10 World War II Battles You Should Know

The Globe on Fire

Fought around the globe from the fields of Western Europe and the Russian steppes to the broad expanses of the Pacific and China, the battles of World War II caused a massive loss of life and inflicted destruction across the landscape.  The most far-reaching and costly war in history, the conflict saw a countless number of engagements fought as the Allies and Axis struggled to achieve victory.  These resulted in between 22 and 26 million men killed in action.  While every fight held personal significance for those involved, these are ten that everyone should know:

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Battle of Britain

Spitfire gun camera film showing an attack on German Heinkel He 111s. Public Domain

With the fall of France in June 1940, Great Britain braced for invasion by Germany. Before the Germans could move forward with cross-Channel landings, the Luftwaffe was tasked with gaining air superiority and eliminating the Royal Air Force as a potential threat. Beginning in July, the Luftwaffe and aircraft from Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding's Fighter Command began clashing over the English Channel and Britain. 

Directed by radar controllers on the ground, the Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes of Fighter Command mounted a tenacious defense as the enemy repeatedly attacked their bases during August. Though stretched to the limit, the British continued to resist and on September 5 the Germans switched to bombing London. Twelve days later, with Fighter Command still operational and inflicting heavy losses on the Luftwaffe, Adolf Hitler was forced to indefinitely delay any invasion attempt.   

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Battle of Moscow

Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Public Domain

In June 1941, Germany commenced Operation Barbarossa which saw their forces invade the Soviet Union.  Opening the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht made rapid gains and in a little over two months of fighting were nearing Moscow.  To capture the capital, the Germans planned Operation Typhoon which called for a double-pincer movement intended to encircle the city.  It was believed that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin would sue for peace if Moscow fell.  

To block this effort, the Soviets constructed multiple defensive lines in front of the city, activated additional reserves, and recalled forces from the Far East.  Led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov (left) and aided by the approaching Russian winter, the Soviets were able to halt the German offensive.  Counterattacking in early December, Zhukov pushed the enemy back from the city and put them on the defensive.  The failure to capture the city doomed the Germans to fighting a protracted conflict in the Soviet Union.  For the remainder of the war, the vast majority of German casualties would be incurred on the Eastern Front.

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Battle of Stalingrad

Fighting in Stalingrad, 1942. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Having been halted at Moscow, Hitler directed his forces to attack towards the oil fields in the south during the summer of 1942.  To protect the flank of this effort, Army Group B was ordered to capture Stalingrad.  Named for the Soviet leader, the city, located on the Volga River, was a key transportation hub and possessed propaganda value.  After German forces reached the Volga north and south of the Stalingrad, General Friedrich Paulus' 6th Army began pushing into the city in early September.

Over the next several months, fighting in Stalingrad devolved into a bloody, grinding affair as both sides fought house-to-house and hand-to-hand to hold or capture the city.  Building strength, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus in November.  Crossing the river above and below the city, they encircled Paulus' army.  German attempts to break through to 6th Army failed and on February 2, 1943 the last of Paulus' men surrendered.  Arguably the largest and bloodiest battle in history, Stalingrad was the turning point on the Eastern Front.

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Battle of Midway

US Navy SBD dive bombers at the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japan commenced a swift campaign of conquest through the Pacific which saw the fall of the Philippines and Dutch East Indies.  Though checked at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, they planned a thrust east towards Hawaii for the next month in the hopes of eliminating the US Navy's aircraft carriers and securing a base at Midway Atoll for future operations.  

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commanding the US Pacific Fleet, was alerted to the impending attack by his team of cryptanalysts which had broken Japanese naval codes.  Dispatching the carriers USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, and USS Yorktown under the leadership of Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank J. Fletcher, Nimitz sought to block the enemy.  In the resulting battle, American forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and inflicted heavy losses on enemy air crews.  The victory at Midway marked the end of major Japanese offensive operations as the strategic initiative in the Pacific passed to the Americans.   

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Second Battle of El Alamein

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Having been pushed back into Egypt by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the British Eighth Army was able to hold at El Alamein.  After stopping Rommel's last attack at Alam Halfa in early September, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery (left) paused to build up strength for an offensive.  Desperately short on supplies, Rommel established a formidable defensive position with extensive fortifications and minefields.

Attacking in late October, Montgomery's forces slowly ground through the German and Italian positions with particularly fierce fighting near Tel el Eisa.  Hampered by fuel shortages, Rommel was unable to hold his position and was eventually overwhelmed.  His army in tatters, he retreated deep into Libya.  The victory revived Allied morale and marked the first decisively successful offensive launched by the Western Allies since the start of the war.

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Battle of Guadalcanal

US Marines rest in the field on Guadalcanal, circa August-December 1942. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Having halted the Japanese at Midway in June 1942, the Allies contemplated their first offensive action.  Deciding to land at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, troops began going ashore on August 7.  Sweeping aside light Japanese resistance, US forces established an airbase dubbed Henderson Field.  Quickly responding, the Japanese moved troops to the island and attempted to expel the Americans.  Battling tropical conditions, disease, and supply shortages, US Marines, and later units of the US Army, successfully held Henderson Field and began working to destroy the enemy. 

The focus of operations in the Southwest Pacific during late 1942, the waters around the island saw multiple naval battles such as Savo Island, Eastern Solomons, and Cape Esperance.  Following a defeat at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November and further losses ashore, the Japanese began evacuating their forces from the island with the last leaving in early February 1943.  A costly campaign of attrition, the defeat at Guadalcanal badly damaged Japan's strategic capabilities.      

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Battle of Monte Cassino

Ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey. Photograph Courtesy of Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 146-2005-0004

Following a successful campaign in Sicily, Allied forces landed in Italy in September 1943.  Pushing up the peninsula, they found the going slow due to the mountainous terrain.  Reaching Cassino, the US Fifth Army was halted by the defenses of the Gustav Line.  In an attempt to breach this line, Allied troops were landed to the north at Anzio while an assault was launched in the vicinity of Cassino.  While the landings were successful, the beachhead was quickly contained by the Germans.

The initial attacks at Cassino were turned back with heavy losses.  A second round of assaults commenced in February and included the controversial bombing of the historic abbey that overlooked the area.  These too were unable to secure a breakthrough.  After another failure in March, General Sir Harold Alexander conceived Operation Diadem.  Focusing Allied strength in Italy against Cassino, Alexander attacked on May 11.  Finally achieving a breakthrough, Allied troops drove the Germans back.  The victory permitted the relief of Anzio and the capture of Rome on June 4.

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D-Day - The Invasion of Normandy

US troops land on Omaha Beach during D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces under the overall leadership of General Dwight D. Eisenhower crossed the English Channel and landed in Normandy.  The amphibious landings were preceded by heavy aerial bombardments and the dropping of three airborne divisions which were tasked with securing objectives behind the beaches.  Coming ashore on five code-named beaches, the heaviest losses were sustained on Omaha Beach which was overlooked by high bluffs held by crack German troops.

Consolidating their position ashore, Allied forces spent weeks working to expand the beachhead and drive the Germans from the surrounding bocage (high hedgerows) country.  Launching Operation Cobra on July 25, Allied troops burst from the beachhead, crushed German forces near Falaise, and swept across France to Paris. 

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Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Japanese carrier Zuikaku burns during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

In October 1944, Allied forces made good on General Douglas MacArthur's earlier pledge that they would return to the Philippines.  As his troops landed on the island of Leyte on October 20, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's 3rd Fleet and Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid's 7th Fleet operated offshore.  In an effort to block the Allied effort, 

Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, sent the majority of his remaining capital ships to the Philippines. 

Consisting of four separate engagements (Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, Cape Engaño, and Samar), the Battle of Leyte Gulf saw Allied forces deliver a crushing blow to the Combined Fleet.  This occurred despite Halsey being lured away and leaving the waters off Leyte lightly defended from approaching Japanese surface forces.  The biggest of naval battle of World War II, Leyte Gulf marked the end of large-scale naval operations by the Japanese.   

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Battle of the Bulge

Battle of the Bulge. Public Domain

In the fall of 1944, with Germany's military situation rapidly deteriorating, Hitler directed his planners to devise an operation for compelling Britain and the United States to make peace.  The result was a plan that called for a blitzkrieg-style attack through the thinly defended Ardennes, similar to the assault conducted during the 1940 Battle of France.  This would split British and American forces and had the additional goal of capturing the port of Antwerp.

Commencing on December 16, German forces succeeded in penetrating the Allied lines and made rapid gains.  Meeting increased resistance, their drive slowed and was hampered by their inability to dislodge the 101st Airborne Division from Bastogne.  Responding in force to the German offensive, Allied troops halted the enemy on December 24 and quickly began a series of counterattacks.  Over the next month, the "bulge" caused in the front by the German offensive was reduced and heavy losses inflicted.  The defeat crippled Germany's ability to conduct offensive operations in the West.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "10 World War II Battles You Should Know." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battles-to-know-2361500. Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). 10 World War II Battles You Should Know. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battles-to-know-2361500 Hickman, Kennedy. "10 World War II Battles You Should Know." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battles-to-know-2361500 (accessed June 6, 2023).