‘Phoney War’ is the name given to the period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to April 1940 when, after the blitzkrieg attack on Poland in September 1939, seemingly nothing happened. Many in Great Britain expected a major calamity – but the title ‘Phoney War’ summarises what happened in Western Europe – near enough nothing.

The term ‘Phoney War’ was first used, allegedly, by an American  senator called Borah. Winston Churchill referred to the same period as the ‘Twilight War’ while the Germans referred to it as ‘Sitzkrieg’ – ‘sitting war’.

The Phoney War refers to what happened in Western Europe between September 1939 and the spring of 1940. To assume that nothing was going on in Europe would be wrong as Poland was in the process of being occupied with all that brought for the Polish people. However, in Western Europe very little of military importance did take place. In fact, so little occurred that many of the children who had been evacuated at the start of the war, had returned to their families. To many, war had been declared by Neville Chamberlain, but nothing was actually happening.

In fact, things were happening but the public in Britain were not aware of them – or very few were. The sinking of the ‘Athenia’ sent a clear message to Britain that Germany was prepared to sink passenger liners and not just ships of military importance. The sinking of the ‘Royal Oak’ also brought the war home to Britain. Such was the shock to the government of the ‘Royal Oak’s’ sinking that many people first learned about it from the broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw.

At 09.00 am September 3rd, U-30 attacked the ‘Athenia’ which was bound for Canada. U-30’s commander, Lemp, claimed that he believed that the ‘Athenia’ was a naval boat as it was sailing in a zigzag manner and in the poor light he could not differentiate between a liner and a naval vessel. Of the 1,102 passengers and 315 crew, 112 died. Germany attempted to shift the blame for the attack on the British by claiming that British intelligence, on the orders of Winston Churchill, had placed a bomb on board ‘Athenia’. In fact, U-boat commanders had been ordered not to attack passenger liners and Hitler himself issued an order that no further attacks should be made on passenger liners unless it was obvious that they were travelling in convoy.

A survivor from the ‘Athenia’

During the Phoney War, Britain was also engaged in ‘bombing’ raids over Germany – but it was not bombs that were dropped but propaganda leaflets. Sir Kingsley Wood, Secretary of State for War, called them “truth raids”. The ‘raids’ served two purposes:

  • The Germans would read about the evils of Nazi Germany
  • It was show the leaders of Germany just how vulnerable their country was to bombing raids.

Millions of leaflets were dropped over Germany. On September 3rd alone, 6 million copies of “Note to the German People” were dropped in just one night – the equivalent of 13 tons of paper. The main result of these initial raids was that the Germans stepped up their anti-aircraft batteries.

While some politicians believed that the raids served a purpose, others in the military did not.

“My personal view is that the only thing achieved was largely to supply the continent’s requirements of toilet paper for the five long years of the war.” ‘Bomber’ Harris writing at the end of the war.

“It is ignominious to wage a confetti war against an utterly ruthless enemy.” 

General Spears

It is certainly true that the general public would have liked a more robust response to the attack on Poland. If our bombers were capable of dropping leaflets, it was surmised, then they should be capable of dropping bombs on important industrial targets to let the Germans know that we meant business.

“The smoke and smell of German forests would teach the Germans, who were very sentimental about their own trees, that war was not always pleasant and profitable, and could not be fought entirely in other people’s countries.” Hugh Dalton

When the issue of an attack on the Black Forest was raised with Kingsley Wood, he replied:

“Oh you can not do that, that’s private property. You’ll be asking me to bomb the Ruhr next.”

In anticipation of the war breaking out, in August the Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill had received the Royal Assent. It brought into being

“such defence regulations as appear necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defence of the realm, the maintenance of the public order and the efficient prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community.”

This law brought in

  • The arrest, trial and punishment of anybody deemed to have gone against these regulations
  • To detain anybody deemed by the government to be a threat
  • Taking any property other than land needed by the government
  • Entering and searching any property
  • Changing any existing law if it was necessary for the war effort

Immediately the war started, the public faced a torrent of prohibitions – what they could not do – and requirements – what they had to do.

Such a move did attract a considerable amount of criticism even within Parliament. Imprisonment without trial and the effective suspension of Habeas Corpus were, indeed, controversial. Dingle Foot, MP, said that Britain was fighting two wars: Nazi aggression abroad and Nazi tendencies at home.

During the Phoney War, blackout was rigidly enforced until it became obvious that problems on the roads had to be resolved. In December 1939, Westminster allowed low-density street lighting to help solve the issue of pedestrian/road accidents. Other areas soon followed. But no night time lighting of any description was allowed within 12 miles of the south-east coast. It was only on January 22nd, 1940, that the familiar car headlamps of World War Two were introduced along with a 20 mph speed limit in built-up areas.

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