21 July, 2010

Day 12 - Battle of Britain

Setting the tone for the treatment of the air war, the Sunday Express ran a front page headline announcing: "12 German raiders shot down off our coasts". This time, the figures were not exaggerated, although the same could not be said of the narrative. The fight over the convoy had been "one of the most thrilling sky battles of the war", and though the bombers had attempted to press home their attacks with "great recklessness", the ships were unharmed. The Observer was more direct: "Nazi air raid on harbour fails", it reported.

The second story in the Express was Hitler's peace offer, with the paper reporting: "Hitler down with a bump". No one was interested. But in Berlin, there was a major debate about how long Britain should be given to respond, with Göring apparently against a rapid move. Meanwhile, German radio transmitters were pouring out a barrage of propaganda in English, attacking Britain's "ruling clique", "British warmongers", "the rotten Westminster plutocrats", and "the arch-plotter Winston Churchill".

Putting the activity in context, the Swiss newspaper, Basler Nachrichten, wrote that the "appeal to reason" was not directed at Churchill but to a "defeatist opposition" which was believed to be strong in Britain.

A key issue for Express columnist John Gordon is the "Silent Column" campaign. Men and women of that obnoxious type who love to pry and poke their noses into their neighbour's affairs are slinking up and down the streets with their ears flapping, he writes, hoping to hear an incautious word of conversation so that they may run off and tell the police.

As a result of this pernicious crusade, men and women are being hauled into police courts, charged with passing remarks much the same as those you can hear round any dinner table in London. Most of these people are decent harmless citizens. Not pulling his punches, he went on to condemn "our magistrates, who can always be relied on to be stampeded into stupidities by every wave of passion, are inflicting sentences on these people that are nothing short of revolting cruelty".

Hitler this day summoned his commanders to a conference. But his immediate priority was not the invasion of England. He was thinking of Russia. He asked von Brauchitsch, his Army chief, to advise on the possibility of an autumn invasion, only a couple of months hence. The Army chief managed to head him away from the idea, but told General Erich Marcks, Chief of Staff of the 18th Army, to look at the problem. Seconded to the planning staff OKH, he was given until 4 August to come up with a plan.

Only two days after his speech in Berlin, the possibility of a peace deal with Britain was discussed at some length. The Naval Staff war diary recorded speculation about a "strong and influential group in England who would like to know details of the peace conditions". There were rumours of "a telegram from the Duke of Windsor to the King, advising a Cabinet reshuffle, and of an audience which Lloyd George had with the King".

Turning to the invasion, Hitler stressed the need to "strive with every means to end the war in a short time and to exploit our favourable military and political situation as quickly as possible". Operation Sealion could be considered as "the most effective means to this end". He described it as an "exceptionally bold and daring undertaking".

Even if the way was short, this was "not just a river crossing, but the crossing of a sea which is dominated by the enemy". This was not a case of a single crossing operation as in Norway; operational surprise could not be expected. Hitler did, therefore, accept that the naval difficulties were formidable and appreciated that "the most difficult part will be the continued reinforcement of equipment and stores". The operation was therefore to be undertaken "only if no other means are left for settling with Britain".

"The time of year is an important factor, since the weather in the North Sea and in the Channel is very bad during the second half of September and the fogs begin in the middle of October", Hitler said. The decisive need for the participation of the Luftwaffe required the main operation to be completed by 15 September.

He asked Räder for a full report on how far the Navy could safeguard the crossing and when their preparations would be completed. If it was not certain that they would be ready by the beginning of September, other plans would have to be considered; and Räder's report would show whether the invasion would be carried out that autumn or postponed to the following spring. About the beginning of August he would also decide whether air and naval warfare would be intensified.

Back in England, ties with the Commonwealth in 1940 were still very strong. South African, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian nationals in particular were playing an active part in the war. Of the Commonwealth leaders, South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts (pictured) was a respected figure. Not only was he one of Churchill's closest personal allies, at the end of the First World War, it was his study and report which had led to the formation of an independent RAF.

This day, he broadcast to the people of Great Britain and the USA. Smuts spoke of the Allied cause being "very far from lost". It would not be until Britain itself was taken. And Britain would prove to be an "impregnable fortress" against which German might would be launched in vain. "If that attack fails, Hitler is lost and all Europe, aye the whole world, is saved", Smuts declared. Even if Hitler "did not venture to attack Britain", he was equally lost.

Then, said Smuts, the same combination of sea power and air power which had baulked him at Dunkirk, and which would have saved Britain from invasion, would then be turned in a victorious offensive against Hitler. That offensive in the end "would throttle and strangle and bring down in ruins his vast land empire in Europe. For in a war of endurance", Smuts concluded, "the time factor must prove fatal to Hitler's plans".

A few hours after that broadcast, J. B. Priestley took to the airwaves. His theme was to contrast himself with an "official", a "conceited, ungenerous, sterile kind of a chap". This, in the inimical Priestley style, quickly led to a wider appraisal of the war. There were two ways of looking at it, he said, the first being the "official" way, as a "terrible interruption":
As soon as we can decently do it, we must return to what is called peace, so let's make all the munitions we can, and be ready to do some hard fighting, and then we can have done with Hitler and his Nazis and go back to where we started from, the day before war was declared.
Arguing that this "official" way was wrong, Priestley lodged the idea that we had to get rid of the "intolerable nuisances" of "Nazists and Fascists" but not so that we could go back to anything. "There's nothing that really worked that we can go back to", he said. We had to go forward "and really plan and build up a nobler world … in which ordinary, decent folk can not only find justice and security but beauty and delight". But, said Priestley, we could not go forward and build up this new world order, and "this is our real war aim, unless we begin to think differently".

Returning to the transient, shooting war, the weather for this day, a Sunday, was either fine and fair early, clouding over during the morning, to become "dull with occasional rain." Thus the weather, "hampered our fighters in their action against enemy air activity which was again on a reduced scale." Raids were plotted off the Scottish, East and South coasts, apparently searching for shipping. An attack is made on shipping off Dundee and trawlers were attacked off Beachy Head. One or two raids crossed the coast and bombs were dropped in Surrey, Kent, at Portland and in Ayrshire.

Hurricanes from No. 238 Squadron (Middle Walllop) kicked the day off with downing a Dornier 17 and an Me 110 without loss that were shadowing a convoy heading westwards off the Dorset coast. However, a Ju 88 from 3(F)/123 - on a morning flight to carry out airfield reconnaissance over Filton, Avonmouth - managed to evade Fighter Command and return safely.

The Channel convoy then came under attack about ten miles off the Needles at the Isle of Wight by a Gruppe (a Wing) of Dornier 17s protected by 50 Me 109s and Me 110s. Hurricanes from No. 43 Squadron, with the help of two other squadrons, intercepted and broke up the attack shooting down one escort. No. 238 squadron refuelled and rearmed arrived back in the fray just as the Me 110s started to dive bomb the convoy (a tactic never seen before by the RAF from Me 110s) they severely damaged one attacker with no loss but succeeded in driving the attack off.

Meanwhile, Leading Airman John Arthur Seed was flying out of Old Sarum airfield, home of No. 1 Flying Training School. He was carrying out solo exercises in an old Hart biplane over Salisbury Plain when it was his misfortune to encounter Oberleutnant Runde of the long-range reconnaissance group in an Me 110 (pictured). A short burst from the rear gunner set the Hart on fire and the aircraft plunged to earth, killing the unfortunate Seed.

Runde then happened on a Battle bomber, its pilot under a cover carrying out a blind flying exercise, supervised by an instructor in the rear. A burst of MG fire took out the Battle's engine, forcing the instructor to take control from a pupil who is blissfully unaware of the attack, landing the aircraft safely in a field.

Runde's nemesis in the shape of three Hurricanes from No. 238 Sqn then turned up. After a short chase towards the coast, the Me 110 was forced down, landing virtually undamaged on a beet field near Goodwood. It was to be repaired at RAE Farnborough, with parts of another Bf 110 which had been shot down near Wareham on 11 July and would be flown again on 15 February 1941.

It would be tested at RAF Duxford wearing a new colour scheme (pictured above) and the registration number AX772. After the trials the aircraft would be taken on strength by No. 1426 Flight's Captured Aircraft Circus.

Following the excitement of the downing of a near-intact Me 110, there were heavy thunderstorms in the afternoon, which curtailed flying. This did not stop three Hurricanes from A Flight, No. 238 Sqn shooting down a Do 17M carrying out reconnaissance over airfields in Bournemouth, Bristol, Oxford and Portsmouth area. One Hurricane was damaged by return fire.

With that, Fighter Command flew 571 sorties, the RAF losing six aircraft against German losses of ten. Fighter Command aircraft had by no means been alone in the skies. During the day, a Hudson from No. 233 Sqn had sighted a German convoy comprising one large and five small vessels off the Lister Lights. Seven Hudsons had been despatched to attack it, scoring a hit on the larger ship, which was identified as a tanker. Two Hudsons had been shot down by Me 110s.

Out of Sullum Voe in the Shetlands, a Sunderland from No. 202 Sqn set off for a long-range reconnaissance patrol to Trondheim in Norway (type pictured). Unfortunately, on reaching the Norwegian coast, it was detected and shot down by an Me 109.

Much further south, the Blenheims of No. 235 Sqn were busy, carrying out a reconnaissance over le Havre, escaping undamaged after a brief encounter with an Me 109. Overnight, six Blenheims from No. 53 Sqn attempted a raid on petrol storage tanks in Ghent. Only one managed to drop bombs, but all six were damaged by severe flak.

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