Fact File : Declaration of War on Germany
3 September 1939
Players: Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister), Edouard Daladier (French Premier)
Outcome: Britain joined France in a war against Nazi Germany.
'You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that my long struggle to win peace has failed...' - Neville Chamberlain, announcing Britain's declaration of war with Germany
Neville Chamberlain conducts a radio broadcast on the BBC©
Britain and France were forced to declare war after Germany ignored their separate ultimatums, delivered on 3 September 1939, demanding the withdrawal of German troops from Poland.
In the mid-1930s, Britain's response to the acceleration of Germany's rearmament and the threat of war was to appease rather than confront Hitler and his generals.
By late 1938, Hitler was making speeches that furiously proclaimed Germany's right to annex the Sudetenland, a Czechoslovak territory with a significant German population, which the Allies had taken away from Germany after World War One. Chamberlain flew to Germany to calm the situation, eventually signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler, giving control of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany.
With the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Britain was no longer acquiescent and Chamberlain warned that any further attacks would meet resistance. It took the invasion of Poland six months later to induce a declaration of war from the British and French governments.
News of the war was famously announced by Chamberlain on BBC radio: 'I have to tell you now,' he said, 'this country is at war with Germany.' He then paused dramatically for five seconds so that the nation might collectively absorb the significance of his announcement. He was not finished: he took the opportunity to defend his previous stance of appeasement by appealing to the British people: 'You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that my long struggle to win peace has failed...'
Despite Hitler's policy of aggression in Europe, and the abandonment of the strategy of appeasement, the news of war came as a shock to many people. Britain was ill prepared. Five per cent of the country's national income had been diverted since 1937 to the improvement of the RAF's resources, but the navy still depended on ageing ships and the army numbered less than a million when war broke out. Britain's war potential only matched the power of Germany when combined with that of France.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.