September 1939 and the outbreak of war

August 28, 2009

terrycharman– 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.”


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Posted by September 1939 and the outbreak of war  | Report as abusive

After reading this article, the truth becomes obvious: people may think they know where the world is heading, but in reality, no one knows…

Posted by Sparty | Report as abusive

The British were left adrift by Chamberlain in terms of defense. They literally had no means with which to conduct a war against Hitler. And Chamberlain certainly conveyed a defeatist attitude throughout the runup to the war.Churchill took over at a time when the British were at low ebb, with no real hope for a military buildup significant enough and quickly enough to hold off the Nazis. It was really a hopeless situation.But, by bringing in the old warhorse Churchill, they did exactly the right thing. And Churchill was able to rally the Brits, engage FDR and the Americans, and begin the process of ramping up the British military strength, based largely on American military transfers (probably illegal at the time, but handled deftly by FDR.)The final impetus was given by the Japanese attack on Pearl harbor, which turned around the isolationist tenor in America and allowed FDR to declare a war on Japan (and soon after, on Germany) where a few months earlier that would’ve been political suicide.As the American industrial base was turned from consumer goods to war goods, the two nations — England and America — slowly became a giant German adversary, based largely on an amazing buildup of American war production, and eventually defeated the Axis powers in a long and costly war (the government-mandated and -funded manufacturing buildup for which, incidently, became the major cause of America finally climbing out of the ’30s depression.)But, all of that came after December, 1941. The years of ’39, ’40, and ’41 before that were grim indeed for England, and it was only the force of Churchill’s public speeches to rally a very desolate English people, and Churchill’s bulldog determination that kept the British Isles afloat until America could enter the war.

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

It’s worth remembering that a lot of Churchill’s achievements have entered popular history on account of his writing the very same history, something he boasted about himself. His actions between the wars included voting against Chamberlains attempts to re-arm, at a time when it was obvious the Germans were re-arming, which is in itself surprising given his contribution during WW1 including development of aerial warfare the tank. But then again Britain was feeling poor at the time.During WW2 he would micro-manage military campaigns and even throw the spanner in the works when an action was underway, with Norway being a classic example where he diverted troops enroute to Norway resulting in vital material not being available to the remainder of troops who did arrive thus voiding their efforts.It’s also a moot point as to weather Britain won the war. It was on the winning side, or alliance, but it would probably be more accurate to say Russia broke the back of the Nazis, and the Americans won the war. It could also be said that Hitler lost the war with his ideological idiocy.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

If Mr Charman, pops up the road to the ‘Futurist’ exhibition at the Tate Modern, he’ll find a proclamation by Marinetti from 1909 glorifying contemporary progress and the prospect of the First World War.If by 1939, the next world war was being anticipated with less enthusiasm, perhaps we can look forward to WWIII in 2017-23 with a degree of indulgent indifference?Since war is directed by the old, but experienced mostly by the young, maybe the remnants of slaughtered Edwardian youth, being the political body of 1939; were somewhat reticent to pass on their legacy of military success in 1918 and total political/diplomatic failure in 1938?Avoid running into or AWAY from war seems the obvious lesson here. But then the Spartans knew that 2500 years ago. Funny, I don’t recall reading that in any of the current over referenced, conceptually barren history books though…

Posted by Rhoops | Report as abusive

Rhoops, it is a fact that “war is directed by the old, but experienced mostly by the young”, as you say. The very natures of war and politics dictate that this has been and always will be, true. It is also a fact that aggressors, like Germany, Italy, and Japan have always been with us. So, if a nation wishes to survive, and diplomacy fails (as it did for Chamberlain), war or capitulation are the two alternatives.If so, “can [we]look forward to WWIII in 2017-23 with a degree of indulgent indifference?” The answer is no.As should’ve been the case in England before WWII, it is the responsibility of our government to prepare us FOR, as well as protect us FROM war, using BOTH diplomacy and — if it comes to that — war. And war preparedness these days cannot begin when the war does. In our modern world. it is far too late by then.BOTH the US and England failed to prepare adequately for war. The US, as luck would have it, had the two oceans to shield us (for a time), an advantage which England did not have. In the next war, if there is one, the oceans will not shield us as they did in 1941.–Mike

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

The defencelessness of Britain in 1939 and its failure to re-arm have always been somewhat exaggerated in my view. In 1939 Britain had by far the largest navy in the world – absolutely colossal and capable of wiping the floor with all-comers. The RAF already had the Spitfire – don’t forget we fought and won the Battle of Britain just a few months later, in an era that certainly wasn’t one of computerised production lines. Certainly the army’s equipment was rather antiquated compared to the German stormtrooper’s, but it wasn’t a small army – it numbered many hundreds of thousands of men before war was even declared.Our main problem in 1938 was the unwillingness of our allies to fight. The French and the Belgians had 1.5 million men under arms in the spring of 1940. Had they fought, and not turned tail and run, the whole war would have been very different. The blitzkrieg was a massive gamble, a gamble largely (as it proved correctly) on your enemy’s lack of backbone.We still need to learn the lessons of all this today, in Afghanistan for a start. The Taliban will never be defeated while some of our allies have no stomach for a fight.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

So what did WE (the US) learn?What I learned from history is:1. The best way to win a war is not to start- Sun Tsu2. To win a war you must know your enemy and yourself- Sun Tsu3. Some things are worth fighting for- Revolutionary War4. War is brutal, no matter where it is – Civil War, WWI5. To win a war you need ALL your resources to be available (War economy) – WWII6. You must be as aggressive and brutal as the enemy and willing to go all the way- Korean War7. If it isn’t worth it pull out – Vietnam War8. Have the best trained/equiped military in the world with an objective – Desert Storm9. Have an exit strategy- OIFExperience tells me if we are going to do war it should be worth it, we should be aggressive, We should be “all in”, and we should have a “National” objective with an exit strategy…..

Posted by Gordon | Report as abusive

So the Terry Charman “revelation” is that Chamberlain spent a anxious night after declaring war.He finds it incredible that Chamberlain had a “time or two” with nothing to do and thus was no war leader. I find it incredible that that Mr Charman thinks we are so credulous. The pre war planning was all being put into effect by then.His hero Churchill was presumably filling his time by:1/ “Sleeping off” the night before.2/ Composing a love letter to Good old Uncle Joe.3/Plotting his “walk with destiny” with the Labour (Disarmanent) Party.4/Getting his crony Beaverbrook to find a use for the venerable left winger Michael Foot.Namely to criticise Baldwin and Chamberlain for not rearming fast enough a few years after criticising Baldwin and Chamberlain for rearming.Being the genius he was Churchill did all this and more at the same time. Mr Charman is welcome to read between these lines to read what I mean.

Posted by harrys | Report as abusive