World War II began on September 1st, 1939 with the Nazi German invasion of Poland, and ended on September 2nd, 1945 when Imperial Japan formally signed its terms of surrender to become the last of the Axis powers to fall. It pitted the Allied Powers led by Britain, the United States, Russia and France, against the Axis powers of Hitler-led Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Between these super powers a series of major battles were fought that claimed millions of military and civilian lives on all sides, and left marks in the historical record like none ever experienced in warfare to date. Below is a list of some of the most influential battles fought in World War Two, fought in western Europe and beyond.
10. Operation Torch (November of 1942)
Operation Torch was an Allied invasion of what was then French North Africa that lasted from November 8th through 10th in 1942. It was planned during a Washington Conference of June 1942, attended by President Franklin Roosevelt, and UK premier Winston Churchill. It marked the first time the British and Americans had worked together on an invasion plan, and the first time that American forces fought alongside their European counterparts.
Operation Torch was aimed at opening the Mediterranean for Allied shipping by opening up a way to access southern Europe through north Africa. It was also intended to take some of the pressure off of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Front. The Allied Forces were joined by the Eighth Army that drew forces from India, Canada, Australia, and other countries part of the British Commonwealth.
Operation Torch was ultimately successful. It was also significant for marking the first time that Americans saw the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe first-hand.
9. Siege of Leningrad (September of 1941 to January of 1942)
The Siege of Leningrad began on September 8th, 1941 and lasted until January 27th, 1944. This 900-day-long siege counts as the most tragic period of the city’s history, where an estimated 700,000 people in a population of about 2.5 million died in the blockade due to bombardment, cold, and starvation.
The siege was instigated by Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. The Germans first attacked Leningrad by artillery shell on September 1st, 1941. The city was also one of those targeted by Germans, under the Operation Barbarossa, that targeted the entire Soviet Union-USSR. Over 3 million Axis troops and 3,500 tanks were involved when Operation Barbarossa began on June 22nd of 1941. Hitler had expected the City to ‘fall like a leaf’ and even prepared an event to celebrate. He told German Generals that once Leningrad was surrounded and bombarded from the air and with artillery fire, the resolve of the city residents to fight would wane. German bombers also dropped propaganda leaflets claiming the residents would starve if they didn’t surrender. General Markian Popov took over Leningrad governance, while Andrei Zhdanov became the head of the local party committee. Zhdanov urged all Leningrad residents to get ready to defend the city to death, from German invaders.
The Germans were first repelled by a determined Russian defense, and could not attack and occupy the city, hence the blockade. By September 8th German tanks were 10 miles from Leningrad. The city was cut off from Russia and supply lines in the air and river which were constantly under attack. The nearest rail head outside the city was 100 miles to the East at Tikhvin town, which fell to the Germans. Their bombing also destroyed power stations, and the city suffered chronic food shortages. By November 1941, starvation had claimed the lives of 11,000 people, and the number increased during winter. A 200 mile road out of the city was constructed in 27 days by thousands of people to Zaborie. On December 6th 1941 the road dubbed the ‘Road of Life’ was open, but the 300 trucks that were bringing supplies, stalled due to breakdowns and blizzards. In a day they traveled at most 20 miles. On December 9th the Tikhvin rail-head was recaptured by Soviets, and 7000 German soldiers killed, and the rest pushed 50 miles from there. The Soviets repaired the line in a week, and food supplies began trickling to Leningrad. Food and fuel supplies that came through the “Road of Life” and the frozen Lake Ladoga proved insufficient. The city required 1000 tons of food in a day, but the most it received were 100 tons, which was rationed by the authorities.
Based on city records, in December of 1941 52,000 people died due to a lack of food and exposure to the cold, while many more may have died unaccounted for. By the end of 1942, Leningrad had fewer than one million residents. Those who remained in the city were starving. The siege ended when the Germans withdrew westward, as the Red Army winter offensive forcefully drove them from Leningrad, ending the siege on January 27th 1944. Since Leningrad was never surrendered, Soviet Authorities awarded its people the Order of Lenin, to pay tribute to their endurance in the harrowing siege.
8. Battle of the Atlantic (September of 1939 to May of 1945)
World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, which began in September of 1939 and ended with the Germans surrendering in May of 1945, was the war’s longest nonstop military campaign. It began when the British declared war against Germany. The six year naval warfare pitted the German undersea-boats (U-boats), aircraft, surface raiders, warships and later Italian submarines, against the Allied escort warships, and convoys moving military equipment and supplies, across the Atlantic to Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. It was fought to control Atlantic shipping lanes, and involved thousands of ships spread across thousands of miles, in the dangerous ocean. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain, declared the Battle of the Atlantic victory as needed. When the battle broke out, Germany navies had fewer than 50 U-boats, and the British had a few warship escorts to counter them. In the early days of the battle, Germans released many war submarines which led to the British incurring losses of convoy ships at a high rate. Though the US was neutral, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to Churchill’s request to provide the British Navy with fifty obsolete four piper destroyers in return for use of British bases in the Caribbean. The US also agreed to build escort vessels for the British under the Lend Lease Program.
When the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on the 7th of December in 1941, the United States entered the war. But the US was unprepared for the U-Boat menace which sunk hundreds of Allied ships along the Eastern US. Before the destroyer escorts were available the US Navy relied on escort ships which were inadequate. Consequently, 1942 was the worst year for the Allies, as over 1000 Allied ships were sunk by German U-boats and aircraft in the Atlantic, and off the East Coast of the US. But when the escort destroyer ships entered the Battle of the Atlantic in January 1943, they proved deadly to the German U-boats all over the Atlantic. Due to their technological sophistication like radar which enabled them detect the U-boats on surface, submerged, or day or night despite the weather conditions. By May the tide had turned against the Germans in the Battle of the Atlantic, as more U-Boats were sunk than Allied merchant vessels. On June 4th 1944 the Allies made huge strides to victory by capturing U-505 German submarine. It had the Enigma code machine and books, which allowed the Allies to crack German codes and improve their tactics significantly against the U-boats. Eventually the Germans surrendered in May 1945. From 1939 to 1945, 2700 Allied merchant ships had been lost to German attacks, and 1000 of those were to the U-Boats alone. Over 130,000 Allied sailors lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. Though the Allied losses were many, they would have been worse and more, had the destroyer escorts not joined the battle, thereby reducing the successes of German U-boats. Of the 1100 German submarines produced for the war, 800 were lost to the Allies assault, and 28,000 of 40,000 U-boat sailors were killed, mostly by destroyer escorts.
7. Battle of Britain (July of 1940 to October of 1940)
From July 10th until October 31st of 1940, the Battle of Britain was an air battle fought between the Germans and the British. It pitted the Royal Air Force (RAF) against the numerically superior three fleets of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. The Battle of Britain was the first major military campaign in history fought entirely in the air. In 1940, the Germans had the largest and most superior air force in Europe, and desired to use it to destroy the British air force, and gain air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel. The battle began when three Luftwaffe fleets attacked South-East England, the Western half of England, and Northern Britain, mostly where the RAF were stationed, as well as radar installations and airfields. Hitler aimed to use the Battle of Britain as lead up to invade Britain. Luftwaffe had 1350 bombers and 1200 fighters, marshaled to attack Britain. In spite of their superiority, Luftwaffe bombers incurred heavy losses to inferior RAF spitfires and hurricanes fighters.
Overconfidence, poor bombing tactics, and inept training for long range missions and equipping of the Luftwaffe resulted in losses for the RAF. The RAF also had the advantage of radar tracking and guidance, and could better defend against attacks from widely separated airfields, and was in familiar British territory. The Battle of Britain climaxed on 15th September 1940, when the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes and the RAF 28. In the 12 week battle, 1733 German aircraft had been destroyed, and 2662 pilots had died, and over 6000 captured or wounded. The RAF lost 915 aircraft and 537 of her pilots died. On 17th September Hitler recognized the futility of the battle and postponed the invasion of Britain. Nonetheless the Luftwaffe continued with indiscriminate bombing of cities like London, Plymouth and Coventry. They reduced by October 31st, though some random Luftwaffe attacks would happen up to 1941.
6. Operation Barbarossa (June to December of 1941)
On the 18th of December, 1940, Adolf Hitler issued a directive for an invasion of the Soviet Union to bring its populace and economic potential under German control. The invasion that began on June 22 1941 and ended on December 5 1941 was dubbed Operation Barbarossa. The German attack was aimed to start from the port of Archangel in northern Russia, to the Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. The operation was named after the Roman Emperor Frederick I. Over 3.5 million German and Axis troops with 3400 tanks attacked the 1800 mile front. In the air they were supported by 2700 Luftwaffe aircraft. To date this is the largest invasion force in history.
The German led forces were split into three groups- the Army Group North was to invade the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and also Leningrad. The Army Group South would invade Ukraine towards Kiev, and the Donbass Industrial Region. The Army Group Center would invade Minsk, Smolensk, and Moscow. Hitler had expected the invasion to last about ten weeks. Despite the Red Army having 23,000 tanks, and 5 million troops ready to repel German attacks, they were unprepared. That’s because, Josef Stalin the Soviet leader didn’t believe a German attack would happen as soon as it did. The Germans found Russian forces in disarray, and made great gains aided by Luftwaffe bombings of Soviet airfields, artillery positions, and troop concentrations. On the first day of Operation Barbarossa, 1800 Soviet aircraft were destroyed while most were on the ground. Army Group North under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter Leeb headed to Leningrad, while General Erich Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4 to the forefront.
The Army Group center led by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock also aimed for Moscow. By June 28th, Panzer Group 2, led by General Heinz Guderian and General Hermann Hoth’s Panzer’s Group 4, had surrounded three Russian armies and taken hostage 320,000 men in Bialystok-Minsk. Two other Panzer troops pressed ahead on the far side of Smolensk on July 27th and two more Russian armies were trapped and annihilated, and 300,000 Red Army, taken prisoner. But Army Group South commanded by Gerd Von Rundstedt faced the stiffest Soviet resistance as most of the Russian defence was at Ukraine. But Von Rundstedt’s troops pushed out beyond the pre-1939 Polish frontier. Army Group 1 led by General Ewald von Kleist got slowed by Soviet troops while heading towards Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and the Donets Basin. On August 8th the Germans besieged two Soviet armies, and captured 100,000 men at Uman pocket, and they got to Dnieper River. The Odessa naval port on the Black Sea was also surrounded.
Until this point, the Germans had seemed unstoppable. However, Soviet resistance began increasing. A German salient in Yelnya south-east of Smolensk, was recaptured by the Soviets at a high cost. With supplies to Army Group Center lacking, Hitler decided to halt the Moscow advance to boost Army Groups North headed to Leningrad, and South headed to Kiev. Instead Hitler opted for Crimea and Donets Basin to be invaded, due to them being resource rich.
At Kiev, five Soviet armies got trapped and Kiev fell, and over 650,000 Russian troops were killed or captured. In October, Kharkov City was captured by Germans. By now the German troops were exhausted and supplies and ranks depleted. On September 1941, aided by Finland the Germans besieged Leningrad from the rest of Russia for 890 days but could not capture it. Hitler refocused his attention to Moscow, believing the Russians defense was too depleted to defend the capital. But the Red Army had been reinforced with 1 million troops ready to defend Moscow. The German offensive attacked with 1 million men, 1700 tanks, and 600,000 Russian soldiers were captured at Bryansk and Vyazma, leaving about 90,000 men in the Russian army. After three months of attack the Luftwaffe got weak. As the German forces approached Moscow rains and mud slowed their advance, and they chose to momentarily stop. Low temperatures in mid November again slowed the German advance giving time for Soviets to be reinforced by reservists and troops from Siberia, and Eastern borders. Even though sections of German troops got within 12 miles of Moscow, they were depleted, exhausted, and frozen in the intense deep snow. The Germans retreated on December 5th when the Soviets launched a counter attack and crushed their various troop formations. The Army Group Center was pushed back 150 miles from Moscow, and angry Hitler fired Walther von Brauchitsch, the German army commander.
5. Battle of Stalingrad (August of 1942 to February of 1943)
From July 17th of 1942 until February 2nd of 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad took place. Historians consider this battle as one that decimated the invincible German army and her allies as they fought against the Soviet’s Red Army in Russia. The Battle of Stalingrad is considered the turning point of World War II in Europe. Hitler ordered the attack on Stalingrad when Army Groups A and B were about to invade South West Russia Caucasus. On September 1942 General Friedrich Paulus and his Fourth Panzer Army neared Stalingrad aiming to secure oil fields in the Caucasus. To achieve that, Hitler ordered Paulus to capture Stalingrad with the German’s final target being Baku. To Russia, Stalingrad was a hub for communications and manufacturing. Josef Stalin motivated his troops to fight for Stalingrad which was named after him. Resolute Russians were determined to never let the city fall to ensure Germans didn’t capture the Caucasus oil fields. What ensued was one of the most brutal of World War II battles, and individual streets battles were fought hand to hand.
Though the Germans captured many parts of Stalingrad, the Russians often retook them at night. On November 19th 1942 the Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov, mobilized a one million man army, to surround Stalingrad. That resulted in German soldiers being trapped in the city. When German General Friedrich Paulus noticed the trap at the early stages, he would have avoided it, but Hitler forbade him. With the Germans trapped in Stalingrad, winter set in, and temperatures dropped way below zero, and food, ammunition, and heating amenities, were inadequate. German soldiers began getting frost bites and losing appendages, while Hitler urged Paulus to fight to the last bullet. He even promoted him to Field Marshal but by the end of January 1943, the German soldiers led by Paulus in Southern Stalingrad surrendered. Then on February 2nd 1943, General Julius Schreck with Northern Stalingrad soldiers were last to surrender to the Red Army. In the Battle of Stalingrad, a German Army unit lost a complete army group while 91,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner. Historical scholars estimate the Axis alliance led by Germany had 850,000 casualties. They also lost vast military equipment. Hitler in rage ordered a national day of mourning over the shame of losing a battle, and stripped Von Paulus of his Field Marshal rank for his “failure”.
4. Battle of Okinawa (April to June of 1945)
Described as the largest sea-land-and-air battle in history, the Battle of Okinawa occurred from April 1st until June 22nd of 1945. It was also the last major battle of the Pacific Campaign in the war. For the battle, America had 300 warships plus 1139 other ships. Over 100,000 Okinawan citizens perished, and there were over 72,000 American fatalities, 107,000 Japanese fatalities, and 7400 taken prisoner. Americans intended to capture Okinawa Islands as a part of a three point plan by them to win the war in the Far East. The Americans also intended to re-conquer the Far East and destroy the remaining Japanese merchant fleet, and use the four airfields there, to launch bombing raids on Japan’s industrial hubs. General Mitsuru Ushijima commanded the 130,000 Japanese troops on the 450,000 in Population Island, and had been ordered to hold onto the island at all costs. General Ushijima moved his forces to the Southern sector of island, and placed them in structured secure fortifications. To capture these fortifications the Americans would have to engage the Japanese in frontal assaults. The Japanese also enlisted the Kamikaze suicide pilots as part of their defense.
General Simon Buckner, the opposing American land commander, had 180,000 soldiers under his command. Before landing in Okinawa to anchor, the Americans bombed the Hagushi bay for seven days before April 1st. By March 31st they had secured it for their 60,000 77th division, to little opposition. The Kamikaze also launched 193 suicide plane attacks which destroyed 169 units of American carrier fleet. But many Kamikaze flights were countered by the Americans. Bar guerrilla activity, by April 20th all Japanese resistance in the north of Okinawa had been eradicated. The most intense battle of Okinawa was South of the island, on April 4th America troops ran into Machinato line which halted their advance. They breached it on April 24th and then ran into Shuri line which slowed them again. At the South the Kamikaze sunk 21 American warships and damaged 66 others. When a Japanese counter attack failed, Ushijima ordered his troops to pull back from the Shuri line. The Japanese continued standing firm but by June they had lost the battle of Okinawa to Americans. Americans declared it secure on July 2nd, few days earlier, General Ushijima had committed suicide. The Japanese also lost 4000 aircraft, and 16 of her ships were sunk in the Battle of Okinawa.
3. Battle of Midway (June of 1942)
From June 4th through 7th of 1942, the Battle of Midway occurred at Midway Atoll, 1300 miles northwest of Oahu in Hawaii. The battle instigated by Japan intended to defeat the US Pacific Fleet, and capture Midway to use as a base to attack Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Commander in Chief of the combined fleet, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto believed an all out naval battle with Americans was the only way for Japan to gain control of the Pacific, by defeating them. That way Japan would become the dominant power in the Pacific. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the US Commander in Chief of the US Pacific fleet, had hints the Japanese were planning an attack in the Pacific. The US Navy also had been able from early 1942 to break Japanese communication codes. The US intercepted the coded message on the imminent attack, by the Imperial Japanese Navy. On June 4th of 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers commanded by Admiral Chuici Nagumo of the 1st Carrier division, attacked and destroyed the US base at Midway. But the Japanese didn’t know US carrier forces were east of the island, and ready for battle.
As the Japanese aircraft were returning from those first attacks, their navy remained aware of the US Naval force presence in the area. US torpedo and dive bomber units were dispatched to attack the Japanese fleet. Three Japanese fleet carriers were hit and razed, and abandoned. The surviving carrier Hiryu retaliated with two attacks and bombed USS Yorktown, and severely damaged it. USS Yorktown was later sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 7th. In the afternoon a US scout plane located Hiryu and USS Enterprise commanded by Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, sent dive bombers to attack it. Hiryu was bombed and burnt and it lost the ability to launch fighter aircraft. The US Navy and forces attacks at Midway Atoll intensified in the next two days, which compelled the Japanese to abandon the battle and return to Japan. In the battle Japan lost 4800 men, four aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and hundreds of aircraft, and other experienced crewmen, hard to replace. The US lost about 307 men, one aircraft carrier, a destroyer, and over 100 aircraft. This US victory halted the Japanese, Pacific expansion. The US also shrunk the Japanese empire expansion in Pacific islands in years that followed, through other larger naval battles.
2. Battle of Berlin (April to May of 1945)
The final destruction of Hitler’s stronghold in Europe began on the 16th of April 1945 and ended on the 2nd of May in 1945 during what would be known as the Battle of Berlin. Soviet leader Josef Stalin unleashed 6300 tanks, 8500 aircraft, and 20 armies to capture Berlin and crush the German resistance. Stalin was in a hurry to capture Berlin before the Americans who had crossed Rhine River on Swiss-German border. To expedite the capture, Stalin split the Berlin operation between Marshall Georgy Zukhov to the center, and Marshall Ivan Konev to the south. These two senior most Soviet commanders were competitive and each desired to be credited with the fall of Berlin. On the 15th of April, Soviet forces fired over a million shells into German positions west of the Oder River. An advance by Zukhov’s troops to the bridgeheads, found the Germans in fortified positions on Seelow heights further inland, having learned of a looming Soviet attack, from a captured Russian soldier. It took Zukhov and his troops three days to advance past the German resistance. His plan almost derailed when the Germans fired back aggressively with machine guns. Scores of Red Army also died from friendly fire, as the Soviet artillery was firing without proper guidance. Many Soviet tanks were lost for being used as battering rams against German positions. Over 30,000 Red Army soldiers also died, while the Germans lost 10,000.
The high Soviet casualty rate was due to Stalin’s hurry to reach Berlin. On April 22nd Hitler, was almost admitting defeat as the route to Berlin was open, but his deputy Martin Bormann urged him to fight on. The hope was on 70,000 General Walther Wenck commanded, 12th army, and located south-west of the city. Hitler ordered them to unite with General Theodor Busse’s 9th army retreating from Oder River, and counter attack the Red Army. It proved vain as Marshall Konev’s forces cut off and surrounded the 9th Army at a forest south of Berlin, near Halbe a small town. In this forest there was a massacre of over 50,000 soldiers and civilians, with majority of the dead being Nazis. Today corpses of those who died in that forest are still being found. Zukhov and Konev troops aggressively advanced to Berlin both sides eager to take credit for its capture. In the process they sometimes accidentally shot at each other.
The Soviets used tanks in the Berlin street fights in a similar manner that the Germans had disastrously done earlier in Stalingrad. The Russian tanks were fired upon by German soldiers with bazookas in destroyed buildings. But the 90,000 German soldiers had little chance against over a million Red Army troops. Though the first wave of Red Army into Berlin was disciplined, the second ones were violent and raped women. Their out of control indulgence was fuelled by alcohol stocks they found in Berlin. Reports say in the last six months of World War Two, up to two million German women were raped 100,000 of them in Berlin. With Battle of Berlin nearly ending, on 30th April 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun his mistress committed suicide hours after marrying in the bunker they were hiding. On May 2nd 1945 the Reichstag the old German parliament fell. Berlin surrendered to Marshall Zukhov who got the conqueror of Berlin “honor.” In the Battle of Berlin, the Soviets had over 70,000 troops dead mostly due to Stalin’s haste to take Berlin hence the battlefield mistakes. The capture of Berlin by the Red Army of Stalin before the Americans’ arrival was a source of Soviet prestige and led to German mistrust of the west.
1. Battle of the Bulge (December of 1944 to January of 1945)
Fought in the Ardennes Forest from December 16th of 1944 until January 25th of 1945, the Battle of the Bulge pitted German Forces against those of the advancing Allied powers. Almost a million soldiers from opposing sides were involved in this battle, reports National World War II Museum report. This was also the single bloodiest and biggest battle Americans had fought, as almost 80,000 troops were either killed, maimed, or captured. By this time Hitler was a fugitive and seemed defeated, and World War II seemed over. But he intended to reverse gains Allied troops had made, when they landed on France, on D-Day. His army led by Marshalls Gerd von Rundstedt, and Walther Model, launched a counter attack on a 75 mile dense Ardennes Forest stretch, on a misty winter December 16th morning. They had about 250,000 German troops, and almost 1,000 tanks. This stretch was held by battle worn, wounded, and inexperienced American divisions who were resting. After a day of fighting the Germans broke through the American front and surrounded the infantry division. They then seized vital crossroads, bridges, and advanced towards Meuse River. On that first day Allies loses were huge as in some sections they were outnumbered ten to one by the Germans. The Allied soldiers were massacred by Germans soldiers in American uniform disguise. By Christmas the German offensive had advanced 50 miles into Allied territory, and forced 4000 Americans to surrender in a day. This was the biggest surrender since the Battle of Bataan. This compelled Allied Forces commander General Dwight David Eisenhower to send reinforcements.
Over half of a million young troops were sent to battle in the rolling hills and the dark, dense forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. The soldiers fought in zero temperature conditions in dense snow that made visibility over 10 to 20 yards difficult. Some got frost bites and the wounded in some cases froze to death. The German advance was halted by General George S Patton Jr’s Third US Army unit to the north, who attacked German flanks at the end of December. The weather also improved and allied bombing flights resumed. At critical road junctions of Saint Vith and Bastogne, American tanks and paratroopers, fought off incessant attacks from the Germans. Within days Bastogne fell to Patton’s Third Army, to the north, and the 2nd US Armored division stopped German tanks nearing Meuse River on Christmas day. The Germans last effort to win the Battle of the Bulge occurred on January 1st 1945 when they assembled 1000 aircraft for Operation Bodenplatte. The Germans aimed to attack Allied airfield and destroy their aircraft in France, and Low Countries (Netherlands and Belgium). They succeeded in destroying over 100 Allied aircraft on the ground but the Luftwaffe incurred irreplaceable losses. By January 25th 1945 the Germans were pushed back to their initial point, in what a precursor to the final destruction of Hitler’s reign on April 30th of 1945. The Germans lost over 100,000 men, who would prove to be irreplaceable in their defense.