The Way The Big War Started

It was quiet in the kitchen. A large wall clock ticked away minute-hand seconds.

At the table, a mother and father and two teenagers sipped fresh-brewed tea, the father between puffs from his penny-clay pipe; the mother between pauses in the incantations only “pull-over” knitting mothers understood.

On a small table closest to the mother, a Philips radio murmured solemn music interrupted every minute or so by a BBC-cultured voice assuring listeners our prime minister had a very important message for us. So important that only he could deliver it at 11:00 a.m.

Seconds before that hour, the radio presented a burst of scratchy static, and at precisely 11:00 a.m., a never before heard of magical happening – Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was talking to us in our home, joining us at the table for a cup of tea.

“He doesn’t sound like a prime minister,” said my sister Doris, all of 18.

“Shut up!” snapped father. I, always quick to pick up parental storm warnings, just looked at the clock to make sure the BBC was on schedule and listened – but without much understanding until the PM came to the last line of his opening paragraph.

“I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.” The extra emphasis is mine but not really needed.

It was September 3rd, 1939. He didn’t really say much after that. Just a few words on how hard he had tried for compromise; how he had reluctantly been forced to accept “that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.”

The last line of his brief declaration of war was a plea to his countrymen to believe he had done everything possible to find a way to peace. “And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part with calmness and courage.”

Chamberlain’s speech was followed by a long list of wartime – immediately imposed – conditions. All theatres, movie houses and concerts halls were closed; noisy rattles of the kind used at large sports events were banned unless they were used as warning that poison gas had been released. No bugles or sirens could be sounded on the streets. All BBC regular programs were cancelled with hours of organ and classical music filling the gaps between official proclamations.

The things we were about to lose, the restrictions we were about to face seemed of little consequence as the Chamberlain era ended. He died from stomach cancer in November 1940, a few weeks after resigning to make way for Winston Churchill.

Dunkirk and a military debacle in Norway had hastened his end.

My father, a survivor badly scarred from the WW1 disaster at Gallipoli, was not a Churchill fan but said he felt better with the old warrior at the helm. With the radio off, he gathered us around him in the kitchen for a comforting pep talk before he nipped down to the Wheatsheaf pub to sign up for the Home Guard.

As a 15-year-old with four months to go before hitting 16 on December 27 and becoming the regular “gofer” on a three-man stretcher crew – two medics and a messenger boy – my father assured my mother and me that I wouldn’t have much do. “You have to remember we live in the middle of England. That’s a long way for them to fly. They’ll never get this far.”

It was suddenly quiet again in the kitchen, although we couldn’t hear the clock ticking over the belly tingling ululating of an air raid siren – about 10 minutes after the PM quit speaking and the first time ever heard without prior notice of a test.

But, father said: “A false alarm for sure … They’ll know down at the ‘Sheaf.’ We walked outside to scan the sky. All was well. We were safe.

Some months later I stood in the same kitchen, ankle-deep in soot shaken loose by a heavy duty bomb exploding nearby and lifting tiles from the roof and soot from the chimney. As we talked it started to rain – and may you never stand in a previously immaculate kitchen instantly converted to wall to wall, ceiling to floor, thick black soot-sludge.

The “phony war” was over. The “blitz” was gearing for full throttle destruction. “False alarms” were no more, even in the always optimistic Wheatsheaf.

2 comments

  1. Russia, or the Soviet Union, entered the war when Germany invaded it in June 1941; America in December of that year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. It is easy to forget that Britain had to begin its suffering two years earlier.

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