Start of World War II: September 1939-March 1940

German infantrymen -- known as panzergrenadiers -- secured Nazi Germany's quick victory over Poland.
Publications International, Ltd.

On Sep­tember 1, 1939, just before Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland that marked t­he beginning of World War II, Zygmunt Klukowski, a young Polish doctor, confided in his diary that everyone was talking about war. "Everybody," he continued, "is sure that we will win." The reality was startlingly different.

Nazi Germany's war with Poland, begun on September 1, was an uneven contest. Five German armies with 1.5 million men, 2,000 tanks, and 1,900 modern aircraft faced fewer than a million Polish troops with less than 500 aircraft and a small number of armored vehicles. In addition, German planning and technical support -- and German understanding of the importance of modern tactical airpower -- gave the aggressor great advantages.


Within five days, German forces occupied all of the frontier zones. By September 7, forward units were only 25 miles from Warsaw, the Polish capital. Polish air forces were eliminated, and the Polish army was split and encircled. By September 17, the war was virtually over. Ten days later, after a devastating air assault, ­Warsaw surrendered. "We were not yet ready," wrote Dr. Klukowski two weeks later, "to discuss the causes of our defeat...This is a fact, but we just can't believe it."

­This was the war Adolf Hitler had hoped for in 1939. But in addition to the localized conflict with Poland, the German invasion provoked a global conflict. Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3 when it became clear that negotiating a German withdrawal was hopeless. In Britain and France, the populations had braced themselves for war in the closing weeks of the summer. There was little popular enthusiasm for war, but a strong wave of anti-German and anti-Fascist sentiment produced a resigned recognition that Adolf Hitler would only stop if he was faced by force.

Almost immediately, the British and French empires (except for Ireland) joined the contest, turning it into a worldwide war, fought not only in Europe but across the oceans. German invasion also triggered Soviet Union intervention. The terms of the German-Soviet pact, signed in August 1939, gave Joseph Stalin a sphere of influence in eastern Poland. On September 17, once it was clear that Poland was close to defeat, Red Army units moved into Poland and met up with victorious German troops along a prearranged frontier. On September 28, the two dictatorships signed another treaty, which divided Poland between them.

Abandoned by Western powers and failed by a group of Polish women

For the Western powers, this provoked fears of a totalitarian alliance against them. For Poland, dismemberment and harsh totalitarian rule was the reality. Britain and France did nothing to help their smaller ally. Their military staffs had drawn up a "war plan" during the summer of 1939 in which the loss of Poland was accepted as inevitable. The core of the plan was to blockade and contain Nazi Germany until the war of attrition forced the Germans to abandon the contest as they had done in 1918. Britain and France expected a war of at least three years. This explains why for the first six months of the war the Western states did very little. The lull was nicknamed the "Phony War" -- a war with no fighting.

A small amount of naval activity did occur, which gave citizens on both sides something to cheer about. In December 1939, Britain's Royal Navy so damaged the German pocket battleship Graf Spee that it was scuttled in the South Atlantic. Conversely, German submarines began to sink Allied merchant ships. On October 14, 1939, a German submarine managed to penetrate the defenses of the main British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, and there sank the battleship Royal Oak. The Germans bombed Polish citizens mercilessly, but for a while refrained from bombing cities in the West. The British only dropped leaflets on German cities.

The chief beneficiary of the war in Poland was the Soviet Union. Suffering almost no casualties, the Red Army took parts of Poland that had been seized by Russia and Austria back in the 18th century but returned to Poland after World War I. The region was integrated at once into the Soviet system.

More than one million Poles, those regarded as a threat to the Communist order, were deported to labor camps in the Soviet Union. The three Baltic States -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- had been assigned to the Soviet Union sphere by the August and September agreements. They were compelled by Soviet pressure to accept Soviet military garrisons and political advisers on their soil.

In the fall of 1939, the USSR demanded that the Finnish government cede some territory and allow bases on Finnish soil. Joseph Stalin had, in fact, already drawn up plans for a Communist Finland, and he expected the same response as the Baltic States had given.

Instead, Finland rejected the Soviet demands, and on November 30 Soviet forces invaded along the entire Finnish frontier. Finland's army of 200,000 mounted a spirited defense. Only after the mobilization of further Soviet forces in February 1940 did Finnish resistance wear down. Finland sought an armistice on March 6, and a week later it conceded all the territory and a base that had been originally demanded.

For Adolf Hitler, the Soviet advance in Eastern Europe and the spread of Communist influence were prices he had to pay for securing the German rear while Nazi Germany attacked Britain and France. But it was a dangerous situation. In October 1939, he hinted to his military staff that he would settle with the USSR as soon as he could. He hoped the West might seek terms, but when it became clear they were serious about war, he planned to attack the French front in November 1939. Poor weather prevented it, and Hitler reluctantly accepted a postponement until spring.

Urged forward by the German navy, Hitler decided to seize Norway and Denmark for the naval war against British trade supplies from America. What had begun as a war to extend German power in Eastern Europe had become an open and unpredictable conflict with the intervention of Britain and France. Only in Poland was the war really over. Dr. Klukowski watched in dismay as German troops looted shops and churches and forced Jews to give up their valuables and clean the streets. As he wrote late in 1939, "It is really hard to live in slavery."

Follow the events of the first week of World War II in early September 1939, on the next page.

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World War II Timeline: September 1, 1939-September 6, 1939

World War II officially began on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Below is a timeline tracing some of the important events of the first week of September, 1939.

World War II Timeline: September 1-September 6

September 1: World War II begins as the Germans invade Poland with a three-front Blitzkrieg. They attack the Polish army with an overwhelming force of 1.5 million troops backed by tactical aircraft in the sky and mobile armor on the ground.


September 2: Poland pleads for assistance from sworn allies Britain and France. They respond the following day by demanding Nazi Germany's withdrawal and declaring war against the Nazi regime. India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (and soon South Africa) issue their own declarations of war.

September 3: Conservative parliamentarian Winston Churchill is named first lord of the admiralty.

Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) carries out the first propaganda air raid of the war, salting northern Germany with six million pamphlets.

Without warning, a German U-boat torpedoes the Athenia, a British passenger ship carrying 1,400 civilians from England to Canada, killing 118.

September 4: The first RAF air assault is a disaster, with only eight of 29 bombers striking German naval bases. Ten of the RAF bombers get lost, seven are shot down, three attack one of Britain's own ships, and one attacks neutral Denmark.

Spain's General Francisco Franco offers his support to the Axis while publicly declaring neutrality.

September 5: The Nazis occupy the medieval Polish city of Kraków.

The United States officially declares its neutrality.

September 6: RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires that scramble during a false air raid alert end up shooting at each other, with the Spitfires downing the Hurricanes.

World War II Headlines

Below are more images and headlines from World War II that examine the details of Nazi Germany's aggression in early September, 1939.

Junkers Ju-87 (Stukas) vital to success of Blitzkrieg: Close air support was a prerequisite for the success of the Wehrmacht's Blitzkrieg operations. In 1939 and early 1940, the gull-winged, single-engine Junkers Ju-87 (Stuka) -- with three machine guns and a maximum bomb load of 1,540 pounds -- was vital to such operations. The terror sirens of these diving aircraft struck fear into those on the ground below, while their bombs and guns amplified this terror with death and destruction. However, once opposed by more modern fighter aircraft -- such as the British RAF's Spitfires and Hurricanes beginning in 1940 -- the Ju-87s proved vulnerable. They were subsquently utilized only occasionally in support of front-line offensive operations.

German general Fedor von Bock tops in the field: German general Fedor von Bock was a distinguished old-style Prussian officer who commanded the German Anschluss forces in 1938. In 1939 he commanded Army Group North during the Polish campaign and, in 1940, Army Group B during the Blitzkrieg that speedily overran the Low Countries and defeated France. Later, Bock was twice relieved of commands in Russia: first in 1941 following a failed offensive against Moscow, and subsequently in 1942 after disagreements with Adolf Hitler over operational decisions. Having survived both those campaigns and Hitler's displeasure, he was killed in an Allied air raid on May 4, 1945.

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Poland succumbs to German invasion: The event that finally destroyed any residual hopes in London or Paris that appeasement might yet succeed was Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland. At dawn on September 1, 1939, successive waves of bombers and fighter-bombers raided deep into Poland. Simultaneously, the tanks, artillery, and infantry of two German army groups, comprised of five separate armies, launched devastating attacks against the sizable but outdated and poorly deployed Polish forces. Warsaw finally fell on September 27, the effectiveness of Nazi Germany's Wehrmacht had been validated, and the Blitzkrieg concept of warfare was born.

Continue reading to learn more about the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, which marked the beginning of World War II.

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World War II Timeline: September 7, 1939-September 20, 1939

Nazi Germany continued its assault on Poland throughout September 1939. Poland's troubles were amplified by the Soviet Union's invasion at mid-month. Follow the World War II timeline below to learn more about events in September 1939.

World War II Timeline: September 7-September 20

September 7: Wary of inflaming public sentiment and pulling the United States into the war, Adolf Hitler warns his military leaders against attacking passenger vessels.


September 8: President Franklin Roosevelt calls for a strengthening of the U.S. military and begins to use his constitutional power to call up the reserves, as the war in Europe has created a state of "limited national emergency."

September 13: Claiming that Polish civilians are attacking their troops, German military leadership vows to target Polish noncombatants, of whom thousands have already been murdered.

September 14: Germany loses its first ship of the war when a U-boat is depth-charged and sunk by British destroyers.

September 17: The Soviet Union invades Poland with 40 divisions, many waving white flags at a perplexed Polish population. Already beaten by the Nazis, Poland's army is unable to put up much of a fight, and the following day Russia will easily claim the territory it was promised by Nazi Germany when the two nations signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Five hundred die when the British Navy loses its first ship, the Courageous, which is sunk by a U-boat off Ireland.

September 18: Armed with inside knowledge of the German Enigma code, members of the Polish Cipher Bureau escape from Poland with two of the Enigma machines. They will arrive in Paris on October 1.

September 20: The Luftwaffe and Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) clash for the first time, in the skies over the border between Germany and France, when German Me109s attack Fairey Battle bombers. The RAF loses two aircraft, while the Germans lose one.

World War II Headlines

Below are more highlights and images from September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

Warsaw puts up a fight against Nazi invaders: The German capture of Warsaw, Poland, seen here with its buildings burning on the horizon, proved costly for Germans and Poles alike. On September 9, the Fourth Panzer Division lost 57 of 120 tanks in early street fighting for the city, and the panzer commanders learned many hard lessons from this clash. However, after more than two weeks of intensive air bombardment and ground combat, characterized by a succession of closely coordinated ground and air assaults and artillery bombardments, the city finally fell on September 27.

Murder of defenseless Poles by Nazi Germany: Kazimiera Mika, a 10-year-old Polish girl, stoops over the body of her older sister. The elder Mika girl and six other women, desperate for food, had been digging for potatoes in a field in besieged Warsaw when the Luftwaffe struck. Nazi fliers swooped down to within 200 feet of the ground and attacked the group with machine-gun fire. Two were killed. As the aircraft left, Kazimiera ran to her fallen sibling. This was Kazimiera's first experience with the finality of death, and she was unable to understand why her sister could no longer speak to her.

Messerschmitt fighter bombers crucial to Blitzkrieg: Flying at 350 mph with a range of 565 miles, the German Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter-bomber accommodated a two-man crew, carried 2,000 pounds of bombs or four air-to-air rockets, and was armed with two 20mm cannons and five machine guns. The first twin-engine fighter to enter operational service during the war, the Me 110 was highly successful during the 1939 Blitzkrieg against Poland. However, it was outclassed by the RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires during the Battle of Britain in 1940, proving to be both slower and less maneuverable. It later enjoyed a renaissance as a night fighter.

Continue reading to learn more about the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 on the World War II timeline next.

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World War II Timeline: September 21, 1939-October 12, 1939

On September 25, 1939, Warsaw fell to the armies of Nazi Germany, presaging Poland's ultimate surrender. Follow the World War II timeline below to learn about major events at the end of September and the beginning of October in 1939.

World War II Timeline: September 21-October 12

September 21: Pro-Nazi Iron Guardsmen assassinate Romanian prime minister Armand Calinescu, ostensibly because he was conspiring to blow up Romanian oil fields to keep them out of German hands.


September 22: Wartime shortages settle in as Britain begins rationing gas. Three days later, Germany will begin rationing bread and flour.

September 25: Warsaw is bombed into utter submission by the Luftwaffe. The city will surrender to the Nazis on September 27.

October 5: The last of the Polish army lays down its guns. Of the more than half-million troops that faced the Nazis in the preceding month, most were taken prisoner while roughly 100,000 died in the fighting or fled the country.

October 6: While addressing the Reichstag in Berlin, Adolf Hitler accuses Poland of initiating hostilities. He insists that he has no territorial ambitions toward England, France, Belgium, Holland, and several other countries that he will attempt to occupy in the upcoming months and years.

October 7: Adolf Hitler moves forward with his plan to evict or kill Poles and annex their territory. He calls for the "elimination of the harmful influence of nationally alien populations, which constitute a danger to the Reich."

October 9: The U.S. Neutrality Act suffers a public relations setback when the German battleship Deutschland captures the City of Flint, an American cargo ship carrying farming supplies to England.

October 12: Rejecting Hitler's insincere peace proposals, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain asserts that "no reliance can be placed upon the promises of the present German government."

World War II Headlines

Below are more images and headlines from September and October of 1939, when Poland fell to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler advanced his plans for conquest in Europe.

German attack leaves Warsaw in ruins: When the first assaults against the Polish capital proved unsuccessful, the Germans besieged Warsaw. They systematically bombed and shelled the city, causing extensive destruction and loss of life. The city's own air defenses were overwhelmed by the tempo of the Luftwaffe onslaught, while the outclassed Polish air force was effectively neutralized by September 17. Much of Warsaw's industrial and commercial heart -- including its great complex of flour mills

-- was set ablaze, and its system of water-pumping stations and filtration plants was extensively damaged.

Nazis force Jews to dig their own graves: Soon after the German victory, the SS death squads in Poland began their work of dealing with what the Nazis termed the "Jewish question." These two Polish Jews are about to be murdered once they have completed digging their own graves. Such denigration contributed directly to a victim's dehumanization, and consequently to a perverse legitimization by the Nazis of such atrocities. Of the approximately six million European Jews murdered during the Holocaust, 2.9 million were Polish.

Threat of attacks lead to evacuation of British children: In Great Britain's "Pied Piper" evacuation, nearly three million people moved from London and other cities to rural locations that were considered safe from German air attacks. Most were schoolchildren -- often from poor neighborhoods -- who had never met the families they would live with during the war. Pictured are some of the young evacuees. Some parents, including the Royal Family, kept their children in town with them as a patriotic gesture.

General Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt carries out Adolf Hitler's wishes: General Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt mounted the coup that destroyed the last legal government of Prussia in 1932. Despite being removed (together with other senior army officers) by Adolf Hitler in 1938 during the Blomberg-Fritsch crisis, Rundstedt was recalled to duty in August 1939 to lead the Polish invasion. He commanded Army Group South throughout that campaign. His undoubted talents as a field commander and staff officer were employed against France in 1940, and subsequently elsewhere. Rundstedt always served within or close to the high command. He was enthusiastic about the mass killing of Jews, and accepted huge bribes from Hitler.

The following page is a timeline of the important World War II events of October 1939, when Nazi Germany conquered Poland.

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World War II Timeline: October 12, 1939-November 4, 1939

October 1939 saw Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany begin to reveal their answer to the "Jewish question." The World War II timeline below highlights some of the important events of October 1939.

World War II Timeline: October 12-November 4

October 12: The Nazis begin to consolidate the Jewish population in Germany's occupied territories. They send Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews to Poland.


The Soviet Union sends Finland a list of territorial demands, which include a land exchange and the right to establish military bases. Finland will reply with its own acceptable terms on October 14, but Russia will stand by its initial demands.

October 14: More than 800 sailors die when a German submarine torpedoes the Royal Oak, a British battleship.

October 26: Nazi Hans Frank is appointed governor general of a portion of German-occupied Poland, with his headquarters in Kraków.

October 28: A motion to amend the U.S. Neutrality Act to allow the sale of arms to besieged allies passes the Senate. It will clear the House and be signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on November 4. The change is contingent on the requirement that arms are not transported by American ships.

October 31: The SS imposes a series of arbitrary and highly restrictive laws on the Poles, including prohibitions against using phone booths and wearing felt hats. Violators can be given the death penalty.

November: In just one week, some 60,000 tons of supplies destined for the Allied cause are lost to German magnetic mines.

November 1: Western Poland officially becomes part of the Reich. Eastern Poland will become part of the Soviet Union two days later.

November 4: An anonymous person who signed himself "German scientist who wishes you well" leaves German weapons research secrets and a mine fuse on the windowsill of the British attaché in Oslo, Norway.

Warsaw's Jews are all herded into a ghetto.

World War II Headlines

See more headlines and images from World War II below, tracing events following Nazi Germany's conquest of Poland.

Nazi soldiers round up Polish Jews: The Germans arrived at Plonsk, Poland -- with its 6,000-strong Jewish community -- on September 5, 1939, then established a Judenrat (Jewish council) the following July and a ghetto that September. Here, German troops assemble the Jews soon after the town's capture. During the next two years, as many as 12,000 Jews from Plonsk and the surrounding area passed through the ghetto. It was eventually emptied in November 1942 when its remaining inhabitants were consigned to Auschwitz for extermination.

Polish campaign results in massive casualties: By the end of the four-week campaign in Poland, 50,000 German soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing. Polish losses amounted to some 70,000 soldiers killed and 130,000 wounded. Another 90,000 Polish soldiers escaped to Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, and Latvia; many of them later made their way to Allied lines. Initially, the Wehrmacht's treatment of its 694,000 Polish prisoners was generally appropriate, although many civilians, a large proportion of them Jewish, were murdered. The SS and Sicherheitsdienst (German secret service, or SD) soon established themselves in Nazi German-occupied Poland, which was now regarded as a "nonexistent" state. Thereafter, the civilian population, especially Jews, suffered increasing oppression and persecution.

On the next page you'll find a World War II timeline highlighting the important events of November and December 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland.

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World War II Timeline: November 8, 1939-December 20, 1939

In November and December of 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland and Nazi Germany accelerated its persecution of the Jews. The World War II timeline below details these and other important events of November and December of 1939.

World War II Timeline: November 8-December 20

November 8: Nine die when a concealed bomb detonates in a Munich beer hall 20 minutes after the departure of Adolf Hitler, the bomb's intended target.


November 13: Joseph Stalin orders the drafting of war plans against Finland following a breakdown in negotiations.

November 16: In Prague, Czechoslovakia, Nazi German occupation forces violently suppress an uprising by students and dissidents.

November 23: Effective today, all Jews over age 10 living in Nazi-occupied Poland must wear the Star of David.

November 30: The Winter War begins with a Soviet invasion of Finland. In December, the Soviet Union will be expelled from the League of Nations for its aggression.

December: The upper age limit of British conscription is expanded twice this month. Initially, all men ages 19 to 41 are registered, and ultimately men as old as 60 and women ages 20 to 30 will be pressed into some level of service.

December 13-17: The Royal Navy engages the Graf Spee, a German warship, off the coast of Uruguay. After a protracted battle, the Graf Spee captain scuttles the ship near Montevideo.

December 17: Canada sends more than 7,000 troops to Britain to assist the Allies.

December 19: British scientists develop a technique, known as "degaussing," to suppress the trigger that trips Nazi Germany's magnetic mines.

December 20: The United States unveils a new policy in which it embargoes supplies to nations that target civilians and violate other rules of engagement in what will become known as a "moral embargo."

Below are more World War II highlights and images from the German and Soviet aggression of November and December of 1939.

Unity Mitford a supporter of fascism: Adolf Hitler called tall, strapping British socialite Unity Mitford "a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood." An ardent admirer of fascism, Mitford visited Hitler in Germany. Appalled when Britain declared war on Germany, Mitford made a failed attempt at suicide. Other well-born British were attracted to fascism as the best way to solve social problems. In fact, Unity's sister, Diana, married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.

The next page contains a detailed timeline of important World War II events of early January 1940.

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World War II Timeline: January 2, 1940-January 9, 1940

World War II developments of the early new year, 1940, was anything but promising for the Allies, as Adolf Hitler's power increased and Soviet forces attacked Finland. Below is a World War II timeline that summarizes the important events from the first week of January 1940.

World War II Timeline: January 2-January 9

January: Temperatures plunge throughout Europe during one of the coldest winters on record.


As many as 70 Jews succumb to starvation and other ills each day in the Warsaw Ghetto .

A study reveals that, in the four months since Britain instituted its policy of nighttime blackouts, traffic deaths have increased nearly sevenfold, with pedestrians comprising the majority of the fatalities.

China mines the Yangtze and Whangpoo rivers in a moderately successful effort to impede shipping by the occupying Japanese forces.

January 2: The Soviet army launches a major offensive against Finland on the Karelian Isthmus.

January 3: Despite the U.S. policy of neutrality, President Franklin Roosevelt's annual budget request to Congress includes $1.8 billion in defense spending.

January 4: Nazi Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler, hands control of all German means of war material production to his trusted aide, Hermann Göring.

January 5: Unable to agree with military generals on Britain's war strategy, Leslie Hore-Belisha resigns from government following his removal as war secretary by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

January 8: In a dramatic turnaround, Finnish forces annihilate the Russian army's 44th Division.

Rationing is imposed in Britain on such dietary staples as bacon, sugar, and butter.

January 9: Richard Hildebrandt, the SS chief of Danzig and West Prussia, tells SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler that he had instructed his troops to execute more than 4,000 mentally ill Polish citizens.

More than 150 die when the massive British liner Dunbar Castle founders off the English coast after hitting a German mine.

World War II Headlines

Here are more headlines and images detailing important World War II events from the first week of January 1940.

Chinese Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek: Chiang Kai-shek emerged as commander-in-chief of the Chinese Nationalist forces following the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925. During the war with Japan, Chiang and his third wife, "Madame Chiang," were viewed in the West as symbols of Chinese democracy and heroic resistance to Japanese aggression. Yet Chiang, who faced civil war with the Chinese Communists, was neither pro-democracy nor eager to fight the Japanese. He hoped to rebuild and modernize China, and came to be its key military leader after July 1937. His stature at home declined due to rampant corruption in his government. Following the war, the Communists succeeded in driving Chiang from the mainland. He withdrew his government to Taiwan, where he died in 1975.

Nazi Germany defines "degenerate music": In 1938 the Third Reich's respected "culture, art, and theater specialist," Hans Severus Ziegler, organized an exhibition called Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music). The poster seen here -- with its stereotypical Negro playing jazz while wearing a Star of David on his lapel -- crams as many symbols of supposed cultural decay as possible into a single image. The avant-garde music of modern composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith, was regarded as especially pernicious and un-Germanic by Nazi cultural authorities. Of course, if a composer had so much as one Jewish grandparent, any music he chose to write was labeled "degenerate."

Keep reading to learn more about Nazi military operations in Europe at the beginning of World War II. The next page details more important World War II events from January 1940.

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World War II Timeline: January 10, 1940-January 23, 1940

January 1940 found German U-boat activity increasing in the Atlantic and Winston Churchill rising in prominence in the British war effort. Below is a World War II timeline tracing these and other important World War II events from January 1940.

World War II Timeline: January 10-January 23

January 10: A German officer crashes his plane in Belgium, and proceeds to intentionally ignite a set of war plans in full view of Allied soldiers.The salvaged, partially charred papers reveal Adolf Hitler's plan for a January 14 invasion of Holland and Belgium.


January 13: As Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler continue their aggressive posturing against the lowland nations, Holland and Belgium begin the process of moving their respective armies to a war footing.

January 15: France and Britain are rebuffed in their efforts to gain permission to cross Belgian territory in their defense against German aggression.

January 16: Reports of Nazi crimes committed against the civilian population of occupied Poland reach France, where the Polish government-in-exile is established.

January 18: Five people die in a munitions plant explosion in Essex, England. Authorities suspect enemy sabotage.

January 20: In a speech admonishing neutral nations to support the Allied cause, Winston Churchill, Britain's first lord of the admiralty, claims, "Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last." Churchill also denounces the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland.

January 21: Torpedoed by a German U-boat, the British destroyer Exmouth goes down with its 175-man crew.

January 22: The British government imposes a level of censorship on the media. It requires Ministry of Information approval of newsreels before release.

January 23: Allies France and Britain announce that they will no longer recognize the neutrality of the waters off the Americas, and that German ships operating in the area are subject to attack.

World War II Headlines

Below are more World War II images and headlines about Nazi Germany's military aggression in Europe and Allied response in January 1940.

Nazis "euthanize" the handicapped: In October 1939, Hitler signed this letter (backdated to September 1) authorizing Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt to begin "euthanizing" physically and mentally handicapped people. Under the program Aktion T4, doctors could identify individuals as unsound and incurable, then put them to death. Neither patient nor family consent was required. Based on Nazi concepts of "racial hygiene" and supported by a desire to limit the costs of patient care, T4 systematically destroyed as many as 100,000 human beings. It was another demonstration of Nazi policies designed to eliminate those they considered unworthy of life.

U.S. ends arms embargo: President Franklin Roosevelt addresses the American people via radio in the fall of 1939. Beginning in 1935, a series of American neutrality acts and extensions banned arms shipments, loans, and other aid to belligerent countries, including Great Britain. Roosevelt came to regret signing the 1935 act. On September 21, 1939, he urged an end to the arms embargo. In November, Congress repealed the embargo and passed a "cash and carry" policy for Allied purchases, though other bans remained in effect.

Nazi Germany destroys the HMS Royal Oak: The HMS Royal Oak was one of five British Revenge-class WWI ships that were refitted for WWII. These relatively small battleships featured a "torpedo bulge" of protective armor. Even so, on October 14, 1939, the anchored battleship sank when the German submarine U-47 slipped through British naval base defenses at Scapa Flow and struck with four torpedoes. The Royal Oak became the first major British ship to be destroyed in World War II. More than 800 crew members perished.

Click next for a World War II timeline detailing the events of January and February, 1940.

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World War II Timeline: January 24, 1940-February 11, 1940

As January 1940 ended, Nazi Germany increased its attacks on Britain and the Soviet Union marched toward victory in Finland. Meanwhile, the United States and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt found it increasingly difficult to remain neutral. The World War II timeline below traces important events from January and February of 1940.

World War II Timeline: January 24-February 11

January 24: Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Nazi Gestapo, is charged with overseeing the evacuation of all Jews from the Reich.


February 3: For the first time since WWI, a German plane is shot down over England.

February 4: The Soviet Union attacks Finland from the sky, killing 14 in the capital city of Helsinki.

February 5: France and England commit to providing the Finns with military aid to help them fend off the Soviets.

February 6: Britain launches a new poster campaign admonishing citizens not to discuss sensitive war information in public. The posters feature comical images of an eavesdropping Adolf Hitler and the slogan "Careless Talk Costs Lives."

February 9: U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles leaves Washington on a futile mission to examine the possibility of a peace settlement in Europe.

February 10: The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany agree to strengthen their alliance through increased trading of war material.

President Franklin Roosevelt expresses American support for Finland in the face of Russian aggression.

Two British ships, Salve and Servitor, successfully sweep a German magnetic mine for the first time.

The occupying Nazis in Czechoslovakia place restraints on Jewish-owned businesses. They prohibit Jews from selling art, jewels, and precious metals, and force the closure of Jewish-owned textile and leather shops.

February 11: Some 140,000 Soviet Union troops attack Finnish defenses on the Karelian Isthmus in a bid to break Finnish resistance. This assault will prove successful for the Soviets, who will overwhelm the Finns with their sheer numbers.

World War II Headlines

Below is a World War II image and headlines about Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany, and Russia's war with Finland.

Adolf Hitler survives assassination plots: Adolf Hitler spoke at a beer hall on November 8, 1939, to commemorate the Nazi Party's failed coup of 1923. The Führer ended his speech earlier than expected. Minutes after he left the hall, an explosion buried the speaking platform under debris. Johann Georg Elser, a carpenter, had set the timer and planted the bomb. Elser was arrested and later executed. From 1939 to 1945, at least 17 other attempts to assassinate Hitler were made. Most were planned by officers who despised his military policies.

On the following page you'll find a World War II timeline detailing the events of February, 1940.

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World War II Timeline: February 12, 1940-February 29, 1940

The severe winter of 1940 coupled with the attacks by Nazi Germany in Europe led to rationing in Britain and across the continent. Below is a World War II timeline tracing major events from February 1940.

World War II Timeline: February 12-February 29

February 12: With paper in short supply, Britain adds it to the growing list of commodities subject to rationing.


February 14: Not immune to the troubles in the rest of Europe, the Vatican institutes a rationing program.

February 15: One day after Britain declares it is outfitting its merchant vessels with guns, Nazi Germany announces that it will henceforth treat all British merchant ships as hostile combatants.

February 16: After an exhaustive search, the British Navy locates, detains, and boards the German ship Altmark in Norwegian waters. The Nazis had been using Altmark as a prison ship, and the boarding party quickly secures the release of 299 British prisoners taken by Germans from Allied ships.

February 17: Despite the danger of a defeat of Finland by the Soviet Union, the Finns' request for aid from their supposed ally Sweden is rebuffed.

February 18: The "moral embargo," America's refusal to deal with imperialist belligerents in Europe, is extended to the Soviet Union.

February 27: In an effort to boost morale, Winston Churchill wildly overstates Britain's success on the seas, claiming that half of Nazi Germany's feared U-boats have been sunk by the Allies.

February 28: Parts of the Enigma cipher machine are recovered from the wreckage of a German U-boat, adding to the Polish-supplied information on the Enigma puzzle in the hands of the Allies.

February 29: Food and gas rationing begins in France.

World War II Headlines

Below are more World War II highlights and images about the Allied response to Nazi Germany's aggression in February of 1940.

The War Illustrated chronicles the war: In September 1939, British citizens saw the rebirth of The War Illustrated, a magazine that had been popular during WWI. Promising to publish a photographic record of the "Second Great War" as it happened, the magazine covered both the war and the home front. Issue 5 featured photos showing U.S. reactions to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Issue 13 (pictured) shows an underground sentry from a Scottish regiment keeping watch through a periscope.

Canada commits to the war effort: Men of the First Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force wait to disembark at a British port in February 1940. Originally, Canada supported appeasement of the Nazi regime. However, soon after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Canadian Parliament approved entry into the war. Canada began sending troops to Britain in December 1939, although those men did not see action for several years. Starting with a small military, Canada raised substantial armed forces and had one of the world's largest militaries by war's end.

Egypt lets Britain do the fighting: Although independent since 1922, Egypt still depended upon Britain to defend its land and the Suez Canal. In 1939-1940, anti-British and pro-Axis sentiments were widespread, so British forces occupied Egypt in strength. Meanwhile, the embryonic Egyptian army of 11 infantry battalions (pictured) and two other regiments was of little military significance. Even when Italy invaded Egypt in September 1940, its government declared nonbelligerent status, leaving the British to eject the invaders.

Keep reading to see a World War II timeline detailing important events from March 1940.

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World War II Timeline: March 1, 1940-March 14, 1940

March 1940 brought major developments in World War II, including Adolf Hitler outlining his plan to invade Norway and Denmark. Below is a World War II timeline tracing this and other important events of March 1940.

World War II Timeline: March 1-March 14

March: According to the BBC, two out of three British citizens listen to "Lord Haw-Haw," the "omniscient," traitorous announcer of the German propaganda radio show Germany Calling.

March 1: Facing shortages of darker dyes for servicemen's uniforms, British women are asked to wear only light-colored clothing.

Adolf Hitler orders his generals to create a plan for the invasion of Norway and Denmark.

March 2: The Allies ask Sweden and Norway for the right to cross their territory for the purpose of sending troops to reinforce a flagging Finnish force, but are refused.

March 6: A delegation leaves Helsinki for Moscow to negotiate the terms of Finland's surrender to the Soviets.

March 7: The Queen Elizabeth, the new flagship of Cunard's luxury liner fleet, arrives in New York at the end of a daring high-speed crossing of the German U-boat-infested Atlantic.

March 9: A belated offer of troops and material support from the Allies is relayed to Helsinki.

March 11: The United States has relaxed its arms embargo for its once and future allies, selling several P-40 fighters to Britain and France.

March 12: Marched for some 18 hours in a blizzard, 72 of 1,000 German Jewish deportees succumb to the elements in Lublin, Poland.

The Soviet Union and Finland sign a peace treaty in which Finland surrenders substantial strategic territory, including the city of Viipuri and the port of Hangö. The new order comes at a cost of some 25,000 Finnish lives and the deaths of nearly 70,000 Soviets.

March 14: Some half-million Finns pour out of the Soviet-occupied territory shortly after the cessation of hostilities.

World War II Headlines

Below are more images and headlines detailing events from World War II in March 1940.

Britain and Australia ally to fight Japan: This piece of Allied propaganda, which emphasizes a cooperative effort against Japan by Australian and British forces, is not entirely accurate. Australia entered the war against Germany in 1939, sending troops to the Middle East in accordance with British strategy. Volunteer Australian soldiers proved to be top-notch, despite the impact of prewar monetary cuts on military preparedness. However, Australian strategy changed with Japan's entry into the war in 1941 and the potential invasion of Australia itself. Preoccupied with the German threat, Britain was not able to guarantee support, and Australia turned to the United States instead.

On March 18, 1940, Adolf Hitler met with Benito Mussolini to discuss Italy joining the war. This and other events from March of 1940 are discussed on the World War II timeline next.

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World War II Timeline: March 14, 1940-March 30, 1940

March 1940 proved significant in World War II as Adolf Hitler met with Benito Mussolini on March 18 to discuss Italy's potential involvement in the war. This and other important events are detailed in the World War II timeline below.

World War II Timeline: March 14-March 30

March 14: The Polish government, operating in exile in France, reveals that Adolf Hitler attempted to persuade Poland to join him in an invasion of the Ukraine.

Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring orders all German citizens to surrender any metal that may be recycled into war material.

Japan's new Zero fighter planes prove formidable when 12 return from an encounter with Chinese fighters over Chengtu, having destroyed 27 of 30 Chinese planes with no casualties of their own.

March 16: James Isbister, of the Scottish village Bridge of Waithe, becomes the first United Kingdom civilian killed in an air raid since the First World War.

March 18: Adolf Hitler meets with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to discuss Italy's entry into the war. It is determined that Mussolini's troops will attack France.

March 19: Avenging Nazi Germany's March 16 attack on Scapa Flow, 50 British Royal Air Force bombers attack a seaplane base at Sylt, a German island in the North Sea.

March 20: Finance Minister Paul Reynaud succeeds Édouard Daladier as prime minister of France.

Having failed in his bid to convince Europe's belligerents to lay down their weapons, U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles departs Genoa, Italy, for his return voyage to the United States.

March 27: As diplomatic relations between the Allies and the Soviet Union become difficult because of Soviet aid to Germany, Paris requests the removal of the Soviet ambassador.

March 28: Britain and France agree to not act independently in establishing treaties with any third nation.

March 30: Japan establishes a Chinese puppet government in Nanking, which the United States refuses to recognize.

World War II Headlines

Below are more images and headlines about World War II, Nazi Germany, and the Allied forces.

Theodor Eicke appointed head of concentration camps: Theodor Eicke joined the NSDAP (the Nazi party) in 1928. As the Nazis rose to power, Eicke was appointed commandant of the Dachau camp in 1933. His brutal actions there impressed Heinrich Himmler so much that he was appointed inspector of concentration camps and SS guard formations in 1934. From 1939 until his death in combat in 1943, Eicke commanded the Waffen-SS Totenkopf ("Death's Head") division in the Polish, French, and Russian campaigns. The Totenkopf division committed numerous atrocities, such as machine-gunning 99 British soldiers who had surrendered to them at Dunkirk.

Norwegian officer Vidkun Quisling collaborates with Nazis: Vidkun Quisling (left), the man whose very name came to mean "traitorous collaborator," rides with SS head Heinrich Himmler, likely during Quisling's visit to see Adolf Hitler in December 1939. Quisling was a Norwegian military officer who helped form a Fascist political party in 1933, with himself as Fører (leader, comparable to Führer). When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, Quisling made a radio news announcement declaring himself prime minister on behalf of the Nazis. Five days later, the Nazis threw Quisling out of power. However, in need of a Norwegian puppet, they reinstated him in 1942. After the war, Vidkun Quisling was convicted of treason and executed.

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John S. D. Eisenhower, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Richard Overy Ph.D., David J. A. Stone, Wim Coleman, Martin F. Graham, James H. Hallas, Mark Johnston Ph.D., Christy Nadalin M.A., Pat Perrin, Peter Stanley Ph.D.