08 August, 2010

Day 30 - Battle of Britain

With weary familiarity, a pattern begins to emerge.  After confident, bellicose statements, British forces are falling back, making claims of "heavy losses" of their foes, only then for more news to emerge of more territory conceded - as is already hinted at in current statements, as two Somaliland towns fall. Home Intelligence reports "some unease". It observes: "people everywhere want to hear that we are taking the initiative, but instead we are once again on the defensive, this time against the despised Italians".

Fortunately for the government, today the war erupts - the sea war joining with the air war to make for the biggest fight so far - one that is to drive the bad news about Somaliland down page and then off the front pages altogether.

So many aircraft are involved, and so vicious is the fighting that some regard 8 August as the true beginning of the Battle of Britain or, variously, the start of the second phase. The proximate cause of the fighting is Convoy CW9, codenamed "Peewit". It has been routed from Southend (taking on some of the FS convoy travellers) to the Yarmouth Roads - confusingly in the western Solent, off the Isle of Wight, rather than the more famous Yarmouth in Norfolk, East Anglia.

With 25 merchant ships and nine escorts, it is obeying Admiralty instructions and avoiding the Straits of Dover during daylight. It thus left Southend at two o'clock precisely the previous afternoon, the plan being to sail through the Straits in darkness, hoping to be well clear of the danger area by dawn.

Legend has it that the passage of the convoy is picked up by operators of a recently-installed Freya radar set on the cliffs at Cap Blanc Nez. This is asserted by Wood and Dempster in 1961, by a BBC account in 2002 and, more importantly, by Len Deighton in 1977.

Deighton asserts that the convoy was "easily detected by the big Freya radar at Wissant" and argues that the failure of the Admiralty - despite excellent evidence - "to allow for the fact that the Germans might have excellent radar", was another example of official "stupidity".

It may be a small point, but marine surveillance radar was not called Freya - that code-name was reserved for aircraft tracking equipment. The early land-based maritime radar was called the Seetakt, code-named the "Calais A". The later model was numbered FuMO 2 and coded "Calais B" (pictured above).

These sets were exclusively operated by the Kriegsmarine and there is no evidence whatsoever that they were in place, on the French cliffs until late in 1941. A headquarters for the operating units, the Funkmess-Abteilungen was not set up until the November. The unit covering the French coast was not established until July 1942. And, although - according to one authority - later versions of Freya could detect large sea vessels at some distance, the versions of 1940 had very limited range. A set is pictured below right - note the very different antenna profiles.

There is, in fact, no need for high technology.  The convoy is expected and it could be seen assembling off Southend.  Its path is totally predictable - the one swept channel through the Straits.  German aircraft have ranged all over the south during daylight - they must know the convoy is coming. No one expects otherwise. All the Germans have to do is wait, and listen.

That is precisely what the Germans do. A pack of E-boats waits, engines throttled back, rocking in the swell.  At three in the morning, the darkest hour of the night, the quiet is broken only by the thumping rhythm of the gliding ships and the was and suck of water.

Then there is the snarl of high-powered diesels kicking into life, the scene is illuminated by the ghastly green glow of a star shell punched into the sky by a destroyer escort, and the night is ripped apart by the slam of gunfire, escorts and convoy blazing away with everything they have.

The claim of radar detection, therefore, is unproven - and as the colliers fight for their lives, it can hardly matter. But it is more than just a minor technical detail. Apart from everything else, it is a possible example of how an error might enter the narrative, only to be repeated by every author who follows, decade after decade. Deighton uses this "fact" of German radar with a maritime surveillance capability to strengthen his argument for the cessation of convoys through the Channel.

He also cites German propaganda, claiming that the Channel has been closed by the Luftwaffe - which is certainly the thrust of the coverage - then citing an anonymous RNR Commander who tells the convoy skippers that keeping the route open is a matter of "prestige". Most of them command colliers and he tells them, "We don't give a damn about your coal ... we'll send you empty if we have to".

This all accords with the Battle of Britain mythology, where Dowding himself argues:
...the heavy attacks made against our Channel convoys probably constituted, in fact, the beginning of the German offensive; because the weight and scale of the attack indicates that the primary object was rather to bring our Fighters to battle than to destroy the hulls and cargoes of the small ships engaged in the coastal trade.
From John Weal (Junkers Ju 87: Stukageschwader 1937-41 - Osprey, 1997) and others, however, one gets no impression from this battle that the ships' attackers were merely the bait, the tethered goat, designed to draw out the aircraft of Fighter Command to their slaughter. The German objective - and throughout Kannalkampf - seems to have been to destroy ships, the grander objective being to mount a blockade on England and thereby drive its government and peoples into submission.

Whatever the intent, by the time the E-boats had finished, the convoy was dangerously scattered for when the first wave of Stukas finally arrived in the morning - the first of three major attacks of the day.

The E-boat attack had been bad enough. The steamer Holme Force (1216grt) was sunk off Newhaven and Fife Coast (367grt) ten to fifteen miles west of Beachy Head, respectively by boats S 21 and S 27 of the 1st Flotilla. The Master, two crew and three gunners were lost on Holme Force. Four crew and one naval rating were lost on Fife Coast.

As S 20 and S 25 joined in the attacks, the steamer Ouse (1004grt) was sunk in the ensuing panic after colliding with the steamer Rye (1048grt), while avoiding a torpedo from one of the motor torpedo boats. Twenty three survivors were rescued from the Ouse. Steamers John M (500grt), ten miles south of Needles, IOW and Polly M (380grt) 15 miles from Cape Wrath were damaged by the E boats.

Amongst the first to succumb to the air attacks was SS Coquetdale (1597grt - pictured above in pre-war colours). She and Empire Crusader (1042grt) were sunk fifteen miles west of St Catherine's Point. The entire crew of Coquetdale was rescued. The Master, two crew and two naval gunners were lost on the Empire Crusader. The Dutch steamer Ajax (942grt) was sunk  fifteen miles west of St Catherine's Point, with the loss of four crew.

Three other Dutch steamers, Veenenburgh (433grt), Omlandia (400grt) and Surte (244grt) were damaged. British steamers Scheldt (497grt) and Balhama (1428grt) were also damaged, as was Norwegian steamer Tres (946grt), just a mile short from Nodes Point, St Helen's Roads. Tres later sank in St Helens Bay. During these attacks, anti-submarine yachts Wilna and Rion and anti-submarine trawlers Cape Palliser, Kingston Crysoberyl, Kingston Olivine and Stella Capella were damaged.

An oddity is HMS Borealis (451 tons - illustrated below), who also becomes a casualty. She was built in Germany and was formerly Pilote No. 15, owned by the Belgian Marine Administration. In a change of fortune, she is hired by the Admiralty in June 1940 for service as a barrage balloon vessel and based at Portsmouth. While helping to protect the convoy, she is sunk 4.5 miles from St Catherine's Lighthouse.

Against all that, for their entire day's activities over the whole country, the pampered Brass of Fighter Command lost 19 machines to enemy action, claiming the destruction of 60 machines, as against the 31 confirmed by post-war records.

From those 19 British machines, no less than 18 are reported killed or missing - including three in one machine, a Blenheim F1. Of those, Pilot Officer L A Sears, in Hurricane P2955 from No. 145 Sqn Westhampnett, crashes into the Channel after mixing it with an Me 109. He is never seen again. Sgt E D Baker, in his Hurricane (P3381), is last seen in combat with Ju 87s and Me110s. He also crashes into the sea.

The Blenheim F1 (L8665) from No. 600 Sqn Manston is shot down over Ramsgate and crashes offshore, just before midday. Whether its crew, Flg Off D N Grice, Sgt F D Keast and AC1 J B W Warren, survive the crash is not recorded, but they later rank amongst the killed.

Sgt K B Smith, flying Hurricane R4094 from No. 257 Sqn Northolt, goes missing over St Catherines Point, presumed crashed into Channel. From the same squadron is Flg Off B W J D'Arcy-Irvine. He goes missing off St Catherines Point in his Hurricane P3058 from No. 257 Sqn Northolt, again presumed crashed into Channel.

Flt Lt N M "Henry" Hall crashes into the sea off Dover. He is flying Spitfire L1039 from No. 64 Sqn Kenley and is posted as killed. Another experienced flight leader, Flt Lt D E Turner crashes into the sea south of the Isle of Wight while flying Hurricane P3823 from No. 238 Sqn Middle Wallop. Also from the same squadron is Flg Off D C MacCaw and he is another who crashes off the Isle of Wight. He is flying Hurricane P3617 and is reported killed.

Sub Lt F A Smith is shot down while attacking a Ju 87. He is flying Hurricane P3545 from No. 145 Sqn Westhampnett and crashes into the sea south of the Isle of Wight. PO E C J Wakeham joins him in his Hurricane P2957, as does Flg Off Lord R U P Kay-Shuttleworth in P3163 - three officers from the same squadron. Then there is Pilot Officer O J Cruttenden in his Hurricane (P3781) and Pilot Officer J R S Oelofse in his (P3468), two officers from No. 43 Sqn Tangmere.

In other words 15 of 18 of the pilots are lost at sea. Is seems statistically improbable that they were all killed in combat or died on impact.

Of the death of "Henry" Hall, his friend and fellow pilot, Johnnie Kent, later observed that these early combats had been, in his opinion, "the most deadly of all". Many a good fighter pilot was lost who would have been invaluable in the days that followed.

Fighting over England, Kent wrote in his autobiography, one always had the comfort of knowing that if one was forced to jump one would come down on land where medical attention, if required, could rapidly be obtained. He continued:

Over the sea it was a different matter,he wrote. We were only equipped with archaic Mae Wests, the buoyancy of which depended upon wads of kapok and a rubber bladder that had to be inflated by mouth. "The chances of being picked up during a convoy attack were very remote and this may well have happened to Henry as it did to so many others." Kent added. Hall had been commanding a flight in No. 257 Sqn but had previously been a test pilot at Farnborough. He was exactly the sort of experienced pilot that Dowding could ill-afford to lose

Never before have the inadequacies of the air-sea rescue provision been so cruelly demonstrated, yet nothing of this escapes into the public domain. Reports suggest that Park by the end of July had acquired a number of Lysanders to carry out searches for downed airman. But there are no reports of their activities on this day. That one such aircraft was posted to Manston on a detached flights (possibly from No. 4 Sqn - pictured above) is certainly the case, but this is in 1941.

Despite all this, and solely on the basis of the inflated tally, Churchill was moved to send a congratulatory message to the Secretary of State for Air. It is not recorded whether a similar message was sent to the Admiralty for fighting the convoy through, or to the ministry of trade, congratulating the merchantmen who had taken such risks.  Certainly, no congratulatory messages are sent to hard-pressed troops in Somaliland.

But even if the other damage by the Luftwaffe is ignored - not least from its raid on Portsmouth - and the loss of a Blenheim and Hampden from Bomber Command, the economic and human scales have tipped heavily in favour of the Germans. Theirs is the victory on the day and only rose-tinted glasses could have made it otherwise. Unfortunately, these seem to have become official issue in the British establishment.

Nevertheless, by the end of the evening, Jock Colville believes "personally" that the invasion will not be delayed much longer: Germany is probably gathering herself for a formidable blow.  However, he is comforted by the views of an "eminent German" who recently confided in a neutral that Germany's position was "splendid but hopeless".

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