HST 504 – Week 11
Battle of Midway
Battle of Stalingrad
Victory Through Blitzkrieg: German Conquests Early in the War, 1939-1940
The Second World War had begun on 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
More than two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded from the East in order to grab its share of
the pie as outlined in the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
By the end of the month, the Polish Republic was wiped from the European map by the two main
revisionist Great Powers of the interwar period.
The arrangement with Hitler allowed Stalin to reclaim vast territories that before 1917 belonged
to the Tsarist Empire.
In addition to eastern Poland, Moscow managed to get control over the Baltic states (Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania), reclaimed Bessarabia from Romania, and was ready to declare war on
Yet, it was Berlin that got the wolf’s share of victories at the onset of the Second World War.
By the end of September, Hitler conquered most of Poland.
After a short reprieve, the first six months of 1940 were marked by even greater triumphs.
In April, Norway and Belgium fell to Berlin.
And then in June came one of the greatest of Hitler’s coups during the war, the defeat of France.
Berlin’s victories were, in part, due to the Western Allied lack of response.
Although Britain and France had declared war on Germany, they refused to initiate any military
operations on the Western front.
During this “Phoney War”, since London and Paris could not agree on the best strategy, Hitler’s
aggression remained unchecked.
Equally important were Germany’s preparedness and military strategy. The economic, political and military preparations initiated a good deal before 1939 all contributed
to wartime victories.
Throughout the 1930s, Berlin signed a series of bilateral trade agreements with various states
(across East Central Europe), obtaining access to natural resources (especially oil and iron).
Domestically, Hitler convinced the German nation that only through force would it once again
reclaim its rightful place in the international community.
Moreover, through effective propaganda and nationalist rhetoric, he made sure that the entire
society would support the war effort.
Most importantly, Hitler invested heavily into the military.
Almost immediately after assuming power, he initiated a vast rearmament, conscription and
Given that by the late 1930s, almost all of the European states had initiated rearmament
programs, with French and British forces equalling those of Germany, there was another
ingredient that gave Berlin an advantage.
The key to victory lay with the German military strategy.
In its conquest of most of Europe, the Wehrmacht used the so called Blitzkrieg tactics.
The “lightning war” attack involved careful planning, a coordinated command structure, well
trained and highly disciplined troops, and proper use of motorised vehicles (especially tanks and
A highly concentrated (motorized) force of tanks and infantry, moving at high speed, and fully
supported by the Luftwaffe (i.e., German air force), quickly and easily broke through enemy lines.
Extensive air power, used to bomb military and civilian targets, and concentrated divisions of
tanks on the ground threw the enemy forces off balance.
The “Phoney War” finally ended in May of 1940, when German troops invaded Belgium,
Luxembourg and the Netherlands, moving quickly in the direction of France.
The British and French inaction before this attack was in part explained through a prevailing
belief in a defensive strategy.
The French had built the Maginot Line—a series of fortresses along the border with Germany—
which they believed was impenetrable.
Unfortunately, the military planners had left the Franco-Belgian frontier (the Ardennes—a densely
forested area) undefended, giving the Wehrmacht a backdoor to France.
Within weeks, France was defeated and a pro-Nazi puppet regime was installed in Vichy.
The remaining Allied troops were evacuated at Dunkirk to the British Isles.
The hope to contain German aggression on the continent had disappeared.
Allied Strategies for Victory: The Grand Alliance
By the end of 1941, the United States and the Soviet Union joined Britain in the struggle against
the Axis camp.
Churchill would eventually dub the cooperation between the three powers as the Grand Alliance.
Although never formalized, it became a foundation for a victory in the Second World War. Already in the summer of 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt had signed the Atlantic Charter which
was reinforced at the beginning of 1942 in what became known as the “Declaration by United