1 September 1939
From Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, Volume III, The Fate of Empire 1776-2000
Should Poland be attacked, Britain and France would come to her aid. The logistic impossibility of this aid being delivered to Lodz or Warsaw meant, of course, that there would be war in the West. But Chamberlain’s apparent conversion to a firm alliance policy concealed the fact that he believed the announcement of the guarantee would deter Hitler, and that it would never have to become operational.
The unprecedented Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, announced on 23 August, blew that assumption sky-high. Without the collaboration of the Soviet Union, the Franco-British guarantee seemed a paper threat. Hitler assumed it was a bluff and that, when it was called, neither state would actually go to war. At dawn on 1 September 1939, in response to an alleged attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz, a brutal land and air attack was launched on Poland. A `note’ was duly handed by the British ambassador to the government in Berlin, stating that if German troops were not immediately withdrawn France and Britain would honour their obligations. The next day the House of Commons, in grim but resolute mood, expected to hear that war had been declared. What they got instead, to general consternation, was an exercise in procrastination from Chamberlain: he suggested that if, through Italian mediation, German troops would fall back, the status quo ante 1 September would still be in place and a conference of representatives from France, Poland, Italy, Britain and Germany could be convened. That, after an initial explosion of rage, was indeed Hitler’s idea, too: he assumed another Munich would give him without the inconvenience of a war. Both Labour and some Tory members were appalled. The Conservative MP Leo Amery shouted to Arthur Greenwood, the Labour leader, three devastating words: `Speak for England!’ And Greenwood did, to tremendous and moving effect. When he had finished there would be loud cheers. As usual, it was only a threatened revolt among his own ranks that finally overthrew Chamberlain’s latest attempt at appeasement, and later that evening he agreed to turn the `note’ into an ultimatum that would expire at eleven o’clock on the morning of 3 September. His most intense reaction, however, was wounded egotism stressing to the House that whilst it was a `sad day, to none it is sadder than to me.’ When, in the mournful tones of someone announcing the passing of a maiden aunt, Chamberlain took to the airwaves a few minutes after 11 to inform the nation `that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany’, he could not help but add again, `You can imagine what a bitter blow it is for me.’ `Well’, says Shortie Blake, the seaman In Which We Serve, at this news, `it ain’t no bank holiday for me neither.’