At the beginning of the Second World War, France and Britain had a chance to quickly defeat Germany, but they staged a “fake war”. Later they paid for it (even Churchill did not help) — a story in archival footage

Serhii Pyvovarov
Dmytro Rayevskyi
At the beginning of the Second World War, France and Britain had a chance to quickly defeat Germany, but they staged a “fake war”. Later they paid for it (even Churchill did not help) — a story in archival footage

French and British soldiers during a "fake war" next to a dugout with the ironic inscription "10 Downing Street" — the address of the British Prime Ministerʼs residence, October 1939.

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The ninth of May 1940 was the last day of the lull on the Western Front, which lasted more than half a year after the beginning of the Second World War and went down in history as a "fake war". After Hitlerʼs attack on Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. But they never decided to engage in real hostilities, despite the fact that they had a military advantage over the Germans. Due to constant disputes, London and Paris abandoned the Poles to their own means, did not help the Finns during the attack of the USSR, and could not prevent the German occupation of Denmark and Norway. The only real war, at sea, was arranged by the commander of the British fleet, Winston Churchill, but it was not enough. Instead, the Germans had time to prepare and on May 10, 1940, launched a rapid offensive against France and defeated the Allied forces in a few weeks. Babel tells about the course of the "fake war", during which the British and the French missed the chance to end the Second World War back in 1939.

The British and French declared war on Germany, but did not start a real war

In 1938, France and Britain made concessions to Hitler in order to prevent a major war in Europe. At first they turned a blind eye to the German occupation of Austria, and then actually forced Czechoslovakia to give Hitler the Sudetenland, hoping that he would calm down. But he, of course, did not calm down and already in March 1939 began to demand that Poland hand over the city of Danzig. At the same time, in the spring of 1939, Britain and France promised Poland "all possible help and support" in the event of a German attack.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. At first, Britain and France seemed to keep their promises. They simultaneously declared war on Germany on September 3. And already on September 7, the offensive from the Maginot Line to the German Saar region began. In a week, the French almost unopposed captured more than ten German towns and villages and advanced more than 30 km deep. And then they rested on the German minefields on the approaches to the Siegfried Line.

Map of the Saar operation in 1939. The Maginot Line is marked in blue, the Siegfried Line in red, the territories captured by the French are dashed.


Only after that, the French and British command met for a meeting to decide what to do next. The offensive with a wide front through Belgium and Luxembourg fell away, because these countries declared neutrality. More time and heavy guns were needed to prepare a large-scale offensive across the French border. After all, the command at that time, especially the French one, thought according to the patterns of the First World War — massive artillery fire, then an infantry attack. Moreover, the Allies did not even have accurate data about the number of German troops and equipment on the Siegfried Line, nor about the layout and strength of the fortifications.

An illustrative fact — at the meeting, the commander of the offensive, French General Maurice Gamelin, stated that thanks to his achievements, Germany was forced to withdraw about six divisions from Poland. But it turned out to be untrue.

While the British and French were consulting, on the morning of September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. Then they simply waved their hand at the Poles and canceled the further attack on the German positions. And in mid-October, the German divisions really returned from Poland and quickly recaptured the territories lost during the Saar Offensive. Then the French troops returned to the Maginot Line and began to prepare for trench warfare — in the best traditions of the First World War.

French and British soldiers sing World War I war songs on the Maginot Line, 1939.

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"Fake War" on the Western Front

After the failure of the Saar operation, there was a lull of more than six months on the Western Front. According to British and American journalists, this period was called a "fake war".

During the first days of the war, the British considered airstrikes on German industry. But this idea was quickly abandoned, fearing retaliation. In general, the then Secretary of State for Aviation, Kingsley Wood, said that warehouses and factories cannot be bombed, because they are private property, and in general, civilians can fall under airstrikes. For the Royal Air Force, he came up with another task — to scatter propaganda leaflets over German positions. This tactic was ironically called "pamphlet raids" or "confetti wars" by British journalists. In turn, the Germans also did not bomb France and Britain, but only because at that time more than 90% of their aviation were busy destroying Poland. And on the Western Front, they still hung peace-loving posters and sent balloons to the positions of the British and French.

Newsreel from the Western Front during the "fake war" of 1939-1940.

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At the end of October 1939, the British government generally hoped that it would not come to a direct confrontation with Germany. This strategic concept of the military cabinet of Great Britain was called by the head of the British General Staff, Edmund Ironside, "passive waiting with all the worries and anxieties that follow from it."

The French journalist Roland Dorgeles, in his report from the front line, wrote as follows: "The gunners stationed on the Rhine calmly looked at the German ammunition trains plying on the opposite bank, our pilots flew over the factories of the Saar without dropping bombs. Obviously, the main concern of the high command was not to disturb the enemy."

Instead of fighting on the Western Front, they tried to organize leisure activities. In Britain, the National Entertainment Service Association was created, which organized concerts and performances for soldiers. In 1939, the Irish singer Jimmy Kennedyʼs song "Weʼll hang out the laundry on the Siegfried Line" became a real hit. British officers amused themselves by hunting. And it got to the point that they brought not only hunting dogs from Britain, but also foxes, which they hunted.

The French government began to organize football tournaments — between units, divisions and even between the French and British armies. In addition, the issue of alcohol, primarily wine, to soldiers was increased. By the end of the "fake war", French troops on the front line received two million liters of wine per day. The command turned a blind eye to gambling.

Football match between the national teams of the British (in light uniforms) and the French armies, 1940.
French and British soldiers on the Maginot Line raise a toast to the new year, 1940.

Football match between the national teams of the British (in light uniforms) and the French armies, 1940. French and British soldiers on the Maginot Line raise a toast to the new year, 1940.

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Britain and France also missed the chance to help Finland

At the end of November 1939, the Winter War began — the invasion of the USSR into Finland. Despite the fact that the Soviet forces were much larger, the Finns defended themselves much more successfully than the Poles. It would seem that this was a good chance for the British and French, who had already accumulated forces, to fight back against the then ally of Germany. And now take control of a strategically important region — Scandinavia.

But months of planning at the highest military and diplomatic levels in London and Paris only deepened the divisions between the allies. French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier at the time called his British colleague Neville Chamberlain a "dry slob," King George VI an "idiot," and the British "potential traitors" who would betray their allies at the first opportunity to avoid war with Germany. Chamberlain, in turn, called Daladier "a bull with a snailʼs horns" because he was belligerent only in words. A similar situation existed in military circles. British commanders considered the French to be cowards, and they called the British too arrogant.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (left) with his French counterpart Edouard Daladier, 1938.

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The first plan to help the Finns was worked out only in February 1940. But there was one nuance: the plan provided for the passage of Franco-British troops through the territory of Sweden and Norway. But these countries did not want to quarrel with Germany and the USSR, so they declared neutrality and refused to let the allied troops through. By the time London and Paris considered alternatives, it was too late. At the cost of huge losses, the Soviet Union broke through the Finnish defenses and forced the Finns to sign a humiliating peace agreement in March 1940. The British and French publics were extremely outraged by their governmentsʼ failure to "help the brave Finns". Daladier was forced to resign as prime minister in March 1940, Chamberlain lasted a few months longer.

Germany used a "fake war" to build up its forces

At the end of September 1939, Hitler was finally convinced that the British-French troops on the Western Front were not planning a quick offensive against Germany. So he ordered his superiors to prepare a plan for a westward attack to "smash France and bring England to her knees."

The plan was named Helb. The Germans did not care about the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg, so the main strike was planned through these countries. And now they decided to occupy the neutral Netherlands as well. In the end, the start of the operation had to be postponed more than 20 times. In November 1939 — due to bad weather. And in January 1939, the offensive failed due to an unexpected incident. The German plane went off course and accidentally landed on the territory of Belgium. And on board was an officer who had full documentation of the Gelb plan. So the secret documents got into the hands of the allies.

The Germans had to redo the operation plan. Now the offensive in northern Belgium was a diversionary maneuver. The main blow was moved to the south — through the Ardennes. This mountain system on the French-Belgian border was considered impassable by the Allied command, so they did not begin to set up powerful defenses here.

The final version of the "Helb" plan, the directions of the German offensive in May 1940 are marked in red.


The offensive was planned for May 10, 1940. But for a start, Hitler decided to be safe from the north. So on April 9, he sent an ultimatum to neutral Denmark and Norway with the demand not to resist the German troops who would arrive "for protection against the British-French occupation." Denmark surrendered without resistance. But the Norwegians tried to fight back. In mid-April, the Allies finally sent the landing force they were preparing to help the Finns to Norway. But the operation failed — by the end of April, the Germans occupied almost all of Norway. After that, there was serious talk of Prime Minister Chamberlainʼs resignation in London.

Winston Churchill was almost the only one who really fought, but that was not enough

On September 3, 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, that is, commander of the British Royal Navy. He became one of the few members of the British War Cabinet, who from the very beginning was in favor of a decisive and large-scale war against Germany. He called for massive airstrikes on German industry and for an offensive on the Western Front as soon as possible to prevent the Germans from building up their forces. Churchill suggested disregarding the neutrality of Sweden and Norway when discussing a plan to help the Finns in the Winter War. But the rest of the cabinet members did not support his idea.

But in the fleet, he deployed to the full and staged the only real confrontation during the "fake war" period, which became the beginning of the longest campaign in the Second World War — the Battle of the Atlantic. It all started with the fact that Britain introduced a naval blockade of Germany. And the Germans in response began to sink British military and civilian ships indiscriminately. At Churchillʼs suggestion, the Royal Navy formed hunting parties to hunt German U-boats. British naval aviation bombed the German fleet. And in December 1939, the British managed to track down and sink the German cruiser Admiral Count Spee.

Churchill addresses British naval officers, January 1940.

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After the failure of the Norwegian campaign in April 1940, it was finally understood in London that the policy of Chamberlainʼs cabinet turned out to be a complete failure. On May 10, 1940, under the pressure of the parliament, he gave up the post of prime minister to the determined Churchill.

But it was too late, on the morning of the same May 10, the Germans began an offensive according to the Helb plan. And they implemented it brilliantly. Luxembourg capitulated on the same day, the Netherlands on May 14, Belgium on May 28. In six weeks, the Germans defeated the Allied forces in France. And on June 22, 1940, the French were forced to sign the capitulation in the same train car in Compiègne, where they concluded a humiliating armistice for Germany during the First World War in November 1918.

In the fall of 1939, everything could have been the other way around. At the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, German military commander Alfred Jodl frankly admitted: "We did not collapse in 1939 only because during the Polish campaign 110 British and French divisions did absolutely nothing against our 23 on the Western Front."

Newsreel of the German invasion of France in 1940.

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Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Philip Warner. The Battle for France: Six Weeks That Changed The World. Pen & Sword Military, 2010.

Graham Clews. Churchillʼs Phoney War: A Study in Folly and Frustration (Studies in Naval History and Sea Power). Naval Institute Press, 2019.

The Phoney War: The History of the Uneasy Calm along the Western Front at the Start of World War II. Charles River Editors, 2023.

Maude Williams, Bernard Wilkin. French Soldiersʼ Morale in the Phoney War, 1939—1940. Routledge, 2018.

Brian Bond, Michael Taylor. The Battle for France & Flanders: Sixty Years. Pen & Sword Military, 2001.

Serhii Pyvovarov
Dmytro Rayevskyi

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