U.S. oil tanker Dixie Arrow burns after being torpedoed by a U-boat off Cape Hatteras in March 1942. Photo credit: newenglandhistoricalsociety.com

World War II on Our Doorstep

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, Americans feared Japanese assaults on the west coast of the United States. Indeed Japanese submarines shelled targets in California and Oregon, and Japanese soldiers invaded the Aleutian Islands in Alaska for a brief time in 1942. But many Americans might be surprised to learn that during the first half of 1942, far more damage was caused by German submarines in waters off the East and Gulf coasts.

When Germany declared war on the U.S. four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler sent a small fleet of U-boats to the East Coast. They quickly began sinking American cargo ships, many within sight of some of the nation’s largest cities. From February through May, 1942, U-boats sank 348 ships and killed an estimated 5,000 merchant seamen.

U-boat crews were surprised that the American freighters were not traveling in convoys and that cities and towns along the eastern seaboard were not blacked out. As a result, U.S. vessels were silhouetted at night by the bright city lights that made them easy targets.

In spite of the carnage taking place in U.S. waters, the Navy appeared reluctant to establish a formal system of convoys along the east coast. One reason for this was a shortage of warships. The limited number of U.S. destroyers were already helping protect convoys in the North Atlantic and fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. The U.S. Maritime Service called for coastal cities to adopt blackout conditions at night, but city fathers were reluctant to do so because blackouts were seen as bad for business.

In May, 1942, coastal centers agreed to a “dim-out” of their lights, but this was only partially effective, due to arguments over what constituted “essential lighting” for a city or town. It wasn’t until July 7 that the U.S. Government ordered blackouts for coastal cities. After that the U-boats moved on to more prolific hunting grounds in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

By effectively targeting tankers carrying oil from Texas and Louisiana ports, U-boats sank nearly a third of the existing U.S. tanker fleet. Their success not only threatened to cut off vital supplies bound for the British Isles, but also supplies of heating oil for eastern cities. The U.S. Navy was finally galvanized into action.

Using Coast Guard ships and armed trawlers on loan from the British Admiralty, Navy officials organized a “bucket brigade” convoy system. The convoys put in at ports along the Gulf and East coasts during nighttime, the period when U-boats did their greatest damage. Sinkings dropped dramatically in 1943, and most U-boats were reassigned to the North Atlantic.

U.S. industrial might slowly began to assert itself. Airplanes, warships and cargo ships began rolling off assembly lines as America’s military might steadily grew. But few in the U.S. Maritime Service would ever forget the six months when German U-boats had been the undisputed masters of American waters.

Survivors aboard City of Flint wave to photographers as ship approaches Halifax.

Rhoda’s Story, Part 7

In Part 6 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother and 235 other Athenia survivors sailed on to Canada aboard an American freighter, The City of Flint, after their passenger ship had been sunk by a German submarine. Early Sunday morning, Sept. 10, a young girl, who had suffered injuries when Athenia was attacked, died aboard the freighter. She was 10 years old. “We all felt terribly sad when we heard it,” Rhoda wrote in her brief memoir. The final installment follows.

Sunday morning [U.S.] Coast Guard cutters arrived and brought supplies and took off the injured and sick. They acted as escorts after that, and it was quite a consolation to us to look out and see them steaming slowly along, one on each side of us. It made us proud that Uncle Sam had sent them out to protect us and bring us in. We knew we were bound for Halifax and it did not improve matters, as we knew Canada had declared a state of war [on Germany].

Among the supplies the Coast Guard cutters brought were some newspapers containing names of the survivors. I noticed a young man scanning the list and asked him if he would see if my name was there, hoping my family had heard I was safe. When I told him who I was and where I was from, I was delighted to learn he was from Rochester, too. He was Mr. John Garland. After that we became good friends.

There was a radio in one of the officer’s cabin and every day we listened to the war news [about] England. One day as I was listening, I heard Bing Crosby’s voice and I cried for joy because then I knew we were getting near home.

Monday night a rumor went around that a submarine was sighted off Newfoundland and the effect that it had on the passengers was awful. One woman had nervous prostration and the doctor had to give her a sleeping pill. Even the sight of the cutters on each side of us didn’t seem to calm their fears. However, that night we had another awful storm, worse than the last, and that seemed to take our thoughts off the submarine. It was another terrifying night, some of us sat up all night and everyone was glad when morning came, and with it the calm.

The next day, Tuesday, an airplane flew over us, taking our pictures for one of the newspapers. We were all thrilled and happy as we felt we were nearer home. We eagerly looked forward to landing and could hardly wait for tomorrow when we should dock. Next day we were all up early and it wasn’t long after breakfast before we could see Halifax. As we came nearer, we heard the booming of guns and discovered it to be a 21-gun salute they were firing in our honor.

The pilot had come aboard and as the ship pulled in, hundreds were on the docks to meet us – newspaper men, cameramen, nurses, doctors, Mounties, telegraph boys, and Boy Scouts – all clamoring to hear our experiences and to help us if possible. We went ashore, and what a grand feeling it was to be on land again. We went through some procedure with the immigration officials then the Red Cross took us over and clothed those that were in makeshift clothes and gave us toothbrushes, combs and toilet articles that we were badly in need of.

There is not much more to tell, our train ride to Montreal was uneventful. We were sorry we couldn’t tip the porters, but we had lost all our personal belongings, money and everything. I guess they understood. At St. Hubert’s Airport, Montreal, I was overjoyed at the news that the Gannett plane would be there to meet Mr. Garland and myself, and in that way we would arrive home much quicker than by train. [Note: Gannett published the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle newspaper]

I can’t describe the joy at meeting my family again, and I think it will be a long, long time before I shall consult another sailing list or book my passage to Europe.

My Grandmother’s Memoir of Survival: Rhoda’s Story, Part 6: 

A Passenger dances the hula for a talent show aboard the American freighter, The City of Flint Photo credit: New York Daily News

In Part 5 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother’s lifeboat was rescued by a luxury yacht after her passenger ship, Athenia, was torpedoed by a German submarine on the evening of Sept.3, 1939. The next morning, she transferred along with 235 other survivors to an American freighter, The City of Flint, to sail on to Canada. Her story continues in Rhoda’s own words: 

The City of Flint had about 12 passengers who had been taken on at [Liverpool]. They were Americans eager to return home. I mention this because they were so kind to us, waiting on us with food and coffee that never tasted better. They gave away nearly all their clothing and worked so hard to make us as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. There was a young doctor who worked night and day attending the sick and injured, and it was by no means easy as there weren’t adequate hospital supplies aboard. He treated my hand, which I had burned rather badly holding up lighted flares in the lifeboat.

As for the captain, officers and crew of the ship, I never saw such self-sacrifices as they made. They gave up their beds, their cabins, spare clothes, blankets and even their food, working hours overtime and putting up with all kinds of inconveniences for our sake. There were ordinarily accommodations for 40 [passengers and crew]. Bringing 220 more [people on board] took some figuring as to where to sleep us all. There was cargo space not in use, so they found mattresses, cots and blankets, and 150 of us lay down as best we could. I lay on the floor with a lifebelt for a pillow and we all slept in our clothes.

That first night on the freighter was awful. The sea was so rough and stormy, and the passengers had not forgotten their terrible experience of the night before. Some of them put their lifebelts on and all of us sat up; some praying, some crying, terrified and fearful. I pretended not to be scared and began to relate a terrible crossing I had once experienced on the old Adriatic. It was much worse than this, I told them. They were silly to be upset over this. Why these freighters battled storms a lot harder than this one. They were built especially for rough seas. Then the captain came down and told us not to be scared, everything would be alright, so we began to settle down, but there was little sleep that night.

It was surprising how good the food was, and we had enough. But we had to be very careful as the water was scarce and they asked us not to take showers or wash out clothes if we could help it. The days passed, but we dreaded the nights. We still feared the submarines. A Church of England minister on board conducted a service most every night and we sang hymns, which helped a lot.

The sailors set about making little shoes out of rope for the children that hadn’t any, and one day they gave the kiddies a birthday party with a huge cake they baked and found a candle to put on it. They dug up candies and cookies from somewhere and the kiddies sang songs and had a good time. The youngest was 11 months old, the daughter of Ernst Lubitsch, the movie magnate. She was traveling with her nurse, who had charge of her.

Another day someone organized a fashion show, which was very amusing. One of the men impersonated “Monsieur Schiaperelli,” and described the emergency costumes that had been made from various articles of clothing. I remember one baby had stockings made out of strips of toweling and wound around her legs to keep her warm. A young dancing teacher made herself a Hawaiian costume to resemble a grass skirt out of rope and did a hula hula dance for us. The music was furnished by tom toms made by stretching canvas over two garbage cans, so you see we had comedy mingled with tragedy.

In my next blog: Home at last!

Rhoda’s Story – Part 5: The Rescue!

The Steam yacht Southern Cross rescued Rhoda and 375 other survivors. Credit: Yachting Magazine

In Part 4 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother climbed down a rope ladder into a lifeboat after her passenger ship, Athenia, was torpedoed by a German submarine on the evening of Sept.3, 1939, while sailing to Canada. Once in the lifeboat, Rhoda held a baby under her warm coat to keep the child out of the cold wind and misty rains. Her story continues: 

We saw a light way off in the distance. It seemed to come close and we believed it to be a rescue ship, so we tried to pull closer; as we did so, we were able to discern other lifeboats close to it. There were a number of lifeboats trying as we were to pull toward that ship but [they] couldn’t seem to make it. I guess the tide was against us.

Then in the moonlight, I saw one of the boats capsize and all its occupants thrown into the [rescue ship’s] propeller. It was awful; they were crying for help and struggling for their lives, and little children screaming….Our boat was crowded and we just had to row away as they would have pulled us over, and so many in our boat had no lifebelts on. I seemed to go all to pieces then; the sight of those poor people in the water completely unnerved me.

We were all about to give up, when suddenly a bright light appeared. It was a searchlight from another ship and they were flashing it right on us. We heard shouts of “ahoy there” and they were coming toward us. We lit more flares and the ship came closer. As we drew up alongside, the sailors threw ropes and one by one we were pulled up out of the lifeboat. By that time I was half fainting, but I heard a voice saying, “You are safe on a private yacht.” When they laid me down I could see people all around me and knew then that they had already rescued a good number. There, too, I saw the baby I had held under my coat. It wasn’t long before a frantic mother claimed it. She had been taken off on another boat.

It was breaking daylight then, almost 4 o’clock, but they kept on pulling the people in, and then brought hot soup and milk around. The sight of some of those poor [survivors] was awful. Some had been in the water and were covered with black oil, some were in nightgowns, some were cut and bruised and half-crazy with fright, and many children and babies were naked, frightened and crying. Some children were separated from their parents. One little girl about three years [old] was crying for her mother, but she wasn’t there.

As time passed we discovered we were on a Swedish yacht, the Southern Cross, owned by a millionaire named Wenner-Gren. They had picked up about 400, and we learned that a Norwegian vessel had rescued quite a lot more and some were picked up by a British destroyer. Later on that morning, we heard that an American freighter, The City of Flint, was on her way to give aid and to pick up the Americans and Canadians who wanted to continue [on] to America….

It was good news to me. All I could think of was home and family, and I would have been willing to travel on a cattle boat as long as it was headed for the U.S.A. I should like to say here how wonderful the passengers and crew of Southern Cross were to us. They couldn’t seem to do enough for those who were without clothes. They donated all kinds of wearing apparel: shoes, socks, sweaters, coats, pants, blankets, shirts, pajamas, etc. The women and children seemed to need them the most and they were glad to get them.

In my next blog, Rhoda experiences life aboard The City of Flint.

Such a honor to tell my grandmother’s story!

Go to www.thomascsanger.com to read previous posts.

Rhoda’s Story: Part 4 The SS Athenia is Torpedoed…

Photo credit:   wreckhunter.net

 In Part 3 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother boarded Athenia in Liverpool, England, on Sept. 2, 1939. The next day, Sept. 3, word reached the ship that Britain had declared war on Germany. While Rhoda was concerned about the danger posed by German submarines, she and many other passengers believed they would be out of danger before anything might happen.

Her story continues: 

Just before the evening meal, I went down to my cabin, washed, and changed my dress for dinner. I took my coat and hat with me as I decided to come back up on deck right after. Mrs. Townley said she didn’t feel well, but she ate dinner and we both went up on deck and found a seat [on the] starboard side of the hatchway. About fifteen or twenty minutes past seven, as we sat there,  a terrific explosion suddenly occurred. Something struck the port side of the ship, and she seemed to keel over on her side and the water came over the deck. The lights went out all over the inside of the ship and a dense cloud of gas-filled smoke seemed everywhere. I was thrown down and as I picked myself up and turned around, I saw out on the water about a half a mile away, a long-shaped dark object with black smoke around it, and in a flash I knew what had happened.

The panic, the screaming and cries of the women and children [were] terrible. …The officers and men were shouting and hurrying to get the lifeboats lowered. I just stood there, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of my home and family and wondering if I should ever see them again, and yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm. I turned to a panic-stricken woman, put my arms around her and said, “Don’t be afraid, God will save us; let us put our faith in him.”

She said, “If there is a God, why did He let this happen?”

I said, “This is the devil’s work, and God is mightier than the devil. He’ll save us,” and I led her to the side of the ship, and saw her get into a lifeboat.

I cannot describe all the scenes around me just then. It seemed such a scramble and so much shouting and screaming, especially when we heard another shell fired which seemed to burst overhead. I only remember climbing over the side of the ship and down a rope ladder, [then to] drop off the ladder into the lifeboat. I also remember hearing a boy cry, “There’s my mother on the ladder. Oh, please wait for my mother.” But they said the boat was overloaded and pulled away. I turned around to see a gray-haired woman clinging to the ladder, and her two children, a boy, 15, and a little girl, nine, pulling way in our lifeboat. They both cried for their mother all night long.

After we got clear of the Athenia, it became very dark and began to rain, and we found water coming in the boat. …We found a pail in the boat and started to bail out the water. …I was glad I had a warm coat on, as there were those in the boat that only had a thin dress on and some only night clothes, and it was very cold. I took the bottom part of my coat and wrapped it around a poor shivering woman who stood by me crying, with just a thin dress on… [I] tried to comfort her by repeating the 23rd Psalm. By that time, I was standing ankle deep in oil and water. Then someone asked me to please take a baby under my coat to keep it warm, as it had only a little shirt on. I took the baby; I  judged it to be about eighteen months old. The baby was asleep.

The sea was heavy and at times I thought we would capsize. …I got very tired. [T]he baby lay a dead weight in my arms, and as I was standing, every time the boat lurched, I had difficulty keeping my balance, then one of the boys [who was] rowing called for someone else with a coat to take the baby and give me a rest. Finally a girl sitting on the other side of the boat took [the infant] from me.

In my next blog, Rhoda witnesses a tragedy.

Need to catch up on the story?  Please visit www.thomascsanger.com

 

“Rhoda’s Story” Part 3 – Boarding the SS Athenia

 

British schoolchildren await evacuation to the countryside on Sept. 1, 1939, to escape cities that might become targets in wartime.
Photo credit: BBC

In Part 2 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother took a train on Sept. 1, 1939, headed to Liverpool, where she would board the passenger ship Athenia the next day to begin her journey home to Rochester, NY. That same day, Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and England began a long-planned evacuation of school children to the countryside from large cities likely to be targets of German bombers. As Rhoda’s train passed through stations in the countryside, she recorded her observations: 

At Gloucester, we saw the first group of evacuated children. I shall never forget it. Torn away from their homes, all with their little knapsacks on their backs, their gas masks over their shoulders, and bands with numbers on their arms, in [the] charge of one or more teachers from different schools; little tots not knowing what it was all about, some crying and some laughing, unconscious of the danger they were fleeing from. It was then all the women in my compartment gave way to tears and we began to realize how serious the situation had become.

The next day, Saturday, Sept. 2, Rhoda boarded Athenia just before noon and found the ship was “terribly crowded” with many children and babies. Her narrative continues:

A lot of extra help had been taken on, but even then they seemed to have difficulty in coping with so much more luggage and so many more passengers than usual; everything seemed to be off schedule and out of the ordinary. I was fortunate in having a very nice cabin with three other ladies. One of them had only been over four days and seemed very unhappy to have to return so soon, as she hadn’t seen her people for twenty-five years….

At the noon lunch, we sat where we could find room, but as there was to be three sittings, we had to line up for our place cards at meals, and I was fortunate to be at the first sitting. That evening the orders had been posted up that all the lights on the ship would be blacked out, and positively no smoking or striking of matches would be allowed on deck. I stayed on deck with another lady named Mrs. Townley for a little while after dark, then decided to go down to my cabin and go to bed. I didn’t sleep much that night, I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid, but I had left my friends and relatives so hurriedly, and with the thought of war so close to them, I guess I had lots to think about.

The next morning was Sunday. I got up, dressed and went up on deck quite early. After breakfast I became acquainted with more passengers and learned we were to have our passports examined, so I had to go up to the lounge and wait my turn for this procedure. I stayed on deck all morning. The weather was fair, the sea a little heavy, but I felt fine, although … quite a number of passenger had started to be seasick.

At lunch the steward told us war had been declared and when we came upstairs we found a bulletin posted outside the purser’s office to that effect. We all felt rather blue and I must admit that try as I would, I could not help thinking of the German submarine danger. I guess we all thought alike but were of the opinion that we should be out of the danger zone before anything could possibly happen. After all, we argued, why would Germany want to attack a passenger ship with so many Americans aboard and Germans too. It was silly even to think about it.

In my next blog, the unthinkable happens.

Catch up on Parts 1 and 2:  www.thomascsanger.com

Rhoda’s Story, SS Athenia – Part 2

In Part 1 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother was visiting her relatives in the town of Street in Somerset, England, in August, 1939, when Germany announced it signed a non-aggression pact with Russia. The pact cleared the way for Germany to invade its neighbor, Poland, a nation England had previously agreed to defend. War in Europe suddenly seemed a greater possibility. Rhoda’s account of these events continues: 

That evening I heard over the radio the warning to American citizens in Great Britain to leave for home immediately. I called the American Consul and asked his advice, and he told me if I could make arrangements to leave, to do so at once, for, he said, if war broke out and the American government sent ships to evacuate their citizens, we would be allowed to bring only one piece of hand luggage, and would be expected to carry warm clothing and enough imperishable food to last over a week. Having paid my return fare and having bought and packed numerous presents and souvenirs, and clothes I had brought with me in case cold weather set in before I got back in October, I thought the best thing I could do would be to try and make arrangements with the Cunard Steamship Line to transfer me to the earliest possible boat they could. Then I could bring my luggage with me.

Rhoda contacted her steamship company to arrange passage home to New York as soon as possible. After being transferred to a ship whose sailing was cancelled, she received passage on the Athenia, sailing Sept. 2 from Liverpool to Montreal. She arranged to take a train from Street to Liverpool on Friday, Sept. 1.

On Thursday [Aug.31], over the radio came the news that all the danger zones in England were going to evacuate their children [Sept. 1], and that people traveling by train were required to put off their trips if possible, as so many trains were to be taken over by the government for this purpose. I decided I would go by car. I believe it’s about 270 miles from Street to Liverpool, which is quite a journey by car in England.

However, I got in touch with an old acquaintance of ours who owned and operated a garage with cars for hire and they gave me a price, which I accepted, and after talking it over, I decided I would travel all night Friday to arrive in Liverpool early Saturday morning. …Thursday night I went to bed reconciled to the fact that the next night would see me traveling the first lap of my journey home. I don’t think I need try to tell you of the nervous tension we all were under, not knowing from day to day what the next dreaded news would be, trying to keep cheerful and be optimistic about everything. I kept telling my relatives that I knew God would protect us and all would be well.

Sept. 1, 1939, just before dawn, the German army began its invasion of Poland, making war in Europe almost inevitable.

Friday morning about 10:30, the father of the young man who was to drive me to Liverpool, called to tell me his son had been called for military duty and would not be able to drive the car. He told me he would telephone and find out if the Pine Express would be running that day, and if so, the best thing for me to do would be to try to catch it at Shepton Mallet, 13 miles away, where it would go through about 12 o’clock. He was assured that it was running as scheduled, and as quickly as I could I got ready, and without saying goodbye to most of my friends and relatives, I rushed off to try to catch the Express. We just made it. The train was crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm. As I think about it now, and remember how unified they were and how unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and to give up all their country demanded, I [have] to admire their courage.

Part 3: Rhoda boards Athenia, and wonders how the crowds of women and children will all find accommodation on the ship.   

Rhoda’s Story, Part 1: Joy of Reunion — Then ‘A Thunderbolt’ 

Rhoda with her brother, Albert Fisher, in Street, Somerset, August 1939.
Photo credit: Family picture

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger aboard the British liner Athenia when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine Sept. 3, 1939, at the start of World War II. She survived the attack, was rescued, and returned home to her family in Rochester, NY, where she later wrote an account of these events she titled “Experiences of an Athenia Survivor.” My next several blogs will be devoted to Rhoda’s story, in her own words. 

July 29, 1939, I sailed on the new Mauretania from New York. It was with some misgivings that I said goodbye to home and family, especially my husband. As the ship sailed out of New York, something seemed to rise up and choke me and I wished I had never made up my mind to go. I felt like walking off the ship and returning home. Perhaps it was a foreboding of the terrible happenings that were to follow. However, it passed, and I soon found myself getting acquainted with my cabin mates and other passengers, and telling myself how foolish I had been to allow such a state of mind to possess me.

Rhoda arrived in England August 5th and was met by her brother and niece. They drove back to Street, the town in southwestern England where she had been born and raised. There she spent nearly three weeks gathering with relatives and old friends, enjoying shopping, teas, days at the seaside, and driving trips to the country. 

The time passed all too quickly. Our conversation and talks at time would center on topics concerning the possibility of war, and very few were of the opinion that there would be war. They had passed through such a crisis a year ago, worse than this and were sure a peaceful settlement could be reached. Therefore, they refused to worry over Hitler’s claim to Danzig and the Polish Corridor. England was negotiating with Russia and all in all they were sure Hitler would be afraid to start anything against such a powerful opposition. Then August 24, just like a thunderbolt, the news came that Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia.

It was like a stab in the back for the English people. They seemed stunned, speechless, not knowing whether to blame their government or lay it to the treachery of Hitler and his aids. But one thing was certain:  that was war was inevitable.

In my next blog, advice from the U.S. Embassy sends Rhoda scrambling for passage back to America.

Contact Tom for speaking engagements: tomsanger@msn.com

Without Warning on Amazon: http://bit.ly/WithoutWarningonAmazon

Athenia Found?

 

        

After decades of obscurity, British science correspondent, Jonathan Amos, earlier this month published a story on the BBC’s website about the possible identification of Athenia‘s wreck on the sea floor of the Rockall Bank. The wreck is very near the location given repeatedly by Athenia‘s radio officer, David Don, after the ship was torpedoed Sept. 3, 1939.

Follow this link to read the BBC story:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41503664

www.ThomasCSanger.com

Tom speaks about why he wrote his historical novel “Without Warning:”

“I first became interested in writing about Athenia, a British passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat, because my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was aboard the ship. Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a U-boat during World War I, but few had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack, more than two years before Pearl Harbor. In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and spoke to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother has become for me an effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.”

Chamberlain’s Anguished Decision Part 2 

 

By Saturday evening, Sept. 2, 1939, German ground and air forces had been pounding military and civilian targets in Poland for more than 36 hours. Despite an agreement calling for Britain and France to come to Poland’s aid in the event of such an attack, neither country had taken any action to counter the German aggression.

That evening in London, the House of Commons convened to hear from the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. If the members were expecting a rousing call to arms, they were sorely disappointed. Chamberlain recounted his Cabinet’s discussion to reject an Italian peace proposal because it anticipated negotiations while Germany occupied Polish territory. But, he added, if Germany were ready to withdraw its forces, England would be “open to discussion between the German and Polish governments on the matters at issue between them…”

Several of Chamberlain’s cabinet ministers were stunned by his remarks. They had expected the Prime Minister to announce a midnight deadline for German withdrawal from Poland. At the same time, members of Parliament were aghast. They feared Chamberlain was about to back away from the Polish agreement in accord with his practice of appeasement, a move they believed would prove disastrous for British foreign relations.

After the session adjourned, several of the cabinet ministers met with Chamberlain and warned him of the members’ concerns. Chamberlain was surprised by Parliament’s shift in mood. He noted the difficulty of synchronizing Britain’s efforts with the French, who wanted another 48 hours before taking any action against Germany. His ministers insisted that if Chamberlain wanted to dispel the members’ negative impression of his remarks, he needed to act swiftly. The situation would not “hold” for 48 more hours, they told him.

Chamberlain returned to his residence at 10 Downing Street. Following a phone call to the French Foreign Minister in Paris and a meeting with the French ambassador in London, the Prime Minister called a meeting of his cabinet ministers for 11 o’clock that night. The session began with an angry demand for action by several of the ministers, who warned they would “destroy” him if he failed to act. The meeting only calmed down when Chamberlain acknowledged the depth of his ministers’ convictions. He vowed to act the following morning, with or without the French.

Sunday morning, Sept. 3, 1939, at 9 o’clock Berlin time, the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, delivered his government’s ultimatum to the German Foreign Minister’s office. In essence, the notice stated that unless Germany was prepared to cease hostilities in Poland by noon, Berlin time, that same day, a state of war would exist between Britain and Germany.

The noon deadline (11 a.m., London time) came and went without any word from the German government. Fifteen minutes later, Chamberlain went on the radio to tell his fellow citizens that Britain and Germany were once again at war, bringing to a sad close the most agonizing 48 hours of deliberation in the Prime Minister’s political career.

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Image courtesy:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/learning/schoolradio/subjects/history/ww2clips/speeches/chamberlain_declares_war