Berlin, Germany; Warsaw, Poland; and London, England · August 27, 1939

On this date in 1939, one day after Adolf Hitler aborted his plan to in­vade neigh­boring Poland, Ger­man mobili­zation con­tinued. Between August 25 and 31, a further twenty-one infan­try divi­sions and two motor­ized divi­sions were in place along the Ger­man-Polish fron­tier, while arma­ments for other units were strength­ened. A total of 1.5 mil­lion men were within miles of the bor­der or in bar­racks pending orders to move. From August 26 Ger­man air­ports were closed and Ger­man air­space became a restricted zone. Diplo­mats needed per­mis­sion to travel out­side the capital. Across the fron­tier, what amounted to a gene­ral Polish mobi­li­za­tion was ordered on August 23 for all army units in the Polish Cor­ridor and much of west­ern Poland. On the 27th the remaining Polish reserve units were mobi­lized. In Great Britain, Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain (in office 1937–1940) refused to sanc­tion gene­ral mobili­za­tion owing to the fear that it could be used as a pre­text by other states, as it was in 1914, to mobi­lize in retali­ation. How­ever, on August 22–23 he autho­rized the first stage of calling up “key part­ies” to man staff rooms, com­mand posts, and anti-air­craft units. On August 24 all anti-aircraft and coastal defense posi­tions were ordered to be fully mobi­lized, in­volving more than 120,000 men. Cham­ber­lain also took steps to create a multi­party “War Cabinet,” which in­cluded his future suc­ces­sor and strong anti-appeaser, Winston Chur­chill (1940–1945), whom Cham­ber­lain restored to his execu­tive cabi­net as First Lord of the Ad­miralty. In an ad­dress to the British Parlia­ment on August 24 and in a letter to Hitler on August 27, which con­veyed pretty much the same thing, Cham­ber­lain reit­er­ated his pledge in the face of “the im­mi­nent peril of war” that British com­mit­ments to defend Poland’s inde­pen­dence would be honored unre­servedly lest any­one in Ber­lin think other­wise. As in Britain, Ger­many, and Poland, so in France. On August 24 Premier Édouard Dala­dier (1938–1940) author­ized steps to bring his coun­try to a state of pre­limi­nary mobili­za­tion. French Army chief Gen. Maurice Gamelin re­assured Dala­dier, “We have a respect­able parity in equip­ment.” Euro­pean politi­cal and mili­tary leaders appeared ready and able to pro­tect them­selves against Hitler’s next aggressive threat.

Milestones on the Way to War: German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (1939) and Munich Agreement (1938)

Molotov signs 1939 pact overseen by Ribbentrop and Stalin Chamberlain and Hitler, September 1938

Left: Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the Ger­man-Soviet Non-Ag­gression Pact watched from behind by Ger­man Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop and, to his left, Molo­tov’s boss, Joseph Stalin. Hitler had hoped that the August 24, 1939, pact (rati­fied by the Kremlin on August 31) would pro­voke the Polish-British-French axis to col­lapse, allowing Ger­many to launch a swift, suc­cess­ful, and local­ized war against Poland to which Poland’s friends in the West could not quickly or effec­tively respond. The drama­tic news of the pact had much less effect on British and French leaders (and the public) than Hitler had expected. He had anti­ci­pated their govern­ments to fall, but West­ern intel­li­gence ser­vices had already pre­dicted the out­come of Ri­bben­trop’s hasty visit to Mos­cow. Also, public opin­ion in the West had shifted from a dread of war to a fata­listic acceptance of war.

Right: Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in the days leading up to the Munich Agree­ment, Septem­ber 1938. Unlike the 1938 crisis, which ended when the major Euro­pean powers black­mailed Czecho­slo­va­kia into handing Ger­many its Sude­ten­land (pri­marily eth­nic Ger­man any­way), the Polish crisis of 1939 turned out to be unsolv­a­ble: Cham­ber­lain demanded as a pre­con­di­tion that Hitler aban­don war against Poland as an option in settling Polish-Ger­man dis­putes, and Hitler was abso­lutely deter­mined to con­quer Poland despite West­ern guaran­tees to main­tain Poland’s inde­pen­dence and borders.

The Gathering Storm—Background to World War II in Europe

WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.