1940: A FATEFUL
XILTO SZKAP ACAAP SZBEC SXUYZ
(Commence hostilities at once with
Germany). Coded Admiralty signal sent,
‘Most Immediate,’ to all Commands,
home and abroad. Received at 1121
a.m., 3rd September 1939.i
This message, sent using an Admiralty code that had been broken, would have been intercepted and decrypted by members of German Naval Intelligence. It made clear that the period of appeasement and diplomatic nicety through which Europe had passed was over. Hitler’s bluff had been called. His invasion of Poland had exhausted the patience of France and Britain, whose eagerness to compromise had already enabled the Fiihrer to dismember Czechoslovakia.
Though Britain and Germany were at war from the beginning of September 1939, it would be a further seven months before hostilities actually began in earnest. In the autumn, a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France to assist their allies in what looked like a repeat of the experience of 1914. It was assumed that a German invasion would soon be launched, though since the previous war France had created a vast national defensive barricade, the Maginot Line, that ran for hundreds of miles along its eastern frontier. A series of bunkers, pillboxes, gun emplacements and tank traps that took advantage of the terrain, it was seen as impregnable and was expected to wear out the manpower and armaments of any attacking German army. It thus permitted the French a certain confidence.
Since the opening days of the Great War much else had improved. Both the British and the French had fast-moving armour (though in the event it would prove far less effective than that of the Wehrmacht) and fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force were deployed ready to fly and fight defensively. The United Kingdom did not yet have the resources in place to fight a fullscale war, but its troops were expected to be able to hold the enemy advance and to assist the much larger French army in the coming showdown. This did not materialize, and the winter passed quietly. In the concrete bunkers of the Maginot Line and in the more Spartan defences dug by the Tommies, soldiers waited through long months of inactivity. The French knew this period as the drole de guerre, and the British as the ‘phoney war’ or, more succinctly, the ‘bore war’. Their opponents, similarly impatient on their own side of the FrancoGerman border, called it the Sitzkrieg (‘sitting war’).
One incident during that winter might have given valuable insight to those on the Allied side of the defences – had they taken it seriously. In November a German aircraft lost its way and landed at Mechlin, just over the Belgian frontier. Inside was an officer, who attempted to burn some papers just as a gendarme arrived to investigate. The items were confiscated and proved to be the General Staff plan for the Wehrmacht’s westward attack. The information was passed on to the governments of France and Britain, but both assumed the plan to be a bluff and disregarded it. This was the first of numerous occasions in the coming conflict on which the authorities would disdain valuable intelligence on the grounds that they were suspicious of its source.
The ‘bore war’ ended in April of the following year when, in a sudden but meticulously planned move, German forces struck not westward but north, overrunning Denmark – which had neither the resources nor a suitable terrain for resistance