3rd September 1939. War Declared.
‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing’: pre-war quote by Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.(1)
On a fine Sunday morning war was declared Today in 1939 thus fulfilling the 1934 H.G. Wells’ prophecy of a major world war by 1940 and a previous grim prediction by Lieutenant-General, Sir A. Montgomery-Massingberd, of ‘twenty years of peace before another war with Germany as the Versailles Treaty might prove to be a constant source of trouble’.
War was declared on Germany first by the UK and France and later by the Commonwealth Nations (excepting Ireland), when the British ultimatum over Poland expired at 11 a.m.
On the wireless at 11.15 am Chamberlain announced: ‘This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them at eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us’.
The previous day in the Commons, Chamberlain had said he was not ‘declaring war immediately’, but events overcame him.(2)
Germany’s response was the naval bombardment of Poland and the sinking of the SS Athenia at 7.45 pm, 250 miles west of Inishtrahull, torpedoed by U-boat 30. The Captain said he mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser.(3)
Britain’s ‘hand-ringing’ response to this First Act of War, ‘belligerence’, as noted in Chamberlain’s private thoughts, was to simply get rid of Hitler, telling his sister, ’He must either die or go to St. Helena’.
The Second Act of War, ‘anxiety’, as reflected in his diary for the 23rd, the Foreign Office Permanent Secretary, Cadogan, on being asked by Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax about his ‘war aims’ recorded, ‘that I saw awful difficulties’, concluding: ‘must try and think this out’.
The Third Act, ‘setbacks’ came early, with the loss of HMS Royal Oak in October. Then on December 21st,a force of twenty-four Hampdens and eighteen Wellingtons failing to locate the ‘Pocket Battleship’ Deutschland, on heading back, two Hampdens were mistaken for Dornier 17s were shot down by Spitfires.
A War Cabinet of nine saw Chamberlain as Prime Minister with Churchill appearing fifth down the list as First Lord of the Admiralty. Not until next May did he replace Chamberlain.
Momentous periods of history are always accompanied by a safe haven for gold reserves, so it was on the 5th of October 1939 that HMS Revenge attached to the North Atlantic Escort Force departed for Canada carrying the bullion on which finally a nation’s wealth and security depends.
Never forget that a fully united Europe would have demanded the same gold and foreign currency movement: this time to Brussels.
(1) However out of this ‘nothing’ came much, defying the Latin tag: ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing comes nothing.
(2) Later Labour’s Arthur Greenwood in Attlee’s absence (he was recuperating from illness in North Wales and only in contact via the village kiosk) on saying, ‘I speak for Labour’, invoked the response from an angry Leo Amery ‘Speak for England’.
(3) The liner was bound from Belfast to Montreal with over 1,000 passengers and luckily all but one hundred and twelve were saved.
[Portsmouth] Evening News. Sun.3.9.1939. Images Johnston Press Ltd. Courtesy British Library Board (BLB).
Derby Evening Telegraph. same date. Image Local World Ltd. Courtesy BLB.
Nottingham Evening Post. Same date/references as for Derby Evening Telegraph.
Diaries of Chamberlain and Cadogen.
Hansard Commons Reports, 1939.