On September 3, 1939, in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France, both allies of the overrun nation declare war on Germany.
The first casualty of that declaration was not German—but the British ocean liner Athenia, which was sunk by a German U-30 submarine that had assumed the liner was armed and belligerent. There were more than 1,100 passengers on board, 112 of whom lost their lives. Of those, 28 were Americans, but President Roosevelt was unfazed by the tragedy, declaring that no one was to “thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields.” The United States would remain neutral.
As for Britain’s response, it was initially no more than the dropping of anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets—13 tons of them—over Germany.
Thanks to a fellow blogger, I went back and grabbed the translation of the above leaflet. Read it at the end of the post.
They would begin bombing German ships on September 4, suffering significant losses. They were also working under orders not to harm German civilians. The German military, of course, had no such restrictions. France would begin an offensive against Germany’s western border two weeks later. Their effort was weakened by a narrow 90-mile window leading to the German front, enclosed by the borders of Luxembourg and Belgium—both neutral countries. The Germans mined the passage, stalling the French offensive.
Translation of leaflet EH.276
England to the German people
The Nazi regime has, in spite of the endeavours of the leading great Powers, plunged the world into war.
This war is a crime. The German people must quite clearly distinguish between the pretexts employed by its government so as to unleash war and the principles which have forced England and France to defend Poland.
From the very beginning the English government has made it clear that the Polish question is not one which can justify a European war with all its tragic consequences.
Five months after the Munich Agreement the independence of Czecho-Slovakia was brutally trodden underfoot. So that Poland shall not also suffer the same fate, we must insist that peaceful methods of negotiation shall not be rendered impossible through threats of force, and that in the negotiations which are requisite the Poles right to live must be guaranteed and honourably kept. We cannot accept or admit a Diktat.
If Herr Hitler believes that the English government, out of fear of war, will allow the Poles to be left in the lurch, then he has been deceiving himself. In the first place England will not break her pledged word. Furthermore, it is high time that the brutal force whit which the Nazi regime strives to dominate the World should be halted.
Through this war the German Chancellor places himself against the unbending resolution of the English government, a resolution which has behind it not only the resources and means of the whole English Commonwealth, but also a union of other great Powers. It is a question of the salvation of human freedom and the right of peoples to live free.
Up to the very last moment the Pope, the President of the United States and the King of the Belgians, in the name of Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, made fruitless appeals to your Nazi government, urgently requesting that negotiations should be chosen in the place of war.
Now a catastrophe has broken out upon you in that the Reich finds itself isolated from the community of civilised peoples, without any support save that of Communist Russia.
You cannot win this war. Against you are arrayed resources and materials far greater than your own.
For years you have been subjected to the most stringent censorship, and by means of an incredible system of secret police and informers the truth has been withheld from you.
Against you stands the united strength of the free peoples, who with open eyes will fight for freedom to the last.
This war is as repulsive to us as it is to you, but do not forget that England, once forced into war, will wage it unwaveringly to the end. England’s nerves are strong, her resources inexhaustible. We will not relent.
Pass on (this leaflet)