The day we plunged into the abyss: Lightning over Downing Street, an ultimatum to Hitler and a nation holding its breath in the 24 hours that changed the world forever

Exactly 80 years ago tomorrow, on the morning of September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s forces invaded Poland.

It was the start of the most destructive and brutal conflict in history. On the side of a railway carriage carrying German troops east was chalked: ‘We’re off to Poland to thrash the Jews.’

While British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been pursuing a futile policy of appeasement, Britain had been preparing for war. Eighty thousand patients were sent home from hospitals to make space for potential casualties.

Police and railwaymen assist some of the 800 evacuee children as they leave Ealing Broadway station, London, for the country on the first day of World War II

Nearly four million people had already been evacuated from vulnerable cities and towns. More than 1.5 million Anderson air-raid shelters had been distributed.

Every household had received a leaflet called Your Air Raid Precautions, which tried to reassure citizens that British homes were more sturdy than those destroyed by bombing in the recently ended Spanish Civil War, and that the direct effects of a high-explosive bomb were limited to within 30ft.

Sunday, September 3, 1939, midnight

Chamberlain’s Cabinet is meeting at Downing Street to debate when to issue an ultimatum to Hitler to insist he withdraws his troops from Poland. A dramatic thunderstorm is raging outside. The Cabinet finally reaches a decision — the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, will present the ultimatum in the morning.

Germany has until 11am to act, but no one in the room believes Hitler will comply. Chamberlain says quietly to his colleagues: ‘Right, gentlemen, this means war.’ A bolt of lightning suddenly illuminates the Cabinet Room.

American journalist Virginia Cowles has arrived at Harwich, Essex, by ferry on her way back from an assignment in Berlin. She can see flashes in the sky over London and she assumes the lightning is anti-aircraft fire.

She asks a docker if war has been declared. ‘Not yet, but I hope it won’t be long now,’ he replies. ‘The waiting around is making us all nervous.’


The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, is in his office in Whitehall. Relieved that a decision about the ultimatum to Hitler has been made, he calls for cold beer for him and his staff. A sleepy clerk dressed in pyjamas brings them their drinks.


Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Minister foreign minister, in his office

The British embassy in Berlin telephones the German Foreign Ministry to arrange a 9am interview between Henderson and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister.

Von Ribbentrop guesses that Henderson will be delivering an ultimatum and says to Dr Paul Schmidt, who works as an interpreter for Hitler and other Nazi leaders: ‘Really, you could receive the ambassador in my place . . . say that the Foreign Minister is not available at 9 o’clock.’

There is no love lost between Henderson and Von Ribbentrop. At a meeting four days earlier, Henderson had accused the Germans of committing atrocities in Poland.

‘That is a damned lie!’ Von Ribbentrop yelled and Henderson had shouted back: ‘You have just said “damned”! That’s no word for a statesman to use in so grave a situation!’


IN LONDON, the Met Office draws up a bulletin forecasting ‘showers, bright intervals, local thunderstorms, rather warm — outlook unsettled’, but it is not released.

Weather forecasts are now an official secret; this information could aid the Luftwaffe if and when it decides to bomb the United Kingdom. There will be no weather forecasts for almost six years.


A BBC radio news bulletin on the newly formed Home Service is giving details of optimistic reports from Poland that its forces have destroyed German tanks and aircraft, but the reality is very different.

A unit of SS troops is marching into a Polish village, where they start shooting unarmed civilians including children.

Three Death’s Head regiments with special responsibility for exterminations are following behind the Wehrmacht infantry with orders to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ the enemies of Nazism with ‘inflexible severity’.


In Berlin, there is smoke coming from the chimneys above the French embassy as the staff burn papers and secret codes.


A clock strikes nine as a serious-looking Henderson is shown into Von Ribbentrop’s office in a grandiose building on the Wilhelmstrasse, where he is met by Schmidt, the interpreter. The two men shake hands.

Standing in the middle of the room, Henderson says sadly: ‘I regret that on the instructions of my government I have to hand you an ultimatum for the German government.’

He then reads the text out loud, ending with the words:

‘I have, therefore, to inform you that unless not later than 11am British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war would exist between the two countries from that hour.’


Schmidt carries the ultimatum the short distance to the Reich Chancellery, where he pushes his way through a crowd of Nazi officials eager for news.

He walks into Hitler’s study. The Fuhrer is at his desk, Von Ribbentrop is standing by a window, and they look at Schmidt expectantly.

Schmidt carefully translates the British ultimatum. There is a long silence, then Hitler turns angrily to Von Ribbentrop and says: ‘What now!’


In BALSALL Common in the West Midlands, Clara Milburn, 56, is preparing a bedroom for two evacuee teachers who are arriving this afternoon. The room is her son Alan’s, but he is in the Territorial Army and has been called up. Yesterday, Clara and her husband Jack went with Alan to their family solicitor to make his will. She is finding it upsetting to clear out his clothes and belongings.


The BBC has set up a microphone in the Cabinet Room in No 10. Announcer Alvar Lidell reads a statement saying that an ultimatum has been given to the German government and that it expires at 11am. ‘The Prime Minister will broadcast to the nation at 11.15am,’ he says.

Lidell will become one of the BBC’s most famous wartime voices. Three years later, in November 1942, he announced the news of the victory at El Alamein with the words: ‘Here is the news, and cracking good news it is, too!’


In the village of Cawood in Yorkshire, 12-year-old John Booth is in his bedroom building a model aircraft when his mother puts her head round the door.

‘Have you collected the wireless accumulator from Mr Todd’s shop?’ she asks him. ‘Your father wants to hear the Prime Minister on the wireless.’

John realises that he has forgotten to get this vital component — the wireless won’t work without it. He runs out of the house and down the High Street to Mr Todd’s cycle and wireless shop.


The ultimatum deadline passes. On the BBC, announcer Stuart Hibberd tells the listeners to stand by for a speech from the Prime Minister.

Then a record is played — As Ever I Saw sung by the Welsh tenor Gwynn Parry Jones — followed by a short programme entitled Making The Most Of Tinned Foods.

At the British Embassy in Berlin, one of the diplomatic staff stops the ornate clock at the heart of the building on the stroke of 11am and another pastes a protective piece of paper over its face.

On September 3, 1939, then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced the declaration of World War II

On the paper is a note that says the clock will not be restarted until Hitler is defeated.

In London, a crowd has gathered in Downing Street. They watch solemnly as Chamberlain’s chauffeur leaves No 10 carrying the PM’s gas mask and places it in his official car.


In Cawood, John Booth has paid Mr Todd fourpence for the precious accumulator — he now has to get to the wireless in their living room without his father spotting him.

Fortunately, Mr Booth is deep in conversation outside the house with the local bobby, so John nips inside, opens the back of the wireless, replaces the run-down accumulator with the new one and turns on the set.

It hums into life, ‘ready to receive all that Mr Chamberlain had to tell on this fateful day’ he recalled.


A British Foreign Ministry official calls the embassy in Berlin to see if a reply has been received from the Germans. There has been no response.


In MUNICH, the quiet of the Englischer Garten (English Garden), a large public park, is broken by the sound of a gunshot.

A scientist named Professor Otto Hönigschmid turns around and sees a woman slumped on a park bench. He runs over and recognises her as English aristocrat’s daughter Unity Mitford, a close friend of Hitler.

Unity is one of six well-known Mitford sisters. Her sibling, Diana, is married to the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Another sister, Jessica, is a communist.

Unity is bleeding from a head wound, and a pearl-handled pistol lies close by. The weapon was a present from Hitler.

Distraught at the prospect of the two countries she loves going to war, Unity has tried to kill herself. Hönigschmid shouts for help and the police take her to Munich’s university clinic.

She will survive and return to Britain in 1940, only to die in 1948 from meningitis caused by her head injury.

In the Cabinet Room, BBC announcer Alvar Lidell watches Chamberlain make his way to the microphone. After a pause, Lidell leans over Chamberlain’s shoulder and says calmly into the microphone: ‘This is London. The Prime Minister.’

It’s estimated that 40 million people out of a UK population of 48 million are now listening to the wireless.

King George VI’s mother, Queen Mary, is at St Mary Magdalene church close to Sandringham, Norfolk, listening to Chamberlain’s announcement on a wireless set that has been installed especially for the occasion

Chamberlain starts reading: ‘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.’

Lidell is watching the Prime Minister from across the room. He thinks he looks ‘crumpled, despondent and old’.

King George VI’s mother, Queen Mary, is at St Mary Magdalene church close to Sandringham, Norfolk, listening on a wireless set that has been installed especially for the occasion.

The pacifist writer Vera Brittain is listening to the broadcast in her study with her son John and daughter Shirley (who will grow up to become the MP Shirley Williams). Tears are running down Vera’s cheeks: ‘I suppose from some subconscious realisation of the failure of my efforts for peace over 20 years.’

Although wireless would flourish in the war years, the BBC’s fledgling television service, watched by about 25,000 people, was shut down two days ago after the end of a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

When the service resumed in 1946, the announcer Jasmine Bligh appeared on screen and said ‘Remember me?’ and the cartoon was shown once again.


A message is sent to all Royal Navy ships to commence hostilities against Germany.


Chamberlain finishes his address: ‘It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against — brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution — and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.’ The BBC then plays God Save The King.

Singer Vera Lynn, 22, is with her parents celebrating her father’s birthday. Vera knows that, now war is declared, the entertainment industry is going to be hard hit. ‘Just as I’m beginning to get well known, bang goes my career,’ she thinks to herself.

Singer Vera Lynn, 22, is with her parents celebrating her father’s birthday. Vera knows that, now war is declared, the entertainment industry is going to be hard hit

A few moments after the Prime Minister’s broadcast, air raid sirens go off all over London. Thousands run for cover.

The manager of the Granada Theatre — a cinema in North Cheam, South London — has just assembled his staff in the café for a pep talk. ‘Above all, we must at all times keep calm,’ he begins, but is interrupted by the siren. The staff all run for the exit, except for two cleaners who start to scream.

Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine leave their Westminster flat and head to the air raid shelter at the end of the road. They take with them ‘a bottle of brandy and other appropriate medical comforts’.

Churchill is a backbench Conservative MP whose career has been in the political wilderness for ten years. For much of that decade, he has been warning about Hitler and the rise of Nazism.

The shelter proves to be an open basement, not even sandbagged, but the others there are in good spirits ‘as is the English manner when about to encounter the unknown’, Churchill recalled.

Nearby, MPs have sought refuge in a shelter under the Houses of Parliament. Some say they can hear gunfire and bombs exploding, but it is just the carpenters fixing asbestos covers to the windows.

Diminutive comedian ‘Big-Hearted’ Arthur Askey, star of the hit radio show Band Waggon, looks out of the window of his North London house and sees an air-raid warden blowing his whistle to alert the street, then suddenly faint onto the pavement.

In West London, policemen on bicycles are riding around the streets shouting: ‘Take cover! Take cover!’ To reinforce the message they have ‘Take Cover’ written on boards on their chests. A policeman on the banks of the Thames shouts to a bemused family on a houseboat: ‘It’s happened!’

On the other side of London in Romford, nine-year-old Nina Masel is playing the piano in the front room of her home when her mother flings open the door and shouts: ‘Stop that noise!’ She opens the window so Nina can hear the air-raid siren.

Nina’s father then takes control ‘as the government leaflet said he should’ and starts issuing commands to the family: ‘All get your gas masks! Steady, no packing!’ The family have no Anderson shelter, so decide to sit on the stairs.

In Downing Street, Chamberlain’s wife Anne walks into the Cabinet Room where some of his colleagues have assembled to support him. She is carrying a basket containing Thermos flasks, books and gas masks.

This prompts them to head for the nearest shelters.


The staff in the German embassy in London are preparing to leave. One official calls the Foreign Office asking if they would take care of the embassy’s pet black dog as they won’t be able to take him with them.

The message is relayed to Lord Halifax, who says that the dog will be looked after.

Churchill gazes out of his air-raid shelter and looks down the empty street.

He later wrote: ‘My imagination drew pictures of carnage and vast explosions shaking the ground, of buildings clattering down in dust and rubble, of fire brigades and ambulances scurrying through the smoke beneath the drones of hostile aeroplanes.’


In A church in Cambridgeshire, news of the war reaches the congregation. The vicar quickly improvises a short service of prayers and hymns so his congregation can get home. In London, the Sunday morning congregation of St Paul’s Cathedral is now in the crypt for safety’s sake.

In a school playground in Balsall Common, near Coventry, Clara Milburn is finding homes for busloads of evacuee children, a distraction from worrying about her son Alan, who is off to war.

‘The tears were forced back and the business in hand took all one’s attention,’ she recalled. Clara has been intending to take in two female teachers as lodgers, but when she sees two male teachers with the children she thinks they would be a better fit for her household; and husband Jack would like the company.

It is all swiftly arranged and soon Clara is driving Mr Davis and Mr Bealt to her home nearby. In the boot are the teachers’ rations for the next 48 hours: two tins of Ideal evaporated milk, two tins of Fray Bentos corned beef, two packets of Woolworths sweet biscuits and two bars of chocolate.


In REDHILL, Surrey, Barbara Campbell arrives home from working in a nearby hospital to find her mother stirring the Sunday lunch with one hand and sewing up sandbags with the other. By the end of the day, with the help of neighbours they have never spoken to before, the family will have constructed a 6ft wall of sandbags in front of their house made from old curtains filled with soil.


A BRISTOL Blenheim bomber of No 139 Squadron takes off from RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire on a reconnaissance mission to look for potential targets at Germany’s Wilhelmshaven naval base. It will be the first bomber of the war to cross the German coast.

In Manchester, a young couple named Dr and Mrs Josephs have just got married in their local synagogue. This morning, with war brewing, the bride told her mother she was in no mood to wear her wedding dress, saying: ‘It’s ridiculous!’ When her mother burst into tears, she relented.


The all-clear sounds across London. Ironically, the first air-raid warning of World War II is a false alarm. A French plane crossing the Channel carrying army officers to London for a conference had failed to inform anyone about its mission, sparking panic among the already nervous RAF observers on the South Coast.

In the House of Commons, MPs are filing into the chamber for the first meeting on a Sunday for more than a century. Chamberlain looks old and exhausted and his hands are shaking.

Almost a year earlier, he had returned triumphant from a meeting in Munich with Hitler and declared ‘peace in our time’. Now that dream is in ruins.

Taking his place on the benches behind the Prime Minister is Churchill, who countless times has warned the House of the menace of Nazi Germany.

Churchill feels ‘calm and serene’, knowing that his moment has come . . . 

JONATHAN MAYO has also written D-Day: Minute by Minute (Short Books, £8.99).

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