World War II


Table Summary

Summary of World War II
timespan phase notes
Sep 1939 German invasion of Poland lasts roughly a month
Oct 1939-Mar 1940 "Phony War" relatively little conflict occurs, mainly harassment of enemy shipping
Apr 1940-May 1941 early Axis expansion Axis expansion across most of Europe
Jun-Dec 1941 invasion of Russia Germany expands eastward as far as Moscow
1942 German expansion in Russia;
Japanese expansion in the Pacific
primary targets of the German expansion:
the city of Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucasus
winter of 1942-43 turning point of the war victory at El Alamein (Nov 1942) > Anglo-American recovery of North Africa;
victory at Stalingrad (Feb 1943) > Russian westward advance
1943-44 Axis retraction Axis territory is eroded, leading to aerial bombardment of Germany and Japan;
Normandy (Jun 1944) > liberation of France > winter pause (Battle of the Bulge)
1945 Axis defeat two-front invasion of Germany > VE Day (May 8);
atomic bombings > Japanese surrender (Sep 2)

General Features

The Second World War was fought between the Axis Powers (primarily Germany, Italy, and Japan) and Allied Powers (primarily Britain, France, Russia, China, and the United States). The European armies included millions of colonial soldiers, especially from Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Technologically, World War II was fought largely with improved versions of the same weapons as the First World War; the foremost improvements were made in airplanes and tanks. The most significant new weapons were long-range missiles and nuclear bombs, although these were only developed toward the end of the war.A447,K360-61,1,3

The interwar period witnessed the rise of fascism in various European states (including Italy and Germany), as well as Japan. Shortly into the war, these three nations signed a pact of alliance. Japan had spent the interwar period pursuing aggressive imperialism in China, including the seizure of Manchuria (a large region of northeast China); China and Japan were thus already at war when World War II began, such that China found itself among the Allies.3

In the prewar period of Nazi government (1933-39), German Jews suffered vicious discrimination, including boycotts on Jewish business, banishment from the civil service, destruction of Jewish buildings (homes, businesses, synagogues), relocation to concentration camps and ghettos (walled, gated neighbourhoods), and physical attacks. By the time World War II began, thousands of Jews had already been killed. During the war itself, the Nazi government committed the holocaust: the mass imprisonment, enslavement, torture, and murder of Jews and other persecuted groups. Six million Jews died in the holocaust, as well as further millions from such groups as gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, and political dissidents.5

Main Article

Invasion of Poland

Sep 1939

In the years leading up to World War II, France and Britain attempted to evade conflict by allowing Hitler to seize neighbouring lands, including Austria and Czechoslovakia. This policy of appeasement was finally abandoned when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939; shortly thereafter, Britain and France declared war.1 Prior to the invasion, Germany had secured a non-aggression pact with Russia in order to avoid a two-front conflict. In this same agreement, Germany assented to Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe.3

The conquest of Poland was accomplished in about a month via blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), a new approach to warfare in which territory was rapidly overrun with tanks and aerial bombing. Meanwhile, Russia expanded westward.

Initial Expansion of Axis Powers and Russia (roughly the first month of WWII)

Phony War

Oct 1939-Mar 1940

The invasion of Poland was followed by a six-month lull in military activity known as the Phony War (Oct 1939-Mar 1940). Relatively little conflict occurred during this period; aggression was limited mainly to harassment of opponents' shipping routes, in the form of both blockades and direct attacks. For Britain and France, these blockades were a final, desperate attempt to smother the war before it escalated into massive casualties.A456,2,3

Early Axis Expansion

Apr 1940-May 1941

The Phony War ended in April 1940, with the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. Thus began the early Axis expansion, which lasted from April 1940 to May 1941. The expansion occurred in all directions: north across Denmark and Norway, west across the Low Countries and France, south across North Africa, and east across the Balkans.

Early Axis Expansion

To the west, the early Axis expansion only stopped at the border of Iberia (Spain and Portugal), which remained neutral throughout the war (as did Switzerland). Eastward, the expansion only stopped when it met up with Russian territory. Expansion across the English Channel was thwarted by British victory in the aerial Battle of Britain.2

Invasion of Russia

Jun-Dec 1941

In 1941, World War II experienced two critical developments: the German invasion of Russia and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The invasion of Russia was launched in June and lasted until December, when it was halted by the fierce Russian winter. The attack on Pearl Harbor, which lasted only hours, took place on December 7.

In June 1941, Germany terminated the non-aggression pact by invading Russian territory, thus creating the Eastern Front (the largest theatre of the war).2 The German advance was rapid: city after city in Eastern Europe fell to Nazi forces, with Russian defences suffering heavy casualties as a central force closed in on Moscow. Against the advice of his generals, however, Hitler temporarily diverted the Moscow force to support other attacks.3

The advance on Moscow eventually resumed, but too late. After only weeks of fighting, German forces were repelled and forced to maintain position through the freezing winter, suffering heavy casualties. The cold weather often disabled equipment and took an enormous toll on morale, as the Germans were short on supplies and winter clothing.3

Pearl Harbor

Meanwhile, Japan was preparing to amass a Pacific empire, the chief obstacle to which was the United States' Pacific Fleet. The Japanese plan was to launch a surprise attack on this fleet (at Pearl Harbor), then embark on a campaign of rapid conquest. The plan depended on the United States being unwilling to incur heavy losses over control of the region.3

During the interwar period, the United States had adopted a policy of isolationism, a position that is both political (non-participation in alliances/wars) and economic (protectionism). Axis aggression (including German attacks on American shipping), however, compelled the US to begin providing economic aid to Britain. Then, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (and other nearby bases) on December 7, 1941, America entered the war.3

The ensuing Pacific War was fought principally between the US and Japan. The Japanese initially succeeded in dominating the region, forcing the Allies to operate from Australia. Up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese expansion in the Pacific had been relatively minor; throughout 1942, the Japanese empire expanded rapidly across most of Southeast Asia and Oceania. The turning point in this theatre was the Battle of Midway, June 1942.2,3

The Pacific War thus spanned 1942-45. Combat in the Atlantic (known as the Battle of the Atlantic), on the other hand, lasted the whole of World War II (1939-45). The turning point in this ocean came later, with the Allies finally gaining the upper hand in 1943.A459

Axis Retraction


The year 1942 witnessed the peak of Axis expansion and power. Allied shipping suffered heavily from U-boat attacks all over the Atlantic (as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico), while the tide of the Pacific War turned very slowly (even after the Battle of Midway) as Japan clung tenaciously to its island territories. In Europe, German expansion in Russia resumed, with remarkable success. Hitler continued to defer the attack on Moscow, instead sending two large forces southward: one to attack Stalingrad, the other to seize oil fields in the Caucasus.2,3

Peak of Axis Expansion (Europe)
Peak of Axis Expansion (Pacific)

The turning point of World War II came in the winter of 1942-43, which featured two critical battles. British victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein (November 1942) initiated the Anglo-American recovery of North Africa; this enabled the invasion of Italy, which led quickly to Italian surrender. In February 1943, the siege of Stalingrad was finally broken with Russian victory in the Battle of Stalingrad; thenceforward, Germany was forced steadily westward by Russian forces.3

Axis power slowly declined over 1943-44. The Allies came to dominate the air in both Europe and the Pacific, allowing bombardment of German and Japanese cities. On June 6, 1944, the invasion of Europe began with the Normandy Landings in northern France, which triggered Germany's desperate campaign of launching rockets at Britain.2,3

Following the liberation of France, the Allies were forced to pause for the winter and fortify their supply lines. During this pause came Hitler's final offensive: the Battle of the Bulge, in which German forces attempted to divide the Western Front and establish a foothold in Belgium. While alarmingly successful at first, the advance only succeeded in creating a temporary "bulge" in the Allied line.2,3

Axis Decline (Europe)
Axis Decline (Pacific)

Axis Defeat


As winter thawed in early 1945, the Western Allies and Soviets closed in on Germany from both sides. The Nazi regime entered its death throes, and Hitler committed suicide. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, known as Victory in Europe Day.2,3

Although Japan could not hope to win the war of the Pacific, it continued to battle ferociously, relinquishing each island only with immense bloodshed. Japanese desperation culminated in the use of kamikaze pilots, who flew planes loaded with explosives directly into US ships. Finally, with the American development of the atomic bomb, conventional operations were suspended in favour of nuclear attack.

In August, bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, ending the Second World War.3 It had taken over fifty million lives, and remains the bloodiest conflict in history.

1 - "World War II", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.
2 - "World War II", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2010.
3 - "World War II", Encarta 2004. Accessed May 2010.
4 - "Finland", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2010.
5 - "Holocaust", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.