Exactly 80 years ago, on the morning of 1 September 1939, the troops of Adolf Hitler invaded Poland.
It was the beginning of the most destructive and brutal conflict in history. On the side of a train carriage with German troops to the east there was chalk: & # 39; We are going to Poland to mistreat the Jews. & # 39;
While British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pursued a meaningless policy of reconciliation, Britain had prepared for war. Eighty thousand patients were sent home from hospitals to make room for potential victims.
Police and railway men assist some of the 800 evacuated children leaving Ealing Broadway station, London, to land on the first day of World War II
Almost four million people had already been evacuated from vulnerable towns and villages. More than 1.5 million shelters for Anderson air strikes were distributed.
Every household had received a folder called Your Air Raid Precautions, which tried to assure citizens that British houses were stronger than those destroyed by bombing in the recently ended Spanish civil war, and that the direct effects of an explosive bomb were limited to within 30ft.
Sunday, September 3, 1939, midnight
The Chamberlain cabinet meets on Downing Street to debate when Hitler must give an ultimatum to insist that he withdraw his troops from Poland. Outside a dramatic thunderstorm rages. The cabinet is finally taking a decision – the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, is presenting the ultimatum in the morning.
Germany has up to 11 hours to perform, but no one in the room believes that Hitler will comply. Chamberlain says softly to his colleague & # 39; s: & # 39; Right, gentlemen, this means war. & # 39; A lightning flash suddenly illuminates the cupboard space.
The American journalist Virginia Cowles has arrived by ferry in Harwich, Essex, on his way back from an assignment in Berlin. She sees flashes in the sky over London and she assumes that lightning is anti-aircraft.
She asks a dock worker if the war has been declared. "Not yet, but I hope it won't be long now," he replies. "Waiting around makes us all nervous."
half past twelve
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax, is at his office in Whitehall. Relieved that a decision has been made about the ultimatum for Hitler, he calls for cold beer for him and his staff. A sleepy servant dressed in pajamas brings them their drinks.
Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in his office
The British embassy in Berlin calls the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs to arrange a 9:00 am interview between Henderson and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister.
Von Ribbentrop suspects that Henderson will deliver an ultimatum and tells Dr. Paul Schmidt, who works as an interpreter for Hitler and other Nazi leaders: "Really, you could receive the ambassador in my place. . . say that the Minister of Foreign Affairs is not available at 9 am. "
No love has been lost between Henderson and Von Ribbentrop. At a meeting four days earlier, Henderson had accused the Germans of committing atrocities in Poland.
"That's a damn lie!" Von Ribbentrop shouted and Henderson shouted back: "You just said" damned "! That is not a word for a statesman to use in such a serious situation! "
IN LONDON, Met Office is preparing a bulletin with predictions of "showers, clear intervals, local thunderstorms, rather warm – prospects are troubled," but it is not released.
Weather forecasts are now an official secret; this information can help the Luftwaffe if and when it decides to bomb the United Kingdom. There will be no weather forecasts for nearly six years.
8 o'clock in the morning
A BBC radio news bulletin about the newly formed Home Service gives details of optimistic reports from Poland that his troops have destroyed German tanks and planes, but the reality is very different.
A unit of SS troops marches into a Polish village, where they start shooting unarmed civilians, including children.
Three Death & # 39; s Head regiments with special responsibility for extermination follow the Wehrmacht infantry with orders to imprison or destroy the enemies of Nazism with "inflexible seriousness".
In Berlin, smoke comes from the chimneys above the French embassy while the staff burn paper and secret codes.
A clock strikes nine when a serious-looking Henderson is shown in Von Ribbentrop's office in a grandiose building on Wilhelmstrasse, where he is met by Schmidt, the interpreter. The two men shake hands.
Henderson stands in the center of the room and sadly says: & I regret that I have to give you an ultimatum for the German government on behalf of my government. & # 39;
He then reads the text aloud and ends with the words:
& I therefore have to inform you that unless, at the latest by 11 am British Summer Time today, 3 September, satisfactory guarantees have been given by the German government and the government of His Majesty have reached London, a state of war would exist from that hour between the two countries. & # 39;
Schmidt leads the ultimatum over the short distance to the Reich Chancellery, where he makes his way through a crowd of Nazi officials looking for news.
He enters Hitler's study. The Führer is sitting at his desk, Von Ribbentrop is standing by a window and they are looking at Schmidt with anticipation.
Schmidt carefully translates the British ultimatum. There is a long silence, then Hitler angrily turns to Von Ribbentrop and says, "What now!"
In BALSALL Common in the West Midlands, Clara Milburn (56) is preparing a bedroom for two evacuation teachers who arrive this afternoon. The room belongs to her son Alan, but he is in the territorial army and has been summoned. Yesterday Clara and her husband Jack and Alan went to their family lawyer to prepare his will. She finds it worrying to tidy up his clothes and belongings.
In No. 10, the BBC has installed a microphone in the cabinet space. Announcer Alvar Lidell reads a statement stating that the German government has received an ultimatum and that it expires at 11 am. "The prime minister will send to the nation at 11:15 am," he says.
Lidell becomes one of the most famous war voices of the BBC. Three years later, in November 1942, he announced the news of the victory in El Alamein with the words: "Here is the news and it is also good news!"
In the village of Cawood in Yorkshire, 12-year-old John Booth builds a model airplane in his bedroom when his mother puts her head around the door.
"Did you collect the wireless accumulator at Mr. Todd's store?" She asks him. "Your father wants to hear the prime minister on the radio."
John realizes that he has forgotten to get this essential part – the wireless doesn't work without it. He runs out of the house and down the main street to Mr Todd's bicycle and wireless store.
The deadline has expired. At the BBC, announcer Stuart Hibberd says the listeners are waiting for a speech from the prime minister.
Then a record is played – As Ever I Saw sung by the Welsh tenor Gwynn Parry Jones – followed by a short program entitled Making The Most Of Tinned Foods.
At the British Embassy in Berlin, one of the diplomatic staff stops the graceful clock in the heart of the building at 11 am and another sticks a protective piece of paper over his face.
On September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced the declaration of the Second World War
There is a note on the paper saying that the clock will not be restarted until Hitler is defeated.
In London, a crowd has gathered on Downing Street. They solemnly watch as the Chamberlain driver leaves No. 10, who wears the PM gas mask and places it in his official car.
In Cawood, John Booth paid Mr. Todd four cents for the precious battery – he now has to go to the wireless network in their living room without his father seeing him.
Fortunately, Mr Booth is deeply in conversation with the local bobby outside the house, so John squeezes in, opens the back of the wireless connection, replaces the empty battery with the new one and turns on the set.
It buzzes to life, & # 39; ready to receive everything that Mr. Chamberlain had to say on this fateful day & he said.
An official from the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls the embassy in Berlin to see if a response has been received from the Germans. There has been no response.
In MUNICH, the silence of the Englischer Garten (English garden), a large public park, is broken by the sound of a shot.
A scientist named Professor Otto Hönigschmid turns around and sees a woman lying on a bench in the park. He runs over and recognizes her as the daughter of the English aristocrat Unity Mitford, a close friend of Hitler.
Unity is one of the six well-known Mitford sisters. Her brother and sister, Diana, is married to British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Another sister, Jessica, is a communist.
Unit is bleeding from a head wound and a mother-of-pearl gun is close by. The weapon was a gift from Hitler.
Distraught in view of the two countries where she likes to go to war, Unity has tried to kill herself. Hönigschmid calls for help and the police take her to the Munich University Clinic.
She survives and returns to Britain in 1940, but died in 1948 of meningitis caused by her head injury.
In the Cabinet Room, BBC announcer Alvar Lidell watches Chamberlain make his way to the microphone. After a break, Lidell leans over Chamberlain's shoulder and calmly says into the microphone: & This is London. The prime minister. & # 39;
An estimated 40 million people from a UK population of 48 million now listen to wireless.
The mother of King George VI, Queen Mary, is in St Mary Magdalene Church near Sandringham, Norfolk, listening to Chamberlain's announcement on a wireless set specially installed for the occasion
Chamberlain begins to read: & # 39; This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note that unless we heard from them at 11 am that they were immediately prepared to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war exists Between us. & # 39;
Lidell looks at the prime minister from the other room. He thinks he's there & # 39; crumpled, despondent and old & # 39; looks like.
The mother of King George VI, Queen Mary, is in the St Mary Magdalene Church near Sandringham, Norfolk, listening to a wireless set that was installed specifically for the occasion.
The pacifist writer Vera Brittain listens to the broadcast in her studies with her son John and daughter Shirley (who grow up to be the MP Shirley Williams). Tears run down the cheeks of Vera: "I assume that from an unconscious awareness of the failure of my efforts for peace for 20 years."
Although wireless would flourish in the war years, the BBC's early television service, watched by about 25,000 people, was shut down two days ago after the end of a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
When the service was resumed in 1946, the announcer Jasmine Bligh appeared on the screen and said & # 39; Remember me? & # 39; And the cartoon was shown again.
A message is sent to all ships of the Royal Navy to start hostilities against Germany.
Chamberlain finishes his speech: "It is the evil things that we will fight – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that justice will prevail." The BBC then plays God Save The King.
Singer Vera Lynn, 22, celebrates her parents with her father's birthday. Vera knows that now that the war has been declared, the entertainment industry will be hit hard. "Just as I am known, my career is going scared," she thinks to herself.
Singer Vera Lynn, 22, celebrates her parents with her father's birthday. Vera knows that now that the war has been declared, the entertainment industry will be hit hard
A few moments after the prime minister's broadcast, air raid sirens go off all over London. Thousands seek coverage.
The manager of the Granada Theater – a cinema in North Cheam, South London – has just gathered his staff in the cafe for a pep talk. "Above all, we must remain calm at all times," he begins, but is interrupted by the siren. The staff all run to the exit, except for two cleaners who start screaming.
Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine leave their flat in Westminster and head for the shelter at the end of the road. They take "a bottle of cognac and other appropriate medical comfort" with them.
Churchill is a conservative MP in the back seat whose career has been in the political wilderness for ten years. During a large part of that decade, he warned of Hitler and the rise of Nazism.
The hiding place turns out to be an open cellar, not even with sandbags, but the others there are cheerful & # 39; like the English way when they are about to meet the unknown & # 39 ;, Churchill recalled.
In the neighborhood, members of parliament have sought refuge in a hiding place under the parliament buildings. Some say they can hear gunshots and bombs exploding, but it is only the carpenters who attach asbestos covers to the windows.
Wrong comedian & # 39; Big-Hearted & # 39; Arthur Askey, star of the popular radio program Band Waggon, looks out the window of his house in North London and sees an air-raid guard blowing his flute to warn the street and then suddenly falls on the sidewalk.
In West London, police officers ride bikes through the streets and shout: "Find cover!" Take cover! "To reinforce the message, they have written" Take Cover "on shelves on their crates. A policeman on the banks of the Thames calls to a bewildered family on a houseboat: "It happened!"
On the other side of London in Romford, nine-year-old Nina Masel plays the piano in the front room of her house when her mother opens the door and shouts: & # 39; Stop that sound! & # 39; She opens the window so Nina can hear the siren of the air raid.
Nina's father then takes control of & # 39; as the government brochure said he should & # 39; and starts giving orders to the family: & # 39; Get all your gas masks! Stable, no stuff! "The family has no Anderson hideout, so decides to sit on the stairs.
On Downing Street, Chamberlain Anne's wife walks into the closet space where some of his colleagues have gathered to support him. She carries a basket with thermos, books and gas masks.
This leads them to go to the nearest shelters.
The staff of the German embassy in London is getting ready to leave. An official calls the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask if they want to take care of the black dog of the embassy because they cannot take it with them.
The message is passed on to Lord Halifax, who says the dog will be taken care of.
Churchill stares out of his shelter and looks through the empty street.
He later wrote: & # 39; My imagination drew images of massacre and huge explosions that shook the ground, of buildings that clattered in dust and debris, of fire brigades and ambulances running through the smoke under the drones of enemy planes. & # 39 ;
In a church in Cambridgeshire, the news of the war reaches the municipality. The pastor quickly improvises a short service of prayers and hymns so that his church can go home. In London, on Sunday morning, St. Paul's Cathedral is located in the crypt for security reasons.
On a schoolyard in Balsall Common, near Coventry, Clara Milburn finds homes for busloads of evacuating children, a distraction by worrying about her son Alan, on his way to war.
"The tears were pushed back and the company in question caught all the attention," she recalled. Clara intended to include two female teachers as guests, but when she sees two male teachers with the children, she thinks they are better suited to her household; and husband Jack would like the company.
It is all quickly arranged and soon Clara Mr Davis and Mr Bealt drive to her house nearby. In the trunk are the teachers' rations for the next 48 hours: two cans of Ideal-evaporated milk, two cans of Fray Bentos corned beef, two packets of Woolworth's sweet cookies and two chocolate bars.
In REDHILL, Surrey, Barbara Campbell arrives home from working at a nearby hospital to see her mother stir Sunday lunch with one hand and sew with the other sandbags. By the end of the day, with the help of neighbors they have never spoken to before, the family will have built a 6ft wall of sandbags for their home made from old curtains filled with earth.
A BRISTOL Blenheim No. 139 Squadron bomber departs from RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire on a reconnaissance mission to find potential targets at the German naval base Wilhelmshaven. It will be the first bomber of the war to cross the German coast.
In Manchester are a young couple named Dr. and Mrs. Josephs just married in their local synagogue. This morning, brewing with war, the bride told her mother she didn't want to wear her wedding dress and said, "It's ridiculous!" When her mother burst into tears, she admitted.
The clear sounds throughout London. Ironically, the first air strike warning of World War II is a false alarm. A French plane crossing the Channel and transporting army officers to London for a conference had not informed anyone of its mission and caused panic among the already nervous RAF observers on the south coast.
In the House of Commons, members of parliament serve the room for the first meeting on a Sunday of more than a century. Chamberlain looks old and exhausted and his hands are shaking.
Almost a year earlier, he had triumphantly returned from a meeting in Munich with Hitler and declared "peace in our time". Now that dream is in ruins.
Taking his place on the benches behind the prime minister is Churchill, who has warned the House countless times about the threat of Nazi Germany.
Churchill feels "calm and serene," knowing that his moment has arrived. . .
JONATHAN MAYO has also written D-Day: Minute by Minute (Short Books, £ 8.99).
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