The period between Germany’s defeat of Poland in October 1939 and her invasion of Norway in April 1940 is often referred to as the “Phony War” because there wasn’t much happening.
The French stiffened their defenses while the British moved troops to the continent. The British wanted to send their air force to bomb targets inside Germany but were persuaded not to by the French who feared German reprisal. The major activity consisted of dueling propaganda messages blared from loudspeakers across the German and French lines.
The French felt secure behind their vaunted Maginot Line. Paris was ready to fight World War I all over again – a war of defense, but of course, Adolph Hitler and his high command had a different strategy in mind. In order to isolate the iron ore resources of Sweden, and secure his northern flank, Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark on April 9.
The next blow came a month later. In the early morning darkness of May 10, the Germans unleashed their Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) against the Netherlands and Belgium. Blitzkrieg was a new kind of warfare integrating tanks, air power, artillery, and motorized infantry into a steel juggernaut emphasizing speedy movement and maximization of battlefield opportunities.
The attack sent the defending troops reeling.
The roads overflowed with refugees fleeing the front. French and British troops rushing to the rescue were caught in the headlong retreat and pushed back. German dive-bombers – the Stukas – filled the sky, strafing the retreating mix of civilians and soldiers with machine gun and bomb. The Allies fought valiantly but in vain – the German war machine advanced unperturbed. In England, the invasion forced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to resign, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.
The Germans defied military doctrine, skirted the Maginot Line and slashed into France through Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest. The Blitzkrieg moved with lightning speed as Hitler’s tanks turned and raced headlong to the sea. They reached the English Channel on May 21 cutting off the Allied armies in the North.
The Germans turned again, fighting their way north to secure the coastal ports and annihilate the trapped armies. Miraculously, the German high command called a halt to the advance. The reprieve lasted 48 hours, long enough for the British to defend Dunkirk and evacuate what they could of the Allied armies. The Germans entered Paris on June 14. In a humiliating ceremony on June 22, France signed an armistice with Germany, leaving Britain to carry on the fight alone.
General Erwin Rommel, who would later gain fame in the African desert as the “Desert Fox”, led the 7th Panzer Division as it crashed through the Belgian defenses into France, skirting the Maginot Line and then smashing it from behind.