Germany and the Soviet Union, the two most powerful dictatorships in Europe, were sworn enemies, but political realities allowed them to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) including a secret clause partitioning Poland, the Baltic Republics and Finland between the two.
Full-scale war in Europe began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, to which both Britain and France had pledged guarantees (see: Polish September Campaign 1939). On September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Poland fell quickly, with her last large operational units surrendering October 5. However, Polish troops continued fighting for the Allied until the end of the war.
Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden later in the war proved controversial. 85% of the baroque city was destroyed. full size view of the picture view of the effects from the air.
Despite the quck campaign in the east, along the Franco-German frontier the war settled into a quiet period. This relatively non-confrontational period between the major powers lasted until May 10, 1940, and was known as the Phony War.
Several other countries, however, were drawn into the conflict at this time. By September 28, 1939, the three Baltic Republics felt they had no choice but to permit Soviet bases and troops on their territory.
Finland was invaded by the Soviets on November 30. This began the Winter War. After over three months of hard fighting, and heavy losses, the Soviet Union gave up the attempted invasion. In the Moscow Peace Treaty, March 12, Finland ceded 10% of her territory. The Finns were embittered over having lost more land in the peace than on the battle fields, and over the seemingly little use of the whole world's sympathy.
On April 9 Germany commenced Weserubung to seize Denmark and Norway, ostensibly as a defensive maneuver against a planned (and openly discussed) Franco-British occupation of those countries aimed at controling export of Swedish iron ore and the Northern Atlantic. After the failed British campaign in Norway Finland and Sweden were physically cut off from the West. As a consequence, Germany put pressure on neutral Sweden to permit transition of military goods and soldiers on leave. Germany's presense proximate to northernmost Finland, and its Nickel mines, were perceived as an improvement of the strategical situation by the Finns.
On March 18, 1940, Hitler and Mussolini had agreed to make the Axis Powers' Pact of Steel an alliance against France and the United Kingdom.
On May 10 the Phony War ended with a sweeping German invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, that bypassed French fortifications along the Maginot Line.
After overrunning these countries Germany turned against France, entering the country through the Ardennes on May 13 - the French had made the fatal mistake of leaving this area almost totally undefended, believing its terrain to be impassible for tanks. Most Allied forces were in Flanders, anticipating a re-run of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, and were cut off from the French heartland. As a result of this, and also the superior German communications, the Battle of France was shorter than virtually all prewar Allied thought could have conceived. It lasted six weeks, after which France surrendered.
In order to further the humiliation of the French people, Hitler arranged for the surrender document to be signed in the same railway coach where the German surrender had been signed in 1918. The fall of France left Britain and its Empire to stand alone. Fortunately for Britain, much of its army escaped capture from the northern French port of Dunkirk. The exploits of the "little ships" at Dunkirk were exploited for propaganda purposes to turn the disasterous defeat into something approaching a victory in the minds of the British people. In total, 330,000 troops were pulled off the beaches, of which 230,000 were British.
The Germans massed their air force in northen France to prepare the way for a possible invasion, codenamed Operation Seelowe. The operations of the Luftwaffe against RAF Fighter Command became know as the Battle of Britain. It is widely held that the invasion could never realistically have been mounted successfully. Even had the Luftwaffe driven the RAF from the skies of southern England, which was the object of the Battle of Britain for the Germans, there would still have been the remains of Fighter Command in the Midlands and northern England, Bomber Command, and Coastal Command, along with the firepower of the Home Fleet for the Germans to contend with. It is likely that had the invasion been attempted that German troops would have been landed and cut off by British sea- and airpower, to be destroyed virtually at leisure. After the failure to destroy Fighter Command, the Luftwaffe switched to bombing major British cities. That bombing campaign is commonly know as the Blitz.
During the Blitz, all of Britain's major industrial cites were heavily bombed. London suffered particularly, being bombed each night for several months. Other targets included Birmingham and Coventry, and strategically important cities, such as the naval base at Plymouth and the port of Kingston upon Hull.
With no land forces in direct conflict in Europe, the war in the air attracted worldwide attention even as sea units fought the Battle of the Atlantic and a number of British commando raids hit targets in occupied Europe. More critical was the war in the air.
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