World War II



In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, the German armies marched into Poland. On September 3 the British and French surprised Hitler by declaring war on Germany, but they had no plans for rendering active assistance to the Poles.



The Battle of Britain

In the summer of 1940, Hitler dominated Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees. His one remaining active enemy?Britain, under a new prime minister, Winston Churchill?vowed to continue fighting. Whether it could was questionable. The British army had left most of its weapons on the beaches at Dunkirk. Stalin was in no mood to challenge Hitler. The U.S., shocked by the fall of France, began the first peacetime conscription in its history and greatly increased its military budget, but public opinion, although sympathetic to Britain, was against getting into the war.

The Germans hoped to subdue the British by starving them out. In June 1940 they undertook the Battle of the Atlantic, using submarine warfare to cut the British overseas lifelines. The Germans now had submarine bases in Norway and France. At the outset the Germans had only 28 submarines, but more were being built?enough to keep Britain in danger until the spring of 1943 and to carry on the battle for months thereafter.

Invasion was the expeditious way to finish off Britain, but that meant crossing the English Channel; Hitler would not risk it unless the British air force could be neutralized first. As a result, the Battle of Britain was fought in the air, not on the beaches. In August 1940 the Germans launched daylight raids against ports and airfields and in September against inland cities. The objective was to draw out the British fighters and destroy them. The Germans failed to reckon with a new device, radar, which greatly increased the British fighters' effectiveness. Because their own losses were too high, the Germans had to switch to night bombing at the end of September. Between then and May 1941 they made 71 major raids on London and 56 on other cities, but the damage they wrought was too indiscriminate to be militarily decisive. On September 17, 1940, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely, thereby conceding defeat in the Battle of Britain.



U.S. Aid to Britain

The U.S. abandoned strict neutrality in the European war and approached a confrontation with Japan in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. U.S. and British conferences, begun in January 1941, determined a basic strategy for the event of a U.S. entry into the war, namely, that both would center their effort on Germany, leaving Japan, if need be, to be dealt with later.

In March 1941 the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and appropriated an initial $7 billion to lend or lease weapons and other aid to any countries the president might designate. By this means the U.S. hoped to ensure victory over the Axis without involving its own troops. By late summer of 1941, however, the U.S. was in a state of undeclared war with Germany. In July, U.S. Marines were stationed in Iceland, which had been occupied by the British in May 1940, and thereafter the U.S. Navy took over the task of escorting convoys in the waters west of Iceland. In September President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized ships on convoy duty to attack Axis war vessels.



The German Invasion of the USSR

The war's most massive encounter began on the morning of June 22, 1941, when slightly more than 3 million German troops invaded the USSR. Although German preparations had been visible for months and had been talked about openly among the diplomats in Moscow, the Soviet forces were taken by surprise. Stalin, his confidence in the country's military capability shaken by the Finnish war, had refused to allow any counteractivity for fear of provoking the Germans. Moreover, the Soviet military leadership had concluded that blitzkrieg, as it had been practiced in Poland and France, would not be possible on the scale of a Soviet-German war; both sides would therefore confine themselves for the first several weeks at least to sparring along the frontier. The Soviet army had 2.9 million troops on the western border and outnumbered the Germans by two to one in tanks and by two or three to one in aircraft. Many of its tanks and aircraft were older types, but some of the tanks, particularly the later famous T-34s, were far superior to any the Germans