Stretching across six years, from 1939 until 1945, the second World War involved the majority of countries fighting across the globe. 

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Major Events in World War II

Explore the history of this global conflict through some of the major events that happened during the war.

Please Note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Check back as we add more stories.


By May 26, 1940, the Germans had forced French, British, and Belgian troops to the port of Dunkirk, isolating them on the beaches. Completely surrounded, the Royal Navy put into motion Operation Dynamo in order to rescue the soldiers who were seen as easy targets for the German Stukas dive bomber and Bf 109 fighter units. Dunkirk could have easily been a tragedy rather than a successful tale of evacuation had it not been for the RAF and, consequently, the 15 Spitfire squadrons sent into battle. 

Learn More About the Spitfire

Pearl Harbor

At 7:48 am, Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time, on December 7, 1941, the stillness of Sunday morning was disrupted when the first wave of 183 Japanese torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and escorting fighters attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A second wave of 171 aircraft struck the naval base and airfields shortly before 9 am. 

The following day the United States declared war on Japan. The United States had entered World War II.

Learn More About the Attack on Pearl Harbor How a "Flying Pickup Truck" Survived Pearl Harbor Remembering Pearl Harbor The Complicated Lead Up to Pearl Harbor


In the early morning of June 6, 1944, thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen from the United States, Great Britain, and the British Commonwealth readied themselves for D-Day of Operation Overlord, the designated day for the invasion of France and the start of the liberation of Western Europe from their Nazi occupiers. As dawn broke, thousands of soldiers landed on five beaches along the Normandy coast under the protective fire of British and American warships and overwhelming airpower. Despite this protective umbrella, the fighting was hard and costly before the battle was won.

D-Day and the Douglas C-47 Protecting the Beaches with Balloons Aerial Photography in Action The Technology Behind D-Day's Moonlit Airborne Ops

Victory in Europe

Almost a year after D-Day, Allied forces had liberated Europe from the Axis powers, and Germany made an unconditional surrender. Learn more about what led to victory in Europe. 


Victory over Japan

On September 2, 1945, there was a formal ceremony in Tokyo Bay. Aboard the battleship USS Missouri, representatives from the Empire of Japan met with those of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union, China, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to sign the document that formally ended World War II.

Note: This section contains information about the formal end of World War II and fighting in the Pacific Theater generally. For more information about the use of the atomic bomb, please refer to the section on the Enola Gay

The Day the War Ended STEM in 30 Episode


Berlin Airlift Recovering and Repatriating the Dead The Cold War STEM in 30 Episode Mission Debrief

Aircraft and Weapons

The wartime revolution in technology and tactics redefined the promise and peril of military aviation. World War II marked dramatic changes in aviation and aeronautics.

Allied Aircraft and Weapons

United States of America

Boeing B-29 Superfortress de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito Curtiss SB2C Helldiver American V-1 Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Enola Gay

On August 6, 1945, the crew of a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare, called “Little Boy,” on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Another atomic attack on Nagasaki followed three days later. The delivery system for these bombs, the Superfortress, represented the latest advances in American aeronautical engineering and bomber design, and its use in the skies over Japan reflected the evolution of strategic bombing doctrine. As a new and deadly weapon, an atomic bomber, Enola Gay facilitated a turning point in human history as it ushered in the dawn of the Atomic Age and the threat of nuclear war.

More About the Flight of the Enola Gay View the Collection Record

Soviet Union

Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik

The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik played an essential role in defeating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It was the Il-2 the most-produced combat aircraft of World War II.  Among the Shturmovik’s most important assets were its strength and robustness in combat. 

More About the Flying Tank

Allied Aircraft and Weapons


V-2 Ballistic Missile and Slave Labor Myth of German Wonder Weapons


Japanese Wonder Weapons Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter Nakajima Kikka


From pilots to engineers, on the Eastern Front, the Western Front, the Pacific Theatre, and the home front, the contributions of individuals were crucial to the Allied victory in World War II. 

Groups Tuskegee Airmen Women Airforce Service Pilots Individuals Jimmy Doolittle Ben Kuroki