Saturday, 3 September 2016

Neville Chamberlain - Britain's declaration 1939


On the 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, attacking all fronts. People throughout Britain heard the whispers of war grow and grow and by the morning of the 3rd September 1939, the tension hung in the air of many a household.

While Chamberlain tried to avoid war at all costs, it was not to be. At 11 am on the 3rd September, people tuned in to listen to the news on their radios, and to their prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who was to address the nation. His voice was grave and he said:

"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany."


Once his speech had ended, church bells rang all around the country and sirens wailed, although it was to be a false alarm. It was Sunday morning, and children played out in the streets and their gardens, their innocence their protector for now while worry was their parent's tormentor. Adults exclaimed, "Oh, God help us," - those who knew what to expect.

Afterwards, young men all eager to 'do their bit' and to have some excitement, rushed out to join up.
War had been expected for some time, although Chamberlain and his government had taken action to avoid it. In the meantime, Andersen shelters had been distributed to some 1.5 million homes to people living in areas which the government thought would be targeted by the Luftwaffe. The first shelter was erected in a garden in Islington, London on the 25th February 1939 and thereafter the shelters were rolled out up until the declaration of war.

Following the announcement, the blackout began and the lights all across Great Britain were snuffed out, one by one when darkness fell while gas masks were hastily distributed. The fleet was mobilised, placing the Royal Navy immediately in the action and Winston Churchill was given the post of First Lord of the Admiralty - the same post he'd held during the Great War.

This period would be known as the Phoney War because there were no immediate attacks from the Luftwaffe. It was quiet on the Home Front. But across the Channel, Hitler's forces were ruthlessly storming across Europe, bringing death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of people.

During this time, Britain prepared for war. Meanwhile, on the 11th September, the British Expeditionary Force of around 158000 men, with 25000 vehicles, left for France. The French were relying on their fortified Maginot Line, a stretch of concrete fortifications that ran the length of the French-German border.

In Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, the war was most definitely real. With the Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union and Germany in August, Russia followed on the heels of Germany into Poland in September. Personal gain was on the Russian agenda, claiming back borders lost during the Great War. Poland was to suffer an invasion on foot by troops and an aerial bombardment. The Russians would also invade Finland.

In Britain, signposts were removed in case of enemy invasion. Coastal defences were put in place and mines laid on some beaches. Barrage balloons were deployed and would force any invading Luftwaffe to fly even higher. Millions of sandbags were made up and distributed, being piled high at the entrances to public buildings, shops and hospitals and utilised at airfields. Many couples in love decided to get married before their men were called up and so this led to a wedding boom.

On the 10th September, Canada joined Britain and declared war on Germany and in September alone, more than 58,000 Canadians came forward to enlist.
The prospect of the USA joining the fight then was remote, but by 1940, when Churchill had been declared prime minister and Britain was facing a potential defeat, having suffered the retreat and withdrawal from Dunkirk, France, he was determined to draw in Roosevelt and get America onside. He knew that if he could do that, they had every chance of defeating Hitler. Thus, he set about wooing America, delivering an act of showmanship to coax and persuade, and eventually, he achieved his goal.