Sub-Saharan Africa 1940: World War II and the Fall of France
In 1939 Germany invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war. Although this Second World War immediately drew in the British and French colonial empires, no fighting took place on the African continent until Germany defeated France in June 1940. In that month everything changed: an emboldened Italy entered the war and the French agreed to an armistice. Now two large and unfriendly empires faced the British and their allies in Africa.
1 Sep 1939 Germany invasion of Poland▲
Using several German-staged incidents as casus belli, Nazi Germany struck Wieluń, Poland, with the Luftwaffe at 04:40 on 1 September 1939—the first blow of World War II. Five minutes later, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military transit depot in the Free City of Danzig, with Germany launching an all out attack on Poland’s northern, western, and southern borders later that day.
3 Sep 1939 Declaration of War on Germany▲
Responding to the German invasion of Poland, France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The official Declaration of war by France and the United Kingdom was read out by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in Westminster, London, on behalf of both countries. Although the declaration fulfilled the two powers’ guarantees to Poland, moves of practical support were limited.
6 Sep 1939 South Africa enters World War II▲
Upon the outbreak of World War II, South African Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog, leader of the anti-British National Party, argued to keep the Union of South Africa neutral. After several days debate, the governing United Party—consisting of the National Party and the pro-British South African Party—dismissed Hertzog in favor of South African Party leader and former-Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Smuts took office on 5 September 1939, officially declaring war on Germany the following day.
25 May 1940 Belgian Congo in WWII▲
When Belgium fell to Germany in May 1940, the Belgian Congo remained loyal to the Belgian government in exile in London and continued as part of the Allied war effort. Congolese troops of the Force Publique would fight alongside British forces in the East African Campaign in 1941, with a Congolese medical unit eventually serving in Madagascar and even the Burma Campaign. Meanwhile the Belgian Congo itself would provide the Allies with much-needed resources such as copper, diamonds, rubber, and uranium—the last being critical to the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project.
10 Jun 1940 Italian entry into World War II▲
Holding that Germany would soon defeat the Allies, Benito Mussolini declared Italy’s entrance into World War II, effective as of midnight 10/11 June 1940. The Italian government presented the declaration to the British and French ambassadors in Rome shortly after 16:30, with Mussolini informing the Italian public later that day.
17 Jun–28 Jul 1940 Invasion of French Somaliland▲
In mid-June 1940 Italy began mounting attacks on French Somaliland from Italian East Africa, attacking the forts of Ali-Sabieh in the north and Dadda’to in the south. Despite the Armistice of Villa Incisa officially bringing the Franco-Italian war to an end on 25 June, the remoteness of the colony and its indecision over whether or not to break with the Allies meant that fighting continued until 28 July. Italian troops finally withdrew between October 1940 and April 1941.
22 Jun 1940 Second Armistice at Compiègne▲
Adolf Hitler and top military officials of Nazi Germany signed an armistice with representatives of the French Third Republic at 18:36 near Compiègne, France—the exact location of the 1918 armistice ending World War I. This new armistice ended French involvement in World War II on the side of the Allies and established a German zone of occupation in northern and western France, leaving the remainder (“Vichy France”) to be governed by the French.