20 July, 2010

Day 11 - Battle of Britain

Hitler, according to Ciano, was genuinely disappointed by the British reaction to his speech. The Italian Foreign Minister recorded him being concerned that war with the English would be "hard and bloody", and that people everywhere today were "averse to bloodshed". He might have been more disappointed by the reaction of Duff Cooper. He had submitted a memorandum to the War Cabinet entitled, "Propaganda for the future".

The title was misleading – perhaps deliberately so – but he had anticipated the peace offer, setting out ideas for a new political order in post-war Europe. This, heavily disguised, was the Nicolson "war aims" proposal. Cooper started with an upbeat message:
The morale of the people of Great Britain at the present time is excellent. Their mood is one of expectancy and confidence. They are awaiting an invasion and have no doubts as to their ability to repel it. But no moods endure indefinitely, and from the point of view of propaganda it is important that we should prepare for what is to come.
The invasion would take place and be defeated or else it would be indefinitely postponed, he said. He had no doubts. The prospect of defeat did not merit discussion. His concern was that a peace "offensive" from Germany "would be more dangerous than any invasion". It would have a very wide appeal and to those suffering from war-weariness and lack of vision would seem eminently fair and reasonable.

Nazism and Fascism appealed to millions of young people in Europe, said Cooper, but while Britain was fighting for survival, they would not infect "our people". When the menace to the island had been withdrawn, though, something else had to be put in its place "to stimulate the temper of the nation".

If the fighting was merely to restore the Europe of Versailles and the England of the last two decades, people would not be convinced of the justice of their cause. Since Hitler was introducing his new order and uniting Europe. Britain had to do the same, offering a Europe "united by goodwill and in friendship, not by force and in terrors". It would be a Europe based upon some federal system. Armaments would be pooled and trade barriers broken down. Each nation would be allowed to conduct its own affairs in its own way with the same kind of freedom as each state in the American Union.

This was a template for a federal Europe, one which was to dominate the political debate after the war and still raise the temperature seventy years later. It was remarkable that, with the dictator across the water threatening annihilation, the British propaganda chief was calmly considering the shape of post-war Europe.

This was the day that saw Gen. Alan Brooke replace Gen. Ironside as C-in-C Home Forces. As for Hitler's speech, the media played down the "peace offer". It did not go so far as to consider what the terms might be. The Express (above) presented it as a blustering threat. The Mirror bluntly headlined: "Hitler says submit". Britain had been given an ultimatum: "Talk peace or I destroy you. Hitler piled threat on threat and called it his final appeal to reason".

Reuters suggested that nobody believed that Britain would entertain a peace offer. The New York Times recorded British officials taking the speech as an indication that the long anticipated and long delayed Battle for Britain may not be far off. Harold Nicolson, expecting an imminent invasion, wrote of "a sort of exhilaration in the air”, expressing pride in being "the people who will not give way".

Home Intelligence found public opinion largely following the newspapers. But rather than the invasion threat, the "most serious cause of tension", it reported, "are (sic) the prosecutions for spreading rumours". There was alarm at the coincidence of measures which appear to be aimed at the freedom of the civilian. One respondent complained: "It's the Gestapo over here", adding a rebellious note: "They can prevent us talking but they can't prevent us thinking".

The latest to be prosecuted was Victor Muff, reigning Bradford billiards champion. He was fined £10 by Huddersfield magistrates for making a whole list of allegations: we could not possibly win the war; old-age pensioners would receive more under Hitler; Churchill had caused miners to be shot; that he had caused many lives to be lost at Gallipoli; and the government, had they any sense, would accept any terms Hitler offered. Considering how much more others had been fined – for saying considerably less – Muff seems to have got his money's worth.

After the Defiant losses of the previous day, the Air Ministry was in "damage limitation" mode. It talked of victory and sneered at German propaganda. Taking its cue from the Ministry, the Manchester Guardian reported the German habit of exaggeration "is its own undoing". Only later did the Ministry come clean on its own misfortune.

With a peace deal in prospect, the Luftwaffe restricted its inland incursions, although it mounted coastal raids all over Britain, from Scotland to Dorset. The area off Dover was now being called "Hellfire Corner", so intense was the activity.

In a number of engagements, No. 32 Sqn Hurricanes from Biggin Hill provide cover for a Channel convoy when it was attacked by Ju 87s protected by Me 109s. Two Hurricanes were lost in the mêlées. No. 238 Sqn in Hurricanes from Middle Wallop was also busy over Swanage, losing one pilot and an aircraft to Me 109s. Spitfires from No. 65 Squadron out of Hornchurch engaged the enemy off the French coast. They destroyed an Me 109, while North Weald Hurricanes of No. 56 Sqn destroyed a Ju 88 off the Essex coast. Up north, a Do17 was shot down by Spitfires from No. 603 Squadron, off the coast at Aberdeen.

That afternoon, No. 501 Squadron from Middle Wallop scrambled to intercept a heavy force of Stukas supported by Me 109s. They met midway between Jersey and Portland Bill, the occasion of Sgt J H Lacey's first "kill" of the Battle. He was to be acclaimed as one of the highest scoring Battle of Britain pilots with fifteen estimated enemy aircraft shot down.

Nicknamed "Ginger" (pictured right), he took down an Me 109 by turning sharply inside it as it came straight for him, loosing off three bursts from the rear. "I can clearly remember watching him slant down the sky at a hell of a steep angle," he recalls, "... a beautiful little blue and grey mottled aircraft with white and black crosses standing out startlingly clear, getting smaller and smaller; and thinking what a terribly small splash he made when he went straight into the Channel."

"Ginger" then tailed a pair of Me 109s heading north, knowing they would soon have to turn for home. When they did, it was so sudden and sharp that he nearly collided with them. Despite that, he managed a snap deflection shot. "I suddenly saw the aeroplane almost stagger as I hit it", he said later. "Its propeller started to slow down. We flashed past each other a few feet apart". A second Hurricane shot down the other Messerschmit  a few moments later.

The convoy Bosom continued eastwards shadowed by the Luftwaffe. Air Vice Marshal Park, expecting a strong German response, increased the fighter cover to twenty-four aircraft per patrol. When adjacent Dover at approximately 18:00hrs, it came under attack from Stukas protected by 50 plus Me 109s and Me 110s. As the Germans were flying facing into the sun, Hurricanes from No. 32 Squadron managed to storm through the Me 109s to attack the bombers. They shot down two Stukas and severely damaged four others.

More Hurricanes from Nos 610 and 615 Sqns then engaged the 109s and 110s, with the 110s retreating into their now classic defensive circle. The Hurricanes and 109s engaged in a mass dogfight.

However, the battle had been far from one-sided. The steamer SS Pulborough (960 tons), on the Tyne to Shoreham run with a cargo of coal, was attacked by Stukas and sunk. The trawler Lady Philomena took off 17 survivors. The destroyer HMS Brazen had her back broken by several near misses (pictured left).

She was taken in tow by the tug Lady Brassey, but another attack put a bomb directly into her engine room. One of the ship's company was killed. The ship could not be saved and sunk in 100ft of water. Her anti-aircraft gun crews claimed three German aircraft. Destroyer HMS Acheron was bombed and damaged by near misses, ten miles off the Isle of Wight. She sailed to Portsmouth for repairs.

The result of the air fighting appeared to be a victory for Fighter Command. As well as the Stuka losses, five Me 109s were shot down with the loss of four German pilots - their highest loss of the battle so far - bringing the total to 14 Luftwaffe aircraft lost on the day. But Fighter Command lost nine aircraft, eight of them in combat. And, from those aircraft, seven pilots were lost including two who had successfully baled out over the Channel but had then drowned. Ironically, one of those, in Hurricane, was shot down by an air sea rescue He 59 from Seenotflugkdo 1.

As always, the dogged Blenheims had been in action. Three from No. 236 Sqn (fighter) escorted a bomber version from No. 59, taking part in a reconnaissance mission between Le Havre and Cherbourg. Close to Cherbourg, three Me 109s appeared out of the blue in brilliant sunshine. Two of the Blenheim fighters dived to 6,000ft in a defensive manoeuvre but for some unknown reason the third did not follow. It was attacked by Hauptmann Eduard Neuman. Bits fell from its port wing and both engines caught fire. It entered into a steep spin and crashed into the sea twenty miles south of Portland.

At this time, the whereabouts of the 59 Sqn Blenheim were unknown but perhaps the third fighter had stayed to protect the bomber. The two crew of the fighter did not escape. All other aircraft returned to base safely. But it had been a bad day for Bomber Command. It lost two Blenheims, five Hampdens, and two Wellingtons. With nine losses in from Bomber Command on the day, that brought total RAF losses to eighteen - against the Luftwaffe's fourteen. The RAF was losing ground to the numerically superior Luftwaffe.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread