South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 525
February 2020

Contact: Charles Whiteing
Telephone: 031 764 7270
Mobile: 082 555 4689


After welcoming members and guests to the first meeting of 2020, the Chairman, Charles Whiteing, introduced the speaker, Professor Philip Everitt, for the evening with his two subjects which complemented each other, “The critical conditions in Britain between the wars” and “The Phoney War”.

Just months after the end of World War One, a strike over working hours led to huge crowds in Glasgow's George Square and fears it could be the start of a full-scale socialist revolution. The ensuing violence became known as Bloody Friday, with the crowds being beaten by police batons and the Riot Act being read for one of the last times. It led the government in London to take desperate measures to help bring the city under control. They deployed more than 10,000 troops to restore order and six tanks were sent north along with 100 motor-lorries.

It was just 82 days since the Armistice had ended the fighting in WW1, but the war cabinet was still sitting and the first item on its agenda on 30 January was the situation in Scotland's largest city.

A large red flag, the symbol of Marxist socialism, was carried into the square as the crowd gathered to hear the lord provost deliver the government's response. However, the government had already rejected the 40-hour working week demand. On the morning of Friday 31 January, tens of thousands of people marched to George Square preferring instead to talk to the official trade unions nationally.

Fighting raged all over the square and in adjacent streets. In North Frederick Street, the police were driven back when the strikers seized a lorry full of empty bottles and used them as missiles.The strikers withdrew to Glasgow Green where fighting continued with police. Sporadic fighting went on late into the night in some neighbourhoods, with tramcars smashed and shop windows broken and their stock looted.

This social unrest spread across Great Britain with the rise of the IRA, the pro-Nazi BUF and the communist Green Shirts leading the unrest until war clouds began to gather over Europe and people in Great Britain began to realise that there were more important matters to take their attention.

Professor Everitt then moved on to the “Phoney War”. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany and World War II officially began. However, all hell did not immediately break loose. In fact, from the fall of 1939 to the Spring of 1940, there were eight months of quiet when no land operations were undertaken on either side.

This period of time was dubbed the “Phoney War” by US Senator William Borah, who so astutely pointed out that “there is something phoney about this war” since although war had been declared, nothing had happened yet.

As both sides took this period as an opportunity to test each other, Germany ultimately used the inactivity on behalf of the allied forces as a chance to strike without full retaliation and was able to gain an advantage.

There were some minor skirmishes along the French border, and in the fall the French army launched the Saar Offensive, in which they advanced over the border into the Rhine Valley, but then abruptly decided to change tactics. It’s speculated that France used this opportunity as a means of testing out German forces, ultimately choosing to take on a more defensive role.

Through these first few months, it seemed all parties involved in the war were hesitant to make the first move, looking to take a defensive rather than offensive role. Germany, for one, hoped to convince Great Britain to agree to peace, and Great Britain held off on bombing attacks, afraid that any harm done to civilians would result in a counterattack. 

The British air force did briefly consider bombing the Black Forest or other industry targets, but it was decided that those were private property and should not be touched.

Great Britain did, however, show that they absolutely had the potential to drop devastation upon Germany by dropping propaganda leaflets onto German cities instead of bombs. Though the British intended this to be a kind of scare tactic, they wound up inadvertently benefiting Germany by showing them where they needed to improve their anti-aircraft barriers.

The lack of any typical wartime atrocity in major cities like London or Paris convinced some children that had been evacuated to return to their parents.

On Sept. 3, Germany’s U-30 submarine attacked the British passenger liner “Athenia”, killing 112 people. The Germans claimed that they believed there had been a bomb placed on board the ship, but after the attack, Hitler himself issued strict orders not to attack passenger boats.

Just about two weeks later, the British suffered the loss of their first warship when German U-29 sunk their aircraft carrier, the HMS Courageous. The following month they lost another battleship, the HMS Royal Oak when a German U-47 sunk the ship off the coast of Scotland. In retaliation, the Royal Navy attacked the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee, in December of 1940, and captured the tanker Altmark in the Battle of Narvik off the coast of Norway.

The war began to pick up shortly following these sea attacks, in April of 1940, especially when Germany invaded Norway and Denmark. Although the Scandinavian countries had maintained their neutrality at the start of the war, the Germans wanted to secure the Norwegian Coast, as it was an advantageous place for them to launch U-boat attacks. The Germans subsequently spawned Operation Weserübung on Apr.9, and it took them only a month before they gained control of southern Norway.

The Phoney War officially ended when the Germans invaded France in May of 1940. Allied forces were drawn from Norway to defend France, and Norway was unable to keep the Germans out by themselves and so surrendered on June 9th.

In the meantime, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as the British Prime Minister, and Churchill was a staunch opponent of the policy of appeasement, or avoiding outright conflict. He saw to it that the land battles had fully begun, and this strange period of limbo ended.

The continent of Europe would not be quiet again until September 1945, when World War II finally came to an end.

The vote of thanks on behalf of the audience was given by Roy Bowman for an extremely well researched and presented talk on a subject that few people are aware of.

The chairman closed the meeting, at the same time announcing the talks for 13th February:

13th February 2020

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