Reflections on the end of 1939 in Britain

Ed Murrow was an American journalist reporting from wartime London:

The end of 1939 finds Britain near the end of the fourth month of a war which has confounded the experts. Roughly, one million men are under arms in Britain and hundreds of thousands more will probably be asked to register on Tuesday of next week. Homes have been broken up by evacuation. The cost of this war cannot be conveyed by mere figures. Not only the bank clerks are working this year – there are tens of thousands of men and women manning searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, fire engines and ambulances, all over Britain. Many businesses have been ruined. Prices continue to rise. There are no bright lights this year, and there will be no sirens or horns sounded at midnight to-night, lest they be confused with air-raid warnings.

Edward R. Murrow: This is London

John Colville was a private secretary to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street:

Here at home, at the end of 1939, people seem to be resigned to the war without fully realising the hardships which it must, and the physical terror which it may, imply. Everybody is talking gaily about a changing world, a new social order, a complete revolution of national and international ideals; but do they realise what effect all this, if it comes to pass, will have upon them personally? It is easy to sit in the warmth, beautifully dressed, after an enormous meal, and talk academically about the inevitability of change and the charm of doing one’s own housework, but it may be less easy to accommodate oneself to the grimness of reality.

In general, we seem to be floating on a sea of stagnant waters and in ships not built of the soundest timbers. Whether the much-advertised spring offensive will come off remains to be seen, but it is very doubtful whether we can reach next winter without something drastic happening, and I think the odds are fifty-fifty on peace or the real outbreak of war. The conditions in which the former could be made are at present unforeseeable; but at least each side is aware of its own shortages and weakness and both are afraid to begin the carnage. The consequences of the latter are only too easy to predict.

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 also available from and

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: