§1 The build-up
The Italian Benito Mussolini, having been converted to socialism in Switzerland when he fled there to avoid military service, riled up the Italians in the early 1910s. As a socialist, he wanted to overthrow the European monarchies, and had supported World War I. His socialist allies, who were anti-war, abandoned him. This led him to support fascism. The political landscape in Italy was begging for a shake-up. They had not profited from WWI as much as they had wanted, and their economy was poor. Fascism promised solutions, and grew in power until Mussolini and his mob forced the king to make him Prime Minister in 1922. Europe’s tide of fascism had begun.
Germany was in an even worse state than Italy. The Treaty of Versailles had imposed harsh restrictions after WWI, influenced by President Wilson. Militarily, they could only have an army of 100,000, with no air force. Territorially, they lost land and had to demilitarise the Rhineland, an area of Germany adjacent to France. But most impactful was the economic cost of reparations – 132 billion gold marks, which after a massive war, Germany didn’t have. Germany’s response was to print more money, which caused hyper-inflation and crippled their economy. Again, fascism promised solutions, promoted by Adolf Hitler, a persuasive orator, a vehement patriot and a veteran from WWI. After a false start involving a failed coup and arrest, he was made chancellor.
The final Axis power was Japan, whose economy was also failing owing to the “Unequal Treaties” imposed upon them by the West, mainly in countering Japanese isolationism. Japan had invaded China, but was stopped by the West, who then took China’s territory themselves. Japan responded by going to war with Russia and took control of Manchuria.
All of these imperial/fascist countries were expansionist, whether they needed more land for economic reasons, or for resources, or because they needed more room for what they considered to be the superior race.
While this was brewing, the Allies, the group of countries led by Britain and France, had been led by peacetime leaders, and so when Hitler began to ignore the Treaty of Versailles, they did nothing. The German military grew stronger, with far more that 100,000 soldiers and an air force, the Luftwaffe. The Allies responded with a policy of appeasement, allowing Hitler to take what he wanted, namely, militarisation of the Rhineland, and the territories of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Mussolini, for his part, occupied Albania and expanded into Africa, taking Abyssinia. Japan pushed further into China, taking Nanking, Beijing, and Shanghai.
§2 The Trigger
Finally, Hitler turned his sights to Poland, which the Allies had promised they would go to war over if it was invaded. Hitler, confident in his army, was not worried, about war, but did worry about a war on two fronts, fighting both Western Europe and Russia, so he made a non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin, the leader of Soviet Russia. Stalin and Hitler carved up Poland, who put up valiant resistance under the behemoths of Germany and Russia. This finally led to the Allies declaring war.
§3 The War
Early Axis Gains
For a while, little happened. The French launched the Saar Offensive into the Rhineland, but nothing came of it. France was not in the best position militarily – their army was outdated, using horses, with very few inspections. They had fortified their border with Germany, known as the Maginot line, but they were undefended on their border with neutral Belgium. Britain was also floundering. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, a champion of appeasement, still hoped for a diplomatic resolution. He ordered not bombing raids, but planes to drop propaganda leaflets over Germany, and mobilised what was relatively only a handful of men.
Britain and France, not wanting to jeopardise their own territories, looked for a front in Scandinavia, where the neutral Sweden was supplying the Germans iron, mainly via Norway. Meanwhile, Russia attacked Finland. Hitler, wanting to secure his iron, invaded Norway through Denmark. After this, Chamberlain resigned, with Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, ending British attempts at diplomacy.
To circumvent the Maginot line, Hitler launched an invasion of Belgium (who had refused to have Allied troops stationed there) and the Netherlands, into France. Hitler surprised the Allies by pushing into the Ardennes, an area which France neglected to defend properly, relying on the hills to dissuade Hitler. This movement allowed a massive encirclement movement, stranding the Allies at Dunkirk. Churchill ordered mass evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, using both military and civilian ships. With no or little Allied presence in France, it fell.
In other fronts, Finland was shockingly beating Russia, and the Allies were trying to rein in some former French territories in Africa who now supported Germany. Italy tried to invade Egypt and Greece, but failed, although they did take British Somalia.
With Britain stubbornly not surrendering, Hitler began planning an invasion. For that, he needed air superiority in the channel. The Luftwaffe began to destroy Royal Air Force bases, until Churchill ordered a small bombing raid on Berlin. This enraged Hitler so much that he ordered the Luftwaffe to attacked civilian targets in the UK, allowing the RAF to recover. In addition to revenge, Hitler hoped to force a surrender by breaking British morale, but had little success. The RAF began to fight back, giving air control back to the British. With the air battle lost, the invasion plans stagnated.
Churchill, now that Britain had more breathing room, was taking notice of Italy’s failures in Greece and Egypt, and began to plan for an invasion into Italy, which he now called “Europe’s soft underbelly”. British soldiers began deployment into Greece. Hitler, with little confidence in Italy now, began to expand South, with Hungary and Romania joining the Axis powers. As Britain gained power in Africa, Hitler rushed to move men to Greece, through Axis Bulgaria and resisting Yugoslavia, taking Greece for the Axis powers. Simultaneously, the British were pushed back in Egypt.
Now, with the West subdued, Hitler began Operation Barbarossa in 1941, an invasion of the Soviet Union, which Stalin was not prepared for. Hitler rushed into Russia, using “Blitzkrieg”, or “lightning storm” tactics, encircling the floundering Russian troops and decimating them. This tactic was destroying about half a million Soviet troops each use. Hitler, seeing the Russians as ethnically inferior, was brutal in occupation. This continued until the Germans encroached upon Moscow. At last, what the Russians had been waiting for, came. The winter of 1941 was particularly cold, and Hitler was not prepared, having planned for Russian surrender by now. Despite peas from his officers to wait till spring, Hitler ordered progress. The German troops, with no winter clothes and oil freezing in their vehicles, began to falter as the Russians found their feet and Siberian cold-weather troops began to arrive.
Japan was now looking for new land. They turned their eyes to the South, towards the colonies of America and the British. However, they knew their navy could not hope to win against these superpowers. Pre-emptively, they attacked the American navy in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. America was not yet involved, although they were supplying the Allies with weapons, prompting German boats to patrol the Atlantic and sink supply ships. Here British intelligence won, as Alan Turing and GCHQ cracked the Enigma code which allowed the Allies to combat the German U-boats. The American involvement gave the Allies more weapons and planes, allowing for more bombing raids on German cities.
The Japanese did a lot of damage to the ships themselves, but neglected to take out the boat repair yards. Simultaneously, they launched an attack on British holdings in Malaya and Hong Kong. This prompted America and Britain to declare war on Japan, and Germany on America. While the American navy was repairing, Japan swept through the Pacific, pushing through to as far as Borneo, the Solomons, and were threatening Australia.
The Allied Resurgence
Back in the Eastern front, Hitler now planned to move South to the oil fields of the Caucasus. To cut off the Russian troops’ retreat, the 6th Panzer Army moved into Stalingrad. For such a task Hitler should have sent more, but he still fervently believed in the Russians’ inferiority. Stalingrad battled against the Germans for five months, allowing the Russians time to reinforce the front with new tanks from the relocated factories. With these reinforcements, they encircled the Germans, forcing the surrender of the entire 6th Army. Beforehand, Hitler could’ve listened to advice to retreat, but again he acted against the urgings of his commanders. By now, the new Russian factories had pumped out enough planes to hand air superiority to the Soviets. This allowed Russia to regain lost territory.
On other fronts, the bombing on Germany was devastating the country, and the British made gains in Egypt. With more American and British troops advancing from the West, the Allies took control of the African Mediterranean.
Japan was also seeing losses. They met the Americans at the island of Midway, and lost a lot of their ships. Their expansion was held at Myanmar and in the South-East they were pushed back.
Now the Allies began to focus on an invasion of Europe. There were two options: from the North, in France, or from the South, in Italy. First, they tried to invade from the South. Britain launched Operation Mincemeat, which involved the dropping of a supposed corpse of a RAF pilot for the Axis forces to find, complete with fake documents, saying that the Allies were going to attack from Greece and Sardinia. So, when the Allies attacked in Sicily in 1943, the Italians were unprepared. The Italians were now less happy with the war, with Italy losing territory and bombing raids on Rome, and they overthrew Mussolini. One Axis power down. Hitler had anticipated this and had sent troops to reinforce Italy. The Allies made progress about halfway up the peninsula, before slowing as winter set in.
With the Southern invasion faltering, the Allies got ready to launch an invasion of France. Allied intelligence deceived Hitler into thinking that they would attack at Calais, when in reality they were planning to attack the less well defended Normandy. At last, when the weather turned for the better, the Allies’ masterplan came into motion. British SOE agents and resistance movements around Europe sabotaged roads, connection lines, vehicles, and supply chains, bombers launched raids on Normandy, and paratroopers were dropped. Next, the navy shelled fortifications and finally, the landings began on five beaches. D-Day had started. With a beachhead established, the Allies moved to take Brittany and encircled the 7th Army. Paris, and later France, was liberated. The Allies pushed on into the Netherlands and the Rhineland.
At the same time Japan was losing ground to the Americans in the Pacific. Each Japanese contingent on each island fought to the last man. Then, the Americans began to firebomb the Japanese heartland.
Hitler was getting desperate, and in a last ditch attempt, he gathered his forces and hit at the Ardennes, making progress but using up vast resources. This couldn’t last, and the Germans were once again pushed back. Now, with Germany being eaten up on two sides, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker as the Russians took Berlin. Two Axis powers down.
The last power, Japan, did not culturally accept suicide, and preferred honourable death in battle. They fought fiercely and launched kamikaze attacks of bombers against the Americans’ ships. America realised that Japan would continue doing this for as long as they could, causing many lives to be lost. To force a surrender, they had to show Japan that their position was unwinnable. To this end, they launched the infamous atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August, reducing them to rubble and ash. This achieved their goal – Japan surrendered in September.
All three Axis powers were defeated.
§4 The Aftermath
- Japan was occupied and became more westernised.
- Germany was divided into British, French, American, and Soviet zones. Later the British, French, and American zones unified into West Germany.
- ~70-85million were killed.
- Two superpowers emerged, the USA and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets having an array of vassal states in Eastern Europe.
- The world was harrowed by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, prompting many countries around the world to develop their own nuclear deterrents.
§5 Why did the Allies Win?
The most concise way of explaining why the Allies won the Second World War is this:
British intelligence was instrumental in almost every move: in countering the German Atlantic patrols, in Operation Mincemeat, and in D-Day.
America provided a massive supply of ships, planes, and weapons for the Allies, getting rich of it, and keeping the front alive.
Russia/Soviet Union kept the majority of Hitler’s forces occupied in Russia and suffered largely as a result.
There were other reasons though: for example, the British morale in not surrendering to the German bombing raids, and providing the USA with an unsinkable aircraft carrier and keeping the African fronts alive. Another reason was Hitler’s personality – repeatedly ignoring his generals’ advice.
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written by A.P.