Second World War Begins

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The Players

Once again Britain and France were allied against Germany, with the Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa once more being quick to declare their support in a common cause, as did India and other parts of the British Empire. But the world that went back to war in 1939 had long lost its innocence, buried in Flanders' mud and millions of military graves. There was none of the early fraternization that had occurred between British and German soldiers on Christmas Day in 1914. Instead, there was from the start a feeling among the Allies that an unpleasant job had to be finished once and for all, and the sooner the better, using virtually any method--brute force, air attacks, propaganda, clandestine and guerrilla warfare--almost anything to rid Europe of the Nazi and Fascist systems.

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A Contrast from World War I

Conscription was already in force in Britain before war began and therefore less emphasis was placed on voluntary enlistments. Still, many did volunteer, particularly for the more glamorous 'teeth arms', such as the infantry, the artillery, armoured units, aircrew and submarines. Whereas people in 1914 expected the war to be 'over by Christmas', there was little confidence in 1939 that this conflict would be finished in a matter of months and the British Government planned for a war of at least three years' duration.


The Beginnings

France had evidently not learned all the lessons of the previous conflict, particularly that of the Schlieffen Plan. Aware of Germany's aggressive intentions, the French had constructed the Maginot Line, but its massive defences ended at the Belgian border, leaving a clearly vulnerable gap. Nearby, the BEF took up positions on sadly familiar ground in northern France (not being allowed by the Belgians to take up positions in their country), amidst the cemeteries of the last war. Here they settled down with their ally to face Germany throughout an uneventful winter, since dubbed the `phoney war' (but not by those who were there).

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German Aggression

In May 1940 Germany struck with a series of Blitzkrieg attacks, entering through the tempting gap that had been guarded only by the declared neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands. Both small countries surrendered within days, crushed by overwhelming military force. German formations dashed across Flanders, occupying the area of the old 1914-1918 War battlefields, separating the French and British armies and threatening Paris within days.

The British force was pushed back, turning to make a fighting stand at the French port of Dunkirk. There then occurred the most amazing mass military evacuation in history. In nine days over 200,000 British and 130,000 French troops were rescued by hundreds of ships of the Royal Navy and small craft manned largely by English civilian volunteers. When the BEF returned to England, it had left behind most of its equipment in France so that in the summer of 1940 the only fully equipped formation available in England was a single Canadian division, which had arrived too late to go to France. After the evacuation the remaining French armies collapsed and France capitulated on 22nd June 1940. Italy declared war on her and, in the Far East, Japan later also took advantage, occupying her Asian colonies, while making agreeable noises to her two Axis partners in Europe.

The Pace of the War

In a way these rapid global events set the pace of the 1939-1945 War, which was to be a conflict of constant movement, with little of the static face-to-face attrition of 1914-1918. The war involved scores of nations; it ranged over every continent and sea, costing more than 15 million military dead and probably far in excess of that number in civilian lives.

Typhoons on tarmac

Germany Attacks

Once France had fallen, the Germans turned their attention to the destruction of the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a precursor to their proposed invasion of Britain by sea (Operation 'Sealion'). But the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) was defeated over south-east England by determined men flying Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, armed with the then unusual armament of eight machine guns, and much helped by efficient radar. The Germans then turned to aerial bombardment of specific targets and built-up areas, and the 'Blitz' and subsequent bombing campaigns lasted months. Coventry, Plymouth, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and many other towns were bombed, but the main attacks were on London, where 20, 000 people died. It was a form of warfare that Germany would later dearly regret having initiated. Frustrated by the refusal of Britain (personified by Churchill) to capitulate, Hitler turned once again to continental Europe, which he now ruled from Norway to the Balkans. His target this time was the Soviet Union. Despite having not resolved his struggle with the British Empire, Hitler launched Operation 'Barbarossa' on 22nd June 1941, sending his armies into Soviet-occupied Poland and across Stalin's border. The German Army, with Finnish, Romanian, Hungarian and Italian contingents, put three million men into the Soviet Union along a 2,000 mile front.


German Invasion in Russia

At first the population was inclined to welcome the invaders as liberators from Stalin's rule, but Nazi oppression ruined this illusion. Instead Einsatzgruppen (special action squads) came in the wake of the armies and enforced an official policy of extermination of certain sections of Untermenschen (lesser breeds). The USSR suffered most grievously of all during the war, from both this merciless treatment of Slav and Jewish civilians and the enormous land battles which were fought losing seven million soldiers and well over that number of civilians. As a result of Nazi cruelty and destruction, a partisan war with no quarter given developed, from which the ordinary German troops also suffered.

Frosty ship

Great battles were worsened by Russia's harsh winters, with casualty rates every bit as high as those of the 1914-1918 War. The invasion of Russia was to prove ultimately the most disastrous campaign of all for Germany and immediately the fighting in the West became less intense. However, the middle period of the war did not go well for Britain and the Commonwealth. After initially defeating Italian attempts to occupy North Africa and Greece, British, Australian and New Zealand forces fell back in the face of German onslaughts there. However, the fighting in Greece may well have delayed the start of 'Barbarossa' by a few weeks, thereby bringing closer the bitter weather of the Russian winter, much to the Soviets' great advantage.

spacer The text on this page has been taken from Courage Remembered, by Kingsley Ward and Major Edwin Gibson.

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