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The Battle of Britain: Surviving the Luftwaffe Onslaught
The skies over Britain darkened during the summer of 1940 as wave after wave of German bombers and fighters swarmed overhead. This was the beginning of the Battle of Britain, Hitler's attempt to gain air superiority over England as a prelude to a seaborne invasion. Against seemingly impossible odds, the Royal Air Force would engage in a life-or-death struggle to deny the Nazis control of the skies.
As France fell to Hitler's blitzkrieg in June 1940, Britain stood alone against the Nazi menace. Prime Minister Winston Churchill exhorted the British people to prepare for the inevitable onslaught. The Germans, he declared, would "break our spirit by raining bombs on our cities and industries." Indeed, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring boasted that his Luftwaffe would "eradicate the RAF from the skies over England."
Arrayed against the German aerial armada was a small but determined force of RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighter squadrons. Their leader was Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, an unflappable tactician who had molded the RAF into an integrated air defense system. The British fighters were outnumbered, but they had the advantage of radar to cue interceptions while operating near their own airfields. As Churchill put it, never had so many owed so much to so few.
The battle began in early July with Luftwaffe attacks on British shipping convoys in the English Channel. On August 13th, Hitler unleashed Operation Eagle Attack - an all-out effort to establish air superiority as prelude to invasion. Göring sent waves of bombers escorted by fighters to blast RAF airfields and infrastructure. But in their zeal for destruction, German pilots often failed to thoroughly suppress the air defenses. Time and again, outnumbered RAF fighters rose to intercept the attackers, and many German aircraft fell smoking from the sky.
One of the most intense engagements occurred on August 15th, which became forever known as "The Greatest Day" in the RAF's history. In a colossal aerial clash, the RAF shot down nearly 100 German planes for the loss of only 34 of their own. After the battle, Churchill called Fighter Command's Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park to congratulate him, telling Park it was "One of the decisive battles of the war...may well be regarded as having decided the fate of the world."
But the Luftwaffe continued their relentless assault, bombing cities and factories across Britain. London came under heavy attack, with civilians taking shelter night after night as bombs rained down. Still, the RAF kept fighting. In a radio address during the height of the battle, Churchill rallied the British people, paying tribute to the RAF pilots who he said defended the island "to the death, if need be."
By October, Göring's bombers had failed to break British morale or destroy the RAF. Hitler postponed his planned invasion, and the Battle of Britain ended. Against daunting odds, the RAF emerged bloodied but unbowed, retaining control of their home skies. This first major defeat of Hitler's military marked a crucial turning point in the war. As Churchill declared, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
The See-Saw Struggle of the Desert Fox vs Monty
As the Battle of Britain raged overhead, war had also engulfed the vast deserts of North Africa. Here, the British and Commonwealth forces found themselves locked in a back-and-forth struggle against the Germans and Italians for control of this vital strategic region.
The key figure leading the German and Italian forces was the legendary General Erwin Rommel, known as the "Desert Fox" for his daring tactics. In early 1941, Rommel arrived in Libya with his Afrika Korps to reinforce the Italians who were faltering against the British. An aggressive, instinctive commander, Rommel wasted no time in launching offensives to push the British eastwards across the desert.
Rommel's approach emphasized speed and surprise, using tanks as mobile infantry support and avoiding head-on collisions with superior enemy forces. His bold tactics caught the British off-guard, allowing Rommel to chase the British out of Libya and into Egypt by mid-1941. But Rommel had outrun his supply lines, forcing him to halt his offensive at the Egyptian town of El Alamein.
There the British consolidated and reinforced their defenses, determined not to retreat further. In a series of seesaw battles throughout 1942, neither side could gain the upper hand. Then in August 1942, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery arrived to take command of British forces in North Africa.
Where Rommel was instinctive and aggressive, Montgomery was methodical and cautious. He was determined that the next British offensive would be carefully planned to overwhelm Rommel's stretched forces. After extensive preparation, Montgomery launched the Second Battle of El Alamein in late October 1942.
Under cover of darkness, Montgomery sent infantry and engineers to clear paths through German minefields, allowing British armor to push through and smash Rommel's defenses. Rommel's tanks found themselves bombarded by over 1,000 British guns firing 15,000 shells per hour. It was the largest British artillery barrage yet seen in the war.
Pounded relentlessly, Rommel's forces finally cracked and began retreating west back across Libya. For once, it was the Desert Fox who had been outfoxed. Churchill hailed the victory at El Alamein as the "end of the beginning" - the first major offensive success against the Germans.
The seesaw struggle for North Africa finally tilted decisively in the Allies' favor. Overextended and harried by the British, Rommel's forces fled all the way to Tunisia. After bitter final fighting in Tunisia through 1943, the last of the German and Italian forces in North Africa surrendered in May 1943. This opened the way for the Allied invasion of Italy itself - a key step on the long march to Berlin.
The Brutal Clash of Titans on the Eastern Front
As Hitler plotted his aerial assault on Britain in the west, he was also looking eastward, to the vast expanse of the Soviet Union. Since the 1920s, Hitler had seen Bolshevism and the Slavic peoples of the east as grave threats to his vision of German supremacy. Now, with Western Europe under his heel, Hitler turned his attention to fulfilling this long-held ambition: the invasion and destruction of the communist Soviet state.
The resulting campaign on the Eastern Front would become the largest and bloodiest theater of World War II. It was here, amid the snow and mud of the Russian steppe, that the fate of Nazi Germany would ultimately be decided.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union was codenamed Operation Barbarossa, and it kicked off in June 1941 with 3 million German troops pouring across a thousand-mile front. The Soviets were caught off guard, still reeling from Stalin's purges of the Red Army's officer corps. Vast swaths of territory fell to the Germans in the opening months as panzer spearheads encircled and destroyed whole Soviet armies. By September, the Germans had reached the outskirts of Leningrad, surrounded Kiev, and were approaching Moscow.
But Russian resistance stiffened as the weather grew colder. The vastness of Russia absorbed the German advance, overextending their supply lines and sapping momentum. When the ground froze in November, the Germans were still short of Moscow and a Soviet counteroffensive drove them back. It was Hitler's first major defeat.
The following year, Hitler shifted his focus to the south, seeking the oil fields of the Caucasus. But at Stalingrad, tenacious Soviet defenders bogged down the German Sixth Army in savage urban combat. Then in November 1942, the Red Army encircled and trapped the Germans in the ruins - a disaster from which they would never recover.
After the carnage of Stalingrad, the momentum on the Eastern Front swung decisively toward the Soviets. In July 1943, the Germans gambled their remaining strength on one last major offensive at Kursk. This greatest tank battle in history saw 3,000 tanks clash in an apocalyptic struggle. When the smoke cleared, German armor lay shattered. The Red Army assumed the offensive and would not stop until it reached Berlin two years later.
On the Eastern Front, the armies waged a war of annihilation on a scale never seen before. Hitler's genocidal policies toward the Slavs fueled mass murder, starvation, and misery. In turn, the Soviets responded with a merciless determination to exact vengeance. Caught between the two juggernauts were millions of civilians.
In the end, Hitler's long-held dream of conquering Soviet Russia led only to catastrophe for the German nation. His armies were swallowed up and destroyed in the endless Russian expanses. More than any other campaign, the Eastern Front bled Germany dry and sealed the Nazis' fate. The scale of suffering was immense, with over 30 million dead - but in the end, the Soviet Union survived, and Hitler did not.
Island Hopping Toward Japan
The war in the Pacific during World War 2 was defined by a series of bloody amphibious landings by American forces as they advanced steadily closer toward the Japanese homeland. This "island hopping" strategy involved bypassing some Japanese-held islands to focus on capturing strategic ones that would provide airfields and naval bases for the next phase of operations. For the Japanese defenders, their orders were clear - fight to the death to bleed the Americans as much as possible. The result was a series of desperate battles of attrition on small specks of land dotted across the vast Pacific Ocean.
The island hopping campaign kicked off with the pivotal American naval victory at Midway in June 1942, which blunted Japanese momentum in the Pacific. But taking the fight to Japan's inner defensive ring of islands would prove much tougher. The first major target was Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands chain near Australia. In August 1942, American marines landed on Guadalcanal, taking the Japanese defenders by surprise and capturing an important airfield.
But the Japanese Navy quickly responded, leading to months of brutal naval battles off Guadalcanal's shores. Japanese reinforcements trickled onto the island, leading to bitter clashes with the marines in the jungles. Tropical diseases took a heavy toll as the two sides fought over this tiny island, but the Americans finally succeeded in evacuating in early 1943 after denying Guadalcanal to the Japanese.
The next major leap was towards the Mariana Islands, which would put American bombers within range of Japan itself. The island of Saipan was assaulted by marines in June 1944 after a massive naval bombardment. The Japanese fought from bunkers, caves and jungle strongpoints before launching suicidal banzai charges when defeat seemed inevitable. Many civilians committed suicide by leaping from Saipan's cliffs rather than surrender. After 3 weeks of intense fighting, the island was secured.
Nearby Guam was recaptured after a two-week battle. And on the island of Tinian, the hidden base that would launch the atomic bomb attacks on Japan was already under construction as fighting still raged. But the Mariana Islands campaign is best remembered for the largest carrier battle in history - the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Here, American naval aviation decimated Japanese carrier planes, downing over 600 aircraft compared to just 130 losses of their own.
As the island hopping campaign drew ever closer to Japan's shores, the resistance grew even more desperate. Next in the crosshairs was the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima. Though just 5 miles long, Iwo Jima was heavily fortified with a vast network of bunkers, concealed artillery, and 11 miles of tunnels. The Japanese garrison knew there would be no escape. "Every man will resist to the end for the honor and glory of the Motherland," declared the island's commander Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
In February 1945, Iwo Jima was subjected to a massive naval and air bombardment before three marine divisions stormed ashore. What followed was some of the most brutal, close-quarters fighting of the Pacific war. Japanese defenders fought from well-camouflaged pillboxes and caves, forcing the marines into deadly cave-clearing operations. Flamethrowers, grenades and demolition charges were required to root the defenders out. Marines inched across the island, subjected to ambushes and intense artillery and mortar fire.
After a month of non-stop fighting, Iwo Jima was finally declared secure. But it had come at a terrible price - nearly 7,000 marines killed and 20,000 wounded. Almost the entire Japanese garrison of 22,000 had been wiped out. The tenacity of the Japanese defense and the casualties suffered reinforced just how bloody the final invasion of Japan itself was likely to be.
Iwo Jima and the island hopping campaign demonstrated the Americans' willingness to pay almost any price to tighten the noose around Japan. As 1945 progressed, the Japanese homeland came within reach of American bombers. But even as victory drew closer, the desperate fury of Japanese resistance in the Pacific islands gave a sobering preview of the challenge that remained. Conquering Japan would require an invasion that could dwarf even the bloodbaths on tiny specks like Iwo Jima and Saipan. There seemed to be no easy way to force Japan's capitulation. The only other option was utter destruction from the air, using a terrible new weapon not yet unleashed upon the world.