Wednesday 13 June 2018

Having failed to prevent the defeat of Poland in September 1939, Britain and France were faced with the prospect of a long and costly war with Germany. The rapid defeat of Poland was followed by a period of inaction and stalemate in western Europe.

photographs

THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE 1939

photographs

THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE 1939

Army and French Air Force personnel outside a dugout named '10 Downing Street' on the edge of an airfield in France during the 'Phoney War', 28 November 1939. 

Although there was some action at sea, there was little activity on land and, surprisingly to many, in the air. With little in the way of actual fighting, this sense of unreality earned this period the nickname of the 'Phoney War'.

From September 1939 to May 1940, apart from a few brief skirmishes, both sides were content to remain behind their defences. This contrast with the blitzkrieg ('lightning war') tactics of the Polish campaign resulted in the war being labelled as the 'sitzkrieg' and the 'Bore War'.

The Anglo-French war plans were fundamentally defensive and the build-up of French and British land forces proved to be a lengthy process. In the meantime, much importance was placed upon the effects of the Allied naval blockade of Germany.

On the home front, Britain braced itself for an all-out German air attack and its civil defence plans were immediately put into effect. Air raid precautions were rigorously imposed, but although the much-feared danger of aerial attack did not immediately materialise, people still had to abide by a host of government restrictions. Conscription, food rationing and the use of public transport for military purposes combined to make the 'Phoney War' a time of discomfort and anti-climax in Britain.

In the spring of 1940 Germany launched attacks against Scandinavia and western Europe. Norway was strategically and economically important to both Germany and the Allies. Hitler decided to pre-empt an Allied move, and German troops invaded Norway by sea and air on 9 April 1940. On 10 May 1940, Germany also launched attacks on France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, bringing the stalemate in western Europe to an end.

photographs

Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street

photographs

Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street

The British were unable to stop the invasion of Norway, despite inflicting significant losses upon the German surface fleet. On 7-8 May 1940 the House of Commons debated the disastrous Norwegian campaign. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was widely criticised and, unable to form a national government that would serve under him, he resigned. On 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister.

This article was edited by Jessica Talarico. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.

Related Content

Churchill waving to crowds in Whitehall, London, as they celebrate VE Day, 8 May 1945.
© IWM (H 41849)
Second World War
How Churchill Led Britain To Victory In The Second World War
Winston Churchill became Britain's prime minister on 10 May 1940. As he was later to write: 'I felt...that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial'. On the very day that Churchill fulfilled his life's ambition, Germany had, that morning, invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Adolf Hitler at the annual harvest festival at Bückeberg in 1934.
© IWM (MH 11040)
Second World War
How Europe Went To War In 1939
The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in human history. Years of international tension and aggressive expansion by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany culminated in the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.
The German battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate Estuary off Montevideo, Uruguay.
War at sea
What You Need To Know About The Battle Of The River Plate
Victory in the Battle of the River Plate, the first major naval engagement of the Second World War, was a great boost to British morale during the ‘Phoney War’. When war broke out in September 1939, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, commanded by Hans Langsdorff, was patrolling in the Atlantic.