07 August, 2010

Day 29 - Battle of Britain

Home Intelligence suggests a growing confidence that any German invasion will be repelled.  Despite Churchill's attempts and the increasing stridency of German propaganda, some local respondents are expressing the view that the danger of invasion is "remote". The war is "somewhat in the background" and those who can are trying to get on their holidays. Good weather and the "holiday spirit" has made a valuable contribution to continued cheerfulness.

In Berlin, Keitel is embarking on a course of action which will have the incidental effect of changing the British mood - not that he will be aware of the general sentiment. From OKW he issues an order headed: "Directive of deceptive measures to maintain appearance of constant threat of invasion of UK". The order starts in a curious fashion, stating "whether or not we invade England" the constant menace of invasion must be4 maintained against the English people and the Armed Forces. He also instructs that the main operation shall appear to be an invasion of the east coast as well as Ireland.

Preparations for the invasion are to be enhanced, he orders, but "individuals below a specified grade of the High Command who are concerned with the preparations are not to be informed that their tasks are aimed at deception".

Elsewhere, after sporadic clashes and now three days of fighting, Italian forces have invaded British Somaliland, while upwards of 250,000 Italian troops are said to have crossed over the Libyan border, with the Suez Canal their distant goal. On both fronts, heavily outnumbered British troops are falling back. Of the Somaliland expedition, the British Middle East Command in Cairo stated: "Our land forces are organised to resist despite the collapse of French Somaliland".

The Daily Express gives it front-page treatment, displacing news of the air war. However, a down-page item reports that German Army leave has been stopped and the "Hitler is hourly intensifying his invasion campaign of nerves against Britain."

The report continues, retailing a quote from Luftwaffe General Sanders, who threatens complete destruction of London docks and Birmingham. He adds: "I cannot tell you when the attack will come or how, but I can say it will not come in the form in which it is anticipated in England. The German Air Force is ready to strike now. It has already made all preparations; planes have been overhauled and pilots rested. Mr Churchill was quite right when he said that in our attacks on England we have up to date only been taking England's measure. We have not started to cut the cloth. The attacks will be directed against docks and industrial centres."

All German Army leave has been cancelled, and large bodies of troops are moving towards the coast, says a Zurich message quoting reports from "well-informed observers" in Berlin. At a Press conference in the Wilhelmstrasse yesterday attention was drawn to Ribbentrop's declaration that "England will be forced to accept peace terms this year."

In Spain (says the Daily Express correspondent on the Franco-Spanish frontier) it is firmly believed that with all communications between occupied and unoccupied France severed, the German invasion of Britain is imminent. All roads and- railways in northern France are strictly reserved for German troops. It is thought the Germans will make a double attack, one from western France directed against south-west England and Ireland, and the other from northern France, directed against the Kentish and Essex coasts

During the day, a convoy off Cromer is attacked – a detail that makes it into few chronological narratives on a day that was widely regarded as "quiet". The convoy is probably FS 44 – six vessels on the run that stretches from Methil, the sheltered anchorage in Largo Bay in the Forth Estuary, all the way to Southend. This one is due on 8 August. From there, the vessels will either join another convoy or make their way independently to the Port of London or another destination close by.

Sometimes the convoys start on the Tyne, as this one did – most having done so from September 1939 up to the end of August 1940. From then onwards, the starting point is Largo Bay, watched over by the RAF as it becomes a prime target for the Luftwaffe (pictured, a No. 602 Sqn Spitfire on patrol over the bay).

Altogether, the FS series runs throughout the war to May 1945, comprising 1,778 convoys which pass through 18,448 shipping movements, carrying well over 20 million tons of cargo. The route is protected by defensive mine fields but is vulnerable to attacks by U-boat, E-boat, aircraft and mines.

Not all ships make it. The one illustrated above does. She is the Newcastle-registered collier SS Letchworth (1,317grt) and she came into Southend with FS41 on 5 August. But her days are numbered. Four runs later, she is bombed by German aircraft and sinks with the loss of one crewman. Another casualty in the making is the SS Gasfire, whose story is told briefly here. There are hundred of others.

This is the other war, one that could justifiably be called the "real" war. No matter how perilous the situation for Fighter Command might have become, the immediate outcome of the Battle of Britain is never seriously in doubt. The Germans' objective – the invasion of Britain – was one which could never have succeeded. On the other hand, in this "real" war, the danger is the "slow strangulation of the British economy", caused by the combined Luftwaffe and U-boat attack on shipping. This is far more serious than is being realised. And, in the summer of 1940, this war is creating considerable problems.

Heavily censored, there had been an acute "coal crisis" in January and February and the stresses created are intensifying. The inland transport system, and especially the rail system, is not coping. And London needs coal, 30,000 tons of it every week, to feed the electricity power stations, to keep the trains on the move - most of them coal-fired - and for much of heat for domestic cooking and hot water, as well as for making the town gas.

Len Deighton, in his book Fighter is caustic about what he terms the "official stupidity" of continuing to send domestic cargoes through dangerous coastal waters, arguing that they should have been sent by rail, as they were later.

However, a post-war economic analysis had already indicated that the situation after the fall of France had been highly complex. Patterns of trade had been seriously disrupted, requiring a re-orientation of traffic flows, to deal with different supply sources and production adjustments - and even changes in consumption patterns.

While there were plenty of locomotives and trucks, the loading and unloading facilities did not exist on the scale required. The marshalling yards were inadequate. And there were bottlenecks throughout the system, especially with junctions on lines where there were significant changes in the routing of traffic. Storage depots were in the wrong places and local distribution was not fully (or at all in many cases) integrated with the rail system.

War production was also imposing a stresses on the transport infrastructure, as were the joint requirements of the evacuation of from major cities, and troop movements. Under the title Operation Pied Piper, in the first week of the war the evacuation had relocated three million people - nearly a quarter of the population of England - creating massive disruption.

With the phony war, however, many of those drifted back, only for there to be a second, more measured evacuation as the bombs began to fall, further stressing the rail system.

Mobilisation itself meant that there were more people away from home and there was more demand for long-distance transport. The population had became far more mobile than it had been. And all of this created not less but greater competition from passenger traffic - more so with petrol rationing and restrictions in road transport.

Furthermore, with the rail system in private hands, established routes were regionally delimited and rolling stock inventories were specific to the requirements of commercial companies. There was no provision for pooling stock, apportioning it according to need and then tracking and accounting for the new patterns of usage. There simply was not the unified management - nor even the statistical information - which would permit central planning and control of what had to become a national rail system.

Then, on top of that, there were the effects of the blackout - especially on marshalling yards which needed high intensity illumination to work efficiently in the hours of darkness. Air raid warnings which forced workers to take cover, and then actual bombing damage (pictured below- Middlesbrough station), all had a significant effect on the quantity of goods that could be moved.

Thus, while there was - in theory - sufficient rail capacity to cope with extra traffic generated by closing down the coastal shipping trade, the infrastructure and management systems were not up to the task. It would take time to make the necessary adjustments, by which time the rail infrastructure had deteriorated, rolling stock was worn out and the whole system could be kept running only by offering a deteriorating service.

If there was stupidity here, it was not necessarily confined to official quarters. Pre-war, the Ministry of Transport to a certain extent foresaw that there would be difficulties "in placing a sudden demand on the railways for greatly increased traffic in unfamiliar channels." It was the railway companies which proved to be the obstacle, displaying unwarranted optimism about their ability to cope, based on flawed planning assumptions, not least of which being that passenger traffic could be drastically cut.

In the meantime to keep London and the southern towns supplied, there was no alternative but to continue using small colliers like the Letchworth. They, with their escorts – many of them armed trawlers – traversed the dangerous waters of the East Coast and the Channel, and did so uncomplainingly. They faced appalling dangers - and suffered a far greater number of casualties than did "the few" who were capturing the nation's imagination.

The unrecognised heroism of the crews of these small ships and their convoys gives the planners a breathing space, time to resolve some of the problems of adjustment, the like of which had never been experienced and for which the country is singularly ill-prepared.

But, if the heroism of the "Coal-scuttle Brigade" as it comes to be called is unrecognised, still fighting yet another unrecognised aspect of the war is J B Priestley, a reference to whom pops in in William Hickey's column of the Daily Express on this day.

Sixteen editors, war correspondents and columnists have dined with information minister Duff Cooper, the meeting chaired by Priestley.  He is particularly interested is discussing the government's definition of "peace aims", constantly bringing the talk back to the "new Europe" that we must be supposed to be fighting for.

He and others urged on Duff Cooper that the Government should define the sort of new world order they wanted: this was necessary abroad, to counter Nazi propaganda that the Germans were fighting for a new order, we merely for the status quo: necessary at home, because the thoughtful younger generation, in the forces and out, were asking the question, troubled by the Government's apparent lack of a programme and adherence to old ways.

Priestley built up a glowing picture of the alert, politically educated young British public, absorbed in world affairs. Devoted as I am to you all, writes Hickey, I ventured a mild "H'm". Priestley, an earnest Liberal, takes, I think, an unrealistically optimistic view of you. 

There are, thank heaven, Hickey continues, thousands of these young intelligents (chiefly in the working-classes) but they are still in a small minority. Priestley probably makes the amateur's mistake of thinking those who write letters to him representative. The real man-in-the-street rarely writes letters; more rarely still intelligent or "progressive" ones.