15 July, 2010

Day 6 - Battle of Britain

Another common distortion in the Battle of Britain narrative is the suggestion that the air fighting was centre-stage, the nation transfixed by the action as it unfolded. But, at this stage, that was very far from the case. For most people, the air battle was "noises off", small-scale, localized and rarely seen. Even domestic politics continued as before.

For example, union conferences continued. Speaking at the Mineworkers' Federation Conference in Blackpool was Alexander Sloan MP. A time would come, he said, when ordinary people would have to say that the war should end. It would be brought to an end not when politicians or militarists decided, but when there was a rising of the common people to say that it should cease.

This was the nightmare which haunted Churchill. Before his election, Sloane had been the miners’ union agent in Ayrshire. In 1921, he had been imprisoned in Barlinnie, Glasgow, for standing up to strike-breaking coal owners. A working class hero, in many ways he represented the authentic voice of the Left. People like him were potentially dangerous – they could mobilize the people.

That speech got little coverage, but not so Duff Cooper. He had become the story as the press picked up the arrival in New York of his 9-year-old son aboard the liner SS Washington, a beneficiary of the seavacuation scheme. No better example could have been found to illustrate the class divide in Britain. The following day, Daily Mirror journalist William Connor, writing under the pseudonym Cassandra, caustically welcomed the safe arrivals, then adding:
I was disgusted and angered that millions of ordinary kids, without wealth, without fame, without rank, title, or influence, have been left here without a hope in hell of getting out of range of Hitler's bombers. And since the Minister of Information is as keen as anyone to keep up the morale of this great country of ours, I'll tell him that the spectacle of the children of powerful politicians and rich peers getting to safety, while the humble multitude of the ordinary people's children are left, is deplorable. It is exactly the type of thing that should NOT happen.
This was extremely damaging to a government seeking to represent the war as an egalitarian struggle against the forces of evil. It was doubly damaging for Duff Cooper, who was charged with maintaining public morale. And, for him personally, things were to get worse.

But alongside Cooper's outing, Signor Virginio Gayda was again causing a stir. Britain, he wrote, was about to be served with an ultimatum by Germany and Italy:
Preparations will be completed in a very few days, and Britain will have to settle its last account. It will have to chose between submission to the renovating, restorative forces of Europe and an extremely violent war in which inexorable destruction, the fateful precipitous step towards the final overthrow will be measured not by years or weeks of which Mr Churchill spoke but by days and hours.
Watching events from the heart of Berlin was US correspondent William L. Shirer. As an American neutral, but sympathetic to the British, his insights from the heart of the enemy capital were invaluable. Now, he had picked up from the German press that German troops of all arms "stand ready for the attack on Britain". The date of the attack would be decided by the Führer alone. One hears, Shirer said, that the High Command is not keen about it, but that Hitler insists.

This was a classic example of the fog of war, with different stories and opinions circulating at the same time. The military correspondent of La Stampa wrote of German military authorities discussing the question of where to land troops. The Germans, this correspondent maintained, were convinced that Britain would be forced to surrender within four weeks. The attack would start at several points at once, beginning with the bombardment of London, coinciding with mass attacks on the RAF. The German High Command was contemplating landing 25 divisions comprising 500,000 men.

The Associated Press (AP), on the other hand, thought that the German High Command had not finalized the plan to conquer Britain and the RAF was adding to their difficulties. Germany's need for a quick war was as great if not greater than ever. Its leaders were anxious to make the grand assault on Britain. But the more realistic High Command had counselled caution, realizing the stupendous difficulties with which they had to contend. It also reported that there had been a "lull" in the battle.

Back in London, that was certainly how Chamberlain saw it. Reflecting the observation of Guy Liddell a few days earlier, he wrote to his friend Samuel Hoare in Madrid telling him that the air raids so far were "not the real thing". Little damage had been done to life or property.

Whatever else, though, something was clearly stirring at the highest level. But it was not to the German Navy C-in-C's liking. It was four days since Raeder had told Hitler of his reservations about an invasion. Now Supreme Headquarters was saying that the Führer wanted preparations for a launch, any time from 15 August onwards. The Grand Admiral's worst fears seemed to be realized. Nevertheless, a diplomatic response was called for, and the Navy noted that: "operations and landings which had previously seemed impossible were now feasible, thanks to the superior leadership and to the exceptional moral and offensive power of the Armed Forces".

Churchill this day was completing his exchange of memorandums on the likelihood of invasion, responding to Pound’s intervention of 12 July. He expressed his personal belief that the Admiralty would "be better than their word", and would exact losses in transit from any invader, which would further reduce the scale of attack the Germans could mount. He also thought the British Army should be able to deal with a dispersed force of 200,000 men, but stressed that the greatest precautions must be taken in the south, given the "sovereign importance of London". From this time, many of the naval assets which would otherwise be used to escort merchant convoys on the North-Western Approaches would be tied up on anti-invasion duties in the south and east.

As for the propaganda war, the Air Ministry "cricket score" was evident, especially on the Express front page. There had been 206 German "planes" lost in attacks on Britain since the start of the war and 130 "since the Battle for Britain began on June 18".

Elsewhere, Bomber and Coastal Commands were sinking invasion barges – an activity that was to become a media staple. But, as with the fighter scores, these reports had to be treated with caution. Poor weather had been hampering operations and, on that day, there had only been eleven Blenheims flying. Their war loads were minute – typically four 250lb bombs – and they had also been instructed to hit oil and petrol storage tanks on the Ghent–Selzaette Canal. The amount of damage they could have done was extremely limited.

Possibly of greater long-term importance, a Hudson bomber had attacked two German minesweepers off the German island of Terschelling. This illustrated the vulnerability of minesweepers in open seas yet, if the Germans were to shepherd an invasion fleet safely to England, the Kreigsmarine needed a week or two to sweep the Channel. If the safety of minesweepers could not even be guaranteed in home waters, Channel operations were going to be extremely hazardous.

In the air war, the pattern established in the last few days was continuing. To the Channel area, alerted by reconnaissance aircraft to intense shipping movement, the Luftwaffe sent fifteen Dorniers to brave the low cloud. The bombers reached a convoy but were thwarted by Fighter Command Hurricanes. A small force of bombers also crept inland to the Westland factory at Yeovil, plus other targets in the west of England and Wales. Overall, though, it was a very light day for the air war. Fighter Command flew 449 sorties, losing four Hurricanes and one pilot. The Germans lost four machines.

Nevertheless, this early stage of the Battle of Britain was as much if not more a running sea battle, with far more sailors than airmen actively engaged. And casualties were very much higher. In the Merchant Navy alone, an estimated 1,730 seamen serving in British-registered vessels died through the official battle period, compared with 544 Fighter Command aircrew.

On this day, the 3,000-ton SS Heworth was damaged by German aircraft near the Aldeburgh Light Vessel. Ten miles south, the Polish steamer Zbaraz was so badly damaged by bombing that she foundered. And the steamer Bellerock was sunk by a mine in the Bristol Channel. Seventeen crew members were lost. The City of Limerick was bombed and sunk in the Bay of Biscay. Two crew members were killed. German bombers then sunk the Panamanian steamer Fossoula, 40 miles from Cape Finisterre. Four crew members went missing. The Portuguese steamer Alpha was sunk 100 miles south-west of Land's End.

Suffering from wholly inadequate air-sea rescue services, Fighter Command was also having problems with this hostile environment. Too often, when airmen were forced to bale out or ditch, the sea was proving lethal, a direct consequence of the lack of thought given to preserving one of Fighter Command's most important assets. The RAF had assumed that, in the crowded waters of the British Isles, downed pilots would be spotted and picked up by commercial shipping, naval patrols or civilian lifeboats.

The Germans, by contrast, relied on a specialized fleet of some thirty rescue seaplanes, mainly Heinkel 59s. Additionally, crewmen were issued with inflatable dinghies as well as their life jackets, and had fluorescent dye to stain the water and make them more visible. The British fighter pilots had neither dinghies nor dye. The Germans plucked over four hundred and some British aircrew from the seas in their rescue aircraft.

Conscious of the inadequacy of its arrangements, the Air Ministry asked the Admiralty to move motorboat patrols close inshore during air combat. The RAF also moved five of its own high speed launches (HSLs) into the No. 11 Group area. But the need was for aircraft, preferably amphibians or float-equipped that could co-operate with rescue launches and act as their eyes.

Remarkably, some were being provided unofficially by Flight Lieutenant "Digger" Aitken, a New Zealand-born career officer. He had joined the RAF in 1937 and in January 1939 – in the days when the naval air was part of the RAF – had suffered an engine failure in the Hawker Osprey he was delivering to the carrier Ark Royal. Forced to ditch in the chilly waters of the Channel, it had been a while before he had been rescued. In June 1940 he had been an instructor on Walrus amphibious flying boats, stationed at Gosport. Concerned at the number of pilots ending up in the sea, and remembering his own experience, he "borrowed" his unit's aircraft and began rescue operations off the Isle of Wight.

Walruses from RNAS Ford joined in but, in late August, Aitken's base at Gosport had been bombed. When Ford was also attacked, the Walrus fleet was dispersed. Some aircraft went to Yeovil and thence to Wales, others to Scotland and still others to Trinidad. Aitkin was transferred to No. 3 Hurricane Sqn, a squadron he was then to lead.

Despite having, in a few months saved thirty-five British and German airmen, it was to be October 1941 before Walrus amphibians were used as RAF rescue aircraft. In the meantime, the British Government decided that the He 59 rescue aircraft were being used to report the movements of shipping convoys and, despite their Red Cross markings, ordered them to be shot down.

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