On July 19, 1941 – 80 years ago today – the BBC World Service began using the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 of 1808 as a “linking” device on its broadcasts into Nazi-occupied Europe. Why the BBC chose to use music by a German-born composer, and what those four notes meant makes for quite a story.
The European phase of World War Two began on September 1, 1939, when Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded its neighbor to the east, Poland. The invasion had been made possible just 8 days before, when the Soviet Union entered into a so-called “non-aggression” pact with Nazi Germany. It was an act that stunned the world: these two greatest enemies, these two most diametrically opposed political ideologies – fascism and communism – had made nice: Hitler and Stalin had cozied up, climbed into the sack, and done the thang with each other.
Here are two of the many contemporary political cartoons that satirized the pact:
The treaty was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named for the foreign ministers, respectively, of the Soviet Union and Germany who negotiated the thing: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The “planned” expiration date of the pact was August 23, 1949, 10 years after its signing.
Neither the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin nor the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ever intended to honor the pact for that long; they were each just buying time until they believed themselves strong enough to invade the other. In the end, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact lasted for all of 22 months, when it was officially “terminated” on June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Back to the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Treaty agreements obligated Great Britain and France to stand with Poland, and that’s what they did; both countries declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. As I think we all know, soon enough, things went poorly for France and her immediate neighbors. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Germany’s victory was in no way assured. In terms of numbers of troops, France and Germany were equally matched. Germany had more airplanes, but the French had more tanks and artillery (the latter by a factor of 2:1). Nevertheless, it was an epic rout. France formally surrendered and the cease fire went into effect on June 25, 1940: just 46 days after Germany had invaded. The casualty numbers tell the sorry tale: Germany suffered 163,676 total casualties (dead, wounded, and missing); France 2,260,000. The British Expeditionary Force (the “BEF”) fighting alongside the French would have suffered equally catastrophic loses if not for Operation Dynamo, which saw 338,226 mostly English soldiers evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4, 1940.
Following France’s capitulation, the great island nation of Britain was utterly alone, though if Hitler and his staff had their way, not for long. Planning for “Operation Sealion” – the amphibious invasion of the British home islands – went into hyperdrive. But the English had something that neither France, Belgium, nor the Netherlands (all of which shared borders with Germany) had: the British had their moat: the English Channel. To get to Britain from the European continent, the German Army would have to cross the English Channel, 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. This could only be achieved if, one, the German Navy could keep the British Navy busy in operations far away from the Channel, and, two, if the German Air Force – the Luftwaffe – had achieved total air superiority over the Channel. Since invading Poland on September 1, 1939, the Germans had cakewalked through Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. They expected Great Britain to quickly collapse as well.
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