Andrew Roberts: Why did the allies delay declaring war on Germany?





[Andrew Roberts's latest book is 'The Storm of War'.]

At 04.45am on Friday 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command, the Oberkommando des Heeres. On either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland, crush its armed forces and capture Warsaw. Army Group North, under Colonel-General Fedor von Bock, would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), unite with the German 3rd Army in East Prussia, and move swiftly to attack the Polish capital from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north.

The Polish Corridor, which since the Versailles Treaty had cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a casus belli by the Nazis, as well as the re-absorption into the Reich of the ethnically-German Baltic port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939: 'Danzig is not the real issue; the real point is for us to open up our Lebensraum (living space) to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.' This was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the prophecies Hitler had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs - Üntermensch (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilisation. This was to be the world's first wholly politically ideological war, and as I argue in my new book, The Storm Of War, it was the primary reason why the Nazis eventually lost it.

The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, and was believed to have derived from Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen's celebrated pre-Great War study of Hannibal's tactics at the battle of Cannae. Whatever the provenance, it worked superbly, slipping German armies neatly between Polish ones and converging on Warsaw from all angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not German preponderance in men and arms, but above all the new military doctrine of Blitzkrieg. Poland was a fine testing ground for Blitzkrieg tactics: although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with hugely wide fronts and firm, late summer ground ideal for tanks. It provided almost laboratory conditions for experimentation.

Because the British and French Governments had given a guarantee to Poland on 31 March 1939, with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain formally promising her 'all support in the power' of the Allies should she be attacked, Hitler was forced to leave 40% of his 100-division army out in the West, guarding the still-incomplete Siegfried Line, or 'West Wall'. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to detail no fewer than 40 divisions to protect his back. Crucially, however, three-quarters of these were only second-rate units and they were left with only three days' ammunition. His best troops, along with all of his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his warplanes, were devoted to the attack on Poland.

Hitler was right to leave his forces so unbalanced, because the British and French Governments had no intention of invading Germany, indeed their planning staffs had not even so much as discussed the possibility. Far from declaring war immediately on the morning of 1 September, it was not until 11am on Sunday 3 September, more than 48 hours after Blitzkrieg had been unleashed, that Neville Chamberlain finally announced to the British people, in his famous radio broadcast from No.10 Downing Street, that the Germans had not responded to his ultimatum 'and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.' The two-day delay despite the unambiguous guarantee given only five months earlier has raised many doubts, both at the time and subsequently, as to whether Britain and France were secretly plotting together to renege on their promise to Poland, and pursue one more bout of Appeasement.

Conspiracy theories have abounded that the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax was in secret communication with Hermann Goering via a Swedish businessman called Birger Dahlerus to try to avoid having to declare war, but while it is true that Dahlerus made several secret visits to London up to and even after the outbreak of war, these did not in fact hold up the announcement. Neither was difficulty in recalling the House of Commons on a weekend a problem, indeed when it did meet on Saturday 2 September and the Government was still vacillating over the declaration, the Tory MP Leo Amery called out 'Speak for England!' to the Labour deputy leader Arthur Greenwood as he stood up to answer the prime minister on behalf of the opposition.

So what were the real reasons for the two-day delay in declaring war? It was true that Chamberlain and Halifax still hoped against hope (and rationality) that Hitler could be persuaded to withdraw from Poland once it was made clear to him that the Western Allies would stand by their guarantee. Because they would not be providing any material help to Poland, indeed the British Army only started crossing over to the Continent after 3 September, there seemed to them to be no particular hurry to declare war, since doing nothing to help immediately struck them as little different from doing equally little a few days later. Moreover, the French Government of Edouard Daladier seemed to be dragging its feet, and both Governments believed a simultaneous declaration would have a far better effect.

Yet the central reason for the delay was an offer by Mussolini for an immediate Five Power conference of Britain, France, Poland, Germany and Italy. Although Chamberlain told the Commons that Britain 'would find it impossible to take part in a conference while Poland is being subjected to invasion, her towns are under bombardment and Danzig is being made the subject of a unilateral settlement by force', so naïve were the prime minister and foreign secretary about the true nature of modern Blitzkrieg warfare that they genuinely imagined that there was even an outside possibility of Hitler simply calling off the attack...


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