September 1, 1939 was the first day of Autumn in Europe. It was also the first day of World War II. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, a series of defence treaties catapulted the Allies–Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Egypt, and later USA– into an inexorable confrontation with the Axis (Germany, Austria, Italy, and later Japan).
One visible sign that the United Kingdom was at war was that key government buildings in London were fortified with thousands of sandbags, meant to absorb enemy gunfire, and protect the walls and foundations from the percussive shock of bomb blasts. Armies were mobilized, theatres were closed, night life was put on indefinite pause, and the population of Europe nervously awaited Hitler’s next move.
And do you know what happened next? Nothing. For all of September Hitler did nothing aggressive so the Allies did nothing defensive. Perhaps Chamberlain had been right and Hitler, like an overfed dragon, was now appeased by the hearty chunk of Europe he had already consumed.
And do you know what happened in October? Nothing. Then, November, December, January, March, and April all ticked by, uneventfully (although Norwegians would rightly decry my definition of “uneventful”). Compared to what had been anticipated after the First World War, all was quiet on the Western front.
In France Edward Daladier was given near dictatorial wartime power to conscript labor, but he elected not to. Factories that could have been making ammunitions, still cranked out civilian consumer goods, food remained un-rationed, as did gasoline, ski slopes were reopened to tourists and the Cote D’Azure resorts and night clubs in Paris were soon back in full swing. French soldiers were even granted leave to go home until they were needed.
In London, well into 1940, idle soldiers were seen napping on deck chairs in Hyde Park and casually feeding the ducks. King Lear was still on show. The Times newspaper had nothing to report about the war and turned it’s attention to the return of migrating swallows and cuckoos to the British Isles.
Alfred Duff Cooper made his fatuous announcement to an American audience that Britain and France had, “found a new way to make war without loss of human life.” One unpopular Cassandra was Winston Churchill, who passionately warned the Allies not to be lulled into a false sense of security.
And then, one day in May 1940, after nine months of almost no action… something ominous occurred in London: the sandbags, which had fortified the walls of government buildings, all began spontaneously to burst.