First to fight, p.11

First to Fight, page 11


First to Fight

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  When he stood up in the House of Commons that evening, however, Chamberlain appeared to have forgotten what he had agreed with his cabinet. In a brief, lacklustre speech, he spoke of the reasons for the delay, of the necessity of communication and coordination with the French, and of the British government’s refusal to recognise Germany’s unilateral annexation of Danzig. But, there was no mention of an ultimatum, or of any putative military defence of Poland.37 When he sat down, it was to a deafening silence. ‘Members sat’, one parliamentarian recalled, ‘as if turned to stone.’38

  It was the Labour deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood, standing in for the convalescing Clement Attlee, who rose to reply, and as he did so he drew a shout of ‘Speak for England, Arthur!’ from the Conservative MP – and prominent opponent of appeasement – Leo Amery. Thinking on his feet and speaking of ‘what is in my heart’, Greenwood gave the defiant tone that many thought had been missing from Chamberlain’s bloodless speech. He spoke of the gravity of the moment, and though sympathetic to the prime minister’s predicament, wondered aloud ‘how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilisation, are in peril’. He hoped that Chamberlain would have a final decision for the House when it reconvened the following morning, but warned that ‘every minute’s delay [meant] imperilling the very foundations of our national honour’.39 Soon after, amid insults, recriminations and confusion, the House broke up.

  For a time that evening, it appeared that a cabinet revolt might be in the offing. After the Commons session was adjourned, much of Chamberlain’s cabinet – twelve out of twenty-two members, including the chancellor, Sir John Simon, and Hore-Belisha – met in Simon’s room in the House of Commons. Incensed by what they saw as Chamberlain’s unilateral reversal of the decisions agreed by cabinet that afternoon, and fearing that Poland was being abandoned, they demanded that the Commons be told the following day that Britain was fulfilling its treaty guarantee. If not, they said, the Chamberlain government would not survive. That night, Simon delivered a hand-written note to the prime minister:

  The statement tonight will throw the Poles into dejection. German propaganda will see to that. We assume that Warsaw is getting a reassuring telephone message at once. Nothing will repair the injury but an announcement of our fixed decision as soon as possible.

  We all feel that 12 o’clock tomorrow is too late, and think that we ought to adhere to the Cabinet timetable of midnight. The only thing that could justify 12 noon tomorrow for the expiry of the ultimatum would be an announcement that this had definitely been agreed with the French.

  Your colleagues here feel that if the French will not agree to expiry by 12 noon at the latest we are bound to act ourselves at once.40

  The rebels were clear that Britain’s sense of honour must not be made a hostage to French delay.

  France, of course, was enduring agonies of its own. Prime Minister Édouard Daladier had, like Chamberlain, been one of the architects of appeasement and a co-signatory of the Munich Agreement the previous autumn. And, like his British counterpart, he knew that appeasement had failed: negotiation with Hitler had run its course and robust determination was the new order of the day. Consequently, he had issued a general mobilisation and recalled Parliament to vote on war credits and an ultimatum to Germany. ‘Poland is our ally,’ he declared to the Chamber on 2 September, with a flair and élan that Chamberlain had so grievously lacked. If France should allow this aggression to be carried out, it would very soon find itself ‘a France despised, a France isolated, a France discredited’. Standing by Poland was a matter not only of vital interest, he said, but of honour: ‘At the price of our honour we would only buy a precarious peace … and, when we have to fight tomorrow, after having lost the esteem of our allies and other nations, we would only be a wretched nation, sold to defeat and slavery.’41 At the end of his address the deputies rose as one and applauded.

  Yet for all that bellicose applause, other voices were making themselves heard. One was that of the socialist deputy and former minister Marcel Déat, whose pacifism and non-interventionism had famously found expression in an article entitled ‘Mourir pour Dantzig?’ (‘Die for Danzig?’) published earlier in 1939. In it, Déat had answered his own question with a resounding ‘Non’, arguing instead in favour of a continuation of appeasement, suggesting that Hitler would be sated with the cession of Danzig and that Polish intransigence was dragging all of Europe into war. By September, Déat’s question had become the primary slogan of all those in France who were in favour of non-intervention.

  Another voice raised in protest – albeit not on ideological grounds – was that of France’s commander-in-chief, General Maurice Gamelin. Already of retirement age in 1939, and with a distinguished record in the First World War to his name, Gamelin was widely respected and considered to be something of an intellectual. Yet his handling of the Polish crisis would be less than glorious. Despite having committed his army, earlier that summer, to assist Poland in the event of attack, he had no intention of – nor, consequently, had the French military any plans for – launching an immediate assault on Germany. Moreover, he had convinced himself that, even though the bulk of German forces were engaged in Poland, Germany was nevertheless poised ready to attack in the west upon any declaration of war, and would target French railways and barracks to hamstring France’s military mobilisation. As a result, he petitioned Daladier for a delay of up to 48 hours in the submission of any ultimatum to Germany.42

  While Gamelin moved military minds, the most influential political voice espousing delay was that of Daladier’s foreign minister, Georges Bonnet. Bonnet had long been an advocate of France’s time-honoured strategy of containing Germany via an alliance with Russia, and had given vociferous encouragement to the Anglo-French party sent to negotiate with Moscow the previous month. However, now that Stalin had opted for an arrangement with Hitler, Bonnet considered Poland as an unworthy alternative and actively sought to detach France from her treaty commitments towards Warsaw, using Poland’s supposed stubbornness over Danzig as the pretext. Bonnet now espoused taking up the Italian offer of mediation and holding back – if not abandoning altogether – any declaration of war. His position had earned him a noisy rebuke from the Polish ambassador in Paris, Juliusz Łukasiewicz, who stormed into Bonnet’s office on the afternoon of 2 September and accused him, with no little justification, of preparing a ‘new Munich’ behind Poland’s back.43 As the head of the ‘peace party’ it was Bonnet, lobbying Daladier against going to war, who was most responsible for the resulting French prevarication.

  It was against this background, then, that Chamberlain called an urgent cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street later that night, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm. He explained to his colleagues why he had gone ‘off script’ in the Commons, citing the French concern that any early declaration of war would render them liable to surprise attack, and the resulting wrangle with Paris over the timing of the British and French ultimatums. However, stung by the criticisms he had received and mindful of the evident ‘strength of feeling’ in the House, he proposed that Britain should act alone and send an ultimatum to Berlin – in the firm expectation that France would follow shortly afterwards. After much discussion of the details and precise timings, it was agreed that the British ambassador in Berlin would be instructed ‘to seek an interview with Herr von Ribbentrop at 9 a.m., and to deliver an ultimatum to expire at 11 a.m.’44 When Chamberlain asked if any of those present dissented, no one spoke. ‘Right, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘this means war.’ At that moment, a clap of thunder burst over Whitehall and the cabinet room was illuminated by a blinding flash of lightning.45

  That night, Churchill added his considerable weight to the cause, telephoning the French ambassador in London, Charles Corbin, to tell him that if France were to betray the Poles as it had the Czechs, then he – despite being a life-long Francophile – would be wholly indifferent to France’s fate. When Corbin tried to
remonstrate with him, arguing that there were ‘technical difficulties’ in declaring war, Churchill was blunt: ‘I suppose you would call it a technical difficulty for a Pole if a German bomb fell on his head!’46

  It is often suggested that Chamberlain was less than entirely committed to honouring the treaty obligations to Poland; that his apparent vacillations in the first days of September were evidence of a desire to avoid a military entanglement. Certainly, the British prime minister had become synonymous with appeasement, and that inevitably coloured the view his contemporaries had of him, even after that policy had been abandoned. As he later wrote, he had found it hard to explain his policy to a House of Commons that was seemingly so eager to believe his government ‘guilty of any cowardice and treachery’.47 Yet a sober reading of the original accounts of the period yields no evidence that the commitment to Poland was ever in serious doubt. When Chamberlain had received the cabinet rebels, for instance, he had agreed with them and promised to do his best to twist the arm of the French government. Chamberlain and Halifax were certainly rather cold and uninspiring – the latter was described by one historian as having an ‘almost inhuman inability to rise to an occasion’48 – but beyond that infelicity, both men knew that Poland would not, and could not, be abandoned to its fate.49 There was, Halifax wrote in his memoir, ‘no room for misunderstanding’ of the British position: ‘We intended to maintain our obligation to Poland.’50

  Moreover, behind the scenes of Chamberlain’s often lacklustre public performance in those fevered days of early September, much had already been achieved. Civilian evacuation had been set in train, and military mobilisation begun; even the French had been (temporarily) galvanised. Contacts had also been made with some of the more hawkish anti-appeasers, such as Winston Churchill, with a view to including them in a future war cabinet.51 Chamberlain bore the responsibility of taking his nation to war with a heavy heart, not least because it marked a final repudiation of his own desperate efforts to preserve the peace in Europe. But his commitment to the Polish treaty never seriously wavered. It was a point that was confirmed by the Polish ambassador, Count Edward Raczyński, quoted in The Times on 4 September: ‘Never, during the negotiations, were we given the slightest reason to doubt British determination to stand by Poland.’52


  So it was that on 3 September, at 9.00 a.m. sharp, the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, was announced outside Ribbentrop’s office in the German Foreign Ministry. Ribbentrop had declined to receive him in person, as his visit presaged ‘nothing agreeable’, and had delegated responsibility to the Foreign Ministry’s interpreter Paul Schmidt, who had overslept and only just appeared. Henderson, Schmidt recalled, was ushered in ‘looking very serious’, declined the offer of a seat and remained ‘solemnly standing’ in the centre of the room. After expressing his regrets, Henderson read out the ultimatum he had been sent to deliver:

  More than twenty-four hours have elapsed since an immediate reply was requested to the warning of September 1st, and since then the attacks on Poland have been intensified. If His Majesty’s Government has not received satisfactory assurances of the cessation of all aggressive action against Poland, and the withdrawal of German troops from that country, by 11 o’clock British Summer Time, from that time a state of war will exist between Great Britain and Germany.53

  When he had finished, Henderson handed the note to Schmidt, saying: ‘I am sincerely sorry that I must hand such a document to you in particular, as you have always been most anxious to help.’ Schmidt gave a few heartfelt words of his own, before departing for the Reich Chancellery.

  On arriving there, Schmidt had to fight his way through a throng of officials, all eager to know what message had been delivered. Entering Hitler’s vast office, he saw the Führer seated at his desk with Ribbentrop standing close to the window, overlooking the Chancellery garden. The two were evidently deep in conversation and looked up expectantly as he advanced. Stopping before the desk, Schmidt slowly translated the ultimatum. When he finished, he recalled, ‘there was complete silence. Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him. He was not at a loss, as was afterwards stated, nor did he rage as others allege. He sat completely silent and unmoving.’ After a time, Hitler finally turned to Ribbentrop, still standing at the window, and – with a ‘savage look’ – asked: ‘What now?’54

  Two hours later, London was awaiting the German response. Halifax arrived in Whitehall at 10.00 a.m., to be told that the ultimatum had been delivered as agreed, but that no reply had yet been forthcoming. An hour later, he went across to Downing Street, where the BBC had installed a makeshift studio in the cabinet room for Chamberlain to broadcast to the nation. At 11.12 a.m., a telephone call from the British Embassy in Berlin confirmed that there had been no response from the German side. Three minutes after that, at 11.15 a.m., Chamberlain – looking ‘crumpled, despondent and old’55 – made the most difficult speech of his career.

  This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by eleven 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.

  He went on to state what a ‘bitter blow’ it was to see that his ‘long struggle to win peace’ had failed, yet he consoled himself with the belief that there was nothing that he could have done to bring about a more successful outcome. ‘In fulfilment of our obligations’, he explained, Britain and France were going to the aid of Poland, ‘who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack’. Britain would be combating ‘brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution’, and in that struggle, he said, he was certain that right would prevail.56

  Beyond Whitehall, Chamberlain’s solemn words were received with stoicism. The pacifist Vera Brittain listened to the prime minister with her children and found that tears were running down her cheeks.57 Another listener recalled:

  We all sat around the wireless set in silence. Even the children were quiet, and after the Prime Minister had made his affectingly simple statement, no one said a word. We all sat there for some moments until the national anthem was played, then, still in silence, each got up and went up to their own rooms.58

  After Chamberlain had finished, and a number of official announcements had been made, the new realities of wartime quickly became apparent. As Churchill recalled: ‘He had scarcely ceased speaking when a strange, prolonged, wailing noise, afterwards to become familiar, broke upon the ear.’59 It was the air-raid siren, calling Londoners – some still mute with shock – down into the shelters. For a time, there was a genuine concern that the declaration of war had had an immediate and catastrophic result. In Paddington, one man wondered whether London would share the grim fate of Warsaw and be turned into ‘blazing rubble’.60 But, soon after, when the all-clear sounded, a new, nervous normality resumed. Sitting at an empty desk in the newly established Ministry of Economic Warfare, John Colville was told there was nothing more to be done that day. Opting to play a round of golf, he mused that Britain seemed ‘remarkably ill-prepared for Armageddon’.61

  While Britons pondered the immensity of the morning’s events, in Berlin Ribbentrop summoned Ambassador Henderson to the Foreign Ministry, to present the German government’s response. In the intervening two hours, Hitler and his foreign minister had received the Soviet ambassador, and scripted a lengthy ‘Rejection of the British Ultimatum’, which Ribbentrop now handed to Henderson. The document explicitly rejected the British demand for a German withdrawal, before blaming the Poles, the British and the Versailles Treaty for the unfolding crisis. The British, it claimed, had given the intransigent Poles a ‘blank cheque’ and had rejected Mussolini’s overtures for peace. It closed by warning that Germany would ‘answer every British military action with the same weapons and in the same manner
.62 Henderson was undaunted, and when he had finished reading he merely told Ribbentrop: ‘It will be left to history to judge where the blame really lies.’63 With that, he left the Foreign Ministry, only minutes before his French counterpart, Robert Coulondre, arrived to deliver the ultimatum from Paris, which was due to expire that afternoon at 5.00. By the time it did – without eliciting any formal response – the phone lines to both embassies had been cut and preparations were under way for the departure of their staffs. The time for diplomacy was over.

  To many ordinary Germans, that realisation came as a cold shock. Hitler’s popularity – and his success – had been built on his peaceful (and piecemeal) revision of the Treaty of Versailles, and many people believed that, though he might indulge in some noisy sabre-rattling, he would stop short of war. One Berlin taxi driver summed up the popular mind, suggesting to his fare that none of the German forces already in Poland ‘will have to fire a single shot’. The whole thing, he believed, was little more than negotiation by other means. ‘This time there won’t be any dead lists in the papers and we’ll have plenty to eat. No sir,’ he went on, ‘Hitler won’t get us into a war.’64

  When war was declared, there was consternation. ‘We were depressed,’ one Berliner recalled. ‘We had the feeling that something quite terrible was coming.’65 For many among the older generation, memories of the First World War loomed large; one cursed his fate and asked: ‘Wasn’t one war enough in our lifetime?’66 In Dresden, the diarist Victor Klemperer noted how the troop trains carried only gloomy faces – ‘different from 1914’ – adding that the German press actively suppressed news of the British and French declarations of war, stressing instead Germany’s ‘successes on all fronts’.67 In Berlin, the journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich was similarly horrified by the slide into war, but she also fervently hoped that the eruption of open conflict might at least foreshadow the defeat of the Hitler regime. As she wrote in her diary:

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