The Phoney War


‘Phoney War’ is the name given to the period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to May 1940 when, after the blitzkrieg attack on Poland in September 1939, seemingly nothing happened. Many in Great Britain expected a major calamity – but the title ‘Phoney War’ summarises what happened in Western Europe – near enough nothing.  As it was, the British Expeditionary Force under General Lord Gort VC did not start to arrive on the Continent until 10 September, although thirteen RAF squadrons arrived in France the day before.

Gamelin & Gort

The term ‘Phoney War’ was first used, allegedly, by an American  senator called Borah. Winston Churchill referred to the same period as the ‘Twilight War’ while the Germans referred to it as ‘Sitzkrieg’ – ‘sitting war’. This was actually coined by the French, as the'joke war' or phoney.

The Phoney War refers to what happened in Western Europe between September 1939 and the spring of 1940. To assume that nothing was going on in Europe would be wrong as Poland was in the process of being occupied with all that brought for the Polish people. However, in Western Europe very little of military importance did take place. In fact, so little occurred that many of the children who had been evacuated at the start of the war, had returned to their families. To many, war had been declared by Neville Chamberlain, but nothing was actually happening. (from: )

When war was declared on 3rd September 1939, the Germans had already begun it by invading Poland and annexing lands they deemed theirs by right, but normally by propaganda against the country concerned. Fake tales of germans being persecuted and harrassed by the people of that country. After Sept 3rd, on land at least, the European war was relatively non existent. The French had 6 million men in arms along their eastern borders. The British had sent over a force of 200,000, the BEF; British Expeditionery Force, badly equipped. The leader of the French army sat in his chateau, with no radio, no phones. Like all the French leaders, they were way beyond military age, and had their ideas of warfare stongly embeded in the Great War and hadn't had an original idea in decades.  The French Government was also in no state to do anything, they had more cabinets in the weeks and months prior to and during the phoney war, than most countries have in a generation. Deeply divided, the French population were either outright opposed to Germany or wanting to collaborate. Far Left and Far Right, seemingly with no 'inbetween' stategy. The winter of 1939 was particularly bad, which added weight to the stalemate across the borders. Many french soldiers, doing nothing, got drunk!

The French Maginot line, a heavily armoured and defended barrier ran along the Franco-German border, but did not cover the whole length! The area of the heavily wooded Ardennes was not defended at all, the French thought it inpenetrable. When the french did defend if, they placed some poorly trained,badly equipped, divisions at Sedan. Between the Maginot Line and the English Channel was something like 200 kilometers of undefended open land. The Belgiums had naively declared neutrality at this time. German armour could, and did, in the spring of 1940, sweep around the Maginot Line as if it wasn't there; another example of French military thinking embedded in previous campaigns. The French spent more times firing their cannons for the benefit of visiting dignitaries and journalists that at the Germans. At one stage, a journalist on the front line asked the French why they were not firing at the visible germans across the Meuse, who were standing around and playing football etc. The reply was, "But why? If we fire at them, they will shoot at us"!! Phoney war indeed!

King George VI visits the Maginot Line

Maginot Defences, the German just went around it!

BEF retreating across Belgium

BEF Vickers Light Tank 1940
And its opponent the Panzer 3 (1940)

Bren Gun Carrier

The Germans made no secret of their tactics. General Guderian wrote a book on the Blitzkreig; modelled on a book written by Liddel-Hart, of the Royal Tank Regiment. Both of which nobody that mattered bothered to read!!! Guderian had, and so had his tank commanders. So, when the blitzkreig was unleashed, nobody had sufficient tactical prowess to stop it. The French Commander, Gamelin, hiding in his chateau, drew lines on maps to halt the german advance, little knowing that the germans had already passed that line and were advancing rapidly. It reminds me of the doddering old former general who sat in his house playing model soldiers with his little figures. Except in the case of the French, with real soldiers! From Wikipedia: The Commander-in-chief of the French armed forces in World War II, Gamelin was viewed as a man with significant intellectual ability. He was respected, even in Germany, for his intelligence and "subtle mind", though he was viewed by some German generals as stiff and predictable. Despite this, and his competent service in World War I, his command of the French armies during the critical days of May 1940 proved to be disastrous. Historian and journalist William L. Shirer presented the view that Gamelin used World War I methods to fight World War II, but with less vigor and slower response.

Gamelin replaced by Weygand

Needless to say, when the vanquished French were looking for someone to blame, instead of blaming their old, decrepid, high command, they blamed the small BEF force. 6 million men who could do nothing in the advance of the Germans, blaming 200,000 british soldiers!!! The Germans sent their armies into the french fields and formed a pincer movement cutting off thousands upon thousands of French and British troops who only had one way to escape, into the sea at Dunkirk! The panzers reached the English Channel and stopped, guns pointing out to sea. This inexplicable decision by Hitler to halt his armies, (and very kind weather) allowed thousands of small and large ships to take off most of the troops and land them in the UK. The defeat of Dunkirk was actually the miracle of Dunkirk. Captain Walker RN, at this time Captain D at Dover, was instrumental in organising the armada and was himself on board one of the last ships to return to England. He was rewarded with a medal from the King.

In defence of the evacuation the RAF, alone, faced the Lufwaffe who were bombing and machine gunning the ships and men. Dowding, the head of the RAF, lost half his planes defending french soil.

It was around this time that Gen de Gaulle first appeared alongside the political leaders. He was not exactly a Frenchman who liked Englishmen, which was to manifest itself much later, after WW2. He was one of those who fled to England though, when France fell, oh so quickly. The period to Spring 1040 allowed Britain much needed breathing room and a chance to build up its forces and equipment, something they sorely needed as, like France, Britain did not have the right equipment to combat the modern might of the German Forces.

 Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill on Friday 10 May 1940.  This was by no means a general decision, Lord Halifax was thought by many to be a serious contender. However, Chamberlain, Churchill and Haslifax met, and Chamberlain asked Churchill if he considered himself more suited than Halifax. Churchill felt a trap, so he declined an answer, instead staring out over Horseguard Parade. Chamberlain went to the King and asked that he (the King) sent for Churchill. 

Churchill, who wrote afterwards that he was conscious ‘of a profound sense of relief. At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene.I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.’ He could not have had a shorter honeymoon, since Hitler had unleashed the Blitzkrieg in the West at dawn that same morning, with Stuka dive-bombers supporting the deep thrusts of German panzer (tank) formations into Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. The Phoney War was over.

Pouring out of the Ardennes – which had hitherto been considered impassable to tanks - German divisions simply outflanked the Maginot Line and raced for the Channel coast, slicing through Allied opposition, well supported by motorized infantry divisions. The strategy was known as the Sichelschnitt, and it left the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) cut off and in serious danger of being surrounded. The use of massed tank formations acting independently was a new kind of tactic, and the Allied High Command had not learnt from Poland’s experience how to counter it.

The Wehrmacht comprised 154 divisions in May 1940, and the Sickle Cut around the Maginot Line employed no fewer than 136 of them. The Allies, once neutral Belgium and Holland’s thirty-two and Holland’s ten divisions were all too belatedly added to the total, numbered 144 in the north-west. Both sides had around four thousand armoured vehicles, with the Germans’ forces heavily concentrated in ten Panzer divisions of 2,700 tanks, supported by mechanised infantry. Yet the three thousand French tanks were hopelessly disseminated in a linear manner, as they were in attack during the Great War, while the British only had around two hundred tanks in all. ‘By dispersing their armour along the whole front,’ commented the panzer leader Colonel Friedrich von Mellenthin, ‘the French High Command played into our hands, and have only themselves to blame for the catastrophe that was to follow.’

The Phoney War and the battle of France was soon over - Churchill said, the battle for Britain is about to begin.