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World War II: (1939-1941)

Teacher Guide by Matt Campbell

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our World History Category!

WWII 1939-1941 Lesson Plans

Student Activities for World War II: (1939-1941) Include:

On September 1st, 1939 the world watched as the Nazi war machine invaded Poland. Adolph Hitler’s belligerent action to invade Poland created a ripple effect that, over the next few years, almost every country on the planet would feel. From 1939-1941 the world witnessed the beginnings of yet another World War that for many countries reached near apocalyptic levels.

World War II: (1939-1941) Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Understanding the German Blitzkrieg

Students will create a spider map that reflects the major impacts of the German Blitzkrieg in the early war. Students’ spider maps will follow the “5W” model of create a “Who, What, When, Where, and Why” style of question, a visual representation of their question and answer, along with a written description in the text box below each of the visualizations. Students are encouraged to use either the designed artwork on StoryboardThat, or research pictures using the Photos For Class search bar provided above their storyboards.


Possible Questions


  1. Who inspired the Blitzkrieg style of warfare?
  2. What was the German Blitzkrieg?
  3. When was the Blitzkrieg first used?
  4. Where was the German Blitzkrieg most effective?
  5. Why was the Blitzkrieg used?

Extended Activity

For this extended activity, students should present their spider maps to their peers with the goal of finding other peers that answered similar questions to the ones that they created and comparing their answers. What can be useful for this activity is giving each students a “KWL Chart” that has students reflect throughout the activity about what they “Know, Want to Know, and Learned” from this activity.

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World War II Timeline 1939-1941

In this activity, students will research the time period of 1939-1941 and create a detailed timeline that reflects the major events of the first few years of the war. For each event, students should create a title of the event, a visual representation, and a written description that includes the overall significance of the event. In order for students to thrive in this assignment, they should be encouraged to research ten events, and select the five that they found to be the most interesting.


Example World War II Timeline


September 1, 1939

Germany Invades Poland

On September 1st, 1939 under orders from Adolph Hitler, Germany began its three-pronged attack into Poland from the north, south, and west. Poland wouldn't formally surrender, but by October the Polish troops were ordered to relocate to France.
June 14, 1940

The Germans Take Paris

On June 14th, 1940 at 8:00PM, Parisians watched as German tanks, soldiers, and aircraft entered the city of Paris. Over 2 million Parisians fled before the Nazi arrival as the purge of Jews and political foes began simultaneously with German arrival.
September 27,1940

The Tripartite Pact

On September, 27th 1940 the Tripartite Pact, otherwise known as the "Berlin Pact", was signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Under this agreement, each of the three countries agreed to unite against any aggressor that violated the sovereignty of the three nations.
March 11, 1941

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Lend-Lease Deal

On March 11th, 1941 with the approval of Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began the Lend Lease Program. Under this program, the United States appropriated money to “the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.”
December 7, 1941

Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor

On Sunday, December 7th 1941, a date in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared would "live in infamy", the nation of Japan attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This belligerent action would become the catalyst for the United States to enter World War II.


Extended Activity

For the extension activity, students can create an entire class timeline. Students will be required to print out their events and cut and paste them to a larger timeline in the front of the class. Before each student adds an event they should share with the class the event that they are choosing and include at least one fact or description of significance of the event.


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Eyewitness To History: Pearl Harbor

For this activity, students will create a timeline that focuses on a major event that took place in World War II from 1939-1941 through the eyes of individuals that witnessed the event. This activity will allow students the opportunity to incorporate primary sources into their storyboards and really have history come alive! Depending on the guidance from the teacher, students should either choose the event they wish to research or be assigned an event. The main focus of this activity is to have students be able to research a singular event and represent an accurate chronology of the event based on their research. Students should be encouraged to be as precise as possible by finding the month, day, hour, and perhaps even minute each action occurred.


Example Pearl Harbor Timeline, Eyewitness to History


December 7, 1941
8:00 AM

"At approximately eight o'clock on the morning of December 7, 1941, I was leaving the breakfast table when the ship's siren for air defense sounded. Having no anti-aircraft battle station, I paid little attention to it. Suddenly I heard an explosion. I ran to the port door leading to the quarterdeck and saw a bomb strike a barge of some sort alongside the Nevada, or in that vicinity."

- Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale

December 7, 1941
8:05 AM

"We stood around awaiting orders of some kind. General Quarters sounded and I started for my battle station in secondary aft.The men seemed extremely calm and collected. I reached the boat deck and our anti-aircraft guns were in full action, firing very rapidly.I could hear shrapnel or fragments whistling past me. As Hickam Field burns in the distance soon as I reached the first platform, I saw Second Lieutenant Simonson lying on his back with blood on his shirt front."

- Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale

December 7, 1941
8:15 AM

"When I arrived in secondary aft I reported to Major Shapley that Mr. Simonson had been hit and there was nothing to be done for him. There was a lot of talking going on and I shouted for silence which came immediately. I had only been there a short time when a terrible explosion caused the ship to shake violently. I looked at the boat deck and everything seemed aflame forward of the mainmast. I reported to the Major that the ship was aflame, which was rather needless, and after looking about, the Major ordered us to leave.

- Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale

December 7, 1941
10:55 AM

We were deluged in a cloud of dust and had to run around closing all the windows. I got back to the front door just in time to see Pop calmly walking back to the house through it all. He said we could leave if a lull came. Also that a Mrs. B was coming down to our house and to wait for her. Then he left again. In the meantime a bunch of soldiers had come into our garage to hide. They were entirely taken by surprise and most of them didn't even have a gun or anything.

17-year-old high school senior living at Hickam Field, HI



Extended Activity

For this extended activity, students should be encouraged to use the historical thinking skill of corroboration in order to accurately depict the action or event that they researched. If students come across a discrepancy in two sources, they should describe what the differences are and argue which source is more credible and why. Once they have analyzed the credibility of their sources they should share with the class the sources they found most credible and the ones they found least-credible and explain their rationale.

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Investigate a WW2 Battle or Operation

For this activity, students will be assigned one of the numerous battles of World War II to research. As a summative assessment, teachers can have students share their battles with one another either digitally in a computer lab, or around a classroom using either a printed out version or the use of laptops, tablets, etc. For this assignment, students should research the causes of the battle, the events that transpired throughout the battle, and the outcomes of the battle. Students should be encouraged to either use the created artwork on Storyboard That or include the thousands of available photos on Photos For Class.


Possible WWII Battles To Choose

  • Battle of Belgium
  • Polish Campaign
  • Battle of France
  • Winter War
  • Battle of Crete
  • Operation Sea Lion
  • Norwegian Campaign
  • Operation Barbarossa
  • Juno Beach
  • Battle of Anzio
  • Invasion of Normandy
  • Battle of Stalingrad
  • Battle of Kursk
  • Battle of the Bulge

Example Operation Investigation: Operation Barbarossa


What was Operation Barbarossa?


On June 22nd, 1941, under the order of Adolph Hitler, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa broke the non-aggression pact the Nazis had with the Soviets and would result in the bloodiest campaign of the entire war.

What Led To Operation Barbarossa?


On August 23rd, 1939 the German and Russian governments signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact. This pact has been seen by many historians as a "honeymoon for two dictators" as it gave both countries ample time to build their armies without the threat of conflict with the other. Once the Germans felt they had a comparable army, it broke the pact as it vied to dominate the Soviet Union.

What Were The Conditions of Fighting Like?


The German invasion force brought with them 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery pieces, and 2,500 aircraft. This massive force spread out throughout the 1,800 mile long front and faced a brutal winter, incredibly challenging terrain, and a Russian "scorched-earth" that would result in millions of dead soldiers and civilians. The German army would find themselves ill-equipped and under prepared for such a long and harsh campaign.

What Were The Outcomes of Operation Barbarossa?


Operation Barbarossa was far from a victory for either the Soviets or Germans. The German army suffered over 3.8 million deaths while the Soviet army faced 2.9 million. Although this campaign campaign decimated the Nazi army, over 4 million Soviet civilians were killed in this brutal campaign that would last for over five months. This is seen by many as the turning point of World War II which would be the "beginning of the end" for the German Army.



Extended Activity

Students that wish to engage in this extension activity will participate in a theoretical history assignment. What students will be required to complete is an additional storyboard that argues why the losing side of their researched battle lost and re-create a strategy that they believe could have resulted in a victory. Students should be encouraged to research prior wars and battle tactics throughout history to incorporate into their arguments and battle plans. Depending on the guidance of the teacher, students may present their arguments to the class which may invoke a respectful debate among other students in the analysis of the proposed plan of victory.

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From 1939-1941, the German Blitzkrieg or “lightning war” throughout Poland, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium would foreshadow a war in which very few would ever consider themselves “winners” due to the immeasurable horrors and destruction witnessed. The Germans brought this destructive mobile force throughout Europe during this time period, and for many the concept of Nazi world domination quickly became a fathomable proposition.

The first three years of the war were defined by a belligerent German force that many feel brought forth their own demise with the betrayal of the non-aggression pact with the Soviets known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. With the escalation of war on the Eastern Front with the Soviets, the German army split their forces as the British and soon to be American forces attacked from the West. The turning point of the earlier war years would come on December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor. This action would lead to a full-blown world war that would come at the bloodiest cost of lives in world history.

In this unit, students will be introduced to the major events and turning points that occurred between 1939 and 1941. Students will be able to create chronological representations of these events and with some research be able to describe the significance of this time period’s events and people. Students will also be able to represent the war’s changing technology, style of fighting, and geographic locations.

Students will incorporate primary source documents into their research. Students will be asked to analyze documents and corroborate their sources to find what they feel is the most credible. This unit will allow students to have an understanding of the early years of the war and experience what it would have been like through the “Eyewitness To History” activity. It is encouraged to incorporate as many primary sources as possible, as the staggering statistics of death and destruction can be somewhat unfathomable to students. When these statistics become humanized through first-hand accounts, many students will find the overall unit much more engaging.


Essential Questions for World War II: 1939 - 1941

  1. How were the Germans able to be so successful early on in the war?
  2. What countries were involved in the war from 1939-1941?
  3. How were the United States involved in the war prior to Pearl Harbor?
  4. How did European powers react to Hitler’s aggression?



Check out other teacher guides on history and literature during World War II and Holocaust


The History of the Holocaust

Introduction to World War II

World War II: 1939-1941

World War II: 1942-1945

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Night by Elie Wiesel

The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal


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•   (English) World War II: (1939-1941)   •   (Español) Segunda Guerra Mundial: (1939-1941)   •   (Français) Seconde guerre mondiale: (1939-1941)   •   (Deutsch) Zweiter Weltkrieg: (1939-1941)   •   (Italiana) Seconda guerra mondiale: (1939-1941)   •   (Nederlands) Tweede Wereldoorlog: (1939-1941)   •   (Português) Segunda Guerra Mundial: (1939-1941)   •   (עברית) מלחמת העולם השנייה: (1939-1941)   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الحرب العالمية الثانية: (1939-1941)   •   (हिन्दी) द्वितीय विश्व युद्ध: (1 9 3 9 -41)   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Вторая мировая война: (1939-1941)   •   (Dansk) Anden Verdenskrig: (1939-1941)   •   (Svenska) Andra världskriget: (1939-1941)   •   (Suomi) Toinen maailmansota: (1939-1941)   •   (Norsk) Andre verdenskrig: (1939-1941)   •   (Türkçe) İkinci Dünya Savaşı: (1939-1941)   •   (Polski) II wojna światowa: (1939-1941)   •   (Româna) Al doilea război mondial: (1939-1941)   •   (Ceština) Druhá světová válka: (1939-1941)   •   (Slovenský) Druhá svetová vojna: (1939-1941)   •   (Magyar) A második világháború: (1939-1941)   •   (Hrvatski) Drugi svjetski rat: (1939-1941)   •   (български) Втората световна война: (1939-1941)   •   (Lietuvos) Antrojo pasaulinio karo: (1939-1941)   •   (Slovenščina) World War II: (1939-1941)   •   (Latvijas) Otrais pasaules karš: (1939-1941)   •   (eesti) II maailmasõda: (1939-1941)