Hitler had never believed that the British would fight. He had always intended to have a war — Poland, France, Russia eventually — but not this one.
In contrast to the patriotic fervour of , the German people went into this conflict full of gloom and foreboding, a mood which only cleared after the dazzling victory over France in The British did not cheer either. So began the 21 months of European war — not yet world war. The Poles fought bravely but were crushed by Nazi and Soviet armies advancing from west and east.
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Britain and France did nothing militarily to fulfil their guarantees to Poland, and spent a static winter confronting the Germans across the French frontier. Could this war — should it — have been avoided? Hitler would almost certainly have attacked France sooner or later. But Britain? To this day, a few historians think that the Polish guarantee was a fateful mistake. In April , Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. The Battle of Britain denied Hitler the air superiority he needed to cross the Channel, but Benito Mussolini now thought it safe to bring Italy into the war and occupy a sliver of France.
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Hitler had in fact won the war by the late summer of Britain, he thought, could now be bracketed out. Hitler had conquered seven countries with a population of more than million, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic almost to the Black Sea. The Soviet Union and the US showed no immediate sign of wishing to join the conflict. Why, then, was this not the end of the story? It was time for my father to leave for work at the torpedo factory.
But he suddenly jumped up from the breakfast table and went to the window to stare at the morning sky. I can still hear the exultation in his voice. The wireless had just told us that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. It was 22 June It was the day when an Anglo-German war began to turn into a world war. It was the day when Hitler set in train his own failure and death and the destruction of his country. And it was the day that designed the postwar world. The first was his own defeat; in the long run, no invader could overcome the colossal resources of Russia and the courage of its peoples.
The second was that Germany would not only be devastated but would be broken up into satellite states shaped by the victors.
The third was that Russian power would surge forward right into the centre of Europe — something western statesmen had struggled to prevent for two centuries. There the Soviet armies would meet Anglo-American armies entering Germany from the west, a confrontation which would lead to the permanent division of our continent into two hostile camps — the cold war. By the summer of , in any case, the war was starting to spread beyond Europe. Late in , two almost insane decisions completed the transformation into a true world war. A few days later, Hitler inexplicably declared war on the US. There was no sober reason for it, beyond showing solidarity with Japan.
President Roosevelt had been arming and supplying Britain for more than a year. Troops, aircraft and supplies flowed into Britain; American equipment reached Russia on perilous Arctic convoys. Almost at once, the Americans began to urge Churchill to launch an invasion of Nazi-held France, to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Union. Stalin joined the chorus for a second front in Churchill refused.
Poland still counts losses from WW2 invasion
Years more preparation were needed if a cross-Channel invasion were not to fail. Meanwhile, was a grim time for Britain as Japan collapsed the British empire in south-east Asia, conquering Malaya and Singapore and marching through Burma towards India. But it was on the eastern front, in the Soviet Union, that the outcome of the war was decided.
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Hitler had invaded Yugoslavia and then Greece, critically reducing the strength he needed in Russia, and on 8 December — the day after Pearl Harbor — the Nazi advance was finally halted in the snow a few miles before Moscow. But it was not until early that the tide of this colossal struggle began to turn, as the German 6th Army, cut off at Stalingrad, was forced to surrender after losing , dead. The decisive battle began in July at Kursk, the biggest tank battle in history, as the Red Army well warned by spies attacked the flanks of a huge Nazi thrust. Two million men and nearly 6, tanks took part.
After Kursk, the Soviets began an inexorable advance which would bring them, two years later, to Berlin. Elsewhere, the anti-Axis coalition was at last winning campaigns and liberating territory.
The Americans landed in Algeria and, with the British driving victoriously across Libya, threw the Germans out of north Africa. The Red Army was carrying the main burden of the war in Europe. Churchill had not yet launched the promised cross-Channel invasion, and the strength of the US war economy was only beginning to show as Japanese and American air and naval power clashed in the Pacific. In June , the Allies finally stormed the Normandy beaches.
After months of fierce fighting, the Germans retreated and by the end of the year France, Belgium and most of Holland had been liberated. The invasion was coordinated with another huge Soviet offensive, which broke through and drove on to the outskirts of Warsaw. The city rose to free itself before it fell under Soviet control, but the Red Army halted and allowed the Germans to suppress the rising and massacre the population. By the summer of , it was obvious that Germany had lost the war which it had won in But it dragged on for another nine months.
There were four main reasons why the Reich fought on. The second was the incredible resilience of German soldiers, who never seemed to lose their power of instant counterattack. The fourth reason was that many Germans, not only leading Nazis, knew what had been done in their name. From the Russians, at least, they expected no mercy. But, strangely, efforts to conceal evidence of the greatest crime of all, the murder of six million Jews, were late and erratic. In that summer of , the Auschwitz gas chambers were still killing 10, Hungarian Jews a day the last death train reached Auschwitz at the end of October.
On 29 April , as Russian troops closed in on his Berlin bunker, Hitler killed himself. On 7 May, after a messy series of local surrenders, Germany finally stopped fighting. The fate of Poland, which had suffered atrociously under Nazi occupation while staying loyal to the Allies from the first day of the war to the last, was especially agonising. To this day, Poles consider that the west sold them out at Yalta. But by then, only a third world war might have pushed Soviet power back to its own frontiers. The second world war had only one unqualified winner: the US.
Defeating Japan, expected to take several more years and cost a million casualties, was achieved on two days that August, as atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki together with their inhabitants. America emerged as by far the greatest industrial power on earth, supplying almost insatiable demand from its own internal market and from the reconstruction of a ruined western Europe — given hard-currency purchasing power through the Marshall Plan.
The first world war had destroyed the old land empires of Eurasia by military defeat and revolution. Military experience, spreading education, the ideals of the Russian Revolution, even the sudden leap in earnings caused by wartime demand for African and Asian raw materials, all encouraged colonised peoples to demand independence. The world atlas changed colour.
So did the streets of western Europe.