121: A Disappointing Start


With the British and French now in the war they could come to the rescue of the Poles….maybe? British Cabinet Papers: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/cabinet-gov/cab65-second-world-war-conclusions.htm


  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie
  • The Origins of the Second World War: An International Perspective Edited by Frank McDonough
  • The Polish Campaign 1939 by Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej
  • The Foreign Policy of Jozef Pilsudski and Jozef Beck, 1926-1939: Misconceptions and Interpretations by Anna M. Cienciala
  • The French Government and the Danzig Crisis: The Italian Dimension by P.R. Stafford
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Macht Arbeit Frei? Chapter: The War against Poland and the Beginning of German Economic Policy in the Occupied Territory by Witold Wojciech Medykowski
  • Poland Between the Wars, 1918-1939 Edited by Peter D. Stachura
  • Poland’s Preparation for World War Two by Michael Alfred Peszke
  • The Rebirth and Progress of the Polish Military During the Interwar Years by Jacek Czarnecki
  • Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939 by Rober Forczyk
  • Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse
  • The Eastern Pact, 1933-1935: A Last Attempt at European Co-operation by Lisanne Radice (1977)
  • The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 by Zara Steiner
  • Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland, August 25, 1939.
  • Blitzkrieg Unleashed by Richard Hargreaves
  • The Great Powers and Poland: From Versailles to Yalta by Jan Karski
  • The History of the Panzerwaffe Volume 1: 1939-42 by Thomas Anderson
  • September Storm: The German Invasion of Poland by Gordon Rottman & Stephen Andrew
  • Britain and Poland, 1939-1943: The Betrayed Ally by Anita J. Prazmowska
  • March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland - A Study in the Continuity of British Foreign Policy by Simon Newman (1976)
  • Poland 1939: The birth of Blitzkrieg by Steven J. Zaloga
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945
  • The British War Blue Book: Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations and the Outbreak of Hostilities Between Great Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939
  • The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Documents (1938-1939)
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 - Series D Volumn IV, VII
  • British Cabinet Papers - CAB 55/19/15, CAB 65/1/1-65/1/31, CAB 65/3/1-65/3/14, CAB 66/1/38-39, CAB 66/2/20


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 121 - The September Campaign Pt. 13 - A Disappointing Beginning. Last episode we discussed the debates occurring in London and Paris as the two governments tried to determine how they would react to the German invasion of Poland. Their previous agreements with Poland made it clear, at least to the Poles, that they should enter the war immediately and then aid the Poles in whatever way possible. In Warsaw they hoped that this assistance would involve a French ground attack into Western Germany while the British used the Royal Air Force and began a bombing campaign against Germany. But, there was some hesitancy in both Western Capitals to jump into the war, and it was not until late in the evening of September 2nd that the decision was made to give Germany an ultimatum on the morning of September 3. The Germans would be aware that such an ultimatum was on its way, with the German Ambassador in London sending this message to the Berlin on the morning of September 3: “By his statement today in the House of Commons on the reasons for Great Britain’s delay in taking action, Chamberlain has excited the most violent indignation in the House of Commons and in the Cabinet, and the latter had threatened to resign in a body this evening unless Chamberlain tomorrow finally gave Germany a declaration with a brief time limit.” The official delivery of this message would be made by the two ambassadors in Berlin, for the British Neville Henderson and for the French Robert Coulondre. Henderson would arrive to deliver his message at 9AM, with the goal of giving it directly to German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop. However, Ribbentrop decided not to meet with Henderson in person and instead just sent his interpreter Paul Schmidt. The ultimatum would say: “More than twenty-four hours have elapsed since an immediate reply was requested to the warning of September 1st, and since then the attacks on Poland have been intensified. If His Majesty’s Government has not received satisfactory assurances of the cessation of all aggressive action against Poland, and the withdrawal of German troops from that country, by 11 o’clock British Summer Time, from that time a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.” The French version of this same message would be delivered at 10AM, with the same 2 hour window for acceptance, putting the French expiration at noon. Soon after the two messages were delivered, a note would be sent to the German embassies in London and Paris to give their ambassadors information on what was happening on Berlin. “They [this is Henderson and Coulondre] were accordingly instructed to inform the Reich Foreign Minister that their Governments would fulfill their obligations to Poland without hesitation, unless the Reich Government were prepared to give definite assurances to the British and French governments that the Government of the Reich would suspend all attacks on Poland and had made all preparations to withdraw their armed forces from Polish territory immediately.” Over the next two hours no serious discussions occurred in the German government of bowing to the new ultimatum, and instead time was spent creating a response that firmly rejected the French and British demands, restating many of the talking points that Hitler and other Nazi leaders had been using in their rhetoric for the past several years, Treaty of Versailles was unfair, plotting against Germany, Polish violence against ethnic Germans, you know the stuff. At 11:12 Henderson would call London to confirm that no answer had been received. Coulondre would meet with Ribbentrop at 12:30, 30 minutes after the ultimatum expired, but the answer was the same that the British had received, with Coulondre shaking the hand of State Secretary Weizsacker before leaving.

With the German answer, over the afternoon the course in Paris and London was clear, and just after 6PM Chamberlain would speak before the Commons. “When I spoke last night to the House I could not but be aware that in some parts of the House there were doubts and some bewilderment as to whether there had been any weakening, hesitation or vacillation on the part of His Majesty’s Government. In the circumstances, I make no reproach, for if I had been in the same position as hon. Members not sitting on this Bench and not in possession of all the information which we have, I should very likely have felt the same. The statement which I have to make this morning will show that there were no grounds for doubt. We were in consultation all day yesterday with the French Government and we felt that the intensified action which the Germans were taking against Poland allowed no delay in making our own position clear. Accordingly, we decided to send to our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at nine o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows: Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on 1st September, I informed you, on the instructions of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, that unless the German Government were prepared to give His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom satisfactory assurances that the German Government had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland. Although this communication was made more than 24 hours ago, no reply has been received, but German attacks upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have, accordingly, the honour to inform you that unless not later than 11 a.m., British Summer Time, to-day, September 3rd satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour. That was the final Note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany. I am in a position to inform the House that, according to arrangements made between the British and French Governments, the French Ambassador in Berlin is at this moment making a similar demarche, accompanied also by a definite time limit. The House has already been made aware of our plans. As I said the other day, we are ready. This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much. I cannot tell what part I may be allowed to play myself; I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.” As was customary there were several responses from other leaders in the Commons, most giving their support for the actions that had been taken. Here is Churchill’s response: “We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we shall not be found unequal. We must expect many disappointments and many unpleasant surprises, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond the compass and the strength of the British Empire and the French Republic. The Prime Minister said it was a sad day, and that is indeed true, but at the present time there is another note which may be present, and that is a feeling of thankfulness that, if these great trials were to come upon our Island, there is a generation of Britons here now ready to prove itself not unworthy of the days of yore and not unworthy of those great men, the fathers of our land, who laid the foundations of our laws and shaped the greatness of our country.” With Britain at war, the only things left for Henderson to do in Berlin were to further enquire as to whether or not Germany would follow the international agreements on warfare. “I have the honour […] to enquire whether the German Govenrment are prepared to give an assurance to His Majesty’s Governmnet in the United Kingdom that they will observe the provisions of the Geneva Protocol, signing on the 17th of June 1925, prohibiting the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare.”

France would declare war on Germany at the same time as the British, 5PM on September 3rd, with the German government notified of the time after the French ultimatum had expired: “in consequence the Government of the Republic have the honour to inform the Government of the Reich that they find themselves obliged to fulfil, as from today, September 3, at 5 p.m., the obligations which France has entered into towards Poland and which are known to the German Government.” In Germany, the news of September 3rd was more focused on the successes in Poland, and on September 4th the news would be suppressed. When it became widely known there was some initial shock among average Germans, as Hitler had for years said that he would keep Germany out of another world war, and it was the success to prevent a large conflict during the Anschluss and Munich Crisis that had made Hitler’s position in Germany completely unassailable. In Poland the news was trumpeted as a huge victory. Władysław Szpilman, just a child in 1939, would be listening to the radio and would later recall that “we learned that we no longer faced our enemy alone; we had a powerful ally and the war was certain to be won.” But while the news of Britain and France joining the war was an important step towards long term victory, in the short term the declaration did little to prevent the daily bombing raids of Warsaw and other Polish cities, or to stop the Germans that were, by September 4th, advancing on all fronts and towards the capital. What the Poles desperately needed was quick, decisive, and powerful action from their allies in Western Europe, and wow were they about to be very disappointed.


If there was to be quick and decisive action against Germany, it was going to have to be a campaign from the air. With French leaders far more concerned with the possibility of a German ground attack, or maybe the possibility of launching their own, that air campaign would have to be led by the Royal Air Force. At 5PM London time on September 3rd the first of countless War Cabinet meetings was held with all of the major British political and military leaders present. Several pressing topics were discussed and one of those was the idea and possibilities for a quick air strike against targets in Germany. The overriding concern among the group was that if they were to bomb Germany, which the RAF was capable of doing, it would invite reprisals from the Luftwaffe. In the words of Lord Halifax ‘Britain should not be the first to take the gloves off.’ This fear made the British leaders resistant to any calls for a major bombing campaign on Germany in general, and absolutely reject the idea of bombing any population centers. In the Cabinet Meeting notes for this War Cabinet meeting the views and decisions made by the cabinet would be summarized as “In our view it was important to take no action in violation of the attitude which our two Governments had taken up in regard to our bombardment policy. It was understood to be the intention of the French Air Force to carry out reconnaissance with a view to location troop concentrations on the railways and on military aerodromes. Bombing attacks would be carried out between, but not on, railway stations and on aerodromes. The trains would not be attacked.” As you can see in some of those notes, the restrictions placed on Bomber Command put very tight limits on what they could do while over Germany. There would still be efforts to strike against purely military targets, and the first British bombing raid of the war would be launched a bit before 3PM on September 4th. 15 Blenheim and 14 Wellington medium bombers would be sent to attack the German warships that were anchored near Wilhelmshaven, and in a really interesting situation they were only to be attacked if they were not docked out of fear of bombs causing civilian casualties among the dockyard workers. The Blenheims would focus most of their attention on the Cruiser Emden and the Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer, managing to hit the Scheer four times….but none of the bombs exploded. For their troubles 5 of the Blenheims would shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The force of Wellingtons would be unable to find any ships to attack. Not exactly a splendid success for the opening efforts of the war for the Royal Air Force. Another attempt would be made to execute a similar bombing attack against the German fleet late in September with roughly the same results. The British would learn, as almost every other nation would during the war, that hitting naval targets with medium and heavy bombers was incredibly challenging.

Speaking of naval targets, the Royal Navy would also be active during the first days of the war, and over the course of the first week they would capture five German merchant ships. But it was the German efforts against merchant shipping that are far more famous, with the German U-Boats being given the orders to begin operations against British shipping just hours after the official declaration of war. The Royal Navy was prepared for this though, they had to be after how devastating the German submarines had been during the First World War, and the Admiralty would begin anti-submarine patrols almost immediately after the start of the war. But these patrols could not be everywhere at once, and during the opening days of the war there would be several successful attacks by U-Boats on both British and French shipping, but there was also hope that as the Royal navy continued to get better organized, and merchant fleets became more accustomed to the new realities of warfare and convoy structures, that the number of ships that would be destroyed would go down. Here is the summary from the War Cabinet meeting on September 6th: “The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that five merchant ships, four British and one French, had been sunk by submarine the previous day. There was reason to believe that the position from our point of view was probably now at its worst, and would improve. Rigorous steps were being taken to ensure that merchant ship captains obeyed the instructions given them.” Then on September 11th, so 8 days after the start of hostilities, a full summary of the losses to German submarines would be provided to the Cabinet: “First Lord of the Admiralty: In the first five days of war our average loss had been 11,000 tons per day, whereas in the last three days it had fallen to 5,000 tons per day, but it was too early to accept these figures as definite proof that our measures were meeting with success.”

Speaking of these Cabinet notes, if you are looking for an interesting bit of reading might I recommend taking a trip through some of the British War Cabinet Conclusion papers, which can be found at a link in the show notes. They are summaries of all of the war cabinet meetings that were held during the war, which can range from just a few pages to quite a few more. There are limits to what you can learn from these notes, but it is also interesting to see what the British military and political leaders were discussing during this time period. For example during the meeting on September 4th there was some discussion of the reaction around the world to the war. This included how certain nations might react to the various actions that the British government could take. For example Halifax, would address the idea of shoring up the Far East by entering into negotiations with Japan: “Any suggestion of the revival of our Alliance with Japan, even as a long-term objective, would need to be very carefully considered from the point of view of its effect upon the United States of America.” But then later in the meeting they turned to the problem of public gatherings particularly theaters and cinemas: “It was suggested to the War cabinet that the closing of theatres and cinemas if continued indefinitely, would have a bad effect on public morale. […] It was pointed out that, in the uncertainties of the present stage of the war, it would not be justifiable to encourage crowds to gather in public places, particularly in central London. On the other hand it was suggested that there was a case for permitting places of entertainment to open in the hours of daylight, and possibly also in the suburbs after dark.” Along with these more far afield topics, there were also of course constant discussions of what was happening Poland while the September Campaign continued. The exact evaluations given to British leaders would vary based on the day, with one note on September 7 that the position of Poland was “for the moment a little easier” while on September 8th there was a new report based on the experiences of a representative that had flown to Poland that the situation was now “extremely serious.” These cabinet papers will be a frequent topic for the podcast over the coming months, as I think they hold particular insight and interest during the Phoney War period, but I think they can be an interesting source for anyone who wants to learn more about what British leaders were discussing and what they thought important enough to spend time on during these very high level War Cabinet discussions. [Link for Show Notes: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/cabinet-gov/cab65-second-world-war-conclusions.htm]

While the British were planning and launching air attacks at German naval targets, in Paris planes for a French attack into Western Germany were put into action. On September 5th an overview of the French plan was conveyed to the British, with the French planning for a small invasion into the Saarland, with a few other small reconnaissance efforts that were more focused on finding and evaluating the German defenses rather than mounting a serious offensive into Germany. The primary reason for the small French effort was that French leaders, including General Gamelin, believed that it was crucial that France conserve as much strength as possible for the war ahead. If the Polish forces were going to be overwhelmed quickly, then expending French resources and lives to try and distract the Germans would do little in the long run other than waste those French resources and men. Because of this the French offensives during the second week of September were very limited in scope and objectives. On September 7th the 2nd Army Group would begin a few small probing attacks, and on the 9th the Fourth Army would send 5 infantry divisions and 4 tank battalions into the Saarland. The Germans offered little resistance, and the French would be allowed to advance about 13 kilometers into Germany. The advance was extremely cautious, and would end when they encountered any real German resistance. There was also some aerial battles that would occur over the French advance, with several German and French aircraft destroyed due to French efforts at aerial reconnaissance. What the French did not know was that at that moment, they enjoyed a very large advantage in troops and equipment in Western Germany. The total number of troops was not that disparate, with the French only outnumbering the Germans less than 2 to 1, but the German troops in the area were not the best in the Wehrmacht, and many were poorly trained reservists. The complete lack of action event surprised the German commander in the West, General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, who would write “Evidently they are not ready, or they don’t want to pick the chestnuts out of the fire, and are waiting for the British.” One of the reasons French hesitancy was the German defenses known as the Siegfried Line, or the Westwall, which had consumed so many German resources and man-hours in the years before the war. But these defenses were far from completed, and their reputation far outpaced their usefulness.

The first Meeting of the Supreme War Council would take place on September 12th, with both French and British military and political leaders in attendance. There were conversations about the past actions and British and French actions for the near future. The French made it clear that they did not intend for their attacks to be greatly successful, or to advance far into Germany. The British would support them in this decision, with Chamberlain making it clear that he believed that time was against the Germans. To quote from Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, 1939 by Anita Prazmowska the meeting was “a veritable orgy of mutual congratulation at not having succumbed to the temptation of attacking Germany.” Which I think is about all that needs to be said. A joint communication would be issued by Chamberlain and Daladier after the meeting, saying in part “This meeting has fully confirmed the strength of the resolve of Great Britain and France to devote their entire strength and resources to the waging of the conflict which has been forced upon them, and to give all possible assistance to their Polish ally, who is resisting with so much gallantry the ruthless invasion of her territory.” These were simply empty words, they knew that they were empty when they wrote them, and that there was no real help that would be provided to Poland. Sadly, for the Polish civilians fleeing from the German invasion, the Polish citizens being bombed by German aircraft, the Polish soldiers fighting against German troops, and all of those soon to suffer under German occupation, the truth was that there was no help on its way.