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     The act of war
     The Phoney War
     The fall of France

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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.


The fall of France: 1940

On June 5, the day after the last departures from Dunkirk, the German army turns its attention southwards. Erwin Rommel, whose panzer division has spearheaded the rapid German thrust to the coast, is now again in the vanguard with his tanks. By June 9 the Germans have taken Rouen and crossed the Seine. On June 14 they enter Paris. The French government withdraws to Bordeaux, but the Germans press on relentlessly. By June 16 they are in the Rhone valley.

Meanwhile a similar drive southwards on the eastern front makes the famous Maginot Line redundant. Moving behind it to reach the Swiss frontier, the Germans seal off the French divisions which have been attempting to hold these eastward-facing fortifications.


This impressive sequence of events tempts a newcomer into the war. In spite of their Axis agreement, Mussolini declined in September 1939 to commit Italy to war as an ally of Germany. Now, nine months later, he realizes that if he is to hope for any of the spoils of victory he had better get into the fray. Just in time, on June 10, he declares war on France and Britain. Within less than a week, on June 16, the French ask for an armistice. Mussolini has not yet managed to launch an attack on southeastern France, but he does so on June 20 - two days before France and Germany sign their armistice.

There has been much debate within France whether to seek an armistice or to accept the fall of France and fight on from north Africa.


The premier, Paul Reynaud, has long been anti-appeasement and now argues that France must fight on as Britain's ally. But he is in the minority. On June 16 he resigns. He is followed by a figure from the past, Philippe Pétain, one of France's most distinguished and popular commanders from World War I. Pétain immediately asks for an armistice.

Before dictating terms, Hitler meets in Munich his very recent companion in arms, Mussolini, to discuss what is to be demanded. Mussolini has wildly ambitious plans. In pursuit of his dream of dominating the Mediterranean, he wants Italy to annexe all French imperial possessions in north Africa together with Corsica and the coast of France herself as far west as Nice.


But Hitler is in more practical mood. His main concern is to ensure that France does not go on fighting against him as an ally of Britain (with whom he has not yet given up hope of coming to amicable terms). So he intends only to occupy the northern two thirds of France, already in possession of his armies. He will not even commandeer the powerful French fleet and airforce, insisting merely that they remain non-combatant (much of the fleet is subsequently destroyed by the British). Italy is to have just the tiny bit of southeastern France which her troops have managed to capture during June 20-22.

But if the terms of the armistice are calculated to minimize France's humiliation, the signing of the treaty is stage-managed with precisely the opposite intention.


This is to be the moment when Hitler avenges Germany's humiliation of the armistice at the end of World War I, and he plans it with his usual theatrical flair. The railway carriage in which that armistice was signed has been in a Paris museum. It is now brought to the precise place, at Rethondes, used on the previous occasion. Hitler arrives in person on June 22 to savour his triumph. He even sits in the very chair used by Foch. Then he travels to Paris to see the famous sights. The conqueror plays the tourist (it is his first visit).

The area left to France, officially neutral under Pétain but in effect a German puppet state, has a curving northern boundary from the Swiss border to the Pyrenees. Vichy is selected as the capital, and the region becomes known as Vichy France.


Yet France remains in the war in a different guise. On June 6 Reynaud has brought into his government a young brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle, as undersecretary of state for war. When the armistice is requested, on June 16, de Gaulle crosses to Britain.

From there, on June 18, four days before the armistice is signed, he makes a famous radio broadcast to the people of France. He urges them to continue the fight, and declares himself to be the leader of the Free French. Until the liberation of France, in September 1944, he remains in London as the symbol of French resistance (and frequently as something of a thorn in the side of his more powerful political ally, Winston Churchill).


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