03 August, 2010

Day 25 - Battle of Britain

Winston Churchill, according to his later recollections, records this as the day when the King of Sweden "thought fit to address us on the subject" of Hitler's peace offer. This is a tangential reference to the initiative which the US media have known about and have been reporting for well over a week. It thus seems inconceivable that the "address" was received only on this day, especially as Churchill is responding to a Foreign Office memo, which must have taken some time to draft.

More realistically, rather than the date it was received, this can be taken as the day when the peace offering - one initially set in train by Hitler on 19 July - is finally put to bed.

As to its treatment, Churchill regards the Foreign Office draft response as "trying to be too clever" and entering into "refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake". As an alternative, he suggests a response which states:
Before however any such requests or proposals could even be considered it would be necessary that effective guarantees by deeds, not words, should be forthcoming from Germany which would ensure the restoration of the free and independent life of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and above all France, as well as the effectual security of Great Britain and the British Empire in a general peace.
By requiring "deeds, not words", Churchill is effectively requiring Germany to vacate her newly occupied territories, a condition which she would never accept. The quadrille is at an end and the war can resume. But, Churchill also chooses to send a coded signal, to make plain his rejection. This he does in the form of a statement to the press. The Prime Minister wishes it to be known, he says:
... that the possibility of German attempts at invasion has by no means passed away. The fact that Germans are now putting about rumours that they do not intend an invasion should be regarded with a double dose of suspicion which attaches to all their utterances. Our sense of growing strength and preparedness must not lead to the slightest relaxation or moral alertness.
One senses that Churchill must have especially enjoyed the reference to "moral alertness". But the deeper significance of the statement is opaque to the British press. Almost completely oblivious to the drama - with the US press having made the running - it is focusing on domestic issues.

The Manchester Guardian, for instance, reports on Duff Cooper's performance in Parliament.  He revealed his real weakness when he lost his temper, the paper says. "His is an arbitrary mind, which does not like opposition and the House was surprised to see how hot-tempered he can be." The pity is, it adds, "that if ever a Minister needed to be equitable and conciliatory it is the Minister of Information. Otherwise he can never navigate the shoals the Ministry is in at the present moment."

Not to be left out, the Daily Mirror, having devoted its lead story to the Highlander shooting down the He 115s, also joins the fray. Unusually, it gives a front page slot to Cassandra under the headline "the crazy gang", allowing a lengthy, sarcastic parody of Duff Cooper's department, extending onto the back page.

This whole affair evokes a comment from Jock Colville, who is less than sympathetic over Duff Cooper's plight. He noted that "he has not produced many results as Minister of Information". Nicolson, the loyal deputy, is feeling "very depressed" over the attack. What worries him is that the whole press, "plus certain pro-Munich conservatives, have planned and banded together to pull Cooper down."  This suggests a deeper agenda than simply Duff Cooper's incompetence as Secretary of State.  He is one of Churchill's staunchest allies.  Is this an indirect attack on Churchill?

Nicolson thinks that his boss might be able to survive for a few weeks "with Winston's support", but now that they have pledged themselves to his destruction, "it becomes for then a matter of prestige".

This passes by most of the public - the spat is seen as a dispute between the Press and the minister.  And as for the real war, Home Intelligence reports that there is growing confidence in the defence of "our island fortress".  On this Saturday though, the big news - for the Daily Express, at least - is that its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, has been appointed to the War Cabinet.  He is to remain minister of aircraft production.

But the invasion temperature does climb a few degrees, with the next day being the anniversary of the start of the First World War. The Monday is also the start of a brief period when the tides will be at their highest and thus most favourable for an invasion.  On this slender basis, the threat of an invasion is believed to have increased.

This is reinforced by reports of the French media, which are said to be reporting that German troops are moving up to the French Channel ports. Through this, it is learnt that the Nazis are "concentrating troops all the way from the Spanish border to the Belgian frontier". The irony is unrecognised - that troop stationed from the Spanish border to the Belgian frontier is the very antithesis of concentration. From Rome, the Corriere Padano newspaper says that the "zero hour" for a concerted Axis attack against Britain is "about to strike".

Notably, this reference is is an "attack", as are most references from the enemy camp.  The word "invasion" is not being used. That is coming from Churchill and the British media.

And as always, the war has a human face. Back in Britain at about 19:00hrs, a Fairey Battle of No. 253 Squadron en route from Northolt to Turnhouse suffers an engine fire and then engine failure, forcing it to crash. Sgt "Andy" Anderson and LAC Ricks, both injured, abandon the aircraft.

Only later does it emerge that the airman was too shaken to jump. Andy, despite the flames, climbs along the fuselage trying to persuade the airman to bale out. Unfortunately he is blown off by the slipstream, but parachutes to safety, despite suffering burns. Meanwhile the airman had pulled his rip-cord while still in the aircraft. Miraculously, he is snatched clear by the open parachute, breaking a leg on the mainplane but otherwise landing safely.

Sgt Anderson is subsequently shot down and severely injured on 14 September 1940 after mixing it with an Me 109 near Faversham. He bales out of his stricken Hurricane. His treatment included pioneering plastic surgery, making him a member of the "Guinea Pig Club" as well as one of the few.

On the broader front, the hostile activity is slight. If an invasion is imminent, then there is no sign of it in the air. In and amongst 415 sorties, Fighter Command intercepts five raids in the south west, without loss. Swansea is amongst the areas bombed. Two HE bombs and numerous incendiaries drop on the outskirts with a few HE bombs falling into the waters of Swansea Bay near West Cross. No casualties are reported.

Blenheims from No. 235 Sqn manage to shoot down an He 115, and an He 111 is shot down by anti aircraft guns over the English Coast, returning from a sortie over Bristol - two of the four Luftwaffe aircraft lost this day. Bomber and Coastal Command between them lose two Blenheims, a Hampden, one Hudson and a Wellington. Albacores are in operation against invasion targets in Dutch ports.

On the naval front, SS Wychwood (2,794t) cargo ship, en route from Blyth to London with a cargo of coal is sunk by a mine off Aldeburgh. Next is the turn of steamer Statira (4,852grt) out of Masulipatam (India) and now sailing in convoy for London with a cargo of manganese ore, oil cake and groundnuts.

She is badly damaged by German bombing thirty eight miles north of Stornoway. The anti-submarine trawler Arab comes to her assistance and the crew is taken off by the destroyers Punjabi and Bedouin. On fire, the steamer is taken in tow to Stornoway by the tug Thames, where the fire is extinguished. She is later taken to Glasgow for her cargo to be unloaded and she is then broken up for scrap. Overnight, the Luftwaffe continues its minelaying programme.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread