Second World War, overview of the course from 1943 to 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers by the Allies (Part III).
Here to Part II: Second World War overview 1941-42.
Home Front Germany
Under the leadership of the new Minister of Armaments, Speer, there has been a huge but belated increase in German armaments’ production since 1942, which reached its peak in 1944.
However, this did not change the increasing material superiority of the Allies, especially through the ‘armory’ of North America, which supplemented the high Soviet arms production with supplies via the Arctic convoys and occupied Iran under the lend-lease agreement.
In addition, the Allies increasingly dominated the airspace since 1943 without restrictions, whereby the German cities were laid in ruins by uninterrupted bombing raids by day by the B-17 Fortress bombers of the Americans and by night by the Lancaster bombers of the British RAF.
The U-boat war in the Battle of the Atlantic, which had been so successful and increasingly dangerous for the Allied invasion plans, also collapsed abruptly in the summer of 1943, when more and better radar equipment, anti-submarine weapons, escort aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft were used by British and Americans.
After the Stalingrad disaster, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels invoked the ‘Total War’ in February 1943 to mobilize the last reserves, but the siege ring around the ‘Fortress Europe’ closed tighter and tighter.
In May 1943 the German-Italian Panzer army had to surrender in Tunisia, which even exceeded the losses in Stalingrad. British and American troops then landed in Sicily on 10 July 1943 and in the Gulf of Salerno south of Naples on 9 September. As a result, Mussolini’s rule in Italy was overthrown and the country switched the side to the Allies and had to be defended by German divisions as an occupied country. In addition, there were the large Italian occupation zones in the Balkans and the Aegean Sea, which now bound additional German forces after their takeover.
A slow and tough Allied advance followed over the next one and a half years to the north, stopped by the German troops above all in the Battle of Monte Cassino at the Gustav Line.
The previous landings of the Western Allies in French Northwest Africa, then on Sicily and later in Italy itself were also trials for the ‘Great Invasion’ in Normandy on 6 June 1944. Although the ‘Atlantic Wall’, which was always propagated loudly in German propaganda, was quickly overcome, the subsequent fighting on the Contentin Peninsula took longer than planned against a tough German defense. In August 1944 the break-out from the invasion bridgehead head finally succeeded and until autumn the Western Allies stood at the Reich’s borders.
An Allied air landing near Arnhem for the conquest of the Rhine bridges in order to end the war victoriously in 1944 failed, which was not least due to a now increasing overestimation of the Allied side’s capabilities and an underestimation of the still existing German resistance.
At the end of the year Hitler tried to repeat the coup of 1940 in the West during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. After initial successes against surprised Americans, however, the offensive quickly conked out in the snow of the hilly Ardennes, due to lack of fuel, Allied control of the air with fighter bombers after the weather cleared up and the sheer numerical superiority of the opponent.
The German people still hoped that the announced new Wunderwaffen (‘miracle weapons’) would bring the turn of the war, after the spectacular rocket missiles V-1 and V-2, however, had only little effective success. After 1944, however, the Third Reich could not bring anymore ‘miracle weapons’ to operational service other than the Me 262 jet fighters and Arado Blitz jet bombers.
In spring 1945 the Americans, British and French reached the Rhine along its entire length, crossed it for the first time with the surprising capture of the Remagen Bridge on 7 March 1945 and encircled Model’s Army Group B in the Ruhr pocket. This ended an effective defense in the West and the Allied armies advanced to the Elbe, where they stopped, as this was the agreed demarcation line with the Soviets.
In the meantime there was also one last attempt by the German military resistance, which had been active for a long time, to end the Nazi regime by killing Hitler and to end the Second World War in a state tolerable for Germany, despite the Allied demands for ‘unconditional surrender’. The assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 on Hitler in the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg failed, however, together with the subsequent coup attempt of the conspirators in Berlin.
Hitler took bloody revenge in humiliating show trials before Freisler’s People’s Court and thousands of actual or apparent opponents of the regime were executed. In addition to Marxists, Christian trade unionists, theologians of the Catholic and Protestant churches, diplomats, officers and Abwehr (Secret Service) members, such prominent names as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel were also among them.
From that day on, the war was led with heavy losses only to delay the inevitable defeat of Germany and the end for its Nazi leadership.
Soviet advance to Berlin
After a temporary, great victory at Kharkov by von Manstein following the severe defeat of Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943, Hitler tried once again in the summer to win back the initiative on the Eastern Front in the Tank battle of Kursk. This failed, however, and not least because the British had deciphered the entire German operation plan with Ultra and passed it on to the Soviets.
Already during the winter of 1943-44, the Soviets succeeded in reconquering the economically important Ukraine. They had high losses, but slowly but surely pushed the German troops under von Manstein back to the Polish and Romanian prewar borders.
Then, in the summer of 1944, the Red Army succeeded in destroying practically the entire German Army Group Center, a catastrophe which, taken together, eclipsed all previous defeats of this kind. The Russians reached East Prussia and the German allies on the Eastern front – Finland, Romania and Slovakia – fell off one by one. Only the Hungarians shared – rather involuntarily – the fate of Hitler’s Millennial Reich until the last day.
The last year of the war then began with the Soviet offensive on 12 January 1945 on East Prussia and at the Vistula. The delayed evacuation of the German eastern provinces resulted in horrific casualties among the civilian population when fleeing in the icy winter and by incited, vengeful Soviet soldiers.
In April 1945, the last Soviet offensive took place on the Oder in the direction of Berlin, and Adolf Hitler took his own life in his bunker under the rubble of the Reich Chancellery on 30 April 1945.
The surrender of Berlin, the meeting of American and Soviet troops on the Elbe (see picture above) and the almost complete occupation of the Reich territory by allied troops, left Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, hardly any possibility of continuing the war any longer. Although many refugees and troops were still to be rescued from the Red Army, the German leadership had to sign the unconditional surrender also to the Soviets on 8 May 1945. By midnight of that day the war in Europe had ended.
End of the war in the Pacific
In the Far East, however, the Second World War continued for some time, as the Japanese fiercely resisted. From June to August 1944, American forces conquered the Mariana Islands, from where B-29 Superfortress long-range bombers could attack Japanese cities, leading to increasing devastation of the country. At the same time, in an attempt to repel the landings there, the Japanese carrier fleet was wiped out in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.
This was followed by the American landing in the Philippines, which divided the Japanese empire into two parts. The naval battle in the Leyte Gulf almost destroyed the rest of the Imperial Japanese fleet.
The bloody invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945 allowed the Americans to secure their long-range bombers by escort fighters to Japan and at the same time offer damaged bombers a base for emergency landings.
In May and June Okinawa was conquered by an invasion. It was the first island of the Japanese homeland and in its defense the super battleship Yamato was sacrificed. Despite numerous Kamikaze missions of the ‘sacrifice pilots’, the last organized Japanese resistance on the island ended on June 21.
Now the Americans were ready to attack the Japanese main islands themselves starting in November 1945. But that was not the case, since on 8 August Stalin declared war on the Japanese despite a non-aggression treaty and the Soviets had already conquered Manchuria on 18 August.
In the meantime, the first atomic bomb of the Superfortress Enola Gay on 6 August on Hiroshima, followed by the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August, finally put an end to the Japanese resistance will.
Japan surrendered when Emperor Hirohito asserted himself against his military, with the proviso that the 123rd Tenno would remain unchallenged by the Allies. This was accepted by the Allies and so Hirohito, as the last co-responsible leader of the Second World War, represented Japan until his death in 1989.
Consequences of the Second World War
The Second World War exceeded World War One by a multiple with its already unbelievable ten million war deaths with actual about 55 million casualties. In addition, there was the destruction of irreplaceable cultural assets by the escalating bombing war.
The First World War still broke out in a ‘traditional’ way, namely how wars had come about in Europe from generation to generation. It was also waged in the same way and had its limited aims, namely the conquest of some provinces of the neighbor or distant colonies.
The consequences of the First World War, such as the collapse of old empires (Russia, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire), cultures, traditions and the way in which men and women lived together, as well as the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, had not originally been foreseen by any of the participants before the war and in the end surprised both victors and defeated alike.
Also, the victims of the ‘Spanish Flu’ in 1918-19 with presumably 50 to 100 million dead worldwide exceeded the war dead many times over and can only partly be explained as a consequence of the war.
The Second World War, on the other hand, was led radically ideologically from the beginning in order to completely change the world, to destroy or dominate states and entire populations. Europe lost its supremacy in the world after 1945 and ceased to be the dynamic center of events, as it had been, at least since Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
After the First World War, the constellations in the world had not changed significantly by and large. The German Reich had become somewhat smaller and weaker, but still had the largest population and strongest economy in the center of Europe. The colonial empires of the victors remained and the USA withdrew into isolationism after the disappointment of the Treaty of Versailles. Bolshevik Russia was hardly noticed by the other states and was mainly occupied with itself.
Only the Second World War changed everything completely. From now on the USA and the Soviet Union played the first role in the world and Europe was torn in the middle by a border between the eastern and western blocks, which was rigid on both sides with weapons.
As early as 1835 (!) Alexis de Tocqueville wrote prophetically: ‘There are two great nations on earth who start from different points and advance to the same goal, the Russians and the English Americans … All the other nations seem to have reached approximately the limits determined by nature … but these two are still growing …’.
As a result, Britain, France and the other nations lost their colonial territories, while the superpowers stood armed to the teeth on the ruins of the defeated states. Germany and Japan had been done as great powers by their own leaders, while the barely veiled Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and the Far East put a virtual end to the Allied war coalition as early as summer 1945.
At the Potsdam Conference from mid-July to 2 August 1945, the new Western leaders, the American Truman – after Roosevelt’s surprising death rather a random president – and – since the British were probably tired of the victorious fighter Churchill after six years of war – the newly elected British Prime Minister Attlee and Stalin tried to order this new world.
They were taken for a ride in a lazy compromise by the Soviet dictator, who in the meantime had created facts and whose soldiers occupied half of Europe.
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)