The German invasion of Poland
1 September 1939: German troops dismantle a Polish border post
The Second World War began at dawn on Friday 1 September 1939, when Hitler launched his invasion of Poland. The Poles fought bravely, but they were heavily outnumbered in both men and machines, and especially in the air. Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, but gave no real assistance to Poland. Two weeks later, Stalin invaded eastern Poland, and on 27 September Warsaw surrendered. Organised Polish resistance ceased after another week’s fighting. Poland was divided up between Hitler and Stalin.
In Poland the Nazis unleashed a reign of terror that was eventually to claim six million victims, half of whom were Polish Jews murdered in extermination camps. The Soviet regime was no less harsh. In March and April 1940, Stalin ordered the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers and others who had been captured in September 1939. Tens of thousands of Poles were also forcibly deported to Siberia. By May 1945, and despite his promises to Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin had installed a subservient communist regime in Poland. Back in 1939, Poland’s then-leader Marshal Eduard Smigly-Rydz had warned, “With the Germans we risk losing our liberty, but with the Russians we lose our soul.”
May 1940: Men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) wade out to a destroyer during the evacuation from Dunkirk
On 10 May 1940, Hitler began his long-awaited offensive in the west by invading neutral Holland and Belgium and attacking northern France. Holland capitulated after only five days of fighting, and the Belgians surrendered on 28 May. With the success of the German ‘Blitzkrieg’, the British Expeditionary Force and French troops were in danger of being cut off and destroyed.
To save the BEF, an evacuation by sea was organised under the direction of Admiral Bertram Ramsay. Over nine days, warships of the Royal and French navies together with civilian craft, including the “little ships” made famous in a BBC broadcast by JB Priestley, successfully evacuated over 338,000 British and Allied troops. Churchill called it a “miracle of deliverance”, but warned, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Over nine days, warships of the Royal and French navies together with civilian craft successfully evacuated over 338,000 British and Allied troops from Dunkirk. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the success of the evacuation strengthened not only Britain’s defences in the face of a German invasion threat, but also Churchill’s position against those like the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who favoured discussing peace terms. On 1 June 1940, the New York Times wrote, “So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence.” Seventy years later, Dunkirk is still synonymous with refusing to give up in times of crisis.
The Battle of Britain
25 July 1940: RAF Spitfire pilots scramble for their planes
After France’s surrender in June 1940, Churchill told the British people, “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war”. To mount a successful invasion, the Germans had to gain air superiority. The first phase of the battle began on 10 July with Luftwaffe attacks on shipping in the Channel.
The following month, RAF Fighter Command airfields and aircraft factories came under attack. Under the dynamic direction of Lord Beaverbrook, production of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters increased, and despite its losses in pilots and planes, the RAF was never as seriously weakened as the Germans supposed.
The British also had the advantage that the battle was fought over home ground; pilots who survived their planes being shot down were soon back in action, while German aircrew went into ‘the bag’ as prisoners of war.
The battle continued until the end of October, but essentially it had been won in early September when the Germans diverted their resources to night bombing. Radar, ground crews, aircraft factory workers all contributed to the victory, but it was of the young pilots from Britain, the Commonwealth and Nazi-occupied Europe of whom Churchill spoke when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
Read more about the Battle of Britain here.
29 December 1940: St Paul’s Cathedral photographed during the Second Great Fire of London
The Blitz – an abbreviation of the word Blitzkrieg (lightning war) – was the name given to the German air attacks on Britain between 7 September 1940 and 16 May 1941. London was bombed by accident on the night of 24 August 1940, and the following night Churchill ordered an attack on Berlin.
This prompted the Germans to shift their main effort from attacking RAF airfields to bombing Britain’s towns and cities. 7 September 1940, ‘Black Saturday’, saw the beginning of the first major attacks on London. The capital was bombed for 57 consecutive nights, when over 13,650 tons of high explosive and 12,586 incendiary canisters were dropped by the Luftwaffe.
Beginning with Coventry on 14 November 1940, the Germans also began bombing other cities and towns while still keeping up attacks on London. Over 43,000 civilians were killed in the Blitz and much material damage was done, but British morale remained unbroken and Britain’s capacity to wage war was unimpaired. In Churchill’s words, Hitler had tried and failed “To break our famous island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction”.
Operation Barbarossa: the German invasion of Russia
June 1941: A column of Red Army prisoners taken during the first days of the German invasion
Since the 1920s, Hitler had seen Russia, with its immense natural resources, as the principal target for conquest and expansion. It would provide, he believed, the necessary ‘Lebensraum’, or living space, for the German people. And by conquering Russia, Hitler would also destroy the “Jewish pestilential creed of Bolshevism”. His non- aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939 he regarded as a mere temporary expedient.
Barely a month after the fall of France, and while the Battle of Britain was being fought, Hitler started planning for the Blitzkrieg campaign against Russia, which began on 22 June 1941. Despite repeated warnings, Stalin was taken by surprise, and for the first few months the Germans achieved spectacular victories, capturing huge swathes of land and hundreds of thousands of prisoners. But they failed to take Moscow or Leningrad before winter set in.
On 5/6 December, the Red Army launched a counter-offensive which removed the immediate threat to the Soviet capital. It also brought the German high command to the brink of a catastrophic military crisis. Hitler stepped in and took personal command. His intervention was decisive and he later boasted, “That we overcame this winter and are today in a position again to proceed victoriously… is solely attributable to the bravery of the soldiers at the front and my firm will to hold out…”
7 December 1941: The destroyer USS Shaw explodes in dry dock after being hit by Japanese aircraft
After Japan’s occupation of French Indo-China in July 1941, US President Franklin D Roosevelt, followed by Britain and the Netherlands, ordered the freezing of Japanese assets. Many Japanese now believed that there was no alternative between economic ruin and going to war with the United States and the European colonial powers. In October 1941, a hardline government under General Hideki Tojo came to power, and preparations were made to deliver a devastating blow against the Americans.
The US destroyer USS ‘Shaw’ explodes during the early morning air attack on Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, near Honolulu. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/US Navy/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
On 7 December 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” Japanese carrier-borne aircraft attacked the US Pacific fleet at its base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Despite warnings, the Americans were caught completely by surprise. Eight battleships were put out of action, and seven other warships damaged or lost. Over 2,500 Americans were killed, while the Japanese lost only 29 planes. Crucially, the American carriers were at sea and so escaped, and the base itself was not put out of action. The following day Congress declared war on Japan, which had also attacked British and Dutch colonial possessions.
On 11 December, Hitler declared war on the United States, and the war was now truly a global conflict. The Japanese were initially victorious everywhere, but Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned: “We can run wild for six months or a year, but after that I have utterly no confidence”.
The fall of Singapore
15 February 1942: Lieutenant General Arthur Percival and staff on their way to the Singapore Ford factory to negotiate the island’s surrender with General Yamashita
The Japanese began their invasion of Malaya on 8 December 1941, and very soon the British and empire defenders were in full retreat. Told previously that the Japanese were no match for European troops, morale among the defending forces slumped as General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s forces moved swiftly southwards towards Singapore.
The sinking of the British capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese aircraft also contributed to the decline in morale, and panic began to set in among the civil population and the fighting troops. British commander Lieutenant General Arthur Percival had hoped to make a stand at Johore, but was forced to withdraw to Singapore Island. The Japanese landed there on 8/9 February, and before long the defence collapsed. To avoid further bloodshed, and with his water supply gone, Percival surrendered on 15 February.
Churchill described the surrender as, “the worst disaster… in British military history”. Over 130,000 British and empire troops surrendered to a much smaller Japanese force, which only suffered 9,824 battle casualties during the 70-day campaign. Singapore was not only a humiliating military defeat, but also a tremendous blow to the prestige of the ‘white man’ throughout Asia.
4 June 1942: The American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown under Japanese attack during the battle of Midway
For six months after Pearl Harbor, just as Admiral Yamamoto predicted, Japanese forces carried all before them, capturing Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. In May 1942, in an attempt to consolidate their grip on their new conquests, the Japanese sought to eliminate the United States as a strategic Pacific power.
This would be done by luring into a trap the US navy carriers that had escaped Pearl Harbor, while at the same time the Japanese would occupy the Midway atoll in preparation for further attacks. The loss of the carriers would, the Japanese hoped, force the Americans to the negotiating table. In the event, it was the Americans who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Japanese. Their codebreakers were able to determine the location and date of the Japanese attack. This enabled US admiral Chester Nimitz to organise a trap of his own.
During the ensuing battle the Japanese suffered the loss of four carriers, one heavy cruiser and 248 aircraft, while American losses totalled one carrier, one destroyer and 98 planes. By their victory at Midway, the turning point of the Pacific war, the Americans were able to seize the strategic initiative from the Japanese, who had suffered irreplaceable losses. Admiral Nimitz described the battle’s success as “Essentially a victory of intelligence”, while President Roosevelt called it “Our most important victory in 1942… there we stopped the Japanese offensive.”
25 October 1942: German prisoners of war wait for transport after their capture at Alamein
The North African campaign began in September1940, and for the next two years the fighting was marked by a succession of Allied and Axis advances and retreats. In the summer of 1942, the Axis forces under ‘Desert Fox’ field marshal, Erwin Rommel, looked poised to take Cairo and advance on the Suez Canal.
The British Middle East commander General Claude Auchinleck took personal command of the defending Eighth Army and halted the retreat at the strong defensive line at El Alamein. But Churchill, dissatisfied with Auchinleck, replaced him in August with General Harold Alexander, while Lieutenant -General Bernard Montgomery took over command of the Eighth Army.
Montgomery immediately began to build up an enormous superiority in men and equipment, finally launching his offensive at Alamein on 23 October 1942. By the beginning of November, the Axis forces were in full retreat, although final victory in North Africa was not achieved until May 1943.
Although Montgomery has been criticised for being too cautious in exploiting his success at Alamein, it made him a household name and he became Britain’s most popular general of the war. Churchill hailed Alamein as a “Glorious and decisive victory… the bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts”.
February 1943: Red Army soldiers hoist the Soviet flag over a recaptured Stalingrad factory following the German surrender
The battle for Stalingrad began in late August 1942, and by 12 September, German troops of the Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies had reached the city’s suburbs. Bearing the name of Russia’s leader, Stalingrad had a symbolic significance as well as a strategic one.
Red Army troops amidst the ruins of war-torn Stalingrad during the Second World War. (Photo by Georgi Zelma/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images)
Throughout September and October, under General Vassili Chuikov, the city’s defenders contested every yard of ground of the devastated city. The Red Army’s stubborn defence allowed General Georgi Zhukov time to prepare a counterattack that was launched on 19 November 1942, and which soon trapped the Sixth Army commanded by General Friederich Paulus.
Hitler, wrongly assured by Göring that the Luftwaffe could supply Stalingrad by air, ordered Paulus to hold out. He also ordered Field Marshal Erich Manstein to break through and relieve the beleaguered Sixth Army. Manstein was unsuccessful, and on 31 January 1943 Paulus capitulated. Of the 91,000 German troops who went into captivity, less than 6,000 returned home after the war. Stalingrad was one of Germany’s greatest defeats, and it effectively marked the end of Hitler’s dreams of an empire in the east.
D-Day, Operation Overlord
6 June 1944: British commandos of the First Special Service Brigade land on Sword Beach
Operation Overlord, the invasion and liberation of north-west Europe, began on D-Day, 6 June 1944. That day, under the overall command of US General Dwight Eisenhower, British, Canadian and American troops, supported by the Allied navies and air forces, came ashore on the coast of Normandy. By the end of the day, 158,000 men, including airborne troops, had landed. Initially, except on the American Omaha beach, German resistance was unexpectedly light. But it soon stiffened and the Allied breakout from the beachhead area was painfully slow.
The fierceness of the fighting can be gauged by the fact that in Normandy British infantry battalions were suffering the same percentage casualty rates as they had on the Western Front in 1914–1918. Eventually the breakout was achieved, and on 25 August, Paris was liberated. Brussels followed on 3 September. Hopes that the war might be won in 1944 were dashed by the Allied failure at Arnhem and the unexpected German offensive in the Ardennes in December. It was not until 4 May 1945 that the German forces in north-west Europe surrendered to Montgomery at his HQ on Lüneburg Heath.
Yalta: The Big Three
February 1945: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin sit for a group photograph during the Yalta conference
Between June 1940 and June 1941, Britain stood alone against Hitler. But then, after the German invasion of Russia and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she gained two powerful allies. For the next four years Churchill did his utmost to foster ‘The Grand Alliance’ against the Nazis. He even earned the grudging admiration of Nazi propaganda chief Dr Goebbels who said, “…I can feel only respect for this man, for whom no humiliation is too base and no trouble too great when the victory of the Allies is at stake”.
Churchill conferred with both Roosevelt and Stalin to hammer out strategy and to discuss postwar arrangements. The three men congregated for the first time at Tehran in November 1943. There, and again at their last meeting at Yalta, Churchill was conscious of the fact that Britain, exhausted by her war effort, was now very much the junior partner of the two emerging superpowers.
At Yalta, the postwar division of Germany was agreed upon as was the decision to bring war criminals to trial. The future constitution of the United Nations was discussed, and Stalin undertook to enter the war against Japan after Germany had been defeated. But the future of eastern Europe remained a stumbling block. With the Red Army in occupation, the Soviet dictator was disinclined to listen to the views of his two allies.
13/14 February 1945: Dresden under incendiary bomb attack
At Yalta, an Allied plan to bomb the hitherto untouched city of Dresden was discussed. The reason for attacking the city was due principally to its strategic importance as a communications centre in the rear of the German retreat that followed the Soviet winter offensive of January 1945. It was also believed that Dresden might be used as an alternative to Berlin as the Reich capital.
The attack was part of a plan codenamed ‘Thunderclap’, designed to convince the Germans that the war was lost. It was drawn up in January 1945, when Hitler’s Ardennes offensive, V2 rocket attacks on Britain and the deployment of snorkel-equipped U-boats clearly demonstrated that Germany was still capable of offering stubborn resistance. Strategic bombing attacks had previously failed to break Germany, although they had proved valuable in reducing its capacity to wage war.
Now, on the night of 13/14 February 1945, Dresden was attacked by 800 RAF bombers, followed by 400 bombers of the United States Army Air Force. The bombing created a firestorm that destroyed 1,600 acres of Dresden. Even today it is still uncertain as to how many died and estimates have ranged from 25,000 to 135,000. Most authorities now put the death toll at around 35,000. The scale of destruction, the enormous death toll, and its timing at such a late stage in the war, have all ensured that the bombing of Dresden still remains highly controversial.
17 April 1945: Bodies of dead prisoners at the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp
Belsen concentration camp was liberated by the British Army on 15 April 1945. The photographs, newsreel films and Richard Dimbleby’s moving BBC broadcast from the camp sent a shockwave of horror and revulsion through Britain. Stories about concentration camps and the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews had been circulating since 1933, but this was the first time that the British public were faced with the reality of Hitler’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question – the Holocaust.
Even today it is not known for certain when the order to set about systematic extermination of European Jewry was given. But by December 1941, the first extermination camp at Chelmno in German-occupied Poland was in operation, while mass shootings of Soviet Jews had begun in June.
On 20 January 1942, a meeting of Nazi bureaucrats took place at Wannsee, near Berlin, to discuss the technicalities of the Final Solution. It is estimated that nearly six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, over 1.1 million in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the largest extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. During the Second World War, Hitler’s racial policies also claimed many millions of non-Jewish victims, including Soviet prisoners of war, those with mental and physical disabilities, gypsies (Roma and Sinti), homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The future Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie saw Belsen just after it was liberated. Years later he said,“ A war that closed down Belsen was a war worth fighting”.
9 August 1945: Atomic bomb mushroom cloud over the Japanese city of Nagasaki
On 2 August 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt alerting him to the military potential of splitting the atom. Fears that German scientists might be working on an atomic bomb, prompted the Americans and British to set up the Manhattan Project to develop their own atomic weapon. It was successfully tested in the desert near Alamogordo in New Mexico on 16 July 1945 and the news was flashed to Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman, who was meeting Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. Although the bomb had been conceived with Germany as the target, it was now seen as both a way of quickly ending the war with Japan, and as a lever to apply political pressure on the Russians.
A dense column of smoke rises into the air over the Japanese industrial port of Nagasaki, the result of an atomic bomb. (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers via Getty Images)
Although the Japanese were warned that if they carried on fighting their homeland would face “utter devastation”, they continued to resist with their usual fanaticism. Thus, the first atomic bomb to be used militarily, codenamed Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.
An estimated 78,000 people died and 90,000 others were seriously injured. Three days later a second bomb, Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki causing a similar loss of life. The dropping of the atomic bombs brought about the quick acceptance of Allied terms and Japan surrendered on 14 August 1945. The formal surrender took place on USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September, six years and one day after the Germans invaded Poland.
Terry Charman is senior historian at the Imperial War Museum London, and the author of Outbreak 1939: The World Goes to War (Virgin, 2009).
This article was first published in our special edition, ‘The Second World War Story’