Messerschmitt Me 110s fly over the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1940.

Germany advances through Europe

September 1939 - May 1940

Between September 1939 and May 1940, Nazi Germany vanquished country after country across Europe. By the summer of 1940, Hitler had conquered the continent and Britain stood alone.

Photo: Messerschmitt Me 110s fly over the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1940. (akg-images)

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The lead-up to war

In the late 1930s, by using a combination of clever diplomacy and bullying, Germany re-occupied neighbouring territory which it believed had been taken from it unfairly at the end of World War One. Hitler's next step was the creation of a Nazi-dominated Europe.

In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Previously sworn enemies, now the two countries agreed not to attack each other, leaving each free to pursue their own military agendas. They also planned to carve up Poland between them.

Britain declares war on Germany

On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, devastating it with the full force of its ‘blitzkrieg’ (‘lightning war’) strategy. This was a highly mobile combination of tanks, infantry and artillery with air support. The Soviets, meanwhile, advanced from the east.

On 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany in support of their ally Poland. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) immediately began to move out to northern France to support the French army. However, France and Britain did not move to attack German troops and, on 13 September, France fell back behind the Maginot Line (a series of defensive fortifications on the French-German border). Poland held out until the 27 September, when Warsaw finally fell.

The 'Phoney War'

Now a period known as the 'Phoney War’ began, in which Western Europe remained relatively quiet. This was interrupted in April 1940 when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Denmark surrendered but Norway fought on, with British and French help, until June. It was a disastrous failure for the British and forced the Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain, to resign. On 10 May he was replaced by Winston Churchill. On the same day, the Phoney War came to a very real end when Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and stormed into France on the 12th. The German blitzkrieg again proved difficult to resist.

By the end of May the Low Countries had been conquered. French and British forces withdrew to the French northern coast as the country fell, city by city, to the Nazis.




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