WW2: History's most savage and devastating war

The world goes to war

World War Two was the most destructive global conflict in history. It began when Nazi Germany unleashed ferocious attacks across Europe - but it spread to the Soviet Union, China, Japan and the United States.

Cities were destroyed by air raids, the atom bomb was dropped on Japan and six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Over 50 million soldiers and civilians died. However, the war that consumed half the world started with a peace agreement.

30 September 1938

The Munich Agreement

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wants to ensure another European war is avoided.

With Nazi Germany expanding its territories in Europe, Britain, France and Germany sign the Munich Agreement, which states the Czechoslovakian region of Sudetenland should be given to Germany and Hitler can claim no more land. Chamberlain thinks this guarantees a way of appeasing Hitler and he has assured “peace for our time”. But the Munich Agreement fails to deter Hitler from his expansionist plans and in March 1939 he invades Czechoslovakia, breaking the terms of the treaty.

Chamberlain makes a speech about the Munich Agreement. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

1 September 1939

Germany invades Poland

Unknown to the Poles, Germany has signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Soviet Union, agreeing to carve up Poland.

At 04:45 on 1 September 1939, the assault on Poland begins. A German battleship opens fire on the Polish garrison in Danzig (Gdansk). It is the first military engagement of World War Two. Simultaneously 1.5 million German troops march over the Poland border. They tear across the country aided by 1,300 German aircraft which bombard Polish towns and cities. On 2 September Chamberlain sends an ultimatum to Hitler: if he does not withdraw his forces by the following day, there will be war.

Germany invades Poland. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

3 September 1939

Britain and France declare war on Germany

Britain and France have agreed to defend Poland under the terms of the 1918 Treaty of Versailles.

When Germany refuses to withdraw, Britain and France declare war. The small Polish army is hopelessly outdated and still has several cavalry divisions. They put up plucky resistance for three weeks but are finally defeated by Germany's powerful army. On 17 September, Stalin sends the Red Army to occupy eastern Poland.

Chamberlain announces that Britain is at war with Germany. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

17 September 1939

The Phoney War

Britain and France are now at war with Germany but for eight months Western Europe is largely peaceful.

Many expect Germany to continue its military expansion beyond Poland, but it delays its advance. This gives time for the British Army, made up of around 150,000 men, to travel to France. Allied forces are put on alert, guarding the border with Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The French reinforce an impressive series of fortifications along the German border, the Maginot Line, but crucially they do not extend it to reach the Belgian frontier.

French soldiers inspect the Maginot Line

10 May 1940

Germany invades France

Chamberlain’s appeasement policy has failed. He resigns as prime minister on 10 May and is succeeded by Winston Churchill.

German troops use Blitzkrieg tactics and unleash a surprise attack to storm through neutral Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands before crossing the border into northern France. The French, with most of their forces on the Maginot Line further south, are outmanoeuvred and outfought. In the ensuing battles the German Army suffer 150,000 casualties, but the Allies suffer more with 360,000 casualties. Hopelessly outgunned, the British Army retreats towards the coast.

Germany invades France. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

19 May 1940

The evacuation from Dunkirk

German military success continues as they reach the coast at Abbeville in Northern France and cut off the British Army between Lille and the sea.

Defeated and humiliated, around 340,000 men, including 121,000 French and Belgian soldiers, retreat north with their backs to the sea. They are no match for the ruthless German forces and their surrender looks inevitable, but an enormous rescue mission is undertaken to save them. Between 26 May and 4 June a ragtag fleet, ranging from battleships to pleasure boats braves the Channel to save the stranded soldiers. The incredible courage of the British civilians becomes known as 'Dunkirk spirit'.

Evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

14 June 1940

German soldiers enter Paris

German forces take Paris on 14 June. The French government flees, but the Prime Minister Paul Reynaud wants to continue fighting.

However he is quickly outvoted and forced to resign. His replacement, Marshal Philippe Pétain, has no alternative other than to sign a humiliating armistice with the Germans. On 22 June in Compiègne – the site of the 1918 Armistice – France is divided into an occupied section and a German puppet state, headed by Pétain, known as Vichy France. Germany is now the dominant power in Western Europe.

Hitler with his generals in Paris

19 July 1940

Battle of Britain

With France conquered, Germany plans a knockout blow to Britain across the Channel.

Hitler wants to attack Britain in the summer of 1940, but before he launches a ground invasion, he must gain air superiority by destroying the Royal Air Force. In July the RAF has only 640 fighters to combat the Luftwaffe’s 2,600 fighters and bombers. But up step "the few". The RAF puts up an incredible fight and, over the course of the battle, downs 1,887 German planes. The Luftwaffe fails to dominate British skies and, by the end of October, the threat of invasion recedes.

The Battle of Britain. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

7 September 1940

The Blitz

With the Battle of Britain going badly, the Luftwaffe commander, Hermann Goering, switches to bombing British cities.

43,000 civilians are killed and many wounded. In September 5,300 tonnes of high explosives are dropped on London in just 24 nights. Tens of thousands of city children are evacuated to the countryside. Industrial cites and ports across the country including Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff and Southampton are attacked. German bombers drop 500 tonnes of high explosives and nearly 900 incendiary bombs on Coventry in 10 hours devastating much of the city and all but destroying the Cathedral.

A milkman delivering milk in a London street devastated during a German bombing raid

22 June 1941

Germany invades the Soviet Union

On 22 June 1941 Germany invades the Soviet Union. Three million German troops are supported by Italian, Hungarian, Romanian and Finnish allies.

Stalin is taken by surprise and the Soviets are forced to retreat. The Germans use Blitzkrieg tactics and one week into the invasion the Soviets suffer 150,000 casualties. The invaders are accompanied by SS teams, who round up and kill hundreds of thousands of Jews. By December the Germans reach the outskirts of Moscow. But their supply lines are stretched and Stalin is just as ruthlessly determined as Hitler. Aided by the harsh winter, the Soviet army holds the Germans at bay.

Andrew Graham-Dixon describes Stalin's speech to his generals during the Siege of Moscow. Clip from the Art of Russia (BBC Four, 2009).

7 December 1941

Pearl Harbor

Japan, allies to Germany, bombs the American fleet moored at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Japan feels embittered by a US oil embargo imposed in August 1941 to stop its expansionist ambitions in China. In response it launches a pre-emptive knock out attack on the US in an attempt to destroy the Pacific fleet. But the raid fails because Japan’s main target, three US aircraft carriers, are at sea elsewhere and escape unscathed. Japan’s actions waken sleeping giant and US President Roosevelt declares war on Japan, prompting Japan’s ally Germany to declare war on the United States.

Aftermath of the attack on an air base near Pearl Harbour

15 February 1942

Fall of Singapore

The Imperial Japanese Army continues its expansionist ambitions by hurling itself into a series of offensives across Asia.

Japan's next target is Singapore. With the British defensive guns pointed south towards the sea, Japan mounts an audacious assault battling through the jungles of Thailand and Malaya to attack from the north. After a week of fighting, the Allied forces are running low on supplies. Around 16,000 British and 48,000 Australian and Indian troops surrender and become prisoners of war. The fall of Singapore is seen as a great humiliation for the British government.

British forces surrender in Singapore

23 October 1942

Battle of El Alamein

After two years of see-saw fighting in the deserts of North Africa, Churchill appoints Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to command the British army.

On 23 October 1942, the British halt Germany’s march into Egypt at the second battle of El Alamein. Germany and Italy are forced to retreat back through Libya. It is the first major allied victory in the war and a huge morale booster on the home front. In May 1943 German forces are finally driven out of North Africa, ending the threat to the Suez Canal, a major trading route, and paving the way for the invasion of Italy.

Jonathan Dimbleby describes how the Nazis advanced in a pincer movement on Allied Egypt. Clip from The Road to El Alamein (BBC Two, 2012).

2 February 1943

Germans surrender at Stalingrad

A German offensive in August 1942 stalls and the Red Army holds on in Stalingrad until the Russian winter arrives.

It is one of the bloodiest battles in history with nearly two million military and civilian casualties. House-to-house fighting drags on until 2 February 1943. With food and ammunition exhausted, the German commander Friedrich Paulus surrenders. This is a turning point in the war, and Hitler pays the price for underestimating the sheer size and determination of the Soviet forces, which begin the long push west towards Berlin.

German prisoners of war at Stalingrad

9 July 1943

Allied invasion of Sicily

After their success in North Africa, Allied forces invade Sicily and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is forced to resign.

150,000 allied troops land on Sicily where they meet little resistance from the Italian and German troops. Legend has it the Allies are assisted by several Mafia figures, like Lucky Luciano, who help them to win over the Italian population. The Allies slowly advance up through Italy but are held up by dogged German resistance. At the Battle of Monte Cassino in southern Italy the Allies suffer 55,000 casualties and destroy an ancient monastery in order to breakthrough to Rome.

Italian prisoners of war in Sicily

6 June 1944


The Soviet Union has been pressing for two years for a second front to be opened in the west.

British, Canadian and US troops train in southern England for a year before they are given the green light to invade. The German defences stretch over 1,000 miles from Biarritz in southern France to Denmark. They have no idea where the allies might strike. Taking the Germans completely by surprise, 150,000 British, Canadian and US troops land on five beaches in Normandy. Although they sustain heavy casualties they gain a crucial beachhead – the liberation of France begins.

Sophie Raworth explains how D-Day was planned. Clip from iWonder: How was the biggest ever seaborne invasion launched?

27 January 1945

Liberation of Auschwitz

The Red Army liberate the Auschwitz death camp, near Krakow.

More than one million people die at Auschwitz – the majority are Jews. The full horrors of the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed six million Jewish people, as well as their murderous attacks on other ethnic minorities and groups, are only properly comprehended by the British and Americans when they begin to liberate concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen in Germany in April. Horrified soldiers find thousands of dead as well as many sick and starving prisoners.

Natasha Kaplinsky explains why people became killers in the Holocaust. Clip from iWonder: Why did ordinary people commit atrocities in the Holocaust?

1 April 1945

Battle of Okinawa

Japan's early success in the Pacific is brought to an end by the naval Battle of Midway in June 1942.

This is a vital turning point in the war. The Japanese go on the defensive and their empire is gradually pushed back. General MacArthur recaptures the Philippines from the Japanese in 1944, and in March 1945 the US overcomes fanatical resistance on the island of Iwo Jima. The Battle of Okinawa lasts for 82 days. Kamikaze pilots bombard the US ships off the coast, while on shore thousands of Okinawan civilians kill themselves, under pressure from Japanese army officers.

Kamikaze pilots pose for a photograph

8 May 1945

Germany is defeated

The myth of German invincibility is smashed, and the resurgent Red Army gradually roll back the Third Reich into Germany.

The Soviets evict the Germans from Poland and send troops into Romania, Hungary and the Balkans. Stalin is determined his troops will get to Berlin before the British and Americans, who are advancing from the west. As the Red Army reach Berlin, brutal fighting continues street by street and Hitler takes his life in his bunker with his newly wed wife Eva Braun. Nazi Germany is defeated.

Adolf Hitler with Eva Braun

6-9 August 1945

Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

With her allies Germany and Italy both defeated, Japan fights on without any hope of staving off a similar fate.

American planes bomb Japanese cities with impunity. It is feared tens of thousands of US troops – and millions of Japanese – will be killed in the event of an invasion. Churchill and Truman demand Japan’s unconditional surrender. When the Japanese refuse, the Americans drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and three days later, on Nagasaki. This terrifying new weapon causes unprecedented death and destruction. Emperor Hirohito surrenders and the most destructive war in history comes to an end.

The atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Clip from A Time to Remember (BBC Four, 2010).

Learn more about this topic:

WW2: How was D-Day, the biggest ever seaborne invasion, launched?
WW2: What would you have done when the bombs fell?
WW2: Countdown to Hiroshima: The bomb that changed the world