The Second World War began on 1 September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This resulted in declarations of war from Britain and France.

The war was fought for six long years from 1939 to 1945. Across the country many lives were lost of both civilians and military personnel. In the Royal Berkshire Regiment alone more than 1000 soldiers were killed. Life for local people became frightening and uncertain.

This exhibition explores how the people of Berkshire prepared for conflict, adapted to unimaginable change and finally celebrated peace.

This story is told through the eyes of residents, including the evacuees who made this county their temporary home; the air raid wardens who protected citizens; the troops who trained here; the Home Guard members who defended towns from invasion; and the partygoers who took to the streets to celebrate on VE Day.

War is declared

On Sunday 3 September 1939 at 11:15am the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced in a radio broadcast to the nation that the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland had expired and ‘consequently this country is at war with Germany’.

The Reading Standard, 8 September 1939, D/EX2470/3/41

This article in The Reading Standard describes how local people heard the news. Many residents listened to the broadcast ‘calmly and in their own homes’. Some were informed at the end of their church services. A reporter spoke to people in Reading town centre soon afterwards and reported that ‘there was a general feeling of relief at the removal of a sense of uncertainty which had possessed the people for some time’.

Sunningdale parish magazine, August 1939, D/P150B/28A/18

This Sunningdale parish magazine captures the uncertainty in a letter written by the vicar in the lead up to the announcement. He writes, ‘the international situation dominates all our thoughts… by the time the magazine reaches you, things will probably have changed considerably, either for the better, as we hope, or for the worse’.

Berkshire families respond to war

This diary, kept by Ada Louise Little (née Mears) of Reading, charts the early months of war as they unfolded. It records the declaration, the first air raid warning only a few days later and the enlistment of her friends, family and future husband in wartime roles.

Diary of Air Raid Warden Ada Louise Little née Mears, of Reading, 1939-1943, D/EX2495/1

Her father, Henry, was conscripted early and stationed at Reading in 1939. She recalled, ‘my father was called up the day before war broke out – we all stood at the door and cried as Dad went off to war. He came in the evening for tea!’

Life rapidly changed with air raid warnings becoming the norm. Ada became an air raid warden in this first year of war, while still only in her late teens. After one raid in August 1940, when she missed Sunday lunch, she wrote, ‘we don’t mind Hitler’s visits but why come every mealtime’.

By 1942 she was combining this with work as a charge hand at the Royal Ordinance Factory in Burghfield. Her diary ends in 1943 when she married her sweetheart, Eric Little, who was enlisted in the army.

Photograph of Ada (Air Raid Warden, aged 20), her father Henry
(4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, aged 53) and brother Cyril (Royal Air Force, aged 22), 1942, D/EX2495/2