Ten Myths About the Phoney War

phoney warOn April 8, 1940, the 1600-ton British destroyer Glowworm engaged, and eventually rammed, the 16,000-ton German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, which was leading a convoy on the way to invade Norway. It was a valiant effort, but you can probably guess which one went to the bottom. This was really the opening shot, the turning of what many people have described as the “Phoney War” into a very hot war indeed. In the next few months, world politics was changed fundamentally.

The problem is that term “Phoney War”. We have a very peculiar idea of the Phoney War. Too many historians completely dismiss it as the period where the Allied powers sat on their hands waiting for Germany to strike. Nothing could be further from the truth. This period is a fascinating study of the very traditional British pursuit of a “balance of power” solution.

The only conceivable reasons for most historians writing off the entire period as not worthy of consideration, are either: that it is too complex to explain, or, more likely, that it would completely undermine their neat explanations of the Second World War. The Phoney War is little understood, and is usually not considered in its real context. As the Israeli-born Cambridge scholar Gabriel Gorodetsky noted:

The clues to understanding the course of the war … and the seeds of the subsequent conflict are all to be found in the crucial period of 1939–1941 … In fact we can confidently assert that 1939–1941 was the most traumatic and dynamic period of the war.[1]

The German view of the Phoney War

Why was the Admiral Hipper on its way to invade Norway in April 1940? Why did Germany need to invade countries that had quietly sat out the previous war?

The usual reason, given in most modern books, is that the Royal Navy had been getting a bit frisky in response to German abuse of Norwegian territorial waters, and was planning to mine the “Narrows” to cut off German iron ore supplies from Sweden. But that is not the real reason that Hitler expedited Operation Fall-Weserubung from a mere planning exercise to a matter of urgency.

In fact the Germans believed that they had been forced into pre-empting an Allied occupation of Norway, and potentially Sweden, that had in fact been ordered, and then delayed, twice over the last two months. From the German perspective, the invasion of Norway was forced on them by Allied plans. The Fuhrer’s War Directive for “Case Weser Exercise” issued on March 1, 1940, began:

The development of the situation in Scandinavia makes it necessary to prepare for the occupation of Denmark and Norway … this would anticipate English action against Scandinavia and the Baltic, would secure our supplies of ore from Sweden …[2]

For the first time Nazi Germany was reacting, rather than initiating. That alone should give us pause for thought about populist over-simplifications about the Phoney War period.

The Allied plan for an ‘intervention’ in Scandinavia in March 1940

As part of the division of Eastern Europe in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, the Soviets occupied Eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, large parts of Rumania, and Finland. Finland was the only one to fight back—quite successfully, for several months. Their David-versus-Goliath struggle captivated the world, and the fact that Finland’s 150,000-man volunteer army—with only thirty-two tanks and 114 aircraft available—had victory after victory against well over a million Soviet troops—with over 6000 tanks and 3800 aircraft—gave the conflict the aura of one of the epic sagas of history. One poem, by Alfred Noyes, written shortly after Finland’s surrender, captured the mood:

Far off between the mountain and the sea,
In Ancient days this word was sped:
“Tell them at home we held Thermopylae,
According to their will, and lie here, dead.”
Now from the north there comes a mightier cry:
“We fought and failed against titanic powers.
But ask mankind—whose is the victory
When every unchained heart on earth is ours?”[3]

The League of Nations, moribund and useless for most of the 1930s, finally stirred itself into action for “superb, sublime Finland” as Churchill called it. They expelled the Soviet Union from the League in 1939, not over Poland or the Baltic States or Bessarabia, but over Finland. (One of the first post-war acts of the new United Nations was to bow to Soviet pressure to prosecute Finland for “crimes against peace”!)

The League also, in 1939, requested every member state to assist Finland in any way possible, and eventually dozens of nations sent money and weapons. Some of these included Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands—all of whom were justly wondering who might be next on the Nazi-Soviet hit list. Others were Britain, France, Spain, Italy and the United States.

Almost a month before the Glowworm encounter, at 6.30 p.m. on March 12, 1940, the British Chiefs of Staff issued orders for a Scandinavian “intervention”.[4] General Mackesy would take his forces to sea the following morning,[5] and land in Norway that night. From there he would advance through Sweden to the relief of the Finns, who were still gallantly opposing Soviet occupation after months of hard fighting.

The first wave of Allied troops was to consist of three British divisions, four Polish battalions, one brigade of French Foreign Legion troops, and some Chasseurs Alpine—[6]135,000 men in all, with five and a half squadrons of aircraft attached, and four home-based bomber squadrons in support.[7] Plans allowed for several more divisions to be deployed in Sweden against the possibility of a German counter-attack. General Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was convinced that if the Allies could get established on the Narvick-Lulea line in Scandinavia, the Germans would be unable to shift them.[8] (Later German experience in defending similar terrain in Tunisia and Italy—even against Allied attacks supported by total air domination—appears to validate this promise.)

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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For a few hours it seemed likely that members of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact would be forced into a more active military alliance against the Anglo-French allies, and the war would go down a very different path indeed. Yet just after midnight, news came through that Finland had sued for peace. The Allies had lost their chance to intervene in Scandinavia.

Most historians have looked upon this planned intervention as at best an aberration, and at worst a criminal delusion. Alistair Horne, in his history of the French army, reflects the view of many: “the possibility that Britain and France may have had Russia as well as Germany on their backs in 1940 makes one’s blood run cold”.[9] Yet the British Chiefs of Staff in February 1940 called the opportunities offered by the Finnish campaign “the first and best chance of wresting the initiative and … shortening the war”.[10]

At least one of these viewpoints is incorrect. Possibly both are gross exaggerations. Unfortunately our hindsight makes it difficult to separate myth from reality.

1. The myth that the Soviet Union was strong in 1940

We judge the Soviet Union of 1940 largely on the fact that Russia survived—if barely—the German onslaught of 1941-42. We usually gloss over the fact that the Soviet system did not survive that onslaught. The country was collapsing in chaos when Stalin finally threw out twenty years of Communist Internationalist claptrap, and recast the “Hun Barbarians vs Mother Russia” as a Great Patriotic War. The despised peasant-kulak classes the Soviets had spent two decades trying to break by famine and collectivisation were the ones who were rallied to save Mother Russia in 1942.

The Soviet empire had been much more likely to collapse like a house of cards in 1940 than in 1941. The Soviet officer corps—purged ruthlessly of talent in the 1930s—was in early 1940, mostly inexperienced, under-trained, unimaginative, timid and terrified of being seen to disobey orders. Much weaker than eighteen months later, when, as a direct result of the failures in Finland, the power of political commissars had been much reduced, and old-fashioned ranks and disciplines much increased. (The exception that proves any rule: General Zhukov and the elite Crimean army—the saviours of Moscow in December 1941—were also quite busy fighting the Japanese in Manchuria in 1940 …)

The repeated collapses of Soviet divisions against vastly inferior numbers on the Finnish front in 1939-40 were no accident. In marked contrast to the frantic later defence of their own homes and families, the Soviet conscripts of 1940 didn’t want to fight anyone (let alone invade peaceful neighbours), and were unwilling to strive to overcome energetic opposition in unfamiliar terrain. Soviet equipment was also much weaker in 1940 than the tanks and aircraft that started to appear in late 1941—equipment upgrades made in direct response to the repeated failures in Finland in 1940.

In fact many Soviet subjects in 1940 would have been delighted to see their monstrous rulers removed. During the previous Allied “intervention”, in Russia in the 1920s, eight Allied nations—including Britain, France, Italy and Japan—had sent just a few battalions to support the White Russians against the Soviets. Nonetheless the White Russian armies briefly liberated the Ukraine; the army of Aleksandr Kolchak liberated Siberia all the way to the Urals; General Pyotr Wrangel’s Crimean forces pushed as far as what later became known as Stalingrad; Allied troops cleared North Russia to St Petersburg; and the Baltic states succeeded in getting their independence. (Including Finland under a little known general called Mannerheim, the only general to be decorated by both sides in both world wars, and the main force behind Finland’s appeal for Allied intervention in 1940.)

In 1941, even with the appallingly racist Nazis, tens of thousands of volunteers came forward from the Soviet subject states in the Ukraine and Caucasus to fight on the Axis side! Field Marshal Alan Brooke, the later British Chief of Imperial General Staff, wrote in his memoirs of the war, “I believe the Germans would have won the war in Russia, if they had left it to their frontline soldiers.” How many Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Rumanians, or indeed Ukrainians, Cossacks and White Russians might have revolted in 1940?

2. The myth that Germany was strong in 1940

Some excellent work has been done, by Adam Tooze[11] and others, on the fragile nature of the German economy before the conquest of France—or of Poland; or of Czechoslovakia; or of Anschluss with Austria. The simple fact is that only the looting of those economies in sequence made it possible for the Nazis to keep the German economy alive, let alone expanding.[12]

Austrian gold paid for the equipment to invade Czechoslovakia, and Czechoslovakian made Germany capable of the stunning surprise of knocking out the French. (A third of the medium tanks for the invasion of France were Czech models.) If France hadn’t fallen unexpectedly, a blockaded Germany would have collapsed economically far more quickly than in the previous war. Polish labour and resources, and French trucks and guns, later made it possible to attack Russia, and again, it was largely the looting of the Yugoslav and Ukrainian economies (and later even the Italian economy), plus mass slave labour, that kept the German economy going for as long as it did.

The German military was never strong enough to fight a two-front war successfully at any time in the Second World War. It only succeeded, for a few years, by surprising one country at a time with a Blitzkreig—a gambler’s throw of the dice that could have failed on multiple occasions. Germany overstretched itself against the despised Soviets in 1941. It was a throw of the dice too far, and they finally came a cropper.

3. The myth that the British were flailing for a strategy

Hitler, when speaking to his generals, largely justified his sudden attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 as an attempt to convince the British to negotiate for peace, by eliminating their only possible continental ally.

Britain has never had the resources to take on continental aggressors, on the continent itself, alone. Instead, since the days of Cardinal Wolsey, the British had always sought a balance-of-power solution. In the First World War it had fought the German and Austrian aggressors with the French, Russians and Italians on its side. In the Crimean war it had fought the Russian aggressors with the Prussians, the French and the Italians on its side. In the Napoleonic wars it had fought the French aggressors with the Prussians, the Russians and the Spanish on its side. A bit earlier it had fought the Spanish aggressors with whoever was available, and so on. Balance of power is the key to understanding all British strategy.

In the late 1930s the British armed forces had prepared to fight the worst possible combination of powers, which, given Britain was invulnerable to any except naval powers, was three naval powers—Germany, Italy and Japan. This possible combination was to be avoided at all costs. Any action that might change the make-up of the sides was worth considering. In 1940 the British had to find more allies, and this means they had to encourage allies to trust them, particularly after the recent failure to save Poland.

The British spent the “Phoney War” period attempting to bring the Scandinavian, “Benelux”, Baltic states and Turkey in on the Allied side, and kept trying to do so even after France’s collapse. Eventually the British were joined by minor allies like Greece, Yugoslavia, the Free French, Dutch, Norwegians, and so on. Later—and considerably more effectively—they were joined by Russia, China and the United States. As usual, their policy worked … eventually.

4. The myth that Poland’s collapse made everyone believe in Blitzkrieg.

This myth is a fine example of reading with hindsight.

Poland’s million-strong forces in 1939 were not as modern as Germany’s 1.5 million invasion force, but they were defending their own lands. No one expected them to collapse in a single month. Blitzkrieg was unknown in 1939, and still not properly understood by most people (many German generals included) until repeated in France later.

The idea amongst the Allies, and the neutrals, that Stalin’s “stab in the back” was what really finished Poland was quite convincing at the time. So many people had spent so long lying to themselves about why Germany lost the First World War that it was perfectly logical that most people would accept the “stab in the back” explanation for Poland. Considering that the greatest exponent of the “stab in the back” philosophy was a certain Austrian ex-corporal, even the Nazis couldn’t pretend to use Polish collapse as proof of overwhelming German power. (Hitler repeatedly stated in 1941 and 1942 that he had never used the term Blitzkrieg, which he considered “a very silly word”.[13])

5. The myth that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact could not last.

Our wonderful hindsight tells us it could never last. But that was not the automatic perspective of the time.

True, the signing of the pact was unexpected to almost everyone. The Soviet Union had been negotiating with the Allies for several months, largely because, since Mein Kampf, Hitler had emphasised that the Soviet empire must be destroyed and dismembered, and the Slavic populations enslaved. (Just as Soviet texts insisted that all Western governments would be overthrown and the ruling classes eliminated.) Yet, in practical terms, few Western politicians were greatly surprised when the two most ruthless dictatorships anyone knew signed a deal to conquer their neighbours and split the booty between them. In fact it seemed pretty logical to many observers.

Many diplomats at the time thought that, although the Pact members had no long-term interests together, the two would co-operate effectively for many years while digesting their new conquests—and perhaps continuing to co-operate while taking over other countries such as Rumania, Bulgaria, Norway, Sweden, Turkey and so on. In fact Hitler’s decision on the surprise launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 shocked everyone—from Stalin to the German High Command—even more than the Pact had.

6. The myth that the sides were already fixed.

Hindsight suggests that Italy and Japan were already fixed on the side of Germany. We point to the “Axis” pact, and pretend it was somehow more solid and permanent than the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, or the Anti-Comintern Pact, or the pact France signed with Italy in 1938, or any other of the many casually discarded pacts of the 1920s and 1930s. The perspective at the time was quite different.

Italy, a traditional ally of Great Britain, had been on the victorious Allied side during the Great War.[14] Mussolini’s regime wanted the joint goals of re-establishing Italian greatness (preferably with an empire) and destroying world communism. The Spanish adventure had attempted to fulfil both objectives. As one commentator observed, Mussolini’s motives “were realistic and idealistic, for there is no necessary inconsistency between realism and idealism”.[15]

Nor was Italy by any means a traditional friend of either Germany or Japan. Mussolini had threatened Hitler with war in 1934 if the Anschluss was attempted. Later accused of bluffing, he replied: “Of course I was not bluffing. In 1934 I could have beaten Hitler’s army.”[16]

But Italian hatred of communism and Mussolini’s shock at Hitler’s betrayal were astonishingly potent through this period. By March 1940 the Italian government was desperately trying to get military supplies through to Finland, and was furious that the Nazis were blockading such supplies.[17] Mussolini wanted imperial expansion far more than his people did. It is quite likely he would have turned to easier, and more attractive, targets, had any been available. Italian popular opinion would have backed a war on Russia.

Japan was an even less likely opponent for Britain. It was a long-term ally of Britain, and while the Japanese services had long been preparing to improve their position,[18] they had little reason to ally themselves with the racist dictators.[19] In early 1940, the Japanese army faction was still dominant in the Japanese government. Unlike the navy faction, which wanted to go south, the Army faction wanted to go west. In fact it had fought a vicious campaign against the Soviets between Manchuko and Outer Mongolia between May and August 1939 (and had been decisively beaten by Zhukov and his elite Siberian army). The Japanese army staff were itching for a rematch—preferably while the Soviets were under pressure elsewhere.

7. The Myth that intervention would not improve the Allied international situation.

Hindsight suggests to us that a Scandinavian adventure would have had little impact on the attitudes of potential allies. Again, this was not the perspective at the time.

The United States’ refusal to take part in international peacekeeping between the wars had been fatal to any concept of a balance of power.[20] An editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch during the Finnish crisis stated:

No one who approves the course this country has pursued since 1920s has the right to criticise those democracies for the course they have pursued. The United States has followed policies in the past 18 years which have not only helped to make the rise of the dictators inevitable, but which have made resistance by Britain and France to the dictators much more difficult.[21]

Yet American isolationism received its most serious challenge, prior to Pearl Harbor, with the Finnish crisis. The American people were gripped by the Finnish drama to the extent that news of the war against Germany was driven off the front pages of newspapers for “three important months”,[22] and the first serious anti-isolationist debate began in the media and in Congress. Public opinion surveys showed 65 per cent of the population favoured aid to Finland, compared to only 18 per cent in favour of similar loans to Britain and France.[23] Allied support for Finland appeared to be the best trump they possessed for gaining American support.[24]

Meanwhile the British Army appointed one Colonel Kermit Roosevelt to lead the volunteer troops into Finland. Kermit is one of the great characters of the interwar period. Cousin of FDR and son of Teddy, he fought with the British and American armies throughout the Middle East and across Asia in both world wars, as well as during the White Russian wars. He could fairly be described as the American “Lawrence of Arabia”. It is hard to imagine that this appointment was made without fairly blatant propaganda considerations in mind.

Perhaps more significantly, France was vital to Britain’s world situation. Unfortunately, the French seemed remarkably shaky in 1940. As former Prime Minister Andre Tardieu put it:

In little less than a century we have had four bankruptcies—that of the nobility, that of royalty, that of imperialism, and that of the bourgeoisie. The tainted democratic system under which we live will undergo the same fate if it is not promptly and thoroughly overhauled.[25]

Or, as another Frenchman, Mounier, wrote after Munich: “It is impossible to understand the behaviour of that fraction of the French bourgeoisie unless one can hear it muttering under its breath, ‘Rather Hitler than Blum’.”[26]

With these insecurities, and the fear of a combined German, Italian and Spanish invasion of France looming, French reactions to the early months of the war had not been encouraging. The dreadful cost of the Great War was still fresh in the memory, and the desire to avoid another ravishing of French soil was central to everyone’s thinking. As General Baufre later wrote, “the problem was more morale than material”.[27]

Clearly this played a great part in the almost miraculous response of the French military, parliament, and people, to the support of Finland. Such a plan offered a just and noble cause. It offered a popular crusade against communism, which would encourage friendship from the anti-Soviet Italians and Spanish. Most importantly, it offered a front—or, indeed, several—isolated from the French frontiers and largely garrisoned by allies.[28] The influence of such factors in early 1940 was to unify French opinion and to revitalise interest and enthusiasm for the war.[29]

The outrage in France when Finland surrendered before the Allies could intervene was astonishing, with many in the French parliament echoing Deputy Farandsaurent’s furious denunciation. “Yes or no, is Soviet Russia, an ally of Germany, equally responsible for the war assassination of Poland and Finland, our adversary?”[30] It is fascinating to note that the Daladier government collapsed because of its failure to help Finland, and French morale, so supportive of operations to help Finland, entered a final decline that the Nazis would soon exploit.

Enthusiasm was also clear in the case of the British dominions. The Australian Prime Minister, Menzies, said in a telegram to London, “Feel that a conquest of Finland by Russia would be a major disaster and that any proposals which bear directly on helping Finland are to be preferred.”[31] All the dominions (Eire excepted of course) were more concerned with following this high moral ground in support of the Finnish (and other neutrals’) cause, than with concerns that this might somehow increase Soviet-German aggression.[32]

8. The myth that intervention would be militarily foolish for the Allies.

Again, a lot of our hindsight here is coloured by the great difficulties the Allies had when the Germans pre-empted them in Norway, and the Allies had to struggle to try and take it back.

Few people seem to notice that the reverse is equally true. Whoever got established there first would have had the advantage of defence thereafter: and whoever arrived later, faced, quite literally, an uphill struggle. This would have been particularly true if the Norwegian and Swedish armed forces had been pre-mobilised to help the Allies to resist the Germans from prepared positions. From the Allied perspective, getting there first was very attractive.

At its simplest, as many Allied politicians, diplomats, and service chiefs clearly favoured: Britain and France would just occupy the Norway-to-Sweden rail line, and send volunteers—from 12,000 to 50,000 were offered as time went on—through to help the Finns fight a purely local war for the defence of Finland against the Soviet Union. Of course this would, purely incidentally,[33] involve the occupation of the Swedish iron ore fields—which provided 83 per cent of high-grade German iron ore imports and were vital to Germany’s war effort.[34]

If it roused the Germans to fight in the Baltic, it might even lead to the opening of a new and favourable front.

It is unsurprising that the Royal Air Force was not only wholeheartedly in favour of the Scandinavian operation, but went on to make extravagant and unrealistic claims of the opportunities it offered. Not just threatening the Baltic, German ports, and enormously increasing their threat to German industry; but, given the chance to fight Russia as well, the RAF promised to undermine that country’s ability to fight with “Operation Pike”, the bombing of its vulnerable oil producing basin in the Caucasus—from French Syria. (137 British and French bombers were dispatched to prepare this operation.)

The British army, with slightly more realism, did a careful assessment of: the likely success of the Scandinavian and Finnish campaigns; the likely effect of general war threatening India with a Soviet invasion; and the possibilities offered by the large French army in the Middle East. (General Gamelin was already planning operations from Syria into the Caucasus.) The conclusions of the Imperial General Staff were straightforward. They believed the Soviet war machine was already being overstrained by the Finnish campaign, the Japanese threat, and the subjugation of all the other new territories. Simultaneous offensives in several directions—particularly one across the vast wastes of Afghanistan—were beyond Soviet power.

Likewise a Scandinavian front against Germany offered more advantages to the British army than problems.[35] The fighting would move away from Germany’s relatively open and easily supplied frontiers, and into the logistically difficult mountain and lake districts of Norway and Sweden. It was believed that enough support could be provided to the Norwegians and Swedes to make resistance there at least as successful as the resistance in Finland.

That might lead other states, such as Turkey and the Balkan nations—already eyeing Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact occupations of their neighbours nervously—to come in with the Allies against the German or Soviet aggressors. (As Yugoslavia later, quite unexpectedly—and under much less favourable circumstances—actually did.) These nations would undoubtedly increase Allied power and German difficulties—not least the loss of supplies such as Romanian oil[36]—but would also undoubtedly require a large commitment of support from the Allies. Indeed, when General Wavell gave his introductory talk to the Australian troops assigned to the Middle East in February 1940, he indicated that one of his greatest problems was the responsibility for:

Relations with our Turkish Allies, and for discussion of joint war planning with them … also … for planning and controlling any operations in the Balkans in which British troops may become involved, as a result of our pledges of assistance to Romania and Greece.[37]

Having considered all these factors, and the possibility that Italy, Spain, Turkey and even Japan might use the situation to take advantage of Nazi and Soviet difficulties (in exactly the same way some later did of Allied difficulties), the Army Staff reported to the War Cabinet that “the military implications of war with Russia could be accepted”.[38]

The Royal Navy attitude to a Scandinavian offensive was even more straightforward. The Sea Lords had spent most of the late 1930s making frantic preparations to meet the three dangerous naval powers later to be called the Axis. The Soviet Union could not be considered a dangerous naval power, so the navy therefore saw little wrong with fighting a Nazi-Soviet combination in preference to any other. If it actually brought Italy and/or Japan into the Allied line-up, all the better.

Thus all the British services could find reasons why the proposed campaign would work to their advantage. The Chiefs of Staff simply repeated their 1937 appreciation: “We cannot therefore exaggerate the importance … of any political or international action which can be taken to reduce the number of our potential enemies and to gain the support of potential allies.”[39]

9. The Myth that the Allies could have chosen NOT to help Finland

It is possible some members of the Allied governments saw no choice. Their failure to aid Poland had placed the Allies in an unenviable situation with hostilities looming.[40] As General Ironside bluntly put it: “the neutrals do not trust us”.[41] What could the Allied governments do but take a stand where and when possible, regardless of its cost?

This argument was later used to justify the intervention in Greece in 1941, which was a far more speculative proposition. Nobody has ever suggested that Britain’s decision to go and help Greece in 1941 was militarily clever, but no one can deny that if you go to war on the principle of defending neutrals, you have a moral obligation to at least try to assist those neutrals. (Particularly if you want those neutrals to trust you.) The British intervened in Greece in 1941 for political reasons, not military ones: and it was largely against the better judgments of most of the Chiefs of Staff. Helping Finland in 1940 would have potentially achieved much more politically, at a much more militarily favourable time: and it was supported by the Chiefs of Staff.

10. The Myth that Norway and Sweden would oppose an intervention

One of the best reasons for dismissing the whole concept is that the Swedes spent early 1940 publicly saying that they would not allow the Allies through. Field Marshal Mannerheim referred to this difficulty in his later explanation of the Finnish surrender: “Unfortunately the magnificent promise of help given us by the Western Powers could not be fulfilled, owing to our neighbours’ concern for their own safety. They refused the passage of Allied troops.”[42]

But if you read the diplomatic papers—particularly the British Weekly Political Intelligence Reports—you find a slightly different story emerging. In fact, while the Swedish government was saying loudly (particularly around any Germans) that if the Allies tried to advance up the railway line to Sweden, they would just turn the power off, in private conversation with Allied diplomats, they were suggesting quiet different things. No one yet knew just how far the German-Soviet agreement to divide up Eastern Europe might spread, and the Balkan and Scandinavian states had every reason to be nervous. The Swedish Chief of General Staff, General Roppe, bluntly told the Finnish Foreign Minister that Swedish public opinion was so inflamed by the Finnish crisis that any attempt to prevent the Allies sending help would lead to a popular uprising.[43]

The implication was that if the Allied forces being sent to “intervene” looked substantial enough, there might be no need for any difficult railway power cuts. Whatever the Swedish (and Norwegian) governments were saying for public consumption, some of the evidence indicates that elements in their governments, in their militaries, and certainly in their populations, may have welcomed the Allies with open arms.

Was the intervention a reasonable decision?

It is certainly possible to view the intervention plan as a reconfirmation of the traditional British strategic policy to maintain the balance of power. It is also clear that many British politicians recognised the worth of attempting such a campaign for French reasons alone. Regardless of whether any of the other possible effects of such an adventure came to pass, it would be worth the cost simply to enhance the fighting spirit of one vital ally to Britain’s worldwide strategic position.[44] Yet the effect on France was only one of many probable benefits. A British cabinet minister who had gone through the pros and cons of the operation might have listed the following advantages. It:

– potentially reduces the number of enemies and

– potentially increases the number of friends (two of the foremost demands of the Chiefs of Staff for years)

– offers campaigns which each armed service considers to be their optimum opportunity

– encourages friendly neutrals

– puts unfriendly ones at some disadvantage

– might encourage some potential enemies to become allies

– replaces dithering indecision with positive action

– gains unprecedented plaudits from most of the international media, and

– would be staggeringly popular in the United States

How could any politician resist?

It is hard to see that the British had any choice—if they wished to re-establish any form of the balance of power—but to take every reasonable step to consolidate their present allies, and to encourage the remaining neutrals.

Nor did the members of the Nazi-Soviet Pact treat the issue as an empty threat. Both were clearly concerned by reports, in early 1940, that the Italian government was considering opening discussions with France on a possible future division of the Baku oilfields.[45] (Particularly when the old stocks on the Russian oilfields that had been nationalised by the Soviets in the 1920s were starting to rise in value on the Paris Bourse.) Indeed the US Ambassador, Steinhardt, reported to Washington on March 9 that a major reason for the Soviet eagerness to conclude an armistice with Finland was their desire to move more troops to the Caucasus region against a feared attack on the Baku oilfields or pipelines.[46]

So why didn’t Allied intervention happen?

For all the hindsight rationalisations about why an intervention would never have happened, the final reason it didn’t is almost farcical.

When the Finnish ambassador to France reported on the afternoon of March 12, 1940—just hours before the first Allied troops were to sail—that the Allies had decided to come through Norway and Sweden, even if those countries objected, and even without an invitation from Finland, the report was taken to the Finnish Foreign Minister Vaino Tanner.

Tanner, one of the few socialists in the Finnish National Unity government, was the cabinet’s arch-conspirator for peace. In his memoirs he repeatedly boasts that when the majority of his cabinet colleagues had proved reluctant to surrender, he had manipulated the evidence, or simply told the peace negotiators lies about what cabinet had agreed. The last thing he wanted to reveal that evening was anything that would make the Cabinet and High Command dig in their heels. (In fact Tanner may well have been right to believe that the military situation was already parlous, and that surrender was necessary. But he was also convinced that had Mannerheim and the cabinet heard that the Allies were coming, they would almost certainly have tried to continue the fight.)

So Tanner simply hid the news of the Allies’ plans, and rushed off to demand an immediate surrender. It was agreed and announced within hours, despite several members of cabinet going on record dissociating themselves. President Kallio said the surrender was “the most disgraceful document I have ever signed … may the hand wither”.[47] (His prayer was answered. Some months later he was struck by a stroke that paralysed his right arm. He was dead within a year.)

The shocked reaction of Finland as a whole, and the Diet (parliament) in particular, may perhaps be adequately represented by Representative Kares three days later: “Gentlemen of the Cabinet, it is not the war, but your proceedings, which have faced us with an impasse from which there is no escape—if escape it may be called—other than the ratification of this paper.”[48] But by then it would have been impossible to recommence fighting—until Operation Barbarossa …

Next morning, March 13, 1940, newspapers worldwide announced that Finland had surrendered. The Allies had lost, by less than twenty-four hours, “the first and best chance of wresting the initiative and … shortening the war.”

Nigel Davies is a Melbourne educator and historian.

[1] Gorodotsky, G. Stafford Cripps Mission to Moscow 1940—1942. C.U.P. 1984.

[2] Trevor-Roper, H. R. Hitler’s War Directives. Pan Books, London, 1973. Directive 10a on p.61.

[3] Alfred Noyes “Address to the World’s Innocent Bystanders”, Jacobs, T.B. America and the Winter War. Garlano Publishing Inc., New York 1981.

[4] Derry, T. K. History of the Second World War: The Campaign in Norway. London: HMSO, 1952. P. 14.

[5] Most of the troops and shipping had been assembled since February. (Macleod, R. and Kelly, B. (eds.) The Ironside Diaries. London: Constable, 1962. Pp. 221-227.)

[6] Bruce, S.M. Stanly Melbourne Bruce’s Correspondences from London. (From his Private Papers. Available at the Australian War Museum Library.) Telegram to the Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies, dated 7 February 1940. A detailed discussion on which units were assigned, at what point, for which tasks, is available in chapter five of Butler, J.R.M. Grand Strategy. Volume II, September ’39-June ’41. London: HMSO, 1957. Particularly pp.105-110.

[7] Derry p. 13.

[8] Bruce—Telegram to Menzies dated 7/2/1940.

[9] Horne ??????? p.61.

[10] Derry p.13.

[11] Tooze, A. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. U.S., Penguin, 2008.

[12] One of the best modern summaries is in Tooze, A. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Penguin, 2006.

[13] The Wikipedia article on Blitzkrieg—accessed April 18, 2015—gives this reference as: Domains, Max, Hitler. Reden und Proklmationen 1932–1945. Kommentiert von einem deutschen Zeitgenossen, 2 vols, Wiesbaden, 1973, Vol. 2, p.1776.

[14] In fact the situation between the two countries had eased considerably in the wake of Abyssinia and Spain with the signing of the Anglo-Italian agreement of April 1938, which was designed to put the relationship back on amicable terms. (See Keesings Contemporary Archives. April 16, 1938. P. 3027.)

[15] Lunn, A. Whither Europe? London: Hutchinson, 1940. p.206.

[16] Whitaker, J.T. We Cannot Escape History. New York: Macmillan, 1943. p. 56.

[17] Schwartz, A.J. American and the Russo-Finnish War. Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1960. p. 28. Italy was also demanding that the Allies do more for Finland (Dallin, D.J. Soviet Russia’s Foreign Policy 1939-1942. Yale Universoty Press, 1942, p. 175), which was another example of the Italian trend toward the Allied cause.

[18] “Japan has been the first to take the path of extracting herself from the crisis [the Depression] by the means of war. She is the chief purchaser of war supplies and raw material for the war industry on the world market. Besides this the tremendous work which she has been carrying on for the political preparation of the country for a war more serious than the one she is waging in China is plain to the naked eye.” (Vorisholov, K.E. Ready for Defence. A pamphlet by the Commissar for Defence of the U.S.S.R.. New York: International Publishers Co. Inc., 1934. p.26.

[19] Though they accepted the Anti-comintern Pact with Germany (and later Italy and Spain) against the Soviet Union, in the same spirit of mutual self righteousness as the later Three Power Pact which stated the right of each to ‘re-order’ their area of the world. Again, the only opponents to this design common to all three were Britain and, to a lesser extent, France.

[20] Only during the 1937 incident in China, did it look as though Roosevelt might seriously consider action to threaten Japan. He briefly toyed with the idea of a naval blockade. Yet even a British offer of nine battleships to support such a blockade (made at the height of the Spanish war) did not actively budge the US from isolationism. (Medlicott British Foreign Policy. p. 163.)

[21] An editorial from the Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch. In 1940, quoted in Graebner p. 34.

[22] Sebell, R. The Origins of Interventionism. New York: Bookman Associated, 1960. p.11. It also “precipitated a ‘great debate’ in Congress and stirred the nation deeply.”

[23] Jacobs p.110. Jacobs gives a vast array of detail about US interest and effort on behalf of the Finns. Scattered through his book are details of money raised, supplies sent, school and church fetes held to raise funds, efforts to force Congress to act, and arguments in Congress about how to act. Congress managed to dither and delay, despite heated argument. In the end only a 20 million dollar loan, with restrictions (p.24) was granted, and US war supplies totalled only 44 aircraft, 176 MG’s, 60 million cartridges and aircraft spares (p. 25). Despite the successful stalling tactics of the still Isolationist Congress, Robert Sebel claimed that it was the Winter War which demonstrated to all Americans that isolationism could not work. He states that this crisis started the citizens of the United States thinking about “It’s [America’s] rightful place as arbiter of peace.” (Sebel p. 12.)

[24] An indication of the extent to which this was played upon by the British government may be taken from the fact that the British ‘volunteers’ for service in Finland assembled under the auspices of the League were to be commanded by a Mr Kermit Roosevelt—a relation of F.D.R. and the son of ‘Teddy’—who had been given the rank of Colonel of the British Army. (The Times. London, editorial for the 4th of March 1940.)

[25] Tardiue. A. France in Danger. (trans. G. Griffin), London: Dennis Archer, 1935. p.248.

[26] Azema p.8. Blum was the leader of the French Socialist Party.

[27] Baufre, A. 1940. The Fall of France. (from the translation by Desmond Fowler), London: Cassell, 1967. p. 188.

[28] Despite his later claims that he had been uneasy about the Finnish plans, General Gamelin ordered an unhurried and detailed study of the question, and issued a favourable report on February 22. He particularly recommended bombing the oil-fields, and hopefully tyring to stir insurrection among the Muslims in the Caucassus region. (Richardson pp.137-8.) He is quoted as stating on March 10 that “We must therefore resolutely pursue plans in Scandinavia in order to save Finland, or at least seize the Swedish ore and Norwegian harbours. But from the point of view of war operations, it is obvious that the Balkans and the Caucuses, where German supplies can be cut off, are of greater value to us.” (p.144) Certainly the French General Staff were giving serious attention to the plan, and air units were being assigned as if it were a foregone conclusion. (p.138.)

[29] In fact the failure of the Allies to effectively intervene in the Finnish crisis has generally been accepted as the final blow to the Daladier government. (Butler p. 177; Azema p.27; Richardson pp.146-9.)

[30] Richardson, ????????. p.147.

[31] DAFP Vol.III, Jan-June 1940, no.80, p.116.

[32] Bruce—Telegrams dates 26/2, 27/2 and 28/2/1940. In particular, he commented extensively on the opinions of other Dominions representatives. (see also DAFP Vol. III, Jan-June 1940, no’s: 49 p.67; 56 p.76; 73 p.106; 80 p.116; 87 p.122; 92 p.129; 99 p.142 and 105 p.148.)

[33] Or conveniently, depending on individual viewpoint.

[34] Tooze, op.cit. pp. 380-1.

[35] Germany had officially informed the Swedish foreign minister, Gunther, that allowing the allies to move through Scandinavia to the assistance of the Finns would be considered a casus-belli. (Tanner, V. (then Foreign Minister of Finland) The Winter War. Stanford University Press, 1957. p. 143-144.)

[36] Fighting Forces, the British military magazine, had an article in its April 1940 edition which might be considered a reasonable reflection of British thinking at the time: “The Seigfried Line does not seem to be a very helpful proposition. No, the best plan would be to cut off the largest part of German oil supplies, and that could be done by making all transport across the Black Sea impossibly by, if possible, naval, and at any rate, air action, the latter of which would be based on Palestine and Syria. (Quoted in Richardson, p. 146.)

[37] Wavell p.2. Talk dated February 1940.

[38] Bruce—talk dated 2/2/1940.

[39] In full: “Without overlooking the assistance which we hope to obtain from France, and possibly their allies, we cannot foresee a time when our defences will be strong enough to guarantee our territory, trade and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. We cannot therefore exaggerate the importance from the point of view of Imperial defence, of any political or international action which can be taken to reduce the number of our potential enemies and to gain the support of potential allies.” (Hamill p. 285.)

[40] Had British troops been deployed in any number on German borders at the time of occupation of Poland they certainly would have been honour bound to make a more sincere effort than the French considered adequate.

[41] Macleod p. 216.

[42] Borenius p. 278.

[43] Tanner pp. 180-1, 231.

[44] Which is not to suggest that there was not a plentiful supply of enthusiasts for the plan in the British camp. In fact the British military commanders in the Middle East were ahead of their French counterparts in making preparations for the operation. The RAF Commander in Chief in the Middle East, Mitchell, told Weygand he was planning to visit Turkey for discussions on combined action on the 7th of March, and the Chiefs of Staff had suggested Wavell also arrange discussions. (Richardson p. 140.)

[45] Richardson p. 143.

[46] Richardson pp.142-50.

[47] Tanner pp. 234-44.

[48] Tanner p.258.

4 thoughts on “Ten Myths About the Phoney War

  • PT says:

    The collapse of the French Army in 1940 was the defining event of the 20th Century. If the Germans had been held at the Meuse, or the attack at Arras had been pushed as it should have been (it wasn’t as the man responsible was killed in a car crash after the war council and his subordinates didn’t understand what they were doing), Germany would have lost the war without invading Russia. Britain would have built her army and the RAF to the strength that the French commanders would have considered adequate (in conjunction with their own forces) to smash Nazi Germany.

    • PT says:

      Think of it. No Pacific War. Probably no time for the Final Solution either, with the consequent use of these things to denigrate western civilisation. India would have had independence by now, but very differently. A better world? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The US may still sit in isolation. Buy intellectuals may have less “ammunition” to attack the West.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Info on Operation Wilfred etc has always been freely available, so there’s no excuse for not knowing about Allied plans for Norway. Norway and Sweden assisting the Allies…okay, possible, but I’d really want to know what is in those exchanges, and how much of that is wishful thinking on the part of the Allied diplomats.
    Finland’s collapse – well, it’s decades since I’ve read about it, but IIRC the end of winter made further defence impractical. Given the Finns surrendered in March, and Norway wasn’t invaded until April, and that starts with laying mines in Norwegian waters: I think you are reaching.

  • Doc S says:

    It would have been extremely difficult for the Germans to prevent the Allied passage of troops to Finland, even if they had wanted to but WESERUBUNG was born out of the need to protect vital iron ore supplies, crucial to German steel industry and thus her war effort. Hitler would have weighed this off against his desire to ensure the Soviets didn’t overrun Finland and threaten Germany’s Baltic territory over which, in a real sense, they had just successfully concluded a war with Poland. Don’t forget the Soviets had just overrun a huge stretch of eastern Poland which suited the Nazi’s aims well enough by ensuring Poland’s rapid capitulation but Hitler was also aware it bought Russia right up against German Baltic territory which would be almost impossible to defend if it too were invaded (proof of this seen when the Soviets did invade and rapidly overrun it in 1945). I think the Finnish surrender and treaty with Moscow in March 1940 came as just as much a surprise to Hitler. Militarily the Finns had little choice as the Russians were poised to overrun the entire country and would likely have done so before any Allied intervention (duplicitous Finnish Foreign Minister notwithstanding) but in an interview between Hitler and Mannerheim in 1942 (also claimed to be the only recording of Hitler’s actual speaking voice) Hitler stated very matter-of-fact that he would not have tolerated the Soviets overrunning Finland, presumably regardless of the Soviet-Nazi pact. In the same discussion he also candidly admitted they had completely underestimated the Soviet military strength they encountered in BARBAROSSA, in part because of what they had seen the Finns achieve in 1940, adding a bit of authenticity to Hitler’s assurance to Mannerheim. If the Finns had managed to hold on for another month or so, history may well have been very different but it would have presented the Allies with yet another dilemma of having to ignore the Poles in order to save the Finns.

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