The Second World War has been extensively studied and analyzed, and yet, so many of its most horrific parts remain largely forgotten outside communities that experienced them. There are few historical parallels to the kind of violence faced by millions of people throughout the painfully-long duration of this global war – from Eastern Europe to South Asia to the Japanese islands.
Most of it has since been hidden behind Cold War-era geopolitics and a misplaced idea of a ‘good war’ among the victorious allied nations. If anything, the brutality of WW2 proves that there’s no good war, and that on a battlefield, there are no winners.
10. The Pet Apocalypse
When Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, London was expected to be one of the first cities in the line of German fire. To prepare for that, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) issued an advisory to all pet owners to either relocate their pets to the countryside, or to have them put down by dedicated ethunasia centers set up all over the country. England had a particularly high rate of pet ownership back then, too, with about twice as many domestic animals in the country as people.
In the next few days, as many as 750,000 pets were taken to be euthanized by their owners, making them one of the first British casualties of the war. Buildings were converted into dedicated euthanasia centres, as vets worked day and night to put down as many animals as they could. As it turns out, the advisory was only talking about agricultural pets, though the damage had already been done by the time they clarified it a few days later.
9. The Massacre Of Manila
The battle for the liberation of Manila from Japanese forces began on February 3, 1945, led by US forces under General Douglas MacArthur and assisted by Filipino resistance fighters. They had expected it to be a quick battle; MacArthur even announced that the city was taken barely three days after the invasion began, even though the most horrific episode of the battle had only just started to unfold.
For about a month, allied forces had to fight a gritty, close-quarter battle against fortified Japanese soldiers, who were busy systematically exterminating the city’s citizens behind their lines. Advancing Allied soldiers witnessed scenes of horror beyond their imagination – infants tossed in the air for sport and then bayoneted to death, thousands of people massacred by beheadings in one building, rape and violent mutilation of women of all ages, entire families buried alive after being forced to dig the grave themselves, among countless others. One part of the town was deliberately set on fire with artillery and incendiary bombs, setting off a firestorm that burned everyone trapped inside alive.
The ordeal went on until the final capture on March 3, as anywhere between 100,000 to 240,000 civilians lost their lives during the entire battle. According to bits and pieces found on-field, the Japanese military was operating under explicit orders to exterminate all non-Japanese in the city..
8. The Fall Of Berlin
The Soviet advance on Berlin was a massive, ruthless affair. Popularized in the Russian media as a do-or-die fight for the motherland and a final push into the ‘lair of the fascist beast’, it involved over two and half million Soviet troops, many of whom were directly affected by Nazi atrocities during their earlier advance into Russia. That, combined with a loose chain of command once the war was won, resulted in some of the worst civilian atrocities of the war.
Rape was by far the most commonly-reported of them all, as over 100,000 German women – and in some cases children – were subjected to all degrees of sexual violence in the initial days of the occupation. Over 10,000 of the victims ended up committing suicide, according to aid groups on the ground, though many of the actual figures remain classified in Russian military archives.
7. The Trophy Problem
Taking trophies at times of war is thought of as an ancient, barbaric practice, though you’d be surprised at how prevalent it was even during WW2. American soldiers taking various kinds of trophies from fallen Japanese soldiers – including skulls, fingernails, bones, and hair – was surprisingly common. It’s not difficult to find photographs of American soldiers boiling skulls or cutting off a dead man’s hand to make trophies, often posing or laughing next to them.
The problem was so widespread that the US military had to explicitly pass orders to cut it out, though that hardly helped. Soldiers would often hide the body parts on their way back home and gift it to their loved ones. It may sound savage and unreal in today’s context, though by that time in the war, anti-Japanese propaganda in the US had reached a feverish, extremely racist phase. Moreover, the Japanese were much more brutal in their own victories earlier in the war, as the Americans would often find the bodies of their fallen comrades mutilated or beheaded, further fueling their hatred and sense of revenge against the Japanese.
6. Anti-Fascist Reprisals
As it became clear that the Axis powers might not win the war after all, a wave of reprisals began across the occupied territories. From Italy to China to Russia, people suspected of collaboration with Japan or Germany were often brutally executed by liberating forces. It’s now a rallying cry for many fascist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe, as most of the victims were actually fascists and Nazi collaborators.
Quite a few, though, were not. Apart from collaborationist forces in the occupied countries and Axis soldiers, the violence was also directed at ethnic Germans and Croats, royalist Chetniks, and anyone else ethnically or ideologically related to the Nazis in any way. In one case at Huda Jama near Slovenia, around thousands of prisoners of war and suspected collaborators, were buried alive inside a coal mine. The true number is hard to gauge, as the site has never really been opened and examined due to the mass of bodies there.
While it’s true that most of them were fascists – no doubt about that – the severity of this violence would be relevant in the politics of the region for many decades to come, especially during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the ’90s.
5. The Croatian Holocaust
The systematic genocide of Serbs, Jews, gypsies, communists, and rebels of any form in Croatian-occupied territories remains one of the forgotten genocides of the war, even if it would have a far-reaching impact on post-war relations in East Europe. From 1941 to 1945, the Ustaše – Croatia’s own version of the Nazi party – operated numerous concentration camps across the territory. The largest of them – the Jasenovac camp – may have been responsible for as many as 99,000 deaths. That might just be a conservative estimate, too, as most of the records were destroyed by retreating Ustaše forces.
Unlike German camps – where killing was a more industrial affair – the violence in Croatian camps was usually carried out with blunt melee weapons, and often included torture and mutilation of the bodies for sport afterward. Some camps were specifically built for children, where kids from all over the country were sent to convert to Catholicism – as a majority of Serbs were Eastern Orthodox Christians – and then intentionally worked to death.
4. The Bataan Death March
By April 9, 1942, the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines was overrun by the Imperial Japanese Army, forcing the surrender of anywhere between 70,000-80,000 American and Filipino soldiers. After months of surviving on meager rations and multiple deadly outbreaks of diseases like malaria and yellow fever, they assumed that whatever the Japanese had in store for them would be better.
As they would gradually but surely realize in the coming days, they were wrong about that. The prisoners – seen to be a lower form of people by the Japanese, as surrender had no place in their military code – were forced to undertake a 65-mile long journey through thick jungle and sweltering heat – an event that has now come to be known as the Bataan Death March.
The prisoners were deliberately starved and kept thirsty throughout the ten-days-long journey, and many were bayoneted or beheaded simply for asking for water. Some prisoners were thrown in front of the tanks for sport, or just shot if the Japanese soldiers didn’t like how they looked. According to one estimate, by the time they reached the Japanese camp, only about 54,000 prisoners were left standing.
3. Soviet POWs
The German treatment of prisoners of war taken during their invasion of Russia was one of the darkest chapters of the war. It stands in stark contrast with the war on the western-European front – where international rules for wartime conduct were largely respected by all sides – or even in how Axis countries like Hungary and Romania treated their own Soviet prisoners.
The numbers are staggering. Out of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners captured during Operation Barbarossa, 3.3 million ended up dying in captivity. Many were tortured or experimented on – Soviet prisoners were the first experimental victims of the mass extermination policies later deployed against Jewish prisoners. They were the first occupants of many infamous concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
Soviet prisoners of war were the second largest group of people affected by Nazi policies after Jews, except it was fueled more by their perceived existential war against Bolshevik communism than racism (even if there was quite a bit of racism involved, too).
2. Anti-Partisan Violence
Partisans were large groups of resistance fighters in territories occupied by Axis forces, made up of concentration camp survivors, escaped prisoners of war, Jewish civilians, ex-soldiers, and others. The Yugoslavia chapter of the movement was perhaps one of the most successful and organized rebel groups in history, as they played a major role in slowing down – and ultimately reversing – the Nazi advance in Russia.
Nazi reprisals for Partisan attacks in the East were ruthless and far more violent than anything seen in the West. In case of a German casualty nearby, the population of an entire village was often entirely exterminated. In Belarus alone, as many as 629 settlements were razed to the ground with all of their residents killed, often with brutal methods like putting everyone in one place and burning it down with flamethrowers.
1. Operation Meetinghouse
When a bunch of American B-29 bombers started approaching the city of Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945, many people in the city took them for reconnaissance planes – a common sight in Japan at that stage of the war. Little did they know that they were about to experience perhaps the worst few hours for a civilian population in the history of warfare, as it was only the beginning of the deadliest air raid in history – Operation Meetinghouse.
The guns on the bombers were removed to maximize the payload, and they were armed with newly-developed incendiary weapons like napalm and white phosphorous. Close to 1,500 tons of incendiary explosives were dropped on an area of 16 square miles that night, selected for its mostly wooden and paper buildings. The goal was maximum, absolute destruction of the target, and by the end of it a few hours later, there was no doubt that it had been achieved.
Anywhere between 80,000-100,000 people in Tokyo died due to all kinds of reasons that night. Some were crushed under the resulting stampede, as the bombs had created multiple large fire-walls throughout the city, trapping panicking people inside and burning them alive. Many who had taken shelter in swimming pools and other water bodies were boiled alive, as temperatures reached as high as 1,800 degrees on the ground in some places.
The only survivors were people that had managed to escape before the deadly firestorms started, or those buried under piles of the dead, shielded by the deadly flames. It was so bad that some American pilots reported a stench of burning flesh and had to use oxygen masks to breathe, along with violent turbulence directly above the affected area due to the firestorms.