Phoney War

Summary

“Strange War”, “Sitting War” (French Drôle de guerre, English Phoney War, German Sitzkrieg) – a period of World War II from September 3, 1939 to May 10, 1940 on the Western Front.

The name Phoney War was first used by American journalists in 1939. The French version, Drôle de guerre (Strange War), was coined by French journalist Roland Dorgeles. This underlines the nature of hostilities between the warring parties – almost nonexistent, with the exception of naval warfare. The warring parties fought only local battles on the Franco-German frontier, mostly under the protection of the Maginot and Siegfried lines. Occasionally the Western Allies bombed Germany”s industrial centers. The “Strange War” period was fully utilized by German commanders as a strategic pause: Germany succeeded in the Polish campaign, captured Denmark and Norway, and prepared for the invasion of France.

After coming to power, Adolf Hitler began to implement the idea of uniting all lands with Germans living there into a single state. With military power and diplomatic pressure, in March 1938 Germany freely annexed Austria.In September of that year the Munich agreement led to the partition of Czechoslovakia between Germany, Poland, and Hungary.

On March 21, 1939, Germany demanded the annexation of the city of Danzig (present-day Gdansk), which was administered by the League of Nations, and the opening of the “Polish corridor” (established after World War I to provide Poland”s access to the Baltic Sea). Poland refused to meet Germany”s demands. In response, on March 28, 1939, Hitler declared the non-aggression pact with Poland (signed in January 1934) null and void.

On March 31, 1939, British Prime Minister Chamberlain, on behalf of the British and French governments, declared that he would provide all possible assistance to Poland if its security was threatened. On April 6, the unilateral British guarantee to Poland was replaced by a bilateral agreement of mutual assistance between England and Poland.

On May 15, 1939, a Polish-French protocol was signed in which the French promised to launch an offensive within the next two weeks of mobilization.

By “European state,” as the secret treaty implied, Germany was meant.

On September 1, 1939 German troops crossed the border into Poland. In accordance with the agreements on the same day, mobilization was declared in France.

Great Britain and France far outnumbered Germany in terms of potential. Germany (including Austria and the Sudetes) had a population of 79.4 million, while the British and French colonial empires had populations of 560 million and 110 million respectively (of which 47.5 million and 42 million were in the metropolises).

In 1939 Germany produced 284 million tons of coal, the British metropolis 235 million and the French 49.8 million tons; iron smelted 19.8 million, 8.1 million and 7.4 million tons respectively; steel produced 25.6 million, 13.4 million and 7.9 million tons, the total production of the empires was even greater. On the eve of the war Germany dramatically increased its military production, the value of which was about 3.4 times that of British military production, but this was an advantage of a purely temporary nature. Even the British Empire alone had far more potential resources than Germany.

The British Empire had an almost monopoly on the most important strategic raw materials: tin, rubber, tungsten, molybdenum, jute, and had access to all the raw materials it needed. Germany, on the other hand, depended on imports. Its attempts at self-sufficiency failed to produce the expected results.

Aviation

At the time war was declared, mainland France had 34 divisions of ground troops as well as a large air force. The French Air Force included about 3,300 aircraft, of which 1,275 were the latest fighting machines:

At the same time the Luftwaffe on the Western Front had 1,193 aircraft. Of these, 568 fighters, 421 bombers and 152 scouts. Thus, the air superiority of France alone over Germany was obvious. And with the arrival of British air units in France, this superiority would become overwhelming. The Royal Air Force provided more than 1,500 of the most modern aircraft to aid the Allies: Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, Fairey “Battle” bombers, Bristol Blenheim and Wheatley. However, all these planes were at British airfields, and moving them to France required considerable time.

Overall, in 1939 France had the third largest number of tanks and planes in the world after the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, and the fourth largest navy in the world after the British, American and Japanese (France was followed by Italy).

Ground troops

Army Group C

The Wehrmacht”s Western Front was represented by Army Group C of Colonel General Wilhelm von Leeb, which included 42 divisions (in September the 3rd Mountain Division was urgently redeployed to reinforce it), of which only 12 could be called full strength:

First echelon (1st and 2nd stages of mobilization)

Second Echelon (4th stage of mobilization)

Reserve (3rd stage of mobilization)

German troops occupied positions along the Dutch, Belgian, and French borders. In doing so they used the Siegfried Line created earlier.

On September 3, 1939, Great Britain (at 5:00) and France (at 11:00) declared war on Germany. Already post facto, on September 4, the Franco-Polish agreement was signed. After that, the Polish ambassador to France began to insist on an immediate general offensive. On the same day, British representatives, General Edmund William Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Air Chief Marshal Cyril Newell arrived in France for negotiations with the French General Staff. Despite the numerous meetings of the joint staff committee that had taken place since late March, by early September there was still no coordinated plan of action for providing aid to the Poles.

The next day Ironside and Newell reported to the cabinet that after the mobilization of his armies was completed, the commander-in-chief of the French army, Gamelin, was going tentatively to “press the Siegfried line” on September 17 and test the reliability of its defense.

As a result of preparatory actions from August 18 and hidden mobilization from August 25 the German High Command deployed Army Group “C” in the West consisting of 31 23 divisions. Even before September 1 three divisions were transferred from the OKH reserve to GA “C” and nine more divisions after the Allies declared war on Germany. In all by September 10 there were 43 23 divisions on the western borders of Germany. They were supported by the 2nd and 3rd Air Fleets, which had 664 and 564 combat aircraft, respectively. The French mobilization actions began on August 21 and affected first of all the peacetime divisions and fortress and anti-aircraft units. On September 1, a general mobilization was announced (the first day of September 2 from 0 o”clock) and the formation of the reserve divisions of the “A” and “B” series (except for the two that began to form at the end of August) began. After the mobilization and the deployment by the early twenties of September the North-Eastern Front, which covered the border with Belgium and Germany, concentrated 61 divisions and one brigade; against Italy 11 divisions and one brigade; in North Africa (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) there were 14 divisions and five brigades. Four British divisions arrived in France throughout September and by mid-October were concentrated on the Belgian border near Arras between the 1st and 7th French Armies. The length of France”s northern frontier was 804.67 km, and the French could only conduct an offensive in a small area 144.84 km wide from the Rhine to the Moselle. Otherwise, France would have violated the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg. The Germans were able to concentrate their most combat-ready divisions in this territory and covered the approaches to the Siegfried Line with minefields. In such a situation the French offensive was made much more difficult.

Regarding British aid, it was clear that the first two divisions of the British expeditionary corps could not arrive on the Continent until the first days of October, two more in the second half of October. No other British divisions could be counted on. For the French this also served as a reason not to start offensive operations.

The German army was also in no hurry to start a full-scale war on the Western Front. The “Order of Commander-in-Chief Adolf Hitler on the attack on Poland (31.08.1939)” stated the following:

“3) In the west the responsibility for the outbreak of war should be placed entirely on the British and French. Minor violations of the frontier must first be answered by actions of a purely local nature… The German land frontier in the west must not be violated at any point without my permission. The same applies to all naval operations, as well as to other actions at sea which may be regarded as military operations. Actions of the air force must be confined to the anti-aircraft defense of the state borders against enemy air raids…4) If England and France begin military operations against Germany, the purpose of the armed forces operating in the west will be to provide appropriate conditions for the victorious completion of operations against Poland…The land forces will hold the Western Wall and prepare to prevent its bypass from the north…”

To accomplish this task Army Group “C” under the command of Colonel General Wilhelm von Leeb had at its disposal 11 23 regular and 32 reserve and Landwehr divisions. The latter could not be considered fully combat-ready neither in technical equipment nor in military training. Army Group “West” had no tank formations. The Western rampart (Siegfried line) was considerably inferior in strength to the Maginot line and was still under construction. German troops were deployed as follows: 7th Army (commanded by Artillery General Dollmann) along the Rhine from Basel to Karlsruhe, 1st Army (commanded by Colonel General Erwin von Witzleben) from the Rhine to the Luxembourg border. A small Task Force A, commanded by Colonel General Baron Kurt von Hammerstein, guarded the border with the neutral states as far as Wesel.

Since the beginning of the war, the French had limited themselves to a few local attacks around the Western rampart. The Germans did not adhere to the natural curvature of the borders when building the protective barrier, so the line was a straight line in some areas. In addition, German troops were ordered to conduct only the defense of the Siegfried Line and not to engage in protracted fighting. On September 13, 1939, the French were able to occupy two forward sections relatively easily – the “Warndt” section west of Saarbrücken and the border ledge between Saarbrücken and the Palatinate forest.

When, after the end of the war with Poland, the redeployment of German formations from the Eastern Front to the Western Front became noticeable, the French, beginning on October 3, vacated most of the border zone they had captured and withdrew to the state border and, in places, beyond it. According to the German military, they were surprised at the poorly engineered field positions that the French had abandoned.

Saarland offensive

According to the Franco-Polish military treaty, the commitment of the French army was to begin preparations for a major offensive 3 days after mobilization began. French troops were to seize the area between the French border and the German defense line and conduct reconnaissance by combat. On the 15th day of the mobilization (i.e., through September 16), the goal of the French army was to launch a full-scale offensive against Germany.Pre-mobilization was initiated in France on August 26, and full-scale mobilization was announced on September 1.

The French offensive in the Rhine Valley began on September 7, four days after France declared war on Germany. At that moment the Wehrmacht forces were engaged in an offensive operation in Poland, and the French had an overwhelming numerical superiority along the border with Germany. However, the actions of the French army brought no relief to the Poles, and the French themselves found themselves in a precarious position, with no major successes. Thus, near Saarbrücken, eleven divisions at once stormed the German positions, breaking through 32 kilometers ahead. All in all the French managed to take 12 settlements within a week. However, the Germans, having surrendered the cities without losses, thereby deceived the French by accumulating forces. Gradually the Germans began to counterattack: On September 10, the French repulsed the first attack near Apache. Nevertheless, the offensive continued until the capture of the Varndt forest. In this operation the infantry suffered heavy losses from anti-personnel mines and the French offensive ran out of steam. The French army did not even make it to the Western Wall. On September 12 the Anglo-French High War Council met for the first time at Abbeville in France. It was decided that all offensives were to cease immediately.

The operation did not result in the redeployment of German troops from Poland. Poland was not notified of the decision to suspend the offensive. Instead, Gamelin informed Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigli that half of his divisions had engaged the enemy, and that French successes had forced the Wehrmacht to withdraw at least six divisions from Poland. The next day Louis Forey, commander of the French military mission in Poland, informed the Polish chief of staff, General Waclaw Stahewicz, that the planned full-scale offensive on the western front had to be postponed from 17 September to 20 September. The planned full-scale offensive against Germany was to be carried out by 40 divisions, including one armored division, three mechanized divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions, but due to the hopeless situation of Poland on 17 September it was cancelled.

A German counteroffensive on October 16 and 17 allowed Germany to regain territories lost during the Saarland operation. French troops returned behind the Maginot Line. Thus began the Strange War.

The Soviet-Finnish War

The notable event of the strange war was the Soviet-Finnish war, which began on November 30, 1939.

On October 28 the War Cabinet approved Britain”s strategic concept. General Edmund Ironside, Chief of the British General Staff, described the concept as “passive expectation, with all the excitement and anxiety that this entails.

After that there was a complete lull on the Western Front. French correspondent Roland Dorgeles, who was on the front line, wrote:

…I was surprised at the tranquility that reigned there. The artillerymen who had positioned themselves on the Rhine were calmly watching the German ammunition trains that were running on the opposite bank, our pilots were flying over the smoking chimneys of the Saar factory without dropping bombs. Apparently, the high command”s main concern was not to disturb the enemy.

On October 30, 1939, a British fighter shot down a German Do 17 reconnaissance aircraft for the first time on the Western Front. On December 9, 1939, during a night patrol, a British patrol walked into a minefield, and Corporal T. Pridey became the first British infantryman to die in action in World War II (but by no means the first British loss – more than 800 sailors in particular were killed when the Royal Oak was sunk).

In December 1939 a fifth British division was formed in France, and in the first months of the following year five more divisions arrived from England. Nearly 50 airfields with cement airstrips were established in the rear of the British forces, but instead of bombing German positions, British planes scattered propaganda leaflets over the front lines.

The position of the French Communists

In September 1939 the FKP began an anti-war campaign, urging soldiers to desert the army. On September 2 its deputies voted against the war credits. Party General Secretary Maurice Thorez, drafted into the army, deserted and fled to the USSR, for which he was sentenced to death in absentia by a military court.

On September 27, 1939, at the council of commanders-in-chief of the armed forces and their chiefs of staff, Hitler ordered to immediately prepare an offensive in the west: “The purpose of the war – to bring Great Britain to its knees, to defeat France. The commander-in-chief of the land forces, Walter von Brauchitsch, and the chief of staff, Franz Halder, opposed it. (They even prepared a plan to remove Hitler from power, but, not getting support from General Fromm, commander of the reserve army, abandoned it.)

The Gelb (“Yellow”) plan in its first version (the OKH plan) (which was never implemented) stipulated that the direction of the main German strike would run along both sides of Liege. The directive ended with an order to Army Group A and Army Group B to concentrate their forces so that in six night crossings they could take initial positions for the offensive. The offensive was scheduled to begin on November 12. On November 5, Brauchitsch again tried to dissuade Hitler from invading France. Hitler, in turn, reiterated that the offensive should be carried out no later than November 12. However, on November 7, the order was cancelled because of unfavorable weather conditions. Later the beginning of the operation was postponed 29 times.

On January 10, 1940, Hitler set the final date of the offensive – January 17. But on the same day that Hitler made this decision, a very mysterious “accident” occurred: a plane with a German officer, who was carrying secret documents, landed in Belgium by mistake and the Helb plan fell into the hands of the Belgians (the “Mechelen incident”). The Germans were forced to change the operation plan. A new revision was provided by the Chief of Staff of Army Group “A” under Rundstedt and Manstein. Manstein came to the conclusion that it was better to strike the main blow through the Ardennes in the direction of Sedan, which the Allies did not expect in any way. The main idea of Manstein”s plan was “luring”. Manstein had no doubt that the Allies would certainly respond to the invasion of Belgium. But by deploying their troops there they would lose the available reserve (at least for a few days), load the roads to the point of failure, and, most importantly, weaken the “sliding northward” operational section Dinan – Sedan.

In planning the invasion of France, the German General Staff worried that Anglo-French troops might then occupy Denmark and Norway. On October 10, 1939, the naval commander-in-chief, Grossadmiral Roeder, first pointed out to Hitler the importance of Norway in the war at sea. Scandinavia was a good springboard to attack Germany. Occupation of Norway by Britain and France would mean a de facto naval blockade for Germany.

On December 14, 1939, Hitler gave the order to prepare the operation in Norway. On March 1, 1940 a special directive was issued. Paragraph 1 of the directive stated:

On March 7, 1940, Hitler approved the final plan for Operation Weserubung.

Denmark submitted to Germany”s demands almost without resistance.

The situation in Norway was different. There on April 9-10 the Germans captured the main Norwegian ports: Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen, and Narvik. On April 14, the Anglo-French landing force landed near Narvik, on April 16 – in Namsus, and on April 17 – in Ondalsnes. On April 19, the Allies launched an attack on Trondheim, but were defeated and in early April were forced to withdraw their troops from central Norway. After the fighting for Narvik, the Allies evacuated the northern part of the country in early June. Later, on June 10, the last units of the Norwegian army surrendered. Norway finds itself under the control of the German occupation administration.

The “strange war” period ended on May 10, 1940. On that day German troops, according to the “Gelb” plan, began a large-scale offensive in neutral Belgium and Holland.Then through Belgium, bypassing the Maginot Line from the north, German troops seized almost all of France. The remnants of the Anglo-French army were driven to the Dunkirk area, where they evacuated to Great Britain.

Sources

  1. Странная война
  2. Phoney War