Military history


NOTHING MUCH had happened there. Hardly a shot had been fired. The German man in the street was beginning to call it the “sit-down war”—Sitzkrieg. In the West it would soon be dubbed the “phony war.” Here was “the strongest army in the world [the French],” as the British General J. F. C. Fuller would put it, “facing no more than twenty-six [German] divisions, sitting still and sheltering behind steel and concrete while a quixotically valiant ally was being exterminated!”1

Were the Germans surprised? Hardly. In Halder’s very first diary entry, that of August 14, the Chief of the Army General Staff had composed a detailed estimate of the situation in the West if Germany attacked Poland. He considered a French offensive “not very likely.” He was sure that France would not send its army through Belgium “against Belgian wishes.” His conclusion was that the French would remain on the defensive. On September 7, with the Polish Army already doomed, Halder, as has been noted, was already occupied with plans to transfer German divisions to the west.

That evening he noted down the results of a conference which Brauchitsch had had during the afternoon with Hitler.

Operation in the West not yet clear. Some indications that there is no real intention of waging a war … French cabinet lacks heroic caliber. Also from Britain first hints of sobering reflection.

Two days later Hitler issued Directive No. 3 for the Conduct of the War, ordering arrangements to be made for Army and Air Force units to be sent from Poland to the west. But not necessarily to fight. “Even after the irresolute opening of hostilities by Great Britain … and France my express command,” the directive laid it down, “must be obtained in each of the following cases: Every time our ground forces [or] … one of our planes cross the western borders; [and] for every air attack on Britain.”2

What had France and Britain promised Poland to do in case she were attacked? The British guarantee was general. But the French was specific. It was laid down in the Franco-Polish Military Convention of May 19, 1939. In this it was agreed that the French would “progressively launch offensive operations against limited objectives toward the third day after General Mobilization Day.” General mobilization had been proclaimed September 1. But further, it was agreed that “as soon as the principal German effort develops against Poland, France will launch an offensive action against Germany with the bulk of her forces, starting on the fifteenth day after the first day of the general French mobilization.” When the Deputy Chief of the Polish General Staff, Colonel Jaklincz, had asked how many French troops would be available for this major offensive, General Gamelin had replied that there would be about thirty-five to thirty-eight divisions.3

But by August 23, as the German attack on Poland became imminent, the timid French generalissimo was telling his government, as we have seen,* that he could not possibly mount a serious offensive “in less than about two years … in 1941–2”—assuming, he had added, that France by that time had the “help of British troops and American equipment.”

In the first weeks of the war, to be sure, Britain had pitifully few troops to send to France. By October 11, three weeks after the fighting was over in Poland, it had four divisions—158,000 men—in France. “A symbolic contribution,” Churchill called it, and Fuller noted that the first British casualty—a corporal shot dead on patrol—did not occur until December 9. “So bloodless a war,” Fuller comments, “had not been seen since the Battles of Molinella and Zagonara.”

In retrospect at Nuremberg the German generals agreed that by failing to attack in the West during the Polish campaign the Western Allies had missed a golden opportunity.

The success against Poland was only possible [said General Halder] by almost completely baring our Western border. If the French had seen the logic of the situation and had used the engagement of the German forces in Poland, they would have been able to cross the Rhine without our being able to prevent it and would have threatened the Ruhr area, which was the most decisive factor of the German conduct of the war.4

…. If we did not collapse in 1939 [said General Jodl] that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions.5

And General Keitel, Chief of the OKW, added this testimony:

We soldiers had always expected an attack by France during the Polish campaign, and were very surprised that nothing happened … A French attack would have encountered only a German military screen, not a real defense.6

Why then did not the French Army (the first two British divisions were not deployed until the first week of October), which had overwhelming superiority over the German forces in the west, attack, as General Gamelin and the French government had promised in writing it would?

There were many reasons: the defeatism in the French High Command, the government and the people; the memories of how France had been bled white in the First World War and a determination not to suffer such slaughter again if it could be avoided; the realization by mid-September that the Polish armies were so badly defeated that the Germans would soon be able to move superior forces to the west and thus probably wipe out any initial French advances; the fear of German superiority in arms and in the air. Indeed, the French government had insisted from the start that the British Air Force should not bomb targets in Germany for fear of reprisal on French factories, though an all-out bombing of the Ruhr, the industrial heart of the Reich, might well have been disastrous to the Germans. It was the one great worry of the German generals in September, as many of them later admitted.

Fundamentally the answer to the question of why France did not attack Germany in September was probably best stated by Churchill. “This battle,” he wrote, “had been lost some years before.”7 At Munich in 1938; at the time of the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936; the year before when Hitler proclaimed a conscript army in defiance of Versailles. The price of those sorry Allied failures to act had now to be paid, though it seems to have been thought in Paris and London that payment might somehow be evaded by inaction.

   At sea there was action.

The German Navy was not put under such wraps as the Army in the west, and during the first week of hostilities it sank eleven British ships with a total tonnage of 64,595 tons, which was nearly half the weekly tonnage sunk at the peak of German submarine warfare in April 1917 when Great Britain had been brought to the brink of disaster. British losses tapered off thereafter: 53,561 tons the second week, 12,750 the third week and only 4,646 the fourth week—for a total during September of twenty-six ships of 135,552 tons sunk by U-boats and three ships of 16,488 tons by mines.*

There was a reason, unknown to the British, for the sharp tapering off. On September 7, Admiral Raeder had a long conference with Hitler. The Fuehrer, jubilant over his initial victories in Poland and the failure of the French to attack in the west, advised the Navy to go more slowly. France was showing “political and military restraint”; the British were proving “hesitant.” In view of this situation it was decided that submarines in the Atlantic would spare all passenger ships without exception and refrain altogether from attacking the French, and that the pocket battleshipsDeutschland in the North Atlantic and the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic should withdraw to their “waiting” stations for the time being. The “general policy,” Raeder noted in his diary, would be “to exercise restraint until the political situation in the West has become clearer, which will take about a week.”8

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!