21 Of The Biggest Misconceptions About World War II

Published October 25, 2016
Updated March 25, 2019

From the 400,000 Axis soldiers on American shores to the real reason the Japanese surrendered, these World War II myths are sure to surprise.

Myth: American forces were filled with eager volunteers

World War Ii Myths Soldiers
A large part of the naive yet persistent American notion that World War II was "the good war" is the idea that countless young American men volunteered to fight because they simply knew that it was the right thing to do.

However, consider the following: During World War II, two-thirds of U.S. forces were drafted, not enlisted. Yet during the Vietnam War -- the ugly, evil twin to World War II's "good war" -- two-thirds of U.S. forces were enlisted, not drafted.

Pictured: American soldiers, injured while storming Omaha Beach on D-Day, await medical treatment.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The Holocaust's total death toll was 6 million Jews

Pile Of Bones
It is unequivocally clear that approximately 6 million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.

However, that oft-quoted number says nothing of the other nearly half of the Holocaust's total death toll. In addition to the 6 million Jews, the Nazis used their death camps to exterminate a further 5 million civilians coming from many diverse groups including communists, Roma, Serbs, Polish intelligentsia, homosexuals, the disabled, and more.

Pictured: A pile of human bones and skulls sits at the Nazi concentration camp of Majdanek in the outskirts of Lublin, Poland following its liberation in 1944.
AFP/Getty Images

Myth: The largest civilian death tolls were among European Jewish populations

Nanjing Massacre
While the whopping 6 million Jews killed in Europe were most likely dispatched with more despicable and ruthless intent than any other civilian group during the war, that figure pales in comparison to not one, but two others.

Current estimates suggest that the civilian death toll for the Soviet Union was about 13 million and that the civilian death toll for the Chinese (at the hands of the Japanese) was about 14 million.

Pictured: Chinese corpses lie along the banks of the Qinhuai River following the Nanjing Massacre, perpetrated by the Japanese in late 1937 and early 1938.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: Axis soldiers never set foot on American soil

German Prisoners
Few seem to realize that 400,000 Axis soldiers landed in the U.S. between 1942 and 1945. Thankfully for the Americans, however, those 400,000 were prisoners of war.

Dozens of American prison camps across the country housed the hundreds of thousands of prisoners that the European Allies, namely the British, simply didn't have room for.

And by all accounts, the conditions in these camps were pretty good. Prisoners were paid for their labor and provided with amenities like theater, games, and books -- it was a “golden cage,” one prisoner later said.

Pictured: German POWs board a train, bound for prison, in Boston.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The Nazis were the only ones that committed war crimes

Gas Masks
Some students of World War II history may already know of the horrifying war crimes committed by the Japanese, including the 250,000 civilians that the notorious Unit 731 subjected to stomach-turning medical experiments, the 100,000 civilians that they executed in Manila in one fell swoop, or the thousands upon thousands of American POWs they tortured and killed.

But far fewer people likely realize that the Allies committed their share of hideous crimes as well. There's the recent study suggesting that American soldiers raped approximately 14,000 women in England, France, and Germany as well as 10,000 in Okinawa. There's the fact that 60 percent of Japanese corpses in the Mariana Islands were missing their skulls, largely because U.S. soldiers were collecting them. And the list goes on and on and on...

Pictured: Japanese naval forces wearing gas masks prepare to advance during the battle of Shanghai in August 1937. The Japanese illegally used chemical and bacteriological weapons, including fleas carrying the bubonic plague, in many of their battles with the Chinese.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most destructive bombings of the war

Tokyo Bombing
While the instant death tolls at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are as high as 80,000 and 70,000, respectively, the U.S. saved its deadliest bombing raid appropriately enough for the Japanese capital of Tokyo.

On March 9 and 10, 1945, 279 U.S. bombers dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on the city, destroying 16 square miles, killing at least 100,000 and leaving another million each injured and homeless.

Pictured: Tokyo in the aftermath of the bombings.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The atomic bombings convinced Japan to surrender

Nagasaki Cloud
What many people don't realize is that on the very same day that the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb, the Soviet Union invaded Japanese territory.

Before the atomic bombs, the U.S. had already firebombed 66 Japanese cities. "If you look at it from the perspective of the Japanese military, it doesn't really make a big difference whether people are dying from fire bombing or atomic bombs ... it is [just] two additional city centres that are destroyed," said Tokyo's Temple University director of Asian Studies Jeffery Kingston.

On the other hand, war with the Soviet Union meant that the Japanese would have to fight millions more soldiers, on a second front no less. Furthermore, before the Soviet Union invaded Japan, the two countries had a neutrality agreement, which Japan hoped would put the Soviets in a position to broker friendly armistice terms between Japan and the U.S. But with that option gone, Japan's fate was sealed.

Pictured: The atomic cloud rises over Nagasaki just after the bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The U.S. saved the day

Stalingrad Charge
There are many reasons why this notion -- naturally, held almost exclusively in the U.S. -- is patently false, but let's go straight to the most glaring: When World War II ended and the Cold War began, the U.S. and its Western Allies were loath to write a history of the war that attributed the lion's share of their victory to their former ally who was now their enemy: the Soviet Union.

More than any other single country, the Soviet Union is responsible for defeating the Nazis. The ratio of total military losses on the Eastern Front versus the Western Front was an astonishing nine to one, and more than 80 percent of Germany's military deaths occurred in the east.

This, of course, came at an extraordinary cost for the Soviet Union, which lost somewhere around 10 million military personnel (in addition to 13 million or so civilians). The U.S., on the other hand, lost just about 400,000 troops.

Pictured: Soviet soldiers charge during the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43. The battle -- lost by the Germans at a cost of 70,000 lives and 91,000 prisoners -- is widely believed to be perhaps the major turning point of the war in favor of the Allies.

Myth: American forces led D-Day

D Day British
While the operation's ultimate commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was American, its architect, service chiefs, air commander, and naval commander were all British. As for D-Day's vehicles, both Britain's warships and landing craft outnumbered America's more than four to one, and British planes accounted for two-thirds of the aircraft. In fact, one-third of the supplies used by American troops during D-Day came from Britain.

Pictured: British forces land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: It was one big war

Different Climates
It was the world against the Nazis...or so the story goes.

However, the far more complicated truth is that the war was a diverse collection of both related and unrelated geopolitical conflicts that had been building for years, even decades, until enough countries had reached their breaking points that something had to be done -- a tangled morass that had finally reached critical mass.

Among these conflicts were Japan's incursions into China, Italy's incursions into Africa, border disputes between the Soviet Union and Japan, fighting between communists and anti-communists in eastern Europe and on and on and on.

And that's just the beginning...

Pictured: Clockwise from top left: Allied soldiers walk through the Egyptian desert near the battlefield at El Alamein in October, 1942; American infantrymen take position near near Amonines, Belgium on January 4, 1945; U.S. soldiers march during the Battle of Guadalcanal of late 1942 and early 1943; Allied troops move through the city of Brest, France in September 1944.
Clockwise from top left: AFP/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, -/AFP/Getty Images

Myth: It wasn't really a "world" war

Sinking Ship
This truly worldwide war wasn't simply the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France versus Germany, Japan, and Italy.

While the main combatants, in terms of raw numbers of troops deployed, do indeed consist mostly of the nations above, the war eventually elicited official declarations from virtually the entire world, with just a tiny handful of countries remaining neutral.

From naval action in South America to oil fields in the Middle East to land operations in north Africa to reinforcements coming up from New Zealand, no corner of the globe was off the hook.

Pictured: The German battleship Admiral Graf Spee sinks after taking fire from British cruisers on December 17, 1939 off the coast of Montevideo, Uruguay.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Myth: It started in 1939

Italians In Ethiopia
Most history books tell us that World War II began on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Hell, some Americans probably think the war started on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

However, many historians suggest earlier starting points including the Soviet-Japanese fighting in Mongolia in May 1939, the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and even the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

But, a war's victors are always the ones who later write its history. And so the world powers on the winning side of World War II ultimately pegged the start of the war as the moment when they got involved.

Pictured: Italian artillery in Tembien, Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1936.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: Pearl Harbor was a surprise sneak attack

Pearl Harbor Explosion
While the timeline is complicated and the evidence is fuzzy, it does seem to be true that the Japanese intentionally launched the attack without a formal declaration of war, but to call the attack a "surprise" is a mischaracterization.

Tensions between the U.S. and Japan had been high for well over a decade before Pearl Harbor, with the U.S. even drawing up an official war plan for action against Japan way back in 1924. Thirteen years later, the Japanese even bombed an American ship in China.

By the time negotiations began between the two countries in 1941, everyone knew things were nearing the breaking point -- even those outside of the corridors of power. A Gallup poll taken in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, showed that 52 percent of Americans expected war with Japan while just 27 percent did not.

Pictured: The USS Shaw explodes during the raid on Pearl Harbor.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The U.S. stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor Planes Explosion
While the U.S. had indeed declared no war and deployed no troops before Pearl Harbor, the country was absolutely involved in the war before that point. A full six months before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. enacted the Lend-Lease program, which ultimately sent the modern equivalent of $659 billion worth of supplies to overseas allies fighting the war.

Furthermore, it was America's economic sanctions against Japan in 1941 that directly precipitated Pearl Harbor.

To suggest that the U.S. was sitting alone minding its own business before December 7, 1941 is simply not accurate.

Pictured: Several ships including the USS Shaw explode during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The Nazis were duly punished for their crimes

Nuremberg Trials
Until once secret documents came to light just a few years ago, hardly anyone realized that as many as 9,000 Nazis and Nazi collaborators instrumental in orchestrating the Holocaust escaped justice, largely in South America, just after the war.

For comparison, just 6,495 Nazi war criminals ever stood trial. And what's more, many of those who escaped did so with government help from German, South American, and even French leaders who were complicit in Nazi crimes.

Furthermore, thousands of Nazi scientists even went on to play key roles in the space race and weapons development programs for the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Pictured: Twenty-one of the 22 Nazi leaders accused of war crimes stand trial on October 1, 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany.
AFP/Getty Images

Myth: It was the first fully mechanized war

While World War II was indeed mechanized, filled with planes and tanks, like no other war before, it was also far less technologically modern than you realize. Look no further than the classic symbol of pre-mechanized warfare: the horse.

During the war, the Soviet Union employed 3.1 million horses while Germany employed 2.75 million, and also had three times more horses than vehicles when the war began.

Pictured: German SS cavalry in the Soviet Union in 1941.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: Polish soldiers on horseback stupidly charged German tanks

Polish Cavalry
On September 1, 1939, often believed to be the very first day of the war, the story goes that a group of Polish soldiers on horseback foolishly attacked a German division that had tanks and were thus obliterated easily.

Not only is this not true -- the tanks only arrived after the indeed better-equipped German forces had dispatched the Poles -- but the way that the Nazi propaganda machine spun the story both informed a stereotype of Polish stupidity that reverberates to this day and singlehandedly obfuscated a Polish war contribution that involved 400,000 troops.

Polish cavalry prepare to fight invading German forces in September 1939.
STF/AFP/Getty Images

Myth: France simply folded out of weakness

Nazis In Paris
The reason that the Germans conquered France in just six weeks in early 1940 is because, purely on a tactical level, the French simply weren't ready for the radical new style of combat that the Germans were employing. Known as blitzkrieg, this approach saw German units pierce through enemy lines at unparalleled speeds in the hopes of coming back around to encircle the enemy.

The retreating British forces in France, on the other hand, were simply able to escape with hundreds of thousands of troops back across the English Channel. Yet somehow Britain, as a country, didn't acquire a reputation for cowardliness -- nor should they have, just as France shouldn't have.

Pictured: Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler (front row, second from right), walk through Paris in the wake of the German occupation on June 23, 1940.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: The French Resistance played an important role

French Resistance
Current estimates suggest that as little as two percent of the French population engaged in resistance activities of any kind, with a far smaller subsection, as little as half a percent, actually taking on practical missions of sabotaging the Nazi war effort.

Moreover, as historian Robert Paxton wrote in The New York Review of Books, "It is inescapable that most resistance actions within France failed...The bottom line is that the Resistance did not change the war’s outcome. The Allies were going to win, whether the French Resistance helped them or not."

Pictured: Staged photograph of an American officer and a French Resistance fighter in France, 1944.
Wikimedia Commons

Myth: Winston Churchill was a universally revered wartime hero

Churchill Victory Sign
If Churchill was the beloved wartime leader some historians say, why would he and his Conservative Party suffer the single largest defeat in British history in the 1945 elections, before the treaty with Japan was even signed?

Among other things -- including policies that had severely underserved social welfare at home for nearly a decade -- that 1945 defeat surely had a lot to do with Churchill's irrationally hawkish mindset as the war was finally about to end.

For one, there was Churchill's appropriately named Operation Unthinkable in mid-1945. This mission, obviously never executed, would have immediately sent American, British, and, craziest of all, re-armed German forces into a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union (whose troops outnumbered the Allies four to one).

Pictured: Winston Churchill making the victory sign for which he became widely known.
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

Myth: The Western Allies pretty much consisted of the U.S., Britain, and an already defeated France

Hungarian Soldiers
Setting aside the whopping 10 million or so Soviet soldiers who died during the war, even the non-Soviet Allies don't look quite like you think they do.

Yes, Britain and the U.S. each sustained military death totals of about 400,000. But sadly forgotten are the death totals of at least 300,000 each from Hungary, Romania, and Yugloslavia, the 240,000 from Poland, the 87,000 from India, the 3.5 million from China and on and on.

Pictured: Hungarian soldiers in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, 1944.
Wikimedia Commons

So ingrained is the widely accepted narrative of World War II that we can recount the conflict's history in a short series of mere phrases: Hitler rises, France falls, the Holocaust begins, Pearl Harbor burns, D-Day commences, the bomb drops.

However, this narrative -- even in its most fully fleshed-out form -- misrepresents why and when the war started, how and where it progressed along the way, and why and when it ended. This narrative likewise conceals both the greatest devastation committed by the war's "villains" and the greatest triumphs achieved by its "heroes."

Did you know, for example, that the war didn't begin in 1939 and didn't end because of the bomb? Did you know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't even the deadliest bombings of the war, that 400,000 Axis soldiers made it onto American shores, or that the body count of the Holocaust is about twice as big as you think it is?

The facts and photos above begin to reveal the story of the war as it actually happened, not the narrative propagated by its most powerful victors after the fact. These are 21 World War II myths that desperately needed to be debunked.

Enjoy debunking these World War II myths? Next, discover 31 surprising World War II facts that even most history buffs don't know. Then, read up on ten American history myths you probably believe.

John Kuroski
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.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
Cite This Article
Kuroski, John. "21 Of The Biggest Misconceptions About World War II." AllThatsInteresting.com, October 25, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/world-war-ii-myths. Accessed April 18, 2024.