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World War Two was a race to victory between the Allied and Axis powers. A race measured in battles waged against very different backdrops, from blasted urban wastelands to scorched desert plains. Some of these confrontations are famed to this day as the key turning points in the war.
The Battle of Stalingrad
'This isn’t hell. This is ten times worse than hell.' These words by Soviet officer Vasily Chuikov summed up the horrific conditions within Stalingrad, which was transformed into a vast death zone of close-quarters savagery from August 1942 to February 1943. Adolf Hitler wanted the city as a propaganda prize because it bore the name of his nemesis, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and the city was swiftly reduced to smoking rabble by ruthless German air raids.
But what followed was an arduous battle of attrition, with enemy soldiers fighting from street to street, house to house and room to room. Key locations were taken and re-taken multiple times on the same day, troops lived in fear of being picked off by snipers at any time, and there was even fighting in the sewers. Eventually, the Soviets launched an epic counterattack, Operation Uranus, which saw the Axis invaders encircled and trapped in the city, where they were preyed upon by the Red Army and the harsh Russian winter.
Their eventual surrender was a catastrophic defeat for the Nazis, stopping their advance east and dealing a huge psychological blow to Hitler himself, who said 'The god of war has gone over to the other side.'
The Battle of Britain
Waged between July and October 1940, the Battle of Britain earnt its name before it even happened – in a speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who warned that failure would mean the civilised world would 'sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age'. France had recently fallen, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was still watching from the sidelines, and the United Kingdom was regarded as the lone bulwark against Hitler’s domination of Europe.
Churchill knew that establishing air supremacy was essential to Hitler’s ultimate ambition of mounting a full-scale invasion of Britain. It was down to the pilots of the RAF, and iconic planes like the Hawkers Hurricane and Submarine Spitfire, to stop this from happening. And stop it they did, with the help of many non-British airmen, including Polish squadrons whose 'unsurpassed gallantry' was hailed by the Air Chief Marshal.
Another hero of the battle was Wing Commander James Brindley Nicolson, whose Hurricane had caught fire after being hit by four cannon shells. Despite being injured in the foot and eye, and sitting in a blazing cockpit, Nicolson carried on flying and took down an enemy plane before finally allowing himself to bail out of his stricken craft. For this incredible bravery, Nicolson was given the Victoria Cross – the only pilot of RAF Fighter Command to receive one.
The Battle of Kursk
Although it’s generally overshadowed by the infamy of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk was another titanic confrontation between the forces of Hitler and Stalin. It took place in summer 1943, in the aftermath of the German defeat at Stalingrad, when the Nazis sought to regain a foothold by attacking the Soviet front line by the Russian city of Kursk. The front line formed a bulge, or salient, into German-held territory, and the idea was to cut it off with a pincer attack from the north and south.
Things didn’t go to plan, with the Soviets pre-empting the attack by laying defences like tank traps and mines. The salient was, after all, an incredibly obvious target, and the Nazis fatally prevaricated before fighting commenced, giving Joseph Stalin’s troops ample time to prepare. The episode would become famous for the epic skirmishes between tanks, with the Battle of Prokhorovka, in the southern zone of the wider Battle of Kursk, often touted as one of the biggest tank battles in history. By winning at Kursk, the Soviets definitively consolidated the prior victory at Stalingrad, and Stalin achieved lasting supremacy over Hitler on the Eastern Front.
The Second Battle of El Alamein
Two battles of El Alamein took place in North Africa throughout much of 1942. The first ended with a temporary stalemate between Axis and Allied forces in Egypt, with vast swathes of crucial territory at stake, including oil fields and the Suez Canal. It set the stage for a pivotal confrontation between two of the most famous personalities of World War Two. On the Allied side there was Bernard Law Montgomery, aka 'Monty', while his great enemy was Erwin Rommel, aka 'the Desert Fox'.
The Allies were in advantageous position, with many more men, tanks and armoured cars at Monty’s disposal. Rommel, an acclaimed military genius, was also in ill health, and was absent at the start of the second battle of El Alamein. His replacement died of a heart attack on the front line, which was emblematic of more misfortunes to come on Rommel’s side. After much severe and bloody fighting, Montgomery was triumphant, turning the tide in the Desert War. It was a moment immortalised by the words of Winston Churchill, who said 'this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'
The Battle of Midway
In June 1942, just half a year after the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the war, President Roosevelt took decisive vengeance on the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Ironically, this was as a result of the Japanese attempting to replicate the success of Pearl Harbor by staging another sudden assault, this time on the US base on Midway Island in the Pacific.
The snag was that the US knew what was coming, having cracked the Japanese communication codes and knowing full well that Midway was in the crosshairs. Their formidable defence took the enemy by surprise, and the result was a devastating loss for the Japanese, who lost four aircraft carriers, hundreds of warplanes and thousands of sailors and airmen. US losses were light by comparison, and the victory ended Japanese ambitions to dominate the Pacific theatre of conflict. It’s for this reason that historians have called it one of the greatest naval battles in history, comparable to Trafalgar.