A major German innovation was to use dive bombing aircraft, ‘sturzkamfflugzeu’, in close support of their front line troops. The Ju-87 or ‘Stuka’ became notorious as a terror weapon partly because it was fitted with a siren that wailed as the plane dived. It was a sturdy short range bomber capable of very accurate attacks on ground targets such as tanks or troop convoys and was also used against shipping. However it was vulnerable to other aircraft because it was so slow and could only be used confidently where the Germans had complete air superiority. In Poland it was able to operate almost completely unopposed.
The SS Athenia was was west of Ireland, en route to Canada when she was torpedoed at 1945 on 3rd September 1939. Oberleutnant Lemp, commander of U-30, appears to have mistaken her for an armed merchantman or a troop ship. In fact she was an ordinary passenger ship and 28 out of the 112 who died were United States citizens. Lemp realised his mistake and kept his actions secret until he returned to base. Meanwhile Nazi propaganda sought to make out that the British had themselves sunk the ship as part of a scheme to bring America into the war.
The following account of the attack on the Athenia was given by Adolf Schmidt to the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal after the war. Schmidt was wounded in a subsequent action during the same patrol and put ashore in then neutral Iceland. He spent the rest of the war as an internee and then as a prisoner of war.
I, Adolf Schmidt, Official Number N 1043-33T, do solemnly declare that: I am now confined to Camp No. 133, Lethbridge, Alberta.
On the first day of war, 3rd September, 1939, a ship of approximately 10,000 tons was torpedoed in the late hours of the evening by the U-30. After the ship was torpedoed and we surfaced again, approximately half an hour after the explosion, the Commandant called me to the tower in order to show me the torpedoed ship. I saw the ship with my very eyes, but I do not think that the ship could see our U-boat at that time on account of the position of the moon. Only a few members of the crew had an opportunity to go to the tower in order to see the torpedoed ship. Apart from myself, Oberleutnant Hinsch was in the tower when I saw the steamer after the attack.
I observed that the ship was listing. No warning shot was fired before the torpedo was launched. I myself observed much commotion on board the torpedoed ship. I believe that the ship had only one smoke stack. In the attack on this steamer one or two torpedoes were fired which did not explode, but I myself heard the explosion of the torpedo which hit the steamer.
Oberleutnant Lemp waited until darkness before surfacing.
I was severely wounded by aircraft 14th September, 1939.
Oberleutnant Lemp shortly before my disembarkation in Reykjavik, 19th September, 1939, visited me in the forenoon in the petty officers’ quarters where I was lying severely wounded. Oberleutnant Lemp then had the petty officers’ quarters cleared in order to be alone with me. Oberleutnant Lemp then showed me a declaration under oath according to which I had to bind myself to mention nothing concerning the incidents of 3rd September, 1939, on board the U-30. This declaration under oath had approximately the following wording: ‘I, the undersigned, swear hereby that I shall keep secret all happenings of 3rd September, 1939, on board the U-30, from either foe or friend, and that I shall erase from my memory all happenings of this day.’ I signed this declaration under oath, which was drawn up by the Commandant in his own handwriting, very illegibly with my left hand.
Later on in Iceland when I heard about the sinking of the Athenia, the idea came into my mind that the U-30 on the 3rd September, 1939, might have sunk the Athenia, especially since the Captain caused me to sign the above mentioned declaration.
Up to today I have never spoken to anyone concerning these events. Due to the termination of the war I consider myself freed from my oath.”
There is a very thorough article of the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Athenia on Maritime Quest, including an account of how Goebbels sought to use the episode for propaganda purposes.
In Hull, Richard Brown’s reaction, recorded the next day, was possibly fairly typical, although he was unusually frank in recording it for posterity:
Didn’t do much work the first day, possibly due to the lack of sleep, but more probably suppressed excitement. On the day war was declared I had a peculiar feeling of intense patriotism, a determination to do whatever I could to help (swank) and in the evening when the King spoke to us am afraid I stood up to attention when they played ‘The King’. Queer how we get moved out of our usual feelings at times, because though I am patriotic I wouldn’t usually have stood at attention with only myself for company.
By the way I have estimated this affair will last five to six years. What a hell of a time. Five times 365 days each of which might produce some sort of frightfulness in the way of an air raid or bad news.
From the War Cabinet minutes, 3 September 1939, meeting at 5pm:
Consideration was given to the question whether we drop propaganda leaflets over Germany. It was believed these leaflets would have an important effect on German public opinion. Moreover, the Germans would realise that British aircraft were flying over their country. The dropping of leaflets might well have its maximum effect in the first few hours of war. The risk to pilots was not regarded as great. The area in which it was proposed to cover were Hamburg, Bremin and the Ruhr.
The War Cabinet agreed that its operations to be carried out during the forthcoming night.
The War Cabinet agreed to —
(a) to authorise the immediate dispatch of a bomber force to attack the German fleet reported to have sailed from Wilhelmshaven that afternoon;
(b) to authorise the dropping by aircraft of propaganda leaflets on Germany on the night of the 3rd – 4th of September;
(c) that —
(i) the Chief of the Air Staff should inform General Gamelin of the above decision was taken by the War Cabinet, and
(ii) that the French Ambassador should be similarly informed and requested to reaffirm to the French government the intention of His Majesty’s Government not to initiate air action which might involve the risk of civilian casualties.
It was a warm late summers Sunday morning in Britain when Neville Chamberlain addressed the nation on radio. Many people in Britain recorded their reactions to the declaration of war:
Joan Wyndham, then 17, was among many who recorded the first air raid warning in London:
This morning war was declared by the Prime Minister over the radio.
Five minutes after the National Anthem, while we were still sitting around feeling rather sick, the air-raid warning went. For a moment we didn’t believe our ears – we hadn’t had time to realise we were at war – then we went down to our gas room and began damping the blankets with pails of water.
When the room was ready we went and sat on the front doorstep waiting for the first gun. The balloon barrage looked too lovely in the sun against the blue sky, like iridescent silver fish swimming in blue water. After a bit the all-clear sounded. We heard afterwards that it had all been a mistake.”
J. K. Stanford , a veteran of the First World war, had voluntarily rejoined the army in July as a junior officer:
‘ELEVEN o’clock! War’s declared! From now on everybody will wear tin hats!’
With this, the stupidest order of the war, ringing in my ears, I began my tiny part on 3rd September in the most momentous conflict in history. My captain, commanding a National Defence Company, looked at us digging slit trenches in an Ordnance Depot, crammed, as an afterthought, his own helmet on his brow, and looked at his watch again.
Then, murmuring something about ‘a reconnaissance’, he stepped abruptly into his car. The brim of his helmet caught its roof with a hollow clang, and he fell back as if pole-axed.
We picked him up, dusted him down, and assured him he was the primal British casualty of the war. He drove off, shaken, to ‘reconnoitre’ an inn, where they were lenient to travellers on a Sunday morning. The war had begun. “
The British Prime Minister Chamberlain addresses the House of Commons:
… [W]e felt that the intensified action which the Germans were taking against Poland allowed no delay in making our own position clear. Accordingly, we decided to send to our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:-
“In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you, on the instructions of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, that unless the German Government were prepared to give His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom satisfactory assurances that the German Government had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.
“Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have accordingly the honour to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m., British Summer Time, today 3rd September, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour.”
That was the final Note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.
This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much. I cannot tell what part I may be allowed to play myself; I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.
For all related documents see the Avalon Project.
Paul Schmidt was a translator in the German Foreign Ministry. The Germans had not responded to an earlier British and French demand to withdraw their troops. A message was received stating that Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador to Germany, wished to meet with German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop.
Ribbentrop decided that Schmidt should meet with the British ambassador alone:
“It was after midnight when the British Embassy telephoned to say that Henderson had received instructions from London to transmit a communication from his Government at 9 a.m., and that he asked to be received by Ribbentrop at the Foreign Office at that time. It was clear that this communication could contain nothing agreeable, and that it might possibly be a real ultimatum. Ribbentrop in consequence showed not the slightest inclination to receive the British Ambassador personally next morning. I happened to be standing near him.
‘Really, you could receive the Ambassador in my place,’ he said to me. ‘Just ask the English whether that will suit them, and say that the Foreign Minister is not available at 9 o’clock.’ The English agreed, and therefore I was instructed to receive Henderson next morning – that is, in five hours time, it being now 4 o’clock in the morning.
On Sunday, September 3rd, 1939, after the pressure of work over the last few days, I overslept, and had to take a taxi to the Foreign Office. I could just see Henderson entering the building as I drove across the Wilhelmsplatz. I used a side entrance and stood in Ribbentrop’s office ready to receive Henderson punctually at 9 o’clock. Henderson was announced as the hour struck. He came in looking very serious, shook hands, but declined my invitation to be seated, remaining solemnly standing in the middle of the room.
‘I regret that on the instructions of my Government I have to hand you an ultimatum for the German Government,’ he said with deep emotion, and then, both of us still standing up, he read out the British ultimatum. ‘More than twenty-four hours have elapsed since an immediate reply was requested to the warning of September 1st, and since then the attacks on Poland have been intensified. If His Majesty’s Government has not received satisfactory assurances of the cessation of all aggressive action against Poland, and the withdrawal of German troops from that country, by 11 o’clock British Summer Time, from that time a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.’
When he had finished reading, Henderson handed me the ultimatum and bade me goodbye, saying: ‘I am sincerely sorry that I must hand such a document to you in particular, as you have always been most anxious to help.’
I too expressed my regret, and added a few heartfelt words. I always had the highest regard for the British Ambassador.
I then took the ultimatum to the Chancellery, where everyone was anxiously awaiting me. Most of the members of the Cabinet and the leading men of the Party were collected in the room next to Hitler’s office. There was something of a crush and I had difficulty in getting through to Hitler.
When I entered the next room Hitler was sitting at his desk and Ribbentrop stood by the window. Both looked up expectantly as I came in. I stopped at some distance from Hitler’s desk, and then slowly translated the British Government’s ultimatum. When I finished, there was complete silence.
Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him. He was not at a loss, as was afterwards stated, nor did he rage as others allege. He sat completely silent and unmoving.
After an interval which seemed an age, he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing by the window. ‘What now?’ asked Hitler with a savage look, as though implying that his Foreign Minister had misled him about England’s probable reaction. Ribbentrop answered quietly: ‘I assume that the French will hand in a similar ultimatum within the hour.’
As my duty was now performed, I withdrew. To those in the anteroom pressing round me I said: ‘The English have just handed us an ultimatum. In two hours a state of war will exist between England and Germany.’ In the anteroom, too, this news was followed by complete silence.
Goering turned to me and said: ‘If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us!’ Goebbels stood in a corner, downcast and self-absorbed. Everywhere in the room I saw looks of grave concern, even amongst the lesser Party people.”
The note handed to the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop by British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson at 9.30pm:
On the instructions of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I have the honour to make the following communication:-
Early this morning the German Chancellor issued a proclamation to the German army which indicated clearly that he was about to attack Poland.
Information which has reached His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the French Government indicates that German troops have crossed the Polish frontier and that attacks upon Polish towns are proceeding.
In these circumstances, it appears to the Governments of the United Kingdom and France that by their action the German Government have created conditions (viz., an aggressive act of force against Poland threatening the independence of Poland) which call for the implementation by the Governments of the United Kingdom and France of the undertaking to Poland to come to her assistance.
I am accordingly to inform your Excellency that unless the German Government are prepared to give His Majesty’s Government satisfactory assurances that the German Government have suspended all aggressive action against Poland and are prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom will without hesitation fulfil their obligations to Poland.
For all related documents see the Avalon Project
World War II began with the invasion of Poland. Without warning at 0445 the German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, while the German army swept across the border. The old battleship had sailed into the free city of Danzig earlier in August on a ‘courtesy visit’ and would have launched an assault on 26th August, only for Hitler to postpone the date of the invasion.
The heavily wooded Westerplatte peninsula had been a popular park but now contained an ammunition depot. The Polish garrison of only 182, armed mainly with machine guns and mortars, was to make a heroic stand, fighting against overwhelming odds for over a week. The episode might well be seen as the Polish ‘Alamo’ except on this occasion most of the defenders survived, inflicting much greater losses on the German attackers. Ignacy Skowron, then a corporal in the Polish garrison, later remembered
The cruiser then sailed into the channel and started to fire shell after shell at us. I saw huge trees being snapped in two.
On the second day there were three attacks before midday. We fought back and then later we heard some noise and there were planes overhead. They started to dive-bomb us and guardhouse number five was completely destroyed. Five soldiers were killed.
The Germans saw that their attacks weren’t working so they used flame-throwers to try and overcome us with flames. By the sixth day we were barely managing to survive because we were cold, hungry, dirty, and we hadn’t slept. We were struggling.
There were hundreds of German dead but most of the Poles survived and they were allowed to make an honourable surrender, with the officer keeping his sword. See BBC 2009 news report