Military history


“Proved” though it may have been to a people as easily swindled as the Germans, it aroused no ill feelings toward the British during the day. When I passed the British Embassy, from whose premises Henderson and his staff were moving to the Hotel Adlon around the corner, a lone Schupopaced up and down before the building. He had nothing to do but saunter back and forth.

   The French held out a little longer. Bonnet played for time until the last moment, clinging stubbornly to the hope that Mussolini might still swing a deal with Hitler which would let France off the hook. He even pleaded with the Belgian ambassador to get King Leopold to use his influence with Mussolini to influence Hitler. All day Saturday, September 2, he argued with his own cabinet, as he did with the British, that he had “promised” Ciano to wait until noon of September 3 for the German answer to the Anglo–French warning notes of September 1, and that he could not go back on his word. He had, to be sure, given this assurance to the Italian Foreign Minister over the phone—but not until 9 o’clock on the evening of September 2.* By that time the Duce’s proposal for a conference was as dead as stone, as Ciano had tried to tell him. And by that hour, too, the British were pleading with him to present a joint ultimatum to Berlin at midnight.

Shortly before midnight on September 2, the French government finally reached a decision. At precisely midnight, Bonnet wired Coulondre at Berlin that in the morning he would forward the terms of a “new démarche” to be made “at noon to the Wilhelmstrasse.”

This he did, at 10:20 A.M. on Sunday, September 3—forty minutes before the British ultimatum ran out. The French ultimatum was similarly worded except that in case of a negative reply France declared that she would fulfill her obligations to Poland “which are known to the German government”—even at this final juncture Bonnet held out against a formal declaration of war.

In the official French Yellow Book the text of the French ultimatum wired to Coulondre gives 5 P.M. as the time limit for the German response. But this was not the hour set in the original telegram. At 8:45 A.M. Ambassador Phipps had notified Halifax from Paris: “Bonnet tells me French time limit will only expire at 5 o’clock Monday morning [September 4].” That was the time given in Bonnet’s telegram.

Though it represented a concession wrung by Daladier early Sunday morning from the French General Staff, which had insisted on a full forty-eight hours from the time the ultimatum was given Berlin at noon, it still irritated the British government, whose displeasure was communicated to Paris in no uncertain terms during the forenoon. Premier Daladier therefore made one last appeal to the military. He called in General Colston, of the General Staff, at 11:30 A.M. and urged a shorter deadline. The General reluctantly agreed to move it up by twelve hours to 5 P.M.

Thus it was that just as Coulondre was leaving the French Embassy in Berlin for the Wilhelmstrasse, Bonnet got through to him on the telephone and instructed him to make the necessary change in the zero hour.34

Ribbentrop was not available to the French ambassador at the noon hour. He was taking part in a little ceremony at the Chancellery, where the new Soviet ambassador, Alexander Shkvarzev, was being warmly received by the Fuehrer—an occasion that lent a bizarre note to this historic Sabbath in Berlin. Coulondre, insistent on following the letter of his instructions to call at the Wilhelmstrasse at precisely twelve noon, was therefore received by Weizsaecker. To the ambassador’s inquiry as to whether the State Secretary was empowered to give a “satisfactory” answer to the French, Weizsaecker replied that he was not in a position to give him “any kind of reply.”

There now followed at this solemn moment a minor diplomatic comedy. When Coulondre attempted to treat Weizsaecker’s response as the negative German reply which he fully anticipated and to hand to the State Secretary France’s formal ultimatum, the latter declined to accept it. He suggested that the ambassador “be good enough to be patient a little longer and see the Foreign Minister personally.” Thus rebuffed—and not for the first time—Coulondre cooled his heels for nearly half an hour. At 12:30 P.M. he was conducted to the Chancellery to see Ribbentrop.35

Though the Nazi Foreign Minister knew what the ambassador’s mission was, he could not let the opportunity, the very last such one, slip by without treating the French envoy to one of his customary prevarications of history. After remarking that Mussolini, in presenting his last-minute peace proposal, had emphasized that France approved it, Ribbentrop declared that “Germany had informed the Duce yesterday that she also was prepared to agree to the proposal. Later in the day,” Ribbentrop added, “the Duce reported that his proposal had been wrecked by the intransigence of the British Government.”

But Coulondre, over the past months, had heard enough of Ribbentrop’s falsifications. After listening a little longer to the Nazi Foreign Minister, who had gone on to say that he would regret it if France followed Great Britain and that Germany had no intention of attacking France, the ambassador got in the question he had come to ask: Did the Foreign Minister’s remarks mean that the response of the German government to the French communication of September 1 was negative?

Ja,” replied Ribbentrop.

The ambassador then handed the Foreign Minister France’s ultimatum, prefacing it with a remark that “for the last time” he must emphasize the “heavy responsibility of the Reich Government” in attacking Poland “without a declaration of war” and in refusing the Anglo–French request that German troops be withdrawn.

“Then France will be the aggressor,” Ribbentrop said.

“History will be the judge of that,” Coulondre replied.

On that Sunday in Berlin all the participants in the final act of the drama seemed intent on calling upon the judgment of history.

   Although France was mobilizing an army which would have overwhelming superiority for the time being over the German forces in the west, it was Great Britain, whose army at the moment was negligible, which loomed in Hitler’s feverish mind as the main enemy and as the antagonist who was almost entirely responsible for the pass in which he found himself as September 3, 1939, began to wane and pass into history. This was made clear in the two grandiose proclamations which he issued during the afternoon to the German people and to the Army of the West. His bitter resentment and hysterical anger at the British burst forth.

Great Britain [he said in an “Appeal to the German People”] has for centuries pursued the aim of rendering the peoples of Europe defenseless against the British policy of world conquest … [and] claimed the right to attack on threadbare pretexts and destroy that European state which at the moment seemed most dangerous …

We ourselves have been witnesses of the policy of encirclement … carried on by Great Britain against Germany since before the war … The British war inciters … oppressed the German people under the Versailles Diktat …

Soldiers of the Western Army! [Hitler said in an appeal to the troops who for many weeks could only face the French Army] … Great Britain has pursued the policy of Germany’s encirclement … The British Government, driven on by those warmongers whom we knew in the last war, have resolved to let fall their mask and to proclaim war on a threadbare pretext …

There was not a word about France.

   In London at six minutes past noon, Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons and informed it that Britain was now at war with Germany. Though Hitler, on September 1, had forbidden listening to foreign broadcasts on the pain of death, we picked up in Berlin the words of the Prime Minister as quoted over the BBC. To those of us who had seen him risking his political life at Godesberg and Munich to appease Hitler, his words were poignant.

This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do: that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much … I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.

Chamberlain was fated not to live to see that day. He died, a broken man—though still a member of the cabinet—on November 9, 1940. In view of all that has been written about him in these pages it seems only fitting to quote what was said of him by Churchill, whom he had excluded from the affairs of the British nation for so long and who on May 10, 1940, succeeded him as Prime Minister. Paying tribute to his memory in the Commons on November 12, 1940, Churchill said:

… It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril and certainly in utter disdain of popularity or clamor.

His diplomacy having failed to keep Britain and France out of the war, Hitler turned his attention during the afternoon of September 3 to military matters. He issued Top-Secret Directive No. 2 for the Conduct of the War. Despite the Anglo–French war declarations, it said, “the German war objective remains for the time being the speedy and victorious conclusion of the operations against Poland … In the West the opening of hostilities is to be left to the enemy … Against Britain, naval offensive operations are permitted.” The Luftwaffe was not to attack even British naval forces unless the British opened similar attacks on German targets—and then only “if prospects of success are particularly favorable.” The conversion of the whole of German industry to “war economy” was ordered.36

At 9 o’clock in the evening Hitler and Ribbentrop left Berlin in separate special trains for General Headquarters in the East. But not before they had made two more diplomatic moves. Britain and France were now at war with Germany. But there were the two other great European powers, whose support had made Hitler’s venture possible, to consider: Italy, the ally, which had reneged at the last moment, and Soviet Russia, which, though distrusted by the Nazi dictator, had obliged him by making his gamble on war seem worth the taking.

Just before leaving the capital, Hitler got off another letter to Mussolini. It was dispatched by wire at 8:51 P.M., nine minutes before the Fuehrer’s special train pulled out of the station. Though not entirely frank nor devoid of deceit it gives the best picture we shall probably ever have of the mind of Adolf Hitler as he set out for the first time from the darkened capital of the Third Reich to assume his role as Supreme German Warlord. It is among the captured Nazi papers.


I must first thank you for your last attempt at mediation. I would have been ready to accept, but only on condition that some possibility could have been found to give me certain guarantees that the conference would be successful. For the German troops have been engaged for two days in an extraordinarily rapid advance into Poland. It would have been impossible to allow blood which was there sacrificed to be squandered through diplomatic intrigue.

Nevertheless, I believe that a way could have been found if England had not been determined from the outset to let it come to war in any case. I did not yield to England’s threats because, Duce, I no longer believe that peace could have been maintained for more than six months or, shall we say, a year. In these circumstances, I considered that the present moment was, in spite of everything, more suitable for making a stand.

… The Polish Army will collapse in a very short time. Whether it would have been possible to achieve this quick success in another year or two is, I must say, very doubtful in my opinion. England and France would have gone on arming their allies to such an extent that the decisive technical superiority of the German Wehrmacht could not have been in evidence in the same way. I am aware, Duce, that the struggle in which I am engaging is a struggle for life and death … But I am also aware that such a struggle cannot in the end be avoided, and that the moment for resistance must be chosen with icy deliberation so that the likelihood of success is assured; and in this success, Duce, my faith is as firm as a rock.

Next came words of warning to Mussolini.

You kindly assured me recently that you believe you can help in some fields. I accept this in advance with sincere thanks. But I also believe that, even if we now march down separate paths, destiny will yet bind us one to the other. If National Socialist Germany were to be destroyed by the Western democracies, Fascist Italy also would face a hard future. I personally was always aware that the futures of our two regimes were bound up, and I know that you, Duce, are of exactly the same opinion.

After recounting the initial German victories in Poland, Hitler concluded:

… In the West I shall remain on the defensive. France can shed her blood there first. The moment will then come when we can pit ourselves there also against the enemy with the whole strength of the nation.

Please accept once more my thanks, Duce, for all the support you have given me in the past, and which I ask you not to refuse me in the future either.


Hitler’s disappointment that Italy did not honor her word, even after Britain and France had honored theirs by declaring war on this day, was kept under tight control. A friendly Italy, even though nonbelligerent, could still be helpful to him.

But even more helpful could be Russia.

Already on the first day of the German attack on Poland the Soviet government, as the secret Nazi papers would later reveal, had rendered the German Luftwaffe a signal service. Very early on that morning the Chief of the General Staff of the Air Force, General Hans Jeschonnek, had rung up the German Embassy in Moscow to say that in order to give his pilots navigational aid in the bombing of Poland—“urgent navigation tests,” he called it—he would appreciate it if the Russian radio station at Minsk would continually identify itself. By afternoon Ambassador von der Schulenburg was able to inform Berlin that the Soviet government was “prepared to meet your wishes.” The Russians agreed to introduce a station identification as often as possible in the programs over their transmitter and to extend the broadcasting time of the Minsk station by two hours so as to aid the German flyers late at night.38

But as they prepared to leave Berlin late on September 3 Hitler and Ribbentrop had in mind much more substantial Russian military help for their conquest of Poland. At 6:50 P.M., Ribbentrop got off a “most urgent” telegram to the embassy in Moscow. It was marked “Top Secret” and began: “Exclusive for the Ambassador. For the Head of Mission or his representative personally. Special security handling. To be decoded by himself. Most secret.”

In the greatest of secrecy the Germans invited the Soviet Union to join in the attack on Poland!

We definitely expect to have beaten the Polish Army decisively in a few weeks. We should then keep the territory that was fixed at Moscow as a German sphere of interest under military occupation. We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of interest.

Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of interest and for their part to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would be not only a relief for us, but also be in the sense of the Moscow agreements and in the Soviet interest as well.39

That such a cynical move by the Soviet Union would be a “relief” to Hitler and Ribbentrop is obvious. It would not only avoid misunderstandings and friction between the Germans and the Russians in dividing up the spoils but would take some of the onus of the Nazi aggression in Poland off Germany and place it on the Soviet Union. If they shared the booty, why should they not share the blame?

   The most gloomy German of any consequence in Berlin that Sunday noon after it became known that Britain was in the war was Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the German Navy. For him the war had come four or five years too soon. By 1944–45, the Navy’s Z Planwould have been completed, giving Germany a sizable fleet with which to confront the British. But this was September 3, 1939, and Raeder knew, even if Hitler wouldn’t listen to him, that he had neither the surface ships nor even the submarines to wage effective war against Great Britain.

Confiding to his diary, the Admiral wrote:

Today the war against France and England broke out, the war which, according to the Fuehrer’s previous assertions, we had no need to expect before 1944. The Fuehrer believed up to the last minute that it could be avoided, even if this meant postponing a final settlement of the Polish question….

As far as the Navy is concerned, obviously it is in no way very adequately equipped for the great struggle with Great Britain … the submarine arm is still much too weak to have any decisive effect on the war. The surface forces, moreover, are so inferior in number and strength to those of the British Fleet that, even at full strength, they can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly …40

Nevertheless at 9 P.M. on September 3,1939, at the moment Hitler was departing Berlin, the German Navy struck. Without warning, the submarine U-30 torpedoed and sank the British liner Athenia some two hundred miles west of the Hebrides as it was en route from Liverpool to Montreal with 1,400 passengers, of whom 112, including twenty-eight Americans, lost their lives.

World War II had begun.

* Hitler’s proclamation to the Army announcing the opening of hostilities was broadcast over me German radio at 5:40 A.M., and the newspaper extras were on the street shortly after. See below, p. 599.

* The German operation to seize the Dirschau bridge over the Vistula before the Poles could blow it up had been planned early in the summer and appears constantly in the papers for “Case White.” It was specifically ordered in Hitler’s Directive No. 1 on August 31. Actually the operation failed, partly because early-morning fog hampered the dropping of paratroopers who were to seize the bridge. The Poles succeeded in blowing it up just in time.

* See above, pp. 566–67.

 See above, p. 588.

 Actually Mussolini’s decision was conveyed to Britain the night before. At 11:15 P.M. on August 31 the Foreign Office received a message from Sir Percy Loraine in Rome: “Decision of the Italian Government is taken. Italy will not fight against either England or France … This communication made to me by Ciano at 21:15 [9:15 P.M.] under seal of secrecy.”10

That evening the Italians had been given a scare by the British cutting off all telephone communication with Rome after 8 P.M. Ciano feared it might be the prelude to an Anglo–French attack.

* At 4:30 P.M., following a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Rome, the Italian radio broadcast the Council’s announcement “to the Italian people that Italy will take no initiative in the way of military operations.” Immediately afterward Hitler’s message to Mussolini releasing Italy from its obligations was broadcast.

* Twice during the afternoon of September 1, Bonnet instructed Noël, the French ambassador in Warsaw, to ask Beck if Poland would accept the Italian proposal for a conference. Later that evening he received his reply: “We are in the midst of war as the result of unprovoked aggression. It is no longer a question of a conference but of common action which the Allies should take to resist.” Bonnet’s messages and Beck’s reply are in the French Yellow Book.

The British government did not associate itself with Bonnet’s efforts. A Foreign Office memorandum signed by R. M. Makins notes that the British government “was neither consulted nor informed of this démarche.”15

 The previous afternoon, on instructions from Halifax, Henderson had burned his ciphers and confidential documents and officially requested the United States chargé d’affaires “to be good enough to take charge of British interests in the event of war.” (British Blue Book, p. 21.)

* Ciano claims that the note was sent as the result of “French pressure.” (Ciano Diaries, p. 136.) But this is surely misleading. Though Bonnet was doing all he could to get a conference, Mussolini was pushing the proposal even more desperately.

* The minutes of the meeting, drawn up by General Decamp, chief of Premier Daladier’s military cabinet, came to light at the Riom trial. The paper was never submitted to other members of the meeting for correction, and General Gamelin in his book, Servir, claims it was so abbreviated as to be misleading. Still, even the timid generalissimo confirms its main outlines.

* In his book, Servir, Gamelin admits that he hesitated to call attention to some of France’s military weaknesses because he did not trust Bonnet. He quotes Daladier as later telling him, “You did right. If you had exposed them, the Germans would have known about them the next day.”

Gamelin also claimed (in his book) that he did point out at this conference the weakness of France’s military position. He says he explained that if Germany “annihilated Poland” and then threw her whole weight against the French, France would be in a “difficult” situation. “In this case,” he said, “it would no longer be possible for France to enter upon the struggle … By spring, with the help of British troops and American equipment I hoped we should be in a position to fight a defensive battle (of course if necessary). I added that we could not hope for victory except in a long war. It had always been my opinion that we should not be able to assume the offensive in less than about two years … that is, in 1941–2.”

The French generalissimo’s timid views explain a good deal of subsequent history.

* The Foreign Secretary had sent Henderson two warning telegrams during the night. The first, dispatched at 11:50 P.M., read:

I may have to send you instructions tonight to make an immediate communication to the German Government. Please be ready to act. You had better warn the Minister for Foreign Affairs that you may have to ask to see him at any moment.

It would seem from this telegram that the British government had not quite made up its mind to go it alone despite the French. But thirty-five minutes later, at 12:25 A.M. on September 3, Halifax wired Henderson:

You should ask for an appointment with M.F.A. [Minister for Foreign Affairs] at 9 A.M. Sunday morning. Instructions will follow.25

The decisive telegram from Halifax is dated 5 A.M., London time. Henderson, in his Final Report, says he received it 4 A.M.

* Halifax sent an additional wire, also dated 5 A.M., informing the ambassador that Coulondre “will not make a similar communication to the German Government until midday today (Sunday).” He did not know what the French time limit would be but thought it “likely” to be anything between six and nine hours.27

* He reappeared for a moment on September 24 when he met with Forbes at Oslo “to ascertain,” as he told the Nuremberg tribunal before he was shut off, “if there was still a possibility of averting a world war.”33

* So shoddy was this hastily prepared note that it ended with this sentence: “The intention, communicated to us by order of the British Government by Mr. King-Hall, of carrying the destruction of the German people even further than was done through the Versailles Treaty, is taken note of by us, and we shall therefore answer any aggressive action on the part of England with the same weapons and in the same form.” The British government had, of course, never presented to Germany any intentions of Stephen King-Hall, a retired naval officer, whose newsletters were a purely private venture. In fact, Henderson had protested to the Foreign Office against the circulation of King-Hall’s publication in Germany and the British government had requested the editor to desist.

 In London at 11:15 A.M. Halifax had handed the German chargé d’affaires a formal note stating that since no German assurances had been received by 11 A.M., “I have the honor to inform you that a state of war exists between the two countries as from 11 A.M. today, September 3.”

* See above, p. 608.

 But even after that, it will be remembered, Bonnet made a last-minute effort to keep France out of the war by proposing, during the night, to the Italians that they get Hitler to make a “symbolic” withdrawal from Poland.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!