The Western Allies’ Phoney War

Upon hearing the sound of air raid sirens immediately following Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the people of Britain might have expected a fast descent into the all-pervading war that they were increasingly wary of.

France reluctantly entered the war that same day, as did Australia, New Zealand and India, whilst South Africa and Canada made declarations in the days following. This offered a great sense of hope to the Polish people that Allied intervention would help them repel the German invasion.

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The British began planning for civilian evacuation in 1938

Tragedy in Poland

To the relief of people huddled in shelters in Britain on 3 September, the sirens that were sounded turned out to be unnecessary. German inactivity over Britain was matched by Allied inactivity in Europe, however, and the optimism stimulated in Poland by the British and French announcements was found to be mistaken as the nation was engulfed within a month from the west and then the east (from the Soviets) despite a brave, but futile, resistance.

Around 900,000 Polish soldiers were killed, injured or taken prisoner, whilst neither aggressor wasted time in committing atrocities and instigating deportations.

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German troops paraded through Warsaw in front of their Führer

France’s Non-commitment

The French were unwilling to do more than dip their toes into German territory and their troops along the border began displaying ill-discipline as a result of the passiveness of the situation. With the British Expeditionary Force not seeing action until December, despite beginning to arrive in France in significant numbers from 4 September, the Allies effectively reneged on their promise to defend Polish sovereignty. Even the RAF, which offered the possibility of engaging Germany without direct conflict, concentrated its efforts on waging a propaganda war by dropping leaflets over Germany.

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Bombers Command loading up with leaflets ahead of a drop over Germany. This activity became known as the ‘confetti war’

Naval Warfare and the Price of Hesitance

The dearth of land-based and aerial engagements between the Allies and Germany was not mirrored at sea, however, as the Battle of the Atlantic, which would last as long as the war itself, was kick-started just hours after Chamberlain’s announcement. Losses inflicted on the Royal Navy by German U-boats within the first few weeks of war shook Britain’s longstanding naval confidence, particularly when U-47 evaded the defences at Scapa Flow in October and sank the HMS Royal Oak.

An assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich on 8 November fed the Allies’ hope that the German people no longer had the stomach for Nazism or all-out war. The Führer was unperturbed, although a lack of sufficient resources and difficult flying conditions in November 1940 saw him forced to postpone his advance in the west.

As 1940 moved on and the Soviets finally forced Finland to sign for peace after the Winter War, Chamberlain refused to accept the need for a British presence in Scandinavia and, ever the appeaser, was loathe to drag neutral nations into war. Although the Royal Navy offered some resistance, Germany overran Norway and Denmark with troops in April 1940.

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BEF troops amuse themselves playing football in France

The Start of the End of the Phoney War

The Allies’ inertia at the beginning of the war, particularly on the part of the French, undermined their military preparations and resulted in a lack of communication and cooperation between their armed services.

Intelligence obtained by the Allies in January 1940 had indicated that a German advance through the Low Countries was imminent at that time. The Allies concentrated on assembling their troops to defend Belgium, but this merely encouraged the Germans to reconsider their intentions. This resulted in Manstein devising his Sichelsnitt plan, which benefitted from the element of surprise and would prove so effective in rapidly effecting the fall of France.

History graduate (and enthusiast) with postgraduate degrees in environmental history and heritage science.