- 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.”