What Are the Most Significant Battles of World War II?

These are the most significant battles of World War II, which significantly altered the campaign.

Dec 2, 2023By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

significant battles of world war ii


World War II spanned six years and many different battles across all theaters. Many conflicts are well documented or endlessly speculated about, like Stalingrad. However, the following three in our list stand out: The Battle of Britain, The Battle of Guadalcanal, and the Battle of Kursk. Each battle permanently altered the campaign or forced a reluctant decision upon the opposing, whether Axis or Allies.


The Battle of Britain in 1940: The First Defeat

Evacuated British troops arrive in Dover from France.


By mid-1940, Germany’s mighty Wehrmacht had defeated France and forced the British evacuation at Dunkirk in only six weeks. Worldwide speculation was when Germany would cross the Channel to defeat Britain from Occupied France.  Being an island nation, Britain had not been invaded since the 1066 Battle of Hastings.


Besides the Royal Navy, Germany needed to defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF) and achieve air superiority for a seaborne invasion to occur. On July 10th, 1940, the Battle of Britain began with raids on airfields and ports. Except the Luftwaffe faced the RAF – an organized force backed by the newly invented radar, an observer corps watching for raids and equally capable aircraft.


Aircraft spotter on roof London. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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The Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by 2 to 1. In a four-month intensive campaign, with targets including military, economic, and terror bombing of London and other cities, the Germans exhausted themselves. Carefully using radar, the RAF selected when to fight, ravaging the bomber streams. Still, the Luftwaffe nearly overwhelmed the RAF in July. But by October 1st, the raids dwindled to night bombing as the Germans couldn’t sustain such immense thrashings. Hitler lost interest, ordering the bulk of his forces East for the upcoming attack on Russia in 1941.


Why is this Battle so important? This bloody nose was Nazi’s Germany first defeat. Britain later became a base for D-Day, which led to Germany’s May 1945 surrender.


The First Pacific Landing: The Battle of Guadalcanal

Walking Wounded in Guadalcanal.


The August 1942 landing on Guadalcanal marked America’s first amphibious invasion. A hastily gathered Marine Division landed, attempting to block Japanese expansion towards Australia. A seven-month seesaw campaign ensued, that damaged Imperial Japan’s offensive capability.


Both sides lost many men, planes, and especially ships – the seas around earned the name “Iron Bottom Sound.”  Resupply proved hardest for Japan – so many ships were sunk, and the Americans resupplied their forces faster. By January 1943, the starving Japanese troops faced defeat as the Americans fought their way up the island. On February 7th, in a skillful night maneuver, the Imperial Navy evacuated all their forces before their enemy realized they’d left. 


The Allied victory on Guadalcanal became necessary for several reasons. First, Japan couldn’t replace the losses suffered – 24,000 men, seventeen ships, and sixty-four planes in six months. Expansion had become too costly – Imperial Japan switched to the defensive. All islands and Occupied Territories like Singapore were transformed into a fortified ring the Allies needed to punch through to reach the Home Islands.


After Guadalcanal, Japan permanently lost the initiative, unable to keep up this attritional warfare. The Allies took Okinawa in June 1945. Japan only surrendered after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were obliterated by atomic bombs developed by the Manhattan Project.


The Battle of Kursk in 1943

Kursk Salient map. Source: Bundesarchiv


1943 proved to be a pivotal year for Germany. The year started with the Stalingrad surrender in February, ending the Wehrmacht’s eastward expansion with the loss of 250,000 troops. The Red Army drove the Germans west. Several months of fluctuating fighting ended with a 150-mile bulge into the Wehrmacht’s line based on Kursk. Because of Stalingrad, Hitler knew he needed a victory to regain the initiative from the Red Army. The Kursk salient provided that opportunity. The German dictator knew his Axis partners waited too, aware of their fate should the Soviet Union win the war.


Russians attack at Kursk. Source: Bundesarchiv


Hitler ordered his generals to organize a two-pronged attack to re-capture Kursk. The Germans garnered all available units. The Russians observed this and received intelligence from the British. With that warning, the Red Army built a three-tiered defense with strong tank forces. The Wehrmacht attacked on July 5th, 1943. Despite ferocious attacks, the Germans made little progress. 


The Russians counter-attacked, igniting the world’s biggest tank battle involving thousands of tanks. Soviets resisted stubbornly, throwing in reserves the Germans couldn’t match. The fighting ground on, and by July 12th, Hitler called off the attack. Troops were desperately needed to counter Allied landings in Italy. Much like Guadalcanal diminished the Japanese, the Battle of Kursk shattered Germany’s war making on the Eastern Front. Only the path West remained to Berlin, and defeat in May 1945.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.