‘We went out singing, but we didn’t sing for long’

Stephen Spender records in his Journal :

Yesterday morning while I was waiting for a bus, some soldiers passed down the road singing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’:
An unshaved and very ragged old tramp wearing the ribbons of several medals so loosely attached to his coat that they were almost falling off, said to me,

‘They’re singing now, but they won’t be singing when they come back. Hearing ’em sing reminds me of when I went out to fight in them trenches. We went out singing, but we didn’t sing for long.’ “

See Stephen Spender: Journals 1939-1983

RAF aircraft ‘flying with impunity over Germany’

Minute 1 of the War Cabinet minutes from the meeting held on 8th September 1939:

The Secretary of State for Air informed the War Cabinet that further leaflet dropping operations had taken place over north-west Germany, including Kiel on the night of the 7/8 September. Apart from certain reconnaissances, there had been no other operations worth mentioning.

A discussion took place as to whether the dropping of leaflets should be continued. It was pointed out that there was a strong feeling in some quarters that it was not right that, while Poland was being severely bombed by Germany, our operations should be confined to the dropping of propaganda. On the other hand, there was good reason to believe that the German authorities feared the effect of propaganda, and the fact that aircraft were able to fly with impunity all over the North West of Germany would have a depressing effect on the morale of the German people.

It was generally agreed that the material which should be incorporated in the leaflets was a matter which could best be left to the discretion of the Ministry of information, but that the suggestion that the Prime Minister’s Broadcast to the German people would form a suitable leaflet should be brought to the notice of the ministry.”

The Secretary of State for Air was Sir Kingsley-Wood

CAB 65/1/8

Meanwhile over Poland …

Heinkel He III over Poland
Heinkel He III over Poland

The first ‘Situation Report’ given to the War Cabinet

Inside a RAF bomber over Germany: dropping leaflets down the chute
Inside a RAF bomber over Germany: dropping leaflets down the chute

The Naval, Military and Air Situation. An Appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff Committee for the period up to 7th September 1939:

This was the first of the weekly resumes produced by the Service Chiefs, summing up the war situation for the War Cabinet.

1. The Royal Navy has been fully engaged in its task of securing sea communications, escorting military and air reinforcements, giving protection to British and Allied shipping, and in interrupting the enemy’s seaborne trade.

2. The entire fleet has taken up or dispositions as modified to meet the naval situation which has developed in the opening days of the war. The necessary patrols have been established.

3. Three Polish destroyers made a timely passage from the Baltic to the North Sea, and will, in due course, make a valuable addition to our destroyer strength.

4. Progress is being made with the fitting out of liners as armed merchant cruisers.

5. The French fleets have taken up their dispositions as agreed in the Allied war plans.

29. The main cause of the great difficulties with which the Polish armies have been faced has been the overwhelming German air superiority. Polish railways have been heavily attacked, a considerable proportion of their war industries have been put out of action, and their meagre Air Force has been reduced to a state of impotence.

Nevertheless the last official reports stated that the morale of the Polish Army remained high.

33. There have been rumours ever since the German — Soviet non-aggression pact was signed on 22 August that a military pact was also contemplated. Certain Soviet officers have gone to Berlin but there is no confirmation yet that a military pact will be concluded. The reports of Soviet military concentrations on her western frontiers are not conclusive and appear, at present, to be no more than is reasonable under the present circumstances. There are few signs that the Soviet is yet likely to abandon the policy of letting other nations fight, while she waits to reap the benefits later.

British Air Operations

39. An attack against German warships was carried out on 4 September, 1939, by two squadrons of Wellingtons and two squadrons of Blenheims. The results reported were – two hits with 500 lb. bombs on a warship in the Schilling Roads, and one hit on the side of the lock alongside a warship at the entrance to the Kiel Canal.

The attack was carried out at a low altitude in the face of considerable opposition by fighters and A A. fire . Seven of our aircraft failed to return.

40. In addition flights over western Germany have been carried out each night in order to distribute propaganda pamphlets. Opposition has been slight, and has been confined to spasmodic A.A. fire. No fighters have been encountered and it is estimated that some 9,000,000 pamphlets have been dropped on Germany.

See TNA CAB 66/1/13

The War Cabinet discusses an air raid warning

From the War Cabinet minutes 6th September 1939 :

6. The Secretary of State for Air explained the reasons why an air raid warning had been issued in the early morning of 6 September.

The question of a communiqué was discussed. It was agreed not to issue one at the moment, but the Secretary of State should have discretion to issue one later if necessary.

7. The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that five merchant ships, four British and one French, had been sunk by submarine the previous day. There was reason to believe that the position from our point of view was probably now at its worst and would improve.
Rigorous steps were being taken to ensure that merchant ship captains obeyed the instructions given them.
Two German merchant ships had been sunk by H. M. S. Ajax on the previous day. The sinking had been in accordance with the rules of war, but it was not clear why H. M. S. Ajax had been unable to find prize crews and take the ships into port. The Admiralty would take steps to ensure that wherever possible enemy merchant ships were captured and not sunk.

8. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff gave an account of the situation in Poland, which had deteriorated very rapidly. Information was very meagre, but the Polish army still appeared to be intact.

The first British pilots are shot down in the 'Battle of Barking Creek'

From the Operations log of No.74 Squadron RAF

Hornchurch 6.9.39
Twelve Spitfire aircraft (6 of ‘A’ flt and 6 of ‘B’ flt) ordered to intercept enemy air raid which turned out to be a friendly formation of Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron, North Weald. P/O BYRNE and a and P/O FREEBORN opened fire on two Hurricanes thinking they were Hostile Escort Fighters. Both Hurricanes were brought down. One pilot P/O HULTON-HARROP, was killed. Other pilot was uninjured. No enemy aircraft were sighted.

See TNA AIR 50/32

Byrne and Freeborn were subsequently acquitted of any wrong doing at a Court Martial held at Hendon on the 17th October. The record of proceedings at the Court Martial does not appear to have survived.

See also North Weald Airfield Museum.

The German Army advances towards Krakow

A German half track in Poland

Wilhelm Pruller was with the German Army as it invaded Poland, though he does not record which unit he was with. He clearly believed in the cause he was fighting for. His diary is peppered with references reflecting current Nazi propaganda. For example “ it’s unthinkable for us … as the greatest European Power to sit back and watch the the presecution of the Volksdeutche [the ethnic Germans then living in Poland] without doing something”. As such his is a valuable record of the views held by many Germans. But also he records his personal experiences with great immediacy and vividness:

Following night patrol, we proceed at 5.00 towards Krakow. Yesterday some of us were killed, and many wounded. Enemy artillery fires against us. We destroy it. Altogether, I’ve a great deal of faith in our weapons. Yesterday the Poles were [not] ready for battle for the umpteenth time. They continue to withdraw. They should face and fight us in a decent and manly way. But not a bit of it!

Our road to Krakow is marked by burning villages, which were set on fire by the artillery, or by us if we encountered any resistance. Yesterday evening the whole countryside was red with fire.
7.00 in the morning: we haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday at 2.30 a.m. Our usual meal consists of black coffee for breakfast, tea and something warm for supper. But you can keep going on that, because now and then Schmalz (fat) or Leverwurst turns up, and during the day we feed ourselves on beets, fruit and so on. 9.15: finally we get coffee. How good that tasted!

12.30-1 o’clock: momentous fight with Polish machine-gun emplacement very solidly entrenched. At last we were able to chuck them out. Stuparits and I went up forward right to the line, but the munition boys couldn’t get to us. It was tough. But we came through it. At 7.00 p.m. we are told that we’re to go somewhere else. Our orders are now completed. Three divisions have met. The road to Krakow is open, and we’re 35 miles away. But we’re still moving. Where to? We left at 20.00. Only four days of war! But full of danger and wonderful experiences! Today I’m still alive, and so are you and Lore. All of us!

See Wilhelm Pruller: Diary of a German soldier

The British Prime Minister addresses the German people

From the ‘Broadcast Talk to the German People’ made by Neville Chamberlain

GERMAN PEOPLE.-Your country and mine are now at war. Your Government has bombed and invaded the free and independent State of Poland, which this country is in honour bound to defend. Because your troops were not withdrawn in response to the Note which the British Government addressed to the German Government, war has followed.

With the horrors of war we are familiar. God knows this country has done everything possible to prevent this calamity. But now that the invasion of Poland by Germany has taken place, it has become inevitable.

In this war we are not fighting against you, the German people, for whom we have no bitter feeling, but against a tyrannous and forsworn regime which has betrayed not only its own people but the whole of Western civilisation and all that you and we hold dear.

You may ask why Great Britain is concerned. We are concerned because we gave our word of honour to defend Poland against aggression. Why did we feel it necessary to pledge ourselves to defend this Eastern Power when our interests lie in the West, and when your Leader has said he has no interest to the West? The answer is-and I regret to have to say it-that nobody in this country any longer places any trust in your Leader’s word.

He gave his word that he would respect the Locarno Treaty; he broke it. He gave his word that he neither wished nor intended to annex Austria; he broke it. He declared that he would not incorporate the Czechs in the Reich; he did so. He gave his word after Munich that he had no further territorial demands in Europe; he broke it. He gave his word that he wanted no Polish provinces; he broke it. He has sworn to you for years that he was the mortal enemy of Bolshevism; he is now its ally.

Can you wonder his word is, for us, not worth the paper it is written on?

In this war we are not fighting against you, the German people, for whom we have no bitter feeling, but against a tyrannous and forsworn regime which has betrayed not only its own people but the whole of Western civilisation and all that you and we hold dear.

May God defend the right! “

For all related documents see the Avalon Project

Athenia sinking "should have helpful effect" on US opinion

From the War Cabinet minutes of 4th September 1939:

6. The First Lord of the Admiralty reported that steamship Athenia outward bound with 300 Americans on board had been sunk 200 miles north-west of Ireland at 2 PM on 3 September, 1939. It was understood that the passengers and crew were in the ship’s boats. Two destroyers were hastening to the rescue and should be near the scene. The occurrence should have a helpful effect as regards public opinion in the United States.

The steamship Blairbeg had been sunk 70 miles north west of Ireland. H. M. S. Renown had detached her anti-submarine escort of two destroyers to the rescue.

The War Cabinet were informed that the routing of merchant ships was in force, but the convoy system had not yet started. Reference was made to the statement in the joint Anglo-French declaration that we should abide by the Submarine Protocol of 1936. Germany was one of the powers which had adhered to the protocol.

7. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff reported on the position as regards the air defences of Great Britain and the date of arrival in France of the Field Force. The Chief of the Imperial Gen staff gave the War Cabinet is a picture of the military situation in Poland as he saw it. The concentration of as many as 32 divisions in Slovakia had come as a surprise. The country between Slovakia and Poland was extremely difficult for military operations, and presented administrative problems of great magnitude. If the Germans were able to carry out their plan, the Poles would have to face an attack in enormous strength from the south.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff expressed a personal view that the crushing of Poland by Germany in a few weeks with most improbable.

More on the sinking of SS Athenia.