20 May 1940

The first prisoners arrive at a newly built concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, opened in 1940 and was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz initially served as a detention center for political prisoners. However, it evolved into a network of camps where Jewish people and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state were exterminated, often in gas chambers, or used as slave labor. Some prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele. During World War II, more than 1 million people, by some accounts, lost their lives at Auschwitz. In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Nazi officials ordered the camp abandoned and sent an estimated 60,000 prisoners on a forced march to other locations. When the Soviets entered Auschwitz, they found thousands of emaciated detainees and piles of corpses left behind.

After the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, implemented a policy that came to be known as the “Final Solution.” Hitler was determined not just to isolate Jews in Germany and countries annexed by the Nazis, subjecting them to dehumanizing regulations and random acts of violence. Instead, he became convinced that his “Jewish problem” would be solved only with the elimination of every Jew in his domain, along with artists, educators, Romas, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.

10 May 1940

The United Kingdom invades Iceland.

The invasion of Iceland by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines occurred on 10 May 1940, during World War II. The invasion was performed because the British government feared that the island would be used by the Germans, who had recently overrun Denmark, Iceland’s possessing country. The Government of Iceland issued a protest, charging that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and “its independence infringed”.

At the start of the war, the UK imposed strict export controls on Icelandic goods, preventing profitable shipments to Germany, as part of its naval blockade. The UK offered assistance to Iceland, seeking co-operation “as a belligerent and an ally”, but Reykjavík refused and reaffirmed its neutrality. The German diplomatic presence in Iceland, along with the island’s strategic importance, alarmed the UK government.

After failing to persuade the Icelandic government to join the Allies, the UK invaded on the morning of 10 May 1940. The initial force of 746 Royal Marines commanded by Colonel Robert Sturges disembarked at the capital Reykjavík. Meeting no resistance, the troops moved quickly to disable communication networks, secure strategic locations, and arrest German citizens. Requisitioning local transport, the troops moved to Hvalfjörður, Kaldaðarnes, Sandskeið, and Akranes to secure potential landing areas against the possibility of a German counterattack.

During 1918, after a long period of Danish rule, Iceland had become an independent state in personal union with the Danish king and with common foreign affairs. The newly initiated Kingdom of Iceland declared itself a neutral country without a defence force. The treaty of union allowed for a revision to begin during 1941 and for unilateral termination three years after that, if no agreement was made. By 1928, all Icelandic political parties were in agreement that the union treaty would be terminated as soon as possible.

On 9 April 1940, German forces began Operation Weserübung, invading both Norway and Denmark. Denmark was subdued within a day and occupied. On the same day, the British government sent a message to the Icelandic government, stating that the UK was willing to assist Iceland in maintaining its independence but would require facilities in Iceland to do so. Iceland was invited to join the UK in the war “as a belligerent and an ally.” The Icelandic government rejected the offer. On the next day, 10 April, the Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, declared Danish King Christian X unable to perform his constitutional duties and assigned them to the government of Iceland, along with all other responsibilities previously performed by Denmark on behalf of Iceland.

On 12 April, as Operation Valentine, the British occupied the Faroe Islands. After the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, the British government became increasingly concerned that Germany would soon try to establish a military presence in Iceland. They felt that this would constitute an intolerable threat to British control of the North Atlantic. Just as importantly, the British were eager to obtain bases in Iceland for themselves to strengthen their Northern Patrol.

10 February 1940

Tom and Jerry make their debut with Puss Gets the Boot.

Tom and Jerry, two of the most successful cartoon characters in film and TV history, made their debut in cinemas on this day in 1940.

The cat and mouse who fight a seemingly never-ending battle for supremacy were featured in the animated short Puss Gets the Boot, made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoons by legendary animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

In the nine-minute short, Tom, a blue-grey long-haired cat, is happily toying with small brown mouse Jerry, when he is threatened with being thrown out of his owner’s house if he causes any more breakages.

Jerry then causes as much mayhem as he can to land Tom in trouble – a storyline that would provide a template for most of the duo’s adventures – and is left to celebrate when Tom is inevitably turfed out by his owner.

The cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award that year, but lost out to another MGM short. Hanna and Barbera felt they had a winning formula, which they returned to – but only after animator John Carr suggested renaming the main characters Tom and Jerry.

hey were rewarded when Yankee Doodle Mouse finally won them an Oscar for best cartoon in 1943 – the first of seven wins for their feisty cat and mouse duo.

Hanna and Barbera would write and direct a total of 114 short Tom and Jerry cartoons before MGM closed their animation department in 1957 – but the pugnacious puss and his artful mouse adversary remained popular, and would return in adventures made by other studios for many years to come.

12 September 1940

Cave paintings are discovered in Lascaux, France.

On this day in 12 September 1940, near Montignac, France, a collection of prehistoric cave paintings are discovered by four teenagers who stumbled upon the ancient artwork after following their dog down a narrow entrance into a cavern. The 15,000 to 17,000-year-old paintings, consisting mostly of animal representations, are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period. First studied by the French archaeologist Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil, the Lascaux grotto consists of a main cavern 66 feet wide and 16 feet high. The walls of the cavern are decorated with some 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols and nearly 1,500 engravings.

The pictures depict in excellent detail numerous types of animals, including horses, red deer, stags, bovines, felines, and what appear to be mythical creatures. There is only one human figure depicted in the cave: a bird-headed man with an erect phallus. Archaeologists believe that the cave was used over a long period of time as a centre for hunting and religious rites. The Lascaux grotto was opened to the public in 1948 but was closed in 1963 because artificial lights had faded the vivid colors of the paintings and caused algae to grow over some of them. A replica of the Lascaux cave was opened nearby in 1983 and receives tens of thousands of visitors annually.

25 June 1940

The French armistice with Germany comes into effect.

With Paris fallen and the German conquest of France reaching its conclusion, Marshal Henri Petain replaces Paul Reynaud as prime minister and announces his intention to sign an armistice with the Nazis. The next day, French General Charles de Gaulle, not very well known even to the French, made a broadcast to France from England, urging his countrymen to continue the fight against Germany.

A military hero during World War I, Petain was appointed vice premier of France in May 1940 to boost morale in a country crumbling under the force of the Nazi invasion. Instead, Petain arranged an armistice with the Nazis. The armistice, signed by the French on June 22, went into effect on June 25, and more than half of France was occupied by the Germans. In July, Petain took office as “chief of state” at Vichy, a city in unoccupied France. The Vichy government under Petain collaborated with the Nazis, and French citizens suffered on both sides of the divided nation. In 1942, Pierre Laval, an opportunistic French fascist and dutiful Nazi collaborator, won the trust of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, and the elderly Petain became merely a figurehead in the Vichy regime.

After the Normandy invasion in 1944, Petain and Laval were forced to flee to German protection in the east. Both were eventually captured, found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to die. Laval was executed in 1945, but provincial French leader Charles de Gaulle commuted Petain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Petain died on the Ile d’Yeu off France in 1951.