By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Despite the heroic efforts of the Polish military and population to resist the Germans, the Polish state had fallen by October 2, 1939. England and France had surprised Hitler by declaring war, honoring their obligations to Poland. Now the question was, what would the British and French actually do?
Hitler had used a new strategy in the attack on Poland. It was called ‘blitzkrieg’, lightning war—the mounting of armored units supported by air power to break through enemy lines and circle the soldiers trapped there in great armored pincers, with an emphasis on speed.
The new strategy was a way of overcoming the trench warfare that had bedeviled the militaries of the First World War. The Germans had developed this blitzkrieg as a military strategy, but it also had political and economic implications.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Hitler’s Blitzkrieg: A Lightning War
One of the things that Hitler was determined to avoid was privation of the German civilian population. He believed, having watched the revolution at the end of 1918 that brought down the old empire, that it was because of this privation at the homefront that the German people had abandoned the Kaiser and that Germany had lost.
So, a blitzkrieg strategy would mean that they would try to do business as usual. They wouldn’t mobilize the economy on a full wartime footing. They would fight a quick, lightning war against a diplomatically and militarily isolated opponent, which would be settled in a matter of weeks, possibly a month, two months at the most, and then it would be possible to continue day-to-day life inside of Germany.
As a consequence, Hitler had pursued a policy of armaments in breadth, and not in depth. Germany, simply, was not prepared for a long war, not for a war against England and France that might drag out, as everyone feared, like the First World War had done.
A Strange War in Europe
What came then, after the fall of Poland, was a very curious period. Technically, Germany was at war with England and France, but in which nobody was shooting at anyone. The English and the Americans called it the period of ‘the Phony War’, the French called it the drole de guerre, the strange war; the Germans called it the sitzkrieg, the sitting war, as opposed to the blitzkrieg.
During this period, many diplomatic feelers were sent back and forth. Britain wanted Germany to move out of Poland, which the Germans were unwilling to do. So, through the fall and winter of 1939 and into the spring of 1940, this strange war prevailed. It became increasingly clear, with the failure of any sort of diplomatic initiative, that war was coming in the West, and indeed, it did.
Learn more about the First World War and its legacy.
The Beginning of War in the West
In April, German troops attacked Norway and Denmark to cut off any northern approaches by the British and French to secure a northern front. Then, in May of 1940, German troops struck in the West. Using the same blitzkrieg tactics that had proven so successful against the Poles, the Germans smashed into Holland and Belgium.
British and French troops rushed to meet them, and then a major German armored column burst out of the Arden Forest, cutting off the British and French troops in Belgium, swung around, and inflicted a devastating defeat on the French army and on the British.
The British were cut off—between May 28 and June 4, there was a tremendous evacuation of British troops off the beaches at Dunkirk, which was, in many ways, a military miracle. They’d got about 300,000 troops off the beaches when they were virtually surrounded by the Germans.
The British had been driven off the continent, the French army was in a shambles, and Britain had left all of its military hardware, its supplies, its materiel, on the beaches at Dunkirk. Then the Germans turned south and marched toward Paris.
The Surrender of France
On June 22, 1940, barely a month after the hostilities had actually begun, France surrendered. It was a shock of enormous proportions. Everyone around the world had counted on the French army providing the same sort of heroic resistance that it had performed during the Great War.
Hitler forced an armistice on the French to be signed in the same railroad car in which the Germans had signed the armistice in 1918. The Germans were the masters of the European continent. The British refused to see reason, as Hitler put it; refused to come to any sort of agreement.
Learn more about the gathering storm in Nazi Germany.
Churchill: Hitler’s Nemesis
One of Hitler’s worst nightmares occurred on the very day that Germany invaded in the West back in May. Neville Chamberlain stepped down and was replaced in office as prime minister by Winston Churchill.
Churchill had been virtually alone in Britain, considered a troublemaker, a warmonger, during the ’30s for complaining about the Nazis, saying they were a danger. He was opposed to much of the British policy of appeasement, and now Churchill was in charge of British policy.
For Hitler, this was, in a way, the final straw; there would be no coming to terms with this warmonger, as Hitler liked to call him. The Germans began drawing up plans for Operation Sea Lion, an invasion of England.
The army had had no contingency plans, there were no logistical plans that had been made. Hitler turned to his military advisors and said, “We want to be able to invade England within six weeks.”
These turn of events had a huge impact in Europe and the world.
Common Questions about Blitzkrieg and the End of Diplomacy
Hitler had used a new strategy in the attack on Poland. It was called blitzkrieg, lightning war—the mounting of armored units supported by air power to break through enemy lines and circle the soldiers trapped there in great armored pincers, with an emphasis on speed.
England and France declared war against Germany after the Blitzkrieg in Poland. However, there was a period in which nobody shot at anyone. This period was called the Phony War by the Americans and the British.
In 1940, Hitler forced an armistice on the French to be signed in the same railroad car in which the Germans had signed the armistice in 1918.