The phoney war
During the six months of inaction which became known as “the phoney war”, the British Army, including the 5th Division near Lille, with the Scots Fusiliers at Secin and later at Halluin near Tourcoing, was employed in the preparation of defences on the frontier and in the perfection of its own battle skills and standards.
The French-made fortifications were strengthened and modernised. Hundreds of pill-boxes were constructed, miles of broad-gauge railway laid, headquarters shelters and anti-tank ditches dug, a vast network of buried cables installed, nearly 50 new airfields and satellites prepared. All this work was carried out in severe winter weather.
One measure in particular amongst those taken at this time was to have a profound effect on later events. The masses of stores and ammunition dumped along the lines of communication, especially those north of the Somme, were to prove invaluable to Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief, during the long march to the sea which ended at the port and on the beaches of Dunkirk. Great emphasis was laid on the training of personnel. This was as urgent as work on the defences.
The hard-trained professional elements of the Expeditionary Force had been diluted by the absorption of reservists and territorials and the pick of the noncommissioned officers had been sent as instructors to training areas at home and abroad. “The phoney war” was tedious for the troops, but was lightened by home leave, which began about Christmas time and ended before the traditional “campaigning season” opened again in March. In the spring of 1940 the 5th Division went back to the neighbourhood of Amiens for field exercises. It was relieved by a Territorial Army formation, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division.
The peace-time routine prevailing at Amiens was broken when the Germans launched their attacks on Denmark and Norway in April. The token resources which had been intended for the help of Finland were diverted to Norway. British opinion demanded action, and a major expedition was organised to counter the seizure of Norway.
The entire 5th Division was originally assigned to this enterprise, along with Battalions of French troops, to link up with surviving Norwegian elements. The 15th Brigade actually reached Norway and was in action; but the 17th Brigade was halted at Le Havre, since the Germans had completed their conquest of the country and it was useless to despatch more troops. Instead, the 17th Brigade was sent to St. Pol to train with tanks.
But the blow struck in Norway had been only a preliminary. The German Army continued its premeditated programme, and on May 10 1940 invaded Holland and Belgium. When Poland had been crushed and dismembered, the tank and the dive bomber had been perfected by the Germans as weapons of offence. With these weapons they now swept through the Low Countries. “The phoney war” was over.