10 August, 2010

Day 32 - Battle of Britain

It is a cloudy day with some rain - not ideal for operations and Göring decides to wait still more before launching his grand offensive. Adlerangrif is postponed until the 13th. For Fighter Command, therefore, it becomes a quiet day with reports that "enemy activity has been exceptionally light overland". For longer than some can remember, there are no losses.

Nevertheless, there is some activity in the Channel and Me 110 pilots attempt a surprise evening strike on Norwich. A lone, undetected Do 17 puts 11 HEs close to RAF West Malling despite No. 501 Squadron's attempts to stop it.

Behind the scenes, there is concern in the German naval high command about slippage in the invasion timetable. The war diary notes: "Preparations for Seelöwe, particularly mine clearance, are being affected by the inactivity of the Luftwaffe, which is at present prevented from operating by the bad weather." The diary adds, however, that for reasons not known to the Naval Staff, the Luftwaffe had also missed opportunities afforded by the very recent good weather.

Here, there seems to be a total disconnect. The German Navy is focusing on the issues on which a successful invasion will depend, with no sign of any commitment from the Luftwaffe to the same ends. During the night, for instance, the Luftwaffe attacks Bristol Docks and leaflets are dropped over Bristol. Bombs fall for the first time on Abergavenny, Rochester and Wallasey along with heavy raids on Weymouth. Serious damage is done to the Llandore GWR (Great Western Railway) viaduct near Swansea where a direct hit on a shelter kills five. He 111s hit Swansea and fifteen people are killed.

These activities may well be important in the longer term, and are certainly relevant to the continuing blockade - especially the raids on on the ports, but it is difficult to see how they further the very narrow requirements of the invasion.

On the other hand, the British recipients of this activity seem less concerned that it might be a harbinger of invasion and more concerned - quite naturally - about the damaging effects. Much dissatisfaction is expressed at the lack of protection, with complaints of insufficient numbers of barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns.

At this stage of the war, many policy-makers believe that whether public morale stands up will depend on the actual and perceived success of measures taken to protect civilians. The complaints are, therefore, taken very seriously and passed up to the highest level in the Air Ministry.

This has Air Vice Marshall Peck warning of the lack of public protection in Swansea, which in turn has Gen. Sir Hugh Elles of the Ministry of Home Security writing to Dowding - ironically, in 19 August just as Luftwaffe bombers are targeting the oil tanks in an undefended Pembroke Docks. He refers to the importance of the docks and "the great refinery of Llandarcy", and also asks for the installation of more barrage balloons on South Wales, "more for psychological reasons than anything else".

In a rather dusty response, Dowding tells Elles: "I have no balloons for psychological use and am having to refuse physiological claims". Nevertheless, some additions are made to searchlight and gun defences, although they are to prove insufficient.

The exchanges, however, underline the importance of the high intensity propaganda war being played. In early 1939, it had been recognised that the then looming conflict would be "a war of nerves" involving the civilian population to a far greater extent than had any previous conflict. There is a very strong conviction in the higher reaches of government that the morale of the people is particularly susceptible to air raiding so that, with the advent of the long-range bomber, civilian morale might be "broken", regardless of the strength of the armed forces of the warring nations.

Collapse and defeat on the home front, rather than defeat in conventional fighting, is thought to be a real possibility. The attitude of the civilian population to sudden and devastating aerial bombardment could be a critical determining factor in the outcome of the war.

Thus the government needs to go further than ever before with every possible mode of publicity "utilised and co-ordinated", to fight against "well-funded and established" Nazi propaganda. With a major battle being fought over their heads, with the prospect of the first successful invasion since 1066, this was as much a battle for the "hearts and minds" of the population as it was a clash of arms.

To capture and control what became known as the "home front", a Ministry of Information had been established on 4 September, the day after Britain had declared war. The current minister is Duff Cooper, having taken over only in May from the director general of the BBC, Sir John Reith.

First and foremost, the media is very heavily regulated and censored - the subject of the contemporary cartoon (above), which has the blindfold being tied over the representative of the fourth estate labelled "censorship". This is most readily apparent from the requirement (mostly) to omit the names of locations, hence the Channel ports being referred to as "somewhere on the South East Coast".

But the control is far more pervasive and insidious than mere censorship. And the techniques Cooper's team were using are not unfamiliar. Illustrated by a piece in The Daily Telegraph for the day, we see exaggerated and misleading claims, the latter extending to outright lies. In parallel, we see strident declamations of the Nazis for their "falsification" and mendacity, bolstered by an insistence that British claims are correct, claims which also resort to lies.

The subject of this day is the battle over "Peewit" convoy, the Air Ministry ostensibly "correcting" the score, adding seven further kills to bring the total number of aircraft lost by the Germans on the day to 60. Yet, from post-war records, we know the actual number to be 31, so the inflated claim is nearly twice the real number of enemy aircraft brought down.

The day previously, the War Cabinet has been told in the weekly résumé (WP (40) 307) that 52 enemy aircraft - 17 Ju 87s and the remainder fighters - were "definitely shot down". A further fourteen are "unconfirmed". The Cabinet is also told that British casualties amount to 17 fighters and a Blenheim "engaged on a training flight." With actual losses standing at 19, this is very close. The claim then that "several of our pilots have been rescued," is less candid. A more truthful statement might have been: "very few of our pilots have been rescued".

But what is also fascinating is the stridency with which the government insists that its figures are correct. After an air battle, it says via The Daily Telegraph, "RAF crews engaged made reports which are carefully compiled, together with pictures taken by the camera gun carried on every British fighter. This "gun" registers a picture with every burst of machine-gun fire, and also records the time".

Illustrated above is the equipment, a Williamson G45, known commonly at the time as a "cine gun". It uses 16mm film, synchronised with the guns at a maximum of 20 frames a second. The equipment was first introduced in 1934, when it was used mainly as a training aid. But we also know that the camera saw operational use on 22 February when Sqn Ldr Douglas Farquhar of No. 602 Sqn filmed the destruction of an He 111 over Coldingham in Berwickshire.

We also know of another operational use when Flt Lt J H G McArthur in his Spitfire Mk I of No. 609 Squadron filmed his tracer ammunition hitting an He III aircraft over Filton, on 25 September 1940 (pictured above). In between that February and September, however, we see very, very few references to gun cameras, an almost complete absence of any mention of them in contemporary accounts, and a dearth of camera footage.

While, the cameras were most certainly fitted to a number of aircraft, the impression is that they were rarely found prior to September 1940 and really only came into widespread use in 1941. There were other priorities, and the provision of the equipment for maintaining the cameras, developing and analysing the films was not something that was high up the list.

Nor is it necessarily to rely on official data. The camera requires a prominent and highly visible opening in the port wing-root (see picture - the mounting is in the starboard wing root in late-production Spitfire Mk IXs and later marks). With thousands of Spitfire and Hurricane photographs having been produced and scrutinised by enthusiasts, many report it being "extremely rare" to see a camera fitted in mid-1940.

Against the Air Ministry claims, the "official German admission" that ten Luftwaffe machines were downed and two forced to land is branded "Nazi falsification".  The claim that 49 British machines have been destroyed - against 21 aircraft including Bomber Command losses - is dismissed as "equally mendacious". Yet, it is not much more exaggerated than the British claim.

As to the shipping losses, the official British claim is "three small ships" sunk by the E-boats, totalling 2,500tons. That is almost exactly the figure (at 2,587grt), although an E-boat is claimed destroyed, with a second one badly damaged, which is not the case. No mention is made of the two ships damaged.

The air attack toll is similarly distorted. The British claim two ships lost, totalling another 2,500 tons, and seven damaged. In fact, five ships, including HMS Borealis, are sunk, totalling just short of 5,000 tons. Five merchantmen are damaged, plus two anti-submarine yachts and four anti-submarine trawlers. Neither the British nor the German figures, which amount to 15 ships and 72,000 tons, are reliable.

Then, truth is so often a casualty of war. More to the point, facts and figures become weapons of war, to be bent and distorted as the need arises. In a total war, nothing else can be expected. Given total control over the flow of information, and control over the press and other media, neither side could afford to lose these small battles.

Despite that, no one could say that Fighter Command is deliberately inflating their "kills". But to rely on excited young men and information gleaned in the heat of battle, cannot with any honesty be regarded as the optimum way of collecting statistical data. That the figures might have been inflated, and seriously so, must have been apparent to anyone who knew the system and had given its defects any thought. But is is also self-evident that by using them, and at the same time calling the Germans liars, the appearance of victory could be sustained, irrespective of the actual result.

The great danger, of course, was that each side would begin to believe their own propaganda. But, here again, there was no equality. The penalty for so doing might have been greater for the Germans, who were trying to force a decision. The longer-term danger was that governments, having learnt the arts of lying during wartime, would chose to continue practising those arts in peacetime.

One great practitioner of deception and, tragically, self-delusion, was Bomber Command. Out and about on this day was No. 4 Group (Whitley), with No. 58 Sqn sending ten aircraft aircraft to attack industrial targets at Frankfurt-am-Main. Later studies show that most night raids failed to find their targets and bombs dropped within five miles of a designated primary or alternative were regarded as a success. On this raid, two aircraft return early, four bomb the primary targets and two bomb alternatives - or so they claim. One crashes at Hemswell on return.

In Coastal Command, No. 608 Sqn carries out its first operation with its new Blackburn Botha torpedo bomber. It is not a popular machine. It soon acquires a reputation as accident-prone and is relegated to training.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread