5.5 The Turn of the Tide

World War II

Despite the power of Britain, the US, and the USSR, the Axis war effort continued with amazing success well into 1942. A German army under the general, Erwin Rommel (“the Desert Fox”), in North Africa pushed to within a few hundred miles of the Suez Canal in Egypt, threatening to cut the Allies off from much of their oil supply. Once the winter of 1941 – 1942 was over, the Germans continued to advance into Soviet territory, endangering the rebuilt factories and Soviet oil fields in the Caucuses. Japan, meanwhile, took advantage of the success of the Pearl Harbor attack and occupied dozens of islands across the Pacific. A series of Allied victories in 1942 and 1943, however, turned the tide of the war.

Two major naval engagements in the Pacific spelled disaster for Japan. In May of 1942, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, American forces defeated a Japanese invasion force targeting Australia and drove the Japanese fleet back. In June of 1942, at the Battle of Midway, American forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers. The importance of Midway was not the loss itself, which was less severe than the losses the American Navy had already sustained. Instead, it was the fact that the Americans had the industrial capacity to rebuild, whereas there was no way that Japan could do so. From that point on, American forces slowly but steadily “island hopped” across the Pacific, driving Japanese forces from the islands they had occupied.

In Egypt, meanwhile, British forces managed to decisively defeat and push back the Germans in October of 1942. An American army soon landed to help them, and the Allies forced the Germans to retreat by November. By July of 1943, the Allies were poised to bring the fight to Italy itself. Vichy French territories in North Africa had fallen after an ineffectual resistance earlier, in November 1942, which led Hitler to order the complete occupation of France the same month; the fascist puppet state of the Vichy Regime thus only lasted from June of 1940 to November of 1942.

The “real” turn of the tide occurred in the Soviet Union, however. In late 1942, a huge German army was dispatched against the city of Stalingrad near the Black Sea. For months, Russian and Ukrainian civilians and soldiers alike fought the Germans in brutal street battles, with the people of Stalingrad often engaging German tanks armed only with grenades, handguns, and Molotov cocktails. The Germans were held at bay until the main Soviet army was assembled. By November, the Germans were being beaten, and the German general in charge directly disobeyed Hitler and surrendered in February of 1943. Here, the Germans were not in their element – urban warfare was not the same as Blitzkrieg, and the fanatical resistance of the Soviets (who paid with over 1.1 million casualties) stopped them.

Later that year an enormous Soviet army led by 9,000 tanks defeated a German army near the city of Kursk, 500 miles south of Moscow. Kursk is often considered to be the “real” turning point in the Soviet war, since the Germans were consistently on the retreat after it. The importance of Kursk was the fact that the Germans were beaten “at their own game” – they were able to employ Blitzkrieg tactics, but the Russians now had anti-tank military hardware and tactics that rendered it much less effective.

As an aside to the narrative of the war, it is worthwhile to consider the role of the Soviet Union in World War II. In its aftermath, Americans often looked on World War II as “the good war,” the war that was fought for the right reasons against countries whose leadership were truly villainous. There is a lot of truth to that idea – American troops fought as bravely as any, and US involvement was crucial in the ultimate victory of the Allies. It is important, however, to recognize that it was really the USSR that broke the back of the Nazi war machine. At the cost of about 25,000,000 lives, the Soviets first stopped, then pushed back, then ultimately destroyed the large majority of German military forces (e.g. the Battle of Alamein in Egypt that turned the tide against German forces there involved about 300,000 troops from both sides combined, while Stalingrad saw over 2 million troops and hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilian combatants). Most German forces were always committed to the Eastern Front after the invasion of the USSR in June of 1941, and without the incredible sacrifice of the Soviet people, the US and Britain would have been forced to take on the full strength not just of Germany and Italy, but of the various German puppet states and allies (e.g. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) within the Axis.

Back in the West, with Italian forces in shambles and the Fascist government in disarray, the Italian king dismissed Mussolini in July of 1943. The new Italian government quickly made peace with the Allies, prompting a swift invasion of northern Italy by Germany as the Allies seized the south. For over a year, the Allies pushed north against the German forces occupying central and northern Italy. The fighting was brutal, but allied forces made steady headway in driving German forces back toward the Reich itself.

By 1944, Germany was clearly on the defensive. British and American forces pushed north through Italy as the Soviets closed from the east. On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, British, American, and Canadian forces launched a surprise invasion across the English Channel with hundreds of thousands of troops (over 150,000 on the first day alone). After securing the coastline, the Allies steadily pushed against the Germans, suffering serious casualties in the process as the Germans refused to give up ground without brutal fighting. By April of 1945, the Allies were within striking distance of Berlin. The western Allies agreed to let the Soviets carry out the actual invasion of Berlin, a conquest that took eleven days of hard fighting. On May 7, Germany surrendered, about a week after Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker, and the following day was “V-E Day” – Victory in Europe.

Meanwhile, the fighting in the Pacific continued for months. By March of 1945, American planes could bomb Japan itself, and civilian as well as military targets were destroyed, often with incendiary bombs. One attack destroyed 40% of Tokyo in three hours; the death toll was immense. Nevertheless, Japanese forces resisted every inch taken by the Americans. It took about two months for American forces to take the island of Okinawa, resulting in about 100,000 Japanese and 65,000 American casualties. The prospect of the invasion of Japan itself was therefore extremely daunting. It seemed clear that America would ultimately prevail, but at a horrendous loss of life. This ultimately led to the deployment of the most terrible weapons ever invented by the human species: nuclear arms.

The Manhattan Project, a secret military operation housed in a former boarding school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, succeeded in creating and then detonating an atomic bomb on July 16. President Truman of the US warned Japan that it faced “prompt and utter destruction” if it did not surrender; when it did not, he authorized the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 8). Hundreds of thousands, the large majority civilians, died either in the initial blasts or from radiation poisoning in the months that followed. At the behest of the Japanese emperor, negotiations began a few days later, with Japanese representatives signing an unconditional surrender on September 2.

Caron, George. "Mushroom Cloud Over Hiroshima." August 6, 1945.
Caron, George. “Mushroom Cloud Over Hiroshima.” August 6, 1945. National Archives. Wikimedia. January 21, 2012.

The Aftermath

The death toll of the war was unprecedented, and most of the dead were civilians. Millions more were left homeless and displaced, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. As a whole, Europe was in shambles, with whole cities destroyed, and even the victorious Allied nations were economically crippled. In addition, much to the world’s growing horror, the true costs of Nazi rule were revealed in the closing months of the war and in the months to follow, as the details of what became known as the Holocaust were discovered. Simultaneously, the world was forced to grapple with the fact that human beings now had the ability to extinguish all life on earth through atomic weapons. These two traumas – the Holocaust and The Bomb – forced “Western Civilization” as a whole to rethink its own identity in the aftermath.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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