- See also: European history
World War II had two main theatres: while the Pacific War took place in Asia and Oceania, the European theatre, which included North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, saw combat from September 1939 to May 1945. The war was by far the most destructive conflict in European history in terms of loss of human lives as well as historic architecture.
|“||We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.||”|
—UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940
The war in Europe began on September 1, 1939, as Germany invaded Poland, and the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany two days later, as they had declared in advance that they would consider an attack on Poland to be a casus belli. The countries of the British Empire also declared war.
From September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, which was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. While the Soviets failed to defeat Finland in the Winter War, the western front was brought to a deadlock called the phony war. Then in spring 1940, Germany swiftly captured Denmark, Norway, the Benelux and France using tactics they called blitzkrieg (lightning war), mainly fast-moving tanks with strong air support. A mainly British force in France were almost trapped there but managed to escape via Dunkirk. France surrendered; part of it was occupied and the rest put under a pro-German puppet government whose capital was Vichy.
For the next year, there was no fighting on the ground in Europe, but the Battle of Britain went on in the air. The Battle of the Atlantic at sea continued until 1945.
In mid-1940, Italy joined the war on the German side and there were soon a series of engagements between Italian forces based in their colony of Libya and Commonwealth forces based in Egypt. Toward the end of 1940 the Germans joined in, and fighting in North Africa continued until 1943.
The most destructive campaign in Europe was the Eastern Front, where the Axis attacked the Soviet Union, starting with a sneak attack in June 1941. The Axis also grabbed most of the Balkans plus Greece at around the same time. The Soviet Army retreated to Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg), Moscow and Stalingrad (today's Volgograd). Both sides lost millions of soldiers in a stalemate which lasted until spring 1943, when the Soviets counter-attacked. The largest tank battle in history was fought around Kursk, west of Moscow, in July 1943; it ended with a costly Soviet victory. From then on, the Soviets had the initiative, though the battles continued to be protracted and bloody. The Soviet Union ended up occupying the eastern half of Europe including Berlin and much of Germany.
The Americans stayed out of the war, though they did assist Britain in several ways, until they were attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Once they were in, though, they made large contributions both in the European theater and in the Pacific War.
Late in 1942, the Allies mounted seaborne invasions of both Morocco and Tunisia, and by early 1943 both Italians and Germans were driven out of North Africa. Then in mid-1943 the Allies invaded first Sicily and then the mainland of Italy. This invasion led to the toppling of Mussolini and his imprisonment, but he was freed by a Nazi-German commando raid and put in charge of a puppet state in Northern Italy, fighting on the Axis side until 1945.
Despite urgent Russian pleas for a "second front now", there was no ground fighting, except a few commando raids, in northwestern Europe from mid-1940 to mid-1944. The Western Allies did bomb Germany extensively, though, dividing the labour with the USAF attacking by day and Commonwealth air forces at night. Then in June 1944 they made the largest seaborne invasion in history, landing in the French province of Normandy; see D-Day beaches.
The war ended with the unconditional surrender of the Nazis on either May 7 or May 9 of 1945, which is usually celebrated as May 8 in Western countries and May 9 in the former Soviet Union.
Subsequently, some German political and military leaders were indicted for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials; many got prison sentences and some were executed. However, some high ranking Nazis had gotten away during the last days of the war or successfully hid from the Allies while others committed suicide, including Hitler himself, Himmler and Göring. Other Nazis were acquitted, sentenced to prison terms or never put on trial in the first place, and some war criminals got only nominal sentences. Some former Nazis later had successful careers in the German military, government, civil service or courts.
During the war, Nazi Germany and other Axis nations conducted a campaign of internment, forced labour, inhuman types of experimentation on captive human subjects that usually ended in their murder, and outright mass murders, today known as the Holocaust. Concentration camps and other remnants from these crimes against humanity are described in the article about Holocaust remembrance.
In the following decades, Europe was divided between two power blocs in a latent conflict known as the Cold War, which ended through the East European revolutions in the late 1980's and early 90's.
There are minor monuments, and exhibits in local museums, all over Europe and North Africa; those may be well worth looking for. This section makes no claim to being comprehensive; we just try to list some of the more important ones.
- 1 World War II Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial, Neupré (Highway N-63 from Liège to Marche passes the entrance to the Memorial about 19 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Liège). Open daily except December 25 and January 1; 9AM to 5PM.. This memorial commemorates the American soldiers who died in Northern Europe during WWII. The chapel contains maps and relief sculptures depicting the campaigns in the region. Free.
- 2 World War II Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, Rue du Mémorial Améreicain, Henri-Chapelle. Open daily except for December 25 and January 1; 9AM to 5PM. The cemetery is the final resting place for 7,992 American military dead lost during the drive into Germany, many in the Battle of the Bulge. A monument is inscribed with the names of 450 Americans whose remains were never found or identified. A museum and a chapel are located on the grounds. Free..
With the emerging danger of Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia built a system of border fortification between 1935 to 1938. As a result of 1938 Munich treaty, the army gave up the resistance efforts and abandoned the defense line. The fortification system is mostly well preserved and can be toured in several locations.
- 1 Hanička artillery fortress (Tvrz Hanička) (It is not possible to arrive to the museum by car, parking is at 50.187135 N, 16.509408 E. From the parking lot take the marked tourist route (red) in the direction Anenský vrch, an approximate walking distance between the parking and the fortress is 20-30 min.), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. In 1970's, Hanička was intended to be rebuilt into a nuclear bunker and the construction works lasted until 1993, but they were never completed. You can take a guided tour through some of the objects. The Educational Trail "Fortification of Rokytnice and surroundings" runs through the museum area and provides information about the fortifications and their history in Czech, Polish and English. 80 Kč (reduced 40 Kč).
Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1945, with Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia being established at approximately the area of today's Czech republic. The center for Czechoslovak resistance was the government-in-exile in London. They decided to attack Reinhard Heydrich, the acting Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. British-trained Czech soldiers Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík lead the operation. Heydrich was wounded during the assassination on 27 May 1942 and died on 4 June in hospital. The act was followed by a brutal retaliation, during which two entire villages Lidice northwest of Prague and Ležáky in East Bohemia were completely destroyed by German forces. Inhabitants were massacred; men were shot, women taken to concentration camps or killed and children gassed or given over to German families for Germanization. The memorials of the civilian victims tell the story of these war crimes.
- 2 Lidice memorial, Tokajická 152, 273 54 Lidice, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Nov-Feb daily 09:00-16:00, Mar daily 09:00-17:00, Apr-Oct daily 09:00-18:00. Commemoration on the annihilation of village Lidice by Nazis on 9 June 1942, as a retaliation for the assassination of the acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. 80 Kč (reduced 40 Kč).
- 3 Ležáky memorial, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Nov-Mar Mo-Fr 09:00-16:00, Apr-Oct Tu-Su 09:00-17:00, otherwise upon agreement. A memorial to a massacre of a small Czech village by Nazi troops on 24 June 1942, as a retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. 30 Kč (reduced 20 Kč).
- 4 D-Day beaches (Normandy). D-Day was June 6, 1944, the date of a massive Allied amphibious landing on the beaches of Normandy, also called Operation Overlord. It can be seen as the decisive point of no return for the war, though by that point the war was already lost for the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and in the West they had already lost North Africa and Italy. The massive German defenses were no match for the superior planning, manpower and technology of the Allies and less than a year later Germany surrendered. The article covers not only the invasion itself but also the whole campaign in Normandy which lasted into August.
- 5 Dieppe. A coastal town that was the target of a large — over 6,000 men, mostly Canadian — commando raid in 1942.
- 6 Dunkirk. A coastal French town in the Pas de Calais region. As the Germans overran France in 1940 a large Allied force, mostly British but including Canadian, Belgian and French troops, were surrounded in the Dunkirk region. Over 300,000 men were evacuated to Britain, many by volunteers using everything from fishing boats to pleasure craft, despite strenuous German efforts to prevent evacuation. There is a monument in the main cemetery of the town for 4,000 Commonwealth troops who fell in the battle but have no known grave.
- 7 Oradour-sur-Glane. A French village razed and burned by the Nazis, with its civilian population murdered, to avenge the resistance. Now a ghost town.
- 8 Saint-Nazaire. This coastal town has the only dry dock on the French Atlantic coast large enough for battleships. The British destroyed it in 1942 by ramming it with an old destroyer packed full of explosives.
As Hitler fought the war to the bitter end (fighting on, long after any chance at military victory was gone) and military innovations (notably bomber airplanes) made this war far more destructive than the one before it, especially for Germany, hardly any place important during the Nazi era was left untouched by the war.
- Several old towns were severely bombed and in some places there are still monuments reminding of that as well as "mountains" made up of debris.
- 9 Berlin. The capital of Germany, captured by the Red Army in April, 1945. There is the Topographie des Terrors that explains which Nazi office sat where and played which role in the war and criminal machinery.
- 10 Heligoland. This island still sees the scars of one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions to date. This happened shortly after the war: The British tried to blow up the island, which was used as a military installation during the war. Several other East Frisian islands and North Frisian islands were also used militarily by the Nazis.
- 11 Nuremberg. Known for The Nazi party rallies. After the war, the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders here. The rallying grounds (now thankfully sans swastikas) have been turned into a museum.
- 12 Peenemünde. The site where Wernher von Braun (later an important figure at NASA) and his scientists developed and constructed the first V2 (Agregat 4) rockets (one of them is on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich) to be shot at London and later Antwerp.
- In the waning years of the war many "war important" industries were relocated underground. One of the most infamous is the forced labor camp Dora Mittelbau near Nordhausen where the V2 rockets were built. The site has been turned into a museum that show the horrific conditions (more people died in constructing the rockets than in their actual use).
- 3 Anzio Beachhead Museum (Museo dello Sbarco di Anzio), Via di Villa Adele, 2 Anzio (in the 17th-century Villa Adele, on Via di Villa Adele, just downhill from the railway station.), ☎ . Tues, Thurs, Sa 10.30-12.30 and 16.00-18.00 (17.00-19.00 in summer). In the same building is the Archaeological Museum. Free.
- 4 Monte Cassino War Graves (follow signs when approaching Cassino from the Rome - Napoli Autostrada). The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery is a beautifully maintained area with magnificent views of the Monte Cassino monastery. The French and Italian cemeteries are on Highway 6 in the Liri Valley. There is a very striking Polish cemetery close to the battlefield and easily visible from the monastery. The German cemetery is approximately 2 miles (3 km) north of Cassino in the Rapido Valley. American casualties are not buried here but at Nettuno-Anzio.
- Rotterdam was bombed by the Nazis even after the surrender of the Dutch government.
Poland saw a disproportionally high number of civilian deaths mainly because it was invaded by both the Soviets and the Nazis in the early stage of the war with both trying to "remodel" their part of the country according to their wishes, which in practice meant killing members of all groups that could potentially resist the occupation such as intellectuals, politicians and high ranking military. As Poland had a big and thriving Jewish community it was also hit particularly hard by the Shoah, with Poles both aiding the Nazis and helping Jews escape. See Holocaust remembrance#Poland.
- 13 Gdansk. The war began with a dispute over Gdansk (German name: Danzig), that was deliberately escalated by Hitler. Gdánsk was at the time a "free city", independent of both Poland and Germany, and had many German-speaking residents, but the proposed construction of an autobahn from Germany to Gdansk/Danzig would have clearly encroached upon sovereign Polish territory. Poland was an ally of the United Kingdom, seat of a mighty empire, and this alliance would bring the British Commonwealth nations to war. Gdansk is now part of Poland and was the birthplace of the Solidarność trade union movement during the Cold War.
- 14 The Wolf's Lair (German: Wolfsschanze) near Kętrzyn (German: Rastenburg) was the Nazi military headquarters where Hitler resided during most of World War II. It was here that the failed attempt to kill Hitler took place on July 20, 1944.
Russia bore the brunt of the fighting and had the most dead (both civilian and military) in the war's European theatre as the Nazis led the war as one of extermination on the Eastern Front. POWs of both sides were mistreated horribly on the Eastern Front and sometimes the surviving Soviet POWs were regarded as "traitors", as having survived the inhumane conditions without "treason" was deemed impossible. And in truth, a large number of Soviet prisoners, especially those from Ukraine the Baltic States and Byelorussia, did indeed jump at the chance to collaborate with the Nazis, for several reasons, including as a way of avoiding the high probability of death as Soviet POWs, hostility to the Soviet Union, and virulent Antisemitism, as many of the SS "volunteers" among the Soviet POWs and other residents of the aforementioned republics were used to shoot Jews and serve as guards in extermination camps.
- 15 Volgograd. This city, named Stalingrad during the war, was probably the most horrible battlefield in the European theatre. It was then, as it is now, an important transport hub and regional center. The almost utter annihilation of the German forces in the area meant the definitive turning point on the eastern front. Both in Russia and in Germany the battle is shrouded in myth and in recent years local authorities even "rename" the city to Stalingrad for the anniversary of the battle.
- 16 Saint Petersburg. One of the most beautiful cities in Russia, and better known as the seat of power of the Tsars in imperial times. During the war, the city was known as Leningrad, and was site of the Siege of Leningrad (8 September 1941–27 January 1944), which was one of the longest sieges in history, resulting in countless deaths, both civilian and military. Though the Soviets eventually succeeded in driving the Germans back, many historical artefacts were looted or destroyed by the Germans as they retreated.
- Road of Life (Доро́га жи́зни Doroga zhizni). This route, crossing Lake Ladoga on an ice road, was the only lifeline of the residents of Leningrad/St Petersburg trapped in their city during the Siege of Leningrad. Continuing east from the city past Vsevolozhsk, it arrived in the village of Kokkorevo on the western side of Lake Ladoga. Here, the ice road began on the southern arm of the lake. The ice was thick enough as to allow even mass transit of supplies, but the high winds that blew out of the open vastness of the lake (the largest in Europe) were a problem. A driver testified "we would drive with the door open, ready to jump...we lost some trucks". The ice road made its landfall in the village of Kobona on the eastern coast of the lake and continued on to the Voibokalo train station before connecting with the national rail network there. Along the entire length of the Road of Life on solid ground, as well as other nearby areas, numerous monuments commemorate the route, including the 17 Broken Circle (Разорванное кольцо Razorvannoe kol'tso) on the 40th kilometre of the road, right on the bank of the lake near Kokkorevo.
- 18 Livadia Palace (Crimea). The summer retreat of the Tsars, in Yalta, this is where the famous Yalta Conference took place from February 4 to 11, 1945 in which Russian leader Joseph Stalin, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss how they wanted to rebuild and reform Europe after the war. Roosevelt stayed in the palace during the conference period.
Despite Sweden being neutral throughout the war both there and in Norway and Denmark that were occupied by the Nazis, a number of bunkers still exist. Most of them were built after the Nazis took over Norway and many never saw a shot fired in anger, but their presence even in remote areas is somewhat eerie.
Finland, on the other hand, was directly involved in the Second World War fighting two wars against the Soviet Union and one to expel the German troops from Lapland towards the end of the war. In places like Kymenlaakso and North Karelia you can still see fortifications and bunkers. More can be seen on the Karelian Isthmus and other regions which were part of Finland before WW2.
- 19 Occupation Museum (Besættelsesmuseet) (Aarhus, Denmark). A small museum telling the story of local life under German occupation, located in the old town hall which was used by the Gestapo during the occupation.
- 20 Rjukan (Telemark, Norway). A hydroelectric power plant where the Germans tried to extract heavy water for their nuclear program. A British-Norwegian commando team managed to destroy the facility.
- During the first years of the war, cities like London and Coventry were heavily bombed though unlike the French and Dutch, the British were successful in repelling the Germans and avoided occupation during the war. In the waning moments of the war the Nazis shot V1 (a crude version of a cruise missile) and V2 (the first ballistic missile ever to be used in war) on London in a last ditch effort to turn the tide of a lost war, but missed more often than actually hitting anything.
- 5 The Tank Museum, Bovington, ☎ . One of the world's largest museums covering tanks and armoured vehicles. The museum also conducts a Tanks in Action display with explosions and a mock battle.
- Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes. Central site of the British project codenamed "Ultra" which broke many German and Italian codes throughout the war and, along with the American "Magic" penetration of Japanese codes, provided much critical intelligence to Allied commanders.
- Churchill War Rooms, London, ☎ . 9:30AM-6PM daily. Location of a secret government bunker used during the war, only about 150m from Number 10 Downing Street, which provided a meeting place for military and government officials.