World War II is considered the most widespread and deadliest war in human history, as it involved a good majority of the world’s countries, including the great superpowers of that time. It directly affected a ghastly 100 million people and was marked by the death of approximately 11 million individuals in the Holocaust and resulted in 50 to 85 million fatalities during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The war was said to have begun on September 1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, leading to France and the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany. It was exacerbated by several other events, including Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, in its attempt to conquer the Western Pacific region.
Though the Allied Forces eventually emerged victorious, it doesn’t change the fact that so many innocent lives were lost in this battle for dominance. In any conflict, the ones who are most affected are women and children. These photos depict the horrors that they went through in those dark days of mayhem. But at the same time, some photos also depict the brave acts many women performed during a male-dominated era in time.
15 Women doing their part
Photo on the left: Women’s home defense units were commonplace in Britain during the war. They were formed so that women could learn to defend themselves in the home front should the need arise. One such unit was the Watford Women’s Home Defense Unit, which was composed mainly of businesswomen and professionals. True, female professionals were few and far between during those times, but they did exist. In the photo, taken in 1942, members of the Watford Women’s Home Defense Unit practice their aim on the rifle range, as other members look on, waiting their turn to shoot. This was something they did during their leisure hours.
Photo on the right: This photo was taken in 1941 and shows a team of female firefighters belonging to the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway Road, a hospital in London that was originally located at King’s Cross. The firefighters are shown practicing to put out Blitz fires in 1941.
14 Women are capable
The Mechanised Transport Corps (MTC) was a British women’s organization founded in 1939 by Mrs. G.M. Cooke CBE as a women’s voluntary group. It was recognized by the Ministry of War Transport in 1940, promptly changing its original name from the Mechanised Transport Training Corps (MTTC) to the MTC. A civilian organization that required its members to wear uniforms, it provided drivers for government departments, agencies, and foreign dignitaries. One of its most notable contributions to the war effort was driving ambulances during the Blitz, the heavy air raids carried out over Great Britain in 1940 and 1941. In this photo, the members of the British MTC are shown putting on a united front as they collectively push an ambulance out of a patch of rough ground. The photo was taken in 1940.
13 First female pilots
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a British civilian organization that shuttled military air crafts between assembly plants, factories, transatlantic delivery points, scrap yards, and airfields, but not to naval aircraft carriers. Aside from transporting these new, damaged, or repaired air crafts, the members of the ATA also flew service personnel who needed to be somewhere urgently and performed air ambulance duties. Many of its pilots were women and starting 1943, they received equal pay to their male colleagues, which was certainly a notable step towards gender equality during those times. This photo was taken in 1940 and shows some of the first ever females to be allowed into the British Royal Air Force as pilots. They are shown heading to the runway to prepare to deliver some Royal Air Force trainer planes from their manufacturing plant.
12 Women and betrayal
This haunting photo was taken in 1944 and depicts a French woman with a shaved head. Said French woman was accused of collaborating with the Germans in Rennes, France and the photographer, Lee Miller, was able to capture her distraught look as she was being interrogated for her perceived crime. After this interrogation, she was said to have been publicly shamed as a collaborator and a traitor. For Miller, a woman’s hair was a significant component in capturing the wartime life. This photo hangs at the Imperial War Museum, alongside another photo of a female member of the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur) or the French resistance fighters. The woman sports an extremely elaborate hairstyle, in complete contrast to the accused woman in this photo, who was bald. For the FFI, elaborate hairstyles sent a strong message of defiance to its enemies: it was a symbol of extravagance, of wasting the enemy’s limited resources.
11 Women as nurses
We’ve seen it in movies, but it has certainly happened in real life: in the midst of a bloody battle, scores of injured soldiers are brought back to the camps, where nurses and a doctor or two are waiting to tend to them. Sometimes, there are just so many of the ailing, that the patients have to be placed on the ground because all the beds are occupied. This photo depicts what a nurse looks like after a long and tedious shift. Taken in 1944, this woman is a nurse at the 44th evacuation hospital in Normandy, France. It was taken in a mobile hospital a month after D-day and the subject is just one of 40 nurses tending to the wounded. For one grueling month between July and August, these brave women treated around 4,500 patients and were able to save all but 50. It’s no wonder this woman is tired to the bone.
10 Weary and waiting
The involvement of Luxembourg in the Second World War began when German forces invaded it in 1940 and lasted even after it was liberated by Allied Forces in late 1944 and early 1945. Before the war, the country had approximately 3,500 Jews in its population. But after it was all over, only 36 were known to have survived. This photograph was taken by Lee Miller, who followed the allied forces through Europe as they freed each country one at a time. She took many haunting photos, including this one, depicting a tired mother and her equally weary son waiting at a crossroads for transportation in Luxembourg. Miller sought to capture the harrowed looks of the civilians and this image certainly conveys the horrors these people went through in the hands of their country’s enemies.
9 Post-war horrors
During World War II, Hungary was a member of the Axis powers, relying heavily on Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for its political and economic affairs, especially during the Great Depression. But the country’s leaders made clandestine deals with the United States and the United Kingdom, members of the Allied Forces and when Adolf Hitler found out, he sent his troops to occupy Hungary in March 1944. Approximately 600,000 Hungarian civilians perished during the war, among them, at least 450,000 Jews. But after the war, both Hungary and Romania came under communist control, much to the chagrin of their citizens. This photo was taken by Lee Miller in 1946, showing two children who lost their home to the ravages of war. They stand in front of a poster that proclaims democracy, which Hungary only experienced when communism was abolished in 1989.
8 Ghastly gas masks
One can only imagine what runs through a child’s mind when he is a first-hand witness to the horrors of war. This is especially true for those who are in the warfront, as they see and hear the screams, the blood, the gory killings, and the bombings. But even children who aren’t in the middle of the battle are indirectly affected in the way their countrymen take precautions to keep them safe. In World War II, bombs rained down on British cities, as German’s attempted to squash their Allied Force enemies. Youthful innocence was all but stolen as the children’s safety was prioritized. This photo shows the first group of British children to be evacuated to the more peaceful countryside. They are shown participating in a chilling gas-attack drill at their school and their faces are hidden by the ghastly gas masks they were required to wear.
7 Hiding and scared
The Blitz, derived from the German word Blitzkrieg or “lightning war,” was the name used by the British press in reference to the heavy air raids the Germans carried out over Britain in 1940 and 1941. The eight months of bombing resulted in more than one million houses in London damaged and 40,000 civilians killed. If children weren’t sent to the countryside to protect them from the bombings, they were hastily shepherded to city bomb shelters as the warning sirens of the raids signaled the beginning of the explosions. This heartbreaking photo depicts three little children huddled together in the shelter, listening as the city above them is bombed. The three children are blind, so one can just imagine how their keen sense of hearing is affected by the strong explosions.
6 Torn from their families
September 1, 1939 came to be known as the beginning of one of the most somber times in British history. It marked the commencement of the greatest evacuation effort of children the country had ever seen, a movement with the code name Operation Pied Piper. It was done during World War II to keep the children in safe havens away from the big cities, which were deemed hot targets for attacks from the Germans. Thus, children were separated from their parents, who stayed in the city to help with the war effort. The worst part of the experience was having to bid goodbye to each other. In this photo, evacuees are getting ready to leave for the countryside and your heart can’t help but break, especially at the image of the crying little boy on the far-right.
5 Children behind bars
All wars are horrific, but World War II takes the cake in terms of the worst mass genocide in history, a genocide that was infamously known as the Holocaust. Because of Adolf Hitler’s demented idea to create a superior race by annihilating those he saw as “imperfect,” around six million European Jews were killed by soldiers of Nazi Germany, with victims including 1.5 million children. Starting 1933, the Nazis began to establish a network of concentration camps, which were initially used to hold and torture political opponents and union organizers. By the start of World War II, the number of prisoners grew to 21,000 and it peaked to 715,000 by January 1945. What was worse was the fact that little children were placed behind these horrific barbed wires. This photo was taken sometime between 1941 and 1942, showing youngsters trapped behind the fence in a German concentration camp in the occupied part of the Karelian ASSR.
4 Held at gun point
Poland holds a significant place in World War II history because it was the invasion of this small Eastern European country that started it all. Nazi Germany joined forces with the Soviet Union, the Free City of Danzig, and a contingent from Slovak and entered Poland starting September 1, 1939. By October 6, German and Soviet forces gained full control over Poland, resulting in enormous human and economic losses. Around 5.8 million Polish citizens were said to have perished in the hands of the Germans and Russians, more than half of them being Jews. Soldiers treated the locals harshly with no consideration whatsoever of how their violent ways would affect the citizens, even women and children. This photo, taken in 1943, shows innocent bystanders with their hands up in the air as soldiers hold them at gun point.
3 Horrors of Auschwitz
Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of German Nazi concentration camps and more horrifically, extermination camps, built in Nazi-occupied areas of Poland. From early 1942 to late 1944, trains transported Jews to the camp’s gas chambers, where they were mercilessly killed with a pesticide. An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz and of that number, a staggering 1.1 million died. If the prisoners weren’t killed in the gas chambers, many of them died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, and medical experiments. No one on the outside was aware of the atrocities that happened in the camp until some survivors wrote memoirs of their experiences. Only then did the camp become a significant symbol of the Holocaust. This photo, taken in 1944, shows some faces of women prisoners pitifully looking out of the train windows.
2 Inhuman conditions
Another one of the many concentration camps during the Second World War was Bergen-Belsen, in what is today Lower Saxony in northern Germany. It was initially an “exchange camp” holding Jewish prisoners with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held abroad. It became a full-fledged concentration camp during the height of the war and aside from Jews, it also held Soviet prisoners of war. Thousands of people perished there, due to overcrowding, lack of food, and poor sanitation conditions, which led to an outbreak of diseases like typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and dysentery. This photo, taken upon the camp’s liberation by the British in April 1945, shows the dire conditions the women were living in. Dozens of them were crammed into a tiny space with barely any room for moving around. They are shown staring dazedly at the camera and one woman covers her face.
1 Heartbreaking salute
Czechoslovakia was just one of several European countries that were occupied by Nazi Germany. Hitler ordered the invasions initially only in Sudetenland, which was previously comprised of the northern, southern, and western areas of Czechoslovakia, areas which were specifically inhabited by ethnic German speakers. Hitler rationalized this invasion by saying he wanted to protect the ethnic Germans in that area, but that was just the beginning. The entire country came under German rule by March 15, 1939, as the Germans needed a major manufacturer of machine guns, tanks, and artillery, most of which were assembled in Czechoslovakia. This heartbreaking photo, taken in October 1938, depicts a Czech woman in tears, as she was being forced to put up her right hand in salute to "welcome" the invading German troops into her beloved country.