30 September, 2010

Day 83 - Battle of Britain

"Afraid of an outburst of popular feeling against its callous treatment of air-raid victims and refusal to provide bomb-proof shelters", the Daily Worker proclaimed this morning, "the Government is now planning to establish a dictatorship over East London and other riverside areas".

More specifically, the headline story had been written personally by editor William Rust. And what was exercising him the most was a suspicion that the Government was using the Labour and Co-operative Press in order to prepare the way for a military take-over of the East End. His evidence was slight, but sufficient to parade as a front-page story - the Reynolds News opinion piece written by H. N. Brailsford.  Tucked in at the bottom of that piece had been his view that the riverside should be proclaimed a Defence Area, namely, that it should be ruled by emergency decree and the military.

"It may be said", Brailsford had written, "that Englishmen dislike compulsion and that families object to separation. But under one condition, the thing could be done; it must be done for reasons of military necessity. The whole riverside should be proclaimed a Defence Area. To that argument the people would willingly bow. Bayonets and uniforms, however, need to be kept in the background".

This proposal, Rust charged, does not emanate from Brailsford but from the Ministry of Home Security. I have every reason for stating that the Government has been discussing this step for several days past and is anxious to get it floated in an acceptable form through Labour channels. It was first mooted when delegations of prominent East End social workers approached Whitehall. Even from the above quotation it is obvious that Brailsford has made a laboured and artificial effort to work in his Defence Area proposal which has no connection with the problems confronting the people.

The Government, said Rush, wants to establish this dictatorship, not in order to deal with the problems of the people but in order to be able to crush the agitation and the fight of the people for deep shelters and adequate relief for air raid victims.

Again, the contrast between this and the "popular" Press was extreme. The Daily Mail gave its front-page lead to air correspondent Noel Monks, under the headline "Triumph in 'crisis month'". The RAF, Monks wrote, have weathered, with the passing of September, the “crisis month” of the war. He continued:
On the first of the month that ends to-day a high Air Ministry official said to me: "As far as the RAF are concerned, this is the critical month of the war: I will be glad when it is past". Now it IS past. And the RAF, who have hurled back every attack made on them, the airmen who have destroyed more than 1,000 German aircraft for the loss of only 286 of their own fighters, have come out on top.
The Air Ministry "spin" failed to impress the Daily Mirror. Giving its page lead to the weekend raid on Berlin, it then attended to domestic matters. A Sunday lie-in for Tube shelterers had caught the eye of one of its reporters, who noted how Londoners had taken advantage of the late start to the traffic, the men going topside to collect hot tea for their womenfolk.

The Daily Express also featured the raid on Berlin and the claims of damage to "Nazi bases". But the paper's war reporter, Sefton Delmer, warned: "Revenge bombs will not win the war". He wrote: "I spent five hours yesterday morning driving round London and its suburbs carefully observing the damage done by Hitler's bombs in last night's raids". From this he had concluded: "Random bombing, of the kind the Germans carried out over London on Saturday night, just does not pay. And it's not worth imitating. Let us stick to our careful selection of economically and militarily important targets".

One man in particular was especially concerned with economically important targets – the Minister of Shipping, a Conservative MP by the name of Ronald Cross. This day he was not the bearer of good tidings, submitting a paper to the War Cabinet which raised the alarm about the increasingly severe merchant shipping losses. "In a matter of this vital importance,” he wrote, "remedial, measures should not be delayed". He urged an immediate increase in the number of escorts for the convoys.

Entirely in tune with Admiral Forbes and his representation to the Admiralty only two days previously, Cross could not have been clearer. He said:
I am aware, of course, that there are many demands, including anti-invasion preparations, made upon our limited naval forces but I should be failing in my duty if I did not represent, in the strongest possible terms, the necessity for putting a stop to the present exorbitant risks to which our Merchant Shipping is being exposed.
The most senior of the intelligence bodies, the Combined Intelligence Committee (CIC), had information that supported a reduction in the forces held on standby. On this day, it had received a report from the RAF, indicating that the total of barges photographed in the five main ports between Flushing and Boulogne had, since 18 September, reduced from 1,005 to 691. The evidence, however, was judged to be "inconclusive", possibly only an attempt to move the barges out of the reach of RAF attacks.

The Luftwaffe, meanwhile, sent over two attacks, totalling two hundred aircraft. The first crossed the Kent coast at around nine in the morning. It was met by eight squadrons of Hurricanes and four of Spitfires. The bombers got as far as Maidstone before they were turned back. An hour later, a formation of Me 109s and 110s tried its luck. It was met by a strong force of sixty Hurricanes and eighteen Spitfires.

A second wave followed, a hundred bombers escorted by two hundred fighters. Crossing the Sussex coast, it headed towards London but only one Gruppe got as far as the outskirts, suffering heavily for its folly. A final raid was tried on the Westland factory at Yeovil. Forty Heinkels, escorted by Me 110s, crossed the coast near Weymouth. Once again, a welcoming committee forced them to scatter. They dumped their bombs over Sherbourne and district and fled.

The Mail was right about the RAF getting "on top" of the threat – but only the daylight attacks. All Fighter Command had achieved was to establish an airborne "Maginot line", which was now being circumvented. The main bombing effort had already been transferred to the night, when the slaughter continued unabated.

This night, the attacks were concentrated mainly on south and west London, with the Home Counties getting attention as well. There was light bombing on Merseyside. But the traffic was not one-way. Unfavourable weather did not stop the RAF visiting northern Germany. A small number of bombers again raided Berlin. These and other operations cost nine bombers and a Fleet Air Arm Albacore. With nineteen fighters downed, that brought RAF losses to twenty-nine, as against forty-two Luftwaffe losses, including twenty-eight Me 109s.

On the month, Fighter Command had lost 393 aircraft, bringing its total losses for the battle to 818. Total RAF losses for the month were 511, and for the battle as a whole, the number reached 1,324. Luftwaffe losses were 548 on the month, and 1,374 from the start of the battle. Despite the hyperbole and exaggerated claims, the two side's losses were very closely matched, as they were to remain throughout the battle.

That night, the 15in gun monitor HMS Erebus took up station four to five miles off Calais and bombarded gun emplacements. Her two guns, weighing a hundred tons each, were capable of hurling shells each weighing nearly 2,000lbs. They fired seventeen rounds before the ship retired. The Germans responded with nine 240mm rounds from the radar-guided Prinz Heinrich Battery. Curiously, no mention was made of this action in official communiqués. No details were publicized in the British or foreign press, despite reports of RAF activity over the Channel ports.


29 September, 2010

Day 82 - Battle of Britain

H N Brailsford, writing in the Reynolds News, described what he had seen in the East End. "All of us have read what we were permitted to read about the calamity that has befallen the East End of London", he told his readers. "From the best of motives it has been minimised, even in the Press of the Left. No one wished to spread "alarm and despondency". Some vivid pictures had, indeed, been drawn, but even they did not convey to my mind the extent of the disaster, that can be realised only when one has seen it with one's own eyes".

What he wanted to convey could be said in a sentence, he then wrote: "A part of the riverside area is no longer habitable. The destruction varies in degree and in kind. I saw one area which is now a heap of rubbish. It is hardly possible to guess the plan of the streets which once stood there. Here is a depression, there is a crater. The rest is unintelligible. Bricks and planks, fragments of beds and chairs testify that once this desert was inhabited. Round the streets still standing on its edges the blast rushed and neatly shaved off the facing of brick on their outer walls".

To reach this desolation, Brailsford's taxi had "passed through street after street of mean little houses" that still stood erect. But they had all been abandoned. Their windows were broken; their timbers sagged, and cracks in their brickwork declared that they would crumble if the blast of even a distant bomb should strike them. In these doomed streets not a sign of life remained, "unless it be the cry of a starving cat". There were other streets, apparently intact and still inhabited, but only by day. "One wonders how the women cook", he remarked, then adding:
At nightfall, and long before it, the population of these streets troop out to such shelters as it trusts. It does not trust the long rows of surface shelters of bricks, which could instantly be annihilated. It makes for coal holes under the level of the street, for distant tube stations, or for vaults under churches or warehouses. 
To one of these the people were already trooping at five in the afternoon – Christians and Jews together, with a few Lascars, and, here and there, a negro, laughing as Negroes will, at the absurdity of their misery.
This warehouse is a vast structure of several stories, where tea is stored. In its dimply-lit labyrinth of vaults, lorries and carts and horses were standing, while families made their beds beside the wheels. They laid their rugs on ground that stank from horses' dung. Stacks of cardboard boxes labelled margarine stood around the walls: on these the children were already sleeping. I hope these boxes are empty. Some lavatory buckets behind canvas screens have lately been provided, but they are scandalously few. They stank, even at this hour, as one drew near.
The floor around them was stained, and I could believe my guide who said that, after midnight it is a pool, through which men and women must wade. One such place I saw in another shelter, deeply flooded with human mire.  In all directions stretched the shelters. Some were low cellars, some lofty vaults; the best of them had wooden floors. In these, every inch of floor-space was already occupied. Men and women and children law, tightly packed, side by side in endless rows, and other rows stretched at right-angles to their feet.
Already the air was foul and my legs were itching from vermin. The crowding was no worse than it is on the platforms of the tubes, but here there is no through draught of air. How many were here? Estimates varied from 10,000 to 14,000. One water tap served this multitude.
Three weeks have passed since Hitler's first surprise attack on the docks, and this is the best that the authorities in this area have yet managed to achieve … some of these authorities are helpless: all of them overlap. Up until Friday there was no central authority to bring order into this chaos. Hitherto we have hidden the problem, toyed with it, shirked it. Little remedies will not solve it, nor yet little men. I say deliberately that if we prolong this misery it may cost us our victory.
That was the left wing press, but the Sunday Express was asking whether the raid on the Friday might have been something more than "merely an unusually vicious air attack", speculating that it might have been part of another invasion attempt, smashed once more by the RAF. The paper also recorded Churchill sending his message congratulating Fighter Command on the results of that day.

But there was no respite. The Luftwaffe came soon after dawn, clocking in just before seven and again at nine, the bombers visiting Berkshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey. But, in the dry words of the official log, "no incident of importance
took place". Later in the morning it was the turn of east and south-east England.

Just before eleven thirty, eighteen bombs were dropped near the naval base at Lowestoft. A land mine detonated and some ammunition exploded, causing damage to property, water mains and telegraph wires. There were several casualties. Then came a sweep by about a hundred Me 109s, shortly after four in the afternoon, flying at great height from the Dover–Dungeness direction.

Part of this force approached central London, but most of it had remained over Kent. In the evening, Sittingbourne was heavily bombed.

The night brought a fresh wave of bombers. They started their murder at about eight in the evening, hitting London but spreading death around south and south-east England once more. South Wales and the Midlands suffered visitations. Bombs were dropped just after nine at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Unfortunately, as some averred, the only result was a burst water main. Many bombs were dropped on the Guildford–Sevenoaks line.

Liverpool's visits were later, but before midnight, when fires were started at Duke's and Salthouse Docks. Four warehouses, including one containing grain, caught fire. Birkenhead Docks were also attacked. Railways generally took a hit again, but not on any great scale. A number of factories were damaged and the City of London received its quota of bombs.

From just after midnight, they caused several fires, the most serious being in Upper Thames Street. An unexploded bomb was also reported in the south-east corner of St Paul's Churchyard, causing major traffic disruption. Cheapside and Queen Victoria Street were already closed. Horse Shoe Wharf, Cannon Street and Carter Lane were also affected. So went the war. The Luftwaffe dropped their bombs, and the people endured.


28 September, 2010

Day 81 - Battle of Britain

The Daily Express announced that the war was one year, three weeks and four days old, and the "Air Battle of Britain" began fifty-two days ago, which put the start on 8 August. The RAF, flushed with success from the previous day, could not resist over-egging it, claiming 130 kills. The "score" was given prominent coverage in the day's newspapers. Churchill was so taken with this "victory" that he sent a telegram to Archie Sinclair at the Air Ministry. He instructed:
Pray congratulate the Fighter Command on the results of yesterday. The scale and intensity of the fighting and the heavy losses of the enemy … make 27th September rank with 15th September and 15th August as the third great and victorious day during the course of the Battle of Britain.
One of Churchill's main activities of the day, however, seems to have been addressing the disruption arising from workers stopping work when the sirens sounded. He had become obsessive about the amount of production lost. Now he personally introduced a scheme where the warning was to be regarded as an "alert", with a system of "spotters" to give local warning if aircraft appeared. Only then were workers supposed to take cover. Another of his preoccupations  was the number of UXBs. By the end of October, there were 3,000 in London alone. Their disruptive effect was huge. Churchill took a very keen interest in the minutia of deactivation techniques.

With the Germans having made their move, and failed - for the time being at least, it was time for the Communists to make theirs.  Capitalising on their success with the shelter campaign, this day, via the Daily Worker, they announced a "a stirring call for unity and action for the holding of a People's Convention that will organise the fight for a People's Government and a People's Peace".

"Our rulers have proved themselves bankrupt of constructive thought or action", declared the Convention Call. Six items were on the agenda for a meeting on 12 January 1941: defence of the people's living standards; defence of the people's democratic and trade union rights; adequate air raid precautions - deep bombproof shelters, rehousing and relief of victims, friendship with the Soviet Union, a People's Government, truly representative of the whole people and able to inspire the confidence of the working people of the world; a people's peace that gets rid of the causes of war.

"The People's Convention must be the greatest landmark in the history of this country", the paper said, and must lead the people from the present menacing situation to peace and freedom. Let the people have confidence in their strength. They alone can save themselves, their country, and the world".

In The Times, there was a bombshell of a different kind – a small article with the innocuous title of "Empire publicity". It announced that the Ministry of Information was to start a publicity campaign on 7 October, to bring home to people that "the war is not a fight between Great Britain as an island and northern Europe but something that is of interest to the Empire as a whole".

The bombshell was tucked in the end, with the statement: "The Government are working out a policy of war aims and post-war plans, and part of the Empire Publicity Campaign will be to give some definition to these aims". If that was the case – especially in the context of Churchill's refusal on 20 August – this was major news. A lot of people wanted to know more.

As for the shooting war, this day saw something of a reversal in the fortunes of Fighter Command. It lost four Spitfires and nine Hurricanes, with nine pilots killed. Accidents and other losses brought the balance to eighteen, in exchange for ten Luftwaffe aircraft. Total RAF losses in two days of fighting, including bombers, had the two sides close to parity: 59–65.

Nor did the sea war offer any comfort. The British steamer Dalveen was sunk by German bombing off the north-east coast of Scotland. SS Queen City was damaged. HMT Recoil was lost on patrol in the English Channel, presumed mined. Then a flotilla of German destroyers from Brest laid mines in Falmouth Bay. Five Allied ships were to fall foul of them. And this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Very substantial merchant shipping losses were being suffered, attributable in large part to the general shortage of escorts. A. V. Alexander had raised the alarm back on 29 August. But the situation had continued to deteriorate. Furthermore, it was felt that Churchill had contributed to the problem. On 1 July, as a precaution against invasion, he had instructed the Admiralty to "endeavour" to raise the flotilla in the "narrow seas" (the English Channel) to a strength of forty destroyers, with additional cruiser support. These could only come from the convoy escorts, as Churchill was very obviously aware. "The losses in the Western Approach must be accepted meanwhile", he had written in his minute. But those losses were reaching dangerous proportions.

C-in-C Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, had never been at ease with his original instructions. There would be sufficient warning, he argued, to permit destroyers to be employed on convoy escort and other duties. Should an invasion seem imminent, they could be rapidly redeployed. This had become a running sore in the relations between Forbes and the Admiralty acting under the direct instructions of Churchill. This culminated in Forbes writing a letter, suggesting that "the Army, assisted by the Air Force, should carry out its immemorial role of holding up the first flight of an invading force". The Navy, he asserted, "should be freed to carry out its proper function – offensively against the enemy and in defence of our trade – and not be tied down to provide passive defence of our country, which has now become a fortress".

In what must surely have been a complete coincidence, the Mirror made exactly the same point, headlining its lead editorial: "Too much invasion?" It asked whether the "invasion scare" was subtly serving one of the Nazi aims. That aim was to fix the attention of our government and people on the danger of direct attack and on the necessity for vast defensive preparations by ourselves. But now the mere threat of invasion had immobilized millions in the country. "A huge and a hugely expensive Army, with another auxiliary army, tramps, marches, stands, waits and gets fed up".

It says something though that what was obvious to Forbes, and to the editorial writers of the Mirror seemed somehow to have evaded Churchill. Here though, the issue was not the diversion of escorts, but manpower. With the civilians rather than the Army in the front line, could not at least a portion of the Army be used to help clear up the bombing damage?

Come the night, in this fortress island where this huge idle army waited, air activity started at about eight. London was the main objective again, but the south and south-east of England, East Anglia as far north as Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Derby, Liverpool and South Wales all received visits. To add to the damage done by the Luftwaffe, eighteen Fighter Command aircraft were downed during the day, plus five "heavies" from the other Commands. Against those twenty-three, the Germans lost a mere ten aircraft. Nine British fighter pilots lay dead.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

27 September, 2010

Day 80 - Battle of Britain

The Tribune, this day, had an edition headed "The People of the Tubes". Journalist Anthony Hern supplied the text, writing of the people who had been "driven underground into an atmosphere that rapidly became foetid, undergoing physical hardship and foregoing privacy in order to get away for a night from the menace of the Nazi bomber".

"The movement started in the East End", wrote Hern, "soon after that area had had its first appalling visitation. It became clear then to the workers of the East End that, whatever Sir John Anderson might have to say for himself, deep shelters provided the only effective protection from the bombs that rained from the skies".

"And so these people from the East End, who have been slapped around by the representatives of wealth and privilege for generations, took things into their own hands. They invaded the tube stations, buying tickets which legally entitled them to entry to the platforms. They then illegally took possession. "It is an old lesson of the working class struggle", Hern added, "that if enough people break the law together, and stand solidly against the possible action from the authorities, these authorities are powerless.  And so it was.

The take-over of the Tubes was "the biggest working class demonstration London has seen", Hern averred. The workers of London had passed the biggest vote of no confidence in Sir John Anderson and his expert advisers in the Home Office that Britain had ever seen.

Hern then added, the creation of a new underworld, a new underworld of ordinary decent men and women seeking shelter that the Government of the day has failed to provide, will undoubtedly bring terrific pressure on the Home Office and other Ministries. But it is also producing an appalling state of affairs". "No one who travels on the tubes in London can fail to be shocked to his inner being by the sight of his country-men and country-women herded together in their thousands on hard concrete platforms, on draughty staircases", Hern wrote. "I was filled with blazing anger at officialdom".

What Cabinet Ministers were actually being told officially, however, makes an interesting contrast. In the weekly resumé of the naval, military and air situation, the civil defence and "morale" report focused initially on   the "extensive use" made by the enemy of parachute mines during the past week. "When these detonate", the report informed, "their blast force exceeds that of a 500-kilogram H.E. bomb, and up to 100 houses have been demolished by a single detonation".  Fortunately, the majority had not exploded, and, although their very delicate fuze rendered them likely to explode subsequently on a very slight vibration, many of them had been successfully disposed of by the Naval personnel organised for this purpose.

"In spite of the heavy strain and inevitable casualties imposed", the report went on, "Civil Defence Services are working and co-operating smoothly". "There have been", it added in a matter-of-fact way, "some heavy casualties resulting from direct hits on public shelters. Large numbers of the public are using the tube stations and subways as all-night shelters. Further reports emphasise the efficiency of Anderson Shelters even close to the fall of heavy bombs".

As to morale, "after some early tendency to find scapegoats for the apparent initial success of the attack and delay in remedial measures, more general equanimity now prevails", the Ministers were told. "The public is well aware that the attack has failed, and have steeled themselves to the inconvenience and interruption in their wonted life, even where there has been great personal loss". The report continued:
Difficulties of transport and the inconvenience of evacuation from stricken areas cause irritation, but generally the national feeling is one of toleration so long as at the end the defeat of the enemy is achieved. There is little appearance of nervous or physical overstrain. Fear and shock, attendant on actual explosion, passes quickly in most cases. Without over-emphasis people take the obvious precaution to ensure such safety as they can and particularly to ensure sufficient sleep. By day they continue their ordinary business. Having adjusted their lives to such reasonable extent they regard the event philosophically, the Cockney adopting an appropriate bent to his humour, though there are signs of increased hatred of Germany, and demands for reprisals are numerous.
The War Cabinet was also told, in a separate report,  that the local pride of the Liverpool people was suffering owing to their being described in communiqués as "a North-West coastal town", the censor having refused to allow references in the Press to the city having been bombed.

But these high officials had more important business to deal with. Three days previously, Lord Beaverbrook had submitted to the Cabinet a memorandum deploring the diversion of resources abroad. "Everything should be centred on the defence of Britain", he wrote. "All available supplies and material, all resources of every sort, including man-power, should be retained here". In his view, if the Germans failed to attack Great Britain, that was a victory. If the Germans attacked and were hurled back, that was a decisive victory. Thus, he had declared: "If we can prevail until the winter months, the Americans will come into the war and the issue will be settled in our favour".

Beaverbrook's concern was unsurprising, given that a number of his aircraft factories had just taken a hammering. At his insistence, the Cabinet had agreed to discuss the issue and, after deferring it from the previous day, finally got round to considering the matters raised. But Beaverbrook found no allies. The Chief of the Air Staff said that he naturally wanted more aircraft for the Battle of Britain. But the limited number of aircraft being sent to the Middle East "would have an effect in that area out of all proportion to the loss occasioned by their withdrawal from this country".

The First Sea Lord also favoured the despatch of the aircraft to the Middle East. Lord Halifax thought likewise. "The consequences of a bad setback in the Middle East might be very serious", he said. The Lord Privy Seal agreed, and Archie Sinclair gave figures for Hurricane availability in the country. There had been a "considerable improvement", while there was a "great numerical inferiority in fighters in the Middle East".

Grudgingly, Beaverbrook conceded that the fighter situation had improved, but was still strongly opposed to further withdrawals of either aircraft or pilots. "The Battle of Britain was the only battle that counted", he insisted. But, with otherwise unanimous support, Churchill over-ruled his Minister for Aircraft Production. The despatches to the Middle East would continue.

The signing of the tripartite pact in Berlin

Beaverbrook's hopes of the Americans joining the war, however, looked closer than even he might have imagined. In the remarkably well-informed Cassandra column in the Daily Mirror, William Connor wrote of increasing reports that Japan was about to join the Axis, in what was to be called the "tripartite pact". Japan actually signed this day, declaring that it recognized and respected "the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe". Germany and Italy reciprocated with a declaration which recognized Japan’s interest in the “Greater East Asia”.

Predictably, the USA saw this as a hostile move, leading to short-lived hopes that it would drive Roosevelt to join the war with Britain. Ultimately, though, it was to bring America into the war, but not until December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Then it was the German membership of the pact which had Hitler declare war on the USA. Unrecognized at the time, this day was a significant turning point.

Guy Liddell, meantime, had lunched with Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6 and the man who was supervising the code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park. Menzies told Liddell that the German invasion "had been worked out in every detail including practice in climbing cliffs". He then revealed that it had previously been postponed for some reason unknown. Appearing to be remarkably well-informed, he also disclosed that the Navy and Army had both had misgivings and "the matter had been referred to Keitel". Meanwhile, the situation as understood was that "people in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany were getting impatient and were unable to understand the delay".

The day's newspapers were dealing with a different fare. Largely, their front pages were devoted to the "miraculous" discovery of a lifeboat from the City of Benares, with forty-six survivors, including six children. But that did not prevent the Mirror ripping into the government for its performance on Dakar. In a piece headed "Major blunder" and a cartoon that had Churchill in a highly unflattering pose, no punches were pulled. "Are we still in the stage of gross miscalculation, of muddled dash and hasty withdrawal, of wishful thinking and of half measures", it stormed. "We have another setback to face, another disappointment, more evidence of shuffle and makeshift".

Meanwhile, both sides in the air war were branding each other's bombing as "indiscriminate". The British expended much effort on telling its own population how careful Bomber Command crews were to avoid civilian targets. At night though, claims of precision were pure cant. For the British, to get within five miles of a target was regarded as a "hit". But in daytime, it was a different matter, and one of the reasons why the Luftwaffe was persisting with this form of attack, despite its obvious dangers. So it was that, after some early morning manoeuvring over the Channel, with small-scale attacks on Dover, three German formations totalling some fifty aircraft were seen crossing the coast at Dungeness at an altitude of approximately 20,000 ft.

Apparently headed for London, they had failed to rendezvous with their fighter escorts. They were met by some 120 Hurricanes and harried all the way from the coast to the suburbs of the metropolis. After intervention by Me 109s, confused dog fighting took place but the bomber wave was turned back. Many bombs were jettisoned indiscriminately, causing widespread misery. Nineteen girls were killed in a Clapham works shelter, when it was struck by a bomb and the entrance caved in. A main sewer was breached in the area and the railway line between Brixton and Loughborough junction was damaged. In Battersea there was considerable damage to the weighbridge and the Albert yard.

Late morning, another force carved its way into Bristol. But an additional squadron had been moved into the area and this raid was also turned back, with heavy losses. Two more raids were directed at London, but neither got through in force. Some found targets and the Houses of Parliament suffered their first recorded hits. The famous bronze statue of Richard the Lionheart was lifted from its pedestal by the blast, the tip of the King’s sword bent forward.

The Mirror reported that the first London shelter had been fitted with bunks – a surface shelter in Stoke Newington, setting an example to the rest of the city. Unusually, page eleven of the newspaper also carried a report of a direct hit on an Anderson shelter in North London. The bomb had killed the five members of the Martin family – father, mother, and three children – and twelve-year-old Eileen Dickinson. Home Intelligence, in the last of its daily reports, wrote: "the spirit of London is extremely good, even where people have suffered seriously".

The fact that daily reports were no longer required itself told a story. The state of public morale was evidently no longer so volatile that daily reports were thought essential. The moment of greatest danger, it would appear, had passed. George Orwell seems to have thought so. "The News Chronicle today is markedly defeatist", he wrote in his diary:
But I have a feeling that the News Chronicle is bound to become defeatist anyway and will be promptly to the fore when plausible peace terms come forward. These people have no definable policy and no sense of responsibility, nothing except a traditional dislike of the British ruling class, based ultimately on the Nonconformist conscience. They are only noise-makers, like the New Statesman, etc. All these people can be counted on to collapse when the conditions of war become intolerable.
Orwell might also have been thinking of US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was in a decidedly defeatist mood. In a much leaked and damning letter sent to President Roosevelt this day, he wrote of the "substantial damage" done by the raids, and of his own feeling that the British were "in a bad way". He added:
I cannot impress upon you strongly enough my complete lack of confidence in the entire [British] conduct of this war. I was delighted to see that the President said he was not going to enter the war because to enter this war, imagining for a minute that the English have anything to offer in the line of leadership or productive capacity in industry that could be of the slightest value to us, would be a complete misapprehension.
For the RAF though, it had been a successful day. Not one of the daylight raids had broken through, and a toll of fifty-one aircraft had been extracted. But Fighter Command’s losses had not been insignificant either, at thirty-one. Two British bombers had been lost. And by night, the German bombers were back.


26 September, 2010

Day 79 - Battle of Britain

The war looked very different in Berlin. "We had the longest air raid of the war last night", wrote Shirer in the German capital. The damage was not great but the psychological effect was tremendous. Nevertheless, it was not good enough for the former Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, who had written deploring that bombers should be taken off attacking military objectives in Germany in order to bomb the invasion ports. 

Churchill told the War Cabinet that "we should be assuming a great responsibility if we allowed invasion concentrations to accumulate in the Channel ports without taking action against them". When the weather in the Channel was unfavourable for invasion, he told his ministers, it might be possible to divert more aircraft to targets in Germany.

As always, the Daily Worker was fighting its own battles. Still very much London focused, despite seeking to widen the campaign, it had news of increasing political organisation from London councillors.  They were, the paper said, "breaking through the red tape and obstructions deliberately placed in their way by the Government" and, crucially, "breaking away from inertia of London Labour Party". In spite of its majority on the London County Council and 17 of 28 London Borough Councils, Labour had not yet "gone to it" to save London's people.

Men like Councillor Bob Smith in Walthamstow, Councillor Charley Searson in Southwark and Mrs.  Charlotte Haldane of St. Pancras had been in action for the people of their areas and there were similar examples all over London, the paper claimed. In Hampstead, one Labour councillor had been expelled from the Labour Party "for action on behalf of the people". This was Councillor A. N. Silver, who had submitted an emergency memorandum to his council for "the immediate provision of bomb-proof shelters". A special meeting of the Civil Defence Committee was to be held to discuss his proposals.

This was only a small part of the political action. Throughout this week, Communist Party activists had been  collecting signatures "in their thousands" for a "monster petition" to be presented the following week to the Prime Minister. "We, the undersigned residents of London", stated the petition, "having witnessed the effects of the air-raids, demand the immediate construction of bomb-proof shelters in alt parts of London".  Pending the construction of such shelters, they also demanded "the right to shelter in the tubes, with the provision of the necessary amenities, and in the private shelters at present locked to the public".

Nothing of thus was recorded in the daily Cabinet meetings.  Ministers were, however, given daily reports of bomb damage, and were being told of bombs being dropped at random over the country. Still the greatest weight was being directed against London, but most recently  mainly in northern suburbs and in the areas just south of the river. Overnight, the casualties in the London area had been around 50 killed (probably more than half of them in Hendon) and 370 injured - relatively modest compared with previous weeks. Thirteen parachute mines (land mines) had been dropped, some of which had exploded in the air.

That evening Londoners would see their twentieth consecutive night of bombing. There was now an entrenched belief that the network of surface shelters provided by the government was unsafe. This was far from unjustified. In the summer of 1940, there had been major – if localized –shortages of cement and the government had permitted the use of lime mortar. With their reinforced concrete roofs, concrete floors and weak walls, in the dark humour of the time they would come to be known as "Morrison's sandwiches", named after the then minister for home security.

That was unfair as Morrison was not to be appointed until early October, long after the surface shelter policy had been devised and implemented and the faulty shelters had been built. A rush remedial programme was put in hand, but public confidence was never really restored, as was evidenced in the Home Intelligence report of this day. It noted that the Tube stations were "as crowded as ever".

This is an aspect rarely commented upon as we see picture after picture of demolished houses, and sometimes whole street collapsing - despite the relatively small bombs being used by the Germans. Often the reason for this is the use of lime mortar.  For London with its clay subsoil and cheap buildings - where footings are often omitted and the foundations, such as they are, are shallow, lime is the ideal material.  As the buildings move, it allows movement of the bricks and thus avoids the settlement cracks which plague modern buildings.

For normal domestic buildings, the strength is sufficient - but only just.  Bricks rest on each other "by habit" and houses can be demolished by one man with a pickaxe, the bricks separating so cleanly that they can readily be salvaged and re-used.  But what is ideal in cheap housing was fatal in air raid shelters, marked by a collapse in Liverpool during the raid of 17/18 September (pictured above), killing two and injuring many more.

However, the picture was by no means uniformly bleak. Home Intelligence also noted: "The work of voluntary organisations in stricken areas has done much to prevent the breaking down of morale”. Famous for its provision of canteens, mobile and static, very much in evidence was the Salvation Army. Historically, it had had a strong presence in the East End and had been a major supplier of social services in the area. Private enterprise also played a strong part.

The first canteens in the shelters were set up by Marks and Spencers, and the Co-operative Societies took a pivotal role in keeping the capital, and the nation as a whole, supplied with food. "In the most deadly hours of Britain's history, the Co-operative Movement was the unbroken ally and support of the people”, wrote Bill Richardson, editor of the Co-operative Party's own newspaper, Reynold News.

Fighter Command, on the other hand,  was not doing that well. It was even unable to protect its own supplier, the Woolston Spitfire factory. In the late afternoon, a force of nearly sixty Heinkels, covered by a heavy screen of seventy Messerschmitt 110s, roared up the Solent to deliver another precision attack, the second in three days. Thirty-seven workers died this time, and hundreds were injured. It was nine weeks before production was back to par.

Across the river, watchers had seen the works "burn up like a piece of brown paper". Then it was their turn. A phalanx of thirty bombers broke away from the plant and targeted Phoenix Wharf, on which they stood. In ten seconds a hundred bombs burst on the wharf, on the gasworks alongside or in the river. Fifty-two more people were dead. The wharf, the gasworks and a grain warehouse had been destroyed.

As the dust began to settle, a policeman emerged asking for a volunteer to send a message from the telephone exchange. A girl telephonist offered her services and the policeman led her to a wrecked office. She was asked to put a call through to ARP, telling them: "there is an unexploded bomb underneath the telephone exchange at Phoenix Wharf ". She calmly sent the message, and was later awarded an OBE.

That night, as well as London, Merseyside was hit – badly. In Birkenhead just before eight, incendiary bombs started falling between Central Station and Morpeth Docks. Fires were started at the GWR warehouse, the Customs Offices, a theatre and a shop. The tunnel between Birkenhead Park Station and Hamilton Square Station was damaged by a bomb.

Liverpool got even worse. At nine, explosives and incendiaries were dropped causing very considerable damage to property and starting severe fires in the dock areas. The ships Peterton and Diplomat, and warehouses, were left burning. There was considerable loss of stocks of food, copra and palm kernels, and other goods. And this was the second night running. The previous night, among other premises, a large cotton warehouse had been hit, with major losses.

While Liverpool burned, joined once again by London, with attacks also on the north-east and even Wales, most of the RAF's fighter pilots were safely tucked up in their beds. The officers would have batmen to wake them with morning tea and polished shoes. It was not their fault. The technology and the equipment were not up to the job.

Nevertheless, the day job had cost Fighter Command five aircraft. Bomber Command lost four, and another Dutch Fokker went down. That was ten aircraft lost against nine to the Luftwaffe. Back in London, Lord Halifax was reviewing recent events. He could not exclude the possibility, he confided to his diary, that Hitler was "deliberately scaring us with invasion in order to check reinforcements to Egypt where the main blow is to be delivered".


25 September, 2010

Day 78 - Battle of Britain

The bombing had temporarily receded in intensity as a media event, with the Daily Express devoting its front-page lead to the Dakar operation. Other newspapers followed suit.

Nevertheless, there was no slackening of the bombardment in real life. On the contrary, the War Cabinet was told that the previous night's raids had been heavier than usual, mainly directed against the West End. The Tottenham Court Road area had suffered severely. The new police station at Savile Row had been badly knocked about, railway communications had suffered very severely and Waterloo Station was again out of action. The East End had suffered very little.

Home Intelligence reported that "responsible people" were saying emphatically that women, children and old people should be got out of the heavily raided areas. Many women were showing "great nervousness and fatigue" and there was "a lot of bitter feeling" about the Government's slowness in coping with the emergency.

For once, the situation was not quite as black as painted. The Guardian reported that "enormous crowds" had spent the night at the Aldwych Tube Station, even though the tunnel had not been officially opened. The overflow was accommodated in Aldwych House basement. Slow it was but, very gradually under the pressure of events, the system was responding – mostly through voluntary initiatives. According to Hilde Marchant in the Daily Express:
One thing stands out in the East End. Voluntary work is excellent. The WVS under the drive and initiative of a good leader has a smooth and sympathetic organisation. Red tape is official. One woman told me that all her work, covering hundreds of people a day, depends on one harassed, overworked clerk who is so busy that he occasionally forgets. His lapse leads to the discomfort of many. There are too many natural officials who are too ready to cipher the people they are dealing with, and forget that each name represents a story of human misery.
The Daily Worker was not impressed, calling the Women's Voluntary Service, "an organisation with more than its share of uniformed debutante slummers".

The Daily Mirror, however, was seeking to recover lost ground for its favoured Labour Party. On the shelter issues, it published a  robust editorial headed, ironically enough: "Catching up".  The new or newly announced plans for London's security were "hurried improvisations" to meet an emergency, it declared.

But, it complained, we must wait, even for them. It is though, the paper conceded, laying on the irony with a trowel, more than the free provision of earplugs for deafened ears, thus continuing: "This idea reminds us of the quite common official view that what you do not hear cannot harm you. So long as you are not "informed" you cannot be hurt. At least you may get a little sleep."

Now that the crisis was at least contained, if not yet completely over, The Times weighed in with another ponderous editorial. Headed, "The shelter problem", it noted that in Mabane's broadcast statement of the preceding Monday was "an admission of the insufficiency of the present provision" and of the need for "urgent and large-scale action".

Nothing of that could have been deduced from earlier reports in the "paper of record", but having reviewed the options, and pronounced on the need to make good use of the deep shelters available, it observed dryly that the people had decided this question "very largely for themselves". It also added that their claims to space on Underground railway platforms had been "irresistible". There was, of course, no mention of the Communists.

The Guardian joined in, to make this a chorus of criticism, with an interview of former prime minster, David Lloyd George. He called for the "provision of adequate, comfortable, and well-equipped shelters deep underground". My daughter raised the issue in the House of Commons fully eighteen months ago when she and other members urged the construction of deep shelters, he said.

That was before the war, and particular mention was made of the need for adequate protection for the people in the East End of London, because their houses are so fragile and so many jerry-built, and because so many are without cellars and basements. The answer given then was that everything was being done or going to be done. They ought to have been provided.

The Daily Worker, meanwhile, was continuing in its attempts to extend the shelter campaign nationwide.  It reported that over 10,000 Newcastle people had signed a petition for bomb-proof shelters, which had been circulating in the city.  Many more signatures were expected and it was planned to present it to the next meeting of the Newcastle City Council. Significantly, the paper reported string union support, with the petition being endorsed by the Newcastle Trades Council, N.U.D.A.W., the Transport and General Workers' Union, many Co-operative Women's Guilds and by the shop stewards of the great Vickers Works.

"Keep at it!", the editorial enjoined. "The shelter fight is only beginning, not ending. Action by the people has dragged concessions (e.g., the right to use the Tubes and the promise of a million bunks) from an unwilling Government, but the vast majority of the people are still without protection. The fight for bomb-proof shelters must he kept up, in the provinces as well as in London.

The paper then had a "special correspondent" standing by the ruins of a £28,000 Co-op bakery (only finished last year), a church, the Labour Party headquarters, a police station, and half a row of houses. The ex-mayor of the Labour Borough turned to him and said, "I know your politics and you know mine, but there can only be one end to all this. And that's revolution".

And still the bombers came. Fifty-eight Heinkels, escorted by fifty-two Me 110s, attacked the Bristol Aircraft Company at Filton. The weather was perfect for bombing, with banks of thick cloud broken by patches of clear blue sky, and the attackers were easily able to find their target. Serious damage was caused and production was seriously affected. Eight newly built aircraft, including two precious Beaufighter prototypes, were destroyed. Tragically, shelters were hit by a stick of bombs, killing 60 and injuring 150.

The Luftwaffe's own magazine, Der Adler, proclaimed: "this factory will not produce many more aircraft". But bombers had scattered their loads over the general area as well, leaving a total of 132 dead and 315 injured. Major Friedrich Kless, the attack leader was awarded the Ritterkruz on 14 October.

Other areas in the south-west were hit, the naval towns of Portland and Plymouth in particular. In the evening, bombers visited coastal towns from Margate to Worthing. They made a nuisance of themselves in the south-east area of Essex. In the London area, many targets were hit, including the approach road to Vauxhall Bridge (top). The main targets, however, seemed to be the railways. A crater was made on the line near Ruislip Garden Station. Bombs were dropped on the railway at Kensington, the lines completely blocked by debris.

Then came the night bombers. From just past ten, the asynchronous drone was heard as far apart as east and south-east England and the Midlands. Liverpool was attacked. South Wales and the Bristol Channel areas were also targeted. Hendon in North London was attacked, resulting in the station at Colindale being hit (pictured above).

RAF Bomber Command continued its counter-offensive. Eleven Blenheims made a night attack on five enemy minesweepers off Dover – so-called R-boots (pictured above). They claimed two direct hits and four near misses. Had not Sealion already been cancelled, the significance would have been enormous, the Germans unable to protect their vital mine sweeping force. And that night, no less than twenty-seven Blenheims were abroad, attacking targets as far afield as Boulogne, Calais, Antwerp and Brussels. Fourteen Battles attacked shipping at Ostend and thirty-three Wellingtons joined in raids on Calais and Boulogne.

The day's fighting lost Fighter Command nine aircraft, the RAF thirteen in total. The Luftwaffe lost fifteen. Meanwhile, the RAF Whitehall warriors were focused on their more immediate enemy: Dowding. Sir John Salmond, fortified by his position on the Night Defence Committee, was writing to Trenchard, part of an organized – and ongoing – campaign to unseat the head of Fighter Command. He complained that Dowding lacked the qualifications as a commander in the field. He was without "humanity and imagination". Salmond also complained about the Chief of the Air Staff, Cyril Newall, who was:
so impressed with the possibility of invasion that he will not even tell off a couple of day fighting squadrons to be trained for the night, even though they could be at once used for day work if invasion took place.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

24 September, 2010

Day 77 - Battle of Britain

There was no mistaking the declaration of victory from the Daily Worker this morning as it reported a Ministry of Home Security statement on shelters.

"The fact that people have been using the tube stations has been recognised", the paper triumphantly announced. "This 'recognition' of the fact that the London workers have occupied the tubes despite all the orders and pleas of the Government", it said, was delivered by Mr. William Mabane, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry yesterday".  The paper continued:
The admission represents an important victory for the London people against the Government  - particularly as the Government is already using underhand means in some tube stations, to try to break up the decent organisation of people in the tubes and create disorder". The shelter policy" said Mr. Mabane, "has been guided largely by the behaviour of the people in London". This is the first outright confession by the Government that the people of London themselves have upset its "no tubes, no shelters" policy.
The Daily Mirror, ignoring the Communists altogether, ran a page-2 story picking up on one of the less important parts of  Mabane's announcement, its headline running: "Govt. to Hand Out Ear Plugs".  The Government is attempting to solve London's big air raid shelter problem by making 1,000,000 bunks which will be fitted into shelters, converting them into dormitories, the paper said, then telling its readers that, "For people who cannot get deep enough to ignore the noise of gunfire and bombs, the Government is to provide ear-plugs free - several million of them". These were "supposed to help people sleep through raids and protect the ear drums".

First-aid posts were also to be provided. The stations were being occupied under police supervision. Sanitary arrangements were being improved, drinking water was being supplied and better heating and lighting was being arranged.

Deviously, though, the Mirror was manoeuvring to steal the glory from the Communists. A page-11 story recorded that the Independent Labour Party had called for deep shelters - stealing the very core of the Communist Party policy. "Declaring that experience of the past fortnight has proved how tragically the Government has failed to protect the people", the Mirror wrote, "the Independent Labour Party has addressed a letter to Sir John Anderson, Minister of Home Security, giving a five-point plan for adequate shelters". A call for "more" deep shelters was one of those five points. Another was that "tube stations should be adapted thoroughly as shelters, with sanitary provision".

The Guardian merely ignored the Communists, while having Mabane admitting that the shelter policy had "been been guided largely by the conduct of the people in London". The paper gave its own version of the Ministry statement, adding that the Government was going to "relate shelter policy to the conditions of the time and the behaviour of the people".  Instead of trying to dictate what the people would do, it would accept and make the best of present shelter arrangements and the popular attitude to them.

The Guardian also noted that it was "not easy to gather from Mr Mabane what the Government thought about London's invasion of Tube stations, but it is clearly prepared to accept it". With that, the Government cave-in was complete.

On the broader front, this day had been marked by the Germans as meeting its optimum requirements for tides, moon and daylight for the invasion. One suspects that, even had the British media known this, it might not have even remarked on it. "Except in certain areas, invasion talk has receded into the background", Home Intelligence reported.

Nevertheless, the war went on. Overnight, the War Cabinet was told, enemy activity had been "rather more intense" than recently. The main attack had been against communications. Liverpool Street Station and the Brighton line at Wandsworth Common had been blocked. Traffic at Euston had been stopped by a UXB (unexploded bomb). Also, the Northern Outfall sewer had again been damaged at Abbey Mills, and the southern outfall had been hit. Direct hits had also been sustained by several shelters (unnamed), and the casualties had been rather heavier than on the preceding two or three nights.

On the table for the Government to consider was a memorandum produced on this day under the names of the Chiefs of Staff, advising on the defence of Whitehall against air attack. However, after proposing an impressive array of weaponry, there was at least some appreciation of the impression it might give if Whitehall suddenly bristled with defences.

"It has occurred to us", the Chiefs wrote, "that the provision of such defences for government offices in Whitehall may react unfavourably on the morale of other sections of the community", and on the East End of London in particular. Therefore, they suggested that the War Cabinet should consider the wider issues before the guns were put in position.  One can only imagine what the Daily Worker would have made of the scheme, had the details been made public.

Driving the shelter announcement off the front pages though was news of an operation that was to rock the Churchill Government to the core – another heroic failure. At the moment, it was just "breaking news" – not that such an inelegant phrase had been invented yet – on the Prime Minister's adventure in Dakar. This went by name of Operation Menace, supporting an effort by de Gaulle to claim the West African Vichy territory in the name of "Free France".

It was too early to report the outcome, but the media had picked up the arrival of Vichy French warships after they had been permitted to pass unhindered through the Straits of Gibraltar. The press sought to discover who had allowed this, and why the naval authorities had apparently stood idly by while the Vichy Government had sent reinforcements to its colonial outpost. Soon, highly critical leaders would be complaining of another Churchillian "blunder".

What was not yet known, although soon perceived, was that there had been a more profound change in Luftwaffe tactics over Britain. Following the mauling that his air fleets had suffered, Goering had decided that his aircraft should revert to attacking the British aircraft industry. This was evident when the élite bombing unit, Erprobungsgruppe 210, equipped with Me 110 fighters and bomber conversions, made a direct attack on the Spitfire factory at Woolston, on the edges of Southampton. The raid lasted a mere eight minutes and little damage was done, although a works shelter was hit, killing ninety-eight skilled workmen and injuring forty others.

In the day's air combat, the RAF lost eleven fighters and five bombers – sixteen aircraft in all. By way of exchange, the Luftwaffe lost seven aircraft during the day. That included three to the anti-aircraft guns of Southampton and Portsmouth, small recompense for the people they had killed.

Predictably, the long-term effect of raid was minimal. It simply reflected a strategic confusion on the part of Goering, who had difficulty making up his mind precisely what he wanted his air force to do.

Post-war, in his 1954 autobiography, Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland confirmed that confusion was prevalent. Celebrating his fortieth kill on this day (pictured), after an air battle over the Thames Estuary, he was then to remark that he rather doubted if the General Staff ever knew which of their strategic aims was dominant, the total blockade of the island, the invasion, or the defeat of England according to Douhet concepts. The stress, he wrote, "was put on all of them in turn" - although as this episode seems to indicate, sometimes simultaneously as well.

During the Battle of Britain, he averred, the Luftwaffe carried out an unlimited struggle for air supremacy, independent of any army operations; strategic air warfare by means of daylight bombing with fighter escort; strategic air warfare by means of night raids; strategic air warfare against supply ships. None of these operations was really successful, simply and solely because it was impossible to complete them successfully with the means available to the Luftwaffe.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

23 September, 2010

Day 76 - Battle of Britain

"Churchill, Attlee, Anderson, Reith, and the rest of the Tory-Labour bigwigs in Downing Street and Whitehall have received a jolt from some high explosive blast", declared the Morning Star editorial. "Not from  German bombs, of course", it continued: "In their part of London the deep shelters are safe and comfortable".

"The working people of London themselves made this explosion", the paper said. "Already it has blown open a section of the deep Tube, and the locked doors of some big private shelters. It is a beginning. The decision to open the Holborn-Aldwych section of the Piccadilly Tube as a deep, bomb-proof shelter is proof positive of what the people of London or anywhere else can get for themselves when they get together and push, refusing ever to take No for an answer".

On the front page, the paper recorded London Communist leader, Ted Bramley, claiming that: "Almost the entire London Press" was now advocating the demands put forward by the Communist Party deputation to the Home Office the previous week. These demands, and a full report of the three-hour discussion, had been circulated to the Press, said Bramley. "They now quote freely - but omit to mention the Communist Party". Yet, he added: "Significant concessions have been won".

As if to confirm this very point, the Guardian ran a piece from its London Correspondent headed: "What London thinks about". Having asserted that the Government had, by virtue of its closing the Holborn-Aldwych line and turning it into a shelter, "abandoned by implication its view that the principle of deep shelters was wrong", the correspondent noted that Londoners "continue to use the Underground stations in spite of official discouragement". He then noted that, "there is really strong feeling behind this, and not only in East London, where the lack of deep shelters is most felt". "All of us", he wrote, "know now what it feels like to be lonely and exposed in air raids. The demand for deep shelters and decent shelters comes from us all".

Coming late into the fray, The Times this Monday decided that British morale was "in excellent shape". Any tonic that it might require, it pronounced, "has been supplied by Hitler".

Nevertheless, most newspapers were agreed that the most important story was the sinking by a U-boat of the liner City of Benares, en route to Canada. It had one hundred and two evacuated children on board, ninety of whom were on the government-funded scheme. Only thirteen were reported to have survived, with two of their nine adult escorts. In a "tempestuous sea" 600 miles from land, one newspaper reported, many children had been killed in the explosion or trapped below decks – the torpedo hitting at 10 p.m. The ship had foundered so quickly, developing a steep list, that many of the lifeboats had not been launched.

The ship, the name not as yet disclosed to the press, had been torpedoed on 17 September, but the government had withheld the news. The War Cabinet had been told on 19 September, four days previously. Duff Cooper had been "invited … to arrange for suitable publicity".  He had held a press conference the following day (Thursday 20 September). Why the newspapers had chosen to hold over publication to the following Monday was not clear.

With the City of Benares, the shelter issue was being driven down the agenda, but it had not been forgotten. The King had made a broadcast the previous evening. People had feared the worst, but his main concern was to announce the new George Cross and Medal, second only in rank to the Victoria Cross, specifically for civilian bravery. The Daily Express also noted: "King praises people of the shelters".

He had paid tribute to the way the civil defences had faced constant danger, but then added: "No less honour is due to all those who, night after night, uncomplainingly endure discomfort, hardship and peril in their homes and shelters". This would not have been a spontaneous tribute. The message was getting through to the authorities that the home front needed bolstering. The Daily Mirror had a different take. "London should be ashamed of the way it is treating some of its refugee citizens", it wrote.
When German bombs drove them from their shattered homes, their spirit remained firm. Now, bungling officialdom is achieving more than ever Hitler could, and the people who held their heads high before the terror of the skies are becoming dispirited and discontented.
One special correspondent had visited a rest centre with a "varying population of between 150 and 250 men, women and children". Some had been there close to a fortnight, their only air-raid protection bricked-up windows in a few rooms into which everyone was crowded, sharing one indoor toilet and two roller towels. In a fortnight, one family had had only four hot meals.

A London County Council official said the conditions were almost the same at several other centres. "If my wife and children were homeless", he said, "I would do anything to keep them away from such conditions as these. It just seems as though the authorities were taken by surprise when the blitzkrieg started and only now are things beginning, slowly to improve".

Behind the scenes, the War Cabinet was pushing for unrestricted revenge attacks on Germany. These, at the moment, were not favoured by the Air Staff, who wanted to maintain at least the appearance of concentrating on military targets.

Thus, as the drone of deadly Luftwaffe bombers filled the night skies of London once more, with others hitting Merseyside, British bombers were winging their way to Berlin, ostensibly targeting gasworks, railway stations, power stations, the aero-engine factory at Spandau, and Tempelhof Airport. But only a small fraction of the bombers would get anywhere near their targets and still fewer bombs would do any damage to the city.

The lack of accuracy was brought home to Churchill somewhat forcibly when he was shown photographs of bombing results for the invasion ports. He later admitted they "had several times disappointed me". This day, having seen photographs of barges in Dunkirk, published in The Times, he wrote to the Secretary of State for Air, lamenting:
What struck me about these photographs was the apparent inability of the bombers to hit these very large masses of barges. I should have thought that sticks of explosives thrown along these oblongs would have wrought havoc, and it is very disappointing to see that they all remained intact and in order, with just a few apparently damaged at the entrance.
"Can nothing be done to improve matters?" the Prime Minister asked, only then, at an early evening meeting of the War Cabinet, putting to his colleagues whether the bombing effort should be concentrated on the invasion ports or Berlin. He confided that "a number of indications had been received pointing to the possibility of an attempt at invasion over the weekend". One of these, Churchill stated, had suggested that invasion "would start at 3pm on Sunday, 22nd September".

Guy Liddell, on the other hand, was advised by an Intelligence colleague that his "best sources" indicated that the invasion had been meeting with considerable difficulty. The German Naval experts considered the craft entirely inadequate. The troops and naval ratings were tired of waiting and did not view with any enthusiasm the prospect of crossing the Channel in a barge at eight knots.

The Air Force was apparently quite ready to have a cut at it but they were feeling their losses rather acutely. Hitler had been told by his High Command that he must make up his mind one way or the other, as it was impossible to keep the troops up the mark indefinitely.

The media, though, was increasingly dismissive of the threat. United Press "war expert" J W T Mason wrote in a syndicated column of the autumn equinox bringing to an end the "traditional six months of smooth water in the English Channel". This, he wrote, will seriously increase the transport difficulties of any German force seeking to invade Great Britain. "For the coming six months until the vernal equinox next March, storms and gales , at unpredictable intervals, will threaten shipwreck for the flat-bottom fleet of barges on which Hitler must rely for ferrying troops to England".

As for that current fighting, the Germans had during the day concentrated mostly on fighter sweeps, keeping the RAF busy, so much so that the Fighter Command launched as many sorties on this day as it had on 15 September.

The day saw them lose ten aircraft. Bomber Command lost three aircraft, and the Fleet Air Arm lost a Swordfish, bringing total losses to fourteen, against the Luftwaffe’s sixteen. Overnight, 261 German bombers visited Britain, with the British dispatching 119 on raids to Berlin. Shirer was later to report, "The British really went to work on Berlin last night. They bombed heavily and with excellent aim for exactly four hours".

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread

22 September, 2010

Day 75 - Battle of Britain

"The feeling at Westminster us that the nation is now weathering the worst crisis of the war and that, trying as the ordeal of the next few weeks might be, the tide will soon begin to flow strongly with the allies".

That was the view of the Observer on the Sunday morning, which scarcely gave any space to the shelter issue.  Nor did the Sunday Express give it much room, reporting on the element of organization that was creeping in. At Piccadilly Underground Station, a broad white line was being painted on the platform, to mark the division between shelter and throughway for passengers. People were queuing as early as 2.30 p.m. and by six on the previous day, every available space on the City line platforms had been occupied.

Flesh was put on these bare bones by columnist Montague Slater, writing in the Reynolds News. He had been touring the underground system during the week, finding that there was "not enough room in the Tubes for all who want to get there".  He had started with Angel station "just as the nightly siren was moaning at 8.30". A policeman at the door had been forbidding entrance to anybody with bedding, but the crowd had surged past him.

Inside the door there had been an attempt to sort out bona fide passengers from those who wanted shelter. When it had become was clear that this was impossible, the station staff had closed the booking office. An excited crowd had then pushed and scrambled round to the lifts. So the lifts were closed. By some stroke of luck, wrote Slater, I got myself into a lift with a couple of postmen and a porter. "We can't let the people down", they said. "There just isn't room".

So far as this station was concerned, Slater confirmed, they were right. There wasn't room".  The platforms were crammed to the edges. You picked your way through the people lying and sitting on the stairs and in the passages. He continued:
It was the same with every station on the line. Hampstead and Belsize Park, the deepest statons in London, have gained a special popularity. Hampstead has the longest flight of emergency stairs on the whole system. I climbed to the top. A woman in front of me half fainted. And had to be helped to the side. A man took off his coat as he climbed and let the sweat drip off him. They are quite high stairs.
Yet on every step to the top flight people were camping. I should guess about 500 people were on the emergency stairs, without counting the 1,000 or so on the platforms and in the passages. I came down again and for an hour travelled here and there over the system. Looking for any square foot of space on any station, on any stair passage where a man could sit or preferably lie down. 
It seemed they had been right at the Angel. There was no room. If you found an unoccupied corner there was generally a reason for it. I tried sitting on some stairs at Piccadilly Circus till I was nearly blown off.
Nevertheless, when he finally found a spot, it "was the first night in a week" he had slept in London and heard neither guns nor bombs, "the first night I hadn't dreamed of air raids when I wasn't listening to one. It was a universal feeling. It was what we talked about when we woke at five as inexperienced campers do".

"We had felt the hard ground with every bone", he wrote, "but we had a quiet night as well as a safe one. Going through the stations at night I said, "This is mass misery such as I have never seen or dreamt of". Waking up with the people in the morning I said, "When the people took over the underground without a 'by-your-leave', they knew what they were doing".

It thus took a foreign newspaper to discern the extent of the British Government defeat. It was hailed by the New York Times with the headline: "Public opinion wins demand for use of subways in raids - government yields". The paper added, with neat irony, a sentiment that was to be repeated down the decades: "Slum clearance by Nazis – homeless move to West End".

Home Intelligence captured a shift in mood. Morale was "excellent". People were more cheerful, it said, adding a note which perhaps reflected the essence of J. B. Priestley’s talk: "The feeling of being on the front line stimulates many people and puts them on their mettle in overcoming transport and shelter difficulties". The mood of crisis had gone. London conversation was now almost exclusively about air raids, "gossipy, not panicky, and it is centred in personal matters".

Priestley was back in the Sunday Express, telling his readers: Let us say what we mean. "We are fighting for liberty and democracy. You have said it, I have said it, and they have said it. And most of us have meant what we said", he wrote. But, he added, the words picked out as a pull-quote in a white-on-black box:
To put it bluntly, millions of people do not believe yet that we are really fighting for democracy. They consider that our talk is on the same level as Hitler’s talk about a new and more equitable European order. They think it is all eyewash. 
A post-war world, he argued, should be a democratic one. “If our representatives seem to stand for the Right People rather than the Whole People, then there will be some excuse for outsiders imagining that our talk of democracy is a mere trick of propaganda”.

In Berlin, there was talk of a different kind. Shirer recalled that the Berliners he spoke to were beginning for the first time to wonder why the invasion of Britain had not come off. And, in an extraordinary illustration of the power of propaganda, and control of information, the Sunday Express was reporting how captured Germans, shot down over Britain, believed that half the country was already in German hands and that London was making a last stand. Victory was "inevitable in a few weeks, or even days".

In almost the same league, D. R. Grenfell, the Secretary for Mines, was telling the Labour Party Conference in Glasgow, "I am convinced there will be no coal shortage".

The air war over Britain saw a few lone raiders, but there was little daytime air activity. Fighter Command flew 158 sorties, the lowest number since July. One Spitfire on the ground was lost to a hit-and-run bomber at Duxford. There were no Bomber Command losses. The Germans lost a Ju 88, shot down by a Spitfire over the Channel. Three aircraft were written off after accidents. Come the night, around 120 bombers visited London. With the continuous flashes of the guns, the sparks of bursting shells in the sky and the haloes of searchlights, London "looked like approaching Dante's inferno", wrote General Brooke.

The RAF sent up twelve night fighters – Blenheims and Defiants (pictured above). They failed to make a single interception.

As for the invasion, the small article in the Observer noted that the Navy was "our first defence". This was a reference to Churchill's speech earlier in the week, but there was more to it. Special anti-invasion patrols had been carried out nightly by destroyers in the Channel and the southern North Sea. They had been joined by MTBs which carried out a sweep off the mouths of the Dutch rivers on the night of 22/23 September.

The Polish destroyer Blyskaivica sunk a French fishing vessel by ramming off the Brittany coast, having first removed the crew. E-boats had been active in the Channel and North Sea. The armed trawler Loch Inver had been sunk on the night of the 21st, and the armed trawler Edwina, which was in the vicinity, claimed to have hit an E-boat with her 12-pdr. Brooke noted the lack of invasion.

Before the bombers had droned through the night sky over London, Priestley was back in the public eye, speaking once again on the BBC. In this broadcast, he chose the theme of "women". There isn't an airman, submarine commander or unnamed hero in a bomb squad who hasn't behind him at least one woman, and perhaps half a dozen women as heroic as himself, he said. And as for those women who had been bombed out of their houses, turned away by "middle class women … with any amount of room to spare in their houses", he spoke of the need for a society "where nobody will have far too many rooms in a house and nobody have far too few".

Listening to the Broadcast was Harold Nicolson, who was in Sissinghurst, dining with Major General Laurence Drummond and his wife, where there was a "sense of mahogany and silver and peaches and port-wine and good manners … All the virtues of aristocracy hang about these two crippled and aged people and none of the vulgarity of wealth". Priestley, he later wrote, gave a broadcast about the abolition of privilege. He speaks of the old order which is dead and of the new order which is to rise from its ashes. "These two old people listen without flinching", Nicolson wrote. "I find their dignity and distinction and patriotism deeply moving".

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