World War II was the single largest conflict in human history. It left 50 million people dead, hundreds of millions more wounded, and devastated countries. However, it also sparked the redrawing of borders and heralded a new age.
The scars of the war remain even today, and families worldwide remember losing loved ones. But their legacies live on in stories of heroes passed down from generation to generation. Today’s World War II records paint a picture of bravery, courage, and daring. Everyone knows the general story of the war, but let’s discuss some lesser known, cool facts about WW2 and the heroes who fought in it.
34 Facts about WW2
Most facts about WW2 focus on the obvious. Germany rose to power and sparked the conflict that destroyed the old order. Britain, the U.S., France, the USSR, and others fought against the Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan in a worldwide conflict.
But the war was made up of unique and brave individuals, not just countries. So, let’s focus on the people behind the war with these interesting WWII facts.
1) World War II Didn’t Start for Everyone in 1939
Contrary to popular belief, World War II started at different times, depending on where you lived. Much of Europe saw the war begin in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, but the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1941.
For China and Japan, the war began in 1937 and continued until 1945. Some historians have even argued that World War II was merely a phase in a conflict that started in 1914. So, when did the war start? It depends on whom you ask.
2) The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday
The Japanese didn’t attack Pearl Harbor on a Sunday by chance. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida of the Imperial Japanese Army chose to attack on the traditional day of rest because the Japanese believed the Americans would be less alert. And in their eyes, it worked. Fuchida called out, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” to indicate a successful attack.
3) One Soldier vs. One Hundred
During the brutal campaign to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese, American soldier John R. McKinney became a war hero. In one 1945 engagement, McKinney found himself trapped and single-handedly fought off 100 Japanese soldiers. This interesting fact about World War 2 demonstrates the bravery of one man. Yet despite receiving the Medal of Honor, McKinney’s name isn’t well known today.
4) Hitler’s Nephew Was British
William Patrick Hitler was born to Hitler’s brother in Liverpool in 1911. William originally moved to Germany to take advantage of his famous uncle’s status. He fled the country and immigrated to the U.S., where he served in the American Navy, winning decorations for bravery. After the war, William changed his name to William Patrick Stuart-Houston to live a quiet life. He passed away in 1987.
5) The Soldier Who Fought for Decades
Hiro Onoda is the notorious Japanese soldier who hid in the jungles of the Philippines until 1974, never believing the war had ended. He killed several citizens during his guerilla war. Only his commanding officer, then a bookseller, managed to coax him from hiding and convince him that the war really had ended.
6) Cannibals Almost Ate President George H. W. Bush
One of the strangest yet weirdly fun facts about World War 2 is how this future president almost met his end. After being shot down during an air raid over Japan, he was picked up by the Allies. The other men were not so lucky. His comrades were tortured, killed, and some were eaten by Japanese soldiers.
7) The Ultimate Bluff
One of the most commonly known facts about WW2 is that British and American air raids reduced German cities to rubble. Near the Swiss border, the German city of Konstanz decided to play the ultimate game of bluff. Rather than enforcing a blackout, they kept their lights on at night. It worked, and Allied pilots ignored it, assuming it was a Swiss town.
8) The Unbreakable Soldier
British soldier Adrian Carton de Wiart was a famous officer who fought in the Boer War and World War One. He was shot in the face, skull, leg, and hip. He became known as the “elegant pirate” due to his empty sleeve and black eyepatch and fought against Hitler in the European theater.
After being captured by the Italians, the veteran, who was over 60 at the time, nonchalantly left captivity, went into hiding, and returned to cause more chaos.
9) You Only Sink Twice
You’re not alone if you think most ships sink once and once only. The SMS Wien, a vessel of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, was sunk in 1917 by an Italian torpedo boat. After the war, in the 1920s, the Italians raised the ship from the bottom of the sea. It became a hospital ship and was eventually sunk again, in WWII, becoming the only ship to meet the ocean floor in both world wars.
10) Nazi Germany Tried to Build a Sun Gun
Nazi Germany was the pioneer of rocketry. As part of Hitler’s fantasized “Miracle Weapons” to turn the tide, German scientists looked into building a Sun Gun.
The Sun Gun was designed to magnify sunlight to burn cities and boil the world’s oceans. These plans were based on the ideas of the German scientist Hermann Oberth. It was abandoned after it was figured it would take more than a century to build.
11) Poland’s Fighting Bear
As far as WW2 interesting facts go, this is among the strangest. Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear, became a private (later corporal) in the Polish II Corps, 3522 Company. He served among the remnants of the Polish Army fighting in Italy in 1943 and 1944. He carried heavy ammunition boxes, mixed with the men, and regularly drank beer in the evenings. After the war, Wojtek lived out his days in Edinburgh Zoo.
12) The Head of the SS Couldn’t Take the Stress
SS leader Heinrich Himmler was a monster, yet one satisfyingly fun fact about World War 2 is that when the chips were down, he was next to useless. He was given command of Army Group Vistula in January 1945, a force of 500,000 men tasked with pushing back the Soviets. The appointment so stressed Himmler that he immediately checked into a spa, brought a personal masseuse onto his command staff, and only worked for about four hours per day without going to the frontlines a single time.
13) Hitler Gets High
Hitler was a notorious hypochondriac and hired several well-known quack doctors to attend to most of his imagined ailments. From 1941 until the end of the war, Hitler spent most of his days high on various opiates and cocaine that were prescribed to him. Much of the Third Reich leadership followed his lead, including Hermann Goering, who was addicted to morphine.
14) Japan and Russia Never Signed a Peace Treaty
The war between Japan and Russia ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Russia was the only nation Japan refused to sign a peace treaty with. Today’s ongoing dispute over the Kuril Islands continues to block a formal signing ceremony even now.
15) Saving Jews through Islam
In Paris, one mosque played a role in saving Jews from deportation during the Nazi occupation. Si Kaddour Benghabrit of the Grand Mosque of Paris issued certificates to Jews to provide them with an Islamic identity. He also provided refuge to fleeing families until the liberation of Paris in 1944.
16) The Man Who Survived Two Atomic Bombs
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw the bombs named Fat Man and Little Boy kill and maim hundreds of thousands of people. One man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi was present in both cities when the bombs were dropped. He survived both.
17) Falling without a Parachute
Another of the interesting facts about WW2 concerns British tailgunner Nicholas Alkemade. The airman’s plane was attacked, and he was forced to abandon it before it hit the ground. Unfortunately, Alkemade had no time to put on a parachute and fell from 18,000 feet. Amazingly, Alkemade not only survived, but managed to walk away with nothing more than a sprained knee.
18) Petty Resistance
Not all forms of resistance were violent and bloody. After the fall of Paris in 1940, a strong resistance movement developed across France. In perhaps the pettiest act of resistance of the war, resistance fighters cut the cables to the Eiffel Tower’s elevator, forcing the Nazi occupiers to climb the stairs.
19) The Soda of National Socialism
Everyone knows that Coca-Cola is the quintessential American soda. You may also know that the same company invented Fanta. One of the fun facts about WWII and how it affects our culture today is that Fanta was invented by Coca-Cola inside Nazi Germany – in the middle of the war. It was made using whatever ingredients were available. Short for “Fantasy,” Germans took pride in the soda, where it was widely consumed by soldiers and civilians alike.
20) The Allies Wreaked Havoc on France
The Allies caused almost as much physical damage to France as the Germans did during the occupation. The Allies dropped 500,000 tons of explosives on France. This represented more than the total of what the Germans dropped on the UK during the Blitz and with their V-weapons. One particularly notable incident was the Allied bombing of Le Havre, which killed 5,000 French civilians.
21) More than 51% of RAF Bomber Crews Perished
Members of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command had less than a one in two chance of survival during the war. Day and night flights over Europe were perilous, and aviation in combat was still a relatively new invention. Approximately 13% of crew members were captured, 12% died in training, and just 24% of pilots returned home without sustaining injury.
22) The French Navy Was Sunk by the British
Despite being allies during both world wars, one of the little-known fun facts about WWII is that the British Royal Navy destroyed a portion of the French Navy. Weeks after the fall of France, the port of Mers-el-Kebir was blockaded by a detachment of the Royal Navy. Trapped in shallow waters, the British attack killed 1,300 French naval personnel and knocked two of the four ships out of commission. Thankfully, the French scuttled the rest of the fleet in Toulon in 1942 when the Germans tried to take control of it.
23) The First British Casualty of World War II
Most facts about WW2 focus on the men, women, and children who fell. You might believe that the UK’s first casualty would have been a soldier or a civilian. But this is not the case. Instead, it’s widely believed that the first casualty of the war on the British side was a rabbit in the remote Shetland Islands.
24) Typhus to the Rescue
When talking about WWII, interesting facts about the Holocaust may involve glorious uprisings, but Dr. Eugene Lazowski was cruel to be kind. Nicknamed the Polish Schindler, Lazowski saved approximately 8,000 Jews from concentration camps by purposely injecting people with the cure for typhus.
Thankfully, the vaccine led to the lucky recipients failing their health examinations and testing positive for the disease. The Nazis were so terrified of typhus that they quarantined the Jews, which helped them avoid the horrors of the concentration camps.
25) The Polish Thermopylae
Anyone who’s seen the movie 300 knows about the Spartans who held the line against tens of thousands of Persians. During the Battle of Winza, 720 Polish soldiers repeated history by holding off 42,200 soldiers and 350 tanks for three days in their fort.
26) Concentration Camps Predate the War
While the Final Solution did not enter the German mindset until 1942, the Nazis had significant experience with concentration camps. The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was opened in 1933 to hold political prisoners, intellectuals, the handicapped, homosexuals, and Romani.
27) The Tsunami Bomb
Interesting facts about WW2 weapons inevitably involve Hitler, but destructive weapons were not confined to the Axis. The United States and New Zealand, then a part of the British Empire, tested a tsunami bomb. When dropped, the bomb was meant to create artificial tsunamis that would wipe out coastal cities with 33-foot waves.
28) The Carrot Myth
Parents have told their children that eating carrots will help them improve their eyesight for generations. The myth actually originates from World War II. The British Army developed the new technology known as RADAR, helping pilots navigate and target at night. Rather than calling it RADAR, they referred to it as carrots.
29) Prophecy Fulfilled
The First World War was known as “The War to End All Wars.” Not everyone believed it. One French Army commander, Ferdinand Foch, was one such person. Upon signing the Treaty of Versailles, he declared, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” He was wrong by only 65 days.
30) Sacred Apology
Although the continental United States was left almost untouched by the war, there were attempts to spread chaos and terror throughout the towns and cities of the country. Nobuo Fujita attempted to bomb the town of Brookings, Oregon, during the war. In 1962, he was invited to return to the town, where he apologized and presented the town with his family’s most prized possession, a 400-year-old katana sword.
Fujita returned to the town several times in the years that followed, and he was named an honorary resident.
31) Britain’s Nazi King
King Edward VIII is most famous for his marriage to the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. He was romanticized by many for choosing true love over the throne. The king abdicated and went into exile in mainland Europe.
Even though he was no longer king, he was still a titled member of the British Royal Family. He was a well-known Nazi sympathizer and, on one occasion, argued that the Blitz would go on to end the war and bring peace. Rumor has it that if Britain was defeated, Hitler was set on the idea of returning King Edward VIII to the throne.
32) Hidden Radio
One British prisoner of war received a handmade radio during his captivity. Naturally, he hid the radio well. So well, in fact, that the radio remained hidden for 60 years. The same POW retrieved the radio on a famous UK TV show called the “Antiques Roadshow.”
33) Taking Camouflage to a Whole New Level
Camouflage has long been a tool used by the militaries of the world. During the advance of the Japanese across Southeast Asia, the Dutch vessel the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen became the only vessel of its class to escape the Java Sea to safety. The crew camouflaged the ship to disguise themselves as a tropical island. The ruse worked, and the Imperial Japanese Navy never suspected the island was, in fact, an entire warship.
34) Fighting Women
The USSR was the only major combatant to allow women to join the frontlines of their regular army. Women in Russia served in many roles, including anti-aircraft gunners, fighter pilots, and snipers.
Pilots Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova shot down dozens of German planes. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was also one of the most decorated sharpshooters of the war, recording 300 enemy kills. Pavlichenko became good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.
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The history of World War II is filled with stories of bravery that have been buried underneath the weight of history. These heroes deserve to be remembered, but it can be challenging to find out the truth about your ancestors and their involvement in the war.
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Note on the header image: U.S. troops landing during D-Day, 6 June 1944. Credit: Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent; National Archives and Records Administration; Wikimedia Commons.