What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

A Timeline of WWII (1939-1945)

This condensed timeline includes major events of the Second World War, and tries especially to cover those events encountered frequently in the "What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?" interviews. A goal of the timeline is to provide a general outline that allows events unfamiliar to our readers, to be identified chronologically. In preparing the timeline, we have used a number of reference books, including Grun (1975), Davis (1990) Trager (1992, 1994), and Dupuy (1993).

1939 || 1940 || 1941 || 1942 || 1943 || 1944 || 1945


April 10
Having annexed Austria in March, Germany's Adolph Hitler calls a plebiscite which shows that more than 99 percent of Austrians favor union with Germany's Third Reich.
June 15
The US Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, the first national effort to legislate a minimum hourly wage (25 cents) and a ceiling on the number of working hours (44 per week).
September 30
The Munich Pact is signed. The British and French allow Hitler to annex the Sudetenland, a 16,000-square-mile area of Czechoslovakia with a largely German-speaking population. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) says this will satisfy Germany and bring "peace for our time ... peace with honor."
November 9
The largest pogrom in German history takes place, as Jewish shop windows are smashed, and the shops, as well as homes and synagogues, are looted, destroyed and burned. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews are taken to concentration camps.


January 16
Physicists Lise Meitner and Otto R. Frisch describe the process by which a neutron causes the disintegration of the uranium nucleus into "two nuclei of roughly equal size." They call this process "nuclear fission."
March 14
After annexing the Sudetenland, Germany invades the rest of Czechoslovakia, while Italy launches an invasion of Albania (see map).
March 28
The Spanish Civil War ends, as Madrid falls to the forces of Francisco Franco.
August 23
Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia sign a mutual non-aggression pact. The agreement is signed by German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin's commissar of foreign affairs, V. M. Molotov.
September 1
German troops and aircraft attack Poland. Soviet troops will invade Poland from the east on September 17, and Poland will surrender to the Germans on September 27.
September 3
After Hitler ignores their demand for German withdrawal from Poland, and as the British ship Athenia is sunk by German U-boats off the coast of Ireland, Great Britain and France formally declare war on Germany.
September 17
American aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh makes his first anti-intervention radio speech. The U.S. non-intervention movement is supported not just by Lindbergh, but by former president Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Henry Ford, Lindbergh and a number of senators and congressmen as well.
September 28
Poland is partitioned between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
November 4
Although President Roosevelt has declared American neutrality in the war in Europe, a Neutrality Act is signed that allows the US to send arms and other aid to Britain and France.
November 30
Soviet troops invade Finland.
December 16
In Washington, the National Women's Party meets and urges the Congress to act on an Equal Rights Amendment.


January 30.
The U.S. government issues its first Social Security checks, totaling just over $75,000.
March 18
Mussolini and Hitler announce Italy's formal alliance with Germany against England and France.
May 7
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin resigns in disgrace. He will be replaced by Winston Churchill on May 10.
May 10
The German Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") begins, as Rotterdam and other Dutch cities are attacked from the air. By the end of the month, the Dutch armies will have surrendered, Belgium will have surrendered, and the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk will be underway.
June 10
Italy declares war on Britain and France, and U.S. President Roosevelt announces a shift from neutrality to "non-belligerency," meaning more active support for the Allies against the Axis.
June 14
German troops enter Paris and, as a French appeal for U.S. aid is declined, the French fortress at Verdun falls to the Germans.
June 28
In the U.S., the Alien Registration Act (the Smith Act) passed by Congress requires aliens to register and be fingerprinted; the Act makes it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the US government.
July 9
As German air attacks over Britain intensify, the British Royal Air Force begins night bombing of German targets.
August 17
Germany declares a blockade of British waters, and begins a bombing campaign which, by September, will be killing hundreds each day. In November, German air raids will kill more than 4,500 Britons.
September 27
Germany, Italy and Japan enter into a 10-year military and economic alliance that comes to be known as the "Axis". Hungary and Romania will join the Axis in November.
October 29
Conscription begins in the U.S. It is the first military draft to occur during peacetime in American history.
November 5
Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected to an unprecedented third term as president, with 54 percent of the popular vote. He defeats Republican Wendell L. Willke.


January 6
Contrary to widespread isolationist sentiment, President Roosevelt recommends a "Land-Lease" program that will provide U.S. aid to the Allies.
April 6
Greece and Yugoslavia are invaded by German troops.
April 16
Britain receives its first American "Lend-Lease" aid shipments of food. By December, millions of tons of food will have arrived from the U.S.
May 31
British troops arrive in Iraq and will prevent Axis sympathizers from taking over the government there. In early June, British and Free French troops will invade Syria and Lebanon to prevent those countries from being taken over by the Germany.
June 22
German troops invade Soviet Russia, breaking the "nonaggression" pact signed in 1939. Two days later, President Roosevelt promises US aid to Russia.
June 25
President Roosevelt creates a U.S. Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC), after a march by 50,000 black Americans is threatened by A. Philip Randolph to protest unfair labor practices in the government and the war industry.
June 28
Vannevar Bush is named director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which has just been created by President Roosevelt.
August 9
Secret meetings between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill begin off the coast of Newfoundland. They will result in the Atlantic Charter, which contains eight points of agreement on the aims of the war.
September 11
President Roosevelt issues an order that German or Italian ships sighted in U.S. waters will be attacked immediately.
September 29
German troops invading the Ukraine machine-gun to death between 50,000 and 96,000 Ukranians (of which at least 60 percent are Jews), in Babi Yar, a ravine about 30 miles outside of Kiev.
October 17
The Kearny, a U.S. destroyer, is torpedoed off the coast of Iceland by a German U-boat. On the 31st, the American destroyer Reuben James is sunk by a German U-boat, killing 100.
December 7
Just before 8 a.m., Honolulu time, 360 Japanese planes attack Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military base on the Hawiian island of Oahu. The attack cripples the U.S. Pacific fleet, and kills more than 2,300 American soldiers, sailors, and civilians. The attack precedes Japan's formal declaration of war, which is delivered by the Japanese foreign minister to the U.S. embassy in Tokyo more than seven hours later.
The Providence Journal "War Edition" cover
Americans remembering Pearl Harbor
Roosevelt's fireside chat with the nation following the bombing
December 8
President Roosevelt addresses the U.S. Congress, saying that December 7 is "a date that will live in infamy." After a vote of 82-0 in the U.S. Senate, and 388-1 in the House, in favor of declaring war on Japan, Roosevelt signs the declaration of war. (See Roosevelt's famous address to Congress requesting that war be declared.)
December 11
Germany and Italy declare war on the U.S. President Roosevelt calls an end to official U.S. neutrality in the war in Europe, declaring war on Germany and Italy.
View The Providence Journal cover, December 12th.


January 2
Japanese troops capture Manila.
January 10
Japanese troops invade the Dutch East Indies.
January 14
An order from President Roosevelt requires all aliens to register with the government. This is the beginning of a plan to move Japanese-Americans into internment camps in the belief that these people might aid the enemy.
February 2
Congress appropriates 26.5 billion dollars for the U.S. Navy, bringing total U.S. war costs since June of 1940 to more than 115 billion dollars.
February 15
Japanese troops capture Singapore.
February 19
Executive Order 9066 is signed by President Roosevelt, authorizing the transfer of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans living in coastal Pacific areas to concentration camps in various inland states (and including inland areas of California). The interned Japanese-Americans lose an estimated 400 million dollars in property, as their homes and possessions are taken from them.
The Japanese-American internment experience.
April 9
The Philippines fall to Japanese troops.
April 28
Coastal "dimouts" go into effect along a fifteen-mile strip on the Eastern Seaboard, in response to German U-boat activity of the U.S. Atlantic coast.
May 14
The U.S. Congress establishes The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), under the direction of Oveta Culp Hobby, editor of the Houston Post.
May 15
Gasoline rationing goes into effect in the Eastern United States. Nationwide rationing will begin in September.
May 30
The first 1,000-bomber attack on German industrial targets is carried out by Britain's Royal Air Force, as the German city of Cologne is raided.
June 6
In reprisal for the May 29 assassination of German Deputy Gestapo chief and "Protector" of Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, German troops attempt to execute every male in the Czech village of Lidice (Bohemia), and they then set fire to the village.
June 13
President Roosevelt authorizes the creation of the U.S. Office on War Information (OWI). The first director is Elmer Holmes Davis, a CBS commentator and novelist.
June 21
German field marshal Erwin Rommel and his troops capture Tobruk, in Libya.
June 28
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) captures eight German agents that have landed by U-boat on Long Island.
July 16
French police round up 30,000 Parisian Jews, and German troops bus them out of the city to concentration camps. Approximately 30 will survive.
July 30
The Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES) is authorized by the U.S. Congress.
August 19
Canadian commando troops attack the coastal French city of Dieppe, but German defenders abort the raid and 3,500 Canadians are lost.
August 22
The Battle of Stalingrad begins. The battle will claim the lives of 750,000 Russian soldiers, 400,000 German soldiers, nearly 200,000 Romanian soldiers, 130,000 Italian soldiers, and 120,000 Hungarian soldiers.
September 16
The Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) are established in the U.S.. The armed forces will be supplied with more than 1000 auxiliary pilots through this organization.
November 7
A joint U.S.-British force of 400,000 troops, under the direction of General Eisenhower, begins landing at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. They will successfully overtake the French garrisons there.
November 10
In response to Mahatma Gandhi's demand that India be granted independence from Britain immediately, Prime Minister Churchill, in a speech at Mansion House, says "I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire."
December 1
In the U.S., coffee joins the list of rationed items.
December 2
At the University of Chicago's Staff Field, the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction is realized by a team of scientists working under the name of the "Manhattan Engineering District."
December 24
In Germany, the first surface-to-surface guided missile is launched in Peenemunde. The rocket has been designed by 30 year-old rocket engineer Wernher von Braun.


January 11
President Roosevelt submits his budget to the U.S. Congress. 100 billion of the 109-billion-dollar budget is identified with the war effort.
January 22
Forces representing Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. capture the southeaster tip of New Guinea from Japanese troops, in an attempt to protect Australia from a Japanese invasion.
January 23
British forces capture Tripoli.
February 7
In the U.S., shoe rationing begins, limiting civilians to three pairs of leather shoes per year. The ration in Britain is one pair per year.
February 8
Allied forces capture Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, in heavy fighting.
February 16
Dr. Mildred Harnack-Fish, a German resistance fighter born in the U.S., and sentenced to death by the German government for her work in the Resistance, and is beheaded at Berlin's Plotzensee Prison.
February 28
A group of wives of Jewish men gather in Berlin to stop the deportation of their husbands to concentrations camp. The group of women will grow to 1,000 by March 8 and will succeed in forcing Joseph Goebbels to order the release of 1,500 men.
March 29
Meat rationing begins in the U.S., but the ration is 28 ounces per week, and meat production rises by approximately 50 per cent.
April 1
In the U.S., meat, fats, canned goods, and cheese are now all rationed. Attempting to stem inflation, President Roosevelt freezes wages, salaries, and prices.
May 27
In the U.S., President Roosevelt issues an executive order forbidding racial discrimination by government contractors.
May 29
In the U.S., an issue of The Saturday Evening Post is published with a cover illustration by Norman Rockwell that introduces an American icon known as "Rosie the Riveter."
June 14
The U.S. Supreme Court rules, in West Virginia Board of Education v. Bernette, that a West Virginia state law that requires school children to salute the flag, on penalty of expulsion, is unconstitutional.
June 22
Anti-black race riots in Detroit, involving thousands, leave thirty-four people dead. A race riot in Harlem, New York City, will erupt on August 1.
July 5
The Battle of Kursk begins. Soviet troops will eventually defeat the Germans, after a week of heavy fighting and tens of thousands of casualties on both sides.
July 9
An invasion of Sicily begins by British paratroopers and American airborne troops.
September 9
Although the Allies have announced the unconditional surrender of Italy, German forces in Italy continue to oppose Allied troops. When the U.S. Fifth Army lands at Salerno, they sustain heavy losses.
November 6
Soviet troops retake Kiev.
December 17
President Roosevelt repeals the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 and 1902, thus allowing Chinese residents of the United States to be eligible for citizenship. The new Chinese Act also allows for the immigration of up to 105 Chinese annually.


January 20
Russian troops recapture Novgorod, and will retake Leningrad a week later. By early May, they will have recaptured Odessa and Sevastopol as well. Meanwhile the British Royal Air Force bombs Berlin with more than 2,300 tons of bombs.
March 24
335 Italians, at least 255 of whom are civilians, are shot by German troops in the Fosse Ardeantine caves outside of Rome. The massacre is ordered by S.S. Colonel Herbert Kappler, in response to the killing of 35 German soldiers.
April 3
In the case of Smith v. Allwright, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that an American cannot be denied the right to vote because of color.
May 3
In the U.S., meat rationing ends, except for certain select cuts.
June 6
"D-Day": The Allied invasion of Europe commences just after midnight, as more than 175,000 troops land at Normandy. The largest invasion force in history, it includes 4,000 invasion ships, 600 warships, and 10,000 planes.
June 10
More than 600 people are massacred by German troops in the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane. While the men are shot immediately, the women and children are locked in a church the alter of which is set on fire; those who try to escape the flames are shot.
June 12
German V1 remote-controlled rockets begin to hit London. By September, the "improved" V2 rockets will target London as well as Antwerp, killing and maiming thousands.
June 22
In the U.S., President Roosevelt signs the Servicemen's Readjustment Act that will provide funds for housing and education after the war. It is better known as the GI Bill of Rights.
July 3
The Russian city of Minsk is retaken by Russian troops, and 100,000 Germans are captured.
July 8
As a U.S. taking of Saipan becomes certain, hundreds of Japanese civilians commit suicide rather than surrender. Allied B-29 bombers can reach Tokyo from Saipan, thus the capture of the island will be a turning point in the Pacific war. The Tokyo government collapses within 2 weeks.
July 20
An assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler, planned by some of Hitler's generals, is unsuccessful.
August 4
In Amsterdam, Otto Frank and his family (including his daughter Anne, then 15) are captured by the Gestapo. Jewish, they have been in hiding for more than two years, kept by Miep and Jan Gies, but have been betrayed by someone familiar with their hiding place and are put on the last convoy of trucks to Auschwitz.
August 25
Paris is liberated by Allied French troops, after four years of German occupation.
October 20
Allied forces invade the Philippines. Belgrade is captured by Soviet Russian and Yugoslav partisan troops.
November 7
Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected to a fourth term as U.S. President, and Harry S. Truman becomes the Vice-President.
November 29
In passing the Federal Highway Act, the U.S. Congress establishes the U.S. National System of Interstate Highways that is planned to reach 182 of the 199 U.S. cities with populations above 50,000.
December 16
The Battle of the Bulge begins. It the last major German counteroffensive, as allied troops are pushed back in Belgium's Ardennes Forest. As Allied lines fall back, a "bulge" is created in the center of the line, giving the battle its familiar name (see MAP). Two weeks of intense fighting in brutal winter weather follow before the German offensive is stopped.


January 26
Russian troops find fewer than 3,000 survivors, when they liberate Auschwitz, the Polish death camp. The German S.S. has moved many of the remaining prisoners to camps inside Germany. From 1939 to 1945, one third of the Jews living in the world will have died in German concentration and extermination camps.
February 4
U.S. troops invading the Philippines have received reenforcements, and a force led by General McArthur enters Manila. The city will be completely retaken in less than three weeks.
February 13
British planes attack the German city of Dresden, bombing with phosphorus and high explosives; the firestorm created by the bombing kills an estimated 135,000.
March 9
U.S. B-24 bombers attack Tokyo, starting fires that will kill more than 120,000.
March 16
On Iwo Jima, a month-long struggle comes to an end, as U.S. forces capture the 8-square-mile island. Possessing Japan's last line of radar defense to warn against American air attacks, Iwo Jima is a strategically significant prelude to the invasion of Okinawa.
April 11
US troops reach the Elbe River (in Germany). They halt there and meet advancing Russian troops on April 25.
April 12
After suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, President Roosevelt dies. He is 63. Vice-President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) is sworn in as President. Providence Journal cover.
April 21
U.S forces capture Nuremberg, and Russian forces reach the suburbs of Berlin.
April 28
At Lake Como, in Italy, Benito Mussolini and 12 of his former Cabinet officers are executed. German forces in Italy will surrender unconditionally on the 29th.
April 30
With Russian shells falling on Berlin, Hitler marries his mistress Eva Braun in his bombproof Berlin bunker. He then poisons her and kills himself. His remains are never recovered.
Cartoon from the Providence Journal
May 7
Germany surrenders unconditionally to General Eisenhower at Rheims, France, and to the Soviets in Berlin. President Truman pronounces the following day, May 8, V-E Day. The U.S., Russia, England, and France agree to split occupied Germany into eastern and western halves.
June 21
The Pacific island of Okinawa is captured by the Allies. Japan has lost 160,000 men in fighting on the island; more than 12,500 Americans have died on Okinawa as well.
July 17
U.S. air attacks on Tokyo continue, after planes have dropped leaflets threatening destruction from the air if the Japanese do not agree to unconditional surrender.
July 30
Torpedoes sink the U.S.S. Indianapolis in the Indian Ocean.
August 2
The Potsdam conference ends after more than two weeks of deliberations. Allied leaders have been discussing what should become of Germany.
August 6
The U.S B-29 Superfortress, Enola Gay, drops an atomic bomb on the Japanese industrial city of Hiroshima. The city is leveled, and an estimated 100,000 people are killed immediately (another 100,000 will die later from radiation sickness and burns). On August 9, a second bomb will be dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
(Read Eyewitness accounts of exposure to the A-bomb -- translated from the Japanese Documentary: Hiroshima Witness, produced by Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center and NHK, and located at: (
August 10
The Japanese sue for peace after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and U.S. President Truman declares that August 14th will be V-J (Victory over Japan) Day. To date, nearly 55 million people have died in the Second World War, including 25 million in the Soviet Union, nearly 8 million in China, and more than 6 million in Poland.
August 19
In the U.S., rationing of gasoline and fuel oil comes to an end.
September 2
General MacArthur accepts the formal, unconditional surrender of Japan in a ceremony aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
November 23
Butter rationing comes to an end, and sugar is the only item that continues to be rationed in the U.S.
December 15
A new election law is passed in Japan, at the urgence of the occupying Allied forces, which gives Japanese women voting rights.
December 27
The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development is created. Of the more than 7 billion dollars contributed by 21 countries, the U.S. has subscribed more than 3 billion dollars to the World Bank.
1939 || 1940 || 1941 || 1942 || 1943 || 1944 || 1945

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