BRITAIN DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY

London, England September 3, 1939

Addressing a national audience by radio, Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain in­toned the fol­lowing words: “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.” For Britons, these words are as mem­o­rable as Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt’s before a national radio audi­ence on Decem­ber 8, 1941, one day after the “Day of Infamy,” Japan’s sur­prise assault on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in which he asked Members of Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan. At mid­day, London time, Cham­ber­lain spoke to Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment, saying: “This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than for me. Every­thing that I have worked for, every­thing that I hoped for, every­thing I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins.”

As part of the preparations for the ensuing war, Cham­ber­lain recruited new mem­bers to his cabi­net, the most not­able being Winston Chur­chill. For months many in the English press had clamored for Chur­chill’s return to govern­ment—the vet­er­an poli­ti­cian had been “exiled” by his Con­ser­vative poli­tical party in Decem­ber 1936 and later became a vocal critic of Cham­ber­lain’s “appease­ment” approach to Nazi Germany. Cham­ber­lain’s taking Chur­chill on board was a cou­ra­geous and popu­lar way to strengthen his party’s war­time con­trol of govern­ment. The prime minis­ter gave Chur­chill the cabi­net post of First Lord of the Ad­mi­ralty and invited him to sit on the nine-mem­ber ad­vi­sory War Coun­cil. With­in nine months a sick and war-weary Cham­ber­lain invited Churchill to replace him, which hap­pened on May 10, 1940, quite incidentally the day Adolf Hitler’s legions poured over the borders of France and the Low Countries.

Churchill’s adept wartime leadership and his elo­quent use of lan­guage pre­pared Britons for a long war against power­fully armed and deter­mined aggres­sor states in Europe and Asia. By refusing to con­cede defeat to Nazi Germany through the Battle of Britain (July to October 1940) and the Blitz (Septem­ber 1940 to May 1941), Chur­chill kept British resis­tance alive until joined by the United States on Decem­ber 11, 1941, when Hitler, five months after picking a fight with the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), foolishly picked one with America.





Great Britain and France Declare War on Germany, September 3, 1939

Chamberlain in the act of declaring war on Nazi Germany, September 3, 1939 Prime Minister Chamberlain and French Premier Daladier, 1938

Left: Speaking in a makeshift BBC studio at No. 10 Downing Street, British Prime Minister Neville Cham­ber­lain announced the news of Britain’s decla­ra­tion of war with Germany at 11:15 a.m., Septem­ber 3, 1939. Toward the end of the short broad­cast, he said: “We and France are today, in fulfill­ment of our obli­ga­tions, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unpro­voked attack upon her peo­ple. We have a clear con­science. We have done all that any coun­try could do to estab­lish peace. But the situ­a­tion in which no word given by Germany’s ruler [Hitler] could be trusted and no peo­ple or coun­try could feel itself safe has become intol­er­able. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part with calm­ness and courage.” After resigning the office of prime minister in May 1940, Cham­ber­lain remained in the cabi­net of his suc­cessor, Winston Chur­chill, until October 1940, succumbing to bowel cancer on November 9, 1940, at the age of 71.

Right: Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Dala­dier, 1938. On the evening of Septem­ber 3, 1939, Dala­dier addressed his nation by radio, telling French citi­zens, “We are at war because we have had it im­posed on us.” Dala­dier shared Cham­ber­lain’s moral rejec­tion of war, but he also came to realize the futil­ity of avoiding a direct con­fron­ta­tion with Hitler’s Germany. In March 1940 he resigned his post but remained in the govern­ment as defense minis­ter and then as for­eign minist­er until June 16, 1940, when invading German troops seized the French capital, Paris. Dala­dier fled to French Morocco, where he was later arrested on charges of tre­ason by the col­labo­ra­tionist Vichy French govern­ment of Marshal Philippe Pétain. He was impri­soned in France until 1943, after which he was handed over to the Germans and spent the remainder of the war in German capti­vity. After the war Dala­dier re-entered politics, serving in the French Chamber of Deputies and as mayor of Avignon (1953–1958). He died on October 10, 1970, in Paris at the age of 86.

Neville Chamberlain’s Speech to the British Nation Announcing a Declaration of War Against Nazi Germany, September 3, 1939


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