The Eastern Front is best known for the multi-year Siege of Leningrad and the bloody Battle of Stalingrad, but it was also the site of the largest armored confrontation of all time. The campaign began when the Germans set their sights on a mile-long salient, or bulge, in the Soviet lines in western Russia. When the German offensive finally commenced, they were met by a storm of mines and artillery fire that eventually destroyed hundreds of tanks and left a total of some , men dead on both sides. Unable to match the Soviets in a contest of attrition, the Germans reluctantly withdrew from the region on July The retreat marked the last gasp of Nazi offensive operations in the East.
The struggle for the Eastern Front was bigger and costlier than the fighting in the West, but it was also significantly more brutal. Both sides flouted international law and practiced institutionalized acts of cruelty against enemy troops, prisoners and civilians.
The Germans wiped out scores of villages during their advance through Russia, and Jews and other minorities were regularly rounded up and shot or poisoned in mobile gassing vans. Other cities were looted or starved into submission, most famously Leningrad, where as many as one million civilians may have perished during a month siege. The Red Army responded by giving no quarter during the Soviet push to Berlin in , when hundred of thousands of German civilians were shot, burned alive in buildings, crushed by tanks and even crucified.
According to some studies, Soviet troops may have also been responsible for the rape of some two million German women during the last days of the war. Most were used as slave labor in copper or coal mines, and anywhere between , and one million eventually died while in Russian custody.
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But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! Twice a week we compile our most fascinating features and deliver them straight to you. This Day In History. Joseph Stalin disregarded early warnings of the German attack. Most people believed Germany would quickly crush the Soviet Union. Extreme weather conditions played a crucial role in the Soviet victory.
Russian women served in front line combat roles. Stalin ordered Soviet forces to fight to the last man.
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It included the largest tank battle in military history. Without a centralized Chinese army, the Japanese quickly defeated isolated Chinese warlords and by the end of February , all of Manchuria was firmly under Japanese control. Japan established the nation of Manchukuo out of the former province of Manchuria. This seemingly small skirmish—known by the Chinese as the September 18 Incident and the Japanese as the Manchurian Incident—sparked a war that would last thirteen years and claim the lives of over thirty-five million people.
Despite their rapid advance into Manchuria, the Japanese put off the invasion of China for nearly three years. Japan occupied a precarious domestic and international position after the September 18 Incident. At home, Japan was riven by political factionalism due to its stagnating economy.
Leaders were torn as to whether to address modernization and lack of natural resources through unilateral expansion the conquest of resource-rich areas such as Manchuria to export raw materials to domestic Japanese industrial bases such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki or international cooperation a philosophy of pan-Asianism in an anti-Western coalition that would push the colonial powers out of Asia. Ultimately, after a series of political crises and assassinations enflamed tensions, pro-war elements within the Japanese military triumphed over the more moderate civilian government.
Japan committed itself to aggressive military expansion. The United States supported the Chinese protest, proclaiming the Stimson Doctrine in January , which refused to recognize any state established as a result of Japanese aggression. After a six-month investigation, Bulwer-Lytton found the Japanese guilty of inciting the September 18 incident and demanded the return of Manchuria to China. The Japanese withdrew from the League of Nations in March Japan isolated itself from the world.
Its diplomatic isolation empowered radical military leaders who could point to Japanese military success in Manchuria and compare it to the diplomatic failures of the civilian government. The military took over Japanese policy. The Japanese launched a full-scale invasion of China. Between , and , people were killed, and tens of thousands of women were raped, when the Japanese besieged and then sacked Nanjing.
The Western press labeled it the Rape of Nanjing. Americans read about the brutal fighting in China, but the United States lacked both the will and the military power to oppose the Japanese invasion.
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After the gut-wrenching carnage of World War I, many Americans retreated toward isolationism by opposing any involvement in the conflagrations burning in Europe and Asia. And even if Americans wished to intervene, their military was lacking. The Japanese army was a technologically advanced force consisting of 4,, men and , Chinese collaborators—and that was in China alone. The Japanese military was armed with modern rifles, artillery, armor, and aircraft.
By , the Japanese navy was the third-largest and among the most technologically advanced in the world. Still, Chinese Nationalists lobbied Washington for aid. Born into a wealthy Chinese merchant family in , Madame Chiang spent much of her childhood in the United States and graduated from Wellesley College in with a major in English literature.
In contrast to her gruff husband, Madame Chiang was charming and able to use her knowledge of American culture and values to garner support for her husband and his government. But while the United States denounced Japanese aggression, it took no action. As Chinese Nationalists fought for survival, the Communist Party was busy collecting people and supplies in the northwestern Shaanxi Province. China had been at war with itself when the Japanese came. Nationalists battled a stubborn communist insurgency.
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In the Nationalists threw the communists out of the fertile Chinese coast, but an ambitious young commander named Mao Zedong recognized the power of the Chinese peasant population. In Shaanxi, Mao recruited from the local peasantry, building his force from a meager seven thousand survivors at the end of the Long March in to a robust 1.
Although Japan had conquered much of the country, the Nationalists regrouped and the communists rearmed. The Chinese could not dislodge the Japanese, but they could stall their advance. The war mired in stalemate. Championing German racial supremacy, fascist government, and military expansionism, Hitler rose to power and, after aborted attempts to take power in Germany, became chancellor in and the Nazis conquered German institutions. Democratic traditions were smashed. Leftist groups were purged. Hitler repudiated the punitive damages and strict military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles.
He rebuilt the German military and navy.
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He reoccupied regions lost during the war and remilitarized the Rhineland, along the border with France. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in , Hitler and Benito Mussolini—the fascist Italian leader who had risen to power in the s—intervened for the Spanish fascists, toppling the communist Spanish Republican Party. Britain and France stood by warily and began to rebuild their militaries, anxious in the face of a renewed Germany but still unwilling to draw Europe into another bloody war.
The Untermenschen lesser humans would have to go. Once in power, Hitler worked toward the twin goals of unification and expansion. The massive Nuremberg rallies, such as this one in , instilled a fierce loyalty to or fearful silence about Hitler and the National Socialist Party in Germany. In , Germany annexed Austria and set its sights on the Sudetenland, a large, ethnically German area of Czechoslovakia. They thought that Hitler could be appeased, but it became clear that his ambitions would continue pushing German expansion. In March , Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia and began to make demands on Poland.
Britain and France promised war. And war came. Hitler signed a secret agreement—the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—with the Soviet Union that coordinated the splitting of Poland between the two powers and promised nonaggression thereafter. Britain and France declared war two days later and mobilized their armies. Britain and France hoped that the Poles could hold out for three to four months, enough time for the Allies to intervene.
Poland fell in three weeks. The German army, anxious to avoid the rigid, grinding war of attrition that took so many millions in the stalemate of World War I, built their new modern army for speed and maneuverability.
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It was called Blitzkrieg , or lightning war. After the fall of Poland, France and its British allies braced for an inevitable German attack. Throughout the winter of —, however, fighting was mostly confined to smaller fronts in Norway. Belligerents called it the Sitzkrieg sitting war. But in May , Hitler launched his attack into Western Europe. Poland had fallen in three weeks; France lasted only a few weeks more.
By June, Hitler was posing for photographs in front of the Eiffel Tower. Germany split France in half.