The World War II Multimedia Database

For the 72 Million

The “Phoney War,” September 1939 – May 1940

After the initial terror of the Polish campaign, everyone expected heavy combat, like the summer of 1914. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France, British children were sent to Canada or the countryside; At various times, neutral Belgium and Holland braced for invasion.

The heavy combat on the continent did not immediately materialize. Instead, the warring nations settled into a lull in fighting. The British press dubbed it the “sitzkrieg” — the expected terror of Total War had not yet emerged. Overlooked was the hot war in the Atlantic. British merchantmen were fighting for their lives to keep Britain supplied with resources.

What was happening was futile attempts by both sides to negotiate an end to the war that would not embarrass either side. Germany reached out to the Allies through Holland. Since the British held that Germany should recall her forces from Poland, there was not much leeway for either side to get out with a favorable position to both sides.

Underscoring the U-boat menace was the swift and silent entry into Scapa Flow of U-47, commanded by Günther Prien on October 14, 1939. Prien slipped past sunken ships and chains that were used as antisubmarine nets, and sank the HMS Royal Oak with heavy loss of life. Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler personally decorated Prien.

The other notable confrontation of the “Phoney War” took place in December 1939 off the coast of Uruguay. The German “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee, a very heavy cruiser armed with 11” guns, was chased into Montevideo by three British cruisers. Much to Hitler’s dismay, the captain landed his crew, scuttled the ship, and killed himself. The Allies, desperate for victories, made a bigger deal of the Battle of the River Plate than its actual military significance. It did end a surface threat to the merchant lifeline to the United States and the Dominions. The U-boats were taking a fearful toll that was not generally reported.

In the meantime, many opportunities were lost. The French did not fortify their border with Belgium, although a French officer had proved it was vulnerable during war games in 1938. The troops in the Maginot Line did not move — they did not conduct maneuvers at all, precluding the possibility that they might be needed somewhere else, like to invade Germany. The French Army had gone to ground, a bad mentality to have in fluid, mobile warfare.

The Phoney War did lull many French and British citizens into a false sense of complacency, thinking the Germans would not prove to have the mettle to invade the vaunted Maginot Line.

Also, the weather in the Winter of 1939 precluded blitzkrieg. In April 1940, the Allies and Germany came to blows over Norway. On May 10, 1940, the “Phoney War” came to a swift and terrible end with the invasion of France and the low countries. The Germans went around the Maginot Line, counting on its garrison to remain in place. The Phoney War was over; Total War had arrived.

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