World War II was the single most destructive war in history, claiming over 60,000,000 lives and untold material damage. In contrast to 1914, most soldiers in 1939 had a better sense of the seriousness of modern war and marched off with grim resolve rather than enthusiasm. The war in Europe can be seen as happening in two phases: the German blitzkrieg (1939-41) and the allied response and counterattack (1942-45). Technological and tactical innovations were central to each phase and affected events on both the Eastern and Western fronts.
As in World War I, many generals at the start of World War II were planning to fight the last war rather than the next, hardly taking into account the changes in warfare over the last twenty years. France, in particular, operated with a World War I siege mentality, relying on a giant enclosed concrete trench, the Maginot Line, which covered much, but not all, of its border with Germany. However, the German generals had a very different perspective. Having lost the last war, they were more determined to find a new way to win the next one. In their minds, that way was blitzkrieg (lightning war).
Blitzkrieg was largely the brainchild of Heinz Guderian, a German tank expert who convinced Hitler that the future of warfare lay with tanks and airplanes, not immobile lines of trenches. Instead of spreading tanks along the front as infantry support, Guderian’s idea was to amass his panzer (tank) divisions at strategic points and blast through that part of the line. The German airforce, the Luftwaffe, would bomb and strafe the enemy behind their lines, further demoralizing and disrupting them. Meanwhile, infantry would consolidate their hold on the gaps blown open by the panzers. This would force the enemy back to a new position that was already weakened and threatened by the panzers and Luftwaffe wreaking havoc in their rear.
Blitzkrieg did not do away with the continuous front, since the manpower and firepower needed to fill a continuous front were more available than ever. What it did accomplish was to make the continuous front mobile, thereby pulverizing everything in its path. As a result, the fighting was not confined to a narrow static front, as in World War I. Rather, it swept across all of Europe in a broad swathe of destruction. Also, Blitzkrieg was designed for attaining short decisive victories that would avoid the prolonged type of warfare that had worn Germany out in World War I. At first it took its enemies by surprise and allowed the Nazis to overrun their enemies in both Eastern and Western Europe very quickly.
In the East, the German blitzkrieg easily overran western Poland while Stalin took the rest. Then, while Hitler was pre-occupied with defeating France and Britain in the west, Stalin invaded Finland and took the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania (lost since World War I) as well as part of Romania. These events, along with Hitler’s long-standing hatred of Russia, prompted a planned invasion of Russia, which was delayed by having to help Mussolini in the Balkans and North Africa. When it did get going in June 1941, the German attack met with incredible success, quickly inflicting tremendous casualties and driving almost to the gates of Moscow. Only the onset of winter temporarily stopped the German advance and bought the Russians time to recover.
In the West, Hitler also met with startling success as the German army rapidly overran Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France by June 1940. Not until they reached the English Channel did the Nazi advance halt and give Britain renewed life. The ensuing Battle of Britain was the first major battle ever decided primarily by air power, as the Luftwaffe first bombed British airfields and then concentrated on Britain’s cities to clear the way for an invasion of Britain. However, the British grimly held on until Hitler abruptly broke off the raids to turn his attention to the invasion of Russia. Britain’s war effort was also bolstered by increasing aid from the United States, which would join the war by the end of 1941. Thus, as 1942 dawned, Germany was faced with two new and formidable enemies: the United States and Soviet Union.
The allied response and counter-attack (1942-45)
However, the benefits reaped by the German blitzkrieg would be short-lived, largely because, while the Germans became complacent and overconfident from their early successes, the allies were urgently adapting to and modifying blitzkrieg to neutralize the German advantage. They did this in three ways. First, they adapted their economies completely to war production. While the Russians were moving entire industries east of the Urals out of Hitler’s reach, the United States was building a massive military-industrial complex that by 1944 was more than twice as productive as all its enemies combined. By contrast, Hitler, not wanting to alienate the German industrialists, delayed putting Germany on a full wartime economy until 1943, by which time it was too late.
Secondly, the allies, especially the British and Americans, expanded the use of air power from mainly ground support for tanks and infantry, as the Germans used it, to building large long-range bombers for massive bombing of German cities. Finally, both sides modified their tank divisions by adding mobile assault guns and motorized infantry. This, plus the higher production levels the allies maintained, largely neutralized the German blitzkrieg, slowing it down to a war of attrition that heavily favored Germany’s enemies on both fronts.
In the east, the Nazi offensive resumed in 1942 with the coming of spring, advancing eastward until the Russians made their stand in Stalingrad where the Germans found blitzkrieg was totally unsuited for the house to house fighting of urban warfare. The intense fighting there bogged down the German war machine until the Russians could build their forces for a counter-attack that cut off and destroyed the entire German Sixth Army in February 1943. After that, Russian perseverance and industrial production, helped by supplies from the allies via the Arctic Ocean, slowly drove the Germans back across Eastern Europe.
On the Western Front, the allied effort, increasingly bolstered by American military and industrial might, also met with success, driving the Germans from North Africa and Sicily and invading Italy in 1943. The next year, drawing upon their experiences in Italy, the British and Americans used their overwhelming air and firepower to open a second major front in France.
All this time, the British and Americans had also been launching massive long-range bombing raids on German cities. They used this strategy since they had no major foothold on the continent from which to fight the German army directly until 1944. Although it is still argued whether the allied bombing raids did substantial damage to German war production, which had been largely decentralized away from its cities and the bombing raids, they certainly devastated Germany’s cities, demoralized its population, diverted German air power away from the Russian front, and wore down German air defenses, thus giving the allies critical air superiority by the time they were ready to invade France and liberate Western Europe from the Nazis.
By the end of 1944, Germany’s war effort was collapsing as American and British air raids devastated its cities from above and allied armies converged from east and west. Finally, in May 1945, Russian forces took Berlin, bringing an end to Hitler’s regime and the war in Europe.
Germany triumphant (1939-41)
When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, their concept of Blitzkrieg, ran almost flawlessly. The panzersburst through gaping holes in the Polish lines while Stuka dive-bombers spread terror and destruction along the front and well behind it. Polish cavalry brigades launched valiant but hopeless assaults against Guderian’s tanks, which mowed them down mercilessly. When Warsaw stubbornly fought the Germans to a standstill, the Luftwaffe came in for round the clock bombing raids until the city finally succumbed.
Meanwhile,France and Britain had declared war on Germany two days after the invasion of Poland, but had done little except sit and wait in what was known as “sitzkrieg” or the Phony War. This gave Hitler the time and initiative to prepare and launch an attack at a time and place of his choosing. He first invaded Denmark and Norway, thus securing his iron ore supply and a long irregular coastline from which to launch submarine raids.
It was not until May 1940 that the showdown with France and Britain came. The Allies expected a repeat of the Schlieffen Plan where the Germans would sweep through the Low Countries into France. The final German plan took advantage of these expectations by launching a diversionary attack into Holland and Belgium that drew the Allied armies north to meet them. However, the real attack came through the supposedly impassable Ardennes Forest between Belgium in the north and the Maginot Line in the south along France’s eastern border.
Once again, German plans went like clockwork. The Germans smashed through the lightly guarded French lines in the Ardennes. While the Luftwaffe wreaked havoc in the French rear, Guderian’s tanks raced toward the sea to close the trap that would cut the Allied forces in the north off from the rest of their forces in the south.
Panic seized the French troops who were being relentlessly strafed by the Luftwaffe and pursued and even passed up by the panzers(who were in too much of a hurry to stop and take prisoners). Panic also seized Allied High Command, which was virtually paralyzed by this sudden turn of events. Even German Headquarters was uneasy about its plans going too well and wanted Guderian to stop to let his infantry catch up. But Guderian saw first hand the total chaos and panic that ruled the Allies and kept going. He reached the sea in ten days, having gone further than the German army had gone during the whole four years of World War I.
Meanwhile, Allied defensive lines in the north were collapsing around the seaport of Dunkirk. In a desperate bid to rescue their army, the British launched a most unlikely flotilla of military and civilian craft: destroyers, tugboats, river barges, and even pleasure craft. Braving the dive-bombing Stukas and German shore artillery, they managed to get to and extricate most of the British and French forces pinned against the beach. Britain would live to fight another day.
The remaining French forces in the south formed a new battleline where they bravely fought on. But it was too little too late as Paris fell, and France finally surrendered in June 1940. The surrender was signed in Napoleon III’s railroad car, the same car where the Allies forced the Germans to sign the Armistice in 1918. The Battle of France was over. The Battle of Britain was about to begin.
Britain’s prime minister at that time was Winston Churchill, a leader of indomitable courage who gave the British spirit a defiant edge during these dark times. As in the past, the British realized that an invasion of Britain (codenamed Operation Sea Lion) required control of the sea. But for the first time in history, that also required control of the air. Therefore, the Battle of Britain was largely determined by air power. The first clashes came over the Channel, and the German pilots, who had more experience from fighting in Spain, Poland, and France, at first did quite well. Then the Luftwaffe started concentrating on knocking out the Royal Air Force (RAF) and its bases in order to clear the way for invasion.
In this phase the British had several advantages. First of all, the German fighter planes only had 20 minutes fighting time over Britain after allowing for fuel to get across the Channel and back. In contrast, British pilots had full tanks for fighting. Secondly, the fighting over Britain meant that only British pilots who were shot down and survived could be rescued to fight again, while surviving German pilots became prisoners. Third, the British had a new technology, radar, which let them spot German planes as they were being launched and concentrate their forces against them. Finally, the British had gotten hold of a copy of Enigma, the German decoding machine. This proved to be a decisive element throughout the war since the allies were often able to intercept and prepare for supposedly secret German plans.
This still did not make it easy. Although they suffered heavy losses, German pilots were good and their superior numbers exacted a toll on the RAF through aerial fights and bombing raids on British airfields. Bit by bit, the RAF was being worn down by casualties, battle fatigue and damage to its airfields. Ironically, what saved the RAF and Britain was Hitler’s decision to bomb British cities.
Initially, Hitler did not want to concentrate on Britain’s cities. However, on August 24, some of his bombers lost their way and accidentally bombed London. Churchill retaliated by launching an air raid on Berlin, which infuriated Hitler and caused him to turn the Luftwaffe loose on London and other cities. This gave the RAF the break it needed to recover its strength.
Thus began the Blitz, nine months of daily bombing raids. At first the raids came by day. But the RAF, now under less pressure, was able to inflict heavy damage on the enemy. Therefore, the Germans soon limited their raids to nighttime when their planes were harder to spot. Since the British could do little against these raids, civilians huddled in their cellars or flocked to the subways for safety. Surprisingly enough, there was little panic. The Blitz became a way of life interwoven with the more normal activities carried on in the daytime. And so, night after night, month after month, the British grimly hung on against these assaults on their cities.
Things looked particularly bleak for Britain in the spring of 1941. In addition to air attacks on their cities, the British also had to contend with German U-boats preying on their shipping in the North Atlantic. They answered this threat to their lifeline by developing sonar to detect German submarines and better depth charges and convoys with naval escorts to combat them.
Meanwhile, the United States, although officially neutral, was becoming increasingly concerned about Britain’s survival against the Nazis. President Roosevelt brought America closer to direct involvement through the Lend Lease Act, which provided vital aid to the British in their hour of need. By the end of 1941, Roosevelt’s policies and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would bring the United States into the war. However, it was events further east that proved to be Hitler’s ultimate undoing. On June 22, 1941, he invaded Russia, thus ending the Blitz and giving Britain new life.
The Eastern Front (1939-1944)
In the East, Stalin had taken his share of Poland according to his pact with Hitler, and then swallowed up the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Next he attacked Finland, which put up a spirited defense that held the vastly superior Soviet forces at bay for several months. In the end, the Finns were overwhelmed and forced to cede part of their land to Stalin.
Stalin’s growing power in the East increasingly alarmed Hitler who had intended from the beginning to destroy Russia. Hitler set his attack for May 1941, but events elsewhere delayed his plans. Mussolini, sensing an opportunity for Italian glory, invaded both Yugoslavia and North Africa, got bogged down by stiff resistance, and called on Germany to bail him out. Hitler was furious, but he sent in troops who overran the Balkans, drove the British out of Crete with a daring paratroop operation, and then drove the British back toward Egypt in North Africa. The delay this caused in Hitler’s preparations to invade Russia may have been the critical difference that allowed the Russian winter to stop the German advance on Moscow and eventually defeat the Nazis.
The invasion of Russia was probably Hitler’s biggest mistake, although at first it did not seem that way. Much of his mistake was being overconfident from his recent victories and not preparing the sort of force the invasion of Russia would require. Stalin, still trusting in his pact with Hitler, refused to heed warnings of an impending German attack. When the attack, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, came, it hit a Soviet army whose officer corps was decimated by the recent purges and Stalin’s insistence on personally authorizing all actions any of his generals took. As a result, Guderian’s blitzkrieg inflicted staggering losses on the Russians and drove deep into the Soviet Union in the opening months. Then the Russian winter set in, stalling the German offensive just 20 miles from Moscow. German soldiers, unequipped and unprepared for these subzero conditions, suffered horribly while their equipment broke down. Meanwhile, the Russians launched offensives of their own that nearly destroyed much of the German forces.
The German offensive revived with the spring thaw in 1942. The Germans advanced against Leningrad in the north and Stalingrad in the south. The siege of Leningrad was a long drawn-out affair that lasted 900 days. Starvation, more than bullets exacted its toll, especially on civilians. Although as many as 1.5 million Russians died in the siege of Leningrad, the city stood held out.
If any battle was the turning point of the war, it was Stalingrad, an industrial city that Hitler saw as the key to Russia’s oil fields in the south. After initial German successes that took 90% of the city, the fighting bogged down into desperate house-to-house and even room-to-room fighting. As the Russians bled the German army white in the rubble of Stalingrad, they were also building massive forces to the north and south. On November 19, 1942, they slammed into the flanks of the German army guarded by its Italian and Romanian allies, broke through, and met in a giant pincer movement behind the German army. The German army of some 250,000 men besieging Stalingrad was now itself surrounded and besieged.
Hitler refused to let the Germans break out and retreat, insisting that they continue the siege while he tried to airlift supplies to them. Therefore, while starvation, the Russian winter, and shelling took their toll, the fighting in the rubble continued. However, in February 1943, the Germans finally surrendered. Of the 90,000 Germans who survived to surrender at Stalingrad, only 5000 would make it home from Stalin’s prison camps.
The Russian victory at Stalingrad provided the impetus to go on the offensive and drive the Germans out of Russia. Two things provided the Russians with the means to fight this war to the bitter end. First, and most important, was the revival of Russian industries, many of them moved beyond the Ural Mountains and out of reach of the Luftwaffe. Second, there was substantial material aid from the United States shipped north of Scandinavia, braving the hazards of both the Arctic Ocean and German U-boats. By war’s end, these gave Stalin the means to build the most massive war machine in all history.
The Russian Front in World War II became renown for the intensity and the desperation of its fighting. This was especially true of the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943, a German attempt to break through a strong salient in the Russian line and turn the tide back in Germany’s favor. This battle involved over one million men, 5800 tanks and assault guns, 5000 planes, and 30,000 artillery pieces on both sides. After weeks of blasting away at each other, sometimes at pointblank range, the Russians had broken the German offensive.
If Stalingrad signaled the end of the German tide of conquests, Kursk signaled the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich. Not that Germany was completely done for yet. The fighting on the Russian Front assumed epic proportions till the end of the war. Whereas Hitler committed 10 divisions to North Africa, he had 200 divisions on the Russian Front. Therefore, the fighting, destruction, and bloodshed escalated to horrific levels and continued unbroken until the bitter end.
The Western Front (1942-44)
The tide was turning against Germany on other fronts as well, especially as American forces and material were being fed into the war. In North Africa, Allied forces under the British General, Montgomery decisively defeated German General Rommel and his Afrika Corps at El Alamein. Despite all of Rommel’s efforts, the German war effort in North Africa faltered without adequate aid from home. By May 1943, the Germans had been cleared from North Africa.
The Allies then swept across Sicily and into Italy. German forces defending Italy used its rocky and mountainous terrain well and slowed down the Allies who referred to Italy as “tough old gut”. The slowness of the Allied advance in Italy aggravated Stalin who pushed the British and Americans to open a new front to take the pressure off Russia. Much of the hostility between Russia and the West after the war came from Stalin’s belief that his allies intentionally dragged their feet while Russia and Germany bled each other to death.
In fairness to the British and Americans, launching an amphibious assault on France’s heavily defended coasts was a very dangerous and tricky operation. It required intense preparations and the build-up of massive forces that were not ready until 1944. Until that time, the British and American air forces were busy taking the war directly to the German heartland. As the war progressed, so did the intensity of aerial bombardments of German cities. In some cases, as at Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945, the bombing was so intense that firestorms developed, whipping up 150 mile per hour winds and temperatures of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The destruction and death tolls from these raids were devastating to the German people. However, German war industries had largely been decentralized and spread out away from the heart of German cities, Therefore, they still managed to maintain production of weapons and war materials.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the British and Americans finally gave Stalin the second front he wanted by launching an amphibious assault on the beaches of Normandy, the largest such assault in history. It ran a tremendous risk, but was successful in establishing a foothold in France. In the following weeks, the Allies expanded that foothold and then broke out into the French countryside in July. In the following months, they triumphantly advanced through France, liberating Paris in August, and being poised for a final assault on Germany in 1945.
The end of the Third Reich (1944-45)
By late 1944, the German position on both the Eastern and Western Fronts was steadily crumbling. On June 22, 1944 (the third anniversary of the German invasion of Russia), the Russians broke through two strong points in the German line and surrounded 40 divisions known as Army Group Center. Eventually they destroyed or captured all but 12 of those divisions. In October, a similar offensive destroyed Germany’s Army Group North. Germany’s allies, Romania and Bulgaria, dropped out of the war and the Germans were forced to abandon the Balkans. By 1945 the Russians were driving through Poland against a German army that had only one tank for every three or four miles of front and was drafting old men and 14 year old boys to fill its ranks.
In one last desperate bid, probably to get a negotiated settlement from Britain and America and thus force the Russians to stop their advance, Hitler launched a surprise attack against the American and British forces in the Ardennes in December 1944. The Germans were initially successful in this “Battle of the Bulge,” but their offensive literally ran out of gas and men as the Allies regrouped and counterattacked. In early 1945, the Russians, Americans, and British invaded Germany from both east and west.
With invasions closing in from all sides and air raids tearing apart Germany’s cities, only Hitler, who was secluded in an underground bunker, failed to recognize the inevitable collapse of Germany and refused to surrender. In late April, Russian forces reached Berlin. What few German forces that remained put up a desperate resistance, and it took the Russians three days to take the city. Just as the Russians were closing in on his bunker, Hitler committed suicide. His body, probably cremated beyond recognition, was never found.
In his wake, Hitler left an unprecedented amount of death and destruction, including the brutal and bizarre murder of some 6,000,000 Jews and millions of others in his death camps. He had intended his Third Reich to last 1000 years. It had lasted twelve.