The Incredible Forty-eight Hours

Beverley Baxter's October 1 1939


The Incredible Forty-eight Hours

Beverley Baxter's October 1 1939


The Incredible Forty-eight Hours

Beverley Baxter's

LONDON, September 3 (By Cable).—This is Sunday, September 3,. 1939. From the hour of eleven this morning Britain has been at war with Germany. That is the climax of the most incredible forty-eight hours memory can recall.

On Friday evening, Parliament met. It was the same Parliament, but strangely and grimly different. Half a dozen of the younger members were in military uniform. One M.P., a mere boy in appearance, was booted and spurred and wore the badge of a colonel. Another, only a year or two older, had come in uniform from his air squadron. A third and older M.P. was dressed as a lancecorporal.

There was no excitement on the floor of the House or in the galleries. There was no passion or conflict of opinion. Even the ambassadors in their gallery looked like directors attending the liquidating of a business that had once promised well. Corbin, of France, sat next the Polish ambassador. M. Maisky, the Russian ambassador, did not lean over the ledge with the high spirits of afew weeks back. He seemed shrunken in size.

The Duke of Kent and the Duke of Gloucester sat behind the clock. They listened intently to every word, but, like the rest of us, showed nothing of the emotions that were almost out of control.

The Prime Minister was cheered when he entered and again when he rose to speak. His hand was shaking as he placed his papers on the table, and he looked near the point of exhaustion. Yet as he S]x>ke his voice grew' stronger and his agitation lessened.

Sir John Simon, as Leader of the House, looked on with a face that revealed little. His mind must have gone back to that day in August, twenty-five years ago, w'hen he sat on the same bench and listened to Sir Edward Grey make his speech which was the prelude to war. Opposite Chamberlain wras Lloyd George. His memories, too, must have been aflame.

Still another member of the Asquith Government, Winston Churchill, sat motionless in his corner seat and made no sound.

Different From 1914

V\ 7HAT was the difference between the W scene of August 3, 1914, and September 1,

1939? Why was one so dramatic and the other so grim?

In 1914, Germany had outraged the conscience of civilization by her sudden violation of Belgium’s neutrality. Events at that time had moved writh rapidity and the air w'as electric with excitement and the sense of overwhelming crisis. Last night the House met in different circumstances altogether. A vile and unclean thing called Nazism had been possessing civilization. Yesterday morning’s developments had merely confirmed what we had felt might prove inevitable.

Chamberlain did not denounce Germany. He did not recall the historic crimes of Prussianism.

He fastened on one man alone, the mountebank who might have been a statesman “but for his senseless ambition.” In terms of scorn and contempt Chamberlain revealed the pitiful attempts of Hitler to justify himself to world opinion w'hile ordering his army to attack. The House listened wfith anger and disgust to the story of how' Hitler had decided that his sixteen points had been rejected by Poland “although neither Poland nor ourselves had ever seen the terms.” Point by point, without passion but with the loathing of a decent man for a liar and a cheat, Chamberlain made his case and asserted that we would not withdraw until the foul growth of Nazism created by Hitler had been crushed out of existence. Having dealt w ith the paper-hanger, he referred for a

moment to the wine merchant. He described how’ the pale-eyed Ribbentrop had harangued Sir Nevile Henderson, refused to ask the Polish ambassador to see him, and had ended up by reading the sixteen points in noisy and rapid German and refusing our ambassador a copy. There was an angry growl from the House. There is a score to settle with the man who, more than anyone else, has inflamed Hitler’s vanity to the point of lunacy and beyond.

Mr. Greenwood spoke with eloquence and sincerity. The British Labor movement was absolutely at one with the Government in its determination to rid Germany and the world of the gangsters in Berlin. Sir Archibald Sinclair pledged the support of the Liberals in a manly and moving speech. His tribute to Chamberlain was generous in view of the acerbities of five weeks ago.

The ambassadors filed out. In the dimly lit lobby they encountered the peers coming from the other house for news. The M.P.’s in uniform hurried away to rejoin their units. Herbert Morrison, that sturdy little Socialist patriot, was giving instructions to innumerable lieutenants about evacuation business. The British Parliament had passed sentence of'death on World Enemy No. 1. There was no noise, no wild cheering, and no appeal to passion.

Only when we emerged into the open air did the pounding of our hearts reveal the tension of that grim hour at twilight in the House of Commons. Was it peace or war?

The Poles were holding the line against the German attack, and Hitler’s airplanes were bombarding Polish towns. But was this really a war? If so, why were we not in it, since our guarantee was automatic and instantaneous? There were wild rumors about an anti-Hitler move by the German Army. Perhaps Chamberlain knew more than the rest of us.

G^\N SATURDAY, Parliament met again, but Chamberlain was not there. It was announced that he would speak at about seven o’clock. Until six o’clock we spent the

time passing ordinances that gave the Government complete dictatorial powers. The Labor Party was magnificent. Even when the Government decreed that all men from eighteen to forty would be subject to conscription, there was not one voice raised in opposition. The unity of Britain was complete. We adjourned for an hour and then came back at seven to hear the Prime Minister. Chamberlain, pale and exhausted, stood at the dispatch box and the sympathy of the whole House went out to him. Yet we were on the verge of one of the most dramatic and painful scenes ever witnessed at Westminster. Whether Chamberlain was worn out, or whether he was clinging to a last hope

of peace, I cannot say, but in a speech that was altogether too short he failed to pay tribute to the Poles or to declare the Government's intentions. He did say, however, that w.e,had to march in step with France and that Mussolini was making an eleventh hour move for peace. The wording was not only inadequate but raised suspicions that Paris was holding back. To the House it seemed that Chamberlain might be retreating from his strong position of the day before. Then came the almost unbearable element of drama. Greenwood, the acting leader of the Labor Party, rose to speak. Suddenly there was a shout from the Conservative benches. It came from Colonel Amery.

“Speak for England !” he cried.

The words ran like electricity through the chamber. Fifty Tories took up the cry. “Speak for England,” they shouted.

Chamberlain went white. It was as if he had been cut across the face with a whip. Greenwood stood silent and flushed, but his thoughts must have been tempestuous. What a situation for him, the Labor leader, to have the Tories pleading that he at least should speak for the nation. But there is greatness in this man Greenwood. He restrained temptation to score a Parliamentary triumph. Instead, he expressed the anxiety of the whole House over the delay in coming to Poland's aid, but, pointing to Chamberlain, lie said, “Which of us would want the dreadful responsibility that is on his shoulders at this hour?” When Greenwood was finished speaking, Chamberlain intervened. He denied that his words had meant any faltering in our purpose or any distrust of France. If his words had indicated any such thing, then he had failed to express himself properly. Puzzled, unhappy and angry, the House adjourned.

That night Ixindon began its long blackout. At midnight I was making my way along the empty Strand where sandbags were piled against the buildings. It was pitch black save for the tiny illuminated crosses that have replaced traffic lights. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke.

Wild flashes of lightning lit up the eerie scene.

Like artillery the thunder crashed over our heads. There was tragedy in the air—stark, ghastly tragedy. Perhaps on the night of the Crucifixion the skies were like that.

“We Are At War”

THIS morning the sun shone gloriously. Parliament was to meet at noon, but if ever the sea and countryside were calling it was this Sabbath morning. At ten o’clock, the Daily Sketch called me on the telephone. Britain had sent her ultimatum to Germany, and at eleven o’clock we would be at war. At eleven fifteen Chamberlain would broadcast to the nation. I took the jx>rtable radio to the terrace that adjoins my garden. The flowers were a blaze of beauty, and the kindly, golden English sun spread its benediction upon us all. At the appointed hour, in sad and measured terms, Chamberlain told us that we were at war. As usual he kept control of his emotion and his voice did not falter. Yet, a few minutes before, the American ambassador had been to see him and both men wept openly and unashamed.

As soon as Chamberlain’s broadcast was over there began a series of emergency instructions to the nation. After that, a silence. Then quietly the strains of “God Save the King” were played.

With w’eary limbs and a heart that was numb I rose to get ready for Westminster, when the uncanny wail of the air-raid warning began, rising louder and louder. We had heard it often in rehearsal, but now wre were at war. The Germans had not lost much time. Hitler must have decided on his own w ay of answering Chamberlain. Our instructions were to take cover, yet I was due at Westminster. I sent for my chauffeur and asked him if he objected to driving me in the circumstances. He just grinned. The remainder of my staff, whom I had ordered into the bombproof garage, were already coming out to see the excitement.

The drive to Westminster was a queer affair. Men and women in uniform and trench helmets were everywhere. They were at their posts of duty, ready for whatever hell might be flung from the skies. Parliament opened at twelve with prayers. In deep tones the whole House monotoned the Lord’s Prayer. Once more Chamberlain rose to tell the sad story of his shattered dreams. His voice was tired, and the wailing of the air-raid sirens outside made it difficult to hear him. The moment which the Premier had dreaded was on him. The peace that he had worked and prayed for had crumbled to dust. Once more Greenwood spoke like a statesman and pledged the workers of Britain to the cause. Churchill added his service, but it was Lloyd George who drew the cheers when in a few words he recalled how in the darkest hours of the last war the people never lost heart. One or two more speeches and we got down to the business of passing more emergency measures. Like a man whose heart is broken, Chamberlain walked from the House to resume his task that knows no respite by day or night.

And the air raid? It must have been a false alarm. Or is the censorship already at w'ork? At any rate the sun is shining and the barrage balloons are gleaming in the skies like silver.

Return to Armageddon

TONDON, September 2 (By Cable).—In " a few minutes I shall leave for the House of Commons. Unless a miracle happens, we shall hear Chamberlain announce that an ultimatum has been sent to Germany, and that within two or three hours we shall be at war.

Ten days ago I was in Muskoka. Never has Canada seemed so lovely. Never has the sanity and decency of Canadian life seemed so precious. With my wife, my little children and my mother, we were enjoying the peace of those lakes and islands which remain unchanged from the time that the great upheaval formed them. But radio had intruded upon our paradise. While the moon glistened on the waters and the Northern Lights draped the skies, the voice of the announcers at the microphone had barked the news—first of the Russo-German trade agreement and then of the non-aggression pact. Geleiter Stalin had joined the anti-comintern pact and Comrade Hitler had vowed never to raise an eyelash or finger against Bolshevism. There was obvious devilry afloat, and it was no surprise when the British Parliament was summoned.

I had immensely looked forward to my intended speaking tour through Western Canada, but everything had to be cancelled except the one speech at Toronto, where an inspiring and generous audience did so much to make the event a memorable one for me. My next decision was not so easy. By what justification could I take back my son of eight and my daughter of six and their mother? They wanted to come, and so did my wife, but it seemed wrong and would have been wrong. So the holiday which had begun with such high hopes ended in a separation from those who mean all that life holds.

The boat special from Montreal to Quebec was a gloomy affair. There had J^een many cancellations, and there were others who were debating even then whether they would turn back. But halfway to Quebec I heard a cheery voice. It

was an old friend of the last war, Major Thain MacDowell, V.C., of Ottawa. In 1918 we had shared a room together in a convalescent home at Bexhill-on-Sea. Now, more than twenty years later, we were off again to what looked like another war. He, too, had left his wife in Canada, so we arranged to bunk together on board ship. It was grand to see Mac again, and. after all, if we should fall in with pirates it would be good to have him hanging about.

The officers of the Empress of Britain received us with that courteous imperturbability which characterizes the British at sea. Their job was to sail the sea. and that was that. The then Lord Chancellor of Britain, Lord Maugham, went up the gangplank rather like someone out of a Barrie play. His oratory, as Toronto learned, would never drive a mob to the barricades, but he is a great character for all that. Shortly afterward, Lord Beaverbrook, followed by his faithful Sancho Panza, the portly Lord Castlerosse, entered the belly of the ship. Beaverbrook had no urgent reason to return except that those who help form public opinion should be there to face the music when opinion is ended and action begins.

A Grim, Serio-Comic Crossing

WHAT a voyage ! Heaven knows what may lie before us in the next few months, yet that grim serio-comic crossing on the Empress will hold a place in our memories. No private message could be sent or received. After a few hours out the captain had orders by radio to open his secret envelope of instructions. What he did about them I do not know, but we saw an iceberg, which suggests, considering the time of year, that we went considerably out of our course. The whole voyage was irresistibly like the play, “Idiot’s Delight.” No lights were allowed to be shown at night. The decks were inky black and shutters were closed over the jwrtholes of our cabins as sœn as dusk came. At 6.30 each evening radio came on from Ia>ndon and a gigantic, distorted voice bellowed news from the mad continent. On Monday it looked like war. On Tuesday it was obvious that Hitler was giving way. On Wednesday news was bad. “That is the end of the news.” With those words we went back to our deck games or to talk endlessly on the one question. A dejected orchestra played hot music that was only lukewarm, and a honeymoon couple danced as if to defy the fates.

At Cherbourg the French opened the boom to let us in. A couple of seaplanes with bristling machine guns swooped about us as if to make sure we were not the Bremen. A submarine and destroyer were loafing outside the harbor. I don’t know anything about the quality of the French Air Force, but I say unhesitatingly that their seaplanes have the noisiest engines in the world. Two or three of them together would convince an enemy that the whole allied Air Force was attacking.

At nine p.m. we reached Southampton. It was a lovely night, and to my surprise the port was ablaze with lights. I had thought England would be crouching in the dark and I felt some resentment at our blackout on board ship. I wrote a telegram ordering my car to meet me at Waterloo Station. The clerk shook his head. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “you can send it if you like, but it won’t be delivered. The Government has taken priority.” I sent it anyway. One cannot accept the breakdown of civilization without at least a gesture of protest.

London at Midnight

THE MOON was full—the same harvest moon that would be turning the Canadian lakes into shimmering enchantment. There was not a sign of war. The face of Big Ren beamed upon the river, while the towers of the Abbey were sharply limned against the moonlit sky. In Piccadilly Circus we bought special editions of the newspapers. They contained Hitler’s broadcast of his terms to Poland, those terms which Poland did not go to Berlin to receive, thus exhausting Hitler’s patience. They were cleverly worded sentences. Sweet reason flowed through every line. But Hitler’s patience had been exhausted. Unlike the Austrians, the Czechs and the Slovaks, the villainous Poles had not come to Germany to receive their orders.

A sleepy housemaid let us in to our strangely empty home. The garden, which had been such a disappointment in the spring, was ablaze with color. Mac and I walked up and down the lawn, looking at the flowers and talking of war. Mac did not think much of our defenses for the house, and said he would inspect them further in the morning. He is going to

stay with me for a while until we see what happens.

This morning came news that as Hitler’s patience was so badly exhausted he had bombarded Polish towns. Then came the grimly humorous announcement that the Germans were counter-attacking.

The Cabinet met and decided, if the bombing reports were confirmed, to send a short ultimatum to Germany. After that, the deluge.

I lunched with my chief, Lord Kemsley. Three of his sons are joining the army, and his usual happy face was sad and unsmiling. Some day in these letters I shall tell the story of his magnificent singlehanded attempt to save the peace. He has not told me the story yet, but I know something of it from other sources.

And now it is time to leave for Westminster to hear the words which will ring through the centuries. Shortly after it was elected, I said that this was a Parliament of endless crises. Yet the most unrestrained imagination could not have foreseen such a day as this.