A timeline of WWII, one of the most devastating conflicts in world history
Dec. 7, 2020, marks the 79th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a catastrophic surprise attack by Japan on a U.S. naval base on Oahu that killed 2,403 U.S. personnel. In honor of that somber anniversary, Stacker compiled facts about that attack along with 19 other major events that occurred from the time German aggression began to the final devastating phase of World War II.
The second World War has been chronicled, mythologized, and revered in film, television, theater, and other forms of storytelling for generations. But zooming in on individual stories, lives, and battles can sometimes obscure the utterly overwhelming nature of the war: An astounding 60 million people around the world are estimated to have lost their lives in the conflict. The total number of casualties counts 15 million soldiers and 45 million civilians. This may be a low estimate, as estimates place the number of dead in the conflict at 50 million in China alone.
It is widely accepted that Germany started World War II in its effort to conquer Europe, invading France in the west and Poland and the Soviet Union in the east. Led by Adolf Hitler’s murderous Nazi regime, the Germans welcomed Italy and Japan into the Axis fold to fight the Allies, whose major members grew from just the United Kingdom and France at the war’s outset to include the United States and the Soviet Union.
While the Germans quickly overran France and installed a collaborationist government, a major French resistance sprung up and actively worked to undermine the Nazis in France and abroad, providing intelligence to the Allies as spies sabotaged German supply and communication lines within France.
No accounting of World War II would be complete without inclusion of the Nazis' brutal concentration camps, where Hitler turned his genocidal fantasies of creating a so-called German “master race” by killing millions of Jews, gypsies, and other persecuted groups into a reality.
By the time Europe’s second world war in a half-century came to a close in 1945, the victorious powers committed to a new world organization that aimed to ensure there would never be a third. The United Nations was born from this commitment, along with the popularization of the idea that crimes against humanity and genocide must never be tolerated, however shakily these ideals have been upheld.
Related: 100 years of military history
September 1939: Germany conquers Poland
In September 1939, German tanks roll through Poland in a lightning-fast offensive that bombs and destroys much of the country’s landscape and infrastructure. The invasion prompts the United Kingdom and France to declare war on Germany.
January 1940: Rationing in Great Britain
In anticipation of Germany’s likely attempt to cut Great Britain off from its overseas food and goods supply, Great Britain introduces rationing in January 1940. Each household receives a ration book that dictates how much they can buy. Before the war, Britain imported 55 million tons of food per month—a month after the war begins, the figure plummets to 12 million.
Spring 1940: German blitzkrieg
In the span of two months in the spring of 1940, the Germans conquer an astonishing number of countries thanks to their blitzkrieg tactics of fast-moving tanks and relentless aerial bombardment. Hitler’s troops overwhelm the armies of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Norway in the months of April and May alone.
May-June 1940: Battle of Dunkirk
British troops delay the German advance, but they can’t stop it, holding out in Dunkirk, a port city in Northern France. Using hundreds of naval and civilian vessels to cross the English Channel, the Allies, including the British Expeditionary Force and a smattering of Polish and French forces, retreat from Dunkirk to England as German forces close in.
Summer 1940: Battle of Britain
The Nazis are finally stopped in their relentless drive to conquer Europe in the Battle of Britain that lasted from July through October of 1940. From July through September, the British hold off an intense bombardment from the fearsome German Air Force, which prevents a German attempt to invade the British Isles, and allows the nation to serve as a holdout for Allied hopes.
September 1940: The Blitz
Although they fail in the Battle of Britain, that doesn’t stop the German Air Force—called the Luftwaffe—from trying to undermine the British. In September 1940, this takes the form of nighttime bombing raids on the city of London, which continue for 56 of the next 57 days. The bombings persist until May 1941.
June 1941: Operation Barbarossa
Operation Barbarossa was the German Army’s code name for its planned invasion of the Soviet Union. But things don’t go exactly according to plan. When Germany fails to subjugate the Soviets, they find themselves fighting a dreaded two-front war for the first time, defending territory in both Europe’s east and the west, while getting sucked into Italy’s war in North Africa.
December 1941: Pearl Harbor
When Axis power Japan bombs Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the United States officially joins World War II, declaring war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. The sneak attack on America’s Pacific fleet kills more than 2,400 Americans and leaves another 1,000 wounded.
February 1942: Singapore falls to Japan
Axis power Japan conquers the lightly defended British colony of Singapore on Feb. 15, 1942. A major Axis victory, Singapore surrenders to the Japan general in charge of the campaign in front of Japanese news cameras. Winston Churchill famously calls the fall of Singapore "the worst disaster and the greatest capitulation in British history." In total, 130,000 allies are taken as prisoners and kept on starvation rations while being forced into labor camps, most notably the Thai-Burma Railway.
June 1942: Battle of Midway
The decisive point in the Pacific campaign comes just six months after Pearl Harbor, when the Americans defeat the Japanese Navy at Midway. Thanks to major advances in code breaking, the U.S. forces know the Japanese plan ahead of time, debilitate Japan’s naval forces in this crucial battle, and momentum in the Pacific now swings to the Allies.