Tuesday, 4 October 2011

History Of Nazi Germany



At the beginning of the 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party exploited widespread and deep-seated discontent in Germany to attract popular and political support. There was resentment at the crippling territorial, military and economic terms of the Versailles Treaty, which Hitler blamed on treacherous politicians and promised to overturn. The democratic post-World War I Weimar Republic was marked by a weak coalition government and political crisis, in answer to which the Nazi party offered strong leadership and national rebirth. From 1929 onwards, the worldwide economic depression provoked hyperinflation, social unrest and mass unemployment, to which Hitler offered scapegoats such as the Jews.

Hitler pledged civil peace, radical economic policies, and the restoration of national pride and unity. Nazi rhetoric was virulently nationalist and anti-Semitic. The ‘subversive’ Jews were portrayed as responsible for all of Germany’s ills.

In the federal elections of 1930 (which followed the Wall Street Crash), the Nazi Party won 107 seats in the Reichstag (the German Parliament), becoming the second-largest party. The following year, it more than doubled its seats. In January 1933, President von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, believing that the Nazis could be controlled from within the cabinet. Hitler set about consolidating his power, destroying Weimar democracy and establishing a dictatorship. On 27 February, the Reichstag burned; Dutch communist Marianus van der Lubbe was found inside, arrested and charged with arson. With the Communist Party discredited and banned, the Nazis passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which dramatically curtailed civil liberties.


In March 1933, the Nazis used intimidation and manipulation to pass the Enabling Act, which allowed them to pass laws which did not need to be voted on in the Reichstag. Over the next year, the Nazis eliminated all remaining political opposition, banning the Social Democrats, and forcing the other parties to disband. In July 1933, Germany was declared a one-party state. In the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ of June 1934, Hitler ordered the Gestapo and the SS to eliminate rivals within the Nazi Party. In 1935, the Nuremburg Laws marked the beginning of an institutionalised anti-Semitic persecution which would culminate in the barbarism of the ‘Final Solution’.

Hitler’s first moves to overturn the Versailles settlement began with the rearmament of Germany, and in 1936 he ordered the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. Hitler became bolder as he realised that Britain and France were unwilling and unable to challenge German expansionism. Between 1936 and 1939, he provided military aid to Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, despite having signed the ‘Non-Intervention Agreement’. In March 1938, German troops marched into Austria; the Anschluss was forbidden under Versailles. Anglo-French commitment to appeasement and ‘peace for our time’ meant that when Hitler provoked the ‘Sudeten Crisis’, demanding that the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany, Britain and France agreed to his demands at September 1938’s Munich conference. Germany’s territorial expansion eastwards was motivated by Hitler’s desire to unite German–speaking peoples, and also by the concept of Lebensraum: the idea of providing Aryan Germans with ‘living space’.

At the end of the year, anti-Jewish pogroms erupted across Germany and Austria. Kristallnacht – a state-orchestrated attack on Jewish property – resulted in the murder of 91 Jews. Twenty thousand more were arrested and transported to concentration camps. In March 1939, Germany seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia; in August Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact of non-aggression with the USSR. The next step would be the invasion of Poland and the coming of World War II.



Appeasement, the policy of making concessions to the dictatorial powers in order to avoid conflict, governed Anglo-French foreign policy during the 1930s. It became indelibly associated with Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Although the roots of appeasement lay primarily in the weakness of post-World War I collective security arrangements, the policy was motivated by several other factors.

Firstly, the legacy of the Great War in France and Britain generated a strong public and political desire to achieve ‘peace at any price’. Secondly, neither country was militarily ready for war. Widespread pacifism and war-weariness (not too mention the economic legacy of the Great Depression) were not conducive to rearmament. Thirdly, many British politicians believed that Germany had genuine grievances resulting from Versailles. Finally, some British politicians admired Hitler and Mussolini, seeing them not as dangerous fascists but as strong, patriotic leaders. In the 1930s, Britain saw its principle threat as Communism rather that fascism, viewing authoritarian right-wing regimes as bulwarks against its spread.


The League of Nations was intended to resolve international disputes peacefully. Yet the League’s ineffectiveness soon became apparent. In 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, the League condemned the action. However, without either the weight of the US or the power of its own army, it was unable to stop Japan. By 1937, Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of China. In October 1935, the League imposed economic sanctions but little more when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. In March 1936, a cautious Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, forbidden under Versailles. The feared Anglo-French reaction never came. In the League’s council, the USSR was the only country to propose sanctions. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin ruled out the possibility.

Germany and Italy now realised that the democracies were seeking to avoid confrontation, so both countries continued to ‘test the limits’. During the Spanish Civil War, Hitler and Mussolini contravened the ‘Non-Intervention Agreement’, sending troops, equipment and planes to back the rebels. Their intervention was ignored by the international community. When Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, the pattern of appeasement had already been set. In March 1938, Hitler’s Anschluss (union) with Austria was once again met with Anglo-French impotence and inaction.


Czechoslovakia had been created under Versailles, and included a large German minority mostly living in the Sudetenland on the border with Germany. In mid-September 1938, Hitler encouraged the leader of the Sudeten Nazis to rebel, demanding union with Germany. When the Czech government declared martial law, Hitler threatened war.

On 15 September, Chamberlain met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Without consulting the Czech authorities, he pledged to give Germany all the areas with a German population of more than 50 per cent. France was persuaded to agree. Hitler then altered his criteria, demanding all the Sudetenland. At the Munich Conference on 30 September, Britain and France agreed to his demands. Chamberlain was confident that he had secured ‘peace for our time’.

Appeasement was not without its critics. Churchill believed in a firm stand against Germany, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden resigned in February 1938 over Britain’s continued acquiescence to fascist demands. The left-wing also attacked Chamberlain’s blindness. In March 1939, when Germany seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia, it was clear that appeasement had failed. Chamberlain now promised British support to Poland in the case of German aggression. A misguided belief in ‘peace in our time’ was replaced by a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of war.

On 1 September 1939, 62 German divisions supported by 1,300 aircraft began the invasion of Poland. At 8pm on the same day, Poland requested military assistance from Britain and France. Two days later, in fulfilment of their April 1939 pledge to support the country in the event of an attack, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

The Anglo-French declaration of war may have been unexpected, but Hitler’s prediction that the campaign against Poland would be short and victorious was correct.

At 6am on 1 September, as Warsaw was battered by the first in a succession of bombing raids, two German army groups invaded Poland from Slovakia in the south and Prussia in the north. The German air force, which had much more advanced aircrafts than the Poles, quickly established air supremacy by attacking and destroying the Polish air force in the air and on the ground. This allowed German bombers to attack road and rail junctions, as well as concentrations of Polish troops. Towns and villages were bombed to spread terror among civilians and generate a fleeing mass of refugees which would block the roads and prevent reinforcements from arriving at the front. Junkers Ju-87 dive-bombers destroyed any strong points in the German path. By 8 September, German tanks were already on the outskirts of Warsaw. A week later, the capital was completely surrounded.

A Polish counterattack on 9 September led to the Battle of Bzura, the largest engagement of the campaign. Despite some limited early Polish success, massive German air superiority, and their ability to quickly redirect forces to meet the Polish attack, led to a crushing German victory.

Poland had been overrun in four weeks, long before any meaningful Anglo-French military aid could reach Poland, and proving Hitler’s conviction that Polish armed forces would be no match for the Blitzkrieg (‘lightening war’) unleashed by Germany.

The Soviet Union – which had spent the 1930s searching for a ‘collective security’ agreement in Europe and had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany on 28 August 1939 – also profited from the invasion. On 17 September the Red Army crossed the Polish border in the east, seizing a third of all Polish territory. Some Poles fled across the border into Romania, eventually reaching the west and continuing the war as the Free Polish Forces. Warsaw finally surrendered at 2.00pm on 27 September

By May 1940, Europe had been at war for nine months. Yet Britain and France, despite having declared war on Germany in September 1939 following Hitler’s attack on Poland, had seen little real fighting. This tense period of anticipation – which came to be known as the ‘Phoney War’ – met an abrupt end on 10 May 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries.

The German plan of attack, codenamed Case Yellow, entailed an armoured offensive through the Ardennes Forest, which bypassed the strong French frontier defences of the Maginot Line. The advance would then threaten to encircle French and British divisions to the north, stationed on the Belgian frontier.

The German offensive quickly overwhelmed Dutch forces, and the bombing of Rotterdam persuaded the Netherlands to surrender on 15 May. And although German forces in the north encountered strong French and Belgian resistance, the main German thrust through the Ardennes met with tremendous success. French second-rate divisions in the area were not prepared or equipped to deal with the major armoured thrust that developed (the forest and poor roads were thought to make this impossible), and were hammered by incessant attacks by German bombers.

Just four days into the invasion German troops crossed the Meuse river, and had broken through the French lines. Attempts by the Allies to launch counterattacks by air and land either failed with heavy losses, or were thwarted by the pace of events. The British Expeditionary Force, along with the best units of the French army, were still in the north and had seen little fighting. But the German breakthrough to the south now forced them into rapid retreat to avoid being cut off with their backs to the sea. On 20 May German tanks reached Amiens and effectively trapped the British, who now made for Dunkirk and an unlikely attempt at evacuation to England.

In these desperate circumstances, an evacuation plan known as ‘Operation Dynamo’ was hastily prepared in Dover by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay. His strategy included an appeal for all civilian vessels that could cross the Channel to help ferry the troops from the beaches to larger ships offshore, or to evacuate them entirely. Between 26 May and 4 June - a period during which Hitler halted the advance of his troops on Dunkirk - 200,000 British and 140,000 French troops were evacuated to England. Nine allied destroyers and approximately 200 civilian vessels were lost during the evacuation, and the RAF suffered severe casualties covering the operation from the air.

On 5 June, the Germans swung southwards and French resistance finally collapsed, although not without heavy fighting. On 10 June, Italy opportunistically entered the war on Germany’s side. Four days later, the French capital fell, provoking the flight of the French Government to Bordeaux. The Government capitulated on 25 June, just seven weeks after the beginning of the invasion.

The British 51st Highland Division - stationed in the Maginot Line when the fighting started – was forced to surrender at St Valéry. During the final evacuation of British troops from St Nazaire on the Atlantic coast, the troopship Lancastria was sunk with the loss of around 4,000 refugees, British troops and crew. Reluctant to take the risk that the French Navy would end up under German control, Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to present French warships at Mers-el-Kebir with an ultimatum to sail to Britain or to a neutral port for internment. When this offer was rejected on 3 July, British ships bombarded the fleet, killing 1,600 people. Although this operation did much to assure America of the strength of the British purpose, it and the evacuation of Dunkirk did immeasurable damage to Franco-British wartime relations.

The Battle of Britain was a struggle between the German Luftwaffe (commanded by Hermaan Göring) and the British Royal Air force (headed by Sir Hugh Dowding’s Fighter Command) which raged over Britain between July and October 1940. The battle, which was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, was the result of a German plan to win air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel by destroying the British air force and aircraft industry. Hitler saw victory in the battle as a prelude to the invasion of Britain (codenamed Operation Sealion).

In May 1940, German forces had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France using Blitzkrieg (‘Lightening War’) tactics. With the USA and the Soviet Union both still mired in hesitant isolationism, and the French ally toppled, Britain now stood alone against Nazi Germany. Yet as Hitler turned his attention to the British Isles in the summer of 1940, directing a force of over 1,350 bombers and 1,200 fighters first against shipping, airfields, and finally against towns, it became apparent that the Luftwaffe had the odds stacked against it.

The Luftwaffe’s first disadvantage was that it was neither trained nor equipped for the long range operations which became part of the battle. Its tactics were based upon the concept of close air support for ground forces; they were therefore ill-suited to the circumstances of the new campaign. The technical differences between the fighter aircraft employed by two sides were negligible: the RAF’s main fighter planes were the Spitfire and the Hurricane, whilst the Germans relied primarily on Messcherschmitt fighters and Junkers dive bombers. Yet to swing the odds in Britain’s favour, the tactical advantage that German fighters had developed in earlier conflicts was negated once fighter aircraft were ordered to provide close escort to the German bomber formations. These formations had discovered to their own extreme cost that they were unable to defend themselves.

During the battle, the RAF enjoyed the advantage of defending against attacks launched from widely separated airfields, thus profiting from what strategists call ‘interior lines’. This advantage was optimised by Britain’s system of radar tracking and guidance. Furthermore, the added comfort of fighting over friendly territory meant that pilots who crash-landed or parachuted out of their aircrafts could return to battle. British fortunes were also helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe had never subscribed to a concept of strategic bombing. British anti-aircraft and civil-defence preparations were inadequate in the summer of 1940, yet the Luftwaffe was unable to wreak the devastating effects feared by many.

The climax of the battle came on 15 September, a day in which the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes and the RAF 28. During the twelve-week battle, 1,733 German aircraft had been destroyed, compared with 915 British fighters. On 17 September, Hitler recognised the growing futility of the campaign and postponed indefinitely the invasion of Britain. Yet this did not mean an end to the bombing terror. German tactics were changed again and the Luftwaffe resorted to indiscriminate bombing of larger cities, including London, Plymouth and Coventry.

On 22 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Codenamed Operation Barbarossa, it was the largest military operation in history, involving more than 3 million Axis troops and 3,500 tanks. It was the logical culmination of Hitler’s belief that the German ‘master race’ should seek ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in the east, at the expense of the ‘subhuman’ native Slav people, who were to be exterminated or reduced to serf status.

Planning for Barbarossa had begun over a year previously, in the wake of Germany’s stunning success against the western allies in France. The triumphalism that followed this victory, combined with widely believed reports that the Soviet armed forces were weak and deficient (evidence came from defeats by Finland in 1939) led to great optimism in the German high command, with Hitler declaring, ‘we have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’

The Soviet Union was unprepared for the onslaught that came in June. Stalin refused to believe mounting evidence that an invasion was being prepared, and so his armies and air force on the frontier were caught by surprise. As in their earlier victories, the Luftwaffe quickly gained air superiority, and helped armoured columns and motorised infantry punch holes through the Soviet front line. Barbarossa had three primary objectives – the Baltic states and Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre, and the economic resources of the Ukraine and southern Russia in the south. This led to a division of focus for which Hitler and his generals were later to be widely criticised.

Initially all went well for the Germans, some units advancing 50 miles on the first day, although resistance was fiercer than expected in the south. With Stalin personally intervening to forbid generals to retreat, large Soviet forces were encircled and destroyed or taken prisoner. 250,000 were lost in a massive encirclement around Minsk at the end of June, 180,000 were taken prisoner at Smolensk, while the Red Army suffered 500,000 casualties at the Battle of Kiev in September.

But despite the enormous casualties they had inflicted, the Germans had failed to land a decisive blow. They had underestimated both the resources of the Soviet Union and its willingness to accept massive losses. Now the German offensives were running out of steam, as front-line units halted for resupply and replacements. At a crucial phase of the operation, Hitler insisted that the panzer divisions of Army Group Centre, which were advancing on Moscow, were diverted to overcome resistance in the north and south. With this achieved, the drive on Moscow resumed on 2 October, codenamed Operation Typhoon. Ten days later German units were within 90 miles of the Russian capital, but stubborn Soviet resistance and heavy German casualties, combined with heavy rain which turned bad roads into rivers of mud, slowed the advance to a crawl. By the beginning of December, German troops were within sight of the spires of Moscow. However, a massive Soviet counterattack, using fresh units brought in from the East, supported by T-34 tanks, drove the Germans back. As the Russian winter set in, German offensive operations were abandoned.

Operation Barbarossa was one of the decisive moments of the war in Europe. Despite enormous losses in territory, men and weaponry, the Soviets had fought on, and survived. They would face fresh German offensives in 1942, but as the immense manpower and resources of the Soviet Union were brought into play, time was on their side. The Eastern Front would become a graveyard of the German armed forces, as men, tanks and aircraft were thrown into an increasingly unwinnable conflict.

In Occupied Europe, resistance and collaboration could take many forms. The Vichy regime established in France in July 1940, led by Marshall Petain, is the most famous example of official collaboration, but the governments of Denmark, the Low Countries, Norway, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece all signed alliances with the Third Reich. In most cases, these pacts were signed after German military occupation. In some (such as Austria, where there was large public and political support for the Nazis), they had more to do with ideological affinity than coercion. Collaboration in its most extreme form resulted in the handing over of thousands of Jews to the Nazis by collaborationist administrations. In France alone, the Vichy authorities deported 76,000 Jews to camps including Auschwitz. The issue of collaboration was not always clear cut however. In Denmark, the government accepted certain Nazi demands, such as arresting Communists, but refused others, including passing laws against their Jewish community .

Collaboration by civilians in Occupied Europe ranged from a mere survival tool (for instance doing the laundry of German soldiers to earn extra food for your family), to the denunciation of ‘enemies’ within the community (something which occurred across occupied Europe), to the formation of paramilitary militias and participation in collective massacres. In occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the SS controlled Einsatzgruppen recruited local civilians and police to assist in mass killings. The most infamous example was at Babi Yar near Kiev, where over 33,000 Jews were slaughtered in September 1941 by German security forces, assisted by the Ukrainian police.

Thousands of Europeans opted to resist German and Italian occupiers. Peaceful resistance included ‘go slows’ at work, bureaucratic obstruction, the hiding of Jews or other fugitives, or acts of casual, small-scale sabotage, as happened on the French railway network. All of these actions formed a subtle network of solidarity, especially in countries such as Holland where there was little armed resistance.

A much smaller group chose to take up arms against the occupier. The French maquisard, the Italian and Yugoslavian partisans and Spanish, Polish Danish, Czechoslovakian, Greek and Albanian guerrilleros formed part of the fight against international fascism. The largest resistance armies were the Soviet and Polish guerrilla forces based in the Pripet Marshes, between Belarus and the Ukraine. Their hit and run raids against German supply lines incensed the Nazis to such a degree that at one stage they hatched a plan to drain the thousands of square miles of marshes.

There was also resistance within Germany itself. The White Rose, a student youth movement which called for active opposition to Hitler’s regime, have gone down in history as a result of their leaflet campaign between June 1942 and February 1943. Similarly, Dietrich Boenhoffer’s Confessing Church represented a significant form of Christian opposition to the Nazi government.

The Nazis pursued resistance leaders relentlessly. If captured they would face certain death, with executions widely publicised to cow the local population into submission. In April 1944, the Nazis plastered the walls of Paris with 15,000 copies of the famous ‘Red Poster’, which bore the faces of ten of the 23 partisans they had assassinated in February that year. The Nazis also used savage reprisals to discourage resistance. The Czech village of Lidice and the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane were both obliterated, and their populations murdered or sent to camps.

Although the resistance spanned a wide ideological spectrum, including Catholics, liberals, and nationalists, the most active partisans were young Communists and other left-wingers. Their mission – supported in many cases by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – was to harass the enemy, disrupt their communications, assist fugitives including downed Allied airmen, and punish collaborators. Sabotage and ambush was their most common action, and names such as Jean Moulin (who united the French Resistance under the Conseil National de la Résistance) and Cristino García Granda (the Spainish communist Guerillero who set out to defeat fascism in France after seeing his own country fall to Franco) passed into legend.

The systematic policy of racial extermination carried out against Jews by the Nazis in Europe during World War II stands out as one of history’s most horrifying events. This assault upon Europe’s Jewry began when Hitler came to power in 1933 and culminated in the terrible orchestration of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe’, in which six million Jews were killed.

The Nazis targeted many groups for extermination, including Gypsies, Slavs, the disabled and homosexuals, all of whom were labelled as ‘undesirables’ with no future in the Nazi state. However the scale of persecution and murder of Jews – presented in Nazi ideology as an insidious, lethal enemy of the Aryan ‘master race’ – was on a scale without comparison.

The Nazis drew on a deeply ingrained tradition of anti-Semitism which permeated much of Europe in the 1930s. And although the Nazis adapted their rhetoric to meet the times, those who collaborated in the extermination of Jews across Europe were often responding to much older prejudices.

From 1933 onwards, the Nazis implemented discriminatory policies against German Jews, most infamously under the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, which stripped them of German citizenship. In November 1938, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) – an attack on Jewish property engineered by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels – resulted in the murder of 91 Jews, and the deportation to camps of more than 20,000.

After Germany conquered Poland in 1939, the persecution reached terrifying new levels. Polish Jews were rounded up and forced to live in ghettoes, where disease and starvation were constant threats. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen (‘special operations groups’) followed in the wake of advancing German forces. These paramilitary death squads under SS command were made up of Nazi security forces and local volunteers. They orchestrated mass killings of defenceless civilians: Communists, intellectuals, gypsies, and above all Jews. At the ravine of Babi Yar near Kiev, Einsatzgruppe C organised the war’s most notorious massacre, killing 33,771 Jews on 29 and 30 September 1941.

The implementation of ‘Death Camp Operations’ began in December 1941, at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where a total of over 400,000 Jews were killed by the exhaust fumes of specially adapted vans. On 20 January 1942, at a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, the ‘Final Solution’ – the annihilation of European Jews - was set up as a systematic operation headed by Reinhard Heydrich. The Nazis began transporting Jews to a network of concentration and extermination camps including Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and the largest and most notorious, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where Jews would be either instantly killed or worked to death. A total of 1.1 million people (a million of them Jews) were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The horrific scenes of decaying corpses and emaciated prisoners which Allied troops found as they liberated Nazi camps led to difficult questions about Allied wartime policy towards Nazi genocide. Many felt that British and US politicians, aware of what was occurring in Poland’s death camps, failed to act decisively for motives of political expediency.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the leading officials who manned the camps were tried and executed, including Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, hanged in 1947. In addition, the term ‘genocide’ became part of international law, due to the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. Yet as events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have demonstrated, these steps failed to extinguish the tragic shadow of genocide from the world.

In May 1940, Winston Churchill entered Downing Street convinced that the war could only be won through the complete mobilisation of Britain’s civilian population. The British home front was as important as any battle ground. Throughout the war, the Ministry of Information (under Alfred Duff Cooper and later Brenden Bracken) tried to boost public morale through propaganda campaigns. It also frequently prevented (or at least delayed) the press from publishing information that would damage public spirits, such as photographs of bomb-damaged houses in poor parts of London.

The Home Guard, or ‘Local Defence Volunteers’, was formed on 14 May 1940, a response to the Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden’s call for ‘men of all ages who wish to do something for the defence of their country’. The Home Guard became a key plank of the strategy of civilian mobilisation. 1.5 million men rushed to join, convinced by the bleak international picture that a German invasion was on its way. Throughout June and July 1940 ordinary people made preparations for the expected onslaught, including the collection of scrap iron to make armaments and the construction of concrete pillboxes in suburban parks.

Women also played a crucial role on the home front, fighting a daily battle of rationing, recycling, reusing, and cultivating food in allotments and gardens. From 1941, women were called up for war work, including as mechanics, engineers, munitions workers, air raid wardens and fire engine drivers. More than 80,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army, enduring tough conditions and long hours in isolated rural outposts in order to prevent Britain from being ‘starved out’. In cities, the Women’s Voluntary Service prided itself on doing ‘whatever was needed’, mainly providing support (and much needed tea and refreshments) to victims of the Blitz and those sheltering in Underground stations.

From September 1940, the Blitz - the sustained bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany - hit many towns and cities across the country, particularly London, Coventry and Hull. Beginning with the bombing of London on 7 September 1940, which went on for 57 consecutive nights, and lasting until 10 May 1941, more than 43,000 civilians were killed by bombing and over a million houses were destroyed or damaged in London alone.

While the Blitz spread fear, it also engendered a strong feeling of community and collective stoicism, through urban populations. As gas masks, air raid sirens and blackouts became part of daily life for many Britons, 3.5 million children were evacuated to the countryside, where they had very mixed experiences. As families waited nervously for news of loved ones serving on the front lines, a telegram from the War Office – which carried the news of the death or capture of soldiers – became a universally feared symbol of the tragedy and arbitrariness of the war.

Rationing was another unwelcome yet necessary fact of life. Before the war, Britain had imported 55 million tons of food each year; by October 1939, this figure had fallen to just 12 million. Not just food, but also clothing, furniture and petrol were rationed, helping to create a booming black market, which traded items such as petrol coupons, eggs, nylon stockings and cigarettes. Rationing would continue until 1954, when limits on the purchase of meat and bacon were lifted.

One of the most popular items traded on the black market was SPAM, brought to Britain by US soldiers. Yet the roughly two million American servicemen who arrived in Britain in preparation for the Normandy landings became renowned for more than their dubious canned meat. As the GI’s became friendly with the local population, leaving a trail of broken hearts and a significant number of pregnancies in their wake, the English comedian Tommy Trinder famously referred to them as: “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

During the war, the treatment of prisoners of war was supposedly governed by the Geneva Convention, a document formulated in 1929 in Switzerland and signed by the major western powers including Britain, Italy, the US and Germany. The armies of the Western Allies were under strict orders to treat Axis prisoners in line with the convention, something which generally occurred. Some abuses, however, such as the shooting of German POWS by US troops, did take place. A notorious example is the Dachau Massacre, when the soldiers who liberated the camp shot several SS guards, allegedly as they attempted to surrender.

Germany and Italy generally treated prisoners from France, the US and the British Commonwealth in accordance with the convention. The Germans were obliged to apply this humane treatment to Jewish prisoners of war who wore the British Army’s uniform, thus sparing them the horrific fate meted out to other Jews. Although Allied prisoners of war complained of the scarcity of food within German POW camps, they were treated comparatively well. For example, ordinary soldiers who were made to work were compensated, and officers were exempt from work requirements. The International Red Cross eased conditions by distributing food packages and providing medical assistance.

Although escape from German camps was almost impossible for Allied POWs, inmates did stage several famous breakouts. The Stalag Luft III camp for Airmen in Silesia (now Zagan in Poland), was the site of two famous escapes by prisoners who used scavenged objects and materials to dig a series of underground tunnels. In October 1942, a group of four prisoners which included the Army Officer (and later author) Patrick Reid made a successful breakout from Colditz Castle. They slipped out unnoticed through the kitchens into the yard, through the cellar and then finally down to a dry moat and through a park. The group then split into two pairs; all four men managed to reach the safe-haven of Switzerland.

Soviet prisoners of war were treated in accordance with their supposed ‘subhuman’ Slavic racial status by the Germans. Hiding behind the (legally invalid) pretext that the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention, the Germans treated Soviet prisoners with appalling brutality and neglect. Many died as slave labourers or ended up in death camps. Of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners taken by the Axis powers, 3.3 million died in captivity. This figure, when compared with the 8,348 Western Allied prisoners who died in German POW camps (of a total of 232,000) starkly demonstrates the radically different treatment given to both groups.

In late 1944, as the tide of the war turned against Germany, the Nazi authorities began to move thousands of prisoners towards the interior of Germany, away from the advancing Allied armies. Over the winter of 1944/45, thousands of prisoners who were already weak, ill and malnourished were forced to walk miles to railway stations, and then taken in cattle trucks to their new destinations. During these infamous ‘Death Marches’, many were shot or died of exhaustion.

Prisoners of the Soviet Union also faced a grim fate. Thousands of Polish soldiers captured following the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 were executed. More than 20,000 Poles were killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre. Of the almost 100,000 Germans captured following the Battle of Stalingrad, only 5,000 survived the war. Many German captives were sent to labour camps in the depths of Russia, where hunger, exhaustion and freezing conditions killed thousands.


In September 1939, the ideological affinity between the USA and Britain was unquestionable, yet large swathes of the US public, media and politicians were deeply isolationist. With hindsight, many people resented America’s involvement in the First World War. The desire to ‘avoid foreign entanglements’ and focus on domestic issues was widespread.

When war broke out in Europe, US President Franklin Roosevelt recognised that the conflict threatened US security, and looked for ways to help the European democracies without direct involvement in the war. This necessity increased in June 1940, when the Fall of France left Britain as the only democracy standing between Nazi Germany and America. In 1939, the Fourth Neutrality Act authorised the US to trade arms with belligerents provided that the countries paid in cash and collected them. In March 1941, Roosevelt moved further towards making the US the ‘arsenal of democracy’ with the Lend-Lease Act, which permitted the lending, leasing, selling, or bartering of arms, ammunition and food to “any country whose defence the President deems vital to the defence of the US.”

The US was sucked further towards the conflict when its navy and air force began to ‘escort’ British convoys which transported Lend-Lease material across the Atlantic, protecting them from German submarines. Roosevelt’s announcement of a ‘shoot on sight’ policy in September 1941 following an attack on the USS Greer enraged isolationist senators; they alleged that Roosevelt was deliberately provoking skirmishes with the Germans. Meanwhile, Churchill repeatedly attempted to convince Roosevelt to enter the war. At the August 1941 Atlantic Conference, the two leaders composed a charter for the post-war world; Roosevelt tackled the thorny issue of the British Empire, promoting the recognition of “the right of all peoples to choose the government under which they will live.”

Churchill did not have to wait long. After the bombing of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, only one congressman opposed the declaration of war; the vote in the senate was unanimous. Hitler’s declaration of war on the US, which came four days later, was actually a blessing in disguise for Roosevelt; it enabled him to legitimately pursue a ‘Germany first’ strategy. In November 1942, Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, became the first US military offensive of the war in the West. Allied troops slowly cornered German forces in North Africa, who surrendered in Tunisia in May 1943. The joint British-US victory, costly and hard fought as it was, was invaluable in mobilising US public opinion behind the war effort.

By the beginning of 1943, the opening of a ‘second front’ was a pressing and divisive issue. Although both leaders recognised the urgent need to relieve the pressure on Russia on the Eastern Front, Churchill favoured an attack through Italy – the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis – while Roosevelt pushed for an assault on France. At the Casablanca conference in January 1943, Churchill effectively won the argument. It was decided that operations in the Mediterranean would continue once victory was achieved in North Africa. The success of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily launched in July 1943, allowed the Allies to invade the Italian mainland, capturing Rome on 4 June 1944.

Although various points of ideological and strategic difference arose between Britain and the US during the war – most notably regarding the British Empire, the British attitude in Burma and India and the shape of the post-war world – it is indisputable that Churchill and Roosevelt enjoyed a deep personal bond. The two countries they led shared the same fundamental commitment to cooperate in order to rid the world of international fascism.

During World War II, Germany believed that its secret codes for radio messages were indecipherable to the Allies. However, the meticulous work of code breakers based at Britain’s Bletchley Park cracked the secrets of German wartime communication, and played a crucial role in the final defeat of Germany.

The Enigma story began in the 1920s, when the German military - using an ‘Enigma’ machine developed for the business market – began to communicate in unintelligible coded messages. The Enigma machine enabled its operator to type a message, then ‘scramble’ it using a letter substitution system, generated by variable rotors and an electric circuit. To decode the message, the recipient needed to know the exact settings of the wheels. German code experts added new plugs, circuits and features to the machine during the pre-war years, but its basic principle remained the same.

The first people who came close to cracking the Enigma code were the Polish. Close links between the German and Polish engineering industries allowed the Polish Cipher Bureau to reconstruct an Enigma machine and read the Wehrmacht’s messages between 1933 and 1938. In 1939, with German invasion looming, the Poles shared their information with the British, who in turn established the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. Mathematicians and intelligence experts, with the help of primitive early computers, began the complex and urgent task of cracking the Enigma code.

The Germans, convinced their Enigma messages were unbreakable, used the machine for battlefield, naval, and diplomatic communications. Although the experts at Bletchley first succeeded in reading German code during the 1940 Norwegian campaign, their work only began to pay off meaningfully in 1941, when they were able to gather evidence of the planned invasion of Greece, and learn Italian naval plans for the Battle of Cape Matapan. In the autumn, the Allies gained advantage in North Africa from deciphering coded messages used by Rommel’s Panzer Army. Information obtained from such high-level German sources was codenamed ULTRA.

The Germans also enjoyed some noteworthy code breaking successes. The B-Dienst (surveillance service) broke British Naval code as early as 1935, which allowed them to pinpoint Allied convoys during the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic. Although the US altered its naval code in April 1942, the change came too late to prevent the havoc wreaked by Operation Paukenschlag, the German U-boat campaign off America’s east coast early that year. The Germans also managed to crack Soviet and Danish code systems. But their efforts – fragmented and divided between rival cryptology departments - lacked the consistent success achieved at Bletchley Park.

From 1941 onwards, Bletchley’s experts focused upon breaking the codes used by German U-boats in the Atlantic. In March 1941, when the German armed trawler ‘Krebs’ was captured off Norway complete with Enigma machines and codebooks, the German naval Enigma code could finally be read. The Allies could now discover where U-boats were hunting and direct their own ships away from danger.

The German Navy, rightly suspicious that their code had been cracked, introduced a fourth wheel into the device, multiplying the possible settings by twenty six. The British finally broke this code that they called ‘Shark’ in December 1942. Using ULTRA always presented problems to the Allies, because any too blatant response to it would cause the Germans to suspect their messages were being read. But neverthless Bletchley Park and its staff made a crucial and groundbreaking contribution to the defeat of the Axis.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from September 1939 until the defeat of Germany in 1945, was the war’s longest continuous military campaign. During six years of naval warfare, German U-boats and warships – and later Italian submarines – were pitted against Allied convoys transporting military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This battle to control the Atlantic shipping lanes involved thousands of ships and stretched across thousands of perilous square miles of ocean.

Early in the war German warships made a number of forays into the shipping lanes, aiming to catch and destroy Allied convoys. These had limited success, and led to the loss of major ships including Graf Spee and Bismarck. From 1940 onwards, the German navy focused on escalating the U-boat war. Attacking on the surface at night (where they could not be detected by Allied sonar, or ASDIC), U-boats had great success against Allied convoys, sinking merchant ships with torpedoes and then submerging to evade the counterattack by escorting warships. They were also benefitting from decoded communications of the British Admiralty. In 1941 they inflicted huge losses, sinking 875 Allied ships.

During 1941, tactical advantage began to shift towards the British. They had received 50 American destroyers in exchange for US access to British bases. Canadians increased their escort missions, and RAF Coastal Command was able to increase its air cover. The capture of U-110 (complete with Enigma machine and codes) in March 1941 helped the Allies track the movement of German U-boats. From April 1941, US warships began escorting Allied convoys as far as Iceland, sparking a number of skirmishes with U-boats. This provoked controversy as the US had not officially entered the war. Technological developments, including radar for escorting warship from August 1941 (which could detect a U-boat periscope at a range of one mile) also worked in the Allies’ favour.

Yet convoys were still very vulnerable in the ‘Atlantic Gap’, a ‘black pit’ in the mid-Atlantic which was not covered by anti-submarine aircraft. The gradual improvement of antisubmarine techniques, and the increased use of improvised aircraft carriers like HMS Audacity, led to a marked decrease in sinkings towards the end of the year. This contributed to Hitler’s decision – carried out against Dönitz’s wishes - to transfer submarines to the Mediterranean.

In 1942 the balance tilted once again in favour of the Germans. New submarines were entering service quickly, at a rate of 20 per month. Although the US Navy entered the war at the end of 1941, it was unable to prevent the sinking of almost 500 ships between January and June 1942. Allied losses in the Atlantic reached their peak in 1942. As 1,664 ships were sunk, supplies of petrol and food to Britain reached critically low levels.

In 1943, advantage shifted to the Allies once again. By now, the Allies had sufficient escort aircraft carriers and long-range aircraft to cover the Atlantic Gap. The battle reached its peak between February and May 1943. The ‘hedgehog’ depth-charge mortar was just one innovation that was making life more and more dangerous for U-boat crews. By ‘Black May’ of 1943, U-boat losses were unsustainable – one quarter of their strength in one month, and almost at the same rate as Allied shipping. U-boats were withdrawn from the Atlantic, and the battle was won. Although new German submarines arrived in 1945, they came far too late to affect the course of the battle.

Historians estimate that more than 100 convoy battles took place during the war. They cost the Merchant Navy more than 30,000 men, and around 3,000 ships. The equally terrible cost for the Germans was 783 U-boats, and 28,000 sailors.

When Italy entered World War II in June 1940, the war quickly spread to North Africa, where her colony of Libya bordered the vital British protectorate of Egypt. On 7 September 1940, Marshall Graziani’s troops began a land offensive. Their numerical supremacy won them initial success. They captured the port of Sidi el-Barrini and established a chain of fortified camps. The British counterattack, launched in December 1940 and led by General Wavell, quickly flattened the Italians. As British armaments grew daily, Italian supplies dwindled. Italian forces retreated in chaos, and the human tide of surrendering soldiers impeded the Allied advance, making movement of tanks difficult. With Italian positions crumbling, Hitler, shocked by the Italian failure, dispatched the German Afrika Korps – commanded by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel.

The ‘Desert Fox’ rapidly adapted his formations and tactics to a Desert War fought in the open, with few natural obstacles and a small civilian population. Rommel launched his first blow against the Allies in February 1941, taking the British by surprise and carrying out an audacious triple attack on the Sollum-Halfaya line on the Egyptian border. The Germans captured the key port of Benghazi, moving on to besiege the other major port of Cyrenaica, Tobruk.

In June 1941, Operation Battleaxe, the British attempt to liberate Tobruk, was stopped in its tracks by well-prepared defences. In November, with General Auchinleck having replaced Wavell, the Allies launched Operation Crusader, catching Rommel’s forces by surprise. Although German 88mm guns wreaked havoc among the British ranks, Axis forces – under the pressure of huge losses and dwindling supplies – were forced to retreat to El Agheila - their starting-point in March. At the end of 1941, Tobruk was liberated and Benghazi returned to British hands.

Supplies were a crucial element of the war in North Africa. While the British received material from depots in nearby Alexandria, German supplies had to arrive from Tripoli. Furthermore the island of Malta, Britain’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, allowed attacks to be made on Axis convoys crossing the Mediterranean. At the beginning of 1942, British supply lines were now overextended, and Rommel counter attacked, forcing the British to retreat to the defensive positions known as the Gazala Line. The Battle of Gazala - one of the fiercest of the Desert War – resulted in the retreat of Auchinleck’s men to Alam Halfa. Tobruk, cut-off once again, this time fell rapidly to Axis forces.

A disconsolate Churchill reshuffled the military command, placing Montgomery at the head of the Eighth Army. The battle-hardened general, conscious that the mobile tank battle was Rommel’s forte, unleashed the Battle of El Alamein as a battle of attrition, using his huge advantages in artillery, infantry and supplies. After two weeks of intense fighting, Commonwealth forces had reduced the German tank force to 35, pressuring the remnants of Axis forces into retreat.

For the Axis, the nail in the coffin came in November 1942 with Operation Torch - the American-led landings in Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. After sporadic fighting against Vichy French forces, the Allies took possession of the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. The beleaguered Axis forces were now encircled, and in May 1943, more than 230,000 troops surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia, marking the end of the campaign.

In the spring of 1942, the German offensive against the Soviet Union was nearly a year old. Hitler, believing that he could win in the East by staging a decisive offensive in the south aimed at the Soviet Union’s economic resources, launched a two-pronged attack on 28 June. Army Group A pushed towards the oil-rich area of Baku, and Army Group B advanced towards Stalingrad and the Volga. Stalingrad was a key strategic target. It was an important industrial centre, communications hub, and sat astride the Volga River. Capturing Stalingrad would cut this waterway – the principal supply route from south to central and northern Russia.

The Red Army, demoralised and disheartened by a year of bitter and costly defeats, began to employ a new strategy: the fighting retreat. Instead of defending their positions at all costs – a strategy which had led to heavy losses during the first year of the war – Soviet units were now ordered to withdraw in the face of strong German attacks. This tactic would turn the vast expanse of the Russian steppe against the Germans, and put huge strain on their supply lines.

The German Sixth Army, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, advanced quickly, assisted by the Fourth Panzer Army. By the summer of 1942 they had reached the suburbs of Stalingrad on the west bank of the Volga. Here the Soviet retreat ended, and Vasily Chuikov prepared to lead a determined defence of the city. As the battle began in earnest, the Luftwaffe dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on Stalingrad, a misjudgement that created a rubble-strewn landscape perfect for defence.

German troops were taken aback by the fierce street fighting they found themselves engaged in during their advance to the city centre. For soldiers accustomed to the well-choreographed mobile warfare, ferocious close-quarter fighting in the city’s ruins was a new and terrifying experience.

The Soviets had their own problems. Reinforcements had to be ferried into the city across the Volga, often under heavy shelling and bombing. Many units suffered large casualties before even going into action. Soviet Penal Units, several containing political prisoners, were used for suicidal charges. The average life expectancy of a Soviet soldier during the height of the battle was just 24 hours.

In 19 November 1942, the Soviets used one million men to launch a counterattack, Operation Uranus, encircling the city and trapping the German Sixth Army within it. For Paulus and his men, the situation was desperate. Winter was setting in, and they were running out of food, ammunition and medical supplies. Despite the Luftwaffe’s efforts, it was not possible to get enough supplies in by air. In December, a relief operation mounted by General von Manstein narrowly failed to break through to the city. It was the last hope for the Sixth Army.

On 2 February 1943, General Paulus surrendered with the 91,000 troops that remained. The tremendous human cost of the battle is difficult to comprehend. The Axis forces (comprised of German, Italian, Romanian and Hungarian troops) suffered 800,000 casualties, the Soviets more than one million. The battle marked the furthest extent of the German advance into the Soviet Union, and is seen by many historians as a key turning point in the war.

The Allied invasion of Sicily began on 10 July 1943. The US Seventh Army commanded by General Patton, and the British Eighth Army under Montgomery, landed respectively at the Gulf of Gela and south of Syracuse. While Montgomery’s forces encountered stubborn resistance in the hills around Mount Etna, Patton’s troops advanced northwest towards Palermo and directly north to sever the northern coastal road. They then moved eastwards supported by a series of amphibious landings along the north coast, reaching Messina ahead of the British. By the end of August, Sicily was under Allied control and could be used as a base to invade Italy.

On 3 September 1943, the Eighth Army landed at Reggio (on the ‘toe’) and began its slow slog up the boot of Italy. Five days later, the US Fifth Army landed at Salerno, encountering heavy German resistance. At this point the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies (publicly announced on 8 September). Mussolini was dismissed by King Victor Emmanuel III and placed under arrest by his successor, Badoglio, but was rescued by Hitler’s airborne commandos. Mussolini became head of the Salo Republic in German-occupied Gargagno in northern Italy. Badoglio, who had escaped to Pescara, established a government under Allied protection. On 13 October, the Italian government declared war on Germany.

British Commonwealth forces now advanced up the east coast, capturing the port of Bari and the airfields around Foggia. The US, meanwhile, inched up the western side of the boot, encountering increasingly difficult terrain and strong defences. A series of mountains, ridges and rivers prone to sudden flooding presented a formidable natural barrier which complicated Allied commanders’ plans.

German forces withdrew to the Gustav Line south of Rome, which included the heavily-defended hilltop monastery of Monte Cassino. In January 1944, the Allies launched an amphibious assault on the western port of Anzio. Operation Shingle, launched on 22 January, took the Germans by surprise. Allied troops, however, failed in their attempt to thrust inland and cut off German troops on the Gustav Line, instead becoming bottled up in the beach-head they had established.

Between January and May, four major offensives were launched to break the Gustav Line. The objective was finally achieved by a combined assault of the Fifth and Eighth Armies (including British, US, French, Polish, and Canadian troops) along a twenty mile front between Monte Cassino and the western coast. Monte Cassino was captured on 18 May. As the German defences disintegrated, forces at Anzio broke out of their beachhead and moved up the coat towards Rome. Following the liberation of the capital on 4 June, Badoglio resigned and a new anti-fascist government was formed under Bonomi.

German troops now retreated to the Gothic Line. Their resistance condemned the Allies to another harsh year of campaigning. Many Allied units had been withdrawn to be used in Operation Dragoon (the invasion of the South of France launched in August 1944), and progress was slow. It was not until April 1945 that the Allies launched an overwhelming offensive that broke through German positions, and forced the surrender of German Army Group C on 29 April. Four days earlier, Mussolini had been caught by Italian partisans as he tried to escape north to Switzerland. Along with his mistress, he was shot and his corpse put on public display in Milan. Hostilities formally came to an end in Italy on 2 May 1945.

After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, German generals were convinced that a massive offensive on the Eastern Front would still allow them to regain the upper hand, and knock Russia out of the war. They planned a two pronged assault aimed at ‘pinching off’ the Kursk Salient created by the defeat at Stalingrad. The advance was to be launched from the Orel Salient to the north of Kursk and from Belgorod to the south. Both ‘prongs’ would surround Kursk, restoring the lines of Army Group South to their winter 1941-1942 position.

When the offensive finally began on 5 July, it had already been delayed countless times while the Germans waited for tanks and weapons to be supplied. The Soviets, acting on intelligence information, had massively reinforced the salient, also mobilising reserves to prepare a counterattack. By 13 July, the Germans had been forced into retreat. The attack cost Hitler over 500,000 troops and 1,000 tanks, and spelt the end of the Wehrmacht’s large-scale offensives. As strategic initiative passed to the Soviets, Hitler’s insistence on holding territory at all costs hugely undermined Germany’s ability to mount an effective defence. It was not the first or the last time that Hitler’s inflexibility contributed to military failure.

Throughout the remainder of 1943, the Soviets continued pushing the Germans back. In August 1943, they retook Orel; in the south, fierce battles throughout July and August culminated in the recapture of Kharkov. In the centre, Soviet troops took Bryansk, Smolensk and Gomel. In the south, the Germans' retreat to the River Dneiper forced them to abandon captured farmland and industrial resources. The Germans found it impossible to hold this line, which was broken in October. Kiev, the Ukrainian capital and the USSR’s third largest city, was retaken the following month.

1944 began as 1943 had ended: with unstoppable Soviet success. At the end of January, the 900 day siege of Leningrad was lifted; almost a million of the northern city’s inhabitants had perished. In the south, southern Ukraine and Galitzia were captured in March. The Germans were forced to evacuate the hard-won Crimean Peninsula. April and May saw the liberation of Odessa and Sevastapol. On 9 June, Operation Bagration was launched to retake Belarus. 166 Soviet divisions and 2,700 Soviet tanks crushed the 38 German divisions of Army Group Centre, taking Minsk on 2 July.

The Soviet troops now broke through on the Balkan Front and advanced towards Vistula. With the Soviet homeland secure, Stalin announced that the Red Army had begun a ‘march of liberation’. Sadly, this ‘liberation’ did not extend to Poland. On 5 August, the Polish Home Army, encouraged by the Soviet advance, rose against the Nazis in Warsaw. In an act which did unspeakable damage to Allied relations, Stalin offered no military or material assistance to the Poles. He also denied permission for Allied aircraft carrying aid to land in Soviet airfields. Stalin cynically calculated that it was in his interest to see Polish patriots destroyed by the Nazis, as they would stand in the way of his post-war plans for Poland. On 5 October, General Komorowski’s Army surrendered. The Nazis levelled Warsaw in reprisal and 300,000 Poles – including many innocent civilians – were slaughtered. The Soviets would finally enter Warsaw in January 1945, after its abandonment by the Germans.

On 6 June 1944, just after midnight, the Allied assault upon Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’ began. The operation caught the German military high command unaware. Low tides and bad weather – combined with Allied deception plans – had convinced the Germans that an attack was unlikely at that time. As more than 1,000 British bombers began to pummel Normandy’s coastal defences, Rommel, commanding German defences in France, was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday.

The initial Allied assault was made by airborne infantry, who secured key bridges and crossroads on the flanks of the landing zone. Some of their most important and celebrated achievements included the capture of Pegasus Bridge and the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Commandos also attacked key targets ahead of the main landings. One remarkable feat was the attack by US Rangers on Pointe-Du-Hoc, a headland which housed a coastal battery that threatened the landing beaches. The successful assault involved scaling a 30 metre cliff face under German fire.

Early Allied success was aided by the confused German reaction. The first confirmation of a large-scale attack did not arrive until 2:15 am; that an invasion was in progress was not confirmed until 4:15. It was only at 6 am, when Normandy’s defenders saw the horizon obscured by an unbroken line of Allied ships, that all doubt was removed. Along nearly 100 kilometres of coast, Allied warships and aircraft pounded German defences. At 6:30, US soldiers went ashore by landing craft at Utah and Omaha beaches. An hour later, the British and Canadians arrived at the beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword. Fortuitously, troops at Utah accidently landed two kilometres from their target, on a virtually unguarded beach. The landing zone was quickly secured with few losses.

On Omaha Beach, where aerial bombardment had done little to dent German defences, the Americans met fierce resistance. From cliff-top bunkers, the defenders pummelled US troops with machine gun fire and shells as soon as landing craft ramps were lowered. Those who made it ashore found it impossible to advance across 200 metres of open beach. Amphibious tanks intended to cover the infantry’s advance had sunk in the rough seas. The news from Omaha was so bad that the landings there were almost called off, but eventually small groups of American infantry worked their way around the German defences, outflanked and stormed them, allowing the beachhead to be secured. But Omaha cost the Americans more than 2,000 casualties.

When British and Canadian troops landed at 7.30, supported by tanks, the tide was high, leaving fewer metres of beach to traverse. Although mines sunk a number of boats, soldiers succeeded in silencing German machine guns within half an hour. At the day’s end, although they had not yet taken their objective of Caen, the soldiers had penetrated six kilometres inland, and their foothold in Normandy was secure. At 6pm, when Churchill addressed the House of Commons, it was to announce the astounding success of an operation which would go down in military legend.

In the first months of the war, British strategic bombing (aerial attacks on the enemy’s industry and infrastructure) were bound by the belief that deliberate attacks on civilians and private property were illegal and unjustifiable. By 1945, RAF Bomber Command was obliterating historic German cities overnight. It was a terrifying transformation in the nature of war, that saw industrial towns across Europe smashed to pieces and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed.

When Luftwaffe night-bombers unintentionally (and against orders) attacked London in August 1940, Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin. This caused an enraged Hitler to order intensified bombing of targets in and around London.

Both sides thus claimed that their attacks on enemy cities were in retaliation for what had been begun by the enemy. In reality, the bombing of cities and their civilian population had been a reality of warfare since the First World War. In 1940, both sides were intent on attacking the enemy’s economic resources. These were mostly concentrated in cities, and given the inaccurate nature of bombing in World War Two (especially at night), this policy would inevitably lead to the destruction of houses and many civilian deaths.

In February 1942, RAF Bomber Command explicitly began to focus its attacks on the enemy civilian population, when it shifted from strategic bombing to the night-time area bombing of cities, designed to break enemy morale. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the new head of Bomber Command, saw civilian death (or the ‘dehousing’ of the German workforce) as entirely necessary. He felt that despatching 1,000 aircraft each night against German objectives, destroying great industrial cities in hours, would render the invasion of Europe unnecessary. He pointed to the Cologne raid of May 1942 as an example of what could be achieved: in one night, 1,046 aircraft rained more than 2,000 tons of bombs on the city, reducing 13,000 houses to rubble.

The US Army Air Force, flying raids from British bases from 1942, remained faithful to the concept of precision daylight bombing (with variable accuracy). ‘Around the Clock’ offensives began - RAF by night , USAAF by day.

Early daylight raids by the USAAF, without the protection of long-range fighter escorts, could lead to terrible losses. The Schweinfurt raid, an attack on ball-bearing factories designed to create ‘choke-points’ in German industry, led to the loss of 77 B-17 bombers, about one quarter of the attacking force. Such long-distance raids were then abandoned until 1944, when long-distance fighter escorts were available.

In May 1943, RAF Bomber Command was able to pull off one stunning piece of precision bombing, in the famous Dambusters raids against dams in the Ruhr Valley, in the German industrial heartland. Although the economic impact of the raid was negligible, it was a skilful and courageous operation that had a great impact on public morale.

Meanwhile, area bombing continued. In June 1943, in Operation Gomorrah, British and American bombers attacked Hamburg day and night for an entire week; half the city was levelled, and 40,000 were killed. In January 1944, the RAF pummelled Berlin. On 11 December, Frankfurt, Hanau and Giesson were levelled by 1,600 American planes. In January 1945, the USAAF dropped almost 40,000 tons of bombs on Berlin, Cologne and Hamm, while the RAF hit Bochum, Munich and Stuttgart.

By the war’s last months, virtually every important German industrial town had been destroyed. Yet the bombing continued. Churchill, convinced that destroying East German communication centres would aid the Red Army’s advance on Berlin, authorised the bombing of Dresden. On 13-14 February 1945, around 30,000 civilians were killed in attacks by the RAF and the USAAF.

The effectiveness of the bombing campaign is still debated. There was terrible destruction of the German economy, although output still rose during the war as the economy was geared more and more towards wartime needs. Public support in Germany for the Nazi regime, and civilian morale, was not obviously affected. The bombing campaign did force Germany to devote huge resources to the defence of the homeland, and the German air force suffered significant losses at the hands of Allied fighter escorts. The US Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command paid a high price. Six in ten British bomber aircrew were killed, one of the highest casualty rates of any service in the war.

In the first months of the war, British strategic bombing (aerial attacks on the enemy’s industry and infrastructure) were bound by the belief that deliberate attacks on civilians and private property were illegal and unjustifiable. By 1945, RAF Bomber Command was obliterating historic German cities overnight. It was a terrifying transformation in the nature of war, that saw industrial towns across Europe smashed to pieces and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed.

When Luftwaffe night-bombers unintentionally (and against orders) attacked London in August 1940, Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin. This caused an enraged Hitler to order intensified bombing of targets in and around London.

Both sides thus claimed that their attacks on enemy cities were in retaliation for what had been begun by the enemy. In reality, the bombing of cities and their civilian population had been a reality of warfare since the First World War. In 1940, both sides were intent on attacking the enemy’s economic resources. These were mostly concentrated in cities, and given the inaccurate nature of bombing in World War Two (especially at night), this policy would inevitably lead to the destruction of houses and many civilian deaths.

In February 1942, RAF Bomber Command explicitly began to focus its attacks on the enemy civilian population, when it shifted from strategic bombing to the night-time area bombing of cities, designed to break enemy morale. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the new head of Bomber Command, saw civilian death (or the ‘dehousing’ of the German workforce) as entirely necessary. He felt that despatching 1,000 aircraft each night against German objectives, destroying great industrial cities in hours, would render the invasion of Europe unnecessary. He pointed to the Cologne raid of May 1942 as an example of what could be achieved: in one night, 1,046 aircraft rained more than 2,000 tons of bombs on the city, reducing 13,000 houses to rubble.

The US Army Air Force, flying raids from British bases from 1942, remained faithful to the concept of precision daylight bombing (with variable accuracy). ‘Around the Clock’ offensives began - RAF by night , USAAF by day.

Early daylight raids by the USAAF, without the protection of long-range fighter escorts, could lead to terrible losses. The Schweinfurt raid, an attack on ball-bearing factories designed to create ‘choke-points’ in German industry, led to the loss of 77 B-17 bombers, about one quarter of the attacking force. Such long-distance raids were then abandoned until 1944, when long-distance fighter escorts were available.

In May 1943, RAF Bomber Command was able to pull off one stunning piece of precision bombing, in the famous Dambusters raids against dams in the Ruhr Valley, in the German industrial heartland. Although the economic impact of the raid was negligible, it was a skilful and courageous operation that had a great impact on public morale.

Meanwhile, area bombing continued. In June 1943, in Operation Gomorrah, British and American bombers attacked Hamburg day and night for an entire week; half the city was levelled, and 40,000 were killed. In January 1944, the RAF pummelled Berlin. On 11 December, Frankfurt, Hanau and Giesson were levelled by 1,600 American planes. In January 1945, the USAAF dropped almost 40,000 tons of bombs on Berlin, Cologne and Hamm, while the RAF hit Bochum, Munich and Stuttgart.

By the war’s last months, virtually every important German industrial town had been destroyed. Yet the bombing continued. Churchill, convinced that destroying East German communication centres would aid the Red Army’s advance on Berlin, authorised the bombing of Dresden. On 13-14 February 1945, around 30,000 civilians were killed in attacks by the RAF and the USAAF.

The effectiveness of the bombing campaign is still debated. There was terrible destruction of the German economy, although output still rose during the war as the economy was geared more and more towards wartime needs. Public support in Germany for the Nazi regime, and civilian morale, was not obviously affected. The bombing campaign did force Germany to devote huge resources to the defence of the homeland, and the German air force suffered significant losses at the hands of Allied fighter escorts. The US Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command paid a high price. Six in ten British bomber aircrew were killed, one of the highest casualty rates of any service in the war.

In November 1945, the first international war crimes trial began in the German city of Nuremberg. For much of the western public who intently followed the proceedings between 21 November 1945 and 1 October 1946, the 22 defendants who stood in the dock were seen as the living embodiments of a repressive and warmongering system which had propelled the world into six years of war, causing the deaths of fifty million people. The location was chosen for both practical and symbolic reasons. Firstly, the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg and its adjoining prison had emerged intact from the Allied bombing of Germany. Secondly, Nuremberg was considered the spiritual birthplace of the Nazi state, and had hosted the party’s elaborate annual rallies.

The defendants had widely varying levels of seniority within the Nazi party and responsibility for war crimes. While the involvement and complicity of some, such as Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring, was clear, some defendants were deputies or juniors of senior men like SS leader Heinrich Himmler, or head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. These men substituted their superiors, who had committed suicide in order to escape being captured and brought to justice.

The defendants were charged with an array of crimes: crimes against peace, which included conspiring to, planning and waging a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This last was newly-defined to include "Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war.”

The defendants’ attitudes to the trial also varied widely. Robert Ley, former head of the ‘Strength through Joy’ movement, hanged himself in his prison cell just weeks before the trial began. While Hermann Göring was prepared to defend the honour of the deceased Fuhrer and the Nazi party, irritating the American prosecutor with his sharp comebacks and defence of German patriotism, official Nazi architect Albert Speer meekly accepted the defendants’ collective responsibility from the beginning. Hitler's deputy and head of the party chancellery Rudolf Hess, faced with the enormity of the situation, appeared to suffer (or feign) almost total memory loss.

When the final verdicts were announced, only three were acquitted while the rest were found guilty and sentenced either to death or significant terms in prison. Göring was found guilty of all the charges brought against him and condemned to death. The night before his supposed execution, he managed to commit suicide in his cell. Albert Speer succeeded to some extent in his attempt to distance himself from Hitler, portraying himself as a harmless technocrat, willing to supply the prosecution with information and statistics, while also admitting to his share of collective responsibility for Nazi crimes. Speer escaped the death sentence, receiving instead a twenty year prison sentence for his role in the exploitation of forced foreign slave labour. Rudolf Hess, who spent the entire trial in a state of paranoid delirium, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He killed himself in prison in Berlin in 1987.

The trials at Nuremberg were not the first or the last hearings of Nazi war criminals. Nearly 200 other prominent Nazis were tried at Nuremberg before US Military Tribunals from 1946 until 1949. Other prominent Nazis stood trial elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Austria and Poland; Rudolf Hoss, the camp commandant of Auschwitz, was tried in Warsaw and hanged in Auschwitz in 1947. Indeed, the quest for redemption continued for decades, as evidenced by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961

When Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926, Japan was enveloped in a struggle between liberals and leftists on one side, and ultraconservatives on the other. In 1925, universal male suffrage was introduced, increasing the electorate from 3.3 to 12.5 million. Yet as the left pushed for further democratic reforms, right-wing politicians pushed for legislation to ban organisations that threatened the state by advocating wealth distribution or political change. This resulted in 1925’s ‘Peace Preservation Law’, which massively curtailed political freedom.

As the left disintegrated, ultra-nationalism began to loom large. Japanese nationalism was born at the end of the nineteenth century. During the Meiji period, industrialisation, centralisation, mass education and military conscription produced a shift in popular allegiances. Feudal loyalties were replaced by loyalty to the state, personified by the Emperor.

Although early ultra-nationalists called for a tempering of Japan’s ‘westernisation’, through limits on industrialisation, their focus changed after the First World War. Western politicians criticised Japan’s imperial ambitions and limited Japanese military expansion (in 1922’s Five Power Naval Limitation Agreement). The 1924 Japanese Exclusion Act prohibited Japanese immigration into the US. Ultra-nationalists saw these actions as provocative; they moved towards xenophobic, emperor-centred and Asia-centric positions, portraying the ‘ABCD Powers’ (America-British-Chinese-Dutch) as threatening the Japanese Empire.

Between 1928 and 1932, Japan faced domestic crisis. Economic collapse associated with the Great Depression provoked spiralling prices, unemployment, falling exports and social unrest. In November 1930, the Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi was shot by an ultra-nationalist. In summer 1931, as control slipped away from the civilian government, the army acted independently to invade Manchuria. Troops quickly conquered the entire border region, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. Though the League of Nations condemned the action, it was powerless to intervene, and Japan promptly withdrew its membership. International isolation fed ultra-nationalism. Mayors, teachers and Shinto priests were recruited by ultra-nationalist movements to indoctrinate citizens.

In May 1932, an attempt by army officers to assassinate Hamaguchi’s successor stopped short of becoming a full-blown coup, but ended rule by political parties. Between 1932 and 1936, admirals ruled Japan. Within government, the idea of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ emerged. This plan called for Asian unification against western imperialism under Japanese leadership, leading to Asian self-sufficiency and prosperity. In reality, it meant an agenda of Japanese imperial domination in the Far East.

In July 1937, Japanese soldiers at the Marco Polo Bridge on the Manchuria border used explosions heard on the Chinese side as a pretext to invade China. The offensive developed into a full scale war, blessed by Hirohito. Japan enjoyed military superiority over China. The army advanced quickly and occupied Peking. By December, the Japanese had defeated Chinese forces at Shanghai and seized Nanking. There Japanese troops committed the greatest atrocity of an incredibly brutal war: the ‘Rape of Nanking’, in which an estimated 300,000 civilians were slaughtered.

By 1939, the war was in stalemate; Chinese Communist and Nationalist forces continued to resist. Yet Japanese imperial ambitions were undimmed. In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, creating the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis, building on the alliance created in 1936 by the Anti-Comintern Pact. Japan now looked hungrily towards the oil-rich Dutch East Indies to fuel its Co-Prosperity Sphere. In 1941, when Imperial General Headquarters rejected Roosevelt’s ultimatum regarding the removal of troops from China and French Indochina, the US President announced an oil embargo on Japan. For Japan, the move was the perfect pretext for war, unleashed in December 1941 with the Pearl Harbor attack.

In the 1930s, China was a divided country. In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek had formed a Nationalist Government – the Kuomintang (the KMT), but his dictatorial regime was opposed by Mao Tse Tung’s Communists (CCP). Civil war between the Communists and Nationalists erupted in 1930 – the period of Mao’s legendary ‘Long March’.

In 1931, Japan, eager for the vast natural resources to be found in China and seeing her obvious weakness, invaded and occupied Manchuria. It was turned into a nominally independent state called Manchukuo, but the Chinese Emperor who ruled it was a puppet of the Japanese. When China appealed to the League of Nations to intervene, the League published the Lytton Report which condemned Japanese aggression. The only real consequence of this was that an outraged Japanese delegation stormed out of the League of Nations, never to return.

In the 1930’s the Chinese suffered continued territorial encroachment from the Japanese, using their Manchurian base. The whole north of the country was gradually taken over. The official strategy of the KMT was to secure control of China by defeating her internal enemies first (Communists and various warlords), and only then turning attention to the defence of the frontier. This meant the Japanese encountered virtually no resistance, apart from some popular uprisings by Chinese peasants which were brutally suppressed.

In 1937 skirmishing between Japanese and Chinese troops on the frontier led to what became known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. This fighting sparked a full-blown conflict, the Second Sino-Japanese War. Under the terms of the Sian Agreement, the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) and the CCP now agreed to fight side by side against Japan. The Communists had been encouraged to negotiate with the KMT by Stalin, who saw Japan as an increasing threat on his Far Eastern border, and began supplying arms to China. China also received aid from western democracies, where public opinion was strongly anti-Japanese. Britain, France and the US all sent aid (the latter including the famous ‘Flying Tigers’ fighter-pilot volunteers). Because of historic ties, China also received aid from Nazi Germany for a short period, until Hitler decided to make an alliance with Japan in 1938.

Although the Japanese quickly captured all key Chinese ports and industrial centres, including cities such as the Chinese capital Nanking and Shanghai, CCP and KMT forces continued resisting. In the brutal conflict, both sides used ‘scorched earth’ tactics. Massacres and atrocities were common. The most infamous came after the fall of Nanking in December 1937, when Japanese troops slaughtered an estimated 300,000 civilians and raped 80,000 women. Many thousands of Chinese were killed in the indiscriminate bombing of cities by the Japanese air force. There were also savage reprisals carried out against Chinese peasants, in retaliation for attacks by partisans who waged a guerrilla war against the invader, ambushing supply columns and attacking isolated units. Warfare of this nature led, by the war’s end, to an estimated 10 to 20 million Chinese civilians deaths.


By 1940, the war descended into stalemate. The Japanese seemed unable to force victory, nor the Chinese to evict the Japanese from the territory they had conquered. But western intervention in the form of economic sanctions (most importantly oil) against Japan would transform the nature of the war. It was in response to these sanctions that Japan decided to attack America at Pearl Harbor, and so initiate World War II in the Far East

Shortly before 8am on Sunday 7 December 1941, the first of two waves of Japanese aircraft launched a devastating attack on the US Pacific Fleet, moored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The raid, which came with no warning and no declaration of war, destroyed four battleships and damaged four more in just two hours. It also destroyed 188 US aircraft. While 100 Japanese perished in the attack, more than 2,400 Americans were killed, with another 1,200 injured.

The causes of the attack on Pearl Harbor stemmed from intensifying Japanese-American rivalry in the Pacific. Japan’s imperial ambitions had been evident from as early as 1931, when she invaded Manchuria. The conquered region’s bountiful resources were then used to supply Japan’s war machine. Leaving the League of Nations in 1933, Japan pursued an aggressive foreign policy aimed at creating the ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’, a euphemism for a Japanese empire modelled on European ones of the 19th century.

Japan became seen as a serious threat to the economic interests and influence of the US and European powers in Asia. By July 1937, with Japan engaged in all-out war with China, relations plunged to new lows. US President Roosevelt imposed economic sanctions, and Japan turned to the Axis powers, signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940.

When Japan occupied French Indochina in July 1941, Roosevelt continued to avoid direct confrontation. But Japan’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific had placed her on a collision course with the United States, which controlled the Philippines and had extensive economic interests throughout the region. When the US imposed an oil embargo on Japan, threatening to suffocate her economy, Japan’s response was to risk everything on a massive pre-emptive strike which would knock the US out of the Pacific, clearing the way for a Japanese conquest of resource-rich South East Asia.

The Japanese achieved complete surprise at Pearl Harbor, something that can largely be attributed to failures in US intelligence. Although the US had cracked Japanese radio codes, in this case the raw data was not interpreted correctly by army and navy. Although the attack pummelled American battleships, US aircraft carriers escaped unscathed. This was critical because the Pacific Fleet would have been virtually incapable of operating without them.

The following day, the US declared war against Japan, where a shared sense of outrage and hatred had united the country’s bitterly divided media and public behind Roosevelt. On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, thus bringing America into World War II.

Pearl Harbor appeared to be a huge success for Japan. It was followed by rapid Japanese conquests in Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, Malaya and New Guinea. Yet in the long term, the attack was strategically catastrophic. The ‘sleeping giant’ had been awoken, and in America, a sense of fury now accompanied the mobilisation for war of the world’s most powerful economy. The losses at Pearl Habor would soon be more than made good, and used to take a terrible vengeance on Japan.

December 1941 was a black month for the Allies. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, the seemingly unstoppable Japanese steamed their way through the Pacific and South East Asia, attacking the islands of Wake and Guam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. For Britain, the most severe material, strategic and psychological blow came with the loss of two of the ‘jewels’ in its imperial crown: Hong Kong and Singapore.


Just eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 52,000 Japanese troops attacked Hong Kong. British, Canadian and Indian forces, commanded by General Maltby and supported by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force, were outnumbered three to one. On the first day of the battle, the Japanese wreaked destruction upon RAF aircraft, achieving immediate air supremacy. On 10 December, they breached the recently constructed defences of Gin Drinker’s Line, causing the evacuation of Kowloon and forcing Maltby’s forces to retreat onto Hong Kong Island. On Christmas Day, following a week of bombardment and fierce fighting, the beleaguered Allied forces surrendered. It was the first time in history that a British crown colony had surrendered to an invading force. It became known as ‘Black Christmas’.


Yet the worst blow to British imperial pride was still to come. Singapore, situated at the end of the Malayan Peninsula, was known as ‘the Gibraltar of the East’, and was a powerful symbol of British power in Asia.


When the Japanese arrived in February 1942, Singapore’s defenders were woefully underprepared. The head of the British Army in Malaysia, General Arthur Percival, had repeatedly delayed the reinforcement of Singapore’s defences. He was convinced that no army would be capable of crossing the dense jungle which protected the colony in the north. He also saw the construction of defences as dangerous to civilian and military morale. To make matters worse, the two biggest British warships in the Far East, Repulse and Prince of Wales, had been sunk by Japanese air attack on 10 December 1941, which destroyed any hope for the naval defence of Singapore.


In the ensuing battle, Japanese forces were commanded by General Tomuzuki Yamashita, who became known as the ‘Tiger of Malaysia’. His troops had essentially entered ‘by the back door’, crossing Thailand and moving down the east coast of Malaya. Japanese forces began landing on Singapore Island on 8 February. In some areas there was fierce resistance, but thanks to Japanese air cover, and the poor preparations and deployment of Commonwealth troops, the Japanese soon made critical inroads into the defences. General Percival surrendered the island’s garrison after 7 days of fighting. It was the largest surrender of British-led troops in history. 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers became prisoners of war. The defenders lost 138,000 men in the battle; the invaders 10,000.



For Churchill, the fall of Singapore was the ‘worst disaster in British history’. In the mentality of the time, the easy defeat of the ‘white man’ by Asiatic forces represented a huge loss of face for the British. Many historians argue that the defeats fuelled the confidence and strength of the post-war anti-British movements. Both Hong Kong and Singapore were occupied by the Japanese until the end of the war.


During the Second World War, Japan invaded and occupied vast swathes of territory in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In some countries, the invaders established puppet governments. In China, invaded in 1937 but never fully conquered, the Japanese recruited Wang Ching Wei – a deserter from Chiang Kai-Shek’s army – to head the Nanking Government. Wang’s collaborationists had no real power. Treated with disdain by the Japanese, they were basically a tool to impose social control and curb the power of local warlords. In Burma, occupied from 1942, the Japanese capitalised upon anti-imperialist sentiment among the local population, granting nominal independence in 1943 and establishing a puppet government under Ba Maw. The Japanese also used captured Indian troops to form a National Indian Army commanded by Subhas Chandra Bose, which fought alongside the Japanese in the cause of Indian independence from Britain.

Other occupied territories were controlled by military governments and subject to martial law. Hong Kong was ruled by a military government under General Rensuke Isogai which controlled every area of political and public life. The Pacific island of Guam was also ruled directly by an army which ruthlessly imposed Japanese cultural practices upon the population. The Chamorros were forced to learn Japanese customs. Yen became the currency. People suspected of hiding friends or family members wanted by the authorities were harassed, beaten, tortured and executed.

These regimes were all characterised by a brutality that had become ingrained in the Japanese Imperial Army. The occupation of Hong Kong began with the bayoneting of wounded Allied soldiers in St. Stephen’s Hospital; it continued in the same bloody manner. Roughly 10,000 women were raped in the month following Japanese victory. The occupiers recruited former members of the Hong Kong Police to orchestrate public executions. In Indonesia, occupied in 1942, civilians were arbitrarily arrested, tortured and sexually abused. Thousands were interned in concentration camps or used as slave labour for Japanese military projects.

Prisoners of War taken by the Japanese originated from many different countries: China, India, Burma, Britain and the Commonwealth, the USA, the Netherlands and the Philippines. Japanese military culture did not subscribe to the idea of surrender; becoming a POW was to disgrace oneself and one’s country. Prisoners taken by the Japanese were brutally treated; the 1927 Geneva Convention was flagrantly ignored. The Red Cross was denied access to camps; beatings, executions, medical experiments, poor sanitation, starvation rations, disease and torture were part of everyday life. Prisoners such as Philip Meninsky visually chronicled their experiences using human hair, plant juice, blood and toilet rolls. Their work was later used as evidence at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The Bataan Death March is one of the most infamous example of Japanese brutality towards POWs. Following the fall of Bataan in the Philippines, 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners were marched from the Bataan peninsula to prison camps; they suffered physical abuse, murder, torture and starvation. The construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway, a horrific slave labour project which killed around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs (mainly through overwork, malnutrition and disease) is another. According to the figures of the Tokyo Tribunal, 27.1% of all western prisoners taken by the Japanese died; the Chinese figure is much higher. While just over 80,000 Western Allied POWS were released after the Japanese surrender, the Chinese figure was just 56. The Tribunal condemned the Japanese Prime Minister Tojo and six others to death for their responsibility for these crimes; sixteen more were sentenced to life imprisonment


The Battle of Midway was a decisive episode in the struggle for naval hegemony in the Pacific Ocean, fought in June 1942. As a result of the Battle of the Coral Sea, which had taken place a month earlier, Japanese Pacific expansion had been temporarily halted. Now Japanese admiral Isoruko Yamamoto wanted to force a decisive clash in the Pacific before US industrial power was fully mobilised against Japan. His chosen location was Midway Atholl, a small and solitary archipelago northeast of Hawaii. Yamamoto knew that the US would defend Midway to the bitter end. If the archipelago fell, Hawaii would fall within range of Japanese aircraft, allowing Japan to invade within a matter of weeks.

Yamamoto knew that the US’s Pacific aircraft carriers would be despatched to protect the islands; he hoped to lure them into a trap and destroy them. The Japanese occupation of Midway was also part of a plan to push out her defensive perimeter after the Doolittle Raid: a dramatic propaganda air attack on Tokyo launched from the carrier USS Hornet. Furthermore, the Japanese hoped a decisive, humiliating and demoralising defeat in the Pacific would force America to negotiate an end to the war on terms beneficial to Japan.

Yamamoto’s plans were scuppered by two principle factors. Firstly, the Japanese underestimated the US’s naval strength. They were unaware that the US Yorktown - which had been badly damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea - had been repaired and was back in action. Secondly, American code breakers were able to determine the exact date and location of the attack. This allowed US Admiral Chester Nimitz to weave an elaborate web of decoy tactics and to plan a deadly pre-emptive ambush. This main US attack, which began at 10:26 on the morning of 4 June, took the Japanese by surprise and succeeded in destroying four aircraft carriers in a matter of hours.

The US Navy inflicted irreversible and debilitating damage upon the Japanese fleet. In contrast, the US lost just one aircraft carrier and a destroyer. Although a number of Japanese pilots did survive, many of the highly trained maintenance teams who ensured the efficiency of ships and aircraft perished in the battle. These heavy losses permanently weakened the Japanese armed forces. While the US continued to construct ships and train new pilots at a huge rate, Midway inflicted losses on the Japanese from which she could not recover. From this point on, the US enjoyed indisputable naval superiority in the Pacific.




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