While most of the German army was engaged in Poland, a much smaller German force manned the Siegfried Line, their fortified defensive line along the French border. At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local, minor skirmishes. The British Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and the first Canadian troops stepped ashore in Britain, while western Europe was in a strange calm for seven months. In their hurry to re-arm, Britain and France had both begun buying large amounts of weapons from manufacturers in the US at the outbreak of hostilities, supplementing their own productions. The non-belligerent United States contributed to the Western Allies by discounted sales, and, later, lend-lease of military equipment and supplies.
German efforts to interdict the Allies’ transatlantic trade at sea ignited the Second Battle of the Atlantic in the 20th century.
The Saar Offensive was a French operation into the Saarland on the German 1st Army defense sector in the early stages of World War II. The purpose of the attack was to assist Poland, which was then under attack. However, the assault was stopped and the French forces withdrew. That would turn out to be the only offensive undertaken by France throughout World War II.
According to the Franco-Polish military convention, the French Army was to start preparations for the major offensive three days after mobilization started. The French forces were to effectively gain control over the area between the French border and the German lines and were to probe the German defenses. On the 15th day of the mobilization (that is on 10 September), the French Army was to start a full scale assault on Germany. The preemptive mobilization was started in France on 26 August and on 1 September full mobilization was declared.
A French offensive in the Rhine river valley area (Saar Offensive) started on 2 September, four days after France declared war on Germany. Then, the Wehrmacht was occupied in the attack on Poland, and the French soldiers enjoyed a decisive numerical advantage along the border with Germany. However, the French were not able to take any action to assist the Poles. Eleven French divisions advanced along a 32 km (20 mi) line near Saarbrücken against weak German opposition. The French Army had advanced to a depth of 8 km (5.0 mi) and captured about 20 villages evacuated by the German army, without any resistance. However, the half-hearted offensive was halted after France seized the Warndt Forest, 3 sq mi (7.8 km2) of heavily-mined German territory.
The attack did not result in any diversion of German troops. The all-out assault was to be carried out by roughly 40 divisions, including one armored division, three mechanized divisions, 78 artillery regiments and 40 tank battalions. On 6 September, the Anglo French Supreme War Council gathered for the first time at Abbeville in France. It was decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately. By then the French divisions had advanced approximately 8 km (5.0 mi) into Germany on a 24 km (15 mi) long strip of the frontier in the Saarland area. Maurice Gamelin ordered his troops to stop not closer than 1 km (0.62 mi) from the German positions along the Siegfried Line. Poland was not notified of this decision. Instead, Gamelin informed Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły that half of his divisions were in contact with the enemy, and that French advances had forced the Wehrmacht to withdraw at least six divisions from Poland. The following day the commander of the French Military Mission to Poland General Louis Faury informed the Polish Chief of Staff, General Wacław Stachiewicz, that the planned major offensive on the western front had to be postponed from 11 September to 14 September. At the same time, French divisions were ordered to retreat to their barracks along the Maginot Line. The Phony War had begun.
A notable event during the Phony War was the Winter War, which started with the Soviet Union’s assault on Finland on 30 November 1939. Public opinion, particularly in France and Britain, found it easy to side with democratic Finland, and demanded from their governments effective action in support of “the brave Finns” against their comparatively larger aggressor, the Soviet Union, particularly since the Finns’ defense seemed so much more successful than that of the Poles during the September Campaign. As a consequence, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations, and a proposed Franco-British expedition to northern Scandinavia was much debated. British forces that began to be assembled to send to Finland’s aid were not dispatched before the Winter War ended, and were sent to Norway’s aid in the Norwegian campaign, instead. On 20 March, after the Winter War had ended, Édouard Daladier resigned as Prime Minister in France, due to his failure to aid Finland’s defense.
End of the Phony War
Most other major actions during the Phony War were at sea, including the Second Battle of the Atlantic fought throughout the Phony War. Other notable events among these were the following:
- 14 September 1939, the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is sunk by U-39. She was the first British warship to be lost in the war.
- 17 September 1939, the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous is sunk by U-29. She sank in 15 minutes with the loss of 518 of her crew, including her captain.
- 14 October 1939, the British battleship HMS Royal Oak is sunk in the main British fleet base at Scapa Flow, Orkney by the German U-boat U-47. Death toll reached 833 men, including Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the Second Battleship Division.
- Luftwaffe air raids on Britain began on 16 October 1939 when Junkers Ju 88s attacked British warships at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. Spitfires of No. 602 and No. 603 Squadrons succeeded in shooting down two Ju 88s and a Heinkel He 111 over the firth. In a raid on Scapa Flow the next day, one Ju 88 was downed by anti-aircraft fire, crashing on the island of Hoy.
- 30 October 1939, the HMS Nelson is sunk by U-56 leading to drastic changes in Royal Navy anti-submarine patrols in the North Atlantic.
- 13 December 1939, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was attacked by the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate. Due to increasing British pressure on Langsdorff, and Hitler’s trust in U-boats following their success in the North Atlantic, U-47 had been assigned to shadow Admiral Graf Spee to aid in seeking out Royal Navy craft. In the battle, the HMS Exeter was destroyed while Ajax was badly mauled and Achilles withdrew in support. The Admiral Graf Spee received minor damage.
The warring air forces also showed some activity in that period, running reconnaissance flights and several minor bombing raids during this period. The Royal Air Force also conducted a large number of combined reconnaissance and propaganda leaflet flights over Germany. These leaflet flights were jokingly termed “Pamphlet raids” or “Confetti War” in the British press.