19 July, 2010

Day 10 – Battle of Britain

For much of the British public, their day had started with a rationed breakfast and the daily newspaper. Some would have been reading Mirror journalist William Connor, still writing under the pseudonym Cassandra. He declared that Cooper's campaign had reached "preposterous proportions":
You just daren't open your trap. Ordinary sensible criticism has become something like verbal treason and harmless decent citizens are being clapped in jug before they can say "God Save the King!" For instance, a court the other day was invited to decide whether calling a Cabinet Minister a fool was defeatist talk.
"Well, I mean to say …", Connor added wryly. Even the Guardian had noticed something amiss. The campaign, it intoned,
[was] certainly never intended to encourage a sort of amateur Gestapo movement in which a few people with nothing better to do would use a lull in the actual operations of war in order to foment baseless suspicions against their neighbours.
The Daily Express reported on William Garbett, a 25-year-old Birmingham clerk, who was jailed for a year on the charge of making a seditious speech. He had said in a Cardigan café: "I see we are being beaten. It will be a good job when the British Empire is finished. We are fighting to provide dividends for the ruling classes". A 50-year-old artist, Bernard Wardle, from East Dulwich, was jailed for three months for telling two Canadian soldiers not to fight for England. "The whole Government is rotten to the core", he had said.

Taking time from the greater affairs of state, it was this to which Churchill had to give priority. "I have noticed lately", he wrote to the Home Secretary, "very many sentences imposed for indiscretion by magistrates' and other courts throughout the country in their execution of recent legislation and regulation". It was time for action: "All the cases should be reviewed by the Home Office, and His Majesty moved to remit the sentence where there was no malice or serious injury to the State", Churchill instructed.

The Chiefs of Staff's Friday résumé was in front of the British War Cabinet, to which was appended a secret commentary on "German Air Force tactical policy". This revealed the British perception of the battle. It was seen as a preliminary phase. The two protagonists were sizing each other up, testing each other and getting ready for a major offensive. The "variegated pattern of tactics" showed that there was "no settled policy". The Germans, it was thought, were experimenting to devise the best tactics.

Despite this, with nine British convoys at sea, Fighter Command was expecting heavy raids – and it got them. The day started with Stuka attacks on Portland and Dover. These were driven away but British fighters encountered stiff German resistance.

Then a notable disaster started to unfold. Just past midday, No. 141 Sqn had been moved forward and ordered to patrol over Folkestone. The squadron had formed a month previously and had only recently arrived in the No. 11 Group area, a squadron with no combat experience.

Worse still, it was equipped with the Boulton Paul Defiant "turret fighter", armed only with four .303 machine guns in an electrically-powered turret abaft the pilot. The aircraft had been designed to attack bombers and was not equipped to take on conventional fighters. Its deployment was based on the assumption that the Luftwaffe would be unable to escort bombers on raids to Britain. However, even though the fall of France had changed that, the Air Ministry kept the aircraft in service since they had enjoyed limited success – mainly when mistaken for Hurricanes and attacked from the rear.

This fateful sortie started badly when three pilots had to abort with engine faults. Thus, by one o’clock there were nine Defiants patrolling in the middle of the Channel. Completely unaware of their peril, they were bounced by twenty Me 109s, flying “up sun”. Four Defiants were shot down immediately, the remaining five desperately trying to evade their attackers as the Me 109s pressed home their attack. Two more were shot down and the remaining three badly damaged. Those escaped only after the intervention of Hurricanes from No. 111 Sqn. In 15 minutes, six machines had been destroyed and ten men killed. One Me 109 had been severely damaged and crashed back at its base. No. 141 Sqn was withdrawn from the battle. Its partner No. 264 Sqn was soon to follow.

Dover now took its usual pasting. The port had been designated the anti-invasion base for the 1st Destroyer Flotilla – the first naval line of defence if the Germans came. And the destroyers got plenty of attention. During the day's raids, HMS Griffin was slightly damaged by near misses but sustained no casualties. HMS Beagle, en route from Dover to Devonport, suffered slight damage from near misses. There were no casualties there either. Fleet oiler War Sepoy (pictured above) was not so lucky. Damaged beyond repair, she was later broken in two and used as a block-ship to seal off the western entrance of Dover Harbour to keep out E-boats. Minesweeping trawler Crestflower was badly damaged by bombs, foundering off Portsmouth. Two ratings were killed.

Anti-Aircraft Command had better luck. A Focke-Wulfe Condor (type pictured above) was brought down by its guns during a minelaying sortie and crashed into the North Sea between Hartlepool and Sunderland. There were two survivors.

Illustrating the breadth of the battle, in the morning, four Dorniers had arrived over Glasgow and bombed the Rolls Royce works, causing heavy damage and casualties. In Berwick upon Tweed, four bombs were dropped on a field east of the town wall. One demolished an empty army air raid shelter. In Sunderland, the first enemy bomb fell – also in a field. At about six in the morning, bombs were dropped on the aerodrome at Norwich causing some damage, followed by Milton Aerodrome near Pembroke taking a hit. In the early evening, a boy's school on the coast at Polruan, twenty miles west of Plymouth, was demolished. Just before midnight, RAF Manston was hit. No damage was reported.

Fighter Command flew over 700 sorties, losing ten aircraft. Five pilots had been killed and one rendered hors de combat with serious burns. Bomber Command lost three aircraft. The Luftwaffe only lost five. A triumphant Göring called his crews together to praise their actions. As for the mood in Berlin:
there was an air of sombre expectation among the people of that great city still unharmed by bombs. The light summer evening of Northern Europe lay over the dark shadows of its massive Wilhelmian apartment houses. The pale rays of the sinking sun painted the wide avenues through which Hitler's cortège drove to the Kroll Opera House, for a great Reichstag session. Around the entrance there was a multitude of fanioned automobiles, a commotion of uniforms, a sense of self-conscious importance. "Tonight", Goebbels said excitedly, "the fate of England will be decided".
The speech started a few minutes after seven, an hour ahead of British time. Arrangements had been made for the text to be transmitted to London piecemeal, with segments being translated and sent to the prime minister's office at roughly five-minute intervals.

This was Hitler's "Last appeal to reason". Opening with a history of recent events, which he described as the "most daring undertaking in the history of German warfare", the bulk of the speech was addressed to the British people – his attempt to bypass the British Government. "If this struggle continues", he warned, "it can only end in the annihilation of one of us. Mr Churchill thinks it will be Germany. I know it will be Britain. I am not the vanquished, begging for mercy. I speak as a victor". Echoing the words of his 11 June interview with Wiegand, he declared: "Mr. Churchill ought perhaps, for once, to believe me when I prophesy that a great empire will be destroyed – an empire which it was never my intention to destroy or harm".

The BBC devoted six minutes to the speech on the nine o'clock news and, on its own initiative, issued a rejection. Insulting in tone, it was delivered in German by Sefton Delmer, former Berlin bureau chief for the Daily Express and still its roving correspondent. Shirer found the Germans unable to understand the rebuff. "They want peace", he wrote in his diary.

Anticipating the "last appeal", the German chargé daffaires in Washington had already sent a message to the British Ambassador, Lord Lothian. It stated that "if desired", details of peace terms could be obtained from Berlin. Lothian, a figure around whom rumours of conspiracy swirled, was said to be in touch with "dissidents in the war cabinet", who would be prepared to negotiate. An important figure here was Lord Halifax.

The fourth son of the 2nd Viscount Halifax, this tall, angular Englishman had been born on 16 April 1881 with an atrophied left arm that had no hand. His family had been visited by tragedy, his three elder brothers having died before he had reached the age of nine. He became heir to the title and great estates in Yorkshire. Serving as Foreign Secretary for Chamberlain, he had been one of the primary architects of the appeasement policy, and had met most of the top Nazi leaders. He had openly expressed his admiration for the Nazi regime, and especially its robust stance against the Communists.

Lothian, as Ambassador to the USA, reported directly to Halifax, who asked him to discover what terms Hitler had in mind. Churchill, learning of this, intervened and forbade further contact – an injunction with which Lothian did not immediately comply. But this was far from the only contact. The capitals of Europe, and indeed Washington, were awash with rumours of meetings and deals, with Madrid, the Vatican, Berne and Stockholm variously mentioned as centres of negotiation. And although Halifax was accused of plotting against Churchill, never was there any good evidence to suggest that he was ever anything but a loyal member of the government. Insofar as he was seen to be entertaining Nazi peace offers, he – like his minister in Switzerland, Sir David Kelly – may have been playing for time, running a skilled disinformation operation which fooled that Nazis into thinking that a peace deal was a possibility.

What was then equally important is that, on this very day, the German Naval Staff was to set in motion a process which was to give the British the very time they needed. Recorded in the Naval War Diary were its reservations on Sealion, which were to lead to a delay in the planned implementation of the operation and then contribute to its postponement and cancellation.

Specifically, the Staff thought the task allocated to the Navy was out of all proportion to its strength and bore no relation to the tasks set for the Army and Air Force. Troops had to be carried from extensively damaged harbour installations and adjacent inland waterways, which were of limited capacity. Transport routes lay in a sea area in which weather, fog, current, tides and the state of the sea could present the greatest difficulties, not only at the first crossing but also on reaching the enemy coast and during resupply.

The first wave would have to be landed on open beaches. "This imposes severe limitations in tonnage and draught of the selected ships", the Staff said. Landing barges had to be adapted "by means of specially constructed ramps" to put troops ashore. The construction programme was under way, but only minimal alterations could be made in the time. The great navigational difficulties, the Staff added, were "obvious", noting also the absence of information on the position on mines. An adequate safety margin as regard mines would not be obtainable, it said, in spite of the use of all resources. Furthermore, the British were in a position, at short notice and at the last moment, to lay minefields to protect the beaches.

These were no trifling points. Collectively, they showed that the Staff understood completely that the invasion would be very dangerous, with very small chance of success, even without bringing in the small matter of air superiority.

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