14 August, 2010

Day 36 - Battle of Britain

William L Shirer, the American war correspondent, is travelling courtesy of the Luftwaffe from Berlin to Ghent. He notes that his pilot has a little difficulty finding the landing field at the destination because of the way it is camouflaged. From the air, it looks "just like any other place in the landscape, with paths cutting across it irregularly as if it were farmland".

Each aircraft has its own temporary hanger made from mats plastered with grass. Tent poles support the mats. Along the back and the side of this tent of mats, sandbags are piled to protect the aircraft from splinters. So skilfully are these hangers constructed, writes Shirer in his diary, "that I doubt if you could distinguish one from above a thousand feet".

The previous evening, the London Evening News has reported on "one of the greatest aerial battles ever to take place", its location "off the southeast and southern coasts." And while there are fears that this is the opening stage of the invasion, "well informed experts" doubt that the raids represent the beginning of blitzkrieg against England." The experts believe that what is evidently a change in tactics on the part of the Germans is an attempt to "reconnoitre the strength of the RAF" before they mount even more vigorous air attacks.

On the other hand, as the Daily Mirror parades the RAF's "kill" for the previous day, Harold Nicholson confides to his diary: "How I wonder if the invasion of England is really to begin."  We do not, he continues, understand what is happening. The German attacks are more serious than mere reconnaissance, but not serious enough to justify the heavy losses they receive. They lost certainly more than 100 pilots yesterday which is more than they can afford. I cannot make it out nor can they. (By they I mean our experts.)

The Daily Telegraph, however, offers its readers the opinion of "authoritative quarters in London". The present raids, they say, are being carried out by the Germans as "a test of Britain's power in the air". The immediate objective is "to ascertain by raids on a limited scale" whether the Luftwaffe could "establish superiority in the air if all their resources were flung into the scales".

The Daily Express runs an article published the previous day from Herbert Knickerbocker, star correspondent of the US-based International News Service. He asks, "Is it invasion or blockade?" – then writing: "With 400 or 500 of his bombers and fighters attacking all along the Channel south coast of Britain today, writes Knickerbocker, Hitler gave some evidence that he is trying, by his three-to-one superiority of numbers, to knock out the RAF before he attempts invasion."

But Knickerbocker is not convinced. "There is plenty of other evidence that the current operations represent another step in the attempted blockade of these isles," he adds. "Today's observed results do not encourage the belief that the Germans are going soon to be able to attain sufficient superiority in the air to attempt to launch vast landing parties from troop-carrying airplanes, gliders and parachutes." As he concludes his piece, Knickerbocker reports:
Professional neutral observers take the present German air operations as tentative pushes to find the enemy's weak points and to discover enemy strength; much like initial phases in the battle of France. Not when the Germans use 500 airplanes against Britain's ports and convoys, but when they try launching 5,000 planes against her interior airfields and industrial centres, will it be proper to say the Battle for Britain has actually begun. So far the question is whether the present operations represent the preface to invasion or gradually increasing effort, to impose blockade by sinking shipping and destroying ports.
To add to the debate, the Daily Express allows its air correspondent, Basil Cardew, to argue that the invasion "may come soon now". Will there be fighting on these shores, he asks, then stating, "in my view, yes, and maybe in quite short a time". Cardew adds: "The Germans know that the North Sea becomes too rough at the end of August for their shallow boats and in their neck-or-nothing gamble, they may be forced to act quickly.

For all that, there is a man on the spot. William L Shirer. Now in Ostend, he has kept his eyes open for the barges and ships that are to take the German army of invasion over to England. He sees very few craft of any kind. There are none in the harbour and only a few barges in the canals behind the town.

As to the air fighting of the previous day, the Daily Express faithfully reproduces the Air Ministry spin that 69 Luftwaffe aircraft have been downed, and pronounces this as a great victory for the RAF. The paper also claims that 30 German airfields have been hit. There is not the slightest hint of the disaster at Aalborg, although this airfield is identified as one of the targets.

Contemporary propagandists would recognise the techniques used. First, accentuate the positive: "69 enemy planes down in enormous raids." Second, minimise the negative and contrast with the positive: only 11 RAF aircraft are down and "the decreasing proportion of RAF machines lost has been impressive". Third, omit the really bad news. There is also no mention of the carnage at Detling.

The fourth technique is the oldest, easiest and most dangerous: the lie, coated with half-truths. The Air Ministry announced last night that yesterday and on Monday: "RAF bombers raided 17 enemy aerodromes on the 'invasion coast' from Jutland to the Bay of Biscay with conspicuous success. Out of the large number of machines engaged in these widespread operations, 16 failed to return".

Silence is not an option. Lord Haw Haw has already been on Radio Berlin, announcing the loss of No. 82 Sqn. Damage limitation demands a response, and it is skilfully done. But what it does not allow for is any process of external scrutiny. Parliament is barely functioning and its ordinary MPs have no better access to information than the general public. The executive and the military are not getting any significant scrutiny.

Nor is there any equality in death. Every small boy of the post-war generation knew the story of the Defiants - the "slaughter of the innocents". Far fewer knew of the fate of the Blenheims and their crews, at a time when ethical constraints still applied to bombing.

But then, this approach is neither random nor ill-considered. The Home Intelligence department of the Ministry of Information has continued to track public sentiment throughout the conflict. The equivocation and indifference of early July has gone. The upbeat news of the exploits of the RAF and its "successes" is strengthening public confidence. Morale is high.

Back in the Daily Express, Sefton Delmer, a staff correspondent who is soon to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to organize "Black Propaganda" broadcasts to Nazi Germany, writes an op-ed. It addresses a growing controversy over when or whether air-raid warning sirens should be sounded. "Are you, like so many people, trying to make up your mind whether you would like sirens to warn you of the approach of German airplanes or not?" he asks, then telling his readers, "Let me help you:"
To begin with, we must get this clear. The only basis on which we can decide this question, and every other question today is how it will affect the conduct of the war. Will it help or hinder victory. Nothing else matters. Your personal safety, that of your children, your comfort, your health and confidence are of no importance in themselves. They are important only in so far as they will help us to win, or in so far as neglect of them would contribute to our defeat. If to safeguard your lives it is necessary to do something prejudicial to Britain's war effort, then that something must not be done. It would be better that you risk losing your lives.
Out in the real world, after its efforts of the previous day, the Luftwaffe flies just a third the number of sorties, putting up 91 bombers and 398 fighters. Even then, the raids are slow to start and, this day, the focus is on Dover and the Kent airfields, with "nuisance" raids elsewhere.

One raider comes to grief: a Heinkel He IIIP, 1G+NT, of III/KG27, shot down by Blue Section of No. 92 Squadron RAF at 6 pm on 14 August 1940, lying by the side of the road at Charterhouse, Somerset

Just after midday, the Luftwaffe sends in 80 Ju 87s over the Channel towards Dover, escorted by three gruppen of Me 109s fighters. They are met by fighters from four RAF squadrons and, for a short while, there are over 200 aircraft mixing it over Dover. The Stukas sink the Goodwin lightship and the Messerschmitts take out nine of Dover's barrage balloons.

While this scrap is going on, a dozen Me 110 fighter bombers slip through to attack RAF Manston, demolishing four hangers and destroying three No. 600 Sqn Blenheims on the ground. Revenge is swift. Personnel from the squadron use a Hispano 20mm cannon and take out one of the raiders. Another is brought down by an AA Command Bofors gun (pictured) manned by Royal Artillery soldiers.

Middle Wallop is visited by three He 111s which bomb a hanger and offices. At the height of the raid, three airman run out to close the hanger door in an attempt to protect the Spitfires inside. They are caught by a 500kg bomb which brings the massive doors down on them, killing them. Two Spitfires manage to take off and shoot down one of the Heinkels.

RAF Andover is attacked again. About 15 HE bombs are dropped. A transmitting set in the centre of a group of radio masts is destroyed, killing a civilian radio operator.

Cpl Josephine Robins, a Women's Auxiliary Air Force telephone operator, is in a dug-out which takes a direct hit, killing two men and injuring others. Despite dust and fumes filling the shelter, she calmly gives first aid to the injured and helps with their evacuation. She is awarded a Military Medal, one of only six WAAFs in the entire war to be so honoured. The government is need of heroines as well as heroes - but not too many.

Fighter Command's losses continue. FO P Collard from No. 615 Squadron Kenley is caught up in the Dover scrap. His Hurricane is shot down over Channel and his body is later washed ashore in France. He is joined by his squadron-mate PO C R Montgomery. Also in a Hurricane, he fails to return to base and is believed shot down over Channel.

FO H McD Goodwin is last seen off the coast at Bournmouth in his Spitfire from No. 609 Sqn Warmwell. He is shot down by unknown enemy aircraft. Then Sgt H F Montgomery is killed off Beachy Head. Flying a Hurricane from No. 43 Sqn Tangmere, he is last seen in combat with He 111 and fails to return to base. In two days of Adlerangriff, Dowding has lost another ten front-line fighter pilots.

And this day sees No. 145 Sqn relieved and moved to Drem, in Scotland. One pilot recalls that since May, only six of the original pilots have survived, while the squadron is down to its last eight serviceable aircraft. From Drem, it is to move to Dyce at the end of August and is not to return south until 9 October.

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