Thursday, 29 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.


Well, just look at this! This is my 28th post on the Sudeten crisis, and a new word has entered the headlines: 'Munich' (The Times, p. 12). See what I mean? 'Munich' and 'crisis' shouldn't go together.

This is a very dramatic, and very hopeful development. Yesterday afternoon, Chamberlain was nearing the end of a long and important speech to the House of Commons, giving an account of his actions and the Government's policy during the crisis. Germany was due to mobilise its forces today at 2pm, but he had asked Mussolini to use his influence with Hitler to gain a delay of at least 24 hours so that another round of diplomacy could take place. But in the course of his speech, Chamberlain was informed, firstly that the request for a delay had been granted. Then he was handed a note which bore a message from Hitler inviting Chamberlain to meet with him, Mussolini and Daladier in Munich tomorrow morning:

This is not all. I have something further to say to the House yet. I have now been informed by Herr Hitler that he invites me to meet him at Munich to-morrow morning. He has also invited Signor Mussolini and M. Daladier. Signor Mussolini has accepted, and I have no doubt that M. Daladier will also accept. I need not say what my answer will be. We are all patriots, and there can be no hon. member of this House who did not feel his heart leap that the crisis has been once more postponed to give us once more an opportunity to try what reason and goodwill and discussion will do to settle a problem which is already in sight of settlement. I go now to see what I can make of this last effort.

It's clear that the sense of relief, of deliverance, in the House (which was packed to the rafters) at hearing this news was enormous. The Manchester Guardian's parliamentary correspondent waxed biblical (p. 9):

Members of the House of Commons got as near to-day to a sense of the peace of God which passeth all understanding as human beings are ever likely to do. It was a brief vision, but it was clear and will not be forgotten.

The leading article in The Times (p. 13) does warn that it would be 'reckless' to place too much faith in this last-ditch diplomacy. But it also casts back to the start of the last war for some hope:

A few days' delay in 1914 would have saved eight million lives. Europe then had lost control of its policies. One country carried another, like climbers roped together, into the abyss. The same rope binds the nations to-day, but it is choice and not blind necessity that now governs possible catastrophe.

As the leader also notes, Chamberlain's announcement puts the rest of his speech and the accompanying White Paper in the shade. The White Paper (which is reprinted in the Manchester Guardian, pp. 13-4) is obviously an attempt to convince world opinion that British diplomacy has been above reproach: it contains the text of ten official letters or memoranda, sent to or by the British government, which have hitherto been secret, including for the first time (I think) the Anglo-French proposals for the cession of the Sudetenland. Here's the last part of the most recent letter, dated 27 September and addressed to Chamberlain:

In these circumstances, I must assume that the Government in Prague is only using a proposal for the occupation by German troops in order, by distorting the meaning and object of my proposal, to mobilise those forces in other countries, in particular in England and France, from which they hope to receive unreserved support for their aim and this to achieve the possibility of a general warlike conflagration. I must leave it to your judgment whether, in view of these facts, you consider that you should continue your effort, for which I should like to take this opportunity of once more sincerely thanking you, to spoil such manoeuvres and bring the Government in Prague to reason at the very last hour.

So, you see, Hitler wants peace: it's those warmongers in Prague who want to plunge Europe into the abyss.

The news of the Munich meeting trickled through to the crowds outside Parliament and in Whitehall, but when it did there was a perceptible lightening of the mood (The Times, p. 7). When Chamberlain returned to 10 Downing Street by car he was surrounded by well-wishers, and

seemed a changed man since his departure two hours earlier. Now he was smiling: he waved his hat in response to the cheering and handclaps, and said: "It's all right this time." He took his wife's arm affectionately as they turned to enter the house.

But still the preparations for war continue (Manchester Guardian, p. 8). Waterloo Station is overrun with naval reservists as well as Americans taking one of the six special trains taking them to the Queen Mary and home.

The war atmosphere for the first time was definitely there. To see the A.R.P. and gas-mask posters on Coutts's exclusive windows in the Strand and cars unloading sand for offices and shops and to see crowds of little girls being marshalled along with their belongings into motor-coaches for the coast were the sort of things that set people talking.

This sort of activity is still feverishly taking place all around the country. A couple of local ARP updates in the Manchester Guardian (p. 11) gives a flavour:

Stalybridge.--The quota of wardens was completed after three public meetings last night. A gas mask census has been taken and respirators will be issues to-night.

Stockbridge.--Schools have been closed for the rest of the week and teachers will help in fitting the masks. Volunteers and 120 unemployed people worked all night to assemble the masks, and distribution has begun in Hazel Grove and Bramhall.

Civil defence is turning into a collective, communal activity: everyone is pulling together to make sure the country is as ready as possible for the knock-out blow, if it comes. Another collective form of ARP which is being given serious consideration is evacuation. A leader in the Manchester Guardian (p. 8) points to the 'orderly exodus from Paris' as evidence of the value of detailed planning:

Not otherwise can the dispersal of a large population be accomplished without disaster. Congested roads and panic-stricken refugees are an incitement to ruthless bombing, to which many ghastly actions in Spain and elsewhere have borne witness.

According to the Manchester Guardian's columnist Lucio (p. 6), the 'sudden revival of interest in country homes' due to the crisis could also be an opportunity for owners of stately homes to subdivide and sublet. It might lead to be a permanent shift, and 'those who are troubled at the bloated size of our great cities may be able to rejoice in the revival of country life'.

Some selections from the Manchester Guardian's illustrated page (p. 7):

Manchester Guardian, 29 September 1938, p. 7

Trenches being made at the North Shore, Blackpool, with pneumatic drills and excavators.

Manchester Guardian, 29 September 1938, p. 7

A heap of gravel and sand outside the Charing Cross Underground Station, which is being made into a shelter.

Manchester Guardian, 29 September 1938, p. 7

Children from a school in the St. Pancras, London, area being evacuated in ambulances and motor-coaches.

Finally, let's end on an airminded note. One casualty of the crisis is Imperial Airways' pick-a-back test flight. It was planned to fly the composite seaplane Mercury (with the Maia mail-carrier on top -- it's a way of bridging the Atlantic gap for commercial service) non-stop from Dundee to Capetown tomorrow. But 'In view of the international situation the flight has been forbidden by the Air Ministry in the meantime'. Better luck next time, chaps!

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9 thoughts on “Thursday, 29 September 1938

  1. Erik Lund

    Capetown, Walvis Bay... somewhere around there. i'd be interested in seeing the conventional press response to the German attempt to upstage _Mercury_ . Of course, the Very Long Range Flight is almost ready to go, too.

  2. Erik Lund

    More seriously, I've been wondering what would have happened to all the air war panic if the Very Long Range Flight had made its Egypt-Sydney flight during the kerfuffle. Would it have emboldened people? Been ignored as off-message?
    Now that I know that the Civil Air Directorate's attempt to upstage the Flight was actually put off because of the crisis, I guess my question is answered.

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  4. Post author

    Don't know. Must admit it hasn't come up much in my research. The report in The Times, 8 November 1938, p. 16 puts it in the context of imperial defence.

  5. Erik Lund

    Technically, _Flight_ is impressed by the fact that the Very Long Range Flight was a Flight, rather than a single aircraft. This shows that instead of a freak performance, the new world record was established with technology with real world applications.
    Amongst which are :
    100 octane (Research Method rated) avgas;
    automatic carburettors;
    A version of the Pegasus with an auxiliary driveshaft (implicitly suggesting significant progress in impact-loading resistant steel cases), allowing radios, instruments, etc., to be driven directly from the engine;
    constant speed propellors (thereby proving that the weight and efficiency issues that had previously made these dodgy had been overcome);
    an unprecedented loaded-to-empty weight relationship, and the huge aspect ratio of the Wellesley wing, together demonstrating the advantages of geodetic structure specifically, but in general foreshadowing longer airliner ranges and much larger bomb loads;
    and good radio-based navigation.
    I do not know how well the conventional media managed to convery the cumulative implictions of all these converging technological developments, much less whether Berlin got the implicit "Im in my Lancaster firebombing ur base" message.
    I have often thought of trying to put together a timeline of technological developments from December 1938 to August 1939. I have a niggling feeling that they had some cumulative effect on the decision for war, but I have no way of measuring their impact on the general public.

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  7. CK

    Nice point, Erik. Might make mention of the Bell X-1, X-15, and Virgin Galactic here. All off which rely on the same principle.

    The pic looks anachronistic. But hey. Sound idea, still employed.

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