A ‘battle’ is defined here as an event occurring in a particular place and over a relatively short time-span; the shortest of these battles lasted 90 minutes, the longest three months. Indeed, the ‘battle of the Atlantic’ was extremely significant, but it was not a battle: instead, it was a six-year series of battles, none of which was – in itself – decisive. The same is true of the five-year Allied bomber offensive.
Looking at the war in terms of ‘battles’ tends to increase the apparent importance of the Russians; they fought more battles, and destroyed most of German army. For me the European war was inherently more significant in military and strategic terms than the Asia-Pacific war (this was also the view of the British, American and Soviet war leaders).
Had Hitler knocked Britain or the USSR out of the war he would have made the Third Reich a real ‘world power’, and German-dominated Europe would have been unassailable. In contrast Japan, at that time a second-rate regional power, could not have been a global military threat on its own.
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Furthermore, ‘most significant’ is not the same as ‘most decisive’, ‘biggest’, ‘greatest’, ‘bloodiest’, ‘most skillful’ or ‘most successful’. Instead, ‘significant’ means that the battle had a major effect on later military and political events, if not the final outcome of the war.
If I had been able to choose 15 significant battles I might have added Wavell’s first Libyan offensive (December 1940), the battle of Smolensk (1941), the invasion of Sicily (1943), the air-land-sea battle of the Mariana Islands (1944) and the Vistula-Oder Operation (1945).
France, May 1940
The rapid and unexpected conquest of the Low Countries and northern France in four weeks was the supreme example of German mastery of mobile warfare. It was also the war’s most significant battle.
The back of the French army was broken. Hitler would gain control over western Europe (and Fascist Italy entered the war). Everything else in 1940–45 was a consequence of this victory. The German blunder of allowing the British Expeditionary Force to escape through Dunkirk was also significant; Britain would remain a threat, and Hitler’s victory was incomplete. But Stalin’s hope for a long mutually destructive war between the capitalist powers was undone; Russia itself was now threatened.
Battle of Britain, August–September 1940
The Luftwaffe mounted mass daytime raids against RAF bases and later London, hoping to gain air superiority and force Britain to make peace – preparations for invasion began.
Britain possessed a radar-controlled air defence system and a powerful Royal Navy. Public morale did not crack, high German losses forced a change in mid-September to sporadic and less effective night bombing, and the arrival of autumn weather made invasion impractical.
The battle demonstrated to Germany (and the USA) that Britain could not be easily knocked out of the war. The Americans sent help; Hitler decided that he needed to invade the USSR.
Operation Barbarossa, June–July 1941
Hitler’s surprise attack on the USSR was the most devastating victory of the whole war; as a battle it covered the largest area. The Wehrmacht’s first objective was achieved: the rapid destruction the Red Army in western Russia.
Operation Barbarossa did not achieve the larger goal of overthrowing the Soviet system and occupying all European Russia. Nevertheless, the catastrophe eventually forced the defenders to fall back 600 miles, to the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow. The Red Army had to be rebuilt; it would not drive the occupiers out of the USSR until the autumn of 1944.
Moscow, December 1941
The successful Red Army surprise counter-offensive in front of Moscow, which began on 5 December, was the second most significant battle of the entire war.
The Russians would have bad defeats later, and the Germans would suffer much greater losses at Stalingrad in 1942–43. But the setback at Moscow meant that the Blitzkrieg strategy of Hitler and his generals had failed; the USSR would not be knocked out of the war in just a few months.
The northern and central parts of the Soviet front now held firm. And the Third Reich could not win a war of attrition.
Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941
The fighting lasted only 90 minutes and was very one-sided, but this was undoubtedly a major battle – six aircraft carriers with more than 400 planes attacked the main American naval base.
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Crippling the enemy battleship fleet allowed Japan to overrun south-east Asia without interference. But the ‘Day of Infamy’ threw a hitherto cautious American public whole-heartedly behind war with Japan and Germany – although early preoccupation with Pacific defence delayed the sending of American forces to Europe.
Fierce anti-Japanese sentiment also led to a readiness to use firebombing and nuclear weapons three years later.
Midway, June 1942
The Japanese Fleet put to sea to threaten Midway Island (northwest of Hawaii), hoping to lure the Americans to destruction. In reality it was the Japanese who were ambushed, losing four of their best carriers.
Of all 10 battles listed here, this one really could have gone either way, although the outcome was not entirely ‘miraculous’. The Midway victory allowed the Americans to take the strategic initiative in the South Pacific. It would be a year and a half before an American offensive directly across the Central Pacific began, but the Japanese had not had time to fortify their island defence line.
Operation ‘Torch’, November 1942
The Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria were an easy battle: Vichy French troops were the original opponent, and they quickly changed sides. But ‘Torch’ was the first successful strategic offensive, and American troops crossed the Atlantic for the first time.
Victory in Tunisia, the invasion of Sicily and the Italian surrender followed. But ‘Torch’ and the Mediterranean strategy, urged by the British and accepted by Roosevelt, meant ultimately that there would be no cross-Channel landing in 1943.
The battle of Alamein, fought later that November, was much bloodier and a decisive British victory, but ‘Torch’ had a deeper significance.
Stalingrad, November 1942 to January 1943
The three-month battle is often seen to be the war’s turning point. After Stalingrad the Wehrmacht would make no further advances in the USSR. The mid-November 1942 mobile operation to cut off the city demonstrated for the first time the skill of the rebuilt Red Army.
The capitulation of the Sixth Army in the Stalingrad pocket on 31 January was the first major German surrender. Both the German leadership and the population of occupied Europe realised the significance of what had happened: the Third Reich was now on the defensive.
Briansk-Orel/Belgorod-Kharkov, July-August 1943
The Battle of Kursk (July 1943) is commonly regarded as one of the three great Soviet victories, and the first achieved in the summer (unlike Moscow and Stalingrad).
Hitler’s offensive against the Kursk salient (Operation ‘Citadel’) was indeed halted, but it had had only limited objectives, and the Soviets suffered higher losses. More significant were the counter-offensives that followed ‘Citadel’: north of Kursk (Briansk/Orel – Operation ‘Kutuzov’) and south of it (Belgorod/Kharkov – Operation ‘Polkovodets Rumiantsev’).
The Red Army took and held the initiative along the whole southern front. Its advance to the Dnepr River and across the western Ukraine to the pre-war border would then continue without significant pause until February 1944.
Normandy, June–July 1944
To many people in the UK, D-Day (6 June) and the following six weeks of fighting in Normandy is the most obvious ‘significant battle’: it allowed the rapid liberation of western Europe.
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The technical complexities of putting huge, largely untried armies across the Channel and supplying them there were very great. The Germans thought that they had a good chance to repel any invasion.
After D-Day Hitler chose to mount a stubborn defence of the Normandy region, and when the main American breakout came, in late July, the burned-out defending forces had no option but to beat a rapid retreat to the German border.
Operation ‘Bagration’, June–July 1944
The Soviet offensive in Belorussia, three weeks after D-Day, was bigger than the battle of Normandy.
Surprised by the location of the attack, the Germans were then overwhelmed by the pace and uninterrupted nature of the advance – within six weeks an entire army group had been destroyed, most of Soviet territory had been liberated, and spearhead units had advanced as far as central Poland. The pressure of ‘Bagration’ aided the British-American advance from Normandy.
The greater significance of the offensive (coupled with the defection of Romania in August) was that the Red Army would end the war in control of all Eastern Europe.
Evan Mawdsley is Honorary Professorial Research Fellow in history at the University of Glasgow. His publications include December 1941: Twelve Days That Began a World War (Yale University Press, 2011) and World War II: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
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This article was first published by History Extra in 2014