04 August, 2010

Day 26 - Battle of Britain

War or no war, August is holiday time, and this is supposed to be Bank Holiday weekend - except that the official holiday has been cancelled.  Nevertheless, large crowds congregate at seaside resorts where access to the beaches is still permitted.  Home Intelligence reports continued indifference to international affairs and the war in general. Altogether, there is a lack of focus as people relegate the hostilities to lower down their lists of concerns.

The Sunday papers carry Churchill's warning that the threat of an invasion is still current, taking it largely at face value. The Observer invokes the anniversary of the start of the First World War, whence Hitler might be minded to start an offensive against Britain.

This newspaper is not alone in referring to the start of WWI.  This Sunday, J B Priestley gives another of his "postscript" talks on the BBC, speaking immediately after the nine o'clock evening news.

Priestley, as a broadcaster, is perhaps the only speaker who can challenge Churchill's popularity, now attracting audiences of over 10 million. His talks are often reported by the newspapers the following day, increasing the size of his audience. But the two men could not be more different.  Churchill is the son of a duke, public school educated, imbued with an upper-class sense of public service and duty, but very much an autocrat. He is a "top down" leader, with a strong affinity for hierarchical authority.

Priestley, on the other hand, hails from Bradford in West Yorkshire. From an "ultra-respectable" middle class background, he is grammar school educated and now a successful writer and social commentator. Now living in the south, he never loses his Yorkshire accent. Politically he can be described as Fabian socialist.

Crucially, Priestley has a his own, very clearly defined vision of the war. He is promoter and supporter of the "people's war" concept and speaks against the jingoistic, flag-waving patriotism that is so much Churchill's stock-in-trade.

This Sunday's effort is one of Priestley's most controversial. "We must not only summon our armed forces," he says, "wave our flags and sing our national anthems, but we must go deeper and by an almost mystical act of will, hold to our faith and hope".  He continues:
We have to fight this great battle not only with guns in daylight, but alone in the night, communing with our souls, strengthening our faith that in common men everywhere there is a spring of innocent aspiration and good will that cannot be sealed.
Anodyne enough by modern standards, what is remarkable for the time is the appeal to the "common man", which is seen as wildly left wing. It attracts many complaints, notably from the government chief whip, Captain David Margesson, acting on behalf of a group of right wing Tories.

Seventy years after the event, a contemporary British writer opines that when we British endure a national trauma we try, if possible, to forget about it, and are often helped to do so by the exhaustion of coping with the trauma itself. "That is why much of our history is myth," he says. "It is not what happened, it is what we can bring ourselves to believe has happened."

If the history of those 70 years ago is a myth, it extends to the weather on this day. It is fine in the early hours, cloudy with bright intervals later, clearing in the evening, says Wood and Dempster and several other sources. There is dull weather and filthy conditions says Donnelly. Whatever the actuality, there is little air activity.

Fighter Command flies a "mere" 261 sorties. Sgt J P Walsh of No. 616 Squadron is killed when his Spitfire spins into the ground from 5,000ft in a practice dogfight near Kirton in Lindsey. An Me 109 is destroyed and another one is damaged by Blenheim fighters of No. 236 Sqn, a Coastal Command unit, off Le Havre.

Bomber Command activity is minimal, but a Wellington crash lands at 04:20hrs at Barton Mills, Suffolk, 11 miles south west of Thetford, Norfolk. The cause of the crash is not established. A Hampden returning from a mission over Keil runs out of fuel and ditches ten miles east of Skegness, Lincolnshire at 06:40hrs. Fortunately, the coaster SS Sheraton is close to hand and the crew is rescued uninjured.

But the air war is not the only game in town. But the sea war goes on - even if it gets little publicity. This is very much part of the battle and losses are mounting. Today is particularly bloody.

Heroes of the action are the converted trawlers, designated Her Majesty's Trawlers (HMT). Manned by reserve officers and conscripted crews, some of them civilians who have never before been to sea. The picture above illustrates one of them, HMT War Duke. Mostly, but not always, they are unloved, unsung and unrewarded.  By the war end, nearly 500 of these ships will have been lost.

On this day, anti-submarine trawler Kingston Chrysoberyl (448grt) engages a German motor torpedo boat (E-boat) off St Catherine. Minesweeping trawler Drummer (297grt, Temporary Skipper H C Hall RNR) is sunk on a mine off Brightlingsea, Essex. Two ratings are lost. The power of these mines is terrifying - illustrated in the photograph above, as two explode.

Minesweeping trawler Marsona (276grt, Chief Skipper A W Ellis RNR) of Minesweeper Group 43 is sunk on a mine off Cromarty. Ellis, Temporary S/Lt I S I Trehearne RNVR and ten ratings are lost in the trawler. Minesweeping trawler Oswaldian (260grt, Temporary Skipper J. Darkins RNR) is sunk on a mine off Breaksea Light Vessel in Bristol Channel. Twelve ratings are lost. Seven survivors are landed at Barry.

And the steamer White Crest (4,365grt) is damaged by German bombing off Cape Wrath. In a raid on oil tanks and barges at Rotterdam, S/Lt R C Eborn and Lt T A Johnston RM, are killed when their Swordfish of No. 812 Sqn Fleet Air Arm is shot down off Noorwijk.

Understandably, the Senior Service is not always impressed by its junior upstarts. To them in their tiny warships there is the danger. But there is no glamour and precious little recognition.

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