What were the key dates of World War II?

World War II started 80 years ago with the German invasion of Poland and drew in several countries before it ended six years later with Japan's surrender.

What were the key dates of World War II?
Soldiers of the German Wehrmacht tore down a red and white barrier at the German-Polish border on September 1st, 1939. Archive photo: DPA.

It was the world's deadliest conflict, estimated to have killed 40 to 60 million people, more than half of whom were civilians.

Here are key dates in the war.

Nazis invade Poland

Adolf Hitler's Nazi forces invade Poland from the west on September 1st, 1939, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Berlin two days later.

Soviet forces attack Poland from the east on September 17th, under a secret pact with Germany, and the city of Warsaw surrenders 10 days later.

Archive photo shows Adolf Hitler in Poland. Photo: DPA

Northern France occupied

After occupying Denmark and Norway, Hitler launches a major offensive against Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in May 1940.

France's wartime leader Philippe Petain on June 17th announces its capitulation; on June 22nd he signs the armistice that allows Nazi forces to occupy the north of the country.

On June 18th French General Charles de Gaulle calls from London for resistance.

Petain sets up a government headquartered in the central spa town of Vichy that collaborates with the occupying German forces.

Battle of Britain

On August 13th, 1940, the Battle of Britain begins with German bombers carrying out massive attacks on cities such as Coventry and London, the raids continuing for nine months.

Faced with British resistance, Hitler abandons his planned invasion of Britain and declares, later in August, a blockade of the British Isles with his submarine fleet.

Soviet Union attacked

On June 22nd, 1941, Berlin turns east and launches an attack against the Soviet Union.

The German army is halted at the gates of Moscow in December by a Soviet counteroffensive. However its siege of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, will last nearly 900 days until January 1944.

Pearl Harbor

On December 7th, 1941, Japan — allied with Germany — attacks the US military base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying most of the US Pacific fleet.

The Americans, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, enter World War II the next day.

US ships sinking after severe damage during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Archive photo: DPA


On January 20th, 1942, Hitler ramps up at a Berlin conference his “Final Solution” plan to exterminate Jews, in particular by mass killings in concentration camps.

Some six million Jews are slain, as well as many political prisoners,
including resistance fighters, homosexuals and gypsies.

North Africa defeat

In October 1942 British troops defeat the German Afrika Korps in Egypt, handing the Nazi army its first major setback.

In November thousands of British and American forces land in North Africa,
leading to the surrender in 1943 of German-allied troops in the region.

Battle of Stalingrad

On February 2, 1943, the five-month Battle of Stalingrad ends with Soviet victory over the Nazis.

It is the first Nazi surrender in Europe since the war began, and costs the German army half a million men.

The battle for Stalingrad, now renamed Volgograd, was the first devastating defeat for the German Wehrmacht in the war against the Soviet Union in 1943 and became a turning point on the Eastern Front. Archive photo: DPA

D-Day in France

In November 1943 the Allies agree to attack Germany via occupied France.

D-Day is on June 6th, 1944, when more than 156,000 mainly American, British and Canadian troops land on the Normandy beaches. They overwhelm the Germans and liberate Paris on August 25th.

Germany surrenders

The Soviet army arrives in Berlin in April 1945 and captures the city by early May.

Hitler commits suicide on April 30th. On May 8th Germany surrenders unconditionally, ending the war in Europe.

Japan capitulates

On August 6th and 9th US aircraft drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

On September 2nd, 1945, Japan officially surrenders. World War II is over.

Member comments

  1. The timeline displayed about the Battle of Britain is not entirely accurate. While the initial bombing campaign against England was started by Hitler, the Nazis did not target London itself initially until after a British bomber had accidentally bombed Berlin due to navigational errors. Am I right on this??

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75 years later: Germany moves to get rid of lingering Nazi laws

Germany is moving to rid itself of a cluster of laws introduced by the Nazis, still lingering on its books 75 years after World War II.

75 years later: Germany moves to get rid of lingering Nazi laws
An information sign on the enaction of the Nuremberg Laws, racist and anti-Semitic laws passed during Nazi times. Photo: DPA

There are 29 German legal or regulatory texts that still use wording introduced when Hitler was in power, according to Felix Klein, the government's point man for fighting anti-Semitism.

Some of them have “a very clear anti-Semitic background”, Klein told AFP.

Now, with the support of several parties in the Bundestag lower house of parliament as well as Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Klein wants to wipe the slate clean — preferably before the end of the current term in September.

But the question remains whether to introduce a single law to reform all the texts at once, or to approach them one by one.

Germany has already reformed several Nazi-era laws over the years, including the infamous Paragraph 175 that criminalised sex between men and was repealed in 1994.

More recently, a 1933 ban on medical practitioners “advertising” that they carry out pregnancy terminations was partially scrapped in 2019.

READ ALSO: German court fines two doctors for advertising abortion

But some pertinent examples remain, including a law on altering names introduced by Nazi interior minister Wilhelm Frick in 1938.

From January 1939, a change to the law forced Jewish people to add the names “Sara” or “Israel” to their first names if they did not have a name that was considered typically Jewish.

The law “played a huge role in the exclusion and disenfranchisement of Jews”, said Thorsten Frei, deputy leader of the conservative CDU party's parliamentary group.

The section on Jewish names was scrapped by the Allies immediately after World War II, but the remaining text from 1938 was incorporated into federal law in 1954.

'German Reich'

The remaining parts of the law, which deal with issues such as the right to change one's name, are still “written as though the Third Reich still existed”, Klein points out.

Terms such as “German Reich”, “Reich government” and “Reich interior minister” are used, he said.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that Nazi language should continue to shape our federal law in 2021,” Social Democratic Party politician Helge Lindh told AFP.

“It is high time to send a clear signal with this long overdue form of denazification.”

Felix Klein speaking at a press conference in November. Photo: DPA

The law should also be cleaned up so it applies to all foreign nationals living in Germany, not just Germans, Lindh urged.

The law on names may be the most prominent, but there are at least 28 other German legal texts dating from the Nazi era — and possibly as many as 40, he added.

“Other laws and regulations deal with very technical issues, such as the upkeep of the river Elbe in the Hamburg region,” explains Frei.

Further texts include regulations on alternative medical practitioners, casinos and mutual legal assistance between Germany and Greece.

'Race' debate

Although it was adopted four years after World War II ended on May 8th, 1945, aspects of Germany's Basic Law, which charted a clear course away from Nazi ideology, have also come under fire — particularly from the political left.

Critics are calling for a revision of Article 3 of the constitution, which contains the term “race”. In June 2020, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared herself open to the idea.

But any changes to the Basic Law require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Germany is also planning to scrap alphabet tables — phonetic aids with phrases like “F for Friedrich” — that have remained largely unchanged since the Nazis removed all names with Jewish associations in 1934.

READ ALSO: Why Germany plans to return to pre-Nazi alphabet tables

Although the tables were revised in 1950, most of the old names were not reinstated.

A temporary return to pre-Nazi era tables is planned from autumn 2021, with a new version using mainly city names to be rolled out from autumn 2022.

The tables are not laid down in law, but overseen by the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN).

By Mathieu Foulkes