World War II - A Brief Introduction
The years following the First World War saw economic instability and, at the same time, Germany, Italy and Japan developed intense nationalist feelings leading to a desire to expand. Germany had the added motivation of overturning the harsh terms forced upon it at the end of the First World War.
Having already annexed Czechoslovakia and Austria without provoking a military response from France or Great Britain, Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and demonstrated the effectiveness of combined arms warfare ("blitzkrieg"), in which infantry, armour, artillery and aircraft work in coordination. The Russian Red Army joined the invasion from the east and, before the end of the month, Poland had capitulated.
Hitler claimed that he had no further territorial gains in mind, but within a few months, the 'phoney war' ended and Denmark, Norway, and the Baltic States also fell under Nazi control. In May 1940, Germany shocked the world by rapidly invading and defeating the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. In June 1940 France signed an armistice that divided the country into occupied and unoccupied zones.
In July 1940 an air war over England began. The intention was for the German Luftwaffe to knock out the Royal Air Force (RAF) in preparation for either a naval invasion of Britain, or to force Churchill to seek a negotiated peace. The savage defense mounted by an outnumbered RAF led Germany to abandon plans for the invasion and the Battle of Britain ended in September. Britain was not truly alone during the period which Churchill referred to as her 'finest hour' since servicemen from the Commonwealth had been arriving to help defend the 'mother country'. Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of England, was called off and instead Hitler ordered the indiscriminate bombing of British towns and cities.
In an attempt to sever British supply lines, the Battle of the Atlantic was primarily fought between British surface craft and German submarines (U-boats). It was the longest continuous military campaign in World War II, running from 1939 to the defeat of Germany in 1945. It was at its height from mid-1940 through to the end of 1943. The US joined the war in December 1941 and took an active part in it.
In June 1941, Germany and its allies launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Initially the operation was a very successful one that reached the gates of Moscow by the beginning of 1942, but much greater numbers of men and equipment, combined with the vast distances and severe weather of the USSR, halted the onslaught and forced a German retreat. In November 1942, the USSR launched a two-prong counterattack and the German offensive failed. From that point on, USSR forces advanced westward, entering the German capital of Berlin in April 1945.
Since Italy declared war on Britain and France in June 1940, British forces had been opposing them in North Africa. Although the British were heavily outnumbered by Italian forces, they were better equipped, trained and organized, and had better leadership. In February 1941, Germany assigned Rommel (the “Desert Fox”) to command the Afrika Korps. Britain went through a series of commanders in North Africa before placing Montgomery in charge of the Eighth Army there. After halting Rommel’s attacks near El Alamein in September 1942, Montgomery launched a counterattack in October. When the Afrika Korps ran short of fuel and ammunition, it retired to Tunisia. As Churchill later boasted, 'Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.'
Following their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US declared war on Japan. Then Germany, honouring its pact with Japan, declared war on the US along with Italy, Romania and other Axis nations. Major General Eisenhower became supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe.
The US and the UK invaded Algeria and Morocco in November 1942. They pushed east toward Tunis but German counterattacks threw them back and in February 1943 at Kasserine Pass, Rommel inflicted one of the worst defeats in America’s military history. However, Allied armies squeezed the Axis from the west and from the east and the Axis commanders - after Rommel had been recalled to Europe - surrendered in May.
The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major campaign of World War II. It was a large amphibious and airborne operation, followed by a six-week land campaign and was the beginning of the Italian Campaign. Husky began on the night of 9/10 July 1943, and ended on 17 August. The Allies drove Axis air, land and naval forces from the island and the Mediterranean sea lanes were opened for Allied merchant ships for the first time since 1941. Benito Mussolini was toppled from power in Italy and the way was opened for the invasion of Italy. Hitler "cancelled a major offensive at Kursk after only a week, in part to divert forces to Italy," resulting in a reduction of German strength on the Eastern Front.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Axis forces during the Italian Campaign. The intention was a breakthrough to Rome. At the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germany. Monte Cassino, an historic hilltop abbey where Germany had set up some manned positions, dominated the nearby town of Cassino. Repeated German artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was, at a very minimum, being used by the Germans as an observation post. Fears escalated along with casualties, and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. In February, American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins. Between January and May 1944, Monte Cassino and the German defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops, the last involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost.
The Normandy landings (codenamed Operation Neptune) were the landing operations on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 (termed D-Day) that began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front. Planning for the operation began in 1943. In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted a substantial military deception, codenamed Operation Bodyguard, to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings.
The amphibious landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault - the landing of 24,000 airborne troops shortly after midnight. Allied infantry and armoured divisions began landing on the coast of France at 06:30. The target 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beach. Strong winds blew the landing craft east of their intended positions, particularly at Utah and Omaha. The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach clearing teams difficult and dangerous. Casualties were heaviest at Omaha, with its high cliffs. At Gold, Juno, and Sword, several fortified towns were cleared in house-to-house fighting, and two major gun emplacements at Gold were disabled using specialised tanks.
The Allies failed to achieve all of their goals on the first day. Carentan, St. Lô, and Bayeux remained in German hands, and Caen, a major objective, was not captured until 21 July. However, the operation gained a foothold from which the Allies gradually expanded over the coming months.