The King speaks to the Nation

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.

See Mr Brown’s War: A Diary of the Second World War

The British decide to drop leaflets on Germany

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.

Reactions to the British declaration of war

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.”

See Joan Wyndham: Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary

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. “

See: J. K. Stanford: TAIL OF AN ARMY.

The ‘Final Note’ is delivered to Germany

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.

Hear historians discuss ‘Is criticising Chamberlain unfair’ on BBC news. Related works are David Dutton: Neville Chamberlain (Reputations) and David Faber: Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis.

Hitler learns that Britain means war

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.”

See: <Paul Schmidt: Hitlers Interpreter The Secret History Of German Diplomacy 1935-1945.

The British ultimatum to Germany

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

The opening shots of World War II on the Westerplatte

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 German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte

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

The devastated Westerplatte a week later as the Germans advance

The Gleiwitz incident: the ‘first man to die’ in the War

In August 1939 Hitler was stirring up tension with Poland and he was prepared to fabricate whatever was needed as a pretext to invade. On August 11th he told the League of Nations High Commissioner

If there’s the slightest provocation, I shall shatter Poland without warning into so many pieces that there will be nothing left to pick up.

On August 22nd Hitler spoke to his military commanders

I will give propagandistic cause for the release of the war, whether convincing or not. The winner is not asked later whether he said the truth or not.

In fact preparations for Operation Tannenburg had begun on August 8th when SS-Gruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich told his men that war with Poland was ‘inevitable’.

The idea for fake “border incidents”, in which Germany would apparently be the victim of attacks by Poles probably came from Heydrich himself. It was he who was ordered to stage them, assisted by SS-Oberfuhrer Muller, head of the Gestapo.

They started by scouting the Silesian border between Germany and Poland and soon found suitable locations near the town of Gleiwitz. What they wanted were relatively isolated outposts of the German government that could be attacked by ‘Polish aggressors’. The attacks would be on a forestry station, a customs house and a radio station, where the ‘Poles’ would take over a German radio broadcast and make nationalistic statements in Polish. This would have a dramatic impact on ordinary Germans listening to their radios at home.

A plan was rapidly put together where SS troops dressed as Polish ‘rogues’ accompanied by units from the Polish army would ‘attack’ other SS troops dressed as German border guards. A refinement that was introduced during the planning was that some of the ‘Poles’ would be killed in the attack, so that their bodies could be presented to the worlds’ press as “evidence”. The victims were to be concentration camp inmates dressed as Poles, known as “canned goods”.

If the context and implications were not so serious the whole ‘pretend’ episode could be seen as a complete farce, especially as the Nazi’s had to go to extreme lengths to maintain the secrecy of the operation yet were simultaneously giving the nod to various individuals to keep ‘out of the way’. It was arranged that the regular Wehrmacht would keep clear of specific border areas so that they would not get mixed up in actually responding to ‘Polish aggression’.

The descent into farce came closer when on August 23rd, almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Nazi-Soviet Non aggression pact, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland to start at 4.30 am on 26th August. The first of three successive code words for Operation Tannenburg to commence on August 25th was sent. When the second code word was sent on the evening of 25th two of the ‘attacking’ units became confused and started to cross the border without waiting for the final third code word. Yet Hitler had had a change of mind, rescinding his order to invade because of British guarantees to Poland and a lack of support from Mussolini. Operation Tannenburg was now halted as well. German motor cyclists were sent out to deliver desperate messages to the ‘Polish’ forces telling them to stop.

This led to a revision of the overall plan. Now the takeover of the Radio station by ‘Polish rebels’ became more important. To give it added credibility it was decided that a real ‘Polish rebel’ was needed, so that he could be killed while ‘attacking’ the German radio station. The unfortunate Franz Honiok was selected from police files as being a well known local Polish sympathiser who had fought with the Poles during the 1921 rebellion by Silesian Polish nationalists, even though he was a German national. The 41 year old farmer and agricultural equipment salesman was picked up by the Gestapo on 30th August and held incommunicado.

Hitler decided to go ahead with the invasion on 30th August with the commencement of ‘Fall Weiss’ set for 5.45am on 1st September. Operation Tannenberg was back on. The attack on the Gleiwitz Radio staton went ahead on the evening of the 31st.

At around 8pm the ‘rebels’ managed to break into the unlocked compound and beat up the three radio station employees, all German nationals. Then their problems began. First they could not find a microphone. Further assaults on the radio station employees led to the discovery that it was not a radio station at all, merely a radio transmitter relay station for Radio Breslau, located many kilometers away. In desperation the ‘rebels’ found an emergency channel used for sending out local flood warnings and used this to send out their message of ‘Polish aggression’. How many people heard it, if any, is not known. However hundreds of thousands of Germans sitting at home listening to light music on the radio did not have their evenings interrupted by insurrectionist messages in Polish, as originally planned.

Meanwhile Franz Honiok, who had earlier been drugged into semi-consciousness, was dragged out, placed near the entrance to the radio station and shot in the back of the head. Later that evening the local police were called in to take photographs of the body, which they were forced to hand over to the Gestapo. When these were viewed in Berlin it was decided that they were not good enough – so the Gestapo went back and took pictures of the body in a different position – mysteriously by this stage a second body had been added. Eventually it was decided that even these could not be used for propaganda purposes. What happened to the bodies has never been established.

Later that evening the attacks went ahead on the Pitschen Forestry Station, where a bucket of ox blood was spread around, and at the Hochlinden Customs House, where the bodies of the “canned goods”, the concentration camp inmates, were left. However it was the attack on the Gleiwitz ‘radio station’ that attracted the most attention. The ‘take over of a German broadcast by Poles’ was being reported by German radio by 10.30pm and by the BBC the same evening, and featured in the New York Times the next day. Hitler referred to ‘three serious border incidents’ in his speech to the Reichstag on the 1st September announcing the war. The Nazi’s persisted with the Gleiwitz myth for years, it was only first seriously challenged at the Nuremburg trials.

See Alfred Spiess and Heiner Lichtenstein: Das Unternehmen Tannenberg also available from

See also issue 142 of After the Battle which has a thorough analysis and numerous photographs.

Lingering hopes for peace

The artist and diarist Keith Vaughan records the general mood in England:

We wait still; war or peace. The governments have locked themselves in and continue exchanging letters; only we no longer know what they are saying. Tension has relaxed, simply because it was impossible to remain at that pitch of anxious fever for long. But the situation is the same. One hopes blindly for some miracle, but one dare not speak about it. People seem resigned, almost cheerful. ‘I think we’re going to have a slap at him this time.’

See Keith Vaughan Journals, 1939-77