It was Sunday morning. Four of us - mother, father, brother and sister - were sitting in the kitchen listening to our brand-new Phillips radio. Outside, the sun shone and the single bell of St. Mary's Church rang the call to morning worship.
It was Sept. 3, 1939, the wall clock in the kitchen struck 11, the radio crackled with minor static and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain said:
"I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.
"This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we hear 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."
Lunch was simmering on the hearth. The clock ticked loudly. My father, still nursing wounds sustained on the beaches of Gallipoli in the First World War - "the war to end all wars" - stood and stared across the backyard garden.
My mother, who as a volunteer nurses aide in 1915 had helped bring a shrapnel-shattered, oneeyed soldier back from the edge of darkness, wept. As Chamberlain intoned: "Now may God bless you all. May he defend the right. For it is evil that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that right will prevail," Father put his hand on Mother's shoulder. He told us not to worry because we lived in central England and would be safe.
Mother's tears still fell. She knew, as my father knew, that however strong the belief that God is on your side, bombs, bullets and shrapnel can shatter hope.
And as we sat down, without much appetite, to eat an early lunch, the air-raid sirens wailed their first warning. It was 11: 23, a false alarm, but a reminder that in this war, despite father's confidence, there would be no place to hide, no place absolutely safe.
For several months after Chamberlain's declaration, life resumed its bucolic pace during what was later called the "phony war." But by late summer in 1940 the once-unique, chilling wail of warning sirens had become commonplace, the undulating wail shrieking its warning of impending death and destruction every night as darkness fell.
By that time, Father had joined the Home Guard and with his one good eye watched the night skies for parachutists and other invasion threats. I was a "gofer" with a local hospital stretcher-bearer squad. For my service, I was issued an army-grade gas mask (a proud step up from the little general-issue cardboard box), an arm band and steel helmet. When I wasn't on stretcher duty, I was on fire watch. So was every other capable teenager. It was nothing remarkable, just something to be done.
Our complacent world had disappeared in April 1940, when a British campaign in Norway proved disastrous. In May, that defeat drove Chamberlain from office. Admiral Roger Keyes, MP, dressed in full uniform, led the attack on Chamberlain, but it was Conservative MP Leo Amery who ended it. His crushing denunciation of Chamberlain, borrowed from Oliver Cromwell, shocked Parliament: "You have sat here too long for any good you are doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!" Chamberlain did.
On May 12, Winston Churchill became prime minister. The following day, he delivered his first rallying speech of defiance. German armies were sweeping across Europe, and all of Britain was fearful when he said all he could offer was "blood, toil, tears and sweat-. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind - many, many, months of struggle and of suffering - with but one aim. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be."
Fifteen days after that speech, on May 27, 1940, the mass evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk began. On the day that mission ended, June 4, 1940, Churchill addressed a nation on its knees and told it and the world:
"We shall go on to the end - we shall defend our Island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches - on the landing grounds - in the fields and in the streets - we shall never surrender - and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island - were subjugated or starving - our empire beyond the seas would carry on the struggle - until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old."
A long time ago, but worth remembering where I was when the world changed on a sunny September Sunday morning 73 years ago.
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