The Just War
World War II – 1935 > 1947
With Poland carved in half, its carcass left to be devoured by the Germans to the west and the Soviets to the east, the world waited for Hitler’s next move. In a span of just over a year, Hitler had added three countries to his trophy case, and he clearly wasn’t going to stop there. He craved lebensraum. He created a four million man strong military. He rearmed Germany with the most state of the art weapons known to man. He could not be appeased. But as the world waited for his next attack, Hitler responded with…
Nothing. Poland fell in October 1939, but then the battlefield grew silent. The British and French mobilized their troops preparing for certain invasion. But nothing came. As the winter of 1939-1940 passed without any major German offensive, the international press started labeling this latest conflict the “phony war,” or, in a clever little turn of phrase, the “Sitzkrieg.” But this only told half the story. True, the German army might have been in a state of self-imposed hibernation, but the German navy was far from dormant. If they were to control Western Europe, they would have to first control the seas and the endless stream of goods flowing eastward from the United States. The Battle of the Atlantic erupted in 1939, and the cat and mouse nautical game of attack, defend, hide, counterattack didn’t cease until the final days of the war, but played a critical role in determining who would have the materials necessary to keep their soldiers and cities supplied.
Meanwhile over in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union proved dissatisfied with merely controlling Poland. They next moved to Finland, an area lost due to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that released Russia from World War I. What they thought would take a few weeks ended up taking almost half a year. Masters of their terrain and expert cross country skiers, the Finns (even though at times outnumbered ten to one) bogged the superior Soviet forces down into a painful war against the elements. The Soviets not only had to fight against the Finns, they had to fight the long nights of the Scandinavian winter and survive the bitter cold which at times fell under 40 degrees below freezing. If the cold didn’t stop the Soviets, the Finnish army’s ingenuity proved quite adept at foiling any Soviet offensive. Anyone who’s ever watched the Winter Olympics knows the Scandinavians dominate any event involving shooting and skiing, and when the Soviet army entered Finland with their motorized tanks and explosive artillery, the Finnish Army proved more than up to the task of defending their homeland. Like the diminutive Ewoks who survived the vastly superior Imperial Army (my apologies for the outdated Star Wars reference) with their improvised usage of the elements, the Finns crippled Soviet tanks with a few well-placed logs and homemade sticky bombs, and cleverly blended into the surroundings, knocking off Soviet soldiers one at a time. With an officer corps ripped apart by Stalin’s decade-long purge of over 30,000 of the Red Army’s finest officers, the Soviet forces repeatedly failed to adapt to the Nordic guerilla warfare that continually outflanked, outpestered and outmaneuvered their much more dominant foe. It wasn’t until the spring of 1940 that the Soviets sent in additional troops and the million-strong Soviet Army proved too much for the Finns. In April, Finland finally surrendered, but the respect they had earned from the international community and the vulnerability they had exposed in the Soviet forces would live on far longer than the six long months of what came to be known as the Winter War.
Spring brought in a hollow victory for the Soviets, but for the Nazis and Hitler, spring signaled the beginning of the most successful two-month campaign in Western military history. On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway to prevent Britain from securing military bases and ports that could later be used to mount a deadly blockade across the North Sea. Two months later, Denmark and Norway were defeated. The rest of Western Europe followed in kind. Luxembourg fell in three days. The Netherlands took five. Belgium eighteen. And as for France, the nation that at the turn of the 19th century housed the most feared military in all of Europe, for France, surrender came after a mere three weeks. How was this possible? How could the nation surrender that decades earlier had fought to the last man on the fields of the Western Front? What happened?
The answer rested in how France built its defenses during the Interwar Period. One of the greatest military blunders any army can make is preparing for future wars solely using the lessons learned from previous wars. Technology and strategies constantly evolve, and for the combatant who chooses to only refine the methods of the past, defeat is almost always guaranteed. France made this tragic mistake when they decided to invest the bulk of their defense budget on the creation of the Maginot Line – a series of seemingly impenetrable permanent trenches built on the southeastern border separating Germany from France. In theory, the Maginot Line seemed logical. Because so many men died in the waterlogged filth of World War I trench warfare, it seemed logical to instead build concrete, insulated, well-stocked, heavily armed barracks and artillery stations that no German army could penetrate. There were a couple flaws in the plan. First, the trenches stopped at the Ardennes Forest. The French couldn’t imagine a scenario where any army could make it through the dense foliage and steep topography of the forest. A poor assumption. Second, the trenches didn’t protect the Belgian border. Belgium didn’t like the idea of having a series of trenches running across its publicly declared neutral border.
Anyone with a memory of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan recognizes that Germans had little problem invading neutral countries to get through France. As for the Ardennes Forest? It wasn’t exactly impenetrable. Within a week, the German tank (Panzer) divisions had merely circumvented the Maginot Line, moving relatively freely through France’s unprotected eastern border. And what of the Maginot Line and all the French troops who patiently waited for the German onslaught? Those troops? Well, after the German army entered Paris and triumphantly paraded down the Champs Elysees, forcing the French surrender, Nazi forces merely headed east with their tank divisions and covered the ventilation systems with tons and tons of dirt. The Maginot Line became the encased coffins for thousands of French troops, all who remained in the trenches, manning the massive east-facing guns, protecting their nation against a German army that never came (from the right direction anyway).
It wasn’t only the French who had suffered humiliation at the hand of Hitler. The British had sent close to 400,000 soldiers to the Belgian frontier to protect what remained of “free” continental Europe, but they too were surprised by the German plunge through the Ardennes Forest, trapping 338,000 British soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Germans could have sent in their Panzer tank divisions to finish off the Brits, but in what would become the first of many tactical errors, Hitler ordered his tanks to remain back to repair any damages, allowing his prized air force, the Luftwaffe, the glory of finishing off Germany’s main rival to hegemony in Europe. This delay allowed the British Navy to launch Operation Dynamo, the rushed evacuation of all the troops remaining on the shores of the English Channel. In the course of a week, nearly all of the troops were brought back to England on any floating device that could be mobilized. In addition to the British naval fleet, an armada of little ships owned by private individuals and corporations rushed to the aid of their desperate comrades. Over 800 fishing, sailing and recreation boats were sent across the channel to aid in any way possible. Although their actual contribution was fairly minimal, the government tried to make the most of a public relations nightmare, labeling this incident the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” a triumphant example of how personal sacrifice would be needed to save the nation.
If any Brit still believed this aquatic evacuation would be the last they’d hear from Hitler, they were soon proven quite naïve. Even though most of his commanders who had a lick of common sense argued against trying to invade England, Hitler proceeded regardless, putting into play Operation Sealion (yes…these operation names will steadily get more bizarrely clever). The first phase of the invasion was the destruction of the British Royal Air Force so that the German forces could presumably cross the English Channel unchallenged. The Luftwaffe soon learned the Royal Air Force would be just a bit harder to suppress than the challenges put forth thus far by the inferior air powers of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium and Denmark. However, many of the pilots from these conquered nations actually fled to Britain and joined up with the RAF, to become, in many cases, the most decorated of all WWII pilots. Adding to the noble resistance of the RAF, the British had perfected the new technology of radar, preventing the Luftwaffe from arriving unnoticed. Through the summer of 1940, the struggle for the skies continued, leading to the combined loss of nearly 3,500 fighter planes (with Germany bearing the brunt of the losses). By the end of the year, the German high command recognized the futility of continuing the campaign and ceased fighter operations. Freshly-elected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill praised the efforts of these pilots and radar operators, declaring that “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Churchill spoke a bit too soon, for the battle for the skies hadn’t ended - it had just changed form. Instead of the romanticized dogfights of the Luftwaffe and the RAF, the Germans turned to their bombers to take the war to the heart of civilian life, hoping to destroy the morale of Brits which would in turn hypothetically lead to the British government seeking a swift surrender. The precedent for these civilian bombings was in fact an accident. In the dead of night, German bombers mistook a London neighborhood for a nearby oil field, dropping their payloads on the unsuspecting civilians below. Once the gloves were off and civilians became legitimate targets, Britain sent 81 of its own bombers to Berlin, killing few, but thoroughly ticking off Adolph Hitler. Considering he had recently promised his people they would never be touched by Allied bombings, this attack on Berlin was a bit of a hit to his prestige. Hitler avenged this insult by ordering an all out attack on London. Londoners tried everything in their power to protect themselves from the devastation from above – erecting bomb shelters, blacking out all windows and extinguishing all lights (and even cigarettes), sleeping in subway tunnels, and even shipping off tens of thousands of children to the countryside to live with strangers until the worst of the war had passed (for those of you familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this little event was what sent the feisty Pevensie family to live with the professor and his Narnia-cluttered closet). After seven months of non-stop bombings and no sign that the British were any closer to surrendering, Hitler stopped this “Blitz” and started looking east for where he would attack next. In these deadly seven months, Luftwaffe bombers destroyed over a million homes and killed nearly 50,000 civilians, but more importantly these months signaled a dramatic shift in the waging of 20th century war. The industrial tools of destruction would no longer be restricted to the battlefields of the open plains. Civilians would suffer the brunt of the devastation, leading to casualty numbers of non-combatants that would eventually dwarf anything man had ever inflicted.
Unable to bring Britain to its knees, Hitler turned to his true target – the Soviet Union. Since the early 1920s, Hitler made no secret of his desire for the vast living space and natural resources of the Soviet Union. He also was disgusted by the Slavic people that inhabited the former Russian nation, as well as the feeble, corrupt communist leadership that kept its people in abject slavery. But wasn’t there that pesky little problem of the Non-Aggression Pact signed in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union? Not a problem for Hitler. As the Blitz was losing steam in early 1941, Hitler and his officers began formulating a plan for the invasion of the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa (named after Frederick Barbarossa, the German Crusader who was stopped a bit short of reaching Jerusalem when he drowned crossing a river). If the bungle at Dunkirk and the botching of the Blitz were mere errors in judgment, Operation Barbarossa was the most colossal mistake Hitler could have made. Why invade Russia? Why fight a two-front war? Napoleon had taught the world that you might be able to fight your way into Russia, but the winter and the vastness of the territory will make it hard to get out alive. World War I taught Hitler that Germany couldn’t expect to survive a war where its troops were divided to fight two weighty foes.
But Hitler ignored history. Call it hubris. Call it blind hatred for other perceived inferior peoples. Call it false hope that Japan would enter the war on the east to hopefully divide Soviet forces. Whatever you want to call it, the choice was stupid. The moment Hitler’s troops stepped foot on Soviet soil in June 1941, Germany’s chances of a European empire died. Like in his other land assaults, initially the blitzkrieg proved unstoppable. During the summer of 1941, three million troops, stretched over a 2000 mile long front, pushed east deep into the heart of Russia, hoping to destroy Moscow, Leningrad and eventually Stalingrad. In what would become the largest military conflict in human history, with close to eight million Soviet troops pushing against four million German troops, Operation Barbarossa appeared to favor the German army until the most devastating force thus far known to man surfaced in December 1941…
A Russian winter. The whole success of Operation Barbarossa depended on the success of the initial blitzkrieg. Germany took thousands of miles of territory in the first few months of the campaign, but they took too much, too fast. Their supply lines couldn’t keep up, their officers couldn’t adapt when their fortunes started to change and the devastating winter not only claimed hundreds of lives, but it also sapped the speed of the German mechanized forces. For some reason, man’s machines just don’t work so well when the temperature hits 40 degrees below freezing. Stopped short of conquering Moscow and with 3.5 million men spread over a near 2000 mile long front, the German high command revisited how next to proceed.
But first Germany and Hitler would have to watch and see how the events were unfolding in the Pacific. In 1938, Germany had hitched its fortune to the Japanese, promising in the Anti-Comintern Pact that if either of the two sides ever went to war with the Soviet Union, they would combine forces to put down the communist threat. But the Japanese military commanders weren’t as naïve as Hitler. They had no intention of dividing their forces. By late 1941, Japan had restricted its operations to China and had refused to join in the battle for the Soviet Union. Yet still, the Germans held out hope that the Japanese would soon enter their formidable force into the equation, relieving German troops from the sole responsibility of opposing the seemingly limitless Soviet forces.
In firm control of China, Japan set its sights on the rest of the Far East. If they could only kick out the Europeans, installing themselves as the imperial overlords, Japan could ensure the continued flow of goods into their resource-challenged nation. The rubber and tin of Malaya, the oil and scrap metal of Indonesia and the strategic port cities of the Pacific were all that was needed for Japan to secure and maintain a regional empire. Under the haughty auspices of creating a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (though I’m not sure how much the soon-to-be-conquered peoples “prospered”), Japan sought out to fulfill its goal of an “Asia for Asians.”
One roadblock stood in its way – the United States. The United States sustained a powerful military and economic presence in the Philippines, the island nation sitting right at the heart of Japan’s desired sphere of influence. Any attempt to wade into foreign politics or exert a military campaign would inescapably run into the meddling hands of the Americans. If only the Japanese could find a way of convincing the United States to stay out of Asian affairs, the East would be ripe for the picking. In the early months of 1941, the highest military officials began planning Operation Z, the attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor that would hypothetically buy the Japanese the time they needed to seize the tactical advantage in Asia. In a perfect world, this attack might also wipe out America’s naval fleet, pushing back the American navy to the coast of California, a full 5000 miles away from the Japanese islands. Some even believed the attack would so shock the American psyche that the government leaders would plead for an immediate, peaceful resolution. Americans were seen as soft, gluttonous consumers, unwilling to muster the stomach needed for war. Any attack on their homeland (even if it was only a territory few could even pick out on a map, and one that wouldn’t become an official state until 1959) would almost certainly paralyze the American population.
The Japanese would pay the price for underestimating American resolve.
But in the closing months of 1941, few would have anticipated such a bold move so close to American soil. In Washington D.C., Japanese diplomats continued to lobby Americans to remove their oil embargo established in July 1941, after Japan’s invasion of French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam). Most also assumed any attack would most assuredly be in Asia – the Philippines, or Thailand, or Borneo or even Singapore. But not Hawaii. It was on nobody’s radar. Yet, when total contact with the Japanese naval fleet was lost in the last weeks of November, intelligence experts warned an attack was imminent.
After the war, it was these warnings that pointed some conspiracy theorists toward the assumption that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew of the attacks, but allowed them to take place, knowing they would rally the American people, becoming the catalyst needed to allow legal entry into World War II. As early as November 27th, army and naval officials warned that “an aggressive move by Japan [was] expected” and that “hostile action [was] possible at any moment.” Though these warnings might have reached Roosevelt’s desk, because Hawaii was never really considered a realistic target, no orders were sent to put the island on the highest alert.
This failure to respond left Pearl Harbor helpless to what would become one of the most daring, successful military operations ever attempted. On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Japan deployed six aircraft carriers, twenty-three submarines and 360 planes. On this Sunday morning, still sleeping off the previous night’s frivolity, the American soldiers were completely unprepared for an attack. At 7:48, the first torpedoes hit the port and the first bombs dropped from the skies. With many of the soldiers even ashore and much of the ammunition and weapons stored away in military lockers, when the bullets and bombs started flying, the dazed Americans were barely able to mount any viable resistance.
Within an hour, the American navy had suffered catastrophic damage. Four battleships had been sunk, over 300 airplanes had been damaged or destroyed, and close to 2,500 Americans had lost their lives. When news of this attack reached the American shores, the population was indeed shocked, but scared into surrender? Not a chance. Instead, the worst possible scenario for the Japanese quickly materialized. On December 8th 1941, President Roosevelt condemned the “sudden and deliberate attack,” rallying his nation to avenge this “date which will live in infamy,” to protect the “very life and safety of our nation.” The American people answered this call to action, and within months, millions had enlisted to fight what had become a “just war.” Those who didn’t put on the uniform, rushed to the manufacturing plants across the nation, creating the American “arsenal of democracy” that would supply the Allies for the duration of the war. In a much-misquoted line attributed to General Yamamoto, the Japanese had awoken “a sleeping giant,” and because the United States, when fully mobilized, could produce ten times the industrial output of Japan, this wake-up call signaled the eventual death of the Japanese empire.
But first Germany wanted to get in on the action. Adding to his list of poorly-pondered decisions, three days after the United States declared war on Japan, Hitler foolishly declared war on the United States. Hitler didn’t have to fight the US. Sure, he had signed a military alliance with Japan, but by 1941, Hitler wasn’t exactly known in the international community for his credibility. So why then did he make the reckless decision to pull the US into the European theater? Was it because he was an illogical madman who actually thought he could defeat the largest economy in the world from across a fairly substantial ocean? Was it because he was sick and tired of the US acting like they were maintaining neutrality, all the while finding creative ways of gifting to London billions of dollars in goods, battleships and even much needed cash? Was it because he thought, after Britain, the US would be the only nation able to stop him on his road to world domination? Was it because he just assumed the US would declare war on Germany first, and Hitler wanted to be seen as the aggressor not the victim?
Or was it because, by December 1941, Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa had ground to a halt on the icy terrain of the Soviet Union, and Hitler believed the only chance Germany had of eventually defeating the Soviets was if the Japanese started attacking from the east. In Hitler’s mind, if Germany appeared the trustworthy ally who supported Japan against the United States, then Japan would feel inclined to reciprocate and wage a full-scale war on the Soviet Union.
This assumption was a slight miscalculation. Japan had no intention of touching the Soviet Union. Their grand desire was ensuring the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Hitler could have the Soviet Union for his own lebensraum, but Japan had a clear focus and understood they could never hope to survive a war against Stalin’s forces when Japanese soldiers were already thinly stretched across the islands and peninsulas of Asia.
Nope. Germany would be on its own in the Soviet Union, and with the failure of Operation Barbarossa to secure Moscow, in the spring of 1942, Hitler resorted to Plan B – Operation Case Blue. Although a bit less catchier title than its predecessor, it was equally ambitious. German forces would head south into the heart of the Russian frontier, capturing oil fields and crushing Stalingrad once and for all. But for some reason, the lessons learned from Operation Barbarossa were quickly forgotten. Hitler still believed he could take Russia.
He sent his German forces across the plains of the Soviet Union, bombing Stalingrad into oblivion. But Germany would find it far easier to destroy this city than to control it. When this latest fiasco finally ended, the tide of the war had officially changed. No more would Germany be on the offensive. They would instead spend the rest of the war searching for ways of slowing the Red Army’s revenge.
For it was at Stalingrad’s Volga River that Hitler would lose close to half a million of his finest soldiers, consequently losing any hope that his Third Reich would rule the world for a thousand years (it was having trouble surviving a decade).
Stalin declared the Soviet Union would make their final stand at Stalingrad. He was willing to transport every last soldier from across the nation, but he would not accept surrender. The choice was victory or death. He ordered, “Not one step backward!” Any hesitant comrade who pulled away from the fighting was promptly shot by their own officers. So when in August 1942, the Luftwaffe bombed Stalingrad into rubble and the German army took over close to 90% of the city, they would find it impossible to take the last 10%. Once the bombs were dropped and the army had entered the city, the battle became days and months of building-to-building clashes where German forces might take control of a factory one day, only to have it recaptured when they moved on to the next neighborhood. Both Stalingrad civilians and the Red Army resorted to guerilla tactics to steadily wear down the German invaders, attacking supply lines, deploying snipers to pick off stragglers, burning their own food supplies to prevent German pillaging and fighting to the death for every last chunk of bombed city rubble. This was anything but a blitzkrieg. Some even scoffed that this subhuman form of urban warfare was more a rattenkrieg, or “rat war.”
This was a battle Germany could never win, because for every Soviet soldier that died, three more crossed the Volga River to replace him.
One of the tactical blunders of the German field officers was refusing to advance forces across the Volga River in the early weeks of the battle, which would have severed the city from eastern supplies and men. Stalin was able to bring in 1.5 million new troops from across the fatherland, each crossing the Volga to defend the last remnants of the city. But like the previous year, it was the arrival of winter that again sealed the German’s fate. Without winter clothing, tents or sleeping bags, tens of thousands froze to death or lost their feet and hands to frostbite. Tanks and trucks proved useless as the gas turned to a spongy, useless syrup-like mixture. Guns couldn’t be loaded, let alone fired, and to top it off, the Luftwaffe stopped being able to fly in replacement supplies, leaving the troops to fend for their lives. Unable to defend themselves, the German 6th Army was completely surrounded and General Friedrich Paulus surrendered what remained of his force. Hitler was disgusted and shocked by such cowardice. He had expected Paulus to kill himself before surrendering, but Paulus chose to save the lives of his near-death soldiers. His noble intentions to save his men proved futile, as only 6,000 of the 108,000 that surrendered actually survived the even more horrifying conditions of the Soviet prisoner-of-war camps.
The Soviet victory at Stalingrad opened the Red Army offensive. Within two months, the Soviets had recaptured all the land the Germans had seized in the previous year, and their sights were firmly set on Hitler and Berlin. They had always had the largest land army on the planet, but by 1943, they were also the best-supplied military force left in Europe. In the first months of Operation Barbarossa, Stalin had dismantled the munitions and armament factories, had his men carry them across the eastern forests and mountains and then had them rebuilt to the far east of the German assault. With their factories up and running and a steady stream of food, weapons and ammunition arriving from their newly-acquired ally (the United States), the Soviet Union was finally able to match their manpower and fervor with much-needed materiel.
Yet Stalin was still less than pleased with the arrangement he had made with his two new allies – the United States and England. In August of 1942, as the first bombs rained down on Stalingrad, Roosevelt and Churchill revealed they would not be able to directly attack Germany from the west. Not yet. Instead they would aim to take out Germany from the south – first by capturing Northern Africa and then heading up the Italian peninsula. That didn’t exactly help Stalin. While the Russian Red Army had to fight off 4.5 million German invaders, the British and Americans would be down in North Africa facing the far less formidable Italian army. With no real Option B available, Stalin accepted this attack from the south option, only with the promise of continued supplies and an invasion of France as soon as humanly possible. Every month that the Brits and Americans stayed out of continental Europe meant tens of thousands of Soviet deaths.
The British-American invasion of North Africa actually helped out Stalin’s cause far more than he could have hoped. Within a few months, the Italians fell to the Allied forces, compelling Hitler to deplete his eastern army and come to the aid of his Italian partner. These troops, including the famed German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, were pulled from Operation Barbarossa. They not only held the Axis line, but almost pushed the Allies completely out of Africa. However, unable to defend for too long against the superior Allied forces, the German and Italian armies in Africa surrendered in May of 1943. Once the Allies controlled Tunisia, they invaded Sicily, and by September, Allied forces were landing on the boot of Italy.
By the end of 1943, Germany was a shell of the empire it once held only two years earlier. Bombarded from the East by a Soviet army that eventually conscripted over 29 million men (and eventually killed over 80% of Germany’s army), Hitler now had to worry about American and British forces heading up the boot of Italy. At this point, the Big Three – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – met in Teheran, Iran to discuss the final defeat of both Germany and Japan. The Soviet Union agreed to turn its forces against Japan once Germany had surrendered, but only if Britain and the United States invaded France in the spring of 1944. They agreed, and from there, Churchill and Roosevelt ordered what would be the largest amphibious landing in the history of military warfare – Operation Overlord – otherwise known as…D-Day.
By the time Stalin had been informed of the scheduled invasion, Operation Overlord had already been in the planning stage for years, and weeks earlier General Dwight D. Eisenhower (later president of the United States) had been promoted to Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. One of the major priorities of the invasion of German-occupied France was avoiding the catastrophic losses suffered by other full frontal assaults of the World War I era. Churchill (the architect of the tragic Gallipoli campaign of World War I which failed to take the ground at the expense of 60% of all involved troops) was more than familiar with the dangers of deploying men on beaches heavily defended by entrenched men, and wanted to avoid a repeat of his most infamous failure.
Because the goal was to eventually create a suitable harbor where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers could be deployed for the eventual invasion of Germany, initially many advisors recommended Allied powers take a port town to take advantage of the already existing docking infrastructure (specifically the town of Calais). Calais seemed the most logical spot not only because of its port, but because it was the closest landmass to the British island (just 26 miles away from Dover). Unfortunately for the Allies, Hitler could likewise read a map, and subsequently put the bulk of his forces at Calais to prevent the certain attack. The Allies decided to use this expectation to their advantage, actually creating an entire secret plan – Operation Bodyguard – to deceive Hitler into believing the entire Allied army would be hitting Calais in the summer of 1944. False messages were conveyed over the radio, German double-agents now working for the Allies shared false memos, famed US General George Patton was promoted to lead this pseudo-invasion force and even Hollywood set designers were employed to create wooden artillery equipment and inflatable tanks. No actual army ever existed. But that’s not what Hitler thought. Even when D-Day, June 6, 1944, finally arrived and thousands of aircraft and naval vessels (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of men) descended on the beaches of Normandy, Hitler defiantly prevented his Calais forces from defending Normandy, believing the real invasion was a few hundred miles to the north. Hitler military mistake number 3,741.
Because of the Calais ruse, the comprehensive, meticulous planning of Operation Overlord, the heroic valor of the first troops that landed and the overall scale of the Allied forces, any German resistance proved initially deadly, but ultimately futile. The 400,000 German troops spread across the coast of France were no match for the wave after wave of air bombings, naval bombardments and troop deployments. Within hours, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall (the series of trenches, barbed wired fences, pillboxes and hedgehogs protecting the French coast) had been breached, allowing over two million soldiers to enter the European theater at Normandy. Hitler now had to fight forces from all sides, but by no means did the Führer consider surrender. Even with the Soviets closing in from the east and the American and British forces moving in from the west and south, the German leader refused to capitulate. Everyone else saw that the D-Day invasion was the “beginning of the end,” but not Hitler. At this point even some of his officers tried to have him assassinated, but when these failed plots (seventeen attempts in total) were uncovered, all involved were quickly tried for treason and executed. And Hitler compelled his forces to carry on.
Within eight months of the landing, Allied forces crossed German borders, and Berlin was within striking distance. In the months since D-Day, as the Allied ground forces liberated nation after nation that had fallen to Nazi rule, from the skies, bombers wiped out German cities with what became almost 24-hour, incessant carpet bombing raids. Fleets of bombers dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives on the cities below, caring little about any one specific target, simply leaving mountains of ruins for the coming Allied forces.
By the end of April 1945, Berlin had been breached. Soviet Red Army forces went door to door, wiping out everything in their path – even looting, torturing and raping civilians. British and American forces then closed in on the city. All that was needed was a sign from Hitler that the war was over. On April 30, 1945, he gave that sign.
Not wanting to endure a humiliating surrender and probable international trial, believing the only honorable military option was to take his own life and not wanting to follow in the footsteps of his ally and mentor Benito Mussolini (who was shot and then had his corpse spat upon, kicked and eventually hung on a meat hook), Hitler decided to commit suicide. At 3:30 in the afternoon, Adolph Hitler gave his wife Eva Braun (who he had just married a couple days earlier) cyanide pills, and after those started to do their job, Hitler stuck his pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. To prevent the mutilation and desecration of his remains, within hours, his trusted officers took his body outside where it was covered with gasoline, burned and then buried. This attempt to conceal Hitler’s corpse proved unsuccessful, as months later, Stalin ordered SMERSH (his most trusted intelligence agency) to recover his enemy’s final resting place. When the bodies were eventually discovered in a bombed out crater (along with a couple puppy carcasses), they were brought back to Russia, where they remained until the 1970s. Eventually, the Soviet KGB (the equivalent of America’s CIA), fearing Neo-Nazis might one day want to use his Soviet burial site as some sort of perverted memorial, dug up the remains, crushed them into a fine powder and then dumped them in the Elbe River.
But in 1945, few were worried about a possible Neo-Nazi memorial in a few decades. They just wanted peace. On May 8, 1945, what remained of a German government surrendered, and the world rejoiced at what would become known as VE Day (Victory in Europe). Hitler’s dreams of a thousand-year Third Reich had come to an end (falling just a mere 988 years short of his goal).
The popped champagne bottles and ticker tape parades couldn’t last long as there was still one more Axis power to defeat – the Empire of Japan.
The fate of Japan was sealed the moment they invaded Pearl Harbor and unleashed the industrial might of the United States. From that moment on, it was only a matter of time before Japan fell to the superior foe. But the Japanese military brass must not have received the pessimistic memo of their fated demise, for the war waged on for four more years. In the month following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese controlled most of coastal China, the Philippines, Burma, Borneo, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore, and were on their way to Australia. They appeared unstoppable. With every passing month, the world watched as the patchwork of the Pacific increasingly fell to the Empire of Japan. The final pie piece in what was to be the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was not just an island, but a continent itself – Australia. The final European holding in the Pacific, Australia symbolized the last of the European presence in the East. Once Australia was conquered, Japan could set its sights westward – to India.
But taking Australia would prove a bit more difficult than the previous island nations. Aside from its vast size, distant location and resilient military force (of over a million men who would see action in Asia, Africa and Europe), Australia also had the assistance of the Americans, who finally made a dent in the Japanese juggernaut when they successfully launched a surprise raid on the Japanese mainland on April 18, 1942.
Since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American public was looking for some clue that they might actually have a chance in this war. In the early winter months of 1942, the future of the United States was anything but secure. The German forces were wreaking havoc across three continents, and Japan was a matchless, almost alien force, that instilled terror in the hearts of most citizens, especially those on the west coast. For if the United States was to be invaded, it would come from the Pacific. The attack on Pearl Harbor signaled that anything was possible, and the age of America’s isolation due to two fairly large bodies of water had come to an end. America looked for something to turn their spirits, and the Doolittle Raid on Japan became just the propaganda coup the nation needed. The Doolittle Raid of April 1942 launched fifteen B-25 bombers off the decks of the aircraft carrier Hornet. Because of the distance of the carrier from Japan and due to the low levels of fuel carried on each plane, the mission was to be a one-way trip (the pilots that survived would ideally make it to the Ally-controlled safe zones of China). Like the bombings of Berlin in the midst of the Blitz, when the bombers dropped their payloads on the outskirts of Tokyo, the arrogance of the aggressor was knocked down a few pegs. The aura of Japanese invincibility had been shattered (though the actual losses – a few buildings destroyed and a couple dozen people killed - due to the Doolittle Raid were strategically irrelevant).
If the Doolittle Raid was merely a symbolic victory, in the next two months, the Battle at Coral Sea and the Battle at Midway would prove the strategic equivalents of Stalingrad and D-Day.
At the Battle at Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia, Japanese and American aircraft carriers faced off in what was the first naval war where neither ship actually saw the other (due to their long-range artillery and launched-off-the-deck fighter planes). Although the Japanese might have endured fewer casualties, this battle stopped their months of expansion and forced them to retreat to protecting the lands already conquered. Also, two of the Japanese navy’s aircraft carriers would have to be repaired, making them unable to assist in the Battle of Midway.
The Battle of Midway became the beginning of the end in the Pacific. Japan intended to once and for all kick the Americans out of the war, securing their perceived right to control East Asia. Midway Island – a fairly meaningless chunk of dirt midway between the US and Japan – was the sight chosen by the Japanese to launch one final all-out offensive. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the American code breakers had intercepted and translated Japanese plans in advance of the Empire of the Rising Sun, which allowed the American navy to be waiting with all available ships sent to the region. What could have been a disaster for America, sending the remainder of its fleet back to San Diego, turned out to be a devastating blow to Japan’s Imperial Navy. Admiral Nagumo ordered his fighter pilots to return to their carriers for refueling and rearming, making them nothing more than sitting ducks to the Navy’s fighter planes. In less than a half hour, between 10:00 and 10:25 on June 4, 1942, the Japanese navy was permanently crippled.
Unlike the Battle at Stalingrad (the turning point battle for Europe) where millions perished over months of fighting, Midway meant the loss of only 3,000 seamen, but because four critical aircraft carriers (out of the ten Japan had at the start of the war) sunk to the bottom of the Pacific, Japan’s ability to wage an enduring war at sea became almost impossible.
Japan couldn’t even properly protect its supply lines. Going to and from the Japanese mainland, Japanese merchant vessels faced relentless raids from the American and Allied forces, who sunk 3,032 vessels – over 10.5 million tons of ships deposited at the bottom of the Pacific (many of which have become lovely dive sites for eager scuba divers).
From Midway Island on, Japan was perpetually on the retreat. The Allies in the Pacific established a two-pronged attack: 1) provide the needed support to local resistance fighters in Japanese-controlled areas, and 2) “island hop” toward Japan, setting the stage for the eventual invasion of the mainland. Island hopping was the strategy of avoiding the major Japanese forces located in the major population centers of East Asia, and instead just focusing on capturing geographically significant chunks of land in the Pacific Ocean. Once occupied, each subsequent island provided the air force runways needed to take the next island. Although outnumbered in almost every case, the Japanese firmly entrenched themselves across each island, guaranteeing high casualty rates and some of the most intensely brutal fighting of the war. After Midway, the Allied forces took dozens of islands such as the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa. Few of these islands were inhabited by civilians, instead usually coral or volcanic atolls that, to the Allied invaders, looked like nothing more than glorified piles of rocks. After the Battle at Iwo Jima – the famed sight of the iconic flag raising photograph – American B-29 bombers were within striking distance of Japan, and from this point on, Japanese cities suffered through daily and nightly bombing raids whose incendiary bombs left the nation’s major cities in ashes.
When Okinawa was finally taken in June 1945 (within weeks of Germany’s surrender in Europe) the Allied forces began finalizing plans for an October invasion of Japan – Operation Downfall.
But the invasion was never to be, for on April 24, two weeks after the death of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, newly sworn-in President Harry S. Truman was briefed on a file that would not only bring World War II to an immediate end, but would change the face of war forever. After almost six years in utter secrecy, the massive research undertaking known as the Manhattan Project had succeeded in creating an atomic bomb.
On August 2, 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to then President Roosevelt, explaining to him that in recent months European physicists had taken the next step in splitting the nucleus of atoms, giving off a ton of energy. Man had actually created an energy source, that, in the words of Einstein, released “vast amounts of power,” enabling the construction of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” And the worst part was, the Germans were far ahead of the Americans in mastering this technology. If the United States didn’t jump into the atomic energy game, the Germans could create a super bomb that would allow them to effortlessly conquer the world.
Roosevelt acted on Einstein’s recommendation to create a department of atomic energy, thus was born the Manhattan Project. This project combined the knowledge of US, Canadian and British scientists and engineers, all working toward not only developing a bomb, but creating the delivery device that could eventually be used to destroy enemy nations. Although research took place in dozens of universities across the US, the primary facility was created in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Fresh off his supervision of the building of the Pentagon, Colonel Leslie Groves was appointed to run the Los Alamos facility, sequestering 8,000 men and women in a remote laboratory (known as Site Y12), where they couldn’t communicate with the outside world. The deadly fruit of their labor emerged on July 16, 1945 when the first of the three bombs was detonated. This Trinity Test proved to the military brass that they had in their control a weapon of unparalleled destructive capability.
There was a bit of concern prior to the scientists igniting this little “gadget.” Some thought nothing at all would happen. Others thought once one atom was split, it would lead to a chain reaction that would blow up the entire planet. Both were wrong. Instead a mushroom cloud producing over 20,000 tons of TNT (compared with only seven tons of TNT from the most powerful non-atomic bombs available at the time) threw the world into the nuclear age, in an instant making the United States the most deadly force on the planet.
There were two more bombs left. But should the United States use them?
This question has become the great conundrum of the 20th century. On one side of the argument you have the lesser of two evils stance. The Japanese showed no signs of surrendering. Their warrior tradition, coupled with a mass propaganda campaign depicting Americans as barbarians who only wanted to torture and rape every civilian they captured, led both Japanese soldiers and civilians to believe that suicide was the only honorable way to die. In Okinawa, Japanese soldiers ordered the mass suicide of all civilians, even handing out grenades to help speed the process. Hundreds took their families and jumped off cliffs rather than surrender. The Imperial Navy convinced kamikaze pilots to fly their planes into enemy vessels. Of even greater significance was Emperor Hirohito’s call for all citizens to die defending the motherland. There would be no retreat, no surrender.
Based on their experiences in the previous amphibious landings and the mass suicides at Okinawa, the Allies projected that if they were to invade Japan, anywhere from five to ten million Japanese lives would be lost, in addition to the predicted million Allied casualties. This didn’t even account for what such a land invasion would do to the psyches of the Allied soldiers, as the enemy would no longer be uniformed soldiers, but three-year-old children, pregnant mothers and elderly men, all fighting to save their emperor and their homes.
If anything, the Americans believed dropping the atomic bombs would actually save lives. Not just the lives of those that would inevitably die in an invasion, but the lives of those that would most certainly die if the US continued their bombing raids. For the previous year, American incendiary bombing raids had already taken the lives of over half a million Japanese civilians in 67 cities, leaving another five million as refugees. Japan was already being bombed off the map.
A few other reasons were introduced by Truman’s advisors. First, the United States needed to keep the Soviet Union out of Japan. Stalin had already proven in Germany he had no plans of leaving his conquered territory, and the last thing America wanted to do was to partition the Japanese islands. America needed to end the war before the Soviets entered. Second, on a similar note, America wanted to intimidate the Soviets. Stalin proved he liked the idea of expanding an empire, and this little show of force might make him think twice about pressing further east. Third, the military needed to justify the expense. Two billion dollars (over twenty billion in today’s money) was spent on the Manhattan Project. Those in power wanted to see some bang for their buck. And lastly, America was just tired of fighting. They had just defeated Hitler in Germany, and the idea of sending millions over to the Pacific for what would be a catastrophic, monumentally demoralizing offensive just couldn’t be justified. Truman had a way of ending the war immediately. He had to use it.
But his critics said otherwise. Why not merely drop the bomb on a nearby island to demonstrate its power? Was it because of racism? Had the military started to believe its own propaganda? Were the Japanese really inferior to the Americans? Weren’t atomic bombs far more horrific than conventional bombs? The radiation not only kills the current generation, but sentences future generations to a rash of genetic anomalies. And what about the precedent of using an atomic bomb? Wouldn’t this just lead to a global arms race to master the technology (and as the last few decades have played out, this was exactly what happened)?
Taking into consideration all sides, Truman made the fateful decision to drop the two bombs – nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy (after Colonel Leslie Groves and scientist Robert Oppenheimer) – on the military ports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6th Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima and on August 9th Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The Americans then pledged to relentlessly drop this death-from-the-sky until the Japanese finally surrendered (which was a bit of a bluff since the US had already exploded the only three bombs it built).
Unable to use their courage, their willingness to sacrifice their lives and their conventional weaponry, Japan had no other choice but to surrender. On August 14th, Emperor Hirohito’s voice came over the radio for the first time to the nation, and he announced the surrender of Japan, on the grounds that “the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
World War II ended.
The world’s reaction was a mixture of jubilation and mass mourning, for what had transpired the previous six years demonstrated the hideously appalling extent man went to direct his new technologies against humanity. When industrialized weapons of death were combined with hyper-nationalism and abject racism, the toll on human lives hit unparalleled levels. Historians like to point to the brutality of Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan, or Julius Caesar or even the religious crusades of the Middle Ages, but to truly see barbarity, one needs to look no further than World War II.
The sheer numbers alone are staggering. Agreeing to any exact total is nearly impossible as so many regions were impacted and the battlefield deaths only reveal part of the story. Fifteen to twenty million soldiers were killed on the battlefield. Five million soldiers were killed as prisoners of war. This alone made the war one of the deadliest of all time (second only to China’s Taiping Rebellion), but it was the impact on civilians that took the carnage to unprecedented levels.
40-60 million civilians died in the course of the war. Some were incinerated in bombing firestorms that drove temperatures past 1500 degrees Celsius and asphyxiated hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Some were targeted for scientific experiments where they became nothing more than tortured guinea pigs. Some were shipped to far off camps. Others were merely shot on sight or raped to death. Food supplies were cut off, transportation networks were demolished and homes were turned to rubble. When the final shot was fired, tens of millions of those that survived wandered aimlessly across war torn landscapes, creating a refugee crisis that threatened to extend the suffering for decades.
When it came to treatment of civilians, no country was innocent. The United States, fearing an invasion on the West Coast, expelled 110,000 of its own Japanese-American citizens from the states of Washington, Oregon and California, interning them in camps centered deep in the heart of America. US bombing missions also targeted Japanese and German cities, killing millions of civilians. In Poland, the Soviets systematically pulled out the leaders of the nation – the lawyers, policeman, educators, businessmen – and had hundreds shot and mass buried in an incident now known as the Katyn Massacre. And then, upon entering German lands, these Soviet forces then shot civilians on sight and even tortured and raped tens of thousands of the innocent. Britain sent over 3000 planes over the city of Dresden, a German cultural center with minimal strategic importance, dropping almost 4000 tons of explosives on the homes and public meeting areas below. And those were just the Allies.
The Axis Powers took depravity to a new level. Aside from the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese military set up comfort houses, where local women across Southeast Asia were forced into sex slavery for the duration of the war. In Manchuria, the Japanese set up Unit 731, a biological experimentation center where tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean civilians were purposefully given infectious diseases and then their bodies were opened while still alive to observe the results of the disease.
As for the Germans, their barbarism knew no limits. The sum total of their atrocities has become known as the Holocaust – a period of mass exploitation, expulsion, torture, experimentation and murder. Over twelve million civilians were killed both to further the German war aims, but more specifically to ensure a world free of Nazi-perceived racial impurity. Starting with European notions of Social Darwinism and racial superiority, the century leading up to the Holocaust saw an increasingly prevalent view that reproduction between superior and inferior groups should be prevented at all costs – a philosophy known as eugenics. Although most equate the Holocaust with the senseless slaughter of the Jewish population, over half of the total number killed by the Nazis were other “undesirables,” including blacks, Arabs, Gypsies, homosexuals, prisoners, mentally and physically handicapped, Slavs and those political opponents deemed a threat to Nazi superiority.
However, the Holocaust in its public perception deals primarily with the systematic, calculated extermination of the Jews. What started in the 1930s as an attempt to prevent interaction between Jews and non-Jews (restrictive marriage and commerce laws, identification bands, concentration in urban ghettos and even forced sterilization), eventually evolved into the “final solution to the Jewish problem.” In the early years of the war, German scientists, officers and businessmen exploited the Jews as slave labor. Eventually they were put into concentration camps where they were starved, beaten, worked to death or even used as human lab subjects in Nazi’s bizarre scientific experiments. Under the demented leadership of Josef Mengele, infant twins were sewn together, men were frozen and then revived in boiling water, prisoners were exposed to malaria and poisoned gas, inmates were burned alive with incendiary bombs and countless other defenseless victims were subjected to torture and mutilation to satisfy the whims of German “scientists.”
The course of Jewish treatment shifted at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, when the leaders of the Nazi Party, along with critical military figures from across Europe, met to discuss the mass transportation and eventual execution of all Jews currently residing in German-occupied territories. From across the empire, Jews were crammed into train cars and sent to camps such as Auschwitz, Belzec and Treblinka, where they were stripped, exposed to lethal doses of cyanide and then cremated in gas-fed furnaces. Tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered daily and within a year nearly the entire Jewish population of Europe had been eradicated. In Warsaw, Poland alone, out of the 500,000 Jews alive at the start of the war, only 200 eventually survived to VE-Day (Victory Day in Europe). Though whisperings of Nazi atrocities had been heard throughout the war, it wasn’t until the Allied forces moved into German-occupied territories that the extent of the tragedy was fully revealed.
Across World War II, time after time, humans failed to live up to their humanity. We entered the 20th century believing we were the most civilized, advanced, cultured, enlightened people to ever walk the planet. We had learned more, built more and seen more than any previous generation, but in a few short years we proved that under the guise of war and beholden to a set of extraordinary scientific tools, our insecurities and racist proclivities could still win out over logic and compassion.
World War II had been a total war. Everyone had been touched. Civilians had been for years pounded with propaganda dehumanizing the enemy, while encouraging every man, woman and child to join the war effort. In some nations, wartime production brought the people out of the Great Depression. In others, the factories, neighborhoods and public meeting areas became targets for enemy bombers, making survival, let alone production, nearly impossible. The United States witnessed a mass migration to the cities as minorities, women and rural dwellers filled in for the departed soldiers. Chinese suffered through not only a foreign invasion, but a savage civil war that continued between the communists and the national government. Territories changed hands dozens of times, and across Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, civilians tried to survive in a world where they were mere pawns in a global game of territorial acquisition.
For soldiers fighting in World War II, there was no singular experience. Whereas trench warfare came to define the first Great War, combat in World War II became almost indefinable. A soldier could fight behind a tank crossing the Tunisian desert. He could live for weeks underwater as his submarine crew struggled to sink merchant vessels attempting to supply enemy combatants. He could storm the beaches of Sicily, the coral atolls of the Pacific or the beaches of Normandy. He could just as likely freeze to death huddled in a hole in Bastogne in temperatures 40 degrees below zero, as he could die marching for miles through 110 degree temperatures on the Bataan Death March or die shot in the head by a sniper perched in the corner of a blown-out factory building in Stalingrad. And his tools of terror were like no other before. Sure, he still had his machine gun, his flamethrower, his knife and his grenade, but now he survived on ships as big as floating islands, fired V2 rockets that soared into the stratosphere and built bombs that required the splitting of atoms. It was in some ways like all the other wars fought before, but at a scale never before seen, using tools of destruction never before envisioned.
The world would need to rebuild from this near-apocalypse. It would need to take stock of what went wrong, punish the aggressors and ensure the world would not merely fall again into chaos within a few short decades. The Paris Peace Conference of World War I proved an abject failure. The world could not survive another botched treaty. For now that man had atomic bombs, the next world conflict would mean the end of humankind.
But that is for another chapter.