Green Park took on a very different aspect during World War Two
On the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939 the inevitable finally happened: Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador to Berlin, delivered a final note to the German government stating that unless the country withdrew the troops it had sent into Poland two days earlier by eleven o’clock that day, Britain would declare war. No such undertaking was given, and at 11.15 Neville Chamberlain went on the radio to announce, in sorrowful and heartfelt tones, that Britain was now at war with Germany. France followed suit a few hours later.
The House of Commons met on a Sunday for the first time in its history to hear Chamberlain’s report. One of the prime minister’s first acts was a reshuffle that brought Winston Churchill back into government as First Lord of the Admiralty, the post he had held during the First World War. Anthony Eden, who had resigned in protest over the prime minister’s policy of appeasement in February 1938, returned as secretary for the dominions. Chamberlain was now seventy years of age and already suffering from the cancer that would kill him little more than a year later – but not before he had been forced to resign, ceding the premiership to Churchill who was five years his junior.
There had been a feeling throughout that sweltering summer that war was imminent. The announcement on 22 August of a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union brought the conflict one step closer, by giving Hitler a free hand to invade Poland and then turn his forces on the West. Three days later, Britain signed a treaty with the government in Warsaw pledging to come to its assistance if it were attacked. Chamberlain nevertheless continued to negotiate with Hitler, even though he turned down the King’s offer to write a personal letter to the Nazi leader. For many people, the worst thing was the uncertainty.
On 28 August Logue was summoned to the Palace. Alexander Hardinge, exceptionally, was there in his shirtsleeves. It was uncomfortably hot – the kind of weather Logue would have expected back home in Australia rather than in his adoptive nation. ‘One of the most stifling and unpleasant days that I can ever remember, reminded me more of Sydney or Ceylon than any day in England,’ he wrote in his diary.
The King and his aides seemed as frustrated as everyone else in the country about the lack of resolution of the crisis – as Logue noted. ‘I went into the King and his first words were “Hello Logue, can you tell me, are we at war?”’ he wrote. ‘I said I didn’t know and he said, “You don’t know, the Prime Minister doesn’t know, and I don’t know.” He is greatly worried, and said the whole thing is so damned unreal. If we only knew which way it was going to be.’ By the time Logue went home, however, he was convinced that ‘war is just around the corner’.
Then, on 1 September, German troops moved into Poland. ‘Britain Gives Last Warning,’ screamed the front page headline of the Daily Express the following morning. ‘Either stop hostilities and withdraw German troops from Poland or we will go to war.’ The smaller sub-headline immediately below provided the answer: ‘An ultimatum we will reject, says Berlin.’
Over the last few months the government had been preparing Britain and its civilian population for war – and what was expected to be heavy bombing of its major cities. Some 827,000 schoolchildren were evacuated to the country, alongside just over 100,000 teachers and their helpers, from London and other urban areas. A further 524,000 children below school age left with their mothers. The cities themselves were protected with air-raid sirens and barrage balloons; windows were to be covered with black-out paper. Trenches were dug in parks and air-raid shelters. Those with gardens of their own dug holes in which they erected corrugated-iron Anderson shelters, covering the structure over with the earth they had removed. It was recommended they dig down at least three feet.
One of the greatest fears was of chemical warfare. Poison gas had been used to horrific effect in the trenches during the First World War and there was concern that the Germans might use it against civilians in this conflict. By the outbreak of war, some 38 million black rubber gas masks had been handed out, accompanied by a propaganda campaign. ‘Hitler will send no warning – so always carry your gas mask,’ read one advertisement. Those caught without one risked a fine.
The Logues, like everyone else, were preparing for the worst. Starting on the night of 1 September, street lights were turned off and everyone had to cover up their windows at night to make it more difficult for German bombers to find their targets. Tony, their youngest, an athletic young man with wavy brown hair who was soon to celebrate his nineteenth birthday, came back from the local library bearing a sheet of black-out paper and embarked on making all the windows lightproof. Fortunately all the main rooms had shutters – Myrtle hated them and had long contemplated ripping them out but was now rather glad she hadn’t.
There wasn’t enough black-out paper to do all the windows so Tony had left one uncovered in the bathroom. It didn’t seem much of a concern but that evening, a few minutes after Myrtle went in to clean her teeth before going to bed, there was a knock on the front door. She opened it to two air-raid precaution wardens who told her in courteous tones that she should turn out the light. Sleeping in a blacked-out room was also an unfamiliar experience: Myrtle felt like a ‘chrysalis in a cocoon of semi-gloom’.
The family had a more immediate problem: Therese, their devoted cook, who had lived in London for the previous ten years, was originally from Bavaria. ‘Oh Madam, I am caught – it is too late to get away,’ she told Myrtle, tears streaming down her cheeks. That afternoon they had turned on the radio, only to hear an alarming notice of general mobilization. Therese rang the German embassy and was told there was a last train leaving at ten o’clock the next morning, and she rushed away to pack.
In the Logue household, as elsewhere in the country, the sense of apprehension was leavened by some lighter moments. ‘The charwoman turned a tense situation into one of great comedy,’ Logue recalled. ‘Her boy Ernie was taken to the country yesterday, and as she went downstairs she said “Thank God my Ernie has been excavated.’”
However unwelcome the prospect of fighting another war, only just over two decades after the end of the last one, Chamberlain’s declaration of 3 September meant the people of Britain at least now knew where they stood. ‘A marvellous relief after all our tension,’ wrote Logue. ‘The universal desire is to kill the Austrian house painter.’ The King expressed similar sentiments in his own diary, which he was to keep dutifully for the next seven and a half years. ‘As eleven o’clock struck that fateful morning I had a certain feeling of relief that those 10 anxious days of intensive negotiations with Germany over Poland, which at moments looked favourable, with Mussolini working for peace as well, were over,’ he wrote.81
Myrtle, meanwhile, was preoccupied with more practical matters: she made 10lb of damson jam and 8lb of beans to salt down. War or no war, they had to eat. Laurie and his wife Josephine – or Jo, as she was known in the family – were also there. Myrtle was worried about them: Jo was expecting their first child (Lionel and Myrtle’s first grandchild) at the end of that month. As Myrtle wrote in the diary that she was now keeping, she hoped that Jo would be ‘excavated’ too.
A few minutes after Chamberlain had finished speaking, the unfamiliar wail of air-raid sirens could be heard across London. Logue called Tony, who was in the garage mending his bicycle, and they began to close all the shutters. From their window they could see the barrage balloon going up – it was, Logue noted, a ‘wonderful sight’. A few miles away in Buckingham Palace, the King and Queen were also surprised to hear the ghastly wailing of the sirens. The two of them looked at each other and said, ‘it can’t be’. But it was, and with their hearts beating hard they went down to the shelter in the basement. There, in the Queen’s words, they ‘felt stunned & horrified, and sat waiting for bombs to fall’.82
There were no bombs that particular night, and about half an hour later the all-clear went up. The royal couple, like others fortunate enough to have access to a shelter, returned to their homes. It was to be the first of many such false alarms as the much feared air raids on London were not to start in earnest until the Blitz almost exactly a year later.
The first night of the war started like any other. The only difference Myrtle noticed was there were no programmes on the radio; they just played records. Then at 3 a.m. came another air-raid warning and they hurried down to the stuffy basement. ‘The only feeling is one of irritation,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘It is strange how things work out – no panic, no fear only plain mad at being disturbed.’
The blackout was into its third night and continuing to cause chaos in a city unused to total darkness. The casualty departments of the hospitals were full – not with those hit by enemy fire, but instead with people who had been run over by cars whose headlights had been partially dimmed, broken their legs while stepping off trains onto nonexistent platforms or sprained their ankles stumbling over unseen kerbs. St George’s, where Valentine was a resident surgical officer after qualifying three years earlier, was no exception: that first day of the war he was up all night operating on people who had come to grief on the streets of London.
Now war had been declared, Logue knew he would have an important role to play at the King’s side. On the previous Monday, 25 August, he had been called by Hardinge. ‘Hold yourself in readiness to come to the Palace,’ he had told him. Logue did not need to ask why. He was ready day and night although, as he told Hardinge, much as he wanted to see and speak to the King again, he sincerely hoped that he wouldn’t be sent for – since he knew only too well what it would mean.
At midday on 3 September came the call he had been dreading. Eric Mieville, who had been assistant private secretary to the King since 1937, rang to say that the King would broadcast to the nation at 6 p.m. and asked Logue to come and see him. Laurie drove him into the city and he was at the Palace by 5.20 p.m.
As they made their way towards London, everything looked normal except for the sun shining on the blimps turning them a ‘lovely silvery blue’. After dropping off his father at the Palace, Laurie turned back home at once so he could be there in time to listen to the broadcast. Logue left his hat, umbrella and gas mask in the Privy Purse Hall and mounted the stairs.
The King received Logue in his private study, rather than the room they normally used, which was being prepared for the post-broadcast photograph. He was dressed in an admiral’s uniform, with all his ribbons, and they ran through the speech. Its message, according to his official biographer, was ‘a declaration of simple faith in simple beliefs . . . which gave encouragement, as perhaps nothing else could, to the British peoples in the face of the struggle which lay ahead, and united them in their determination to achieve victory’.83 Logue went through the text, marking pauses between words to make it easier for him to read out. He also changed a few words: ‘government’, which the King might have stumbled over, was replaced with the easier to pronounce ‘ourselves’; while, later in the speech, ‘call’ took the place of ‘summon’.
Logue was struck by the sadness in the King’s voice as he read. Logue tried his best to cheer him up, reminding him of how he and the King and Queen had sat in that same room for an hour on coronation night before the broadcast he had made then – which he had approached with equal trepidation. They laughed and reflected on how much had happened in the two and a half years since. At that moment, the door at the other end of the room opened and in came the Queen – looking, as an infatuated Logue put it, ‘Royal and lovely’. She was, he thought, as he bowed over her hand, ‘the loveliest woman I have ever seen’.
With three minutes to go, it was time to move into the broadcasting room. As they crossed the corridor, the King beckoned to Frederick Ogilvie – who had succeeded Reith as BBC director-general in 1938 – to join them. The room had just been redecorated and was bright and cheerful, but the mood was sombre. The King knew just how much was riding on this speech, which would be heard by millions of people across the Empire.
After about fifty seconds, the red light came on. Logue looked at the King and smiled as he stepped up to the microphone. As the clock in the Quadrangle struck six, a smile twitched the corner of his mouth and, with great feeling, he began to speak.
In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.
For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilised order in the world.
It is the principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges; which sanctions the use of force, or threat of force, against the sovereignty and independence of other states. Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right; and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of Nations would be in danger. But far more than this – the peoples of the world would be kept in the bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security of justice and liberty among nations would be ended.
This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.
It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.
May He bless and keep us all.
When it was all over and the red light had faded, Logue extended his hand to the King. ‘Congratulations on your first wartime speech,’ he said. The King, his ordeal behind him, simply stated, ‘I expect I will have to do a lot more.’ As they walked out of the door, the Queen was waiting in the passage. ‘That was good, Bertie,’ she said.
The King went to have his photograph taken and Logue stayed with the others in the passage. ‘Bertie hardly slept at all last night, he was so worried, but now that we have taken the decisive step he is much more cheerful,’ the Queen told him.
Then the King came back and they all said goodbye, and as Logue bowed over the Queen’s hand she said, ‘I will have to speak to the women. Will you help me with the speech?’ Logue told her it would be a great honour.
It was a sign of the importance attached to the speech that the next day’s newspapers reported that the King had ‘consented’ to have 15 million copies of the text printed, with a facsimile of his signature, which would then be sent to every household in the country. This massive mail shot never happened, however: officials estimated that the exercise would require 250 tons of paper, which was already beginning to be in short supply, while the Post Office was alarmed at the extra burden it would impose on its already depleted staff. It was decided that the £35,000 the whole operation would have cost could be better spent elsewhere – not least since the newspapers had printed it in full anyway, accompanied by a photograph of the King dressed for the occasion in his admiral’s uniform. As ever, he was portrayed sitting down at the microphone even though, as always, he had been standing up.
In the ensuing days and weeks other cutbacks came into effect. On 25 September petrol rationing was introduced, with people restricted to a mere six gallons a month. London turned almost overnight into a country village. Rationing of food, fuel and other items followed at the beginning of 1940. The Logues were lucky: the woods at the end of the garden provided them with fuel and there was plenty of space to grow fruit and vegetables. Valentine was handy with a gun and often used to bring home rabbits for dinner.
There was also one major source of joy for the Logues: early on 8 September Laurie’s wife Jo gave birth to a baby girl, Alexandra. At the time, Tony, who had always done so much to cheer up the place, was preparing to go to university in Leeds where, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, he was to study medicine (his original choice had been London but war changed his plans). With some sadness, his parents saw him on to the train at King’s Cross on 5 October. ‘His being away takes a lot of laughter out of my life,’ wrote Myrtle in her diary.
War or no war, the State Opening of Parliament was due to take place that November – and the King looked to Logue to help him make sure that the speech he had to make went smoothly. There had been some speculation that the King would not appear at all, with details of the government’s programme to be read out by the Lord Chancellor.
In the event he turned up in person, but this was to be a State Opening unlike any other. The ceremonial and ornate costumes that were traditionally such an important part of the occasion were abandoned. The King and Queen arrived at the Palace of Westminster by car rather than royal coach and with the minimum of retinue; the King wore a naval uniform; the Queen was in velvet and furs embellished with pearls against the cold. For commentators, the quiet solemnity of the occasion was in sharp contrast to the vulgar fanfare accompanying Hitler’s public appearances.
The speech itself, which in peacetime would have set out the government’s proposed legislative programme, was short and to the point: ‘The prosecution of the war demands the energies of all my subjects,’ the King began. Besides telling MPs that they would be asked to make ‘further financial provision for the conduct of the war’, it gave nothing else away.
The year also brought one last major speech – the Christmas message. With the nation at war, everyone, the King included, knew there could be no question of his not addressing his subjects. It was decided that he would deliver a personal message at the end of the BBC’s Round the Empire programme on the afternoon of 25 December.
Striking the right tone was a challenge: although the conflict was now well into its fourth month, nothing much had actually happened, as least as far as Britain’s civilian population was concerned. The popular perception of a ‘phoney war’ was at its height. Despite the occasional false alarm, all was quiet on the Western Front and the much-feared air raids had not happened. Many of the children who had been evacuated to the countryside had since returned home. The only real action had been at sea and it was not going well for Britain: on 13 October a skilful U-boat commander managed to penetrate the defences at Scapa Flow, off the north-east coast of Scotland, and sank the battleship Royal Oak while she was at anchor, with the loss of more than 830 lives. British convoys bringing vital supplies across the North Atlantic were harassed by the German navy. A rare success was the destruction of the German ‘pocket’ battleship the Graf Spee, during the Battle of the River Plate, off the coast of Uruguay.
The mood, in short, was one of anticlimax; apathy and complacency were rife – which the King set out to counter. He spoke of what he had seen at first hand: of the Royal Navy, ‘upon which, throughout the last four months, had burst the storm of ruthless and unceasing war’; of the Air Force, ‘who were daily adding laurels to those that their fathers had won’; and of the British Expeditionary Force in France: ‘Their task is hard. They are waiting, and waiting is a trial of nerve and discipline.’
‘A new year is at hand,’ he continued. ‘We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.
‘In the meantime, I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you.’
At that point, apparently at his own initiative, the King quoted some lines from a hitherto unknown poem he had just been sent. It was written by Minnie Louise Haskins who taught at the London School of Economics, and had been privately published in 1908.
‘“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”
‘May that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all.’
The King had dreaded delivering this Christmas message, like almost every other major speech before it. ‘This is always an ordeal for me & I don’t begin to enjoy Christmas until after it is over,’ he wrote in his diary that day.84 Yet there is no doubting the huge and positive impact that it had on popular morale.
The poem, which Haskins had entitled ‘God Knows’, also became hugely popular, although under the title ‘The Gate of the Year’. It was reproduced on cards and widely published. Its words had a deep impact on the Queen, who had it engraved on brass plaques and was to have it fixed to the gates of the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle, where the King was interred. When she died in 2002, its words were read out at her state funeral.
However successful the King’s Christmas message, there was a curious postscript that reflected the continued awareness among members of the public of his speaking problem (coupled with their desire to help him). On 28 December Tommy Lascelles passed on to Logue a letter sent to him from Anthony McCreadie, the rector of John Street Secondary School in Glasgow.
‘No one knows that I am writing this note and no one shall ever know I wrote it,’ McCreadie began conspiratorially. He went on, without further ado, to explain a technique that the King should employ when making his next broadcast. ‘Let him lean on his left elbow and place the back of his hand below his chin – forking his neck between thumb and fingers. Then let him press his chin firmly on his hand – exerting a strong pressure up and down when he has difficulty at a sound. This will control his muscles and all difficulty will vanish in the future . . . I humbly hope he will carry out my infallible plan.’
It is not clear if the King was ever passed McCreadie’s advice – let alone if he tried to implement it.
One of George VI’s first broadcasts as King in 1937
The Logue family relaxing by the tennis courts at Beechgrove, Sydenham Hill From left: unidentified guest, Antony, Lionel, unidentified guest, Valentine, Myrtle
The Royal Family in Coronation robes. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with their daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. The King gave Lionel this framed portrait as a gift
A selection of Christmas cards from the Royal Family. The Logues would continue to receive a card every year until the King’s death
The speech broadcast on the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939. This is the actual speech from which the King read, annotated by Lionel to indicate the pauses the King should make, as well as highlighting any potentially tricky words
A selection of letters from the King to Lionel, showing his friendly concern for his health, along with the telegram he sent after Myrtle’s death
After the King’s death in February 1952, the newspapers gave a dramatic spin to the story of his relationship with Lionel