Saturday, June 16, 2012

Course of the war

Course of the war

War breaks out in Europe

Common parade of German Wehrmacht and Soviet Red Army on 23 September 1939 in Brest, Eastern Poland at the end of the Invasion of Poland. At centre is Major General Heinz Guderian and at right is Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein.
On 1 September 1939, Germany and Slovakia—a client state in 1939—attacked Poland.[43] On 3 September France and Britain, followed by the countries of the Commonwealth,[44] declared war on Germany but provided little support to Poland other than a small French attack into the Saarland.[45] Britain and France also began a naval blockade of Germany on 3 September which aimed to damage the country's economy and war effort.[46][47] On 17 September, after signing a cease-fire with Japan, the Soviets also invaded Poland.[48] Poland's territory was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, with Lithuania and Slovakia also receiving small shares. The Poles did not surrender; they established a Polish Underground State and an underground Home Army, and continued to fight with the Allies on all fronts outside Poland.[49] About 100,000 Polish military personnel were evacuated to Romania and the Baltic countries; many of these soldiers later fought against the Germans in other theaters of the war.[50] Poland's Enigma codebreakers were also evacuated to France.[51] During this time, Japan launched its first attack against Changsha, a strategically important Chinese city, but was repulsed by late September.[52]
Following the invasion of Poland and a German-Soviet treaty governing Lithuania, the Soviet Union forced the Baltic countries to allow it to station Soviet troops in their countries under pacts of "mutual assistance."[53][54][55] Finland rejected territorial demands and was invaded by the Soviet Union in November 1939.[56] The resulting conflict ended in March 1940 with Finnish concessions.[57] France and the United Kingdom, treating the Soviet attack on Finland as tantamount to entering the war on the side of the Germans, responded to the Soviet invasion by supporting the USSR's expulsion from the League of Nations.[55]
German troops by the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, after the 1940 fall of France.
In Western Europe, British troops deployed to the Continent, but in a phase nicknamed the Phoney War by the British and "Sitzkrieg" (sitting war) by the Germans, neither side launched major operations against the other until April 1940.[58] The Soviet Union and Germany entered a trade pact in February 1940, pursuant to which the Soviets received German military and industrial equipment in exchange for supplying raw materials to Germany to help circumvent the Allied blockade.[59]
In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway to secure shipments of iron ore from Sweden, which the Allies were about to disrupt.[60] Denmark immediately capitulated, and despite Allied support, Norway was conquered within two months.[61] In May 1940 Britain invaded Iceland to preempt a possible German invasion of the island.[62] British discontent over the Norwegian campaign led to the replacement of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill on 10 May 1940.[63]

Axis advances

Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg on 10 May 1940.[64] The Netherlands and Belgium were overrun using blitzkrieg tactics in a few days and weeks, respectively.[65] The French fortified Maginot Line and the Allied forces in Belgium were circumvented by a flanking movement through the thickly wooded Ardennes region,[66] mistakenly perceived by French planners as an impenetrable natural barrier against armoured vehicles.[67] British troops were forced to evacuate the continent at Dunkirk, abandoning their heavy equipment by early June.[68] On 10 June, Italy invaded France, declaring war on both France and the United Kingdom;[69] twelve days later France surrendered and was soon divided into German and Italian occupation zones,[70] and an unoccupied rump state under the Vichy Regime. On 3 July, the British attacked the French fleet in Algeria to prevent its possible seizure by Germany.[71]
In June, during the last days of the Battle of France, the Soviet Union forcibly annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,[54] and then annexed the disputed Romanian region of Bessarabia. Meanwhile, Nazi-Soviet political rapprochement and economic cooperation[72][73] gradually stalled,[74][75] and both states began preparations for war.[76]
With France neutralized, Germany began an air superiority campaign over Britain (the Battle of Britain) to prepare for an invasion.[77] The campaign failed, and the invasion plans were canceled by September.[77] Using newly captured French ports, the German Navy enjoyed success against an over-extended Royal Navy, using U-boats against British shipping in the Atlantic.[78] Italy began operations in the Mediterranean, initiating a siege of Malta in June, conquering British Somaliland in August, and making an incursion into British-held Egypt in September 1940. Japan increased its blockade of China in September by seizing several bases in the northern part of the now-isolated French Indochina.[79]
The Battle of Britain ended the German advance in Western Europe.
Throughout this period, the neutral United States took measures to assist China and the Western Allies. In November 1939, the American Neutrality Act was amended to allow "cash and carry" purchases by the Allies.[80] In 1940, following the German capture of Paris, the size of the United States Navy was significantly increased and, after the Japanese incursion into Indochina, the United States embargoed iron, steel and mechanical parts against Japan.[81] In September, the United States further agreed to a trade of American destroyers for British bases.[82] Still, a large majority of the American public continued to oppose any direct military intervention into the conflict well into 1941.[83]
At the end of September 1940, the Tripartite Pact united Japan, Italy and Germany to formalize the Axis Powers.[84] The Tripartite Pact stipulated that any country, with the exception of the Soviet Union, not in the war which attacked any Axis Power would be forced to go to war against all three.[85] During this time, the United States continued to support the United Kingdom and China by introducing the Lend-Lease policy authorizing the provision of materiel and other items[86] and creating a security zone spanning roughly half of the Atlantic Ocean where the United States Navy protected British convoys.[87] As a result, Germany and the United States found themselves engaged in sustained naval warfare in the North and Central Atlantic by October 1941, even though the United States remained officially neutral.[88][89]
The Axis expanded in November 1940 when Hungary, Slovakia and Romania joined the Tripartite Pact.[90] In October 1940, Italy invaded Greece but within days was repulsed and pushed back into Albania, where a stalemate soon occurred.[91] In December 1940, British Commonwealth forces began counter-offensives against Italian forces in Egypt and Italian East Africa.[92] By early 1941, with Italian forces having been pushed back into Libya by the Commonwealth, Churchill ordered a dispatch of troops from Africa to bolster the Greeks.[93] The Italian Navy also suffered significant defeats, with the Royal Navy putting three Italian battleships out of commission by a carrier attack at Taranto, and neutralising several more warships at the Battle of Cape Matapan.[94]
German paratroopers invading the Greek island of Crete, May 1941.
The Germans soon intervened to assist Italy. Hitler sent German forces to Libya in February, and by the end of March they had launched an offensive against the diminished Commonwealth forces.[95] In under a month, Commonwealth forces were pushed back into Egypt with the exception of the besieged port of Tobruk.[96] The Commonwealth attempted to dislodge Axis forces in May and again in June, but failed on both occasions.[97] In early April, following Bulgaria's signing of the Tripartite Pact, the Germans intervened in the Balkans by invading Greece and Yugoslavia following a coup; here too they made rapid progress, eventually forcing the Allies to evacuate after Germany conquered the Greek island of Crete by the end of May.[98]
The Allies did have some successes during this time. In the Middle East, Commonwealth forces first quashed a coup in Iraq which had been supported by German aircraft from bases within Vichy-controlled Syria,[99] then, with the assistance of the Free French, invaded Syria and Lebanon to prevent further such occurrences.[100] In the Atlantic, the British scored a much-needed public morale boost by sinking the German flagship Bismarck.[101] Perhaps most importantly, during the Battle of Britain the Royal Air Force had successfully resisted the Luftwaffe's assault, and the German bombing campaign largely ended in May 1941.[102]
In Asia, despite several offensives by both sides, the war between China and Japan was stalemated by 1940. In order to increase pressure on China by blocking supply routes, and to better position Japanese forces in the event of a war with the Western powers, Japan had seized military control of southern Indochina[103] In August of that year, Chinese communists launched an offensive in Central China; in retaliation, Japan instituted harsh measures (the Three Alls Policy) in occupied areas to reduce human and material resources for the communists.[104] Continued antipathy between Chinese communist and nationalist forces culminated in armed clashes in January 1941, effectively ending their co-operation.[105] With the situation in Europe and Asia relatively stable, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union made preparations. With the Soviets wary of mounting tensions with Germany and the Japanese planning to take advantage of the European War by seizing resource-rich European possessions in Southeast Asia, the two powers signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact in April 1941.[106] By contrast, the Germans were steadily making preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union, amassing forces on the Soviet border.[107]

The war becomes global

German infantry and armoured vehicles battle the Soviet defenders on the streets of Kharkov, October 1941.
On 22 June 1941, Germany, along with other European Axis members and Finland, invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The primary targets of this surprise offensive[108] were the Baltic region, Moscow and Ukraine, with an ultimate goal of ending the 1941 campaign near the Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan line, connecting the Caspian and White Seas. Hitler's objectives were to eliminate the Soviet Union as a military power, exterminate Communism, generate Lebensraum ("living space")[109] by dispossessing the native population[110] and guarantee access to the strategic resources needed to defeat Germany's remaining rivals.[111]
Although the Red Army was preparing for strategic counter-offensives before the war,[112] Barbarossa forced the Soviet supreme command to adopt a strategic defence. During the summer, the Axis made significant gains into Soviet territory, inflicting immense losses in both personnel and materiel. By the middle of August, however, the German Army High Command decided to suspend the offensive of a considerably depleted Army Group Centre, and to divert the 2nd Panzer Group to reinforce troops advancing towards central Ukraine and Leningrad.[113] The Kiev offensive was overwhelmingly successful, resulting in encirclement and elimination of four Soviet armies, and made further advance into Crimea and industrially developed Eastern Ukraine (the First Battle of Kharkov) possible.[114]
Soviet counter-attack during the battle of Moscow, December, 1941.
The diversion of three quarters of the Axis troops and the majority of their air forces from France and the central Mediterranean to the Eastern Front[115] prompted Britain to reconsider its grand strategy.[116] In July, the UK and the Soviet Union formed a military alliance against Germany[117] The British and Soviets invaded Iran to secure the Persian Corridor and Iran's oil fields.[118] In August, the United Kingdom and the United States jointly issued the Atlantic Charter.[119]
Romania made the largest contribution to recapture territory ceded to the USSR and pursue its leader Ion Antonescu's desire to combat communism.[120] By October, when Axis operational objectives in Ukraine and the Baltic region were achieved, with only the sieges of Leningrad[121] and Sevastopol continuing,[122] a major offensive against Moscow had been renewed. After two months of fierce battles, the German army almost reached the outer suburbs of Moscow, where the exhausted troops[123] were forced to suspend their offensive.[124] Large territorial gains were made by Axis forces, but their campaign had failed to achieve its main objectives: two key cities remained in Soviet hands, the Soviet capability to resist was not broken, and the Soviet Union retained a considerable part of its military potential. The blitzkrieg phase of the war in Europe had ended.[125]
The Axis-controlled territory in Europe at the time of its maximal expansion (1941–42).
By early December, freshly mobilised reserves[126] allowed the Soviets to achieve numerical parity with Axis troops.[127] This, as well as intelligence data that established a minimal number of Soviet troops in the East sufficient to prevent any attack by the Japanese Kwantung Army,[128] allowed the Soviets to begin a massive counter-offensive that started on 5 December along a 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) front and pushed German troops 100–250 kilometres (62–160 mi) west.[129]
German successes in Europe encouraged Japan to increase pressure on European governments in south-east Asia. The Dutch government agreed to provide Japan oil supplies from the Dutch East Indies, while refusing to hand over political control of the colonies. Vichy France, by contrast, agreed to a Japanese occupation of French Indochina.[130] In July 1941, the United States, United Kingdom and other Western governments reacted to the seizure of Indochina with a freeze on Japanese assets, while the United States (which supplied 80 percent of Japan's oil[131]) responded by placing a complete oil embargo.[132] That meant Japan was essentially forced to choose between abandoning its ambitions in Asia and the prosecution of the war against China, or seizing the natural resources it needed by force; the Japanese military did not consider the former an option, and many officers considered the oil embargo an unspoken declaration of war.[133]
Japan planned to rapidly seize European colonies in Asia to create a large defensive perimeter stretching into the Central Pacific; the Japanese would then be free to exploit the resources of Southeast Asia while exhausting the over-stretched Allies by fighting a defensive war.[134] To prevent American intervention while securing the perimeter it was further planned to neutralise the United States Pacific Fleet from the outset.[135] On 7 December (8 December in Asian time zones), 1941, Japan attacked British and American holdings with near-simultaneous offensives against Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific.[136] These included an attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, landings in Thailand and Malaya[136] and the battle of Hong Kong.
The February 1942 Fall of Singapore saw 80,000 Allied soldiers captured and enslaved by the Japanese.
These attacks led the U.S., Britain, Australia and other Allies to formally declare war on Japan. Germany and the other members of the Tripartite Pact responded by declaring war on the United States. In January, the United States, Britain, Soviet Union, China, and 22 smaller or exiled governments issued the Declaration by United Nations, which affirmed the Atlantic Charter.[137] The Soviet Union did not adhere to the declaration; it maintained a neutrality agreement with Japan,[138][139] and exempted itself from the principle of self-determination.[119] From 1941, Stalin persistently asked Churchill, and then Roosevelt, to open a 'second front' in France.[140] The Eastern front became the major theatre of war in Europe and the many millions of Soviet casualties dwarfed the few hundred thousand of the Western Allies; Churchill and Roosevelt said they needed more preparation time, leading to claims they stalled to save Western lives at the expense of Soviet lives.[141]
Meanwhile, by the end of April 1942, Japan and its ally Thailand had almost fully conquered Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore,[142] and Rabaul, inflicting severe losses on Allied troops and taking a large number of prisoners. Despite a stubborn resistance in Corregidor, the Philippines was eventually captured in May 1942, forcing the government of the Philippine Commonwealth into exile.[143] Japanese forces also achieved naval victories in the South China Sea, Java Sea and Indian Ocean,[144] and bombed the Allied naval base at Darwin, Australia. The only real Allied success against Japan was a Chinese victory at Changsha in early January 1942.[145] These easy victories over unprepared opponents left Japan overconfident, as well as overextended.[146]
Germany retained the initiative as well. Exploiting dubious American naval command decisions, the German navy ravaged Allied shipping off the American Atlantic coast.[147] Despite considerable losses, European Axis members stopped a major Soviet offensive in Central and Southern Russia, keeping most territorial gains they achieved during the previous year.[148] In North Africa, the Germans launched an offensive in January, pushing the British back to positions at the Gazala Line by early February,[149] followed by a temporary lull in combat which Germany used to prepare for their upcoming offensives.[150]

Axis advance stalls

American dive bombers engage the Mikuma at the Battle of Midway, June 1942.
In early May 1942, Japan initiated operations to capture Port Moresby by amphibious assault and thus sever communications and supply lines between the United States and Australia. The Allies, however, prevented the invasion by intercepting and defeating the Japanese naval forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea.[151] Japan's next plan, motivated by the earlier Doolittle Raid, was to seize Midway Atoll and lure American carriers into battle to be eliminated; as a diversion, Japan would also send forces to occupy the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.[152] In early June, Japan put its operations into action but the Americans, having broken Japanese naval codes in late May, were fully aware of the plans and force dispositions and used this knowledge to achieve a decisive victory at Midway over the Imperial Japanese Navy.[153]
With its capacity for aggressive action greatly diminished as a result of the Midway battle, Japan chose to focus on a belated attempt to capture Port Moresby by an overland campaign in the Territory of Papua.[154] The Americans planned a counter-attack against Japanese positions in the southern Solomon Islands, primarily Guadalcanal, as a first step towards capturing Rabaul, the main Japanese base in Southeast Asia.[155]
Both plans started in July, but by mid-September, the Battle for Guadalcanal took priority for the Japanese, and troops in New Guinea were ordered to withdraw from the Port Moresby area to the northern part of the island, where they faced Australian and United States troops in the Battle of Buna-Gona.[156] Guadalcanal soon became a focal point for both sides with heavy commitments of troops and ships in the battle for Guadalcanal. By the start of 1943, the Japanese were defeated on the island and withdrew their troops.[157] In Burma, Commonwealth forces mounted two operations. The first, an offensive into the Arakan region in late 1942, went disastrously, forcing a retreat back to India by May 1943.[158] The second was the insertion of irregular forces behind Japanese front-lines in February which, by the end of April, had achieved dubious results.[159]
Soviet soldiers attack a house during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1943.
On Germany's eastern front, the Axis defeated Soviet offensives in the Kerch Peninsula and at Kharkov,[160] and then launched their main summer offensive against southern Russia in June 1942, to seize the oil fields of the Caucasus and occupy Kuban steppe, while maintaining positions on the northern and central areas of the front. The Germans split the Army Group South into two groups: Army Group A struck lower Don River while Army Group B struck south-east to the Caucasus, towards Volga River.[161] The Soviets decided to make their stand at Stalingrad, which was in the path of the advancing German armies.
By mid-November the Germans had nearly taken Stalingrad in bitter street fighting when the Soviets began their second winter counter-offensive, starting with an encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad[162] and an assault on the Rzhev salient near Moscow, though the latter failed disastrously.[163] By early February 1943, the German Army had taken tremendous losses; German troops at Stalingrad had been forced to surrender[164] and the front-line had been pushed back beyond its position before the summer offensive. In mid-February, after the Soviet push had tapered off, the Germans launched another attack on Kharkov, creating a salient in their front line around the Russian city of Kursk.[165]
British Crusader tanks moving to forward positions during the North African Campaign.
By November 1941, Commonwealth forces had launched a counter-offensive, Operation Crusader, in North Africa, and reclaimed all the gains the Germans and Italians had made.[166] In the West, concerns the Japanese might utilize bases in Vichy-held Madagascar caused the British to invade the island in early May 1942.[167] This success was offset soon after by an Axis offensive in Libya which pushed the Allies back into Egypt until Axis forces were stopped at El Alamein.[168] On the Continent, raids of Allied commandos on strategic targets, culminating in the disastrous Dieppe Raid,[169] demonstrated the Western Allies' inability to launch an invasion of continental Europe without much better preparation, equipment, and operational security.[170]
In August 1942, the Allies succeeded in repelling a second attack against El Alamein[171] and, at a high cost, managed to deliver desperately needed supplies to the besieged Malta.[172] A few months later, the Allies commenced an attack of their own in Egypt, dislodging the Axis forces and beginning a drive west across Libya.[173] This attack was followed up shortly after by an Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, which resulted in the region joining the Allies.[174] Hitler responded to the French colony's defection by ordering the occupation of Vichy France;[174] although Vichy forces did not resist this violation of the armistice, they managed to scuttle their fleet to prevent its capture by German forces.[175] The now pincered Axis forces in Africa withdrew into Tunisia, which was conquered by the Allies in May 1943.[176]

Allies gain momentum

Bombing of Hamburg.ogg
A contemporary video showing bombing of Hamburg by the Allies.
Soviet Il-2 planes attacking a Wehrmacht column during the Battle of Kursk, 1 July 1943.
Following the Guadalcanal Campaign, the Allies initiated several operations against Japan in the Pacific. In May 1943, Allied forces were sent to eliminate Japanese forces from the Aleutians,[177] and soon after began major operations to isolate Rabaul by capturing surrounding islands, and to breach the Japanese Central Pacific perimeter at the Gilbert and Marshall Islands.[178] By the end of March 1944, the Allies had completed both of these objectives, and additionally neutralised the major Japanese base at Truk in the Caroline Islands. In April, the Allies then launched an operation to retake Western New Guinea.[179]
In the Soviet Union, both the Germans and the Soviets spent the spring and early summer of 1943 making preparations for large offensives in Central Russia. On 4 July 1943, Germany attacked Soviet forces around the Kursk Bulge. Within a week, German forces had exhausted themselves against the Soviets' deeply echeloned and well-constructed defences[180][181] and, for the first time in the war, Hitler cancelled the operation before it had achieved tactical or operational success.[182] This decision was partially affected by the Western Allies' invasion of Sicily launched on 9 July which, combined with previous Italian failures, resulted in the ousting and arrest of Mussolini later that month.[183]
On 12 July 1943, the Soviets launched their own counter-offensives, thereby dispelling any hopes of the German Army for victory or even stalemate in the east. The Soviet victory at Kursk heralded the downfall of German superiority,[184] giving the Soviet Union the initiative on the Eastern Front.[185][186] The Germans attempted to stabilise their eastern front along the hastily fortified Panther-Wotan line, however, the Soviets broke through it at Smolensk and by the Lower Dnieper Offensives.[187]
In early September 1943, the Western Allies invaded the Italian mainland, following an Italian armistice with the Allies.[188] Germany responded by disarming Italian forces, seizing military control of Italian areas,[189] and creating a series of defensive lines.[190] German special forces then rescued Mussolini, who then soon established a new client state in German occupied Italy named the Italian Social Republic.[191] The Western Allies fought through several lines until reaching the main German defensive line in mid-November.[192]
German operations in the Atlantic also suffered. By May 1943, as Allied counter-measures became increasingly effective, the resulting sizable German submarine losses forced a temporary halt of the German Atlantic naval campaign.[193] In November 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met with Chiang Kai-shek in Cairo[194] and then with Joseph Stalin in Tehran.[195] The former conference determined the post-war return of Japanese territory,[194] while the latter included agreement that the Western Allies would invade Europe in 1944 and that the Soviet Union would declare war on Japan within three months of Germany's defeat.[195]
British troops firing a mortar during the Battle of Imphal, North East India, 1944.
From November 1943, during the seven-week Battle of Changde, the Chinese forced Japan to fight a costly war of attrition, while awaiting Allied relief.[196][197] In January 1944, the Allies launched a series of attacks in Italy against the line at Monte Cassino and attempted to outflank it with landings at Anzio.[198] By the end of January, a major Soviet offensive expelled German forces from the Leningrad region,[199] ending the longest and most lethal siege in history. The following Soviet offensive was halted on the pre-war Estonian border by the German Army Group North aided by Estonians hoping to re-establish national independence. This delay slowed subsequent Soviet operations in the Baltic Sea region.[200] By late May 1944, the Soviets had liberated Crimea, largely expelled Axis forces from Ukraine, and made incursions into Romania, which were repulsed by the Axis troops.[201] The Allied offensives in Italy had succeeded and, at the expense of allowing several German divisions to retreat, on 4 June Rome was captured.[202]
The Allies experienced mixed fortunes in mainland Asia. In March 1944, the Japanese launched the first of two invasions, an operation against British positions in Assam, India,[203] and soon besieged Commonwealth positions at Imphal and Kohima.[204] In May 1944, British forces mounted a counter-offensive that drove Japanese troops back to Burma,[204] and Chinese forces that had invaded northern Burma in late 1943 besieged Japanese troops in Myitkyina.[205] The second Japanese invasion attempted to destroy China's main fighting forces, secure railways between Japanese-held territory and capture Allied airfields.[206] By June, the Japanese had conquered the province of Henan and begun a renewed attack against Changsha in the Hunan province.[207]

Allies close in

Allied Invasion of Normandy, 6 June 1944
Red Army personnel and equipment crossing a river during the northern Summer of 1944
On 6 June 1944 (known as D-Day), after three years of Soviet pressure,[208] the Western Allies invaded northern France. After reassigning several Allied divisions from Italy, they also attacked southern France.[209] These landings were successful, and led to the defeat of the German Army units in France. Paris was liberated by the local resistance assisted by the Free French Forces on 25 August[210] and the Western Allies continued to push back German forces in Western Europe during the latter part of the year. An attempt to advance into northern Germany spear-headed by a major airborne operation in the Netherlands ended with a failure.[211] After that, the Western Allies slowly pushed into Germany, unsuccessfully trying to cross the Rur river in a large offensive. In Italy the Allied advance also slowed down, when they ran into the last major German defensive line.
On 22 June, the Soviets launched a strategic offensive in Belarus (known as "Operation Bagration") that resulted in the almost complete destruction of the German Army Group Centre.[212] Soon after that, another Soviet strategic offensive forced German troops from Western Ukraine and Eastern Poland. The successful advance of Soviet troops prompted resistance forces in Poland to initiate several uprisings, though the largest of these, in Warsaw, as well as a Slovak Uprising in the south, were not assisted by the Soviets and were put down by German forces.[213] The Red Army's strategic offensive in eastern Romania cut off and destroyed the considerable German troops there and triggered a successful coup d'état in Romania and in Bulgaria, followed by those countries' shift to the Allied side.[214]
Polish insurgents during the Warsaw Uprising.
In September 1944, Soviet Red Army troops advanced into Yugoslavia and forced the rapid withdrawal of the German Army Groups E and F in Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia to rescue them from being cut off.[215] By this point, the Communist-led Partisans under Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who had led an increasingly successful guerrilla campaign against the occupation since 1941, controlled much of the territory of Yugoslavia and were engaged in delaying efforts against the German forces further south. In northern Serbia, the Red Army, with limited support from Bulgarian forces, assisted the Partisans in a joint liberation of the capital city of Belgrade on 20 October. A few days later, the Soviets launched a massive assault against German-occupied Hungary that lasted until the fall of Budapest in February 1945.[216] In contrast with impressive Soviet victories in the Balkans, the bitter Finnish resistance to the Soviet offensive in the Karelian Isthmus denied the Soviets occupation of Finland and led to the signing of Soviet-Finnish armistice on relatively mild conditions,[217][218] with a subsequent shift to the Allied side by Finland.
By the start of July, Commonwealth forces in Southeast Asia had repelled the Japanese sieges in Assam, pushing the Japanese back to the Chindwin River[219] while the Chinese captured Myitkyina. In China, the Japanese were having greater successes, having finally captured Changsha in mid-June and the city of Hengyang by early August.[220] Soon after, they further invaded the province of Guangxi, winning major engagements against Chinese forces at Guilin and Liuzhou by the end of November[221] and successfully linking up their forces in China and Indochina by the middle of December.[222]
In the Pacific, American forces continued to press back the Japanese perimeter. In mid-June 1944 they began their offensive against the Mariana and Palau islands, and decisively defeated Japanese forces in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. These defeats led to the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Tōjō and provided the United States with air bases to launch intensive heavy bomber attacks on the Japanese home islands. In late October, American forces invaded the Filipino island of Leyte; soon after, Allied naval forces scored another large victory during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history.[223]

Axis collapse, Allied victory

American and Soviet troops meet in April 1945, east of the Elbe River.
On 16 December 1944, Germany attempted its last desperate measure for success on the Western Front by using most of its remaining reserves to launch a massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes to attempt to split the Western Allies, encircle large portions of Western Allied troops and capture their primary supply port at Antwerp in order to prompt a political settlement.[224] By January, the offensive had been repulsed with no strategic objectives fulfilled.[224] In Italy, the Western Allies remained stalemated at the German defensive line. In mid-January 1945, the Soviets attacked in Poland, pushing from the Vistula to the Oder river in Germany, and overran East Prussia.[225] On 4 February, U.S., British, and Soviet leaders met for the Yalta Conference. They agreed on the occupation of post-war Germany,[226] and when the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan.[227]
In February, the Soviets invaded Silesia and Pomerania, while Western Allies invaded Western Germany and closed to the Rhine river. By March, the Western Allies crossed the Rhine north and south of the Ruhr, encircling the German Army Group B,[228] while the Soviets advanced to Vienna. In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across Western Germany, while Soviet forces stormed Berlin in late April; the two forces linked up on Elbe river on 25 April. On 30 April 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signalling the military defeat of Third Reich.[229]
A devastated Berlin street in the city centre post Battle of Berlin, taken 3 July 1945.
Several changes in leadership occurred during this period. On 12 April, U.S. President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by Harry Truman. Benito Mussolini was killed by Italian partisans on 28 April.[230] Two days later, Hitler committed suicide, and was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz.[231]
German forces surrendered in Italy on 29 April. The German instrument of surrender was signed on 7 May in Rheims,[232] and ratified on 8 May in Berlin.[233] German Army Group Centre resisted in Prague until 11 May.[234]
In the Pacific theatre, American forces accompanied by the forces of the Philippine Commonwealth advanced in the Philippines, clearing Leyte by the end of April 1945. They landed on Luzon in January 1945 and captured Manila in March following a battle which reduced the city to ruins. Fighting continued on Luzon, Mindanao and other islands of the Philippines until the end of the war.[235]
Atomic explosion at Nagasaki, 9 August 1945.
In May 1945, Australian troops landed in Borneo, overrunning the oilfields there. British, American and Chinese forces defeated the Japanese in northern Burma in March, and the British pushed on to reach Rangoon by 3 May.[236] Chinese forces started to counterattack in Battle of West Hunan that occurred between 6 April and 7 June 1945. American forces also moved towards Japan, taking Iwo Jima by March, and Okinawa by the end of June.[237] American bombers destroyed Japanese cities, and American submarines cut off Japanese imports.[238]
On 11 July, the Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany. They confirmed earlier agreements about Germany,[239] and reiterated the demand for unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces by Japan, specifically stating that "the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction".[240] During this conference the United Kingdom held its general election, and Clement Attlee replaced Churchill as Prime Minister.[241] When Japan continued to ignore the Potsdam terms, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. Between the two bombs, the Soviets, pursuant to the Yalta agreement, invaded Japanese-held Manchuria, and quickly defeated the Kwantung Army, which was the largest Japanese fighting force.[242][243] The Red Army also captured Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. On 15 August 1945 Japan surrendered, with the surrender documents finally signed aboard the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri on 2 September 1945, ending the war.[232]