31 Of The Most Fascinating, Little-Known World War 2 Facts
By Elisabeth Sherman | Edited By John Kuroski
Published September 8, 2016
Updated November 9, 2023
These interesting World War 2 facts reveal a different side to history's most devastating conflict.
Fewer than 25 years after the first world war threatened the globe with total annihilation, the human race once again saw itself collapsing into yet another worldwide crisis of unparalleled proportions.
Starting in 1939, Nazi Germany began ransacking Europe, with countries falling to Axis forces like dominoes. By the time Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war in 1941, the scale of this conflict was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
And as befits such an immense, earth-shaking event, even some of the relatively smaller details of World War II have since cemented their place in history and become common knowledge.
Yet, even though you know the broad strokes and some of the finer points, here are thirty-one fascinating World War II facts you likely never learned in history class:
World War II's casualty totals by country probably look nothing like you think they do.
Germany, as you might expect, ranks high with about seven million total deaths. And that figure indeed dwarfs the surprisingly low totals for the U.S. and U.K., both at around half a million.
What may be even more surprising is the fact that Germany's total is itself dwarfed by the 20 million killed in China (in fighting with the Japanese) and the 27 million killed in the Soviet Union.
Above: The Khutor Orehovo cemetery for German soldiers, near Stalingrad, in December 1942.AFP/Getty Images
In a story straight out of the Indiana Jones movies, some recently uncovered reports of top secret missions claim that the Nazis had stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris at Hitler's request, and once came very close to blowing it up.
Hitler, a major art lover, sought to raid the great artworks of Europe and place them in a museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. Before that could happen, some reports state that the Nazis hid the painting, along with other priceless works of art, deep in an old salt mine in the Alps.
But, in 1945, a special group of Allied troops tasked with saving Europe's treasures from Hitler's clutches, parachuted in and saved the Mona Lisa from being blown up by the German commander who had been tasked with doing so if the Allies evevr found the stash.
Given the murkiness of such top secret reports that describe this mission, some contend that the painting the Nazis stole was actually a fake created by he French to throw the Germans off the trail, and that the true whereabouts of the real Mona Lisa during the war have never been uncovered to this day.
Above: Two years after the war, the Mona Lisa finally returns to its place in the Louvre.AFP/Getty Images
After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, France and the U.K. quickly declared war. But for the next eight months, virtually nothing else happened -- no noteworthy battles, no major military movements, nothing at all to speak of.
This strange period later became known as the "Phoney War." But when this eight month stretch of calm ended, it did so suddenly and violently. When Germany finally did move into France in May 1940, the entire country fell in just six weeks.
Above: A French family flees the German army on bicycles in the north of France in May 1940.AFP/Getty Images
By June 22, 1940, France had officially surrendered. A whopping eight million civilians then fled their homes en masse for France's southern provinces, looking for refuge from German attacks. AFP/Getty Images
The Japanese specifically chose to attack Pearl Harbor on a Sunday because they believed that the Americans would be less alert on this traditional day of rest.
When Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida famously called out, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" ("Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!") after flying over Pearl Harbor, he was letting the Japanese navy know that the plan had in fact worked and that the Americans were caught rather unawares.STF/AFP/Getty Images
All eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were either badly damaged or sunk during the attack, yet before the war's end, all but two of them returned to active duty.STF/AFP/Getty Images
Although not someone you'll likely ever see in a history textbook, Emmy Göring (center), the wife of Nazi air force commander Hermann Göring, both found herself involved in a bizarre triangle with Adolf Hitler and another woman, and eventually proved to be one of the largest Nazi profiteers to virtually escape justice.
First, during the war, Göring became known as the "First Lady of the Third Reich" due to her status as a famous actress and her frequent hosting of important state functions for Hitler at she and her husband's opulent castles. This "First Lady" designation greatly upset Hitler's lover, Eva Braun, and the two became embroiled in a great feud that eventually resulted in shouting matches between Hitler and Hermann Göring himself.
Then, after the war, Göring, who had personally profited greatly from the Nazi theft of Jewish wealth and thus grown accustomed to a rather lavish lifestyle, received just one year in jail and was allowed to keep 70 percent of her wealth.AFP/Getty Images
Senior Nazi official Heinrich Himmler (fourth from right) formed the task force that built the extermination camps. He then served as overseer of the camps, making him, perhaps more than any other, directly responsible for the Holocaust's 6 million deaths.
He was ultimately arrested by British forces in 1945 after secretly entering into peace talks with the Allies under Hitler's nose. However, he committed suicide before he could be brought to trial.
Above, Himmler and Hitler (third from right) meet with other top Nazi officials at an unidentified location at the outset of the war.AFP/Getty Images
Auschwitz, located in southern Poland, was the Nazis' deadliest concentration camp. With more than 1.1 million deaths between 1940 and 1945, Auschwitz alone had a higher death total than the U.S. and U.K. losses during the entire war combined.
And of the 7,500 camp staff responsible for those deaths, only 750 were ever punished, with many of the others going on to successful postwar careers in the private sector.
Above: Women and children exit train cars after their arrival at Auschwitz.STF/AFP/Getty
While it didn't match the death toll of Auschwitz, Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany earned a reputation as one of the most brutal of all the Nazi extermination sites.
In addition to the thousands left to die slow deaths due to disease and malnutrition, many met their horrific end at the hands of master sergeant Martin Sommer, the "Hangman of Buchenwald."
Sommer became famous for hanging his victims by their wrists in the nearby wooded area, which became known, due to the victims' excruciated wailing, as "the singing forest."
Above: Buchenwald survivors walk to the infirmary after being liberated by the American army in 1945. ERIC SCHWAB/AFP/Getty Images
At southern Germany's Dauchau concentration camp -- the first but one of the least deadly camps -- Soviet prisoners of war were one group that met a particularly hideous fate.
Nazi officers lined up Soviet soldiers on their shooting range and used them for target practice. Ultimately, 4,000 Soviets were killed at the camp.
Above: A Russian teenager imprisoned at Dachau.ERIC SCHWAB/AFP/Getty Images
Over the course of eight days, starting on May 27, 1940, more than 338,000 British troops (140,000 French, Polish and Belgian troops) were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, France and ferried back across the English Channel into Britain during Operation Dynamo. They had been trapped there by the German army following the Allied defeat in the Battle of France.
This dramatic, pivotal escape saw British civilians contributing to the rescue effort with everything from private yachts, lifeboats, paddle steamers, and barges. were also saved.
Churchill hailed Dunkirk as a “miracle” and it remains a sacred episode in British history to this day.AFP/Getty Images
Hitler assumed that after the Nazis captured France, Britain would seek a peace agreement with Germany. When no agreement came, he proposed a plan to invade Britain, Operation Sea Lion, but it was never carried out.
Above: Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill smokes a cigar while watching a military operation in Florence.CPT TANNER - No 2 Army Film and /AFP/Getty Images
With casualty estimates as high as nearly 1.8 million, the Battle of Stalingrad -- in which Soviet forces drove back the Germans in southern Russia in late 1942 and early 1943 -- is widely thought to be both the turning point of World War II and the single bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. push German forces back during the Battle of Stalingrad.STF/AFP/GettyImages
The Soviets trained approximately 2,000 women as sharpshooters, some of whom ended up becoming among the Red Army's most deadly.
Some of the most fearsome included Liza Mironova, Roza Shanina, once called "the terror of East Prussia," and Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was credited with a record 309 kills.
Above: Russian sniper Liza Mironova in 1943. AFP/Getty Images
D-Day, June 6, 1944, marked the beginning of the Allied invasion of Europe and remains the largest naval, land, and air operation in history.
More than 20,000 paratroopers dropped into Nazi-occupied France, while around 104,000 troops landed on Normandy's beaches.STF/AFP/Getty Images
In total, 425,000 German and Allied soldiers were either killed or wounded during the course of the invasion of Normandy, but it was a decisive victory for the Allies, and would eventually lead to the liberation of France and Belgium in the later months of 1944, marking a turning point in the war in favor of the Allies. STF/AFP/Getty Images
Although Dwight D. Eisenhower, later President of the United States for two terms, was a five-star general, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, leader of the Normandy invasion, and perhaps the most revered military man in U.S. history, he never saw a single day of active combat in his entire career.
Above: Eisenhower gives instructions to paratroopers ahead of the D-Day landing in Normandy.AFP/Getty Images
Once the Axis powers fell, ten months after the invasion of Normandy, they fell all at once.
On April 28, 1945, Italian leader Benito Mussolini was executed. Then, just two days later, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin to avoid capture by the approaching Red Army.
Above: German soldiers surrender to Allied forces in a small French village in December 1944.AFP/Getty Images
On August 25, 1944, Allied troops, led by French General Jacques Leclerc, freed France from German occupation. However, the city could not have been liberated without the help of French resistance fighters, known officially as the French Forces of the Interior, who had been squabbling with the German army since August 22. By the time Allied forces encircled the city, most of the German soldiers had actually already fled. AFP/Getty Images
The liberation of Paris, however, took a dark turn.
The day after the Nazi surrender, the Allied forces paraded down the Champs-Élysées (above). But then, women who were suspected of sleeping with Nazis during the occupation were dragged into the streets and had their heads shaved to publicly shame them. AFP/Getty Images
French men who had allied with the Nazis were swiftly punished after the liberation as well.
While hundreds of thousands joined the French Resistance (above), many French men joined either the paramilitary arm of the Nazi-controlled French government of directly joined the German army.
After the liberation, France underwent what became known as "the savage purge" as approximately 10,000 collaborators were executed, most without any kind of due process, with as many as 77 shot at once, in one particularly violent incident.Wikimedia Commons
Some of the era's most respected artists carried out missions for the French Resistance.
Writer Edmonde Charles-Roux (above) joined the resistance as a nurse, singer Josephine Baker worked for French military intelligence, passing information to the Allies, and Nobel Prize-winning writer Samuel Beckett acted as a resistance courier.STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
While largely skipped over in the history books, Greece suffered one of the worst fates of any country involved in the war.
Then, upon liberation in late 1944, the British army fired into a crowd of protesters who had served in the Greek resistance movement, killing 28 people, hoping to stifle the influence of Communism there.
Not long after, Greece descended into a three-year civil war that would take 50,000 lives.
British soldiers in Athens in December 1944.AFP/Getty Images
One of the strangest events of the war took place on May 5, 1945, when the U.S. army liberated Itter Castle, in Austria.
During the war, the Nazis imprisoned top French figures and army officers, including three former prime ministers and tennis champion Jean Borotra, at the castle. With the war ending, the German guards fled the castle, leaving the prisoners trapped inside.
Two of them managed to escape on bikes, where they met Josef Gangl, a former German officer who was by then collaborating with the Austrian resistance. Gangl tracked down a U.S. army tank (above), led by Captain Jack Lee, who carried out the rescue mission to the castle. ERIC SCHWAB/AFP/Getty Images
While the Germans officially surrendered to Allied forces on May 8, 1945, Nazi commanders had been secretly negotiating surrenders of their armies under Hitler's nose for weeks.
One instrument of surrender for the German army in Italy was even signed the day before Hitler's death (which occurred on April 30), although the commander in question denied the signing until after Hitler died.
Above: On May 8, 1945, henceforth known as Victory in Europe Day, men buy newspapers in the streets of Paris announcing "capitulation" — the total surrender of the German army to the Allies. AFP/Getty Images
The effects of the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Japan in August 1945 are far more devastating than the 120,000 that were killed then and there.
Those effects are still being regularly studied by a Japanese/American research group to this day, with findings indicating that the risk of cancer among the survivors has widely doubled, with the risk of certain cancers, like leukemia, as much as quadrupling.
Above: In 1948, three years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, children in those cities still wore masks to protect themselves from the deadly radiation.AFP/Getty Images
The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 emitted heat 40 times that of the sun and instantly killed 80,000 (and eventually killed another 70,000) and destroyed 70 percent of the city. However, virtually the only living things to survive within the blast zone were a small handful of trees of the supremely resilient gingko variety that still stand to this day.
Above: Hiroshima, still devastated in 1948, three years after the bombing.AFP/Getty Images
Although British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was seen as a beloved wartime hero both then and now, he was actually voted out of office just after the war and right in the middle of the historic Potsdam Conference, at which the Allied leaders ironed out the particulars of the treaties and the post-war order.
News reached Churchill in Germany about a week into the conference, and he was quickly replaced at the all-important meeting table by his successor, Clement Attlee.
Above: From left, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin, leaders of the Allied powers, shake hands during the Potsdam Conference.AFP/Getty Images
World War II finally and totally came to an end on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri (above). However, the reasons for that surrender may not have been what you think.
While most assume that the Japanese decided to surrender because of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some historians argue that it was the imminent invasion of Japanese territory by the Soviets -- who had not yet declared war on Japan and who the Japanese hoped would help them broker a favorable ceasefire -- that most informed the decision to surrender.AFP/Getty Images
While the Nuremberg trials famously brought 24 of the leading Nazi war criminals before the wheels of justice and are generally accepted to be the ultimate act of comeuppance for the Third Reich, many, including those who were there at the time, claim that the trials were so unfair to the Germans that they themselves were tantamount to a war crime.
Lead American prosecutor Robert Jackson, in an October 1945 letter to President Harry Truman, wrote that the Allies themselves "have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for. The French are so violating the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war that our command is taking back prisoners sent to them. We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practising it."AFP/Getty Images
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey. She holds a Master's in writing from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Food & Wine, The Guardian, Yahoo, BBC, HuffPost, VICE, MSN, and Vulture.
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.