leadership in world affairs had
ended. The United States and the Soviet Union had become the world's most powerful
nations. But their wartime alliance broke down soon after the war. New threats to peace
arose as the Soviet Union sought to spread Communism in Europe and Asia.
Causes of the war
Many historians trace the causes of World War II to problems left unsolved by World War I
(1914-1918). World War I and the treaties that ended it also created new political and
economic problems. Forceful leaders in several countries took advantage of those problems
to seize power. The desire of dictators in Germany, Italy, and Japan to conquer additional
territory brought them into conflict with democratic nations.
The Peace of Paris. After World War I ended, representatives
of the victorious nations met in Paris in 1919 to draw up peace treaties for the defeated
countries. The treaties, known together as the Peace of Paris, followed a long and bitter
war. They were worked out in haste by countries with opposing goals and failed to satisfy
even the victors. Of all the countries on the winning side, Italy and Japan left the peace
conference most dissatisfied. Italy gained less territory than it felt it deserved and
vowed to take action on its own. Japan gained control of German territories in the Pacific
and thereby launched a program of expansion. But Japan was angered by the peacemakers'
failure to endorse the principle of the equality of all races.
The countries that lost World War I--Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey--were
especially dissatisfied with the Peace of Paris. They were stripped of territory and arms
and were required to make reparations (payments for war damages).
The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed with Germany, punished Germany severely. The
German government agreed to sign the treaty only after the victorious powers threatened to
invade. Many Germans particularly resented a clause that forced Germany to accept
responsibility for causing World War I.
Economic problems. World War I seriously damaged the economies of European countries. Both
the winners and the losers came out of the war deeply in debt. The defeated powers had
difficulty paying reparations to the victors, and the victors had difficulty repaying
loans from the United States. The shift from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy
caused further problems. Many soldiers could not find jobs after the war.
Italy and Japan suffered from too many people and too few
resources after World War I. They eventually tried to solve their problems by territorial
expansion. In Germany, runaway inflation destroyed the value of money and wiped out the
savings of millions of people. In 1923, the German economy neared collapse. Loans from the
United States helped Germany's government restore order. By the late 1920's, Europe
appeared to be entering a period of economic stability.
A worldwide business slump known as the Great Depression began in the United States in
1929. By the early 1930's, it had halted Europe's economic recovery. The Great Depression
caused mass unemployment and spread poverty and despair. It weakened democratic
governments and strengthened extreme political movements that promised to end the economic
problems. Two movements in particular gained strength. The forces of Communism, known as
the Left, called for revolution by the workers. The forces of fascism, called the Right,
favored strong national government. Throughout Europe, the forces of the Left clashed with
the forces of the Right. The political extremes gained the most support in countries with
the greatest economic problems and the deepest resentment of the Peace of Paris.
Nationalism was an extreme form of patriotism that swept across Europe during the 1800's.
Supporters of nationalism placed loyalty to the aims of their nation above any other
public loyalty. Many nationalists viewed foreigners and members of minority groups as
inferior. Such beliefs helped nations justify their conquest of other lands and the poor
treatment of minorities within their borders. Nationalism was a chief cause of World War
I, and it grew even stronger after that war.
Nationalism went hand in hand with feelings of national discontent. The more people felt
deprived of national honor, the more they wished to see their country powerful and able to
insist on its rights. Many Germans felt humiliated by their country's defeat in World War
I and its harsh treatment under the Treaty of Versailles. During the 1930's, they
enthusiastically supported a violently nationalistic organization called the Nazi Party.
The Nazi Party declared that Germany had a right to become strong again. Nationalism also
gained strength in Italy and Japan.
The Peace of Paris established an international organization called the League of Nations
to maintain peace. But nationalism prevented the League from working effectively. Each
country backed its own interests at the expense of other countries. Only weak countries
agreed to submit their disagreements to the League of Nations for settlement. Strong
nations reserved the right to settle their disputes by threats or, if tough talk failed,
The rise of dictatorships. The political unrest and poor economic conditions that
developed after World War I enabled dictatorships to arise in several countries,
especially in those countries that lacked a tradition of democratic government. During the
1920's and 1930's, dictatorships came to power in the Soviet Union, Italy, Germany, and
Japan. They held total power and ruled without regard to law. The dictatorships used
terror and secret police to crush opposition to their rule. People who objected risked
imprisonment or execution.
In the Soviet Union, the Communists, led by V. I. Lenin, had seized power in 1917. Lenin
set up a dictatorship that firmly controlled the country by the time he died in 1924.
After Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin and other leading Communists struggled for power.
Stalin eliminated his rivals one by one and became the Soviet dictator in 1929.
In Italy, economic distress after World War I led to strikes and riots. As a result of the
violence, a strongly nationalistic group called the Fascist Party gained many supporters.
Benito Mussolini, leader of the Fascists, promised to bring order and prosperity to Italy.
He vowed to restore to Italy the glory it had known in the days of the ancient Roman
Empire. By 1922, the Fascists had become powerful enough to force the king of Italy to
appoint Mussolini premier. Mussolini, who took the title il Duce (the Leader), soon began
to establish a dictatorship.
In Germany, the Nazi Party made spectacular gains as the Great Depression deepened during
the early 1930's. Many Germans blamed all their country's economic woes on the hated
Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to give up territory and resources and pay
large reparations. In 1933, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazis, was appointed
chancellor of Germany. Hitler, who was called der Fuhrer (the Leader), soon made Germany a
dictatorship. He vowed to ignore the Versailles Treaty and to avenge Germany's defeat in
World War I. Hitler preached that Germans were a "superior race" and that such
peoples as Jews and Slavs were inferior. He began a campaign of hatred against Jews and
Communists and promised to rid the country of them. Hitler's extreme nationalism appealed
to many Germans.
In Japan, military officers began to hold political office during the 1930's. By 1936,
they had strong control of the government. Japan's military government glorified war and
the training of warriors. In 1941, General Hideki Tojo became premier of Japan.
Aggression on the march. Japan, Italy, and Germany followed a policy of aggressive
territorial expansion during the 1930's. They invaded weak lands that could be taken over
easily. The dictatorships knew what they wanted, and they grabbed it. The democratic
countries responded with timidity and indecision to the aggression of the dictatorships.
Japan was the first dictatorship to begin a program of conquest. In 1931, Japanese forces
seized control of Manchuria, a region of China rich in natural resources. Some historians
consider Japan's conquest of Manchuria as the real start of World War II. Japan made
Manchuria a puppet state called Manchukuo. In 1937, Japan launched a major attack against
China. It occupied most of eastern China by the end of 1938, though the two countries had
not officially declared war. Japan's military leaders began to speak about bringing all of
eastern Asia under Japanese control.
Italy looked to Africa to fulfill its ambitions for an empire. In 1935, Italian troops
invaded Ethiopia, one of the few independent countries in Africa. The Italians used
machine guns, tanks, and airplanes to overpower Ethiopia's poorly equipped army. They had
conquered the country by May 1936.
Soon after Hitler took power, he began to build up Germany's armed forces in violation of
the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, a region of
Germany along the banks of the Rhine River. Under the treaty, the Rhineland was to remain
free of troops. In March 1938, German soldiers marched into Austria and united it with
Germany. Many people in Germany and Austria welcomed that move.
The acts of aggression were easy victories for the dictatorships. The League of Nations
proved incapable of stopping them. It lacked an army and the power to enforce
international law. The United States had refused to join the League or become involved in
European disputes. Great Britain and France were unwilling to risk another war so soon
after World War I. The two powers knew they would bear the burden of any fighting.
The aggressors soon formed an alliance. In 1936, Germany and Italy agreed to support one
another's foreign policy. The alliance was known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. Japan joined the
alliance in 1940, and it became the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
The Spanish Civil War. A civil war tore Spain apart from 1936 to 1939. In 1936, many of
Spain's army officers revolted against the government. The army rebels chose General
Francisco Franco as their leader. Franco's forces were known as Nationalists or Rebels.
The forces that supported Spain's elected government were called Loyalists or Republicans.
The Spanish Civil War drew worldwide attention. During the war, the dictatorships again
displayed their might while the democracies remained helpless.
Hitler and Mussolini sent troops, weapons, aircraft, and advisers to aid the Nationalists.
The Soviet Union was the only power to help the Loyalists. France, Britain, and the United
States decided not to become involved. However, Loyalist sympathizers from many countries
joined the International Brigades that the Communists formed to fight in Spain.
The last Loyalist forces surrendered on April 1, 1939, and Franco set up a dictatorship in
Spain. The Spanish Civil War served as a military proving ground for World War II because
Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union used it to test weapons and tactics. The war in Spain
was also a rehearsal for World War II in that it split the world into forces that either
supported or opposed Nazism and Fascism.
The failure of appeasement. Hitler prepared to strike again soon after Germany absorbed
Austria in March 1938. German territory then bordered Czechoslovakia on three sides.
Czechoslovakia had become an independent nation after World War I. Its population
consisted of many nationalities, including more than 3 million people of German descent.
Hitler sought control of the Sudetenland, a region of western Czechoslovakia where most of
the Germans lived. Urged on by Hitler, the Sudeten Germans began to clamor for union with
Czechoslovakia was determined to defend its territory. France and the Soviet Union had
pledged their support. As tension mounted, Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
tried to restore calm. Chamberlain wished to preserve peace at all cost. He believed that
war could be prevented by meeting Hitler's demands. That policy became known as
Chamberlain had several meetings with Hitler during September 1938 as Europe teetered on
the edge of war. Hitler raised his demands at each meeting. On September 29, Chamberlain
and French Premier Edouard Daladier met with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich, Germany.
Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to turn over the Sudetenland to Germany, and they forced
Czechoslovakia to accept the agreement. Hitler promised that he had no more territorial
The Munich Agreement marked the height of the policy of appeasement. Chamberlain and
Daladier hoped that the agreement would satisfy Hitler and prevent war--or that it would
at least prolong the peace until Britain and France were ready for war. The two leaders
were mistaken on both counts.
The failure of appeasement soon became clear. Hitler broke the Munich Agreement in March
1939 and seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. He thereby added Czechoslovakia's armed forces
and industries to Germany's military might. In the months before World War II began,
Germany's preparations for war moved ahead faster than did the military build-up of
Britain and France.
Early stages of the war
During the first year of World War II, Germany won a series of swift victories over
Poland, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France. Germany then
attempted to bomb Britain into surrendering, but it failed.
The invasion of Poland. After Hitler seized Czechoslovakia, he began demanding territory
from Poland. Great Britain and France pledged to help Poland if Germany attacked it. Yet
the two powers could aid Poland only by invading Germany, a step that neither chose to
take. Britain had only a small army. France had prepared to defend its territory, not to
Great Britain and France hoped that the Soviet Union would help defend Poland. But Hitler
and Stalin shocked the world by becoming allies. On Aug. 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet
Union signed a nonaggression pact--in which they agreed not to go to war against each
other. They secretly decided to divide Poland between themselves.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and began World War
II. Poland had a fairly large army but little modern equipment. The Polish army expected
to fight along the country's frontiers. However, the Germans introduced a new method of
warfare they called blitzkrieg (lightning war). The blitzkrieg stressed speed and
surprise. Rows of tanks smashed through Poland's defenses and rolled deep into the country
before the Polish army had time to react. Swarms of German dive bombers and fighter
aircraft knocked out communications and pounded battle lines.
The Poles fought bravely. But Germany's blitzkrieg threw their army into confusion. On
Sept. 17, 1939, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east. By late September, the Soviet
Union occupied the eastern third of Poland, and Germany had swallowed up the rest.
The Phony War. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, two days
after the invasion of Poland. But the two countries stood by while Poland collapsed.
France moved troops to the Maginot Line, a belt of steel and concrete fortresses it had
built after World War I along its border with Germany. Britain sent a small force into
northern France. Germany stationed troops on the Siegfried Line, a strip of defenses
Hitler built in the 1930's opposite the Maginot Line. The two sides avoided fighting in
late 1939 and early 1940. Journalists called the period the Phony War.
The conquest of Denmark and Norway. Valuable shipments of iron ore from Sweden reached
Germany by way of Norway's port of Narvik. Hitler feared British plans to cut off those
shipments by laying explosives in Norway's coastal waters. In April 1940, German forces
invaded Norway. They conquered Denmark on the way. Britain tried to help Norway, but
Germany's airpower prevented many British ships and troops from reaching the country.
Norway fell to the Germans in June 1940. The conquest of Norway secured Germany's
shipments of iron ore. Norway also provided bases for German submarines and aircraft.
Chamberlain, the champion of appeasement, resigned after the invasion of Norway. Winston
Churchill replaced him as Britain's prime minister on May 10, 1940. Churchill told the
British people he had nothing to offer them but "blood, toil, tears, and sweat."
The invasion of the Low Countries. The Low Countries--Belgium, Luxembourg, and the
Netherlands--hoped to remain neutral after World War II began. However, Germany launched a
blitzkrieg against them on May 10, 1940. The Low Countries immediately requested Allied
help. But Luxembourg surrendered in one day, and the Netherlands in five days. British and
French forces rushed into Belgium and fell into a German trap. As the Allied forces raced
northward, the main German invasion cut behind them through the Belgian Ardennes Forest to
the south. The Germans reached the English Channel on May 21. They had nearly surrounded
Allied forces in Belgium.
King Leopold III of Belgium surrendered on May 28, 1940. His
surrender left the Allied forces trapped in Belgium in great danger. They w
ere retreating toward the French seaport of Dunkerque on the
English Channel. Britain sent all available craft to rescue the troops. The rescue fleet
included destroyers, yachts, ferries, fishing vessels, and motorboats. Under heavy
bombardment, the vessels evacuated about 338,000 troops from May 26 to June 4. The
evacuation of Dunkerque saved most of Britain's army. But the army left behind all its
tanks and equipment. The remaining Allied troops in Dunkerque surrendered on June 4, 1940.
The fall of France. France had expected to fight along a stationary battlefront and had
built the Maginot Line for its defense. But German tanks and aircraft went around the
Maginot Line. The Germans passed north of the Maginot Line as they swept through
Luxembourg and Belgium and into northern France in May 1940. They launched a major assault
against France on June 5. The blitzkrieg sent French forces reeling backward. As France
neared collapse, Italy declared war on France and Great Britain on June 10.
German troops entered Paris on June 14, 1940. The French government had already fled the
capital. Paul Reynaud had become premier of France in March. Reynaud wanted to fight on.
But many of his generals and cabinet officers believed that the battle for France was
lost. Reynaud resigned, and a new French government agreed to an armistice (truce) on June
Under the terms of the armistice, Germany occupied the northern two-thirds of France and a
strip of western France along the Atlantic Ocean. Southern France remained in French
control. The town of Vichy became the capital of unoccupied France. Marshal Henri Petain,
a French hero of World War I, headed the Vichy government. He largely cooperated with the
Germans. Then in November 1942, German troops occupied all France.
One of the French generals, Charles de Gaulle, had escaped to Britain after France fell.
In radio broadcasts to France, he urged the people to carry on the fight against Germany.
The troops who rallied around de Gaulle became known as the Free French forces.
The Battle of Britain. Hitler believed that Great Britain would seek peace with Germany
after the fall of France. But Britain fought on alone. Hitler made preparations to cross
the English Channel and invade southern England. Before the Germans could invade, however,
they had to defeat Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF). The Battle of Britain, which began in
July 1940, was the first battle ever fought to control the air.
In August 1940, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, began to attack RAF bases. Germany's
aircraft out-numbered those of the RAF. But radar stations along England's coast provided
warning of approaching German planes and helped the RAF intercept them.
Each side greatly overestimated the number of enemy planes it had shot down. By September
1940, the Luftwaffe mistakenly believed it had destroyed the RAF. The Germans then halted
their strikes against RAF bases and began to bomb London and other civilian targets. They
hoped to weaken civilian morale and force Britain to surrender. Air raids known as the
Blitz took place nearly every night through the fall and the winter. In May 1941, Germany
finally gave up its attempts to defeat Britain from the air.
Hitler's decision to end the attacks on the RAF enabled Britain to rebuild its air force.
Britain's survival was immensely important later in the war because the country served as
a base for the Allied liberation (freeing) of Europe from Nazi rule.
The war spreads
World War II had become a global conflict by the end of 1941. Fighting spread to Africa,
the Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. The Axis and the Allies
also battled each other at sea. In December 1941, the United States entered the war.
Fighting in Africa. The Italians opened battlefronts in Africa at about the time of the
Battle of Britain. Mussolini expected easy victories over the small British forces in
British Somaliland (now northern Somalia) and Egypt. In August 1940, the Italians pushed
eastward from Ethiopia and overran the forces in British Somaliland. The following month,
Italian forces that were stationed in Libya invaded Egypt.
For two years, the fighting seesawed back and forth across Libya and Egypt. Britain fought
to keep the Axis out of Egypt. Axis control of Egypt would have cut Britain off from oil
fields in the Middle East and from the Suez Canal, the shortest sea route to Britain's
empire in Asia. Britain struck back at the Italians in December 1940, sweeping them out of
Egypt and back into Libya. However, an Italian invasion of Greece then drew part of
Britain's force from Africa and ended the advance.
Early in 1941, Hitler sent tank units trained in desert warfare to help the Italians in
northern Africa. The tank units, known as the Afrika Korps, were led by General Erwin
Rommel. Rommel's clever tactics earned him the nickname "The Desert Fox." During
the spring, Rommel recaptured the Libyan territory the Italians had lost and drove into
Egypt. The British again pushed the Axis forces back into Libya. In May 1942, Rommel broke
through British lines and reached El Alamein, only 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the
However, the Germans did not save Mussolini's empire in
eastern Africa. By May 1941, Britain had defeated the Italians in British Somaliland and
Fighting in the Balkans. Hitler used threats to force Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania into
joining the Axis. Those countries supplied Germany with food, petroleum, and other goods.
Yugoslavia's government signed an agreement with the Axis in March 1941. But Yugoslavia's
armed forces rebelled and overthrew the government. An enraged Hitler ordered that
Yugoslavia be crushed. German troops began to pour into the country on April 6. Yugoslavia
surrendered 11 days later. During that time, Hitler had to rescue Mussolini's troops
elsewhere on the Balkan Peninsula.
Mussolini had tired of playing Hitler's junior partner, and he badly wanted a victory to
boost his standing. In October 1940, Italian forces based in Albania invaded Greece. They
expected to defeat the poorly equipped Greek army easily. The Greeks fought fiercely,
though they were greatly outnumbered. By December, they had driven the Italians out of
Greece and had overrun part of Albania. Britain sent a small force to help Greece. But in
April 1941, a much larger German force came to the aid of the Italians. By the end of
April, the Axis controlled Greece.
British troops in Greece withdrew to the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. On May
20, 1941, thousands of German paratroopers descended on Crete and seized an airfield. More
German troops then landed. The first airborne invasion in history gave Germany an
important base in the Mediterranean by the end of May.
The defeats in the Balkans were serious blows to Britain. However, some historians believe
that the detours into Yugoslavia and Greece were costly for Hitler because they delayed
his invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler confidently predicted victory over the Soviet
Union within eight weeks, and he had failed to prepare for a winter war.
The invasion of the Soviet Union. Germany and the Soviet Union proved to be uneasy
partners. Hitler viewed the Soviet Union as Germany's chief enemy. He feared Soviet
ambitions to expand in eastern Europe. Hitler also wanted control of Soviet wheat fields
and oil fields. His 1939 nonaggression pact with Stalin served merely to keep the Soviet
Union out of the war while Germany overran western Europe.
Stalin distrusted Hitler, and he sought to obtain more naval
bases and to strengthen Soviet borders. In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded
Finland. The Finns surrendered in March 1940 after a fierce fight. In the summer, the
Soviet Union seized the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea.
Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, which was code-named Operation Barbarossa, began
on June 22, 1941. It took the Soviet Union by surprise. German tanks smashed through
Soviet battle lines. During the first few weeks of the campaign, the German armies
encircled and killed or captured hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops. As the Germans
advanced, the Soviet people destroyed factories, dams, railroads, food supplies, and
anything else that might be useful to the enemy. The Germans appeared headed for victory
by late July. They then began to make mistakes.
Hitler's generals wanted to press on to Moscow. But Hitler overruled them. Instead, he
reinforced the German armies heading north toward Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and south
toward the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. While the Germans wasted time transferring
forces, Stalin brought in fresh troops. The German advance slowed in September, though the
Germans took the city of Kiev. Heavy rains fell in October, and German tanks and artillery
bogged down in mud.
By November 1941, the Germans had surrounded Leningrad and had begun to encircle Moscow.
They reached the suburbs of Moscow by early December. The temperature then plunged to -40
°F (-40 °C). An unusually severe Soviet winter had begun early. German troops lacked
warm clothing and suffered from frostbite. Their tanks and weapons broke down in the
bitter cold. Winter had saved the Soviet Union.
The Battle of the Atlantic. Britain's survival in World War II depended on shipments of
food, war materials, and other supplies across the Atlantic Ocean from North America.
Throughout the war, Germany tried to destroy such shipments, while Britain struggled to
keep its Atlantic shipping lanes open.
Germany's surface fleet was far too weak to challenge Britain's Royal Navy in battle
during World War II. But individual German battleships attacked British cargo vessels. The
Royal Navy hunted down and sank such raiders one by one. The biggest operation was against
the powerful German battleship Bismarck. In May 1941, a fleet of British warships chased,
trapped, and finally sank the Bismarck about 600 miles (970 kilometers) off the coast of
France. Afterward, Germany rarely allowed its large warships to leave harbor.
The greatest threat to British shipping came from German submarines, called Unterseeboote
or U-boats. The U-boats prowled the Atlantic, torpedoing any Allied cargo ships they
spotted. The conquest of Norway and of France gave Germany excellent bases for its
U-boats. To combat the U-boats, Britain began to use a convoy system. Under that system,
cargo ships sailed in large groups escorted by surface warships. But Britain had few such
ships available for escort duty.
From 1940 to 1942, Germany appeared to be winning the Battle of the Atlantic. Each month,
U-boats sank thousands of tons of Allied shipping. But the Allies gradually overcame the
U-boat danger. They used radar and an underwater detection device called sonar to locate
German submarines. Long-range aircraft bombed U-boats as they surfaced. Shipyards in North
America stepped up their production of warships to accompany convoys. By mid-1943, the
Allies were sinking U-boats faster than Germany could replace them. The crisis in the
Atlantic had passed.
The United States enters the war
After World War II began in Europe in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the
neutrality of the United States. Canada declared war on Germany almost at once. As part of
the British Commonwealth of Nations, it entered the war on Sept. 10, 1939, one week after
Great Britain did.
The majority of people in the United States thought that their country should stay out of
World War II. Yet most Americans hoped for an Allied victory. Roosevelt and other
interventionists urged all aid "short of war" to nations fighting the Axis. They
argued that an Axis victory would endanger democracies everywhere. Isolationists, on the
other hand, opposed U.S. aid to warring nations. They accused Roosevelt of steering the
nation into a war it was not prepared to fight.
All the countries in North and South America eventually
declared war on the Axis. But only Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the United States sent
troops. The United States played a key role in the final Allied victory.
The arsenal of democracy. Roosevelt hoped to defeat the Axis powers by equipping the
nations fighting them with ships, tanks, aircraft, and other war materials. Roosevelt
appealed to the United States to become what he called "the arsenal of
At the start of World War II, U.S. neutrality laws forbade the sale of arms to warring
nations. Congress soon changed the laws to help Britain and France. A new law permitted
warring nations to buy arms for cash. But by late 1940, Britain had nearly run out of
funds for arms. Roosevelt then proposed the Lend-Lease Act, which would permit him to lend
or lease raw materials, equipment, and weapons to any nation fighting the Axis. Congress
approved the act in March 1941. In all, 38 nations received a total of about $50 billion
in aid under Lend-Lease. More than half the aid went to the British Empire and about a
fourth to the Soviet Union.
Japan attacks. Japan, not Germany, finally plunged the United States into World War II. By
1940, Japanese forces were bogged down in China. The Chinese government, led by Chiang
Kai-shek, had fled to central China. But China refused to give up. To force China to
surrender, Japan decided to cut off supplies reaching China from Southeast Asia. Japan
also wanted the rich resources of Southeast Asia for itself. Japan's military leaders
spoke of building an empire, which they called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The United States opposed Japan's expansion in Southeast Asia. In 1940, Japanese troops
occupied northern Indochina (today part of Laos and Vietnam). In response, the United
States cut off important exports to Japan. Japanese industries relied heavily on
petroleum, scrap metal, and other raw materials from the United States. Tension rose after
Japan seized the rest of Indochina in 1941. Roosevelt then barred the withdrawal of
Japanese funds from American banks.
General Hideki Tojo became premier of Japan in October 1941. Tojo and Japan's other
military leaders realized that only the United States Navy had the power to block Japan's
expansion in Asia. They decided to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet with one forceful blow.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked without
warning the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The bombing of Pearl
Harbor was a great success for Japan at first. It disabled much of the Pacific Fleet and
destroyed many aircraft. But in the long run, the attack on Pearl Harbor proved disastrous
for Japan. It propelled enraged Americans to arms.
The United States, Canada, and Great Britain declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941. The
next day, China declared war on the Axis. Germany and Italy declared war on the United
States on December 11. World War II had become a global conflict.
The Allies Attack in Europe and Northern Africa
Allied defeats in Europe ended late in 1941. Soviet forces held off the German advance in
eastern Europe in 1942 and won a major victory at Stalingrad in 1943. The Allies invaded
northern Africa in 1942 and forced Italy to surrender in 1943. Allied troops swarmed
ashore in 1944 in northern France in the largest seaborne invasion in history. Allied
attacks from the east and the west forced Germany to surrender in 1945.
The strategy. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin--the leaders of the three major Allied
powers--were known during World War II as the Big Three. The Big Three and their military
advisers planned the strategy that defeated the Axis. Churchill and Roosevelt conferred
frequently on overall strategy. Stalin directed the Soviet war effort but rarely consulted
Roosevelt relied heavily on his military advisers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They
consisted of General of the Army Henry H. Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air
Forces; General of the Army George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the Army; Fleet Admiral
Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations; and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt's
chief of staff. Churchill had a similar advisory body.
The main wartime disagreement among the Big Three concerned an Allied invasion of western
Europe. Stalin constantly urged Roosevelt and Churchill to open a second fighting front in
western Europe and thus draw German troops from the Soviet front. Both Roosevelt and
Churchill supported the idea but disagreed on where and when to invade. The Americans
wanted to land in northern France as soon as possible. The British argued that an invasion
of France before the Allies were fully prepared would be disastrous. Instead, Churchill
favored invading Italy first. His view won out.
Roosevelt and Churchill first met in August 1941 aboard ship off the coast of
Newfoundland. They issued the Atlantic Charter, a statement of the postwar aims of the
United States and Great Britain. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and
Churchill conferred in Washington, D.C. The two leaders felt that Germany was a nearer and
a more dangerous enemy than Japan. They decided to concentrate on defeating Germany first.
In January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met in Casablanca, Morocco. They agreed to invade
the Mediterranean island of Sicily after driving the Germans and Italians from northern
Africa. At the conference, Roosevelt announced that the Allies would accept only
unconditional (complete) surrender from the Axis powers. Churchill supported him.
Roosevelt and Churchill first met with Stalin in November 1943 in Teheran, Iran. The Big
Three discussed plans for a joint British and American invasion of France in the spring of
1944. They did not meet again until Germany neared collapse. In February 1945, Roosevelt,
Churchill, and Stalin gathered at Yalta, a Soviet city on the Crimean Peninsula. They
agreed that their countries would each occupy a zone of Germany after the war. France was
to occupy a fourth zone. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin pledged to permit free elections
in Poland and other countries in eastern Europe after the war. He later broke that pledge.
Roosevelt died in April 1945, two months after the Yalta Conference.
On the Soviet front. Soviet forces struck back at the Germans outside Moscow in December
1941. The Soviet troops pushed the invaders back about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from
Moscow during the winter. The Germans never again came so close to Moscow as they had been
in December 1941. However, the Soviet recovery was short lived.
In the spring of 1942, the Germans again attacked. They overran the Crimean Peninsula and
headed eastward toward Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus region. Hitler ordered General
Friedrich von Paulus to press on and to take the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd). A
savage five-month battle for Stalingrad began in late August. By September, German and
Soviet soldiers were fighting hand to hand in the heart of the city.
With winter approaching, Paulus asked permission to pull back from Stalingrad. Hitler
ordered him to hold on and fight. Soviet troops counterattacked in mid-November. Within a
week, they had trapped Paulus' army. The Luftwaffe promised to supply the army by air. But
few supplies landed. Each day, thousands of German soldiers froze or starved to death. On
Feb. 2, 1943, the last German troops in Stalingrad surrendered.
The Battle of Stalingrad marked a turning point in World War II. It halted Germany's
eastward advance. About 300,000 German troops were killed or captured. An enormous number
of Soviet soldiers also died.
In northern Africa. The Germans took a beating in northern Africa about the same time as
their defeat at Stalingrad. In the summer of 1942, German and Italian forces led by Rommel
faced the British at El Alamein, Egypt. General Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General
Bernard L. Montgomery commanded the British forces in northern Africa.
Rommel attacked in late August 1942 at Alam el Halfa, south of El Alamein. The British
halted the attack, partly because they had secretly learned of Rommel's battle plan.
Churchill called for an immediate counterattack. But Montgomery refused to rush into
battle before he was fully prepared. On October 23, Montgomery struck at El Alamein. He
had broken through the enemy lines by early November. The Axis forces retreated toward
Tunisia with the British in hot pursuit. The Battle of El Alamein, like the Battle of
Stalingrad, marked a turning point in the war. In both battles, the Allies ended Hitler's
string of victories.
Soon after the Battle of El Alamein, the Allies invaded French colonies in northern
Africa. Allied troops commanded by Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United
States landed in Algeria and Morocco on Nov. 8, 1942. Vichy French forces in northern
Africa fought back for a few days. They then joined the Allied side.
The Allies hoped to advance rapidly into Tunisia and thereby cut off the Axis forces from
their home bases in Italy and Sicily. But Axis troops moved faster and seized Tunisia
first. There, Rommel prepared for battle. American troops first engaged in combat with the
Germans in February 1943 near Kasserine Pass in northern Tunisia. Rommel defeated the
inexperienced Americans in hard fighting. But thereafter, the Allies steadily closed in.
The last Axis forces in northern Africa surrendered in May. Rommel had already returned to
Germany. By clearing the Axis forces from northern Africa, the Allies obtained bases from
which to invade southern Europe.
The air war. Before World War II began, some aviation experts claimed that the long-range
bomber was the most advanced weapon in the world. They believed that bombers could wipe
out cities and industries and so destroy an enemy's desire and ability to go on fighting.
Their theory was tested during World War II.
The first great air battle in history opened in 1940 between Germany's Luftwaffe and
Britain's Royal Air Force. During the Battle of Britain, Marshal Hermann Goering,
commander of the Luftwaffe, failed to defeat Britain from the air. RAF fighter planes,
including Spitfires and Hurricanes, helped win the Battle of Britain by shooting down
German bombers. By May 1941, the bombing of Britain had largely stopped. But RAF bombers
pounded Germany until the end of the war.
At first, Britain's bombing campaign was costly and ineffective. The RAF relied on area
bombing in the hope of hitting a target by plastering the area with bombs. It favored
nighttime raids, which were safer than daytime raids. But pilots often missed their
targets in the dark. In 1942, Britain turned to saturation bombing of German cities. About
900 bombers battered Cologne on May 30, 1942, in the first such massive raid.
The United States joined the air war against Germany in 1942. The American B-17 bomber
carried a better bombsight than British planes. B-17's were known as Flying Fortresses
because of their heavy armor and many guns, and they could take much punishment. For those
reasons, the Americans favored pinpoint bombing of specific targets during daytime rather
than area bombing at night. From 1943 until the end of the war, bombs rained down on
Germany around the clock.
In spite of the massive bombardment, German industries continued to increase production,
and German morale failed to crack. The air war achieved its goals only during the last 10
months of World War II. In that time, nearly three times as many bombs fell on Germany as
in all the rest of the war. By the end of the war, Germany's cities lay in ruins. Its
factories, refineries, railroads, and canals had nearly ceased to operate. Hundreds of
thousands of German civilians had been killed. Millions more were homeless. The bomber had
finally become the weapon its supporters had foreseen.
Germany's air defenses rapidly improved during World War II. The Germans used radar to
spot incoming bombers, and they used fighter aircraft to shoot them down. In 1944, Germany
introduced the first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262. The fast plane could easily
overtake the propeller-driven fighters of the Allies. But Hitler failed to use jet
fighters effectively, which kept Germany from gaining an advantage in the air war.
In 1944, Germany used the first guided missiles against Britain. The V-1 and V-2 missiles
caused great damage and took many lives. But the Germans introduced the weapons too late
to affect the war's outcome.
The invasion of Italy. The Allies planned to invade Sicily after driving the Axis forces
out of northern Africa. Axis planes bombed Allied ships in the Mediterranean Sea from
bases in Sicily. The Allies wanted to make the Mediterranean safe for their ships. They
also hoped that an invasion of Sicily might knock a war-weary Italy out of the war.
Allied forces under Eisenhower landed along Sicily's south coast on July 10, 1943. For 39
days, they engaged in bitter fighting with German troops over rugged terrain. The last
Germans left Sicily on August 17.
Mussolini fell from power on July 25, 1943, after the invasion of Sicily. The Italian
government imprisoned Mussolini, but German paratroopers later rescued him. Italy's new
premier, Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, began secret peace talks with the Allies. Badoglio
hoped to prevent Italy from becoming a battleground. Italy surrendered on September 3.
However, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Germany's commander in the Mediterranean region,
was determined to fight the Allies for control of Italy.
Allied forces led by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark of the United States landed at
Salerno, Italy, on Sept. 9, 1943. They fought hard just to stay ashore. Another Allied
force had already landed farther south. The Allies slowly struggled up the Italian
Peninsula in a series of head-on assaults against well-defended German positions. By early
November, the Allies had nearly reached Cassino, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of
Rome. But they failed to pierce German defenses there. Some of the most brutal fighting of
World War II occurred near Cassino.
In January 1944, the Allies landed troops at Anzio, west of Cassino, in an effort to
attack the Germans from behind. However, German forces kept the Allies pinned down on the
beaches at Anzio for four months. Thousands of Allied soldiers died there.
The Allies finally broke through German defenses in Italy in May 1944. Rome fell on June
4. The Germans held their positions in northern Italy through the fall and winter. But in
the spring, the Allies swept toward the Alps. German forces in Italy surrendered on May 2,
1945. Mussolini had been captured and shot by Italian resistance fighters on April 28.
D-Day. Soon after the evacuation of Dunkerque in 1940, Great Britain started to plan a
return to France. In 1942, the United States and Britain began to discuss a large-scale
invasion across the English Channel. That summer, the Allies raided the French port of
Dieppe on the channel. The raiders met strong German defenses and suffered heavy losses.
The Dieppe raid convinced the Allies that landing on open beaches had a better chance of
success than landing in a port.
Throughout 1943, preparations moved ahead for an invasion of northern France the following
year. The invasion plan received the code name Operation Overlord. The Allies assembled
huge amounts of equipment and great numbers of troops for Overlord in southern England.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was selected to command the invasion.
The Germans expected an Allied invasion along the north coast of France in 1944. But they
were unsure where. A chain of fortifications, which the Germans called the Atlantic Wall,
ran along the coast. Hitler placed Rommel in charge of strengthening German defenses along
the English Channel. Rommel brought in artillery, mined the water and the beaches, and
strung up barbed wire. The Germans concentrated their troops near Calais, at the narrowest
part of the English Channel. But the Allies planned to land farther west, in a region of
northern France called Normandy.
Eisenhower chose Monday, June 5, 1944, as D-Day--the date of the Normandy invasion. Rough
seas forced him to postpone D-Day until June 6. During the night, about 2,700 ships
carrying landing craft and 176,000 soldiers crossed the channel. Minesweepers had gone
ahead to clear the water. Paratroopers dropped behind German lines to capture bridges and
railroad tracks. At dawn, battleships opened fire on the beaches. At 6:30 A.M., troops
from the United States, Britain, Canada, and France stormed ashore on a 60-mile
(100-kilometer) front in the largest seaborne invasion in history.
D-Day took the Germans by surprise. But they fought back
fiercely. At one landing site, code-named Omaha Beach, U.S. troops came under heavy fire
and barely managed to stay ashore. Nevertheless, all five Allied landing beaches were
secure by the end of D-Day. The Allies soon had an artificial harbor in place for
unloading more troops and supplies. A pipeline carried fuel across the channel. By the end
of June 1944, about a million Allied troops had reached France.
The Allied forces advanced slowly at first. The Americans
struggled westward to capture the badly needed port of Cherbourg. British and Canadian
soldiers fought their way to Caen. The battle for Cherbourg ended on June 27. Caen, which
the British hoped to capture on D-Day, fell on July 18. Near the end of July, the Allies
finally broke through German lines into open country.
The drive to the Rhine. On July 25, 1944, Allied bombers blasted a gap in the German front
near St.-Lo, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Cherbourg. The U.S. Third Army
under Lieutenant General George S. Patton plowed through the hole. The battlefield had
opened up. During August, the Allies cleared the Germans out of most of northwestern
France. Allied bombers hounded the retreating Germans.
Patton's army rolled eastward toward Paris. On Aug. 19, 1944, Parisians rose up against
the occupying German forces. Hitler ordered the city destroyed. But his generals delayed
carrying out the order. American and Free French forces liberated Paris on August 25.
In mid-August 1944, Allied forces landed in southern France. They moved rapidly up the
Rhone River Valley. Meanwhile, Patton raced eastward toward the German border and the
Rhine River. In late August, his tanks ran out of fuel. To the north, British forces led
by Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery swept into Belgium and captured Antwerp on
September 4. The Allies planned a daring airborne operation to carry them across the
Rhine. On September 17, about 20,000 paratroopers dropped behind German lines to seize
bridges in the Netherlands. But bad weather and other problems hampered the operation. It
became clear that victory over Germany would have to wait until 1945.
Germany's generals knew they were beaten. But Hitler pulled his failing resources together
for another assault. On Dec. 16, 1944, German troops surprised and overwhelmed the
Americans in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and Luxembourg. However, the Germans lacked
the troops and fuel to turn their thrust into a breakthrough. Within two weeks, the
Americans stopped the German advance near the Meuse River in Belgium. The Ardennes
offensive is also known as the Battle of the Bulge because of the bulging shape of the
battleground on a map.
The Soviet advance. The Soviet victory in the Battle of
Stalingrad ended Germany's progress in eastern Europe. After January 1943, Soviet soldiers
slowly pushed the Germans back. Soviet forces had improved by 1943, and they greatly
outnumbered the opposing German armies. Supplies poured into the Soviet Union from Britain
and the United States, and Soviet factories had geared up for wartime production.
Nevertheless, the Germans returned to the offensive in July 1943 near the Soviet city of
Kursk. They massed about 3,000 tanks for the assault. Soviet forces lay waiting for them.
In one of the greatest tank battles in history, Soviet mines, tanks, antitank guns, and
aircraft blew apart many German tanks. Hitler finally called off the attack to save his
Soviet troops moved slowly forward during the summer and fall of 1943. In January 1944, a
Soviet offensive ended the siege of Leningrad, which had begun in September 1941. About a
million Leningraders died during the siege, mostly from lack of food and heat. But the
city never surrendered.
In June 1944, soon after the Normandy invasion, Stalin's armies attacked along a 450-mile
(720-kilometer) front. By late July, Soviet troops had reached the outskirts of Warsaw.
Poland's Home Army rose up against German forces in Warsaw on August 1. But Soviet troops
refused to come to Poland's aid. Stalin permitted the Germans to destroy the Home Army,
which might have resisted his plans to set up a Communist government in Poland after the
war. The Home Army surrendered after two months. More than 200,000 Poles died during the
Warsaw uprising. Soviet forces entered Warsaw in January 1945.
Meanwhile, Soviet troops drove into Romania and Bulgaria. The Germans pulled out of Greece
and Yugoslavia in the fall of 1944 but held out in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, until
February 1945. Vienna, Austria's capital, fell to Soviet soldiers in April. By then,
Soviet troops occupied nearly all of eastern Europe.
Victory in Europe. The Allies began their final assault on Germany in early 1945. Soviet
soldiers reached the Oder River, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Berlin, in
January. Allied forces in the west occupied positions along the Rhine by early March.
British and Canadian forces cleared the Germans out of the Netherlands and swept into
northern Germany. American and French forces raced toward the Elbe River in central
Germany. Hitler ordered his soldiers to fight to the death. But large numbers of German
soldiers surrendered each day.
As they advanced, the Allies discovered horrifying evidence of Nazi brutality. Hitler had
ordered the imprisonment and murder of millions of Jews and members of other minority
groups in concentration camps. The starving survivors of the death camps gave proof of the
terrible suffering of those who had already died.
The capture of Berlin, then Germany's capital, was left to Soviet forces. By April 25,
1945, Soviet troops had surrounded the city. From a bunker (shelter) deep underground,
Hitler ordered German soldiers to fight on. On April 30, however, Hitler committed
suicide. He remained convinced that his cause had been right but that the German people
had proven unworthy of his rule.
Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz briefly succeeded Hitler as the
leader of Germany. Doenitz arranged for Germany's surrender. On May 7, 1945, Colonel
General Alfred Jodl, chief of staff of the German armed forces, signed a statement of
unconditional surrender at Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims, France. World War II had
ended in Europe. The Allies declared May 8 as V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day.
The war in Asia and the Pacific
The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, left the U.S. Pacific Fleet powerless to halt
Japan's expansion. During the next six months, Japanese forces swept across Southeast Asia
and the western Pacific Ocean. Japan's empire reached its greatest size in August 1942. It
stretched northeast to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, west to Burma, and south to the
Netherlands Indies (now Indonesia). The Allies halted Japan's expansion in the summer of
1942. They nibbled away at its empire until Japan agreed to surrender in August 1945.
Early Japanese victories. On Dec. 8, 1941, within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor,
Japanese bombers struck the British colony of Hong Kong on the south coast of China and
two U.S. islands in the Pacific Ocean--Guam and Wake. The Japanese invaded Thailand the
same day. Thailand surrendered within hours and joined the Axis. Japanese troops took Hong
Kong, Guam, and Wake Island by Christmas.
From Thailand, Japanese forces soon advanced into Malaya (now part of Malaysia) and Burma.
Great Britain then ruled that region. The British wrongly believed that soldiers could not
penetrate the thick jungles of the Malay Peninsula. They expected an assault by sea
instead. But Japanese troops streamed through the jungles and rapidly overran the
By late January 1942, the Japanese had pushed British forces back to Singapore, a
fortified island off the tip of the Malay Peninsula. The Japanese stormed the island on
February 8, and Singapore surrendered a week later. Japan captured about 85,000 soldiers,
making the fall of Singapore Britain's worst military defeat ever.
Japan's next target was the petroleum-rich Netherlands Indies, south of Malaya. Allied
warships protected those islands. Japan's navy mauled the ships in February 1942 in the
Battle of the Java Sea. The Netherlands Indies fell in early March.
Meanwhile, Japanese forces had advanced into southern Burma. China sent troops into Burma
to help Britain hold onto the Burma Road. Weapons, food, and other goods traveled over
that supply route from India to China. In April 1942, Japan seized and shut down the Burma
Road. The Japanese had driven Allied forces from most of Burma by mid-May.
Only the conquest of the Philippines took longer than Japan
expected. Japan had begun landing troops in the Philippines on Dec. 10, 1941. American and
Philippine forces commanded by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur defended the islands. In
late December, MacArthur's forces abandoned Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and
withdrew to nearby Bataan Peninsula. Although suffering from malnutrition and disease,
they beat back Japanese attacks for just over three months.
President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia, and he left the Philippines in March
1942. He promised the Filipinos, "I shall return." On April 9, about 75,000
exhausted troops on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. Most of them were forced to march
about 65 miles (105 kilometers) to prison camps. Many prisoners died of disease and
mistreatment during what became known as the Bataan Death March. Some soldiers held out on
Corregidor Island, near Bataan, until May 6. By then, the Japanese were victorious
Japan's string of quick victories astonished even the Japanese. It terrified the Allies.
The fall of the Netherlands Indies left Australia unprotected. The capture of Burma
brought the Japanese to India's border. Australia and India feared invasion. Japanese
planes bombed Darwin on Australia's north coast in February 1942.
The tide turns. Three events in 1942 helped turn the tide
against Japan. They were (1) the Doolittle raid, (2) the Battle of the Coral Sea, and (3)
the Battle of Midway.
The Doolittle raid. To show that Japan could be beaten, the United States staged a daring
bombing raid on the Japanese homeland. On April 18, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel James H.
Doolittle led 16 B-25 bombers in a surprise attack on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The
bombers took off from the deck of the Hornet, an aircraft carrier more than 600 miles (960
kilometers) east of Japan. The raid did very little damage. But it alarmed Japan's
leaders, who had believed that their homeland was safe from Allied bombs. To prevent
future raids, the Japanese determined to capture more islands to the south and the east
and so extend the country's defenses. They soon found themselves in trouble.
The Battle of the Coral Sea. In May 1942, a Japanese invasion force sailed toward
Australia's base at Port Moresby on the south coast of the island of New Guinea. Port
Moresby lay at Australia's doorstep. American warships met the Japanese force in the Coral
Sea, northeast of Australia. The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from May 4 to 8, was
unlike all earlier naval battles. It was the first naval battle in which opposing ships
never sighted one another. Planes based on aircraft carriers did all the fighting. Neither
side won a clear victory. But the battle halted the assault on Port Moresby and
temporarily checked the threat to Australia.
The Battle of Midway. Japan next sent a large fleet to capture Midway Island at the
westernmost tip of the Hawaiian chain. The United States had cracked Japan's naval code
and thus learned about the coming invasion. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the
U.S. Pacific Fleet, gathered the ships that had survived the raid on Pearl Harbor and the
Battle of the Coral Sea. He prepared to ambush the Japanese.
The Battle of Midway opened on June 4, 1942, with a Japanese bombing raid on Midway.
Outdated U.S. bombers flew in low and launched torpedoes against Japanese warships. But
Japanese guns downed most of the slow-moving planes. American dive bombers swooped in
next. They pounded enemy aircraft carriers while their planes refueled on deck. During the
three-day battle, the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers and more than 200 planes and
skilled pilots. Japan sank 1 U.S. aircraft carrier and shot down about 150 U.S. planes.
The Battle of Midway was the first clear Allied victory over Japan in World War II.
Aircraft carriers had become the most important weapon in the war in the Pacific. Japan's
naval power was crippled by the loss of 4 of its 9 aircraft carriers.
Although Japan failed to capture Midway, it seized two islands at the tip of Alaska's
Aleutian chain on June 7, 1942. The Americans drove the Japanese out of the Aleutians in
the spring and summer of 1943.
The South Pacific. After the Battle of Midway, the Allies were determined to stop Japanese
expansion in the South Pacific. In the battles that followed, American soldiers and
marines fought many jungle campaigns on Pacific islands. The jungle itself was a
terrifying enemy. Heavy rains drenched the troops and turned the jungle into a
foul-smelling swamp. The men had to hack their way through tangled, slimy vegetation and
wade through knee-deep mud. The Japanese hid everywhere, waiting to shoot unsuspecting
servicemen. Scorpions and snakes were a constant menace. Malaria and other tropical
diseases took a heavy toll.
The Americans also encountered Japan's strict military code in the South Pacific. The code
required Japanese soldiers to fight to the death. Japanese soldiers believed that
surrender meant disgrace, and the Allies rarely captured them alive. When cornered, the
Japanese sometimes charged at Allied troops in nighttime suicide attacks. Rather than
admit defeat, Japan's military leaders took their lives by stabbing themselves in the
abdomen according to the tradition of hara-kiri.
The Allies developed two major campaigns against Japan in the South Pacific. One force
under MacArthur checked the Japanese on New Guinea. Another force under Nimitz battled the
Japanese in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. MacArthur and Nimitz aimed at
taking the port of Rabaul on New Britain. Rabaul was Japan's chief base in the South
Pacific. Japanese aircraft and warships attacked Allied ships from Rabaul, and Japan
supplied other islands in the South Pacific from that base.
New Guinea. In the summer of 1942, Japanese troops began an overland drive across New
Guinea's rugged, jungle-covered mountains to the Australian base of Port Moresby on the
south coast. An Allied force made up chiefly of Australians quickly counterattacked. By
November, the Japanese had been pushed back across the mountains. MacArthur then attacked
Japanese positions along the north coast in a series of brilliant operations that combined
air, sea, and land forces. Brutal fighting continued on New Guinea until mid-1944.
Guadalcanal. On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. marines invaded the island of Guadalcanal in the first
stage of a campaign in the Solomon Islands. The Japanese were building an air base on
Guadalcanal from which to attack Allied ships. The invasion took the Japanese by surprise.
But they fought back, and a fierce battle developed.
The six-month battle for Guadalcanal was one of the most vicious campaigns of World War
II. Each side depended on its navy to land supplies and troop reinforcements. In a series
of naval battles, the Allies gained control of the waters surrounding Guadalcanal. They
then cut off Japanese shipments. Until that time, Allied supplies had been short, and the
marines had depended on rice captured from the enemy. By February 1943, the starving
Japanese had evacuated Guadalcanal.
After taking Guadalcanal, American forces led by Admiral William F. Halsey worked their
way up the Solomon Islands. In November 1943, the Americans reached Bougainville at the
top of the island chain. They defeated the Japanese there in March 1944.
Rabaul. In the summer of 1943, Allied military leaders canceled the invasion of Rabaul.
Instead, American bombers pounded the Japanese base, and aircraft and submarines sank
shipments headed for Rabaul. About 100,000 Japanese defenders waited there for an attack
that never came. The Allies spared many lives by isolating Rabaul rather than capturing
Island hopping in the Central Pacific. From late 1943 until the fall of 1944, the Allies
hopped from island to island across the Central Pacific toward the Philippines. During the
island-hopping campaign, the Allies became expert at amphibious (seaborne) invasions. Each
island they captured provided a base from which to strike the next target. But rather than
capture every island, the Allies by-passed Japanese strongholds and invaded islands that
were weakly held. That strategy, known as leapfrogging, saved time and lives. Leapfrogging
carried the Allies across the Gilbert, Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana islands in the
Admiral Nimitz selected the Gilbert Islands as the first major objective in the
island-hopping campaign. American marines invaded Tarawa in the Gilberts in November 1943.
The attackers met heavy fire from Japanese troops in concrete bunkers. But they inched
forward and captured the tiny island after four days of savage fighting. About 4,500
Japanese soldiers died defending the island. Only 17 remained alive. More than 3,000
marines were killed or wounded in the assault. The Allies improved their amphibious
operations because of lessons they had learned at Tarawa. As a result, fewer men died in
In February 1944, U.S. marines and infantrymen leaped north to the Marshall Islands. They
captured Kwajalein and Enewetak in relatively smooth operations. Allied military leaders
meanwhile had decided to by-pass Truk, a key Japanese naval base in the Caroline Islands
west of the Marshalls. They bombed Truk instead and made it unusable as a base.
The Americans made their next jump to the Mariana Islands, about 1,000 miles (1,600
kilometers) northwest of Enewetak. Bitter fighting for the Marianas began in June 1944. In
the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19 and 20, Japan's navy once again attempted to
destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet. During the battle, which was fought near the island of
Guam, the Allies massacred Japan's navy and destroyed its airpower. Japan lost 3 aircraft
carriers and about 480 airplanes, or more than three-fourths of the planes it sent into
battle. The loss of so many trained pilots was also a serious blow to Japan.
By August 1944, American forces occupied Guam, Saipan, and Tinian--the three largest
islands in the Marianas. The occupation of the Marianas brought Nimitz' forces within
bombing distance of Japan. Tojo resigned as Japan's prime minister in July 1944 after the
loss of Saipan. In November, American B-29 bombers began using bases in the Marianas to
A final hop before the invasion of the Philippines took U.S. forces to the Palau Islands
in September 1944. The islands lie between the Marianas and the Philippines. The attackers
met stiff resistance on Peleliu, the chief Japanese base in the Palaus. About 25 per cent
of the Americans were killed or injured in a month-long fight.
The liberation of the Philippines. The campaigns in New Guinea and the Central Pacific
brought the Allies within striking distance of the Philippine Islands. MacArthur and
Nimitz combined their forces to liberate the Philippines. Allied leaders decided to invade
the island of Leyte in the central Philippines in the fall of 1944.
The Allies expected the Japanese to fight hard to hold the Philippines. They therefore
assembled the largest landing force ever used in the Pacific campaigns. About 750 ships
participated in the invasion of Leyte, which began on Oct. 20, 1944. It had taken
MacArthur more than 21/2 years and many brutal battles to keep his pledge to return to the
While Allied troops poured ashore on Leyte, Japan's navy tried yet again to crush the
Pacific Fleet. The Battle for Leyte Gulf, which was fought from Oct. 23 through 26, 1944,
was the the greatest naval battle in history in total tonnage. In all, 282 ships took
part. The battle ended in a major victory for the United States. Japan's navy was so badly
damaged that it was no longer a serious threat for the rest of the war.
During the Battle for Leyte Gulf, the Japanese unleashed a terrifying new weapon--the
kamikaze (suicide pilot). Kamikazes crashed planes filled with explosives onto Allied
warships and died as a result. Many kamikazes were shot down before they crashed. But
others caused great damage. The kamikaze became one of Japan's major weapons during the
rest of the war.
The fight for Leyte continued until the end of 1944. On Jan. 9, 1945, the Allies landed on
the island of Luzon and began to work their way toward Manila. The city fell in early
March. The remaining Japanese troops on Luzon pulled back to the mountains and went on
fighting until the war ended.
About 350,000 Japanese soldiers died during the campaign in the Philippines. American
casualties numbered nearly 14,000 dead and about 48,000 wounded or missing. Japan was
clearly doomed to defeat after losing the Philippines. But it did not intend to surrender.
The China-Burma-India theater. While fighting raged in the Pacific, the Allies also
battled the Japanese on the Asian mainland. The chief theater of operations (area of
military activity) involved China, Burma, and India. By mid-1942, Japan held much of
eastern and southern China and had conquered nearly all Burma. The Japanese had closed the
Burma Road, the overland supply route from India to China. China lacked equipment and
trained troops and barely managed to go on fighting. But the Western Allies wanted to keep
China in the war because the Chinese tied down hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops.
For three years, the Allies flew war supplies over the world's tallest mountain system,
the Himalaya, from India to China. The route was known as "the Hump."
China. By 1942, five years after Japan had invaded China, the opposing armies were near
exhaustion. Japanese troops staged attacks especially to capture China's food supplies for
themselves and to starve the country into surrender. As a result, millions of Chinese
people died from lack of food during the war.
A struggle between China's Nationalist government, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and Chinese
Communists further weakened the country's war effort. At first, the Nationalist forces and
the Communists had joined in fighting the Japanese invaders. But their cooperation
gradually broke down as they prepared to fight each other after the war.
The United States sent military advisers as well as equipment to China. Colonel Claire L.
Chennault, for example, trained pilots and established an air force in China. By the end
of 1943, his pilots controlled the skies over China. But they could not help exhausted
Chinese troops on the ground. Major General Joseph W. Stilwell served as Chiang's chief of
staff and trained the Chinese army. Stilwell also commanded the U.S. forces in China and
Burma. The Allied campaign in Burma was closely linked to the fighting in China. From 1943
until early 1945, the Allies fought to recapture Burma from the Japanese and reopen a land
route to China. But rugged jungle, heavy rains, and a shortage of troops and supplies
hampered the Allies in Burma.
Admiral Louis Mountbatten of Great Britain became supreme Allied commander in Southeast
Asia in August 1943. He directed several successful offensives in Burma in late 1943 and
in 1944. By the end of 1944, Allied forces had battled their way through the jungles of
northern Burma. They opened a supply route across northern Burma to China in January 1945.
Yangon (also spelled Rangoon), Burma's capital, fell to the Allies in May. The Allies
finally regained Burma after a long, horrible campaign.
India. India became an important supply base and training
center for Allied forces during World War II. Japan's conquest of Burma in 1942 placed
India in great danger. In early 1944, Japanese troops invaded India and encircled the
towns of Imphal and Kohima just inside India's border. The British supplied the towns by
air. The attackers finally began to withdraw from India late in June. Thousands of
Japanese soldiers died of disease and starvation during the retreat.
Closing in on Japan. Superiority at sea and in the air enabled the Allies to close in on
Japan in early 1945. By then, Japan had lost much of its empire, most of its aircraft and
cargo ships, and nearly all its warships. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers
remained stranded on Pacific islands by-passed by the Allies. American B-29 bombers were
pounding Japan's industries, and American submarines were sinking vital supplies headed
In January 1945, Major General Curtis E. LeMay took command of the air war against Japan.
LeMay ordered more frequent and more daring raids. American bombers increased their
accuracy by flying in low during nighttime raids. They began to drop incendiary
(fire-producing) bombs that set Japanese cities aflame. A massive incendiary raid in March
1945 destroyed the heart of Tokyo. By the end of the month, about 3 million people in
Tokyo were homeless.
Japan's military leaders went on fighting, though they faced certain defeat. The Allies
decided they needed more bases to step up the bombing campaign against Japan. They chose
the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Iwo Jima lies about 750 miles (1,210 kilometers) south of Japan. About 21,000 Japanese
troops were stationed there. They prepared to defend the tiny island from fortified caves
and underground tunnels. Allied aircraft began bombarding Iwo Jima seven months before the
invasion. American marines landed on Feb. 19, 1945, and made slow progress. The Japanese
hung on desperately until March 16. About 25,000 marines--about 30 per cent of the landing
force--were killed or wounded in the campaign for Iwo Jima.
Okinawa, the next stop on the Allied route toward Japan, lies about 350 miles (565
kilometers) southwest of Japan. Allied troops began to pour ashore on Okinawa on April 1,
1945. Japan sent kamikazes to attack the landing force. By the time the battle ended on
June 21, kamikazes had sunk at least 30 ships and damaged more than 350 others. The
capture of Okinawa cost the Allies about 50,000 casualties. About 110,000 Japanese died,
including many civilians who chose to commit suicide rather than be conquered.
By the summer of 1945, some members of Japan's government favored surrender. But others
insisted that Japan fight on. The Allies planned to invade Japan in November 1945.
American military planners feared that the invasion might cost as many as 1 million U.S.
lives. Some Allied leaders believed that Soviet help was needed to defeat Japan, and they
had encouraged Stalin to invade Manchuria. However, the Allies found another way to end
The atomic bomb. In 1939, the German-born scientist Albert Einstein had informed President
Roosevelt about the possibility of creating a superbomb. It would produce an extremely
powerful explosion by splitting the atom. Einstein and other scientists feared that
Germany might develop such a bomb first. In 1942, the United States set up the Manhattan
Project, a top-secret program to develop an atomic bomb. The first test explosion of an
atomic bomb occurred in the New Mexico desert in July 1945.
Roosevelt died in April 1945, and Vice President Harry S. Truman became President of the
United States. Truman met with Churchill and Stalin in Potsdam, Germany, in July, shortly
after Germany's defeat. At the Potsdam Conference, Truman learned of the successful test
explosion of the atomic bomb and informed the other leaders of it. The United States,
Britain, and China then issued a statement threatening to destroy Japan unless it
surrendered unconditionally. In spite of the warning, Japan went on fighting.
On Aug. 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber called the Enola
Gay dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The
explosion killed from 70,000 to 100,000 people, it is estimated, and destroyed about 5
square miles (13 square kilometers). After Japanese leaders failed to respond to the
bombing, the United States dropped a larger bomb on Nagasaki on August 9. It killed about
40,000 people. Later, thousands more died of injuries and radiation from the two bombings.
Meanwhile, on August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria.
Soviet troops raced south toward Korea.
Victory in the Pacific. Although Japan's emperors had
traditionally stayed out of politics, Hirohito urged the government to surrender. On
August 14, Japan agreed to end the war. Some of the country's military leaders committed
On Sept. 2, 1945, representatives of Japan signed the
official statement of surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, which lay at anchor
in Tokyo Bay. Representatives of all the Allied nations were present. Truman declared
September 2 as V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day. World War II had ended.
The secret war
Throughout World War II, a secret war was fought between the Allies and the Axis to obtain
information about each other's activities and to weaken each other's war effort.
Codebreakers tried to decipher secret communications, and spies worked behind enemy lines
to gather information. Saboteurs tried to disrupt activities on the home front. Many
people in Axis-held territories joined undercover resistance groups that opposed the
occupying forces. All the warring nations used propaganda to influence public opinion.
The Ultra secret. Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Britain obtained, with the help
of Polish spies, one of the machines Germany used to code secret messages. In an
outstanding effort, British mathematicians and codebreakers solved the machine's
electronic coding procedures. Britain's ability to read many of Germany's wartime
communications was known as the Ultra secret. Ultra helped the Allies defeat Germany.
The Ultra secret played an important role in battle. During
the 1940 Battle of Britain, for example, Ultra supplied advance warning of where and when
the Luftwaffe planned to attack. Ultra also helped Montgomery defeat the Germans in Egypt
in 1942 by providing him with Rommel's battle plan. The British carefully guarded the
Ultra secret. They were extremely cautious about using their knowledge so that Germany
would not change its coding procedures. The Germans never discovered that Britain had
broken their code.
Spies and saboteurs were specially trained by the warring nations. Spies reported on troop
movements, defense build-ups, and other developments behind enemy lines. Spies of Allied
nations also supplied resistance groups with weapons and explosives. Saboteurs hampered
the enemy's war effort in any way they could. For example, they blew up factories and
bridges and organized slowdowns in war plants.
Germany had spies in many countries. But its efforts at spying were less successful in
general than those of the Allies. The U.S. government set up a wartime agency called the
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to engage in spying and sabotage. The OSS worked
closely with a similar British agency, the Special Operations Executive. The Soviet Union
operated networks of spies in Allied nations as well as in Germany and Japan.
Resistance groups sprang up in every Axis-occupied country. Resistance began with
individual acts of defiance against the occupiers. Gradually, like-minded people banded
together and worked in secret to overthrow the invaders. The activities of resistance
groups expanded as the war continued. Their work included publishing and distributing
illegal newspapers, rescuing Allied aircrews shot down behind enemy lines, gathering
information about the enemy, and sabotage.
In such countries as France, Yugoslavia, and Burma, resistance groups engaged in guerrilla
warfare. They organized bands of fighters who staged raids, ambushes, and other small
attacks against the occupation forces.
All resistance movements suffered many setbacks. But they also achieved outstanding
successes. For example, the French resistance interfered with German efforts to turn back
the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. Norwegian resistance workers destroyed a shipment
of heavy water headed for Germany. Heavy water is a substance needed in the production of
an atomic bomb. Yugoslavia had the most effective resistance movement of all--the
Partisans. With Allied help, the Partisans drove the Germans out of Yugoslavia in 1944.
Even in Germany itself, a small underground movement opposed the Nazis. In July 1944, a
group of German army officers planted a bomb intended to kill Hitler. However, Hitler
escaped the explosion with minor injuries. He ordered the plotters arrested and executed.
The risks of joining the resistance were great. A resistance worker caught by the Nazis
faced certain death. The Germans sometimes rounded up and executed hundreds of civilians
in revenge for an act of sabotage against their occupation forces.
Propaganda. All the warring nations used propaganda to win support for their policies.
Governments aimed propaganda at their own people and at the enemy. Radio broadcasts
reached the largest audiences. Motion pictures, posters, and cartoons were also used for
The Nazis skillfully used propaganda to spread their beliefs. Joseph Goebbels directed
Germany's Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment, which controlled publications, radio
programs, motion pictures, and the arts in Germany and German-occupied Europe. The
ministry worked to persuade people of the superiority of German culture and of Germany's
right to rule the world. After the war began to go badly for the Axis, the Germans claimed
that they were saving the world from the evils of Communism.
Mussolini stirred the Italians with dreams of restoring
Italy to the glory of ancient Rome. Italy's propaganda also ridiculed the fighting ability
of Allied soldiers.
Japan promised conquered peoples a share in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,
which would unite all eastern Asia under Japanese control. Using the slogan "Asia for
the Asians," the Japanese claimed that they were freeing Asia from European rule.
Nightly newscasts beamed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to the European
mainland provided truthful information about the day's fighting. The Nazis made it a crime
for people in Germany and German-held lands to listen to BBC broadcasts.
The U.S. government established the Office of War Information (OWI) to encourage American
support for the war effort. The agency told Americans that they were fighting for a better
world. In 1942, the Voice of America, a government radio service, began broadcasting to
The warring countries also engaged in psychological warfare intended to destroy the
enemy's will to fight. American planes dropped leaflets over Germany that told of Nazi
defeats. The Axis nations employed a few traitors who broadcast radio programs to weaken
the morale of Allied soldiers. For example, Mildred Gillars, an American known as
"Axis Sally," made broadcasts for Germany. Another American, Iva D'Aquino, who
was called "Tokyo Rose," broadcast for Japan. Such broadcasts merely amused most
On the home front
World War II affected the civilian populations of all the fighting nations. But the
effects were extremely uneven. Much of Europe and large parts of Asia suffered widespread
destruction and severe hardship. The United States and Canada, which lay far from the
battlefronts, were spared most of the horror of war. North America, in fact, prospered
during World War II.
In the United States and Canada, most people fully backed the war effort. Nearly all
Americans and Canadians despised Nazism and wished to defeat it. Americans sought also to
avenge the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Producing for the war. Victory in World War II required an enormous amount of war
materials, including huge numbers of ships, tanks, aircraft, and weapons. The United
States and Canada built many plants to manufacture war goods. They also turned old
factories into war plants. For example, automobile factories began to produce tanks and
The United States astonished the world with its wartime output. Roosevelt called for the
production of 60,000 aircraft during 1942--a goal many industrialists believed was
impossible to achieve. Yet U.S. war plants turned out nearly 86,000 planes the following
year. Shipbuilding gains were just as impressive. For example, the time needed to build an
aircraft carrier dropped from 36 months in 1941 to 15 months in 1945.
Canada also greatly expanded its output during World War II. Wartime expansion made Canada
a leading industrial power by the war's end.
Millions of women in the United States and Canada joined the labor force during World War
II, after men left for combat. Women worked in shipyards and aircraft factories and filled
many jobs previously held only by men. The number of working women in the United States
climbed from about 15 million in 1941 to about 19 million in 1945. Canadian women replaced
men on farms as well as in factories. They helped raise the crops that fed Allied troops.
New opportunities opened up for American blacks during World War II. In 1941, Roosevelt
created the Fair Employment Practices Committee to prevent job discrimination in U.S.
defense industries. Large numbers of Southern blacks moved to the North to work in war
Mobilizing for the war. The United States introduced its first peacetime draft in
September 1940. Under the draft law, all men aged 21 through 35 were required to register
for military service. The draft was later extended to men 18 through 44. More than 15
million American men served in the armed forces during World War II. About 10 million were
drafted. The rest volunteered. About 338,000 women served in the U.S. armed forces. They
worked as mechanics, drivers, clerks, and cooks and also filled many other noncombat
Canada also expanded its armed forces greatly during World War II. At the outbreak of the
war, the Canadian government promised not to draft men for service overseas. Canada relied
on volunteers for overseas duty until November 1944. By then, it suffered from a severe
shortage of troops and began to send draftees overseas. More than a million Canadians,
including about 50,000 women, served in the armed forces during the war.
Financing the war. The U.S. and Canadian governments paid for the costs of World War II in
several ways. In one major method, they borrowed from individuals and businesses by
selling them war bonds, certificates, notes, and stamps. The United States government
raised nearly $180 billion from such sales. Canada's government also raised several
Taxes also helped pay for World War II. Income increased tremendously during the war
years. As a result, revenue from income taxes soared. In the United States, the tax rate
on the highest incomes reached 94 per cent. The government also taxed entertainment and
such luxury goods as cosmetics and jewelry. Corporations paid extra taxes on
higher-than-normal profits. Canadians also paid increased taxes during the war.
In spite of greater borrowing and higher taxes, the U.S. and Canadian governments spent
more than they raised to pay for the war. In the United States, the national debt
increased from about $49 billion in 1941 to $259 billion in 1945. Canada's national debt
rose from $4 billion in 1939 to $16 billion in 1945.
Government controls over civilian life in the United States and Canada expanded during
World War II. In both countries, the national government established various agencies to
direct the war effort on the home front. The agencies helped prevent skyrocketing prices,
severe shortages, and production foul-ups. The War Production Board, for example,
controlled the distribution of raw materials needed by U.S. industries. The Office of
Price Administration limited price increases in the United States. It also set up a
rationing program to distribute scarce goods fairly. Each family received a book of ration
coupons to use for purchases of such items as sugar, meat, butter, and gasoline.
Canada's government had even greater wartime powers. For example, the National Selective
Service controlled Canada's work force. It forbade men of military age to hold jobs it
termed "nonessential." Such jobs included driving a taxi or selling real estate.
Canada's Wartime Prices and Trade Board determined wages and prices and set up a rationing
Treatment of enemy aliens. During World War II, the U.S. government classified more than a
million newly arrived immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Japan as enemy aliens. However,
only the Japanese were treated unjustly. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, some Americans
directed their rage at people of Japanese ancestry. In 1942, anti-Japanese hysteria led
the U.S. government to move about 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry to
inland relocation camps. They lost their homes and their jobs as a result. About
two-thirds of them were citizens of the United States. Canada also relocated about 21,000
people of Japanese ancestry during the war.
In Germany, most of the people greeted the start of World War II with little enthusiasm.
But Germany's string of easy victories from 1939 to mid-1941 stirred support for the war.
By the summer of 1941, the Germans did not expect the war to last much longer.
Civilian life. Food, clothing, and other consumer goods remained plentiful in Germany
during the early years of the war. Imports poured in from Nazi-occupied countries of
Europe. The Allied bombing of Germany got off to a slow start and did little damage at
Germany's situation had changed by late 1942. The armed forces bogged down in the Soviet
Union, and there were fewer reports of German victories to cheer the people. Allied bombs
rained down day and night on German cities. Consumer goods became scarce. Yet the people
continued to work hard for the war effort.
The Nazi terror. Hitler's dreaded secret police, the Gestapo, ruthlessly crushed
opposition to the Nazi Party. The Gestapo arrested anyone suspected of opposing Nazism in
Germany and in German-held territories.
To free German men for combat, the Gestapo recruited workers from occupied countries.
Millions of Europeans were eventually forced to work long hours under terrible conditions
in German war plants. Many died of mistreatment or starvation.
The Nazis brutally persecuted several groups, including Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs. By 1942,
Hitler had started a campaign to murder all European Jews. The Nazis rounded up Jewish
men, women, and children from occupied Europe and shipped them in boxcars to concentration
camps. Many Jews were mowed down by firing squads or killed in groups in gas chambers.
Others died from lack of food, disease, or torture. Altogether, Hitler's forces killed
approximately 6 million European Jews. About 4 million of these people died in
concentration camps. The Nazis also slaughtered many Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, and members of
In other countries, conditions on the home front depended on the nearness of the fighting
and on the length of the war effort. Conditions were especially difficult in the Soviet
Union, where fierce fighting went on for nearly four years. Stalin ordered retreating
Soviet soldiers to burn everything in their path that German troops could use for food or
shelter. But that scorched-earth policy also caused great hardships for the Soviet people.
Millions of Soviet civilians died of famine and other war-related causes. In Ukraine and
areas occupied by the Soviet Union, many of the people at first welcomed the conquering
German troops. They believed that the Germans would deliver them from Stalin's harsh rule.
But the cruelty of the Nazi occupation forces turned the people against them. During World
War II, civilians and soldiers in the Soviet Union fought the Germans with a hatred and
determination seldom matched elsewhere in Europe.
The civilian population of Britain also united wholeheartedly behind the war effort. The
people worked long hours in war plants and accepted severe shortages of nearly all goods.
Prime Minister Churchill inspired the British people with his stirring words.
Life was especially hard in the countries under Nazi rule. Germany looted the conquered
lands to feed its own people and fuel its war effort. Opponents of Nazism lived in
constant fear of Gestapo brutality.
Japan came closest to collapse of all the warring nations. As the Allies closed in, they
deprived Japan of more and more of the raw materials needed by the country's industries.
American bombers pounded Japan's cities, and American submarines sank Japanese cargo
ships. By 1945, hunger and malnutrition were widespread in Japan. But the Japanese people
remained willing to make enormous sacrifices for the war effort.
Consequences of the war
Deaths and destruction. World War II took more lives and caused more destruction than any
other war. Altogether, about 70 million people served in the armed forces of the Allied
and Axis nations. About 17 million of them lost their lives. The Soviet Union suffered
about 71/2 million battle deaths, more than any other country. The United States and Great
Britain had the fewest battle deaths of the major powers. About 400,000 American and about
350,000 British military personnel died in the war. Germany lost about 31/2 million
servicemen, and Japan about 11/4 million.
Aerial bombing during World War II rained destruction on civilian as well as military
targets. Many cities lay in ruins by the end of the war, especially in Germany and Japan.
Bombs wrecked houses, factories, and transportation and communication systems. Land
battles also spread destruction over vast areas. After the war, millions of starving and
homeless people wandered among the ruins of Europe and Asia.
No one knows how many civilians died as a direct result of World War II. Bombing raids
destroyed many of the records needed to estimate those deaths. In addition, millions of
people died in fires, of diseases, and of other causes after such essential services as
fire fighting and health care broke down in war-torn areas.
The Soviet Union and China suffered the highest toll of civilian deaths during World War
II. About 19 million Soviet civilians and as many as 10 million Chinese civilians died.
Many of the deaths resulted from famine.
Displaced persons. World War II uprooted millions of people.
By the war's end, more than 12 million displaced persons remained in Europe. They included
orphans, prisoners of war, survivors of Nazi concentration and slave labor camps, and
people who had fled invading armies and war-torn areas. Other people were displaced by
changes in national borders. For example, many Germans moved into Poland, Czechoslovakia,
and other lands in eastern Europe that the Nazis took over. After the war, those countries
expelled these German residents.
To help displaced persons, the Allies established the United Nations Relief and
Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). UNRRA began operating in 1944 in areas freed by the
Allies from Nazi occupation. The organization set up camps for displaced persons and
provided them with food, clothing, and medical supplies. By 1947, most of the displaced
persons had been resettled. However, about a million people still remained in camps. Many
had fled from countries in eastern Europe and refused to return to homelands that had come
under Communist rule.
New power struggles arose after World War II ended. The war had exhausted the leading
prewar powers of Europe and Asia. Germany and Japan ended the war in complete defeat, and
Britain and France were severely weakened. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged
as the world's leading powers. Their wartime alliance soon collapsed as the Soviet Union
sought to spread Communism in Europe and Asia. The struggle between the Communist world,
led by the Soviet Union, and the non-Communist world, led by the United States, became
known as the Cold War.
The United States had fought the Axis to preserve democracy. After the war, Americans
found it impossible to return to the policy of isolation their country had followed before
the war. Americans realized that they needed strong allies, and they helped the war-torn
World War II had united the Soviet people behind a great patriotic effort. The Soviet
Union came out of the war stronger than ever before, in spite of the severe destruction it
had suffered. Before the war ended, the Soviet Union had absorbed three nations along the
Baltic Sea--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It had also taken parts of Poland, Romania,
Finland, and Czechoslovakia by mid-1945. At the end of the war, Soviet troops occupied
most of eastern Europe. In March 1946, Churchill warned that an "iron curtain"
had descended across Europe, dividing eastern Europe from western Europe. Behind the Iron
Curtain, the Soviet Union helped Communist governments take power in Bulgaria,
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.
Communism also gained strength in the Far East. The Soviet Union set up a Communist
government in North Korea after the war. In China, Mao Zedong's Communist forces battled
Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies. Late in 1949, Chiang fled to the island of Taiwan,
and China joined the Communist world.
By 1947, Communists threatened to take control of Greece, and the Soviet Union was
demanding military bases in Turkey. That year, President Truman announced that the United
States would provide military and economic aid to any country threatened by Communism.
American aid helped Greece and Turkey resist Communist aggression.
In 1948, the United States set up the Marshall Plan to help war-torn nations in Europe
rebuild their economies. Under the plan, 18 nations received $13 billion in food,
machinery, and other goods. The Soviet Union forbade countries in eastern Europe to
participate in the Marshall Plan.
The nuclear age opened with the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Many
people believed that weapons capable of mass destruction would make war unthinkable in the
future. They hoped that the world would learn to live in peace. But a race to develop ever
more powerful weapons soon began.
At the end of World War II, only the United States knew how to build an atomic weapon. In
1946, the United States proposed the creation of an international agency that would
control atomic energy and ban the production of nuclear weapons. But the Soviet Union
objected to an inspection system, and the proposal was dropped. Stalin ordered Soviet
scientists to develop an atomic bomb, and they succeeded in 1949. During the early 1950's,
the United States and the Soviet Union each tested an even more destructive weapon, the
People have feared a nuclear war since the nuclear age began. At times, Cold War tensions
threatened to erupt into war between the two superpowers. But the terrifying
destructiveness of nuclear weapons may well have kept them from risking a major war.
Establishing the peace
Birth of the United Nations (UN). Out of the horror of World War II came efforts to
prevent war from ever again engulfing the world. In 1943, representatives of the United
States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China met in Moscow. They agreed to establish
an international organization that would work to promote peace. The four Allied powers met
again in 1944 at Dumbarton Oaks, an estate in Washington, D.C. The delegates decided to
call the new organization the United Nations. In April 1945, representatives from 50
nations gathered in San Francisco, Calif., to draft a charter for the United Nations. They
signed the charter in June, and it went into effect on October 24.
Peace with Germany. Before World War II ended, the Allies had decided on a military
occupation of Germany after its defeat. They divided Germany into four zones, with the
United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France each occupying a zone. The four
powers jointly administered Berlin.
At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Allies set forth their occupation policy. They
agreed to abolish Germany's armed forces and to outlaw the Nazi Party. Germany lost
territory east of the Oder and Neisse rivers. Most of the region went to Poland. The
Soviet Union gained the northeastern corner of this territory.
The Allies brought to trial Nazi leaders accused of war crimes. The trials exposed the
monstrous evils inflicted by Nazi Germany. Many leading Nazis were sentenced to death. The
most important war trials took place in the German city of Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949.
Soon after the occupation began, the Soviet Union stopped cooperating with its Western
Allies. It blocked all efforts to reunite Germany. The Western Allies gradually joined
their zones into one economic unit. But the Soviet Union forbade its zone to join.
The city of Berlin lay deep within the Soviet zone of Germany. In June 1948, the Soviet
Union sought to drive the Western powers from Berlin by blocking all rail, water, and
highway routes to the city. For over a year, the Western Allies flew in food, fuel, and
other goods to Berlin. The Soviet Union finally lifted the Berlin blockade in May 1949,
and the airlift ended in September.
The Western Allies set up political parties in their zones and held elections. In
September 1949, the three Western zones were officially combined as the Federal Republic
of Germany, also known as West Germany. In May 1955, the Western Allies signed a treaty
ending the occupation of West Germany, and granting the country full independence.
However, the treaty was not a general peace treaty because the Soviet Union refused to
sign it. The Soviet Union set up a Communist government in its zone. In October 1949, the
Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic, also called East Germany.
In September 1990, the Soviet Union and the Western Allies signed a treaty to give up all
their occupation rights in East and West Germany. In October 1990, Germany was reunited as
a non-Communist nation.
Peace with Japan. The military occupation of Japan began in August 1945. Americans far
outnumbered other troops in the occupation forces because of the key role their country
had played in defeating Japan. General MacArthur directed the occupation as supreme
commander for the Allied nations. He introduced many reforms designed to rid Japan of its
military institutions and transform it into a democracy. A Constitution drawn up by
MacArthur's staff took effect in 1947. The Constitution transferred all political rights
from the Japanese emperor to the people. In addition, the Constitution granted voting
rights to women, and denied Japan's right to declare war.
The Allied occupation forces brought to trial 25 Japanese war leaders and government
officials who were accused of war crimes. Seven of these individuals were executed. The
others received prison sentences.
In September 1951, the United States and most of the other Allied nations signed a peace
treaty with Japan. The treaty took away Japan's overseas empire. But it permitted Japan to
rearm. The Allied occupation of Japan ended soon after the nations signed the peace
treaty. However, a new treaty permitted the United States to keep troops in Japan. China's
Nationalist government signed its own peace treaty with Japan in 1952, and the Soviet
Union and Japan also signed a separate peace treaty in 1956.
Peace with other countries. Soon after World War II ended, the Allies began to draw up
peace treaties with Italy and four other countries that had fought with the
Axis--Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, and Romania. The treaties limited the armed forces of
the defeated countries and required them to pay war damages. The treaties also called for
territorial changes. Bulgaria gave up territory to Greece and Yugoslavia. Czechoslovakia
gained land from Hungary. Finland lost territory to the Soviet Union. Italy gave up land
to France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The country also lost its empire in Africa. Romania
gained territory from Hungary, but in turn it lost land to Bulgaria and the Soviet Union.
The Warring Nations
Name Date Entered War
Argentina March 27, 1945
Australia Sept. 3, 1939
Belgium May 10, 1940
Bolivia April 7, 1943
Brazil Aug. 22, 1942
Canada Sept. 10, 1939
Chile Feb. 14, 1945
China Dec. 9, 1941
Colombia Nov. 26, 1943
Costa Rica Dec. 8, 1941
Cuba Dec. 9, 1941
Czechoslovakia Dec. 16, 1941
Denmark April 9, 1940
Dominican Republic Dec. 8, 1941
Ecuador Feb. 2, 1945
Egypt Feb. 24, 1945
El Salvador Dec. 8, 1941
Ethiopia Dec. 1, 1942
France Sept. 3, 1939
Great Britain Sept. 3, 1939
Greece Oct. 28, 1940
Guatemala Dec. 9, 1941
Haiti Dec. 8, 1941
Honduras Dec. 8, 1941
India Sept. 3, 1939
Iran Sept. 9, 1943
Iraq Jan. 16, 1943
Lebanon Feb. 27, 1945
Liberia Jan. 26, 1944
Luxembourg May 10, 1940
Mexico May 22, 1942
Mongolian People's Republic Aug. 9, 1945
Netherlands May 10, 1940
New Zealand Sept. 3, 1939
Nicaragua Dec. 8, 1941
Norway April 9, 1940
Panama Dec. 7, 1941
Paraguay Feb. 8, 1945
Peru Feb. 11, 1945
Poland Sept. 1, 1939
San Marino Sept 24, 1944
Saudi Arabia March 1, 1945
South Africa Sept. 6, 1939
Soviet Union June 22, 1941
Syria Feb. 26, 1945
Turkey Feb. 23, 1945
United States Dec. 8, 1941
Uruguay Feb. 22, 1945
Venezuela Feb. 16, 1945
Yugoslavia April 6, 1941
Albania June 15, 1940
Bulgaria April 6, 1941
Finland June 25, 1941
Germany Sept. 1, 1939
Hungary April 10, 1941
Italy June 10, 1940
Japan Dec. 7, 1941
Romania June 22, 1941
Thailand Jan. 25, 1942
Important Dates in Europe and Northern Africa:
Sept. 1 Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II.
Sept. 3 Britain and France declared war on Germany.
April 9 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway.
May 10 Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands.
June 10 Italy declared war on France and Great Britain.
June 22 France signed an armistice with Germany.
July 10 Battle of Britain began.
April 6 Germany invaded Greece and Yugoslavia.
June 22 Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Sept. 8 German troops completed the blockade of Leningrad, which lasted
until January 1944.
Aug. 25 Hitler ordered his forces to capture Stalingrad.
Oct. 23 Britain attacked the Axis at El Alamein in Egypt.
Nov. 8 Allied troops landed in Algeria and Morocco.
Important Dates in Europe and Northern Africa:
Feb. 2 The last Germans surrendered at Stalingrad.
May 13 Axis forces in northern Africa surrendered.
July 4 Germany opened an assault near the Soviet city of Kursk.
July 10 Allied forces invaded Sicily.
Sept. 3 Italy secretly surrendered to the Allies.
Sept. 9 Allied troops landed at Salerno, Italy.
June 6 Allied troops landed in Normandy in the D-Day invasion of
July 20 A plot to assassinate Hitler failed.
Dec. 16 The Germans struck back at U.S. troops in the Battle of the
April 30 Hitler took his life in Berlin.
May 7 Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in Reims,
France, ending World War II in Europe.
Important Dates in the Pacific: 1941-1942
Dec. 7 Japan bombed U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Dec. 8 The United States, Great Britain, and Canada declared war on
Feb. 15 Singapore fell to the Japanese.
Feb. 26-28 Japan defeated an Allied naval force in the Battle of the
April 9 U.S. and Philippine troops on Bataan Peninsula surrendered.
April 18 U.S. bombers hit Tokyo in the Doolittle raid.
May 4-8 The Allies checked a Japanese assault in the Battle of the Coral
June 4-6 The Allies defeated Japan in the Battle of Midway.
Aug. 7 U.S. marines landed on Guadalcanal.
Important Dates in the Pacific: 1943-1945
Nov. 20 U.S. forces invaded Tarawa.
June 19-20 A U.S. naval force defeated the Japanese in the Battle of the
July 18 Japan's Prime Minister Tojo resigned.
Oct. 20 The Allies began landing in the Philippines.
Oct. 23-26 The Allies defeated Japan's navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf
in the Philippines.
March 16 U.S. marines captured Iwo Jima.
June 21 Allied forces captured Okinawa.
Aug. 6 An atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Aug. 8 The Soviet Union declared war on Japan.
Aug. 9 An atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Aug. 14 Japan agreed to surrender unconditionally.
Sept. 2 Japan signed surrender terms aboard the battleship U.S.S.
Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Military Casualties in World War II (1939-1945)
Source: James L. Stokesbury, author of A Short History of World War II.
Country Dead Wounded
Australia 23,365 39,803
Belgium 7,760 14,500
Canada 37,476 53,174
China 2,200,000 1,762,000
France 210,671 390,000
Great Britain 329,208 348,403
Poland 320,000 530,000
Soviet Union 7,500,000 5,000,000
United States 405,399 671,278
Austria 380,000 350,117
Bulgaria 10,000 21,878
Finland 82,000 50,000
Germany 3,500,000 7,250,000
Hungary 140,000 89,313
Italy 77,494 120,000
Japan 1,219,000 295,247