17 Things You Didn’t Know About World War II
Also known as the Second World War, World War II (WW2) lasted from 1939 until 1945. It was the deadliest conflict in human history with over 50 million fatalities.
Some estimates are as high as 85 million human lives. Ultimately, the conflict changed the political alignment of the world and ultimately, the United Nations was formed to prevent further conflicts.
A war of this magnitude over six years long provided lots of material for newspapers, movies, and books. And yet, there is still much to be learned. Here’s the start of your primer.
1.) Pervitin: Germany’s wonder drug during World War II.
Today energy drinks and energy supplements are bought and sold without so much of a second thought. They’re legal, cheap, and effective. After WWI, with Germany’s post-war economy decimated by reparations and inflation, it’s not hard to see how many Germans were feeling down — and that’s where Pervitin found its market.
An over-the-counter pick-me-up, Pervitin was hailed as an amazing energy booster– in pill form. Much like the energy drinks of today, a single dose of pervitin was more potent than several cups of coffee. Pervitin was everything a depressed nation could hope for as Germany tried to rebuild.
It is even believed that Pervitin’s usage was so widespread that Hitler would deliver his campaign speeches while on Pervitin, to large crowds that were also under its influence. Pervitin use was completely normalized.
See Benjamin Franklin’s List of 13 Virtues
2.) Pervitin wasn’t only for German civilians…fighter pilots used it as well.
When the allies discovered a downed German fighter plane, they rooted through its contents for any clues about the enemy–and found one. In the pilot’s provisions, they discovered a sleeve of pills wrapped in gold foil and sent away to have them lab tested.
Although at the time they were perplexed by the findings, we now know that the strange pills (Pervitin) were actually methamphetamine.
German pilots called them candies, pilots salt, chocolate, or just Pervitin. They were good for keeping pilots alert, awake, focused, excited, and most of all: fearless. It’s reported that pilots flying German Stuka dive-bomber aircraft reached speeds that the Allies thought were literally impossible.
A normal human male would pass out under such extreme forces, yet the Stuka pilots were able to handle – and thrive – under the extreme conditions. At the time this idea of super-human ability played into the Nazi propaganda of being a superior race and terrified the Allies.
It is now believed that the pilots were able to accomplish such feats because of the aid of their drugs.
3.) German tank drivers and foot soldiers were fueled with drugs too.
Pervitin wasn’t just a personal preference — it was military issued and built into the war strategy. Blitzkrieg required two key things to be successful: First, it required an overpowering assault that would break through the defensive lines. Second, once the line was broken, the Nazis would race behind the enemy line and secure strategic targets.
Pervitin was ideal for both of these necessities. When French soldiers first encountered the Nazis, they sent back terrifying reports of German foot soldiers. The soldiers were fast, fearless, and full of rage.
They came with such ferocity and strength that when the French radioed back reports from the front lines, they warned of the German army having inhuman abilities. Beyond that, tank drivers and soldiers were known to travel for two days straight without sleep, advancing on targets.
4.) Hitler had a personal drug doctor during World War II.
Much has come out since the end of WWII about how Hitler conducted himself privately, but arguably the most astounding post-mortem discovery is that Hitler was utterly dependent on drugs through most of WWII.
His personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell, was with Hitler almost every step of the way. He was appointed in 1937 as Hitler’s primary Doctor and in his medical journal, he details administering Hitler with substances throughout the course of the war ranging from morphine and barbiturates to meth, cocaine, and opioids to enliven him.
5.) Hitler’s drug habit directly impacted the war.
As Hitler’s health began to degrade rapidly after 1942, he became more dependent than ever on drugs. The drugs made him physically feel and mentally think like the iconic leader he spiritually believed he was. He required large doses of stimulants injected intravenously in the morning in order to get out of bed, and depressants at night to get to sleep.
When he would meet with Nazi war generals, he would get a special injection of something similar to heroin right before the meeting would begin. During these times he would become extremely excited and energetic and would convey to the top military officials and strategists that he was still as strong and charismatic as ever. But as noted by others in the room, he would shout and ramble and veer off-topic.
He was described as being rash with military decisions, explaining that he was the brilliant strategist — not his generals. Hitler would over-simplify the diagnostics of what he was commanding.
He believed that his (ever-depleting) military force could still overcome any obstacle as it had in the early stages of the war. He would conclude the meetings on his own terms, often disregarding military wisdom in favor of his strict belief in Aryan superiority. This especially leads to drastic results on the Eastern Front and in preparation for D-Day.
6.) World War I started almost overnight. World War II crept in slowly.
In the 1930s all three of the soon-to-be Axis powers began taking their first steps to full-blow militarization. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and by 1937 the Second Sino-Japanese War was underway. In 1935 Italy began engaging Ethiopia with the De Bono Offensive.
But arguably the most telling was the Nazi militarization into the Rhineland–an action that violated both the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Locarno. Hitler later admitted that had France met his advances with military resistance in the Rhineland he would have been substantially outgunned and would have been forced to flee.
Such an embarrassment could have quelled the swelling Nationalistic pride in Nazi Germany. But, by refusing to check Hitler, the inaction of France and the League of Nations had the opposite effect. Hitler was now convinced that he was a great military strategist. And, the German people were convinced as well.
7.) In many ways, the coming of World War II was embodied in the Spanish Civil War.
The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 until 1939 and was largely indicative of the lines that would later define the alliances of WWII. Francisco Franco led the insurgent Fascist Nationalists against the elected establishment Republicans. But, both sides had concerns about their abilities to actually wage a war and sought foreign aid.
Germany and Italy came to the aid of Franco’s Nationalists, while Russia (and very briefly France) came to the aid of the Republicans. Mexico, as well as independent volunteers from Great Britain and the United States and elsewhere, aided the Republicans. However, on paper Italy, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and France had all signed an agreement to stay out of the conflict.
The United States formally decided to stay out. This effectively designated Spain as a proxy war for the Italians, Germans, and Russians to dabble in conflict without directly causing the escalation of a World War…yet.
8.) Britain and France rejected Russia’s bid to place Soviet troops in Poland and form an alliance.
After the Nazis had taken Czechoslovakia, Stalin knew that it was only a matter of time before the German war machine set its sights on the USSR. The inaction of the League of Nations and the countries within it to stand up against the growing Nazi military force indicated to Stalin that he was alone against the greatest threat to his nation.
He proposed a pact with Britain and France with the intent to move defensive military units into Poland and create a Polish defense (a buffer-state) between his own country and the Germans. The proposal was rejected because in the eyes of Britain and France it appeared to be a power move by Stalin to occupy Poland. The direct result of this was the famous German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact signed on August 23, 1939.
9.) During World War II, Poland fought long enough to get its gold out of the country.
Many people wonder why Poland didn’t try to fight longer against the Germans since France and Great Britain formally joined the fight upon the invasion of Poland. The German might was far superior to Poland, and on top of that, the Soviets also invaded Poland from the East.
But it wasn’t a complete collapse: although Poland’s resistance was brief, the nation bought itself enough time to mobilize its stores of gold and get them safely out of the country. Once the gold was secure Poland laid down its arms.
10.) Great Britain secretly relocated all of its gold during World War II.
Winston Churchill was resilient, but he was also a realist. Surviving the Battle of Britain was a tasking, monumental achievement and no detail was too small: Lights out at night, Carry on during the day, and keep the population sane all the while.
As optimistic as Churchill was public, he was also well aware that his nation might fall at any moment to the Nazis. As a precaution, he moved British gold out of the banks and reserves. Ultimately, he relocated most of it into the United States to help fund the manufacturing of war supplies. This was done in secret so as not to lower the morale of the British people.
11.) Kyoto and Kokura were nearly the targets of Fat Man and Little Boy.
Had a few things gone differently, Kyoto and Kokura would be the city names synonymous with the atomic bombs. Kyoto was Japan’s cultural capital. It was an old, ancient city that was very historical and sacred.
Initially, it was thought to be an ideal target because of these factors but in the closing weeks of the war, Secretary of War Henry Stimson advised against targeting the city. He argued that the city had little military or manufacturing importance and that there were better targets than the historic city. He also argued on behalf of the city’s cultural importance.
Kokura was not spared because of cultural importance or lack of military strategicness, in fact, it was the primary target for the second atomic bomb. But bad weather and anticipated poor visibility altered the plan and the target city was switched instead to Nagasaki.
12.) Blitzkrieg created a logistical nightmare — for the Germans too.
Blitzkrieg was a brilliant militaristic strategy. It served the Nazis very well in the early stages of WWII. But, it also created a massive logistical headache. The pillar of Blitzkrieg is a fast-paced war, concentrating on a single point in defense and then capturing the strategic targets behind the defense.
The problem was that once the defensive lines were broken through, the various elements of the army all move at different speeds. Planes are faster than trucks, trucks are faster than tanks on flat surfaces; ground troops are slowest. This created situations that left the ground troops exposed without tanks, and tanks exposed without air cover.
13.) The Nazis didn’t invent the freeway, but they did perfect it for war.
Here’s a common “did you know?” The Nazis invented the transportation infrastructure that runs America: the freeway. That’s not entirely true, but it’s truer than not.
Romans, the Italians, and Germany’s own Weimar Republic all had road systems very similar to the modern interstate prior to the Nazis. But, it was Hitler that perfected the system with wide swaths for multiple, divided lanes as a means for moving his military forces quickly. Eisenhower adopted the idea for America after WWII.
14.) Precision German engineering was a double-edged sword in World War II.
The perfect example of this is the Panzer tank. It was expertly manufactured and exceptionally deadly on the battlefield. A Panzer division could absolutely decimate an opposing tank force. But the focus on quality meant a reduction in quantity.
The pure superiority of German mechanics mixed with the fast-paced, heavy-hitting Blitzkrieg made Germany unstoppable at the beginning of WWII. But as the war raged on, year after year, the high-quality casualties began to take their toll. Germany didn’t readily have all of the time and resources needed to produce the quality reinforcements at the quantity required.
15.) Hitler was a Vegetarian
Yes, one of the most violent men of all time did not eat meat. He proclaimed that “the elephant does not eat meat and is the strongest animal on the planet”. He also did not like his guests to eat meat and would instruct his chefs to cook all-vegetarian meals while hosting lunches and during dinner parties.
Note: Leonardo DaVinci was also a vegetarian.
16.) The Nazis initially considered sending European Jews to Madagascar
Known as the Madagascar Plan, the Nazis seriously considered forcing European Jews to emigrate out of Europe prior to World War II. They’d relocate them to the island of Madagascar. The idea was that Madagascar was a big isolated Island, and away from Africa and Europe. The Jewish population, formerly of Europe, could be confined here.
The initial plan was to remove all people from Madagascar first so that the maximum number of European Jews could be moved there. They would then establish and run their own colony policed by the German military. Ultimately this plan was unrealistic, and by the 1940s the Nazis decided to revert to more inhumane measures of removing the Jewish population from Europe.
17.) “Canada” was in Auschwitz II-Birkenau
For the Jews and prisoners held at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, many were initially told they were going to be relocated. Naturally, they packed their suitcases with belongings, necessities, and valuables.
But instead of arriving in a new home they arrived in concentration camps. The Nazis confiscated their belongings and placed them in a warehouse in the concentration camp. Some able-bodied Jews were appointed to work in this warehouse sorting through the stolen valuables. This is where the nickname “Canada” came from. It is because Canada was seen as a land full of natural resources and riches.
And, three bonus facts:
18.) FDR was elected to four consecutive terms, not three.
Many people remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the man that got the U.S. out of the Great Depression and through WWII. And, that it took three full terms in office to do it. That’s true, but he was also elected to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944. However, with his health declining, he died in April of 1945, just shy of 3 months into the 4th term.
19.) Japan used “Balloon Bombs” as a method of attacking the U.S. mainland.
These were crude and entirely ineffective bombs made by the Japanese in World War II. They were designed to float up high into the jet stream. They would then ride the air currents until they reached landfall. Then, drop from the sky on random, civilian victims, with the hope of starting forest fires.
The Japanese military launched thousands of these hydrogen-filled balloons with almost no effect. However, one bomb did land in Oregon and killed five children and a pregnant woman. These 6 people were the only U.S. mainland casualties in the entirety of WWII.
Japanese Balloon Bomb Strategy Video
20.) The first use of OMG was in a letter to Winston Churchill.
The abbreviation OMG was first used in a letter from Lord Fisher to the British Bulldog, Winston Churchill in 1917. OMG! Ok, so that happened before World War II, but it was so good we had to include it.
— Jonathan Engle
Jonathan is a writer who loves history, architecture, and gardening.
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