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The Rediff Special/Avinash Manohar

May 09, 2005

The world commemmorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, VE Day, today. guides our younger readers through a war that claimed more lives than any other battle in history.

When did World War II begin?

World War II began on September 1,1939 when Germany attacked Poland without a formal declaration of war. In support of their mutual defence treaty obligations with Poland, France and Great Britain issued ultimatums to Hitler for the immediate withdrawal of German forces from Poland. When the deadlines expired, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 2, 1939. Germany had Italy and Japan on its side, and were known as the Axis powers.

Why is December 7, 1941 considered a decisive date in World War II?

Pearl Harbour, on the island of O'ahu, Hawaii, was attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy, on December 7, 1941. The surprise attack was masterminded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. On December 8, 1941 the United States -- until then neutral in World War II -- formally declared that a state of war existed between the United States and the Japanese empire. Some historians believe the United States presence helped changed the Allies' (as the forces fighting the German, Italian and Japanese armies were known) fortunes.

What role did Stalingrad in the then Soviet Union play in the war?

The Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 to February 1943) was a major turning point in World War II, and is considered the bloodiest battle in human history. The battle included the German siege of the Russian city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), the battle inside the city, and the Soviet counter-offensive which eventually trapped and destroyed the German (6th Army) and other Axis forces in and around the city. Total casualties are estimated at between 1 to 2 million.

Was it the longest siege in World War II?

The siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in the then Soviet Union lasted about 900 days, from September 8, 1941 till January 27, 1944. The city (whose population then totalled nearly three million people) was completely cut off from the rest of the country, and it was German leader Adolf Hitler's intention to literally starve Leningrad into submission.

The war that changed the world

In January 1943 the siege was broken and a year later, on January 27, 1944 it was fully lifted. At least 641,000 people died in Leningrad during the siege (some estimates put this figure at 800,000).

What was the worst maritime disaster of World War II?

The torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945 by the Russian submarine S-13. The ship's final voyage was an evacuation of civilians and wounded German soldiers and sailors from Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), to Kiel in Germany.

The 25,484-ton German luxury cruise liner was built to carry 1,465 passengers and a crew of 400. The ship, now converted to a 500-bed hospital ship, set sail from the Bay of Danzig, overcrowded with 4,658 persons including 918 naval officers and men, 373 German Women Naval Auxiliaries, 162 wounded soldiers of whom 73 were stretcher cases, and 173 crew, all fleeing from the advancing Red Army.

The exact number of drowned will never be known, as many more refugees were picked up from small boats as the Wilhelm Gustloff headed for the open sea and were never counted. Many of the 964 people rescued from the sea, died later, and it is likely that well over 8,500 people perished.

What was the Holocaust?

The Holocaust was Nazi Germany's systematic genocide (ethnic cleansing) of various ethnic, religious, national, and secular groups during World War II, starting in 1941 and continuing through 1945. The Jews of Europe were the main targets of the Holocaust in what the Nazis called the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question.'

Other groups deemed 'undesirable,' were gypsies, the mentally or physically disabled, gay men, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and political dissidents, were also persecuted and murdered. The exact number of people killed by the Nazi regime is still subject to further research. It is believed about 6 million Jews, about 3.5 million Poles, about 800,000 gypsies, about 300,000 people with disabilities, between 10,000 and 25,000 gay men, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were killed.

The following groups of people were also killed by the Nazi regime: between 3.5 million and 6 million Slavic civilians, between 2.5 million and 4 million Soviet POWs, between 1 and 1.5 million political dissidents.

What is the significance of Normandy in World War II?

The D-Day operation of June 6, 1944 brought together the land, air and sea forces of the Allied armies in what became known as the largest invasion force in human history. The operation, given the code name Overlord, delivered five naval assault divisions to the beaches of Normandy, France.

The beaches were given the code names Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The invasion force included 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by over 195,000 naval personnel from eight Allied countries. Almost 133,000 troops from England, Canada and the United States landed on D-Day. Casualties from the three countries during the landing numbered 10,300.

Who were Kamikaze pilots?

By 1945 it was apparent that Japan was losing the War in the Pacific. As a last ditch effort to turn around their flagging fortunes, the Japanese revived the name Kamikaze (Divine Wind) and applied it to the suicide missions of their air force. It was decided that pilots would henceforth purposely crash their planes, which were to be loaded with half a ton of explosives, into enemy warships.

The Japanese soldier code was unyielding allegiance to Emperor and country, which is why the call for Kamikaze pilots drew a staggering response. Three times as many applied for suicide flights as the number of planes available. Experienced pilots were turned down. They were needed to train the younger men to fly to their deaths.

As a result, the majority of those accepted were in their late teens. They felt grateful to have the opportunity to prove that they were real men. The Kamikaze missions were a success in that they ended up sinking 40 American ships in the Pacific. In the Philippines another 16 enemy ships were destroyed.

When was the atom bomb dropped on Japan?

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb (nicknamed Little Boy) exploded in Hiroshima, Japan, just seconds after leaving the B-29 bomber Enola Gay. It carried with it the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. Levelling over 60 per cent of the city, 70,000 residents died instantaneously in a searing flash of heat.

On August 9, 1945, the second atomic bomb (nicknamed Fat Man) exploded in Nagasaki, Japan, after being dropped from the B-29 bomber Bockscar. This bomb contained the equivalent of 21,000 tons of TNT. Over 20,000 people died instantly.

In the successive weeks, thousands more died from the after effects of the radiation exposure of the blast.

When did World War II end?

In Europe, it ended on May 7, 1945 when General Alfred Jodl, chief of the operations staff in the German high command, signed the document of unconditional German surrender at General Dwight D Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims, France.

The Allies had agreed to mark May 9, 1945 as VE (Victory in Europe) Day, but Western journalists broke the news of Germany's surrender prematurely, precipitating the earlier celebration. The Soviet Union kept to the agreed date, and Russia and other countries still commemorate the end of the Second World War, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia and other parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union, as Victory Day on May 9.

In Asia, it ended on August 15, 1945 marked as Victory over Japan or V J Day, since Japan was the last Axis power to surrender, V J Day marked the end of World War II. The formal Japanese signing of the surrender terms took place on board the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

How many people were killed in World War II?

The true number of people killed in World War II remains unknown. It is believed that up to 68 million lives were lost. The Soviet Union suffered the most of these causalities, where more than 25 million lost their lives.

What role did the city of Nuremberg play in the aftermath of World War II?

At the meetings in Tehran (Iran, 1943), Yalta (now in the Ukraine, 1945) and Potsdam (Germany, 1945), the USA, USSR and Britain agreed on the format to punish those responsible for war crimes during World War II.

The Nuremberg trials is the general name for two sets of trials of Nazis involved in World War II and the Holocaust. The trials were held in the German city of Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.

The first and most famous of these trials was the trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal or IMT, which tried 24 of the most important captured (or still believed to be alive) leaders of Nazi Germany. It was held from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946.

Design: Rajesh Karkera

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