World War II in Europe
WORLD WAR II in the EUROPEAN THEATER Background and History:
World War I was the first modern mechanized war, the largest global conflict in recorded history, and the first time that casualties of a single war numbered in the several millions. The so-called “Great War” or “war to end all war” ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after the British, French, Russian, and the Americans imposed harsh reparations on Germany for her role in the war. The result in Germany was a large-scale financial crash and the Great Depression whose hardships perpetuated resentment toward her victorious European neighbors and the United States. It inspired widespread anti-
Semitism and made possible the rise of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party, and according to some historians, virtually guaranteed another European war in the same century1.
Barely two decades later, Europe was again on the brink of war, with many of the same combatants poised to wage a conflict that would eventually surpass the “Great War” in casualties more than six fold. On one hand, World War II was very similar to its predecessor, in that it began with an unprovoked German attack followed by overwhelming German battlefield successes, but finally culminated in her defeat by the combined allied forces of Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. On the other hand, World War II was a very different type of war in which highly mobile armies replaced a static trench war of attrition; air power was used extensively for strategic bombing and effectively in support of ground troops; and civilian populations were deliberately targeted as part of military strategy. At war’s end in 1945, approximately fifty million people had perished, most of them civilian, with Russian casualties
Kowalick, T.M. p.145 accounting for nearly half the total killed. More than sixty years later, World War II is still widely recognized as the most catastrophic event in all of recorded human history to date2.
Adolph Hitler and the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933 and promptly began rearming the country for war, in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Initially, this helped endear him to German citizens because the production of war materials revitalized the economy, reversed the decade-long national economic depression as well as widespread unemployment. The implied threat of her renewed military power allowed Germany to intimidate Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia to ignore her remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenlands in 1938. In capitulating to Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Germany with Hitler’s signature on the Munich Agreement of 1938, announcing, “I believe it is peace for our time.” Winston Churchill, who detested the notion of appeasing Hitler, remarked, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”
Shortly before war’s outbreak in Europe, Hitler executed the 1939 Non-
Aggression Pact with Russia, designed to keep Russia out of the impending European war. Hitler had hoped this would allow Germany to concentrate her military forces on her western borders and avoid a costly war on two fronts with her forces occupied simultaneously on the eastern border with Russia. The Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 also contained a clause for dividing up a conquered Poland with Russia after defeat by Germany.
The War in Europe:
On September 1, 1939, Germany unleashed the combined forces of her powerful Wehrmacht on Poland. The Luftwaffe decimated the obsolete Polish air force, terrifying both her overmatched military and civilian population alike with a ruthless bombing campaign. Then, it punched holes through a thinly-spread border defense and penetrated deep into the heart of Poland using its armor and mechanized infantry, destroying whatever was left of the Polish military from behind its front lines, and eventually occupying the Polish capital, Warsaw, after pulverizing parts of the ancient city to overcome pockets of resistance.
The following April, Hitler’s forces rolled into Denmark without resistance and also occupied Norway, with little more difficulty. Germany attacked France in May, rolling in from the Netherlands and Belgium. France had invested very heavily, ever since the end of World War I, in fortifying the Maginot Line, a long series of interconnected bunkers and military installations across its entire border with Germany.
By attacking from the North, Hitler effectively bypassed France’s only real defense against invasion. Within two weeks, Paris was under Nazi control, and still seething from the harsh terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, Hitler demanded that the surrender terms be signed in the very same spot as the armistice that ended that war, and in the very same railroad car, which he had brought out from its museum display for that purpose3. Belgium had surrendered to Germany without firing a shot, effectively dooming France to Nazi occupation, and nearly sealing the fate of more than a quarter million British troops sent to support Britain’s ally, France. Only a last-
3. Hayes & Faissler p.444 minute scramble saved the British from capture, at the port city of Dunkirk, where the British used thousands of ships, boats, and dinghies to rescue them all and ferry them back to England after Belgium surrendered.. Italy, a Nazi ally, then declared war on France and Britain, hoping to be included in any post-war negotiations to her benefit4.
Hitler prepared to invade England from occupied France, and began a vicious and extensive aerial bombing campaign, using incendiary bombs on civilian population centers of England. Though vastly outnumbered, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) rallied to the defense. Using superior aircraft in the Spitfire and Hurricane, in combination with the timely invention of Radar, the RAF handed the mighty Luftwaffe its first major combat defeat in the Battle of Britain in Summer of 1940. Churchill, who had since replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, famously credited the RAF pilots, saying, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.” Despite 40,000 civilian dead and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses destroyed, the British people spent months in blackout conditions and underground shelters, living by the phrase “We’ll get used to it.” 5
Under their Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, Germany had occupied Western Poland and Russia took control of Poland in the east. However, Stalin never trusted Hitler and both sides regarded their agreement as more of a way of postponing their inevitable conflict rather than as a lasting peace agreement. Stalin used the opportunity to reoccupy Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, restoring her pre-1919 borders and providing
Lukacs, J. p.66
Commager, H. p.93 additional protection against invasion from Germany, should their pre-war alliance fail6.
Indeed, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, inadvisably opening up a war on two fronts. The Nazis inflicted some of their most brutal warfare on Soviet civilians, implementing a scorched earth policy on occupied territory and establishing death camps throughout Eastern Europe to carry out Hitler’s “Final Solution” war against the Jews in Europe. By the Winter of 1942, the Nazi war machine was spread too thin to accomplish the monumental task of defeating Russia, and the attack stalled, short of essential war material, fuel, and cold weather clothing for the long brutal Russian winter.
Hoping to stay out of a second costly war on the European continent, the United States had provided both Russia and Britain with vast amounts of equipment, including aircraft, mechanized armor, and ships through its Lend Lease policy instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A tremendous amount of these shipments were lost to German U- boats, who prowled the Atlantic intending to starve Britain into submission by interrupting the flow of essential goods and war materials from the United States.
The United States finally entered the war after the infamous attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, taking on the Japanese Imperial Navy and Air Force throughout the Pacific, and landing troops in Sicily in 1942. Based in England, American forces launched the greatest amphibious attack in the history of warfare, crossing the English Channel and landing on five beaches across the French coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, effectively marking the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. By Spring 1944, American forces had liberated France, overcome fierce Nazi resistance, crossed deep into Germany, and linked up with Soviet forces across the Elbe River.
6. Hayes & Faissler p.443
Commager, H.S., Miller, D.L. The Story of World War II: Revised, Expanded & Updated from the Original Text by Henry Steele Commager (2002)
Hayes, C., Faissler, M. Modern Times: The French Revolution to the Present (1966)
Kowalick, T.M. The Western Tradition Transcripts (1989)
Lukacs, J. The Last European War (1976)
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