September 1939 and the outbreak of war
- Terry Charman is Senior Historian at the Imperial War Museum in London. He studied Modern History and Politics at the University of Reading and while there interviewed Adolf Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. He specializes in the political, diplomatic, social and cultural aspects of the World Wars, and wrote “The German Home Front 1939-1945″ and “Outbreak 1939: The World Goes To War“. He is curator of the exhibition Outbreak 1939 at the museum. The opinions expressed are his own. -
In September 1939, in marked contrast to August 1914, Britain went to war in a sombre mood of resigned acceptance of the inevitable. There was no Union Jack waving “hurrah” patriotism as there had been twenty-five years before. After Adolf Hitler had torn up the Munich Agreement in March 1939 and invaded the Czech lands, the British people recognized that appeasement had failed and that the German leader’s aggressive plans would have to be stopped, and if necessary by force of arms.
On September 3, 1939, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on the radio that Britain was at war with Germany, for many the news came as a relief from the tension of the past few weeks and months. An anonymous diarist noted: “Even horrible certainty seems better to me than uncertainty.”
While in Bradford a young man of military age wrote in his diary: “I don’t think I’m sorry to die so that Hitler will be crushed, but I do want a final peace this time, without constant crises.” Chamberlain’s over-personal broadcast-“you can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me…”-was hardly a rousing call to arms, and it was followed almost immediately by the wailing of air raid sirens.
Many people thought that they were heralding a devastating air raid that had been dreaded for so long. That morning, writer George Beardmore experienced a sensation of utter panic. He, like so many others, had seen the film “Things to Come” and remembered all “the dire prophecies of scientists, journalists and even politicians of the devastation that would follow the first air raid.”
In the event, it was a false alarm and somehow wholly symptomatic the rest of 1939. These were the months which novelist Evelyn Waugh was to later describe as “that odd, dead period before the Churchillian renaissance”, but at the time was called the “Phoney War”. There were no great battles on the Western Front, and it was not until 9th December that the first British soldier, Corporal Thomas Priday, was killed in action, a victim of “friendly fire”.
After an abortive attack on German warships on 4th September, the Royal Air Force confined itself to dropping aerial propaganda leaflets on Germany.“Fighting with bloody pamphlets” was one sour comment recorded that autumn about the enterprise. Only the Royal Navy, under Churchill’s energetic and aggressive leadership as First Lord of the Admiralty, seemed to be taking the war seriously, tackling the combined threat from German U Boats, surface raiders and magnetic mines.
Heavy losses were sustained, but in mid-December came victory following the Battle of the River Plate, an action which as Churchill said: “…in a dark, cold winter warmed the cockles of the British heart.” Many Britons as they listened to the First Lord’s pugnacious and confident broadcasts that autumn would have agreed with one diarist who wrote: “Hear Winston’s speech. Very good. Think he ought to be prime minister.”
Among Churchill’s colleagues there was a great deal of unwarranted optimism during the war’s first months. The Government laid plans to fight a three years war, but there were high hopes that the Nazi economy would collapse long before then, or that the “moderate” Goering would replace Hitler and conclude peace or that dissident German generals would topple the Nazi regime.
That false optimism was even reflected in the songs of the time: “We’re Gonna Hang Out The Washing On the Siegfried Line”, “We Won’t Be Long Out There” and “God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain.” And yet, as 1939 closed, when polled by Mass Observation, only 12 percent of British people confessed to being optimistic about 1940.
And at a New Year’s Eve party, an American correspondent saw how: “when Mr Churchill sang out the old year, he seemed deeply moved, as though he had a premonition that a few months later he would be asked to guide the British Empire through the most critical days it had ever faced.”