World War Two was a long and complex conflict. To help guide you through some of the major events involved we have compiled a list of 100 facts across ten pertinent topic areas. Whilst far from comprehensive, this provides a great starting point from which to explore the conflict and its world-altering ramifications.
Build-up to World War Two
1. Nazi Germany engaged in a rapid process of rearmament through the 1930s, forged alliances and psychologically prepared the nation for war
2. Britain and France remained committed to appeasement, although with some internal dissent, in the face of increasingly inflammatory Nazi actions
3. The Sino-Japanese war began in July 1937 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria
This was carried out against a backdrop of international appeasement and is regarded by some as the start of World War Two.
4. The Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed on 23 August 1939
The Pact saw Germany and the USSR carve up central-eastern Europe between themselves and pave the way for German invasion of Poland.
5. The Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 was the final straw for the British, who declared war on 3 September
Britain had guaranteed Polish sovereignty after Hitler flouted the Munich Agreement by annexing Czechoslovakia
6. Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany at 11:15 on 3 September 1939
Two days after their invasion of Poland, his speech was followed by what would become the familiar sound of air raid sirens.
7. Poland’s losses included 70,000 men killed, 133,000 wounded and 700,000 taken prisoner in the defence of the nation during the German invasion of September and October 1939
In the other direction, 50,000 Poles died fighting the Soviets, of whom only 996 perished, following their invasion on 16 September. 45,000 ordinary Polish citizens were shot in cold blood during the initial German invasion.
8. British non-aggression at the start of the war, during a period known as the Phoney War, was derided at home and abroad.
The RAF dropped propaganda literature over Germany, which was humorously referred to as ‘Mein Pamph’.
9. Britain gained a morale-boosting victory in a naval engagement that saw the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee scuttled in the River Plate estuary in Argentina on 17 December 1940
This was the only action of the war to reach South America.
10. The attempted Soviet invasion of Finland in November-December 1939 initially ended in comprehensive defeat and resulted in Soviet expulsion from the League of Nations
Eventually the Finns were beaten into signing the Moscow Peace Treaty on 12 March 1940.
The Fall of France
11. The French Army was one of the largest in the world, but the experience of World War One left it with a defensive mentality that paralysed its potential effectiveness and engendered a reliance on the Maginot Line.
12. Germany ignored the Maginot Line, however, with the main thrust of their advance into France moving through the Ardennes in northern Luxembourg and southern Belgium as part of the Sichelschnitt plan.
13. The Germans employed Blitzkrieg tactics, using armoured vehicles and aircraft to make rapid territorial gains.
This military strategy was developed in Britain in the 1920s.
14. The Battle of Sedan, 12-15 May, provided a momentous breakthrough for the Germans, who streamed into France thereafter.
15. The miraculous evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk using 200 Royal Navy ships and 600 volunteer vessels saved 193,000 British and 145,000 French troops.
Although some 80,000 were left behind, Operation Dynamo far exceeded the expectation of rescuing only 45,000.
16. Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10 June. His first offensive was launched through the Alps without German knowledge and ended with 6,000 casualties, with over a third being attributed to frostbite. French casualties reached only 200.
17. A further 191,000 Allied troops were evacuated from France in mid-June, although the heaviest ever losses in a single incident at sea were sustained by the British when the Lancastria was sunk by German bombers on 17 June.
18. The Germans had reached Paris by 14 June and the French surrender was ratified in the armistice agreement signed at Compiègne on 22 June.
19. Around 8,000,000 French, Dutch and Belgian refugees were created during the summer of 1940 as masses of people fled their homes as the Germans advanced.
20. Axis troops deployed in the Battle of France amounted to about 3,350,000 and were matched in number by Allied opponents.
By the signing of armistice on 22 June, however, 360,000 Allied casualties had been inflicted and 1,900,000 prisoners taken at the expense of 160,000 Germans and Italians.
The Battle of Britain
21. Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940.
His ‘finest hour’ speech was delivered on 17 June as France sought to surrender and signalled the intention that Britain would fight to the bitter end.
22. The Local Defence Volunteer Corps, which became the Home Guard, was born on 14 May. 250,000 men signed up within seven days.
23. Operation Sealion was Germany’s plan for the invasion of Britain, based on the premise of winning superiority in the skies and at sea. It was postponed on 2 October and never returned to.
24. The British killed 1,297 French sailors at Mer-el-Kébir on 3 July as part of Operation Catapult, which was enacted to prevent the French Navy from falling into German hands.
25. Britain could produce 470 fighters a month in June 1940, twice as many as German capacity allowed.
26. Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain included 2,334 British aircrew.
These men were augmented with 145 Poles, 126 New Zealanders, 98 Canadians, 88 Czechs, 33 Australians, 29 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 Frenchmen, 11 Americans, 10 Irishmen and representatives from a host of other nations.
27. The RAF had around 900 fighter aircraft in July 1940, 560 bombers and 500 coastal aeroplanes.
28. At the same time, the Luftwaffe’s could deploy 1029 fighter aircraft, 998 bombers, 261 dive-bombers, 151 reconnaissance planes and 80 coastal aircraft.
A further 800 aircraft were deployed but were not serviceable in August.
29. 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft were launched in an attack on 7 September.
30. The Allies lost 1,547 aircraft and 966 casualties (including 522 deaths). The Axis losses (predominantly German) included 1,887 aircraft and 4,303 aircrew (of whom 3,336 died).
The Blitz and the Bombing of Germany
31. 55,000 British civilian casualties were sustained through German bombing before the end of 1940, including 23,000 deaths.
32. London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights from 7 September 1940.
33. At this time, as many as 180,000 people per night sheltered within the London underground system.
34. The rubble from bombed cities was used to lay runways for the RAF across the south and east of England.
35. Total civilian deaths during the Blitz – which effectively ended when Operation Sealion was abandoned in May 1941 – were around 40,000.
By the end of the war about 60,000 British civilians had died through German bombing.
36. The first British air raid on a concentrated civilian population was over Mannheim on 16 December 1940.
37. The RAF’s first 1000-bomber air raid was conducted on 30 May 1942 over Cologne. Although only 380 died, the historic city was devastated.
38. Single Allied bombing operations over Hamburg and Dresden in July 1943 and February 1945 killed 40,000 and 25,000 civilians, respectively. Hundreds of thousands more were made refugees.
39. Berlin lost around 60,000 of its population to Allied bombing by the end of the war.
40. Overall, German civilian deaths totalled as many as 600,000.
The War in Africa and the Middle East
41. On the eve of Operation Compass, the first Allied campaign in North Africa, General Sir Archibald Wavell could call on only 36,000 troops while facing 215,000 Italians.
42. Rommel wore British tank goggles on top of his cap as a trophy following the capture of Mechili on 8 April 1941.
43. A new government of pro-Germans took power in Iraq in April 1941. By the end of the month it was forced concede ongoing British access through its territory.
44. Operation Tiger resulted in the loss of 91 British tanks. Only 12 panzers were immobilised in return.
General Sir Claude Auchinleck, ‘the Auk’, soon replaced Wavell.
45. 90 Axis ships were sunk in the Mediterranean between January and August 1941, thus depriving the Afrika Korps of essential new tanks and the food required to ward off hunger and illness.
46. The Allies broke out from Tobruk in November 1941 with vastly superior resources. They had an initial 600 tanks against 249 panzers and 550 aircraft, whilst the Luftwaffe had only 76.
By January, 300 Allied tanks and 300 aircraft had been lost but Rommel had been pushed back significantly.
47. Soviet and British troops invaded Iran on 25 August 1941 in order to seize oil supplies.
48. Rommel reclaimed Tobruk on 21 June 1942, winning thousands of tonnes of oil in the process.
49. The major Allied offensive at Alamein in October 1942 reversed the losses sustained in July.
It began with the deception of the Germans using plans devised by Major Jasper Maskelyne, a successful magician in the 1930s.
50. The surrender of 250,000 Axis troops and 12 generals after the Allied arrival in Tunis on 12 May 1943 signalled the end of the North African Campaign.
Ethnic Cleansing, Race War and the Holocaust
51. Hitler outlined his intentions to conquer vast territories for a new Reich in Mein Kampf (1925):
‘The plough is then the sword; and the tears of war will produce the daily bread for the generations to come.’
52. Ghettos developed in Poland from September 1939 as Nazi officials began dealing with the ‘Jewish question’.
53. Carbon dioxide-filled chambers were in use to kill mentally handicapped Poles from November 1939. Zyklon B was first used at Aushwitz-Birkenau in September 1941.
54. 100,000 mentally and physically disabled Germans were murdered between the start of the war and August 1941, with Hitler having ratified an official campaign of euthanasia to rid the nation of such ‘Untermenschen’.
55. The Nazi Hunger Plan led to the deaths of over 2,000,000 Soviet prisoners in 1941.
56. Perhaps as many as 2,000,000 Jews in the western Soviet Union were murdered through what is known as the Shoah by Bullets between 1941 and 1944.
57. The roll-out of death camps by the Nazis at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka was named Aktion Reynhard in ‘rememberance’ of Heydrich, who died after the contamination of wounds suffered in an assassination attempt in Prague on 27 May 1942.
58. The Nazi regime ensured that they took the maximum material benefit from their mass murders, re-using the possessions of their victims as raw materials for the war effort, gifts for their soldiers and clothing for Germans bombed out of their homes.
59. In July 1944 Majdanek became the first camp to be liberated as the Soviets progressed, being followed by Chelmno and Aushwitz in January 1945.
The Nazis destroyed a number of death camps, such as Treblinka after an uprising in August 1943. Those remaining were liberated as the Allies advanced on Berlin.
60. Around 6,000,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Including the diverse range of non-Jewish victims, the total death toll was upwards of 12,000,000.
61. Britain lost its first submarine to friendly fire on 10 September 1939, when HMS Oxley was mistakenly identified as a U-boat by HMS Triton. The first U-boat was sunk four days later.
62. German battleships flippantly seized an American transport ship on 3 October 1939, an early act that helped to turn public favour in the US against neutrality and towards helping the Allies.
63. 27 Royal Navy ships were sunk by U-boats in a single week in autumn 1940.
64. Britain had lost over 2,000,000 gross tons of merchant shipping before the end of 1940.
65. In September 1940 America gave Britain 50 destroyer ships in exchange for land rights for naval and air bases on British possessions. They were of First World War age and specification, however.
66. Otto Kretschmer was the most prolific U-boat commander, sinking 37 ships. He was captured by the Royal Navy in March 1941.
67. The establishment of the Pan-American Security Zone in the North and West Atlantic was announced by Roosevelt as part of the Lend-Lease Bill passed by Senate on 8 March 1941.
68. From March 1941 until the following February, codebreakers at Bletchley Park had great success in deciphering German Naval Enigma codes.
This made a significant impact in protecting shipping in the Atlantic.
69. The Bismarck, Germany’s famed warship, was decisively attacked on 27 May 1941 by Fairey Swordfish bombers from the HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier.
The ship was scuttled and 2,200 died, whilst only 110 survived.
70. Germany renewed the Naval Enigma machine and codes in February 1942.
These were finally broken by December, but could not be read consistently until August 1943.
Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War
71. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 signalled the start of what is commonly referred to as the Pacific War.
72. Over 400 seamen died as the USS Oklahoma sank. Over 1,000 perished aboard the USS Arizona. In total the Americans sustained around 3,500 casualties in the attacks, with 2,335 dying.
73. 2 American destroyer ships and 188 aircraft were destroyed at Pearl Harbor, whilst 6 battleships were beached or damaged and 159 aircraft damaged.
The Japanese lost 29 aircraft, an ocean-going submarine and 5 midget subs.
74. Singapore was surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, with General Percival then abandoning his troops by escaping to Sumatra, and by May the Japanese had forced Allied withdrawal from Burma.
75. Four Japanese aircraft carriers and a cruiser were sunk and 250 aircraft destroyed in the Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942, a decisive turning point in the Pacific War, at the expense of one American carrier and 150 aircraft.
The Japanese suffered just over 3,000 deaths, around ten times more than the Americans.
76. Between July 1942 and January 1943 the Japanese were driven from Guadalcanal and eastern Papua New Guinea, having ultimately resorted to scavenge for roots to survive.
77. An estimated 60 per cent of the 1,750,000 Japanese troops who died in World War Two were lost to malnutrition and disease.
78. The first kamikaze attacks occurred on 25 October 1944 against the American fleet at Luzon as the fighting intensified in the Philippines.
79. The island of Iwo Jima was bombed for 76 days before the arrival of the American assault fleet, which included 30,000 marines.
80. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, together with Soviet intervention in Manchuria, forced the Japanese into surrender. This was officially signed on 2 September.
D-Day and the Allied Advance
81. 34,000 French civilian casualties were sustained in the build up to D-Day, including 15,000 deaths, as the Allies implemented their plan to block major road networks.
82. 130,000 Allied soldiers travelled by ship over the Channel to the Normandy coast on 6 June 1944.
They were joined by around 24,000 airborne troops.
83. Allied casualties on D-Day amounted to around 10,000, with German losses having been estimated at anywhere from 4,000 to 9,000 men.
84. Within a week over 325,000 Allied soldiers had crossed the English Channel. By the end of the month around 850,000 had entered Normandy.
85. The Allies sustained over 200,000 casualties in the Battle of Normandy, whilst German casualties totalled a similar amount but with a further 200,000 taken prisoner.
87. The Allies lost around 15,000 airborne troops in the unsuccessful Market Garden operation in September 1944.
88. The Allies crossed the Rhine at four points over the course of March 1945, paving the way for the final advance into the heart of Germany.
89. Up to 350,000 concentration camp prisoners are thought to have died in pointless death marches as the Allied advance accelerated.
90. Goebbels used news of the death of President Roosevelt on 12 April to encourage Hitler that they remained destined to win the war.
The Soviet War Machine and the Eastern Front
91. 3,800,000 Axis soldiers were deployed in the initial invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. Soviet strength in June 1941 stood at 5,500,000.
92. Over 1,000,000 civilians died during the siege of Leningrad, which began in September 1941 and lasted until January 1944 – 880 days in total.
93. Although the German output of steel and coal were respectively 3.5 and over 4 times greater in 1942 than in the Soviet Union, Stalin turned his nation into a war-production machine.
The Soviet Union was thus able to produce more weaponry than its enemy.
94. The battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-3, resulted in around 2,000,000 casualties alone, including 1,130,000 Soviet troops and 850,000 Axis opponents.
95. The Soviet Lend-Lease agreement with the United States secured supplies of raw materials, armaments and food, which were vital to maintaining the war machine and preventing starvation over the crucial period of late 1942 to early 1943.
96. In spring 1943 Soviet forces amounted to 5,800,000, whilst the Germans totalled around 2,700,000.
97. Operation Bagration, the great Soviet offensive of 1944, was launched on 22 June with a force of 1,670,000 men, almost 6,000 tanks, over 30,000 guns and over 7,500 aircraft advancing through Belarus and the Baltic region.
98. By 1945 the Soviet could call on over 6,000,000 troops, whilst German strength had been reduced to less than a third of this.
99. The Soviets amassed 2,500,000 troops and took 352,425 casualties, over a third of which were deaths, in the fight for Berlin between 16 April and 2 May 1945