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By Muhammad Tegar Al Firdausy's Blog

World War II

Sabtu, 10 April 2010

In 1939 the world went to war for the second time in the 20th century. This war was more savage than any other war in history. Millions were killed and millions more—civilian and military—were involved in the conflict. New and terrifying weapons were used for the first time. When the war ended in 1945, the world was a greatly changed place.


The peace treaties of 1919 that followed World War I left three countries extremely dissatisfied. Germany, the main defeated nation, resented the loss of territory and the payments it had to make (called “reparations”) to the victorious countries. Both Italy and Japan, who were on the winning side, felt they had not gained enough territory after the war.

In all three countries after World War I, democracy failed and was replaced by fascism or militarism. In Italy, Benito Mussolini became prime minister in 1922 and established a fascist dictatorship. In Japan, the military dominated the government. These new governments said that democracy had failed and believed that aggressive new policies were needed to make their countries powerful. These policies included attacking other countries that were “weaker”.

In Germany, the democratic government could not cope with the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. Millions of people lost their jobs. Many people turned to Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Hitler was an extreme fascist who preached anti-Semitism (hatred of Jewish people and culture) and racism. He promised to overturn the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 and give Germans more Lebensraum (living space) in eastern Europe. In 1933 Hitler became chancellor (prime minister) and established a dictatorship, imprisoning his critics and crushing all opposition to Nazi rule.


Japan, Italy and Germany all began to create new empires. Japan occupied the north-eastern Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 and invaded the rest of China in 1937. Mussolini dreamed of creating a new Roman Empire around the Mediterranean Sea, invading Ethiopia in 1935 and Albania in 1939.

Hitler re-armed Germany, created an air force and introduced conscription—all forbidden by the Versailles Treaty. In 1936 Italy, Germany and Japan formed the Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis or alliance. These three nations and their allies became known as the Axis Powers.


In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria and in September 1938 threatened to annex the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, where many Germans lived. Britain and France, the main defenders of the Versailles Treaty, believed that the best way to deal with Hitler was to satisfy his demands. This policy was called “appeasement”. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, negotiated with Hitler at Munich. Chamberlain forced the Czechs to give the Sudetenland to Germany in return for a promise by Hitler that he would not take any more of the country. Chamberlain famously believed he had achieved “peace in our time”.

Six months later, Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia and began to threaten Poland. Britain agreed to help Poland if it were attacked by Germany. France already had a similar agreement with Poland. War was now inevitable.


Hitler had to be sure that when Germany invaded Poland, the USSR (a union of Communist states, led by Russia, established after the Russian Revolution of 1917) would not object. On August 23, 1939, Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR, signed the Nazi–Soviet Pact: each country agreed not to go to war against the other. A secret agreement gave the USSR a free hand in eastern Poland, Finland and the three Baltic states so that it could extend its frontier westwards. On September 1, 1939, German armies marched into Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war. World War II had begun.


During September 1939, Germany occupied western Poland. The USSR occupied eastern Poland and in November attacked Finland. The Finns, however, were skilled at winter warfare, and held out against the much larger Soviet army until they agreed peace terms in March 1940. In June the USSR occupied the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

After the fall of Poland, the “phoney war” began, during which no fighting took place. Both sides prepared for war. The phoney war ended in April 1940, when Germany occupied Denmark and Norway.

On May 10 German airborne troops landed in Belgium and the Netherlands. On the same day, German troops invaded France and by the end of the month had trapped trapped a large British and French army on the coast at Dunkirk. A huge flotilla of naval ships, fishing boats and even pleasure craft brought many of the troops safely back across the English Channel to England. On June 10, Italy joined the war against Britain and France. France collapsed and on June 22 signed an armistice (truce) with Germany, giving it control of northern France. The French government of Marshal Henri Pétain governed southern France from the town of Vichy—this state became known as Vichy France. Britain, now led by Winston Churchill, stood alone against Germany.


In June 1940 Germany began a submarine campaign against British shipping. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted the whole war. Hundreds of ships were sunk and thousands of sailors killed, while the Germans lost very few U-boats (as German submarines were called). Vital war supplies and food to Britain were cut off.

Before it invaded Britain, Germany had to defeat the British Royal Air Force (RAF) so that its invasion fleet could cross the English Channel safely. In July 1940 the German airforce bombed British shipping, ports and airports, and then its cities, such as London, in an assault known as the Blitz. The skilled fighter pilots of the RAF defeated the German airforce in the Battle of Britain. In September, Hitler postponed his plans to invade Britain.


By the end of 1940, Germany controlled all of western Europe except Britain. Hitler now turned towards the USSR. He formed alliances with Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. In April 1941 German troops invaded and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece.

Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR, began on June 22, 1941, when more than 3 million Axis troops crossed the border. Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet Pact and his troops besieged the northern city of Leningrad (today known as St Petersburg) for almost 900 days, while other troops headed east towards Moscow and south-east towards the oilfields of the Caucasus region. At first the Germans had massive success, capturing more than a million prisoners, destroying many tanks and aeroplanes and seizing large parts of the western USSR. Then the bitterly cold Russian winter weather halted their advance outside Moscow. On December 6, 1941, the Soviet Red Army went on the offensive and the Germans retreated.


The war now became truly global. On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States had been neutral in the war so far, although it helped Britain and Russia with weapons and other supplies. Led by President Frankin Roosevelt, the United States now entered the war on the side of the Allies—Britain, France and the USSR—against the Axis Powers. Japanese troops swiftly invaded South East Asia, occupying Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. They took the British naval base of Singapore in February 1942 and the Philippines by May.


The Japanese advance across the Pacific Ocean was halted at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and reversed at the crucial Battle of Midway in June. In August 1942, US marines took the island of Guadalcanal in the south-western Pacific. The two sides then fought six naval battles around the island. Both sides suffered great losses, but from then on the Japanese were increasingly on the defensive as US marines recaptured island after island.


The Axis suffered a second defeat in 1942, in North Africa. In September 1940 troops from the Italian colony of Libya invaded British-held Egypt but were swiftly expelled. In February 1941 Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps to support the Italians. Over the next 18 months, German and British armies swept back and forth across North Africa until, in November 1942, the British under General Bernard Montgomery defeated Rommel at El ’Alamein in Egypt.

Days later, British, American, and Free French troops (French soldiers opposed to German occupation of their country and to the government of Vichy France) landed in north-western Africa. The Allied armies met in Tunisia, forcing the German and Italian armies to surrender in May 1943.


The third major Axis defeat occurred at Stalingrad (today known as Volgograd). German troops had pushed deep into Russia and in September 1942 reached the city of Stalingrad on the River Volga. Here, however, the Red Army surrounded them and forced them to surrender in February 1943, with the loss of more than 200,000 lives.

The Germans suffered another defeat in Russia in July 1943, when, in the world’s largest tank battle, the Red Army stopped a massive German attack at Kursk. From then on, the Red Army slowly pushed the Germans out of the USSR.


After the defeat of Rommel, the Allies now controlled the Mediterranean Sea. In July 1943 they invaded the Italian island of Sicily. Mussolini was forced to resign and the Italian government made peace with the Allies. The Germans, however, occupied northern Italy and rescued Mussolini from prison. When the Allies landed in mainland Italy in September 1943, they had to fight their way up the entire length of the country against strong German resistance, only reaching the north in early 1945.


In 1943 British and American aircraft launched a day and night bombing campaign against Germany, killing thousands in raids on Hamburg and other cities. Apart from the fighting in Italy, the main weight of the war in Europe was carried by the Red Army on the eastern front in Russia. In 1944 the Allies were ready to launch a second front against Germany in the west by invading France.

The preparations for Operation Overlord, as it was known, were enormous. On June 6, 1944 —D-Day—176,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in the biggest seaborne invasion in history. By the end of the month, more than 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles had been brought ashore. At first, they made slow progress, but on August 25 they liberated Paris and in September entered Belgium. Meanwhile, US and French troops landed in southern France and advanced northwards.

German troops retreated eastwards, but in December they mounted an attack through the forests of the Ardennes, a hilly, wooded area in Belgium. The attack caught the American troops by surprise, but Allied air strength stopped the German forces in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. In February 1945 the Allies advanced again.


By now, the Red Army had swept through the Balkans, occupying Romania and Bulgaria by September 1944 and most of Yugoslavia in October. They reached the Hungarian capital, Budapest, in late November and occupied the whole of Poland by the following February.

On March 7, Allied troops crossed the River Rhine at Remagen and poured into northern Germany. As they did so, Soviet troops attacked Germany from the east. On April 25 the two armies met at Torgau on the River Elbe, dividing Germany between them. By now, German resistance was almost over.

On April 30, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. On May 7 the new German leader, Admiral Karl Döntiz, agreed an unconditional surrender of all German forces. The war in Europe was over.


The war against Japan continued, however. By August 1944, US forces had regained Guam, Saipan and other islands. From these, they were close enough to Japan to launch bombing attacks against its cities.

In early 1945, US troops took Iwo Jima and then Okinawa, both with considerable loss of life. The United States planned to invade the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, but it was obvious that Japan would not surrender without many dying on both sides.

The US government decided that the best way to end the war was by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. These weapons had been developed in secret during the war but were not tested until July 1945. The first bomb landed on Hiroshima on August 6, the second on Nagasaki on August 9. Up to 195,000 people were killed, and many more died later from radiation-related illnesses. On August 14 Japan surrendered. World War II was over.


The cost of the war was immense. In all, 61 countries and 1.7 billion people—three-quarters of the world’s entire population at that time—took part. About 110 million people were mobilized for military service, up to 30 million from the USSR, 18 million from Germany and 16 million from the United States. It is difficult to know how many people were killed, but the likely total is about 50 million, of whom 35 million were civilians. The USSR lost 20 million people, while Poland lost one-fifth of its civilian population.

Technological and scientific developments made the war the most brutal in human history. Civilians in the vast war zones were caught up in the fighting, and suffered from disease and starvation. Many were killed by aerial bombing, which brought the war right into their homes. Many more were used as slave labour in German factories and armament industries.


The most horrifying event of the war was the deliberate murder of almost 6 million Jewish men, women and children deported from Germany and German-occupied countries to Nazi concentration camps, often situated in Poland. As soon as he took power in 1933, Hitler began persecuting Jews and other minorities such as the Roma. Jews were banned from most work, their property was seized and they were forced to live in ghettoes and wear the yellow Star of David emblem in public.

In 1942 a conference of German officials drew up plans for the “final solution” to the Jewish “problem”. Jews and others were herded into camps and killed in gas chambers in Auschwitz and elsewhere. Many also suffered appalling torture.


The effect of the war was immense. The three Axis dictatorships—Germany, Italy, Japan—were crushed. Britain and France emerged from the war victorious but exhausted. Their cities, like many others in western Europe, were in ruins, and their economies wrecked. The two main victors were the United States and the USSR, who between them dominated the world for the next 45 years.

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