The Day War Broke Out 


This topic is not strictly part of the AQA syllabus, but it will be helpful if you have at least an awareness of what was going on.


Sunday 3rd September 1939.  Everyone who was old enough and was there remembers exactly what they were doing at that moment…  It was a beautiful summer’s morning and everyone said: ‘Fancy starting a war on such a beautiful day’…  Nothing would ever be the same again.

Narration by John Boorman at the start of the film  Hope and Glory (1987).

In the film, Bill Rowan was playing with his toy soldiers when Chamberlain came on the radio.



Newspaper headlines

BBC News: Chamberlain declares war

People's memories 

Chelsea pensioners remember

Blackpool memories

The Declaration of War



×  Source A

This cartoon by David Low in the Evening Standard, 6 Sept. 1939 is entitled ‘There is no choice’.   It shows British and French soldiers preparing to resist Nazi militarism.



Did You Know?

In the film Hope and Glory, Bill’s sister Dawn interrupts the Prime Minister’s broadcast storming about looking for her stockings: she exclaims that the war isn't her fault and that she still needs her stockings


On 3rd September 1939, many people were already preparing for war – digging air-raid shelters, or sewing blackout curtains.   Then, at 11 a.m., Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, announcing the declaration of war on Germany:


   Source B  

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 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…

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 we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part…

May God bless you all.  And 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.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, speaking on the wireless, 3 Sept. 1939

At the time, Chamberlain was 70 years old.   He had hated war ever since the First World War, and he had worked hard 

and sacrificed his reputation to try to keep the peace.   You can sense the sadness in his voice.


Different Reactions

Different people reacted differently, depending on their personal circumstances.  

      Many people were stunned.   At one Cambridgeshire church, the service was abandoned and everybody hurried home.   In other places, churches were full. 

      Many older people cried when they heard the news, whilst many schoolchildren were delighted, because they thought that all the schools were going to be closed down.

      Some people expected the worst.   A young Essex mother put her valuables, food and some clothes in the bottom of her baby’s pram and wrote to her mother begging her to care for her son should she be killed.   Another couple who had planned to have a baby now had an argument – he said that they should put off having the baby since it might well be killed; she did not agree.

       Some people – like the theological students who went and started playing cards – reacted by doing something they never would have thought of doing.   Others – like the Coventry Art group who met as usual – tried to keep up a sense of normality.


The Air Raid warning

At 11.28 a.m. the air raid sirens started (it turned out to be a false alarm).   Most people were ‘quite literally terrified’.  

       In Battersea, a girl was prevented from panicking by the sight of a woman, wearing only one shoe, running hysterically up and down the street.   A pregnant London woman rushed round to her friend in the next street, but then had to rush back because she’d forgotten her gas mask.   A Surrey air-raid warden bravely drove round the countryside in his Austin car while his wife shouted ‘Take Cover!’ to fields full only of pigs and cows.  

        Yet one 10-year-old girl in London spent the time delightedly playing with her gas-mask on, and refused to take it off.   And one London couple ignored the sirens because they were going to a wedding – only to find that; when they got there, they were the only people who had turned up.  


Source C

Only 25 minutes after war had been declared came the first air raid warning.   This was an opportunity for the people of Britain to demonstrate their traditional calm in the face of danger.   There was no sign of panic – men and women in the streets made their way to the nearest shelter and queued up in orderly processions at the entrances.

     On the whole, Britain takes the declaration of war quietly enough, but in places the cheerful readiness of the nation to face these new facts is made evident.   On the other hand, grim evidence that the nation is in earnest can be seen on every street.

Movietone News

Newsreels were not yet censored, but the editors knew their patriotic duty!

This newsreel showed pictures of people carrying gasmasks, soldiers on sentry

duty, buildings protected by sandbags, and people cheering, 

while triumphalistic music played in the background.


Did You Know?

The manager of a London cinema had just finished briefing his staff on how to deal with an air raid.   His last words were: ‘Above all, we must keep calm’ when the siren started.   His staff promptly panicked and ran into the street, apart from two cleaners, who clung screaming to the rails.










What can an historian learn from sources A and B about why Britain went to war with Germany?

Suggest reasons why:

- people went to church;

- older people cried when they heard the news;

- the young Essex mother put her possessions in her son’s pram;

- the theological students played cards.

Do you agree with the interpretation in Source C of the reactions of British people to the war?   Use the source and your own knowledge to explain your answer.