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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Thomas Sanger View more

Thomas C. Sanger is a journalist and author residing in San Diego, CA with his wife, author Kay Sanger. His forthcoming novel, Without Warning, is a historical novel about the British passenger ship Athenia, which was attacked by a German submarine only a few hours after England declared war on Germany at the start of World War II in 1939.

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