December 4, 2009 / 5:42 PM / 9 years ago

"Outbreak" show reveals Britain at war as a nation

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Seventy years after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told his nation they were at war with Germany, London’s Imperial War Museum has an exhibition exploring the outbreak of war in 1939 and the early years.

“Outbreak 1939,” which is on until September 2010, delves into the build-up for war, gives an overview of the key events of the day war was declared and an account of the early months of the conflict.

Among the items on display are the jacket belonging to King George VI worn when he broadcast to the nation the day war was announced and a purse and coin belonging to an 11-year-old boy who survived the sinking of the first British merchant vessel to be sunk by a German U-Boat during World War Two.

The early military actions of the war are illustrated by personal stories of servicemen and journalists.

The medal awarded to Thomas Priday — the first British soldier to be killed in action during the war, leading a patrol in France — will be displayed alongside the story of Clare Hollingworth, a reporter for the Daily Telegraph who was the first journalist to break the news that Poland had been invaded.

Other items include the German machine gun taken as a souvenir by New Zealand fighter “ace’ “Cobber” Kain from the first aircraft he shot down in 1939, and the conduct book belonging to Gunther Prien, commander of the U47 that sank HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow on the 14 October 1939, making him one of Germany’s first war heroes.

“War is the most extreme human experience,” Imperial War Museum Director-General Diane Lees said on the museum’s website.

“Through Outbreak 1939 we hope that visitors will discover more about the key episodes of this significant year, and the ways in which being a nation at war shaped the lives of ordinary men and women, who witnessed such extraordinary events at first hand.”

Despite only limited military action during the early months of the war, for many, life on the home front entered a period known as the “Phoney War’ - there was little major war news and the threat of an immediate enemy invasion seemed unlikely.

However, the introduction of the nationwide blackout on Sept 1 1939, barrage balloons, air raid precautions, the carrying of gas masks and identity cards were visible reminders that Britain was indeed a nation at war.

The story of E I Ekpenyon, a Nigerian student who volunteered as an ARP warden at the outbreak of war, is told alongside that of Eric Ravillious, who joined the Observer Corps in September 1939 and was later appointed an official war artist for the Admiralty.

When plans to evacuate civilians from towns and cities were put into action on August 31 1939, millions of children’s lives were immediately changed by the impending war.

Outbreak 1939 also incorporates the stories and exhibits of a number of those children, including a teddy bear belonging to a little girl evacuated on September 3, 1939; and an exercise book kept by Celia Horwitz, a German Jewish girl, who arrived in Britain in December 1938 as part of the Kindertransport and was later evacuated to Norfolk.

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