By Michael Hull

Within hours of the entry of Great Britain and France into World War II on September 3, 1939, the British liner SS Athenia was sunk by a German U-boat off the northwestern coast of Ireland, with the loss of 112 dead, including 28 American citizens.

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was torpedoed by a U-boat off the southwestern English coast on September 17 with the loss of 515 lives; the venerable, 29,150-ton battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at anchor in the British Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow, Scotland, early on October 14, and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled just outside the harbor of Montevideo, Uruguay, on December 17, after the Battle of the River Plate. As German auxiliary cruisers and U-boats made their presence known, hostilities started on the high seas from the war’s beginning.

In Britain, after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had quietly and sadly announced the declaration of war at 11:15 on that sunny Sunday morning, it seemed to his listeners that peril was upon them already. Half an hour after the BBC broadcast, air raid sirens wailed across London and the southeastern counties. “There was not the slightest sign of panic,” reported one London newspaper. “The air-raid wardens repeated the warning on their whistles, and the people proceeded at once in the most orderly fashion to their shelters. Auxiliary firemen put on their uniforms in readiness for any emergency.”

After a few minutes, the “all-clear” sirens sounded, and several hours later the Air Ministry announced that the warning had been given because an unidentified aircraft was observed approaching the south coast.

Allied Inaction

The British people found themselves at war again only two decades after the end of the bloody 1914-1918 conflict. Chamberlain’s brief announcement stunned them, but did not come as a shock. What did surprise them was the period of relative calm that followed. Except for the naval actions, the brutal German invasion of Poland, and the Finnish people’s epic struggle against Soviet invaders, World War II got off to a slow start. Elsewhere in Western Europe there came an uncanny seven months of military inactivity that lasted until the Nazi invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940.

This bizarre period was dubbed the “Phony War” by American correspondents, referring to the lack of any offensive action by the British and French. Within weeks, the phrase had become commonplace in Britain and around the world. To some Britons, it was the “Bore War”; to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, it was the “Twilight War”; to the French it was “La Drole de Guerre” (joke war); and to the Germans it was “Sitzkrieg” (sit-down war).

Great Britain and France had honored their August 25, 1939, treaty with Poland by declaring war against Germany, but the two nations were not sufficiently prepared to fulfill their obligation and lend military support to the Poles. In fact, they did little to distract Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler during the five weeks his forces took to complete their Polish campaign. Meanwhile, 800,000 Red Army troops had invaded Poland from the east in flagrant disregard for supposed Moscow-Warsaw peace treaties.

Inevitably, after a heroic but futile struggle, Poland was defeated by September 29. And still the Western Allies made no move against Germany.

The Strategy Behind the Phony War

The reason for the relative lack of action was strategic. For the military planners on both sides, the key problem was the fact that the Franco-German border was the most heavily fortified strip of land in the world. On the French side, running northward from the Swiss border to Montmedy, stretched the Maginot Line, a string of concrete and steel underground forts and artillery emplacements impervious to both shells and bombs. Behind this line, the French and British began lethargic mobilization. Along Germany’s western border, the Siegfried Line (West Wall) was a complex mesh of concrete obstacles and interlocking zones of fire several miles deep. Supporting mobile troops had been stripped to a minimum to the benefit of the Polish front. Both opposing lines of defense were impregnable, and both sides knew it.

Along the Allied and enemy defense lines, soldiers stood tensely by their big guns and waited while observers peered through binoculars and telescopes for any sign of activity. All were ready for action, but there was none.

The formidable French Army under General Maurice Gamelin was locked into a defensive posture, and no attempt was made to shell Germany’s industrialized Saar region, which was well within range of French artillery. While the German Army was preoccupied with vanquishing the hapless Poles, a strong Allied thrust could have broken through and conceivably ended Hitler’s grandiose scheme of global conquest. Instead, the only overt move was a tentative probe by Gamelin toward the German defenses around Saarbrucken. There, it was reported that captured enemy soldiers did not know that France and Britain were at war with their country. The inactivity undermined the morale of the French Army, which worsened when the fighting started in earnest in the spring of 1940.

In the early months of the Phony War, French government officials considered invading Germany by way of Belgium, striking a knockout blow at the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heartland of the enemy war machine. But the British vetoed the idea when Belgium announced its neutrality. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government ruled out any move that would violate a nation’s neutrality. The French also proposed fanciful schemes for fighting in southeastern Europe and bombing Russian oil wells in the Caucasus, but reason prevailed.

So, the Allies relied on a policy of naval blockade (instituted by Britain just after the outbreak of war), economic strangulation, and defensive fortification to exhaust German strength.

Maintaining watch toward German positions, a French soldier occupies an underground position on the Maginot Line during the Phony War. The line was built at great expense to France but was of little value against mobile German divisions when the shooting war began. Note the cache of hand grenades at center.
Maintaining watch toward German positions, a French soldier occupies an underground position on the Maginot Line during the Phony War. The line was built at great expense to France but was of little value against mobile German divisions when the shooting war began. Note the cache of hand grenades at center.

Cautious Chamberlain’s Cross-Channel Corps

The British leaders were as hesitant as those in France. In the first month of the war, 160,000 men and 24,000 tanks and assorted transport of General Sir John V. Gort’s British Expeditionary Force had crossed the English Channel to support the French. But the BEF found its offensive operations confined to patrolling in the Arras-Lille area during the Phony War.

The small but professional BEF went to France with confidence and cheery songs, but it was not trained, supplied, or equipped for full-scale combat. Like the French Army, it was not ready for the kind of lightning onslaught the Poles had faced. The British Matilda infantry tanks, thick-skinned but under-gunned, would prove no match for panzers. The Royal Tank Corps crews were half-trained, and their tanks lacked radios and even armor-piercing ammunition.

Air raids on British cities were feared, but many politicians in Whitehall were still dominated by peacetime attitudes. When it was suggested to Sir Kingsley Wood, the secretary of state for air, on September 5, 1939, that British bombers set Germany’s Black Forest alight, he vetoed the idea on the grounds that it would conflict with the spirit of the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions governing the conduct of war.

“There was no question,” said Wood, “of our bombing even the munitions works at Essen, which were private property.” Royal Air Force planes were dispatched to attack German shipping at Wilhelmshaven, but no bombs were dropped on German territory while Chamberlain was prime minister. Initially, RAF air crews were ordered not to bomb German-held airfields, but only to machine-gun them.

Winston Churchill’s War

At the Admiralty, Churchill was frustrated by the lack of offensive activity. He suggested floating air-dropped fluvial mines down the River Rhine (Operation Royal Marine), but the French Supreme War Council adamantly opposed it. Prime Minister Edouard Daladier told Churchill that the “president of the republic himself had intervened, and that no aggressive action must be taken which might only draw reprisals upon France.”

It was generally believed that Hitler would have no scruples about breaching a neutral country, and a German assault through Belgium—as had happened in 1914—was expected sooner or later. But the Western Allies were confident that they could block such a threat on a line running from the port of Antwerp to Dinant in the Ardennes Forest region. It was predicted, therefore, that the new conflict would settle down to a grim attritional stalemate, as in the early months of World War I.

Germany’s Phony Front

The Phony War was not created by the Allies alone; it was also encouraged by the Germans. The first bombs dropped on Britain fell on the remote Shetland Islands on November 13, 1939, but it was not until the following month that the British suffered their first service fatality in France (while leading a patrol, Corporal Thomas W. Priday was killed on December 9). In contrast, 50,000 British servicemen had been lost during the first three months of World War I. It was not until March 16, 1940, that the first British civilian was killed, during an air raid on Scapa Flow.

Initially, the Phony War gave Hitler time to finish the Polish campaign undisturbed. Although he then wanted to attack westward before the end of 1939, the German High Command, which included several conspirators against him, lacked such enthusiasm. Some high-ranking German officers did not think the Wehrmacht was ready for such an offensive, and General Alfred Jodl, the chief of operations, believed that the war would die a natural death if the Germans kept quiet in the West. It was mainly bad weather, rather than Hitler’s opponents, that allowed the Phony War to continue through the winter of 1939-1940, one of the coldest and most severe on record.

Wavering by the erratic Nazi leader also contributed to the Phony War’s inactivity. In a major speech to the Reichstag on October 6, Hitler spoke of his desire for peace with France and Britain and claimed that up until then he had done nothing more than try to correct the unjust 1919 Versailles peace treaty. He said he had no war aims against France or Britain and blamed the present state of affairs on “warmongers” like Churchill. The Führer’s dream had been for Germany to rule Europe and for the British Empire to rule the rest of the world.

Hitler suggested calling a conference to resolve remaining differences, but Prime Ministers Daladier and Chamberlain swiftly rejected the offer. The latter said that to consider such terms would be to forgive Germany for its aggressions. On October 9, the Führer issued a directive with a simple message: “Should it become evident in the near future that England, and, under her influence, France also, are not disposed to bring the war to an end, I have decided, without further loss of time, to go over to the offensive.”

Preparing For War

Meanwhile, the defense-minded British and French converted their factories to war production and waited for something to happen. The September 3, 1939, declaration of war had not come as a complete surprise, but the period of relative calm that followed did. The French, for the most part, carried on with their normal lives and entrusted their fate to their army, almost the equal of the Wehrmacht, and the Maginot Line. The British put their faith in the RAF and the Royal Navy, which ruled the seas.

In Britain, where several steps had been taken in the event of air attacks, the initial determination of the civilian population changed to boredom, bewilderment, and resentment at disruptions in daily life. Blackout regulations were enforced, children were evacuated to the countryside from cities threatened with air raids, and food, clothing, gasoline, and other necessities were severely rationed. Queues outside grocery stores soon became a regular sight on the streets of cities, towns, and villages. More emergency laws were enacted in the first two weeks of World War II than had been passed during the first year of World War I.

After drifting through the unfortunate appeasement era, British leaders had awakened in the late 1930s to the increasing threat of militant fascism, particularly the powerful German war machine. Some retaliatory plans were put in place before the outbreak of war. In July 1939, Parliament introduced the conscription of young men into the reserves. As soon as war was declared, the scope of conscription was expanded dramatically, with all men aged 19 to 40 made liable for full-time war service.

Within weeks, it was announced that women would also be conscripted—not for the firing line, but to free men for uniformed service. As they had done in World War I, the nation’s eligible females would work on farms, drive trucks, ambulances, buses, and even trains, and toil on assembly lines in aircraft and munitions plants. A government poster of the time exhorted, “Women of Britain, come into the factories.”

French border guards inspect a sign from inside Germany. Hostile gunfire was a rare occurrence as both sides went about their business until Hitler launched his assault on France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940.
French border guards inspect a sign from inside Germany. Hostile gunfire was a rare occurrence as both sides went about their business until Hitler launched his assault on France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940.

Fear from the Air

As far as the war threat was concerned, most Britons were sure that the first German attacks would come from the air. They knew only too well what had happened in 1937, when German planes devastated the Spanish town of Guernica inflicting massive casualties in less than an hour of concentrated bombing. Since then, Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring had been proudly showing off his air force at shows and displays.

By 1939, Göring’s air force was widely regarded as the finest in the world. But Britain, which had created the world’s first independent air force in 1918, was proud of the RAF and considered it a match for the Luftwaffe. So, in 1939 a flag-waving film, The Lion Has Wings, starring Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon, was released in a bid to encourage the British public. It was well received, but most citizens still feared that within hours of a declaration of war the skies would be darkened by German bombers.

Reflecting a measure of official foresight, community air raid shelters had already been constructed in many British cities and towns, and families with gardens were encouraged to build their own shelters, using plans and equipment supplied by local councils. People without backyards were advised to take shelter in cellars, under sturdy tables, or beneath stairways in the event of air raids.

Daily life was affected by the rounding up of foreign nationals to sift out Germans and potential spies, and a billeting system whereby families with spare rooms were required to accommodate factory workers, officials, or servicemen who needed to stay away from home. The most famous example of billeting was the evacuation of three and a half million women and children to safe rural areas, away from major cities likely to be targeted by the Luftwaffe.

The evacuations started from London in August 1939. Many children whose parents were in the services or engaged in war work had to set forth on their own, shepherded by social workers or volunteers. Poignant scenes were played out on the platforms of urban railway stations as crowds of small boys and girls, nervously clutching bundles of possessions, boarded trains that would take them to new lives in Devon, Yorkshire, or Scotland.

But the expected bombing raids did not materialize in the early weeks of the war; the Luftwaffe was kept busy bombing Poland and preparing for a coming ground support role.

Although German planes did not fly over Britain in large numbers during the Phony War, the blackout was strictly enforced. It was expected that the enemy bombers would come at night, so street lights were switched off and thick curtains went up in British homes to deprive enemy air crews of beacons. A light showing from a window could be seen clearly from 20,000 feet up. Nothing short of complete blackness could frustrate the bombers.

Helmeted air raid wardens patrolled the streets by foot or bicycle nightly to make sure that no lights were visible. Anyone guilty of allowing a chink of light to escape received a stern reprimand. Railway stations, trains, and buses were unlit, and the headlights on cars, trucks, and other vehicles painted black until only a slit of light showed.

The blackout caused petty irritations among the British public and also dangers. The London Daily Telegraph reported on September 18, 1939, “Sir Philip Game, Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, takes a grave view of the accident figures for the first 10 days of the blackout. During that period, 38 people were killed and 975 injured in road accidents in the London area, compared with eight killed and 316 injured in the preceding 10 days.” On January 15, 1940, the government announced that twice as many people had been accidentally killed in accidents during the blackout as by German bombs.

Bolstering British Defense

While the country was not yet fully engaged in hostilities, many defensive measures were taken in the early weeks of the Phony War. Royal Navy battleships and cruisers patrolled the sea lanes, RAF fighters and bombers stood ready, the Army intensified recruiting and training, and the Territorial Army (militia) was brought up to full strength and then doubled. Long columns of tanks, field guns, trucks, personnel carriers, and Bren gun carriers became common sights on highways and country lanes as maneuvers were staged across the rolling heathlands of southern and southwestern England.

Soldiers guarded installations and key junctions, concrete pillboxes sprouted on hills and roadsides, antiaircraft guns were emplaced in parks and on golf courses, barrage balloons were hoisted to foil enemy planes, fire watchers kept nightly vigil on city rooftops, sandbags were piled around public buildings, and Army gun crews and volunteers of the Royal Observer Corps stood watch along the coastlines.

The shooting war was still far off, yet there were many reminders for Britons that harder times were coming, sooner or later. Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, presented his first war budget, and the rationing of meat, bacon, butter, and sugar followed. In France, the government announced that Friday would be a “meatless day” and that no beef, veal or mutton would be sold on Mondays or Tuesdays. The need for rationing was a result of the naval actions in the Atlantic, where German U-boats and surface raiders preyed increasingly on Allied merchant shipping. In October 1939, the shipping losses were 196,000 tons; in November, 51,600 tons, and in December, 189,900 tons. The British had begun the convoy system on September 7, but the losses would continue to mount until halfway through the war.

Despite rationing hardships, blackout irritations, and the fear of air raids and possible invasion, the British generally tried to stay cheerful and optimistic with newspaper cartoons, music hall songs, and jokes poking fun at “Herr Schickelgruber” (Hitler). The people’s morale was lifted as growing numbers of fighting men from the far-flung dominions rallied to help defend the motherland. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa sent contingents, Indian troops joined the BEF in France, and 7,500 men—all volunteers—of the 1st Canadian Division arrived in England just before Christmas 1939. They would be followed by soldiers, airmen, and sailors from France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, and Poland.

A Christmas Blackout and a Looming New Year

As their first wartime Christmas neared, Britons prepared for a merry respite, realizing that worse times lay ahead. They cheerily hung up stockings, decorated trees, sang carols, and made ready to feast on traditional roast turkey or goose, heavy fruit puddings, and mince pies. But outside, the holiday was muted. Blackout regulations meant that store window displays were unlit by night and obscured with anti-blast tape by day. Because of the defense budget, money was tight, taxes were up, and prices had increased on sugar, beer, whiskey, tobacco, and cigarettes.

Most of Britain and much of Western Europe was carpeted in deep snow, and that December was cold. An eight-mile stretch of the River Thames froze, and London’s Serpentine Swimming Club was forced to postpone its Christmas morning handicap.

British leaders had agreed that a radioed yuletide message from the monarch would boost the people’s morale, so, at 3 pm on Christmas Day, the shy, gentle King George VI spoke hesitantly into two large microphones at his estate in the village of Sandringham, Norfolk.

“A new year is at hand,” he declared. “We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle, we shall remain undaunted…. May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”

The speech stirred all who heard it. Listeners huddling around living room radio sets applauded, and many veterans stood to attention while the king spoke.

Across the English Channel, men of the BEF sang Christmas carols, played soccer, sipped wine with French families, enjoyed chocolates and cigarettes sent by the royal family, and cheered visiting Prime Minister Chamberlain. In front of the Maginot Line between the Rhine and the River Moselle, soldiers numbly fingered their Bren guns in chilly dugouts, waiting. And the Phony War continued.

The Phony War Ends, Norway Falls

Meanwhile, shipping losses mounted in the Atlantic, and Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim’s Finnish Army—outnumbered and outgunned—battled on against the Soviet armies. Mounted on skis and sweeping out of the snow-clad forests, the hardy Finns ambushed and outmaneuvered Soviet armor and infantry columns and repeatedly turned back enemy offensives. But promised French and British support did not arrive, and the defenders were eventually overwhelmed and forced to sign a treaty with Russia in mid-March 1940. The Finns had lost 25,000 dead and 45,000 wounded.

Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini met at the Brenner Pass on March 18, and the latter said he was ready to join Germany and its allies in the war against France and Britain. Ten days later, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council decided to make a formal agreement that neither would seek a separate peace. It was decided to mine Norwegian coastal waters and, if necessary, to send a military expedition there. Hitler had decided in February to occupy neutral Norway and use its North Sea ports.

So, early on the morning of April 9, the Phony War came to an abrupt end when five German divisions led by Col. Gen. Niklaus von Falkenhorst landed at Oslo, Kristiansand, Bergen, Trondheim, and Narvik. Airborne troops and a powerful naval armada supported the invasion. Simultaneously, two German divisions invaded neutral Denmark and captured the capital, Copenhagen, within 12 hours.

The Germans succeeded brilliantly in getting their forces ashore in Norway and in seizing and holding the strategic Stavanger airport. As more ports fell quickly to the invaders, King Haakon VII and his government managed to escape while British battleships, aircraft carriers, destroyers, and cruiser transports rushed reinforcements to Norway. Contingents of British and French troops 13,000 strong— including British Commandos and French mountain infantry—landed at Namsos and Andalsnes to support the Norwegian Army, a largely militia force.

The Allied units fought gallantly against superior odds, but they were poorly equipped and led, uncoordinated, and had little or no air support. They tried to recapture Trondheim but were defeated, and by May 3 central Norway was in German hands. The focus of the fighting then shifted to Narvik, where the German Navy had suffered severe defeats at the hands of the British. The Allies managed to recapture the northern port but were withdrawn on June 7 as a result of the German successes in France. The staunch Norwegians continued to resist the Nazi invaders until June 9.

When the British and French pulled out, they took King Haakon, his ministers, and many Norwegian troops with them. Sailing from Tromso to England aboard the cruiser HMS Devonshire, the monarch set up a Free Norwegian government in London while his soldiers joined the growing legion of exiled patriots there.

The ill-fated Norwegian campaign had resulted in a stormy debate in the British House of Commons on May 7-8, the resignation of the principled but broken Chamberlain, and the appointment of Churchill as prime minister on May 10. That same day, powerful German army groups under Generals Gerd von Rundstedt, Fedor von Bock, and Ritter von Leeb started their lightning “blitzkrieg” offensive into Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France.

Western Europe found itself engulfed in a shooting war, and the Phony War was now just a curious memory.

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