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.” At mid­day 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, the day Ger­many in­vaded 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 Ger­many through the Battle of Brit­ain (July to October 1940) and the London 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, foolishly picked one with America.

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

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

Left: British Prime Minister Neville Chamber­lain, speaking in a make­shift BBC studio at No. 10 Downing Street, announced the news of Britain’s decla­ra­tion of war 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.”

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 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.

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