February 4, 1945: The Yalta Conference opens.
The “Big Three” Allied leaders of World War II met at the Livadia Palace in Crimea for the second time (after the 1943 Tehran Conference) this time to discuss the reorganization of post-war Europe. By this time, victory in Europe was but three months away, and the Red Army’s offensive thrust into Germany was complete. It had already been decided that Germany would be divided into four zones to be administered by the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. Other key issues were negotiated, though not necessarily decided, during that week at Yalta.
Germany would, once again, undergo demilitarization, as well as denazification, a process through which any elements of German National Socialism were removed from society, and certain Nazi leaders would be put on trial for war crimes. Certain boundary lines were set, including the Polish-Soviet border; Poland itself, along with all other liberated European countries, would be open to Democratic elections. This promise was not kept, and, as a result, many in Poland and the Allied nations regarded the outcome of the Yalta Conference as a betrayal of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died two months after the conference, was criticized for “selling out” to Stalin. Stalin also agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the fall of Germany, and also that it would join the United Nations. Whatever hitches met at or caused by the uncertainty of Yalta and the events surrounding it, the United Nations would, supposedly, be able to deal with any disagreements between the Soviet Union and its allies, or so it was hoped.
January 14, 1943: The Casablanca Conference begins.
Codenamed “SYMBOL”, this Allied conference was conducted in a hotel in Casablanca two months after the British-American invasion of French North Africa. Originally intended to be the first meeting of the war between the “Big Three” (Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin), the conference ended up settling with the Big Two plus the French - Churchill, Roosevelt, and Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud were the only leaders in attendance; the Russian leader was, reportedly, too occupied with his own nation’s ongoing efforts to drive out German forces. Notably, in attending the conference, Franklin Roosevelt became the first sitting American president to visit Africa and the first to leave the country during wartime. Among the issues discussed was a plan to invade the “soft underbelly of the Axis” - Italy, which would open up another front on continental Europe and hopefully relieve pressure off the Soviets. Another product of the conference was the Casablanca directive, plans for the bombing of strategic targets in Germany to be launched from Britain.
But by far the single most significant product of this conference was the Casablanca Declaration, which announced to the world that the Allies would accept nothing less from the Axis powers than unconditional surrender, a phrase Roosevelt had lifted from the American Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. He assured that although this policy would ideally mean the end of the Axis threat forever, it was not aimed at the people of each respective nation but rather “the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people”.
Churchill and Stalin both disapproved of the policy, and it ended up serving as motivation for the Axis powers, now presented with two options by the Allies (total, crushing defeat and victory) to fight even harder. The Allied policy of “unconditional surrender” may have even prolonged the war in this way, and also because it was a useful propaganda tool in Axis countries. Late in the war, the Japanese made this statement, probably representative of many Axis attitudes toward unconditional surrender, to Soviet officials:
...so long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender, the Japanese Empire has no alternative but to fight on with all its strength for the honor and existence of the Motherland.
Returning from Dunkirk - May/June 1940.
Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment- but only for the moment- died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.
Winston Churchill - June 4, 1940.
June 4, 1940: The evacuation of Dunkirk ends.
After the end of the Battle of Dunkirk, over 300,000 French and British troops, trapped for days on the beaches and harbor at Dunkirk (Dunkerque) by German forces, were rescued and evacuated in what was soon called the “Miracle at Dunkirk”. On the first day of evacuation, only 7,000 troops were successfully rescued, but by May 29, tens of thousands of troops were being evacuated each day. Joining the French and British vessels (some of which were too large to move in close to the beach) in their effort came hundreds of private vessels - ferries, steamers, even yachts and fishing boats - dozens of which were actually Dutch ships that escaped German occupation. All of these collectively became known as the “Little ships of Dunkirk”.
For whatever reason, Hitler failed to seize this chance and crush the stranded Allied forces at Dunkirk - in 1945, as his Reich collapsed, he claimed that he had refrained from doing so in “sporting spirit” - according to him, the troops at Dunkirk had been spared by his own sense of fair play. In terms of avoiding a potential catastrophe, the operation was a success, though Churchill reminded the celebrating British people that “wars are not won by evacuations”. But at the same time, he praised the “Dunkirk spirit” and, foreseeing an imminent German attack on the British isles, made his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech the same day the evacuation ended:
We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
May 8, 1945: Hostilities in Europe end.
On May 7, 1945, German representatives signed the German Instrument of Surrender in Reims, France. Shortly before midnight on the same day, a second surrender was signed in Berlin (a location chosen by the Soviet representatives), and on May 8, 1945, one minute after midnight, hostilities in Europe were officially over. By the time the war in Europe ended, millions of people (civilians and soldiers alike) had lost their lives to what is still the deadliest conflict in human history. The Soviet Union, where much of the bloodiest fighting took place, saw an estimated 24 million of its people die, a number that, on its own, made up nearly half of the total death toll. The United Kingdom, Italy, France, and the United States each suffered several hundred thousand military deaths over the course of a few years of fighting. And Germany, though obviously the instigator of the war, had ultimately lost millions of civilians to it as well.
In his announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender, Karl Dönitz, the Third Reich’s last head of state, addressed the imminent crisis of Germany’s postwar future. As the rest of the world celebrated his country’s defeat and subjugation, he stated:
All of us have to face a difficult path… We must walk it by making the greatest efforts to create a firm basis for our future lives. We will walk it unitedly. Without this unity we shall not be able to overcome the misery of the times to come. We will walk it in the hope that one day our children may lead a free and secure existence in a peaceful Europe.
Meanwhile, Winston Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the people of the United Kingdom. In one, he addressed a crowd from the balcony of Ministry of Health in Whitehall, and he declared: “God bless you all. This is your victory!”, to which the people below replied “No - it is yours.”
Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Hirohito as children.