31 July, 2010

Day 22 - Battle of Britain

As July draws to a close, it is the Axis press which seems more interested in preparations for the invasion which, their sources claim, are nearly complete.  There is also conveyed views from German and Italian travellers in Spain that Franco intends to mount an attack on Gibraltar to coincide with an invasion.

The official German news agency issues a statement rejecting any idea that "the war against England is being waged only half-heartedly". It adds that, since the fall of France, purely military considerations had been eclipsed by political ones, especially as no important operations were observable. Germany was waging war against England with as much determination and certainty of victory as she did against Poland and France.

Nevertheless, the news that Hitler is ready to sail only gets limited coverage in the British media. And Home Intelligence observes that these reports arouse only "limited" public interest.

Back in the Berghof, Raeder is meeting Hitler to give him a personal account of the highly pessimistic appraisal by the Naval Staff. Amongst those present at the meeting (above - a typical meeting between Hitler and his staff) are the Chiefs of Armed Forces High Command (OKW) and the Army High Command (OKH). But Seelöwe is not high on the agenda. According to General Franz Halder, the Chief of Staff of the OKH, Hitler is looking at the big picture.

Britain, says Hitler, is reliant on Russia and the United States. But, he says, if Russia drops out of the picture, America is lost to Britain. Elimination of Russia would tremendously increase Japan's power in the Far East, forcing the US to focus its attention and resources there. Therefore, Russia was the factor upon which Britain is relying most.

The logic, from Hitler's perspective, was self evident. He knows Churchill's game - to bring the US into the war. Britain will fight for as long as there is a chance of that happening. If Russia is smashed, the chance disappears. Russia's destruction, therefore, must be made a part of this struggle. Effectively, destroying Russia has to be part of the strategy to beat Britain. And Spring 1941 is the time to take on Russia, with the state "shattered to its roots with one blow."

To that extent, Raeder's message is of no great importance, but the Navy chief gives it anyway. The earliest the Kriegsmarine can be ready for an invasion, he says, is 15 September. When he re-emphasises that air superiority is essential, Hitler agrees, saying that a "definite decision" would be made on the date of an invasion after the Luftwaffe had made an intensified attack on Southern England. If the Luftwaffe failed to achieve considerable destruction of the RAF, and harbours and naval forces, there would be a case for postponing the invasion until May 1941.

All of this, though, is fantasy. Hitler has already set out a game plan which makes the destruction of Russia part of the strategy for conquering Britain. The defeat of Russia is now a precursor to defeating Britain, and the Russian campaign is due to start in the Spring of 1941. The Germans cannot also tackle Britain at the same time.

The only possible interpretation of this exchange, therefore - which is consistent with subsequent events - is that Hitler has no real expectations of British defeat until after Russia has been destroyed, some time in the Autumn of 1941. But, in the unlikely event that the Luftwaffe achieves a decisive blow, then an "invasion" can proceed earlier. But it is no longer really an invasion - more of an uncontested occupation of shattered Britain, torn apart by Luftwaffe bombs. To that that extent, Seelöwe has been turned into a transport and logistics exercise. There is no credible case for a contested invasion.

From a transatlantic perspective, things look very different. AP writer Kirke L Simpson offers his own views about the prospects of an invasion, in the context of the "sudden concentration of German air attacks on Dover". This, he writes – specifically for American readers - has stirred world-wide conjecture that Britain's hour of ultimate trial has come, with Dover as a prospective bridgehead. Yet, Simpson adds, the circumstances of the Nazi bombardment, as officially reported in Berlin, sharply conflict with that impression.

What then follows is an appreciation of the difficulties which face the Germans, not least the observation that, if the German plan to land masses of troops at Dover port, blocking its entrance by sinking enemy ships in the fairway would create more difficulties for the invaders than the defenders. By this means, Simpson ventures that the British might deny the enemy use of the sheltered waters of Dover or any other narrow-mouthed harbour on the English Channel.

Then he notes that a landing on England's open beaches would be even more difficult. They are unsheltered from the swells of the shallow Channel and North Sea – waters which are set rolling by even a minor conflict between wind and sea currents. And all of this, of course, enhances the importance of the weather factor. Any signs of a prolonged spell of calm on the Channel probably would raise greater fears in Britain than the intensified air bombardment of Dover and its vicinity.

Yet, for all that, Simpson also tells us that German propaganda on a world-wide front is doing its best to convince everybody that the assault on England will be over and another smashing Nazi victory recorded by 1 October or thereabouts.

Just to confuse the issue, though, an anonymous Associated Press report conveys details of an article in Il Giornale D'Italia - another intervention by its editor Virginio Gayda, the man known to be close to Mussolini. Gayda cautions that the invasion of the British Isles would not be "a simple military advance". England would probably not be invaded until the British people had been weakened by bombs and blockade.

The tactics of attrition must be used, Gayda had written – constant air attacks to demoralise the population and destroy island defences; attacks on ships bringing supplies to England, and a strong submarine blockade and a weakening of empire defences in the Mediterranean.  As far as it goes, this is the template for the campaign to come.

The British, however, if the newspapers are any guide, are more interested in the "Japanese prisoners" crisis, with the Daily Express giving the issue banner headline treatment. The arrest of British citizens by the Japanese seems to be of some considerable concern, not least because it is tied in with the "Burma road" question, with its shades of appeasement. "We should never have given into the Japanese", is a predominant theme of public discussion, according to Home Intelligence reports.

In England it is a typical summer day, warm with clear skies - perfect invasion weather. To those who could get access to the the beaches, an increasing number of which had been cordoned off in expectation of that invasion, bathing was an option. And that morning, a Sunderland of No. 10 Sqn Royal Australian Air Force, based at Mount Batten, is escorting the merchant cruiser Mooltan, out from Plymouth after a refit.

Three and a half hours out, at around, 08:55hrs, the pilot, Flt Lt Bill Garing (pictured) - nicknamed "Bull" for his voice, not his size - sights a formation of five Ju 88 bombers heading for his ship. He flies his heavy flying boat at them aggressively and, faced with an aircraft nicknamed the "flying porcupine", the Germans decide that discretion is the better part of valour. They retire. Garing is awarded a DFC for the action.

No. 10 Squadron RAAF is an interesting unit. Established on 3 September 1939 by Australian personnel already in England, they take delivery of new Short Sunderland flying boats (pictured top). Attached to the RAF, they are the sole RAAF presence in the European theatre until 1940 when the first Australians trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme began to arrive. When the squadron is officially disbanded on 26 October 1945, its aircraft have flown 4,553,860 nautical miles, undertaken 3177 operational flights and sunk five submarines.

Back on the last day of July 1940, the only other morning fighting is over the Channel at 11:00hrs, when Ju 87s attack small convoys. Soon after midday, a number of German reconnaissance aircraft are detected just off the south coast. No aircraft on either side are shot down.

In the afternoon, Dover is as busy as ever. At 14:30hrs, ten Me 109s which had been patrolling the Calais area, cross the Straits and drop bombs which cause damage to dock equipment. Fighters chase the enemy aircraft towards France but do not make contact.

An hour later, at 15:30hrs, a formation is detected off the coast of Dover. No. 74 Squadron Hornchurch (Spitfires) is ordered to intercept. The raiders are Me 109s and a dogfight ensues. Four Messerschmitts are damaged and believed to have crashed on their way back to their bases. No. 74 Squadron loses two aircraft. One is badly damaged and crashes on landing. The pilot is unhurt.

At 16:02hrs, one raid of 6+ flew towards Dungeness, turns west and bombs a steamer (which is damaged) off Sandgate. At 17:30 hours, three Squadrons are sent up to patrol the Dover area. No. 41 Squadron claims one He 113, which is confirmed - even though no such aircraft exists or has ever been in service. Another He 59  is downed in the Channel, this one by No. 615 Sqn. No. 501 Squadron loses one Hurricane.

Bomber Command despatches 28 Blenheims to carry out daylight raids on enemy airfields and industrial targets in Germany. Because of the lack of suitable cloud cover - the aircraft relying on this to protect them from fighters - only eleven actually bomb. One fails to return. Six Fairey Battles of No. 12 Squadron are detailed to attack invasion ports. One is shot down by an RAF night fighter and crashes into the sea off Skegness. A Hudson and two Hampdens are also lost.

The fate of Hampden L4085 of No. 44 Sqn is unusual. Flown from RAF Waddington by Sgt E D Farmer, 26, on a night mining operation in German waters, the pilot gets lost on his return and flies clear across northern England before ditching in Cardigan Bay at 06:30hrs on 1 August. Two crew are killed.

There is no evidence of an RAF search and rescue effort but a body is picked up by the Aberystwyth lifeboat, the Frederick Angus, at 07:26hrs. The motor boat Emerald Star joined the search and recovered the two survivors, Sgt R D Hobbs, navigator/bomber and Sgt D Seager, radio operator, plus a body. The two dead are pilot Sgt Farmer and Sgt K Wood, 29, the rear gunner.

On the day, Fighter Command fly only 365 sorties, losing three machines against five for the Germans. Add Bomber Command and the RAF have lost eight machines, changing completely the arithmetic of advantage. On the month, sources differ but Wood & Dempster put Fighter Command losses at 145, against Luftwaffe losses of 270. But Bomber and Coastal Commands have lost at least 110 aircraft, putting the RAF/Luftwaffe balance at 255/270.

Furthermore, British losses to air action include eighteen merchant vessels and four destroyers. But those are direct losses. Ten merchant vessels are lost to mines, some of which may have been laid by aircraft. Thirty-eight merchant ships are damaged and three destroyers have sustained serious damage, plus a depot ship. Three armed trawlers have been lost to direct air action, and another two to mines.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

30 July, 2010

Day 21 - Battle of Britain

Unusually, the account of the previous day's air action is relegated to the back page of the Daily Express, despite newspapers having been given permission to name the location of the fighting.

The newspaper has a staff reporter watching the battle and, in another development, he goes way beyond basic censorship - which entails omitting militarily sensitive information. He crosses the line into propaganda, deliberately lying about events. "I saw how bad the bombers' aim was," he says. "Ships in the harbour had bombs scattered around them, but they were not hit. Five trawlers had narrow escape."

With thick, black smoke pouring from the stricken Sandhurst, no one within miles could have been unaware that the Luftwaffe had scored a hit, not counting the sinking of the SS Grondland and the patrol yacht Gulzar.

In Germany, planning for operation Sealion is now coming to a crux. The Naval Staff, reviewing the current state of naval preparations and the probably future rate of progress, conclude that operation Sealion cannot be carried out before 15 September. But by that time, according to Hitler, the main operation should already have been completed because of the bad weather to be expected in the latter half of the month.

In a comprehensive memorandum, the Staff sets out detailed reasons why, in effect, it thinks the operation will fail. Not least, the right combination of moon phasing and tides, to allow for the Army's requirement that a landing be made at dawn, falls at the end of September, when long spells of fine weather can no longer be expected. Even if the transportation of the first wave should succeed through exceptionally fine weather, there could be no guarantee that further waves would be successfully transported.

The reasons are logical, and damning, making it clear beyond peradventure that an invasion attempt would amount to suicide. Thus, the Naval Operations Division feels it has to recommend that the invasion be postponed until the following year.

However, crucially, it suggests that the preparations should continue on the basis that the unrestricted air warfare together with naval measures "should cause the enemy to negotiate with the Führer on the latter's terms." In the event of that not occurring, the question of the invasion should arise in May 1941. Despite all that, though, Führer HQ sends a signal to C-in-C Air Force ordering that preparations for "the great offensive" by the Luftwaffe are to be "accelerated to the utmost" so that the operation can begin within 12 hours of the issue of the executive command.

The official response to the Navy's analysis is to be made tomorrow and, meanwhile, the war goes on. While the previous day had been fair, this Tuesday is marked by unsettled weather, low cloud and drizzle. Flying, therefore, is heavily restricted. Nevertheless, before noon, the Luftwaffe is out hunting on the Channel and North Sea, with a group of Ju 88s (type pictured above) attacking a convoy off the Suffolk coast - but without success.

Overnight, the Bay of Liverpool is mined heavily. Bombing in ten separate areas in Wales is reported and He 111s visit the Filton aircraft factory and the oil tanks at Avonmouth. On the other side of the country, bombs are dropped on Hull, with some damage to shops.

For Hull, it is by no means the first time it has been targeted. The first raid is on 19 June and raids are to continue until 1945, making it the most severely bombed British city or town of the wa, after London. The city spends more than 1,000 hours under alert, suffering 86,715 buildings damaged and 95 percent of houses damaged or destroyed.

Of a population of around 320,000 at the beginning of the war, approximately 192,000 are made homeless as a result of bomb destruction or damage. Much of the city centre is completely destroyed and heavy damage is inflicted on residential areas, industry, the railways and the docks. Despite the damage and heavy casualties, the port continue to function throughout the war.

The city is an obvious target for the Luftwaffe because of its importance as a port and industrial centre. Being on the east coast, at the confluence of two rivers and with readily identifiable docks in the city centre, it was also a relatively easy target to find. As a result it was to suffer heavy bombing from May 1941 to July 1943, and sporadic attacks thereafter until the end of the war. It endured the first daylight raid of the war and the last piloted air raid. Close to 1,200 people were killed and 3,000 injured.

Despite the relaxation on naming Dover, radio and newspaper reporters are not allowed to identify Hull by name. They refer to it as a "North-East" town or "northern coastal town".

Consequently, it is only in more recent years that Hull has been recognised as one of the most severely bombed places in Britain. The city often took bombing meant for more inland places, or from German aircraft fleeing down the Humber to the open sea after failing to find Sheffield, Leeds or other northern towns, the victims of pilots who needed to dump their bombs.

Back in the dog end of July though, the weather dominates the day. Yet despite the low cloud and drizzle, Fighter Command flies 688 sorties. This is without loss, against five Germans claimed, including an He 111 off Montrose and an Me 110 off Southwold. Bomber Command loses one Blenheim, with two of its three crew killed, the pilot taken prisoner.

The RAF is meanwhile asserting that its night bombing of Germany is "most effective" and is worrying the German High Command. Intelligence reports, it says, indicates that its raids are causing serious damage. The Germans are stated to be considerably worried by them, and our delayed action bombs are particularly unpopular.

As to the strategic implications of those raids - the whole nation is getting a tutorial on the effect of bombing on national morale and industrial production, with the lesson frequency about to intensify. The RAF chiefs, however, seem to be out of the room.

Of significant strategic interest though, a six-column advertisement appears in New York newspapers, sponsored by "The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies". Headlined "Between us and Hitler stands the British fleet", it urges the US government to sell to the British at least 60 "over-age" destroyers, vitally needed to make up losses and because the Royal Navy is having to take over patrol duties in the Mediterranean formerly carried out by the French.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

29 July, 2010

Day 20 - Battle of Britain

The Daily Express is mining the same vein in which the New York Times has been digging, thus talking up the invasion threat.  But it also taps into a rival newspaper, the New York Sun, retailing the details of an exclusive interview between the Hearst correspondent Karl von Wiegand - the Kaiser's Press agent in the last war - and Herman Göring. The Reichsmarschall is cited as saying: "My air force is completely prepared and all set for the signal of command from the Führer to do our part in the general attack. "I can assure you our attacks on England so far have been merely armed reconnaissances."

The day is fine with light, north-westerly winds and haze in the Straits of Dover. Two sizeable convoys are on the move and an early morning raid is brewing. Picked up by radar at about 07:20hrs, it suddenly becomes apparent that the ships are not the target. The raid is heading for Dover Harbour itself, already reeling from the attacks of the previous days.

Park is now under considerable pressure to protect the port, the Admiralty pressurising the Air Ministry which, in turn, is leaning on the 11 Group commander. He releases eleven Spitfires of No. 41 Squadron are released, along with twelve Hurricanes of No. 501 Sqn. These are vectored in to intercept what turns out to be 20 Stukas supported by about 50 Me 109s.

As the waters of the harbour erupt under a storm of bombs, four Stukas are shot down. The ferocious fighting is made all the more hazardous for the RAF by the enthusiastic participation of the anti-aircraft gunners But the Me 109s have the advantage of height and F/O D R Gamblen of No. 501 Sqn is shot down and killed. Four more of the squadron's aircraft are shot down, although their pilots survive.

This is only the first of two attacks. By the end of the day, SS Grondland, which had been damaged on the 25th, has been sunk in the outer harbour with nineteen crew killed. Patrol yacht Gulzar (197grt) is sunk in the submarine basin. The crew is rescued.  And the depot ship HMS Sandhurst - damaged in the raid two day previously - is set on fire (pictured below).

With the half-submerged wreck of the Codrington still alongside, her substantial stores of fuel and explosives threaten to devastate the town. Again and again, personnel from Dover Fire Brigade and the Auxiliary Fire Service have been forcing their way into the burning ship, even as the Luftwaffe returns, beating back the flames until they are extinguished. Although badly damaged, the ship is saved.

As a result of their bravery, no less than three senior fire officers are awarded the George Medal: Ernest Harmer, Executive Chief Officer; Dover Fire Brigade; Cyril Brown, Second Officer; and Alexander Edmund Campbell, Section Officer, Dover Auxiliary Fire Service. Six firemen are commended. They are gazetted on 30 September.

In Portland, a drama of a different sort is playing out, with the Royal Navy about to lose its fourth destroyer to bombing in the month. This is HMS Delight (pictured below), escorting a Channel convoy off Portland. She had sailed from Rosyth, through the English Channel and had stopped at Portland on the way, departing on the 29th. In contravention of local orders and placing herself at significant risk, she is sailing in daylight. After leaving the harbour, she is detected by German radar at Cherbourg, which directs German aircraft to attack her.

By then, she is some 20 miles off Portland Bill. She puts up a spirited fight. A bomb on her fo'c'sle, however, causes a major fire and explosion. Even then she manages to limp back to Portland harbour but she sinks early the next morning, having lost six of her company. She currently lies at a depth of approximately 160 ft of water, broken in half and upside down. Curiously, the Admiralty permits an announcement of the loss (right), although no details of the location are disclosed.

This is not the end of the grief for the day. A heavy raid on Harwich by He 111s and Do 17s is beaten off by Nos 17, 66 and 85 Sqns, with a loss to the Germans of three He 111s. But the Luftwaffe has the last "laugh". SS Clan Monro (5,952t), en route Cochin, India to the Tees is sunk by a mine off Harwich. SS Moidart (1,262t), steaming from London to Newcastle, is also sunk by a mine in the same area. The attack on the 16th Destroyer Flotilla, disrupting minesweeping activities, is yielding dividends.

And the mine is turning out to be a potent weapon. SS Ousebridge (5,601grt) also finds one in Queen's Channel, Liverpool. Her bow is blown off and back os broken. Two of her crew are killed. Raids are also seen in Wales, with incendiaries and explosive bombs dropped in three locations, including Port Talbot harbour gates. In the early morning, bombs are dropped at Altcar (Lancashire), near Crewe, in Essex, Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Midlothian and Berwickshire, causing little or no damage. Bombs are also dropped near the aerodromes at Yatesbury and Hawarden.

And there has been another of those remarkable incidents. During the early hours of the morning, an He 111 is en route to bomb the Bristol works at Filton. It is picked up by searchlights and comes under fire from AA gun batteries which manage to hit and damage the bomber.

A fire starts to engulf one of the engines, and soon the other engine begins to lose power. The crew bale out and are eventually captured. Two are at large for some 48 hours, but one crew member, Fw J Markl, wanders abroad for nine days, believed to be the longest period a German airman is at large before capture.

For Fighter Command, the day has seen the heavy load of 758 sorties, for the loss of three aircraft. Luftwaffe losses are six although the British communiqué for the day claims "17 of 80 raiders" shot down in 30 minutes in the Dover action. In later news bulletins, the censor permits Dover to be named - the first time a mention of a place name has been allowed.

One of the German losses is Hpt Erwin Aichele, flying an Me 109E. His aircraft is damaged in a scrap over the English Channel but he manages to nurse it back to his base near Wissant, France, where he attempts an emergency landing. The aircraft overturns and he is killed. Aichele is aged 39, one of the oldest German fighter pilots in service. This Monday also, Bomber Command loses a Blenheim, shot down in the sea on a raid to Bremen. Two crew are captured and one is killed.

Meanwhile, the order to shoot down the German Seenotdienst aircraft marked with Red Crosses is still having its ramifications. Some RAF pilots are refusing to obey the order, and others want to see it in writing. Accordngly, on this day, the Air Ministry issues a communiqué, which states:
... enemy aircraft bearing civil markings and marked with the Red Cross have recently flown over British ships at sea and in the vicinity of the British coast, and that they are being employed for purposes for which His Majesty's Government cannot regard as being consistent with the privileges generally accorded to the Red Cross.

His Majesty's Government desire to accord to ambulance aircraft reasonable facilities for the transportation of the sick and wounded, in accordance with the Red Cross Convention, and aircraft engaged in the direct evacuation of the sick and wounded will be respected, provided that they comply with the relevant provisions of the Convention.

Her Majesty's Government are unable, however, to grant immunity to such aircraft flying over areas in which operations are in progress on land or at sea, or approaching British or Allied territory, or territory in British occupation, or British or Allied ships.

Ambulance aircraft which do not comply with the above requirements will do so at their own risk and peril.
The legalistic phrasing by no means conveys clarity, but in all probability, HMG is within its rights. Art. 18 of the 1929 Geneva Convention does not afford protection to aircraft "flying over the firing line" without the "special and express permission" of the opposing combatants. And nor could ambulance aircraft overfly "enemy territory or territory occupied by the enemy."

Furthermore, there is some doubt as to whether search and rescue operations, aimed at recovering uninjured combatants, are covered at all, although it is noted that hospital ships can take part in rescuing shipwrecked mariners. Air-sea rescue operations have certain parallels. However, Seenotdienst aircraft are progressively repainted in standard Luftwaffe colours, and guns are fitted. There are, though, to be more dramas.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

28 July, 2010

Day 19 - Battle of Britain

In what scarcely seems credible at this distance, the preoccupation of The Sunday Express, one of the best-selling Sunday newspapers, was famine in mainland Europe. A combination of military campaigns and the bitter winter had conspired to cut crop yields by one third in Germany and as much as 50 percent below normal elsewhere.  Some strategists had hopes of civil unrest of such severity that Hitler could be brought down.  Interestingly, in this leading newspaper, there was not one mention of the air war on the front page.

In Berlin itself, the correspondent for the Chicago Tribune also had different things to think about. He had been expelled from Berlin for breaking the story about Germany's peace terms. That story was even reported in the Observer. London denied receiving any such terms. Berlin's correspondent of the Stockholm newspaper, Tidninger, claimed that the German Government "fully realized" that the main obstacle to the British willingness to negotiate was disbelief in any German promises or assurances. To counter this, Germany was willing to make "concrete" guarantees. Coming from Berlin, that was felt to be "a remarkable German admission".

Otto D. Tolischus, Pulitzer prize-winner and Berlin correspondent for the New York Times until he had been expelled in March, was now writing for the paper from Stockholm. The German peace offensive was being driven home with a worldwide drumbeat of totalitarian propaganda, he observed. But, inasmuch as Churchill had already anticipated Hitler's "peace" offer with a categorical "no" and Lord Halifax had repeated it after the offer had been made, foreign observers (in Stockholm) were puzzling over why the Germans were persisting with it. Tolischus explained:
First, if it fails, it is designed to undermine British fighting morale, as did Hitler's constant "peace" offers to France and his insistence that he did not want to fight France undermined French morale. Second, if it succeeds, it has assured a German "political" victory over Britain. There is no doubt here that Hitler would prefer the latter result. The latest private advices from Berlin, coming through several sources, insist that the oft heralded German blitz invasion of England has been called off or indefinitely postponed, because the entire military staff is against it and only Joachim von Ribbentrop and Heinrich Himmler are for it.
Tolischus thereby, in a few deft sentences, clarified what has since evaded generations of historians. The Germans were using diplomacy as a weapon of war – it was an integral part of the battle. As to the invasion, "The military staff are reported to be against it", Tolischus said, "because it would be very costly and the result is highly uncertain". Yet George Axelsson, his replacement in Berlin thought that the process of "softening up" Britain had begun in earnest.

After an order in France freezing road and rail traffic, a landing attempt, he said, "may be a matter of days if not hours". Confusingly, the same newspaper cited the Italian Telegrafo. It claimed that the systematic bombing of British harbours, railway centres and war plants was a "new tactic" that was aimed at "starving the British", and in particular isolating the seven million people of London from their food supplies.

London-based "aeronautical experts" cited by the Australian newspaper, the Age, seemed to agree with the Telegrafo. In order to starve Britain, they said, Hitler must prevent ships from the Atlantic using four great waterways: Southampton water; Bristol water; the Mersey; and the Clyde. Heavy attacks on ships at sea and approaching the two southerly ports was probably Hitler's immediate plan. The second stage would be to demoralize the half-starved civilian population by a general and intense bombing. The third would be the final blow, landing troops at several points, hoping that the confusion throughout the country would enable success.

In Britain, the morning saw attacks in Cornwall, Cardiff and Newport. In the early afternoon, a sizeable force of forty bombers escorted by Me 109s headed for Dover. Aircraft from four squadrons broke up the raid. There was also a raid in Newcastle, Twenty-five high explosive bombs were dropped almost in a straight line across the city. There was considerable damage, three women were killed, one woman and two men were injured. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle the next day was not allowed to reveal the location of events on its own doorstep, having to write about "a town in north-east".

Attacks on shipping continued. The Belfast registered MV Orlock Head, was bombed, sinking in the Pentland Firth. In the Thames Estuary, the armed trawler Staunton was presumed blown up by a magnetic mine. All thirteen crew were lost. And there had been very active minelaying during the night. As to the air casualties, Fighter Command on the day flew 758 sorties with a loss of five aircraft. Bomber Command lost three. Ten Luftwaffe aircraft were lost.

As this was Sunday, J. B. Priestley gave one of his Postscript talks. This time he used for his foil RAF pilots. "In return for their skill, devotion, endurance and self-sacrifice, what are we civilians prepared to do?" Priestley asked. At the very least, we could "give our minds honestly, sincerely and without immediate self-interest, to the task of preparing a world really fit for them and their kind – to arrange for them a final 'happy landing'". He stressed the virtues of co-operation, as practised by RAF pilots, rather than the competitiveness which they experienced in business life, where the watchword was "survival of the slickest".

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

27 July, 2010

Day 18 – Battle of Britain

Luftwaffe operations started just before ten. Again shipping was the target, with an attack on a convoy off Swanage, Dorset. Simultaneously, two convoys off the estuary were bombed. From Harwich emerged a group comprising six minesweeping trawlers, with anti-aircraft protection from the destroyers HMS Wren and Montrose. HMS Wren came under heavy and sustained bombing from fifteen Heinkels. She was holed below the waterline and sank with the loss of thirty-seven crewmen. Montrose then had her bows blown off and other major damage. Amazingly, she remained afloat and was towed back to Harwich.

Further south, in Dover Harbour, the destroyer Codrington was alongside the depot ship Sandhurst in the submarine basin. A bomb fell close to her, breaking her back and she sank in two pieces. The destroyer HMS Walpole, also alongside Sandhurst, was badly damaged as was the depot ship itself. She was to be further damaged in a raid on 29 July. The action was notable for being the first time Me 109s had carried bombs. This changed the tactical equation. Fighters could no longer be ignored while the RAF went after the bombers.

None of these events were made public at the time. The loss of the Codrington was not officially released until 18 May 1945. Moreover, there were other shipping losses attributable to the Luftwaffe. SS Salvestria, an 11,938-ton whale factory ship, while approaching Rosyth in Scotland, activated an acoustic mine. The Durdham Sand Dredger was sunk by a mine in the mouth of the Severn. HM Salvage Vessel Tedworth was bombed and slightly damaged off North Foreland; a convoy was bombed off the Humber; and the SS Westavon, in a convoy about forty miles off Orfordness, was disabled by a near miss from a bomb.

With news that the Germans were about to install heavy guns at Cap Griz Nez, the Admiralty decided remove its warships from the port of Dover. This was another significant victory for the Germans. They knew it – their reconnaissance photographs showed the empty berths. But the British public were not allowed to know. Censorship kept information from the public, not the enemy. Convoys would now be run as "combined naval and air operations", the number of vessels limited to twenty-five. A mobile balloon barrage was to be provided for each convoy. With such complications, it would take time to arrange the next sailing.

On this day, RAF Fighter Command lost three aircraft in 496 sorties, the RAF total reaching four when a Battle bomber exploded after a bomb fell to the ground while it was being loaded, killing six men. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, lost five aircraft. Meanwhile at Wolverhampton, William John Robson, an Air Ministry technical instructor, was fined £15 with 12 shillings costs for "despondency" talk. Robson had said he admired Germany, that he had shaken hands with Hitler and that British troops had run away at Dunkirk.

Across the Atlantic, in a widely syndicated news piece, Russian-born American aviator Major Alexander de Seversky questioned the likelihood of a German invasion of Britain. Unless Germany possesses a huge secret armada of new types of fighting aircraft, of which the world has no inkling, it was not possible. "There is a great gulf between the political logic of the Führer's threats and the tactical realities of the situation", he wrote. "If victory has gone to Hitler's head and he overrides the objections of the strategists in this connection, then Germany is heading for a terrific failure". Given that, there was "room for suspicion", de Seversky thought, that the deliberate German ballyhoo was a stratagem to compel Britain to keep its men and machines at home.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

26 July, 2010

Day 17 - Battle of Britain

In the Tribune magazine this day, George Strauss MP commented on Churchill's intervention in the "Silent Column" affair. The Prime Minister, in his view, had "rightly interpreted public opinion" when he said that a brake should be put on the campaign to fetter freedom of expression. His intervention was timely, as the campaign was rapidly developing to dangerous lengths. His statement was, in fact, a rebuke to the Ministers who had initiated this movement and the minor officials who were pursuing it so zealously.

It has been said that truth is the first casualty of every war. If so, liberty of thought and expression is the second. The more intense war becomes the stronger is the pressure from the authorities to stop all public criticism which they call " subversive and dangerous activities." This development is now taking place in this country with alarming rapidity. If carried much further it will undermine the magnificent war morale of the British working `class.

Some restriction of liberty is of course inevitable in wartime. Nobody wants newspapers to be free to publish information which might be helpful to the enemy. No one would tolerate propaganda to discourage the production of war materials, or to play Hitler's game by deliberately spreading defeatism.

We know that it is Hitler's invariable practice to demoralise the people of a country he desires to conquer, prior to making his, assault by arms. We must therefore take whatever steps are necessary to defend ourselves against this new type of peaceful but dangerous warfare.

PARLIAMENT has ungrudgingly given the Government all the powers it has asked for to counter this type of activity. Some of us did so with misgivings. We remembered many previous occasions when we had given Ministers wide powers to stop sabotage and other acts prejudicial to the safety of the country. These powers have frequently been abused. The smooth assurances given by Ministers were subsequently ignored, and the powers with which we had entrusted them were used for purposes quite other than those originally intended.

Our fear that the same thing would happen on this occasion is already being justified. This does not mean that Parliament was wrong in passing the regulations. They were plainly necessary and the restrictions on personal liberty which they involved were justified by the fundamental issues involved in the war. The fault lies with those who are so flagrantly distorting Parliament's purpose.

Consider what has been happening recently to the regulation which makes the spreading of alarm and despondency an offence. This regulation was aimed at Fifth Column attempts to create defeatism. It has been used to persecute honest citizens whose crime has been to utter comments on the war not favoured by the authorities. And the Magistrates have imposed shocking punishments on the offenders.

Take these two examples. An Irish labourer at Preston was given 14 days' hard labour for saying " The English are a lot of traitors. They let Poland down and Belgium, and France, and they are prepared to go over to the Germans." At Swansea a 25-year-old clerk was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment for saying " It will be a good job when the British Empire is finished. We are fighting to provide dividends for the ruling class."

The Prime Minister has said that all these sentences are to be revised. But the danger of the situation lies in the fact that these men, typical of a vast number, should have been persecuted and severely punished for making political comments which may be stupid but were certainly not criminal. One of the things we are fighting for is to prevent the regimentation of public opinion. Are our political views in future to be at the discretion of a police constable and a magistrate ? If this policy of interference is allowed to drift much further we shall become a police state embodying many of the worst features of Fascism. We shall deprive ourselves of the libertarian motive which is inspiring our fight.

THIS is only one of the aspects encroachment of petty and stupid authority on our freedom. There was the Silent Column campaign which sought not only to prevent discussion about military activities, but to direct us in how we should talk amongst ourselves about the war. The ideas behind this campaign were apparently two, both equally objectionable. The first that the people of Great Britain were a lot of silly children whose morale is so fragile that the tone and temper of their speech has to be controlled by their more enlightened rulers. The second that discussion of grievances, the exposure of mistakes, and criticism of Ministers were damaging to the national war effort.

It is obvious that the reverse is the truth. The best proof of the stupidity of this campaign was the vigorous public demand that these petty restrictions on private conversations should be withdrawn, and that the Government gets on with its business of winning the war.

Mr. Churchill's pronouncement of the death sentence on the Silent Column campaign has, for a time at least, put an end to this foolish effort to wet-nurse the British public. There is another development, however, which 'is equally serious. Numerous cases are reported from various parts of the country of interference with men and women of the Labour movement. Police are visiting their homes, interrogating them, searching their bookshelves, and behaving as if these people were enemies of the state.

It is believed that these activities are the result of the mysterious committee set up by Mr. Chamberlain shortly before he ceased to be Prime Minister, Without any public announcement he set up a committee under the Chairmanship of Lord Swinton, to report on suspicious political movements. Lord Swinton is an ex-Air Minister (not without responsibility for Germany's air superiority) closely connected with the Conservative Head Office. The other members of this committee are Sir Joseph Ball, an ex-official of the Conservative Party, and Mr. Crocker, a solicitor who came into prominence by his investigations into the London fire salvage scandal a few years ago.

All that is known about this body is that it works in close contact with the Secret Service, When I asked Mr. Churchill in Parliament to give some information about its activities he said it would not be in the public interest to do so. What has this body done which cannot be stated in public? The whole set-up seems highly sinister and dangerous. There are, so far as is known, no representatives of Labour on the committee. The only conclusion I draw is that it is a sort of Cheka, whose purpose it is to watch and suppress such Left activities as certain irresponsible Conservatives deem to be undesirable.

Another aspect of this trend is the recent attempt by Duff Cooper to clap a more rigid censorship on the press. He did not suggest that under the present 'system the papers. were printing any military information which might help 'the enemy. Its object could only, therefore, have been to establish the beginnings of a political censorship. Fortunately public opinion has so far been Vigorous enough to prevent many of these attempted , encroachments on our liberties, and force the withdrawal of others.

The Press and Parliament have been so far effective in preserving the liberties we have won, and which must be preserved to the full, if the war is to end in 'a victory over Fascism. For the war is essentially a battle of ideas. Men will not fight heroically . against a force that seeks to enslave them if they see their own liberties being gradually filched away.

Two ministers in particular, as I have suggested, fail to see this and are recurrently. responsible for discouraging us. They are Mr. Duff Cooper and Sir John Anderson. They should either withdraw from office, or make public declarations that they have realized the error of their ways and will pursue wholly different policies in the future,


Such had been the expectation of an invasion that there was now international media speculation about the lack of action. AP journalist, Kirke L. Simpson, in a widely syndicated piece for the US press, explored the continuing delay. "This cannot be ignored", he wrote. "Whatever the explanation, it is daily becoming an increasing threat to Hitler's prestige".

One very obvious explanation for the delay was the simple fact that the Germans were not ready. Gen. Alan Brooke, now safely installed as C-in-C Home Command, expressed his pessimism "as to our powers of meeting an invasion". But there was still no certainty that he would have to meet one. Even now, an invasion attempt was not a foregone conclusion. The apparent finality of the German responses to the Halifax speech was not what it seemed. The political correspondent of the Glasgow Herald was writing that "Hitler's so-called peace offer remains open because of his refusal to take Lord Halifax's 'No' for an answer".

Colville seemed aware of this. "There is some agitation for an authoritative reply to Hitler’s speech, and I think Winston should make one, stating our terms and our aims subtly and clearly", he wrote. Captain M. M. Corpening, the current Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, confirmed that something was afoot. He had obtained details of peace terms handed to the King of Sweden by the German Government for onwards transmission to Great Britain. His dispatch was printed in his and many other leading American newspapers the following day.

The Express resumed its attack on Duff Cooper, having learned that the Ministry of Information was employing researchers to test public opinion and report back on morale. This, the newspaper held, was the job of MPs. Cooper was trying to bypass parliament. The Ministry of Information "began as a joke. It has always been a joke. Now it is getting beyond a joke", said the paper, dubbing its officials, "Cooper’s snoopers".

At the War Cabinet, Cooper was mainly concerned with his paper on post-war Europe. He had, since submitting it, become aware of General Smuts's telegram which had suggested that a "brains trust" be set up to work out an alternative plan for countering Hitler's peace movement. Churchill, however, refused to give Cooper his head. He had earlier suggested a loose free-trade arrangement with the USA and now suggested that the matter "required further study by various groups of Ministers". Cooper was asked to submit a scheme for examination.

In media terms, the war was on hold while headlines were given over to the events of 17 June and sinking of the Lancastria in the worst shipping disaster of the war. Then, the 16,243-ton Cunard liner, packed with an estimated 5,800 British soldiers evacuating from the port of St Nazaire, had come under attack from German aircraft. She had taken three bombs and within twenty minutes had sunk, with an estimated 4,000 drowned. This had been more lives lost than in the Titanic and Lusitania combined. It was also the largest single loss of life for British forces in the whole of the Second World War.

The disaster had happened over a month previously, and the survivors had been landed at Falmouth, from where considerable rumours had been spread as to the number of casualties. British censors had forbidden any mention of it. It had taken an American newspaper to release details and only once they emerged had the British Government made a statement.

Churchill had personally blocked the news, saying at the time: "The newspapers have got enough disaster for today at least". In his book published in 1949, he claimed he had intended to release the news a few days later. But with the pressure of events, he "forgot to lift the ban". It had then been "some years before the knowledge of this horror became public". The news, though, had actually broken in less than six weeks.

On 3 August, the Illustrated London News published many photographs of the incident (example, below right). The curious assertion by Churchill simply did not accord with the facts. 

Home Intelligence found the public unimpressed. The long-delayed announcement, it said, "has had a bad effect on morale". The loss had been generally known in certain districts and the news had been broadcast on German radio. The lack of adequate explanation for the delay "had produced criticism and general suspicion. People wondered what else is being kept back".

Meanwhile, Hastings had suffered its first air raid when a single aircraft dropped eleven bombs. Some fell on the cricket ground. Others wrecked buildings (below). Nevertheless, residents wondered at the strategic value of their town, later surmising that the German High Command is using some very old maps, following a claim on Berlin radio that there had been a successful raid the harbour - which had not functioned for some considerable time.

In the early evening Weymouth and Bristol were hit. Aberdeen was raided but with no serious damage this time. Gradually, though, the Luftwaffe was moving inland. In the north-east of London, an estimated 120 bombs fell, as well as incendiaries. A number of civilians were killed. Overnight, there was minelaying in the Thames Estuary, Norfolk and the Bristol Channel.

In the daylight air war this day, low dark cloud and heavy rain all over Britain made any flying if not impossible, certainly more than usually difficult and dangerous. But still the Luftwaffe came. As before, the convoys took their attention, with shipping south of the Isle of Wight providing a meaty target. Hurricanes from No. 601 Sqn were sent up to deal with the intruders, shooting down two bombers, at a cost of one of their own.

Another Hurricane, flown by F/O J H Riddle, was damaged. It returned safely to base. No 54. Squadron had not joined the action. It was packing up to go north for a rest. In three weeks, it had lost five pilots killed, including an experienced flight commander, and another three had been wounded. It had flown 800 hours and completed 504 combat sorties, losing twelve aircraft.

The heavy rain took its toll on Fighter Command as pilots try to land in the foul weather. A Spitfire of No. 266 Sqn Wittering and a Hurricane of No. 601 Sqn Tangmere were damaged. A Spitfire of No. 603 Squadron Turnhouse went nose first into mud upon landing. A Spitfire from No. 616 Sqn based at Leconfield, near Beverley, Yorkshire, made a heavy landing and wrecked the undercarriage following a dawn practice flight. All aircraft were repairable, but nonetheless added to the burden on the maintenance services.

On top of the shipping losses in the Channel, SS Haytor (1,189t), on its way from London to Blyth was sunk by a mine in the North Sea. And a Fokker T-VIIIW (pictured above), operated by a Dutch crew under RAF colours, was lost while on convoy escort in the North Sea. It was one nine aircraft which on 22 May 1940 escaped to the UK to form the basis of No. 320 (Netherlands) Squadron, Coastal Command, based at Pembroke Dock in South Wales.

On the day, RAF Fighter Command had mounted 581 sorties, despite the bad weather. It lost five aircraft. In addition to the Fokker, a Whitley was lost, bringing the RAF total to seven. With the Luftwaffe losing only two aircraft, the odds on the day again favoured the Germans. And the Admiralty decided that it could no longer take the risk of escorting ships through the Dover Straits in daylight.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

25 July, 2010

Day 16 - Battle of Britain

The AP reported a statement by "authoritative Vatican quarters", saying the Pope had abandoned any hope of a settlement between Britain and the Axis powers, following the British Government's response to Hitler. Feelers made through the Vatican had been "negative". The Pope was expected to deliver a homily of sorrow and to ask the faithful throughout the world to pray for peace.

Pam Ashworth, a Mass Observation correspondent, had a different "take". The wireless had reported the absence of raids overnight, the first time for more than a month. Conversation in her office elicited the view that, "Hitler wants to give us another chance to do the right thing".

Shirer, meanwhile, wrote of receiving "a first glimpse" of Hitler's "new order", with details given by Walther Funk following the meeting of the 22 July, setting out the goals for the new European economy. These had been delivered in a speech, which had had a "sensational effect", a kind of distillation of long deliberations on the economic reorganization of Europe. It was regarded as a kind of semi-official blueprint for all the occupied countries.

The German Naval Staff, meanwhile, was beginning to assemble shipping for the invasion. Suitable ships were "limited" and had been reduced even further by the Norwegian operation. The ports were scoured for small freighters and ferries, such as the French ferry Gaston Bouineau(left, in the picture). There were about 1.2 million tons available to German industry. Coal and ore traffic absorbed about 800,000 tons. The rest was coastal traffic.

Diverting these ships would hurt the German economy, especially if they were kept for a long time. Furthermore, although ships from defeated countries could be used, they needed German crews. German ships would have to be laid up to release sailors. As for the inland waterway fleet, about a third of the German fleet would be needed. The effect on the supply of coal, ore and food would be "considerable".

The requirement for tugs could be met only if every single tug over 250 horsepower was withdrawn and all trawlers being used for deep sea and coastal fishing were requisitioned. This, said the Staff, "would practically stop the supply of fish". The motorboat quota could only be met by requisitioning craft from inland waterways. Most of these were unseaworthy.

Meanwhile, ploughing down the coast of Kent was a 21-ship convoy designated CW8. As it rounded the North Foreland, the two columns or "divisions" turned towards the Channel, picking up a "snooper" in the form of a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. There followed a series of fighter sweeps over the Channel towards Dover in what turned out to be a ploy to clear the way for the Stukas. Instead of flying high, the Me 109s came in at sea level, forcing defending Spitfires down to meet them. Hurricanes from Biggin Hill joined in. Past midday as the fight developed, eleven Hurricanes came in to assist in the dogfight with fifty Me 109s. Short of fuel, the Messerschmitts disengaged and the British fighters withdrew.

It was now the turn of the ships. Away to port, merchant navy gunner John Gallagher on the collier Tamworth spotted "a swarm of bees". He was witnessing the start of a mass attack by over sixty Stukas. Spitfires, answering a frantic call for help, engaged the fighter escort. Meanwhile, the Stukas sunk three steamers, killing eight seamen. Another ship was sunk two miles off Folkestone, with the loss of one crewman. Another was sunk off Dungeness. Five more ships were damaged.

Three E-boats then slipped out of Calais to attack the remnants of the convoy. It was now late afternoon. Two destroyers, HMS Boreas and Brilliant, and two Norwegian motor torpedo boats (MTBs), steamed from Dover to meet them. At 35 knots, their sterns sunk low in the water and their stern-waves streaming higher than their decks, the destroyers engaged. The Germans drove though the fire but were then seen to retire at speed.

The Allied warships were now in mid-channel in broad daylight, far from the cover of Dover anti-aircraft guns. Retribution was closer. Stukas hit the Boreas twice on her bridge. An officer and sixteen ratings were killed outright and another five died of wounds. Twenty-five were wounded. Brilliant was also badly damaged, with two bomb hits to her stern. Both destroyers were towed into Dover and, with them out of the way, the German boats returned. In quick order, three steamers were sunk, with the loss of six seamen. The Germans now had virtual control of the Channel at its narrowest point.

Fighter Command flew 641 sorties on the day, initially claiming thirty-nine confirmed and unconfirmed "kills", including one unknown aircraft type. This was initially recorded as a Chance Vought V 156, one of a formation pounced upon by Spitfires. Intelligence officers suggested that the Germans were so short of aircraft that they were resorting to captured French machines. The truth emerged when the Royal Navy reported the loss of a Blackburn Skua.

The revised figures had sixteen Luftwaffe aircraft downed, as against seven RAF fighters. Bomber and Coastal Command between them had lost eleven aircraft, at a cost of twenty-eight lives. The final score, therefore, was Luftwaffe sixteen, RAF eighteen, plus the Skua, bringing total British losses to nineteen. Five fighter pilots from each side were killed. But, while the balance of advantage went to the Germans, life went on regardless.

The Yorkshire Post reported how the miners of Grimethorpe Colliery had returned to work after a week-long lighting strike. The paper also reported the particularly tragic loss of the trawler Campina, impressed by the Navy. It had been blown apart by a mine as it had entered harbour, killing all its eleven crew – an event witnessed by two young wives of the crewmen who had been invited to join their husbands for a holiday.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

24 July, 2010

Day 15 - Battle of Britain

Matilda II and Light Mk VI tanks of the Royal Tank Regiment on exercise in Knowsley Park, Prescot, near Liverpool

In the wake of Dunkirk, the race was on to build and equip a new Army. On this day, General Alan Brooke, newly appointed as commander Home Forces, went to Liverpool to discuss the defences of the Wirral, then flying up to Blackpool to look at possible landing sites.  He returned to London that evening, leaving troops and tanks on exercise.

Assessing progress so far, the air fighting had started with a flurry in the Dover and south coast region, with additional attacks on the east coast. The rest of the country had suffered sporadic attacks, many by night, and a minelaying campaign was under way. From purely the operational stance, therefore, the picture had been a brief burst of activity, followed by a prolonged lull, with no major engagements other than attacks on shipping.

Only when the political dimension was added did this make sense. Without doubt, Hitler had been holding back the Luftwaffe, in the hope of negotiating peace. But now briefly in Berlin, he was "full of fury against London". Walther Hewel, diplomat and Nazi Party "fixer", wrote to Hohenlohe in Switzerland, instructing him to break off contact with Kelly. "The Führer does not desire further attempts made to build bridges for the British. If they crave their own destruction, they can have it", he wrote. The Mirror ran a story headed: "Nazis cancel peace offer". It was remarkably well informed.

However, even as this was happening, Göring was starting a new – and independent – line of contact with London, through the founder of the Dutch KLM airline, Albert Plesman. The initial contact had come via a Swedish KLM pilot named Count von Rosen, who was also Göring's nephew. Göring arranged a meeting at the luxurious Karin Hall on his estate in the most beautiful part of the March of Brandenburg, forty miles from Berlin. Plesman then wrote a text which was later forwarded to London. It offered terms which were very familiar, leaving the British Empire intact, giving Germany control of the European continent and allowing the USA control of the Americas. But, in a significant addition, it also offered to remove occupation forces from Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium and France.

The document was sent to the Dutch Ambassador in Stockholm and from there to Eelco van Kleffens, the former Dutch Foreign Minister, now in London as part of the Dutch Government in exile. He in turn passed it to Lord Halifax in the Foreign Office, where it was "studied with much interest". There was communication between van Kleffens and Halifax as late as 29 August. Later, however, Plesman learned that there was "no interest in his plan", while Göring disowned it.

With only tiny fragments of the frenetic diplomatic manoeuvring being reported, the main concern of the British people was budget day. Swingeing tax increases to pay for the war were being announced. There was also a historical milestone, with the start of universal "pay as you earn" (PAYE ). Tax was to be deducted in instalments from wages, rather than as a lump sum at the end of the year.

The air war started early when a hostile aircraft appeared over Glasgow and bombed a printing works. Some windows of a Rolls Royce factory were broken and a few minor casualties were reported. Then, a few minutes before eight in the morning, an enemy formation was detected heading towards a convoy in the Thames Estuary. Fighters were scrambled but no German aircraft were shot down. At about eleven, an enemy formation threatened a convoy of small colliers. RAF fighters sent to intercept were visible from the coast, and thousands lined the shore to watch, raising the profile of Fighter Command.

Elsewhere, houses were damaged in the usually quiet suburb of Walton-on-Thames and the Vickers factory in Weybridge was attacked by a solitary Dornier. Brooklands airfield was bombed by a Junkers 88 pretending to come into land. Remarkably little damage was done. This one got away, but another Junkers crashed near Brest. The aircraft was destroyed and all four crew perished.

Less visibly, shipping continued to be targeted. HMT Rodino was sunk off Dover, together with anti-submarine trawler Kingston Gelena. Twenty sailors were killed. The trawler Fleming was also sunk. And at sea that night, a disaster unfolded. The French liner Meknès, sailing from Southampton with 1,179 repatriated French naval personnel, was headed for Marseilles. Despite sailing floodlit and with prominent French markings, it was attacked and sunk by E-boat S-27. Destroyers responded to distress signals but 383 French sailors still drowned.

By comparison, air losses for the day had been trivial: Fighter Command five – with 561 sorties flown; the Luftwaffe twelve down. No operational Bomber or Coastal Command losses were reported. The sea battle had been larger than the air component.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

23 July, 2010

Day 14 - Battle of Britain

Halifax's speech jolted official German circles, according to Shirer. He recorded "angry Nazi faces" at the noon press conference. A spokesman had said with a snarl: "Lord Halifax has refused to accept the peace offer of the Führer. Gentlemen, there will be war".

Shirer noted that the campaign to whip the people up for a war with Britain had started with a bang that morning. Every paper in Berlin, he said, carried practically the same headline: "Churchill's answer – cowardly murdering of a defenceless population!". The story was that, since Hitler's speech, the British had increased their night attacks on helpless women and children.

Hitler, however, stood aloof. He attended a performance of Wagner's Götterdämmerung at the Bayreuther Festspiele – the last time in his life he was ever to see a live performance of Wagner. Augustus Kubizek, a childhood friend, recalled the Chancellor telling him: "I am still tied up by the war. But, I hope it won't last much longer and then I'll be able to build again and to carry out what remains to be done".

The Press Association conveyed news of a "renewed German peace drive". German radio had embarked on an intensive "peace offensive" in which Great Britain had been repeatedly urged to accept Hitler's "appeal to reason". The Bremen station was almost monopolized from 9.30 p.m. by a series of talks on the theme that this was Britain's last chance to save herself.

"Unless the Führer's offer is accepted now – and as it stands – there can be no question of its acceptance at a later date, or of any negotiations at any time", one had said. "If the Führer is forced to do what he does not want to do, the order for the utter destruction of England will be finally and irrevocably given. The sad fact of the present crisis is that the views of the British people have not been heard at all".

That, of course, was the last thing the British Government wanted. William Connor, writing in his Cassandra slot in the Mirror, noted that a farmer had been fined £26 for "revealing" that Hitler had only sent over a few bombers so far, then speculating on what would happen when thousands came over. "I suppose he can count himself lucky that he wasn't clapped in the State dungeons for about half a year", wrote Connor.

Elsewhere Haydn Spenser Dunford, a 28-year-old dockyard fitter, described as a "Dunkirk hero", had been fined £50 and ordered to pay £15 15s costs by Falmouth magistrates for "trying to cause disaffection among naval men". This was a man who had been at the Dunkirk and Brest evacuations and among the first to board bombed ships. He had rescued wounded men and thrown boxes of ammunition overboard to prevent explosions. Yet he got no sympathy from the bench chairman, Mr A. W. Chard, who told him: "Only by a majority have we decided to fine you. The next offender like you will have no option to prison". Dunford's mates had a whip-round to pay the fine.

The Daily Express this day listed five cases caught by Cooper's "Silent Column", including Phyllis Bateman, a 30-year-old Post Office clerk in Clacton, jailed for three months for suggesting to two Army sergeants – flippantly, she claimed – that if they did not agree with government policy then they should "revolt". "Why don't you start a riot or a strike?" she is alleged to have said.

Home Intelligence articulated complaints about the prosecution of a prominent South Yorkshire councillor for calling Chamberlain a traitor and criticizing him for unpreparedness. This was contrasted with Halifax's broadcast rejection of Hitler's peace offer. "We will not stop fighting till freedom for ourselves and others is secured", he had said. On another occasion, a man had been fined for saying, "this is a capitalist war in defence of dividends". This raised more than a few eyebrows. The Daily Worker had been openly saying much the same thing for months.

The last straw was the conviction of a vicar, on the evidence of four boys – two aged 15 and two 16. It was alleged that in addressing about a hundred boys he had "communicated air raid information which might be useful to the enemy, and made remarks which were likely to cause alarm or despondency".

In Germany, stormed the Mirror, children are taught to spy on adults – even on their own mothers and fathers. The British people have often been told that one of the worst features of the Gestapo system of the Nazis is the way children are encouraged to supply evidence for its prosecutions. And the British people are now being assured by their Ministry of Information that there is no intention of encouraging a "Gestapo" atmosphere here. We need more than mere assurances.

There was only one person who could now sort this – the Prime Minister. In the Commons, he was challenged by Kenneth Lindsay, MP for Kilmarnock. The policy was "well-meant in its endeavour", Churchill assured him. After the briefest of defences, Cooper's baby was passed into what was called in the USA "innocuous desuetude". The Australian newspaper, The Age, later notes that "the amusingly ironical style" with which Mr Churchill buried the "silent column" did not entirely disguise the fact that he was administering a sharp rebuke to his colleague, Mr Duff Cooper, its inventor.

The Express on its front page offered a story about the state of the fleet. Britain, as builder of warships for the world's navies, had been able to take over ships being built in British yards for foreign governments. This was not helpful to Churchill, who was in the process of begging fifty surplus destroyers from Roosevelt.

But the story also gave details of a massive new minefield being laid, from Cornwall to south-east Ireland, ostensibly to prevent the Germans invading Ireland. This was the lead item in The Guardian, which also noted that much of the French deep sea fishing fleet in the western ports had escaped to Britain.

Many of the vessels had been taken over by the Royal Navy, bringing home the staggering number which were being conscripted, or "impressed" in Navy jargon - ships such as the Ulswater (below). Trawlers, drifters and whalers were to form the backbone of the patrol service, providing capable warships which could spell death to any invasion fleet.

As to the air war, the Luftwaffe was still targeting shipping. This day it concentrated its attacks on a convoy codenamed "Pilot" steaming off the Lincolnshire coast. Two raiders were shot down by fighters. In the mid-afternoon, a lone Dornier dropped bombs on the old airship hangar at Pulham and another attempted to bomb the Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory at Weybridge.

Fighter Command lost three aircraft, all to accidents. A Blenheim and a Hudson were also lost, bringing RAF losses to five, compared with six suffered by the Luftwaffe. In two full weeks of fighting, total RAF losses stood at 110, compared with ninety-nine to the Luftwaffe.

One of the Luftwaffe losses made history in a small way when a Blenheim night fighter downed a Dornier 17 using airborne radar. But with the final stages of the kill in bright moonlit conditions, it was a long time before the success could be repeated. The Luftwaffe had its own successes.

The cargo ship Lady Mostyn detonated a mine 1½ miles off the Formby Light Vessel, sinking with the loss of all seven crew. And a Dornier bomber attacked a submarine, about 150 miles east of Aberdeen. This was most likely the Narwhal, which had sailed from Blyth on 22 July to lay mines off the Norwegian coast. She failed to return.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

22 July, 2010

Day 13 - Battle of Britain

Mussolini expressed an opinion on Hitler's speech. The Duce wanted war and damned it as "too cunning", fearing that the English "might find in it a pretext to begin negotiations". Over the weekend, Churchill had been under considerable pressure to respond, especially as there had been diplomatic representations through Sweden and the Vatican.

Churchill's first thought had been to hold "a solemn and formal debate" in both Houses of Parliament, an idea he raised in the War Cabinet. His colleagues counselled that this would be making too much of the matter, "upon which we were all of one mind". The AP reported that hopes of British acceptance were "dwindling fast" and it appeared that the scene was being set for total war. Sources close to the Axis set 27 July as the most probable "zero hour" for an assault. But diplomatic activity continued.

In the Frankfurter Zeitung, editor Dr Rudolf Kircher set out "semi-official" German peace terms – they were the mix which was to become increasingly familiar. The Berlin correspondent of the Japanese Domei agency claimed that "a lull" was expected while Hitler watched the reaction of Britain. A definite refusal would launch the German attack on the British Isles.

The general sentiment in Germany was for peace, but Churchill and his group would have to resign. A new Cabinet centred on Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of the First World War, Lloyd George and the British fascist leader Oswald Mosely – now in prison – would have to be formed. Nevertheless, it was "almost a foregone conclusion" that Britain would turn down Germany's terms.

Colville, writing in his diary, thought this was "the psychological moment to define our own war aims and state our terms". They would be such that Hitler must refuse them, but in so doing would lose credit in the eyes of the outside world and also in those of his own people. But, Colville feared, "the Government lacks the imagination to make such a move". Forty-eight MPs agreed with his sentiments, having tabled a resolution calling for Churchill to state Britain's war aims. To those must be added Duff Cooper, and there was the Smuts's response to Churchill's telegraph on 12 July, with its lengthy proposal for a post-war settlement.

By coincidence, a major meeting was being held at the Reich Economic Ministry in Berlin, under the chairmanship of Minister Walther Funk, to discuss a directive issued by Göring on 22 June, concerning the organization of a Greater European economic area under German leadership. The Germans were well advanced with their plans for a post-war settlement of their own. But, indicating the uncertainty in the broader situation, the report stated:
One difficulty of planning lay in the fact that the Führer’s aims and decisions were not yet known and the military measures against Britain were not yet concluded. We therefore did not know whether the British Empire and its economic influence would remain to any extent or not. Those responsible for preliminary planning should assume that the British economy would continue to exist in some form and would affect the situation at any rate outside Europe.
From the USA, there were reports in the media – relayed by J. W. T. Mason, the United Press "war expert", that "tentative peace suggestions" were being presented by neutral powers. But Churchill seemed to float above the fray, ignoring these and all calls to respond with a detailed alternative vision. Instead, he instructed Lord Halifax (pictured) to reject Hitler's initiative.

This Halifax did during a scheduled broadcast to the nation. "We shall not cease fighting", he said, "until freedom for ourselves and others is secured". Not unaware that Halifax was the man most likely to be seen as a negotiator, the Irish Times observed that this "may be taken as the authoritative answer to Herr Hitler's vague offer of peace. Nothing could be more definite".

Meanwhile, in the Glasgow Sheriff Court, 47-year-old Matilda Lynn was sentenced to twenty-one days imprisonment for, among other things, telling an acquaintance that docks in the south had been destroyed and that the Germans were in control there.

In reporting such events, though, the press was not a disinterested player. It was fighting its own battles with the Ministry of Information, and had forced what was regarded as a major U-turn, when the Ministry announced that it would not introduce compulsory censorship. The left-wing Daily Herald crowed: "We have been saved from a blunder … which might have had the most evil consequences".

More softening of the official line was apparent from Harold Nicolson, who had hosted a free concert in Hendon Park, sponsored by his Ministry. With more than 10,000 attending, he announced a policy rethink. The Ministry, he said, "is not, an Ogpu or a Gestapo. It does not desire to dictate to the citizens of this free country what they should think, say, feel or hear. It does not pry upon the private thoughts of the people. It does not bully and it does not sneak".

He finished by saying: "We want people to be more friendly and neighbourly than they have been. Talk more than you have ever talked before", he said, "but talk of victory". The Mirror noted, rather sourly, that Nicolson had not told his audience that the most effective way of preventing or killing rumour was speedier release of news of national importance.

The German Naval Staff was giving Hitler the bad news that invasion preparations could not be finished by the middle of August. And only when air superiority in the Channel area had been achieved could minesweeping start. Mine clearance was vital in order to permit free passage of the fleet, but it could take up to two weeks. The timetable was being stretched to the point of inelasticity.

And only on this day had the Führer Directive been turned into detailed orders for action and passed down to the lower echelons, telling the various naval departments to start preparations in earnest. Merely preparing and transmitting orders to the various levels of command took time. It would not be until 25 July that the collection points for the barges would be set up.

Nevertheless, galvanised by Führer Directive No. 16, a thousand German barges have been requisitioned for the invasion of Britain. Nine hundred more in Holland and Belgium have been reserved. But they still have to be fitted out with military equipment and ramps for discharging their loads onto the beaches. Crews have to be recruited and trained and the entire fleet has to be assembled in the appropriate ports.

The OKW files reflect the economic stress caused by the withdrawal of barges from their normal commercial activities and the Naval Staff reports to the Führer that "preparations could not possibly be completed by the middle of August". The actual date could only be determined when the existence of air superiority in the Channel area had become a fact. Only then could ensue the concentration of transports and of minesweepers, mine layers and escort vessels for comprehensive mine-sweeping activity in the whole area.

On the propaganda front, the Daily Express declared that the British were winning the "Battle of the coast". Twenty-one "Nazi Raiders" had been shot down over the weekend. The Daily Telegraph made the figure 24. The paper then ridiculed Hitler's "boast" to "starve British ports of shipping and the British people of the food and raw material they need".After a month of intensive German air attacks, he had "completely failed". But at least the paper acknowledged that the Germans were waging an "economic war", part of the blockade that was using U-boats as one of the primary weapons.

This day was a landmark of a different kind – the first time a German submarine had visited a French port, in this case Lorient. Soon, eight or nine boats would be based at the port, taking 450 miles off the route over the north of Scotland. Gradually, the network of bases would be extended, taking in Brest, Cherbourg and St Nazaire.

The grip was tightening on Britain's supply lines and the Express was premature in predicting victory. It was also underestimating the deadly effect of the minelaying programme. German destroyers, E-boats and specialist minelayers, U-boats, and aircraft were encircling Britain's coast, its estuaries and ports, with deadly barriers of high explosive. And most of this action was by night.

Thus, the focus on daylight battle missed the point - most of the real action was by night. In the traditional Battle of Britain narrative, this was a day when activity was light. There were only sporadic reconnaissance flights, occasional ineffective attacks on shipping and nuisance raids. Typical of this activity was seen at about 11:45 hours when a Ju 88 penetrated to Bristol and Cardiff and then Penarth, dropping bombs at the locations. The aircraft was intercepted and the rear gunner was believed to have been killed. The aircraft escaped across the south coast.

In a raid over Scotland, a bomb hit a German prisoner of war camp, killing six prisoners and injuring 18. Another hit a cemetery at Leith, with the macabre result of disgorging German dead from the First World War.

Fighter Command flew 611 daylight sorties. They lost two aircraft and downed two Germans. And the British were trying to impose their own version of a blockade. Six Swordfish carried out a minelaying sortie and raids were carried out on airfields in France and barges in Amsterdam. Another two aircraft were lost, bringing total RAF losses on the day to four, against the two to the Luftwaffe.

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