12 July, 2010

Day 3 - Battle of Britain

The British Government, on the other hand, was fully aware of Germany's use of propaganda as a weapon. Its next initiative on the horizon was a "European economic system", which would "sweep away the customs barriers, quotas, currency restrictions, wastefulness and inefficiency of an anachronistic capitalist system".

Hitler had in mind a sort of proto European Union and it was obvious, said Churchill in a "most secret" telegram sent this day to the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, that he could make great play with all this. He could pose as the regenerator of a decadent European system. As master of Europe, he could afford to restore the semblance of freedom to his victims in a scenario where Britain was cast as the warmonger, "demonstrably bent on reducing the greater part of the world to ruin". The Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, was to respond with a long telegram, offering his own ideas for a post-war settlement.

Throughout this whole period, Hitler had openly declared his reluctance to make war with Britain. Whether this was a tactical ploy, or genuinely meant, is not known. Possibly, it was both. No student of politics can be unaware that part of the skill set of any successful politician is the ability to hold and affirm entirely different and contradictory principles – sometimes simultaneously. And Hitler was the consummate politician.

To demonstrate his good faith, Hitler on 13 June had granted unprecedented access to Karl von Wiegand, a Hearst Newspapers journalist, for a prolonged interview. Von Wiegand was chief European correspondent for the New York Journal American, the principal isolationist newspaper in the Hearst stable. To him, Hitler had denied wanting to destroy the British Empire. "On the contrary", he had told Wiegand, "just before the outbreak of this war … I submitted a proposal to the British Government wherein I went to the length of offering armed assistance of the Reich for safeguarding British Empire". The published interview transcript was circulated to the War Cabinet on 15 June – rather bizarrely marked "secret".

For the longer term, and almost as problematical for Churchill, was the issue of what had become known as "war aims". Throughout the early part of the war, there had been considerable pressure for an open statement from the Government, and events this day were shaping up to increase that pressure.

The immediate source of the problem was Harold Nicolson, who had brought up the matter at the policy committee of which he was a member. Writing in his diary, he confided that there were two issues. On the one hand, there was the possibility of Hitler calling a European Economic Conference, announcing the economic consolidation of Europe. On the other, when the bombing began on a large scale, people would ask, "What are we fighting for?" In order to combat the first, Nicolson wrote, we needed free trade and pooled resources. For the second, we needed socialism. With his committee, he agreed to draft in leaflet form a manifesto promising the world free trade, and in Britain "equality of opportunity". But, he wrote, "Would it be difficult to get Duff Cooper to put it to the War Cabinet? Will it not be felt that we had better leave this sleeping tiger to sleep in its own way?"

Nicolson was by no means the only one pondering about socialism. The left-wing Tribune magazine, through its columnist "Argus", was asking whether the Labour Movement and the workers of the country realised the "absolutely unequalled opportunity" given to them. The war was "turning the flank of those who in peacetime were ready to fight to the last ditch against Socialism". Alone of Western countries, aid the columnist, "we have an opportunity now, both to beat tyranny and to show that the inevitable economic revolution can be made without the loss of the essence of democracy, liberty and civilisation".

In the air fighting, a pattern was now beginning to emerge, plus a degree of continuity that marked it out as a battle rather than a series of disjointed actions. So it was that, after fog in the Channel had cleared on this day, radar picked up aircraft heading for convoys codenamed "Agent" off North Foreland and "Booty", twelve miles north-east of Orfordness. The heavier attack was aimed at "Booty". Sections from six squadrons were scrambled to defend it. Elsewhere, German bombing sunk the British steamer Hornchurch (2162grt), off Aldeburgh Light Vessel, and damaged the steamer Josewyn (1926grt), eight miles west, northwest of St Catherine's Point.

Meanwhile, the RAF was taking the fight to the enemy. Blenheims were sent out for a search-and-destroy mission of enemy aircraft (type pictured above). One was attacked by twelve Me 109s. The crew made it back to their base on Thorney Island where their aircraft crashed on landing.

The national media continued to give the impression that action was confined to the south-east and Home Counties, stoking up fears of an invasion. But there is a major and serious gap in most popular narratives. This day and throughout the battle, the Germans were carrying out nuisance raids all over the country, some by day but mostly by night. Never at any time was the entire resource of the Luftwaffe focused on a single, strategic objective, and never was there one localized battle.

County Durham, for instance, saw a large number of incendiary bombs dropped on railway lines leading to a small village with the unlikely name of Seaton Snooks. Others fell in West Hartlepool. Incendiary bombs fell in a village near Consett. In an almost comedic incident, a cow was killed and a house slightly damaged by fire. There was nothing in the least bit amusing when Aberdeen was raided, though. The single He 111 was shot down (type illustrated above) , but not before it had killed twenty-six and injured seventy-nine, and caused considerable damage. The day became known locally as "Black Friday".

At "the end of play", the "cricket score" was rushed out with a speed that did not permit reflection or accuracy. Once published, it was difficult to correct results without loss of face, especially if adjustments had to be substantially downwards. Fighter Command admitted to four lost, in 670 sorties, and claimed twenty-two Germans downed. The actual figures were nine and eight respectively. With a Coastal Command Blenheim and a Whitley bomber also lost, the day brought eleven losses to the RAF, putting the Germans ahead. A combat exchange rate of more than 5:1 was being claimed, when the ratio was closer to 1:1. Furthermore, five British fighter pilots had been killed, one reported "believed drowned". Cumulative fighter pilot losses in three days stood at ten, almost enough to man a squadron.

This day being a Friday, a weekly résumé on the naval military and air situation had been sent to the War Cabinet. Throughout the war, a secret appraisal was sent every Friday. This one covered the period from noon on 4 July to noon on 11 July. It conveyed the sense of an escalating air war, noting more operations by the German long-range bomber force. Ports on the south coast and shipping in the North Sea had become important targets. While U-boat activity had decreased, enemy aircraft had inflicted considerable damage on shipping in the Channel.

General Alan Brooke, in an entry in his diary, wrote that: "This was supposed to be a probable day for an invasion!" He had spent the day in the office. Also recording an entry on the invasion was another diarist and a vital witness in the ongoing narrative. This was 25-year-old John "Jock" Colville, Churchill's private secretary. He heard Churchill talking with two of his generals, Paget and Auchinleck, referring to "the great invasion scare". This, Churchill had said, was serving a most useful purpose. It was well on its way "to providing us with the finest offensive army we have ever possessed and it is keeping every man and woman tuned to a high pitch of readiness". Churchill had doubts on whether it was a "serious menace", although he intended to give precisely the opposite impression, and to talk about "long and dangerous vigils, etc", when he broadcast two days hence. The threat was to be exploited as a unifying and motivational force.

What may have triggered the discussion was that the Prime Minister had received a response to his memorandum of 10 July on the invasion. It had come from the First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, who told him: "[W]e have to take into account the characteristics of the Hitler regime". Complete disregard of losses could be expected if this would help gain the objectives. It could not be assumed that "past military rules" could be relied upon. Under certain conditions, the Germans might be able to land as many as 100,000 troops on British soil, without being intercepted by naval forces. The real question was whether they could be kept supplied. Unless the German air force had overcome both our air force and our navy, Pound wrote, this "seems practically impossible".

As to the invasion of England, the German military had been studying the problem. It was now in the hands of Colonel General Alfred Jodl, twice wounded veteran of the First World War who had celebrated his fiftieth birthday on 10 May as German tanks had rolled towards France. Now Chief of Operation Staff of the OKW , he was the German military's most senior war planner. With the approval of the Supreme Commander and his immediate boss, Field Marshal Keitel, Jodl had on this day finalized a document entitled First Thoughts on a Landing in England.

This was the first serious attempt to consider the practical implications of the invasion. Jodl had no illusions. There were the three important difficulties: Britain's command of the sea; the mobility of her Army, which could move rapidly to the landing areas; and the impossibility of achieving strategic surprise. As Churchill had earlier surmised, shipping concentrations in the ports of northern France could not be concealed.

The first problem Jodl believed could be circumvented by a landing on the south coast where the crossing was short, and by substituting command of the air for the naval supremacy which the Germans did not possess. To cope with the lack of strategic surprise and the anticipated mobility of British forces, he proposed that the landing should "take place in the form of a river crossing in force on a broad front". In other words, he anticipated multiple, simultaneous landings, over such a wide front that the enemy could not concentrate its forces against any one spearhead, without another breaking through.

The role of artillery would fall to the Luftwaffe; the first wave of landing troops had to be very strong; in place of bridging operations, a sea lane completely secure from naval attacks would be established in the Dover Straits. He suggested that the fighting troops of seven divisions should land between Dover and Bournemouth, under the command of General Gerd von Rundstedt, then Commander of Army Group A. And the operation had a name: Lion. It was shortly afterwards changed to Sealion (Seelöwe), a strangely unthreatening name for an operation which had the potential to change the world.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread