The Second World War began in Europe in September 1939 as a conflict between Nazi Germany and the European democracies. With the entry of Japan and America into the war in December 1941, the fighting spread throughout the world. By the end of the war in 1945, tens of millions of soldiers and civilians were dead and a new age of nuclear power began.

  

A Gathering Storm

The Treaty of Versailles which formally ended the First World War imposed punitive sanctions on Germany: a loss of territory, restriction of armed forces and war reparations to be paid to the victors.

In the 1930’s as a result of economic depression and grievance with the treaty, the German people turned to the popularism of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Vowing to make Germany great again, the Nazis began dismantling the treaty.

Encouraged by the western democracies’ policy of appeasement, Nazi Germany began to re-arm and forcibly annex neighbouring territory, which would ultimately lead to conflict with Poland and Germany’s old adversaries Britain and France.

© IWM (HU 104480) A Hurricane pilot discusses his flight with the intelligence officer after 'returning from aerial combat', 17 October 1940.

Outbreak of War

The Second World War in Europe began on 1 September 1939 when German forces invaded neighbouring Poland. On 3 September, Britain issued an ultimatum to Germany insisting they withdraw. The ultimatum went unanswered and that day Britain and France declared war. The Dominions: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa would declare war in their own right shortly after.

On 17 September, as a result of a secret pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, while in the west a new British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed to France. There followed a period of relative inaction on land, which became known as the ‘Phoney War’. At sea the Royal Navy strove to counter the threat posed by the U-boats of the German Kriegsmarine.

In April 1940, the German Blitzkrieg (lighting war) swept across northern and then western Europe. Within a few months most of the continent was under Nazi domination. Most of Britain’s army survived following the evacuation from Dunkirk, but was soon faced by a new enemy when fascist Italy declared war in June.

With British victory in the skies above England during the Battle of Britain, the possibility of a German invasion was forestalled and the war turned to the Mediterranean and Africa. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Britain gained a new ally in the war against Nazi Germany.

A War on Two Fronts

In December 1941, Japanese forces launched a devastating surprise attack on American, British, Commonwealth and Dutch colonies throughout South East Asia. Allied forces were quickly overwhelmed and the Commonwealth garrisons in Borneo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma were overrun. By May 1942, tens of thousands of Allied servicemen had been taken prisoner with Japanese forces sweeping across Southeast Asia to the borders of India and the island of Papua and New Guinea.

Following the Allied victories at El Alamein in North Africa and at Stalingrad on the Eastern Front in 1942- 1943, Commonwealth forces, now supported by American troops, drove the Axis forces from Africa and invaded Italy in July 1943. In June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne operation in history, beginning the liberation of France. Allied forces battled their way through Belgium, Holland and finally, across the river Rhine into Germany.

In the East while American, Australian and New Zealand forces battled to drive the Japanese from the islands of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, British and Indian Army troops fought to defend India from a Japanese invasion. After the victories at Imphal and Kohima, British and Indian Army forces went on the offensive, driving Japanese forces from Burma by the end of July 1945.

Aftermath

The war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, following the invasion of Germany by Soviet forces in the east and British and American forces from the west. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the war-torn ruins of the German capital. A few days later on 8 May, German forces formally surrendered to the Allies. As the Allied nations were celebrating victory in Europe, in the east the war against Japan continued. In August 1945, American bombers dropped atomic bombs of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compelling Japan to surrender on 15 August.

Cemeteries & Memorials

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Imperial War Graves Commission had only just finished the work of building cemeteries and memorials to commemorate the fallen of the previous war. New cemeteries had to be built on old battlefields while lists of the missing were again compiled. New memorials were erected to ensure that all Commonwealth servicemen and women would not be forgotten.

Today, the Commission commemorates some 581,000 servicemen and women of the Second World War in cemeteries and memorials across the globe.