August 18, 2009 / 12:48 PM / 8 years ago

New show explores Britain's "phony" 1939 war

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - For months after the declaration of war against Germany in 1939, many Britons were convinced the conflict would be relatively brief, a new exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum shows.

"Outbreak 1939," which runs from August 20-September 5, 2010, has been organized to mark the 70th anniversary of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's radio announcement on September 3 that Britain was at war.

It includes Chamberlain's pocket diary, in which he simply scrawled "war declared" on September 3, and a letter to his sister written a week later which underlined the mood of optimism in Britain before major military operations in Europe began.

He wrote: "Since then (declaration of war), although I have had some dreadful anxieties, especially during one sleepless night, the tension has actually decreased and I have occasionally times, perhaps an hour or even more, when there has been nothing for me to do."

But Elsie Warren, a member of the auxiliary fire service and the kind of ordinary Briton the exhibition focuses on, was less sanguine, writing in her diary after hearing Chamberlain's broadcast:

"The past few days have been very morbid. Everything is quiet and the shadow of war darkens."

Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, said the British authorities were quick to encourage public optimism about the outcome of the war, triggered by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's decision to invade Poland.

"There was a great deal of unwarranted optimism that the war wasn't going to last," he said. "This optimism was encouraged by the government. If you look at the newspapers, for example, there were reports that the Nazis were on their last legs."

Yet the war became the most destructive conflict in history.

"LITTLE" HELP TO POLAND

Britain and France, the exhibition argues, initially made "very little effort" to come to Poland's aid. The first British soldier was not killed in action until December 9 and the German air raids people had feared did not come about.

Despite blackouts, mass evacuation of children from cities and the issue of gas masks, many aspects of normal life continued well after the start of the conflict, leading to the phrase "phony war."

Many evacuated children returned home, hundreds of thousands of men were unemployed, and after a few weeks most cinemas and theatres reopened after temporary closure.

The mood changed, Charman said, after Germany's invasion of Norway and Denmark in 1940, one of the early direct land confrontations between Britain and France and Nazi forces.

It coincided with the rise to power in Britain of Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain, widely seen as unfit to lead his country through a long, bloody war.

"People, I think, realized that this man (Chamberlain) was not the man to lead them to victory," Charman said.

Chamberlain has long been associated with the policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany, because he initially gave into Hitler's territorial demands in a bid to avoid war.

"Appeasement is a dirty word now, but at the time it wasn't," Charman said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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