The Second World War, 1939-45 (Part-2)


We saw how the combination of sea and air power was the key to success in the Pacific war and how, after the initial shock at Pearl Harbor, the Americans were able to build up that superiority in both departments, which was to lead to the eventual defeat of Japan. At the same time the British navy, as in the First World War, had a vital role to play: this included protecting merchant ships bringing food supplies, sinking German submarines and surface raiders, blockading Germany, and transporting and supplying Allied troops fighting in North Africa and later in Italy. At first success was mixed, mainly because the British failed to understand the importance of air support in naval operations and had few aircraft carriers. Thus they suffered defeats in Norway and Crete, where the Germans had strong air superiority. In addition the Germans had many naval bases in Norway, Denmark, France and Italy. In spite of this the British navy could point to some important achievements.

(a) British successes

  1. Aircraft from the carrier Illustrious sank half the Italian fleet at Taranto (November 1940).
  2. The threat from surface raiders was removed by the sinking of the Bismarck, Germany’s only battleship at the time (May 1941 ).
  3. The navy destroyed the German invasion transports on their way to Crete (May 1941), though they could not prevent the landing of parachute troops.
  4. They provided escorts for convoys carrying supplies to help the Russians.
  5. Their most important contribution was their victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.
  6. Sea and air power together made possible the great invasion of France in June 1944.

(b) The Battle of the Atlantic

This was the struggle against German U-boats attempting to deprive Britain of food and raw materials. At the beginning of 1942 the Germans had 90 U-boats in operation and 250 being built. In the first six months of that year the Allies lost over 4 million tons of merchant shipping and destroyed only 21 U-boats. Losses reached a peak of 108 ships in March 1943, almost two-thirds of which were in convoy. By July 1943 the Allies could produce ships at a faster rate than the U-boats could sink them, and the situation was under control.

The reasons for the Allied success were:

  • more air protection was provided for convoys by long-range Liberators;
  • both escorts and aircraft improved with experience;
  • the British introduced the new centimetric radar sets, which were small enough to be fitted into aircraft; these enabled submarines to be detected in poor visibility and at night.

The victory was just as important as Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad: Britain could not have continued to sustain the losses of March 1943 and still remained in the war.


(a) Achievements of Allied air power

  1. The first significant achievement was in the Battle of Britain (1940), when the RAF beat off the Luftwaffe attacks, causing Hitler to abandon his invasion plans.
  2. In conjunction with the British navy, aircraft played a varied role: the successful attacks on the Italian fleet at Taranto and Cape Matapan, the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz by heavy bombers in Norway (November 1943), the protection of convoys in the Atlantic, and anti-submarine operations. Since the introduction of the new radar devices, more U-boats were being destroyed by aircraft than by naval vessels.
  3. The American air force together with the navy played a vital part in winning the Pacific war against the Japanese. Dive-bombers operating from aircraft carriers won the Battle of Midway Island in June 1942. Later, in the ‘island-hopping’ campaign, attacks by heavy bombers prepared the way for landings by marines, for example at the Mariana Islands (1944) and the Philippines (1945). American transport planes kept up the vital flow of supplies to the Allies during the campaign to recapture Burma.

(b) Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities

The most controversial action was the Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities. The Germans had bombed London and other important British cities and ports during 1940 and 1941, but these raids dwindled during the German attack on Russia, which required all the Luftwaffe’s strength. The British and Americans retaliated with what they called a ‘strategic air offensive’ – this involved massive attacks on military and industrial targets in order to hamper the German war effort. Sometimes raids seem to have been carried out to undermine civilian morale, as when about 50000 people were killed during a single night raid on Dresden (February 1945).

Early in 1945 the Americans launched a series of devastating raids on Japan from bases in the Mariana Islands. In a single raid on Tokyo, in March, 80000 people were killed and a quarter of the city was destroyed. There has been debate about how effective the bombing was in hastening the Axis defeat. It certainly caused enormous civilian casualties and helped to destroy morale.

Others argue that this type of bombing, which caused the deaths of so many innocent civilians was morally wrong. In 2001 Swedish writer Sven Lindquist, in his book A History of Bombing, suggested that what he called ‘the systematic attacks on German civilians in their homes’ should be viewed as ‘crimes under international humanitarian law for the protection of civilians’. However, Robin Niellands (2001) defended the bombing, pointing out that this is what could be expected to happen during a total war – in the context of what the Germans had done in eastern Europe and the Japanese in their occupied territories, this was the necessary ‘price of peace’.

As to the question of whether the bombing helped to shorten the war, it used to be thought that the campaign had little effect until the autumn of 1944. However, evidence from German archives shows that the RAF attack on the Ruhr in the spring of 1943 had an immediate effect on production. The effects of the bombings reached disaster proportions; synthetic oil production fell rapidly, causing acute fuel shortages. By June 1945 the Japanese had been reduced to the same state. In the end, therefore, after much wasted effort early on, the Allied strategic air offensive was one of the decisive reasons for the Axis defeat: besides strangling fuel and armaments production and destroying railway communications, it caused the diversion of many aircraft from the eastern front, thus helping the Russian advance into Germany.


The reasons can be summarized briefly:

  • shortage of raw materials;
  • the Allies learning from their mistakes and failures;
  • the Axis powers taking on too much;
  • the overwhelming impact of the combined resources of the USA, the USSR and the
    British Empire;
  • tactical mistakes by the Axis powers.

(a) Shortage of raw materials

Both Italy and Japan had to import supplies, and even Germany was short of rubber, cotton, nickel and, after mid-1944, oil. These shortages need not have been fatal, but success depended on a swift end to the war, which certainly seemed likely at first, thanks to the speed and efficiency of the German Blitzkrieg. However, the survival of Britain in 1940 was important because it kept the western front alive until the USA entered the war.

(b) The Allies soon learned from their early failures

By 1942 they knew how to check Blitzkrieg attacks and appreciated the importance of air support and aircraft carriers. Consequently they built up an air and naval superiority which won the battles of the Atlantic and the Pacific and slowly starved their enemies of supplies.

(c) The Axis powers simply took on too much

Hitler did not seem to understand that war against Britain would involve her empire as well, and that his troops were bound to be spread too thinly – on the Russian front, on both sides of the Mediterranean, and on the western coastline of France. Japan made the same mistake. They became stretched out far beyond their basic capacity for holding their gains. For Japan was a small island state with limited industrial power. In Germany’s case, Mussolini was partly to blame: his incompetence was a constant drain on Hitler’s resources.

(d) The combined resources of the USA, the USSR and the British Empire

These resources were so great that the longer the war lasted, the less chance the Axis had of victory. The Russians rapidly moved their industry east of the Ural Mountains and so were able to continue production even though the Germans had occupied vast areas in the west. By 1945 they had four times as many tanks as the Germans and could put twice as many men in the field. When the American war machine reached peak production it could turn out over 70000 tanks and 120000 aircraft a year, which the Germans and Japanese could not match.

(e) Serious tactical mistakes

  • The Japanese failed to learn the lesson about the importance of aircraft carriers, and concentrated too much on producing battleships.
  • Hitler should have defeated Britain before invading the USSR, which committed Germany to a war on two fronts. German plans for the invasion of Britain were vague and improvised, and they underestimated the strength of the enemy. Britain was saved for the Allies and was able to be used later as the base from which to launch the D-Day landings.
  • Hitler failed to provide for a winter campaign in Russia and completely underestimated Russian resourcefulness and determination. The deeper the German army advanced into Soviet territory, the more its supply and communication lines became exposed to enemy counter-attacks. Hitler also became obsessed with the idea that the German armies must not retreat; this led to many disasters in Russia, especially Stalingrad, and left his troops badly exposed in Normandy (1944). This all helped to hasten defeat because it meant that scarce resources were being wasted.
  • Hitler made a fatal mistake by declaring war on the USA after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Another serious mistake was Hitler’s decision to concentrate on producing V-rockets when he could have been developing jet aircraft; these might well have restored German air superiority and prevented the devastating bomb attacks of 1944 and 1945.

(f) Nazi racial policy

Nazi treatment of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in occupied territories of the USSR alienated many of the conquered peoples who, with decent treatment, could have been brought on board to fight the Stalinist regime. Soviet rule was especially unpopular in the Ukraine.


(a) Enormous destruction

There was enormous destruction of lives, homes, industries and communications in Europe and Asia. Almost 40 million people were killed: well over half of them were Russians, 6 million were Poles, 4 million Germans, 2 million Chinese and 2 million Japanese. Britain and the USA got off comparatively lightly.

A further 21 million people had been uprooted from their homes: some had been taken to Germany to work as slave labourers, and around seven million of these were still in Germany; some had been put into concentration camps, and some had been forced to flee from invading armies. The victorious powers were left with the problem of how to repatriate them.

Large parts of Germany, especially her industrial areas and many major cities, lay in ruins. Much of western Russia had been completely devastated, and some 25 million people were homeless. France had suffered badly too: taking into account the destruction of housing, factories, railways, mines and livestock, almost 50 per cent of total French wealth had been lost. In Italy, where damage was very serious in the south, the figure was over 30 per cent. Japan suffered heavy damage and a high death toll from bombings.

Though the cost was high, it did mean that the world had been rid of Nazism, which had been responsible for terrible atrocities. The most notorious was the Holocaust – the deliberate murder in extermination camps of over five million Jews and hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, mainly in Poland and Russia.

(b) There was no all-inclusive peace settlement

This was different from the end of the First World War, when an all-inclusive settlement was negotiated at Versailles. This was mainly because the distrust which had re-emerged between the USSR and the west in the final months of the war made agreement on many points impossible. However, a number of separate treaties were signed:

  • Italy lost her African colonies and gave up her claims to Albania and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
  • The USSR took the eastern section of Czechoslovakia, the Petsamo district and the area round Lake Ladoga from Finland, and held on to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which they had occupied in 1939.
  • Romania recovered northern Transylvania, which the Hungarians had occupied during the war.
  • Trieste, claimed by both Italy and Yugoslavia, was declared a free territory protected by the United Nations Organization.
  • Later, at San Francisco (1951), Japan agreed to surrender all territory acquired during the previous 90 years, which included a complete withdrawal from China.

However, the Russians refused to agree to any settlement over Germany and Austria, except that they should be occupied by Allied troops and that East Prussia should be divided between Russia and Poland.

c) The war stimulated important social changes

In addition to the population movements during the war, once hostilities were over, many millions of people were forced to move from their homes. The worst cases were probably in the areas taken from Germany by Russia and Poland, and in the German-speaking areas in Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia. About ten million Germans were forced to leave and make their way to West Germany so that no future German government would be able to claim those territories. In some countries, especially the USSR and Germany, extensive urban redevelopment took place as ruined cities had to be rebuilt. In Britain the war stimulated, among other things, the Beveridge Report (1942), a plan for introducing a Welfare State.

(d) The war caused the production of nuclear weapons

The first ever use of these weapons, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, demonstrated their horrifying powers of destruction. The world was left under the threat of a nuclear war that might well have destroyed the entire planet. Some people argue that this acted as a deterrent, making both sides in the Cold War so frightened of the consequences that they were deterred or discouraged from fighting each other.

(e) Europe’s domination of the rest of the world ended

The four western European states which had played a leading role in world affairs for most of the first half of the twentieth century were now much weaker than before. Germany was devastated and divided, France and Italy were on the verge of bankruptcy; although Britain seemed strong and victorious, with her empire intact, the cost of the war had been ruinous. The USA had helped to keep Britain going during the war by sending supplies, but these had to be paid for later. As soon as the war was over, the new US president, Truman, abruptly stopped all further help, leaving Britain in a sorry state: she had overseas debts of over £3000 million, many of her foreign investments had been sold off, and her ability to export goods had been much reduced. She was forced to ask for another loan from the USA, which was given at a high rate of interest; the country was therefore closely and uncomfortably dependent on the USA.

(f) Emergence of the superpowers

The USA and the USSR emerged as the two most powerful nations in the world, and they were no longer as isolated as they had been before the war. The USA had suffered relatively little from the war and had enjoyed great prosperity from supplying the other Allies with war materials and food. The Americans had the world’s largest navy and air force and they controlled the atomic bomb. The USSR, though severely weakened, still had the largest army in the world. Both countries were highly suspicious of each other’s intentions now that the common enemies, Germany and Japan, had been defeated. The rivalry of these two superpowers in the Cold War was the most important feature of international relations for almost half a century after 1945, and was a constant threat to world peace.

(g) Decolonization

The war encouraged the movement towards decolonization. The defeats inflicted on Britain, Holland and France by Japan, and the Japanese occupation of their territories – Malaya, Singapore and Burma (British), French lndo-China and the Dutch East Indies – destroyed the tradition of European superiority and invincibility. It could hardly be expected that, having fought to get rid of the Japanese, the Asian peoples would willingly return to European rule. Gradually they achieved full independence, though not without a struggle in many cases. This in turn intensified demands for independence among the peoples of Africa and the Middle East, and in the 1960s the result was a large array of new states. The leaders of many of these newly emerging nations met in conference at Algiers in 1973 and made it clear that they regarded themselves as a Third World. By this they meant that they wished to remain neutral or non-aligned in the struggle between the other two worlds – communism and capitalism. Usually poor and under-developed industrially, the new nations were often intensely suspicious of the motives of both communism and capitalism, and they resented their own economic dependence on the world’s wealthy powers.

(h) The United Nations Organization (UNO)

This emerged as the successor to the League of Nations. Its main aim was to try to maintain world peace, and on the whole it has been more successful than its unfortunate predecessor.


2 thoughts on “The Second World War, 1939-45 (Part-2)”

  1. Dear Sir
    Thank you for great initiative. It is immense help to aspirants preparing from home. Material is succinct and comprehensive covering multiple facets of the subject.

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