World War II: Declaration of War: Reaction (September 1-17, 1939)


Figure 1.--Britain and France declared war on Germany when Hitler ignored diplomatic demands that he withdraw the invafdin forces from Poland. There was, however, no oreal offensive to come to the aid of embattled Poland. The Allies fid initiate a naval blockade of Germany ans sent the chilfre from the cities into the countrside fearing Luftwaffe bombing cmpaign. The only cities being bombed, gowever were Polish cities. This press photo read, "Frencg chikdren evacuated from Paris: "Little Pierre abd Marie get a last goodbye kiss from their parents, for an indefinte period as children from the crowded districts of Paris arec evacuated to the country in fear od air raids. The mnass evacuation of children in London and Paris will rank among the unprecedebted and historic exoduses of modern times." The photograpoh was dated September 5, 1939.

Reluctantly when the NAZIs did not respond, France like Britain declared war on Germany (September 3, 1939). Primeminister Chamberlin's radio address to the nation is one of the most famous radio addrssses in history. His was voice was not one of a determined leader prepared to make war, but of a broken-hearted man who had failed in his mission of peace. Prime Minister Chamberlin a year earlier had returned from Munich with an agreement signed by Hitler which he waved to the press claiming that it guaranteed "Peace in our times". Now deeply dismayed he had to address the British people by radio. It was the most monentous announcement up to that time that had ever been made on radio. A deeply shaken Chamberlain told th British, "... the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the ... No such undertaking have been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany. ... it is evil things we shall be fighting against." Later in the day King George addressed his people, "For the second time in the lives of most of us--we are at war. ...." It was kust what Chamberlain had labored to avoid since becoming primeminister. Despite his policy of appeasement, Britain now was at war. The horros of war, however, still dominated Chamberlain's mind and the British war effort would reflect it. He did recall his sharpest critic, the old war horse of British politics, Winston Churchill to the Admiralty. A signal went out to the fleet, 'Winnie's back'. We are not sure about French Primeminister Daladier's address. Hopefully our French readers can provide some insight.

Evacuations

The Allies, especially the governments and public, believed that the NAZIs would begin the War by launching an aerial bombing campaign. There was great fear that this would include poison gas attacks. There was huge discussion of this in the inter-War era, especially after Hitler's rise to power. Paris was in range of Luftwaffe bombers, London was not in any meaninful way a long as the Low countries and France stood between. Rather than aid Poland, both Britain and France sent their children into the countryside. The British began evacuating as soon as the German Panzers crossed the Polish border in on of the greates movments of people during the War. The French evacuation was more limited, orimarily from Paris. Hitler ordered no such evacuation, confident that the Allies would not strike and relying on Luftwaffee Chief Göring's assurance that the Luftwaffe could protect German cties. The Germans would eventually evacuate their children as well, but fot for several years after the War finally turned against them and Allied bombers began brining the War home to the Germans.

Poland

The Power of the German invasion and Poland's limited military capability meant that the country could not effectively react to the German onslsaught, especially after the Soviet invasion (September 17). The country did valiantly resist with the means available. Unfortunstely the Polish Army response was fundamentally flawed. Thge Army attempted to defend the borders rather than withdraw to strateh=gic points. Defending verwhere mean that there was no effective resistance anywhere. Poland unlike France, however, never surrendered. And although occupied, continued the fight in various wars. The Navy disprched its shios to Nritain where they fought on througout the War. The Poles delivered Enigma machines to the British and French and Polish cryotigraphers escaped to the West. The Germans never found any evidence thst the Poles had cracked Enigma before the War. Some Polish aviators escaped to Britain sbd formed two squadrions in the Battle of Britain. Polish soldiers would fight with both the Red Srmy and the Brir=ytish 8th Army in the Western Desert and Italy.

British and French Actions

The primary interest of Britain and France was to avoid casualties, not make war. Even before the declaration of war, the British implemented a massive evacuation of children from their cities. The Allies made no real attempt to assist Poland militarily. Hitler was wrong that the British and French would not declaee war. He did, however, correctlly calculate that the Allies would not attack and thus the full force of the Wehrmacht could be deployed in the East and thrown at Poland. The French Army stayed securely behind the Maginot Line. The British did begin to move the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to northern France and took positions along the Belgian border. One of Prime-Miniter Chamberlsin's first actionwas to ask Winston cHurchill to join the Government as First Lord ofthe Admirlty. The Allies put into actiomn plans to institute a naval blockade of Germany as they had done so successfully in World War I.

German Reaction

Hitler was shocked with the British and French declaration of War. He was sured that they would be too terrified to declare war. He was particularly contemuous of Chamberlain. He thus ciontinued to fiocus on Poland, pursuong war with a ferocity and barbrity not seen in Europe since the Middle Ages.

War strategy

Hitler had assured associates that the Allies would shrink from another war over Poland. Speer in his book tells us, "When on September 3 , the Western powers followed up their ultmatum with declarations of war, Hitler was initually stunned, but quickly reassured himself and us by saying that England and France had obviously declared war meerly as a sham, in order not to lose face before the whole world. In spite of the declarations there would be no fighting; he was convinced of that, he said. He therefore ordered the Whermacht to remain strictly on the defensive. He felt that this decision of his showed remakable political acumen." [Speer, p. 227.] The Allied action did not affect his plans as he watched the Panzers rapidly drive into Poland and smash Polish defenses while the Luftwaffe demolished Polish cities in cotrast to the feeble Allied response. Hitler for his part finally had what he had always wanted, He was actually been disappointed that the War had not begun over the Sudentland a year earlier. After Munich he has actually been disppointed that Chamberlain at the Munich Conference had deprived him of his war. He could now be be the great war leader he had always desired to be. He no longer had to deal with politicans who he despised. He could simpply smash his foreign oppents as he had already done to his domestic opponents. Ironically as is military commanders would eventually discover, he was a talented politican, but disaseroully incompetent war leader. The power if the Luftwaffe delayed the full impsct of his incompetence.

Propaganda

Hitler more than any other World war II leader was a product of World War I. In many ways his war outlook and strategies were determined by his and Germany's World war I experinces. This is why he repreatedly told associates that he would not repeat the Kaiser's Wold War I mistake of fighring a two Front war, at least until the British proved a tough nit to crack. Another mistake he was determined to avoid was losing the propaganda war as to who was responsinle for launching the War. This had been an apect of the Versailles Treary in which Germany had to admit responsibility for the War. We see this concern expressed in Führer Director 1. And he expressed his concern to his intimates, "This time the mistake of 1914 would be avoided. Everything depends on mking he other side acceot responsibility . In 1914 that was hanfelked clumsily.And now again the ideas of he Forign office are simply useless. The best thing is for me to compose the notes myself." [Speer, p. 227.] Speer tells us that he ws waving a paper in his hands, probably a Foreign Office release. And German propaganda throughout the War would blame the War on the allies. And thanks to Gobbels Propaganda Ministry, many Germans believed it. We see these even in the military, including high ranking officers. [Neitzel]

Belgium

Belgium for its part hoped that neutrality would save them from involvement in the War, despite the Wirkld War I exoerience. King Leopold was an advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium before World War II, Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Depite the German invasion in 1914, Belgian after the War returned to a policy of neutrality. King Leopold's policy of "armed neutrality" was whole heartily supported by the Belgian people. [Wybo] To make sure the Germans could not accuse the Belgians of cooperation with the Allies, there was no defensuve coordination with Britain and France. After the outbreak of War, the King gave a radio speech in English to the United States. He told America that the Belgian people's attitude came from "Whose feels have evolved from age long struggles", Everyone fought their fights on Belgian soil! The Belgian people wanted to be left alone and left in peace. So, no matter how the Allies or Axis countries think, Belgium wanted to be left out (October 1939).

United States

President Roosevelt received word early in the morning from Ambassador Biddle that Germany had invaded Poland and was bombing Polish cities (September 1). The President a few days later after Britain and Framce declared war spoke to the nation in one of his fireside chats. He be began, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS AND MY FRIENDS: Tonight my single duty is to speak to the whole of America. Until four-thirty this morning I had hoped against hope that some miracle would prevent a devastating war in Europe and bring to an end the invasion of Poland by Germany. For four long years a succession of actual wars and constant crises have shaken the entire world and have threatened in each case to bring on the gigantic conflict which is today unhappily a fact. It is right that I should recall to your minds the consistent and at time successful efforts of your Government in these crises to throw the full weight of the United States into the cause of peace. In spite of spreading wars I think that we have every right and every reason to maintain as a national policy the fundamental moralities, the teachings of religion (and) the continuation of efforts to restore peace -- (for) because some day, though the time may be distant, we can be of even greater help to a crippled humanity. ...." One impact of the declaration of War was to require President Roosevelt to invoke the Neutrality Acts. The President delayed a proclamation a few days to allow a few ships with war supplies toslipmout of U.S. ports, but finally did so (September 5). This meant that arms could no longer be shippoed in American-flag ships or from American ports.

Soviet Union

Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin seeing that the Polish Army was unable to resist the Germans and that the British and French were not intervening, ordered the Red Army to attack from the East (September 17). Stalin also did not declare war and adopted the position that the Polish Government no longer existed. A Red Army force of 1 million men entered Poland, Soviet propaganda claimed it was necessary to "protect it's Byelorussian and Ukrainian population." This was an attempt to follow the NAZI success at claiming to protect the German minority in Czechoslovakia and Poland. The demoralized Polish Army which valiantly fought the Germans, offered little resistance to the Soviets. Polish border defence forces in the east were limited. The Poles had concerntrated their forces in the West. The border defenses in the east were known as the Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza, about 25 battalions. Edward Rydz-Smigly ordered them to fall back and not to attempt to engage the Soviets. There were, however, some engagenents and incidents. The most important was the Battle of Grodno (September 21-24) as soldiers and local population attempted to defend their city.

Sources

Ciano, Galeazzo. Ed. Hugh Gibson. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943 (Garden City Publishing: New York, 1946), 582p.

Neitzel, Sönke. ed. Tapping Hitler's Genera;s: Transcripts of Secret Conversatioins, 1942-45 (Frontline Books, London, 2013), 418p.

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich (Avon, New York, 1970), 734p.

Wybo, Daniel A. National League of Veterans of King Leopold III, E-mail message, October 20, 2002.






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Created: 7:10 PM 8/21/2014
Last updated: 6:52 PM 6/5/2018