02 August, 2010

Day 24 - Battle of Britain

Hitler has had a triumph already with his invasion propaganda, says the Daily Express leader today, in spite of the many voices which he uses. He says one day through the voice of Goering that invasion is coming at any moment. The next day he uses the Gayda mouthpiece to explain why it has not come yet. Hitler's method is always the same: Propaganda first, fighting afterwards. Words before deeds. Creating confusion and striking at morale in advance.

What the newspaper does not know (or chooses not to acknowledge) is that the German peace offer delivered via the King of Sweden is still, effectively, being "entertained" by Churchill, inasmuch as formally it has not been rejected.  And clearly, either Hitler or some in his entourage believe that there is still a possibility that a deal can be done. Overnight, more bombers which otherwise might have been delivering bombs, drop still more thousands of leaflets over southern England. They too are a full reprint of Hitler's July Reichstag speech.

This seems to be of little interest to the British media. On this day, the smouldering discontent with Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, erupts. The proximate cause is the discovery that the MoI is carrying out confidential, door-to-door surveys, to establish the state of public morale. This is a perfectly legitimate thing for the ministry to be doing but the press are labelling the interviewers as "Cooper's Snoopers".

But strained are the relations between the media and what the Guardian is calling the "ill-starred ministry" that this gets the front-page banner headline of the Daily Express, recording Duff's counter-attack in the Commons the previous day. This is a most extraordinary situation for a nation at war, apparently locked into a life and death struggle.

The debate had been triggered by Sir Archibald Southby (Cons., Epsom), who had branded the surveys "an invasion of privacy", and likened them to Gestapo methods in Germany at the start of the Hitler regime.

References from Members to snooping and sniping leads Cooper to tear into MPs and the press, declaring that that the usefulness of MPs was "limited" in wartime and that the Press "had proved themselves unworthy of being trusted with any important matter."

This day though, key events are taking place off-stage, events which are to transform the situation.   Responding to Hitler's Directive 17, Göring sets out his plan for continuing the offensive, presumably in the event that the peace initiative fails. He calls it Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack). This defines what some regard as phase two of the Battle of Britain and is set to start on 11 August with Adlertag (Eagle Day).  For many others, Eagle Day, when it eventually happens on 13 August, is the start of the Battle of Britain.

In executing the plan, the Luftwaffe is afforded an independence of role and action that has not previously permitted. Its force, assembled in France, the Low Countries and Norway, will consist of almost 1,700 aircraft including bombers, fighters, Stuka dive-bombers and fighter-destroyers.

Field Marshal Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 will play the major role because its bases are the closest to England. In support will be Field Marshal Sperrle's Luftflotte 3. General Stumpff's Luftflotte 5 will operate from Norwegian bases against sites in the Midlands.

Göring estimates that it will take him only three days of good flying weather to destroy the RAF. Nominally, his 1,700 aircraft are ranged against less than 700 serviceable Fighter Command aircraft. Order of battle of 2 August, for instance, is 63 Blenheim F1s, 238 Spitfires. 352 Hurricanes and 22 Defiants, totalling 675 in all.

The advantage, in fact, is less than three to one and Fighter Command is operating on home territory. Furthermore, it is supported by a defensive infrastructure, most prominently the anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons. But it includes radar, radio interception and the command and control system which, in modern terminology, would be classified as "force multipliers".

Thus, there is more to the forthcoming battle than numbers alone. Even then, the "few" is not that few, and the Luftwaffe is not that many. A battle is in the offing, but it is not as desperate as is painted.

Public news of the day is somewhat different. The Hull registered steamer Highlander (1,220grt - pictured, pre-war at the quayside in Newcastle), under her master, Captain William Giflord, steams into Leith harbour with parts of a Heinkel 115 seaplane draped across her stern.

The ship had just survived a bombing attack and downed at least two of these machines, returning in triumph.

The action has started the previous day, just before midnight, when the Highlander was passing along the East Coast, about three and a half miles from land. On hearing a low-flying aircraft, the ship's two light guns were manned and speed increased.

This turned out to be a wise precaution as the aircraft dove into the attack. Machine-gun bullets swept the steamer's superstructure, riddling the funnel and deck fittings and piercing the side. There were no casualties. The aircraft passed astern, circled, and then returned for a second attack, at still closer range.

The Highlander opened fire upon the attacker as he came on, and probably a shot reached the pilot, for the aircraft collided with the ships port lifeboat, twisted round after the contact, and crashed over her stern. Shedding its port wing, most of which remained on the ship's deck, the rest of the aircraft went on for one hundred yards or so, then at great speed hit the water and disappeared.

A couple of cranes were demolished, a light gun smashed flat on to the deck, and the two seamen who manned it knocked out, although neither were seriously hurt. As the gunners were celebrating this "kill", another He 115 suddenly turned up. Again the Highlander is the target for machine-gun fire, which is returned with interest with her remaining gun. Her bullets are seen to hit the aircraft. A few moments later it dives into the North Sea with a great splash, a little distance astern.

The Highlander is the first merchantman to bring down a German aircraft with its Lewis guns. Giflord is awarded the OBE and two crew the British Empire Medal. The ship is renamed in an attempt to avoid repercussions but is later sunk by aerial torpedo off Aberdeen, going down with all hands.

This morning though, the Luftwaffe is out for revenge, attacking a convoy off Harwich and sinking the armed trawler, HMT Cape Finisterre. Skipper John Grantham RNR and most of his crew are taken off. One man is killed.

In the Thames Estuary, off the South Longsand Buoy, the Ellerman Lines cargo ship City of Brisbane (8,006grt) is outbound from Port Pirie in Australia, headed for London a cargo of lead ingots, canned fruits, wool, flour and frozen meat. She is attacked by bombers and set on fire. The master runs her aground at South Longsand. She is still afire three days later, a total loss.

Minelayers are active overnight and there are raids on the RAF technical college at Halton, the airfields at Catterick, Farnborough and "Romford", and the Forth Bridge area.

There is little to show for Fighter Command's 477 sorties - other than to damage four German aircraft, which fail to make it back to base. No Fighter Command aircraft are lost to enemy action. Bomber Command loses four Blenheims, a Hampden and a Wellington. From the latter, four bodies are washed up on a Dutch beach. Two are never recovered.

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