By Calvin Palmer
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the official start of the Second World War of World War Two as it is referred to in the United States.
Two days previously, the might of Germany’s Wehrmacht rolled into Poland, in the process giving Great Britain and France, who had pledged to guarantee Poland’s independence six months earlier on March 31, 1939, the two fingers, or American middle finger, of defiance.
The news of Germany’s Blitzkrieg and the rapid advance of Hitler’s Panzer armies across Poland meant an inevitable outcome for both Britain and France.
At 11:00 a.m. Great Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed the nation with a broadcast on the BBC. The entire nation fell silent as Chamberlain’s voice, with its faint Midland twang, sounded on the airwaves:
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we hear 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.
“You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.
“Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honorable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it. He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland, whatever happened, and although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.
“The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us, and though they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.
“His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.
“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.
“The situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler 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 play your part with calmness and courage.
“At such a moment as this the assurances of support which we have received from the empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.
“When I have finished speaking, certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the Government. Give these your closest attention. The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead…
“Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. For it is evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that right will prevail.”
Some historians, notably A J P Taylor argue that it was a European war in the first instance and did not become a world war, until America became involved after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.
However, Britain’s Empire still held sway at this time and with similar declarations of war by Australia, New Zealand and India on September 3, Taylor’s point is perhaps rather a moot one.
The Union of South Africa followed suit on September 6 and Canada declared war on Germany on September 11.
Hostilities may well have been confined to continental Europe but the alliance ranged against Hitler’s Germany and the Nazi tyranny certainly had a global dimension.