20 August, 2010

Day 42 - Battle of Britain

Readers of the morning Daily Express would have been left in no doubt of the strength of the RAF offensive the previous night, presented as they are with the banner headlines announcing that Boulogne had been bombed yet again.

From the text, though, one might have wondered why they needed to have bothered. It reads: "The heavy attack by the RAF on Boulogne on Saturday has virtually completed the destruction of the commercial port, it was stated In Vichy today. Naval and air bases were also left in flames after the British attack, during which three tons of incendiary bombs were dropped."

As for the Monday night attack - the subject of the current headline - this was carried by Fairy Battles of No. 12 Sqn Coastal Command. Seven aircraft are detailed and had they all delivered their 1,500lb bomb loads, this would still have been a light attack. As it was, because of the haze that night and the glare of the German searchlights, four of the aircraft fail to locate the target. One aircraft returns with engine trouble and another with a bomb-rack snag. One aircraft is shot down, the crew taken prisoner.

Tucked into the Daily Express, but slightly more prominent in the Daily Mirror is some unwelcome news - the evacuation of Somaliland, leaving it to the mercy of the Italians. The official report, mirrored in the press, tries to make the best of it, talking of another "Dunkirk", stressing how troops and guns have been saved.  But it is another retreat, another defeat, to add to all the others.

The troops are needed elsewhere, so this is regarded as a blessing in disguise by Churchill. But there is considerable public disquiet.

Home Intelligence conveys the view that Italy has gained the "moral advantage" because we have allowed her to take the initiative. The feeling is that British prestige has been weakened, and are amazed that the "despised" Italians were capable of such success.

In East Anglia, RAF Coltishall is socked in, teeming with rain and cloud almost down to the deck, dank in a way that only Norfolk can do. But that does not stop Sector control at Duxford scrambling a section of No. 242 Sqn out of Coltishall to cover a convoy steaming down the east coast.

This is Douglas Bader's squadron, but he is not in dispersals at the time the section flies. Midshipman Peter John Patterson, on loan from the Fleet Air Air, is one of the pilots. Having converted to Hurricanes on a course starting 15 June, he had joined the squadron on 1 July. Seven weeks on, at the age of 29, he does not return from the sortie. His Hurricane is seen diving out of control from the cloud, into the sea.

Bader, "almost berserk", drives over to Duxford to see the duty controller and "for ten minutes flayed the man for sending out his pilots in impossible weather". This is the reality - another pointless death. The "few" just got fewer.

Despite the weather, the Luftwaffe has been busy through the night, with He 111 crews despatched to attack Liverpool. At least 30 tracks are reported over Lincolnshire and Nottingham and a number of Bomber Command airfields are attacked as they light their flarepaths for their returning aircraft. Sheffield, Nottingham, Hull, Derby and Leicester are raided by small numbers of bombers, causing 112 casualties.

The afternoon sees the rhetoric, with prime minister delivering a speech to the House of Commons, reviewing the progress of the war.

Before we get there, however, there are oral questions to the Secretary of Mines about domestic coal supplies. Samuel Viant, the MP for Wilsden West, asks about the difficulties in buying coal for domestic consumption, while Sir William Davison notes that there is still "a great shortage in many provincial towns, that orders given weeks and months ago are not fulfilled." The Secretary, David Grenfell, responds that, in view of the heavy demand for coal for stocking, some delays are inevitable. The crisis of the winter is still casting its shadow.

As to Churchill, embedded in the speech is a passing reference to the "great air battle which has been in progress over this Island for the last few weeks". This, he says, "has recently attained a high intensity."

The choice of the descriptor "last few weeks" is interesting as the official view to come (in a pamphlet published in 1941 - below left) was that the battle started on 8 August, not even allowing two weeks. But there was no argument that, as Churchill then said, "It is too soon to attempt to assign limits either to its scale or to its duration."

We must, he said, "certainly expect that greater efforts will be made by the enemy than any he has so far put forth." Hostile airfields were still being developed in France and the Low Countries, and the movement of squadrons and material for attacking us ws still proceeding.

Hitler could not admit defeat without sustaining most serious injury. If his whole air onslaught were forced after a while tamely to peter out, his reputation for "veracity of statement" might be seriously impugned. We may be sure, therefore, Churchill said, that he will continue as long as he has the strength to do so, and as long as any preoccupations he may have in respect of the Russian Air Force allow him to do so.

The prime minister then asserted that the course of the fighting had "so far been favourable to us." In France our fighter aircraft had been inflicting a loss of "two or three to one" on the Germans. At Dunkirk, this had been about three or four to one and in this battle a larger ratio was expected.

This, he claimed, "has certainly come true." It must also be remembered, he said:
...that all the enemy machines and pilots which are shot down over our island, or over the seas which surround it, are either destroyed or captured; whereas a considerable proportion of our machines, and also of our pilots, are saved, and soon again in many cases come into action.
Therein lay the public genesis of a myth which was to endure for decades, one which was addressed in 1946 when Dowding was explicitly to say:
It might also be assumed that all German crews who were in aircraft brought down during the Battle were permanently lost to the Luftwaffe because the fighting took place on our side of the Channel. Such an assumption would not be literally true, because the Germans succeeded in rescuing a proportion of their crews from the sea by means of rescue boats, floats and aircraft which will be later described.
Yet, despite that, in 1989 the noted historian Sir John Keegan wrote:
While the Luftwaffe at the very least would have twenty and more generally fifty or a hundred miles to fly before becoming to grips with its enemy, Fighter Command could engage as soon as its aircraft reached operational height. That conserved not only fuel – crucial when a Messerschmitt 109's operational range was a mere 125 miles – but also ensured that the pilots of damaged aircraft could bale out over friendly soil or, on occasion, bring them to earth. The Luftwaffe's parachuting pilots or crash-landed aircraft would, by contrast, be lost for good; many German pilots, parachuting into the Channel, would be doomed to drown.
Nothing could be further from the truth, these words based on Churchill's were merely repeating propaganda which completely inverted the true position.

Mixed with Churchill's propaganda, however, is a mention of a "vast and admirable system of salvage," directed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. This is the "Civilian Repair Organisation" (CRO), which could take aircraft normally considered beyond repair and, as Churchill noted, ensure:
the speediest return to the fighting line of damaged machines, and the most provident and speedy use of all the spare parts and material.
Set up in April 1940, the units took the pressure off RAF maintenance facilities, which could concentrate on the daily routine of keeping the fleet serviced and flying. But the organisation even operated a "fly-in" service for minor repairs, which allowed pilots to bring their aircraft in and wait for them to be sorted out. Such was the prodigious scale of the enterprise that, between 1940 and 1945, the CRO repaired a total of 80,666 aircraft.

For the crucial year of January-December 1940, which took in the battles of France and Britain, the CRO repaired 4,995 aircraft. In July 1940, 40 percent of aircraft reaching fighter squadrons were from the CRO.

Pictured above is an example of the work - a damaged Hurricane rebuilt by No. 1 Civilian Repair Unit at Cowley, Oxfordshire.

At the same time, said Churchill, "the splendid, nay, astounding increase in the output and repair of British aircraft and engines which Lord Beaverbrook has achieved by a genius of organisation and drive, which looks like magic, has given us overflowing reserves of every type of aircraft, and an ever-mounting stream of production both in quantity and quality."

The enemy, he said, is far more numerous than we are. But our new production already, as I am advised, largely exceeds his, and the American production is only just beginning to flow in. It is a fact, he said, as I see from my daily returns, that our bomber and fighter strength now, after all this fighting, are larger than they have ever been. We believe that we shall be able to continue the air struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases, and the longer it continues the more rapid will be our approach, first towards that parity, and then into that superiority in the air, upon which in a large measure the decision of the war depends.

Then he came to the core section:
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Crucially - and a point rarely properly recognised, Churchill does not refer here to Fighter Command, or even pilots. He uses the all-embracing term "British airmen".

Only then does he declare that, "All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day." But, he then says:
... we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.
By this measure, the "few" is all-inclusive and can hardly be taken to justify the rigorous application only to aircrew members of Fighter Command.

In another flight of fancy, though, Churchill then tell his audience that, "We are able to verify the results of bombing military targets in Germany, not only by reports which reach us through many sources, but also, of course, by photography." When, of course, a proper analysis was done, it was found that the bombing campaign had been almost completely ineffective.

Nevertheless, clearly demonstrating where his strategic interests lay, he spoke of "this process of bombing the military industries and communications of Germany and the air bases and storage depots from which we are attacked," asserting that it "affords one at least of the most certain, if not the shortest of all the roads to victory." He rounds this off by saying:
Even if the Nazi legions stood triumphant on the Black Sea, or indeed upon the Caspian, even if Hitler was at the gates of India, it would profit him nothing if at the same time the entire economic and scientific apparatus of German war power lay shattered and pulverised at home.
No matter how it is subsequently characterised, this in not the speech of a prime minister leading a nation expecting imminent invasion, fighting for its life. He comes over as confident of victory, and focuses most of his attention not on the fighters but the bombers. From any textual analysis, their crews are part of "the few".

Yet, for all that, the war does not stop. The evening sees, amongst other activities, a raid on the railway station at Newton Abbot. This small town in Devon just north of the naval base of Plymouth s regarded by the Germans as an important strategic railway junction.

Three aircraft dump their bombs and streets surrounding the station take hits, including the Station Cottages (pictured above). Fifteen people are killed. As well as the attack on the station with high explosive bombs, the area is strafed with machine gun fire. Just before the attack a crowded train for Plymouth had pulled out of the station but another Plymouth train is standing at the down platform. This is attacked. Severe damage is caused to the station with 15 locomotives, 52 passenger carriages and 22 goods wagons damaged. Sixty people are seriously injured.

Chased by two Hurricanes, the attacking aircraft fly so low that they have to climb to clear the river bridge as they make their escape towards the sea.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread