Timeline of World War II From 1939 to 1945

USS Arizona
USS Arizona during the Japanese surprise air attack on the American pacific fleet, 7 December 1941. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

World War II (WWII) was a long and bloody war that lasted about six years. Officially beginning on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, World War II lasted until both the Germans and the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies in 1945. Here is a timeline of major events during the war.

1939

Sept. 1 may be the official start of World War II, but it didn't start in a vacuum. Europe and Asia had been tense for years prior to 1939 because of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, the German annexation of Austria, and the imprisonment of thousands of Jews in concentration camps. After Germany's occupation of areas of Czechoslovakia not previously agreed to in the Munich Pact and its invasion of Poland, the rest of Europe realized it couldn't try to appease Germany any longer. The United States tried to remain neutral, and the Soviet Union invaded Finland.

  • August 23: Germany and the Soviet Union sign the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.
  • September 1: Germany invades Poland, starting World War II.
  • September 3: Britain and France declare war on Germany.
  • September: Battle of the Atlantic begins.

1940

The first full year of the war saw Germany invading its European neighbors: Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, and Romania, and the bombing of Britain lasted for months. The Royal Air Force undertook nighttime raids in Germany in response. Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a joint military and economic agreement, and Italy invaded Egypt, which was controlled by the British, Albania, and Greece. The United States shifted to a stance of "nonbelligerancy" rather than neutrality so it could find ways to help the Allies, and the Lend-Lease Act (the exchange of materiel aid then for 99-year leases on property to be used for foreign military bases) was proposed late in the year. Popular opinion still didn't want Americans in another war "over there." The Soviet Union, meanwhile, took part of Romania and installed Communists in the Baltic States, later annexing them.

  • May: Auschwitz is established.
  • May 10: Germany invades France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
  • May 26: Evacuation begins of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France.
  • June 10: Italy declares war on France and Great Britain.
  • June 22: France surrenders to Germany.
  • July 10: Battle of Britain begins.
  • September 16: The United States begins its first peacetime draft.

1941

The year 1941 was one of escalation around the world. Italy may have been defeated in Greece, but that didn't mean that Germany wouldn't take the country. Then it was on to Yugoslavia and Russia. Germany broke its pact with the Soviet Union and invaded there, but the winter and Soviet counterattack killed many German troops. The Soviets next joined the Allies. Within a week of the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had invaded Burma, Hong Kong (then under British control), and the Philippines, and the United States was officially in the conflict.

  • March 11: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Lend-Lease bill.
  • May 24: The British ship Hood is sunk by Germany's Bismarck.
  • May 27: The Bismarck is sunk.
  • June 22: Germany invades the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).
  • August 9: Atlantic Conference begins.
  • September 8: Siege of Leningrad begins.
  • December 7: The Japanese launch a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
  • December 11: Germany and Italy declare war on the United States; then the United States declares war on Germany and Italy.

1942

U.S. troops first arrived in Britain in January 1942. Also that year, Japan captured Singapore, which was Britain's last location in the Pacific, as well as islands such as Borneo and Sumatra. By the middle of the year, though, the Allies started gaining ground, with the Battle of Midway being the turning point there. Germany captured Libya, but the Allies started making gains in Africa, and Soviet counterattacks made progress as well in Stalingrad.

1943

Stalingrad turned into Germany's first major defeat in 1943, and the North Africa stalemate ended, with the surrender of the Axis powers to the Allies in Tunisia. The tide was finally turning, though not fast enough for the people in the 27 merchant vessels sunk by Germany in the Atlantic in four days in March. But Bletchley codebreakers and long-range aircraft inflicted a serious toll on the U-boats, pretty much ending the Battle of the Atlantic. The autumn of the year saw the fall of Italy to Allied forces, prompting Germany to invade there. The Germans successfully rescued Mussolini, and battles in Italy between forces in the north and south drug on. In the Pacific, Allied forces gained territory in New Guinea—to attempt to protect Australia from Japanese invasion—as well as Guadalcanal. The Soviets continued expelling Germans from their territory, and the Battle of Kursk was key. The end of the year saw Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin meeting in Iran to discuss the invasion of France.

1944

American troops played a big role in battles to take back France in 1944, including landings on Normandy beaches that caught the Germans by surprise. Italy was finally liberated as well, and the Soviets' counterattack pushed the German soldiers back to Warsaw, Poland. Germany lost 100,000 soldiers (captured) during the battle in Minsk. The Battle of the Bulge, however, postponed the Allies marching into Germany for a while. In the Pacific, Japan gained more territory in China, but its success was limited by the Communist troops there. The Allies fought back by taking Saipan and invading the Philippines.

1945

Liberation of concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, made the extent of the Holocaust clearer to the Allies. Bombs still fell on London and Germany in 1945, but before April was over, two of the Axis leaders would be dead and Germany's surrender would soon follow. Franklin D. Roosevelt also died in April but of natural causes. The war in the Pacific continued, but the Allies made significant progress there through battles at Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa, and Japan started to retreat from China. By mid-August, it was all over. Japan surrendered shortly after the second atomic bomb was unleashed on the island nation and Sept. 2, the surrender was formally signed and accepted, officially ending the conflict. Estimates put 50 million dead around the world, including 20 million Russian civilians, and 6 million Jews, one-third of their worldwide population.

  • February 4: Yalta Conference begins.
  • February 13: Allies begin bombing Dresden.
  • February 19: Battle of Iwo Jima begins.
  • April 1: Battle of Okinawa.
  • April 12: Franklin D. Roosevelt dies.
  • April 16: Battle of Berlin begins.
  • April 28: Mussolini is hanged by Italian partisans.
  • April 30: Adolf Hitler commits suicide.
  • May 7: Germany signs an unconditional surrender.
  • July 17: Potsdam Conference begins.
  • August 6: The United States drops the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
  • August 9: The United States drops a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.