(click here for printable version)

A New Leader

  In the midst of the German invasion of the Low Countries, Britain’s conservative government at last ditched its leader, Neville Chamberlain, and chose Winston Churchill to be new Prime Minister of Great Britain.  On May 15, 1940, Churchill assumed the reins of government during his country’s darkest hour.

The Battle of Britain

Britain now braced for the expected German invasion.  From airfields in northern France, Germany’s air force pounded Britain’s cities. Churchill spoke for his countrymen when he vowed they would fight Hitler by land, by sea, and by air:  “We shall never surrender.”

Britain’s valiant RAF fighters forayed daily against the Messerschmitt fighters and Junker bombers of Germany’s Luftwaffe, suffering terrible losses.  Nevertheless, Britain managed to maintain their fighting spirit against terrible odds.  As Winston Churchill remarked in his tribute to the RAF:  “Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.”

London Burning
London's historic St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren,
as seen through the smoke of the Blitz.  The Cathedral managed to survive the war

The Battle of the Atlantic
Battle of Atlantic

Meanwhile, Germany’s U-boats targeted British merchant shipping, sinking tons of vital war materiel—much of it purchased from the United States.  To help Britain, the U. S. sold her old destroyers; secretly, FDR also ordered the U. S. Navy to provide escorts for British convoys—in effect, declaring war on Germany.  Inevitably, U-boats sank some Navy ships, nearly drawing the U. S. into war.

Operation Barbarossa:  The Invasion of the Soviet Union

Following the surrender of France, the British awaited the inevitable German invasion, but it never came.  Instead, on June 22, 1941, Hitler attacked his fellow dictator, Josef Stalin, launching a massive invasion of the Soviet Union—”Operation Barbarossa.”  This is exactly what Hitler said he would do in Mein Kampf—he wanted the East as “living room” for Germans, and he considered the Slavic people only worthy to be slaves.

Hitler’s generals had warned him of embarking upon a two-front war, but his gamble—as it always had in the past—seemed to pay off.  German troops rapidly advanced across a wide front, closing in on Leningrad in the north and Stalingrad in the south.  Hitler’s ultimate goal was the oil fields along the Black Sea.

Click here  for a map of Operation Barbarossa.

The Atlantic Conference
Atlantic Conference
On July 28 and 31, 1941, FDR and Churchill met secretly aboard HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland to cement the alliance of the “Big Three”:  The U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union.  FDR agreed to extend Lend-Lease aid to the Soviets.  At the end of the conference, FDR and Churchill issued a joint declaration, the Atlantic Charter, summarizing the war aims of their peoples.

Developments in Asia

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union drew the attention of Russia’s historical rival in the East:  Japan.  (Recall the  Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05.)  Japan, stuck in its “Chinese Quagmire,” now faced a choice:  expand north, against a weakened USSR, or south, towards the oil and rubber supplies of British Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies?

In July of 1941, Japan signed a Tri-Partite Agreement with Germany and Italy, in which the three countries agreed not to attack one another.  It did not require the signatories to aid the others in case of attack by an outside power. 

The agreement allowed the Japanese to benefit from German intelligence in case the former decided to attack the Soviet Union.

Meeting in Council, Japan’s government determined to attack south towards British Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies.  Neither Britain nor Holland presented a strong military threat to Japan—Britain was still reeling from German bombardment, and Holland was occupied by the Nazis.  However, Japan knew that any attack on these countries might bring the United States into the war.

To forestall U.S. involvement, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto drew up an ingenious plan for a surprise attack against the U. S. Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor.  On December 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes struck, knocking out 8 U. S. battleships; however, the primary targets, the three U. S. aircraft carriers, were still out to sea.  Thus, the attack not only pulled America into the war, but left it with the capability of fighting back.

The Dumbest Decision of All Time

On Dec. 8, FDR went before Congress and asked it to declare war on Japan.  On Dec. 11,  Congress did.  Now the U. S. could embark upon its desire to avenge Pearl Harbor.

FDR's critics later blamed FDR for the huge loss at Pearl Harbor.  They alleged that the president knew of the Japanese plans and let them attack, let them kill over 3,000 sailors, soldiers, and marines, so he could fufill his ultimate goal:  to get the United States into a war against Germany, as Churchill, his great friend, had so long urged.  Yet events tell a different story.  Even if it could be believed that FDR was capable of such a massively amoral act, "letting" the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor would not have advance his supposed aim of engaging in a war with Germany.  On Dec. 8, he asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and Japan alone, and on Dec. 11, that is what they did.

So how did the U. S. end up in a war with Germany anyway?  The Tripartite Agreement of 1941 between Japan, Italy, and Germany did not require any of the signatories to come to the aid of the other in event of attack, so Hitler was in no way obliged to come to Japan's aid when the U.S. declared war.  But, in what was surely one of the dumbest decisions of all time, Adolf Hitler, then engaged in a two-front war in Europe as well as an ongoing battle in North Africa, declared war on the United States on Dec. 14, 1941!!

Why on earth would Hitler declare war on the greatest industrial power then in existence?  Frankly, it's hard to come up with a rational answer.  Perhaps Hitler, like the Japanese, did not respect the Americans as fighters.  After all, we had come late to the First World War, when Germany was already exhausted from four years of losses.  Our victory, then, could hardly stand as proof of our indominatble fighting prowess.  Perhaps Hitler was so full of megolomaniacal grandeur that he believed he could take on the U. S. as well as the rest of the world.  Perhaps, based on our isolationism of the past, he thought the U. S. would tire quickly of war and sue for peace as soon as he had defeated Britain and the Soviet Union.  Fact is, we'll never know.  Whatever its origins, Hitler's decision irrevocably changed the war.  He had opened the way for the U. S. to finally engage fully with Britain in a war to stop Hitler's expansionist dreams...or had he?

[WWII in Europe: I]  [WWII in Europe: III]