I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.
The Germans Knock on Poland's Door
The War Starts
Germany declared war on Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939, and attacked with massed motorized columns of armor, infantry, artillery and waves of bombers and fighters in what was dubbed the Blitzkrieg (“Lightning War”). On Sunday, two days later, while German troops continued to pour into Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany and proceeded to launch no major military land operations in what came to be known as the Sitzkrieg (“Sitting War"), a play on the word Blitzkrieg. This period of eight months of relative inactivity on the Western Front between September 1939 and May 1940 was also variously known as the “Phoney War,” the “Twilight War,” the “Strange War” and the “Bore War.”
The Allies Wait for the Germans
The Maginot Line
Along the French border with Germany stretched the Maginot Line, an interlinked series of forts, fully garrisoned and bristling with artillery stretching for almost 90 miles. The largest forts could house 1,200 troops for three months without resupply. It was deemed impenetrable-- even against a Blitzkrieg. The Maginot Line was a product of the carnage of the First World War, which had ended only 21 years before and had killed 1,400,000 French and 900,000 British soldiers. That conflict, time and time again, had shown the horrific results of waves of attackers going up against prepared defenses. It was also deeply ingrained in the psyches of the Allied political and military leaders.
The Siegfried Line
Opposite the Maginot line was the hastily prepared German Siegfried Line, defended by only 23 reserve and secondary divisions. Their impossible task, while the main German armies dismantled Poland, was to hold off the expected Allied assault which could muster 110 divisions, mostly front-line troops. Only Hitler's iron grip and his bewildering successes against the British and French in the years leading up to the war kept his generals from revolting.
One of the Maginot Line's Fortresses
A Brief Affair
In September, French General Gamelin, overall Allied Commander, did send 11 divisions into the Saar region along a 20 mile front. They penetrated about five miles and, though there were minor clashes, the Germans simply pulled back and waited for the full assault. It never came. General Gamelin changed his mind a few days later and withdrew all his troops and the Germans crept back to their original positions, not believing their luck. To this day, no satisfactory explanation has been offered for this decision. Before he was hanged for war crimes, German General Jodl stated that, had the Allies attacked as expected, Germany would have collapsed.
Waiting for the Hun
Instead, French and British leaders decided that any German attack would have to come through northern Belgium, since the Maginot Line was invincible and armor could not get through the rugged terrain of the Ardennes in Luxembourg and southern Belgium. Plans were made to counterattack through Belgium whenever the Germans decided to come calling. The Allied generals thought the Germans would merely modify their swing through Belgium which had nearly defeated the French and British armies in 1914. So, the Allies waited, content to let Germany decide when to attack. The German generals were incredulous. Once again, Hitler had pulled off the impossible; his intuition seemed infallible and opposition to him faded. The Hitler mystique grew. This would have terrible consequences for Germans and non-Germans alike when his intuition failed.
Still Waiting for the Germans
Don't Poke the Beast
It seemed the Allies were afraid to provoke the Germans, as crazy as that sounds, even after having declared war against Hitler. When a British politician suggested fire-bombing the ammunition dumps hidden in Germany's Black Forest, he was reproached by a cabinet minister who stated that the forest was private property and, therefore, could not be bombed.
Secret negotiations continued with small groups of German conspirators, in hopes that the German onslaught could be avoided if Hitler was removed from the picture. This came to nothing as Hitler's successes grew. Fear of German air raids on cities also played a factor. The British sent bombers over Germany, but mostly to drop tons and tons of propaganda leaflets, each one a “Note to The German People” exposing the evils of Nazism. The Germans took note of this and realized they needed more anti-aircraft batteries.
Graf Spee Scuttled
The War at Sea
Although the generals' armies in the west languished, the Germans and British were at least fighting on the seas as German submarines attacked convoys and the British Navy hunted the U-Boats. In September, a German U-Boat sank the aircraft carrier Courageous with a loss of more than 500 men. In October, another U-Boat managed to sneak into the British naval base at Scapa Flow and sink the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. In December, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which had been raiding commercial shipping in the Atlantic, was attacked by three British light cruisers. Rather than face what he was misled into believing was a large British fleet, the captain of the Graf Spee scuttled her.
Some Kept Busy
During the Sitzkrieg, the Germans consolidated their gains in Poland and the Soviets invaded their share of that hapless country. In November, the Russians attacked Finland, who surprised the world by holding off the giant bear all by themselves for months, but eventually had to sue for peace when no help came from the Allies. In April, 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and, though the British Navy landed Allied troops in northern Norway and fought enemy warships along the Norwegian coast, the Germans soon controlled the populous southern part of the country.
Here Come the Germans
The Wait is Over
Meanwhile, the Allied generals in France continued to wait.
On May 10, 1940, the waiting ended when the Germans invaded the Low Countries-- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg-- on their way to France. On that same day, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and one of the architects of the Sitzkrieg resigned and the King asked Winston Churchill to form a new government.
After eight months of inactivity, the Allied armies stirred themselves and pushed forward into Belgium to meet the Germans who had finally fallen into their trap. The Sitzkrieg had ended. It was only when German troops and armored columns punched through the impassable Ardennes and rolled up behind them, that the Allies realized they were the ones trapped.
© 2011 David Hunt
Ewa Marie Seiler on August 13, 2020:
Peace in Our Time?
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 24, 2012:
Wayne, you are certainly right about Hitler not wanting war with the west-- at least not then. On the other hand, Chamberlain had repeatedly demonstrated that Britain would acquiesce. What Hitler didn't understand was that even old Neville had his breaking point and aggression against Poland was the last straw. Churchill, so long in the wilderness, understood Hitler all too well. Thanks very much for your interesting comment.
WayneH3412@aol.com on October 23, 2012:
It was Hitler who made the biggest error. He did not want war with the west but he did not inderstand the British concept of honor and thought they would not declare war since it was in their shortterm interest. He expected to be able to buy Britain off by making them a deal in their colonial interest. No Way !!
Treating the Munich Accord as a piece of trash and ignoring the British ultimatum meant the inevitable rise of Chruchill and war.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 11, 2012:
Thanks for commenting, alancaster. Yes, I'd heard the French gave the Germans quite a fright before turning around and heading back to France. The RAF was allowed to drop a lot of leaflets though!
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 11, 2012:
There is a story about a French division that crossed the Rhine into Germany whilst the Germans were busy crunching through Poland. They gave the Germans a fright, and then marched back into France without doing any serious damage.
Talk about damage, the RAF was instructed not to bomb the Germans' shipyards 'because they were private companies'. The error of their ways was soon realised by the powers that be. Luckily Neville was shown the road before he could inflict real harm on Britain's fighting capacity.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 10, 2012:
Thanks for commenting, wba108. The Allies gave in at the wrong time and made their stand at the worst moment (of course this is crystal clear only with 20/20 hindsight). Had they stood up to Hitler when he ordered the Ruhr occupied years earlier instead of going to war totally unable to help Poland in any way, the outcome would likely have been very different.
firstname.lastname@example.org from upstate, NY on June 10, 2012:
This confirms that the strategy to do nothing in wartime can be disastrous. Those who sit back and insist on relying on negotiations often emboldens an enemy! To win a war you have to attack and take the initiative and being predictable makes you a sitting duck!
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on February 16, 2012:
Hitler was probably frightened of getting his feet wet, which was why he let 'the bus' go without him. Austrians don't make very good sailors (although Nelson was always seasick for the first few days on board, they say). Seriously though, there was a fear amongst the German high command that we were planning to release fuel into the sea and set it alight when they were on their way over. Unable to gain air superiority over the Channel, they started to look eastward for easier prey... Ha-ha! Another case of 'who hoodwinked Hitler?' He was prone to hoodwinking himself, though (notions of turning the Slavs into slaves and all that). If they hadn't been so b****y destructive, we could have left the Germans in their own deluded little world, but they had to go and mess up other peoples' front gardens, didn't they!
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on December 25, 2011:
Thanks, US. Yes, I find it very ironic that France and Britain repeatedly caved to Hitler's aggression before the war when, by all accounts, any show of force would have ended his rule. This actually strengthened him. Then they chose to go to war-- which, as you pointed out, they were obligated to do-- over Poland, a country they could not even get to to give aid. But even Chamberlain and Daladier couldn't ignore the full-scale invasion of Poland. Thanks for the vote up.
Anthony Carrell from Lemoore California on December 24, 2011:
When Germany attacked Poland,both England and France were bound by treaty to come to Poland's aid. Poland appealed to both England and France for military aid on September 1st. They responded by sending a series of ultimatums to the German government basically asking them to withdrawal their troops from Poland. There wasn't a snowball's chance in Hades of Hitler doing that. But the English and French did not want to go to war over Poland.I think they sent a total of four ultimatums,(which Hitler ignored) before finally declaring war on Germany on September 3rd.This was the start of the Phony War.
Very interesting.Voted Up.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on December 24, 2011:
Thanks, ph. All great ideas. I must confess I took care with the writing and rushed the hubbing. A map would be very useful. I'll tweak later. And I will definitely check your hubs.
Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on December 24, 2011:
Nice work. A couple of suggestions if I may, add more pictures or maps or.... I try to fill the right hand column with pictures and reserve the left hand column for text. Its easier to read that way and visually pleasing. Maybe see if you can cut your longer paragraphs into two paragraphs. Again this makes it more accessible for your reader. Check out a couple of my history cased Hubs to see if you like that format or not. Not trying to be bossy, trying to be helpful -- I had to experiment awhile before I found a template that worked well for me. I look forward to reading more of your Hubs in the future.