The Phoney War was an eight-month period at the start of World War II, during which there were no major military land operations on the Western Front. It began with the declaration of war by the western Allies (the United Kingdom and France) against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, and ended with the German attack on France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940.
Even though Poland was overrun in about five weeks in the German Invasion of Poland beginning on 1 September 1939 and Soviet invasion beginning on 17 September 1939, the Western Allies did nothing. War had been declared by each side, but no Western power committed to launching a significant land offensive, notwithstanding the terms of the Anglo-Polish and Franco-Polish military alliances which obliged the United Kingdom and France to assist Poland.
The quiet of the Phoney War was punctuated by a few Allied actions. In the Saar Offensive in September, the French attacked Germany with the intention of assisting Poland, but it fizzled out within days and they withdrew. In November, the Soviets attacked Finland in the Winter War, resulting in much debate in France and Britain about an offensive to help Finland, but the forces finally assembled for this campaign were delayed until it ended in March. The Allied discussions about a Scandinavian campaign caused concern in Germany and resulted in the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April, and the Allied troops previously assembled for Finland were redirected to Norway instead. Fighting there continued until June when the Allies evacuated, ceding Norway to Germany in response to the German invasion of France.
On the Axis side, the Germans launched attacks at sea in the autumn and winter against British aircraft carriers and destroyers, sinking several including the carrier HMS Courageous with the loss of 519 lives. Action in the air began on 16 October 1939 when the Luftwaffe launched air raids on British warships. There were various minor bombing raids and reconnaissance flights on both sides.
The term Phoney War customarily appears using the British spelling even in North America, rather than the American phony, although some American sources do not follow the trend. The first known recorded use of the term in print was in September 1939 in a U.S. newspaper which used the British spelling although other contemporary American reports sometimes used "phony" as both spellings were in use at the time in the U.S. The term appeared in Great Britain by January 1940 as "phoney", the only acceptable spelling there.
The Phoney War was also referred to as the "Twilight War" (by Winston Churchill) and as the Sitzkrieg ("the sitting war": a word play on blitzkrieg created by the British press). In French it is referred to as the drôle de guerre ("funny" or "strange" war).[Note 1] In Polish, it is referred to as the Dziwna Wojna ("strange war").
While most of the German army was engaged in Poland, a much smaller German force manned the Siegfried Line, their fortified defensive line along the French border. At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local, minor skirmishes, while in the air there were occasional dogfights between fighter planes. The Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and the first Canadian troops stepped ashore in Britain, while western Europe was under a period of uneasy calm for seven months.
When Leopold Amery suggested to Kingsley Wood that the Black Forest be bombed with incendiaries to burn its ammunition dumps, Wood—the Secretary of State for Air—amazed the member of parliament by responding that the forest was "private property" and could not be bombed; neither could weapons factories, as the Germans might do the same. Indeed, the sense of unreality was maintained when some British officers imported packs of foxhounds and beagles in 1939, but were thwarted by the French authorities in their attempts at introducing live foxes. Civilian attitudes in Britain to their German foes were still not as intense as they were to become after the Blitz. In April 1940 a German Heinkel bomber crashed at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, killing its crew and people on the ground. They were all laid to rest in the local cemetery which was provided with support from the Royal Air Force. Wreaths with messages of sympathy for the casualties were displayed on the coffins.
Meanwhile, the opposing nations clashed in the Norwegian Campaign.
In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France had both begun buying large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the US at the outbreak of hostilities, thereby supplementing their own production. The non-belligerent US contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales.
Despite the relative calm on land, on the high seas the war was very real. Within a few hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed off the Hebrides with the loss of 112 lives in what was to be the beginning of the long running Battle of the Atlantic. On 4 September, the Allies announced a blockade of Germany to prevent her importing food and raw materials to sustain her war effort; the Germans immediately declared a counter-blockade. RAF Bomber Command, Britain's principal offensive arm, was also heavily engaged, but found that daylight bombing caused little damage and cost insupportable losses (e.g. 12 Wellington bombers shot down out of 22 sent over the Wilhelmshaven naval base on 18 December 1939.)
At the Nuremberg Trials, German military commander Alfred Jodl said that "if we did not collapse already in the year 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions."
The Saar Offensive was a French attack into the Saarland defended by the German 1st Army in the early stages of World War II. Its purpose was to assist Poland, which was then under attack. However, the assault was stopped after a few kilometres and the French forces withdrew. According to the Franco-Polish military convention, the French Army was to start preparations for a major offensive three days after the beginning of mobilization. The French forces were to effectively gain control over the area between the French border and the German lines and were to probe the German defences. On the 15th day of the mobilisation (that is on 16 September), the French Army was to start a full-scale assault on Germany. The preemptive mobilisation was started in France on 26 August, and on 1 September full mobilisation was declared.
The offensive in the Rhine river valley area started on 7 September, four days after France declared war on Germany. Since the Wehrmacht was occupied in the attack on Poland, the French soldiers enjoyed a decisive numerical advantage along their border with Germany. However, the French took no meaningful action to assist the Poles. Eleven French divisions advanced along a 32 km (20 miles) line near Saarbrücken against weak German opposition. The attack did not result in the diversion of any German troops. The all-out assault was to have been carried out by roughly 40 divisions, including one armoured, three mechanised divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions. The French Army had advanced to a depth of 8 km (5.0 miles) and captured about 20 villages evacuated by the German army, without any resistance. However, the half-hearted offensive was halted after France seized the Warndt Forest, 7.8 km2 (3.0 sq mi) of heavily mined German territory.
On 12 September, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council gathered for the first time at Abbeville. It was decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately as the French opted to fight a defensive war, forcing the Germans to come to them. General Maurice Gamelin, ordered his troops to stop no closer than 1 km (0.62 miles) from the German positions along the Siegfried Line. Poland was not notified of this decision. Instead, Gamelin informed Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły that half of his divisions were in contact with the enemy and that French advances had forced the Wehrmacht to withdraw at least six divisions from Poland. The following day, the commander of the French Military Mission to Poland, General Louis Faury, informed the Polish Chief of Staff—General Wacław Stachiewicz—that the major offensive on the western front planned from 17–20 September had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to withdraw to their barracks along the Maginot Line, beginning the Phoney War.
A notable event during the Phoney War was the Winter War, which started with the Soviet Union′s assault on Finland on 30 November 1939. Public opinion, particularly in France and Britain, found it easy to side with democratic Finland, and demanded from their governments effective action in support of "the brave Finns" against their much larger aggressor, the Soviet Union, particularly since the Finns' defense seemed so much more successful than that of the Poles during the September Campaign. As a consequence of its attack, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations, and a proposed Franco-British expedition to northern Scandinavia was much debated. British forces that began to be assembled to send to Finland's aid were not dispatched before the Winter War ended, and were sent to Norway′s aid in the Norwegian campaign, instead. On 20 March, after the Winter War had ended, Édouard Daladier resigned as Prime Minister of France, due (in part) to his failure to aid Finland's defence.
German invasion of Denmark and Norway
The open discussions on an Allied expedition to northern Scandinavia, also without the consent of the neutral Scandinavian countries, and the Altmark Incident on 16 February, alarmed the Kriegsmarine and Germany by threatening iron ore supplies and gave strong arguments for Germany securing the Norwegian coast. Codenamed Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway commenced on 9 April. From the 14th, Allied troops were landed in Norway, but by the end of the month, southern parts of Norway were in German hands. The fighting continued in the north until the Allies evacuated in early June in response to the German invasion of France; the Norwegian forces in mainland Norway laid down their arms at midnight on 9 June.
Change of British government
The débâcle of the Allied campaign in Norway, which was actually an offspring of the never-realised plans to aid Finland, forced a famous debate in the House of Commons during which the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was under constant attack. A nominal vote of confidence in his government was won by 281 to 200, but many of Chamberlain′s supporters had voted against him while others had abstained. Chamberlain found it impossible to continue to lead a National Government (or to form a coalition government to distinguish it from his existing national government), around himself. On 10 May Chamberlain resigned the premiership whilst retaining the leadership of the Conservative Party. The King—George VI—appointed Winston Churchill—who had been a consistent opponent of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement—as his successor, and Churchill formed a new coalition government that included members of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Party as well as several ministers from a non-political background.
Actions during the Phoney War
Most other major actions during the Phoney War were at sea, including the Second Battle of the Atlantic fought throughout the Phoney War. Other notable events among these were:
- 17 September 1939, the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was sunk by U-29. She went down in 15 minutes with the loss of 519 of her crew, including her captain. She was the first British warship to be lost in the war.
- 14 October 1939, the British battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk in the main British fleet base at Scapa Flow, Orkney (north of mainland Scotland) by U-47. The death toll reached 833 men, including Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the 2nd Battleship Division.
- Luftwaffe air raids on Britain began on 16 October 1939 when Junkers Ju 88s attacked British warships at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. Spitfires of 602 and 603 Squadrons succeeded in shooting down two Ju 88s and a Heinkel He 111 over the firth. In a raid on Scapa Flow the next day, one Ju 88 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, crashing on the island of Hoy. The first Luftwaffe plane to be shot down on the British mainland was a He 111 at Haddington, East Lothian, on 28 October, with both 602 and 603 Squadrons claiming this victory. 602 Squadron's Archie McKellar was a principal pilot in both the destruction of the first German attacker over water and over British soil. McKellar (KIA 1 Nov. 1940) went on to be credited with 20 kills during the Battle of Britain, as well as "ace in a day" status by shooting down five Bf 109s; a feat accomplished by only 24 RAF pilots during the entire war.
- In December 1939, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was attacked by the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate. Admiral Graf Spee fled to Montevideo harbour to carry out repairs on damage sustained during the battle. She was later scuttled rather than face a large British fleet that the Kriegsmarine believed, incorrectly, was awaiting her departure. The support vessel for Admiral Graf Spee, the tanker Altmark was captured by the Royal Navy in February 1940 in southern Norway. (See: Battles of Narvik, Altmark Incident.)
The warring air forces also showed some activity during this period, running reconnaissance flights and several minor bombing raids. The Royal Air Force also conducted a large number of combined reconnaissance and propaganda leaflet flights over Germany. These operations were jokingly termed "Pamphlet raids" or "Confetti War" in the British press.
Italy entered the war in June 1940.
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'There is something phoney about this war,' [Senator William E. Borah (R. Idaho) in an interview] told questioners yesterday, explaining that he meant the comparative inactivity on the Western Front. 'You would think,' he continued, 'that Britain and France would do what they are going to do now while Germany and Russia are still busy in the East, instead of waiting until they have cleaned up the eastern business.' He did not expect an early end to hostilities.
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Accordingly, the Allies first devised Plan E whereby they would advance into Belgium as far as the Scheldt River but after months of inactivity that the British press termed 'sitzkrieg', a bolder Plan D emerged that called for an advance as far as the Dyle River, a few miles east of Brussels
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The invasion of France brought France and Britain into the war. For more than six months, the two sides sat idle—the British press called it Sitzkrieg—as Germany sought to avoid war and Britain without ceding Poland. With war unavoidable, the Germans attacked France on May 10, 1940.
- Bert Whyte; Larry Hannant (2011). Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-926836-08-9. OCLC 691744583. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
When, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, which Britain had pledged to defend, Britain declared war. But it did nothing to help Poland; for eight months, the conflict remained strictly the 'Phoney War'. In May 1940, in what the British press had taken to calling the 'sitzkrieg' became a German blitzkrieg throughout Western Europe, Hitler-colluder Chamberlain was replaced by Hitler-antagonist Winston Churchill.
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- Media related to Phoney War at Wikimedia Commons