The Phoney War



Dawn:   This Phoney war gets on my nerves.    If we’re going to have a war, I wish they’d get it started.

Mum:   Just ignore her.

Hope and Glory  


Simple overview  

Factual account

Spitfires during the Phoney War

  Film clips


By the end of September, Germany and Russia had defeated Poland (map).   Everyone expected Hitler to attack western Europe with his ‘blitzkrieg’ tactics, but nothing happened (indeed, on 6 October, Hitler offered peace).  


Meanwhile, Britain and France made no effort to attack Hitler.   A British Expeditionary Force of four divisions – 158,000 men with 25,000 vehicles – left for France on 11 Sept, but it was too small and poorly-equipped to challenge the Nazi army.   And France’s strategy was dominated by the Maginot line, a defensive super-trench on the border, which French generals believed would keep France safe from Nazi attack).


The period came to be called ‘the phoney war’.   Britain was able to consolidate its preparations for war (Source A).   Barrage balloons were deployed to force the Luftwaffe to fly higher – so their bombing would be less accurate.   Pillar boxes were painted with yellow gas-sensitive paint (38 million gas-masks has been distributed during 1939 – cinemas refused admission to people without a gas-mask).   400 million sandbags were piled round the entrances to shops and public buildings.   London zoo put down all its poisonous snakes, in case they escaped during a bombing raid.   There was a wedding boom, as many couples married hurriedly before the man was called up – one man committed suicide when he found out he was too old for national service.   The Queen told women: ‘You are talking your part in keeping the Home front stable and strong’, urging them: ‘we, no less than men, have real and vital work to do’.  


Source A

3 Sept: 827,000 children and 535,000 pregnant mothers have been evacuated from the towns to the country.

4 Sept: a Nazi U-boat sinks the SS Athena – 112 passengers died.

9 Sept: RAF drops 12 million propaganda leaflets on Germany.

15 Sept: the first convoy sets sail from Canada.

22 Sept: petrol rationing introduced.

30 Sept: The Nazi cruiser the Graf Spee sinks a British cargo ship.

10 Oct: 25,000 women join the Women’s Land Army.

20 Nov: the Nazis drop magnetic mines, which start to  sink British shipping.

17 Dec: Graf Spee destroyed.

31 Dec: New Year revellers shining torches are arrested.

1 Jan: 2 million men aged 20–27 are called up to join the armed forces.

8 Jan: butter, sugar and bacon are rationed.

22 Jan: newsreels are censored by the government Ministry of Information.

30 Jan: a national campaign is organised to collect scrap metal, paper, and food waste (for pig-swill).

6 Feb: Ministry of Information launches its ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ campaign.

12 Feb: paper rationed.

11 March: meat rationing.

3 Apr: Lord Woolton appointed Minister of Food

Source B

This David Low cartoon in the Evening Standard (31 October 1939) showed the German war effort – despite its ‘secret weapons’ and ‘super-frightfulness’ as an ‘Interminable Overture’ (the music before the show starts.


Source D

This Evening Standard cartoon of 18 Sept 1939 shows a woman, lost among the sandbags, needing directions from an ARP warden.


Source C

This Illingworth cartoon of 2 November 1939 shows an unhappy Hitler assailed by doubts, while his adviser shout encouragement: ‘Why not an offensive today?... Wait until the spring .. Russian gold is behind us... Germany is bankrupt... Why not bomb Britain?... there might be reprisals...’



Source E

‘Utility’ clothing used less cloth.   This Lee cartoon in the Evening News of 4 October 1939 comes from a series called ‘Smiling Through’.  

It shows a woman modelling the ‘utility’ siren suit.  

The man’s wife turns to him as says: ‘Well, that settles it, James.  In the case of an air-attack, you do NOT participate!"


By Spring 1940, many people had decided that war was never going to happen, and they followed the advice of the newspaper headline which suggested: ‘Forget Hitler – take your holiday’.   They stopped carrying their gas-masks.   Six million people every night tuned in to listen to ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, the British Nazi who broadcast on the wireless from Germany...


... until, suddenly, on 9 April 1940, Nazi forces attacked Denmark and Norway.



1.   Was Britain serious about the war Sept 1939 – April 1940?   Support your answer with evidence from Source A.

2.   What can an historian learn from sources B and C about British attitudes to the Nazis during the Phoney War?

3.   What does Source D suggest about the degree to which people’s lives were changed during the Phoney War?

4.   How useful is Source E in telling us about British attitudes during the Phoney War?