World War II, the Early Years (1939-1940)


On August 23rd, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a NON-AGGRESSION PACT. In a secret appendix, the two countries agreed to partition the independent states of Eastern Central Europe; Poland, the Baltic States and Finland were to be garbled up.
After a border violation allegedly committed by Polish forces (in fact staged by German soldiers in Polish uniforms), on September 1st 1939 Germany began it's attack on Poland. Britain and France, allied with Poland in mutual defense pacts, declared war on Germany. The German tactics, splitting and envelopping enemy forces by fast moving panzer (tank) units supported by the airforce, was led to quick success. In 18 days, Polish forces were defeated (BLITZKRIEG), western and central Poland occupied by German troops. On September 17th, Soviet forces entered Polish territory, occupying Eastern Poland. Britain and France did not declare war on the USSR.
Technically, Germany was at war with France and Britain. But there was no activity on the western front. The French, as in World War I, trusted in their strategy of patiently waiting out a German offence. Behind their MAGINOT LINE, and with a land army regarded the strongest in the world, they felt secure. The phase between September 1939 and May 1940 is called DROLE DE GUERRE (a joke of a war; the Phony War).
On November 30th 1939, the Red Army attacked Finland (the WINTER WAR). Unexpectedly, the Finns staunchly resisted, pinning down the invading forces and inflicting heavy losses. As the war protracted, volunteers from Sweden, the United States and Canada signed up. The media of the free world took the side of Finland; Britain and France contemplated to send troops. Stalin offered peace, and on March 12th 1940 the Peace of Moscow was signed; Finland had to cede EASTERN KARELIA, but retained it's independence. In June 1940, while the world's attention was focussed on the German defeat of France, Stalin addressed ultimata at the governments of ESTONIA, LATVIA and LITHUANIA. They were transformed into Soviet Republics which were admitted to the USSR. On June 27th 1940, Soviet troops occupied BESSARABIA and Northern Bukovina (hitherto Rumanian).


On April 9th, German forces occupied DENMARK (without resistance) and invaded NORWAY, where they met determined resistance. The British navy, invited by Norway's government, landed on several strips of Norway's long Atlantic coast and had to be expelled. The occupation was completed by June 10th; a Norwegian sympathizer of the Nazi party, VIDKUN QUISLING, was named premier of a pro-German Norwegian government. His name became synonymous with that of a traitor willing to sell out his country to the enemy.
On May 10th 1940, Germany's forces began the campaign in the west. The neutrality of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg was disrespected. The Netherlands surrendered on May 15th, Belgium on May 28th. German forces reached the English Channel; the British forces in France (ca. 335.000 troops) were successfully evacuated from the beaches of DUNKIRK. meanwhile, German panzer units had cut through the Maginot Line, moving fast into France. On June 10th, ITALY entered the war on Germany's side. On June 22nd, an armistice was signed. Northern and western France were to be occupied by Germany, the South was to be administered by a French government residing in VICHY. It was headed by General HENRI PHILIPPE PETAIN, a World War I hero who evaluated further resistance as self-destructive. German troops occupied the (British) Channel Islands. Again, German arms had prevailed in another Blitzkrieg.


On June 23rd 1940, prime minister WINSTON CHURCHILL's Britain found itself standing alone in a war against Germany and Italy. The British army was hopelessly outnumbered by the German Army, it depended entirely on it's navy and airforce. German offers for a peace treaty were rejected, and on July 10th the German air assault on Britain (the BATTLE OF BRITAIN) began. The German airforce outnumbered the British 4 to 1, but the Royal Air Force, assisted by remnants of the Polish and Czechoslovak Airforces now stationed in Britain, inflicted heavy losses on the attacking force. The German side broke off the attack in spring 1941; Britain had held out.
Britain was not standing absolutely alone. On it's soil were the EXILE GOVERNMENTS of Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Latvia. The Dutch, and Norwegian navy, the air forces of these countries and of Poland and Czechooslovakia, as far as they had managed to escape, were stationed in Britain.


On October 28th 1940, Mussolini, envious of seemingly easy German successes, ordered Italian forces to invade GREECE. Against all expectations, the Greek forces were able to stop the Italians, and, to Mussolini's embarrassment, to push them back into Albania (which was Italian since 1938). At the end of 1940, there were only three fighting fronts, the Italian-Greek frontier, the border between Italian Libya and British Egypt, and in Italian East Africa - all of them side shows.


Invasions often began without a war formally being declared. The German airforce heavily bombarded the cities of Warsaw and ROTTERDAM, the latter after the Netherlands had surrendered, in order to enduce other governments to quickly surrender. If, in an occupied country, a German soldier was shot by a sniper, the German authorities did not bother attempting to get a hold of the culprit. German soldiers entered a village nearby, lined up the male population over 15 and executed them indiscriminately. The respective resistance got the message; they refrained from hurting German soldiers, and targetted local collaborators instead. The German authorities were especially harsh in the occupied areas in the East (former Czechoslovakia and Poland).
When the Polish army surrendered to the Soviet Forces, soldiers and officers were separated, the officeres (over 5.000) executed in the forest of KATYN.

This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on June 15th 2001

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