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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