Countdown to WW2: the 72 hours that took the world to war

When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, there was only one unthinkable, inevitable outcome. Historian Gavin Mortimer charts the 72 hours that took the world to war for a second time

A newspaper seller at the start of WW2

Friday 1 September

4.45am (UK TIME)

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Germany launches its invasion of Poland with aerial attacks on Warsaw, Katowice and Krakow, followed by mass land attacks. Five months earlier, on 31 March, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had guaranteed to support its ally against “any action which clearly threatened Polish independence”.

6am

Preparing for the worst, the British government launches Operation Pied Piper, the plan to evacuate civilians from the “dangerous and congested industrial districts of the country”, beginning with women, children and teachers. Officials from the Ministry of Health and the Board of Education are despatched to thousands of schools to help in the operation.

9am

Around 17,000 disabled children are moved by special coaches and ambulances direct from their schools to destinations in all parts of the country, where they will be accommodated mainly in large country houses.

10am

German radio carries a message from Adolf Hitler in which he says: “Germans in Poland are persecuted with bloody terror and driven from their houses. A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich. In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force.”

10.30am

On learning of the invasion, US President Franklin D Roosevelt issues an appeal to the governments of Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Poland urging them to publicly affirm that their armed forces “shall in no event, and under no circumstances” bombard civilian populations or unfortified cities from the air.

Families wave goodbye to evacuated children on a bus
Many London children were evacuated to country homes. Some were sent away on buses, their mothers left behind. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

10.50am

British foreign secretary Lord Halifax receives Theodor Kordt, the German charge d’affaires, who denies that his country has attacked Poland. As Kordt leaves he passes Count Edward Raczynski, the Polish ambassador, who confirms the invasion.

11am

French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier hosts a meeting of his ministers. Decrees are approved ordering general mobilisation by land, sea and air throughout French territory, and the implementation of martial law.

11.30am

The British Cabinet meets. It decides to censor postal correspondence, place the railways under state control, plans for the organisation of food supplies, and orders that telephones and telegrams be used only for “very urgent messages”. The 1.5 million volunteers of Britain’s civil defence are mobilised, with one of their primary roles to enforce the nightly ‘blackout’.

12pm

King George VI meets the Privy Council at Buckingham Palace and signs an order to initiate the complete mobilisation of the Army and the Royal Air Force, and a proclamation to mobilise the Royal Navy.

2pm to 6pm

In Denmark, 40,000 men are called up, while in Canada the military is placed on a footing of active service and the cabinet passes the War Measures Act of 1914 giving its government extraordinary powers to act in an emergency. Elsewhere, in Russia, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov addresses the Supreme Council and expresses his “extreme satisfaction that the Soviet Union is isolated from the European conflict”.

2pm

Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) visits the headquarters of the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence to learn more about their role in evacuation, and praises them for dealing with the situation “calmly and cheerfully.”

3pm

At a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Rome, Italy announces it “will take no initiative in the way of military operations”. Earlier in the day, Hitler had told the Reichstag he was grateful for the support of Italy but he “will not call on foreign help at this critical time”.

3.30pm

Roosevelt is asked at a press conference if the US can stay out of a European war. He replies, “I not only sincerely hope so, but I believe we can, and that every effort will be made by the administration so to do.”

4.30pm

George VI pays a rare visit to 10 Downing Street to discuss developments and is cheered by the large crowd outside the Prime Minister’s residence. According to The Times, His Majesty “smiled and raised his bowler hat in acknowledgement of their warm-hearted reception”.

5pm

London Underground and overground stations resume their normal service, having spent the last 12 hours operating only as part of the evacuation programme.

6pm

Chamberlain is greeted by the House of Commons “amid loud and enthusiastic cheers”, and he briefs parliament on the day’s developments. He concludes his address on a sombre note: “The thoughts of many of us must at this moment inevitably be turning back to 1914, and to a comparison of our position now with that which existed then. How do we stand this time? The answer is that all three services are ready and that the situation in all directions is far more favourable and reassuring than in 1914.”

7pm

The Commons votes to allow the government a credit of £500,000,000 “for securing the public safety, the defence of the realm, the maintenance of public order, and the efficient prosecution of any war”.

8pm

By nightfall, nearly half a million Britons have been relocated from cities to the countryside.

9.30pm

The British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, is received by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and warns that if German forces did not withdraw from Polish territory his country “will without hesitation fulfil their obligations to Poland.”

CITIZENS’ ARMY

“On September 1st I got a call in the office where I worked telling me to report as soon as possible to the Acton Station in Dalston,” remembered Mitzy Spooner, a 20-year-old Londoner in 1939. “I was the second to arrive but soon all the other firewomen arrived with their 24 hours of ration food (lots of baked beans), tin plate, mug and blanket.”

Across the country tens of thousands of men and women reported for duty, for what The Times described as “the full machinery of the civil defence of Great Britain set in motion”. The government had launched its Air Raid Wardens’ Service two years earlier, shortly after German bombers wreaked havoc on the Spanish city of Guernica while fighting for Franco’s Nationalists.

By September 1939, the Civil Defence was a home front army of 1.5 million male and female volunteers, 1.1 millon of whom were part-timers. Yet more were required and on 1 September the government issued a call for volunteer stretcher-bearers, firemen and women, nurses, ambulance drivers and harvest helpers.

The Lord Privy Seal appealed to employers to do “all they can to arrange for the immediate release of members of their staffs who are enrolled in any branch of the Civil Defence Services”.

One of the first civil defence acts was Defence Regulation No. 24, which stipulated that in future “every night from sunset to sunrise all lights inside buildings must be obscured and lights outside buildings must be extinguished”. Britain’s blackout had begun and it would be rigorously enforced by the nation’s Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens.

Saturday 2 September

9am

Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies issues a statement in which he declares: “We do not yet realise what the price in terms of human life and happiness will be, but we know that the British nations throughout the world are at one. There is unity in the Empire ranks – one King, one flag, one cause. We stand with Britain”. There is also a message from the New Zealand government in which they support Britain and the “cause of justice, freedom, and democracy”.

11am

The Lord Privy Seal’s office for drivers of vehicles issues instructions that, on hearing the air raid siren, “the driver of a motor-vehicle must park at the side of the road, or in a garage, car park, or open space off the highway”.

12pm

Germany’s 62 infantry and mechanised divisions continue their rapid advance into Poland despite valiant resistance and have reached the Vistula river. Germany has dominance in the skies and its aircraft wreck Poland’s railway system.

3pm

Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax tells the House that he is not in a position to make a “statement on the present position of foreign affairs”. Other speakers include Ernest Brown, Minister of Labour, who tables the National Service (Armed Forces) Bill, which will “render all fit male British subjects of the ages of 18 to 40 inclusive liable to be called up for service in the armed forces”.

German soldiers march into Poland
Some 1.5 million German soldiers swept into Poland to launch the invasion. (Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images)

3.15pm

The football season continues as normal with the blessing of the Home Office, the pick of the day’s matches being Liverpool versus Chelsea. The season is suspended the next day.

5pm

In London, thousands of women have spent the day signing up to work as cooks,nurses, laundry maids, hospital porters and nursery assistants.

8pm

By nightfall, nearly 500,000 people have left London for the safety of the countryside.

9.30pm

Twenty-four hours after the British ultimatum was handed to German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, there has been no response.

Operation Pied Piper

Named after the famous fairytale character, Operation Pied Piper was launched on 1 September with impressive effciency. The British government had begun working on the mass evacuation scheme in the summer, but that it went so smoothly was – as The Times reported on 2 September – “a triumph of preparation, organisation and discipline”.

In a matter of a few hours, hundreds of thousands of women and children were being relocated to the countryside from cities such as London, Glasgow and Manchester. Eva Cohen, from the East End of London, recalled: “I was evacuated with my eight-month old daughter to Devizes, where we were picked up by the lady mayoress. We went back to her mansion and stayed in the servants quarters.”

The evacuation began at dawn and at some London stations children were leaving at the rate of 8,000 an hour. In Glasgow, an estimated 75,000 children had left for the Highlands by late afternoon, and in Southampton 15,000 children were removed to the countryside.

Herbert Morrison, the leader of the London County Council, toured the capital to offer words of encouragement to organisers and comfort to children, many of whom were being separated from their parents. “The quiet, orderly character of the whole business has impressed me,” said Morrison. “Everybody is keeping their heads and working to timetable with remarkable accuracy.”

Also evacuated were around 17,000 disabled children, as well as thousands of hospital patients, some of whom were transferred to country hospitals while those less sick were billeted with doctors and nurses.

By the end of the day, nearly half a million people had been evacuated and across the nation “children were settling down in country homes to new surroundings, and what may prove a great and revealing adventure”.

Sunday 3 September

9am

Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson presents the final British ultimatum in Berlin. It gives the German government two hours in which to make an undertaking that it will withdraw its troops from Poland.

11am

The ultimatum expires without a response from Germany.

11.15am

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcasts to the nation the news “that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany”. The broadcast is a deep humiliation for the Prime Minister, whose policy of appeasement has been an abject failure.

“You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed,” he tells his people. “Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything. different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.”

Among those listening are 19-year-old Bob McDougall. “I was at camp with my territorial unit and after church parade we were supposed to catch the train home to Liverpool,” he recalled. “Instead we listened to the wireless and heard that we were at war. Someone said ‘we’re not going home now, we’re here to stay’. He was right. It was a fortnight’s camp that turned into six years.”

11.27am

In London, the air raid siren is heard for the first time, although it turns out to be a false alarm. “I listened to the Prime Minister on the radio,” said Gladys Dawson, a 17-year-old living in Bermondsey, South London. “Hardly had he finished his speech when the air raid siren rang out, warning us of enemy aircraft. It was a false alarm, but perhaps it was to get us used to the warning sound.”

12pm

The House of Commons sits in an emergency session. In Washington, it is 7am and President Franklin D Roosevelt has been awake for hours, receiving briefings from his ambassadors in Paris and London. He is informed that the “die is cast” and consequently instructs the heads of key departments to attend a conference later in the day.

12.15pm

In a radio broadcast, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies tells the nation it is his “melancholy duty” to announce officially that the country is at war with Germany. In Japan, the cabinet meets and prepares to announce its intention to remain neutral. In the Irish Free State later in the afternoon, the parliament assembles and Taoiseach Éamon de Valera says the country will adopt a neutral position.

12.30pm

A French ultimatum is presented in Berlin with a warning that unless Germany starts withdrawing its troops from Poland before 5pm, France will declare war.

3pm

Parliament sits to debate the National Service (Armed Forces) Bill. Some in the House feel the minimum call-up age of 18 should be raised while the maximum age of 41 could also be increased for the “fit men of much more mature years than that”. Despite the objections, the bill is read a second time and passes through its remaining stages.

5pm

France declares war on Germany, whose forces in Poland, according to The Times’ war correspondent, “have continued to bomb towns and villages, only some of which are of strategic importance”.

5pm

A war cabinet is formed by the Prime Minister. It comprises nine members, including two new Ministers: Lord Hankey as Minister Without Portfolio, and Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

6pm

George VI, wearing his undress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, broadcasts a message in which he calls upon “my people at home and my peoples across the seas… to stand calm, firm and united.” He adds: “There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right.” The Ministry of Information announces that a copy of the King’s message “with his own signature in facsimile” will be sent to every household in the country

6.30pm

The King receives Neville Chamberlain at Buckingham Palace, while details of more government bills (ten in total) are broadcast to the nation. These include the announcement that rationing will be introduced on 16 September, with details to follow on how to secure ration books. The Home Office states that the Aliens Order of 1920 has been amended and “all Germans and Austrians over 16 years of age who do not intend to leave the country by 9 September must report at once to the police”.

11.59pm

Evacuations have continued all day. By nightfall, the past three days have seen more than three million people evacuated from areas considered dangerous. In his editorial that will appear in the paper in a few hours, The Times editor Geoffrey Dawson declares: “Never before has there been such unanimity over any question whether of war or of peace, and never in any war has there been such a cold determination to see the struggle through to the only tolerable end.”

Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017).

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed