His soft, lilting voice called the Empire to war. In a three minute radio speech on September 3rd, 1939 Neville Chamberlain announced the declaration of war on Germany. In fulfilling his guarantee of Polish sovereignty, ten months after having betrayed the Czechs to Hitler, Chamberlain did so with all the enthusiasm of a doomed man. His language was pleading that Britain had no other choice, that he had tried his very best but that war couldn't be helped. In the popular imagination the time between Poland's conquest and the invasion of the Low Countries and Norway are the "Phony War." Chamberlain vanishes from the scene during this period. A spent force - in every sense, he would die in late 1940 - the full consequences of his years of inaction would only be fully realized by the British public in the frantic days of Dunkirk.
This war was not like the last war. The slow grinding war of attrition was replaced by Blitzkrieg. The little known irony was that this German word had partly British origins. The military theorists J. F. C. Fuller and Basil Lidell Hart had envisioned a new kind of warfare in the dying days of the last war. The Hundred Days of 1918 had seen Australian, Canadian and British troops spearhead the destruction the Kaiser's Army using Blitzkrieg like tactics.
The first two years of the new war showed, very bloodily and painfully, how horribly unprepared the Allies were for it. The Wehrmacht utterly outclassed anything in the world at the time, and arguably since. The legendary German officer corp, its origins going back to the birth of the Prussian state more than two centuries before, granted German forces a remarkable skill for improvisation. All of this was placed at the disposal of a psychotic with a gift for oratory. The strange and sordid tale by which one of the world's leading nations fell into the hands of Nazism is beyond the scope of this post. An object lesson not simply of evil but how otherwise decent and respectable people fall under its sway.
Good men doing nothing. In Germany and in Britain. Chamberlain's name has become a epithet in the seven decades since the beginning of the Second World War. In his defence it has been said that appeasement was simply a skillful stalling for time, allowing Britain to rearm. His protestations of seeking peace a blind for preparations for war. Certainly after Munich British spending on arms rose dramatically. The theory, however, imparts a level of cynicism and skill that Chamberlain is not known to have had. A more likely explanation is pragmatism. Seeking peace, while preparing for war, was a strategy to appease factions within his own party and the country.
Parliament and the nation turned to Churchill as a last resort. A loose cannon whose name was still associated with the disaster of Gallipoli and his "ratting" from Tories to the Liberals and back again. His wilderness years had begun not because of his opposition to appeasement, but his refusal to support a measure to grant India greater self-rule and his support for free trade. Excluded from Ramsey Macdonald's National Government of 1931, Churchill spent much of the early 1930s writing histories and biographies. In the 1934 he gave his famous The Threat of War speech. It was only in early September of 1939 that he was recalled to his old post as First Lord of the Admiralty. "Winston is Back" went the signal to the fleet.