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The European Theater in WWII: The Eastern Front, Western Front & Fight for North Africa

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  • 0:05 The Outbreak of WWII
  • 1:52 The Scope of WWII
  • 2:43 The Fall of Europe
  • 4:13 The Battle of Britain
  • 5:58 Opening the Eastern Front
  • 7:47 Taking Back Europe
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Hitler and Nazi Germany dominated the European fields of battle early in WWII. This lesson is an overview of key military operations between 1939 and 1943 in Europe on both the Eastern and Western fronts.

The Outbreak of WWII

On September 1, 1939, the world witnessed what came to be called 'Blitzkrieg' (or 'Lightning War') when German troops blazed across the border of Poland with a dense concentration of armored infantry and heavy air support. After years of appeasement, Great Britain and France finally declared war on Germany. World War II began on September 3, 1939.

Germany's invasion of Poland was carried out in cooperation with the Soviet Union. Adolph Hitler, the Nazi chancellor of Germany, hated communists. But, for a time, he put aside his animosity toward Soviet leader Josef Stalin to make sure the Soviets wouldn't interfere with his plans. Germany invaded the western part of Poland while the Soviet Union moved into the east.

Almost immediately, a naval campaign was underway, as each side fought to keep the other from receiving crucial supply shipments. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted the duration of the war. The United States responded by passing the cash and carry policy, allowing for the sale of arms to belligerent nations if they could pay up front and transport them in their own ships.

Though a series of Neutrality Acts had expressly forbidden most types of economic, military or commercial investments in the war, cash and carry allowed America to remain officially neutral, keep its ships out of danger from German U-boat attacks, avoid the credit problems that shrouded WWI and yet still provide help to Britain. This was one of several steps that moved the U.S. towards war.

The Scope of WWII

Ultimately, WWII lasted nearly six years and spanned several continents with two main theaters (Europe and the Pacific), each with multiple battlefronts. It was fought between the Axis powers (led by Germany and Japan) and the Allies (led by Great Britain, France and later the United States). Italy was part of the Axis powers at the outset of the war, and the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Germany, but both of these nations eventually joined the Allies.

Each side also had the support of many smaller nations. This lesson provides an overview of major engagements in the European theater, including the western, eastern and African fronts from the outset of the war through 1943.

The Fall of Europe

Within one month in 1940, the Nazi war machine overran Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Next, they set their sights on France. It took just six weeks to storm into Paris. France surrendered to Nazi Germany on June 22, 1940 on board the very same railroad car - placed in the very same spot - where Germany had surrendered to France at the end of WWI. It was a moment of sweet revenge for Hitler and thousands of other bitter German veterans of the Great War.

Meanwhile, Britain hastily evacuated more than 338,000 mostly-English troops from French territory, using every craft available - a collection of 700 vessels ranging from Royal Navy destroyers to private yachts, lifeboats and fishing boats. The so-called 'Miracle of Dunkirk' saved the core of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), but they had faced stiff resistance and many men, boats and planes were lost. Worse yet, about 35,000 primarily French troops were left behind, and all of the BEF's heavy equipment, vehicles, ammunition and fuel fell into German hands.

The Battle of Britain

A few days after France signed an armistice with Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Parliament, 'The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.' Beginning that summer, the Luftwaffe (Germany's air force) dropped more than 100 tons of explosives on London and other British cities, ports and airbases, mostly at night. This sustained air attack over England is commonly called 'the Blitz.'

Churchill begged the United States to intervene, but President Roosevelt still insisted on American neutrality. Congress did, however, trade old warships for naval bases in British colonies, pass the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed for the purchase of war supplies on credit and institute the first peacetime draft in the nation's history. In addition, some American pilots flew with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The Blitz was intended to soften British resistance prior to a German invasion of England. For a number of reasons, including Britain's unexpected retaliatory bombing of Berlin, the Nazis abandoned their plan to invade the island after 10 months. The end of the Blitz in spring 1941 is considered a major victory by the RAF over the Luftwaffe. In one of his most memorable speeches, Churchill praised his nation's air force, telling the citizens, 'Never, in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

Opening the Eastern Front

That same spring, the Axis made quick work of the Baltic nations, and then Hitler abruptly turned his aggression against the Soviet Union, opening up a second front that would take the brunt of the fighting for the next four years. It was the largest and deadliest military operation in history, resulting in millions of military and civilian casualties. Axis forces notoriously mistreated Soviet POWs so that nearly 60% died from intentional starvation, exposure or execution.

Before dawn on June 22, 1941, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union began with the bombing and destruction of a quarter of Stalin's air force. Next, more than three million Axis soldiers smashed across the Soviet frontier, and Hitler felt confident that the nation would quickly fall. But, due to effective Soviet defenses (including death for anyone who retreated) and sub-zero temperatures that the Germans hadn't prepared for, Moscow was saved. The Battle of Leningrad devolved into a siege that lasted 900 days.

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