29 July, 2010

Day 20 - Battle of Britain

The Daily Express is mining the same vein in which the New York Times has been digging, thus talking up the invasion threat.  But it also taps into a rival newspaper, the New York Sun, retailing the details of an exclusive interview between the Hearst correspondent Karl von Wiegand - the Kaiser's Press agent in the last war - and Herman Göring. The Reichsmarschall is cited as saying: "My air force is completely prepared and all set for the signal of command from the Führer to do our part in the general attack. "I can assure you our attacks on England so far have been merely armed reconnaissances."

The day is fine with light, north-westerly winds and haze in the Straits of Dover. Two sizeable convoys are on the move and an early morning raid is brewing. Picked up by radar at about 07:20hrs, it suddenly becomes apparent that the ships are not the target. The raid is heading for Dover Harbour itself, already reeling from the attacks of the previous days.

Park is now under considerable pressure to protect the port, the Admiralty pressurising the Air Ministry which, in turn, is leaning on the 11 Group commander. He releases eleven Spitfires of No. 41 Squadron are released, along with twelve Hurricanes of No. 501 Sqn. These are vectored in to intercept what turns out to be 20 Stukas supported by about 50 Me 109s.

As the waters of the harbour erupt under a storm of bombs, four Stukas are shot down. The ferocious fighting is made all the more hazardous for the RAF by the enthusiastic participation of the anti-aircraft gunners But the Me 109s have the advantage of height and F/O D R Gamblen of No. 501 Sqn is shot down and killed. Four more of the squadron's aircraft are shot down, although their pilots survive.

This is only the first of two attacks. By the end of the day, SS Grondland, which had been damaged on the 25th, has been sunk in the outer harbour with nineteen crew killed. Patrol yacht Gulzar (197grt) is sunk in the submarine basin. The crew is rescued.  And the depot ship HMS Sandhurst - damaged in the raid two day previously - is set on fire (pictured below).

With the half-submerged wreck of the Codrington still alongside, her substantial stores of fuel and explosives threaten to devastate the town. Again and again, personnel from Dover Fire Brigade and the Auxiliary Fire Service have been forcing their way into the burning ship, even as the Luftwaffe returns, beating back the flames until they are extinguished. Although badly damaged, the ship is saved.

As a result of their bravery, no less than three senior fire officers are awarded the George Medal: Ernest Harmer, Executive Chief Officer; Dover Fire Brigade; Cyril Brown, Second Officer; and Alexander Edmund Campbell, Section Officer, Dover Auxiliary Fire Service. Six firemen are commended. They are gazetted on 30 September.

In Portland, a drama of a different sort is playing out, with the Royal Navy about to lose its fourth destroyer to bombing in the month. This is HMS Delight (pictured below), escorting a Channel convoy off Portland. She had sailed from Rosyth, through the English Channel and had stopped at Portland on the way, departing on the 29th. In contravention of local orders and placing herself at significant risk, she is sailing in daylight. After leaving the harbour, she is detected by German radar at Cherbourg, which directs German aircraft to attack her.

By then, she is some 20 miles off Portland Bill. She puts up a spirited fight. A bomb on her fo'c'sle, however, causes a major fire and explosion. Even then she manages to limp back to Portland harbour but she sinks early the next morning, having lost six of her company. She currently lies at a depth of approximately 160 ft of water, broken in half and upside down. Curiously, the Admiralty permits an announcement of the loss (right), although no details of the location are disclosed.

This is not the end of the grief for the day. A heavy raid on Harwich by He 111s and Do 17s is beaten off by Nos 17, 66 and 85 Sqns, with a loss to the Germans of three He 111s. But the Luftwaffe has the last "laugh". SS Clan Monro (5,952t), en route Cochin, India to the Tees is sunk by a mine off Harwich. SS Moidart (1,262t), steaming from London to Newcastle, is also sunk by a mine in the same area. The attack on the 16th Destroyer Flotilla, disrupting minesweeping activities, is yielding dividends.

And the mine is turning out to be a potent weapon. SS Ousebridge (5,601grt) also finds one in Queen's Channel, Liverpool. Her bow is blown off and back os broken. Two of her crew are killed. Raids are also seen in Wales, with incendiaries and explosive bombs dropped in three locations, including Port Talbot harbour gates. In the early morning, bombs are dropped at Altcar (Lancashire), near Crewe, in Essex, Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Midlothian and Berwickshire, causing little or no damage. Bombs are also dropped near the aerodromes at Yatesbury and Hawarden.

And there has been another of those remarkable incidents. During the early hours of the morning, an He 111 is en route to bomb the Bristol works at Filton. It is picked up by searchlights and comes under fire from AA gun batteries which manage to hit and damage the bomber.

A fire starts to engulf one of the engines, and soon the other engine begins to lose power. The crew bale out and are eventually captured. Two are at large for some 48 hours, but one crew member, Fw J Markl, wanders abroad for nine days, believed to be the longest period a German airman is at large before capture.

For Fighter Command, the day has seen the heavy load of 758 sorties, for the loss of three aircraft. Luftwaffe losses are six although the British communiqué for the day claims "17 of 80 raiders" shot down in 30 minutes in the Dover action. In later news bulletins, the censor permits Dover to be named - the first time a mention of a place name has been allowed.

One of the German losses is Hpt Erwin Aichele, flying an Me 109E. His aircraft is damaged in a scrap over the English Channel but he manages to nurse it back to his base near Wissant, France, where he attempts an emergency landing. The aircraft overturns and he is killed. Aichele is aged 39, one of the oldest German fighter pilots in service. This Monday also, Bomber Command loses a Blenheim, shot down in the sea on a raid to Bremen. Two crew are captured and one is killed.

Meanwhile, the order to shoot down the German Seenotdienst aircraft marked with Red Crosses is still having its ramifications. Some RAF pilots are refusing to obey the order, and others want to see it in writing. Accordngly, on this day, the Air Ministry issues a communiqué, which states:
... enemy aircraft bearing civil markings and marked with the Red Cross have recently flown over British ships at sea and in the vicinity of the British coast, and that they are being employed for purposes for which His Majesty's Government cannot regard as being consistent with the privileges generally accorded to the Red Cross.

His Majesty's Government desire to accord to ambulance aircraft reasonable facilities for the transportation of the sick and wounded, in accordance with the Red Cross Convention, and aircraft engaged in the direct evacuation of the sick and wounded will be respected, provided that they comply with the relevant provisions of the Convention.

Her Majesty's Government are unable, however, to grant immunity to such aircraft flying over areas in which operations are in progress on land or at sea, or approaching British or Allied territory, or territory in British occupation, or British or Allied ships.

Ambulance aircraft which do not comply with the above requirements will do so at their own risk and peril.
The legalistic phrasing by no means conveys clarity, but in all probability, HMG is within its rights. Art. 18 of the 1929 Geneva Convention does not afford protection to aircraft "flying over the firing line" without the "special and express permission" of the opposing combatants. And nor could ambulance aircraft overfly "enemy territory or territory occupied by the enemy."

Furthermore, there is some doubt as to whether search and rescue operations, aimed at recovering uninjured combatants, are covered at all, although it is noted that hospital ships can take part in rescuing shipwrecked mariners. Air-sea rescue operations have certain parallels. However, Seenotdienst aircraft are progressively repainted in standard Luftwaffe colours, and guns are fitted. There are, though, to be more dramas.

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