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World War II Wednesday, 1 September, 1999, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
A growing sense of gloom
Tony Benn
Benn: By-election victory in 1950
September 3 is the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II. Over the next week BBC News Online looks back to this historic day with a series of features.

The day the war began
Tony Benn has been a member of parliament for the past 50 years. Now a respected elder statesman due to retire from the Commons at the next general election, he was just 14 when war broke out. He clearly recalls listening to Prime Mininster Chamberlain's radio broadcast announcing that war had been declared.

I remember it very vividly. My brother was there at the same time, and my father, who was a member of parliament, had gone up to London for the statement in the House of Commons.

Apparently there was an air-raid siren just before and he and my mother went down to the basement and heard a lot of banging and thought that the bombing had begun when it in fact it was furniture being moved upstairs.

Tony Benn
"The danger of another war comes from despair"
But I remember it vividly because I was born in a political household. I remember the rise of fascism in Germany and the Nazis.

When I was 12 years old I bought Mein Kampf, which I still have on my bookshelf. I remember the Spanish Civil War and I remember Munich. And I knew that war was really inevitable.

So when it happened there was a sense of, not exactly relief, but inevitability. And then the knowledge that a lot of people would be killed. My own brother was killed five years later in the Royal Air Force.

I didn't live through the First World War but there was only a gap of 21 years between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second. If you think back 21 years from 1999 - that's 1978 - that's not a very long time ago.

The First World War was the war to end wars and there would be homes fit for heroes and all the things that people were told. But then there was the slump and the hunger marches and a really terrible situation.

I think that whereas in 1914 people may have been excited by war, with joining the colours and all that, in the Second World War there was a deeper, deeper sense of gloom about it. Nobody wanted it actively. But somehow it got to the point where it was out of control.

Tony Benn
Benn in 1999: "Seeing war alters attitude to it"
I remember driving with my brother up to the village a couple of days later when the first air attacks on Germany took place. They made a film about it called The Lion Has Wings and from that moment onwards I looked to the day when I would be joining the airforce - and I did. I became a pilot at the end of the war. I was too young to fight. I never killed anyone, thank God.

From 1939 onwards everything was about the war. I lived in London during the blitz and we were bombed and that also influences my attitude now towards war.

Every night we went down to a shelter. And one morning we came up and 500 people had been killed in that very area.

When you've actually seen a bit of war it does alter your attitude to it. When you hear the House of Commons discussing war now, you get the impression for them it is just a matter of a computer game, or a film they've seen, or a bulletin on the news. But for people who've actually seen it you have a very different attitude - you hate war - I hate war.

"My Mother and father thought the bombing had begun - but it was furniture being moved upstairs"
"A lot of people felt a deep sense of gloom"
"I bought a gas mask for five shillings"
See also:

20 Aug 99 | UK Politics
01 Sep 99 | World War II
02 Sep 99 | World War II
01 Sep 99 | World War II
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