31 August, 2010

Day 53 - Battle of Britain

In many respects, the battle - or the media handling - has become a bizarre example of smoke and mirrors.  While the London-centric Daily Express - along with most of the other, London-based national media - proclaim great victories in the air over southern England and London in particular, an RAF reconnaissance photograph taken today over Pembroke Docks in south Wales shows the Admiralty oil tanks still burning.

This is twelve days after the raid. The local residents did not need to be told this, and neither did the Germans. A very similar photograph had been published in Der Adler, the official magazine of the Luftwaffe.

Thus, the people from whom the information had to be kept was the rest of the British population, which is getting increasingly difficult as the smoke can be seen as far a Somerset. Despite this, local newspapers are prevented from reporting the location of the fire, referring merely to "a dock in South Wales". Spitfires went up and anti-aircraft batteries had gone into action, readers are told.

This is pure propaganda. There were no guns defending Pembroke Dock. Indeed, there were only three anti-aircraft batteries in the whole of South Wales. The lack of fighter cover had also been noted, and fiercely criticised. Echoing the words of the troops at Dunkirk, locals and firemen alike were asking, "Where was the RAF?"

Needless to say, the newspapers of this Saturday on the last day of August are not asking this question. The Daily Telegraph is, like the Express, parading the "score" from the previous day with the headline "62 Raiders Shot Down in All-Day Battle," claiming only 19 RAF fighters having been destroyed with ten pilots safe. This is out of variously reported 6 or 700 aircraft "hurled" by the Nazis against England or, in the Telegraph's case, against London.

Behind the scenes, Home Intelligence is telling the prime minister that the fear of invasion is on the wane, with reports from Cardiff and Leeds particularly stressing this. There is resentment at the "excessive" publicity given to the London air raids and "jealousy" is reported from Southampton, Portsmouth and other places. However, by and large, air raids are being "borne patiently" and in some regions the public are "agreeably surprised" that so little damage is being done.

In the narrow, even claustrophobic world of Fighter Command, there is very little agreeable about the day. Mason notes that if previous experience had suggested that the Luftwaffe might be unable to sustain heavy pressure against Britain over a number of days and night, the defenders are about to learn otherwise - to their cost.

The reorganisation initiated by Göring on 19 August is yielding dividends. More than 80 percent of the Me 109s in northern Europe are now concentrated in the Pas de Calais area, and Kesselring is making good use of them. Just before 08:00hrs, the operations room at Bentley Priory reports four waves of enemy aircraft, one heading for Dover and the others flying up the Thames Estuary - the graveyard of pilots.

It is left to the Observer Corps to identify the aircraft. The first to make a positive identification is the post at Dover, which reports that the formation is made up solely of Me 109s. In accordance with Park's instructions, controllers attempt to pull their blocking fighters out. They are not quite fast enough and the Me 109s shoot down three aircraft from No. 1 Sqn RCAF. The Messerschmitts then entertain themselves by shooting down all the barrage balloons in Dover Harbour.

This is the start of a series of raids which culminate in attacks North Weald, Duxford and Debden, amongst others, which also included Detling, and then Croydon and Biggin Hill - once more. Very significant damage was caused at Biggin Hill, undoing repairs of the previous day and destroying once more its land communications. There were some attacks on radar stations, and then to close the proceedings for the day, a strong attack on Hornchurch which cratered runways and perimeter tracks, and destroyed two Spitfires on the ground.

Even then, the daylight raids aimed at military targets end up damaging civilian targets. One of the early raids of the day sees bombs fall on Colchester. A raid on Duxford sees bombs dropped on no less than eight villages to the south of Cambridge.

For all that, though, when just the bomber attacks - less the escorting fighters and the fighter sweeps - are taken into account, the night-time effort was greater. The Luftwaffe was becoming a night bombing force, where it could range freely with very little opposition, causing enormous damage and disruption. Sometimes, it had significant strategic impact. The battleship Prince of Wales, building at Birkenhead, is damaged by a near miss from a heavy bomb during an air raid.

During the day, Fighter Command loses 38 of its aircraft on this day, with eight pilots killed and as many more sufficiently badly injured to remove them from the battle. The Luftwaffe losses are close. They stand at 39 of which 22 are Me 109s, reflecting the huge numbers of these fighters in play. It loses 16 Me 109 pilots.

The RAF is hurting, but so is the Luftwaffe. Neither force can sustain these losses. But, if the RAF Bomber Command and the loss of a Navy Swordfish is added in - with four losses in all - the Luftwaffe numerically comes out top on the day. The point is, though, that operations of this intensity will not continue. As the nights lengthen to the equinox, the weather will deteriorate, hampering large scale raids - and rendering an invasion impossible. The Indian summer is a short-lived affair.

Fortunately, this is not entirely an RAF show.  The Royal Navy is very much in the game. At 21:30hrs, a large number of enemy vessels is spotted by a patrol aircraft 15 miles north of Terschelling. All Naval ships on the East and South-East coasts are ordered to raise steam. Light craft from Rosyth and Nore Commands are ordered to special patrol positions. Five minelaying destroyers proceeding to lay mines off Vlieland are ordered to jettison their mines and to locate and attack the enemy.

While carrying out these instructions three out of the five of these destroyers are mined 40 miles north-west of the Texel. The destroyer Esk (pictured) is sunk and Ivanhoe so seriously damaged that later she is abandoned and sunk by our own forces. HMS Express, with her bows blown off, is taken in tow and eventually reaches Harwich. Ninety casualties are landed by HM Destroyer Vortigern.

The North Sea is a dangerous place for British ships. The far less well-equipped Kriegsmarine, with significantly fewer ships, would face exactly the same perils in supporting an invasion. With belts of mines on both sides of the Channel, weeks of preparatory work are need before this stretch of water can be made safe for an invasion fleet - given no intervention by British forces. The very idea of an imminent invasion is preposterous.

This is further borne out by the appalling difficulties being experienced by the Germans in assembling their invasion fleet. Frustrated by the lack of specialised landing craft and the delays in acquiring and converting river barges, the German army has decided to use as transports stocks of steel bridging pontoons, paired and joined by fabricated decks. The job turning then into suitable craft was given to aircraft designer Fritz Siebel, now commissioned a colonel in the Luftwaffe.

After several prototypes and many modifications, he came up with a design powered by obsolete aero-engines, decked with steel and wood. This became dubbed the Siebel-Fähre (Siebel-Ferry). On this day, the first of the working models was tested in the Ems estuary. It proved difficult to manoeuvre, with a maximum speed of 8 knots, but it was nevertheless decided go ahead with production, although they would be used only in the run-up onto the invasion beaches.

Series production begins in September at Antwerp and, by the end of the month, twenty-five have been completed – by which time the invasion had already, effectively been cancelled. That is the measure of the lack of foresight and co-ordination in the invasion planning.

Had the invasion gone ahead, they would have carried anti-aircraft guns which would have been used to cover the landing, and thence transferred to the ground elements. Once they had landed their flak units, they would then have assisted with unloading the larger steamers anchored offshore. One of these would have been the Hamburg-registered SS Moltkefels (7863grt), veteran of the Norway invasion (pictured above).

With an overnight passage and dawn assault, unloading would have been in broad daylight, using davits to transfer troops, cargo and the many horses (estimated at 20,000) to waiting barges and ferries (pictured). Several days might be required to transfer the full loads, should the ships have survived that long.

In open water, they would have been extremely vulnerable not only to British attack but also to the weather, which could change very rapidly, creating conditions in open water which could have slowed down or prevented unloading altogether.

Against this was ranged the Royal Navy. In addition to the Home Fleet and its conventional warships, plus its flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, it also had at its disposal its fleet of 1,000-plus small ships and the Allied warships. Then, the RAF, comprising the rump of Fighter Command, plus the Bomber and Coastal Command fleets, would also be intervening. The Germans could well have found their ad hoc arrangements being rather seriously challenged - had they been completed in time and actually worked.

Even as a peacetime exercise, carried out during the day, in optimum conditions, it is still hard to see how the systems on which the Germans were to rely could have sufficed.

Back in Britain, Beaverbrook is convinced that the heavy air attacks must mean that Germans are trying to reach a conclusion. There are more signs of concentrations of German shipping in Emden and on the coast of Norway but Churchill's secretary, John Colville, is not convinced this presents a significant threat. A serious invasion must depend the the ability of the German air force to obtain mastery, he muses. And that seems more than doubtful.

The First Sea Lord rings up after dinner to sat that German shipping is on the move, steering westwards from Terschelling - and could be on the Norfolk coast by morning. Colville thus learns that an invasion could be in the offing, although he would lay 10-1 against. But thus is the convoy already being investigated by the Royal Navy, at considerable cost. The invasion fears turn out to be groundless.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

30 August, 2010

Day 52 - Battle of Britain

Vickers Mk VI light tanks pass through the village of Linton in Cambridgeshire

Day-by-day, the British Army is getting stronger.  Gen. Alan Brooke has flown to Worcester to watch an exercise by the 2 London Division, but all over the country there are exercises in progress.  Britain has become an armed camp.

The German Naval Staff is complaining about the lack of air cover for naval activities, reporting to the Supreme Command that, as a result, it cannot meet the 15 September deadline for completion of Sealion preparations. "The elimination by the Luftwaffe of activity by enemy sea and air forces in the Channel and along the embarkation coasts has not yet materialised, and there is no early prospect of improvement while the Luftwaffe pursues its present operational objectives," it states.

The earliest day for the assembly of the transport fleet is now 20 September, and even that cannot be guaranteed. It depends on the Luftwaffe's effectiveness in eliminating sea and air forces, assuming that the Luftwaffe is prepared to change its objectives to suit Sealion.

In the UK, the weekly resumé from the Chiefs of Staff is in the hands of the Cabinet. Enemy tactics, they are told, have undergone a considerable change. No short-range dive-bombers have been seen, while last week 83 were destroyed; even the Ju 88 has not been used for dive-bombing.

The Chiefs confirm that which is only too evident - that the long-range bomber force is being increasingly employed and night attacks have been intensified. The raids have mainly directed against aerodromes and ports, while industrial plants and the aircraft industry have also received considerable attention.

Other raids have been carried out against aerodromes and oil storage, and a considerable amount of indiscriminate bombing is included in the operations. The heaviest daylight attacks of the week have been made on Portsmouth and Ramsgate. At night industrial areas in the Midlands have been the principal objectives, although aircraft have flown over London on several nights and bombs have been dropped in the City and suburbs.

On the Home Front this Friday, the Battle of Britain is now in its eighth week - not that anyone is counting. Londoners are "more cheerful". They are getting used to the idea of night raids and thus, instead of being woken up through the night and having to find their ways to the shelters, many are going there early and sleeping the whole night under cover.

Once again, there is a distinction between those who have experienced bombing and those who are new to it. In the provinces, where warnings and raids have been suffered for some time, morale is higher than in London, where people have been showing "considerable apprehension".

Not so George Orwell, who records in his diary that air-raid warnings, "of which there are now half a dozen or thereabouts every 24 hours", are "becoming a great bore". Opinion spreading rapidly, he says, is that "one ought simply to disregard the raids except when they are known to be big-scale ones and in one's own area." Of the people strolling in Regent's Park, I should say at least half pay no attention to a raid-warning".

He recalls the previous night "a pretty heavy explosion" just as he is going to bed. Later in the night he is woken up by a tremendous crash, said to be caused by a bomb in Maida Vale. The only comment is on the loudness, before falling asleep again.

But, out in the sticks, there is "some slight resentment" at the way in which London air-raid news is highlighted. This is due, in part, says the day's Home Intelligence report, to the fact that many provincial towns, unlike London, have not been named. This causes a good deal of uncertainty over which targets have been hit.

Nothing of this suggests any sense of impending doom - of any great concern about an invasion or any suggestion that the RAF is engaged in a titanic struggle, fighting for its very existence. In fact, the Chiefs of Staff are all very downbeat about what is historically regarded as one of the key periods of the Battle of Britain but, at this time, has yet to be recognised for what it later becomes.

Of the epic battles then, the Cabinet is told that enemy aircraft engaged in daylight operations have varied between 200 and 500 each day, except on the 23rd and 27th August, when activity was limited to reconnaissance flights and to a few individual attacks involving not more than seventy-five aircraft.

The heaviest attacks, they are told, have developed from the south-east, and large formations of bombers escorted by fighters have been intercepted and dispersed by our fighters. Fighter aerodromes seem to have been the principal objectives, but damage has been "relatively small" in view of the threatened weight of the attacks.

This assessment is, of course, "top secret" and the domestic issues are of little concern to the warriors. They have their titanic battles to fight this day. With the weather set fair, the tempo of operations is about to increase and Fighter Command is about to see the fight of its life - or so the historians are to tell us.

Luftflotte 2 starts the action just after dawn with a series of probing attacks on a north-bound convoy in the Thames estuary. Nine Hurricanes from No. 111 Sqn are already aloft investigating a "raid" which turns out to be three Blenheims from No. 25 Sqn. They are not shot down and the Hurricanes are vectored off to look at the real raiders. Two of those are damaged.

Then, as the official communiqué diligently records, large forces of enemy aircraft cross the south coast in three successive waves at short intervals. Of course, in the public record, they are "scattered" and "driven back". A small force approaches London but it too is "engaged and dispersed".

The first wave, in fact, crosses at about 10:30hrs, consisting of about three Gruppen of Me 109s, sixty aircraft in all. Park, at the helm in Uxbridge, is able to rely on the Observer Corps for an accurate identification and declines the invitation to a scrap. He simply readies his fighters at the forward airfields, believing that the bombers will follow.

They do, the first batch about half-an-hour later, a mixed group of about 40 He 111s, 30 Do 17s, 60 Me 109s and 30 Me 110s. They are all heading for Kent, their targets Park's sector stations.  The second and third waves then follow at half-hour intervals.

Hurricanes from No. 151 Sqn out of Stapleford, a tiny grass strip five miles north of Romford, are up patrolling the mouth of the Thames. Sqn Ldr King gets detached from the squadron. His body is later found in the burned-out remains of his aircraft, downed near Rochester. The rest of the squadron encounters a mixed group of seventy bombers and fighters, claiming three bombers downed, for the loss two more of their own.

The same raid is now intercepted by Hurricanes of No. 85 Sqn and then by others and, as the heat piles on, controllers begin to realise the intended targets. Two squadrons from No. 12 Group are called in as reinforcements, to cover Kenley and Biggin Hill, but they get mixed up in fighting over Surrey and allow through a staffel of Ju 88s, which bombs Biggin Hill from high altitude. Little damage is done to the airfield, but surrounding villages are hurt.

Amid the chaos and scrapping, note is taken of No. 222 Sqn, freshly transferred from the North, on patrol over Gravesend. Ten Me 109s dive through it, taking out one of the aircraft. It becomes clear that the squadron is still employing standard Air Ministry tactics, using vics of three and tail-end weavers.  The lessons of the front line are not being passed to the rear.

After intensive battles, the fighters now need to return to their bases to refuel and re-arm, and their pilots need to eat, drink and to get a little rest.  But Kesselring gives them no time. Just after 13:00hrs, the next assault begins, with successive waves of bombers and fighters, roughly at 20 minute intervals. This goes on without break until about 16:00hrs, when the next phase starts.

Over the next two hours, 19 Gruppen pour in over Kent and the Thames Estuary. They target North Weald, Kenley and Biggin Hill.  At Biggin Hill, serious damage is done. Sixteen 500kg HE bombs destroy one of the four remaining hangers, workshops armoury, barrack blocks, stores, the WAAF quarters and the MT yard. Most telephone lines are severed and gas, water and electricity mains are cut. Thirty-nine are killed and 26 are injured.

But the airfields are by no means the only targets. Luton, Radlet, Oxford and Slough are also on the list. The raid on Luton targets the Vauxhall plant, where there are 113 casualties, including 53 killed. Areas of the town are also bombed - the bus depot is one of the buildings hit (above).  The larger part of the formation continues on to bomb Radlet, the target here being one of the factories producing the new Halifax bomber.  No substantial damage is caused, and production is not interrupted.

By the end of the day, this has proved the most intensive of the battle for Fighter Command. It has flown 1,054 sorties and lost 23 aircraft with eight pilots killed.  The Luftwaffe has also taken considerable casualties.  Thirty-nine aircraft are lost, but of those only 14 are Me 109s. Nevertheless, 12 valuable single-engined fighter pilots are lost, either killed or baled out over England and taken as POWs.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

29 August, 2010

Day 51 - Battle of Britain

Another memorandum from Keitel's office informs recipients that the C-in-C Navy has instructed the Admiral i/c France to make arrangements to convoy the vessels needed for the invasion to their places of assembly at their operational harbours, providing the "necessary protection" through mined waters.

As the barges and transports commence their laborious passages to their jump-off destinations, many of those who follow the progress of the battle in the British media and elsewhere could be forgiven for the impression this was not so much the Battle of Britain as the "Battle of London and the Home Counties". Coventry has yet to have its walk-on part and most of the provincial news, under the baleful grip of the censor, gets little coverage. Even the still-blazing fire in Pembroke Docks, amongst the largest if not largest ever in Britain, gets short shrift.

But on this day, a Thursday, the London "Blitz" is more than a week away. Yet the Luftwaffe has already been dropping bombs on residential areas throughout Britain, and has bombed London at least three, maybe four times. The RAF is trading the Luftwaffe blow-for-blow, hitting Berlin as many times, most recently this very morning (below right).

Furthermore, the Luftwaffe is just about to intensify its night attacks. In this department, the Germans have a definite technological advantage, benefitting from the development of a number of radio navigation aids, based on radio beams, which allow their aircraft to find distant targets in the dark.

At the same time, British airborne radar interception technology is in its infancy and its fleet of Spitfires and Hurricanes are all but impotent, and its twin-engined Blenheim fighters too slow. Radar targeting has yet to be fully developed for anti-aircraft guns and so, for a brief time, the Luftwaffe is able to roam British skies almost unmolested.

This night is a reminder that it is the Battle of Britain. While London has been targeted on three successive nights, with major raids on the City of London on 24 August, following which Berlin was bombed for the first time, the Midlands area and points north are raided by a force of about 150 bombers. The raid is the heaviest yet experienced in Britain, with widespread damage caused in Liverpool's dockland and city (pictured below) and more than 470 casualties being reported.

Other bombers, at one or two Staffel strength, raided Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Manchester and Sheffield. In the next two days, Hull, Leeds and Bradford are to be added to the list, the Alhambra theatre in Bradford famously being bombed on the last day of the month.

That same day, Liverpool is hit again, while other targets included Birkenhead - its fourth night raid in succession, Rotherhithe, Portsmouth, Manchester, Durham, Stockport, Bristol again, Gloucester, Worcester and the Leeds to York arterial road.

Going back to today, the headlines are not read by the British but by Americans.  The cutting is from The New York Times. Following the course of the battle from the most notable current texts, one has to do a double-take, wondering whether the same war is being reported.

The preferred narrative of this period is that the battle is dominated by the Luftwaffe attacks on the RAF, in a desperate bid to break the power of Fighter Command in order to meet the Fuhrer's timetable for the invasion of England.

Thus, Wood and Dempster dismiss the previous day's effort on London as "harassing attacks".  The pair concede that there have been attacks elsewhere, particularly Liverpool, but the other attacks are lumped together.  TC G James in The Battle of Britain does not seem to mention the night attacks.  It is left to Mason to note that, "it was at this stage of the Battle that all three Luftflotten begin to step up the night offensive against Britain".

Certainly, this would be the impression gained by the readers of the NYT, and the public is only too conscious of it - more so perhaps than the historians.  Home Intelligence is acutely conscious of the change and one senses a note of relief when it reports today that there "... is no noticeable decline in morale although in London particularly there is some depression mainly brought by lack of sleep".  There is some "nervousness" in the south, about stories of attacks on Birmingham, Coventry and Portsmouth. But morale is highest in the areas which have been most heavily bombed.

Nowhere, though, does one get the impression of a gathering storm, a crisis building or of the end-game drawing near.  If the invasion is just over two weeks away, you would get no sense of that from the British media. And the man who would be in charge of Britain's land defences, General Alan Brooke, has just spent a day in north Scotland, watching Army exercises and is to go to the furthest, western reaches of Wales tomorrow.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

28 August, 2010

Day 50 - Battle of Britain

There were only so many variations on a theme that the Luftwaffe could offer, so this day saw what looked like, at first sight, a repeat of earlier efforts. At about 08:30hrs, aircraft started to assemble over Cap Gris Nez - the classic pattern with which RAF radar operators were very familiar.

However, it is clear that the Germans knew full well that they were being observed - they could hardly fail to be aware of this and, at a tactical level, stupid they were not. Mason points out (Battle over Britain) the Germans were practising a studied deception programme, assembling aircraft en masse and splitting them up into different raids once they were closer to their targets.

The radar, of course, could still only give limited information on force size, height and composition, so controllers were vitally dependent on the network of observer station to give more detail. But with several raids going over together, this confused the reporting system and made it more difficult to vector the right number of fighters to the right place at the right times.

And so it was in this case. The bomber element of this force was in fact two groups of Dorniers escorted by fighters, amounting to 100-plus aircraft. Crossing the Channel, one section of the raid - led by 20 Do 17s - headed for Eastchurch, while 20-plus Dorniers flew on to the airfield at Southend, then named RAF Rochford.

Four Fighter Command squadrons were put up to block the massed raid. But they were unable to penetrate the defensive screen and instead lost eight aircraft and six pilots. Four of those were from the ill-fated No. 264 Sqn flying Defiants, who were bounced by a Gruppe of Me 109s as they went into the attack.  Only eight aircraft returned to their home base at Hornchurch, of which only three were serviceable.

Thus did the Bomber Command station suffer yet another attack, losing two Fairey Battles destroyed on the ground. The bombers were nevertheless deterred by spirited flak, as the airfields were now benefitting from Pile's policy of concentrating anti-aircraft resources on the airfields. They did no lasting damage and the station remained operational, albeit restricted to daylight flying.

The second raid, headed for Rochford, again met with stiff Fighter Command opposition. Elements of thirteen squadrons attempting to head it off. As before, the fighters failed to penetrate the defensive screen and the station took the hit - but again suffering only minor damage. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, was on the coast to see for himself the state of the defences.

While he was thus engaged, a third attack then developed. But this one comprised a large fighter sweep over Kent and the Estuary at 25,000ft. This was precisely the formation Park wanted his own pilots to avoid but they attempted to take them on, losing nine aircraft in the the process.

On the day, Fighter Command was to lose 15 Spitfires and Hurricanes, plus four Defiants - 19 aircraft in all. The Luftwaffe traded 28 aircraft, of which 15 were Me 109s. Where experienced pilots met the Germans on favourable terms, they gave good account of themselves, but otherwise they were being out-thought and out-fought.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

27 August, 2010

Day 49 - Battle of Britain

This is a Tuesday. The newspapers are reporting on a prolonged overnight "raid" on London, with six hours between the first warning and the "all-clear".  It is small beer compared with what is to come, but enough to excite the headline writers.

After the hectic fighting of the day before, however, Fighter Command reports less business in daylight hours. Fewer than fifty intruders are recorded and only four bombing incidents are reported. One of those is described as "a bad air-raid" in Plymouth which kills 12 inmates and staff of Ford House, an old peoples' home. The Great Western Railway tender, the Sir John Hawkins (pictured below), is damaged in the raid.

Overnight, the Luftwaffe is on the rampage again, with bombs dropped on Gravesend, Calshot, Southampton, the Isle of Wight, Tonbridge, Tiptree and Leighton Buzzard.

In the north-east, bombing is reported at Newcastle, Longhirst, Linton, Ellington, Cambois, Middlemoor, Ashington, Seaton Delaval, Earsdon, Ferneybeds, Westerhope, and Dissington in Northumberland, West Hartlepool, Station Town, Ebchester, Sadberge, Marley Hill, New Seaham, Easington Lane and Port Clarence in Co Durham. There are five fatal casualties at Eston and three at West Hartlepool.

The picture shows Brenda Road, West Hartlepool. Since June the town has been under repeated attack by enemy aircraft. Night after night the warning sirens sound and everyone has to go to the air raid shelters.

Sometimes it is a false alarm and nothing happens, but other times the bombs do drop. Last night they dropped on these houses. Hartlepool suffered air raids from June 1940 until March 1943, and seventy men, women and children were killed during this time. The period between July and October 1940 was the worst. During these months there were a total of 147 warnings, often several a night, lasting for hours.

For the hard-pressed public, the apparent shift to night bombing is to become the main topic of conversation and concern, the disturbance and uncertainty causing serious problems for a population under stress. But also causing considerable concern - according to Home Intelligence - are the erratic signals given by the air raid warning sirens, which seem to bear no relation to the level of threat.

Bombs are just as likely to drop after the "All Clear" as during the warning period, is a common complaint. Increasingly, the public are losing confidence in the warning system.  They would be losing even more confidence if they were aware of the games being played in the higher reaches of the RAF.

The brass at Fighter Command are addressing the real enemy - each other. Keith Park (not unreasonably) is trying to sort out the behaviour of Leigh-Mallory in No. 12 Group and his enthusiasm for the "big wing" concept. The issue has been rehearsed endlessly by Battle of Britain experts and enthusiasts but the spat must be seen against a background of a nation at war, in the brink of an invasion, fighting for its very survival. Yet its senior leaders, at the forefront of the battle, are squabbling like children, while Dowding sits in his garret in Bentley Priory, apparently ignorant of the proceedings, or so he later says.

Fortunately the general public are completely oblivious to this. Had they been aware of what was going on, they would probably have been mortified.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

26 August, 2010

Day 48 - Battle of Britain

This day marks the second successful torpedo attack on Allied shipping by He 115s, with the sinking of the Remuera, 12 miles North of Peterhead. She is part of Convoy HX65A which has already had a rough time. Attacked by U-boats the previous day, U-48 sinks the tanker Athelcrest and the steamer Empire Merlin. Thirty crew go missing from tanker, which has to be sunk by naval gunfire. There is only one survivor from steamer.

U-124 then makes its attack, sinking the convoy commodore's ahip, the steamer Harpalyce, and the steamer Fircrest. The steamer Stakesby is damaged. Thirty seven crew, including Commodore Washington, are lost on the Harpalyce. There are no survivors from the Fircrest.

This day, where the U-Boats leave off, the aircraft take over. The convoy is attacked by four He 115s and eight Ju 88s. Not only do they sink the the Remuera, the steamer Cape York is so badly damaged she has to be abandoned. She sinks under tow on the 27th, eight miles from Rattray Head. The steamer City of Hankow is also badly damaged, but she manages to limp back to port.

None of this is going to make the newspapers. The censor will make sure of that. That leaves the soap opera of the air war for the journalists and their editors to pick over. And this morning there is no question of what is the major news - the RAF bombing of Berlin.

The Daily Mirror notes the irony, reporting that, while Hitler's bombers were making another raid on the "London area" early today, RAF bombs shook Berlin. Berliners hurrying to their shelters soon after midnight heard heavy explosions as bombs burst to the north-west. Ten explosions were clearly heard in the first ten minutes and the centre of Berlin shook.

With propaganda minister Göbbels on the streets of Berlin early, viewing the damage, cameramen ready to hand, a first-hand account is offered by William Shirer, the American war correspondent in Berlin. He was preparing for his broadcast to the United States as, he says, "the war arrived in Berlin for the first time." His narrative starts: "We had our first big air-raid of the war last night," and he continues:
The sirens sounded at twelve twenty am and the all-clear came at three twenty-three am. For the first time British bombers came directly over the city and they dropped bombs. The concentration of anti-aircraft fire was the greatest I've ever witnessed. It provided a magnificent, a terrible sight. And it was strangely ineffective. Not a plane was brought down; not one was even picked up by the searchlights, which flashed back and forth frantically across the skies throughout the night.
The Berliners are stunned, Shirer added. They did not think it could happen. When this war began, Göring assured them it couldn't. He boasted that no enemy planes could ever break through the outer and inner rings of the capital's anti-aircraft defence. The Berliners are a naïve and simple people. They believed him. Their disillusionment today therefore is all the greater. You have to see their faces to measure it.

Said Shirer: Göring made matters worse by informing the population only three days ago that they need not go to their cellars when the sirens sounded, but only when they heard the flak going off near-by.

The implication was that it would never go off. That made people sure that the British bombers, though they might penetrate to the suburbs, would never be able to get over the city proper. And then last night the guns all over the city suddenly began pounding and you could hear the British motors humming directly overhead, and from all reports there was a pell-mell, frightened rush to the cellars by the five millions people who live in this town.

I was at the Rundfunk writing my broadcast when the sirens sounded, and almost immediately the bark of the flak began. Oddly enough, a few minutes before, I had had an argument with the censor from the Propaganda Ministry as to whether it was possible to bomb Berlin. London had just been bombed. It was natural, I said, that the British should try to retaliate. He laughed. It was impossible, he said. There were too many anti-aircraft guns around Berlin.

"I found it hard to concentrate on my script," Shirer continued. The gunfire near the Rundfunk was particularly heavy and the window of my room rattled each time a batter fired or a bomb exploded. To add to the confusion, the air-wardens, in their fire-fighting overalls, kept racing through the building ordering everyone to the shelters. The wardens at the German radio are mostly porters and office boys and it was soon evident that they were making the most of their temporary authority. Most of the Germans on duty, however, appeared to lose little time in getting to the cellar.

There are also reports of RAF attacks on Calais, seen from Dover Harbour. The attack began about 22:00hrs the previous night and German searchlights are seen probing the sky. Parachute flares are dropped and orange-coloured "flaming onions" soar into the sky. Report the newspapers, the thump of bombs could be heard across the stretch of 20 miles of sea - a rare occurrence. Bombing appeared exceptionally heavy. There were numerous flashes.

Tiny by comparison is the report in the Yorkshire Post this day, retailing the views of H B Lees-Smith, the MP for the West Yorkshire mill town of Keighley, speaking in his constituency. His is suggesting that the final day for the possibility of invasion is the equinox on 21 September. And this is not the first time Mr Lees-Smith has offered such a view. He had said the same on 20 August in the House of Commons, responding to the prime minister's speech. Then he said:
I gather that Herr Hitler's time for conquering this country by invading it is getting short. I have been discussing matters with officers and others, and for some time a certain date has been given to me, and that date is the equinox. I am told that after the equinox, owing to the gales and the rough weather, the possibilities of invasion will very greatly diminish. I find that the equinox is on 21st September, so my impression is that the time of danger is in the next month, and within that month probably the attempt to defeat this country by invasion will either succeed or fail.

This leads me to an aspect of the present attack upon this country which I do not think is so satisfactory and which I think it is necessary for us to discuss. If Herr Hitler does not beat us by physical invasion in the next month there is no doubt he will turn to the other alternative, which to many people has always seemed a good deal more dangerous, the alternative of trying to defeat us by his blockade, trying to defeat us by sinking our merchant ships.
Whatever the hyperbole, this is a commonly-held view - and for good reason. Weather dictates that early in the second half of September is Hitler's last serious option for an invasion in 1940. From there it is an easy assumption that, because this is the only real option, it is the one that will be taken.  But in Lees-Smith's exposition is also the expectation that, even without the invasion option, the economic war - the blockade - will continue. How much damage it is doing he is not allowed to say.

As for the day, there is a certain amount of sameness in the pattern of events.  Action starts with the appearance of Do 17 and Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft over the 11 Group area, followed by a series of raids, with more or less successful interceptions by fighter command.

The deeds are in no way less brave or determined than previously, but they have lost the novelty that excites media interest, least of all the Defiant crews. The remnants of No. 264 Sqn are up and about again, and lose three more aircraft, after being bounced by two Me 109s - although not before claiming a number of Do 17s downed.

On the day, Fighter Command suffers 22 losses, with Bomber Command losing three Hampdens and a Blenheim. A former Dutch Fokker T-VIII is also downed. The Luftwaffe loses 38 machines to various causes, including two He 115s, destroyed on the ground by RAF bombers.

Come the night, the Luftwaffe maintains its higher than normal level of activity.  Upwards of 200 bombers are abroad, with raids on Bournemouth, Plymouth and Coventry.  Birmingham also gets another visit, and flights are made over London, triggering air raid alarms.  Bombs are dropped in the Hendon and Edgware districts.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

25 August, 2010

Day 47 - Battle of Britain

"The City Bombed" blared the banner headline in the Sunday Express. In a "midnight raid" the sky over London had been "lit up by fire". The thud of a "screaming bomb" had been heard by watchers round St Paul's. The papers also recorded, "500 raiders attack Portsmouth", alongside the other Sundays, most of which retailed the Air Ministry claim that forty-five Luftwaffe aircraft had been downed.

The New York Times argued that an invasion was less likely now, "particularly in view of the approach of autumn weather". That paper held that the results of months campaigning were inconclusive but it seemed "probable" that the Germans had lost a lot more aircraft than the British – perhaps in the ratio of two or even more to one.

Express columnist George Slocum had interviewed a neutral diplomat, just back from Vichy France – giving a valuable insight into enemy perceptions. The diplomat had expected to find the skies over Britain black with German warplanes, with his aircraft from Lisbon landing at an airport completely destroyed. He been told before he had left that Britain was starving, that the Navy had been sunk, the Air Force obliterated and the factories in flames. Panic was supposed to reign in the country and Britain was on the point of surrender.

Several newspapers carried large adverts for War Bonds, with the pull-quote from the Prime Minister: "Never in the field of human conflict …". A legend was in the making.

Following the demise of the Lady Meath, the Admiralty issued a warning to operational units about the possibility of acoustic mines being deployed, although this was no more than a suspicion. It was not until late October that the suspicion became a certainty, when a mine was recovered. And it was not until 9 September 1941 that the British public was told of the threat, revealed by Churchill in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, the Observer had picked up the intensification of the raids on the previous day, also retailing the RAF claim that 45 Luftwaffe aircraft have been downed.

On this day, despite early good weather, Kesselring holds back his forces until the afternoon, the first raid not appearing until 16:00hrs. Then, a strong force of about 300 aircraft heads for Weymouth. Nos 10 and 11 Groups face it with all available aircraft between Tangmere and Exeter. Nos 87 and 609 Sqns defend Portland. No. 17 Sqn. protects Warmwell. Ju 88s protected by Me 110s split into three groups to attack Weymouth, Portland and RAF Warmwell.

No. 87 Sqn then takes on the Portland Ju 88s leaving the 110s to 609 Sqn. But the 110s are in turn escorted by Me 109s of JG53. No. 17 Sqn finds the bombers impossible to reach through the dense fighter screen. One Ju88 is shot down but the RAF loses 12 fighters and 8 pilots.

The only other sizeable daylight raid then develops over Kent around 18:00. Six 11 Group squadrons are in action. No. 32 Sqn operating from Hawkinge engages a dozen Do 17s until Me 109s drive them off and destroy a Hurricane. Losses on the day: Luftwaffe 20; RAF 16.

One of the day's losers was Sgt Mervyn Sprague, a No. 602 Sqn Spitfire pilot – one of two aircraft from the squadron shot down by Me 110s. Both were unhurt but Sprague had the distinction of was rescued from the sea by a Walrus aircraft, another one saved by "Digger" Aitkin. Sprague was not to be so lucky next time.

But the action is very far from over. As the sun goes down, the minelayers come out to seed the coastal waters with their deadly cargoes, while the Luftwaffe fleets thunder inland, headed for the Midlands. Over 65 individual raids are plotted and bombs fall in forty places, including Coventry.

But the most significant raid of the night is on Britain's second city, Birmingham. Up to now, there have been numerous small raids but this time bombers target the city centre, tearing the guts out of the Market Hall (pictured above), in an area now known as the Bull Ring. About 145 HE bombs are dropped (56 unexploded), with at least 110 incendiaries. Numerous districts are hit, and 29 people are killed, six of them workmen repairing a gas main when a delayed action bomb explodes.

Several factories suffer direct hits from HE bombs and severe damage is caused. The ICI Witton plant is damaged, a printing works and shops are also damaged, together with an engineering works and many residential properties.

At this point, however, the censorship policy on not naming cities that had been bombed was still holding, and certainly in Birmingham.  Press reports spoke of a "Midland Town" which, combined with the deliberate policy of talking down the damage, meant that this major raid did not register in the public consciousness - neither then nor later.  The raids on Birmingham remained largely invisible until, decades after the events, intensive local initiatives were taken to make the details publicly accessible.

Crucially, the lack of data of what were in fact quite major raids, somewhat distorts the record.  The received wisdom is that the Luftwaffe was devoting most of its strength to destroying the RAF.  In fact, the daytime activities of the last few days have been relatively modest compared with the night raids.  Proportionately, the Luftwaffe is already moving to night bombing, with considerable emphasis on civilian targets.

Going in the opposite direction, Bomber Command is doing likewise.  Authorised personally by Churchil in retaliation for the bombing of London, it  launches its first raid on Berlin. A mixed force of eighty-one aircraft take part comprising Wellingtons, Hampdens and Whitleys. Industrial and commercial targets are specified but dense cloud prevents accurate identification. Bombs fall on residential areas of the city. Six Hampdens do not return, in what has become a deadly game of tit for tat. Add four Blenheims lost and the total RAF losses for the day run to 27, five more than sustained by the Luftwaffe.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

24 August, 2010

Day 46 - Battle of Britain

For its lead story, the Daily Express focuses on a second bombardment from the German guns in the Calais area, followed by another RAF attack, and counter-battery fire from British heavy guns, the existence of which is officially admitted.  So a ritual is becoming established.

For the day, the weather has finally cleared, sufficient to permit a relatively high level of air operations, although a morning haze delays flying in some areas. It does not stop an early raid on Great Yarmouth, though. Missed by radar, it is picked up by the Observer Corps but too late for any effective interception. The force dumps about 20 HE bombs west of the harbour, affecting public services for a while. By the time a section of No. 66 Sqn Spitfires gets there from Coltishall, the raiders are long gone.

Shortly afterwards, two formations of some strength are detected building up behind Cap Gris Nez. Squadrons are scrambled to protect the forward airfields. By 08:15hrs the formations are being tracked as they crossed the Channel, by which time others are building up, although these give no sign of following. Nevertheless, more RAF squadrons are sent aloft, building the defending force to six squadrons and two flights.

So compact are the enemy formations, comprising some 40 Do 17s and Ju 88s, that the fighters are only able to make a limited pentration before the raiders are over the Dover gun defended area. Bombs are dropped over the town but the damage is "confined" to the residential area - from which much of the population had been evacuated.

No sooner is this raid under way when another five Luftwaffe formations - none of them less than 20 aircraft - cross the coast at different points, intercepted only by two British aircraft. The raiders, however, content themselves with carrying out deep reconnaissance before returning, only a small number of bombs being dropped near Canterbury.

No more than half an hour after this raid had cleared, another formation which had been orbiting over the Straits without making any threatening moves now begins to head towards the English coast. The main force, comprising more than 20 He 111s, skirted Dover and makes for Ramsgate, bombing the town and the local airport heavily.

Extremely well documented by a local historian, it was for Ramsgate the heaviest raid of the war, killing 29 and injuring over 50, ten seriously. The reaction, however, augers ill for the Germans. One housewife said:
I've lost my home, and I nearly lost my life, but after all, there is a war on and I suppose we must expect such things to happen. But, if Mr. Blooming Hitler thinks he can put the wind up us by bombing women and kids-well, he's got another think coming, that's all.
And so it was all over the town.

In what some say was a separate raid, with others linking it with the Ramsgate bombing, RAF Manston is hit by about 20 Ju 88s protected by a similar number of fighters. The airfield was badly damaged. Living quarters were wrecked, all communications were cut and a large number of unexploded bombs made the administration areas unusable. Effectively, the station had been rendered useless for operations other than serving as a forward refuelling airfield and an emergency landing ground.

One of the squadrons deployed from Manston was No. 264 flying Defiants (one pictured above). Based at Hornchurch, it had been ordered forward on 22 August to join the battle, despite the experience of No. 141 Sqn on 19 July. On its first encounter with Luftwaffe fighters, three aircraft were shot down. By the end of the day, the squadron had lost five aircraft with another seriously damaged. Three complete crews had been killed, their bodies never recovered. One gunner died from his wounds.

The squadron's major losses occurred fending off a raid at their home base which, with North Weald, also received the attention of the Luftwaffe. Concurrently with the south coast attacks, a large raid was despatched to these targets north of the Estuary. North Weald took 150-200 bombs dropped by nearly 50 Do 17s and He 111s, escorted by Me 110s. Living quarters were badly damaged, the boiler room was knocked out and nine people were killed. Ten were wounded.

In what was to have serious long-term repercussions, squadrons from No. 12 Group had been called upon to provide cover, but the Duxford Wing had arrives too late to have any useful effect (although Bader claims the "phone call never came").

While the Sector stations are being attacked, another raid is under way out of the Cherbourg area. Fighters are ordered up to intercept as the formation, estimated a "fifty plus" crosses the Channel. The main force skirts the Isle of Wight and makes for Portsmouth at about 15,000, evading British fighters which have been wrongly positioned by their controllers.

A local source describes how, in the Prince's Theatre in Lake Road, scores of youngsters are settling down to a matinee showing of Gate of Alcatraz. Tragically, the information provided by the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight has degraded, so the destination of the raid is not picked up. No air raid warning is given.

In the space of five minutes, the Germans drop 65 250kg and 500kg bombs. The imposing theatre is all but reduced to rubble. Eight children are killed and many more are injured. The bombs fall indiscriminately on shops and houses across the southern half of the city. And, with no timely warning, many people were caught in the open unable to reach a proper shelter. The death toll reaches more than 100 city residents and workers.

Then the bombers target the dockyard, which suffers badly. The destroyer Acheron has her stern blown off. Two ratings are killed and three crew are wounded. The destroyer Bulldog, moored alongside, is damaged by splinters. Her commanding officer, Cdr J P Wisden, is mortally wounded and dies on the 29th. The French torpedo boat Flore's bridge is damaged by falling masonry. HMS Vernon, the Navy's mine and torpedo centre, is also badly damaged (pictured below).

By now, many have reached shelter - and do not get a chance to regret it. An air raid shelter takes a direct hit, killing 24 and wounding 42 dockyard workers.

With nightfall, the torment continues. Areas in London and the suburbs are attacked. A letter from a Tottenham resident describes the family experience:
On Saturday night at 5 past 11. Well Tom I have never seen anything like it. We were in bed when we saw a bright searchlight shoot up in the sky, then another, then another, four altogether. I thought Good God what is happening now. We went downstairs and made for the shelter. We looked out the back door and really the sky was one mass of searchlights. I should think there were millions of them and the jerries planes were overhead. Dad made us get down the shelter and we were down there waiting for Mrs Lenny next door to come out with her children before the warning went.

They dropped bombs on two houses in Cornwall Road (Near Braemar Road), Mansfield Avenue (A turning out of West Green Road). We are not sure about Seaford Road. Several people were killed. Your sister Dolly's boyfriends family were blown across their kitchen with the blast from the bombs in Cornwall Road (pictured above).
Bombing is also reported in Cannonsbury Park, Highbury Park, Leyton, Wood Green, Stepney, Islington, Enfield, Hampton Court, Millwall and others.

The bomb in the Hampton Court area completely destroys the home of Frederick Reynolds at 153 Tudor Avenue (pictured above). Although Mr Reynolds and his wife sustained injuries, both have a miraculous escape. Their house has been reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. They are not alone in being homeless - several hundred others share this fate on this night.

For the first time, the City of London is bombed. St Giles Church in Cripplegate, at the heart of the City, takes a bomb in the forecourt (pictured above). The blast does little damage but knocks the statue of Milton off its plinth (below) doing it some injury. The poet is buried in the church and this event rouses indignation not only here but also in the United States. Milton, like Shakespeare, is a common heritage of the English-speaking world.

A large fire is started at Fore Street spreading to London Wall. Neill Warehouse, West India Dock, is badly damaged by fire. Warehouses Nos 3 and 4 are set on fire. At 02:40hrs, the Imperial Tobacco Factory and Carter Patterson's Works in Goswell Road are also fired. Two hundred pumps are mobilised but, with several unexploded bombs also reported, the area has to be evacuated and kept clear until midday on the 25th.

Other suburbs, seemingly at random, get visits from the Luftwaffe. Malden, Coulsdon, Feltham, Kingston, Banstead and Epsom all take hits. In Birmingham, the Nuffield and Dunlop Factories are bombed just after midnight. The Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory at Erdington is hit, and so is the Moss Gear Co Ltd. The main railway line is knocked out between Cardiff and west Wales after a train is bombed at Cardiff. A gun site at Datchet, Buckinghamshire, is bombed at 01:00hrs and ammunition blown up.

A hundred miles further north, it is the same scene. Residential areas in Hull are hit, and the Bomber Command station at Driffield is bombed again. Further north still, bombers hit Leeds. Nos 70 and 72 Whitehall Road are wrecked and much damage is sustained to the roof of St John's Sunday School (below). There is no major damage to the city.

And still further north, bombs are dropped at Newcastle, Wallsend, Broomhill, Seaton Sluice, South Shields, Stockton, Billingham, Hebburn and West Hartlepool. Minelaying is reported off Flamborough Head.

What is by now the previous day, Saturday 24 August, is regarded by many as the start of the third phase of the Battle of Britain, where the Luftwaffe concentrates on the task of eliminating Fighter Command. But, on this day at least, there is no evidence of strenuous attempts to bring the RAF to battle, and good evidence that some formations actively sought to evade confrontation. Although the full-scale Blitz has yet to come, for an increasing number of people bombed out of their homes, the difference is academic.

As to the assault on the RAF, while two Sector airfields are hit and Manston is targeted again, as much if not more effort is being devoted to civilians. Visibly, at any rate, the emphasis seems to be shifting to "terror" targets. Fighter Command has lost 23 aircraft, including two Hurricanes shot down by "friendly" AA - one over Dover, the other over Leeds. Another is damaged. Remarkably, despite these losses, only four pilots are killed or missing. Two are seriously injured. Bomber Command loses a Hampden in a landing accident, but no aircrew are lost.

Against that 24, the Luftwaffe loses 32 aircraft, including 24 Me 109s. Twelve single-engined fighter pilots are killed, missing or taken captive. In the air war stakes, at least, the balance of advantage goes to the RAF. The exchange rate most definitely favours Fighter Command and, but for the Defiant losses, would have been even more favourable.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

23 August, 2010

Day 45 - Battle of Britain

The Daily Express picks up the small piece of history of the previous day, with the first significant bombardment of Dover by German guns based in Cap Gris Nez. There have been a few ranging shots, but this was a serious bombardment. Interestingly, a passing convoy is fired on, with 104 shells counted, and not one hits.

This lack of accuracy becomes routine. Over time, many ships steam through bursts from exploding shells, unscathed except for fittings and crockery broken and holes punched in their sides by splinters. It is not until 1944 that the skipper of the Betswood, one of the most frequent users of the Straits, saw a hit on a ship in a convoy.

The heavy shell pitched straight onto number three hatch, and the collier vanished. There was a huge cloud of what looked like black smoke hanging low over the sea, and a patch of furiously disturbed water below. The black smoke was not smoke at all - it was coal dust, blown hundreds of feet up from the explosion of the 15-inch shell in the hold. Of the collier there was no sign. She had gone completely and instantaneously, with all her crew.

Back in 1940, as the guns fire, RAF bombers "roar into action". Watched by a Daily Express reporter, he reports "great red glows in the sky then, low down on the water line, fires that lit the French coastline". Watching every flash over there, he writes, and cheering every explosion now, "we decided the RAF boys were having a successful trip".

Unconscious of the irony of his own statement, he then reports: "After half-an-hour the guns roared into life again. Five shells came over in half as many minutes." Then, goes the narrative, more RAF. bombers rose over the coast. Our second attack was fiercer. Searchlights groped through the sky for them The flashes of the anti-aircraft guns were more insistent. But vivid flames flashed over Calais showing that the RAF were hitting home.

In fact, no gun is ever damaged by an air raid. The Germans are expert at concealment (example above), and in the course of time embed their fixed artillery in huge bunkers, rendering them almost bomb proof.  It is not until late August 1944 that the guns are silenced, after their capture by Canadian troops

Both sides, therefore, are over-estimating the capabilities of their weapons. The bombing is singularly ineffective while the guns, which are slated to have a powerful influence on Royal Navy warships which might interfere with German landings, prove virtually useless as anti-shipping weapons.

A far greater cause of alarm in official circles is an attack on Convoy OA 203 in the Moray Firth, when the streamers Llanishen (5,035 grt) and the Makalla (6,680 grt - pictured) are sunk by Luftwaffe He 115s based in Stavanger, Norway. Unlike previous attacks, they drop torpedoes, sinking two fairly substantial ships. When the New Zealand-owned RMS Remuera at 11445grt, is also torpedoed by aircraft off Kinnaird Head, 12 miles North of Peterhead, three days later, the worst fears are realised. The Germans have acquired a reliable air-launched torpedo.

Such is the sensitivity of this development that no details are released. Not even the War Cabinet is told. The public is kept entertained with the "bread and circuses" of the Dover shelling and threats of an imminent invasion. Yet, as to that invasion, in late May, a committee had been set up to assess invasion risk, appropriately named the Invasion Warning Sub-Committee. Meeting daily to review the current intelligence, so far it is unconvinced that invasion is imminent. It reports: "No serious threat of invasion yet exists from the Netherlands, French or south-west Norwegian ports. This is evidenced by the lack of shipping concentrations on these coasts".

It is assisted in its estimations by MTBs carried out patrols off the Dutch Coast on nights of the 25, 26 and 27 August, each time without making contact with enemy forces.

Nevertheless, the air war continues. Explosive and incendiary bombs, it is claimed, are dropped for the first time in the London area. There is some confusion about this, as claims are also made for the previous day.

Furthermore, there is some argument about whether the area bombed was technically in London as it falls outside the capital's administrative area.

The fact of a raid, however, was reported in the late city edition of the New York Times and the newspaper is unequivocal about the bombs falling in a residential area. This is said to be the first time bombs have fallen within the London area, dropped by a German raider "flying at great height"

During the raid, which seems to have lasted 45 minutes - from the warning siren to the "all clear" - and been over by 04:00hrs, a direct hit is scored on a "movie house". An adjoining hall is demolished and a public house and several dwellings are damaged.

Confusingly, the Associated Press reports that most of the bombs fall in the "western suburbs", although the "movie house" and timing pinpoint the location. It is the Alcazar cinema (pictured below) in lower Edmonton, very much North London but then part of the Middlesex county area.

After the raid, the cinema - which was built in 1913 - has to be demolished. Londoners, we are told, did not classify the raid as the "real thing". It is regarded as a "hit and run" raid.

The Luftwaffe also mount a number of small-scale raids elsewhere. Single aircraft are sometimes deployed. This has the effect of keeping the RAF unsettled, forcing Fighter Command to fly 482 sorties for very little reward. Five Germans are claimed for no loss. However, one Hurricane is written off in a night raid on Croydon. Two others are slightly damaged. The pilots are unhurt.

After nightfall, twenty-two inland raids are counted, mainly directed at South Wales, Bristol, Birmingham and the North. In Bridlington, a café is hit trapping the people inside.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

22 August, 2010

Day 44 - Battle of Britain

Air Secretary Archibald Sinclair made the pages of the Daily Mirror with an explanation of how enemy air losses were computed "so that public confidence in the British announcements may be maintained". Having so done, he declared that "It could be asserted with confidence that the reports of our pilots tended to err on the side of understatement. They were on their honour".

The Daily Express carried a large advert for War Bonds, with a pull-quote from the Prime Minister: "Never in the field of human conflict … ". Said the copy: "You can back our airmen by buying … ".

Paul Mallon, a widely syndicated Washington columnist, found his way into several US newspapers with yet more rumours of Nazi peace offers. To the latest were attached “surprisingly moderate” terms, he wrote: Churchill was to be replaced by Beaverbrook, and the UK would join in an economic alliance with Germany, against Russia and Japan.

In the shooting war, the focus returned to Dover as the Luftwaffe attacked convoys in Dover Straits. But there was a new development. The German long-range batteries had been installed and they got their first outing. Their target was a convoy through the Straits, but when they failed to hit anything, they turn their attention on the town.

This was the start of a four-year bombardment which recorded 2,226 shells landing within the town boundaries. Many more fell in the surrounding countryside, the harbour waters and the Straits. Essentially a front-line town, the civilian population dropped from 40,500 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000.

Dover, however, was not alone in its torment. During the day, there were attacks on RAF Manston and, that night, on Aberdeen, Yorkshire, Hampshire, South Wales, Bristol. Filton airfield were also hit, the target the Bristol Aircraft Company works.

Meanwhile, as the toll of pilots and other aircrew lost at sea steadily mounted, moves were made to improve the air-sea rescue service. The then Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice Marshall Harris (soon to take over Bomber Command), chaired a meeting at the Air Ministry with a view to setting up a formal rescue service.

It is decided to combine the "skeleton" rescue service of Coastal Command with the boats of the Auxiliary Naval Patrol and to place RAF launches under the operational control of the local naval authorities. The RAF retained responsibility for air search.

A Westland Lysander: originally procured for "army co-operation", the type is pressed into service to search for downed pilots. The wing stubs, used to carry bombs, are now used to drop dingies and supplies. 

Reference was made to the "twelve" Lysanders borrowed from Army Co-operation Command. These were reportedly stationed at RAF fighter airfields along the coast, Manston being one, which is under virtual daily attack and is in the process of being abandoned. Nevertheless, approval is given for these aircraft to be retained, under the control of Fighter Command.  Surprisingly, no reference is made to the ad hoc rescue service set up by Flt Lt "Digger" Aitken, using Royal Navy Walrus Amphibians.

Mason remarks that in all the planning that had gone into the air defence of the island nation, virtually nothing had been done to provide an organisation to rescue pilots from the sea, apart from providing a limited capability within Coastal Command. But the lack of suitable aircraft was only part of the problem.  As this report indicated, communications were primitive and ill-co-ordinated, much of the equipment needed simply was not available and there were not enough high speed launches.

For this evening, as well, the pilots had even been abandoned by their greatest fan - Information Minister Duff Cooper. Speaking in London, he declared that he was optimistic about the outcome of the war, because Britain retained its two greatest assets - command of the seas and national unity.

The present regime in Germany, he said, had mortally offended many sections of the German people. When the strain of battle began to tell, Germany would break in pieces. Exactly the opposite was happening in England, where criticism of ministers was the rule rather than the exception.  There was no mention of RAF pilots, much less those who will not survive, in remembrance of whom, a mere five days ago, we were to "fall in thankfulness upon our knees".

In Paris, German Army chief von Brauchitsch was still fighting his corner for a broad-front landing. He was trying to broker an agreement that an assault unit of about 7,000 men should be conveyed to the Brighton area in 200 fast motorboats and 100 motor sailing vessels. Support would be given by 4,500 men of the 7th Parachute Division, who were to take up blocking positions on the South Downs against expected British counterattacks.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread