29 August, 2010

Day 51 - Battle of Britain

Another memorandum from Keitel's office informs recipients that the C-in-C Navy has instructed the Admiral i/c France to make arrangements to convoy the vessels needed for the invasion to their places of assembly at their operational harbours, providing the "necessary protection" through mined waters.

As the barges and transports commence their laborious passages to their jump-off destinations, many of those who follow the progress of the battle in the British media and elsewhere could be forgiven for the impression this was not so much the Battle of Britain as the "Battle of London and the Home Counties". Coventry has yet to have its walk-on part and most of the provincial news, under the baleful grip of the censor, gets little coverage. Even the still-blazing fire in Pembroke Docks, amongst the largest if not largest ever in Britain, gets short shrift.

But on this day, a Thursday, the London "Blitz" is more than a week away. Yet the Luftwaffe has already been dropping bombs on residential areas throughout Britain, and has bombed London at least three, maybe four times. The RAF is trading the Luftwaffe blow-for-blow, hitting Berlin as many times, most recently this very morning (below right).

Furthermore, the Luftwaffe is just about to intensify its night attacks. In this department, the Germans have a definite technological advantage, benefitting from the development of a number of radio navigation aids, based on radio beams, which allow their aircraft to find distant targets in the dark.

At the same time, British airborne radar interception technology is in its infancy and its fleet of Spitfires and Hurricanes are all but impotent, and its twin-engined Blenheim fighters too slow. Radar targeting has yet to be fully developed for anti-aircraft guns and so, for a brief time, the Luftwaffe is able to roam British skies almost unmolested.

This night is a reminder that it is the Battle of Britain. While London has been targeted on three successive nights, with major raids on the City of London on 24 August, following which Berlin was bombed for the first time, the Midlands area and points north are raided by a force of about 150 bombers. The raid is the heaviest yet experienced in Britain, with widespread damage caused in Liverpool's dockland and city (pictured below) and more than 470 casualties being reported.

Other bombers, at one or two Staffel strength, raided Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Manchester and Sheffield. In the next two days, Hull, Leeds and Bradford are to be added to the list, the Alhambra theatre in Bradford famously being bombed on the last day of the month.

That same day, Liverpool is hit again, while other targets included Birkenhead - its fourth night raid in succession, Rotherhithe, Portsmouth, Manchester, Durham, Stockport, Bristol again, Gloucester, Worcester and the Leeds to York arterial road.

Going back to today, the headlines are not read by the British but by Americans.  The cutting is from The New York Times. Following the course of the battle from the most notable current texts, one has to do a double-take, wondering whether the same war is being reported.

The preferred narrative of this period is that the battle is dominated by the Luftwaffe attacks on the RAF, in a desperate bid to break the power of Fighter Command in order to meet the Fuhrer's timetable for the invasion of England.

Thus, Wood and Dempster dismiss the previous day's effort on London as "harassing attacks".  The pair concede that there have been attacks elsewhere, particularly Liverpool, but the other attacks are lumped together.  TC G James in The Battle of Britain does not seem to mention the night attacks.  It is left to Mason to note that, "it was at this stage of the Battle that all three Luftflotten begin to step up the night offensive against Britain".

Certainly, this would be the impression gained by the readers of the NYT, and the public is only too conscious of it - more so perhaps than the historians.  Home Intelligence is acutely conscious of the change and one senses a note of relief when it reports today that there "... is no noticeable decline in morale although in London particularly there is some depression mainly brought by lack of sleep".  There is some "nervousness" in the south, about stories of attacks on Birmingham, Coventry and Portsmouth. But morale is highest in the areas which have been most heavily bombed.

Nowhere, though, does one get the impression of a gathering storm, a crisis building or of the end-game drawing near.  If the invasion is just over two weeks away, you would get no sense of that from the British media. And the man who would be in charge of Britain's land defences, General Alan Brooke, has just spent a day in north Scotland, watching Army exercises and is to go to the furthest, western reaches of Wales tomorrow.

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