31 August, 2010

Day 53 - Battle of Britain

In many respects, the battle - or the media handling - has become a bizarre example of smoke and mirrors.  While the London-centric Daily Express - along with most of the other, London-based national media - proclaim great victories in the air over southern England and London in particular, an RAF reconnaissance photograph taken today over Pembroke Docks in south Wales shows the Admiralty oil tanks still burning.

This is twelve days after the raid. The local residents did not need to be told this, and neither did the Germans. A very similar photograph had been published in Der Adler, the official magazine of the Luftwaffe.

Thus, the people from whom the information had to be kept was the rest of the British population, which is getting increasingly difficult as the smoke can be seen as far a Somerset. Despite this, local newspapers are prevented from reporting the location of the fire, referring merely to "a dock in South Wales". Spitfires went up and anti-aircraft batteries had gone into action, readers are told.

This is pure propaganda. There were no guns defending Pembroke Dock. Indeed, there were only three anti-aircraft batteries in the whole of South Wales. The lack of fighter cover had also been noted, and fiercely criticised. Echoing the words of the troops at Dunkirk, locals and firemen alike were asking, "Where was the RAF?"

Needless to say, the newspapers of this Saturday on the last day of August are not asking this question. The Daily Telegraph is, like the Express, parading the "score" from the previous day with the headline "62 Raiders Shot Down in All-Day Battle," claiming only 19 RAF fighters having been destroyed with ten pilots safe. This is out of variously reported 6 or 700 aircraft "hurled" by the Nazis against England or, in the Telegraph's case, against London.

Behind the scenes, Home Intelligence is telling the prime minister that the fear of invasion is on the wane, with reports from Cardiff and Leeds particularly stressing this. There is resentment at the "excessive" publicity given to the London air raids and "jealousy" is reported from Southampton, Portsmouth and other places. However, by and large, air raids are being "borne patiently" and in some regions the public are "agreeably surprised" that so little damage is being done.

In the narrow, even claustrophobic world of Fighter Command, there is very little agreeable about the day. Mason notes that if previous experience had suggested that the Luftwaffe might be unable to sustain heavy pressure against Britain over a number of days and night, the defenders are about to learn otherwise - to their cost.

The reorganisation initiated by Göring on 19 August is yielding dividends. More than 80 percent of the Me 109s in northern Europe are now concentrated in the Pas de Calais area, and Kesselring is making good use of them. Just before 08:00hrs, the operations room at Bentley Priory reports four waves of enemy aircraft, one heading for Dover and the others flying up the Thames Estuary - the graveyard of pilots.

It is left to the Observer Corps to identify the aircraft. The first to make a positive identification is the post at Dover, which reports that the formation is made up solely of Me 109s. In accordance with Park's instructions, controllers attempt to pull their blocking fighters out. They are not quite fast enough and the Me 109s shoot down three aircraft from No. 1 Sqn RCAF. The Messerschmitts then entertain themselves by shooting down all the barrage balloons in Dover Harbour.

This is the start of a series of raids which culminate in attacks North Weald, Duxford and Debden, amongst others, which also included Detling, and then Croydon and Biggin Hill - once more. Very significant damage was caused at Biggin Hill, undoing repairs of the previous day and destroying once more its land communications. There were some attacks on radar stations, and then to close the proceedings for the day, a strong attack on Hornchurch which cratered runways and perimeter tracks, and destroyed two Spitfires on the ground.

Even then, the daylight raids aimed at military targets end up damaging civilian targets. One of the early raids of the day sees bombs fall on Colchester. A raid on Duxford sees bombs dropped on no less than eight villages to the south of Cambridge.

For all that, though, when just the bomber attacks - less the escorting fighters and the fighter sweeps - are taken into account, the night-time effort was greater. The Luftwaffe was becoming a night bombing force, where it could range freely with very little opposition, causing enormous damage and disruption. Sometimes, it had significant strategic impact. The battleship Prince of Wales, building at Birkenhead, is damaged by a near miss from a heavy bomb during an air raid.

During the day, Fighter Command loses 38 of its aircraft on this day, with eight pilots killed and as many more sufficiently badly injured to remove them from the battle. The Luftwaffe losses are close. They stand at 39 of which 22 are Me 109s, reflecting the huge numbers of these fighters in play. It loses 16 Me 109 pilots.

The RAF is hurting, but so is the Luftwaffe. Neither force can sustain these losses. But, if the RAF Bomber Command and the loss of a Navy Swordfish is added in - with four losses in all - the Luftwaffe numerically comes out top on the day. The point is, though, that operations of this intensity will not continue. As the nights lengthen to the equinox, the weather will deteriorate, hampering large scale raids - and rendering an invasion impossible. The Indian summer is a short-lived affair.

Fortunately, this is not entirely an RAF show.  The Royal Navy is very much in the game. At 21:30hrs, a large number of enemy vessels is spotted by a patrol aircraft 15 miles north of Terschelling. All Naval ships on the East and South-East coasts are ordered to raise steam. Light craft from Rosyth and Nore Commands are ordered to special patrol positions. Five minelaying destroyers proceeding to lay mines off Vlieland are ordered to jettison their mines and to locate and attack the enemy.

While carrying out these instructions three out of the five of these destroyers are mined 40 miles north-west of the Texel. The destroyer Esk (pictured) is sunk and Ivanhoe so seriously damaged that later she is abandoned and sunk by our own forces. HMS Express, with her bows blown off, is taken in tow and eventually reaches Harwich. Ninety casualties are landed by HM Destroyer Vortigern.

The North Sea is a dangerous place for British ships. The far less well-equipped Kriegsmarine, with significantly fewer ships, would face exactly the same perils in supporting an invasion. With belts of mines on both sides of the Channel, weeks of preparatory work are need before this stretch of water can be made safe for an invasion fleet - given no intervention by British forces. The very idea of an imminent invasion is preposterous.

This is further borne out by the appalling difficulties being experienced by the Germans in assembling their invasion fleet. Frustrated by the lack of specialised landing craft and the delays in acquiring and converting river barges, the German army has decided to use as transports stocks of steel bridging pontoons, paired and joined by fabricated decks. The job turning then into suitable craft was given to aircraft designer Fritz Siebel, now commissioned a colonel in the Luftwaffe.

After several prototypes and many modifications, he came up with a design powered by obsolete aero-engines, decked with steel and wood. This became dubbed the Siebel-Fähre (Siebel-Ferry). On this day, the first of the working models was tested in the Ems estuary. It proved difficult to manoeuvre, with a maximum speed of 8 knots, but it was nevertheless decided go ahead with production, although they would be used only in the run-up onto the invasion beaches.

Series production begins in September at Antwerp and, by the end of the month, twenty-five have been completed – by which time the invasion had already, effectively been cancelled. That is the measure of the lack of foresight and co-ordination in the invasion planning.

Had the invasion gone ahead, they would have carried anti-aircraft guns which would have been used to cover the landing, and thence transferred to the ground elements. Once they had landed their flak units, they would then have assisted with unloading the larger steamers anchored offshore. One of these would have been the Hamburg-registered SS Moltkefels (7863grt), veteran of the Norway invasion (pictured above).

With an overnight passage and dawn assault, unloading would have been in broad daylight, using davits to transfer troops, cargo and the many horses (estimated at 20,000) to waiting barges and ferries (pictured). Several days might be required to transfer the full loads, should the ships have survived that long.

In open water, they would have been extremely vulnerable not only to British attack but also to the weather, which could change very rapidly, creating conditions in open water which could have slowed down or prevented unloading altogether.

Against this was ranged the Royal Navy. In addition to the Home Fleet and its conventional warships, plus its flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, it also had at its disposal its fleet of 1,000-plus small ships and the Allied warships. Then, the RAF, comprising the rump of Fighter Command, plus the Bomber and Coastal Command fleets, would also be intervening. The Germans could well have found their ad hoc arrangements being rather seriously challenged - had they been completed in time and actually worked.

Even as a peacetime exercise, carried out during the day, in optimum conditions, it is still hard to see how the systems on which the Germans were to rely could have sufficed.

Back in Britain, Beaverbrook is convinced that the heavy air attacks must mean that Germans are trying to reach a conclusion. There are more signs of concentrations of German shipping in Emden and on the coast of Norway but Churchill's secretary, John Colville, is not convinced this presents a significant threat. A serious invasion must depend the the ability of the German air force to obtain mastery, he muses. And that seems more than doubtful.

The First Sea Lord rings up after dinner to sat that German shipping is on the move, steering westwards from Terschelling - and could be on the Norfolk coast by morning. Colville thus learns that an invasion could be in the offing, although he would lay 10-1 against. But thus is the convoy already being investigated by the Royal Navy, at considerable cost. The invasion fears turn out to be groundless.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread