The day war broke out… my Missus said to me… she looked at me and she said, “What good are you?” I said, “Who?” She said, “You!” I said, “How do you mean, what good am I?” “Well…” she said, “You’re too old for the army…” she said, “You couldn’t get in the navy… and they wouldn’t have you in the air force… so, what good are you?” I said,” I’ll do something!…”
ROBB WILTON - POPULAR COMEDIAN
Just before 11.00am on the morning of Sunday 3rd September 1939 the people of Britain gathered around their wireless sets to listen to a very important announcement from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. Gardeners put down their tools and came indoors. Golfers cut short their game and returned to the clubhouse. Ministers brought radios into their churches or made arrangements for the news to be read out the moment it was received. It came at 11.15…
“This is London. You will now hear a statement by the Prime Minister…
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 heard from them by 11.00 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 that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Everyone in Britain knew war was coming. 4 months earlier, on the 19th May 1939 A.T Shakespear, the Air Raid Precaution Organiser for Richmond had warned.
“It is of great importance that public generally should appreciate their liability to obscure all artificial lighting in wartime.” He advised them to buy their ‘black-out’ materials now..”It is improbable that such material could be obtained at the last moment at short notice.”
He was right about the war but wrong about the ‘black-out’ materials. On the day war broke out ‘Kempthorne and Phillips’ in Richmond were reassuring shoppers that they had ‘constant supplies of ARP (Air Raid Precaution) materials’.
Public air-raid shelters had already been dug all over the area - on Twickenham Green, York House, Richmond Green and even in the middle of the St Margarets roundabout! In Kingston, Bentalls were encouraging ‘Do It Yourself’ shelter builders to buy their “Pick Axes with hickory handles” 3/9d (= 19p) or “Best Cast Steel Shovels” for 3/6d (= 18p). For the more cautious they also had Fire Extinguishers for 5/6d (= 28p). The brand new Regal cinema in Twickenham was anticipating trouble as well. It advertised that it would open on September 25th - ‘war permitting’.
Local government seemed to be well prepared. A.C. Boucher, the Mayor of Twickenham, announced. “We are ready - everything that we could possibly do has been done.” The Mayor of Richmond, Val Wood, echoed the sentiment, “Let us ALL help - not leave it to the few willing ones. Let us refrain from carping criticism, and above all, keep calm and CHEERFUL.”
Marie Lawrence who lived in Richmond was doing exactly that. In her diary entry for September 3rd she wrote…
“Prime Minister made an excellent speech and declared war with Germany. He hopes to see Hitlerism smashed… at mid day the siren blew and I rushed for the tortoise and snatched our gas masks. It was a false alarm. Dad got stung by a wild bee.”
For many people the announcement of war on September 3rd marked the end of a long period of anxiety. There would be no more rumour or speculation. Now was the time to roll up the sleeves and get down to the primary task of defeating Hitler.
On the 9th September the ‘Richmond and Twickenham Times’ reported ….
With a quiet dignified loyalty Twickenham responded to the call which came on Sunday morning when the Prime Minister told a troubled world that at last this country has been compelled to declare war on Germany. The suspense of the past few weeks gave place to a feeling almost of relief.
As air raid sirens went off all over the district well rehearsed plans swung smoothly into operation. The ‘Black Out’ was immediately reinforced. Police appeared on the streets with steel helmets. Everybody started carrying gas masks in cardboard boxes. Schools were closed until playground air raid shelters had been built. Evacuation from major cities intensified and the A316 was restricted to traffic leaving London. In her diary for Monday 4th September Marie Lawrence wrote.
“Evacuation has gone off splendidly. 600,000 people have been taken out of London during three days without a single accident.”
Appeals were made for volunteers of all kinds - to fill sandbags, to tow ambulance trailers, …air raid wardens, messengers and stretcher bearers were all required. Like most of London’s churches, St Stephens in East Twickenham and All Souls in St Margarets started their evening services at 6.00pm, rather than 6.30pm, to allow worshippers time to get home before the blackout started.
In the first 5 days of war there were 3 air raid warnings in the district - but they all proved to be false alarms. There were no bombs, no guns, no searchlights. Having geared themselves up for a heroic struggle some people were disappointed that the fighting hadn’t started. Britain slipped into a long period of ‘Phoney War’ that didn’t end until the Fall of France and the Dunkirk Evacuation in May 1940.
On Sunday September 10th the people of St Margarets considered a Poem for Peace that appeared in a local paper. It ended…
Give peace, O God, for ordinary lives, For men and women busy all the day, And children playing up and down the streets, As, in another age, You used to play.
Peace did eventually come, 6 years later, on 7th May 1945. Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood on a balcony in London and said…
“God bless you all. This is your victory… Everyone, man or woman, has done their best… Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation.”
Across the entire district there were scenes of wild jubilation, bonfires, street parties, decorations and lights. At the Royalty Cinema in Richmond filmgoers were invited to wipe their shoes on a Nazi flag laid on the floor!
Marie Lawrence joined the fun…
8th May 1945 - VE Day (Victory in Europe)
The town is all decorated with flags and they have bows on… we see lights from bonfires all around the district. Fireworks kept bobbing up and at 10.00pm we lit our fairy lamps. We talked until 11.45 and the searchlights came up and threw great beams all over the sky and so to bed at midnight. Fireworks kept on until the early hours of the morning.
9th May VE plus 1 Day
Got up at 9.00am. My head was awful!
May be it was the celebration of victory that gave Marie her headache - or maybe she remembered Churchill’s cautionary reminder made the day earlier….
“Japan with all its treachery and greed remains unsubdued”
The editorial in the ‘Richmond and Twickenham Times’ summed it up neatly… “a big cloud has lifted, but we are still at war!” And so we were.
– from Martyn Day