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The day war broke out

Blog | By Michael Barber | Sep 03, 2019

Winston Churchill by Cecil Beaton. Source: Imperial War Museum

80 years ago this autumn that bizarre interlude, variously known as the phoney war, the bore war and the sitzkrieg, got under way.

Convinced by politicians that the bomber would always get through, people braced themselves for Armageddon. But nothing happened – except to the nation’s pets, thousands of whom were swiftly put down. And except at sea nothing continued to happen for the next seven months.

In France, it really was all quiet on the western front and a young British officer was mocked by a padre, of all people, for refusing a third cocktail before lunch in the front line. Instead of bombs the RAF dropped leaflets, thus ensuring, it was said, that the Germans would never be short of toilet paper. No wonder limericks like this were popular: ‘An elderly statesman with gout/When asked what this war was about/In a written reply/Said my colleagues and I/Are doing our best to find out.’

But there was nothing phoney about the Emergency Powers Act. Overnight the country became a garrison state. Habeas corpus went, and so did weather forecasts, television (then in its infancy) and all but the Home service of the BBC. You had to carry your gas mask everywhere. One vicar actually refused to perform a marriage until the bride-to-be went home and fetched hers. And couples embarking on a dirty week-end away could be prosecuted if they put a false name in the hotel register.

Entertainment was hit harder than at any time since the puritans. Cinemas and theatres were first closed, then grudgingly allowed to reopen for a reduced number of hours. All outdoor sport was severely curtailed. And so rigorously was the black-out enforced – by ARP wardens who were compared to little Hitlers – that road deaths far outstripped those at the sharp end. Torches, which had to be dimmed, were at a premium, as were batteries. People walked the streets after dark in single file.

Meanwhile evacuees exposed the gap between town and country, rich and poor. People were shocked to discover how the other half lived. A friend of the theatre critic James Agate told him that he and his wife so loathed the evacuee children billeted on them that they had decided to ‘take away’ something from them for Xmas. Bored to tears in the sticks, evacuee mothers told their children to wet the bed so they’d all be sent home, a ploy Basil Seal exploits in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, the definitive phoney war novel.

Waugh also mocked the cack-handed Ministry of Information. Few official bodies can have taken so much flak, from so many people, in so short a time. Staffed by bureaucrats rather than journalists, the stuff it turned out was so uninspiring that according to Aneurin Bevan, people were more likely to die of boredom than from bombs. Hence the popularity of Lord Haw-Haw, whose insinuations, however specious, gave food for thought.

The coldest winter for forty-five years did nothing to improve people’s morale. But with the coming of Spring, and still no conflict, hope was in the air. Perhaps, as Chamberlain said, Hitler had missed the bus. He hadn’t. Frontiers fell like ninepins before his armies, and with them went Chamberlain. By June German troops were queuing up to cross the Channel, prompting this newsvendor’s sign: ‘FRENCH SURRENDER: WE’RE IN THE FINALS.’ The gloves were off at last.