The Real Start of the Second World War
The Second World War began in September 1939. But did it? Historians now tend to regard this as a very Eurocentric view. Instead, they point to a skirmish between the Chinese and Japanese near Beijing known as the Marco Polo Incident that blew up on 7 July 1937. China at the time was embroiled in a protracted civil war between Mao Zedong’s communists and the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. Following the incident, the conflict soon escalated into full-scale war between the Chinese and Japanese. Mao and Chiang Kai-shek agreed on a ceasefire and the formation of a ‘United Front’, the Kuomintang-Communist front, in order to defeat the Japanese.


Despite this united Chinese front, the Japanese advance was rapid – taking Beijing and, in November 1937, Shanghai, before heading to what was then the Chinese capital, Nanking. Although heavily outnumbered, Japanese forces took only four days to capture the city, entering it on 13 December. The 150,000 Japanese soldiers were then given licence to murder and rape on a massive scale. Canton and Hankow fell in October 1938. The Sino-Japanese War continued throughout the years of the Second World War. The Chinese were to suffer 15 million deaths up to Japan’s surrender, almost thirty per cent of global fatalities throughout the war. The huge contribution to the American war effort is often overlooked – the Chinese kept a large part of the Japanese army busy, men that could have been deployed in the Pacific War against the US.



On 23 August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the two foreign ministers who signed it, shocked the world – these two totalitarian giants, ideologically opposed, had agreed not to wage war on each other. Both Stalin and Hitler knew it was a mere postponement of the inevitable but, at the time, it suited them both. Stalin knew his military might was lacking and that the Soviet Union needed more time to prepare.


The signing of the pact had been the penultimate piece of Hitler’s grand jigsaw. With the Soviet Union safely out of the way, Hitler was now free to pursue his ambitions in the East; ambitions he first espoused in print fourteen years earlier with the publication of his autobiographical rant, Mein Kampf.


Stuck between the two ideological heavyweights was Poland. As part of their pact, Germany and the Soviet Union had agreed, in secret, to partition Poland. Both Great Britain and France had given Poland guarantees of assistance should they come under German attack. Hitler, knowing how weak the Western democracies were, continued to make his demands on Poland, supposedly upholding the rights of German nationals within Poland and access to the port of Danzig, which had been declared a ‘free state’ following the First World War.


But Hitler still needed a pretext for invading Poland. In the event he made one up. On the nights leading up to 31 August / 1 September there were no less than 21 incidences faked by the Germans which, to a gullible world, would seem like acts of aggression for which retaliation was perfectly justifiable.


These acts of farce, codenamed Operation Himmler, were organised by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. The most notorious was the Gleiwitz Incident, the faked attack on the radio transmitting station near the border town of Gleiwitz in the Silesia region. German soldiers, dressed up as Polish partisans, attacked the German transmitter, and broadcast in Polish a brief anti-German message.


To make the attack look more authentic, the Germans took an inmate from the Dachau Concentration Camp, 43-year-old Franciszek Honiok, arrested by the Gestapo just the day before. The unfortunate Honiok was, what the Germans called ‘canned goods’, kept alive until the Gestapo had need for a dead but still warm body. Honiok’s corpse, dressed as a Polish bandit, was left at the scene as evidence of the supposed attack.


Hitler knew that the falsehood of Operation Himmler was highly transparent but, as he lectured his staff the week before, ‘The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth’.


The following morning, 1 September, at 4.45, without issuing a declaration of war, German troops launched their attack on Poland. Hours later Hitler spoke to the nation, referring to the ‘Polish atrocities’. He continued, ‘This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. We have been returning the fire… I will continue this struggle, no matter against whom, until the safety of the Reich and its rights are secured’.


Technically, Franciszek Honiok had been killed during peacetime but his death can be considered the first in a conflict that would, over the ensuing six years, claim over 60 million victims.


The Second World War had begun.


Straightaway, on the first day, German bombers pounded the Polish capital, Warsaw. A German ship, the Schleswig-Holstein, happened to be off the coast of Poland on a diplomatic mission. On hearing that war had broken out, it fired on the port of Westerplatte. Under heavy bombardment, the defenders held out for a week before surrendering to the Germans on 7 September.


Wanting to avoid the stalemate of the previous war, Hitler and his generals masterminded the technique of ‘lightning war’, or Blitzkrieg. Air attacks, bombers and motorized infantry forged ahead and rapidly devastated the western provinces of Poland. As successive Polish towns and villages fell to the German army, SS squadrons followed up, rounding up and shooting citizens, burning villages to the ground and embarking on an orgy of killing and terror. Poland’s Jewish population was particularly targeted and murdered. Within days, it was all too apparent that Hitler had no intention of abiding by the laws of war, as set out by the Geneva Conventions.


Poland turned to Great Britain and France, begging them to uphold their guarantees. Eleven o’clock on the morning of 3 September, Britain duly declared war on Germany with France following up six hours later. Poles were delighted, and many gathered outside the British and French embassies in Warsaw to sing the respective national anthems. The euphoria soon evaporated as the days and weeks passed, and the Western Allies did nothing save sympathize with Poland’s plight and drop millions of leaflets urging the Poles to fight on. The sense of betrayal ran deep.


On 17 September, as secretly agreed in the Non-Aggression Pact, the Soviet Union launched their attack on Poland from the east. Britain debated whether to declare war on the Soviet Union, but soon decided against it. Poland buckled, crushed between two totalitarian heavyweights. The end was swift. Warsaw, which had come under sustained bombardment, surrendered on 28 September. Pockets of resistance continued until early October but the battle was already won. On 5 October, a triumphant Hitler visited the capital. Surveying the devastation, he declared, ‘Gentlemen, you can see for yourselves what criminal folly it was to try to defend this city’.


In March 1940, on Stalin’s orders, 21,892 Polish officers taken prisoner of war were herded together and murdered, one by one, with a bullet in the back of the neck. The bodies were buried in a mass grave deep in the Katyn forest (about 12 miles to the west of Smolensk), where, three years later, they were unearthed by the Germans who made propaganda capital out of the discovery. (It was only in 1985, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s time as leader, that the Soviet Union admitted their guilt for the mass murder of the Polish officers.)


Jewish citizens in western Poland, if not already murdered, were herded together into the first ghettos. Poles in the eastern half of the country suffered equally under Soviet domination. Nazi Germany made use of Polish workers – over a million being deported to the Reich to work as forced labourers. Proportionately, Poland suffered more than any other combatant during the Second World War, approximately six million, almost one fifth of Poland’s pre-war population, perished.


Between 55,000 and 60,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw Ghetto when, on 19 April 1943, they revolted against their Nazi oppressors. For a month, they fought determinedly with limited resources before their resistance was finally quelled on 16 May.


Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1939, Britain prepared for war – city children were evacuated to the countryside and gasmasks issued; while the French put faith in their Maginot Line, a reinforced 280-mile wall of defence that ran from the Belgian border to the Swiss built at great expense during the 1920s as protection against any future German attack. As it was, nothing happened and the period from September 1939 to April 1940 is remembered as the ‘Phoney War’.


The War at Sea

The war at sea began at once with German U-boats sinking Allied shipping. The first victim, on 3 September, was the British passenger liner, the SS Athenia. On its way from Liverpool to Montreal, she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. 128 civilian passengers and crew were killed, including 28 US citizens – a cause for concern for Hitler lest it drew the US into the war. The British battleship, the HMS Royal Oak, veteran of the First World War, anchored at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, fell victim to a U-boat attack on 14 October 1939, with the loss of 833 sailors. The German battleship, the Graf Spee, sank nine Allied ships before being hit and severely damaged at the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939. The ship limped to the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo where its captain, Hans Langsdorff, scuttled her before shooting himself.


Finland, Denmark and Norway

Stalin demanded territorial concessions from Russia’s neighbour, Finland. Finland, however, refused. On 30 November 1939, the Soviet Union attacked, anticipating an easy victory in what became known as the ‘Winter War’. Finally, on 13 March 1940, victory was theirs by sheer mass of manpower and equipment, but not before suffering sustained casualties at the hands of the outnumbered but tenacious and determined Fins. Hitler was much buoyed on seeing the evident weakness of the Red Army – if they should make such hard work of defeating the lowly Fins, what chance did they have against the might of Germany’s military juggernaut. What he didn’t anticipate was Stalin’s ability to learn his lesson – as Hitler would find to his cost some eighteen months later.


The ‘Phoney War’ in the west came to an end on 9 April 1940 when Germany overran Denmark in a matter of hours, thereby securing the lines of communication between Norway and Germany.


On the same day, Germany attacked neutral Norway. Hitler, fearful that the Allies might use Norway to attack northern Germany, struck first. British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, dispatched an armada of British ships to Norway and although they managed to gain a foothold in the northern port of Narvik, it was too little too late – by the time they arrived, German forces had taken several Norwegian ports and the capital, Oslo. The Norwegian fascist, Vidkun Quisling, stormed into the studios of Oslo’s radio station and declared himself prime minister. German representatives demanded that Norway’s king, Haakon VII, recognise Quisling. The king refused and, in danger, went into exile to England and there formed a government-in-exile.


With German backing, Quisling ordered all resistance to stop. Once Germany had established control of Norway the Nazis put Quisling in charge of their government of occupation. So trusting were the Germans of their Norwegian puppet that two years later, in 1942, they granted him full license to run the country without interference. Quisling was to remain in charge until the end of the war. In October 1945, he was executed as a traitor.


Britain’s disastrous efforts in Norway brought an end to Neville Chamberlain’s time as prime minister. He was replaced, on 10 May, by Winston Churchill. Churchill, up to this point, had been serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty, in effect, the civilian head of the Royal and Merchant Navies. Now, as prime minister, he stood up in the House of Commons and famously declared, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs’.


The Low Countries and France

On the same day as Churchill became prime minister, Hitler launched his attack on the west. On the 10 May 1940, German forces entered neutral Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Luxembourg surrendered within hours. The British Expeditionary Force and the French armies were caught unprepared and were pushed back towards the English Channel. Rotterdam was heavily bombed, causing Queen Wilhelmina to flee to London and the Dutch to surrender within four days. Belgium followed suit, surrendering on 28 May. The French put their faith in the Maginot Line but, avoiding it, the Germans pushed through the supposedly impassable Ardennes forest north of the Maginot Line, then, having broken into France, were expected to push for the capital. Instead, facing minimal opposition, they swept north at alarming speed, reaching the sea on 21 May.


The Allied armies, trying to retreat, were soon cut-off and found themselves pinned on the beaches of Dunkirk, their backs to the Channel. Then, on 24 May, Hitler ordered a halt, ostensibly to allow his tanks to be repaired. The real reason has been debated ever since. Perhaps, at this stage of the war, Hitler still hoped to win Britain over. With the Allied force poised to be annihilated, hundreds of ships, both military and civilian, large and small, set sail from England and, between 26 May and 2 June, managed to rescue 340,000 Allied troops, a third of whom were French or Belgian. The men may have been rescued but, in their haste, large amounts of equipment were left behind to fall into German hands.


The French considered the evacuation from Dunkirk the act of cowards. Certainly, Dunkirk had been a defeat – but it could have been much worse. On 4 June, Churchill, mindful of this, delivered his much-quoted speech: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’.


From the north of France, the Germans advanced south. The French, demoralised and panicked, were no match for Germany’s blitzkrieg. German forces entered a largely deserted Paris on 14 June. Two days later, the French appointed Marshal Philippe Pétain prime minister. A hero of the First World War, Pétain, now aged 84, immediately sought an armistice.


The venue for the signing was to be the forest of Compiègne, where, 22 years before, at the end of the First World War, the Germans had surrendered to the French and signed the armistice of 11 November 1918. Hitler, with a flair for the dramatic, ordered that the signing ceremony should take place in the very same railway carriage that had been used in November 1918. The signing took place on 22 June. France was to be partitioned into two – the Germans ruling the northern half of the country and the Channel and Atlantic coasts, and a French collaborationist government, based in the town of Vichy, responsible for the rest. Marshal Pétain was to be its ‘chief of state’. France’s ‘Third Republic’ was over; democracy finished. Vichy France immediately sought to stamp its authority while collaborating with the Germans, happy to enforce its own anti-Semitic laws without any German interference. Four months later, in October 1940, Pétain met Hitler. A photograph showing the two men shaking hands exposed the level of Vichy collaboration. The Vichy government established a number of concentration camps where French and foreign-born Jews were sent before being transported east to the Nazi death camps. Of the 76,000 French Jews deported (including 11,000 children), only 2,500 survived the war.


A week before the surrender, one French general fled France and arrived in London, where, along with stints in French Algiers, he was to remain until the final months of the war. His name was Charles de Gaulle, and, declaring himself head of the ‘Free French’ movement, became the symbolic voice of resistance against Nazi tyranny in France.


Churchill demanded that the French destroy their fleets of ships to save them from falling into German hands. The French refused. Thus, on 4 July, Churchill ordered the destruction of the French fleet moored in Mers-el-Kébir in the French colony of Algeria.1,297 Frenchmen were killed and resulted in the Vichy government severing diplomatic relations with Britain.


On 22 July, under Churchill’s orders, Britain formed the Special Operations Executive, the SOE. Its purpose was to coordinate resistance throughout occupied territories or, to use Churchill’s phrase, to ‘set Europe ablaze’.


Italy Enters the War

On 10 June, Italy entered the war on the side of its ally, Germany. Benito Mussolini’s sense of self-image was an important factor in how Italy conducted its war. Il Duce, as he was called, ‘The Leader’, had come to power in Italy in 1922 and was much admired by the then unknown Adolf Hitler. But with time, the understudy surpassed the achievements of his mentor. By 1934, Italy had been clearly relegated to a second-class fascist power, and Mussolini a man who lived in Hitler’s shadow. In May 1939, Mussolini had signed an alliance with Nazi Germany, the ‘Pact of Steel’. Now, in 1940, Mussolini watched in awe as Hitler’s armies marched across Europe, conquering whatever lay in front of him. Determined not to be left behind but aware of the lack of Italy’s military strength, Mussolini dithered. His foreign minister (and son-in-law), Galeazzo Ciano, certainly advised constraint.


But with France’s defeat assured, Mussolini, without invitation, joined the fight, keen to pick up the breadcrumbs of Germany’s victory. As Mussolini once said, ‘It is better to live a day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep’. But, straightaway, Italy ran into difficulties, unable to beat a small French force on the Franco-Italian border. No matter, with France’s surrender on 22 June, Italy was given a small 500-mile square pocket of French territory in the south-east.


As Churchill said, ‘the Battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin’.


Britain Alone

Indeed, within two weeks of this declaration, a small part of Great Britain was invaded. A small British garrison stationed on the Channel Islands was removed; Churchill having decided that the islands could not be defended and were to be demilitarised. Of the pre-war population of 96,000, a quarter were evacuated to Britain. On 21 June 1940, the last British soldiers also departed and, in doing so, left the remaining islanders to their fate. The Germans, unaware of this and that the islands were there for the taking, bombed the Guernsey and Jersey harbours on 28 June, killing 44 civilians. Two days later, on 30 June, the island of Guernsey surrendered, swiftly followed by Jersey, Alderney and Sark.


The only part of Great Britain to be occupied by the Germans throughout the war, the islands were not of any strategic importance for the Germans beyond denying the British the option of using them as a base. But the occupation of British territory was symbolically important to the Germans. In the early years the islands were used as a holiday destination for German troops serving in France.


Within ten short months Poland, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and now France were under Nazi control. Hitler had reached the apogee of his rule. The relatively easily-won victories with comparatively modest casualties had won him much admiration in Germany. But the ultimate goal was the Soviet Union. Although plans were already under way, there was still unfinished business in the west; namely Great Britain. Although defeated in Norway and France, Britain remained unconquered. Alone and isolated for sure, but unconquered. On 19 July, Hitler offered Britain the hand of peace – his ‘appeal to reason’:


‘In this hour I feel it to be my duty before my own conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense, in Great Britain as much as elsewhere. I consider myself in a position to make this appeal since I am not the vanquished begging favours, but the victor speaking in the name of reason. I can see no reason why this war must go on. Possibly Mr Churchill will again brush aside this statement of mine by saying that it is merely of fear and doubt in our final victory. In that case, I shall have relieved my conscience in regards to the things to come.’


Some within the British cabinet may have been tempted. Churchill however was not.


Meanwhile, during the summer of 1940, Stalin annexed the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (Both the presidents of Estonia and Latvia were imprisoned and later died in Stalin’s gulags.)


On 27 September 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact to ‘assist one another with all political, economic and military means’ when any one of them was attacked by ‘a power at present not involved in the war’. In November 1940, somewhat reluctantly, Hungary and Romania added their signatures to the Pact, followed in March 1941 by Bulgaria.


The Battle of Britain and the Blitz

Hitler prepared for the invasion of Great Britain, Operation Sea Lion. But before a land invasion could be considered, he had to neutralise the Royal Air Force. On 9 August 1940, the Battle of Britain started. Day after day during that summer, German and British fighter pilots fought for dominance in the skies over southern England. The ranks of the RAF were bolstered by large contingent of Canadian and Polish pilots. The British and their comrade-in-arms, fighting over their own air space, had the advantage. A downed German pilot would be whisked off to captivity, whereas a British pilot could be returned to service. The British had also had use of the recently developed radar system. And, most of all, the RAF had in the Spitfire the best fighter plane of the war. On 20 August, Winston Churchill praised the stirring efforts of Fighter Command in one of his most famous speeches: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. But, often overlooked, Churchill then credited the efforts of the RAF’s Bomber Command:


‘We must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.’


Up to this point, German bombers, like their British counterparts, had targeted strategic objectives – airfields, factories, ports, docks, etc. But on 7 September, in response to a RAF raid on Berlin, the first German bombs fell on London. The Blitz had begun. As head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring’s intention was to crush British morale. In September alone, over the course of 24 nights, German bombers dropped over 5,000 tonnes of bombs on London. Civilians took to the air raid shelters and often spent nights in London’s underground stations. Children were again evacuated to the countryside. Soon, other cities across the UK were targeted – including Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Plymouth and, on the night of 14 November, the small city of Coventry. One Luftwaffe pilot, dropping bombs on Coventry from 6,000 feet, felt his nostrils ‘prickling with the smell of the city burning’. 500 tons of high explosive bombs, and 30,000 incendiaries were dropped. The city had been laid waste. The official death toll numbered 568, most too badly burnt to be identified, but such was the intensity of fire that the real figure was likely to have been considerably more. Thousands more were injured. Such was the extent of destruction, Germany’s Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, invented a new verb to describe such devastation – to ‘Coventrate’.


The Battle of Britain continued, coming to a close at the end of October. The RAF held on. Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion was to be postponed indefinitely.


From the beginning of the war, Churchill petitioned the USA to help defeat fascism and safeguard democracy. After all, the US had played a decisive role once they’d entered the First World War in April 1917. US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, was certainly sympathetic to Britain’s call and in December 1940 had declared that the US had to be the ‘great arsenal of democracy’. But his nation was firmly isolationist. Yet Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, enacted 11 March 1941, which allowed the States to supply the British and other allies with equipment, including ships and planes, oil and food. By the end of the war, this amounted to $50 billion (approximately $700 billion in 2016).


As a result, the war at sea took on a greater significance. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill later confessed: ‘The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’. Convoys of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were escorted by the Royal Navy and, as far as it could reach, the RAF. But there was only so far the planes could travel, leaving a ‘mid-Atlantic gap’ where the convoys were particularly vulnerable to German U-boats, which, from their bases in occupied France and Norway, hunted in groups or ‘wolf packs’. By the end of 1940, more than 4.5 million tons of Allied shipping had been sunk.


On May 9, 1941, a British destroyer attacked a U-boat, and a boarding party managed to capture the German Navy (Kriegsmarine)’s full-scale Enigma coding machine and codebooks. Although Britain’s codebreakers, based in Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, were already having some success at deciphering the codes, they were now able to do so at will and re-route the convoys in order to avoid the wolf packs. Subsequently, within two months, British losses at sea fell by 80%. The discovery helped the Allies throughout the war in all operations.


The Kriegsmarine, the German navy, also boasted the mighty Bismarck, a sixth of a mile long and the height of marine technology. On 24 May 1941, on its first mission, the Bismarck and accompanying vessels faced down a fleet of British warships, included the equally-impressive HMS Hood, in the Denmark Straits. The ensuing battle was intense but brief. Thirteen miles apart, the ships fired one-ton shells that, travelling at 1,600 miles per hour, took almost a minute to reach their intended target. The noise, which could be heard in Iceland, was horrendous. The Hood, taking a direct hit, was sunk. Of but three of its crew of 1,421 men were killed. Britain as a nation reeled in shock, stunned by the loss of the Hood. It demanded retaliation. Churchill, reflecting the public mood, issued his famous battle cry: ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ A fleet consisting of four battleships, two aircraft carriers and assorted ships was dispatched.


The Bismarck had emerged from the battle of 24 May seriously damaged. On 27 May, the British fleet caught up with the Bismarck. Closing in and firing from distances of just two miles, in effect shooting from point blank range, the Bismarck was sunk.


With the loss of the Bismarck, Germany’s entire sea campaign now relied on the U-boat.


Greece and North Africa

Mussolini dreamt of building an empire in North and East Africa. Dating back to 1911, Italy had ruled Libya. Then, established in 1935, Italian East Africa consisted of Eritrea and Somaliland. In 1936, Italy successfully invaded and added Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) to its empire. In September 1940, Mussolini launched another campaign – this time against the British stationed in Egypt. Britain had been the de facto rulers of Egypt since the 1880s. Control of the Suez Canal in Egypt was, for the British, a vital lifeline providing, as it did, the fastest route to Britain’s colonial empire in India and the Far East. Despite his confidence and bluster, Mussolini’s African campaign proved disastrous as the British not only resisted Italy’s advance but, in turn, advanced to liberate Abyssinia from Italian control. Far from expanding his empire, Mussolini’s possessions in North Africa were dwindling. The British, having taken Tobruk, an eastern province of Libya, had advanced to within striking distance of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, but then Churchill ordered their transfer to Greece.


On 28 October 1940, Mussolini decided to flex his muscles in the Mediterranean by invading Greece from Italian-occupied Albania. Hitler, not informed of this, was furious. He was right to be – Italy’s quest for glory again soon fell apart as the Greeks, despite only possessing a small army, not only held their ground, but forced the Italians back into Albania. Certainly, the weather hampered the Italians’ progress. Churchill transferred 60,000 troops from Egypt and Libya to bolster the Greek’s efforts. British ships sunk a number of Italian ships on the coast of Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula at the Battle of Cape Matapan, 27 – 29 March 1941, severely denting the Italian navy’s effectiveness for the rest of the war. The success of the engagement was down to the ability of British codebreakers deciphering enemy codes and being able to act on the intelligence.


Meanwhile, in North Africa, Hitler sent one of his most able generals to deal with the situation and bolster up the Italians. With the bulk of British forces now in Greece, Erwin Rommel’s advance was swift. Starting on 31 March 1941, Rommel’s Afrika Korps retook territory recently won by the British, and by mid-April had advanced right up to the borders of Egypt, pushing the Allies back to where they’d started six months earlier. But the Allies had left behind a garrison of mainly Australians at Tobruk, to deny the Germans use of the port. Starting on 10 April, the Germans (and Italians) laid siege to Tobruk. It was to last over 7 months until, on 27 November, the Allied Eighth Army managed to relieve the garrison.


Tobruk was the scene of further heavy fighting in June 1942. A determined Rommel launched a sustained attack and finally captured Tobruk on 20 June. The port remained in Axis hands only for five months until their final retreat from Libya in November 1942. Meanwhile, having taken Tobruk, Rommel chased the Allies back into Egypt to within 140 miles of Alexander. There, between the 1 and 5 July, they fought the First Battle of El Alamein. The Allies managed to prevent the Axis from taking Egypt but Rommel was far from defeated. In August, Churchill sent in General Bernard Montgomery. Monty, as he was affectionately known, reorganised and prepared, then, in October 1942, went on the advance. The second, more decisive Battle of El Alamein pushed the Axis out of Egypt for once and for all, saving the Suez Canal and preventing the Axis access to the all-important Middle East oilfields. Churchill was delighted by the victory at El Alamein, declaring, ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’.


Yugoslavia and the Balkans

Mussolini’s defeat to Greece was a serious dent in the prestige of the Axis pact. Hitler, also concerned about British forces based in Greece and the threat they posed to his Romanian oilfields, a vital supply for the planned invasion of the Soviet Union, decided to act. First, he tried to bring Yugoslavia within his orbit. Yugoslavia had so far managed to remain neutral but on 25 March 1941, Hitler persuaded the regent, Prince Paul, to join the Nazi cause. The regent’s acceptance of a Nazi alliance brought about a coup d’état aided by the SOE and led by a clique of Yugoslav Army officers who, having disposed of the regent in favour of the 17-year-old King Peter II, immediately rescinded the pact. Incensed, Hitler ordered a full-scale attack on Yugoslavia. On 6 April, German troops, once again, went into action. On the same day, German forces based in Bulgaria attacked Greece, to try and make good Mussolini’s disastrous campaign. Progress was rapid. With German troops bearing down on Athens, the Greek prime minister, Alexandros Koryzis, shot himself while the Greek king went into exile.


Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia, was pulverized. On 17 April, after sustaining an intense bombardment, Yugoslavia surrendered. The country was immediately split-up with the Germans handing the city of Zagreb to Croat nationalists and the collaborationist Ustaše fascist party. Under the guidance of their bloodthirsty leader, Ante Pavelić, the Ustaše embarked on a campaign of terror and genocide, establishing their own extermination camp at Jasenovac, the only wartime death camp not run by the Germans. Up to 100,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma were murdered at Jasenovac. But as the war progressed, the Ustaše was first undermined then defeated by a coalition of partisans, mainly communist, united under the leadership of communist Josip Broz Tito. (In 1953, Tito became president of Yugoslavia, a post he held onto until his death in 1980.)


Meanwhile, in Greece, with the Germans quickly gaining the upper hand, British and Commonwealth troops had to be evacuated out to the nearby island of Crete. Greece surrendered on 23 April. Respite for the evacuated troops was brief as the Germans soon caught up and, on 20 May, launched an airborne invasion of Crete. Again, the Allies were forced into another humiliating evacuation.


Elsewhere, during May 1941, the British successfully overthrew a pro-Axis regime that had taken power in Iraq; and the following month, British forces and troops from the Free French movement overthrew the Vichy regime based in Syria and Lebanon. Within months, the Free French gave Syria and Lebanon their independence and in February 1945, both countries then declared war against Germany and Japan. In August 1941, a joint British and Soviet force invaded Iran in order to secure Iranian oil for the Soviet war effort. Having successfully disposed of the pro-Axis monarch, the Allies replaced him with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was to remain in power as Shah of Iran until the Iranian Revolution and the regime’s overthrow in 1979.


Operation Barbarossa

On 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. What followed was a war of annihilation, a horrific clash of totalitarianism, and the most destructive war in history.


Hitler’s intention was always to invade the Soviet Union. It was, along with the destruction of the Jews, fundamental to his core objectives – living-space in the east and the subjugation of the Slavic race. He stated his intentions clearly enough in Mein Kampf. This was meant to be a war of obliteration – and despite the vastness of Russian territory and manpower, Hitler anticipated a quick victory (his generals had predicted ten weeks). So confident the Nazi hierarchy, that they provided their troops with summer uniforms but made no provision for the fierce Russian winter that lay further ahead.


‘You have only to kick in the door,’ said Hitler confidently, ‘and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ Two tons of Iron Crosses were waiting in Germany for those involved with the capture of Moscow. This was always going to be the most brutal war, one which could not be ‘conducted with chivalry,’ as Hitler told his generals, but ‘conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, unrelenting harshness.’


Stalin’s spies had forewarned him time and again of the expected attack but he refused to believe it, dismissing it all as ‘Hitler’s bluff’.


Operation Barbarossa was the largest attack ever staged – three and a half million Axis troops, including Italian, Romanian and Hungarian, along a 900-mile front from Finland in the north to the Black Sea in the south. The Germans employed their Blitzkrieg, or lightning attacks, that had proved so successful against Poland, France and elsewhere. Their tanks were advancing 50 miles a day and, within the first day, one quarter of the Soviet Union’s air strength had been destroyed – the Russians had left rows of uncamouflaged planes sat on their airfields, providing easy targets for the Luftwaffe.


By the end of June, Finland, Hungary and Albania had all declared war on the USSR. For Finland it was a ‘holy war’, an opportunity to avenge their defeat the previous year during the Finnish-Soviet ‘Winter War’.


The sides had been drawn, the invasion launched. What followed was the most ferocious war ever known which was to last three years and claim the lives of over five million Axis troops, nine million Soviet troops, and up to 20 million civilian deaths.


By mid-July, the Nazis had taken the Baltic States where they were initially welcomed as liberators from Soviet rule. Locals helped the roving teams of Nazi death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, to exterminate hundreds of thousands of Jews. However, the brutality of German occupation soon caused heavy suffering. Kiev in the Ukraine fell in mid-September, resulting in half a million Soviet troops being taken prisoner. Outside Kiev, in the ravines of Babi Yar, on the 29 and 30 September, the Nazi killing squads shot and killed 33,771 Jews.


By the end of August, Axis forces cut off the Soviet city of Leningrad, subjecting the city to a siege that was to last almost 900 days to January 1944.


More and more Soviet cities fell to the Germans – Minsk, Novgorod, Kharkov, Kursk and Rostov. Smolensk fell on 6 August, paving the way to Moscow. By the end of October, Moscow was only 65 miles away; over 500,000 square miles of Soviet territory had been captured and, as well as huge numbers of Soviet troops and civilians killed, 3 million Red Army soldiers had been taken prisoner of war, where, unlike in the West, the rules of captivity held no meaning for the Germans. But with the Russian winter at its most fierce, and their supply lines stretched, the Germans were unable to advance and on 5 December had to abandon their plans to attack Moscow.


Pearl Harbor

On 13 April 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. It was a pivotal moment – it freed both nations from having to fight a war on two fronts. Hitler, especially, was furious – had the Japanese attacked Russia from the east as his forces advanced from the west, then the Soviet Union’s chances of survival would have been seriously undermined. Indeed, until August 1945, Stalin refused to aid his western allies in defeating the Japanese. Churchill, also aware of the Soviet Union’s vulnerability, persuaded Roosevelt to extend the US’s Lend-Lease arrangement to Russia. Convoys of merchant shipping braved the U-boat-infested seas to deliver large supplies of weapons and equipment to the Soviet Union.


On 17 October 1941 the prospect of war in the Far East became more real when Japan’s prime minister, Fumimaro Konoye, known for his restraint and sense of compromise, was replaced by the more aggressive Hideki Tōjō. Within a month, Tōjō had finalized plans to cripple the US fleet, and invade much of Southeast Asia to secure for Japan its supply of natural resources. Japan had long wanted to liberate the area of Western imperialists and rule Asia on behalf of its neighbours – ‘Asia for the Asians’ became its war cry.


On 26 November, Tōjō’s plan went into action – a Japanese fleet commanded by Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, consisting of six aircraft carriers, two battleships and assorted other craft, set off from north-eastern Japan. With Yamamoto’s fleet 275 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the first wave of fighters took off. Neatly and conveniently lined up along ‘Battleship Row’ on Oahu’s Pearl Harbor were seven of the US’s eight battleships plus a hundred other ships. Within minutes, several of the ships had been hit.


The biggest casualty, claiming 1,177 lives, almost half of the victims at Pearl Harbor, was the battleship, the USS Arizona. The nearby airfields were also targeted. Row upon row of perfectly-lined aircraft were destroyed.


By 10 a.m. it was all over – three of the eight American battleships had been sunk and four seriously damaged; many other vessels were destroyed together with almost 300 planes. 2,403 Americans died (civilian and military) and over 1,000 wounded. The Japanese lost 29 planes and 100 pilots.


But as successful as the operation may have appeared, its triumph was short-lived. The battleships, having been sunk only in the shallow waters of the harbour, were mostly repaired and fully operational before the end of the war (although the USS Arizona, for one, remained on the bottom of the harbour where it is still today). None of the aircraft carriers had been hit nor the submarines. While Japan celebrated its supposed victory, Yamamoto knew that in the long term he had failed – ‘a military man can scarcely pride himself on having smitten a sleeping enemy’.


The following day, in his address to Congress, President Roosevelt declared, ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan’. Congress accordingly voted 470 to 1 to go to war (the one being a pacifist vote from Montana).


Churchill was delighted. ‘To have the United States at our side’ (he later wrote), ‘was to me the greatest joy. Now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all.’


Adolf Hitler too was pleased: ‘Now it is impossible for us to lose the war,’ he announced with glee. On 11 December, less than six months since invading the Soviet Union, Germany (and Italy) declared war on the US. (Within days, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania followed suit.)


Both acts, the invasion of the Soviet Union and the declaration of war against the US, stand up as Hitler’s two greatest blunders. Germany’s fate was sealed and the conflict, that had started 27 months before, was now truly global.


The Philippines and Burma

At the same time as Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked the Philippines (a US territory since 1898). 15,000 American and 65,000 Filipino forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, were forced to flee from the Philippines capital Manila to the Bataan peninsula, then onto the island of Corregidor. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur out of the Philippines, to Australia, which he did, vowing, ‘I shall return’.


With no reinforcements available and with the Americans suffering from hunger, malaria and low morale, the Japanese took Bataan on 9 April, forcing the 70,000 remaining American and Filipinos onto a seven-day, 65-mile ‘Death March’ into captivity. One sixth died on route – shot or bayoneted by their captors. Only a third survived to liberation 3½ years later.


Corregidor fell on 6 May, and the rest of the Philippines a month later. The surviving Filipinos were used for live bayonet practice. The Japanese indulged in an orgy of rape, torture and murder against the local population, culminating in February 1945 with the ‘razing of Manila’, in which some 100,000 Manilan citizens were butchered but which finally saw the Philippines liberated.


Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked and subsequently occupied the British colony of Hong Kong, British-controlled Malaya, neutral Thailand and the US Pacific islands of Guam and Wake. Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941 – ‘Black Christmas’. On 21 December, Thailand and Japan signed an alliance. A month later, Thailand declared war on the US and Britain.


As Winston Churchill described in his war memoirs, ‘Japan (in early 1942) was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked’.


On 11 December 1941, the Japanese, crossing over from Thailand, landed on the southern tip of the British colony, Burma, determined to block Burmese supplies reaching China on the 700-mile long ‘Burma Road’ as well as exploiting Burma’s rich reserves of oil, rubber and tin. The Japanese proceeded north, defeating the British and Commonwealth forces in battle and pushing them back. Many Burmese soldiers, discontent with British rule, took the opportunity to desert and join the newly-formed Burmese national army, fighting alongside the Japanese. On 7 March 1942, the Allies, led by Major-General William Slim, had to abandon the strategically important city of Rangoon, and, having also lost control of the Burma Road, embarked on a 1,000 mile retreat north-west into India, the longest retreat in British military history. But the Japanese on Burma were harassed by guerrilla jungle tactics employed by Burmese still loyal to the British and by British ‘Chindits’, led by Major-General Orde Wingate, formed specifically for the purpose, with mixed results. The Allies recaptured Rangoon in May 1945 but war in Burma did not end until August following the Japanese surrender.


With the Burma Road now in Japanese hands, the Allies managed to continue supplying Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese nationalists by air across the eastern side of the Himalayas, the ‘hump’, as it was called.


The Fall of Singapore

It was meant to be an impregnable fortress, but on 15 February 1942, Japanese troops forced the surrender of Singapore, a defeat often considered Britain’s worst humiliation in its military history.


British Malaya had been considered a strategic stronghold within the eastern Empire, and the island of Singapore, 273 square miles, on the southern tip of Malaya, was known as the ‘Gibraltar of the East’. An impressive naval defence system consisting of huge guns had been built at great cost during the 1920s facing south out to sea. To the north of the island, on the mainland, lay hundreds of miles of dense Malayan jungle and rubber plantations considered by the British to be impenetrable. Stationed on the island, almost 100,000 British, Canadian, Australian, Indian and a few local Malay troops.


The situation seemed even more secure when, on 2 December 1941, two British warships, the HMS’s Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by four destroyers, made their presence felt in Singapore’s harbour.


But things were far from secure. First, on 7 December, at the same time as their comrades were launching their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese landed on Malaya on the north-eastern coast near the city of Kota Bahru. By the following day they had secured their first foothold on the Malayan peninsula.


On 10 December, eighty-eight Japanese planes destroyed the Prince of Wales and Repulse and their escorting destroyers resulting in the loss of 840 British lives. 1,285 survivors were taken prisoner. Years later, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘In all the war, I never received a more direct shock’.


On Malaya itself, the Japanese advanced south from Kota Bahru; their aim: to conquer Malaya and capture the island of Singapore, 620 miles to the south.


The Japanese crossed the causeway linking the mainland to the island. British discipline broke, panic set in, and the cause was lost. The last ships had gone – there was no escape as the Japanese rampaged, bayoneting and killing soldiers, women and children. With the situation lost and the prospect of a counterattack impossible, the British surrendered. Over 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops were to spend the rest of the war in captivity. Half of them would never return home.


For the coming three and half years, the island endured a brutal Japanese occupation which included a massacre of its Chinese population, a massacre that was to claim up to 70,000 lives. The island was to remain under occupation until soon after Japan’s surrender in August 1945.


The Holocaust

During 1941, the Nazis had come to the conclusion that the killing of Jews on the edges of pits was too time-consuming and detrimental on the mental health of the murder squads. Seeking alternative methods, the Germans began experimenting with gas, using carbon monoxide in mobile units or at the first extermination camp, Chelmno, thirty miles from Łódź in Poland, operational from December 1941. Although an ‘improvement’, this was still considered too slow and inefficient. The use of Zyklon B gas on 600 Soviet prisoners-of-war in Auschwitz in September 1941 proved to be a rapid and efficient means of murder. On 20 January 1942, fifteen men representing various agencies of the Nazi apparatus met in a grand villa on the banks of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee. The meeting, chaired by the chief of the security police and deputy to Heinrich Himmler, 37-year-old Reinhard Heydrich, discussed escalating the killing to a new, industrial level, what they referred to as the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’.


On 15 February 1942, the first transport of Jews from Upper Silesia arrived in Auschwitz, all of them gassed on arrival.


Less than five months after chairing the meeting at Wannsee, Reinhard Heydrich was dead. In September 1941, Heydrich had been appointed Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, part of Czechoslovakia. (Czechoslovakia had been incorporated into the German Reich in March 1939, before the start of the war, and split into three territories, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which included Prague, being one.) Heydrich’s brutal reign soon earned him the nickname, the ‘Butcher of Prague’. In December 1941, two Czech resistance fighters, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík, trained by Britain’s SOE were parachuted in. On 28 May 1942, they struck. Heydrich died of his injuries a week later. The Gestapo retaliated by executing hundreds of Czechs and wiping out the entire villages of Lidice, about thirteen miles north of Prague, and Ležáky.


The Pacific War

On 11 January 1942, the Japanese invaded the islands of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). By February, the islands had been occupied with the Japanese defeating an armada of Allied ships at the Battle of Java Sea in the process.


Between 1942 and 1943, Australia suffered over 100 Japanese raids. But it was the first raid, on 19 February 1942, that caused most damage. Over 200 Japanese warplanes attacked Darwin on Australia’s northern coast, dropping more bombs than were dropped on Pearl Harbor, killing 243 people.


Many more Pacific islands fell. In May 1942, having gained a foothold on Papua New Guinea, the Japanese were intending to occupy the port of Port Moresby on the south coast of the island, ahead of launching an attack southwards on Australia and severing supply lines between the USA and Australia. In their attempt to intervene, and with the benefit of having broken Japanese codes, a US fleet intercepted the Japanese fleet, resulting in the Battle of the Coral Sea, 4 to 8 May 1942. It was a battle of aircraft carriers, fought with planes, the first where the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other. Neither side emerged as the clear victor but, crucially, the invasion of Port Moresby was averted. A second sea battle, a month later, the Battle of Midway, resulted in a decisive American victory, and, as well as diminishing the strength of the Japanese navy for the rest of the war, allowed the US to begin its counter-offensive.


New Guinea remained a focus of the Pacific War until the end of the war. Allied forces bombed the islands and the US Navy inflicted an effective blockade, resulting in mass starvation for both the Japanese defenders and the island inhabitants, forcing the Japanese into cannibalism.


On 18 April 1942, sixteen US bombers took off from an aircraft carrier 800 miles from Japan and bombed Tokyo, inflicting the first bombing raid, albeit on a small scale, against Japan. In September, the Japanese dropped incendiary bombs on forests in Oregon, the first bombing of mainland United States.


In May 1942, the Japanese invaded and occupied the Solomon Islands. Given its proximity to New Zealand and Australia’s northern coast, the islands became an imperative objective for both the Japanese and the Allies. On 7 August 1942, 10,000 American troops landed on the island of Guadalcanal, the first American ground offensive of the war. As with any conflict with the Japanese, it proved to be bloody and brutal. Eventually in February1943, the longest battle of the Pacific war, the remaining Japanese evacuated. Guadalcanal was the first objective in what the Americans called ‘island hopping’, taking one island at a time before launching a full-scale attack on Japan itself.


In November 1943, the Americans captured the Gilbert Islands that had been occupied by the Japanese since 10 December 1941, just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. From there, the US was able to capture the Marshall Islands. The Japanese were being forced further and further back.


Japan’s aim was, it professed, to liberate Asia from European and American imperialistic interference. Speaking at the Assembly of Greater East-Asiatic Nations in Tokyo on 5 November 1943, Hideki Tōjō declared that ‘The Anglo-American ambition of world hegemony is indeed a scourge of mankind and the root of the world’s evils… The nations of Greater East Asia, while mutually recognizing their autonomy and independence, must, as a whole, establish among themselves relations of brotherly amity’. Indeed, as we have seen, in some places, such as Burma, much of the population joined forces with the invading Japanese to help rid their countries of colonial interference. In India, for example, Subhas Chandra Bose, a leading light in the independence movement, allied himself with Japan and created the Indian National Army. But despite Tōjō’s lofty ideals, Japanese occupation was, almost without exception, sadistic and cruel and enforced through terror. Civilians were murdered or worked to death by the million – almost four million in the Dutch East Indies alone. Rape and torture was all too common, as well as mass executions by beheading and bayonet. The massacre of Nanking in December 1937 had been a sign of things to come. The Japanese set up a number of facilities in order to experiment on human guinea pigs. The most notorious was ‘Unit 731’ in the city of Harbin in north-east China. Here, tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, including the elderly and infants and pregnant women, died as a result of experiments conducted without anaesthesia, including being injected with diseases, subjected to vivisection and weapon testing, such as human targets for the testing of flamethrowers. (After the war, the US granted the leading practitioners of Unit 731 immunity on condition they passed all their findings to the Americans.)


Prisoners of war suffered terribly. To surrender was, for the Japanese, a despicable act, even for the last man, and those that had surrendered were not worthy of dignity or life. As a result, one in four Allied POWs died in Japanese camps compared to one in twenty held prisoner by the Germans. Between November 1942 and October 1943, 60,000 POWs were used alongside some 200,000 civilians to construct the infamous Burma Railway, a 250-mile stretch of track and bridges through dense jungle, linking Burma to Thailand. Working in appalling conditions, severely malnourished and beaten, almost half the civilian workforce died, and up to 14,000 POWs.



The citizens of Leningrad fought for survival as the Germans besieged the starved their city. Limited supplies of food were brought in from the east over Lake Ladoga – by boat during summer and by lorry over the frozen waters during winter – but there was never enough and cannibalism was rife.


On 28 June1942, Hitler launched Operation Blue in order to capture the vital Russian oil fields in the Caucasus and the city Stalingrad on the River Volga. Led by the Sixth Army, Germany’s largest wartime army, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, the Germans were fully expecting a total victory as they pushed the Soviet forces back. By 23 August, the German advance had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad and, with 600 planes, unleashed a devastating aerial bombardment. Entering the city, the Germans, along with their Axis comrades, comprising of Italians, Romanians and Hungarians, fought the Soviets street for street, house for house, sometimes room for room.


Stalin charged Georgi Zhukov to defend the city and formulate a plan to repulse the invader. (It’s worth noting here the difference between Stalin and Hitler as military leaders. After a series of blunders earlier in the war, Stalin, although he always liked to take the credit, learnt to defer and listen to the experts, men like Zhukov. Hitler however always insisted he knew best and only canvassed the opinion of others if they agreed with him.)


On 19 November 1942, the Soviet Red Army launched Zhukov’s meticulously-planned counteroffensive, attacking and sweeping in from two separate directions, a pincer movement. Within four days, the two-pronged Soviet attack had met in the middle and had totally encircled the beleaguered German forces.


The Soviets squeezed the 250,000 Germans and their Axis comrades tighter and tighter. As the feared Russian winter set in and temperatures dropped to the minus forties, starvation, frostbite, disease and suicide decimated the Germans. Medical facilities were, at best, crude.


On 24 January 1943, Paulus requested permission to surrender. Hitler refused, saying it was the Sixth Army’s historic duty to stand firm to the ‘last man’.


By 26 January 1943, however, the Sixth Army was trapped within two small pockets of the city. On the 30th, the tenth anniversary of his coming to power, Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of field marshal on account that no German field marshal had ever surrendered. The following day, however, Paulus did.


Hitler, 1,000 miles away, was furious.


Two days after Paulus’ surrender, on 2 February 1943, the remnants of his stricken army also surrendered; the Battle of Stalingrad was lost.


Stalingrad marked the beginning of the end for the Axis on the Eastern Front. Slowly but inexorably, the Soviets fought back.


Operation Torch and Kursk

Stalin, by this time, had long been urging his Western allies to open up a second front to ease the pressure being exerted on the Soviet Union. But instead of attacking Nazi-occupied France, as Stalin wished, the Western Allies approached from an entirely different direction. On 8 November 1942, while the second battle at El Alamein was still proceeding, an Anglo-American force landed in Vichy-held French North Africa: on the coasts of Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia in what was called Operation Torch. Within three days, the Allies had control of over a thousand miles of the north-western African coast, ending Vichy control there, and had managed to persuade the Vichy leader in North Africa, François Darlan, to swap sides and support the Allies. Hitler furious with what he saw as the weakness and treachery of the Vichy regime, immediately ordered the occupation of France’s ‘Free Zone’, thus bringing to an end Vichy France. (The Vichy government and its chief, Henri Pétain, remained nominally in charge but after November 1942, no one, either German or French, took any notice of it). Thus, having been pushed out of Egypt and Tobruk and having lost French North Africa, Hitler’s desert campaign was proving a disaster. The Axis forces remained but were unable to do anything against such superior Allied presence. Finally, on 8 May 1943, the Axis surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Hitler’s African adventure was at an end.


But Hitler wasn’t quite finished yet. The industrial city of Kursk, 320 miles south of Moscow, had been captured by the Germans in November 1941, and retaken by the Soviets in February 1943. Hitler was determined to recapture it.


Intelligence had forewarned the Soviets of Nazi intentions. By the time the Germans launched their counterattack, starting at 3 am on 4 July 1943, Kursk was fully fortified and prepared. Almost a million German troops, 2,000 tanks and supporting aircraft attacking from north and south of the salient, were more than matched by the Soviets. The Germans’ hope for a blitzkrieg victory evaporated as the Russians held out and engaged the Germans into a war of attrition, greatly favouring the Soviets.


The climax of the Battle of Kursk took place near a village called Prokhorovka on 12 July, when one thousand tanks and a thousand aircraft on each side clashed on a two-mile front, fighting each other to a standstill. The Battle of Kursk dragged on for another month but with the German lines continuously disrupted by partisan activity and the Russian capacity of putting unending supplies of men and equipment into the fray, the Germans ran out of energy and resources.


Losses on both sides were huge but with the Soviet Union’s vast resource of manpower and with huge amounts of aid coming in from the US, Stalin could sustain his losses. Hitler, however, could not. Germany never again launched an offensive in the East.


Hitler, on hearing that the Western Allies had landed in Sicily, ordered a withdrawal.


Between August and November 1943, the Soviets recaptured Kharkov, Smolensk and Kiev. Finally, in January 1944, after almost 900 days, the epic and devastating Siege of Leningrad was lifted. Over one million civilians had died in Leningrad from German bombs and artillery, from disease, the cold or starvation.


Meeting in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that a cross-Channel invasion was a necessity and that plans for such a venture should be initiated. But at this stage both the prime minister and the president had alternative priorities; for Churchill, the focus of the war in Europe would be centred on Italy, starting with an invasion of Sicily; while Roosevelt’s main concern was the on-going war in the Pacific.


The Allies, now with the Americans firmly in the driving seat, launched their campaign against Mussolini’s Italy. On 10 July 1943, they landed on Sicily, where they enjoyed an ecstatic welcome from the islanders. In mid-August, the German forces escaped the island by crossing over the narrow Strait of Messina onto the Italian mainland. Mussolini appealed to Hitler to send reinforcements but with German forces tied up on the Eastern Front, where they had just lost the crucial Battle of Stalingrad, no help was forthcoming.


As a result of the invasion of Sicily and the critical situation now facing Italy, the Fascist Grand Council met to discuss the resolution that Mussolini be disposed and that the king, Victor Emmanuel III, should replace the dictator as head of the armed forces. The council voted 19 to 7 (with three abstentions) in favour of the resolution. One of those who voted against Mussolini was his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. The following day, Mussolini was arrested and imprisoned. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, appointed a new cabinet which, pointedly, contained no fascists. The Italian population rejoiced, pulling down pictures of the Duce, smashing busts, and ripping up fascist regalia. The Mussolini backlash had begun.


On 3 September 1943, the same day that Allied troops landed in southern Italy, Italy signed an armistice and, five days later, swapped sides and joined the Allies. On 13 October, Italy declared war on Germany.


Meanwhile, Mussolini was imprisoned in a hotel high up on the mountains of Gran Sasso in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. It was here, on 12 September, that Mussolini was dramatically rescued by a crack German team. On Hitler’s orders, Mussolini was returned to German-occupied northern Italy as the puppet head of a fascist republic based in the town of Salo on Lake Garda. But Mussolini’s power was limited and any decision had to be agreed by Berlin.


The Allies’ advance up the Italian peninsula was slow and difficult. But, bit-by-bit, they pushed the Germans back, beginning with the capture of Naples on 1 October 1943.  Having overcome a determined stand at the epic Battle of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944, the Allies advanced on German-held Rome, which they took on 4 June.


The first of the so-called ‘Big Three’ conferences, the big three being Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, was held in Tehran, 28 November to 1 December 1943. It was at Tehran that Stalin agreed to launch a counteroffensive against Germany from the east, on the condition that the second front would be opened by May 1944, and once Germany had been defeated to join the Allied war against Japan.



With Italy almost secured and with the Soviet Union’s Red Army advancing from the east, it was time to launch the much-anticipated invasion of northern Europe. Two years earlier, in the early hours of 19 August 1942, the Allies had launched Operation Jubilee – the raid on Dieppe, northern France, 65 miles across from England. The operation proved a disaster. The German defenders at Dieppe easily fought off the attack, killing 1,027 Allied troops, of whom 907 were Canadian. An American, Lieutenant Edward V Loustalot, earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the first US soldier killed in wartime Europe.


Despite the failure of Dieppe and the high rate of losses, important lessons were learned – that a direct assault on a well-defended harbour was not an option for any future attack; and that superiority of the air was a prerequisite. Churchill concluded that the raid had provided a ‘mine of experience’. Hitler too felt as if a lesson had been learned. Knowing that at some point the Allies would try again, he ordered the building of the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Employing two million labourers from across Nazi-controlled Europe, many of them slave workers, construction began on a line of fortifications that, once completed, spread 2,800 miles along the coast of the whole of Western Europe – from the northern tip of Norway, along the coasts of Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, along France’s Channel and Atlantic coasts down to the border of neutral Spain in the south.


The attack, Operation Overlord, started almost two years later. Bernard Montgomery took charge of the British forces, George Patton the American, with Dwight Eisenhower as supreme commander. They decided on a sixty-mile stretch of Normandy beaches. The planning had been meticulous. The Allies had gone to great lengths in deceiving the Germans when and where the anticipated invasion might take place. The various ruses worked so on 6 June, the five Normandy beaches were not as heavily defended as might have been. The lack of harbour facilities was solved by building two gigantic artificial harbours, ‘Mulberry Harbours’, designed to be towed across the Channel and sunk into place on the beaches. The world’s first undersea oil pipeline was constructed, 130 miles long from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. PLUTO (PipeLines Under The Ocean) would pump a million litres of oil a day into northern France. The French and Belgian resistance were briefed and instructed.


6 June 1944, D-Day. Gliders and parachutists (and dummy parachutes) landed behind the German lines capturing the first bit of occupied territory – Pegasus Bridge. At 05.50, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone. It was the largest amphibious invasion ever launched.


The German commander in charge of France’s northern defences was Erwin Rommel. Hitler urged a swift counterattack, but with insufficient troops and air power, Rommel’s men fell back as the Allies surged forward. The Germans were further hampered by partisan activities for which the Germans exacted severe reprisals, murdering complete villages, most notoriously on 10 June, a company of Waffen-SS massacred 642 inhabitants of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.


By 27 June, US troops had taken the vital port of Cherbourg as the Allies began their advance southwards. On 15 August, a second invasion on France began in the south. On 23 August, Paris was liberated. The following day, Charles de Gaulle made his triumphal return to France, four years after he had fled to London.


The Approach from the West
The Allies began their thrust eastward, liberating Brussels and Antwerp on 3 and 4 September respectively. On the 10 September, US troops liberated Luxembourg. On the same day, at the German-Dutch-Belgium border town of Aachen, Allied troops set foot on German soil for the first time since the beginning of the war. But it took until 21 October until Aachen was secured.


But the German war machine wasn’t finished yet. Hitler’s scientists had long been working on a series of ‘wonder weapons’ that, he hoped, would turn the tide of war back in his favour. Most remained on the drawing board but on the 13 June 1944 Germany launched one of these new, terrifying weapons against Great Britain – the V1 rocket, or flying bomb. Flying at about 350 miles per hour, the first attack hit London’s East End, killing eight. Within three weeks, 2,500 Londoners had been killed by the V1. Then, three months later, came the even more terrifying V2s, which, unlike the V1, you could not see or hear as a V2 travelled faster than the speed of sound. Anti-aircraft guns, which could intercept a V1, were useless against the V2.


But, although effective, the V1 and V2s came too late to alter the course of the war.


On 20 July 1944, a clique of German officers, hoping to make peace with the Allies and save Germany from further destruction, tried to assassinate Hitler at his ‘Wolf’s Lair’ headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussian. The plot failed and anyone involved with the plot, however remotely, was rounded-up and executed. Among them, was Hitler’s beloved general, Erwin Rommel.


The Allies’ advance across northern Europe was progressing but slowly. On 17 September, under the aegis of Bernard Montgomery, the British launched Operation Market Garden, the biggest airborne operation in history, to cut through the Siegfried Line, Germany’s line of frontier defences. In doing so they planned to capture the bridges over the River Rhine, near the town of Arnhem, thereby opening the road to Berlin. Faulty radio transmitters severed communication between the British troops, and determined resistance by the Germans doomed the operation to failure.


But with the Germans still retreating, on 16 December 1944, Hitler launched a last-ditch counter-offensive through the Ardennes forest in Belgium in an attempt to cut the advancing Allied fronts into two, and to capture Antwerp, the Allies’ key supply point. Despite some initial success in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans soon lost the impetus and the Allies, having suffered grievous losses, surged forward again. By the end of January 1945, the line was back to where it was on 16 December. But at a cost – the US lost over 80,000 men killed or wounded. The Germans lost over 100,000 and, vitally, much of its aircraft and tanks which, at this stage of the war, were impossible to replace. The march on Berlin was back on.


While the ground troops slogged through France, the Low Countries and into Germany itself, the RAF and its American equivalent were doing its bit with devastating effectiveness.


Several German cities were targeted but it is the bombing of Dresden, and its utter destruction, that came to symbolize the work of the RAF’s Bomber Command and its commander, Sir Arthur Harris.

With only minimal anti-aircraft guns, few German troops, and limited war-related industry, Dresden was still deemed a legitimate target – for ‘Bomber’ Harris’s intention was not so much military but ‘moral bombing’, to demoralize the civilian population and thereby shorten the war (despite evidence during the Blitz that instead of demoralizing civilians, bombing only hardened resolve). His aim, said Harris, was to make the ‘rubble bounce’.


Thus, on 13 February 1945, two waves of RAF Lancaster bombers, numbering 796 in total, attacked Dresden. The following morning, 529 bombers of the USAAF attacked with the objective of hitting the fire fighters tackling the inferno caused by the RAF the previous evening and causing even greater chaos. Of all these aircraft, only eight were shot down.


2,640 tons of bombs were dropped on Dresden, two thirds of which were incendiary bombs. A firestorm erupted in an area eight miles square reaching temperatures of 1,500 degrees centigrade engulfing the narrow, medieval streets. Dresden had been obliterated.


The Approach from the East

From the summer of 1944, with the Soviet army advancing steadily on the Third Reich, it became apparent to the Nazis that they had to retreat. In doing so, they endeavoured to eradicate the evidence of what had taken place in the extermination camps of Poland. Countless files and records were burned and gas chambers were destroyed.


Hundreds of thousands of people were still alive in the Polish camps who would be able to testify against the Nazis if they survived. Operations therefore began to evacuate the surviving Jews, Soviets, Poles, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and other prisoners towards concentration camps in Germany.


Besides concealing the truth of the extermination centres, the Nazis intended to further exploit these weak, malnourished people as additional labour in the failing war effort. As they were marched westwards in to the Reich for weeks on end, however, no value was placed on the lives of these potential slaves. Anyone unable to keep up was shot and left by the roadside.


The first camp to be liberated by the Soviets, on 23 July 1944, was Majdanek, on the outskirts of the city of Lublin. (The largest single-day, single-camp massacre of the Holocaust occurred at Majdanek on 3 November 1943, when some 18,000 Jews were gassed.) Because of the rapid advance of the Soviets, it was captured nearly intact, and therefore remains the best preserved Nazi concentration camp of the Holocaust. Other camps soon followed – Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka amongst others.


On 27 January 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, where they found around 7,600 starving prisoners who had been too weak to leave and had thus been left behind to die, including Italian writer, Primo Levi.


Bergen-Belsen in Germany was the only camp liberated by the British. Although not an extermination camp, conditions had deteriorated so badly in Belsen that tens of thousands had died of disease and starvation. One of its victims was Anne Frank who, along with most of her family, perished there in March 1945. After the liberation on 15 April 1945, mass graves were dug to hold 5,000 bodies each and contemporary film footage shows corpses being bulldozed into these pits. Such images shocked the world.


For those living in East Prussia, the approaching Soviet hoards was nothing less than waiting for the apocalypse. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians fled west, hoping to outpace the Russians close behind. On 21 October 1944, the Soviets arrived at the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf. By the time left, within a few hours, most of the inhabitants had been raped, mutilated and killed.


Many East Prussians fled to the Baltic ports, hoping to be evacuated out. On 30 January 1945, 10,000 civilians and soldiers squeezed onto the German liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Having just left the port of Gdynia in Poland, the ship was torpedoed and sunk. 9,343 lost their lives – the worst maritime disaster ever.


In Eastern Europe, Poland once again became a focal point. With the Soviets bearing down on Poland, the Polish Underground Home Army in Warsaw, commanded by General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, staged an uprising. Bór-Komorowski’s orders had come from the Polish government-in-exile in London who, fearing the city might be ‘liberated’ by the Soviets, wanted to liberate it themselves and thus be able to set up their own, non-communist government. With superior numbers, the uprising, launched on 1 August 1944, began well for the Poles. But soon, the battle-hardened Germans fought back. Soviet forces, a mere twelve miles away, could have helped the Poles. But Stalin, more than happy to see the Polish Home Army destroyed, refused. In addition, Stalin refused to allow his western Allies use of Soviet air bases to airlift supplies to the struggling Poles. Without Allied support, the Poles’ brave stand was doomed and the uprising came to an end on 2 October. Three months later, Warsaw was indeed liberated by the Soviets, who were then able to enforce their authority and, post-war, impose a communist government on Poland that was to remain in place until the end of the Cold War.


Hungary, Yugoslavia and Finland

Hungary had always been an uneasy member of the Axis having been coerced into signing the Tripartite Act in November 1940. Hungarian forces had taken part in the invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. But in early 1944, with the Red Army bearing down on Hungary, the Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy, signed an armistice with the Russians. Hitler, on hearing this, had Horthy’s son kidnapped and forced the regent into revoking the armistice. Hitler then had Horthy disposed and replaced him with Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the fascist Arrow Cross party. Now, with Szálasi in charge, the deportation and systematic murder of Hungary’s Jews began, the process organized by one of Hitler’s ablest bureaucrats, Adolf Eichmann. Almost a third of all Jews murdered at Auschwitz were Hungarian. From 29 December 1944, Soviet and Romanian forces laid siege to Budapest. The city surrendered on 13 February 1945, and Hungary as a whole was finally liberated by the Red Army on 4 April.


In September 1944, the Soviets invaded Yugoslavia and successfully took Belgrade. In April 1945, Communist partisan units, led by Josip Tito, captured Zagreb, toppling the fascist Ustaše regime.


Finland went against the wishes of their German ally, and signed an armistice with the Soviet Union on 19 September 1944. On the 4 October 1944, Allied forces landed in Greece, liberating Athens on 14 October and forcing the surrender of the Axis within just three weeks.



On 12 April 1945, US president, Franklin Roosevelt died aged 63, to be replaced by Harry S Truman. The news of Roosevelt’s death brought joy to the German high command, but their joy was short-lived. On 23 April, Soviet forces entered Berlin. Two days later, Soviet troops met their American counterparts in the town of Torgau on the River Elbe. There, amidst handshakes and the swapping of cigarettes and gifts, the troops toasted a better, happier world.


On 27 April, at the town of Dongo on Lake Como, Italian partisans stopped and searched a convoy of retreating German vehicles heading for the nearby Swiss border. The partisans had guaranteed the Germans safe passage but forbade them from carrying any Italians. Hiding beneath a blanket in the back of a truck was Mussolini; his attempts to disguise himself with a Luftwaffe overcoat and helmet had failed. The following day, 28 April, Mussolini and his long-term mistress, Clara Petacci, were shot. Their bodies, along with a few others, were dumped in the back of a truck and driven back to Milan and delivered to the main square where they were left to hang upside down, for public display, from a rusty beam outside a petrol station.


In January 1945, with the Soviet Red Army bearing down on Germany, Hitler had left his HQ in East Prussia and moved back to Berlin and into the Reich Chancellery. A month later, he went underground into the Chancellery’s air-raid shelter, a cavern of dimly-lit rooms made of solid, high-quality concrete.


Despite the implorations of his staff, Hitler refused to leave Berlin, and finally, realising the war was truly lost, he decided to end his life. He’d fallen out with many of his senior colleagues – in particular Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler, both of whom he accused of treachery and ordered to be arrested on sight and court-martialed. Joseph Goebbels, however, remained loyal to the last, broadcasting to the nation, demanding greater effort and sacrifice against the enemy.


On 20 April, Hitler celebrated (of sorts) his 56th birthday. A week later, just past midnight on 29 April, in a ten-minute ceremony, Hitler married his long-term partner, Eva Braun.


On April 30, Hitler and his wife of forty hours committed suicide, Hitler by shooting himself in the temple. The bodies were carried out into the Chancellery garden and set alight.


On 2 May, Berlin surrendered. On 7 May, Germany surrendered to the western Allies, and, the following day, to the Soviet Union. The German occupiers of the Channel Islands surrendered unconditionally and, early in the morning, 9 May, the first ships bearing the Islanders’ liberators docked. Starting on 5 May, the Czech resistance in Prague staged an uprising. It lasted just three intense days before being quashed by the Germans. The following day, 9 May, Prague was liberated by the Soviets.


The war in Europe had come to an end.


Liberation of the Far East

On 27 January 1945, British and Indian forces managed to re-open the ‘Burma Road’, the supply route to China. From there, two months later, they retook Mandalay and finally, on 3 May, Rangoon.


On 15 June 1944, American forces landed on the small island of Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands in the North Pacific Ocean. The Japanese had little chance but still fought to the bitter end. The Japanese emperor, Hirohito, apparently issued an imperial order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide alongside the soldiers in order to achieve a divine afterlife. As a result, thousands of civilians jumped to their deaths from a cliff on the northern tip of the island that became known as ‘Suicide Cliff’. Back in Tokyo, following the string of defeats, prime minister Hideki Tōjō was obliged to resigned. Up to this point, news in Japan was heavily censured, thus the population at home was unaware of the huge casualties being sustained by their men in combat. Following Tōjō’s resignation, daily reports of defeat and mass suicide shocked the Japanese nation.


In August 1944, the island of Guam was finally retaken. It had been occupied by the Japanese since 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. Some ten per cent of Guam’s pre-war population had been killed during the 31 months of Japanese occupation.


On 20 October 1944, US and Filipino troops landed on the eastern side of the island of Leyte, beginning the liberation of the Philippines. Led by the General Douglas MacArthur, progress was rapid. MacArthur had made good his promise in March 1942 that he would ‘return’. From Leyte, the Americans advanced towards the island of Luzon and the liberation of Manila, the Filipino capital. But before being liberated, Manila suffered one of the worst atrocities of the war – the Japanese went on another orgy of killing, mutilation and rape. At least 100,000 civilians were murdered before the Japanese were finally ousted on 3 March 1945. By the end of June, most of the Philippines had been liberated although small pockets of resistance continued to hold out until Japan’s surrender.


During the autumn of 1944, the Japanese developed new forms of attack. Balloons packed with incendiaries were sent over the Pacific designed to drop bombs of western provinces of the US and Canada. Although they managed to claim a few victims, their impact was minimal. Of greater concern to the military authorities was the introduction of Japanese suicide pilots, famously known as kamikaze, first introduced during the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought in conjunction with the land battle on the Philippines. Despite boasting the two biggest battleships ever built, the Yamato and the Musashi, the Japanese lost this vital naval battle, considered perhaps the largest naval battle in history. The Musashi was sunk. Although the Yamato survived Leyte Gulf, it too was sunk four months later having been hit by American torpedoes.


On 19 February 1945, US marines landed on Iwo Jima, part of the Bonin Islands. Only eight miles square and less than 700 miles from Tokyo, it was, for the Japanese, vital to save it from becoming a base for the enemy. Thus, it was garrisoned with over 20,000 Japanese troops. The battle was, as always, ruthless. A famous and iconic photograph taken on 23 February of six American servicemen hoisting the US flag on Iwo Jima, although good for morale, was premature. The battle ground on onto 26 March before full victory was achieved during which time 30,000 Americans were killed, including three of the six men in the famous photo.


The US’s bombing campaign against Japan did not start in earnest until late 1944. The recently-introduced B-29s were capable of attacking from such high altitude that they were beyond the reach of Japan’s anti-aircraft guns. Raids intensified from early spring 1945. But it was the raid on the night of 9–10 March 1945 that was the most devastating. Estimates vary but at least 80,000 people and possibly up to 140,000 were killed in this one raid alone, dwarfing even Dresden a month earlier, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, five months later. It remains the most destructive bombing raid in history.


While the war in Europe was coming to an end, American troops had reached the islands of Ryukyu, which included the large island of Okinawa (460 square miles), 340 miles from mainland Japan. As the Pacific War progressed, American and Allied troops, hardened and desensitized to death, committed atrocities – killing prisoners of war in mass and raping women. And it was in Okinawa that this found its nadir. Racial discrimination played its part – the Americans and the Japanese viewing each other as inferior beings and not worthy of life. Recent studies reckon that during the Battle of Okinawa, American troops raped up to 10,000 Okinawan women. The US planned to use Okinawa as a base for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. The Battle of Okinawa lasted 82 days from 1 April to 22 June 1945. The Japanese, as elsewhere, drafted the local civilians into their operations and used them as human shields. Almost half the estimated pre-war 300,000 inhabitants of Okinawa were killed or declared missing – either through combat or suicide.


With Okinawa finally in American hands, mainland Japan was within touching distance. But the intensity of the Pacific campaign, especially the Battle of Okinawa, made the US think twice about launching a ground invasion of Japan. Plans were certainly in preparation. Earmarked for October 1945 and codenamed Operation Downfall, the military planners were prepared for a very high rate of Allied and civilian casualties, numbering in the millions. Thoughts turned instead to the alternative.


Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The American navy had ripped the core out of the Japanese navy, whilst the Japanese air force, by and large, was a spent force, and the American naval blockade was having a telling effect on the Japanese supply of food and materials. Defeat was certain but when presented with the opportunity to surrender at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, and threatened with ‘complete and utter destruction’, Japan refused. (Half way through the conference, Churchill lost the British General Election and was replaced by the new Labour PM, Clement Attlee.)


Faced with a protracted war in the Far East, the Allies took decisive action – at 8.15 on the morning of 6 August 1945, the American plane, the Enola Gay (named after the pilot’s mother), dropped an 8,000-pound atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, 500 miles from Tokyo. The effects were devastating. Every building within a 2,000-yard radius of its centre was vaporized. Some 140,000 were killed immediately.


But still the Japanese refused to surrender. Thus, three days after Hiroshima, the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.


In between, on 9 August, the Soviet Union renounced its non-aggression pact with Japan, as agreed at the Yalta Conference, and attacked the Japanese in Manchuria.


The Japanese had a number of frantic talks over whether to surrender or not. In the end, they decided, in the face of these ‘new, most cruel bombs’, as Emperor Hirohito called them, they had no choice. On the 14 August, the Emperor recorded a message announcing the surrender, to be broadcast the following day. Many of the generals present openly wept. That evening, a group of army officers attempted to break into the royal palace in order to steal the tapes and prevent the surrender. Having failed, the leaders committed suicide. The message was broadcast on 15 August. For most listeners it was the first time they’d heard the Emperor’s voice.


The formal surrender took place in Tokyo Bay on board an American battleship on 2 September 1945 – six years and a day after Germany’s invasion of Poland. A week later, on 9 September, Japan formally surrendered to China.


The Second World War was truly over. Now came the torturous years of peace.


Admiral Byng – the Execution of a Scapegoat

John Byng was born on 29 October 1704 in Bedfordshire, England. One of fifteen children, John, like his father, Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng, joined the Royal Navy and by the age of 23 had reached the rank of captain.  

Admiral ByngUntil 1739, Byng was stationed around an uneventful Mediterranean. Then, perhaps due to his father’s influence, John experienced a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. In 1742, he was given the governorship of the colony of Newfoundland. In 1745 he was appointed Rear Admiral, followed by Vice-Admiral in 1747, all of which he obtained without having seen any military action.  His father, George, had been victorious in a number of naval battles, but when his son was finally to be tested it resulted in disaster.


Admiral John Byng is mostly famous for his notorious execution by the British authorities in 1757 following the loss of the Mediterranean island of Minorca to the French at the start of the Seven Years War. Hostilities began in Europe only two days after the declaration of war in 1756 with a French attack on Minorca on 20 May. After a fierce yet inconclusive naval battle with the French fleet, the cautious Admiral Byng, charged with relieving the garrison at Minorca, decided to move his fleet to the safety of Gibraltar and from there recoup. But by 28 June, the French had captured the island.

A combination of factors had hampered Byng, factors that he brought to the attention of his superiors: lack of men, unrepaired ships, failed communications, delays of orders, and problems with reinforcements, which, together with Byng’s overly cautious and pessimistic assessment, all led to the British failure at Minorca.

“Not Doing His Utmost”

Nevertheless, the outrage focused on Byng, who was court-marshalled and accused of ‘not doing his utmost’ and sentenced to execution. Politicians and public, whom at first demanded Byng’s head, realised that Byng had become a mere scapegoat for the inadequacies of the Admiralty. Now they called for leniency: ‘for our own consciences’ sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.’

Prime Minister, William Pitt (the Elder), pressed King George II to use his royal prerogative of mercy and overturn the verdict. The king declined.

On 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was taken on board the HMS Monarch, shipped near Portsmouth, and executed by firing-squad. An eyewitness describes the scene:

About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.’

He was the first and last British admiral to be executed.

“To encourage the others”

Byng’s execution became a cause célèbre in Britain, and philosopher Voltaire would later jeer in his Candid, ‘Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’ (‘In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others’). It certainly did. Naval historian, N A M Roger, wrote, ‘The execution of Byng … taught officers that even the most powerful friends might not save an officer who failed to fight … Byng’s death revived a culture of determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries’.

Posthumous Pardon

To this day, Admiral Byng’s family continues to petition for a posthumous pardon, which so far, has been denied them. On the 250th anniversary of Byng’s execution, in 2007, members of the current-day Byng family were interviewed by The Guardian, in which they said, “The Byngs won’t take the refusal of a pardon lying down. We’re going to take this further.”


Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

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Jefferson Davis – brief biography

Jefferson Davis, 1808-1889, was the first, last, and only president of the Confederate States of America.

The youngest of ten children, Jefferson Davis was born 3 June 1808 in a Kentuckian log cabin. He fought in the Black Hawk War of 1832, serving under the future president, Zachary Taylor. In 1835, Davis married Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Within three months of their wedding, the couple caught malaria and although Davis survived, his 21-year-old bride did not. She died 15 September 1835. The grief stricken Davis resigned from the army and became a planter, owning a successful Mississippi plantation and possessing up to 75 slaves.

Jefferson Davis and Slavery

Jefferson Davis was a great supporter of slavery and later would write, “the servile instincts [of slaves] rendered them contented with their lot”. Slavery, according to Davis, was “the mildest and most humane of all institutions” and freedom for the slave was little more than a “tempter… like the serpent in Eden”. Slaves and their masters, Davis wrote, enjoyed a “strong mutual affection”.

“The North was mad”

In 1845, Davis married again, to Varina Howell, the same year as he was elected to the US House of Representatives. Returning to the battlefield, Davis fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, where, wounded, he earned high praise. Between 1853-57, Davis served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.

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The Mau Mau Uprising – a brief history

Half a century on, Kenyans tortured by the British colonial authorities during the Mau Mau Uprising received from the UK government payouts totalling £20m. The High Court had previously rejected the government’s claim that too much time had passed for there to be a fair trial. But what was the Mau Mau Uprising? 

After the Second World War, Britain had begun the difficult and lengthy process of decolonisation. In African countries that were entirely black in population, such as Ghana, the process was relatively straightforward. Where it was more difficult were the nations that had sizeable population of white settlers. Rhodesia being an example of this latter category, as was Kenya.

The Crown Colony

Kenya’s official association with Britain had started in 1895, when the country became British East Africa. The British government encouraged the settlement of Kenya’s fertile highlands by Europeans, utilising the labour of the very peoples they had dispossessed, such as the traditional tribes of the Kikuyu. In 1920, British East Africa became an official crown colony of the British Empire, renamed the Colony of Kenya. The white settlers were given preference in all spheres of politics, administration and society, and Africans were barred from political involvement until 1944 when a small number were appointed (not elected) onto the legislature.

Resentment of white expansion and settlement deepened. During the late 1940s, the Kikuyu established a secret society bound by oaths whose aim was the eventual expulsion of the white settlers by means of force. The society was known as the Mau Mau.


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