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World War Two: The beginning


The day that war was declared, Sep 3rd 1939

From a conversation with Mary Elton who was 10 when war was declared

Everyone knew that war was a possibility but they were hoping against hope that it wouldn't happen. Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, had tried to avoid war by appeasing Hitler, i.e. allowing him what he wanted in the hope that it would satisfy him - and there is a well-publicised photo of him in 1938 holding a piece of paper after visiting Germany, announcing "Peace in our Time".

Mary's first vivid memory that something was afoot was seeing the headline in a newspaper: "Hitler invades Poland" and she wanted to know what 'Polland' was, saying it to rhyme with Holland. That invasion was on the 1st of September 1939. Britain had a non-aggression pact with Poland so was duty bound to respond.

The response, i.e. the actual day that Britain declared war on Germany is etched in her memory. It was the 3rd September 1939 and her family was on holiday in Torquay. Everyone in the house was 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. There was no sense of bravado at all, just glumness. All the adults remembered the first World War with its horrendous loss of life and depravations.

Guest contribution

The first real sign that war had begun - a sirens test

Unusually for a Sunday morning we were at my grandparents' house in Orpington, Kent, when we listened to Mr Chamberlain's sad 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. It turned out to be a false alarm on that occasion; the sirens were probably just being tested.

Geoff Copus

Guest contribution

A first reaction to war being declared

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 them in to her cottage where they waited until the all-clear was sounded. 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

When afternoon came everyone went down to the beach and filled sandbags. Mary is not sure where the adults got the empty bag from, but certainly the country had been making contingency plans for war for some time.

When it was time for Mary's family to go back home after the holiday they had to drive through village after village because there were of course no motorways then. There was despondency everywhere.

Guest contribution

Was Neville Chamberlain 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 war, all the ground floor classrooms had been reinforced with beams and the windows protected. A few weeks later the 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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