American troops landing at Normandy, June 6, 1944.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Although the campaign in the Mediterranean was successful in forcing Italy out of the war, Allied military planners by late 1943 had concluded that it would not be enough to defeat Nazi Germany. As a result, priorities were shifted to an invasion of France across the English Channel. That invasion took place on the famous D-Day—June 6, 1944. Thereafter the Germans had to face not only the relentless onslaught of the Soviet Army from the East, but from British, American, and other allied forces from the West. During the same time, cities both in Germany and in German-occupied lands were subjected to intense aerial bombardment by U.S. and British aircraft. These bombing raids were designed to disrupt production of war materiel, divert German fighters from the Eastern and Western fronts, and undermine civilian morale.
This lesson plan will focus on the overall strategy pursued by the Allies in the final months of World War II in Europe. By examining military documents and consulting an interactive map of the European theater, students will learn why they chose to land at Normandy, and how the Allied offensive in the West contributed to Germany's defeat. Also, students will study the summary report of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey for Europe, allowing them to gauge the effectiveness of the bombing campaign against German cities.
By late 1943 the debate between the British and the Americans over which strategy to pursue in Europe was finally settled. The campaign in Italy was proceeding slowly, and while Italy had been forced out of the war it seemed to be having little effect on Germany's overall war effort. The Soviet Army was now on the offensive in the East, while Stalin continued his demands for a more determined effort from the West. Finally, the main arguments against a second front in France—that the Allies did not possess unchallenged control of the Atlantic and the skies over Western Europe—had both vanished. Allied military planners therefore came to an agreement: a cross-Channel invasion would take place in spring 1944.
Even before the invasion took place, however, the British and Americans conducted a massive campaign of aerial bombardment against cities across German-occupied Europe. Given the technology of the times, it proved extremely difficult to pinpoint particular factories or other strategic targets. Therefore the Allies resorted to what was called "area bombing"—basically dropping tons of explosives from high altitudes on enemy cities, in the expectation that something important was bound to be destroyed. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of German civilians from 1943 to 1945, but while the actual impact of the bombing on German industry is debatable, there is little doubt that it forced the enemy to divert fighter aircraft away from the front lines and toward the defense of the homeland. Thus, when the cross-Channel invasion took place there was no serious interference from the Luftwaffe.
The invasion came on June 6, 1944—D-Day—and within weeks a large portion of Northern France was in Allied hands. Paris was liberated in late August, and from the fall of 1944 through the winter of 1945 British and American forces slowly swept over the German defenses. A surprise German counteroffensive in December momentarily stalled the Allied advance, and led to what was soon called the "Battle of the Bulge." Nevertheless, lacking serious air support and under siege from three directions, the attack could not be sustained. By the spring of 1945 the Allies had crossed the Rhine River, and in late April U.S. forces met up with Soviet troops in the German city of Torgau. Berlin itself fell in early May, and days later the German government surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. World War II in Europe was finally at an end.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the blackline masters for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Perhaps most importantly, you should become familiar with the interactive map which accompanies this lesson, and which shows the locations of important events in Northern Europe. Clicking on these locations will bring up pop-ups that include a paragraph or two of basic information about what happened there, as well as links to pages with more in-depth coverage, plus relevant campaign maps, photographs, and/or personal accounts by those who were there.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
Direct students to the following documents, either online or as handouts printed from the blackline masters (pages 1-9 of the PDF). For each document students will be asked a series of questions that will ask them to draw on the readings.
Have the students answer the following questions based on their reading:
Direct students to the interactive map of northern Europe, which will demonstrate how the Allied offensive developed. Then have them complete the "Scavenger Hunt" that accompanies the map, available on pages 10–12 of the PDF.
Divide the class into five groups, each of which will be responsible for a portion of the summary report of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey for the European theater. This survey was conducted in the summer of 1945 in an attempt to gauge how effective the Allied bombing campaigns had been, and is an invaluable resource in understanding the role of air power in World War II. Each group should read its assigned section and answer the corresponding questions, organized as follows in the PDF:
Group 1: Overall Strategies, pp. 13-18
Group 2: Effects on German Cities, pp. 19-24
Group 3: Effects on the German Ball Bearing and Steel Industries, pp. 25-30
Group 4: Effects on the German Oil Industry and Railroads, pp. 31-36
Group 5: Effects on the German Air Force, pp. 37-41
Each group should then use the answers it has come up with to the questions to form the basis of a brief presentation to be made before the rest of the class
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
Students should also be able to identify the following locations on a blank map of the European theater, available at this site, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters
Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:
Any of the engagements listed as locations on the interactive map could be topics for research papers, PowerPoint presentations, etc., as each pop-up includes a wealth of source material on the subject.
A great many movies have been made about this phase of the war in Europe—Twelve O'Clock High (1949), The Longest Day (1962), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Hanover Street (1979), Memphis Belle (1990), and Saving Private Ryan (1999) are just a few examples. Students could be asked to watch one of these movies and write an essay comparing it to the real events on which the film was based. Here again, the sources linked from the locations on the interactive map will be useful for background.
Students may be interested in getting a sense for what combat in the European theater was really like. Most of the pop-ups on the interactive map include oral histories by men who participated in these engagements. Students could be assigned to read several of these (or more likely excerpts, since they tend to be quite lengthy) and asked to write their own fictitious oral history, as if they had participated in one of these battles.
In addition, if lesson one of this curriculum unit (Turning the Tide in the Pacific, 1941–1943) is also being used, students might be asked to write an essay comparing and contrasting combat conditions in the Pacific Theater with those of the European Theater. The oral histories linked from the interactive maps—particularly those at the Rutgers Oral History Archives should provide ample sources for such a comparison.
The following links are only those that are directly referred to in this lesson plan. The interactive map includes many others that may be consulted for more information on any of the locations presented there.
3 class periods