The 16th July 1945 marked the start of the atomic age when the USA detonated the first nuclear bomb under the codename ‘Trinity’. Nicknamed ‘the gadget’ by the people working on it, the plutonium-based weapon was detonated at the Alamogordo Test Range in New Mexico. The explosion was equivalent to about 20 kilotons of TNT, and the blast-wave was felt by civilians up to 160 miles away. To maintain secrecy, a press release was issued shortly after the successful detonation that claimed a large ammunition storage magazine had exploded.
The development of nuclear weapons by the US Army in the Manhattan Project that began in 1942 at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico started due to concerns that Nazi Germany would develop an atomic bomb. By 1944 scientists had designed an implosion-type device and proposed that a test take place. The location was chosen in September, and an on-site laboratory was set up.
President Truman was keen to test the bomb before the Potsdam Conference began on the 18th July, so the 16th was chosen to give time to try again in case it failed. However when the appointed hour came rain was falling, which would have increased radioactive fallout, and so the detonation time was pushed back from 4am to 5.30am. At 5:29am the “the gadget” was exploded on top of a 100-foot steel tower, known as Point Zero. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, later said that after the explosion he recalled a verse from Hindu scripture: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
British naval ships attacked the French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria during the Second World War.
On 22 June 1940 France and Nazi Germany signed the Second Armistice at Compiègne. This signalled the end of the Battle of France, and Britain was concerned that the significant naval force of the Marine Nationale would now pass to the pro-Nazi Vichy government. If these ships were used by the Axis powers, they would secure a significant advantage in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Winston Churchill received reassurances from Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French Navy, that the ships would remain under French control. However, Churchill and the War Cabinet were unwilling to risk the possibility that they might change hands.
Having decided that it was necessary to neutralise the French fleet, Operation Catapult was launched on 3 July. French ships in British ports were captured, while those at Mers-el-Kébir were offered an ultimatum by Force H under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville. If the French didn’t surrender their ships or move them away from the reach of the Axis, they would be sunk.
Negotiations continued for much of the day, but at 5:54pm Churchill ordered the British ships to open fire in the first Anglo-French naval exchange since the Napoleonic Wars. The French were anchored in a narrow harbour that made them an easy target for the British guns. 1,300 French sailors were killed in just a few minutes, while one battleship was sunk with five more seriously damaged.
Churchill later recalled the ‘hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned’ but, in the context of the war, the attack at Mers-el-Kébir proved to the world that Britain was determined to keep fighting.
On the 12th June 1942, Anne Frank received a diary as a thirteenth birthday present from her father. Barely three weeks later, Anne and her family went into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Her diary, which chronicled her experiences over the next two years, was published posthumously after the war under the title The Diary of a Young Girl and became one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated books.
The Frank family originated in Frankfurt, Germany, but moved away after the Nazi party won local elections in 1933. Anne’s father, Otto, was a businessman who chose to move the family to Amsterdam after receiving an offer to start a company there. However, when the German army invaded the Netherlands in 1940 the family found themselves trapped in a country subjected to anti-Semitic laws.
When, in July 1942, Anne’s older sister Margot was ordered by the Nazi authorities to go to a labour camp, their father instead arranged for the family to go into hiding in a so-called ‘Secret Annexe’ above his office building. It was here that Anne wrote her diary, which she addressed as Kitty. Over three volumes she recorded the relationships between the Frank family, the Van Pels family, and her father’s friend Fritz Pfeffer with whom they shared their confined hiding place.
An anonymous tip-off led to the discovery and arrest of the eight inhabitants on the 4th August 1944. They were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp a month later. Anne died of typhus in early 1945 after being transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She was fifteen years old.
The 6th June 1944 saw the largest seaborne invasion in history, when the Allied forces of the Second World War launched Operation Neptune – more commonly known as the D-Day landings. The amphibious landings in Normandy marked the start of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Western Europe.
The invasion was focused on a 50-mile long stretch of Normandy coastline that had been divided into five codenamed sections known as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, nicknamed the Desert Fox for his leadership of Italian and German forces in the North African campaign, commanded the Nazi defence along what was known as the Atlantic Wall.
Prior to the landings, an airborne force of 24,000 Allied troops had been dropped behind enemy lines to seize or destroy features such as bridges, crossroads and key gun batteries. Despite this, the work of the first seaborne divisions was still difficult as they fought to clear the beaches under heavy fire from the numerous smaller gun emplacements that overlooked them. Rommel had previously identified the Normandy beaches as a possible invasion point and so had installed a range of obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, mines, and anti-tank devices that slowed down the Allied landing.
The Allies failed to achieve all their objectives on the first day and suffered at least 10,000 casualties. However, they did successfully establish a foothold on the continent that was gradually expanded over the next few months and led to the liberation of France and the defeat of the Nazis in the West.
On the 2nd June 1946, Italians voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy and turn their country into a republic. The question was simple: Monarchy or Republic? More than 89% of eligible Italian citizens voted in the referendum, with 54.3% voting in favour of a republic.
Italy had emerged from the Second World War as a country torn apart by conflict. The royal family was blamed by many people for allowing the growth and domination of Mussolini’s fascist regime, and was therefore also held responsible for the war and the Italian defeat. Even the wartime king, Victor Emmanuel III, had recognised the precarious nature of his position when Mussolini’s government collapse in 1944, and so handed over the responsibilities of head of state to his son, Crown Prince Umberto.
Umberto II formally ascended to the Italian throne in May 1946 but, despite his relative popularity with the Italian population compared to his predecessor, the pro-monarchy campaign was unable to gain sufficient support. However, the results of the referendum demonstrated a very clear split between a generally pro-republican north (where 2/3 of the population voted to abolish the monarchy) and a pro-monarchist south where 2/3 of the population wanted to keep it.
Umberto II was magnanimous and dignified in defeat. In his final speech to the Italian people he didn’t bear them any ill will, and encouraged them to be loyal to the republic. The monarchy formally ended on the 12th June 1946, and Umberto was exiled to Portugal. He died in 1983, having never set foot in Italy again.
Operation Dynamo, better known as the evacuation of Dunkirk, began.
Applauded by the British press as a heroic and miraculous rescue, Operation Dynamo saw an armada under the command of the Royal Navy successfully evacuate over 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches around the French port of Dunkirk.
The German army had invaded France on 10 May, and within just two weeks had cut off and surrounded a combined force of British, French and Belgian troops. Referred to by the recently-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as ‘a colossal military disaster’ the only hope was to retreat to the port of Dunkirk and evacuate as many soldiers as possible.
Operation Dynamo was overseen by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay who reputedly worked in a room within the cliffs of Dover that once housed an electrical dynamo, though there is no reliable evidence for this claim. The order to begin the operation was received at 18:57 on 26 May, less than a week after planning began.
The operation is famous for the flotilla of ‘little ships’ that sailed from Britain to assist the evacuation. Most of these were used to ferry soldiers from the beaches to the large navy ships that would sail across the Channel, although the majority of soldiers boarded ships directly from the stone and concrete mole that protected the harbour.
The evacuation took place amidst ferocious attacks from German aircraft and artillery. In response the Royal Air Force sent all available aircraft to protect the operation. Churchill later praised the fact that hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been evacuated from Dunkirk, but in a speech on 4 June needed to warn the public that ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’
West Germany’s Federal Archives revealed that forensic tests proved the Hitler Diaries were forgeries.
In the final days of the Second World War, an aeroplane carrying some of Hitler’s closest staff members crashed near the German border with Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s personal valet, Sergeant Wilhelm Arndt, was killed and the personal effects he was carrying on behalf of the Fuhrer were lost. On hearing of the crash, Hitler allegedly exclaimed that, ‘In that plane were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!’ Journalist Robert Harris later described this possibility of lost documents belong to Hitler as providing ‘the perfect scenario for forgery’.
A series of diaries purporting to be the lost journals of Adolf Hitler were later forged by Konrad Kujau. Posing as a Stuttgart antiques dealer, he successfully struck a deal with journalist Gerd Heidemann who had convinced his bosses at the newspaper Stern to buy the diaries. They eventually handed over 9.9 million Deutsche marks for 62 volumes, and sold the serial rights to other publications.
Authenticity of the diaries was originally confirmed by historians including Hugh Trevor-Roper and Gerhard Weinberg, but they grew more sceptical as the April 1983 publication date approached. The newspaper subsequently submitted three volumes to the Bundesarchiv for forensic examination. Initial tests highlighted both textual inconsistencies and the presence of materials that didn’t exist until a decade after their alleged creation.
More volumes were submitted for further tests and, on 6 May, the government formally announced that they were forgeries. Kujau was later arrested and imprisoned while the journalist, Heidemann, was found to have skimmed money from Stern’s payments for which he too was sent to jail.
The Battle of Berlin ended after German General Helmuth Weidling surrendered to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov.
Determined to capture Berlin before the Western Allies, Stalin’s generals began their assault on the defensive line of the Oder and Neisse rivers on the morning of 16 April. 2 million German civilians and no more than 200,000 German soldiers were in and around Berlin when the USSR broke through the defences having suffered casualties in the tens of thousands.
Travelling at up to 30-40km a day, the first Red Army troops reached Berlin in time for Hitler’s 56th birthday on 20 April. Artillery began bombarding the city and didn’t cease until the surrender almost two weeks later. Meanwhile other Soviet units encircled the city leading to Hitler, who was based in the Führerbunker, angrily declaring that the war was lost. Nevertheless he appointed General Weidling to command the Berlin Defence Area with a force of 45,000 soldiers supported by police officers, members of the Hitler Youth, and the Volkssturm militia.
By 30 April Soviet troops had reached the Reichstag and, late that evening, successfully placed a flag on top that was removed the following morning by German defenders. The building was finally taken over on 2 May and a new flag was raised, of which an iconic photograph was taken. General Weidling and his staff surrendered the same morning having failed to negotiate a conditional surrender.
Following the surrender the Soviets sought to restore essential services and provide food to the German survivors. However, some troops who reached the city lacked the discipline of the first echelon and committed shocking crimes against Berliners including rape, pillage and murder.
The raid by the Royal Navy and British Commandos was overseen by Combined Operations Headquarters. Their task was to disable the only dry dock on the Atlantic seaboard that was big enough to accommodate the terrifying German battleship Tirpitz. This was vital to British attempts to weaken the German presence in the Atlantic. If the St Nazaire facility could be put out of action, the Germans would have to send Tirpitz home for any repairs and would ultimately keep the dangerous ship out of the Atlantic.
265 commandos and 346 Royal Navy personnel arrived at the French docks in a convoy led by the old British destroyer HMS Campbeltown in the early hours of 28 March. The convoy was spotted before reaching the enormous gates of the dry dock but, despite of intense fire from the German batteries on the shore, Campeltown ploughed into the dock gates at 1.34am. Commandos surged ashore to destroy key dock facilities with explosives while assault teams tried to draw away German defenders. Meanwhile, time fuses attached to explosives hidden in the bow of Campbeltown were set.
With almost all the British evacuation ships destroyed or unable to reach the docks, it became clear that the Commandos left on shore would be unable to leave by sea. They consequently fought on until they ran out of ammunition, after which all but five were taken prisoner. At around noon the explosives inside Campbeltown detonated, destroying the dry dock.
Only 228 men returned to England. 169 had been killed and 205 became prisoners of war, but the raid itself was a success as the dock remained inoperative for the rest of the war.
On the 20th January 1942, a number of senior Nazis met at the Wannsee Conference where they discussed what was referred to as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich called the meeting, in which he outlined the deportation of European Jews to extermination camps in Poland where they would be systematically murdered.
Six months earlier, on the 31st July 1941, Hermann Goering had ordered Heydrich as his second-in-command to submit plans “for the implementation of the projected final solution of the Jewish question”. Heydrich was a trusted member of the Nazi elite, and had been referred to by Hitler as “the man with the iron heart”. He had already helped to organise Kristallnacht, established Jewish ghettos in Nazi-controlled territories, and command the Einsatzgruppen that were responsible for millions of Jewish deaths prior to his planning of the Final Solution.
Heydrich originally planned for the Wannsee Conference to take place on 9th December 1941, but it was postponed due to the USSR’s counter-offensive in the Battle of Moscow and the entry of the USA into the war. Fifteen representatives from a variety of government ministries attended the delayed meeting on the 20th January instead.
By this time hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been killed in the east, and the planning and construction of extermination camps had already begun. The meeting was, therefore, more to ensure coordination between the various government agencies in implementing the deportations.
Minutes from the meeting survive as what is known as the Wannsee Protocol, although the language was edited so that mass extermination was never explicitly recorded.