On September 3, 1939, in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Great Britain and France, the two allies of the invaded nation declared war on Germany.
The first victim of this statement was not German, but the British liner Athenia, which was sunk by a German U-30 submarine which had assumed the liner was armed and belligerent. There were more than 1,100 passengers on board, 112 of whom lost their lives. Of these, 28 were Americans, but President Roosevelt was not surprised by the tragedy, declaring that no one should “speak without thinking or falsely that America is sending its armies to European fields.” The United States would remain neutral.
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As for Britain’s response, it was initially nothing more than the dissemination of anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets – 13 tons of them – on Germany. They would begin bombarding German ships on September 4, sustaining significant losses. They also worked under the order not to harm German civilians. The German army, 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, bounded by the borders of Luxembourg and Belgium, two neutral countries. The Germans undermined the passage, blocking the French offensive.