World War II Europe - Basic Summary

The average person probably cannot even tell you what decade the war was fought, or even who was on what side. I have decided to lay out a basic accounting of the war in chronological order to help such poor fools. This is a very long post, but still only covers the basic and most important events during the war.

Late 1920s:30s - Germany suffers through a prolonged period of economic privation, hyperinflation and other troubles partially stemming from the harsh terms and reparations levied on Germany by the Versailles Treaty, which was the end of the first world war. Hitler leaves his position as a German soldier and begins again as a political activist.

1933 - Adolf Hitler is named chancellor of Germany, and shortly after claims emergency powers following the burning of the Reichstag. These powers along with future laws essentially make him the dictator of the nation. Germany begins throwing off the military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles.

1936 -  Germany begins developing new tanks and aircraft, like the Ju-87 Stuka. They begin occupying buffer zones along the Rhine that international peacekeepers had vacated. The Spanish Civil War breaks out and lasts until 1939. In many ways it was a proxy war between Germany on the side of the Fascist government of Franco against Soviet support for the Republican government. It was the first example of mass air attacks on cities, and battle tested both the Stuka and the ME-109 both of which would be incredibly successful during WWII. Valuable lessons were learned by the Germans, especially in the use of bomber and fighter aircraft in area bombardment and close air support roles.

1938 - Germany coerces Austria to join in the Anschluss, the union of the two countries. Germany annexes a piece of Czechloslovakia, and a conference is held at Munich between Germany and the other world powers, with the purpose of preventing a future war with Germany. The British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, returns from the conference declaring that there shall be "peace in our time". Shortly after, Germany annexes the rest of Czechloslovakia and begins preparing for war.

1939 - On September 1st with the intentions of reoccupying territory lost in WWI, the German Blitzkrieg broke like a clap of thunder across the borders of Poland, occupying the country within weeks. The obsolete and outmatched Polish army simply cannot compete with the mechanized and tactically modern Wehrmacht. The power of the Stuka and JU-88 for CAS (close air support) is demonstrated with spectacular success, and the term Blitzkrieg is coined by western journalists. Britain and France, honouring their alliance with Poland declare war on Germany.

Early 1940 - The period of the "phoney war" continues for several months, with both sides deployed for battle but seeing no major engagements. In May the Germans launch a massive offensive into France, bypassing the static defenses of the Maginot line by advancing through the Ardennes forest in Belgium. The British and French immediately move north to support the Belgians, which the Germans exploit by flanking behind and driving to the Channel coast, cutting the majority of Allied forces off from the rest of France. The French and British tanks were superior in both numbers and quality to the German Panzers, but were no match for the brilliant new tactics and organization of the Heer (German Army). Within six weeks the French were defeated, and the British Expeditionary Force(BEF) was forced to evacuate to England through the port of Dunquerke. France surrenders shortly after, and Winston Churchill declares 'The battle for France is over, but the battle for Britain is just beginning'.

Late 1940 - Hitler seeks to make peace with England, but the English continue to resist. The Germans develop Operation Sealion, the invasion and occupation of Britain. The first stage is to secure air superiority, and the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) begins to attack British shipping, airfields and radar sites in August seeking to deliver a fatal blow to the outnumbered and fledling Royal Air Force. Initial Luftwaffe operations meet with great success, and it seems that Fighter Command is on the verge of collapse. Through a series of blunders and miscalculations at the highest levels (particularly Hermann Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler himself) priorities begin to shift, with the majority of the bombing campaign now focused on London itself in what was known to the Brits as 'The Blitz'. Despite the bombing the RAF recovered and was able to fight the Luftwaffe to a stand-still in the following months. With no hope of air superiority, and facing the superior Royal Navy the OKW (German high command) scrapped the invasion plans, ending the Battle of Britain.

Mid 1941 - With the Battle of Britain coming to an end, Hitler looks to the east and the vast land and resources of the Soviet Union. The fact that foreign minister Von Ribbentrop had signed the Non-Agression Pact with Stalin posed no obstacle, and the invasion went forward on June 22nd. The idea was to attain lebensraum, living space (land) and resources as part of the German world view of the time, believing as the stronger race they were entitled to them more than the less human Slavs (in fact they were referred to as untermensch, or sub human). Soviet strength was spread out and disorganized, being taken completely by surprise and were no match for the modern tactics of the Panzer divisions (no army in the world had quite figured out how to stop them at this point). The prime directive of Operation Barbarossa (the Invasion) was to encircle the Soviet forces with highly mobile Panzers (tanks) and then destroy as many as possible in "battles of annhilation", rather than to simply gain ground. The Germans were true to the precepts of Von Clausewitz, attempting to destroy the enemy's ability to fight back.

The invasion progressed well through 1941, over thousands of miles eventually coming within twelve miles of Moscow and bringing the Soviet forces to near collapse. In the first two days of the invasion alone the Soviets had lost over 20,000 aircraft, and over the first year of campaigning they had lost their entire tank pool (nearly 20,000 as well). Again we find the Germans outclassed by the enemy in terms of tanks, facing the extremely modern T-34 Soviet tank with obsolete Panzer II, short barreled Panzer IIIs and Czech built Panzer 38Ts. It was proven once again that no army could stand against the might of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) even with such advantages. The Luftwaffe gained total air supremacy during the early months, and reduced Soviet divisions at will from the air. The city of Leningrad was besieged, starving to death, and the key cities of Kharkov and Kiev had been occupied.

Winter 1941 - The last German offensive creaked to a halt during the winter, the worst in fifty years. The German equipment was simply too well engineered, designed to fight in a Western European climate with very low tolerances. In the Russian winter breechs of rifles froze solid, tank engines needed to be run at all hours of the night to prevent freezing. The German soldiers were provided with no winter clothing, and many literally froze their asses off (congelation of the anus). While the previous leadership of Soviet forces was scattered and incompetent, into this situation stepped one of the most brilliant generals of the war, Georgi Zhukov to lead the Soviet counteroffensive. Fresh, well trained divisions from Siberia were thrown into the fight, causing panic all along the German lines in forty degrees below weather. Hitler intervened personally, ordering no retreat, that all units stand and fight. In retrospect this is Hitler's high water mark as a commander, as a retreat as the generals counseled would have had the German Heer butchered piecemeal. The German line held, and both sides prepared for a spring campaign. On December 7th Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, declaring war on the United States. Several days later Germany honours the Axis pact by declaring war on the U.S., bringing them into the war in Europe.

1941 Africa - The Afrika Korps, under the commander of General Rommel arrives in Tunisia to engage the British and support their Italian allies. Rommel conducts one of the most brilliant campaigns in history, outnumbered and under adverse supply conditions earning him the nickname 'The Desert Fox'. Large amounts of ground are traded back and forth between Tunisia and Egypt, with Rommel's notable victories coming at Tobruk, Kasserine Pass and Gazala. The Afrika Campaign would continue through 1943.

1942 Spring - Both sides in the Soviet Union are now preparing for renewed campaigning. Stalin orders three separate counterblows against the Germans, which for the most part have limited or negative results, including the destruction of over 900 Soviet tanks in one encirclement near Kharkov. The major German offensive kicks off under the commander of Bock, smashing through Soviet lines. A new and foolish objective had been added by Hitler, that of diverting forces south towards Stalingrad and the oil-rich Caucases, intended to bring the Soviet economy to its knees and gain valuable oil for the Wehrmacht.

To achieve the objective of the Caucases the left flank had to be secured by taking Stalingrad. The battle took on paramount significance as this city was named for the dictator himself, and Hitler placed extreme emphasis on its capture. Similarly Stalin was equally determined to prevent it from being captured. For nearly a year the two sides battled in the city, with the Germans conquering all of the west bank of the Volga River. During the winter of 1942-1943 Marshall Zhukov once again launched a counteroffensive taking a page out of the Axis playbook, breaking through the poorly equipped German allies (Romanian, Italian and Hungarian troops) on the flanks of Paulus 6th army which was in Stalingrad proper. Zhukov completed the encirclement (dubbed Operation Uranus) and succeeded in cutting off and forcing the surrender of an entire German army. Stalingrad was the largest battle in world history, costing over two million lives and destroying an entire German army. From this point on the Germans were hard pressed to recover.

Strategic Bombing (Beginning 1942-1943) - The strategic bombing campaign focused on the British bomber command dropping by night and American army air forces dropping by day. The British quickly abandoned the concept of precision bombing due to the poor accuracy inherent to the technological limitations of the time, concentrating on area bombing instead. The Americans stuck to the concept, although very poor success led them to change their minds later in the war. As an example, in 1943 only a third of all bombs dropped by the RAF landed within five miles of their targets. Accuracy improved significantly with new technology and tactics by 1944 with seven percent of all bombs dropped landing within 1,000 feet of the aimpoint. By and large due to weather and technological restrictions the majority of operations were conducted as area bombing, making little distinction between targets of military value and civilian centers. A famous example is the firebombing of Dresden where over 40,000 Germans were killed in a few days. The strategic bombing campaign was however a failure, costing the lives of 160,000 airmen and only showing mediocre results. The main success of the bombing campaign was to force the Germans to redeploy resources such as anti-aircraft material and fighters to counter the bombing, rather than the actual destruction of the bombs themselves.

Spring 1943 - Rommel's Afrika Corps, outnumbered and out of supply ran into Field Marshall Montgomery at the Battle of El Alamein and were defeated, effectively marking the end of German successes in Africa (July 1943). The campaign would continue for some months, with the Americans landing behind Rommel in November 1942 in Operation Torch, with the American forces under the eventual command of the legendary General Patton. The Afrika Corps was forced to surrender, ending the African theatre. Following this the British and American forces invaded Sicily, and then Italy. Sicily fell fairly quickly, though the Italian campaign would prove a long slugging match especially during the landings at Ansio. It was at this time the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was ousted from power and imprisoned, and the new Italian government signed a separate peace with the Allies promising to enter the war on their side against Germany. Due to government incompetence and delay, the Germans were able to quickly subdue the Italian army before it had received orders, and continued to fight the Allies in Italy. Rome was captured in 1944, though the Italian campaign served mostly as a sidenote to the continuing fight in the Soviet Union and in France in mid 1944.

Mid 1943 - On the Eastern front the two powers clashed in the decisive battle of Kursk during July in what was and still is the largest tank battle of all time. Due to delays in the German attack to bring up new weapons (such as the new and incredibly powerful Panzer V Panther tank) and the precise Soviet intelligence for the coming attack, the Germans met heavy resistance and entrenched Soviets with defense in depth, meaning several lines of defense had to be breached before a breakthrough. Minefields, artillery and anti-tank guns caused heavy losses and constantly narrowed German operations into a bottleneck. Some of the largest aerial battles in history occured over the skies of Kursk, with huge numbers of Luftwaffe and Soviet air force playing decisive roles. Once the German offensive had been stopped Soviet counter attacks threatened to encircle the German bulge, but was prevented by the aid of thousands of Luftwaffe sorties. In the end the battle was a Soviet victory, and the first time the Soviets had stopped a major German offensive in its tracks. From Kursk onwards the Wehrmacht had lost the strategic initiative and would never regain it for the rest of the war.

Late 1943 - The Autumn and Winter of 1943 saw great Soviet advances. Following the failure of Operation Zitadelle the Wehrmacht had lost all initiative and could now only react defensively to Soviet movements. A general Soviet counteroffensive was launched to retake the Dneiper river and also the area around Smolensk to the north. German divisions were surrounded but managed to escape with heavy losses in two separate instances, in the Hube and Korsun-Cherkassy pockets. The Smolensk offensive had pulled fifty-five German divisions northward, allowing the Soviets to establish bridgeheads over the Dneiper and capture the vital Donbass industrial area. During the 1943-1944 campaigning season the Soviets capped off a 500 mile advance. At this time Hitler began replacing what remained of his competent generals, and the loss of Smolensk in january cost the Wehrmacht their key defensive hub in the area. By February 1944 the Soviets had come near the borders of Estonia, and had regained almost all the territory lost in 1941.

Summer 1944 - By now the Soviets had overwhelming numerical advantage in men, tanks and aircraft and continued to exploit their gains. On June 22 (3 years to the day of the German invasion) they launched Operation Bagration, using 120 divisions to smash through the thinly defended German lines. This was by far one of the largest and the most successful Soviet offensive to date, causing over 670,000 German casualties and destroying more than 50,000 vehicles. The Soviets now occupied the pre-war border with Poland. On 17 July another operation was launched to the south into Romania, which coincided with a coup against the Axis allied government, with the new rulers now signing an agreement with the Soviet Union. The loss of Romania now caused a major vacuum on the German right flank, forcing a retreat from the entirety of the Balkans. The Soviets continued into Poland, and on 1 August the Polish resistance in Warsaw rose up against the Germans. Stalin halted his armies on the Vistula river, and despite multiple entreaties from Churchill and Roosevelt refused to come to the aid of the Poles, likely due to the fact Stalin felt it would be easier to govern in the future without the rebels presence. The uprising was brutally crushed by the Germans.

Summer 1944 Western Front - On June 6th a joint force of Americans, British, Canadians and Free French launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of five beaches at Normandy on the coast of France. The Germans were caught by surprise, as the weather forecasts had been dismal, and Hitler had taken a sleeping pill and would not be disturbed. This incident demonstrates the complete paralysis Hitler's meglomania had inflicted on OKW, even when the walls came crashing down around them they would not wake the Fueher from his beauty sleep. The Americans encountered heavy resistance at Omaha beach, and the paradrops behind the lines were scattered and disorganized. Multiple blunders by Montgomery in particular not being able to secure Caen led to several months of slow going through the French hedgerow country. Here the Western Allies first encountered the devastating weapons in the Panther and Tiger tanks. The Allies then launched Operation Cobra, breaking out of the hedgerows and trapping 100,000 Germans in the Falaise pocket. The Allies pushed on in a rapid advance all the way to the Seine river within weeks. By August they had liberated Paris and British/Canadian forces had pushed into Belgium, liberating Antwerp in September.

Fall 1944 Western Front - The British and Canadian forces moved rapidly through Belgium and the Netherlands in the north, while Patton and the American forces advanced through France towards the Ruhr industrial region of Germany. Operation Market Garden kicked off in September, involving airborne units capturing three bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem designed to facilitate a fast advance for the Allies to reach Berlin by Christmas. This was famously depicted in the movie A Bridge Too Far. The operation was flawed and over-reaching from the start, and although Eindhoven and Nijmegen bridges were secured, the British 1st airborne at Arnhem was massacred by two SS Panzer divisions.

The Allied advance stalled somewhat at the German Siegfried line of defenses, including the bloody battle for the Hurtgen Forest, after which when an American soldier wanted to describe a situation as terrible, he would say "it was worse than the Hurtgen". After months of hard fighting the Allies managed to close the distance to the Rhine river, Germany's last natural line of defense. However, on 16 December the Germans launched Operation Wacht am Rhein, which came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. It has been called the single greatest failure of Allied intelligence during the war, as Allied forces were taken completely by suprise, Hitler having thrown in the last of his reserves and armoured strength. After initial gains, the offensive petered out due to the 1st Airborne holding the key town of Bastogne, a lack of German fuel supplies and the clearing of the weather for allied air superiority to wreak havoc. Pressure from the north by British forces and the south by Patton eventually eliminated the bulge and within a month the Allies had regained all lost ground.

1945 Winter Eastern Front - During January the Soviets advanced nearly 40 kilometers per day, taking Poland, Hungary and settling on a line 60 kilometers east of Berlin along the Oder River by Februrary. They continued the pressure in Germany while entering Austria in March and capturing Vienna on 13 April. Stalin now feared the West's intentions for post-war Germany and ordered a broad offensive, beginning on 16 April with the objective of capturing Berlin and meeting the other Allies as far west as possible.

April 1945 Endgame - The Western Allies had now forced crossings over the Rhine at multiple points, including the undestroyed Ludendorf bridge at Remagen (Hitler later ordered the execution of the demolition team that failed to destroy it). British and Canadian forces fanned out north towards Denmark, with American forces slicing through the Ruhr area in the south. They finally halted on the Elbe river, as anything east of it was destined to become Soviet controlled after the war as per previous agreement. Hitler now remained underground in his bunker near the Reichstag in Berlin, moving armies that only existed on paper, in the last throes of his delusions. After a failed counterattack attempt by General Steiner he was finally convinced that the war was lost. By 24 April Soviet forces had surrounded Berlin, and by 30 April they were fighting their way to the center of the city. On this same day Hitler married his long time mistress Eva Braun, and they both commited suicide by poison and pistol. On 2 May, the city was surrendered to the Soviets.

May 1945 Surrender - After Hitler's death the leadership passed to Admiral Karl Donitz, commander of the Kriegsmarine (navy). He approached Montgomery, who refused to accept his surrender, and finally sent his envoys to Eishenhower's headquarters, who were confronted by the blunt remarks that only unconditional surrender would be accepted. The official unconditional surrender document was signed on 7 May and 8 May was declared Victory in Europe (VE Day).

Aftermath - The Potsdam Conference set the borders for post-war Germany, partioning Germany into East and West. Berlin, even though it was in the Soviet zone of control was partioned with West Berlin under the control of Allied forces. The Occupation went off without much resistance, the German people so sick of war they were happy to see the end. A program of de-nazification was initiated to reconstitute the political infrastructure of Germany, and war criminals were brought to the Nuremburg trials. Many, including Hermann Goering, were sentenced to death by hanging. Goering escaped the noose by taking poison shortly before his execution. The war cost the lives of over 60 million people both soldiers and civillians and began the Cold War between the two remaining superpowers.

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