Read all about it: the day the threat of

There was no World Wide Web 70 years ago - no multi-channel TV network to shrink the globe, or text messages offering an instant commentary on the action as it happens.

Steven Russell

Read all about it: the day the threat of war became reality

There was no World Wide Web 70 years ago - no multi-channel TV network to shrink the globe, or text messages offering an instant commentary on the action as it happens. Folk relied on papers like the EADT and the wireless. Steven Russell headed for the archives to find out how the outbreak of war was reported in 1939

THESE days we're used to saturation coverage of major news events. Even so, it's surprising that something as cataclysmic as the outbreak of World War Two didn't make the front page of the 1.5d

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East Anglian Daily Times on the morning of September 4, 1939. It was just the way things were done back then, of course, rather than skewed news judgment: page one was devoted to advertisements, and it would take more than an evil and stubborn dictator to overturn tradition.

The main front-page ad for Corders - with branches in Ipswich's Tavern Street and Butter Market - thus trumpeted the new season's selection of winter dressing gowns that Monday morning. Footmans, the department store, offered its single-sized bedsteads, “fitted with spring”, for 39 shillings and sixpence upwards, with single mattress from 22/6.

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The rest of the page was dominated by notices of Michaelmas sales and auctions. Woodward and Woodward were selling agricultural stock and machinery from Wetherden, Debenham and Occold, for instance, while Garrod, Turner and Son announced a forthcoming auction at the Crown and Anchor Hotel in Ipswich of farm buildings and land out near Claydon.

Readers had to turn to page two for the first sign - a truly surreal one - that the world had changed. A letter-writer remarkably quick off the mark, and calling himself Anti-Gloom, took the BBC to task for the way it reacted the previous day, in the wake of Neville Chamberlain's solemn announcement that “this country is at war with Germany”.

Displaying a remarkable lack of perspective, he complained: “Sir, - The BBC did its best to make Sunday the gloomiest of any day in living memory. While it was, of course, necessary to acquaint the public of the position from hour to hour, and to make announcements for the guidance of the public at the outset of war, surely the opportunity could have been taken for relieving the tension by the provision of light music?

“In this particular the French gave us a good example by arranging a programme of cheerful music, occasionally interspersed with the French and British national anthems.”

The important information filled half of page three, chronicling the events of the previous day, and what would happen now. Multiple headlines - the fashion in the 1930s - left readers in no doubt: Premier discharges 'sad duty' in Commons/Tells House country is at war/How men will be called for service.

The coverage recorded the Parliamentary exchanges and speeches.

There were some interesting angles. Labour peer Lord Strabolgi, for instance, had called for the conscription of women. “We have women doing National Defence work, and I see no reason why healthy young women who may be shirkers should not be conscripted when we are conscripting fathers of families, owners of one-man businesses. It is really not equality of sacrifice or sex. There should be compulsion for women to do at least non-combatant service,” he said.

Elsewhere were signs that people had shifted into a different gear and mindset. The Ipswich firm of Frederick Tibbenham advertised its willingnes to spray-paint and camouflage buildings. Ipswich town clerk A Moffat placed an ad asking people to lend private cars to first aid groups to help with the transport of any injured casualties. Apply to the Medical Officer of Health in Elm Street, he asked.

Nationally, the Transport Ministry announced it was requisitioning private rail wagons.

The EADT “leader” - the daily comment column - praised Prime Minister Chamberlain for his patience, forbearance and above all perseverance in the forlorn fight to keep the peace and his country's honour.

Hitler was “a fanatic who would stoop to any depth of fraud and deceit in order to attain his ambition of personal aggrandisement. We do not believe even now that the appalling disregard for honour and decency which is the outstanding characteristic of Herr Hitler and his close collaborators is shared by any appreciable number of the German people, or even by the majority of the members of the Nazi party in Germany. It is for that reason that we may hope that the war which has been forced upon Britain and France may be brief”.

The newspaper felt “we are not fighting against a country whose citizens are free human beings, but against a system which has tortured the minds of its subjects through barbaric propaganda, and sapped their ideals through the preaching of a humiliating and degrading philosophy . . .

“It is well to remember that the German nation has been brought to this pass, first, by war, then by war's aftermath - revolution, economic disintegration, and the dreadful ordeal of the inflation period”.

It goes on: “The terrible experience of the past has taught us that the victor has nothing to gain. It is this knowledge alone which differentiates the cause for which Britain now fights from that which brought us into the war of 1914 to 1918. The country is defending to-day the cause of civilisation and freedom, of law and order, in the knowledge that though victory is certain it can bring no material reward. There can be no illusions now about the results of war, and no denying the fact that Britain fights to-day only to defend herself and those other nations which still cherish freedom, individual liberty and the respect of human dignity against the menace of a new barbarism.”

It was announced that Ipswich parks and recreation grounds would now be open 24 hours a day in case people needed to go there during an air raid. London Zoo, while remaining open, destroyed all its poisonous snakes and its black widow spider. Ba-Bar the baby elephant was evacuated to Whipsnade, joining two giant pandas, four chimpanzees, two orang-utans and some rare zebras that had already made the move.

The EADT reported that, following Sunday morning's announcement, there were outdoor broadcasts in Bury St Edmunds to call for volunteers to fill sandbags to reinforce fire-posts. “Soon there was an ample supply of workers of all ages and classes.” In the afternoon, passing members of the Salvation Army stopped, took off their coats and pitched in.

The “Latest news” column on the back page brought home the realities of war. It revealed the liner Athenia had sunk after being hit by torpedoes 200 miles west of the Hebrides, with 1,400 passengers on board.

By the following day it had emerged that one of the dead was American Shirley Sykes, who had worked in Lowestoft for the past two years as a cost accountant and lodged at Dormy Guest House in London Road South. “Accompanying her on the liner were her father and mother, who came over three weeks ago to take her home.”

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