Britain and France were in no position to directly assist Poland, which was quickly defeated. Soviet forces, in accordance with the Russo-German Pact of 23 August 1939, occupied the eastern part of the country. As Poland suffered, New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage’s anti-war sympathies led him to urge an international conference to seek a negotiated settlement – a course the British government dismissed out of hand.
The war continued in curiously muted fashion, reflected in its widespread description at the time as a ‘phoney war’.
As in 1914, the Allies took steps to defend France from an attack by Germany. A British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deployed in the northern sector facing Belgium, with the French manning the Maginot Line on the French–German border. The only New Zealanders involved were a handful of airmen serving with RAF squadrons.
Most expected the conflict to be similar to the previous war. But Germany’s assault on France – its long-awaited offensive in the west in May 1940 – shattered such illusions. The German blitzkrieg (a violent offensive by ground and air forces) split the Allied front. The BEF was forced to pull back northwards, eventually being evacuated, almost miraculously, from Dunkirk (Dunkerque).
France soon capitulated – with huge strategic consequences. Occupying the coastline facing Britain, Germany could tighten its blockade of Britain. The naval balance had been upset, and the British attacked parts of the French fleet to try to keep them out of German hands.
French colonies were now controlled by a collaborationist regime set up in the city of Vichy, though those closest to New Zealand, in New Caledonia and Tahiti, soon rallied to a free French entity that fought on with the Allies. New Zealand assisted this process, sending the cruiser Achilles to Tahiti in September 1940.