In the hands of master historian Martin Gilbert, the complex and compelling story of the Second World War comes to life. This narrative captures the perspectives of leading politicians and war commanders, journalists, civilians, and ordinary soldiers, offering gripping eyewitness accounts of heroism, defeat, suffering, and triumph.
This is one of the first historical studies of World War II that describes the Holocaust as an integral part of the war. It also covers maneuvers, strategies, and leaders operating in European, Asian, and Pacific theatres. In addition, this book brings in survivor testimonies of occupation, survival behind enemy lines, and the experience of minority groups such as the Roma in Europe, to offer a comprehensive account of the war’s impact on individuals on both sides. This is a sweeping narrative of one of the most deadly wars in history, which took almost forty million lives, and irrevocably changed countless more.
“Gilbert’s flowing narrative is spiced with anecdotal details culled from diaries, memoirs, and official documents. He is especially skillful at interweaving summaries of military strategy with vignettes of civilian suffering.” —Newsweek
“[A] masterful account of history’s most destructive conflict.” —Publishers Weekly
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The German invasion of Poland
The Second World War was among the most destructive conflicts in human history; more than forty-six million soldiers and civilians perished, many in circumstances of prolonged and horrifying cruelty. During the 2,174 days of war between the German attack on Poland in September 1939 and the surrender of Japan in August 1945, by far the largest number of those killed, whether in battle or behind the lines, were unknown by name or face except to those few who knew or loved them; yet in many cases, perhaps also numbering in the millions, even those who might in later years have remembered a victim were themselves wiped out. Not only forty-six million lives, but the vibrant life and livelihood which they had inherited, and might have left to their descendants, were blotted out: a heritage of work and joy, of struggle and creativity, of learning, hopes and happiness, which no one would ever inherit or pass on.
Inevitably, because they were the war's principal sufferers, it is the millions of victims who fill so many of these pages. Many of them can be, and are, named; it is they, and the unnamed men, women and children whose tragedy is the bitter legacy of the war. There is courage, too, in these pages; the courage of soldiers, sailors and airmen, the courage of partisans and resistance fighters, and the courage of those who, starving, naked and without strength or weapons, were sent to their deaths.
Who was the first victim of a war that was to claim more than forty-six million victims? He was an unknown prisoner in one of Adolf Hitler's concentration camps, most probably a common criminal. In an attempt to make Germany seem the innocent victim of Polish aggression, he had been dressed in a Polish uniform, taken to the German frontier town of Gleiwitz, and shot on the evening of 31 August 1939 by the Gestapo in a bizarre faked 'Polish attack' on the local radio station. On the following morning, as German troops began their advance into Poland, Hitler gave, as one of his reasons for the invasion, 'the attack by regular Polish troops on the Gleiwitz transmitter'.
In honour of the SS Chief who had helped to devise the Gleiwitz deception, it had been given the code name Operation Himmler. On that same evening of August 31, the Soviet Union, Germany's ally of less than a week, had finally been victorious in its battle with the Japanese on the Soviet — Mongolian borderlands, as Soviet forces, commanded by General Zhukov, destroyed the last resistance of the Sixth Japanese Army at Khalkhin Gol. As one war ended, another began, known to history as the Second World War.
The German advance into Poland on 1 September 1939 was not a repeat of the tactics of the First World War of 1914–18. Then, infantrymen, advancing towards each other until caught in a line of trenches, had mounted a series of attacks against a well dug-in enemy. Hitler's method was that of 'Blitzkrieg'— lightning war. First, and without warning, air attacks destroyed much of the defender's air force while it was still on the ground. Second, bombers struck at the defender's road and rail communications, assembly points and munitions dumps, and at civilian centres, causing confusion and panic. Third, dive-bombers sought out columns of marching men and bombed them without respite, while at the same time aircraft machine-gunned civilian refugees as they sought to flee from the approaching soldiers, causing chaos on the roads, and further impeding the forward movement of the defending forces.
Even as the Blitzkrieg came out of the sky, it also came on land; first in wave after wave of motorized infantry, light tanks and motor-drawn artillery, pushing as far ahead as possible. Then heavy tanks were to drive deep into the countryside, bypassing cities and fortified points. Then, after so much damage had been done and so much territory traversed, the infantry, the foot soldiers of every war, but strongly supported by artillery, were to occupy the area already penetrated, to deal with whatever resistance remained, and to link up with the mechanized units of the initial strike.
Twenty-four hours after the German attack on Poland, an official Polish Government communiqué reported that 130 Poles, of whom twelve were soldiers, had been killed in air raids on Warsaw, Gdynia, and several other towns. 'Two German bombers were shot down, and the four occupants arrested after a miraculous escape,' the communiqué noted, 'when forty-one German aircraft in formation appeared over eastern Warsaw on Friday afternoon. People watched a thrilling aerial battle over the heart of the city. Several houses caught fire, and the hospital for Jewish defective children was bombed and wrecked.'
On the morning of September 2, German aircraft bombed the railway station at the town of Kolo. At the station stood a train of civilian refugees being evacuated from the border towns of Jarocin and Krotoszyn; 111 of them were killed.
Hitler's aim in invading Poland was not only to regain the territories lost in 1918. He also intended to impose German rule on Poland. To this end, he had ordered three SS Death's Head regiments to follow behind the infantry advance, and to conduct what were called 'police and security' measures behind the German lines. Theodor Eicke, the commander of these three Death's Head regiments, explained what these measures were to his assembled officers at one of their bases, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, on that first day of war. In protecting Hitler's Reich, Eicke explained, the SS would have to 'incarcerate or annihilate' every enemy of Nazism, a task that would challenge even the 'absolute and inflexible severity' which the Death's Head regiments had learned in the concentration camps.
The German invasion of Poland, September 1939 These words, so full of foreboding, were soon translated into action; within a week of the German invasion of Poland, almost 24,000 officers and men of the Death's Head regiment were ready to embark on their task. On the side of one of the railway carriages taking German soldiers eastward, someone had written in white paint: 'We're off to Poland to thrash the Jews.' Not only Jews, but Poles, were to be the victims of this war behind the war. Two days after Eicke had given his instructions to the Death's Head regiments, Heinrich Himmler informed SS General Udo von Woyrsch that he was to carry out the 'radical suppression of the incipient Polish insurrection in the newly occupied parts of Upper Silesia'. The word 'radical' was a euphemism for 'ruthless'.
Whole villages were burned to the ground. At Truskolasy, on September 3, fifty-five Polish peasants were rounded up and shot, a child of two among them. At Wieruszow, twenty Jews were ordered to assemble in the market place, among them Israel Lewi, a man of sixty-four. When his daughter, Liebe Lewi, ran up to her father, a German told her to open her mouth for 'impudence'. He then fired a bullet into it. Liebe Lewi fell down dead. The twenty Jews were then executed.
In the weeks that followed, such atrocities became commonplace, widespread and on an unprecedented scale. While soldiers fought in battle, civilians were being massacred behind the lines.
On the afternoon of September 3, German bombers attacked the undefended Polish town of Sulejow, where a peacetime population of 6,500 Poles and Polish Jews were swelled by a further 3,000 refugees. Within moments, the centre of the town was ablaze. As thousands hurried for safety towards the nearby woods, German planes, flying low, opened fire with their machine guns. 'As we were running to the woods', one young boy, Ben Helfgott, recalled, 'people were falling, people were on fire. That night the sky was red from the burning town'.
On 3 September, Britain and France both declared war on Germany. 'The immediate aim of the German High Command', Hitler told his commanders, 'remains the rapid and victorious conclusion of operations against Poland.' At nine o'clock that evening, however, a German submarine, the U-30, commanded by Julius Lemp, torpedoed the British passenger liner Athenia, which it had mistaken for an armed ship. The Athenia, which was bound for Montreal from Liverpool, had sailed before Britain's declaration of war, with 1,103 passengers on board. Of the 112 passengers who lost their lives that night, twenty-eight were citizens of the United States. But the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, was emphatic when he broadcast to the American people on September 3: 'Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields. At this moment there is being prepared a proclamation of American neutrality.'
Confident of a swift victory, on the evening of September 3, Hitler left Berlin on board his special train, Amerika, in which he was to live for the next two weeks amid the scenes and congratulations of his first military triumph. The British Government, meanwhile, had put into operation its 'Western Air Plan 14', the dropping of anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets over Germany. On the night of September 3, thirteen tons of leaflets were flown, in ten aircraft, across the North Sea and across the German frontier, to be dropped on the Ruhr; six million sheets of paper, in which the Germans were told: 'Your rulers have condemned you to the massacres, miseries and privations of a war they cannot ever hope to win'.
Britain's first bombing raid over Germany took place on September 4, as German troops continued to advance into Poland behind a screen of superior air power. That day, ten Blenheim bombers attacked German ships and naval installations at Wilhelmshaven. No serious damage was done to the ships, but five of the bombers were shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. Among the British dead was Pilot Officer H. B. Lightoller, whose father had been the senior British officer to survive the sinking of the Titanic before the First World War.
In Britain, morale was boosted by the news of this raid on German warships. 'We could even see some washing hanging on the line,' the Flight Lieutenant who had led the attack told British radio listeners. 'When we flew on the top of the battleship,' he added, 'we could see the crews running fast to their stations. We dropped our bombs. The second pilot, flying behind, saw two hit.' Both the Flight Lieutenant and the reconnaissance pilot were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The British pilots were under orders not to endanger German civilian life. At that point in the war, such orders seemed not only moral, but capable of being carried out. The German commanders had given no such orders. 'Brutal guerrilla war had broken out everywhere,' the German Quartermaster General, Eduard Wagner, wrote on September 4, 'and we are ruthlessly stamping it out. We won't be reasoned with. We have already sent out emergency courts, and they are in continual session. The harder we strike, the quicker there will be peace again.' That striking came both on land and from the air. At Bydgoszcz, on 4 September, more than a thousand Poles were murdered, including several dozen boy scouts aged between twelve and sixteen. They had been lined up against a wall in the market place — and shot. Entering Piotrkow on September 5, the Germans set fire to dozens of Jewish homes, then shot dead those Jews who managed to run from the burning buildings. Entering a building which had escaped the flames, soldiers took out six Jews and ordered them to run; five were shot down, the sixth, Reb Bunem Lebel, died later of his wounds.
Many towns were on fire in Poland that week; thousands of Poles perished in the flames, or were shot down as they fled. Two wars raged simultaneously; one on the battle front of armed men, and the other in towns and villages far behind the front line. At sea, also, a war had begun, the course of which was to be savage and all-encompassing. That 5 September, German submarines sank five unarmed merchant ships, four British and one French. The British had not been slow to respond; HMS Ajax, in action that day, sank two German merchant ships 'in accordance with the rules of warfare', as Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, informed his War Cabinet colleagues. The merchant ships had failed to stop when ordered to do so.
Each day saw the rules of war ignored and flouted by the Germans, as they advanced deeper and deeper into Poland. On September 6, in the fields outside the Polish village of Mrocza, the Germans shot nineteen Polish officers who had already surrendered, after fighting tenaciously against a German tank unit. Other Polish prisoners-of-war were locked into a railwayman's hut which was then set on fire. They were burned to death. Henceforth, prisoners-of-war were not to know if the accepted rules of war, as laid down by successive Geneva Conventions, were to apply to them: the rules whereby the Nazis acted were completely at variance with those which had evolved over the previous century.
For the Jews, it seemed that extremes of horror were to be perpetrated by this conqueror who boasted that the Jews would be his main victim. Speaking in Berlin seven months before the outbreak of war, Hitler had declared that, if war broke out, 'The result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.' Six days of war had already shown that the murder of Jews was to be an integral part of German conquest. In a gesture of defiance, Dr Chaim Weizmann, the elder statesman of the Zionist movement, wrote to the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to declare that the Jews would fight on the side of the democracies against Nazi Germany; his letter was published in The Times on September 6. That day, Hitler was driven by car from his special train to the battlefield at Tuchola, where a Polish corps was surrounded. While he observed the scene of battle, a message reached him that German forces had entered the southern Polish city of Cracow.
The war was one week old; Cracow, a city of more than 250,000 inhabitants, was under German control. On the following day, September 7, the SS chief Reinhard Heydrich told the commanders of Eicke's special SS task forces, which were about to follow behind the advancing soldiers: 'The Polish ruling class is to be put out of harm's way as far as possible. The lower classes that remain will not get special schools, but will be kept down in one way or another.' Eicke himself directed the work of these SS units from Hitler's headquarters train, and it was on the train on September 7 that Hitler told his Army Commander-in-Chief, General von Brauchitsch, that the Army was 'to abstain from interfering' in these SS operations. Those operations were relentless. On the day after Hitler's talk with Brauchitsch, an SS battalion executed thirty-three Polish civilians in the village of Ksiazki; such executions were soon to become a daily occurrence.
Hitler's entourage quickly learned what he had in mind. On September 9 Colonel Eduard Wagner discussed the future of Poland with Hitler's Army Chief of Staff, General Halder. 'It is the Führer's and Goering's intention', Wagner wrote in his diary, 'to destroy and exterminate the Polish nation. More than that cannot even be hinted at in writing.'
Britain and France saw little scope for military action to assist Poland in any substantial way. On September 7, French military units crossed the German frontier at three points near Saarlouis, Saarbrücken and Zweibrücken. But no serious clash of arms took place. The Western Front was quiet. In London, a specially created Land Forces Committee of the War Cabinet discussed the scale of Britain's future military effort. At its first meeting, on September 7, Churchill, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed the creation of an army of twenty divisions by March 1940. 'We must take our place in the Line', he said, 'if we are to hold the Alliance together and win the War.' In its report on the following day, the Land Forces Committee set out, as the basis for Britain's military planning, that the war would last 'for at least three years'. The first twenty divisions should be established within the next twelve months, a further thirty-five divisions by the end of 1941. Meanwhile, the main thrust of Britain's war effort would of necessity be defensive: September 7 saw the inauguration of the first two convoys of merchant ships, escorted by destroyers, one from the Thames estuary, through the English Channel and into the Atlantic, one from Liverpool into the Atlantic.
That day, near the western Polish industrial city of Lodz, the last of the Polish defenders were still seeking to bar the German advance. Their adversaries, SS fighting troops, noted how, that afternoon, at Pabianice, 'the Poles launched yet another counter-attack. They stormed over the bodies of their fallen comrades. They did not come forward with their heads down like men in heavy rain — and most attacking infantry come on like that — but they advanced with their heads held high like swimmers breasting the waves. They did not falter'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Second World War"
Copyright © 2014 Martin Gilbert.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps,
1. The German invasion of Poland, September 1939,
2. Poland defeated, October 1939,
3. Finland defiant, November 1939,
4. The Scandinavian cockpit, winter 1939–1940,
5. The German attack in the West, May 1940,
6. Dunkirk, May 1940,
7. The battle for France, June 1940,
8. France's agony, Britain's resolve, June–July 1940,
9. The battle for Britain, August–September 1940,
10. 'The war is won!' (Hitler), October 1940,
11. The 'new order of tyranny' (Roosevelt), winter 1940–1941,
12. The widening war, January–March 1941,
13. The German conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, April 1941,
14. The fall of Crete; war in Africa, April–May 1941,
15. The German invasion of Russia, June 1941,
16. Terror in the East, July–August 1941,
17. Towards Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev, September 1941,
18. Russia at bay, September–October 1941,
19. 'Deciding the fate of Europe' (Hitler), November 1941,
20. The limits of German conquest, December 1941,
21. Japan strikes, December 1941,
22. 'We are no longer alone' (Churchill), New Year 1942,
23. Global war, February–April 1942,
24. The spread of resistance and terror, summer 1942,
25. Axis triumphs, July 1942,
26. Guadalcanal, Dieppe, El Alamein, August–September 1942,
27. Stalingrad and 'Torch', September–October 1942,
28. The turn of the tide for the Allies, winter 1942,
29. Casablanca: blueprint for victory, January 1943,
30. The German armies in danger, February 1943,
31. 'Drive the enemy into the sea' (Montgomery), spring 1943,
32. 'The first crack in the Axis' (Roosevelt), summer 1943,
33. Germany and Japan in retreat, autumn 1943,
34. 'Bleeding to death in the East' (Goebbels), winter 1943,
35. Anzio, Cassino, Kwajalein, January–February 1944,
36. Bombing, deportation, and mass murder, February–March 1944,
37. Resistance, sabotage and deception, spring 1944,
38. D-Day, June 1944,
39. Germany encircled, July 1944,
40. The battles for Poland and France, summer 1944,
41. The bitter-sweet path of liberation, autumn 1944,
42. Into Germany; towards the Philippines, September 1944,
43. Fighting for every mile, October–November 1944,
44. Flying bombs, suicide pilots, death marches, January 1945,
45. Berlin, Manila, Dresden, Tokyo, February–March 1945,
46. The Axis in disarray; the Allies in conflict, March–April 1945,
47. The deaths of Roosevelt, Mussolini and Hitler, April 1945,
48. The end of the war in Europe, May 1945,
49. Germany in defeat, Japan unbowed, May–July 1945,
50. Alamogordo, Potsdam, Hiroshima, July–August 1945,
51. The defeat of Japan, August 1945,
52. Retribution and Remembrance, 1945–1952,
53. 'Unfinished business', 1953–1989,