North Africa, Italian, Eastern, and Western Front of World War II (page 2)
The Eastern Front
In perhaps his most serious error of judgment, Hitler abandoned the nonaggression pact he had signed with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Soviets were taken completely unawares, but they soon rallied against the enemy and proved fierce and stubborn in opposition. The German attack immediately brought the Soviet Union into the war on the Allied side. With its enormous army, the USSR would be a crucial factor in the ultimate Allied victory.
In their attack on the eastern front, the Germans made two crucial mistakes. First, they seriously underestimated the vast size of the Soviet army and the production capacity of the Soviet munitions factories. Second, Hitler genuinely believed that Russians, like all Slavs, were an inferior people who would not be capable of defeating the German army. Of course, this was a delusion with no basis in reality. In fact, the Soviets were highly disciplined, having learned obedience under the harsh rule of Stalin; in that way at least, he proved an important unifying force for his people during wartime. Both these mistakes led the Germans to believe they could achieve an easy victory; hence they did not send a large enough army to the eastern front.
In September 1941, the Germans laid siege to Leningrad. Penned inside their city with an ever-dwindling supply of food, all the Russians could do was tighten their belts and wait and hope for rescue. By the time the siege was lifted in 1944, more than one million Russian civilians had died of starvation and related illnesses. The Soviets would retaliate for this when they marched into Berlin in 1945.
In the summer of 1942, the industrial city of Stalingrad on the Volga River became a major battleground. The Germans nearly secured a victory, but the Soviets refused to give up, eventually winning the battle in January 1943.
North Africa and the Italian Front
In 1941, Japan took a hand in the game by bombing the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a surprise, unannounced attack. The United States immediately declared war on Japan. Honoring an agreement signed with Japan in 1940, Hitler then declared war on the United States. He seriously underestimated the efficiency of the American response and the speed with which the Americans would come to the rescue of their European allies.
When the Americans arrived in Europe, they planned with Allied leaders to begin their attack in the Mediterranean. Under the overall command of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942. British forces under General Montgomery pursued German forces lead by General Erwin Johannes Rommel. Despite Rommel’s great skill and tactical ability, his forces were outnumbered and he lost ground at the Battle of El Alamein. The Allies soon controlled North Africa and blocked supply lines between Italy and Germany. In May 1943, the Allies forced the surrender of Axis troops in Tunisia, their last African stronghold. The combinations of the Soviet and North African victories turned the tide of war in the Allies’ favor.
With North Africa under their control, the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, using it as a base from which to plan their attack on the Italian mainland. Italy gave way promptly. Many Italians had come to despise the Fascists, and the nation as a whole felt little loyalty to Mussolini by this time.
The king of Italy had Mussolini arrested and replaced him with a new prime minister. In September, the Germans rescued Mussolini and helped him establish a new Fascist power base in northern Italy. Meanwhile, the new Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies. Allied forces, including Italian troops, liberated Naples in October 1943 and Rome in June 1944. By then, Italian rebels had located Mussolini and executed him.
The Western Front
The Allies bombed Germany throughout 1943. The goal of the bombing was twofold: first, to destroy strategic locations such as railroad lines and factories, and second, to break the spirit of the German people by destroying their civilization, just as the Germans had tried to do against Britain. Allied bombs killed tens of thousands of German civilians and reduced virtually every large German city to rubble. The Allied bombing of the ancient and beautiful city of Dresden later became a byword for senseless, vicious destruction far beyond what was necessary in strategic terms.
The navies carried on the Battle of the Atlantic. Until 1943, German U-boats held the upper hand, attacking Allied ships with great success. The tide turned when the Allies developed sonar technology that helped them pinpoint the U-boats’ locations, invisible far below the surface. By 1944 the Allies had regained control over the oceans.
The Allies agreed that the war would be won or lost on the western front. The United States and Britain combined forces to launch a surprise offensive in Normandy, on the French side of the English Channel. Working with Allied military staff, Eisenhower laid a trail of misinformation and false clues that led the Germans to expect an invasion at Calais, some distance away.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, 150,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel, landed on the beaches of France, and began marching toward Paris. No German troops were there to stop them; Eisenhower’s deception had fooled Hitler. On August 25, 1944, the Allies liberated Paris.
After the shock of losing the French capital, the Germans launched a fierce assault on the Allied troops in the Ardennes region. They pushed Allied troops so far back at one location that they nearly broke through the line of defense, forming a “bulge” in the front line and thus giving the Battle of the Bulge its name. The Allies, outnumbered by nearly two to one, held out until reinforcements arrived and helped them push the Germans back. By January, it was clear that the Germans had lost any chance at victory.
In February 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met at Yalta to plan for the peace they knew lay in the near future. Stalin promised that after Germany surrendered, Soviet troops would help the United States defeat Japan. (The Soviets made good on this promise; Japan surrendered in September 1945.) The three leaders then agreed to occupy Germany after the war, and discussed plans for a new League of Nations.
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