The Phony War- WTH?!

I’ve long been interested in WWII and read a LOT of books on the subject, but one area of the war that’s always confused me is the period of the Phony War. As in, what were France and Britain thinking?

First, the French mounted the Saar Offensive to try to take some pressure off Poland. It had some minor success, then the French just withdrew. Meanwhile, the Brits are dropping leaflets on cities and only bombing strictly military targets, which I guess is understandable because the Allies still thought this might be a civilized affair and weren’t in a total war mindset yet.

Then Poland falls and the Western Front settles down to… nothing. Near Luxembourg, French and German machine gunners face each other with only 400 yards between them, not shooting, awaiting orders to open fire. The French and British are broadcasting to the German lines that if the Germans don’t fire, the Allies won’t fire either. Meanwhile, the war isn’t exactly quiet elsewhere. German U-boats and raiders are sinking Allied shipping, Russia has invaded Finland, and just before the Western front explodes, serious fighting erupts between British and German forces in Norway. So why is the Western front quiet?

This only makes sense if the Allies are reconsidering the wisdom of going to war and waiting for a German peace offer. This is exactly what the media of Britain and France expected might be going on. But no, Chamberlain tells Parliament that they are in the war to end the Nazi government and the threat it poses. Um, okay, and you’re going to do that how, but sitting behind the Maginot Line? Maybe the Allies were going to bleed Germany by playing defense, like in WWI? Except the three major engagements in the war that had already taken place showed that it was not going to be that kind of war. They knew EXACTLY how the Germans were likely to attack them.

So what were they thinking? Did they actually think they could stop a German Wehrmacht that wasn’t fighting on two fronts and could direct its entire force against France? Were they just not serious about the war yet and hadn’t really given their strategy much thought? Was an offensive being slowly planned, but Hitler beat them to the punch? Did they think the British blockade could defeat Germany, even though Germany could get as much as they wanted over land from the east, thanks to the Soviets’ treachery? Or perhaps they knew they couldn’t win without an offensive, but just weren’t psychologically ready to throw millions of men at Germany with the loss of life that would quickly ensue, so were basically paralyzed? Or is there something I’m missing?

The belief (based on WWI experience) was that the defense would have a strong advantage over a land offensive. So the Anglo-French plan was to isolate Germany by a naval blockade and slowly strangle the German economy. Then Germany would be forced into either accepting its slow economic defeat or launching a futile attack against the prepared Anglo-French defenses, which would lead the destruction of the German army and a quick end to the war.

Wow. Even at the time though that was a pretty fact-free assessment of what was going on. Germany was not being strangled due to their continental allies and friendship with Russia, and nothing about the war up to that point indicated that defense had the advantage as it had in the last war.

It sounds like the Allies were so scarred by WWI that they would grasp at any straws to avoid an offensive and seeing hundreds of thousands of their youth fall. I had always thought Hitler was delusional but the Allies might have had him beat around that time.

But by your own admission there was little fighting on the Western front, so why would you think the extremely limited experience of WWII tpo that point would trump the experience of WWI? Anyway,

Basically, this is right.

If you read some of the better histories of World War II, one of the most striking things about the early days of the war - which unfortunately is not often touched on in many accounts - is how politically shaky support for the war was, especially in France. Public support for fighting Germany was not at all enthusiastic and there was growing perception amongst the French that they had been manipulated into the war. The reason France withdrew from the Saar Offensive is at least in part because the only reason they had done it in the first place was to technically meet their obligations under the Franco-Polish Alliance, so it was a half-assed effort that had to be stopped once Germany was able to demonstrate substantial resistance. This reinforced the “Western Betrayal” narrative that a lot of people already bought into after the debacle with Czechoslovakia.

Both the UK and France has failed to meet the letter or spirit of their defensive alliances with Poland, which you can interpret as either a lack of will to do the right thing, a simple realization of the plain fact that Poland was doomed no matter what, or both, mingled with a failure by Allied intelligence to understand how weak Germany was in the West.

From that point on the level of mistrust, disorganization and bungling in the Angl-French alliance is nearly impossible to overstate. The two countries worked together very badly and under a constant state of mistrust; the Norwegian campaign was bungled and served as a pretty clear indicator of what was going to happen in France soon after.

The allies thougt that they were on a very strong defensive position, and that on the other hand, they weren’t ready for an offensive. If I’m not mistaken, they were planing one for the autumn of 1940. And indeed they were counting on blockading Germany to weaken it, and that was the reason for the planed Norway campaign.

Well, I believe that Hitler wanted the Army to attack France (through Belgium, again) as soon as the Polish campaign was wrapped up, meaning an attack sometime in November or December of 1939. (It takes time to transfer large numbers of army formations, reroute major supply chains, etc.)

Hitler’s generals talked him out of that, pointing out that the weather would be unfavorable for a major offensive (I assume that they didn’t want to advance without the same level of air support that they enjoyed in Poland.) Did the western allies have the same weather concerns that Germany did?

I do believe that both Britain and France did not want to repeat the same trench-war bloodbath that had happened 20 years previously, so the weather “excuse” would help support the idea the they should sit back, build up large armies (from their greater colonial manpower) and air forces (playing a little bit of industrial catch up, here), and wait for Germany to smash it’s armies against the dug-in defenders.

The western front in the winter of '44-'45 was a miserable slog, despite the fact that the Allies had mechanized transport available. If the mud/snow is deep enough tanks can’t operate properly.

Also, and I think it’s probably most telling, they really didn’t have a good clue as to WHY the Germans won so convincingly vs. Poland. Blitzkrieg wasn’t really something they were really ready for in any way, so they dug in and waited for the Germans to come to them, which is typically a sound strategy if you possess equal or greater numbers.

But the mobile nature of the Blitzkrieg tactics meant that they basically just hamstrung themselves, and played into the Germans’ hands.

I am a novice on the topic, but my impression was that the Allies never really considered offensive operations against Germany in 1939-40. Heck, even their operations in Norway were very tentative.

The time to act was back in the mid 1930’s, when Germany was violating treaties and hadn’t yet gotten ahead on munitions production. By the time the Allies finally declared war, they were way behind on production, especially aircraft. Don’t forget that HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a U-boat inside Scapa Flow in 1939 — the Brits had their hands full without contemplating an attack on Germany!

Cite: Sir W.C.'s World War II — I don’t recall him describing serious offensive proposals against the Reich’s Homeland 1939-40. Did I miss something?

The agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union took everyone by surprise. Hitler had been so vehemently anti-communist, nobody had considered it as a possibility - one of the first things Hitler had done after taking power was publicly repudiate all existing German agreements with the Soviets. So British and French war plans had been based on the assumption that, at worst, the Soviet Union would be a hostile neutral to Germany. Even after the political effects of the agreement became obvious, Britain and France remained unaware of the economic terms of the deal. Neither Stalin or Hitler had any reason to publicize the amount of supplies that were traveling between their countries.

That said, there was a lot of wishful thinking in the British and French plans. Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union were all de facto German allies, which meant Germany was not as strategically isolated as it had been in the previous war. And while the British and French were planning on fighting an improved version of WWI, it apparently didn’t occur to them that Germany would also be planning its own improvements and wouldn’t necessarily follow their script.

Hitler had a rather casual disregard for reality when it came to setting dates for operations, much like setting the start date for Barbarossa for the entirely implausible date of May 15, 1941, he set the date for the invasion of France initially as October 25th, 1939

Direct offensives? No. On the other hand the Western Allies in general and Churchill in particular were coming up with all kinds of horrible fantasies to attack Germany indirectly. One nightmare fantasy that thankfully was never carried out was the plan to bomb the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus, Operation Pike:

Another was Churchill’s pet project to heavily modify three ‘R’ class battleships into “armored turtles” and sending them into the Baltic Sea, Operation Catherine:

Bringing up the Soviets and possible plans to attack the oil fields is interesting, because it shows that the Allies’ early timidity might have worked out for the best in the long run. The Soviets gave the Allies every reason to consider them a belligerent enemy in 1939-40. They attacked Poland, which technically required France and Britain to also declare war on the Soviets, then proceeded to attack several other states(the Baltic Republics and Finland), which at the time had to make them seem just like Nazi Germany. The Allies’ cravenness and timidity is probably the only thing that kept them out of a war they had no chance of winning.

The concept of mobile armored warfare was not something the Allies were unaware of. I know it’s commonly repeated that France fell because they weren’t prepared for this amazing new kind of warfare, but the doctrine was actually pretty well understood.

Germany simply fought better. They struck with a unity of purpose the Allies did not possess and achieved strategic surprise. German soldiers were better led, better trained, had a clear plan, and on average were more motivated - far more so than French units, which very early on began running away - and fought harder. They had air superiority (though a largely forgotten fact is that the French air force performed with tremendous bravery and skill in a losing cause.) Their generals took the initiative and determined the time and place of battle.

There is no technical or doctrinal reason the Allies could not have fought better in France. They equaled the Germans in strength in most respects; they were outnumbered in the air but had more of other things, especially artillery. In 1944 Germany held on longer against an Allied onslaught of incredibly overwhelming forceand would have held on longer still had Hitler and his sycophants not committed strategic blunders of epic proportions. The difference, really, was that the Allied defenders in 1940 were incredibly poorly organized and, frankly, the French gave up almost immediately. The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, called Winston Churchill *five days after the German offensive started *to say “we’re doomed.” Churchill tried to encourage him by pointing out the rather obvious fact that France had been in much worse shape in World War I and that five days of battle was not proof an entire country was doomed, bey Reynaud refused to listen to reason; accounts of his behavior remind one of a sulking teenaged girl who is sure everyone at school hates her and she sucks and her parents don’t understand her and nothing will ever be cool again, rather than a head of government. Churchill went to Paris the next day and found French officials burning their documents.

The Allied at that point (May 16) still had lots of fighting power, but it went basically unused in any effective manner because at this point no one was really in charge and no one could make a decision. They were in a state of organizational shock, with capable men and machines all over the place that did not constitute a coherent fighting force, and no one with an idea of how to coordinate them towards a common purpose, especially in terms of coordinating French and British efforts. (A North American comparative would be the Confederate confusion and failure to do anything correct, or really anything strategic at all, when Grant crossed the Army of the Tennessee below Vicksburg and invaded Mississippi.)

One could write a very long post - hell, a book - on French defeatism and how the fall of France serves as a case example of how you can have a perfectly good army that accomplishes nothing because no one is in charge.

That’s why I’m always skeptical of military analysis of various countries’ fighting strength based on paper numbers and supposed quality of weapons that have never been combat tested. The German crushing of the combined French and British armies proves that paper strength isn’t worth nearly as much as motivated, well led soldiers utilizing state of the art tactics.

There were huge doctrinal issues in the French army, stemming in a large part from the political issue of the structure of French conscription. Conscripts served for too short of a time and made up too large of a portion of the french army for them to train to a high standard, so they were forced to train to operate in a more methodical, defensive fashion. Fixing French conscription so that recruits served for longer and were called up more often just wasn’t an option politically, so there really wasn’t a way for the French army to have a better doctrine. When you couple an army that can’t think on it’s feet very well with the political missteps around the Ardennes (French and Belgian commands each thought the other was covering more of the area), you end up with an army that can only save itself by fighting really flexibly but simply can’t manage it.

Well heck, look at the first Gulf War. Or the Iraq War.

While Iraqi equipment wasn’t up to the standards of Allied stuff, it wasn’t THAT bad. They weren’t armed with sticks and stones, they were armed with guns, missiles, artillery and jet fighters. Had the Iraqi military put up a coherent and determined defense, the Allies could have suffered high losses. But the Iraqis had no coherent or realistic defensive plan, and the common soldier had little interest in fighting.

Contrast that with the performance of Iraqi insurgents, such as in Fallujah after the Iraq War. Despite being objectively less well armed than the regular Iraqi army and hopelessly outnumbered, the insurgents at Second Fallujah fought like lions. They lost, and were doomed to lose, but official US Marine accounts are very complimentary of insurgent planning, tenacity and skill.

I think that’s also a phenomenon of the fact that any war that goes on long enough, both sides eventually figure out how to fight it. Early insurgent attacks were derided as “miss and run”, but as the war went on the insurgents got more and more effective. I’d imagine the early partisans in Occupied Europe were a lot better at getting themselves killed in the early months than in actually inconveniencing the Germans. But as the war ground on, partisans became a really big deal requiring major deployments of German manpower.

I don’t it’s fair to center all the blame on Reynaud. He was being told by his generals that France had been defeated. Reynaud tried to find a general willing to fight; he replaced Gamelin with Weygand and then brought in Petain - but none of them seemed willing to stand up to the Germans. They all argued (with Darlan joining them) that France should give up and seek terms with Germany. De Gaulle was the only general who wanted to keep fighting but he was too junior to outweigh the others.

I’ve wondered if any of Hussein’s generals tried to explain things to him, particularly after the United States launched a shuttle mission to place a spy satellite over Iraq.

“Oh Friend of God, Whose approach causes his enemy’s testicles to shrivel, who will father only sons, we have twenty year old Russian tanks. The Americans have space ships.”

I didn’t mean to and apologize if it seemed I was doing that. I was using the Reynaud story as illustrative of the defeatism of France in general. Obviously it was not just him, and had it been just him he would have been bypassed and/or removed from office.