Word War II was a titanic struggle between great powers, but there were also many little sideshows with lesser countries.
A number of new, smaller countries were created during the Versailles Treaty of 1919 in the diverse area known as Eastern Europe. What's forgotten nowadays is that in the 1920s France was the big dog on the block, and France helped to support these countries. As we shall see, these lesser countries were caught in a squeeze between two powerful states: Germany and the U.S.S.R. ("Russia", with a dictator from Georgia).
Italy invaded independant Ethiopia in 1935, complete with chemical weapons. The League of Nations did not stop them.
In 1938/39 Germany took over Czechoslovakia in two bites as the war clouds grew darker. Hungary, and to a lesser extent Poland also took bites out of Czechoslovakia.
On August 23 Germany and Russia signed a surprise non-agression pact. Now the west faced both Nazi Germany and those vile communists in Russia. 11 days later
You can see why people were so impressed by what was labeled "blitzkrieg" in Poland. Remember, this was after the Great War with its struggles in the trenches. Before the war, people pictured the next war as being a combination of more trench war plus unstoppable bombers dumping chemical weapons on defenseless panicking civilians.
The German invasion of Poland (check out how far east Germany's borders were) triggered the entry of France and the U.K. into the war, as well as Canada a week later. Russia also invaded Poland.
On November 30 1939 Russia made the brilliant move of invading thoroughly innocent Finland during an exceptionally cold winter. This kickstarted the weird strategic twists and turns of the Nordic countries during WWII. Finland was regarded as a heroic country at the time, but Russia did beat them and gobbled up the Karelian Isthmus. The Russians also gobbled up the Baltic countries just south of Finland in stages, without war.
On May 9, 1940 the Germans started to invade neutral BeNeLux, including some commando air landings. This sucked in British and French forces, which moved east into Belgium. That set the stage for the Germans blasting armoured divisions unexpectedly out of the Ardennes (just west of Luxembourg) and heading toward the English Channel, thereby encircling and eliminating many British and French forces. What happened the last time Germany invaded France?
Notice how Italy snagged a little bit of France too.
Denmark was taken over in one day. During World War II the Danish people conducted a campaign of peaceful resistance. Iceland had some sort of association with Denmark. Almost nobody lives there. The U.S. occupied Iceland.
Like I said, those new, smaller nations were caught in the squeeze between Germany and Russia, as those two nations prepared the ground for a better geopolitical situation. The non-agression pact was still in effect, with Stalin refusing to believe that the Germans would attack.
Greece repelled Italian invaders, "giving the Allies their first victory over Axis forces on land" according to wikipedia. Then Germany got involved.
It looks like sections of Romania including Bessarabia, Moldova and Transylvania got shuffled around. I don't know, look it up.
In a little-known corner of World War II, the king of Yugoslavia (land of the south slavs) was too young, so the place was ruled by a regent. The regent gave in to pressure from the Axis powers. Then there was a coup d'état and the king was given full powers, resisting the Axis. Belgrade was bombed badly with no air defenses, and Yugoslavia was invaded.
That's Ethiopia and Somalia at the top right.
The battle of the Atlantic was the struggle to supply the island nation of Britain vs. the German submarine menace. This is what really worried Winston Churchhill during World War II. Many ships were lost in the first couple of years, and when the U.S. joined the war the situation actually got worse, as the Germans were able to attack more ships. Convoys, various technological tricks and the decryption of the Enigma cipher all helped to turn the tide, and the Allies had won by the spring of '43.
The Battle of Britain was won by Britain. Hitler turned his attention to Russia.
The German invasion of Russia, operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941. Remember that date. It was an epic, brutal clash between two ideological foes: National Socialism vs. socialism in one country.
Remember innocent Finland? Finland took advantage of Operation Barbarossa to reclaim the territory that had been taken from them. Germany was our enemy, and Russia suddenly became our ally, which made Finland an enemy. Britain declared war against Finland. I don't know if anybody else did.
As you probably know, the Russian winter was disastrous for the Germans. They were oh-so-close to the Russian capital, which was the centre of transport networks in Russia. And in spite of those civilians scrambling to build defenses for Moscow, the Russians really had no armed forces to defend themselves. Alas, the Germans did not have supply bases to back them up. General Winter, as well as reserves including units from Siberia, allowed the Russians to counterattack.
At the same time, Japan kicked the sleeping giant, the U.S., which was then furious with Japan.
During the summer of '42 (you don't campaign during spring because of the Russian mud) German forces rumbled southeast, and they had the upper hand. Look at how much European territory the Axis powers controlled. And don't forget the Japanese in Asia and Pacific. Russia was on the ropes and Britain was not present on the continent. In 1940 the U.S. Army had been smaller than the Rumanian Army.
Hitler got his lebensraum, the breadbasket of Europe (Ukraine) and he was on his way to getting the Baku oil fields in the Caucasus map. There's just the matter of taking that city named after the Russian leader.
You can see the forces on the rim of North Africa see-sawing back and forth in their desert battles. I saw a video recently showing the Mediterranean war, and I was struck by the complexity and interdependance of different things. The land war was dependant on the sea war for supplies. The sea war was affected by the presence of Malta, the Allied island just south of Sicily.
U.S. and British forces landed in Northwest Africa during Operation Torch. American forces were quite green. Eisenhower, for example, had never heard a shot fired in anger.
The Russians won the battle of Stalingrad and people learned that the Germans were not invincible.
Did you catch von Manstein's counterattack? German forces were gutted and reeling back after Stalingrad. Von Manstein had his forces retreat, letting the Russians come so that their supply lines were stretched just the right amount, then caught them in a pincer movement.
Most of the German army was not mechanised. Can you imagine how much walking those soldiers did?
Maybe the Allies should have just occupied much of Italy and pinned down German forces rather than taking casualties moving through Italy's mountains. But that's easy for me to say.
You can see why the Russians, fighting batttle after battle against the German aggressors and taking huge casualties, were upset that the Western Allies were not doing the same.
The Western Allies had conducted a campaign of bombing German cities for years. This was not a success. For the first few years bombers were astoundingly inaccurate, there was little effect against the Germans, and the odds of bomber crews making it out alive were worse than the odds for an infantryman. The disastrous Schweinfurt / Regensburg raids by U.S. bombers against ballbearing factories took place in '43.
In the summer came the battle of Kursk, with an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object on an epic scale. The Germans were stopped, and that was the last time they had the initiative, at least against Russia.
Watch how the Allies landed in Anzio in the beginning of 1944, around the same time as the battle of Monte Cassino. They landed at Anzio, then just sat there surrounded for months.
You don't see it on the map, but in the beginning of 1944 there was a change in the air war. Long-range P-51 fighters protected bombers going deeper into Germany to attack targets, and the P-51s shot down German aircraft that were forced to defend. In addition, P-51s and other aircraft ran riot doing strafing runs in Northern France. This crucial success in dominating the air happened just in time, as D-Day was just around the corner.
June 1944 was clearly not a happy month for Nazi Germany in its fight against "the united nations". Rome was liberated June 4 and the momentous D-Day landings occurred on June 6. The Russian Operation Bagration, which successfully destroyed German Army Group Centre, started on June 22. People think of Stalingrad or Kursk as being big meatgrinders, but Bagration was the biggest of them all. Hitler had been expecting the Russians to attack in the south.
After the D-Day landings there was a series of tough battles where the Western Allies, uncomfortably close to the coast, couldn't manage to capture the important city of Caen, and it looked like stalemate. Then came the U.S. Operation Cobra on July 25 where a fleet of bombers pounded a limited area and - well, just look at the map. Adding to Hitler's headaches, there was an attempted assassination against him on July 20.
As you can see, the Russians moved forward in gulps starting and stopping here and there. The Warsaw Uprising started in August 1944 and was destructively crushed by the Germans, as the Russians refused to move forward and support the uprising. This was because of a ruthless scheme by Stalin to eliminate unfriendly political forces in Warsaw. Or maybe they halted for other, military reasons.
The Americans and Brits had argued strongly for and against the idea of landing in Southern France rather than using resources elsewhere. When this sophisticated operation finally took place in August 1944 it was almost unopposed, and is now a little footnote in history.
As you can see, in the fall of 1944 the German forces were clearly beaten, and the war could be brought to an end. And yet, the Western forces stopped because they lacked a usable port to bring in fuel and other supplies. Did you catch the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden including airborne forces in September 1944? Imagine how frustrating this must have been for the Western leaders - who also had to deal with the V1 and V2 bombardment of Britain. Canadian and British forces cleared German forces from the Scheldt Estuary north of the ports in Antwerp, Belgium, allowing supplies to be brought in on November 29. However German defenses had stiffened, the weather turned bad and they were working through an obstacle course. That's the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes "battle of the bulge" you see at the end of '44.
Watch how German forces were isolated and useless on the coast. Typical Hitler. If you read about World War II you will be struck by how Hitler made bad decisions over and over, to the detriment of Germany. He repeatedly ordered forces to hold their ground and risk being surrounded rather than retreat. Trains were used to transport Jews to death camps rather than supply armies, even late in the war.
British forces moved into Greece and took sides in their civil war. Did you catch Russia moving into Norway?
Watch some World War II videos, and you might come to like those blonde-haired soldiers with their neat equipment and uniforms, valiantly struggling to keep the Soviet hordes at bay. In 1945 the Allies came across the death camps where millions of European civilians were exterminated in an organized way. Nazi Germany was a death machine.
. . and our Russian allies invaded Poland. Good old Uncle Joe. The invasion of Poland was the reason WWII started in the first place.
To see a large, non-stop, high-definition presentation of this clip, go here.