Military Wiki
The Phoney War
Part of the Western Front of Second World War
DateOctober 1939 — April 1940
(7 months and 4 days)
LocationMaginot Line, Siegfried Line
Result Battle of France
 United Kingdom

The Phoney War was a phase early in World War II that was marked by a lack of major military operations by the Western Allies (the United Kingdom and France) against the German Reich. The phase covered the months following Britain and France's declaration of war on Germany (shortly after the invasion of Poland) in September 1939 and preceding the Battle of France in May 1940. War was declared by each side, but no Western power had committed to launching a significant land offensive, notwithstanding the terms of the Anglo-Polish and Franco-Polish military alliances, which obliged the United Kingdom and France to assist Poland.

Contemporaneously, the period had also been referred to as the Twilight War (by Winston Churchill), der Sitzkrieg[1] ("the sitting war": a play on blitzkrieg), the Bore War (a play on the Boer War), Dziwna Wojna ("strange war" in Polish), and drôle de guerre ("strange/funny war" in French).

The term "Phoney War" was possibly coined by US Senator William Borah who stated, in September 1939: "There is something phoney about this war."[2]


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 stepped ashore in Britain, while western Europe was under a period of uneasy calm for seven months.

When Leopold Amery suggested bombing the Black Forest with incendiaries to burn its ammunition dumps to Kingsley 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.[3] Indeed, the sense of unreality was maintained when some British officers imported packs of foxhounds and beagles in 1939, but were thwarted by the French authorities in their attempts at introducing live foxes.[4] Civilian attitudes in Britain to their German foes were still not as intense as they were to become after the Blitz. In April 1940 a Heinkel bomber crashed at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, killing its crew and 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.[5]

Meanwhile, the opposing nations clashed in the Norwegian Campaign. In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France had both begun buying large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the US at the outbreak of hostilities, thereby supplementing their own production. The non-belligerent US contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales, and later, the lend-lease of military equipment and supplies.

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

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.

At the Nuremberg Trials, 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."[6]

General Siegfried Westphal stated ("World at War" - France Falls - Thames TV), that if the French had attacked in force in September 1939 the German army "could only have held out for one or two weeks".

Saar offensive

The Saar Offensive was a French attack into that region defended by the German 1st Army in the early stages of World War II. Its purpose was to assist Poland, which was under attack. However, the assault was stopped after a few miles 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.

A French offensive in the Rhine river valley area (Saar Offensive) 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. However, the French took no meaningful action to assist the Poles. 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 armored, 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, 3 square miles (7.8 km2) 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. By then, the French divisions had advanced approximately 8 km (5.0 miles) into Germany on a 24-kilometre (15-mile) long strip of the frontier in the Saarland area. 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 1/2 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 for 17–20 September had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to withdraw to their barracks along the Maginot Line.

The Phoney War had begun.

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 democratic 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.[citation needed] 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. British forces that began to be assembled to send to Finland's aid were not dispatched before the Winter War ended, and were sent to Norway′s aid in the Norwegian campaign, instead. On 20 March, after the Winter War had ended, Édouard Daladier resigned as Prime Minister of France, due (in part) 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 and the Norwegian forces in mainland Norway laid down their arms at midnight on 9 June.

Change of British government

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

The débâcle of the Allied campaign in Norway, which was actually an offspring 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 government of national unity (in Britain often called a "coalition government", to distinguish it from Chamberlain's existing national government), around himself. On 10 May Chamberlain resigned the premiership whilst retaining the leadership of the Conservative Party. The King—George VI—appointed Winston Churchill—who had been a consistent opponent of Chamberlain′s policy of appeasement—as his successor, and 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.

End of 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:

  • 17 September 1939, the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was sunk by U-29. She went down in 15 minutes with the loss of 518 of her crew, including her captain. She was the first British warship to be lost in the war.
  • 14 October 1939, the British battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk in the main British fleet base at Scapa Flow, Orkney (north of mainland Scotland) by U-47. The death toll reached 833 men, including Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the 2nd Battleship Division.
  • Luftwaffe air raids on Britain began on 16 October 1939 when Junkers Ju 88s attacked British warships at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. Spitfires of 602 and 603 Squadrons succeeded in shooting down two Ju 88s and a Heinkel He 111 over the firth. In a raid on Scapa Flow the next day, one Ju 88 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, crashing on the island of Hoy. The first Luftwaffe plane to be shot down on the British mainland was a He 111 atHaddington, East Lothian, on 28 October, with both 602 and 603 Squadrons claiming this victory.[7][8] 602 Squadron's Archie McKellar was a principal pilot in both the destruction of the first German attacker over water and over British soil. McKellar went on to be credited with 20 kills during the Battle of Britain, as well as "ace in a day" status by shooting down five Me-109s; a feat accomplished by only 24 RAF pilots during the entire war.
  • In December 1939, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was attacked by the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate. Admiral Graf Spee fled to Montevideo harbour to carry out repairs on damage sustained during the battle. She was later scuttled rather than face a large British fleet the Kriegsmarine falsely believed was awaiting her departure. The support vessel for Admiral Graf Spee, the tanker Altmark was captured by the Royal Navy in February 1940 in southern Norway. (see: Battles of Narvik, Altmark Incident)

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.

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.

See also


  1. "The Phoney War". History Learning Site. 
  2. "Defiant Peace Bid Hurled By Hitler". The Pittsburgh Press. September 19, 1939.,4420477&dq=something-phoney&hl=en. 
  3. Atkin, Ronald (1990). Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. pp. 29. ISBN 1 84158 078 3. 
  4. Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 108 & 109, Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  5. Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 198 & 199, Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  6. "Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal". Nüremberg. 1948. p. 350. 
  7. "1939 - Into Action". The Spitfire - An Operational History. DeltaWeb International. 
  8. "Junkers Ju88 4D+EK". Peak District Air Accident Research. 

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).