Summarize the key battles and events of World War II.

Battlefield memorial near Krojanty, northern Poland
Battlefield memorial near Krojanty, northern Poland

Topics on the Page

Teaching Resources and Primary Sources

Topics in the Massachusetts Standards

A. German Conquest of Continental Europe
B. Battle of Britain
C. Pearl Harbor
D. Bataan Death March
E. El Alamein
F. Midway
G. Stalingrad
H. D-Day
I. Battle of the Bulge
J. Iwo Jima
K. Okinawa

rotating gif.gifFor more on key battles and events, see United States History II.15.

Teaching Resources and Primary Sources

game_icon.svg.pngCommand the U-505 Take command of U-505 and learn more about the life and operations on board a U-Boat in the second World War.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for an interactive timeline of the major battles in World War II.

For information and a presentation with videos, go to prezi Copy of Major Battles of WWII.

Japanese-American infantrymen, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, France, 1944.
Japanese-American infantrymen, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, France, 1944.

Multimedia.pngCrash Course offers these three videos on the history of the Second World War:
1. World War II Part 1
2. World War II Part 2
3. World War II: World History

Multimedia.png Click here for the Discovery Channel's Flashpoints of WWII.
map-ancient-rome-2.jpgClick here for an interactive map of the world during WWII from the History Channel. Click here for an interactive map of the spread of WWII. ABC offers an interactive map that shows territorial control as well as major events of the war by year.
Multimedia.pngClick here for World War II Historical Imagery from Google Earth 5.0, including images from the cities of Warsaw (Poland), Stuttgart (Germany), Naples (Italy), and Lyon (France).
primary_sources.PNGClick here for Captured: The Pacific and Adjacent Theaters in World War II in this photo blog from the Denver Post. This collection begins with photos from the attack on Pearl Harbor and continues through Iwo Jima, the two atomic bombs, and the end of the war.

Multimedia.pngprimary_sources.PNGJapanese Sign Final Surrender shows actual footage of the surrender ceremony of Japanese leaders to General McArthur in Toyoko Bay, September 1945.
lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on Winston Churchill's wartime speeches.

Female_Rose.pngWomen Pilots (Night Witches) in the European Theatre

Captain Mariya Dolina, squadron commander
Captain Mariya Dolina, squadron commander

Go here for information about the Night Witches, Russian women pilots who flew bombing missions against the Nazis during World War II, dropping 23,000 tons of bombs.

  • The all-women pilots were formally known as the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces.
  • This article from the Atlantic also includes info on the Night Witches given by the brave women themselves.

Click here for the of obituary Nadezhda Popova, the deputy commander of the Night Witches.
external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngFlying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II. Amy Goodpaster Strebe (Potomac Books, 2009) and Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots. Bruce Myles (Academy Chicago Press, 1990).
Multimedia.pngSoviet Airwomen in World War II from YouTube.
primary_sources.PNGRed Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot's Memoir of the Eastern Front. Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, Kim Green, Margarita Ponomariova. (Slavica Publishers, 2009).

American and English Women Pilots:
Female_Rose.pngVisit here for a National Public Radio story about female pilots in WWII, including interactive materials.

Rotating_globe-small.gifAfrican American Soldiers in World War II
  • Click here for info about Willa Brown , an African-American female pilot in WWII.
  • The 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion was comprised entirely of African Americans and saw valorous service against German forces in Europe. Their story can be read here.
  • Information on the African American pilots of World War II known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Focus Question: What were the key battles and events of World War II?

A. The German conquest of continental Europe

German Tanks, June 1940 in the Netherlands
German Tanks, June 1940 in the Netherlands

  • Hitler began his occupation of Europe in March 1936.
  • He would first "retake" the Rhineland which had be demilitarized.
  • On September 1st, 1939 Hitler launched an invasion of Poland.
  • In 1940 the countries of Norway and Denmark fell to the Nazis.
  • He would also take France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in that year.
  • Germany introduced a new military tactic termed Blitzkrieg or "lightning war" which was a coordination of the military tanks, infantry, and air force rapidly moving through the enemies lines causing confusion and capturing of strategic sites.
  • Blitzkrieg was a response to the stalemated warfare of the World War I where no army made significant advances against the other.
  • Germany had much success with this tactic because most of Europe continued to use World War I strategy which was ineffective against this new method of warfare.

Multimedia.png Interactive map for World War II and German Expansion.
lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan based on the New York Times article on Nazi Germany invading Poland.

Click Here for information on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact a non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR that also contained plans to split the country between the two nations.

B. The Battle of Britain

Bomb Damage in London during the Battle of Britain
Bomb Damage in London during the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain, an air assault, took place between September and August of 1940. The Germans targeted British harbors, air and navel bases along with other key sites. The German Air Force, called the Luftwaffe, had more planes and were able to replace fallen pilots with greater speed as Hitler had been mobilizing the country longer. However, the Germans lost more planes that the Royal Air Force (RAF) but for a long time the Germans had the strategic advantage of targeting radar bases. Radar was pivotal for British victory in this battle and, eventually, the Germans were forced to abandon attempts to take control of the English Channel, preventing Hitler from invading Britain.

Part 1 (of a 3 part series) shows what was happening in Britain at the time of the German assault.

primary_sources.PNGA speech by Winston Churchill about the coming of the Battle of Britain can be found here.

Visit Battle of Britain for more information about the Battle of Britain, the planes and the pilots involved.

C. Pearl Harbor

A torpedo attack on ships, Ford Island
A torpedo attack on ships, Ford Island

“A Day that will live in Infamy” said President Franklin Roosevelt. On Dec. 7,1941 the Japanese attacked the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The battle left the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet severely damaged.

The purpose of the attack, planned by Isoroku Yamamoto, was to take away the threat of expansion in the Pacific. Some of the destroyers and aircraft carriers were out training in the South Pacific, but many ships were sunk, most famously the Arizona, which went down almost immediately in the attack. It is still underwater in Pearl Harbor today and is still a U.S. commissioned warship to many people even though it is not “officially commissioned by the Navy.“ There are soldiers buried within her hull (those who went down with her). The U.S.S. Arizona is the final resting place for many of the ship's 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives on December 7, 1941.

Multimedia.pngVideo from after the Pearl Harbor attack (relatively hostile to Japan).

Biography on Doris "Dorie" Miller, who was a navy messman (The navy was segregated at the time; African-Americans were not allowed in "combat" positions). Upon attack by Japan, Dorie manned a machine gun and was able to take down a number of enemy aircraft, buying time for crew to abandon ship. His heroics were celebrated throughout the US and were a major force behind desegregation of armed forces.

For more see, World War II: Valor in the Pacific from the National Park Service. From this same website, see the biographies of survivors of Pearl Harbor.

primary_sources.PNGFor first-person accounts, see Stories--The Day of Infamy from the National Park Service and USS Arizona Crew Stories .
rotating gif.gifFor Information on why Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor see WHII.20.
external image bataan_map.gif

D. The Bataan Death March

This event took place in 1942 after the U.S. had to surrender to the Japanese in the Philippines. The U.S. soldiers were forced to march to their POW camps. Many of the troops were beaten or starved to death along the way. This was a "defeat" in the mind of many U.S. soldiers because they never thought they would win or retake and win the war after the march.

PBS offers a map (shown to the right), a description, and accounts from survivors from the Bataan Death March here.


  • A description of the march with accounts from survivors can be found here.
Multimedia.pngClick here to hear the account of a Bataan Survivor.

British Tanks, El Alamein, October 1942
British Tanks, El Alamein, October 1942

E. El Alamein

El Alamein was a battle between the British and Germans (led by German Gen. Rommel “desert fox”) It was in North Egypt during the summer of 1942.
  • The British forces pushed the Germans back across the desert to reclaim French North Africa.
    • A description of the battle can be found here.
Multimedia.pngAnimated Map of the Battle of El Alamein

For more information on the involvement of the Middle East and Africa in World War Two (including information on El Alamein), click here.

F. The Battle of Midway

Attack on Japanese cruisers Mogami and Mikuma, 6 June 1942
Attack on Japanese cruisers Mogami and Mikuma, 6 June 1942

Midway is an island in the South Pacific which is US territory . The battle took place on June 4,1942.
  • It was a navel battle which the USS Yorktown was sunk during. American aircraft destroyed all the of the attacking Japanese aircraft carriers, a turning point for the US in the Pacific front.
  • The Japanese Navy was neutralized and destined to play "defense" during the rest of the war. Not only had four vital aircraft carriers been destroyed but they had also lost many experienced crew members that would have been too hard to replace.
  • The United States ended Japanese naval superiority in the Pacific. This decisive victory cost the Japanese ships that they couldn't replace easily while the United States was able to replace and repair damaged ships at a much quicker rate.

Multimedia.pngThe U.S. Navy's account of the battle can be found here and here.
Multimedia.pngJoin deep sea explorer Bob Ballard as he searches for the wreck of the sunken battleship Yorktown in this website from National Geographic.

Click here to see a chart of the losses of both US and Japanese forces.

Click here for an interactive map on the Battle of the Coral Sea.

G. Battle of Stalingrad

Stalingrad Streetfight
Stalingrad Streetfight

Stalingrad was one of the longest battles during WW II.
  • It was the German offensive against the Russian city of Stalingrad. Historians argue that Hitler attacked the city because it shared the namesake of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Likewise Stalin fought adamantly to defend it.
  • The battle would last 199 days, running between August, 1942 and February of 1943. It was a door-to-door battle to retain or gain control of the city.
  • The Soviets' victory and the tremendous losses on both sides would mark this battle as a significant turning point in the European theatre.
  • The Soviets used a defense in depth strategy to negate the fast moving Blitzkrieg tactics that Germany used so effectively in conquering the vast majority of Europe.
  • The battle consisted of brutal urban combat that cost the German military extensive manpower and equipment that would disallow them to stop the Soviet counteroffensive towards Berlin and the allied invasion of France.

Click here for Stalingrad, from the History Channel.
womens history.jpgAccount of a female Russian sniper Lyudmila Mikhailivna Pavlichenko

Biography icon for wiki.pngOne of the most famous veterans of Stalingrad was the Russian sniper Vasily Zaitsev. His story and a description of the Battle of Stalingrad as a whole can be found here.

Rotating_globe-small.gif Visual News has a small collection of Soviet propaganda posters from World War II. To provide a contrast, here is a collection of Nazi propaganda posters.

H. D-Day


D-Day, one of the longest planned battles of WWII, was the invasion of mainland Europe, June 6, 1944. 176,000 troops were involved, most of them US troops.

  • It was a successful attempt to slowly take control from the Germans on continental Europe.
  • The attack created a two front war for Germany, as they faced the advancing Soviets from the East and the American, British and Canadian forces from the West through France.
  • This marked the beginning of the march to Berlin which would force Germany to surrender less than a year later.
    • "It is hard to conceive the epic scope of this decisive battle that foreshadowed the end of Hitler's dream of Nazi domination. Operation Overlord was the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken before or since June 6, 1944. The landing included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and over 150,000 service men. After years of meticulous planning and seemingly endless training for the Allied Forces, it all came down to this: The boat ramp goes down, then jump, swim, run, and crawl to the cliffs. Many of the first young men (most not yet 20 years old) entered the surf carrying eighty pounds of equipment. They faced over 200 yards of beach before reaching the first natural feature offering any protection. Blanketed by small-arms fire and bracketed by artillery, they found themselves in hell. When it was over, the Allied Forces had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties; more than 4,000 were dead. Yet somehow, due to planning and preparation, and due to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of the Allied Forces, Fortress Europe had been breached." -Quoted from a PBS Special on D-Day.

In addition to American, British, and Canadian forces, Australian forces assisted with D-Day as well. Information on their memorial and involvement can be found here.
Multimedia.pngA small collection of archival footage and speeches about the D-Day landings can be found here.

primary_sources.PNG Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower's message to troops prior to the Normandy invasion.

lessonplan.jpgLesson plans for teachers and students about D-Day. See also Teachers and Students Retrace the Lives of Those Who Died at Normandy from PBS Newshour (July 27, 2015)

external image battle-of-the-bulge-article.jpg

I . Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge was a battle that took place during Dec. 16, 1944 - Jan. 25, 1945. It was a failed Germany counter-offensive that was the last great battle of the Germany army during the war.

Hitler was sure the Allied Powers were weak enough to be divided and it was a good excuse to take the Port of Antwerp, a major port for Allied supplies.

The weather, the element of surprise and German soldiers in Allied uniforms causing havoc all combined for two days of German power blasting through the front line. However, the German army did not have the fuel and, by mid-January they had over 100,000 casualties.

During the battle, a group of American soldiers were massacred by German troops near the village of Malmedy, France. It was perhaps the largest single massacre of American POW's by Nazi forces during the war. It's story can be read here.

Click here for a short video by the history channel showing what conditions were like for soldiers during the surprise assault by German troops.

The library of Congress offers an interactive essay on the Battle of the Bulge, equipped with a map and dates.

J. Iwo Jima

external image Iwo_jima_location_mapSagredo.pngWhile Iwo Jima is famously known for the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, the battle is an important example and the start of the American military Strategy called "Island Hopping."

Photographer: Joseph Rosenthal

In this strategy, the theory was to attack and capture important yet lightly defended Japanese islands. The reasoning behind this theory was two fold. First was that the Allies were lacking in supplies and therefore couldn't afford to attack every single island. Second was that if they attacked specific islands they would have a base of operations closer to the Japanese mainland. With this they could cut off other islands with more resources from the Japanese.

Iwo Jima was important to both the Japanese, who had two air bases already on the island and could use it's location to attack American planes on the way to Japan, as well as Americans who could use the island for land and refueling.

The basic tenets of island hopping were broken once by Douglas MacArthur who moved south to retake Borneo after retaking the Northern Philippines, strictly to live up to his claim that he would return to Borneo (a claim made during his speeches in Australia) When he reached Borneo, MacArthur boldly claimed "This is the voice of freedom....I have returned."

"The small island of Iwo Jima lies 660 miles south of Tokyo. One of its outstanding geographical features is Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano that forms the narrow southern tip of the island and rises 550 feet to dominate the area. By February 1945, U.S. troops had recaptured most of the territory taken by the Japanese in 1941 and 1942; still uncaptured was Iwo Jima, which became a primary objective in American plans to bring the Pacific campaign to a successful conclusion. On the morning of February 19, 1945, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions invaded Iwo Jima after a somewhat ineffective bombardment lasting 72 hours. The 28th Regiment, 5th Division, was ordered to capture Mount Suribachi. They reached the base of the mountain on the afternoon of February 21, and by nightfall the next day had almost completely surrounded it. On the morning of February 23, Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion, started the tortuous climb up the rough terrain to the top. At about 10:30 a.m., men all over the island were thrilled by the sight of a small American flag flying from atop Mount Suribachi. That afternoon, when the slopes were clear of enemy resistance, a second, larger flag was raised by five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman: Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon H. Block, Pfc. Franklin R. Sousley, Pfc. Rene A. Gagnon, Pfc. Ira Hayes, and PhM. 2/c John H. Bradley, USN" Taken from Iwo Jima Battle .

The battle was made famous in many movies and is the subject of two recent movies Flags of Our Fathers (US side of story) and Letters from Iwo Jima (Japanese side) by director Clint Eastwood (2006/2007).

Interesting Fact: This famous picture (above right) was actually from one of the first few days of the battle. The flag raising from after the victory at Iwo Jima is rarely seen.

multicultural.pngBiography_icon_for_wiki.pngOne of the six famous Iwo Jima Flag raisers was a member of the Native American Pima tribe named Ira Hayes. After the war his celebrity status and disillusion with the war led him to an early death related to alcohol. His tragic story can be found here.

lessonplan.jpgIwo Jima fact sheet

K. Okinawa

The Battle of Okinawa was the largest water based offensive during the Asian Theater battles. It lasted from March to June of 1945, two months before Japan would surrender to the US. It would be a US victory and the “end” of the Pacific War. An in depth description of the battle can be found here.

The battle for Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater. It is estimated that over 200,000 people died in the Battle for Okinawa. Among them were 12,000 Americans, but 100,000 were civilians. Okinawa today has a massive amount of monuments all over the island. They can be seen here, Okinawa Memorial.

Multimedia.pngTo get more of an understanding of this battle, the History Channel has a great video, in HD! Okinawa Video

Additional Resources

Operation Barbarossa: The invasion of the Soviet union which began on June 22, 1941.
Multimedia.pngThe Guardian has a weekly series called "Photography then and now". This series blends photos from the past with photos of the same location today. See D-Day Landscapes, WWII Streetview, London's Piccadilly Circus, and Balham in the Blitz.

Information on Henry Prunier, a member of the US Deer team which was tasked with training Ho Chi Minh and others during WWII to fight against the Japanese in Vietnam.

Additional Resources

Essential World History Duiker & Spielvogel 2001 Ch. 26 pp. 602-626
His 369 US Since Pearl Harbor- UMASS /Amherst Prof. Christian G.Appy
Image of German Expansion from:

Image in D-Day subtitle from :

Image of New York Times Battle of the Bulge: