19 August, 2010

Day 41 - Battle of Britain

Despite the triumphant headline, the Daily Express is complaining about censorship. "How long is this gagging to go on?" it asks in its lead editorial. "Last week we fought and won a great battle, but all the Americans heard of it was a daily Goebelled version. On Thursday, on Friday, and again in the Sunday papers our good friends had to take Germany's word that London is in ruins. The editors ruefully printed these scare stories in big type because there was little else to fill their columns."

"From their reporters in London little got through in time. The British censor held up the cables the men submitted, and, when they asked him why, he said it was to prevent the news getting back to Germany via New York that the sirens were sounding in London." Thus, the newspaper opined, "It is vitally important to the future of our cause that the Americans hear how we fare now. The reporters should be given fuil liberty to send descriptive material without delay."

Even as the Express readers are taking this in, a frontal system is moving in from the Atlantic, across the British Isles and into Europe. The bad weather that closed down operations in the early evening yesterday is going to dominate for some days. There is going to be no serious flying for a while. Stocktaking and retrenchment is in order. But the style - and mood - of the opposing sides was very different.

Göring took the opportunity to summons every commander down to squadron level to the luxurious Karin Hall (pictured above) on his estate at  in the most beautiful part of the March of Brandenburg.  Adolf Galland, fighter ace heavily involved in the Battle, is ordered to attend. To him, the estate presents "a picture of peaceful serenity." The war had hardly made any difference to the daily life at home.

He and another "ace", Werner Mölders are promoted to command their own Gruppen, putting young and successful pilots in command of the fighter squadrons. But there is to be no praise. The Reichsmarschall is convinced that the lack of success is attributable to the lack of aggressiveness of his fighter pilots.  Nevertheless, he accepts a reduced role for the Ju 87s and the Me 110s, and has news of a new strategy.

The costly daylight attacks on aircraft factories and similar targets are to be replaced by night raids. In daylight, bombers were to be used only as "bait", sent up in just sufficient numbers to provoke a response from the fighters and draw them in to the battle.  Restrictions on bombing civilian targets - except London and Liverpool, which require Göring's personal authorisation - are to be lifted.  The absolute priority is to damage Fighter Command.

The commander with the most immediate responsibility for frustrating Göring's ambitions is Air-Vice Marshall Keith Park, and he too holds a meeting.  This is a staff meeting, in the austere surrounds of Hillingdon House (pictured - post war photograph), the HQ of 11 Group on the outskirts of London.

The contrast could not be more extreme.  At the very centre of events, fighting the battle day-on-day, Park is the self-contained professional. He sums up the lessons of the recent fighting and the  issues "Instruction No. 4" to his controllers.  Survival is everything. The battle will be won if fighter Command can stay in being until the autumn, when it will then be too late for the Germans to launch an invasion.

The bigger battle, though, is to bring the United States into the war. Through the entire campaign, the primary strategic objective is simply to survive until then.  But ever more strident calls are not welcomed in all quarters.  Back in Washington, there is a debate in Congress and the Hon J Thorkelson, Representative for Montana, is telling the House that: "we are now dominated and plagued by various pressure groups that care little or nothing about the United States as long as they can involve us in the present European war."  He is neither impressed nor amused. The next day, he is on his feet declaring:
In the present crisis the only active allies of Britain are, so far, the British Empire units and France. If the conflict should spread into another world war Britain cannot again count on her former combination of allies; in fact, it is more than likely that some of these countries will be lined up against her. Therefore, the most powerful ally of all, the United States, must be kept in line by Britain against eventualities. That can only be accomplished through propaganda. And the British are past masters in the art of making gullible Americans swallow the bait of persuasive propaganda.
Back in England, addressing more prosaic matter, Park is worried that  too many pilots are being lost over the sea in hot pursuit of retreating aircraft.  He orders his controllers to concentrate on the bombers, vectoring their pilots to large enemy formations over land or within gliding distance of the coast - except for shipping and convoy protection in the Thames estuary. Thus, he counsels a strategy which is the very antithesis of what the Germans had in mind.

Meanwhile, British civilians are clearing up the mess on the battlefield, mending the broken aircraft where they can, and building and delivering new airframes to the RAF .

The picture above is interesting in this context. An HE 111 from KG55, it was shot down on 16 August during the attack on Feltham, near London. Gunfire from Sqn Ldr Pemberton's No. 1 Sqn Hurricane damaged the oil cooling system causing failure of the engines. The pilot, Ob Wilhelm Wieland, brought the Heinkel down to a good landing at Annington Farm in Bramber, Sussex.

Gordon James took this photo at Oakhill, Bursledon, Hampshire, as the remains were transported to a scrapyard. It was against the law to take such photos, so Mr James kept his camera hidden until after the war, when he finally had the film developed.

Even as the remains accumulated, by the arbitrary definition of the duration of the battle, it was only just over a third-way though. In the original draft of the Air Ministry pamphlet on the battle, published in 1941, it had the start date on 8 August. And, since that day, Fighter Command, according to the official history of the battle, had lost 183 aircraft in combat and 30 on the ground. Very rarely did pictures of these wrecks appear.

However, the preponderance of Luftwaffe wrecks, such as the scrapyard pictured above, gives adequate testimony of a sophisticated and effective recovery system. Unlike the high-profile aluminium pan scheme, which was of no value for aircraft production, the German wrecks provided a not insignificant source of aviation quality alloys which could be melted down and reused. Doubtless, many Dorniers and Heinkels enjoyed reincarnations in the form of Spitfires, Hurricanes and even Wellingtons.

As to how many airframes were lost, military historians will forever be debating and refining the exact numbers, but the detail down to the last few is not important in the context of the bigger picture.

One crucial issue was that the number of Hurricanes and Spitfires lost could not be made good from production. The combined weekly output of these types was a little over a hundred. The RAF at this stage was having to eat into its scanty reserves. If this went on for many weeks there could be only one end — defeat for the RAF.

In this situation the work of those engaged in making, repairing and servicing our fighters took on a degree of urgency greater than ever before or since. All responded overwhelmingly to the demands of the hour. Typical of the efforts was that of No. 24 Maintenance Unit at Tern Hill, in Shropshire.

This unit, a Service-manned Aircraft Storage Unit in No. 41 Group, Maintenance Command, was primarily engaged in preparing Spitfires flown to it from the manufacturers. "We worked", wrote the CO:
... two twelve-hour shifts daily, and the Spitfires were received, checked, modified, and had their guns removed, cleaned, re-fitted, tested and harmonized; the aircraft were fitted out with radio, fitted with ammunition, and were ready for collection within 48 hours. They were frequently collected by the Fighter Squadron pilots and were in action against the enemy on the same day.
Alarming as was the shortage of aircraft, it was not the worst danger. Long before our fighters gave out, said the official history, we should have reached crisis-point in the supply of trained fighter pilots. Between 8-18 August we had lost 154 pilots killed, missing and severely wounded. The number of new fighter pilots produced during the same period has been only 63.

These newcomers, "though of equal spirit, as yet possessed only a tithe of the fighting skill of their predecessors." To meet the need of the hour volunteers from among the Lysander and Battle squadrons, the air forces of our allies, and those about to embark on the final stages of Bomber and Coastal training were rushed through specially shortened fighter courses.

Emergency measures, however, could only reduce the gap, not close it. Throughout the battle the supply of pilots remained Dowding's gravest anxiety.

However, the replacement of casualties was the most serious aspect of the pilot problem, but it was not the only one, the official history continues. There was also the growing strain on those who survived. Incidents such as befell Flying Officer E S Marrs of No. 152 Squadron, and recorded below in his own words, were happening every day. They could not be suffered very often without some effect on the nervous system:

I got in a burst of about three seconds when — Crash! and the whole world seemed to be tumbling in on me. I pushed the stick forward hard, went into a vertical dive and held it until I was below cloud. I had a look round.

The chief trouble was that petrol was gushing into the cockpit at the rate of gallons all over my feet, and there was a sort of lake of petrol in the bottom of the cockpit. My knee and leg were tingling all over as if I had pushed them into a bed of nettles. There was a bullet-hole in my windscreen where a bullet had come in and entered the dashboard, knocking away the starter button.

I had obviously run into some pretty good cross-fire from the Heinkels. I made for home at top speed to get there before all my petrol ran out. I was about fifteen miles from the aerodrome and it was a heart-rending business with all the petrol gushing over my legs and the constant danger of fire.

About five miles from the 'drome' smoke began to come from under the dashboard. I thought the whole thing might blow up at any minute, so I switched off my engine. The smoke stopped. I glided towards the 'drome' and tried putting my wheels down.

One came down the other remained stuck down. There was nothing for it but to make a one-wheel landing. i switched on my engine again to make the aerodrome. It took me some way and then began to smoke again, so I hastily switched off. I was now near enough and made a normal approach, and held off. I made a good landing, touching down lightly.

The unsupported wing slowly began to drop. I was able to hold it up for some time and then down came the wing-tip on the ground. I began to slew round and counteracted as much as possible with the brake on the wheel which was down. I ended up going sideways on one wheel, a tail wheel and a wing-tip.

Luckily the good tyre held out and the only damage to the aeroplane, apart from that done by the bullets, is a wing-tip which is easily replaceable. I hopped out and went off to the MO to get a lot of metal splinters picked out of my leg and wrist. I felt jolly glad to be down on the ground without having caught fire …
The long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day was normal, six or seven not uncommon), the repeated combats, the parachute descents, the forced landings — all took their toll, even where the harm was not at once apparent.

The growing tiredness of those who had been most actively engaged is a factor which Dowding can neglect no more than his casualties. Fighter Command is still successfully resisting the enemy. Its own strength is being steadily sapped in the process.

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