When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London on September 30, 1938, with a peace pact signed by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, he received a boisterous homecoming unlike any previously given to a British leader.
For days, dread had blanketed London like a fog. Only a generation removed from the horrors of World War I, which had claimed nearly one million of its people, Britain was once again on the brink of armed conflict with Germany. Hitler, who had annexed Austria earlier in the year, had vowed to invade Czechoslovakia on October 1, 1938, to occupy the German-speaking Sudetenland region, a move toward the creation of a “greater Germany” that could potentially ignite another conflagration among the great European powers.
The clouds of war billowed in the British capital as the hours to the deadline dwindled. As Chamberlain mobilized the Royal Navy, Londoners, including the prime minister’s wife, prayed on bended knees inside Westminster Abbey. Workers covered the windows of government offices with sandbags and installed sirens in police stations to warn of approaching enemy bombers. By torchlight, they scarred the city’s pristine parks by digging miles of trenches to be used as air-raid shelters. A knot of traffic snarled the city as Londoners began an exodus. Hundreds of thousands who planned to stay in the city stood patiently in line for government-issued gas masks and air-raid handbooks. London Zoo officials even developed plans to station gun-toting men in front of cages to shoot the wild animals in case bombs broke open their cages and freed them.
Just two days before the deadline, Hitler agreed to meet in Munich with Chamberlain, Italian leader Benito Mussolini and French premier Edouard Daladier to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. The four leaders, without any input from Czechoslovakia in the negotiation, agreed to cede the Sudetenland to Hitler. Chamberlain also separately drafted a non-aggression pact between Britain and Germany that Hitler signed.
When news of the diplomatic breakthrough reached the British capital, normally staid London responded like a death-row prisoner granted a last-minute reprieve. Jubilation and waves of relief washed over London in a celebration that had not been seen since the armistice that silenced the guns of World War I.
On a rainy autumn evening, thousands awaited the prime minister’s return at London’s Heston Aerodrome, and the thankful crowd cheered wildly as the door to his British Airways jet opened. As raindrops fell on Chamberlain’s silver hair, he stepped onto the airport tarmac. He held aloft the nonaggression pact that had been inked by him and Hitler only hours before, and the flimsy piece of paper flapped in the breeze. The prime minister read to the nation the brief agreement that reaffirmed “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”
Summoned to Buckingham Palace to give a first-hand report to King George VI, Chamberlain was cheered on by thousands who lined the five-mile route from the airport. As the rain poured, thousands flooded the plaza in front of the royal residence. As if it were a coronation or a royal wedding, the frenzied cheers brought forth the king and queen along with Chamberlain and his wife onto the palace balcony. In an unprecedented move, the smiling king motioned the prime minister to step forward and receive the crowd’s adulation as he receded into the background to leave the stage solely to a commoner.
After his royal audience, Chamberlain returned to his official residence at No. 10 Downing Street. There a jubilant crowd shouted “Good old Neville!” and sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” From a second-floor window, Chamberlain addressed the crowd and invoked Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s famous statement upon returning home from the Berlin Congress of 1878, “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”
Then he added, “Now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.” As Britain slept, the German army marched into Czechoslovakia in “peaceful conquest” of the Sudetenland. The bombers did not roar over London that night, but they would come. In March 1939, Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia, and two days after the Nazis crossed into Poland on September 1, 1939, the prime minister again spoke to the nation, but this time to solemnly call for a British declaration of war against Germany and the launch of World War II.
Eight months later, Chamberlain was forced to resign, and he was replaced by Winston Churchill. While the Munich Pact would become synonymous with “appeasement,” some historians believe that since the German and Italian air forces were twice as strong as the combined British and French airpower in September 1938, Chamberlain’s agreement gave the British military valuable time to bolster its defenses to ultimately defeat Hitler.