16 July, 2010

Day 7 - Battle of Britain

Hitler issued a formal, written directive, ordering preparations for an invasion. This was Directive No. 16, the preamble of which boldly stated:
Since England, in spite of her militarily hopeless position, shows no sign of coming to terms, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and if necessary to carry it out.
The aim was to eliminate the English homeland as a base for the carrying on of the war against Germany, and preparations were to be completed by mid-August. The first essential condition for the plan was "that the English Air Force must morally and actually be so far overcome that it does not any longer show any considerable aggressive force against the German attack".

Completely unaware of this but with almost perfect asymmetry, across the Channel, Dewitt Mackenzie of the AP wrote: "the Nazis would be just as happy if they didn't have on their hands the job of making good their threat to invade England and annihilate that island kingdom". A month since the fall of France, he stated:
the conquering Germans are still withholding the blow of their upraised fist. And now diplomatic quarters in Rome say Fascist Foreign Minister Ciano intends to go to Berlin tomorrow to consult with Hitler about a speech in which the Führer might offer England a chance to surrender. The alternative would be a smashing attack.
The AP was also reporting that an "apparent trial balloon" peace offer was being floated in Rome, with an alternative threat of a full-blown assault on the British Isles. For the Swiss newspaper Le Petit Dauphinois, though, the invasion was already a done deal. An expeditionary force of 600,000 men and hundreds of ships was ready to attack Great Britain.

But, while the newspaper was right about ships being plentiful, this was to be an opposed landing and the German High Command expected no ports to be available in southern England. Most, if not all, would be blockaded and mined, the facilities destroyed. Troops and equipment would have to be discharged directly onto the beaches – as they were in 1944 by the Allies. And the German Navy had no dedicated landing craft – none at all. Nor was there time to design and build them. The process had started but the first craft would not come off the blocks until early 1941, and then not in sufficient numbers to support a major landing.

The Navy, therefore, had to requisition and convert hundreds of river barges (prahms). It set the requirement at 1,700 craft. Many would be Rhine barges. All would have limited seagoing capabilities. Some would be "dumb" – i.e., without engines, requiring tugs to tow them across the Channel and manoeuvre them onto the beaches. Others were self-propelled, but equipped mainly for river waters, with a maximum speed in choppier coastal waters of four knots or less – slower than the tidal races they were supposed to navigate. They would need assistance to negotiate the tidal streams and currents of the Channel.

Even when converted, they were not assault craft in the style of Normandy, June 1944. They lacked the quickly activated drop-down ramps. Instead, their bows had been cut away and replaced with heavy timber slats. Each slat had to be lifted out and then heavy ramps had manually to be run out and positioned. Unloading equipment was a slow and labour-intensive business, hardly ideal on an invasion beach, beset by obstacles and under fire. Many period photographs show the barges moored with tethering ropes, to keep the vessels from broaching and their ramps firmly in place.

For the initial assault phase, however, the Germans planned to use a fleet of 1,161 motorboats. Some were sturmboots, high-powered motorboats specifically designed for river crossings under fire. Capacities varied between five and about twenty troops and they had been used with great effect during the Blitzkrieg. But there were not enough of them. Boats had to be requisitioned from the lakes and rivers of Europe. Many were recreational craft, built for inland waters and quite unseaworthy.

They were, however, to be augmented by submersible tanks, lowered into the water from specially adapted barges, supplied with air through umbilical hoses. So-called Seibel ferries, catamarans constructed from linked pontoons, were to provide anti-aircraft gun platforms for local defence. Substantial numbers of parachute and glider troops were supposed to protecting the landing zones, provided by Göring's Luftwaffe, of which they were part.

Ships were another matter. In 1944, the Allies had dedicated vessels fitted with huge clamshell doors and internal ramps. They could discharge tanks and all manner of equipment straight onto the beaches. But the Nazis lacked any such provision. Without port facilities, their ships could only anchor offshore and laboriously unload their cargoes, using their own davits, into waiting barges. Or they could be beached, but again unloading was perilously slow. Using davits to transfer cargo and the many horses (50,000 were needed in the first wave), the Naval Staff estimated thirty-six hours would be needed to unload each ship.

As to the shooting war on this day, the weather was poor. Fog straddled the north of France, the Straits of Dover and south-east England. There were thunderstorms in many other districts. Most of the Luftwaffe stayed at home, with only a few light attacks on shipping and some night activity. Fighter Command flew 313 sorties and lost no aircraft. Bomber Command lost two Blenheims. German losses totalled three. In seven days of desultory, smallscale fighting, the Luftwaffe had not sought to force the issue, losing fifty-three aircraft to the RAF's fifty-two. A reason for the low intensity of the battle was offered by Dewitt Mackenzie of the AP. He reported that Hitler still thought he could make peace with Britain. He was not ready to launch a major offensive.

Duff Cooper, on the other hand, was picking a fight with the media, triggered when Labour MP Manny Shinwell let slip that opinion as well as news content might be censored. The Daily Mirror thought it "incredible" that Cooper should seek to remove the "safety valve of rational criticism".

But that was already the case for the public. "Defeatism" was a criminal offence and, in conjunction with the "Silent Column" campaign, draconian penalties were being applied. George Alderson had been the latest victim, fined £50 by Carlisle magistrates for offences which included his declaring that Hitler's flag would be flying over Buckingham Palace within the fortnight. Home Intelligence reports were now picking up serious public unease. Many people thought grumbling was a British tradition.

On a more positive note, Nicolson had a long discussion with Duff Cooper about the "war aims" leaflet he was producing. Cooper agreed that "nothing will prove an alternative to Hitler's total programme except a pledge of federalism abroad and Socialism at home". Cooper, however, feared that this was "too much of an apple of discord to throw into a Coalition Cabinet". Nevertheless, he asked Nicolson to draft a memorandum for the Cabinet, putting the thing as tactfully as he could.

Jock Colville was "rather depressed", having read a note from Dowding on vulnerability to night bombing. The RAF was "almost certain" to evolve an effective technique for intercepting bombers by night, but there was no night fighter capable of making use of this invention. Even if we had one, its effect would be "limited". Sooner or later, Dowding had concluded, each side must begin a race for the destruction of the other's aircraft industry. This would mean bombing the civilian population. Then, wrote Colville, "the real test will begin: have we or the Germans the sterner civilian morale?"

This was harping back to the views of the British Chiefs of Staff on 25 May, and subsequently – the sentiment shared by Raeder, by Jodl, by much of the German High Command and even by Hitler himself. Seven days into what Dowding believed to be the decisive battle, both sides were convinced that the war would be decided by the civilian population's ability to withstand the effects of mass bombing.

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