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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
World War II

A rarity among wars in having a clear moral purpose, to defeat Nazi tyranny. Fascism had thrived in Germany's devastated economy between the wars (partly a result of the terms of the treaty of Versailles after *World War I), and in 1933 the Nazis were voted into power. By 1938 Hitler's expansionist plans were unmistakable, but supporters of *appeasement felt that they could best be contained by diplomacy. In March of that year Hitler invaded Austria (the *Anschluss or 'joining' of the two countries), and in September he demanded that *Czechoslovakia cede the *Sudetenland to Germany; this was an area with a large proportion of German speakers, which had been included in 1919 in the newly established Czech state (previously part of the Austrian empire).

Chamberlain and Daladier agreed at *Munich to Hitler's demand for the *Sudetenland, but in March 1939 he went beyond the agreement by invading and occupying the rest of *Czechoslovakia. By now it was clear that he had similar designs on *Poland. On March 31 Britain and France guaranteed to defend Poland against aggression. Hitler's tanks crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 and two days later Britain and France declared war.

In 1936 Hitler had entered a vague alliance with the other Fascist country in Europe at that time, Mussolini's Italy; the pact was described as an 'axis' between Rome and Berlin. In the same year Hitler had made an anti-Soviet alliance with Japan. Italy entered the war on Germany's side in 1940, to be followed by Japan in 1941; together the three nations became known as the Axis powers. But during the first year of the war Hitler had a different and more improbable ally. In August 1939 he and Stalin, ideologically the most committed of enemies, had made a cynical German-Soviet non-aggression pact containing an agreement about the future of Poland. The following month, shortly after Hitler's invasion of Poland from the west, Stalin's troops marched in from the east and the country was partitioned.

In western Europe the first six months of the war were quiet. This was the period of the so-called phony war, a time of feverish preparation. The action began in April 1940, when German forces invaded Denmark and Norway. British and French troops were sent to Norway, but they maintained only a small foothold before retreating in June. The feebleness of this campaign provoked intense criticism of *Chamberlain in the House of Commons on May 7–8. There followed, on May 10, the news that Germany had marched into the Netherlands and Belgium. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston *Churchill.

The new prime minister's powers of leadership were severely tested and triumphantly proved by the events of that summer. The German army moved fast in its successful technique of blitzkrieg (lightning war). Holland fell in five days, Belgium in three weeks, and by June 14 the Germans were in Paris. The *British Expeditionary Force avoided capture at the coast only by the rescue operation at *Dunkirk in late May; the same undertaking brought to Britain the French soldiers who continued to take an active part in the war, as the Free French, under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle.

In June 1940 Hitler launched an aerial assault on southern England, leading to a life-and-death struggle which became known – without any exaggeration of its importance – as the *Battle of Britain. Meanwhile the fall of France had given Germany submarine bases on the Atlantic coast for the almost equally crucial Battle of the *Atlantic. Supplies from Canada and the USA were the main external lifeline for Britain. The USA was not yet in the war, but in March 1941 American aid was established on the regular basis of *Lend-Lease; and in August the *Atlantic Charter expressed a shared vision of the future.

Two major developments in that same year shaped the future course of events. In June Hitler abandoned his own non-aggression pact and launched a blitzkrieg on Russia; ideology (a hatred of both Slavs and Communists), together with an appetite for Russia's grain and oil, had made him abandon his more prudent earlier policy. And on December 7 the Japanese air force launched a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2000 men, destroying 18 ships and some 200 aircraft, and bringing the USA unequivocally into the war. By the end of the month the Japanese had taken Hong Kong and the Philippines, as well as sinking two powerful British warships based in Singapore, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse; early in 1942 they occupied Malaya, Singapore and Burma.

Japan had been at war with China since 1937; this older conflict now became a strand in the world war, with China (under Chiang Kai-shek) a new member of the Allied nations. The events of 1941 had finally set in place the main combatants: the USA, USSR, China, Britain and the Commonwealth countries on the Allied side, with support from the Free French; Germany, Italy and Japan as the Axis powers.

In 1941–2 the main theatre of the land war in the west was north Africa. In 1940 Italy held most of the north African coast (Mussolini dreamt of making the Mediterranean a Roman sea again). But the Suez canal was essential to Britain's links with India. In the winter of 1940–1 *Wavell drove the Italians west through Libya. The arrival of Rommel and the Afrika Corps turned the tables until the two battles of El *Alamein. After the second of these, in November 1942, a joint US and British force under Eisenhower landed in western north Africa. By May 1943 Eisenhower's forces from the west and *Montgomery's 8th army from the east had converged to trap the enemy. Some 250,000 German and Italian soldiers surrendered.

The conclusion of the north Africa campaign in May 1943 was the first significant Allied achievement of the war. It was followed in July by the successful invasion of Sicily. This development, combined with the bombing of Rome, prompted Mussolini's colleagues to overthrow him; a new Italian government made peace with the Allies on September 3. On that same day British and American forces crossed from Sicily to southern Italy, beginning the long Italian campaign as the Allies slowly fought their way up the country against strong German resistance (Italy declared war on Germany in October 1943). The *Anzio landing was in January 1944, the struggle for *Monte Cassino in February–May, and Rome fell in June. In April Italian partisans captured Mussolini and his mistress near Lake Como and executed them both.

Throughout this central period of the war, Germany's eastern front against Russia had been a severe drain on Hitler's resources. The initial invasion in the summer of 1941 went with the usual blitzkrieg bravura; German troops were surrounding Leningrad before the end of August. But the Russians demonstrated their fabled powers of resistance, which in the previous century had humbled even *Napoleon. Leningrad withstood a siege of 900 days, until January 1944. When the Germans succeeded in entering Stalingrad in September 1942, the resulting battle left 300,000 of their troops dead and another 100,000 in Russian hands. By the autumn of 1943 the Russians were driving the Germans back on all fronts. By the summer of 1944 the Red Army was in Poland and pressing towards the eastern frontiers of Germany.

This was the moment at which the Allies launched the most dramatic campaign of the war, with the invasion of Normandy. *D-day was 6 June 1944. Paris was liberated on August 25 and Brussels on September 3. On October 21 the US 1st army took Aachen, the first German city to be captured. By then the Allied advance was faltering after the disaster at *Arnhem, but a strong German counter-attack in the Ardennes region in December was contained (the Battle of the Bulge).

In the early months of 1945 the Allies in the west were moving fast into Germany, while the Russians were pressing through east Prussia to Berlin. It was now that the two armies came upon the first harrowing evidence of what has since become known as the Holocaust, the Nazi 'final solution' for the Jews. The Russians reached Auschwitz in Poland as the British and Americans came upon Buchenwald, Belsen and Dachau.

The Russians surrounded Berlin on April 25 and on that same day their advance guard joined up with the US 9th army at the river Elbe, about 100km/62m west of the city. Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30. The German unconditional surrender came into effect on May 8 (*V-E day). One threat of tyranny in Europe had been brought to an end, but the germ of another already existed. The Russians, having advanced from the east, were now in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland as well as eastern Germany.

At *Yalta the Allied leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – had all pledged themselves to fostering democracy in the liberated and conquered countries. But there was nothing the western powers could do to hold Soviet Russia to such an improbable commitment, short of fighting another war. The conditions were in place for what Churchill later called the *'iron curtain', the blight of eastern Europe until the late 1980s.

The war against Japan was also being slowly won. By the summer of 1945 Burma had been liberated by *Slim and the Philippines by the US general Douglas MacArthur, while heavy bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities was the clear prelude to an invasion. On July 26, from *Potsdam, Truman and Churchill sent an ultimatum to Japan demanding unconditional surrender. The text did not mention the new weapon which had been successfully tested in the USA. The Japanese refused to surrender, and an atom bomb was dropped on August 6 on Hiroshima, followed by another on Nagasaki on August 9 (between the two bombs, on August 8, Russia declared war on Japan, exercising an option agreed at Yalta). On August 10 the Japanese offered to surrender and the formalities were completed on September 2.

The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the culmination of something new in World War II, the bombing of civilians. Serious air raids were first suffered by London and other British cities (such as *Coventry) in the *blitz that began in 1940, but later in the war the same techniques were used to even more devastating effect against German cities.

The extreme example was the controversial carpet bombing by the RAF of Dresden during the night of 13–14 February 1945, engulfing the city in a fire storm which is estimated by some to have killed as many as 135,000 people (the immediate death toll at Hiroshima was about 75,000). Meanwhile the Germans had inaugurated in 1944 new techniques of aerial warfare against civilians with unmanned missiles and rockets, the *V-1 and V-2 – at that time more psychologically alarming than massively destructive. The *Geneva Convention was amended after the war to take into account the bombing of cities.

The cost of the war in lives far exceeded any previous conflict. The total of military deaths in World War I had been about 8 million, to which a very rough figure of some 7 million civilian deaths is usually added. The figures for World War II are even more inexact, largely because they are unreliable for the two nations with the highest number of casualties, Russia and China. International totals often quoted are in the region of 15–20 million military deaths and 25 million civilian deaths.

For the eight main combatant nations the usual estimates of military/civilian deaths are approximately as follows: USSR 7.5 million military/10 million civilian; China 2.2m/6m; Germany 3.5m/500,000; Japan 1.5m/600,000; France 200,000/400,000; Britain 300,000/65,000; Italy 200,000/150,000; USA 300,000/6000. About 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, the majority of them from Poland.

The precedent of charging prominent figures with war crimes was set in the Nuremberg trials (1945–6), which resulted in the execution of 11 Nazi leaders and the imprisonment of seven others. (The treaty of Versailles had provided for the trial of the German emperor after World War I, but it was not carried out.) Germany and Austria were occupied after the war by the four western Allies (USA, USSR, Britain, France); Berlin, which fell within the Russian sector of Germany, was similarly divided into four sections.

Austria became free and neutral in 1955, when the four powers withdrew their occupying forces. At the same period (1954–5) the three western zones of Germany became the Federal Republic of Germany and the Russian zone became a separate state as the German Democratic Republic. Berlin was similarly divided, and the rigid isolation of east Germany from the west was symbolized from 1961 by the Berlin Wall. Its dismantling in 1989 was the prelude to the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The economic recovery of Europe was greatly advanced by the *Marshall Plan of 1947, while the evident need for co-ordinated western defence led to the establishment in 1949 of *NATO. In 1950 the first steps were taken towards what became the *EC, prompted by a desire to end the long history of conflict between the nations of Europe. On the broader international scene the war led directly to the creation of the *United Nations, with the five main Allies (USA, USSR, Britain, France, China) occupying the only permanent seats on the Security Council.

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