World War 2 History: Sitzkrieg, the Plan to Wait for Hitler
The Germans Knock on Poland's Door
The War Starts
Germany declared war on Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939, and attacked with massed motorized columns of armor, infantry, artillery and waves of bombers and fighters in what was dubbed the Blitzkrieg (“Lightning War”). On Sunday, two days later, while German troops continued to pour into Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany and proceeded to launch no major military land operations in what came to be known as the Sitzkrieg (“Sitting War"), a play on the word Blitzkrieg. This period of eight months of relative inactivity on the Western Front between September 1939 and May 1940 was also variously known as the “Phoney War,” the “Twilight War,” the “Strange War” and the “Bore War.”
The Allies Wait for the Germans
The Maginot Line
Along the French border with Germany stretched the Maginot Line, an interlinked series of forts, fully garrisoned and bristling with artillery stretching for almost 90 miles. The largest forts could house 1,200 troops for three months without resupply. It was deemed impenetrable-- even against a Blitzkrieg. The Maginot Line was a product of the carnage of the First World War, which had ended only 21 years before and had killed 1,400,000 French and 900,000 British soldiers. That conflict, time and time again, had shown the horrific results of waves of attackers going up against prepared defenses. It was also deeply ingrained in the psyches of the Allied political and military leaders.
The Siegfried Line
Opposite the Maginot line was the hastily prepared German Siegfried Line, defended by only 23 reserve and secondary divisions. Their impossible task, while the main German armies dismantled Poland, was to hold off the expected Allied assault which could muster 110 divisions, mostly front-line troops. Only Hitler's iron grip and his bewildering successes against the British and French in the years leading up to the war kept his generals from revolting.
One of the Maginot Line's Fortresses
A Brief Affair
In September, French General Gamelin, overall Allied Commander, did send 11 divisions into the Saar region along a 20 mile front. They penetrated about five miles and, though there were minor clashes, the Germans simply pulled back and waited for the full assault. It never came. General Gamelin changed his mind a few days later and withdrew all his troops and the Germans crept back to their original positions, not believing their luck. To this day, no satisfactory explanation has been offered for this decision. Before he was hanged for war crimes, German General Jodl stated that, had the Allies attacked as expected, Germany would have collapsed.
Waiting for the Hun
Instead, French and British leaders decided that any German attack would have to come through northern Belgium, since the Maginot Line was invincible and armor could not get through the rugged terrain of the Ardennes in Luxembourg and southern Belgium. Plans were made to counterattack through Belgium whenever the Germans decided to come calling. The Allied generals thought the Germans would merely modify their swing through Belgium which had nearly defeated the French and British armies in 1914. So, the Allies waited, content to let Germany decide when to attack. The German generals were incredulous. Once again, Hitler had pulled off the impossible; his intuition seemed infallible and opposition to him faded. The Hitler mystique grew. This would have terrible consequences for Germans and non-Germans alike when his intuition failed.
Still Waiting for the Germans
Don't Poke the Beast
It seemed the Allies were afraid to provoke the Germans, as crazy as that sounds, even after having declared war against Hitler. When a British politician suggested fire-bombing the ammunition dumps hidden in Germany's Black Forest, he was reproached by a cabinet minister who stated that the forest was private property and, therefore, could not be bombed.
Secret negotiations continued with small groups of German conspirators, in hopes that the German onslaught could be avoided if Hitler was removed from the picture. This came to nothing as Hitler's successes grew. Fear of German air raids on cities also played a factor. The British sent bombers over Germany, but mostly to drop tons and tons of propaganda leaflets, each one a “Note to The German People” exposing the evils of Nazism. The Germans took note of this and realized they needed more anti-aircraft batteries.
The War at Sea
Although the generals' armies in the west languished, the Germans and British were at least fighting on the seas as German submarines attacked convoys and the British Navy hunted the U-Boats. In September, a German U-Boat sank the aircraft carrier Courageous with a loss of more than 500 men. In October, another U-Boat managed to sneak into the British naval base at Scapa Flow and sink the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. In December, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which had been raiding commercial shipping in the Atlantic, was attacked by three British light cruisers. Rather than face what he was misled into believing was a large British fleet, the captain of the Graf Spee scuttled her.
Some Kept Busy
During the Sitzkrieg, the Germans consolidated their gains in Poland and the Soviets invaded their share of that hapless country. In November, the Russians attacked Finland, who surprised the world by holding off the giant bear all by themselves for months, but eventually had to sue for peace when no help came from the Allies. In April, 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and, though the British Navy landed Allied troops in northern Norway and fought enemy warships along the Norwegian coast, the Germans soon controlled the populous southern part of the country.
Here Come the Germans
The Wait is Over
Meanwhile, the Allied generals in France continued to wait.
On May 10, 1940, the waiting ended when the Germans invaded the Low Countries-- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg-- on their way to France. On that same day, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and one of the architects of the Sitzkrieg resigned and the King asked Winston Churchill to form a new government.
After eight months of inactivity, the Allied armies stirred themselves and pushed forward into Belgium to meet the Germans who had finally fallen into their trap. The Sitzkrieg had ended. It was only when German troops and armored columns punched through the impassable Ardennes and rolled up behind them, that the Allies realized they were the ones trapped.
© 2011 David Hunt