The Second World War was a gigantic struggle that involved troops from every part of the world. Fighting took place on several different continents and oceans, but the main theatres of conflict were in Europe and in the far east. The war did not come to an end everywhere at the same time, rather it ended in stages.
When did WW2 end in Europe?
In Europe, the beginning of the end came in 1943 when the Allies finally began to turn the tide against the Nazis and their collaborators. In the west, Allied troops successfully invaded Sicily and southern Italy that summer. The following year, France was liberated after the D-Day landings, and the long, slow drive into Belgium and the Netherlands also began. In most places, the arrival of Allied troops was accompanied by wild celebrations, because local populations understood that, while the conflict was still raging elsewhere, for them the war was over.
In eastern Europe, the beginning of 1943 also marked the point when Soviet troops turned the tide against the Germans at the battle of Stalingrad. Over the next two years the Red Army gradually drove the Germans from Soviet territory, and then began to push forward for the liberation of their neighbours. In contrast to western Europe, however, there were few celebrations at their arrival. Most eastern Europeans still regarded the USSR as a hostile country. Some, like Hungary and Romania, had spent most of the war fighting against the Soviets as allies of Nazi Germany. Others, like Poland and the Baltic States, simply did not trust them. They had been invaded by the USSR at the start of the war, when the USSR was still allied to Germany, and so were not inclined to view the return of the Red Army as a ‘liberation’.
By the spring of 1945 the Allies had closed in on Germany from both sides. Adolf Hitler, realising that his cause was hopeless, committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on 30 April. From that moment, events moved fairly quickly. German troops in northwest Europe surrendered to the British at Lüneburg Heath on 4 May. A formal surrender of all the remaining German forces took place three days later, in the French city of Reims. However, the Soviets did not recognise this event, so a final surrender document was signed in Berlin the following night, on 8 May.
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The official time on the ‘Act of Military Surrender’ was 23.01 on 8 May 1945, which, because of the time difference, was already 9 May in Moscow. For this reason, countries in western Europe have always celebrated the anniversary of VE Day on 8 May; while the Russians still celebrate ‘Victory Day’ on 9 May.
When did WW2 end in the far east?
Once the war in Europe was over, the Allies could turn all their attention to fighting in the far east. Here, as in Europe, the war ended in stages.
In the Pacific, the war turned in America’s favour in June 1942, when the US Navy defeated the Japanese at the battle of Midway. Over the next three years the Allies clawed their way back across the Pacific, liberating islands one at a time, often at great cost to both sides.
By February 1945, the Americans had finally made it to the fringes of Japan. US Marines first set foot on Japanese soil at the remote island of Iwo Jima, followed by the attack on Okinawa six weeks later. Fighting on these two islands was so fierce, and so costly, that American leaders began to fear that the final defeat of Japan might cost them hundreds of thousands of casualties. In the meantime, the British, the Americans and the Chinese were fighting equally vicious battles against Japanese troops in Burma and central China.
Listen as historian Saul David revisits one of the bloodiest clashes of the Pacific War and explains how it played a crucial part in the United States’ decision to use atomic weapons against Japan:
In the summer of 1945, therefore, American leaders sought an alternative way to defeat the Japanese. On 16 July they had successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, and plans were made to use two such bombs on Japanese cities. Despite some disagreement from the atomic scientists themselves, President Truman steadfastly believed that this was the only way to persuade the Japanese to capitulate swiftly.
On 6 August an atom bomb was dropped over the city of Hiroshima. In a matter of moments the entire city was destroyed, and around 78,000 people were killed instantly. Many more would die in the years to come from the effects of nuclear radiation – by the end of 1945 the death toll had reached approximately 140,000. Three days later a second bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, with similar results. Around 35,000 people died instantly and the final death toll was calculated as at least 50,000.
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Understanding that his armed forces had no response to this terrifying new weapon, Japanese emperor Hirohito prepared a speech, which he broadcast to the nation on 15 August. Although he never used the word ‘surrender’, he announced that he had told his government to accept the demands of the Allies. The alternative, he made clear, was the complete “collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation”. All over Asia and the Pacific, Japanese troops began to lay down their weapons.
As a consequence of this speech, 15 August 1945 is officially commemorated as the anniversary of VJ Day in Britain and Korea, and unofficially so across much of Asia. However, a formal surrender document was not signed until 2 September aboard the American battleship, USS Missouri. This later date is considered the anniversary of VJ Day in the USA.
On this podcast, Keith Lowe examines the struggles that faced postwar Europe:
Continued violence after the war
It is worth noting that, while 2 September 1945 is generally recognised as the final, official end of the Second World War, in many parts of the world fighting continued long beyond that date.
Parts of Europe were left in such chaos that they often fell victim to other forms of violence indistinguishable from the main war. In the Baltic States, for example, which had been invaded by the Soviets at the start of the war, nationalist partisans resisted the return of Soviet troops in 1945. A form of guerrilla war continued here well into the 1950s. According to Valdas Adamkus, the former president of Lithuania, the Second World War did not truly come to an end until the last Soviet troops withdrew from the Baltic States in the early 1990s.
Similar events happened on one or two islands in the Pacific, where isolated groups of Japanese soldiers refused to believe that the emperor had surrendered. Some continued hiding in the forests for years after 1945. One famous case was Hiro Onoda, who spent 29 years fighting a lonely guerrilla campaign on Lubang Island in the Philippines. He did not surrender until 1974, when his former commanding officer flew to the Philippines and ordered him to do so.
Keith Lowe is the author of The Fear and the Freedom: Why the Second World War Still Matters (Penguin, 2018) and the international bestseller Savage Continent, which won the PEN/Hessell-Titlman Prize and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize. His latest book, Prisoners of History, is a study of Second World War monuments around the world, and what each of these monuments say about the societies that put them up. It is published on 9 July 2020. You can find him on Twitter @KeithLoweAuthor