The Invasion of Normandy
The Western Allies of World War II launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they assaulted Normandy, located on the northern coast of France, on June 6, 1944. They were able to establish a beachhead after a successful “D-Day,” the first day of the invasion.
Outline the events of the Invasion of Normandy
- The Normandy invasion began with overnight parachute and glider landings, massive air attacks, and naval bombardments.
- In the early morning, amphibious landings on five beaches code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah began. During the evening, the remaining elements of the airborne divisions landed.
- In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted a substantial military deception, code named Operation Bodyguard, that successfully misled the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings.
- The invasion was costly in terms of men for the Allies, but the defeat inflicted on the Germans was one of the largest of the war and led to the loss of the German position in most of France.
- D-Day: The landing operations on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, the first day of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II.
- Operation Overlord: The code name for the Invasion of Normandy, the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II.
The Western Allies of World War II launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they assaulted Normandy, located on the northern coast of France, on June 6, 1944. The invaders were able to establish a beachhead as part of Operation Overlord after a successful ” D-Day,” the first day of the invasion.
Allied land forces came from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Free France. In the weeks following the invasion, Polish forces and contingents from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and the Netherlands participated in the ground campaign; most also provided air and naval support alongside elements of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the Royal Norwegian Navy.
The Normandy invasion began with overnight parachute and glider landings, massive air attacks, and naval bombardments. In the early morning, amphibious landings on five beaches code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah began. During the evening the remaining elements of the airborne divisions landed. Land forces used on D-Day sailed from bases along the south coast of England, most importantly Portsmouth.
The Allies failed to reach their goals for the first day, but gained a tenuous foothold that they gradually expanded when they captured the port at Cherbourg on June 26 and the city of Caen on July 21. A failed counterattack by German forces on August 8 led to 50,000 soldiers of the 7th Army being trapped in the Falaise pocket. The Allies launched an invasion of southern France (code-named Operation Dragoon) on August 15, and the Liberation of Paris followed on August 25. German forces retreated across the Seine on August 30, 1944, marking the close of Operation Overlord.
D-Day: The Normandy Landings
The Normandy landings (code named Operation Neptune) on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, (termed D-Day) were the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front.
Planning for the operation began in 1943. In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted a substantial military deception, code named Operation Bodyguard, to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings. The weather on D-Day was far from ideal, but postponing would have meant a delay of at least two weeks as the invasion planners had requirements for the phase of the moon, the tides, and the time of day that meant only a few days in each month were suitable. Adolf Hitler placed German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in command of German forces and of developing fortifications along the Atlantic Wall in anticipation of an Allied invasion.
The amphibious landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault—the landing of 24,000 American, British, and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight. Allied infantry and armored divisions began landing on the coast of France at 06:30. The target 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Strong winds blew the landing craft east of their intended positions, particularly at Utah and Omaha. The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach-clearing teams difficult and dangerous. Casualties were heaviest at Omaha, with its high cliffs. At Gold, Juno, and Sword, several fortified towns were cleared in house-to-house fighting, and two major gun emplacements at Gold were disabled using specialized tanks.
The Allies failed to achieve any of their goals on the first day. Carentan, St. Lô, and Bayeux remained in German hands, and Caen, a major objective, was not captured until July 21. Only two of the beaches (Juno and Gold) were linked on the first day, and all five beachheads were not connected until June 12; however, the operation gained a foothold which the Allies gradually expanded over the coming months. German casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 4,000 to 9,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. Museums, memorials, and war cemeteries in the area now host many visitors each year.
Assessment and Significance
The Normandy landings were the first successful opposed landings across the English Channel in over eight centuries. They were costly in terms of men, but the defeat inflicted on the Germans was one of the largest of the war. Strategically, the campaign led to the loss of the German position in most of France and the secure establishment of a new major front. In larger context, the Normandy landings helped the Soviets on the Eastern Front, who were facing the bulk of the German forces and to a certain extent contributed to the shortening of the conflict there.
Although there was a shortage of artillery ammunition, at no time were the Allies critically short of any necessity. This was a remarkable achievement considering they did not hold a port until Cherbourg fell. By the time of the breakout the Allies also enjoyed considerable superiority in numbers of troops (approximately 7:2) and armored vehicles (approximately 4:1), which helped overcome the natural advantages the terrain gave to the German defenders.
Allied intelligence and counterintelligence efforts were successful beyond expectations. The Operation Fortitude deception before the invasion kept German attention focused on the Pas de Calais, and high-quality German forces were kept in this area, away from Normandy, until July. Prior to the invasion, few German reconnaissance flights took place over Britain, and those that did saw only the dummy staging areas. Ultra decrypts of German communications were helpful as well, exposing German dispositions and revealing their plans such as the Mortain counterattack.
Allied air operations also contributed significantly to the invasion via close tactical support, interdiction of German lines of communication (preventing timely movement of supplies and reinforcements—particularly the critical Panzer units), and rendering the Luftwaffe ineffective in Normandy. Although the impact upon armored vehicles was less than expected, air activity intimidated these units and cut their supplies.
Despite initial heavy losses in the assault phase, Allied morale remained high. Casualty rates among all the armies were tremendous, and the Commonwealth forces had to use a recently created category—Double Intense—to describe them.
The Yalta Conference
The Yalta Conference, held from February 4 to 11, 1945, was the World War II meeting of the heads of government of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganization.
Compare the Yalta Conference to the Tehran Conference
- The meeting was intended mainly to discuss the re-establishment of the nations of war-torn Europe, especially focusing on German reparations and post-war occupation as well as Poland.
- Yalta was the second of three wartime conferences among the Big Three, preceded by the Tehran Conference in 1943 and followed by the Potsdam Conference in July 1945.
- Each leader had an agenda for the Yalta Conference: Roosevelt wanted Soviet support in the U.S. Pacific War against Japan and Soviet participation in the UN; Churchill pressed for free elections and democratic governments in Eastern and Central Europe (specifically Poland); and Stalin demanded a Soviet sphere of political influence in Eastern and Central Europe.
- Stalin pledged to permit free elections in Poland, “because the Russians had greatly sinned against Poland.”
- It was decided that Germany would undergo demilitarization and denazification and be split into four occupied zones: Soviet, British, French, and American zones.
- Declaration of Liberated Europe: A declaration as created by Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin during the Yalta Conference. It was a promise that allowed the people of Europe “to create democratic institutions of their own choice.”
- denazification: An Allied initiative to rid German and Austrian society, culture, press, economy, judiciary, and politics of any remnants of the National Socialist ideology (Nazism). It was carried out by removing from positions of power and influence those who had been Nazi Party members and disbanding or rendering impotent the organizations associated with Nazism.
- reparations: Payments intended to cover damage or injury inflicted during a war.
The Yalta Conference, sometimes called the Crimea Conference and code named the Argonaut Conference, was held from February 4 to 11, 1945. This World War II meeting comprised the heads of government of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, represented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin, respectively, to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganization. The conference convened in the Livadia Palace near Yalta in Crimea.
The meeting was intended mainly to discuss the re-establishment of the nations of war-torn Europe. Within a few years, with the Cold War dividing the continent, Yalta had become a subject of intense controversy. To a degree, it has remained controversial.
Yalta was the second of three wartime conferences among the Big Three, preceded by the Tehran Conference in 1943 and followed by the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, attended by Stalin, Churchill (who was replaced halfway through by the newly elected British Prime Minister Clement Attlee), and Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor. The Yalta conference was a crucial turning point in the Cold War.
All three leaders attempted to establish an agenda for governing post-war Europe and keep peace between post-war countries. On the Eastern Front, the front line at the end of December 1943 remained in the Soviet Union but by August 1944, Soviet forces were inside Poland and Romania as part of their drive west. By the time of the Conference, Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s forces were 40 miles from Berlin. Stalin’s felt his position at the conference was so strong that he could dictate terms. According to U.S. delegation member and future Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, “[i]t was not a question of what we would let the Russians do, but what we could get the Russians to do.” Moreover, Roosevelt hoped for a commitment from Stalin to participate in the United Nations.
Each leader had an agenda for the Yalta Conference: Roosevelt wanted Soviet support in the U.S. Pacific War against Japan, specifically for the planned invasion of Japan (Operation August Storm), as well as Soviet participation in the UN; Churchill pressed for free elections and democratic governments in Eastern and Central Europe (specifically Poland); and Stalin demanded a Soviet sphere of political influence in Eastern and Central Europe, an essential aspect of the USSR’s national security strategy.
Poland was the first item on the Soviet agenda. Stalin stated that “For the Soviet government, the question of Poland was one of honor” and security because Poland had served as a historical corridor for forces attempting to invade Russia. In addition, Stalin stated that “because the Russians had greatly sinned against Poland,” “the Soviet government was trying to atone for those sins.” Stalin concluded that “Poland must be strong” and that “the Soviet Union is interested in the creation of a mighty, free and independent Poland.” Accordingly, Stalin stipulated that Polish government-in-exile demands were not negotiable: the Soviet Union would keep the territory of eastern Poland they had already annexed in 1939, and Poland was to be compensated by extending its western borders at the expense of Germany. Comporting with his prior statement, Stalin promised free elections in Poland despite the Soviet-sponsored provisional government recently installed in Polish territories occupied by the Red Army.
The Declaration of Liberated Europe t was created by Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin during the Yalta Conference. It was a promise that allowed the people of Europe “to create democratic institutions of their own choice.” The declaration pledged, “the earliest possible establishment through free elections governments responsive to the will of the people.” This is similar to the statements of the Atlantic Charter, which says, “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Stalin broke the pledge by encouraging Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and many more countries to construct a Communist government instead of letting the people construct their own. These countries later became known as Stalin’s Satellite Nations.
The key points from the meeting are as follows:
- Agreement to the priority of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. After the war, Germany and Berlin would be split into four occupied zones.
- Stalin agreed that France would have a fourth occupation zone in Germany that would be formed out of the American and British zones.
- Germany would undergo demilitarization and denazification.
- German reparations were partly to be in the form of forced labor to repair damage that Germany had inflicted on its victims.
- Creation of a reparation council located in the Soviet Union.
- The Polish eastern border would follow the Curzon Line, and Poland would receive territorial compensation in the west from Germany.
- Stalin pledged to permit free elections in Poland.
- Citizens of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were to be handed over to their respective countries, regardless of their consent.
- Roosevelt obtained a commitment by Stalin to participate in the UN.
- Stalin requested that all of the 16 Soviet Socialist Republics would be granted UN membership. This was taken into consideration, but 14 republics were denied.
- Stalin agreed to enter the fight against the Empire of Japan.
- Nazi war criminals were to be found and put on trial.
- A “Committee on Dismemberment of Germany” was to be set up to decide whether Germany would be divided into six nations.
The Allied Push to Berlin
The war in Europe concluded with an invasion of Germany by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, culminating in the capture of Berlin by Soviet and Polish troops and the subsequent German unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945.
Summarize the last weeks of the war and the final days of the Nazi Regime
- By the time the Allied forces launched an invasion of Germany from the Western and Eastern front, Allied victory in Europe was inevitable.
- Having gambled his future ability to defend Germany on the Ardennes offensive and lost, Hitler had no strength left to stop the powerful Allied armies.
- In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across western Germany, while Soviet and Polish forces stormed Berlin in late April.
- On April 30, 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signalling the military defeat of Nazi Germany.
- On that same day, Hitler committed suicide and was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz.
- As the Allies advanced on Germany, they began to discover the extent of the Holocaust and liberated many concentration camps along their route.
- Battle of Berlin: The final major offensive of the European theatre of World War II when the Soviet Red Army invaded Berlin, Germany.
- Eva Braun: The longtime companion of Adolf Hitler and for less than 40 hours, his wife.
- Joseph Goebbels: A German politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945; one of Adolf Hitler’s close associates and most devoted followers, he was known for his skills in public speaking and his deep and virulent antisemitism, which led to his support of the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust.
On December 16, 1944, Germany made a last attempt on the Western Front by using most of its remaining reserves to launch a massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes to split the Western Allies, encircle large portions of Western Allied troops, and capture their primary supply port at Antwerp to prompt a political settlement. By January, the offensive was repulsed with no strategic objectives fulfilled. In Italy, the Western Allies remained stalemated at the German defensive line. In mid-January 1945, the Soviets and Poles attacked in Poland, pushing from the Vistula to the Oder river in Germany, and overran East Prussia. On February 4, U.S., British, and Soviet leaders met for the Yalta Conference. They agreed on the occupation of post-war Germany and when the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan.
In February, the Soviets entered Silesia and Pomerania, while Western Allies entered western Germany and closed to the Rhine river. By March, the Western Allies crossed the Rhine north and south of the Ruhr, encircling the German Army Group B, while the Soviets advanced to Vienna. In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across western Germany, while Soviet and Polish forces stormed Berlin in late April. American and Soviet forces joined on Elbe river on April 25. On April 30, 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signalling the military defeat of Nazi Germany.
Several changes in leadership occurred during this period. On April 12, President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by Harry Truman. Benito Mussolini was killed by Italian partisans on April 28. Two days later, as the Battle of Berlin raged above him, realizing that all was lost and not wishing to suffer Mussolini’s fate, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Führerbunker along with Eva Braun, his long-term partner whom he married less than 40 hours before their joint suicide. In his will, Hitler dismissed Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, his second-in-command, and Interior minister Heinrich Himmler after each of them separately tried to seize control of the crumbling Third Reich. Hitler appointed his successors as follows; Großadmiral Karl Dönitz as the new Reichspräsident (“President of Germany”) and Joseph Goebbels as the new Reichskanzler (Chancellor of Germany). However, Goebbels committed suicide the following day, leaving Dönitz as the sole leader of Germany.
German forces surrendered in Italy on April 29. Total and unconditional surrender was signed on May 7 to be effective by the end of May 8. German Army Group Centre resisted in Prague until May 11.
At the end of the war, millions of people were homeless, the European economy had collapsed, and much of the European industrial infrastructure had been destroyed.
The Western Allied Invasion of Germany
The Western Allied invasion of Germany was coordinated by the Western Allies during the final months of hostilities in the European theater of World War II. The Allied invasion of Germany started with the Western Allies crossing the River Rhine in March 1945 before overrunning all of western Germany from the Baltic in the north to Austria in the south before the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945. This is known as the “Central Europe Campaign” in United States military histories and is often considered the end of the second World War in Europe.
By the beginning of the Central Europe Campaign, Allied victory in Europe was inevitable. Having gambled his future ability to defend Germany on the Ardennes offensive and lost, Hitler had no strength left to stop the powerful Allied armies. The Western Allies still had to fight, often bitterly, for victory. Even when the hopelessness of the German situation became obvious to his most loyal subordinates, Hitler refused to admit defeat. Only when Soviet artillery was falling around his Berlin headquarters bunker did he begin to perceive the final outcome.
The crossing of the Rhine, the encirclement and reduction of the Ruhr, and the sweep to the Elbe-Mulde line and the Alps all established the final campaign on the Western Front as a showcase for Allied superiority in maneuver warfare. Drawing on the experience gained during the campaign in Normandy and the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine, the Western Allies demonstrated in Central Europe their capability to absorb the lessons of the past. By attaching mechanized infantry units to armored divisions, they created a hybrid of strength and mobility that served them well in the pursuit warfare through Germany. Key to the effort was the logistical support that kept these forces fueled and the determination to maintain the forward momentum at all costs. These mobile forces made great thrusts to isolate pockets of German troops, which were mopped up by additional infantry following close behind. The Allies rapidly eroded any remaining ability to resist.
The Battle of Berlin
The Battle of Berlin, designated the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation by the Soviet Union, was the final major offensive of the European theater of World War II.
Following the Vistula–Oder Offensive of January–February 1945, the Red Army temporarily halted on a line 37 miles east of Berlin. When the offensive resumed on April 16, two Soviet army groups attacked Berlin from the east and south, while a third overran German forces positioned north of Berlin.
The first defensive preparations at the outskirts of Berlin were made on March 20 under the newly appointed commander of Army Group Vistula, General Gotthard Heinrici. Before the main battle in Berlin commenced, the Red Army encircled the city after successful battles of the Seelow Heights and Halbe. On April 20, 1945, the 1st Belorussian Front led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov started shelling Berlin’s city center, while Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front pushed from the south through the last formations of Army Group Centre. Defenses in Berlin’s city center were mainly led by General Helmuth Weidling. These units consisted of several depleted and disorganized Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions, along with poorly trained Volkssturm and Hitler Youth members. Within the next few days, the Red Army reached the city center, where close-quarters combat raged.
The city’s garrison surrendered to Soviet forces on May 2, but fighting continued to the northwest, west, and southwest of the city until the end of the war in Europe on May 8 as German units fought westward so that they could surrender to the Western Allies rather than to the Soviets.
Liberation of Concentration Camps
As the Allies advanced on Germany, they began to discover the extent of the Holocaust. The first major camp to be encountered by Allied troops, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on July 23, 1944. Chełmno was liberated by the Soviets on January 20, 1945. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on January 27, 1945; Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11; Bergen-Belsen by the British on April 15; Dachau by the Americans on April 29; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on the same day; Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5; and Theresienstadt by the Soviets on May 8. Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Colonel William W. Quinn of the US Seventh Army said of Dachau: “There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.”
In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all the prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive—7,600 inmates were found in Auschwitz, including 180 children who had been experimented on by doctors. Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division, 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks. The British forced the remaining SS guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.
The BBC’s Richard Dimbleby described the scenes that greeted him and the British Army at Belsen:
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them… Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live… A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms… He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Okinawa and Iwo Jima
Hard-fought battles on the Japanese home islands of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties on both sides but finally produced a Japanese defeat.
Connect the battles for Okinawa and Iwo Jima with the greater American “island hopping” strategy
- The Battle of Iwo Jima (February 19 – March 26, 1945) was a major battle in which the U.S. Marines landed on and eventually captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
- After the heavy losses incurred in the battle, the strategic value of the island became controversial; it was useless to the U.S. Army as a staging base and useless to the U.S. Navy as a fleet base.
- The largest and bloodiest American battle of the Pacific theater came at Okinawa, as the U.S. sought airbases for 3,000 B-29 bombers and 240 squadrons of B-17 bombers for the intense bombardment of Japan’s home islands in preparation for a full-scale invasion in late 1945.
- At Okinawa, the Americans suffered 75,000 casualties on the ground; 94% of the Japanese soldiers died along with many civilians.
- Many military historians believe that the Okinawa campaign led directly to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a means of avoiding the planned ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.
- “typhoon of steel”: American nickname for the battle of Okinawa, named for the ferocity of the fighting, the intensity of Japanese kamikaze attacks, and the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armored vehicles that assaulted the island.
- island hopping: A military strategy employed by the Allies in the Pacific War against Japan to bypass heavily fortified Japanese positions and instead concentrate the limited Allied resources on strategically important islands that were not well-defended but were capable of supporting the drive to the main islands of Japan.
The battle of Iwo Jima (“Operation Detachment”) in February 1945 was one of the bloodiest battles fought by the Americans in the Pacific War. Iwo Jima was an eight-square-mile island situated halfway between Tokyo and the Mariana Islands. Holland Smith, the commander of the invasion force, aimed to capture the island and use its three airfields as bases to carry out air attacks against the Home Islands. Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the island’s defense, knew that he could not win the battle but hoped to make the Americans suffer far more than they could endure.
From early 1944 until the days leading up to the invasion, Kuribayashi transformed the island into a massive network of bunkers, hidden guns, and 11 miles of underground tunnels. The heavy American naval and air bombardment did little but drive the Japanese further underground, making their positions impervious to enemy fire. Their pillboxes and bunkers were all connected so that if one was knocked out it could be reoccupied again. The network of bunkers and pillboxes greatly favored the defender.
Starting in mid-June 1944, Iwo Jima came under sustained aerial bombardment and naval artillery fire. However, Kuribayashi’s hidden guns and defenses survived the constant bombardment virtually unscathed. On February 19, 1945, some 30,000 men of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions landed on the southeast coast of Iwo, just under Mount Suribachi, where most of the island’s defenses were concentrated. For some time, they did not come under fire. This was part of Kuribayashi’s plan to hold fire until the landing beaches were full. As soon as the Marines pushed inland to a line of enemy bunkers, they came under devastating machine gun and artillery fire which cut down many of the men. By the end of the day, the Marines reached the west coast of the island, but their losses were appalling: almost 2,000 men killed or wounded.
On February 23, the 28th Marine Regiment reached the summit of Suribachi, prompting the now famous Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima picture. Navy Secretary James Forrestal, upon seeing the flag, remarked “there will be a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” The flag raising is often cited as the most reproduced photograph of all time and became the archetypal representation not only of that battle, but of the entire Pacific War. For the rest of February, the Americans pushed north, and by March 1 had taken two-thirds of the island, but it was not until March 26 that the island was finally secured. The Japanese fought to the last man, killing 6,800 Marines and wounding nearly 20,000 more. The Japanese losses totaled well over 20,000 men killed, and only 1,083 prisoners were taken. Historians debate whether it was strategically worth the casualties sustained.
The Battle of Okinawa, code named Operation Iceberg, was a series of battles fought in the Japanese Ryukyu Islands, centered on the island of Okinawa. It included the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War during World War II, the April 1, 1945 invasion of Okinawa itself. The 82-day-long battle lasted from April 1 until June 22, 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only 340 miles away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations for the planned invasion of Honshu, the Japanese mainland. Four divisions of the U.S. 10th Army (the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th) and two Marine Divisions (the 1st and 6th) fought on the island, supported by naval, amphibious, and tactical air forces.
The battle has been referred to as the “typhoon of steel” in English, and tetsu no ame (“rain of steel”) in Japanese. The nicknames refer to the ferocity of the fighting, the intensity of Japanese kamikaze attacks, and the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armored vehicles that assaulted the island. The battle was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, with more than 82,000 direct casualties on both sides: 14,009 Allied deaths (over 12,500 Americans killed or missing) and 77,166 Japanese soldiers, excluding those who died from their injuries later. Some islands that saw major battles, such as Iwo Jima, were uninhabited or previously evacuated. Okinawa, by contrast, had a large indigenous civilian population. 42,000 to 150,000 local civilians were killed, committed suicide, or went missing, a significant proportion of the estimated prewar local population of 300,000.
As part of the naval operations surrounding the battle, the Japanese super-battleship Yamato was sunk and both sides lost considerable numbers of ships and aircraft. The military value of Okinawa “exceeded all hope.” After the battle, Okinawa provided a fleet anchorage, troop staging areas, and airfields in proximity to Japan in preparation for the planned invasion of Japan.
Many military historians believe that the Okinawa campaign led directly to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a means of avoiding the planned ground invasion of the Japanese mainland. This view is explained by Victor Davis Hanson in his book Ripples of Battle:
…because the Japanese on Okinawa… were so fierce in their defense (even when cut off, and without supplies), and because casualties were so appalling, many American strategists looked for an alternative means to subdue mainland Japan, other than a direct invasion. This means presented itself, with the advent of atomic bombs, which worked admirably in convincing the Japanese to sue for peace [unconditionally], without American casualties.
Leapfrogging, also known as island hopping, was a military strategy employed by the Allies in the Pacific War against Japan and the Axis powers during World War II. The idea was to bypass heavily fortified Japanese positions and instead concentrate the limited Allied resources on strategically important islands that were not well-defended but were capable of supporting the drive to the main islands of Japan.
This strategy was possible in part because the Allies used submarine and air attacks to blockade and isolate Japanese bases, weakening their garrisons and reducing the Japanese ability to resupply and reinforce them. Thus troops on islands which had been bypassed, such as the major base at Rabaul, were useless to the Japanese war effort and left to “wither on the vine.” General Douglas MacArthur supported this strategy in his effort to regain the Philippines and it was implemented in late 1943 in Operation Cartwheel. While MacArthur claimed to have invented the strategy, it initially came out of the Navy.
Leapfrogging had a number of advantages. It would allow the United States forces to reach Japan quickly and not expend the time, manpower, and supplies to capture every Japanese-held island on the way. It would give the Allies the advantage of surprise and keep the Japanese off balance. The overall leapfrogging strategy would involve two prongs. A force led by Admiral Chester Nimitz, with a smaller land force and larger fleet, would advance north towards the island and capture the Gilbert and Marshall Islands and the Marianas, going in the direction of the Bonin Islands. The southern prong, led by General MacArthur and with larger land forces, would take the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Bismarck Archipelago, advancing toward the Philippines.
The Potsdam Conference
In July 1945, Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany, confirmed earlier agreements about post-war Germany, and reiterated the demand for unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces, specifically stating that “the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
Analyze the relations between the Allied nations at the Potsdam Conference
- A few months after the surrender of Germany and the end of the war in Europe, te Allied leaders from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom met in Potsdam, Germany to confirm the agreements decided at the Yalta Conference and discuss other post-war issues.
- America had won decisive battles against Japan, but the Pacific war still continued.
- Since the Yalta Conference, Harry S. Truman succeeded Roosevelt after his death and Clement Attlee succeeded Churchill after the 1945 general election in the UK, shifting some of the existing dynamics among the nations.
- The Potsdam Agreements resulted in the military occupation and reconstruction of Germany and the entire European theater of War territory. It also included Germany’s demilitarization, reparations, and prosecution of war criminals.
- Truman mentioned an unspecified “powerful new weapon” to Stalin during the conference, a reference to the nuclear bombs just developed by the U.S.
- Towards the end of the conference, Japan was given an ultimatum to surrender or meet “prompt and utter destruction,” but Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki did not respond.
- Manhattan Project: A research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
- Yalta Conference: A meeting in February 1945 between the three heads of the main Allied forces in WWII, intended mainly to discuss the re-establishment of the nations of war-torn Europe.
- Clement Attlee: A British politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951, taking over from Winston Churchill at the end of World War II.
The Potsdam Conference was held at Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm in Potsdam, occupied Germany, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. Participants were the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The powers were represented by Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and, later, Clement Attlee, and President Harry S. Truman.
Stalin, Churchill, and Truman—as well as Attlee, who participated alongside Churchill while awaiting the outcome of the 1945 general election and then became prime minister after the Labour Party’s defeat of the Conservatives—gathered to decide how to administer defeated Nazi Germany, which had agreed to unconditional surrender nine weeks earlier on May 8 (V-E Day). The goals of the conference included the establishment of post-war order, peace treaty issues, and countering the effects of the war.
After the war, the Soviet Union converted the other countries of eastern Europe into Soviet Satellite states within the Eastern Bloc, such as the People’s Republic of Poland, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the People’s Republic of Hungary, the Czechoslovak Republic, the People’s Republic of Romania, and the People’s Republic of Albania. The Soviets later formed the puppet state of East Germany from the Soviet zone of German occupation.
Relationships Among the Leaders
In the five months since the Yalta Conference, a number of changes had taken place that greatly affected the relationships between the leaders. By July, the Red Army effectively controlled the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, and fearing a Stalinist take-over, refugees were fleeing from these countries. Stalin had set up a communist government in Poland. He insisted that his control of Eastern Europe was a defensive measure against possible future attacks and claimed that it was a legitimate sphere of Soviet influence.
President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, and Vice President Harry Truman assumed the presidency; his succession saw VE Day (Victory in Europe) within a month and VJ Day (Victory in Japan) on the horizon. During the war and in the name of Allied unity, Roosevelt had brushed off warnings of a potential domination by a Stalin dictatorship in part of Europe. While inexperienced in foreign affairs, Truman had closely followed the Allied progress during the war. George Lenczowski notes “despite the contrast between his relatively modest background and the international glamour of his aristocratic predecessor, [Truman] had the courage and resolution to reverse the policy that appeared to him naive and dangerous,” which was “in contrast to the immediate, often ad hoc moves and solutions dictated by the demands of the war.” With the end of the war, the priority of Allied unity was replaced with a new challenge, the nature of the relationship between the two emerging superpowers.
Truman was much more suspicious of communist moves than Roosevelt had been, and became increasingly suspicious of Soviet intentions under Stalin. Truman and his advisers saw Soviet actions in Eastern Europe as aggressive expansionism, which was incompatible with the agreements Stalin committed to at Yalta the previous February. In addition, at the Potsdam Conference Truman became aware of possible complications elsewhere when Stalin objected to Churchill’s proposal for an early Allied withdrawal from Iran ahead of the schedule agreed at the Tehran Conference. The Potsdam Conference marks the first and only time Truman would ever meet Stalin in person.
At the end of the conference, the three heads of government agreed on the following actions. All other issues would to be answered by the final peace conference to be called as soon as possible.
- Allied Chiefs of Staff at the Potsdam Conference would temporarily partition Vietnam at the 16th parallel (just North of Da Nang) for operational convenience.
- It was agreed that British forces would take the surrender of Japanese forces in Saigon for the southern half of Indochina, whilst Japanese troops in the northern half would surrender to the Chinese.
- Issuance of a statement of aims of the occupation of Germany by the Allies: demilitarization, denazification, democratization, decentralization, and decartelization.
- Division of Germany and Austria respectively into four occupation zones (earlier agreed in principle at Yalta), and the similar division of each capital, Berlin and Vienna, into four zones.
- Agreement on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
- Reversion of all German annexations in Europe, including Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the westernmost parts of Poland
- Germany’s eastern border was to be shifted westwards to the Oder–Neisse line, effectively reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to its 1937 borders. The territories east of the new border comprised East Prussia, Silesia, West Prussia, and two thirds of Pomerania. These areas were mainly agricultural, with the exception of Upper Silesia which was the second largest centre of German heavy industry.
- “Orderly and humane” expulsions of the German populations remaining beyond the new eastern borders of Germany from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, but not Yugoslavia.
- Agreement on war reparations to the Soviet Union from their zone of occupation in Germany.
- Ensuring that German standards of living did not exceed the European average.
- Destruction of German industrial war-potential through the destruction or control of all industry with military potential.
- A Provisional Government of National Unity recognized by all three powers should be created in Poland.
- Poles who were serving in the British Army should be free to return to Poland, with no security upon their return to the communist country guaranteed.
- The provisional western border of Poland should be the Oder–Neisse line, defined by the Oder and Neisse rivers.
- The Soviet Union declared it would settle the reparation claims of Poland from its own share of the overall reparation payments.
Truman’s Secret Weapon
Truman mentioned an unspecified “powerful new weapon” to Stalin during the conference. Towards the end of the meeting, Japan was given an ultimatum to surrender or meet “prompt and utter destruction,” which did not mention the new bomb. Prime minister Kantarō Suzuki did not respond. Therefore, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The justification was that both cities were legitimate military targets to end the war swiftly and preserve American lives. However, to some the timing has suggested that Truman did not want Stalin involved in the terms of Japan’s surrender. It is important to note that Truman delayed the Potsdam Conference in order to be sure of the functionality of this “powerful new weapon.” Notably, when Truman informed Stalin of the atomic bomb, he did not explicitly mention its atomic nature. Stalin, though, had full knowledge of the atomic bomb’s development due to Soviet spy networks inside the Manhattan Project, and told Truman at the conference to “make good use of this new addition to the Allied arsenal.”
The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in the first nuclear attack in history. Three days later, on August 9, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the last nuclear attack in history.
Analyze the decision to drop the atomic bombs
- In the final year of the war, the Allies prepared for what was anticipated to be a very costly invasion of the Japanese mainland, with estimates of half a million casualties on both sides.
- At the Potsdam Conference, the Allies called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces, with the alternative being “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese ignored this ultimatum, prompting the American government to plan a nuclear attack.
- On August 6, the U.S. dropped a uranium gun-type atomic bomb (Little Boy) on Hiroshima.
- American President Harry S. Truman called for Japan’s surrender 16 hours later, warning them to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth,” an ultimatum that was again ignored by the Japanese, who planned to continue fighting.
- Three days later, on August 9, the U.S. dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb (Fat Man) on Nagasaki.
- Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000-146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000-80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.
- On August 15, six days after the bombing of Nagasaki and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war, Japan announced its surrender to the Allies.
- The bombings’ role in Japan’s surrender and their ethical justification are still debated by historians and other scholars.
- Operation Downfall: The code name for the Allied plan for the invasion of Japan near the end of World War II.
- Manhattan Project: A research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
- atomic bomb: A nuclear weapon that derives its explosive energy from nuclear fission reactions.
The United States, with the consent of the United Kingdom as laid down in the Quebec Agreement, dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, during the final stage of World War II. The two bombings, which killed at least 129,000 people, remain the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare in history.
In the final year of the war, the Allies prepared for what was anticipated to be a very costly invasion of the Japanese mainland. This was preceded by a U.S. firebombing campaign that destroyed 67 Japanese cities. The war in Europe concluded when Nazi Germany signed its instrument of surrender on May 8, 1945. The Japanese, facing the same fate, refused to accept the Allies’ demands for unconditional surrender and the Pacific War continued. Together with the United Kingdom and China, the United States called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces in the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945—the alternative being “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese responded to this ultimatum by ignoring it.
On July 16, 1945, the Allied Manhattan Project successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert and by August had produced atomic weapons based on two alternate designs. The 509th Composite Group of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was equipped with the specialized Silverplate version of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, that could deliver them from Tinian in the Mariana Islands.
On August 6, the U.S. dropped a uranium gun-type atomic bomb (Little Boy) on Hiroshima. Six planes of the 509th Composite Group participated in this mission: one to carry the bomb (Enola Gay), one to take scientific measurements of the blast (The Great Artiste), the third to take photographs (Necessary Evil), while the others flew approximately an hour ahead to act as weather scouts. Bad weather would disqualify a target as the scientists insisted on visual delivery. American President Harry S. Truman called for Japan’s surrender 16 hours later, warning them to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Three days later, on August 9, the U.S. dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb (Fat Man) on Nagasaki. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison.
On August 15, six days after the bombing of Nagasaki and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war, Japan announced its surrender to the Allies. On September 2, it signed the instrument of surrender, effectively ending World War II. The bombings’ role in Japan’s surrender and their ethical justification are still debated.
In 1945, the Pacific War between the Empire of Japan and the Allies entered its fourth year. The Japanese fought fiercely, ensuring that U.S. victory would come at an enormous cost. Of the 1.25 million battle casualties incurred by the United States in World War II, including both military personnel killed in action and wounded in action, nearly one million occurred from June 1944 to June 1945.
Even before the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, plans were underway for the largest operation of the Pacific War, Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan. The operation had two parts: Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet. Set to begin in October 1945, Olympic involved a series of landings by the U.S. Sixth Army intended to capture the southern third of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyūshū. Operation Olympic was to be followed in March 1946 by Operation Coronet, the capture of the Kantō Plain near Tokyo on the main Japanese island of Honshū by the U.S. First, Eighth, and Tenth Armies, as well as a Commonwealth Corps made up of Australian, British, and Canadian divisions.
Japan’s geography made this invasion plan obvious to the Japanese; they were able to predict the Allied invasion plans accurately and adjust their defensive plan, Operation Ketsugō, accordingly. The Japanese planned an all-out defense of Kyūshū, with little left in reserve for any subsequent defense operations. Four veteran divisions were withdrawn from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in March 1945 to strengthen the forces in Japan, and 45 new divisions were activated between February and May 1945.
The Americans were alarmed by the Japanese buildup, which was accurately tracked through Ultra intelligence. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was sufficiently concerned about high American estimates of probable casualties to commission his own study by Quincy Wright and William Shockley. Wright and Shockley spoke with Colonels James McCormack and Dean Rusk and examined casualty forecasts by Michael E. DeBakey and Gilbert Beebe. Wright and Shockley estimated the invading Allies would suffer between 1.7 and 4 million casualties in such a scenario, of whom between 400,000 and 800,000 would be dead, while Japanese fatalities would have been around 5 to 10 million.
The discovery of nuclear fission by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938, and its theoretical explanation by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, made the development of an atomic bomb a theoretical possibility. Fears that a German atomic bomb project would develop atomic weapons first, especially among scientists who were refugees from Nazi Germany and other fascist countries, were expressed in the Einstein-Szilard letter. This prompted preliminary research in the United States in late 1939, supported by President Roosevelt. Progress was slow until the arrival of the British MAUD Committee report in late 1941, which indicated that only 5–10 kilograms of isotopically enriched uranium-235 was needed for a bomb instead of tons of unenriched uranium and a neutron moderator (e.g. heavy water).
Working in collaboration with the United Kingdom and Canada, with their respective projects Tube Alloys and Chalk River Laboratories, the Manhattan Project, under the direction of Major General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, designed and built the first atomic bombs. Groves appointed J. Robert Oppenheimer to organize and head the project’s Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where bomb design work was carried out. Two types of bombs were eventually developed. Little Boy was a gun-type fission weapon that used uranium-235, a rare isotope of uranium separated at the Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The other, known as a Fat Man, was a more powerful and efficient, but more complicated, implosion-type nuclear weapon that used plutonium created in nuclear reactors at Hanford, Washington. A test implosion weapon, the gadget, was detonated at Trinity Site, on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Decision to Drop the Second Bomb
After the Hiroshima bombing, Truman issued a statement announcing the use of the new weapon. He stated, “We may be grateful to Providence” that the German atomic bomb project had failed, and that the United States and its allies had “spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history—and won.” Truman then warned Japan: “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”
The Japanese government did not react. On August 7, a day after Hiroshima was destroyed, Dr. Yoshio Nishina and other atomic physicists arrived at the city and carefully examined the damage. They returned to Tokyo and told the cabinet that Hiroshima was indeed destroyed by an atomic bomb. Admiral Soemu Toyoda, the Chief of the Naval General Staff, estimated that no more than one or two additional bombs could be readied, so they decided to endure the remaining attacks, acknowledging “there would be more destruction but the war would go on.” American Magic codebreakers intercepted the cabinet’s messages.
Purnell, Parsons, Tibbets, Spaatz, and LeMay met on Guam that same day to discuss what should be done next. Since there was no indication of Japan surrendering, they decided to proceed with dropping another bomb. Parsons said that Project Alberta would have it ready by August 11, but Tibbets pointed to weather reports indicating poor flying conditions on that day due to a storm, and asked if the bomb could be readied by August 9. Parsons agreed to try to do so.
Debate Over Bombings
The role of the bombings in Japan’s surrender and the U.S.’s ethical justification for them has been the subject of scholarly and popular debate for decades. J. Samuel Walker wrote in an April 2005 overview of recent historiography on the issue, “the controversy over the use of the bomb seems certain to continue.” He wrote that “the fundamental issue that has divided scholars over a period of nearly four decades is whether the use of the bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.”
Supporters of the bombings generally assert that they caused the Japanese surrender, preventing casualties on both sides during Operation Downfall. One figure of speech, “One hundred million [subjects of the Japanese Empire] will die for the Emperor and Nation,” served as a unifying slogan. In Truman’s 1955 Memoirs, “he states that the atomic bomb probably saved half a million U.S. lives—anticipated casualties in an Allied invasion of Japan planned for November. Stimson subsequently talked of saving one million U.S. casualties, and Churchill of saving one million American and half that number of British lives.” Scholars have pointed out various alternatives that could have ended the war without an invasion, but these could have resulted in the deaths of many more Japanese. Supporters also point to an order given by the Japanese War Ministry on August 1, 1944, ordering the execution of Allied prisoners of war when the POW camp was in the combat zone.
Those who oppose the bombings cite a number of reasons, including the belief that atomic bombing is fundamentally immoral, that the bombings counted as war crimes, that they were militarily unnecessary, that they constituted state terrorism, and that they involved racism against and the dehumanization of the Japanese people. Another popular view among critics of the bombings, originating with Gar Alperovitz in 1965 and becoming the default position in Japanese school history textbooks, is the idea of atomic diplomacy: that the United States used nuclear weapons r to intimidate the Soviet Union in the early stages of the Cold War. The bombings were part of an already fierce conventional bombing campaign. This, together with the sea blockade and the collapse of Germany (with its implications regarding redeployment), could also have led to a Japanese surrender. At the time the United States dropped its atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, the Soviet Union launched a surprise attack with 1.6 million troops against the Kwantung Army in Manchuria. “The Soviet entry into the war,” argued Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, “played a much greater role than the atomic bombs in inducing Japan to surrender because it dashed any hope that Japan could terminate the war through Moscow’s mediation.”