On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland to start World War II, which was the costliest, bloodiest, most colossal war in the history of man. This war embraced all the continents but one‑South America; North America became involved in the Aleutians. In 1933 when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by the aging General Von Hindenburg, he quickly succeeded in uniting the German people and molding them to his purpose. By 1936, the Third Reich had amassed enough strength to break with the tottering League of Nations and force the annulment of the Treaty of Locarno. Germany and Italy were preparing for war. They had a tremendous military advantage over the other countries of Europe who were still clinging desperately to the hope of peace.

In 1937, Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister of Great Britain. His foreign policy was based on appeasement. This policy was based on two principles: (1) that the Treaty of Versailles was unjust, in its treatment of Germany, and (2) that if these wrongs were rectified, Germany would re‑enter The League of Nations and resume co operation with a peaceful Europe. The German people dreaded another war and reached out eagerly toward what Chamberlain described as “peace in our time.”

A crisis occurred in September 1938 when Germany demanded incorporation into the Reich of the Sudentanland area of Czechoslovakia. The independence of the Czech Republic ‑ a new nation carved out of Austria‑Hungary by the Treaty of Versailles – was guaranteed by pacts with France, and indirectly, Britain. Rather than risk war, Chamberlain, in a sudden dramatic move, communicated with Reichsfuehrer Hitler at Berchtesgaden; after which, he flew to meet with Hitler, Mussolini and Premier Daladier of France, at the historic Munich conference. On Sept. 9, 1938, an agreement was signed. The vital Sudetenland with its war industries, strong defenses and its power to resist was sacrificed. In return, Chamberlain came home with an agreement with Hitler that neither side wanted war, and that Germany and Britain would settle all future questions by consultation rather than by military action. This was Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.”

On March 10, 1939, sudden revolt flared in Slovakia against the Czech government in Prague. On March 13, thousands of German troops moved into position along the now defenseless borders of Czechoslovakia. A day later, President Hacha was summoned to Berlin to confer with Hitler and after being intimidated, he placed his country under the “protection” of Germany. Three hours later, Hitler was in Prague.

Overnight, “appeasement” became a word despised‑a symbol of weakness and failure. Frantically, Britain and France began preparations for war; England introduced a limited form of conscription and France deluded herself in the invincibility of its Maginot Line. It took the bitter, tragic lesson of 1940 to teach the democracies that there was no such thing as limited war when the enemy was prepared for total war. For France, the lesson came too late.

France reaffirmed her alliance with Poland and Britain signed mutual assistance pacts with Poland and Turkey and made formal guarantees of the independence of Greece and Rumania. All this was an effort to create a bloc of small, powerful nations, to surround Germany with a periphery of strength to limit further German aggression. On March 24, 1939, nine days after the German entry into Prague, Hitler made demands on Poland. These demands included the return to Germany of the free city of Danzig and the right to construct a military highway between Germany proper and East Prussia. In return, Hitler promised Poland a free zone in Danzig and a 25-year non‑aggression pact, which would guarantee the new Polish boundaries as permanent.

Poland, remembering similar promises to Czechoslovakia and strengthened by Britain and France, refused these demands. In April 1939, the two guarantors opened negotiations with the Soviet government, the one European nation which possessed an army capable of challenging Germany on the eastern front. For months the negotiations dragged on to no avail. Russia’s reluctance was three‑fold: (1) The failure of the Allies to include Russia in the Munich conference; (2) skepticism over their desire and ability to wage war against Germany; and (3) disgust at the blundering methods of Chamberlain. The principal Russian objective was to push its own borders as far as possible to the west, as a more impregnable defensive barrier. War, at this time, on the side of Britain, would not serve this purpose.

Suddenly, without warning, came the blow that shocked the civilized world‑the German‑Soviet non‑aggression pact. The announcement came on Aug. 23, 1939, while the Anglo‑French-Soviet discussions were still in progress. The Allies had suffered a crushing diplomatic defeat. Hitler’s pact with Russia assured him freedom of action. Her eastern flank secured, and her enemies in the west weak and bewildered, Germany was now ready to invade Poland; two days later, Britain and France declared war.

The nations taking part in this opening campaign of World War II were Germany, Poland and Russia; the entire action was fought on Polish soil. The incredible speed of Hitler’s armed forces in defeating Poland gave rise to the term “blitzkrieg”‑lightning war. Thirty-five days after the opening gun had been fired, Polish resistance was crushed. The Polish campaign will go down in military annals as one of the most brilliant triumphs in the history of German arms. A Russian invasion force crossed the eastern Polish frontier; this sealed the doom of the Polish armies. On Sept. 18, Russian and German forces met at Brest‑Litovsk.

For the 35 days of the Polish campaign and for approximately eight months afterward, the western front settled down to a period of strange, unbroken quiet. It was during this period that newspapers and statesmen all over the world took to calling World War II the “phony war” and “sitzkrieg”. The two mightiest systems of fortifications ever developed faced each other across the length of the Franco‑German frontier. For miles back from the border, the Maginot line of the French and the Westwall of the Germans (also called the Siegfried line) bristled with supposedly impregnable, concrete and steel emplacements. In the Maginot line, the French had concentrated the cream of their troops, heavily reinforced by regular army units. In the Westwall, the Germans used veterans thrown in after the Polish campaign. Both lines were armed with the most destructive weapons ever devised. Yet for nine months nothing happened. Not a single major engagement developed along the entire frontier.

After the partition of Poland, Russia had forced non‑aggression pacts on the three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In effect, these countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union, a development which actually took place several months later.

On Oct. 7, 1939, the Soviet government made demands on Finland similar to those made on the Baltic States. Specifically, Russia wanted certain islands in the Gulf of Finland as a protective screen for the great Naval base at Kronstadt. Negotiations proceeded in deadlock until Nov. 30, 1939 when the Russians bombed Helsinki, the Finnish capital. Although the Finns fought valiantly and inflicted great damage to the Soviet onslaught, they were no match for the Russians in manpower and equipment. Consequently, after less than six weeks, resistance ended and an armistice, with Germany as the intermediary, was signed on March 12, 1940. Russia received everything she asked for‑and more.

On April 9, 1940, Hitler got impatient with the “phony war” and launched an offensive against neutral Denmark and Norway. In one day, he successfully occupied all of Denmark, which was a springboard to the north. The main action of this campaign was fought in Norway, with German, British, Norwegian and some French forces taking part. Hitler’s reason for this attack included several factors. Firstly, he wanted to test the Allied war strength. Secondary German objectives were (1) to prevent the Allies from seizing Scandinavia as a base from which to attack north Germany and (2) to secure air and submarine bases as near as possible to Britain and the vital Allied shipping lanes.

Oslo, the capital, fell in one day. The same thing happened at Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger and Narvik, the principal cities. Sabotage, espionage and treachery worked with excellent efficiency. The Norwegian government and population were infested with German agents and local traitors. Corrupt officials had been bribed and promised high positions in the “new order”. One of these officials was Quisling whose name later became the term used to describe a traitor. Officers surrendered their troops without firing a shot. After a strong attempt to recapture Norway, the British had to withdraw and the campaign came to an end on June 10, 1940. Exactly one month earlier, Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign and was succeeded by Winston Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, as prime minister.

At last England had a leader who understood the situation. The Norwegian experiment was successful. The Allies had revealed themselves as weak and very much unprepared for war. On May 10, the very same day that Churchill took office, the Nazi armies struck again. Poland and Norway were dress rehearsals to test enemy strength and experiment with new weapons and military methods. The battle of Western Europe had begun. In this engagement, the armies of Germany, Italy, Britain, France, Holland and Belgium participated ‑ an aggregate of some 4,000.000 men.

When this battle was swiftly concluded, the face of Europe was completely altered. Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg had ceased to exist as nations. France, called the greatest military power on earth, was smashed. Her armies were broken; two million of her soldiers were captured. Britain, battered, retreated to the protection of her own island. Never, in so short a space of time, had such a far-reaching military decision been accomplished. On May 15, the Dutch army surrendered and 13 days later King Leopold of Belgium surrendered his entire army to the Germans. Now the way was open to attack France, not by bridging the Maginot Line but through Belgium. Hitler’s armies were successful beyond belief.

After the Belgian surrender, and the Allied decision to evacuate, one phase of the Battle of Flanders yet remained to be fought. Defiantly, the British army fell back on Dunkirk, the one channel port still in Allied hands. Fierce rear‑guard actions by the remaining French units covered their retreat; so that their British comrades might escape to fight the enemy once again.

Dunkirk is still looked upon by military experts as a miracle. Way beyond the expectations of the British high command, which was that 25% of their army would be saved, 330,000 men (including French, Dutch and Belgians) were taken off the bloody beaches of Dunkirk. From the British coast across the channel, every available boat set out for Dunkirk. Women, sometimes children, piloted the rescue boats; this motley fleet shuttled back and forth until every man was safe in Britain.

On June 16, Premier Paul Reynaud of France, realizing the helplessness of the situation, resigned and was replaced by Marshal Henri Petain, victor of Verdun in World War I. On June 17, after more German successes, the 84 year old Petain asked for honorable terms of armistice. On June 21, while fighting was still going on, Hitler presented his harsh terms in the same railway car at Compiegne where the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 was signed. In addition to stripping France of practically all its defenses, the agreement called for the military occupation of more than half of the area of the country, with the French people paying the cost of the occupation‑an estimated 3 million francs per day. The Germans occupied the entire west coast of France in addition to much area in the north. All its naval bases were to be demilitarized and she was specifically forbidden to render any form of assistance to Britain for the remainder of the war.

By far the most provocative provision of the armistice called for the complete demobilization and disarmament, at French ports, of all French naval vessels. This provoked a bitter storm of protest in Britain, which had agreed to the French surrender, only if the French fleet were put under British control. The direct result of this French concession was British military action involving the seizure of all French vessels in British-controlled waters, which reached its climax in the British attack on the French fleet in the harbor of Oran, Algeria. Later, to allow the French to protect themselves against British attacks, Hitler permitted the French fleet to be mobilized. This, and other controversies rising out of the armistice terms, caused a breach between the British and French governments, which was never healed.

The collapse of France, in less than eight weeks of active fighting, shook the entire world. The government‑by then functioning in the city of Vichy‑became a haven for collaborationists; and under the guidance of Pierre Laval, vice premier in the Petain cabinet, the Republic was abolished in favor of a totalitarian regime. In Eastern Europe, repercussions of the French collapse were felt within a week of the armistice. With Franco-British guarantees now proved worthless, Rumania was literally torn asunder. Russia demanded the annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bucovina. Rumania acceded, but turned to Germany for further protection; this was to no avail. Hitler ceded most of Rumanian Transylvania to Hungary, and a smaller area to Bulgaria; this was Hitler’s reward to two little satellites and it served to bring them closer into the Axis camp.

Never in the history of the world, have a people responded so magnificently to national crisis as did the British people in the dark days following the French debacle of June 1940. Fate saved Britain after Dunkirk, when Germany made the mistake of not invading England and concentrated instead on finishing France. Some members of Britain’s ruling class wanted to make peace with Hitler immediately. But Britain’s common people, and their leader, Winston Churchill, would not allow it.

Three days after Dunkirk, ammunition and equipment factories were working around the clock and thousands rushed to take up arms. For 15 and 16 hours a day, men and women sweated over machines, working to the point of exhaustion. Tanks and planes rolled from the factories in an unprecedented stream. This was a miracle comparable to Dunkirk.

On June 19, just after France asked for an armistice, the Germans struck the first major blow at Great Britain. At first 100 planes a day dropped their bombs on British cities. Soon it was 200 planes; before long, nearly a thousand. Yet with ever increasing strength, Britain struck back. Both sides were soon dropping their bombs on open cities, killing civilians by the hundreds.

The German plan appeared to be this: (I) Systematic bombing of British cities and military objectives to destroy morale and the will and power to resist invasion; (2) Destruction of the British sea lanes by bombing and submarine attack, to shut Britain off from supplies and reinforcements from America and the Empire; (3) Destruction of the Royal Air Force and its bases to allow a combination sea‑borne air‑borne invasion to land on Britain, unhindered; (4) Finally, after this softening process, actual invasion of the British Isles by parachute troops, and army units transported in specially built barges assembled on the French, Dutch, Belgian and Norwegian coasts.

The plan never succeeded. In the cities, the people of Britain buried their dead and returned to work. In the air, the RAF waged one of the most magnificent underdog battles in history; and it won. By the end of August, 1000 German planes were hitting Britain in a single day. All parts of England and Wales were raided, and many points in Scotland, but the principal German effort was directed at London. On August 21, no less than 200 enemy aircraft were destroyed by the RAF and for days thereafter, similar losses were suffered by the Luftwaffe ‑ the German air force. This broke the back of the German offensive and gradually, the bombing attacks slackened.

The British success in warding off an invasion of its soil can be attributed to three main factors: (1) Although outnumbered, the British fighter planes were superior to the Germans’ in almost all technical characteristics, i.e. speed, fire power and maneuverability; (2) The British planes were operating close to home bases; thus, short‑range fighters could be refueled and used over and over again; (3) Indirect American assistance in the form of planes, armaments, shipping, manufactured goods and food.

The National Defense Act of 1920 provided for a possible return to conscription in an emergency by making it the duty of the war department general staff to prepare plans for mobilization. The research and planning undertaken by a joint army and navy selective‑service committee, getting underway in 1926, were embodied in the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. It was the first conscription law legislated in time of peace. The Senate voted for the bill 47 to 25 and the House 232 to 124. On Sept. 16, Pres. Roosevelt signed it‑ and by proclamation called upon all males from 21 through 35 years of age, residing in the U.S. and its territories, to register on Oct. 16 for selective compulsory military training.

The president could not induct more men than Congress appropriated; not more than 900,000 men were to be in training at any one time. They were to serve for 12 months, unless Congress declared a national emergency. The Service Extension Act of August 18, 1941 changed this to 18 months. Men inducted were not to be employed beyond the limits of the western hemisphere and the U.S. possessions including the Philippines, a limitation removed Dec. 1941, following entry of the United States into the war. Amendments were now made to the Act, specifically changing the ages for registration from 18 to 65 years of age, though only the 20 to 45 year groups were at this time eligible for induction. Also, the act prolonged the service period to the duration of the war plus six months.

Eventually, the Selective Service system comprised 6,443 local boards, one for each area of about 30,000 inhabitants, and 505 appeal boards. The whole organization was run by Brig. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey who took over the reins on July 31, 1941 and remained in that position to the end of the war. On Oct. 20, 1940, 16,632,146 men were registered. Six subsequent registrations under the act as amended were held in 1941 and 1942. After that men were required to register on attaining their 18th birthday. On Sept. 30, 1941, a little more than a year after enactment of the act, 14,700,000 registrants out of a total of 17,400,000 or 85% were classified. Of these, 77% were given deferred status, with those deferred because of dependency forming 4/5 of all deferred at the time, and placed in Class III‑A, and the rest placed in Class I‑A ‑ men available for military duty. Being a married man, I was classified by my local board as III‑A.