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.

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