World War II For Dummies book cover

World War II For Dummies

By: Keith D. Dickson Published: 01-29-2020

Looking to ally yourself with World War II knowledge?

More than 75 years after its end, World War II remains one of the most devastating and impactful events in human history. It was a global war, and the nations that fought it employed every available resource, harnessing both technology and people to one purpose. Today, we remember WWII for its battles, tragedies, and horrors, but also for its outcome: a greater good that triumphed over evil.

The breadth of World War II facts and history can be overwhelming, which is why World War II For Dummies is the perfect book for any reader, from history buffs to WWII novices. Full of accurate and easy-to-understand information (so you don’t have to speak military to comprehend), this book will help you explore a war that defined and shaped the world we live in today. You’ll discover all the players—individuals as well as nations—who participated in the war and the politics that drove them. Battle by battle, you’ll find out how the Axis powers initially took control of the war and how the Allies fought back to win the day. World War II for Dummies also covers:

  • The origins and causes of World War II
  • The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich
  • How the war was handled at home
  • Germany’s invasion of Poland, France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Luxembourg
  • Great Britain’s refusal to surrender after 42 days of German aerial attack
  • The United States’ entrance into the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor
  • The Allied invasion of Normandy (D-Day)
  • Germany’s last-ditch effort to stop the Allies at the Battle of the Bulge
  • The use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Become an expert on this historical catalyst with World War II For Dummies—grab your copy today.




P.S. If you think this book seems familiar, you’re probably right. The Dummies team updated the cover and design to give the book a fresh feel, but the content is the same as the previous release of World War II For Dummies (9780764553523). The book you see here shouldn’t be considered a new or updated product. But if you’re in the mood to learn something new, check out some of our other books. We’re always writing about new topics!

Articles From World War II For Dummies

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World War II For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-15-2022

A number of people and events influenced the course and outcome of World War II. This helpful timeline of World War II (WWII) maps out those key figures and actions in the years surrounding the war.

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Examining the Beginnings of World War II

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Officially, World War II began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and the French and English declared war against Germany as a result of that invasion. But the war's beginnings came long before this invasion. World War II was the product of a lot of things coming together in just the wrong way at just the wrong time. The World War I peace agreement When the Great War ended, the winners (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) wanted the losers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire) to pay. Because the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires no longer existed, that left Germany to bear the brunt of the victors' vindictive peace agreement. Humiliated and broke, Germany began nursing a big-time grudge. The victors themselves weren't even happy with the outcome. Some (Italy) felt cheated; some (France) felt that Germany hadn't been punished enough, and some (the U.S.) just wanted the heck out of Dodge. In addition, the peace agreement created new nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia) in Eastern Europe from the wrecked Austro-Hungarian Empire and other pieces of land from here (Germany) and there (the Soviet Union). Think that didn't tick everybody off? The global economy All the nations experienced financial troubles following World War I. The European nations (especially Germany, with the war debt hanging over its head) were practically destitute. Slowly, each made an economic recovery — just in time for the world economy to spiral downward. The U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, and the economies in Europe tanked pretty soon after that. Weakened by the war, no European nation was able to stop the economic downturn. And many saw the ruined economy as an indication that capitalism and democracy had failed. The rise of totalitarianism With the world in such a mess, folks looked toward their governments to solve their problems, and those countries without a strong tradition of democratic rule were susceptible to promises made by future tyrants who claimed that by consolidating power in one party and one man, they could provide stability and order. As a result, in Germany specifically (and in Italy earlier), the fledgling democracies gave way to dictatorships and eventual totalitarian rule (that is, all aspects of life are controlled by the dictator). In Italy, this dictator was Benito Mussolini; in Germany, it was Adolf Hitler. The birth of Fascism and Nazism Fascism is a political ideology in which the state is exalted above all else. All effort and resources are committed to glorifying the state. Individual freedom doesn't exist; there is only the freedom to serve the state. Fascists believe that people reach their potential only through service to their nation. If the nation is great, the people are great. And the best representation of the nation's greatness is through war. Italy was Fascist, as was Spain after the Spanish Civil War. Nazism is Fascism with a significant difference: the race issue. The Nazis believed that race is the fundamental trait and therefore the defining characteristic of a people. Just as dogs are genetically predisposed to certain roles (some hunt and others herd, for example), each race is genetically predisposed to certain roles. Some are leaders; other races (the "inferior" ones) are meant to be mastered. The Aryan race is, according to Nazis, the Master Race. Then, in descending order are, non-Aryan Caucasians, Asians, Africans, and finally Jews. The Jewish people occupied a special place at the bottom of the Nazi racial hierarchy for the following reasons: They "corrupted" the other inferior races and the weak minded of the Master Race with what Hitler thought of as Jewish ideas: equality among people and individual freedom. They wanted to take over the world and thus posed a specific threat to the Master Race who, as the Master Race, deserved to rule the world. They were "parasites" who betrayed Germany during World War I. The rise of Hitler There have always been tyrants and people who abused power, and in many ways, Hitler was no different than any other dictator. He consolidated power by eliminating anyone who could oppose him. He targeted and abused groups he didn't like. He used propaganda as a tool to lull the German people into believing that what he told them was true. In other ways, Hitler was different. He had the power of an industrialized nation behind him. He had the capability to export his policies all over Europe through diplomatic trickery and lies and then through war. He had the certainty of his fanatical vision of a Jew-free Europe. And, maybe most frightening of all, he had the ability to make the German people as a whole believe that, by following him down the path to hell, they were fulfilling their destiny for greatness. The British and French fear of another war The British and French, having just been through one horrific world war (although they didn't call it that at the time), were willing to do just about anything to make sure that they didn't find themselves in another horrific war. For both countries, this determination to avoid conflict resulted in their policy of appeasement. By giving in to the demands of aggressors, such as Hitler, they hoped to avert another crisis that would lead to war. Obviously, this strategy didn't work. The isolationism of the United States The United States, separated from Europe by an ocean, wanted to remain separated from Europe. Like the French and British, the Americans had seen enough of war. They learned as much about European politics and intrigue and blood feuds as they wanted to during the Great War, and they had no intention now of allowing themselves to get mixed up in that mess again. So they developed an isolationist policy and naively insisted that what went on in Europe — or anywhere else in the world, for that matter — was not their concern. The empire building of Japan Japan, long a key player in Asia, wanted to consolidate its power there. Japan still held the German bases that it had occupied in China during World War I, and as one of the victors, Japan got to keep large sections of Chinese territory that had once been controlled by the Germans, in addition to being given control of islands that had belonged to Germany. Japan also sought to increase its holdings in China, which, in addition to being a problem for the Chinese, was also a problem for the United States, who had interests there, too.

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Midway: Naval Aviation's Finest Moment in World War II

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The admirals in both the American and Japanese navies had grown up believing that the decisive naval action in the Pacific would be one straight out of the age of sail — two big battle fleets fighting within sight of each other, with the heavily armored and armed battleship providing the decisive edge. For nearly a generation, the war plans of both nations had envisaged such an engagement — that's why both Japan and the United States built big battleships and why the disarmament efforts of the 1920s focused on reducing the size and number of battleships in the world's fleets. But the sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft and the Battle of the Coral Sea had proven that the future of naval warfare lay in the hands of the naval aviator, not the battleship captain. If the Battle of the Coral Sea taught anyone anything, it was that the age of the battleship was over. Whichever side figured this out first would win the war in the Pacific. Setting a trap: The Japanese three-pronged approach Japanese Admiral Yamamoto sought to take Midway, the last American base in the Pacific outside of Hawaii. Not only would possession of Midway expand the Japanese defensive zone, but it would also force the Americans, who couldn't afford to lose the island, to react. Yamamoto expected the Americans to respond by bringing out their carriers to stop the Japanese or by trying to retake the island. As a result, Yamamoto assembled the largest battle fleet ever used in the Pacific Ocean — 160 ships (eight of them aircraft carriers) and 400 aircraft. This massive fleet would wait until the Americans approached Midway, and then the Japanese carrier aircraft and giant battleships would finish off the Americans once and for all. In his plan, Yamamoto divided up the fleet into four forces: One force would conduct an attack on the Aleutian Islands to divert American attention from the Midway attack. Yamamoto himself would command the main Japanese battle fleet in the climactic battle against the American fleet. A third fleet would bring in the amphibious landing force to capture Midway. A screen of submarines would search the waters between Pearl Harbor and Midway to scout for signs of the American fleet. Having two aces in the hole: The Nimitz shuffle Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's plan was good, but American Admiral Nimitz had the upper hand, at least initially: He knew the Japanese plan. Again, intercepted Japanese codes had given him a detailed understanding of the Japanese plan and plenty of time to prepare a counterplan for Midway. Nimitz also learned that the Japanese had spread out their fleet into widely scattered small groups to avoid detection. Nimitz decided that no giant naval engagement off Midway would occur, as Yamamoto expected. He also realized that his battleships would be no help to him. The advantage was the aircraft carriers, which could strike targets from long distances. Nimitz would rely on surprise and the skill of his naval aviators to offset the Japanese strength in numbers. He had more carriers than the Japanese realized. In addition to two U.S. carriers that the Japanese knew about, Nimitz also had one — the USS Yorktown — the Japanese thought they sank in the Coral Sea battle. Despite the extensive damage to the ship, which would take three months to repair, crews at Pearl Harbor accomplished nothing short of a miracle by making it battle worthy again in only 72 hours. But even with these advantages, the Americans still didn't have the upper hand. Yamamoto had superior numbers and lots of ocean to hide in. Nimitz would commit all the American carriers, 12 cruisers, 14 destroyers, and 19 submarines to this battle — a laughably small force to match the Japanese fleet headed for Midway. For the United States Navy, Midway was a gamble with enormous stakes. Opening moves: Bombs over Midway The Battle of Midway would be the decisive battle of the Pacific in World War II, and in the end, it would change both the course of the war and the future of naval warfare. First phase: June 3 On June 3, 1942, the Japanese began the first phase of the battle with air attacks on American bases in the Aleutians. Japanese forces landed on the Aleutian Islands of Kiska on June 6 and the following day, on Attu. Japanese aircraft conducted raids throughout the islands. Although Nimitz had dispatched a naval force to deal with the invasion, land-based aircraft kept the Japanese fleet at bay. To Yamamoto, it appeared that his Aleutian Island diversion had worked. But in reality, the American carrier fleet was heading for Midway — a fact that Yamamoto didn't know. Tipped off by the intercepts, Nimitz had dispatched his fleet days before the Japanese submarines were to arrive to search for the Americans. The Japanese were in the dark. To them, it appeared that all was going according to plan. Second phase: June 4 Yamamoto began the next phase of the battle with an attack on Midway on June 4. He sent half of his carrier aircraft against Midway, while he held the other half back in case the American fleet showed up. As the Japanese aircraft returned from the Midway strike, it became clear that another attack was necessary. As the Japanese armed the planes for another attack, Japanese Admiral Nagumo received disturbing news: One of Japan's spotter planes reported sighting enemy ships, possibly a carrier. By the time Nagumo became aware of the American ships, aircraft from the USS Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown were already on their way to attack the Japanese carriers. Nagumo took bombs off his planes and rearmed them with torpedoes to attack the most dangerous threat. Thus, at the moment American planes appeared, the Japanese carriers had more than 100 planes on the decks, fully fueled, with stacks of bombs and torpedoes sitting above and below the flight deck. American torpedo planes began their attack. The U.S. pilots of the slow moving torpedo planes kept on course and were rapidly shot down one after another by the Japanese fighters protecting the carriers. Those few that were able to launch torpedoes missed their target. The annihilation of the American torpedo planes meant that American carriers were in range of Nagumo's torpedo planes. In just a few more minutes, Nagumo would be able to launch his own attack against the Americans — these were a few minutes that he didn't have. Off the beaten path: McClusky's miracle American Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky led 33 dive-bombers from the USS Enterprise in search of the Japanese carriers. McClusky's planes, getting low on fuel, would have to turn back soon. On a whim, McClusky flew off the prescribed track to look elsewhere. Minutes later, he found them. In fact, he found them just as the last of the torpedo planes had finished their fatal runs. All the Japanese fighters were close to the water, enabling McClusky's dive-bombers to come in without any interference. Dive-bombers from the USS Yorktown then appeared, and McClusky signaled for the attack. The result was devastating. Caught completely by surprise, without protection from their own aircraft, and with decks fully loaded with fuel and weapons, the Japanese carriers were sitting ducks. Within minutes, two carriers were completely engulfed in flames. Another carrier quickly followed. The last Japanese carrier was lucky: It avoided the air attack and launched its planes against the Yorktown, damaging it with bombs and torpedoes until the carrier was dead in the water, the Americans abandoning the ship. However, the rearmed and refueled American planes found the last Japanese carrier and destroyed it. Yamamoto tried to continue the fight with his battleships, but the Americans weren't interested in slugging it out. The American force withdrew, leaving the Japanese with no choice but to abandon the attack on Midway. One Japanese cruiser was lost in the air attack, and a Japanese submarine sunk an American destroyer and the abandoned hulk of the USS Yorktown. There were no further losses in the battle. The Americans lost 137 aircraft and 300 men, and the Japanese lost over 330 aircraft and 3,500 men, many of them highly skilled, experienced combat pilots. Midway: A Strategic Analysis The story of the Battle of Midway is essentially the clash between old and new methods of waging naval war. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto represented the old method of fighting naval battles. He wanted to engage the American fleet in a surface battle, using battleships. American Admiral Nimitz left his battleships behind and relied on a new style of naval warfare, in which ships didn't fight within sight of each other. Instead, aircraft, launched from the ships, would be the decisive factor. In the Battle of Midway, the new concept of warfare won out. The Americans had demonstrated their faith in the aircraft carrier, and Yamamoto, for all his belief in carriers, had packed most of his punch in battleships, which were essentially useless. The loss of four carriers and the fact that the U.S. was building more carriers than the Japanese (13 to 6, respectively) ended the Japanese hold on the Pacific.

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World War II Comes to America: Pearl Harbor

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Japan's ambassadors delivered the first part of a final Japanese diplomatic note to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull on December 6, 1941. On the morning of December 7, the final portion of the note arrived from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassadors. The note broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. and provided instructions to destroy the code machines in the Japanese embassy. The ambassadors were to deliver the note in the early afternoon. While the Japanese ambassadors received this information, so too did American intelligence. Everyone understood the note's meaning: War was to be declared that afternoon. Soon after receiving the note, warnings were sent to American commanders in Hawaii, the Philippines, Panama, and San Francisco with the information that the ultimatum would be delivered at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Separate messages were sent to the United States army and navy. Somehow, the alert messages bound for Hawaii ended up being transmitted by commercial telegraph and radio. A bicycle messenger, on his way from Honolulu to deliver the coded messages, found himself in the middle of a war. The attack on Pearl Harbor War came to America at 7:55 a.m. on a quiet Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The base on Oahu Island was the home of the United States Pacific Fleet and about 50,000 American troops. At Pearl Harbor was the largest concentration of U.S. forces in the Pacific. A fleet of six Japanese aircraft carriers and escort ships stationed itself 230 miles off Oahu and launched its first wave of 183 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes. They were to inflict as much damage on the fleet as they could. They were to especially target the eight U.S. battleships and two U.S. carriers. They also sought to destroy aircraft parked on the ground. The first wave of Japanese bombers found plenty to attack. About 200 American ships and smaller craft were anchored in the harbor, and hundreds of warplanes were parked wingtip to wingtip at the airfields (planes arranged this way are easier to protect from sabotage). A second wave of 170 Japanese aircraft followed up and found the harbor obscured by giant columns of black smoke and antiaircraft fire. During this wave, the Japanese lost 19 aircraft from ground fire and American fighters that had managed to get into the air. The entire attack lasted only about an hour and fifty minutes. The effect at Pearl Harbor The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,400 Americans and wounded another 1,200. Of those dead, 1,103 sailors and marines were killed when a Japanese bomb penetrated the forward magazine (the compartment where a ship's ammunition is stored) of the battleship USS Arizona, sinking the ship and the men aboard it. The USS Oklahoma, another battleship, was also sunk with heavy loss of life. The other six battleships were damaged, and so were a number of cruisers and destroyers. Over 340 of the 400 aircraft on Oahu were destroyed or damaged as well. In the short run, the Japanese accomplished their objective. They had knocked the United States Pacific Fleet out of action temporarily. But how temporarily was the most important issue. In the long run, the United States was able to overcome the damage at Pearl Harbor for the following reasons: The aircraft carriers weren't touched. The carrier would prove to be the decisive weapon of the naval war in the Pacific, not the battleship, which every naval strategist before 1941 thought would be the primary naval weapon. The submarines were not attacked. Submarines became one of America's most potent weapons in crippling Japan's vital supply lines. The repair dockyards and fuel-oil storage tanks were undamaged. Thus, Pearl Harbor was able to serve its important role in wartime as a repair and refitting base for the Pacific Fleet. In fact, most of the American ships damaged in the attack were repaired and entered action against the Japanese later in 1942 and 1943. Nevertheless, Pearl Harbor was a bitter defeat for the United States. American territory had been attacked, and American lives had been lost. Pearl Harbor unified the divided and uncertain American population as no earlier action could. The United States declares war on Japan Japan had underestimated the Americans, who they believed would prefer to negotiate rather than fight. To the contrary, America wanted revenge. Although deeply divided over war issues and neutrality before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress was now united in seeking a declaration of war. As outlined in the United States Constitution, the president must ask Congress for such a declaration, which Roosevelt willingly did. In his message to Congress, Roosevelt captured the emotions of the day: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. . . . Always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory." British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had no doubt what Roosevelt's words meant for the British. "So we had won after all!" he wrote. "After seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress. We had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live."

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A World War II Timeline

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

For a brief rundown of World War II, check out the following chart, which highlights critical political events, leaders, and military action in the years preceding, during, and following the war: Click here to download and print this timeline.

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