By Eric Trevett
ON SUNDAY 3rd September 1939 families and neighbours throughout Britain were clustered around their radio sets waiting for Neville Chamberlain – the prime minister who had previously announced it was “peace in our time” – to state whether we would be at war with Germany. At 11am he confirmed that we were at war with Germany over the issue of Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1st September; the Nazi government had not responded to Britain’s ultimatum to withdraw from that country.
With war declared a whole lot of things happened quite quickly. More than one-and-a-half million women and children were sent into evacuation from the big cities; rationing was introduced; street names were painted over and the blackout was introduced with no lights to be shown from houses or shops after dark and cars had their dipped lights further light restricted.
And conscription was introduced in stages; at the start of this period there has been one-and-a-half million unemployed. Women were also conscripted – into non-combatant roles in the armed forces and into factory work and the land army – to a much greater extent than in the First World War.
And then nothing happened. There were no air raids and people were encouraged to take advantage of the good weather and go on holiday.
Of course elsewhere a lot was happening but not so much in this country. British planes showered Germany with leaflets indicating it would be a good idea if peace was restored.
By contrast the Germans were preparing to launch their offensives against western European countries.
The period from September 1939 to May 1940 was known as the phoney war. The only acts of war between Britain and Germany took place at sea, where Germany sank a number of merchant ships and British warships pressured the German pocket battleship Graf Spee into blowing itself up.
Meanwhile at home agitation had been growing for a more aggressive war policy. Prime Minister Chamberlain was discredited by his appeasement policies throughout the 30s, which among other things allowed Germany to increase its armed forces seven-fold from 1933.
Agitation for a more aggressive policy towards Nazi Germany resulted in Chamberlain effectively being forced out of office and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and accepted leader of the country for the duration of the war.
It was recognised that this was an imperialist war but at the same time it was also recognised that Hitler had to be stopped and in the circumstances that could only be achieved by the force of arms.
One of the big problems facing Britain was that although France had six million men under arms it still expected the war to be conducted in much the same way as the First World War – in other words a new war of position, trench warfare, in which front lines of combatants would move back and forth, losing thousands of men to take a few yards of land.
In light of this they built the Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War who commissioned it. It was an impregnable fortress but the defences were not extended to the sea. The Line was highly armed and equipped and would probably have stopped any invasion directed against it.
The only problem was that the Germans did not see a need to breach it; they circumvented it as they drove through Holland, Belgium and France.
The German breakthrough was at the Ardennes Forest, which the French had deemed to be impenetrable and who therefore put poorly trained and inexperienced soldiers in that area.
British troops were also involved along the Belgian frontier and they too had to retreat in some disorder under the onslaught of the German offensive.
The Germans has mastered the art of modern warfare in a strategy that became known as blitzkrieg. It was a heavy bombing attack by war planes backed up by masses of tanks and armoured cars moving fast and the deployment of land troops to mop up and round up the defeated defending soldiers, who became prisoners of war.
Such was the effectiveness of this strategy that there was only nominal resistance in Belgium and Holland; France capitulated within five weeks.
The retreat as far as Britain was concerned culminated in the evacuation of the expeditionary force at Dunkirk, thanks to the mobilisation of a host of smaller ships as well as the naval contingent. Nonetheless thousands of British troops were made prisoners of war and a great deal of heavy war weaponry was lost.
Churchill proved to be an effective war leader; his resolute and confident assertions in his speeches gave inspiration to the people. He was a good war leader but he was also a treacherous ally, as events later proved. He made a valuable contribution to achieve Britain’s rearmament and capacity for waging effective warfare against the Nazi forces.
He personally saw the German threat as being greater to British interests, in particular to the British colonies, which were being targeted by the Germans. But he also flirted with the idea of going to war with the Soviet Union over the issue of Finland.
Soviet preparations for defending itself against German aggression required access to territories in Finland in order to protect Leningrad. The Finnish government would not agree to this and the Soviet-Finnish war happened.
The British ruling class and media urged all the support it could muster to support Finland. Some aid went and an expeditionary force was standing by when Finland agreed to the Soviet terms for access to the territory required to defend Leningrad.
Undoubtedly some ruling class elements thought this could be a way of declaring war on Russia and resolving the problems with Germany to attack a common enemy. That possibility had now been eliminated.
After the fall of France Churchill said the battle for Europe is over and the Battle of Britain has now begun. It is not altogether clear whether Nazi Germany ever intended to invade Britain. There was only one element of blitzkrieg, namely air power, that could be effectively used and in the struggle for air supremacy over Britain it was Britain who had the initiative. First of all radar enabled our forces to have advance warning of attacks, the number, type and direction of aircraft involved. British pilots were able to take off in the minimum of time and engage the enemy and they were able to engage for longer. The German fighter Messerschmitt 109s fighting over London had only 11 minutes to engage before they had to return to base for refuelling, though their bombers had bigger fuel tanks.
Another factor was the effectiveness of the planes themselves and their well-trained pilots.
The Battle of Britain was won in the air and Churchill made his famous speech: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
What Germany had achieved at this stage of the struggle was a relatively pacified rear whilst it mobilised its forces for the war against the Soviet Union – the war in which, as Churchill stated, the Soviet Red Army tore the guts out of the German war machine.
We shall look at that struggle at a later date.