22 August, 2010

Day 44 - Battle of Britain

Air Secretary Archibald Sinclair made the pages of the Daily Mirror with an explanation of how enemy air losses were computed "so that public confidence in the British announcements may be maintained". Having so done, he declared that "It could be asserted with confidence that the reports of our pilots tended to err on the side of understatement. They were on their honour".

The Daily Express carried a large advert for War Bonds, with a pull-quote from the Prime Minister: "Never in the field of human conflict … ". Said the copy: "You can back our airmen by buying … ".

Paul Mallon, a widely syndicated Washington columnist, found his way into several US newspapers with yet more rumours of Nazi peace offers. To the latest were attached “surprisingly moderate” terms, he wrote: Churchill was to be replaced by Beaverbrook, and the UK would join in an economic alliance with Germany, against Russia and Japan.

In the shooting war, the focus returned to Dover as the Luftwaffe attacked convoys in Dover Straits. But there was a new development. The German long-range batteries had been installed and they got their first outing. Their target was a convoy through the Straits, but when they failed to hit anything, they turn their attention on the town.

This was the start of a four-year bombardment which recorded 2,226 shells landing within the town boundaries. Many more fell in the surrounding countryside, the harbour waters and the Straits. Essentially a front-line town, the civilian population dropped from 40,500 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000.

Dover, however, was not alone in its torment. During the day, there were attacks on RAF Manston and, that night, on Aberdeen, Yorkshire, Hampshire, South Wales, Bristol. Filton airfield were also hit, the target the Bristol Aircraft Company works.

Meanwhile, as the toll of pilots and other aircrew lost at sea steadily mounted, moves were made to improve the air-sea rescue service. The then Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice Marshall Harris (soon to take over Bomber Command), chaired a meeting at the Air Ministry with a view to setting up a formal rescue service.

It is decided to combine the "skeleton" rescue service of Coastal Command with the boats of the Auxiliary Naval Patrol and to place RAF launches under the operational control of the local naval authorities. The RAF retained responsibility for air search.

A Westland Lysander: originally procured for "army co-operation", the type is pressed into service to search for downed pilots. The wing stubs, used to carry bombs, are now used to drop dingies and supplies. 

Reference was made to the "twelve" Lysanders borrowed from Army Co-operation Command. These were reportedly stationed at RAF fighter airfields along the coast, Manston being one, which is under virtual daily attack and is in the process of being abandoned. Nevertheless, approval is given for these aircraft to be retained, under the control of Fighter Command.  Surprisingly, no reference is made to the ad hoc rescue service set up by Flt Lt "Digger" Aitken, using Royal Navy Walrus Amphibians.

Mason remarks that in all the planning that had gone into the air defence of the island nation, virtually nothing had been done to provide an organisation to rescue pilots from the sea, apart from providing a limited capability within Coastal Command. But the lack of suitable aircraft was only part of the problem.  As this report indicated, communications were primitive and ill-co-ordinated, much of the equipment needed simply was not available and there were not enough high speed launches.

For this evening, as well, the pilots had even been abandoned by their greatest fan - Information Minister Duff Cooper. Speaking in London, he declared that he was optimistic about the outcome of the war, because Britain retained its two greatest assets - command of the seas and national unity.

The present regime in Germany, he said, had mortally offended many sections of the German people. When the strain of battle began to tell, Germany would break in pieces. Exactly the opposite was happening in England, where criticism of ministers was the rule rather than the exception.  There was no mention of RAF pilots, much less those who will not survive, in remembrance of whom, a mere five days ago, we were to "fall in thankfulness upon our knees".

In Paris, German Army chief von Brauchitsch was still fighting his corner for a broad-front landing. He was trying to broker an agreement that an assault unit of about 7,000 men should be conveyed to the Brighton area in 200 fast motorboats and 100 motor sailing vessels. Support would be given by 4,500 men of the 7th Parachute Division, who were to take up blocking positions on the South Downs against expected British counterattacks.

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