World History/Causes and course of the Second World War
Causes of World War II
France, Great Britain, and the U.S. had attained their wartime objectives. They had reduced Germany to a military cipher and had reorganized Europe and the world as they saw fit. The French and the British frequently disagreed on policy in the postwar period, however, and were unsure of their ability to defend the peace settlement. Disillusionment with war led to the practice of appeasement, or giving into an aggressor's demands to keep the peace. The U.S., disillusioned by the Europeans' failure to pay their war debts, retreated into isolationism. The Treaty of Versailles left many countries dissatisfied. Adverse conditions, such as reparations and unemployed veterans from World War I led to the circulation of new, radical ideas and solutions, such as fascism in Italy. This Fascist party, as Mussolini called it, later became a model for Hitler in Germany.
The Failure of Peace Efforts
During the 1920s, attempts were made to achieve a stable peace. The first was the establishment (1920) of the League of Nations as a forum in which nations could settle their disputes. The League's powers were limited to persuasion and various levels of moral and economic sanctions that the members were free to carry out as they saw fit. At the Washington Conference of 1921-2, the principal naval powers agreed to limit their navies according to a fixed ratio. The Locarno Conference (1925) produced a treaty guarantee of the German-French boundary and an arbitration agreement between Germany and Poland. In the Kellogg-Briande Pact (1928), 63 countries including all the Great Powers except the USSR, renounced war as an instrument of national policy and pledged to resolve all disputes among them "by pacific means." The signatories had agreed beforehand to exempt wars of "self-defense."
The Rise of Fascism
One of the victors' stated aims in World War I had been "to make the world safe for democracy," and postwar Germany adopted a democratic constitution, as did most of the other states restored or created after the war. In the 1920s, however, the wave of the future appeared to be a form of nationalistic, militaristic totalitarianism known by its Italian name, fascism. It promised to minister to peoples' wants more effectively than democracy and presented itself as the one sure defense against communism. Benito Mussolini established the first Fascist, European dictatorship during the inter war period in Italy in 1922.
Formation of the Axis Coalition
Adolf Hitler, the Leader of the German National Socialist (Nazi) party, preached a racist brand of fascism. Hitler promised to overturn the Versailles Treaty and secure additional Lebensraum ("living space") for the German people, who he contended deserve more as members of a superior race. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression hit Germany. The moderate parties could not agree on what to do about it, and large numbers of voters turned to the Nazis and Communists. In 1933 Hitler became the German Chancellor, and in a series of subsequent moves established himself as dictator. Japan did not formally adopt fascism, but the armed forces' powerful position in government enabled them to impose a similar type of totalitarianism. As dismantlers of the world status quo, the Japanese were well ahead of Hitler. They used a minor clash with Chinese troops near Mukden, also known as the Mukden or Manchurian crisis, in 1931 as a pretext for taking over all of Manchuria, where they proclaimed the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. In 1937-8 they occupied the main Chinese ports. Having denounced the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty, created a new air force, and reintroduced conscription, Hitler tried out his new weapons on the side of right-wing military rebels in the Spanish civil war (1936-9). This venture brought him into collaboration with Mussolini who was also supporting the Spanish revolt after having seized (1935-6) Ethiopia in a small war. Treaties between Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1936-7 brought into being the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. For example, Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern pact in 1936 and then Italy joined in 1937. This pact denounced communism and it showed their unity in the matter. The Axis thereafter became the collective term for those countries and their allies.
German Aggression in Europe
Hitler launched his own expansionist drive with the annexation of Austria in March 1938. The way was clear: Mussolini supported him; and the British and French, overawed by German rearmament, accepted Hitler's claim that the status of Austria was an internal German affair. The U.S. had impaired its ability to act against aggression by passing a neutrality law that prohibited material assistance to all parties in foreign conflicts. In September 1938 Hitler threatened war to annex the western border area of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland and its 3.5. million ethnic Germans. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain initiated talks that culminated at the end of the month in the Munich Pact, by which the Czechs, on British and French urging, relinquished the Sudetenland in return for Hitler's promise not to take any more Czech territory. Chamberlain believed he had achieved "peace for our time," but the word Munich soon implied abject and futile appeasement. Less than six months later, in March 1939, Hitler seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Alarmed by this new aggression and by Hitler's threats against Poland, the British government pledged to aid that country if Germany threatened its independence. A popular joke ran at the time: "A guarantee a day keeps Hitler away". France already had a mutual defense treaty with Poland. The turn away from appeasement brought the Soviet Union to the fore. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, had offered military help to Czechoslovakia during the 1938 crisis, but had been ignored by all the parties to the Munich Agreement. Now that war threatened, he was courted by both sides, but Hitler made the more attractive offer. Allied with Britain and France, the Soviet Union might well have had to fight, but all Germany asked for was its neutrality. In Moscow, on the night of August 23, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed. In the part published the next day, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed not to go to war against each other. A secret protocol gave Stalin a free hand in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and eastern Romania.
The Worldwide Great Depression
The costs of carrying out World War I, as well as the costs to rebuild Western Europe after years of fighting, resulted in enormous debts on the part of the Western European powers to the United States. The enormous reparations put on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles also increased the debts. Coupled with ineffective governments in many of these European States (notably the Weinmar Republic, pre-Mussolini Italy and Socialist France) led to slow reconstruction and poor economic growth.
With the crash of the New York Stock Market on 29 October, 1929, the United States recalled all foreign loans in the following days. Unable to repay these loans, the economies of the West collapsed, beginning the Great Depression.
World War II in Europe
Opening Events (1939)
Soon after the events in Czechoslovakia, Britain and France issued assurances of protection to Poland, which seemed to be next on Hitler's list. World War II officially began on September 1, 1939. On that date, Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, against Poland. Britain and France, much to Hitler's surprise, immediately declared war upon Germany, but the help they could afford Poland was negligible. After only a few weeks, the Polish forces were overwhelmed, and its government fled to exile in London.
In starting World War II, the Germans had unleashed a new type of warfare, characterized by highly mobile forces and the use of massed aircraft. The German strategy concentrated upon the devotion of the Wehrmact, or German army, to the use of tank groups, called panzer divisions, and groups of mobile infantry, in concert with relentless attacks from the air. Encirclement was also a major part of the strategy. This change smashed any expectations that the Second World War would be fought in trenches like the First.
Soviet Aggression (1939-1941)
As Hitler's forces conquered Poland, the Soviet Union, under Secretary Joseph Stalin, was acting out guarantees of territory under a secret part of a nonaggression pact between the USSR and Germany known as the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact. This treaty gave Stalin free rein to take the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Eastern Poland, all of which would remain in Soviet possession after the war. Stalin also launched an attack on Finland, which he hoped to reduce to little more than a Soviet puppet state, but the Red Army met staunch Finnish resistance in what became known as the Winter War, and succeeded in gaining only limited territory from the Finns. This action would later cause the Finns to ally with Germany when its attack on the Soviet Union came in 1941.
After the defeat of Poland, a period known as the Phony War ensued during the winter of 1939-1940. All of this changed on May 10, 1940, when the Germans launched a massive attack on the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), most probably to surmount the Maginot Line of defenses on the Franco-German border. This witnessed the incredible fall of Eben Emael, a Belgian fort considered impregnable and guarded by 600 Belgians, to a force of only 88 German paratroopers. The worst of this was that King Leopold III of Belgium surrendered to the Germans on May 28 without warning his allies, exposing the entire flank of the Allied forces to German panzer groups. Following the conquest of the Low Countries, Hitler occupied Denmark and Norway, beginning on April 9, 1940. Norway was strategically important because of its sea routes which supplied crucial Swedish ore to the Nazi war machine. Norway held on for a few crucial weeks, but Denmark surrendered after only four days.
The Fall of France (June - Early 1940)
With the disaster in the Low Countries, France, considered at the time to have had the finest army in world, lasted only four weeks, with Paris being occupied on June 14. Three days later, Marshal Henri Petain surrendered to the Germans. The debacle in France also led to one of the war's greatest mysteries, and Hitler's first great blunder, Dunkirk, where a third of a million trapped British and French soldiers were evacuated by not only British war boats, but every boat the army could find, including fishing rafts. Hitler refused to "risk" his panzers in action at Dunkirk, listening to the advice of Air Minister Herman Goering and allowing the Luftwaffe, or German Air Force, to handle the job. The irony of this was that the escaped men would form the core of the army that was to invade the beaches of Normandy in 1944. Hitler did not occupy all of France, but about three-fifths, including all of the Atlantic coast down to the western Pyrenees, allowing Marshal Petain to remain as dictator of an area known as Vichy France. However, members of the escaped French Army formed around General Charles de Gaulle to create the Free French forces, which would continue to battle Hitler in the stead of an independent France. At this moment, Mussolini declared war on the Allies on June 10, thinking that the war was almost over, but he managed only to occupy a few hundred yards of French territory. Throughout the war, the Italians would be more of a burden to the Nazis than a boon, and would later cost them precious time in Greece.
Here is one of history's greatest ironies. Hitler now stood in a unique position. Already, he had conquered an incredible amount of territory in only a short space of time, and had the chance to rule all of Europe. Indeed, from a military viewpoint, it is a wonder that Hitler even lost World War II. Throughout 1940 and 1941, he gained the acquiescence and virtual control of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as Finland as an uncomfortable ally. The key is that Hitler had supported the ideas of generals like Heinz Guderian, often called the prophet of accelerated war, and Erwin Rommel, one military genius who emerged in World War II. Hitler attributed their successes to his own military genius, and his own self-confidence would later be the chief cause of the defeat of Germany. Hitler could now have become ruler of Europe, and possibly dictator of the world, if only he had followed common-sense plans advocated to him by many German generals. However, he did not, saving the world from Nazi domination.
The Battle of Britain (Summer 1940)
Hitler now turned his eyes on Great Britain, which stood alone against him. He ordered his generals to draw up plans for an invasion, code named Operation Sea Lion, and ordered the Luftwaffe to launch a massive air war against the British isles, which would come to be known as the Battle of Britain. The British at first suffered steady losses, but eventually managed to turn the air war against Germany, taking down 2,698 German planes throughout the summer of 1940 to only 915 Royal Air Force (RAF) losses. The key turning point came when the Germans discontinued successful attacks against British airplane factories, RAF airfields and radar command and coordination stations and turned to carpet bombing civilian targets like cities known as terror bombing, thus switching from a strategic objective to a psychological one. The switch came after a small British bombing force had attacked Berlin. Hitler was infuriated. However, his decision to switch the attacks' focus allowed the British to rebuild the RAF and eventually force the Germans to indefinitely postpone Sea Lion.
The importance of the Battle of Britain is that it demonstrated to the world that Hitler was not yet its master and that the invincibility of the German war machine was merely a myth; it could be met and destroyed on the battlefield. Secondly, it marked the advent of radar as a major weapon in modern war. With radar, squadrons of fighters could be quickly assembled and dispatched at the right time to the right place to respond to incoming bombers attempting to bomb targets, thus saving valuable time fuel and man hours and reducing the need for standing air patrols. It also allowed the identification of the type and a guess at the number of incoming enemy aircraft, as well as tracking of friendly airplanes.
Operation Barbarossa (1941)
Hitler, taken aback by his defeat over the skies of Britain, now turned his gaze eastward to the Soviet Union. Despite having signed the non-aggression pact with Stalin, Hitler despised communism and wished to destroy it in the land of its birth. He originally planned to launch the attack in early spring of 1941 to avoid the disastrous Russian winter. However, a pro-allied coup in Yugoslavia and Italy's failed invasion of Greece from occupied Albania prompted Hitler to launch a personal campaign of revenge in Yugoslavia and to occupy Greece at the same time. Hitler ordered a large attack on the Yugoslav, Greek and British forces in the Balkans. The Italian and German armies quickly swept across Yugoslavia, the Germans losing only 155 men. In Greece, there was tougher resistance, but the Axis forces proved too powerful and by the end of April the Balkans were under Axis control. Hitler, in an un-Nazilike move, ordered that all Greek POWs be released due to their bravery in combat.
On June 22 1941, the 129 years and 2 days after Napoleon invaded Russia, Hitler hurled at Stalin the largest army the world has ever seen. The numbers for the invasion puzzle the imagination. 5.6 million soldiers, 3,600 tanks, and 4,400 aircraft attacked the Soviets that day. Stalin had been warned about the attack, both by other countries and by his own intelligence network, but he had refused to believe it. Therefore, the Russian army was largely unprepared and suffered incredible setbacks in the early part of the war, despite Stalin's orders to counterattack the Germans. Throughout 1941, German forces, divided into 3 army groups (Army Group North, Army Group South, and Army Group Center), occupied the Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarus, laid siege to Leningrad (present day St. Petersburg), and advanced to within 15 miles of Moscow. At this critical moment, the Russian winter, which began early that year, stalled the German Wehrmacht to a halt at the gates of Moscow. Stalin had planned to evacuate the city, and had already moved important government functions, but decided to stay and rally the city. Recently arrived troops from the east under the command of military Marshal Georgi Zhukov counterattacked the Germans and drove them from Moscow. The German army then dug in at their defensive position for the winter.
Here marks the third great blunder of Hitler's. He could have won the war in the USSR except for a few reasons. One, he started the war too late to avoid the Russian winter. Second, he tried to capture too much too fast; he wanted the German army to advance all the way to the Urals, which amounted to one million square miles (2,600,000 km²) of territory, when he probably should have concentrated on taking Moscow and thereby driving a wedge into the heart of the Soviet Union. Third, he ignored the similar experiences of Napoleon Bonaparte over 100 years earlier in his attempt to conquer Russia. Despite this, Stalin was not in a good position. Roughly two-fifths of the USSR's industrial might was in German hands. Also, the Germans were at first seen by many as liberators fighting the communists. Stalin was also not a very able general, and like Hitler, at first tried to fight the war as a military strategist. However, Hitler managed to turn all of his advantages against himself, and lost the only remaining hope for Germany: seizing the Caucacus and taking control of North Africa and the oil-rich Middle East.
America Enters in Europe
Meanwhile, the Japanese had attacked America at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This disastrous attack forced the Americans into the war. Hitler did not desire war with the United States and would have postponed action; however, his Japanese allies made the decision for him. Both he and Mussolini declared war only a few days after the attack. At the time, most German generals, preoccupied with war in Russia, did not even notice America's entrance. It was to be a crucial blunder.
Mussolini's Aggression in Africa (1940-1942)
Mussolini had siezed Ethiopia in 1936 and made it part of the Italian Empire. In August of 1940, Italy launched a 3 pronged attack into Kenya, the Sudan, and British Somaliland. Somaliland was captured after a week, and the Italians pushed into the Sudan and Kenya, establishing defensive positions. The British counterattacked, which drove into Ethiopia with help from an amphibious assault and forces in Kenya, capturing Eritrea in February, Somalia in March, and Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, in April. Although the capital had fallen, the last organized Italian resistance did not end until November. The Italians also carried on a guerrilla war against the Allies for the next two years.
Mussolini had launched an offensive in North Africa from Italian-controlled Libya into British-controlled Egypt. After initial success, the invasion halted 60 miles into Egypt. After 3 months of no action, the British launched operation compass and drove the Italians 500 miles back into Libya. Hitler decided to help by sending in a few thousand troops, a Luftwaffe division, and the first-rate general Erwin Rommel. Rommel managed to use his forces to repeatedly smash massively superior British forces and to recapture the port city of Tobruk and advance into Egypt. However, Hitler, embroiled in his invasion of the Soviet Union, refused to send Rommel any more troops. If he had, Rommel might have been able to seize the Middle East, where Axis-friendly regimes had taken root in Iraq and Persia (present-day Iran). Here, Rommel could have cut the major supply route of the Soviets through Persia, and helped take the Caucasus, virtually neutralizing Britain's effectiveness in the war and potentially sealing the fate of the USSR. However, Hitler blundered again, throwing away the last vestiges of the German advantage on his coming offensive in 1942.
The German Offensive of 1942
After the winter, Hitler launched a fresh offensive in the spring of 1942, with the aim of capturing the oil-rich Caucacus and the city of Stalingrad. However, he repeatedly switched his troops to where they were not needed. The offensive bogged down, and the entire 6th Army, considered the best of German troops, was trapped in Stalingrad. Hitler now refused to let 6th Army break out. He insisted that the German army would force its way in. Herman Goering also assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could supply the 6th Army adequately, when it could in reality only supply a minute fraction of the needed ammunition and rations. Eventually, the starved 6th Army surrendered, dealing a severe blow to the Germans. In the end, the defeat at Stalingrad was the turning point for the war in the east.
The Tide begins to turn (1942-1943)
Throughout the rest of 1942 and 1943, the Soviets began to gain ground against the Germans. The battle of Kursk, which involved the largest number of armored vehicles in history, is considered one of the major turning points of the war on the Eastern Front, when Germany losing a large proportion of its large scale offensive armored capability and with the initiative clearly assumed by the Russians after their defeat of this German offensive. Elsewhere, Rommel had been forced to abandon North Africa after a defeat at El Alamein followed by a pursuit all the way to Libya and the "Operation TORCH" landings by US forces, and the Wehrmacht had encountered serious casualties that it could not replace. Hitler also insisted on a "hold out at all costs" policy which forbade the relinquishing any ground. He followed a "fight to the last man" policy that was completely ineffective. By the beginning of 1944, Hitler had lost all initiative in Russia, and was struggling even to hold back the tide turning against him.
The Allied Invasions of North Africa and Italy (1942-1944)
From 1942 to 1944, the United States and Britain acted in only a limited manner in the European theater, much to the chagrin of Stalin. The Americans launched Operation Torch in November 1942 and drove the Vichy French(French loyal to the Axis Powers) out of Morocco and Algeria. The Tunisia Campaign then followed, which lasted until May. The battle opened with initial success by the German and Italian forces, but the massive supply and numerical superiority of the Allies led to the Axis' complete defeat. Over 230,000 German and Italian troops were taken as prisoners of war, including most of the Afrika Korps. Then, on July 10, 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily, in preparation for an advance through Italy, the "soft underbelly" of the Axis, as Winston Churchill called it. On July 25th Mussolini was arrested and stripped of his powers. The new Prime Minister of Italy looked to make Peace with the allies. On September 8, the Italians formally surrendered to the Allies. Hearing of this, the Allies launched the invasion of Italy. However, most of Italy not in Allied hands was controlled by German troops and those loyal to Mussolini's (Mussolini had been freed by German paratroopers) new Italian Social Republic, which in reality consisted of the shrinking zone of German control. The Germans offered staunch resistance, but by June 4, 1944, Rome had fallen.
From the beginning of the war, the Second Battle of the Atlantic had been taking place. The Germans hoped to sever the vital supply lines between Britain and America, sinking many tons of shipping with U-boats, heavy surface units like the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Graf Spee, and the use of long range bomber aircraft. However, the development of ASDIC equipment as a means to locate submerge submarines, the use of aircraft with a longer patrol range such as Liberators equipped with centimetric radar, and the plugging of the so-called mid-Atlantic air cover gap through the use of escort carrier groups sealed the fate of the U-boats, which could only run at top speed on the surface, to which they also had to return to recharge their electric batteries (for use under water). By 1944, the Germans had effectively lost the Second Battle of the Atlantic.
D-Day at Normandy (June 1944 - August 1944)
On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies finally launched the long awaited assault on "Fortress Europe" so wanted by Stalin. The offensive, codenamed Operation Overlord, began the early morning hours of June 6. The day, known as D-day (for "designated day"), was marked by foul weather. Rommel, who was now in charge of defending France against possible Allied attack, thought the Allies would not attack during the stormy weather, and was on holiday in Germany. Here, two blunders occurred for the Germans, sealing the operation's success. The first blunder was that the Germans expected an attack, but at the natural harbor of Calais and not the beaches of Normandy. They did not know about the Allies' artificial harbors. Also, clues planted by the Allies suggested Calais as the landing site. Secondly, reserves in the form of panzer divisions located a short distance behind the beaches were not ordered to counter-attack on the first day because the German High Command still believed that the main invasion had yet to take place and by the time this was realized as wrong, it was too late as the beachhead had been established. It is unlikely that intervention would have been entirely effective in any event, since Allied air forces effectively controlled the skies over Normandy and the beaches and Allied fighter-bombers, medium and heavy bombers had succeeded in isolating the battlefield and preventing reinforcements from reaching the beach defenses.
By this time, the war was looking ever darker for Germany. On July 20, 1944, a group of conspiring German officers attempted to assassinate Hitler. During one of Hitler's military conferences, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in his briefcase, and left it by Hitler. The bomb they used did injure him, but the second was not used, and a table shielded Hitler, who was reaching for a magnifying glass when the bomb went off, in a stroke of luck. The plotters still could have launched a coup, but only the head of occupied Paris acted, arresting SS and Gestapo forces in the city. The German propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, rallied the Nazis, and saved the day for Hitler.
The Liberation of France and the Battle of the Bulge (August 1944 - December 1944)
In France, the Allies took Normandy and finally Paris on August 25. In the east, the Russians had advanced almost to the former Polish-Russian border. At this time, Hitler introduced the V weapons, the V-1 and, later, the V-2, the first rockets used in modern warfare. The V-1 was often intercepted by air pilots, but the V-2 was extremely fast and carried a large payload. However, this advance came too late in the war to have any real effect. The Germans were also on the verge on introducing a number of terrifying new weapons, including advanced jet aircraft, which were too fast for ordinary propeller aircraft, and submarine improvements which would allow the Germans to again fight effectively in the Atlantic. All this came too late to save Hitler. Although a September invasion of Holland failed, the Allies made steady advances. In the winter of 1944, Hitler put everything into one last desperate gamble in the West, known as the Battle of the Bulge, which, despite an initial advance, was a failure. The Germans never succeeded in their primary objective of reaching the Meuse River and re-capturing Antwerp, thus severing the Allies and denying them the only deep water harbor available. The weather initially assisted the Germans by grounding Allied fighter-bombers, but once the initial shock wore off and the momentum was lost, and the weather cleared, the Germans were sitting targets for the dreaded 'Jabos'. With only enough fuel for an all out thrust to Antwerp and anticipating a short sharp campaign, many of the massive panzers and other vehicles had to be abandoned when that meager ration ran out.
Three men at Yalta (February 1945)
In early February 1945, the three Allied leaders, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, met at newly liberated Yalta in the Crimea in the Soviet Union in the Yalta Conference. Here, they agreed upon a plan to divide post-war Europe. Most of the east went to Stalin, who agreed to allow free elections in Eastern Europe, which he never did. The west went to Britain, France, and the U.S. Post-war Germany would be split between the four, as would Berlin. Here the territory of the Cold War was set. The foundations of the Iron Curtain and of the nuclear buildup were laid by three men at Yalta.
The War in the Pacific
- Note that this is only a rough outline. Change it as needed.
Mukden Incident and the Invasion of Manchuria (1931)
After winning the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan quickly became the dominant power in its region. Russia recognized Korea as a Japanese sphere of influence and removed all of its forces from there and Manchuria, the sparsely populated northeastern region of China. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea as its own with little protest or resistance. Still, Japan was a quickly growing country, both population-wise and economically. It founded the South Manchuria Railway company in Manchuria in 1906, and with that company was able to gain government-like control of the area.
By 1931, the Depression had struck a blow to Japan. The government did little to help Japan's economy, and in the eyes of its citizens, was weak and powerless. Instead, the public favored the Japanese army, and soon the civilian government had lost control of its military. To the army, Manchuria seemed like an obvious solution to many of Japan's problems. Manchuria was vast and thinly populated, and would serve as excellent elbow room for an already overcrowded Japan. It was also thought that Manchuria was rich in forests, natural resources, and fertile land. The fact that the Japanese believed themselves to be far superior to the Chinese only moved Japan towards conflict faster. Additionally, the warlord of Manchuria went against Japanese expectations and declared his allegiance to a growing Chinese military movement. So, in 1931, the army staged an explosion at a section of railway near Mukden, a city in Manchuria, as a pretext to invade and annex China. Japan met little resistance, although it did not have support of its own government, and Manchuria was completely occupied by the end of the year. Japan subsequently set up the puppet state of Manchukuo to oversee the newly acquired region. The League of Nations vehemently protested Japan's aggression, but Japan then withdrew from it.
Japan invades China (1937)
The 1920s saw a weak and politically chaotic China. Warlords of the many provinces of China constantly feuded, and the central government was weak and decentralized, unable to do anything to stop conflict. In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek gained control of the Kuomintang (the Chinese government) and its National Revolution Army. Chiang led an expedition to defeat southern and central Chinese warlords and gain the allegiance of northern warlords. He was successful, and he soon focused on what he perceived to be a greater threat than Japan, which was communism. But in 1937, the deposed warlord general of Manchuria kidnapped Chiang and refused to release him until he at least temporarily united with the communists against the Japanese threat. The Japanese army responded by staging the Battle of Lugou Bridge, which was supposed to provoke open war between China and Japan. It worked and the Sino-Japanese War began. The beginning of the conflict was marked by the Chinese strategy of giving up land in order to stall the Japanese. It is important to note that the Japanese was not to completely take over China; rather, the Japanese wanted to set up puppet governments in key regions that would protect and advance Japanese interests. The fall of Nanjing in the early stages of this conflict saw the beginning of Japanese war atrocities. 100,000-300,000 were killed in the six weeks after Nanjing was captured. Other war crimes committed included widespread rape, arson, and looting.
Anti-Comintern Pact and Tripartite Pact
These were pacts between Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Anti-Comintern pact had been a pact that denounced communism and it was initially signed by Japan and Germany. However, later, as German and Italian relations improved, Italy also signed and this was made stronger later by the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis in 1938. The Tripartite Pact also strengthened the alliance and it was basically a confirmation of the Rome-Berlin-Toyko Axis.
Pearl Harbor and Simultaneous Invasions (early December 1941)
On 7 December 1941, Japanese warplanes commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo carried out a surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the largest U.S. naval base in the Pacific. The Japanese forces met little resistance and devastated the harbor. This attack resulted in 8 battleships either sunk or damaged, 3 light cruisers and 3 destroyers sunk as well as damage to some auxiliaries and 343 aircraft either damaged or destroyed. 2408 Americans were killed including 68 civilians; 1178 were wounded. Japan lost only 29 aircraft and their crews and five midget submarines. However, the attack failed to strike targets that could have been crippling losses to the US Pacific Fleet such as the aircraft carriers which were out at sea at the time of the attack or the base's ship fuel storage and repair facilities. The survival of these assets have led many to consider this attack a catastrophic long term strategic blunder for Japan.
The following day, the United States declared war on Japan. Simultaneously to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan also attacked U.S. air bases in the Philippines. Immediately following these attacks, Japan invaded the Philippines and also the British Colonies of Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo and Burma with the intention of seizing the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941, even though it was not obliged to do so under the Tripartite Pact of 1940. Hitler made the declaration in the hopes that Japan would support him by attacking the Soviet Union. Japan did not oblige him, and this diplomatic move proved a catastrophic blunder which gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt the pretext needed for the United States joining the fight in Europe with full commitment and with no meaningful opposition from Congress. Some historians mark this moment as another major turning point of the war with Hitler provoking a grand alliance of powerful nations, most prominently the UK, the USA and the USSR, who could wage powerful offensives on both East and West simultaneously.
Allied Defeats in the Pacific and Asia (late December 1941-1942)
Simultaneous with the dawn raid on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese carried out an invasion of Malaya, landing troops at Kota Bharu on the east coast, supported by land based aircraft from bases in Vietnam and Taiwan. The British attempted to oppose the landings by dispatching Force Z, comprising the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, with their escorting destroyers, from the naval base in Singapore, but this force was intercepted and destroyed by bombers before even reaching their objective.
In a series of swift maneuvers down the Malay peninsula, thought by the British to be "impassable" to an invading force landing so far north, the Japanese advanced down to the Johor Straits at the southernmost tip of the peninsula by January 1942. The Japanese were even using tanks, which the British had thought would not be able to penetrate the jungles but they were wrong.
During a short two week campaign the Japanese crossed the Straits of Johor by amphibious assault and conducted a series of sharp battles, notably the battle of Kent Ridge when the Royal Malay Regiment put up a brave but futile effort to stem the tide. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with its fall, Japan was now able to control the sea approaches from the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Straits. The natural resources of the Malay peninsula, in particular rubber plantations and tin mines, were now in the hands of the Japanese.
Other Allied possessions, especially in the oil rich East Indies (Indonesia) were also swiftly captured, and all organised resistance effectively ceased, with attention now shifting to events closer to Midway, the Solomon Islands, the Bismark Sea and New Guinea.
Resistance in the Philippines and the Bataan Death March
The Tide Turns: The Coral Sea
Allies Regroup and the Battle of Midway (1942)
Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US military sought to strike back at Japan, and a plan was formulated to bomb Tokyo. As Tokyo could not be reached by land based bombers, it was decided to use an aircraft carrier to launch the attack close to Japanese waters. The Doolittle Raid was carried out by Doolittle and his squadron of B-25 medium bombers, launched from the USS Hornet. The raid achieved little strategically, but was a tremendous morale booster in the dark days of 1942. It also led to the decision by the Japanese military to attack the only logical base of the attackers, the tiny atoll of Midway.
A powerful force of warships, with four large fleet carriers at its core (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu) attacked Midway. The US navy, with the aid of intercepted and decoded Japanese signals, were ready and launched a counter attack with the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown, destroying all four of the Japanese fleet carriers. This was a devastating blow to the Japanese and is considered the turning point of the Pacific War. The Japanese had largely roamed the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean with impunity, launching raids from these same four carriers on Allied bases in these areas including Darwin, Colombo and along the Indian east coast. With the loss of these carriers and more importantly their cadre of irreplaceable hard core highly trained naval aviators, the Japanese could no longer maintain an effective offensive and became largely defensive from then on.
Guadalcanal Weakens Japan (August 1942-February 1943)
Buna, Gona, and Rabaul (1943)
Island Hopping (1943- Late 1944)
Island hopping was a campaign of capturing key islands in the Pacific that were used as prerequisites, or stepping stones, to the next island with the eventual destination being Japan, rather than trying to capture every island under Japanese control. Allied forces often assaulted weaker islands first, while starving out the Japanese strongholds before attacking them.
Iwo Jima and Okinawa (Early 1945)
The Atomic Bomb (August 1945)
On August 6, 1945, a lone B-29 bomber, named the Enola Gay, appeared over the skies of Hiroshima. Air raid sirens went off around the city and people ran for their shelters. However, minutes later, the all-clear symbol was given. Although it had been a seemingly harmless run, the B-29 had, in fact, dropped a single bomb (this bomb was called "Little Boy"). This bomb detonated about 1,900 feet over Hiroshima and leveled much of the city within a few thousandths of a second. Tens of thousands were killed immediately and many more would eventually die from the radiation poisoning.
However, Japan did not surrender to the United States, so three days later, on August 9, 1945, a B-29 named Boxcar dropped an atom bomb on the city of Nagasaki (this bomb was called "Fat Man"). Although the bomb was actually more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, the foggy weather conditions and the hilly terrain of Nagasaki somewhat shielded a portion of the city from the worst effects.
This led to an immediate ceasefire with Japan, and surrender a month later.