19. Resulting in the loss of the Mediterranean island to the Axis powers, the Battle of Crete saw paratroopers used for the first time en masse by Nazi Germany to impressive and ultimately devastating effect
Garrisoning in Crete following the Italian attack on Greece, the Mediterranean island provided the British Royal Navy with strategically valuable harbors used to great effect, most prominently during the evacuation of 57,000 Allied soldiers following the fall of Greece in April 1941. Although opposed by German High Command, who preferred an undivided focus on Operation Barbarossa, both the Luftwaffe as well as Hitler himself strongly supported an attack on Crete to regain prestige following the Battle of Britain and deny the island to the Allies. Starting on the morning of May 20, 1941, the Battle of Crete began with an airborne invasion led by German paratroopers.
Suffering overwhelming casualties on the first day, with one German company from the 1st Assault Regiment enduring 112 deaths out of 126 men deployed, by the end of the first day the Allies were confident the onslaught could be held back. However, on the second day, the Germans successfully cut communication, leading Allied commanders in the east to believe the west had already fallen. Consequently declining to send reinforcements, believing the situation was futile, this tactical failing allowed the Germans to land additional troops and engulf Allied defensive positions. Forced to evacuate, by the end of the battle on June 1 the Allies had suffered a total of 23,000 casualties to less than 6,000 by the Germans.
18. Referred to by many names, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, despite the terrible cost inflicted upon the Allies, was an important strategic victory against the forces of Imperial Japan
Beginning on August 7, 1942, the Allies opened the Guadalcanal campaign, designed to capture the eponymous and surrounding islands and deny them to the Japanese as a base to attack supply routes between the United States and Australia. Threatened by the strategic potential of Henderson Field – an airbase on the island – Imperial Japan ordered the island retaken. Attempting several times at the cost of thousands of soldiers per effort, large transports were precluded from reaching the island by Allied bombers and, as a result, in November a group of warships was due to bombarding the airfield to allow for a mass Japanese landing on Guadalcanal.
Learning of the planned effort, the U.S. launched its aircraft and warships in a desperate effort to hold the Pacific island. Running consecutively, two engagements – lasting from the 13th to 15th of November, 1942 – were fought to a bloody conclusion. Resulting in the devastating loss of warships on both sides, with the Allies losing seven destroyers to the Japanese’s three, among many other vessel types, Allied aircraft successfully sank enough of the Japanese troop transports en route to Guadalcanal. Turning back the last major attempt to remove the Allies from the island, the naval battle – despite its costs – was considered a major strategic victory.
17. Although ultimately only delaying the fall of the Netherlands to Nazi Germany, the Battle of The Hague was an important propaganda victory as well as permitting the Dutch government the time to escape to Britain
Flying without effort to conceal themselves over the Netherlands in the early hours of May 10, 1940, the German intention was to deceive the Dutch and convince them of an intent to attack the United Kingdom. However, and unsurprisingly, the presence of large numbers of enemy aircraft above did not lull but rather alarmed the Dutch. Releasing their paratroopers as planned, the German Fallschirmjäger units – tasked with seizing airfields and cutting off The Hague to force a quick surrender – succeeded in only capturing three and a counter-offensive was readily launched by the Dutch.
Failing in the mission’s core objectives, including the capture of Queen Wilhelmina and Henri Winkelman, commander-in-chief of the Dutch forces, to force a surrender, the Germans instead became cut off themselves. Driven from the airfields, the Germans were scattered and skirmishes continued throughout the countryside. Resulting in the capture of almost two thousand paratroopers, as well as the deaths of nearly five hundred, the effort was an unmitigated failure for Germany. Victory, however, was short-lived, and following the brutal German bombing of Rotterdam on May 14 the Dutch capitulated. Nevertheless, the Queen and her cabinet – prime targets of the German paratroopers – were afforded the chance by the delay to escape to Britain and form a government-in-exile.
16. Regarded as one of the greatest mismatches in naval history, at the Battle off Samar the outnumbered American forces embarked upon a suicidal attack against superior Japanese numbers in an effort to allow transport ships a chance to escape
The centermost action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle off Samar took place on October 25, 1944, between the Imperial Japanese Navy and a largely unprepared American force. Tricked by an insignificant decoy fleet, Admiral William Halsey Jr. dispatched his immense 3rd Fleet in pursuit, leaving behind only three escort carrier groups of the 7th Fleet. Typically reliant upon Halsey’s fleet to protect the troop transports from enemy attack, a Japanese naval force previously thought to be in retreat suddenly turned to attack the exposed American ships. Outnumbered and outgunned, possessing just three destroyers and four destroyer escorts against twenty-three Japanese warships, Admiral Clifton Sprague ordered a desperate attack to buy his accompanying six escort carriers a chance to retreat.
Due to the overwhelming enemy force, Sprague’s suicidal assault took the Japanese by surprise. Nevertheless, they responded with deadly force and the Americans suffered immense losses comparable to the more famous battles of Midway and the Coral Sea. Losing two escort carriers, two destroyers, a destroyer escort, as well as more than fifteen hundred lives, the Japanese suffered surprisingly high casualties also. Inflicting the loss of three destroyers, as well as three more damaged, the Japanese were persuaded to withdraw rather than pursue vulnerable troops and supply ships in the Leyte Gulf.
15. Overshadowed by the more famous Normandy Landings in June 1944, Operation Dragoon saw the Allies rapidly regain control over a huge portion of France in just four weeks
Originally intended to coincide with the D-Day Normandy Landings, which took place on June 6, 1944, Operation Dragoon – the Allied invasion of the French Riviera – was forced to be postponed due to the lack of available landing-craft. Revived in August, following the distraction of the Germans and relocation of enemy troops, conditions for the liberation of Southern France were regarded as opportune. Landing on August 15, Allied troops, supported by an uprising by the French resistance, stormed the overwhelmed German positions. Forced to withdraw through the Rhône valley, the Germans eventually rallied and established a defensive line at Dijon.
Suffering approximately twenty-five thousand casualties including seven thousand killed, the Germans, in contrast, endured four thousand fewer casualties but also suffered the capture of over one-hundred-and-thirty-thousand of their soldiers. Despite the success of Operation Dragoon, the campaign nonetheless remains controversial. Although liberating a significant portion of France in just four weeks, inflicting heavy strategic losses and opening vital ports to the Allies, the move also allowed German units to escape northwards into the path of Patton and Montgomery. As a result, Churchill’s desired plan to invade the Balkans was forced to be canceled to compensate and instead the Soviets took Vienna to alter the post-war map of Europe.
14. The “greatest defeat of Marshal Zhukov”, subsequently portrayed as a deliberate failure to offer relief to Stalingrad, the Soviet offensive under Operation Mars was one of the bloodiest months of the Second World War
Planned to commence in October 1942, under the direction of Georgy Zhukov, soldiers from the Kalinin and Western Fronts would attempt to encircle and destroy the German Ninth Army. Delayed, the offensive did not launch until the early hours of November 25, by which time snowy weather grounded intended air support and reduced the efficacy of preceding artillery. Proceeding slowly, the opposing German lines stubbornly held positions even after being outflanked by Soviet forces, impeding any momentum for the attackers. Suffering terrible losses, the Soviet assault faltered and permitted the Germans to initiate a counter-offensive.
Reclaiming their original lines by mid-December, several thousand Soviets would be trapped behind enemy lines with few, after weeks of fighting, surviving to return to their comrades. Despite being a strategic and military failure, with the Soviets suffering more than five hundred thousand casualties to the German’s forty thousand, Operation Mars would inadvertently play an important role in the outcome of the Second World War. Demonstrating, in Hitler’s mind, he had been right to overrule his commanders and not withdraw during the winter of 1941-1942, the Führer adopted a more controlling posture thereafter resulting in several major tactical failures on his part.
13. The culmination of the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, the Battle of Corregidor saw thousands die in a single day and more than ten thousand Allied soldiers become prisoners of war
The largest of four fortified islands protecting the mouth of Manila Bay, Corregidor housed Fort Mills: an extensive reinforced complex comprising fifty-six pieces of coastal artillery, as well as more than seventy anti-aircraft guns, and which had served, until March 12, as the headquarters of General MacArthur. Following the fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East were crippled in its opposition to the invading Japanese forces in the Philippines. The only remaining obstacle to Japanese domination, Corregidor swiftly became the focus of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma to permit safe access to Manila Bay and its harbor.
Launching a prolonged bombardment upon the approximately fourteen thousand Allied soldiers sheltering within, on May 5 the Japanese launched a final assault encompassing a combined force of seventy-five thousand. Although putting up a strong resistance, fighting hand-to-hand against the attackers, the Allied positions were eventually overrun. Burning the regimental and national flags to prevent their capture, following radioing President Roosevelt to inform him of the loss, on the afternoon of May 6 the Allies were forced to surrender. Suffering almost two thousand casualties – half of which were killed in action – the defeat provided the Japanese with more than ten thousand prisoners of war.
12. A chaotic, and perhaps unintentional, campaign led by the Chinese Communists against occupying Imperial Japanese forces, the Hundred Regiments Offensive lasted only a couple of months before the Japanese threw back the insurgency and reasserted control
Following growing perceptions that the Communist Party of China was not contributing enough to the war effort against the occupying Japanese, the CCP’s National Revolutionary Army began planning a great offensive to mend relations with the Kuomintang and improve their image. Growing significantly in number to an estimated 400,000 strong, on August 20 Peng Dehuai ordered twenty regiments to attack Japanese-held cities and their connecting railway lines. However, discovering on August 22 more than eighty had in fact taken part without informing him, Peng had inadvertently launched what would become known as the Hundred Regiments Offensive.
Initially successful, the Chinese destroyed more than six hundred miles of railway and eradicated several strategically important industrial sites. However, from October to December, the Japanese responded with brutal force to reassert control over the lost rural regions under the “Three All” mantra: “Kill All, Burn All, Destroy All”. Culminating in more than twenty thousand casualties for the Chinese, the offensive was the last major campaign led by the communists during the Second World War. It has since been strongly suspected Peng acted without authorization from the Central Committee, with Mao in favor of allowing a prolonged Japanese occupation to increase support for his communist movement to the detriment of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government.
11. An attempt to break the Siege of Leningrad at the hands of German forces, Operation Iskra successfully created a thin corridor between the Soviet Fronts to provide a much-needed supply line and reinforcements to the beleaguered Russian city
With the Siege of Leningrad starting in the autumn of 1941, the city had endured more than a year cut off from supply routes and reinforcements. Despite several attempts in 1942 to breach the blockade, including most famously the Sinyavino Offensive, all such efforts remained unsuccessful. With fortunes improving following the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, Soviet commanders planned a fresh offensive in an attempt to inflict a critical defeat upon Germany’s Army Group North. Launched with the aim of creating a land connection between the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts, Operation Iskra commenced on January 12, 1943.
Ending the possibility of the German conquest of the city, the offensive opened a ten-kilometer-wide corridor between the fronts to provide relief to the beleaguered city within which a railroad was rapidly constructed. Although within range of enemy artillery, the railroad provided a vital lifeline to Leningrad’s isolated inhabitants. Nevertheless, Operation Iskra was not without a heavy cost, with the Soviets losing thirty-three thousand soldiers to the German’s twelve thousand, in addition to suffering more than twice as many wounded. Gradually expanding the hard-won corridor, the German siege would not be broken completely until more than another year later.
10. Taking six weeks for the Allies to push just seven miles across rugged Italian terrain, the Battle of the Bernhardt saw some of the worst fighting of the Second World War to breach German defensive lines and open the road to Rome
Following the Allied invasion of Italy and subsequent surrender of the Italian government, the German Army continued to wage war in the country nevertheless. Forming the Winter Line, a series of military fortifications running in three lines – the Gustav Line, Bernhardt Line, and Hitler Line – focused around the town of Monte Cassino, the defensive organization was designed to preclude Allied access to Rome. Pushing past two temporary lines intended merely to delay their arrival, suffering more than ten thousand casualties during the Volturno Line Offensive alone, the U.S. Fifth Army launched its assault upon the Bernhardt Line on December 1, 1943.
Fighting across immensely unsuitable terrain, including the Monte Maggiore – a six-mile-long and four-mile-wide hill mass – during just the month of December, the Allied forces endured five thousand battle-inflicted casualties as well as a further seventeen thousand from fevers and jaundice. Launching fresh assaults throughout the New Year, a final attack began on January 10, 1944, to drive the Germans from their positions and open the road north. Taking until January 15 to break the Bernhardt Line, capturing just seven miles across the six weeks of the intense battle, final casualty figures for the Allied forces surpassed sixteen thousand.
9. Whilst the Allied invasion of Sicily – codenamed Operation Husky – is widely known, the Axis evacuation of the Mediterranean island is less well remembered despite the immense strategic impact of the endeavor
A major campaign of the Second World War, lasting six weeks from July to August 1943, the Allied invasion of Sicily – the first salvo of the Italian Campaign – saw the Mediterranean island recover from Axis control after an amphibious and airborne operation. Although significant for both the outcome as well as the terrible losses inflicted on both sides, with more than fifteen thousand killed in combat, the campaign should equally be remembered for the strategic significance of the resultant Axis evacuation. As early as July 27, the Axis commanders on Sicily realized the campaign was lost and an evacuation would be required.
Quietly planning and transporting equipment from August 1, ten days later the full-scale withdrawal commenced in force. Ordering successive withdrawals each night of between five and fifteen miles of territory, the retreating Germans and Italians delayed an Allied rush using mines, demolitions, and the natural geography of the narrowing peninsula. Proving highly successful, under the watchful protection of hundreds of heavy and anti-aircraft guns, the Allies were unable to impede the Axis withdrawal. Recovering almost sixty thousand German soldiers, as well as an estimated seventy-five thousand Italians plus thousands of vehicles and immeasurable tons of equipment, the Axis recovery ensured a far longer and harder struggle on mainland Europe for the Allies.
8. Becoming known afterward as the “Little Stalingrad of the North”, more than 150,000 individuals lost their lives during the retaking of the Russian city of Velikiye Luki during the winter of 1943-1944
Executed by members of the Red Army’s Kalinin Front as part of the wider Operation Mars, the Velikiye Luki Offensive was launched on November 19, 1943. Designed to recapture the eponymous city, initially seized by the Wehrmacht on July 19, 1941, as part of Operation Barbarossa, Velikiye Luki was regarded as an important strategic asset, possessing a north-south railroad as well as a separate railway network and overseeing an assortment of bridges. Heavily fortified by the Germans, as a result, the Soviet offensive, unable to simply advance, successfully sought to encircle the city and cut off land routes to isolate the enemy.
Refusing the chance for an early breakout by Hitler, the garrison was ordered to hold at all costs whilst a relief force sought to counter-attack from the south to break the encirclement. Resulting in an escalation of soldiers on both sides, the Soviets repeatedly sought to breach the city despite fighting against entrenched troops in harsh winter and precipitating major casualties. Nevertheless, suffering depletion in supplies and ammunition, following repeated failed attempts to break the encirclement, the German garrison was forced to surrender on January 16, 1944. Suffering a combined total exceeding 150,000 casualties, the liberation and captured transport network exposed critical German lines to further encirclement and flanking.
7. A lesser-known but nevertheless vital aspect of the Allied victory in World War Two, the Battle of the Scheldt saw the Belgium port of Antwerp captured to permit easier supply for the advancing armies in France
Following the Allied breakout at the Battle of Normandy in June 1944, as troops progressed deeper inland into France they increasingly drew further away from the initial coastal supply lines, becoming one of the most prominent factors slowing the otherwise rapid Allied advance. Unable to easily capture ports, with the German Army given explicit instructions to hold strategically located harbors to preclude their use for resupply by the Allies, plans to open up shipping routes to Antwerp, Belgium, were drawn up to address the troublesome situation. Initiated on October 2, 1944, the First Canadian Army sought to assault the by-then well-established Wehrmacht lines.
Impeded by the Germans, who had flooded the Scheldt Estuary to slow the Allied attack, the Canadians were forced to engage in several amphibious assaults across the impassable land. Becoming one of the most costly engagements for Canada throughout the entire conflict, more than six thousand – representing in excess of one in ten – were killed, with the same number again wounded. Lasting until November 8, the resolute German garrison was eventually forced to surrender after six weeks of constant fighting, opening up the city’s harbors to the Allies. Re-energizing the Allied advance, in recognition of the importance of the Allied success, Antwerp became the most targeted city by V-2 rockets and a primary objective for the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.
6. Although technically preceding the Second World War at the start, the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol were a series of precursor border conflicts in the weeks prior to the invasion of Poland between the Soviet Union and the Empire of Japan
After the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, the expansionist Pacific Empire increasingly turned its attention towards bordering Soviet territories. First clashing in 1938, the puppet state of Manchukuo was occupied by the Kwantung Army of Japan, comprising many of the finest professional soldiers available, whom on May 11, 1939, engaged a Mongolian cavalry unit in a skirmish. Following the incident, both the Soviets and Japanese dramatically increased their forces in the area, with the Soviets also dispatching Zhukov to serve as commander. Striking first on June 27, without prior authorization from Tokyo, the Japanese attacked a Soviet airbase at Tamsak-Bulak.
Escalating into a full-scale assault, the Japanese initially succeeded in crossing the Khalkhyn Gol – a river separating the primary battlefield – but Zhukov mounted a counter-offensive to push the enemy back on July 5. Sparring back and forth for weeks, with both sides suffering heavy casualties, the battle entered into a prolonged stalemate. Finally, with the war in Europe imminent, Zhukov launched a major offensive designed to end the conflict on August 20. Devastating the Japanese with a sudden aerial and armored attack, the Soviets, having pushed back the invaders, quickly signed a ceasefire on September 15 – two days before the Soviet invasion of Poland.
5. The highest net casualty battle fought by American forces during the Second World War, the Battle of Luzon saw the Allies retake the Luzon island group three years after being forced to capitulate to the Japanese in the Philippines
Regarded as of great strategic importance, the loss of the Philippines stung the pride of General MacArthur immensely. Within only a few months of the defeat in 1942, he sought to convince Admiral Nimitz, U.S. Pacific Commander, of the need for an attempted recapture. Forced to wait until victory was certain, with a base of operation closer to Luzon necessary before an attack, on January 9, 1945, MacArthur finally got his wish. Attempting to deceive the Japanese into thinking an attack would originate from the south, the assault – codenamed S-Day, was launched instead from the north involving more than seventy Allied warships.
Facing sustained opposition from kamikaze aircraft, with the Ommaney Bay destroyed by one such attack, the Allies nevertheless successfully landed 175,000 troops along a twenty-mile beachhead over the following days. Advancing south toward Manila, limited opposition was met until approaching the capital city on February 4. Entering Manila on February 11, the surviving Japanese were forced into the mountainous surroundings to wage guerilla warfare. Holding out for months, and in some cases years even, the defeat for the Japanese was staggering, losing more than 205,000 lives – many from disease – to the American’s 10,640 on top of at least 120,000 Filipino civilians and military casualties.
4. Regarded by Eisenhower as one of the fiercest engagements of the Second World War, the Battle of the Reichswald saw fifty thousand Allied soldiers attempt to breach the German lines and ensure easy crossing over the Rhine and into Germany
Determining the best route into Germany would be across the relatively flat lands of northern Europe, encompassing the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr, Allied generals resolved the need to clear German presence west of the Rhine prior to attempting a crossing. Divided into a pincer movement, Operation Veritable – later known as the Battle of the Reichswald – served as the northern half of the campaign, with Allied soldiers seeking to gain command over the heavily forested and thawed flood plains of the Rhine. Engaging the entrenched German defenders on unfavorable ground in poor conditions on February 8, 1945, advance air raids of colossal proportions failed to dislodge the Axis positions.
Despite sending a combined force of fifty thousand Allied soldiers, mostly British and Canadian, the Germans, under orders to not give ground, held firm against the onslaught. Impeded by flooded ground, trees, and minefields, the Allies were forced to gradually pick apart the enemy defenses over the course of weeks. Eventually able to cross the Roer after waters subsided on February 23, the German lines were flanked and 230,000 captured. General Eisenhower would later remark the Battle of the Reichswald “was some of the fiercest fightings of the whole war”, with more than sixty thousand combined casualties across just one month and three days.
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.
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.
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.
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