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:
- Tirpitz: sister of the Bismarck and a fantastic example of a fleet in being that tied up Allied naval assets for years simply by hiding out in Norway.
- Graf Spee was a German pocket battleship that raided merchant ships at sea early in the war, forcing the British Navy into a wide ranging hunt that ended only in the Battle of the River Plate.
- Gunther Prien's U-47 and the bold raid that sank the Battleship Royal Oak: catching Britain by surprise in its supposedly impenetrable anchorage early in the war.
- HMS Hood was a battlecruiser, pride of the British Navy, that was catastrophically destroyed in the Battle of the Denmark Strait during a fight with the Bismarck.
- Prinz Eugen was also present at the destruction of the Hood, and accompanied Bismark on her sortie. She survived the war, only to end up as a nuclear target.
Naval Fundamentals: Laws, Navigation, Armament, and Design
For a brief overview of some of the most important concepts underpinning naval combat during the Second World War, try these articles:
- The Nautical Star has been so important to naval personnel for so long that it has entered popular culture as a symbol for freedom and adventure
- Battleships were more important in some places relative to others in WWII – the War in Europe is a good example. Their guns are a big part of the reason
- Armor located at the level of the flight deck was essential for aircraft carriers operating within range of land bases, as was often the case in the Mediterranean campaigns
- Although the performance of carriers in the Pacific outshone that of their counterparts in the Atlantic, their incorporation into battle groups was key in both theaters
- The Washington Naval Treaty played a major role in limiting the armament of the combatants in the European Theater, as did the London Naval Treaties
- Degaussing was pioneered as a means of countering naval mines, which were an ever present danger in the confined waters around Europe
Notable Related History and Ship Types Critical to the European Theater
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:
- Submarines were used by all sides, but in German hands they proved a deadly weapon that nearly strangled Britain's lifelines
- Battlecruisers made their appearance in the First World War, and saw their last use in the Second. Few survived the threat environment of the War in Europe
- Pocket Battleships were designed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to be deadly to merchant raiders and capable of outrunning anything they couldn't outfight
- USS Maryland and her sisters of the Colorado Class primarily served in the Pacific, but demonstrated the slow relegation of battleships to obsolescence in both the Pacific and in Europe
- In the end it is the construction and protection of cargo ships that determine who wins and loses a naval war. Germany lost in large part because such ships were built faster than they could be sunk
And a bit of background information pertinent to the course of the war:
- The aces of the Luftwaffe are an excellent example of Germany's ability in WWII to outclass its opponents in terms of men and material, yet be overwhelmed by sheer numbers on land, in the air, and at sea
- Ships are useless without ports, and amphibious assaults like D-Day could not have succeeded unless there were people trained and able to build needed docking facilities for cargo ships
- The Potemkin was a famed Russian battleship whose rebellion long before profoundly affected the outcome of WWII – the War in Europe was won in large part by the Soviet Union with material backing from the west
Naval Designs Influenced By WWII
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.
- The Iowa class battleships were built with the threat of the Bismarck and Tirpitz in mind, and proved to be the last US battleships ever constructed and completed
- The French Alsace class was also meant to be able to counter the Bismarck and Tirpitz, but was never finished due to France being overrun in 1940 by the powerful German assault through the Ardennes
- The Kirov Class was meant to dominate the Norwegian Sea, and protect Russian bases near Murmansk from being attacked by US Carrier Battle Groups
- The heavy Soviet – later Russian – submarines known as the Oscar class represent the pinnacle in submarine technology when it comes to attacking surface ships
- UK Aircraft Carriers have sailed the seas since the First World War, and almost a hundred years later the latest class will be launched. The intitutional memory of the Second World War is carried on in the Royal Navy of today
Simulations Related to WWII in Europe
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.
- Panzer General is a turn based title that sets the player in the role of a German officer commanding divisions in historic campaigns. For anyone who ever wanted to see if perhaps they could have won at Kursk or el Alamein, Panzer General is the game to choose
- The sequel to Panzer General, Panzer General II scales the action down to the operational level and focuses on battles like Dunkirk and Prokhorovka
- Blitzkrieg offers the player command of a tank platoon with artillery and infantry support throughout the years of World War II. It offers an excellent lesson in the comparative strengths of the various tanks and armored vehicles of the time
- Hearts of Iron 2 scales the action up to the global level, allowing a player the ability to control any of the major powers between 1936 and 1953 and see how World War II would have turned out if they were running the show
- Images courtesy of the United States Government, United Kingdom government, and the German Federal Archive and accessed via Wiki Commons