25 August, 2010

Day 47 - Battle of Britain

"The City Bombed" blared the banner headline in the Sunday Express. In a "midnight raid" the sky over London had been "lit up by fire". The thud of a "screaming bomb" had been heard by watchers round St Paul's. The papers also recorded, "500 raiders attack Portsmouth", alongside the other Sundays, most of which retailed the Air Ministry claim that forty-five Luftwaffe aircraft had been downed.

The New York Times argued that an invasion was less likely now, "particularly in view of the approach of autumn weather". That paper held that the results of months campaigning were inconclusive but it seemed "probable" that the Germans had lost a lot more aircraft than the British – perhaps in the ratio of two or even more to one.

Express columnist George Slocum had interviewed a neutral diplomat, just back from Vichy France – giving a valuable insight into enemy perceptions. The diplomat had expected to find the skies over Britain black with German warplanes, with his aircraft from Lisbon landing at an airport completely destroyed. He been told before he had left that Britain was starving, that the Navy had been sunk, the Air Force obliterated and the factories in flames. Panic was supposed to reign in the country and Britain was on the point of surrender.

Several newspapers carried large adverts for War Bonds, with the pull-quote from the Prime Minister: "Never in the field of human conflict …". A legend was in the making.

Following the demise of the Lady Meath, the Admiralty issued a warning to operational units about the possibility of acoustic mines being deployed, although this was no more than a suspicion. It was not until late October that the suspicion became a certainty, when a mine was recovered. And it was not until 9 September 1941 that the British public was told of the threat, revealed by Churchill in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, the Observer had picked up the intensification of the raids on the previous day, also retailing the RAF claim that 45 Luftwaffe aircraft have been downed.

On this day, despite early good weather, Kesselring holds back his forces until the afternoon, the first raid not appearing until 16:00hrs. Then, a strong force of about 300 aircraft heads for Weymouth. Nos 10 and 11 Groups face it with all available aircraft between Tangmere and Exeter. Nos 87 and 609 Sqns defend Portland. No. 17 Sqn. protects Warmwell. Ju 88s protected by Me 110s split into three groups to attack Weymouth, Portland and RAF Warmwell.

No. 87 Sqn then takes on the Portland Ju 88s leaving the 110s to 609 Sqn. But the 110s are in turn escorted by Me 109s of JG53. No. 17 Sqn finds the bombers impossible to reach through the dense fighter screen. One Ju88 is shot down but the RAF loses 12 fighters and 8 pilots.

The only other sizeable daylight raid then develops over Kent around 18:00. Six 11 Group squadrons are in action. No. 32 Sqn operating from Hawkinge engages a dozen Do 17s until Me 109s drive them off and destroy a Hurricane. Losses on the day: Luftwaffe 20; RAF 16.

One of the day's losers was Sgt Mervyn Sprague, a No. 602 Sqn Spitfire pilot – one of two aircraft from the squadron shot down by Me 110s. Both were unhurt but Sprague had the distinction of was rescued from the sea by a Walrus aircraft, another one saved by "Digger" Aitkin. Sprague was not to be so lucky next time.

But the action is very far from over. As the sun goes down, the minelayers come out to seed the coastal waters with their deadly cargoes, while the Luftwaffe fleets thunder inland, headed for the Midlands. Over 65 individual raids are plotted and bombs fall in forty places, including Coventry.

But the most significant raid of the night is on Britain's second city, Birmingham. Up to now, there have been numerous small raids but this time bombers target the city centre, tearing the guts out of the Market Hall (pictured above), in an area now known as the Bull Ring. About 145 HE bombs are dropped (56 unexploded), with at least 110 incendiaries. Numerous districts are hit, and 29 people are killed, six of them workmen repairing a gas main when a delayed action bomb explodes.

Several factories suffer direct hits from HE bombs and severe damage is caused. The ICI Witton plant is damaged, a printing works and shops are also damaged, together with an engineering works and many residential properties.

At this point, however, the censorship policy on not naming cities that had been bombed was still holding, and certainly in Birmingham.  Press reports spoke of a "Midland Town" which, combined with the deliberate policy of talking down the damage, meant that this major raid did not register in the public consciousness - neither then nor later.  The raids on Birmingham remained largely invisible until, decades after the events, intensive local initiatives were taken to make the details publicly accessible.

Crucially, the lack of data of what were in fact quite major raids, somewhat distorts the record.  The received wisdom is that the Luftwaffe was devoting most of its strength to destroying the RAF.  In fact, the daytime activities of the last few days have been relatively modest compared with the night raids.  Proportionately, the Luftwaffe is already moving to night bombing, with considerable emphasis on civilian targets.

Going in the opposite direction, Bomber Command is doing likewise.  Authorised personally by Churchil in retaliation for the bombing of London, it  launches its first raid on Berlin. A mixed force of eighty-one aircraft take part comprising Wellingtons, Hampdens and Whitleys. Industrial and commercial targets are specified but dense cloud prevents accurate identification. Bombs fall on residential areas of the city. Six Hampdens do not return, in what has become a deadly game of tit for tat. Add four Blenheims lost and the total RAF losses for the day run to 27, five more than sustained by the Luftwaffe.

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