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     The act of war
     The Phoney War
     Enter Churchill
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The act of war: 1939

During the night of August 31 a group of German soldiers, dressed as Poles, attack the German radio station in the border town of Gleiwitz. They have brought with them a German criminal, taken for the purpose from a concentration camp. They shoot him and leave his body as evidence of the night's dark deeds.

Berlin radio broadcasts to the world the news of this act of Polish aggression, together with details of the necessary German response. In the early hours of the morning of September 1 Hitler's tanks move into Poland. His planes take off towards Warsaw on the first bombing mission of a new European war.


After a final desperate day of diplomacy, attempting even at this late stage to find a peaceful solution, Chamberlain and Daladier each sends an ultimatum to Hitler. When no answer is received, both nations declare war on September 3.

The Polish army, airforce and civilian population put up a brave resistance to massive German force - increased, from September 17, by a Russian invasion from the east. Within a few weeks 60,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians die. By September 28 Warsaw has fallen. Poland is once again partitioned, with an eastern slice going to Russia (as so recently agreed in Moscow) and the lion's share to Germany.


The Phoney War: 1939-1940

In France and Britain the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war is a return to the defensive tactics of World War I. The French rush troops to the Maginot Line, an elaborate complex of concrete fortifications connected by underground railway lines, which has been constructed along the Franco-German border between 1929 and 1938. (It is named after André Maginot, minister of war from 1929 to 1931.)

France's border with Belgium, running northwest to the sea, is not similarly protected. So, as in World War I, a British Expeditionary Force is immediately sent across the Channel to dig in along this line.


Here the troops of both nations await attack from the conqueror of Poland. But nothing happens.

It is not that Hitler is inactive against his new enemies. He is energetically demonstrating, with the deployment of his U-boats (Unterseebooten, or submarines), that Britain can no longer rely on her famed mastery of the seas. The aircraft carrier Courageous is sunk at sea in September, the battleship Royal Oak is torpedoed at anchor in Scapa Flow in October. Hitler also has a devastating new weapon to unveil - the magnetic mine, dropped into the sea from the air to cling to a passing vessel and explode. Inevitably indiscriminate, one such mine sinks the Dutch passenger liner Simon Bolivar in November.


Nor is there a lack of conflict in Europe. Stalin, assured of a free hand with Finland by the terms of his nonaggression pact with Hitler, sends troops across the Finnish border in November 1939 (provoking the Russo-Finnish war, also known as the Winter War, in which Finland resists her large neighbour with magnificent resolve). And in early April 1940 the French and British finally agree on their first joint offensive. They will send troops to seize the Norwegian North Sea ports, even though Norway is neutral. The strategic reason is the need to cut the supply of iron ore from Swedish mines to Germany. But they delay in putting the plan into action.

Meanwhile on the western front all is quiet.


As a result the war acquires in Britain and France a name suggesting a dangerous sense of relaxation. In Britain it is known as the Phoney War, in France le Drole de Guerre (the Joke War). By the spring of 1940 the western nations have been able to spend eight useful months building up their armaments. On April 5 Chamberlain is sufficiently confident to declare to the house of commons that one thing is now certain - Hitler has 'missed the bus'.

Four days later a German fleet of warships invades Denmark and Norway. All the important harbours of these two neutral nations are rapidly occupied. Within days British and French troops are on hand to assist the Norwegian resistance. But they have arrived too late and little is achieved.


Enter Churchill: 1940

The military failure in Norway heightens dissatisfaction in Britain with Chamberlain's conduct of the war. On May 7-8 he narrowly survives a censure debate in the house of commons (notable for Leo Amery's revival of Cromwell's famous words 'You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing... In the name of God, go!'). Then, on May 10, alarming news from the continent sets the seal on his term as leader.

In the early hours of that morning German divisions smash their way into the Netherlands and Belgium. In this new crisis Chamberlain realizes that an all-party government is essential. But the Labour party refuses to serve under a man associated so strongly with appeasement.


The only possible leader in the circumstances is a controversial figure waiting in the wings. Winston Churchill, after a brilliant early career (first as soldier and author, subsequently in several high cabinet roles), has been on the sidelines during the 1930s because of his implacable opposition to appeasement. He has described Chamberlain's 'peace with honour' at Munich as 'a total and unmitigated defeat'.

Pugnacious and inspirational, Churchill is the ideal man for the crisis now facing the nation. Appointed prime minister on May 10, he asks for a vote of confidence from the house of commons on May 13 - and receives it unanimously.


On this occasion, and on many subsequently, Churchill reveals the power of harsh truth transformed by the magic of oratory. His message to the commons is bleak - 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' But as the robust phrases roll on, the speech becomes a clarion call to the nation.

In a similar way each significant moment in this summer of 1940, the most dangerous in British national history, is marked by a high point of Churchillian peroration. The completion, on June 4, of the extraordinary evacuation from Dunkirk is the occasion for 'We shall fight on the beaches'. The loss of France as an ally, after an armistice signed with Germany on June 18, produces the vision of Britain now confronting her 'finest hour'.


Whenever there is a chink in the storm clouds, the prime minister proves as powerful in his commemoration of victory. In August 1940 his young pilots begin to turn the tables on the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Churchill coins in their honour perhaps his most famous sentence: 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

The first successful allied land offensive against German troops, driving Rommel westwards through north Africa in November 1942, is the occasion for the cautious but resonant hope: 'This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'


Thanks to film and news reels, Churchill in person becomes an inspirational figure to a British public suffering the first prolonged and intense bombing campaign in the history of warfare. His trademark cigar (never seen in a much reduced state) and his famous V-sign are always in evidence when he visits a devastated area in the aftermath of an air raid.

On the international front Churchill's main challenge is enlisting the support of the USA. This is achieved in stages, with the start of lend-lease in 1941 followed by the Atlantic Charter. But the task is completed for Churchill by the Japanese action at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.


Hitler's invasion of the USSR, in June 1941, brings Churchill his other major ally. The trio of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin become the high command of the allied effort against the Axis powers.

While the Russians sap the German military strength in the bitter campaigns of 1942-3, Churchill and Roosevelt plan the western offensive which eventually takes place on D-Day (6 June 1944). By the time the three leaders meet at Yalta, in February 1945, it is evident that the war is all but won. Much of the discussion now centres on postwar dispensations. But for Churchill himself the last weeks of the war bring a rude shock, from a British public adjusting rapidly to a new social and political environment.


Wartime welfare: 1939-1945

The national war effort, more effectively planned than in 1914-1918, has a profound influence on British society. Conscription, introduced for some even before the start of the war (in April 1939), is by the end of 1941 very widely applied - men between the ages of 18 and 61 and women aged from 20 to 30 must all either join the services or work in mines or factories.

In World War I food rationing of a few basic commodities only came in during the last months of the war, from July 1918. This time ration books are ready almost at the start, to become a familiar part of everybody's war from January 1940.


Most basic foodstuffs are already rationed in 1940 (meat, eggs, butter, sugar, tea, milk, cheese, jam), to be followed by sweets and chocolate from 1942. Clothes are rationed from 1941, petrol from 1942.

Many social effects result from these measures. Even if only on a temporary basis, there is a reduction in class barriers. Everyone now is subject to the same restrictions, everyone is joining equally in the war effort (though working-class districts bear the brunt of the bombing, targeted on industrial areas and docks). But there is another more lasting effect of rationing and industrial conscription.


Full employment means that even the poorest families have an income, and rationing provides everybody with the same simple but healthy diet. The war generation in Britain is the first ever in which poor children eat adequately. Their parents, away in the forces or working in a local factory, now see a chance of a better life for the family. And the all-party government headed by Churchill recognizes this fundamental change.

A Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services is set up in 1941, under the chairmanship of William Beveridge. The resulting Beveridge Report, published in 1942, proposes a wide-ranging social security programme - with state insurance against the costs of illness, unemployment, old age and death.


The government accepts the Beveridge Report in principle, though action to put any such sweeping reforms into effect is impossible in the short term. But the Beveridge ideals are very much in the public domain when a general election is called for July 1945, shortly after VE-Day.

Churchill campaigns during the election as the war hero, and as such is widely cheered. He also reverts unashamedly to the role of Conservative leader, painting a dire picture of life under a Labour government. But the Labour party, with Clement Attlee at its head, has a seductive message - for a postwar change of direction, towards a new and fairer society.


The British troops all round the world have a vote, and it takes some time for their decisions to be counted and registered. But when the result of the election is announced, on 26 July 1945, it is nothing short of sensational. Labour has won a landslide victory, with 393 seats in the house of commons to a mere 213 for the Conservatives.

Churchill later describes this surprising turn of events in his own inimitable style: 'All our enemies having surrended unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.'


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