World War 2 Timeline: Key Events and Turning Points

Origins of World War 2

World War 2 had its roots in several factors, some of which can be traced back to the aftermath of World War 1. Through this brief analysis, you’ll gain an understanding of the key events and decisions that contributed to the outbreak of this destructive conflict.

Firstly, one significant cause was Germany’s harsh and unequal treatment following World War 1. The Treaty of Versailles, imposed by the victorious Allies in 1919, left Germany with a crippled economy and military and a deep sense of national humiliation. Feelings of resentment and desire for revenge fostered widespread support for extremist political factions, such as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.

Another contributing factor was the global economic crisis of the 1930s. The Great Depression led to high unemployment rates, widespread misery, and political upheaval worldwide, providing fertile ground for radical ideologies and aggressive foreign policies.

Moreover, political decisions and alliances during the 1930s escalated tensions. Key events during this period include the following:


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  • German rearmament (1933 onwards): In violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler began rebuilding Germany’s military power, alarming neighboring countries.
  • Invasion of Abyssinia (1935-1936): Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, invaded the African nation as part of the fascist regime’s imperial ambitions, demonstrating the failure of the League of Nations to enforce peace.
  • Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): The war served as a testing ground for Germany and Italy’s military technologies and strategies, further widening Europe’s ideological divisions.

Finally, in 1939, two significant events set the stage for the eruption of World War 2. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was a non-aggression pact that secretly divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence.

This agreement paved the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, an act of aggression that led Britain and France to declare war on Germany, marking the beginning of World War 2.

Early Events and Campaigns

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This section will explore the early events and campaigns of World War II, focusing on five key moments: the Invasion of Poland, the Phoney War, the Scandinavian Campaigns, the Battle of France, and the Battle of Britain.

Invasion of Poland

In September 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, prompting Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany, marking the beginning of World War II. The German forces relied on their Blitzkrieg tactics – swift and overwhelming attacks using airpower combined with rapid movement of ground forces. Within a month, they had conquered Poland, setting the stage for further expansion.

Phoney War

Following the invasion of Poland, there was a period of relative calm known as the Phoney War. This lull lasted from September 1939 to April 1940 and saw limited military action on the Western Front. The Allies and the Axis prepared for the anticipated large-scale campaigns in Europe. During this time, land and naval battles were minimal, and most of the conflict revolved around economic warfare and espionage.

Scandinavian Campaigns

In April 1940, Germany launched a surprise invasion of Denmark and Norway. They aimed to secure their iron ore supply from Sweden, accessed through Norwegian ports. The Allies attempted to counter these invasions, leading to several naval battles, including the Battles of Narvik. Despite the Allies’ efforts, Germany established control over both countries by June 1940.

Battle of France

The Battle of France began in May 1940 with the German invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. It marked the end of the Phoney War and demonstrated the effectiveness of the German Blitzkrieg tactics. The German forces bypassed France’s defensive fortifications, known as the Maginot Line. Within six weeks, France capitulated, and the Armistice of 22 June 1940 was signed, leading to German occupation of much of France.

Battle of Britain

After the fall of France, Hitler turned his attention to Great Britain. The Battle of Britain, lasting from July to October 1940, was an air campaign led by the German Luftwaffe against the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The Luftwaffe aimed to achieve air superiority and pave the way for an invasion of Britain.

However, the RAF successfully defended their country in intense dogfights. This marked the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces and was a significant turning point in the war as it led to the postponement of the planned German invasion of Britain.

Major Turning Points

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Operation Barbarossa

In June 1941, Operation Barbarossa marked a significant turning point in World War 2 as Nazi Germany initiated a large-scale invasion of the Soviet Union. This operation was fueled by Adolf Hitler’s desire to establish dominance in Eastern Europe and acquire “Lebensraum,” or living space, for the German people. Despite initial successes, the German forces were eventually halted by the harsh Soviet winter and fierce Red Army resistance.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941, when Japan launched a surprise military strike on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii. This pivotal event led to the United States entering World War 2. As a result, the U.S. declared war on Japan, followed by Germany and Italy declaring war on the U.S. The American involvement brought significant manpower and resources to the Allied cause, dramatically altering the course of the conflict.

Battle of Midway

In June 1942, just six months after Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway occurred. This decisive naval battle between the United States and Japan resulted in a significant American victory. The U.S. managed to sink four Japanese aircraft carriers while only losing one of its own. This battle marked a turning point in the Pacific War, as it halted Japanese expansion and shifted the balance of power in favor of the Allies.

Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and was one of human history’s most brutal and prolonged battles. German and Soviet forces fought for control of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in southwestern Russia. The Soviet’s eventual victory marked a major turning point in World War 2, as it shattered the German myth of invincibility and began a series of Soviet offensives that ultimately pushed the Germans out of Eastern Europe.

D-Day and Allied Invasion of Europe

On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched D-Day – the largest amphibious invasion in history. The operation, known as Operation Overlord, involved a massive landing of troops and supplies on the beaches of Normandy, France. This invasion marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, as the Allies successfully established a foothold in Western Europe and began the process of liberating territories occupied by the Germans. The following battles weakened German forces, ultimately leading to their surrender in May 1945.

End of World War 2

Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge occurred from December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945. It was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II. You’ll notice that the conflict was characterized by fierce fighting in difficult, snowy terrain. Despite the initial successes of German forces, Allied forces managed to regroup and ultimately push the German troops back, hastening the war’s end.

Yalta Conference

In February 1945, the Yalta Conference took place, bringing together the “Big Three” leaders – Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin. At this meeting, they discussed the post-war reorganization of Europe and the fate of Germany. You will see that the conference divided Germany into four zones, occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The conference also laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United Nations.

Fall of Berlin

The Fall of Berlin occurred between April 16 and May 2, 1945, when the city of Berlin was besieged and finally captured by the Soviet Red Army. As you go through this period, you’ll find that the fall of Berlin, which was the political and military heart of Nazi Germany, symbolized the imminent defeat of Nazi rule. This event led to the suicide of Adolf Hitler on April 30 and the eventual German surrender on May 7, 1945.

Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings caused unprecedented destruction, killing more than 100,000 people instantly, with many others succumbing to radiation sickness later on. These horrific events led to Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, announcing the country’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, finally bringing World War II to a close.

Aftermath of World War 2

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Potsdam Conference

In July 1945, after the surrender of Germany, Allied leaders gathered at the Potsdam Conference to discuss the future governance of Germany and the rest of Europe. Major decisions included the division of Germany into four occupation zones controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union, as well as the establishment of the Oder-Neisse Line as the border between Germany and Poland. Reparations from Germany were also agreed upon, with each occupying power taking reparations from their respective zones.

Establishment of United Nations

One key outcome of World War II was the United Nations (UN) founding in October 1945. The UN aimed to promote international cooperation, prevent future conflicts, and address pressing global issues. With the admission of nearly every sovereign state, the UN became a forum for resolving disputes and preserving the welfare and rights of all people.

The organization comprises various agencies and specialized bodies dedicated to specific goals, such as UNICEF’s focus on children’s welfare and UNESCO’s promotion of education, culture, and science.

Beginning of the Cold War

The aftermath of World War II laid the groundwork for the Cold War. As the war ended, tensions rose between the Western Allies (led by the United States) and the Soviet Union. Conflicting political ideologies heightened suspicions and led to the division of Europe into two opposing camps: the democratic, capitalist West versus the communist East. The division of Germany and the city of Berlin exemplified this split.

The Iron Curtain, a term popularized by Winston Churchill, came to define the boundary between these blocs. Throughout the Cold War, both sides engaged in proxy wars, espionage, and propaganda campaigns against each other while avoiding direct military conflict.

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