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John Colville

Assistant Private Secretary to three Prime Ministers: Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. Served in World War II as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

John Colville

Assistant Private Secretary to three Prime Ministers: Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. Served in World War II as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

So the Germans and Russians have consecrated their Unholy Alliance by a formal partition of Poland, a Gilbertian statement about responsibility for continuing the war, and an impressive but (hopefully) empty declaration about supplying Germany with raw materials.

Warsaw has surrendered after a heroic defense against overwhelming odds. Hitler is, therefore, free to turn his attention westwards, but it remains to be seen whether he will have the courage and stupidity to strike the first serious blow.

I lunched with Charles Ritchie, from Canada House, at Coquille. He was in quite good spirits, and said what really got him down was the attempt to resurrect all the songs, scenes and emotions of 1914. It was like sitting in the dentist's waiting-room and turning over the pages of some twenty-five-year-old magazines.

It is, I think, essential that no gratuitous humiliations be heaped on the German people and that no reparations be taken. Moreover, purely German areas, like Danzig and the Sudetenland should be included in the confederation. Of course the trouble will be that while many will agree that Germany should be treated with magnanimity, others, and especially the French, will be in favour of the harshest peace terms. I suppose the result will be a compromise, like Versailles, and in consequence discontent and resentment in Germany on which another Hitler will be able to build his diabolical system.

After lunch I went by train to Stansted to spend the week-end with the Bessboroughs. 

We had an excellent dinner (nowhere is the food better than at Stansted) and afterwards Moyra and I alternately played backgammon and played with an unusually elaborate wireless set, from which we heard a German announcer broadcasting rather ineffectively, in English, about the wickedness of the English blockade measures. To be legal, he said, a blockade must be effective: let us hope that it may be, in every sense.

The most interesting telegram of the day was an explanation of why the Government has been doing so little lately, and is intended for the use of H.M. Representatives abroad who are met with the complaint that we have not lifted a finger to save Poland. The gist of the Government's argument is that "strategy is the art of concentrating decisive force at the decisive moment". The Poles knew we could give them no effective help and realised that we could only save them in the long run - when Germany has been defeated. "To have devoted hundreds of British planes to bombing raids in Germany would have meant spectacular successes, but the inevitable loss of machines which will be used more effectively on the Western Front." See more

I rode through Wimbledon Common to Richmond Park on a horse incongruously called "Peaceful". Riding is an agreeable sedative and I find it easy to dream placidly and forget the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The Poles are still gallantly resisting, though their government has fled; but the Russian invasion has been decisive and the Polish campaign is now over. The German people are unfortunately elated by their series of rapid successes, and Hitler evidently hopes that he can now conclude a generous peace settlement. He made a speech at Danzig this afternoon in which he threatened that if we carried on the blockade, the Germans had a terrible weapon in store, which could not be used against them, but which they had no wish to employ. This is probably meant to intimidate, but it does give one a slight feeling of uneasiness, because even Hitler and his satellites usually have something on which to base statements of this kind. For instance Ribbentrop said last May or June that he was preparing the greatest diplomatic defeat that England had ever known, and though we laughed Scornfully at the time we are now obliged to admit that the Russo-German pact does deserve that definition.

The Foreign Office was less depressed by the Russian monstrosity than I had expected. Turkey seems to be standing firm, at the cost of our promising financial support on a scale vaster than we had ever contemplated. With such momentous news on everybody's lips, I find it difficult to concentrate on minor Palestinian or Arabian problems.

I lunched at the Travellers, which has fortunately reopened, and learned that the Courageous large aircraft-carrier) had been sunk! - our first naval disaster. See more


I went to the early service at Broadheath. After breakfast, when the others went to church, I walked through the fields for about an hour, and returned to the house in time to hear, on the 12.00 p.m. wireless bulletin, the harrowing news of Russia's invasion of Poland. The announcement by which the Soviet Government attempted to justify their act of unequalled greed and immorality is without doubt the most revolting document that modern history has produced. For the first time since the war began I felt really depressed, and frantic at the impossibility of our taking any effective action to prevent this crime. And yet I remember thinking, less than a year ago, that the Poles deserved the darkest fate in view of the way they treated the Czechs and that nobody could feel sorry for them if their turn came next.

Of war news there was little, except for the fact that Poland has exhausted nearly all her resources of aerial defence, and that our comparative inactivity on the Western Front is causing general uneasiness. Why not bomb military objectives instead of scattering pamphlets is the question everybody is asking about the R.A.F. (Incidentally that body has not begun too well: it has violated Dutch neutrality, bombed a Danish town, and fought some Belgian planes over Belgian territory. Moreover, in the air-raid warning on September 5th the only casualty was one of our own planes falling to one of our A.A. guns.)

Mother came up from Badminton for the day with Queen Mary. She is furious at being marooned in the country and talks as though she were Ovid eating her heart out at Tomi. She was extremely funny about the effect of the air-raid alarms on the Queen. Apparently they so upset the old lady that she had acute and urgent stomach trouble, with disastrous and undignified results on the motor-drive from Sandringham to Badminton. They were forced to stop at a lonely inn, where the inn-keeper was most helpful. The Queen sent him a small silver knife as a thankoffering, and he replied by sending her a beautiful little carved silver chain (which, as Philip remarked, was a most suitable souvenir!). When they reached Badminton the Queen, who had spent three sleepless nights owing to air-raid warnings and thunderstorms, looked forward to a welcome rest, but was aroused the next morning at 6.00 a.m. because the kitchen-maid turned on the private air-raid warning in mistake for the electric light.

For the first time there was a feeling of autumn in the air, and it was unpleasantly chilly as I sat on the balcony in my dressing-gown reading in the papers that the British Expeditionary Force had landed in France. It is as if one of those war films was being acted again in real life, only one misses the secure feeling of sitting in a comfortable armchair at the Curzon Cinema.

I had an interesting day at the F.O. trying to arrange for railway material to be shipped to Persia so that the Shah's susceptibilities may not be ruffled. I spent a good deal of thought on the subject, and was rewarded by being told that the action I proposed, and the drafts I submitted, were admirable. I shall probably be abashed before long by being told quite the opposite.

In general the impression to be gained at the Foreign Office is not as encouraging as that which the newspapers give. It seems likely that Mussolini's neutrality is very much of a put-up job and that he is still on the best and most intimate terms with Hitler. Italian neutrality is, however, clearly the wisest policy for the Axis powers: as far as Hitler is concerned it ensures Turkish neutrality and thus makes it less easy for the Allies to help Poland from the East, as well as introducing complications about the passage of warships, etc., through the Straits; from Mussolini's point of view it is eminently desirable, because the Italian people are at present violently opposed to war and Mussolini is bound to increase his prestige by keeping them out of it.

Russia remains the most uncertain factor. From reports that I have seen in telegrams, I have formed a shrewd suspicion that she is preparing to seize the eastern districts of Poland if and when Germany subdues that country. See more

From the point of view of the civilian this war has hardly begun in earnest, and only the black-out at night, and the barrage balloons by day, remind one that Europe has finally toppled over the brink of the precipice upon which it has been balancing precariously for the last twelve months. Doubtless there is much in store for us that will dispel our cherished illusions of peace; but for the moment the war seems very unreal.

Ever since war was declared the sun has shone with unremitting splendour, and there is nothing about the gaily dressed, smiling, crowds in the streets to remind us of this great catastrophe - except perhaps for the gas-masks slung across their backs and the number of men in uniform. 


It was a warm and bright Sunday morning, on which the early services in all the churches were packed with worshippers, many of whom had not been seen in church for a long time. When, after following their example, I arrived at the Foreign Office I was informed that I had been assigned to the Ministry of Economic Warfare which was in the course of being established in the vacant lecture rooms of the London School of Economics. It was to be a primary instrument in imposing an economic blockade on Germany, a policy which, combined with our control of the seas, many deluded optimists believed would bring Germany rapidly to her knees.

On reporting to this new and bewildering organisation I was given an empty desk and nothing whatever to do. I sat contemplating the green leather desk-tops until somebody switched on a wireless set (the word "radio" was not then much in use) and we listened to Neville Chamberlain announcing we were at war. We knew it was coming, but all the same Chamberlain's broadcast, made with slow, solemn dignity, induced a numbness from which we were rudely revived by the sirens moaning out the war's first air-raid warning.


I had been due to sail to New York on my first visit to the U.S.A. for a month's holiday in Wyoming where some close Anglo-American friends had rented a ranch. I looked forward with excitement to seeing America; and I had a strong emotional incentive, which had been growing throughout the summer. Hitler put a stop to all that, for all leave was cancelled just before my ship was due to sail.