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Imperial War Museum to Open Exhibition Which will Explore the Build-up to and Preparations for War
LONDON.- Seventy years after the radio announcement that informed the nation that Britain was at war, Imperial War Museum London is mounting Outbreak 1939, a new special exhibition, which will explore the build-up to and preparations for war, an overview of the key events of 3 September and an account the early months of the conflict. The exhibition is being launched in association with the ITV1 documentary of the same name, to be screened in September 2009.

At 11.15am on the 3 September 1939 the British public heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announce that Britain was at war with Germany. Among the items on display relating to 3 September 1939 are the jacket belonging to King George VI worn when he broadcast to the nation at 6.00pm; a wedding dress worn on the 3 September for a wedding that was hastily rearranged when the outbreak of the war appeared imminent; and a purse and coin belonging to an eleven year old boy who survived the sinking of the sinking of the SS Athenia, the first British merchant vessel to be sunk by a German U-Boat during the Second World War.

The early military actions of the war will be illustrated by the personal stories of servicemen and journalists who witnessed them first hand. The medal awarded to Thomas Priday– the first British soldier to be killed in action during the war, leading a patrol in France – will be displayed alongside the story of Clare Hollingworth, a reporter for the Daily Telegraph who was the first journalist to break the news that Poland had been invaded. Other items include the German machine gun taken as a souvenir by New Zealand fighter ‘ace’ ‘Cobber ‘Kain from the first aircraft he shot down in 1939, and the conduct book belonging to Gunther Prien, commander of the U47 that sank HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow on the 14 October 1939, making him one of Germany’s first war heroes.

Despite only limited military action during the early months of the war, for many, life on the home front entered a period known as the ‘Phoney War’ – there was little major war news and the threat of an immediate enemy invasion seemed unlikely. However, the introduction of the nationwide blackout on the 1 September 1939, barrage balloons, air raid precautions, the carrying of gas masks and identity cards were visible reminders that Britain was indeed a nation at war. The story of E I Ekpenyon, a Nigerian student who volunteered as an ARP warden at the outbreak of war, will be told alongside that of Eric Ravillious, who joined the Observer Corps in September 1939 and was later appointed an official war artist for the Admiralty.

When plans to evacuate civilians from towns and cities were put into action on the 31 August 1939, millions of children’s lives were immediately changed by the impending war. Outbreak 1939 will incorporate the stories and exhibits of a number of those children, including a teddy bear belonging to a little girl evacuated on 3 September 1939; and an exercise book kept by Celia Horwitz, a German Jewish girl, who arrived in the UK in December 1938 as part of the Kindertransport and was later evacuated to Norfolk.

Diane Lees, Director-General of the Imperial War Museum says: ‘War is the most extreme human experience. Through Outbreak 1939 we hope that visitors will discover more about the key episodes of this significant year, and the ways in which being a nation at war shaped the lives of ordinary men and women, who witnessed such extraordinary events at first hand’.


Imperial War Museum | Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain | Britain | Germany | New Zealand | Cobber Kain | Daily Telegraph |


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