Keep Calm and Carry On - Outbreak 1939 at Imperial War Museum London

By Richard Moss | 19 August 2009
a recruitment poster with a print of an air warden with tin helmet and whistle

Air Raid Wardens Wanted. © Imperial War Museum

Review: Outbreak 1939, Imperial War Museum London until September 5 2010.

The familiar tones of Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war with Germany greets visitors to Outbreak 1939, the Imperial War Museum's new exhibition about the outbreak of World War Two, but this is more than just a lesson about the great events of history.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict, the exhibition is also a vivid evocation of an extraordinary time that highlights stories, voices and memories of the ordinary people who experienced the build up to and preparation for war.

The story of the War's outbreak may still be unfamiliar to some, but it's one in which sweeping social changes took place as Britain mobilized for war.

"We commemorate the year 1940, our finest hour, and I think everybody is familiar, if not with the details then with Dunkirk, with the Battle of Britain, the Blitz," says Terry Charman, Senior Historian at the IWM. "But what I think is very much unfamiliar is how Britain made its first tentative steps, stumbling into the Second World War and how it affected life on the home front."

a black and white photo of a young boy standing in a garden next to a house

Sir Peter Blake was evacuated to Essex. Courtesy IWM / Peter Blake

Through a mine of paper archives, recordings, photographs and ephemera, the IWM has produced a social history that builds a rich narrative that touches on the themes of duty, optimism and self-sacrifice. It's a big story told through the experiences of individuals and what emerges is a keen sense of national unity as the war quickly unfolded to affect everybody, from kings and prime ministers to land girls and London bobbies.

Pop-artist Sir Peter Blake spent his wartime years as a youngster in Deptford before being evacuated to rural Essex. In a long display case, packed with fascinating objects and lined with listening posts playing recordings from the time, visitors can see the toy tractor his dad made for him in 1939. There are also some of his juvenile letters to his sister and an impressive collection of regimental cap badges.

"I went through all of my old letters and I found this belt I made from army badges," he explains. "There were a lot of them around then, I suppose people in the army would give them to their kids, and you would swap them. Most kids collected badges – and shrapnel."

a black and white photo of two children with hats and toy rifles in a garden

Jan Potworowski (right), witnessed the German invasion of Poland. Courtesy IWM / Jan Potworowski

Before his evacuation, aged seven, Sir Peter remembers waves of Luftwaffe bombers droning their way up the Thames and how he and his friends would scour the craters for pieces of shrapnel. "If they had gone off to London and couldn't find their target, they would drop their bombs on their way back down," he says.

He also witnessed the Battle of Britain. "You would look up and see pin pricks in the sky and smoke trails," he says. "I suppose anybody that remembers the war is now at least in their seventies, but these memories are history aren't they?"

A man with vivid memories of being at the sharp end of history is Jan Potworowski. His picture sits on a wall near a series of period newspapers evoking the chain of events that led to war. As a child of nine he witnessed Hitler's invasion of Poland.

"The war started with the gardener screaming 'War! War!'," he says. "We all rushed out and there was this long line of German planes above, I guess flying towards Warsaw. It's very difficult to understand when you see planes up in the air, but the realisation that these planes were here to bomb us was very powerful, there was panic and people were rushing around trying to hide."

In common with nearly everybody who escaped the Nazi war in Eastern Europe, Jan's journey out of this nightmare was miraculous. He eventually made it to Sweden then London.

a red poster with a crown motif at the top above the words your courage your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory

© IWM

In the streets of London in 1939, Police Constable number 121384, George Taylor, now 100 years old, remembers the first year of the war vividly.

"I was just looking at that display on the blackout," he says, "I remember we had a PC and he was as blind as a bat, he kept walking into lampposts. It was the most inconvenient thing you can imagine."

Remarkably George never made an arrest during the entire war. "The public were excellent," he says. "They had a different outlook on policemen then, you could always say to a member of the public 'give us a hand will you?' and they'd say 'alright guv.' You could always get help if you wanted - and all you had was a whistle and truncheon for protection."

Away from the cities, thousands of young women answered the call to till the land as part of Women's Land Army (WLA). Landgirl Jean Young, now 91, first joined the WLA at the end of 1938 whilst staying with an aunt in Scotland. She went on to serve until the war ended in 1945, working on farms throughout Cheshire.

a black and white photo of a policeman on a bike with a sign round his neck that says take cover

The scene in Whitehall, 11.30am, 3 September 1939. Police on bicycles wearing 'Take Cover' placards on their chest and back remind the public to take shelter. © Imperial War Museum

"My breakfast was a two inch thick slice of bread fried in the farmer's bacon fat. He had the bacon – I never even had an egg, I never saw any meat," she remembers.

Like many on the home front, the Land Girls never had any formal recognition. "We never got a medal, we never had any clothing to come away with, no gratuities," says Jean. "It was a case of 'send back your uniform at your own expense' – they didn't even pay the postage. You could buy a second-hand hat, so I posted that one back and kept my original."

Jean's hat now sits proudly at the IWM next to her WLA membership certificate and photos. They are now part of a range of personal items that tell the stories of everyone from the artist Eric Ravillious to E I Ekpenyon, A Nigerian student who volunteered as an ARP warden.

What these objects and their stories do is reveal the simplicity of purpose that emerged in 1939. From the music of George Formby and Gracie Fields to the propaganda films, posters and the Picture Post magazines of the exhibition gives a straightforward impression of solidarity, sacrifice and shared intent.

a black and white photo of a women in jodhpurs next to a threshing machine in a field

Jean Proctor nee Jean Young worked on farms between 1938 and 1945. Courtesy IWM / Jean Young

Jan Potworowski remembers how this intent developed into something powerful and overwhelming when he finally made it to London in 1944.

"I went by Underground to Piccadilly and as I travelled up the stairs I suddenly saw this extraordinary mass of soldiery," he says. "There were Polish officers in their square hats, there were colonial soldiers, Australians, French, this amazing mass of Allied soldiery.

"It felt extraordinary, there were all these people from all over the world who were bent on just one thing and one thing only. You can talk about the spirit of the Blitz but it was extraordinary to see so many nations all engaged in a single purpose."

It was a protracted and painful journey to the end of the war a year later in 1945, but if you want to find out how Britain and the wider world started its long journey there, Outbreak 1939 offers some valuable clues.

A series of lectures and events has been organised by the Imperial War Museum to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1939. Follow the links below for more details.

Outbreak 1939 has been developed in association with ITV who will be screening a documentary that tells the story, hour-by-hour, of September 3 1939. Outbreak will be screened on ITV1 on September 3 2009 at 10.30pm.

Find out about exhibitions and events at UK museums and heritage sites with the Culture24 guide to events commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War Two.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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