10 July, 2010

Day 1 - Battle of Britain

The avowed object of the enemy was to obtain a quick decision and to end the war by the autumn or early winter of 1940. To achieve this, an invasion of Britain was evidently thought to be essential.

The Battle of Britain, HMSO 1941

In the very first instance, there was no invasion. Outline plans were drawn up by the German Naval Staff in November 1939 and presented to Hitler on 31 May 1940. At that time, still embroiled in the subjugation of France, Hitler and the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH ) – the Army Chiefs of Staff – had rejected them.

However, there was no shortage of threats. Hitler's air force chief, Hermann Göring, had offered on 30 December 1939 the New Year's message to the semi-official newspaper Völksicher Beobachter that: "The German Air Force will strike at Britain with an onslaught such as has never been known in the history of the world". Then there was Dr Paul Josef Goebbels, Germany’s Minister for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, in full, triumphal flow: "If England will have it no other way, then she must be beaten to her knees", he wrote. That had been on 25 June 1940, the day the armistice between France and Germany came into effect and fifteen days before the official start of the Battle of Britain.

Nothing is ever quite what it seems, though. Many students of the Nazis – such as the CBS Radio correspondent in Berlin, William L. Shirer – attested that they were capable of dissembling to a most extraordinary degree. They lied and deceived, in the latter case not only the world but themselves. Variously, they believed their own propaganda, or some of it, which made it all the more credible to outside observers and unwary historians. But, if one can take Goebbels' words at face value, the battle was not inevitable. The Führer “would be agreeable to peace”, he had added. “Negotiations are already under way on these issues, via Sweden for example.” He then observed: “No one knows yet whether they will be successful,” concluding, "We must wait".

Five days later, on 30 June, Göring issued a General Directive for the "Operation of the Luftwaffe against England". He told his airmen "to seize every possible opportunity by day and by night for attacks on hostile air units while airborne or on missions". According to this directive, "So long as the enemy air force remains in being, the supreme principle of warfare must be to attack it at every possible opportunity by day and by night, in the air and on the ground".

That looked firm enough and it certainly led to hostile air action being taken against Britain, including the attack on the anti-aircraft ship HMS Foyle Bank, stationed in Portland Harbour. Following a Stuka attack on 4 July, it was sunk with the loss of 176 lives and earned Royal Navy gunner Jack Foreman Mantle a posthumous Victoria Cross. The RAF had failed to intervene.

Two days after Göring's directive, on 2 July, Hitler's most senior soldier, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, C-in-C of the German Armed Forces (OKW), issued a Supreme Command Directive. It was headed: "Prosecution of the war against England", the first paragraph declaring: "Invasion of England is quite possible under certain conditions of which the most important is the gaining of air superiority. For the present, therefore, the time at which it will take place remains an open question". Preparations were to begin immediately, although the invasion was only a "possible event" so they had to be "theoretical". The planning circle, Keitel instructed, "will be as restricted as possible".

On 7 July 1940, Hitler was visited by Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, son-in-law of the dictator Benito Mussolini. During discussions about the next phase of the war, the Führer professed himself "rather inclined" to "unleash a storm of wrath and steel upon the English". But Ciano was not convinced that Hitler was committed to this course of action. In his diary, he noted that "the final decision has not been reached". He was delaying an address to the Reichstag, "of which, as he himself puts it, he wants to weigh every word".

From the British perspective, on the day before the official start of the Battle of Britain, Churchill was confident that the Fleet should be able to deal with what was left of the German navy – heavily damaged during the invasion of Norway two months previously – if it attempted to escort an invading force. Unescorted convoys could be dealt with by small craft. And in any event, he felt, there was little chance of an invasion being launched from the French coast.

Sandgate, near Folkestone - the beaches cleared, awaiting the invasion.
On the actual start date of the battle, it nevertheless looked as if the decks might have been cleared for war. The sign came from Signor Virginio Gayda, a close confident of Mussolini and editor of the influential Giornale d'Italia. In his newspaper he had written:
Italy and Germany have agreed on a threefold attack against Britain. Italy's part against the British Empire will consist in immobilising in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean, a large part of the British Fleet, as well as large land forces in Egypt. The Axis Powers are determined to blockade the British Isles and to break Britain.s Empire contacts. She will be defeated at home, in her imperial territories and on the sea.
Thus, the official version of history would have it that a great battle was about to begin. But the inside word was that it was to be a blockade, while peace feelers were already in progress. There were even numerous reports to that effect in the American media. United Press reported that Germany might embark on a “peace offensive”, while conveying a report that the RAF had found little along Norwegian, Dutch Belgian and French coasts to indicate any unusual troops or transport concentration such as would be needed for an attempted invasion. The British aviators, therefore, were actually set to fight off an invasion that had no formal or physical existence. Success was thereby assured, but only in the same sense that Lambeth Council had succeeded in keeping rogue elephants off its High Street.

Thus, the official version of history would have it that a great battle was about to begin. But the inside word was that it was to be a blockade, while peace feelers were already in progress. There were even numerous reports to that effect in the American media.

United Press reported that Germany might embark on a "peace offensive", while conveying a report that the RAF had found little along Norwegian, Dutch Belgian and French coasts to indicate any unusual troops or transport concentration such as would be needed for an attempted invasion. The British aviators, therefore, were actually set to fight off an invasion that had no formal or physical existence. Success was thereby assured, but only in the same sense that Lambeth Council had succeeded in keeping rogue elephants off its High Street.

But there were other good reasons why Churchill need not fear an immediate invasion. From two different directions, British diplomats had received strong and credible approaches from high-level personages, putting out peace feelers on behalf of the Nazis. And in an area replete with rumours of conspiracy, underhand dealings and even treachery, there was absolutely nothing untoward about the way these approaches were handled. Both were reported to, and discussed by, the War Cabinet on this day.

The first approach was to Sir Samuel Hoare (pictured right), Britain’s ambassador to Spain – by the Spanish Foreign Minister. That was highly significant as Hoare had been one of Chamberlain's staunchest political allies and a strong supporter of appeasement. Ousted from the Cabinet by Churchill, he had wanted the post of Viceroy of India but had been prevailed upon to take the Spanish post. In moving him to Madrid, where Pétain had been ambassador and where peace talks between France and Germany had so recently been recently brokered by the Spanish Government, the Germans believed Churchill was quite deliberately keeping the door open to peace talks.

Now, the Spanish Foreign Minister had been discussing with Hoare the possibility of Franco acting as an intermediary between belligerents. According to the German Foreign Ministry which was rapidly appraised of the meeting, Hoare had agreed that "it is possible that it will some time come to that". The second approach was to Sir David Kelly, the British Minister (Ambassador) in Switzerland, resident in Berne. As a result, on 8 July, he had telegraphed to London a lengthy, encrypted despatch. It detailed a meeting with Dr Carl Burckhardt, Acting President of the Red Cross. The two-page telegram had been received the following day, decrypted and then rushed to the first possible War Cabinet meeting.

Burckhardt had just returned from a visit to Berlin on the "flimsy pretext" of discussing Red Cross relief for refugees in France. He had stayed for three days with Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, a German Foreign Service official second only in ranking to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. After the war, Weizsäcker claimed to be a member of the Nazi resistance, but at this time, he had arranged long, individual conversations with two Nazi Gauleiters and a general, all three unnamed.

The four, including Weizsäcker, affirmed that Hitler was hesitating to attack England because he still clung to the hope of developing a working arrangement with the British Empire. The General said that, while the Germans were confident of their ability to defeat England, they realized that it might involve much greater sacrifices than had the defeat of the French army. They were thus willing to call off an attack, if they could do so without the loss of face. Burckhardt had passed the substance of these discussions to Kelly, with the clear hint that the Germans would be willing to negotiate a peace settlement.

This had not been the first time he and Kelly had met on such a matter, and nor was it the first approach of this nature that had been made to him by a Nazi intermediary. Starting in late June, under the aegis of Monsieur Charles Paravicini, the former Swiss Ambassador to London, he had had several meetings with Prince Max Hohenlohe, a minor but immensely rich European noble who had acted for the Nazis. "The message he professed to bring from Hitler was always the same, though with an increasing note of urgency", wrote Kelly in his autobiography. The crux was a promise that Britain would be left untouched and the Empire would not be fragmented, with Hitler asking nothing more than to be given a free hand in Europe.

According to historian Andrew Roberts, the pair had "regular meetings" near Geneva at "a very quiet little fish restaurant on the borders of the lake". They also served who sat and ate, it would appear. However, Kelly himself refers to only one meeting in this restaurant, which was "well away from town". This was their third, and a family affair "with our wives and his [Hohenlohe's] daughter". There was much more formality to other meetings. The second took place in the Spanish Legation in Berne, having been arranged through a man who was later to become Spanish Ambassador in London.

In the first meeting between Kelly and Burckhardt, the diplomat had pointed out that British distrust was “a fatal obstacle to any peace”. This he did again in the first of the July sequence of meetings but, in his telegram to London, he had suggested a new line of action. There was no thought of compromising Burckhardt by publicizing the contact. But, instead of “a flat negative”, Kelly proposed that he should be left “without instructions”. That way, the Germans would be left guessing as to whether His Majesty’s Government were taking their talk seriously or not. "So long as secrecy is maintained, complete silence on our part can in no way weaken our war effort while it may weaken that of the enemy by causing hesitation", Kelly advised.

The Cabinet, on the advice of Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, agreed with this line. Kelly was given a free hand. He was later to write that “it was obvious that every day gained for the production of Spitfires and the training of crews was priceless”. Knowing the vital importance of gaining time, he had “made a show of interest”, while keeping London informed. He never received any comment on, or acknowledgement of, his unofficial reports, so there was never any question of discussion and still less of negotiation. On 7 January 1941, however, he was to receive a personal telegram from Churchill, with the cryptic note: “All your work excellent and messages deeply informative”.

Thus, to a muted and distant drumbeat, the Battle of Britain started: a vital and barely appreciated – and most often misrepresented – part of the battle was British diplomats buying time for their country to prepare for war.

Despite that, a fly on the wall in Supreme Command (OKW ) in Berlin would have seen Keitel do something that might have caused Churchill some worry. He instructed “strong artillery support” to be provided to cover the front and flanks of a future crossing and landing.16 Huge guns were to be installed on the coast from Calais (Cap Gris Nez) to Boulogne, the first by 22 July. The programme was complete by 31 August. These guns, however, could be used against shipping, helping to close the Straits to British traffic. This had the approval of Grand Admiral Raeder. He had consistently opposed an invasion and fully supported Führer Directive No. 9. Through his pressure, on 17 August 1940 it was to become established as a “total blockade” – a term which had special significance under international law, allowing unrestricted warfare against shipping.

In media terms, the start of the battle was downbeat. Middle England’s newspaper, then the best-selling Daily Express, was concerned with "seavacuation", the evacuation of children overseas, mainly to the USA or Canada, and a hugely controversial issue. All sections of society were represented in the evacuation scheme, but the aristocracy and moneyed classes were particularly in evidence. Lord Mountbatten sent his wife and children. The Countess de Borchgrave, Lady Margaret Barry, Lord Radnor, Viscount Bayham, the Earl of March and Viscount Bethell all sent their children. Many of the Guinness family, City magnates like the four Rothschild families and Sir Charles Hambro dispatched theirs.

Some were later to attract political fame: Paul Channon, destined to be Mrs Thatcher's Minister of Transport; Jeremy Thorpe, to lead the Liberal Party; and Shirley Williams, to become a Labour cabinet minister. In all, an estimated 17,000 children were sent out of the country – more than 11,000 privately funded. Predictably, the high proportion of the wealthy taking advantage of the scheme turned it into a cause célèbre. On 1 July, The Express had urged the government to act, fearing that it was “going to have a bad effect on the nation”. But it was already having that effect, and was soon to have a powerful impact on Information Minister Duff Cooper. He was the man responsible for maintaining the morale of the people, and had packed his son, John Julius Norwich, off to New York.

As to the air war, waiting for the Germans were Fighter Command’s three – soon to become four Groups. In the north and Scotland was No. 13. Watching over Yorkshire and Lancashire, the Midlands and part of East Anglia, was No. 12. Covering the south and south-east, including London, was No. 11. In the south-west, No. 10 was in the process of being set up. Much of today's action was going to be in No. 11 area, under the command of New Zealander, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park – effectively Dowding's right-hand man. He operated out of a deep bunker in the grounds of Hillingdon House in Uxbridge, on the western outskirts of London. From there, information was fed to his eight sector airfields which had direct control of the squadrons. Park took day-to-day control of the entire air battle over the south-east of England.

On this day, the action started early and was focused on a convoy of small ships rounding North Foreland in Kent, codenamed "Bread". Convoy attacks were to be a feature of the early action, a phase which the Germans called Kanalkampf. The ships had been detected by a German Dornier Do 17, a twin-engined bomber converted to reconnaissance duty. The RAF attempted to shoot down the spy with six Spitfires, led by a soon-to-be "ace", Flight Lieutenant Adolf "Sailor" Malan. But they found themselves outnumbered by more than twenty Messerschmitt 109 single-engined fighters. Despite a spirited fight, the Spitfires were unable to bring down the Dornier. A free fight between Spitfires and Me 109s over Dover then cost the Fighter Command an aircraft, with no loss to the Luftwaffe.

The action that followed was on such an unusually large scale that it provided the basis for claiming the Battle of Britain had started. Nearly thirty Dornier bombers, escorted by as many Me 110s twin-engined fighters, and nearly twenty Me 109s, flew towards the convoy. One flight of six Hurricanes was guarding it, a further sixteen were on their way and eight Spitfires from RAF Manston piled in. With more than a hundred aircraft aloft, a huge dogfight broke out. One Hurricane shed a wing after colliding with a Dornier. Its pilot, Flying Officer T. P. K. Higgs, baled out. His body was eventually washed up at Noordwijk, Holland. The Dornier was also downed, while another was so badly damaged that it crashed on its return to Cherbourg. For all the activity, though, the only shipping casualty was the Dutch steamer Bill S, sinking six miles off Dungeness.

This, then, was the shooting war – or part of it. But what now evident was how the fighting – or the narrative describing it – was becoming the raw material for the propaganda effort which was going to feed the battle for public morale. As importantly, it was serving the British propaganda counteroffensive aimed at undermining German military and civilian confidence. Duff Cooper was to say that propaganda had an important part to play in defeating Germany, declaring: "It is, in fact, an essential element in the strategy of total warfare". Propaganda was not an optional extra. It was an important weapon in its own right, designed to have both psychological and military effects, either or both potentially war-winning.

With Churchill also determined to present a brave face to the USA, it was inevitable that the air battles of the south-east would be given a high profile, even though they represented a fraction of the overall activity. This day was a case in point. The convoy action was highly publicized, despite there being significant action elsewhere, which lacked high profile (or any, in some cases) reporting. For instance, a train near Newhaven was attacked – the driver was killed and the guard injured.

Further north, the SS Waterloo, sailing from Yarmouth, was sunk by remarkably accurate high-level bombing. To the west, a total of sixty-three, ultra-modern, twin-engined Junkers 88 bombers mounted a series of attacks. In the very first air raid in Swansea, one dropped four bombs on the docks. With no air-raid warning, surprised workers were caught in the open. Twelve were killed outright and a further twenty-six injured. Sheds and workshops were extensively damaged.

Nearly 300 miles to the west of Dover, out of sight of the London media, other aircraft attacked Falmouth Harbour. Falmouth was then a very substantial port. Shipping which used to discharge cargo in eastern ports had been re-routed there to avoid the air threat. Additionally, a large number of ships which had escaped occupied countries were berthed there. And the raid, on people who had yet to become accustomed to the ferocity of aerial bombing, was both spectacular and devastating. The British tanker Tascalusa was sunk. Alongside her was the 6,000ton Greek steamer SS Marie Chandris. She was set on fire by the tanker. Another British tanker, the British Chancellor was hit and badly damaged. The Dutch salvage tug Zwarte Zee was damaged by splinters from the blast and later sank.

The wharf caught fire and dozens of men had to be rescued by launches and tugs. It was a desperate, frantic endeavour which saved them. Not far from Falmouth as the Junkers flies, the Royal Ordnance factory at Pembury was hit and seventeen bombs fell on Martlesham. One aircraft flew over Pembroke Docks where one of the largest Admiralty oil depots in the country was sited. That was an ominous sign, but there was no attack. That was to come. However, summing up the flying activity of the day, the German purpose seemed very clear. This was Directive No. 9 in action, imposing the blockade.

On the British side, for most of the day's activity, there was to be a highly publicised “score”. This became a prominent feature of the air battle. On each and every day, the number of British fighters lost was compared with the number of German aircraft downed – of all types. The result was to be seen on the Daily Express front page the next day. Its lurid, triumphal tone was taken from the official communiqués: "37 German raiders down", it proclaimed. “Three Spitfires attack fifty and win!” The strap read: “Germans make their greatest raid – and the RAF secure their greatest victory”. A "day of glorious deeds” readers were told. Only two British fighters had been lost, but the pilot of one was "safe".

The damaging attacks on Falmouth and Swansea – and elsewhere – were barely mentioned, even in official reports. "At a South-West Coast port fires were caused", was the only reference to Falmouth. The selective reporting thus distorted perceptions – as was intended. The Dover action was presented as a challenge to Fighter Command, representing the start of an offensive that had a single, focused aim – the destruction of British air power. But it was framed in terms of a challenge that the RAF could meet and overcome.

Right here, in the reports of the first day of the battle were the beginnings of the myth. The reality was the actual "score". Based on post-war records, the RAF lost two fighters, and seven other aircraft. Six of those were twin-engined Blenheim bombers, and five of those were from No. 107 Sqn. Therein lay a tragic tale, the like of which was to be repeated many times.

While Luftwaffe bombers were attacking Britain, a total of forty RAF Blenheims were carrying out daylight bombing raids on targets as far apart as Stavenger in Norway, the Rhur, the docks at Bremen, St Omer and the airfield at Glissy, near Armiens. The bombing of Glissy was allocated to six Blenheim Mk IV bombers. On arrival over their target, their formation had been broken apart by heavy flak, whence they were set upon by nine Me 109s. Only one Blenheim survived.

The cumulative losses on the day were nine. Against that, the Germans actually lost just ten aircraft. This was most emphatically not the great victory claimed. More to the point, the Luftwaffe was teaching the RAF the lesson that daylight bombing against defended targets, without fighter escort, was suicide. This was a lesson the RAF would be slow to learn, but was in turn to teach the Germans.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread