I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

  •  W H Auden, “September 1 1939”

This is a short account of the last four days before the start of the Second World War. I wrote this for my daughter from well-known sources. I enjoyed writing it and thought I would share it with a larger audience.

Was it possible, in the last days of August 1939, to avoid war? That would have required all parties to back down – the Poles to agree to a hand over of Danzig, for Hitler to agree to yet another peace conference like what he did in 1938, and for the British and French to abandon the Polish guarantee and give Hitler a free hand.  Given the recent past of Hitler’s behaviour, these were unlikely options and it was left to a few men to chart the course that ultimately brought one of the most destructive wars on the world. 

Reflecting on the last few days before the war actually began, it is possible to conclude that there were misconceptions and miscalculations, which usually precede any conflict. Hitler had been playing cat and mouse with the British and French for three years. The British and the French were understandably reluctant to commit to another war so soon after the last horrendous one that had concluded less than twenty years ago.  Every statesman involved had either fought in the Great War or had lost family and friends to it, especially in France. Hitler assumed that Britain and France will blink only in order to avoid a second international war. The actions of the men involved were rooted in domestic preoccupations and expectations from their counterparts in this interplay of personalities.

Germany nearly went to war on August 25th itself. Plans and preparations had been made for the Wehrmacht to move to the Polish border.  SS and Wehrmacht troops had been smuggled into Danzig to seize the city once war began. Yet on the evening of August 25th, with forces about to strike, Hitler cancelled the assault.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed only on August 23 1939. Hitler had hoped this would deter the British and French from confronting Germany, since ideologically this was an improbable alliance and hence might give them pause. Unknown to Hitler, the surprise element was already lost. British and French Intelligence were aware of the developments between Germany and the USSR. As a result, when Hitler did not see any change in British and French positions after the signing of the agreement, he cancelled the attack.

The single most important reason Hitler called off the invasion of Poland was because he did not want a World War. He did not want to internationalize his invasion of Poland and he was hoping that the pact with the USSR and German overtures would dissuade the British. He considered them the more important power to reckon with.

While British resolve was firm, the French could be excused for appearing less resolute. Many French politicians had fought in the Great War and had lost family and friends. The carnage at the Somme and the Marne was still fresh in French minds and there was a strong pacifist streak that arose from the memories of the previous war, scarce twenty years behind. They did not want to be rushed into defending Poland when it was clearly impossible to do so. To them the German-Soviet pact was hugely disconcerting.

There was a better basis for Anglo French resolve largely due to two factors. First, the British and French militaries were much better prepared and the French in particular had a very good army and air force. They also had the Maginot Line of fortifications to counter the kind of infantry thrusts from Germany that occurred in 1914.  Second, public opinion had changed in favour of confronting Germany after March 1939.

Prime Minister Chamberlain, who came from a merchant background in Birmingham, had never met anyone like Hitler who could give his word and then break it. He was deeply disappointed when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. From then on, he was firm with Hitler without losing any opportunity to stop yet another European war, and any assertion that he was too weak in September 1939 is incorrect.  Even more than Chamberlain, his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (who was Viceroy of India in 1931) was resolved to ensure that Hitler would not get away this time. Both Lord Halifax and Mr Chamberlain were not averse to preventing war through discussions on the principle that all war was bad. But they were equally resolved to make sure Hitler did not repeat March 1939.

The French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier was a man of great energy. French politics of the 1930s was marked by fractiousness between the Right and the Left. In order to govern he had armed himself with near dictatorial powers. Despite internal troubles, by August 1939 he was as resolved as Chamberlain that Hitler should be stopped. More than the British he also hoped that Italy would join the British and the French.

On August 24th, Chamberlain made a statement in Commons expressing concern at the situation and in defence of a Government motion asking for Parliament to arm HMG with special emergency powers in the light of the situation. The motion was carried almost unanimously. Hitler received this news with some alarm, and next morning he summoned Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany at the Chancellery. In a meeting marked by great cordiality, Hitler offered a similar no-war pact along the lines of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to Britain and offered to guarantee the integrity of the British Empire, once the Polish business had been settled. He was hoping for a local war, not an international one.  The next day Henderson flew to London to convey Hitler’s requests.

That very morning Hitler asked the army to prepare to invade Poland.

At this point Hitler was still unsure about whether he had Mussolini’s support. He needed Italy so that he could put pressure on the British and French to keep from internationalising his imminent assault on Poland.  He hoped that Italian naval presence in the Mediterranean would be an advantage. But the Italians were alarmed by Hitler’s expansion into Central Europe and Italian public opinion was not yet inclined towards war. The German-Soviet pact had the effect of signalling to Italy that they were no longer centre stage in European affairs as they had been before the Pact, and this caused concern to Mussolini who had territorial ambitions.

On August 25th the Italian Ambassador to Germany delivered a letter informing Ribbentrop that Italy would stay neutral in any German war in Poland.  That evening at 530pm, the French Ambassador to Germany called on Hitler to tell him, very firmly, that France would stand by the guarantee she had given to Poland. This did not do wonders for Hitler’s mood.

Later that evening at 630pm, Ribbentrop was stunned by the announcement of an Anglo-Polish Pact for Mutual Assistance which the Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom signed just a few minutes ago. Though the agreement had been in the works for two months, the fortuitousness or otherwise of the timing of the signature was not lost on Lord Halifax. Ribbentrop and other advisers pressed Hitler to find a way to isolate Britain. It was at this juncture that Hitler called off the attack but asked the German Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel to carry on preparations.

On August 27th at 1pm, Henderson reached London and conferred with the Prime Minister and with the Foreign Secretary. A letter had to be sent to Germany that was firm and yet did not leave any opportunity for misunderstanding. On August 28th, Henderson flew back to Berlin with the reply. The letter stated that Germany and Great Britain must discuss how to protect Poland’s essential interests and that failure to do so would be calamitous. The exact words used were: “A just settlement of these questions between Germany and Poland may open the way to world peace. Failure to reach it would ruin the hopes of better understanding between Germany and Great Britain, would bring the two countries into conflict, and might well plunge the whole world into war. Such an outcome would be a calamity without parallel in history”. 

Shorn of diplomatic language, its meaning was clear. When Hitler and Henderson met, Hitler read the letter and again told the Ambassador that he would negotiate and provide guarantees to the British Empire. Henderson replied that Hitler would have to choose between friendship with Poland or war with Britain.

Observers who saw Hitler at close quarters in those days commented adversely on his state of mind. He was unsure of himself, having brought Germany to the brink. Once before, at Munich, Hitler pulled back from the brink. Now was he going to do this again? This had not gone down well in military circles, and indeed within the Nazi Party. Hitler was risking being considered weak minded and less than firm, a man who loses his nerve when at the brink.   The hesitation shown on August 26th was not lost on the French who believed that when confronted with force, Hitler would climb down. It only served to strengthen their resolve.

The mood in London and Paris was optimistic about peace even at this stage, and this was founded on two points. First, Germany was experiencing economic difficulties and the Anglo-French view was that Hitler would not choose this time to risk a bigger war. 

Second, they believed Hitler was facing opposition from the Nazi Party and the German High Command. Many in London believed Hitler was more vulnerable than he actually was to a coup. The reality was that while there were rumblings, they were limited and conditional and not enough to stop Hitler. The Wehrmacht was concerned about an international war and Hitler was shown a military paper that laid out the difficulties of fighting a multi-national war. Hitler dismissed these concerns since he was confident of isolating Britain and fighting a local war. A number of German politicians of the old school who opposed Hitler as a charlatan and a chancer were happy when he called off the attack on August 26, and expected him to lose power quickly as a result.  Word was sent to the British Embassy asking the United Kingdom to stand firm and not let Hitler wriggle away from a difficult situation of his own making.  The British had also been given the impression that Hermann Goering, second only to Hitler in the Reich, was waiting for an opportunity to seize power for himself. This was conveyed by a Danish businessman Dahlerus, who mounted his own peace mission to stop any impending war between August 24th and 28th . But these notions were discounted by the British Foreign Office as being a bit too fanciful and no credence was given to them.

The private diplomacy of Dahlerus and the general reasonable tone of the British seemed to strengthen Hitler’s view that the British could be detached from the French and hence prevent an international war. He gave firm orders to the German Army to cross the Polish border on September 1st.  Meanwhile Hitler and Ribbentrop lost no opportunity to tell the world that they did not want war and that they just had a local dispute in Poland based on genuine German grievances.

In the hope of preventing war,  the British Ambassador to Poland conveyed a message to Berlin asking if they would be willing to meet the Polish Government for talks. Nothing came of it. The Polish Army had anyway been mobilizing, but in the light of these peace moves, Poland stalled forward movement. Valuable time was lost. On August 29th the Polish Army moved into forward positions on the German border.

On August 29th, Hitler handed his reply to Henderson. Hitler and Ribbentrop stood and watched as Henderson read it. The demands it contained were an unacceptable basis for any discussion: the return of Danzig and the entire Corridor territory, safeguards for the other German minorities living in Poland, and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in any settlement in Poland. At the end of the reply Henderson read the demand that the Polish government send a negotiator with full powers to sign by the following day, 30th  August.

On August 30th, Lord Halifax replied to Hitler that it was unreasonable to ask for a Polish plenipotentiary to be available at such short notice, and that besides, no formal request had been made by Germany to Poland. This reply was delivered by Henderson to Ribbentrop late that night. The reply angered Ribbentrop, who produced his own set of demands on the Polish Government, which he read out but did not hand over to the British Ambassador. The meeting had both men shouting at each other and ended on a hostile note.  The sixteen points were conveyed informally by the Danish businessman Dahlerus to the Polish Ambassador to Germany, who tried and failed to meet Ribbentrop. By the time he was given time to meet Ribbentrop, it was 9pm on August 31st, and the attack was due to begin. The phone lines between Berlin and Warsaw were severed shortly thereafter.

Even as late as August 31st the mood in London was optimistic that Hitler would not go to war, thanks to their reading of the German situation and their view on how vulnerable Hitler was. In Paris however the mood was less certain, and Daladier was committed to confronting Hitler. In Germany, the interval between the cancellation and the final invasion of Poland on 1 September was used to bombard the German public with inflammatory propaganda against the Poles. Details of Polish ‘atrocities’ were magnified by the German press; publicity was given to alleged reports that Germans living in Poland had been castrated. All of this was designed to ensure that the outside world would understand the German casus belli, and that the German public would wage a Polish war with sufficient enthusiasm after years in which they had become accustomed to the bloodless victories achieved by threats, menaces and bluff.

In secret, Germany had begun preparing for instituting lebensraum in Poland, as much as five months prior. Groups were formed and attached to military formations, to round up and murder the Polish elite, destroy synagogues and disable any resistance after occupation.  These groups were now activated and mobilised along with the Wehrmacht.

To give spurious cause, Himmler’s Deputy and Head of the Secret Police Reinhard Heydrich ordered the staging of what is now known as the Gleiwitz incident. On the night of August 31st, a small group of German operatives from the Abwehr seized the radio station at Gleiwitz on the German-Polish border, and broadcast a short anti German message. A mock Polish attack was staged at two other places. German prisoners dressed in Polish Army uniforms were shot and bodies left as proof of a Polish attack. The incident was claimed as evidence of Polish double dealing and as the trigger for military action.

At 4am on September 1, the German Naval vessel Schleswig-Holstein, which was visiting the free city of Danzig on what was ostensibly a training mission, opened fire on a nearby Polish naval fort, signalling the start of the War. German troops and Nazi party officials who had been smuggled into the Free City took control of the city and unveiled the German Swastika.  At the same time, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht began offensive operations. The Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground.

News of the German attack reached London at 7am on September 1, and Paris shortly after. Chamberlain and Daladier conferred to co-ordinate their responses. Both countries had picked up information on a Polish assault on Germany the previous night but they had the good sense to discount it for what it actually was. A note was sent to Berlin asking them to stop the aggression and withdraw troops promptly, failing which HMG would have no choice but to act on its guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain announced this in Parliament that night and told the Members that no time limit had been given.  The French prepared a similar reply despite the objections of some members of the French cabinet on its peremptory tone.

At 930pm on September 1st, Henderson called on Ribbentrop and conveyed HMG’s response formally, and insisted on an immediate reply.  At 10pm the French Ambassador followed suit.

The German response was puzzling, to say the least.  Party functionaries gathered in the chancellery lobbies still thought the West was bluffing. Hitler was unable to decide if the notes were formal ultimatums or not. Henderson had been told by the Foreign Office, according to Halifax’s later recollection, that he was authorized to say that the note ‘was a warning and not an ultimatum’, though he did not relay this to Ribbentrop. 

In London, blackout curtains were hung in all windows. But, among MPs there was a sense of puzzlement about the failure to give Germany a definite time by which to comply. One could argue that adding a time limit would have made it an ultimatum – which the Foreign Office wanted to avoid – but at the same time the insertion of the word “promptly” in the demand for troop withdrawal made it clear it was actually one.  The uncertainty thus created around British intentions caused consternation amongst the many critics of Chamberlain.  So why did Chamberlain not actually declare war if that was his intent.

This could be explained by a few factors. First, the French wanted to mobilise and also move six million reservists close to the frontier. It would take them a couple of days to do so. There were fears that the Luftwaffe would do in France what it did in Poland. The Luftwaffe did not have that capacity but the French were not to know that.  Second, Mussolini suddenly intervened with an offer of mediation between the powers at a conference proposed to be held on September 5th.

London was lukewarm and so was Daladier, but not his foreign minister George Bonnet, who made no secret of his desire to stop war even at the risk of appeasing Hitler. Bonnet went to the extent of telling Ribbentrop that France was in favour of a peace conference and put out a statement to the press to this effect. The Italians were delighted and on September 2nd, they talked to Hitler who wanted to know if the British and French notes were ultimatums or mere requests. He also told the Italians he would reply only the next day.

Historians attribute this to Hitler’s desire to further confuse his adversaries while holding out hope for peace. He may have also believed that attending the conference with Danzig in his pocket might increase his bargaining power. Bonnet, without consulting either his Prime Minister or the British, told Hitler the notes were not ultimatums. 

Daladier, who was also Bonnet’s political rival, told London only Parliament could make or stop war – and he had no intention of backing down, essentially disowning Bonnet’s statements purportedly made on behalf of the French Republic. 

Lord Halifax was taken by surprise by the Italian overture as well as Bonnet’s actions. At 630pm that evening, Lord Halifax phoned his Italian counterpart to tell him that regardless of any Peace Conference, immediate withdrawal of German troops and the restoration of Danzig as a free city were non-negotiable pre-conditions.

Chamberlain and Halifax found themselves in a difficult situation with British MPs who were not happy about their failure to indicate a time for compliance by Germany in the British note. They were not persuaded by the French request to hold off on specifying exact dates and they accused Chamberlain of confusion and weakness. On September 2nd, Chamberlain came to Parliament at 7pm after keeping MPs waiting the whole day. In what is regarded as one of the significant days in British Parliamentary history, he made a brief and unimpressive address, explaining the nuances around a possible peace conference brokered by the Italians and that the French were also in the process of confirming their position. He further stated that if the Germans agreed, they would have to vacate Poland and restore Danzig. He sounded tired and it was not the firm and definitive statement that MPs wanted to hear.

The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Clement Attlee was in hospital, and deputising for him was Arthur Greenwood, who rose to respond. Apparently as he rose, Leo Amery, the Conservative MP, shouted out to Greenwood, “Speak for England Sir!”.  Greenwood rose to the occasion by challenging Chamberlain thus: ‘I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization are in peril.’  There were more shouts and confusion in Parliament and MPs refused to hear Chamberlain’s reply.  Parliament adjourned for the day and the British Cabinet huddled into a meeting at 9pm.

The French Ambassador to Britain Charles Corbin was summoned to Downing Street. Chamberlain was convinced his government would fall the next day. Corbin was asked to get Daladier to agree to an ultimatum and was told failure to do so might cause a collapse of the British Government.  Daladier agreed to send an ultimatum to Germany the next day. The cabinet met again at 1130pm to draft the note to Germany.

At 9am on September 3rd Henderson entered the Chancellery to convey the ultimatum in person to Hitler. It was short.

 “In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on 1st September I informed you, on the instructions of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, that, unless the German Government were prepared to give His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom satisfactory assurances that the German Government had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom 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 upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have accordingly the honour to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a. m., British Summer Time, to-day 3rd September, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour.”

If the assurance referred to in the above communication is received, you should inform me by any means at your disposal before 11 a. m. to-day, 3rd September. If no such assurance is received here by 11 a. m. , we shall inform the German representative that a state of war exists as from that hour.”

Hitler’s reaction apparently was one of partial surprise, indeed he was a bit stunned. Perhaps he did not believe it would come to this.  He had been assured by Ribbentrop that Britain and France were in no mood to fight. Germany now found herself confronted by the very thing she wanted to avoid, a World War.

For close to two hours Halifax and Chamberlain waited for a German response. By 1050am it became clear there was going to be no German response. At 1115 am, Chamberlain went on BBC Radio and delivered a sober speech informing the British public that despite his very many efforts to keep the peace, German intransigence meant that Britain was now at War with Germany. In France, a thumping speech by Daladier said that France was now at War with Germany.

While Chamberlain was speaking, a long and rambling reply justifying German conduct was handed over to Henderson in Berlin. Hitler made a bellicose speech to Germany over radio but in private expressed his hope that Britain and France would fight a limited war! Observers say the public mood was sombre and anything but triumphant.

Polish Government officials heard the two declarations of war with some happiness. But that was short lived, as they quickly realised that in practical terms there was no assistance forthcoming from the British or the French.  The Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe completed their demolition of the Polish state. Two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, as agreed with the Germans in the secret codicil to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland ceased to exist.

The evening of September 3rd was calm and the mood sober in all three capitals. That evening, British and French diplomatic staff posted in Germany, and German diplomatic staff posted in London and Paris, were repatriated according to international law.  

Europe, and shortly the world, was at War.

2 thoughts on “The Lights Go Out…

  1. Riveting read. As usual, your grasp of history is immense and your presentation compellingly readable.

    What could Chamberlain or Daladier done differently I wonder. Chamberlain has been cast in history as weak and vacillating, perhaps unfairly, but any other approach would very likely have ended in the same result. The problem was in the original Treaty of Versailles and the viewing by Germany and its leaders as ruthlessly unfair. Czech was the first and even if Danzig was given up, the stand would have be taken at some line – Hitler was not going to stop. Equally, if a hard stand had been taken even in the Czech situation, I suspect the outcome would still have been World War II

    Did Hitler want a World War at that time ? Probably not, but who knows. Even if all the German ceded territory in the treaty of Versailles was somehow magically handed back to him, his holocaust against the Jews alone would have triggered the World War.

    Sadly, and in a damning indictment of human nature, World War II was perhaps inevitable.

    And of course you meant Hermann Goering and not his father Heinrich. Surprised that an overthrow of Hitler was even considered possible at that stage.


    1. The genesis of the Second World War is the Versailles settlement. Despite British efforts to make it more reasonable over the next decade, the fact remains that a number of things about the settlement were seen as unfair, not least because the defeat was not visible to ordinary Germans – there were no British Tommies or French poilu patrolling the streets of Berlin.

      Nonetheless, most Germans were not spoiling for war or revenge. The writer William Shirer who was in Germany at that time reports a remarkable lack of jingoism. And there were a number of German luminaries who were appalled at the drumbeat for war.

      And therein lies the issue of personalities who do so much to shape events, driven by their flaws and predilections. If Britain had indeed backed down and Chamberlain had resigned instead of placing an ultimatum, Poland would still have been dismembered. May be next it would have been France. We will never know.

      I wrote this to try and convince my daughter that dates, points and key learning takeaways stressed for examination purposes hide real human drama.

      Can you imagine Henderson’s mood in those days? Or Chamberlain’s angst?

      Thanks for the generous comment (and of course the correction!)


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