1939: Was Britain ready for war?

Daniel Todman assesses the mood of the nation in 1939 as it frantically prepared itself for war with “the implacable foe”...  

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This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The strangest thing that happened in Britain on the outbreak of war was a massacre of pets. On 8 September, The Times reported that millions of animals had been put down over the previous two weeks. In Greater London alone, some 400,000 cats and dogs were killed in the first four days of the war. Disposal was a problem: to comply with the blackout, the RSPCA had to damp down its incinerators overnight, so that not every carcass could be destroyed and some had to be buried in pits to the east of the capital.
The slaughter was in preparation for catastrophe. The war would, it was presumed, begin with a ferocious bombing attack with high explosives, incendiaries and gas. During the Munich Crisis (for the background to this, turn to page 45), most British adults had been issued with gas masks. In the months since, children had also received masks, although those for babies were still in short supply. But anti-gas precautions would not work for pets. As an official pamphlet stated, it was kinder to act now than wait for the worst: “During an emergency there might be large numbers of animals wounded, gassed or driven frantic with fear, and destruction would then have to be enforced by the responsible authority for the protection of the public”.
Stern Reminder
5th September 1939: A message painted onto a pavement in Chorlton, Manchester, reminds residents to carry their gas masks with them at all times. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Anticipation and anticlimax

By the end of 1939, the apocalypse had not arrived. German bombers remained absent from the skies. The animal massacre had been in vain and, with some areas now rumoured to be overrun with mice, the price of kittens had undergone rapid inflation. As Britons settled down to the new routines of wartime life, those who had lost their pets had time for resentment and regret.
This sequence of anticipation, disruption and anticlimax might be taken as characteristic of Britain’s entry into the Second World War, but it begs several questions. Why, if they thought it was going to be so dreadful, did Britons accept their government’s declaration of war? To what degree was that acceptance connected to the preparations, mental and physical, that had already been made? And what did the mismatch between expectation and reality mean for the running of the war?
In autumn 1938, the Munich agreement was greeted with relief, but also with anxiety at the poor state of UK defences and a feeling that it was the last chance for peace. Over the following year, two key events confirmed the worst fears about Germany and created an expectation that war was not just inevitable but necessary. The brutality of Kristallnacht and the passing of anti-Jewish laws by the Nazi state were not only morally shocking, but demonstrated the atavistic aggression that made Germany internationally dangerous. The seizure of Prague in March 1939 confirmed the Nazi commitment to violence, and indicated that the settlement arranged by Britain was held in contempt.
By the spring of 1939, Nazism could be seen as a threat to both sides of the British political spectrum. On the left, the European-wide struggle with fascism was increasingly understood as a fight to the death with an implacable foe. This ideological opposition coincided – and sometimes overlapped – with the patriotism of the right, which was outraged by the dictators’ ability to thumb their noses at the world’s greatest empire. After Prague, Conservatives demanded action to preserve security and pride. On both sides, anger focussed particularly on the figure of Adolf Hitler as a personification of what was wrong with Germany. Here was the basis for a wartime consensus on the need to defeat a common enemy that could exist alongside more deeply seated political and class antagonisms.
Appeasing Hitler had been controversial, and over the winter of 1938 the policy was a key issue in by-elections at Oxford and Bridgewater. But the collapse of his diplomatic strategy should not necessarily be equated with a wholesale loss of faith at this point in the prime minister of the coalition National Government, Neville Chamberlain. In opinion polls in summer 1939 he continued to enjoy relatively high levels of support, not least because he had tried to preserve peace. Sympathy for failure is not an emotion that politicians wish to evoke – but it is clear that Chamberlain was not universally seen as defunct when the war began.
This growing political acceptance of war accompanied accelerating preparations for battle. The growth of the RAF was particularly apparent in the construction of new factories and airfields and the increasing number of aircraft in the skies overhead. Meanwhile, the sudden onrush of volunteers following each crisis allowed the Territorial Army and Civil Defence to get close for the first time to newly expanded recruitment targets. By September 1939, close to two and a half million Britons were volunteering part or all of their time – paid and unpaid – to get ready for war. Military conscription was introduced in April 1939 not because the services lacked recruits, but because there was a diplomatic necessity to demonstrate that Britain was serious about its new European commitments. Conscription was supposed to augment, not replace, a war run on voluntary lines.
Many volunteers were motivated by a desire to protect their homes and families. This desire was also being met by communities and in individual houses. From the start of 1938, there were erratic attempts to trial the blackout in large towns such as Leeds and Nottingham. In the aftermath of Munich, householders received a welter of pamphlets advising them how to get ready for war. What was actually done varied widely depending on region, political persuasion, wealth and age. Those with time, money and inclination could take extensive precautions, buying blackout material and brown tape to secure windows from the special Air Raids Precautions (ARP) counters set up in department stores, organising private evacuation, and arranging the proper installation of one of the 1.5 million Anderson shelters issued by September 1939. Converting the domestic to the military kept minds and bodies occupied at a moment when individuals felt powerless to alter world events.
If this suggests a country increasingly united and ready for war, it is far from the full story. There was a powerful legacy of antagonism between the National Government and the Labour party, few Britons wanted war – even if it were necessary – and many, no matter what their attitude, were unable to prepare for it until it came.

Patriotic opposition

Military conscription demonstrated the continued fierceness of the political divide between Chamberlain and the Labour party. Since the prime minister had previously campaigned for voluntarism, conscription was seen as a betrayal on the left, mainly because it raised the threat of industrial conscription and forced dilution. It was hard for Labour to object to a centralised escalation of the struggle with Nazism, but 133 MPs voted against the Military Training Bill at the end of April 1939. When war came, Labour adopted a position of “patriotic opposition”, but refused to serve in any government headed by Chamberlain.
Meanwhile, many were still able to disregard the signals of imminent war. In the summer of 1939, Mass Observation asked interviewees “Do you think we ought to get it over with, or that anything is better than war?” Only two per cent of those questioned were eager for war, 43 per cent wanted to get on with it if it was going to come, but a third still thought that anything else was preferable. Popular newspaper front pages were as likely to be taken up with miscreant vicars and society divorces as with details of the New Army or guarantees to Poland. Only in the last month of peace did war speculation dominate the national and local press. Recruitment to the voluntary services remained patchy; although the total number of Civil Defence volunteers was close to its national target of 1.6 million by the outbreak of war, many cities were not able to get all the staff they needed.
Domestic precautions were beyond the resources of many in the most vulnerable areas. Andersons were free to the least well off, but they required a garden, and had to be erected properly if they were not to flood. Local authorities and private landlords were supposed to provide public shelters, but too often both provision and quality was poor. Despite all the government’s information efforts, on 3 September 1939, few were able to distinguish between the sounds used to warn of air raids and those announcing the all clear. There was, perhaps, a fear that preparing for war might make it more likely, and a reluctance to invest time, money and emotion to insure against an event that many still hoped could be avoided.
In this regard, what was significant about the great pet massacre was not how many were killed, but how few. By one estimate, there were close to two million cats and dogs in London at the end of the 1930s. About four-fifths of urban owners, by this measure, chose not to put down their pets. This reluctance was not the result of a national devotion to domestic animals: however much they loved their pets, those who took seriously the worst predictions felt little choice but to avert the possibility of the police having to mow down gas-maddened packs of Pekes and Persians. Rather, a strong dose of wishful thinking meant that many Britons were willing to accept a war for which they were not fully prepared.
Hopes for peace remained even after September 1939. On 6 October, Hitler made a public offer to start peace negotiations. In the days that followed, more than 75 per cent of the letters received by 10 Downing Street wanted an end to the war. Tory peers and Labour MPs called for peace talks during the opening months. But much more frequent than demands for peace were criticisms of the way the war was being fought. Expectations of horrors had gone largely unfulfilled: although the Royal and Merchant Navies and the RAF all briefly saw fierce action, the home front was almost untouched by the enemy during the first eight months of war.
What contemporaries called the ‘Bore War’ saw Britons endure disruption, restriction and inconvenience. Yet these hardships were inflicted not by the Germans but by the government, as it imposed a host of emergency measures to protect the population and begin the process of mobilisation. These included the evacuation of children, mothers and bureaucrats from city centres; the introduction of a blackout; the restriction of all forms of mass entertainment to prevent bombing catastrophes; the confining of the BBC to a single, rather boring, programme; the censorship of news reporting; and a dramatic rise in taxation.
In retrospect, these restrictions were much less heavy than those imposed later in the war, and the level of compliance was remarkably high. At the time, they seemed severe and aroused great complaint from the opposition and the press during a period when support for the war could not be taken for granted. On 11 October, the Labour deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood, complained to the Commons about: “these days of train restrictions, lighting restrictions, restrictions here, there and everywhere, and the determination on the part of the government to make the life of everyone as miserable as possible”. The Beaverbrook papers were even more critical: in November, the Daily Express launched a campaign against rationing that Hugh Cudlipp, then editor of the Sunday Pictorial, thought bordered on sedition.
Unable to claim a genuinely national mandate without Labour support, and dependent on voluntary effort, the government was bound to bear such complaints in mind. Churchill, newly returned to the Admiralty, was just one voice warning the cabinet about opposition in the popular press to “interference with the liberty of the individual”. Yet when the government modified its stance, for example by reducing restrictions on public entertainment or holding back rationing, it laid itself open to criticisms that it was weak, taking the war insufficiently seriously, or trying only to protect vested interests and the status quo. All these points were true to a degree, but only because they exposed a tension between two of the things for which many Britons, including those in high office, were fighting. They wanted to destroy Hitler and to defend their prewar lives. Yet the effort needed to achieve the first meant a profound challenge to the second.
The result was apparent prevarication: the home front was scarcely more ‘ready for war’ by Christmas than it had been in September. It is symptomatic of subsequent treatments of Chamberlain that this is seen as his fault, rather than that of the nation as a whole. It is well known that after a year of war, there were still more than a million unemployed. Yet even had the prime minister wanted to impose the industrial conscription necessary for full employment, it is hard to see how he could have done so and kept the country together, when the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union was proclaiming in February 1940 that: “If the government is going to take the occasion of this war to invade the liberties of my people, I will lead the movement to resist this government – or any other government… The appetite for compulsion is growing and there is no ground for it”.
That leader was Ernest Bevin – shortly to become minister of labour and national service, where he would eventually oversee the most severe state invasion of its workers’ liberty there has ever been. But that was under a different government, and in a different situation, in which pets would be among the least of the sacrifices demanded of the British people.
Daniel Todman is senior lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (Penguin, 2016).
On 26 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol’s M Shed for a day of talks re-examining the momentous global conflict of 1939-45.
To find out more about our Second World War Day, and to buy tickets, click here.