History of England

Lecture: World War II

Lecture Outline

Nazi expansion

In this section, I will repeat some of the information from the previous lecture, in an effort to create a better narrative of the Second World War. German expansion is a key component. The reasons for the expansion of Nazi Germany were clearly articulated by Hitler. Germany needed more Lebensraum (living space), her territory having been unfairly limited after the Great War. To many Germans, the ripping up of the Treaty of Versailles (a feature of Nazi rallies) was very popular. It was time for an end to humiliation and economic depression, and the Nazi fascist program promised that through military expansion. The result was to be a reunified Germany that was the envy of the world in its efficiency and progress.

As I have mentioned, some German rearmament had taken place during the 1920s, thanks to General von Seekt's secret arrangement with the Soviet Union. In 1933, Hitler became chancellor of the German state, and Germany withdrew from the League of Nations. This put an end to League investigations into whether Germany was keeping to the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. Weapons were brought back into Germany, and rearmament was evident to everyone. Meanwhile, Italy was expanding, conquering Abyssinia in 1936, despite the disapproval of the League of Nations. In the same year, Hitler and Mussolini allied as the Axis Powers.

Germany then occupied the Rhineland with troops. Winston Churchill, at this point out of favor for having supported Edward VIII before his abdication, repeatedly warned of the Nazi threat, and urged immediate rearmament and alliances with anti-German countries. But P.M. Neville Chamberlain wanted reconciliation. Another war would be devastating for Britain, and most people wanted peace. Many believed that Germany had been abused at Versailles, and deserved some more territory. Some just wanted to be isolationist. Others felt that fascism was good in a way because it prevented communism, which would destroy European nations in all their forms. Even with the Spanish Civil War raging, Britain stayed out because the Tories feared communist influence on the Republican government in Spain.

In 1937, however, Chamberlain decided to hedge his bets and build up the Royal Air Force (RAF). He also sent an ambassador to negotiate with Hitler about his Lebensraum, which everyone knew must include Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland (because those countries had territory taken from Germany after the Great War). Chamberlain believed that Germany's borders with those countries could be re-worked through negotiation, with Britain brokering the compromise.

In 1938, Germany invaded Austria in the Anschluss, a fairly peaceful occupation of a German-speaking country. Assuming correctly that Czechoslovakia would be next, the Labour Party urged a military alliance with France and Russia. Chamberlain said no, and reminded everyone that Britain had no obligation to defend Czechoslovakia. He decided to meet with Hitler himself. Hitler wanted the Sudetenland, the section of Czechoslovakia that had 3 million German-speakers. Neville Chamberlain At the famous Munich Conference, Chamberlain agreed to the annexation of the Sudetenland as long as Germany promised to settle all future disputes peacefully. Hitler agreed. You can listen to Hitler's speech on taking the Sudetenland (Sept 26, 1938), through an American translator. Your first document by small bookNeville Chamberlain is his speech of the next day, September 27.

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You can also listen to a portion of Neville Chamberlain's famous speech (Sept. 30, 1938) announcing the annexation of Sudetenland and the preservation of "peace for our time". Both film and photos showing Chamberlain waving the piece of paper signed by Hitler have since become symbols of naivete. Your document of October 5 by small bookWinston Churchill and then of October 6 by Chamberlain show the differences of opinion regarding appeasement and preparation for war.

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In March of 1939, Germany took all of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain's peace efforts were discredited in the wake of Hitler's aggressive expansion. Britain began to rearm, and formed alliances with France, Poland, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Conscription began. The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union) frantically requested an alliance with Britain. This was a sticky point: the USSR was a communist country and there was much fear of communism. The British government agreed to talks, but it quickly became obvious that there would be no alliance. I believe this was a fatal mistake, because it sent the Soviet Union into an agreement with Germany. Having been stalled by Britain, the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact with Germany in August of 1939.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Neville Chamberlain announced the declaration of war on the radio. Poland surrendered after 26 days. Under the Nonaggression Pact, the USSR did not stop Germany's invasion, and herself took over the Baltic Republics and the eastern half of Poland as part of a secret agreement with Germany. Having declared war, Britain sent forces to land at the Franco-Belgian border to await the invasion of France. Children were evacuated from London. The Royal Navy blockaded in the north, trying to prevent the occupation of Scandinavia (they were unable to do so: Germany took Denmark and Norway by April of 1940). This was the time of the "phony war" in Britain, while everyone waited for months for the real war to start.

In May 1940, Germany finally began to push westward, using blitzkrieg ("lightning war" with planes cutting communications, tanks to run through the lines, then armored vehicles, with infantry at the back for "mopping up"). Neutral countries were attacked first: Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg. At this point, Churchill became Prime Minister. France was then attacked at an unexpected location: the Ardennes Forest. The Germans moved through the trees instead of attacking on the Franco-Belgian fields as expected. Germany defeated France quickly, but stopped before they met up with British troops. Germany could easily have defeated the British sitting like ducks in Dunkirk, but instead Britain was able to evacuate 338,000 men. This evacuation, although it left much equipment on the Continent, allowed these men to return to Britain. Hitler was hoping that Britain would either bow out of the conflict or join with Germany, since Anglo-Saxons were "Aryans" too.

The Battle of Britain

When Britain remained an enemy, the German goal became to control her air space by destroying the RAF. The Luftwaffe had 1350 bombers and 929 fighters. To defend, the RAF had 670 fighters, with about 750 in reserve. Churchill: About 47 fighters a month were being manufactured to add to this. The British government knew the German strategy; it was the only obvious way to plan an invasion of Britain without massive losses. You can hear Churchill on the battle about to begin on 18 June 1940.

The RAF had a severe pilot shortage. As fighters went up to engage German planes, some pilots had to parachute out when their plane was hit in the morning, then get up again in the evening to fly. 10% of RAF pilots were being killed per week in the first weeks of this "Battle of Britain". Young men were recruited as quickly as possible, but they had to be trained. Nevertheless, the RAF managed to not only hold the air space, but even send a bomber to Berlin, a target Hitler had told Germany would never be hit by British planes. The bombing of Berlin most likely changed the course of the war. In retaliation, Hitler abandoned the goal of controlling air space and replaced it with the continual bombing of civilian targets, especially London. This bombing, which often went on night after night, was intended to break British morale and force surrender. The British responded by going to work each day as if there were no war, and sleeping in the underground railroad stations at night during air raids. There is a description in your document by small bookHilde Marchant of life during the "blitz".

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You can also hear fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth and Margaret, speaking to children evacuated abroad at the height of the Battle of Britain, fall 1940. They themselves were out of London though still in England, and their parents (the king and queen) were determined to remain at Buckingham Palace, in the heart of London. Morale was not crushed, and the focus on London diverted attention away from the aerodromes, where more planes were being built and sent up to fight.

Britain "won" the battle in the sense of refusing to lose. Although Germany's blockade tried to starve her out in addition to the bombing, the nation was being supplied with 700,000 tons of shipping per month. Even with losses of about 100,000 tons a month to German attack, a lot got through. Hitler plans Barbarossa Throughout the war, the Royal Navy would battle the German Navy at sea, but Germany was unable to control air space or invade across the water. Probably because of total frustration, Hitler attacked Russia earlier than he'd planned to, in June of 1941. So although France was occupied, Germany was now engaged in war with both Britain in the west and the Soviet Union in the east.

War in the Mediterranean

The Axis were fighting in North Africa as well. In June 1940, Italy attacked British-controlled Egypt. Britain had to defend the region to maintain control of the Suez, the route to India. 50,000 British troops managed to surround 500,000 Italians and get them to surrender. Britain also decided to defend Greece and Crete, which were being controlled by Germany and Italy. This was a strategy to keep German strength pulled southward to support her Axis ally. But defending Greece and Crete overextended British capability, and she had to evacuate.

The "desert war" in North Africa began in earnest in 1941, with Germany making a concerted effort to control the Mediterranean. German General Erwin Rommel (the "Desert Fox") was a genius at swift movements, the concentrated use of tanks, and daring attacks when undersupplied. His troops were victorious over British and American troops until 1943. (America had entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but had only arrived in the summer of '42). Utimately, Field Marshal Montgomery's meticulous planning combined with U.S. General Eisenhower's leadership helped the Allies take North Africa. Defusing a land mine

British troops were then massed in North Africa, and should have been prepared to attack southern Europe. But they moved too slowly; the Germans had time to organize a complete defense of southern Europe. Britain's Alan Turing and other mathematicians, however, had by then broken the German cipher code, and could translate many official military communications. The plan was to invade Sicily, but to make the Germans think the target was Greece. This was done through a diversion (a human body carrying papers about Greece washing ashore in fascist Spain, which would notify Germany). With the invasion of Sicily, Italy (whose own government had fallen and was then occupied by Germany) would be next.

The Empire

The presence of the vast British Empire gave them advantages in some places and disadvantages in others. In Africa, the Empire was an advantage. When Italians invaded British Somaliland in 1940 from their holding in Abyssinia, British armies were raised from Sudan and Kenya, both British colonies. Sudan brought a defense force and two divisions from India. Kenya brought 69,000 Kenyans and 6,000 British soldiers. Italy had no such resources.

Singapore surrendersBut in Asia the Empire was no advantage. Japan had joined the Axis to force the Allies to fight a global war. Her air power was superior in Asia. The Japanese had begun expanding (after invading Manchuria in 1931) with the invasion of China in 1937, and had been continuing toward the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Australia in order to create an empire with enough resources (especially oil and steel) to be self-sufficient. Most British planes were tied up in Europe with the Battle of Britain, so Japan had the advantage in taking British colonies in Asia. In December 1941, Japan invaded Malaya. The British dispersed troops too thinly, and left jungle routes uncovered because they thought the jungles impassable. Japanese troops used the jungles to move, capturing 25,000 prisoners and putting them into prison camps. By spring, Japan took Singapore (and 85,000 troops as prisoners of war) while their navy planes destroyed British ships. Burma was taken next, defended by an ill-equipped and poorly trained army, and more British POWs were marched to labor camps.

This chain of events disturbed not only Britain but the United States, who wanted the Japanese diverted as much as possible in the Pacific. The U.S. supported British General Bill Slim and his Scottish guerilla force. They were called the Chindits (a corruption of the Burmese word for the winged stone lions that guarded Buddhist temples). Slim took 3,000 men through the Burmese jungle to cut railway lines the Japanese were using, a heroic feat that actually had little impact on the Japanese. But it had impact on the British, who were then convinced that jungle warfare was possible with the use of parachute drops, radio, camouflage, and proper air cover. The British would learn the lesson well enough to retake Burma in 1944.

Bridge on the River Kwai link

In the film "A Bridge on the River Kwai", Alec Guiness plays the officer to men captured by the Japanese in Burma. The Japanese camp commander is in charge of getting the prisoners to build a bridge, but Guiness refuses to permit the officers to work on it. In this scene, he has been recently tortured but refuses to give in.


Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin

Throughout the war, overall strategy was decided by three men: Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union. Each had a different plan, and Churchill and Stalin hated each other. Big Three Stalin wanted Anglo-American troops to invade Belgium or France immediately, to open a real "second front" that Germany would have to turn to and take the heat off of Russia. He was very insistent about it. There was a joke that Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov only knew four English words: yes, no, second front. Stalin was not able to attend the strategy meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt because he was leading troops on the Eastern Front, but his ambassadors made the demands clear. Stalin was afraid that his capitalist allies meant to allow the fascists and the communists to kill each other off before they came in to help.

Churchill, for his part, was very wary of Stalin. With the same sort of precognition he'd demonstrated about Hitler, Churchill was convinced that Stalin wanted to control Europe and make it communist. Opening a second front in France would mean that Anglo-American troops would head east toward Berlin, while Soviet troops would head west. After Germany surrendered, then, the USSR would occupy all of eastern Europe. Churchill didn't think she'd give it back.

So Churchill's strategy was to take North Africa first, to pull the Germans southward. This would take the heat off Russia and secure shipping to her through the Mediterranean. Roosevelt agreed, although his military commanders wanted to "go get 'em" in France right away. So the North African campaign occurred, and it was apparent that the Allies would be victorious there by 1943. Stalin was pleased, but wanted his second front. Then, Churchill wanted to take Italy, the "soft underbelly" of Europe that turned out not to be so soft because it was full of Germans. Roosevelt agreed to this too. By then Stalin knew he was being stalled, and came to a meeting: the one at Teheran in December 1943. The animosity was apparent: you will find few photos of the "Big Three" that don't have Roosevelt in the middle, trying to placate both sides. There, finally, the D-Day invasion was planned which would open the second front. In arranging this, Churchill and Roosevelt were in dispute. Churchill did not want France; he wanted a push up through the Balkans in a move that would cut off Stalin as well as defeat Germany. But Roosevelt feared that if Stalin were alienated, his second front left to rot while Russians died in the East, that the USSR would refuse to join the United Nations and the world would never see peace.

The buildup for D-Day (Operation Overlord) led to confrontations between the "Yanks" in Britain and the British people. The Americans were too loud, too brash, and uncivilized (just like any other colonials). The British were too reserved, too quiet, and had a closed society. The contrast was the butt of many jokes, but the British knew that American cooperation was essential to winning the war.

Since 1940, Germany had been reinforcing the beaches of France, preparing for the inevitable invasion. Germany had 60 divisions in France and the Lowlands. D-Day landing The Allies had 37 divisions to invade, only 8 of which would be available on the first day. However, the Allies also had 5300 ships and 12,000 planes, and they dominated the sea and the air in the north by 1944. To make the Germans think that the landing would be at Calais instead of Normandy, the Allies bombed Calais. They leaked false information to German agents. They built dummy landing craft and inflatable tanks and set them out in Essex and Kent under minor camouflage, while the real equipment was hidden in the forests. The landing took place June 6, 1944 across rough seas (you can listen to the BBC's Chester Wilmot's eyewitness report from a glider above the action, and even see an American video showing naval transporting).The bulk of the British action was at Sword Beach and Gold Beach. A six-week battle ensued, then an eight-month trek toward Berlin.

Germany responded by attacking Britain with V-1s, pilotless jet planes that were also called "buzz bombs". 5,823 were launched against Britain. Then V-2 rockets (1,054 in all) arrived, with their fast, silent, and inaccurate bombs. Meanwhile, on the Continent, the Soviet offensive against Germany from the east began June 23. By March of 1945, the Anglo-American troops had crossed the Rhine, and in April they met the Russians in Berlin to end the war. Hitler committed suicide. In the U.S., the atomic bomb was all ready to be used against Germany, but Germany had surrendered. So the bomb was used against Japan, which was still holding to the last man on every island in the Pacific despite American might. On August 6 the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, on August 9 on Nagasaki, ushering in the atomic age. Japan surrendered, and the war was over.

The Holocaust

In Eastern Europe, millions of civilian lives had been lost. The Holocaust is the term used to describe the systematic extermination of people considered undesirable to Hitler's idea of a third German Reich. The Jews in particular were subjected to genocide, the deliberate effort to extinguish an entire segment of the population. The Jews had been persecuted in Germany since Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and gradually their civil and legal rights had been taken away. By 1936, over 75,000 Jews had left Germany and 8,000 had committed suicide. Nazi racial theory saw Jews as an inferior race to be overrun in social Darwinistic fashion, and Nazi political theory saw them as an international force which (like Bolshevism) undermined German nationalism.

Beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews were rounded up in ghettos. In 1941, Germany discovered there were millions of Jews in Russia. Although the original idea had been to relocate all the Jews east of the new Reich, it became obvious that there was nowhere to put so many people. By 1942, extermination camps were in operation. Unlike labor camps (used by both sides during the war), prisoners in extermination camps were there to die. The only work was in the killing and processing of bodies. Anyone not suited for work was killed. Gradually the killing process was refined, from shooting to gassing with Zyklon-B and incinerating the remains. The largest camp, Auschwitz (in Poland) had an organized system consisting of arrival by cattle car, separation into workers (about 30% of all new prisoners) and the condemned (about 70%), gassing of the condemned, removal of useful by-products (glasses, hair, gold teeth, artifical limbs), and burning in crematoriums. All work was done by prisoners.

Jews were not the only victims. Sign 'Work Makes You Free' on gates of Auschwitz Political prisoners, Slavs, gypsies, Catholics, prisoners of war, homosexuals, mental patients, transvestites, all were to be exterminated. Prisoners at the larger camps wore color-coded tags on their clothes: a star of David for Jews, a violet badge for Jehovah's Witnesses, a brown badge for gypsies, a pink triangle for gays. And a red and white target for anyone who had attempted to escape.

As it became obvious that the Germans were losing the war, there were efforts to destroy evidence of some of the camps. Many camps were simply abandoned, their prisoners left to starve, as Germany retreated westward. The worst camps, because they were in the east, were liberated by Soviet troops. This may have had something to do with the loyalty some eastern European nations felt toward the Soviet Union after the war.

The death toll of the Holocaust is hard to determine; records were destroyed in many cases. The nearest estimate is:

  • 6 million Jews (including 90% of the Jewish population of Poland, the Baltic Republics, and Germany; a total of 66% of all European Jews)
  • 4 million Soviet prisoners of war
  • 4 million Poles, Ukranians, Belorussians and other Slavs
  • 400,000 Gypsies (40% of all European gypsies)
  • 10,000 homosexuals

There is much information available about the Holocaust: see the Holocaust Timeline for the major events and issues. So-called "revisionist" historians have tried to argue with the genocidal aspects of the Holocaust, claiming that Jews were not exterminated because they were Jewish, etc. Although the revisionist analyses are unconvincing, their presence has led to the release of a great deal of evidence showing what really happened, such as the pictorial archives and Stephen Spielberg's Shoah project.

So what was Britain up to during all this? German-Jewish children arriving in Britain, 1938 During the 1930s, there had been efforts on the part of British individuals to rescue Jewish children from persecution. Rabbi Schonfeld and others helped hundreds of children escape, to be adopted into English families. During the war and the actual Holocaust, however, official response was negligible. Photographs and reports, smuggled out of the camps, reached some Members of Parliament. Speeches were made and evidence presented, although much was so horrible it was hard to believe. All of this was happening behind enemy lines. No rescue attempt was made; both the U.S. and Britain were later the subject of great criticism in this regard. But to most officials, the goal was winning the war, and there was a feeling that any rescue efforts would be not only negligible in their results, but would divert resources away from victory.

After the war ended, the horror of what had happened was obvious. In 1946, a committee was assembled to help determine how to resettle the Jewish victims of the Holocaust: the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry report makes harrowing reading. For about 100,000 of Europe's surviving Jews, the report recommends the opening of Palestine. Palestine was a British colony, then a "mandate" under the rules of the League of Nations. In 1947, the year after this report was written, the United Nations (patterned on the League but including the U.S.) decided to partition Palestine between Arab and Jewish nations. The Arabs attacked the new Jewish state, leading to wars in which the Jewish state would expand at the expense of the Arabs. Relations in this region of the world are still being corrected. What's interesting is that neither Great Britain nor the U.S., the powers sponsoring this committee, offered any home to the refugees themselves.

There is one other issue that involves Britain. Before the war, many Europeans on the Continent stashed their money in British banks, forseeing what was about to happen in Europe. Many of these people, investing their funds during the 1930s, were German, Austrian, Polish, etc. When the war began, Britain froze the assets in their accounts. Apparently, the money was never returned, and Holocaust victims in particular want it back. The British government has set up an office for restitution.

More information on British response to the Holocaust, and lots of pictures, are available at the Simon Wiesenthal Center website.


1937 July: Japan invades China
1938 March: Germany annexes Austria (Anschluss)
September: Munich Conference
September: Germany annexes Sudetenland
1939 March: Germany occupies Czechoslovakia
March: Spanish Civil War won by fascists
May: Germany and Italy create Axis
August: Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact
September: Germany invades Poland
1940 April: Germany occupies Denmark and Norway
May: Germany invades France
May: Battle of Britain begins
June: Italy attacks British Egypt
1941 June: Germany invades Russia
December: Japan attacks Malaya
December: Pearl Harbor-- U.S. enters the war
1942 January: Mass extermination of Jews begins
February: Fall of Singapore
Balkan campaign
North African campaign
U.S. engages Japan in the Pacific
1943 September: Germans occupy Rome
October: Himmler's speech on exterminating the Jews
1944 June: D-Day landing at Normandy: second front opened
1945 April: Germany surrenders (V-E Day)
August: Japan surrenders after atomic bombs dropped (V-J Day)

Check your Knowledge

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You can take the assessment as many times as you wish, but you need to reclick ALL your answers, even the ones you got right!

1. The main reason Germany was able to arm so quickly was:
a) assistance from the U.S.
b) German investments abroad
c) secret arrangements with the Soviet military
d) a successful economy

2. My lecture portrays Neville Chamberlain as
a) a war monger
b) a naive and misguided leader
c) weak, refusing to prepare for war
d) sadly mistaken about Hitler's intentions

3. The RAF was successful for all the following reasons EXCEPT:
a) young pilots going back up after being shot down
b) high morale
c) keeping control of British air space
d) destroying the German air forces

4. Alan Turing
a) led campaigns in North Africa
b) broke the German secret code
c) advised against war with the Soviet Union
d) supported the Chindits

5. D-Day
a) finally opened the second front in France
b) was a major defeat for Britain
c) caused the surrender of Soviet troops to Germany
d) led to Japan's surrender

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.