26 August, 2010

Day 48 - Battle of Britain

This day marks the second successful torpedo attack on Allied shipping by He 115s, with the sinking of the Remuera, 12 miles North of Peterhead. She is part of Convoy HX65A which has already had a rough time. Attacked by U-boats the previous day, U-48 sinks the tanker Athelcrest and the steamer Empire Merlin. Thirty crew go missing from tanker, which has to be sunk by naval gunfire. There is only one survivor from steamer.

U-124 then makes its attack, sinking the convoy commodore's ahip, the steamer Harpalyce, and the steamer Fircrest. The steamer Stakesby is damaged. Thirty seven crew, including Commodore Washington, are lost on the Harpalyce. There are no survivors from the Fircrest.

This day, where the U-Boats leave off, the aircraft take over. The convoy is attacked by four He 115s and eight Ju 88s. Not only do they sink the the Remuera, the steamer Cape York is so badly damaged she has to be abandoned. She sinks under tow on the 27th, eight miles from Rattray Head. The steamer City of Hankow is also badly damaged, but she manages to limp back to port.

None of this is going to make the newspapers. The censor will make sure of that. That leaves the soap opera of the air war for the journalists and their editors to pick over. And this morning there is no question of what is the major news - the RAF bombing of Berlin.

The Daily Mirror notes the irony, reporting that, while Hitler's bombers were making another raid on the "London area" early today, RAF bombs shook Berlin. Berliners hurrying to their shelters soon after midnight heard heavy explosions as bombs burst to the north-west. Ten explosions were clearly heard in the first ten minutes and the centre of Berlin shook.

With propaganda minister Göbbels on the streets of Berlin early, viewing the damage, cameramen ready to hand, a first-hand account is offered by William Shirer, the American war correspondent in Berlin. He was preparing for his broadcast to the United States as, he says, "the war arrived in Berlin for the first time." His narrative starts: "We had our first big air-raid of the war last night," and he continues:
The sirens sounded at twelve twenty am and the all-clear came at three twenty-three am. For the first time British bombers came directly over the city and they dropped bombs. The concentration of anti-aircraft fire was the greatest I've ever witnessed. It provided a magnificent, a terrible sight. And it was strangely ineffective. Not a plane was brought down; not one was even picked up by the searchlights, which flashed back and forth frantically across the skies throughout the night.
The Berliners are stunned, Shirer added. They did not think it could happen. When this war began, Göring assured them it couldn't. He boasted that no enemy planes could ever break through the outer and inner rings of the capital's anti-aircraft defence. The Berliners are a naïve and simple people. They believed him. Their disillusionment today therefore is all the greater. You have to see their faces to measure it.

Said Shirer: Göring made matters worse by informing the population only three days ago that they need not go to their cellars when the sirens sounded, but only when they heard the flak going off near-by.

The implication was that it would never go off. That made people sure that the British bombers, though they might penetrate to the suburbs, would never be able to get over the city proper. And then last night the guns all over the city suddenly began pounding and you could hear the British motors humming directly overhead, and from all reports there was a pell-mell, frightened rush to the cellars by the five millions people who live in this town.

I was at the Rundfunk writing my broadcast when the sirens sounded, and almost immediately the bark of the flak began. Oddly enough, a few minutes before, I had had an argument with the censor from the Propaganda Ministry as to whether it was possible to bomb Berlin. London had just been bombed. It was natural, I said, that the British should try to retaliate. He laughed. It was impossible, he said. There were too many anti-aircraft guns around Berlin.

"I found it hard to concentrate on my script," Shirer continued. The gunfire near the Rundfunk was particularly heavy and the window of my room rattled each time a batter fired or a bomb exploded. To add to the confusion, the air-wardens, in their fire-fighting overalls, kept racing through the building ordering everyone to the shelters. The wardens at the German radio are mostly porters and office boys and it was soon evident that they were making the most of their temporary authority. Most of the Germans on duty, however, appeared to lose little time in getting to the cellar.

There are also reports of RAF attacks on Calais, seen from Dover Harbour. The attack began about 22:00hrs the previous night and German searchlights are seen probing the sky. Parachute flares are dropped and orange-coloured "flaming onions" soar into the sky. Report the newspapers, the thump of bombs could be heard across the stretch of 20 miles of sea - a rare occurrence. Bombing appeared exceptionally heavy. There were numerous flashes.

Tiny by comparison is the report in the Yorkshire Post this day, retailing the views of H B Lees-Smith, the MP for the West Yorkshire mill town of Keighley, speaking in his constituency. His is suggesting that the final day for the possibility of invasion is the equinox on 21 September. And this is not the first time Mr Lees-Smith has offered such a view. He had said the same on 20 August in the House of Commons, responding to the prime minister's speech. Then he said:
I gather that Herr Hitler's time for conquering this country by invading it is getting short. I have been discussing matters with officers and others, and for some time a certain date has been given to me, and that date is the equinox. I am told that after the equinox, owing to the gales and the rough weather, the possibilities of invasion will very greatly diminish. I find that the equinox is on 21st September, so my impression is that the time of danger is in the next month, and within that month probably the attempt to defeat this country by invasion will either succeed or fail.

This leads me to an aspect of the present attack upon this country which I do not think is so satisfactory and which I think it is necessary for us to discuss. If Herr Hitler does not beat us by physical invasion in the next month there is no doubt he will turn to the other alternative, which to many people has always seemed a good deal more dangerous, the alternative of trying to defeat us by his blockade, trying to defeat us by sinking our merchant ships.
Whatever the hyperbole, this is a commonly-held view - and for good reason. Weather dictates that early in the second half of September is Hitler's last serious option for an invasion in 1940. From there it is an easy assumption that, because this is the only real option, it is the one that will be taken.  But in Lees-Smith's exposition is also the expectation that, even without the invasion option, the economic war - the blockade - will continue. How much damage it is doing he is not allowed to say.

As for the day, there is a certain amount of sameness in the pattern of events.  Action starts with the appearance of Do 17 and Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft over the 11 Group area, followed by a series of raids, with more or less successful interceptions by fighter command.

The deeds are in no way less brave or determined than previously, but they have lost the novelty that excites media interest, least of all the Defiant crews. The remnants of No. 264 Sqn are up and about again, and lose three more aircraft, after being bounced by two Me 109s - although not before claiming a number of Do 17s downed.

On the day, Fighter Command suffers 22 losses, with Bomber Command losing three Hampdens and a Blenheim. A former Dutch Fokker T-VIII is also downed. The Luftwaffe loses 38 machines to various causes, including two He 115s, destroyed on the ground by RAF bombers.

Come the night, the Luftwaffe maintains its higher than normal level of activity.  Upwards of 200 bombers are abroad, with raids on Bournemouth, Plymouth and Coventry.  Birmingham also gets another visit, and flights are made over London, triggering air raid alarms.  Bombs are dropped in the Hendon and Edgware districts.

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