Major 1939 events signalled the coming of the Second World War. The interwar period represented an era of significant global changes. A brief term of economic prosperity lifted the middle class during the 1920s and such indulgence subsequently led to the Great Depression. This was an unprecedented economic downturn that headed an unsettling political landscape worldwide. The rise of communism and fascism thwarted the period and the possibility of another world war was gaining momentum.
Some of the major things that happened in 1939: Eugen Weidmann was the last person executed publicly by the guillotine in France, Albert Einstein and President Roosevelt begin the Manhattan Project and Germany invades Poland. Many of the events made headlines in 1939 newspapers and radio broadcasts.
Turn the page to:
- German Invasion
- Britain Goes to War
January 1: The Hewlett-Packard partnership was formed in Palo Alto, California by Bill Hewlett and David Packard.
January 4: The German political-military leader, Hermann Goering, appoints Reinhard Heydrich as head of Jewish Emigration.
January 6: A Jewish woman, Lise Meitner from Vienna publishes her discovery known as the “atom splitting” during her exile in Sweden.
January 13: Five men break loose from the US federal prison on Alcatraz Island and attempt an escape.
January 16: The daily newspaper comic strip Superman debuts by the author, Jerry Siegel, illustrated by Joe Shuster.
January 16: Convicted murderer, Hamilton Howard Fish, also known as “Albert Fish”, “The Boogey Man” and “The Gray Man” is executed.
January 17: The Reich issue an order forbidding anyone of Jewish nationality to practice as chemists, veterinarians and dentists, one of the major 1939 events of the month.
January 20: Adolf Hitler, German politician and leader of the Nazi Party proclaims his intention to exterminate all European Jews to parliament.
January 25: Enrico Fermi takes part in the first ever nuclear fission experiment (splitting of a uranium atom) alongside John R. Dunning and Herbert L. Anderson.
January 30: Adolf Hitler threatens Jews whilst addressing parliament, claiming if “international Jewish financiers” lead the world into another war, it will cause “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
The first Anderson Bomb Shelter is built in Islington, London
February 2: The Belgian Spaak government led by Paul-Henri Spaak, falls.
February 6: The Spanish government flees to France. Francisco Franco is now the Spanish general ruling Spain.
February 14: The German battleship “Bismarck”, named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, is launched in Hamburg.
February 16: At 26, the Jewish political and cabaret writer, Jura Soyfer, dies at Buchenwald concentration camp.
February 20: Founded in 1936 to promote Nazism in America, the German American Bund hold a rally in New York, drawing 20,000 supporters.
February 22: The Netherlands formally recognises the Franco regime in Spain, led by General Francisco Franco.
February 24: The anti-Communist pact is signed by Hungary, with Germany, Italy and Japan.
February 25: The first Anderson bomb shelter is erected in an Islington garden in Britain.
February 27: In the Leser v. Garnett case, the US Supreme Court upholds the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees women the right to vote.
February 27: Britain and France recognise the Franco regime as Spain’s government, one of the pivotal 1939 events to arise in this month.
Mahatma Gandhi during his Mumbai fast
March 2: Howard Carter, the lead archaeologist on the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 dies.
March 3: Pacifist and Spiritual Leader, Mahatma Gandhi, begins a fast in Mumbai, Bombay, in protest against the autocratic rule in India.
March 14: The Republic of Czechoslovakia is dissolved by Nazi Germany.
March 15: Bohemia and Moravia are occupied by German military and become a German protectorate. Slovakia and Ruthenice become independent, encouraged by Germany.
March 16: Germany occupies the rest of the Czech. Hitler delivers the famous words: “Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist”.
March 16: The Republic of Karpato-Ukraine is annexed by Hungary.
March 20: 7,000 Jews flee German-occupied Memel Lithuania in fear of Hitler’s rule.
March 21: Germany demands Gdansk (Danzig) from Poland.
March 28: Poland formally rejects Hitler’s demand that Danzig is ceded to Germany.
March 31: Britain and France agree to support Poland in the event of German invasion.
Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin share a smile
April 1: Following the end of the Spanish civil war, the United States recognizes the Franco government in Spain.
April 3: “Fall Weiss” is issued by Adolf Hitler to the Army High Command to prepare for an attack on Poland and to be implemented on September 1st.
April 6: Great Britain and Poland sign a military pact.
April 8: Under the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, Italy seizes the country of Albania.
April 10: Hendrikus Colijn’s Dutch Government opens Westerbork Transit Camp for German Jews.
April 11: Hungary leaves the League of Nations in accord with German opinion.
April 16: General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, requests a British, French and Russian anti-Nazi pact.
April 19: In the event of war, Great Britain announces it will defend Denmark, Netherlands, and Switzerland.
April 17: USSR’s Joseph Stalin signs the British-France-Russian anti-German pact.
April 28: Adolf Hitler claims the German-Polish non-attack treaty is still in effect.
May 4: Kiichiro Hiranuma, the Japanese Prime Minister, declares Japan will support Germany and Italy in the event of an attack, but not immediately.
May 7: The “Rome-Berlin Axis” is announced between Germany and Italy, a military alliance under the so-called “Pact of Steel”.
May 11: Outer Mongolia at Nomonhan (Khalkin Gol) is attacked by the Japanese army.
May 13: The SS St Louis departs in Hamburg with over 937 passengers. The passengers include over 900 Jewish refugees.
May 17: Finland, Sweden and Norway reject Germany’s non-aggression pact offers.
May 19: British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, signs the British-Russian anti-Nazi pact.
May 22: Joachim von Ribbentrop and Galeazzo Ciano, the foreign ministers of Germany and Italy, sign the “Pact of Steel” committing Germany and Italy to a military alliance.
May 23: Adolf Hitler proclaims he wants to move into Poland.
May 27: DC Comics publishes its second edition of the superhero comic, Batman.
May 27: The SS St Louis sails into Havana Bay, Cuba, with 937 Jewish passengers fleeing the Nazis but they are turned away and refused refuge.
The SS St Louis
June 1: The HMS Thetis, a British submarine, sinks in Liverpool Bay, claiming 99 lives.
June 1: Gerd von Rundstedt, the retired German Colonel-General returns to service as the commander of the Army Group South.
June 3: Winston Churchill in Collier’s magazine proclaims “Unless some change of heart or change of regime takes place in Germany she will deem it in her interest to make war, and this is more likely to happen in the present year than later on.”
June 4: The SS St. Louis is denied permission to land in Florida and is turned away. The ship holds 937 fleeing Jews from the Nazis.
June 7: George VI and Elizabeth become the first king and queen of Britain to visit the United States of America.
June 11: King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth taste their first ever hot dogs at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s party.
June 17: Eugen Weidmann, the convicted murderer is guillotined in Versailles and becomes the last man publicly executed in France.
June 21: Lou Gehrig, baseball legend is forced to retire due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
June 24: Siam declares a new name for its country, “Thailand” which translates as “Free Land”.
June 29: The French and Turkish authorities orchestrate a referendum annexing Hatay, including the city of Antakya (Antioch).
July 3: Ernst Heinkel, a German aircraft designer, manufacturer and Wehrwirtschaftsführer demonstrates an 800-kph rocket plane to Hitler.
July 4: Lou Gehrig is the first Major League Baseball player to have his number retired. He makes his “luckiest man” speech.
July 6: Nazi Germans close down the last Jewish enterprises and businesses.
July 9: 6000 Indians meet to launch the Passive Resistance Campaign against apartheid and racial policy in South Africa.
July 10: Pius XI’s ban on Catholic participation in the racist right-wing Action Français is reversed by Pope Pius XII.
July 13: Musical legend, Frank Sinatra, records his first song with the Harry James Band, titled “From the Bottom of my Heart”.
July 18: Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania starts helping people with transit visas across the Soviet Union to Japan.
July 23: Gandhi, the Indian activist, writes a letter to Adolf Hitler urging him to prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state.
July 28: Fighting finally ceases across the border between the Soviet Union and Manchuria between Soviet and Japanese forces.
July 26: The London Times reports the discovery of a buried ship and other artefacts at Sutton Hoo.
August 2: Albert Einstein corresponds with President Franklin Roosevelt about using Uranium to develop the Atomic bomb.
August 8: The 7th Venice Film Festival is boycotted by the U.S. due to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italian regime.
August 15: The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming and King Vidor, premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood.
August 22: The Dutch border guards take position for German invasion pending Hitler’s order.
August 24: Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics sign a 10-year non-aggression pact.
August 23: The Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact is agreed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to secretly divide Poland between themselves.
August 28: Clare Hollingworth, a journalist, observes large numbers of troops and hundreds of tanks aligned along the Polish border, ready to attack.
August 30: Isoroku Yamamoto, is appointed the supreme commander of the Japanese fleet and is the acting Marshal Admiral of the Navy.
August 30: Poland begins mobilisation to defend itself, intercepting a possible attack from Germany.
August 31: Nazis dress as Poles to “provoke” war and stage a “Polish” assault on a radio station in Gleiwitz as an excuse for Germany to invade Poland.
September 1: Germany invades Poland using Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war” by attacking the free City of Danzig. Adolf Hitler also initiates the T4 Euthanasia Program, ordering the extermination of the mentally ill.
September 3: Great Britain declares war on Germany. France shortly follows, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa & Canada.
September 4: German troops move into the free city of Danzig. The Nazi ghetto, Mir in occupied Poland, is exterminated. “Bloody Monday” is in full force a day later in Czestochowa, Poland. Approximately 150 Jews were shot dead by the Germans.
September 4: The Netherlands and Belgium declare neutrality amidst the growing conflict whilst the RAF raid German warships based in the Heligoland Bight.
September 6: Jan Smuts, leader of the new South African government, declares war on Germany after a vote on the previous day by the South African parliament rejecting a motion to remain neutral in the war.
September 6: Egypt also breaks ties with Germany. The French government begins rounding up German citizens. The first German air attack on Britain begins.
September 17: The British aircraft carrier, Courageous, is sunk by the German U-29. 519 die.
September 21: One of the head Nazi leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, meets in Berlin to discuss the final solution of Jews.
September 27: After 19 days of resistance and German Luftwaffe strikes with (fire)bombs, Warsaw surrenders to the Germans.
September 30: Britain first evacuates citizens in anticipation of war.
Winston Churchill delivers a speech
October 1: Amidst the outbreak of war on Britain, Winston Churchill makes his famous speech calling Russia a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
October 6: In one of the most important 1939 events of the month, Adolf Hitler denies claims he intends to go to war against Britain and France. He announces his plans to solve the “Jewish problem” and the last Polish army is defeated.
October 11: Theoretical Physicist, Albert Einstein, informs FDR of the possibilities of an atomic bomb.
October 14: Commanded by Kapitan Gunther Prien, the German U-47 sinks British battleship HMS Royal Oak. 833 are killed.
October 19: Throughout Nazi-occupied areas, the Nazi politician, Hermann Goering, plunders through art treasures. The right-wing opponent, Ulrich von Hassell declares Germany’s good name is being disgraced.
October 24: In one of the defining 1939 events in Adolf Hitler’s regime, Nazis require Jews to wear the Star of David to be recognised and segregated.
October 26: Adolf Hitler forces Polish Jews into obligatory work service, an act of slave labour.
October 28: One of the most crucial things that happened in 1939, Anti-German demonstrations and strikes take place in Czechoslovakia. A Spitfire shoots down a German Heinkel-111.
October 30: Germany and the USSR agree on partitioning Poland and Adolf Hitler begins deporting Jews.
October 30: With Winston Churchill, Charles Forbes and Dudley Pound aboard, the English battleship “Nelson” is attacked by a German U boat but the attack fails.
November 4: In the U.S, Congress amends the Neutrality Act allowing “cash and carry” arms sales to aid Britain and France.
November 6: 184 professors are arrested in Krakow and deported under “Sonderaktion Krakau”, the Nazi operation against academics.
November 8: Of the most important 1939 events this month, a failed assassination attempt is made on Adolf Hitler’s life in Burgerbraukeller, Munich.
November 12: In Lodz, Poland, Jews are ordered to wear the yellow star of David by the Nazis.
November 15: In Czechoslovakia, Anti-German demonstrations break out. Nazis begin their mass murder of Warsaw Jews.
November 16: 120 miles southeast of Rockall, the Sliedrecht is stopped and documents examined. The tanker is subsequently torpedoed by a German U-boat.
November 24: The Gestapo in Czechoslovakia execute 120 students accused of anti-Nazi plotting.
November 26: Soviets charge Finland with an artillery attack. The Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov accuses Finnish troops of firing at the Russians.
November 28: Pending the accusations against Finland two days earlier, the Soviet Government scraps the Russian-Finnish non-aggression pact.
November 30: The Russo-Finnish war begins. Stalin attacks Finland with 540,000 men, 2000 guns and 2486 tanks. Helsinki is bombed.
December 1: Leading Nazi and Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler begins deportation of Polish Jews.
December 13: The Battle of River Plate commences; three British cruisers, the “Exeter”, “Ajax”, and “Achilles” fight against German pocket battleship “Graf Spee”.
December 14: After the 105-day Russo-Finnish war, the League of Nations expels the Soviet Union for attacking Finland.
December 16: In the U.S., immediate congressional action on equal rights is urged by the National Women’s Party, founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.
December 17: In the Battle of River Plate near Montevideo, Uruguay, the German pocket battleship “Graf Spee” is trapped by the British.
December 18: German battleship “Graf Spee” is scuttled by its crew members believing resistance is hopeless, trapped by the British cruisers.
December 19: Finnish positions near Summa are thwarted by Russian air and ground attack just a day after the Finnish army recaptures Agläjärvi.
December 20: German captain of the “Graf Spee”, Hans Langsdorff, commits suicide.
December 21: Adolf Hitler names Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi SS Officer as the leader of “Referat IV B”, responsible for evictions and Jewish immigration.
December 22: A chain of cataclysmic 1939 events occurs: a train wreck at Magdeburg, Germany kills 125; a Finnish counter offensive at Petsamo is actioned and 99 die in a train wreck at Friedrichshafen, Germany.
The invasion of Poland, also known as the September Campaign or the Poland Campaign, was the starting point of the Second World War. Shortly after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty of non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Germany, the Germans invaded Poland on the 1st September. The campaign ended over a month later on the 6th October when Germany and the Soviet Union divided the country under the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty.
Prior to the invasion, the Gleiwitz incident on the 31st August supposedly occurred with the intention of creating an appearance of Polish aggression towards Germany. Covert Nazi Germans posed as Polish Nationals as they attacked a German radio station, with the aim of justifying the invasion of Poland the next day.
Interestingly, the invasion would have started on the 26th of August, with the advantage of surprising Polish forces, however this was avoided when Hitler’s close ally Mussolini declared that Italy was not prepared for war and Britain declared a military alliance with Poland.
After being given Mussolini’s political support, Hitler dismissed the Poland-Britain allegiance as an ‘empty gesture’ and invaded Poland on the 1st September. As the invasion progressed, the Polish forces withdrew their forward bases near the Polish-German border, and were defeated in the Battle of Bzura giving the Germans an advantage. Poland received limited aid from allies France and Britain, and on the 17th September the Soviet Red Army invaded Eastern Poland in the Sphere of Influence. Following a defeat at the Battle of Kock on the 6th October, German and Soviet forces gained full control over Poland.
Britain Goes to War
Following the events of World War One, negotiations began between the ‘Big Four’ (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) regarding post-war Europe. The German and Austro-Hungarian Empire were excluded from the negotiations while a treaty was formed.
In June 1919 the Allies declared that war would resume if the German government did not sign the treaty that had been created. After refusing at first, an ultimatum was given by the Allies threatening immediate war once again, and the German government agreed to sign.
In 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Reich and began to annex and seize its surrounding countries in an attempt to create Lebensraum or ‘living space’ for Germany, despite this breaking the rules of the aforementioned treaty.
Observing this, the United Kingdom and France guaranteed to declare war on Germany if Poland was threatened. Two days after the invasion of Poland began, Britain and France followed suit and declared war against Germany. However, so little practical aid and assistance was given to Poland when Germany invaded on the 1st September that when Britain and France did declare war it was initially named the ‘Phoney War’. Furthering this, neither country ever declared war upon the Soviet Union, despite their invasion of Poland on the 17th September.
The news of the war was given by Neville Chamberlain, who spoke on behalf of both the United Kingdom and France.
In his speech, Chamberlain described the Polish invasion a ‘bitter blow’ after a long struggle for peace following the First World War. Chamberlain stated that ‘we have done all that any country could to establish peace’ and that the country would need to play their part with ‘calmness and courage’.