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World War II - The Great Conflict

The most deadly, destructive and consequential war in history.

Total spending for the War by the USA was $341 billions. It suffered 292,131 battle deaths and 115,187 other deaths. The comparison shows the USA with very low casualties compared with enemy and Allies.

The Soviets lost 13 million military dead, plus 7 million civilians. The Germans lost 3.5 million military and 3.8 million civilians. (Some three million Jews and seven million East Europeans were murdered outside of combat by German troops, SS police, and volunteers of other nationalities during this time.)

 China lost 3.5 million soldiers and 10 million civilians. Japan lost 1.7 million military and 380,000 civilians (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

American casualties in Europe were hardly more than in World War I, despite the larger and longer role played, and amounted to one-hundredth of the Soviet dead and two-thirds of the British dead (whose contingents included many from the Empire -- India, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand).

Causes of the war can be traced back to the end of World War I and a depressed world economy which preceeded the American Depression of the 1930's.

Germany, Italy, and Japan suffered deep economic problems. Inflation was rampant. However, by the late 1920s, economic order was being restored. This trend reversed when the United States entered the Great Depression. The world economic situation sent country after country into crisis. This gave rise to an isolationist stance on behalf of the United States; and a Nationalistic view across most of the globe.

The citizens of what would be the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) supported nationalistic organizations which offered hope in the face of these problems. These organizations soon gave birth to tyranny and dictatorship.

Totalitarian dictatorships arose in the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany. In Japan; the Royal Throne submitted to militarism.  These despotic governments were led by Josef Stalin, Emperor Hirohito and Tojo, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, respectively. These leaders seized power by promising reform through unity.

Under the dictatorships, however, terror reigned. Dictators used secret police, threats, imprisonment and even executions to eliminate their opposition.  In Japan the Japanese were called on to die for their country and their emporeror in fanatic suicide pacts.

Some consider the start of World War II to be Japan's invasion of Manchuria, a region in eastern China. Japan continued to demonstrate aggression, effectively conquering eastern China by 1938.

Early in the conflict the Japanese attacked and sunk the USS Panay; some suppose as an effort to draw America into the conflict;  but the US stood aside and watched in horror as Japan raped, pillaged and murdered it's way thru China.  America was still absorbed in isolationism.

Italy, meanwhile, conquered Ethiopia in 1936.

Germany, in 1938, united Austria with itself.

There was essentially no stopping this aggression, since The League of Nations lacked the power to enforce its treaties. (The League had been formed after World War I as an international forum for disputes.)

In 1936, German and Italy allied. Japan joined in 1940, forming the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.

During this time, Spain was in civil war.

General Francisco Franco led the rebellious army Nationalists against Spain's government. Hitler and Mussolini supported the revolution. The Spanish Civil War divided the world into those who supported Nazism and Fascism, and those who were against it.

America stood neutral and continued to trade goods with all sides; seeing the situation as a European and Southeast Asian problem.  

However;  the US secretly began to plan a two front war against Japan and Germany under the code name Ranbow Five with the idea of subduing Germany First if the US was drawn into the conflict.

Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain held several meetings to restore peace. They agreed that if Hitler took Czechoslovakia, he would not try to acquire more territory.

Hitler defiantly broke his promise by invading Poland 11 months later, on September 1, 1939.

Germany's blitzkrieg (lightning war) quickly overcame the large, but poorly equipped Polish Army.

The blitzkrieg relied on speed and surprise. It was carried out flawlessly.  Russia in the meantime was caught off guard as it was also preparing a mass invasion of many of its European neighbors (See: Icebreaker)

Britain and France pledged their support for the Allied cause, but stood by while Hitler swallowed Poland. Journalists dubbed this The Phony War.

German forces then conquered Denmark and Norway, seizing vital ports.

Following these invasions, Chamberlain resigned.

He was replaced by the bull dog tenacious Winston Churchill on May 10, 1940.

Germany, on the same day, created another blitzkrieg, immediately taking Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The French hoped to hold off the aggressive Germans by use of The Maginot Line, a strip of defense along the French-German border; fortified by a series of bunkers and gun emplacements in an arrangement dating back to WWI.

The Maginot line defense proved fatal and  futile; as the Germans simply proceeded around it and into France.  The Vichey French Government was set up and supported Hitler. Charles de Gaulle commanding the Free French Forces was driven into exile; but his communist allegiances would make him an uncooperative ally.

Hitler then set his sights on Britain hoping to capture the nation in-tact.  In a massive air war, the Luftwaffe, the German air force, began to mount assaults on British RAF (Royal Air Force) stations.

By September 1940, Germany thought it had destroyed the RAF, so it proceeded to bomb London. This series of attacks on Britain's capital was known as The Blitz. Great Britain remained great, however, and survived Germany's most destructive efforts.

During the period July 10th 1940 and October 30th; the British defeated an overpowering force of the German airforce in the Battle of Britian. But, Germany would not halt it's air efforts until May 1941 and continued to develope missile technology that it launched against the English homeland til the end of the war.

The Blitzkrieg once again made its appearance, this time beginning on June 5. It proved effective once more. The French signed an armistice on June 22. France had fallen.

British forces in North Africa where Britian still maintained colonial controls were fighting to repel the invading Italians.

Britain managed to keep Italy out of Egypt and pushed them back to Libya.

In the beginning of 1941, The Afrika Korps, led by General Erwin Rommel, was sent to help the Italian forces.

Rommel's crafty methods eventually earned him the famed moniker, "The Desert Fox."

But; Britain held on.

In May of 1941, Britain had regained control of Northern Africa.

In May 1941 the Allies would receive one of the biggest breaks in the war by capturing the Enigama Machine; that encoded and decoded the German war plans.  The allied capture of the machine would remain a secret throughout the war.

U-110 The U-boat from which the British recovered a vital Enigma encryption device and accompanying documentation in May 1941;(For more on the breaking of the Enigma, see Decoding Nazi Secrets.) U-110's captain, KL Fritz-Julius Lemp, had sunk the first Allied merchant ship of the war, the British liner Athenia, while in command of U-30. Badly damaged in a convoy action 9 May 1941 by depth charges from corvette HMS Aubretia and forced to the surface. The crew abandoned ship, but before she could sink, a boarding party from destroyer HMS Bulldog went aboard, recovered the Enigma machine and other materials, and set up a towline to tow her into captivity. U-110 foundered the next day while still in tow  and sank.

In March and April of 1941, the Germans quickly captured Yugoslavia and Greece. When British soldiers retreated to the island of Crete, Germany orchestrated the first ever airborne invasion, dropping thousands of paratroopers who quickly took the island. These conquests were an error on Hitler's part, however; as Crete could have been isolated and the troops would have been better used in his planned invasion of Russia.

Hitler had been planning to invade the Soviet Union for some time. But, with the delays of Crete, he would now have to fight an extended, bitter winter war.

Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941.

The Soviets soon suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.

The invasion went well for the Germans. This lasted briefly however. Instead of taking Moscow, Hitler opted for a dual-flank approach, sending some forces north to Leningrad, and some south towards the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, the harsh weather began. October rains caught the Germans in mud. In early December, as German troops began to march into Moscow, winter began. Temperatures fell to -40º. The German advance stopped as abruptly as it began.

Germany's battleships struggled to cut off Allied sea supply routes. But British task forces managed to destroy the bulk of Germany's battleship fleet.

The largest trophy of such an attack was against the German Navy's pride and joy, the dreadnaught Bismarck.

A fleet of British warships surrounded and sank the Bismarck in May of 1941. However, the Germans still had a a huge 'wolf pack fleet of German submarines; the U-Boat.

For two years, U-Boats sank every Allied supply ship they could find. But long-range torpedo bombers, warship escorts of supply ships, and the new Allied technology of sonar curbed the threat of the dreaded wolf packs and the Unterseeboote.  Also the Allies had secretly captured the U-Boat communication codes and could almost pinpoint every German U-Boat affloat.  The U-Boat force lost more men than any other branch of the German Navy.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped to win the war by supplying Allied nations with the weapons they needed, rather than sending the United States into war; thru the Lend - Lease program with Britian.

The Lend-Lease Act gave 38 nations about $50 billion in U.S. aid.

Japan, stuck in China, decided to cut off vital Chinese supply lines from Southeast Asia.

Japan entered and controlled northern Indochina. The U.S. responded by cutting Japan's supply of American goods and oil.

Japan wanted to return to its expansion plans, so it turned on the one force that could stop it: the United States Navy in a plan that had been secretly underway for months.

The US knew war was imminent but was caught off guard believing the Japanese would more than likely attack the Philipines first.

On December 7, 1941, a Japanese carrier based task force attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. They sank four battleships, and destroyed nearly 20 aircraft. The next day, they attacked Guam and Wake Island;  the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain declared war on Japan and Germany the next day.

The Soviets, in December 1941 however; thru desperate fighting recovered and pushed the Germans back 100 miles outside of Moscow.

While operating in the eastern Mediterranean, U-559 came under attack by several British warships and an aircraft on 30 October 1942. Fatally damaged and forced to the surface, the sub was abandoned. A British boarding party from destroyer HMS Petard recovered the cryptographic materials, but the vessel sank before the cipher machine could be brought out. Eight German crewmen and two British seamen were lost, and 37 German survivors were taken prisoner. U-559 provided codebooks and valuable cryptographic materials recovered before sinking, facilitating, in late 1942, the second major Allied breakthrough in reading German U-boat communications.

In Spring 1942, the Germans marched towards oil reserves in the Caucasus. Hitler ordered the capture of Stalingrad. A five-month battle ensued. And the 'Siege of Stalingrad' is one of history's most notable events.

The Soviets, in a counter-attack, captured and killed 300,000 German soldiers, stopping Germany's eastward march.

In eastern Europe the Soviets prevented the German advance. The Soviets defeated the Germans in the  Battle for Stalingrad in 1943. The allies were soon on a roll.  After set backs in all the European theatres the Allies won battles in Africa, captured Sicily and forced Italy to surrender in 1943 thru coordinated invasions of the Italian homeland at Salerno and Anzio.

Anzio turned into catastrophe for the 1st & 3rd Battalion Rangers when they were trapped behind enemy lines at Cisterna di Latina and those not killed were captured and sent for the most part to Stalag IIB; the worst German POW Camp in the German system.

In 1944, the Allies prepared for an invasion in northern France.

Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met together in 1943 in Teheran, Iran to discuss the strategy and plans behind the invasion.

They talked to each other about a British and American large-scale attack, called Operation Overlord, on the beach of Normandy along the northern coast of France. This attack was to be known as the D-Day Invasion.

Operation Overlord was the largest invasion force in history up to that time.

Hitler laughed and said his forces could resist any attack on the coast.  Rommel himself was tasked with building up the German defensive positions along the coast.

The invasion would deploy Allied soldiers ashore on five beaches under the code names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

The Germans were not sure what beach the Allies were going to attack so they built a chain of fortifications along the coast called the Atlantic wall. Rommel put up barbed wire, mined the water, and concentrated his troops near the Calais, the narrowest part of the English Channel.

The Allies captured another German 'Enigma-Machine' from U- 505 the Only U-boat captured in action during World War II and the first enemy warship boarded and captured by the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812.

The captured Enigma encryption machine and accompanying documentation in June 1944 greatly facilitated subsequent Allied decryption efforts for the remainder of the war.  And this effort was instrumental in future operations. Captured at sea 4 June 1944 west of the Azores by U.S. Navy Task Group 22.3, after being forced to the surface by depth-charge attack. Boarding parties from destroyer USS Pillsbury and later the light aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal kept the U-boat afloat, and it was eventually towed to Bermuda.

(In 1954, U-505 was awarded to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where it remains today as the best preserved and most originally furnished of the four museum U-boats, the others being U-534, U-995, and U-2540)

The Allies were decoding the German plans and communications as fast as the Germans could send them. In a secret operation a 'body' was also strategically placed where the German's could locate it; attached was a briefcase handcuffed to the wrist of the victim which contained copies of a secret plan to attack the Germans at Calais.  The false documents helped to convince the German's;  but not until they had their secret agents track down the smallest details of the 'victims' life to insure it wasn't a fake. The German's were completely duped.

British intelligence even invented a plausible laundry mark which the German Agents autheticated.

On June the 5th, Members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion loaded into landing craft and assaulted the gun emplacements over-looking Point du Hoc west of the Normandy Beach-Head.  The 225 man force had to capture the German guns before they could rain destruction down upon the invading forces.  The Rangers galantly fought their way to the top; scaling sheer cliffs and achieving their objective which they held for more than two days of fighting against overwhelming odds. They suffered more than 50% casualties and lost more than 100 men.

On June 6th, 2,700 Allied ships carrying 176,00 soldiers led by General Dwight Eisenhower crossed the English channel. Paratroops were dropped off behind enemy lines to capture bridges and railroad tracks.

D-Day caught the Germans by surprise. Germans fought fiercely, but could not win the battle. The Allies built a temporary harbor, to receive supplies, and a pipeline across the British Channel for oil. Near the end of June, a million troops had entered France.

The Allies advanced slowly in the beginning. The Americans captured Cherbourg on June 27, and the British and Canadian forces fought and captured Caen on July 18. The Allied forces had finally reached open country.

On July 25, 1944 bombers blasted a hole in the German front near St-Lo.

Lieutenant General George Patton plowed through the gap and exterminated the Germans from northwest France.  Patton ordered his army toward Paris.

On August 19, 1944, Parisians heard the news and rose up against the German troops occupying Paris.

The German troops in Paris were ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris, but they delayed and the Allies reached Paris on August 25th to liberate France. Slowly, the Allied forces moved toward Germany. The German Generals knew they were beat and tried to tell Hitler, but he brought together his remaining forces for one last attack at the Ardennes Forest (Belgium & Luxembourg).  The Germans were initially winning this Battle of the Bulge, however, in two weeks, the Americans stopped the German advance near the Meuse River (Belgium); and turned and rolled the German forces back partly thru lessons they had learned in North Africa.

Meanwhile, the Soviets had slowly pushed back the Germans after the Battle at Stalingrad.

Hitler was losing ground quickly.

The Soviets were producing and importing war supplies from Britain and America, preparing for another offensive by the Germans at Kursk. The Soviet forces waited for the Germans with tanks, mines, anti-tank guns and aircraft; completely obliterating the oncoming German troops and tanks.

The rest of the 3,000 German tanks were ordered to retreat during the battle. The Soviet forces, then, moved toward Leningrad. They defeated the Germans there and move onward to Poland.

When they reach the outskirts of Warsaw, Stalin refused to come to Polish aid resulting in a German onslaught of 200,000 Polish soldiers.  As the Soviets and Americans pushed toward the Germans; the German army evacuated most of the American and Allied Prisoners of War with little or no shoes and winter clothing and marched them around Poland in temperatures reaching -45 degrees for hundreds of miles to keep them from being repatriated.

Afterwards, the Soviets entered in and destroyed the Germans in 1945. Another series of Soviet troops began to move towards Hungary crushing all German forces in their path. Soviet troops reached Budapest and drove the German forces out in February of 1945. After their strong advance, the Soviets had occupied almost all of eastern Europe.

The Allies began their final assault in 1945. Soviet forces were advancing from the East to Berlin, British and Canadian forces came from the North, and American and French forces neared central Germany. In all, the Allies had almost surrounded the Germans. Prior to closing in on the Germans, those Allies passing through previously occupied areas were terrified at the sights at the concentration camps. 20,000 American Prisoners of War held by the German's disappeared into the Soviet system; never to be heard from again.

Many German war criminals escaped thru Odessa Poland to either assist the allies in fighting the Russians or to secret hideouts around the world; many settling in South America.

Hitler committed suicide before the Allied forces took Berlin.

V-E Day...Victory in Europe

On May 7, 1945, Colonel General Alfred Doenitz, Hitler's replacement, signed a declaration of unconditional surrender, ending the war in Europe.

And across the German occupied territory; Jewish Concentration Camps were discovered; where the Nazi's had systematically murdered civilians by the millions following Hitler's idea of the Final Solution.

German War Criminals are still being sought by governments worldwide more than 50 years after the war ended.

In the Pacific:

The war with the Japanese was a personal vendetta for the U.S., after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Japan won several early victories including: taking over Hong Kong, Guam, and Wake Island, defeating the British in Singapore, the Battle of the Java Sea, and the conquest of the Philippines. MacArthur's troops were ordered to Australia after leaving the Philippines in March 1942.

On April 9, some 75,000 exhausted troops on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese.

Most of them were forced to march 65 miles to prison camps, but most of them died. This march was called the Bataan Death March. After the Philippines were captured, Japan moved toward India and Australia.

In 1942, there were 3 events that helped turn the tide against the Japanese.

One of them was the Doolittle Raid in which 16  bombers surprised Tokyo by bombing the Japanese homeland.  Pilots who were shot down over Japan were summarily executed by beheading.

The 2nd event was the Battle of the Coral Sea which halted the Japanese attack on Port Moresby.

The 3rd event was the Battle of Midway, in which Japan sent a large fleet to capture one of the Hawaiian islands, but the Americans intercepted the plan and prepared for a surprise attack.

The battle began on June 4, 1942 when the Japanese bombed the island of Midway. Old U.S. bombers launched bombing raids on Japanese warships, but most of them were shot down. Next, American dive bombers dropped down on Japanese aircraft carriers while they were refueling.

The Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers and at least 200 planes along with many skilled pilots. Japan only sunk 1 U.S. aircraft carrier and shot down 150 planes.

The Battle of Midway was a decisive victory for the Allies.

Meanwhile, the Allies battled to regain most of the islands in the Pacific.

In 1942, MacArthur attacked New Guinea with a series of brilliant operations, but fighting continued until 1944.

On August 7, 1942, marines invaded Guadalcanal. This attack caught the Japanese by surprise, but they fought strong. This battle proved to be one of the most vicious campaigns in WWII.

By February 1943, Japan left Guadalcanal. In 1943, Allied military leaders canceled the invasion of Rabaul; instead, they bombed it. In New Guinea The Alamo Scouts and members of the 6th Rangers led a rescue of more than 700 victims of the Bataan Death March being held in POW camps and capturing 83 Japanese POW'sAfter beating back the Japanese, the Allies finally liberated the Philippines in 1944.

Superiority in air and sea combat enabled the Allies to move toward Japan itself.

Allied forces first attacked Iwo Jima. The Marines landed on February 19, 1945. The marines successfully won the battle, but with an infamous struggle. Other pacific islands fell into Allied hands in short order at the cost of thousands and thousands of lives.

Okinawa was the next stop. Japan sent every available aircraft it had in Kamikazi Suicide Attacks against the American invasion fleet; sinking several vessals and causing thousands of casualties.  On the island of Okinawa itself the Japanese fought a last ditch holding action utilizing mountainous terrain and well prepared defensive positions.

The American invasion force at Okinawa was a larger invasion force than even the D-Day Operation Overlord operation in Europe; and the largest seaborne invasion fleet in history. The battle for Okinawa was hard fought on both sides; but the allies prevailed and the Okinawan island chain gave the Allies air bases close to Japan where bombers could be launched to attack vital Japanese targets.

Massive bombing raids of mainland Japan using hundreds of planes were staged using fleets of B-29 bombers; after Tokyo refused to answer the call to surrender or come to the negotiation table.  Japan was pounded from the air and repeatedly called upon to surrender unconditionally.

It was obvious to all observers of both sides that Japan could not carry on the war except in fanatical terms.

Even after the bombings which devastated portions of the homeland; Japan's leadership remained silent.

Facing a possible invasion of Japan; the American forces calculated what the cost would be to human life on both sides.  And that cost was staggering both in military personnel and civilians; with the numbers running into the millions.

All Allied parties involved agreed the death toll would be unacceptable; but also that Japan had to be completely stopped from waging warfare.

Both Germany and Japan were working on Atomic weapons of mass destruction by 1945.

The German's had been stopped when their heavy water capabilities had been destroyed;  but Japan would undoubtably continue their program; and there was little doubt they would use them against military and non-military targets; the 'Rape of Nanking' and the brutality shown by the Japanese in WWII was well documented and well remembered by the Allies.

In order to defeat Japan's army, navy and air corps which had proven itself resilient and fanatical;  the US resorted to a secret weapon developed in what is known as the Manhatten Project.

The Atomic Bomb

On August 6, 1945 due their refusal to give into the US's ultimatum, the B-29 American bomber, The Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb; known as 'Fat-Man' on Hiroshima.

Three days later, America dropped another atomic bomb; known as 'Little Man' on Nagasaki after Japanese leaders failed to respond to the first bombing and a call for surrender.

V-J Day...Victory Over Japan

On September 2, 1945, Japan finally gave in and signed a statement of surrender effectively ending WWII.  The surrender was signed aboard the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor.

General MacArthur who accepted the surrender used his knowledge of the Far East to help develop the 'Marshall Plan' which would have American oversight in the dis-arming of Japan and the rebuilding of the country into a strong economic state.

Japan has still officially refused to recognize many of the war crimes it committed during WWII; Emporer Hirohito was left in power til his death; and the Japanese; unrepentant;  still fly the flag of the Rising Sun. The recent Disney produced movie 'Pearl Harbor' under Japanese economic control; was marketed in Japan as fiction and a romance...

Okinawa which was never a Japanese protectorate was turned over to the Japanese in 1973; after voting for Japanese control. The US had imported Japanese school teachers to educate the population since the end of WWII. US Military forces still occupy parts of the Island chain as a stabilizing force in Southeast Asia.

Japanese hold-outs or soldiers who refused to surrender continued to surface on Pacific islands more than 30 years later...
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U-Boat Source:http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostsub/
1st & 3rd Ranger Battalion; Darby Rangers history in Italy during WWII