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Phoney War

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An 8-inch howitzer of the British Expeditionary Force in France during the Phoney War

The Phoney War (French: Drôle de guerre; German: Sitzkrieg) was an eight-month period at the start of World War II during which there was only one limited military land operation on the Western Front, when French troops invaded Germany's Saar district. Nazi Germany carried out the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and the Phoney period began two days later with the declaration of war by the United Kingdom and France against Germany, after which little actual warfare occurred, and ended with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. Although there was no large-scale military action by Britain and France, they did begin some economic warfare, especially with the naval blockade and shut down German surface raiders. They created elaborate plans for numerous large-scale operations designed to cripple the German war effort. These included opening an Anglo-French front in the Balkans, invading Norway to seize control of Germany's main source of iron ore, and an embargo against the Soviet Union, which supplied Germany's main source of oil. By April 1940, the lone execution of the Norway plan was considered inadequate to stop the German offensive.[1]

The quiet of the Phoney War was punctuated by a few Allied actions. In the Saar Offensive in September, the French attacked Germany with the intention of assisting Poland, but it fizzled out within days and they withdrew. In November, the Soviets attacked Finland in the Winter War, resulting in much debate in France and Britain about an offensive to help Finland, but the forces finally assembled for this campaign were delayed until it ended in March. The Allied discussions about a Scandinavian campaign caused concern in Germany and resulted in the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April, and the Allied troops previously assembled for Finland were redirected to Norway instead. Fighting there continued until June, when the Allies evacuated, ceding Norway to Germany in response to the German invasion of France.

On the Axis side, the Germans launched attacks at sea in the autumn and winter against British aircraft carriers and destroyers, sinking several, including the carrier HMS Courageous, with the loss of 519 lives. Action in the air began on 16 October 1939, when the Luftwaffe launched air raids on British warships. There were various minor bombing raids and reconnaissance flights on both sides. Fascist Italy was not involved during the Phoney period, only until the Battle of France.


The initial term used by British people for this period was Bore War. While this was probably coined as a play on the Boer War fought approximately four decades earlier, eventually the Americanism Phoney War became favoured on both sides of the Atlantic,[2] probably (especially in the British Empire and Commonwealth) in large part to avoid confusion with the aforementioned earlier conflict. The term Phoney War customarily appears using the British spelling even in North America, rather than the American phony, although some American sources do not follow the pattern.[3] The first known recorded use of the term in print was in September 1939 in a US newspaper which used the British spelling,[4] although other contemporary American reports sometimes used "phony", since both spellings were in use at the time in the US. The term appeared in Great Britain by January 1940[5] as "phoney", the only acceptable spelling there.

The Phoney War was also referred to as the "Twilight War" (by Winston Churchill) and as the Sitzkrieg[6] ("the sitting war": a word play on blitzkrieg created by the British press).[7][8][9] In French, it is referred to as the drôle de guerre ("funny" or "strange" war).[a]

The term "Phoney War" was probably coined by US Senator William Borah, who, commenting in September 1939 on the inactivity on the Western Front, said, "There is something phoney about this war."[4]


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

In March 1939, the UK and France formalized plans for how a war against Germany would be conducted. Knowing that likely enemies would be more prepared and have land and air superiority, the strategy was to defeat any enemy offensive, to allow time for economic and naval superiority to build up military resources.[10] To this end, the UK initially committed to two divisions being sent to France, and two more eleven months later.[11] However, the Polish Army general plan for defence, Plan West, assumed that the Allies' offensive on the Western front would provide significant relief to the Polish front in the East.[12]

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. On 7 September, the French launched the Saar Offensive, but had to withdraw when their artillery could not penetrate German defences. A further assault was planned for 20 September, but on 17 September, following the USSR's invasion of Poland, the assault was called off. In the air, the RAF launched a bombing raid against Wilhelmshaven on the 4th of September, although this proved costly. There were occasional dogfights between fighter planes. The Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany, the first Canadian troops arrived in Britain, and the first BEF divisions completed their transfer to France, while western Europe was under a period of uneasy calm for seven months.[13]

In the first few months of the war, Britain still hoped to persuade Germany to agree to peace. Although London hospitals prepared for 300,000 casualties in the first week, Germany unexpectedly did not immediately attack British cities by air, and German pilots that attacked Scottish naval bases said that they would have been court-martialled and executed for bombing civilians. Both sides found that attacks on military targets, such as a British attack on Kiel on the second night of the war, led to high losses of aircraft. They also feared retaliation for bombing civilians. (Britain and France did not realise that Germany used 90% of its frontline aircraft during the Polish invasion.)[14] Civilian attitudes in Britain towards their German foes were still not as intense as they were to become after the Blitz. On 30 April 1940, a German Heinkel He 111 bomber crashed at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, killing its crew and injuring 160 people on the ground. The crew were laid to rest in the local cemetery with support from the Royal Air Force. Wreaths with messages of sympathy were displayed on the coffins.[15][16] British pilots mapped the Siegfried Line while German troops waved at them.[14]

When Leopold Amery suggested to Kingsley Wood that the Black Forest be bombed with incendiaries to burn its ammunition dumps, 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.[17] Some British officers in France imported packs of foxhounds and beagles in 1939, but were thwarted by the French authorities in their attempts at introducing live foxes.[18]

In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France both bought large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the US at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own production. The non-belligerent US contributed to the Western Allies with discounted sales.[13]

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, while the Soviet Union helped Germany with supplies bypassing the blockade. RAF Bomber Command, Britain's principal offensive arm, was also heavily engaged, but found that daylight bombing caused little damage and cost insupportable losses (e.g., 12 out of 22 Wellington bombers were shot down in an air battle over the Wilhelmshaven naval base on 18 December 1939).[19]

At the Nuremberg trials, German military commander 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."[20] General Siegfried Westphal stated that if the French had attacked in force in September 1939 the German army "could only have held out for one or two weeks".[21]

Saar Offensive[edit]

A French soldier outside a Reichskolonialbund office in Lauterbach during the Saar Offensive

The Saar Offensive was a French attack into the Saarland defended by the German 1st Army. Its purpose was to assist Poland. The assault was stopped after a few kilometres 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 mobilisation. 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.

The offensive in the Rhine river valley area 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. 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 armoured, 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. The half-hearted offensive was halted after France seized the Warndt Forest, 7.8 km2 (3.0 sq mi) 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. 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 half 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 from 17 to 20 September had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to withdraw to their barracks along the Maginot Line, beginning the Phoney War.

Winter War[edit]

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 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.[22] 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.[23] British forces that began to be assembled to send to Finland's aid were not dispatched before the Winter War ended, but were sent instead to Norway's aid in the Norwegian campaign. On 20 March, after the Winter War had ended, Édouard Daladier resigned as Prime Minister of France, partially due to his failure to aid Finland's defence.

German invasion of Denmark and Norway[edit]

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; the Norwegian forces in mainland Norway laid down their arms at midnight on 9 June.[24]

Change of British government[edit]

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

The debacle of the Allied campaign in Norway, which was actually an offshoot 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 new coalition government with himself as the leader. So on 10 May, Chamberlain resigned the premiership but retained the leadership of the Conservative Party. Winston Churchill, who had been a consistent opponent of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, became Chamberlain's successor. 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.[25]


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:

  • A German submarine sank the ship SS Athenia on the first day of the war, killing 117 civilian passengers and crew.
  • 4 September 1939, Royal Air Force daylight bombing raids on major Kriegsmarine warships in the Heligoland Bight proved a costly failure. Seven of the Bristol Blenheim and Vickers Wellington bombers were shot down without any ships being hit.[26] 4 September 1939, British bombs killed eleven German sailors from German cruiser Emden in port Wilhelmshaven.[27] Further ineffective anti-shipping raids in the same area on 14 and 18 December led to the loss of 17 Wellingtons and the abandonment of daylight operations by RAF heavy bombers.[28]
  • 17 September 1939, the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was sunk by U-29. She went down in 15 minutes with the loss of 519 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 at Haddington, East Lothian, on 28 October, with both 602 and 603 Squadrons claiming this victory.[29][30] 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 (KIA 1 Nov. 1940) 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 Bf 109s; a feat accomplished by only 24 RAF pilots during the entire war.
  • In December 1939, the German Deutschland-class cruiser 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 the damage sustained during the battle. She was later scuttled rather than face a large British fleet that the Kriegsmarine believed, incorrectly, 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.)
  • On 19 February 1940, a Kriegsmarine destroyer flotilla embarked on Operation Wikinger, a sortie into the North Sea to disrupt British fishing and submarine activity around the Dogger Bank. En route, two destroyers were lost due to mines and friendly fire from the Luftwaffe; nearly 600 German sailors were killed and the mission was then aborted without ever encountering Allied forces.

British war planning had called for a "knockout blow" by strategic bombing of German industry with the RAF's substantial Bomber Command. However, there was considerable apprehension about German retaliation, and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed an agreement not to mount any bombing raids which might endanger civilians, Britain and France agreed immediately and Germany agreed two weeks later.[31] The RAF therefore conducted a large number of combined reconnaissance and propaganda leaflet flights over Germany.[32] These operations were jokingly termed "pamphlet raids" or "Confetti War" in the British press.[33]

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 and the beginning of the Battle of France.[34]

Italy, hoping for territorial gains when France was defeated, entered the war on 10 June 1940, although the thirty-two Italian divisions which crossed the border with France enjoyed little success against five defending French divisions.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Perhaps because of mishearing or a mistranslation, French journalist Roland Dorgelès or other French sources read the English "phoney" as "funny." See fr:Drôle de guerre (in French).


  1. ^ Imlay, Talbot Charles (2004). "A reassessment of Anglo-French strategy during the Phoney War, 1939–1940". English Historical Review. 119 (481): 333–372. doi:10.1093/EHR/119.481.333.
  2. ^ Todman, Daniel (2016). Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941. Oxford University Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-19-062180-3. Archived from the original on 5 April 2024. Retrieved 1 October 2020.
  3. ^ Safire, William (2008) [1968]. "Phony War". Safire's Political Dictionary (Updated and expanded ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 539. ISBN 978-0-19-534334-2. OCLC 761162164.
  4. ^ a b McNaughton, Frank (19 September 1939). Edward T. Leech (ed.). "Roosevelt Deplores German Bombings". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Press Company. United Press. p. 8. ISSN 1068-624X. Archived from the original on 17 March 2022. Retrieved 9 September 2015. "There is something phoney about this war," [Senator William E. Borah (R. Idaho) in an interview] told questioners yesterday, explaining that he meant the comparative inactivity on the Western Front. "You would think," he continued, "that Britain and France would do what they are going to do now while Germany and Russia are still busy in the East, instead of waiting until they have cleaned up the eastern business." He did not expect an early end to hostilities.
  5. ^ "This is not a phoney war". News-Chronicle. London. 19 January 1940. cited in Safire, William (2008) [1968]. "Phony War". Safire's Political Dictionary (Updated and expanded ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 539. ISBN 978-0-19-534334-2. OCLC 761162164.
  6. ^ "The Phoney War". History Learning Site. Archived from the original on 2 April 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
  7. ^ Dunstan, Simon (20 November 2012). Fort Eben Emael: The key to Hitler's victory in the west. Osprey Publishing. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-78200-692-3. OCLC 57638821. Accordingly, the Allies first devised Plan E whereby they would advance into Belgium as far as the Scheldt River, but after months of inactivity that the British press termed "sitzkrieg," a bolder Plan D emerged that called for an advance as far as the Dyle River, a few miles east of Brussels.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Patricia S. Daniels; Stephen Garrison Hyslop; Douglas Brinkley (2006). National Geographic Almanac of World History. National Geographic Society. p. 297. ISBN 978-0-7922-5911-4. Retrieved 10 September 2015. The invasion of France brought France and Britain into the war. For more than six months, the two sides sat idle — the British press called it Sitzkrieg — as Germany sought to avoid war with Britain without ceding Poland. With war unavoidable, the Germans attacked France on May 10, 1940.
  9. ^ Bert Whyte; Larry Hannant (2011). Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-926836-08-9. OCLC 691744583. Retrieved 10 September 2015. When, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, which Britain had pledged to defend, Britain declared war. But it did nothing to help Poland; for eight months, the conflict remained strictly the "Phoney War." In May 1940, in what the British press had taken to calling the "sitzkrieg" became a German blitzkrieg throughout Western Europe, Hitler-colluder-with-Chamberlain was replaced by Hitler-antagonist-of-Winston Churchill.
  10. ^ Ellis, L. F. (2004). The war in France and Flanders. London: Naval & Military Press. p. 4. ISBN 1845740564. Archived from the original on 13 February 2022. Retrieved 27 March 2022.
  11. ^ Ellis, L. F. (2004). The war in France and Flanders. London: Naval & Military Press. p. 5. ISBN 1845740564. Archived from the original on 13 February 2022. Retrieved 27 March 2022.
  12. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (1978). Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz Rydz and the Defense of Poland. New York. pp. 89–91. OCLC 164675876.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ a b "The Phoney War!". schools.yrdsb.ca. 8 October 1980. Archived from the original on 7 April 2022. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  14. ^ a b Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. xv–xvii.
  15. ^ Regan, pp. 198–199.
  16. ^ www.aircrewremembrancesociety.co.uk Archived 24 September 2017 at the Wayback Machine, see also british newsreel Archived 1 August 2019 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Atkin, Ronald (1990). Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. p. 29. ISBN 1-84158-078-3.
  18. ^ Geoffrey Regan. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 108–109, Guinness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  19. ^ Denis Richards RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War (1995) chap. 3
  20. ^ "Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal" (PDF). Library of Congress. Nüremberg. 1948. p. 350. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 July 2023. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  21. ^ "France Falls". The World at War. Thames TV (1973).
  22. ^ "Russo-Finnish War". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2016. Archived from the original on 2 June 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  23. ^ "USSR expelled from the League of Nations". History.com. A+E Networks Corp. 2016. Archived from the original on 27 May 2016. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  24. ^ "The Baltic Sea at war 1939–1945". 20thcenturybattles.com. WorldPress.com. 2016. Archived from the original on 5 August 2016. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  25. ^ "Winston Churchill". biography.com. A&E. Archived from the original on 7 June 2016. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  26. ^ Bishop, Patrick (2017). Air Force Blue: The RAF in World War Two – Spearhead of Victory. London: William Collins. pp. 117–119. ISBN 978-0-00-743313-1.
  27. ^ "Osteel - Ein ostfriesisches Dorf im Zweiten Weltkrieg" Lars Zimmermann, Tredition 2016, 4. Luftangriffe.
  28. ^ Bishop 2017, p. 120
  29. ^ "1939 – Into Action". The Spitfire – An Operational History. DeltaWeb International. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2007.
  30. ^ "Junkers Ju88 4D+EK". Peak District Air Accident Research. 3 August 2016. Archived from the original on 19 February 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  31. ^ Bishop 2017, p. 116
  32. ^ Bishop 2017, p. 121
  33. ^ Ray, John (2000). The Second World War: A Narrative History. London: Cassell & Co. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-304-35673-7.
  34. ^ Ray 2000, pp. 61–63
  35. ^ Ray 2000, pp. 75–77

Further reading[edit]

  • Pierre Porthault, L'armée du sacrifice (1939–1940), Guy Victor, 1965

External links[edit]