14 July, 2010

Day 5 - Battle of Britain

Cargo ship under attack in the Dover Straits

Despite the censorship, commentary on the fighting was still permitted. Thus, Major (Maj) Oliver Stewart, air correspondent of the Observer noted a change in German strategy. "Air blockade has been the enemy's objective during the past week", he wrote. There had been increased aerial effort but it had been diverted from land targets to shipping. The main forces "would seem to have been concentrated against our convoys". The official view was not dissimilar, but Stewart reinforced it and made it public. This was a German campaign against shipping, not the RAF – and obviously so.

The attacks on the day were also against Channel shipping, the same that the BBC's Charles Gardner had come to watch. By night, there was the dispersal of effort. Heinkel bombers attacked oil tanks at Avonmouth, to the south of Bristol. RAF Bomber Command was also out. Six Blenheims attacked oil and petrol storage tanks on the Ghent–Selzaette Canal. One was lost and another badly damaged by four Me 109s. On the day, Fighter Command lost one aircraft and one pilot. Bomber Command brought the total RAF losses to three, against the Luftwaffe's three. Since 10 July, fifteen single-seat RAF fighter pilots had been lost.

In London, Colville recorded speculation that der tag (the invasion of Britain) might be imminent. Churchill was saying that an invasion was "highly probable", repeating to himself: "Hitler must invade or fail. If he fails he is bound to go East and fail he will". Churchill, with his grasp of history, may have been thinking of Napoleon. But it was rather surprising that – after his confident performance in the War Cabinet only days previously, when he had held that an imminent invasion was unlikely – he should have changed his mind. It turns out that the source of this short-lived "scare" was a party of three Dutch naval officers who had recently escaped from Holland in a small boat. They had arrived saying that the Germans were talking about 11 July being der tag.

Winston Churchill at his seat in the Cabinet Room at No. 10

Another factor undoubtedly weighing on Churchill's mind was the speech he was about to broadcast. This was one of his lesser-known efforts, labelled: "War of the unknown warriors". In front of the microphone that evening, he noted that it had been "a great week" for the RAF and Fighter Command. He was not to know that, in the five days of fighting just finished, losses were exactly at parity, at forty-six each.

"We await undismayed the impending assault", Churchill told his listeners. "Perhaps it will come tonight. Perhaps it will come next week. Perhaps it will never come. We must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden violent shock or – what is perhaps a harder test – a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none".

The Prime Minister made it clear what would happen should the invader come to Britain. There would be "no placid lying down of the people in submission". We would "defend every village, every town, and every city. The vast mass of London itself, fought street by street, could easily devour an entire hostile army. We would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved”. Then, in a marked change of mood, making a statement that he would subsequently contradict, he concluded:
This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes. There are vast numbers, not only in this Island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a War of the Unknown Warriors; but let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.
At this moment, the conflict had become a "war of peoples". On 20 August, it would become the war of the "few".

J B Priestley
Another broadcaster that day was Yorkshire writer and playwright, J. B. Priestley, hired by the BBC to deliver a series of talks under the generic title: Postscript. In philosophical terms, he was Churchill's opposite. Hailing from Bradford in West Yorkshire, from an "ultra-respectable" middle-class background, he was grammar school educated and now a successful writer and social commentator. Although he lived in the south, he never lost his Yorkshire accent. Sometimes described as a Fabian socialist, his philosophy was actually his own. His trademark was the People's War concept, putting him at odds with the jingoistic, flag-waving patriotism that was so much Churchill's stock-in-trade.

His slot had been after the nine o'clock news, the talk ostensibly about Margate and the war's effect on the all but deserted holiday town. But Priestley's technique was to use homespun stories as platforms for his message. The war was not merely a means of defeating fascism, he said. It was an opportunity to radically reform British society. Thus, only an hour or so after Churchill had addressed the nation, Priestley was telling largely the same audience:
The Margate I saw was saddened and hateful; but its new silence and desolation should be thought of as a bridge leading to a better Margate and a better England in a nobler world. We're not fighting to restore the past; it was the past which brought us to this heavy hour; but we are fighting to rid ourselves and the world of the evil encumbrance of these Nazis so that we can plan and create a noble future for all our species.
Priestley's message was anathema to Churchill and especially to the Tory right wing, which was continually irked by his broadcasts. While fully supportive of Churchill he war leader, Priestley differed profoundly about how people should be motivated to fight and how the peace should be managed. Over a series of broadcasts, he was gradually to set out his thesis that the common man was entitled to a say in creating the peace. But, in lauding the "many" on this one day, Churchill and Priestley were at one. It was not to last.

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