Outbreak of the Second World War – 81st Anniversary
Today marks the 81st anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Our ongoing oral history project has recorded over 100 accounts of Northern Irish people’s wartime experiences, with many recalling the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939.
Roy Henderson, who was 21 in 1939 and went on to serve in the Royal Air Force, very vividly remembers the build-up and outbreak of war. He states that in the months and years leading up to war, ‘Neville Chamberlain ran about signing bits of paper with Adolf Hitler, which guaranteed peace in our time but something seemed to go wrong, so it was war in our time’. When war was declared he was going into Belfast, recalling ‘I happened to be travelling on a bus from the top of the Cavehill Road to the city centre and the bus conductor informed us that a German aircraft was approaching London, well it wasn’t a German aircraft it was a British aircraft bringing the British ambassador from Berlin back to London. Then there was a phony war for six months or more… nothing happened, the two armies sat looking at each other, taking photographs… I think most people realized it could not go on like that forever, and it didn’t.’
Unlike Roy, most of our interviewee’s were children at the time and many didn’t fully grasp the danger of war, Marion Kirkpatrick was thirteen when war started and she ‘thought nothing of it… I was playing, you used to be able to get a book of wee paper dolls and wee paper dresses and you clipped them on, I was sitting playing with those listening and the war meant nothing to me y’know’. Jean Spiers remembered very little about the start of the war as her parents tried to protect her and her siblings stating ‘we knew very little about the war starting because most of it comes from what my mother and father say happened… and my parents weren’t the type to make us frightened.’
It is understandable that parents wished to shield their children from the war, especially as many of their parents lived through and perhaps fought in the First World War.
This can be seen Harry Williamson’s interview when he states, ‘it made a great deal of difference to him [his father] and men like him you know because it was only what twenty odd years from the last time and well they didn’t feel good about it and of course all the wives and mothers were distraught about it and then men started joining up and going away to fight’.
Noel Mitchell was at church when ‘the minister announced we were at war and everybody just didn’t know what to say’, continuing that at the time he didn’t really consider the closeness of the First and Second World Wars, stating ‘it still amazes me looking back from my age now, you know at the time when you were young, you didn’t realise that there was only something like nineteen years between the two wars, which you know is nothing really when you get on in life… it seemed you know a hundred years ago and it didn’t mean the same to me of course as people who had gone through it.’
Do you remember the outbreak of war in September 1939? Or do you have other memories of the Second World War in Northern Ireland? If you’d like to share your story, please get in touch with our Oral History Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07588 634847.