Day 1 of WW2 on the home front, Sep 3rd 1939

Day 1 of WW2

This page is about the experiences and emotions of ordinary British people on the day that World War Two was declared, based on recollections of website visitors who experienced it firsthand. To set the scene, the page starts with some background on the fears, beliefs and expectations of ordinary people during the days, weeks and months running up to the war.


By the webmaster with collected recollections and additional research

Setting the scene: expectations and beliefs before WW2 broke out

Before WW2 was declared, everyone in Britain knew that it was a possibility because Adolf Hitler's territorial ambitions in Europe were well known. However, the hope was that it wouldn't happen. In general, people rested their faith in what they understood was an agreement between Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, and Hitler that he would not invade Britain. There are well-publicised photos of Chamberlain in 1938 returning from a visit to Germany for talks with Hitler, waving a piece of paper and announcing "Peace in our Time". The agreement was known as the Munich Agreement, but precisely what was on the paper is somewhat uncertain.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving document signed by Hitler

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving the 'Peace in our time' document on his return from visiting Hitler in Munich

Hitler invades Poland and war becomes inevitable

Of course, adults realised that Hitler was dangerous long before I did, as I was only 10 at the time. My first vivid memory of what finally made war with Germany inevitable was seeing the headline in a newspaper, 'Hitler invades Poland'. That was on the 1st of September 1939. I could see that it was upsetting everyone around me. I wanted to know what 'Polland' was, saying it to rhyme with Holland, and was told briefly that it was a country. I overheard that Britain had a non-aggression pact with Poland, so Britain was duty bound to respond.

Mary Elton, age 10 at the time

The day that war was declared: typical views from everyday life

Britain's response to its responsibility to Poland, the actual day that Britain declared war on Germany, is etched in my memory. Even though I was only 10 years old, I felt and remembered the emotion of everyone around me. It was the 3rd September 1939, two days after Hitler invaded Poland, and my family was on holiday in Torquay. All the hotel guests were clustered round the wireless, as radios were then called, waiting for news.

Then at 11.15 Neville Chamberlain announced:

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11.00 a.m. 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 that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

Everyone was stunned. I realised afterwards that the adults were remembering the First World War with its horrendous loss of life and depravations. So there was no sense of bravado at all, just glumness.

When afternoon came, people went down to the beach and filled sandbags. I have no idea where they got the empty bags from, but certainly the country had been making contingency plans for war for some time.

When it was time for my family to go back home after the holiday we had to drive through village after village because there were no motorways then - and there was despondency everywhere.

Mary Elton

Sirens sound in Kent - the first sign of an imminent air raid

There was no period of respite for the residents of Kent, as they knew that they were on the front line for German bombers. Immediately, literally on the first day of war being declared, they heard their first sirens, used as advance warning of an imminent air raid. The following are more firsthand recollections.

Unusually for a Sunday morning we were at my grandparents' house in Orpington, Kent when we listened to Mr Chamberlain's dismal tones as he told us that we were at war with Germany. Kent was of course in the front line, so when, almost immediately the sirens sounded, it was very frightening indeed. They were like an undulating wailing moan. It turned out to be a false alarm on that occasion - just a sign of things to come.

Geoff Copus

My parents were visiting my grandfather's house in Kent when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his historic radio broadcast announcing Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany. After listening to the distressing news, they decided to get a breath of fresh air and take a walk through the leafy Kentish lanes, pushing me in my pram. Not ten minutes had passed when the local air raid siren sounded. A local woman called my family into her cottage where we all waited until the all-clear sounded its even-toned wail. There had been no sign of a raid, but I can only imagine how daunting the experience must have been. They later found out that sirens had wailed across most of the Home Counties that day thanks to an unidentified, friendly aircraft crossing the South Coast.

Peter Bradford

Chamberlain the appeaser or political mastermind?

The war had happened, and Chamberlain became known as an 'appeaser' - a rather derogatory term implying taking the easy way out by agreeing to something unreasonable without a fight. In fact, Chamberlain knew that Britain was not ready for war in 1938 and was playing for time, as explained as follows by a school boy who was there at the time.

Neville Chamberlain was not naive to believe Hitler's assurances that Germany would not attack Britain

It is generally thought that Neville Chamberlain was naive to believe Hitler's assurances in 1938 that Germany would not attack Britain. In fact Chamberlain knew that he had to play for time because Britain was not yet ready for war. When I went back to school in September 1938, almost a full year before the outbreak of the war, all the ground floor classrooms had been reinforced with beams as protection against air raids, and the windows were taped to prevent shattering. A few weeks later, our Government ordered over a million Anderson shelters. Chamberlain's delaying tactics had been essential and commendable.

Peter Johnson

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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