World War II in Asia

1937 - 1945

The Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek joined with the Communists to fight Japan.
Chinese Nationalist troops, 1944. Keystone / Getty Images

Most historians date the beginning of World War II to September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In fact, however, World War II began earlier - July 7, 1937, when the Japanese Empire launched total war against China. This timeline shows how World War II unfolded all across Asia between 1937 and Japan's surrender in 1945.

Battles and Events, 1937 - 1940:

  • July 25 - 31: Battle of Beijing - Tianjin, Japanese victory
  • Aug. 13 - Nov. 26, 1937: Battle of Shanghai, Japan takes city with heavy losses
  • August 1937: Soviet Invasion of Xinjiang, Soviets invade western China to put down Uighur uprising that resulted in massacre of Soviet diplomats and advisors in Xinjiang
  • Sept. 1 - Nov. 9: Battle of Taiyuan, Japanese capture capital of Shanxi Province and China's arsenal of weapons
  • Dec. 9 - 13, 1937: Battle of Nanking, Chinese provisional capital falls to Japanese, ROC government flees to Wuhan
  • Dec. 13, 1937 - Jan. 31, 1938: Nanjing Massacre / Rape of Nanking, Japanese troops rape, loot, and murder civilians of Nanjing, approx. 300,000 killed
  • Winter/Spring 1938: Japanese Imperial Army officers in China ignore orders from Tokyo to halt southward expansion
  • Feb. 18, 1938 - Aug. 23, 1943: Bombing of Chongqing, years-long campaign of fire bombing against Chinese provisional capital, 10,000 civilians killed
  • March 24 - May 1, 1938: Battle of Xuzhou, Japan captures city but most Chinese troops break out, become guerrillas
  • June 1938: Chinese forces break dams along Yellow River, halting Japanese advances but also drowning 1,000,000 Chinese civilians
  • June 11 - Oct. 27, 1938: Battle of Wuhan, 1.1 million Chinese troops versus 350,000 Japanese, Japan wins but loses 100,000 men
  • July 29 - Aug. 11, 1938: Battle of Lake Khasan, Japan attacks into Soviet-held area of Manchuria, thrown back with heavy losses
  • Feb. 1939: Japan captures strategic Hainan Island, part of effort to stop foreign aid to China
  • March 17 - May 9, 1939: Battle of Nanchang, Japanese victory breaks Chinese National Revolutionary Army supply lines, threatens all southeast China
  • April 20 - May 24, 1939: Battle of Suixian-Zaoyang, Chinese victory against Japanese drive despite Japan's use of chemical weapons
  • May 11 - Sept. 16, 1939: Battle of Khalkhyn Gol, Japanese Imperial Army and Soviet/Mongol forces battle along border between Mongolia and Manchuria, Japanese lose
  • Sept. 13 - Oct. 8, 1939: First Battle of Changsha, Japan attacks Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, Chinese cut Japanese supply lines and defeat Imperial Army
  • Nov. 15, 1939 - Nov. 30, 1940: Battle of South Guangxi, Japan captures Nanning and Guangxi coast, stops foreign aid by sea to China, so only Indochina, the Burma Road and The Hump remain
  • Nov. 1939 - March 1940: Winter Offensive, Chinese forces mount country-wide counteroffensive against Japanese, Japanese hold in most places but realize they can't easily win
  • Dec. 18, 1939 - Jan. 11, 1940: Battle of Kunlun Pass, Japan attacks critical Kunlun Pass, Guangxi Province, where supplies flow from French Indochina to Chinese army, but China holds on to the pass
  • May 1 - June 18, 1940: Battle of Zaoyang-Yichang, Japanese successfully drive toward new Chinese provisional capital, Chongqing
  • Aug. 20 - Dec. 5, 1940: Hundred Regiments Offensive, Communist Chinese troops in northern China blew up rail-lines, disrupted Japanese coal supplies, and even made a frontal assault on Imperial Army troops, resulting in a strategic Chinese victory
  • Sept. 9, 1940: Italian bombing of Tel Aviv, British Mandate of Palestine, kills 137
  • Dec. 27, 1940: Tripartite Pact, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan formally align as Axis Powers

    Battles and Events, 1941-1943:

    Japan's war planners realized over the course of 1940 and 1941 that Japan would not be able to easily conquer all of China. Although the Imperial Army and Navy controlled China's coastline, the Chinese armies simply retreated into the vast interior. When a Chinese army unit was defeated, its surviving members would carry on as guerrilla fighters. China was proving so valuable an ally to the western anti-fascist coalition that the French, British, and Americans were more than willing to send supplies and aid to the Chinese, despite Japan's attempts at a blockade.

    Japan needed to cut China off from resupply, while also expanding its own access to key war materials like oil, rubber, and rice. The Showa government decided to drive into British, French, and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, rich in all of the necessary supplies... after knocking out the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

    Meanwhile, the effects of World War II in Europe were beginning to be felt in western Asia, starting with the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

  • April 1941: Volunteer American pilots called the Flying Tigers begin to fly supplies to Chinese forces from Burma over "the Hump" - the eastern end of the Himalayas
  • June 8, 1941: Combined British, Indian, Australian and Free French troops invade Syria and Lebanon, held by pro-German Vichy French, who surrendered July 14
  • August 1941: The United States, which had supplied 80% of Japan's oil, initiates a total oil embargo, forcing Japan to seek new sources to fuel its war effort
  • Sept. 17, 1941: Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran deposes the pro-Axis Shah Reza Pahlavi, replaces him with his 22-year-old son to ensure Allies' access to Iranian oil
  • Dec. 7, 1941: Japanese attack on US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii kills 2,400 American service members and sinks 4 battleships
  • Dec. 7, 1941: Japan initiates Southern Expansion, launching massive simultaneous invasion aimed at the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Midway Island
  • Dec. 8, 1941: United States and United Kingdom formally declare war on Japan
  • Dec. 8, 1941: Kingdom of Thailand surrenders to Japan
  • Dec. 10, 1941: Japan sinks British warships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off Malaya
  • Dec. 10, 1941: US base at Guam surrenders to Japan
  • Dec. 17, 1941: Japanese force British colonial forces in Malaya to withdraw to Perak River
  • Dec. 22 - 23, 1941: Major Japanese invasion of Luzon, the Philippines begins - American and Filipino troops withdraw to Bataan
  • Dec. 23, 1941: United States base at Wake Island surrenders to Japan
  • Dec. 25, 1941: British Hong Kong surrenders to Japan
  • Dec. 26, 1941: In Malaya, Japanese troops break through British Perak River line
  • Jan. 10, 1942: Japanese invade Dutch East Indies (Indonesia)
  • Jan. 11, 1942: Japanese capture Kuala Lumpur, Malaya
  • Jan. 20, 1942: Japan's Southern Army attacks British colony of Burma
  • Jan. 30, 1942: British withdraw from Malaya to Singapore, fortify island
  • Feb. 14, 1942: Japanese attack Sumatra, Dutch East Indies
  • Feb. 15, 1942: British Singapore surrenders to Japan, entire British garrison of 85,000 British, Indian, and Australian troops either killed or captured
  • Feb. 19, 1942: Japanese launch major bombing raid against Darwin, Australia
  • Feb. 19, 1942: Japanese capture island of Bali, Dutch East Indies
  • Feb. 27, 1942: Battle of the Java Sea, a disastrous defeat of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command's naval forces by the Imperial Japanese Navy, with 2,300 Allied sailors killed
  • Feb. 29, 1942: Japanese take island of Java
  • March 21, 1942: Japanese push into central Burma, hoping to take Britain's "crown jewel" - British India
  • April 5 & 9, 1942: Japanese navy raids British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)
  • April 8, 1942: American and Filipino troops surrender at Bataan, and Bataan Death March begins
  • April 18, 1942: Doolittle Raid, US launches first bombing raid against Tokyo and other parts of Japanese home islands
  • May 4 - 8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea, Australian and American naval forces fend off Japanese invasion of New Guinea
  • May 5 - 6, 1942: Battle of Corregidor, Japanese take fortified Corregidor Island in Manila Bay, completing conquest of the Philippines
  • May 20, 1942: British finish withdrawing from Burma
  • June 4 - 7, 1942: Battle of Midway, pivotal American naval victory over Japan at Midway Atoll, west of Hawaii
  • June 7, 1942: Japanese invade Alaska's Aleutian Island chain
  • Aug. 8 - 9, 1942: Battle of Savo Island, first major naval action of Guadalcanal campaign, US victory
  • Aug. 24 - 25, 1942: Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands, Allied naval victory in run-up to Guadalcanal campaign
  • Sept. 11, 1942: Australian troops throw back Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, New Guinea
  • Oct. 11 - 12, 1942: Naval Battle of Cape Esperance, second major engagement in Guadalcanal campaign in the Solomon Islands, American victory
  • Oct. 25 - 27, 1942: Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, hard-won Japanese naval victory against US in the Solomons
  • Nov. 12 - 15, 1942: Battle of Guadalcanal, decisive American naval victory in campaign for Solomon Islands, but 1,700 dead on US side including 2 admirals, 1,900 Japanese
  • Nov. 30, 1942: Naval Battle of Tasafaronga, Japanese victory in night fighting at Guadalcanal, but Japan unable to drive US forces out of Solomons
  • Dec. 20 - 24, 1942: Japan strikes Calcutta (Kolkata), India with air raids
  • Feb. 8, 1943: Japanese withdraw from Guadalcanal
  • Feb. 1943: UK General Wingate launches counter-offensive against Japanese in Burma
  • April 18, 1943: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's plane shot down by Americans, Yamamoto is killed
  • May, 1943: China's National Revolutionary Army launches offensive along Yangtze River
  • Sept. 16, 1943: Australians capture Lae, New Guinea, drive Japanese out
  • Nov. 2, 1943: American Marines land at Tarawa and Makin, Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), heading toward Japan's home islands

    Battles and Events, 1944-45:

    By 1944, the tide of war was turning and the Axis Powers, including Japan, were at a stalemate or even on the defensive in many places. The Japanese military found itself over-extended and out-gunned, but many Japanese soldiers and ordinary citizens believed that they were fated to win. Any other outcome was unthinkable.

  • Jan., 1944: China launches major offensive in Hukawng Valley, northern Burma, a vital part of the Ledo Road supply line into China
  • Jan. 31, 1944: US mounts amphibious attack, drive out Japanese in Battle of Kwajalein, Marshall Islands
  • Feb. 3, 1944: Japan launches Second Arakan Offensive in Burma, intending to drive toward Delhi, but Allies repel them
  • Feb. 5 - 23, 1944: Battle of the Admin Box, Burma; Allies fight off Japanese counter-attack
  • Feb. 16, 1944: US invades Truk Atoll, Micronesia, Japan's major base in the South Pacific
  • Feb. 17 - 23, 1944: Americans land at Eniwetok, drive out Japanese defenders after 5 days' fierce fighting
  • March 22, 1944: Japanese advance halted at Tamu, India
  • April 4 - June 22, 1944: Battle of Kohima, Japanese besiege British and Indian troops, but are forced to retreat into Burma
  • June 15 - July 9, 1944: Battle of Saipan, Mariana Islands; US Marines defeat Japanese defenders, Navajo code talkers play key role
  • June 19 - 20, 1944: Battle of the Philippine Sea, key naval battle that effectively wiped out the Japanese Imperial Navy's carrier fleet
  • Oct. 20 - Dec. 31, 1944: Battle of Leyte, Americans begin drive to liberate Philippines from Japanese occupation
  • Oct. 21, 1944: At Leyte, Japan deploys first kamikaze pilot attack against US Naval fleet
  • Nov. 24, 1944: First American B-29 bombing raid against Tokyo
  • Jan. 9, 1945: US forces land on Luzon Island, Philippines
  • Feb. 1945: Allies reopen Burma Road
  • Feb. 19 - March 26, 1945: Battle of Iwo Jima, bloody American victory over Japan
  • March 3, 1945: Last Japanese in Manila surrender
  • March 10, 1945: Allies begin fire-bombing Tokyo
  • April 1 - June 22, 1945: Battle of Okinawa, Allied forces capture Ryukyu Islands just south of Japanese home islands
  • April 12, 1945: US President Franklin Roosevelt dies, succeeded by Harry S Truman
  • May 3, 1945: Allies recapture Rangoon, Burma from Japanese
  • Aug. 6, 1945: American atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan
  • Aug. 9, 1945: American atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan
  • Aug. 9, 1945: Soviet Red Army invades Japanese-held Manchuria
  • Aug. 15, 1945: Japanese Emperor Hirohito formally surrenders, World War II ends