World War II

World War II, which began in 1939 and ended in 1945, was the deadliest and most destructive war in history. Before the war, Germany, America, and the rest of the world were going through the Great Depression. The economy was very bad, unemployment was at an all-time high, and massive inflation caused money to lose its value. More than fifty nations in the world were fighting, with more than 100 million soldiers deployed. Countries like America and Britain were part of the Allied powers. Japan and Germany were part of the Axis powers.

Second World War was fought from 1939 to 1945. It was started in Europe in earnest on September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, and concluded on September 2, 1945, with the official surrender of the last Axis nation, Japan. However, in Asia the war began earlier with Japanese interventions in China, and in Europe, the war ended earlier with the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945.

The origins of the Second World War are generally viewed as being traced back to the First World War (1914-1918). In that war Germany under the ultra-nationalistic Kaiser Wilhelm II along with its allies, had been defeated by a combination of the United Kingdom, United States, France, Russia and others. The war was directly blamed by the victors on the militant nationalism of the Kaiser's Germany; it was Germany that effectively started the war with an attack on France through Belgium. France, which had suffered a previous defeat at the hands of Prussia (a state that merged one year later with others to form Germany) in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, demanded revenge for its financial devastation during the First World War (and its humiliation in the earlier war) ensured that the various peace treaties, specifically the Treaty of Versailles imposed tough financial reparations and restrictions on Germany.

A new democratic German republic, known as the Weimar Republic, came into being. After some success it was hit by hyperinflation and other serious economic problems. Right wing nationalist elements under a variety of movements, but most notably the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler, sought to blame Germany's "humiliating" status on the harshness of the post-war settlement, on the weakness of democratic government, and on the Jews, whom it claimed possessed a financial stranglehold on Germany. Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler (Chancellor) on January 30, 1933, by the aged President von Hindenburg. Hitler's government exercised much of its power through the special emergency powers possessed by the President under the constitution. Under a further disastrous clause in the Weimar constitution when the President died, his office was temporarily assumed by the Chancellor. Hitler ensured his possession of the presidential powers became permanent and so gained dictatorial control over Germany.

The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War I. Anarchists were endemic, Communist and other Socialist agitators abounded among the trade unions, and many were gravely worried that a Bolshevik-style Communist revolution was imminent. After a number of liberal governments failed to rein in these threats, Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III invited right-wing politician Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party to form a government in 1922, following their largely symbolic Marca su Roma (March on Rome). Within a few years, Mussolini had consolidated dictatorial power, and Italy became a police state. Meanwhile in Germany, once political consolidation (Gleichschaltung) was in place, the Nazis turned their attention to foreign policy with several increasingly daring acts.

On March 16, 1935, the Versailles Treaty was violated as Hitler ordered Germany to re-arm. Germany also reintroduced military conscription (the treaty stated that the German Army should not exceed 100,000 men).

These steps produced nothing more than official protests from Britain and France, for they were more serious about enforcing the economic provisions of the treaty than its military restrictions. Many Brits felt the restrictions placed on Germany in Versailles had been too harsh, and they believed that Hitler's aim was simply to undo the extremes of the treaty, not to go beyond that. Faced with no opposition, Hitler moved troops into the Rhineland on March 7, 1936. Under the Versailles treaty, the Rhineland should have been demilitarized, for France wanted it for a buffer between herself and Germany. But, as before, Hitler's defiance was met with inaction.
The first German conquest was Austria. After Italy had joined the Anti-Comintern Pact, thereby removing the main obstacle of a Anschluss of Austria, Germany announced the annexation on March 12, 1938, making it a German province: "Gau Ostmark." With Austria secured, Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. His first order of business was to seize the Sudetenland, a mountainous area in northeast part of the country.

Italy, facing opposition to its wars in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from the League of Nations, forged an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn from the League in 1933. In May of 1939, Italy and Germany thus formed the Pact of Steel, which deepened their alliance and established a Rome-Berlin "Axis."

Several months after Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, on August 23, 1939, a fateful meeting occurred in Moscow between German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Afterward, they announced publicly that Germany and the USSR had signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact to prevent hostilities between the two countries.

However, the ministers kept secret the fact that, in addition to agreeing not to attack each other, Germany and the USSR had also agreed to overrun the countries that lay between them. Specifically, they agreed that Germany and the USSR would each take over one half of Poland, with a further provision that the USSR would take over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia without German interference.

Germany’s invasion of Poland came quickly and with overwhelming force. The attack began on September 1, 1939, with heavy air strikes followed by a rapidly advancing ground invasion. Hitler referred to the strategy as blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” The object of the blitzkrieg strategy was to shock the opponent so severely that there would be little resistance, allowing the country to be overrun quickly, with minimal German losses.

The primary obstacle to the German invasion force proved to be the Polish capital of Warsaw, which did not surrender until September 27, after a prolonged siege. By this time, all of western Poland was firmly under German control. Rather than rush straight to Warsaw and topple the government Germany’s forces moved relatively slowly, focusing much of their energy on targets that were neither military nor political in nature. They sought not just to destroy the Polish government but also to obliterate the Polish people. In the first days and weeks of the war, both Jewish and non-Jewish civilians were killed regardless of whether they resisted. Villages and towns were burned, and fleeing survivors were ruthlessly chased down and shot.

Just two weeks after the German invasion began, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east, on September 17, 1939. It took them only two days to push far enough to meet German troops advancing from the west. By this time, Germany had already taken most of Poland except for Warsaw, which was under siege. Upon meeting the Russian troops, the Germans handed over large numbers of prisoners and promptly pulled back to the line agreed upon in the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Retreating Polish armies, unaware that the USSR was part of Germany’s occupation plan, fled directly into Russian hands.

Britain and France—which were soon labeled the Allied Powers, just as they had been in World War I—both declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, just two days after Germany began its invasion of Poland. However, aside from basic defensive preparations, neither country took significant action for several months. This period of relative calm has been sarcastically labeled the “Sitzkrieg,” or sitting war—a play on blitzkrieg.  Rather than make an offensive move of their own, the Allies waited for the expected German attack on Belgium and France. It would not come for many months, until the late spring of 1940.

After months of inaction, the first sign that Hitler was again on the move came in early April 1940. On April 9, German troops simultaneously took Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, and landed on the coast of Norway. Denmark gave in almost immediately. In Norway, although the capital at Oslo was quickly taken and a puppet government set up, a strong resistance movement supported by Britain and France continued to fight the Germans for two months. The combat was generally limited to the less densely populated areas in the north of the country.

After months of nervous speculation, Germany brought war to Western Europe on May 10, 1940, with the primary goal of conquering France. While the main French army was trapped between the two German armies, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was being pushed to the coast near the French port of Dunkirk. With the BEF cornered with its back to the sea, and with little hope of reuniting with French forces, the British government decided that the BEF had to be evacuated. The evacuation, called Operation Dynamo, began on May 27, 1940. It took a full week to accomplish, using more than 800 civilian and military sea vessels. In all, more than 300,000 men were brought back across the English Channel to British soil. The feat was heroic—it was done under nearly constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe—but it left France completely on its own.
With the British out of the way, the Germans began their final push against France. During this time, the British vigorously encouraged France to resist at all costs. The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, even flew to Paris himself to offer his personal encouragement. At the same time, though, the British government denied French requests for military assistance, wanting to conserve strength for Britain’s own defense in the near future.

On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany. Hitler insisted that it be done in the same railway car in which Germany had surrendered to France in 1918, at the end of World War I. On June 23, Hitler flew to Paris for a brief sightseeing tour of the occupied city, during which a widely published photo was taken of Hitler standing against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower.
France fell primarily due to mistaken assumptions about how the attack would be carried out. Germany’s advance through the Ardennes Forest was not anticipated, and even when French intelligence received word of it, they took little action because they did not believe that German tanks could make their way through a dense forest. Thus, the core of the French forces, reinforced by the British, was sent into Belgium, where the main attack was incorrectly expected to take place.

After France fell, the British government was certain that Germany’s next move would be against the United Kingdom. These fears were confirmed when British intelligence intercepted coded German radio transmissions that made it clear that an invasion of Britain was imminent.
The Battle of Britain marked the first turning point in the war, as it was the first time that German forces failed to achieve a major goal. The Royal Air Force’s strong and effective resistance caused Hitler to abandon the idea of invading Britain and to turn his attention to Russia. It demonstrated to the world that with enough stubborn resistance, Hitler could be forced back.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on France and Britain, largely because its Fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, had territorial and imperial ambitions of his own. At this time, Britain had already evacuated from Dunkirk, and German troops were moving steadily toward Paris—which meant it was too late for Italian forces to take a serious part in the battle. Hitler himself observed with annoyance that the Italians were in effect riding on his coattails so as to share in the spoils without having to take part in the dirty work. Nevertheless, Germany and Italy were soon allied together as the Axis Powers, and Italy’s entrance into the war set off a chain reaction that brought war to much of the Mediterranean region.

By March 1941, the situation for the Italians had deteriorated so badly that Hitler was finally forced to step in. This decision raised a new problem, however, in that neutral Yugoslavia refused to grant German forces permission to cross its territory. Therefore, on April 6, Germany invaded Yugoslavia using its standard blitzkrieg method. Yugoslavia surrendered on April 17, and the German forces quickly moved onward to Greece.

By this time, Britain had forces on the ground in Greece to help the fight against the Germans. The British help was not enough, however, and by the end of April, all British forces had evacuated Greece, and the country fell totally under German control.

The initial German invasion of the Soviet Union was known as Operation Barbarossa. It began on June 22, 1941, after months of delay and years of planning. The general goals were to gain more land for Germany, control the oil fields of Azerbaijan, and exterminate Bolshevism—the radical Communism that Vladimir Lenin had installed in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Moreover, Hitler wanted to exterminate the “racially inferior” Russian people from Leningrad, Moscow, and the rest of the western USSR while pushing the rest of the population eastward beyond the Ural Mountains.
After the battle, little of the city itself remained, and it would not be reconstructed fully for decades. Despite the catastrophic losses, the Soviet victory stood as solid proof to the world that the Third Reich was not invincible.

In the years prior to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, tensions were also escalating in the Pacific region. Japan, which had been at war with China since 1937, had declared openly its intent to take over as much of eastern Asia as it could. It also had serious ambitions toward taking territory in the Soviet Union. The signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939 caused a huge scandal in Japan, as it directly undermined Japan’s plans.

In the meantime, the United States was becoming more and more of a problem for Japan. Throughout the 1930s, the United States and many European nations, suffering from the Great Depression, enacted high protective tariffs. These tariffs greatly curbed Japanese exports and heightened the effects of their own economic depression. The poor economic conditions caused strong anti-Western sentiment in Japan and were a strong factor in forcing the Japanese invasion of China.

In July 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided not to renew the 1911 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, which was due to expire in January 1940. Then, on July 2, 1940, the U.S. Congress passed the Export Control Act. Together, these two actions effectively eliminated Japan’s primary source of oil, scrap metal, and other material resources needed for war. Although Japan was still smarting from the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the United States’ actions were enough to overcome this resentment, and on September 27, 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. The pact made the three nations official allies.

U.S. intelligence services had direct access to Japanese coded transmissions, so U.S. officials were well aware that the Japanese were planning something against them—they just did not know precisely what. One man in particular, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, strongly urged that U.S. forces be placed on a higher state of alert, as he was particularly concerned about the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During previous U.S. war games and exercises, Pearl Harbor had proven highly vulnerable to surprise attacks. Although Turner’s advice was considered, only some of his recommendations were implemented.

As early as January 1941, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku developed a plan for attacking the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor and carried out training exercises to prepare specifically for such an attack. In October, the Japanese emperor, Hirohito, gave his general approval for action against the United States and, on November 8, approved the specific Pearl Harbor attack plan.

The first wave arrived at the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor at 7:55 A.M. on December 7, 1941 and achieved complete surprise; only nine Japanese planes were lost. The primary targets were major U.S. warships, most of which were docked close together in neat lines. These included eight of the nine battleships in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, along with several dozen other warships. The Japanese also targeted six nearby military airfields. A second attack wave of more than 160 planes followed just over an hour later. By this time, the Americans were well alerted and managed to bring down twenty Japanese planes.

In all, the attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,402 Americans, destroyed five battleships completely, put three more out of commission, sank or seriously damaged at least eleven other warships, and destroyed nearly more than 180 aircraft on the ground. The only good luck the U.S. Navy had was that none of its aircraft carriers were in port at the time and that the Japanese bombers failed to hit the large fuel reserves in the area.
The next day, December 8, Roosevelt went before both houses of the U.S. Congress to request a declaration of war against Japan; after a vote, the declaration was formalized just hours later. Britain declared war on Japan on the same day. Three days later, on December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. Thus, the United States was now at war with both Japan and Germany and able to enter fully into its alliance with Britain.

While the United States was becoming embroiled in the war in the Pacific, back in Europe the true intent of the Nazi armies was becoming increasingly clear. As more and more of Eastern Europe fell into German hands, the territory became a sort of backyard for the Nazis, where the ugliest parts of their plan could be carried out far away from prying eyes. By late 1941, the first Jews from Germany and Western Europe were gathered and transported, along with many other minorities, to concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and western Russia, where they were first used as slaves and then systematically murdered. This marked the beginning of Holocaust.

After its initial attacks on Pearl Harbor and Allied interests throughout the Pacific, the Japanese navy continued to expand its conquests over the coming months. On February 15, 1942, Japanese forces took Singapore, which was a very humiliating defeat for Britain. On March 9, after a series of extended sea battles, the Dutch colony of Java surrendered. On April 9, the U.S. territory of the Philippines also fell to Japan. Island colonies, territories, and nations in Southeast Asia continued to fall one after the other as Japanese forces exploded across the South China Sea and into the Bay of Bengal, threatening Burma and even India.

After light U.S. bombing of the Japanese carriers on June 3, 1942, Japan initiated the attack early in the morning on June 4, bombing the U.S. base on Midway Island. American naval planes responded against the Japanese armada in a series of waves. Although the first American attacks were easily repulsed, a group of U.S. dive-bombers finally got through Japanese defenses and near three Japanese aircraft carriers, whose decks were loaded with freshly fueled aircraft preparing for takeoff. The American bombers managed to hit the planes on all three carriers’ decks, setting off a chain of explosions that engulfed the ships in flames and set off ammunition stores in the lower decks of the giant ships. All three carriers were put out of commission and were eventually scuttled by the Japanese themselves. That afternoon, a fourth Japanese carrier was damaged beyond repair.

The Battle of Midway was over by the end of the day. In all, the United States lost one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, nearly 150 airplanes, and just over 300 men. The Japanese toll was far worse: four aircraft carriers, along with more than 230 airplanes and more than 2,000 men.
The nature of the war in the Pacific changed dramatically during the first half of 1942. Japan had begun with a strong offensive but quickly overextended itself by conquering most of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, Japan underestimated the U.S. Navy and took a risky gamble in its attack on Midway. Japan’s losses at Coral Sea and Midway forced it to shift into a defensive mode. Never again would Australia or the U.S. mainland face a serious danger from Japanese attack. Although the war in the Pacific was far from over, for the rest of the World War II, Japan’s struggle would remain a fight to maintain the territory it had already conquered, rather than an aggressive campaign for further expansion. Eventually, Japan would gradually lose all of these earlier gains.
On January 12–23, 1943, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at Casablanca in French North Africa (present-day Morocco) and decided that they would accept nothing but an unconditional surrender from Germany in order to end the war. Following the conference, the two leaders sent a telegram to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, informing him of their decisions and reaffirming their commitment to work together with the USSR in defeating Germany.

From November 28 to December 1, 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin all met together for the first time, at a conference in Tehran, Iran. The three leaders discussed detailed plans for the Allied invasion of Europe, which Churchill and Roosevelt had decided to postpone at the Casablanca Conference earlier that year. The invasion would be code-named Operation Overlord. Stalin was frustrated by the delay, but Churchill and Roosevelt insisted that the extra time was needed to sufficiently degrade Germany’s military strength. At the end of the meeting, Stalin committed the USSR to enter the war against Japan once Germany was defeated.

Japan’s conquests in Southeast Asia during the first half of 1942 extended as far west as Burma. Britain, along with its colonial armies in India, took responsibility for containing this portion of the conflict. The British campaign did not go well, however, and on March 8, 1942, the Burmese port of Rangoon fell to Japan. This setback was a particularly bitter loss for the Allies, as it had been a primary supply point and the site of a crucial base for the British Royal Air Force. By May, the Japanese had driven the Allies back across the Indian border. During the rest of 1942, British-Indian forces launched minor offensives into Burma, but with little success.

It was only in mid-1943, when the Allies organized a new command structure in the region—the Southeast Asia Command—that they made any substantial progress in driving the Japanese back. Under this new command, the British cooperated with the Chinese to advance on the Burmese border, while U.S. and British special operations forces went behind enemy lines to cut communications and create chaos in general. A major focus of the campaign was to capture the town of Myitkyina, which was a principal Japanese communications post. There was a prolonged struggle for the Myitkyina, which finally fell on August 4, 1944. Another goal was to secure the so-called Burma Road, which linked Burma and China but was blocked by Japanese forces. The Burma Road was reopened in January, 1945. Finally, the Allies recaptured Rangoon on May 3, 1945.

The Allies fought fiercely throughout 1944 and 1945 to free the many other South Pacific island groups that Japan had seized earlier in the war. Many of these islands had formerly been territories of the United States, Britain, or other Allied countries. The largest of the island groups included the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, the Philippines, and the Ryukyu Islands. The battles took place on land, on the sea, and in the air.

One by one, the Allies liberated Japanese-controlled islands until the last obstacle between Allied forces and the Japanese mainland were the Ryukyu Islands, which included Okinawa. However, each battle was more intense and more costly than the previous one, which led military commanders to begin rethinking their strategy.

The Battle of Okinawa was the last large-scale battle in the Pacific and the most intense of the island invasions. Unlike Iwo Jima, Okinawa had a large civilian population, which became one of the great tragedies of the battle.

U.S. forces began amphibious landings on April 1, 1945. Japan had more than 100,000 soldiers lying in wait in a series of fortified defensive lines. The Japanese believed that the Allied weakness would be its large fleet of naval vessels anchored offshore. As a result, they planned a massive series of kamikaze attacks on these ships—suicide missions in which Japanese pilots crashed their fuel- and bomb-laden planes into targets—with the goal of destroying the ships or forcing them to abandon their troops on land. However, these kamikaze attacks did not do nearly as much damage as the Japanese had anticipated, and the U.S. fleet was able to remain in place and continue to offer air support to the troops on the ground.

The battle lasted for two and a half months, until June 21, and cost nearly 19,000 American lives. The Japanese losses were even more sobering: more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, while the civilian death toll was estimated to be 80,000 to 100,000.

At the same time that war was going on in the European and Pacific theaters, conflict also escalated in North Africa, primarily as a result of Italy’s aggression in the region in 1940 and 1941. One of the primary flash points in North Africa was the key port of Tobruk, Libya, which changed hands between the Germans and the British several times and was the site of several major battles. In November 1942, Tobruk fell to the British and remained under their control for the rest of the war.

Following the Axis defeat in North Africa, the Allies pursued them to the island of Sicily. On July 10, 1943, U.S. and British forces began Operation Husky, an invasion of the island using troops deployed by gliders, parachutes, and boats. Many of these landings were disrupted by high winds, making it difficult for Allied troops to regroup once on the ground. During the first few days, the invaders encountered significant resistance around Sicily’s main airfield, but it was quickly overcome. On July 22, the Sicilian capital of Palermo fell to the Allies, and Sicily was secured.
The day after the fall of Sicily, Italy’s Fascist ruler, Benito Mussolini, was overthrown by a peaceful coup, and Italian officials promptly began approaching the Allies about an armistice. Prior to Mussolini’s ouster, U.S. and British forces had planned an invasion of the Italian mainland, and the sudden turn of events took the Allied leaders by surprise. Although Italy officially surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943, the Allied invasion of Italy proceeded as planned, as there were still a large number of German forces stationed in the country.

In sum, Italy’s participation in World War II provided little strategic benefit for Germany; in fact, it actually hindered the German war effort by diverting German forces from more important tasks. All of Italy’s actions were undertaken at the whim of its dictator, Mussolini, whose decisions became so erratic and potentially costly that his own underlings eventually decided to overthrow him. Indeed, the battles that resulted from Italy’s initially frivolous and aimless campaigns became increasingly devastating. The campaign in North Africa ballooned into a huge endeavor that cost tens of thousands of lives, and the battles on the Italian mainland between Allied and German forces proved even more devastating.

Germany’s defeat at Kursk in July 1943 was almost simultaneous with the Allied invasion of Sicily, and Hitler was forced to withdraw some generals and forces to fight the new threat in Italy. This multi-front war began to take a serious toll on Germany’s capability to control the territory it had seized over the previous four years. As Soviet forces advanced farther west during early 1944, the German military leadership also had to prepare for the expected British and American invasion of France. Consequently, Germany withdrew still more forces from the collapsing eastern front. Although Hitler was still far from giving up, his conquests were clearly in decline and his war machine gradually collapsing.

The invasion of France was launched early in the morning of June 6, 1944—the famous D-Day—barely a day after U.S. troops had liberated the Italian capital of Rome. Overnight, roughly 20,000 British and American airborne troops had been dropped by parachute and glider a short distance inland of the Normandy coast, ordered to do as much damage as possible to the German fortified coastal defenses. Meanwhile, over 6,000 ships were making their way across the English Channel to deliver a huge expeditionary force onto five separate beaches between Cherbourg and Caen. The first wave alone brought 150,000 Allied soldiers to the French shore, and over the coming weeks, more than 2 million more would enter France via the Normandy beaches—to this day the largest seaborne invasion in history. Opposing the invaders were thousands of German troops manning the fortifications above the beaches.

The first day of the invasion was costly for the Allies in terms of casualties—especially at one landing point, Omaha Beach—but the Germans were vastly outnumbered and rapidly overwhelmed by the incoming forces. The German high command still believed that a larger invasion was imminent at Calais or elsewhere, so they withheld reserve forces in the area from moving against the Normandy invaders. The Allies therefore accomplished nearly all of their set objectives for the first day, which included fully securing the landing areas.

By mid-August 1944, most of northwestern France was under Allied control, and from there, the Allied advance moved rapidly. Hitler ordered the evacuation of southern France, and German troops also began the process of evacuating Paris itself. At almost the same time, Soviet troops invading from the other front first crossed Germany’s eastern border.

Even as it became inevitable that France would fall to the Allies, however, the Nazi war machine continued deporting French Jews to Auschwitz and other extermination camps without letup. A few days later, on August 25, Allied forces entered Paris, by which point all remaining German troops had either evacuated or been taken prisoner.

During the second half of 1944, the Nazi empire gradually imploded as its enemies invaded from east, west, and south. Supplies and manufacturing dwindled on a daily basis. The once-mighty Luftwaffe had some of the best military aircraft in the world but lacked fuel to fly them and parts to maintain them.

Far separated from reality, Hitler placed his last hope of winning the war on the latest developments of German technology. These developments were both impressive and real but were too late and too poorly executed to change the outcome of the war or even delay it by much. Among Germany’s most fearsome new weapons were two missiles, the V1 and the V2. The V1 was the world’s first cruise missile, the V2 the world’s first weaponized ballistic missile. Other German innovations included both jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft. However, nearly all of these innovations were still experimental in nature and not truly ready for effective use in combat. German scientists were also busily working on the development of an atomic bomb, but the war ended before they could succeed.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1944, Soviet forces slowly but steadily made their way toward Germany through Eastern Europe. The brunt of the assault was concentrated on Poland, where most of the Nazis’ concentration camps were located. By early November 1944, the German S.S. was trying frantically to dismantle these camps and hide evidence of the atrocities that had taken place. The Nazis forced those prisoners who were still living to march on foot westward to Germany. On November 20, Hitler himself retreated, abandoning his staff headquarters at Rastenburg along the Polish-German border and relocating to Berlin.

On April 12, 1945, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose health had been failing for some time, died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his vacation home in Georgia. The United States saw an outpouring of grief, as Roosevelt had been president an unprecedented twelve years and, in addition to being an effective commander in chief and diplomatic leader, had almost single-handedly rallied the American people through the hardships of the war. Vice President Harry S Truman succeeded Roosevelt as president.

Just days after Roosevelt’s death, on April 16, 1945, the Soviets began their final offensive against the Third Reich. Over the coming days, more than 3,000 tanks crossed the Neisse River, assaulting Berlin’s outer defenses while Allied aircraft bombed the city from above. On April 20, Hitler spent his birthday in an underground bunker and soon resigned to kill himself when the city fell. Although imminent defeat was obvious, Hitler not only refused to allow his troops to surrender but also insisted that the conscripted civilian army was to defend Berlin to the last man.

On April 25, the Allied armies advancing from east and west met for the first time, when a small group of American and Soviet soldiers met at the German village of Stehla. The hugely symbolic meeting was marked by celebrations in both Moscow and New York. On April 28, the former dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, under arrest since his ouster nearly two years before, was executed by Italian partisans and hung upside down in the center of Milan. Two days later, on April 30, Adolf Hitler killed himself in the bunker in which he had been living since the beginning of the month. Later that evening, the Red Army hung a Soviet flag from the top of the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin.

Early on the morning of May 7, 1945, General Alfred Jodl signed the official surrender on behalf of all German forces, which went into effect the next day. Some sporadic fighting continued in the interim, particularly in Czechoslovakia. During the course of May 8, nearly all remaining German forces surrendered, and that night, additional members of the German high command signed a formal surrender. The Western Allies thus celebrated May 8, 1945, as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). Because some fighting between Soviet and German forces continued into the next day, May 9 became the official Victory Day in the USSR.

During the summer of 1945, American scientists succeeded in completing a working atomic bomb, which was tested a single time, on July 16, at a remote location in New Mexico. Scientists around the world had theorized about the concept of such a weapon for years, and active research on its development had been taking place not only in the United States but also in Nazi Germany, Japan, and the USSR. The American effort, which was conducted with substantial help from Canada and Britain, was code-named the Manhattan Project. Shortly after the July test, the Truman administration began seriously to consider using the bomb against Japan. Eventually, Truman made the difficult decision to do so, in spite of considerable resistance from U.S. military leaders. Despite the fact that the bomb would kill tens of thousands of innocents, Truman felt that it would ultimately save both U.S. military and Japanese civilian casualties that would inevitably result from a ground invasion of Japan.

The first atomic bomb was dropped from a B-29 called the Enola Gay on the morning of August 6, 1945, onto the city of Hiroshima. The blast obliterated most of the central city, killing 80,000 in a single moment. By the end of the year, 60,000 more victims would die from radiation poisoning, and thousands more would die in the years to come, from cancer and other long-term effects of the radiation. It is estimated that the total death toll from Hiroshima was well over 200,000.
The immediate reaction to the bomb in Japan was one of total incomprehension. All communications with Hiroshima were lost, and rumors quickly spread that the city had vanished in some kind of cataclysmic explosion. Yet Japanese military radar had indicated that only a few isolated planes had been in the area. The Japanese would learn the truth sixteen hours following the explosion, when the U.S. government released a public statement explaining what had taken place. Three days later, on August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the port city of Nagasaki with similarly devastating results.

The day before the Nagasaki bombing, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan and commenced an attack on the Chinese province of Manchuria, which was still held by the Japanese. The combination of the atomic bombings with the potential threat of a full-scale invasion of Japan by the USSR was enough to remove any hope that Japan may have held for continuing the war. On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s capitulation in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration. A formal surrender was signed on September 2 aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

It was the largest armed conflict in history, spanning the entire world and involving more countries than any other war, as well as introducing powerful new weapons, culminating in the first use of nuclear weapons.

The war ravaged civilians more severely than any previous conflict and served as a backdrop for genocidal killings by Nazi Germany as well as several other mass slaughters of civilians which, although not technically genocide, were significant. These included the massacre of millions of Chinese and Korean nationals by Japan, internal mass killings in the Soviet Union, and the bombing of civilian targets in German and Japanese cities by the Allies. In total, World War II produced about 50 million deaths, more than any other war to date.

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