When war broke out

Last updated: 24 August 2009

Article by Phil Carradice, writer and broadcaster

In Wales the immediate reaction to war was one of relief. The Western Mail, in its lead article next day, commented, "The general feeling was that at last, after months of suspense and nervous tension, the country knew exactly where it stood."

Opinion had hardened since the previous year's crisis, Germany's annexation of the Czechoslovakian "rump" following the Munich Agreement and Von Ribbentrop's non-aggression pact with Soviet Russia in August 1939, finally convincing people that war was inevitable. It was just a question of when.

It was wonderful, exciting, we were going to hear guns firing. We were always running around playing soldiers. So the war, to us, was something to look forward to.

Harry Highman, Newport

Women felt the announcement worst. This was clearly going to be a "civilian war" as much as a military one. Women remembered the devastation wrought by bombers in the recent Spanish conflict, little realising that most of Wales lay outside the range of enemy aircraft. As the newspapers kept telling them "The bomber will always get through." Despite the threat to homes and houses, Welsh women knew that they would be the ones to stay at home worrying about the fate of their sons and husbands in the forces. The war was inevitable but it didn't stop them feeling helpless

For most women memories of the Great War were still vivid. Mary Rose, then a young girl in the mining valleys, recalls her family's reaction to the news - "I remember my mother and my aunt crying their eyes out. It didn't really affect us because we were so young. We didn't know what was happening."

Children

Children, of course, took it in their stride. Harry Highman from Newport, recalled, "It was wonderful, exciting, we were going to hear guns firing. We were always running around playing soldiers. So the war, to us, was something to look forward to."

Gas masks had been issued weeks before but now, with the country actually at war, they had to be carried everywhere. "I was so proud that I had a proper mask," says Herbert Williams, then a six-year-old in Aberystwyth, "not a silly Mickey Mouse one like some of the children in town. They'd dug trenches on the grass in front of our house, in case of air raids. They were never used but that day we climbed down and played in them - dirty, stinking things they were, too."

For some children the declaration of war was just an inconvenience. Dorothy Edwards was on holiday with her family in Barry Island that fateful Sunday. "My father was a Civil Servant and he was called back to work .We had to cut short our holiday. The war didn't mean anything to me but losing a day of my holiday, that really upset me."

Employment opportunities

For men there were different emotions. Many already such as miners, farmers and the like, already knew that they would be in reserved occupations.

In Depression-hit Wales - 62% unemployment in Merthyr Tydfil at the beginning of the decade - war meant a boost to the economy, however unpalatable the source of that employment might be.

In depression-hit Wales - 62% unemployment in Merthyr Tydfil at the beginning of the decade - war meant a boost to the economy, however unpalatable the source of that employment might be. It meant work. For others there was a feeling of resignation as they simply sat back and waited their turn to be called up. They had registered, as required, months before and the Government would send for them in due course.

There were no wild scenes of patriotism as there had been in 1914, the streets of Cardiff and all major towns being almost empty as the 11.00am deadline approached. Everyone knew that Hitler had to be stopped. If there was such a thing as a just war then this was it. As one unemployed man told the Penarth Times "I'm just waiting for the call-up. I suppose we'll all be drawing army pay before long."

There were no wild scenes of patriotism as there had been in 1914, the streets of Cardiff and all major towns being almost empty as the 11.00am deadline approached. Everyone knew that Hitler had to be stopped. If there was such a thing as a just war then this was it. As one unemployed man told the Penarth Times "I'm just waiting for the call-up. I suppose we'll all be drawing army pay before long."

The Government recognised Welsh nationalism as a reason for conscientious objection.

Conscientious objectors

Not everybody thought like that. The Peace Pledge Union, with its links to the Chapels, was strong in Wales and Plaid Cymru had already declared its opposition to war. Plaid was still a minority group, boasting no more than 2,000 members, and though the Government recognised Welsh nationalism as a reason for conscientious objection it was not always the best card to play when appearing in front of a tribunal.

John Cledan Mears, later Bishop of Bangor, was given short shrift when appealing against enlistment on religious grounds. "Your contemporaries are risking their lives to bring food to the likes of you," he was told. He was able only to admit his debt and say, "What is the alternative? If I don't eat I'll die. I shall have to commit suicide." The Tribunal retorted, "Well, perhaps that's what you should do."

Evacuees arrive in Wales

In the days before Chamberlain's announcement Wales had already felt the weight of war. The Fleet had been mobilised the previous Thursday, reservists called up and local authorities notified to put their ARP systems into operation. Thousands of evacuees from London, Liverpool and Birmingham were already in the country which had long been designated an evacuation area. During the Munich Crisis the previous year 150,000 people had rushed to Wales for safety and this time upwards of four million were expected. Twenty thousand came on 1st September alone. Aberystwyth was a main centre for children from the industrial north.

"I was in church with my mother that Sunday," remembers Herbert Williams. "A man came in and whispered 'It's war.' And afterwards we saw children, hundreds of them, from Liverpool, sitting on the pavement in front of Aberystwyth railway station, all with their gas masks and tags, waiting to be chosen."

The Second World War changed Welsh society, bringing employment for men and women and planting the real seeds of nationalism and devolution from Westminster into the Welsh consciousness. It brought suffering and heroism. But on 3rd September 1939 all that was in the future and no one knew what to expect.


The Normans

Normans

The Norman Invasion

How the invasion changed the course of Welsh history.

Coal House at War

Callum Griffiths

Behind the scenes

Take a sneaky peak behind the scenes of the series.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.