A Brief History
History’s worst war and its associated genocide is an dark chapter in human history overflowing with bizarre episodes. This article presents a timeline of the most notable such incidents, some depressing and others inspiring!
Origins of World War II
On August 22, 1902, Helene “Leni” Riefenstahl was born in Southern Bavaria in Germany. Thirty years later she would meet Adolf Hitler, the man who helped her become the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century, but that association would nearly destroy her as well.
On August 8, 1918, the Allied offensive known as the “Hundred Days Offensive” began with the start of the Battle of Amiens. Allied forces swept 7 miles into German lines, an incredible amount when for the previous 4 years progress was measured in feet or yards. The Battle of Amiens was the first in a string of victories that would carry the Allies to victory in World War I, and inevitably sow the seeds of World War II!
On February 25, 1932, Adolf Hitler applied for German citizenship. Why? Because he was not German! And that is just the first of today’s cracked facts about Adolf Hitler. To see our full list of the “Top Ten Cracked Adolf Hitler Facts”, please click here.
On November 6, 1935, the Hawker Hurricane, the first modern British fighter plane, made its first flight. Destined to live hidden in the glow of the Supermarine Spitfire, almost 15,000 Hurricanes were built from 1937 to 1944 and this rugged warrior was the primary British fighter during the Battle of Britain, accounting for 60% of the air to air kills in that battle on which Britain’s survival hinged.
On June 15, 1936, the Vickers Wellington twin engine bomber made its maiden flight.
On August 3, 1936, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens blazed into the record books at the Berlin Olympics, winning the 100 meter dash.
On June 11, 1937, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had 8 of his top army generals executed as part of The Great Purge.
The Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, and The Holocaust
On December 13, 1937, Japanese blood-lust reached unprecedented proportions when they massacred over 250,000 Chinese in Nanking!
On October 14, 1938, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk made its first flight, leading to an eventual production run of 13,738 of the rugged fighters.
On December 16, 1938, world famous dictator and villain Adolf Hitler directed his Nazi German Empire (Reich) to issue a new medal, one only for mothers. The new medal would be only for women of German ethnicity living within Germany (an later other German areas incorporated into Germany).
On March 30, 1939, the Heinkel 100 prototype fighter airplane flew at 463 mph in level flight, at the time the fastest airplane ever.
On June 11, 1939, a picnic at which hot dogs were served helped re-establish the political closeness between the United States and Great Britain and introduced the traditionally American food to an international public.
On August 25, 1939, in a move meant to convince Germany not to attack Poland, the United Kingdom (Britain) signed a military alliance treaty with Poland which promised that if either were attacked the other would come to their assistance. Meanwhile, the German Nazi government led by Adolf Hitler signed a “non-aggression pact” with the Soviet Union, each country promising not to attack the other.
On August 27, 1939, the Heinkel He 178 made its first flight, the first powered flight by a jet aircraft. Since this airplane did not make it to regular production, you may not be familiar with it. Many pioneering events in aviation history are relatively unknown, at least to the lay public.
On September 10, 1939, the British Royal Navy proved quite early in World War II that there is no such thing as “friendly fire.”
On October 23, 1939, the Japanese G4M “Betty” bomber made its maiden flight. Destined to be the main Japanese land based bomber for the entire war, it was, like other Japanese planes, state of the art at the beginning of the war and grossly overmatched by later American models later. Made by Mitsubishi, its performance was about on par with the American B-25 as far as speed and climb, and it had better range.
On November 30, 1939, Soviet forces crossed the Finnish border in several places and bombed Helsinki and several other Finnish cities, starting the Winter War.
On December 12, 1939, an all too familiar scenario developed when 2 British warships collided, resulting in the sinking of the smaller vessel including considerable loss of life.
On March 12, 1940, an epic battle of a David against a Goliath ended in a draw!
On May 29, 1940, the F-4U Corsair made its first flight. The Corsair would go on to great success in its combat career, shooting down 11 Japanese airplanes for every Corsair shot down.
On August 19, 1940, the North American B-25 Mitchell flew for the first time. Although its service life did not extend as long as many airplanes, this medium bomber was adapted for a huge variety of uses and configurations, making it one of the most versatile aircraft ever.
On August 20, 1940, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the war torn United Kingdom delivered one of his most stirring wartime speeches, one that lionized the efforts of the RAF, known then and forever after as “The Few.”
On August 20, 1940, communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky was murdered in Mexico by agents of Joseph Stalin. The murder weapon was an ice axe, not something you see every day in Mexico City! People have been killing other people since Cain brained Abel with a rock, and they have been dreaming up new ways to do it all along.
On October 28, 1940, Greece entered World War II (WW2). The Greco-Italian war of 1940 was a military conflict between Greece and Italy lasting from October 28, 1940, until April 23, 1941, and became the Axis powers’ first defeat.
On January 9, 1941, the premier British bomber of World War II, the Avro Lancaster, made its maiden flight. In service only a year later, the “Lanc” was the main British bomber that carried the war to Germany.
On January 17, 1941, French colonial naval forces engaged the naval forces of Siam (Thailand after 1948) during the Franco-Thai War, a smaller war within the larger conflagration that was World War II.
On May 10, 1941, Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess, third in command of Nazi Germany to Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring, some of history’s most evil people, parachuted into Scotland in an attempt to get Britain to make peace with Germany.
On June 23, 1941, during the Battle of Raseiniai, the Russian’s debuted their brand new and incredibly well armored Kliment Voroshilov tank, colloquially known as the KV heavy tank by everyone who did not see them RUN OVER ANTI-TANK GUNS!
On August 19, 1941, Zinoviy Kolobanov became one of the most successful tank aces in military history.
On September 3, 1941, the first experiments using an insecticide adapted to kill people were conducted at the Auschwitz extermination camp. Soviet prisoners of war were gassed to death in a dress rehearsal for the cyanide based insecticide to be used on Jews and others as part of the mass extermination known as The Holocaust.
On September 4, 1941, US Navy destroyer USS Greer was attacked by German submarine (U-boat) U-652, and returned the compliment by depth charging the German sub.
On November 19, 1941, HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran sank each other off the coast of Western Australia, with the loss of 645 Australians and about 77 German seamen. The battle was Australia’s all time largest loss of life in its entire naval history and the largest Allied warship lost with all hands in World War II. For conspiracy theorists, what really happened has remained a controversy for over sixty years!
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a massive aerial surprise attack against U.S. military forces on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, mainly at Pearl Harbor. Every year on this date we are reminded of that “dastardly attack” by the various news media and by educational television channels running Pearl Harbor documentaries and conspiracy programs.
On December 11, 1941, dictators Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy made an enormous blunder, perhaps one that cost them the war, when they declared war on the United States.
On December 12, 1941, American forces were reeling from the Japanese onslaught after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack of December 7, when Philippine-American pilot Jesus Villamor led a flight of Boeing P-26 “Peashooter” fighter planes against superior Japanese aircraft raiding the Batanga Airfield.
On December 20, 1941, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known by their nickname, The Flying Tigers, had their first air to air combat with Japanese planes over China. Just in case you do not know, the AVG was a group of American flyers under the command of Claire Chennault flying for China against the Japanese.
On January 13, 1942, German test pilot Helmut Schenk successfully ejected from a Heinkel He 280 jet fighter being developed for the German Luftwaffe, becoming the first pilot in history to eject from a disabled (by ice) airplane.
On February 24, 1942, an “order in council” was passed by the Canadian government that authorized the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry in Canada.
On April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led one of the most famous bombing raids in aviation history when he led 16 B-25 medium bombers over Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya and Yokohama, Japan.
On May 22, 1942, Ted Williams, arguably the best baseball player of that time, joined the US Marine Corps as a naval aviator. He flew the F4U Corsair in combat with the Japanese.
On June 4, 1942, the Battle of Midway began with Admiral Nagumo of the Imperial Japanese Navy ordering an airstrike on the US held island of Midway in the Central Pacific.
On June 7, 1942, the Battle of Midway ended, changing the balance of power in Pacific. Afterwards, the Japanese were on the defensive and the allies (mostly Americans) were on the offensive for the rest of the war.
On June 10, 1942, and again on June 10, 1944, the German army committed atrocities in Czechoslovakia (Lidice), France (Oradour-sur-Glane), and Greece (Distomo, Boeotia) in separate incidents. Slaughtering or massacring innocent civilians or prisoners of war was a sadly not uncommon practice of one of history’s most brutal regimes.
On July 18, 1942, the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow in English) made its first test flight using its jet engines. Initial test flights had been conducted using a conventional piston powered engine and a propeller.
On July 19, 1942, an American pilot spotted an intact Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter downed on Akutan island. The Zero was recovered and restored to flying condition by the Americans and provided information needed to develop American fighters and tactics to cope with the Zero’s great performance.
On August 7, 1942, US Marines landed on an island few Americans had ever heard of, Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. After months of being on the defensive, defensive victories at Coral Sea and Midway combined with the rapid build up of troops and industrial production gave the US the first opportunity to start taking instead of losing ground in the Pacific.
On August 11, 1942, sexy Actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil patented frequency hopping radio signals, the science that became WiFi, Bluetooth and Cell Phone technology. Known for her sexy movie roles, even including nudity, Lamarr was apparently brilliant as well, as are more entertainment celebrities than you may know.
On August 16, 1942, while on routine anti-submarine patrol, the 2 man crew of US Navy Blimp L-8 disappeared without a trace. The unmanned blimp drifted about aimlessly until crash landing in Daly City, California. No trace of the crew or reason for their disappearance has ever been found.
On August 23, 1942, the Battle of Stalingrad began during World War II. The decisive Soviet victory resulted in the destruction of the German 6th Army and the beginning of the decline of Axis forces on the Eastern Front. Therefore, many historians consider the Battle of Stalingrad to have been the turning point of the European theater of World War II.
On September 7, 1942, the Consolidated B-32 Dominator strategic bomber made its first flight. Being developed as competition for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the B-32 was the loser of that competition and only 118 were built.
On November 15, 1942, the Heinkel He 219 night fighter made its first flight. A year later the first editions became operational. Designed from the ground up as a night fighter to combat the British night bombing raids, this was an innovative design incorporating air to air radar and the first ejection seats installed in an operational aircraft. It was also the only German plane of the war with tricycle type landing gear.
On November 27, 1942, the French Navy under the direction of Admiral Auphan scuttled a large part of the French ships and submarines in port at Toulon, France, in order to keep these valuable assets out of the hands of the German Kriegsmarine (navy).
On November 28, 1942, in the middle of World War II, the United States suffered mass carnage on the home front!
On January 14, 1943, the Japanese Navy successfully evacuated the remaining Japanese land forces from the Island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands of the Pacific Ocean.
On March 22, 1943, a battalion of military police fighting for Germany was attacked by Byelorussian partisans near the village of Khatyn.
On May 17, 1943, RAF Squadron 617, later known as The Dambusters, embarked on Operation Chastise, a plan to bomb and destroy 2 dams to flood the Ruhr Valley in Germany. They were successful, largely because of the wacky weapon they used, a barrel like bomb that was rotated on a carriage under the bomber and then dropped to skip across the water to the dam, and then roll down the face of the dam to blow up right against the structure.
On June 3, 1943, US Navy sailors and US Marines tangle with Latino young men in what is known as The Zoot Suit Riots.
On June 20, 1943, World War II came to the American heartland when a massive race related riot broke out in Detroit.
On July 23, 1943, an English lad of 19 had enough of his crippled father’s abuse and blew up the 47 year old in his bath chair. The incident, famous in Britain as the Rayleigh Bath Chair Murder, has to be one of the first and perhaps only incident where someone killed their dad with an anti-tank bomb, thereby arguably meriting a ranking on our list of unusual deaths!
On August 17, 1943, the US 8th Air Force, the main American heavy bombing unit stationed in England, launched 376 B-17 bombers against Schweinfurt and Regensburg in Germany, a raid that came to symbolize the futility of unescorted bombing.
On September 3, 1943, the Allies (mainly the United States and the United Kingdom) invaded mainland Europe, thus living up to the promise to Soviet Premier Josef Stalin to invade mainland Europe in 1943.
On October 22, 1943, 569 bombers of the Royal Air Force dropped firebombs on the German city of Kassel, population around 240,000, killing 10,000 and making another 150,000 homeless.
On October 26, 1943, what could have been a fantastic advantage in the German air war against Allied bombers in World War II first took to the air, with the first flight of the Dornier Do 335 Pfeil (Arrow).
On December 28, 1943, the Soviet secret police, NKVD, under the direction of its commander Lavrentiy Beria, began a 3 day operation called Operation Ulusy to forcibly remove 93,139 people of the Kalmyk nationality to forced labor camps in the remote areas of Siberia.
On January 3, 1944, the top American air combat ace, Pappy Boyington, was shot down.
On March 24, 1944, the hard work of 600 American and British POW’s was ready to pay off, and 200 of them were ready to escape from Stalag Luft III!
On June 5, 1944, the British RAF plastered the Normandy coast of France with 5000 tons of bombs dropped by over 1000 bombers in preparation for the D-Day landings the next day.
On June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces stormed the heavily defended beaches of Normandy, France, signaling the doom of the Third Reich. This amphibious landing would not have happened, at least not successfully, without the following piece of allied equipment and weapons.
On June 16, 1944 (exact date is unknown, said to be sometime in the Spring of 1944, so we chose this date), American Army Air Force pilot William Overstreet, Jr. was flying his North American P-51 Mustang in pursuit of a German Messerschmitt Bf-109 when the 2 fighter planes amazed onlookers on the ground by flying right under the lower arches of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
On July 17, 1944, US P-38 fighter bombers dropped napalm bombs on a German Army fuel depot near St. Lo in Normandy, France, one of the earliest uses of napalm. Napalm a mixture of gasoline and a thickening agent (several formulas) is used as a flame weapon that stubbornly sticks to anything it comes in contact with, greatly increasing its lethality against humans and effectiveness in catching things on fire.
On August 12, 1944, German Nazi troops finished a massacre of between 40,000 and 50,000 Poles, many of them Jewish. The excuse for this massacre was to put down the Warsaw uprising and discourage any further resistance to the occupying forces.
On August 16, 1944, Junkers aircraft company of Nazi Germany flew the prototype of the JU-287 for the first time. A 4 engine jet powered bomber, it was radically different than any other airplane in existence with its forward swept wings.
On September 27, 1944, The Kassel Mission, which resulted in the largest loss by a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) group on any mission in World War II, was so successfully covered up that even today few non-WWII experts are even aware it occurred.
On October 21, 1944, Japan began their notorious kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, first striking HMAS Australia.
On October 25, 1944, the US submarine, USS Tang, commanded by ace submarine skipper Richard O’Kane, was sunk when a torpedo fired by the sub malfunctioned, turned around and struck the hapless submarine.
On October 25, 1944, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler of the German Third Reich ordered a crackdown against the youth culture anti-Nazi government resistance group known as “Edelweisspiraten,” or “Edelweiss Pirates.”
On October 31, 1944, Dr. jur. Erich Göstl, a member of the Waffen SS, was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, to recognize extreme battlefield bravery for losing his face and eyes during the Battle of Normandy during World War II and continuing to fight while blind.
On November 12, 1944, the RAF used its heavy bomber, the Avro Lancaster, to drop Tall Boy bombs on the German battleship, Tirpitz (sister ship to the Bismarck), sinking the last German battleship. The Tall Boys were giant 12,000 pound bombs designed by British weapons designer Barnes Wallis, and so big that only the Lancaster could lug them to the target. No US bomber of World War II was up to the task.
On March 7, 1945, the fortunes of war cost a German Field Marshall his job, and five German officers a sentence of death! Meanwhile, the same events earned two American soldiers the Distinguished Service Cross and another a Silver Star.
On March 9, 1945, 324 B-29 bombers of the United States Army Air Force inflicted the deadliest and most destructive single bombing raid in history!
On April 16, 1945, a Soviet submarine sunk a transport ship filled with civilians and wounded soldiers!
On April 27, 1945, World War II was almost over, a disaster for the Italian people who had been led into it by their pompous and egotistical dictator.
On May 3, 1945, five squadrons of Hawker Typhoon fighter aircraft attacked 3 ships in Lubeck Bay, Northern Germany and sunk all 3. The ships were prisoner ships carrying thousands of inmates from concentration camps.
On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the allies and ceased to exist as a state.
On July 16, 1945, Manhattan Project scientists held their breath as the clock ticked down to the first man-made nuclear blast in history.
On July 26, 1945, the leaders of the major Allied countries fighting Japan in World War II met in Potsdam, Germany to issue the conditions by which the Japanese were to surrender to the Allies. Also known as “unconditional surrender” the Allies left no room for negotiation, which soon became a point of controversy and is debated to this day, as the declaration is seen by some as having prolonged the war by leaving Japan no honorable way to stop the fighting.
On August 6, 1945, the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing about 70,000 people right away and perhaps a few tens of thousands later from wounds, burns, and radiation.
On August 9, 1945, a Boeing B-29 bomber named “Bockscar” dropped the second atom bomb on Japan, incinerating 39.000 people within seconds. Within weeks, thousands more would die and more would keep dying for years to come. The Japanese quickly surrendered after this second nuclear attack, but the question of whether or not this bomb was necessary haunts Americans today.
On October 12, 1945, Corporal Desmond T. Doss of Lynchburg, Virginia, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor given to only the bravest of our military heroes.
On December 9, 1946, the “Subsequent Nuremberg Trials” began with the “Doctors’ Trial”, prosecuting doctors alleged to be involved in human experimentation.
On March 8, 1949, the long and convoluted journey of Mildred Gillars temporarily came to an end.
On May 31, 1962, the nation of Israel hanged Nazi Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, one of history’s most evil people, for war crimes. Eichmann had been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina and living the good life as a Mercedes-Benz supervisor until he was kidnapped by Israeli secret agents.
On June 11, 1964, World War II veteran Walter Seifert went on a rampage at a Catholic elementary school outside of Cologne, Germany. He did not have a gun, but he did have a home-made flamethrower, a mace and a lance!
On March 24, 1976, Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount of Alamein, hero of World War II, died at home in England. Along with Wellington, Montgomery is the most celebrated of British generals and had the ego to match, or even exceed, his reputation. Awarded medals and honors from his own country, “Monty” was also decorated with high honors from many other countries as well, including the US, France, Denmark (they made him a Knight of the Order of The Elephant), Belgium, Ethiopia and others.
On April 22, 1983, the world was shocked to hear that the Diaries of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been found.
On July 29, 1993, Ukrainian-American retired auto worker, John Demjanjuk, was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of Israel and was a free man. Or was he?
On May 29, 2004, President George W. Bush dedicated the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. The memorial is between the Washington and Lincoln memorials, east of the Reflecting Pool.
Question for students: What was the most interesting event that occurred during World War II and/or the Holocaust?
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For more information, please see…
Bradley, James and Ron Powers. Flags of Our Fathers. Bantam, 2006.
Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Presidio Press, 2007.
Steigmann-Gall, Richard. The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the USS Arizona was a total loss in the Japanese surprise air attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 195617. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation.