(fashion) Eighty years ago tomorrow, Britain declared war on Germany and so began a worldwide conflict that lasted almost six years, and would claim the lives of 50 million people.
On Saturday, Jonathan Mayo recreated the heart-stopping moment when Britain’s ambassador in Berlin delivered an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw from Poland, or face all-out conflict.
He also recounted the events in Westminster leading up to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast to the nation, and the preparations on the Home Front.
This final part of our gripping minute-by-minute reconstruction reveals that it took only hours for the horrific reality of war to start to unfold ... and the first fatalities.
German submarine U-30 fires four torpedoes. Two miss the ship, one gets stuck in its tube but the fourth hits the Athenia and explodes. Dozens are killed instantly, including ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth returning home to Canada with her family. Survivors are pictured above
In the Atlantic Ocean, Captain James Cook of the SS Athenia, a liner bound for Montreal, asks his Chief Purser to put up a notice telling the passengers that war has been declared. ‘The important thing,’ Cook says, ‘is not to alarm the passengers.’
On board are 72 British citizens, 311 Americans, 469 Canadians and about 500 Jewish refugees.
When the Athenia left the Clyde on Friday, some shipyard workers assumed the passengers were all fleeing the war, and shouted: ‘Cowards! Cowards!’
News that the British are coming to the aid of Poland has reached Warsaw — ‘God Save the King’ is being played on the radio and crowds are singing it outside the British Embassy. A group of students have a banner saying ‘Cheers for England!’
Elsewhere in Poland, whole villages are being burned to the ground by German troops.
In Truskolasy, 55 peasants are rounded up and shot; in Wieruszow, 20 Jews are ordered to assemble in the market place and when a girl runs to her father’s side, a German soldier tells her to open her mouth then fires a bullet into it, killing her ‘for impudence’.
The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, confers with his artillery officer and they agree that it could be a British armed merchant cruiser. Lemp gives the order to attack and U-30 dives. The ship is, in fact, the unarmed liner SS Athenia
The House of Commons is meeting on a Sunday for the first time in over a century. About ten MPs are in military uniform.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Simon, is sitting in the exact same place as he was in 1914 when the start of World War I was announced in the House.
Neville Chamberlain stands up to address MPs and is cheered by both sides; his hands are shaking.
‘This is a sad day for all of us, and to no one is it sadder than me… I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.’ Chamberlain dies of cancer just 14 months later.
Watching in the Strangers’ Gallery is the American Ambassador Joe Kennedy and three of his children: Joe Jr, Kathleen and the future president 22-year-old Jack.
The ambassador, who had supported the Prime Minister’s appeasement of Hitler, becomes emotional when Chamberlain says: ‘Everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed in ruins’.
The German submarine U-30 is sailing on the surface to the west of the Irish coast. The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, sees in the distance the silhouette of a large ship
Winston Churchill, who for the past six years has been an outspoken opponent of appeasement, gets to his feet. In his pocket is a note from Chamberlain asking to see him — Churchill knows that it will mean a role in a War Cabinet.
He says: ‘This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man.’
The young JFK, watching keenly above in the Gallery, will never forget that speech.
Scores of barrage balloons are rising up all over the London skyline and some are soon given nicknames. Two over Chelsea are called ‘Flossie’ and ‘Blossom’.
The French Ambassador in Berlin, waiting since midday to hand over their ultimatum, is finally allowed to meet German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Having met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Winston Churchill gets into his car where his wife Clementine is waiting. Chamberlain has asked him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty.
‘It’s the Admiralty,’ he tells her with a smile. ’That’s a lot better than I thought!’
Clementine had been worried that Chamberlain would offer her husband ‘a silly little job’. So they head off to their Westminster flat to celebrate with champagne.
In Downing Street, the nine-member War Cabinet is meeting for the first time, pictured above in November 1939. Its members decide to put into action ‘Western Air Plan 14’, the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr
Churchill is convinced that the role of Prime Minister is within his grasp; he told his cousin Shane Leslie a few weeks ago: ‘It will come to me to deal with Mr Hitler.’
The BBC announces that sandbags are available for any London business keen to protect a property from bomb blasts. It is the first of many official announcements throughout the day.
The Admiralty sends a message to the entire fleet ‘Winston is Back.’ [He had been its First Lord once before between 1911-15.]
Three London jails are releasing a thousand short-term prisoners so their beds can be used for war casualties.
Each prisoner is given five shillings before they walk out of the gates.
Having met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Winston Churchill gets into his car where his wife Clementine is waiting. Chamberlain has asked him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘It’s the Admiralty,’ he tells her with a smile. ’That’s a lot better than I thought!’
Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh, whose film Gone With The Wind is about to be released, are on a yacht moored off the coast of California with their friend Douglas Fairbanks Jr when they hear the news of the outbreak of war.
Olivier proceeds to get drunk and is soon rowing round other boats shouting: ‘This is the end! You’re all washed up! Finished! Enjoy your last moments! You’re done for!’
Britain has been joined in the war by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Palestine, India, Hong Kong and Tonga.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, said: ‘Where Britain stands, stand the people of the Empire.’
In Belfast, six armed members of the IRA attack a Territorial Army soldier, strip him of his uniform and then burn it, before running away.
In January, the IRA had announced that they were at war with Britain and ever since have been carrying out a campaign of bombings and sabotage across Britain and Northern Ireland.
In Poland, the ruthless attacks on civilians continue. The town of Sulejow, its population of 6,500 swelled by 3,000 refugees, is bombed by the Luftwaffe.
Buildings are soon on fire, and as people run for the safety of nearby woods, they are strafed by machine guns from German fighters.
How the Daily Mail covered the outbreak of World War Two is pictured above. This front page is an early edition on