1 Conscription began in Britain.
11 British Ministry of Supply set up.
19 U-boat captains were sent a coded signal to take up positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action.
22 Hitler spoke to his generals; within 48 hours his speech had been passed to the British Embassy.
23 Trial black-out over half of Britain.
23 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed; Hitler fixed attack on Poland for 26 August.
24 Emergency Powers Bill rushed through UK Parliament.
25 Formal Anglo-Polish Mutual Assistance Pact signed; Hitler postponed attack on Poland.
29 German ultimatum to Poland.
31 Hitler ordered attack to proceed on 1 September.
1 German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.
2 Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.
3 Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.
5 The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were first welcomed but then interned, under pressure from Hitler. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves.
6 France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.
8 The Polish Pomorze Army encirled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw, but was repulsed by Polish resistance.
Publication of a letter in The Manchester Guardian by Saunders Lewis and J. E. Daniel, leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party, drawing attention to the possible dangers to minority groups in war-time conditions.
15 First of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia.
17 Soviet invasion of Poland. RN aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous sunk in the Western Approaches (to the Hebrides) by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already dispatched three tankers. Sank in less than 15 mins, with loss of half her thousand-strong crew.
27 Warsaw capitulated.
5 Polish resistance ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. 70,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians had been killed, 130,000 soldiers wounded. 100,000 Poles in the Russian sector were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops.
10 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany, and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. (Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for invasion in January 1940).
26 Poland was handed over to civilian administration, by which time 531 towns and villages had been burnt by the German Army, killing thousands of POWs.
28 The USSR abrogated its 1932 non-aggression treaty with Finland.
30 Soviet invasion of Finland (no declaration of war). Soviets bombed Helsinki and invaded with 1.2 million men, opening a bitter 105-day struggle. Russians had 1,500 tanks and 3,000 aircraft. Finns had ten divisions, 36 pre-WW1 artillery pieces and a few aircraft.
13 Battle of the River Plate, Uruguay. The German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee had sunk ten battleships, totalling more than 50,000 tons. She badly damaged HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax.
14 USSR expelled from the League of Nations, which supported Finland’s struggle, although Finns captured more military hardware than they received from outside.
15 Scuttling of the Graf Spee, badly damaged at River Plate, in Montevideo Harbour, by Captain Hans Langsdorff, mistakenly thinking that HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown were approaching the port.
24 Russian 163rd Division fled eastwards across the frozen Lake Kiantarjárvi. The Finns bombed the ice sending tanks, horses, men and vehicles into the freezing water. ‘They are still there’. General Paavo Talvela destroyed 139th and 75th Red Army Divisions at Tolvajárvi, sending a humiliating message around the globe for the USSR, affecting Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR the next year.
Economy, Society and Culture
Hollywood learnt quickly from the success of The Citadel that social problems could provide a magnificent subject for melodrama, and once the studios sensed that the censors were not against experimentation they rushed to make another social film using the photogenic coalfield. Later in 1939, Carol Reed filmed The Stars Look Down, another Cronin story set in a mining district. The original novel had made an outspoken plea for the nationalization of the mines and although Reed was later to claim that he had not been interested in the politics of the story, he could hardly duck the main issue. There are some remarkable sequences in the film that stress the need for a fairer and more efficient running of the coal industry, but its main concern is the salvation of the hero and, once again, the union is depicted as a vested interest. Like the novel, the film represents the Durham coalfield, but American critics described it as a film about Wales. The main Welsh element was provided by Emlyn Williams, who brilliantly creates the character Joe, a foil to the hero, Davy, played by Michael Redgrave. While Davy realises his destiny by leading the miners, Joe escapes from the coalfield and becomes a salesman. Williams, an Oxford-educated north Walian, was very hot property at the time, an accomplished playwright who forged a career as a master of sharp dialogue and a charming character actor. The Stars Look Down was a little too radical for the censors and its release was delayed until the outbreak of war.
The miners had become politically and artistically fashionable by 1939, and so it was perhaps inevitable that there would be first a blockbuster novel and then a film. Richard Llewellyn (1906-83) had already worked as a screenwriter before he began what was to become his very filmic novel. How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel narrated by Huw, the main character, about his Welsh family and the community in which they live. The author had claimed that he based the book on his own personal experiences but this was found untrue after his death; Llewellyn was English-born and spent little time in Wales, though he was of Welsh descent.
The title of the novel appears in two sentences. It is first used in Chapter Thirty, after the narrator has had his first sexual experience. He sits up to … look down in the valley. He then reflects: How green was my Valley that day, too, green and bright in the sun. The phrase is used again in the novel’s last sentence: How green was my Valley then, and the Valley of them that have gone. Since its publication in 1939, the book has never been out of print. It has been translated into thirteen languages, transferred twice to the small screen and made into an Oscar-winning Irish-American-Welsh extravaganza in 1940 by John Ford. It presents the best-known image of Wales in the twentieth century. However, it is a Wales its hero leaves in the first sentence because his Wales has gone out of control. In his 1984 book, Wales! Wales?, the historian Dai Smith ruthlessly dissected the nostagia of the novel.
The intransigence of Saunders Lewis, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party, had led many ‘cultural’ nationalists to reject his party and its solutions down to 1939. What they shared in common with him was a class perspective on the ‘Welsh’ crisis after 1921 which was also based on a theory of national decline. As Dai Smith has observed, this was scarcely liberal, but an attempt to regain patriarchal control of Wales as economic and social deprivation deepened. What has been ignored by nationalist historians is the ‘hand-wringing delight some took in the economic and social wretchedness of the inter-war years.’ The alternative politics and culture which they had feared between 1910 and 1926 had been effectively marginalised or sent packing. In the twenty years since 1920 amost 450,000 people had migrated out of south Wales. According to the American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg, who published his reflections on his time investigating the condition of south Wales in the late thirties in New York in 1942, ‘the leaders left in south Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated’.
The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955), the arch-druid of educationalists and philanthropists ‘whose distress at the material downfall of his country was only matched by his conviction that the necessary redress was the prerogative of a leadership equipped with the traditional weapons of national faith’. Their opportunity had returned with the destruction of proletarian power in the Depression. Tom Jones, as secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, acted as ‘dispenser-in-chief’ of aid to the stricken valleys, aided and abetted by Percy Watkins, who became, at Jones’ instigation, the head of the Welsh section of the National Council of Social Service, established nine major educational settlements in the valleys between 1927 and 1937. In his 1942 memoir, A Welshman Remembers, Watkins expressed his irritation at the lukewarm response that these attempts received from many in the valleys:
It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within reach of the unemployed in these days of helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from… the Labour movement and… trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.
The objection to this ‘dope’ was partly a mistrust of the revived Welsh national-liberal consensus which had emerged around Tom Jones, which seemed to elevate ‘community’ above ‘class’. Behind this reassertion of liberal values lay the assumption that the mutuality of these one-class communities would be better served by new institutions which would be better served by a political élite than by ‘visionary class warriors’. The meaning of the rise and fall of coalfield society as a collective endeavour was therefore undermined by a policy of piecemeal accommodation, overlaid by a mythology provided by fictional films and novels such as How Green Was My Valley. The translation of the valleys for Hollywood screenplays in the late thirties and early forties was part of this process of re-mytholigisation. Dai Smith has concluded that those, like Tom Jones, Percy Watkins and Richard Llewellyn who ‘would colour Wales green… have first to dismiss the meaning of the lives of all those who had imagined – in their politics and their struggles as much as in their daily sweat to survive – an alternative Wales’. ‘Imagining’ Wales ‘required not myth or nostalgia but interpretation’.
Meanwhile, as war approached, those who opposed it within the Welsh Nationalist Party fell into two factions. Those who opposed it on traditional nonconformist pacifist grounds and those, like Saunders Lewis, who based their opposition on straightforward nationalism. Both could agree on a campaign of national resistance to conscription, however, refusing submission to the English Government. The climax of this campaign was a mass meeting held at Caernarfon in May 1939, in the month before the Bill was enacted, at which Lewis claimed that Wales’ only means of salvation lay in disobeying the law. If party members who came under the Act registered themselves as conscientious objectors, basing their objections on nationalist rather than pacifist grounds, then the Government would be forced to listen to the Nationalist Party. However, following the first days of military registration in June, Y Ddraig Goch had to admit that the campaign had been unsuccessful. Moreover, for many young nationalists, political convictions could only be stated within a religious or moral context. The new leader of the party, J. E. Daniel was disappointed that of the six who had pleaded their Welsh Nationalism at the Caernarfon Tribunal in November 1939, none made it their sole or primary ground, but mentioned it in order to reinforce a pacifist objection whose grounds were quite distinct from and independent of the Nationalist position while several others never mentioned their membership of the Party at all. Saunders Lewis also expressed his disappointment to J. E. Jones that there is so much pacifism in the opposition of the boys and that nationalism is a secondary thing for them. However, the young nationalists had been deliberately misled by their leadership into believing that objections based purely on nationalism would be accepted as being matters of conscience. It turned out that the military service tribunal did not agree, so the young men were able to fall back on their pacifist principles. In November 1939 it was asserted that if as few as ten nationalists would be prepared to declare that they would not join the ‘English’ army simply because they were Welsh, the ‘battle of Wales’ would be won. By the beginning of 1940, Gwyn Jones of Coedpoeth near Wrexham and Dafydd Williams of Caernarfon became the first Welsh nationalists to be imprisoned for continuing to resist military service. However, there was no great flood of nationalist objectors; all hopes of a surging tide of Welsh resistance had been quickly forgotten.
Of the pre-war leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party, only Ambrose Bebb had come to believe that Nazi Germany had to be defeated and, as a result, had withdrawn from party activities. Whe he visited Brittany shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, Bebb was horrified to find that the Breton nationalist leaders were extremely well disposed towards Hitler. The remaining leaders supported the calls for a cessation to hostilities by the British Peace Aims Group formed by twenty Westminster MPs in November 1939. But there were dissident voices within the party from as early as May 1939, with some branches in the industrial South arguing that there was too much praise for Hitler in the party newspapers, leading to accusations of support for fascism among nationalists.
Following the publication by The Manchester Guardian of a letter from the party leaders at the beginning of September, a Welsh national conference was convened in December 1939 to consider the effects of war-time conditions on the Welsh language and culture. Attended by representatives of educational, cultural and religious bodies as well as local government, the conference decided to establish a working party consisting of a wide range of influential Welsh figures. The first task of this Committee for the Defence of Wales was to consider how evacuation plans might be organised in such a way that they would not pose a threat to Welsh tradition and identity. It went on to campaign to prevent, unsuccessfully, the clearance by the War Ministry of many Welsh-speaking families from Mynydd Epynt in south Breconshire in order to make way for a training ground. This aroused strong feelings beyond the bounds of the Nationalist Party. The Defence Committee also campaigned for improved radio programmes in Welsh, to protect the position of the language in schools and to keep those Welsh men and women who were serving in the armed forces or working in English industrial areas in touch with Wales.
However, there were those who argued that the party should go into political hibernation for the duration of the war. Despite expressing his admiration of Saunders Lewis, one member argued that there was something more important than the Nationalist Party:
This is not the time to do much more than keep the Blaid alive. I do not believe in putting anything in the way of giving a licking to Hitler.
At the same time, the party was being re-energised in the south by a number of non-Welsh speaking recruits including Ted Merriman and Victor Hampson Jones, from the mining valleys of Ogmore and Llynfi. Merriman was a returning exile from Nantymoel, who had joined the party as a teenager in London, where he had gone to seek work. Rather than scaling down nationalist activities, this group argued for an intensification of campaigning in the industrial south, a shift away from a sole focus on the Welsh-speaking areas and for the increased use of English in party conferences, meetings and literature, something which Drs D. J. and Noelle Davies had been pressing for in the pre-war years. This growth of activity in south-east Wales, although limited in nature, did at least show that the party could at least be more than a Welsh-speaking club during the war period, and that there were those within it who sprang from, and could build links with, an alternative English-speaking Wales, proudly independent from the patronage of the Cymric liberal Establishment.
The Nationalist Party survived Saunders Lewis’ resignation as party president in 1939. Under his leadership, it had been little more than an educational/ cultural movement. His dominance between 1926 and 1939 was such that his name and the nationalist had become almost synonymous. However, the gulf between his aspirations and the performance of his party was as immense at the end of this period as it had been at the beginning. As D. Hywel Davies suggested in 1983, most Welsh people found the times rather inappropriate to consider opting out of British politics. The increased lethargy of party members by the end of the 1930s reflected an underlying unease regarding Lewis’ social and international attitudes. The appearances before military tribunals of a number of the younger members may have served to confirm the independence of the movement, but they did not separate it from the residual pacifism present in British society as a whole at the outbreak of the second world war, nor did they lead, as Lewis had hoped and predicted, to a tidal wave of public opinion in favour of an independent Wales.
International Events in Summary:
At the end of June, Hitler’s demands that Poland agree to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the western allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Cracow, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.
Political Reaction at Home:
Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A B (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.
However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out, this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster.
As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, who, even at this late hour, were hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours. When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased. Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own back benches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.
As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich. There was a real sense in which both the war itself, and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.
The six-month hiatus on land between the defeat of Poland on 5 October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land or in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that the war was not a matter of life and death for them as it was for the Poles. Their daily existence was carried on as normal, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy. Even the RAF was treated to the asinine remark by the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood that it should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest, because so much of it was private property.
In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside commented ironically on the ‘military machine of command’ which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had ‘no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘a general knowledge of how to fight a campaign’. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ atiitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that were already happening at sea…
The War at Sea:
There was nothing phoney about the war at sea. Learning the lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British, right from the beginning of the war, even for the ships moving along the coastline between the Clyde and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes all used echo-sounding devices to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. They also adopted zig-zagging routes. Overall, these methods were successful, though when a U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ did break through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be substantial, with the sinking of up to half the vessels.
To begin with the Royal Navy had only five aircraft carriers, one of which was sunk early in the war (see above). There are brave tales of survival, with sailors singing songs like Roll Out the Barrel and Show Me the Way to Go Home while waiting to be rescued from the North Atlantic. They often had to swim through thick oil. In October 1939 the Kriegsmarine scored a spectacular success when Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s U-47 got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences at Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship HMS Royal Oak. Three of them hit, capsizing the ship and killing 810 of her 1,224 crew, including my Great Uncle, CPO Alfred Titchmarsh. Many of them drowned, since the ship sank in thirteen minutes.
One of the tasks of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles. By the end of November these had sunk twenty-nine British shps, and put the brand-new cruiser, HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Two brave bomb-disposal experts, Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J G D Ouvry removed ticking detonators from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, so that the secrets of the mines was dicovered and counteracted. By the end of 1939, Britain had lost 422,000 tons of shipping (260,000 by mines) as against Germany’s 224,000, 2% and 5% of their respective total tonnages. Had Hitler given first priority to his U-boat fleet, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender.
Interpretation 2: Why was it left so late?
The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems, so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:
An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.
At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions in opinion, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years. Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.
It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.
Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been. At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.
If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high. Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow. All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt at the end of August. Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into Europe through the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honoring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of a protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.
Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.
That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi regime, or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivity in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better. Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with most of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.
A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):
The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:
‘…we decided to send 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:
‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government 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 on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’
‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’
B. Francis Marshall, London West (1944)
Recollections of the first days of the war:
Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.
The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…
Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.
We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…
I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller…