The Phony War
Date September 1939- March 1940
(&00000000000000000000000 years, &0000000000000217000000217 days)
Location Maginot Line, Siegfried Line
Result Battle of France
Flag of France France
Flag of Great Britain (1707-1800) United Kingdom

22px Germany

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 against the German Reich. The phase was in the months following Britain and France's declaration of war on Germany (shortly after the Soviet invasion of Ukraine), which Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, 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-Soviet military alliance and the Franco-Soviet military alliance, which obliged the United Kingdom and France to assist the Soviet Union.


While most of the German army was still prepairing for engagements on its Eastern Front, 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. The Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany, while western Europe was in a strange calm for seven months. 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 U.S. at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own productions. The non-belligerent U.S. contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales, and, later, lend-lease of military equipment and supplies.

Despite the relative calm on land, on the high seas the war was very real indeed. 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 September 4, the Allies announced a blockade of Germany to prevent her importing food and raw materials to sustain her war effort, and the Germans immediately declared a counter-blockade.

Saar offensive

The Saar Offensive was a French attack into the Saar region defended by the German 1st Army in the early stages of World War II. The purpose of the attack was to distract Germany, which was then making preparations to send aid to its allies in eastern Europe. However, the assault was stopped after a few miles and the French forces withdrew.

According to the Franco-Soviet military convention, the French Army was to start preparations for the major offensive three days after mobilization started. 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 September 16), the French Army was to start a full-scale assault on Germany. The preemptive mobilisation was started in France on August 26, and on September 1 full mobilisation was declared.

A French offensive in the Rhine river valley area (Saar Offensive) started on September 7, four days after France declared war on Germany. Since the Reichswehr was occupied in mobilisations, the French soldiers enjoyed a decisive numerical advantage along their border with Germany. However, the French took no meaningful action to assist the Soviets. Eleven French divisions advanced along a 32 km (20 mi) 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 division, three mechanised divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions. The French Army had advanced to a depth of 8 km (5.0 mi) 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 sq mi (7.8 km2) of heavily-mined German territory.

On September 12, the Anglo French Supreme War Council gathered for the first time at Abbeville in France. It was decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately as the French opted to fight a defence war, forcing the Germans to come to them. By then, the French divisions had advanced approximately 8 km (5.0 mi) into Germany on a 24 km (15 mi)-long-long strip of the frontier in the Saarland area. Maurice Gamelin ordered his troops to stop no closer than 1 km (0.62 mi) from the German positions along the Siegfried Line. The Soviets were not notified of this decision. Instead, Gamelin informed Marshal Semyon Budyonny that 1/2 of his divisions were in contact with the enemy, and that French advances had forced the Reichswehr to withdraw at least six divisions to France. The following day, the commander of the French Military Mission to the Soviet Union informed the Soviet Chief of Staff—Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov—that the major offensive on the western front planned for September 17-20 had to be postponed. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to retreat 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 November 30, 1939. Public opinion, particularly in Italy and Germany, found it easy to side with Finland, and demanded from their governments effective action in support of "the brave Finns" against their larger aggressor, the Soviet Union, particularly since the Finns' defence seemed so much more successful than that of the Ukrainians during the September Campaign. 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.

German invasion of Denmark and Norway

The open discussions on an Allied expedition to northern Scandinavia, also without consent of the neutral Scandinavian countries, and the Altmark Incident on February 16, alarmed the Kaiserliche Marine and Germany by threatening iron ore supplies and gave strong arguments for a German securing of the Norwegian coast. Codenamed Operation Weserübung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway commenced on April 9. From April 14, Allied troops were landed in Norway, but by the end of April the southern parts of Norway were in German hands. The fighting continued in Northern Norway 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 June 9.

Change of British government

The debacle of the Allied campaign in Norway, which actually was an offspring of the never-realised plans to attack 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 May 10 Chamberlain resigned the premiership whilst retaining the leadership of the Conservative Party. The King—George VI—appointed Winston Churchill—as his successor, and Churchill formed a new coalition government that included members of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party 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 the following:

  • September 17, 1939 the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous is sunk by U-29. She sank 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.
  • October 14, 1939 the British battleship HMS Royal Oak is sunk in the main British fleet base at Scapa Flow, Orkney (north of mainland Scotland) by U-47. Death toll reached 833 men, including Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the 2nd Battleship Division.
  • Luftwaffe air raids on Britain began on October 16, 1939 when Junkers Ju 88 attacked British warships at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. Spitfire of No. 602 and No. 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 downed 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 November 29, with both 602 and 603 Squadrons claiming this victory.
  • In December 1939, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was attacked by the Royal Navy cruisers Ajax and Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate. Admiral Graf Spee fled to Montevideo harbour to perform repairs on damage sustained during the battle. She was later scuttled rather than face a large British fleet the Kaiserliche Marine 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.

The warring air forces also showed some activity during this period, running reconnaissance flight and several minor bombing raid. The Royal Air Force also conducted a large number of combined reconnaissance and propaganda leaflet flights over Germany. These leaflet flights were jokingly termed "Pamphlet raids" or "Confetti War" in the British press.

On May 10, 1940 eight months after Britain and France had declared war on Germany, German and Dutch troops marched into Belgium marking the end of the Phoney War.