World War II was a life changing global event that involved many powerful countries around the world none more so than Great Britain and Germany. The war began in 1939 ending in 1945 so lasted six years. These years were to change the face of the world forever dividing countries, while uniting some, following what became to be known as the war to end all wars. Involving some seventy million deaths worldwide World War II was the deadliest war in history.
The war was divided into two main opponents the Allies who looking at it from a British point of view were the friends of Britain and the Axis who were the enemy. Germany was Britain’s foremost enemy of the war and its instigator. The German people had never really come to terms with the fact that they were defeated by Britain and her allies back in 1918 when the Germans lost World War I.
Prior to the start of World War II Germany occupied Czechoslovakia which was seen as a hostile act by Britain. Chamberlain who was the prime minister of Britain at the time had said as much when speaking on the matter and warning shots metaphorically speaking were fired over the German Boughs from all quarters. It was feared that Germany would progress moving further to occupy Poland. Both Britain and France joined in their condemnation of Germany warning that such an act would be seen as an act of war forcing the two nations to rise in the defence of Poland if invasion occurred.
Germany had begun stealthily invading territories from 1936 taking over Austria then finally all areas of Czechoslovakia meaning Hitler the Chancellor of Germany was gaining in confidence and power. He promised the German people retribution for their dismissal in World War I plus that he would once again make their country great. The German people listened and supported Hitler making him a popular while ruthless leader. Hitler hated the Jews blaming them for all the ills of society so turning the general population against them. Thus began his “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem that was to see millions of them perish in concentration camps throughout Europe.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1st 1939. This was to be the first Blitzkrieg (speedy invasion without warning) the world had witnessed. Poland did have suspicions that an invasion was imminent but could never have envisaged the onslaught that was to come so were not prepared in terms of mobility or numbers of troops on the ground. Britain and France called for Hitler to withdraw from Poland but their calls were unheeded so on the 3rd September 1939 at 11.15am war was declared on Germany by Prime Minister Chamberlain . Poland was totally overrun by German forces along with Russia who Hitler has signed a none aggression treaty with, and so World War II had begun.
Neville Chamberlain did not however see Britain through the war with Germany as prime minister. Britain was to elect a great war time PM who was to prove to be an extremely successful war time leader, guiding Britain to victory using fine decision making plus tactical prowess. That leader was Winston Churchill who served from May 1940 to July 1945. Churchill flatly refused to surrender to Germany even though France had capitulated while his speeches were to become legendary with such phrases as “we will fight them on the beaches” or “never in the history of mankind have so many, owed so much to so few” being still quoted today. Winston Churchill played a pivotal role during World War II being admired and revered by many.
Following the 1939 invasion Britain began to mobilise her troops bringing in conscription for all able men to join the fight. By May 1940 Germany had also invaded Belgium, Holland and France advancing closer and closer to Britain. The most famous battle would be fought between the British Air Force and the German Luftwaffe being The Battle of Britain. The British had to win this battle to repel Hitler’s forces from advancing to invade Britain.
The Battle of Britain was waged over the seas and countryside surrounding Britain from July to October 1940. It was the first military campaign to be fought in the air and was to prove to be Britain’s finest hour in the words of Winston Churchill the wartime prime minister. Hitler knew that if he could destroy the Royal Air Force that an invasion of Britain would be made much simpler. For Britain it was a them or us situation that they could not afford to lose.
Germany had over 2,600 aircraft at their disposal to destroy airfields, shipping lanes and ultimately towns and cities. Germany however had never fought a campaign in the air involving such long distances. This put them at a distinct disadvantage. The British had the Spitfire and the Hurricane bombers while Germany had the Messcherschmitt meaning mechanically plus power wise there was little difference. Britain’s advantage came in the form of radar tracking and guidance along with great tactical talent plus fighting over home territory meant that downed pilots could be picked up to fight another day.
The significant battle of the campaign was fought on 15th September when Germany lost fifty six aircraft while the British lost only twenty eight. Almost double the number of German planes were lost compared with British aircraft resulting in Hitler calling the campaign to a halt on September 17th. Bombing of towns and cities did continue for a time after the Battle of Britain but Hitler knew that his ambition of invading Britain at that time was over. The victory of The Battle of Britain cannot be emphasised too much as it ensured the safety of British shipping plus enabled the British to bomb major German cities or targets.
Hitler always knew that at some point Britain and her allies would try to invade mainland Europe and he was of course correct. The D day landings where British troops along with Americans landed in Normandy to proceed with the battle to free Europe was a huge campaign that involved a terrible loss of life in terms of manpower on both sides. It was a bloody campaign that began on Tuesday 6th June 1944 and was a turning point for Hitler as he must have realised that the end was in sight.
The element of surprise and inclement weather helped the landing success while it was the largest amphibious landing of troops in history. Over 160,000 troops were dispatched from Britain. They landed on a fifty mile stretch of Normandy beaches under the code names of Utah, Omaha, Juno and Gold. Warships provided bombardment from the sea to assist the troops but it did not unfortunately prevent severe casualties. There are many war graves in Normandy to this day where tourists relatives or friends can go to pay their respects to the brave dead of World War II.
Meanwhile in extermination camps sited all over occupied Europe Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Political Prisoners. The Handicapped and Disabled, including men women and children were being systematically murdered at the hands of the Nazis. The campaign was to be known historically as The Holocaust. Dachau the pre war camp was to be the model for more that would follow. Many of these camps were sited in Poland as the country had a huge population of Jews.
Prisoners in the camps were identified by badges that gave them a category such as Jews, Soviets, Gypsies or Homosexuals. Many died from disease or starvation while others were reserved for “special Treatment” meaning they were to be killed in the gas chambers. One of the most notorious camps was Auschwitz in Poland where millions of Jews were murdered. These included not only men and women but thousands of children who were stripped and led to their deaths in the “showers”. These showers did not have water but as the taps were turned Zyklon B gas entered the chambers gassing the people inside. Hitler’s Final Solution was very much in practice inside these camps. Approximately twelve million people died as a result of Hitler’s Final solution, six million of them Jews.
As Britain and their Allies advanced through Europe it became apparent to Hitler and his generals holed up in a bunker in Berlin that Germany was losing the war. The Allies had advanced in the Ardennes Offensive, over the Rhine into the German heartland plus were making gains daily. Hitler retreated to his bunker along with Eva Braun his wife on the 16th January 1945. The battle for Berlin came and went while by 21st April all defences in Berlin were all but gone.
Hitler learned of the death of Mussolini of Italy hearing how he and his wife were strung up and abused. Hitler was determined that such an unsavoury undignified death would not be his fate. On 30th April 1945 Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself, Eva his wife swallowed cyanide. Their bodies were taken outside and burned according to instructions from Hitler himself. This was pivotal, as news spread of Hitler’s demise prominent figures of the Third Reich tried to flee, some successfully, rather than surrender to the Allies.
Once the war was over people focused on punishing war crimes committed by the Nazis on the people of Europe. The world was shocked to see the full extent of events that had taken place within the camps. The Nuremberg Trials started in November 1945 where officials and officers alike were tried for crimes against humanity. Genocide on this scale had not happened previously so these trials were the first to deal with crimes of such importance or magnitude. This set the standard for future trials of perpetrators of genocide should they occur.
The United Nations was another organisation that arose from the ashes of World War II. It was created on October 24th 1945 dividing major power between five nations. These were The United Kingdom. France, USA, China and the USSR. The previous organisation was The League of Nations that was unsuccessful in preventing the war being divided into only three main countries.
Women also came more to the fore following World War II. While the men folk had been away fighting women had taken on their jobs doing work that previously women would never have done. When the men returned after the war was over women were very reluctant to give up their newly earned status sealing a place in the world for women’s right to work not only in jobs deemed suitable but in jobs that normally would be assumed to be man’s work.
Perhaps one of the most prominent results recalled following the end of World War II was the division of Germany. The United Kingdom, USA and Russia agreed that Germany would be divided into four zones. These were the American, British, French and Soviet Union zones. France, Britain and USA joined together forming West Germany while the Soviet zone was to become East Germany and so the cold war began. The Berlin wall was the central focus of this division being erected on 13th August 1961. The wall separated East Germany from West Germany making it a symbolic division between the free west with democracy from the communist east and loss of free will. The wall came down on November 9th 1989.
Life as we know it today was certainly shaped by events that happened before during and following World War II. Many hope that it was the final world war meaning such a conflict won’t happen again. Britain and her Allies won the war defeating Hitler’s Germany and the terrible things that they stood for at that time. We always like to think that good will triumph over evil and in this case it did although not without suffering a huge loss of life both civilian and military on both sides. Lessons were learned and many things changed forever as a result and that is why people will never forget what happened in World War II.
More on World War 2