11am, 3 September 1939 `This country is now at war with Germany. We are ready'

A Personal Account
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The Independent Culture
At last it came. Sitting by the radio in my parents' kitchen at our home in Broadstairs, looking down the hill to the English Channel, I heard Big Ben strike 11 o'clock. I waited for Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, to make his statement that Britain had declared war on Germany. When it came I, and many others, heaved a sigh of relief, not because we wanted a war, but because for so long we had known it was inevitable. It was not an ideological battle for freedom in the Western World; it was a determination to maintain the independence and freedom of our own country. In so doing, we would help other countries in Europe to the same end.

Two days before, on the previous Friday, Poland had been invaded by Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east. As the hours passed our doubts grew as to whether the British Government would now face the threats that we had foreseen for so long. On Saturday, there had been a special meeting at the House of Commons at which feelings ran high.

The tension was almost unbearable for those of us who had been involved in political affairs in the previous few years. We had no way of finding out what was going on. We became more and more anxious that Chamberlain would, once again as we saw it, fail to take the necessary action. But at 11.15am we heard the Prime Minister declare that war had been declared against Germany. Whatever the criticisms made against Chamberlain, that brief broadcast could not have been better expressed. Almost immediately afterwards we heard the wailing of an air-raid siren set off in London coming over our radios. It proved to be a false alarm, but it made us realise what was in store for the future.

I had myself returned from the mainland of Europe a few days before. There I had seen both Poland and Germany move their forces up to their border. I had just finished four years at Oxford and had decided with my college colleague, Madron Seligman, later a distinguished member of the European Parliament, to find out for ourselves what was happening in our continent. During my time at university, I had made a point of going abroad each summer vacation to learn for myself as much as I could about European developments. I started this in the summer of 1937 when I took part in an exchange visit with a German student from Dusseldorf, who had stayed with us in the early summer.

Having completed this part of my visit, I made my way down to Munich and then across Bavaria to the beautiful Lake Konigsee and finally to a small village, Bayrisch Gmain, on the Austrian border. There I stayed with a retired German language professor from Berlin and his wife, spending much of my time climbing the Bavarian Alps. In the evenings, I crossed the Austrian frontier to go the music festival in Salzburg. Just as I was preparing to leave Bayrisch Gmain, I received an invitation to go to Nuremberg to attend the annual Nazi rally.

In the stadium at Nuremberg I watched the German forces, military and voluntary, parade en masse while Hitler took the salute and then made some rousing speeches. One evening, moving up the centre gangway of an indoor meeting, he brushed against my shoulder.

Hitler looked much smaller than I had imagined, and very ordinary. His face had little colour and his uniform seemed more important than the man. But when he spoke he was transformed into the mob orator, the demagogue, playing on every evil emotion in his audience. There was no doubt in my mind about the inherent skill or perhaps natural instinct with which it was done. It was this power that led Europe to the brink of oblivion.

On the evening of the rally, I was invited to a small party of Nazi leaders for drinks, where I found Goering, Goebbels, Himmler and most of their colleagues. I remember Himmler for his soft, wet, flabby handshake. He was a deeply unimpressive man and I was not surprised to hear the news of his death over the radio one morning in May 1945, while I stood in a field alongside the Rhine. He had been captured, but had succeeded in committing suicide by crunching a phial of potassium cyanide in his mouth. "There he lay," said the special reporter on the radio, "and they threw a blanket over his dead body." That plain piece of English prose was far more than he deserved. Goebbels was similarly insignificant-looking; his pinched white face was always sweating as he wandered around greeting his guests.

All of this vividly brought home to me the strength of the regime and the threat exposed to its neighbours, not least our own country. This threat materialised with the invasion of Austria, then Czechoslovakia and finally Poland, which brought about the Second World War.

A year later, in the summer of 1938, I accepted an invitation from the Spanish Socialist government to visit Catalonia and such other parts of Spain as remained under its control, including a part of Madrid. Franco and his forces had already reached the river Ebro and it was apparent that their success was in part due to the support given him by Hitler and Mussolini. As a result of this visit to Spain I saw for myself what war was like, and what it meant for those involved. I also saw how the Germans used Franco's air force to test the effectiveness of their latest hardware and gain experience of the practical requirements of modern warfare. At one stage we decided to embark on an expedition to Madrid. The only way of reaching it was to fly there. We left the airport at midnight, so that in the darkness we had a chance of avoiding General Franco's fighters. But our approach did not go unnoticed; we were unable to sneak in, and the anti-aircraft batteries opened up on us. What my parents would have thought if they had known where I was at that moment, I dare to think. It was suicide to continue, and our pilot flew us rather hastily back to safety.

At a late-night dinner in Barcelona, I had long talks with Juan Negrin, the Prime Minister, and Alvarez del Vayo, the Foreign Minister. They brought home to me the fate that awaited them and, they believed, the rest of democratic Europe unless Britain and France speedily intervened to prevent it. Alas, this was not to be; some 50 years of dictatorship lay ahead for Spain. Its democratic progress since the death of General Franco is one of the most remarkable developments in the modern world.

I wanted to return to Spain in the summer of 1939, but this was something General Franco would not tolerate, having heard the radio broadcast I had made from Barcelona the previous year. Madron and I therefore decided to go across Belgium and Germany to Berlin and on to Danzig, then an internationally controlled city, and, after that, to Warsaw. There was evidence that war was imminent. As we hitch-hiked to the Polish border, its troops also were all moving towards the German frontier. Having crossed the border with some difficulties, we started looking for a lift to Dresden. It was a threatening journey, as we watched massive German forces in tanks and trucks moving menacingly back towards the border. After Dresden we reached Leipzig, ominously in the middle of an air-raid practice, where the newspaper placards told us of the "Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact". We knew it was time to get out - and quickly.

Managing to catch a train in the early morning down to Kehl, we crossed over the Rhine to Salzburg. We then began a long hitch-hike to Paris. We were saved by the car of a French army captain. As he was already tired by his journey up from Nice, he readily agreed to help us provided we drove the car ourselves. Paris was entirely blacked out, as the French also prepared for war. Urged on by our Ambassador, I got a train out of Calais and crossed in a Channel ferry to Dover. None of us now could have any doubts about the forthcoming war. But would those in authority face up to it?

As I recall these, for me, personal events, I find myself asking two questions. First, could all this have been avoided, and secondly, how different is our future now?

Our history in the Twenties and Thirties could have followed an entirely different course if the settlements after the First World War had not caused such bitterness, national and personal, which in the Thirties resulted in the election of the Nazi regime. Disastrous though the peace treaties proved to be, at least this was recognised by the political leaders in office after the Second World War, and the international settlements for Europe and the establishment of the United Nations and Nato have ensured, very largely, peaceful developments for Western Europe.

Elsewhere, however, intensive and prolonged warfare between countries still sadly exists, within countries in Africa in particular. In part this is due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the result that we no longer have two world superpowers enforcing stability over the globe. In my view, the dangers of war in such places will continue for a prolonged period, until those involved tire of the bloodshed and suffering or are offered alternative means to enjoy a more fruitful and stable life. Perhaps one day these countries will appreciate just how much there is be gained by working together for closer unity. I know from bitter experience that it is worth working for with every ounce of our strength.

But still we hear voices, raised in some quarters in Britain, questioning whether the European Union should continue towards its stated aim of "ever closer union". For my part, I hope that the European Union continues to make steady progress towards greater integration. It has achieved more in its first 50 years than any other organisation in the world.

The centuries of conflict are over. It is now up to Britain to engage with our partners in a positive and constructive spirit and make the most of our membership of the European Union, in which our best hopes for peace and prosperity lie. I am convinced that the European Union will continue to build the stable future that the people of Europe deserve.

Sir Edward Heath's autobiography, `The Course of My Life', is published this week in paperback (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 9.99)