World War II happened on a global scale. It was so big and complex that it can be difficult to think about it in terms of actual people—mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles—families whose lives and relationships were never the same again.
It’s likely that someone you are related to experienced a major upheaval in his or her life on account of the war. FamilySearch.org is a place to learn about these people, your ancestors of the 20th century. You can start by finding historical records that reveal where they were and what they were doing.
World War II facts and figures can be impersonal, but they can still shed a light on the lives of those who came before us. Learn more about World War II to discover more about your ancestors’ lives.
World War II Turning Points
The following is an outline of crucial World War II facts and events to keep in mind as you search. Were any of your ancestors involved? How were their lives affected?
Germany Invades Poland
September 1, 1939 is the date most scholars give as the beginning of World War II in Europe. Led by its führer (supreme leader), Adolf Hitler, Germany had, for several years, been amassing a military powerful enough to conquer Europe and possibly even the world. Hitler chose Poland as a target for his ambitions and began the German invasion of Poland on September 1.
Both France and England had promised to help Poland should it ever be attacked, and so on September 3, 1939, the two countries declared war on Germany. In the months that followed, Germany troops either occupied or invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and eventually France.
Battle of Britain
By June 1940, nearly all of Western Europe was under Nazi control. In a speech to the British House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told his fellow politicians, “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” The fighting that followed took place mainly in the air.
Despite heavy losses, the British Royal Air Force defied the German Luftwaffe for three straight months and ultimately took the air battle to the skies above Germany. As summer turned to fall, Hitler had no choice but to call off the attack.
Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor
While Hitler’s forces marched through Europe, Japan’s military was attempting something similar in Southeast Asia. The raid on the United States Navy base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 damaged or destroyed more than 20 American ships and 300 aircraft. More than 4,000 Americans were killed or wounded. The following day, the United States officially entered the war.
Battle of Midway
Japan’s military hoped to obliterate the United States Navy completely with a second surprise attack, on June 4, 1942, this time directed at the United States forces stationed on and around Midway—a small island located in the Pacific, halfway between Japan and the United States.
Unbeknownst to Japan, however, American cryptanalysts—code breakers—had cracked Japan’s communication codes. When the battle started, United States forces were ready for it. Japan suffered heavy losses as a consequence and spent the remainder of the war on the defensive.
Battle of Stalingrad
In 1942, Hitler sent an army south in an attempt to capture the Soviet Russian city that had been renamed after the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Thus, on July 7, started the largest, deadliest, most destructive battle ever fought in the history of warfare. The number of dead, missing, or wounded was catastrophic on both sides. The German army, however, would never recover.
D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy
The plan to liberate Western Europe from Nazi control had been in the making for a long time. The German army had been expecting it and had built an intricate system of defenses. Historians estimate that more than 4,000 Allied soldiers were killed on June 6, 1944, alone, the first day of battle. Still, the attack on the German-controlled beaches of northern France was overwhelmingly successful. For the first time in the war, German soldiers in Western Europe were on the retreat. The end of the war was in sight.
Battle of the Bulge
For some historians, the Battle of the Bulge is “the greatest battle in American military history.” The Allies had successfully landed in northern France and were pushing east towards Germany. That was when Hitler ordered his last great offensive of the war.
The Nazi counterattack began on December 16, 1944, along an 80-mile front in the Forest of Ardennes. Snow was deep, and the American troops lacked experience. Given the chance to surrender, however, they refused. The fight lasted for several weeks, and the German army was forced to continue its retreat.
Nazi Germany Surrenders
As Allied forces drew closer to Berlin, they began to discover the full horror of the Holocaust. They liberated multiple concentration camps, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were still being held. For most, the rescue had come too late—an estimated six million of them had already been killed.
When Nazi leaders at last signed the document of surrender, on May 7, 1945, people around the world took to the streets to celebrate. United States President Harry Truman called it “a victory only half won,” however, as American soldiers in the Pacific were, at that very moment, engaged in one of history’s most vicious battles, on the island of Okinawa.
In August, the United States military dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, one over of the city of Hiroshima, the other over Nagasaki. They hoped the powerful new weapon would convince Japanese leaders to surrender quickly. It did. Emperor Hirohito made the announcement only a few days later over Japanese radio, and on September 2, 1945, the war that had engaged nearly every country on earth was officially over. For those still in uniform, it was time to go home and begin the process of rebuilding.
The war undoubtedly changed your ancestors—and in doing so, it changed you. How well do you know this story? How well will the people who come after you know it? Now is as good a time as any to discover it.
If one of these relatives is still living, consider interviewing him or her in person, figuring out the best way to record what is said, and then uploading those memories to FamilySearch.org. Doing so would truly be a gift—both to your relative and to the generations who have and will come after.
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