Most students in English classes, if assigned Ernest Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, would object, quite vocally, to a novel about World War I by saying. “This isn’t History class. Why must we read literature about World War I?” I am sure it would also be true that History teachers, who believe that English is taught in every class, would hear the same objection in reverse, “Why did you correct my spelling and punctuation? This isn’t English class.”
Knowing that many students are, and will continue to be, very much bored by the learning of historical facts, reading literature about World War II might be the perfect interdisciplinary approach to the teaching of World War II. History is, many times, taught by the memorization of dates and places, reading the chapter and answering the
questions, and taking multiple choice examinations. By emphasizing the story part of history, the English teacher can serve many purposes.
First and foremost, the teaching of this unit should compliment the teaching of World War II in United States History classes. Reading literature about the war should facilitate the learning of those historical facts which are necessary.
Secondly, it gives the English teacher, who has a strong history background, or one who finds historically-based novels interesting, a chance to transfer this knowledge to his/her classes.
Finally, the unit intends to show the horrors of war, not only for the soldiers involved, but also for everyday people, and how they coped with the intrusion of the war upon their lives.
If not English teachers are like myself, they know little about the chronological events of WW II. Therefore, the following is a brief summary of the important events of WW II. It should be used by the teacher as general information which will be helpful in the successful teaching of this unit. After all, we must be sure who was fighting whom and for what reason!
Important Events of World War II
The Second World War began on September 1, 1939 when the Germans attacked Poland. The German armies made the invasion a very one-sided affair. They outnumbered the defending Polish armies three to one. The Poles fought bravely against the brilliant and terrifying demonstration of the new military technique of “Blitzkrieg” (lightning war).
In a little more than two weeks, Soviet Russian armies were collaborating with the Germans and occupied the eastern part of Poland. Poland’s allies France and Great Britain were powerless to help. They both were astounded by the swiftness of the Blitzkrieg and unprepared to cope with it. The Allies optimistically hoped their armies were safe and tended to overlook the lessons of the Blitzkrieg in Poland. They neglected to take special precautions. Consequently, Nazi Germany transferred forces from the east to the west and prepared to overwhelm France. At the same time, Mussolini was also denouncing France and claiming Corsica, Tunis, Savoy, and Nice as Fascist Italian territory.
Russia, meanwhile, made demands on three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They were in no position to resist and in July, 1940, all three countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Russia continued by invading and occupying two Rumanian provinces. In turn, they were surrendered to the Soviet Union. Finland was next on the list. Demands were made upon the Finns for military and naval bases. These were met with resistance, which was surreptitiously aided by Sweden. But by March 1940, the Finns were worn down and surrendered. In April 1940, the Germans seized Denmark and launched an air and naval invasion of Norway. For a brief time, it seemed that Great Britain might be able to come to the rescue of Norway. But German air power proved to be too much for the British ships. On May 10, 1940, as a result of the fiasco of the British in Norway, Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Great Britain. On the very same day, the Germans launched an offensive against France. It was not an outright frontal attack; instead, the Germans surprise attacked through the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium. The resistance by these two countries did not last long. On May 27, the King of the Belgians surrendered.
The French, realizing their future, were confused and blocked not only by the Germans, but also by enormous numbers of civilian refugees. To worsen matters, Fascist Italy seized the opportunity to join Germany in the attack on France. Italy declared war on France on June 11; three days later the Germans occupied Paris. On June 21, 1940, French delegates signed an armistice. This registered the disastrous defeat of their country. (Hitler was caught dancing a jig on this occasion.) For those of you who like to prove a point with statistics, the Germans lost 25,000 soldiers and 70,000 wounded. They captured, killed or wounded more than two million French soldiers.
With the fall of France, Great Britain was left without allies with only the narrow waters of the British Channel as separation from Germany’s forces. Britain also had sustained the loss of the best part of its war equipment except for aircraft.
The Germans opened their air attack on coastal British towns on August 8, 1940 and in early September extended the attack to London. Until late spring of 1941, British cities were under continuous German air attack. More than 50,000 bombs fell on London alone. Coventry and many other ports and cities were badly battered by the German air attack. Some 40,000 persons were killed and those wounded numbered twice that.
Nonetheless, the air attack by Germany on Britain failed. The following are the most important reasons why the air attack failed. (1) Britain still had a sizeable defensive air force, which between 1940-41 knocked down 3,000 German planes but lost only a thousand themselves. Churchill, in a tribute to the British flyers said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Throughout, the British civilian showed his finest qualities. Their morale proved tough and firmly resistant. (3) Britain had important resources and manufacturing skills which enabled them to replace their losses. They also continued to receive invaluable assistance in the forms of men and supplies from overseas, especially Canada, New Zealand and Australia. (4) Britain also had an increasingly important source of supply in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave “all aid short of war” to the British. (5) Germany was prevented from concentrating totally upon Great Britain by the diversion of other developments, one of which was finding out that Hitler’s Italian ally weak and so lacking in spirit that it required constant bolstering.
The later part of 1940 and the early part of 1941 saw Italian armies advancing in the North African province of Libya and in Ethiopia and launching an attack on Greece. In June of 1941, Hitler broke with Stalin and launched an invasion of Russia. A German war against Russia should have been brief and highly successful. But this sudden break had numerous repercussions. Churchill promised aid to anyone who fought against Nazidom. American communists, who had wished America to remain isolated, now called for all-out aid to Russia and Britain. Countries, which had been invaded by Russia, such as Finland and Rumania, actively supported Germany.
By November 1941, Moscow seemed to be on the verge of being captured by the Germans. It was an opportune time for Japan, an associate of the Axis, to make its drive for supremacy in Asia and the Pacific. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese surprise attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying a considerable part of the American fleet and winning temporary naval supremacy in the Pacific. On December 8, 1941, the United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U. S.
By the end of 1941, the Japanese were threatening Burma. They had captured Guam and Wake Island from the Americans and Hong Kong from the British. A month later they had overrun most of Malaya and the Philippines.
Between January and March of 1942, the Japanese conquered Burma; in turn, this cut the main supply-route over the Burma Road to China. In Europe, the Germans met with stubborn resistance from the Russians. By the spring of 1942, however, they had recovered and were making new advances, though they still failed to take Leningrad and Moscow.
The farthest extension of Japanese conquests was reached in June 1942. In the naval battle of Midway, American fleet-based planes stopped a major Japanese thrust at Hawaii. In August, American Marines landed at Guadalcanal and held it despite repeated counter-attacks in the autumn.
Meanwhile, desert fighting was still taking place in North Africa, Egypt, and Tunis with the Anglo-American forces winning decisive victories. On July 9, 1943, the Anglo-American forces landed in Sicily and quickly overcame the Italian defense. This led to rumblings in the Fascist party; Mussolini was arrested and Marshal Badoglio was placed in charge of the government. He opened secret negotiations with the allies. The Germans, who were not caught napping, took over the defense of southern Italy.
As early as May and June of 1942, the British staged three raids on Cologne, Essen and Bremen and by early 1943 Germany was subjected to successive days of round-the-clock bombings. The bombings did not knock out Germany, but did produce shortages and paralyzed communication.
At the beginning of 1943, the Russians were also scoring notable successes. One German army was being held down at Stalingrad. The siege of Leningrad was broken, and in early March the threat to Moscow was practically ended.
By June 1944, the Russians had cleared the Nazis out of most of the territory held by the Soviet Union in 1938. On June 6, 1944, the very day on which the Germans evacuated Rome, American and British forces landed in France. This was the greatest water-born invasion in history.
By mid-September, it was obvious that the Allies were closing in upon Germany and that its defeat was only a matter of months. In early April, Hitler had made a decision to stay in Berlin to the end. On April 29, with Russian troops now fighting in the streets of Berlin, Hitler made his will. On April 30, after eating lunch, he retired to his room and a while later a shot was heard. Members of his personal staff found him lying on the sofa with a revolver by his side. He had shot himself through the mouth. Eva Braun, to whom he had been secretly married, lay dead beside him. She had taken poison. Their bodies were burned in the courtyard, with the sound of Russian guns in the background bringing the end of the Third Reich.
In Italy, on the order of a group of Italian communists, Mussolini and his mistress were seized trying to flee toward the Swiss border. They were taken out in a car and shot. Their bodies, along with others, were sent to Milan and strung up on meathooks in a gas station on the Piazzale Loreto. On May 2, Berlin fell. Allied victory was complete in Europe.
Victory in the Pacific over Japan was yet to be achieved. A large-scale invasion of Japan was planned for the autumn of 1945, but it proved to be unnecessary. By mid-summer, the Japanese started to feel that further fighting was futile. The final determinant was the dropping of two atomic bombs.
On August 6, 1945, one was dropped on Hiroshima and a second on August 9 on Nagasaki. The next day Japan offered to surrender. On August 14 1945, an agreement to surrender was made. This marked the end of World War II.
The cost of the war can never be accurately determined. To the American people alone, the immediate and direct cost of the war was over a million casualties, including nearly 400,000 deaths, and financial expenditure of approximately 350 billion dollars. The expenditure of other countries has been estimated at a trillion (1000 billion) dollars, while loss of property must run to another trillion, and of human lives into the millions.