Key point: Prime Minister Chamberlain emerged from the uneasy 1930s and the drift to world war as a tragic, broken figure.
Just after midnight on September 3, 1939, a stylish young former socialite from Boston, Massachusetts, made her way toward London aboard the Harwich boat train after crossing the English Channel.
Virginia Cowles, a foreign correspondent for the Hearst newspaper group and the London Sunday Times, was returning from a stint in Berlin when she saw flashes on the southern horizon and heard a series of distant explosions. Before climbing onto a train bound for London’s Liverpool Street Station, Miss Cowles asked a dockworker if war had been declared. “Not yet,” he replied, “but I hope it won’t be long now. This waiting around is making us all nervous.”
When the newswoman reached the outskirts of the British capital, she was met by torrential rain and realized that she had witnessed a violent thunderstorm and not the outbreak of a European war. Yet Miss Cowles, who had been awakened early on September 1 by the heavy tread of storm troopers on Berlin’s Unter den Linden, still felt apprehensive.
At the same time as Virginia Cowles was heading into London, young Lieutenant Peter Parton of the Royal Artillery was watching a late showing of Wuthering Heights at the cinema in the little Somerset port of Watchet. Halfway through the projection of the newly released film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, an ominous message was suddenly flashed on the screen: “All officers and soldiers return to your barracks immediately.” Parton feared that, in the British vernacular of the time, “the balloon was about to go up.”
Tethered by heavy wire cables, thousands of large barrage balloons were hoisted over many British cities, ports, and military installations as a deterrent to dive-bombers and other low-flying enemy aircraft. They downed seven German planes in February-March 1941 and later destroyed 231 V-1 rockets.
Lieutenant Parton was right on the night of September 2, 1939. Several years of European appeasement and months of diplomatic maneuvering and mounting tension were coming to an abrupt end. Two days before, on Friday, September 1, massed German forces had burst without warning into Poland. British and French ultimatums to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler for a withdrawal went unanswered, and it was now just a matter of hours before the hostilities would widen into full-scale war.
A mere two decades after the end of World War I, Europe was on the brink of becoming embroiled in an even more catastrophic struggle—an inevitable yet unnecessary war. It could have been averted in the 1930s if the free nations had stood together firmly against the spread of tyrannical fascism across Europe. Now, peace had drained away like grains of sand in an hourglass.
“A Day of Unusual Beauty”
Sunday, September 3, 1939, dawned as a sunny, dreamlike day of apprehension that would be forever remembered by all who experienced it. Yorkshire-born novelist Storm (Margaret) Jameson poetically recalled “a day of unusual beauty; clear, hot sun; dazzingly white clouds beneath a blue zenith; a high, soft wind.”
While immaculately dressed diplomats still scurried about the European capitals that morning, British Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain presided over an emergency session of his cabinet in London. In Paris, French government officials insisted on trying to gain more time to mobilize their powerful army before going ahead with another ultimatum to Berlin, but British service chiefs and some cabinet members wanted to get on with it. Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha called for a 6 am deadline.
Eventually, it was agreed that Berlin would be issued with an ultimatum expiring at 11 am, demanding that its forces cease hostilities in Poland. After the shameful era of appeasement during which the well-meaning Chamberlain had mistakenly believed that Hitler’s word could be trusted, the honor of the British Empire was now at stake. As David Margesson, chief whip of the House of Commons, told a colleague, “It must be war, old boy. There’s no other way out.”
It was left to Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, to deliver a note to Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, at 9 am (8 am London time). The pompous, bumbling Ribbentrop left it to Hitler’s chief interpreter, Paul Schmidt, to accept the British ultimatum. Henderson liked Schmidt and told him, “I am sincerely sorry that I must hand such a document to you in particular.”
Schmidt had overslept for the 9 am meeting but was just in time to take delivery of the note from Henderson. The German made his way from the Foreign Ministry building in Wilhelmstrasse to the Reich Chancellery, where he slowly read the ultimatum for Hitler and Ribbentrop. “When I finished,” Schmidt reported, “there was complete silence. Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him.” Moments later, the Führer turned to Ribbentrop with a fierce look and asked, “What now?” Schmidt withdrew.
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The note gave Hitler three hours in which to order a cessation of operations in Poland. He saved his wrath for his inner circle—Ribbentrop, Nazi Party deputy leader Rudolph Hess, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels. The Poles, ranted Hitler, were just a miserable rabble, and it was a “disgrace” to treat them as a sovereign nation. The British understood this, he said, yet they were prepared to pillory him for “recognizing natural realities.”
France’s ultimatum was telephoned to the French Embassy in Berlin, and at 10 am in London BBC radio announcer Alvar Liddell told listeners to expect a statement from the prime minister in an hour’s time. Just before 11 (London time) on that fateful morning, the Paris ultimatum was delivered to the German Foreign Ministry by French Ambassador Robert Coulondre. This time, Ribbentrop condescended to meet him. The French envoy asked if Ribbentrop was able to give a satisfactory reply to the French demand for a German withdrawal from Poland. The foreign minister replied in the negative and accused France of aggression.
Meanwhile, in London, air-raid sirens echoed across the rooftops. But they were premature.
Miles away in Munich that day, Gauleiter Adolf Wagner was handed an envelope by a 25-year-old English socialite. She was Unity Valkyrie Mitford, a blue-eyed blonde and the unmarried daughter of the eccentric Lord Redesdale. Wagner opened the envelope to discover a suicide note. A member of Hitler’s Munich salon, Unity had fallen in love with the Führer and had pleaded with him to maintain good relations with Britain. The prospect of war between the two countries was too much for her, she wrote, so she had decided to “put an end to herself.” Unity went into Munich’s Englischer Garten and shot herself in the head with a small-caliber pistol.
Hitler ordered specialists to care for her, and she was taken to a clinic. As soon as she was able to travel, Unity was sent home to England in a special railway car by way of Switzerland. Eight years later, she succumbed to the bullet lodged in her brain.
11 in the Morning at No. 10
At 11:14 on the morning of Sunday, September 3, mustached, 70-year-old Prime Minister Chamberlain—the principled, soft-spoken peacemaker who had exhausted himself trying to avert a European war—stared balefully at a microphone in the cabinet room at No. 10 Downing Street and broadcast to the British people. His heart was heavy. BBC announcer Liddell observed that the prime minister looked “crumpled, despondent, and old.” He had done everything he could, said Chamberlain, but there had been no response to the latest ultimatum, so “a state of war exists between His Majesty and Germany as from 11 o’clock today.”
In a resigned, mournful tone, the prime minister declared, “You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done, and that would have been more successful….We and France are today, in fulfillment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace….
“Now, may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against—brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression, and persecution. And against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”
Chamberlain was courageously declaring a war he had not wanted. Peace would have been preferable. He had hoped that Hitler would somehow prove to be a man of his word, yet, by the beginning of 1939, he had few illusions about him. That March, Chamberlain told a guest that the Nazi dictator was “the blackest devil he had ever met.” The prime minister had come to recognize the strong possibility of war, and, like much of the British and French public, was ready to accept it.