It is the greatest and most destructive and costly conflict the world has yet seen, hopefully that we will ever see.
The War’s start is generally dated to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. But Japan, which would later enter the wider conflict, had started its brutal struggle with China in 1937 and Hitler’s expansion had begun with the Anschluss, which saw Germany and Austria united in 1938. Italy’s Fascist government had stretched its military muscles with the invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935 and in Spain a vicious civil war between the elected Republican government and the militaristic right under General Franco raged from 1936. When Japan attacked America’s fleet in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the war became a global conflict.
The Axis of Japan, Italy and Germany and their allies were eventually defeated. Mussolini died on April 25, 1945, killed by Italian partisans. Hitler probably took his own life as Berlin succumbed to Soviet assault on April 30 and Germany’s armies surrendered on May 7. Japanese forces capitulated after the dropping of the world’s first atomic weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When, on September 2, the foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on USS Missouri the war was over.
The true cost of the war will never be known. Estimates of the casualties, many of whom died in circumstances of almost unimaginable suffering, vary from 50 million to 70 million.
While the war showed humanity at its worst, it also inspired acts of great kindness, compassion, heroism and sacrifice.
Here are 10 of the strangest facts from that terrible time in our history.
1 – The War of All Nations
World War I had been a great struggle between two armed blocs, which like a giant whirlpool dragged in the colonies of the principle actors and sprawled across Europe and the Middle East. World War II was truly global, almost every nation on earth was involved as a participant or was affected by this clash.
The smallest total of countries historians can come up with pits the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, who were joined by Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria against the Allies.
The Allies were: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, India, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States, USSR and Yugoslavia. But this list is far from complete. As the end of the war approached a host of countries declared war against the Axis, for example Turkey declared war in February 1945 and none of its troops ever fought in the war.
Wikipedia lists 104 countries that were involved in the war in some way. Even famously neutral Switzerland was involved by the conflict raging on its borders, mobilising in preparation for a feared German invasion and holding pilots who were shot down over its territory – sometimes by its own air force – and suffering accidental bombing raids.
The geographic extent of the conflict was enormous. All of Europe was in arms and the whole of the South Pacific became a theatre of war, from the Arctic to Africa troops were in action. Even South America, which was free of actual fighting saw countries forced to pick sides, Argentina and Chile were the last countries to declare war on the Axis just a month before the end of hostilities. Brazil sent 25,000 men to fight in Europe.
The great ideological clash of the war between Nazi and Fascist authoritarians and their largely democratic opponents (although the Soviet Union was itself a one party dictatorship under Stalin) saw volunteers sign up from across the globe even if their governments remained neutral.