Sunday, September 13, 2015

World War II: Outbreak and Early German Conquests (1939–1941)

The Heinkel He-111 entered service in 1935, and the B model served with distinction in the Spanish Civil War, where it was fast enough to fly unescorted. Nearly 1,000 He-111s were in service at the start of the war; they formed a significant part of the Luftwaffe's medium bomber strength early in the conflict, although they were roughly handled during the Battle of Britain in spite of carrying nearly 600 lb of armor. Later versions had better defensive armament and were used in various roles, including torpedo bombing. Approximately 7,450 He-111s were built before production ended in 1944.

At 4:30 on the morning of September 1, 1939, Hitler's Luftwaffe (air force) commenced the bombing of airfields all across Poland. Simultaneously, a German battleship "visiting" the Polish port of Danzig opened fire on Polish fortifications, and the Wehrmacht (army) surged across the Polish frontier. The rapid combined air, sea, and land assault was the essence of blitzkrieg (lightning war), and the superbly trained and equipped German forces swept aside the valiant but outgunned and outnumbered Polish forces. On September 27, Warsaw fell to the invaders; the next day, the town of Modlin surrendered. In a single action, 164,000 Polish soldiers became prisoners of war. By early October, the last organized Polish force, at Kock, had been crushed. It mattered not at all that two days after the invasion both France and Britain honored their treaty obligations to Poland by declaring war on Germany. 

As agreed in the Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, Stalin also invaded Finland, which the Soviet Union annexed on March 12, 1940, after a brief but bloody war.
So it began again, a war sparked by nationality conflicts in east-central Europe and provoked, in part, by a German stab at continental hegemony that expanded into a global conflict touching every continent. It was more a total war than even WORLD WAR I had been, since the belligerent powers' civilians not only contributed to their war efforts but also became targets for their enemies. Subject populations also became targets. Most horrific was Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, but Germany also attacked Slavs and other ethnic, social, and political groups deemed inferior by or a threat to Nazi ideology. Stalin expanded the Russian terror against the Ukrainians to the conquered Poles. Even in the Pacific, the Japanese- American conflict at times degenerated into brutal race war. Indeed, World War II all but eliminated the age-old diplomatic distinction between combatants and noncombatants, with the result that not only would its death toll greatly exceed that of the Great War, but also civilian casualties would vastly outnumber those of the military. 

Yet again the war in Europe developed into a contest between a German-held Europe and an Allied coalition attacking on its periphery. Again, the United States kept clear of the conflict until its own sovereignty was insulted by direct attack. But unlike the last war, the Italians quickly joined the Germans rather than remaining neutral, and the Soviet Union-itself soon invaded by Germany- did not collapse as imperial Russia had. Instead, Joseph Stalin's Russia held out while France fell to the Nazis, and thus ultimately the Soviets instead of the French joined the British and the Americans in the wartime conferences of the "Big Three." Although Japan, joining the Axis powers, invaded China and Southeast Asia and provoked the entry of the United States into the war, it also managed to remain neutral toward Russia. In turn, the anti-Fascist Allies, while determined to reduce Germany to rubble, nevertheless simmered with tension over varying strategies and war aims. In fact, World War II was in many ways a label for several parallel or overlapping wars, and the central conflict in Europe overlay a three-way struggle for power among Nazism, democracy, and communism. Once Germany fell and Japan was bombed into submission, these subterranean struggles among the Allies burst into the open in a new kind of war and an odd sort of peace. 

While Poland reeled and withered under blitzkrieg, no significant fighting took place in the West. Although France and Britain had declared war on Germany, they took little action, and, in its first months, World War II on the Western Front was derisively described by the British as a "Sitzkrieg" or, more commonly, the "Phony War." France and England did cooperate in an attempt to mine and occupy Norwegian ports to close them to German Uboats. The German navy and Luftwaffe, however, were quick to occupy Denmark and then, with the help of Norwegian turncoat Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), took over Norway as well, installing Quisling as head of a Nazi puppet regime. The British military hurriedly evacuated Norway on June 6, 1940, and, at the insistence of Parliament, Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) appointed his harshest critic, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), First Lord of the Admiralty in his war cabinet on September 3, 1939. 

Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway had all fallen under Nazi control when, on May 10, 1940, German forces surged into Holland, Luftwaffe bombers almost totally leveling Rotterdam. Simultaneously, German ground forces advanced through Belgium, marching around the northern end of the Maginot Line. Within 10 days, sweeping ineffectual French resistance aside, the German armies reached Abbeville, on the French coast, just below the Straits of Dover. 

The invasion of France cut the Allied armies in two, with French forces to the south of the invaders and British to the north. Belgium had little choice but to surrender, which it did on May 28, 1940; the British Expeditionary Force, which had been dispatched to the continent, now faced almost certain annihilation or capture. By means of a heroic and massive amphibious operation, most of the British forces made a hair's-breadth escape across the English Channel from the coastal town of Dunkirk. This evacuation not only saved the British army from complete destruction but also rescued Britain from imminent invasion. 

Despite the lightning speed with which France had been overrun, Premier Paul Reynaud (1878-1966) wanted to continue the war. He was voted down, however, and chose to resign rather than accept an armistice. His vice premier, a popular hero of World War I, Marshal Henri Phillipe Pétain (1856-1951), sued for peace, asking Hitler for an armistice, even as Pétain's World War I subordinate and protege, Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle (1890- 1970), broadcast to France from London (where he happened to be stationed at the outbreak of the war) an appeal to the French people never to surrender. Despite de Gaulle's plea, on June 22, 1940, Pétain signed an armistice by which two-thirds of France was yielded to German occupation. The rest of the country was to be administered by Pétain from Vichy as a German puppet. 

The fall of France left Germany master of the European continent, and it left England to stand alone against Nazi aggression-although de Gaulle, operating from England, worked feverishly to organize the "Free French" resistance against the Nazi occupation of his homeland. 

Winston Churchill, who had replaced Chamberlain as prime minister on May 10, 1940, appealed to President Roosevelt for aid from the United States. On November 4, 1939, Roosevelt had secured repeal of a U. S. arms embargo on belligerent nations. In response to Churchill's appeals, on December 8, 1940, he proposed instituting the Lend- Lease program, which was passed into law in March 1941. This gave the president authority to aid any nation whose defense he believed vital to the United States and to accept repayment for such aid "in kind or property, or any other direct or indirect benefit which the President deems satisfactory." The United States, not yet in the war, was rapidly on its way to becoming the "arsenal of democracy." 

From August 8 to August 18, 1940, the Luftwaffe began the first phase of the Battle of Britain, mainly by attacking coastal areas and ports. The British Royal Air Force (RAF), although outnumbered, outflew the Germans and inflicted severe losses on the attackers. From August 24 through September 5, the second phase of the battle began with attacks concentrated on RAF bases. These attacks were far more effective, but, at Hitler's direction, the Luftwaffe shifted its strikes from the RAF bases to the civilian population, with massive bombing raids on London during September 7 through September 30. 

In the meantime, the British responded by bombing Berlin (August 24-29), which caused relatively little damage but did have a profound psychological effect on the Germans and was instrumental in Hitler's (militarily poor) decision to concentrate on civilian targets instead of wiping out the RAF. Once the Germans had lost momentum, British forces were able to destroy vessels massed for an invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion) during September 14-15, thereby preventing a rapid German victory. Sporadically, from November 1940 to May 1941, a number of English cities, including London, were subjected to the "blitz," an intensive nighttime bombing campaign. Designed to break the English will to fight, it served only to strengthen the people's desire to resist and to win. 

During 1940-41, war also raged in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and in Africa, theaters in which Germany's ally Italy fought with poor success. Japan, which, on September 27, 1940, had formally signed a threepower pact with Germany and Italy to form the Rome- Berlin-Tokyo Axis, was fighting in China, India, and Indo-China. At the end of 1941, by attacking Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, Japan would bring the United States into the war. 

On June 22, 1941, without warning, Germany suddenly abrogated the nonaggression pact with the USSR by invading the Soviet Union and penetrating deep into Soviet territory. On December 8, 1941, the day after Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States joined Britain in its lonesome and perilous stand against the Axis. But the year closed with Germany, in a phrase Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-98) had used to justify his nation's aggression in the late 19th century, very much "in the saddle."

Further reading: P. M. H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Longman, 1986); Alan Bullock, Hitler, a Study in Tyranny (New York: Harper & Row, 1962); Guy Chapman, Why France Fell: Defeat of the French Army in 1940 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969); David Irving, Hitler's War (New York: Avon Books, 1990); Julian Jackson, The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (London: Oxford University Press, 2003) and France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 (London: Oxford University Press, 2001); John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Viking, 1989); John Lukacs, The Last European War, 1939-1941 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977); B. J. C. McKercher and Roch Legault, eds., Military Planning and the Origins of the Second World War in Europe (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001); Alexander B. Rossino, Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003); Richard Storry, A History of Modern Japan (London: Cassell, 1962); A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Atheneum, 1982) and (ed.), History of World War II (London: Octopus Books, 1974); H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1982).

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