The Not So ‘Phoney War’ – There Was No Shortage of Bloodshed In WW2’s Supposedly ‘Quiet’ Opening Weeks

History may remember the opening months of WW2 as the "Phoney War", but the period was marked by considerable violence.

History may remember the opening months of World War Two as the “Phoney War”, but the period was marked by considerable violence.

“The first six months of World War Two are often remembered as a relatively tranquil phase of the conflict… It was hardly uneventful.”

IN BRITAIN, it became known as the “Phoney War” or the “Bore War.” To the French, it was the drôle de guerre or the “strange war.” The Wehrmacht called it Sitzkreig or “the sitting war.”

The first six months of World War Two are often remembered as a relatively tranquil phase of the conflict — the calm before the storm. It’s a particularly inviting comparison when considering the tumult that would come later.

After a fast and furious campaign in Poland, Hitler’s army stood down. Meanwhile, the western powers’ strategy was characterized largely by inactivity.

But while this opening round of the conflict may have lacked destruction on a massive scale, the period between the surrender of Poland in September of 1939 and the April, 1940 Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway was hardly uneventful. Consider the following:

On Sept. 4, 1939, RAF bombers like these Vickers Wellingtons raided targets inside the Third Reich. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The War in the Air

Within 24 hours of Britain’s declaration of war, Allied bombers were launching air strikes against Germany.

On Sept. 4, RAF Wellington bombers attacked warships at the port of Wilhelmshaven. Five of the aircraft were shot down and the targets on the ground were only lightly damaged. More raids would follow in the coming weeks. A Dec. 18 attack on the same port saw 12 of 24 British bombers destroyed by enemy air defences.

On Sept. 20, a Fairey Battle on patrol over the Rhine brought down a Messerschmitt Bf 109, marking the first RAF air-to-air combat kill of the war. Sporadic dogfights over Europe continued well into 1940.

The first German air raid on the United Kingdom occurred just six weeks into the fighting, when on Oct. 16 a 1939 a flight of nine He-111s struck vessels moored on the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland. One destroyer and two cruisers were damaged in the incident; 70 casualties were reported. Although the attack caught the British by surprise, RAF Spitfires intercepted the bombers and managed to bring down two of them. They were the first of many Axis planes destroyed over Britain.

HMS Courageous sinks. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

HMS Courageous sinks. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Naval Actions

The war at sea was also anything but ‘phoney.’

The very day Britain announced it was at war with the Third Reich, the German submarine U-30 torpedoed the passenger liner SS Athenia near the Irish coast. One hundred and seventeen passengers and crew were killed in the attack.

In the first four months of the war alone, German bombers, subs and surface vessels distributed between 50,000 and 100,000 sea mines in the English Channel and Thames Estuary. [1] The campaign led to the loss of 260,000 tons of Allied and neutral merchant shipping before the year was out. [2]

During the same period, Germany’s U-boat campaign managed to destroy 60,000 tons of shipping. [3] Nazi submarines also chalked up some considerable victories against the Royal Navy. Just two weeks into the war, torpedoes from U-29 slammed into the hull of the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous as it steamed off the coast of Ireland. More than 500 sailors drowned in the Sept. 17 attack. A month later, the German submarine U-47 penetrated the defences of the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow and destroyed the battleship HMS Royal Oak. Nine hundred perished.

Other British ships damaged or sunk in the war’s opening months include: HMS Iron Duke, struck at Scapa Flow by German bombers on Oct. 17. The B-Class destroyer HMS Blanche hit a mine in the Thames Estuary on Nov. 14 and went to the bottom. HMS Grenville suffered the same fate on Jan. 19, 1940. Seventy-seven were killed.

Germany suffered its share of losses too. Between September of 1939 and April of 1940, the Allies destroyed 23 U-Boats [4]. Yet, Hitler’s worst setback on the high seas came on Dec. 17, 1939 when the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee took on three British cruisers at Montevideo, Uruguay and lost. Thirty-six German sailors died in the encounter; the Royal Navy lost 72 men.

German troops man the western defences.

German troops man the western defences. Image courtesy the German Federal Archive.

The Battle for the Saar

Even the relatively calm ‘western front’ still saw combat in the conflict’s opening weeks.

In order to take pressure of its beleaguered Polish allies, France launched an offensive into Germany on Sept. 7. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht fighting in the east, only a skeleton force was left behind to man Hitler’s defences along the Rhine. France committed 11 infantry divisions to the operation; it hoped to eventually send 40 into action. The assault force encountered token resistance and succeeded in pushing 8 kilometres (5 miles) into Germany’s Saarland along a 30-kilometre front. [5]

A dozen cities soon fell to the Allies. But after nine days, the advance stopped before hitting the formidable Siegfried Line. As Allied commanders vacillated over what to do next, German troops fresh from their triumph in Poland arrived to mount a counter attack. On Oct. 16, they struck in force. The French occupiers crumpled under the onslaught and within 24 hours had pulled back to the cover of the Maginot Line. Germany lost 200 troops in the push; France suffered 10 times as many dead.

Polish civilians are marched off to be shot.

Polish civilians are marched off to certain death.

Murder in Poland

And of course, there was nothing phoney about Poland’s suffering in the autumn of 1939. As soon as hostilities began, Hitler’s armies inaugurated a brutal war of terror and extermination against the country’s civilian population. SS Einsatzgruppe units, along with regular army formations and local ethnic German paramilitary death squads carried out a systematic campaign of genocide aimed at wiping out the elite of Polish society.

The plan, dubbed Operation Tannenberg, saw teachers, journalists, intellectuals, civil servants, church officials and Jews, — 60,000 in all — rounded up and slaughtered by the occupiers in the war’s first 100 days. Of course, these atrocities were just a preview of what was to come. Such horrors would continue to be visited in Poland and elsewhere for the next six years.

(Originally published on on Sept. 19, 2014)

3 comments for “The Not So ‘Phoney War’ – There Was No Shortage of Bloodshed In WW2’s Supposedly ‘Quiet’ Opening Weeks

  1. 19 September, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Wouldn’t the “Katyn massacre” fall in that time slot? I’m not sure.

    • admin
      19 September, 2014 at 2:21 pm

      I think it took place after the so-called Phoney War. Thanks for the note.

  2. Tzacol
    19 October, 2015 at 4:01 am

    In the first few lines I read incorrect ‘facts’. The raid on the Battleship von Scheer and Cruiser Emden was carried out by 15 Bristol Blenheims from 139, 107 and 110 Sqns RAF. 5 from 139Sqn turned back, 107Sqn lost 4 of its 5 and 110Sqn lost 1. The Wellingtons of 9 Sqn Raf attempted to bomb ships at Brunsbuttal and lost 2. I will carry on reading and edit where required, normally I would stop at the first factual innaccuracy though

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