12 August, 2010

Day 34 - Battle of Britain

This was the day when it became a criminal offence to feed the ducks in Regents Park. So said the Daily Express, which sternly warned that, under defence regulations, "wilful waste of food fit for human consumption" was now prohibited, on pain of a £500 penalty.

Presumably by way of balance, the British papers offered news of unremitting victory: "60 of 400 raiders shot down", blared the Daily Telegraph. It told of the Luftwaffe suffering "another humiliating defeat". For the second time in four days, "60 German bombers and fighters were shot down". The triumphal cry of the Daily Express was more succinct: "Again!" Again the propaganda was concealing a small net loss.

The news was not accepted uncritically. Running at this time was a controversy about the use of a photograph claimed to have been taken on 8 August, purporting to show five German aircraft shot down, plunging into the sea. Among those newspapers which had carried the photograph was the Yorkshire Post, on the front page of its 9 August edition.

But the picture was a fake and the papers had to carry corrections, conveying a statement from the Air Ministry denying that it had been an official photograph, a correction which had also been broadcast by the BBC. As recorded by Home Intelligence, this episode fuelled suspicions that successes were being exaggerated, adding to popular mistrust of the media.

The Daily Express was moved to observe that the great trouble was that the defence departments did not take the people into their confidence sufficiently. They did not trust the people to take a realistic view of the facts. They held back items of good news, perhaps for fear the public’s hopes were raised too high. They held back items of bad news, perhaps for fear the public's hopes should sink too low.

Mixed messages were also coming from the German High Command. Although, ostensibly, the invasion of Britain is still on, Keitel this day sends a signal to all three of the Armed Forces chiefs. On the supposition, he writes, that Operation Seelöwe cannot be carried out this year, and that the Italian offensive against the Suez Canal does not succeed, the possibility has to be faced that the Führer may decide to transfer German forces to the Italians.

Thus does Keitel ask a series of questions about availability of resources and logistic issues. And, although it is not known yet, as this transfer of forces does indeed happen. Then, some of the landing craft modified or developed for Seelöwe prove particularly useful for the African campaign (and Yugoslavia and Greece), serving as supply vessels and ferries. (One of the smaller landing barges is illustrated above, used as a ferry in Italy. The bow conversion, with the clamshell doors for the landing ramp, can be clearly seen).

With startling prescience, the Daily Express editorial this day repeated Churchill's warning of the previous week that the danger of invasion had not passed, and that Britain was "not out of the wood", then saying that "the wood" was not just the British Empire. It extended over many parts of the British Empire. Therefore, the Battle for Britain, the paper said, "may be fought around the region of the Suez Canal".

Unknown to the British government and the nation, the next day is to be the beginning of Alderangriff. Viewed by historians as the worst period for the RAF, when the Luftwaffe focused its attacks on airfields and infrastructures, there is in fact some relief to be gained from the shift in focus. Yesterday not only saw a high loss rate, 83 percent of pilots shot down were killed. The RAF cannot sustain this level of loss. It this rate, there will no longer be a viable force within the month.

At the end of the fighting today, however, it will have lost 22 single-seat fighters. Twelve pilots will be dead. Ten will be alive, albeit some wounded. The odds stand at a still extreme but more manageable 55 percent loss rate. By contrast, the Luftwaffe will have lost 11 Me 109s. And only one pilot will survive. The bomber losses, though, continue.

To an extent, the rest is detail, but the RAF having done its level best to lose an unloseable battle still has plenty of opportunity to fail. And for the RAF, the 12 August is the first day of the rest of its life. It is to be a busy day and it starts early, in bright, clear weather. Göring is keen to get some preliminaries sorted before the big show gets under way,

First of all, the message has finally dawned on the Luftwaffe that radar is playing a part in warning RAF pilots, which means that for the first time radar stations are deliberately targeted.  Soon after dawn, a raid is developing over the Channel but British controllers delay scrambling fighters for a short time, wary of the tendency of the Luftwaffe to mount feints.

When Spitfires from No. 610 Sqn are put up, it becomes clear that this is indeed a feint designed to draw off the fighters - a tactic seen and implemented so successfully on 25 July and many times since.  Thus, by nine o'clock attacks are developing on no less than five radar stations, and the airfield at Lympne is also bombed.

Next we see a formation of Ju 87s attack convoys "Arena" and "Agent" in the Thames Estuary. HM Trawlers Tamarisk and Pyrope are sunk by bombs. In each ship, six men are killed or missing. The Pyrope suffers one wounded and the Tamarisk three.  Simultaneously, an attack is mounted on "Snail" and "Cable" convoys, the RAF using different nomenclature from the Navy.  These are CW/E convoys. The main target though is Portsmouth.

Portsmouth, from seaward, as the raids develop.

While the naval base is being hit, at attack develops against the Chain Home radar station in Ventnor Isle of Wight, which is knocked out by a number of well-placed bombs. British deception techniques, however, conceal the extent of the damage from the Germans. Already though, the focus is moving to RAF Manston, which takes numerous hits. The airfield is unserviceable until the next day.

Hawkinge is then given some detailed attention and Lympne, which has already received 141 bombs, gets another hundred which knocks it out of the action. The remainder of the attack force bombs Hastings and Dover, leaving jubilant Luftwaffe crews to celebrate a claimed 71 RAF aircraft destroyed. The heady taste of success, though is illusory. Fighter Command has managed 732 sorties with the loss of 22 fighters, against the Luftwaffe's actual 28-31 losses (depending on source).

Bomber Command loses four Hampdens and a Blenheim, but gains a Victoria Cross, awarded to Flt Lt R A B Learoyd, flying an overnight raid to the Dortmund-Ems Canal in a Hampden. This raid is to have a significant effect, causing a blockage of the canal.  Movement of motorboats from the Rhineland is held up, setting back invasion plans. Once again, the poorly recognised role of Bomber Command in the Battle of Britain is evident.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread