21 August, 2010

Day 43 - Battle of Britain

It is the day after Churchill's speech in the Commons. The newspapers of the morning give it prominent coverage, but the Daily Mirror notes the response to calls for definition of Britain's war aims. The prime minister says it is not the time for "elaborate speculations" on the future shape which should be given to Europe.  To Priestley's calls, Churchill could not have been more dismissive.

One might have thought that the ultra-loyalist Express would have given over its op-ed to the speech as well. Curiously, though, the space is given to an interview with Herbert Morrison, who tells journalist Trevor Evans, "There will be no war millionaires." There follows a lengthy explanation on how fixed price contracts are being phased out, and other measures taken to prevent suppliers making excess profits.

This is another hidden theme - in the sense that it rarely gets mentioned in the histories - but it is one that is heavily influencing labour relations. It is to emerge as a central issue at the TUC's annual congress in October. But the fact that the Express sees fit to bring it up on this day says something of its importance.

Another curious aspect of the paper is the cartoon. Churchill's speech, and his reference to "the few" is subsequently used to justify the pre-eminent role of Fighter Command in the continuing battle. But here, the cartoon shows a circle of men (but no women), each dressed for a different role, modestly declaring that someone else deserves the bouquet on offer. If Churchill had sought to elevate one group above the others, this is a subtle but pointed rebuke.

Churchill has other things on his mind. He is worried about the growing scepticism in US journalists about the RAF claims of the number of German aircraft downed. Writing to the Secretary of State for Air on this day, he tells him, "The important thing is to bring the German aircraft down and win the battle, and the rate at which American correspondents and the American public are convinced we are winning, and that our figures are true, stands at a much lower level". The prime minister goes on to write: "They will find out soon enough when the German air attack is plainly shown to be repulsed."

As to operations, the weather is still poor and Luftwaffe air activity is relatively light. But, on this day, five fireman from Cardiff are killed in an explosion while fighting a fire in the Admiralty oil tanks at Llanreath, Pembroke Dock. They are buried in Cardiff after the send-off in Pembroke illustrated above (the "hearse" is the fire truck in the distance, after the cortège).

The fire was actually started on 19 August, meriting a mere one line report for what became the largest "single-seat" fire the UK has ever known. While the 2005 Buncefield fuel storage depot explosion and fire was rated to be the largest in peacetime Europe, it only involved eight million gallons, mainly of petrol and aviation fuel, of which less than three million gallons were lost. The Llanreath fire consumed 33 million gallons of fuel oil and lasted three weeks before it was finally extinguished, during which time 650 firemen were engaged.

Recalled here, despite the bad weather on the 19th, round about 15:15hrs, two or maybe three Ju 88s bombed an oil tank at the depot. Two tanks received direct hits and eight tanks of the fifteen total exploded and burst into a flaming inferno.

Vernon Scott, a local journalist and author, described the immediate chaos nearby: "Shrieking mothers, some hysterical, were frantically looking for children" and terrified pigs fled squealing down Military Road. Firemen, soon on the scene, found "jet black smoke churning across the carriageway in such dense clouds it was impossible to see ... The blaze was creating a deafening roaring noise". Fire fighters had to "shield their faces from the scorching heat".

The embattled fire fighters start to bring the blaze under control by 00:30hrs on 20 August but another German aircraft bombs the site in the mid-afternoon. Two further attacks seem to have been made on the next day, at 01:40hrs and again at 11:55hrs, with the fatal results for the firemen. Twenty-eight are also injured. The fire rages through the dock area, destroying 11 of the 17 oil tanks before finally being brought under control. For a fortnight, the towering pall of black smoke can be seen for 100 miles around.

Meanwhile, a long way away, the Luftwaffe is undergoing a reorganisation, with the transfer of Me 109s from Cherbourg to the Pas de Calais. Göring visits the headquarters of Luftflotte 2 for the first time. A pair of high-powered naval binoculars is set up for him of the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez and he is invited to look at the Dover radar masts. If does not change his view about attacking the radar stations.

Whether a coincidence or laid on for the benefit of Göring, a convoy running the Dover Straits is shelled by the heavy guns at Cap Gris Nez. Sixteen Luftwaffe aircraft then attack the convoy. No losses or damage are recorded. However, the attrition of the British fleet continues elsewhere.

The British steamer Letty (339grt) is lost en route from Liverpool to Buncrana in Lough Swilly, Ireland, from an "unknown agent". In a raid on the Woolston Barge Dock, Southampton, the hulk Kendal is sunk, together with the hopper barge James No. 70 (182grt). The netlayer Kylemore (319grt) is sunk by German bombing off Harwich, the steamer Alacrity (554grt) is damaged at Falmouth and the trawler Wolseley (159grt) is damaged nine miles west of Smalls Light, off the Pembrokeshire coast.

On the domestic front, Home Intelligence reports that the prime minister's speech of yesterday has been "extremely well received". In London, were morale is said to be "excellent", his speech is thought to be "completely right", particularly "his reference to the RAF". It "epitomises the feeling of the country". Confidence has greatly increased since the beginning of the war.

And the war went on. As well as Pembroke, Ju 88s are at work at RAF St Eval, the sector station for Cornwall. Three drop about 10 HE bombs and incendiaries, and then machine-gun dispersed aircraft. There are 17 casualties, one of whom is serious. A hanger and six Blenheims are destroyed. Several offices adjacent are badly damaged. The station hack, a Miles Magister trainer is also destroyed and three or four other aircraft are damaged.

Five Junkers Ju 88s then bomb the Radio Direction Finding station on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, the effect being - whether intentional or not - to show that there is nowhere the war could not reach.

On the east coast, a formation of Do 17s is spotted. Aircraft from Nos 611 and 242 Sqns intercept, claiming several kills. The former Butlin's holiday camp at Skegness, requisitioned by the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Royal Arthur, is bombed. Some damage is caused, there are casualties and, tragically, a new recruit is killed. The mood is lightened, however, when German radio claims that HMS Royal Arthur has been sunk with great loss of life.

In 599 sorties, Fighter Command on this day loses a Hurricane in a forced landing after it has been damaged by a Do 17. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, manage to lose thirteen bombers - a distinctly unfavourable exchange rate, even taking into account the seven aircraft destroyed at St Eval.

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