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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The approach of war
Hitler's Europe
     The western front
     Yalta and Dresden
     The noose tightens
     Amphibious war against Japan
     Attrition in Burma
     Six months to Nagasaki

After the war

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The western front: 1944

Almost exactly four years after Hitler's preparations to send an invasion force across the Channel to England, the Allies are at last ready to do the same in the opposite direction. D-day (a World War I codename for the launch date of an operation, standing for 'day-day') is fixed for 6 June 1944. On the first day of the operation ships carrying about 130,000 troops (roughly half American, half British and Canadian) assemble to the southeast of the Isle of Wight. From there they move south to the Normandy beaches between Cherbourg and Caen. Another 20,000 men are dropped in by air.

Events do not go according to plan. Montgomery, in command of the British sector, expects to take Caen on the first day. He is in for a disappointment.


A German panzer division denies Caen to Montgomery for a month. Further west along the coast Cherbourg resists the Americans, under Patton, until June 20. It is mid-August before the Allies begin to make real progress eastwards.

The German defence, though extremely effective, is handicapped by several factors. One is a desperate lack of troops in the region, compared to the Allied forces being landed every day. Another is a false optimism on Hitler's part, based on his knowledge that he can now deploy two extraordinary new weapons with which to overawe civilians in Britain. Named Vergeltungswaffen ('reprisal weapons), they become known as the V-1 and V-2 (an aerial torpedo and the first space-age rocket). These are impressive achievements and are terrifying to those in their immediate path. But the damage they do turns out to be relatively insignificant.


A third complication is an unwelcome distraction at this time of crisis. On July 20 the Stauffenberg plot nearly succeeds in killing Hitler. More than 5000 people are executed for a link, sometimes remote, with this attempted insurrection. Among them is Germany's greatest general, now commanding the panzer forces in the west. The conspirators' papers reveal that Rommel is in sympathy with their aims. He is arrested and is forced to take poison.

And finally, Hitler's character provides a fatal flaw. Once again, as at Stalingrad, he gives the order that no German forces are to withdraw. The result is that the chance to fall back to a strong defensive position is lost. So when the Allies eventually move, they move fast.


Patton and the Americans reach Orléans on August 17. A week later a French division is placed in the vanguard, to enter and liberate Paris on August 24. On September 3 the British enter Brussels, and a day later they are in Antwerp. Meanwhile Patton's armies have crossed the Meuse at Verdun and have moved on to the Moselle, near Metz.

The Germans are by this time in such disarray that they could offer little resistance if the Allies, with huge superiority in numbers of tanks and aircraft, pushed straight on into Germany's industrial heartlands. But in mid-September the Americans and British pause, partly from shortage of fuel, partly because of a disaster at Arnhem, partly because of differences of opinion in the Allied high command.


The event at Arnhem, in mid-September, frustrates the first Allied attempt to cross the Rhine. Montgomery, pushing north towards the river, drops paratroops and gliders on the other side to seize the northern end of the Arnhem bridge. They succeed in doing so, but the main army fails to reach the southern end in time. 7500 men are trapped and captured.

This is a tactical disaster, but it is disagreements between Montgomery and Patton which most delay the campaign. Urging different strategies for the next stage, they make incompatible demands on the US general, Dwight Eisenhower, who has been in overall command of the Normandy campaign from the start.


Eisenhower tries to find a solution which will accomodate both his army commanders, but precious time is lost - so much so that the Germans, after frantic searches for reinforcements, are able to astonish the Allies by mounting a counter-offensive in mid-December in the wooded region of the Ardennes.

Their intention is to break through towards the coast, thus dividing the British army to the north from the Americans in the south. The element of surprise enables three German armies to push west almost as far as the Meuse. But by mid-January 1945 their bridgehead has been contained and squeezed back (the campaign is known as the battle of the Bulge). It turns out to be the last German offensive of the war.


Yalta and Dresden: 1945

A few weeks after the battle of the Bulge the three Allied leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, meet in Yalta, a resort on the Black Sea. Their focus, when they gather on 4 February 1945, is no longer on how to conduct the war in the west. It is on what to do when it is over.

Each leader has a different and in many ways incompatible agenda. Roosevelt and Churchill want to secure Stalin's cooperation in establishing the United Nations. Stalin is more interested in extending Russia's borders in the west to those of the old empire, before the humiliating peace treaty made with Germany in 1917 and the subsequent provisions of the treaty of Versailles. This would mean absorbing much of eastern Poland, together with the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.


The other main concern of Roosevelt, by now a very sick man, is a swift end to the war in the Pacific against the still extremely powerful Japanese empire. He wants to ensure that Stalin declares war on Japan as soon as the European conflict is over. To achieve this purpose he is in a mood to compromise with the Russian dictator.

Churchill, well aware of an obligation to Poland (on whose behalf Britain entered the war), has a greater interest in standing up to Stalin. But militarily he is the weakest of the three leaders. And the unavoidable fact is that the Russian armies have been making much faster inroads on German-held territory than the Allies. They are already occupying Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria. Is Britain on her own likely to use force to drive them out after the war?


Compromises are reached. The eastern part of prewar Poland is to be sacrificed to Stalin. In return he offers an olive branch on a topic of great importance to both Roosevelt and Churchill. In keeping with the democratic principle of self-determination, Stalin guarantees that the nations of eastern Europe will enjoy free postwar elections. Yet all three leaders at Yalta must certainly be aware that this is an empty and unenforceable promise.

Stalin also promises to enter the war against Japan within two or three months of the surrender of Germany. In reward for this it is agreed that Russia shall after the war annexe some of the territory held by Japan on the Chinese coast, together with the Japanese Kuril islands.


The conference at Yalta ends on February 11. Three days later there occurs one of the most controversial Allied actions of World War II. The Russians, with a justifiable fear that Hitler will move divisions to the eastern front to halt their advance, have requested Allied bombing raids in eastern Germany to prevent this happening. The Allies decide that Dresden is the best target for the purpose.

The city, famous for the beauty of its buildings, is full of refugees fleeing from the Russians when nearly 800 British bombers strike during the night of 14 February 1945. Their target is the railway marshalling yards which would be of use to German divisions moving eastwards.


This initial assault is followed by 450 American bombers the following morning. The result of this vast weight of explosive is a fire storm which rages through the streets of Dresden, destroying eleven square miles of the city and killing countless numbers of people. Estimates have varied widely, but the modern consensus is around 35,000 (by comparison the immediate deaths at Hiroshima will be about 80,000).

Done for a military purpose, this calamitous event probably does nothing to hasten the end of the war. For as the three leaders at Yalta are well aware, the end is now clearly in sight for Hitler's thousand-year Reich.


The noose tightens: 1945

During the spring of 1945 the collapse of Germany comes, after so long, with surprising speed. German commanders in the field, no longer feeling any enthusiasm for a fight which is clearly lost, begin to disregard the stream of hysterical instructions from Hitler to stand firm whatever the cost. To the armies defending the Rhine his order includes the statement that the battle shall be conducted 'without consideration for our own population'.

A scorched earth policy within Germany is now the order of the day. All public utilities in the path of the Allies (water, gas, electricity) are to be destroyed. To protests from within his inner group, Hitler replies that if the war is lost, the German nation is lost. There is no need to consider the future requirements of a vanquished people.


In this situation, and with Hitler's final reserves sent to the eastern front, the Allies meet little opposition when they cross the Rhine at various points on March 22-4 (first the Third US Army led by George Patton in the south, followed by the British and Canadians in the north). Both groups, pressing on east, reach the Elbe in mid-April. On the way they discover the horrors which bring home to the west, more powerfully than ever before, the true nature of the Nazi regime.

On April 10 the Americans reach the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Five days later the British come across Belsen, where there are 35,000 unburied bodies and as many emaciated prisoners still just alive. And these are not even the death camps - merely places where prisoners are subjected to hard work, little food and Nazi indifference.


Meanwhile the Russians, pushing westwards, have entered Vienna on April 6. Within three weeks, by April 25, they reach and encircle Berlin, where Hitler is at last beginning to recognize that there can be no miraculous outcome.

News of the death of Roosevelt, on April 12, has been enough to make him hope for a sudden reversal of fortune. But on April 29, against his specific orders, the German army in Italy surrenders to the Allies. Hitler also knows that Himmler, his trusted SS commander, has been making peace overtures behind his back. Livid with anger at this betrayal, he now recognizes the end and prepares to meet it. In the elaborate bunker beneath the Chancellery he puts his affairs in order.


The traitor Himmler is formally expelled from the party. Admiral Dönitz is appointed as Hitler's successor and the names of his cabinet are selected. Hitler then retires for a while to dictate his last will and testament, a tract of self-justification in which the Jews are still blamed for the war and the Nazi party is urged to continue the necessary campaign against them.

On this same day, April 29, in the early hours of the morning, Hitler rewards a woman who has always been quietly faithful to him. He marries his mistress, Eva Braun, following the ceremony with a small champagne party at which Goebbels (the Nazi minister of propaganda) and Martin Bormann (Hitler's secretary and close adviser) are the principal guests.


On April 30 Hitler holds his usual daily conference while the Russians, in the streets above, are only two blocks away from the Chancellery. Then Hitler and Eva Braun retire to their quarters. She takes poison, he shoots himself in the mouth. On the following day Goebbels orders SS men to give his six children lethal injections and to shoot his wife and himself.

Hitler was appalled that his nation had surrendered in World War I without a single foreign soldier setting foot on German soil. His own unbreakable resolve results in the opposite extreme. When he dies, the enemy is in the heart of Berlin. A week later, on May 7, the unconditional surrender of all the German forces is signed at General Eisenhower's headquarters. May 8 is celebrated by the Allies as V-E Day - victory in Europe.


Amphibious war against Japan: 1942-1944

Victory in Europe, in May 1945, leaves the Allies free to concentrate on their remaining enemy, Japan. From the summer of 1942 Japan has been in control of a vast swathe of southeast Asia, captured in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This rapidly acquired territory consists of two main parts.

One is a cluster of the many islands, large and small, to the south of Japan, including the Philippines, the Marianas, Borneo, the islands of Indonesia, half of New Guinea, and the many smaller island groups and archipelagos north of Australia. The other is a new mainland empire consisting of much of the coast of China and the whole of southeast Asia from Vietnam to Burma.


In many respects the whirlwind Japanese campaign of 1941-2 has been too successful. So many conquered territories mean too many fronts to defend. In subsequent years Allied armies tie down Japanese troops in Burma in the west. In the east US ships and planes nibble their way towards Japan through the Pacific islands.

The US victory at Midway in June 1942 is the turning point. From then on American pressure in the Pacific is relentless, in the first prolonged example of a new form of combat developed in World War II - amphibious warfare, in which ships, carriers, planes and marines fight together in a closely coordinated effort. The first strategic objective is to secure supply lines between the Pacific coast of the USA and Australia.


The first selected target is the island of Guadalcanal, to the northeast of Australia, where the Japanese are building a strong base. From August 1942 there is continuous fighting here on land, at sea and in the air, until at last in February 1943 US forces secure the island.

Large numbers of ships have been destroyed on both sides in this six-month engagement, but in terms of manpower the Japanese losses greatly outnumber those of the Americans. A pattern is set, of painful Allied progress (mainly American, sometimes Australian) through the islands towards Japan, with every step bitterly and bravely contested by the Japanese.


A significant step in the slow move north towards Japan is the US assault, in February 1944, of a strong naval base in the volcanic cluster of the Truk Islands. Eleven Japanese warships and more than 300 planes are destroyed here, in the first radar-guided night attack. After this it is clear that the next target must be the Marianas, a group of islands which the Japanese rightly regard as a crucial line of defence. From here US planes will be within bombing range of Japan herself.

On 15 June 1944 American marines land on Saipan, one of the Marianas. 30,000 Japanese defenders are in secure positions in bunkers and caves. After three weeks of fierce fighting the two Japanese commanders commit suicide (an example immediately followed by hundreds of Japanese civilians, some of them by jumping off cliffs).


During this same period there has been a mighty battle at sea, west of the Marianas, between Japanese and American fleets and naval aircraft. It proves a disaster for the Japanese. The action of this two-day Battle of the Philippine Sea begins on June 19 with waves of Japanese planes, 430 in all, launched to attack the US fleet. More than 300 of them are immediately shot down by US pilots. By the end of the next day the Japanese have lost another 100 planes and three aircraft carriers. The American loss is 130 planes and some damage to several of their ships.

The capture of Saipan, soon followed by the other Marianas, is of crucial significance. The first large B-29 bombers, developed specifically for this purpose, take off from Saipan on 24 November 1944 on the long trip to bomb Tokyo.


With the process of battering the Japanese people into submission now under way, American attention turns also to a nearer target and one closely involved with American history - the Philippines. The campaign to recover them is close to the heart of the US commander, Douglas MacArthur. It was he who had to relinquish them to the Japanese in 1942, after a heroic struggle against superior forces.

This time he has the greater might, but the Japanese resist with their usual tenacity. The first US landing is on Leyte on 20 October 1944. Within days sea and air battles are raging in the area (including the first kamikaze attack). Leyte is not secured until Christmas Day. The capital of the Philippines, Manila, withstands a four-week siege before MacArthur enters it in March 1945.


Attrition in Burma: 1943-1945

While the Allies make gradual progress island-hopping towards Japan, the confrontation between the two sides on the mainland is occurring in Burma. Here the Japanese pose a threat westwards into British India, and from here they could strike north towards the inland capital of the nationalist Chinese leader, Jiang Jieshi (also spelt Chiang Kai-shek). Forced back from the coast by the Japanese invaders, he has made his headquarters at Chongqing, a port on the Yangtze river to the northeast of Burma.

During 1943 the only Allied activity in Burma is guerrilla warfare behind the Japanese lines. It is carried out by the Chindits, a combined force of British, Gurkha and Burmese troops under the command of Orde Wingate.


Destroying bridges and blowing up railway lines in the Burmese jungle, the Chindits are entirely dependent on supplies dropped from the air - and this method of supply proves crucial when the Allies at last send a conventional army, under William Slim, east from India into Burma. A battle on a double front, at Imphal and Kohima in March-June 1944, is Slim's first success. But the downpour of the monsoon and the jungle conditions make progress slow, and it is not until February 1945 that he is in a position to cross the Irrawaddy. He takes Mandalay on March 20 and moves south to seize Rangoon, just in time before the arrival of the next monsoon.

The British recovery of Burma coincides with the American recapture, much nearer to Japan, of the Philippines.


Potsdam: 1945

The second summit of 1945 is held by the three western leaders in July and August at Potsdam, close to Berlin in occupied Germany. It involves two changes of cast since the gathering at Yalta. The US president is now Harry Truman, following the death three months earlier of Roosevelt. And during the conference a general election replaces Churchill with Attlee, who takes the British chair in the later stages of the discussion.

Agreements are reached (and disagreements registered) on many aspects of the postwar settlement. But the main topic is the continuing war against Japan. Stalin is now let in on an important secret - that the USA has developed and in the past few days (on July 16) has successfully tested an Atom bomb in the New Mexican desert.


Stalin is not as yet at war with Japan (though he has revoked an existing treaty of neutrality, in keeping with his pledge made at Yalta) so his name is not on a Declaration sent to the Japanese from Potsdam on July 26. It is issued in the names of Truman, Churchill and the Chinese nationalist commander Jiang Jieshi (or Chiang Kai-Shek), who transmits by radio his agreement to the text.

The declaration demands unconditional surrender and warns that the Allies will disarm Japan, dismantle the Japanese empire and prosecute war criminals. But it also guarantees that the Japanese will neither be 'enslaved as a race nor destroyed as a nation'. The phrase proves influential in the debate about surrender which occupies the Japanese high command during the final horrifying months of the war.


Six months to Nagasaki: 1945

The final stage in the US advance towards Japan has begun in February 1945. At this time the B-29 bombers heading for targets in Japan are flying a round trip of some 3000 miles from the Marianas. This distance will be halved if the small island of Iwo Jima, midway along the route, can be captured.

The island's obvious strategic importance means that it is defended by numerous heavily armed Japanese troops in a network of fortified rock shelters and caves. US marines meet fierce resistance when they land on February 19. With every yard of the US advance hotly contested, more than 20,000 men are dead or injured on each side before the island is finally in US hands on March 16.


On the second day of the engagement a US light carrier is sunk by a desperate new Japanese method of warfare - a suicide attack by a pilot flying a plane full of explosives into the side of the ship. This technique, called kamikaze from a famous event in Japanese history, was pioneered in an attack on a US fleet in the Pacific on 25 October 1944. During the intervening four months it has become a familiar danger, with an apparently unlimited supply of Japanese pilots willing to sacrifice their lives.

The largest kamikaze attack awaits the Americans as they take the next step towards Japan. With Iwo Jima secure, attention turns to the island of Okinawa - at a distance of only about 300 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.


US troops land on Okinawa on 1 April 1945. Five days later no fewer than 355 kamikaze planes are launched against them, while on April 12 the US destroyer Abele is sunk by a further development of the kamikaze weapon. This is the baka, in effect a human guided missile. It takes the form of a glider, packed with explosives and powered by rockets, which is carried by a bomber to near its target. When released, the rockets ignite and the pilot of the baka steers it to the appointed site of his death.

Okinawa is in US hands by the end of June, after the most costly battle in the entire Pacific campaign. US deaths are in the region of 12,000, and the Japanese equivalent is possibly more than 100,000.


The intended target for the next wave of invasion has been Kyushu. But Japanese defence of such courage and ferocity at every stage makes it more attractive to contemplate bombing Japan into submission. In this context there have been devastating successes, partly thanks to a new US weapon first used in the assault on Iwo Jima - napalm.

On 9 March 1945 napalm is used in a raid on a crowded part of Tokyo where the buildings are of timber. In the resulting fire storm some 80,000 people die and a million are made homeless, with a quarter of Tokyo's buildings burnt. In the next few weeks there are similarly heavy raids on all the major cities of Japan. But as with the Blitz on Britain and Germany, there is no sign that these horrors increase the likelihood of Japan surrendering.


Japan's surrender is now deemed to require the use of an even more terrifying new US weapon, the Atom bomb. No response is received to the declaration from Potsdam, demanding unconditional surrender (it is later discovered that the emperor, Hirohito, has pressed the case for surrender but has failed to persuade his generals). So President Truman authorizes the dropping of the new bomb.

On 6 August 1945 a specially adapted B-29 takes off from Tinian Island, in the Marianas, with the bomb on board. It explodes over Hiroshima at 8.15 a.m., demolishing some four square miles of the city and bringing instant death to about 80,000 people (many more die later from the effects of radiation). Even this does not bring immediate surrender, partly through the rigidity of the Japanese imperial system and partly because the scale of the horror is not immediately realized in Tokyo.


A mere three days later a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. Between the two events, on August 8, Stalin declares war on Japan and launches a predatory attack on occupied Manchuria. On August 10 Japan announces that the surrender terms specified at Potsdam are accepted.

The use of the atom bombs has remained the subject of intense controversy. Would Japan have surrendered if the force of the weapon had been demonstrated on a deserted island? Would conventional warfare have eventually prevailed? Or would either of these courses have led to even greater loss of life by prolonging the war? These are questions which cannot be answered. And on the other side it may be argued that the evidence of Hiroshima made the Cold War, paradoxically, a period of world peace.


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