World War II – The Phoney War – Eight months of Sitzkrieg

World War II – The Phoney War – Eight months of Sitzkrieg

People of Warsaw under British Embassy in Warsaw with banner “Long live England!” just after British declaration of state of war with Germany

After World War I, France and Britain agreed to concede Czechoslovakia to Germany with the promise of no more German territorial expansions.  The Munich Agreement was agreed to by Germany and signed into law on September 9, 1938.  Britain’s Neville Chamberlain had been optimistic about the agreement helping to bring “peace for our time,” but Winston Churchill publicly announced his mistrust of the Munich pact as “a total, unmitigated defeat.”

Churchill was right.  Less than one year later, Hitler stormed into Poland in violation of the Munich Agreement.  Both Great Britain and France declared war on Germany and vice versa.  Then, they sat and waited to see what Germany would do.

Nothing much was happening on land.  United States Senator William Barah was quoted in the newspapers as saying “there is something phony about this war.”  The term “phony” stuck.  This period of time from September, 1939 to April, 1940 has been dubbed the “phony war or the twilight war” by the British, and “Sitzkrieg” meaning the “Sitting war” by the Germans. Other terms, like a play on the war name of Boer had the period of time called a “Bore War,” and the French used the term “drole de guerre” meaning strange or funny.  Hardly the way one thinks of World War II now in retrospect.


In 1939 Poland was in the middle of a German occupation, the British Expeditionary Forces landed in France, British children were being sent to Canada for safety and both Belgium and Holland were preparing for attack.  Belgium and the Netherlands had hoped to remain neutral, but had made agreements with the Allies in case they were invaded by Germany.

The British were buying weapons from the United States and were set up to receive discounts and money through the later Lend/Lease Act.  A change in British leadership had been made; King George VI appointed Winston Churchill as successor to Chamberlain. France and Britain were sympathetic to Finland when the Soviets invaded there in what is now termed the Winter War, causing the Soviet Union to be expelled from the League of Nations. Instead of sending assistance, however, they chose to support Norway.  At the war’s conclusion, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier was forced to resign due to his failure to aid Finland.

The French set up their Maginot line into the SAAR with 98 divisions and 2,500 tanks.  The Germans had the Siegfried line on the opposite side of the border, but much weaker than the French, and under equipped. German forces at this time were not fully motorized, with only 120,000 vehicles compared to France’s 300,000 and only 50% of the German divisions were combat ready. Instead of launching an attack on Germany, France withdrew to a defensive stand.  Many military experts agree this was a missed opportunity.

With only minor skirmishes happening on the French/German border, occasional dogfights in the air and the arrival of Canadian troops to Great Britain, Churchill authorized propaganda leaflet to be dropped by air over Germany.  The leaflets had two goals: to expounded upon the evils of Nazism to the German people and were Churchill’s way of showing Germany how easily they could be bombed.

German Pz.Kpfw. I tanks in Aabenraa, Denmark, 9 April 1940

The only hot spot during the Phoney War was in the Atlantic.  German U-boats had sunk the British liner Athenia, claiming it was mistaken for a naval vessel navigating in a zigzag war pattern.  112 lives were lost. Then the British Aircraft carrier, the HMS Courageous, was sunk and became the first British warship lost in World War II. 833 men were killed.  The HMS Royal Oak was also torpedoed with 518 killed.

In December, 1939, the German battleship Admiral Graf Spree was attacked by Royal Naval cruisers HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles in the Battle of River Pate.  Badly damaged, the Admiral Graf Spree was later scuttled by its captain who also committed suicide much to Hitler’s displeasure.

After eight months of non-action and sort of a false complacency, German troops marched into Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. As winter died into Spring, so did the Phoney war…an invasion into France brought the beginning of a genuine war.

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