Primary History

World War 2: World at war

  • What was World War 2?

    In the 20th century there were two 'world wars'. Many countries were affected by the wars. The first war lasted from 1914 to 1918. Though it was fought mostly in Europe, people called it the First World War (World War 1).

    The Second World War (World War 2) lasted from 1939 to 1945. It was fought in Europe, in Russia, North Africa and in Asia. 60 million people died in World War 2. About 40 million were civilians. Children as well as adults were affected by the war. This site will tell you what the war was like for children, mainly in Britain but in other countries too.

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  • Who fought in the war?

    World War 2 was fought between two groups of countries. On one side were the Axis Powers, including Germany, Italy and Japan. On the other side were the Allies. They included Britain, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union, China and the United States of America.

    Germany was ruled by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Hitler wanted Germany to control Europe. Japan wanted to control Asia and the Pacific. In 1937 Japan attacked China. In 1939 Germany invaded Poland. This is how World War 2 began.

    Some countries did not join the war, but stayed neutral (on neither side). Spain, Sweden and Switzerland were neutral countries. So was Ireland, though many Irish people helped the Allies.

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  • The war spreads

    Britain and France went to war with Germany in September 1939.They wanted to help Poland after it was invaded, but they were too late. Poland was occupied by the Nazis. By the summer of 1940 they had conquered Holland, Belgium, France, Denmark and Norway. Enemy planes dropped bombs on cities in Britain. Allied ships were sunk by submarines.

    In July 1940, German planes started bombing British coastal towns, defences and ships in the English Channel in order to gain control of the skies in the South of England. By mid-September 1940, after many battles, Germany postponed their planned land invasion of Britain as the RAF effectively fought off the German Luftwaffe. This period is known as The Battle of Britain.

    Commonwealth nations, such as Canada and Australia, helped Britain. In 1941 the Soviet Union (Russia) was attacked by Germany. In 1941 America also joined the war, after Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Use the timeline to find the important events and battles of the war.

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  • How did the war end?

    By 1943 the Allies were winning. One reason was that Allied factories were building thousands of tanks, ships and planes. In 1944, a huge Allied army crossed from Britain to liberate (free) France. Then Allied armies invaded Germany. By May 1945 the war in Europe was over.

    The Pacific war went on until August 1945. There was fierce fighting on Pacific islands and big naval battles at sea. Finally, the Allies dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The damage was so terrible that Japan surrendered. World War 2 had ended.

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  • The Holocaust

    In 1945 Allied troops freed prisoners from Nazi concentration camps. In these camps, millions of Jews and other prisoners had been killed or had died from hunger, disease and cruelty.

    This terrible war crime became known as the Holocaust. It's thought 6 million Jews were killed. Among the victims were many children. One young girl left a diary of her life in hiding, before she was captured. Her name was Anne Frank. She died, aged 15, in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen prison camp.

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Fun Facts
  • In 1939 almost every man wore a hat when he went out. Most schoolboys wore caps.

  • Almost all children wore school uniform. Most boys wore short grey trousers until they were 10 or 11.

  • In 1939 almost every shop closed on Sundays.

  • A year before war began, the government handed out 40 million gas masks.

  • In 1939 most people thought the war would last only 6 weeks - not 6 years.

  • People called the winter of 1940 the 'Phoney (fake) War' At first there just wasn't much fighting.

  • On Saturday nights in the 1930s, many young people enjoyed dancing at the local 'dance hall' to the music of a band.

  • Football was a popular game then as now. Soccer's FA Cup Final in 1939 was won by Portsmouth. The club didn't win the Cup again until 2008.

  • Many people went to the cinema once or twice a week. Cinemas were closed in 1939 when the war began, but soon reopened.

  • In 1939 the Polish army still had lots of soldiers on horses - cavalry. The cavalry bravely charged against enemy tanks.

  • In 1939 many air forces still had biplane (two-winged) planes, not much faster than the planes used in World War I.

  • A magazine in 1939 suggested how to dry a damp coat quickly: fill a hot water bottle, fix it to a clothes hanger, and hang the coat over the bottle.

  • One mother said she was worried that being evacuated to a big house in the country might make her daughter think they should have servants at home!

  • Evacuees from the city were told: always close farm gates, and don't be scared of horses, cows and other animals. Some were though!

  • On 9 August 1939 London street lights went out, to test the 'blackout'.

  • Some hotels changed their advertisements in 1939. They offered a 'large air raid-shelter', as well as sea views, good food, and comfortable rooms.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

air raid
An attack by planes dropping bombs.
air raid drill
Practice for what to do in air raid, such as going to the shelter.
air raid shelter
A building to protect people from bombs.
Allies
Countries (including Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) who joined forces to fight the Axis Powers.
allotment
Small plot of land for growing vegetables.
atomic bomb
Weapon first used in 1945 when two bombs were dropped on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people.
Axis Powers
Germany, Japan, Italy and other countries that were allies in World War 2.
blackout
Wartime ban on street lights and other lights at night.
Blitz
German air raids, from a German word 'blitzkrieg' which means 'lightning war'.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain.
censorship
Controlling what people say or write.
civilians
People not in the armed forces.
Civil Defence
A network of civilian volunteers who assisted in the war effort by helping in air raids and rescuing people from bombed buildings.
Commonwealth
Group of friendly countries almost all of which were once part of the British Empire.
concentration camp
Prison where Jews and other prisoners were kept by the Nazis.
coupons
Slip of paper marked or torn out of a ration book.
D-Day
6 June 1944, the date Allied forces landed in Normandy, France.
department store
Large shop selling different things in different departments.

E to G

evacuee
Someone who was evacuated, moved from a danger area to a safer place.
factories
Places where things are made.
Forces
The Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and other services.
Frank,Anne (1929-1945)
A German Jewish girl who spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a house in Holland. Her wartime diary was published after the war.
gas mask
Face mask to protect people against poison gas.
general election
Vote to choose Members of Parliament, and a new government.
gramophone
Machine for playing music records.

H to L

Hitler, Adolf (1889-1945)
Leader of Nazi Germany.
Holocaust
Mass murder of Jews and other people by the Nazis.
host family
People who took in evacuees to live with them.
invaded
Attacked and taken over by an enemy.
Jews
People who follow the religion of Judaism.
liberate
To free from an enemy's control.

M to O

military uniform
Clothing worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen.
To do with the navy or warships.
A fight between ships at sea.
Nazi
Short for National Socialist Party (in Germany), a follower of Hitler was also called a Nazi.
occupied
Taken over by enemy forces.

P to S

prime minister
Leader of the government of Britain.
prisoners of war
Soldiers captured by the other side.
propoganda
Controlling news media (such as radio) to show your side in the best way.
rationing
Controlling the supply of food, clothes, petrol and other things.
refugee
A person forced to leave their home, often by war.
register
A list of names. In WW2 people had to register with shops before they could use their ration books there.
Resistance
Fighting back in an occupied country, for example by refusing to help the enemy.
scrap metal
Waste metal such as old cooking pans.
siren
Machine that made a wailing noise as a warning when enemy planes were seen.
slogan
A catchy phrase or saying.
Soviet Union
Country made up of Russia and other states that are now independent.
steam train
A train pulled by a locomotive burning coal.
stirrup pump
Small hand pump for squirting water to put out fires.

T to Z

telegram
A short message sent by phone, then printed out and delivered.
Underground
London's Tube rail system.
United Nations
Organization set up in 1945 by the Allies to work for world peace.
Vegetarians
People who don't eat meat.
war crime
Mass murder or cruel treatment of people during a war.
washboard
Wooden board with ridges, for scrubbing dirty clothes on.