20 Lesser Known Battles of World War II That Really Mattered
20 Lesser Known Battles of World War II That Really Mattered

20 Lesser Known Battles of World War II That Really Mattered

Steve - June 11, 2019

20 Lesser Known Battles of World War II That Really Mattered
Wrecked vehicles near Lille (c. 1940). German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

3. Although a military defeat, the delay caused by the Siege of Lille enabled the evacuation at Dunkirk to be far more successful than it otherwise would have been, saving tens of thousands of professional soldiers who would return to fight again in Europe in 1944

Attempting to retreat on the night of May 27, 1940, only the British Expeditionary forces near Lille, as well as the Third Corps of the French First Army, successfully crossed the Lys. Surrounding the majority of the First Army in Lille, several German Panzer and Infantry divisions subsequently enclosed the remainder and laid siege to the city. Attempting multiple breakouts on the morning of the 28th, the French efforts were mostly in vain, with only a few companies escaping. Fighting house to house across the Lille suburbs for days, with food and ammunition rapidly declining, on June 1 35,000 Allied soldiers were forced to surrender to the Germans.

Although seemingly a devastating defeat for the Allies, postwar perceptions of the Siege of Lille have offered a somewhat more nuanced interpretation. Beginning with Churchill’s The Second World War, who referred to the battle as a “splendid contribution”, it has been argued the encounter delayed the German advance upon Dunkirk for four crucial days. Occupying several divisions otherwise intended to pursue the retreating Allies to Dunkirk, the brave efforts of the doomed soldiers in Lille instead bought sufficient time for the miraculous evacuation of at least an additional hundred thousand soldiers from the French beach.

20 Lesser Known Battles of World War II That Really Mattered
Mass grave of fallen Soviet Red Army soldiers buried in Yelnya. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Becoming the first major Soviet victory against the Germans during Operation Barbarossa, the Yelnya Offensive – becoming a rallying cry across Russia – nevertheless cost the Red Army greatly

Located eighty-two kilometers south-east of Smolensk, the town of Yelnya was regarded by the advancing German forces as a strategically sound position from which to launch an offensive towards Moscow. Forming the Reserve Front under Marshall Zhukov, these poorly trained and equipped Soviets were commanded to throw back the Germans from the Yelnya heights and prevent this plan from taking place. Attacking on August 30, 1941, Zhukov, understanding the limitations of the recruits under his command, sought to encircle the Germans and force either surrender or a strategic retreat.

Succeeding on September 3, having suffered 23,000 casualties, the Germans withdrew rather than allow themselves to be surrounded. However, the Soviets in contrast suffered at least 31,000 casualties – with a far higher mortality rate – whilst the town’s 15,000 inhabitants were either killed or enslaved by the retreating Germans. Becoming the first substantial reversal infliction upon the Wehrmacht during Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets exploited the offensive as a major propaganda boon, even allowing foreign correspondents to visit the battlefield. Nevertheless, more recent military assessments have concluded the horrendous losses severely impacted future Soviet defensive capabilities and undermined their ability to contain and withstand subsequent German offensives into Russia.

20 Lesser Known Battles of World War II That Really Mattered
A Finnish machine gun crew during the Winter War (c. February 21, 1940). Military Museum of Finland/Wikimedia Commons.

1. Defining the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, the Battle of Suomussalmi saw 11,500 Finns defeat approximately 50,000 Soviets in a prime example of how a smaller and better-organized force can surpass a numerically superior enemy

Beginning on November 30, 1939, three months after the formal beginnings of World War Two, the Winter War saw the Soviet Union declare war and attempt to seize Finnish territory with a mind towards establishing a puppet communist government. Advancing on Suomussalmi on December 7, the Finns withdrew without contest to the opposite shores of Lakes Niskanselkä and Haukiperä to await the Soviet offensive. Failing to cross the lakes the following day, the Soviets subsequently sought to circumvent the obstacles and attack the Finnish positions from the northwest. Similarly failing, the encouraged Finns were reinforced on December 9 by additional soldiers and initiated a counter-offensive to retake Suomussalmi.

Continually failing in their attacks against the outnumbered Finnish, on December 27 the Finns triumphed and broke the Soviet lines to retake the village. Retreating in panic, the Finns pursued and rolled up supporting regiments of Soviets, pushing them all the way back to the Russian border. Providing a decisive morale boost for the outgunned Finnish army, capturing a huge quantity of valuable equipment in the process, the Soviet Union was forced to reorganize and commit far greater resources than they had originally planned to the campaign. Losing less than two thousand of their own, the Finns had successfully killed almost thirty thousand Soviets and captured more than two thousand more.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Bloody Forest: Battle for Huertgen September 1944-January 1945”, Gerald Astor, Presidio Press (2000)

“Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment”, Robert Sterling Rush, University Press of Kansas (2001)

“Crete 1941: Germany’s lightning airborne assault”, Peter D. Antill, Osprey Publishing (2005)

“Greece and Crete 1941: Second World War, 1939-1945 – a popular history”, Christopher Buckley, HMSO (1952)

“Guadalcanal: Decision At Sea: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13-15, 1942”, Eric Hammel, Pacifica Press (1988)

“The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942 – February 1943: Volume 5 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II”, Samuel Eliot Morison, Little, Brown, and Company (1949)

“The Battle for The Hague”, E.H. Brongers, Aspekt BV Publishing (2004)

“The Battle Off Samar: Taffy III at Leyte Gulf”, Robert Jon Cox, Agogeebic Press (2010)

“Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II”, Michael Bess, Alfred A. Knopf (2008)

“Operation Dragoon: The Allied Invasion of the South of France”, William Breuer, Presidio Press (1996)

“Operation Dragon: The Liberation of Southern France”, Anthony Tucker-Jones, Pen and Sword Publishing (2010)

“Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat: The Red Army’s Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942”, David M. Glantz, University Press of Kansas (1999)

“Marshal of Victory, Volume II”, Georgy Zhukov, Stackpole Books. 1974 (2015)

“American Defenses of Corregidor and Manila Bay 1898-1945”, Mark A. Berhow and Terrance C. McGovern, Osprey Publishing (2003)

“MacArthur and Defeat in the Philippines”, Richard Connaughton, The Overlook Press (2001)

“The Battle of the Hundred Regiments”, Lyman van Slyke, Modern Asian Studies (1996)

“The Battle for Leningrad 1941-1944”, David M. Glantz, Kansas University Press (2002)

“Anzio: The Friction of War. Italy and the Battle for Rome 1944”, Lloyd Clark, Headline Publishing Group (2007)

“Fifth Army at the Winter Line (15 November 1943-15 January 1944”, Fifth Army Historical Section, United States Army Center of Military History (1990)

“The Victory That Never Was”, John Grigg, Kensington (1985)

“Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily 1943”, Carlo D’Este, Harper Perennial (2008)

“When Titans Clashed: How The Red Army Stopped Hitler”, David M. Glantz and Jonathan House, University of Kansas Press (2015)

“Battle for Antwerp”, James L. Moulton, Ian Allan Publishing (1978)

“Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign, September 13-November 6, 1944”, Mark Zuelhlke, Douglas and McIntyre Publishing (2007)

“Khalkhin Gol: The Forgotten War”, Amnon Sella, Journal of Contemporary History (1983)

“Luzon Versus Formosa”, Robert Ross Smith, in “Command Decisions”, Kent Roberts Greenfield, United States Army Center of Military History (2000)

“To Lose A Battle: France 1940”, A. Horne, Little Brown & Co (1969)

“The Fall of France: Act With Daring”, Martin Marix Evans, Osprey Publishing (2000)

“The Soviet-German War, 1941-1945: Myths and Realities”, David Glantz, United States Army War College (2010)

“A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940”, William Trotter, Algonquin Books (2000)