18 July, 2010

Day 9 - Battle of Britain

While a major dispute was brewing between the heads of his Army and Navy, Hitler had something else on his mind. The clue was in despatches from Spanish correspondents in Berlin. They were affirming he would make a peace offer to Britain at the end of this week. A rejection of the offer, they said, would probably be followed immediately by an attack. Reuters noted that a meeting of the Reichstag to hear a statement by Hitler "may be announced in Berlin tomorrow". No announcement was made. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was afraid the British bombers might come over.

But there was definitely to be a meeting on the Friday. "There is some speculation whether it will be … an occasion to announce a new Blitzkrieg – this time against Britain – or an offer of peace", said Reuters. One can easily sense the tension, the feeling that momentous events were about to unfold, the dark, brooding presence of Nazi Germany poised to rip Britain apart, but for the Führer desperate to give her one last chance to come to terms.

On the other side of the Channel, however, there was no such sense of foreboding. The Express had a banner headline which proclaimed: "Don't muzzle free speech”. In a commentary on the train wreck of Cooper's "Silent Column" campaign, it reported that Ministers were "perturbed at the way in which their exhortations to exercise discretion in speech are being interpreted". Reports were being sent to Whitehall for examination of recent cases in which minor offences had been visited with heavy punishment by magistrates. And Cooper had had to write to his "Sensible Persons" all over the country, telling them that the idea was certainly not to make people frightened to open their mouths – that there was no intention to stifle criticism.

Oblivious to such assurances, British authorities were throwing people in jail with undiminished enthusiasm. Thomas Graham, aged 50, was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for telling an LDV platoon commander and three of his men that what they were doing was "a lot of rot". John O’Hara, aged 58, an Irishman, of no fixed abode, got fourteen days hard labour for saying in a pub: "The English are a lot of traitors". Preston Percy Cockburn, a 42-year-old aircraft fitter, was remanded for a week after telling his landlady that a northeastern town had been "bombed to hell", and that "the Government dare not publish it".

Not only was Cooper's policy being criticized. MPs were not happy to learn that he had sent his son abroad to safety. Labour MP Jim Griffiths demanded equality. Ministers who had sent their children to the USA were "showing an example which is resented and which makes the people think that after all this is the old class Britain". "What must be the feelings of children's parents when they see children of the well-to-do sent abroad?" he asked. "They resent that rich people are looking alter their own children and leaving the children of the poor to stand all this".

Nor was this the only discomfort for Cooper. Commander Sir Archibald Southby, MP for Epsom, challenged him over apparent favouritism to the BBC. Censors were permitting it to broadcast material which had not been cleared to the press. The hapless Cooper was forced to admit that the BBC was not censored by his department. The newspapers made a meal of this, also citing occasions when clearance by the censor had been slow and inefficient.

That was the public face of the war in Britain. Behind the scenes, in Whitehall, Lord Halifax had in front of him a report from an official by the name of Frank Roberts who had been reviewing the diverse peace feelers. Among those he reviewed were approaches from the Papal Nuncio in Berne, the Portuguese Dictator Dr Salazar in his capital, Lisbon, the Finish Prime Minister, Max Hohenlohe, via Sir David Kelly and also Birger Dahlerus. Roberts took the view that the Nazi feelers were calculated to lull the British into a false sense of security and to divide opinion in the country. Hitler was also seeking to strengthen his hand in negotiations with Spain, France and even Japan, all of which countries he was hoping would go to war against Britain.

The day itself was most definitely not part of the long hot summer. Generally cool, there was occasional rain in southern districts and the Straits of Dover were cloudy. The Germans used the cloud to sneak a group of thirty Me 109s over the Channel. It adopted a standard bomber formation to fool the radar, and when an unsuspecting British fighter squadron tried to intercept, it lost a Spitfire. The raiders escaped unharmed. German aircraft then bombed a coastguard station and sunk the East Goodwin Light Vessel.

The day was then marked by a series of small actions, all over the country, some against shipping, others inland. Most caused little damage and few casualties. In the Govan and Scotstoun area of Glasgow, however, a mid-morning raid saw eight bombs dropped near the Royal Ordnance factory. Only slight damage was caused to it, but a number of nearby tenements were seriously damaged and an occupied communal shelter was blown up.

At the close of play, Fighter Command had lost three Spitfires, one in a collision with a Miles Master trainer, with one pilot killed. Three Blenheim fighters had been lost, and three bomber versions had also been downed. A Wellington had failed to return from a raid on Bremen. That brought total RAF losses to ten. The Luftwaffe lost five aircraft. No fighters or their crews were lost.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread