World War II: 1939–1952

Key Battles of World War II: European Theater and V-E Day

Key Events in the European Theater

U.S. and Allied forces fought Axis powers in the European Theater from 1942 to 1945. Key battles in North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union, and Germany determined the course of the war.
After entering the war, the Americans immediately wanted to take on German dictator Adolf Hitler by invading France. Britain argued that Germany had too strong a hold on the Atlantic and northern Europe. The Allies decided to aim for Hitler indirectly, by attacking German forces in North Africa and moving up the Mediterranean coast. Only then would they invade France. This plan for the European Theater took several years to complete. The key battles that led to the war's outcome are described in the table.

Major Battles and Key Events in North Africa and Europe

Event/Location Date Outcome/Significance
Battle of the Atlantic 1941–43 Allied naval forces battled Germany for control of Atlantic shipping lanes. The introduction of radar technology ultimately gave the Allies an advantage over German submarines, or U-boats.
Stalingrad July 17, 1942–February 2, 1943 The Soviet city of Stalingrad was under German siege for over six months. German forces collapsed during a brutal Russian winter. It was the first major Allied victory of the war.
El Alamein, Egypt October 23–November 11, 1942 With American help, the British defeated German and Italian forces in Egypt. The Axis powers retreated to Tunisia.
Tunisia November 8, 1942–May 12, 1943 U.S. and British forces landed in Algeria and Morocco. Axis forces surrendered to the Allies.
Sicily July–August 1943 U.S. troops gained control of the island of Sicily. From there, they planned to invade the Italian mainland. By early September, Rome was in German hands after Italy left the Axis powers.
Anzio January 22, 1944 Allied forces landed on the west coast of Italy, not far from Rome.
Rome June 4, 1944 Allied troops liberated Rome from Nazi control.
D-Day/Normandy June 6, 1944 D-Day began a "Second Front" against the Germans on the European mainland. Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France. They liberated Paris on August 25 and then headed toward Belgium.
Battle of the Bulge December 16, 1944–January 16, 1945 The goal of Germany's last offensive in the west was to push the Allies out of Belgium. The battle's name comes from the "bulge" Germans made in the Allies' line of defense. The Germans did not break through, however. Low on supplies, they were in full retreat by January 1, 1945.
Breach of the Rhine River March 22–23, 1945 By crossing the Rhine River, the Allies took the fight into the German homeland.
Berlin April 16–May 7, 1945 Soviet forces circled Berlin while western Allied forces closed in. Hitler committed suicide on April 30. Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7.

World War II, European Theater, 1942-45

Axis powers controlled most of Europe during the war. By using Allied-held North Africa as a landing point, the Allies gained a foothold in southern Europe and advanced on Berlin.

V-E Day and Aftermath of the War in Europe

The Big Three's discussion at the Yalta Conference determined the fate of Germany. With Germany's surrender in May 1945 came the end of the war in Europe. V-E Day celebrations erupted around the globe.

In February 1945 the conflict in Europe was drawing to a close. The leaders of the Big Three—the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union—met in Yalta, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea. The Yalta Conference's purpose was to plan the final stages of the war, along with the postwar division and occupation of Germany by the Allies.

President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin agreed on several key points:

  • Germany would be divided into zones to be administered by the Big Four—the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.
  • The Allies would confiscate and dismantle Germany's military and war-related industry.
  • Nazi leaders would be tried as war criminals in an international court in Nuremberg, Germany.
  • Liberated countries in Eastern Europe would conduct free elections.
  • The United Nations, an international peace organization, would be established.

The issue of reparations, or repayments by Germany to the war's victors, was not decided at Yalta. Stalin did offer to help the United States defeat Japan in the Pacific, in return for control of Japanese islands and China's railroad.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally, thus ending the war in Europe. V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, was declared on May 8. Celebrations erupted around the world. Thousands of people crowded into major cities, such as London, Paris, and New York City, to cheer the end of the war. President Roosevelt, however, did not live to see V-E Day. He had died on April 12. His successor, President Harry Truman, oversaw the war's conclusion in Europe and the Pacific. Truman joined newly elected British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. Held from mid-July to early August 1945 in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, the purpose of the conference was to finalize plans for Germany's occupation and reconstruction.
Ecstatic crowds celebrated in the streets after the official announcement of the end of World War II in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Credit: U.S. Air Force
After the war Germany was divided into zones controlled by the Allies. Berlin, the capital city located far inside the Soviet-controlled zone, was likewise split into occupation areas. Stalin broke his promise to allow free elections in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. These and other eastern European countries soon fell under Soviet control. In 1949 when it had become clear Germany would not be united under one government, it was officially divided into two nations. These were the Communist-controlled German Democratic Republic and democratic Federal Republic of Germany. The Allies put 22 Nazi leaders on trial for war crimes at Nuremberg, Germany. Twelve were hanged; the others were imprisoned or committed suicide.