The Words of War

On the day Britain declares war, Winston Churchill rises from a London air raid shelter to the admiralty.

September 3, 1939:

“Forty-five minutes ago the Prime Minister stated that a state of war existed between Britain and Germany. Air-raid instructions were immediately broadcast, and almost directly following the broadcast the air-raid-warning siren screamed through the quiet calm of this Sabbath morning. There were planes in the sky. Whose, we couldn’t be sure. Now we’re sitting quite comfortably underground. We’re told that the ‘all-clear’ signal has been sounded in the streets, but it’s not yet been heard in this building.

“In a few minutes we shall hope to go up into the sunlight and see what has happened. It may have been only a rehearsal. London may not have been the objective—and may have been.

“I have just been informed that upstairs in the sunlight everything is normal; that cars are traveling through the streets, there are people walking in the streets and taxis are cruising about as usual.

“The crowd outside Downing Street received the first news of war with a rousing cheer, and they heard that news through a radio in a car parked near Downing Street.”

Edward R. Murrow, This is London, p. 17-18.

What makes this passage memorable to students of history is the unreality of the first moments of war, as experienced by residents of the United Kingdom and described by radio journalist Edward Murrow in his broadcast at noon that day. The description is far removed from what we know was happening to the Poles at that very moment, and from what most of us think of what World War II was like when we think of it today. Murrow’s description perfectly fits commencement of what historians have termed the “phony war”—namely, that Britain and France declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939, and then no major military action took place between the three nations for the following nine months. It was noontime sunshine streaming from the sky, not bombs, and when the air raid siren gave the all-clear sign, daily life looked intact to Murrow and his companions emerging from the shelters onto the busy London streets.

But what is missing from Murrow’s account is the link to another resident of the bomb shelters of London, for whom the day would become a gateway to his place in history. When war was declared and the first air raid sirens went off in London, Winston Churchill and his wife were at their home at Morpeth Mansions, where they had listened to the announcement on their radio. When the sirens blared, people in London did not know if the planes overhead were friend or foe, as Murrow noted above (of course, they were British). After hearing the sirens, Churchill at first instinct headed for the roof in order to see the action, commenting as he went, “You know, you’ve got to hand it to Hitler, the war is less than a half-hour old, and already he has bombers over London.” Churchill’s bodyguard and friend, Inspector Thompson of Scotland Yard, later recalled that when Churchill was persuaded to set an example and leave the roof for the street shelter, he went there carrying a bottle of brandy with him.

After the all clear sounded, Churchill went to Parliament and spoke thusly:

“This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for 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. This is no war of domination or imperial aggrandizement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of the sunlight and the means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish and revive the stature of man.” Quoted from William Manchester, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932–1940, p. 537.)

That afternoon, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain offered Churchill a seat as an advisor in the War Cabinet and administrative responsibility for the navy as the First Lord of the Admiralty. After having held almost every post in the cabinet in his previous career, and after almost a decade in the political wilderness, it was to be Churchill’s second tenure at the Admiralty (he had served there in 1911–1915). But it would not be his ultimate destiny. When the phony war ended nine months later with the blitzkrieg of the German army into Holland, Belgium, and France in May 1940, Winston Churchill would become Britain’s Prime Minister, the post from which he would rally his nation, blunt and deny Adolf Hitler’s ambitions, and rejuvenate hope for the future of humanity.

This is the last of three posts on Murrow's broadcasts. Read Part One, Part Two.

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“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD , Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum

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Keith Huxen

Keith Huxen, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII...
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