Germany invades Russia - Operation Barbarossa sees the Nazi forces sweep into Russia, in a massive effort to conquer the Soviet Union so it could be repopulated with Germans
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched his armies eastward in a massive invasion of the Soviet Union: three great army groups with over three million German soldiers, 150 divisions, and three thousand tanks smashed across the frontier into Soviet territory. The invasion covered a front from the North Cape to the Black Sea, a distance of two thousand miles. By this point German combat effectiveness had reached its apogee; in training, doctrine, and fighting ability, the forces invading Russia represented the finest army to fight in the twentieth century. Barbarossa was the crucial turning point in World War II, for its failure forced Nazi Germany to fight a two-front war against a coalition possessing immensely superior resources.
The Germans had serious deficiencies. They severely underestimated their opponent; their logistical preparations were grossly inadequate for the campaign; and German industrial preparations for a sustained war had yet to begin. But the greatest mistake that the Germans made was to come as conquerors, not as liberators–they were determined to enslave the Slavic population and exterminate the Jews. Thus, from the beginning, the war in the East became an ideological struggle, waged with a ruthlessness and mercilessness not seen in Europe since the Mongols.
In Barbarossa’s opening month, German armies bit deep into Soviet territory; panzer armies encircled large Soviet forces at Minsk and Smolensk, while armored spearheads reached two-thirds of the distance to Moscow and Leningrad. But already German logistics were unraveling, while a series of Soviet counterattacks stalled the advance. In September the Germans got enough supplies forward to renew their drives; the results were the encirclement battles of Kiev in September and Bryansk-Vyazma in October, each netting 600,000 prisoners.
Moscow seemingly lay open to a German advance, but at this point Russian weather intervened with heavy rains that turned the roads into morasses. The frosts of November solidified the mud, so that the drive could resume. Despite the lateness of the season and the fact that further advances would leave their troops with no winter clothes or supply dumps for the winter, the generals urged Hitler to continue. The Germans struggled to the gates of Moscow where Soviet counterattacks stopped them in early December. In desperate conditions, they conducted a slow retreat as Soviet attacks threatened to envelop much of their forces in a defeat as disastrous as that which befell Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812. In the end the Soviets overreached, and the Germans restored a semblance of order to the front; the spring thaw in March 1942 brought operations to a halt. But Barbarossa had failed, and Nazi Germany confronted a two-front war that it could not win.
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - a surprise attack on the US naval base in Hawaii by the Japanese Imperial Navy Air Force prompts America to enter the war
On the morning of 7 December 1941, at 7.55am local time, 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Their intention was to destroy and damage as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible, before it could respond to Japanese operations taking place on the same day against British, Dutch and US territories in southeast Asia.
This first attack wave began bombing the hangars and parked aircraft of the island’s airfields while at the same time launching torpedoes against the US warships moored in the harbour. In the first five minutes of the attack, four battleships were hit, including the USS Oklahoma and the USS Arizona. Minutes later, the Arizona exploded after a bomb hit its gunpowder stores, sinking the ship and killing 1,177 of its crew.
This devastating attack was followed an hour and a half later by a second wave of 170 Japanese aircraft. Within two hours, 18 US warships had been sunk or damaged, 188 aircraft destroyed and 2,403 American servicemen and women killed. Many of these ships were repaired and fought in later battles, and, crucially all three of the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were not at Pearl Harbor during the attack and so escaped damage. They were to prove vital in the coming Pacific Campaign.
Although the attack was a complete surprise, many American servicemen were able to fight back. Some US airmen were even able to get their aircraft into the sky while their runways were under attack. 2nd Lieutenants Kenneth M. Taylor and George Welch had been sleeping after a late-night Christmas party when they heard the sounds of explosions and machine gun fire. Still wearing their tuxedoes from the night before, they raced to their waiting aircraft. Together they shot down seven Japanese aircraft and were both awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for gallantry in the US Army Air Corps at the time.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbour the United States had been supporting Allied forces with weapons and supplies, under the Lend-Lease Agreement, but many in the country were reluctant to enter the war. The day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech to the United States Congress urging for a formal declaration of war against Japan. War was declared an hour later, bringing the United States into the Second World War and unifying the country behind the war effort.