Today (September 3) in London History – War with Germany

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

September 3rd.

September 3rd – 1939.

Beaten path first.

And then we’re going to go off it.

The beaten path is of course the grave announcement the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, made from Number 10 Downing Street at 11.15 am on September 3rd, 1939.

Here’s that broadcast message.

“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.”

80 plain, stark, sombre words. And I think if we’re honest, scarifying words.

Those 80 words – set out in three short paragraphs – are of the essence – they’re the distillation.

You want a distillation of the distillation I’d say turn to that line in William Butler Yeats’ great poem Easter 1916:

All changed, changed utterly…

Everybody – the millions – listening to that broadcast from 10 Downing Street – while they may not have put it the way Yeats did, the way he put it is how they would have felt.

I counted words. And paragraphs. 

Eighty words and three paragraphs.

The prime minister had more to say than those 80 words, those three paragraphs. The broadcast message goes on for another couple of minutes – eight more paragraphs if you want to chart it. But the bar of history

comes after the final words of that third paragraph: “this country is at war with Germany.”

One way to proceed with this is to hear the rest of that speech. Hear the eight paragraphs that history has consigned to the outtakes closet. I don’t think we’ll do that. I think there’s a better row to hoe. 

But maybe just one outtake – one graf – wouldn’t come amiss. Here’s how the prime minister closed out that famous broadcast:

“Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. 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.”

Pretty much boilerplate, good and evil, good guys-bad guys, reaching out to the Deity, basically putting a brave face on it. Which of course was called for.

But words by themselves can be pretty threadbare. It’s always a good idea for right to have more might than the bad guy has. That monster Stalin put the matter in a nasty nutshell when he asked how many divisions does the pope have.

Anyway, I thought it would be instructive to get out of the glare of that Declaration of War announcement from 10 Downing Street. We have a pretty good idea from diaries and memoirs and interviews and history books how it was for the leads: Chamberlain and Churchill and Brook and Eden and Halifax and the rest of them. 

What I’m interested in is what it was like for ordinary people. What did it feel like? The misgivings and anxiety and fear – stress levels, really – must have been very high. Tempered only by their reserves of that national characteristic: that very British pudding of dogged determination and keeping calm and resignation and courage and pluck and stoicism and black humour. 

We of course have the inestimable advantage – the high ground – of hindsight. We know how it turned out. 

They had no idea it was going to turn out. A lot of them must have known that thousands of their compatriots, – tens of thousands of them – in uniform and out – perhaps themselves included – might well lose their lives in the gathering storm. So what did it feel like to be a Londoner on September 3rd, 1939?

Surely it’s there to be surmised from the newspapers of the day. All you have to do is ask yourself how you would feel if you were sitting at a cafe and the newspaper you were reading was that morning’s paper and it was full stories like the following:

I’m just going to read out how some of those stories were headlined.

From the Telegraph on September 1st – 48 hours before the balloon went up – one of the two main front page stories was a three headline job:




On that same front page, a story headlined: TELEGRAMS TO BE CENSORED. And subtitled Foreign phones cut. 

And elsewhere on that same front page: Army Calls up Reservists

And, front page again, The King Visits Admiralty.

And – this is the Telegraph remember – No Prudential Interim. That story begins: The uncertainty of the international situation has led the directors of the Prudential assurance Co. to defer consideration of an interim dividend payment.

And in the front page News Summary: Civil Flying restricted p. 12

And Advice on safest refuges in air raids issued by department of Civil defence. p. 12

And Nine routes out of London to be one-way streets today p. 8


And Britain’s future security from air attack discussed by scientist at British Association meeting p. 7.

We’ve just scanned the front page of the Telegraph a couple of days before the Declaration of war. It was plain as a pikestaff that it was coming. The rough beast, its hour come round again, had been slouching toward them all summer. And now it was there. On the clock, at the door. 

Yes, the image is another borrowing from Yeats. Different poem. The Second Coming. 

24 hours later – on September 2nd – page 10 of the Telegraph –published in other words in the final full day of peace – on page 10 of that last peace-time issue for nearly six years of the Telegraph – we read For the first time since 1918 the House of Commons met behind lowered blinds yesterday evening. The only other war touch was the presence of some M.P.s in uniform. 

And the gathering storm even affected   The Weather report. It read:

It read Owing to the international situation no weather forecast is being issued for the present by the Air Ministry. 

Speaking of weather, Vera Lynn, the much loved English World War II songbird sang the song of the century, the American Somewhere over the rainbow. 

Here in the year 2022 we’re there, on the other side of that rainbow. We’re in that somewhere…over the rainbow. It’s September 3rd. But not September 3rd, 1939. Let’s hope our luck holds. 

And a Today in London recommendation? I think the Cabinet War Rooms as it used to be known. Rebranded a few years ago, it’s the Churchill Museum today. The Underground bunker from which he directed the war. Near enough to 10 Downing Street where we started today – and no end of connections with the day’s business.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the- right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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