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On this day in 1939, the Red Army crosses the Soviet-Finnish border with 465,000 men and 1,000 aircraft. Helsinki was bombed, and 61 Finns were killed in an air raid that steeled the Finns for resistance, not capitulation.
The overwhelming forces arrayed against Finland convinced most Western nations, as well as the Soviets themselves, that the invasion of Finland would be a cakewalk. The Soviet soldiers even wore summer uniforms, despite the onset of the Scandinavian winter; it was simply assumed that no outdoor activity, such as fighting, would be taking place. But the Helsinki raid had produced many casualties-and many photographs, including those of mothers holding dead babies, and preteen girls crippled by the bombing. Those photos were hung up everywhere to spur on Finn resistance. Although that resistance consisted of only small numbers of trained soldiers-on skis and bicycles!–fighting it out in the forests, and partisans throwing Molotov cocktails into the turrets of Soviet tanks, the refusal to submit made headlines around the world.
President Roosevelt quickly extended $10 million in credit to Finland, while also noting that the Finns were the only people to pay back their World War I war debt to the United States in full. But by the time the Soviets had a chance to regroup, and send in massive reinforcements, the Finnish resistance was spent. By March 1940, negotiations with the Soviets began, and Finland soon lost the Karelian Isthmus, the land bridge that gave access to Leningrad, which the Soviets wanted to control.
On this day in 1940, Romania signs the Tripartite Pact, officially allying itself with Germany, Italy, and Japan.
As early as 1937, Romania had come under control of a fascist government that bore great resemblance to that of Germany’s, including similar anti-Jewish laws. Romania’s king, Carol II, dissolved the government a year later because of a failing economy and installed Romania’s Orthodox Patriarch as prime minister. But the Patriarch’s death and peasant uprising provoked renewed agitation by the fascist Iron Guard paramilitary organization, which sought to impose order. In June 1940, the Soviet Union co-opted two Romanian provinces, and the king searched for an ally to help protect it and appease the far right within its own borders. So on July 5, 1940, Romania allied itself with Nazi Germany—only to be invaded by its “ally” as part of Hitler’s strategy to create one huge eastern front against the Soviet Union.
King Carol abdicated on September 6, 1940, leaving the country in the control of fascist Prime Minister Ion Antonescu and the Iron Guard. Signing the Tripartite Pact was now inevitable. Originally formulated in Berlin on September 27, the pact formally recognized an alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan, termed the “Axis.” As more European nations became subject to fascist domination and invasion, they too were drawn into the pact, albeit as unequal partners (Hungary was made an Axis “power” on November 20). Now it was Romania’s turn.
While Romania would recapture the territory lost to the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded Russia, it would also have to endure the Germans’ raping its resources as part of the Nazi war effort. Besides taking control of Romania’s oil wells and installations, Hitler would help himself to Romania’s food crops, causing a food shortage for native Romanians.
On this day in 1940, Adolf Hitler tells Spanish Foreign Minister Serano Suner to make good on an agreement for Spain to attack Gibraltar, a British-controlled region. This would seal off the Mediterranean and trap British troops in North Africa.
Spain had just emerged from a three-year (1936-39) civil war, leaving Gen. Francisco Franco in dictatorial control of the nation. Although Franco had accepted aid for his Nationalist forces from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy during his war against the left-wing Republicans, he had maintained a posture of “neutrality” once the Second World War broke out. Two factors led the Caudillo, or chief of state, to reconsider this stance: (1) the fact that early Italian victories in Africa and German victories in Europe made a fascist victory more than just a possibility, and (2) his own desire to regain control of Gibraltar, a tiny peninsula south of Spain and a British colony. Toward this end, Franco began manipulating his own people to the point of exercising frenzied mobs to demand war against England to retake Gibraltar, which Spain lost during the War of Spanish Succession in 1704.
Gibraltar was a key strategic region, the only point of access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and long a significant air and naval base for the United Kingdom. If Spain could occupy Gibraltar, it would cut Britain off from its own troops in North Africa and frustrate plans to drive back Rommel and his Afrika Korps, as well as stop any British plans to invade Italy. Hitler was keen on pushing Spain in this direction. But when the Fuhrer emphasized the need to move quickly, the Spanish foreign minister, on orders from Franco, insisted that Spain would need 400,000 tons of grain before it could wage war against Britain. Hitler knew this was merely a delaying tactic; Franco did not want to commit his country to the war, even as he allowed German subs to refuel in Spanish ports and German spies to keep tabs on British naval forces in Gibraltar.
But as the war began to turn against the Axis powers, so did Franco, who saw a future of negotiating trade deals with the Western democracies. The Caudillo began to cooperate with the Allies in a variety of ways, including allowing Free French forces to cross Spain from Vichy France to Resistance bases in North Africa. But the Allies saw Franco as a mere opportunist, and Spain was not allowed into the United Nations until 1955.
On this day in 1940, Adolf Hitler meets with Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano over Mussolini’s disastrous invasion of Greece.
Mussolini surprised everyone with a move against Greece; his ally, Hitler, was caught off guard, especially since the Duce had led Hitler to believe he had no such intention. Even Mussolini’s own chief of army staff found out about the invasion only after the fact!
Despite being warned off an invasion of Greece by his own generals, despite the lack of preparedness on the part of his military, despite that it would mean getting bogged down in a mountainous country during the rainy season against an army willing to fight tooth and nail to defend its autonomy, Mussolini moved ahead out of sheer hubris, convinced he could defeat the inferior Greeks in a matter of days. He also knew a secret, that millions of lire had been put aside to bribe Greek politicians and generals not to resist the Italian invasion. Whether the money ever made it past the Italian fascist agents delegated with the responsibility is unclear; if it did, it clearly made no difference whatsoever—the Greeks succeeded in pushing the Italian invaders back into Albania after just one week. The Axis power spent the next three months fighting for its life in a defensive battle. To make matters worse, virtually half the Italian fleet at Taranto had been crippled by a British carrier-based attack.
At their meeting in Obersalzberg, Hitler excoriated Ciano for opening an opportunity for the British to enter Greece and establish an airbase in Athens, putting the Brits within striking distance of valuable oil reserves in Romania, which Hitler relied upon for his war machine. It also meant that Hitler would have to divert forces from North Africa, a high strategic priority, to Greece in order to bail Mussolini out. Hitler considered leaving the Italians to fight their own way out of this debacle—possibly even making peace with the Greeks as a way of forestalling an Allied intervention. But Germany would eventually invade, in April 1941, adding Greece to its list of conquests.
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