Second World War overview 1939-40

Second World War, overview of the course of the ‘Blitzkriege’ (lightning wars) from 1939 to 1940 (Part I).
Polish campaign, Stalin’s territorial claims, Western campaign and Battle of Britain.

capture of Paris
The highlight of the German Blitzkrieg was the capture of Paris.

Lightning wars – Blitzkriege

From the outset Hitler had set himself the goal of transforming Europe by military means to gain the ‘German living space’ and the redistributing of worldwide resources, together with the disappearance or expulsion of ‘inferior races’ and undesirables people according to the ideas of his racial madness.

Nevertheless, the German Reich was not actually prepared for a major conflict, which, in view of the successes in the first years of the Second World War, seems strange for the time being. The Wehrmacht, which proved itself to be a steel-hard and successful army, was still in its infancy and there was no such thing as ‘deep armaments industry’.

This apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that the Second World War broke out too early according to Hitler’s own schedule. In 1936, he had given the order in a top-secret memorandum that the German economy must be ready for war in four years. The consequence was that the German armaments industry was not yet ready when the Fuehrer decided at the beginning of 1939 to attack Poland at the first opportunity.

At that time the Wehrmacht had more and modern airplanes and also newer armored combat vehicles than the individual neighbors of Germany, but even the British alone were already producing more new weapons at that time. And it looked even worse with the German Kriegsmarine, since the fleet construction program, which had just begun in 1938, was scheduled for 1944.

Military parade on Hitler's 50th birthday
Military parade on Hitler’s 50th birthday on 20 April 1939 in Berlin.

Nevertheless, after the outbreak of the Second World War, the Wehrmacht achieved surprising initial successes for everyone. This was due on the one hand to the equally surprising weakness of its opponents until at least 1942, and on the other hand to its high fighting power and the modern military concept of the Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’), in which all branches of the armed forces waged a war of movement in close cooperation.
The Panzer arm had been organized and designed by the foresighted Heinz Guderian and worked closely together with the Luftwaffe, which was built up by the then still energetic organizer Hermann Goering. Hitler was also very open-minded and technically interested in all modern things, which led to an ideal start for German weapons.
However, the early and rapid successes soon led to arrogance and the timely and fundamental establishment of a sustainable armaments industry was overslept.

Polish campaign

Stukas flying across a German Panzer IV tank.
Stukas flying over German Panzer IV tanks during the campaign in Poland.

On September 1, 1939, the German Stukas and Panzer units attacked Poland without prior declaration of war. Within a few days, the Polish idea that one could endure until the Allies in the West attacked on their part and that one would soon stand in front of Berlin vanished.
Although the French and British quickly declared war on the German Reich, they had never intended to assist the Poles by attacking Germany in the West. In their eyes it was only possible to defend Poland with the help of the Soviet Union, and the Warsaw Warranty Declaration was only intended to show Hitler a ‘red line’.

But since the Poles were more afraid of Soviet troops in their country than of the Germans, an alliance between France, Great Britain, Poland and the Soviet Union was illusory.
Instead, Stalin had decided to pact with Hitler to win back those former Russian territories of the 1914 Tsarists Empire in Eastern Europe. This included parts of eastern Poland, some of which had a predominantly Ukrainian population.

Polish PoW's 1939
Four Polish soldiers and a nurse who were captured.

Thus the Polish armed forces were beaten practically within eighteen days. The new German tactic of the Blitzkrieg led to Stukas and bombers smashing the Polish deployment and the airfields from the beginning and also bombing Warsaw, while Me 109 Emil fighters destroyed the rest of the Polish air force in the air.
While the German Panzer spear heads penetrated far into the Polish hinterland, the German infantry cut off a large Polish army at the western border and smashed another one into pieces in the corridor by attacks with tank support from Pomerania and East Prussia.
At the same time, General Guderian’s XIXth Panzer Corps, the first independent tank unit in military history, pushed 185 miles (300 kilometers) into Poland and tied up the reserves there.
At that time Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland and Warsaw surrendered on September 27.

Although the Poles were able to mobilize 600,000 men and the Wehrmacht attacked with just one million, a war ended, many of whom assumed it would last months, if not years after the experiences of the First World War, due to the greater German mobility within only four weeks.

The Germans lost 14,000 killed and 30,000 wounded, while the Poles lost about a million men, including 800,000 prisoners of war.

Stalin’s Territorial Claims

Cartoon: Hitler and Stalin are going together to catch their prey
A Swedish cartoon about the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Hitler and Stalin are going together to catch their prey.

After Soviet troops had occupied the eastern part of Poland, Stalin set about incorporating the territories assured by Hitler in the secret additional agreement of the Friendship and Trade Treaty of August 1939 with Germany.
The right of self-determination of the smaller Peoples in Bessarabia, the Baltic States and Finland was disregarded by both Hitler and Stalin.

The Soviets were still comparatively simple with the occupation of the three Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the later squeezing of Bessarabia from Romania in the summer of 1940.
The Finns successfully resisted when Stalin tried to conquer Finnish Karelia.

The Red Army still suffered from Stalin’s purges of its officer corps, and worldwide public opinion sharply opposed Soviet imperialism.
It took until March 1940 for the Finns to come under so much pressure from the Red Army and at the same time for Stalin to end the increasingly dangerous international conflict that a peace treaty was finally reached. In this dictate Finland had to cede parts of Karelia and lease the peninsula of Hangeo to the Soviet Union.

Western Campaign

Map about the Campaign in the West 1940
Map about the Campaign in the West with its four main steps in different colored arrows.

On May 10, 1940, Hitler was finally able to begin his long-awaited attack in the West. The course of this offensive against the French armed forces, which were fighting so strongly and bravely in the First World War, surprised not only the whole world along with an angry Stalin, but also Hitler and the German generals. The first step of the offensive was original only to win Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and the eastern Channel coast in order to gain bases for a sea and air war against Britain.

The fact that the Western campaign then ended within six weeks with the defeat of France was mainly due to an aggressive German Wehrmacht with a bold strategy, initiated by General Erich von Manstein, of breaking with tanks through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes, which met a passive French leadership completely focused on defense. Their troops showed little moral in waging an unloved war for a distant country in the East, and were poorly organized and largely armed with equipment from World War I.

German tank in Rijsoord in Holland
German tank in Rijsoord in Holland, where the surrender of the Dutch armed forces was signed.

As expected by the Allies, the German troops bypassed the Maginot Line as they had done against the French fortress lines in 1914 through Belgium and this time also Holland. As a countermeasure, the French-British troops on the northern flank were to advance into Belgium. This maneuver, however, played directly into the hands of the German plans when the German Panzer units pushed through the weakest part of the Allied front south of it through the Ardennes, which were considered ‘tank-safe’, and cut off the British and French troops that had advanced in the north.
Although it was possible to evacuate most of the British Expeditionary Corps and some French troops, the fall of Paris and the French armistice on June 22, 1940, were the result of the German tank breach.

In the last phase, Mussolini’s Italians appeared on the scene to catch some loot, but had little success in southern France.

railway carriage of Marshal Foch 1940
In the same railway carriage of Marshal Foch, in which once the armistice was agreed in 1918, the French had to sign in June 1940.

Hitler’s armistice conditions for the heroic defender of Verdun in 1916, Marshal Petain, who tried to save France as the new head of government, were relatively moderate. The south of France and the colonies remained untouched and only the areas on the French north and west coasts necessary for the continuation of the war against Great Britain as well as the important industrial regions were occupied.

Only General de Gaulle wanted to continue the resistance from London and gain influence in the French overseas territories. This wish was not shared by many French, however, and in addition to the later increase in resistance by the Resistance, there was a lively collaboration with Hitler’s Germany in all occupied territories in the West and North.

Battle of Britain

He 111 bombers
German He 111 bombers are attacked by British fighters during the Battle of Britain.

Now Hitler was mainly interested in how he could end the war against the last remaining opponent, Great Britain. The German Navy, however, was not enthusiastic about a landing on the British Isles, which was then postponed indefinitely after the autumn storms in the Channel began.
Until then the intensive attacks of the German Luftwaffe on the British island in the Battle of Britain had practically led to no result.
After the German bombers changed from tactical attacks on the airfields of the Royal Air Force to strategic bombing raids on London and other cities, this provoked – not inconveniently – Churchill’s will to retaliate. As a result, terror attacks by English night bombers on German cities began.

Molotov at Berlin visit
The Soviet People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, with the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to his right at his Berlin visit on November 12, 1940. The talks finally persuaded Hitler that the attack on the Soviet Union had to be set in motion without delay.

During this time Hitler decided to postpone the decision against Great Britain and to turn against his original main goal, the Soviet Union. He was not wrong to assume that Britain would continue to fight anyway as long as Germany could still be threatened by the Red Army in the back and the United States could enter the war under its President Roosevelt, who was already devoted to it.
Just as Napoleon’s plan to smash ‘England’s continental swords’ was repeated, so too was Hitler’s thought and the same failure of the attack followed.

In the meantime, Mussolini also launched an attack on neutral Greece next to an offensive that had been stuck in the sand of the Egyptian desert, which quickly got also stuck and invited the British to gain a foothold on the island of Crete – within the range of the Romanian oil areas that were vital for Germany.

button go Here to Part II: Second World War, overview of the course of the ‘Axis high tide’ from 1941 to 1942.

References and literature

Der 2. Weltkrieg (C. Bertelsmann Verlag)
Zweiter Weltkrieg in Bildern (Mathias Färber)
A World at Arms – A Global History of World War II (Gerhard L. Weinberg)
Illustrierte Geschichte des Dritte Reiches (Kurt Zentner)
Unser Jahrhundert im Bild (Bertelsmann Lesering)
Der Grosse Atlas zum II. Weltkrieg (Peter Young)
Historical Atlas of World War Two – The Geography of Conflict (Ronald Story)

Oval@3x 2

Don’t miss the daily posts about WW1&WW2!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top