Saturday, 24 September 1938

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Sudeten crisis of August-October 1938. See here for an introduction to the series, and here for a conclusion. The entire series can be downloaded as an ebook.

CHAMBERLAIN-HITLER TALKS BREAK DOWN, PREMIER BACK TO-DAY / Czechs and Hungarians Mobilise: Order by Radio / Final 1 A.M. visit to Fuhrer / Germany Refuses Pledge On Troop Moves / Daily Mail, 24 September 1938, p. 9

It's hard to believe, but it's only a week since Chamberlain returned from his first flight to Germany. Everyone was then full of hope. He is returning from his second trip today, and hope has been replaced by despair. The above headlines from the Daily Mail (p. 9) tell us that the talks between Chamberlain and Hitler have broken down, that the Czech and Hungarian armed forces have been mobilised. On the other side of the page, Germany and France are said to be massing troops. Hitler has refused to give a pledge that German troops won't unilaterally move into the Sudetenland in response to the Czech reoccupation of Eger. And he has set a firm time limit of one week for the conclusion of negotiations -- i.e., by Saturday 1 October. After that, the implication is, he will take what he wants by force.

This is stunning. After all, there has been widespread (if not universal) condemnation of the Anglo-French plan to cede the Sudetenland to Germany as a craven submission to Hitler's desires. So why is Hitler threatening to take by force what has been offered to him peacefully? The leading article in the Manchester Guardian (p. 12):

He knew that these regions were already his: is it credible that he should refuse to wait for the short time that would be necessary and should risk all and revive again the imminent danger of a great war by ordering his troops to occupy the Sudenten [sic] districts? His troops are already reported to be moving, but even know one can scarcely imagine anything so completely fantastic as that he should invade Czecho-Slovakia and attack the great mountain barrier when he knows that it would shortly in any case be give to him without cost. Until the unbelievable is proved to be true, we must suppose that his intention is something less summary than invasion. But the Czechs have ordered a general mobilisation and the danger is acute.

Even at this late date, it's evidently all too easy to mirror-image, to project onto others one's own values. The idea of actually wanting war is incomprehensible to the British; surely Hitler can see that it would be catastrophic for all concerned? Why is he being so obstinate and threatening? He can't actually prefer to plunge Europe into a devastating war rather than simply accept the gift of the disputed territories? After all, he has proclaimed his love of peace as loudly as any statesman in the past few years. What's going on here?

Incomprehensible as this may be, nobody is taking the possibility of war lightly. The Manchester Guardian's London correspondent reports (p. 12):

Anxieties are beginning to harden into acceptance and preparation for the worst, and to-day one heard more often than previously people discussing definite plans to be used in the event of war.

And 'First and foremost, people in London are thinking about air-raid precautions'. There's been a run on first-aid kits at chemists, those who are able to are making arrangements to evacuate their families to the country if war breaks out. A loud-speaker van has been patrolling Fleet Street calling for volunteers for the new Auxiliary Fire Service. In Manchester, the City Council held a heated session on ARP (Manchester Guardian, p. 15): there is to be a survey of ground suitable for building underground shelters, and demonstration trenches (so that people can dig their own in the backyard -- if they have one) will be dug next week. But one councillor calls ARP 'cant, hypocrisy and humbug', preferring to trust in Chamberlain's diplomacy. In contrast, another says that 'the real remedy, of course, is to get rid of the people who are causing the fear of air raids, and that is the Government of the day'. An ARP propaganda campaign is planned for the week beginning 3 October. Part of this will be a demonstration at Belle Vue (at the greyhound track?) to 'give the citizens an idea of what is likely to happen in the event of an air raid' (Manchester Guardian, p. 14). The set will be an ordinary street, with a newspaper vendor and people promenading, all carrying gas masks. The siren will sound, the wardens will get everyone under cover: 'Reasonable excitement to be evident, though everybody on set calm and purposeful'. Aeroplanes (RAF?) will approach and fly around in circles, hopefully to be found by the searchlights. Nine detonations will be heard, to represent three each of high explosive, gas and incendiary bombs. A mock house on the set 'will become on fire'. Fire-engine bells will sound, firemen, gas detection squads, and first aid details will arrive to perform their duties. At the end a decontamination squad will show how mustard gas would be removed, and a demolition team will blow up the side of a house.

The Times, 24 September 1938, p. 14

Local authorities everywhere are setting up gas mask fitting and distribution centres, like this one in Westminster (The Times, 24 September 1938, p. 14).

Yet another moving letter, this time from 'HIS FATHER':

After hearing the broadcast news on the night before he returned to school a boy of 14 remarked, quietly and dispassionately, that at least he had three more years before he would probably be killed in battle [...] We have indeed come to a sorry pass when the joy and hope natural to childhood are turned into bitter contemplation of the chances of survival and the end of school life marks the end of either purpose or security.

The Times, p. 6.

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7 thoughts on “Saturday, 24 September 1938

  1. CK

    Another great post, Brett.

    In the endless battle against appeasement and Random Nazi Of The Week that we have to encounter in 21C, can one blame people for being so shit-scared in 1938?

    Especially since that minor contretemps that finished just 20 years earlier.

    Oh, and minor quibble here. A couple of posts back you blamed the Graudian's famous typos on the use of computer spell-checks (or some other cack-handed excuse). Ahem:

    " occupy the Sudenten [sic] districts?"

    I do like the idea of a London correspondent, though.

    I conjure with idle thoughts of somebody covering the Deb Season thoroughly chucked right in it.

  2. CK

    "And still no-one is calling shenanigans..."

    I think the word could be 'bullshit'.

    But, having said that, I think it was a completely fair call by Chamberlain (as seen, at the time).

    And EL, not quite getting your point here. It being?

  3. Erik Lund

    My point is that it is hihgly impractical to use the war gasses available in 1938 in a terror campaign, and this was perfectly well known at the time. _Flight_ debunked the notion at regular intervals during the interwar years.
    Comparing the effectiveness of high explosive/incendiary loads against gas, Britain's best defence would have been a good taunting. "Hey, Herr Goering! We're not wearing our gas masks! Come and get us!"

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  5. Post author

    My point is that it is hihgly impractical to use the war gasses available in 1938 in a terror campaign, and this was perfectly well known at the time.

    Can't agree with this last bit. Yes, quite a few people were saying things along those lines in 1938 -- the year that Breathe Freely! The Truth about Poison Gas was published, for example. But not everyone agreed, and the government didn't manufacture and distribute 40-odd million civilian gas masks just for fun! A snippet from O'Brien's official history of civil defence (332): early in 1940, the government had intelligence that the Germans had found a way to deliver arsine gas by air, and only the service pattern masks protected against this. So Home Security had to get to work designing and making 70 million improved filters to protect the populace against this possibility. Again, clearly they took the threat seriously.

    The truth is that nobody was really sure what was going to happen when the bombs dropped. J. B. S. Haldane, for example, was one expert who was a gas sceptic, based partly on his scientific knowledge but also on observations of the war in Spain. He was right about gas (and he did make this point during the crisis, I just haven't talked about that -- there's too much to cover!). But he was also sceptical that incendiaries would be very dangerous. Try telling that to the inhabitants of Coventry, Dresden, Tokyo ...

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