27 August, 2010

Day 49 - Battle of Britain

This is a Tuesday. The newspapers are reporting on a prolonged overnight "raid" on London, with six hours between the first warning and the "all-clear".  It is small beer compared with what is to come, but enough to excite the headline writers.

After the hectic fighting of the day before, however, Fighter Command reports less business in daylight hours. Fewer than fifty intruders are recorded and only four bombing incidents are reported. One of those is described as "a bad air-raid" in Plymouth which kills 12 inmates and staff of Ford House, an old peoples' home. The Great Western Railway tender, the Sir John Hawkins (pictured below), is damaged in the raid.

Overnight, the Luftwaffe is on the rampage again, with bombs dropped on Gravesend, Calshot, Southampton, the Isle of Wight, Tonbridge, Tiptree and Leighton Buzzard.

In the north-east, bombing is reported at Newcastle, Longhirst, Linton, Ellington, Cambois, Middlemoor, Ashington, Seaton Delaval, Earsdon, Ferneybeds, Westerhope, and Dissington in Northumberland, West Hartlepool, Station Town, Ebchester, Sadberge, Marley Hill, New Seaham, Easington Lane and Port Clarence in Co Durham. There are five fatal casualties at Eston and three at West Hartlepool.

The picture shows Brenda Road, West Hartlepool. Since June the town has been under repeated attack by enemy aircraft. Night after night the warning sirens sound and everyone has to go to the air raid shelters.

Sometimes it is a false alarm and nothing happens, but other times the bombs do drop. Last night they dropped on these houses. Hartlepool suffered air raids from June 1940 until March 1943, and seventy men, women and children were killed during this time. The period between July and October 1940 was the worst. During these months there were a total of 147 warnings, often several a night, lasting for hours.

For the hard-pressed public, the apparent shift to night bombing is to become the main topic of conversation and concern, the disturbance and uncertainty causing serious problems for a population under stress. But also causing considerable concern - according to Home Intelligence - are the erratic signals given by the air raid warning sirens, which seem to bear no relation to the level of threat.

Bombs are just as likely to drop after the "All Clear" as during the warning period, is a common complaint. Increasingly, the public are losing confidence in the warning system.  They would be losing even more confidence if they were aware of the games being played in the higher reaches of the RAF.

The brass at Fighter Command are addressing the real enemy - each other. Keith Park (not unreasonably) is trying to sort out the behaviour of Leigh-Mallory in No. 12 Group and his enthusiasm for the "big wing" concept. The issue has been rehearsed endlessly by Battle of Britain experts and enthusiasts but the spat must be seen against a background of a nation at war, in the brink of an invasion, fighting for its very survival. Yet its senior leaders, at the forefront of the battle, are squabbling like children, while Dowding sits in his garret in Bentley Priory, apparently ignorant of the proceedings, or so he later says.

Fortunately the general public are completely oblivious to this. Had they been aware of what was going on, they would probably have been mortified.

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