At mid-morning on Sunday, September 3, 1939, most people gathered around radio sets to hear Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tell the country that Britain had declared war on Germany following Germany’s invasion of Poland. To most people, the declaration of war came as no surprise as tensions across Europe has been increasing since 1933.
In Chichester, following the declaration of war, defence precautions were quickly put into place with the formation of the Home Guard, Air Raid Precautions wardens and a national fire service.
The city council set up local Civil Defence headquarters in North Street. This was also where the ARP headquarters were.
The threat of bombing raids was ever present in the city and an assessment saw that existing facilities would not be able to cope with the threat of fire spreading through the city. Precautions were taken for this and the appearance of the city changed over the next several months – sandbags were placed outside the council offices, air raid shelters were constructed in Priory Park and large metal static water tanks were erected to provide water for extinguishing fires in the event the mains were damaged, including one to the south-west of the Guildhall in Priory Park.
Trials of air-raid sirens had already begun in April, 1939, and ARP wardens took part in large scale rehearsals and training to prepare for war. This included exercises at the Assembly Rooms in North Street which involved rescuing casualties from buildings, dealing with a crashed aircraft and responding to fire. The Chichester Observer published a diagram for the public with instructions on how to make an emergency garden trench covered with corrugated iron sheets as a makeshift shelter.
Ration books, along with ID cards and gas masks, were issued to the population.
At the outbreak of the war, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John joined together to form the Joint War Committee. They organised staff and volunteers, undertook fundraising activities, providing support after air raids as well as packing and dispatching parcels to British prisoners of war.
St Richard’s Hospital had only just opened when war broke out and the Government declared it an emergency medical service general hospital. Ten new wards in huts were added, taking the capacity to 594 beds, as well as the addition of an operating theatre in order to cope with the influx of war casualties.
The Women’s Voluntary Service helped with the reception of evacuees, set up emergency canteens in public halls and mobile vans and went to the aid of air raid victims.
The day before war was declared, it was announced there would be evacuees coming to Chichester and the district, in total over 13,000 children, mothers with babies and teachers were evacuated to the area. Although most local people were happy to help and support evacuees, in September, 1939, the Bishop chastised those unwilling or too uncharitable to take in evacuees. A canteen was opened at the Assembly Rooms in North Street that could provide hot meals for evacuees, five days a week.
The canteen, run by volunteers, was a huge success and provided hundreds of meals a day. In December, 1939, Queen Elizabeth (wife of George VI) visited Chichester and West Sussex to meet some of the evacuated children and the families that had taken them in.
Many local men served in the armed forces during the war. The Royal Sussex Regiment raised 14 additional battalions for the Second World War. However, only a few saw active service, most were used for home defence or as training units.
Two of the earliest Chichester fatalities in the war were two young men serving in the Royal Navy. Boy 1st Class Cecil James Spencer (aged 17) and Ordinary Seaman Dennis Brian Spellman (aged 19) were serving aboard the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, Scotland, when their ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat, causing the loss of 800 men on October 14, 1939. Both men are commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.
By Pat Saunders, volunteer and Amanda Rogan, learning officer at the Novium Museum