Blitzkrieg September 1, 1939: a new kind of warfare engulfs Poland

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Addressing the House of Commons that evening, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to equivocate. He said that if the Germans did not stop their invasion, Britain would "be bound to take action." The House was furious at Chamberlain's delays, and when Arthur Greenwood rose to reply for Labour, Tory backbencher Robert Boothby called out, "You speak for Britain." Said Greenwood: "I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization, are in peril."

A worried Chamberlain telephoned French Premier Edouard Daladier and said Britain could not wait 48 hours; Daladier said it must. Halifax called Bonnet and proposed that an ultimatum be delivered at 8 a.m. Sunday, to expire at noon. Bonnet insisted on no ultimatum before noon. Halifax said the House was meeting at noon, and any further delay would mean the downfall of the government. He said that if necessary, Britain would "act on its own." When the Cabinet asked Chamberlain to pledge no further compromises, he said, "Right, gentlemen. This means war." As he spoke, one witness recalled, "there was the most enormous clap of thunder, and the whole Cabinet room was lit up by a blinding flash of lightning."

Halifax cabled Ambassador Nevile Henderson in Berlin and told him to deliver an ultimatum to Ribbentrop at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3. Ribbentrop scornfully let it be known that he would not be "available" but that Henderson could deliver his message to the departmental interpreter, Paul Schmidt. As it happened, Schmidt overslept that morning, arrived by taxi to see Henderson already climbing the steps of the Foreign Ministry, and slipped in a side door just in time to receive him at 9. Henderson stood and read aloud his message, declaring that unless Britain were assured of an end to the Polish invasion within two hours, "a state of war will exist between the two countries."

Schmidt dutifully took the British ultimatum to Hitler's Chancellery, where he found the Fuhrer at his desk and the "unavailable" Ribbentrop standing at a nearby window. Schmidt translated the ultimatum aloud. "When I finished, there was complete silence," he recalled. "Hitler sat immobile, gazing before him. After an interval that seemed an age, he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing by the window. 'What now?' asked Hitler with a savage look."

And at noon on Sept. 3, Chamberlain rose in the Commons -- newly outfitted with blackout curtains -- and announced that his years of effort to appease Hitler had ended in failure. "This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me," he said. "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."

That very night, Britons learned of the first such sacrifice: 200 miles west of Scotland in the North Atlantic, the unarmed British liner Athenia, carrying 1,400 passengers from Liverpool to Montreal, was hit and sunk by a torpedo from the German submarine U-30; 112 passengers, including 28 Americans, died.

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