World War II was the greatest conflict in history, carried out on a scale almost impossible to grasp. In many ways it was the first modern war, in which airpower played a vital role both on land and at sea, but many actions were ultimately won by the determination and grit of the foot soldier. Here's the whole vast panoramic epic of the Second World War presented in 20 of its most significant battles.
One of the most audacious operations in the German conquest of Europe was the air assault on the Greek island of Crete, the first action in which paratroopers were dropped in large numbers. Crete was defended by British and Greek forces who had some success against the lightly armed German soldiers jumping out of the sky. However, delays and communication failures between Allies allowed the Germans to capture the vital airfield at Maleme and fly in reinforcements. Once the Nazis gained air superiority, landings by sea followed. The Allies surrendered after two weeks of fighting.
The Battle of Iwo Jima is an iconic event, thanks largely due to Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the American flag being raised. But military analysts still argue whether the island's limited strategic value justified the costly action. Twenty thousand Japanese defenders were dug in to an elaborate system of bunkers, caves, and tunnels. The attack was preceded by a massive naval and air bombardment lasting several days covering the entire island. Although outnumbered five to one and with no prospect of victory, the Japanese put up strong resistance and virtually none surrendered. Many positions could be cleared only out by hand grenades and flamethrowers, including the fearsome M4A3R3 Sherman "Zippo" flamethrower tanks.
The Allies invaded Italy in 1943 but by 1944 had progressed only as far as the Gustav Line south of Rome. So the Allies staged a massive amphibious operation to force the defenders to split their forces or be surrounded, but quick success depended on a rapid break-out from the beachhead. Some 36,000 men landed to the enemy's considerable surprise, but while the Allies consolidated, the Germans surrounded the area with equivalent forces and dug defensive positions. After heavy fighting and failed advances, in February the Allies were pushed back almost to the beachhead. It took more than 100,000 more reinforcements and five months of fighting to finally break out of Anzio.
After Anzio, the Germans occupied defensive positions known as the Winter Line, consisting of bunkers, barbed wire, minefields and ditches. The four successive Allied assaults on these positions became known as the Battle of Monte Cassino. The fight resembled a WW1 battle, with artillery bombardments preceding bloody infantry assaults on fixed positions. Success was bought at the cost of more than 50,000 casualties on the Allied side. Today, the battle is mainly remembered for the destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino (which was sheltering civilians) by more than a hundred B-17 Flying Fortresses, when the Allies mistakenly believed the abbey to be a German artillery observation position.
Following the D-Day invasion of June 1944, the Allies broke out of Normandy and advanced rapidly across France and Belgium. Hitler aimed to halt them by a surprise Blitzkrieg. Several armored divisions massed in the Ardennes with the goal of breaking through Allied lines. American forces held on stubbornly in spite of heavy casualties— more than 19,000 died. The Germans had limited supplies and could only fight for few days to before fuel and ammunition ran out, so the offensive soon ran out of steam. Allied lines bulged but did not break, and hundreds of thousands of reinforcements poured into the area. Afterwards Germany lacked resources for another offensive and the end was inevitable.
When Britain and France declared war on Germany following the Nazi invasion of Poland, many expected that war to be a retread of the infantry tactics actions of WWI. That line of thinking clearly led to the French strategy of constructing the heavy concrete fortifications of the Maginot Line. Those expectations where shattered in May 1940 when the Germans launched a fast-paced "Blitzkreig" ("lightning war") spearheaded by Panzer tanks. Lacking heavy artillery, the Germans attacked French positions at Sedan with massed Stuka dive bombers. The intense air assault quickly demoralized the defenders and the German forces easily broke through. France fell soon afterwards.
By late 1940 Britain faced the threat of a German invasion, but the incursion would succeed only with air superiority. What followed was the first major campaign fought by opposing air forces. For four months the German Luftwaffe carried out attacks on British airfields, radar stations, and aircraft factories, and bombed British cities, too. But the Stukas proved too vulnerable to being intercepted and the Germans couldn't mass enough planes to defeat the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force in their Hurricanes and Spitfires. Heavy casualties forced the Luftwaffe to scale down operations. Hitler's invasion plans were put on hold indefinitely.
Hitler's plan to attack Soviet Russia was called Operation Barbarossa, and it sure looked insane on paper given the Russian numerical superiority and the ignominious history of enemy forces invading Russia. Hitler, however, believed the Blitzkrieg was unstoppable, and the Battle of Brody in western Ukraine would prove him right—for a time. Seven hundred and fifty German panzers faced four times as many Russian tanks. But the Russian air force had been annihilated on the ground and the German Stukas were able to dominate the area. In addition to destroying tanks, they targeted Russian fuel and ammunition supplies and disrupted communications. The confused Russian forces were completely out manoeuvred and their numerical superiority made no difference.
The largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines was another step in the U.S. advance toward the Japanese home islands. All available Japanese forces were thrown into the area but the separate units failed to unite, resulting in several actions scattered over a wide area. All four Japanese light carriers were sunk, as were three battleships. Leyte Gulf also marked the first use of a desperate new tactic: The escort carrier USS St. Lo was sunk after a Japanese kamikaze carrying a bomb deliberately crashed on its deck.
Submarine warfare had some impact in the First World War but became vastly more significant in WWII as the German U-boat packs aimed to blockade Europe. Merchant ships took to sailing in large convoys, protected by screens of destroyers and corvettes armed with depth charges and sonar. Daring U-Boat commanders carried out torpedo attacks within the defensive screen, and when several submarines attacked at once, the defenders had little chance of striking back. In the end, the Battle of the Atlantic was eventually won by technology. Radar to detect U-Boats from the surface, radio interception, and code-breaking all played a part. By the end of the war more than 3,000 merchant ships had been sunk, as well as almost 800 U-Boats.
After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese aimed to invade New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. U.S. forces, aided by some Australian ships, moved to intercept them. This produced the first naval battle fought at long range between aircraft carriers. Dive bombers and torpedo bombers attacked ships protected by screens of fighters. It was a novel and confusing form of warfare, with both sides struggling to find the enemy and unclear about what ships they had seen and engaged. The most serious loss was the American carrier USS Leton, scuttled after catching fire. The fight forced Japan to call off its invasion plans.
Stalin aimed to drive back the invading German armies with an offensive that included more than a thousand tanks backed by 700 aircraft. But Germany blunted the attack by air power when it flew more than 900 planes into the area. The Germans then went on the attack and encircled the Russian forces with several Panzer divisions. Trapped, surrounded, and with German bombers raining explosives down on them, Russians soldiers surrendered in large numbers. More than a quarter of a million Russian soldiers were killed, injured, or captured, 10 times the number of German casualties.
Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands, fell to Japan in 1942. General Douglas Macarthur had famously vowed to return to the Philippines, which he saw as strategically vital, and commanded the invasion force in 1945. The Allied landings were unopposed, but further inland there was heavy fighting against scattered enclaves of Japanese troops. Some of them withdrew to the mountains and continued fighting long after the end of the war. Japanese suffered extreme losses, with more than 200,000 killed compared to 10,000 Americans, making it the bloodiest action involving U.S. forces.
The last great carrier battle of WWII, the Battle of the Philippine Sea happened as U.S. forces advanced across the Pacific. A Japanese force including five large fleet carriers and four light carriers, plus some land-based aircraft, fought seven U.S. fleet carriers and eight light carriers. The U.S. enjoyed not only numerical superiority but also vastly better aircraft. The new Grumman F6F Hellcats outclassed the old Japanese Zeroes. This disparity led to the action being nicknamed "the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," with about four times as many Japanese planes downed as American.
To those in the West, the Battle of Berlin may seem like an afterthought, the death throes of a war already decided. In fact it was a massive and extreme bloody action as three quarters of a million German troops, under the personal command of Hitler, fought a desperate final defense against the encroaching Red Army. The Russians had the advantage in tanks, but armored vehicles were vulnerable to new portable anti-tank rockets that destroyed 2,000 of them. Like Stalingrad, the Battle of Berlin was an infantry action fought at close quarters; artillery demolished defensive strongpoints in a city already devastated by heavy bombing. Casualties were heavy, including thousands of civilians. On the 30th of April Hitler killed himself rather than surrender, effectively ending the war in Europe.
Operation Citadel was the final German offensive on the Eastern front, and Kursk is considered the greatest tank battle of the war. At Kursk, the Nazis aimed to repeat their earlier successes by surrounding and destroying Russian forces. Thanks to Allied codebreakers, though, the Russians got advance warning and built up defensive lines of ditches and minefields to absorb the German attack. In the air, Stukas armed with 37mm gun pods faced Russian armored Sturmoviks dropping dozens of anti-tank bombs. As the German offensive stalled, Marshal Zhukov launched his counterattack and drove the Germans back with heavy losses.
More than a million German troops were thrown into the attack on Moscow as Hitler ordered that the city should be razed to the ground rather than captured. At first the German progress was rapid; by November 15 of 1941 they had fought to within 18 miles of the city. Then they were slowed by the Russian resistance, and an early winter set in, with temperatures dropping well zero Fahrenheit. The German supply chain failed and Russian marshal Zhukov threw his reserve of Siberian divisions into a counterattack. The Germans were pushed back by more than 100 miles by January. Russian casualties were heavy, but the German momentum was broken.
The largest amphibious operation in history involved more than 5,000 ships landing Allied troops on a heavily-defended 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline, while thousands more took part in an airborne assault. A major deception operation fooled the Germans into thinking that the landings were a feint, and resistance was light at four out of five landing sites. On the fifth, Omaha Beach, U.S. forces came under heavy fire and 2,000 died as they fought to break out of the beachhead. The Germans failed to organize rapidly to meet the threat. Within a week the Allies had landed more than 300,000 troops in Normandy.
Midway was a catastrophic defeat from which the Imperial Japanese Navy never fully recovered. Much of the credit goes to the codebreakers who revealed the Japanese plan to ambush U.S. forces in time for the Allies to plan a counter-ambush. The Japanese plan to split American forces also failed. The U.S. then launched a major air assault on the Japanese carriers. The TBF Avenger torpedo bombers were intercepted by Japanese Zeroes and decimated, but the SBD Dauntless dive bombers attacking afterwards got through. They arrived just as the Japanese planes were refuelling and rearming on deck. Three of four Japanese carriers were destroyed, tilting the course of the war against Japan.
In contrast to the great sweeping tank battles elsewhere on the Eastern Front, Stalingrad was protracted and bloody urban warfare fought from street to street, house to house, and room to room as the Red Army resisted German attempts to take the city. Russia's defenses were based on thousands of strongpoints, each manned by an infantry squad, in apartments, office buildings, and factories, all with strict orders forbidding retreat. German artillery and airpower virtually demolished the city but failed to dislodge the defenders. Eventually the German force was itself surrounded. The total number of casualties may have been as many as two million including civilians.