Everyone knows about World War 2, but you don’t know everything. Here are some unknown and insane facts about World War 2 the largest and the bloodiest war in human history.
50. The War Before the War
In the 1930s, the world was still scarred by the brutal First World War, and few western nations didn’t want any part of another future conflict. But they wouldn’t have a choice – because the future Axis Powers were already brewing plans.
Imperial Japan had been building its territory for a while, and its biggest move came in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. This war between China and Japan went on until the end of World War 2, and raised many eyes around the world about just how ambitious Japan actually was.
But it wasn’t the only Axis power planning for wars.
49. PR Offensive
Unlike Japan, Germany was in no state to think about another war in the 1930s – not that it stopped them. The devastating economic fallout after their loss in the World War I was used by the Nazis as a motivation. While Hitler was rolling out the PR offensive to the world with one hand, including hosting the Olympics, the Nazi leader was also arming up.
The 1930s were a time of heavy investment in the military for the Nazis – so when they started their march against Europe, everyone was surprised by just how powerful they had gotten.
But the Nazis weren’t originally called that.
By now, the term Nazi has become shorthand around the world for a force of pure evil. But when the party first started pitching their gospel of hate, they were simply called the National Socialist party. “Nazis” wasn’t even their preferred nickname – they called themselves the Nasos.
So where did the term “Nazi” come from? It was coined by journalist Konrad Heiden, who derived the nickname from a Bavarian word that was a synonym for stupid or simple-minded. Somehow, the Nazis didn’t notice.
But not everything about the Nazis was originally evil.
47. An Appropriated Symbol
As the Nazis waved it around Europe and plastered it on their war machines, the swastika became a symbol of evil. Everyone was horrified – including those for whom it had a very different meaning.
Although it was usually aligned differently, the swastika began as an ancient religious symbol that got its name from the Sanskrit word for a hooked cross. It typically meant fertility and good fortune, and was found in ancient civilizations around the world from Greece to India.
Many of those who used it in religious rites have since called for its removal due to painful associations with the Nazi regime.
And as war grew closer, some interesting experiments began.
46. Unleash the Death Ray!
Robert Watson-Watt was a British engineer who was a pioneer in radio technology, and when word got around of a Nazi death ray being built, people went to him. Was it really possible to build a machine that could down airplanes using radio waves?
Watson-Watt looked into it and determined the answer was no – but his research wasn’t all for nothing. In the late 1930s, Watson-Watt’s research led to quantum leaps in radar technology, which made it easier for British troops to identify German planes and U-Boats.
But another technique to avoid war didn’t go so well.
45. Pinky Promise?
The governments of Europe were desperate to avoid war, so they made several concessions to Hitler. The most significant were territorial concessions out of Czechoslovakia – whose leadership was not even invited to the peace summit!
Hitler promised to abide by the terms of the treaty – up until the moment he didn’t. The last straw was when he went ahead and invaded Poland, crossing the red line Britain had set. That was enough for Britain to declare war on September 3rd, 1939, starting World War 2.
But did Britain itself have a hand in it?
44. The Scapegoat?
For decades since, historians have debated the legacy of then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose name has become synonymous with surrender. His detractors say he gave away the store to Hitler for no benefit.
His defenders say he was acting in good faith and everyone in Europe was taken aback by just how ruthless Hitler was. But the verdict then was swift – Chamberlain was ousted before the next general election by his party and he was replaced as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill.
But Hitler had been planning for war long before that.
43. The Dark Pact
Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin couldn’t have been more different. One represented a fascist regime, the other was the current leader of the Communist revolutionaries who took over Russia. But they had one thing in common – a dislike for the democracies of Western Europe.
In the months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the two countries signed a non-aggression pact that detailed how they would divvy up Eastern Europe. But like most things with Hitler, it couldn’t be trusted for long.
But for the time being, the war wasn’t much of a war.
Poland fought hard at the start of the war, but they were fighting two much larger, better-equipped nations that were determined to overrun them. In September and October of 1939 alone, as the invasion began, Poland saw its forces devastated.
Not only were 70,000 soldiers killed and more than half a million taken captive, but the fight against the Russians on the other front was just as bad. The Poles lost 50,000 men on their eastern front, while the Russians lost less than a thousand.
But surprisingly, not everyone was united in how to respond.
41. War or Not?
Britain declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland, but the front was far away and the early moves of Britain were less than inspiring. The Royal Air Force mostly dropped propaganda leaflets over Germany in what would become known as the Phoney War.
Both in Britain and in America – which was not involved in the war yet – there were many people who wanted no part of another war and advocated for isolationism.
But it wasn’t all wins for Germany and its allies right away.
40. Defeat in the North
Russia was looking to expand its territory, and it wasn’t long before they launched an invasion into the neighboring country of Finland. This would have given Russia a beachhead in Scandinavia and a massive strategic advantage- but the Finns had another idea.
Their well-trained army knew the snowy region and had some of the best snipers in the world. It wasn’t long before the Soviets were on the run. This invasion also led to their expulsion from the League of Nations. However, Soviet persistence would eventually lead to Finland signing a peace settlement.
But the biggest front yet in World War 2 was about to launch.
39. Mon Dieu!
Hitler’s march across Europe concerned his neighbors, but many of them thought that he would eventually be satisfied. Then in 1940 came a line that no one could ignore – the invasion of France as Hitler crossed the Maginot line.
German forces advanced into France through Luxembourg and Belgium, overwhelming the French troops and leading to mass evacuations. It was the biggest German advance in the war yet, as the Nazi troops used armored vehicles and planes to gain territory in a hurry.
It led to one of the biggest refugee crises in history.
38. Chaos at Dunkirk
With the German troops advancing fast and many British soldiers stationed in the north of France, Allied command decided they had to evacuate – and fast. There weren’t enough boats and the Army’s capabilities were limited, especially with German troops having trapped troops on the mainland.
The evacuation effort would eventually be known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, because over eight days over three hundred thousand troops would be evacuated on a fleet of over eight hundred vessels – many of them civilian ships.
But the crisis was only beginning.
37. The Flood
France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were all invaded in 1940 and all fell quickly, which led to a massive influx of refugees fleeing Nazi tyranny. Over eight million civilians fled their home countries, seeking new homes in allied or neutral nations – but many wound up in displaced person camps and struggled to survive.
While conditions weren’t easy and overcrowding was a problem in many places – especially with the countries on war footing – some refugees were eager to enlist and turn the tables on the Nazis.
And as the Nazis marched across Europe, things on the home front weren’t any better.
36. Holy War
Hitler was a narcissist, and the Nazi dictator wanted to be praised everywhere. Something that raised his ire was the fact that Roman Catholic schools in Germany didn’t have his picture on the wall. Who was this “Jesus” guy that they kept everywhere instead?
Hitler’s persecution of Catholics intensified in Germany, and eventually, he turned his eye to the man in charge – Pope Pius XII, who in the latter days of the war had issued condemnations of Hitler. Hitler consulted with a General about occupying Vatican City and killing the Pope, but the General was so shocked he tipped off the Italians instead.
There were few institutions the Germans weren’t trying to destabilize.
35. Money Money Money!
Hitler had an interest in weakening Britain’s economy to make it harder for them to fight in the war. In 1939, he came up with a scheme to cause hyperinflation in his hated enemy with an unlikely weapon – counterfeit cash.
He enlisted prisoners at a German concentration camp and put them to work creating countless fake bills of the British Pound – a whopping $132 million worth in that day’s money, or over six billion today. When introduced to the British economy, it caused brief fluctuations but not the total chaos he hoped for.
But not all of Hitler’s schemes worked out for him.
34. Shocking! Simply Shocking!
Hitler was obsessed with the purity of German culture and cracked down on any expression he deemed “degenerate”. Books were burned en masse, and creators of art thought unpatriotic were arrested.
Connoisseurs of the arts were displeased, so Hitler decided to shock everyone by holding an exhibition of banned art, called degenerate art. A massive collection of over 650 books, paintings, and sculptures were put on display – and the public came en masse to stare, far more than the number of people who visited the approved Nazi art galleries.
It wasn’t the only time Hitler embarrassed himself.
33. The Perfect Baby?
Hitler was also fixated on the purity of the German race, plastering propaganda posters with images of blonde, blue-eyed children. Which was ironic, given that he was a dark-haired Austrian, but no one was going to tell him that. He even started a campaign in 1935 to find the perfect Aryan baby as a symbol of the country.
His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was put in charge of the search – and oddly chose a brunette child whose photo was submitted to him by Hans Ballin, a prominent photographer.
Ballin was an anti-Nazi activist who had submitted the photo of a Jewish child as a way to sabotage the Nazi campaign. It worked – a little too well, as the girl’s family had to flee to Latvia.
Art had a powerful impact on those campaigning against the Nazis.
32. The Great Dictator
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the thought of getting involved in World War 2 wasn’t very popular. The United States had a strong isolationist bent and many people campaigned against any intervention.
The news media wasn’t covering many of Hitler’s atrocities, and those trying to raise attention didn’t have much luck. But there was one exception – the legendary silent film star Charlie Chaplin.
The anti-Nazi activist had no luck getting studios to fund his anti-Nazi satire The Great Dictator, so he funded it himself at great cost. Hitler was reportedly not pleased to be portrayed as a buffoon.
But a far bigger name was working the other side.
31. The Pilot
While the America First movement had a troubled past, with many of its members coming from groups that were initially loyal to Nazi Germany, the isolationists found hope in a celebrity champion – Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot who was one of the country’s most famous German-Americans.
Many people even tried to convince him to run against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, with polls showing he was the Republican’s best candidate. He eventually decided against a run. A celebrity with no political experience deciding to run for President? Crazy talk.
But the war was about to intensify – and bring in new fronts.
30. Take to the Skies
After the fall of France, Nazi Germany turned their attention towards Britain. A ground invasion would have been challenging against the fortified island nation, so Hitler focused on bombarding the British into surrender. But that turned out to be more difficult than expected – thanks to the Dowding System.
Created by RAF Commander in Chief Hugh Dowding, it set up a reporting system that let the British respond to air attacks faster. This would streamline the process of passing information between the ground and the air – and foiled many Nazi attacks.
But it couldn’t foil all of them.
29. On the Run
As the Blitz hit London and other English cities, everyone had a role to play to ensure their survival. Many of the men went off to war, while women were left to take on many of their old responsibilities. As for the children, many parents didn’t want them anywhere near the city.
One stray bomb could wipe out an entire family, so parents frequently sent their children to live in the countryside for the duration of the bombing, with relatives if they had them – or willing host families if they could find them. This was famously the setup for the CS Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
But Britain looked like a heavy underdog at first.
Britain had never fought an extensive air war before, and its initial fleet wasn’t the most impressive in the world. They had around thirty-seven hundred planes in the RAF to start, with less than half of them being high-speed fighter aircraft.
By comparison, the Luftwaffe had almost forty-two hundred total aircraft, including over a thousand fighter planes and almost a thousand bombers. This allowed them to hit Great Britain more frequently, hoping to pound them into submission.
The reality, though, was rather different.
27. The Victor
While the island nation suffered heavy losses, including a single brutal day when they lost thirty-nine aircraft and fourteen pilots, Britain’s defense systems were far more accurate than Germany’s attacks.
Ultimately, they survived the attack and persisted, while Germany suffered far heavier losses in the Battle of Britain. While the British lost over 1,500 aircraft and over five hundred aircrew, plus over a thousand other casualties, the Axis forces lost hundreds more planes and suffered over three thousand dead.
And the war was about to change again.
26. New Fronts
It was the middle of 1941, and the German bombing of Britain had failed to cause the nation’s surrender. So naturally, the perfect thing for Hitler to do was…open up a huge and brutal new front in the war?
On June 22, 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union in what would be known as Operation Barbossa. Why did Hitler decide to take this risk, in what many consider to be the biggest blunder of the war? It was all about his obsession with race – Russia had a lot of land, and Hitler thought that it would be great real estate to fill with German citizens instead of the supposedly inferior Russians.
And it wasn’t the only time Hitler picked a fight he didn’t need to.
25. A Costly Declaration
It was the most famous moment of the war – a day of infamy. The Japanese forces, looking to deter the United States from interfering in their conquests in the Pacific, had attacked Pearl Harbor and devastated the United States Naval Fleet.
The US immediately declared war on Japan in retaliation, and those advocating against war switched their strategy to urging the US to stay out of the European front. But they wouldn’t have that chance, because almost immediately, Germany declared war on the United States in solidarity with its ally Japan. And just like that, Hitler had made himself another enemy that would arrive on the European battlefield.
US Soldiers were on their way – but fighting wasn’t the only way to die in such a conflict.
24. The First Casualty
Who was the first US soldier to die in World War 2? Surprisingly, it wasn’t in combat. His name was Robert M. Losey, an Iowa native who worked as an aeronautical meteorologist. He was serving as a military attache in 1940 during the German invasion of Norway.
While working to evacuate American diplomats from the country he was caught up in a bombing raid, becoming the first American soldier to die on the European front – over a year and a half before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
One unit of soldiers wore uniforms that would cause a double-take.
23. Wrong Uniform
The 45th Infantry Division was as American as they came, containing soldiers from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. Those areas all had a large Native American population, which influenced the unit’s choice of uniform.
They all wore a pin that contained a proud eagle – atop a swastika. The Nazi symbol was a commonly-used symbol of good luck among Native American groups and no one raised an eyebrow until the 1930s. But there wouldn’t be any unfortunate cases of mistaken identity when the unit was deployed – by 1939 they had replaced the symbol with a Native American Thunderbird.
It wasn’t the only pre-war symbol that changed.
22. Hitler Loves Amerika?
Being the dictator of an empire comes with some advantages – especially when you determine what is essential war spending. Hitler had secret fortresses and compounds built for himself, but he also traveled in style – on his own private train.
It was basically a mobile compound with a conference room, a bedroom, and a dining room. And its initial name? Amerika. Needless to say, that became awkward by the time American forces were the ones targeting the train, and the name was eventually changed to Brandenburg in 1943.
Some changes might seem…less essential.
21. No Hamburgers Here
America is a melting pot, with multiple generations of immigrants influencing its culture – and its language. And as the country went to war with Germany, people were surprised to realize just how many common words had German roots. Probably the most common example?
The good old-fashioned hamburger, which got a name change to “Liberty Steak” in many locations. Of course, it was the same dish, which made it all a little pointless. Freedom fries to go with your liberty steak?
Food and drink could be oddly important to the war effort.
20. Gotta Have My Coke
During the war, US manufacturing operations focused on the essentials. They made sure the troops had ammo, armor, supplies, and…soda? The Coca-Cola Company’s signature drink was beloved by the troops, and the company showed its support for the boys in uniform by setting up manufacturing plants in North Africa.
This allowed them to ship millions of bottles of Coke across the Mediterranean to the soldiers – and helped to improve the company’s image and cemented the brand as a household name for years to come.
But the tide of battle was turning – and it was getting bloody.
19. The Worst Battle
Hitler had made a critical misjudgment when he invaded Russia – Napoleon could have told him that you never invade Russia! But neither side was prepared for just how brutal that front would be.
The German forces were superior and were able to inflict massive casualties on the Russians, with the country suffering a shocking 21 million casualties by the end of the war. But they were fighting on their own turf, had superior numbers, and inflicted massive pain on the Germans – with eighty percent of German casualties in the war coming from the Eastern Front.
And as the war turned against him, Hitler became increasingly paranoid.
18. Death in the Ranks
Hitler was surrounded by powerful people who advised him on the war effort – but he didn’t like the advice he was hearing. It was very common for him to turn on people who questioned him and cast them out of the party, with even elite Nazi officials like Wernher Von Braun finding themselves on the outs in the last days of the war.
Most famously, he executed a shocking eighty-four of his Generals over the course of the war – although most of them were actually plotting against him, and can you blame them?
Most famously, Hitler was nearly killed by his own men.
17. Operation Valkyrie
In the last year of the war, Hitler was becoming increasingly erratic, and many of his military inner circle believed he was actively sabotaging the war effort. For one thing, he kept on killing his own scientists.
Led by Claus Von Stauffenberg, a group of Nazi insiders planned to kill Hitler with a bomb plot at his secret compound. But a sudden change in seating arrangements led to the bomb only injuring Hitler, and most of the collaborators being executed. Even his renowned General Erwin Rommel was caught up in it, bringing a sudden end to his military career.
Some of Hitler’s plans were just genuinely bizarre.
16. Bugging England
In the early days of the war, the Nazis were considering unconventional attacks on their enemy – and one tactic was smaller than usual, with more legs. The Nazis looked at weaponizing the Colorado Potato Beetle, a notorious pest of potato crops.
They would drop a mass number of the bugs on British farmland, devastating their food supplies and starving the island nation into surrender. But the plan was ultimately dropped for one reason – it wasn’t feasible to collect the forty million bugs needed for the mission.
But there were some lines even Hitler wouldn’t cross.
15. Even Evil Has Standards
The Nazi scientists were hard at work on deadly biological weapons, including enhanced versions of Typhoid and Cholera. However, when they presented them to the Nazi leader, he didn’t approve and most of the projects never saw the light of day.
What offended him about these plans? Hitler had no problem killing millions of civilians – but he was also a World War I veteran, and that war had brutal biological and chemical warfare. Maybe it hit a little too close to home.
But far more powerful weapons were in development.
14. The Nazi A-Bomb?
It was one of the most persistent rumors after the war. Did the United States just barely beat the Nazis to the Atom bomb? The answer is…not really. The Nazis weren’t close to finishing a nuclear weapon, but that didn’t mean they didn’t make progress on weapons of mass destruction.
The Nazis had Uranium and the Japanese could get closer to the US mainland, so the plan was to hit the west coast with a conventional bomb packed with uranium. But the plan never came to fruition, and the German uranium may have eventually wound up in US hands.
But across the ocean on the US mainland, development was heating up.
13. The Canadian Bomb?
Canada was ahead of the US in the war in a lot of ways, entering the Allied Powers while the US was still neutral. They even had their own atom bomb project with Britain, called the Tube Allows project.
It would eventually merge with the United States Manhattan Project to speed up development, with both sides promising to share all their information. But the US didn’t live up to its end of the deal, and it would be another seven years before Britain successfully developed their own bomb.
And ultimately, the first bomb detonated wasn’t in combat.
12. It’s a Go
The hope was that the nuclear bomb would lead to the end of the war by delivering a massive punch to the Axis powers. It took a lot of money and manpower to build the bomb, and the Allies wanted to be sure that it would work before dropping it.
The first successful test actually took place on US soil, at a testing range in a New Mexico desert. It was a massive success – and it horrified one of the men responsible for it, as Oppenheimer quoted a line from a Hindu sacred text – “I have become death, destroyer of worlds”.
But there was a twist to the first two bombs dropped.
11. Alike but Different
The first two nuclear bombs detonated in combat – and the only ones so far – were nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy. But their size and designations weren’t the only differences between these two bombs.
They actually used entirely different mechanisms, with Little Boy being powered by the fission of uranium-235, while Fat Man – which was forty percent more powerful – used plutonium.
Now, let’s get into some truly shocking facts about the war.
10. The Good Hitler?
William Patrick Stuart-Houston was, by all accounts, a normal British lad. Growing up in Liverpool, he would eventually immigrate to the United States and serve in the US Navy. But he had a secret – his father’s name was Alois Hitler Jr, Hitler’s half-brother.
Not only would he fight for the United States against his mad uncle’s empire, but he would be awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in combat – just another noble German-American doing his part against the Axis Powers.
The Nazis used all sorts of unusual tactics to fund the war effort.
9. Who Was Max Heiliger?
The main purpose behind the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people was Hitler’s obsession with race science, but the Nazis weren’t above benefiting from it. They looted money, gold, and jewelry from the Jews they arrested and deported.
But because many countries were freezing the Nazis out of their banking systems, the SS created a bank account under the name Max Heiliger that would allow them to transfer assets undetected.
But in some ways the threat of the Nazi death machine outlasted the Nazis.
8. Unholy Ground
The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was a brutal and deadly place where countless people died. It wasn’t an extermination camp like some, but the rampant spread of disease and lack of medical care led to many casualties – including Anne Frank. When the camp was liberated in 1945, the plague Typhus was so widespread that the Allies decided to burn the place to the ground to contain the spread.
But amid the horror, there were heroes.
7. The Saviors
Most countries that were invaded by the Nazis quickly saw their Jewish community rounded up and deported or killed. But not Denmark. Denmark had quickly surrendered to the Nazis and allowed themselves to be occupied, and the lack of resistance meant the Nazis gave them more autonomy. That gave them several years before the Nazis began cracking down, and the Danes were able to smuggle the vast majority of their Jewish population to neutral Sweden.
But sometimes, all it takes is one good man.
6. The Heroism of Sgt. Edmonds
The Nazis were notorious for violating the laws governing prisoners of war, especially when it came to Jewish soldiers. When they captured American troops, they would demand the Jews among them be singled out so they could be taken to concentration camps or killed.
But they hadn’t met Master Sergeant Roderick Edmonds. When the Army man was ordered to identify the Jews among the captured POWs, he boldly said that they were all Jews.
While this put the entire unit at risk, the Nazis were scared off by the threat of being prosecuted for war crimes. Edmonds may have saved as many as three hundred people and was eventually honored as one of Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations.
Some facts of the war are hard to believe.
5. The Old College Try
If any Bostonians were fighting the Nazis and saw them on the march, they might get an odd sense of deja vu. Why does the Nazi “Sieg Heil” march song sound almost exactly like the Harvard fight song? That’s because the composer actually attended Harvard University – and amid the Nazis’ many crimes, a little plagiarism probably wasn’t high on anyone’s list.
For some people, the war went on and on.
4. The Peace That Wasn’t
If the war hadn’t ended when it did due to the collapse of Nazi Germany and the strikes on Japan, it’s likely there would have been a new front as the Soviet Union invaded Japan.
While this war never reached the scale it could have, the two countries were still at war – and still technically are. A formal peace treaty was never signed between the two of them – and negotiations fell apart in 2000 over some islands that Russia had seized.
But even amid the carnage, there was some hope.
3. In the Blood
While World War 2 was the most bloody war in human history, it did have a higher number of soldiers who actually came home after surviving serious injuries. What set this war apart?
It was the advance in medical technology and one technique in particular. Blood transfusions had been around for a long time, but they were consistently used in combat for the first time in this war – and it saved many lives.
And in the fog of war, things got weird.
2. The Parachuting Nazi
The year was 1941, and Germany was still confident about victory. So confident, in fact, that they sent one of their top men into the UK to negotiate Britain’s surrender.
Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, parachuted into Scotland intending to return a hero – and instead was promptly arrested. He was kept as a prisoner of war for the rest of the war until he was sent to Nuremberg to answer for his crimes, where he received a life sentence.
But the heroes of World War 2 included some surprising names.
1. The Big Guns
Is this a list of soldiers, or a marquee? World War 2 had a massive draft, and many of Hollywood’s most famous names wound up strapping on their army greens. Among the people who would later become famous or took a break from the movies included Walter Matthau, Peter Fonda, David Niven, and Christopher Lee. One name surprisingly absent? All-American cowboy John Wayne, who was excused due to a football injury.
Featured image: German troops in Russia, by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons