Military Course of the War
The bitter struggles and the enormous casualties suffered by Great Britain and France in World War I had engendered in their military leaders a defensive attitude with a reliance on such permanent fortifications as the Maginot Line and on blockade as means of subduing a resurgent Germany. Placing their faith in the impotent League of Nations, both countries neglected the development of armaments and allowed those they possessed and their armed forces to deteriorate. The Germans, on the other hand, smarting under their failure in World War I to capitalize on initial breakthroughs of the Allied lines because of lack of sustained power, developed fast, hard-hitting tank-airplane forces and the strategy of the blitzkrieg (lightning war). Since they had been disarmed by the Allies, they were unencumbered by obsolescent armaments and could equip their forces with the most modern weapons. As a result, initial German operations met with surprisingly rapid success.
In less than a month, Poland had been conquered. There followed an inactive period (dubbed the Phony War) that lasted until April 1940. Then, despite Allied intervention, the Germans quickly seized Denmark and Norway. In May the blitzkrieg struck the western front in all its fury. Within six weeks the British had been driven from the Continent, and the French had been forced to surrender. The speed of the advance also surprised Hitler, who was not ready to follow his success with an invasion of the British Isles. The Luftwaffe, called upon to soften the islands and gain air superiority while preparations were made for invasion, received a stunning defeat at the hands of the small but highly competent and brave Royal Air Force. Frustrated in the west, Hitler turned against the USSR in June 1941. In a series of brilliant military maneuvers in which several million Russians were captured, he reached the gates of Moscow in December, only to be stopped by bad weather and Russian reinforcements rushed to defend the city.
Meanwhile, Mussolini sought to realize his dream of an Italian Mediterranean empire. In the late summer and fall of 1940 he launched an offensive from Libya against the British in Egypt and an invasion of Greece from Albania (which he had occupied in 1939) . Both enterprises eventually proved disastrous for the Italians, and German forces were sent to their rescue. Greece fell to the Germans, but they met stiff British opposition in Africa. In December 1941, Japan thought the time ripe to extend her empire into a Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere (see Map 35), which it did very rapidly against meager opposition. It was the Japanese plan to fortify this area so strongly as to withstand American counterattacks and eventually gain a negotiated peace based on the status quo. The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines brought the United States into the war and greatly altered the balance of power in favor of the Allies.
The year 1942 saw the turn of the tide for the Allies. In June, Japanese naval airpower was decimated by the United States Navy in the Battle of Midway. Having been repulsed at Moscow, Hitler turned to the Caucasus; but the Germans were severely defeated and turned back at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) by the Russians in the closing months of the year. At the same time the British dealt the Germans and Italians a defeat at El Alamein that sent them reeling in retreat westward along the African Mediterranean coast. In Tunisia they encountered newly landed British and American forces and were expelled from Africa in May 1943.
The Allies now had the initiative and, with the vast production facilities of the United States in full operation, took the offensive on all fronts. Resistance was bitter, and progress slow though inexorable. From bases in Africa the Allies invaded and captured Sicily in July-August 1943. In September, Italy was forced out of the war. British’, American, and French forces began a methodical and relentless advance up the Italian Peninsula against the Germans, who had been rushed in to defend it.
(The term “British,” as applied to military forces, includes where appropriate other Commonwealth forces: Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, and Indian-which performed outstandingly during the war and deep into Germany. Assailed on all sides, and their major cities devastated by aerial bombardment, the Germans surrendered on May 7, 1945.)
After Stalingrad the Russians, in a series of alternating offensives, gradually forced the Germans back with heavy losses, until by late April 1945 they were approaching Berlin.
Following a massive buildup of troops, air and naval power, and equipment in the British Isles, American, British, and French troops landed on the Normandy coast of France in June 1944 and pressed the Germans back to the West Wall. There, in December, the Germans launched a final counterattack, which failed. Aided by troops landed in southern France from Italy, the Allies forced the Germans back across the Rhine River
Because of a lack of resources, Allied strategy had envisioned the prior defeat of Germany while remaining on the defensive against the Japanese. Only after victory in Europe would the full Allied power be applied to Japan. American industrial production increased so rapidly, however, that limited offensives could be initiated against the Japanese as early as August 1942. Thereafter, a persistent two-pronged offensive across the Central Pacific and along the Solomon Islands-New Guinea axis steadily pushed the Japanese back. By the fall of 1944, American forces were landing in the Philippines, and they regained the islands the next spring. Then the island of Okinawa, at the threshold of Japan proper, was captured, and preparations were begun for the invasion of the home islands. Meanwhile, the Japanese position in Asia progressively deteriorated. By the summer of 1945, with its navy and air force virtually destroyed, its cities at the mercy of American aircraft, and cut off from sources of supply of muchneeded raw materials, the Japanese foresaw doom. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria hastened their decision to capitulate, which they did on August 14.