World War II: Battlefield Europe

In partnership with
Professor David R. Stone, PhD
U.S. Naval War College
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Course No. 8762
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Examine the strategies involved in executing Allied and Axis military campaigns.
  • numbers Explore how new technologies changed the way the war was fought in Europe.
  • numbers Go inside the heads of political and military leaders like Churchill, Rommel, Patton, and Stalin.
  • numbers Uncover how events in the European Theater laid the groundwork for the Cold War.
  • numbers Investigate how the war played out in countries like Denmark and Norway.

Course Overview

In more ways that you can imagine, today’s geopolitical climate is a product of World War II. The United States, France, Germany, Russia, and Britain—all of these world powers and their sense of place in the 21st century were profoundly shaped by the most savage, sweeping war in human history.

The topic of World War II’s European Theater is so vast that it requires an expert historian to make sense of it all. How was the war in Europe fought over the course of seven long, arduous years? What led to Germany’s early sustained gains, and what eventually stymied its advances? Why did the war in Europe unfold the way it did, and what socio-economic factors led to Germany’s unconditional surrender after millions of lives were lost?

For award-winning Professor David R. Stone of the U.S. Naval War College, it all boils down to a matter of strategy. Strategic choices—political ones, economic ones, military ones—are the organizing principles that can help any of us make sense of the war in Europe. “Political and military leaders had to make hard decisions,” Professor Stone says. “We can learn a lot by looking at those choices.”

World War II: Battlefield Europe is Professor Stone’s expansive 24-lecture exploration of the 20th century’s defining conflict. Designed in partnership with HISTORY® and using a distinctly European perspective (in which the United States is a supporting player instead of a main character), this course provides a fresh lens through which to study the European Theater’s major battles, larger-than-life personalities, twists of fate, and tales of intrigue. You’ll uncover the strategic decisions behind U-boat assaults, urban bombing campaigns, Operation Barbarossa, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the invasion of Italy, the French resistance, the fall of Berlin, V-2 rockets, and so much more. By the end of the last lecture, you’ll better understand why the war in Europe unfolded the way it did—and why its legacy resonates for all players down to this very day.

While World War II had two theaters of combat, the European Theater of 1939 to 1945 was the violent core of this global conflict between the forces of totalitarianism and those of freedom. It was on the European continent where Nazi Germany began its project of expansion and murder. It was on the European continent where Allied and Axis forces clashed at Stalingrad, el-Alamein, Anzio, and Normandy. And it was on the European continent where Nazi Germany was ultimately defeated and the stage was set for the Cold War that would consume the post-war world.

Strategic Looks at Epic Battles

In developing World War II: Battlefield Europe, Professor Stone came up with the conservative estimate that there are over 300,000 books and 30,000 scholarly articles dealing with World War II. It’s a conflict that’s so enormous, no one can master it all at once.

That’s why these lectures dig deep into the European Theater of war, and specifically the real-life military and political strategies behind some of the war’s most definitive battles.

  • The Battle of Britain: From the second half of 1940 through most of 1941, the British Royal Air Force and its German equivalent, the Luftwaffe, waged a desperate struggle for control of the skies over England. Dubbed the Battle of Britain by Winston Churchill, the fight raises a number of important strategic questions, including whether Germany’s shift from attacking the RAF to bombing British cities (which appealed to Hitler’s desire to make Britain suffer) might have cost the Nazis their chance at victory.
  • The Battle of Stalingrad: While Stalingrad (known today as the city of Volgograd) was one of World War II’s most decisive battles, the regional industrial center in the southeastern section of European Russia wasn’t important in itself. But the city sits where the Volga River takes a big swing westward as it flows south into the Caspian Sea, which meant the Germans couldn’t let the city remain in Soviet hands as it was too big a threat to the flank of their push to grab the oil fields around the Azerbaijani city of Baku.
  • The D-Day Invasion: Training for war is, naturally, serious business. It was even more so for the Allied invasion of Europe. Two months before the landing at Utah Beach, 750 American soldiers died at Slapton Sands in southwest England during a training exercise, which was attacked by the Germans. Because a number of the dead Americans had been briefed on the D-Day invasion plans, their bodies had to be recovered to ensure they hadn’t been captured and the plan wasn’t compromised.
  • The Battle of the Atlantic: What finally turned the tide in favor of Allied submarines and sea forces? Much of the eventual victory was due to technological developments, including better sonar and radar with which to find enemy subs; a forward-firing battery of depth charges known as “the hedgehog”; and a torpedo known as “Fido” (deliberately called a mine to be misleading to the enemy), which could track submerged submarines and, more important, could be dropped from Allied aircraft.

Provocative Questions, Illuminating Answers

A large part of military strategy isn’t just executing plans, but learning lessons from both victory and defeat. Professor Stone contextualizes the defining moments of World War II by illustrating what the various armies on the European continent took away from their clashes.

For example, after the Soviet victory at the Battle of Moscow in 1941, Hitler, who’d always had trouble taking the advice of military professionals, fired his army commander-in-chief and made himself the German army’s supreme commander. Stalin, on the other hand, came to the right conclusion: Civilian leaders should trust military professionals to make the decisions they’re not competent to make.

Throughout World War II: Battlefield Europe, you’ll get the opportunity to explore challenging and provocative questions about why the European Theater turned out the way it did. Using military and historical expertise, Professor Stone uncovers answers to these and other long-simmering issues.

  • How did European anti-Semitism evolve from a belief system rooted in religion to one rooted in race and biology?
  • What kept other European powers from re-engaging Germany and stopping Hitler long before he grew too powerful?
  • Why did Hitler break his non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union—and what made him think such a radical move would work?
  • Could the Allied forces have done anything to stop, or even just to slow down, the horrors of the Holocaust?
  • Why, with Berlin under siege and German defeat inevitable, did Hitler keep fighting—and why did his army let him do it?
  • A Definitive Learning Experience

    World War II: Battlefield Europe puts you in the heat of battle alongside an award-winning military historian. In his role as Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, Professor Stone is adept at helping laypeople understand the secret mechanics of warfare: how decisions are made, how forces move, and how battles are won (and lost).

    In addition to Professor Stone’s brilliant scholarship, these lectures are powered by HISTORY’s extensive, high-quality coverage of World War II. Strategic maps, photographs, film footage, and illustrated recreations make this course a definitive learning experience unlike anything The Great Courses has ever before produced.

    “Informed citizens need to understand their history,” says Professor Stone. With its profound effect on the world for decades following the conflict, World War II is a central part of that history.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    The Battle of Moscow, December 1941
    Start this series with an examination of what Professor Stone sees as the critical turning point of World War II: the Battle of Moscow in December 1941. At the opening of the fight, Hitler stood on the verge of total victory; by the end, a massive Soviet counteroffensive marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis. x
  • 2
    Anti-Semitism and the Nazis
    Hitler's effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe is a central part of the way we think about Nazism and World War II. Here, investigate the evolution of anti-Semitism in Europe from a belief system rooted in religion to a new form of anti-Semitism that was racial and biological-an evolution that paved the way for the Holocaust. x
  • 3
    Tearing Up the Treaty of Versailles
    What elements in the Treaty of Versailles made it a priority for Hitler to undermine and destroy? What factors kept other global powers from stopping Hitler's rise to power? What made the Spanish Civil War a symptom of World War II? How did the fate of Czechoslovakia weaken Stalin's faith in an alliance with the West? x
  • 4
    The War Begins, 1939
    With Germany's land grab in 1939, Britain and France reluctantly concluded that Hitler was bent on European domination. Follow the story of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, the dramatic invasion of Poland in September 1939, and the rise of a new kind of German warfare called blitzkrieg (lightning war")." x
  • 5
    The Nazis Rise to Power, 1922-1933
    Adolf Hitler launched a catastrophic war that killed an estimated 60 million people. What brought this murderous individual-and his murderous ideology-into power in Nazi Germany? In this lecture, Professor Stone puts the rise of Nazi Germany in context of the European environment of the 1920s and 1930s. x
  • 6
    The Fall of France, Spring 1940
    Investigate how Hitler achieved such a rapid and smashing initial advance in World War II. Topics include Germany's campaigns in Denmark and Norway, the collapse of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government, the French defeat in the Battle of the Meuse River, and the rise of the Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Petain. x
  • 7
    The Battle of Britain-and the Blitz
    Study the strategic decisions during one of the most dramatic chapters in World War II: the Battle of Britain. Why did Britain keep fighting from a seemingly hopeless position? Why did Hitler attempt to use air power to drive Britain out of the war? How did the island nation eventually deliver Hitler his first real failure? x
  • 8
    Britain and Germany's Standoff at Sea
    Here, explore how Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Karl Donitz shaped Germany's surface and U-boat fleets, how Germany and Britain faced a whale-elephant" problem during the war at sea, and how the daring British attack on the naval base at Taranto in 1940 hinted at the attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor a year later." x
  • 9
    Hitler, Stalin, and Operation Barbarossa
    By the spring and summer of 1940, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was under real strain. Go inside the strategic decision-making behind Hitler's decision to break his non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and to ignite Operation Barbarossa in a grand (and flawed) effort to invade and conquer Stalin's Russia. x
  • 10
    Roosevelt, Isolationism, and Lend-Lease
    Follow the transition in the United States from a period of isolationism in the 1920s to preparations for possible war with Germany in 1940. Topics include the five neutrality acts designed to prevent the United States from being drawn into war, the push for U.S. rearmament in the late 1930s, and the Plan Dog Memorandum: a classic piece of military strategy. x
  • 11
    North Africa and the Battle of el-Alamein
    Trace the Mediterranean and North African campaigns through 1943, with a focus on Mussolini's ambition to create a new Roman empire-an ambition that would collapse into ignominious failure. Also, investigate the mechanics of the climactic battle of el-Alamein and the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa code-named Operation Torch. x
  • 12
    The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-1943
    Turn now to the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the epic struggles of World War II-and in all of military history. Professor Stone puts the dramatic Stalingrad campaign into a broader strategic context and reveals how the German army's losses made a possible victory in Europe impossible to imagine. x
  • 13
    Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe
    Take a step back from the chronology of World War II to think about how European countries occupied by Nazi Germany both collaborated with and resisted their occupiers. You'll look at heroic examples of resistance and espionage in Norway, the French resistance against Germany, and important partisan movements in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. x
  • 14
    The Holocaust
    In the second half of 1941, Hitler decided to murder every Jew in Europe. How did the extermination camp system operate? How did one escapee manage to inform others about the horrors of Auschwitz? What could the Allies have done to stop (or even slow down) the Holocaust? x
  • 15
    U-Boats and the Battle of the Atlantic
    First, explore the development of submarine warfare and the typical stages of a submarine encounter in the Atlantic. Then, examine how German U-boats caught the United States off guard and how British intelligence helped ships avoid German wolf packs." Lastly, take a closer look at the strategy of the Battle of the Atlantic, where the Allied struggle was finally won." x
  • 16
    The Allies Invade Italy: Sicily to Anzio
    Was the Allied invasion of Italy a strategic necessity or, as many at the time suggested, a sideshow? Consider both sides in this lecture on Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, and two key battles-at Monte Cassino and Anzio-that illustrate the incredible tenacity of Allied soldiers, but also the uninspired generalship that led to an enormous waste of lives. x
  • 17
    Strategic Bombing over Germany
    While precise figures are difficult to determine, it's estimated that some 500,000 lives in Germany were lost to Allied bombing. In this lecture, ponder the costs and rewards of strategic bombing during World War II in terms of dollars and human lives. Should Britain and the United States have invested their resources in something else? x
  • 18
    Allied Industry, Spying, and Wonder Weapons
    Discover the ways that intelligence (from spying to espionage to assassination) contributed to the Allies' ultimate battlefield success. Follow Germany's desperate search for miracle weapons like the V-2 rocket. Explore why the real miracle weapon of World War II wasn't a weapon at all, but mass industrial production. x
  • 19
    Soviets, Germans, and the Eastern Front
    Learn how military events on the Eastern Front from 1943 to 1945 drove political deal-making between the Germans and the Soviets. Focus on Operation Citadel, the German counteroffensive at Kursk; how Germany's smaller allies, including Hungary and Romania, got off Hitler's sinking ship; and the largest operation of World War II (which followed 17 days after D-Day), the Soviet offensive in Belorussia that resulted in the biggest defeat in German military history. x
  • 20
    D-Day at Last, June 1944
    Go behind the scenes of the most iconic military operation of the war: the D-Day invasion of mainland Europe. Focus on Germany's strategy for defense against the coming invasion (including debates over fighting before or after the Allies arrived ashore) and the Slapton Sands landing exercise, where hundreds of Allied soldiers died after an attack by small German attack craft known as E-boats. x
  • 21
    Hitler Runs Out of Options, Fall 1944
    Follow the progress of Allied forces as they steadily ground down German formations, reinforcements, and supplies. Finally, reach the last major German offensive of the Western Front at the Battle of the Bulge, which carved a hole 60 miles deep and 30 miles wide in the American line. x
  • 22
    Soviet Push to Berlin and Yalta Power Play
    With overwhelming advantages in men, tanks, and artillery, the Soviets smashed through German lines in Poland and made their way toward Berlin. Learn how this push set the stage for the momentous agenda at the Allied leadership conference in Yalta, where plans were made to stop a future Germany from starting another global war. x
  • 23
    Eisenhower's Endgame in Europe
    Why did Hitler keep fighting even when he knew all hope was lost? Why did his generals and their armies stick with him? How did the Allies finally bring an end to German resistance? How did Eisenhower and the Soviets debate the terms of surrender? Find out in this penultimate lecture. x
  • 24
    War's End: Picking Up the Pieces
    From the fate of everyday Germans and captured German leadership to the creation of NATO and the European Union, take stock of the global situation at the end of World War II. It was a time that would see a system of cooperation for the Allies-as well as the dawn of a lengthy Cold War with the Soviet Union. x

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Your professor

David R. Stone

About Your Professor

David R. Stone, PhD
U.S. Naval War College
David R. Stone is a Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, where he began teaching in 2015 and became chair of its Strategy and Policy Department in 2018. He received a B.A. in History and Mathematics from Wabash College and a Ph.D. in History from Yale University, and he taught at Hamilton College and Kansas State University. Professor Stone’s book Hammer and Rifle: The Militarization of the...
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World War II: Battlefield Europe is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 86.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A good start. A good overview of the war in Europe lacking depth. Lecturer not overly exciting and offered nothing new. Would have like to see more strategic analysis of some of the campaigns.
Date published: 2020-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding general survey I already have a fairly extensive knowledge of the Second World War, and was particularly looking forward to comparing this course, and its companion The Pacific Theatre, with the iconic British documentary series of the 1970's, 'The World At War', which is of similar length. Professor Stone did not disappoint, I found his approach to be refreshingly informal and up-to-date, and sensibly even-handed in the more controversial areas. Overall, I would highly recommend this course to anyone seeking a general introduction to the war: even people who consider themselves to be specialists, will find much to entertain, amuse and sometimes provoke. The one area that I found slightly less satisfactory, was that some of the video footage used bears no relation whatsoever to the subject being discussed - for instance while discussing German production of anti-aircraft guns, showing footage of field artillery, and while discussing German fighter aircraft, showing film of a flight of Stuka dive-bombers! However this is a minor (some might say pedantic) point, and certainly does not hold me back from awarding a resounding 5-star review.
Date published: 2020-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Strategy—Tactics Not so Much There is not too much that can be written about WWII that has not gone through the grist mill already, usually more than once. Given this, Professor Stone does an excellent job with his allotted twelve hours of lecture time. By restricting himself to the European theatre and by focusing almost exclusively on the “big picture” he manages to cover the war from the problems with the Treaty of Versailles and the global Great Depression to the foundations of NATO and the beginning of the Cold War. But don’t expect detailed maps of even the major battles that show which division went where, when and how hard. Every once in a while there will be a mention of an operation or battle at that level (e.g. relief of Bastogne by the 101st Airborne), but more commonly Army Groups are the level of detail covered in this course. In the same vein, Professor Stone confines himself to the major political and military leaders. We get Zhukov, Von Rundstedt, Eisenhower, Bradley, Donitz, and of course Montgomery and Patton but really no corps or division commanders, except for a very few, such as General McAuliffe’s “Nuts” reply. Even then just a mention. Dr. Stone gives us lots of reasons for why the political and military leaders did what they did and made the decisions they made. And as a bonus he speculates, with authority, on the alternatives and “what ifs” as to those actions and decisions. For example, what if Hitler had not declared war on the United States? There is some discussion of the military campaigns at the strategic level. There is also some discussion on how the “lightening war worked at a high level, along with an occasional map, but there is none of the details of the combined arms concept that was behind it. Nor indeed even any mention of General Guderian who is considered the father of the concept. Not that any of what is missed is wrong, just that those things are not the focus of the course. Otherwise the war is covered on the land, sea, and air and from a civilian perspective. In weaving all of this from the pre-beginnings to after the end into one fabric, Professor Stone does a simply remarkable job. I thought that I knew quite a bit about the subject and did not expect to gain a great deal from the course, but I was happily mistaken. Dr. Stone speaks clearly and unhurriedly, and his style is mostly relaxed. The course structure is well organized, though not in the normal chronological perspective that is usual in subjects. He starts right in with the Battle of Moscow, seeing it as the critical turning point of the war. While this may be arguable, I consider it a fresh way to view the conflict—start at the pivot and then move back and forth by topic more than by what happened on any one day after another. As furtherance it is refreshing to see credit given to those who did the majority of the fighting and dying and where that took place. A few reviewers wished for an audio only option, but for me, even though there were not a lot of maps, the visuals and those maps that were provided were valuable. Highly recommended,
Date published: 2020-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from We were hooked! Loved this series. What made it especially interesting was Professor Stone's strategic approach to the material (his background is military strategy) and how the Allies, Soviets and Germans played off each other. Bottom line, it was a brutal, ugly war but Professor Stone made each 30 minute lecture utterly fascinating. The only thing I'd change is the maps which were difficult to see on screen--the color combination and labeling.
Date published: 2020-09-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from well told, I was spellbound listening to these lectures
Date published: 2020-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Standing Ovation With underwhelming remote learning, my 12 year old and I took social studies refuge under Professor Stone's wing. His organization of such a magnanimous war theater helped us to process information easily. Each lecture was fascinating. Although I love history and have seen much on WWII, I learned so many new things about the war.
Date published: 2020-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great grinder A very interresting course, I learned a lot from it.
Date published: 2020-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Survey of World War II in Europe This course represents a great survey of the European Theater in World War II, with emphasis on policy objectives and strategic plans implemented by the Allies, in addition to some discussion of policy advances and strategical maneuvers put into action by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders of the Third Reich. Professor Stone teaches strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, and so the course emphasis is squarely on these elements during the waging of a World War. He speaks clearly and offers his own well-thought-out opinions, always backed by stated reasons for them. All of his oral lectures are accompanied by a bevy of relevant and illustrative historical photos and video clips showing World War II-related combat actions and formal meetings of Allied political leaders, mostly in black-and-white footage. I found it to be refreshing that many of them I had never seen before. There are also a few shocking and disturbing video clips of what the Allied soldiers found upon their liberation of some concentration camps. I wish there had been more coverage of D-Day on and just beyond the Normandy beaches--although there was surely some. And I looked forward to hearing exactly how Germany and Berlin were divided into sectors by the Allied powers immediately following Germany's surrender, but this was not included in course subject matter. Nevertheless, on balance this is an excellent and fairly comprehensive course highly suitable for both World War II buffs and those unfamiliar with this important Twentieth Century clash of nations who would like to learn more about it. I just hope that Professor Stone soon prepares a companion course to be offered by The Great Courses titled "World War II: Battlefield Pacific." I would buy it in a heartbeat!
Date published: 2020-07-20
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