The World at War: e02 – Distant War (September 1939 to May 1940)


We are only at the second episode but already I find myself needing a little breathing space at the end of an episode, time in which to come down, or come back from these appalling times. Time in which the various thoughts that arose watching this early stage to settle, and to make sense.

This episode was entitled ‘Distant War’, but the period it covers is more commonly known, at least in Britain, as the ‘Phoney War’, when Britain was at War, and was very busily, industrially and excitedly preparing for it, but in which nothing was actually happening. What there was of the War was elsewhere, a long way from our shores, of little or no direct effect upon us. Yet even these preliminsary stages were a locking into place of the machinery of War, laying the ground.

Germany invades Poland. At the same time, so too does Soviet Russia, in accordance with their pact. Poland is wiped from the map, not for the first time. Britain, who went to War over the integrity of Poland, does nothing at all to assist its gallant ally, save for taking in refugees.

Instead, there’s an almost feverish unreality to the way things went, the immediate decision to evacuate children out of the cities and away from the bombing raids that were feared but not yet experienced. The footage was real as were the memories of the people involved. I felt the horror of families being sacrificed, children removed from mothers and fathers. It was personal to me because that was my mother’s experience during the War, evacuated from inner city East Manchester to Leek in Staffordshire. An organiser spoke, as feelingly as any could in those days of British stoicism, the justly derided ‘stiff upper lip’, of the effect on the children, the feelings of rejection. A Lord spoke with disgust at the behaviour of some of the ‘evacs’, and behind the class difference you could not but sympathise, and marvel at the thought of children being brought up to behave so filthily.

The wheels ground forward. In Germany they built, manugactured and equiped, as they had already been doing. In Britain we didn’t lift a finger. We had no idea, no clue. We celebrated the Battle of the River Plate, the same one as the Powell/Pressburger film I once reviewed. The details were the same because The Archers stuck to the truth, so there wasn’t the same sense of disconnection between fiction and fact. Winston Churchill, restored to the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty, celebrated and propaganised the victory shamelessly.

Still the War was taking place elsewhere. The Russians invaded Finland, a chilingly contemporary phase. At first the Finns, a smaller but sleeker force, with ideas and tactics, forced them back, just as Ukraine are doing now, until Stalin turned the screw and overwhelmed them with numbers. How far might history repeat itself?

And then the British finally acted. At Churchill’s urging, and after much debate, an attack was planned on Norway, neutral Norway, though which Germany was importing coal and iron. Channels would be mined and a British force landed to attack two significant places on the Norwegian coast. The operation was a disaster. It wasn’t the scale of the defeat but rather the scale of the incompetence. The expedition was so under-equipped, both physically and in terms of coherent planning, that the details seem scarcely imaginable.

Narvik was the catalyst for the end of this phase of the War, for Phoney becaoming real and present. Germany invaded Norway as a consequence, aided by the original quisling, Vidkun Quisling, who would become the country’s puppet Prime Minister and a by-word for treachery and corruption. And in Britain, anger at the management of the War by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain led to heated debate, cross-party anger and a Vote of Confidence won by a margin small enough to act as a defeat. Chamberlain would resign. What mattered now was who he recommended as his successor.

There were two choices: Churchill and Lord Halifax. The terms in which the choice was described were very familiar. Halifax was ‘safe’. He was Chamberlain’s ally, his trusted lieutenant, in short, more of the same. Most analysts expect that he would have sued for peace relatively early on. He had been an appeaser, but he had also pushed for greater action to deter Hitler after ‘Kristallnacht’. Indeed, after Dunkirk, Halifax pushed for seeking peace terms. But he was also a member of the House of Lords, and no-one from that House had been Prime Minister since Lord Salisbury. Churchill, on the other hand, was a gamble. He was an aggressor, given to large gestures that didn’t come off, such as Gallipolli in the Great War, and now Narvik.

In the end, the programme suggested that what turned it was that Halifax didn’t have the stomach for it, literally. He claimed to have had a pain in his stomach an hour before the crucial meeting with Chamberlin and Churchill. It was be officially stated that it was his being a Lord that stood against Halifax but it seems rather that he thought Churchill would do a better job.

The day Churchill was invited to become Prime Minister, Nazi forces invaded Belgium. The ‘Phoney War’, the Distant War, was over.

One final thought. I couldn’t help but notice that this episode played out over a specific phase, from the declaation of War to its real start, giving the episode a dramatic unity that couldn’t help but feel convenient. I couldn’t help but wonder if there had been any element of manipulation of the actual events to produce something so neatly self-contained. I don’t think there was or else it would have been long denounced. But the concern was there in the back of my mind. We shall have to see.

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