World War II: The week when things fell apart

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For Britons in the last days of peace, it seemed as if the world was collapsing around them. They were right, says war historian Terry Charman, introducing a selection of contemporary images and reactions. Yet things didn't turn out quite as people expected

In September 1939, the British people went to war with none of the exuberant jingoism of August 1914. Ever since Hitler had torn up the Munich Agreement and occupied Prague in March, there had been a general, but reluctant, acceptance both in government circles and among the public, that the Führer had to be stopped, if necessary by force. But there was little enthusiasm for war.

For many, like 21-year-old Moyra Charlton of Essex (writing in her diary on 3 September), the news that Britain was now at war brought relief: "Thank Heaven the suspense is over." And civil servant Peter Allen summed up the feelings of the majority of British people when he wrote in his diary, of conflict as "a clear cut contest which in the end, however distant that might be, would surely result in the destruction of the most evil regime which held the world in jeopardy".

Many Britons, having seen newsreels of the wars in China and Spain – and Alexander Korda's Things to Come – expected that the opening of the conflict would bring devastating air raids on London and other towns and cities. Others feared a repetition of the huge casualty figures of 1914-1918. Yet, in the event nothing like this seemed to happen. The Luftwaffe confined its attention to attacks on Royal Navy warships and their bases – and it was not until 9 December 1939 that the first British soldier was killed in action, the victim of "friendly fire".

Instead of bombing German cities, the RAF dropped millions of leaflets over the Reich. Winston Churchill was scathing of this attempt "to rouse the Germans to a higher morality", while Noel Coward, working in Paris on a propaganda liaison with the French, wrote a memorandum stating that if it was the policy of His Majesty's Government to bore the Germans to death he didn't think we had enough time.

Only at sea was Britain getting to grips with the enemy, and here the loss of ships to U-boats, surface raiders and magnetic mines caused much pain. Then came the "brilliant sea fight" at the Battle of the River Plate in mid-December that, according to Churchill, "in a dark cold winter warmed the cockles of the British heart."

The relative inaction of the war's first months, soon dubbed the "Phoney War", led many people, including some of Britain's civilian and military leaders, into a state of false optimism. Stories abounded of "poor old Fritz" pumping the water out of the flooded Siegfried Line while shivering in his wood fibre "ersatz" uniform. It was said that his tanks were made of cardboard and that the Allied blockade would soon bring Hitler to his knees – assuming that he had not already been toppled in an internal revolt. There was a similar complacency in allied France, with government posters proclaiming "We Will Win Because We Are Stronger" and "Time is Working to Our Advantage". Stories that the Nazis were about to "crack" were circulating in official French circles as early as November.

But despite the official optimism, most British people, fed up with the blackout, high prices, closed places of entertainment and evacuation bungles, did not take such a rosy view of the situation. In one survey, 46 per cent of them thought that the prospects for 1940 were gloomy and uncertain. One young man, describing his thoughts to the Mass Observation project, compared his feelings about the New Year to those of a man in a dentist's waiting room: "It's got to come and will probably be horrible while it lasts. But it won't last forever, and it's just possible those teeth won't have to come out after all." Strangely enough, this analogy was also used by Joseph Goebbels in an interview with an American correspondent around the same time: "The average German feels like a man with chronic toothache – the sooner it's out the better." Hitler himself told the German people: "We enter this most decisive year in German history ... May the year 1940 bring the decision. It will be, whatever happens, our victory!"

Yet, as 1939 ended, it was not the conflict in the West between Germany and the Allies that was grabbing all the headlines but the war in the frozen north between Finland and Stalin's Russia, a David-and-Goliath struggle that captured the British public's, and indeed the world's, imagination and sympathy. "Finland," Churchill told his fellow countrymen, "shows what free men can do."

As 1940 dawned, Chamberlain spoke of "this strangest of wars", while a London "society lady" was overheard to say: "My dear I'm so bored and aggravated with the whole affair, I could die. One inconvenience after another."

In the press, professional pundits such as Commander Stephen King-Hall declared: "Hitler will sit tight. We shall not see a spectacular offensive on the Western Front in 1940." But Churchill struck a more realistic note when he said in late December: "As I always warn you, rough and violent times lie ahead." Chamberlain reshuffled his government in early January, removing the popular Leslie Hore-Belisha from the War Office, amid dark rumours of Royal intervention. Three days later, rationing began. But the Prime Minister and his "inner cabinet" remained remarkably complacent. Anti-appeaser MP Harold Nicolson wrote that Chamberlain's weekly statements to Parliament were as "dull as ditchwater." And Nicolson felt ashamed when representatives of the Dominions arrived in the Strangers Gallery: "They had come expecting to find the Mother of Parliaments armed like Britannia. They merely saw an old lady dozing over her knitting, while her husband read the evening paper aloud."

In early April 1940, Chamberlain told a Conservative Party meeting that "Hitler has missed the bus." Four days later, the Germans occupied Denmark with scarcely a shot being fired, and then invaded Norway. Almost from the start, the Allied campaign in Norway proved a complete shambles. Then, a month later, Hitler struck again, launching his long-awaited offensive in the west on 10 May 1940. Within a short space of time, Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium were all defeated and occupied; on 17 June, the French sued for an armistice.

Britain now stood alone. But the majority of British troops had been successfully evacuated from Dunkirk and other ports, and both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, despite some hard knocks, remained virtually intact and undefeated. And one of the few positive results of the disastrous Norwegian Campaign was Chamberlain's replacement by Churchill as prime minister on the same day that Hitler attacked the Low Countries.

Churchill headed a coalition government that included the Labour and Liberal Parties. He proudly claimed that "from Lord Lloyd of Dolobran on the Right to Miss Ellen Wilkinson on the Left" it was the broadest-based administration that Britain had ever had. It included the buccaneering press magnate Lord Beaverbrook at the Minister of Aircraft Production, who that summer threw all his demonic energy into the production of Hurricanes and Spitfires, and (in the reported words of Beverley Baxter MP) was "so pleased to be in the Government that he was like the town tart who has finally married the Mayor."

Churchill told his ministers, Parliament and the people that he could offer nothing but "blood, toil, tears and sweat" for the foreseeable future. With France gone and a German invasion apparently looming, there must have been some who – like the Chamberlainite MP and diarist Henry "Chips" Channon – gazed out "upon the grey and green Horse Guards Parade with the blue sky, the huge silver balloons like bowing elephants, the barbed wire entanglements and soldiers", and wondered, "is this really the end of England? Are we witnessing ... the decline, the decay and perhaps extinction, of this great island people?"

But such pessimists were rare. Yes, the complacent and ill-founded optimism of the Phoney War was gone now. But it had been replaced by what the author Laurence Thompson called "obstinacy, courage and refusal to recognise the apparent logic of facts".

"Personally, I feel happier that we have no allies to be polite to and pamper," wrote King George VI in a letter to his mother; and his official biographer noted, "in these sentiments [the King] was at one with the vast majority of his subjects" – including the Whitehall office keeper who said to a senior civil servant after the Fall of France: "Well, we're in the final now, sir, and it's going to be played on our own ground."

Despite the odds stacked against them, the British people under Churchill's determined and inspirational leadership refused – like Queen Victoria during the Boer War 40 years earlier – to be interested in "the possibilities of defeat".

But they were to take some hard knocks over the next five years before Hitler was defeated.

The air raid warning that immediately followed Chamberlain's broadcast on 3 September 1939 was the first of 1,224 that Londoners heard between 1939 and 1945. In conventional bombing and during the attacks by V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets, 60,595 British civilians were killed, over two thirds of them during the Blitz of 1940-1941. A further 86,175 were seriously injured. 71,270 metric tons of high explosive were dropped on Britain during the course of the war, destroying or damaging over 4.25 million British homes.

With the possible exception of Stalin's Russia, Britain was the most mobilised of the warring nations. By mid-1944, 5.25 million men and women – 16.5 per cent of the working population – were full-time in the forces or Civil Defence, while 5.06 million (15.8 per cent) were in the munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft industries. At the same time, there were 1.75 million men in the Home Guard and 1.25 million in part-time Civil Defence. Working in agriculture and helping to "Dig for Victory" were 78,000 members of the Women's Land Army, while in the mines there were 37,000 (often reluctant) "Bevin Boys", drafted into the pits in an effort to try and boost coal production.

Even as the war was being fought, it was clear there could not be a return to the "bad old days" of the late 1920s and 1930s – the days of the mass unemployment, the Means Test and hunger marches. As early as October 1940, Queen Elizabeth wrote to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary: "I feel quite exhausted after seeing and hearing so much sadness, sorrow, heroism and magnificent spirit. The destruction is so awful, and the people so wonderful – they deserve a better world."

The promise of that better world seemed to come midway through the war with the publication of the Beveridge Report on 1 December 1942. The Report, which sold a staggering 635,000 copies at 2/- (10p) each, proposed a comprehensive scheme of social insurance from "cradle to grave" in order to banish poverty and mass unemployment. The Report was debated in the House of Commons in February 1943. Labour MPs thought that Churchill himself, despite his earlier track record as a reforming Liberal minister under Asquith, was indifferent to the Report, as was his Government. Against the orders of their leaders, all coalition ministers, the Labour MPs turned on the Government in the biggest parliamentary "revolt" of the war years. The only comparable political furore came at the end of 1943, when the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley was released from internment by the (Labour) Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison (Lord Mandelson's grandfather).

By the time the Beveridge Report was published, the British people were war weary and suffering from shortages of every kind. Everything, even if it was not rationed, was in short supply. The aesthete and diarist James Lees-Milne had to try 12 shops before he was served with one razor blade. Pubs, when they had not run out of beer, often asked customers to bring their own glasses. The arrival of the American GIs, from mid-1942, brought a much needed splash of colour to the drab British scene, but their better pay, smart uniforms and "Hollywood-like" attractiveness to local women brought the sour verdict from British servicemen that they were "over-paid, over-sexed and over here".

With their British and Canadian comrades, the GIs landed in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Only a week later, the first V1 flying bombs – "doodlebugs" – arrived. After four years of shortages and rations – and having ridden the emotional rollercoaster of, on the one hand, humiliating defeats such as Singapore and Tobruk and, on the other, bracing victories such as El Alamein – the British were no longer as resilient as they had been during the Blitz. Morale did dip, especially with the defeat at Arnhem that September, which meant that the war would continue into 1945.

The V1 was followed on 8 September by the V2 rocket, against which there was no defence. And it was as late as 27 March 1945, barely six weeks before VE (Victory in Europe) Day, that the last V2s landed on Britain. One fell at 7.21am on a block of flats in Stepney, killing 134 people and seriously wounding 49.

On 1 May 1945 came the news of Hitler's death the previous day. James Lees-Milne was at Brooks's Club: "We all ran to read about it," he wrote in his diary. "Somehow, I fancy, none of us was very excited. We have waited and suffered too long. Three years ago we would have been out of our minds with jubilation."

A week later, the war in Europe ended. Victory had finally been achieved. Hitler's hubris had raised up against Germany such a powerful coalition that his destruction had become inevitable; if such a coalition had existed in 1939, war would have been unthinkable. Even then it had taken the combined might of the US, Britain and Russia to beat the Nazis and their allies – at the eventual cost of at least 55 million lives (estimates vary). But as Laurence Thompson wrote in his book 1940: Year of History, Year of Legend, even that could not have been achieved if there had not been, off the coast of mainland Europe, "an unsinkable aircraft-carrier, stoutly manned and resolutely commanded."

Interviewed in the early 1970s for the ITV series The World at War, J B Priestley spoke of how the British people had been at their absolute best during the Second World War. Since then there have been a clutch of books, among them Clive Ponting's 1940: Myth and Reality, Nicholas Harman's Dunkirk: the Necessary Myth and Stuart Hylton's Their Darkest Hour, that have attempted to demolish the "myth" of a united and heroic Britain during its "finest hour". Churchill too has been the target of revisionist historians; notably once again Mr Ponting and also Professor John Charmley in his Churchill: the End of Glory. It is of course ridiculous to suggest that all the thousands of the men at Dunkirk were heroes and that all cheerful chirpy Cockneys greeted Goering's Blitz with a song and a smile. But I would contend that George Orwell was spot on when he wrote in his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn that Britain then resembled "a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons ... it has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks".

For that one vital year between June 1940 and June 1941, the ranks were well and truly closed. "I have never in my life seen so united a people," said Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt's Republican opponent in the 1940 Presidential election, while on a fact-finding mission to Britain at the height of the Blitz. "How do you feel about this war?" he asked a London workman. "Want to go through with it?" "Hitler ain't dead yet, is he?" came the reply. At Manchester a few days later, Willkie told the crowd: "I am certain now that this country is united in an unbelievable way. No other nation in the world could have been united in a cause as you are."

On the night of 21 October 1940, 100 German bombers rained down 115 tons of high explosive on London. After the Luftwaffe communiqués on the bombing had been published in Berlin, an Italian newspaper correspondent in the German capital noted in his dispatch: "These questions are always asked: 'How is England able to resist? For how long? At the cost of what sacrifices will England be able to hold her ground?' Can England – we ask ourselves – prolong her resistance? Is it really true that 47,000,000 Englishmen are 47,000,000 Churchills, all determined to die under the ruined British Empire rather than give in?" For that year, that really did seem to be the case.

Eight months before, Churchill had told the British people: "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war."

And, quite simply, he didn't and he did.

Terry Charman, Senior Historian at the Imperial War Museum, is author of "Outbreak 1939: the World Goes to War" (Virgin Books, £20).

All diary entries are taken (unless otherwise stated) from "Witness to War: Diaries of the Second World War in Europe and the Middle East", by Richard J Aldrich (Corgi, £9.99).

To order either book for the special prices of, respectively, £18 and £9.49, call 08430 600 030 or visit

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