World War II: The War Expands

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

From the time that France surrendered in June 1940 until Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Russia) almost exactly a year later, Great Britain was the only major country fighting Nazi Germany and its main ally, Italy. Yet this period saw the war expand into new areas and draw in more countries.

Help for Britain

Even in the summer of 1940, Britain was not completely alone. Four distant countries that had once been British colonies and still had close ties to Britain also declared war on Germany: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. They sent tens of thousands of soldiers, who fought in their own units throughout the war, as well as money, food, and industrial products. In addition, troops from British colonies, especially India, played a major role in several areas of fighting. “British” troops often included large numbers of units from these other countries.

Some of Britain’s most important help, however, came from a country that was still neutral in the war—the United States. A neutral country supposedly does not take sides in a war. But most Americans favored the Allies (Britain, France, and the countries that joined them against Germany) from the beginning of the war. After France’s defeat, when it looked as if Germany would win, pro-British feelings became even stronger. In the autumn of 1940, a public opinion poll found that 75 percent of the American people wanted to help Britain. At the same time, however, 83 percent said they did not want the United States to enter the war.


The traditional American attitude, from the time of the founding of the country, was that the United States should stay out of Europe’s quarrels. In 1917, the United States had joined Britain and France against Germany in World War I, but many Americans came to believe this had been a mistake. They felt that thousands of Americans had died, and millions of dollars had been spent and Europe still had the same problems. They thought that America, protected by two great oceans, should remain safely isolated from Europe’s troubles.

These ideas, usually called isolationism, were very powerful during the 1920s and the early 1930s. Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany altered American public opinion, however. The Nazis’ brutal methods, their banning of all other political parties, and their destruction of labor unions had disturbed many Americans. The Nazi campaign against the Jews horrified people all over the world. And as Nazism and similar political systems came to power and destroyed democracy in one European country after another, more Americans began to feel that these events threatened their own freedom.

But isolationism remained an important political force in the country. The isolationist “America First” organization, founded in September 1940, had 850,000 members. Isolationists included respected figures like Charles Lindbergh, who was a national hero for being the first person to fly by himself, nonstop, across the Atlantic. Although some isolationists admired Nazi Germany and opposed American involvement for this reason, pro-Nazi sentiments were never a major force in the United States.

Increasing American Involvement

President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood, and probably agreed with, the American people’s conflicting desires: he made it clear that American policy would be to help the Allies while staying out of the war. He called the United States “the Arsenal of Democracy,” meaning that American industrial power would provide arms—but not troops—for the Allies. After France surrendered, Britain’s need for American help became more urgent.

Britain depended on imports more than almost any other country. Besides having no petroleum or rubber and few metals besides iron, Britain grew only half the food its people needed. American wheat, meat, and other food, shipped across the Atlantic, were as important as tanks and cannons. By 1941, almost 30 percent of Britain’s food came from the United States.

But American help went far beyond food. In September 1940, the United States gave Britain fifty outdated American destroyers, warships often used to escort merchant ships (civilian ships carrying freight) and defend them against enemy attacks. In return, Britain gave the United States the right to station American naval bases on various British islands near the United States.

The American destroyers, though old, were very useful to Britain. However, the British got something even more important from the agreement: by providing naval bases, the agreement meant that the United States could take over the defense of areas that the British, with their navy fighting all over the world, could not defend against German attack.

In addition, the agreement helped connect the British and American defense efforts in the minds of many Americans. The same was true of an agreement between the United States and Canada on a common plan to defend North America from possible attack. Since Canada was at war with Germany, this meant that the United States was committing itself to side with Canada (and Britain) if Germany tried to carry the war across the Atlantic.

In the summer of 1940, Congress voted to increase the budget for construction of American warships. These new ships would double the size of the U.S. Navy. In September, the United States began drafting men into the army, the first time this had been done while the country was not at war. The small peacetime American army would be greatly enlarged and equipped with modern weapons.

American involvement continued to increase. In March 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease agreement. Although the terms were complicated, Lend-Lease really meant that Britain could buy American goods—including weapons—on credit and pay back the money after the war. This was extremely important because the cost of the war had used up almost all of Britain’s money. Within weeks, Congress voted $7 billion as the first installment for Lend-Lease, an enormous amount at the time. Everyone understood that Britain would never be able to pay back its debt if it lost the war. In effect, America was betting billions of dollars on a British victory. (The law did not specifically name the countries that were to benefit, which allowed Roosevelt to extend Lend-Lease to other countries later. Within a year, Lend-Lease aid was flowing in great quantities to the Soviet Union.)

Only a few weeks after Congress passed the Lend-Lease law, Roosevelt expanded the “American Security Zone” to cover much of the Atlantic Ocean. Within the zone, the U.S. Navy would protect American merchant ships, including those carrying weapons for Britain, and would report the presence of all German ships to the British navy. By May, American warships were escorting convoys (large groups of ships sailing together for protection) of American ships all the way to Britain. Beginning in June 1941, British merchant ships were allowed to sail in American convoys, which meant they would be protected by the U.S. Navy.

In April, the United States had signed an agreement with the Danish ambassador in Washington, D.C., that called for the two countries to defend the giant island of Greenland, a Danish possession off the northeast coast of Canada. Since Denmark was under military occupation by Germany, this really meant that the United States would defend Greenland if the Germans tried to use it as a base to attack British ships. Soon afterward, a unit of United States Marines replaced British forces in Iceland, an island country in the North Atlantic, for the same purpose.

The Battle of the Atlantic

These measures were part of the “Battle of the Atlantic.” As vital food and weapons sailed east to Britain, German submarines lay in wait. The German navy relied on submarines because it had relatively few surface warships and the powerful British navy hunted down and sank most of them. In the last eight months of 1941, the submarines, known as U-boats (because the German word for “submarine” begins with a “u”), sank 328 British merchant ships. This was about one and a half times the number of ships that Britain could build in a year.

If the U-boats had continued at this rate, they would have won the Battle of the Atlantic, and the British people would have starved. The British and Canadian navies (and, increasingly, the American navy) took measures to protect the ships. The U-boats responded with countermeasures. The convoy system was one example on the Allied side. On the German side, the U-boats used a new tactic of attacking in large groups, which were known as wolf packs. The advantage shifted back and forth as both sides added technical improvements. For example, each side temporarily had the upper hand when it was able to intercept and decode the radio messages of the other.

Perhaps the most important factor in the battle was American industry’s ability to produce more ships than anyone had imagined possible. These included a standard freighter, called the Liberty ship, which took an average of only three months to build. In October 1942, three completed Liberty ships left American shipyards every day. So even when the U-boats sank dozens of Allied freighters in a month, the number of ships successfully crossing to Britain continued to rise.

The submarines had a strategic edge when they attacked underwater. They could fire their deadly torpedoes from beneath the sea. The warships protecting the convoys had electronic devices to find submarines, but they could not measure how deep the U-boats were. So the underwater bombs that the warships dropped overboard (called depth charges) often exploded too far above or below the U-boat to cause serious damage.

But submarines of that time had to spend much of their time on the surface in order to recharge their batteries. They were in great danger if caught there by airplanes. Because of this, the U-boats usually surfaced at night, but the British (and the Americans after the United States entered the war) used radar and improved searchlights on long-range bombers to find and destroy more and more U-boats. As American production of these bombers increased, the U-boats began to lose the battle. By May 1943, Germany was losing submarines twice as fast as it could build new ones. Faced with these losses, the German navy stopped sending U-boats into the Atlantic.

Almost 2,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warshipssank during the Battle of the Atlantic. But almost 700 out of830 U-boats were destroyed. Out of 40,000 men in the German crews, more than 25,000 were killed and another 5,000 taken prisoner after their submarines were destroyed.

The War in the Desert

While the U-boats tried to strangle British sea supplies, other battles were being fought on land. In North Africa, Libya had been a colony of Italy, Germany’s most important ally, since 1912, and 200,000 Italian soldiers were stationed there. In September 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered this army to cross the border eastward into British-controlled Egypt. Although the Italians stopped after only 60 miles and prepared defensive positions, the invasion greatly worried the British. A successful Italian invasion of Egypt would threaten the Suez Canal in the northeast region of the country. Without the canal, ships going from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean— and then to Britain—would have to travel all the way around Africa, which takes much longer and uses much more fuel. Even more important, beyond Egypt are the oil fields of Iraq and Arabia. The Axis powers (the countries fighting on the German side) had few safe supplies of oil (Libyan oil had not yet been discovered), and this was one of their greatest weaknesses.

In December 1940, the greatly outnumbered British surprised the Italians by attacking. The Italians retreated, chased by the British for 400 miles into Libya. By the time the retreat ended in February 1941, the British had captured 130,000 Italian troops.

The fighting, like all the later battles, was along a narrow strip of land with only one real road that lay between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the almost impassable desert to the south. Supplies and reinforcements for both armies had to come by sea. Each time one of the armies was successful, it moved farther away from the ports where its supplies arrived. The army that retreated was closer to its sources of resupply. So each success increased the danger that the other side would be able to launch a successful counterattack. And that is exactly what happened from December 1940 until October 1942.

The Afrika Korps

Although Mussolini was reluctant to admit that heneeded help after the Italian army’s disaster, he agreed to allow a German force to land in Libya in a bid to save the situation. Its commander was General Erwin Rommel, one of the most successful of the German Panzer (tank) commanders during the conquest of France. Although the main part of his force was Italian, Rommel’s German troops were known as the Afrika korps. They would soon become popular heroes in Germany. Rommel, “the Desert Fox,” became the most admired German general at home and the one most feared by the Allies.

In March 1941, Rommel attacked the British and within a few weeks forced them all the way back to where they had been in December. A British counterattack failed, but a second major British assault, in November, forced the Germans and Italians back to where Rommel had started. In January 1942, it was Rommel’s turn again, and again the British retreated into Egypt. In each of these attacks, retreats, and counterattacks, each side lost fuel, tanks, planes, and—of course—soldiers.

Despite the repeated advances and retreats, the desert war remained a standoff, almost as if both sides had simply stood still. The deadlock was not broken until Rommel was forced to fight the British to his east and an invading American army to his west. (These events are described in Chapter 10.)

Italy Attacks in Europe

Even before his African schemes ended in disaster, Mussolini was turning his attention to Europe. He wanted Italy to return to the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. Most historians also think that jealousy of his ally, Hitler, played a major part in his decisions.

In April 1939, before the beginning of the war, Italy had sent an army to take over Albania, a small, poor country across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Mussolini decided to use his base in Albania to invade and conquer Greece, and Italian troops attacked on October 28. Mussolini apparently ordered the invasion of Greece without informing the Germans. If he had, they would probably have pressured him to give up the idea. Hitler was anxious to avoid any military actions in Europe that might interfere with his secret plan to invade the Soviet Union, which was scheduled for the following spring.

The Italian army, despite vastly outnumbering the Greeks, was—as usual—poorly equipped, and the invasion began without sufficient planning. After some early successes, the Italian offensive stalled. In the middle of November, the Greek army counterattacked, quickly drove the Italians back into Albania, and crossed the border in pursuit. By January 1941, the Italians were in danger of being forced to evacuate Albania.

Germany Moves South

Just as in Africa, Mussolini had to ask Germany for help. The Italian defeat in Greece set off a complicated chain reaction, as one country after another in the region was impacted. The Greeks had asked for British help, and Britain sent them troops from North Africa. The British forces in Greece would eventually number 68,000 men.

Hitler had not wanted to do anything that might delay the invasion of the Soviet Union. But Italy’s attack on Greece had once again brought British troops to Europe. The Germans did not want a threat to their south while they fought in Russia. Among other dangers, British planes taking off from Greece could bomb the oil fields in Romania, the main source of petroleum for Germany. In addition, Hitler felt he needed to help Mussolini because the Italian defeat might encourage other countries to resist the Axis.

But moving German troops to Greece meant going through other countries. After much German pressure, Bulgaria, which borders Greece, signed an alliance with Germany in March 1941 agreeing to allow German troops to invade Greece from Bulgarian territory.

Germany also wanted to attack Greece through Yugoslavia. On March 25, Prince Paul, the regent of Yugoslavia, agreed to join the Axis. (A regent is someone who rules in place of a king or queen, for example, when the king is too young, as was the case in Yugoslavia.) Two days later, a group of Yugoslav army officers who opposed the alliance with Germany overthrew Prince Paul and withdrew the agreement. They were encouraged to do this by British (and probably American) secret agents.

An enraged Hitler ordered the German army to change its plans. Since Yugoslavia would not allow German troops through to invade Greece, they would attack Yugoslavia too. The Germans invaded both countries on April 6.

Although the Yugoslav army had a million soldiers, the Germans easily broke through. The Luftwaffe (the German air force) heavily bombed the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade and other targets. The Germans entered the city on April 12, and Yugoslavia surrendered on April 17. Only 151 German soldiers were killed in the invasion.

The victors now dismantled the country. Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria all took parts of Yugoslav territory. Serbia, one of the main areas of Yugoslavia, was put under German military administration. A new “independent” country of Croatia was created in western Yugoslavia, ruled by a pro-Nazi government that was violently anti-Serb. Although victory had been incredibly easy, the Germans would face much greater resistance in Yugoslavia in the following years.

The German invasion of Greece, starting from Bulgaria, was almost as easy. The Greek army was still concentrated against the Italians in Albania, and the British force was not large enough to stop the Germans. The Germans entered Athens, the Greek capital, on April 27. The British were forced to evacuate their troops by sea—leaving most of their equipment behind.

Many British troops relocated to the large Greek island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. A few weeks later, German parachute troops landed on the island and, with strong Luftwaffe support, defeated the British and Greek defenders, who heavily outnumbered them. Once again, the British evacuated some of their troops by sea, but Germany’s spectacular victory was a cause of great gloom in Britain.

These events were a terrible reminder that less than a year after it had evacuated its troops from France, Britain was not strong enough to maintain a foothold in Europe. Germany, Italy, and their Axis partners now controlled almost the whole continent, up to the border of Soviet Russia. Beyond that border, however, lay the land that Hitler had always wanted.

Land, Anticommunism, and Racism

Hitler had always wanted to conquer vast new territory. According to him, Germany needed it for Lebensraum, or “room to live.” This word implied that without this room, Germany could not survive. Germany was supposedly too small for its population.

Hitler believed that this new land would come from eastern Europe. Germany would conquer White Russia (now the country of Belarus) and Ukraine. Both had long been part of the Russian Empire. Now they were the western part of the Soviet Union (short for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR), the country that the Communists had set up after overthrowing the Russian Empire. In addition, the eastern half of Poland had become part of the Soviet Union in 1939. This was part of a deal Hitler made with the Soviet government just before Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and conquered the western half of the country. (This deal, known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, is described in Chapter 2.) The Soviets had also taken over the three small countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Since all these areas were now part of the communist-controlled Soviet Union, going to war against the Soviets would satisfy both Hitler’s hatred of communists and his desire to conquer territory. In addition, like everything else in Hitler’s mind, these goals were mixed up with Nazi ideas about “race,” a word they used in a completely unscientific sense. The Nazis believed that Germans were a superior race that had the right to rule over the “inferior” people of eastern Europe. Germany would take over the land and populate it with Germans. The Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, White Russians, and others would be used as sources of cheap labor.

The western Soviet Union, including eastern Poland, was also home to 5 million Jews. According to Nazi racial theories, the Jews were not even people—they were “subhumans.” In Hitler’s mind the Communist government of the Soviet Union was part of a Jewish plot to rule the world. Jews and communists were the same thing to the Nazis. For Hitler and the Nazis, the invasion of the Soviet Union would be a war to conquer land for the “superior” German race, to destroy communism, and to destroy the Jews. (The Nazis’ actions against the Jews of the Soviet Union are described in Chapter 7.)

It was this combination of motives that made the German invasion of the Soviet Union so murderous. The destruction and cruelty went far beyond even the “normal” horror of modern war.

The Invasion

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched its surprise attack on the Soviet Union. It was code-named Operation Barbarossa (which means “Red Beard”), the nickname of a German emperor of the Middle Ages. The Soviet army and government were completely unprepared. The German forces, led by tanks, pushed into Soviet territory with tremendous speed. Often, whole Soviet divisions, even whole armies, were trapped behind the advancing German Panzer divisions. (A division is a large unit of an army, usually about 15,000 men, though Soviet divisions were often smaller.) Then the German infantry, moving much more slowly than the tanks, would destroy these “pockets” of surrounded Soviet troops. Although the trapped Soviet soldiers usually fought fiercely, tens of thousands surrendered when they ran out of food and ammunition. The rest of the Soviet army retreated toward the east, trying to prevent a total collapse. The German air force attacked the roads, railroads, cities, and towns. The German blitzkrieg (lightning war) caused chaos and panic, just as it had in Poland and France.

After less than three weeks, the Germans, joined by Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian units, had advanced 280 miles and taken 300,000 prisoners. Fifteen hundred Soviet tanks, 2,000 planes, and 3,000 cannons had been destroyed or captured.

These totals kept growing as the Germans continued to advance. In September, in a great battle around Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, the Germans trapped 50 Soviet divisions. Pounded by the Luftwaffe and attacked by Panzers and German infantry, more than 650,000 Soviet troops were taken prisoner in this one battle. By now, the Germans had captured almost 3 million Russian soldiers.

In the first months of the Soviet invasion, the Germans were even more successful than they had been in Poland and France. But there was a big difference. Although the Germans gained hundreds of miles of territory, there was still room for the Soviets to retreat. Although millions of Soviet soldiers had been killed or captured, there were still millions more fighting or ready for battle. The Germans had destroyed thousands of tanks, cannons, and planes and captured many of the factories where they were built. But there were more factories the Germans hadn’t reached, and the Soviets were transferring whole factories and building new ones in the east, far from the reach of the Germans. By the end of August 1941, the Soviets had moved more than 1,500 factories east by railroad. Many more would follow in the next months.

The great spaces of Russia, the large population that could provide men to replace the lost armies, and the vast industrial potential of the country meant that the German invasion, though astounding in military terms, was not enough to defeat the Soviet Union. After the first few weeks of confusion, the Soviet army had fought hard, and although it continued to take heavy losses, it also inflicted heavy losses on the Germans.

As they retreated, the Russians tried to destroy every bridge and railroad line, every dam on every river, every warehouse and barn—leaving as little as possible for the invaders to use. The Germans often found nothing left but “scorched earth.”

The three invading German Army Groups were spread over a battlefront hundreds of miles wide from north to south. As they advanced eastward, the front kept growing, like a fan being spread out. Every mile that they advanced east was another mile to send supplies over the primitive Russian road system. Very few roads were paved, and the dirt roads turned to mud whenever it rained. Although tracked vehicles, like tanks, could sometimes travel over these roads and through the fields, wheeled vehicles had to wait until the roads dried out. The tanks were delayed, waiting for food, ammunition, and—most important—fuel to arrive in trucks or horse-drawn wagons.

Two Symbols

By August 30, Army Group North reached the city of Leningrad, the second-largest Soviet city, with 3 million people. Leningrad also had great symbolic importance. It had been the capital of Imperial Russia before the Communist revolution, when it was called Saint Petersburg. Then it was renamed in honor of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Communist government. (Today, the city is again called Saint Petersburg.) German troops nearly surrounded the city. The only way that the Russians could bring supplies into Leningrad was across Lake Ladoga, a huge lake northeast of the city. The people remaining in the city dug almost 400 miles of antitank ditches and built thousands of blockhouses to stop the Germans. Under its new commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet army made a stand and stopped the German advance.

For the next two and a half years, the people of Leningrad lived under the German guns and bombs. The few supplies they received had to be brought 125 miles through deep arctic forests and then across Lake Ladoga in boats; in the winter, trucks crossed the frozen water. Death from starvation and freezing became common. Fifty thousand people died in the city in December 1941. By the time the Germans were finally driven away in the spring of 1944, 1 million citizens of Leningrad had died. The Germans never captured the city.

Meanwhile, Army Group Center continued driving east toward Moscow. Moscow was the Soviet capital, headquarters and symbol of the world communist movement. Supposedly, the leading German troops were so close they could see the reflection of the sun off the golden domes of the churches in the Kremlin, the ancient walled district that housed the Soviet government.

Again, as in Leningrad, the civilian population dug trenches; again the Soviet army made a stand. As the autumn rains turned the roads and fields into sticky mud that even tanks could not cross, the German advance halted. When the rains turned into snow and the tanks could again cross the now-frozen ground, it was the Russians who attacked.

“General Winter”

The German troops were not fitted with winter gear. This was partly because giving them winter clothes and special boots would mean admitting that the war would be long. The German leaders feared that this would discourage the troops and hurt their ability to fight. As a result, thousands of German soldiers developed frostbitten feet and were unable to walk. The engines of the German tanks and trucks would not work; the gasoline froze; rubber tires turned as hard as metal. The horses, hungry and cold like the men, were too weak to pull artillery through the deep snowdrifts.

Every German officer—and every Soviet one as well— knew the story of how the French general and emperor Napoleon had led a great army to Moscow in 1812, winning battle after battle. The Russians had burned everything as they retreated, leaving nothing for the invaders to eat. Then the Russian winter and the Russian soldiers together had destroyed their seemingly unbeatable enemy.

Now, more than a century later, the same thing seemed to be happening to Hitler’s army. As the temperature kept dropping (at times it reached 40 degrees below zero), with howling winds and blowing snow, the Soviet counteroffensive—commanded by Marshal Zhukov—forced the Germans back from Moscow. At times, it looked as if much of Army Group Center might be surrounded and destroyed. For the first time, signs of panic appeared among some German soldiers.

But the German generals saved most of their forces by retreating and forming defensive positions, and waiting for spring. They were back where they had been in October—but still deep inside Russia. The German army had suffered a defeat—its first major defeat of the war—but it was not yet beaten. The German soldiers had experienced the power of “General Winter” and the way the Russian soldiers could fight in defense of their country. But hundreds of thousands more Russian and German soldiers would die before, like Napoleon, the defeated Germans would leave Russia forever.