How deadly the Royal Navy was during World War II
Prisoners of war after the Battle of Stalingrad, 1943
Far more than in the First World War, the conduct and course of the war in the Second World War were determined by the use of highly developed war techniques. The extensive mobility of motor vehicles and tanks gave the fighting a pronounced movement character. The German campaigns at the beginning of the war were based on the concept of the attack-like "Blitzkrieg" developed by the Wehrmacht. In view of the inadequate resources for a long trench warfare, the enemy should be defeated within a very short time by massive deployment of the army and air force in huge encircling battles. Above all, the area bombing by the air forces caused enormous losses in the civilian population. The war was global in character from the start. Since September 1939 the Commonwealth members Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa as well as India were at war against Germany. While the German Empire was striving for a hegemonic superpower position in Europe, Japan, which was friendly with Germany, pursued similar goals in the Far East.
The course of the war in 1939
After fictitious border incidents, the German attack on Poland began on September 1, 1939. In two attack wedges, Army Groups North and South advanced concentrically towards Warsaw in a comprehensive pincer movement. With the concentrated strength of the technically well-equipped Wehrmacht, the Polish army was defeated until October 6th. The Wehrmacht waged the war in Poland with cruel severity from day one. Already on the advance German troops, but also special "Einsatzgruppen" of the police and the SS murdered a large number of Polish civilians and prisoners of war. The armed forces and paramilitary organizations used alleged partisan attacks, murders and acts of violence by Poles against German civilians as a pretext for these murders.
According to a secret additional protocol to the "Hitler-Stalin Pact", the Red Army marched into eastern Poland on September 17th. On September 28, Reich Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the German-Soviet border and friendship treaty in Moscow, which shifted the German sphere of interest eastwards to the Bug. About half of the Polish area occupied by the Wehrmacht was incorporated into the German Reich as the Reichsgaue "Danzig-West Prussia" and "Wartheland". "Rest of Poland", as the "General Government", was henceforth under the reign of terror of an occupation regime led by Hans Frank.
Two days after the attack on Poland began, France and Great Britain declared war on the German Reich. Overestimating the military strength of the Wehrmacht, however, they refrained from attacking. France was fully geared to its defensive tactics behind the Maginot Line, where during the "Seated War" from September 1939 to May 1940 over 20 divisions stood idle in bunkers. The governments in Paris and London relied entirely on the success of a comprehensive economic blockade against Germany. In the North Sea, the British Royal Navy was supposed to prevent neutral states from trading with Germany. In the first days of the war, however, the naval war primarily brought successes to the numerically inferior German navy.
The course of the war in 1940
The war spread to northern and western Europe in 1940. Independent of the British plan to occupy Norway in order to implement the economic blockade, the High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) has also been planning the occupation of Norway since the beginning of the war for reasons of armaments and military strategy. For fear of the Allies being trapped in Scandinavia and a front in the north of the Reich, the landing of seven German divisions along the Norwegian coast began on April 9th. The Wehrmacht was only a few hours ahead of the upcoming British action in Norway. To secure the supply connections and the Baltic Sea accesses, Denmark was occupied at the same time. While the Danish army surrendered almost without a fight in the face of the German military superiority, the six Norwegian divisions supported by British, French and Polish-exile associations put up bitter resistance for two months. In the fierce battle for Narvik, the German navy in particular suffered considerable losses.
Norway surrendered on June 10th only after the British and French units had been withdrawn due to the German offensive against France and the Benelux countries in early June 1940. The offensive of three army groups of the Wehrmacht against France took place on May 10th: In the north, Army Group B attacked the neutral Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in order to bind the allied forces advancing into the Benelux countries. The focus of the German offensive was with Army Group A in the central section of the front. After the advance through the Ardennes, German tank units reached the mouth of the Somme and the French Channel coast after ten days. Belgium surrendered on May 28th. The Netherlands had already declared their surrender on May 15 after German airborne companies and the bombing of Rotterdam.
On June 5, the second phase of the offensive began with the "Battle of France". The Wehrmacht advanced south and south-east in several directions. Army Group B reached the lower Seine on June 9th. Five days later, the German invasion of Paris took place without a fight after the French government had withdrawn to Bordeaux. German tank units advancing towards Switzerland enclosed the Maginot Line in Alsace-Lorraine from the west. At the same time, Army Group C managed to break into the defensive position from the east across the Upper Rhine, thereby encircling the bulk of the French army. The hopeless military situation forced the French government on June 17th to request a ceasefire. The ceasefire agreement, signed five days later in the forest of Compiègne, placed three-fifths of France with the most important industrial cities under German occupation. The unoccupied southern area was placed under the Vichy regime. In London, Charles de Gaulle formed the French government in exile.
After the unexpectedly quick German triumph over France, the German Empire seemed to have achieved hegemony over large parts of Europe. The German desire for expansion suffered a severe setback, however, when the planned invasion of Great Britain failed, the preparation for which the "Battle of Britain" began on August 13th. The German air force failed, however, because of the conquest of air superiority and the destruction of the English armaments industries. The invasion plan was abandoned at the end of the year after heavy losses.
The course of the war in 1941
For 1941, Hitler demanded the war against the Soviet Union, originally planned for autumn 1940, and the conquest of "Lebensraum in the east". Before that, however, at the request of Benito Mussolini, the German leadership was forced to rush to the aid of the Italian ally, who was under pressure in North Africa. In order not to leave the Mediterranean and the vulnerable southern European flank to the British sphere of action, the German Africa Corps landed in Tripoli in February. At the beginning of the Africa campaign, Italian and German troops led by Erwin Rommel advanced against superior British forces in eastern Libya. However, strong counter-attacks by the British threw Rommel's Africa Corps back to its original position by the end of the year.
Another secondary theater of war was opened in the spring by the Balkan campaign. After their attack on Greece at the end of October 1940, the Italian troops were also in dire straits in the Balkans by the British. To avert an Italian defeat and to secure the south-eastern flank during the planned "Russian campaign", the German attacks on Greece and Yugoslavia began on April 6th. The Yugoslav army surrendered unconditionally on April 17th. Four days later, the Greek army command surrendered after fighting, which was sometimes bitter; on April 27, the swastika flag waved over the Acropolis. The Greek mainland was completely occupied by mid-May. At the beginning of June, the Mediterranean island of Crete, used by the British as a retreat, was also in the hands of German paratroopers due to the Merkur airborne operation.
The plans then applied to the attack on the Soviet Union and the "smashing of Bolshevism". The German leadership was convinced that it would be able to defeat the Red Army, weakened by the bloody "purges" of Josef W. Stalin, within a few months. The initial military successes of the Wehrmacht after the offensive of June 22, 1941 seemed to confirm this view. The rapid advance of three German army groups and their allies on a line between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains was favored by the extremely offensive deployment of the Red Army directly behind the German-Soviet demarcation line.
The Soviet Air Force was almost completely eliminated after just a few days due to destruction on the ground. In the first few weeks, German armored wedges managed to defeat parts of the Red Army in massive tank battles. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fell into German captivity, which hardly any of them survived in improvised camps without adequate food.
In late summer, the Baltic states as well as large parts of the Ukraine and Belarus were occupied, which, with their huge agricultural areas, were supposed to ensure the food supply in the German Reich. The Germans were hailed above all by the Ukrainians as "liberators" from the "Stalinist yoke". In the conquered areas, however, the terror of "Einsatzgruppen" began immediately behind the front with the systematic murder of Jews, communist functionaries and other residents of the Soviet Union who had been defamed as "subhumans". Over time, therefore, a bitter partisan war arose against the German occupiers, who deported parts of the local population to forced labor in the German Reich.
Contrary to the advice of the leading military, Hitler tried to carry out the "fatal blow" against the Red Army on the wings. While Army Group South advanced towards Crimea to conquer the ore and industrial districts in the Donets Basin as well as Caucasian oil regions, Army Group North began to conquer the Baltic Sea bases and the 900-day siege of Leningrad, which killed hundreds of thousands of people trapped. Not until October 2nd did Hitler order the attack on Moscow. In no way equipped for the icy temperatures, the winter battle of 1941/42 ended in a catastrophe for the Wehrmacht. At the end of 1941, the German attack force was paralyzed. The Soviet counter-offensive started immediately.
The course of the war in 1942
The war, which was largely confined to Europe, expanded into a world war at the turn of 1941/42. Four days after the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on December 11, 1941, completely overestimating the military situation. The entry of the United States into the war with its superior armaments potential and the expected landing of the Americans in Europe put the campaign in the east under considerable time pressure.
In North Africa, the Germans had to initiate a large-scale retreat at the beginning of November. After a successful advance by the Africa Corps to Egypt in the first half of the year, their position in El-Alamein was overrun by the British on November 2nd. In the west of North Africa, the landing of allied forces in Morocco and Algeria opened on 7/8. November a second front. Germany responded by invading the unoccupied southern half of France in order to be able to counter a possible Allied invasion there.
In the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht was only able to prevent the collapse of the front until the spring of 1942 with enormous losses. For months, from January 1942, strong German units were trapped near Demyansk and Cholm. The Kesselschlacht near Kharkov and the conquest of Sevastopol initiated the great summer offensive of Army Group South to the Caucasian oil fields at the end of June. Due to a tactical retreat of the Red Army, the Army Group advanced as far as the Don, the Volga and deep into the Caucasus. The expansion of German power reached its peak in the late summer of 1942, before the turn of the war began. On November 22nd, the Soviets enclosed the German 6th Army in the Stalingrad pocket. An attempt at relief failed in December due to insufficient strength and catastrophic supplies. At the same time, the Wehrmacht units withdrew from the Caucasus.
The war hit Germany more and more frequently in the course of 1942. The massive air strikes by the British Royal Air Force were increasingly targeted against the civilian population in order to break their morale.
The course of the war in 1943
In 1943, the law of action passed to the Allies in all theaters of war. On February 18, two and a half weeks after the German surrender of Stalingrad, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared a "total war". However, even the mobilization of all forces at the front and at home could not cover up the increasing cracks in the "Fortress Europe" proclaimed by Hitler against Eastern Bolshevism and Western capitalism.
The Allied area bombing, which was initially concentrated on West German cities such as Cologne and Essen, has spread across Germany since the beginning of the year. American daytime attacks and the night operations of the British shaped the everyday life of the city dwellers to an ever greater extent. Despite the numerous evacuation measures ordered, the consequences of the air raids were devastating: the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 claimed over 30,000 lives.
On the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht fell completely on the defensive in 1943. Their strategy of "scorched earth" retreat or the senseless defense of unsustainable positions were only occasionally interrupted by smaller partial offensives. Even the last major German offensive "Citadel" with the largest tank battle of the war near Kursk got stuck in the deeply staggered enemy defense after only a few kilometers. In contrast, the Soviet summer offensive in 1943, which began immediately afterwards, in the southern sections of the front between the Sea of Azov and the Dnieper, broke deep into the German defensive positions. In early November, large parts of Ukraine, including Kiev, had been retaken by the Red Army. The winter offensive of 1943/44 also led the Soviets unstoppably westward.
In contrast to the Soviet Union, the German Reich had no significant reserves of people and material. Exhaustion, poor supplies and supply problems caused the combat strength of the German infantry to decline rapidly. In addition, strong Wehrmacht units had to be relocated from the east to Italy in order to stabilize the southern flank of Europe after the surrender of the last German-Italian African troops in May and the Allied landing on Sicily in July.
After war-weary Italy had deposed Mussolini as "Duce" in a coup d'état at the end of July 1943 and Germany declared war in October, the Wehrmacht had to oppose the Allied advance in Italy without the support of their former ally.
The course of the war in 1944
All fronts shifted in the direction of the German Reich in 1944. Under the pressure of the German defeats, Germany's allies fell away: Romania (August 25), Bulgaria (September 8), Finland (September 19). A withdrawal movement by the ally Hungary was prevented at the last moment. In 1944, the German population also increasingly doubted the "final victory" that the Nazi regime tirelessly propagated. The military situation could not be improved either by the V-missiles announced as "miracle weapons" or by the desperately called Volkssturm.
The increasingly obvious defeat also put anti-regime conspirators in the Wehrmacht under considerable time pressure if they did not want to lose all pledges for armistice negotiations after their planned attempt at overthrow. The failed assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944 not only exacerbated the domestic political terror by the Secret State Police (Gestapo); Hundreds of arrested and murdered officers could no longer be replaced by the Wehrmacht.
The Soviet spring offensive of 1944 at a width of 1,100 kilometers ended with the recapture of Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. The 1944 summer offensive began concentrically against Army Group Center, which lost 28 of its 40 divisions within four weeks. The Red Army advanced in the direction of East Prussia and the Vistula through a violent incursion into the German central front. At the beginning of August it came to a halt 25 kilometers from Warsaw. However, Stalin refused any help in the form of relief offensives or air support to the Warsaw Uprising, sparked by the Polish national underground army as the Soviets approached.
After advancing through Romania and Bulgaria, the Red Army was also in Yugoslavia and Hungary.However, at the end of the year the Germans were able to stabilize all sections of the front between East Prussia and the Carpathians for the last time.
In the west, 1.5 million Allied soldiers pushed inexorably towards Germany after the invasion of Normandy on June 6, due to an enormous air superiority - and supported by sabotage actions by the Resistance. After the liberation of France, the conquest of the Ruhr area failed in September due to the failed occupation of the Rhine bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen behind the German lines. Although Aachen was the first major German city to be captured by the Americans on October 21, the front breakthrough at the frontier failed. At the onset of winter, the Wehrmacht managed to stabilize the western front from the Swiss border to the Siegfried Line using all available reserves. With the Ardennes offensive in mid-December, the OKW tried again in vain to turn the course of the war in the west.
The course of the war in 1945
Despite urgent calls to hold out, the closed front lines did not hold out against the overwhelming force of the attackers for long. Although the Wehrmacht units showed hardly any signs of disintegration immediately before the looming defeat, their fighting strength was exhausted.
In the west, the Allies occupied the area on the left bank of the Rhine until March 5th. Starting from the bridgeheads at Remagen in the south and Wesel in the north, they then drove an encircling wedge around the Ruhr area. The Nero order issued by Hitler in view of the threat to the German "armory", which included the complete destruction of all industrial, transport and supply facilities, was undermined by the German commanders. On April 18, the 325,000 Wehrmacht soldiers trapped in the Ruhr basin capitulated. By mid-April, almost all of the north-western territories of the empire on the Wittenberge-Magdeburg-Leipzig-Nuremberg line had been conquered by the Allies. On April 25, the Americans and Soviets met in Torgau on the Elbe.
The propaganda image of the Bolsheviks and the cruelty of Soviet soldiers against German civilians triggered a mass exodus of the German population from the Red Army from East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia to the western Reich territory in the winter months of 1944/45, parallel to the Soviet advance in the east.
The winter offensive that began on the entire eastern front between Memel and Carpathian Mountains led the Soviets to the Oder and Neisse rivers within a few weeks. On April 16, the bitterly fought battle for Berlin began, which Hitler, in his madness, believed he could still win with a last contingent of Hitler Youth and poorly equipped Wehrmacht units. Only when soldiers of the Red Army fought their way a few hundred meters from the Reich Chancellery, which was defended by the French Waffen SS unit "Charlemagne", and the completely hopeless military situation became clear to the "Fuehrer", did Hitler commit suicide on the evening of April 30th.
In order to allow the greatest possible number of members of the Wehrmacht and fleeing civilians to enter the western territory of the Reich, Dönitz, who was appointed his successor, pursued a tactic of partial surrender to the western allies. In the headquarters of the British Commander-in-Chief Bernard L. Montgomery in the Lüneburg Heath, the surrender of the German troops in Denmark, northwest Germany and the Netherlands took place on May 4th. After massive pressure from the Allies, the unconditional surrender of all German armed forces by Colonel General Alfred Jodl took place three days later in Reims. May was repeated by the Chief of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, Wilhelm Keitel, at the Soviet headquarters in Berlin-Karlshorst.
Worldwide, more than 50 million soldiers and civilians fell victim to the Second World War, including over six million people murdered in the extermination and concentration camps (KZ). The German Reich lost an estimated 3.8 to 4 million German soldiers and 1.65 million civilians during the war. The Soviet Union mourned the greatest number of deaths with over 25 million people. Relative to the population, however, Poland had paid the highest blood toll: around 6 million Poles died, about 17 percent of the pre-war population.
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