The War In Europe and North Africa: Axis Supremacy, 1939–42

How the Axis powers made great strides in the early years of the war

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

In the early years of the war Germany swept through western Europe and threatened to encircle the Mediterranean through offensives in North Africa and penetration into the Balkans. Britain, although stunned, had not been subdued. The Germans turned against their Soviet allies in the summer of 1941 and invaded the USSR, but Soviet forces stubbornly resisted the German advance. Late that year the United States entered the war on the Allied side, offering hope for the anti-Axis forces.

German and Soviet Attacks on Poland

On Sept. 1, 1939, the German military machine struck decisively at Poland, in what was known as a blitzkrieg (lightning war). High-speed panzer (tank) units pushed across the borders, blasting holes in the Polish lines. From the skies Luftwaffe (air force) bombers destroyed the Polish air force, damaged communications lines, and prevented the Poles from moving reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition to the front lines. Then German foot soldiers moved forward to hold the conquered ground. Meanwhile, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3.

On Sept. 17, 1939, Soviet troops marched into Poland. The Polish government and high command escaped into exile the next day. The Soviets halted at a line running from East Prussia down to the Bug River. Hitler and Stalin then partitioned the conquered country: the USSR occupied the eastern half, populated by Ukrainians and White Russians as well as Poles; the Germans took the western half, which included Gdask (Danzig) and the Polish Corridor.

In late September and early October, Stalin forced the Baltic States Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to accept garrisons of Soviet troops within their borders. The following year, elections held under Soviet auspices resulted in the incorporation of the three nations into the USSR as constituent republics.

Russo-Finnish War

Finland, however, resisted Soviet pressures, and on Nov. 28, 1939, the USSR denounced its nonaggression pact with that country. Two days later Red Army troops invaded Finland. The Finns put up a surprisingly spirited and at first effective resistance in this Russo-Finnish War, or Winter War. At the end of February 1940, however, the Soviets moved their best troops into battle, and the Finns began to give way to the sheer force of numbers. In March the invaders breached the defensive Mannerheim Line, and Finland was forced to relinquish strategic ports, a naval base, and airports. Meanwhile, in December 1939 the League of Nations condemned the USSR for its action in Finland and expelled it.

Struggle in the Atlantic, 1939-40

From the very beginning of World War II, as in World War I, control of the seas was to be a critical factor in its outcome. Immediately upon the declaration of war the British Royal Navy took control of the seas and within a few weeks drove German merchant ships off the oceans into neutral ports. As in World War I the Germans replied with a methodical and destructive submarine campaign. The war was scarcely under way when a German U-boat sank (Sept. 3, 1939) the Athenia, a Canadian liner bound for Montreal. The sinking resulted in the loss of 112 lives, including those of 28 Americans. During the first 2 months of the war 67 British merchant ships were sunk. On Oct. 14, 1939, a German U-boat penetrated the defenses of Scapa Flow, the British naval base in the Orkney Islands, and sank the battleship Royal Oak; 833 lives were lost. The Germans also used long-range bombers and sea raiders.

To meet this threat the British organized a convoy system similar to that used in the late stages of World War I. Large groups of merchant ships were protected by aircraft in the early stages of their voyages and were then escorted by destroyers through the mid-Atlantic. The use of new detection devices known as radar and ASDIC, or sonar, facilitated the destruction of German surface and undersea craft. In surface warfare the British had considerable success from the beginning. The destruction of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee off Montevideo, Uruguay, in December 1939 was a significant blow, for the ship had already sunk nine Allied ships. The struggle that later became known as the Battle of the Atlantic would be a long one. Not until 1943 could the Allies claim to have contained Germany's Atlantic sea power.

Denmark and Norway

After Hitler's speedy triumph in Poland, a period known as the Phony War followed in western Europe. Hitler proposed a peace conference, but the proposal was immediately rejected, and the 6-month lull was occupied with strategic planning. Hitler turned his attention to the Scandinavian peninsula, control of which would give him air bases for later attacks on Britain as well as harbors from which his rapidly increasing submarine fleet could operate in Atlantic waters. Moreover, control of Denmark and Norway would ensure the Germans a valuable source of foods such as fish and dairy products, while depriving the British of these food products. Most important of all, Norwegian routes would give Hitler access to Swedish iron ore, critical for Germany's war effort.

Early on the morning of Apr. 9, 1940, German troops swept across the Danish border. Overwhelmed and unable to resist effectively, the Danes soon capitulated. While Denmark was being overrun a German task force left Baltic ports, steamed up the Kattegat into the Skagerrak, and entered Oslo Fjord. At the same time, the Luftwaffe struck at Oslo's airport, while air transports dropped troops and guns to the ground. A parachute battalion, the first to be used in war, captured the airfield. British and French troops came to Norway's aid but succeeded only in seizing Narvik (May 28) after a month-long battle. The German conquest of Norway was completed when the Allies withdrew on June 9, 1940.

Churchill Assumes Power

Reverses in Norway caused the fall of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who was replaced on May 10 by Winston Churchill, a staunch opponent of appeasement in the 1930s. Before Parliament three days later the new prime minister offered Britons nothing but "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" in a relentless fight against Nazi Germany. Through this and many subsequent inspirational addresses, Churchill helped rally his country in Britain's darkest days against what he believed was a mortal threat to world civilization.

The Low Countries

Next on Hitler's timetable were the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Possession of the Low Countries would give Nazi Germany not only vast industrial resources but, more important, advance bases for coming assaults on France and Britain. An attack through the Low Countries also would divert Allied troops to the area, where they could be easily cut off. With Belgium in his hands Hitler could outflank the vaunted defensive Maginot Line, which ran parallel to the Rhine River and then north to a point near the Belgian frontier. He could then move into France across the unfortified Belgian border.

On May 10, 1940, German troops moved into the Low Countries. Luxembourg, with no defensive forces, was occupied without any resistance. Both the Dutch and Belgians fought back. Receiving the brunt of the opening offensives, the Dutch mined bridges, blocked roads, and flooded wide areas. Without sufficient planes and tanks, they relied on British and French expeditionary forces for assistance, but far too little help came and it came too late. Nazi mechanized forces moved with such speed that the Dutch were overwhelmed within 5 days. Their government, led by Queen Wilhelmina, fled to England.

The Belgians lasted only 2 weeks longer. French and British troops moved in but could not stem the German blitzkrieg. German tanks moved with great speed as parachutists dropped on the Dutch countryside and infantry troops pushed forward. To avoid further bloodshed King Leopold III ordered his troops to cease resistance and to lay down their arms in unconditional surrender on May 28, 1940.