Five Days That Defined World War Two

From Churchill battling Parliament, to Stalin’s cunning tactics at the Yalta Conference, these are the days that shaped the course of WWII.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin

28 MAY 1940

It's all too easy to assume Britain was united in its "Blitz spirit" from the outset, and was absolutely determined to beat back the Nazis or die fighting. Actually, many thought making a deal with Hitler was the best way to go. This triggered a crisis in the corridors of power in May 1940. As German forces were rampaging through Europe, new PM Winston Churchill faced down his own Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax, who believed the only way to prevent the destruction of Britain was to negotiate a peace settlement with the Nazis.

On 28 May, in one of his most crucial speeches to Parliament, he vowed that, "if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." This key moment strengthened Britain's resolve after days of prevarication. As Churchill later noted, "I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in."

16 JUNE 1940

The fate of France was decided on 16 June 1940, in more ways than one. This was the day on which Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, realising his nation was falling into Nazi hands, resigned from office. This would pave the way for Marshal Petain, who would sign an armistice with the Germans and lead a new regime which notoriously collaborated with the Nazis. Yet, there was a glimmer of hope on this darkest of dates, thanks to the stubborn rebellion of one man: Charles de Gaulle.

A military man and a cog in the government machine, de Gaulle was actually in London on 16 June, trying to forge a firm union with Britain in the face of the Nazi threat. He returned to France later that date, saw the country had fallen, and dashed back to the UK the next day. It was from London that he delivered a seminal, Churchill-like speech on BBC airwaves, rallying his fellow rebels in France and saying that, "Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished". De Gaulle would go on to lead France after the invaders were defeated.

7 DECEMBER 1941

As with 9/11 so many decades later, 7 December 1941 was once a byword for shock and destruction for all Americans. It was on 7 December that Japan mounted a sudden, devastating air raid on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, raining down fire, sinking ships and killing thousands. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call it a "date which will live in infamy", and dubbed it an
"unprovoked and dastardly attack".

Yet, this was a slightly disingenuous description of what had happened. Japan and the United States had actually been gearing up for a conflict for a long time. It was the method and timing of the attack, rather than the fact of the attack, which was so startling. Some conspiracy theories continue to believe Roosevelt knew the attack was coming and allowed it to happen, because he was itching to get his country into the war. Others utterly reject this view. Either way, 7 December 1941 made American entry inevitable, sealing the fate of Japan and its Axis partners.

22 JUNE 1941

Can a single date be pinpointed as the turning point for Adolf Hitler, when he would begin to lose the war? If so, 22 June 1941 is a contender. This was the fateful day he launched Operation Barbarossa, an audacious invasion of the Soviet Union which abruptly opened a new front in the war, and sent German troops into a maelstrom of horror in the east. Until then, the Nazis and the Soviets had an uneasy pact, based on pragmatic necessity. But Hitler's genocidal contempt for the "sub-human" Bolsheviks could not be contained.

Despite the advantage of surprise, Barbarossa would fail. Embroiling the Germans in a protracted, barbaric conflict on the Eastern Front, Barbarossa made Stalin an ally of Churchill and Roosevelt, forming the "Big Three" whose combined might would eventually crush Hitler's hopes of victory.

FEBRUARY 1945

The Yalta Conference actually spanned several days in February 1945, but it can be considered as one, pivotal moment which would define not just the course of the war, but of the whole post-war world. Yalta was a major meeting between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin to plan how Germany and other nations would be re-structured when the Axis powers were eventually defeated.

Stalin was determined to cement Soviet power in post-war Europe. His cunning wangling at Yalta would lay the foundations of the Communist "Eastern Bloc", and Roosevelt would later be widely condemned for caving into Stalin's demands. The Yalta Conference was a triumph for Stalin, and can now be regarded as the moment the Cold War began, even before World War Two was over.