World War II was the most destructive enterprise in human history. It is sobering to consider that more resources, material, and human lives (approximately 50 million dead) were expended on the war than on any other human activity. Indeed, this conflict was so all-encompassing that very few "side" wars took place simultaneously, the 1939–1940 Finnish-Soviet War (the Winter War) being one of the few exceptions.
The debate over the origins of World War I had become something of a cottage industry among historians in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the question of origins rarely arises over World War II, except on the narrow issue of whether U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Whatever their grievances (certainly minor in comparison to the misery they inflicted on their victims), Germany and Japan are still considered the aggressors of World War II.
World War II is historically unique in that it represents if not necessarily a "crusade" of good against evil at least a struggle against almost pure evil by less evil forces. More than half a century after the end of this war, no mainstream or serious historians defend any significant aspect of Nazi Germany. Perhaps more surprisingly, there are also few if any such historians who would do likewise for militaristic Japan. In practically all previous conflicts, historians have found sufficient blame to give all belligerents a share. For example, no prominent historian takes seriously the Versailles provision that Germany was somehow completely responsible for the outbreak of World War I. German Führer Adolf Hitler and his followers have thus retained mythic status as personifications of pure evil, something not seen since the Wars of Religion of seventeenth-century Europe.
The starting date of World War II, however, can be disputed. Some scholars have gone as far back as the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931. Others date its outbreak to the opening of the full-scale Sino-Japanese War in 1937. But these were conflicts between two Asian powers, hardly global war.
The more traditional and more widely accepted date for the start of World War II is 1 September 1939, with the quick but not quite blitzkrieg (lightning) German invasion of Poland. This action brought France and Great Britain into the conflict two days later in accordance with their guarantees to Poland. (The Soviet Union's invasion of eastern Poland on 17 September provoked no similar reaction.)
The Germans learned from their Polish Campaign and mounted a true blitzkrieg offensive against the Low Countries and France, commencing on 10 May 1940. In this blitzkrieg warfare, the tactical airpower of the German air force (the Luftwaffe) knocked out command and communications posts as integrated armor division pincers drove deeply into enemy territory, bypassing opposition strong points. When all went well, the pincers encircled the slow-moving enemy. Contrary to legend, the armored forces were simply the spearheads; the bulk of the German army was composed of foot soldiers and horses. Further, the French army and the British Expeditionary Force combined had more and usually better tanks than the Germans, and they were not too seriously inferior in the air. The sluggish Allies were simply outmaneuvered, losing France in six weeks, much to the astonishment of the so-called experts. France remains the only major industrial democracy ever to be conquered—and, also uniquely, after a single campaign. It was also the only more or less motorized nation to suffer such a fate; many French refugees fled the rapidly advancing Germans in their private cars. The Germans found that the French Routes Nationales (National Routes), designed to enable French forces to reach the frontiers, could also be used in the opposite direction by an invader. The Germans themselves relearned this military truth on their autobahns in 1945.
Germany suffered its first defeat of the war when its air offensive against Great Britain, the world's first great air campaign, was thwarted in the Battle of Britain. The margin of victory was small, for there was little to choose between the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe's Bf-109 or between the contenders' pilots. The main advantages of the RAF in this battle were radar and the geographic fact that its pilots and their warplanes were shot down over Britain itself; German pilots and aircraft in a similar predicament were out of action for the duration, and they also had farther to fly from their bases. But Great Britain's greatest advantage throughout this stage of the war was its prime minister, Winston L. S. Churchill, who gave stirring voice and substance to the Allied defiance of Hitler.
Nonetheless, by the spring of 1941, Nazi Germany had conquered or dominated all of the European continent, with the exception of Switzerland, Sweden, and Vatican City. Greece, which had held off and beaten back an inept Italian offensive, finally capitulated to the German Balkan blitzkrieg in spring 1941.
Nazi Germany then turned on its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941, in Operation barbarossa, the greatest military campaign of all time, in order to fulfill Hitler's enduring vision of crushing "Judeo-Bolshevism." (How far Hitler's ambitions of conquest ranged beyond the Soviet east is still disputed by historians.) If he had any introspective moments then, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin must have wished that he still possessed the legions of first-rate officers he had shot or slowly destroyed in the gulag in the wake of his bloody purge of the military in 1937. Stalin's own inept generalship played a major role in the early Soviet defeats, and German forces drove almost to within sight of the Kremlin's towers in December 1941 before being beaten back.
Early that same month, war erupted in the Pacific, and the conflict then became truly a world war, with Japan's coordinated combined attacks on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and on British, Dutch, and American imperial possessions. With the Soviet Union holding out precariously and the United States now a belligerent, the Axis had lost the war, even though few recognized that fact at the time. America's "great debate" as to whether and to what extent to aid Britain was silenced in a national outpouring of collective wrath against an enemy, in a manner that would not be seen again until 11 September 2001.
But Pearl Harbor was bad enough, with 2,280 Americans dead, four battleships sunk, and the remaining four battleships damaged. Much worse was to follow. As with the Germans in France, more-professional Japanese forces surprised and outfought their opponents by land, sea, and air. Almost before they knew it, British and Dutch forces in Asia, superior in numbers alone, had been routed in one of the most successful combined-arms campaigns in history. (The French had already yielded control of their colony of Indochina, whose rice and raw materials were flowing to Japan while the Japanese military had the use of its naval and air bases until the end of the war.) The course of the Malayan-Singapore Campaign was typical. British land forces could scarcely even delay the Japanese army, Japanese fighters cleared the skies of British aircraft, and Japanese naval bombers flying from land bases quickly sank the new battleship Prince of Wales and the elderly battle cruiser Repulse. This disaster made it obvious that the aircraft carrier was the capital ship of the day. Singapore, the linchpin of imperial European power in the Orient, surrendered ignominiously on 16 February 1942.
The British hardly made a better fight of it in Burma before having to evacuate that colony. Only the Americans managed to delay the Japanese seriously, holding out on the Bataan Peninsula and then at the Corregidor fortifications until May. The end of imperialism, at least in Asia, can be dated to the capitulation of Singapore, as Asians witnessed other Asians with superior technology and professionalism completely defeat Europeans and Americans.
And yet, on Pearl Harbor's very "day of infamy," Japan actually lost the war. Its forces missed the American aircraft carriers there, as well as the oil tank farms and the machine shop complex. On that day, the Japanese killed many U.S. personnel, and they destroyed mostly obsolete aircraft and sank a handful of elderly battleships. But above all, they outraged Americans, who determined to avenge the attack so that Japan would receive no mercy in the relentless land, sea, and air war that the United States was now to wage against it. More significantly, American industrial and manpower resources vastly surpassed those Japan could bring to bear in a protracted conflict.
And yet—oddly, perhaps, in view of its own ruthless warfare and occupation—Japan was the only major belligerent to hold limited aims in World War II. Japanese leaders basically wanted the Western colonial powers out of the Pacific, to be replaced, of course, by their own Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere (a euphemism for "Asia for the Japanese"). No unconditional surrender demands ever issued from Tokyo. To Japan's own people, of course, the war was presented as a struggle to the death against the arrogant Anglo-Saxon imperialists.
Three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Hitler decided to declare war on the United States, a blunder fully as deadly as his invasion of the Soviet Union and even less explicable. But the Nazi dictator, on the basis of his customary "insights," had dismissed the American soldier as worthless, and he considered U.S. industrial power vastly overrated. His decision meant the United States could not focus exclusively on Japan.
The tide would not begin to turn until the drawn-out naval-air clash in the Coral Sea (May 1942), the first naval battle in which neither side's surface ships ever came within sight of the opponent. The following month, the U.S. Navy avenged Pearl Harbor in the Battle of Midway, sinking no fewer than four Japanese carriers, again without the surface ships involved ever sighting each other. The loss of hundreds of superbly trained, combat-experienced naval aviators and their highly trained maintenance crews was as great a blow to Japan as the actual sinking of its invaluable carriers. The Americans could make up their own losses far more easily than the Japanese.
Although considered a sideshow by the Soviets, the North African Campaign was of the utmost strategic importance, and until mid-1943, it was the only continental land campaign that the Western Allies were strong enough to mount. Had North Africa, including Egypt, fallen to the Axis powers (as almost occurred several times), the Suez Canal could not have been held, and German forces could have gone through the Middle East, mobilizing Arab nationalism, threatening the area's vast oil fields, and even menacing the embattled Soviet Union itself. Not until the British commander in North Africa, General Bernard Montgomery, amassed a massive superiority in armor was German General Erwin Rommel defeated at El Alamein in October 1942 and slowly pushed back toward Tunisia. U.S. and British landings to the rear of Rommel's forces, in Algeria and Morocco, were successful, but the raw American troops received a bloody nose at Kasserine Pass. The vastly outnumbered North African Axis forces did not capitulate until May 1943. Four months earlier, the German Sixth Army had surrendered at Stalingrad, marking the resurgence of the Soviet armies. One should, nonetheless, remember that the distance between Casablanca, Morocco, and Cape Bon, Tunisia, is much the same as that from Brest-Litovsk to Stalingrad, and more Axis troops surrendered at "Tunisgrad" than at Stalingrad. (One major difference was that almost all Axis prisoners of the Western Allies survived their imprisonment, whereas fewer than one in ten of those taken at Stalingrad returned.)
By this time, U.S. production was supplying not only American military needs but also those of most of the Allies—on a scale, moreover, that was simply lavish by comparison to all other armed forces (except possibly that of the Canadians). Everything from the canned-meat product Spam to Sherman tanks and from aluminum ingots to finished aircraft crossed the oceans to the British Isles, the Soviet Union, the Free French, the Nationalist Chinese, the Fighting Poles, and others. (To this day, Soviets refer to any multidrive truck as a studeborkii, or Studebaker, a result of the tens of thousands of such vehicles shipped to the Soviet Union.) Moreover, quantity was not produced at the cost of quality. Although some the Allies might have had reservations in regard to Spam, the army trucks, the boots, the small arms, and the uniforms provided by the United States were unsurpassed. (British soldiers noted with some envy that American enlisted men wore the same type of uniform material as did British officers.) The very ships that transported the bulk of this war material—the famous, mass-produced Liberty ships ("rolled out by the mile, chopped off by the yard")—could still be found on the world's oceanic trade routes decades after they were originally scheduled to be scrapped.
After the North African Campaign ended in 1943, the Allies drove the Axis forces from Sicily, and then, in September 1943, they began the interminable Italian Campaign. It is perhaps indicative of the frustrating nature of the war in Italy that the lethargic Allies allowed the campaign to begin with the escape of most Axis forces from Sicily to the Italian peninsula. The Germans were still better at this sort of thing. Winston Churchill to the contrary, Italy was no "soft underbelly"; the Germans conducted well-organized retreats from one mountainous fortified line to the next. The Italian Campaign was occasionally justified for tying down many German troops, but the truth is that it tied down far more Allied forces—British, Americans, Free French, Free Poles, Brazilians, Canadians, Indians, and British and French African colonials among them. German forces in Italy ultimately surrendered in late April 1945, only about a week before Germany itself capitulated.
The military forces of World War II's belligerents, as might be expected in so historically widespread a conflict, varied wildly. The French army in 1939, considered by "experts" the world's best, was actually a slow-moving mass that was often supplied with very good equipment and was led by aged commanders who had learned the lessons of World War I. No other such powerful army was so completely defeated in so short a period of time. The French air force and navy likewise had some excellent equipment as well as more progressive commanders than the army, but France fell before they could have any great impact on the course of battle.
It is generally agreed that the German army was superb—so superb, in fact, that some authorities would venture that the Germans traditionally have had "a genius for war." (Then again, it was hardly a sign of genius to provoke the United States into entering World War I or to invade the Soviet Union in World War II while the British Empire still fought on, before declaring war on the United States six months later.) Obviously, Germany's greatest and traditional military failing has been the denigration of the fighting ability of its opponents. But on the ground, at the operational and tactical levels, the combination of realistic training, strict discipline, and flexible command made the German army probably World War II's most formidable foe. One need only look at a map of Europe from 1939 to 1945 and calculate Germany's enemies compared to its own resources. The Luftwaffe had superbly trained pilots, although their quality fell off drastically as the war turned against their nation. German fighters were easily the equal of any in the world, but surprisingly, given that Hitler's earlier ambitions seemingly demanded a "Ural bomber," the Luftwaffe never put a heavy, four-engine bomber into production. Germany led the world in aerodynamics, putting into squadron service the world's first jet fighter (the Me-262), with swept wings, and even a jet reconnaissance bomber (although German jet engines lagged somewhat behind those of the British). The Luftwaffe also fielded a rocket-powered interceptor, but this craft was as great a menace to its own pilots as to the enemy.
The German navy boasted some outstanding surface vessels, such as the battleship Bismarck, but Hitler found the sea alien, and he largely neglected Germany's surface fleet. Submarines were an entirely different matter. U-boat wolf packs decimated Allied North Atlantic shipping, and the Battle of the Atlantic was the only campaign the eupeptic Churchill claimed cost him sleep. German U-boats ravaged the Atlantic coast of the United States, even ranging into Chesapeake Bay in the first months of 1942 to take advantage of inexcusable American naval unpreparedness. As in World War I, convoy was the answer to the German U-boat, a lesson that had to be learned the hard way in both conflicts.
The British army on the whole put in a mediocre performance in World War II. As with the French, although to a lesser degree, the British feared a repetition of the slaughter experienced on the World War I Western Front, and except for the elite units, they rarely showed much dash or initiative. Montgomery, the war's most famous British general, consistently refused to advance until he had great superiority in men and material over his enemy. The British Expeditionary Force fought well and hard in France in 1940 but moved sluggishly thereafter. By far the worst performance of the British army occurred in Malaya-Singapore in the opening months of the war.
For all of their commando tradition, moreover, the British undertook few guerrilla actions in any of their lost colonies. Churchill himself was moved to wonder why the sons of the men who had fought so well in World War I on the Somme, despite heavy losses, suffered so badly by comparison to the Americans still holding out on Bataan. As late as 1943, the Japanese easily repulsed a sluggish British offensive in the Burma Arakan.
This situation changed drastically when General William Slim took command of the beaten, depressed Anglo-Indian forces in Burma. His was the only sizable Allied force not to outnumber the Japanese, yet he inflicted the worst land defeat in its history on Japan and destroyed the Japanese forces in Burma. Unlike so many Allied generals, Slim led from the front in the worst climate of any battle front. He managed to switch his army's composition from jungle fighters to armored cavalry. Slim's only tangible advantage over his enemy was his absolute control of the air, and with this, he conducted the greatest air supply operation of the war. Although the modest Slim, from a lower-middle-class background, achieved the highest rank in the British army and then became one of Australia's most successful governor-generals, he is almost forgotten today. Yet, considering his accomplishments with limited resources and in different conditions, William Slim should be considered the finest ground commander of World War II.
The Royal Navy suffered from a preponderance of battleship admirals at the opening of the war, most notably Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, who was convinced that "well-handled" capital ships could fight off aerial attacks. He was proved emphatically and fatally wrong when Japanese torpedo-bombers rather swiftly dispatched his Prince of Wales and Repulse on the third day after the opening of war in the Pacific. The Royal Navy was also handicapped by the fact that not until 1937 did it win control of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) from the RAF, which had little use for naval aviation and had starved the FAA of funds and attention through the years between the world wars. Although the Royal Navy's carriers were fine ships and their armored flight decks gave them a protection that the U.S. Navy envied, albeit at the cost of smaller aircraft capacity, Fleet Air Arm aircraft were so obsolete that the service had to turn to U.S. models. Even so, the FAA made history on 11 November 1940 when its obsolete Fairy Swordfish torpedo-bombers sank three Italian battleships in Taranto harbor, a feat that the Japanese observed carefully but the Americans did not. British battleships and carriers kept the vital lifeline through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal open through the darkest days of the war, and together with the Americans and Canadians, they defeated the perilous German submarine menace in the North Atlantic. Significant surface actions of the Royal Navy included the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941 by an armada of British battleships, cruisers, carriers, and warplanes and the December 1943 destruction of the pocket battleship Scharnhorst by the modern battleship Duke of York.
The Soviet army almost received its deathblow in the first months of the German invasion. Caught off balance and shorn by Stalin's maniacal purges of its best commanders (whose successors were the dictator's obedient creatures), the Soviet army suffered heavier losses than any other army in history. Yet, spurred by the bestiality of the German war of enslavement and racial extermination and by Stalin's newfound pragmatism, the Red Army was able to spring back and, at enormous cost at the hands of the more professional Germans, fight its way to Berlin.
The Red Air Force developed into one of the most effective tactical air powers of the war. (The Soviets constructed very few heavy bombers.) The Shturmovik was certainly one of the best ground-attack aircraft of the time. The Red Navy, by contrast, apparently did little to affect the course of the war; its main triumph may have been in early 1945 when its submarines sank several large German passenger ships crammed with refugees from the east in the frigid Baltic, the worst maritime disasters in history.
The United States emerged from World War II as the only nation since the time of the Romans to be a dominant power on both land and sea, not to mention in the air. In 1945, the U.S. Air Force and Navy could have defeated any combination of enemies, and only the Soviet army could have seriously challenged the Americans on land. In 1939, the U.S. Army was about the size of that of Romania; by 1945, it had grown to some 12 million men and women.
World War II in the Pacific was the great epic of the U.S. Navy. From the ruin of Pearl Harbor, that service fought its way across the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean to Tokyo Bay. Eventually, it had the satisfaction of watching the Japanese surrender on board a U.S. Navy battleship in that harbor. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, it was obvious that the aircraft carrier was the ideal capital ship for this war, and the United States virtually mass-produced such warships in the Essex-class. The U.S. Navy had much to learn from its enemy, as demonstrated in the Battle of Savo Island, where Japanese cruisers sank three U.S. and one Australian cruiser in the worst seagoing defeat in U.S. naval history. By the end of the war, almost all of Japan's battleships and carriers had been sunk, most by naval airpower. U.S. Navy submarines succeeded where the German navy had failed in two world wars, as absolutely unrestricted submarine warfare strangled the Japanese home islands, causing near starvation. Equally impressive, the U.S. Navy in the Pacific originated the long-range seatrain, providing American sailors with practically all their needs while they fought thousands of miles from the nearest continental American supply base.
The U.S. Marine Corps was a unique military force. Alone among the marine units of the belligerents, it had its own air and armor arms under its own tactical control. The U.S. Marines were the spearhead that stormed the Japanese-held islands of the Pacific, and the dramatic photograph of a small group of Marines raising the American flag over the bitterly contested island of Iwo Jima became an icon of the war for Americans.
The Japanese army was long on courage but shorter on individual initiative. It was a near medieval force, its men often led in wild banzai charges by sword-flourishing officers against machine-gun emplacements. The entire nation of Nippon was effectively mobilized against the looming Americans under the mindless slogan "Our spirit against their steel." But the history of the Japanese army will be stained for the foreseeable future by the bestial atrocities it practiced against Allied troops and civilians alike; untold numbers of Chinese civilians, for example, were slaughtered during Japanese military campaigns in China. Only two-thirds of Allied troops unfortunate enough to fall into Japanese hands survived to the end of the war. Yet the Japanese army was probably the best light infantry force of the war, and it was certainly the only World War II army that, on numerous occasions, genuinely fulfilled that most hackneyed order "Fight on to the last man!"
The Imperial Japanese Navy and the air arms of the army and navy were superb in the early stages of the Pacific war. Both had extensive combat experience in the Chinese war as well as modern equipment. Japanese admirals were the best in their class between 1941 and 1942, and Japanese air and naval forces, along with the Japanese army itself, quickly wound up European colonial pretensions. Only the vast mobilized resources of the United States could turn the tide against Japan. And except for their complete loss of air control, only in Burma were the Japanese outfought on something like equal terms.
The aftermath of World War II proved considerably different from that of World War I, with its prevailing spirit of disillusionment. Amazingly, all of World War II's belligerents, winners and losers alike, could soon look back and realize that the destruction of the murderous, archaic, racialist Axis regimes had genuinely cleared the way to a better world. All enjoyed peace and the absence of major war. Even for the Soviets, the postwar decades were infinitely better than the prewar years, although much of this measure of good fortune might be attributed simply to the death of Josef Stalin. Except for Great Britain, the British Commonwealth nations and even more so the United States emerged from the war far stronger than when they entered it after enduring a decade of the Great Depression. By the 1950s, both war-shattered Western Europe and Japan were well on their way to becoming major competitors of the United States. The uniquely sagacious and foresighted Western Allied military occupations of Germany, Japan, and Austria in many ways laid the foundations for the postwar prosperity of these former enemy nations. (For the most part, similar good fortune bypassed the less developed nations.) Within a few years, former belligerents on both sides could agree that, despite its appalling casualties and destruction, World War II had been if not perhaps "the Good War" at least something in the nature of a worthwhile war.
Dziewanowski, M. K. War at Any Price: World War II in Europe, 1939–1945. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1991.; Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Viking, 1989.; Liddell Hart, Basil H. History of the Second World War. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1970.; Tucker, Spencer C. The Second World War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.; Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.; Willmott, H. P. The Great Crusade: A New Complete History of the Second World War. New York: Free Press, 1991.