World prepares to remember outbreak of Second World War

Almost 80 years ago, Britain declared war on Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

It was at 11.15am on September 3, 1939 that prime minister Neville Chamberlain admitted to the nation in a sombre radio broadcast that his “long struggle to win peace” had failed.

Hours later, France issued its own ultimatum to Germany, setting in train the Second World War.

It was a conflict which lasted nearly six years and cost around 50 million lives.

Chamberlain, whose announcement came two days after Hitler’s forces invaded Poland, made his famous radio address from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street.

He said: “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.

“You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.

“Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done, and that would have been more successful.”

He concluded his broadcast: “Now may God bless you all and may He defend the right.

Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain

“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 the right will prevail.”

A year earlier, Chamberlain had returned to London from talks in Munich clutching an agreement signed by Hitler that he said meant “peace for our time”.

But the German leader continued his aggression in Europe, culminating in the invasion of Poland.

Ray Smith, from Northampton, said he was 14 or 15 when Chamberlain made the declaration.

The 94-year-old told the PA News Agency the gravitas of it all did not sink in, adding: “I don’t suppose at that age you realise quite what it was.”

Joining the Royal Navy at 17, a year later he took part in D-Day – serving on board HMS Middleton, the ship which supported troops landing on Sword beach.

With no time to be worried or scared, he said that even though it was the summer it was “really rough weather”, with equipment and tanks initially being dropped too far out.

“When the ramps went down and they (the troops) jumped in, they just vanished with all of the gear on,” he said.

Describing the waters of Normandy, Mr Smith said there were “bodies floating everywhere”.

Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain

When asked what advice he has for future generations, the father-of-two and grandfather-of-three said: “I just hope it never comes to a war like that.”

There are no official major UK events planned to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war, after which the country went on to suffer an estimated 400,000 military and civilian casualties.

But Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will join more than 40 world leaders at commemorations in Warsaw on Sunday.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said eight decades ago, Britain went to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”.

He added: “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.

“This year the nation showed its gratitude to those who served on D-Day, a vital victory which brought peace within reach.

“Next year we will celebrate that peace with VE-Day and VJ-Day commemorations, once more paying tribute to the strength, skill and sacrifice of this special generation.

“Each day, sadly fewer of them are with us, but our dedication to remembering their legacy grows.”