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26 Interesting Facts About World War II

26 Interesting Facts About World War II

World War II was the most destructive military event in the history of the world. The deaths attributed to this global conflict are estimated at 50 to 70 million lives lost over a six-year period.

But not only that, it is the largest political, social, and economic event in living memory. The world as we know it was shaped by WW2, and virtually no corner of the world remained untouched by its effects – even tourism is still affected by WW2 and the ensuing fallout.

It would take lifetimes to compile the events and study this war, as well as its causes and effects, and what good (if any) came out of it. What you can say about the greatest war ever fought is that it’s truly fascinating.

Not only is it a study of human cruelty and savagery, but also decency and ingenuity, to the point where the whole thing becomes one enormous paradox, the ultimate display of the duality of man. Above all the horrors, WW2 was a human drama, essentially fought over the soul of the human race.

And with that in mind, these are a range of interesting and fun facts about World War 2 to help you understand more about global history.

Interesting Facts About World War II

1. The Battle of the Atlantic

Officers on the bridge of a destroyer, escorting a large convoy of ships keep a sharp look out for attacking enemy submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic
Post-Work: User:W.wolny / Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of the Atlantic ran from September 1939 to 1945, lasting nearly entire war, concluding in May 1945, with Germany’s surrender. The battle was fought by the Germans to starve Great Britain of supplies from America and the rest of the world, and to prevent the British from sending troops to the theaters.

In pursuit of this objective, German submarines, known as U-boats (or unterseeboots) and other naval vessels (such as E-boats, destroyers, and “pocket” and full-sized battleships like the Graf Spee and Bismarck), patrolled the Atlantic Ocean and sank thousands of tons of Allied shipping.

Initially waged by the British and Canadians against the German and Italian navies, American ships at the start of the war were supposedly neutral, but were soon considered as legitimate targets by the Germans putting American sailors in the line of fire before the U.S. entered the war.

You can learn more about this battle from novels and films like The Cruel Sea and Das Boot.

2. The Battle of Stalingrad

Infantry at Battle of Stalingrad
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-107-40 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the worst battles of the entire war. This savage campaign pitted the Soviets against Nazi Germany and minor Axis powers in a fight for the strategic city, where every building and every room was fought over until much of the city became rubble. Until the recent Battle of Bakhmut, it is renowned as one of modern military history’s most colossal, protracted, and blood-drenched confrontations.

This battle witnessed millions of soldiers engaging in close combat from August 1942 to February 1943. The casualties were staggering, with just over one million (and some historians citing two million) killed or wounded, including tens of thousands of innocent Russian civilians. Nonetheless, the Battle of Stalingrad, a pivotal event in Russia’s industrial landscape, arguably tipped the scales in favor of the Soviet forces, altering the course of World War II.

You can learn more about this horrifying battle from the harrowing film Stalingrad.

See Related: How is WW2 Taught in Germany?

3. The Greatest Raid of All

Men of No. 4 Commando after returning from a raid on the French coast near Boulogne
Malindine E G (Lt) War Office official photographer / Wikimedia Commons

On 28 March 1942, the Royal Navy and British Commandos, under the Combined Operations Headquarters, carried out the St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot. This operation involved a British amphibious attack on the heavily fortified Normandie dry dock in St Nazaire, the only drydock on the occupied French coast large enough to house the enormous, modern German battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz. If either ship had free reign of the Atlantic, the British might have lost the war.

The Brits used a bold strategy of disguising an old lend-lease American destroyer (HMS Cambletown) as a German destroyer and filling it with explosives and commandos. They then rammed it into the dock, allowing the commandos to raid the port and cause damage to its infrastructure. Hours later, the bomb in the ship detonated, destroying the drydock completely, rendering it useless for the rest of the war.

Out of the 612 British soldiers, sailors, and marines who participated in the raid, 228 returned to Britain, 169 lost their lives, and 215 were taken as prisoners of war. Many were decorated for bravery, one British sergeant being awarded a Victoria Cross thanks to a German officer’s recommendation. The German forces suffered over 360 casualties, with some being killed in the aftermath when Campbeltown exploded.

In military circles, the St Nazaire raid is regarded as “The Greatest Raid of All,” and proved the use of commandos (the precursor to modern-day special forces) on the battlefield.

4. Operation Underworld

During World War II, the United States government implemented Operation Underworld as a strategic partnership with organized crime groups such as the Irish Mob, Italian Mafia, and Jewish organized crime figures. This covert operation lasted from 1942 to 1945 and had multiple objectives.

First, it aimed to combat potential Axis spies and saboteurs operating in the northeastern seaboard ports that sent supplies to Britain. By leveraging connections and intelligence gathered by these criminal organizations, the government sought to enhance its security measures.

Another critical focus of Operation Underworld was to prevent labor-union strikes that could disrupt wartime production. To maintain uninterrupted supplies of indispensable goods for the war effort, collaboration with influential crime syndicates became a pragmatic choice.

5. The Battle of Los Angeles in 1942

Coverage of the so-called Battle of Los Angeles and its aftermath (lots of articles on people finding dud shells
LA Times. / Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, refers to the rumored attack on the continental United States by Imperial Japan and the subsequent intense anti-aircraft artillery barrage that occurred from late February 24 to early February 25, 1942, over Los Angeles, California. Initially, the barrage was believed to be targeting forces from Japan.

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox dismissed it as a “false alarm” during a press conference shortly afterward. But, newspapers of the time published several reports and speculations suggesting a possible cover-up to conceal an actual enemy airplane invasion. The incident remains shrouded in mystery and continues to intrigue, adding a unique and enigmatic chapter to the history of the war.

6. Battle of Taranto

Aerial view showing aftermath of action against the italian fleet in taranto harbour
C. Oliver / Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Taranto, which occurred on the night of November 11-12, 1940, stands as a significant milestone in naval warfare. Admiral Andrew Cunningham led British naval forces to engage Italian naval forces at port under Admiral Inigo Campioni. In a historic feat, the Royal Navy launched the first-ever all-aircraft ship-to-ship maritime attack.

Utilizing 21 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm (already obsolete and referred to by the crews as “stringbags”) from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in the Mediterranean Sea, the British attacked the Regia Marina’s battle fleet anchored in the harbor of Taranto. Despite the shallow waters, aerial torpedoes were employed, and the attack succeeded.

This triumph marked a turning point, demonstrating the growing dominance of naval aviation over battleships’ firepower. It was proof that a cheap aircraft (the incredibly flimsy Swordfishes would go on to cripple the German battleship Bismarck in 1941) could destroy incredibly expensive battleships, which at the time were considered symbols of national pride.

Admiral Cunningham declared that the Battle of Taranto forever solidified the Fleet Air Arm’s status as the Royal Navy’s most devastating weapon, ensuring its place in history. He was spot on too, as the Japanese studied Taranto very carefully and used it as a blueprint for the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.

7. The Flight of the Enola Gay

Enola Gay plane after strike at Hiroshima
The original uploader was Veinsworld at German Wikipedia.(Original text: US Air Force) / Wikimedia Commons

The first atom bomb used in warfare, named Little Boy, was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, by the crew of a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress called “Enola Gay” on August 6, 1945. It was followed by another atomic attack on Nagasaki three days later. The third atom bomb scheduled to be dropped (on Tokyo) was held off, as the Japanese surrender came soon on the 15th, with a peace treaty being signed on September 2, 1945.

As Colonel Paul Tibbets took over the command of the aircraft, he named it after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets, as a way of honoring her…and also indicating the immense destructive power of the weapon. Moms, am I right?

The Superfortress, which served as the delivery system for these bombs, showcased the latest advancements in American aeronautical engineering and bomber design. Its deployment over Japan reflected the evolution of strategic bombing doctrine.

By introducing the concept of an atomic bomber, Enola Gay played a pivotal role in human history, marking the onset of the Atomic Age and introducing the looming threat of nuclear war, which has seen something of a resurgence thanks to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

See Related: What If Germany Won WW1?

8. The Soviet Union lost the most lives during World War II

World War II casualties of the Soviet Union
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-043-52 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Despite starting the war as an ally of Nazi Germany and helping them conquer Poland, the Soviet Union was betrayed by the Germans in 1941. The German invasion caught the Soviets completely off guard and was almost successful, were it not for the USSR being propped up by convoys of supplies sent from Britain.

In the face of the German invasion on its Eastern Front, the Soviet Union confronted a harsh reality during World War II. The extent of the casualties endured by the Soviet Union is truly unfathomable and hotly debated to this day.

The most common figures suggest approximately 27 million Soviet individuals died during the war, with a staggering breakdown of 8.7 million military fatalities and a devastating loss of 19 million civilians. This astounding number signifies the most significant military deaths experienced by any nation in the conflict, surpassing other countries by a significant margin.

Some figures put the death toll even higher, with some sources claiming over 40 million Soviet dead. Even with conservative estimates, it seems unbelievable that so many could have been killed by the Nazis, but the truth of the matter is that most of these deaths are likely due to poor Soviet logistics and leadership (something we are seeing today in Ukraine) and the unforgiving Russian winters.

With these numbers in mind, it’s also worth noting that Germany suffered the second largest number of dead in Europe AND that around four out of every five German soldiers killed in WW2 died fighting the Soviets.

Now this is not to say that the fighting was more savage in the East than it was in the West of the European Theater, but rather that the Western Allies were far more likely to take prisoners than their Soviet counterparts.

9. The Manhattan Project

Group photo of E. O. Lawrence, A. H. Compton, V. Bush, J. B. Conant, K. Compton, and A. Loomis in March 1940 at UC Berkeley meeting
U.S. government / Wikimedia Commons

The Manhattan Project was a classified government initiative during World War II. It was where the United States expedited the creation and utilization of the first atomic bomb to surpass Nazi Germany’s own nuclear weapons program. The project was famously aided and headed by Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Atomic weapons had been theorized in the 1930s, and several nations, including Britain, Germany and the U.S. had their own development programs in the early stages of the war. In order to head off German development, the U.S. and the U.K. pooled their talent together in the Manhattan Project. The project materialized at three main sites: Hanford, Washington; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The deployment of these weapons by the United States against Japan in August 1945 ultimately emerged as one of the pivotal historical occurrences of the 20th century. This project marked the beginning of the nuclear era and left lasting impacts that resonate with us even today.

10. The Blue Division

Blue Division soldiers manning a gun during training in 1941
Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons

Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, signaling the onset of World War II. Despite this, Spain, under General Francisco Franco’s leadership, chose to maintain an official stance of neutrality during the initial phase of the conflict.

But driven by political and ideological affinities with Germany and a desire to bolster Spain’s global reputation, Franco allowed the establishment of the Blue Division, also referred to as the Division Azul.

The Blue Division was formed in June 1941, consisting of Spanish volunteers who enlisted in the German Army to engage in combat on the Eastern Front. Their main goal was to support Germany’s military efforts against the Soviet Union.

Motivated by ideological convictions and a determination to confront communism, these volunteers perceived the conflict as a chance to align themselves with the Axis powers. The Blue Division was sent to the Eastern Front, where they participated in intense combat against Soviet forces. Though few would survive the war, their combat record speaks highly of their professionalism and ferocity in battle.

11. Yamato – The largest battleship of in history

Battleship Yamato during sea trials off Japan near Bungo Strait, 20 October 1941
Hasuya Hirohata / Wikimedia Commons

The Imperial Japanese Navy laid down the battleship Yamato in the early 1930s as a component of Japan’s maritime expansion initiatives. Commencing construction in 1937, the vessel was finalized and launched in August 1940. Its sister ship, the Musashi, was constructed with comparable magnitude and capabilities.

The Yamato class battleships were of immense proportions. With a displacement of over 72,000 tons, and an extraordinary length of 862 feet (263 meters) the Yamato and Musashi were the largest battleships ever built.

The Yamato-class battleships were strategically designed to counter the formidable battleship fleets of the United States and Great Britain. As tensions increased in the Pacific, Japan acknowledged the necessity for battleships that could effectively engage American and British counterparts. The Yamato class was conceived as a strong deterrent against any potential U.S. naval dominance in the Pacific theater.

12. Operation Overlord is the real name for the Battle of Normandy – NOT D-Day!

LSTs with barrage balloons deployed, unloading supplies on Omaha Beach for the break-out from Normandy
The original uploader was MIckStephenson at English Wikipedia. / Wikimedia Commons

The invasion of the beaches at Normandy in northern France on June 6, 1944, by troops from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, France, Poland, and other countries during World War II is commonly known as D-Day. But it’s not actually called D-Day!

So where does the term D-Day come from?

U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s executive assistant, Brig. Gen. Robert Schultz rationalized that “any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date;’ therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used.” He also said there were many other D-Days during the war, but none were as famous as the one on June 6, 1944, as it was (and still is) the largest amphibious operation in military history.

A similar theory is that the term “D-Day” is a defunct Commonwealth military term to refer to the starting day of a military operation, much like “H-Hour,” which refers to the starting hour of an operation. Oddly enough, the “D” means “day,”…meaning D-Day is short for Day-Day (???).

Codenamed Operation Overlord, the amphibious assault successfully landed approximately 156,000 Allied soldiers on Norman soil by the end of June 6th. German soldiers defending the beaches killed approximately 4,000 Allied troops, a far lower number than the Allies predicted (it was estimated that 20,000-100,000 Allied troops might be killed or wounded on the first day alone).

Within a few days, over 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles, and approximately 100,000 other pieces of vital equipment had successfully landed. By August 1944, northern France’s liberation was accomplished. Another nickname for Operation Overlord is “The Longest Day,” which is also the same name as the classic blockbuster movie covering this incredible operation.

13. The Ghost Army

The “Ghost Army” was an ingenious strategy employed by the Allied forces in the leadup to Operation Overlord to convince the Germans that the Allies had more troops that they actually had at their disposal and that the invasion would occur at Calais rather than Normandy.

The plan was pioneered by the British, who devised thousands of dummy troop encampments and vehicles and flooded the airwaves with fake radio traffic to suggest an entire army was being built to invade Calais. They also spread the word through German agents that had been successfully turned by British intelligence to tell their former masters in Germany of the buildup.

On January 20, 1944, the U.S. Army established the Ghost Army (officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troop), as a mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit.

Led by Colonel Harry L. Reeder, an experienced Army veteran, this covert and exceptional unit consisted of 82 officers and 1,023 men. Its primary objective was to deceive German forces and German cities during the last year of World War II by employing visual, sonic, and radio tactics to create the illusion of two entire divisions comprising approximately 30,000 soldiers.

To sell the deception, the Allies made it known that General George Patton, the most aggressive general in the European theater, would be commanding this “army.” Major General Geoffrey Keyes also played a crucial role in planning and executing the deception operations, utilizing his strategic expertise to create illusions and divert the enemy’s attention. Under his leadership, the Phantom/Ghost Army successfully contributed to the Allied efforts by confusing and deceiving the German intelligence.

14. The Largest Japanese spy ring was located in Mexico

Group of Imperial Japanese Army's Military policeman
See page for author / Wikimedia Commons

Throughout World War II, espionage proved to be a formidable weapon employed by many nations. Much of Japan’s wartime espionage attempts remain a mystery, but the largest known Japanese spy ring operating in the Americas may have significantly impacted the war. This intricate network aimed to gather intelligence and monitor American military activities, showcasing the power of espionage during this era of conflict.

During the 1930s, when Japan attacked China, a brutal war and genocide ensued, prompting the emergence of espionage as a crucial means of gathering intelligence and gaining an advantage over potential adversaries like the U.S. The presence of the Japanese spy ring in northern Mexico had significant repercussions for American military operations as it sought to undermine their efforts by acquiring intelligence on military strategies, troop movements, and technological advancements, ultimately providing valuable information to bolster the Japanese war machine, giving the Japanese early advantages in the war.

15. Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109

Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109 crew
Naval Historical Center / Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, the future president of the United States, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy commanded PT-109, an 80-foot Elco Patrol boat used for patrol torpedo missions in the Solomon Islands campaign of the Pacific theater. On August 2, 1943, while on patrol in the South Pacific, PT-109 collided with a Japanese destroyer, causing the boat to break into two pieces.

Despite the dangerous situation, the crew of PT-109 displayed outstanding courage and resourcefulness. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Kennedy, the crew members swam through hazardous waters to reach nearby Plum Pudding Island. Before they were rescued by Commonwealth Coastwatcher scouts on 8 August, Kennedy and his men survived for six days on Plum Pudding and then Olasana Island, eating coconuts.

Their rescue is also thanks to coconuts, as Kennedy carved an SOS into the shell of a coconut for the Coastwatchers to take to the U.S. Navy, with details of their predicament. After the war, Kennedy kept the coconut on his desk in the Oval Office.

The story of PT-109 and its heroic crew became a symbol of bravery and determination during WW2. The events surrounding PT-109 contributed to Kennedy’s legacy and shaped his future political career. You can learn more about this incredible tale from the 1963 movie PT 109.

16. The Poles in 1932 cracked the enigma code first

Prior to WW2, the Germans devised the Enigma code machine. This device could encode and transmit secret messages that were incredibly hard to decipher unless you had the right codebook to make sense of it – and codebooks would be updated daily.

While many folks think the British and the brilliant Alan Turing cracked the German enigma code first, it was actually the Poles.

Led by mathematician Marian Rejewski, Polish intelligence successfully cracked the Enigma code first in the early 1930s. Rejewski and his colleagues Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski devoted themselves to developing innovative methods and mathematical techniques to decipher the complex Enigma-encrypted messages. Their groundbreaking work became the foundation for subsequent code-breaking efforts during World War II when they escaped to Britain in 1939.

While their achievements were pivotal, the British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing would later make significant contributions, designing the world’s first computer that could crack Enigma codes faster than any human and empowering the Allied forces to decrypt vital German communications during the war.

17. Dummy Paratroopers

Paratrooper dummy "Rupert" used during the D-day. From the Merville Bunker museum in France
user:Pajx / Wikimedia Commons

While most non-airborne troops look at their para brethren and mock them for being “stupid enough to jump out of a perfectly good airplane,” I’m talking about different dummies here!

During the Second World War, dummy paratroopers, were developed by the British to mimic paratroop attackers. Its purpose was to deceive the enemy, causing them to redirect forces or initiate unnecessary fires and even leading enemy troops into staged ambushes.

British troops referred to the dolls used in Operation Titanic (part of the leadup to Overlord) as “Rupert,” while American troops called them “Oscar.” Officially, they were known as “Device Camouflage No. 15.” These dolls were constructed using burlap and filled with either straw or green waste. In the 1980s, a warehouse on an old British airfield was discovered to contain some of these para dummies.

Today, some of the original dolls from this find are on display in war museums. Although immobile and standing at about 85 cm tall, it becomes challenging to distinguish them from real parachutists during twilight.

18. Exploding Anti-Tank Dogs

Military parade on Red Square, Moscow, 1 May 1938
See page for author / Wikimedia Commons

From horses to dolphins to bats to pigeons, humans have always found a way to bring animals into wars, and being man’s best friend, dogs have always played a part in the wars of man.

Dogs were used to send messages, manage vermin, sniff out booby traps, and carry ordnance, but some nations had other ideas for these four-legged combatants. The Soviets tried using dogs as a sort of explosive drone to be used against tanks.

This was done by training dogs to run under tanks (with the reward of food), before strapping landmines to their backs and unleashing hordes of them against German tank attacks. This plan largely (and predictably) backfired. Being coached to run under Soviet tanks in training, once unleashed in battle, these now very explosive dogs tended to run under Soviet tanks rather than German ones!

19. Coco Chanel was a Nazi Spy

Winston Churchill and Coco Chanel
http://origin.anothermag.com/loves/ / Wikimedia Commons

During the German occupation of France in World War II, Coco Chanel‘s association with high-ranking members of the Nazi regime became increasingly significant. Notably, she formed a romantic relationship with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, an intelligence officer and staunch supporter of the Nazi cause. Operating covertly under the code “Westminster,” Chanel played a significant role as Agent F-7124 within Germany’s intelligence network.

As Agent F-7124, Chanel contributed extensively to German intelligence efforts by relaying valuable information to her handlers. Her knowledge of key individuals and events helped inform decision-making within the Nazi Party.

While Chanel enjoyed close ties with Nazi Party officials and the benefits that came with it, opinions diverge on whether she was truly sympathetic to their cause or simply exploiting her relationships for personal gain – either way, it’s not a good look, and one Chanel is keen to avoid talking about (funny that).

Regardless, her involvement remains a subject of controversy and debate among historians (and Chanel), and there is significant evidence she compromised the efforts of the French Resistance and British intelligence.

20. Dachau – The First Nazi Concentration Camp

 Polish prisoners in Dachau Nazi concentration camp in Germany joyfully celebrating their liberation by the US Army
T/4 Arland Musser / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most chilling and unsettling episodes in history is the Holocaust. Nazi leader (or Fuhrer) Adolf Hitler blamed Jewish people for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and would later attempt to eliminate this “racial enemy” with the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Black people, homosexuals, those with physical and mental disabilities, and anyone who spoke out against the regime. The construction of Nazi concentration camps during World War II played a crucial role in the organized oppression and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population, as well as any other “undesirables.”

Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, is among the most grim symbols of this period. Established from a vacant munitions factory in March 1933, Dachau began a detestable legacy that would forever taint humanity’s moral consciousness.

The camp’s inmates endured severe overcrowding, starvation, disease, forced labor, torture, medical experiments, and systematic extermination. This facility served as a model for the subsequent network of camps that were established, reflecting the sinister intentions of Adolf Hitler.

See Related: Why was Germany Blamed for WWI?

21. Private Wojtek: The Bear Soldier

Wojtek the bear
Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons

As I mentioned before, humans are sadly fond of dragging animals into our own wars. But Private Wojtek might just take the cake.

A remarkable story of the Free Polish Armed Forces under British command involves a bear cub that became a soldier and ultimately a hero. After escaping to Britain from the brutal Soviet and Nazi invasion, free Polish troops and civilians headed to Iran as part of Anders’ Army.

At a train station in Hamadan, they met a local boy who had rescued a bear cub from hunters who had killed its mother. These Polish soldiers adopted the cub and named him Wojtek, which roughly means “joyful warrior” in Polish. They could not have picked a better name.

Wojtek soon became an official member of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, becoming a mascot, drawing pay (in the form of cigarettes he enjoyed eating), and even pulling his own weight. From 1943-1944, the men and Wojtek traveled to Italy, where he became a beloved troop member, helping them carry heavy ammunition, other supplies, and even wounded soldiers.

At the war’s end, Wojtek was discharged along with his fellow soldiers and relocated to Scotland. He spent his remaining years at the Edinburgh Zoo, where he received frequent visits from his former comrades, who would feed him cigarettes through the bars!

See Related: What if Germany won WW2?

22. Witold Pilecki – The Polish Resistance Hero

Witold Pilecki (1901-1948) - Polish cavalry officer, intelligence agent, and resistance leader
official mug shot Wikimedia Commons

The Second World War contains countless captivating and gripping tales of individual bravery. Charles Upham, Audie Murphy, Violette Szabo, Robert Henry Caine, John Basilone, Lachhiman Gurung – all famous names of people who saw the very worst of the war and just got on with it and did their jobs. But some names are criminally overlooked, such as Captain Witold Pilecki.

Witold Pilecki, a Polish cavalry officer turned intelligence operative, played a critical role in the Polish resistance against Nazi rule by volunteering to be imprisoned in Auschwitz, the most infamous of all concentration camps. Recognizing the urgency of gathering intelligence and exposing the atrocities committed there, Pilecki’s mission was to collect information and organize a resistance movement from within the camp.

Pilecki fearlessly took charge inside Auschwitz, organizing a resistance movement and establishing a network of prisoners dedicated to gathering information and planning rebellions. His actions led to the creation of secret resistance cells and the underground publication of reports. The reports he smuggled out of Auschwitz provided vital evidence of Nazi atrocities to the major allied powers.

After successfully escaping Auschwitz, Pilecki joined the Polish Home Army and actively participated in the Warsaw Uprising against German occupation in 1944. But, his post-war experience was far from just as he faced persecution under the new communist regime supported by the Soviets. Unjustly accused of espionage on behalf of the Soviet’s new rivals, (the U.K. and the U.S.), Pilecki was executed in 1948.

See Related: Is Germany Allowed to Have a Military?

23. Cannibalism in Leningrad

People often claim that the Battle of Stalingrad was the most costly battle of the war, but if you slightly broaden your definition of a “battle,” the Siege in Leningrad’s death toll dwarfs it by about 300,000. This siege lasted 872 days, making it one of the longest and most devastating in history.

The city of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) experienced unimaginable suffering and extreme conditions during the infamous 872-day siege of World War II. German forces initiated a siege on Leningrad in September 1941 to cut off supply lines, starve the city, and break the spirit of its people. As the German army surrounded the city, its residents were confronted with starvation, desperation, and an unthinkable decision – resorting to cannibalism to survive.

With diminishing supplies and an inadequate food distribution system, some individuals resorted to eating corpses killed in the merciless crossfire or by the cold of the Russian winters. But it got worse. Bands of starving Soviet soldiers and civilians, driven mad by hunger, would hunt other people for their flesh.

Consuming human flesh became a shocking display of desperation and determination to survive amidst extreme hunger. So bad became the problem Soviet authorities organized squads of Red Army and NKVD troops to patrol the streets and shoot cannibals.

See Related: Most Famous Historical Landmarks in Germany

24. Human Experimentation at Unit 731

Human dissection experiment room in Unit 731
X20106301 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s widely known that during the Holocaust, Nazi Germany conducted abhorrent experiments on human test subjects. But they weren’t the only ones.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, Unit 731, a secretive division of the Imperial Japanese Army, conducted deadly experiments on humans to develop biological weapons. It is believed that the unit caused the deaths of approximately 200,000 to 300,000 individuals.

Japanese soldiers under Unit 731 committed infamous war crimes by subjecting dehumanized individuals, referred to as “logs,” to a range of tests. These experiments involved injecting diseases, controlling dehydration, testing biological weapons, studying hypobaric pressure chambers, performing vivisections, procuring organs, amputations, and testing standard armaments.

The victims included men, women (including pregnant women), children, even babies born from the staff’s systematic rape within the compounds. These victims were of different nationalities, with the majority being Chinese and a significant minority being Russian.

25. Foo Fighters Sightings

We know Dave Grohl looks great for his age, but he’s not that old – although he did get the name for his band from these early unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). During the war, Allied aircraft pilots referred to unidentified flying objects (UFOs,) or mysterious aerial phenomena as “foo fighters.” This term describes multiple sightings in European and Pacific operations theaters.

While it was initially coined by the U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron to describe a specific type of UFO, it soon became a common term for any UFO sighting during that time. Witnesses believed that these foo fighters were secret weapons developed by the Japanese.

Pilots flying over Western Europe at night began witnessing a significant increase in sightings towards the end of November 1944. These sightings involved round glowing objects that swiftly followed their aircraft. The objects were described as fiery and could emit red, white, or orange glows.

The military seriously treated these sightings as they suspected the possibility of secret German wonder weapons. But, upon further investigation, it was discovered that German and Japanese pilots had also reported similar sightings.

The jury’s still out, but my money is on aliens!

26. Women in World War II

Join us in a victory job poster
Bramley, Maurice (Department of National Service) / Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, women played a crucial role in a range of capacities, not only on the home front but also in uniform in logistical, intelligence and communications support and even combat roles. In fact, several hundred thousand women were actively involved in combat in WW2, with a particular emphasis on anti-aircraft units.

Britain was among the first nations to put women into combat roles, with many anti-aircraft and searchlight units in Britain being manned by women. Female army nurses were often close to the fighting in several campaigns.

Also, the British Special Operation Executive (SOE) trained and equipped thousands of female agents and saboteurs to be parachuted behind enemy lines to wreak havoc. It was often remarked that female SOE agents tended to outperform their male counterparts in the field.

The Soviet Union is the only example of a nation that fully integrated women into its frontline army units, allowing them to serve directly alongside men or, indeed, their own units. Women regularly fought as snipers and as tank crews, and some even fought as infantry. The famous all-female Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment earned the nickname “Night Witches” from the Germans thanks to their daring and ferocious nighttime bombing raids.

Conversely, the United States made a different decision regarding the involvement of women in combat situations. Due to prevailing public opinion, it was decided that American women would not be utilized directly in combat operations.

Despite being excluded from combat roles, American women were still heavily involved in supporting the war effort from the home front. They worked tirelessly in factories, producing ammunition, weapons, and other vital supplies required by the military. Additionally, many joined non-combatant service branches such as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve or became nurses who provided medical care to wounded soldiers.

FAQs

How many Nations were involved in WW2?

World War II involved a vast number of nations from across the globe. More than 80 countries participated directly or indirectly in the conflict.

The major powers included Allied nations such as the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, China and France. These nations would be the founding members of the United Nations.

In contrast, the main Axis powers consisted primarily of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Beyond these main players, numerous other nations contributed troops, resources, or support to either side.

How did World War 2 impact the countries involved?

World War II profoundly impacted the countries involved, both politically and socially. The conflict witnessed significant territorial changes and geopolitical realignments as allied armies invaded Germany and liberated occupied territories.

Nations endured extensive destruction and loss of life, leading to widespread economic hardships and the displacement of millions of people. The war’s aftermath brought about the formation of new alliances, such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact, shaping the Cold War era.

What made World War 2 different from other wars?

World War II stood apart from other wars because it encompassed nearly all significant countries and regions, plunging the globe into turmoil from 1939 to 1945. The conflict witnessed the deployment of catastrophic armaments, such as atomic bombs, and deliberate attacks on non-combatant populations. Moreover, WW2 was characterized by acts of genocide like the Holocaust, serving as a grim testament to the extent of human hostility.

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