World War II, European Theater of Operations (ETO), Overview Map. Click map for larger image.
Events Leading to World War II in Europe
World War I ended in 1918 but the Versailles Treaty did not bring the permanent peace many hoped would follow. Germany's democratic institutions were fragile and the worldwide depression that began in 1929 brought Adolf Hitler and his fascist, anti-Semitic Nazi Party to power in 1933. Hitler closed the German parliament and assumed dictatorial powers proclaiming the Third Reich.
By March 1938, German had rearmed and their troops occupied Austria. In September Hitler threatened war over Czechoslovakia. England and France met with Hitler and, with the infamous Munich Pact, compelled Czechoslovakia to cede frontier districts to Germany in exchange for an illusory "peace in our time." During March 1939 Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia by force of arms and then turned his attention to Poland. Although Britain and France had guaranteed the integrity of Poland, Hitler and Josef Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union, signed a secret, mutual nonaggression pact in August 1939. With the pact, Stalin bought time to build up his strength at the expense of Britain and France, and Hitler gained a free hand to deal with Poland.
Blitzkrieg: Opening Phase of World War II in Europe
When Hitler's army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, World War II began in Europe. As German forces overran western Poland, Soviet troops entered from the east to claim their portion under the Hitler-Stalin pact. France and Britain declared war on Germany and mobilized their forces. Little happened until spring 1940, a period known as the Phony War (sometimes called Sitzkrieg).
Evolving beyond the static trenches of World War I, German Generals Lutz and Guderian conceived the idea of Blitzkrieg (Lightning War): massing tanks in division-size units, with infantry, artillery, engineers, and other supporting arms mechanized and all moving at the same rapid pace. In early 1940 their theories were put to the test as German forces struck against Norway and Denmark in April, invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg in May, and late in the same month France. German columns rapidly reached the English Channel, cutting off British and French troops in northern France and Belgium. The French Army fell apart. The British evacuated their forces from Dunkerque (Dunkirk) with the loss of most of their equipment. The Germans entered Paris on 14 June, and the divided, defeatist French government sought an armistice.
With most of Europe defeated, Hitler launched the Luftwaffe against the airfields and cities of England to pave the way for an invasion. From July to October 1940 Britain's survival hung by a thread while the Royal Air Force, greatly outnumbered, fought the Luftwaffe in the ultimately successful defense known as the Battle of Britain. At sea the British Navy, with increasing American cooperation, fought a desperate battle against German submarine packs to keep the North Atlantic open.
World War II Expands to North Africa and the Eastern Front
In February 1941 Hitler sent troops under Gen. Erwin Rommel to aid the Italians against the British in North Africa. German forces coming to the aid of the Italians in the Balkans forced British troops out of Greece, and German paratroopers seized the important island of Crete. Then, in June 1941, Hitler launched the German armed forces against the Soviet Union, his erstwhile ally.
In Operation Barbarossa German armored columns thrust deep into Soviet territory, driving toward Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine, cutting off entire Soviet armies. Despite tremendous losses, Russian military forces withdrew farther into the country and continued to resist. With the onset of winter 1941 Nazi expectations of a quick victory evaporated and the Nazi advance ground to a halt outside Moscow. The Soviets launched massive counterattacks but the Germans held and resumed their offensive in the spring of 1942. Leningrad did not fall, enduring a siege began that lasted 900 days, from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, an attempt by the Nazis to starve the city's three million people to death. The Soviets, now locked in a titanic death struggle, faced the bulk of the German land forces -- over two hundred divisions -- on a front that stretched for 2,000 miles, from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. Casualties ran into the millions as the Red and Nazi armies battled and committed wholesale atrocities against prisoners and civilians.
The United States Enters World War II
On 7 December 1941, while German armies were freezing at the gates of Moscow, Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and propelled an unprepared United States into the war. Four days later Hitler declared war on the United States. President Roosevelt called on Congress for immediate and massive expansion of the American armed forces, neglected since the end of World War I.
As American garrisons in the Pacific fell to the Japanese in the spring of 1942, thirty-seven Army divisions were in some state of training, but only one was fully trained, equipped, and deployable. Eventually 9 million American men were organized into 90 Army divisions to win the war.
Counter-offensive Against Germany in the West Begins in North Africa
At the December 1941 Arcadia Conference, British and American leaders made the European Theater of Operations (ETO) the first priorty, Germany before Japan. Since an immediate ground attack on the Germans in Europe was not possible, German forces in the Mediterranean were targeted for attack by the end of 1942. Meanwhile, the RAF (Royal Air Force) began bombing runs against Germany in May 1942, and on 4 July 1942 the first American crews participated in air raids against the Germans in Europe.
Operation TORCH, 8 November 1942, was the first major American ground operation of the war. The North African French colonies of Morocco and Algeria were invaded to open a second front, demanded by Stalin to siphon off German forces from his Eastern front, and to cut off the Afrika Korps line of retreat from their loss at El Alamein. The Anglo-American operation was commanded by Dwight D. Eisenhower from the British base at Gibraltar. The Vichy French resisted, causing 556 American and 300 British deaths, against 700 French soldiers killed.
To prevent the threat to Afrika Korps, the Germans poured troops into Tunisia by air and sea. During the February 1943 Battle of Kasserine Pass, Gen. Rommel's troops punished the green Americans in the first phase, but then the Germans were pushed back by heavy bombing and revitalized U.S. and British troops. The battles raged from late February through April with the Allies gradually gaining the advantage. On May 13 Axis resistance ended with 240,000 Italians and Germans taken prisoner.