The Second World War Before Pearl Harbor: The Phoney War, 1939-1940

I’m not sure that anyone has made a good movie about the stretch of WWII that lies between the fall of Poland in early October 1939 and the German invasion of western Europe in early April 1940. But if they did, it wouldn’t fit the conventions of war movies. Given that this half-year was sometimes called the “Bore War,” it’s tempting to say that such a movie would be more like one of those experimental films where the audience watches an actor sleep. Or paint dry.

Poster for Office SpaceBut I think it would be better suited to a workplace comedy like Office Space, finding mundane and absurd humor in the experience of a unit of half-trained, poorly-provisioned British troops spending Christmas 1939 shivering in France waiting for the Allied or Axis offensive that never came, while back in London generals and ministers proposed wacky plan after wackier plan and civilians complained about how boring it all was. With some slapstick seriocomedy and snowy vistas courtesy of the Red Army struggling to invade a Finland defended by 19th century artillery and Molotov cocktails.

No, none of the Great Powers exactly covered themselves in glory during this relatively, mercifully less violent period of the Second World War, most often termed the “Phoney War.” So not surprisingly, it’s not a major section of Max Hastings’ Inferno. But since it is a part of the war that’s virtually unknown to Americans, I thought I’d pass on a few anecdotes and quotations from Hastings, focusing on the two Allies whose people wondered why they were fighting a war for a Poland that no longer existed.


"Hitler will send no warning - so always carry your gas mask"
British civil defense poster from the time of the Phoney War – Wikimedia

The commander of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France (named Lord Gort — Lord Gort! I’m telling you, there’s a great comedy to be written here…) complaining that newly arrived Territorials “had no knives and forks and mugs”… The 1.5 million children and women sent to the countryside to languish in homesickness while they waited for German bombers that wouldn’t arrive until months later, with the poorer London lads shocking their country hosts by their aversion to vegetables and their mums doing the same with their fondness for profanity and pubs… Another consequence of British preparations for the Luftwaffe was more serious: from September to December 1939 over 4000 died in traffic accidents (doubling the prewar rate), as British drivers and pedestrians struggled with blackout restrictions… A London hotel advertising its “gas- and splinter-proof” bathrooms in The Times… Bishops debating whether they should pray for peace or victory… A sudden, costly naval victory on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, when a British squadron suffered heavy losses causing the German battleship Graf Spee to be scuttled off the coast of Uruguay… Life going on, but perhaps more urgently: “Everyone is getting married or engaged, or else having babies… Makes me feel rather stale and out things,” wrote one typist, who took some solace that “Most of my friends have made such messes of their married life”…

Probably the most perceptive observation recorded in this section came from a writer named Maggie Joy Blunt, who found that, despite

certain inconveniences… there has been no essential change in our way of living, in our systems of employment or education, in our ideas or ambitions… It is as though we were trying to play one more set of tennis before an approaching storm descends… (quoted by Hastings, p. 40)


The government quickly arresting Communist legislators and activists and interning foreign refugees of that political persuasion… Troops that made one British commander recoil: “Seldom have I seen anything more slovenly… complete lack of pride in themselves or their units… the look in the men’s faces, disgruntled and insubordinate looks”… French soldier Jean-Paul Sartre bored out of his mind in November… Naval officer-turned-historian Jacques Mordal astonished by the low quality of strategic planning in Paris: “The idea was to do something, even something stupid,” a problem made worse by a change in political leadership in March 1940 that led one French general to remark, “After Daladier who couldn’t make a decision at all, here we are with Reynaud who makes one every five minutes”…

Paul Reynaud
The hyperdecisive Paul Reynaud, French prime minister from March-June 1940 – Wikimedia

And, above all, a pervasive desire to avoid losing another 1.3 million dead fighting to reclaim French territory — with the result that the French first refused to do anything that would antagonize the Wehrmacht (e.g., by lobbing bombs into the nearby, heavily industrialized Saarland or by agreeing to let the British mine the Rhine) and then planned to fight the war in Belgium, leaving the way clear for the central thrust of the Blitzkrieg to come through the Ardennes.

Not that their putative foe was exactly invincible. The Wehrmacht insisted on waiting till spring to go on the offensive, and Germany’s leading admiral claimed that the Kriegsmarine “can only demonstrate that it knows how to go down with dignity.” Meanwhile, the German economy was collapsing: armaments expenditures had led to near-bankruptcy, leaving no money to remedy major infrastructure problems (especially with the railroads); the Allies’ blockade was strong enough to cause material shortages and a collapse in German exports; the growth in the military cut into in the vital industrial workforce (slave labor would eventually be mobilized to address that problem)… And if I can add one observation from my dissertation: Nazi reforms and the effects of mobilization were causing an educational crisis that would get so bad that as early as 1941 one Hamburg newspaper ran the headline, “Is our youth getting more stupid?”

All in all, a faintly ridiculous kind of world war was brewing as 1939 turned to 1940. But Hastings’ conclusion of his brief treatment of Germany during the Phoney War points the way ahead to the terrible war that was just over the horizon:

Germany’s paper military strength in the winter of 1939 was only marginally greater than that of the Allies. Given all these difficulties, it is remarkable that Hitler retained his psychological dominance of the conflict. His great advantage was that the Allies had made a principled commitment to confront and defeat Nazism, while lacking any appetite for the bloody initiatives and human sacrifice required to achieve this. Thus, Hitler was left to make his own weather. (p. 41)

Maggie Blunt had recognized this better than almost anyone else in Britain when she confided to her diary in mid-December, “Scattering pamphlets [on Germany] is no more use than scattering confetti. I am sorry to have to say it, but we shall have to make the Germans suffer before we can make peace possible.”

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