The Twentieth Century’s Second European War


Just before 9 a.m. on 3 September 1939 the British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, had arrived at the Foreign Ministry to deliver an ultimatum. This final opportunity for Germany to withdraw its military forces from neighbouring Poland, which had been attacked and invaded on 1 September, was delivered to Adolf Hitler’s interpreter as there was nobody else present to receive the British diplomat. As described in Donald Cameron Watt’s still definitive account, a little over two hours later the British Prime Minister was sat in front of a microphone in 10 Downing Street to deliver a speech to the people of the British Empire. It was 11.15 a.m. when those listening to the BBC heard “a sad, resigned, melancholy voice” announce that:

“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”.

With the broadcast concluded and following a first air raid warning he went to the House of Commons where the Members had reconvened at 12 noon. Having read them the ultimatum he informed his parliamentary colleagues that, with no reply having been received, the country was at war. France followed suit before the day’s end.

Although Europe was now at war officially, one that would last until 8 May 1945, the global conflict that would be termed as the Second World War had begun over a period of years. The dismantling and annexation of Czechoslovakia, the Anschluss with Austria, both were warnings that an expansionist power was set upon challenging the boundaries of the continent and prepared to use military force in defence of what it argued were its national interests. Beyond Europe Imperial Japan had been following a similar course with its repeated hostilities against China; in 1931 its forces had invaded Manchuria and by July 1937 this had escalated to become the Second Sino-Japanese War one that would continue beyond the fighting in Europe. In Africa the invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935 by Fascist Italian military forces provided further evidence that the international system was in danger and poised, potentially, to collapse. The delegates of the League of Nations meeting in Geneva to prevent future conflict were not up the challenge and they failed to agree to any meaningful response. Diplomacy and sanctions were exposed as ineffective levers of power in the face of determined nationalist leaders. With recent events in Crimea and the Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq, there are many relevant and important themes to reflect upon and discuss in the modern era.

The Second World War Research Group has been established within the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London (KCL) by Dr Andrew Stewart and Dr Jonathan Fennell to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. Drawing upon the significant community of scholars and postgraduate researchers based within the university who are studying the conflict, the group will seek actively to advance knowledge and understanding. Seminars will be held at the department’s home of the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham, Wiltshire involving guest speakers and members of the KCL community. The first of these will be on Wednesday 1 October 2014 at 1300 with a presentation by Professor Joe Maiolo discussing his recent work on the events that led up to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast and the outbreak of war. All KCL staff and students and members of the UK Defence Academy are welcome (if you are not based at the Shrivenham site please contact one of the conveners of the group to make the necessary arrangements for entry). It is also proposed to hold an annual conference in May of each year at the Joint Services Command and Staff College focussing on a key historical period related to the war’s progress. The first of these has been tentatively scheduled to take place in May 2015; titled ‘May 1940 – The Fulcrum of the Second World War?’ further details will follow shortly.

(Image © IWM HU 56131)

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