World War II: Declaration of War (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.

The NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) virtually guaranteed the invasion and partition of Poland, even though the secret codicilles were not published. Hitler issued Führer Directive 1 (August 31, 1939), the day before the invasion of Poland. It this had no real value in directing military operatios. All this was carefully worked out well before the invasion. Thus we are not entirely sure just what the purpose of the formal directive was other than to give the formal go ahead to his commanders. The details were laid out in Case White and of course military forces had been pre-positioned along the Polish border in East Prussia, the Reich proper, and occupied Czechoslovakia. Hitler is still cautious in the sence he did not want military operations in the West. He instructs the Whermacht that hostilities with Britain and France were to be left to them to initiate, leaving onnus for the War on them, at least in the mind of the German people. The Whermacht's Panzers invaded Poland (September 1, 1939). Their Soviet allie attacked from the east (September 17). there was no declaration of War, neither Hitler or Stalin now recognized the Polish Government. Goebbel's proaganda justifiued it as an act of defense. Hitler for his part finally had what he had always wanted, He could be the great war leader. He no longer had to deal with politicans who he despised. Both Britain and France had commitments to Poland. Both made futile diplomatic efforts to conince the NAZIs to withdraw. 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. We are not sure about French Primeminister Daladier's address. Hopefully our French readers can provide some insight. The primary interest of Britain and France was to avoid casualties, not make war. The Allies made no real attempt to assist Poland. Hitler calculated that they would not attack and thus the full force of the Whermacht could be 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. Belgium for its part hoped that neutrality would save them from involvement in the War. Rather than aid Poland, both Britain and France sent their children into the countryside and instated a naval blockade of Germany as they had done in World war I. President Roosevelt received word early in the morning from Ambassador Biddle that Germany had invaded Poland and was bombing Polish cities (September 1). One impact of the declaration of War was to require President Roosevelt to invoke the Neutrality Acts. This meant that arms could no longer be shippoed in American flag ships or from American ports.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 23, 1939)

The NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) virtually guaranteed the invasion and partition of Poland, even though the secret codicilles were not published. NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were trying to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries.

Führer Director No. 1 (August 31)

Hitler issued Führer Directive 1 (August 31, 1939), the day before the invasion of Poland. It this had no real value in directing military operatios. All this was carefully worked out well before the invasion. Thus we are not entirely sure just what the purpose of the formal directive was other than to give the formal go ahead to his commanders. The details were laid out in Case White and of course military forces had been pre-positioned along the Polish border in East Prussia, the Reich proper, and occupied Czechoslovakia. Hitler is still cautious in the sence he did not want military operations in the West. He instructs the Whermacht that hostilities with Britain and France were to be left to them to initiate, leaving onnus for the War on them, at least in the mind of the German people.

German Invasion (September 1)

The Whermacht's Panzers invaded Poland (September 1, 1939). there was no declaration of War. Hitler no longer recognized the Polish Government. Gobbel's proaganda justifiued it as an act of defense. The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began in 1939 when the German Blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. About 1.8 million German soldiers surged into Poland. Hitler emerged from the Reich Chancellery in a new grey uniform with his World War I Iron Cross. In a speech at the Reichstag before cheering NAZIs he declared, "I myself am today, and will be from now on, nothing but the soldier of the German Reich." Whithin 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came.

Allied Diplomatic Efforts (September 1-2)

Both Britain and France had treaty commitments to Poland, but there was not an immediate declaration of war. Hitler was convinced that there woulld be only weak diplmatic responses likes the ones received when he seized what remained of Czechoslovakia after Munich. He did not believe there would be a war. The British and French governments ordered a mobilization of their military forces, but expressed a desire to negotiate a settlement if the Germans withdrew their military forces from Polish territory. There were also back-channel communications. The Italian Government which had declared its neutrality called for a five-power conference between Germany, Italy, Britain, France, and Poland to address the Danzig-Polish crisis. In effect this would have been a second Munich. This initiative was not based on a calculated German-Italian strategy. It actually appears to have been a French initiative. [Ciano, p. 136.] Mussolini does not seem to have understood the full reach of Hitler's objectives. The lack of coordination within the Axis Alliance would be a hallmark of World War II and significntly affect the outcome of th War. The British Government immediately declared it would not participate as long as German troops remained on Polish territory. Even Arch appeaser Primeminister Chamberlain when Hitler seized the Czech Lands (March 1939) finally saw that there was no reasoning with Hitler. After the German Government did not respond to diplomatic notes of September 1 from Britain and France, both Governments sent an ultimatum calling for a German withdrawal from Poland (September 2). In response, Chancellor Adolf Hitler replied with an inflamatory note blaming the British government for encouraging the Polish government in a policy of 'persecution and provocation'. The German Government flatly rejected the Anglo-French demands for a withdrawal from Poland.

Britain and France Declare War (September 3)

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.

British and French Actions

The primary interest of Britain and France was to avoid casualties, not make war. The Allies made no real attempt to assist Poland. Hitler calculated that they would not attack and thus the full force of the Whermacht could be 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. The llies also instated a naval blockade of Germany as they had done 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 declasre war. He was particularly contemuous of Chamberlain. And he 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 ould be no fighting; he was convinced of that, he said. He therefore ordered the Whermacht to remain strictly on the defensive. Hevfelt 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 demolish Polish cities in cotrast to the feeble Allied response. Hitler for his part finally had what he had always wanted, He was cually 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 disateroully incompetent war leader.

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 wjo 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 hiintimates, "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. 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).

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.

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: 12:31 PM 8/22/2014