11 July, 2010

Day 2 - Battle of Britain

On this day, at a Führer conference in Hitler's Berghof retreat, Admiral Räder discussed moves against England. Wholly against the idea of an invasion, he was convinced that U-boat and air attacks on convoys, and bombing centres of industry, were enough. A landing should be a last resort, reserved to make England ready to sue for peace. He set out the great difficulties and risks involved in a landing. In particular, he doubted whether an area free of mines could be cleared close to the enemy coast, and he pointed out that the route taken by the invasion fleet would have to be protected by its own minefields.

Even while this meeting was under way, there was another air attack on a British convoy. As had been the case during the previous day’s fighting, this was quite obviously the Germans executing Führer Directive No. 9 once more. But its contribution to the British propaganda war was greater. The air fighting was making the front pages, with the Daily Express proclaiming: "37 German Raiders Down", the strap line declaring: "Three Spitfires attack fifty and win".

Compared with what was to come, the fighting was small scale, making the propaganda the dominant element. Daily loss figures were becoming a weapon of war. Released daily throughout the battle, they presented enemy losses of roughly double the actual level. The Germans were doing much the same, but there was a further distortion on the British side. For comparison purposes, the Air Ministry only counted the fighters downed. Yet Bomber and Coastal Commands were part of the battle and taking casualties. On many days, when the losses from these Commands were added, the British totals exceeded those of the Germans.

Even without these curious omissions, so gross were the recording errors that one might have thought two sets of books were being kept, one correct and the other for public consumption. This was not the case. Each side fiddled the figures and then believed its own propaganda. This was far more damaging to the Germans, as they ended up vastly underestimating RAF strength. The British, who had initially exaggerated the size of German forces, continued to do so throughout the battle, despite the inflated kills. Their tactics, therefore, were unaffected.

Appreciation of the strategic position in the British camp was mixed. Guy Liddell, MI5's director of counter-intelligence, found the German air attacks "rather difficult to understand". It was difficult to see why, if as many as a hundred planes came over here, they did not drop their bombs to some purpose, he wrote in his diary. If they take the risk of coming over here at all they might as well do as much damage as possible. Liddell's explanation was that the German pilots were “not very efficient and/or rather frightened”.

Harold Nicolson, a former diplomat and currently parliamentary secretary to Duff Cooper in the Ministry of Information, wrote that the German bombing raids of our ports "are already pretty bad", but added: "God knows what they will be when they start full out". As to the bigger picture, he wrote: "our morale is perfect. I am cocky about the war". Significantly, he then wrote: "All our reports show that Hitler funks invading us, yet is pledged to do so. They expect an invasion this weekend. That is Hitler's last horoscope date. After that the stars are against him".

Nicolson had his own department to keep him informed and one mechanism was a daily "Home intelligence" report, compiled from sources throughout the country and collated by his department in London. It was giving him some very important information about the state of morale. "The public is cheerful", it said, "but there is evidence that the cheerfulness is superficial: people are disinterested in the general war situation and its international implications, and Hitler’s failure to arrive is promoting an apprehensive feeling that “he must have something very unpleasant in store for us". Determination to meet the challenge is widespread and confidence in the Navy is at a high level. "The Navy will win the war for us in the end".

Despite the efforts of the Air Ministry publicity team, the RAF featured poorly in public consciousness, although in areas which had been heavily bombed, there was a demand for "further reprisals" – a theme which was to become a constant. Thus, aggressive RAF action was "strongly applauded". But what must have been worrying was the finding that, "People are disinterested in the general war situation". The government needed the population actively engaged, committed to the fight and thus willing to provide the labour and the fighting men. Indifference could so easily turn to resentment and then to rebellion as the hardship and dangers started to bite. The clue to getting popular attention and commitment was in the report. The utility of talking up RAF successes was self-evident.

There was also a warning that poor information management incurred penalties. For instance, the policy on reporting enemy raids was to prohibit identification of locations. The legends "somewhere in England", a "north western town" and a "town on the south coast" thus became familiar. But this led to some absurd situations where local newspapers could not report the location of raids on their doorsteps. It was also policy to prohibit the release of casualty figures, with only vague statements made about deaths and injuries. Home Intelligence noted that this was bringing "suspicion on other official communiqués and on the honesty of official news as a whole" – as well as some resentment over the emphasis on London and the south-east.

With next to no publicity for the Falmouth raid, similarly there was virtually nothing publicly written about an attack on the Yorkshire port town of Bridlington this day, when HE bombs fell in a goods yard, setting fire to kerosene tanks and a van loaded with shells, some of which exploded, the fire being brought under control after about three-quarters of an hour of difficult and dangerous fire fighting. And, at Portsmouth, there was another dangerous situation on the same date when a gasometer was fired by a bomb attack. As for the air war, the Channel was overcast with a cloud base at 5,000 ft. Weather still had a huge influence on the conduct of the battle. One pervasive myth, though, is that the summer of 1940 was long and hot. But until September, when there was an unseasonably warm, clear spell, the weather was mostly cool with frequent rainy periods.

That was the case on this day, although it was good enough to permit attacks on Channel convoys, with an incursion off the Suffolk coast by a single Dornier. As this aircraft was heading for Cromer, it was picked up by radar and allocated to No. 242 Sqn based at Coltishall. But for the defenders, the conditions were less favourable. A blanket of cloud sagged over the airfield, grounding the squadron. The squadron commander volunteered to go aloft, piloting a Hurricane in near-zero visibility and driving rain. Flying towards Cromer at about 1,000 ft above the cloud, he spotted the Dornier and caught up with it, firing two long bursts before the aircraft plunged into cloud. It was later seen diving into the sea. Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, Commanding Officer (CO) of No. 242 Sqn, and the man who famously had lost his legs in a flying accident before the war yet had come back to fly again, had scored his first kill of the battle.

In the better weather further south, action had started earlier. Two German formations operating out of Cherbourg had been detected making for a convoy in Lyme Bay. That there should be attacks on two successive days was unusual, perhaps signalling that the Germans were about to increase the tempo of the fighting. What was to become a classic pattern was developing, with Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled, intercepting Stuka dive bombers (types illustrated below), in this case, escorted by Me 109s. The action cost Fighter Command three aircraft, but the Stuka attack was disrupted and no ships were sunk.

Portland Harbour, meanwhile, was being attacked by a force of about fifty aircraft, one of the bigger Luftwaffe formations to date. Mixing it with the bombers was Sqn Ldr Peter Townsend, commander of No. 85 Sqn based at Martlesham, flying his Hurricane. Picking off a Dornier, he raked the bomber with his eight Browning machine guns but, unlike Bader's victim, the crew lived to tell the tale, recording 220 hits when they got back to their base. The Hurricane, on the other hand, had a smashed coolant system. Its engine stopped when still twenty miles from the English coast. Townsend baled out and was fortunate enough to be rescued by a trawler.

Embedded here is another narrative, one the RAF is less keen on retailing – the story about how pilots were treated and how little their lives were really valued. This is typified by the fate of another airman to end up in the sea that day. He was Sgt F. J. P. Dixon who, like many before and afterwards, baled out successfully over Portland Bill, only to be drowned before he could be rescued.

Almost the same fate attended Sqn Ldr John Peel, CO of No. 145 Sqn. He parted company with his Hurricane over Selsey Bill, but luck favoured him. The coastguards saw his parachute and the Selsey lifeboat was launched. There was a strong breeze and a moderate swell but within the hour the crew had spotted him. He was pulled from the sea semi-conscious and exhausted. Peel later wrote to his rescuers, telling them: "When you arrived I had almost given up hope and I doubt I could have lasted more than a few minutes". It was six days before he was fit to return to the battle.

Almost exactly a year later, on 9 July 1941, Peel was again shot down over the Channel. This time he had a dinghy, into which he climbed. An Air Sea Rescue Lysander was scrambled from Hawkinge, spotted him and directed a Royal Navy patrol boat and RAF launch to his location, whence he was picked up, despite enemy attempts to interfere. He was back flying the next day. The remarkable difference is that, in mid-1940, there was no organized air-sea rescue service. A year later, a service was being developed, which was to save the lives of thousands of aircrew. The traditional Battle of Britain narrative stresses how Fighter Command was desperately short of pilots, to the extent that the success depended on its ability to keep up numbers. Yet, through unnecessary losses arising from the lack of rescue services, this was to a very great extent, a self-inflicted wound.

Back in July 1940, during the night there was activity over south-west England, East Anglia, the Yorkshire coast and Portsmouth. By day, the British steamer Hornchurch was sunk by German bombing off Aldeburgh Light Vessel. The steamer Josewyn was damaged near St Catherine’s Point, off the Isle of Wight. There was a scrap over the Channel when a German He 59 rescue seaplane had been seen. Two Spitfires were shot down and the seaplane forced to land. There were Stuka raids on Portland, at which the RAF was late in arriving, the radar having given false (low) estimates of strength, although a later raid on Portsmouth was well and truly carved up.

One other narrative emerges here, the often-told story about the technologically advanced radar stations which served to detect the German intruders and give the fighters vital warming, avoiding the need to mount costly standing patrols. Yet Britain's technical lead in radar is yet another myth of the battle. So powerful is it that it has tended to obscure other achievements. In the technology, the Germans were far ahead. The British network, codenamed Chain Home, included the cumbersome, low frequency "Chain High" system of 300-foot non-rotating transmitter masts, and a separate receiving array (pictured above), which had gone down a technological cul de sac. The poor performance of the system, effective only over water, led to many difficulties.

The great achievement of the British was not so much the technology but the integration of the radar with other intelligence inputs – such as radio intercepts from the assembling air fleets and sightings from the expanded Observer Corps. These were fed into a sophisticated command and control system, at the heart of which was the "filter room", located at Bentley Priory, on the outskirts of London. A former stately home, one-time hotel and then girls' boarding school, it had been acquired by the RAF in 1926. There, intelligence was sorted and processed to give a best estimate of enemy strengths and intentions, whence it was passed to the operations room to guide decision-making.

Despite this, the technology had a long way to go. When the Luftwaffe mounted a massive night bombing campaign against the UK, there was little effective defence. Guns, without the radar directors which only came very much later, were next to useless. They were fired largely to bolster civilian morale, giving the impression that countermeasures were being taken. Sometimes, only blanks were fired, turning the guns into noise-makers. These at least had the merit of reducing the cascade of damaging and sometimes lethal shrapnel produced by exploding anti-aircraft shells, and the number of misfires. Similarly, pilots flying night sorties in aircraft designed and equipped only for day fighting, without accurate radar direction, were largely useless.

Their main concession to the night-fighting role was that they were painted black, and even that had little value when the unshielded exhausts of the day fighters produced beacons of flame which alerted the German bombers to their presence. Accidents killed far more aircrew than did the Luftwaffe, and continued to do so long after the senior ranks of the RAF were aware of the perils and the uselessness of the endeavours. That night, in a raid on Portsmouth by thirty bombers, nine civilians were killed and fifty were injured. In Yorkshire, five people were killed in an incident in Bridlington. The Luftwaffe suffered no casualties.

Throughout this period though, whenever weather permitted, the RAF was active in what was called the counteroffensive, conducted by Bomber Command, together with Coastal Command and Fleet Air Arm aircraft. This night, two Blenheims had been sent out to search for E-boats in the Channel. They had encountered a Dornier and attacked it, leaving it with extensive tail damage and trailing smoke from both engines.

At the end of this day, the Luftwaffe lost eighteen aircraft but no Me 109 pilots. Fighter Command lost seven aircraft in the course of 432 sorties. Three pilots were dead. Bomber and Coastal Command had lost between them six aircraft, bringing the RAF "score" to thirteen aircraft down, with the Luftwaffe eighteen – a "win" for the home team, but again no great victory.

The difference in presentation between the claimed scores and the reality emphasized just how important the clerks and the statisticians were. In effect, they were more powerful than the warriors. Their manipulation of the figures could achieve something mere bullets could not. It could turn a narrow win into a major success, or a defeat into victory – after the event. In a war where the ability to continue to fight was dependent almost entirely on how the battle was perceived, a paper win had the same value as the real thing. The bizarre thing is that anyone could now think that the information produced at the time was not in some way tainted.

There was a less creative aspect to the propaganda – an attempt through censorship, encouragement and sanctions, to control popular sentiment. Leading this endeavour was Duff Cooper. A close personal friend of Churchill, his political ally during the days of Munich and anti-appeasement, he had been rewarded with this key post of Minister of Information. Unashamedly upper class and very active in "high society", with his famously glamorous wife, the Lady Diana, he revelled in his notoriety as a playboy, although this was leavened by his undisputed talent as a writer and razor-sharp wit. But even his best friends struggled to argue that he was a success as Information Minister. And this day he was addressing the nation, courtesy of the BBC, to launch a new campaign.

Beaverbrook, as the new minister for production and still the proprietor of the Daily Express, had the day before launched his own campaign, an ill-judged attempt to bolster aircraft production by enjoining housewives to donate their aluminium pots and pans. As the stockpiles grew, embarrassed officials had to concede that the scrap was of little value for aircraft production. Most of the highly publicized heaps were buried in holes in the ground.

Cooper’s effort was different, if no less ill-considered. Ostensibly aimed at countering "defeatism" and preventing the spread of “alarm and despondency” – which was a criminal offence under emergency powers regulation – his brainchild was the "Silent Column". This was a development of the "careless talk costs lives" campaign, and described by the Glasgow Herald as a "campaign to kill rumour". Cooper appealed for recruits to "an imaginary regiment – the silent column" composed of men and women resolved "to say nothing that can help the enemy".

The nub of the campaign was to invite "sensible people" to shame figures, such as "Miss Leaky Mouth" and “Mr Glumpot". To reinforce the message, three cinema adverts had been produced, a deluge of new coloured posters were issued, and quarter-page adverts were placed in 108 newspapers and 72 magazines. But there was a fist of steel inside the patronizing glove, the threat of criminal sanctions. Through these, unwittingly, Cooper was unleashing a war against his own people. The campaign brought out the worst of the"tittletattle" elements of British society, redolent of Gestapo informers – with whom comparisons were made. Magistrates and judges took their lead from the campaign and, in a week, had imprisoned seventeen of their fellow citizens, sentencing them to a total of 123 weeks, with fines of £162 – in the days when £3 was a weekly wage.

One of the first was Harry Blessingdon, a young engineer overheard in a hotel lobby proudly telling a Church of England Canon about his airfieldbuilding work. That cost him three months' imprisonment and a £60 fine. William Garbett, a Birmingham clerk, was heard saying in a public restaurant: "It will be a good job when the British Empire is finished" – one year's imprisonment. Leicester schoolteacher, Kathleen Bursnall, got two months and was fined £20 for saying to soldiers: "You are bloody fools to wear that uniform".

Cases like these crystallized resentment against Cooper, his Ministry and the entire government, with the media very quickly turning against them. Comparing the hyperactivity of the Ministry in pursuing this campaign, with its inefficiency in getting information to the media, the Daily Mail remarked sourly: "If the Minister of Information is to kill rumour he must put something in its place". Thus, if propaganda could win or lose the war, Cooper was doing his best to lose it.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread