The Battle of the Atlantic
At sea, Britain and the United States desperately struggled to control the Atlantic trade routes vital to British survival. Britain relied on shipments of food and supplies from the United States, but as American merchant ships crossed the Atlantic, German U-boats, or submarines, sailed out from ports in France to attack them. To protect themselves better, merchant ships formed convoys led by American and British warships. The Germans countered with groups of as many as 20 U-boats, called wolf packs, that carried out coordinated nighttime attacks on the convoys. After the United States entered the war, U-boats began attacking ships within sight of the American coast. Although Allied warships used underwater sound equipment called sonar to locate and attack U-boats, the wolf packs experienced great success. In the Atlantic, they sank nearly 700 ships in the first 6 months of America's involvement in the war. Allied convoys later developed better defensive strategies, including the use of long-range sub-hunting aircraft, and the U-boat success rate plummeted.
The North Africa Campaign
As Italy and Germany stormed through North Africa, Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel to lead the charge. Rommel, who earned the nickname "Desert Fox" for his shrewd tactics, won several battles. The Germans pushed deep into British-controlled Egypt and threatened the Middle East. Rommel's offensive failed, however, when British and American troops combined to defeat his army. This force, under the command of American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, quickly shifted from defense to offense, and began to reclaim North African lands from the Axis. This offensive was called Operation Torch, and was a success for the Allies.
The Invasion of Italy
Control of North Africa freed the Allies to make the next move toward retaking Europe. They decided to target Italy, which lay to the north, across the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Seventh Army, under General George S. Patton, invaded the large island of Sicily with British forces. With the Italian mainland in jeopardy, Italians lost faith in Mussolini's leadership. Many fought with the attacking Allies against their own government. A series of bloody battles led the advancing Allies toward Rome, the Italian capital. After two years, dozens of battles, and hundreds of thousands of deaths, the Allies reached Rome and Mussolini's government was removed from Italy. As he tried to flee across the Northern Italian border, he was captured and killed.
War in the Soviet Union
As the Allies battled their way across North Africa and into Italy, an epic struggle unfolded in Eastern Europe. Despite signing a non-aggression pact with the Joseph Stalin, Hitler later called for the conquest of the Soviet Union, to give the German people "living space." After losing the Battle of Britain, Hitler decided to turn his war machine to the east. He broke his pact with Stalin and launched an attack against the Soviet Union. Over 3 million German troops poured across the Soviet border. Nearly 3 million Soviet soldiers, poorly trained and badly equipped, mobilized to oppose the blitzkrieg. The intensity and the brutality of the German attack took the Soviet defenders by surprise. Germany captured hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers who were trapped by the German army's quick advances. Soviet citizens who suffered badly under Stalin, including Ukrainians and Lithuanians, welcomed the Germans as liberators. Their enthusiasm ended quickly as German troops introduced forced labor and began executing civilians. Stalin asked Roosevelt for help through the Lend-Lease program. American aid began to flow and lasted until the end of the war.
The Battle of Stalingrad
The cold and snowy Russian winter stopped Germany's advance, and the Soviets regained some of their lost territory. The Soviets decided to make their stand at Stalingrad, a major city. The Germans began a campaign of firebombing and shelling. Soviet fighters took up positions in the charred rubble that remained of Stalingrad. There they engaged the advancing German troops in bitter house-to-house combat. Taking advantage of harsh winter weather, Soviet forces launched a fierce counterattack. As Hitler had ruled out a retreat, the German army was soon surrounded in the ruined city with few supplies and no hope of escape. The Soviets launched a final assault on the freezing enemy.
More than 90,000 surviving Germans surrendered. In all, Germany lost some 330,000 troops at Stalingrad. Soviet losses were over 1 million. But the Battle of Stalingrad proved to be the turning point of the war in Eastern Europe. Germany's seemingly unstoppable offensive was over. After their victory, Soviet forces began to regain the territory lost to the Germans.
Opening a Third Front
With British and American troops fighting in Italy, and Soviet troops fighting the Axis on the Eastern front, the Allies knew they could deliver a decisive blow to the Axis by opening a third front in the West. This could be done by attacking Germany through France. But France was well protected. It would take a massive invasion force to invade and liberate France then move on to Germany. Indeed, it would be the largest invasion in the history of the world.
The Invasion of Western Europe
The invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, would be launched from Great Britain. General Eisenhower was the commander of the invasion forces. The Allies began a massive military buildup in southern England. Polish, Dutch, Belgian, and French troops joined the American, British, and Canadian forces already in place. In response, the Germans strengthened their defenses along the French coastline, adding machine-gun nests, barbed-wire fences, land and water mines, and underwater obstructions. They knew a Western invasion was coming, but they did not know exactly where or when. The Allies took great pains to keep this information secret.
Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, almost 5,000 ships slipped out of their harbors in southern England. As the ships crossed the English Channel, about 1,000 RAF bombers pounded German defenses at Normandy, a beach region in Northern France. Meanwhile, some 23,000 airborne British and American soldiers, in a daring nighttime maneuver, parachuted behind enemy lines.
At dawn on D-Day, the full invasion of Western Europe began; Allied warships in the channel began a massive shelling of the coast. Some 1,000 American planes aided the RAF's air bombardment. Then, around 150,000 Allied troops and their equipment began to come ashore along 60 miles of the Normandy coast in the largest landing by sea in history. The limited German force at Normandy resisted fiercely. At Omaha Beach, the code name for one landing site, the Allies suffered some 2,000 casualties in a few hours. One Allied soldier later explained his experience of landing at Omaha Beach:
"It seemed like the whole world exploded. There was gunfire from battleships, destroyers, and cruisers. The bombers were still hitting the beaches...As we went in we could see small craft that had gone in ahead, sunk. There were bodies bobbing in the water, even out three or four miles."
-Lieutenant Robert Edlin
In spite of the heavy casualties of D-Day, the invasion was a success. Within six days, a half million men had come ashore. By late July, the Allied force in France numbered some 2 million troops.
Allied troops moved from Normandy to Paris with a goal of liberating France from the Nazis. They aced fierce fighting, but General Patton led the soldiers on a successful sweep across northern France. Two months after D-Day, the Allies officially liberated Paris. British and Canadian forces freed Belgium a few days later. Later, a combined Allied force attacked the Germans occupying the Netherlands. At about the same time, American soldiers crossed the western border of Germany. As the Soviets moved in from the east, and the other allies moved north from Italy, the walls were closing in on Hitler from three sides.
The Battle of the Bulge
The Nazis fought desperately to defend their conquests. Hitler reinforced the army with thousands of additional draftees, some as young as 15. Then, in mid-December 1944, Germany launched a counterattack in Belgium and Luxembourg. The German attack smashed into the Allied advance and pushed it back, forming a bulge in the Allied line. The resulting clash came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Many small units, cut off from the rest of the American army, fought gallantly against overwhelming odds. From his headquarters near Paris, Eisenhower ordered more troops to the scene. In just a few weeks, the Allies knocked the Germans back and restarted the Allied drive into Germany.
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle in Western Europe during World War II, and the largest battle ever fought by the United States Army. It involved some 600,000 GIs, of whom about 80,000 were killed, wounded, or captured. German losses totaled about 100,000. After this battle, most Nazi leaders recognized that the war was lost.
The War in Europe Ends
The struggle between German and Soviet forces on the eastern front was brutal, but after Stalingrad, the Soviets had control. Some 11 million Soviet soldiers died. Several million Soviet civilians were killed as well. Because of this, Soviet leaders considered the capture of Berlin, Germany's capital, a matter of honor. In late April 1945, Soviet troops fought their way into Berlin. As they had in Stalingrad, they fought German soldiers for each ruined house and street in the destroyed city. After successfully pushing west, they connected with American troops who were pushing east.
As the Soviet army surrounded Berlin, Hitler refused to take his generals' advice to flee the city. Instead, he chose to commit suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945. A few days later, on May 8, 1945, Germany's remaining troops surrendered. When the fighting in Europe came to an end, American soldiers rejoiced, and civilians on the home front celebrated V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). They knew, however, that the war would not be over until the Allies had defeated Japan.
The Yalta Conference
As the Nazi empire was crumbling, the three main Allied leaders met in the Soviet Union for a meeting known as the Yalta Conference. It would have an enormous impact on the shaping of the post-war world. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin (or the “Big Three”) met at Yalta to plan the final defeat of Germany and to decide the shape of the postwar world. The leaders agreed to split Germany into four zones after it surrendered, each zone under the control of one of the major Allies, including France. The leaders also discussed the formation of the United Nations, a peacekeeping organization made up of the countries who were committed to stopping another world war from breaking out.
Section 6: The Holocaust
Jews in Europe faced persecution, or unfair treatment, for their religious beliefs for centuries. Some writers claimed that German people whom they called "Aryans" were superior to Jewish people called "Semites". Although most scholars rejected those theories, a few used them to justify the continued persecution of "non-Aryans." By the 1800s, the term anti-Semitism was used to describe discrimination or hostility, often violent, directed at Jews. The suffering caused by World War I and the hardships of the Great Depression led many to look for someone to blame (a scapegoat) for their problems. Using theories of anti-Semitism to pin blame on the Jews helped many Germans to regain national pride and a sense of purpose. As Adolf Hitler rose to power, he revived the idea of Aryan superiority and expressed an especially hateful view of Jews.
Persecution in Germany
When Hitler became Germany's leader in 1933, he made anti-Semitism the official policy of the nation. No other persecution of Jews in modern history equals the extent and brutality of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's systematic murder of European Jews and other enemies of Hitler. In all, some six million Jews, about two thirds of Europe's Jewish population, would lose their lives. Some 5 to 6 million other people would also die in Nazi captivity. The Holocaust didn't begin with murder, however.
Early Nazi persecution aimed to exclude Germany's Jews from all aspects of the country's political, social, and economic life. In 1935, the Nuremberg laws stripped Jews of their German citizenship, and outlawed marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Nazi-controlled newspapers and radio constantly attacked Jews as enemies of Germany. Businesses fired Jewish workers. The Nazis then forced Jews to surrender their own businesses to Aryans for a fraction of their value. Jewish doctors and lawyers were forbidden to serve non-Jews, and Jewish students were expelled from public schools. Jews in Germany and German-occupied countries were forced to sew yellow stars marked "Jew" on their clothing. These practices exposed Jews to public attacks and police harassment.
When Hitler first came to power, the Gestapo, Germany's new secret police, was formed to identify and pursue enemies of the Nazi regime. Hitler formed the SS, another group of officers, to enforce his anti-Semitic laws. The duties of the SS included guarding the concentration camps, or places where political prisoners were confined, usually under harsh conditions. In addition to Jews, the Nazi camps soon held many other classes of people whom they considered "undesirable" – communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, the disabled, and the homeless.
Refugees Seek an Escape
After the discrimination increased, about one in four Jews fled Germany with Nazi encouragement. At first, most refugees moved to neighboring European nations. As the Nazi threat grew, however, Jews began to seek protection in the United States. Few countries, however, welcomed Jewish refugees as long as the Depression prevented their own citizens from finding work. Responding to criticism, President Roosevelt called for an international conference to discuss the growing numbers of Jewish refugees. The conference failed to deal with the situation. With the exception of the Dominican Republic, each of the 32 nations represented, including the United States, refused to open its doors to more immigrants.
Despite the ever-increasing restrictions on their lives, many Jews believed they could endure persecution until Hitler lost power. Older people believed staying in Germany was safer than starting a new life with no money in a foreign country. Their illusions were destroyed in 1938, when Nazi thugs throughout Germany looted and destroyed Jewish stores, houses, and synagogues. This incident became known as Kristallnacht, or "Night of the Broken Glass," a reference to the broken windows of the Jewish shops. Nearly every synagogue was destroyed. The Nazis arrested thousands of Jews that night, and shipped them off to concentration camps. These actions were followed by an enormous fine to make Jews pay for the damage of Kristallnacht. After that night, Germany's remaining Jews sought any means possible to leave the country. This night marked the unofficial “start” of the Holocaust.
As Germany Expands
As German armies overran most of Europe, more and more Jews, including many who had fled Germany, came under their control. In 1939, for example, the invasion of Poland brought some 2 million additional Jews under German control. Nazi plans for dealing with these Jews included the establishment of ghettos, self-contained areas, usually surrounded by a fence, wall, or armed guards, where Jews were forced to live. Hunger, overcrowding, and a lack of sanitation brought on disease. Each month, thousands of Jews died in the ghetto. The Nazis, however, sought more efficient ways of killing Jews.
The "Final Solution" - Genocide
In 1942, Nazi officials met outside Berlin to agree on a new approach for dealing with the growing number of Jews in German territories. They developed a plan to achieve what one Nazi leader called the "final solution to the Jewish question." Ultimately, the plan would lead to the construction of special camps in Nazi-conquered lands where genocide, or the deliberate destruction of an entire ethnic group, was to be carried out against Europe's Jewish population.
The Death Camps
The Nazis outfitted six such camps in Poland. Unlike concentration camps, which functioned as prisons and centers of forced labor, these death camps existed primarily for mass murder. The Nazis chose poison gas as the most effective way to kill people. They opened a specially designed gas chamber disguised as a shower room at the Auschwitz camp in western Poland. Soon other camps had similar facilities. Jews in Germany and Nazi-controlled lands were arrested and crowded into train cars built for cattle and transported to these extermination centers. The elderly, women with children, and those who looked too weak to work were herded into gas chambers and immediately killed. Jewish prisoners carried the dead to the crematoria, or huge furnaces where the bodies were burned.
Those who were selected for work endured almost unbearable conditions. Men and women alike had their heads shaved and a registration number tattooed on their arms. They were given one set of clothes and slept in crowded, unheated barracks on hard wooden pallets. Their daily food was a small piece of bread, and foul-tasting soup made with rotten vegetables. Diseases swept through the camps and claimed many who were weakened by harsh labor and starvation. Others died from torture or from cruel medical experiments. The number of people killed in the labor and death camps is staggering. At Auschwitz, the main Nazi killing center, 12,000 victims could be gassed and cremated in a single day. At that camp alone, the Nazis killed over 1.5 million people, some 90 percent of them Jews.
Rescue and Liberation
As rumors of death camps spread in the U.S., President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board (WRB) in 1944 to try to help people threatened by the Nazis. Despite its late start, the WRB's programs helped save some 200,000 lives. As Allied armies advanced in late 1944, the Nazis abandoned the camps outside Germany. In 1945, American troops were able to witness the horrors of the Holocaust for the first time. A young soldier described the conditions he discovered as he entered the barracks at Buchenwald:
"The odor was so bad I backed up, but I looked at a bottom bunk and there I saw one man. He was too weak to get up; he could just barely turn his head...He looked like a skeleton; and his eyes were deep set. He didn't utter a sound; he just looked at me with those eyes, and they still haunt me today."
-Leon Bass, American soldier
Horrified by the death camps and by Germany's conduct during the war, the Allies placed a number of former Nazi leaders on trial. They charged them with crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. During these Nuremberg Trials, 12 Nazi leaders received a death sentence. More significant than the number of convictions, the trials established the important principle that individuals must be responsible for their actions, even in war. The tribunal firmly rejected the Nazis' argument that they were only "following orders."
Section 7: The War in the Pacific
Japan Drags the U.S. into War
The bombing of Pearl Harbor was not the only sudden attack in the Pacific. Just hours after striking Hawaii, Japanese warplanes bombed Clark Field, the main American air base in the Philippines. The Japanese destroyed hundreds of planes, which were lined up in rows on the ground. Later, a large Japanese force landed on the Philippines. Douglas MacArthur, the islands’ commanding general, withdrew most of his troops. President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia, and the general reluctantly boarded an airplane for Australia. When he landed, MacArthur made a promise to the people of the Philippines and to his army: "I shall return."
The Japanese Plan
The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and Clark Field to try to gain military control of the Pacific. By shattering American forces everywhere in the region, they hoped that the United States would withdraw, leaving them easy access to take over countries that contained oil. Japan needed oil to continue their dominance of Asia, and the U.S. still had an oil embargo in place against Japan.
The Philippines Fall
Following MacArthur's forced escape, the remaining Allied troops surrendered to invading Japanese forces. The Japanese captured about 70,000 Filipinos and Americans as prisoners of war. Already weakened by disease and lack of food, these prisoners faced a grueling test in the tropical heat. Their Japanese captors split them into groups of 500 to 1,000 and force-marched them some 60 miles to a railroad station. There, the prisoners were boarded on a train that took them to within eight miles of a military prison camp and then walked the rest of the way. During the march, many prisoners were treated brutally. They were denied water and rest and many were beaten and tortured. At least 10,000 prisoners died during the 8-day journey. Many were executed by the guards when they grew too weak to keep up. Their ordeal became known as the Bataan Death March. Those who survived were sent to primitive prison camps, where an additional 15,000 or more died.
The War at Sea
At Pearl Harbor, Japan had not achieved one of its main goals: to destroy the aircraft carriers that formed the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. These carriers would prove to be vital American weapons in the war at sea. Carriers had become floating airfields, greatly extending the area in which warplanes could fly. These planes now included dive bombers and torpedo bombers capable of destroying enemy ships. For example, Japan had used aircraft carriers as a base for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japanese forces continued to advance across the Pacific, and the battered American navy fought desperately to stop them. In May 1942, they engaged a superior Japanese fleet in the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia, as Japan tried to invade that country. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, aircraft launched from aircraft carriers bombed and strafed enemy ships more than 70 miles away. During the five-day battle, both sides lost hundreds of planes and an aircraft carrier. The battle prevented the Japanese from invading Australia, a result America saw as a victory. The Battle of the Coral Sea also opened a new chapter in naval warfare. It was the first naval combat carried out entirely by aircraft. The enemy ships never came within sight of one another. From now on, aircraft and aircraft carriers would play the central role in naval battles.
The Battle of Midway
Much like the Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point of the War in Europe, the Battle of Midway changed the course of the war in the Pacific. Midway Island, some 1,000 miles northwest of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific, contained a U.S. air base. Whoever controlled Midway had a strategic advantage. The Japanese attacked Midway in June of 1942 with a wave of bomber attacks on the island. As in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway was fought entirely from the air. The Americans swiftly sank three of the four heavy Japanese carriers and finished off the fourth later the same day. Two American carriers, the Enterprise and the Hornet emerged undamaged. The sinking of four Japanese carriers, combined with the loss of some 250 planes and most of Japan's skilled naval pilots, was a devastating blow to the Japanese navy. After the Battle of Midway, Japan was unable to launch any more offensive operations in the Pacific.