Seventy years after the announcement, on 3 September 1939, that Britain had declared war with Germany, the Imperial War Museum is staging Outbreak – a new exhibition that explores what the experience felt like for ordinary Britons. It seemed, for a few months at least, that nothing had changed, and that the country was merely engaged in a ‘phoney war’.
Jack Watkins went along to the Imperial War Museum, to be transported back to the autumn of 1939…
One of the mantras annually paraded each Memorial Sunday is that we must never forget the sacrifices made on our behalf during the First and Second World Wars. There is, of course, not the slightest chance of us forgetting, even if we wanted to, given the endless pageant of anniversaries and commemorative events that seem to line up year after year like London buses. The retelling of war stories, the memories of old soldiers, and the touring of battlefields has become a mini heritage industry in its own right, and more than a few writers and historians have carved out lucrative careers on the back of it.
These slightly cynical observations don’t make the subject any less fascinating or important, it should be said, and the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition is a welcome addition to the roster, even if it does feel somewhat cramped in the space allocated to it.
It takes as its notional starting point 3 September 1939, when that crackly radio broadcast by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the country that it was at war. Chamberlain has had a dismal press over the years, invariably mentioned in damning terms only to make Winston Churchill’s foresight seem all the greater. This reticent figure in his stiff winged collar is painted as a weak man, soon to be pushed aside for his more inspiring successor, after which he died from cancer six months later.
History through hindsight tends to overlook the deep anti-war sentiment that existed across the nation in the mid to late 30s, and the fact that many of the difficulties Chamberlain faced over rearmament owed much to the appeasement policies that he’d inherited from his predecessor Stanley Baldwin. It also overlooks Chamberlain’s earlier career as a distinguished Minister of Health in the 1920s, and subsequent Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as a strong leader of the Conservative party. It’s high time, really, that he received an exhibition all to himself, if not to provide vindication, at least to present his side of the story.
Outbreak, however, concerns itself with how the start of the War affected ordinary citizens, as much as the men in power. A film clip shows that the sun was actually shining in the capital on that fateful Sunday of the announcement, but at least the authorities had been considerate enough to wait until most Britons had finished their summer breaks. “Half a mo’ Hitler, let’s have our holidays first,” read a Tommy Trinder-style quip spotted in a motor car a few weeks earlier. And now, at last, the long waiting and that awful, speculative uncertainty seemed to be over.
Immediately, the nation was put on an emergency footing. In just four days, 1.8 million schoolchildren, mothers and their infants, and other vulnerable groups had been moved out of the towns and cities to safer districts. While this policy was deemed one of the successes of the war, it threw together huge numbers of people from varying backgrounds, highlighting the deep class divide then existing in British society. It was this that doubtless had much to do with the seemingly ‘ungrateful’ rejection of Churchill, and election of a socialist Labour government led by Clement Atlee in 1945.
Everyone was issued with a gas mask and an identity card. Two million low income families – those whose wages were no more than £2 10s a week – were given Anderson shelters free of charge. Reminding us that nothing changes, there were apparently plenty of grumbles: bureaucratic delays… the inconvenience of having to carry a gas mask all the time… the amount paid to air raid wardens and auxiliary firemen to sit about seeming to do very little. Then there was the nightly blackout which, in a mass opinion poll carried out two months into the war, was listed as the top grievance, more so in the towns than in the country, where street lighting could still be uncommon anyway.
In fact, for a time it seemed that Britain was engaged in nothing more than a ‘phoney war’. No German night time attacks materialised. Despite all men aged 18 to 41 being liable for conscription, it was not until 9 December that the first British soldier was killed in action. Cinemas and theatres, whose closure had immediately been ordered to reduce the risk of large scale casualties in an air raid, soon re-opened.
The exhibition conveys a sense of the period through a range of memorabilia and artifacts: hard hats, air raid sirens, petrol ration coupons, newspaper headlines, posters and song sheets. It’s fascinating to see the names of leading homebred entertainers of the late ‘30s – Gracie Fields, George Formby, Henry Hall, Jack Hylton – and the titles of all those popular songs: Run Rabbit Run, ‘Til the Lights of London Shine Again, Me and My Girl. You allow yourself an indulgent smile (and then thank God for rock 'n' roll and the 1950s).
But the War was soon to become all too horribly real. The exhibition has elicited the help of several people who lived through the war, many as evacuees, and their toys and letters provide some of the most touching exhibits. By 1945, some 350,000 British men, women and children would have lost their lives, leaving these calm early days of the autumn of 1939 as an almost nostalgic memory.