|Second World War - Northern Europe & Scandinavia
|Click on the links above for details of the campaigns pursued in each territory
Return to the world map
A 400,000-strong British Expeditionary Force went to France when war was declared in September 1939. It was deployed along the Belgian border behind the Maginot Line's great strong wall of fortresses that ran from the Swiss border to north-east France. But the Maginot Line stopped short of the sea, a weakness the Germans would find easy to exploit eight months later.
On 30 November Russia invaded Finland. It took them four months and cost them 200,000 dead and 400,000 wounded to subdue the Finns. The Germans were more efficient. On 9 April 1940 they conquered Denmark in one day and invaded Norway, taking three weeks to force capitulation and eject a Franco-British rescue force. This was only a prelude to the Low Countries blitzkrieg, started on 10 May, that rolled up Holland in four days, Belgium in a week and France in just over a month. Somehow the BEF scrambled most of its men back across the Channel to the UK from the Dunkirk beaches between 28 May and 4 June. On 10 June the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies, Britain was on her own, facing a Europe fully under the control of Nazi Germany.
Between August and October 1940 the Luftwaffe (German air force) tried to kill off the British Royal Air Force in order to open the way for a German invasion of Britain. But the Battle of Britain went the Allies' way, thanks in large part to the brave contributions of Commonwealth and other pilots. These included Pilot Officer H Capstick, Jamaican, of 236 Blenheim Squadron.
|West Indian members of the RAF Bombay Squadron
© Imperial War Museum
The Battle of Britain was followed by the 'Blitz' - intensive aerial bombardment of London and other British cities between September 1940 and May 1941. But that, too, failed to force the British to their knees. From 1941 onwards RAF fighters commenced offensive sweeps across the English Channel against enemy land, air and sea forces in Occupied Europe. Indian volunteers served with the RAF, among them Mahinder Singh Pujji (India). RAF Bomber Command initiated its own intensive night-time bombing of German cities, joined in 1942 by USAF squadrons flying from British airfields. Nearly six thousand West Indians volunteered to join the RAF, and many of these became crew members in British bombers (See Billy Strachan (Jamaica)). Many Indians joined Bomber Command, too – one notable Indian flyer was Flight Lieutenant Sukhtankar Ray, a Navigator on Stirling Bombers who was awarded the DFC for his excellent work. Soon the Allied attacks far outweighed anything the Germans had mounted. Nearly a million citizens of Hamburg were left homeless when their city was flattened on 26-29 July 1943. But losses among the bombers were mounting, too, thanks to night fighters and anti-aircraft guns (See Johnny Smythe (Sierra Leone)). Losses were very heavy on USAF daylight raids, too, such as the one on Rumania's Ploesti oilfields, three days after the Hamburg raid, when 54 out of 178 planes were lost.
|Members of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) in London
© Imperial War Museum
On 19 August 1943 Canadian and British soldiers were involved in a disastrous raid on the French channel port of Dieppe, during which 3,367 men were slaughtered on the beaches - well over half the total number of participants. 2,195 were captured. The Dieppe Raid was a kind of guinea-pig experiment for the real thing - the D-Day landings. These took place on selected Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944, after a masterly deception plan had misled the German defenders. 176,000 men rushed ashore on that first day, gaining a toehold by nightfall and slowly consolidating over the next few days as reinforcements and supplies arrived. By 24 July a million Allied soldiers had landed, and Caen and Cherbourg had been captured. In August came the main breakout from the peninsula and a drive eastward to enter Paris and forge on towards the Low Countries. On 15 August Allied landings in southern France opened a second front. 94,000 men got ashore on the first day, and within two weeks had rolled up German resistance throughout Vichy France.
The Germans retaliated by bombarding London with V-1 pilotless flying bombs and V-2 rockets. But their launching sites were soon overrun in the irresistible Allied advance. Though there were still plenty of setbacks - as at Arnhem in September, where British paratroops were dropped inaccurately and found themselves cut off. Some of those who took part in this disastrous operation were Commonwealth volunteers – they included E.K. Powell, a Jamaican teenager and trainee flight engineer with Bomber Command who had offered to help drop supplies to the men on the ground. Powell survived having to bale out of his blazing DC3; he landed by parachute unscathed in the American lines. His fellow-islander Ronald Henriques, a paratrooper with the 1st British Airborne Division, was not so lucky – he was captured after being badly wounded in the leg, and spent the rest of the war as a POW.
|A group of West Indian ATS recruits, November 1943
© Imperial War Museum
Brussels and Antwerp had been liberated by the end of the year. There was one final German throw of the dice in the Belgian Ardennes forests between 16 December 1944 and 16 January 1945. The Battle of the Bulge was a tremendously daring double thrust westward by panzers that almost broke through to split the advancing British and Americans; but it was held, and then repulsed. The Germans lost 120,000 men, 600 tanks and guns, 1,600 planes, 6,000 vehicles - fatal losses to a weakened and demoralised army.
By February 1945 the Russians, advancing from the east, were into Germany. In their subsequent three-month advance to Berlin they killed a million Germans and captured 800,000. On 7 March the first Allied troops crossed the Rhine. Their subsequent drive to Berlin netted 300,000 prisoners. By 25 April the Russians had encircled Berlin. Five days later Hitler killed himself. By 2 May all resistance had been crushed; and on 7 May 1945 General Alfred Jodl signed articles of surrender.