Second World War
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The Second World War (1939-1945), like its precursor the First World War, came as no surprise to anyone. Although many statesmen in Europe and the rest of the world did their best to turn a blind eye, the aggressive rise of Fascism during the 1930s could not be ignored. Neither could the re-armament and militaristic expansion of Germany under Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1936 with the intention of turning it into an African colony. The Japanese, too, were seeking an empire, and began brutal incursions into China. All these moves were noted but not acted upon by the erstwhile Allies. The horrors and waste of total war in 1914-1918 were all too clear in the collective memory.
But such a war became inevitable once Germany, Italy and Japan had created in 1936 what they termed an �Axis� for mutual support. After Germany had bullied and disenfranchised its Jewish population, withdrawn from the League of Nations and launched invasive occupations of the Rhineland (1936), Austria and the Sudetenland (1938) and Czechoslovakia (1939), the British and their allies finally made a stand. Two days after Germany�s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, war was declared. This time the Dominions - Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa - were free to make up their own minds (they all joined the Allied cause within a week), but for the rest of the British Empire - as in 1914 - there was no choice but to follow the mother country into war.
This global conflict, in contrast to the First World War and its main theatre of action in France, was to spread its battlefields over much of the world, and to leave no corner of the planet unaffected. It began with six months of low-key manoeuvring - the so-called �phoney war� - which ended abruptly in the spring of 1940 when the Germans launched their lightning �Blitzkrieg� invasions of Scandinavia, followed by Belgium and France. By June they were in Paris, the British had been bundled out of mainland Europe, and Hitler was preparing to launch an invasion of Britain. His Luftwaffe air force was beaten off during the Battle of Britain.
A Spitfire of No.92 Squadron, May 1941
A Spitfire of No.92 Squadron
© Imperial War Museum

In 1941 things went well for the Axis. The dark mood was capped at the end of the year when the Japanese announced war against the United States by bombing their fleet at its Pearl Harbor anchorage in Hawaii. In the end that proved a fatal mistake - as did the invasion of Russia which Hitler had launched in June 1941. On this Eastern Front the Russians engaged the invaders in a series of desperate battles during which the death toll far outstripped any of the First World War�s worst encounters; while in the Pacific the Americans joined the Allies in bloody island-by-island fighting against the Japanese during the ensuing four years.
The Germans were beaten in North Africa in 1942 at the Battle of El Alamein, and the following year saw the Allies land in Italy and commence a long slog up that peninsula. Italy gave up, but the Germans fought on - even after the massive Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 6 June, which preceded their victorious advance through northern Europe towards Germany. By that time the long-drawn-out Battle of the Atlantic (German U-boat submarines against the supply ships of the Allied merchant navies) had turned decisively the Allies� way, and many German cities had been flattened by RAF and USAF bombing planes - German civilians, like British ones, finding themselves as vulnerable to sudden death as the fighting men on the front line.
In May 1945 Germany signed articles of unconditional surrender. In August, after the deaths of 200,000 civilians when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese, too, surrendered, and the long war was over. The total number of casualties will never be known, but it is calculated that more than 50 million people lost their lives.
The Second World War was an agent for profound global change, ushering in, as it did, the nuclear age. Within thirty years of 1945 almost all the countries still within the British Empire had claimed their independence. Almost all then voluntarily joined the British Commonwealth, a free association of sovereign independent states highly valued by its members. As for the war�s effect on those who served during its six years� duration - that, too, was profound. Most are immensely proud of what they did, though many still carry outward or inward scars. Their stories, like those of the First World War servicemen and women, deserve to be told, and they themselves have earned the thanks and respect of the following generations for whose freedoms they fought so bravely.
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