The bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen, the Second World War changed the course of modern history.
It all began with a failed artist called Adolf Hitler, who had never recovered from Germany‘s defeat in the First World War. When his Nazi Party took power in 1933, he dedicated himself to revenge and conquest.
After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war to stop him. But at first the war went disastrously for the Allies — Britain, France and Poland — and by the end of 1940 Hitler seemed the master of Europe.
For a while Britain stood alone, supported only by its friends and colonies beyond the seas. Then Hitler made the mistake of invading Russia, bringing its great army into the war against him.
And when the Japanese joined Hitler, hoping to divide the world between them, the Americans joined the struggle alongside their British friends.
For years the two sides struggled for supremacy. Tens of millions of people were killed, including six million Jewish men, women and children, murdered in Hitler’s death camps.
Fighters soared above the fields of England. Tanks clashed on the steppes of Russia. Battleships fought for the waters of the Pacific. And in the centre of his ruined capital, Hitler spat out his rage as his dark empire collapsed around him.
The bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen, the Second World War changed the course of modern history. It all began with a failed artist called Adolf Hitler (pictured), who had never recovered from Germany’s defeat in the First World War
At last, in the summer of 1945, the Allies, now including Russia and America, won the day. It was a victory for millions of ordinary people, who overcame their fear and did their best in the face of terrible evil.
More than anything, the Second World War was the story of millions of ordinary people, caught up in a conflict they had never wanted.
The schoolboy who fought off the enemy bombers. The schoolgirl who stood up to foreign invaders. The yachtsman who came to his countrymen’s rescue. The chess players who cracked the unbreakable codes.
The soldiers who stumbled through deserts and jungles. The sailors who lived in fear of torpedoes. The women who worked all night in the factories. The musicians who played while the bombs hammered down.
They were all heroes — and here I tell just some of their stories.
Brother and sister who took on a tyrant
One sunny May morning in 1942, a girl with sad brown eyes gazed out of the window of her train, lost in thought.
Sophie Scholl was 20, although she looked younger. She wore a brown skirt, a pink jumper and no make-up, and had a daisy tucked behind one ear.
The green fields gave way to houses and office blocks. This was Munich, where Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party had been born.
The train hissed to a halt. Sophie stepped onto the platform, and there was the kind, clever face of her older brother Hans.
Hans and Sophie had grown up in the countryside, the children of a small-town mayor who had always taught them to do the right thing. ‘All I want,’ Mr Scholl once told his children, ‘is for you to walk straight and free through life, even when it’s hard.’
For years, Sophie had tried to live up to her father’s words. She had always been a serious-minded girl, who adored drawing, books, trees and flowers.
After leaving school she had trained as a nursery teacher. But she had long dreamed of joining Hans at the university in Munich, where he was studying medicine. And now, in the late spring of 1942, her dream had become a reality.
Pictured L-R: Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, members of the anti-Nazi resistance movement The White Rose
A few weeks later, the first critical leaflets appeared. They came out every week or two, scattered across the university.
Nobody knew who had written them. But in a country where it was risky even to joke about the Nazis, everybody knew they were dangerous.
‘Every honest German,’ said the first leaflet, ‘is ashamed of his government.’ The Nazis had committed ‘the most horrible of crimes’, and people must stand up and say so.
The second leaflet went further. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, it said, had been ‘murdered in this country in the most bestial way’.
The third leaflet called Germany the ‘dictatorship of evil’. And the fourth ended with a warning: ‘We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!’
For months, Hitler’s secret police, the Gestapo, hunted for the authors. But there were no clues. It was as if the leaflets had appeared out of thin air. Then, on February 18, 1943, a janitor at Munich’s university noticed something strange. A little before 11 o’clock, a young couple had walked into the main building carrying a suitcase.
Minutes later, the janitor saw the girl on the balcony above the entrance hall. To his amazement, she leaned out and flung a handful of leaflets down into the hall. As the papers fluttered towards the floor, the janitor yelled: ‘You are under arrest!’ And at that the youngsters just froze, as if stricken with fear.
A few minutes later the Gestapo arrived. Their chief investigator made a note of the youngsters’ names: Hans and Sophie Scholl.
Soon the truth came out. Hans and Sophie had been part of a secret little group of Christian students who hated the Nazis and dreamed of a better world. But the penalty was death.
For hours the Gestapo tried to make Sophie change sides. She was young. If she put all the blame on her brother, she might escape execution.
Never, she said. ‘I would do it all over again, because I’m not wrong.’
She gazed out of her cell window. ‘Such a beautiful sunny day,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘and I have to go . . .’
On the afternoon of Monday, February 22, 1943, Mr and Mrs Scholl were allowed into the prison.
First, they said goodbye to Hans. His father gave him a long hug. ‘You will go down in history,’ he whispered.
Then Sophie was brought in. Her mother handed her some biscuits.
‘Sophie, remember Jesus,’ her mother said.
Sophie smiled. ‘Yes, you too,’ she said softly.
Back in their cells, the youngsters said their prayers. Then, at five o’clock, the moment came.
Sophie went first, walking calmly to the guillotine. Then came Hans. Just before the blade fell, he gave a last cry of defiance: ‘Long live freedom!’
In death, Hans and Sophie had won a victory that would never be forgotten. Their courage was a sign that even in the heart of Hitler’s empire, amid all the machinery of destruction, a few young Germans still dared to tell the truth.
A quest for revenge fuelled Hitler’s hatred
Today, we remember Adolf Hitler as one of history’s greatest monsters, whose lies cost the lives of millions. But he began life as an ordinary boy in the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn, daydreaming about the gods and heroes of old.
Born on Easter Saturday 1889, young Hitler dreamed of being an artist. But when he failed to get into Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, he sank into a miserable life, living in a hostel and painting cards to sell.
Then came the First World War, when Hitler volunteered in the German army. Shocked by defeat, he dedicated himself to revenge, becoming leader of the Nazi Party.
His message was simple. Germany, he claimed, had been betrayed by the Jews, who stole people’s money and stabbed the army in the back. It was a mad fantasy, yet many believed him. With their country humiliated, they were desperate to blame someone.
Pictured: Children at Auschwitz in January 1945
After coming to power in January 1933, Hitler wasted no time in tightening his grip. Within weeks he had thrown thousands of people into prison camps and proclaimed himself supreme leader. He dreamed of a ‘thousand-year empire’, with everything from schools to sport under his control. And all the time his mind was bent on conquest.
First he took Austria, then Czechoslovakia. When he attacked Poland in 1939, Britain and France tried to stop him, yet his armies swept across Europe, unstoppable. Hitler’s arrogance was his undoing. Unable to break the defiance of the British, he turned his guns against Russia, stretching his men to the limit.
As his troops fell back, he retreated to his Berlin bunker, lurking like a monster in a labyrinth.
Trapped in this gloomy netherworld, he returned to his childish fantasies.
As the Russians stormed towards Berlin, Hitler spent hours planning to rebuild the city of Linz, where he had gone to school. He even designed a new art gallery, full of paintings from conquered countries.
But even in the bunker there was no escape from reality. And on April 30, 1945, with the Russians closing in, Hitler retreated to his study and blew out his brains.
BRITAIN: Sent away suddenly from mummy for months
Paddington station, September 1939. The platforms were packed with thousands of children, pale with nerves.
A voice echoed from the loudspeakers. ‘Hello children! Please take your seats quickly. The train leaves in a few minutes. Don’t play with the doors and windows if you don’t mind. Thank you.’
Days earlier, millions of families had gathered around their radios to hear the news they dreaded. Britain was at war.
They had heard the rumours about Hitler’s war machine. So the government decided to evacuate children from towns and cities to the countryside.
Children carried a box, containing their gas mask, and a suitcase with clothes, a toothbrush and pyjamas, as well as a book or a teddy bear. A label with their name on was tied to their coat.
Most had never spent a night away from home. Often their parents could not bring themselves to tell them the truth, and said they were going on holiday.
Pictured: Three young evacuees sit on their suitcases ready for their journey away from the danger of a city in October 1940
When Bernard and Rose Kops lined up in their school playground, Rose could not stop crying. ‘I want to stop with you,’ she sobbed to their mother. ‘I want to be killed with you.’
On the train, Rose cried and cried. ‘Where will we be tonight?’ she kept asking. And poor Bernard had no idea what to say.
One boy from Glasgow, evacuated to the Highlands, found the experience overwhelming. On his first night, he climbed onto the roof, shouting: ‘Help! They’re trying to drown me!’
His hosts had run him a bath — but he had never had one before.
Most settled eventually. But the war was going horribly for Britain. In May 1940, Hitler’s armies smashed the Allied defences. France fell within weeks.
Rallied by Winston Churchill, the Royal Navy rescued Britain’s soldiers from Dunkirk. In the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force shot down Hitler’s planes.
But night after night, German bombers swept across the Channel. Every night children lay sleepless in bed, dreading the wail of the air-raid siren.
Nowhere was safe from the Nazis’ fury. But, above all, Hitler targeted London. If he broke the spirit of the capital, he believed, he would break Britain itself.
On December 29, 1940, the Germans mounted their largest raid yet. One bomb fell through the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Yet when dawn broke, the great church was still there: unbroken, a symbol of defiance.
One woman, Dorothy Barton, worked nearby. As she left the Underground, she felt ‘that while St Paul’s survived, so would we’.
As Dorothy approached, she saw the firemen packing up.
‘The office workers burst into a cheer and shook hands with the firemen,’ she wrote. ‘It was such an emotional moment.’
The more Hitler destroyed, the more determined the British people were to stop him. Churchill said: ‘What he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts . . . which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out.’
He was right. It took five more years of struggle. But, in the end, Churchill and our allies struck back across the Channel and emerged victorious.
RUSSIA: The winter of starvation – and a concert which brought hope
In the summer of 1941, Hitler launched his most daring gamble yet. Two years earlier he had signed a pact with the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, promising neither would attack the other.
But now Hitler broke his word. Frustrated by the defiance of the British people, he decided to turn east, carving out a vast new empire in the Russian steppes.
Early on the morning of Sunday, June 22, his tanks crashed across the border. Taken unawares, the Russians seemed powerless.
The speed of the German attack defied imagination. Soon they were closing in on Russia’s great northern city, Leningrad. By September the city was cut off.
Hitler told his men not to bother fighting their way into the streets. ‘It is not worth risking the lives of our troops,’ he said. ‘The Leningraders will die anyway.’
As the winter began to bite, Leningrad starved. With no food, people boiled shoes for their leather. They swallowed glue and grease. They ate dogs, cats, even rats.
Pictured: Conductor Karl Eliasberg and his orchestra rehearsing the Symphony No. 7 by Dmitry Shostakovich in besieged Leningrad in March 1942
Along the canals lay heaps of bodies. Survivors drifted like ghosts through the fog. Every day they heard the boom of the German guns, just outside the city. Yet still Leningrad clung to life.
In the spring of 1942, posters went up in the streets. Conductor Karl Eliasberg wanted to put on a concert in the Grand Philharmonic Hall, and he needed people who could play instruments.
For the next few weeks, Eliasberg searched the city, knocking on door after door.
‘We were moved to tears when they brought their instruments,’ one of his friends said. At the first rehearsal, the musicians were so weak they had to stop after 15 minutes. Often they fainted with hunger.
Sometimes they were interrupted by air-raids, but they stuck at it. And on August 9, 1942, the great day came.
The hall was packed. Crowds gathered around loudspeakers.
Before the concert, Eliasberg gave a speech. ‘Comrades,’ he said. ‘In a few minutes, you will hear the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich . . . This performance is witness to our spirit, and readiness to fight.’
Then the symphony began. Shostakovich was Russia’s greatest composer. Now, as his work echoed around the hall, people started crying. They wept with grief, pride and determination that they would never give in.
By the finale, the tired musicians began to falter. But something extraordinary happened.
First one, then all of the audience got to their feet. ‘It was impossible to listen sitting down,’ one woman said. ‘Impossible.’
When the last note died away, the hall exploded with applause.
That evening, Eliasberg wrote, ‘the whole city found its humanity. And in that moment, we beat the Nazi war machine.’
Thanks to the loudspeakers, the German besiegers heard every note. It was then, one soldier recalled, they knew Leningrad would not fall.
‘We began to see,’ he said, ‘there was something stronger than fear and death — the will to stay human.’
Leningrad never did fall. And day by day, step by bloody step, the Russians’ Red Army forced Hitler’s men back. In the spring of 1945, the Red Army stormed into Germany. Hitler’s empire was reduced to rubble, and the Nazis’ power broken.
USA: Young American hero of deadly torpedo attack
As Europe burned, Japan’s leaders sharpened their swords. For years they had dreamed of building an Asian empire, from China to India.
But one country stood in their way — the United States of America, which had so far stayed out of the fighting. So Japan’s commanders planned a surprise attack, hoping to wipe out America’s Pacific Fleet in a single morning.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japan’s bombers took off from aircraft carriers. As the pilots soared, they saw a sun rising. Soon they spotted the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor. The commander screamed the attack signal: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ — ‘Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!’
Moments later, the first torpedo smashed into the USS West Virginia.
Below, Doris Miller was collecting laundry. As the ship shuddered, he dropped the sheets and raced to his post.
Doris was an unlikely hero. For one thing, there was his name. Born in Texas in 1919, he had been christened Doris as the midwife thought he would be a girl. In fact, he grew into a burly man, and became the ship’s boxing champion. But the name stayed.
Pictured: Doris Miller, grabbed the controls of one of the starboard guns on his vessel and blazed away at the Japanese during the Pearl Harbour attack
The other notable thing was that he was black. In states such as Texas, black children had to go to different schools, use different toilets and sit at the back of the bus. If they challenged the rules, they risked their lives.
When Doris was 19, he joined the navy. Even there he was treated differently. Instead of learning a skill, he made beds and washed dishes. But now, as Doris Miller pounded down the corridor, nobody noticed the colour of his skin.
The first torpedo had wreaked terrible damage, and water was pouring in.
On the bridge, Doris found the captain on the ground, blood pouring from his chest. Gently, Doris carried him away.
More torpedoes thundered home. The deck of the ship was wet with blood.
Summoning his courage, Doris Miller grabbed the controls of one of the starboard guns and blazed away at the Japanese. He had never had training. But ‘it wasn’t hard’, he said later. ‘I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.’
But it was no good. The ship was doomed. Carefully, Doris carried the dying captain from the smoke. Then came a series of explosions, as more torpedoes smashed into the hull.
But Doris was not finished. In the sea, men were shrieking for help. Risking his life, he dragged them on deck.
The West Virginia was almost gone, and the cry came: ‘Abandon ship!’
The Japanese had caught their victims by surprise. Screams echoed and smoke billowed across Pearl Harbor.
But the Japanese gamble backfired. When the news reached Washington, the people rose to meet the challenge.
For the next three years, America fought their way across the Pacific. And by the summer of 1945 they were closing in on the ultimate prize — Japan.
JAPAN: The teenage girl who survived the fury of the first atom bomb
In the early hours of August 6, 1945, three American bombers streaked north through the Pacific darkness.
On board the lead plane, Enola Gay, was a squat black device, codenamed Little Boy. This was the Americans’ secret weapon.
Their scientists had worked on a device that could split an atom — the tiniest building block of the universe — unleashing a sky-shattering explosion.
U.S. President Harry Truman knew the bomb would kill thousands. But he felt he had no choice.
As the hours ticked by, Enola Gay flew north. At last the pilot could see the city of Hiroshima. The clock ticked past 8.15am. On the plane, the bombardier stretched towards the release lever . . .
Down below, Setsuko Nakamura was buzzing with anticipation. She knew this was going to be a special day.
At 13½, she was one of 30 girls chosen to help Japan’s defence effort. She went to Hiroshima’s army headquarters, where she would learn to decode messages.
Pictured: Setsuko Nakamura, now Setsuko Thurlow, who survived the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima
It was vital work, and Setsuko was honoured to do it. She knew nothing of Japan’s crimes. She loved her country, and wanted to serve the Emperor.
At eight o’clock, the girls filed into the assembly room, where an army major was waiting. He said: ‘This is the day you prove your patriotism!’
‘Yes, sir!’ Setsuko and her friends chanted back.
Then, the Enola Gay’s bombardier pushed the lever. Forty-three seconds later, Setsuko’s world shattered. One moment she was listening to the major. The next, there was a blinding flash, and she was floating to the heavens. Then everything went dark.
When she woke, she could see nothing. She struggled to move. She was sure she was going to die.
She made out sounds around her. Somebody was crying. ‘Mother, help me,’ a voice said. ‘God, help me,’ another sobbed.
With the last of her strength, Setsuko began to crawl. Then, she felt a hand, pushing her. A soldier’s voice. ‘Don’t give up!’ it said. ‘Keep moving!’
In the distance she saw daylight. And at that moment, Setsuko wanted to live.
When she was outside, she could not believe her eyes.
It was still morning, yet night had fallen. The air was full of smoke and dust. Hiroshima had gone. Where there was once buildings, there was now rubble and ash.
Somehow Setsuko kept going, staggering through a vision of hell. At last she came to a field, where survivors gathered. All day she stayed there, bringing water to the wounded.
When night came, she sat alone in the dark, and watched her city burn. Setsuko was lucky. She survived the bombing, as did her parents, who found her a few days later. But one out of three people in Hiroshima, including her older sister, was killed, some 80,000 people in all. Tens of thousands more were injured, many of them horribly burned.
Three days later the U.S. dropped another atom bomb on Nagasaki. Again tens of thousands of people were killed.
Now Japan’s leaders recognised they were beaten. Just after midday on August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender to his people.
At long last, after all the years of slaughter and sacrifice, it was over.
Unsung hero who seized Nazis secret weapon
David Balme felt very alone and very afraid. In the freezing waters of the Atlantic, the young naval officer had climbed aboard a crippled German submarine, U-110.
He had orders to take anything useful — but if the Germans had rigged the U-boat with explosives, he was dead.
David pulled himself together. He had a job to do. He and his men worked fast, grabbing codebooks and papers.
Suddenly, one of his men held up a strange black box. ‘It looks like a typewriter,’ he said, ‘but when you press the keys something else comes up on it.’
It was an Enigma machine, one of the Germans’ most precious secrets.
Pictured: David Bane, who took an Enigma machine from a German U-boat following an attack
The Enigma turned your messages into an almost unbreakable code. The workings were astonishingly sophisticated, but the basic idea was simple.
As you typed in your message, three wheels redirected the signal. When you pressed a key, a light went on above a different letter. If you wrote down the order of the lights, you’d get a scrambled version of your original text. As long as your superiors used the same settings, they could decode it and read the message.
Breaking the code was a daunting challenge. But if the Allies could do it, they would be able to intercept the Germans’ secret messages and win the battle to control the Atlantic.
Pictured: The Military Enigma Machine
This was where the people at Bletchley Park came in. A grand Victorian house in the heart of England, Bletchley was home to thousands of the cleverest men and women in Britain: mathematicians, chess players and crossword experts, recruited to break the Germans’ codes. Armed with captured machines from the German U-boats, Bletchley’s brains got to work. Chief among them was Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most brilliant mathematicians.
A lonely, eccentric man, Turing kept his mug padlocked to a radiator so nobody else could use it. In summertime he cycled around in a gas mask, to guard against hay fever.
But he was a genius, and in the spring of 1943 he and his friends broke the Enigma codes. Now the Allies knew just where the German submarines were. Turing’s code-breakers had won one of the war’s greatest victories. But because Bletchley Park was shrouded in secrecy, they could never tell anybody about it.
- Extracted from Adventures In Time: The Second World War by Dominic Sandbrook, published by Particular Books at £14.99. © 2021 Dominic Sandbrook. To order a copy for £13.34, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 27/07/2021. Also out now from the same series is The Six Wives Of Henry VIII. The next two books in the Adventures In Time series will be Alexander The Great, and The First World War, to be published on November 4.