Joan Wyndham: September 3, 1939

Joan Wyndham was a seventeen year-old young woman living in London when World War II began. On September 1st Germany invaded Poland, a country Great Britain had agreed to aid in the event of war. When it became clear that Germany would not withdraw its forces, Great Britain issued a declaration of war. Joan Wyndham wrote about the events of that day in her diary.

“This morning war was declared by the Prime Minister over the radio. Five minutes after the National Anthem, while we were still sitting around feeling rather sick, the air raid warning went. For a moment we didn’t believe our ears – we hadn’t had time even to realize we were at war – then we went down to our gas room and began damping the blankets with pails of water.”

Joan’s reaction to the coming of war mirrored that of many other people. She was sick at the thought of it. She had grown up around people who remembered the carnage of World War I, known then as the Great War. Joan didn’t know precisely what to expect in the present circumstances, but was shocked that an air raid alert could come so soon. The nature of military air power had changed greatly since the last war, so no one knew exactly how much damage to expect. The aerial bombardment of Guernica two years earlier during the Spanish Civil War had caused devastation and a high death toll, though. People in London undoubtedly feared that it might be the same for them.

Joan finished her diary entry for September 3rd on a happier note. “After a bit the all-clear sounded. We heard afterwards that it had all been a mistake.” It may have been a mistake that day, but Joan and her fellow Londoners would eventually endure the terror of air war. One year and four days after this diary entry, the London Blitz began. The ability of the British to withstand intense aerial bombardment and to ultimately prevail in the Battle of Britain was one of the early turning points in the war.

Click here to learn more about the London Blitz.

Joan Wyndham’s diary was originally published in 1985 under the title, Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary. You may also read excerpts in Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries by Laurel Holliday.

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