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.
On the 29th September 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier reached an agreement on the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland areas of Czechoslovakia. Seen by many as the ultimate act of failed appeasement, the Munich Agreement that was tabled on the 29th and signed in the early hours of the 30th was broken by Hitler six months later when he annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia.
As a result of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War, Germany had lost territory to the newly-created state of Czechoslovakia. Following his rise to power in Germany, Hitler set about reuniting with ethnic Germans. After the Czechoslovakian government turned down the Sudetenland’s branch of the Nazi Party request for autonomy from the rest of Czechoslovakia, which had been encouraged by Hitler, tensions between the two countries rose.
By the autumn of 1938 the situation had become a crisis, and Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had begun to engage Hitler in discussions aimed to avoid war. Britain and France were both desperate to reach a peaceful resolution and, when faced with Hitler’s demand to annex the Sudetenland but make no further territorial demands in Europe, the leaders eventually agreed.
Czechoslovakia had no option but to agree to the terms of the agreement, despite not being involved in the discussions. Meanwhile Chamberlain returned to Britain and made his famous speech in which he referred to the Munich Agreement and the related Anglo-German Declaration as securing “peace for our time”. Sadly he was wrong. Britain declared war on Germany less than a year later.
On the 3rd September 1939, the Second World War officially began when France and the United Kingdom – together with Australia and New Zealand – declared war on Germany. Nazi forces had invaded Poland two days earlier, claiming to be acting in self-defence. Although both France and Britain had each signed Pacts with Poland regarding mutual assistance in case of invasion, no significant military action was taken for eight months against Germany. As a result, this period became known as the Phoney War.
However, to call the war ‘phoney’ ignores some key elements of this period. The French, for example, launched an attack across the German border known as the Saar Offensive but the troops were pulled back to their defensive Maginot Line on the 17th October after it became clear that a full-scale assault would not be successful.
Further action took place at sea, where both the British and French navies both began a blockade of Germany’s ports the day after the declaration of war. The previous evening the British passenger ship SS Athenia was hit by torpedoes fired from a Nazi U-boat off the coast of the Hebrides. 128 civilian passengers and crew were killed as a result of the attack, and it is seen by some as marking the start of the Battle of the Atlantic.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill, on Chamberlain’s own suggestion, on the 10th May 1940. This coincided to the day with Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries using the tactic of blitzkrieg and effectively marked the end of the Phoney War.
On the 1st September 1939, German forces invaded Poland in a move that was to trigger the Second World War. Germany had already removed the threat that the USSR might respond aggressively by signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact a week earlier. Furthermore, the Nazis manufactured a situation in Poland to claim that their military response was an acting of self-defence.
During the night of the 31st August, Nazi SS troops dressed in Polish uniforms and staged an attack on the Gleiwitz radio tower in Upper Silesia. This ‘false flag’ operation was part of a wider series of staged attacks by Germans and German property called Operation Himmler that was designed to make it appear that Poland was exercising aggression against Germany.
Just hours after the Gleiwitz incident, at 4.45am on the 1st September, the first of approximately 1.5million German troops launched their attack on Poland. The effective encirclement of Polish forces by launching the coordinated attack at the same time from the north, south and west. The attack from the south came across the border with Slovakia, which had declared its independence in March under pressure from Hitler.
Known as the Battle of the Border, the three-pronged ground attack was supported by air raids that targeted Polish cities. It took just 5 days for troops on the ground to force the Polish army to retreat to their secondary defensive lines. The USSR joined launched its own invasion from east on the 17th September, and this crushed Polish hopes of victory.
The Polish government refused to surrender to Germany and instead evacuated the country and regrouped in Allied countries.