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A brief guide to the Second World War 1933-39

Updated on April 27, 2012
Japanese troops in Manchuria
Japanese troops in Manchuria | Source

Most people know something about the Second World War, perhaps how it affected their parents or grandparents- or maybe where they live now, but few of us, me included; until I researched this article, know the exact chain of events that resulted in the war and the near destruction of many parts of Europe and South East Asia. In this series I attempt to headline what happened and include most noteworthy events- excuse me if I don’t mention everything and don’t give much in the way of detail, as I am aiming to produce a simple guide which will help the “man in the street” understand what really happened


The economic depression caused a retraction in the worlds economies. Of the former economic super powers, perhaps only Britain and the USA could survive on their own resources. The Germans and the Japanese could not become super industrial nations on their own resources and the normal methods of International trade were blocked by the USA protectionist policies. Thus the Japanese took resources by moving firstly into Manchuria ant then to the coastal parts of China- Germany was unable to take this action because of the limitations imposed on it by the Versailles agreement.

Adolph Hitler addresses the nation by Radio
Adolph Hitler addresses the nation by Radio | Source


Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and by 1936 had thrown off the restrictions of the Versailles treaty. The League of Nations set up after the First World War had shown it was powerless by failing to protect Abyssinia from Italian invasion. Rearmament began in 1936 in Germany, Britain and France and in the same year in November the Germans and Japanese signed the Anti-Comintern Pact- a formidable gesture of strength to those opposed to them- although it was never more than a gesture.


By the end of 1938 the Japanese controlled Shanghai and the whole of the Chinese coast whilst the Chinese government waited in vain for American aid to come to the rescue. Public opinion in Europe and America was turning against the Japanese who had tried to attack Russia in 1939, being repulsed both times by soviet troops.

German Panzer Division enters Prague
German Panzer Division enters Prague | Source


In 1938 Hitler annexed Austria not an unwelcome move to the Austrian population at large. It was clear to the observer that the next target would be Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain the British Prime Minister embarked on a policy of appeasement which would result in the Munich conference of 1938 where the German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia were handed over to the Germans. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia broke up and Slovakia became a nominally independent country whilst Czechia (sometimes called Bohemia) became a German protectorate.

Germany attacks/seizes Poland 1939

It is this action that directly led to the Second World War. At the end of April Hitler publicly told his generals to prepare for war with Poland, selecting the date of September 1st. The British and French governments had a guarantee with Poland, that they would take action is she were attacked, despite being too far away to be of any immediate use. The British and French governments desperately tried to negotiate with the Poles to cede the German speaking parts of Poland to Germany but to no avail.

German troops attacked Poland on 1st September 1939 without a declaration of war. The Polish government turned to her allies who asked for an explanation and an immediate withdrawal of the German forces. On 3rd September the British Ambassador in Germany issued an ultimatum to the German government demanding an answer to their demands within two hours, but no answer was received. Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany; the French ultimatum ran out a few hours later and by the end of the day France was also at war. By the 14th September 1939 with no practical help from her allies, Poland was overrun by the German army.

Poland in 1939
Poland in 1939 | Source

Polish borders altered and Russia gains 1939

On 17th September a Russian advance from the East met with little resistance; and on 28th September Poland was carved up and Lithuania became soviet controlled whilst Germany took over all the rest of Poland; with both governments declaring that they would not tolerate Polish agitation.

Admiral Graf Spee

Admiral Graf Spee photographed in flames at the mouth of the River Plate just outside Montivedeo
Admiral Graf Spee photographed in flames at the mouth of the River Plate just outside Montivedeo | Source
Map Indicating where the Royal Oak was sunk
Map Indicating where the Royal Oak was sunk | Source

Initial skirmishes 1939

  • · September 1939 H.M.S. Courageous sank
  • · November 1939 H.M.S. Royal Oak sank whilst moored at Scapa Flow
  • · December 1939 German pocket battleship Graf Spee damaged by allied ships and then scuttled in Montevideo on Hitler’s orders.

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak Commissioned in 1914
HMS Royal Oak Commissioned in 1914 | Source

Latvia, Estonia and Finland -1939

The Soviets who still were not at war established military control over Latvia and Estonia but Finland would not agree to their demands. On 30th November the soviets invaded Finland, by March 1940 the Finns had accepted the soviet terms and had made peace with them. The allies had not been able to mount a relief expedition to help them. By the end of 1939 there was little action taken by the Allies perhaps they were hoping for an early end or a negotiated settlement. The next year would see the evacuation of the British Exxpeditionary Force from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain- the war wouldsoon begin in earnest.


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Thanks- I think the China/Japan/Communist period would take another series of hubs- perhaps a good idea for the autumn? Thanks for the idea and your visit and kind comment

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good afternoon Just History. A very good hub. I am so glad you mentioned Japan and the invasion of Manchuria. So often that is ignored entirely. This is a good balanced summary of 33-39. Sharing.