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What was the phoney war?

Features | By Michael Barber | September 2019

Churchill called it the ‘twilight war’

Between the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 and May the following year very little happened, Michael Barber explains the odd phenomenon

Eighty years ago, on 3rd September 1939, that bizarre interlude variously known as the phoney war, the bore war and the Sitzkrieg got under way.

People braced themselves for Armageddon. But nothing much happened – except to the nation’s pets, thousands of which were swiftly put down. And, except at sea, nothing much continued to happen for the next seven months.

In France, it really was all quiet on the Western Front and a young British officer was mocked by a padre, of all people, for refusing a third cocktail before lunch in the front line. Instead of bombs, the RAF dropped leaflets, thus ensuring, it was said, that the Germans would never be short of toilet paper. No wonder limericks like this were popular: An elderly statesman with gout/When asked what this war was about/In a written reply/Said ‘My colleagues and I/Are doing our best to find out.’

But there was nothing phoney about the Emergency Powers Act. Overnight, the country became a garrison state. Habeas corpus went, and so did weather forecasts, television (then in its infancy) and all but the Home Service of the BBC. You had to carry your gas mask everywhere. One vicar actually refused to perform a marriage until the bride-to-be went home and fetched hers.

Entertainment was hit harder than at any time since the Puritans. Cinemas and theatres were first closed, then grudgingly allowed to reopen for a reduced number of hours. All outdoor sport was severely curtailed. And so rigorously was the blackout enforced – by air-raid wardens who were compared to little Hitlers – that road deaths far outstripped those at the sharp end. Torches, which had to be dimmed, were at a premium, as were batteries. People walked the streets after dark in single file.

Meanwhile evacuees exposed the gap between town and country, rich and poor. People were shocked to discover how the other half lived. Theatre critic James Agate was told by a friend that he and his wife so loathed the evacuee children billeted on them that they had decided to ‘take away’ something from them for Christmas. Bored to tears in the sticks, evacuee mothers told their children to wet the bed so that they’d all be sent home, a ploy Basil Seal exploits in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942), the definitive phoney-war novel.

Waugh also mocked the cack-handed Ministry of Information. Few official bodies can have taken so much flak from so many people in so short a time. Staffed by bureaucrats rather than journalists, the ministry turned out such uninspiring stuff that, according to Aneurin Bevan, people were more likely to die of boredom than from bombs. Hence the popularity of Lord Haw-Haw, whose insinuations, however specious, gave food for thought.

The coldest winter for 45 years did nothing to improve morale. But with the coming of spring and still no conflict, hope was in the air. Perhaps, as Chamberlain said, Hitler had missed the bus.

He hadn’t. Frontiers fell like ninepins before Hitler’s armies, and with them went Chamberlain, who left Downing Street in May 1940. By June, German troops were queuing up to cross the Channel, prompting this news vendor’s sign: ‘FRENCH SURRENDER: WE’RE IN THE FINALS’.

The gloves were off at last.


This story was from September 2019 issue. Subscribe Now