See maps of nine key moments that defined WWII

May 8 marks the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the largest and deadliest conflict in history. See the key moments that shaped its outcome.

By MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK and Ryan Morris

Published May 6, 2020

Spanning the globe in two distinct theaters of war, the conflict lasted six years, enveloped more than 30 countries in its deadly grip, and led to an estimated 66 million deaths.

With most of Europe under Hitler’s control by 1942, Allied nations led by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union surged back with an offensive—galvanized by the battle of Stalingrad—that would spell the end of the Axis forces in Europe. In the Pacific theater, Japanese forces dominated—until the U.S. claimed victory at the Battle of Midway and began wresting back island after island in bloody battles across the ocean.

The maps below explore nine events that changed the course of the war—and shaped modern history.

EUROPEAN THEATER

North Africa, rolling battles, and Operation Torch

Operation Torch brought American forces to Africa, where the British were engaged in deadly battles with German field marshal Erwin Rommel. By May 1943 Axis forces were defeated in Africa, and from there the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.

Soviet stand: turning point at Stalingrad

Fighting on the Eastern Front came to a head at Stalingrad, which was marked by Nazi atrocities. But outmatched Soviet forces eventually destroyed an entire German army, ending Hitler’s advance on  the oil fields of the Caucasus and forcing a Nazi retreat.

A mighty undertaking: Operation Overlord

The June 6, 1944, the Normandy landings of Operation Overlord marked the largest amphibious invasion in history. Allies began the steady push to liberate Europe; Hitler counterattacked at the Battle of the Bulge, but the Allies prevailed and reached Germany.

Berlin falls to the Russians

Russian and American forces met at the town of Torgau in late April 1945. Encircled, Berlin faced the overwhelming force of a vengeance-seeking Soviet Union. German forces surrendered on May 7, 1945, eight days after Hitler committed suicide.

PACIFIC THEATER

Halting the advance: Battle of Coral Sea

Japanese forces targeted Port Moresby in Papua, a stepping-stone to attack Allied Australia. Aircraft carriers eclipsed battleships, marking a new age in naval warfare. The Japanese defeat checked any further advances south.

Pacific turning point: Battle of Midway

U.S. intelligence decrypted messages and intercepted a Japanese attack on this American base. U.S. dive bombers targeted Japanese aircraft carriers just as their decks were stocked with bombs and aviation fuel, destroying three ships in five minutes.

Airpower on display: Battle of the Philippine Sea

Technical and training superiority helped the U.S. sweep over two-thirds of attacking Japanese aircraft from the sky. Only a few U.S. pilots are killed. For Japan, the loss of so many of their experienced pilots was an insurmountable blow.

End of a navy: Leyte Gulf

History’s last major battleship fight cost the Japanese the bulk of their warships. Japanese desperation took the form of kamikaze missions, turning aircraft into human-guided suicide vehicles. U.S. forces moved to attack Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

A new age: unleashing the atomic bomb

Departing Tinian in the Mariana Islands, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, destroying Hiroshima in seconds and killing over 80,000 people. Three days later Nagasaki was targeted. The Japanese surrendered by August 15.

NOTE: Boundaries shown as of September 1939

SOURCES: CRAIG L. SYMONDS, U.S. NAVAL WAR COLLEGE; NICK REYNOLDS, ARMY HISTORICAL FOUNDATION