28 July, 2010

Day 19 - Battle of Britain

In what scarcely seems credible at this distance, the preoccupation of The Sunday Express, one of the best-selling Sunday newspapers, was famine in mainland Europe. A combination of military campaigns and the bitter winter had conspired to cut crop yields by one third in Germany and as much as 50 percent below normal elsewhere.  Some strategists had hopes of civil unrest of such severity that Hitler could be brought down.  Interestingly, in this leading newspaper, there was not one mention of the air war on the front page.

In Berlin itself, the correspondent for the Chicago Tribune also had different things to think about. He had been expelled from Berlin for breaking the story about Germany's peace terms. That story was even reported in the Observer. London denied receiving any such terms. Berlin's correspondent of the Stockholm newspaper, Tidninger, claimed that the German Government "fully realized" that the main obstacle to the British willingness to negotiate was disbelief in any German promises or assurances. To counter this, Germany was willing to make "concrete" guarantees. Coming from Berlin, that was felt to be "a remarkable German admission".

Otto D. Tolischus, Pulitzer prize-winner and Berlin correspondent for the New York Times until he had been expelled in March, was now writing for the paper from Stockholm. The German peace offensive was being driven home with a worldwide drumbeat of totalitarian propaganda, he observed. But, inasmuch as Churchill had already anticipated Hitler's "peace" offer with a categorical "no" and Lord Halifax had repeated it after the offer had been made, foreign observers (in Stockholm) were puzzling over why the Germans were persisting with it. Tolischus explained:
First, if it fails, it is designed to undermine British fighting morale, as did Hitler's constant "peace" offers to France and his insistence that he did not want to fight France undermined French morale. Second, if it succeeds, it has assured a German "political" victory over Britain. There is no doubt here that Hitler would prefer the latter result. The latest private advices from Berlin, coming through several sources, insist that the oft heralded German blitz invasion of England has been called off or indefinitely postponed, because the entire military staff is against it and only Joachim von Ribbentrop and Heinrich Himmler are for it.
Tolischus thereby, in a few deft sentences, clarified what has since evaded generations of historians. The Germans were using diplomacy as a weapon of war – it was an integral part of the battle. As to the invasion, "The military staff are reported to be against it", Tolischus said, "because it would be very costly and the result is highly uncertain". Yet George Axelsson, his replacement in Berlin thought that the process of "softening up" Britain had begun in earnest.

After an order in France freezing road and rail traffic, a landing attempt, he said, "may be a matter of days if not hours". Confusingly, the same newspaper cited the Italian Telegrafo. It claimed that the systematic bombing of British harbours, railway centres and war plants was a "new tactic" that was aimed at "starving the British", and in particular isolating the seven million people of London from their food supplies.

London-based "aeronautical experts" cited by the Australian newspaper, the Age, seemed to agree with the Telegrafo. In order to starve Britain, they said, Hitler must prevent ships from the Atlantic using four great waterways: Southampton water; Bristol water; the Mersey; and the Clyde. Heavy attacks on ships at sea and approaching the two southerly ports was probably Hitler's immediate plan. The second stage would be to demoralize the half-starved civilian population by a general and intense bombing. The third would be the final blow, landing troops at several points, hoping that the confusion throughout the country would enable success.

In Britain, the morning saw attacks in Cornwall, Cardiff and Newport. In the early afternoon, a sizeable force of forty bombers escorted by Me 109s headed for Dover. Aircraft from four squadrons broke up the raid. There was also a raid in Newcastle, Twenty-five high explosive bombs were dropped almost in a straight line across the city. There was considerable damage, three women were killed, one woman and two men were injured. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle the next day was not allowed to reveal the location of events on its own doorstep, having to write about "a town in north-east".

Attacks on shipping continued. The Belfast registered MV Orlock Head, was bombed, sinking in the Pentland Firth. In the Thames Estuary, the armed trawler Staunton was presumed blown up by a magnetic mine. All thirteen crew were lost. And there had been very active minelaying during the night. As to the air casualties, Fighter Command on the day flew 758 sorties with a loss of five aircraft. Bomber Command lost three. Ten Luftwaffe aircraft were lost.

As this was Sunday, J. B. Priestley gave one of his Postscript talks. This time he used for his foil RAF pilots. "In return for their skill, devotion, endurance and self-sacrifice, what are we civilians prepared to do?" Priestley asked. At the very least, we could "give our minds honestly, sincerely and without immediate self-interest, to the task of preparing a world really fit for them and their kind – to arrange for them a final 'happy landing'". He stressed the virtues of co-operation, as practised by RAF pilots, rather than the competitiveness which they experienced in business life, where the watchword was "survival of the slickest".

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