Phoney War

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A British 8-inch howitzer near the German border during the Phoney War 8inchHowitzerCamouflagedLaquielle20October1939.jpg
A British 8-inch howitzer near the German border during the Phoney War

The Phoney War (French : Drôle de guerre; German : Sitzkrieg) was an eight-month period at the start of World War II, during which there was only one limited military land operation on the Western Front, when French troops invaded Germany's Saar district. The Phoney period began with the declaration of war by the United Kingdom and France against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, and ended with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. Although there was no large-scale military action by Britain and France, they did begin economic warfare, especially with the naval blockade, and shut down German surface raiders. They created elaborate plans for numerous large-scale operations designed to swiftly and decisively cripple the German war effort. These included opening an Anglo-French front in the Balkans, invading Norway to seize control of Germany's main source of iron ore and a strike against the Soviet Union, to cut off its supply of oil to Germany. Only the Norway plan came to fruition, and it was too little too late in April 1940. [1]

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.


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.

Allies of World War II Grouping of the victorious countries of World War II

The Allies of World War II, called the United Nations from the 1 January 1942 declaration, were the countries that together opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War (1939–1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and Italian aggression.

Saar Offensive French ground operation into Saarland from 7 to 16 September 1939

The Saar Offensive was a French ground invasion of Saarland, Germany, during the early stages of World War II, from 7 to 16 September 1939. The plans called for roughly 40 divisions, including one armored division, three mechanised divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions to assist Poland, which was then under invasion, by attacking Germany's understrength western front. Although 30 divisions advanced to the border, the assault never happened. When the quick victory in Poland allowed Germany to reinforce its lines with homecoming troops, the offensive was stopped. The French forces eventually withdrew amid a German counter-offensive on 17 October.

Winter War 1939–1940 war between the Soviet Union and Finland

The Winter War was a military conflict between the Soviet Union (USSR) and Finland. It began with a Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II, and ended three and a half months later with the Moscow Peace Treaty on 13 March 1940. The League of Nations deemed the attack illegal and expelled the Soviet Union from the organisation.

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.

Axis powers Alliance of countries defeated in World War II

The Axis powers, also known as "Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis", were the nations that fought in World War II against the Allies. The Axis powers agreed on their opposition to the Allies, but did not completely coordinate their activity.

HMS <i>Courageous</i> (50) World War One era British warship later rebuilt as an aircraft carrier

HMS Courageous was the lead ship of the Courageous-class cruisers built for the Royal Navy during the First World War. Designed to support the Baltic Project championed by First Sea Lord John Fisher, the ship was very lightly armoured and armed with only a few heavy guns. Courageous was completed in late 1916 and spent the war patrolling the North Sea. She participated in the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight in November 1917 and was present when the German High Seas Fleet surrendered a year later.

Reconnaissance Military scouting of enemy deployment

In military operations, reconnaissance or scouting is the exploration outside an area occupied by friendly forces to gain information about natural features and other activities in the area.


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 pattern. [2] The first known recorded use of the term in print was in September, 1939, in a US newspaper which used the British spelling, [3] although other contemporary American reports sometimes used "phony" since both spellings were in use at the time in the US. The term appeared in Great Britain by January 1940 [4] 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 [5] ("the sitting war": a word play on blitzkrieg created by the British press). [6] [7] [8] In French, it is referred to as the drôle de guerre ("funny" or "strange" war). [Note 1]

Winston Churchill Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during most of World War II

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was a British politician, army officer, and writer. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, when he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955. Churchill represented five constituencies during his career as a Member of Parliament (MP). Ideologically an economic liberal and imperialist, for the last of his career he was a member of the Conservative Party, which he led from 1940 to 1955, but from 1904 to 1924 was a member of the Liberal Party.

Blitzkrieg German-style armoured warfare from WWII

Blitzkrieg is a method of warfare whereby an attacking force, spearheaded by a dense concentration of armoured and motorised or mechanised infantry formations with close air support, breaks through the opponent's line of defence by short, fast, powerful attacks and then dislocates the defenders, using speed and surprise to encircle them with the help of air superiority. Through the employment of combined arms in manoeuvre warfare, blitzkrieg attempts to unbalance the enemy by making it difficult for it to respond to the continuously changing front, then defeat it in a decisive Vernichtungsschlacht.

The term "Phoney War" was probably coined by US Senator William Borah, who, commenting in September 1939 on the inactivity on the Western Front, said, "There is something phoney about this war." [3]

William Borah American politician

William Edgar Borah was an outspoken Republican United States Senator, one of the best-known figures in Idaho's history. A progressive who served from 1907 until his death in 1940, Borah is often considered an isolationist, for he led the Irreconcilables, senators who would not accept the Treaty of Versailles, Senate ratification of which would have made the U.S. part of the League of Nations.

Western Front (World War II) military theatre of World War II encompassing Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany

The Western Front was a military theatre of World War II encompassing Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. World War II military engagements in Southern Europe and elsewhere are generally considered under separate headings. The Western Front was marked by two phases of large-scale combat operations. The first phase saw the capitulation of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France during May and June 1940 after their defeat in the Low Countries and the northern half of France, and continued into an air war between Germany and Britain that climaxed with the Battle of Britain. The second phase consisted of large-scale ground combat, which began in June 1944 with the Allied landings in Normandy and continued until the defeat of Germany in May 1945.


People of Warsaw outside the British Embassy with a banner which says "Long live England!" just after the British declaration of war with Nazi Germany People of Warsaw under GB Embassy 3.09.1939.jpg
People of Warsaw outside the British Embassy with a banner which says "Long live England!" just after the British declaration of war with Nazi Germany

The Polish Army general plan for defence, Plan West, assumed that the Allies' offensive on the Western front would provide significant relief to the Polish front in the East. [9]

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 arrived in Britain, while western Europe was under a period of uneasy calm for seven months. [10]

In the first few months of the war, Germany still hoped to persuade Britain to agree to peace. Although London hospitals prepared for 300,000 casualties in the first week, Germany unexpectedly did not immediately attack British cities by air, and German pilots that attacked Scottish naval bases said that they would have been court-martialled and executed for bombing civilians. Both sides found that attacks on military targets, such as a British attack on Kiel on the second night of the war, led to high losses of aircraft. They also feared retaliation for bombing civilians. (Britain and France did not realize that Germany used 90% of its frontline aircraft during the Polish invasion.) [11] Civilian attitudes in Britain to their German foes were still not as intense as they were to become after the Blitz. On 30 April 1940, a German Heinkel 111 bomber crashed at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, killing its crew and injuring 160 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. [12] [13] British pilots mapped the Siegfried Line while German troops waved at them. [11]

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. [14] Some British officers in France imported packs of foxhounds and beagles in 1939, but were thwarted by the French authorities in their attempts at introducing live foxes. [15]

In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France both bought large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the US at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own production. The non-belligerent US contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales. [10]

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 out of 22 Wellington bombers were shot down in an air battle over the Wilhelmshaven naval base on 18 December 1939.) [16]

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." [17] General Siegfried Westphal stated that if the French had attacked in force in September 1939 the German army "could only have held out for one or two weeks." [18]

Saar offensive

A French soldier examines a German street sign during the Saar Offensive Soldat Frances al Saar.jpg
A French soldier examines a German street sign during the Saar Offensive

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. 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.

Winter 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 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' defence seemed so much more successful than that of the Poles during the September Campaign. [19] 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. [20] British forces that began to be assembled to send to Finland's aid were not dispatched before the Winter War ended, but were sent instead to Norway's aid in the Norwegian campaign. On 20 March, after the Winter War had ended, Édouard Daladier resigned as Prime Minister of France, partially due 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. [21]

Change of British government

British Ministry of Home Security poster of a type that was common during the Phoney War Hitlerwarn.jpg
British Ministry of Home Security poster of a type that was common during the Phoney War

The debacle of the Allied campaign in Norway, which was actually an offshoot 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 new coalition government with himself as the leader. So on 10 May, Chamberlain resigned the premiership but retained the leadership of the Conservative Party. Winston Churchill, who had been a consistent opponent of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, became Chamberlain's successor. 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. [22]

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:

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.[ citation needed ]

On 10 May 1940, eight months after Britain and France had declared war on Germany, German troops marched into Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, marking the end of the Phoney War and the beginning of the Battle of France.[ citation needed ]

Italy entered the war in June 1940.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. Perhaps because of mishearing or a mistranslation, French journalist Roland Dorgelès or other French sources read the English "phoney" as "funny." See fr:Drôle de guerre (in French).

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  1. Talbot Charles Imlay, "A reassessment of Anglo-French strategy during the Phoney War, 1939-1940." English Historical Review 119#481 (2004): 333-372.
  2. Safire, William (2008) [1968]. "Phony War". Safire's Political Dictionary (Updated and expanded ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 539. ISBN   978-0-19-534334-2. OCLC   761162164.
  3. 1 2 McNaughton, Frank (19 September 1939). Edward T. Leech (ed.). "Roosevelt Deplores German Bombings". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Press Company. United Press. p. 8. ISSN   1068-624X . Retrieved 9 September 2015. "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.
  4. "This is Not a Phoney War". News-Chronicle. London. 19 January 1940. cited in Safire, William (2008) [1968]. "Phony War". Safire's Political Dictionary (Updated and expanded ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 539. ISBN   978-0-19-534334-2. OCLC   761162164.
  5. "The Phoney War". History Learning Site.
  6. Dunstan, Simon (20 November 2012). Fort Eben Emael: The Key to Hitler's Victory in the West. Osprey Publishing. p. 33. ISBN   978-1-78200-692-3. OCLC   57638821. 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
  7. Patricia S. Daniels; Stephen Garrison Hyslop; Douglas Brinkley (2006). National Geographic Almanac of World History. National Geographic Society. p. 297. ISBN   978-0-7922-5911-4 . Retrieved 10 September 2015. 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 with Britain without ceding Poland. With war unavoidable, the Germans attacked France on May 10, 1940.
  8. 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-with-Chamberlain was replaced by Hitler-antagonist-of-Winston Churchill.
  9. Seidner, Stanley S. (1978). Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz Rydz and the Defense of Poland. New York. pp. 89–91. OCLC   164675876.
  10. 1 2 "The Phoney War!". 8 October 1980. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  11. 1 2 Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. xv–xvii.
  12. Regan, pp. 198–199.
  13., see also british newsreel
  14. Atkin, Ronald (1990). Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. p. 29. ISBN   1 84158 078 3.
  15. Geoffrey Regan. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 108–109, Guinness Publishing ISBN   0-85112-519-0
  16. Denis Richards RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War (1995) chap. 3
  17. "Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal" (PDF). Nüremberg. 1948. p. 350.
  18. World at War - "France Falls" - Thames TV
  19. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2016). "Russo-Finnish War". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  20. "USSR expelled from the League of Nations". A+E Networks Corp. 2016. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  21. "The Baltic Sea at war 1939-1945". 2016. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  22. "Winston Churchill". A&E. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  23. "1939 - Into Action". The Spitfire - An Operational History. DeltaWeb International.
  24. "Junkers Ju88 4D+EK". Peak District Air Accident Research.

Further reading