27 July, 2010

Day 18 – Battle of Britain

Luftwaffe operations started just before ten. Again shipping was the target, with an attack on a convoy off Swanage, Dorset. Simultaneously, two convoys off the estuary were bombed. From Harwich emerged a group comprising six minesweeping trawlers, with anti-aircraft protection from the destroyers HMS Wren and Montrose. HMS Wren came under heavy and sustained bombing from fifteen Heinkels. She was holed below the waterline and sank with the loss of thirty-seven crewmen. Montrose then had her bows blown off and other major damage. Amazingly, she remained afloat and was towed back to Harwich.

Further south, in Dover Harbour, the destroyer Codrington was alongside the depot ship Sandhurst in the submarine basin. A bomb fell close to her, breaking her back and she sank in two pieces. The destroyer HMS Walpole, also alongside Sandhurst, was badly damaged as was the depot ship itself. She was to be further damaged in a raid on 29 July. The action was notable for being the first time Me 109s had carried bombs. This changed the tactical equation. Fighters could no longer be ignored while the RAF went after the bombers.

None of these events were made public at the time. The loss of the Codrington was not officially released until 18 May 1945. Moreover, there were other shipping losses attributable to the Luftwaffe. SS Salvestria, an 11,938-ton whale factory ship, while approaching Rosyth in Scotland, activated an acoustic mine. The Durdham Sand Dredger was sunk by a mine in the mouth of the Severn. HM Salvage Vessel Tedworth was bombed and slightly damaged off North Foreland; a convoy was bombed off the Humber; and the SS Westavon, in a convoy about forty miles off Orfordness, was disabled by a near miss from a bomb.

With news that the Germans were about to install heavy guns at Cap Griz Nez, the Admiralty decided remove its warships from the port of Dover. This was another significant victory for the Germans. They knew it – their reconnaissance photographs showed the empty berths. But the British public were not allowed to know. Censorship kept information from the public, not the enemy. Convoys would now be run as "combined naval and air operations", the number of vessels limited to twenty-five. A mobile balloon barrage was to be provided for each convoy. With such complications, it would take time to arrange the next sailing.

On this day, RAF Fighter Command lost three aircraft in 496 sorties, the RAF total reaching four when a Battle bomber exploded after a bomb fell to the ground while it was being loaded, killing six men. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, lost five aircraft. Meanwhile at Wolverhampton, William John Robson, an Air Ministry technical instructor, was fined £15 with 12 shillings costs for "despondency" talk. Robson had said he admired Germany, that he had shaken hands with Hitler and that British troops had run away at Dunkirk.

Across the Atlantic, in a widely syndicated news piece, Russian-born American aviator Major Alexander de Seversky questioned the likelihood of a German invasion of Britain. Unless Germany possesses a huge secret armada of new types of fighting aircraft, of which the world has no inkling, it was not possible. "There is a great gulf between the political logic of the Führer's threats and the tactical realities of the situation", he wrote. "If victory has gone to Hitler's head and he overrides the objections of the strategists in this connection, then Germany is heading for a terrific failure". Given that, there was "room for suspicion", de Seversky thought, that the deliberate German ballyhoo was a stratagem to compel Britain to keep its men and machines at home.

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