World War II: The Beginning of the War in Europe

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

Soon after Germany took over Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it began to make demands on Poland. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler demanded that the city of Danzig, a port on the Baltic Sea, be returned to Germany. Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk) had been made a “free city” after World War I, which meant it was not part of Germany or Poland. Poland, which then had no other ports, had the right to use Danzig for its exports and imports, which made the city very important to the Polish economy. But the people of the city were almost all German, and the local Nazis ran the city and followed Hitler’s orders.

In addition, Hitler wanted the right to build a road across the “Polish Corridor,” the slice of Polish territory that separated the German province of East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The proposed road would be German territory.

Even if the Polish government had been willing to surrender these lands, it believed that they were only excuses and that Germany would only demand more. The governments of Britain and France felt the same way. In fact, Hitler did not want Poland to agree to the demands: from the beginning he had been determined to destroy Poland as an independent country.

The German demands caused a crisis throughout the summer of 1939. The leaders of Britain and France were now determined to resist Germany by force if it attempted to seize any more territory. Britain and France began to negotiate with the Soviet Union (Russia and the territory it controlled), Poland’s eastern neighbor, trying to extract an agreement to defend Poland. But the Polish government was just as suspicious of the Soviets as it was of Germany. Poland knew that the Soviet Union wanted large parts of eastern Poland, where the majority of the people were not Polish, to become Soviet territory. The suspicion was increased because the Soviet government was communist, and the Polish government was strongly anticommunist. (In theory, communism is a political and economic system in which most property is owned in common by the community. The Soviet Union was, by 1939, a harsh dictatorship run by the Communist Party and its all-powerful leader, Joseph Stalin.)

Poland absolutely refused to allow Soviet troops to enter Polish territory if Germany attacked Poland. The Poles were afraid that the troops would never leave. But without this condition, a Soviet agreement to help defend Poland was worthless. The French and British negotiations with the Soviet Union dragged on, but they made little progress.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was involved in secret discussions with Nazi Germany. On August 23, 1939, the two countries signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact (also called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact). The treaty shocked everyone. Nazi Germany had claimed to be the greatest enemy of communism and the Soviet government. The Soviet Union had always called the Nazis brutal murderers and enemies of the workers, whom the communists claimed to represent.

For Hitler, the treaty meant that Germany could invade Poland without having to fight Soviet troops. Hitler did not think that Britain and France would actually go to war to defend Poland. But he wanted to make sure that, if they did, Germany would not face powerful enemies on two sides at the same time.

The reasons Stalin agreed to the treaty are more complicated. Soviet leaders claimed afterward that the treaty was intended to “buy time” to prepare for a war against the Nazis— a war they said they knew would come someday.

Stalin—like Hitler—doubted that Britain and France would fight Germany and suspected that they really wanted Hitler to attack the Soviet Union. The Nazi-Soviet Pact ended that threat, at least for the time being. The Soviet Union also feared war with Japan. At the time, Soviet and Japanese forces were engaged in vicious battles along the far eastern border of the Soviet Union. Like the Germans, the Soviets wanted to eliminate any chance that they would have to fight a war on two sides.

However, these defensive considerations were not Stalin’s only reasons. Germany secretly agreed in the treaty to give the Soviet Union a large part of eastern Poland and let them take over the nearby countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The treaty meant Stalin could wait until Germany destroyed the Polish army to take over eastern Poland. And if the Soviets really intended the pact as a defensive measure against Nazi Germany, it is hard to explain the fact that the Soviet Union helped Germany in many important ways in the twenty-two months between the signing of the pact and the German surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

The Beginning of the War

Although the British and French governments were not happy about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, they convinced themselves that it did not change things drastically. Their generals believed that the Soviet army was not a powerful force and that it might not have been much help anyway. They also greatly overestimated the strength of the Polish army. Although they did not believe that Poland could defeat Germany, they thought it could hold out long enough for the British and French to attack Germany from the west and for their air forces to inflict serious damage. The Polish government and military leaders were also counting on a great offensive by the French army into western Germany.

Hitler, however, gambled that his armies could defeat Poland before France and Britain were ready to fight. The German army stationed only about 40 divisions on the border with France. (A division is a large unit of an army, usually about 15,000 men.) The French army supposedly had 100 divisions, though most of the soldiers were in the reserves, leading civilian lives, and had not yet been mobilized (called to active duty in the army.)

Most of the German forces were therefore free to attack Poland. More than 60 divisions were involved, including 6 armored divisions and 10 mechanized divisions. An armored division is based on tanks. German tanks were called Panzers, and an armored division was called a Panzer division. A mechanized division is one in which the soldiers are supplied with trucks and other motorized transportation, sometimes including light armored vehicles with cannons or machine guns mounted on them. In regular infantry divisions, the soldiers might travel to the war zone on trains. But once there, they traveled on foot. Their food and ammunition supplies were usually carried in horse-drawn wagons. Their artillery pieces (cannons) might be on wheels, but they too were pulled by horses. Unlike tanks, which can cross open fields, units depending on horse-drawn transport had to travel on roads, which the enemy could more easily defend. In World War II, even the German army, which was considered highly modern and mechanized, still depended on horses for most of its transportation needs in battle.

A New Theory of Warfare

Although the tank units were only a small part of the German army, they made the difference in the first year of World War II. Armored and mechanized divisions can move much more quickly than regular infantry units. Even more important, armored divisions are very difficult for infantry to stop. If commanded correctly, armored units can cut through defensive positions manned by infantry and advance far into enemy territory, circling behind defensive positions and cutting off the enemy army from its supplies and reinforcements. This was what the German generals intended to do in Poland. The Polish forces would be stranded and eventually destroyed by the German infantry divisions that followed the Panzer divisions.

The Germans also had more than 1,300 modern planes, including fighters and dive-bombers, ready for the attack on Poland. Their job was to attack Polish ground troops resisting the tanks. The dive-bombers could swoop down to a low altitude and release their bombs against antitank artillery emplacements (positions) and the few Polish tanks. The Panzer divisions and the air force were supposed to work together closely.

This was a new kind of warfare that various military thinkers had proposed in the years after World War I. British military writers had originated some of these ideas, but only German generals decided to base their strategy on these principles. This new strategy, based on speed and mobility and using tanks fighting together in large groups (instead of scattered among infantry units), became known as blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” (Although the word is German, it was invented by Western newspapers to describe the German army’s actions in Poland.)

The Polish army would become the first victim of the blitzkrieg. The Poles had 40 divisions, but none was armored. The few Polish tanks were much older than the Germans’ and more lightly armored. The most mobile and fastest units in the Polish army were old-fashioned cavalry (horse-mounted troops). The Polish air force included more than 900 planes, but only half of them were modern; the rest were no match for the Germans.

The Poles also faced a problem of geography. The German province of East Prussia was directly north of central Poland. The territory of Slovakia, a newly “independent” country that was actually controlled by Germany, cut deeply along Poland’s southern border. And the main part of Germany was directly to Poland’s west. In other words, German troops could attack Poland from three directions.

Blitzkrieg

Late on August 31, 1939, Germany claimed that some Polish troops had crossed the border and attacked German soldiers. They even displayed the bodies of “Polish soldiers” killed in the fighting. In fact, there had been no attack by Poland, and the bodies were those of prisoners from a concentration camp (the brutal prison camps where the Nazis sent their opponents) who had been dressed in Polish uniforms and shot.

With this excuse, which no one believed, Germany invaded Poland before dawn on September 1, 1939. The German air force (Luftwaffe in German) almost wiped out the Polish air force on the first day of fighting. Many of the Polish planes were destroyed on their airfields before they even got off the ground. The German tanks pushed quickly into Polish territory. Within two days, the German troops moving south from East Prussia reached those moving east from the main part of Germany. After less than a week, one German army had fought all the way through southwestern Poland and was within 40 miles of Warsaw, the Polish capital. Another German army, which had moved south from East Prussia, was even closer. By September 17, Warsaw was surrounded, and the Luftwaffe bombed it heavily, causing a great many civilian deaths, until the city surrendered on September 27.

By mid-September, the Polish army’s only chance to survive as a fighting force—and it was not a very good chance—was to retreat to the east and try to establish a defensive position near the Soviet border. But on September 17, the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, as the secret part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact provided. More than 200,000 retreating Polish troops had no choice but to surrender to the Soviet army. Farther west, some Polish units continued to fight the Germans, but by early October, the battle for Poland was over.

The blitzkrieg had gone exactly as planned. The Polish divisions were unable to react to the German army’s speed. The Polish troops generally fought with great bravery, but they had no planes to attack the German tanks or to defend themselves against the Luftwaffe. They were outnumbered and had fewer and poorer weapons. More than 100,000 Polish soldiers died in the short war, and the Germans captured about 700,000 more.

About 14,000 Germans were killed and another 30,000 wounded. By the bloody standards of the war that had now begun, Hitler’s first military conquest had been quick and easy.

The “Phony War”

Hitler was surprised when Britain and France (known as the “Allies”) declared war after he invaded Poland in 1939. He thought they would do nothing, as they had when he took over Czechoslovakia. He knew that they could not help Poland militarily and thought the declaration of war was only for show. During the fighting in Poland, the French had launched only a minor attack into Germany—nothing like the major offensive that Poland had needed and the German generals had feared.

With Poland defeated so quickly, Germany could transfer its army to the French-German border. But Hitler did not want to attack France yet. Instead, he believed that he could end the war immediately by promising—again—that he would never attack another country if Britain and France would accept Germany’s conquest of Poland.

But Britain and France insisted, both publicly and in private discussions with various “unofficial” German representatives, that there could be peace only if Germany withdrew from Poland and restored Czechoslovakia’s independence. They also said that no peace was possible as long as Hitler ran Germany.

In the months following Poland’s defeat, there was almost no fighting on the border between France and Germany. Partly this was because the conditions in late fall and winter, when the roads and fields are muddy, were considered too difficult. But it was also because the British and French wanted as much time as possible to build more weapons and buy them from the United States. The British, who had always had a small army and had only recently started to draft men into service, needed time to build up their forces. 99The British air force and navy, however, were among the most powerful in the world.

Germany prepared during this time as well, shifting its armored divisions from Poland and building tanks and planes. Hitler hoped the delay would encourage his enemies to end the war, believing that public opinion in France and Britain would take the attitude that there was no longer any sense in fighting to defend Poland after it had already been conquered. Indeed, the people of Britain and France did question what was happening. The British called this period “the phony war”; in France it was known as the “drôle de guerre” (“a funny kind of war”).

Sea Battles

There was fighting at sea, however. The arms and equipment that Britain and France bought from the United States had to be sent across the Atlantic on merchant ships. (Although refusing to join the war, the United States was openly friendly to Britain and France and openly hostile to Nazi Germany.) German submarines, known as U-boats (because the German word for “submarine” is unterseeboots), began to attack and sink these ships. Allied naval vessels protected them and tried to destroy the U-boats. This key struggle, which continued for years, became known as “the Battle of the Atlantic.” (The Battle of the Atlantic is described in Chapter 3.)

The German navy relied on submarines much more than other countries. It had relatively few surface warships, which the powerful British navy made a determined effort to hunt down and sink. During the months of the “phony war,” British naval victories encouraged the people at home, who needed to be shown that, despite what happened in Poland, Germany could be defeated. The most spectacular example was the chase of the Graf Spee, a German “pocket battleship,” a ship that is smaller than a battleship but has the same large cannons. The Graf Spee was one of the “showpieces” of the German navy, and it had terrorized Allied ships. After a series of naval battles, three British warships finally cornered the Graf Spee in the harbor of Montevideo, Uruguay, on the Atlantic coast of South America. Because Uruguay was a neutral country, according to the rules of warfare it would have to intern (confine) any ship that stayed in its port too long. This kept neutral countries from favoring one country over another. So the Graf Spee either had to leave soon and face the warships or stay in Montevideo for the rest of the war. Faced with this choice, the crew of the Graf Spee blew their ship up as it sailed out of the harbor on December 13, 1939.

The Invasion of Norway and Denmark

When the war on land resumed, one of the main reasons had to do with the German navy. It wanted seaports from which its ships could easily get to the Atlantic. (It was difficult to get to the ocean from Germany’s own ports, on the Baltic and North Seas, without being seen—and attacked—by the British navy.) To get these ports, the commander of the navy argued for an invasion of Norway.

Another reason had to do with iron ore, the metal used to make steel and therefore one of the most important materials for a country at war. Germany bought much of its iron ore from Sweden. During the winter, the Swedish ports were frozen, so ships could not sail to Germany. But the Norwegian port of Narvik is ice-free all year, so Swedish ore could be shipped by train to Narvik and then by boat to Germany.

Hitler and his generals decided to conquer Norway. They also decided to attack Denmark because it would make control of Norway easier. Both Denmark and Norway were neutral countries, but Germany attacked them anyway on April 9, 1940.

The tiny Danish army offered almost no resistance, and after the Germans threatened to bomb the capital city of Copenhagen, Denmark quickly surrendered.

In Norway, the Germans faced a much harder time. Partly this was because, unlike the flat farmlands of Denmark, Norway largely consists of rugged mountainous areas. The Germans did have total surprise in their favor when the ships carrying their troops reached the Norwegian ports. They were able to seize the main ports and airfields, though the old cannon defending the Norwegian capital of Oslo sank the Blücher, one of the few battleships in the German navy.

The Allies sent a force of 12,000 men to help the Norwegian army. The British navy sank all ten German destroyers (a warship smaller than a battleship or cruiser) sent to the port of Narvik, which meant the entire German navy had only ten modern destroyers left. In addition, the only two German battleships left in the fleet were heavily damaged by British submarines and were out of action for the rest of the year.

Despite these defeats, the Germans completed their conquest of Norway. The British and French troops pulled out, partly because the Luftwaffe controlled the skies. But there was another reason: the troops were desperately needed elsewhere. The “phony war” had ended, and German tanks were sweeping through France.

The Invasion of the West

Seven months after Poland’s defeat, the German armies attacked in the west. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands (often called Holland; in English, the people are called Dutch), Belgium, and Luxembourg, all of them neutral in the war. In the Netherlands, the attack began with parachute troops and glider-carried units landing behind the Dutch army’s defensive lines. (Gliders are planes without motors towed by ropes behind regular planes, and then cut loose and allowed to float down to land.) Then the German armored forces rolled over the border to join them. The small Dutch army was soon overwhelmed, and the Netherlands were already negotiating their surrender when the Luftwaffe bombed and destroyed the center of the great Dutch port of Rotterdam on May 14, killing many civilians. The Dutch army surrendered the next day, while the queen and the government fled to England.

The German attack in Belgium included 600 tanks manned by veterans of the war in Poland. The Belgian army tried to fight them in the eastern part of the country. The Allies believed this would be the main German attack towards France. A large French force consisting of the First and Seventh Armies, along with the small British force in France (called the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF), moved into Belgium to meet the Germans. The French force included some of their best troops and had some mechanized divisions. The BEF had almost no tanks. Although the Allies outnumbered the Germans in Belgium, the Germans had a great advantage in armor and speed. What was even more important, however, was that the Allied advance into Belgium was a trap. The main German offensive would come farther south, cutting off the Allied troops in Belgium.

This attack was through the Ardennes Forest, in the southern part of the French-Belgian border. To the north of the Ardennes is the flat plain of Flanders, where the French and BEF had advanced into Belgium. To the south was the Maginot line (pronounced ma-jhee-no, and named after a former cabinet member in charge of national defense). This was an immense system of powerful fortifications that the French had built to stop any German attack. The Maginot line included cannons and machine guns inside concrete blockhouses connected by a vast system of tunnels. The French troops who manned the Maginot line could live for months in their underground shelters, safe from enemy bullets, shells, or bombs. But the Maginot line stopped at the Ardennes.

The Ardennes was heavily forested, with steep hills and very narrow roads. French military experts did not believe that large numbers of tanks could get through it, so the French side of the border was defended by only a few divisions of second-rate troops.

The Panzer Breakthrough

But the Germans sent 7 armored divisions, with 1,800 tanks, through the Ardennes and into France. They made it across the Meuse River, an important natural obstacle, against strong French resistance. Once large numbers of German tanks had crossed the river, some of the French troops began to panic, and the French defensive positions crumbled. The constant German air attacks, especially the dive-bombers, played a key role in destroying the confidence of the French troops.

Although the gap in the French defenses was not yet very wide, the German armored divisions poured through it and drove west and north, along the Somme River, toward the English Channel coast of France. The French troops could not stop them, and the French military command failed to organize any plan that might have saved the army. There was poor coordination between the French and the British, between the Allies and the Belgians, between the French army and the air force, and even between different parts of the French army.

Afterward, almost everyone believed that the Germans had more troops, tanks, and planes than the Allies. Although the German army did have some important advantages in weapons, this was not really the reason for its victory. In fact, in many categories, the Allies had as much equipment, and sometimes it was of higher quality. But they did not use it well. They rarely used their tanks together, instead assigning them in small groups to support infantry divisions. They did not use the air force to support armored and infantry attacks. The defeat of the French army in 1940 was, above all, a defeat of the French generals.

When the German armored divisions reached the coast, they split the French army in two. South of the Somme River, the retreating units had taken heavy casualties and needed to be reorganized. On the other side of the German tank “corridor,” the French troops in Belgium, along with the BEF and the Belgian army, were being pushed south. They were now trapped between the two German forces, unable to join up with the rest of the French forces.

Dunkirk

On May 20, the same day the German tanks reached the sea, the British government began planning to evacuate the BEF to England. The BEF, along with the French First Army, began to retreat toward the coast, around the English Channel port of Dunkirk, a few miles inside France from the Belgian border. On May 26, some of the British troops boarded boats for the trip back to England. The following day, the Belgian army, now north of Dunkirk, surrendered. In the next few days, a large number of ships from England reached Dunkirk. They included not only navy ships and merchant vessels but also small fishing boats and even pleasure boats brought across the Channel by their owners. Each day, more troops boarded the boats and sailed to England. Then the boats would come back for more.

During the evacuation, the German army continually tried to fight its way into the Dunkirk “pocket,” the area defended by Allied troops. The British and French held them back long enough so that most could escape. The Luftwaffe bombed and machine-gunned the troops and the boats, but the planes of Britain’s Royal Air Force (the RAF), flying from bases in England, offered some protection. The evacuation continued until June 4, with more than 300,000 Allied troops, about two-thirds of them British, brought safely to England. But they left behind almost all their equipment. (Most of the 110,000 French soldiers then went back to ports in western France, to join the French troops still fighting.)

Many people in Britain hailed Dunkirk as a great victory, calling it a “miracle.” Two hundred thousand British soldiers had been saved from becoming German prisoners. But the British prime minister (the head of the government), Winston Churchill, reminded them that “wars are not won by evacuations.”

The Fall of France

There were still 60 divisions of French troops, though the 3 remaining armored divisions had lost many of their tanks. The Germans had 104 divisions, including 10 armored and 5 mechanized. The Luftwaffe now far outnumbered the remaining Allied planes.

Although defeat appeared certain, the French troops now fought with much greater determination. Many examples of extraordinary bravery occurred, as even the German generals admitted. The French generals finally seemed to have come up with sensible defensive plans. These plans might have worked a few weeks earlier, but now it was too late.

On June 10, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on France and Britain and sent troops into the southern part of France. Although badly outnumbered, the four French divisions that met this new invasion easily stopped the Italians. Even so, it meant France faced another large army entering its territory.

On the same day, the French government left Paris and declared it an “open city.” This meant the city would not be defended and therefore would not be bombed or destroyed in ground fighting. The German army entered the city unopposed four days later.

Hundreds of thousands of people had already left Paris, trying to escape the advancing Germans. Throughout France, roads were jammed with millions of refugees (people escaping from danger or persecution), making it even harder for the French troops to get where they were needed. Often, Luftwaffe planes machine-gunned the columns of refugees, adding to the panic and confusion.

The French government now named a new prime minister: Marshal Phillippe Pétain, a hero of World War I. Pétainhad helped defeat the Germans in 1918, but now he was an oldman of eighty-four. He immediately asked Germany for anarmistice, an end to the fighting. In the meantime, the Germans continued to advance farther into France.

On June 22, 1940, the French agreed to an armistice, effective on June 25. Hitler arranged for it to be signed in thesame railroad car in the same forest clearing in which Germany had signed the armistice ending World War I, almosttwenty-two years earlier. This was Hitler’s special revenge on France. Once the French representatives had signed, Hitlerdanced a little jig outside the railroad car.

The terms of the armistice also revealed Hitler’s hatred.France was divided into two parts. The German army occupiedthe northern half and all of the Atlantic coast, while southeastern France was occupied by Italy. Pétain’s French government controlled the remainder of southern France. France had to pay for the huge cost of the German occupation, millions of dollars a day. Germany refused to release the 2 million French soldiers taken prisoner in battle. About one-quarter of all young Frenchmen were prisoners.

From the beginning of the invasion on May 10 to the end of the fighting on June 25, France had lost 90,000 people—on average, about 2,000 had died each day. Twenty-seven thousand Germans had been killed. The French army, which had been considered the strongest in the world, had been shattered in six weeks. The complete victory of Hitler’s Germany seemed certain.

The Battle of Britain

Now Britain was the only country left fighting Germany. Hitler hoped that Britain would make peace, accepting the German domination of Europe in return for a promise that Germany would not interfere with Britain and its great overseas empire. The British government never seriously considered this possibility. Instead, it prepared to defend the country against a German invasion.

Invading Britain meant sending troops across the English Channel on boats. This was impossible as long as the British navy controlled the sea. Hitler hoped that the Luftwaffe could destroy the British navy from the air, but this was also impossible as long as the RAF (Britain’s Royal Air Force) could fight the German planes.

So what became known as the Battle of Britain was an air battle. The German air attacks on Britain had two main purposes. One was to destroy the RAF so that an invasion could then take place. The other was to make the British people feel that there was no chance of victory and force Britain to make peace without an invasion.

Starting on July 10, 1940 and continuing for almost a month, fleets of German bombers, protected by fighter planes, attacked the ports of southern England. The RAF and land-based antiaircraft guns shot down about 100 bombers and another 80 fighters, losing around 70 fighter planes themselves. The raids did not seriously damage the British navy.

The Luftwaffe now shifted to attacks on factories and military installations throughout England. Although they heavily damaged their targets, the Luftwaffe lost too many planes to continue.

Then the Germans changed their focus again. Instead of attacking targets all over England, the Luftwaffe concentrated all its power against the RAF’s airfields and nearby ground-control stations. From late August to September 7, they knocked out some of the RAF’s bases and destroyed nearly 300 British fighters. It they had continued, they could have crippled the RAF.

But they decided to shift their main target once more, giving the RAF time to repair its damaged airfields. Part of the reason was that winter was coming and the weather over the Channel would soon turn stormy. A German invasion of Britain would have to come soon or be postponed until at least the following spring. Hitler decided to send bombers against London, Britain’s great capital, with a population of 7 million people. The purpose was to destroy the British people’s will to fight by terrorizing them and to force the RAF into a massive battle.

Beginning on September 7, large formations of German bombers, with escorts of fighter planes, attacked London, raining bombs on the docks along the Thames River and other military targets, but also blasting homes, schools, and hospitals. The fighters of the RAF tried to shoot them down before they reached London, and the 2,000 antiaircraft guns of the heavily defended city blasted them when they arrived. The largest raid, on September 15, included 200 bombers. Every RAF fighter within flying range was in the air, and 60 German bombers were shot down.

These attacks on London continued until the end of the month, but by September 17, Hitler had decided to “postpone” the German invasion of Britain. He would never schedule it again. The pilots of the RAF had saved Britain. Churchill said of them that never before “has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

The “Blitz”

Despite their lack of success against the RAF, the Luftwaffe actually increased its attempts to terrorize the British people. Throughout October and November, the Germans shifted to nighttime raids over London. (All the previous action in the Battle of Britain had been during the day.) Night bombing was completely inaccurate at that time, so this was not really an attempt to hit military targets or factories. It was meant to cause as much damage and loss of life as possible.

This is the period that the people of England called “the Blitz.” Although sirens warned them of the nightly attacks and they hid in cellars and underground shelters—including subway stations—40,000 Londoners died in the air raids. Large parts of London and other cities were destroyed. To protect them from the bombing, parents sent thousands of children from their homes in the big cities to live with strangers in the countryside who had volunteered to take them in. (Children’s experiences during the war are discussed in Chapter 8.)

But the German armed forces had been defeated for the first time. Britain, although alone, was still fighting.