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World War Two Chronology

Get your head around the key dates of the war by reading our timeline and accompanying essays.

1939

In August 1939, the Soviet Union gave Hitler hope that Eastern expansion was possible after signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany that contained a secret clause to invade and divide up Poland. After Nazi Germany refused French and British ultimatums to withdraw from there, both nations declared war. The first few months are often known as the ‘phoney war’ for Britain because although preparations continued in earnest and three million children were evacuated to the countryside, there was little immediate conflict, with military engagements being confined to naval vessels battling against German U Boats in the Atlantic. This battle would be the longest running of the war for Britain, resulting in losses of approximately 30,000 for both sides by 1945. The failure of appeasement came as a shock to most of the population and Neville Chamberlain described it as a ‘bitter blow’ for which the nation seemed unprepared. Although conscription had begun earlier in the year, it only required men of 20-21 years old to complete six months of military service and a force of just 897,000 was all that could be mustered initially. Yet, by the end of the year, this figure had risen to 1.5million as men volunteered and conscription was extended.

Key dates include:

27th April 1939 - Conscription begins

23rd August 1939 – The Nazi-Soviet Pact is signed

1st September 1939 – Nazi Germany invades Poland and evacuation begins in Britain

3rd September 1939 – Britain and their French allies declare war on Nazi Germany

3rd September 1939 – The Battle of the Atlantic begins

17th September 1939 – The Soviet Union invades Poland

1940

During the second year of the conflict the impact on the British population became much more profound; U Boat activity in the Atlantic resulted in the rationing of key foodstuffs including bacon, butter and sugar with more restrictions being added as the year wore on. The German ‘lightening war’ (or Blitzkrieg), which saw simultaneous attacks on France, Holland and Belgium, proved unstoppable for the BEF who were evacuated in their hundreds of thousands from Dunkirk and other coastal ports in late spring. Both Norway and France fell to Nazi Germany in June, leaving Hitler free to turn his attention to the British Isles. The aerial battle between the Luftwaffe and the RAF became known as the Battle of Britain and British victory ultimately prevented the Nazis from being able to invade. Although the British had less available planes, the use of radar and the success of Spitfires in intercepting German bombers enabled the skies to be defended, particularly after Hitler decided to switch attacks from airbases and factories to British cities in early September. During this ‘blitz’, the civilian population had to endure regular air raids and blackouts, with sustained attacks on London and other urban areas, including Liverpool and Coventry. Yet, the focus on civilian areas allowed the survival of the RAF and by September, Hitler redeployed the majority of the Luftwaffe to focus on war in the East.

Key dates include:

8th January 1940 – Rationing is introduced

10th May 1940 – Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister

10th May 1940 – Germany launches the Blitzkrieg

14th May 1940 – The Home Guard is formed

21st May 1940 – The Battle of Arras

26th May 1940 – Dunkirk evacuations begin

June 1940 – Britain declares war on Italy

22nd June 1940 – France falls to Nazi Germany

16th July – 17th September 1940 – The Battle of Britain

25th August 1940 – The Blitz begins

14th November 1940 – Coventry is bombed

1941

Although British cities continued to endure bombing raids, with a death toll of 43,000 civilians, German plans to invade Britain were put aside as Hitler turned his sights to Russia, launching Operation Barbarossa in June and abandoning the promises of the Nazi-Soviet pact. At first, it seemed that the Germans would succeed in occupying the Soviet Union and Britain’s enemy would be immeasurably strengthened. Yet, as the Russian winter descended, the Soviets began to counter-attack and the Nazis found themselves caught in a bloody and gruelling stalemate which was to occupy the majority of their troops and resources for the remainder of the war. Britain’s war had now taken on a much more global dimension, with Italian attacks on colonial territory in Africa and German attacks on Greece and areas of the Middle East prompting them to fight in multiple arenas. These proved some of the most costly ventures of the war, with the attempted defence of Greece being abandoned by the spring. Yet, the Germans also found these battles more costly than they had envisaged and Hitler was dissuaded from pressing his advantage and attacking more allied territory in the Mediterranean. By the end of the year, the war had spread to Asia and the United States had become an official British ally after Japanese attacks on the naval base Pearl Harbour. This led to attacks on other British colonial possessions and troops were fighting in Burma by December.

Key dates include:

January 1941 – Counterattacks against Italian forces begin in Africa

February 1941 – Allied troops deployed to Greece

24th April 1941 – Withdrawal of allied troops from Greece begins

June 1941 – Clothes rationing begins

22nd June 1941 - Operation Barbarossa begins

7th December 1941 - The attack on Pearl Harbour

1942

By 1942, pressure on resources within Britain was becoming acute, with the continuation of aerial raids and increasing U Boat attacks; 1,664 boats were sunk during this year by new German submarines and this led to critically low levels of food and petrol. Attempts to mobilise the civilian population continued, with over 80,000 women having joined the Land Army by the end of the year. Civilian society was also profoundly altered by the arrival of US troops in January, many of whom began relationships with British women. Militarily, the war in Western Europe was characterised by bombing raids (such as the ‘1000 bomber’ campaigns that caused devastation in German cities like Cologne) and small-scale landing operations to test German defences in occupied territory. There were some remarkable successes, such as the Bruneval Raid, which saw British paratroopers gain crucial anti-radar information, but also costly failures, including the Dieppe Raid which claimed the lives of over 3,500 allied servicemen. The advance of Japan caused significant losses of colonial territory, including Burma, India, Singapore and vast areas of modern-day Indonesia but the Battle of Midway would prove a turning point in the Pacific War, as the US gained the upper-hand over the Japanese navy. There was also more allied success in Africa, with the Battle of El Alamein halting the German advance in the north of the continent. After Britain entered into a formal alliance with the Soviet Union, spirits were also raised by the damage inflicted on the Nazis on the eastern front.

Key dates include:

January 1942 – US troops arrive in Britain

15th February 1942 – The Battle of Singapore

27th February 1942 – The Bruneval Raid

26th May 1942 – The Anglo-Soviet Treaty is signed

30th May 1942 – The ‘1000-bomber’ raids begin

4th – 7th June 1942 – The Battle of Midway

19th August 1942 – The Dieppe Raid

October – November 1942 – The 2nd Battle of El Alamein

1943

The tide of the war began to turn in the allies’ favour during 1943, with the German army suffering their first major defeat at the hands of the Russians at Stalingrad and the Italian war effort ending in surrender. After victory in Tunisia allowed the allies to use it as a springboard to launch an attack on Sicily, Italy decided to sign an armistice. However, this operation had been costly for the allies and Italy had not proved to be the ‘soft underbelly’ that Churchill claimed it would be, particularly since German troops continued to battle against the allies in this arena. The British were also attempting to win the war through aerial bombing, targeting the industrial Ruhr valley as well as major cities like Dusseldorf, Hamburg and Berlin throughout 1943. Although these raids caused significant damage, with half a million people being left homeless in Berlin alone, they did little to encourage German surrender. Instead, pressure mounted on the US and Britain to open a Second Front by invading occupied France to relieve the pressure on the Soviets in the East. At the Washington Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill were content to delay this for twelve months and focus on Italy first but by the time they met their Soviet allies at Moscow and Teheran, more definite assurances were given, alongside agreements over the need to extract reparations from Germany. By this point in the war, increasing evidence of the Final Solution was emerging and the allies met to discuss responses to this at Bermuda in April. However, little was agreed other than a plan to establish a refugee camp for displaced Jews in Northern Africa.

Key dates include:

February 1943 - The Germans lose the Battle of Stalingrad

5th March 1943 – Sustained allied bombing raids on Germany

19th April 1943 – The Bermuda Conference begins

May 1943 - The allies defeat Italian forces in North Africa

10th July 1943 - The allies invade Sicily

8th September 1943 - Italy withdraws from the war

18th October 1943 – The 1st Moscow Conference begins

28th November 1943 – The Teheran Conference begins

1944

By the end of 1944, it was evident that the Nazi war machine was crumbling. As the Russians continued to advance in the East, the allies finally drove the German army from Italy and also successfully opened a second front through Operation Overlord. Despite concerns about high casualty rates, the landing of 130,000 allied troops from 6,500 vessels on five Normandy beaches proved hugely successful. The Germans were taken by surprise and 12,000 covering allied aircraft made it difficult for them to make an adequate defence. Although the progress towards Paris was costly and slow, the liberation of the French capital marked a decisive turning point in the war and by September, the allies had pushed the Germans back as far as Antwerp. In October, the Grand Alliance met to plan for beyond conflict in Europe, with Stalin committing Soviet troops to the defeat of Japan after the Nazis were defeated and discussions over Polish borders revealing underlying tension amongst the war-time allies.

Key dates include:

January 1944 – The allies land at Anzio

May 1944 – The German Army retreats from Anzio

5th June 1944 - Rome is liberated

6th June 1944 - Operation Overlord (The D-Day Landings) begins

August 1944 – Paris is liberated

9th October 1944 – The 2nd Moscow Conference

16th December 1944 – The Battle of the Bulge

1945

It was in 1945 that the true horror of the Holocaust began to be uncovered, as allied troops began to liberate Nazi concentration camps whilst German troops were pushed back across Europe. The images and video reels taken at places like Auschwitz and Belsen shocked the world and convinced many of the necessity of the war’s sacrifices. Soviet and British troops both encroached on Berlin from the East and West respectively, with the British crossing into Germany in March and the Soviets entering the capital first in April. By this point, Hitler had retreated to an underground bunker and within a few days of the Soviets’ arrival, he had committed suicide. Other Nazi leaders followed suit or were captured by the advancing allies and victory in Europe was proclaimed the day after German surrender, with May 8th becoming known as VE Day. The tide had also turned against the Japanese in Burma, with the British winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Mandalay earlier in the year. However, it still took the deployment of two atomic bombs to force Japanese surrender and avoid the need for a ground war on Japanese territory. Although this removed the need for the Soviets to sacrifice more troops in Asia, it was interpreted as a veiled threat by the Soviets, who were not fully informed of US plans. The simmering tension within the Grand Alliance now threatened to erupt and relations at Yalta and Potsdam were strained, revealing very different and incompatible visions of the post-war world.

Key dates include:

January 1945 – The liberation of Auschwitz

4th February 1945 – The Yalta Conference begins

13th February 1945 - The bombing of Dresden

February – March 1945 – The Battle of Mandalay

7th March 1945 – The Rhine crossings begin

15th April 1945 – The liberation of Belsen

21st April 1945 – Soviet troops enter Berlin

30th April 1945 – Hitler commits suicide

8th May 1945 – VE Day

17th July 1945 – The Potsdam Conference begins

6th & 9th August 1945 – The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

15th August 1945 – VJ Day