On the 13th June 1944 the first German attack on Britain using the V-1 flying bomb, otherwise known as the ‘doodlebug’, took place. The bomb was specifically designed for terror bombing civilians, since its launch and autopilot system was able to identify a general target area but not hit a specific point.
The V-1 was powered by the Argus As 014 pulsejet engine, the first mass-produced engine of its type, the noisy operation of which led to the bomb earning its nickname as a ‘buzz bomb’ or ‘doodlebug’. The engine was simple and cheap to build and, combined with a simple fuselage of welded steel sheets and wings made of plywood, this meant the V-1 could be produced and operated at a fraction of the cost of other bombing methods.
The very first V-1 exploded near a railway bridge in Mile End, London, killing 8 civilians. Each launch site on the French and Dutch coasts could launch up to 18 bombs a day, but that figure was rarely met. Furthermore due to mechanical problems, guidance system failures, and an effective system of air defences only an estimated 25% of all V-1s hit their intended target. In fact, within just a couple of months of the first launch more than half of all V-1s were intercepted. However, the V-1 was still a highly effective weapon that caused significant damage to Britain.
The successful Allied advance after D-Day succeeded in disabling the launch sites on the French coast by September. This removed the threat of further attacks on British civilians.
Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron attacked German dams in Operation Chastise, otherwise known as the Dambuster Raids.
617 Squadron was formed specifically to attack three major dams that provided hydro-electric power and water to the Ruhr Valley, an area of enormous industrial significance to Germany. Operation Chastise was developed with the intention of destroying the dams and depriving the German war effort of the Ruhr’s potential output.
The operation was developed in such secrecy that, with just two nights to go until the night of the attack, only Wing Commander Guy Gibson and a small number of key officers knew the intended targets. Despite being just 24 years old, Gibson had already flown over 170 missions and had been specifically chosen to lead 617 Squadron.
The destruction of the dams depended on the correct deployment of a new explosive that had been invented by Barnes Wallis, the Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers aircraft factory. Nicknamed the ‘bouncing bomb’, he created a cylindrical bomb that would be spun backwards at a speed of 500rpm before being dropped onto water from a precise height at a precise speed. The bomb would then bounce over the torpedo nets installed in the dams’ reservoirs before spinning down the dam wall and exploding.
The squadron began their mission from RAF Scampton on the evening of 16 May. Arriving at their targets in the early hours of the 17 May, they breached two of the dams and lightly damaged the third. Eight of the aircraft were shot down during the mission and 53 airmen were killed. The flood waters from the breached dams killed up to 1,600 civilians in the Ruhr Valley, and slowed German industrial production for a number of months while repairs were carried out.
On the 10th May 1941 Deputy Fuhrer of the German Party, Rudolf Hess, flew from Germany to Scotland on a mission to strike a peace deal with the British government. Other than a couple of close confidantes, nobody – not even Hitler himself – knew what Hess had planned.
In preparation for his mission, Hess had learned how to fly a 2-seater Messerschmitt Bf 110, that was adapted to his specifications. Travelling solo, and navigating by spotting landmarks on the ground, Hess reached the north-east coast of England at around 9pm. Continuing in the air for another two hours, Hess parachuted out of his plane six hours after departing Germany. He landed just 12 miles away from his intended destination of Dungavel House, the home of the Duke of Hamilton with whom he hoped to open peace negotiations.
Hess’ arrival in Britain was not met with the enthusiasm he had hoped. He was discovered by a ploughman working in a nearby field, but soon found himself in custody. Back in Germany, Hitler is said to have taken Hess’ mission as a personal betrayal and signed a secret order that he be shot on sight if he ever returned.
Hess was held in Britain until the end of the war, after which he was found guilty of crimes against peace at the Nuremberg War Trials that resulted in life imprisonment at Spandau Prison in Berlin. When he died in 1987, he had been the prison’s only inmate for 21 years.
The 8th May 1945 was Victory in Europe Day – a public holiday to celebrate the end of the Second World War. The act of military surrender was authorised by Nazi leader Karl Dönitz, who had become Reichspräsident after Adolf Hitler committed suicide at the end of April.
The German army originally only wished to surrender to the Western Allies, and therefore continue to fight against the Soviets. American General Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to accept such terms, and insisted on a complete unconditional surrender. Realising the futility of continuing the war, Dönitz agreed. However, although the complete unconditional surrender was signed on 7th May in the city of Reims in France, the Soviet Union’s representative in the city did not have the authority to accept it. Therefore, a second Instrument of Surrender was signed the next day in Berlin by Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet officer who had led the Red Army through Eastern Europe. As the Berlin surrender was signed after midnight Moscow time, the former Soviet Union marks the 9th May as Victory Day.
VE Day was celebrated with jubilant scenes across the world, much as the end of the First World War had been met with cheers and dancing. It’s therefore quite ironic that the 8th May also marks the date when Edward George Honey, in a letter to the London Evening Standard in 1919, first suggested that the end of war should be marked by a period of silence rather than celebration, making him the first person to suggest the Remembrance Day silence.
At 9am on the 26th March 1945, the Battle of Iwo Jima ended as US Marines officially secured the island from the Japanese Imperial Army during the War in the Pacific. The US invasion of the 8 square mile island, known as “Operation Detachment”, led to five weeks of fierce fighting between around 21,000 Japanese troops and 110,000 Americans. The United States suffered 26,000 casualties of which nearly 7,000 died. Meanwhile the Japanese forces were virtually wiped out.
The objective of Operation Detachment was to capture Iwo Jima and its three airfields, in order to provide a base for US aircraft involved in attacks on the Japanese mainland. The island had been subjected to nine months of aerial bombings and naval bombardments prior to the US invasion, but the Japanese had dug an extensive network of tunnels beneath the volcanic island that provided shelter for much of the defence force.
The first Marines landed on the island on the 19th February and, despite facing little initial opposition, suffered significant casualties as they struggled to make their way inland. The strong Japanese defences meant that despite their superior numbers the Americans were sometimes only able to progress a few hundred metres a day.
However, Mount Suribachi was eventually captured and the iconic photograph of five Marines raising the United States flag was taken – albeit when a second, larger, flag was raised to replace the first. On the 16th March the island was declared secure, but sporadic fighting continued until the night of the 25th, when a final Japanese assault by 300 soldiers was defeated in a vicious 90-minute firefight.
On the 4th February 1945 the Yalta Conference began. Attended by the “Big Three” Allied leaders, the conference saw United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin meet to discuss the government of post-war Europe.
The three leaders had previously met at the Tehran Conference in 1943 where they set out a unified military strategy, but at Yalta the focus was exclusively on the end of the war and its aftermath. It was clear that the war in Europe was in its final stages, so they agreed to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender after which the country – and Berlin – would be split into four zones of occupation. Germany was to undergo a process of demilitarization and denazification, and Nazi war criminals were to be hunted down and brought to justice.
Furthermore, the three allies considered the fate of Eastern European countries that had been under Nazi occupation. Poland was the focus of much of the discussion, but the agreement reached was intended to apply to every country. The Protocol of Proceedings stated that the allies would assist the liberated countries to form “interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population…and the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people.”
The terms of the agreement, when they were made public, were met with harsh criticism in Britain and the United States. Some of these criticisms came to be justified when, at the end of the war, the Soviet Union installed communist governments throughout Eastern Europe.
On the 1st January 1942, the Declaration by the United Nations was agreed and signed by the representatives of four major Allied nations during the Second World War. The original signatories – US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the USSR’s Ambassador to the US Maxim Litvinov, and Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs T. V. Soong – were joined the next day by a further 24 nations.
Having been drafted by Roosevelt, Churchill and Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins, the short declaration was linked to acceptance of the principles of the Atlantic Charter of 1941. The document also provided a foundation for the later establishment of the UN itself, but was rooted firmly in the political and military situation of the time. All signatories agreed to apply themselves fully in what was referred to as “a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world”. Referring to these forces as following “Hitlerism”, it is clear that the Allied leaders did not differentiate between the different regimes against which they were fighting.
The wording of the declaration laid out the intended conclusion of the war. Rather than accept an armistice as had happened at the conclusion of the First World War, the signatories agreed that “complete victory over their enemies is essential”. This meant that the Allies would only accept the unconditional surrender of their enemies. Furthermore, they were bound to cooperate with every other signatory in the ongoing war and therefore not pursue a separate peace for their own nation’s advantage.
By the time the war ended in 1945, a further 21 countries had signed the declaration.
On the 20th November 1945 the first, and best known, of the Nuremberg Trials began. Held by the Allies in order to bring senior Nazis to justice for their part in the war crimes committed by the regime, the trial lasted for almost a year with verdicts ranging from prison terms to death sentences. Although criticized by some for being a form of “victors’ justice”, the Nuremberg Trials laid the foundations for a permanent international criminal court.
The Allies announced their intention of punishing German war crimes while the Second World War was still being fought and published a number of declarations, all highlighting their resolve to prosecute those who committed crimes during the war. This intention was repeated at both the Yalta and Potsdam conferences 1945.
Procedures for the trials were finally agreed under the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal on the 8th August 1945. This defined three types of crime: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and stated that members of the military and civilians could be brought to trial.
The first trial, of 24 defendants and a number of Nazi organisations, began on the 20th November at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. Martin Bormann was tried and sentenced in absentia, although it was later discovered that he had committed suicide many months previously. Another defendant, Robert Ley, committed suicide a week after the trial began.
All but three of the defendants were found guilty, of whom twelve were sentenced to death. The highest ranking of these was Hermann Göring, who committed suicide the night before his execution.