Bringing the past to present times

Phoney War in Britain

Phoney War was a eight-month period of time after the declaration of war by Britian and France against Nazi Germany during 1939

The build up to the Phoney War started on 3rd September 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany, after the Germans had invaded Poland. In the summer of 1939, the British Government moved to safer areas. Extensive preparations had been made and the country was divided into three areas. London and the cities (the places at greatest risk from bombing) were the evacuation areas.

A second category called neutral areas, which meant people were not allowed to move into, or depart from. Thirdly, there were the reception areas, where evacuees would be located.

the evening times announces war, 1939
The Evening Times announces war, 1939

Britain had been preparing for heavy bombing, which many thought would come as soon as the war commenced. No longer were planes used mainly for reconnaissance or for dropping bombs by hand.

By the late 1930s the leading nations had developed armed air forces. The German Luftwaffe became large and equipped with some of the most up-to-date aircraft in the world.

Thus Britain prepared, trenches became dug in major cities, gas masks distributed, Anderson shelters erected, plans made for rationing and voluntary service organised. Both the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) and ARP (Air Raid Precautions) had become formed prior to war. The Government rightly believed would involve not only the Armed Forces, but also the civilian population.

Declaration of war

With the declaration of war, Britain prepared for the inevitable bombing of the cities. The Government estimated that some 600,000 civilians would be killed and a quarter of a million would be wounded in the fist two months.

The WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) had become formed to provide support in the event of war. They were to make and distribute clothes and blankets to refugees and provide linen and bandages for hospitals. It had become expected that the war would last about three years.

british soldiers waiting during the phoney war, 1939
British soldiers waiting during the Phoney War, 1939

In early September these plans became put into action. Within three days of the declaration of war, 1.5 million people had left the big cities. Whole schools became despatched with their teachers. A new word came into common use – evacuee.

Gas masks issued to everybody and ARP wardens had become made responsible for ensuring that people used them properly and carried them at all times. Strangely enough the wearing of them was not compulsory.

Waiting during the Phoney War

In spite of all the preparations very little happened. People began to drift back to their homes. There had become a public reaction against the defence forces. They appeared to be imposing unnecessary regulations when there was no danger. Britain at this time lacked real leadership. A lack of military action led to this period earning the nickname of ‘The Phoney War’.

However, it was not only on the Home Front that little seemed to be happening. In September 1939 the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had despatched across the expected German attack. This did not happen and troops spent most of their time on sentry duty.

51st highland division en-route to the front, during the 'phoney war', 1940.
51st Highland Division en-route to the front, during the ‘Phoney War’, 1940.

1940 saw the coldest January and February for 45 years, and the Thames froze over a distance of eight miles. This only added to the misery of people now subject to regulations and restrictions.

Only at sea was there a real war with the Battle of Atlantic. The German battleship KMS Admiral Graf Spee became scuttled by the Kriegsmarine on the River Plate. In April 1940 the Allies mined Norwegian waters. This led Hitler to invade Denmark, ‘The Phoney War’ was over.



By , last updated: 5th January 2021