All sorts of things go through your mind when you are flying back from Munich and the air turbulence is so bad that the Stewardess can't serve you your can of beer and bag of crisps because she is firmly strapped into her seat and doing some last minute revision on the emergency evacuation procedures. My mind turned to that most famous return flight from Munich, the one undertaken by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the 30th September 1938, and I became obsessed with discovering how long the journey took him. Why such ridiculous questions should have dominated my mind at a time when the difference between life and death seemed to rest on the strength of the rivets holding the wing to the Airbus I was flying in, I have no idea, but on my safe return to Britain, I was determined to discover the answer.
There is a lot of information available about that famous return journey. Chamberlain was returning with a meeting with Hitler, Mussolini, and Prime Minister Édouard Daladier of France : a meeting at which the future fate of Czechoslovakia had been decided (without the active participation of the Czech Government). On his return to Heston Aerodrome, Chamberlain waved his famous piece of paper and spoke of peace. Later that day, in Downing Street, he issued his famous promise of "peace for our time". We know what kind of plane he flew in (a Lockheed 14 with the registration number G-AFGN), we even know Chamberlain's ticket number (BA/WS 18249 : the actual ticket was re-discovered about a year ago). But how long did the flight take?
I eventually found the answer within an archive recording from the BBC. The clip is from the original report made as the plane landed at Heston and features the sonorous tones of the famous reporter, Richard Dimbleby. Near the beginning of the broadcast, Dimbleby comments on the poor weather in England but says that the Prime Minister had good weather for most of the return flight which took "something like three and a half hours - a little less than that actually". You can find the full nine minute broadcast from September 1938 on the BBC Archive website - it makes interesting, but poignant, listening.
Around the same time that Chamberlain was making his three and a half hour flight, the German poet Bertolt Brecht, living in exile in Denmark" wrote a poem entitled "From A German War Primer" One verse from the poem says:
When the leaders speak of peace
The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out.
War grows from their peace
Like a son from his mother
Her frightful features.
Their war kills
Whatever their peace
Has left over.
Chamberlain ended his famous "Peace For Our Time" speech with the following request to his audience : "And now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds". A verse of the Brecht poem seems to almost echo the thought:
It is night
The married couples
Lie in their beds. The young women
Will bear orphans