WWII - Guide to the War in Europe

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Overview of the European Theater of World War II

The epic struggles in the European theater of World War II played out on a canvas stretching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra Del Fuego in the north and south, and from the Texas coast of the Caribbean in the east to the Ural Mountains in the east. This vast region spanned four continents and brought the war on land, at sea, and in the air to some of the most bitter engagements in military history.

Arguably the most vital theater in WWII- the War in Europe involving all of the major powers of the time save Japan- the actual fighting followed Germany’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939 and carried on through the spring of 1945. Tens of millions lost their lives on all sides, and for the first time in recorded history as many of the deaths were among civilian populations. Especially at sea, where German and Italian U-boats sought to isolate continental Europe from naval reinforcement, and on the Eastern Front where both the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army used scorched earth tactics, little quarter was asked or given. The vast majority of German submariners who served in the war were killed at sea, and the populations of modern day Belarus and Ukraine were beyond decimated- each lost up to half its pre-war population to violence between 1941 and 1945.

It is exceedingly difficult to summarize the entirety of such a vast conflict, and most scholars who attempt to write a comprehensive history often end up filling thousand-page volumes and still scarcely scratch the surface. But for anyone looking for a solid introduction to several aspects and events in the war, especially with regard to the battles at sea, the articles below provide a good starting point to work from.

In addition, in recent years World War II has become a popular setting for numerous video games ranging in complexity from simple first person shooters to grand strategy epics that attempt to simulate various aspects of the conflict. Several of these are described below, for those with an interest in re-enacting the war, pursuing alternate history scenarios, or just trying to get a feel for what it was like for troops and nations during the war in Europe.

Famous Ships and Battles in the Atlantic

The German Navy found itself in a terrible position upon the outbreak of war in 1939. Severely outnumbered by the Royal Navy, Admirals Raeder and Donitz recognized that the only way to challenge the Allies was to strike indirectly and at Britain’s lifelines to her overseas colonies. Commerce raiding and U-boat warfare was the name of the game, and they led to the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted the duration of the war.

Some of the most important ships and battles:

For a brief overview of some of the most important concepts underpinning naval combat during the Second World War, try these articles:

The European Theater was filled with unique ship types, some of which were built to innovative designs that changes naval history forever. Others demonstrated the danger inherent in trying to have it all in one type of vessel.

Some of the most important types of ships in Europe:

And a bit of background information pertinent to the course of the war:

The war in Europe was responsible for changes in the design of ships and submarines both during the war and long after it ended. The Soviet Union in particular learned from the shortcomings of the German naval campaigns as it faced a similar strategic situation vis a vis NATO: to prevent massive resupply of men and material cutting the sea lines of communication in the Atlantic was of the utmost importance.

Video games may not seem key to World War II, but as the last veterans of that terrible conflict leave us forever simulations and strategy games remain the only possible means of tangibly experiencing the realities of that conflict. Though no simulation or game should take the place of real historical study, still many are crafted with care and provide a good introduction to some of the realities and concerns of the time.


  • Images courtesy of the United States Government, United Kingdom government, and the German Federal Archive and accessed via Wiki Commons