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Oakham School Archives

Explore the history of the school through the documents and objects that have been left behind...


The Second World War (1st September 1939 – 2nd September 1945)

The interwar years

The interwar years were marked by instability. The Great Depression of 1929 started in the United States and spread worldwide. The political landscape in the world changed dramatically, causing international tension. The Soviet Union was a communist state, whereas Western states were republics and capitalist states which feared the spread of Bolshevism. In Germany, Italy and Romania, ultra-conservative groups rose to power.

It is difficult to pinpoint one event as the cause for the war. In Europe, Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 in Germany. His platform was based on the deep resentment of the Treaty of Versailles. He also justified the invasion of neighbouring countries by the need for Lebensraum, or “living space”. In 1938, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. By 1935, Hitler had established the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, and remilitarized the Rhineland in the following year, thus violating the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Italy’s desire to create the Third Rome brought Italy and Germany to develop closer ties. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia.

In Asia, Japan put into place its plans to create a Pan-Asian sphere. It invaded Manchuria, a Chinese region, in 1931 and on 7th July 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident resulted in a war between Japan and China.

The outbreak of the war

On 23rd-24th August 1939, the secret German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed in Moscow by Joseph Stalin and Hitler. They wanted to divide Poland between them. At 12:40pm on 31st August 1939, Hitler ordered hostilities against Poland. The invasion started at 4:45am the next day. This prompted Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 at 11:00am and 5:00pm respectively. On 10th June 1940, Italy declared war against France and Great Britain. The United States declared war against Japan and entered the war after the Japanese attack on their naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The two alliance blocks were the Axis and the Allies. The Axis nations were Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Hirohito’s Imperial Japan. The Allies nations were Winston Churchill’s Great Britain, and the Commonwealth, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s United States and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. France signed an early armistice with Germany, thus leaving the war in June 1940, after the Germans had occupied the northern half of the country.

The theatres of the war were Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, China, South-East Asia, the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

The end of the war

From February 1945, the Allies started their plans for an invasion of Germany. On 7th May 1945, Germany surrendered after Hitler’s suicide on 30th April in his Berlin bunker. On 2nd September 1945, Japan surrendered after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August 1945. On 2nd September 1945, the American General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

The war put an end to the German Third Reich. At the Potsdam Conference, it was agreed that Germany would be divided into four occupation zones, controlled by Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. The war also marked the revival of the American economy and marked a shift of power toward the United States and the Soviet Union. The capitalist and communist superpowers entered in a period of tension - the Cold War. In Asia, China became a communist state.

Casualties: The Second World War was the deadliest war in human history. It is estimated that an average of 27,000 people were killed every day of the conflict. During the six years of the war, it is thought that between 60 and 80 million casualties were killed, of which 50-55 million civilians and 21-25 million service personnel. The Soviet Union lost 42 millions people, Germany lost 9 million, China lost 4 million and Japan lost 3 million. Six million Jews were exterminated in German death camps. Millions were injured and millions more lost their homes and property.

Photo Gallery

British soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, May 1940.

The Appeal of 18 June. Charles de Gaulle addresses the French people on the BBC Radio in London, 1940.

Japanese planes attacking the American naval base of Pearl Harbor, December 1941.

Women working in an aluminium shells factory in Ohio, United States, February 1942.

Suppression of Warsaw ghetto uprising, April-May 1943.

Female prisoners at Auswitz, May 1944.

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima, 23rd February 1945.

British troops coming ashore at Gold Beach, Normandy, 6th June 1944.

Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Conference of Potsdam, July-August 1945.

The atomic cloud over Nagasaki, 9th August 1945.