The War Cabinet discusses an air raid warning

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.

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'

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.

From the Operations log of No.74 Squadron RAF

Hornchurch 6.9.39
0735
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

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!

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

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.

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.

Blitzkrieg: German divebombers support their army

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

Junkers 87 or Ju 87 'Stuka' dive bombers taking off
Junkers 87 or Ju 87 'Stuka' dive bombers taking off
A flight of Ju 87 over Poland

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.

S.S. Athenia – the first ship torpedoed in World War II

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.

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 Athenia sinking after being torpedoed by U-30

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.

The King speaks to the Nation

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.