World War II: European Theater Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Adolf Hitler’s planned conquest of Europe between 1939 and 1941 prompted the formation of a grand coalition of Allied countries to resist the Germans. By 1945, the Allies had fought Hitler’s troops to a bitter end. The war’s effects, which resonate into the twenty-first century, included the Holocaust, geopolitical realignments, and untold destruction, injury, and death.

Summary of Event

Well before dawn on the morning of September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany opened World War II in Europe with a blitzkrieg Blitzkrieg tactics (lightning war) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];beginning . German armor and mechanized infantry stormed across the Polish border World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Polish campaign . With daybreak, the Luftwaffe (German air force) joined the assault. Dive-bombing Stukas supported the infantry near the border, while long-range bombers struck targets farther inside Polish territory. Suffering from surprise and outdated equipment and tactics, the Polish units that were not surrounded and annihilated fell back in disarray. On September 3, fulfilling the terms of their alliance, the United Kingdom (Great Britain) and France declared war on Germany. Two days later, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared U.S. neutrality. On September 17, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet armies moved into eastern Poland as part of Stalin’s secret agreement with Adolf Hitler made earlier in the year. On September 28, after a pounding by German bombers, Warsaw surrendered, and Poland was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];European theater [kw]War II: European Theater, World (Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945) [kw]World War II: European Theater (Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945) [kw]European Theater, World War II (Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];European theater [g]Europe;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] [g]Africa;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] [g]North Africa;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] [c]World War II;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] [c]Military history;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 3, 1939-May 7, 1945: World War II: European Theater[00020] Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;World War II Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military] Mussolini, Benito Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military] Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;World WarII Montgomery, Bernard Law Patton, George S. Himmler, Heinrich Zhukov, Georgy Rundstedt, Gerd von Gaulle, Charlesde [p]Gaulle, Charles de;World War II Göring, Hermann Rommel, Erwin

With fall and winter came both fevered diplomatic maneuvering by the Allied Powers and a “sitzkrieg” (sitting war), as Hitler reoriented his victorious forces against Western Europe. Britain obtained a “cash and carry” supply agreement with the neutral United States, an agreement that ensured the flow of badly needed food and military arms by naval convoy. Britain also established a formal naval blockade of the German state and its allies that was immediately challenged by German submarines (U-boats) and surface raiders, steps that opened the Battle of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Stalin attacked Finland and seized more than sixteen thousand square miles of Finnish territory.

Hitler’s spring campaign of 1940 opened with invasions of Norway and Denmark on April 9 World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];early German victories . Denmark collapsed immediately, but with British support the Norwegians fought on for nearly a month. On May 10, seventy-five divisions of German armor and infantry rolled into the French Ardennes Forest and the Netherlands, a crisis that forced British prime minister Neville Chamberlain Chamberlain, Neville to resign in favor of Winston Churchill. Using blitzkrieg tactics and avoiding the formidable fortifications of the French Maginot Line, the Germans overwhelmed the Dutch, who surrendered on May 14. In what might have been a terrible mistake, bombers of the Luftwaffe struck the open city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, killing between thirty thousand and forty thousand people and initiating the practice of aerial bombardment of civilian centers. King Leopold of Belgium surrendered his troops on April 28.

Between May 26 and June 4, more than 300,000 surrounded Allied troops were evacuated successfully across the English Channel from Dunkirk. Though German land troops (the Wehrmacht) could probably have killed or captured the bulk of these troops, Hitler’s air marshal Hermann Göring vowed that his Luftwaffe could wipe them out, in the process demoralizing the British homeland. Instead, Göring’s failure heartened the British and preserved for the Allies a core of veteran troops.

Turning south into the French interior, German troops entered Paris on June 14. The French government surrendered on June 22, leaving Britain without western continental allies. France itself was divided into an occupied area in the north under direct Nazi control and a semiautonomous puppet state in the south under World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain with its capital at Vichy. One week later, the British recognized Charles de Gaulle as the leader of the “Free French” in exile.

Hitler now turned directly on Britain, launching air raids on English ports on July 10. Churchill’s resolve only stiffened, however, and the Nazis prepared Operation Sea Lion Operation Sea Lion Britain, Battle of (1940) , the invasion of Britain. On Adlertag (eagle day), August 15, Göring sent nearly twenty-five hundred fighters and bombers against strategic sites, but the British Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) eight hundred fighters exacted a heavy toll and survived in numbers great enough to continue defending the island nation. Though nearly victorious in its attacks directly on RAF installations, Germany began targeting English cities, opening the nighttime blitz on London on September 7. By the middle of the month, Hitler abandoned Operation Sea Lion—conceding British victory in English skies—but continued assaults on London and cities like Coventry. Meanwhile, the RAF began regular raids on German cities, beginning with Berlin on August 25.

Germany’s Second Front

During the winter of 1940-1941, Hitler began preparations for Operation Barbarossa Operation Barbarossa , the German invasion of the Soviet Union, while his Italian allies, under the direction of Benito Mussolini, suffered significant losses in attempts to invade Greece and Egypt and thus create an Italian empire. Meanwhile, the still-neutral United States established the Selective Service and military draft and the U.S. Congress debated the Lend-Lease Act (signed March 11), which would provide billions of dollars worth of military supplies to threatened nations, especially Britain.

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To aid Mussolini, Hitler sent the brilliant general Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps to confront the British in North Africa. Strategically, he hoped to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal and press eastward into friendly Iraq, whose oil would have been most useful in the German war effort. Rommel quickly adapted his tanks and trucks to desert conditions and drove the British out of Libya and back to Egypt.

On March 25, 1941, Yugoslavia joined Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria as partners in the Rome-Berlin Axis, touching off a popular rebellion that drew German troops into Yugoslavia World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign . At the same time, Hitler decided to reinforce the Italians in Greece to stabilize the Balkans. This distraction forced him to postpone Barbarossa for several very important weeks, a delay that would prove deadly to the Germans. By early June the Germans had driven the British from Greece and much of North Africa and had daringly seized Crete with paratroopers. In the Balkans, however, nationalist partisans (guerrilla fighters) began a ferocious campaign against German occupation that would continue to drain vital resources from the new theater in the Soviet Union.

Hitler had needed a neutral Soviet Union to his east to ensure his victories in Western Europe; hence he signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin in early 1939. Never one to provide good faith to treaties, Hitler thoroughly surprised Stain, if not his generals, when on June 22, 1941, three German army groups consisting of nearly 150 divisions and 3,000 Luftwaffe planes swept into Soviet territory World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign . The blitzkrieg tactics of deep penetration by planes, tanks, and mechanized infantry quickly overwhelmed whole Soviet armies that were ranged along the two-thousand-mile-long frontier, capturing hundreds of thousands of soldiers at a time. Northern forces “liberated” the recently seized Baltic states and drove toward Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Germany’s Army Group Center targeted Moscow, and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s southern forces headed for Ukraine, Caucasus oil fields, and the symbolically important city of Stalingrad.

Suffering from an earlier Stalinist purge of thousands of experienced officers, Soviet resistance was disorganized and Stalin himself literally disappeared from public view for several weeks before making himself, like Hitler, the supreme commander of his military (on August 7). By September, Leningrad was being shelled by German artillery; the Wehrmacht was in Ukrainian Kharkov by mid-October, and German tanks were a mere 60 miles from Moscow. Unfortunately, relatively few Axis units were equipped or clothed for the brutal Russian cold that would soon descend on them.

General Georgy Zhukov’s defense of the capital, Stalin’s patriotic speeches (to Soviets this was the Great Patriotic War), and U.S. Lend-Lease aid emboldened the Russians, as fall and winter set in. By year’s end, none of the major objectives had been taken, and Hitler had a powerful new enemy. On December 7, 1941, Germany’s ally in the Pacific, the Empire of Japan, attacked the U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and four days later Hitler and Mussolini foolishly declared war on the United States in support of Japan.

Life in Occupied Europe

Occupied World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Nazi occupation Europe (World War II) Nazi ideology Nazism had combined with the exigencies of war to produce especially harsh conditions for the people of Europe. Simple freedoms were often curtailed by martial law, and particular groups such as Jews, intellectuals, and communists were openly persecuted. Even before the machinery of the Holocaust Holocaust and its death camps were operational, people were seized, imprisoned, tortured; some were murdered. With the so-called final solution, formulated in early 1942 and directed by Heinrich Himmler, the horrors were greatly magnified as entire neighborhoods were deported to concentration camps in Poland. Not only barbarously inhumane, the deportation program was economically wasteful as it absorbed valuable resources that could have aided the German war machine.

In every European country, people suffered from shortages of consumer goods; the Germans were the last to face these shortages, as Hitler hoped to spare the nation the material sacrifices of total war (at least until 1943). Allied bombing raids disrupted urban life as well as armament production in central Europe, as did German air raids and later V-1 and V-2 attacks on English cities. Collaborators chose to cooperate with the occupiers, often earning the hatred of their country folk. Resistance fighters, on the other hand, sought to make life for the occupation forces miserable, most notably in France, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Most spectacularly, and tragically, Poles in Warsaw rose against their invaders (August 1-October 2, 1944) as Soviet forces approached. Stalin, however, called a halt, and the Germans mercilessly slaughtered as many as 200,000 people and banished another half million people to concentration camps.

The Tide Turns

During the winter and spring of 1942, Zhukov counterattacked the Germans near Moscow, and in the spring, Russian forces attacked German positions in the south. German counterattacks stabilized the southern front, however, and in July, Hitler decided to split the army between two objectives: the Caucasus and Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Rommel’s tanks rolled to within 100 miles of the Nile River, stalling in July at British defenses near El Alamein. In August, Churchill gave the command of Britain’s African forces to Bernard Law Montgomery, who defeated Rommel’s undersupplied forces at El Alamein and began driving them westward in October and early November.

On November 8, U.S. general Dwight D. Eisenhower launched Operation Torch, which landed thirty-five thousand troops in Vichy-controlled Algeria and Morocco. In late August, German forces under Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus Paulus, Friedrich surrounded and entered Stalingrad, a city already devastated by Luftwaffe bombing. The defense under Russian general Vasili Chuikov was tenacious and the fighting horribly brutal. In November, 1942, Paulus’s Sixth Army, forbidden to retreat, was quickly surrounded by a Soviet relief force, and Rommel’s Afrika Korps sat perilously between the British and the Americans. In early February, 1943, the last remnants of the Sixth Army surrendered. The remainder of the war in Russia would be a long German retreat punctuated with often brilliant tactical counterattacks. The greatest of these was at Kursk (beginning July 4), ultimately a defeat that cost the Germans dearly. After an initial victory over the Americans at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, the Allies closed in on Rommel, whose troops surrendered in May, 1943, opening the way to an invasion of Italy.

The Allied Second Front in Europe

Allied political leaders meeting at Casablanca, Morocco, from January 10 to 24, 1943, decided general strategy for allied victory: Intensify the bomber campaign, invade Sicily before Italy itself, and demand unconditional German surrender when the time came. British and Americans under Montgomery and George S. Patton landed in Sicily with 160,000 soldiers on July 10 and seized the island in five weeks. The Germans retreated in generally good order, however, and prepared for an invasion of the mainland. This began across the Strait of Messina on September 3. With the Italian surrender on September 8, the Germans took complete control of the country and fortified it against the Allies. A U.S. landing at Salerno near Naples on September 9 established a northern beachhead, but German strongholds were centered on Monte Cassino, well south of Rome. In January, 1944, the Allies attempted a breakout by landing at Anzio, but the beachhead was contained and advances were stalled.

The Noose Tightens

Early 1944 saw Soviet troops drive to Poland following retreating Germans, as Allied leaders planned the invasion of northwestern France, Operation Overlord, which was to be directed by General Eisenhower. By March, the Red Army was in Romania, headed for Hungary and the Balkans. In mid-May the German Gustav Line in central Italy was breached and Allied forces drove toward Rome, which they entered on June 4. Two days later—on D day—U.S., British, and Canadian troops stormed occupied France in Normandy. The defenses, marshaled by Rommel and von Rundstedt, failed to contain the invasion, which quickly established a firm beachhead. As in North Africa and Italy, Allied air superiority assured unhampered reconnaissance, close air-ground support (dive-bombing, strafing), and provision of troops and supplies by parachute drop. Tactical bombers also blasted enemy positions immediately behind front lines, often with devastating effect. Though Hitler’s heavy tanks were superior to any Allied models, they were few in number and lacking in shells and fuel, a problem that grew with the intensity of Allied bombing of factories and supply lines.

By late summer, 1944, Italy had been liberated as far north as Florence and French troops marched into Paris. Fortunately, German commanders in both cities ignored Hitler’s orders to destroy the cities before they were recaptured. Despite Churchill’s objections, a second French front opened with Allied landings near Marseille. The British prime minister’s concerns focused on German rocket sites in northern Germany, from which V-1 bombs and later V-2 missiles were launched against London. Though Eisenhower insisted on a broad advance on the Rhine, Montgomery fought for a strong northern offensive, launching Operation Market Garden Operation Market Garden , a failed attempt by paratroopers and armor to take the Dutch city of Arnhem (September 17-28). Hitler’s last counterattack in the west was designed by the retired von Rundstedt: an armored strike in mid-December through the Ardennes Forest toward Antwerp that would split the Allied armies. The Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944-January 28, 1945) was terribly costly for both sides, but it proved to be the Germans’ last offensive.

Winter and spring, 1945, saw the slow but certain collapse of German defenses everywhere. Boys and old men fought bravely but failed, as victorious Allied armies eliminated resistance. Western troops stopped at the Elbe River, fearing staunch resistance in Bavaria and allowing the Soviets to seize Berlin. It was in a bunker in Berlin, with the Allies closing in, that Hitler committed suicide on April 30. On May 7 in Rheims, France, German chief of staff Alfred Jodl signed surrender papers: Victory in Europe (V-E Day) was celebrated the following day.

Significance

The far-reaching effects of the war can be sketched here only briefly. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];reconstruction Death toll estimates vary wildly, but the Soviet Union lost roughly 20 million people, Germany lost 7.5 million, and Poland lost 5.8 million, Yugoslavia lost more than 1 million, and the United States, Britain, and France lost more than 400,000 each. In the immediate aftermath of the war, perhaps 21 million Europeans became “displaced persons” (D.P.’s), refugees without home, civic identity, family, or resources. Many European cities were mere piles of rubble, and Germany’s economic base was shattered. Rebuilding a viable Europe would take decades and the huge U.S. commitment of the Marshall Plan. In areas liberated by the Red Army, entire factories were shipped to Russia to help repair its crippled industrial base.

The war efforts of both Axis and Allied scientists and technicians produced numerous inventions or refinements of great importance. Among these were radar, sonar, jet engines, rockets, and the atomic bomb, on which German as well as American scientists had labored.

The Holocaust stands as an everlasting testament to humankind’s capacity for inhumanity, but it also led directly to the formation of the state of Israel. Other political effects include the partition of Germany, the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and creation of the Soviet Bloc, and the counter-development of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other Western European and Atlantic international arrangements. The forty-five-year Cold War between the Soviets and the Western alliance ironically has its origins in the Grand Alliance against fascism. Indeed, fascism was eliminated as a political system everywhere in Europe except neutral Spain, but communist governments came to control Eastern Europe behind the “Iron Curtain,” a phrase coined by the Conservative Winston Churchill. The failure of prewar diplomacy and the war itself also led the international community to replace the toothless League of Nations with the United Nations.

For the first time in history, international tribunals such as that in Nuremberg tried, convicted, and executed military and political leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Germany’s aggressive assaults on otherwise peaceful states, the brutality of its war machine and occupation, and the Holocaust horrified Europeans and others around the world. The war also led to an unprecedented European pacifism and internationalism, perhaps best exemplified in the establishment of the European Union. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];European theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War Two. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. A stirring account based on both interviews and documentary research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bahn, Karl. Berlin, 1945: The Last Battle, 16 April-2 May 1945. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Books, 2001. An authoritative account of the European theater’s final assault, which prompted Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. London: Aurum Press, 2002. A well-structured and highly detailed narrative that includes much technical information as well as personality sketches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dear, Ian C. B. The Oxford Companion to World War II. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A thorough encyclopedic work with more than seventeen hundred alphabetized entries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War. New York: Henry Holt, 1985. This work remains a classic overview of the German treatment of its own Jews and those in occupied and allied countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glantz, David M. Before Stalingrad: Barbarossa, Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941. Stroud, England: Tempus, 2004. A Russian historian’s expert analysis of why the seeds of German defeat were sown in the invasion itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lande, David. Resistance! Occupied Europe and Its Defiance of Hitler. Osceola, Wis.: Zenith Press, 2001. Relies on many interviews and other reports of the people who lived under Nazi government, emphasizing those who helped the Allied cause by undermining German administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. A controversial analysis that challenges the standard explanations for Germany’s defeat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Danny S. The Battle of The Bulge: Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive, 1944-1945. New York: Da Capo Press, 2004. Considered by many the standard history of the battle in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Geoffrey. Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle That Changed History. New York: Longman, 2002. Presents both the details of the commanders and the battle and places the Russian victory in its proper historical perspective.
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    The Second World War. 9 vols. Naples, Fla.: Trident Press International, 2000. Illustrated with more than twenty thousand photographs, this nine-volume chronicle is unsurpassed as a visual record of World War II in both major theaters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, Richard W., ed. The United States Army in a Global Era: 1917-2003. Vol. 2 in American Military History. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 2005. Originally written and published in 1956 as a textbook for Army officers in training, this updated work provides a detailed history of the Army’s role in times of international strife. Includes many illustrations, maps, and photographs. Available at http://www.army.mil/cmh/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberg, Gerhard L. Hitler’s Foreign Policy: The Road to World War II, 1933-1939. New York: Enigma Books, 2005. Considered by many the definitive study of Hitler’s Germany before World War II. Traces Germany’s transformation from an “unequal” entity in Europe to the center of diplomatic dominance and power on the world stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, David F. Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. A well-written, illustrated account of the major personalities and events in the long and costly struggle.

World War II: Pacific Theater

U.S. Censorship and War Propaganda During World War II

United States Enters the Battle of the Atlantic

Germany and Italy Declare War on the United States

Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”

Battle of Stalingrad

Allied Forces Begin the Battle for Germany

V-E Day Marks the End of World War II in Europe

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