Road to War
World War Two (WW2) was a world-wide clash of ideologies and industrial economies. The war was partly an outgrowth of WW1; and partly the internationalisation of several separate wars – including the Sino-Japanese War (1938-1945), the German-Polish War (1939), and the Soviet-Finnish ‘Winter war’ (1939-1940). When the war began, the ‘Old World’ Empires of Britain and France were confronted by the rising ‘modern’ political movements of Fascism and Communism in Europe, and the aggressively expansionist Nationalist regime in Japan. When the war ended, the ‘Old World’ Empires were eclipsed by the emergence of the new international powers of US and USSR, themselves representing starkly polarised political and economic international blocs. Just as the WW1 is often described as laying the seeds of the next war, WW2 laid the seeds for what became known as the ‘Cold War’.
The end of WW1 was welcomed as the ‘War to End All Wars’. The magnitude of the clash of empires and the economies, and the landscape devastation and the loss of human life, had stamped indelible scars on the psyche of the combatant nations. Britain and France remained as the last ‘Old World’ powers with overseas colonial empires. However, the economic and human wastage of the war was followed in those countries by a strong desire to ‘get on with life’ and ‘get back to normality’ when in fact the world had changed. The US had joined the Allies late in the war; after making a significant contribution at the very end, the US retreated into an isolationist stance and wanted to distance itself from the problems of the ‘Old World’. In Eastern Europe, old empires had been broken up leaving a patch-work of struggling republics and kingdoms. Imperial Russia had collapsed, and following a civil war became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) – the world’s first communist state. In Asia, Imperial Japan had benefited from its membership of the victorious Allies and consolidated its place as a dominant military force in Asia and the northern Pacific.
Imperial Germany had been economically devastated by the war, its monarchy had been discredited and overthrown, hefty reparations were demanded and its military power reduced. The desire by the victorious Allies to humiliate Germany triggered a downward political and economic spiral for Germany. Inflation escalated out of control and opposing political parties fought pitched battles in the streets of German cities. Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or NAZI) emerged from this chaotic period. In what was to become the last democratic election in Germany before WW2, the 1932 federal election made the Nazi party the largest party in the German parliament. In the months that followed, the Nazis exploited alliances with other right-wing parties to crush political opposition and ultimately dissolve the democratic institutions. In the years that followed, the Nazi Party consolidated its power and unleashed a wave of terror against political rivals and enemies of Aryan ‘racial purity’. Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, which symbolised German subjugation following WW1, re-armed and expanded its military, and embarked on a campaign of territorial expansion. Britain and France, and to a lesser extent the US, were concerned about the rise of Nazi Germany. However, until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Britain and France were unwilling to act. The western Allies gave Germany an ultimatum – withdraw from Poland or a state of war would exist. Germany did not withdraw and a state of war came into effect on 3rd September 1939. However, this state of war did nothing for Poland – Germany and its ally the USSR divided Poland between them, and that country ceased to exist.
War in Europe
Embolden by its conquest of Poland and its alliance with the USSR, Germany proceeded to occupy Denmark and Norway. Meanwhile Britain and France mobilised, while otherwise did little to prevent German territorial expansion. Limited assistance was offered to Norway while the main Allied forces waited passively for Germany to make the next move. In May and June 1940, German forces overrun the Netherlands and Belgium, and compelled France to seek an Armistice. In the absence of decisive leadership, Allied forces were overwhelmed. With the Battle of France effectively lost in northern France, the British attempted to evacuate as many Allied forces as possible from Dunkirk and other French ports. By the middle of June, the new French government of Marshall Petain had signed an Armistice and the surviving Allied forces re-grouped in Britain. With most French forces choosing to accept the Armistice and withdraw to France and its colonial territories, Britain and its empire stood alone.
For the next several years, the war in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa became a war of attrition. The German Luftwaffe attempted to batter British resistance into submission by aerial bombardment during the ‘Battle of Britain’; German surface raiders and submarines attempted to cut Britain’s maritime life-line to the United States in the Battle of the Atlantic; and in Mediterranean and North Africa, the Allies fought valiantly to hold what territory they could against the combined German and Italian (‘Axis’) onslaught. With Britain undefeated, the German-Soviet alliance collapsed under the weight of their rivalry and Germany invaded the USSR. The war in Russia was to absorb the vast majority of Axis military resources until the end of the war.
The expansion of US military aid, and the eventual entry of the US into the war on the side of the Allies, helped to stabilise the Allied cause and permit offensives on all front. In 1942-1943, Axis forces in North Africa were defeated. In 1943, the Allies invaded Italy. By late 1943, Italy signed an Armistice with Allies which effectively divided Italian allegiances between King Victor Emmanuel III (and the Allies) and Benito Mussolini’s Fascists and Nazi Germany. In 1944, the Allies launched the D-Day landings, creating a new front in northern France. Later, a further front was created in southern France. The northern and southern Allied fronts gradually pushed the determined German resistance back to the German frontiers by the winter of 1944/1945.
On the eastern front, initial German successes following the invasion of the USSR in 1941 gradually ground to a halt. Despite setbacks during the winter of 1941 and 1942, the German invasion recommenced in 1942 but stalled again with the Battle of Stalingrad. The surrender of the German forces at Stalingrad in early 1943 represented the turning point. Over the following two years, Soviet forces progressively pushed German forces back into eastern Germany.
By April 1945, the combined advances by the western Allies and the Soviets had reduced Nazi controlled territory into a number of scattered pockets. Hitler remained in Berlin as it became a beleaguered city, eventually committing suicide to avoid capture. The last pockets of resistance in Berlin surrendered on 2nd May. The Instruments of German Surrender were signed with the western Allies and the USSR on 8 May.
War in Asia and the Pacific
From the late 1930s, focus of the western Allies was consumed by rising tensions in Europe. In Asia, Japan extended its war in China and placed increasingly pressured on Allied interests in Asia. Following the Battle of France, Japan encouraged Thailand to invade French Indochina; the invasion was defeated by the French colonial garrison, but after pressured was exerted on France through the Japanese alliance with Germany, the French Colonial administration was forced to accede to Thai territorial demands and occupation by Japanese troops. Economic sanctions were imposed on Japan by western powers in an attempt to curtail Japanese expansion. As tensions escalated, Allied forces were re-deployed in 1941 with an expectation of war – US forces were withdrawn from China to the Philippines, British and its Empire forces were concentrated in Malaya and Singapore.
In December 1941, Japan launched the Pacific War – an air attack was launched on the US naval and air bases in Hawaii to neutralise the US Pacific fleet; and invasions were launched into US controlled Philippines and British controlled Malaya and Hong Kong. Not prepared for the Japanese attacks, Allied forces put up strong localised resistance. However by early 1942, British Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, Dutch East Indies and American Philippines had been overrun. Japanese forces pushed through Burma and reached the Indian border. In westernt Asia, Allied forces were re-grouping in India. In the south Pacific, Australia prepared for a last ditch defence of its territories in New Guinea and mainland Australia itself.
During 1942, the Japanese advances were halted on land and sea on all fronts. In New Guinea, Australian forces fought ferociously with confident Japanese forces in the thick jungle and rugged terrain along the Kokoda Track over the mountain spine of New Guinea. Similar victories in rugged terrain were fought by US forces in the Solomon Islands and by British and Indian forces in Burma. Japanese forces were gradually pushed back from most of their wartime territorial gains until Allied forces were poised to invade the Japanese home islands by mid-1945. Instead, the Allies destroyed two Japanese cities using the new terror weapon of the mid-20th Century – the Atomic Bomb. Emperor Hirohito chose to surrender rather than risk the total destruction of Japan.
As had occurred at the end of WW1, the victorious Allies met to re-draw national borders and determine the future of the world. The major Allied Powers were deemed to be Britain, US, France and the USSR. Former Axis territories in Europe and Asia were re-organised – new political systems were implemented, national borders were re-drawn and new countries created. In central Europe, a much reduced Germany was divided into four occupation zones – British, US, French and Soviet zones. The German capital of Berlin was also divided amongst the four powers. However, growing tensions between the westerns powers and the USSR led to the creation of two new countries – West Germany (comprising the British, US and French occupation zones) and East Germany (comprising the Soviet occupation zone).
As tensions deteriorated further, it was expected that the two new German countries would become a battle-ground in a Third World War. That war did not eventuate, however, the international tensions were later labelled the ‘Cold War’. For the next fifty years, international politics were shaped by ‘Cold War’ tensions; wars were fought by the main post-war powers as part of the wider struggle, however, direct military confrontation between the major participants were avoided.