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The Second World War

Key Events

The Dam Busters

On the night of the 16 May 1943, 133 men in 19 modified Lancaster bombers set out with a new weapon, Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb. They were to strike deep into Germany’s industrial heartland and target the dams of the Ruhr Valley. For this, the men of 617 Squadron would go down in history as the Dam Busters. Find out more here

Victory in Japan Day (VJ Day)

On August 14 it was declared in Britain that there had been a victory over Japan and that they had surrendered bringing an end to the Second World War. On 15 and 16 August official celebrations were held. Find out more about VJ Day here

The Atomic Bomb – Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On the 6 August 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On the 15 August Japanese radio stations broadcast Emperor Hirohito’s speech announcing Japan’s surrender. Find out about Japan and the Atomic Bomb here

The Battle of Britain

In July 1940 Hitler turned his attentions to crushing the air power of Britain and mounting an invasion. With the fall of France, Britain stood alone. It was the brave pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and resilience of the British people who stood firm against the Luftwaffe and stopped Hitler’s plans. In the words of Winston Churchill never has been so much owed by so many to so few. Read about the Battle of Britain and this major turning point in the Second World War here

About D-Day – 6 June 1944

The Normandy landings of 1944 were codenamed Operation Neptune and termed D-Day. This was part of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II.

A major military operation, it began the invasion of German-occupied western Europe, led to the restoration of the French Republic and contributed to an Allied victory in the war.

Planning began in 1943. In the months leading up, the Allies conducted a substantial military deception, codenamed Operation Bodyguard, to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings. The weather on D-Day was not as they hoped, but postponing would have meant a delay of at least two weeks, so they went ahead.

The landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault and Allied infantry and armoured divisions began landing on the coast of France starting at 06:30 on 6 June 1944.

The target 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. With very heavy casualties, the Allies failed to achieve all of their goals on the first day, but gained a foothold that they gradually expanded over the coming months.

Victory in Europe (VE) Day

On 8th May 1945, Britain and her allies celebrated a national day of celebration that the war in Europe was over. It was a time to come together in joy but also sorrow for those who had died or were still fighting in Asia and the Pacific. May 8th 2015 marks seventy years since that day. Find out what happened and listen to Sir Winston Churchill’s speech. Click here

There were approximately 340, 000 casualties in the Second World War. Click here to research British casualties in all major wars and conflicts.

The Second World War – Causes

There is considerable debate and historical analysis around what were the causes of the Second World 1939-1945.

There were a number of political factors that contributed to the slide towards war. The conditions and hardship placed upon Germany following its defeat in the Great War of 1914-1918 was certainly a factor. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 imposed strict limits on the German military and industrial production and resulted in tough penalties on Germany by way of war reparations for their actions in causation and prosecution of the war.

The economic and political turmoil of the late nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties ensured that Germany’s neighbours were weak and divided and with the internal political strife within Germany leading to the rise and election of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933 these factors all presented Hitler with an opportunity to test the will of the League of Nations as he began the process of violating the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and to rebuild Germany’s shattered national pride.

Adolf Hitler himself had a personal agenda of ambition to see Germany dominant in Europe and beyond with an empire to match those of Italy, France and Britain.

In the Asian-Pacific, Japan had been pursuing its own ambitions of empire from the early twentieth century with military conquests in Korea and China. In the 1930s it too saw itself as the dominant regional power in the pacific and the need to protect and promote its own economic interests in the region led to further military advancements throughout the region challenging the European interests of Britain, France and the Netherlands.

All these factors in both Europe and Asia meant that the world was on a collision course for the most devastating period of conflict in human history.

The Main Protagonists

In the two key theatres of the Second World War, in Europe and the Asian Pacific, political and military alliances formed.

In Europe, Germany allied with Italy and Great Britain with France. Germany formed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union which was to be broken in June 1941.

Japan acted alone in its quest for imperial power across the Asian Pacific region but headed into direct confrontation with the United States in December 1941.

The entry of the United States into the Second World War also meant that Britain who by 1941 was fighting alone with its Commonwealth allies had a new and powerful ally in the United States which could and did help tip the balance of the eventual outcome of the war.

1939-1945 – Europe and North Africa

The Second World War in Europe began formally on the 1st September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland.

The British Government gave Germany an ultimatum to withdraw its forces from Poland or a state of war would exist between Britain and Germany.
No such undertakings were received from Germany and on the 3rd September, Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Germany’s use of Blitzkrieg ‘lighting war’ with fast and flexible armoured formations and air cover quickly overwhelmed their opponents who were still using tactics and strategies from the Great War.

Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France were over run and occupied within nine months.

The only major European country who had not been defeated by Germany was Britain.

Although humiliated and badly defeated in France the British Expeditionary Force managed through the miracle rescue from the French port of Dunkirk to get back to Britain and fight another day.

Britain now stood alone, with the United States providing material support but not being part of the war effort.

In the late spring and summer of 1940 Germany planned and prepared its invasion of Britain.

With Britain being an island nation and led by the charismatic Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, Hitler knew he would have a much tougher fight to successfully invade and occupy Britain.

The Battle of Britain was fought out in the skies over the South-East of England.

Outnumbered and out gunned by the Germans the Royal Air Force acquitted themselves to their task and defeated the Germans, by early September 1940 the threat of a German invasion had been lifted and for the first time in the war, Germany had suffered a defeat and Britain had experienced victory.

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and this was viewed by many as the key tactical mistake of the entire war.

The initial German advance was a great success securing large swathes of territory and reaching the outskirts of Moscow and the oil fields of the Caucuses’.

What followed was four years of intense, brutal fighting in often terrible weather conditions with the Battle for Stalingrad being an example of the savage fighting and weather conditions endured by both armies.

Germany had invaded large parts of North Africa in an attempt to secure access to and control of the Suez Canal, the important shipping waterway to control the flow of goods and raw materials to and from Asia.

North Africa also presented Germany with the opportunity to seize oil reserves in North Africa and gain access to the oil fields of the Middle East.

This was a very important battle ground up until the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Until that time, Germany secured a number of decisive victories against the British in North Africa between 1940 and 1942 it was only in 1943 at the Battle for El Alamein that the British defeated the Germans and the tide began to turn against Germany.

Following the British victory at El Alamein the Germans were eventually defeated across the whole of North Africa which in turn allowed the British and later the American forces to invade Italy and make their way up the southern end of Europe towards Germany. Once the United States had entered the war in early 1942, the tide turned further in favour of Britain and the United States and their Allies.

The war in the Atlantic raged with German U-Boats causing great damage to allied shipping and the war in the air continued with the carpet and fire bombings of cities across Britain, Germany and occupied Europe.

The key turning point of the war in Europe came in June 1944 with D-Day the Allied invasion of occupied Europe.

For several weeks fighting raged across the Western and Eastern fronts and allied and Soviet forces closed in on Germany.

Victory in Europe came on 8 May 1945 with a full unconditional German surrender.

1941-1945 War in the Asian Pacific

Britain and its Commonwealth Allies became involved in bitter fighting with the Japanese during the campaign in the Asian Pacific.

Following the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands on December 7th 1941 a full scale war erupted in the region.

Britain was forced into a humiliating surrender by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and a long, dirty and protracted war of attrition was fought by the British in Burma to stop the Japanese advance towards India and Australia.
The United States fought both major naval and land battles throughout 1942-1945 against tough Japanese forces with notable battles at Midway, Guadalcanal and Iowa Jima.

The Japanese became infamous for their treatment of allied prisoners of war with starvation, torture and hard labour hallmarks of the Japanese regime.
In August 1945, the United States fearing massive civilian and military casualties should the main Japanese islands have to be taken by force of arms considered use of the new atomic weapon.

The Japanese were unresponsive to calls to surrender. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 killing over 200,000 civilians.

The Japanese finally surrendered on 15th of August 1945.

This marked the end of the Second World War.