26 July, 2010

Day 17 - Battle of Britain

In the Tribune magazine this day, George Strauss MP commented on Churchill's intervention in the "Silent Column" affair. The Prime Minister, in his view, had "rightly interpreted public opinion" when he said that a brake should be put on the campaign to fetter freedom of expression. His intervention was timely, as the campaign was rapidly developing to dangerous lengths. His statement was, in fact, a rebuke to the Ministers who had initiated this movement and the minor officials who were pursuing it so zealously.

It has been said that truth is the first casualty of every war. If so, liberty of thought and expression is the second. The more intense war becomes the stronger is the pressure from the authorities to stop all public criticism which they call " subversive and dangerous activities." This development is now taking place in this country with alarming rapidity. If carried much further it will undermine the magnificent war morale of the British working `class.

Some restriction of liberty is of course inevitable in wartime. Nobody wants newspapers to be free to publish information which might be helpful to the enemy. No one would tolerate propaganda to discourage the production of war materials, or to play Hitler's game by deliberately spreading defeatism.

We know that it is Hitler's invariable practice to demoralise the people of a country he desires to conquer, prior to making his, assault by arms. We must therefore take whatever steps are necessary to defend ourselves against this new type of peaceful but dangerous warfare.

PARLIAMENT has ungrudgingly given the Government all the powers it has asked for to counter this type of activity. Some of us did so with misgivings. We remembered many previous occasions when we had given Ministers wide powers to stop sabotage and other acts prejudicial to the safety of the country. These powers have frequently been abused. The smooth assurances given by Ministers were subsequently ignored, and the powers with which we had entrusted them were used for purposes quite other than those originally intended.

Our fear that the same thing would happen on this occasion is already being justified. This does not mean that Parliament was wrong in passing the regulations. They were plainly necessary and the restrictions on personal liberty which they involved were justified by the fundamental issues involved in the war. The fault lies with those who are so flagrantly distorting Parliament's purpose.

Consider what has been happening recently to the regulation which makes the spreading of alarm and despondency an offence. This regulation was aimed at Fifth Column attempts to create defeatism. It has been used to persecute honest citizens whose crime has been to utter comments on the war not favoured by the authorities. And the Magistrates have imposed shocking punishments on the offenders.

Take these two examples. An Irish labourer at Preston was given 14 days' hard labour for saying " The English are a lot of traitors. They let Poland down and Belgium, and France, and they are prepared to go over to the Germans." At Swansea a 25-year-old clerk was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment for saying " It will be a good job when the British Empire is finished. We are fighting to provide dividends for the ruling class."

The Prime Minister has said that all these sentences are to be revised. But the danger of the situation lies in the fact that these men, typical of a vast number, should have been persecuted and severely punished for making political comments which may be stupid but were certainly not criminal. One of the things we are fighting for is to prevent the regimentation of public opinion. Are our political views in future to be at the discretion of a police constable and a magistrate ? If this policy of interference is allowed to drift much further we shall become a police state embodying many of the worst features of Fascism. We shall deprive ourselves of the libertarian motive which is inspiring our fight.

THIS is only one of the aspects encroachment of petty and stupid authority on our freedom. There was the Silent Column campaign which sought not only to prevent discussion about military activities, but to direct us in how we should talk amongst ourselves about the war. The ideas behind this campaign were apparently two, both equally objectionable. The first that the people of Great Britain were a lot of silly children whose morale is so fragile that the tone and temper of their speech has to be controlled by their more enlightened rulers. The second that discussion of grievances, the exposure of mistakes, and criticism of Ministers were damaging to the national war effort.

It is obvious that the reverse is the truth. The best proof of the stupidity of this campaign was the vigorous public demand that these petty restrictions on private conversations should be withdrawn, and that the Government gets on with its business of winning the war.

Mr. Churchill's pronouncement of the death sentence on the Silent Column campaign has, for a time at least, put an end to this foolish effort to wet-nurse the British public. There is another development, however, which 'is equally serious. Numerous cases are reported from various parts of the country of interference with men and women of the Labour movement. Police are visiting their homes, interrogating them, searching their bookshelves, and behaving as if these people were enemies of the state.

It is believed that these activities are the result of the mysterious committee set up by Mr. Chamberlain shortly before he ceased to be Prime Minister, Without any public announcement he set up a committee under the Chairmanship of Lord Swinton, to report on suspicious political movements. Lord Swinton is an ex-Air Minister (not without responsibility for Germany's air superiority) closely connected with the Conservative Head Office. The other members of this committee are Sir Joseph Ball, an ex-official of the Conservative Party, and Mr. Crocker, a solicitor who came into prominence by his investigations into the London fire salvage scandal a few years ago.

All that is known about this body is that it works in close contact with the Secret Service, When I asked Mr. Churchill in Parliament to give some information about its activities he said it would not be in the public interest to do so. What has this body done which cannot be stated in public? The whole set-up seems highly sinister and dangerous. There are, so far as is known, no representatives of Labour on the committee. The only conclusion I draw is that it is a sort of Cheka, whose purpose it is to watch and suppress such Left activities as certain irresponsible Conservatives deem to be undesirable.

Another aspect of this trend is the recent attempt by Duff Cooper to clap a more rigid censorship on the press. He did not suggest that under the present 'system the papers. were printing any military information which might help 'the enemy. Its object could only, therefore, have been to establish the beginnings of a political censorship. Fortunately public opinion has so far been Vigorous enough to prevent many of these attempted , encroachments on our liberties, and force the withdrawal of others.

The Press and Parliament have been so far effective in preserving the liberties we have won, and which must be preserved to the full, if the war is to end in 'a victory over Fascism. For the war is essentially a battle of ideas. Men will not fight heroically . against a force that seeks to enslave them if they see their own liberties being gradually filched away.

Two ministers in particular, as I have suggested, fail to see this and are recurrently. responsible for discouraging us. They are Mr. Duff Cooper and Sir John Anderson. They should either withdraw from office, or make public declarations that they have realized the error of their ways and will pursue wholly different policies in the future,


Such had been the expectation of an invasion that there was now international media speculation about the lack of action. AP journalist, Kirke L. Simpson, in a widely syndicated piece for the US press, explored the continuing delay. "This cannot be ignored", he wrote. "Whatever the explanation, it is daily becoming an increasing threat to Hitler's prestige".

One very obvious explanation for the delay was the simple fact that the Germans were not ready. Gen. Alan Brooke, now safely installed as C-in-C Home Command, expressed his pessimism "as to our powers of meeting an invasion". But there was still no certainty that he would have to meet one. Even now, an invasion attempt was not a foregone conclusion. The apparent finality of the German responses to the Halifax speech was not what it seemed. The political correspondent of the Glasgow Herald was writing that "Hitler's so-called peace offer remains open because of his refusal to take Lord Halifax's 'No' for an answer".

Colville seemed aware of this. "There is some agitation for an authoritative reply to Hitler’s speech, and I think Winston should make one, stating our terms and our aims subtly and clearly", he wrote. Captain M. M. Corpening, the current Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, confirmed that something was afoot. He had obtained details of peace terms handed to the King of Sweden by the German Government for onwards transmission to Great Britain. His dispatch was printed in his and many other leading American newspapers the following day.

The Express resumed its attack on Duff Cooper, having learned that the Ministry of Information was employing researchers to test public opinion and report back on morale. This, the newspaper held, was the job of MPs. Cooper was trying to bypass parliament. The Ministry of Information "began as a joke. It has always been a joke. Now it is getting beyond a joke", said the paper, dubbing its officials, "Cooper’s snoopers".

At the War Cabinet, Cooper was mainly concerned with his paper on post-war Europe. He had, since submitting it, become aware of General Smuts's telegram which had suggested that a "brains trust" be set up to work out an alternative plan for countering Hitler's peace movement. Churchill, however, refused to give Cooper his head. He had earlier suggested a loose free-trade arrangement with the USA and now suggested that the matter "required further study by various groups of Ministers". Cooper was asked to submit a scheme for examination.

In media terms, the war was on hold while headlines were given over to the events of 17 June and sinking of the Lancastria in the worst shipping disaster of the war. Then, the 16,243-ton Cunard liner, packed with an estimated 5,800 British soldiers evacuating from the port of St Nazaire, had come under attack from German aircraft. She had taken three bombs and within twenty minutes had sunk, with an estimated 4,000 drowned. This had been more lives lost than in the Titanic and Lusitania combined. It was also the largest single loss of life for British forces in the whole of the Second World War.

The disaster had happened over a month previously, and the survivors had been landed at Falmouth, from where considerable rumours had been spread as to the number of casualties. British censors had forbidden any mention of it. It had taken an American newspaper to release details and only once they emerged had the British Government made a statement.

Churchill had personally blocked the news, saying at the time: "The newspapers have got enough disaster for today at least". In his book published in 1949, he claimed he had intended to release the news a few days later. But with the pressure of events, he "forgot to lift the ban". It had then been "some years before the knowledge of this horror became public". The news, though, had actually broken in less than six weeks.

On 3 August, the Illustrated London News published many photographs of the incident (example, below right). The curious assertion by Churchill simply did not accord with the facts. 

Home Intelligence found the public unimpressed. The long-delayed announcement, it said, "has had a bad effect on morale". The loss had been generally known in certain districts and the news had been broadcast on German radio. The lack of adequate explanation for the delay "had produced criticism and general suspicion. People wondered what else is being kept back".

Meanwhile, Hastings had suffered its first air raid when a single aircraft dropped eleven bombs. Some fell on the cricket ground. Others wrecked buildings (below). Nevertheless, residents wondered at the strategic value of their town, later surmising that the German High Command is using some very old maps, following a claim on Berlin radio that there had been a successful raid the harbour - which had not functioned for some considerable time.

In the early evening Weymouth and Bristol were hit. Aberdeen was raided but with no serious damage this time. Gradually, though, the Luftwaffe was moving inland. In the north-east of London, an estimated 120 bombs fell, as well as incendiaries. A number of civilians were killed. Overnight, there was minelaying in the Thames Estuary, Norfolk and the Bristol Channel.

In the daylight air war this day, low dark cloud and heavy rain all over Britain made any flying if not impossible, certainly more than usually difficult and dangerous. But still the Luftwaffe came. As before, the convoys took their attention, with shipping south of the Isle of Wight providing a meaty target. Hurricanes from No. 601 Sqn were sent up to deal with the intruders, shooting down two bombers, at a cost of one of their own.

Another Hurricane, flown by F/O J H Riddle, was damaged. It returned safely to base. No 54. Squadron had not joined the action. It was packing up to go north for a rest. In three weeks, it had lost five pilots killed, including an experienced flight commander, and another three had been wounded. It had flown 800 hours and completed 504 combat sorties, losing twelve aircraft.

The heavy rain took its toll on Fighter Command as pilots try to land in the foul weather. A Spitfire of No. 266 Sqn Wittering and a Hurricane of No. 601 Sqn Tangmere were damaged. A Spitfire of No. 603 Squadron Turnhouse went nose first into mud upon landing. A Spitfire from No. 616 Sqn based at Leconfield, near Beverley, Yorkshire, made a heavy landing and wrecked the undercarriage following a dawn practice flight. All aircraft were repairable, but nonetheless added to the burden on the maintenance services.

On top of the shipping losses in the Channel, SS Haytor (1,189t), on its way from London to Blyth was sunk by a mine in the North Sea. And a Fokker T-VIIIW (pictured above), operated by a Dutch crew under RAF colours, was lost while on convoy escort in the North Sea. It was one nine aircraft which on 22 May 1940 escaped to the UK to form the basis of No. 320 (Netherlands) Squadron, Coastal Command, based at Pembroke Dock in South Wales.

On the day, RAF Fighter Command had mounted 581 sorties, despite the bad weather. It lost five aircraft. In addition to the Fokker, a Whitley was lost, bringing the RAF total to seven. With the Luftwaffe losing only two aircraft, the odds on the day again favoured the Germans. And the Admiralty decided that it could no longer take the risk of escorting ships through the Dover Straits in daylight.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread