Germany and France had been struggling in Continental Europe for 80 years and had fought two previous wars, the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Communist revolutionary movements began spreading
across Europe, briefly taking power in both Budapest and Bavaria. As a reaction to these movements, fascist and nationalist groups were born. In 1922, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his fascist party took control of the Kingdom of Italy and set the model for German dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, which, aided by the civil unrest caused by the Great Depression, took power in Germany and eliminated its democratic government, the Weimar Republic.
These two leaders began to re-militarise their countries and became increasingly hostile.
Mussolini first conquered the African nation of Abyssinia and then seized Albania, with both Italy and Germany actively supporting Francisco Franco’s fascist Falange party in the Spanish Civil War against the Second Spanish Republic (which was supported by the Soviet Union).
Hitler then broke the Treaty of Versailles by increasing the size of the Germany’s military, and remilitarized the Rhineland. He started his own expansion of Germany by annexing Austria and also the German-speaking regions (Sudetenland) of Czechoslovakia. The British government under Neville Chamberlain saw the Soviet Union as a greater threat to Europe and he pursued a policy of appeasement towards Germany, hoping to maintain a strong, anti-communist Germany to block Soviet expansion.
This policy culminated in the Munich Agreement in 1938, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. In March 1939, Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Mussolini also invaded and annexed Albania in April. These events caused the United Kingdom and France to prepare for war against Germany. France and Poland pledged on May 19, 1939, to provide each other with military assistance in the event either was attacked. The following August, the British guaranteed the same.
On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which provided for sales of oil and food from the Soviets to Germany, thus reducing the danger of a British blockade such as the one that had nearly starved Germany in World War I. Also included was a secret agreement that would divide Central Europe into German and Soviet areas of interest, including a provision to partition Poland. Each country agreed to allow the other a free hand in its area of influence, including military occupation.
Germany’s war against the Western Allies
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, using the false pretext of a staged “Polish attack” on a German border post. On September 3, the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum to Germany. No reply was received, and Britain, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany, followed later that day by France. Soon afterwards, South Africa, Canada and Nepal also declared war on Germany. Immediately, the UK began seizing German ships and implementing a blockade.
Despite the French and British treaty obligations and promises to the Polish government, both France and the UK were unwilling to launch a full invasion of Germany. The French mobilized slowly and then mounted only a short token offensive in the Saar; neither did the British send land forces in time to support the Poles. The geographical location of Poland meant that a full-scale British and French attack was unlikely. The French were firmly in the ‘Maginot Mentality’ to invade Germany, and the protection of the Maginot Line gave the French and British forces no reason to attack Germany directly. Meanwhile, on September 8, the Germans reached Warsaw, having ripped through the Polish defences. On September 17, the Soviet Union, pursuant to its prior agreement with Germany, invaded Poland from the east. Poland was soon overwhelmed, and the last Polish units surrendered on October 6.
After Poland fell, Germany paused to regroup during the winter while the British and French stayed on the defensive. The period was referred to by journalists as “the Phoney War” because of the inaction on both sides. In Eastern Europe, the Soviets began occupying Baltic states leading to a confrontation with Finland, a conflict which ended with land concessions to the Soviets on March 12, 1940. In early April 1940, both German and Allied forces launched nearly simultaneous operations around Norway over access to Swedish iron ore. It was a two-month campaign that resulted in complete German control of Denmark and Norway, though at a heavy cost to their surface navy. The fall of Norway led to the Norway Debate in London, which added to the call for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was eventually replaced by Winston Churchill. After witnessing the defeat of the Appeasement Foreign Policy, used by Britain since the 1920s, Chamberlain was in the fire to be labelled as the ‘Guilty Man’ when in fact he had pushed forward for most of Britain’s much needed defence spending in early 1938, and can be seen as the saviour of Britain during the Battle of Britain.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Army advanced into Flanders and planned to fight a mobile war in the north, while maintaining a static continuous front along the Maginot Line further south. This was foiled by an unexpected German thrust through the Ardennes, splitting the Allies in two. The BEF and French forces, encircled in the north, were evacuated from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo. Italy attacked France in the Alps in June 10, 1940. France, overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg, was forced to sign an armistice with Germany on June 22, 1940, leading to the direct German occupation of Paris and two-thirds of France, and the establishment of a German puppet state headquartered in south-eastern France known as Vichy France.
With only the United Kingdom remaining as an opposing force in Europe, Germany began to prepare Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. Most of the British Army’s heavy weapons and supplies had been lost at Dunkirk, but the Royal Navy was still stronger than the Kriegsmarine and kept control of the English Channel. The Germans then attempted to gain air superiority by destroying the Royal Air Force (RAF) using the Luftwaffe. The ensuing air war in the late summer of 1940 became known as the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe initially targeted RAF Fighter Command aerodromes and radar stations, but Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Göring and Hitler switched their attention towards bombing British cities, an offensive which became known as The Blitz. This diversion of resources allowed the RAF to rebuild their airbases, eventually leading Hitler to give up on his goal of establishing air superiority over the English Channel; this in turn led to the permanent postponement of Operation Sealion.
With Germany and her allies having total control of the continent, the United Kingdom and its allies settled for strategic bombing and special forces operations in mainland Europe. Many of the conquered nations formed governments in exile and military units within the United Kingdom as well as domestic resistance movements. Germany, meanwhile, fortified its position by constructing the Atlantic Wall