25 July, 2010

Day 16 - Battle of Britain

The AP reported a statement by "authoritative Vatican quarters", saying the Pope had abandoned any hope of a settlement between Britain and the Axis powers, following the British Government's response to Hitler. Feelers made through the Vatican had been "negative". The Pope was expected to deliver a homily of sorrow and to ask the faithful throughout the world to pray for peace.

Pam Ashworth, a Mass Observation correspondent, had a different "take". The wireless had reported the absence of raids overnight, the first time for more than a month. Conversation in her office elicited the view that, "Hitler wants to give us another chance to do the right thing".

Shirer, meanwhile, wrote of receiving "a first glimpse" of Hitler's "new order", with details given by Walther Funk following the meeting of the 22 July, setting out the goals for the new European economy. These had been delivered in a speech, which had had a "sensational effect", a kind of distillation of long deliberations on the economic reorganization of Europe. It was regarded as a kind of semi-official blueprint for all the occupied countries.

The German Naval Staff, meanwhile, was beginning to assemble shipping for the invasion. Suitable ships were "limited" and had been reduced even further by the Norwegian operation. The ports were scoured for small freighters and ferries, such as the French ferry Gaston Bouineau(left, in the picture). There were about 1.2 million tons available to German industry. Coal and ore traffic absorbed about 800,000 tons. The rest was coastal traffic.

Diverting these ships would hurt the German economy, especially if they were kept for a long time. Furthermore, although ships from defeated countries could be used, they needed German crews. German ships would have to be laid up to release sailors. As for the inland waterway fleet, about a third of the German fleet would be needed. The effect on the supply of coal, ore and food would be "considerable".

The requirement for tugs could be met only if every single tug over 250 horsepower was withdrawn and all trawlers being used for deep sea and coastal fishing were requisitioned. This, said the Staff, "would practically stop the supply of fish". The motorboat quota could only be met by requisitioning craft from inland waterways. Most of these were unseaworthy.

Meanwhile, ploughing down the coast of Kent was a 21-ship convoy designated CW8. As it rounded the North Foreland, the two columns or "divisions" turned towards the Channel, picking up a "snooper" in the form of a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. There followed a series of fighter sweeps over the Channel towards Dover in what turned out to be a ploy to clear the way for the Stukas. Instead of flying high, the Me 109s came in at sea level, forcing defending Spitfires down to meet them. Hurricanes from Biggin Hill joined in. Past midday as the fight developed, eleven Hurricanes came in to assist in the dogfight with fifty Me 109s. Short of fuel, the Messerschmitts disengaged and the British fighters withdrew.

It was now the turn of the ships. Away to port, merchant navy gunner John Gallagher on the collier Tamworth spotted "a swarm of bees". He was witnessing the start of a mass attack by over sixty Stukas. Spitfires, answering a frantic call for help, engaged the fighter escort. Meanwhile, the Stukas sunk three steamers, killing eight seamen. Another ship was sunk two miles off Folkestone, with the loss of one crewman. Another was sunk off Dungeness. Five more ships were damaged.

Three E-boats then slipped out of Calais to attack the remnants of the convoy. It was now late afternoon. Two destroyers, HMS Boreas and Brilliant, and two Norwegian motor torpedo boats (MTBs), steamed from Dover to meet them. At 35 knots, their sterns sunk low in the water and their stern-waves streaming higher than their decks, the destroyers engaged. The Germans drove though the fire but were then seen to retire at speed.

The Allied warships were now in mid-channel in broad daylight, far from the cover of Dover anti-aircraft guns. Retribution was closer. Stukas hit the Boreas twice on her bridge. An officer and sixteen ratings were killed outright and another five died of wounds. Twenty-five were wounded. Brilliant was also badly damaged, with two bomb hits to her stern. Both destroyers were towed into Dover and, with them out of the way, the German boats returned. In quick order, three steamers were sunk, with the loss of six seamen. The Germans now had virtual control of the Channel at its narrowest point.

Fighter Command flew 641 sorties on the day, initially claiming thirty-nine confirmed and unconfirmed "kills", including one unknown aircraft type. This was initially recorded as a Chance Vought V 156, one of a formation pounced upon by Spitfires. Intelligence officers suggested that the Germans were so short of aircraft that they were resorting to captured French machines. The truth emerged when the Royal Navy reported the loss of a Blackburn Skua.

The revised figures had sixteen Luftwaffe aircraft downed, as against seven RAF fighters. Bomber and Coastal Command between them had lost eleven aircraft, at a cost of twenty-eight lives. The final score, therefore, was Luftwaffe sixteen, RAF eighteen, plus the Skua, bringing total British losses to nineteen. Five fighter pilots from each side were killed. But, while the balance of advantage went to the Germans, life went on regardless.

The Yorkshire Post reported how the miners of Grimethorpe Colliery had returned to work after a week-long lighting strike. The paper also reported the particularly tragic loss of the trawler Campina, impressed by the Navy. It had been blown apart by a mine as it had entered harbour, killing all its eleven crew – an event witnessed by two young wives of the crewmen who had been invited to join their husbands for a holiday.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread