On 1st September 1939 German troops invaded Poland and on 3rd September the British and French governments issued an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw or face war. As a result of the horrifying air attacks experienced in the Spanish Civil War, people had been warned to expect a civilian war with aerial bombing and gas attacks being launched on towns and cities. Eric's diary account below records these developments as they occurred on the day that war broke out:
Woke up at 7. Beautiful summer day, hot and sunny. Heard on radio across the way that an important announcement would be made at 10am. Sounded very ominous. Went to feed Bob [Eric's horse], and decided to go down to the Fire Station to see if I could do anything in the AFS [Auxiliary Fire Service], thinking that if anything is going to happen in Colchester, I might as well be in a front seat to see it. ...
The Fire Brigade now take themselves very seriously and the general appearance of the station is that of a besieged fortress. Great masses of sandbags block every window and door, so that you have to crawl through tunnels to get into the watch-room. I offered my services but found to my amazement that there are now no volunteers – all AFS men are full-time and are paid! Apart from the fact that I was gently told that I was not suitable physically, this of course put a very different view on the whole matter, as I have no intention of leaving the Museum. While I was there the 10 o’clock announcement came through, which was to the effect that an ultimatum had been delivered to Germany which expires at 11 o’clock, and that the Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] would speak at 11.15. I felt I could not hear this, so I went off on my bike but as I came along Mile End Road, I could hear radio booming from many houses and could not but stop. A man saw me from his window and called out “It’s come matey”.
I went back to town. Lots of cars on the By-Pass, mostly people rushing back from the coast, with bundles of bedding tied all round. Very few going the other way, but some cyclists were.
Went down to Bourne Mill and rowed out in the boat, trying to think. Twenty-five years rolled back – the last war, “the war to end war”, they told us there could never be another and we believed it. Think of the millions of lives lost in the last war, all wasted. Think of the misery now of relatives, who have believed that their dear ones died “to save civilisation”. Now they want another million to die. What rubbish. What rotten, sinful rubbish! Now the first to go will actually be the sons of those who died 25 years ago.
This afternoon went to tea with Rose [Browne – Eric’s girlfriend], who was rather distressed – so was I. Much talk about pacifism and should she close up the café? I said no, people will always eat.
Later: When I went to bed last night, I somehow felt that we should have a raid. Bright moon and stars, “lovely night for a raid”, as they used to say 25 years ago. I was dozing when every siren in the town leapt into life at half past 3. I jumped up and pulled the curtains to see out. The moon shone brightly and the air was filled with the most incredible wailing noises, while all over the town dogs were barking. ...
I put on gum boots and a Mac and went out into the front garden. Bugles were sounding in the barracks and the big siren sounded again. The moon shone beautifully and I thought how incredible that people we didn’t know were coming away from the east to kill us. I thought God, they said 7 minutes warning at the most. Am I really going to be dead 7 minutes from now? I caught a whiff of a funny smell and thought, my God, is that gas? But it was only our dustbin. I kept thinking, well, this is it, it’s come at last, just like they all said, though no one believed it would. Father came out in the road. We could hear voices at several front doors down the street. He looked at the sky and said that there did not seem to be much to see. The noise of planes could be heard flying east, very fast and high. We talked stars for a few minutes and argued mildly about names of planets. Our local warden came by, quite unhurried and fully dressed, even to his collar and tie. Suddenly the “all clear”, sounded, a long, wailing cry, which went on and on. I went in and started to make tea.
Are we to be scared like this every night for years to come? What a terrible time for people with children. When the wailing stopped we could hear bugles blowing up in the barracks and people talking all up and down the road. I locked up, we all drank tea. Back to bed. Looked out of the window and could hear the trains shunting. The Co-op Bakery, over the back, started up again. Time, 4am.
These extracts appear courtesy of the heirs of Eric Rudsdale's estate and Essex Record Office.