Second World War
In September 1939, just 21 years after the end of the First World War, a second global war began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Of the western European countries opposing Germany, only Britain succeeded in avoiding invasion. By October 1939, British men aged between 20 and 41 were required to register and be ready to be 'called up' into the Services.
The war spread across Europe into Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and the Pacific. In 1941, the USA joined the Allied forces after Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The longest battle of the war – the Battle of the Atlantic – lasted for five years, eight months and five days between 1939 and 1945.
One of the most significant events of the war was the Holocaust – the Nazis' systematic murder of over six million people. The people who were targeted included Jewish people, Romani people, disabled people, Slavic people and Polish people – many of whom were persecuted and murdered.
The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in history – it killed more people, damaged more property and cost far more financially than any other war. The total number of casualties is estimated as being between 50 and 70 million people.
The start of the war
In Britain, the war was described as the 'Phoney War' for the first eight months because there were very few signs of conflict. Civilians who had fled London at the first signs of trouble started drifting back to the capital. Gas masks were distributed as people waited for the 'real war' to begin.
On 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Britain's prime minister. On the same day, Germany – having already occupied Denmark and Norway – invaded France, Belgium and Holland. The Blitzkrieg ('lightning war') began. Highly-effective German forces protected by close air support drove back the British Expeditionary Force that had amassed along the Belgian-French border.
Allied forces retreated from their positions. Between 27 May and 4 June 1940, 226,000 British and 110,000 French troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by a hastily-assembled fleet of 800 boats. 338,226 soldiers were rescued in the operation, being delivered safely to the UK.
On 14 June 1940, the German army marched into Paris.
The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain, which lasted from July to September 1940, was the first battle ever to be fought entirely in the air. Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) won a narrow victory over the German air force – the Luftwaffe, causing Germany to postpone plans to invade Britain. The air attack – 'The Blitz' – of Britain's cities continued for the duration of the war, causing around 40,000 civilian deaths and causing damage to important sites of national heritage such as Buckingham Palace and Coventry Cathedral.
Wartime poster containing the famous lines by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from a speech made on 20 August 1940 during the Battle of Britain
On 10 June 1940, fighting spread to Africa when Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis Powers.
In 1941 the war extended further with Germany invading Greece, Yugoslavia and then Russia to open up an 'Eastern Front'. But the fierce Russian winter crippled the German forces and gave the Russian forces an opportunity to fight back, causing the Eastern Front to stagnate.
On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Germany promptly declared war on the US, and Japan invaded the Philippines, Burma and Hong Kong. Japanese expansion continued into Borneo, Java and Sumatra. The fall of Singapore to the Japanese resulted in over 25,000 people being taken prisoner. Many thousands of them would die in Japanese camps in the following years, including those who were forced to work on the construction of the Burma and Sumatra railways.
In 1942, the war turned in the Allied Powers' favour. The US destroyed five Japanese warships at the Battle of Midway in the Pacific, and Allied forces defeated Axis forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt under the command of General Bernard Law Montgomery.
In 1943, Germany surrendered to Russia at Stalingrad in Hitler's first major defeat of the war. The Allies were gaining further ground thanks to the work of British codebreakers based at Bletchley Park and the introduction of new long-range aircraft. Germany pulled its fleet back. When Italy surrendered in North Africa in September 1943, Germany invaded Italy. In the Pacific, US forces gained victory over the Japanese at Guadalcanal while British and Indian forces commenced their joint guerrilla campaign in Burma.
Allied forces landed at Anzio, Italy, in January 1944. German forces counter-attacked and the medieval monastery of Monte Cassino was destroyed by Allied bombing. It took three battles for the Allies to capture the area. They moved on to liberate Rome in June 1944 – just before D-Day and the Allied invasion of France (Normandy landings).
Russia's Red Army moved into Romania and Estonia in late 1944, and captured Budapest in February 1945. In the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944–25 January 1945) in the Ardennes region of France, German forces killed 19,000 US troops which delayed the Allies' march into Germany. On 27 January 1945, the concentration camp at Auschwitz was liberated by Russian troops and the full murderous scale of the Nazi regime was revealed. German rockets continued to rain down on Britain, the RAF and US Air Force retaliating with the bombing of the German city of Dresden.
Russian troops reached Berlin on 21 April 1945 and Hitler committed suicide a few days later. Mussolini was executed by partisans a week later, and Germany formally surrendered on 7 May. 8 May was declared Victory in Europe (VE) Day.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the war raged on. British forces advanced in Burma and US forces had invaded Iwo Jima, followed by the Philippines and Okinawa. The Japanese began to withdraw from China. Harry Truman, the new US president, sanctioned the use of atomic bombs on Japan.
On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, another was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered on 14 August 1945. The Second World War was finally at an end. Victory over Japan (VJ) Day is commemorated on 15 August each year.
Operation Overlord – D-Day
Operation Overlord was the code name for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied western Europe during World War II. The operation commenced on 6 June 1944 with the Normandy landings (commonly known as D-Day). 156,000 British, US and Canadian troops landed in northern France and broke through German defences. It was the largest amphibious attack from water to land in history.
More than 370,000 Allied troops were involved in the Battle of Normandy, with over 2,500 casualties being recorded on the first day alone.
This successful Allied operation marked the beginning of the end of the war and of Nazi control of Germany.
Soldiers descending onto the beaches during the D-Day landings
The Home Front in Britain
Back in Britain, day-to-day living changed enormously. Householders had to conform to 'blackout' restrictions by covering windows and doors to prevent showing the enemy where to drop bombs. Place names and street signs were dismantled or adjusted to confuse the Germans in case of invasion.
By 1940, rationing had been introduced for food (sugar and sweets, tea, fruit, meat and diary products) as well as cotton and petrol. Most people used every inch of outdoor space they had to grow additional food for themselves and their families.
Thousands of people, mainly children, were evacuated from towns and cities and sent to live with strangers in the country or by the sea in places that were considered to be safe from the German bombs.
Women worked in jobs previously carried out by men and contributed enormously to the war effort.
8 May 1945 marked VE Day (Victory in Europe) however the Second World War was not yet over. Thousands of Allied Forces were still fighting in the Far East against the Japanese and thousands more were suffering unimaginable hardship and persecution as Prisoners of War. It was not until 15 August 1945 that the official Allied Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day) was declared, marking the global end of the Second World War.
Legacy of the war
Following victory in 1945, Britain suffered repercussions from the global conflict taking many years to restore pre-war standards of living. An economic depression meant that rationing continued, and low fuel stocks meant that factories and other businesses could not work at the levels required to rebuild a nation devastated by almost six years of war. Electricity was restricted and the winter of 1946–47 was one of the worst on record.
The British Empire began to decline. India was granted independence in 1947 and most of the rest of the Empire had gained independence by 1970. The continent of Europe was divided into two separate blocs (broadly communist and non-communist). This led to the United States and Russia each assuming super-power status and dialogue between the two nations breaking down into a situation of 'Cold War'.
The 1950s saw a steady flow to Britain of immigrants from Commonwealth nations, mainly the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Most of these people remained in Britain and made lives for themselves and their families, contributing to the multicultural Britain of today. Britain was a founding member of the United Nations when it was established in 1945, and four years later became a founding member of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) which originally comprised ten western European countries including Britain, as well as the United States and Canada. Membership of NATO meant that Britain developed smaller but better-equipped Armed Forces that are able to deal with a wide variety of tasks around the world.
The Second World War made a great impact on British life – socially, economically, politically and culturally – that we can see evidence of today.